Volger led Alek through the halls of the strange place, until they reached the third floor. He opened a huge door and led Alek inside.
They were in a bedroom. A huge bed stood against the wall, with scarlet hangings, and lavishly furnished with chairs and bokshelves. Volger gestured for Alek to sit at the small desk to their right. He complied, too tired to stand, and Volger sat across from him.
"Have you any idea where we are?" the man asked, lacing his fingers together and reclining in his chair.
"Not a clue" Alek answered stiffly. "Though I gather its somewhere quite nice."
Volger nodded. "We are at the home of your granduncle, Franz Joseph."
Alek froze. "What do you mean? Why in God's name are we here?"
"He is dying." Volger said simply. "When the German's attacked the Leviathan, I claimed to have captured you, and they brought us here. I must say, he was quite pleased. He gave me this room to stay in as long as I like."
"Well, thats lovely." Alek scoffed. Volger ignored that and continued.
"Your execution is set for tomorrow at dawn. It is to be secret and no one but your granduncle and the executioner are to be present."
Alek's brain seemed to stop at that statement, his thoughts spinning. So Volger took him here to tell him he was going ot die anyway? Couldn't they have done that down in the cell? It seemed a more fitting place to be told of your impending doom. Suddenly his breath came quicker, and he could barely speak.
"Thank you, Volger, for notifying me. But if I may, I would like to spend my last few hours on earth with Deryn." Alek's mouth was dry. He couldn't think properly. In just a few short hours he was going to be gone, like the Leviathan, like his parents...It was too surreal to be true.
Volger held up his hand as Alek went to stand up. "Sit, I'm not finished." Alek listened and slumped back in his chair, resting his face in his hands.
"I know now how you feel about me right now, Alek, and I understand. But if you honestly think I gave up everything just to bring you to your death, you are sadly mistaken."
Alek nodded. Of course, Volger had left his title behind to follow Alek across the continent, been a prisoner of war. He had been scheming all along. Unless he was getting paid doubly for this... He shook away the thought. No point in getting upset before he heard the full story.
"Your granduncle is very, very ill, Alek. He is bedridden, but is determined to watch you die tomorrow morning. He also requested that he have a moment to visit with you tonight."
"I don't want to see him." Alek hissed. "Why on earth would I want to talk to the man who hated my family, disowned me, and now has my death all planned out?"
Volger shook his head. "Your going to use it to your advantage, Alek. Franz Joseph is most likely going to die before he gets to see you be executed. I'm certain he won't make it through the night. He requested that I go and fetch you now so he may speak with you, just in case he does not get to witness your death." Volger reached a hand into his pocket and took out the leather bound scroll.
"You will bring this with you, but you will speak with him first. Let him talk to you about whatever he felt he needed to say. Play along, reply as you see fit. Don't be rude. If he asks you to leave, show him this before you go. I'm sure that will stir him up a bit. Let's hope he dies before he can tell anyone about it, though."
"Volger, that is never going to work!" Alek exclaimed. "The Holy Father is dead!"
"His word is his word, Alek. No one should deny the document. Its perfectly valid. Just because he is dead should not mean his word is useless."
Alek clutched the chair beneath him. He was going to have to confront Franz Joseph, the man who outlawed his parents marriage and kept Alek from inheriting anything. He would have to deliver the final blow to a dying man that Alek would indeed take the throne. He swallowed the lump in his throat.
"When?" was all he could manage to say.
"The sooner the better, Alek. He's not going to live much longer."
"Well, let's get it over with, then." Alek said, standing up.
"Not looking like that, Your Serene Highness." Volger mused, eyeing Alek's outfit. Alek looked down at himself. He hadn't noticed just how terrible he looked. His clothes were just as tattered and dirty as Deryn's had been. He had dirt and blood smeared all over his arms.
"There is a full tub in the bathroom down the hallway, waiting for you. I have had clothes set out for you, in preparation. Hurry, I don't want him dying before he hears the news." Volger smirked.
Alek stood, leaning on the desk for support. He slowly made his way out of the room, keeping a hand on the wall as he found the bathroom. He could hardly believe this was real. His granduncle was finally leaving this world behind, and giving Alek his chance to rule.
The bathroom was extravagant, but Alek took no time to marvel at it. He undressed and slipped into the piping hot water that filled the stone basin of a tub that was set into the room itself. He realized that he had not had a proper bath since the castle in the Alps, and even that hadn't been the best. Of coutse the Leviathan had had showers, but this felt much nicer than any of that. He felt strangely at home, despite the fact that he was in the same building as the man who wanted him dead.
He tried to focus his thoughts on the task at hand, but they wandered, his brain fuzzy from the steam and the fact that he hadn't slept properly in days. He wished Deryn was there...Deryn...How was she? He wanted to go to her and leave this aweful place. Never look back.
Alek wanted to sit in the bath all night, let the warm water seep into his bones and wipe away everything. But there was a dying man somewhere in this house and he had a job to do. He reluctantly got out and dried himself, then dressed in the fine clothes Volger had set out for him. He tried to inspect his reflection in the huge mirror on the wall, but it was fogged with steam. He ran a hand through his hair and left the bathroom more nervous than he had ever been.
Alek started when he saw Volger standing there ourside the bathroom door, arms behind his back.
"Are you ready?" he asked.
Alek swallowed, but straightened his back and thrust out his chin, nodding once at Volger. The man led him through the twisting hallways, up yet another flight of stairs. Alek's heart beat faster and faster with each step, until it was nearly breaking his ribs. Finally, they came upon a huge wodden door that was guarded by two men in uniform.
"Gentlemen, I have brought the duke his guest." Vlger said, bowing lightly to each. They nodded and stepped aside in unison. Volger opened the door and bowed Alek in. He pressed the leather bound scroll into Alek's palm before shutting the door behind him with a bone chilling finality.
The room before him was dark, lit by one oil lamp near a huge extravagant bed at the farthest end of the room. Alek approached slowly, forcing himself to take every step. The form of his granduncle was was barely visible under the piles of blankets and pillows that surrounded the still form. As he neared, he saw the blankets rise and fall with the man's slow rattling breath.
"Granduncle?" Alek said softly as he neared the edge of the bed. The ancient face turned and looked at him, and Alek's breath caught in his throat. The man looked like a skeleton wrapped in wrinkled linens, skin sagging and folding in grotesque ways. Alek had to force himself not to look away.
"Aleksandar" the man croaked, a smile breaking across his withered face. "How nice to see you." Alek heard the sarcasm behind his statement but kept a straight face, taking a seat in the chair next to the old man's bed. Franz Joseph slowly adjusted himself then coughed sickeningly.
"I heard tell you wanted to have an audiance wiht me before tomorrow morning." Alek said coldly when the man had finished coughing.
"Yes, my boy. But first, do tell me about your ventures after that oh so horrific night last summer." Alek saw the shadow of a smile on the man's lips as he spoke. He wanted to say something, but held his tongue and kept an even tone.
"Well, I must say, being hunted makes it exceedingly difficult to do much of anything but hide. I would't call it 'traveling'. It was more like 'fleeing for our lives'." he said calmly. The old man chuckled.
"I would say so." he drawled.
"What is it you needed to say to me? If this meeting was strictly to get your pleasure at my discomfort, I daresay you've gotten it by now." Alek retorted, getting annoyed with the dying man's arrogance.
Franz Joseph pushed himself up in his bed and settled into his pillows with a terrible wheeze. He stared Alek right in the eye.
"As you have probably guessed, Aleksandar, I am dying." he rasped this thin fingers cluthing the blankets around him. "And I fear I will not be able to watch you die tomorrow morning. I just wanted to get a good look at you before both you and I are gone for good." the man chuckled, his eyes growing wide as he was overtaken by a voilent coughing fit. Alek shut his eyes until it subsided.
When he reopened his eyes, Franz Joseph was slumped back into his pillows, his breath light and barely audiable. "Is that all?" Alek asked rudely.
"No," he wheezed. "I also wanted to tell you that, despite the fact that I outlawed your parent's marriage and took away everything you were to inherit, I did care about your father and his well being. I was saddened by his death. But your death is necessary for the future of the empire."
It was all Alek could do to keep from gagging. He wanted to hit this man, scream that he never cared, he wanted to kill the fragile person lying helplessly in front of him. But he just cleared his throat and stared down at the pathetic excise for a man.
"Well, granduncle," he said dryly, forcing the word from his tongue. "If that is all, I have something I would like to show you." he presented the tiny scroll in the dim light.
"Whatever is that, my boy?"
"It is a document that leaves me in control of the entire Austria-Hungary empire after your passing. Verified and signed by the Holy Father himself."
The entire world seemed to stop turning then, the air in the room becoming more still than it already was. Franz Joseph stared at Alek, his ancient eyes wide and piercing. Alek held the man's gaze defiantly, the scroll cluthed tightly in his hand.
Finally the silence was broken by the withered man's wild coughing. "Excuse me?"
"I am the rightful heir to the throne, granduncle. It states it right here." he opened the case and held it for him to read. The old man's eyes scanned the note over and over until he leaned back into his pillows, a resigned look on his face.
"Well, my worst fear has been realized. Your father was quite the loophole finder, wasn't he? But the Holy Father is dead, Aleksandar. How do you expect this document to verify anything at all?"
Alek shook his head, "Just because he is dead doesn't make his law any less effective."
Franz Joseph closed his eyes and lifted a hand, gesturing for Alek to leave. "Go, boy."
Alek stood, tucking the scroll into his pocket. He turned to leave when he heard the old man clear his throat behind him. "One more thing before you go, Aleksandar."
Alek turned around to see his granduncle holding a pistol in his hand, the barrel pointed right at Alek.
The last thing Alek saw was Franz Joseph's wicked smile before the shot sounded.