The Boy and the Storm (IV) by Lewis Brown

IV. They Will Want to Know

Sneaking out of the castle wasn’t easy. The servants would scold him if they caught him sneaking out, and the Panzermen would return him to the castle if they found him the village. There were never any consequences, though, beyond being stuck inside that afternoon, bored witless, so over time Sascha had mastered the art of avoiding them.  It was that or go mad with boredom – how else was he supposed to amuse himself when he had no one to talk to and all the interesting books barred to him? Probably he was meant to draw, or play music, or read poetry, things which some tutor or other had once told him were the proper pursuits of a young gentleman. But he had never had any aptitude for any of those things, so he abandoned them and spent as much of his free time as possible in the village with Cloudia.

That afternoon, however, as he tried to creep back to his room, he found the courtyard buzzing with activity. Butlers and maids were everywhere, crossing backwards and forwards between the kitchens, the storeroom and the dining room. Boxes of food were being unloaded from an enormous cart, and everything was being cleaned. This was all being presided over by Eva, the head housekeeper, a woman who had all of the briskness and practicality of Cloudia’s mother, but without the smile or the sense of humour. Sascha tried to avoid being spotted, but to no avail – she marched over and grabbed him by the ear. “There you are! I’ve turned the castle upside down looking for you. Your father’s back from Wittenberg, and he’s throwing a party this evening.” Sascha blinked in disbelief.

“What?” His father never threw parties. Sascha couldn’t remember the last time he’d invited anyone to the castle.

“You heard me, a party. Some very important people are coming, and you have to be in a reasonable state of cleanliness for once. Come on, you are to have a bath, and then you have to try on the new suit your father has bought you.”

She motioned, and two servants appeared to drag him away. Bewildered, Sascha was aggressively cleaned, scrubbed, brushed and generally humiliated before being forced into a suit that was both expensive and horrible. It was purple, made of Himmelstadt silk and several sizes too small, probably his father hadn’t bought him clothes for a very long time. The suit made him feel both uncomfortable and ridiculous, but his protests were ignored and he was ushered into his father’s study, head spinning.

Sascha’s father didn’t turn to face him as he entered the room. He was looking down through the window at the road that led to the castle. By this time night had fallen, but the road was ablaze with the fire of torches and heavy metal braziers that lined it in pairs, and by their light Sascha could see at least half a dozen carriages coming up to the gates. He could see two Panzermen stationed there, armed with ceremonial rifles and their helmets reflecting the torchlight, each briefly inspecting the occupants of each carriage as it passed. Sascha was so absorbed in the spectacle that he almost jumped when his father spoke.

“Do you know who these people are, Sascha, and why they are here?”  Sascha shook his head. He could have made a guess, but his father wouldn’t have appreciated it. He HHHHwas probably about to find out anyway. “They are very important people. Noblemen. Esteemed alchemists. Men and women of influence. Even a few relatives and representatives of the Emperor. They are here by my invitation, but against my will.” Sascha’s eyes widened. He had never known his father’s will to be anything other than impervious steel.

“If I it was my choice, none of them would be here, but I must do what is expected of me. Do you understand?” Sascha nodded, silently, wondering precisely what it was that was expected of his father, and who was doing the expecting. “It would not surprise me in the slightest if many of the guests are here with one purpose and one purpose alone – in the hopes of gaining information. They will want to know about my politics, they will want to know about my studies,” His father turned, fixing Sascha with a steady gaze, “and most of all, they will want to know about you.” Sascha’s stomach lurched sideways. Suddenly he felt ill.

“You are heir to everything that is mine, Sascha. My castle, my position in Empire and in the University of Wittenberg, and when you are ready to understand it, my research. This makes you very important. In the eyes of some people, it makes you even more important than me.”

“W-why?” He stuttered, dimly aware that it was the first word he had spoken since entering the room, and that to his father it would seem rather stupid one. Indeed, his father’s response was impatient.

“Why? Because you are a little more than a child, and children are easily manipulated. There will be people here this evening who will ask you dangerous questions, or try to use you against me. Tell them nothing, and do not let them influence you. Have I made myself clear?”

“Father, what…”

“HAVE I MADE MYSELF CLEAR?” The outburst was sudden, and it was that which terrified Sascha. Normally he could read his father’s moods, tell when he was getting angry, but this had come from nowhere.

“Y-yes father.” He noticed that his father’s hands were shaking, another tick he had never seen before, although when he next spoke his voice was as steady as ever.

“Good. You are dismissed. Join the party downstairs, and make a good impression. Do not let me down.”

“Yes father.” And with that Sascha left the room, and his father returned to glowering out of the window, down at the carriages below. There were times when Sascha hated his father, but at that moment he didn’t. At that moment, he was afraid of him, and his world, which was filled with important, dangerous people.