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Sable/Panenske Brezany, 9 April SY153

It’s Monday morning and I’m just back in town having spent a ten-day weekend at Millbank (Will set it to about five to one, back on the First). Claire has been pushing herself much too hard since it happened, so I’d offered to give her a bit of a break. Sofia and the twins came with me, which was fun: it’s the first time my second family have ever been there, and while the twins are probably too young to remember it, Sofia enjoyed the break. Not so much of a break for me, alas. Robert isn’t much better, unfortunately, beyond occasional flashes of lucidity: it’s a slow process, and he’s still got a long way to go.

Here in Sable, Francis has stepped up to the wicket very well. I don’t think he’s enjoying being Regent, exactly, but he’s proving that he’s man for the job. Before this, I’d never appreciated the combination of easy confidence, charm and intelligence that made him such a good military commander…back when he was allowed to be anything more than just the commander of the Home Defence Force. If the unthinkable happens, and Robert doesn’t recover enough to resume his duties, Sable should be in good hands.

Will and I explained it all to the Family. About Andrew. About Robert. About my part in it all. It was hard. Without going into all the details, I’d taken the responsibility for what had happened onto myself. Indeed, in my eyes, that wasn’t really that much of a stretch. I wasn’t strong enough to resist when Andrew dragged me into his insane scheme in the first place, and then, when he’d been hurt, I chose not to help him until it was too late.

I’m still processing what I think of myself about that, and thus far, I find myself wanting.

Many of them are regarding me differently, now. I feel it when I’m around them. Some are sympathetic, some angry, and one or two are even relieved: apparently a few of them were well aware that something was seriously wrong with Andrew, long before this ever happened. The depth of emotion makes me very glad that I live in Sable City, rather than on the King’s Isle.

Thomas is the one I’m actively worried about, though. I’d always detected an odd undercurrent when he talked about his father, and after he featured strongly in the Messenger’s memories, which revealed his involuntary part in Andrew’s troubles in ’69, it’s obvious now that it was guilt. The trouble is, after what I did on the First, he seems to be projecting that onto me. To absolve himself for his past actions, perhaps? Whatever the reason, I rather suspect he’d love to find a way of charging me with manslaughter, if not out and out murder, if he can do it without implicating Robert.

Charlie, the SRH post-room guy, shakes me out of my reverie.

“Have you won the lottery or something, Doctor D?” he asks, as he hands me my mail, tapping the envelope on top of the pile.

“Not that I’m aware of.”

“Well, if you’ve won a million quid, Doc, think of us down in the post room,” he says, with a cheeky grin, and continues on his rounds.

I pick up the envelope that prompted his comment and take a look. Good paper stock, embossed envelope, neat Gothic script written with a genuine ink pen, unfranked Reichspost stamp.

Wait, what?

Unfranked Reischspost stamp. No postmark. I also detect some residual energy with which I’m far too familiar. Could someone have Trumped it straight into the SRH post room? How would they even know what the post room looked like? I flip it over and see there’s a return address: Panenske Brezany, Waldstraße Nord 87, Schönhausen, 13156 Berlin.

Well, crap. I guess Rupert must be feeling better, then.

I sigh, and slit the top with a letter opener, then shake out the contents. Two pieces of card. No, one piece of card and a Trump of my brother. It’s the first one I’ve ever seen of him out of uniform. He looks younger, somehow: less…Rupert-y. I put the Trump on the desk, and look at the note, which he’s also written in ink. He has great handwriting, unlike Robert, who writes like a doctor.

“Kleiner Bruder,

I would very much like to know what happened on 1st April. As I find myself on light duties at the moment, I would be grateful if you would call me at your earliest convenience to discuss the matter. I know you don’t need the Trump, but it seemed polite to enclose it.

I swear on my honour that the Laws of Hospitality will be respected.

Rupert von Bremen.”

Well, at least it isn’t ärgerlicher kleiner Bruder. I take that as progress.

I look at my appointment calendar: a couple of meetings this morning, then rounds and a working lunch. Pretty clear after 3.30 though. I hope that’s early enough for him. I wonder briefly if I should tell someone where I’ll be this afternoon, even though he’s invoked Hospitality. Just to be on the safe side, I call Will.

“Hey, Michael,” he says, as he answers. He seems to be in the palace, maybe just outside Robert’s…Francis’s office. “What can I do for you?”

“I thought you might be interested to know that brother Rupert is back in the land of the living.”

“Even Grey hadn’t got any firm information on that. Are you sure?”

“He’s invited me for tea.”

“You’re joking, right?”

“Nope,” I answer, and I hand the note through. He reads it through and then hands it back.

“Are you going?”

“My curiosity won’t let me say no, so I was thinking of getting in touch with him this afternoon. Given my chequered history with him, though, and the old adage about cats, I wanted someone back here to know in case I don’t come back.”

“I can understand that. Consider me told, and for God’s sake be careful. If you have the slightest suspicion that he’s about to screw you over, get the Hell out. I’ve lost my brother this month, and my father’s in a bad way. I don’t want to lose my favourite uncle, as well.”

“I will, I promise,” I answer, and cut the call.

The morning passes relatively quickly, and lunch goes well, so almost before I know it, the time has come for me to decide if I’m going through with this. My inner feline wins, and I pick up his card.

“Kleiner Bruder,” he says, with even a trace of a smile on his face. If I didn’t know better, I’d suspect that he was pleased to hear from me, “are you able to join me?”

“I am,” I reply, and offer him my hand.

He pulls me through into a rose garden. The sun is shining, and there’s a pleasant warmth in the air. The roses aren’t in full bloom yet, but some of them are out and there are a lot of buds. Off to one side, about twenty feet away, I’m aware of a second person. The young man Robert addressed as Rikart, down in the crypt. I nod to him politely, and he returns the gesture. As I do, I notice his collar tabs have changed: a single leaf now, rather than four pips. A promotion, if I remember my SS ranks correctly.

I have the impression that Rupert’s been taking a gentle stroll, but I can tell from the way he moves that he’s still taking things extremely carefully. Even as an officially registered shifter, he’s probably going to take time to recover from the wounds Andrew inflicted, especially given the weapon used: I’ve only just got over my own injury, and that was both far less serious, and I’ve had an extra ten days. On that note, I also see that he has slightly dilated pupils, which suggests that he’s on drugs for the pain. Some kind of shift-resistant morphine maybe?

He looks around, nods to himself, and then crosses to a pergola at one end of the rose garden. Climbing roses surround it on three sides, and there are three wooden benches – one at each “wall” – with a table in the centre. It will be beautiful once it’s in full bloom, and even just with the first flowers showing and scenting the air, it’s a very calming place.

“Shall we?” he says, indicating the benches.

“Why not?”

He sits on the right-hand bench and I take the one in the centre. I appreciate the view as he conjures up a bottle of schnapps and two shot glasses. I’m about to mention that mixing morphine and alcohol is probably a bad idea, but then I have a mad rush of common sense to the head and restrain myself.

“This is beautiful,” I say, instead, as I look at our surroundings.

It’s an artist’s garden. Everything is placed perfectly, and I can tell there are decent vista lines. Initially, I’m a little surprised, although when I think about it, I realise that I shouldn’t be. I always forget the “artist” part of Trump artist where this particular brother is concerned, given his general outlook on life and his tendency to conquer small countries on a whim.

“You’ve never been to Panensky Brezany before, have you?” he asks.

“We’ve never been on good enough terms for you to invite me,” I answer.

“No, I suppose we haven’t,” then he hands me a shot glass, “try some of this. It’s made here. There’s a still in one of the outbuildings.”

Then he sits back against the bench, with something akin to relief. Out of politeness, I try the schnapps and am pleasantly surprised.

“It’s good. Blackberry?”

“From bushes on the grounds. Before they grew up, Sigmund and Berthold always used to help harvest them, but now it’s really just me and Frida, with Silvie supervising.”

We both sit back on our respective benches, sipping schnapps and looking at the view for a couple of minutes. After that, it gets a bit weird for me, though, so I break the silence.

“If it isn’t a ridiculously inane question, how are you feeling?”

“Better. I’m not recovering as fast as I’d hoped, but given where I started, I can’t complain. I assume my psychotic nephew put some kind of inhibitor on the blade.”

“Oh yes,” I answer, absently rubbing the former injury on my rib-cage, “plus, I’m pretty sure he was using the Nexus sword.”

“That would explain why he cut through my shields like a hot knife through butter, God of Protection or no. I’d wondered about that, and was feeling rather cheated in my Aspect.”

He drains his glass and pours another.

“You wouldn’t have enjoyed being God of Communications that day, either,” I comment, which gets a raised eyebrow.

“Out of interest, in that respect, how long do you need to be in the presence of someone to be able to draw their Trump…if it isn’t a proprietary question.”

“It depends on the circumstances,” I answer, curious at the non sequitur, “most of the time, ten minutes or so. If there’s a lot of emotion flying around, probably five. In that room in Berlin…I had Wilhelm and Conrad down in about a minute and a half, and that was before I even Ascended.”

“I’ll bet you did,” he says, with a chuckle, before he looks more serious, “that particular humiliation was not one I’ve ever put myself into a position to have repeated. In case you hadn’t realised it, the fact that you were there to witness it has contributed to my antipathy towards you over the years. On the other hand, if it hadn’t been for that meeting, I would never have been registered with the Forstapo. While the inhibitor slowed things down for the first few days, if I hadn’t been registered, I’d probably still be in the Wewelsburg infirmary, or more likely spending a year dead for tax reasons.”

He turns and calls over his shoulder, “Schultz, come here would you.”

Rikart is there almost instantly, pistol in hand and obviously on high alert. I can feel a determination from him never to let Rupert get hurt like that again.

“Sir?”

“Stand down…there’s nothing’s wrong,” Rupert says, gently, gesturing towards the pistol, Schultz holsters it once more, “Michael, this is Standartenführer Rikart Schultz, the head of my Honour Guard, who is far less trusting than I am with respect to my relatives.”

“Pleased to meet you, Rikart,” I say, standing and offering my hand. He takes it cautiously, which lets me get an initial feel for him, and then steps back. Now I see him in the flesh, the resemblance between him and Conrad is much clearer. His son, I’m guessing.

“Rikart, I’d like you to meet my brother, Michael.”

“Your Highness,” he says, with a polite bob of the head and click of his heels.

“I hope you don’t mind Rikart joining us, kleiner Bruder?”

“Not at all.”

I assume this is his way of asking me to add Rikart to my mental Trump deck, without, you know, actually asking me. He probably wants to be sure that I have a way of reaching someone he knows and trusts: it would definitely have been very handy to have Rikart’s card that day in the Mountains. I wouldn’t have had to involve Robert, if I could have reached someone else with a vested interest in Rupert’s health and wellbeing, and if he hadn’t been there…

Rupert gestures for us both to sit again, and conjures up a third glass. Rikart declines with a slight shake of his head as he sits on the third bench, still alert rather than relaxing. Rupert doesn’t seem surprised.

“So, back to the events of the First,” he says, turning back to me, “how is my least favourite psychopath? I imagine he’s crowing from the rooftops about gutting me and leaving me to drown in my own blood?”

He doesn’t know? I’d rather assumed that the various Creators on the Inside always knew if something like this happened. Apparently not. Or maybe as Rupert’s still recovering, he’s not quite up on everything.

“He’s not feeling much of anything, right now,” I say, cautiously, “he was…what was the phrase…’recalled to the Nexus’.”

Rupert almost chokes on his schnapps, but catches himself, and then bursts out laughing.

“The little fucker is regenerating?” he says, eventually, “oh that’s priceless. He sets out to kill me and ends up hoist on his own petard. The fact that I’m not going to have to worry about him for a year is the best news I’ve had in years. Nicely done, Michael, nicely done.”

He thinks I did it? That makes me feel very uncomfortable. Not least because he isn’t wrong.

“Before you crack open the champagne, bear one thing in mind,” I answer, “just how pissed off is he going to be when he comes back?”

That seems to hit home, and suddenly he’s much more subdued.

“You raise a valid point,” he says, more quietly, and a pensive look crosses his face.

He downs another schnapps. I’m not trying to keep up, exactly, but I do the same on this occasion. The inevitable refills follow shortly thereafter.

“So, as I said in my note, I would very much like to know what actually happened. It was all so fast, that I didn’t have time to process much beyond the fact that we were in the Sable Mountains. I would consider it a favour if you can enlighten me. Starting with the place where it happened. It felt…familiar.”

“When he came to my office that afternoon, before I realised just how bad things were going to get, Andrew called it the Ruins of Valhalla. The day before, someone who’s apparently a son of Wilhelm’s Theodor…” he notes that with interest “…tried to raise Valhalla from the Mountains. The temple area where we…met…was the only part of that which remained. He made a point of saying what a great place it would be to have a heart to heart with you.”

“And how did you get dragged into it? I would have thought that you were beyond getting caught up in his delusions.”

“I had no choice,” I answer, as I remember what happened in my office.

“I find that hard to believe. You have far too many tricks up your sleeves. That’s why I’ve always found you so annoying …a view, I hasten to add, that I find myself amending in light of what happened on the First.”

“Thank you…I think.”

“Take it as it was meant, Michael. Go on.”

“As I said earlier, it wasn’t a great day to be the God of Communications, either. After some pleasant chit chat, he asked for my help in trapping you there. I tried to refuse, I really did, but then he invoked a prayer to my Aspect, which he backed with the Nexus. Me vs. Andrew on a normal day is a fair fight. Me vs. Andrew drawing on the Nexus to fuel his obsession, not so much. He bound me to his prayer, and then made me intercept Robert’s call to you and replace him in it.”

“That is a disturbing thought. That a petitioner can force an Aurellian God to do something they don’t want to do.”

“I’ve submitted a complaint form to Roland,” I answer and Rupert actually chuckles at that.

“I will admit, when you contacted me, I thought something was a little off. I’m not sure when my brother last called me Herr Reichsführer. Probably sometime before the Peace Treaty was signed. I assume you were trying to warn me?”

“It was all I could think of within the bounds of the compulsion Andrew had put on me. I’m afraid I didn’t do a very good job.”

“And I should have listened to my instincts, or at least brought Rikart, with me. I seriously considered the latter before I finally came through, and we’ve had words since regarding that decision, have we not?”

“Yes Herr Reichsführer,” Rikart answers, an almost-fond smile on his face for just a second, before he’s all business again. That’s the moment when I’m sure I’ve got the essence of “Rikart Schultz” pinned down for drawing a card later.

“I was trying to encourage you along those lines,” I answer, “but unfortunately, I couldn’t make it stick. Then, after you arrived…well, his previous invocation included ordering me to block the Trumps in the area as soon as you came through. That’s why, when you tried to bug out, you couldn’t.”

“Which is when I realised that it had to be you who’d called me, not Robert. He just can’t lock things down like that,” he finishes for me, and I nod.

He pauses again, and downs another shot. Once again, part of me seriously considers telling him how bad an idea getting drunk is for him right now, but…I admit it, I’m shallow…another part of me is actually appreciating the fact that we we’re having a civilised conversation. It’s pretty much the first one we’ve ever had.

“I was less than polite. I regret that, with hindsight. And yet, despite that, and despite the fact that you had absolutely no reason the help me, you tried to push me out of the way.”

“I saw him move, but I was too late.”

“Alas, Andrew always was, and always will be, a better swordsman than you, me or Robert will ever be. In fact, I suspect I need to get Standartenführer Schultz some additional training, as well.”

“Sir, I…” the younger man begins, but Rupert cuts him of with a gesture.

“That’s not a criticism Rikart,” he says to his subordinate, “I want you to have a decent chance if you ever come up against him in person. You’re good, but I’m not sure you’re THAT good, yet.”

“Yes, Herr Reichsführer,” he answers, somewhat mollified, and then Rupert looks back at me.

“Still, given that we’re having this conversation, even if you don’t think you did much, it was enough to save my life.”

“In the interests of full disclosure, I tried to push you out of the way, but it was Robert that got you back to the Wewelsburg, not me.”

Beside me, Rikart nods in confirmation.

“So I wasn’t seeing double, then. You were both there?”

“Briefly. I managed to get a call out to him.”

“And he got me to the Castle?”

I nod.

“Nevertheless, you kept me alive long enough that he could.”

He pauses a moment, has another shot of schnapps. I do the same, and then I ask (because, inner feline and all): “Maybe you can explains something to me.”

“What?”

“From what I could see, albeit second hand, it looked to me like the King of Sable ended up in the SS Holy of Holies, with the RFSS bleeding in his arms, and then started ordering people about. More to the point, he wasn’t automatically told to take a running jump.”

“Did you happen to notice if he did anything…odd before anyone else showed up.”

“He fumbled in his pocket for some kind of lapel pin. It seemed a strange use of time, given the circumstances.”

Rupert chuckles.

“So he’s finally got it out of the box again. I wondered if he ever would.”

“What?”

“Oh, it was years ago now. I gave it to him before Berthold’s Naming Ceremony, so…Winter Solstice 117. Robert just happened to be at the Castle as we had been discussing one or two matters.”

Robert “just happened” to be at the Wewelsburg as long ago as 117? That was well before the Peace Treaty was signed. Oh that’s a story I want to hear.

“I asked if he’d stand as my son’s sponsor. After some debate between us on the subject, he agreed, which is why my second son is Berthold Stefan Robrecht Delatz.”

“Stefan was the name of Berthold’s twin…in the old timeline.”

“It was. This time, as he never existed, it was a way of honouring his memory.”

Rupert concentrates for a moment, and a small velvet jewellery box appears in his hand. He checks the contents, then then passes it to me. It looks somewhat like the collar tabs worn by the higher echelons of the SS, but it’s made of platinum, and obviously decorative. It certainly seems to be similar to the one Robert was at pains to conceal.

“What is it?” I ask, closing it and trying to hand it back to him, but he pushes it back to me. Rikart notes this with interest.

“An honorary SS rank pin,” he answers, “they’re in my gift for people who do me a great service. It’s how Conrad is one of the Winter Circle, despite being a civilian who served with the Wehrmacht, in the past. You helped to save my life. Keep it. I’ll put the paperwork through next time I’m in the office.”

“And one of these let Robert boss your folks around?”

“Ask him about it, next time you see him. I’m sure he’ll explain, even if he’ll cringe while he’s doing it. Or failing him, I imagine General Graham may have some interesting comments on matter, too.”

I slip it into my pocket, not really much the wiser.

Shot glasses are emptied and filled once more, and then Rupert asks, apparently genuine concerned: “How is Robert taking all this. He and Andrew were close in the past, if not recently.”

“Not well.”

“No. I imagine not. I was surprised that he’s appointed a Regent though.”

“He needs some time to process what happened,” I answer.

“I feel you’re being evasive, kleiner Bruder,” he chides, gently, “nothing in what you’ve told me thus far would explain why Robert is sufficiently off his game to hand Sable over to someone else, even temporarily. Not that I have anything against Francis, who seems reasonably competent thus far. What aren’t you telling me?”

“Things got even more complicated after he’d dropped you off and came back to Valhalla.”

“And you’re not going to say any more…?”

I shake my head.

“I’m sure I’ll get caught up next time I see him.”

“I’d suggest you give it a couple of months. It’s all a bit raw currently.”

He looks at me intently, and then something obviously twigs.

“Robert’s hands aren’t entirely clean in the matter of Andrew’s death, are they?”

“He hit Andrew with a spell to give himself time to get you to the Castle,” I answer, “because of the nature of the Mountains, it was more effective than he expected. That’s all. It fell to me to help Andrew while he was gone, and I failed to prevent his recall.”

He looks at me pensively, mentally unpacking my phrasing, and waiting for me to continue, but I don’t feel inclined to do so. In the end, he fills in the silence himself.

“So he feels responsible, at least to a degree. That seems straightforward, but it doesn’t completely explain why he’s taken himself out of the picture.”

“In the Mountains, when he saw the body fading, he wouldn’t believe me when I told him it wasn’t his fault,” I answer, carefully.

“So he’s punishing himself?” he comments, which is frighteningly close to the truth, when I think about it, “Well, I suppose that isn’t entirely without precedent.”

That comment piques my curiosity. I’m about to ask him to clarify, when he shakes his head.

“Not my story to tell, but one day, ask him about Fritz von Kampe and a guy called Wolfram.”

“Oh, you can’t just leave that one hanging,” I say, looking at him.

“Not mine to tell,” he repeats, firmly, “you were saying…”

“He’s not taking any of this well. They were so close for so long. He wasn’t happy with their post-Elementis estrangement even before all this happened.”

“He’s tried to say as much to me once or twice over the years, but I didn’t want to know. Andrew has never been my favourite person. I should have listened, though.”

“That’s something I never understood. Due to what happened after you kidnapped him in ‘69, I get why he hates you, but I’ve never understood your antipathy towards him.”

He doesn’t answer immediately. Instead he refills the schnapps bottle, and then pours himself yet another glass. He offers one to me, but I wave it off.

“How much do you understand about Creation Alternates?”

“Some. Probably not everything.”

“Before Sable was Created, I was part of Robert, at least in a metaphysical way. And metaphysical me was deeply in love with Elizabeth.”

“Robert’s first wife.”

“And then she had the accident, and Robert had the choice of saving Elizabeth, or saving Andrew.”

“He chose the latter.”

“Had it been me at the forefront, I would have chosen the former. Robert could always father another child, but Elizabeth was irreplaceable, in my view. So at a deep and fundamental level, I blame him for his mother’s death, and I’ve never forgiven him.”

“I suppose I see the logic of that, but it was such a long time ago…”

“You weren’t there, Michael,” he answers, and for the first time in this conversation, I detect a trace of underlying hostility, “you weren’t even a twinkle in our father’s eye. So I say with the greatest respect that you cannot, and never will understand.”

“You’re right, I can’t,” I answer, “I shouldn’t have asked the question.”

He’s about to answer, when I feel a trace of Trump energy around Rikart. For a moment, he’s still, and then it’s gone, and he’s getting to his feet.

“Sir, that was the Herzogin. She asked me to remind you that you should be heading back to the house. You have another guest coming this evening.”

Rupert looks at him, as if trying to remember who he means, but then it clicks and he nods. Personally, I wonder if this is code for his wife reminding him that it’s time for a nap, or something. He certainly looks more tired than he did when I arrived, and noticeably paler.

“She’s right, of course,” he says, and gets to his feet, indicating for me to do the same, “Michael, I’m sorry. I have to cut this short.”

“I understand.”

“This has been an enlightening conversation.”

“It has.”

“Perhaps we should do it again sometime,” he says, offering his hand.

“Perhaps we should,” I answer, taking it. We shake and then he lets go. Then I look at Rikart. “And you, Standartenführer Schultz. It was a pleasure to meet you.”

“You too, Your Highness. Please extend my thanks to His Majesty for bringing the Master back to us, and my wishes for his speedy recovery.”

“I will. Thank you.”

“Yes, give Robert my best, as well” Rupert adds, perhaps a little belatedly, “I assume you can see yourself out, as it were. Feel free to take the rest of the schnapps with you. Schultz, with me.”

As they leave the pergola, I notice that Rikart has placed himself between me and his principal’s retreating back. I don’t take it personally. I rather suspect that he did it on instinct. I look down at the bottle, and think what the heck? I pick it up and look at the label for the first time. There’s a line drawing of the house, by what I suspect is Rupert’s hand, complete with Panenske Brezany and Brombeere written in what I now recognise as his writing. It’s surprisingly tasteful.

Time to go. I bring Will’s Trump to mind.

“Good, it’s you,” he says, as contact is made, “is this an emergency evac, or an orderly transfer?”

“Orderly transfer,” I say, with a chuckle, and extend my hand. He takes it and pulls me through. We’re in the cloister in the centre of the Palace.

“How was he?”

“Surprisingly civilised. Is General Graham around?”

Will indicates behind me, and I see the General perched on the edge of the fountain. Exactly where he always waits when Robert goes visiting our brother.

“He’s alive, then,” he says, quietly, getting to his feet.

“And he’s sent me home with a rather good bottle of schnapps. Not a drop of poison in sight. Can I tempt either of you?”

“Sure, what the Hell,” Will says, and heads for the French doors through into the library. He crosses to the cabinet, and pulls out three glasses. Tumblers. Robert doesn’t keep shot glasses handy. Then I feel him putting up some kind of wards around the library. While he does that, I fill the glasses about halfway or so, and then we sit down. Grey leaves his on the table, but Will takes a mouthful.

“This isn’t bad.”

“It isn’t, is it?” I say, with a smile, “we probably got through more of it than we should have done sitting in his garden, though. The whole afternoon was something of a surreal experience.”

“Medical assessment, Doctor de Lacy?” Grey asks.

“Alive, and surprisingly cheerful, but not well. Still tiring easily. I guess he’s in pain and he’s treating it with morphine. Plus, given the amount of schnapps we got through, I suspect he’s self-medicating in that respect, too. My assessment is that he’s still going to be on light duties for at least a couple more weeks: maybe as long as a month. It was odd to meet him in a reasonably good mood, though. Also, he gave me something which he told me to talk to either you or Robert about. As my brother isn’t about…”

I get the case out of my pocket and hand it to Grey. From his expression, he knows what it is before he ever opens the box. And yes, he utters an expletive or two.

“Okay, so I get that you’re not pleased to see it, but what IS it?”

“It’s An honorary SS rank pin,”

“He told me that much.”

“They’re something he gives out as gifts to people he likes, or wants to reward…likes is new in your case, isn’t it?”

“He told me that much, too,” I reply, “I think it’s because I helped Robert save his life.”

“I have never understood why either of you are inclined to do that. He is the enemy, you know.”

“Not the primary one, currently,” Will comments.

“I suppose that’s true,” Grey concedes, “where was I. Yes…these things are usually given out at the lower ranks: lieutenants, captains and the occasional major. The number of Honorary general officers can be numbered on the fingers of one hand. Emily’s son-in-law Jorge von Raeder was an Hon. Gruppenführer before he was reactivated and promoted to become Head of Außlands-SD. Of those who remain Honorary, Conrad Berthelmes and Silke von Halle both have the same rank as the one he’s given you, Obergruppenführer. For Berthelmes, I believe it’s purely so he qualifies as a Knight of the SS: for von Halle, it was a promotion from her active rank when she left the SS. And then there’s you and Robert, who outranks all three of you, by the way: he’s got a couple of extra letters in his.”

“Gerlinde addressed him as Oberstgruppenführer von Worcester in the Wewelsburg basement, when Rupert was bleeding all over the floor. He wasn’t pleased. Neither was that Hauer guy, when Robert pulled rank on him.”

“No, they probably wouldn’t have been,” Will comments, “from what I know of Gerlinde, he’s not a nice man. Quite an achievement in an organisation that’s known for churning out less than pleasant individuals. Vicious, cruel and sadistic could all be used to describe him, although apparently he’s surprisingly good with children.”

“Not that I can imagine any parent in their right mind letting him babysit,” Grey supplies from the side-lines.

“No argument from me on that one,” Will says, with a chuckle, then turns back to me, “about the only people he seems to give a damn about are uncle Rupert, himself and his wife, the aforementioned Silke von Halle, in that order. I half think Rupert officiated at their wedding…”

He glances at Grey, who nods, then adds: “And Maximilien Hauer is paid to be suspicious of everyone, being Head of the Gestapo.”

“So what does having this thing mean?” I ask, “if Robert was bossing these guys around, it’s obviously more than just an pretty ornament.”

“Honorary rank gives some automatic privileges, even over serving SS members, which is why there are so few general officers,” Grey answers, “the only caveat is that the pin needs to be displayed openly when you invoke them. They come in two flavours. The simpler one is that you get priority treatment from any place or organisation which favours the SS: you have the urge to go to the Berlin Opera and don’t have any tickets, put on the pin and  the man on the door will find a way to oblige you, that kind of thing. The more important one is that you can order SS troops around as if you were a full officer of the equivalent rank, with the sole exception of taking them into battle. ”

“Which explains how Robert was ordering people around when he took Rupert there to get to the Black Pattern. I certainly saw him slip it on.”

“And why Gerlinde would have resented it,” Grey supplies, “he’s fought his way up through the ranks by tooth and claw. Sometimes literally, given that along with Delatz, he’s one of the two best shifters in the Reich.”

“On the theory of if something’s too good to be true, what’s the downside?” I ask, not entirely sure I want to know.

“In the small print, the RFSS reserves the right to ‘activate’ anyone to whom he has given Honorary rank, bringing them into full military service with the Reichs- or Waffen-SS. That’s what he did to Elanor’s husband, Jorge. ”

“So at any point, he could order me to get fitted for a snazzy black and silver uniform and go and fight his battles for him.”

“At the Sable-equivalent rank of Lt. General, no less,” Will says, and I can’t tell if he’s amused or concerned.

“Well that’s not terrifying in any way,” I comment, downing the schnapps and noticing that Will’s is also empty. Grey’s is barely touched, but that isn’t really unusual.

“As I mentioned to Robert when he was given his,” Grey says, “bearing in mind what you could potentially do to cause trouble and sow dissent at that kind of rank, in my assessment, while he could do it, he never would do it. Too much of a risk.”

“Especially given my complete lack of military experience?” I supply.

“That too, so I wouldn’t worry too much.” Grey pauses, and then asks: “How much did you tell him? About Andrew and Robert?”

“For some reason I’d assumed that being a Creation Alternate, he knew about Andrew. As it happened, he didn’t, and he was positively delighted to hear about it. As for Robert, obviously he already knew that he was off the field, given we have a Regent. I tried not to go into too many details about his condition or about what happened with Andrew, beyond that he’d thrown a spell that had an unexpected effect, but my Rupert bullshitting skills probably need some work if this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship, which he implied it might be.”

“How much do you think he figured out?”

“I don’t know. I mentioned that Robert threw a spell, but tried to emphasise that Andrew’s death wasn’t his fault: that it was mine. I thought he accepted that, but did make one odd comment. That Robert was punishing himself, and I should ask him about a couple of people called Fritz and Wolfram. Does that mean…”

General Graham is a good poker player, but he’s not that good. He knows exactly what I’m talking about, which is more than I do. I notice that Will doesn’t seem any clearer on it than I am.

“Grey?” Will asks.

“It was a long time ago,” Grey answers, “long before Sable was built. ”

Interesting. Rupert had said it wasn’t his story to tell, but if it was before Sable, then he would have been there, with Robert, when it happened.

“But you know what he’s talking about,” Will presses.

“And I would humbly request, given my long friendship with Robert, and my service to the Kingdom of Sable, that a) you don’t ask me about it again, and b) you sure as Hell never talk to your father about it. Michael, you were saying.”

“I’m not sure I have much more to report. He may hate Andrew like poison, but I believe he’s grown to care for Robert, and whatever he’s figured out, I don’t think he’s going to publicise it.”

“I suppose time will have to tell on that one,” Will muses.

“I suppose so,” Grey comments, “on which note, I need to get back to my office. I’m glad you survived your first ‘tea party’ unscathed, Michael. Please be sure to let me know if he decides to make it a regular fixture.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll make sure you’re kept in the loop. And if you can get me some of those bullshitting Rupert lessons…”

“I’ll see what I can do,” he says, and depart, chuckling, leaving Will and I to finish the schnapps.

Once he’s gone, Will turns to me.

“It occurs to me that, as far as I know, there’s one question that none of us have asked you,” he says, quietly.

“Which is?”

“How are YOU doing?”

“In what respect?”

“In respect to what happened in the Mountains,” he answers.

“It’s Robert who has the problem about that, not me.”

“Really?”

I look at him, a little puzzled.

“Okay, let’s phrase this another way,” he replies, “have you ever killed anyone before?”

“I’m not one of those members of the family who keeps score with a body count.”

“That’s what I thought. So how are you coping with what happened with Andrew…to Andrew? With taking the blame for his enforced regeneration, with the family. When we told them, you took all the blame onto yourself, and it sounds like you did it again with Uncle Rupert, this afternoon.”

“That’s because I see it that way,” I answer, “Robert cast the spell, but I was the one who let Andrew die, because I hesitated to help him.”

“Which is exactly what I’m getting at. Have you ever, knowingly, failed to help a patient before.”

I shake my head. “Never.”

“And hence my question.”

“It certainly wasn’t my proudest moment,” I admit, “and I can’t help but be aware that I’m no longer harmless Uncle Michael to some of the other members of the family.”

“In that, I don’t think you’ve been harmless for a very long time,” Will says, with a chuckle.

“I suppose not,” I admit, “Thomas is the worst, though. He seems to actively hate me right now.”

“I’ve always had the feeling that he feels guilty for something, and maybe what happened in the Mountains brought it back…”

“So he’s deflecting onto me? I suppose it might be that, but that’s not my area of expertise.”

“No, but I’d give a lot to find out what his problem is,” Will says, with a wry smile, “and Thomas isn’t the only one deflecting. I know you like to be the perfect little brother to Robert, but I’d like to think you can talk to me: we pretty much grew up together, after all.”

I look at him, and try to decide how much to tell him. Maybe he’s right, and I do need to say something.

“I know we’d all been on tenterhooks around Andrew since the Elementis/Technocracy debacle, but I’m not sure any of us had realised just how much his resentment had turned to hatred and obsession,” I say, finally.

“I know I hadn’t,” Will answers, “although obviously I was less involved in those events than you or Dad.”

“On the First, he came to my home and forced me into a course of action that was completely against my nature. To tell you the truth, he scared the living daylights out of me. As far as I could tell, he’d gone completely nuts. Then, when I bowed to the inevitable and did as I was ordered, he tried to kill first Rupert, and then me and finally Robert. That was what caused me to pause: he tried to kill Robert, of all people.”

“And then?”

“My brother cast the spell that sent him flying, and then left with Rupert. When I checked Andrew, my assessment was that he was already braindead and with a broken neck to boot. But I also knew that if I tried, I could probably fix him.”

“You’re that good?”

“Fixing the broken neck, definitely. The brain damage, probably, although it’s not my speciality. Enough that he could have got to a power to get the memories back, though, almost certainly. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I hated him just then as much as he hated me and Robert, and I had no confidence that if I did help him, he wouldn’t still be just as barking mad afterwards. To be blunt, I was terrified of what he’d do by then, and firmly believed that if I did fix him, he’d just try to kill me again. So I let him die.”

“Self-preservation? Self-defence?”

“Cowardice,” I answered, disgusted with myself, “far too late, I realised that as a doctor, my feelings should have been irrelevant. I should have thought of Robert and how Andrew’s death would affect him, given that he threw the spell. But I was selfish. By the time I came to my senses, he was gone, and I suppose the recall process had started, as my shifting couldn’t get hold of him.”

“No, you weren’t selfish,” he says, quietly, “and you weren’t a coward.”

“What I did still went against my Oath as a physician.”

“Speaking as someone who’s been in some pretty nasty combat situations, self-preservation is one of the most basic human instincts. It’s always going to trump any conscious Oath you’ve made.”

“And what about Robert? If I’d helped Andrew, Robert wouldn’t be staring at the walls in Millbank.”

“No. But by the same token, if you had brought Andrew back, and you’re right in believing he would have renewed his attack, it might have been far worse. Robert, rather than my brother, might have ended up regenerating. From everything you’ve said, the outcome we have currently is much, much better than that. And who knows, maybe, when he’s back, we may have an opportunity to help Andrew, now we know the extent of his pain better.”

I shrug. “I suppose it’s possible.”

“Can I offer you some advice?” he asks.

“What?”

“Don’t bottle this up. I rather think that’s why what happened…happened. Andrew let his anger eat him up from the inside, and what happened in the Mountains was the inevitable result. Don’t let your guilt do the same to you.”

Then he reaches to the table, and pours the last of Rupert’s schnapps into our glasses. I take the one he offers me. Neither of them lasts very long.

“As I said, if you want to talk, I’m happy to listen, or if you don’t think that’s appropriate or it makes you feel uncomfortable, then discuss it with a neutral party like Adam. But most of all, remember that you don’t have to carry this one alone. You’re a good man, Michael. Probably the best of us. Don’t let this change you.”

Then he looks at his watch, and curses. “Sorry, I have a meeting with Francis. Are you going to be okay?”

“I think so. Thanks, Will…for asking.”

We get to our feet, and rather to my surprise, he embraces me, much like he did when I was a child and he was my ‘big brother’.

“Remember what I said,” he says, as he steps back, and then I watch as he heads out of the library. Then I’m taken with the overwhelming desire to see Sofia and the twins, and I bring my wife’s Trump to mind and go home.