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Sable/Manira, 14-15 June SY 105

I was sitting in my office with a tumbler of the MacAllan one evening, a few days before my birthday, looking gloomily at the current military briefing that Will and General O’Connor had prepared for me. Since Rupert and I had stopped talking, more than six years before, the Reich –specifically, the Waffen-SS – had become noticeably more expansionist in the worlds closer to the Commonwealth. This meant that the Military Dukes of the four Sable Commonwealth Quadrants were having to co-ordinate with our external forces, to keep certain Shadow corridors through Veils Four to Six open and free of the Reich’s ambitions.

The Reich had extended its influence into various of the Veil Six worlds on the western side of the Commonwealth, with forays into Veil Five, where many of the Aussenhandel der Reichsverband worlds were located, and even into Veil Four. Worst affected were the Shadows between the Saarland and Holstein Groups, where Waffen-SS general Jürgen Kessler was causing trouble, ably assisted (unfortunately) by a young, new-on-the-scene general named Cornelius Linz. As a result, all the Veil Four, Five and Six worlds in that area were now under Reich control. This was causing the greatest problems for Duke Callum and our forces on Shigare, who were bearing the brunt of it, and Will and O’Connor had sent my grandson Francis to assist.

Another Sable force on Khachuran was the only reason why the Reich hadn’t run roughshod over that world, as well, but I had a feeling that as soon as the forces on Manira (all Waffen-SS under Joachim Peiper, and nary a Wehrmacht soldier in sight) had achieved my brother’s objective of taking the Black Broken Pattern there, it would only be a matter of time until they turned their eyes on Khachuran. Maybe I needed to ask Andrew if he wanted to come home and make some mayhem, but I rather suspected he’d refuse. If I could reach him at all.

On the other side of the Commonwealth, at least, operations seemed to be under the control of the Wehrmacht Staff Council, who didn’t seem inclined to expand, and that, combined with the greater distance between the Bayern and Niedersachsen Groups, thereby offering fewer Shadows that were natural bases for the Reich troops, meant that Sable was at least holding its own in that area.

All in all, the whole thing was a bloody mess, and I knew that I was responsible for kicking it off.

After our pointed disagreement, shortly after the Messenger had arrived, I had tried to contact Rupert: daily initially, then once a week, and finally back to just on the 1st of the month, but he seemed to have no interest in engaging with me. I knew he was alive and well, as he was very visible in Berlin and Bremen, when he wasn’t personally overseeing the Maniran Campaign. Prior to Verrien, he’d never taken the field himself – it had been part of our agreement not to, given that either of us can shatter worlds – but this was another change in his standard operating procedure. If this continued, I might need to put on a uniform myself and do what I could to help out. For now, though, I was leaving it to the likes of Will and Francis, who are far better at such things than I will ever be.

Even worse, I was also damned sure that his marriage in May SY102, to a woman even Grey had never heard of save as a Kripo Kriminalinspektor, named Silvie Heusser, and the subsequent arrival of a son called Sigmund the following July, were smoke and mirrors to cover the fact that he had, indeed, got hold of my DNA that day on Verrien, and managed to build a viable offspring. In the Lighthouse Data, he’d had neither wife nor children until many years later.

I’d poured myself another drink from one of the crystal decanters on the sideboard and sat back down when I heard a tap at the door, and Claire came in.

“How are you doing?” she said, crossing to the fireplace – filled with colourful flowers at this time of the year – and taking the seat opposite me, “it’s getting late.”

“I know, but Will’s latest briefing is not conducive to a restful night.”

“Rupert?”

“Among others. Dammit, I wish there was something I could do to reel him in, but he won’t talk to me,” I answered, feeling more despondent than I had in many years, “can I get you a nightcap?”

“Brandy, please,” she answered, and while I got to my feet and fetched it for her, she picked up the copy of Das Tag that I’d left on the side table. It was open at the Court and Social pages, specifically a picture of the Herzog von Bremen and his wife, who had an angelic-looking blond toddler sat on her knee. While I hated myself for thinking it, they looked like the perfect Nazi family.

“Is this him?” she asked, holding out the paper to me as I sat back down. I’d told her my suspicions about Sigmund’s origins when I’d first heard about him, which admittedly had also involved mentioning how I’d been shot on Verrien, but the latter only left me sleeping on the sofa for a week.

“Yes,” I said, taking the paper and looking at the picture again, “meet Sigmund Conrad Wilhelm Delatz. In a rare moment of rapprochement, Conrad even stood as his sponsor at his SS Naming Ceremony at the Wewelsburg. Wilhelm sent his apologies.”

“None too politely, I assume, given that it’s currently Wilhelm you’re talking to, rather than Rupert ” She looks at the picture again. “He’s a pretty child. Do you think Rupert has told them that he’s their brother?”

“No. He can’t reveal the truth to any of them, otherwise the jig would be up, and the Imperial Council wouldn’t accept the lad as his heir. I also wonder what the ultimate fate of his wife is going to be once he has no more use for her, as she has to be in on the secret.”

“I never used to understand why you tried to keep things civilised with Rupert, as well you know, right up to the moment the pair of you stopped talking. I hated it when you met, and I was very relieved when you stopped. Now, though…even I can see that things are getting worse between the Reich and Sable.”

“I know. Wilhelm and I are trying to keep lines of communications open, but we’re both well aware of where the momentum really lies just now.”

“I can also tell how sad you feel as you look at that picture, and the fact that he’s rubbing this in, on top of everything else, makes me angry. I’m surprised you haven’t done something about trying to bring Sigmund home.”

“Part of me hopes that fatherhood, however achieved, might start the process of mellowing my brother,” I answered, “but I suppose only time will tell if it works. It certainly hasn’t yet.”

I sat back in my chair and sipped my drink, then put it down on the table beside me.

“Wilhelm is trying his best to keep an eye on what Rupert is doing, but my brother has imposed an SS lockdown across a significant area of Veils Four, Five and Six, and is jealously keeping everyone else out, in defiance of the Kaiser orders.”

“That’s new, isn’t it? He’s always at least paid lip service to Wilhelm’s wishes in the past.”

“Yes, and I think it’s what troubles both of us the most. Even Conrad Berthelmes hasn’t manage to get through to him to urge caution, and he’s the main liaison between the Kaiser and the SS. Last time I met with Wilhelm, we even debated issuing a joint statement condemning the SS’s actions in the region, but decided against as that would probably trigger a very Uncivil War in the Reich itself, which would make things even worse.“

“Is Francis being out on Shigare making any difference?” she asked.

“Some, but it’s early days and they haven’t managed to break the Waffen-SS’s momentum yet. What I don’t know is whether it’s going to get better or worse once the Reich secures Manira. Rupert seems obsessed with that world, even if he did scale back to fighting on only one continent, instead of two.”

“Any idea why he wants it?”

“An overinflated sense of entitlement?” I suggested, only half joking, “seriously, though, it’s one of the Broken reflections of the Pattern in the Wewelsburg basement, and he told me, back on Verrien, that he believes that it belongs to him by right. The trouble is, that completely ignores the history of the last hundred years, during which neither the Reich nor Sable have ever managed to hold onto the place.“

“How close is he?”

“Days at most, if the latest intelligence briefings are to be believed, maybe only hours. His general on the ground, Joachim Peiper, is getting landing craft ready for an amphibious assault across the hundred-mile strait to Martyr’s Island. A small force apparently. Grey’s agent on the ground believes it’s going to be a quick insertion under the radar of those members of the Brotherhood who are trying to hold out, to establish a bridgehead and then open a Trump gate to bring the main force through. Of course, with Rupert there, he could just use the Pattern to cross the divide, but I’m not sure how much he wants to publicise that.”

“Drink up and come to bed,” she said, quietly, finishing her brandy, “there’s nothing you’re going to be able to do this evening.”

“You’re probably right,” I answered, doing as she’d suggested. Then we stood, I put my arm around her and we headed upstairs.

*****

The following morning dawned warm and sunny. Today was the sort of day I like: public engagements out and about in Sable City, including giving the speech at the SMC Doctoral Convocation, followed by lunch; the opening of an extension to the Sable Royal Hospital; and taking in a play with Claire that evening. The thing I enjoyed most, though, was being able to meet people.

I showered, and then dressed in a light-weight grey suit with a shirt and tie, leaving Claire dozing in bed. She’d join me at the hospital later. I was heading downstairs to breakfast when I was intercepted by Grey. One look at his expression, and I knew it was bad news.

“They’re on their way Martyr’s Island?” I asked, guessing that was the most likely reason for a 7am visitation from my Head of Intelligence.

“It appears so,” he replied, falling into step beside me, “my agent had indicated as much when he was cut off, and we haven’t been able restore contact.”

“I’m sorry. Who was it? Or can’t you tell me that?”

“Captain Iain Duart. I’m not sure if you know him.”

“The name’s familiar from some of your briefings. Will I need to contact his family?”

“It’s too early to tell. He may have gone dark for another reason.”

“Here’s hoping that you’re right,” I answered, “what did he manage to say?”

“He was concealed near where the amphibious launches were being readied, and then apparently Delatz and Peiper came down to the quay and ordered them to execute the plan. He got as far as mentioning that Peiper was accompanying them, when we lost contact.”

“That seems odd…”

“The whole bloody campaign has been odd.”

“There is that,” I sighed we reached the dining room door, “I’m out and about today, but please keep me apprised…especially if Captain Duart gets back in touch.”

“Of course, Your Majesty,” he said, formally, and headed towards the palace exit.

I grabbed a large cup of coffee and a pile of bacon and eggs, and then settled down with the paper while I ate. After breakfast, I headed for my office to catch up on the paperwork I’d neglected the previous night, and by 10am I was on my way to SMC.

The speech went well, I thought, and I’d just finished a rather excellent lunch, hosted by the Faculty, when I suddenly felt rather strange. It was as if someone had walked over my grave. It didn’t last long, though, and while it was slightly worrying, I thought little more about it. I carried on as normal, but I’d just finished opening the wing of the hospital when I felt it again, this time much more strongly, and I stumbled slightly as we walked along the corridor.

“Are you okay?” Michael asked, concerned, “you look a bit pale.”

“I don’t think it’s anything to worry about…” I began, when I was suddenly hit by an instant migraine, “on second thoughts, I need to get somewhere private. Now.”

My Palace Guard escorts immediately came to alert and started running interference. Meanwhile, I tried to keep my outward appearance as normal as I could: after all, I didn’t want the spectators outside to think I was ill. Picking up on the cue, Michael went into “hospital supervisor showing important dignitary around” mode, and a short while later, we were inside a private lounge at the end of the corridor, out of the sight of prying eyes.

By then, I could barely see, and it felt like my head was about to explode. I collapsed into a chair, and was suddenly hit by a massive set of spasms which racked my whole body. I fell out of the chair, and the next thing I knew, I was curled up on the floor in a foetal position, feeling like part of my soul was being ripped out. I thought I could hear screaming, and then I realised it was me. The next thing I knew everything went black.

*****

I woke up in the Sable Palace Infirmary, with both Claire and Michael looking down at me in concern. My head still hurt like Hell, but at least the spasms had stopped. I also noticed that Claire didn’t look great, either.

“What the Hell was that?” I muttered, as much to myself as them.

“I was hoping you could tell me,” Michael answered.

I settled down to do a self-check, but I couldn’t find anything physically wrong.

“This is probably going to sound really odd,” Claire said, quietly, “but you know we have a kind of mental link.”

“Yes.”

“I thought I saw something in your mind, just before you dropped like a stone.”

“What?” I asked.

“A cavern, maybe. People. Black light. And then there was nothing but a bright flash.”

“Did you recognise anyone?”

“It was just an impression of people, and then they seemed to be…vaporised. It was horrible.”

“Oh, Claire. I’m sorry you got caught up in that.”

I revisited the self-check, this time on a metaphysical level, and I realised that something was missing. Gone. One of the Broken Patterns had died. And I couldn’t feel Rupert’s presence anywhere, either.

“Crap,” I exclaimed, sitting bolt upright, and looking around for some clothes, but I couldn’t see any, “Rupert’s done something stupid on Manira.”

“What kind of stupid?” Michael asked, baffled.

“Possibly apocalyptically stupid,” I answered, “get me something to wear. Now. I have to go and see what he’s done.”

“Robert, you’re in no fit state,” Claire protested, “you need to rest.”

“Just do it,” I snapped, “I haven’t got time to argue.”

She looked at me with a hurt expression on her face, and turned and walked out of the infirmary.

“No need to act like a bear with a sore head,” Michael chided, quietly, “she was worried about you.”

“Right now, I feel like a bear with a sore head,” I replied testily, probably because I knew he was right.

She returned about ten minutes later, and threw a cotton shirt, a pair of chinos and some walking boots onto the bed. The boots only just missed landing on something painful.

“There you are,” she said, and looked like she was about to turn away.

“Claire, I’m sorry,” I tried to say, “I shouldn’t have snapped.”

“We’ll talk about this later,” she answered, surprisingly icily, then turned to Michael, “let’s leave him to whatever idiocy he’s about to undertake, against the advice of his doctors.”

Michael looked at me, and then back at her, realised who he was more afraid of just then, and the pair of them departed, leaving me to dress in silence. I could definitely see sleeping on the sofa again in my immediate future.

Once I was clothed, I took a moment to try to bring Rupert’s Trump to mind, but it felt…nebulous. It reminded me of when I’d tried to call Andrew, a few days after the Messenger came: cool, but not connecting. I was pretty sure I’d have known if he was dead, but this was very bad indeed.

I stood cautiously, allowing myself time to get my balance, then consciously eased the headache into the background. Once I was sure I was stable, I brought up a Pattern lens and started scanning out towards Manira. At least I didn’t detect a massive hole in the firmament, so hopefully something was still there. I homed in on the place where the Broken Pattern had been, but all I could see was an island of rubble and broken rock, surrounded by tempestuous seas. There were no signs of life.

I selected the most solid-looking pile of rocks, took a deep breath, and transported myself though. The moment I arrived, I was almost knocked to the ground by the hurricane-forces winds which were swirling around what was left of Martyr’s Island. Previously, there had been a small town there, built around the massive Cathedral of the Brotherhood, which had been on the same scale as Mont St. Michel, on Terra Magica. Now there was…nothing. The place had been scoured virtually bare.

I debated whether to try to take wing, but realised that the winds were too strong, so to keep some stability, I took panther form and began moving cautiously across the debris. Every so often, I saw odd shaped bits of metal, and realised with a shock that they were the remains of Peiper’s landing craft.

I sat down on the rocks and brought the Pattern lens to mind again then looked towards the north. It was supposedly a hundred miles or so to the continent, and I wanted to know how far the damage had spread. As I travelled, I saw the train of tsunami waves still expanding in all directions. They’d already hit the coast of the northern continent, and the devastation was apparent even a couple of miles inland. I saw the broken bodies of men and women in Waffen-SS uniforms, and their equipment, smashed as they’d failed to realise the danger they were in. At least I could see some survivors, though, unlike on the island, but they were moving about slowly, as if in a daze. I whispered a prayer for the brave Captain Duart, hoping that somehow, against the odds, he’d made it to safety.

I snapped the lens back to the island, and began a grid search for any forms traces of Power. I quickly ascertained that to all intents and purposes, the Broken Pattern was gone, but my hope was that if Rupert had been here, I might be able to find traces of his full imprint. After searching for what seemed like hours, but probably wasn’t anything like that long, I identified something near the centre of the island. I focused on it and, to my surprise, realised that it was a combination of the Amber Pattern and the Thelbane Logrus.

What the Hell?

I carried on looking, and eventually came across two more possibilities, on what was left of the northern shore. This time they were definitely of the Sable Pattern, so I decided to look at them first. Glad for the warmth of my fur coat, I padded in that direction, and came to the point where Peiper’s landing had obviously been executed. Here I saw bodies, again in Waffen-SS uniforms, the men and clothing as shredded as each other. More scraps of landing vessels were scattered on the shore, and I realised that the two traces I’d found were under one of the larger pieces of debris.

Once I was by what was left of the craft, I brought up a telekinesis spell and carefully lifted it up and threw it into the water. I’d revealed half a dozen bodies, in a somewhat better state than some of the others, as they’d been protected, to a degree, by the overturned landing craft. From the plethora of broken bones and ripped open bodies, I didn’t hold out much hope, but again I told myself that if Rupert was actually dead, I ought to know.

I changed back to human form, and carefully started moving bodies. I didn’t recognise the first two, but the third was Obersturmbannführer Ebert. His neck had been broken and his ribcage was crushed. It looked as if he’d thrown himself over another person to protect them. I moved him gently, and sure enough, there was Rupert. He was in a bad way, but when I felt for a pulse, I thought I detected one. Then I looked at the other two. One’s face was completely gone and I had no chance of identifying him. The other was Joachim Peiper and, like Rupert, I detected a trace of life.

I had no love for Peiper, especially after the Ardennes, and part of me wanted to just leave him to die. Unfortunately, I’m too much of a physician to let that happen and live with my conscience afterwards. Who the Hell could I call for help, though? It wasn’t like I could send either the Head of the Waffen-SS or, even worse, the RFSS to a hospital in Sable. The only name I could come up with, was Wilhelm.

I put both Peiper and Rupert into stasis bubbles, so they wouldn’t deteriorate any further, and then brought the Kaiser’s Trump to mind, and waited to see if he would answer.

“Yes,” he said after a short while, and then looked surprised to see me, “Robert? Where the Hell are you. It looks like a nuclear bomb went off there.”

“Manira,” I answered, “you’re pretty close on the nuclear bomb, and I need some advice.”

“Go on.”

“Rupert and Peiper were staging a landing on Martyr’s Island.”

“We knew that was coming.”

“Yes…but what I didn’t expect was that the place would be blown to bits around them. As far as I can see, the landing force has taken 99% casualties, and there’s serious damage to the forces on the Northern continent.”

“99%?”

“I’ve found two survivors.”

“Let me guess. Rupert and Joachim?”

“Indeed.”

“Well this is an interesting quandary.”

“My thoughts exactly.”

“I don’t suppose you can bring yourself to just let them die, can you?” he asked, hopefully, “it would make my life a lot easier.”

“You know I can’t. Do no harm, and all that.”

“No. I suppose not. And from what I understand, even if you did, Rupert would be back in a year and a day, even if I’d seen the back of Peiper for good.”

“Indeed.”

“So why are you calling me?”

“Because the number of Trumps I have of people in the Reich is limited and they need medical attention.”

“How badly?” he asked, and I could almost feel him trying to decide if he could be bothered to care.

“Life and death badly,” I answered.

“Fine. If you can keep them alive a bit longer, I’ll see who I can rustle up. Do you mind if I give them your card, so they can call you directly.”

“I suppose not, as long as they give it back to you afterwards.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

He broke the contact, and once again I was alone on Martyr’s Island, in a howling gale, sat beside two of my least favourite people. Which, of course, was the point at which it started to rain. I threw up an umbrella spell and settled down to wait. As I did, it occurred to me for the first time that if Rupert and Peiper were here, on the shore, they may well not have been directly responsible for whatever had happened to the Broken Pattern. I’d been so sure it was my brother, but if not, who was? The Brotherhood, probably.

About ten minutes later, I felt a Trump call, but when I scanned my mental deck, I couldn’t identify my caller. Cautiously, I opened up the link to see two people looking back at me. One was a blond man, taller than me and about my apparent age, who reminded me of my brother Karl. The other was younger and dark haired, but I could see something of Andrew in his features. Both were wearing Reichs-SS uniforms and they were obviously in the A&E department of some kind of  medical facility.

“Your Majesty,” said the blond man, “my name is Tristan Heydrich.”

Bloody Hell. No wonder he reminded me of my brother. He was probably either my nephew or great-nephew.

“We’ve been informed that you have patients in need of assistance.”

“Indeed. Both are in stasis bubbles, but that’s only a short-term fix.”

“Do you mind if I send Obersturmführer Gerlinde through to help transport them.”

That was a familiar name, too. Rising start in the Forstapo, I thought.

“Feel free,” I replied, with some trepidation, and I offered my hand.

The young man who stepped through was about 6’1” and much more solidly built than myself. I was disturbed by the impression of an almost feral cunning behind his eyes. I also got a vibe from him that I didn’t particularly like, but presumably the Kaiser had contacted these two for a reason.

“Well this is a delightful spot,” he said, in rich, educated German that seemed at odds with his appearance. Then I noticed a medical insignia on the sleeve of his jacket, above his Forstapo patch. He was a doctor? The vibe I was getting made that feel like a really bad career decision.

“It’s seen better days,” I answered, “they’re over here.”

He bent down in one smooth movement, and picked Rupert up first. I noticed there was absolutely no hesitation in his choice. With apparent ease, he swung my brother over his shoulder, and then indicated for me to pass him back through to Heydrich. Before his superior could say anything, he was headed through a door into the triage area.

“I guess I’ll get Peiper then,” I commented, watching Gerlinde’s retreating back.

“The RFSS has been like a father to Obersturmführer Gerlinde since he was a small boy,” Heydrich replied, in a strangely neutral tone.

That made me wonder if he thought that the younger man was Rupert’s son. Personally, I was pretty sure he was Andrew’s. As Heydrich called for a gurney, I pulled my attention back to the island, and crossed to Peiper. I picked him up a little awkwardly, but at least I didn’t embarrass myself. Then I carefully passed him through to the other man.

“Before you can do anything, you’ll need to take the stasis off. The life signs were very weak for both of them, and it was the only thing I could think of.”

“I understand,” he answered smartly. He kept the link open until Peiper was installed on the gurney and being wheeled away.

“I believe you requested that this be returned to you,” he said, finally, and moved to hand me the Trump he’d used to call me. I kept up the link long enough to take it from him.

“Thank you.”

“My pleasure, Your Majesty”, he replied, “and thank you” and then he broke the link.

Once he was gone, I flipped over the card, and saw my daughter Mina’s design on the back. Perhaps Conrad wasn’t the only one with decent links to at least some of the SS hierarchy. I slipped it into my pocket to give it back to Wilhelm later.

Right, job one done, but there was still the mystery of the other trace. I changed back to panther form and made my way back over the unstable surface towards where the cathedral had been previously. The Broken Pattern had been in a cavern underneath it, but when I got there, I could see that the roof of the cavern was gone. It also felt warmer the closer I got to it, as if the stones had been super-heated and were still cooling. Cautiously, I picked my way down over the wreckage of the cavern roof, and was soon standing in the centre of what would have been the Broken Pattern itself. Ghost traces of the design were still there, but to all intents and purposes, it had been obliterated. So what was the trace I’d found?

I brought up a Pattern lens again and searched the ruins of the cavern. I finally spotted it in what looked to be the only remaining dark corner. Cautiously, I approached that area, returning to human form and adjusting my eyes to see better, and I thought I caught a glimpse of something scuttling. Something about the size of a large child or small adult. I REALLY hadn’t expected to find anything living down here.

“Hello?” I asked quietly, “is there someone here?”

Silence.

“I’m here to help.”

Silence.

I concentrated on the lens again, and after a moment I spotted it once more. It was playing dead in a crack in the wall, and all I could see was a carapace. I guess the rumour that cockroaches could survive the apocalypse was true, although if that’s what it was, it was the biggest cockroach I’d ever seen.

“My name is Robert. Let me help you.”

Silence.

I took a couple of steps closer to it, and finally got a better look. That’s when I realised that it was a shapeshifter in survival mode. Carefully, I extended a hand towards it, and kept extending as it tried to back further into the crack.

“I mean you no harm,” I repeated, quietly, calling on my best bedside manner. At the same time, I reached out to it mentally, to try to communicate with it that way and send calming waves.

In return, I heard a whimper. Then I realised it was investigating my hand, to try to ascertain if it was a threat. Very slowly, I started withdrawing it, hoping the shifter would follow, and after a couple of minutes it moved closer to the opening of the crack. I stepped forward carefully, and soon I was squatting down in front of it. At that proximity, I realised that as well as being both a Pattern and Logrus initiate, it had the imprint of what was probably the former Maniran Broken Pattern.

Did that make it friend or foe?

“It’s going to be okay,” I said, trying to keep any doubts out of my voice, as it hauled itself out of its sanctuary. I hadn’t been far wrong with the cockroach, but as I watched, it slowly began to change form. Soon, there was a battered looking human male in front of me, dressed in rags of clothing. He was blond and painfully thin, as if he’d burned away a lot of his physical bulk in panic mode.

“Do you have a name?” I asked, but he didn’t seem to understand me, and I realised that his mind hadn’t caught up with his body in reforming. The kindest thing to do was put him into a deep sleep until he could recover in safely, so I did so.

“I’m going to get you somewhere safe,” I said, quietly, patting his shoulder, and then brought Michael’s Trump to mind.

“Hey, big bro. How are you feeling?”

“Better,” I replied as I realised that the lingering headache from earlier was gone.

“So was it Rupert?”

“That’s a damned good question,” I replied, “he wasn’t in a state where I could ask him when I found him, but much as I hate to admit it, I rather suspect it wasn’t. That’s not why I’m calling you, though. I have a patient for you.”

“Well you seem to be in one piece. Our favourite brother?”

“No. II’ve made other arrangements for him,” I answered, and I saw him raise an eyebrow, “and yes, before you ask, he’s still breathing. Just about, anyway. But now I have a real puzzle. Can I bring him through?”

“Sure.”

I lifted the sleeping form over my shoulder with surprising ease – he was maybe a third the weight of Peiper – and then extended my hand and stepped through to Michael.

“He’s a shapeshifter whose been in flight mode for an unspecified time,” I explained, as he grabbed a gurney, which gave me a strange feeling of déjà vu, “probably dehydrated, definitely malnourished, and not particularly communicative, although I managed to talk him down until he changed back to what you see before you. He’s currently under a sleep spell. I have no idea what mental functions he still has, or what he may have lost, but he was at ground zero of whatever happened on Manira.”

“From what I could see of your surroundings, it looked like the place had been destroyed from the inside out.”

“That’s a pretty good summary, and eventually I’m going to have to see if anything can be fixed. But not today. Today, whoever this is has priority. He’s a dual Pattern-Logrus initiate, and neither of them from here.”

“Excuse me?”

“I went more for ‘what the Hell?’.”

“Any idea who he is?”

“None at all. I wanted to get him help first, before starting to poke and prod him.”

“Fair enough.”

By now, we’d reached a private room in the shifter wing of the hospital, and between us, we got the young man onto the bed. Then Michael called for a couple of nurses, who attached monitors to the patient, as well as bringing liquid nutrition and blood for transfusion. If he was family, he’d be able to take anything, so we weren’t too worried about typing in the first instance. Once he was settled, Michael and I looked at each other, then back at the patient.

“We have to know,” he said.

“I know,” I replied, and took a syringe from a draw to the side. Very carefully, I took a sample of the patient’s blood, and then dripped some of it into a beaker and started doing a forensic genetics spell. And then I stopped dead. I’d never thought I’d ever see that particular combination again.

“What is it?”

“He’s Delwin’s,” I replied.

“Our brother?”

“Oh, and some. He’s also Jasra’s.”

“Wait, I thought your parents only had the one child. You. Rupert having come along later by binary fission, as it were.”

“So did I,” I answered, “why don’t you take a look. See if I’m going mad.”

His method of typing was rather different to mine, i.e. touching the blood and drawing it into himself, and then considering it, but after a minute or two he nodded.

“Bloody Hell,” he said, quietly.

“Test-tube?”

“Absolutely no way of knowing. But I concur with your assessment, he’s your full brother.”

I had another look at the sample, but there was no sign of the other uncomfortable possibility that had occurred to me. He didn’t have the counterpart markers that Rupert does, so he wasn’t some bizarre by-product of Creating Sable.

“Could they have had make-up sex at some point?” Michael mused.

“Delwin and Jasra? I highly doubt it, but I was so young when they went their separate ways, that I wouldn’t remember if they did.”

“From what you’ve said, their relationship was pretty dysfunctional. Maybe she realised that Delwin was never going to keep his part of the deal he made with her father and hand you over, so she made her own arrangements.”

“It’s possible. She was young, but she was still Suhuy’s daughter, and in later years she’s proven herself to have an abundance of guile in that respect.”

“Perhaps he’ll be able to tell us when he wakes up.”

“If he wakes up.”

“I’ll look after him, Robert. You have my word.”

“I know you will. Do you want me to stay?”

“No. You’d better get back to the Palace and see if Claire’s calmed down at all. You really upset her, you know.”

“I know. I realised that almost as soon as I did it.”

“I guessed. So go. Apologise. This puzzle can wait until tomorrow.”

“When did you get so wise, Michael?”

“I’ve always been wise,” he said, with a chuckle, “you just hadn’t noticed.”

“I’ll talk to you tomorrow,” I answered, with a smile.

I brought Claire’s Trump to mind and went through to her, ready to make whatever reparation she wanted from me before she forgave me.

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