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Mike Arram

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  1. Mike Arram

    Chapter 15

    Ruprecht kept a careful eye on his little brother throughout the excitements and trials surrounding his sixteenth birthday and Schwulene. A lot of the time Felix was serenely happy, not least the day he offered his lifeblood to the boy he had selected for his partner for as long as his life should last. But there were occasions when he believed Felix was labouring under some internal trouble, as much mental as physical, for all his usual happy-go-lucky demeanour. Ruprecht rather thought Gilles detected it too, but his unease about his brother was not so deep that he felt he could bring it up with his ward, who needed to enjoy what happiness he currently had. Summer was not the time to renew their excavations, so a further visit to Chasancene was not planned till after the harvest and the release of labour from the fields. The Parmentiers were again their hosts, and Ruprecht was a little uneasy as to how the son of the house would be treated. There was no hiding Gilles’s homosexual union with his prince, and it had not been attempted. The boy had written to his parents and explained what he could of his feelings. He said the replies were not hostile, though his papa was obviously unclear as to what it was all about. His maman was more positive and accepting. The Auberge aux Falaises was therefore its usual welcoming self, but Felix felt he could not insist on sharing a bed with his sworn lover, and Gilles admitted that it was probably best not to. This visit to Vieldomaine was not a state one, and though the Bernician embassy had notified the ducal court of the prince’s visit no formal reception was planned to greet him. The ambassador unguardedly expressed the view that Francien susceptibilities (and indeed hypocrisy) about homosexuality being what they were, it was as well to keep the visit low-key. Joerg and Ruprecht rode out to Champs Dolent and visited the farmer Leblanc. He was happy enough to see them again, not to mention their money. The success of the earlier excavation had intrigued his fellow tenant-farmers and they and the bishop’s agent were most eager that Joerg should walk freely around the estate, looking for the lost Francien colony. Where Joerg walked, day-trippers and tourists might very well follow. The two men made their way up to the ruins of the old manor house on the hill above the Préaux du Sang; now thickly green and ready for the haymaking. ‘So you ruled this site out, little one. Tell me why.’ Joerg smiled up at his lover, happy to be back in the field. ‘The identifiable stonework is fifth-century at the earliest, Rupe. It’s not a fortified site and there’s none of that old brownware you find at early Francien sites. It’s just the bishops’ former country house. The woods behind were probably a hunting park. Look here, see! There’re erdbeest bones in this ancient midden heap.’ ‘Royal erdbeesten?’ ‘No, Rupe. The last of those was dead centuries before this place was built. These are common erdbeest bones. The old bishops must have stocked the park with a herd, staking a claim to equality with princes and magnates.’ ‘And they hunted them?’ ‘Most likely. Haven’t you ever seen them?’ ‘Only pictures. I know there are still big herds in the Imperial Reserve and in the West Kingdom, not to mention the royal park of Ardhesse, but I’ve never got to see a live specimen. There are a few skulls gathering dust in the rafters of Freiborg, killed by Von Aalsts of ages past when there were still wild ones in the forests of Hochrecht.’ Joerg smiled a little smugly. ‘I’ve had a chance to see the Royal Ardhessian herd. They used to have public viewing days at Ardheim twice a year, during Lent and Advent. It’s quite a sight. There are several hundred of them in the great park. The way they move as a herd is almost uncanny; it really is worth seeing. They seem to sense the place of each and turn almost as one when the bulls lead them. Ardhesse has about two score bulls, which are the ones the king hunts. They rear up to nearly three metres when they go on their back legs. The Ardhessians breed for size, and I think the idea once was to try to recover the dimensions of the old royals, though without much evident success. The prime bull establishes himself by mounting and sodomising the lesser ones, feminising them I suppose. If the smaller ones resist, it’s a fight to the death. The lesser bulls have to mate when the prime’s not in view, and if a cow doesn’t like it she hoots and the prime comes running to avenge the trespass. With that sort of limited pool, they can’t breed for intelligence, that’s for sure.’ Ruprecht pondered that. ‘And the royal erdbeesten were the same?’ ‘Just bigger, and of course they were principally bipedal. A zoologist friend at university reckoned the earliest erdbeesten were tree-climbers. They would have been smaller than those of today, and might have had to shelter up in the branches from now-extinct beasts of prey, like giant ancestors of the hunting leopards. From what the finds of bones tell us, royal bulls and cows moved across the landscape in herds just like the common variety.’ ‘I’ve been wondering about the ritually buried ones we found, you at Schwarzwald and me at the Holy City. Both near ancient human sites, as it happens.’ ‘Yes, I think we can conclude that our ancestors used them in primitive hunting rites; ritually burying the royal bulls they hunted and killed as a tribute to the animals’ strength and the superior prowess of humans. They certainly didn’t eat them. No one eats common erdbeesten nowadays either, though the cows can be milked and the milk is supposed to have health-giving properties. If you survive trying to milk one, you’re lucky still to be healthy, I guess. I hear the flesh tastes a bit like horse.’ Ruprecht chuckled at the thought. He looked out across the landscape from their vantage point. The river Rougiet was shining in the noon sunshine but the horizon was somewhat veiled with mist, so they could not see far across the plains to the west, while the roofs and towers of Chasancene were quite invisible. He ruminated. ‘We found the massacre site down below the hill, so we have to assume the Francien males had been captured and penned in down there before they were executed.’ ‘Agreed.’ ‘So … their settlement cannot have been too far away.’ Joerg shrugged. ‘Or settlements! The men may have been rounded up from several villages and farms, and brought together to be disposed of. The other question is where were the females and children? It looks like a slave raid, doesn’t it? You kill the mature males, rape their women and reduce them and the younger ones to forced labour.’ ‘It looks to me like the human colony fell apart and they began fighting one against the other. Maybe it was Alleman raiders who did this?’ ‘Or English. In fact most likely English, since they were running Kholnai for a century after the massacre.’ Ruprecht had an odd feeling he should be defending the Kingdom of Kevin Lengleis and the Connors at this point, but instead he returned to his original train of thought. ‘The Francien capital really can’t be far from here. You’ve surveyed the hill and found no trace, nor was there any reason to think it was under the modern town, so we’re looking at somewhere in this stretch of the Val de Rougiet, yes?’ ‘Yes, Rupe. I suppose it would need to be near water for sanitary and agricultural purposes, but not so close that there’s a danger of flooding. I suppose there’d need to be a nice flat space on which to land fireships.’ ‘You believe in fireships, Joerg?’ ‘Why not? Everything else in The Voyagers seems to be true. In fact I’d expect something like one of our naval dockyards, though to harbour ships from the air, not the sea. Guillaume le Rou set foot on Terre Nouvelle from a fireship, and he was Francien so there has to be a fireship dock where the Franciens built their city. It stands to reason.’ ‘My little doctor has quite the imagination.’ *** In the end the party hiked down the Rougiet valley the next day, and five kilometres below Champs Dolent encountered their first likely site. It was a flat stretch of ground a little elevated above the flood plain of the river. ‘Does that stream look canalised to you?’ Joerg asked Ruprecht. ‘The one running down the side of the hill? Yes it does, and it’s not a field drain either. Though it’s flat, this area isn’t arable or pasture, just brushwood with scattered barren clearings.’ ‘Those bare patches of ground interest me. I need to go up the hill and look down on the site to get an idea of its extent. Can you and the boys measure off and make a sketch map down here?’ ‘I’ll leave them to get on with it. I’ll come up the hill with you. Your pretty little butt might be threatened by a bull erdbeest, and frankly it’s mine to sodomise.’ ‘Heard that!’ Felix called over. ‘You pair are disgusting.’ The outlook from the hilltop was sufficient to give them a good idea that the landscape below had been shaped by human agency. ‘I think I can make out four separate enclosures, though nothing indicating streets, walls or buildings,’ Joerg finally said. ‘If it’s what we’re looking for it all seems to have been quite open.’ ‘A fireship landing field? Could this be the legendary Place of Landing after all?’ ‘Who knows? We’ll have to dig. But if fireships did land here, you’d wonder why there aren’t any traces of what must have been very big vehicles.’ The sketch maps and measurements Felix and Gilles had made confirmed what could be seen from above. ‘Very well,’ Joerg decided. ‘This is the Lemarignier holding, and he’s one of the local tenant farmers who’s on board with the project. Not only that but he’s obviously not using this land at all, not even for plantation purposes. So we’ll get the carts down here with the labourers tomorrow, and I’ll peg out places which need to be cleared. We’ll dig along the evident perimeters of the enclosures and cut trenches across those interesting bare patches. According to my copy of the bishop’s estate map, the Lemarignier farm is a kilometre back up the valley, so we’ll go knock on his door and see if he has any objection to the plan.’ By mid-morning the next day all was in place and the hired labourers had their instructions. Monsieur Lemarignier turned up to view a site he thought had just been an abandoned old farmstead. ‘And you think this might actually have been where the Landing happened? My goodness!’ The farmer’s eyes went unfocussed at the potential for enrichment that might lie underneath his property. ‘Tell me, monsieur,’ Ruprecht asked, ‘is there anything odd about this part of your land which you can recall?’ The man scratched his head. ‘Well monsieur, not that I can properly recall. We don’t use it for more than occasional grazing, as the grass always grows thin here. In fact the only thing that does grow here is brushwood, which we crop every two years. The odd thing, which my father observed – Dieu le benisse, for he died ten years back this week – is that trees don’t root here. They never have, not even when the brush is left. Anywhere else, you have to cut back the saplings. But not here.’ ‘Any idea why not?’ ‘Papa believed that the soil is thin, and there’s barren rock just below the surface.’ ‘Well then, monsieur,’ Ruprecht smiled, ‘it will be a brief dig!’ It only took an hour for the trench cutters to realise the truth of the farmer’s belief. Wherever they dug, their shovels scraped against an intractable surface. Joerg scraped and brushed away at the ground. ‘It isn’t rock,’ he pronounced. ‘It’s far too level. It’s a finished concrete foundation.’ ‘Artificial then, my God! It’s the jackpot.’ Joerg got all the crew clearing what was emerging by the end of the day as a series of level building platforms. ‘Signs of plumbing here, so definitely not eighth century or earlier and look at that portion of pipe! It’s alienware.’ The boys cheered. Gilles wiped the sweat from his forehead. ‘Foundations Joerg, but what about the buildings that were put up on top of them?’ ‘No sign yet, Gillot. The ones we’ve uncovered have been deliberately levelled. But we have a lot more digging to do yet.’ The third day exposed fifteen building platforms of various sizes within the enclosure they had targeted. It was not till they cleared a corner that they found something more telling than concrete: a blackened circle three metres across, with ash to a depth of ten millimetres. ‘So, the buildings were systematically demolished and their contents incinerated,’ Ruprecht mused. ‘Raiders again, Joerg?’ ‘Tempting to speculate isn’t it? But we don’t have enough evidence. I need to bag samples of this ash and try to analyse it. Look!’ He held up several thin and curling grey strips. ‘Alienware film, warped by the heat. I wonder what these sheets originally were?’ ‘I doubt we’ll ever know. It looks like everything that was flammable in this precinct was piled here and torched, but there must have been other material. We need to extend our search.’ They considered the plan and assessed the likelihood of each of the other compounds turning something up. In the end all were agreed that the largest and most irregular of the enclosures must be next, though it would be a far longer job. On the first day, as Ruprecht was cutting turves to expose the underlying soil, Gilles sidled up to him under the pretext of offering him a drink of water. ‘Rupe, Kreech would kill me if he knew I told you this, but he’s not too great at the moment.’ ‘What’s happened, Gillot?’ ‘He’s overdoing the digging, and he’s flushed at night. I’m beginning to get worried. Can you get Dr Joerg to take a look at him?’ ‘Without giving away that you snitched on him?’ ‘You get my drift, Rupe.’ ‘It will be done … and thank you, Gillot. I know you’d not have said this if you weren’t really worried.’ The boy nodded and sauntered off with his usual easy grace. Ruprecht admired his shirtless brown torso as he walked away, a mattock over a shoulder. Gilles was putting on muscle now he was maturing into manhood. There was a deep channel down his spine; he boasted broad shoulders and swelling biceps. Gilles was more beautiful now than ever, even though he was losing the slimness and vulnerability of adolescence. Not for the first time, Ruprecht envied his little brother. His gaze switched a little guiltily to his own lover. Joerg too was shirtless, crouching down and scraping at some exposed soil with his small trowel, looking like an intent child at play in his parents’ garden. His skin was tawny down to his trouser belt, where the untanned whiteness could be seen as his position exposed his lower body. Joerg’s blond fringe was in his eyes as usual. He looked up suddenly to find himself being stared at, and an involuntary shy smile turned up his mouth. For a moment, Ruprecht was all but overwhelmed at the feeling of passion for the little man that surged up from his belly and left him feeling empty; such an uncontrollable reaction to another man was not something he was used to. He could not stop himself going over, squatting next to Joerg and kissing him. He slid a hand down the back of Joerg’s trousers and cupped a small, hot buttock. ‘I could fuck you here and now,’ he growled in the man’s ear. Joerg blushed. ‘It’d shock the natives, though Kreech and Gillot would be amused.’ Ruprecht withdrew his hand and remembered his errand. ‘Felix isn’t too well at the moment, had you noticed anything?’ Joerg shook his head. ‘Maybe I’ve been too fixated on the dig. I’ll make sure to examine the boy when I get a chance.’ He looked across the site to where Gilles and Felix were cutting through the turf. Felix was taking his time, resting on his mattock. Gilles was doing much of the work. *** Felix was exiled from the dig with his tutor for twenty-four hours and ordered to relax in Chasancene, and so he spent the day with Gilles’s parents and sister, who had come to the conclusion that his union with Gilles had indeed made the prince part of the Parmentier family, unlikely though that might seem. Felix however seemed to find it perfectly natural. He came back fizzing with news from the south. ‘It’s in all the papers, Rupe. King Scumbag has the Regent penned up in Ardheim. The city’s under siege and Ardhesse is in his hands. Rumour has it his uncle’s going to flee to the Empire on one of the warships he still controls. The war’s over.’ Gilles shook his head. ‘I don’t think either of them would be anything other than a tyrant, but even so Kristijan will be the worse for Ardhesse in the long run. If they think the war’s over once Ardheim falls they’ll be wrong.’ It took two days to clear a workable area after Felix returned to the site, and when they had the result was very different from the first enclosure. The foundations this time were smaller: concrete blocks rather than platforms. Several of them retained the stains and fragments of the corroded footings of steel beams. They were bases for metal pylons, though the superstructures had long rusted away and collapsed. ‘Look at the soil, Rupe,’ Joerg urged. ‘It’s red with iron oxides, and there are lots of brown flakes from fallen and corroded beams. I think a careful soil distribution map might just tell us where the metal towers fell and even give us some data to calculate how tall they might have been. The soil’s highly acidic. Iron sheets and beams have little chance of survival here.’ Felix was put to the task, having been indefinitely barred from digging detail in addition to his enforced absence and rest. He was not happy about this, but could not deny he had overtaxed his frail constitution. ‘Do you think they might be tethering posts for fireships?’ Joerg asked hopefully. ‘You’re keen on finding one aren’t you? We don’t even know what we’re looking for.’ ‘It’ll be big.’ ‘So I imagine. Too big to be buried by the accumulation of soil, and too big to be corroded away to nothing. So where is it?’ ‘Rupe my darling, you can be a wet blanket. It pains me to tell you this.’ *** It was not until near the end of the week that the excavation finally encountered something undeniably significant. At the highest part of the second compound the diggers encountered a new sort of concrete structure; not a building platform or foundation but a squat, circular building in its own right. It took several days to clear it, and when they had it was very mysterious indeed. ‘C-c-could those s-s-slits be windows? Surely that wa-wa-was a hatch of some sort. This is really interesting.’ Joerg was undeniably jittery now he was finally face-to-face with an intact structure fashioned by the Ancients. ‘Only one way to find out, I suppose. Dig it out. That portal might have once had a hatch but now it’s just a soil plug. What lies beneath I wonder?’ There was only room for one worker on the delicate task, and it was given to Gilles to do as he was smaller than the workmen who had been engaged for the dig. He toiled away steadily, chopping away the clay that had been washed into the aperture by centuries of rain sweeping down the hillside. The aperture he was revealing sloped downwards below the concrete dome. Eventually Gilles was beneath the surface, and with no space to swing a spade he was cutting through the soil with a large trowel and handing up buckets of spoil. ‘Take a break, Gillot,’ Ruprecht ordered, and hauled the boy out. He was filthy, with earth in his hair and ingrained into his sweaty body. ‘Go take a wash in the river. Kreech will be glad to assist I’m sure.’ ‘You stink, Gillot,’ said his lover with a lecherous grin, ‘and it’s quite a turn on.’ Joerg took Gilles’s place, and Ruprecht was impressed at the wiry strength the little man possessed, filling dozens of buckets before Gilles returned. It was as Joerg squirmed out and Gilles jumped back down into the pit that there was a rumble below and a cloud of dust billowed up, accompanied by a sharp cry from Gilles. ‘Gilles! Can you hear me? Gilles!’ Ruprecht yelled. ‘Is he alright?’ Felix called anxiously. ‘I’m fine,’ came the muffled reply from below. ‘It’s a cave or something. I need a lamp. Can’t see a thing.’ ‘How far did you fall?’ ‘Dunno. Not that far. I sort of slid rather than fell. Can you see me?’ Ruprecht craned and saw Gilles dimly about four metres below him, waving. ‘Rope coming down, Gillot. We’ll pull you up.’ With some scuffling and more falls of earth down the shaft they’d cut, Gilles was hauled out. ‘Filthy again, Gillot,’ Felix commented. ‘Such a dirty boy. What … No! No … Umff!’ Gilles had grabbed him, held his head in a vice-like grip under an armpit and tried to force a handful of earth into Felix’s mouth. ‘Get up, you pair,’ Ruprecht growled as the two rolled around wrestling on the ground. Joerg ignored the sideshow. ‘We’ll need to come back with ladders and lamps tomorrow. In the meantime, better cover up the hole with boards.’ ‘And post watchmen tonight,’ Ruprecht added. ‘Is that necessary?’ Ruprecht shrugged. ‘There are always rumours of hidden treasure on old sites. You never know what some idiots might attempt.’ Joerg was very randy that night, despite all the day’s physical activity. He stripped naked to wash in their room, without keeping his drawers on as he usually did, casting his eyes back over his shoulder at his lover, who was pretty much fired up himself. He moved behind Joerg and began soaping and washing him intimately, heedless of the water splashing from the bowl on the board floor. He worked his fingers into Joerg’s tight hole and then carried him to bed, sitting the small man on his erection and letting him work it inside him, making sweet little gasps as he did. Joerg put a small foot on each of Ruprecht’s knees, braced himself about his lover’s neck and vigorously fucked himself as Ruprecht reached round to masturbate his flapping cock. Joerg shot across the room in several copious spurts as he erected and rapidly climaxed. Afterwards they lay together and kissed a while. ‘That was good, little one. You’re very excited aren’t you? Is it the scent of discovery making you horny?’ ‘Mmm … probably. There’s also the way you’ve been looking at me all day. I can barely believe that a man like you is so hot for someone like me.’ Ruprecht clasped the little man hard, the way he knew he liked it, surrounding him with his much larger frame. ‘You funny little fellow. Have you any idea how slim and sexy you are? Your gorgeous little butt … the way it opens to me despite my size, and what my size does to your opening. Then there’s how much you want me in you. What’s there not to be obsessed about?’ A kiss was the only answer to that, and not long afterwards they slid into a satisfied sleep, waking together in the early morning. They encountered raised eyebrows over the inn’s breakfast table. Felix felt obliged to observe ‘We could hear you going at it right through the wall last night. It sounded like you two were having great fun. We were too knackered. Today’s big question. Can we go down into the hole first?’ ‘We’re smaller and more agile,’ Gilles asserted. ‘It’ll be safer.’ Joerg shrugged. ‘I think I defeat you in the smallness department, though maybe you win on agility. What do you think Rupe?’ ‘It obviously wouldn’t be me. But there are issues about making the entry pit safe. It was unstable yesterday, and I’d be happier if it was better excavated and shored up before we got going. But I’m just as desperate as the rest of us to know what’s down there, so maybe a cautious initial exploration by our two sharp-eyed young heroes might be acceptable, as long as they promise not to be adventurous.’ Two pious faces greeted that caution, so it was agreed that the boys should descend into the open pit and take the first look at what might be there. Gilles and Felix were equipped at the mouth of the uncovered shaft with miners’ helmets with oil lamps attached. It appeared that Joerg had long had them amongst his digging stores in case the need for underground exploration ever arose. The boys were also roped to body harnesses as they gingerly descended the ladder that had been placed against the side of the pit. Workmen were setting up an A-frame with pulleys in case anything bulky below might need lifting. There was a small fall of earth into the pit as the boys descended, but the shaft otherwise seemed stable now. Larger lamps were lowered down after them, and when given permission they began scouting what was to be seen within, taking the lamps with them. After ten endless minutes, Felix re-emerged into the circle of light from above. ‘What can you see?’ Joerg called down anxiously. ‘There’s a big square room below the dome, though we made a mess of one side of it when we broke in. There’s all sorts of stuff down here we can’t make any sense of: crumpled-up and rusty metal boxes and other alienware containers; lots of mixed-up debris, just like someone trashed the place.’ ‘Any sign of burning?’ ‘No, none. But there is a door on the side of the room towards the hill. Gillot says we’re not to go through it until you say yes.’ ‘Not yet. Is it safe for others to come down?’ ‘I think so. The roof and walls look pretty thick and sound, apart from here, where the hatch fell in.’ Joerg gave his orders, and three of the hired labourers lowered timbers to shore up and consolidate the sides of the shaft. Once they were secure, Ruprecht and Joerg descended into the subterranean space. Ruprecht found the cellar well-lit now, with the two boys, free of their harness, sorting through the floor debris. Joerg first sketched a plan of the room and then had containers lowered to take up what was being found below. Ruprecht picked up one of the alienware boxes, which seemed intact. ‘They aren’t for storage,’ he commented. ‘They’re too thin and there’s no obvious lid.’ ‘We’ll analyse them later. There are characters painted on these walls. I need to sketch them. They’re not all that damaged. Take a look at the inner door for me.’ Ruprecht turned to look at the portal. A metal door was still blocking it, though it was badly corroded and the remains could probably be pushed out of the way without too much trouble. The light of the lamp he held up to the gaps in the door revealed nothing of the dark spaces beyond. Eventually, Joerg was ready. He had two workmen dislodge the remains of the door from its still surviving hinges and haul it out of the cellar. Beyond it, lamplight revealed a short passage and a further door, in a much sounder condition and firmly closed. ‘It’s drier in here,’ Ruprecht remarked. ‘The cellar had a lot of water penetration around the broken hatch. Here the walls aren’t even discoloured. Do we break through the second door?’ ‘There’s nothing to discover in the passage here, which is entirely empty.’ ‘Whoa!’ Ruprecht warned. ‘Not entirely. Look! The concretet floor has deep dust at the edges and what looks like footprints going in and out.’ ‘You’re right, Rupe!’ Joerg agreed. ‘I need to try and get a photographic plate of the ridges in the dust. Let me angle the lamp. Hah! Barefoot prints. What do you know? A woman or young male from their size, I’d guess.’ ‘The same foot, or more than one?’ ‘Looks like all the same print.’ After a long delay, the photographic plates were taken and they approached the door, which would not give to being pushed or pulled. So the workmen took crowbars and with a groaning creak pulled it outward on its hinges. A long rectangular chamber was within. It was sound, though the air was initially fetid. ‘It’s been effectively s-s-sealed against the centuries,’ Joerg hissed with excitement. ‘This could be good.’ Within was the metal frames of two sets of bunk beds, metal cupboards and much cluttered debris on the floor, including old cans and utensils. ‘Human occupation, but no human remains,’ Joerg concluded. ‘What’s that daubed on the wall? Jesus the Seneschal! It’s Francien!’ On the far wall was a text, apparently marked in charcoal. It read: 2155-COL.5. JANVIER. MARCEL. IF YOU FIND THIS I ESCAPED. STAYED HERE FOUR WEEKS. NO SURVIVORS IN PREFECTURE. NO POWER. NO COMM. MAMAN AND GIRLS UNABLE TO FOLLOW : HERD DRIVEN SOUTH NOVEMBRE. HUNTING BEASTS WEST OF HERE. LAURENT & ARMAND DIDN’T MAKE IT. GOING AFTER MAMAN. NOT SO COLD NOW. FOUND A GUN BUT NOT MUCH ELSE. J-C.
  2. Mike Arram

    Chapter 14

    It took a week to excavate as much of the riverside site as they could gain access to with the manpower they could hire from the village. Fortunately it was the quiet time for local farming, and there were plenty of hands available. They were limited to the meadow where they had made their first find. The other closes were within the bishop’s estate and his local agent couldn’t get a decision from Chasancene in time. ‘Even so,’ Joerg admitted, ‘the finds we have are amazing, so I’m not going to complain.’ Over two hundred skeletons had been uncovered, and now formed a complex lattice of white bone across the exposed dark soil. The dig was attracting many visitors from Chasancene and other local towns, and Champs Dolent was benefitting from the trade they brought. Gilles and Felix were picking up gratuities as designated site guides to the masses, Felix taking particular delight in actually earning money for the first time in his life. The pair were a comic double act, which possibly accounted for the size of their tips. Not one of their amused middle-class audience had any idea that they were being entertained by a sovereign Alleman prince in a workman’s boots, waistcoat and kerchief. For his part, Joerg was happy at their success because, as he said, the more local interest their dig got, the more likely they would be to gain wider access to the site on their next digging campaign. Also, the local papers were intrigued by the idea of investigative excavation and this spread the news of his scientific breakthrough. ‘Imagine, Rupe, whole university departments dedicated to IE! Professors and students investigating our world’s history and prehistory through its material remains. Then there’s the question of what our world looked like before humans arrived in it. IE can answer it!’ Ruprecht smiled and cuddled his lover. ‘It’s a grand vision, little sweetheart. Maybe you should work on the name though. “Investigative Excavation” is a bit awkward.’ The tenant of the field in question had been delighted to add to his profits by renting them a small barn in which they could lay out their finds and the occasional lifted skeleton on trestle tables. On the last day, while a photographer he had hired was at work recording the exposed site and its corpses in a series of plates, Joerg gave his provisional conclusions to his core team of Ruprecht, Erwin, the boys and their tutor, Meister Andrecht, who had been persuaded to take up a shovel along with them and had quite got into the project. ‘To date, my friends, we have unearthed 212 complete and sixteen partial skeletons. From examination of the state of teeth, skull development and pelvis every one of them was a well-nourished and apparently healthy male of varying stages of life, from early manhood to old age. Their end was not natural. All had been killed, most by having their necks broken but some their skulls crushed. The cause of death of a few of them is less obvious, but we should not doubt they were all massacred in a single act by a powerful enemy, whoever it was. They were not killed in battle but were murdered; there is no obvious sign of resistance or weapons on any of them, though their armaments may have been taken from them after death of course. ‘Some of the remains – those closer to the hill – show evidence that the bodies were partly consumed by wildlife. We can tell this from the teeth marks on bones and the disarticulation of the skeletons. A few limbs were apparently chewed off and carried away and body parts scattered. But the great majority of the skeletons are intact, which tells me that the bodies were left to rot in such numbers that local predators had a limited time to come out of the hills and woods and feed on them. They were spoiled for choice before their choice was spoiled. I think the massacre was carried out in the heat of a long-ago summer.’ Gilles put up his hand. ‘If the bodies were just dumped here as they were, doctor, can you tell us from their remains anything about what sort of people they might have been?’ ‘That’s going to take time, Gillot. But there are finds of objects that look like they might have been in their pockets or wallets when their owners were killed. These were not primitives like the early humans found in the bog at Blauwhaven, and it seems to me that they must have been people who entered our world in the Landing, only to meet a violent end a few years later. Some of the finds we’ve made may well have come from their original world, the one the medallion calls the European Union.’ To Ruprecht’s surprise the next question, or rather observation, came from Willem Andrecht. ‘European Union,’ he mused. ‘Doesn’t its initials make EU, and isn’t that the name the Evangelicals give the Celestial City from which God exiled humanity? Do you think that’s a coincidence?’ ‘Er … I hadn’t thought of that,’ Joerg responded. Ruprecht took up the point. ‘It might not be coincidence, though pinpointing their source for the belief may not be easy. I would caution you all about spreading that idea around however. It would turn this site into a place of pilgrimage rather than scientific investigation and lead to all sorts of unwelcome questions and constraints, especially as these fields are owned by the Church.’ ‘Now that’s a thought too,’ Felix chipped in. ‘This town and the land around it belong to the Church. Could it be because no one wanted it after what happened? Like as if it was haunted, so giving it to the Church exorcised the spirits of those poor people murdered here?’ Joerg looked impressed. ‘Excellent point, Kreech! I’ll add that to my report. We’re wrapping up here today and going home to Blauwhaven, but we’ll be back fairly soon. Somewhere near here must be the Francien capital from where these people came. We must find it. There’s no sign of any ancient structures on the hill around the manor house, where I confess I had hopes of finding its site.’ Ruprecht returned to a subject that had long puzzled him. ‘What more can you tell us of this smooth shiny substance from which these ancient people made objects? There was a lot of it among the dead. It’s not native to this world. Did they bring it with them from their home?’ Joerg picked up a button from the table. It had been washed and was now quite pristine. It looked like any normal metal, wooden or leather button of Terre Nouvelle, with two holes to stitch it to a garment, except of course that it was manufactured from the strange extra-terrestrial substance. ‘If you take a look at them you’ll see slight ridges from being cast in a mould, just as we do with soft metals, but it is not of course metal. It’s a highly versatile and tough substance unknown to science on this world. It may be that one of our university natural science departments will have ideas about it. We should ask around. For now I’ll call it “alienware”. ‘While on the subject of these buttons, take a look at this sketch I made of Skeleton 44, a young fellow. He was flat on his back and undisturbed from the moment he fell dead. His clothes and flesh decayed away but the buttons on his garments fell in a pattern as they did. Judging by the two different type of fastenings that fell from them, he wore a military style tunic and undershirt. I’ve found markings on both types. The tunic buttons were in fact alienware which had been thinly coated in metal, an alloy of some sort which is barely corroded. There were letters stamped on it. They make up words which have to be Francien: FORCE SÛR. T. NOUV.’ ‘Sounds like he was military,’ commented Ruprecht, ‘not that it helped him.’ Gilles asserted his special qualification at this point. ‘SÛR. must be short for SÛRETÉ,’ he pronounced. ‘Indeed,’ Joerg agreed, ‘and I think we can all work out T. NOUV.’ ‘Terre Nouvelle Security Force,’ Ruprecht translated into Alleman. ‘The man was a colonial policeman. Poor fellow. He met a situation beyond his capacity. But I can’t see he had a gun or any weapon to defend himself.’ Joerg picked up some other alienware objects. ‘There were several of these rectangular cards on or near the bodies. They are embossed with letters and seem once to have carried designs and images, but the acid in the soil has effaced whatever they were, apart from some strange metal threads embedded in the surface. With some work we might be able to make something of the letters and numbers, but they appear to have been chosen randomly. ‘And now I suppose we need to wrap up. The excavation has to be backfilled for Monsieur Leblanc, so he can put the field back to its proper use next year. But I for one am very pleased with what we’ve discovered. I think we can be confident that somewhere near Champs Dolent is the lost Francien city. We just need to expand our search, though that will of course be for a later occasion.’ *** It was however quite some while before Joerg was allowed to exert himself once more in excavations. Their return to Blauwhaven coincided with the escalation of the War of Succession in Ardhesse after what had amounted to a Holy Week truce. Following the holy season, the Regent’s forces launched an aggressive campaign across the river Fresch into the west of the kingdom. For some weeks it looked like the royalists would be routed and there were even reports of the death of King Kristijan. But in the event the Regent’s army allowed itself to get bogged down in several sieges, leaving the king’s army still in the field. Throughout the early summer Kristijan’s raiding columns disrupted his uncle’s communications, forcing his withdrawal back to the river. In the confusion the young king was offered a chance to corner a substantial fraction of the Regent’s army, and in what the papers called a brilliant exercise of battlefield generalship he destroyed an enemy force of over 40,000, following up by finally seizing the key port of Mortenshaven and throwing his main army across the Fresch into Eastern Ardhesse. This would not have been so disruptive to the wider world of Terre Nouvelle were it not for the reaction in the Empire, which had made its preference for the Regent quite clear. The young Emperor François XII chose that moment to declare himself of age and retire his mother, the Empress Regent, taking personal control of Imperial policy. The Emperor promptly mobilised his army and issued an ultimatum to Westrecht to withdraw support for Kristijan or face occupation. Since Westrecht was a member of the Allemanic alliance it appealed in turn to its fellow states, and the North and the East Kingdoms both responded with their own warnings to the Empire to back away from any action in support of Duke Horst. On the morning of midsummer day in the year 889, Ruprecht and Joerg were walking the promenade in Blauwhaven, greeting parishioners and tenants as they went. The fishing fleet was still in port, which was unusual unless a storm was in the offing. After an early lunch Ruprecht suggested they walk out to the fort to have a chat to Lieutenant von Altstadt, who was due to tutor Gilles and Felix in fencing that afternoon. They took their time, and it was nearly an hour before they came to the seaward end of the harbour mole and the fort’s drawbridge. They were surprised to find it drawn up and the cannon run out of the embrasures. Ruprecht called across to a non-commissioned officer on the gatehouse as to what was going on, and he called over the watch officer. A shouted conversation established that the Bernician High Command had ordered coastal fortifications to go into a state of alert. When he asked why Ruprecht was invited to look out into the bay, where he was astonished to see the massed Imperial East Seas Fleet heading south towards Ardhesse. A little alarmed, the two hurried back to town and noticed how many people were staring out to sea from the upper windows. When they had recovered their mounts and ridden up to the church heights they found a crowd gathered, many with telescopes. Out to the shining horizon there were now two great battle fleets covering the sea, not one, both sailing south. Closer to shore was a double line of a score of ironclad battleships moving slowly, attended by cruisers and destroyers. Between the battleships two dozen military transports were being convoyed, doubtless carrying an army to support the Regent of Ardhesse against his nephew. The hulls of the fleet were painted black and the red and blue ensigns of the Empire were at the stern of each vessel. Further out but within cannon rage was a second fleet, even larger, the ships painted grey. ‘That’s Dreiholmtz’s Southern Seas Fleet, minheeren,’ a nearby mariner commented, ‘thirty battleships and heavy cruisers. It’s a rare sight. Their high admiral seems to mean business too. He must have orders to stop the Imperial army reaching Ardhesse. Look! His light cruiser vanguard is manoeuvring ahead to anchor in line to block the Imperials.’ He peered through his telescope. ‘Watch the signals, minheeren. There, the Imperial Grand Admiral has ordered stop all engines.’ The two fleets indeed slowly came to a halt, a mass of masts and tall smokestacks between the shore and the horizon. For a while nothing happened, then two steam launches put out from the imperial flagship to head for its opposite number in the Allemanic fleet. ‘Very wise,’ commented the mariner. ‘The Imperials are in a bad position, inshore and encumbered by transports. Fighting their way through the Easterners would be suicide.’ As the afternoon drew on nothing much further occurred, but Ruprecht was reluctant to leave his viewpoint, where the crowd from the town had grown considerably. Joerg for his part went off to his study and asked that he be informed if anything dramatic happened. It was as the sun was going down behind them and the navigation lights were appearing on the mass of shipping below that signal lamps began blinking from bridges, black smoke emerged from the stacks and the Imperial fleet began a slow turn back towards the north, with the Royal Navy of Dreiholmtz shadowing it. By nightfall the two great fleets had disappeared into the gloom. *** That evening, in his bed in the rectory, Joerg was laid out naked on his back in front of Ruprecht, who was deeply relishing this long-awaited moment. Joerg’s legs were drawn back and Ruprecht’s glans had just punched through the little man’s red opening after a lot of lube and preliminary work. Ruprecht savoured the tight grip of the muscle behind the corona of his cock. Joerg pushed himself up on his elbows to look between them to see and feel the evidence of his first penetration. ‘I’m inside you little one, and you are so tight. Does it hurt?’ ‘No. I just feel full. Are you really going to get all that in me?’ ‘I’m going to do my best. It’s our big day. This is so good.’ They smiled and kissed, joined physically now. For a while they embraced and as Joerg’s anus relaxed so Ruprecht steadily and slowly pressed in. Whenever he felt as though he might lose his erection, flexing his length and Joerg’s sensuous squirming on his impaling tool brought him back. After a while, the little man’s eyes widened. ‘Uh!’ he grunted. ‘That’s … new. I’m full but … you’re going deeper. That feels … oh!’ His eyes fluttered and he faded out. Ruprecht couldn’t have withdrawn if he wanted, but it wasn’t long before Joerg was back. ‘Are you alright?’ ‘Mmm … yes, it was just so overwhelming. Look at my dick, it’s all wet. You must keep going Rupe, I want all of you inside me.’ Eventually his entire length was fully embedded in the plucky little man. He pressed the walls of Joerg’s lower belly just to discover if he could feel his cock within him, for it seemed he had passed out of the man’s rectum and worked up into his lower gut. Taking his time he slowly withdrew but then pushed back to a gasp from Joerg, clinging hard to him now. Then he was fucking, and as he came he raised Joerg off the bed to hold him standing as he climaxed. He was gripped hard around the neck as the little man hung on him, feeling every pulse hard inside him. Then he looked up, his eyes wet, though Ruprecht was uncertain whether it was through emotion or the unavoidable pain of intercourse. ‘Love you, Rupe,’ he gasped. Ruprecht lifted Joerg slowly off his length, then held and kissed him as his still swollen penis dropped heavily out of the little man and swung free. ‘This is love then? I wasn’t sure. It’s new to me.’ ‘I’m not demanding you love me back.’ ‘No need, little doctor mine. I think I do anyway.’ Joerg smiled dreamily. ‘Good, then that’s settled. Now I’m happy. I have the dashing and caring prince I always wanted.’ Ruprecht laid him on the bed and held him tight. ‘So a new sort of life begins. You know I’m not the sort of man to hide what I do from the world. Are you as strong? The Rector of Blauwhaven won’t be able to escape criticism for being a queer.’ Joerg kissed Ruprecht’s nearest nipple and ran his fingers through his chest hair. ‘I’d thought of that. I’m planning to resign well before it becomes obvious to my parishioners, and after that I’ll move up to the schloss as the prince’s personal physician and – of course – my noble lover’s plaything. My vocation is not the burning sort to lead people in the way of the Seneschal. I have two assistants who do that and they deserve the revenues of the rectory rather more than I do, believe me.’ ‘I shall ponder your recommendation for your replacement. After today, it might even be a post of danger.’ ‘What? Oh, you mean the warships. But they sailed away.’ Ruprecht shrugged. ‘I had a seminar on the subject from the Kreech and Gillot. They were so pissed that between the schoolroom and shagging by their pool they missed the most dramatic event in Blauwhaven’s recent history. They just caught the lights of the fleets disappearing into the dusk. But they told me they believe what we glimpsed was just the Emperor’s first attempt to frustrate King Kristijan’s fight for his throne. They think there’s a lot more to come, and that the Empire and the Allemanic Alliance are on a collision course.’ ‘Surely the emperor would have to fight his way through Westrecht and the Montenards to get at Kristijan and save Duke Horst. By the time he managed that it would be too late in any case.’ Ruprecht shook his head. ‘You forget the anger of those two royal boys, and how it was I came to meet the delightful Kristijan of Ardhesse. You think reason applies to either of them? Kristijan may be beautiful and – it appears – brilliant, but he is also less than sane. I’ve not had the pleasure of the company of Emperor François XII, but from what little I learned of his relationship with the boy king of Ardhesse, he was seduced, ridiculed and scarred in the face by Kristijan. I rather think the emperor would climb over ramparts of bodies and sack a hundred cities to destroy the enemy who scorned and injured him. They’re abused and violent children with real armies and fleets for their murderous toys.’ Joerg pushed himself up on his elbows, looking pensive. ‘That’s grim. It sounds like we’ll be back to the state of the world in our grandparents’ days, when Kristijan II and François X slugged it out across the Mainland and all four kingdoms were at war with each other and the Empire. Awful. The Allemanic Alliance was supposed to stop that.’ ‘It’ll be worse. The world has changed since the old days: now we have steam warships, railways, repeating rifles and breech-loading artillery. Our grandparents murdered each other with muskets and muzzle-loaders. Our modern warfare will be a different order of mayhem.’ *** Two days later it was Gilles’s sixteenth birthday, a milestone for any Allemanic youth, not least because it was the age of military conscription in most Allemanic states, though not Bernicia. It was also the legal age for marriage and Ruprecht had to break to the boy the news that he was already being sought as a husband by the Montaigues of Vieldomaine, which had been expressed that week in a formal letter to Ruprecht from the marquis. ‘It really is your decision, Gillot, but I am legally obliged to inform you of the offer which is, to be fair, a good one. You’d undoubtedly end up with a large estate in the duchy, and there is even a possibility that you might marry the eldest daughter and so become Monsieur le Marquis! That would mean that you would outrank me and be only two steps below the Kreech in the way the world measures status.’ The boy’s mouth hung open as this was being explained to him. Finally he rallied. ‘Rupe … it’s ridiculous! I love Felix. If I was to marry anyone, it would be my Kreech. Yes, I know the world doesn’t recognise that sort of thing, but I want no one else in my bed.’ ‘I understand, Gillot. I knew you’d say that and I love you for it. But the offer has been made and it has to be dealt with, nor will it be the last time it happens. As heir to Blauwhaven, you have prospects and standing in the world.’ ‘What about Kreech? He’s sixteen next week. Is he going to have to marry?’ ‘Offers have been made, but at his level it will be his Grossmutta who handles that sort of thing as Princess Regent. You’ll need to talk it through with him. You are more in control of your destiny than he is. But, I do have to correct you about the world not recognising what you and Felix have. It’s true of the Francien society you grew up in, but Allemans have a history of what we call Verschworengeliebheit. In past centuries, our warriors have foresworn women for the companionship of another male. The Church doesn’t recognise the sworn bond, but noble Alleman society still does. Grossmutta has already asked me if you two want to make the pledge as sworn lovers. It can be done publicly and formally, and if you two decide to go ahead with it there will be no more talk of marriage to a woman. Sixteen is the earliest age it can be done, though some would say that’s too early. You still have a lot of growing to do, and Schwuleneheit is for keeps. Also, it could make later life difficult for you both. It’ll be a way for his political enemies to belittle Felix. As for you, Gillot, you’ll be characterised as the prince’s pretty Francien bumboy.’ Gilles frowned at this, then gave his guardian a sharp look. ‘What about you, Rupe? We know the little doctor and you are close. Would you two do the Schwuleneheit thing?’ ‘Not the same for me, little one. I never found a Kreech to love and cherish. My history is not yours.’ ‘So? That doesn’t mean you can’t find a Kreech, and to me and Felix it looks like you have. Dr Joerg adores you, anyone can see that; also we know you two do the sexy thing quite a bit. What’s the problem?’ Ruprecht was getting uncomfortable under the questioning of his astute foster child, a young man who knew him by now all too well. He opened his arms, and the boy readily came to him, snuggling into his lap to be hugged closely and kissed, as he liked. ‘I love you Gillot, you know that. So when I say I’m not going to answer you, it’s not because I’m offended at your question. I’m more than ten years older than you, and those ten years make a hell of a difference. Joerg is wonderful, a much purer soul than me, and that’s not just because he’s a priest. It’s who he is.’ ‘You mean to say you don’t think you’re worthy of him, but Rupe …!’ Ruprecht covered Gilles’s mouth with his hand. ‘Shhh, little one. No more questions. I can’t talk about this with you. Not now. Maybe one day, but not now.’ *** That night the schloss of Blauwhaven was illuminated for the heir’s sixteenth birthday and the hall was packed for a civic dinner, at which a blushing Gilles was obliged to make a small speech and offer a toast, to which the rector, mayor, and Bernician garrison commander replied. There was a buffalo roast for the tenants and whole barrels of wine broached. Ruprecht spared no expense with the feast, and Gilles, Felix, and all their peers from the local gentry went around with garlands in their hair and exercised themselves in the traditional Allemanic noble pursuits of wrestling, shooting at targets and racing horses around a torchlit circuit. After midnight, fireworks burst over the hill and the town. As the guests departed in the early hours, Gilles and Felix led Ruprecht and Joerg down to the pool. The stars were bright above them but the midsummer night was warm. The naked boys plunged into the waters, their bodies visible from the torches still burning up at the house, and they played and cavorted for a while, then went to the grassy bank, joined and started moving together in the darkness, gasps and whispered endearments audible between them. ‘Are they …?’ Joerg asked Ruprecht as they sat together on the lawn. ‘Yes, they’re fucking and they want us to see that they’re doing it. It’s special for them. It makes their physical love more real. They’d be more than happy if we did it too. But don’t worry, I know you’d not like it. I won’t ask you.’ ‘We can kiss. I’d like that.’ Each pair of lovers occupied themselves in different ways for the next half hour, as the Three Sisters rose in the southern sky. Then the naked boys came over, and sat close to the elder pair. Felix led the way. ‘Rupe, I know I’m not sixteen till next week, but I’ve asked Gillot to be my Verschworengeliebte. He’s said yes. We want it in the palace gazette, and we want to be joined here after my own birthday celebration at Ostberg. How do we do a Schwulene?’ ‘There’s a ceremony which has to be witnessed, and a legal deed to be sealed. As Lehensherr of Blauwhaven, I can perform the ceremony. For you two there won’t be much difference afterwards. You live as a couple already, though Gilles will find that his position has changed. He’ll be the ersatz princess of Ostberg at state occasions, and you’ll have to assign him some of the reserved dower property for his support.’ ‘We thought so. What’s the ceremony?’ ‘It’s the usual Allemanic blood-drinking, though you have to decide who drinks whose. Felix is the prince, so maybe he ought to offer. One of you has to be Grunder, as they say, and it traditionally should be the one who customarily takes the lead in sex who offers the blood. You have to do it wearing a shift and usually nothing else, while the Grunderknabe wears a garland and sometimes more … er … feminine attire. Some Grunderen do the whole girlie thing, but something tells me that won’t be the case with you two. You might also remember that you make Gillot the seneschal of Ostberg by offering him your blood to drink.’ The two whispered together, and Felix eventually said ‘Gillot says he’ll be Grunderknabe as that would be better for my position as Prince. He’ll look good in flowers and little else, but neither of us really is Grunder, we just take turns. So is it agreed?’ ‘Yes, Kreech, and we love you for what you’re doing.’ Joerg chipped in ‘And we love you even more for your courage. You humble us.’ *** There was no problem from the direction of the Princess Regent, so on his birthday the Verschworengeliebheit of the prince of Ostberg with the newly-created Gilles, Ritter von Blauwhaven, was formally announced to the Bernician Confederacy and the people of Ostberg. It was not an unprecedented event, for people still remembered Prince Felix IX had been sworn lover to his seneschal, a position which would duly pass to Gilles when he reached full age. There would of course be no public celebration of such a bond, as there would have been for a marriage, but in general the event passed off without open scandal or criticism, for the young consumptive prince was and remained personally popular in his land. Felix did not however come out of his public avowal of his homosexuality unscathed. A formal letter arrived by the hand of the seneschal of Freiborg from his father, the Marshal-General von Aalst, repudiating him as his son in quite brutal terms. Felix’s mother as a consequence fled Hochrecht and her husband to take refuge with her own mother in Ostberg, escorted by Hans. There were therefore some mixed feelings in the house party in the Farcostan Palace a week after the birthday. The three younger Von Aalst brothers were delighted to be together once again. Hans hit it off very well with Joerg too. Perched alongside Gilles on a sofa, the Princess Regent was in a reflective mood as she sat amongst the young men. ‘It seems to me, my dears, that if a rift has opened up in our family, I’ve at least ended up on its sunny side.’ She took Gilles’s hand. ‘Not only that, but I’ve added one more fine boy to my family, and he’s a lot handsomer than any of my grandchildren by blood.’ Hans rolled his eyes. ‘It’s all relative, Grossmutta. Frankly, I think Rupe and I at least manage to be dashing; for myself I might even go so far as to claim to be interesting.’ Ruprecht nodded. ‘I think the breakdown of our parents’ marriage was inevitable. The old man was always difficult and unhappy. No wonder we all turned out strange, each in our own way. Only the twins went along with his compulsion to treat us like other ranks. Heinrich hasn’t talked to him for years. He’s more or less exiled himself to Dreiholmtz. He’ll only return when papa dies and he inherits. I’m glad mutta is here with us. She was only ever happy away from Freiborg. How do you feel about it, Kreech?’ ‘Me? I’m sorry about it all. It’s awful that I’ve been the cause of a family breach. It takes a lot of the happiness away, but then I never expected papa to turn up at Blauwhaven for my Schwulene.’ ‘Which makes it all the more important that the rest of us are there for you.’ ‘You’ll come, Grossmutta?’ ‘I most certainly will. Not only that, but the Margrave of Schwarzwald and his wife have said they will too. The Protector sends his regrets but wishes you both the very best. It’s times like this that you find out who’re your true friends.’
  3. Mike Arram

    Chapter 1

    Hi C'guy. This one's freestanding, so you don't need to know the Henry Universe to be at home here. It's a guessing game, as you've worked out, and if you like guessing games and fantasy history, you'll feel at home here. Enjoy. Henry's missed you. You might check out AD where there's a new one set in his early life as a broadcaster, it's called Alike in Dignity, about the Eurovision Song Contest of 2004. Mind you, that might put some people off of itself.
  4. Mike Arram

    Chapter 13

    Nothing much happened on the Day of the Dead, when all the city’s houses were draped in black. All inns and business premises were closed as families went in mid-afternoon to the city’s graveyards to light candles on their relatives’ graves and join the many solemn torchlit processions which followed the Cross of the Seneschal through the streets to the darkened cathedral. It was a day of fasting. Ruprecht escaped the dark and silent ducal château with Felix at sunset, both bundled up in the black hooded cloaks customarily worn on this day. Even the guards were wearing them. The streets of the city below were empty apart from the occasional hooded figure flitting through the shadows. Black Friday was as usual a dismal and eerie occasion. When they reached the Auberge aux Falaises they found it empty, for the Parmentiers would be with the rest of the natives, processing between the city graveyards, the churches and the cathedral. ‘I’m glad we’re not at Freiborg,’ Felix commented as they stood waiting. ‘I’ve always hated this day. The watch amongst the graves in the family vault was awful, especially as all you could do was spend it contemplating the slot awaiting your own coffin.’ ‘It’s not for children, that’s for sure. But the day has a certain solemn dignity, and of course it is very much about families. I’ve always thought the gloom was more than made up for by the evening banquet, and then there’s the Feast of the First Mass on Sunday, all the more joyous an occasion for the misery that preceded it, and of course there will be the fireworks. Chasancene puts on quite a show, with stars bursting over the castle on Sunday night. It’s a glorious sight. Or it was the last time I was here for it.’ ‘Gillot said that too. Oh, Rupe! I do so miss him. I feel like a girl; it’s embarrassing. Sometimes I just want to cry.’ He giggled. ‘Of course mostly I want to wank. Girls can’t do that.’ ‘They do something similar, but let’s not go there. I’ll knock on the door. Joerg will be at the cathedral of course, but maybe someone’s left indoors who’ll hear.’ Rapping on the solid inn door produced no result, and they had an impatient half hour before people began filtering back from the cathedral, carrying the lit purple candles blessed by the bishop which they would use to begin the illumination of their houses as soon as they were within doors. The Parmentiers arrived with Gilles’s father carrying their tall candle, Joerg and Erwin walking with the family. Ruprecht and Felix silently followed them indoors and waited while the flame was applied to other candles about the inn by Gilles and Cecile. Before long the whole place was blazing with light, as indeed now was every other house in the city, for the fast was over and the day’s dark clothing was put off. Gilles beamed as he introduced his parents to Felix. They bowed low to the young prince, and Madame expressed volubly their delight that he was under their roof for the breaking of the fast. ‘Not just that, Madame Parmentier,’ Felix said with a broad smile, ‘but I hope to share your table. Gillot has told me so much about the skills of his father in the kitchen. My stomach is rumbling at the smells of the slow roast my nose can detect coming from that direction.’ ‘Your Serene Highness’s Francien is so excellent that I can barely detect a trace of accent,’ the lady of the house confessed. ‘This is Gillot’s little sister.’ Felix bent down to kiss the blushing girl, who took his hand and led him to the back parlour where a table was already laid with fine crockery and shining cutlery. Monsieur Parmentier brought in fresh-baked bread, its wonderful aroma filling the room. He asked Joerg to pronounce a blessing and break the bread, and all sat to enjoy what Felix later confessed was the finest meal he could every remember enjoying on Black Friday. After the meal was over Cecile was sent off to bed and the men and two youths sat over jugs of the red wine of the country. Monsieur Parmentier did not initially have much to say for himself, other than observing how much taller his son had grown in his time ‘down south’. ‘Messieurs,’ he said, ‘the clothing he left behind just doesn’t fit him, and I’m sure we’re much obliged to Monsieur le Comte for providing for him now the lad’s shot up the way he has. He has three centimetres on me!’ ‘Yeah, but my Schwang’s sprouted more than three centimetres further than Gillot’s, growing boy or not,’ Felix whispered to his brother in Alleman. The conversation shifted to the next week’s proposed investigation of local sites for excavation. Joerg had compiled a list of the historic fortified sites in the duchy which might be candidates for the ancient lost centre of the Francien colonial zone, and Erwin had hired the necessary carriages and bought tools for any potential excavation. Gilles’s father followed the discussion with some interest. And much to Ruprecht’s surprise eventually chipped in, as he removed his pipe from his mouth. ‘Young Gillot’s been telling me something about what you gentlemen have been doing. I was particularly taken with his story about the bog people of Blauwhaven. It brought to my mind the stories the old folks out at Champs Dolent tell. We went out to my wife’s little property there after we fled the city, you may remember. ‘Now, it just so happens that down by the River Rougiet at Champs Dolent is a wide meadow they call “Les Préaux du Sang”. The story is that there was a battle there in olden times, in the days of the Noble Wars, as they say, where thousands were slaughtered by one of the dukes. They buried the dead where they fell, and every now and again the river scours out the bank and bones are exposed, whole skeletons sometimes.’ ‘Really?’ Joerg responded. ‘Do weapons and armour turn up?’ ‘Not that anyone’s said,’ the innkeeper replied, ‘but I’ve seen skulls piled up in the church cellar they say came from the field.’ ‘That’s a pity, because the metalwork would help date the burials.’ ‘How is that, doctor?’ the man asked. ‘You may have observed, Monsieur Parmentier, that different ages adopt different styles of weaponry and dress.’ ‘Indeed so, your reverence. I’ve observed that very thing in Cecile’s picture books. So the style of armour and swords and such would help you fix a date to the old battle.’ ‘Exactly, monsieur. I’m interested in what you say. Does anything come to your mind about a fifth-century battle out at Champs Dolent, Rupe?’ Ruprecht tapped the ash from his cigarette. ‘Not really. Champs Dolent is well outside the city liberties of Chasancene. It was a major episcopal estate in the time of the Noble Wars. I think the ruins of the old manor house of the bishop of Chasancene are still to be seen above the town. The noble houses generally kept clear of Church land when they campaigned. On the other hand, the same did not apply to the days of the Patriarchal Wars of the third century, when the bishops were in the front line of the fighting. That might be your explanation.’ ‘Monsieur Parmentier,’ Joerg continued, ‘that’s all very useful. I’ll add Champs Dolent to my list.’ The man beamed, and returned his attention to his pipe. *** As midnight approached, Ruprecht tapped his brother on the shoulder. ‘Time to say your goodbyes, Kreech.’ ‘I don’t want to say my goodbye to Gillot,’ he objected. ‘Whatever you do get on with it, and don’t get caught.’ The prince gave a perky grin and disappeared, leaving Ruprecht and the doctor alone. Joerg looked hastily around and leaned in for a kiss. ‘It’s not just the boys who are feeling the separation, Rupe,’ he added. ‘I miss you, little one. How long has it been since we were in the same bed?’ ‘Too long, Rupe. I’m so missing what we do. It’s like the fire in a peat stack: invisible, smouldering, and ready to burst into flame. D’you know I never thought I’d ever be talking to any man like this.’ ‘It’s your little tail that enthrals me, my sweetheart. I want to put my tongue inside it, and then follow up with other parts of my anatomy. Are you willing?’ ‘Yes. There’s nothing you ask of me I wouldn’t do.’ ‘That’s all I need to know. The rest can wait.’ ‘How long will that boy be?’ ‘How long does oral sex take?’ ‘D’you think that’s what your brother’s doing?’ ‘I think if you went along to the public jakes you’d find him on his knees in front of the son of the house.’ ‘I wish you hadn’t said that. I try not to think of them doing it. It charges me up.’ Ruprecht shrugged. ‘I know for a fact that they’re just as fired up by what I do. They just don’t know I do it with you.’ Felix eventually reappeared. ‘Ready, Rupe?’ He gave a broad grin in the direction of Joerg. ‘Kissed goodbye to your little doctor?’ ‘What! How in blue blazes did you know, you little rat! I don’t believe Erwin spilled it.’ The boy flounced. ‘Oh come on, Rupe. Gillot and I were bound to notice. You’re happy! But you’re never happy. So it had to be you’ve found someone. And Dr Joerg is always looking at you whenever you’re together. We worked it out all on our own. We’re sensitive we are.’ ‘Come here, Kreech.’ The boy cautiously approached his big brother to be grabbed, kissed and hugged. As he let his brother go he said ‘Yes, you are. And I’ll never underestimate the pair of you again.’ *** Joerg was ushered up to the château early on Saturday. But instead of exploring its courtyards with Ruprecht and Monsieur Valmont, the archivist, he said he wanted first to examine his patient. ‘Is there a problem, Joerg?’ ‘Not that I know of, but my first duty is to the prince and you must have observed how long periods of stress can culminate in an attack. The constant public exposure he’s undergoing here in Chasancene might be considered stressful, even in such a remarkable young man. So I need to check his pulse, sound his chest and monitor his breathing. I feel safer when he’s with Gilles; the boy is very vigilant with Kreech’s moods and physical condition.’ ‘I believe he goes so far as to undertake internal examinations,’ Ruprecht observed drily. The doctor shot his lover a quirky look and disappeared without a word into the state apartments. He did not return for a while. When he did he was noncommittal, other than saying that the sooner Felix was away from the court and the city the happier he would be. They found Monsieur Valmont in the upper courtyard, where a fourth-century tower incorporated in a domestic range marked the earliest remains within the ducal residence. ‘You believe that this was the approximate site of the old chapel, Philippe?’ ‘There is a rough sketch of the old castle before it was torn down two centuries ago, and the chapel appeared to be round about here, about twenty or thirty metres to the south of the tower we’re looking at. But there’s nothing to see under the grass of the court, not even the marks of foundations.’ Joerg nodded, but remarked that at least it was not paved over. He therefore walked up and down the lawn scrutinising the ground. Every now and again he pulled out a small trowel and scraped at the soil. Ruprecht amused himself in the meantime watching the artificers setting up the tubes and frameworks for the next day’s pyrotechnics. One of the pits they had dug had exposed a stretch of dark brown soil and rock, to which Joerg gave particular attention. He picked up a dozen or so likely objects and pocketed them, before observing that there was indeed not much to see. The weather was not promising; it remained overcast and dull, and the view from the castle heights out over the Central Plains towards the Great River was misty and obscured. Following the abortive excavation they were invited into the archive, next to the treasury building in the lowest of the castle courts, just above the great gate which gave on to the Place des Armes. Ruprecht engaged the archivist about their list of sites. ‘Champs Dolent? I’d not heard about any battle fought near there, but the records of the episcopal estates are in the cathedral library, and you’d need to pursue your researches in their collections.’ ‘I don’t think we’ll have time, Philippe. We’re off tomorrow. But if anything turns up out at Champs Dolent I’ll know where to look to follow things through.’ ‘Where will you be exploring first?’ ‘The most promising site has to be Rochefort, above the Great River at Lire-sur-Fleuve, which all the books say is the oldest castle in Vieldomaine apart from the ducal fortress. There’re only ruins there now and the owner, the count of Lire, is an old friend of my father’s, so he doesn’t mind us taking spades to the place. He’s even offered the services of his estate workers.’ Joerg chipped in at this point, reluctant though he was to give his Francien an outing, and explained that if the site proved profitable they’d not be moving on to the others. After some more inconclusive discussion about their forthcoming expedition Ruprecht and Joerg said their farewells and headed out into the castle courtyard. It was busy, with a company of the guard marching up to the next court, several couriers taking their mounts to the stables and palace functionaries going about their business. ‘Have you time to go down to the inn, Rupe?’ the doctor tentatively asked. Ruprecht grinned at the light of hope in the little man’s eyes. ‘Love to. Perhaps we can go up to your room. You’ll have to keep the noise down though. I may have to gag you.’ The Auberge aux Falaises was quite busy and Ruprecht was unsurprised to see Gilles once again in a bar apron, serving in the taproom. The boy waved to his guardian, and came over asking if they wanted anything. ‘Haven’t your parents taken on any new staff since you left, Gillot?’ ‘There’s a potboy that works here now at nights, but they’re on their own at midday. So I like to help. Can I get you gentlemen anything?’ ‘No, we’re going up to Joerg’s room.’ ‘Oh … er … umm.’ It was Gilles’s turn to stammer, as his mind leapt to conclusions but, just in time to spare Joerg’s sensitivities, managed to stop his tongue vocalising them. Joerg predictably flamed red. Ruprecht gave an internal sigh and made a mental note to have an earnest talk with the doctor before they returned to Blauwhaven. This constant coyness was silly considering that the boys now knew exactly what they were up to and the constant dancing around Joerg’s modesty was putting Gilles on edge, even though he was a sexually very confident young man. As soon as the door closed behind them, Ruprecht had the little man in his arms. Joerg was getting very good at the kissing, and Ruprecht undressed him as they did it. He stripped himself and made Joerg mount the bed on all fours, his backside displayed. ‘Here’s something new, little one. You’ll like it, and it won’t distress you.’ He knelt so that he had the small swelling of the man’s buttocks in each hand, and pushed them apart. The crack was entirely hairless, and the wrinkled flesh of the anus exposed. It was quite as small a slit as he had feared. It would take quite a while to prepare Joerg for full intercourse, but it was time to begin, for they had both agreed they wished to try. He gave a swipe across the opening with his tongue. There was a sharp odour and more than a hint of the bitter grittiness which Ruprecht was expecting, but he soldiered on. He planted his mouth on Joerg’s opening and pressed in regardless with his tongue. Joerg wriggled and cooed, pushing his bum back on Ruprecht’s tongue. He teased, sucked and nibbled at Joerg’s hole with persistence. The little man’s excitement became very evident as Ruprecht took his stiffness in his hand, fondling and stroking it, pulling it back between Joerg’s legs to suckle it. Ruprecht managed to keep exciting Joerg for a good twenty minutes before the man finally lost control and spurted into his mouth. Ruprecht gathered him up and hugged his small body. Joerg always looked very contented when he did this, and on this occasion burrowed into his shoulder. ‘That was good. We’ve never done anything bottom-related before. Thank you. Do you want me …?’ ‘Not immediately, but I would like you to suck me as soon as you feel able.’ Joerg’s hand was in fact already searching for his erection, while Ruprecht’s finger was back massaging the little man’s crack, circling round the wet and slippery ring. He managed to press just inside and searched around the warm softness within while Joerg shifted and groaned. ‘Is that good?’ ‘Yes … but I think I know why Felix and Gilles get through so much lubricant.’ ‘I’ll buy our very own bottle when we get back to Blauwhaven. The factor might very well give the household a bulk discount.’ ‘Excellent. We’ll be encouraging local commercial activity and having a good time simultaneously. Everything a positive.’ Joerg gave a laughing chuckle. It took a while before Ruprecht realised what was new about it. It was completely carefree. *** Joerg’s happiness survived the disappointment of Rochefort. It was, as he said, a remarkable excavation in its own right, and the count of Lire was very happy with the remains of the walls and towers that the clearing of brushwood and topsoil revealed. The count was so enthused in fact that he was swearing he would reconstruct the old place in the way he fancied it would have looked at the time of the Noble Wars, though with water closets and hot water. ‘Unfortunately there was nothing much earlier than the third century,’ Joerg shrugged when the boys asked for the verdict. ‘Nothing much?’ Gilles asked. ‘There was that coarse brown ware in the footings of the stone fortifications, not unlike what I found at the bottom of the trench at Chasancene. It seems to be local pottery of the Middle Plains. I’ve also found it in the northern Montenard cantons; it seems to be characteristic of the early Francien Empire in this region, quite possibly as early as the second century. The third-century material’s much finer, a sign of the emergence of towns, workshops and trade networks I think.’ ‘So where now?’ Felix enquired. ‘The next on our list is the old bridge at Rivières, where the border of the Empire marches with that of Vieldomaine.’ ‘Why there?’ Gilles wanted to know. ‘I thought we were looking for a town?’ ‘Bridges are always important sites, Gillot. Before there was a bridge there was a ferry and fording site where cattle and horses could swim the Great River. It was one of the main routes south from Francien to Alleman lands in the old days.’ ‘There’s a town there now. How do we find anything when it’s all built over?’ ‘To be sure I’m not really that hopeful,’ Joerg admitted. ‘There’ll be no digging possible, but we can walk the banks, examine the bridgeheads and just see what turns up.’ ‘Yes minheer doctor,’ Erwin smiled down at the three of them as he passed, carrying tools back to the cart. ‘The good thing is that we’ll be sleeping in comfortable beds for a couple of days: those of us that use them for sleep that is.’ ‘Oy!’ Felix called after the seneschal. ‘You’re just jealous, Erwin.’ They put up in a commercial hotel near the station and it was a pleasant stay as it happened, though Rivières was not exactly a picturesque town. Industry was growing up on either side of the river, which was clogged with barges and steam tugs. The big new iron railway bridge was however impressive for those with a taste for modernity. The Empire had erected a massive new artillery fort along a low hill across from Vieldomaine, so as to command the Great River at this point. The Vieldomainois had not done likewise, but then the duchy was and always had been ruled by offshoots and cadets of the Imperial House, so there was no threat intended to the duchy’s sovereignty by the fortification of the bridge approach on the west side. The sixth-century stone bridge was intact, its massive piers still resisting the power of the flood waters from the Southern Alps. ‘It’s the latest of many,’ Joerg told them. ‘Before this one there were a succession of timber bridges going back I don’t know how far.’ He, Ruprecht and the boys were promenading along the embankment on the Vieldomainois side of the river. ‘Now look down there, boys. You can see in the mud the stumps of the ancient timber pilings of the first great pier from the right bank. It was probably left to act as a breakwater for the stone bridge.’ ‘How old are those timbers?’ Gilles asked, deeply impressed. ‘They’ll have been in use till the stone bridge was constructed by the Emperor François V on his first campaign into the Southlands. They could date centuries before that. They just rebuilt those old timber bridges whenever the river broke them down. Now then, who wants to get muddy down on the exposed foreshore? I have sacks I want to fill with whatever bits and pieces the river churns up.’ It said a lot for the two boys’ investment in the project that they cheerily took up the offer. As they surveyed the results, spread out on a sheet on Joerg’s bedroom table, it had to be said that they were not impressive. ‘Lots of pottery,’ Ruprecht observed. ‘Indeed,’ the doctor agreed. ‘And more interesting than you might think. The sketch-plan I made of the location of the finds puts the fourth- and fifth-century material just upriver of the timber bridge, and that matches the location of the ancient town church, itself upriver of the connecting road. That was where Old Rivières was to be found.’ ‘Does it help our project, Joerg?’ Ruprecht asked. ‘No, not really. Though it is interesting.’ ‘So we move on?’ ‘Tomorrow I suppose.’ Ruprecht determined that while they had the luxury of beds he was going to make his first serious attempt on the little doctor’s butt. He purloined the boys’ bottle of lubricant and knocked on Joerg’s door after they had retired. He was expected. Joerg was wrapped in just a towel, which Ruprecht promptly removed. He loved Joerg’s reaction to being stared at naked, the man shifted from small shapely foot to foot and always blushed, though he clearly got excited by Ruprecht’s open lust for him. He drew him over to the bed and threw off his own clothes. He lay facing Joerg and toying with the man’s penis till it stiffened and the threat of a hair-trigger reaction grew. Then he took his cheeks between his palms and kissed him softly, an activity that both men enjoyed. The feeling of Joerg’s small tongue searching around his mouth deeply excited Ruprecht, for reasons he could not immediately explain to himself. When the consequences of his excitement began to leak on to the bed, Ruprecht turned the little man on his belly and then sat back across Joerg’s calves, burrowing his face between the small buttocks and beginning a leisurely engagement with his anus. This time however after a few minutes he pushed a well-lubricated finger through the wet ring as Joerg gasped and writhed, the force and the sudden discomfort pushing him up the bed. ‘Is it painful, little one?’ Ruprecht asked. ‘N-n-no. Weird though to have something wriggling inside my bum. Am I very tight?’ ‘Yes, but you’ll loosen. Now I wonder …?’ He hooked his finger downward and probed around to find the small bump of Joerg’s prostate. The man tensed and gasped as he prodded and massaged it. ‘Was that alright?’ ‘It was like pins-and-needles going off in my genitals … oh! It’s wet under me. You must have set me off … but I didn’t ejaculate. You know what happens when I do that.’ Ruprecht got a leisurely motion going in and out of Joerg who relaxed, placed his head on his folded arms and sighed as his ring allowed and enjoyed the penetration. Then he reared up as a second finger forced its way into him. ‘Oww! No, don’t stop. I just wasn’t expecting it. Not so much fun now. Don’t worry, I can take it.’ Ruprecht did his best to flex his fingers and widen Joerg’s hole, but was not immediately able to get a smooth fucking motion going; the little man’s anus was a thick and very tight muscle. ‘Push out like you’re taking a crap. That usually eases the opening. Oh! I can feel something on the way out. Shit!’ Joerg actually giggled. ‘Exactly.’ He hopped up and scampered to a commode to do what was suddenly necessary, and Ruprecht found it strangely erotic to watch the man squatting naked over a chamber pot to evacuate himself, his little face frowning like a child’s as he completed the task. Joerg stood and wiped his crack as best he could with a rag. ‘I suppose that’s it for this session. The smell’s a bit off-putting.’ ‘What happened to your body-shyness, Joerg? You just did the most intimate and exposed act a man could do in front of another, and you’re not bothered. Not so much as a blush.’ The little man moved back to the bed and embraced his lover. ‘It was just too erotic, Rupe. I liked it. Am I mentally ill?’ ‘No, I don’t think so, what I do think is you’re the sexiest bed partner I’ve ever had, and we’ve not even got round to fucking yet.’ *** ‘Tell me about your relatives in Champs Dolent, Gillot’ Ruprecht requested as their little convoy of carts and carriages made its way back to Chasancene, with little to show from their first digging campaign in search of the ancient Francien homestead. The boy glanced across the closed carriage to Ruprecht; he was sitting hand-in-hand with Felix, both boys for once silent and idly watching the world go by through the windows. They were dressed as young gentlemen rather than in the workmen’s clothes they had adopted for the excavations. ‘My aunt and cousins live in the town. Tatie Isabel occupies the cottage next to maman’s property. We could stay in maman’s cottage if we’re at Champs Dolent for any length of time. Tatie won’t mind. Not that it’s very big.’ ‘What’s the town like?’ ‘It’s a small place, though it has a post-house and mairie. There’s an old ruined manor in the woods on the hill above the river Rougiet. I used to play there with other boys when I was small and we were on holiday with Tatie. Are we going to dig up the place?’ ‘We don’t have permission. I think it belongs to the Bishop of Chasancene. But we do need to investigate the Préaux du Sang which your papa mentioned. Bored yet, you two?’ Felix shook his head. ‘We think it’s been fun, and we’ve learned ever so much. Your sexy little doctor is so clever.’ ‘Sexy? Joerg?’ Gilles rolled his eyes. ‘Felix thinks he’s hot, but the Kreech is kinky. He just fancies the idea of doing it with a priest. But … is it working out between you?’ Ruprecht smiled at his youthful charges, who like most teenagers were anxious to believe in true love and happy endings. But he had no hesitation in agreeing that it was going well between he and Joerg. ‘Excellent!’ Felix pronounced. ‘That captain was bad news. Though he was sexy too. He jammed his finger up my bum when we wrestled. Remember that time we watched him do you by the pool while Gillot did me?’ Ruprecht groaned. ‘As if I could forget.’ ‘We’re not wanting to draw the doctor into sexy games,’ Gilles made clear, then shot an impish sidelong grin at his lover. ‘But you can if you want, just to keep the Kreech happy.’ The two punched, laughed and scuffled on their seat for a minute, causing the carriage to rock and Ruprecht to tell the pair to cut it out when his brother’s flailing foot kicked him painfully in the shin. They arrived at Champs Dolent late in the afternoon to cause quite a local stir. Erwin Wenzel had been sent ahead and secured rooms at the post-house, which made a stay at the Parmentier property unnecessary. No one seemed to recognise the elegant and handsome Allemanic jonker who alighted from the princely carriage as the former urchin Gilles Parmentier, not even the local mayor who in earlier days had set his dogs on Gilles when he and some little friends had raided his orchards. The mayor was on hand to offer whatever assistance he might to His Serene and Most Excellent Highness Felix XI, Prince of Ostberg, in his tour of local antiquities. Early the next morning, dressed down in digging gear, the party headed up to the ruined manor house on the hill to get their bearings. It was a fine day and the towers and roofs of Chasancene were clearly visible twenty-five kilometres to the east, the rising sun occasionally flashing off the windows of the distant city. The little River Rougiet curved around the wooded hill on which they were standing on its way to join the Great River. ‘And those would be Les Préaux between the wood and the river, yes?’ Joerg asked Gilles, indicating several large closes of meadow below, domestic buffalo slowly cropping the grass in a couple of them. Gilles nodded. Joerg then embarked on his usual patient survey of the standing ruins of the bishop’s manor with his preferred partner, Erwin Wenzel, suggesting Ruprecht and the boys carry out some field walking below. He issued them with sacks to collect any likely finds and painted sticks to mark where they’d been found, so he could make a distribution plan later. The three strolled down through the woods and hopped over a hedge into the nearest close. ‘I don’t suppose buffalo shit counts as a find?’ Felix enquired. ‘We could fill all these sacks if it did.’ Gilles clapped his hands and shouted, so as to drive the beasts into a field nearer the village, then all three formed a ragged line and systematically walked the enclosure, up and down, to find nothing much. The next close bordered the river and was empty of buffalo. The three walked over to the bank and watched the slow green waters slide past them. An occasional silver line furrowing the water indicated a shoal of large freshwater eels on the hunt for surface insects. A weir further downriver had nets out ready to catch any eel ill-advised enough to venture in that direction. They sat for a while above the water to enjoy the morning sunlight. All of a sudden Gilles hopped down from the two-metre high bank to the water’s edge below, and picked at an object lodged in the soil. ‘Rupe, come and look at this.’ Ruprecht scrambled down, asking his brother to pass him one of the markers. He stuck it in the bank where Gilles was at work. The boy had levered out a long curved object. ‘Is this a rib?’ ‘Looks somewhat like it, but only Joerg could tell us what creature it belonged to. See if there’re any more.’ Gilles dislodged several further objects, clotted with the alluvial clay of the meadow, two of them clearly also ribs. He bagged them all. Ruprecht called a halt until the doctor arrived, and clambered back up. They walked the second close until he appeared, and this time found a number of small but unidentifiable objects, meticulously marking the places they had been found with coloured stakes. When the doctor and Wenzel finally arrived, Gilles dragged him to the marker fixed in the bank, where Joerg sized up the site and the possible nature of the deposits. ‘Yes Gillot, these are indeed human ribs. The skeleton must have been partly washed away. I think it’s time to break out the digging tools and cut down through the bank to the level where the bones were found.’ He looked around. ‘This is one of the two fields whose tenant gave us permission to excavate so go bring the tools down from the hill, Erwin.’ He marked out a three square-metre area while the seneschal was retrieving the necessary implements. When he returned the men and boys got to work. After two hours they had cut a neat trench a metre deep. Four human skeletons were lying prone at that level, one with its lower half washed away by the action of the river’s erosion. Joerg contemplated the results. ‘It seems your father was right, Gillot. All are males and I think the necks have been broken, though they have no other obvious sign of battlefield trauma. Time now for some careful sifting of the area. Look for corroded metal or any leather fragments the clay may have preserved; coins would be good.’ The quick eyes and fingers of the two boys rapidly began to accumulate small objects. Some had been metal, but more and more were disks and plaques of the same smooth and coloured glass-like substance that Ruprecht had found in the catacomb under the White Basilica. Joerg held up a small disk he had washed off in the river water. ‘This is a button, but like none I’ve ever seen! These objects don’t belong to the Noble or Patriarchal Wars. The skeletons are far older. These were people of the Landing!’
  5. Mike Arram

    Chapter 12

    The noise of the two returning boys and their tutor brought Ruprecht and Joerg back from their stunned state. ‘Rupe! Hey doctor!’ they called. ‘It was amazing; not to mention macabre. There were big queues at the Friendly Society Hall.’ The boys breezed through the house and pounded up to their room without noticing the preoccupied state of both men. The pair ran back down wearing nothing but their shirts and shot off through the front door in the direction of the pool, hallooing and laughing. As he danced across the paddock Felix lifted his shirt and exposed himself to a grinning Ludwig, who was at work painting the rails. Then he threw his shirt away and scampered naked after Gilles. Joerg was watching the performance through the study window. ‘Very princely,’ he commented. ‘He’s here to act like a boy, as free of constraints as is possible. It just so happens that – when in health – he’s the bouncy, hilarious and occasionally outrageous sort of boy.’ ‘And queer. I admire you for the way you handle it, Rupe. He and Gilles are so lucky.’ ‘Give them credit. Their commitment to each other is unusual in adolescent boys, and it seems to be lasting. Their personalities interlock and they rarely conflict other than in play. You can see their mutual sympathy in the fact that it’s hard to say which of them is the dominant boy. They seem to read each other’s mind.’ ‘And they are so very sexual too.’ ‘They satisfy each other. They also are happy to hint to me at what they do. Erwin tells me the state of their bed can be quite disgusting, and he deals with it himself rather than allow the maids to be shocked.’ A hand sought Ruprecht’s and a kiss followed. ‘I’d like to sleep here tonight.’ ‘I was hoping you would. I do like to sleep next to another warm body. We’d better tell them fairly soon. They’ll be utterly delighted; they’re desperate to pair me off with anyone likely. My sex life is as absorbing to them as I have to confess theirs is to me. Expect to be badgered to death for details. They got more out of me than they should have as to what Anton Vinseff and I got up to. It fuelled a lot of their erotic ambitions, and also …’ ‘Also, what?’ ‘Let me confess this to you, Joerg. Gilles was not beyond looking at me sexually when he was in Chasancene, and I think he still has a crush on me, though it’s contained by his genuine love for my brother. But there has been more than one occasion when he has been on the verge of making a sexual play. You’ll help defuse that because Gilles is a remarkably moral creature for an adolescent boy. He would never intrude on our relationship. ‘Now, I’m glad I got that off my chest. Let’s have another drink and work out what we’ll tell them about the medallion. They’re fully caught up in our research, you know.’ *** The boys returned to the schloss well before dinner so they could bathe with hot water and soap, which they generally did together, judging by the amount of water on the bathroom floor after they left it. They approved the idea of a formal meal daily at seven, and they appeared at the study door in dark suits and crisp white ties well before Erwin rang the bell. ‘Hello Dr Joerg! You still here?’ commented the prince. ‘Are you staying for dinner? Good. You can tell us about the bog people.’ Ruprecht looked up from the diagrams he and the doctor were poring over. ‘We’ve considerably more to talk about now, Kreech. Hans has sent back what we thought was a coin, only it wasn’t. It’s shaken up everything we thought we knew about the early history of our world. Come see.’ The boys took the medallion eagerly and scrutinised both of its faces, then looked enquiringly at the men. ‘That’s English,’ Gilles commented. ‘But what’s a European Union?’ Joerg shrugged. ‘We have yet to find out, but let me summarise for you what the medal says, or implies. It was clearly struck to commemorate the actual Landing. It belongs to the very first days of humanity on Terre Nouvelle, when English, Francien and Alleman were equal partners in the enterprise. What do you two know of The Voyagers?’ ‘I’ve read it,’ said Gilles, to Ruprecht’s surprise. ‘Really, Gillot?’ ‘Well yes, Rupe. You used to tell me and Cecile all those old stories when we were small at the inn, so I went looking for a copy one day, and Madame Celestin at the Librairie on the Rue d’Erdebête Jaune lent me one. It was kind as I didn’t have the money to buy it. I was only thirteen. But I found that, with what you had told me, I could read and make sense of a lot of it.’ ‘Well Gillot, if that’s so what do you make of the names on the back of the medallion?’ The boy scrutinised the list and looked up, surprised. ‘Oh! It’s Guillaume le Rou! He led down the fireships! And I know that name Kevin … that surely must be “Kevin Lengleis, le grand guerrier; des erdebêtes sauvages, le vrai vanqueur”. He was one of the Twenty Companions of the great Guillaume!’ ‘Yes, and for the first time we know some of those men were historical characters and really were the leaders of the first humans on this world.’ Joerg chipped in. ‘The kingdom of Kholnai is also something we now know more about. Its name is derived from the word “Colony”, meaning the entire human settlement on this planet, a colony of another world called the European Union. But Kholnai wasn’t just a kingdom of the English, it comprised all three peoples.’ Felix was fingering the front of the medal. ‘Is this a map?’ ‘Yes it is,’ Joerg replied, ‘and it’s the feature which is the most fascinating to us. There are three stars and three kingdoms figured on it. Since one of them is named in Francien, it must show that Colony had three kingdoms originally, one for each of the peoples, though here they’re called “zones” or “circonscriptions”.’ ‘What about these stars?’ ‘That’s the most interesting thing. We reckon they mark the central settlement of each “zone”, the original human homesteads on Terre Nouvelle, and we think we may be able to work out from the medal where they might be on the modern map.’ *** ‘Chasancene!’ Gilles marvelled. ‘The ancient Francien circonscription was based on Chasancene!’ ‘Near there, Gillot,’ Joerg cautioned. ‘We can’t be certain with such a large scale map.’ Ruprecht sipped his wine. ‘Oh, I don’t know. Think of the local names. Vieldomaine: doesn’t that now seem significantly like “Vieux domain” or “the old district”? And how about Chasancene: “Le chaise ancien” or “the ancient homestead”! The names people gave these places preserved memories of what they once were. It’s obvious now we know. I think we’re on the right track.’ ‘So when are we going?’ Felix demanded. ‘Ease up,’ his brother replied. ‘There are the Alleman and English zones to consider. The Alleman capital was quite a way north, somewhere around Viborg in the kingdom of Nordrecht. That’s not an attractive prospect. But the English capital … we have to give that serious consideration.’ ‘Unfortunately,’ Joerg cautioned, ‘it was in one of the southern valleys of the Montenard Republic, and it won’t be easy to work out which. Though of them all, it’s the ancient capital nearest to where we are in Bernicia, and potentially – you have to admit, Gilles – the one most likely to give us answers, because we know the Kholnai English were able to ride out the collapse after the Landing. There may be more to find there than in Chasancene.’ Ruprecht smiled at the badly-concealed disappointment in his ward’s face. ‘Stop teasing the boy, Joerg. You know it’s to Chasancene we’re going to go. Forgive Joerg, Gillot, he’s in a very queer mood.’ Joerg astonished Ruprecht by putting out a tongue at him out of sight of the boys. He looked very like a naughty urchin when he did. A tingle in Ruprecht’s penis reminded him why he found the little man so very seductive. He suddenly wanted to be in bed with him very much, but he bridled his rising lust; there would be time enough for that later. Felix had missed the by-play. ‘So come on, Rupe. When are we off? Gillot really wants to see his mutta and vater. You know he writes to them and to his sister most days.’ ‘Fine, fine. Don’t fret, kids. I’ll talk it through with minheer Wenzel and see what arrangements need making. The doctor’s been retained as your physician, Kreech, so he can accompany us without people complaining that he should be in Blauwhaven for Holy Week if we are away then. His two assistants are more than capable of looking after the church in any case. I don’t suppose Meister Andrecht will mind the change of scene either.’ Felix giggled. ‘Yes he will. He’s been walking out with Fräulein Meisner at the town library. He’s sweet on her. Gilles and I saw them kissing behind her parasol.’ ‘Well someone is going to be disappointed then. I’m sorry for that, but poor Meister Andrecht will have to pine away in Chasancene for some weeks. At least he can write very grammatical letters to his distant sweetheart to relieve his thwarted passion. By the way boys, you are not to tease poor Willem about his affair of the heart.’ The pair shot each other a look and then adopted pious faces. Gilles was getting excited as he realised he was indeed going home to Vieldomaine. ‘Come on Kreech, I’ve got to write to maman and tell her the news. Good night, minheer Rector. Will we see you tomorrow?’ Joerg exchanged glances with Ruprecht. ‘I imagine so,’ he replied. *** Ruprecht observed that Joerg was still hesitant about displaying his nudity, and when he turned to face Ruprecht his hands covered his genitals reflexively. ‘Would you rather I extinguished the candles?’ he enquired politely. ‘N-n-no,’ the doctor said, but quickly slid under the sheets. ‘Good, you’ve a sweet little body and it’s a delight to look at.’ Ruprecht joined the man in bed, laying his hand on his flat and taut belly. Joerg shuddered as he did and erected rapidly. ‘Joerg, you’re responsive to the lightest touch. Are you going to shoot over my sheets?’ ‘I don’t know what’ll happen if you touch my penis.’ ‘Then maybe you should touch mine. Get up here.’ He threw back the bed covers and sat facing the small man. He arranged him so they were belly to belly, Joerg’s thighs over his, their erections close enough that Joerg’s occasionally touched Ruprecht’s much larger member, jerking upwards every time it did and causing Joerg to squirm delightfully. They kissed for a long time. ‘This is good,’ Joerg sighed. ‘What would you like me to do now?’ ‘Play with my cock, little one.’ Joerg put his hand on the hot, solid length Ruprecht displayed, far longer than Joerg’s own, and rising well above the little man’s navel. ‘If you can ever get that in me, it’ll reach up to my kidneys.’ Ruprecht grinned. ‘You think? I’m hoping you’ll want to try at least. But obviously not tonight. When I do, it’ll certainly go further into you than other men I’ve bedded.’ ‘It’ll probably breach my lower gut.’ Ruprecht’s cock pulsed with the erotic thought just as Joerg grasped and explored it. The result was an issue of shining precum on to his purple glans. Joerg spread the fluid around the slit of Ruprecht’s penis, causing him to gasp and his buttocks to lift. ‘Mine doesn’t put out that stuff,’ Joerg commented. ‘On a good day, it positively drips out of me. It’ll make penetration easier. Lick it off, little one. It’s not got much taste.’ Joerg seemed in two minds at first, but he shifted back and slowly brought his mouth close, then he licked out delicately with his pink tongue at a second droplet which had now appeared. He looked up at Ruprecht, raised an eyebrow, then went back and took the glans fully into his mouth, tonguing and sucking gently at it, much to Ruprecht’s enjoyment. After a few minutes Joerg pulled off, sitting back up to resume his position. They kissed some more. Ruprecht brought their groins closer together, and as they kissed Joerg began humping his erection against Ruprecht’s. The bigger man pressed him down on to his back and moved heavily on him. A ragged gasp in his ear and a feeling of wetness on his belly told Ruprecht that Joerg had climaxed as rapidly as before. It took him some minutes longer but eventually he too came, and the pair lay together a while in the afterglow, till their breathing became even. They smiled in each other’s faces. ‘What can I do now?’ Joerg asked. ‘You might think of the state of the bed. Go down there and lick me clean.’ The idea seemed to stimulate Joerg, whose willingness to be directed was just as exciting to Ruprecht. Soon he was lapping at Ruprecht’s groin and belly, strings of semen in his mouth as he looked up to grin at the bigger man. It appeared he could be incited into the less straightforward areas of sexuality between men. Ruprecht lazily wondered how far he might push him, for there were one or two forms of sex he would have liked to try but which some of his partners had recoiled from. ‘Come back up here, little one,’ Ruprecht instructed. ‘It’s time for a massage as a reward.’ Joerg’s reaction to the stimulation of his nipples was as extreme as it had been before, though it took a lot more agonised bucking this time before he ejaculated with a loud yell. When he did, Ruprecht had his mouth ready to catch the heavy spurts. They lay back and, after more gentle kissing and stroking, they slept. Ruprecht awoke to the sunlight streaming into his chamber, a small and rather pretty male face next to his, blond hair in its closed eyes. He watched Joerg slumber for a while, feeling something unidentifiable from what he had felt in his previous relationships with men, unless possibly his first, the boy Anton. Whatever it was, the little man’s sweetness, submissiveness and vulnerability stirred him. He kissed him lightly on the lips. Joerg moved a little but did not wake. Sweet though the man was in repose, his breath was anything but, and the pair stank of the previous night’s emissions. Ruprecht sat up to use the chamberpot at the side of the bed, and the tinkling and spattering sound of his urine hosing into the receptacle woke Joerg, who yawned then leaned up to watch, his cheek warm against Ruprecht’s flank. ‘Never watched a man piss before?’ ‘Er, no, not close up … it’s fascinating.’ ‘Need to go?’ ‘Er … yes, but you’ll watch me.’ ‘Not ready for that?’ ‘N-n-no. I don’t think so.’ ‘No problem. There’s a robe hanging on the door which is probably far too big for you. There’s a nice new water closet at the end of the passage if you’re willing to risk the journey.’ Joerg was padding naked across the boarded floor when a knock on the door heralded Erwin Wenzel bringing the hot water basin. Since he usually didn’t bother to wait for Ruprecht’s reply, as the basin was not easy to manage, he came right in, to be confronted with the little priest paralysed with embarrassment, hands covering his genitals and nipples. Erwin didn’t even so much as smile. ‘Good morning, gentlemen,’ he said evenly, quite unfazed. ‘Shall I bring another basin up, or will you be alright with just the one? I’ll run your bath, minheer Graf. One towel or two?’ *** ‘You’re here early, doctor,’ Gilles remarked politely, as he settled down at the breakfast table and helped himself to eggs and ham. ‘Where’s the Kreech?’ Ruprecht headed him off. ‘Glad you’re here anyway, doctor,’ the boy continued. ‘Felix was hot in the night. He wasn’t coughing or anything, but I was a little worried. He grumped at me when I suggested he get up just now. Could you …?’ ‘I’ll go up, Gillot,’ Joerg said, wiping his mouth with a napkin and heading for the stairs. ‘Gillot,’ Ruprecht continued, ‘if you’ve not yet sealed your letter to your maman, you can tell her that we’ll be in Chasancene at the beginning of Holy Week. We may stay for as long as a month.’ The boy smiled happily. ‘That’s perfect. It’ll be so good to see papa, maman and little Cecile.’ ‘Do I understand they’ve returned to the inn?’ ‘Yes, when papa heard that King Scumbag had been put in prison after he got back to Ardhesse, he thought it safe to go back to the city. With his being caught up in a civil war I don’t suppose there’ll be much to worry about now from Scumbag’s direction, do you think?’ ‘It would seem safe for a while, Gillot. Since Felix will be going we won’t stay at the inn, you understand. He’ll have to stay at the ducal palace; there’s no escape from that.’ ‘Maman will be disappointed, I’ve told her so much about the Kreech.’ ‘Er … exactly how much?’ The boy looked sheepish. ‘I just said we’re close friends and always together. I couldn’t mention the rest, you know. Maybe one day, but not till we’re grown-ups.’ ‘She may guess however, mothers tend to do that.’ Gilles shrugged in a very Francien way, and picked up the papers. He gave his usual commentary on the Ardhessian War of Succession, as it was now being called. ‘King Scumbag’s had a reverse,’ he observed, delighted at the thought. ‘He attempted an attack on Mortenshaven at the mouth of the Fresch, but the Ardhessian Navy’s loyal to the Duke and three of its battleships sailed close in to destroy his siege batteries in a heavy bombardment. That means there’s still one city on the west bank of the river which is resisting him. Good news for the Duke.’ Joerg returned without Felix. ‘It’s gastric,’ he informed them. ‘Just a tummy upset. His chamberpot’s overflowing, poor kid. He’d better stay in bed. How are you feeling, Gillot?’ ‘Me? Alright.’ ‘If you’re feeling queasy, let me know. These bowel infections can be virulent. I imagine the whole house will be plagued with it for a week or more.’ ‘Ah! Ludwig was sick yesterday. Maybe he’s got it too.’ ‘He was? I’ll call in at his parents’ cottage on the way home, all the family probably has it. There are simple measures to mitigate the effects. In the old days infections such as these carried off whole families of children, but as long as victims are kept hydrated with a patent formula of salts and sugars, there needn’t be any danger. I’ll get prescriptions made up.’ ‘So does this mean our trip to Chasancene’s going to be delayed?’ Gilles looked a bit downcast at the thought. Ruprecht glanced at the doctor. ‘No, we were never intending to leave much before Acclamation Sunday. We need to give a fortnight’s notice to the Vieldomainois embassy in any case.’ ‘I’ll update the letter then. I’d better go up and watch my Kreech puke.’ Once the boy had gone, Ruprecht reached over to kiss Joerg. ‘You alright yourself, little one?’ The man rolled his eyes. ‘I could die. The fact that your seneschal took it all so coolly didn’t help much.’ ‘He certainly failed to detect our liaison; somehow I thought he’d have worked it out. I’ve just lost some of my faith in Erwin. But he would have had to know sooner or later. I have to say, your reaction was hilarious … Ah! Again with the poked-out tongue! I could jump you when you do such things. You really are adorable, Joerg.’ *** The special engine to which the Protector of Bernicia’s personal carriage had been coupled pulled up short of Chasancene’s Gare Centrale. ‘What’s the hold-up?’ asked Gilles, looking elegant in his court suit, which now boasted the green ribbon of the Noble Order of Felix the Great of Ostberg, conferred on him by the prince for heroism in the face of the consequences of his bowel flux, as he said. Felix himself was resplendent in his dress uniform as colonel of his own Fürstlich Liebgard, with gold-laced green tunic, white breeches and well-polished cavalry boots. He was holding under his arm the Allemanic helmet he would have to put on in due course. They had stopped en route at the Residenz of Ostberg to pick up the ceremonial wardrobe which had to accompany a semi-state visit to a foreign principality. Ruprecht explained to a nervous Gilles that the delay to the train was so that the reception line and honour guard could assemble, and the state carriages be lined up. The train jerked as the engine moved off again and slowly chuffed its way under the station canopy. With a flourish of drums, a regimental band blared out the Bernician anthem and a company of grenadiers of the Garde Ducale presented arms, the officers gracefully dropping their swords in acknowledgement of the prince as he stepped on to the platform. Well tutored, Felix put his hand to the peak of his helmet and kept it there while the band galloped on into Vieldomaine’s national anthem, a pacey tune with a lot of bugle flourishes. Then he was introduced to the presentation line by Prince Louis François, the sixteen-year-old son of Duke Alphonse XII, the current sovereign, representing his father. Gilles paced behind Felix as his equerry, joined by the Bernician ambassador. Ruprecht and Dr Tannerman kept well back from the ceremony, merging with the group of functionaries who trailed behind the princes as they made their way through the concourse and out to the line of waiting carriages. The salute was still booming out from the fortress above them as they emerged into the grey spring afternoon. Ruprecht wished he’d remembered to bring an overcoat; he’d forgotten it was likely to be cold and damp in the Central Plains at this time of year. The reception was as tedious as these events usually were. But it was impressive to witness the aplomb with which his young brother dealt with his situation in life: smiling around and talking to all degrees and ages of people with humour and confidence, and he was not yet sixteen. Ruprecht concluded with a touch of humility that Felix was far better at the job of being a prince as a teenager than he ever could have been at any age. Gilles had receded into the background but he too seemed quite at ease in the princely castle that loomed up over the humble inn where he had been a potboy only six months before. He was chatting in a friendly fashion to some young courtiers, his Francien background no doubt assisting. Joerg had been given permission to take rooms at the Auberge aux Falaises below rather than have to put up with accommodation in the ducal château immediately above it. He had work to do, he said, and the Parmentier family was used to the eccentricities of scholars. Gilles would join him there as soon as the day’s events were over and stay at the inn for the duration. Ruprecht however had to remain with his brother in the château, though he intended to walk down with the boy, if just to see Joerg. ‘You are Monsieur le Comte d’Aalst-Blauwhaven, is that so?’ a female voice asked behind him. Ruprecht turned to find a middle-aged lady had approached. He bowed low, for his interrogator was clearly a woman of high degree; she was accompanied by two gentlemen of honour and a lady-in-waiting. He took a guess and saluted her as ‘Your Imperial Highness.’ ‘You recognise me, young man? I don’t believe we have met.’ ‘It is the Duchess of Vieldomaine who is addressing me, I believe.’ She inclined her head in acknowledgment. ‘My dear Comte, I have been asked by my husband to make some preliminary enquiries as to your younger brother’s standing. You understand me?’ ‘Ma’am?’ ‘I would have preferred to have begun negotiations with your dear grandmother, such an old friend, but you are here and she is not.’ ‘Ah, of course, I see.’ ‘The boy will be sixteen in a few months, I understand. My younger daughter, the Princess Eloise, is about to become fifteen. We wish your grandmother to consider the possibility of a betrothal between the two. Are there any other such offers being considered at the moment?’ ‘None at all, ma’am, as far as I know. I shall convey your offer to the Princess Regent. Could I express my family’s sensibility of the honour you are considering bestowing on us?’ The great lady gave a little nod to acknowledge her dynastic condescension, then continued. ‘I have also been asked by a very good friend, the Marquise de Montaigue, to make some enquiries about His Serene and Most Excellent Highness’s equerry. He is a Von Aalst, I believe; is he a kinsman of your ancient house?’ ‘He’s my ward and the adopted heir of the seigneurie of Blauwhaven, ma’am.’ ‘Indeed? His fine air and his looks are drawing much attention from the assembly, and it happens the Madame Marquise has several daughters. Were you looking to marry the boy off the marriage settlement from the Montaigues would be very generous, I believe. There are no male heirs to the present marquis.’ Ruprecht expressed his thanks with all possible courtesy, and bowed the great lady on her way, wondering how much amusement he would be able to draw from the boys’ horror when they learned of the plans being made for their futures. *** The state dinner over, Gilles and Felix made their farewell to each other, the first time they had been separated in six months. Their mutual unhappiness was very touching. ‘Come on, Gillot. It’s only a few days, and your family is waiting for you,’ Ruprecht eventually said. ‘Go, Gillot,’ Felix sighed. ‘Just don’t look at any other boys while you’re gone.’ Gilles went to his knee, took Felix’s hand and kissed his fingers. ‘There is only one sovereign of my heart, Your Serene and Most Beloved Highness.’ The boy said the words which such earnestness and dignity that they defied pomposity, and caused Ruprecht’s eyes to smart. What was wrong with him that such a cynic as he could be was so moved by someone who was little more than a child? But he could not find it in himself to mock such naivety, as once perhaps he would have. The pair walked down through the castle courtyards in silence, each wrapped up in their thoughts. Gilles had dressed down for the reunion with his parents, after consulting Ruprecht, and was just in shirt, check trousers and waistcoat, a proletarian red kerchief around his neck. The guards at the main gate in fact gave the boy a sidelong look as they left, as if to suggest he should be leaving by the kitchen gate. They walked the lamplit streets back along the castle cliff and soon came in sight of the auberge. Gilles stopped them. ‘Rupe, can I go on alone?’ ‘Certainly, Gillot. I’ll give you some minutes. I’ll just sit on the bench.’ ‘Thanks. Can I say …?’ ‘You don’t need to, dear Gillot. I think I know what you have on your mind.’ The boy hugged him, whispering in his ear. ‘Mon père et mon frère.’ Then he walked back through the doors and into his mother’s arms. Before he was ready to enter, Joerg came out to Ruprecht. It seemed that for all his body shyness and sexual hesitancy the little doctor was conceiving a passion for Ruprecht. He even appeared on the verge of kissing his lover before remembering they were on a public street. Instead he sat and gave Ruprecht’s hand a brief squeeze. ‘Are you comfortable here, little one?’ Ruprecht inquired. ‘Far more so than I would have been up in the château, I think. How’s the Kreech?’ ‘In his element. Mind you, his self-satisfaction won’t last. The duke of Vieldomaine has him in mind for his younger daughter’s husband.’ ‘What! Oh God. Poor fellow. Still, the question was going to arise, and dynastic negotiations usually begin round about his present age. How are you going to handle it?’ ‘Me? It’s Grossmutta’s province. She’ll know what to do, and knowing her she’ll not force the Kreech into any such match without his free consent. She was pressured to match me up to several Bernician noble girls whose parents thought the future Lehensherr of Blauwhaven a fine prospect, and a Graf too. But she knew the way my affections went even then. That’s just one of the many reasons I love her.’ ‘But here’s a thing. It must be known in diplomatic circles that Felix is afflicted by the consumption. Doesn’t that make him less attractive as a prospect?’ ‘In one sense yes, but in the pragmatic way that princely dynasties arrange matters, no. If he managed to father a male child on her before the disease finally kills him, Princess Eloise would become Regent of Ostberg on Felix’s death and a sizeable and extremely wealthy chunk of the Confederacy would pass into the hands of the Imperial House, of which Vieldomaine is a cadet branch. I’d imagine that the chances and dividends are such that Felix would be offered quite a handsome marriage settlement to agree to the match. Maybe to the extent that the poor boy will come under pressure from great people other than Grossmutta to take up the option. But the Protector would be very much against it, I would guess, which would be the Kreech’s trump card if it came to the crunch.’ ‘I knew there was a downside to being noble and princely, so thank you for confirming it, Rupe.’ ‘While all this is going on, I take it you’re making plans for our digging campaign in Vieldomaine. What’re your thoughts?’ ‘Ah well, I’d like it if you can get me access to the château. I realise we’ll never be able to dig there, which is a shame. It’s far and away the most likely site for any Kholnai base. But if I can at least make a visual inspection it will be a help. I managed to find some plans of the early castle, and I have an approximate idea where the ancient chapel might have been, the one with Guillaume le Rou’s supposed footprint pressed into the rock. If I find English blue ware in the soil there, it may tell us something.’ ‘That should be fine. The castle librarian is an old friend and will get us access wherever you think would be significant. But what about the rest of our time here, once the Kreech is free of the ceremonial?’ ‘Holy Week will get in the way of things, at least until the Supper of the Betrayal and First Mass Sunday. There are one or two known ancient sites that might well be worth a look. I’ve made enquiries from a correspondent at the university about local legends and finds. He said he’d have a list for me by tomorrow.’ ‘Excellent. Then I’ll just take this week as a holiday. I’ll be down daily, but I have to attend dinner up on the hill, you understand. Erwin will look after you.’ Joerg snorted. ‘I have difficulty meeting his eye.’ ‘Still embarrassed?’ ‘Traumatised for life, Rupe.’ ‘Well, well, take it from me you looked totally erotic when it happened. Now I’d better go in and say hello to my friends, the Parmentiers, and drink some of Alphonse’s rather fine red wine.’
  6. Mike Arram

    Chapter 11

    ‘That’s impossible! A gun in ancient Terre Nouvelle?’ Felix shook his head in disbelief. ‘It can’t be anything else,’ Dr Tannerman concluded. ‘Tell me Gillot, did something other than dust come out of this creature’s skull?’ The boy searched around on the table, and held up a lump of white metal. The doctor scrutinised it. ‘A bullet, I think, with an especially hardened tip. The impact has crushed it back into the softer metal behind and caused it to flatten. That explains the size of the hole in the skull.’ ‘My word!’ Ruprecht commented. ‘So our earliest ancestors were as technologically capable as we are.’ ‘I would imagine rather more so,’ the doctor responded. ‘If we accept that they really had come from elsewhere, as The Voyagers tells us they did, then they had traversed empty space to get here, presumably in their fireships, whatever they were. Unless of course you assume that God Himself cast humanity down on to our Earth, as our Evangelical friends maintain He did. I’m struck by how similar this handgun is to the ones of the present day: but then humanity has always invested rather more in military technologies than useful ones.’ Ruprecht marvelled at this observation for a moment. ‘I don’t get it,’ he eventually said. ‘If they were so advanced how come they all descended so rapidly into the barbarism of the first century, Francien, Alleman and English alike?’ ‘Maybe not all alike … this handgun came from what might have been an early English settlement. They at least may have maintained their technological edge for a while.’ Ruprecht shook his head. ‘This is all too much to take in quickly. One thing of which I’m certain, though. We need to conduct more of these digs if an amateur such as me can turn up such momentous finds by poking around almost at random. So where do we look?’ Joerg chuckled. ‘Now you’re talking my language, Rupe old fellow. There are for instance three other sites which have been traditionally linked to the Landing of Man. One is in Aix, under the Basilica of the Saint-Emperor François I, but I’m willing to discount that one on the grounds that it’s sheer Imperial bombast.’ ‘Where are the others?’ Felix asked. ‘The West and East Kingdoms didn’t try to hijack the legend, as The Voyagers is clear enough that humanity landed first on the continental mainland. Ardhesse never claimed it because the Holy See’s Landing site is right next door. But Nordrecht says it has the true site on the peak of Sterkhorn. Then there’s Chasancene.’ Gilles perked up. ‘Really, doctor? I’d never heard that, and I was born there.’ ‘Nonetheless, the Duke of Vieldomaine is traditionally the premier duke of Terre Nouvelle because he was once called “Guardian of the Footfall”.’ Felix laughed. ‘That’s really silly.’ Gilles punched his lover lightly on his bicep. ‘Don’t insult my homeland, Kreech, or it’ll be a duelling offence.’ Joerg pursued the point. ‘It sounds better in Francien: Le Gardien du Pas Sacré.’ ‘Oh!’ Gilles responded. ‘I’ve seen GPS carved after the duke’s name on stone monuments around the city, and never knew what it meant.’ ‘Well now you do, Gillot. Back in the fourth century you could apparently see the footprint of Guillaume le Rou pressed into a big round stone within the castle chapel of Chasancene. But the chapel and the footprint disappeared quite some while ago.’ ‘I don’t believe it anyway,’ the boy said. ‘So Joerg, anywhere else we should go poking around underground?’ asked Felix. The man smiled happily. ‘I shall begin a long, long list.’ *** Life at the schloss got back into its old rhythm with the return of the boys’ tutor, who took a great interest in the discoveries at the Holy City, with which they were still bursting. Meister Andrecht even undertook to ponder the question of the damaged murals, though Ruprecht’s sketches were not that revealing other than as to their size and position in the catacombs. A new thing however was the regular appearance of Joerg Tannerman at the manor house. He came for dinner two or three times a week, and became more and more comfortable with the inhabitants, amongst whom his stammer rarely resurfaced. The boys were very fond of him. They recognised his essential body shyness and did not test it by too many double-entendres or open displays of homosexual affection. Cool weather in the early winter months and the chill of the waters emptying from the mountain into their pool meant that the place was abandoned till after the Lenten rains ended, when the constant sunny days would begin again. Ruprecht spent time instead in his study acquainting himself more closely with the techniques of excavation and the processing of the finds they might throw up. Joerg was a patient teacher, and they would walk the grounds and the heathland below the schloss discussing their coming digging campaign. But oddly enough their first joint dig came to them, not as a result of their own initiative. A messenger came up from the town one morning as the two men were leaning on the paddock rails, watching the stablehands exercising the horses. ‘Minheer Rector!’ the teenage courier called out, as he slid off his hack. ‘A message from Minheer Mayor.’ Joerg broke the seal and read the contents. He looked at Ruprecht with raised eyebrows. ‘It’s my forensic rather than pastoral skills they want. Physical remains have been unearthed by peat diggers down the coast at Heilige Moss, and the district coroner wants me to examine them for evidence of foul play.’ ‘I’ll have the horses brought round,’ Ruprecht responded. ‘We’ll pick up your bag and some tools as we go past the rectory.’ ‘Best change into old clothes then, Rupe. Wetlands can be dirty and messy work, as well as inevitably wet. It’ll be good experience for you though.’ An hour’s ride brought them to the southern edge of Blauwhaven lordship and civil district, to the Moss, a shallow waterlogged valley fed by mountain streams. They found the peat cutters at work amongst the drying stacks and rather excited about their discovery. The foreman knuckled his forehead to the Lehensherr and the Rector. ‘Minheeren, we were cutting into the lower levels of the old trench when … well, let me show you.’ A wide sloping trench cut through the heavy black soil, and they were led to the bottom end. The foreman pointed and Ruprecht was momentarily taken aback, for a human face, eyes closed, was looking out at him from the side wall. ‘My God!’ The doctor was instantly absorbed, looking close-up at the face then taking out a measuring tape and assessing the depth of the corpse from the surface. He began busily making notes. The foreman watched for a while and suggested they dig out the body from the side. ‘N-n-no, Klaus,’ Joerg said. I w-w-want you and your men to dig d-d-down from the top and g-g-go carefully as you approach the lower level where the body is.’ ‘What are you thinking, Joerg?’ Ruprecht asked. ‘That this is not a recent corpse but a very ancient one.’ ‘But it looks almost lifelike.’ ‘That would be the preservative nature of the soil, which entirely inhibits decay. But it has been here many centuries judging by its depth in the peat. This is not a case for the constable I believe.’ The foreman delegated a party of workmen to begin the task, while Joerg made sketches and measurements. It took an hour for them to get down to the level of the corpse, but they did a good job of exposing it. She was on her stomach, facing left, one arm underneath her and another splayed. ‘Entirely naked. How odd, for the bog should preserve her clothing. A girl, maybe of thirteen or fourteen. Did she drown while swimming?’ ‘Her skin is dark.’ ‘It’s taken on the colour of the peat in which it’s lain for centuries, Rupe.’ ‘Minheer! Look, another!’ A workman was indicating the side of the trench where a human foot could be seen jutting out. ‘Let me m-m-mark out a new area for d-d-digging, gentlemen. Rupe, I think you and I had best take up our shovels too. This may be a longer job than I expected.’ A negotiation with the foreman and several coins secured the services of his crew for the entire afternoon. By the end of the work an area some six metres square had been excavated, and four bodies exposed. They were delicately slid on to a tarpaulin that had been sent for. As well as the girl there was an adolescent boy, a woman and a boy child of about five years of age. Joerg studied the bodies closely, and shook his head. ‘Regrettably, there were two other casualties of this ancient tragedy. Both the woman and the girl were heavily pregnant.’ ‘They have nothing on or about their persons,’ Ruprecht observed. ‘No clothing or artefacts whatsoever.’ ‘The woman, girl and older boy have their hair tied back with strings of woven grass, but yes, they are utter primitives, not even so much as a tattoo on what’s visible of their bodies. From their faces they could be Alleman or Francien.’ ‘… or even English?’ ‘Who knows? But their primitive state corresponds to no known stage of our history. I can only suggest therefore that they belong to the lost years of the first century. But how did post-Landing society degenerate to such a condition that our ancestors wandered about as naked savages without the most basic tools and amenities? And look at the splayed feet of the child and the youngsters: they’ve never worn shoes. The woman on the other hand has the compacted toes of someone who’d been shod throughout her years of growth, though the callouses on the soles indicate she’d been barefoot for a long time before her death. The state of her belly, breasts and vulva indicates she’d given birth to and suckled numerous children; she’d been bred like a mare. ‘I don’t know the answers to any of this, but what we see here does confirm the catastrophic discontinuity between pre- and post-Landing society. There was once an advanced society amongst our remote ancestors, but it was utterly destroyed in a very brief space of time. This poor woman saw it all happen in her forty or so years of life.’ The coroner rode up during this discussion and was reassured that the bodies were not his responsibility. He proposed to cart them back to the town and decide what to do with them in consultation with the mayor. The workmen’s day was over, and once the bodies were wrapped and lifted on to the wagon bed they left with them. Another horse approached carrying one of the grooms from the house; he had a basket of food and drink which the thoughtful Erwin had provided. Ruprecht and Joerg toasted the seneschal’s good health in a flask of white wine. ‘I stink of sweat and peat,’ Ruprecht observed. ‘I propose we go down to the beach and do something about it before we return home, otherwise we may spook the horses.’ Joerg hesitated, but agreed. They found a stretch of brown sand and a shallow bay. Ruprecht stripped off his stained clothing, threw it to one side then ran into the waves. He looked back to see Joerg down to his drawers and vest, but modestly going no further. The little man walked out into the sea and sat down, scrubbing himself. With his small face intent on the task he looked like a serious schoolboy. Ruprecht swam out into the deeper bay, enjoying the refreshing coolness. He hauled out on to a rock and looked back with interest at Joerg, who now stood, his soaked linen underclothing semi-transparent and revealing something of the pale body beneath. Ruprecht could see small dark nipples and a modest-sized penis outlined through the cloth. There was no hair evident on the man below his head, not on his chest, arms or legs; even his armpits were bare. Did the man shave himself? There was no darker area at his crotch to indicate a pubic bush. Ruprecht was very intrigued by the slim boyishness of Joerg’s torso, to which the soaked cloth clung tightly, and when he turned to go back up the beach Ruprecht’s connoisseur’s eye was much impressed by the small tight behind, perfectly rounded and in his assessment superior even to Gilles’s, which had a certain muscularity about it nowadays. Ruprecht too sought the beach, but stayed naked as he laid out the picnic. The winter sunlight in Bernicia remained warm, so there was no discomfort in lying out on the sand to dry in it. The discomfort was clearly on Joerg’s side, as he kept shooting uneasy glances at his friend, which Ruprecht caught out of the corner of his eye. He on the other hand took the opportunity to take as good a look as he could at this strangely modest young man’s body, which he might conceivably never get to see again. They made fitful conversation, in which Joerg’s stammer returned with a vengeance. He did not relax till Ruprecht reassumed his clothing. *** At dinner that evening Ruprecht found that the boys’ latest project was to map and record the progress of the civil war in Ardhesse. Their urgency to enthuse about it trumped his own discovery on the Moss, so he filed that for discussion with them later. After the meal he was taken to see a contoured map of the kingdom they’d created with their tutor’s assistance and laid out on a work table in the schoolroom. There was a board to which newspaper cuttings were pinned, along with lists of Ardhessian military units abstracted from a copy of the Politikerischer Jahrbuch: Auflage 887, which Meister Andrecht had lent them. Ruprecht burst into laughter when he saw a portrait card of King Kristijan III pinned to the top of the board, under which Felix had penned a note which said ‘Murderous Psycho Scumbag’. Under an adjacent photograph of Duke Horst was a note by Gilles which read ‘Probably Another Ardhessian Scumbag’. Counters made of card marked the known locations of garrisons and units. The boys were updating these daily from the many newspapers and magazines that Ruprecht subscribed to, now he had the funds to indulge himself. ‘So what’s the situation?’ he asked. ‘The Regent’s army’s gone into winter quarters, they say, after the defeat at Grenzheim,’ Felix responded. ‘Don’t know why, ‘cos there isn’t any winter in Ardhesse. But what do I know?’ ‘It’s a mistake,’ Gilles chipped in. ‘King Scumbag is getting supplied by his relatives in Westrecht, and it’s conceding him the initiative. His army’s filling out with Montenard mercenaries, and he’s conscripting manpower from the cities he controls. In the meantime his cavalry columns are raiding everywhere. There was a skirmish three days ago where he was allowed to seize a key rail bridge across the River Fresch. He’s destroyed the other bridges, so he’s more or less secured western Ardhesse.’ ‘Gillot’s red hot on the military stuff,’ admired Felix. ‘You think Kristijan will take the fight to his uncle, don’t you Gillot.’ ‘You bet. It’s just like the creep, ruthless but with dash and daring.’ ‘Why Gillot, you almost sound as though you admire him,’ Ruprecht observed with a touch of mischief. The boy frowned. ‘You can appreciate the genius which allows him to win with a poor hand. What makes him a scumbag is what he’ll do when he wins.’ ‘So you think the duke is doomed? The magazines say otherwise.’ ‘Kristijan will have Ardhesse at his feet by the end of summer, I’ll bet you Kreech’s lube bottle on that.’ Felix scoffed. ‘It’s the thing I most value. Talking of which …’ *** Ruprecht was woken early the next morning by his two charges bounding naked on to his bed, squirming in next to him and snuggling up, Felix against his front and Gilles his back. Felix looked coyly into his face. ‘Please, please, Rupe! Can you let us off school today?’ The smooth, warm skin pressing up against either side of him was disconcerting, especially as it had been a while since Ruprecht had any sexual relief. The boys were pushing the boundaries deliberately, for Gilles’s groin was pressing up against his buttocks and the boy’s arm clasped Ruprecht’s waist. Gilles’s fingers strayed down his lower belly and into his pubic hair. Ruprecht struggled to master his reaction and sat up. ‘Is this a seduction?’ Gilles grinned up at him as he stretched languorously in the bed. ‘If you want. But Kreech and I are desperate to go down to town. Ludwig brought up our hot water and told us there’s an amazing exhibition opening in town with posters everywhere. It’s called “The Bog People”: dead bodies as old as the Landing they found in the peat diggings! There’ll be big queues. It’s educational. Meister Andrecht could take us.’ ‘I can tell you all you need to know about it. It was the doctor and I who dug them out.’ ‘You didn’t say!’ Felix exclaimed with an irritated pout. ‘So tell us about them.’ Ruprecht lay back in the bed next to the boys and sketched out the discoveries and Joerg’s first conclusions. ‘I don’t think he’ll be happy that the bodies are being displayed. He’ll probably want them reburied.’ Gilles concurred. ‘They were probably Christians even if they were savages. It would be the decent thing to put them to proper rest in the churchyard, even if we don’t know their names.’ ‘But not till we’ve seen them first,’ Felix insisted. ‘It’s not my decision. It’ll be up to Meister Andrecht. Now get out of my bed and go wash.’ Felix grinned at Gilles. ‘Not till we’ve left you something to remember us by.’ The pair let out loud farts and then tried to escape. But Ruprecht got Gilles by the ankle, wrestled him over his thighs and seriously laid into his backside as the boy yelped in real pain, trying to deflect the slaps with his hands. When Felix attempted to liberate Gilles it turned into a free-for-all from which Ruprecht did not himself emerge unscathed, though Felix’s spotty buttocks too got a well-deserved smacking. Both boys were as erect as Ruprecht as they escaped him and ran off back to their room, the house full of their yelling and laughing. *** As it happened, Meister Andrecht shared the boys’ curiosity and declared their afternoon session would be a visit to the exhibition. Ruprecht called the carriage for them, and once he had waved them off took the opportunity of a particularly mild day to head across to the lawn by the pool. He undressed and lay flat on his back so as to soak up the warmth of the sun. He was pondering the group of primitives he had helped discover. Had they been a family group? They were clearly nomadic hunter-gatherers, and from what he had seen they had been crossing the bog heading south when one of them, maybe the girl, had stumbled into a morass and been sucked down. The youth and the woman had perhaps tried to get her out only to become victims themselves, as had the small child, vainly trying to reach his mother maybe. Had the youth fathered a child on the girl? They had both been young teenagers. What sort of brutish existence had it been where they eked out life from day to day, scavenging food as they wandered, with no other recreation than copulating as soon as their bodies matured? The mature woman had once known a civilised existence it seems. The despair she must have lived in to see herself and her children brought to the level of beasts! The calling of his name brought Ruprecht back from a half-doze. ‘Come over, Joerg!’ he shouted back, deliberately refraining from mentioning his nudity. The man’s reactions to any sexually challenging situation intrigued him. ‘Oh … I’m sorry, Rupe. I had no idea.’ ‘No apologies needed. Come join me.’ ‘What … take off my …?’ ‘Why not? You’ve got nothing to be ashamed of.’ The man was bright red as he took a seat, fully clothed, next to Ruprecht. ‘You … er … looked at me on the beach yesterday?’ ‘Look, I’m sorry Joerg if my sexuality is troubling you. But you are a very good-looking little fellow.’ ‘No, I don’t mind your being a homosexual, Rupe. I just find situations like this troubling.’ ‘Why? Is there a reason other than personal modesty? Oh hang on … have you taken a vow of chastity? I’ve heard of those.’ ‘Me! Well … no. But it’s not unlike. The teaching of the Church on men in love with other men is not encouraging.’ ‘Though the Seneschal said we must not judge and we must accept others on their own terms,’ Ruprecht thought he should assert. ‘I’m not judging you, Rupe. It’s m-m-me.’ Ruprecht sat up, putting his arms on his knees. ‘What! You’re queer too? Dammit Joerg you hide it well.’ ‘M-m-maybe not as well as I should.’ ‘So it’s your vows as a priest that trouble you?’ ‘No, no. It’s just that as a r-r-r-representative of the Church it seems wrong to publicly embrace a way of life it does not approve.’ ‘You’re a virgin!’ Joerg stammered into silence. Ruprecht put an arm round the young man’s shoulder. Joerg tensed, but did not squirm away from him. ‘So I am the problem. I’m sorry, Joerg. I’ve been pushing things and made you more uncomfortable than I realised. But you’ve never had sex?’ ‘No … but when I see a man like you all n-n-naked and beautiful, it gets harder and harder.’ ‘What, your …?’ The little man stared, and surprisingly he laughed. ‘I wish I could be so r-r-relaxed as you with it all. No, I’ve never been with another man, or woman for that matter.’ ‘Damn it. But if you weren’t queer you’d do it with a girl if she was willing and you felt an attraction? I know so many clergy who’re married, and with big families. My half-brother got a girl pregnant before he married her, and he’s now the Dean of Freiborg Cathedral.’ ‘I suppose …’ ‘And were you to do it with me – just saying – there couldn’t be any consequences of that sort.’ ‘It’s not just that but … sex scares me. I don’t know if I’ll do it right. It all seems so undignified.’ Ruprecht took a risk, and lifted his hand to stroke the lobe of the man’s small right ear. Joerg shuddered, and half-unwilling his head followed the motion and he let out a little whimper. ‘Joerg, I think your problem may be that your body wants sex so badly it scares you. You’re very erotically responsive.’ The men’s eyes met. ‘Let me show you what I mean.’ Ruprecht stroked down the ridge of the man’s back. He was not wearing a jacket. Joerg squirmed with the action even though it was accomplished through two layers of clothing. ‘How did your bum feel as I did that?’ Ruprecht asked. ‘It sort of … tingled,’ came the whispered reply. ‘Joerg, I think you may be a very lucky man. You’re sexually highly sensitised and everything’s wired to your ass.’ ‘What does that mean?’ ‘We can find out, if you’ll trust me.’ ‘I’d like to, but there’s a danger.’ ‘Which is?’ ‘That I’ll fall in love with you.’ There could only be one answer to that. He took the smaller man round the neck and closed to kiss. Joerg was inept to begin with but when his mouth opened to Ruprecht’s probing tongue his education began. While the kissing went on, Ruprecht loosened the man’s trousers and found his erection. ‘Oh … oh my God!’ Joerg broke off the kiss with the shock of feeling his genitals touched by another for the first time. Ruprecht knelt up over him and pulled off the small man’s lower clothes, then ripped open his shirt and roughly pulled off his undervest. Joerg sat naked and exposed to his gaze. ‘Jesus the Seneschal, Joerg. You’re really a surprise!’ The man’s torso was like that of a teenager, with taut, slim belly and a small slit of a navel. The resemblance to an adolescent was all the more marked because he was the size of an average fourteen-year-old. He was entirely hairless apart from a small puff of light brown above his erect penis. It was perfectly proportioned, the purple head exposed by the retracting foreskin, the brown balls tight to his groin. Joerg met his approving gaze shyly. He lay on his back when Ruprecht asked him to. ‘This is the decider, Joerg,’ he whispered in the man’s ear and stroked his nearest nipple lightly. It was dark brown and prominent. Joerg squirmed and whimpered, shifting his small butt on the grass. When Ruprecht sucked and slightly bit into its hardness, he arched and bucked. And when Ruprecht gave his attention to both his nipples, Joerg began groaning and fucking the air. Without warning his belly clenched; he arched and ejaculated in several heavy shots, one of which plastered the side of Ruprecht’s face as he was nibbling on the left nipple. When Joerg ceased panting and came off his climactic high, Ruprecht kissed him again and laughed. ‘Joerg, you really are a lucky little homo.’ *** Back at the house, Ruprecht got Joerg a strong drink and sat him down in his study. He let the little man sip at it for a while before he said anything. It occurred to him he might say nothing about what had just happened by the pool, and maybe Joerg would himself prefer to pretend it never had. Joerg might assume Ruprecht just wanted some momentary sexual relief. But there had been too much of a connection when the two men had kissed, and Joerg’s submissiveness had been a real turn-on for him, one he wanted to repeat, especially so as to fully deprive Joerg of his virginity. ‘So there you have it,’ he eventually said, with a smile. ‘We’re both homos and you’ve had sex. I enjoyed it and I hope you did.’ A shy and vulnerable smile answered that question. ‘I did, thank you. Would you like to do it again sometime …?’ ‘Very much. There’s a lot more to it, you know. That was just a taster. And Joerg … let’s be clear on this, it was because I was doing it with you that it was so good. You’re quite unexpected. I would like it if we could spend some time together in bed, mine or yours, whichever you prefer.’ ‘That would be … I can’t imagine anything I’d like more.’ He relaxed and beamed, and Ruprecht smiled back, leaning over to seek a brief kiss which was returned. After a moment of silent communion, he remembered a packet the morning’s post had brought from Hans, now back with his Leopard and in port at the Hochrechtner naval base of Luitpoldshaven. ‘I’ve got one more find from my so-called excavation in the Holy City to show you, Joerg. I mentioned the large coin that was in the erdbeest burial. Hans took it off back home with him to clean it up. I think this is it back again. Yes, he says he got one of his more skilled sailors to restore it so far as it was possible. He says we’ll find it very interesting.’ Ruprecht ripped open the packet and the disk, now free of verdigris, clunked on to his desk. He scrutinised it briefly, his eyes wide, then passed it on to Joerg. There was a silence followed by a long exhalation of breath. ‘My God! So it looks like there still is some historical evidence to be found. Can you read the English legend around the rim of the obverse face? It’s quite clear, unlike the central motif.’ He passed it back. Ruprecht slowly spelled out the still-sharp inscription: ‘TO COMMEMORATE THE EUROPEAN UNION : EXTRATERRESTRIAL COLONY ONE : AD 2150’. ‘And can you make out the design within?’ ‘No, it’s a bit corroded. Is it a face? No? Oh … I see. A map: damme, it’s the Mainland and Islands!’ ‘Hand it back, Rupe. I have a trick which may well tell us a lot more.’ Joerg took a sheet of thin paper and placed it over the medal, and buffed it lightly with the edge of a pencil. Then he handed the result to Ruprecht. ‘I can see three embossed points on the map; they’re five-pointed stars. They sit within what look like three kingdoms. There’s tiny writing, but it’s blurred apart from the top left-hand legend, which says, in Francien what’s more: CIRCONSCRIPTION ADMINISTRATIVE FRANÇAISE.’ Ruprecht pondered this for a while then flipped the medallion over. ‘There’s more here. Give me more paper and the pencil. Let’s see what I can make out.’ A minute’s work produced a central column of four names, the first three legible, which ran as follows: GUILLAUME LE ROUX : Président KEVIN O’CONNOR : Administrator : Anglo-Irish Zone JEAN-CHARLES MARTIN : Administrateur : Circonscr …
  7. Mike Arram

    Chapter 10

    The previous time Ruprecht had been resident in the Holy City he had rented a cheap, sunless room at the back of St Michael’s Seminary, where he was often disturbed by theological students banging doors and shouting, which for some reason they did quite a lot. This time he had leased the Casa Levitica, a handsome country residence in the hills south of the city itself, with a remarkable prospect of the spires and towers of the ancient city to the north and views of the deep blue sea to the east. The villa had a large pool to the rear, enclosed by hedges of dark ilex and fashioned out of the white, grey-veined marble of the region. Felix and Gilles were laying out on recliners enjoying the fresher warmth of the morning. They were wearing silk robes, since Felix’s mother had arrived the previous day. Hans had taken seasonal leave and escorted her south. He was at that moment lazily swimming the length of the pool while chatting with the boys, for both of whom he had a great affection. His robe lay discarded at the pool’s edge. Ruprecht’s grandmother was financing their stay in the Holy See, so he wasn’t feeling any guilt at the sum it took to secure such a lodging for the Christmas season, always a busy time in the Holy City. Many flocked here from the northern states as much for the delightful climate as the dramatic religious ceremonies and festivities. The villa had been a country estate of one of the more luxury-loving and corrupt fifth-century cardinal bishops, and still retained a castellated tower at the south end of its range, though the whole house had been modernised within the past two decades. It was the beginning of Christmas week, the feast of the Holy Archangels, but although the Patriarchal Library was still open Ruprecht had other academic concerns on this trip south. He was pretty confident his researches into early historical sources had gone as far as he could take them. He shared Joerg Tannerman’s belief that answers were to be found now under the surface of the earth, rather than in books. A knock on the door from Erwin Wenzel announced his cab had arrived, and he took his place in it as it headed down from the hill on which their villa was situated and up into the suburbs. The Holy City was much like any other conurbation until one reached the ancient and monumental city walls, fashioned in bands of white and pink stone and climbing to a height of fifteen metres, with massive octagonal mural towers reaching higher again. But above and beyond them were the spires, ranges and belfries of the Inner City’s twelve cardinalatures, each with its cathedral and residence, the mass of the Patriarchal Palace and, cresting the hill like a shining crown, the awesome grandeur of the White Basilica itself. That was where he was heading, for, by the intercession of his grandmother, he had secured the permission of the Proctor of the Basilica to penetrate its crypt and catacombs. The cab laboured up the steep and narrow inclines of the Inner City till it emerged at one of the entrances to St Michael’s Square, beyond which vehicles were not allowed. Ruprecht paid the cab and walked the colonnades, lined with statues and the impassive armoured figures of the Patriarchal Guard, till he reached the wide stairs which led up to the west front of the great church. He walked under the sculptures of God and His Seneschal welcoming all true believers and found the Proctor in his black cassock and purple cincture awaiting him. ‘Minheer Graf. On time. Very Good.’ Ruprecht bowed to the Proctor, who enjoyed the rank and wore the ring of a bishop. ‘Reverence, it’s very good of you to meet me in person. I would not have thought that satisfying my intellectual curiosity would merit a guide of such rank.’ ‘Not at all, minheer. Your grandmother and I are very old friends and what little she had to say about your researches piqued my curiosity no end. You wish to examine the catacombs beneath the Chapel of the Landing, is that right?’ ‘Yes reverence. I believe that you have no objection to my making measurements and sketches.’ ‘None whatsoever, dear boy. The nearest access stair is over there, below the north tower. Do come along. It has been a while since I was in the lower catacombs, and it will be a joy to see them again through your young eyes.’ They descended a narrow spiral stair to the parallel church which lay beneath the basilica, the Proctor’s robe sweeping the steps as they went. The great crypt’s five tunnel-vaulted aisles had been the burial place of the Patriarchs and certain favoured cardinals for eight centuries. It was consequently rich in marble statuary and sarcophaguses of the finest fashioning, which few eyes ever saw. A dim light shafted down through apertures in the outer walls. It was when they finally got to the west end that they encountered torches and lamps. ‘They’re not here for your benefit, my boy. The faithful are allowed in this section of the crypt to make their devotions at the chapels of the sainted patriarchs, which lie under the transepts. We’re going beyond to the undercroft of the sanctuary and to the Chapel of the Landing, which is located directly under the basilica’s high altar, as you’ll know.’ The Chapel was raised some metres above the level of the crypts to its west. It had an airy vault and proper windows so was dazzlingly bright after the gloomy passages Ruprecht had just traversed. A great star of twelve points was set in its marble floor in pure gold tesserae, and right in its centre was a low altar with six candles and a central pyx in which was reserved the Blessed Sacrament. In the blank apse to the east were sixth-century mural sculptures of the Enlightenment of the Seneschal and the Angelic Visitation, flanked by stylised scenes of the descent of the fireships drawn from descriptions in The Voyagers. The altar of the chapel was said to have been erected on the very spot Willem den Rot (in Alleman) or Guillaume le Rou (in Francien) first set foot on Terre Nouvelle. Both peoples claimed him as one of their own, though the Holy See was neutral on the subject, avoiding the issue by labelling him ‘William Redhead’ in ancient English. ‘A place of great beauty,’ Ruprecht commented. ‘Indeed it is, minheer. A fine spot to meditate in for all sorts of reasons, and I often avail myself of the opportunity. But you want to go to the catacombs below. I hope you’re not wearing any clothes you’ll be sorry to have spoiled. It’s very dirty and dusty down there. I’m going to leave my cassock here.’ Having divested himself, the Proctor, now in shirt and trousers and looking more like a lawyer than a cleric, led Ruprecht to a small door on the north of the chapel. He picked up a large oil lamp, lit it, unlocked the door and ducked to go through. Beyond was a narrow stair which wound down by steep steps into the roughly carved limestone catacombs directly beneath the chapel. Having reached the first level below the chapel, Ruprecht called to the Proctor to stop and got out his drawing materials, a measuring tape and compass: a surveying kit he had assembled with the advice of an envious Dr Tannerman, who was not happy that he could not accompany his patron. He had to remain in Blauwhaven to preside over the town’s own seasonal celebrations. For the next two hours Ruprecht paced and planned the cavernous and interlinked cells, with the Proctor’s willing assistance. At midday they broke for lunch, and the clergyman led Ruprecht up again into the fresh air and sunlight, blinding after the dimness of the catacombs. The two men pored over Ruprecht’s sketch plan in the dining room of the Proctor’s lodging. ‘My dear boy, this is quite remarkable,’ the cleric stated. ‘Do you know, I looked but we have no surveyor’s plan of this particular part of the basilica. What am I to make of these features?’ ‘By my reckoning many of these cells were artificially excavated, notably the largest of them, directly below the chapel, but others are I think natural formations, in part at least. The central one may well have been used for religious purposes, but look here and here at these perimeter cells. There are blackened areas of wall which look like the remains of domestic fires, some still have the scattered and scorched cobbles which may once have been hearths. It’s a very diverse complex I think, and not principally religious in origin. There’s a lot of broken pottery which I’d like to take samples of. Then there’s the smudges of what might have been mural paintings of some sort. I need to scratch around in the central section which clearly relates to the church above. Would that be acceptable?’ ‘Minheer Graf, as long as you keep this to yourself I would say yes. However, I’m pretty sure my Evangelical brethren might well have a different opinion, so I would suggest you keep what you are finding quiet for the moment, particularly your opinion that the catacombs are not necessarily religious in origin. That would very much upset those who believe that the Blessed Michael the Proto-Patriarch had a prophetic vision of a Second Landing in those very caverns. I’ll let you get on with the rest of your exploration in peace. I have more routine concerns to keep me busy this afternoon.’ Ruprecht headed back down into the catacombs having borrowed a number of tools and several sacks in which to place any objects which might come up. He also took several lamps to try to make more of the smudged murals on the walls. He took a sample of floor debris: shattered bones, pottery fragments and anything that looked like it might have been an artefact. There was a good deal of material which at first sight resembled pottery, but on examining it he was not so sure, as it had the features of glass, including sharp edges, on which he managed to cut himself. He was particularly intrigued by a number of small crushed and corroded brass metal tubes whose purpose he could not even guess at. That was the easy part. He then used a broom to scour clean the large central cell immediately below the chapel. He found no domestic rubbish there at all, which was probably significant, but he did find a sequence of nine long depressions in the floor in three lines of three running east to west, which he would have taken to be graves, but they were simply far too large for any human body, though maybe not for a buried sarcophagus. Ruprecht took the westernmost central depression and scraped away at what he imagined might be the head end with a hoe. The soil was dry and friable, so he got down to a half a metre without too much difficulty, though he would need spades to go further. He was not too keen to ask for them and so alert the authorities to his activities in this sacred site. He was about to give up when his hoe struck on a hard object. Ruprecht fell to his knees and used his hands to push away the dust and debris. Two large black holes stared back up at him from the earth. It was a skull, but not a human one. More shovelling with his fingers uncovered its nature: it was the head of what he imagined must be an erdbeest, for it was too flat in the face for a horse, antelope or buffalo. Some more work allowed him to dislodge it and lever it out of the ground. He quickly concealed it in a sack and went back to the pile of debris he had shifted. Sifting through it produced more pottery fragments and a large metal disk, which he judged to be of copper or some copper alloy as it was corroded green. He pocketed it, then backfilled the hole he had made and smoothed it over, kicking white dust from the surrounding surface over it and tamping it down with his foot. When a shout announced the return of the Proctor, Ruprecht was innocently sketching the smudges on the walls of the cells, and was more or less finished. The two men tidied up and, having expressed his great gratitude to the Proctor, Ruprecht took his satchel of notes and three sacks of finds to go in search of a cab. *** Gilles and Felix were predictably enthused at the result of Ruprecht’s rudimentary excavation beneath the great church, both the illicit and legitimate one, but particularly the great skull, which Gilles carefully emptied of packed dirt, washed, oiled and polished. It stared back at them from a console table in the drawing room like a rather macabre ornament. It was not entirely intact, and had a round hole in its left side. The table was sheeted and neatly displayed the cleaned-up finds of pottery, bone and the various metal objects from the debris, which Felix had taken upon himself to organise. ‘I don’t know what it all means, but it is amazing!’ Felix declared. ‘What about this coin?’ ‘I think we’ll have to leave that till we get back to the doctor. He’ll know what to do with it. In the meantime I’m going to rework my plan of the catacombs.’ Gilles volunteered to draw elevations of each cell wall with the location of each mural clearly marked. He had a very good draughtsman’s eye. Felix sharpened his pencils for him and calculated the scale for the drawing. In the end Felix got so caught up in his measurements that he himself began a three-dimensional drawing of the whole complex. His mother and Hans came in and admired their work, while Hans scrutinised the enigmatic disk. ‘It’s got letters on it,’ he eventually said. ‘How can you tell?’ Ruprecht enquired. ‘The eye of faith. Also, being a naval officer, I have an affinity for anything made of brass.’ ‘Can you clean it up?’ ‘It’s trickier than you might think. If I used acid to dissolve the verdigris it might just pit the metal beneath and obliterate the surface decoration.’ ‘Then what would you suggest?’ ‘I’ll go ask your man Erwin to find me a brush and a rag.’ He looked around innocently. ‘And would anyone happen to have some clear mineral oil to help dissolve the dirt?’ Felix went red and shot a covert glance at his mother. ‘I … er … think there may be some in the … bathroom between mine and Gilles’s chambers. A … workman may have left it there.’ Hans beamed mischievously at his little brother. ‘Now isn’t that so very lucky!’ *** Dinner was served late in a loggia overlooking the villa’s handsome formal gardens. Flambeaux burned out on the paths and they dined by candlelight in the warm southern night, according to local custom, draped in gorgeous silk robes. Hans and the two younger boys wore nothing else since they had come from the pool. Ruprecht observed that in this light and with his smooth chest exposed by the open robe Gilles looked more elfin than human; his eyes glittered and his ready smile flashed in the candlelight. Felix looked nowhere but at him. There were garlands in the hair of the barefoot boys and of the countess, as was traditional at formal dinners in the Southlands for women, children and adolescents of both sexes. The stars were bright in the black sky, except where the city’s glow stained it a dull orange to the north. The Three Sisters burned low in the south. Large hunting moths fluttered white across the garden, courting the flambeaux, whose tempting flames kept the insects from approaching the house. Erwin Wenzel marshalled the meal in his new gold-laced seneschal’s livery coat, a white staff in his hand to direct the lesser servants. Ruprecht felt very much at ease with the world. He had enjoyed his first attempt at investigative excavation, even if he had little idea of the significance of what he had found. Joerg Tannerman would no doubt take care of that. He was meditating on the quality of the red wine being served with the main course when his mind was dragged back to the conversation, which had turned to the latest news from Ardhesse. The countess had paid a call that afternoon to the duchess of Grenzheim, an old schoolfellow of hers. ‘My dear, she is more or less a refugee in the Holy See. Young King Kristijan has commandeered her estate on the borders of Westrecht, where he has rallied his supporters. They say he has only a small force, no more than ten regiments of infantry and five of cavalry, all his supporters could field. The Regent has three times as many troops and all the artillery he might need. He also has the backing of the late king’s friends. It’s just a matter of time. But the young king is causing no end of damage to the west of the country: blowing up bridges and railway lines and raiding towns. They say not even church treasuries are safe from his marauders.’ Gilles chipped in, to Ruprecht’s surprise. ‘I’ve been reading the Francien papers that have made it south, Mutta. The Mercure Impériale has been praising Duke Horst and it is said the Empress Regent will recognise him as rightful king, which may clear the way for an Imperial intervention. The Vieldomainien press says Kristijan is trying to gain the support of the Grand Duchy of Westrecht, which has been insulted by the Regent’s insinuation that Kristijan’s mother, a princess of that land, had him by an affair with a cavalry officer. The Regent has her in prison. They say the poor lady is being kept under duress till she makes a confession. It is all very bad, I think.’ The countess smiled at her Francien foster-child, whom she adored quite as much as did the Princess Regent, her mother. ‘It is very bad indeed when men make war on women, Gillot my dear. If the noble code has any usefulness it is that it is an obstacle to those who would hurt and exploit the unarmed and defenceless. But there are too many hypocrites amongst the princes and minheeren of the present day. Their nobility is all posture and no reality.’ Felix quirked his lips. ‘Not all princes, lieblen Mutta! Some of us are quite nice people and even tidy our apartments when we feel like it! But it seems to me that it’s money which is at the root of the problem.’ ‘How so?’ asked Ruprecht, increasingly intrigued at the evidence that his two young charges were becoming intellectually engaged with their world and its society. ‘Gillot and I talk about this a lot. We have different standpoints obviously, but we both think that traditional nobility and its code was a good thing in its day. It did make it a disgrace for a lord to be brutal and unfeeling to his dependents, and it did make lords listen to the Church even if they didn’t want to. But since the opening of trade and manufacturies and all the modern inventions like steam power, voltaism and railways, it’s all falling apart. Some nobles are getting hugely rich by financing industry and the rail network, attracting people from the countryside into big and unhealthy cities, exploiting and taking no responsibility for them.’ ‘We’re doing pretty well out of that ourselves, my Kreech,’ Ruprecht observed. ‘Maybe,’ the boy replied, ‘but if the world’s problems are changing, then the nobility has to change with it. If we can’t protect and do justice to our people, like in the old days, we have to find new ways to justify our privilege.’ Hans became engaged at this point. ‘Little Kreech has a point. The old military system makes less and less sense. As a naval officer, I lead a professional and highly-trained crew where noble status is entirely irrelevant to anyone’s ability to do his job. Our officers are trained up nowadays in our Naval Academy, just like the Royal Navy of Dreiholmtz has been for a century and more, and you get into it by examination, not by family contacts. It’s talent which makes your career in our navy. Why isn’t the army like this? Instead it’s a money-making machine for the colonels and their noble officers, and the quality of their troops is all too often just what you’d expect. The specialist corps of artillery, telegraphers and engineers have no status despite their obvious importance in modern warfare.’ Ruprecht laughed. ‘Cover your ears, Mutta! Don’t ever repeat these heresies to our father! He’d put Hans in the dungeons of Freiborg. The House of Aalst was built on the old way of war.’ Felix had been meditating, and came back at this point. ‘Gillot and I think that in our new world the commoners will eventually have a lot more to say about how things are done. Since many lords no longer take their responsibilities seriously they may ask what use the noble class is to them anymore.’ Ruprecht demurred. ‘They may well do, but the nobility still has all the power through its control of land and industry, and by the swords and rifles of its regiments. As long as the emperor, the kings and the great princes are on their thrones, and the nobles are at the heads of their regiments, I don’t see much changing.’ His mother mused. ‘I see changes. It’s not only the nobles who are acquiring wealth. I see new sorts of characters appearing at my drawing room receptions: managers, businessmen and speculators. They’re not noble, but they are staking a claim to a higher place in society than commoners have had till now. The fact that they and their wives are being invited within my doors and that their children are entering our universities tells me our world is indeed changing, Ruprecht my dear.’ Hans agreed. ‘Boundaries are loosening, Rupe. You don’t see it, stuck in your ivory tower.’ Ruprecht sniffed. ‘I don’t deny that there’s travel up and down in our society. But there always has been. Take the Church: clerics with children have always been promoted and they use their stipends and prebends to get their kids schooled. They can buy decent marriages into noble families. Not all of their offspring become clergy. Sometimes they buy estates with what they inherit from their episcopal fathers, and the end result is that they rise quietly into the lesser nobility and Lehensherren. How are capitalists any different? Take the present margrave of Schwarzwald. He’s given one of his daughters to the son of that man Wilders who made a pile on the construction of the extension of the Grand Southern Line into the Montenard Republic. So Herr Wilders’ grandchildren will be first cousins to the margrave; they’ll have big estates and get to be Ritters, maybe even noble Lehensherren. But old man Wilders still started out as a signalman.’ Hans shook his head. ‘It’s not people like him I’m talking about, Rupe. They’re the steam from the escape valve. It’s the overheating boiler I’m thinking of.’ ‘Good naval metaphor, Hans!’ Felix applauded. ‘You think maybe the engine’s about to rupture?’ ‘Un bouleversement.’ Gilles commented. ‘What does that mean?’ Hans asked: his Francien was not so good. ‘A complete upheaval,’ Felix translated. ‘Interesting times are coming. Gillot and I will be fine though if the princely business folds. We’ve got an alternative career going as a musical duo. Me on flute and Gillot singing.’ The countess applauded. ‘Excellent! Minheer Wenzel, can you put lights in the music room for us? I want to hear the boys perform after we leave the table, and I feel the need to accompany my son in Eisenschmidt’s sixth duet for flute and keyboard.’ *** Ruprecht’s mind continually recurred to that conversation in the loggia over the next few weeks. But from where he sat in the Casa Levitica, the grand hall of the Patriarchal Library, and the western gallery of the White Basilica during the sumptuous patriarchal celebration of Christmas, his world looked much the same as it ever had. Felix recovered fully during the two weeks of holiday, and once again regained his colour and even some weight. His vitality also returned, as Gilles sheepishly confessed to Ruprecht when he was asked. ‘Kreech is pretty much insatiable. I was always told the fever of the consumption inflames desire, and it’s true he’s always wanting to be inside me … even in the pool when no one is looking. I don’t mind though really, even if I got no sleep last night. I want him back just as much.’ Ruprecht smiled, kissed the boy and wished him all the strength he needed. Just before they left the Holy See, papers came out announcing the first battle in the west of Ardhesse. Early reports talked of King Kristijan’s ambush on Christmas Day itself of a column of the Regent’s army near his base in Grenzheim, and the subsequent rout of his uncle’s forces. Hans shrugged at the news. ‘The boy’s lucky. But in military affairs it’s weight of numbers which counts in the end. He won’t get another such chance. The Regent was stupid to split his forces.’ A gazette from sympathetic Westrecht which came their way portrayed things nonetheless very positively. Kristijan’s force was it seems heavily outnumbered, but caught the Regent’s column unsuspecting while it was crossing a river, his infantry digging in and holding up the vanguard while his cavalry regiments swam the flood at an unsuspected ford and circled round to take the Regency troops in the rear. There were heavy enemy casualties and an artillery train was captured, a severe reverse for the Duke. Most interesting to the boys were several pages of wood engravings depicting the action, from sketches made by Westrechtner correspondents in the field. A particularly striking print showed the heroic young king in the course of the battle riding with his cuirassiers, himself unarmoured, pistol in hand and shooting dead the enemy commander. When the Von Aalst party took the northbound express at the Holy City’s St Mikhel Hauptbahnhof, pedlars were hawking colour lithographs of the same scene and making brisk sales, along with half-length photographic portraits of Kristijan III looking very handsome in military uniform. ‘I’ll bet the bastard shot the poor general down after he’d surrendered,’ Gilles growled, unimpressed. *** For the second time in his life Ruprecht von Aalst felt a sense of unlikely homecoming. The first time had been when he led the refugee Kristijan of Ardhesse to his old haunts in Chasancene. The second was when he sighted the ugly old Schloss Blauwhaven as his carriage reached the paddock. The place was his and he felt he really belonged to it. His two boys clearly felt the same. They whooped and leapt out of the moving carriage, throwing off their clothes carelessly as they scampered across the broken ground towards their favourite resort. They were naked well before they were out of sight. ‘Shall I recover their clothing, minheer Graf?’ Erwin, who had travelled ahead of the main party, smirked as he greeted his master at the front door. ‘They’ll not need it for a few days, I’d guess. Not till Meister Andrecht returns from his holidays. How are you Erwin?’ ‘Sire?’ ‘How are things developing now you’re my seneschal?’ ‘Minheer Graf, I’m rising to the challenges.’ ‘You are indeed’ Ruprecht affirmed. ‘I am very pleased indeed with my choice of Antrustion.’ The man bowed low and welcomed his lord to his castle. Ruprecht issued his instructions as to dinner and an invitation to the rector was sent off in due form. The dark old furniture, the gloomy seventh-century portraits and the smoke-scented great hall had lost their intimidatory air to the Lehensherr of Blauwhaven. The place had given him too many good memories, and even the pain of the Vinseff fiasco had not disenchanted Ruprecht with it. It was now simply home, and he welcomed his new friend the rector into it with suitable ceremony. The boys bounded over and hugged the doctor, whom they loved for his kindness and comfort to Felix, talking ten to the dozen about their adventures in the Far South. The little man was both bemused and amused. ‘So, then. When do I get to see the fruits of your first excavations?’ Dr Tannerman asked. ‘After dinner, Joerg. The cook has been saving up some of the Christmas leftovers for us. She was not happy we were elsewhere for the feast. She took it as a personal slight.’ Ruprecht led the way to the table. Erwin was back in his plain jacket, declaring his seneschal’s livery was far too grand for ordinary use. Despite the threat, the meal was wholesome and well-presented. The boys drank the glass of wine they were usually allowed, and listened with attention to the doctor’s reflections on his new cure of souls. ‘Taking your advice, Rupe, I engaged the services of a couple of assistant clergy, one a clever but financially embarrassed young man from Schwarzwald who thought he could marry on the salary of a priest assistant, forgetting that children inevitably follow. The other is a worthy old fellow I met years ago who hasn’t ever had much preferment, but whose abilities with parishioners I’ve always envied. I’ve set them up in two houses belonging to the church: a gloomy view of the graveyard but I expect they’ll adapt. The younger fellow is fierce about liturgy and music while the other is so pastoral I feel guilty taking up his time about anything else. I’ll just leave them to get on with things.’ ‘Should I invite them up to the schloss?’ ‘I think twice a year will be sufficient. They’ll be properly flattered.’ ‘Tell me about things in the town. This is where the priest and the Lehensherr are traditional allies, you understand.’ Joerg mused for a couple of moments, scrutinising his wineglass. ‘It’s an oddly diverse place. There is the fishing community, all interrelated – some would say to an incestuous degree – but incredibly supportive of each other, necessarily so since most years bring the loss of one or more vessels and their crews. Their Friendly Society is quite a force in the town. But it’s the business community which is the burgeoning concern, with a number of outsiders shaking things up since it’s their money they’re investing in the town and its development. The holiday business may be the future of Blauwhaven, and though the fishing families know it they don’t necessarily like it, even if they make money providing boats for excursion parties. It’s the commercial folk who’re agitating the town council about improving the railway to a double track. The fishermen aren’t so keen. All in all, local politics could get interesting, and both sides are looking to the Lehensherr of Blauwhaven to be their ally.’ Felix was impressed. ‘My dear doctor, you’re quite the social analyst. Take care or I may make you a bishop!’ ‘My father would be horrified at the thought, Serene Highness,’ the cleric said with a smile. ‘Please doctor …to you, I’m the Kreech or Felix. But I like Kreech. From now on you’re Joerg to me and Gillot.’ ‘I’ll remember that, and thank you. But now … I’ve been patient long enough. Can we get on to your finds in the Holy City?’ ‘Sure, Gillot’s laid them out in the drawing room.’ The party adjourned to look over the finds, artistically arranged by the two boys. He exhaled loudly on seeing the skull, set in the centre. ‘My word,’ he said, ‘that’s a handsome example of a royal erdbeest, a bull I think.’ ‘How can you tell the difference between them?’ Gilles enquired. ‘The size principally, but the bull has those three pronounced bumps across the forehead, which may be the relics of horns its species once flaunted.’ ‘What, like horses and antelopes?’ ‘Horns are common to the males of many of the larger mammalian species on Terre Nouvelle, though obviously not humans as we come from somewhere else. The females don’t have the bumps. Their smaller size makes the female skull difficult to distinguish from the common erdbeest. Of course the royal erdbeest was bipedal and the common variety is more or less quadrupedal, so there’s no doubt which you’re looking at if you have the whole skeleton. And you found it ceremonially buried?’ ‘There may have been nine of them beneath the Chapel of the Landing, laid out in a deliberate pattern,’ Ruprecht replied. ‘Do you think they were sacrificial? I hadn’t thought our ancestors did that sort of thing.’ ‘They may have done all sorts of things in the first century we have no idea of. We do know that they hunted the species more or less to extinction before the Noble Wars. The hunting of the royal erdbeest was the particular recreation of the emperor and the kings, hence their name. No cut marks on the skull, so it wasn’t butchered, but then I never heard that the royal erdbeest was hunted for food, unlike the common variety. It was the feat of catching and killing them which was prized. There are still several surviving trophy skulls to be found exhibited in the halls of certain of the more ancient noble houses in the Empire and Kingdoms, and of course the erdbeest is one of the more common heraldic devices. The bulls were dangerous and cunning beasts, according to the old poems and tales, capable of taking down a horse and its rider with their talons alone. At least three ancient kings are recorded as being killed in the erdbeest hunt.’ ‘What do you make of the hole in its head?’ ‘Interesting. It looks like it must have been the result of a projectile weapon, though it’s too large for an arrow and too regular in shape for a javelin. But I imagine that’s what killed it. It must have struck with real force to make a hole in such thick bone. Now let’s look at the debris.’ Joerg began to sort and examine the finds. Despite the questions bubbling from the boys he kept his counsel, though a crease of concentration grew deeper on his forehead. Finally he indicated the shards and fragments of the odd glasslike substance. ‘I’ve seen this material before, smooth, sharp and shiny. It appeared in my dig at Schwarzwald at the lowest levels. Like glass and pottery, it’s highly resistant to decay. The pottery you’ve found is classic English blueware, as I call it. So you can take that as additional evidence that the Holy See was founded by the ancient English of Kholnai.’ ‘And the brass tubing?’ ‘Well there’s the interesting thing. You found all this material scattered in one of the domestic cells, yes? Of course being on or just below the surface of a cave there’s no way of knowing how long it was there. But first, look at this corroded ironwork you found. You say it was a dry environment, so to get in this state it must have been under the basilica for centuries, likewise your pieces of tube. Now, let me take these pieces and rearrange them. Do you recognise what they might be? No? Well, if I put them together like this what do you see, Kreech?’ ‘Well … it looks like …. but it can’t be. Can it?’ ‘Damn me!’ exclaimed Ruprecht. ‘It’s a goddam handgun!’ ‘Yes, and the tubes are in fact used shell casings. The hole in the erdbeest skull looks suddenly more accountable.’
  8. Mike Arram

    Chapter 9

    You guys are reading the plot well. How can I ever surprise you?
  9. Mike Arram

    Chapter 9

    Ruprecht remarked to himself how Gilles and Felix continued to surprise. They had been like angry children during the confrontation with Anton Vinseff, shielding the boy Ludwig and hurling vociferous abuse at the man who had sexually assaulted him, running to the nearest grown-up to get his help. In the aftermath of the challenge they were more dignified and mature than most adults would have been. He supposed it was that as adolescents they saw things in more clear and black-and-white terms than full-grown men, and were therefore decisive in their assessment of events which affected them. It was obvious to them that Captain-lieutenant Vinseff was an evil and abusive man, so he should be vilified and physically resisted. It was equally obvious to them that he must be challenged and killed for his insult to the House of Aalst. Ruprecht envied them. Having an adult knowledge of people and their motivations made things less clear-cut, and for all he was outraged by Anton’s actions, he could understand something of where they came from. A corner of his mind even tried to blame himself for denying his backside to the captain, whose sexual frustration was therefore taken out on the gardener’s boy in the way that many men of Ruprecht’s own class believed to be perfectly acceptable and for which he could not have been challenged. Anton would have got away with doing it too, had not Erwin Wenzel been keeping him under surveillance and chosen fatefully to intervene. Ruprecht’s own feelings in the affair were mixed. After the ebbing of his fierce anger at the insult to his honour, which in its way was itself an adolescent reaction, he began calculating that the death of Vinseff might solve several problems and was rather grateful that the man had put himself in a situation where his despatch could be accomplished without any negative consequences for the House of Aalst. That is, of course, should he manage not to get killed himself. He had no real idea of the degree of skill the captain possessed in the management of the sword. He assumed that as Anton was a professional soldier he ought to be a formidable master of the blade. As a man of his class Ruprecht had been thoroughly schooled in the use of arms, but for several years now he had been a scholar and civil servant. The day after the incident and the prompt expulsion of Vinseff from his house he sat with his two charges and dealt with the consequences. Erwin was currently languishing in his room with a broken and swollen jaw, attended by his solicitous staff, to whom he was now a hero after his valiant protection of little Ludwig. The boy himself was being cossetted with delicacies and mothering in the kitchen. Felix had subsequently been instructing Gilles in the etiquette and mechanics of noble affairs of honour, and was finding his lover to be a fierce disciple. ‘So Rupe,’ the Francien boy was saying, ‘he’s got to appear at the duel or be cashiered and exiled from Bernicia.’ ‘Exactly,’ Felix chimed in before his brother could reply. ‘No serving officer can refuse a challenge. It’s the same as cowardice in battle. If he runs he becomes an outlaw and anyone can kill him without penalty.’ ‘What does a second do?’ Gilles asked. ‘He’s there to prevent anyone else joining in the fight,’ Ruprecht replied, ‘and also to set up the event. If his man doesn’t turn up he has to take his place, though the fight is not to the death even if it was a mortal offence.’ ‘So we’re all off to Ostberg this evening,’ Felix announced. ‘This is me arranging things!’ he added brightly. Ruprecht raised his eyebrow. ‘So what have you forgotten?’ ‘Nothing,’ his brother stated. ‘The doctor?’ Felix grinned. ‘Sorted. I telegraphed your priest in Schwarzwald. Two birds with one stone, if you follow me. Possibly three.’ He winked. ‘You’re bringing Dr Tannerman into it?’ ‘Why not? He’s a friend of yours and a doctor. You said he was nice. I got his reply an hour ago, he said he’d be happy to assist.’ ‘Fair enough. I’ve telegraphed Hans at Groothuis myself. He’ll get special leave and be at Ostberg too.’ Gilles held up his hand like a schoolboy. ‘What about the Princess Liesbeth Maria? She has to know what we’re doing.’ Felix giggled. ‘Grossmutta will be pissed. She always told me she thought women should be able to fight affairs of honour for themselves. She won’t intervene. It’ll be all we can do to stop her attending.’ *** Gilles’s return to Ostberg was a very different occasion from his first arrival there. This time he occupied a palace landau sitting next to the prince of Ostberg, both boys handsome in formal court suits, Felix with several orders of chivalry around his neck and on his coat. The streets were lined with cheerful and vocal crowds as the prince rode in state to the Residenz of Ostberg, while a salute of twenty-one guns boomed out from the citadel above to mark the state return of the sovereign to his capital. ‘Grossmutta thought it best,’ Felix observed. ‘She says it’s about time I took on a ceremonial role at least, and lifted some of the burden from her. So from now on every time I leave and arrive in town the razorbills get scared out of their wits by cannon fire. She also tells me I have to make a state visit to Schwarzwald and say hello formally to the margrave if I’m going to be living in his dominions. Apparently it’s rude if I don’t.’ The boy prince seemed to be enjoying the occasion well enough, especially as Gilles was sitting beside him. They both beamed and waved at the charmed populace, and threw handfuls of coins to the children running alongside the carriages from a bucket of currency thoughtfully placed at their feet. The Residenz was a distinguished sixth-century mansion on the north side of the river, where a deep natural shelf allowed a great city square to be laid out. The house occupied the east face of the square, with formal gardens to the rear from which there were dramatic sea views. It was one of the finest of the great houses that the princes of that century had built. It had none of the military paraphernalia of the former noble castles, just acres of windows and forests of pillars and finials. It even had water closets. Felix raised his hat as he descended from the carriage in the inner courtyard. A band played and the guidon of the honour guard was lowered in salute to the prince. A chamberlain marshalled yellow-clad footmen to escort their lord, his party and their luggage within. Ruprecht noticed that Gilles no longer had any self-consciousness in dealing with servants. The boy expected his consequence to be observed, though with none of the nonchalant arrogance many aristocrats of his age displayed. Felix was ushered in the direction of the presence chamber through a series of dramatic antechambers lined with guards and suppliants. His grandmother was awaiting him on the steps of his throne. She kissed him and handed him into the chair, where he shot a grin at his lover. Gilles had taken station beside Ruprecht, the man’s hand on his shoulder. A buffet lunch was laid out along the wall, so Gilles and Ruprecht sidled over to fill plates, while a procession of local worthies ascended the steps to kiss Felix’s hand and be introduced by the princess regent. In the meantime Ruprecht circulated, introducing the Jonker Gilles von Aalst-Parmentier around the room, finally leaving him with three deeply-smitten teenage noble girls who fluttered madly around him like moths about a lamp, utterly charmed by his looks, seductive Francien accent and shy smile. The princess finally descended from the throne, leaving Felix engaged in conversation with three bearded state councillors. ‘So Ruprecht, you will be fighting for your life on my lawn tomorrow morning.’ ‘Yes, Grossmutta. I’ll try not to make a mess of it.’ ‘Sometimes you are very like your father, my dear child. Well, I’m sure you had good cause. Your opponent’s a captain in one of the noble regiments I believe and, from what my police agents tell me, an unsavoury character. What on earth was he doing at Blauwhaven? One of your homosexual associates I don’t doubt.’ ‘Indeed Grossmutta. Though his offence had nothing to do with that. He struck my seneschal.’ ‘You have an Antrustion? My dear, you’re growing up fast, and none too soon since you may have only a limited amount of time left to do it in. Now where is this boy you’ve adopted into the family?’ Gilles was ushered over and the princess surveyed him at length while he blushed. ‘My dear,’ she eventually pronounced, ‘you are quite the most beautiful young man I have ever met. You will feel out of place in our distinctly plain family. Here, kiss your Grossmutta.’ Gilles went to his knee and took the old woman’s hand to kiss it, a very well-judged gesture. The princess smiled warmly as she raised the boy, and she kissed him on both cheeks. Then she took him by the hand and led him to a nearby sofa, where they had a long and private conversation. She eventually led him by the hand back to Ruprecht. ‘My dear, you have chosen well,’ she said to Ruprecht. ‘I am very pleased indeed with my new grandson, especially as I may be about to lose one of the ones I already have. Now I must go off and do some ruling. I expect you both at dinner at the Farcostan Palace tonight, mind. Hans will be there. It may be the last time we see you outside a coffin, Ruprecht.’ Gilles turned to his guardian after they had made their bows, his eyes shining. ‘Rupe! She’s amazing! What a wonderful person, and she said I must call her Grossmutta!’ *** Gilles and Felix sat close together at dinner, Felix at the opposite end of the long table to his grandmother. Ruprecht had Hans at his side. His brother had the sense not to test his grandmother’s patience by coming improperly dressed to her board, and was wearing a well-cut naval mess jacket with his decorations. ‘So that’s my new brother?’ he observed, nodding towards Gilles. ‘Perhaps brother-in-law might be more accurate,’ Ruprecht replied. Hans looked more narrowly in Gilles’s direction and at the way his and Felix’s heads were close together. ‘What, him and the Kreech? So you’re not the only homo in the family? Well! A good thing maybe. Our poor little cat-monster needs someone to cuddle him at night. He’s been dealt a poor hand. And talking of poor hands, fill me in on how you got yourself into your current mess. Is this anything to do with that psychotic king we picked up at Port François?’ Ruprecht sighed. ‘No, it’s Anton Vinseff.’ ‘Anton Vinseff … hang on, I know that name. Wasn’t he the stable hand you were in love with when we were kids here? The one you wrote all those abysmal, long and soppy poems about.’ ‘Oh God! I’d forgotten them. Now I’m so embarrassed. And you read them?’ ‘No, you read them to me, you sick twerp. You were utterly obsessed with him. After seeing you in the throes of lovesickness, I almost decided to get myself castrated. Go on, tell me what happened.’ Ruprecht did his best with the complicated and somewhat embarrassing story, while Hans did his best not to laugh. It took up a whole two courses. Around the time he was finishing a vice-chamberlain materialised at Ruprecht’s elbow and bent down to whisper that his guest had arrived. Ruprecht rose, bowed low first to Felix then to his grandmother, and departed the table. He found a slight figure in black loitering in the marble entrance hall, examining the statues and trophies with great interest. He turned and smiled when he saw Ruprecht. It was quite an attractive, shy smile and lit up the man’s small face nicely when it appeared, Ruprecht noted. ‘M-m-minheer G-g-graf.’ ‘Hello Joerg. It’s very good of you to come at such short notice.’ The clergyman was in an appropriate dark suit and carrying a leather valise which looked more like a doctor’s bag than a travel case. ‘N-n-not at all, minheer. One c-c-cannot turn down an inv-v-v-itation from a S-s-serene Highness.’ ‘I apologise for my little brother’s insistence. He meant well. Perhaps you’ll come through to the drawing room and I can explain things. Now the first thing you must understand is that I’m homosexual. Is that a problem?’ The doctor burst into peals of laughter. ‘S-s-surreal, dear Graf.’ ‘I’m serious!’ ‘Of c-c-course you are, minheer. It’s j-j-just a very strange way of starting a c-c-conversation with one of my vocation.’ He wiped his eyes. ‘Not a problem then?’ ‘Of c-c-course not. Many of my c-c-colleagues are too.’ ‘Ah well, the rumours are true then it seems. The duel tomorrow morning is a matter of honour. The man, a cavalry officer and former lover of mine, deliberately struck an Antrustion of the House of Aalst zum Blauwhaven. You will realise that is a mortal offence and can be wiped out only in blood.’ ‘I d-d-deplore that of course, minheer. B-b-but I am here as a physician and I would say f-f-friend.’ ‘I would call you so, Joerg. You may call me Ruprecht. I would like that.’ ‘I too, E-e-excellency. It may just take me a while to g-g-get used to the idea.’ ‘Come with me into the drawing room. I’ve arranged a bed for you in the palace tonight. I hope you can stay longer, but of course the need for your attendance here may not last much longer than tomorrow’s dawn.’ The two men took armchairs in the otherwise empty room, and a bell summoned a servant who took orders for drinks and a cold supper for Dr Tannerman. As they were waiting the clergyman nervously brushed his blond fringe out of his eyes and began. ‘R-r-ruprecht, I know how the nobility cultivates an air of amused ind-d-difference to the world around them, but even so I’m surprised at the c-c-cold bloodedness you’re displaying to the possibility that you might well become a c-c-corpse within the next nine or ten hours.’ Ruprecht raised his eyebrows. ‘Really? Ah well, you weren’t brought up at Freiborg by my father, the Marshal-General of Hochrecht. A significant percentage of my family have never made it to the age of thirty due to our military pursuits. The possibility of a premature exit from the world is always with people like me. I thought, being a scholar and diplomat, I might escape that fate, but as you see the sins of our fathers do tend to find us out. ‘If I may, I’d like to change the subject. Not that I’m uncomfortable with it, you understand, just that I have some ideas I’d like to communicate while I’m still able, and you’re one of the few people who would understand them and could take them forward. I have brought my notes with me, and my brother the prince is aware that they must be given to you in the event of my death tomorrow. I made my will before I left Blauwhaven and you are nominated my literary executor. I hope too that you’ll interest yourself in the education of my young ward, the Jonker Gilles von Aalst, who has expressed a wish to attend university; your advice would be of great value to him, I believe.’ Dr Tannerman readily assented and put himself entirely at the minheer Graf’s disposal for the rest of the evening. So Ruprecht began an explanation of his latest ideas and theories. The clergyman listened quietly, nodding and making the odd encouraging noise. As with their previous meeting, his speech impediment gradually disappeared as he became more engaged in their mutual enthusiasm. ‘So, you believe that there was in fact an English kingdom in the south of the Mainland in the earliest days of human settlement; the kingdom of k-k-Kholnai ruled over by a succession of kings called Connor. The English were not therefore scattered outcast tribes absorbed into the rising Francien and Allemanic states but the dominant kingdom for maybe three or four generations, founders indeed of the Patriarchate and our religion, until the Francien Empire usurped their pre-eminence and spent the next two centuries systematically obliterating their memory so as to cement its historical legitimacy, especially as regards its claims on the Patriarchate.’ ‘It all fits, Joerg. How else could it be that the oldest texts of the Summarium and the earliest liturgy of the Church are in English? It also fits with the theory that The Voyagers was originally a prose English tale, not a Francien epic poem. Incidentally, next time you go looking at the work, notice how it is that when the Landing in the fireships happens, the captains and mariners all answer to an admiral called Guillaume le Rou and among his Twenty Companions is a warrior called Kevin Lengleis and a magician called Malcolm de Kholnai: English names both, and the only other reference I’ve found to Kholnai in early literature.’ Joerg Tannerman deliberated for a while. ‘Then you’ve gone as far as surviving texts will take you into prehistory, Ruprecht,’ he eventually responded. ‘The only way to cut through the mystery is by investigative excavation.’ Ruprecht beamed. ‘My thoughts exactly. I was impressed by what you could make some broken pieces of pot tell you. Maybe there’s a lot more to be found underground.’ ‘I think so, my friend. You’ve formulated some very big questions, but the answers may be down to me.’ ‘Down to us, Joerg. If I survive tomorrow, I’m determined to put my new prosperity to use. I’m ready to fund your digs, and what’s more, I have an ecclesiastical living at Blauwhaven in my gift. How would you like to be Rector of the place? You can employ an assistant priest or two to do the routine stuff. It’s quite a wealthy benefice, I’m told, and getting wealthier all the time.’ The man was startled. ‘You’d do that? You’d tempt me to murder?’ ‘What?’ ‘Well if your captain fellow is found dead in an ambush on his way to the duelling site, I would have to be the prime suspect now, wouldn’t I, Ruprecht old fellow?’ *** Ruprecht took off his coat and handed it to his second, who bundled it and passed it on to ‘his third’ as Felix called Gilles. All the palace party were in traditional duelling black, with cloaks against the dawn chill, for it was now late in autumn and Ostberg did not have the benefit of a warm ocean current to keep the temperatures mild all year round, unlike Blauwhaven. The sky was pink now in the west behind the distant peaks of the Southern Alps, and the sun would be over their crests in ten minutes or so. It was in fact dawn, within the meaning of the word. Ruprecht made some passes to warm himself up. The rumble of a carriage approaching along the woodland track to the north of them caused him to stop. The vehicle drew up and two figures alighted, also in black cloaks but with the bright yellow and green of the Bernician military beneath. They wore plumed dragoon helmets on their heads. ‘Hang on,’ declared Felix. ‘That is not the captain.’ The two figures reached them and gave a stiff military salute, which Ruprecht acknowledged with a flourish of his sabre. One of them stepped forward and introduced himself as Ensign the Jonker Felip-Emmanuel von Braunstein. He can only have been a teenager, fresh-faced and solemn under his helmet. ‘Your Excellency, I regret to tell you that Captain-lieutenant Vinseff absconded from the citadel last night and cannot be found. We must assume he has run off rather than face your sword. May I offer the apologies of my fellow-officers that you have been denied the opportunity to put the coward down.’ ‘You may, minheer Jonker. Am I to understand that he nominated you his second? This is most irregular. You ought to be of his rank.’ ‘Regrettably no other officer could be found who would second the man. He was not popular in the regiment. So for its honour I volunteered.’ ‘My dear Jonker,’ Ruprecht smiled. ‘It does you great credit. Now prepare yourself.’ The ensign removed his helmet and cloak. He took a sword from his comrade and made some passes with him in preparation, as Ruprecht did with Hans. Then both men took guard. Ruprecht clashed swords at the tip with the ensign then separated, dropped his blade, bowed to the youth and declared that honour was satisfied. He invited the officers to take breakfast at the palace. After the officers had parted with handshakes, a purse of gold and a letter of commendation from Felix to their colonel on the ensign’s behalf, the three brothers, Gilles and Dr Tannerman strolled out to the mausoleum. ‘So, Rupe,’ began Gilles, ‘what happens to the captain now?’ ‘He’s a captain no longer. He’ll be dishonourably discharged from his regiment. He won’t be able to show his face in any sort of society and my guess is that he’ll have headed east to the Montenard Republic. It’s the nearest place where his sort of military record makes little difference.’ Hans shrugged. ‘I can see why he did it. Had he fought and killed you, there wouldn’t have been much of a future in the army of Ostberg for the man who killed the prince’s brother.’ ‘But he would still have had his honour,’ Ruprecht demurred. ‘He’d have found a post in another unit in another state. Some of the noble regiments rather like that sort of reputation in their officers … the Death’s Head Uhlans of Ardhesse for instance; I believe you have to have murdered at least three widows or priests before you can get a commission. Torching an orphanage gets you a captaincy.’ Dr Tannerman baulked. ‘Are you serious!’ ‘No, Joerg. They are a rough lot though.’ Felix grinned like a happy imp. ‘You’ll learn to ignore a lot of what Rupe says. He’s very immature. I’m glad you’re coming to Blauwhaven, dear doctor. It’ll be nice to have someone around who’s even more gullible than Gillot. Ouch!’ Gilles punched him in the arm. ‘Thank you for clearing that up,’ the doctor commented. ‘I’d like a closer look at this monument of your family’s, Your Serene and Most Excellent Highness. Seventh-century, yes? The architect must surely have been Von Eisenthal.’ Felix quirked an eyebrow at his big brother. ‘I can see why you two get on.’ They laboured up the mound, and as they went Felix came to a slow stop. ‘Need a breather,’ he gasped. Gilles looked at him in concern. Dr Tannerman came over and looked in the boy’s face, which was flushed. He took Felix’s wrist and assessed his pulse, then touched his forehead. ‘How long have you been feeling feverish, Serene Highness?’ ‘It came on last night,’ Gilles replied for him, deeply concerned. Ruprecht looked in his brother’s face and noted the glitter of fever in his eyes. ‘Is this a recurrence, Joerg?’ The doctor asked Felix to breathe out. He wrinkled his nose. ‘I fear so. There is some evident inflammation in the lungs. His Serene Highness must return to the palace and rest. There is no need to aggravate his condition. I imagine the stress of the last few days has not helped.’ *** Felix’s condition worsened and a hacking cough began, though not accompanied by bloody sputum. He was confined to his apartment. Dr Tannerman proved a godsend at this point; it appeared that his interests in other intellectual spheres had not prevented his becoming an accomplished physician. He attended Felix constantly, and his air of calm knowledgeability did a lot to stifle the panic in the princely household. The Princess Regent observed to Ruprecht that the man was as good for Felix’s state of mind as for his physical well-being. ‘He treats the boy as an adult, explains things carefully and does not lie to him. I would suggest taking him on as a household physician, but it seems you’ve already retained him at no cost to me.’ ‘He’ll need to be at Blauwhaven to take up his benefice in due course, and I suggest that as soon as possible the Kreech is taken down there so he can benefit both from the climate and Dr Tannerman’s care.’ ‘I agree, my dear. I was most impressed at the treatment he offered. The little doctor’s judicious use of opiates soothed the boy’s cough, preventing it worsening which would have endangered the blood vessels in his lungs. He explained to Felix that it is the rupture of vessels which can bring on the sepsis, and the poor boy did his best to avoid hacking. Felix may get through this attack without too many consequences. But he is so pale and thin.’ She sighed. ‘I believe he’s eager to return to Blauwhaven, and if it makes the boy happier then he must go there. Young Gillot has been like an angel with him; that boy is not merely beautiful on the outside, he is a most kind and loving child. Tell me, Ruprecht, are the two boys sworn lovers?’ ‘Yes, Grossmutta.’ ‘I rather guessed so. Our Felix may have been unlucky in his health, but he is so very fortunate in those around him who care for him. Well, well. The pair have my blessing. They will sleep together here in the palace and when at the Residenz. The major-domo will be informed.’ ‘That is very gracious, Grossmutta. It will mean ever so much to them.’ ‘Of course it will cause comment, but it is hardly unprecedented in our family or in other noble houses. I don’t believe that Felix will suffer from the association. Men of his degree make their own rules in any case.’ ‘Er, will you …?’ ‘Tell your mother? My dear, she knows about Felix, just as she knew about you before anything was ever said. You should never underestimate a mother’s – or grandmother’s – sensitivity to those they love. Your father on the other hand … well, we won’t go there. He has enough breeding stock amongst the current generation of the house of Aalst to keep him happy in any case.’ *** They arrived back at Blauwhaven in a convoy of carriages for the first day of the Advent season. Felix was by now regaining some of his vitality and complaining about his confinement to bed, although, as Ruprecht observed, he was rarely alone in it. Dr Tannerman commented on the appropriateness of the day. ‘It’s about expectations, Rupe, maybe destined to be dashed but ever hopeful.’ ‘I’m sure the good folk of Blauwhaven have absolutely none where you’re concerned, Joerg, so you can hardly disappoint.’ The doctor quirked his lips. He was getting used to the Von Aalst household and its prevalent humour. Ruprecht in turn found his company very comforting after the Anton Vinseff disaster. The little man was kind and tactful, and there was a lot more to him then their joint obsession with the remote past. Felix and Gilles were devoted to him, Felix particularly so. Inevitably, if sadly, the boy had developed real hopes that his doctor could fend off his disease, for all that intellectually he must have known how unlikely that was. As he and Ruprecht sat together over wine after dinner, when Gilles had gone up to rejoin a still invalid Felix in bed, Ruprecht had to ask: ‘So what is the prognosis for my brother?’ The doctor shook his head. ‘I imagine the consultants that your parents called in must have sketched out the likely chances. He may last some years, or he may go downhill abruptly and suddenly. It’s difficult to predict with the phthisis. His chances of living till his coming of age remain good, especially situated where he is. But a young death is nonetheless certain, and regrettably there will be some suffering to go through for him and for all who love him first. ‘My reading of the journals and my hospital experience tells me that the deciding factor is the progress of the disease in the lungs, when and how sepsis affects them. That depends on how strong the boy’s underlying constitution is. The lungs can regenerate between attacks, though the inevitable scarring affects his ability to breathe and function with any energy. That phase may yet be a while off for Felix, or so I hope anyway. He’ll live to enjoy his lover a while longer.’ ‘It doesn’t bother you that we’re all queers here.’ Joerg laughed. ‘It’s normality for me,’ he said, then blushed. ‘What I mean is that presbytery houses are where homo clergy usually end up. I’ve got used to fending off unwanted advances.’ Ruprecht caught the man’s eye. ‘What about wanted advances?’ The man went redder yet, and his stutter returned with a vengeance, so much so that his reply was actually incoherent. *** Felix’s first day out of bed was the Sunday that Joerg was installed as Rector. So there were several reasons for the old church of Blauwhaven to be packed that day. The building was on a shoulder of the hills above the town, and its solid and massive tower was a prominent seamark. Indeed, it had actually been used as a lighthouse until the Confederate government had built a new one on a small and dangerous island outside the harbour which had been the destruction of several vessels over the years. A large crowd in the churchyard cheered the popular young prince of Ostberg as he alighted from the carriage that the stables of the Schloss now hosted. Felix beamed. He actually liked the public duties of his position. Gilles walked solicitously behind him with a cushion and blanket as the prince shook hands with the citizens of the town, who had gathered to meet their new pastor. Ruprecht was very much the sideshow, even though he was the Lehensherr of the town and its district. Assisted by several local clergy Joerg got through his first mass reasonably competently, and his sermon, if rather more historical than theological, was well received. The mayor and dignitaries of the town took him off for a civic dinner, which lasted well into afternoon. The Von Aalst party left early, with the excuse of the prince’s health. Joerg would join them for a light supper. As they arrived back at the manor house, the two boys made their excuses and strolled hand-in-hand down to the pool, where Ruprecht found them later, barefoot but otherwise clothed, Felix lying flat out and just soaking up the sunlight. He was looking a lot better than he had but was still too thin, being unable to eat much during his attacks. ‘We have to fatten you up, little Kreech,’ Ruprecht observed. ‘How are you feeling?’ ‘Oh, it’s good just to be up and about, but down here in our special place it’s even better.’ ‘Good. Well, enjoy it for a week or two. We’re going on our travels. Meister Andrecht begins his leave the week after next, and I have a mind to witness the Christmas celebrations in the Holy City. We’ll take the coastal steam packet from the harbour. Hans and mama will join us. I’ve hired a place for a month.’ ‘I hope you’re not going to be boring and spend all your time in the library,’ Felix pouted. ‘Boring would be very welcome to me for a while, my Kreech.’
  10. Mike Arram

    Chapter 8

    At least he has a friend who's a doctor, if worse comes to worst 😉
  11. Mike Arram

    Chapter 8

    Only open to the aristocracy though. 😏 Nowadays we just ghost.
  12. Mike Arram

    Chapter 8

    Poor Rupe, he was in love with his departing youth, as much as Anton I think
  13. Mike Arram

    Chapter 8

    ‘Rupe was beautiful!’ Felix coughed on his roast buffalo. Captain-lieutenant Vinseff raised an eyebrow at Ruprecht opposite him across the dinner table. ‘Why’s it so strange?’ Gilles leapt in. ‘Rupe’s really good looking for an old man!’ he protested, in what was perhaps not one of his more diplomatic moments. Anton laughed. ‘I can see him now in my mind’s eye, and believe me he was more good-looking then than you are now, Serene Highness. And yes, minheer Gilles, he still is a handsome man, even if he is not far from the grave, as you so nicely put it.’ Gilles blushed and looked down. ‘I didn’t mean it like that.’ Ruprecht quirked up a smile. ‘I know what you meant, Gillot. Don’t get agitated. I’m not offended.’ Anton proceeded. ‘It was all I could do not to look at him when I saw him at the palace, and when I ended up as his groom I was so happy. He was friendly and so kind to me, not like the other lords in the palace. I on the other hand was not so special.’ ‘Your ass was very special,’ Ruprecht growled. ‘I used to watch it mesmerised when you were in your riding breeches, so tight and so small. Besides, you’re one of those lucky men who get their full looks when they’re out of their adolescence. No one would say you’re not handsome now.’ Both boys nodded. ‘Apart from the moustache,’ Felix commented. ‘What’s wrong with it?’ ‘Don’t like them, personally. But I understand soldiers have to have them.’ Anton raised an eyebrow, then gave a sly smile. ‘They have one big advantage when you’re doing it with a man.’ The two boys looked at each other then at Ruprecht. As usual Felix got it first. ‘Oh, you mean when you do the bum kissing thing?’ ‘Felix!’ Ruprecht and Gilles exclaimed together. The prince blushed for once. ‘Just saying,’ he mumbled, but the look he shot Gilles confirmed for Ruprecht that the pair had advanced to that level of sexual activity and probably beyond. ‘So anyway,’ the captain continued, ‘we joked a lot and he made me laugh, then one day he asked me to go down to that cove below the palace. That evening we did, and we talked and talked, no longer master and servant, just two teenage boys lying down together on our stomachs in the sand as the waves washed our toes.. The talk turned to sex, as it does, and he told me he liked boys not girls. I agreed. Well, I would have agreed with anything he might have said at that point, but it happened to be true. Rupe put his hand on my bare ass and he looked in my eyes and kissed me, and that was as far as it went that first time. But I can’t recall being happier in my life than at that moment.’ Gilles was entranced. ‘That’s just so beautiful. Just like me and the Kreech. And in the same place too. That beach is magical.’ Felix too was fascinated. ‘And you went on to do sex there?’ Ruprecht replied as Anton met his eyes. ‘Yes, a couple of times. But we didn’t have too long. I was hauled back to Freiborg and the long argument about my future began with papa. You might remember it, though you were only small.’ ‘Yes, it was hateful for you because you wouldn’t follow family tradition and join military school. But in the end Grossmutta talked papa into letting you go to university. I’m going to do that too. Grossmutta said it’s more appropriate for a modern prince than four years in barracks.’ ‘I agree too,’ Gilles interjected. ‘I want to go to university if Rupe lets me. You will, won’t you Rupe?’ ‘Could I deny you anything, Gillot?’ The boy shot a grateful look at his guardian through his long eyelashes. The boys were allowed two glasses of red wine with the meal, but not cigarettes. After the table was cleared Anton and Ruprecht went out onto the lawn the gardeners had recently created outside the dining room, while the two boys disappeared to their apartment after making their goodnights. It was long after dark, and the clear southern sky sparkled with stars. Anton took Ruprecht’s hand and held it. ‘This is nice,’ he said. ‘So different from when we were kids. Those two boys of yours are beautiful, and so lucky.’ ‘They deserve it; they’re both very special.’ ‘And so very randy. Did you ever do it with the dark one? He is really something else.’ ‘No. I liked him too much as a human being to take advantage of him, even before he fell for my brother.’ ‘He is gorgeous though: that faultless brown skin and dark hair; teeth like porcelain and full lips. Those eyes … I’ve never seen his match.’ ‘Well, you wouldn’t where you go looking for boys.’ ‘All too true. You’ve seen Madame’s stable. The best you can say for them is that they’re kept clean.’ ‘And what about your young troopers? From what you say, they’re expected to bend over for the officers.’ ‘There are one or two worth the cost, because believe me fucking a young trooper is the same sort of transaction as that which buys a boy-whore, except that the price is promotion and privileges.’ ‘How did we end up like this, Toni?’ ‘We grew up, Rupe my love.’ The captain flicked away his cigarette, trailing its sparks into the dark. ‘Come, let’s fuck and pretend we’re still sixteen and that none of the other shit ever happened.’ *** The next afternoon, after a long ride, Ruprecht and Anton resorted again to the pool, and were dozing on their backs in the sun when whoops and splashes announced they were no longer alone. Eventually the boys came over and sat cross-legged in front of them, clearly ready to explore the limits. ‘You two are way bigger than us,’ Felix observed cheekily. Anton pushed himself up on his elbows and took a good look at what was poking up from Gilles’s pubic bush. ‘Minheer Jonker has nothing to be ashamed of, but Your Serene Highness … well, it’s not a credit to your rank I would say.’ Felix threw grass onto the captain’s midriff. He brushed it off and unselfconsciously stroked himself erect, the boys kneeling up and watching closely as he did. Gilles’s hand had gone to his own cock unthinkingly. Ruprecht’s tool likewise reacted to the sight. ‘So now we’re all hard. Time to cool off.’ Ruprecht leapt up, grabbed his brother, turned him in his arms, put his right hand under Felix’s crotch, unavoidably encountering the softness of his scrotum, and placed his left arm round the boy’s chest to get a purchase so as to hurl him into the water. The captain in the meantime grabbed Gilles and wrestled him resisting into the pool. Ruprecht leaped after them, and for a while all four roughhoused and shouted, or in Felix’s case shrieked, until eventually, chests heaving, they crawled back to the lawn. Anton promptly squirmed on to Ruprecht’s wet back and without ceremony began entering him. Too taken aback to buck the man off him, Ruprecht looked across only to see Gilles likewise mounting his brother, and at that point he surrendered to his lust. Head on arm he watched the two boys coupling, erotically fascinated, as Anton’s length slid easily in and out of him. Gilles’s slim brown body undulated as he energetically fucked his pale lover, his hands under Felix’s armpits clasping his shoulders, the two boys grunting out their passion. ‘What a sight,’ Anton whispered in Ruprecht’s ear. ‘Couldn’t you just fuck that boy. Look at his perfect ass cheeks clench. Think how much of his juice he’ll squirt in your brother’s hole. Oh fuck, I’m …!’ He climaxed with a gasp and as he did Ruprecht also came as his cock ground into the dirt beneath his belly. Anton slumped heavily on top of Ruprecht, spent. Gilles in the meantime carried on humping Felix hard until with an agonised shout he made a final thrust up into him. Felix squawked as Gilles unloaded. Then they rolled apart, both boys looking over at the adults, more bewildered at what their lust had led them into than anything else. As they all lay flat out and exhausted Anton suddenly laughed, the only one of the four at ease with the situation. ‘God! I love the outdoors.’ *** At breakfast Gilles and Felix were subdued, both browsing the morning papers, which were brought up early from the town by a groom. They sat together with barely a word to say to Ruprecht. The captain in the meantime was still asleep in Ruprecht’s bed. It had been an uncomfortable night as Ruprecht, still fired up with the vision of Gilles mounting his brother, made an urgent play to fuck his bed partner and was again denied. So there was no sex, and the men slept at a distance from each other. Once the boys had disappeared to the schoolroom, Ruprecht sought his study in a meditative mood. The episode by the pool yesterday had been inevitable perhaps, between Gilles’ and Felix’s raging hormones and the aggressive and open sexuality of Anton. They had all wanted it to happen, but now it had Ruprecht was perfectly sure he did not want it to happen again. His fascination with Gilles had already been barely contained, and he had just made self-control more difficult to sustain. He would never rid himself now of the image of the lithe and vigorous adolescent within touching distance of him, utterly lost in sex, thrusting hard into his passive lover, his blue eyes blank with lust as they stared momentarily into Ruprecht’s. He guessed from their uncharacteristic introversion this morning that the boys felt something of what he did, and that perhaps they had spent a lot of the night talking about it. Eventually he gave up trying to work at his notes and rang the bell for Erwin Wenzel. He appeared promptly. The man had lost his starveling look since he arrived at Blauwhaven, though it could hardly be said he had gained much in weight. The plum livery jacket of the House of Aalst provided most of the colour around his person. ‘Saddle up, Erwin,’ Ruprecht commanded. ‘We’re going for a ride.’ ‘Minheer?’ ‘You can ride, can’t you?’ ‘Yes, minheer, but the point is why the sudden wish to ride with me?’ ‘A rather depressing observation, young man. Let’s just say that there’s no one else in this house I’d wish to keep company with at the moment.’ ‘I understand, minheer … I think.’ The grooms brought Ruprecht’s favoured grey striped stallion and a brown mare for the manservant from the stables. His mount recognised Ruprecht and bowed its ugly head for him to scratch behind its crimson horns, its long tongue snaking out to lick his ear. ‘Horses never like me that much, minheer,’ Erwin observed as they mounted up, and indeed his mare didn’t so much as look around to see who had climbed up on her back. ‘They’re strange beasts, my lad. They have the oddest likes and dislikes. As a man of my class I’ve been around them all my life, so perhaps they recognise the confidence. Stablehands always get their faces thoroughly licked, I’ve noticed.’ ‘They go wild for the captain,’ Erwin observed drily. Ruprecht headed down the road to the town without further comment. He was not feeling particularly wild about Anton at the moment, and he was beginning to realise that Erwin picked up considerably more of what was going on around him than he let on. Indeed, there seemed to Ruprecht to be things the valet was not saying. They dismounted at the Blauwhaven post office. Erwin went in to check for deliveries while Ruprecht took their mounts to the livery stable next door and hired two loose boxes for them, since he was in no hurry to get back to the Anton problem. He strolled out on to the harbour mole, taking his time walking along it towards the low and menacing mass of the fort. The fishing fleet was out, though its litter of baskets, cables and nets still congested the quay. He wished prosperity and a rich sea harvest to them; the rents his estate gained from the port’s fishing licences were a not insubstantial part of his new income. A small grey warship was anchored out in the fairway beyond the fort. For a moment Ruprecht thought it might be Leopard, but the ensign at its stern was that of Dreiholmtz, not Hochrecht. The Bernician flag was fluttering at its prow, so it was on a courtesy visit to the little port. The East Kingdom had long been in close alliance with the Confederacy. Centuries of diplomacy had given it great influence down the east coast of the Mainland, from Dreiholmtz’s own Protectorate States on the north bank of the Great River estuary, across to Ruprecht’s own homeland of Hochrecht and further south down to Bernicia. The harbours of Hochrecht and Bernicia were the conduits for its manufactures to enter the continental trade network, and the source for the raw materials that fed its factories. The prosperity of the city of Ostberg and the busy and extensive southern railway network, much of it funded by Dreiholmtz capital, were consequences of this. Ruprecht sauntered back to the town and found Erwin Wenzel awaiting him deferentially. He suggested they browse the shops of the town’s new commercial area to the north, which had grown up in response to its burgeoning resort trade. So they spent the next hour making domestic purchases, which in the end were so numerous as to need to be brought up by the afternoon’s carrier wagon. Ruprecht pocketed his new supply of cigarettes and a bottle of clear lubricant, which he found he needed to renew frequently for the boys’ sake. They used so much of it he sometimes wondered whether they were drinking it. It was as they were trotting on to the upward road to begin their return to the house that Erwin made a leading comment about his former friend Bruno. ‘He got through crates of that stuff every month, minheer.’ ‘Much in demand, was he?’ Erwin sighed. ‘He was very pretty, minheer. He barely looked fourteen even when he was seventeen. Those sorts of looks were very much in demand in the brothel. He could take heavy use, unlike a genuine pubescent. Men like the captain prefer them young-looking, but also like riding boys hard.’ ‘You knew Captain-lieutenant Vinseff well in those days?’ ‘He was an ensign then, but he had a reputation, minheer, as I think you know.’ Ruprecht took up the invitation he was being given. ‘What aren’t you telling me, Erwin?’ ‘Me, minheer? Nothing. Or at least nothing you can’t work out for yourself.’ ‘You hate him.’ ‘It’s not my place …’ ‘You’re in my service, Herr Wenzel, so it is very much your place to keep your master informed of things that touch on his honour.’ ‘Minheer, your honour is one thing and your affections another. I would not presume to criticise your bed partner, especially if you have committed to him.’ ‘Talk, young man.’ The man frowned and then made his fateful decision. ‘On my own head be it then. Yes, I hate him. I loved Bruno so far as it was possible to love such a boy, for to be sure he was never going to love me back the same way. He was too flighty and romantic.’ ‘You were sleeping together? The captain thought not. Which is maybe why he thought you were harmless to his interests, so could safely be recommended to me.’ ‘We shared a bed for sex on sadly few occasions. He was as outstanding in looks as the young master Gilles is, believe me. But the captain and his friends used Bruno relentlessly at that whorehouse, in ways I do not wish to describe. No wonder he ran away from them. I just wish he’d have run to me. So far as I’m concerned those men murdered Bruno, and they’ve done the same to others.’ ‘His account of things was rather different. There’s more?’ ‘I don’t know about the captain, but I don’t think that fucking boys who just looked under fourteen was all his friends did.’ ‘Damn it man, you should have told me this before!’ ‘May I say, minheer Graf, that till now I had no idea whether you were a person I could confide in.’ ‘And now you do?’ The man pulled up his horse as they were ambling up the road, and gave Ruprecht a straight look. ‘Minheer, I never met a man of honour till I met you, so please excuse the time it has taken me to make up my mind. But that you are a man to trust I now believe; the way you deal with the Jonker and His Serene Highness has been a delight for me to see. I like our little household far too much to want to see it contaminated by Vinseff, and I respect Your Excellency too much to keep the truth about your … associate … from you. You should know he has been asking me leading questions about the prince and his relations with his grandmother ever since he arrived.’ ‘So, he thought he could use you to spy on the prince, did he? I’d guessed that he would have hopes of advancement in the service through associating with us, though that didn’t concern me particularly – it’s the way the world is. His questioning you about confidential family relations is a different matter, however. ‘Here’s a question you may perhaps be able to answer. He won’t take the bottom part in sex. Any idea why?’ ‘Fear of the pox, minheer. You get it from taking cock, everybody says, not the other way.’ ‘He says he took a lot of men inside him when he was younger.’ ‘Probably true, and probably the reason he can no longer bring himself to do it, even though it would help him seduce you. I imagine he was glad to escape infection until they eventually stopped using him. His associates at the whorehouse were mostly army officers, men older than him. I imagine they brought him on and introduced him into their circle. He’ll have sold his soul to them for promotion. One of them was I think a Confederate general, though I don’t know his name.’ ‘Erwin, you were right to tell me this. You are an observant man and I value your trust immensely. I think I may be making demands on it in due course, especially after my brother comes of age and takes up the government of Ostberg.’ ‘An event we all fervently pray will happen, minheer. His Serene Highness is a fine young man of great promise, a worthy son of the House of Aalst. You may both count on my loyalty.’ ‘Till death?’ The man looked startled. ‘Minheer? You would do that?’ Ruprecht reined in his ambling mount. They were on an empty stretch of heathland overlooking the twinkling sea below. A gust of wind suddenly rushed up the hill towards them, causing the whin bushes to thrash about. ‘Get off your horse and stand by my foot,’ Ruprecht commanded. He drew a penknife and cut a line down the ball of his right thumb. It was an ancient Allemanic warrior ritual, practised since before the Noble Wars. He held out his bleeding hand, which Erwin Wenzel took. ‘Now, do you want to do this?’ he asked. The younger man looked in his eyes, nodded and said the ritual words clearly, his own eyes suddenly brimming with tears. ‘My lord, I am yours till death. My life is yours and yours alone.’ Then he sucked Ruprecht’s blood from the cut and swallowed it. ‘You know what this means, boy?’ ‘Yes sire. I am now Antrustion of your House, sharer in its fortunes. I will proudly take your mark, and die rather than betray you.’ Ruprecht smiled. ‘It also means I have to pay you a lot more. You are my Seneschal, Erwin Wenzel, the one on whom I will build all my trust. As the Lord Jesus is to God, so you are bound to me.’ ‘Amen, lord,’ Erwin said. ‘May I burn in hell should I ever fail you. What is your command?’ *** Fortified now by the assurance of Erwin Wenzel’s devotion to his interests and his house, much of Ruprecht’s inner care and confusion fell away. He knew finally that his hopes about Anton Vinseff were no more than romantic illusions. The man had been thoroughly corrupted by the life he had led. Ruprecht’s mind persisted in making excuses for him, for what they had shared as youths could not easily be forgotten. But he knew a man was made by his own choices, and Anton had gone into dark places with open eyes. All that was left was to decide how to get him out of his house with a minimum of fuss. Ruprecht was still enough of a diplomat to prefer to avoid conflict if he could, even if it meant smiling in the face of an enemy. Was he able to put up with Anton for the rest of the week? Since he now had taken on a seneschal and councillor, he requested his advice. Erwin gave off a distinct air of gratification at the fact of being asked. ‘I agree with Your Excellency. A sudden break would be ill-advised; you know him now as no friend to our House, but there’s no need to alienate him further. Best if you can put up with him for the next few days and then slowly distance yourself from him. He’ll put it down to the sexual rebuffs he has inflicted on you.’ ‘I’m not the sulky sort, Erwin my friend.’ ‘Of course not, minheer. But I would guess the captain expects the worst from people.’ ‘A remark full of a certain sad wisdom, Erwin.’ ‘You may borrow my handkerchief if you wish to weep over it, minheer.’ Ruprecht burst out laughing, and for the first time that he could recall Erwin chuckled along with him. It seemed that Ruprecht was not the only one feeling heart’s ease as a result of their conversation. The returning pair encountered the captain taking to the stable hands in the yard. He was putting on a cheerful air, though with his new insight Ruprecht could detect that it covered the man’s unease. He was concerned that he might indeed have offended his host. At any rate, he came over and offered Ruprecht a cigarette and his professional opinion on his mount. ‘The grey stripes suggest he’s from the east Montenard herd. Hardy beasts and very patient; good for road work, which is no doubt why you got him.’ ‘Actually, he came with the house. But I like the brute. He has a nice even pace, which as you say makes him a good road horse.’ As Ruprecht dismounted, the captain asked if he were going to the pool. ‘Not today, Toni,’ he replied, keeping his tone mild and neutral. ‘It’s the boys’ afternoon for exercise at arms. Lieutenant von Altstadt from the garrison will be up here in an hour or two. He’s an accomplished fencer. And now I must get to work in my study. I’ll see you at dinner.’ The two men sat over wine and cigarettes after dinner, while Gilles sang Francien songs in a throaty but controlled tenor to his lover’s flute accompaniment. The pair were for them subdued, and took themselves off to bed without being told. The papers that day had been full of the escape of King Kristijan of Ardhesse from his cell on Bornholm Island with, it was said, the help of a cabal of young magnates, who had taken the field with their regiments and rallied to his banner in the north of the country. The Regent and his allies had likewise mobilised their forces and had proclaimed Kristijan to be illegitimate, the prelude for Duke Horst to claim the throne himself. ‘Civil war in Ardhesse: now there’s an opportunity,’ Anton commented. ‘How’s that?’ ‘Both sides will be contracting noble regiments from all over the Allemanic South, especially from Bernicia. My colonel will be putting out feelers towards the Regent as we sit here. Wars of succession are seriously profitable, as they just go on and on. Besides, the colonel’s not happy with his contract with the Confederacy; this way he may be able to negotiate new terms of service with the Protector even if he doesn’t march us south to Ardhesse.’ Ruprecht pondered this professional insight. ‘You may be wanting to get back then,’ he commented. ‘How much does this mean to a captain of horse?’ ‘There’ll be a substantial bounty from Ardhesse for the officers if we ship south and the Confederacy doesn’t put in a counter-bid for us. The big money will be if we get orders to ride a chevauchée across the rebel lands. That’s when warfare gets seriously profitable. I know lieutenants who’ve retired on the proceeds of loot and ransoms.’ ‘I never thought I’d say this, but poor Ardhesse. It’s not had internal disorder for over a century; all its warfare has been aggressive campaigns outside its borders, with the Empire and the Montenards.’ ‘All the richer the pickings for the noble regiments then.’ ‘War is such a business,’ Ruprecht reflected. ‘My father runs our two Aalstener grenadier regiments like a full-scale enterprise. My twin brothers are their lieutenant colonels. One’s contracted to the government of Vieldomaine, the other to the North Kingdom. It’s perfectly conceivable that they could be on opposite sides in the same battle.’ ‘Very confusing that would be. But look on the bright side, Rupe, contracting pulls a lot of the sting out of war. It’s one reason it’s such a polite affair. You aren’t going to massacre or be massacred by enemy soldiers that you’ve already served with under a different employer.’ ‘But as our friends in the Church would say, it’s no easier on the unarmed masses.’ ‘Tell that to the Montenards. They’re the armed masses, which is one reason it’s a dangerous affair taking warfare into their lands. They take no prisoners. There’s no profit in mountain campaigning. But Ardhesse … that’s going to be serious money.’ After another glass the men went up to bed, and to avoid an open breach Ruprecht had to strip and settle next to a man he now felt nothing but distaste for. He almost flinched when Anton’s hand stroked his belly and cupped his balls. Sighing internally, he turned towards the man and reached over his hips to fondle his buttocks. ‘Rupe,’ Anton whispered, ‘you can fuck me if you want. I’m sorry I was so against it last night, but … y’know.’ Ruprecht looked in the man’s eyes and saw no enthusiasm there. He took him by the chin. ‘You’ll not enjoy it, Toni. Whatever your reasons, it would cost you too much and I couldn’t do that to you.’ Ruprecht kissed him on the lips, pondering how far he could go with the dissimulation. One thing he was sure of, he wouldn’t take the man into him again. So he groped for Anton’s erection and they began a mutual jerking session. It took a while but they both managed an ejaculation, and slept in the afterglow. *** Ruprecht made sure to be up well before the captain, as he didn’t want to give him an opportunity to pursue a further attempt on his backside. He encountered a raised eyebrow from Erwin Wenzel as he brought in the morning coffee and papers. ‘Minheer, I hope you slept well?’ ‘In peace, thank you Erwin.’ His seneschal expressed his sympathy by going about laying the table quietly. Gilles arrived followed by a yawning Felix, both wearing their shirts but no drawers beneath. Ruprecht tried not to stare at the long and elegant legs which Gilles’s state of déshabillé revealed. The boys kissed Ruprecht as they made their way to their seats and started on the stack of toast Erwin had left. He enquired about their progress in their exercises with Lieutenant von Altstadt. They were moderately pleased with themselves, and apparently Gilles’s progress was considerable. ‘Now here’s a thing you two must know,’ Ruprecht continued, showing Felix his gashed hand, which still stung and burned. ‘I performed the Antrustion ritual yesterday.’ ‘Wow! Was it with your captain?’ Felix blurted. ‘What’s an Antrustion ritual?’ asked a puzzled Gilles. ‘It’s an Allemanic thing, Gillot,’ Felix responded. ‘It’s very rare and very special. It’s when a lord offers his lifeblood to a favoured servant and takes him into his House. He can only do it once.’ ‘Isn’t that what happened to me?’ ‘No Gillot,’ Ruprecht replied. ‘I adopted you as a child of the House of Aalst and you became a noble jonker when I did it. This is different. I spilled my blood and gave it to a man to drink, which made him my Seneschal; my chief counsellor and a servant bound indissolubly to our House till his death. It makes him a minheer as far as the other servants are concerned, and he gets a lot of gold lace on his livery coat as a result.’ ‘So, who …?’ Felix began. ‘Oh … it’s Erwin! That’s great!’ ‘You like him?’ Both boys nodded vigorously. ‘He’s hard-working, straight and decent,’ Gilles bubbled. ‘Little Ludwig says all the other servants respect him even though he’s still only young.’ ‘Not a bundle of laughs, of course,’ Felix added. ‘He has a certain dry humour, as I’m discovering,’ Ruprecht replied. ‘But you both must treat him differently now; he’s up there with Meister Andrecht and Herr Vincent in our domestic pantheon.’ Gilles and Felix applauded when the man himself entered bearing a tray of eggs and bacon. He acknowledged their approval with a slight inclination of his head. ‘Hail to the Seneschal of Blauwhaven! Hail to the loyal minheer Erwin!’ proclaimed Felix playfully. He got up to deliver a low bow, which exposed his skinny butt to the world as his shirt rode up. ‘My thanks, Serene Highness. I will not of course be picking up your discarded underclothes in future. I am far too grand.’ He left with something of a smirk on his face. *** Ruprecht could not bring himself to go to the pool. Though he took lunch with Anton he then excused himself, pleading a need to catch up on estate business. It was in mid-afternoon that a shadow crossed the window of his study and Gilles banged on the glass, beckoning him urgently to come out. The boy was naked. He appeared to have run to the house from the pool. ‘Rupe! Suivez moi! Vite! Vite! C’est Louis!’ The urgency of the moment caused him to revert to his native language. He was heading back across the lawn to the trees when Ruprecht emerged, running as effortlessly and gracefully as a gazelle, his long legs flashing. He took after the boy who was by now far ahead of him, When he reached the pool he stopped dead at the tableau that met his eyes. Three naked figures were there and Erwin, fully clothed, was on the ground among them, apparently unconscious. Anton was standing over the man, arguing with Felix who was seated, a naked smaller boy nursed in his arms. It was Ludwig, who was sobbing and clinging tight to Felix. Gilles reached his lover. He knelt protectively behind him and embraced him, an angry glare clouding his handsome face, snarling fierce Francien curses at the man towering over them. ‘What in God’s name …’ Ruprecht began. ‘This is a stupid misunderstanding!’ Anton Vinseff shouted. ‘The damn fool of a man wouldn’t listen.’ ‘Shut up, Anton. I want to hear what Felix has to say.’ ‘Rupe, this asshole was trying to rape little Ludwig when Erwin intervened. So he struck Erwin down and just carried on. Me and Gillot saw it all as we were coming down through the woods.’ ‘What the fuck!’ yelled the captain. ‘It’s only a little bitch of a bumboy! What’s wrong with you people?’ Ruprecht strode up to the man and struck him hard across the face. ‘Go get dressed, Anton.’ The man staggered back up. ‘You’re throwing me out over this!’ ‘No. You’re a captain and a gentleman. I struck you. You’ve been challenged.’ ‘You can’t challenge me over this squealing kid.’ ‘No. But you struck an Antrustion of the House of Aalst, my Seneschal. That’s a mortal offence for which there can be no apology. You’ll need to go back to Ostberg to recruit a second from your regiment. I shall meet you in three days, at dawn below the mausoleum west of the Farcostan Palace. It’ll be sabres and to the death.’ Felix resigned Ludwig to the arms of Gilles and stood. Despite the circumstances he managed to say with great dignity ‘I will of course second my brother. As prince of Ostberg, I may not be gainsaid on the matter.’ Ruprecht smiled as he bowed low to Felix. ‘It will be a great honour for me, Your Serene Highness.’
  14. Mike Arram

    Chapter 7

    Your instincts are not leading you astray on that guy.
  15. Mike Arram

    Chapter 7

    ‘Smells a bit like an old church,’ Gilles observed. ‘Yes indeed, minheer Gilles,’ agreed Erwin Wenzel, who had materialised out of the labyrinthine passages to the rear of the old house. Felix whispered something in his boyfriend’s ear, which got them both snorting and giggling. ‘Let me guess,’ Ruprecht observed, ‘it was a comment about how kinky it would be to do it in a church.’ ‘How did you know?’ replied Felix, eyebrows raised. ‘It’s a common fantasy amongst perverted teenagers of both persuasions. Right then, Erwin my lad, brief us on the worst.’ ‘Well minheer, you’ll have noticed the smell, which has as much to do with blue rot in the old timbers as bad drains, I would guess. The roof is apparently sound, though quite a few windows are broken on the dormer floor. There is no water closet, so you’ll have to use the one earth closet out the back or chamber pots in the rooms. The kitchen was last renovated sometime in the seventh century, I’d guess. The bedrooms are dusty and the bedclothes very musty, though I and the caretaker have at least got your chambers aired and warmed. Lighting a fire in the young masters’ chamber started a chimney fire and upset a flock of razorbills nesting in the stack.’ ‘Will it be possible to eat?’ ‘The cook you brought from the palace says she’s up to the challenge, and seems to know something about wood-fired ranges. There’s plenty of cut logs at least, and she brought boxes of food and drink. She was quite enthusiastic about baking bread in the old hearth oven. She says it quite reminds her of her grandmother’s kitchen.’ ‘Not all bad news then.’ ‘No, minheer.’ ‘Could you direct the young gentlemen to their room, Wenzel. Did the packages arrives for minheer Gilles?’ ‘Indeed, minheer Graf. I took the liberty of laying out a suit for the minheer Jonker. I’ve managed to find ancient presses to hang the rest in. It will be a challenge to find space for His Serene and Most Excellent Highness’s clothes in their chamber. I suggest we use an adjacent bedroom for their dressing room. I’ve set the chamber pots there. There is a communicating door.’ ‘Hear that, Gillot? No pooing in our bedroom!’ Gilles rolled his eyes, then took Felix’s hand and they clattered up the stairs to the first floor and their apartment, shouting their thanks to Erwin as they ran and not bothering to await his guidance. The valet gave a faint smile at their disappearing backs. He then turned to accommodating the rest of the household, which he did with an impressive degree of organisation and presence of mind. Ruprecht in the meantime found his way through the gloom of the house’s great hall to the dingy parlour beyond. The room had just bare boards and a table; the amount of correspondence and legal documents stacked there was intimidating, but it was to be Ruprecht’s future as Lehensherr of Blauwhaven. He wondered where he might shelve his books and create a study in this ramshackle, uncomfortable old place that was now his home. *** It took the better part of a fortnight to settle into Schloss Blauwhaven. Herr Vincent, the agent, managed to make it down from Ostberg for two days during which he went through the papers with the new lord of the manor and advised on the appointment of a local lawyer. Between the lawyer, Erwin Wenzel and Herr Vincent they managed to recruit two grooms, two maidservants and a gardener with his lad as an addition to the caretaker, now renamed the house steward. They also began the epic task of making the Schloss habitable. Herr Vincent liberated enough funds to commence the very necessary building works which would provide modern plumbing, so dust, hammering and debris were added to the discomforts of the place. The weather was however warm and sunny and spending it out of doors to avoid the noise and smells was not too much of a trial. The two boys quickly found for themselves a pleasant and secluded spot in the grounds, where a mountain stream formed a deep pool shaded by the black conifers of the region. Alongside it was a fine green lawn, sunlit and warm for most of the afternoon. They were very happy to share it with Ruprecht, so there he lay out on a blanket with his books every day after lunch. The boys joined him once their tutor had finished with them, and all three lay around sunning themselves, the boys alternating between splashing around in the pool and drying off while talking their usual enjoyable nonsense. It distracted Ruprecht from his studies, but he did not resist the fascination of their physical grace and anarchic humour. Felix and Gilles were very much a match for each other intellectually. Every day deepened their mutual attachment, which was a matter of real satisfaction to Ruprecht. There were sufficient differences between the boys to make them interesting to each other, but their fundamental loving natures locked them in sympathy. He had feared that their adolescent wilfulness would eventually lead to irritation and boredom with each other, but had underestimated their emotional maturity. Both were sensitive and intelligent boys who had already had hard things to master. Gilles had experienced years of tedium and hopelessness as an inn potboy with little prospect other than inheriting the inn in some indeterminate future, and Felix the rude intrusion of mortality into his young life. One day, Ruprecht remembered one of his obligations in making Gilles an aristocrat and brought a case of swords down to the lawn. He offered his ward a fencing sabre and with Felix, chin on hands and lying on his belly, watching and offering verbal encouragement Ruprecht began the boy’s instruction in arms. After some elementary passes Gilles finally asked: ‘Do nobles always fence in the nude, or is it just that you’re a perv, Rupe?’ ‘No, it’s to amuse my brother. His eyes are fixed on the way your dick flops around when you parry. Look, now you’re going hard he’ll be disappointed of the show.’ ‘So are you, Rupe. Want to fence with these?’ He put his blade at rest and flaunted his length, which, respectable though it was for a fifteen-year-old, had nothing like the reach of Ruprecht’s. ‘Self-control is an important part of swordplay, Gillot. If you can concentrate on your balance and your opponent while you have the distraction of my priapic hugeness in front of you, you’ll have learned a valuable skill.’ ‘And be fully confident you can defend yourself whenever you’re attacked by a gigantic naked rapist!’ Felix chirped up. ‘It could happen!’ He leapt to his feet and delightedly offered to duel with Gilles using the weapon nature had provided. So Gilles dropped his sword and took up the invitation as they grabbed each other’s biceps; thrusting, parrying and giggling. They halted fairly soon. ‘That’s actually not easy to do,’ Felix observed, ‘and I’ve lost my stiffy. Come here, Gillot!’ He grabbed his lover round the waist and with an almighty splash wrestled him into the water, where they continued their fun. Ruprecht returned the swords to their case and made a mental note to employ a master-at-arms for both boys, if he could find a decent local practitioner. Evenings were a more sombre affair. Ruprecht continued the Ostberg habit of formal dinner at seven, in part because Gilles needed the education in dining etiquette. The boy also needed to get used to being waited on, rather than being at another’s call. The Ostberg assistant cook, Odila, was sufficiently gratified by the idea of presiding over her own kitchen to take up Ruprecht’s offer of a permanent job, and was awarded a kitchen maid to assist her. Within the limits of her resources she kept up a good table for them; she rather liked the local market for fish, which was a favourite in her repertoire. Ruprecht was delighted in his two young charges, but there were times when he needed more mature company. Meister Andrecht, the boys’ tutor, was a learned man, and had accepted with equanimity the sudden promotion in his schoolroom of a servant boy to gentleman. He was also untroubled by the predominant sexuality of the house he found himself in, though he was not himself homosexual. But pedagogy was his talent, not the intellectual adventurousness Ruprecht valued. Still, he added a sobriety to their table which checked the hilarity of his pupils, who seemed to like him enough not to try his patience. Captain-lieutenant Anton Vinseff had an open invitation to join the house party when duty permitted, and had promised to get away when he could. Ruprecht owed him some gratitude for his finding of Erwin Wenzel who, though not perhaps the most lively of men, was certainly efficient in his duties and willing to contribute his ideas and efforts to the renovation of Schloss Blauwhaven. The boys seemed to like him too, though they recognised he was not the sort to include in their displays of high spirits. *** It was during one dinner that Ruprecht remembered the letter he had received from the antiquarian Schwarzwald priest, Dr Joerg Tannerman. He had not got around to replying, but in the extremity of intellectual isolation in which he now found himself he sat down after the meal and composed a note for the morrow’s post. Since he was proposing to take the boys to Bad Heisel for a medical consultation in a week’s time, he might as well stay overnight in Schwarzwald on the way there and in the meantime fix up a meeting. A brief reply from the reverend gentleman reached Ruprecht two days before their departure for Schwarzwald, and a meeting time was set up between them. The Schloss had no carriage, so Ruprecht and the boys rode down to the town of Blauwhaven in company with their two grooms, who would lead the horses back home after they took the train. Blauwhaven was a town at the foot of the eastern coastal range, some three kilometres distant from Ruprecht’s schloss. It had a small port sufficient for its fishing fleet, but not deep enough for more than coastal traffic. Its long beach and boarding houses were attractive to proletarian holidaymakers from industrial Ostberg, which had led the authorities to lay out public gardens and a boardwalk north of the harbour and the Confederate artillery fort which protected it. The railway link to the interior was a single-track line that wound northwards for some kilometres, slowly climbing, till a break in the range allowed it access into a narrow valley winding westward. This brought the branch line train to the larger inland town of Groenberg, which was on the Grand Southern line. There they could change to the Schwarzwald express, which offered first class carriages. Ruprecht sat opposite the boys in their plush compartment, porters carrying in their travel bags after them. There was a subdued scuffle for the window seat, which Felix eventually and with bad grace ceded to Gilles. Gilles had chosen an outdoor jacket of rustic green tweed to wear with his tan riding breeches and polished calfskin boots. It counterpointed beautifully the delicate lace jabot at his neck and the flower in his buttonhole; he looked every inch an elegant jonker of good family. Felix was less fashionably turned out, but his rank gave him an air of confident style whatever he wore, down to the careless tilt of his brimmed hat over his forehead. Both had selected silver-headed walking canes which Ruprecht rather suspected would become substitute sabres once the pair became bored, but for now they were being adult. Gilles even took up a newspaper, and discussed some of its articles with Felix in a desultory fashion. They left Ruprecht to his book. It took ninety minutes before the towers and spires of the city of Schwarzwald appeared. It had a very different appearance from the rough dark sandstone of the coastal towns, which could project a certain gloom. Schwarzwald was built of a honey-coloured freestone and the architectural distinction of its churches, public buildings and university made it one of the most beautiful cities of the Allemanic South, apart from the Holy See itself. By now it was well past lunchtime, so Ruprecht registered them at their hotel and gave the pair free rein to wander the streets till dinner and pick up a snack where they could. Then he went in search of the presbytery. He found it eventually in a narrow street behind the cathedral, across from the bishop’s residence. It was a tall and dingy building which had had little spent on its upkeep for some decades. Most priests who could afford it got married and took livings which included a house. It was the poor, eccentric and unattached clergyman who lodged in such buildings as the presbytery of Schwarzwald, and Ruprecht feared that Dr Joerg Tannerman must be just such a man. He had met the type: unhealthy looking fellows in shabby suits whose practice was either to eat and drink too much or too little, and from whom one edged away at social functions. Since Tannerman had academic pretensions and a doctorate in theology Ruprecht expected the worst, but on the other hand the man’s intellectual obsessions matched his own, so at least they could meet at that level and possibly learn something from each other. There were few enough historians of early society he could talk to otherwise. When the housekeeper opened the door to Ruprecht’s knock the smell of boiled vegetables and musty rooms reached out to greet him like an unwelcome and indigent relative. His card was taken with a raised eyebrow and he waited to be admitted. Instead a short young man he at first took to be an upper servant appeared at the door, wearing a white blouson under a black waistcoat. ‘Minheer G-g-graf Ruprecht? You are His E-e-e-xcellency?’ the youth stuttered, fighting hard to get his words out. Ruprecht favoured the poor fellow with a small smile. ‘Yes. I’m here to see Dr Tannerman. Is he available?’ ‘Er … er … it’s m-m-me,’ the youth finally enunciated. ‘But … I … er … expected …’ It was Ruprecht’s turn to stumble over his words. ‘Someone f-f-f-fatter and a l-l-l-lot older?’ The young man gave his own little smile. ‘Well, yes.’ ‘Always a d-d-d-disappointment,’ the cleric replied, his smile becoming impish. Ruprecht stared, smiled again and held out his hand. ‘Dr Tannerman, a pleasure to meet you.’ His hand was taken in a firm grip, and the cleric suggested they go to a nearby café for a drink or two. ‘The p-p-p-presbytery is not the nicest of p-p-places, but it costs me n-n-nothing for board,’ he explained. So the two men adjourned to the outside tables of a café on the cathedral square and made their orders. As they did Ruprecht took a closer look at Tannerman. He had a certain boyishness to his pointed and beardless face. His hair was a sandy blonde and fell in his eyes in a thick fringe, which added to his youthful appearance. He had to be younger than Ruprecht, and indeed looked barely twenty though he must be older. ‘You have a doctorate in theology, Herr Tannerman?’ ‘N-n-no, Excellency. I am a m-m-medical p-p-practitioner.’ ‘But you’re a clergyman?’ ‘M-m-my father was the b-b-bishop of T-t-trifels in the state of U-u-ubercosten. I was ordained to s-s-serve in the c-c-cathedral while I was t-t-training for a medic.’ ‘But your interests turned towards antiquities?’ ‘That w-w-was when I w-w-went to the Holy S-s-see as ph-ph-physician to the C-c-cardinal Eugenius, a f-f-friend of my f-f-father.’ The story came out disjointedly. Dr Tannerman was in fact two years younger than Ruprecht and, hating the idleness involved in being household physician to one of the twelve great cardinal bishops of the Church, a man who was apparently as healthy as any septuagenarian could be, Tannerman had resorted increasingly to the Patriarchal Library and there found his true vocation. It was the sudden and unexpected death of the cardinal which ironically brought Tannerman to Schwarzwald, as the only opening he could find was as auxiliary priest at the cathedral, where the bishop was another friend of his father. He had no great desire to carry on in medical practice, although he was offered an opening at the Markgräflich Humboldt Lazarette, a hospital run by the Church. In Schwarzwald Tannerman had joined the local antiquarian society and talked some of the more enthusiastic and fit members into an exploration of a vacant plot of church land adjacent to the walls of the Margrave’s palace above the city. There he formulated a new approach to the investigation of the past by stripping away the ground surface and looking for lost structures and artefacts below the ground, buried by the centuries. Slowly his stutter ebbed as Tannerman’s enthusiasm overrode his speech impediment. ‘You see, E-e-xcellency, it’s like this. Things left and abandoned get covered with earth, whether by windblown dust, flood or the natural action of vermiforms. As time passes they become ever more deeply buried, so the further down they are the longer they’ve been there. You can read the layers of the earth like a book. The coins and objects we find in each layer help us date the deposits and structures we find there. D-d-did you read my report on the excavation at the palace?’ ‘I did, yes. It looked fascinating, though some of it was a bit technical.’ ‘Y-y-yes. I’m having to grapple with a lot of new ideas and so new words have to be found for them. My excavators complain about it all the time.’ ‘From what I could work out, Joerg … may I call you Joerg? You explored along the promontory where the modern palace is, and found relics of the castle which had preceded it.’ ‘Y-y-yes. Known to history of course, but we were able to date the first stone walls to as early as the time of Margrave Humboldt II, that’s the fourth century, just before the Noble Wars. But the thing is there were earlier structures underneath it, a fortified village of sorts going quite a long way back.’ ‘Exactly how far back?’ ‘Difficult to say. We found no c-c-coins that could help us date it, if indeed there was a currency outside the Great River Valley in those far off days. There were corroded iron implements of all sorts and masses of animal bones, including would you believe the ceremonially buried carcass of a magnificent specimen of a royal erdbeest.’ ‘Good heavens! The last one of those to be hunted in the South was in the fourth century, wasn’t it?’ ‘Indeed. Only common erdbeesten now survive in the king’s hunting park at Ardheim. The creature I found was killed and buried in some sort of ritual I’d date to the later first century, before even the Four Kingdoms broke away from the Empire, in the tribal age, when English was still probably spoken in the Montenard region and maybe even here in what became Bernicia.’ ‘You think these were once English lands?’ ‘M-maybe. I have a lot of work to do yet. I have a theory that varying styles of pottery belong to different cultures and periods. The pottery from my dig here was of a rather fine and distinctive blue-glazed white clay. It so happens that I’ve found shards of the same stuff in old sites I’ve picked over in the Holy See and in the eastern valleys of the Alps. If I c-c-could dig more widely, especially in northern Ardhesse where you have indicated there were once English tribes, maybe I could make links with known English cultures in Über Ardhesse.’ ‘Does this mean you think you’ve identified an ancient English homeland.’ ‘Y-y-yes, I think I may have, Excellency, and it agrees with your reading of the Annals.’ ‘My dear doctor, I really think we have a lot to talk about. We must meet again.’ *** ‘So he’s not a freak, then?’ Felix was intrigued. ‘He’s a physician as it turns out, Kreech, though not a very successful one,’ his brother replied. They were on the train to Bad Heisel, just out of Schwarzwald. ‘And he’s younger than you, Rupe. Is he cute?’ Of the two boys, it was always Gilles who wanted to know the physical details. ‘Not bad looking, as it happens, though he’s a tiny little fellow, not much more than a metre and a half. Also he’s an ordained clergyman, so please don’t go there.’ ‘Go where?’ ‘You’re match-making in your head. Why do romantics always do that? And you’re shaping up to be just such a boy, my Gillot. Clerical midgets don’t turn me on, and there’s no evidence he’s a homo anyway.’ Gilles didn’t give up easily. ‘But he might be, Rupe. And he’s about your age. You said he was cute.’ ‘Don’t go on, Gillot,’ Felix yawned. ‘Can’t you see you’re embarrassing Rupe? He’s already got his captain anyway.’ Ruprecht reflected that as usual his romantic life was going absolutely nowhere. He took up his book and began to think more productively. Before meeting Dr Tannerman he had not in fact thought in terms of the ancient English having a homeland of their own in the century after the Landing, but the idea began to make sense of certain of the new passages of the Annals of the Patriarchate he had discovered. The entries for the post-Landing seventies and eighties talked of an otherwise unknown kingdom of Kholnai which the Empire had encountered as it began its conquering march south towards the Alps. Ruprecht had originally thought this Kholnai was a predecessor state of Ardhesse, but Kholnai appeared to have had good relations with the Patriarchate, which Ardhesse never had. According to the Life of the Proto-Patriarch the Blessed Michael, a king called Connor Connorson, mentioned in no other historical source, presented gifts at Michael’s elevation to the patriarchal throne. Since the early Patriarchate was heavily influenced by the English, maybe there was more to this brief reference than appeared. What if Connor was an English king of Kholnai; hell, what if the Blessed Michael was himself English? God! Maybe it was the English of Kholnai who had in fact set up the Patriarchate, not the First Emperor Jean Charles, as the official histories had it. Ruprecht began scribbling in his notebook, oblivious to the amused looks and comments coming his way from the boys opposite. *** The medical consultation at Bad Heisel and the visit to the baths went well enough. Felix and Gilles resisted the temptation to misbehave in the changing rooms and tepidarium. Indeed, they made chaste friends with two other teenagers there for treatment. Ruprecht was happy to let his charges go off with their new acquaintances and see the local sights. Gilles in particular needed to associate with other young aristocrats to bring him on socially, though he seemed to have no problem in that regard. The fact that he carried the name ‘Minheer the Jonker Gilles von Aalst-Parmentier zum Blauwhaven’ on his card and was in the company of the Prince of Ostberg provided an easy entrée for him into local society in the spa town. The pair were very happy on the train journey back home, and full of beans when they got back to the manor house. Slowly life at Blauwhaven acquired an even routine, which finally imparted a certain contentment to Ruprecht, since he had rather low expectations of personal happiness. It was only interrupted when Felix gave the occasional cough, or Gilles forgot himself and did not maintain a proper distance from the servants. Gilles was particularly friendly with Ludwig, the gardener’s lad, a boy of around thirteen. Eventually, Ruprecht pulled him down as the boy passed his chair to tell him to remember that he was a ‘young master’ and although friendly and respectful relations with the staff were a good thing; romping and backchat with them was not helpful. ‘But you more than romped with your captain when he was a stable hand, Rupe!’ Gilles objected, for he was perfectly capable of standing up for himself, as Ruprecht was learning. ‘Not the same, Gillot,’ he replied. ‘We persuaded ourselves we were in love. You and Ludwig are just pals … unless?’ ‘God no! He’s a nice kid, but he’s just a kid. I wouldn’t do that to him. I just miss my little sister Cecile at times.’ Ruprecht kissed his forehead and took his hand. ‘I understand,’ he conceded. ‘But you do have to remember that distance is necessary with the servants. It doesn’t mean you can’t spend the time of day with them, but tickling Ludwig and carrying him around on your shoulders is going way too far. He may well assume you want to do more with him, as some masters do.’ ‘What, like fuck him? That’d be sick, he’s only a kid.’ ‘Well, you observe him carefully. He may have a crush on you and be busy making a victim of himself. Servant boys are not entirely innocent. They quickly get to know the way of the world. Think of your own experience in the taproom.’ Gilles frowned. ‘You’re right, Rupe.’ Then he looked Ruprecht directly in his eyes. ‘There was a regular lodger with us, and I would have been more than happy if he’d touched me down there and taken me to bed with him.’ It was Ruprecht’s turn to blush hard. Gilles moved to settle in his lap, taking him around the shoulders and kissing his cheek. ‘You know who I mean don’t you.’ ‘Yes … yes, I do. And I can tell you that he’d have done it too, except he knew better than to take advantage of a beautiful and innocent boy just for his own pleasure.’ ‘That’s why I loved him, Rupe, ‘cos I knew that. He’s everything I admire in a man. If he was here I’d tell him how much I honour and respect him, and that I’d lay down my life for him. I owe him that much.’ In tears, Ruprecht hugged Gilles hard, and they sat together a long while silently, until Gilles gave him a kiss full on the mouth, whispering as he broke off, ‘Je t’aime, mon frère et mon père’. Then he got up and with an unfathomable backward glance walked out of the study, leaving Ruprecht emotionally confused but strangely at ease. Some things had been sorted between them, he felt, and words said that had to be. He now knew what Gilles had made of him and that he was assured of his devotion. It was strange that it was the boy not the man that had led the way; but perhaps, knowing the quality of Gilles, not so strange. *** Captain-lieutenant Vinseff finally appeared at Blauwhaven at the end of their first autumn at the schloss. The two boys were insufferably humorous on the subject, teasing Ruprecht with wicked innuendos. He bore with it, and was at one level in agreement with their assessment of the situation. He was badly in need of some sex apart from what his hand could offer, even if Anton was only willing to take his ass. He arrived late one Sunday afternoon, having ridden the whole way from Ostberg, and Ruprecht encountered him refreshing his acquaintance with Erwin Wenzel at the house end of the paddock. At the sight of Ruprecht the captain dismounted and kissed him. ‘So this is Homo Central? Where are the teenage sodomites?’ ‘Most likely down at their usual resort, a pool they’ve found over by the woods. They lie out there, snog and fuck most afternoons after school. The servants aren’t allowed near it.’ ‘We must go and say hello then.’ ‘Let’s do that, they’re eager to meet the boy who screwed me on the beach. I have to repeat the story at least once a week for them.’ They resigned the horse to Erwin and strolled across the paddock to the woods, though they found Gilles and Felix were not in fact there, even though there was no school on Sundays. Probably Gilles was listening to Felix practising his flute; of late the boy had also begun singing in his developing tenor voice to Felix’s accompaniment. ‘Nice place, and I’m hot and saddle-sore after the ride,’ the captain observed, and began stripping. He plunged off a rock into the pool and called to Ruprecht to follow him. It didn’t take long for mutual passion to rise and Ruprecht found himself bending over in the shallows while he was vigorously ridden by the captain, belly slapping loudly on buttocks in the quiet under the trees. Ruprecht found the friction in his rear exciting enough to bring himself off standing as Anton pressed hard down on him and grunted his climax in his ear. They lay out on the lawn and took some moments for more gentle love-making. ‘How long are you staying for?’ Ruprecht asked, after breaking a prolonged kiss. ‘I’ve got a week’s leave. Are you counting the possible number of fucks?’ ‘No. That’d be courting disappointment. Let’s go back to the house.’ ‘Like this?’ ‘You can leave your riding clothes here if you like, Erwin will come and get them. Open nudity isn’t out of the question at Blauwhaven, but at least put your shirt on, the tails will cover your bum. Your Erwin’s been a real find by the way. Thank you for him.’ ‘Don’t mention it. He and my boy Bruno were an item for a while. Erwin was always by far the more sensible of the two; which was probably why he wouldn’t sleep with me. Bruno on the other hand was one of those silly, romantic kids, completely out of touch with reality. Pretty boy though and randy as hell.’ ‘What happened to him?’ ‘He got into some dangerous company and started freelancing outside the whorehouse around the docks, which removed him from Madame’s protection. She doesn’t like it when her boys do that, as they pick up all sorts of diseases. Last I saw him he had inevitably got the red pox and he got it bad. It wasn’t pleasant to see. I would imagine that he ended in the madhouse the way they do.’ This grim snapshot of reality abruptly silenced Ruprecht, and he led Anton back to the house, both naked apart from half-buttoned shirts. They encountered the boys in this state as they entered the hall. Felix’s eyes widened. ‘You wouldn’t let me and Gillot wander round in the house naked!’ he protested. ‘It didn’t stop you,’ Ruprecht snapped back. ‘Erwin saw you two scampering around the house without clothes after lights out last week, and I’ll bet that’s not all you were doing.’ Anton in the meantime was surveying Gilles with deep interest. ‘Isn’t this the boy who was with you at the citadel? I thought he was a servant.’ ‘Long story, but this is in fact the Jonker Gilles von Aalst, my ward.’ ‘I’d bow to you both, minheeren,’ Anton observed, ‘but you’d see my ass and right down my front to my cock.’ ‘We don’t mind,’ Felix responded happily. ‘We’re going to see them anyway at the pool.’ Anton laughed. ‘They’re just how you described them, Rupe. A shameless pair of sodomites. Gentlemen, I’m looking forward to a more intimate acquaintance in due course.’ He gave a short bow, which did not in fact expose his buttocks, and followed Ruprecht to his room, where Erwin had already placed his bag. The men returned to where they had left off at the pool, and stayed in bed till the bell rang for supper.

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