Rupert with an insolent smile on his curling upper lip and a toss of his thick hair—he was a handsome villain, and the gossip ran that many a lady had troubled her heart for him already.

“If my brother has scarlet fever,” said I, “he is nearer my complexion than he is wont to be, my lord. I trust he does not suffer?”

“He is able to attend to his affairs, sire.”

“I hope all beneath your roof are not sick. What of my good friends, De Gautet, Bersonin, and Detchard? I heard the last had suffered a hurt.”

Lauengram and Krafstein looked glum and uneasy, but young Rupert’s smile grew broader.

“He hopes soon to find a medicine for it, sire,” he answered.

And I burst out laughing, for I knew what medicine Detchard longed for—it is called Revenge.

“You will dine with us, gentlemen?” I asked.

Young Rupert was profuse in apologies. They had urgent duties at the Castle.

“Then,” said I, with a wave of my hand, “to our next meeting, gentlemen. May it make us better acquainted.”

“We will pray your Majesty for an early opportunity,” quoth Rupert airily; and he strode past Sapt with such jeering scorn on his face that I saw the old fellow clench his fist and scowl black as night.

For my part, if a man must needs be a knave, I would have him a debonair knave, and I liked Rupert Hentzau better than his long-faced, close-eyed companions. It makes your sin no worse, as I conceive, to do it a la mode and stylishly.

Now it was a curious thing that on this first night, instead of eating the excellent dinner my cooks had prepared for me, I must needs leave my gentlemen to eat it alone, under Sapt’s presiding care, and ride myself with Fritz to the town of Zenda and a certain little inn that I knew of. There was little danger in the excursion; the evenings were long and light, and the road this side of Zenda well frequented. So off we rode, with a groom behind us. I muffled myself up in a big cloak.

“Fritz,” said I, as we entered the town, “there’s an uncommonly pretty girl at this inn.”

“How do you know?” he asked.

“Because I’ve been there,” said I.

“Since—?” he began.

“No. Before,” said I.

“But they’ll recognize you?”

“Well, of course they will. Now, don’t argue, my good fellow, but listen to me. We’re two gentlemen of the King’s household, and one of us has a toothache. The other will order a private room and dinner, and, further, a bottle of the best wine for the sufferer. And if he be as clever a fellow as I take him for, the pretty girl and no other will wait on us.”

“What if she won’t?” objected Fritz.

“My dear Fritz,” said I, “if she won’t for you, she will for me.”

  By PanEris using Melati.

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