Chapter 32

Hofburg Palace was certainly a site to behold. The entire building took up 6 blocks worth of land in the middle of the city just south of the river. Over the years, wings were added with the addition of new rulers and governances. From the main courtyard, they were surrounded by the palace completely with no sight of the rest of Vienna. The building they faced was in the shape of a giant crescent angled towards them. The granite mass loomed overhead 6 or 7 stories above them and seemed to embrace them as they came closer. Statues of former rulers lined the sides which stood underneath massive marble pillars. On the roof, a two-headed eagle emblazoned in gold soared below a waving flag of the Austrian Empire.

To get to the main entrance, they crossed over the Heldenplatz, which was the main outer plaza that faced the entrance. The entire plaza was new and built under Alek's granduncle's reign. Alek remembered visiting when it was still under construction. His father told him that it was going to be the Imperial Forum someday, on which the most powerful men on earth would walk. It was still incomplete but the grounds looked just as grand and as regal as he remembered.

Alek also knew that underneath all of that regal grandeur were defenses ready for an entire army. Anti-aircraft cannons were mounted on the rooftops out of site. Behind every third or so window was a small machine-gun turret mounted in disguise as a balcony. At the entrance there were armed men at either side of the main door and more at the bottom of the stairs. This was all standard wartime security and Alek knew full well what they were capable of. But something else was present that Alek did not foresee. A Cyclop Flagship Walker was posted at the base of the entrance, faced outwards. It had a large cannon in its belly that made Alek nervous. In order to enter the main entrance, Alek would have to park the walker between the giant staircase that led to the doors and the giant Stormwalker that dwarfed his runabout in almost every way. A thought then occurred to him. That walker was called from the front lines to protect the Capital. Alek remembered seeing all of those walkers marching back towards Vienna while they were still moving through Austria on the Capitoline. What on earth are they doing here?

Alek tried to be inconspicuous with his driving as he brought the walker between the stairs and the Stormwalker. He remembered that the runabout had the Hapsburg seal on the sides and so any warrant officer who addressed them would be expecting royalty. However, no one would be expecting Prince Karl. He had not been heard from in weeks. Turning up out of the blue would require some explaining. Alek remembered that he was in disguise again, and had to appear official enough to be allowed to follow Prince Karl in, but no so much that he would be recognized. He was famous from the papers after all. While he doubted that the officers from the palace read the New York World, news of his travels and dealings with Mr. Tesla would certainly find their way here at some point.

He slowed the saunters until the walker came to a complete stop and the engines idled. The legs began to lower as he released knee pressure and the whole cabin drifted gently towards the ground. He quickly undid the straps around him and entered into the main cabin through a porthole in the back. Prince Karl was standing as tall as ever facing the main hatch. Alek put his hands on the main release for the hatch, but stopped to glance at Prince Karl, who simply gave him a slight nod. Alek released the hatch and the metal door swung outwards with a hiss of pneumatic pressure.

Two soldiers acting as valets caught the door and guided it to the ground slowly. They propped up the stairs and stood beside the entrance, waiting for Prince Karl to exit. They both stepped out of the walker and were greeted by a soldier in an officer's uniform. Alek noticed that the helmet he was wearing was one from a Lancer Regiment. It was similar to Count Volger's battle helmet in shape, but this one was red on the top instead of gold. The officer stepped lively over to the both of them and smartly bowed, then saluted. After all of his time aboard the Leviathan saluting soldiers, he almost returned the gesture out of reflex. He remembered that royalty and their closest subjects were not part of the military and had no obligation to solute back. Prince Karl then began to speak slowly.

"My name is Karl Franz Joseph von Hapsburg. Where are the Generals meeting today?" he asked the officer. Alek noticed that the man's eyes seemed to widen at the mention of his name.

"In the Silberkammer Treasury, you serene highness," the officer responded. "If you will accompany me?" he said and gestured towards the main doors.

"Very good," Prince Karl answered, "and would you take my walker as well? I'm afraid my personal staff is short-handed so I needed my personal assistant to pilot it for me," he said with a nod in Alek's direction. The man gave a swift nod and motioned for the soldiers who helped them off the walker. They both climbed in and shut the door behind them. Alek began to follow Prince Karl up the stairs when the runabout began to move from behind him. No turning back now, he thought.

The Lancer Officer led them through the main doors and into the Neue Hofburg hall. The ceiling was in a massive white dome overhead and the walls were spackled with gold trimmings and décor. Solid white marble constituted the walls, the floors, and almost every other inch of their surroundings. Prince Karl's boots made a clicking sound that echoed in the halls with each stride. No one else was in sight in either direction of the massive white hallway. They followed the officer down the great hall towards the library, if Alek remembered correctly. The Treasury would be on the other side.

They soon were led through the library. There were walls upon walls of books in all directions lined with magnificent windows that faced the east and west, letting in ample sunlight. They marched straight though without a word. The officer in front of them was completely silent and marched with a disciplined click in his stride. On the other side of the library was another door that was guarded by another man with a ceremonial saber and a grenadier's pistol. The guard saluted and nodded to the officer, who opened the door and let them into a smaller hallway that led to the treasury. How odd, Alek thought, that the walls could go from so grand and spacious to so tight and simple. This newer hallway was lined with white marble and a red velvet carpet that muffled the sounds of their footsteps.

Then something odd happened. The second soldier guarding the door followed the three of them. They all walked in single-file down the narrow hallway in a lively march, but the soldier behind Alek seemed to be getting closer. Alek then heard the door shut behind him and suddenly he felt on edge. Something was not right.

"Excuse me Commander," Prince Karl spoke up. The Lancer Commander stopped in his stride and turned to face Prince Karl with a salute yet again.

"Yes your serene highness?" he asked back. They were in the dead center of the hallway now and the soldier behind Alek was less than a meter behind him.

"Forgive me for asking, but are common citizens permitted to walk the halls of the Emperor's home?" Prince Karl asked calmly. His tone was low and simple, like a teacher asking a rhetorical question to a pupil.

"No, your majesty," the officer responded.

"Yet you have allowed my servant here to enter without question," he pointed out. Alek remembered that he was pretending to be normal again. Outside of the military and royal family, anyone who entered the Palace needed explicit permission from the Emperor.

"As a member of the royal guard for Emperor Frans Joseph, you would know this already," Prince Karl pointed out. "Which means that led me and him here together on purpose."

Alek's heart began racing. Why on earth would an officer of the royal guard make that mistake? And why did the presence of the other soldier behind him suddenly feel so threatening? And why was Prince Karl so calm?

"So there are two possibilities. Either you are a decorated royal officer who will be tried for treason, or you knew all along whom my assistant really is," he said softly. Alek thought this was ridiculous for a moment, but then realized that the officer was not saying anything in his defense. He just stood there with a dark expression on his face. Alek tried his best to remain as collective as he could. He very slowly inched his left foot forward and began turning his right foot sideways, taking a slow but proper fencing stance.

". . . and the only way you could know that is if you were a—"

German, Alek finished in his head and lunged backwards. He took his left elbow and mashed it hard into the stomach of the unprepared soldier behind him. The soldier gave out a cough in agony and began reeling backwards. A millisecond later, he skillfully jammed his left heel on the man's toes and simultaneously reached for the saber with his right hand. In one smooth motion the soldier fell backwards, unsheathing the sword with a soft slink, and Alek lunged forward. The officer was already pulling out his pistol and was pointing it up towards Prince Karl's chest. Alek brought the saber in an upward slash, which caught the officer's hand just before he could pull the trigger.

The officer let out a gasp in pain and the pistol flew through the air past them. It hit the ground with a clink and Alek brought the blade to the man's throat. In less than 3 seconds, Alek had disarmed two men using nothing but instinct. He needed to remember to thank Volger someday.

"Excellent form, Prince Aleksander," Prince Karl said softly from behind him.

"I'm beginning to think that you are never worried about anything, Prince Karl," he responded and narrowed his gaze at the officer. He heard the soldier groaning on the ground behind them. He would be up in a matter of moments so Alek's next move would have to come quickly. "On the ground," Alek ordered without shouting. If the General's heard them, they would open the treasury doors to find two banished princes with a sword at an officer's throat. The man clutched at his hand in pain for a moment, and then obliged, planting himself face down on the floor. "After you, Prince Karl," Alek said.

They both began inching around the soldiers on the ground and backed away from them slowly. Alek kept his eyes on the men on the ground as he backpedaled, keeping his fencing form strong. After they were a distance away, Alek saw the soldier look up from the ground, and then put his face back towards the ground. Alek found it odd that they weren't getting up to follow them. Alek then turned towards the treasury doors to find four guards blocking their path, each with a pistol pointed in their direction.

Alek stopped and clutched his saber tightly. Each soldier was too far away to reach with his saber. Even if he threw it, he would be shot before it got to them. The two disarmed men behind them were now too far away to use as hostages. Considering the gravity of the situation, Alek doubted that hostages would stop them from shooting anyway. The only thing Alek could do was position himself right in between the gunmen and the prince with his saber at the ready. No matter how dire his chances were, he would hold his perfect stance for as long as he could. He was about to tell Prince Karl to run for it when another odd thing happened.

The two guards on the outside turned inward and jammed their fists deep into the guts of the remaining two men. The soldiers reeled in pain and began struggling for their weapons. Alek then lost track of which guard was which as two of them were forced to the ground. After a certain point, both guards that were on the ground were relieved of their weapons and suddenly had two pistols pointed at their faces. Alek observed the two guards who had won the scuffle and decided to charge them while their focus was elsewhere. If he could punch a hole though those men, Prince Karl could run through them and make for the treasury doors. He began to step forward.

"Easy there, your princliness. Point that thing somewhere else," a familiar voice said. Alek couldn't believe his ears. One of the figures stood and faced him, displaying a cheeky smile on her face.

"D—Dylan?" he fumbled and lowered his saber. He looked over to the other guard standing next to her.

"No time to chat, get that prince in there now," the voice of Jaspert Sharp spat. Sure enough, the second guard was Jaspert, dressed from head to toe in a poorly fitted Royal Guard uniform. The two of them were crouched over their opponents who lay motionless on the ground. Deryn, who was even more poorly outfitted, was making shushing noises to their protests. Alek had to fight the urge to ask how and why they were here and simply turned to Prince Karl.

"Your highness," he said and motioned towards the doors at the end of the hall. Without another word, Prince Karl marched forward towards the treasury, completely ignoring the soldiers on the ground around him. He made his way to the doors and pressed his ear against it. After apparently being satisfied that the generals were unaware of their struggle, he opened both doors and marched in.

A/N: The second of two chapters at once! here you go, enjoy.