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Mike Arram

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  1. After a visit to Oskar’s bank, they spent the rest of the afternoon with Marietta in a small park, alternately throwing a Frisbee for her to catch and lying out in the sun working on Will’s vocabulary. Finally Oskar sent him across the road to buy cokes from a kiosk, making him swear before he went that he would speak only Rothenian. A grinning Will came back with the two cold bottles and a sense of achievement. He had even stumbled through some remarks on the weather with the vendor and asked if business was good that afternoon. The vendor was charmed to be talked to by a foreigner in his native language. Although his replies were a bit too fast, Will got enough of what he had said to feel pleased with himself and grateful for Oskar’s devoted teaching. During their walk back to Oskar’s apartment, Will began determinedly using Rothenian phrases without recourse to English. In the evening they met up at the same student bar with Tomas Weissman and the others. This time Will was included in the high fives and embraces: ‘Friend Willemczu!’ He stunned them by the facility of his Rothenian greetings and repartee, even though it soon broke down when they replied in kind. ‘Good accent, Will!’ remarked Tomas, who he sensed was already a firm friend. ‘A little rural, however … sounds like Husbrau!’ The others erupted and Oskar made a gesture with his middle finger that Will did not need a dictionary to translate. The young men kept to English for most of the conversation, but, aware of Will’s ambitions, slipped in routine phrases they thought he should know, pausing to make sure he registered them. The beer helped a bit. They moved on to a picturesque café next to the Rectory of the University, full of young men and women enjoying a late meal. They took their own sitting out on the pavement, watching the stars open in the deep blue of the late evening sky. It had been another glorious Strelzen day. The following morning Will awoke in Oskar’s arms, to gaze into blue eyes already open and smiling in his face. ‘Dobre morhen, men leblen,’ Will said in soft Rothenian, as he hugged his lover hard. The smile widened. ‘Cje morhen cj’es den bibliotek, men mihlajec!’ Oskar replied. They stayed in his native tongue all through breakfast, keeping the phrases simple. He even used Rothenian to explain Will’s mistakes. Lingering over a final cup of coffee, Oskar flipped his mobile to set up entry to the National Library and an interview with an archivist. They then did their two hours at the gym. Showering afterwards, Will was pleased to notice a definite improvement in the muscle tone of his belly. The library, just off the Parlementplaz, had been built by public subscription during the national revival period. The façade deliberately copied that of the British Museum, although the statuary and themes were all Rothenian. Every detail was meant to impress, and Will was duly affected. Oskar and he found the young female archivist waiting in the pillared entrance hall, where introductions were made. As she was more comfortable in Rothenian, Oskar took the lead in explaining what they were looking for. Once she had a clear understanding of their objectives, she showed them to the special-collections room and suggested a range of titles and periodicals. Will paid a large fee so he could use his camera to take images from books. He had bought a stack of memory cards with this in mind. They spent the rest of the day working through the illustrated national newspapers from the 1850s and early 1860s, absorbing the high politics of Rudolf V’s reign. It was a challenge to disentangle the turbulent aristocratic factions of the time, in which a certain count of Hentzen featured as a radical and incendiary. The murder of the king’s half-brother, Mikhel, in 1862, just after Rudolf’s coronation, sent the papers wild with conspiracy theories related to the king’s sudden and dangerous illness. Oskar translated with rapidity and facility. Their notes stacked up and the memory cards filled with plates of state ceremonies and portraits. ‘Look,’ cried Will abruptly, ‘the count of Tarlenheim!’ ‘What!’ Oskar replied, dropping his pencil, startled. He scrabbled under the table to get it, coming up red-faced. ‘Sorry, Oskar. Didn’t mean to give you a heart attack, but it’s Franz of Tarlenheim. I’ve met him before at the cathedral and in the royal palace. Our paths keep crossing. It’s weird.’ ‘Yes, I’ve come across him,’ Oskar replied. ‘He also was from Husbrau.’ ‘Of course, your sister lives in Terlenehem, doesn’t she? So you must know something about the family.’ ‘Something, yes,’ Oskar replied slowly. ‘Franz zu Terlenehem is still remembered as a kind and good man, a devoted servant of the Elphbergs. He was also famous for supporting the national movement at the end of the century. He built Rothenian schools across Husbrau. I was educated in one.’ ‘Is there a château in Terlenehem?’ ‘There was one, but the government demolished it under Horvath. A pity, it was beautiful. I have seen pictures.’ ‘Does the family survive?’ Oskar shrugged. ‘I don’t know much about that.’ ‘That's too bad. I’d like to make a list of surviving aristocratic families. Matt might find them useful as talking heads.’ ‘Talking heads?’ ‘Interviewees, witnesses. Also they might have pictures and stuff. How many of the aristocracy still have their old properties?’ Oskar shrugged again. ‘I’ve heard that quite a few of them have had restitutions made since 1990. There are court cases in the papers from time to time. But there is no state aid for these law suits, so it is only the aristocrats with money or friends who can pursue them. There are some big claims that could be made against the government, which is therefore in no hurry to help cut its own throat.’ ‘Okay, we’ll put that on hold as an idea, but I think it’s a good one. We’ll get a list of present aristocrats for Matt before we finish.’ They spent their time very productively, although Will felt oddly restive. Normally he sank happily into a library environment, working methodically and patiently. That day he found it difficult at times to sit still, unless his mind was fully engaged. Also he seemed to have lost his former ability to concentrate exclusively on what was in front of him. A man tapping a pencil further down the table kept annoying and distracting him, and he was in a fair way to going over and telling the guy where to put the pencil, if only his Rothenian had been up to it. For a while, Oskar’s presence was a counter-distraction, although in this case only because Will had developed an urgent need to copulate with him. ‘I need the toilet,’ he whispered at last. Oskar smiled and pointed to the sign. ‘No,’ Will objected, ‘I need to go to the toilet with you.’ Oskar grinned. ‘Rostac! You rascal,’ he whispered in Rothenian. ‘Okay, but not too long.’ They disappeared into the library’s loos, Victorian and old fashioned, with conveniently solid cubicles. Will dragged Oskar into the nearest one and swarmed out of his clothes. ‘Fuck my ass,’ he demanded in Rothenian. ‘Whoa, sexy boy,’ Oskar replied in kind. ‘No preventives.’ Will’s sudden recklessness cared nothing for that. ‘Think I mind? If you’ve got it, I want it too.’ Oskar looked troubled as he held his naked lover. ‘Will, I think I am clean, but I cannot be sure. Despite the regular testing Hendrik insists on, it has been a while for me. I have swallowed a lot of semen since the last time. I should not risk it.’ ‘Please, Oskar, I need it bad. Please.’ Oskar buckled under the pressure of his own lust, signs of which were very visible. ‘Look Willemczu! Far be it from me to be the sensible one, but let’s just do oral, yes? We shouldn’t risk it.’ Will grunted, torn between lust and what was possible. ‘Okay, but naked!’ he insisted. Oskar was soon undressed and kneeling in front of Will. He did his best to make the blowjob last, but Will was too excited and, unable to stop thrusting into Oskar’s mouth, came all too fast across his lower face. Okar smiled ruefully up at Will. ‘Next time you get carried away by lust, make sure you have a rubber in your wallet, my Willemczu.’ * * * After the library closed, Oskar declared with some regret in his voice that it was time to go to the market. A short walk took them through a shabby residential area at the back of Lindenstrasse to a square dominated by a tall church, where market stalls were still set up and returning workers were doing their last-minute shopping. Oskar led Will through the narrow alleys between the stalls, selecting items and exchanging comments with the tradespeople. For once his confidence seemed to have left him. They filled two bags with vegetables, fruit, rye bread, milk and meat, then hopped a tram back to Lindenstrasse 122, Apt 6. Oskar dumped things in his kitchen and filled his small fridge. ‘So, what are you planning?’ asked Will. Oskar shrugged. ‘Umm, I have a very limited repertoire as far as cooking is concerned. We eat out a lot here in Strelzen and, to be perfectly honest, we Rothenians are sexists in the kitchen. It is women’s work.’ Will was becoming amused. He could sense the growing embarrassment in Oskar’s voice. ‘You can’t cook, can you?’ ‘Er, no. How about a pizza? Tin of soup?’ ‘No. That’s your usual repertoire, isn’t it?’ ‘Maybe. Apart from salads.’ Oskar looked a little nettled. ‘Well then, I have got some meat. If you heat it up it gets more digestible, or so I’ve heard.’ ‘You want me to do this, don’t you?’ Oskar finally laughed. ‘You are a liberated Western boy. You know these things.’ ‘You’re wet. Okay, let me through. I can do a fair fry-up. You bought some steak, or that’s what it looked like to me. You’ve got spuds?’ ‘Spuds?’ ‘Potatoes. Steak and fries is a definite possibility. Oh yes! And fried onion rings with beef tomatoes.’ ‘I love you.’ ‘Wimp.’ ‘Is that good? No, I see in your eyes, my Willemczu, that wimp is not good.’ Will cooked and didn’t mind it in the least. For the first time in their relationship, he had discovered one area in which he had an edge over Oskar. It changed the balance between them slightly, making Will feel more like a partner than a guest. Oskar praised his cooking extravagantly, rather more than it deserved. The red wine helped a lot too, a fine Tavelner from Husbrau. Will shopped the next day and Oskar was endlessly grateful and amazed at his culinary originality. In fact, Will had learned only five stock dishes which had got him through university without malnutrition, but he had at least got good at them. ‘Life is looking up,’ Oskar said with satisfaction on Thursday, leaning back in his chair. They had just finished off Will’s pièce de résistance, his generally admired chicken tikka masala. He had found an Asian grocery shop in a back street behind Modenheimstrasse. Oskar added hopefully, ‘What about the egg and chips tomorrow? Possible, you think?’ * * * Thus the week passed happily and productively. Early morning in the gym was followed by research in the library. With the pair working devotedly, the notes and ideas stacked up amazingly. They had filled two thick files and several memory cards by Friday. In the evenings they rutted passionately and continuously, but Oskar sternly forbade any form of unprotected sex. He booked in the next week at Hendrik’s usual clinic, just to be sure. On Friday afternoon, Will sat up in his seat and stretched. ‘What’ll we do this weekend, lover?’ He could now say it in Rothenian, and the language was beginning to take over as their normal means of communication, especially during sex. His progress in the language was phenomenal, but not perhaps surprising considering that he was totally submerged in a Rothenian world. He had had his first dream in Rothenian that morning, as he proudly told Oskar. His ability to read Rothenian was coming on as fast as his ability to speak it. ‘Husbrau, I think,’ Oskar said with a broad smile. ‘It’s time you met the family.’ ‘Really! Wow! Helge and Fritz. Have you told them about you and me?’ ‘I told Helge. She knows I’m gay, but she doesn’t know about the sex work, so don’t spill it to her.’ Will paused, and took the plunge. ‘Can I say something to you, Oskar?’ ‘What, my Will?’ ‘It is just that I love you … I have not said it so far, and you haven’t said it to me. I love you the way I’ve never loved anyone in my life, and I can’t bear the thought that we will part.’ Oskar’s eyes filled with tears, which was not unusual for him. He wiped them away. ‘I know you love me Will, but how do you think a whore like me could ever tell a man like you that he loved him?’ ‘You’re no whore.’ Oskar looked at him sadly. ‘But I am. My kind of people aren’t safe. You know enough of my story to realise that deep down I am just a selfish fuck. Still, for what it’s worth – which isn’t saying much – you have this whore’s heart.’ ‘Then that’s enough for me.’ ‘It won’t be one day, my love.’ That brief exchange dominated Will’s mind for the rest of the evening, as they lay together on the bed in Oskar’s apartment, reading and listening to Radio Rothenia’s rather good Classical channel. Marietta was dozing between them. Oskar had no television, claiming that Rothenian TV would induce suicide if you watched it too long, and he couldn’t afford cable or satellite. ‘I thought Hendrik paid you well. You surely could get a bigger apartment.’ ‘What’s wrong with my little love nest? It’s centrally placed and very convenient for King Henry.’ ‘Nothing.’ ‘I have … expenses, Will. What I earn mostly goes elsewhere.’ He didn’t elaborate, but then Will, remembering the sister and brother in Terlenehem, felt like a fool. Later they slowly stripped and explored each other's body. As he stroked and kissed Will’s chest, Oskar paused and glanced up. ‘Josep seems to have done a good job.’ Will looked down and to his surprise discovered that new ridges of muscle had appeared on his abdomen. His groin too had slimmed and firmed under his pubic hair. ‘Christ, I’ve got a six-pack!’ ‘A what?’ Will explained the term, though he found it surprisingly difficult. Making him turn over, Oskar felt and stroked his buttocks. ‘You’re tighter and nicer back here too, lover. This just goes to show what I said, about how pretty you are.’ * * * Oskar insisted they do their two hours at the gym on Saturday, even though they were travelling later. Josep looked in and swatted Will on the buttocks, seeming satisfied at his progress. The trainer was startled when Will told him in Rothenian to mind where he put his hands. Then he smiled. ‘I’ll have to be careful what I say around you, my boy.’ He winked across at Oskar, who appeared disconcerted. After gym, Tomas arrived at the apartment. Once they’d all shaken hands in the serious Rothenian way, Oskar handed Marietta over to him. Not at all fooled that Tomas was taking her for a walk, she gazed accusingly at Oskar and Will and slunk off with her tail down. ‘She’ll be alright. She is a possessive woman, and she’s getting possessive of you too, my lover.’ They took the tram through the tourist-filled streets to the Westbahnhof, Strelzen’s Victorian gateway to Husbrau. The space inside, which had seen little in the way of renovation, looked very much as it had when the Orient Express was still running through Strelzen. Will confidently bought the tickets to Terlenehem. Oskar slapped him on the back. ‘You might have been Rothenian, and the lady at the counter quite fancied you.’ They embarked on the shabby local train that rattled slowly north from the capital to Modenehem. It left the city and went out on to a viaduct over the Starel. The view back down the river valley to the cathedral was sensational. They made themselves as comfortable as they could on the bare wooden seats, Oskar sitting on a folded British hoodie he luckily had with him. Will pulled his maps out and eagerly watched suburban Strelzen gradually give way to the countryside, where they made stop after shuddering, squealing stop in sleepy country stations. Oskar cuddled into his shoulder and dozed off. Will got quite heady with his lover’s fragrance. He made a note to find out what it was so he could buy some. They were entering a delicious wooded valley nestled amid rounded hills when Oskar jerked awake. He stretched. ‘Almost there,’ he announced. ‘Look! You can see the abbey of Medeln again, where we went with Matt and the others. Wasn’t it a great day?’ A quarter of an hour later, the train lurched to a halt at the Terlenehem station, a beautiful Victorian structure festooned with hanging baskets of red geraniums. They climbed down to the platform, empty except for a bored-looking porter. Oskar shouldered his bag and led Will out on to a country road. ‘The town – more of a village really – is down there, but our house is this way.’ ‘Can we look at the town?’ Will asked. ‘Maybe later if we have time. Helge will drag us to church tomorrow, you can bet. We will look at it then. Oh! Do you go to church in England?’ ‘Yes, I sing in the local church choir. But we’re Anglican.’ ‘Excuse me? I don’t have much to do with churches except when Helge’s on my case.’ ‘The Church of England is the national church there; it’s Protestant though.’ ‘Oh dear, don’t tell Helge. She’s not fond of Protestants. You sing in a choir? That’s interesting. Sing something for me.’ ‘Er, just like that?’ ‘Rothenians love singing, we do it all the time.’ ‘You don’t.’ ‘I’m a Rothenian mutant, a national disgrace. Completely tone deaf. People pay me not to sing.’ Will burst into laughter. Then, in the fullness of his heart, he did what he normally never would except when he was walking the fields alone back home. Loud and clear he sang out a sweet old English country song: Over the Hills and Far Away. The trees and fields seemed to listen. His rich voice, not flattened by the open air, soared out in perfect pitch and time. Oskar tugged him to a halt and waited till he finished. ‘I could never have guessed. Willemczu, you are wonderful. Your beauty is not just physical.’ They walked along the empty lane, hand in hand, their bags slung over their shoulders, regretfully relinquishing their hold on each other only when a number of small houses appeared. Oskar led him through the gate of an old one-storey wooden cottage, the garden full of flowers, and up some steps to a veranda. A neat woodpile was stacked on one side, ready for winter. Oskar opened the screen door and called out, ‘Helge! Fritzku! It’s me!’ A woman answered from the dark interior, there was a clatter of pots and she appeared out of a back kitchen, wiping her hands on a long apron. Brother and sister embraced. Helge was as tall and blond as her brother, but looked a lot less merry, perhaps not surprisingly. After a long hug, Oskar introduced Will. She gave him a straight, cool look as they shook hands. It was clear she knew Oskar and he were lovers and did not approve. She said she’d bring in some local fruit wine. ‘You sleep with me,’ Oskar said in English, and took their overnight bags into a side room, where there was a double bed draped with an elegant rural counterpane. Will looked round at the religious pictures on the walls and a statue of the Sacred Heart on a side table between candles. No sex in here, then, he thought. A portrait group was framed above the bed: Helge and Oskar as adolescents, their parents tall and distinguished-looking. The father looked a great deal like Oskar. The mother held a small boy in her arms: Fritz. Oskar noted his gaze. ‘Yes, that’s us before they died; this was their room. Helge’s not happy we’re sleeping in here together, but she must get used to it.’ ‘Why?’ Oskar coloured and mumbled that it might happen again. Will let him off the hook and asked, ‘Where’s Fritz?’ ‘Playing with some friends down the road, I’d guess.’ ‘Er … Oskar, isn’t he going to find it odd that you’re in bed with another man?’ Oskar laughed. ‘No. Rothenian kids often share beds … it’s one reason I knew I was gay so young. He won’t find it odd. Let’s go get that wine.’ Helge sat them down in chairs ranged next to a big porcelain stove. She had the bottle and glasses on a small table between them. In hesitant English, she welcomed Will to her house, and in confident Rothenian he thanked her and said he was grateful for her kindness. With a small smile, her first, which made her look very like Oskar, she shifted to her native tongue. ‘It’s very unexpected to find an Anglo-Saxon speaking our language. A great pleasure too. Tell me something about yourself.’ Will launched into an account of his life, Oskar chipping in with necessary words and correcting phrases he got wrong. After a few minutes, Helge was plainly relaxing, and Will saw the relief in Oskar’s eyes. Soon they were chatting almost normally, a transition much helped when it became clear that Helge too was a school teacher who shared with Will a passion for their profession. They spent a long time comparing conditions of service. She was astounded by Will’s annual salary when he translated it into krone and could not understand why he was so broke. The conversation moved on to the costs of higher education in Britain, then to Helge’s opinion of Oskar’s lackadaisical approach to completing his degree. After half an hour they were a relaxed and happy group. The wine helped. There was a certain familiarity about its bouquet that lingered on Will’s tongue. Finally realising that it was the same as Oskar’s fragrance, he asked about it. After casting around a bit for words, he finally worked out that the wine was based on blackberries. ‘And the fragrance you buy, Oskar? Is that blackberry too?’ ‘Oh you have noticed, have you? You like it?’ ‘I want to buy it for myself, and it would be a great present for my mother.’ ‘You can’t buy it,’ he said. ‘Why not?’ Will asked, surprised. ‘It’s only made here in this part of Husbrau. It’s called Medelnerattar by the Germans and Struhinvhytazheh by Rothenian Slavs. Only one or two elderly people now know the secret, passed down from the old days of the abbey. Helge learned how to prepare it.’ ‘Yes,’ she agreed, ‘it’s a difficult thing to do. It takes a long time to distil and often it goes wrong. But I always have a phial or two for Oskar, he loves it.’ She got up and came back with a small bottle which she gave to Will. ‘Receive this as a gift, Willem.’ Will heard the formality in her voice that warned him not to protest at the generosity. Something inspired him to stand and offer his hand. She stood and took it, then he embraced her. She hugged him lightly. Oskar was standing at his shoulder when they separated, and there were tears on his cheeks. He took his sister in his arms and kissed her. After they sat down again, Oskar recovered his composure and grinned. ‘See? I told you you’d like him.’ A little nettled, she glared at her brother. Then she smiled gloriously at Will. ‘My brother is an idiot, but there’s nothing wrong with his heart.’ Neither she nor Will saw the sudden dead look that came over Oskar’s face. A bang and a clatter announced the arrival of Fritz, a handsome blond lad, very tanned, and sweating from running. He jumped on Oskar and hugged him tightly. Then, noticing Will, he became all Rothenian and formal, offering to shake Will’s hand. Will stood and obliged, touched at the ritual ‘Welcome to my house’ pronounced in Rothenian. He replied formally in the same language. Then Fritz grinned. ‘Oh, you are American!’ ‘No, English.’ ‘Do you know David Beckham?’ ‘Afraid not,’ said Will seriously, ‘but I saw him play against Wales at the Millennium Stadium last year.’ ‘Wow! Hey! You speak Rothenian like a Husbrauener!’ ‘I had a good teacher.’ Oskar smiled at the interchange. ‘Fritzku, why don’t you go and show Will round the place, while Helge and I get on with business.’ Will looked surprised. Oskar had mentioned no business purpose in the weekend. ‘Okay. Come on, Englishman,’ Fritz said in English. ‘I will give you the tour.’ ‘Hey,’ replied Will in Rothenian, ‘you speak English like a Husbrauener.’ The kid doubled up. ‘You’re cool!’ ‘He’s a teacher, and in England they beat naughty boys,’ said Helge. ‘Behave yourself.’ Fritz took Will’s hand in the Rothenian way and led him out into the garden and on to the road, chattering away in very passable English.
  2. Sunday was a day of partings. When Harry Baxter left for the airport in the morning, Will was at the hotel to say goodbye and explain that he was staying on. Harry looked a little miffed. Then he shrugged and agreed to water the pot plants in Will’s flat, so Will told him about a spare key he kept under a mat. Finally Will checked himself out and moved his bags by taxi to Lindenstrasse, where an excited Oskar and Marietta were waiting for him. In the afternoon, Terry and Ramon were leaving by Lufthansa for Washington via Berlin. Will rode out to the airport with them. Strelzen Tildemann, several kilometres south of the city, was brand new, all stainless steel and polished grey granite, full of expensive shops selling things at prices that most local people could not dream of paying, as Oskar had complained to him before he left. All three had a McDonald’s, much to Ramon’s disgust, but Terry said he had an addiction problem. Looking at his physique, Will doubted it. He still chewed a chicken sandwich along with his friends. It was as Ramon made a dash to the loos that Terry fixed a sharp gaze on Will. He had been an easy-going and happy lad in all Will’s contact with him so far, but suddenly all the cheeriness evaporated. Will was looking into the calm and slightly grim face of a man who he guessed had seen some terrible things and had survived them, perhaps against the odds. Will realised there was an awful lot he did not know about this man. He remembered Matt’s words. He was about to meet the real Terry, and was not certain he wanted to. Terry cocked an eyebrow and leaned towards him. ‘Did I ever explain my job, Will?’ ‘You mentioned you were in security for PeacherCorp and minded Andy Peacher’s back.’ ‘That’s true, but perhaps I should have told you that I am the senior security consultant for the Peacher and Roedenbeck corporations, two of the biggest conglomerates in the Western world.’ ‘Er, sounds like an important job.’ ‘It is. I’m telling you this because I want you to take what I’m going to say next very seriously. You must not trust Oskar.’ ‘What the hell!’ ‘You heard me.’ The calmness of Terry’s response quelled Will like a face full of cold water. ‘Why do you say that? You know about the porn stuff?’ Terry gave him an appraising look, which made Will feel very uncomfortable. ‘So you did know then? Well that’s interesting. I wasn’t actually going to tell you. I recognised the boy as soon as I saw him, of course, having been a bit of a perv on the quiet in me younger days and more than friends once with a mega-perv from Germany called Axel Friedrich. Your Oskar – or shall we say Marc – does have a distinctive face, doesn’t he? I spotted him online two years ago, and, well, you don’t forget a bod like that in a hurry. But it’s not the porn which bothers me. Don’t tell Ramon, but I actually was in a lower-end porn video meself once, so who am I to throw stones at your Oskar?’ Will was intrigued despite his unease. ‘Then what is it?’ ‘He’s lying to you. I’m not sure what about, but there’s something behind his words.’ ‘How can you be so sure?’ ‘I’m a human lie detector: face, voice, eyes, pulse, perspiration – they give themselves away to me. You have to be real good to get past me. He lied twice in my hearing. The first time was about the attempted mugging. He’s also concealing something about that place, Terlenehem. I don’t know what’s going on, but I doubt you fell into his bed accidentally; he wanted you there.’ Will was deeply shocked, yet he found the courage to ask the important question: ‘And did he lie about his feelings for me?’ Terry gave a half-smile. ‘Perhaps, but I … no, I can’t say. There is something there, maybe. I can’t suggest more than that. What I can do is give you this.’ He handed Will a business card with the well-known Peacher logo embossed in one corner. It was very impressive. ‘This is my special card, given to few. The number will reach me priority, toll-free even from abroad, and the e-mail address is for my private account. If you are in trouble at any time, contact me. I can do things. For you I will do things.’ ‘Why me?’ ‘I like you, Will, I like you a lot, and I won’t have you harmed. At the moment, I suspect you are in the grip of people who may not have the best of intentions towards you. Besides, you remind me so much of someone I knew and loved, but who …’ He shook his curly head. ‘Enough of my many tragedies. But it’s not just that you’re a friend and fellow-tenor. You’ve come into the orbit of Matthew White, and anyone whom Matt takes on is my responsibility too, because Matt is my boss’s reason for living. I won’t have either of them upset. It offends me. There are a number of people in prison now because they offended me.’ Will was cowed. This was no braggart. He had never met such a man before, so very cool and controlled, so much in the moment. It was a little awesome. And at the time he heard it he believed everything Terry was saying, even though his heart was crying out for love of Oskar. Terry’s eyes flicked over Will’s shoulder. Will glanced around to see Ramon on the way back. When Will returned his gaze to his friend, the old grinning Terry was there again. Nothing more was said, but it was a very troubled Englishman who got on the shuttle train back to the city. What was he to make of this? He found it difficult to dismiss the things Terry had said, yet he did not want to think any ill of his Rothenian lover. He began to believe what was the most convenient thing to believe, that Terry was over-suspicious. Suddenly it occurred to him that Terry did not expect to be taken seriously, which was why he had left the card. Will studied it again before shoving it firmly into the back of his wallet. His one concession to Terry’s suspicions was not to throw the card away. At Strelzen’s main station, the Kung-Rudolfs-Bahnhof – a passable copy of the Gare du Nord in Paris – Will hopped on the tram to the Lindenstrasse. As it clanged its way through the quiet Sunday streets, his thoughts continued to wrestle with what Terry had said. He found he could not deny that his own mind had been troubled. There was something bugging him … but what was it? Whatever it was, it wouldn’t come back to him at this point, but he wouldn’t forget it. * * * Hendrik checked over the menu at the Köningen Flavia. ‘Drink, boys?’ He noticed how moody both Felip and Oskar were. ‘So how is it going?’ ‘I’ve persuaded him to stay on in Strelzen.’ ‘I can’t imagine how.’ Hendrik gave a bland smile and got a cool look by return. ‘Not only that but we’re going to work together on Matthew White’s current project. He’s paying me a lot more than you ever did.’ ‘Remember your contract with me, Oskar. But well done, well done indeed.’ Felip cut in. ‘I don’t think that much about the boy. He is thin and whey-faced, like all those English. How can you be so sure he will perform?’ ‘You only saw him in the club, late that night. I’ve slept with him. I’ve seen him naked in the morning sunlight. I’ve had him groaning beneath me with lust for my cock. He’s crazy for it. And he took all of me in one go. I know how he will perform, believe me. He is a natural and he’s an unmistakable Westerner.’ Felip wasn’t giving up. ‘But he’s English and we want an American.’ Oskar shrugged. ‘He speaks English, and so do the Americans. Also, he made the table laugh when he put on an American accent to amuse Dr White’s party. They said it was brilliant and they all live in America. It’s not a problem.’ Hendrik looked at them both appraisingly. ‘I need to see him. Bring him to Ribaud’s tonight. I’ll be at my usual table.’ * * * Will encountered the surly concierge on the way in. The man blocked his access to the stairs, clearly out for trouble. He was subjected to a barrage of incomprehensible questions in Rothenian by a man who knew no English – or pretended he didn’t. Brandishing the door key Oskar had given him produced no let-up in what was plainly becoming an abusive tirade. Will was almost in tears when Oskar entered behind him and began laying into the concierge passionately. Eventually the man turned his back on them, slamming his door. Oskar took Will’s arm and pulled him into the lift. They kissed as it clattered and groaned its way to the fifth floor. ‘He’s a surly bastard,’ Oskar explained, ‘and homophobic too. He was a secret-police informer in the old days, I think; most of the concierges made extra money that way. I bet he wishes he could put me in the labour camps as they did to people like us under Horvath.’ ‘I wish I knew Rothenian,’ said Will plaintively, opening the door. Marietta danced round them both. ‘We can start this afternoon, if you want.’ ‘I do want. Can I learn the rude words first?’ Oskar laughed. ‘You get those as a reward if you work hard, men leblen Will.’ ‘Men leblen?’ ‘My darling, my love.’ Will flushed red with delight. ‘That I will remember.’ They sat in the flat for a while over a rich, dark coffee that Oskar made, then took Marietta on a walk through the back streets to a small park, never ceasing to work on words and phrases. Oskar was a very good teacher, as Will easily recognised, being a rather fine one himself. They made progress slowly, with much repetition. Oskar reinforced his instruction with funny little jokes and surprise tests. Will just hoped his memory was up to the demands on it. The fact that the language was so heavily drenched with Germanic and Latin words helped a lot, although the common and highly irregular verbs were going to be a problem. After they returned, they kept hard at it. At five, Oskar finally stretched and rose from his chair. He pulled Will up and kissed him, then looked down at Marietta. ‘What is it with you, dog? Don’t you want to defend my honour from Will?’ The terrier gazed up at him and snuffled. Shaking his head, Oskar went back to kissing Will. They adjourned to the bedroom and were soon naked together on the covers. ‘You kiss me full on when you make love to me,’ said Will. ‘So?’ ‘In the films, you guys sort of flicker your tongues together, like this.’ He demonstrated and Oskar co-operated. ‘It is the way we do it for the cameras – porno-kissing. It is supposed to arouse the watcher. It tickles nicely.’ ‘Does nothing for me. Well, not entirely true. It’s sort of sexy when you do it, it just looks weird.’ ‘You would be amazed how traditional is the porn business, my Will. Some of my colleagues would be offended if you criticised their age-old practices. Anyway, I know one place where you will like it.’ He got Will on all fours and demonstrated, then followed his tongue into the same place with a longer and more solid organ, sheathed dutifully in film. He took his time beating leisurely into Will, on his knees panting in a high-pitched moan when he wasn’t licking and kissing the back of Will’s neck. ‘You are so sexy, leblen. You make the cutest noises. Ooo … you’re going to drip on my bed; let me lick that off.’ He pulled out, leaving Will a little distraught at being empty and ready to admit to himself that he really was a bottom boy. Oskar drew back Will’s penis and suckled the precum off it. ‘I love your juice,’ he said. Will recognised the words from Rothenian Boys 7. He found them deeply arousing. Then Oskar reengaged with Will’s anus, and picked up his speed. Five minutes later he came with a remarkably extended groan. After a nap, Oskar checked his watch at the bedside. ‘Let’s go out and have a drink and a meal. I know this great place on the Radhausplaz, away from the tourists. It is called Ribaud’s. Have you heard of it?’ ‘No. Is it expensive?’ ‘A bit, but Dr White’s money will take care of that, hein?’ ‘I suppose, though I don’t want to take advantage of him.’ ‘Of course not.’ * * * ‘How many words for penis in Rothenian?’ Will was impressed. ‘I have counted twenty-four, but some of them are not for ordinary use. We must be a very fixated nation, do you not think?’ ‘Strewth. Mind you, English has got quite a few, not that I’ve sat down and actually counted.’ Will looked around the restaurant. They were eating inside, though most people were at the big array of tables out on the cobbled Town Hall square, because Oskar said he occasionally got stared at by passers-by and didn’t like it. Will saw his point. He had let Oskar order for him, and they were tucking into a meaty game stew with lots of mushrooms. Stews and casseroles seemed to be the Rothenian speciality. Will had kept a menu card and was throwing out random questions about foodstuffs and eating. His initial enthusiasm for Rothenian had not at all died down, nor had Oskar shown any boredom in answering and tutoring him. ‘No, Will,’ he was saying, ‘we always put the accent on the first syllable of every word. If you don’t do that it sounds really weird to a Rothenian hearing you. Try again.’ Across the restaurant, a fuss began as waiters scurried round a new arrival, a tall, bearded, charismatic man who came in with two young girls hanging on his arms. They were seated in state and the maître d'hôtel hovered over them solicitously. Oskar caught Will’s gaze. ‘Don’t stare, Will, it is rude in Rothenia.’ Will snapped out of it. ‘Oops. Sorry. It’s rude in Britain too.’ ‘Did you get a good look, then?’ ‘Who is he, a minister or something?’ ‘No, but he is famous. He is Hendrik Wilemmin, and you have heard of him, I think.’ ‘Rings no bells …’ ‘Pardon me?’ ‘I don’t recognise the name.’ ‘Oh. How about “Anton Aramis”?’ ‘That’s familiar, though I can’t work out why.’ ‘Falkefilm?’ Now Will knew who it was. That was the name adorning the boxes of his now-forgotten porn collection, the producer and mastermind behind the Rothenian porn industry. ‘That’s your boss? He’s younger and fitter than I thought.’ ‘You can rise fast if you are as clever, unscrupulous and energetic as he is.’ Will paused, and then launched into the question he had been longing to ask even before he had met Oskar Prinz, and knew only Marc Bennett. ‘Oskar, how did a man like you get into an industry like this?’ Oskar smiled slightly. He had been expecting the question, and was surprised it had taken so long to come out. ‘Are you being judgemental, dearest Will, about what I do for a living?’ ‘I guess I am,’ Will admitted. ‘Ach. The answer is really quite simple. When I was eighteen and doing my military service, my parents were killed, crushed on the autoroute by a Serbian truck. It was terrible. I was not allowed to go home and help Helge, my big sister. I was in a very bad state. A friend in barracks helped me a lot, gave me love and attention and taught me how to be queer. When we were let out on weekends we used to go to King Henry.’ ‘What?’ ‘You know, the big statue on the Rodolferplaz. That is where young, gay soldier boys often spend the early evening looking for a pickup. He took me with him, and we began cruising. It was exciting, and sometimes I was not so proud that I did not take money for it, money I could send home to Helge. I am a real whore, as I have warned you too often now. ‘One evening just before my eighteen-month term was up, Hendrik approached me in the Rodolferplaz, not for sex but with an offer of model work. By that time I was so screwed up I had no plans, so I knocked on his door for an audition. It was pretty soon clear that more than modelling was involved, but I was a young gay full of himself, and pretty shameless when it came down to it. It was not too difficult to go along with things because the money is very good, even if not as frequent as one would like.’ ‘How much does he pay?’ ‘Hendrik is a bastard, but he’s not a cheap bastard. You can get three thousand dollars for a set with a guy, even more for the big ones. A starring role in a special is worth at least three times as much. That sort of money goes a long way in Rothenia. Some of Hendrik’s earlier boys have already retired and opened their own businesses. Others of them do casual or full-time work for Falkefilm. Some are now cameramen. Felip, for instance …’ ‘Felip?’ ‘For a moment, Will, I forgot we are only recent friends. Felip you would know as Max Wolf.’ ‘Oh right … the guy who …’ ‘Yes, the boy whom I screwed and who screwed me in Rothenian Boys 7. He is the only one at Falkefilm I’d consider to be a friend, although he can be irritating. We socialise sometimes. No, not like that, Will. We are not lovers, at least off-camera. Anyway, Felip is one of Hendrik’s scouts, he goes to swimming pools, clubs and gyms looking for talent and inviting them for an audition. He gets head money for it, a finder’s fee. The gay boys home in on him, so half his work is done by his pretty face. He is pretty, is he not?’ ‘Not as handsome as you are, Oskar.’ ‘Thank you, but you will never convince him different. Most of Hendrik’s boys come from that sort of approach. I was a bit of an exception to get a personal invitation.’ ‘Er … was he interested in you sexually, then?’ ‘Hendrik’s sexuality is a bit of a mystery. Mostly he sleeps with women, but there are some stories about him and one or two of the boys. But not me. Me he is a little protective of.’ ‘I’ve heard that Falkefilm gets a lot of guys who are straight, but will have gay sex for cash.’ ‘Certainly it happens. Sometimes boys are bisexual. Sometimes they think they are straight but find out otherwise when they give it a try. But many of us have long known we are gay. Sex is complicated, is it not? When did you know about yourself, Will?’ ‘Not till university for sure, and I only lost my virginity a month ago.’ ‘What!’ ‘It’s true.’ ‘Jesus. But you are so hot in bed. You English are strange …’ ‘Even the queer ones.’ Will was so intent on the conversation that the sudden looming above him of a tall man took him quite by surprise. Oskar stood, and Will did too. It was Hendrik Wilemmin. They shook hands and there were formal introductions. ‘This is Will, William Vincent, an English friend I have made,’ Oskar said to his boss. ‘Good evening, Will, do you like our city?’ There was more than a trace of American in the accent of his English. ‘Very much, Mr Wilemmin. I could easily stay here forever.’ ‘I expect sweet Oskar would be part of the attraction.’ Will smiled, but did not answer. He was not going to discuss his sex life with a porn king. ‘Oskar, Josep said to remind you that you’re needed for a workout tomorrow at nine-thirty.’ ‘Sure. I will be there.’ ‘Have a good evening, boys.’ They thanked him and resumed their seats. ‘Powerful character, that,’ concluded Will. Oskar was quick to agree. * * * The next day, they were supposed to meet Matt at his hotel for lunch. Having the morning free, Will readily agreed to go along with Oskar to his gym. Will had a pair of shorts, trainers and a singlet, so he thought he’d work out too. It had been a while. The World Class Fitness Center and Solarium was only three blocks away west on Lindenstrasse. It was impressively well equipped. ‘So this is where you get your physique,’ Will observed. ‘Something of it, but I was always a keen swimmer. Although that’s where most of the muscles come from, Josep here tones me up.’ Josep was a shaven-headed muscle man who came up to them unsmiling. He took them into a glazed-off area, where he had Oskar get up on a table and began working on what Oskar said was a recent muscle strain. Will sat and watched. He tried to pick up words from their conversation, but they talked far too fast for him. Eventually Oskar sat up and received some instructions. He looked at Will and grinned: ‘Your turn.’ ‘What?’ ‘Get up here and take off everything except your shorts. Josep’s agreed to look you over and give you some advice.’ ‘Really? I never had a personal trainer before.’ ‘You’re nice looking, my Will. You could be better looking yet with a proper regime. Josep is an expert. And it is free because he works for Hendrik. We are here on Hendrik’s bill.’ Will shrugged and did as he was told, lying on his back. Josep, at last giving a small smile, began a systematic exploration of his muscles, poking here and pressing there. Josep stretched his arms and legs and rotated his neck, which gave a disconcerting click. His eyes were checked with a small torch, as also were his tongue and ears. Then he was shifted on to his front, and the same happened. Will almost leapt in the air when a hand reached under his shorts to give his buttocks the same treatment. ‘Okay, Will, sit up!’ instructed Oskar. As Josep said a few things to Will, Oskar translated: ‘Josep says you are not in bad shape, but you could be a lot better. Your legs and pecs are excellent. Your ass and shoulders could do with some work. He is afraid he cannot compliment you on your abdomen, which is slack and needs some serious work.’ There was some more Rothenian. ‘Josep will draw up a plan for you. We will be coming here regularly, as I too have to tone up, so we can exercise together, is that not good? Oh, and he wants you to lie on your stomach.’ ‘Why?’ asked Will, as he complied. ‘Ouch!’ he yelped, when Josep pulled down his shorts and injected his backside with a clear fluid. Oskar laughed a little wickedly. ‘Josep says you have a bad vitamin B deficiency, which he has now corrected. If he remembers, he will give you a booster next week.’ ‘Hey!’ objected Will resentfully. ‘He should ask first! You don’t just jab people.’ ‘You got on his couch, Will, so as far as he was concerned you became his patient. He is a qualified physiotherapist. Say thank you to the nice man.’ Will was still a little peeved as he rubbed his bottom, but the sting soon faded. Josep went to a desk in a back room, scribbled some Rothenian instructions and handed them on to Oskar, who led Will into the main gym, singlet and trainers in hand. ‘Okay my Will, thirty minutes with these weights, get down there. Good. Lift with your legs, that’s fine. I will be on the running machine.’ * * * They exercised for two hours. Although it left him aching, Will did feel a lot better for it. He was also ravenous, and ready for lunch. After showering they returned to the flat to change. Realising they were running a little late, they took a taxi to Matt’s hotel, the Strelzen Hilton, a large new block northwest of the palace gardens, looking down on the New City. They found Matt already in the restaurant, a book propped up in front of him. He rose and exchanged handshakes with his guests. ‘Good to see you, boys. First we order. Can you get egg and chips in Rothenia?’ ‘Egg and chips?’ asked Oskar. ‘It’s England’s great culinary contribution to the world.’ ‘I thought it was the fish and chips,’ Oskar countered. Matt sighed. ‘Many people make that mistake. Somehow my life is a conspiracy to deny me what I want most in the way of food. My trainers forbid it to me, and I’m never in a place where you can order it off the menu. Oh well, it’s eating Rothenian I suppose.’ After they had made their choices, Matt got out a notepad. ‘How long can you give me, Will and Oskar?’ Will pondered. ‘I can go as far as four weeks before I’ve got to get back home …’ he glanced apologetically at Oskar, who looked mournfully back at him. Oskar said that, apart from some odd commitments, he could be with Will for most of those four weeks. Matt nodded. ‘Four weeks is good. I’ll need to be updated by e-mail every so often on what you discover. Remember, I need information that will assist me in writing the script. The focus will be on the royal Elphbergs, and I think we’ll be concentrating on Osra and Flavia. The men come into it, but only as they touch on the women’s stories. Oskar, we need those folktales about Osra you mentioned. Will, I want to know everything about the assassination of Rudolf V in 1862. The uniting theme will be the eighteenth-century zenith of the Elphbergs, their unification of the country and the tragic collapse of the dynasty only a century later. We focus on women in love. Got it?’ ‘Yes sir,’ they said together, and grinned. Matt smiled kindly back. ‘Visual sources are a priority, of course … portraits, woodcuts, objects of art. Just don’t make the mistake that a lot of documentaries do by ignoring the literature.’ The food began to arrive, and Will did it full justice. They busily exchanged ideas across the table, both Will and Oskar getting caught up in Matt’s enthusiasm. ‘So that’s that,’ Matt concluded. ‘I’ll be off tomorrow to follow up some leads in England. The last king of Rothenia, who died in exile in Surrey in 1979, has relatives still living both there and in Norfolk. ‘I’d like to see you in London in a month’s time, Will. This card contains the e-mail address and telephone number of my PA, Dave Evans. He’s scarily efficient. He’ll fix up the appointment. And if you ever change your mind about teaching, believe me, the job offer is always on the table. Finally, there is this.’ He produced two fat envelopes, which the boys opened. ‘I think this should pay for all expenses and your labour.’ Oskar looked up in disbelief. ‘Dr White, this is a quarter of a million krone!’ ‘Good, the bank got it right then. Will has got 100,000 more than you. He has to get home afterwards, and this way he can go first class. But I’ve paid you both the London research assistant’s rates.’ Oskar swallowed hard. ‘You can count on us, sir.’ As they left the hotel together, Oskar said, ‘This is very generous, 50,000 krone is two months’ wage for a doctor or a teacher, and he is giving me that much for less than a week with books.’ ‘Even more generous than Hendrik, isn’t he?’ ‘He is. I think we need to celebrate tonight with Tomaszu and the others. I shall ring around.’
  3. They arrived back at Will’s hotel at five. He resisted earnest invitations to spend the evening with the others until Terry announced he was keen to check out the Rothenian National Opera at the Rudolfinum. When Will heard that, he was torn. In Terry’s eyes he saw something even more important than their both being gay. ‘Terry, you’re … a singer?’ ‘Yes, sweet babe, I most certainly am.’ ‘You should hear him in the bathroom, Will,’ laughed Ramon. ‘Tenor or bass?’ asked Will tremulously. ‘Tenor, and I don’t mean tenor baritone … no, not you too!’ Terry was transfixed with delight. ‘My God, do you know how rare we are?’ Will hurled himself into Terry’s arms. ‘My dream man! You’re out of here, Ramon. I’ve found the love of my life!’ Terry hugged him back, spun him around and whooped. ‘You’ve got to come with us tonight, sweet babe. It’s The Magic Flute.’ ‘Damn, bugger and blast!’ cursed Will. ‘I’ve got no choice, it’s a prior engagement.’ Something of the true situation must have showed on his face. He noticed Ramon whisper into Terry’s ear and smile. Terry gave a knowing grin. Matt missed the signals but expressed his regrets, saying he hoped Will would join them again for the next day’s tour of royal abbeys in the north of the country. Will said he would love to. There was no sign of Harry in their room, so Will was at the phone like a shot. The line burred and clicked a few times before a familiar voice said, ‘Prosim! Oskar.’ ‘It’s me!’ ‘Will! This is good. Are you free tonight? I hope you’ve had enough of tourism and that dreadful Club Liberation.’ ‘For the moment, maybe. What do you suggest?’ ‘I am meeting friends. Maybe you will come so we can practise our English on you?’ ‘Love to, and maybe I could pick up some Rothenian.’ ‘Do you have German?’ ‘A little.’ ‘That’s a start. I shall come for you at seven. Ahoi men leblen.’ ‘What?’ ‘You’ll know one day.’ Oskar rang off. There was still no sign of Harry at seven, when Will saw Oskar making his way across the Flavienplaz. Will was emerging from the lift as Oskar entered the lobby, looking cool in a leather jacket and straight-cut jeans with a thick studded belt. He was wearing shades and a small grin. Will shook hands the formal Rothenian way, which pleased Oskar. They walked out together arm in arm, a familiarity Will knew by then that young male Rothenians often shared. Oskar was delighted at the gesture. As they strolled down Mikhelstrasse, Oskar pointed out things of interest. Indicating a rundown hotel just off Flavienerplaz, he commented, ‘That was the Gestapo headquarters during the Occupation. You see those flowers? Above them is a stone that records all the freedom fighters executed in the basement. There are four hundred names, and one of them was my father’s uncle – only seventeen, but a brave boy. He blew up railway lines in Husbrau.’ They paused in tribute and looked up. Although the list was alphabetical, Will saw no one called Prinz. Because he knew little about Rothenian naming practices, he realised that any question he might ask could only lead to a long explanation, so he ignored the matter. It never occurred to him for a moment that Oskar might be lying. In a side street off Mikhelstrasse, Oskar hauled Will on to a passing tram of the old-fashioned sort as it rumbled by. He paid the lady conductor, and they took a slatted wooden seat. ‘Where are we going?’ ‘To Bila Palacz, or the University quarter. I feel more comfortable there. I got wolf-whistled by a group of Americans on the Rodolferplaz coming to your hotel. I expect they recognised me.’ ‘Bummer,’ commiserated Will. ‘What! Where does my rear end come into it?’ ‘Er … it means “crap”, “bad”, that sort of thing. It’s not a buttock-related word.’ ‘Ah. Bummer. It sums up the downside of being a gay-porn actor. People think they own your ass.’ ‘How come Rothenians don’t seem to know about you?’ ‘Maybe a few do, but we are a polite people. Besides, my films are not on sale in Rothenia or the Czech Republic. My employer restricts distribution to protect his actors, so by the time I retire not many local people will ever have seen them. Most of those wouldn’t say anything even if they had.’ ‘Are you out to your family and friends, Oskar?’ ‘Er … difficult for me to say. My sister, I suspect she knows, but the films not; she thinks I am just an unsuccessful model. My university friends are straight boys to whom I have never mentioned I am gay. Although they know it well, of course, it doesn’t register with most of them. Rothenian social life is very segregated. Boys go out with boys, and girls with girls. It’s a wonder we survive as a nation.’ Will guffawed. The tram rumbled past the grand Radhaus of the New City with its massive tower, and eventually turned left screeching on to Lindenstrasse. Once across the inner ring road and past some parkland, it ran out into another large square surrounded by Classical buildings. In the middle of the open space, an oversize national tricolour flapped from a gigantic central flagstaff. City and state police in their respective blue and black uniforms were everywhere. ‘This is the Parliament and the ministries. The University is the next stop.’ In a street lined with small cafés they alighted on a low platform, from which they watched the tram clang off towards its terminus. Oskar led Will to a small door half hidden between two street cafés, and pushed it open. A bar lay beyond. The lady at the counter smiled at Oskar and greeted him with a stream of Rothenian, which he answered just as volubly. She did nothing more than eye Will curiously. Oskar led him into a back room, where there were already three young men crowded around a small table. ‘Oskar!’ High fives and embraces were exchanged, leaving Will suddenly feeling shy and left out of things. Then Oskar introduced him and there were formal handshakes all round. He sat down. The boys smiled uncertainly and stared at him, as if expecting him to do something entertaining. ‘You are not American, then,’ said the boy called Rodolf. ‘Er, no … English,’ Will replied. ‘Oskar was always loser. Americans have money. I watch cable. Have you been to America?’ Oskar cut in. ‘Rodolf has a fixation with the United States, a result of his extreme ignorance of the world.’ ‘I have been to the States,’ Will replied. ‘My parents took me to Disney World when I was fourteen and my sister was ten.’ ‘Cool!’ Rodolf was briefly impressed. When drinks arrived, Will bolted his. He was certain it would be a tough night. It turned out far better than he expected, however. The boys soon were talking about their courses, their backgrounds and their families. He was in a fair way to getting to like them after two more drinks and a half hour of relaxation. They were devoted to Oskar, judging by the stream of joking insults directed at him. Will couldn’t work out if they knew about their friend’s life on DVD, but he guessed not. They clearly knew he was gay, though, and assumed correctly that Will was too. They seemed to have no hang-ups about it. He focussed more and more on a boy who had been introduced as Tomas Weissman, the one that sparred most with Oskar. Will knew him. During a lull in the conversation he asked Tomas directly, ‘Were you with Oskar last night, when he chased off the mugger?’ Tomas laughed. ‘It was I. Brave Rothenian warriors, were we not? He had knife, I think. And where did you sleep last night, Willem?’ ‘I think you know.’ ‘Oskar is very generous boy. He has many friends and he deserves them. And he must like you much. You are first of his lovers he has ever brought to meet us here. I think you know he likes very much to sleep with men, yet he does not always like men he sleeps with. There is something new with you. Maybe it is because you are English, who knows.’ ‘Why are you always joking at him?’ ‘It is my way, I suppose. Although I like … love … him – though not in that way, you understand – he does infuriate. He is Rothenian through and through, hopeless romantic like we all are, but in his case he could be so much more than he is. He has great talents. I expect it is his background.’ ‘His background …?’ Will began, but Tomas was sharing a joke about one of their lecturers with the third boy, Piotr. After ninety minutes, Will was confident and chatting easily back and forth with his companions. Like most Central Europeans, they were addicted to politics, and happy to discuss them at length and in depth, unlike British people. The extension of the European Union was the topic of the moment, along with the conversion of the krone to the euro. Will, being a teacher and pretty well up on the subject, was happy to argue about anything. He found himself defending the pound sterling’s integrity with growing passion and enthusiasm. The battle raged round the table and eyes grew bright. When people appeared at the door to listen, Will heard whispered translations of his points being made among the onlookers. There was even a polite smattering of applause for a couple of his arguments. He caught Oskar’s look at one point. The man was proud of him and excited. At eleven, things began to wind down, and people looked for their coats. Oskar’s comrades slapped Will on the back and embraced him, for by then he was ‘Friend Willem’, or just ‘Will’. They all lurched out into the dark street, happy and exalted, to catch the last tram to the Rodolferplaz. Will and Oskar said their goodbyes at the stop on Lindenstrasse. The others were singing national songs as they went off. Oskar turned to him when they were at last alone together, his eyes still shining. Taking an arm, he led Will towards his apartment. Neither of them thought of the hotel for even a moment. * * * Late at night, after a passionate coupling, with Will happy to be bottom and his rectum still outraged at the size of Oskar’s intruding member, the two lay smiling into each other’s eyes. ‘You are a special person, Will. I am so glad we met.’ A sudden tremor passed across Oskar’s face. ‘But you must leave soon?’ ‘I fly out on Sunday.’ ‘Only one more night. That is … sad. Will you stay with me tomorrow?’ Will’s heart lurched. ‘I’m so sorry, Oskar, but I promised some friends I’d go on a drive with them.’ Then, remembering who the friends were, he grinned. ‘But I don’t think they’ll mind at all if you come along – quite the opposite, in fact.’ ‘What, are they Marc Bennett fans?’ ‘Er … I don’t know. They are gay, though.’ He was willing to guess that Terry knew his porn. He was not sure about Matt and Ramon. ‘Will you come with me?’ ‘You met my friends tonight and were happy, so now it is my turn.’ Will gave a secret little smile. ‘I think you will find it interesting.’ Oskar looked mildly suspicious, but let it pass. With a small breakfast of Oskar’s disgusting muesli (‘I have to be careful of my body, Will’) under their belts, they took Marietta out for her morning constitutional. Then they strolled through some back streets to come out on Flavienplaz. ‘So why are you being so mysterious about these friends of yours, my Will?’ Oskar asked as they approached the square. ‘I take it they are English?’ ‘Two of them are, the other is Latin American. The English guys are Terry and Matt. Matt went to the same university as I did, while Terry used to be my neighbour.’ There, said Will to himself, that’s all true, well … sort of. Oskar sat in reception while Will went up to change. He found two bodies in the bed. Harry was snoring. The stranger seemed a bit older this time, from what could be seen of his hair and skin. After silently dressing, Will scribbled a brief note, in the unlikely event that Harry might wonder where he’d gone. Matt’s limousine arrived on time. Will ran out to greet his friends, who were perfectly happy for Oskar to accompany them, once Will had explained the circumstances. Oskar came out to join them, and confidently poked his head inside the car. Will would have paid money to see the face he pulled when he saw who was in the back seat. ‘But at least I did not faint,’ Oskar later muttered. Ramon nudged Will as Oskar was paying homage to Matt, and whispered close in his ear, ‘You sly dog, you! You’ve been in the city three days and you walk off with what must be the hottest babe in the place. I’m real envious. I'll bet he’s amazing in bed.’ Will whispered back, ‘You wouldn’t believe.’ It was clear enough that Matt and Ramon had no idea who Oskar really was, which was a relief. Will was not entirely sure of Terry, who nonetheless smiled and shook Oskar’s hand happily enough. Perhaps the brief appraising stare was just the result of his profession. Crowded into the back, with Oskar and Will on the fold-down seats behind the driver, they chatted amiably as the car drove off. Oskar, however, was clearly in awe of Matt and kept staring at him. Matt, being used to it, wasn’t bothered. He had a map on his knee, and as they left the limits of Strelzen, he invited Oskar to change places with Terry so he could talk them through the route. ‘We’re going first to the Marienkloster at Medeln,’ Matt announced. ‘Ach,’ said Oskar, ‘Then I think I know why. It is the Good Lady Osra that you wish to visit, yes?’ ‘You call her that?’ ‘The “Dobra Dama” is what the old peasants of the countryside call her. She was very much loved by all, but especially the poor. There are many folktales about her, her beauty, her wilfulness and her kindness. I like to believe them.’ ‘We must talk about this sometime, Oskar.’ ‘Is this the Princess Osra whose picture we saw in the palace?’ Ramon asked. ‘That’s the lady,’ Matt confirmed. ‘After her husband passed away, she retired to the abbey of Medeln and lived with the nuns for twelve years, doing good works and being a grand old lady. She died and was buried there. Her nephew, King Ferdinand, raised a stunning monument to her. You can hardly believe the pictures. Have you seen it, Oskar?’ ‘Yes. And it is stunning. Medeln is not far from Terlenehem where I was a boy and where my sister and brother still live.’ ‘We can call in if you like,’ offered Matt. Oskar looked momentarily put out and gave a glance at Will under his long lashes. ‘That is kind, but they are not expecting me, and it would not be fair to them. I shall see them in a week or two in any case.’ Oskar borrowed the map and pointed Terlenehem out to Will. He described the countryside of Husbrau with an engaging affection. He also gave his comments on the other sites that Matt wanted to visit, as well as some advice on a good place for lunch. It was nearly eleven-thirty when they reached their destination, a large, if plain, medieval church somewhat upstaged by the princely baroque cloister and domestic range that had grown up beside it. Oskar led them into the abbey through the west door. ‘The nuns were driven out under the dictator Horvath, and the abbey turned into a reformatory. Although the new government has restored it to the Church and the EU has funded repair and reconstruction, the sisters have not returned. It is sad. My father the …’ he choked off and, darting a glance at Will, commented instead, ‘… what I meant to say is that the sisters were remembered kindly by the people. Princess Osra left much money for charity, and the nuns spent it handsomely on schools and the old. They were good days when the nuns lived in Medeln. Now they are gone, people are the poorer.’ By then they were in the dark church, a simple Romanesque structure for the most part that had obviously been lavishly restored. The space of the church was clear and clean, its austerity complemented by understated modern lighting. The one exception to the simplicity of the building was to the north of the high altar, where a baroque chapel of St Ursula had been constructed. On the east side was raised an elaborate altarpiece, more than matched by a huge tomb on the west side. They stood staring at the mass of sculpture climbing up to the roof. Above the plinth was an open sarcophagus, out of which a skeletal Death was stealing, a bit like Dracula rising from his grave, tattered drapes swirling around him and a scythe in his hand. He seemed unmistakably pissed off about something, perhaps that a robed and beautiful Osra was taking off from the top of the sarcophagus’s broken lid. A flight of angels was bearing her up into gilded rays of sunlight and white marble clouds, out of which the Virgin Mary was reaching down to clasp her hand. ‘Bit overpowering that,’ Terry murmured. ‘What does the inscription say, Will?’ Will looked closely at the side of the sarcophagus, where he read: ORATE pro anima Osrae filiae piissimi constantissimique Henrici regis Ruritaniensis sororis Rudolphi regis quondam ducissae Glottenburgensis et nuper abbatissae in commendam huius domus Medelnensis. Amica pauperum et Ferdinandi regis amita. Rex pro illa hunc tumulum aedificavit sed pauperes aeternam domum ei assecuraverunt. AMEN. ‘Which means,’ he continued, ‘“pray for the soul of Osra, daughter of Henry, most pious and steadfast king of Ruritania, and sister of King Rudolf; of late duchess of Glottenburg and sometime commendatory abbess of this house of Medeln. To the poor she was a friend and to King Ferdinand she was an aunt. The king built her a tomb, but the poor have obtained for her an eternal home. Amen.” ‘There’s a bit of wordplay in the middle which you can’t translate, a pun on amica (friend) and amita (aunt), but I like it; it’s elegant.’ Oskar looked astonished, and after a moment pounded Will on the back. ‘Well done, my Will! You are a real scholar! Bravo!’ The others also smiled and congratulated him. Matt was interested in the domestic range and whether it could be visited, so Oskar went off to find the caretaker. Will pulled out his digital camera and began snapping pictures. They had a good hour there, especially when Matt realised it had been Osra who rebuilt the nuns’ cloister and had her monogram and heraldry sculpted all over it. There was also a statue of the lady herself in the cloister arcades, its extended hand curiously polished by generations of the poor who had kissed it in memory of her generosity, as Oskar explained. ‘That little fact is worth its weight in gold, Oskar. You can build a whole documentary round such a simple thing,’ exclaimed Matt gratefully. Oskar unmistakably glowed with the praise. They followed his advice about lunch, which they took at a country inn nestled in the hills above Terlenehem. The meal was spicy and rich, a stew that Oskar recommended of wild boar meat curiously blended with herbs and apricots. It was delicious. As they sipped the sparkling sweet wine of the district, Terry grinned and asked, ‘Come on Will, tell us how you met Oskar. I didn’t see you pick him up in Liberation, so where did you find him?’ Will smiled, a little embarrassed, and told them about his midnight adventure. The others were intrigued. ‘I’ll certainly be able to recognise the bastard again,’ he commented. ‘His BO was distinctive. Do police do nasal ID parades?’ Oskar looked bemused until they explained what they were on about. Once he understood, he gave a small laugh. ‘Did you see him?’ Terry asked Oskar. ‘Only as a dark running figure when Tomas and I chased after him. Then there was just poor Will looking very distraught. I could do nothing less than go to bed with him so as to preserve the honour of my country,’ he added mischievously. Ramon said warmly, ‘I think there are other reasons to want to go to bed with Will, and I for one can clearly see what they are.’ Will blushed scarlet. Matt was looking appraisingly at Will. ‘Tell me, when are you going back home?’ Will’s face fell like a landslip. He had successfully put that to the back of his mind, but a day in Oskar’s company was making the prospect of separation all the more agonising. ‘Tomorrow,’ he replied unhappily. ‘But haven’t you got a long summer holiday ahead of you?’ ‘Yup, and an empty bank balance to finance it.’ ‘Ah. But that shouldn’t be an obstacle to you.’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Will boy, you’ve already been invaluable in two days as an unpaid research associate on this project. Why not stay here at my expense and carry on after I’ve gone? One thing I can’t do is hit the local archives and libraries and stack up references. Marlowe Productions prides itself on the depth of its project research and, as Jeremy Faber convinced me, you could be the best in the business.’ ‘You’re offering me a job?’ ‘I’m offering you a job.’ ‘Sorry Matt, but teaching kids was what I was born to do. I’m not giving it up for anyone.’ Matt seemed disappointed, then brightened. ‘Fine. But you still have the summer, and there’s no law which says you can’t pick up extra cash by a short-term contract.’ Will grinned and looked over at an eagerly listening Oskar. ‘Now you’re talking! But I’ll need the proverbial native guide. A bright and attractive local media-studies student would certainly fit the bill.’ Matt turned to Oskar. ‘What about it?’ Oskar leapt up and kissed an astonished Matt full on the mouth, then fell back in his seat. ‘Oh my God, what did I just do?’ ‘Fulfilled my every adolescent fantasy,’ replied Will, a little sourly.
  4. With the powerful scent of spirits filling his nose, Will sat up abruptly. The concerned and oh-so-familiar voice said, ‘I told you that you were shaken. Let me help you to this chair.’ A wonderful male fragrance surrounded him as he was lifted and helped into a low armchair covered with a throw. He looked around himself. He was in a small living room with a worn carpet. A kitchenette opened on his left, a large bedroom on the other side. A tall uncurtained window was shuttered in front of him. The furniture was a bit old, but everything was neat and tidy – apart from the dog hairs all over the floor which had got on Will’s jeans too. Marietta in her basket under the window was looking at him with concern. Almost reluctantly, Will turned his gaze to the man sitting at the table beside him, who smiled down at him. There was no doubt: It was ‘Marc Bennett’ who had saved him on the streets of Strelzen. And he was just as amazing in person as on the DVD, although he seemed taller. ‘Er … thanks, Oskar,’ he muttered. ‘Take a drink.’ Will needed no second invitation. He gulped it down, grateful for the bite it took out of his throat as it went. ‘Very good,’ he coughed. Will was aware of everything. The man had a fascinating scent: his own odour, mixed with some sort of subtle perfume, Will guessed. Oskar’s smile was seduction itself. By the open kitchen door stood a small side table covered with lots of pictures of children and adults, including one or two of an unmistakable and very pretty Oskar as a boy. It was weird. Will had never visualised Marc Bennett as part of a family, just as a beautiful, randy whore. But here he was, a real man with parents and a history and a razor cut on his chin for good measure. One thing was clear enough to a newly sensitive Will; the man was as gay as he was. ‘Gay for pay’? Hah! Up yours, Harry you cynical bastard. ‘Are you feeling better, my friend?’ ‘A lot.’ He cleared his throat. ‘Tell me Oskar, what do you do for a living?’ ‘I am a model. Not regular work, but it keeps the … wolf from the door, as you say in English, I think. Odd, because you have no wolves in England, although we do up in our mountains. The rest of the time I study at the Rodolfer Universität here in Strelzen … mediatheknik … er, I think you would call it Media Studies. It is not a very arduous course and students can take their time over it.’ ‘Are you a Strelzener?’ ‘Ach no. I’m a country boy from Husbrau in the north, the small town of Terlenehem, if you’ve heard of it.’ ‘Tarlenheim?’ ‘Yes, that is the German name for it. My big sister and my young brother still live there, but my parents are dead.’ ‘I’m sorry.’ ‘It happened four years ago, traffic accident. So now Helge and I have to look after little Fritz, that is my brother’s name. He is twelve years of age.’ ‘That’s quite a responsibility.’ ‘Helge is a saint. She does most of the work, but I send what money I can. How about you, Will? Where do you live in England?’ ‘Me? I work as a schoolteacher in a small town called Whithampsted, which you’ll have never heard of, I’m sure.’ Oskar grinned and shook his head. ‘It’s in Berkshire in what we call the Home Counties, those around London.’ ‘London I have heard of. A cousin of mine is working there as a nurse. One day I will go to visit.’ ‘I was born and brought up in Plymouth, a seaport in Devon. My parents live there still.’ ‘You have other family?’ ‘A younger sister in university at Leeds, a city in the north.’ ‘You have a wife, a partner or a girlfriend?’ ‘No, I’m homosexual and, at the moment, unattached.’ Wow, thought Will, that slipped out with ease in present company. He was sure his confession would bring a similar one from Oskar, but none came, which disconcerted him. He had shown his colours, and expected Oskar to reciprocate. Oskar just nodded, as if he had expected it. ‘Homosexuality has only been recently discovered in Rothenia; under Communism there was none of course.’ Then Will noticed Oskar’s dancing eyes, and burst into laughter. Oskar joined him, looking handsomer than ever. He had a delicious laugh. ‘I was at Club Liberation tonight,’ Will confessed. ‘Yes, I know,’ was the ambiguous reply. ‘It is for the tourists I believe.’ ‘Are there other gay clubs in town?’ Oskar smiled. ‘I think so, but not for tourists. Are you here with friends?’ ‘Yes I am.’ ‘That’s good.’ Will was beginning to wonder where the conversation was going, because he was perfectly convinced it was going somewhere. Oskar smiled at him in silence for a while. Then he spoke. ‘Thank you for not calling me Marc.’ Will chuckled. ‘You knew that I knew?’ Oskar nodded. ‘I was impressed that you fainted when you saw me, though.’ ‘The second time tonight.’ ‘Pardon me?’ Will recounted how he’d met his other great idol that same night. By the time he had finished, Oskar’s eyes were streaming with tears as he hiccoughed with laughter. Will was a born teacher and could tell a very good story. Oskar wiped his eyes. ‘That is Strelzen, it is a magical city, believe me. A great place for stories to come to life. So you know Matthew White and his rich boyfriend?’ ‘No, just Matthew and tonight for the first time.’ ‘He is very beautiful, the most beautiful man in the world, I think. Wait.’ Oskar got up and went to a drawer. Pulling out a book, he handed it to Will with a smile. It was full of cuttings and pictures of Matt White. Will looked up startled at Oskar. ‘Dear God, not you too!’ Oskar stared at him, just as startled. ‘What, you …?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Oskar looked at him with a new expression in his eyes. ‘What a sad pair of gay bastards, yes?’ ‘Fraid so.’ ‘So now you know what makes Marc Bennett jerk off. Let me get you another drink.’ It was as he put the brandy down next to Will that Oskar leaned in and kissed him, a provocative and lingering kiss that made the hairs lift on the back of his neck. As their lips slowly separated, Oskar whispered, ‘I hope you will not faint again.’ ‘No,’ replied Will, also in a whisper, ‘although I may manage a heart attack.’ Oskar laughed low in his ear, the sexiest sound Will had ever heard in his life. His fragrance filling Will’s nostrils, Oskar pulled him to his feet. They kissed again. As he was probing that wide mouth and sucking on those beautiful lips, Will opened his eyes to see Oskar’s eyes directed downward and to the side. He broke off when he noticed Oskar frowning a little. ‘What’s up?’ ‘That has never happened before.’ ‘What?’ ‘Marietta. By now she should be barking. She does not like me kissing other men in her presence, but she is not bothered by you, Will. How very … odd.’ ‘It’s a strange night for all of us.’ ‘Come with me, Will. I think, as Marietta, that you are no ordinary man, and I really hope you will spend the night with me. I just want you to know – in case you have doubts – that I am no prostitute. I only sleep with men who are special to me.’ Will sternly suppressed the observation that obviously he was not including the guys in the DVDs. They were both naked by the time Oskar closed the bedroom door on Marietta. His tawny body, lean and muscular, strange yet familiar, was revealed to Will, who stood a little shyly in front of this godlike man. But Oskar was staring at him in genuine admiration. ‘Will … I didn’t realise. But you are quite … pretty.’ ‘Pretty!’ ‘Not the word?’ ‘Not the word … men are handsome or good-looking.’ ‘Then you are handsome.’ ‘Thank you, but no one has called me that before.’ ‘Nor pretty either?’ Will closed with the man, embraced that warm, silky flesh and kissed him again. His right hand closed around the velvet muscle of Oskar’s left buttock, stroking and massaging it. They moved to the bed. Oskar’s mouth worked slowly down Will’s body until it engaged with his already-straining penis. He began sucking and licking Will just the way he did on film, his passionate eyes glancing up at Will regularly, the familiar half-smile on his face. Will felt as if he had stepped into a movie. He brushed the heavy fringe of hair away from Oskar’s face in exactly the way the actors did in the DVD. It was really weird, but oh so sexy. Then he did something that did not happen in the DVDs. He moved round into the 69 position and took Oskar’s long and cabled penis in his mouth, with which he began practising the skills Harry had taught him. Judging by the gasps from down by his groin, he was doing quite well. After five minutes they broke off. Oskar leaned up on one elbow, his heavy eyes sensuous and provocative. ‘So, what do you want to do, you rascal?’ he growled. Will did a double take. That was a line from Rothenian Boys 10. Oskar knew it too and burst into a peal of laughter. ‘Bastard!’ Will exclaimed and leapt on Oskar to wrestle him. ‘No. Fuck. I tickle!’ the Rothenian yelped. Will paused and looked down at the young and beautiful face. ‘That line’s not in the films.’ ‘Films aren’t real, Will. I am actually a person. I have – what you call it? – athlete’s foot too.’ ‘You’re kidding.’ ‘Want to see? It is very ugly. Red and flaky.’ The man had suddenly turned into an impish boy, determined to shock. Will laughed. ‘Later, Oskar. In the meantime, would you mind if I went on top?’ ‘It is not a problem, Will. I am versatile, as you will have no doubt picked up from the DVDs.’ ‘From behind?’ ‘You’re living out Rothenian Boys 7, aren’t you?’ ‘Yes. And another thing. I’ve never fucked a man before, so tell me what to do.’ And before Oskar could answer, Will added, ‘Something tells me that my sex life will be all downhill after tonight … but what the hell.’ * * * Oskar and Will awoke to Marietta’s scratching on the bedroom door. She pushed it open and sniffed at the used condom on the floor. Oskar picked it up and binned it, then padded out naked to feed the dog. He returned stretching. Indicating a door behind his bed he suggested, ‘There’s just room for two in my shower.’ After some erotic playtime under the spray, they dressed. ‘Marietta and I will walk you to your hotel, my Will. It is still early. Only seven. I hope you will not have been missed.’ They went down the stairs and out into the empty, early-morning street. A tram was clanging in the distance. ‘I love this city,’ said Will earnestly. ‘Most people do in the end. It is a very special place,’ Oskar agreed. They walked silently for the most part but very contentedly, or at least Will thought so. He kept sneaking glances at the tall, handsome man strolling beside him, dressed casually in long shorts, sandals, tee shirt and unbuttoned over-shirt. His wrap-around sunglasses looked expensive. Oskar was completely real, yet Will could not believe this was anything other than fantasy. A true fairytale, he thought. The two men separated at the hotel entrance on Flavienerplaz. Marietta licked Will’s hand goodbye. He patted the dog affectionately. ‘Here’s the number of my handij … I mean, my cell phone.’ Oskar gave Will a scribbled note. ‘Ring me this evening please, I beg.’ ‘Oh yes,’ he replied, ‘I most certainly will.’ As he let himself into the room quietly, Will was working on explanations. They became redundant when he saw that Harry was wrapped around last night’s Rothenian boy from Liberation, and the floor was scattered with their clothes. The two were still fast asleep. Will was relieved. After changing from his suitcase, he went down for breakfast without waking them. When he came back up at nine, the shower was going in the bathroom and both men were in it. He grinned as they emerged damp and naked. The Rothenian looked shocked and covered his genitals. ‘Morning, Harry.’ ‘Oh, hi! Er … where were you last night?’ ‘Like you, getting to know Rothenia better.’ ‘Ah … this is Viktor.’ ‘Morning, Viktor!’ ‘Er … hello. I shall be going then.’ ‘Cheers, Viktor.’ The boy dressed rapidly and disappeared without a goodbye kiss. Harry glanced a little crossly at Will. ‘You’re not going to come over all censorious on me, are you?’ ‘No, not in the least, Harry. I’m just glad you’re having a good time. Screw who you want. It won’t bother me.’ After studying him closely, Harry looked relieved as he concluded that Will was being genuine. ‘That’s okay then, but I suppose this means we’re history now.’ ‘Yup. But it was fun while it lasted, and I have to thank you for it. You changed my life for the better, Harry, for which I’ll always be your friend.’ Harry smiled. ‘I have to say, it’s nice you’re being so mature about it. You’re a real babe, Will Vincent, and you’ll be forever high in my top ten.’ ‘Thanks. Now I gotta get out. I’m meeting someone.’ ‘New boyfriend? The one I saw you dancing with?’ ‘No. Just this guy I ran into at Liberation.’ ‘English?’ ‘He’s from Northampton.’ ‘Go for it.’ * * * Terry was at reception. When he saw Will, his face cracked in an elfin grin. ‘You look well. Got back safely?’ ‘Thereby hangs a tale. I’ll tell you sometime.’ Terry seemed intrigued, but didn’t pursue it. The others were waiting in the big car at the entrance. ‘Where are we going?’ ‘The palace,’ replied Matt. ‘But I thought it wasn’t open to the public,’ Will observed. ‘Ah, but we aren’t the public. We’re from Marlowe Productions UK Ltd, purveyors of documentaries to the discriminating, and you three are my production assistants … unpaid of course.’ ‘I’m thinking of industrial action for a raise,’ Terry chipped in. ‘But I’ll buy lunch.’ ‘That’s okay then. I’ll call it off.’ ‘My PA in London faxed the president’s office with your names this morning early. You have clearance. Got your passports?’ ‘Christ no!’ Will exclaimed. ‘I’ll get it from the room. Won’t be long.’ The car drove past the towering statue of King Henry directly up to the massive wrought-iron gates opening off the Rodolferplaz. A black-uniformed state policeman, wearing white gloves and holding a machine gun on a white strap, waved them through after first checking their passports and making a radio call. Presidential guards in full-dress blue uniforms, somewhat reminiscent of those of the United States Army, were pacing the forecourt. The car moved slowly under an arch at the side of the great frontage and into a cobbled courtyard, where it pulled up at the foot of a wide stone staircase. An elderly man was waiting for them. He was dressed in white tie and black tailcoat, with a red, black and white sash draped diagonally across his chest. Suddenly, Will wished he had dressed more formally. There were handshakes all round. The gentleman introduced himself in good English as Mr Pokolosky, assistant chef de protocole of the palace. He seemed a mild and very pleasant man, whom Will immediately liked. He led them up into the state rooms occupying a long, first-floor gallery with tall windows giving on to an inner courtyard. ‘This is the gallery of King Rudolf III. That is his portrait at the east end.’ They saw a handsome and ironic-looking red-haired man in a black suit with the ribbon of the Order of the Rose across his chest. ‘And at the other end facing him is his famous sister, the Princess Osra, Duchess of Glottenburg.’ They gasped at the portrait of a phenomenally handsome red-headed woman. ‘The artist was an Italian, I believe, who later committed suicide, for love they say of the princess. The portrait was very faithful, and you can see how such beauty might have maddened any man.’ Not us, at least, reflected Will, catching Ramon’s eye with a smirk. ‘Osra is an unusual name,’ he ventured. ‘It is Rothenian,’ explained Mr Pokolosky. ‘The Elphberg dynasty derived from the marriage of Rudolf of Elphberg, a Swabian, to the Duchess Osra, the last descendant of Tassilo, in 1436. The name was frequently used thereafter in the dynasty, and is the feminine form of the Rothenian Oskar. “Oskar und Osra” is the Rothenian equivalent of what you English would say: “Darby and Joan”, I think.’ Pokolosky took them down the gallery and through great doors opening into a large chamber, where they found a wall covered with rosettes and stands of pikes and swords. ‘This is the Salle des Armes, the Guard Chamber. It was here in 1717 that an attempt was made on the life of Henry the Lion by a Bavarian assassin. The pistol misfired and the king ran the miscreant through with his own sword, something he did quite regularly it appears; he was a very autocratic and bad-tempered man.’ He pointed to a grand canvas covering an entire wall, showing massed troops and a general on a caracoling white horse. ‘That is the king on the field of Luchau in 1722, when he defeated the Poles led by the Count of Saxony, later the Mareschal Saxe. On the other wall is Henry as a young royal prince at the assault of the Turks on Trieste.’ They moved on to the next tall chamber. ‘This is the Great Antechamber. Along that wall is a series of portraits of eighteenth-century European monarchs, including your George II. He was related by marriage to Rudolf III, who was his aide-de-camp on the field of Dettingen under the pseudonym of the count of Elphberg. Rudolf was fond of England and stayed there regularly before his succession in 1739. He was a member of Whites, the gentlemen’s club in London, and a fellow of the Royal Society. Rumour has it he left several unofficial Elphbergs behind him in England after his stays. He fought three duels at Vauxhall.’ ‘Now that,’ decided Matt, ‘is the sort of information we can use.’ Pokolosky pushed open the farther set of doors. ‘This is the Presence Chamber, with the throne.’ A long, pillared hall led back to a great chair raised on a dais of six steps, a gloomy and dusty crimson baldachin hanging over it. The arms of Ruritania, circled by the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rose, were mounted behind the throne. ‘Is this room ever used nowadays?’ Will asked. ‘The President of the Republic is sworn in on the steps, but no one ever sits on the throne itself.’ ‘Are there any pretenders now to the throne of Rothenia?’ Will pursued. ‘As you will know, I think, the last king, Maxim Elphberg, abdicated in 1920. He had no children, but the claim to the throne lingers on in English, German and Italian families. There is strong royalist feeling in modern Rothenia, where the Elphberg name still counts for much. Moreover, there is a mystical attachment to our national symbol, the Crown of Tassilo, which has been lost since King Maxim’s day. The succession question is a complicated one, I believe.’ ‘More good stuff,’ murmured Matt, scribbling in a notebook. Pokolosky drew their attention to a massive canvas above the entry facing the throne. ‘You see there a portrayal of the coronation of King Rudolf V. He is enthroned, taking the homage of his cousin, and later wife, Flavia.’ They gazed curiously at the huge painting. Set in the cathedral of Strelzen, it depicted robed nobility and vested clergy ranked on the king’s right to watch the homage. A dark-moustachioed nobleman in uniform stood next the king, holding upright a ceremonial sword while looking oddly disgusted with the proceedings. On the other side was a party of courtiers in a variety of colourful military costumes. A face leaped out at Will, above its gold-laced collar. ‘Hey,’ he said, ‘that’s the count of Tarlenheim.’ Pokolosky appeared surprised. ‘You have studied the nineteenth-century court of Ruritania?’ Will smiled. ‘I saw his monument in the cathedral yesterday.’ Pokolosky nodded. ‘Of course. He was allowed burial next to Rudolf V and Flavia, whom he faithfully served all his life. He was a famously handsome man, as you can see.’ Pokolosky led them back through to the gallery and along to the offices of state, still occupied by the ministry of the interior. The rooms were out of bounds, but there were many interesting works of art in the busy corridors. Later, as they strolled through the palace grounds, which were laid out in the English manner, Mr Pokolosky paused at a tall white Gothic monument beside the path. It was inscribed in Latin: RUDOLFO Qui in hac civitate nuper regnavit In corde ipsius in aeternum regnat FLAVIA REGINA Before anyone said anything, Will translated: ‘To Rudolf, who reigned lately in this city and reigns forever in her heart, Queen Flavia’ Pokolosky was impressed. ‘Well read, young man. Yes, that is correct. This is the original monument to the king that the queen set up in the cathedral after his assassination. It was moved here in 1880, to the spot where the king fell, when the two were laid together forever in a new tomb.’ ‘This is a city where romance becomes real, isn’t it sir?’ Will said quietly, his heart swelling and his eyes suddenly and unaccountably blinded with tears. Pokolosky peered closely at Will and smiled gently. ‘That is what many have said, young man, and what many still say. They also say that anyone who has felt true love will feel at home here, and never want to leave.’ Will felt Ramon’s warm hand take his briefly and squeeze it. Matt too was smiling at him. ‘I was a bit worried how we might manage without Andy to translate for us, Will. But here you are, and I’m so grateful.’ * * * Lunch was in a fine restaurant by the river Starel. They sat low down near the slow brown waters flecked with willow leaves. Swans drifted by on the current, and sightseeing boats chugged past upstream. ‘This is a winner, historically and scenically,’ enthused Matt. ‘I can already feel it coming together in my head. It’ll draw interest too. The world outside is just starting to know about Rothenia. If only I could find that Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin had an affair with an Elphberg, I could sell it to the Discovery Channel for a mint.’ ‘When are you going into production?’ Terry asked. ‘We’ve got to spend maybe six months to a year in development. We need six episodes sorted by the end of it. But the Elphbergs are going to be episode one; believe me, it’ll make the series. I just need to find a hook on which to hang it.’ After lunch the waiting limousine drove them smoothly south to the royal summer palace in the domainal forest outside the city of Zenden. The autoroute was very busy with big lorries thundering in both directions, south to the Balkans and north into Germany. Factories hemmed in the motorway on either side, although a lot of them were derelict, as Will noted. They passed some very unattractive housing blocks at the edge of Zenden’s sprawl, sterile apartment towers on bare grounds. Will grimaced. Rothenia had not escaped the blight of the Cold War and Communist central planning. They turned off the autoroute and up into the hills above the industrial city. In a shallow, wooded valley they came abruptly upon the broad, yellow-and-white frontage of a neo-Classical château, with three great pavilions, set at the end of a long, gravel drive shaded by pollarded trees. A policeman at the grand gates inspected Matt’s documents and waved them through after lifting a striped barrier. The car crunched to a halt under the terrace. They got out and stretched. ‘The ministry of the interior has given us clearance to poke around,’ said Matt, ‘although the castle isn’t open to the public. It’s the country residence of the president and is used for international summits.’ A young army officer in green, with a braided collar and peaked cap, appeared. He shook hands with them all in the formal Rothenian way. In his blond good looks, Will began to notice a generic young male Rothenian face. There were hints of Oskar in the man’s cheeks and eyes. It made Will shiver. ‘Welcome to castle of Zenda!’ the officer exclaimed, introducing himself in fair English as Major Antonin, the garrison commander. He ushered them on to the terrace, pointing out features of the grounds visible from their vantage point. At the main door, guards in black, white and red-striped sentry boxes snapped to attention as he led them into the cool interior of the early-nineteenth-century range. ‘New part of château added by King Rudolf Third during eighteenth century,’ he explained. ‘That king’s son King Henry he like comfort so he add much more. Fine chapel of his in west wing. He would not put up with more primitive conditions of old castle out on water. But odd, he did not demolish. Is said this was because of aunt, Princess Osra, who claimed she owned château. So here! Old castle stand to present.’ The back of the modern wing opened on to another, grander terrace, beyond whose wall spread a wide moat almost big enough to be called a lake. A long stone bridge communicated with a small island, upon which rose a tall, white fairy-tale castle that looked like a miniature Amboise. A drawbridge, down at the moment, could be opened to block the end of the bridge. They cheerfully laboured up the spiral staircase of the keep to gaze out over the trees. Since the castle was in a shallow valley, there was not much to see apart from treetops, but Will caught the distant glimpse of another stately home on a far hilltop. ‘Major? What’s that place?’ ‘That is Fürstenberg, or Festenberh. Once castle of lords very much angry with – you say hostile to? – Elphberg rulers and earlier ones. It come into hands of loyal lords of Tarlenheim. Princes of this house live there until nationalisation of 1948.’ ‘Are there still Tarlenheims?’ ‘I do not know. If there are, they will be very poor, like the rest of former Rothenian lords. President Tildemann left lords alone, but Communists of Horvath very hostile. Many left country or went into gulags and not come out again. It very unhappy period. You English still have your lords, do you not? And they govern you, is that not so?’ ‘No,’ contradicted Matt with some satisfaction, ‘we’ve finally relegated them to history.’ ‘Ach. Rothenia and its lords is just as complicated as your English lords and you. Our lords and barons mostly Rothenian Slavs, but they took to German ways and German language in medieval days. Yet same aristocrats sponsored National Revival. They supported Rothenian composers, novelists and poets. ‘People still think so that our lords were good thing. Is not disgrace to claim descent from noble Rothenian house, at least not since May Rising. President Maritz is from noble family of Glottenberh. He is happy it is known. There is some restoration of stolen properties by state, but is bad … difficult in courts. Lawyers make money out of it, not many more. So Festenberh is agricultural college and will that way stay.’
  5. It was a night to remember at Club Liberation in the ancient and beautiful city of Strelzen. It would have been a good night, whatever. Liberation was set in the southeastern corner of the Rodolferplaz, just where Gildenfahrbswejg emptied into it. Gildenfahrbswejg, or ‘the Wejg’ as locals called it, was always heaving. Pink, red and green neon lights glowed down from the buildings on both sides of the narrow street, displaying messages like ‘Boogy Bar’, ‘Cabaret Olympus’, ‘Non-stop dance’, ‘Budvar 55kR the litre’. For three blocks south along the Wejg, sports bars and strip clubs seethed with German, Italian and British drinking gangs, and the road outside them heaved with as yet unattached groups being preyed upon by Somali and Balkan hustlers, like piranhas closing in on fat cows fallen into a jungle stream. The tendency of the British to be overweight and bursting out of their sportswear just added to the impression. At the end nearest the square, opposite a huge porn emporium called Erotic Dream City, was Club Liberation, the biggest gay venue in Central Europe. The cafés and bars in that corner were marked by rainbow flags. Gay couples and drinking parties clustered under the statue of General Voydek opposite, eyeing up the shaven-headed, stocky Rothenian bouncers who policed Liberation’s doors and discouraged gawping straight gangs who had – or claimed they had – lost their way. The club was packed, even though it was only a Thursday. It had been a rare, glorious day, one of those when the very air seems to sing with happiness and nearly everyone hears it. Harry had not only been amenable to a night out with Terry and Ramon, but was affable when they met in the hotel foyer. Being a lawyer, he had somehow caught the scent of big money. Meanwhile, Will noticed Terry’s professional and appraising glance over his lover. Oddly, being a bit sensitive to Harry’s impact on his new friends, he was aware of the things about Harry that didn’t seem to bother him when they were on their own but which grated on him now: the bumptiousness and the insensitivity. However, he resolutely stifled his unease, for he was a man very loyal to friends, however unworthy. Liberation, big and glitzy, catered to the foreign gay. There were also quite a few local Rothenian youths, seemingly very interested in getting to know the foreigners. Harry found a pretty one early on and disappeared with him. Will shot a quirky look at Terry, who just laughed. ‘Well, no loss. Want to dance, babe?’ ‘You okay if I do, Ramon?’ ‘No problem, Will. You can have too much dancing with Terry.’ As they walked hand in hand on to the big floor, swept by pulsing lights, Will asked, ‘What did he mean?’ ‘I think, sweet babe, he was referring to the fact that I’m majoring in dance and theatre studies at JAC. Don’t worry, I won’t forget you’re with me.’ Will soon realised what Ramon meant. Terry was not just a good dancer, he was an amazing dancer. Fortunately, Will was not entirely without talent in that department. He tended to lose himself in music, and the pair were very happy with each other well before the second dance. A lot of men on and around the floor stopped to watch, including Harry, who abandoned his Rothenian pick-up in a corner to stare at them with his mouth hanging open. When they left the floor, Ramon smiled up at them. ‘Tired out now, Terry?’ ‘No way! It’s your turn. Mind the table and the drinks, Will. Oh …!’ Terry focussed on Will. ‘We’re expecting a friend to join us in a quarter of an hour or so. I told him on the mobile what you look like and what you’re wearing, so if a stranger comes up behind you, don’t necessarily think he’s trying to pick you up.’ ‘Fine. What’s his name …’ But Terry and Ramon were already on the floor and deeply into each other. They were a gorgeous couple. Will was envious. A smiling waiter brought him a drink. He settled comfortably down, crunching the free crisps and nuts, to watch his friends dance and soak up the atmosphere. He was catching a lot of men’s glances in his own direction, but knew better than to meet their eyes. He definitely liked Club Liberation. It was completely different from Prague; he felt comfortable, secure and in the right place. He was so lost in euphoria that he did not sense someone behind him until, close in his ear, a young and cultured English voice asked politely, ‘Hi! Are you Will Vincent? It’s okay, I’m not about to suggest we go into the dark room.’ Will half turned to glimpse a shadowed figure behind him. ‘That’s me. Sorry, Terry didn’t tell me your name.’ The man sat down opposite and smiled at him like the first sunrise of Creation. ‘It’s Matthew.’ And Will fainted He was only out for a few seconds, but that was enough for him to hit the floor. When he came round, he was looking up into Terry’s concerned face. ‘God! I’m so sorry, Will. I didn’t realise you’d take it like that. Ramon’ll kill me!’ Will coughed and sat up. He seemed fine, no bumps or bruises. But there was a blank spot in his memory at that point. Strong hands took him under the armpits, lifting him effortlessly from the floor. Suddenly he remembered what his mind had blocked, as the man who had picked him up smiled at him like a seraph on a good day and helped him back into his seat. ‘You’re Matt White!’ ‘I certainly have his passport.’ ‘Excuse me … er, but these sorts of occasions bring out the inner idiot in me.’ The man laughed in the same warm and generous way as he did on TV. ‘Call me Matt, Will. I think I should be the one apologising, but I’ve never caused someone to faint before. I’ll certainly remember to put it in my CV: knocked out a kid in Strelzen by smiling at him.’ Will was beyond bewilderment. He looked in that blindingly gorgeous face and tried to make normal conversation. ‘Er … sorry, um … Matt. Don’t feel too bad about it. It’s not the first time. It happened to me all through adolescence, that and migraines. They used to put cushions around me in school assemblies, ready for the inevitable flake-out. I’ve got glandular problems, my doctor said. My mum thinks I’m fragile. Embarrassing really, but it got me off games a lot.’ Matt laughed again. Will was now hopelessly under the man's spell, and conspiring in his head to murder the unfortunate Andrew Peacher. Off to one side, Ramon was having hard words with Terry, until Matt called them over. They settled round the table. A small crowd had already gathered on the other side, watching them hungrily and quite openly, snapping off photos whenever a view could be had around intervening body parts. Matt was oblivious – used to it, Will imagined. Matt looked Will over. ‘We’ve got a friend in common, I think.’ ‘We do?’ It occurred to Will that this was the weirdest conversation he had ever held in his entire life: talking about mutual acquaintances with an international supermodel in a Central European gay club. ‘Jeremy Faber.’ ‘Oh sure, Doc Faber. Yes. I did all his modules; he’s a great teacher.’ ‘He was the supervisor for my doctorate. Oddly, he once mentioned you.’ ‘Me?’ ‘Yes, you, Will Vincent. I recognised the name when Terry mentioned this friend from Cranwell he’d made at the cathedral. Jeremy told me he wanted you to go on to do research. He’s got quite an instinct for a born academic, has Jeremy. He was keen that you should sign up and upset when you wouldn’t. He thought you were the best prospect he’d ever met. I think he may have been including me.’ ‘Yeah, Matt, but I really wanted to teach. It was the right decision. I didn’t get a first anyway.’ Will took a swig of his drink and decided they had talked enough about him. ‘So what brings you to Rothenia, Matt?’ ‘Research, as it happens. My company’s going to film a series on European monarchies: we’re going hard after the international market for the first time. I always do my own documentation, and the Elphbergs look like a classic to me. So here I am in Rothenia … a place I’ve been desperate to see for years. Since I knew Terry and Ramon were coming, we agreed to meet up and do the place together. It’s a real bit of luck that you’re here too. I hope you’ll do us the favour of joining us for the next few days. It’ll be easier to carry this out with the help of a knowledgeable enthusiast.’ ‘Wow! What can I say? Love to. This is utterly brilliant!’ ‘Fantastic. Drinks all round then, lads.’ A hand respectfully tapped Matt on the shoulder, and he was busy signing autographs for a while on split-beer mats. Will was impressed how he did it with a permanent smile on his handsome face. When Matt had satisfied the demands of his public, he turned the smile on Will, who found himself being invited on to the floor. This was a height beyond heaven for him, as envious eyes followed him walking hand in warm hand on to the floor with his hero. * * * Oskar Prinz hated Club Liberation, especially now his notoriety was getting him noticed by foreigners. Hendrik, however, had been adamant in wanting him there that Thursday. ‘Talent-spotting, my love. We have to find our American, and we’ve got nowhere so far. The only likely contact I had in Rothenia went and fell off his motorbike last week and broke his leg in three places. Then there was that backpacker, but you nearly threw up at his picture. ‘Nonetheless, you’ve made your point. I accept that whoever it is has to be someone you can work with; the chemistry makes these things come together.’ Oskar had a friend on the security staff of Liberation, who was able to get him in through a side door, missing the queue and the lobby. He wore shades, despite the darkness, and slipped quietly to the raised corner table where Hendrik was stationed. Oskar sensed something odd in the atmosphere. It couldn’t be the fact that Hendrik was there. No one knew him for what he was; he kept out of the limelight. Something else had stirred the club up like an anthill. ‘Are the scouts out there, Hendrik?’ ‘Yes, but it won’t do any good.’ ‘What’s going on?’ ‘Look opposite. Do you see that group near the dance floor?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Take those glasses off, and concentrate on the guy on the right.’ ‘He looks familiar.’ ‘He should do.’ ‘Christ, it’s the English supermodel, White. I didn’t know he was in town.’ ‘The man against whom even you, my sweet Oskar, look plain. The whole club is rotating on its axis to get near him.’ ‘I’ve got to have a closer look. Who are the guys with him?’ ‘No idea. Go and have your look.’ Oskar edged across the floor. No one noticed him; all eyes were straining over to the right. The floor had emptied. In some ways this was good, Oskar thought. He got too many knowing stares these days. As he reached the fringes of the crowd which was unabashedly staring at White’s table, the man himself stood up and took one of his companions by the hand. They went out on to the empty floor. They danced, and pretty soon a thick crowd of other dancers was right there with them. His shoulder was tapped. ‘Ahoi, Oskar. No one seems interested in you tonight.’ ‘Felip!’ They kissed briefly. ‘Or in me, for that matter.’ ‘In the sunshine,’ Oskar reflected, quoting an old Rothenian proverb, ‘the moon becomes pale.’ ‘Who’s he with … is it his millionaire boyfriend?’ ‘Let’s find out. Time for some strategic dancing.’ Oskar and Felip went out on to the now-crowded floor. They edged nearer to Matthew White, close enough to overhear the dancing pair talking happily in native English. As they did so, Oskar stiffened. ‘Is it the Peacher boyfriend?’ asked Felip. ‘No. But he’s …’ ‘What?’ ‘Give me a moment.’ They carried on moving together, Oskar staring over Felip’s shoulder. ‘He’s the one, if there is one. He’s the guy we need, I’m sure of it. I’ll tell Hendrik.’ ‘Aw come on, Oskar, let’s finish the dance at least,’ pleaded Felip. But Oskar was gone. Hendrik frowned. ‘Couldn’t you set your sights a bit lower, Oskar?’ ‘It’s not the American, his boyfriend. It’s just one of his party. He seems an ordinary western kid, but you know my instinct in these things. The way he moved was … arousing. The looks are good enough too. We must try, anyway.’ Hendrik was suspicious. ‘How on earth do you think you can get a connection going with one of that man’s entourage? This is a little desperate on your part, Oskar my love.’ ‘Hendrik, look at it this way. This kid – whoever he is – isn’t a known face, nor is he dressed and manicured to White’s standards. He’s some wannabe model orbiting the star. Anyone in the modelling world is used to undressing in front of cameras. The lower down they are, the more they’ll take off and the deeper they’ll get in. All he’ll need is the incentive, and I'm certain I can provide it.’ ‘If he’s what you think he is, maybe so.’ Hendrik surveyed Oskar moodily. ‘I don’t suppose we have much to lose by the effort. The best of luck to you. For otherwise I’m going to have to grit my teeth, swallow my pride, and subcontract a performer from my American rivals. And you know how I love my profits.’ Oskar did. The Dalmatian villa, the Slovenian health spa, the big yacht on Lake Maresku, all attested to Hendrik’s love of his profits. There was a huge amount of money in good-quality gay porn, as the young Hendrik had discovered early in the nineties, which together with his business instincts had made him a rich man very quickly. Oskar pondered his strategy and used his mobile, which he, being Rothenian, called a ‘handij’. * * * It was beyond any question the most brilliant night of his life, Will decided, even including the bits he had yet to live. Matt White was not just beyond gorgeous, he was friendly, interested and interesting. Will would have been in a fair way to falling out of lust and into love, but somehow, that did not happen. It was not so much that he knew about Andrew Peacher, just that Matt radiated a big-brotherly quality. He was a man who made you feel safe and cared-for. Terry was right. Soon you forgot the dazzling looks, while the man inside shone out just as brightly. Terry and Ramon too were great guys. He had never had real friends since he had left school, but now he felt he did, and they were as gay as he was. Sitting there in the club, knowing that every eye was on him, that half the room was envying him, that he had danced with the Matthew White, did wonders for his self-esteem. He was bright, confident and amusing as he had never been before, and he had only had two drinks. He felt emboldened to ask the great man some personal questions. ‘Tell me, Matt, how did you go from postgraduate student to supermodel?’ ‘Uh, well, what you’d expect. Desperate for money, really, or rather my own money. Andy and I were already going strong at the time, and he was buying me fashion gear … so much of it, it was getting embarrassing. It also gave me the impression he thought I was a scruff. But it paid off accidentally. An Italian fashion house saw me in the celeb mags with him, wearing their stuff. They liked my face … as well as the rest, and contracted me. The shoot was a success, although the ads were totally embarrassing. I had to get naked with this woman … imagine! I kept thinking what my mum would say.’ ‘What did she say?’ ‘As it happens, “Nice bum”.’ Will laughed. ‘After that first contract, more came rolling in one after another, and so did the cash. That was the important thing. I was independent then of Andy’s money, and our relationship is all the stronger for it, although there was a while when it could have gone the opposite way.’ ‘You’re not doing so much of it nowadays.’ ‘The other stuff is taking over. A few years ago Channel 4 signed me up to present a documentary on the strength that I was doing history in university and had a recognisable face. It went off pretty well …’ ‘Pretty well! Come on, it was a classic. I use it with my Year 9 class. If the girls aren’t interested in the seventeenth century, they just stare at the screen daydreaming about you. You can’t lose.’ ‘Ha ha. Odd that my biggest fans are women, isn’t it? But that was when I found out my real talent. I can research, write and present. So now I do consultancy, the odd presenting job for other firms and networks, but mostly I produce documentaries and features. While a lot of them are historical, we do other stuff too at Marlowe Productions. I set up the firm with some of my own money and a loan from PeacherCorp. Their media arm pushed business our way, allowing me to pay back the loan in short order. We’re now one of the larger independents, with affiliates of our own. We don’t make a huge amount of money because I plough everything back into the business, but we do more than OK. Anyway, profit’s not the point. It’s my life’s work.’ ‘And you finished your doctorate?’ ‘Yup. It’ll be published next year, finally.’ ‘You’re an amazing man, you know that?’ ‘So they say, and it’s nice of you to repeat it, but get to know Terry O’Brien a bit better before you make judgements about what amazing is.’ ‘What d’you mean?’ Matt looked enigmatic, something he did very well, ‘You may find out one day, although I hope not. It’s a scary thing, getting to know the real Terry.’ Will looked across at a happy Terry, convulsed with laughter at one of Ramon’s comments: a relaxed and joyous twenty-something absorbed in his boyfriend. He wondered what on earth Matt was hinting at. When they left the club, there was no sign of Harry, and by that time Will could not have cared less. A big car and driver were waiting outside under the watchful eyes of General Voydek, who stared down disapprovingly at the gay couples sitting on his steps, some of them kissing. The car drove southeast and deposited them at a large and extremely expensive restaurant high up in the Old City, with a panoramic view over Strelzen. Between the courses of a sumptuous late dinner, Matt discussed his strategy and the places he wanted to see. He sketched out the plan of a documentary with obvious deep knowledge of the media, abetted by real enthusiasm. Will had no doubt it would be great television, although he was willing to admit that the spell Matt had cast over him might have been colouring his judgement. At the end of the meal, the conversation drifted off into areas known to Terry and Ramon, but not Will, although he picked up a few interesting details concerning the inner life of the Peacher dynasty. Will stole a sideways glance at Terry, who was on this evidence rather higher in PeacherCorp’s inner circle than he had let on. Eventually Matt rose and the meal was over. ‘Can we give you a lift?’ he asked. ‘No thanks, guys, I’d just like to walk back down the hill. It’s a glorious night, and a fantastic one to boot. I want to stroll back in the cool air and take it all in. How can I thank you?’ ‘You just have,’ smiled Terry. ‘See you at nine-thirty tomorrow at your hotel, then.’ ‘It’s a date.’ * * * As the red tail lights of Matt’s car disappeared along the cobbled street, Will got his bearings. Between the buildings of the Old City, he could see the lights of the New City of Strelzen spread out below him. A crescent moon was sailing above it. He struck off in the direction of what he thought was the Flavienerplaz and his hotel, but somehow he missed his way in the narrow downhill lanes, and failed to emerge on Domstrasse. Will crossed the river by an unfamiliar bridge. In the distance, along a wide and straight boulevard, he could see the floodlit palace, so he knew if he carried on in that direction he would end up back on the Rodolferplaz. He felt he could navigate from there. It was a long but leisurely stroll through the empty streets. Most Strelzeners seemed to go to bed early. The odd car and taxi rattled past over the cobbles. It was too late for trams, even if he had known how to use them. He reached the Rodolferplaz a little tired and chilly, but ready for the next stage. Which way? He struck off along another wide boulevard with tram lines down the middle. It looked familiar, but he had only walked about five minutes when he realised he had made a wrong turn. He shrugged and stopped beneath a spreading tree to ponder his next move. Suddenly a hand took him round the throat from behind and he felt cold, sharp steel at his neck. A distinctive male odour, spicy and sharp, filled his nostrils. ‘Don’t move, American,’ growled a hoarse voice. ‘You have wallet? I want.’ Oh God no, thought Will, not this night of all nights. The guidebooks he had consulted said violent crime in Rothenia was rare. ‘Inside pocket on the right,’ he gasped, resigned that all his cards and cash were about to go down the drain. How many fucking phone calls was he going to have to make tomorrow? At least his passport was in the hotel-room safe. A hand found the pocket and extracted his worldly goods. ‘Thanks. Do not look around.’ As the knife was withdrawn, a sudden shout came from across the boulevard and two dark figures dashed towards him. The mugger promptly took off, pursued by the strangers calling out loudly in Rothenian. Will turned and walked out from under the tree. Running footsteps still echoed down the road, but the two had given up the pursuit, and were walking back towards him. One of them let loose an incomprehensible stream of anxious questions. ‘I’m okay,’ Will answered. ‘Oh, English,’ the other stranger said. ‘Are you unhurt?’ The words were a little precise but the accent and fluency were good. Strangely, Will thought he caught a familiar resonance to the voice. Stress perhaps? ‘I’m just a bit shook up.’ ‘It is these foreigners,’ the man explained, ‘an Albanian perhaps. They are turning this city into the Balkans. You will be glad to see this.’ He presented Will’s wallet. ‘He dropped it as he ran.’ ‘Oh my God! How can I thank you?’ ‘Not necessary.’ ‘Please let me give you some cash for your trouble.’ Suddenly he realised he’d said the wrong thing. Might Rothenian honour have been involved? In a slightly cooler tone, the man replied, ‘It was no trouble, and that you are fine is thanks enough.’ ‘Do I need to tell the police?’ The mood immediately lightened. The man made some remarks in Rothenian to his friend, after which they both chuckled. ‘If you want, go talk to the police, but only if you have a spare morning to fill in twenty forms. Our police are very good with forms. Not too good with detection.’ The quieter man said something in Rothenian to his companion. The two men shook hands and the other left. ‘Look, my friend. You seem shaken to me. I live just across the road. I can give you a brandy, it will help.’ ‘No I couldn’t, really.’ ‘It is good brandy.’ The voice was young, pleasant and amused. Will laughed. It was an oddly enchanted hour in this enchanting city, and something was telling him he should not hide from life tonight. ‘Okay then, my name’s Will. What’s yours?’ ‘It’s Oskar.’ ‘Lead on, Oskar.’ He followed the shadowy figure of the young man across the boulevard, which Oskar explained was the Lindenstrasse. They entered a tall, ornate apartment building, with railings at the windows glittering in the moonlight. Everything was dark. Oskar hit the minutière, but the light didn’t come on. He cursed. ‘Nothing works in this place. The concierge is lazy. Sorry, Will. Just follow me up the stairs and hold the rails.’ They trudged up five flights before coming to Oskar’s door. The stairwell reeked with the stubborn odour of boiled cabbage and garlic. The moon shining through a skylight was bright enough for Oskar to find the lock with his key. ‘Now I have to warn you about Marietta. She is very enthusiastic. My dog, you understand.’ He pushed open the door and Marietta lived up to the warning, dancing frantically round her master. ‘Come in, Will.’ Oskar snapped on the light inside the door. Will glanced down and patted Marietta, who licked him. He was grinning as he looked up to see his saviour. His grin froze. Once again, he fainted.
  6. Mike Arram

    Chapter 5

    It'll be a surprise for sure. Glad you're into it.
  7. Mike Arram

    Chapter 1

    Hi. It's a historical novel all but. We're in 1997 or thereabouts. The golden age of Bel Ami.😉
  8. ‘Look, I’m sorry, okay? Let it rest, Will.’ The hired BMW was on the autoroute south to the Rothenian frontier. It was not the air conditioning which was responsible for the chill in the atmosphere inside, however, but rather the fallout from a disaster in Prague. Harry, who was driving, was finally learning that Will was not quite the submissive and biddable bottom boy his blithe self-assurance had assumed. He had just been subjected to the most comprehensive tongue-lashing he had ever had in his entire experience and, what was worse, he knew deep down that he had deserved every acidic word of it. On their second night in Prague, Harry had enthusiastically taken them to a gay club in the Zizhkov district. It had been exciting but alarming for Will, who’d had no experience of gay nightlife. He went in holding Harry’s hand, both literally and morally, trusting his lover to get him through it. It had been a very bad choice for a first outing. A banner – which left nothing to the imagination – advertised a ‘Schlager-Nackt Partei’. It appeared you had to strip to get access, paying double to retain your underpants. Harry had laughed and got naked, Will had not laughed and had paid the extra, nervously stuffing his clothes and cash into a plastic bag he’d reluctantly entrusted to the security men before getting his hand stamped with a fluorescent number. Harry was high on his own gayness and quite shamelessly showing off to his young lover. Will at least was relieved to find that quite a few guys had kept their pants on, although he was so nervous there was little chance of an inopportune erection. He wished he’d kept his shoes on too, as the floor was sticky and dirty. They had danced a bit, and Harry was grinning as he grew hard between him and Will. He came off the floor with quite a few people sizing him up. At the bar Will had taken a stool and a drink, while Harry got in with a group of older naked guys next to them. When next Will looked round, he was alone. He had frozen with panic, which was made worse when a big German came up and started engaging in stilted conversation and incomprehensible suggestions as to where they might go together. Although Will recognised the word ‘ficken’ well enough, that was about the only thing. The German got more and more frustrated as Will clearly did not understand what he was on about. What on earth was a ‘black room’? Will was on his way out when he glimpsed Harry emerging from a dark side door in a clinch with one of the guys he had been chatting to earlier. As their eyes met, Harry countered Will's accusatory glare with a bland grin. Bloody lawyer, Will thought. And then he worked out what the German had been on about. He was furious. ‘We’re leaving,’ he snarled to a bemused Harry. ‘Why? This is great. What a night! I can get blown by half the guys here.’ ‘That’s the point, isn’t it?’ ‘Stop being a wuss, Will. You could have your pick of anyone in this place. Alan here would be quite happy, wouldn’t you Al?’ The chubby man next to Harry nodded and grinned. Fury turned to ice on the spot. That was it. He was out of there. ‘I’ll see you in the morning, arsehole. Don’t wake me up when you come in.’ Harry shrugged and turned away. Will had no idea when he got back to the hotel just off Wenceslas Square where he had booked single rooms for them. Will had been quiet while they packed the car and left Prague. Twenty miles south of the city he could contain himself no longer, and the torrent of angry words startled Harry. When had Harry come to the conclusion that Will was a piece of meat to be handed round casually? Why hadn’t he checked to see if Will was willing to be shared with other men? Could it perhaps have occurred to him that Will had ideas about faithfulness and promiscuity that didn’t coincide with his? Will had been exploited and betrayed and was very bitter about it. Harry had then made the lawyer’s mistake of thinking he could argue his way out of the problem and still get his way. A wiser man would have taken the blame and begun the slow process of rebuilding trust. But it was quite a while before anything like an apology came out of him, and by that time it was too late. Will was a kind, decent and reasonable man, but he had a stubborn and unforgiving streak. He also had a good teacher’s instinctive ability to assess personality, so necessary for survival in the classroom. Having at last broken through the romantic clouds that had obscured his mind, he turned that ability on Harry, and when he did their former relationship was over. Illusions were gone. He knew Harry for what he was: an amusing, generous but flawed, selfish and promiscuous man. Harry was someone to have fun with, but not safe on any other terms. As a result, Will eased up on Harry just before they reached the frontier post and began passing the huge queue of lorries being thoroughly checked by the Rothenian border police. The Rothenians had a stern way with drug smuggling and dealing, one of his books had warned Will – quite unnecessarily in his case. Harry picked up the sudden easing of mood and was relieved, although he jumped to the wrong conclusion from it. Nothing had been forgiven or forgotten. Will had simply demoted him from lover to friend and was therefore exempting him from judgement. Links had been broken, not renewed. They crossed the frontier at Modenehem, or Modenheim as the bilingual road signs also insisted in an act of linguistic fairness. They stopped there at a nice little inn on the sun-bathed cathedral square lined with a mass of tall brick gables and geranium-filled window boxes. It was dominated by the twin towers of the cathedral at one end and the massive, medieval brick Radhaus at the other. Café seats and umbrellas filled the north side, where they sat out to have lunch. Harry, relieved at Will’s apparent relenting, had recovered his good spirits effortlessly. Although Will was hardly bubbling with merriment, he allowed Harry’s humour to buoy him up. He looked around and loved what he could see. This was just the edge of a country that abounded in superb natural and architectural beauty. The people too seemed remarkably handsome at first acquaintance. When he tried out a few words of Rothenian on their young waiter, he was floored by the glowing smile that greeted his inept attempt at the language. ‘What a babe,’ observed Harry, as the boy’s pert little buttocks disappeared into the café’s interior. ‘A bit young for you, Harry,’ Will retorted with a certain calm dismissiveness that unsettled Harry once more. * * * The drive to the capital passed through what was Wonderland as far as Will was concerned. Rothenia had it all: deep forests; white castles on tall hills; broad, brown rivers winding down to the Danube basin; pretty villages and beautiful towns. Everything looked clean and prosperous. Harry observed that not all parts of the country were so attractive, however. South of the capital was the industrial heartland of Zenden, which spewed out enough pollution so they could see some evidence of it in the air. Finally they crested the last hill of the autoroute and gazed on the red-roofed panorama of Strelzen spread out below them. Will was enchanted with the tangled maze of the Old City winding upwards to the great cathedral whose dark spires loomed over the river basin below. They checked in at the Hotel Murranberg, a modern and plush establishment on the Flavienerplaz in Strelzen’s Nuevemesten, or New City. This time they had a double room. Unlike those in Prague, lodgings in Strelzen did not mind advertising themselves to be ‘gay-friendly’ or ‘mucz-freundlic’, as they apparently said in Rothenian. Will got a quick sidelong glance from the desk clerk when he put his Ray-Ban Aviators up in his hair to read the hotel’s publicity pamphlet. It caused him some amusement: ‘This outstanding hotel, designed by Eva Miricna, Architect Associates of Hofbau, in the post-May Rising euphoria, is well combined with traditional comforts, sumptuous fabrics, bespoke furniture and splendour of the world, with innovate technologies of modern design. The staff with a friendly approach and refined service will cater to your every need to make your stay a placid one.’ The desk clerk smiled nicely as he handed over their key cards. ‘Have a nice day, gentlemen,’ he said with a pronounced American accent. ‘I’m hoping for a placid one,’ Will could not resist replying. The clerk caught his eye and gave a broad grin. Will began to like Strelzen. Harry looked suspicious. ‘What was all that about?’ ‘Nothing, Harry.’ Will leaned out of their hotel window to look down on the broad, cobbled square below. It was a hub of the tram network, full of clanging, red-painted cars rumbling and shrieking over the points. The location was exciting, although he hoped the noise died down at night. At least the windows were double-glazed. Harry came up behind him and clasped him round the waist, kissing his exposed neck. Will tensed, then relaxed as he realised Harry was after reassurance. Not willing to be unkind, he returned the kiss. Harry broke off. ‘I really am sorry, y’know.’ Will smiled. ‘I understand. You were just being Harry, and I can’t blame you for that.’ ‘Friends?’ ‘Always. You’re not a bad man, Harry. Just not a man to rely on.’ Harry looked momentarily sad, achingly so, before smiling once more. ‘Is sex out of the question?’ Will kissed him again, then kissed him more deeply. They fell on the bed, where Will removed Harry’s trousers, for the first time taking the lead in their love play. With Harry naked below the waist, Will worked hard and skilfully on his lover’s erection, suckling and squeezing it to the verge of ejaculation time and again, until he eventually brought forth a fountain that spattered down on to Harry’s tee shirt and liberally flowed on to Will’s hand. Will did not attempt to swallow the semen, instead wiping his hand on tissues. Harry noticed. Wandering out into the darkening summer streets, they enjoyed the cooling air and the stars brightening in the sky. They walked down the broad and leafy Mikhelstrasse which connected Flavienplaz to the Rodolferplaz. All the major fashion chains maintained classy establishments there. It was the most expensive shopping street of the city. German, American and English tourists were everywhere, jostled by roaming groups of young locals. Bars and cafés were doing a busy trade, their outside tables full under big umbrellas advertising Czech beers. Patio heaters were blazing out unnecessarily, as the evening was warm. Harry and Will finally came to the Rodolferplaz, a vast and impressive space lined on three sides by distinguished stone buildings of five or six storeys. The southern part was populated by café restaurants, their tables spreading across the road under the fluttering leaves of young lime trees. In the distance rose the towering bulk of King Henry’s statue standing before the grand façade of the Residenz, his palace, behind its tall black railings. They found a small bar just at the Rodolferplaz’s south end, near the statue of President Tildemann in wing collar and pince-nez. They sat outside, watching the beautiful young people and foreign families stroll by under the trees. Pigeons strutted everywhere. The front of the palace at the opposite end was floodlit, and all the trees were liberally strung with lights. ‘What are you going to do tomorrow?’ Harry asked. Will noticed the significant exclusion from the equation of Harry himself, who did not care for cultural tourism. He had kicked against it in Prague. Now he was not playing at all. Will didn’t mind. ‘The cathedral, definitely. Probably the army museum at the Arsenal. It’s highly recommended. Shall we meet up for lunch?’ ‘Love to. Come and get me from the hotel at around one. I’ll sleep in.’ * * * Will wiped his forehead. The morning was already sweltering, though it was only nine-fifteen. He was trudging the straight line of the Domstrasse towards the Staramesten, the Old City. The cathedral loomed above him, but was taking its time about getting closer. He started to wish he’d had the nerve to board a tram. The Flavienerplaz was already far behind him, on the other side of the commercial district. The street was now lined with handsome private houses, with shutters framing their windows. Some of the upper ones had duvets hanging out in the continental manner. Eventually the way began to narrow and fall gently towards the river. It crossed a wide bridge, turned and climbed. Surprisingly quickly, Will was high above the New City, whose red-roofed panorama across the river he could glimpse between the picturesque half-timbered medieval houses which were clustered under the mighty cathedral. The road, now lined with gift shops already open for business, abruptly deposited him on the small plateau of a cobbled square facing the cathedral’s west front. It reminded Will a little of his favourite British cathedral at Durham. To his left was the Erbischofpalacz, hung with flags, and on the right the Waclawkloster, the ancient Benedictine abbey of St Wenceslas, the only Czech ever popular in Rothenia, as his guidebook dryly informed him. A fountain bubbled and splashed in the centre of the beautiful square. Early tourists were gathered at the west door, waiting for the end of the morning mass. Many of them were in parties, their leaders identified by golfing umbrellas or car aerials adorned by pennants. Before Will had crossed the square, the worshippers, mostly short women in black, were beginning to emerge and the tourists to take their place: modern pilgrims of a different sort. Will checked the battery of his big digital camera, his most expensive possession, whose purchase he had justified as an essential tool for the modern history teacher. He was still paying for it. The cathedral was all he was expecting and more besides. It was in fact smaller than its prominent position deceived you into thinking, but the Gothic vaults were breathtakingly tall, the glass all medieval and jewel-like. It was the tombs which most seduced Will. He had discovered that nothing quelled restive and bored classes at the end of term better than little lectures on morbid subjects like death and burial. He was always on the lookout for new material. The cathedral had been the coronation church and mausoleum of the rulers of Ruritania. It was an expression in stone of their power and self-image: just what he needed. The founder of Ruritania himself, the ninth-century Slavic duke Tassilo, was laid out – allegedly – before the high altar. A thirteenth-century crowned effigy now topped the original plain slab. All along the northern and southern choir aisles were Elphberg ducal and royal memorials. Will paused at the tomb of King Rudolf V and Queen Flavia, as they lay there in marble, their hands clasped. A fresh red rose was placed on it daily in season to mark the continuing veneration of the people of Strelzen for the romantic and tragic royal couple. Will knew the story: how the handsome young king had come to the throne despite conspiracy and treason. He had married his beautiful cousin and rebuilt his stricken kingdom, but had fallen at last to the pistol of an anarchist, leaving his widow to take the throne and mourn him until her death, unmarried and childless. He was backing away to get the right angle for a shot when a crowd of passing Italians sent him off balance. He felt the crunch of someone’s foot under his heel. ‘Ouch, fuckin’ hell!’ growled a voice in his ear in a very familiar South Midlands accent, the distinctive intonation indeed of the small university city in which Will had studied for his degree and teaching certificate. Will spun around apologising. ‘God, I’m really so sorry.’ Two young men stood close behind him, a fit-looking blond clasping his foot in his hand and an amused, darkly handsome boy bracing him by the shoulder. Both were very expensively dressed and, he guessed on that evidence, rather well-heeled. Will subconsciously noted the intimacy of the two. Part of him was signalling they were gay. His instincts were awake. ‘I’ve come closer to death,’ said the Midlander, and then winked at him. Somehow, Will realised that he too had been recognised for what he was. The man grinned and held out his hand. ‘Name’s Terry, and this here is Ramon.’ Will took the offered hand and said, ‘Will Vincent.’ He gave a small smile and added, ‘And how far from Finkle Road did you live?’ Terry stared and guffawed, his merriment echoing back from the Gothic vaults. Finkle Road was the student area in the city of Cranwell, where he had been born. Will smiled. ‘I inhabited No. 66 for three years,’ he explained. ‘Blimey, you wuz me neighbour then. Me parents still live on the new estate round the corner from where you were. But you don’t live there now, do you?’ ‘No, I’m a teacher in Whithampsted. I’m here with my boyfriend,’ he added firmly, determined to test out his instincts. Terry grinned again. ‘Ramon and me are partners. Shake his hand, Ramon.’ ‘Hi,’ said a smiling Ramon in an American accent. ‘He’s a Yank?’ ‘Bloody well not!’ objected Ramon, proving that he had been around Terry long enough for there to be an influence on his mode of expression. ‘I’m Mexican.’ ‘We’re students at John Adams College in Virginia.’ ‘I’ve heard of it.’ ‘And we’re on holiday. Ramon’s studying Central European History next semester, and we’re here to give him a head start.’ ‘Cool. I’m a history teacher myself, so the same thing brought me here.’ Ramon looked at him with interest and a sunny grin. ‘That’s a job I think I’d really enjoy when I graduate. Look, Will, do you want a drink after you’ve finished here? I’d like to talk.’ ‘Love to. How about we get together at the west door at ten-thirty? I should have seen what I need to by then.’ ‘Cool.’ The attractive pair walked off with a parting smile. Will was beginning to realise he had just met a very different sort of gay from Harry Baxter. He looked around for the next interesting tomb. Set between Rudolf V and Rudolf IV was a richly decorated bronze wall tablet. The light was poor, but he could make out beautifully engraved male and female busts facing each other. Underneath was an elaborate encomium written in Latin. That was not a problem for Will, who had successfully mastered the language at his private school. Thank God it wasn’t in Rothenian. D.M. Hic iacet illustrissimus FRANCISCUS comes Tarlenheimensis atque princeps S. R. Imperii cum devota eius uxore HELGA pari sua in amore et prudentia. Ille Franciscus diutius cubicularius magnus curiae regalis Ruritaniensis atque eques nobilissimorum ordinum aurei velleris et rubeae rosae erat. Amicus devotus et servus famosi regis Rudolfi quinti et quoque reginae et viduae eius Flaviae erat. Fidelis usque ad mortem. He translated to himself: ‘Here lies the noble Franz, count of Tarlenheim and prince of the Holy Roman Empire, with his devoted wife Helga, his equal in love and discretion. Francis was for a long time high chamberlain of the royal court of Ruritania and knight of the most noble orders of the Golden Fleece and the Red Rose. He was a devoted friend and servant of the famous King Rudolf V and also of his queen and widow, Flavia. Faithful unto death.’ Interesting, Will thought, but what was it that had made him notice the tablet? He looked closer at the portrait of the count. There was something oddly familiar about the handsome whiskered profile, though for the life of him he couldn’t see what it was. He took an image of it anyway, the digital camera compensating for the poor light. He moved on to the other Rudolfs and Henrys. He had time to look at the famous shrine of St Vitalis, apostle of the Rothenians, in the cathedral treasury, before emerging into the bright morning sunlight to greet Terry and Ramon at the west door. Together, they found a small café which was already open, ordered Oranginas and sat outside under an umbrella. Will looked around. Above them the sky was a hot blue, presaging a very warm day. He beamed at Terry. ‘This place is amazing!’ ‘Sure is, babe. Now tell me when you wuz in Cranwell.’ He and Will exchanged reminiscences of his home town, and compared favourite pubs. ‘What?’ Terry exclaimed. ‘You never went in the King’s Cross? I worked the bar there for two years. We might even have met.’ Will laughed. ‘I think I’d have remembered if we had. I wasn’t out when I was a student, and we never went near the “Queen’s Cruise” as we called it.’ ‘I know what you students called it. To be honest, you didn’t miss a lot. It’s not exactly a way-out gay pub, and Frank the manager has a wicked way with his tongue.’ ‘At this point, aren’t you supposed to say, “But he has a heart of gold”?’ ‘No. It’d be a lie. His heart is as wizened as the rest of him.’ Will chuckled at the comical expression on the other's face. ‘What took you to America to study, Terry?’ ‘I got a job there a few years back, and I liked it. I liked it even more when I met me Ramon in Los Angeles. I was a chauffeur and he was a pool boy; it was very romantic. Love below stairs in a big mansion. I changed careers soon after that. I still am actually in the same job, but I combine it with study at JAC. It’s a complicated thing to explain.’ Will was interested. ‘What sort of job is it?’ ‘Security. I work part time for PeacherCorp.’ Now Will was really intrigued. ‘PeacherCorp, you mean the great Richard Peacher?’ ‘Not him, but his son.’ ‘Which one?’ ‘Andrew. He’s also a student at JAC. I study and mind his ass simultaneously. I multitask effortlessly, being that sort of bloke.’ The information slowly filtered into Will’s brain. ‘But that means …’ ‘Yeah. I know him. Always goes this way, talking to gays. And yes, he is just as gorgeous in the flesh – more so, even. He is also unbelievably kind, incredibly intelligent and makes a lot of noise in bed; I’ve heard him and Andy at it. The only problem with him is that he does have a bit of a temper and he could sulk for England.’ ‘Matthew White.’ ‘Matt White the great, the beautiful, the pin up. You’ve got a poster, haven’t you?’ ‘And a scrapbook.’ ‘Doesn’t surprise me.’ ‘How do you ever get used to being around a man like that?’ ‘Surprisingly easily in the end. It may sound trite, but soon you forget the looks and see only the man himself. And that’s the really important thing. He’s a genuinely good person, and great for Andy, my boss. They’re an amazing couple. Totally devoted.’ ‘That’s the sort of relationship I’d love to have.’ ‘Me too,’ chipped in Ramon. ‘Terry used to spread it around.’ ‘Not no more, sweet babe. You’ve changed me for good.’ Ramon had noticed something in Will’s face. ‘What’s your boyfriend like, Will?’ Will sighed and explained recent events. Ramon was very sympathetic. ‘You’re still young, Will. You’ll find the man you’re looking for.’ Terry was moved to give Will the benefit of his considerable experience. ‘Harry’s not an uncommon type. Believe me, I’ve met them, though I don’t count meself as one. Some guys get hooked on hedonism and trade in their youth for nonstop excitement. Nothing wrong with that but, ’course, we get older and some don’t slow down. Whatever Ramon says, I wuz always looking for something more stable, and I wuz lucky to find him. ‘Tell you what, why don't you both come out with us tonight? I’ll give you me assessment of your guy, if he’ll join us, and we can look after you in the big gay club on the Rodolferplaz. They call it Liberation: a sorta political pun maybe? We’ll be at your hotel at eight. Now, what about that army museum?’ Meeting Ramon and Terry gave Will a big lift. They laughed at the same things, and Terry was so quick-witted. By the time they had finished the museum it was nearing midday and he had two firm friends. As they saw him off down the Domstrasse, Terry said, ‘What a nice kid. If you weren’t with me, I’d close out that cretin Harry, no problem. I’d be in his pants in ten minutes.’ ‘Yeah, but I am here and don’t you forget it.’ Ramon looked a little pensive and doubtful. ‘Do you think you should’ve told him about tonight?’ ‘No. He’d have just got nervous. Better to let it be a surprise.’ ‘Surprise is one thing, total shock is another.’
  9. Harry and Will managed a fair amount of sex over the next fortnight and, for Will at least, it got better and better. Not only did his bum never hurt again, but on one astonishing occasion he ejaculated with just anal and prostate massage. As his tormented body began to fuck the air, he was amazed to watch cum simply pulse out of his dick on to his bed. Time seemed to stand still when the orgasm happened. Harry was smug and pleased at his own anal artistry. Not that Will ever got a chance to reciprocate. Although Harry never said it outright, his attitude made it clear that his arse was out of bounds. Will was philosophical about it, considering how much he enjoyed being fucked by his lover. It struck him as a bit unfair, but he was charitable, supposing the incident off Mykonos might have made Harry cautious about trusting partners. The Saturday before school ended, Harry arrived at Will’s flat loaded with papers and books. ‘Okay, lover, this is where we’re going. Oh, but first, you have a passport?’ ‘Naturally.’ ‘Up to date?’ ‘Yep.’ ‘Good. Okay. This is the plan. On Monday we take Lufthansa from Heathrow to Munich and from there to Prague, where we pick up a car. You’ll love Prague. It’s got the lot: culture, clubbing and history. We spend two nights there before driving down into Rothenia. We stay in Strelzen for a few days, then fly home via Frankfurt. We’ll be back after the weekend. ‘I’ve done the Czech Republic, but everyone’s talking about Rothenia nowadays. I’ve heard there’s quite a scene going on there. Gays keep well undercover in Prague, but Strelzen’s a lot more upfront. It has a district called the Wejg where gay businesses have taken over.’ ‘Wow. I’m all for that. What you got there?’ ‘A few guidebooks I picked up. You might see if there are any special places you want to check out, you being a historian and all. Do you know anything about Czech and Rothenian history?’ ‘The high and low points at least. The problems after Versailles; the betrayal by the Allies in 1938 and the Nazi occupation of the Sudetenland; the invasion of Rothenia in 1939; the liberation by the Soviets, the second betrayal by the Allies and the consolidation of the Communist regime in 1948. Then the new democracy – the Velvet Revolution and the May Rising in 1989, sort of a happy ending. That’s it.’ ‘You’re good with dates, lover.’ ‘You have to be if you’re a history teacher. In uni I couldn’t remember a single one , but when the GCSE devil drives, you have no choice or the kids think you’re useless.’ ‘Prague is gorgeous,’ Harry reflected. ‘While I’ve never been to Strelzen, it’s supposed to be even prettier, if smaller. They speak English a lot in both countries, although I think German is the second language of choice in the Czech Republic. You get a mix of German and Rothenian in Strelzen.’ ‘Oh yeah, Rothenia’s an odd sort of hybrid nation`, isn’t it?’ Something was jogging Will’s memory from his second-year university course on nineteenth-century Europe. ‘It’s got a Slav majority and a German minority, who somehow have stuck together as a nation. Sorry, Harry, remember I’m a teacher.’ Harry smiled. ‘I really wouldn’t know. I didn’t go near a history or geography class after I was sixteen.’ ‘Wasn’t it once called Ruritania by its German rulers?’ ‘Something like that. People say things are “Ruritanian” when they mean quaint, over-dressed or socially archaic.’ Will’s memory was on a roll. ‘Yes. The royal family was the Elphbergs – German, of course. The last of them was shown the door in 1920, after the Great War.’ ‘Impressive, Will. You do know your stuff.’ Will saw Harry was stifling a yawn, so he took the hint. The trouble with teaching as a career was that sometimes you could not shut down the mission to explain. It sometimes made people avoid you in parties. Once Harry had left, Will began ransacking his bookshelf. As a student he had invested more than was usual in books, and blessed his own extravagance every day after becoming a teacher. The internet could only take you so far when it came to research. He was especially proud of his historical reference collection. He soon had books stacked on his worktable and his laptop booted up on the Web. He had a talent for intense and organised research that at least one of his lecturers had recognised by urging him to go for a postgraduate degree. But, inspired by the memory of a charismatic teacher he had benefitted from in his private-school days in Plymouth, he had wanted a career in teaching more than anything. He was soon immersed in online searches and cross-checking facts in his reference books. He noticed that the European Union had just sponsored a big academic programme on what they called the ‘Rothenian Achievement’, by which was meant the fact that the nation's Germans and Slavs seemed historically reluctant to commit pogroms on each other. On the other hand, there was a long history of bickering with the Czechs, since Rothenians had been prominent in resisting the Hussite reformation in the fifteenth century as well as the Lutherans and Calvinists of the seventeenth. He took up the Fodor’s Rothenia which Harry had brought. Looking at the back, he found some Rothenian vocabulary. It was a weird one. Something of a linguist, Will could detect lots of Germanic and Latin words amongst the list, as well as what he imagined was Slavic. The guidebook informed him that Rothenia was a member of both the EU and NATO. The national flag was a black, red and white tricolour; the national flower was the red rose. The currency was the Rothenian krone (fifty to the pound sterling, thirty to the dollar), although the euro was now accepted in the main shops of the big cities. He would not need a visa, and could stay for up to six months if he wanted before he would be required to apply for a residence permit. Thumbing through the pictures of Strelzen, he decided that, even if they were only telling half the truth, the city was amazing. The hilltop cathedral of St Andrew and St Vitalis was a vast Gothic pile whose three black spires towered over the city. The people loved it. As a ‘gift’ to the Rothenian people, a monolithic workers’ palace had been ordered built by Stalin deliberately to obscure the view of the cathedral from the city centre. The new democracy’s first act in 1990 had been to order the Soviet monstrosity demolished to restore the cathedral’s dominant position in the city. Rothenians, ever devout Catholics, could look up to a cardinal who continued to sit on the archiepiscopal throne of Strelzen, as one had done since the seventeenth century. The royal – now presidential – palace on the Rodolferplaz had been a renaissance Hofburg but was rebuilt by the young King Henry the Lion (1707-1739) on the model of the Tuileries. King Henry’s giant equestrian monument, set in front of its gates, loomed over the northern end of the square. It was, said the book, a favourite place for young people to meet on warm evenings. * * * It was a warm July evening in Strelzen when Oskar Prinz leaned up against the lower plinth of King Henry’s statue. Behind him was the bulk of the palace. Ahead of him opened the vast square, hundreds of windows staring down on it from ranks of massive buildings. Oskar was indeed there to meet a young – or rather a youngish – person. A group of male conscripts in green uniforms and knee-boots chatting further along were also hoping to meet someone. They had their top buttons undone, their peaked caps set far back on their heads, and were smoking. If you knew Strelzen, you would understand that they were advertising themselves as open for sexual relations. Oskar had been there and done that when he too had been a teenage conscript, but in the past year or two the practice had got more commercial, as Western gay tourists had cottoned on to the old custom. The gay guides on the Internet were happy to advise their readers that these young boy-soldiers were for rent, although that had not been the case until recently. In Oskar’s day, they would have been happy to do it bareback for a few drinks and a smile if the trick was nice. But the city was getting to be a harder place as the tourists poured in to spread their money around. Oskar watched a couple of moustachioed men – Americans, perhaps? – in shorts and tight sleeveless vests furtively approach the soldiers and began chatting. Eventually a pair of boys detached themselves and wandered off with the men, one putting his peaked military cap on an American’s head while blowing kisses to his friends as he went. Oskar hoped he knew about condoms. HIV was increasing in Rothenia, in large part due to archaic prejudices about preventives. It was probably the Italian leather jacket and designer jeans Oskar was wearing that attracted looks from the conscripts.. They were obviously wondering if he was a foreigner. Eventually quite a pretty one wandered up. ‘Americanij?’ ‘Sorry, kid, no,’ Oskar replied in Rothenian. The boy smiled nicely. ‘One of us, then. Sorry to bother you.’ ‘It’s no bother.’ He offered a cigarette from the packet he kept for social purposes – he did not himself smoke – which was gratefully accepted. ‘Do you score a lot here?’ ‘I’ve done okay for the past three weekends.’ The conscript lit up. ‘A British man gave me two thousand krone just for a blowjob last week. You interested? No charge. It’d be a change to have some conversation with the guy who’s fucking me. You’re nice-looking, too.’ ‘Thanks for the offer, friend, but I’m supposed to be meeting someone.’ ‘Odd place to choose.’ ‘He’s an odd man.’ They laughed and the boy wandered back to his comrades. Looking after him a little regretfully, Oskar jumped when someone said in his ear, ‘Evening, Oskar.’ ‘Don’t creep up on people like that, Hendrik! Why on earth did you want to meet here?’ ‘It’s close to the office. You’re not very romantic, are you? Isn’t this where we started?’ ‘Hendrik, ours is and always has been a business arrangement. Have you forgotten why you were here, looking for people like me?’ ‘Don’t undersell yourself, Oskar. You’re the only boy I ever took from King Henry. From the very first, there was no mistaking your talent. I was just passing, but I caught that body and those blue eyes of yours and had to try and sign you up. I could hardly believe it when you were interested.’ ‘Let’s go get a drink.’ ‘Do you still go to Liberation?’ ‘Not anymore. You’ve spoiled it for me. Now that the foreign gays have taken it over, I get fed up of requests for autographs and blowjobs. An unwanted fan tailed after me down Domstrasse last week shouting, “Oh, Marc!” It was very embarrassing. The streets of Strelzen are becoming a personal nightmare. I’m thinking of moving to my sister’s.’ ‘The Köningen Flavia then?’ ‘Fine by me, and you’re paying.’ They settled into a concealed booth in the picturesque and ancient inn across the Rodolferplaz where Modenheimstrasse entered the imposing square. The main room, beautifully panelled in walnut, was dominated by a large blue-and-white Delft pottery stove which occupied one corner. A portrait of the great Elphberg queen Flavia smiled enigmatically down on them from the far wall. The waiters were efficient, the food good. ‘So,’ smiled Oskar, ‘is it Rothenian Boys 11?’ Hendrik laughed. ‘No. Though that’s on the stocks when the team recruits a few more new lads. This one will be special, a one-off. I’m thinking in terms of An American in Strelzen. Straight American tourist arrives, meets wholesome Rothenian gay boy, eyes lock, world shifts, next minute fucking like bunnies in various interesting locations and positions …’ ‘… and I’m the wholesome Rothenian boy.’ ‘Oh yes. A role you were born to play.’ ‘They won’t like it. It looks like favouritism, Hendrik. Felip will feel snubbed; you know he envies me.’ ‘Felip’s pretty and very sexy, but he can’t act even up to our low standards at Falkefilm – and, unlike you, he can’t improvise. Besides, whatever you think, you’re the only boy he won’t feel jealous of. He has real feelings for you, you know that. It’s why Rothenian Boys 7 was such a big seller in the West. It was obvious, even on DVD, that he was heart and soul into you. He didn’t have to act that. But don’t worry, I look after my boys. I can distract him with a different project. ‘The other thing is, you’re getting a lot of attention out there. I’m thinking of sending you to San Francisco to represent the firm in the Pride Festival. You should get around more. You’re a star, Oskar.’ ‘So who’s to be the American? Do any of the boys speak good enough English?’ ‘Ah well, that’s the problem, isn’t it?’
  10. Will’s alarm clock woke him at seven-thirty the next morning, alone in bed. Harry Baxter had gone home at one to his own small house in Lower Whatton, where his parents lived in Whatton Manor. But Will knew that what they had started the night before was not over. Principally, he felt smug. He had sexually satisfied another gay man, in the process losing his inconvenient virginity at long, long last. The embarrassment was over. He had loved the sensation of being filled by another man, too. Some part of him had been realised, and he was no longer what he had been. He moved and stretched, then his face spasmed in alarm. He suddenly was aware that what he and Harry had done was not going to be without serious consequences. He gingerly felt between his buttocks, disturbed to find painful swelling. He looked at his fingers, almost expecting them to be covered with blood, but they weren’t. He got out of bed, wincing as he sat before standing. The worst thing was that he was desperate for a crap. He would have to go. The muffled cursing from his bathroom was plaintive, and was faintly heard in the newsagents downstairs. He sat in a bath, which helped a bit to ease the soreness, although he still moved stiffly when he left his flat. Rather than walking to school as he usually did, he decided to take the bus. While he was standing in line for it, his mobile bleeped. ‘Morning, Will babe,’ said an amused and warm voice. ‘Oh, hi!’ ‘Can’t talk? Where are you?’ ‘Bus queue outside the Co-op.’ Harry laughed. ‘Well, I just wanted to tell you that you are the hottest babe in Whithampsted.’ ‘Not a huge compliment, that,’ chuckled Will. ‘I also wanted to apologise for the state of your arse this morning. Is it bad? Red-hot poker sensation?’ ‘I can’t tell you.’ ‘It’ll get better, kid. Practice, some proper lubricants and maybe some chemical assistance, and it’ll never be as bad again. It’ll have eased by tonight.’ ‘Tonight?’ ‘You don’t think last night was the end of the affair, do you? I’ll be round at eight, okay?’ ‘More than okay.’ ‘I’m so glad. Happy educating. Bye, my babe.’ It was a good day. His happiness and cheeriness were contagious, the kids responding well to all his ideas. He was inspired and inspiring. He got back home exhausted but fully content with himself and the universe in general. His arse had also stopped holding what he had done to it against him, though it was still sore. He did not think he could take anal sex again that night, but maybe Harry would let him have a turn. * * * Harry arrived on time, a grin all over his face, holding a bottle of expensive red wine in one hand and a carrier bag in the other. Will’s heart pulsed at the sight of him. They kissed lingeringly in the downstairs hall behind the closed outside door. Harry went to go up, but Will coyly stopped him by blocking the stairs with an arm. ‘What are you doing?’ ‘You can’t go up there without paying toll.’ ‘Toll?’ ‘I need to see you naked. Leave your clothes here.’ Harry laughed and was out of his clothes in a moment, as was Will. Hand in hand they climbed upstairs, where a prolonged necking session on the sofa turned into a marathon of fellatio. Harry got a little carried away at one point, and attempted to enter his lover with a finger. Will yelped and sat up. Harry looked concerned. ‘Still hurting?’ ‘Yeah. I think we’ll have to leave it a bit before I have you in me again … but believe me, I can hardly wait.’ Harry smiled with a certain amount of satisfaction. ‘You’ll be my best bottom boy ever.’ ‘Bottom boy?’ ‘You’re the sort of gay who likes to be underneath, that’s all.’ ‘How do you know?’ ‘You can just tell.’ Will wasn’t going to argue, because he recognised that he really did like being penetrated. Still, he was also sure he’d like to try it the other way round, though Harry clearly wasn’t going to offer. In the meantime, however, there was oral sex, in which Harry was coaching him to become an accomplished cocksucker. It was mutually very enjoyable. For the first time, Will tasted cum. He’d never tried his own, so he gagged a little at the first seeping into his mouth of the sweet fluid from his lover. Harry grabbed at the bag as they got up from the sofa. ‘What you got there, Hairy?’ ‘Hairy?’ ‘Well you are a bit … so I’ll call you Hairy from now on.’ Harry was amused. He emptied the bag, and Will picked through the contents. There was a rubber dildo, which caused Will to raise an eyebrow and Harry to smirk. There were also two large tubes of lubricant and two boxes of extra-strength condoms. Finally, from the bottom he triumphantly pulled out three DVDs. ‘For your collection, lover.’ ‘Wow, this is a weird one,’ commented Will. ‘Men being screwed by machines and hung up in chains?’ ‘It’s arousing, believe me. But I think you’ll prefer these.’ Will examined the other two boxes, giving a little gasp of excitement when he discovered Rothenian Boys 9 and 10. He searched for the beautiful face and body of his lust-object, but Marc Bennett only seemed to have a bit part in 10. Harry was grinning at him. ‘Let’s put this one on,’ he suggested, fatefully selecting Rothenian Boys 10. They returned to their oral sex, both keeping their eyes on the screen. It was very stimulating, as boy after shameless boy offered himself to the camera. But Will dropped Harry’s cock out of his mouth when Marc Bennett started his set. Another handsome lad was inserting a large training dildo in Marc’s arse, and he was taking it with a deeply preoccupied expression on his face. Harry noticed Will’s distraction. Sitting up with a smile he said, ‘That’s a very pretty boy-whore, isn’t it?’ ‘He’s amazing.’ ‘It’s all gay for pay, Will.’ ‘Huh?’ ‘They’re straight guys who lay it out for money. Central Europe is full of them, struggling to make ends meet in poor economies where the average monthly wage for a professional is 300 pounds. You can pick and choose any sort of guy for peanuts in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Rothenia, and they’ll thank you. One porno film means that, just by bending over, they don’t have to work at some boring job in the tractor factory for a whole year. All the boys have to do military service, and straight or not, they get a lot of experience with anal sex in the barracks. After that, it’s not too difficult to persuade them to lie down in front of the cameras and get screwed for cash.’ Harry had no idea of the impact his little lecture in economic reality was having on his new lover. Will was appalled. Somehow he had kidded himself that Marc Bennett was as gay as he was, maybe a bit of an exhibitionist, but a bright and funny lad, the sort he’d desperately have liked to meet in the flesh. His fantasies flamed into ash. Harry was not so insensitive as to fail to notice a mood change, but he put it down to Will’s frustration with his inability to have anal sex at the moment. He cuddled into Will. ‘S’okay babe, you’ll be better tomorrow. Then we can start exploring your bum again.’ ‘Yeah sure,’ Will said gloomily. Finally he rallied and stood up. ‘Let’s get this bottle opened, eh? I could do with a drink.’ ‘Sure babe. Let’s do that.’ Harry left him just after midnight, dressing coyly in the downstairs hall. Will didn’t bother to put his clothes back on. He morosely returned to his lounge and picked up Rothenian Boys 7, looking achingly at the magnificent body and smile of Marc Bennett – or whatever his name was. Just another deprived, abused Central European kid, victim of a ruthless porn industry. Maybe it was the wine, but he sat in his chair and began crying, mourning his lost fantasy, genuinely grieving for the sort of boy that he supposed Marc Bennett had been forced to be. * * * At that precise moment, nearly a thousand miles away, on a boulevard opening off the Rodolferplaz in the ancient and beautiful city of Strelzen, the power went down again. Oskar Prinz walked hard into a tree and fell back on his butt. He swore and his three friends laughed, a little cruelly he thought. ‘How many times is that this week?’ he cursed. ‘It was better under Communism.’ ‘How would you know, Oskar?’ mocked Tomas. ‘We were only little kids in the May Rising. And you lived in Husbrau anyway, where no one even noticed. Out there, they still think Stalin is in power. Have you heard the one about the Husbrauener water-polo team? It drowned five horses.’ They all laughed, apart from Oskar, who was irritated by reference to his rural origins. His friends were ‘Strelzen und Zenden’, as people called them, sophisticated boys from the capital and from the industrial city of Zenden. Still, they were fun and kept him from feeling lonely in the big city. In the pale moonlight they found him and helped him up. Rodolf switched on a torch while they checked him over for damage. ‘Your main asset’s safe, Oskar,’ he reported with a smirk. Tomas snickered. ‘What, you can see his dick?’ Oskar gave a low laugh. ‘He means my face, asshole.’ ‘Yeah, I know what he meant.’ They ignored the triggered alarms ringing out in the shops and shut-up cafés all down the street. With the help of the torch and passing headlights, they picked their way across the cobbles and tramlines of the Lindenstrasse to Oskar’s apartment block, a tall, nineteenth-century, Second Empire-style building boasting impressive double-valved doors at the entrance and a moody concierge within. There they said goodnight and shook hands like the polite boys they were, for Rothenia is a very formal society. Oskar climbed the winding, balustraded stairs, grumbling because the ramshackle lift was out of action. The lights came on again while he was fumbling to get his key in the lock. That was irony for you. As he opened the door, he blocked Marietta’s attempt to get out. His little terrier leapt up at him enthusiastically. ‘Yeah, missed you too, baby. Ooh! You get so excited, don’t you?’ In the living room he checked his answerphone. Three messages. His English lesson the next day was cancelled, which was annoying. However, his sister said she was going to be in town at the same time, so he would have had to miss the lesson in any case. This way it cost him nothing. The PA from Falkefilm was after him too. Good. Modelling work at last, for which he was very grateful as expenses were mounting up and he was getting rather short. He looked in the tall mirror he had inherited with the apartment, gave a broad grin and flicked his heavy blond fringe out of his eyes. * * * Saturday was a bit of a disaster for Will Vincent. Harry rang up regretfully to call off the day they had planned to spend together, saying he had to drive his father to a hospital appointment. In anticipation of their day, Will hadn’t brought home any schoolwork, which meant the weekend had been unnecessarily wasted. Will was a conscientious-enough teacher to be seriously bothered by this. So he slept in and, by way of punishment, woke late in the morning with an appalling migraine. He threw up twice in the loo. The pain was terrible, as if his head was being slowly and methodically impaled through the temples by a spike. At least it distracted him from the pain in his arse, although that had lessened considerably from what it had been on Friday. He was just recovering his humanity when Harry pressed the downstairs doorbell. ‘Christ, Will, what happened? You look like a corpse!’ ‘Migraine. I’ve had them since I was seventeen. They’re killers.’ ‘You poor baby, what can I do?’ ‘Stroke my head and be nice to me.’ Will was happy in the circumstances to adopt the role of the needy invalid. ‘Baby, I’m so sorry, I was just coming round to tell you the parents need me tonight and I can’t get out of it.’ Will sniffled. ‘S’okay, Hairy. I’ll see you in church tomorrow, won’t I?’ ‘Yes, of course. Oh God, you look pathetic. I feel like a bastard.’ ‘No, go. It’s not your fault. See you in the morning. Kiss?’ They snogged out of sight of the street, then reluctantly separated. Sunday was better. Will woke up refreshed and mildly euphoric, which was the not uncommon side effect of a serious migraine. He sang beautifully. The summer day was marvellous, sun streaming in through the medieval windows of the big church. Harry was alongside him, nudging and smiling in a dangerously obvious way that Will hoped no one noticed. When they left, the bushes and trees in the churchyard were full of rich greenery, and the fresh smell of growth floated in the warm air. Harry and Will walked across to the Feathers to enjoy its renowned Sunday lunch. When several regulars stopped by and sat with them, Will reluctantly said goodbye to the intimate meal he would have liked. He had to get real. It was the best he could expect until the world changed, because neither he nor Harry seemed to have any intention of coming out locally.. It was nice enough just to be sitting alongside his secret lover and laughing at his jokes and stories. ‘So what happened in Greece?’ he asked when they were briefly alone. ‘You were going to tell me.’ ‘Oh.’ Harry grinned to himself. ‘Well, in March I was on a gay cruise … I mean literally, it was a boat trip through the Greek islands, with calls at Mykonos and Lesbos.’ ‘Really?’ ‘Oh yeah, I’d been on one before. It’s the best way if you’re on your own and thirty-something, because if you’re fit-looking, you won’t be alone for long. I fell in with a party of Germans and got sort of intimate with all of them the night we anchored off Mykonos. A couple of them were rugged and I wasn’t interested in cooperating with what they had in mind. But they had me anyway and there was a ripped condom in my arse after two of them took me at once.’ ‘Jesus … is that possible?’ ‘Difficult but possible. I didn’t want it, but I got it.’ ‘They raped you.’ ‘Uh … well, technically no. I was after all naked with them of my own volition in one of their cabins. But they went further than I wanted. The line’s hard to draw sometimes, and these were big men with big dicks. So I got myself tested a couple of months after I got back … I was negative, fortunately.’ ‘Phew.’ ‘Yeah … but you can see why I might be a sucker for a gentle and submissive bottom boy at the moment.’ Will was astounded at that description. Gentle? Submissive? Was that how he appeared to Harry? His Year 11 class on Friday afternoon would have been surprised to hear those particular adjectives applied to him. Harry too would discover his error soon enough, for Will was in fact a stubborn man as well as a quiet one. His temper and tongue sometimes ran away with him, which was how Year 11 had learned to be cautious when he was in a mood. By nature he was not a forward type, preferring to take a back seat socially, yet that did not mean he did not have strong opinions and ideas of his own. He would follow his leader for the most part, until sooner or later there would come a moment of reckoning when people found out that he was not at all submissive, but steadfast and strong. It sometimes came as a shock to those who had misread him. Harry had made the same mistake that better men than he had done. They left the Feathers at three and found their way to Will’s flat, where they kissed longingly on his sofa. ‘How’s the bum?’ ‘Ready and eager.’ ‘Fantastic! Let’s get these unnecessary clothes off, then.’ They moved to Will’s double bed, where he relaxed under the very thorough rimming Harry administered to him. He was glowing with contentment. ‘Sniff this,’ Harry ordered, holding a small brown bottle open under his nose. It had a fetid, chemical smell. Will breathed it in. His nose closed down and his eyes watered. ‘What the hell was that?’ ‘Popper. Amyl nitrate.’ ‘What does it do? I feel odd, ooh, dizzy and … fuck … oh so randy.’ ‘And relaxed.’ ‘Uh … no. Blood’s pounding. I … ooh, that’s weird. What did you just do?’ ‘Shoved my fingers up your arse. You just let me.’ ‘It didn’t hurt.’ Harry disappeared and came back holding the dildo, glistening with lubricant. He pushed it steadily up Will’s rear, which allowed it to slide in without any protest. ‘Good?’ ‘Dreamy.’ ‘You’re way open back there, babe, and your hole is pulsing with excitement.’ ‘Then fuck me, Hairy.’ Harry lubed up and obliged with interest. The buzz from the popper had by now disappeared, but Will still felt good, if a little muzzy in the head. Later they were lying together on his bed hand in hand, basking in their afterglow. Harry asked, ‘When’s summer holidays for you guys?’ ‘It’s in a fortnight; we get seven weeks. Why do you ask?’ ‘I’m owed more holiday, and I’d like to go someplace with you where we can be a gay couple.’ ‘Fantastic. Where?’ ‘I’ll think about it, but we’ll head off for a week, how about that?’ ‘Er … problem. I’m utterly broke.’ ‘Not a problem, kid. It’s on me, a token of my appreciation for making me happier than I’ve been for years.’ Will looked across at the older man’s smiling face, thought about it, and grinned. ‘Then, thank you.’
  11. Hi Paqman. A good question. This is going in a series called 'Rothenian Tales', and HoOP is the first of the stories set in that fictional land. I'm hoping that it'll work without the Matt & Andy backstory. Mike.
  12. ‘Sir!’ ‘Yes, Jake?’ ‘Sir, Ricky just put his hand on my knee.’ ‘Did not! Don’t listen to him, sir!’ ‘Gay!’ The class tittered at the cheap insult. Will seethed briefly before mastering himself and heaving an internal sigh. ‘Jake, Ricky!’ His voice cracked out sharply. ‘That’s enough! Leave your romantic life, or lack of it, for the playground.’ ‘But sir …’ ‘You were supposed to be looking at the Ten Commandments, if I’m right, and deciding which are relevant today. Yes?’ ‘Yes, but …’ ‘Yes but nothing. Try this one for size: Thou shalt not disrupt my class or thy days will not be long in the land.’ ‘Sir.’ Quiet descended over Will’s room. He taught Year 7 Religious Education on Monday mornings. He was not finding it an easy start to the week, especially after this particular weekend. Concentration was difficult, for he was in a state not too far distant from what some might consider to be love, though ‘in lust’ would be nearer the truth. He was a good teacher, interesting and organised, with – in general – an effortless control over his students. His first year in schools had had one or two rough patches, but now he was in his second year and knew the job. Things would have been well in hand were his fascination with the Rothenian boy from the DVD not disturbing his equilibrium. The kids maybe sensed it, in the way kids do, homing in on any weakness as if by instinct. It was a relief when the lesson bell went without further incident. This was Will’s precious free period. He gathered up some marking, locked his door and sought the staff room, where one or two colleagues were scattered around. He made a coffee and took up a table. But he knew grading work was not going to be easy. His mind kept wandering off to graphic scenes of oral and anal sex playing and replaying in his head. He had seen the Rothenian boy doing every sexual act he could imagine, as well as some he almost couldn’t. Cover Boy's perfect body had been a trampoline for another twink. He had smiled round the other’s erection, then engaged in banal chitchat in a beautiful, soft foreign language, translated in subtitles, while his superb arse was penetrated by fingers and a cock. How could such a body and – yes – such an intelligent-looking man get caught up in the porn industry? Will had a name for his new obsession – for Matthew White was now well and truly laid aside. On the sleeve, the Rothenian was credited as ‘Marc Bennett’. He realised that was a ‘nom de porn’, but it was a start. Just as with Matt White, he had this frustrated need to engage with more than merely the face and body of this gorgeous creature. He had to know every detail. Where did the Rothenian live? How did he get into porn? Was he as bright as he looked? A metasearch on the Web turned up very little other than a couple more titles and calendars in which ‘Marc Bennett’ was a star. A brief pseudo-biography mentioned only the barest statistics: six feet tall, blue eyes, Capricorn, born in Rothenia. That was it. About my size, Will thought, although they perhaps had little else in common. He gritted his teeth, trying to blot out that smiling face and soft voice talking, panting in sexual congress. He began making ticks on the pages of Class 8E’s exercise books, although he wasn’t actually reading them. He corrected the odd spelling error, just to make it look as though he had taken them in. Eventually he finished the pile and stretched. A female voice from across the room enquired, ‘Good weekend, Will?’ ‘Went up to London Saturday, Mary, but didn’t do much other than wander round.’ ‘I was in town too. If I’d known, we could have met up.’ ‘Sorry, Mary. I just wanted to do the bookshops. Oh well, maybe another time.’ Mary Andrews, German and French, smiled a little regretfully and nodded. Will caught signals that Mary, who had joined the school the same time as he, was interested in him. A shame, of course. She was quite pretty, but they would never be a couple, even though the older staff seemed to imagine that a romance was inevitable. Will took his coffee over to the first-floor window and looked out across the fields of Berkshire to the dramatically steaming chimneys of Didcot power station on the far horizon. Whithampsted was a small market town with one secondary school, called Whithampsted Grammar as a nod to its distinguished history, although it was in fact a comprehensive. Still, it was a successful one with a good head teacher, and sent half a dozen youngsters every year to Oxford and Cambridge. He ought to have been happy in this school, Will thought, for he already sensed that kids and colleagues alike approved of him. But he was not happy. The issue of his concealed sexuality taunted him and forced him into self-imposed isolation. He could not get close to his younger male colleagues and usually did not join their drinks nights and clubbing in Oxford and Reading. He found it hard to fake the heterosexual rutting instinct. But one recent night out with the lads, which had ended up with them all watching straight porn in a state of dazed inebriation, had given him the idea that had led him to the cellars of Soho. Now he could stay at home and wank, and he had the beginnings of a suitable porn collection to wank to. * * * By Thursday, Will had more or less masturbated himself into a sexual stupor. Every detail of Rothenian Boys 7 was imprinted on his brain, even the bits without Marc Bennett. He wanted more, which faintly alarmed him, because he knew porn was addictive. Unfortunately, between rent, student debt, credit agreements and travel, he did not have a huge amount of money left to distribute to the benefit of the seedier end of the capitalist system. Totally drained after a full day’s timetable, he sagged into unconsciousness as soon as he got home to his little rented flat above the newsagents in High Street. He was drooling when he abruptly awoke at half six. The TV was still on but muted. He changed out of his suit before microwaving some pizza. Having sated his hunger, he showered and afterwards checked his dick, which was showing the signs of too much recent dry friction. He washed and soaped his inflamed foreskin, all the while gazing sheepishly at himself in the mirror. Brown, slightly anxious eyes stared back at him. Yet there was no particular need for physical embarrassment. He was a slim and by no means unpleasing man, pale skinned, and hairless on his upper body. He was not a hunk, maybe, but he had worked out and run as a student, if not recently. He had powerful legs and firm pectoral muscles. Since starting teaching he had grown his thick dark hair over his ears. He thought it looked good and had been idiotically pleased to find it curled at his nape, just like Matt White’s did. Although perpetually lacking in social confidence, Will at least believed he was reasonably attractive – or would be if he could lose the air of uncertainty that was a direct result, he felt, of living his concealed gay life. At seven-thirty he left for choir practice. One of his few regular social evenings was with the choir of the parish church of St Mary. The church had an ambitious Director of Music and a long tradition of choral excellence, so it attracted many of the local musicians and had full benches of boy choristers, several of them Will’s pupils. It sang choral evensong and full Eucharistic settings; the church was also a favourite for local weddings. Will, a pretty fine tenor, had participated in choirs since beginning university. He had been delighted to find that Whithampsted offered such an opportunity, while the choir in turn was delighted to receive a young and accomplished singer at a time when the number of male participants was dropping and true tenor voices were less common. Upon reaching the vestry, he found rehearsal had already begun. He slid in next to Harry Baxter, one of the other two regular tenors, who gave him a swift grin. Will caught up with the score: ‘O Thou the Central Orb,’ just as it reached the final ascending bars. He and Harry lifted their voices in perfect sync above the rest of the choir, enjoying the glorious line for all it was worth. The director cast a wry look at the pair as the anthem finished. ‘Nice. But a little less tenor next time, please, gentlemen.’ They sniggered. Like all tenors, they knew they usually had the best and most high-profile lines, and they hammed it up to the hilt. By the end of practice, Will was thoroughly euphoric. It was a better high than any alcoholic or chemical substance had ever given him in his student days. Harry and he were riotous on the back row and were beginning to annoy the neighbouring altos. Harry Baxter was a youngish solicitor working in a practice in Didcot, though he lived near Whithampsted. Will had got the idea that he was from a local family and that his father had been a solicitor before him. He was single, but the choir ladies thought he had a girlfriend in London. He certainly travelled a lot. He and Will adjourned with the basses and a few of the ladies to the Feathers opposite the church. Three beers maintained Will’s sense of euphoria. Harry too seemed exceptionally jolly, and his scurrilous Whithampsted stories had the bar roaring. There was nobody to match a local solicitor in salacious and risky gossip. At ten o’clock people began drifting away, leaving Will for once reluctant to have the evening end. When he and Harry were the only ones left, he surprised himself by offering his colleague a whisky at his flat, a few doors down. Harry happily agreed. It was as Will pushed open the flat door that he finally remembered what had been nagging at the corner of his memory for an hour. There in the centre of his lounge coffee table, in all its glory, lay his copy of Gay Universe. Overwhelmed with shock, he pushed in front of Harry and shifted a pile of exercise books on top of it in the guise of clearing the sofa. They didn’t hide it, but he hoped they obscured enough of the cover so it could be any glossy magazine. Will recovered his poise, if not his euphoria, and poured them drinks. Harry sat on the sofa with his feet up on the coffee table, while Will took the single armchair. ‘That was a good night,’ Will observed. ‘It was great,’ agreed Harry. ‘So, what did you think of the latest Gay Universe?’ The bottom dropped out of Will Vincent’s world. ‘Uhh … you saw it, then?’ ‘Oh yeah,’ but Harry was smiling. ‘It’s OK, Will, I buy it too. I am likewise gay.’ Will caught his breath. ‘But you’re not out, are you?’ Harry laughed. ‘Out is a negotiable term, y’know. My parents are not aware of it, nor are the people I work with, even if they suspect. Not that I could care. But gay is as gay does. I’m queer when I want and need to be. “Out” is a patchy concept, for me at least.’ ‘Wow!’ Will, impressed by that statement, looked with renewed attention at his friend. He reckoned Harry was barely past thirty, quite fit, with just a little thickening at the waist. He had crisp, well-tended blond hair and very well-selected casuals. He wasn’t that good looking, but money had given him a certain polish. A nicely manicured and successful solicitor, or a middle-class gay man: make your choice. ‘I thought you were gay too, Will. I saw you eye up that young guy in the front pew last Sunday.’ Will remembered: it had been Robert Franks, just completed A Levels and as hot and shy an eighteen-year-old as you could dream of. Will was certainly glad he hadn't had the boy in class, for he could never have concentrated on the subject with that sort of babe in front of him. In church or not, he had been undressing Robert in his mind, and it had been very disturbing, especially when the boy had met his gaze and held it. Harry continued with a question. ‘Did you deliberately let me see your magazine?’ ‘Er … no. If I did it was just subconscious, I suppose.’ Harry looked faintly disappointed. ‘You really are barricaded into the closet, aren’t you, Will?’ ‘Just not ready to come out yet, I guess.’ ‘So you’ve never done it with another man.’ It was a statement. Will didn’t want to answer, although he’d never in fact had sex with anyone apart from his own hand. In school it had been too terrifying a thing to recognise his sexuality and act on it. In university he had not found a gay friend to be confident with, to help him out. So he kept silent, and was a little annoyed when a fleeting smile passed across Harry’s face. ‘Scuse me, I need a refill.’ He did, too. His heart was racing. How was he going to deal with this? He felt he ought to pledge Harry to an oath of silence. Didn’t doctors and lawyers have to keep things in confidence when asked? As he put the bottle down, he knew Harry had come up behind him, for the man's strong aftershave reached out to alert him. An arm folded round his waist. His breath stopped. A hand lifted the hair at the nape of his neck and a soft kiss was planted where it had been. He froze. His hair was moved from over his right ear and lips nuzzled it, before a tongue licked at the lobe. Sexual desire boiled unwanted in his groin. He felt the bar of Harry’s erection pushed into his small rear. It was decision time. Well, why not? He had to lose it sometime. Harry was at least experienced, or so Will guessed. He turned in the older man’s arms, and found a face smiling provocatively into his. Inexpertly and clumsily he engaged with Harry’s lips, tasting the tang of whisky. In retaliation, Harry’s tongue forcefully took possession of his mouth, licking round inside it. They broke contact. Harry gave him a very seductive look. ‘Mmm. Nice. You want to go the whole way?’ Will, for all his fear, nodded abruptly. ‘Good. You’re quite a babe, William Vincent, even if you don’t know it yet. And you’ve not done it before, have you?’ Keeping silent, not trusting his voice, Will shook his head. Harry looked at him, still smiling, and lifted off his polo shirt. Will raised his arms to help out. Harry inspected his bare torso with approval, then stroked his left nipple with a thumb, causing him to shudder slightly. Harry came closer, ran his hands down Will’s back and pushed below the waistband of his jeans, cupping a tight buttock. Will arched and groaned, feeling as if every vein and artery in his body had swelled. Probably they had. ‘Oh yeah,’ Harry crooned softly, ‘I want to hear more of that. Now, step out of your shoes, babe.’ He expertly unbuttoned and lowered Will’s jeans and pants, pulling the socks off with them. And there Will stood, quite naked for the first time with another man. He held Harry’s intense and appraising gaze. He felt his cock thicken and twitch under the frank stare. Harry, his smile broadening, slipped off his own shirt and stepped out of his shoes and socks, then closed again with Will for a further exploration of his mouth. Will squirmed as the warm, tight flesh of their chests rubbed together, and his cock tensed between them. Harry’s hand was at his crack and a finger began probing him intimately and persistently, though not painfully. Will was suddenly anxious about the consequences of his decision to go ahead with this. Harry broke off, but he took and gently fondled Will’s erection as they separated. Something exploded at the base of Will’s spine. ‘Relax, Will. I guarantee you’ll love it. It won’t be what you fear. Take my word for it. Now, have you got a lubricant?’ ‘Er … no, not even a condom.’ ‘Not to worry, I always carry one in my wallet. As for the lack of lubrication … well, I warn you that you may be sore afterwards down there. It’s not the best way to break an ass in.’ ‘I believe in you, Harry. I … I want to trust you.’ Harry smiled kindly into his eyes. ‘Kid, you do say the sweetest things.’ It was that caring look that finally persuaded Will all would be well. ‘Let’s go for it then.’ Harry took Will’s hand and led him into the small bathroom. Catching sight of the herbal handwash, Harry muttered, ‘Faute de mieux, babe. Put your hands on the basin and separate your legs. We’ve got to open you up a bit, and it may take some time.’ Will realised that Harry had assumed control of him, but somehow he didn’t resent it. Harry ran some water, and squirted handwash from the dispenser. ‘Soap tends to burn inside you, Will. But this wash is going to be a lot milder. Let me know if it stings.’ Will felt slick fingers pull his buttocks apart. When they began rubbing his anal lips gently and tenderly, he arched and gave out a long ‘Oooh.’ ‘Good, isn’t it?’ ‘Aw yeah, it is.’ ‘Enjoy it, kid. You’re going to get a lot of it.’ Will did. Harry spent plenty of time massaging his crack. He relaxed and revelled in the wonderful sensations coming from his arse. Every now and then a finger tip tested his anus and after a while he felt a whole finger enter him. Another man’s finger was in his bum! He could feel it moving. He tensed, but the slipperiness allowed Harry to slide into him easily and move about. Will liked it, a lot. After five minutes or so, he knew that two fingers were in him, stretching his anal muscles. Still it didn’t hurt, or at least not until three fingers probed him more insistently and deeply. He lifted on his toes. ‘Uncomfortable?’ came Harry’s voice from behind him. ‘A bit, but it’s a different feeling.’ ‘You feel full?’ ‘Yeah, full, and my arse wants to close up.’ ‘Try pressing down, babe, as if you were crapping.’ ‘What if I do crap?’ ‘Can’t feel anything in there, Will. You must have been recently.’ Will thought about it. ‘This morning in school.’ The matter-of-fact nature of their conversation, himself naked in his bathroom with Harry’s fingers deep in his arse, was the oddest thing of all so far. Harry got busy again. Soon he was moving his fingers in and out of Will quite easily. Will was loving the sensation, except for the fullness that was pressing on his bladder. ‘Can I pee?’ ‘Do it in the sink, babe.’ Will complied, astonished by his sudden total lack of embarrassment at pissing in front of another man. A hot stream of yellow urine slightly relieved the anxiety of his stimulated prostate. He ran the water to get rid of it. Harry rose behind him and kissed his neck again. ‘Stage two,’ he announced. Leaving Will’s bum wet and slick, Harry led him to the sofa and got him on his knees on the floor in front of it, his upper chest resting on the cushion. Will bent low, sticking out his rear. Hearing Harry’s trousers fall to the floor, he guessed what was coming next. He had seen it happen to Marc Bennett. A wet feeling of lapping began at his entry. He luxuriated in the sensation, but was intrigued by how muscular and insistent was Harry’s tongue. A sharp slap on his right buttock surprised him; it also surprised his anal muscles, which stood by stunned as three fingers shot into him deeper than ever. ‘Ow,’ he yelped, for there was pain now, even though it was not unbearable. The fingers flexed and turned in him, as the process of opening him up continued. A few minutes of it and the pain more or less passed. ‘Hang on a sec,’ Harry said. He disappeared and came back with Will’s shaving mirror. ‘Look down, kid.’ Will did, and saw the reflection of his wet anus as Harry pulled the buttocks apart. A black hole lay there, relaxed and open. ‘Now push down.’ Will did and the damned thing winked at him. Harry laughed, and after a moment Will did too. Harry went back to licking and sucking on him, soon working down the perineum to Will’s hanging balls. Each was sucked individually and with devotion. Will realised with part of his mind that he was being educated by a master. He blessed his luck. Harry pulled Will’s now semi-erect cock towards him, and began suckling luxuriously on it. If Will hadn’t been wanking so much recently, he would have shot his load by then. ‘It’s time,’ Harry announced, kneeling up behind him. Will felt the head of the other man’s penis pressing at his entry. He desperately tried to stay relaxed, but his anus did not want to take Harry. Harry continued to probe, unhurried yet insistent. Will bit his lip when something caught and he felt his sphincter give. He yelped as Harry entered him. It really hurt, a sharp pain from which he could not escape. Harry soothed him, whispering encouragement in his ear, waiting for Will to tell him the pain was fading. Will lied, and Harry renewed his onslaught. Will was almost sure he heard his tight anal ring squeak as Harry’s cock juddered forward. Again and again he pushed and paused, until his pubic bush was tickling Will’s buttocks. His warm abdomen lay against Will’s back as he held Will’s shoulders under the armpits. ‘You’re being fucked up the arse, Will,’ Harry gasped in his ear. ‘You’re a real queer now.’ Will gritted his teeth, for the pain was quite bad. He felt he was being carved open by a blunt knife. ‘Can you take it easy, Harry?’ ‘Hurting?’ ‘It’s bad.’ ‘Trust me babe. It’s time to go for it. It’ll get less, believe me.’ It didn’t. He was surprised, however, at how new sensations were taking over from the pain of being outrageously full of Harry, as Harry began to move rhythmically inside him. Small spasms of electricity seemed to emanate from his over-stimulated anal muscles. Something weird was happening behind his hanging cock. He found he could ignore the pain of penetration and of the friction on his inner walls, helped along by occasional sharp slaps on his flanks. He remembered how the Rothenian boys had done it to each other, and now he thought he knew why. He heard himself making the same gasping pants and whining moans that Marc Bennett did when he was being fucked. Somehow that intensified his pleasure. Harry’s hairy abdomen was slick with sweat on his back. He gasped when Harry finally gave a deep thrust into him, and held it. ‘Sit back on my lap as I move off you, Will.’ Will did, and found himself squatting above Harry, whose dick filled him up to the top of his rectum. Will burst out, ‘Aw, this is it! This is good!’ It was beyond good. He threw his head back onto his lover’s shoulder in abandon and ecstasy. Harry kissed his cheek. ‘You’re a babe, Will. Just like I knew you’d be.’ ‘Am I good?’ ‘You’re tight, hot and fantastic. You’re loving this, and that makes it all worthwhile. Kid, you have real promise. The time you’ve wasted up till now, the good sex you could have had.’ Harry’s hands were exploring his chest and pubic region. Finally his fingers wrapped round Will’s half-erect penis. Will looked down. ‘What’s that?’ Harry chuckled. ‘That’s your prostate telling you how much it likes what I’m doing to it. It’s your precum leaking out.’ ‘But it doesn’t do that when I wank.’ ‘You’re the sort who needs the extra anal stimulation, Will. If we can get you excited enough you might squirt without help from your hand, though it may take a few times.’ ‘I’d like that.’ ‘I’m surprised you haven’t come already.’ ‘Er … I’ve been wanking a lot lately.’ ‘Rothenian Boys?’ ‘How did you know?’ ‘I checked out your DVD player. Tell you what. Let’s put it on now.’ Will was reluctant. ‘No. Some other time, maybe.’ He found himself strangely unwilling to share his fantasies about Marc Bennett. Odd, because there could be no sexual barriers between him and Harry Baxter anymore. Harry chuckled. ‘OK then, babe. Let’s go for closure, like the good lawyer I am.’ He pushed up with his groin. Will moved up with him, back on to the sofa. Harry began beating faster and harder into him with serious thrusts that made him grunt and gasp louder and louder. Harry too was gasping hard. Checking the tightness of Will’s balls he yelled, ‘Here we go!’ The hard wanking caused Will’s orgasm to boil up as, with a shout, he spurted five creditable pulses of sperm on to the sofa cushions. More trickled down Harry’s hand and dripped on to Will’s left thigh. At the same time Harry began groaning and crying, letting Will know he was about to cum. Harry gave one long thrust that pushed them both off the sofa and flat on the floor, pinning him in the ecstasy of ejaculation. ‘Oh my God … my God! Will, you’re unbelievable! What a babe you are.’ Will gasped, sweat dripping in his eyes. ‘Thanks, Harry. You’re pretty fantastic yourself. Thanks for taking my virginity, and so nicely too.’ ‘Literally, kid, it was my pleasure.’
  13. For the fourth time, Will circled round and walked back along Old Compton Street. The afternoon was getting darker, and fewer people were around. He got to the door of the well-lit bookshop he had selected, steeled himself and, feeling giddy, entered. A staircase with a small and discreet neon sign indicating XXXX Videos led downwards. He had gone too far now, there was no retreat. He descended the stairs, trying not to clump too hard as he went. At the bottom a smell of damp carpet assailed him. Once his eyes adjusted, he made out five or six people browsing the DVD shelves in the sequence of cellar rooms. All were male, of course, as his mind registered. No one looked directly at anyone else. A bored young man sitting at the till glanced at Will incuriously, then back to a book he was reading. None of the others showed any interest at all. Will breathed again and scanned the shelves full of tits and bums, searching for the section he knew must be there somewhere. He moved to the back of the cellar, where with a rising pulse he found the shelves he was looking for. Pale, naked boys and buff, muscled men stared out at him from the plastic. He had followed his libido this far. Now where to start his hunt? His heart was thumping and his adrenalin level was high, making him feel he might faint. Did he have the coolness to check out the shelves systematically? He was unsettled by the sight of a middle-aged man perusing the same section a bit further along The gentleman was as old as his dad, and dressed perfectly respectably. Snap out of it, he told himself. Browsing gay porn did not make you a criminal, it just made you feel like one. Will focused on the covers. He did not find them arousing. Most of the kids were his age. The British ones looked like losers, while a lot of the Eurotwinks seemed as though they could do with a good meal. He didn’t fancy watching any of them getting their rocks off on his DVD player. The muscle studs appeared a bit more promising, especially the one who had most of his hand up another guy’s arse. But even that seemed somewhat artificial. The critical part of his brain began functioning at that point, as – to his annoyance – it always did in moments of crisis. What was he on about: ‘artificial’? How could sex before cameras be anything other than artificial? Hard-core porn is not exactly high art, is it? Back to the shelves. Then, with a surge of arousal, it happened. The face caught him: a naked boy, smiling at the camera, kneeling sideways to the left, his fantastic bum resting on his heels. His body was lightly and evenly tanned, but it was his face that arrested Will. It was utterly gorgeous. A soft smile played around the wide mouth. Straight, blond hair had fallen into laughing, blue eyes. The cheeks were full and boyish, although their owner was a grown man. Christ, his libido screamed, what a total dream babe! Will took the box from the shelf. The title said Falkefilm’s Rothenian Boys 7. The thumbnail pictures on the back showed a variety of pairs of good-looking lads in the act, including the cover boy. He glanced at the price: £39.99. Will gritted his teeth and thought about the precarious state of his bank account. Then Cover Boy smiled gloriously up at him and all thoughts of economy left him, burned away in the flame of ersatz passion. He had planned on getting two or three DVDs from this first anxious expedition into the heart of the Vice Capital of Britain, but he wanted this one … had to have this one. He looked around and made his way to the counter. The youth at the till stared blankly at him. Probably the look was calculated to be noncommittal, but Will still felt he was being eyed up. He gazed coolly back at the bloke, maybe only a year older than he. Yup, I’m gay, he said to the bloke in his head, so hate me. Then he thought perhaps he’d better say something aloud. ‘Er … this one please.’ The till-keeper grunted. Will swiped his card through the machine and tapped in his PIN number. The bloke put his purchase in a plain bag. Naturally, thought Will. Who’d walk through London with SOHO PORN EMPORIUM on the side of his carrier bag? Well, some people might, he admitted, but not he. Amused by the idea, he smiled and murmured, ‘Cheers.’ Seeing the startled expression on the other’s face, Will reflected that he was standing there as a self-proclaimed gay man and had just smiled broadly at another man, who might not perhaps have viewed it as simply a friendly and human gesture. Get used to the fact of being different, he told himself. He climbed the stairs fast. He ambled back down towards Charing Cross Road, feeling weird. Although he was not out to his parents or friends, he knew well enough what he was. But for the moment, walking Old Compton Street, he was an openly gay guy in the heart of London’s gay village. He had a bag containing gay porn and an issue of Gay Universe. He passed a bar and stared inside, seeing a number of what he imagined were young gay and lesbian couples sitting round. If only he were with someone who could give him the confidence to go in and take a seat. But he was shy and nervous, so he moved on till he came to a Starbucks, where he got himself a mint-chip Frappuccino as compensation. Will sat in one of the squashy chairs and did something courageous for him. He took out the gay mag he had bravely bought at Paddington. Trying not to look to see if people were noticing it, he opened the magazine up and began reading the contents page. He felt as though he was making the first steps towards being truly himself, so just opening the mag was, for him, an exciting experience. The contents ran: HIV; the campaign for the Rainbow flag; hospices; the gay scene in the Czech Republic (dismal), Belarus (positively homophobic) and Rothenia (opening up). He blundered into pages filled with eye candy, none showing any crucial information, and rushed past them in case any theoretical person watching him thought he was just perving. The classified-ads section was dense and looked as though it would repay some concentrated study. Then a familiar figure caught his eye. Dark, thick hair, black eyes, crimson lips, a perfect brown face organised like a Pre-Raphaelite angel; it was the gay supermodel, Matthew White, mostly naked in a full-page advert for a well-known male fragrance. Will checked out the magnificent physique, draped over a balcony in Milan or Nice or somewhere like that, and felt the usual longing ache. This was the face that had haunted his student years. He had a scrapbook filled with Matt White pictures, and a Matt White poster pinned inside his wardrobe door. He had wanked off to fantasies of the man almost for as long as he had wanked. Those were the images that had made him realise he was gay. He knew everything about Matt White: his favourite colour, where he grew up, his family, his long-term boyfriend, his university career. And if you had perused his scrapbook, you would have found that Will had gone somewhat beyond the celeb mags in his devotion to his idol. Like the saddest of teen groupies, he had discovered where Matt White lived in London and had walked up the road to look half longingly at the house (empty at the time). He had sneaked into a public lecture the man had given in Oxford and seen him in the flesh, for Will knew what most Matt fans didn’t care about, that he was a serious scholar as well as one of the world’s favourite male faces. Will had recorded copies of his Channel 4 documentaries. Will felt there was a real personal connection with his idol, as extreme fans always do, although in his case there was some justification. He had read history in the same department as Matt White had, although three years later. He had studied under some of the same teachers, and even talked breathlessly to people who had known the man. And if you gathered from this that Will was an obsessive, you would not be too far wrong. Will sighed and took a deep breath. His adventure into his own sexuality had gone off alright. He was sitting in London, reading Gay Universe, and no one was even watching or caring. He had bought hardcore gay porn, and no one had rung his mum to tell her. The world was a lot more indifferent than he had imagined. The street outside was dimming towards evening when Will checked his watch. It was Saturday and his preferred train left from Paddington in only an hour. He carefully packed away his mag and, as he did, caught a glimpse of his DVD purchase. Cover Boy smiled up at him enigmatically. For the moment – and perhaps it was none too soon in Will’s life – Matthew White was forgotten. Time to go home. And once home, there was a whole new source of sexual dynamic to get used to.
  14. Will Vincent, schoolteacher, exits the closet and finds it leads him to very strange places, for almost out of the door he encounters the beautiful Oskar, cynic and porn star, who is not at all what he seems.
  15. Mike Arram

    Chapter 35

    Jacques Levaillant sat up astonished. His last memory was settling into the unkempt bed in the loft over his shop, the sheets streaked and stiff with the results of his compulsive jerking, which he indulged in to excess in the absence of any alternative. It had been two weeks since he’d last had active sex, a pleasure he had paid for. As always he’d felt bad about it, but his business gave him little time to go trawling the bars and clubs of Ostberg. The prostitute had been seriously well endowed, even if he had lacked the energy and passion Jacky most valued. His happy encounter with Ruprecht von Aalst’s epic schlong had spoiled him. He looked around. He found he was naked in the open air, tree branches flowering above him. He got to his feet, the grass cool and soft under his feet. A path led him to his left and after some metres he entered another clearing. It had a central mound several metres high, on which sat a man who caused Jacky’s breath to catch in his throat. This was the best dream he had ever had. The man was big and muscular and the marvel was that he was so well endowed his heavy cock didn’t just hang down to the grass, it was laid along it between his thighs and it wasn’t even erect. The man caught his gaze and laughed. ‘Come here little one,’ he said. He held out his great arms, took the slender boy into them and seated him on his thigh, Jacky feeling like a small child enveloped by such power and muscle. ‘Who are you? Where is this?’ ‘This is your herd, little one. And you are here for a number of reasons. The first is to thank you, for I’m the Great Bull of the Imperial Herd, and you’re my grandchild, descended directly from me. And so you are a prince of the Plains, as much as is Gillot, the king, whom you know, and his brother the Emperor of the Living.’ ‘Am I dead then? I knew I should have thrown that chicken away.’ The man guffawed. ‘Sweetheart, you may well turn out to be my favourite among the princes of your generation. You have served the Herd well, and we thank you.’ ‘Great! Can I ask for wishes to be granted?’ ‘Ha! I know all too well what you want. Come, straddle me.’ His great penis was already thickening and rising as Jacky stared. With many squeals and expletives Jacky settled on an erection of a size beyond his dreams and satisfied himself vigorously until he felt a surge of wetness inside him. Then he was under the man on his back and was put through a pounding the like of which he had never experienced even in the erdbeest breeding shed, his legs flailing in the air as he was ploughed into the ground. After it was over, the man lifted Jacky off him and held him tight in the afterglow. ‘Did the reward match your expectations?’ ‘Oh yes, grandpère! It’ll spoil me for any other sex for ever!’ The man sat up and cuddled him tight as if he were a little boy, kissing him on the forehead. ‘That’s sad, sweet little prince,’ he said. ‘You only say that since sex has been for you about possession and lust. But there is better loving to be had.’ ‘Oh, I know,’ the boy said as he got up to evacuate the consequences of the passionate encounter. ‘You’re not the first to tell me. But I’ve only ever come close to that once, and he was spoken for. Huge cock too, though nowhere near the size of your massive thing, grandpère.’ ‘That child belongs to another Herd, little prince, but there is one other of that people whom you should meet. Go then along that path you see across the clearing and after a while you’ll encounter his Herd. See what happens. Give me a kiss, child, and take your grandpère’s blessing with you.’ With a backward glance Jacky took the indicated path through the trees, his slim brown body dappled with shade and sunlight. His backside was delightfully warm and he felt carefree and happy beyond anything he ever had felt before in his troubled life. He began singing, something he had loved doing as a child with his mother, before the drink took control of her. Then he was dancing elegantly and happily along the dusty path as he went. As he sang and spun on his toes he heard a snigger and looked up, to see a small child on a branch above him. He was blond, curly-haired and very pretty indeed, like an elfin tree spirit. Jacky came to a stop with his hands on his hips. ‘What’re you laughing at, little bird in the tree?’ he demanded. ‘Not laughing!’ the child grinned. ‘Your dance was great. Can I do it with you?’ ‘I suppose so, come on down.’ So the boy swarmed along the branch and dropped into Jacky’s arms. He took the older boy around his neck and kissed him before alighting on the path. Jacky was touched. He liked little children, though not in the way his former patron had. He had comforted the small ones that he found being molested by the other catamites. So the pair danced together along the path as Jacky sang, the little child copying his movements rather well. Out of breath, they paused when they got to the edge of the woodland, beyond which opened a great grassy plain. ‘What’s your name, little bird? I’m Jacky.’ ‘I’m Kris! Are we friends?’ ‘Yes, I think so.’ ‘Would you like to meet my big brother? He’s really cool!’ Jacky shrugged. Taking that for consent Kris took his hand and led him out of the trees. An extraordinary sight met Jacky’s eyes. There were hundreds of naked humans strolling the plain, of both sexes and different ages but all blond, some hand-in-hand, one or two engaged in intimate activity as the others simply walked past or stepped over them. A particularly big specimen trotted up. ‘He’s a bull,’ little Kris said. ‘He’ll challenge you. You’ll have to fight him if you want to go any further.’ ‘What? Me, fight? That’s just not my …’ The man came up close, very handsome and heavily endowed, his cock swinging between his legs. Jacky was mesmerised. ‘You’re not a Connorson kid,’ he pronounced. ‘Clear off!’ ‘He wants to meet my big brother,’ Kris piped up. Then he looked up at Jacky. ‘You do don’t you?’ ‘Er … I suppose.’ The man threw out his arms and hissed threateningly at Jacky through his bared teeth. ‘Do it back to him!’ Kris instructed. Feeling rather foolish, Jacky had a stab at it. The man circled him, his penis rapidly rising to an erection which somewhat distracted Jacky, so that he was grappled and forced on to all fours with some ease. The man’s sweaty body surrounded him, his scent rather heady and sexy. ‘Alright!’ he conceded. ‘You’ve won … I … Oh! Jesus!’ The man on top was buggering him, sliding in and out of his ass with ease after its recent stretching and lubrication. Then he stopped, and suddenly Jacky could feel pulses of hot and stinging wetness surging into his bowel. He was being pissed in. It was not by any means the first time such a thing had happened to Jacky, but it was disconcerting that he had collected an audience for the act, including a half dozen small children who were clapping their hands and grinning. The man pulled out, making a fist to the onlookers while a spurt of urine followed his cock out of Jacky. The man pulled the boy up. ‘I’m Gerd,’ he announced. ‘Since you submit to the bulls of this herd, you can proceed. Where are you taking him, little Krissy?’ ‘To see my brother if he’s here.’ ‘He is, but he’s riding the plain on his own, little one. He does that a lot, you know.’ ‘Oh!’ The little boy was obviously dashed. ‘Never mind, Kris,’ Jacky said. ‘Get up on my shoulders. I’ll take you for a ride too!’ Kris looked less disappointed and Jacky lifted him up on to his shoulders, where the boy settled and steadied himself with handfuls of thick dark hair, while Jacky held on to his smooth, honey-brown calves. Jacky trotted away over the grass swerving through the drifting herd, the boy bouncing happily and laughing while Jacky did quite a skilful imitation of a galloping, snorting horse. They trotted out of the herd and into a stand of trees. ‘Look!’ Kris yelled, pointing. ‘Erdbeesten!’ And indeed there was another herd in the distance. Hundreds of upright, browsing erdbeesten. ‘But they’re not erdbeesten! They’re walking on their hind legs!’ ‘They are!’ Kris replied. ‘They’re real erdbeesten! Not like the ones that are in Waltherborg Park.’ ‘You know that place?’ Kris looked sheepish. ‘Sorta,’ he said slowly, as if caught out in something he shouldn’t have said. Before Jacky could pursue that there was a drumming of hooves and up rode a lanky but handsome youth of Jacky’s own age. He was blond with long, thin legs and prominent knees, his hair windswept back from his forehead. His skin was paler than the rest of his Herd. ‘It’s my brother!’ Kris yelled happily. ‘The one I told you about.’ The rider pulled up his horse, leaning down to pat its neck. He looked at Jacky with interest. ‘Who’re you? You don’t belong in the Alleman and English Herds.’ ‘Me … no. I just woke up in the woods and met this big brute who took serious advantage of me … it was wonderful!’ The boy smiled quirkily. ‘You’re from the Living Herd. People like you aren’t supposed to visit here anymore. You must be special. Who are you?’ ‘My grandpère said I was a prince of the Plains, of the same Herd as Gilles and François.’ The stranger dismounted and made a disconcertingly low bow to the slim Francien boy. ‘Then, my lord, you are of the high Imperial Herd.’ He turned to Kris. ‘Krissy, bow to the Prince of the Great Herd.’ The little one, eyes wide, dipped low his curly head. ‘Sorry, Prince Jacky! I didn’t know.’ More confused than ever, Jacky urged the others to stand. ‘You mean I really am a prince here? Wow!’ ‘You are an imperial prince, my lord, of the very highest rank,’ replied the older boy, ‘and that explains your looks, for you have the features of the sovereigns and lords of House Parmentier.’ Jacky mused on the information. ‘That’s what King Gilles said. I wondered what he meant.’ The stranger nodded. ‘Gilles was often here in the past, and he rode these plains. I wished he’d ridden with me, but …’ The boy took on a distant look, then continued earnestly but shyly ‘Would you consent, my lord, to do that? To ride in front of me? Only if you wish, of course. It would mean so much. Looking as you do.’ Jacky shrugged. ‘What do I do?’ The boy dismounted and put Jacky up against the horse’s rough shoulder. Taking Jacky’s small and elegant right foot he pushed the lighter, slimmer boy up on to the horse’s back, then effortlessly vaulted up behind him. Jacky found himself being pressed forward against the horse’s sinuous neck by the boy’s warm front. He giggled as he felt the stranger’s sizeable genitalia squash against his buttocks, and hands grasp his narrow waist tight. ‘I’m going hard,’ he breathed. ‘That’s fine,’ came the reply. ‘I will too. I’ll probably … y’know … against your back. Do you mind.’ ‘Mind? You kidding? You’re gorgeous for a blond.’ The taller boy clasped Jacky hard, his chin on his left shoulder and right cheek pressed up against Jacky’s dark and fragrant hair. He whistled in Jacky’s ear, and the horse was away. ‘Bye, Kris!’ Jacky called, as the horse surged beneath him. He heard the small boy call back through the rising wind of their passage. They galloped and it was exhilarating. A hand cupped and held his hardening penis and let the motion of the horse masturbate him. His orgasm arose as he squirmed against the boy behind him. He spurted hard into the wind and on to the horse’s neck. ‘Jesus the Seneschal!’ After he had climaxed and the rider had himself grunted and left a sticky patch all over Jacky’s lower back, they dismounted. The two boys found themselves on a grassy bank, the horse cropping close by. Then without any hesitation Jacky placed himself on all fours and was happy to be mounted and fucked in new and interesting ways by the other boy’s long thin cock. ‘This is the best dream ever,’ Jacky murmured after they had collapsed and laid themselves out facing each other. He stroked the other boy’s domed belly and played with his fuzz of light brown pubic hair. He leaned over and kissed the limp and sticky member. ‘You’re amazing. I always thought size made the best sex, but you … what did you do?’ The boy turned towards him and kissed him in another way new to Jacky. ‘I had a great teacher,’ he said. ‘He taught me that sex wasn’t just mechanical. To be truly what it should be there has to be a … connection’ ‘Is that what I felt, a connection?’ ‘You look very like him,’ the boy smiled. ‘Though you don’t talk or act like him. You’re a randy, funny little fucker, for a prince. Yet in you, there’s something which is the same. There is a kindness and longing for love you try to hide.’ He reached over and brushed the hair from Jacky’s forehead, and kissed it. ‘Time to go home, Jacky.’ ‘But I don’t want to. You’re perfect.’ ‘You’ll end up back here one day, we all do. But for now, we both have another plain on which to wander.’ ‘But I want to come back and do it with you again …’ Jacky grinned irrepressibly, ‘… and again!’ ‘But I don’t belong here either. I’m only here as an act of favour granted me by the Great Bulls as a reward for my … sacrifice. I’ll wake up somewhere else. Look, the sun is setting. It’s time.’ ‘But what’s your name!’ The stranger boy, his incubus, smiled. ‘It’s Kreech. Remember that name, Jacques Parmentier, Prince of the Plains, son of the Great Bulls. And believe the words of the man who next says it to you.’ Jacques Levaillant awoke with the rising sun doing its best to shine through the grimy window of his attic nest, where he was wrapped in his stained sheets, now slimy and dark with the sperm and seminal fluid of his emissions during the night. ‘That was the best dream ever,’ he groaned as he stretched. *** Brigadier-General Otto von Ampfeld rather liked his new post. He had fallen quite in love with His Allemanic Majesty, whose household and security he had been appointed to direct. The King Kristijan he now served was only in his looks the same as the one he had previously served with equal loyalty. The new Kristijan was not perhaps as ruthless, incisive and brilliant in matters of command and organisation, but in his ability to read, win over and manipulate all sorts of people he was far superior. Also he was clearly sane, a state his master never had approached before. The old Kristijan had occasionally betrayed a quirky and unsuspected kindliness, but this new one was all genuine good nature. Not that he was weak, as several presumptuous courtiers had made the mistake of assuming, to be brought up hard against a frosty grandeur every bit the equal of what the Emperor-King had previously deployed. But what the Brigadier most liked about the king was the fact that he would confide in him freely, more freely than in anyone else it appeared. Much of that was because Von Ampfeld knew better than any other member of the royal entourage exactly what was going on in Terre Nouvelle and the personalities behind it. So at the end of the day the king would offer the Brigadier a cup of tea in his private office and discuss the state of the world. These interviews soon got around the court, and the Brigadier’s stock rose accordingly in Hendrijksborg, as he could tell from the courtiers and ministers trying to curry his favour and elicit information both discreetly and indiscreetly. Today had been the day when the king had successfully negotiated the departure of the occupying Eastern forces from his island of Zuidholm. ‘What will we do about old Uncle Horst?’ Kristijan wondered as he sipped his tea. ‘Majesty?’ ‘The Easterners set him up on Zuidholm as King of Ardhesse restored, and then he conducted himself with his usual unpleasantness, even though the place was a camp for dissidents from my rule – his natural constituency indeed. Yet he alienated them effortlessly. He even stuck many of them back in the prison where I dumped them.’ ‘It seems to me, sire, he may have solved your problem for you.’ ‘You may be right, Otto old fellow. I think the time has come to send them all home. I’ll have the Ardheimer Abendtsgazett call vigorously on the king to show mercy in this case.’ ‘Excuse me asking, sire, but why did you secretly fund and open a newspaper dedicated to attacking yourself and your policies?’ The king chuckled. ‘Well firstly, dear old Ampfeld, because it rather amuses me. I contemplated composing bitter editorials about my monstrous vices and hatred for the people and calling for my head to be spiked on a lamppost at my castle gate. But frankly I doubt my ability. So I had my trustees appoint better-educated and less histrionic editors. But the main point is that this somewhat repressed kingdom of mine needs to develop a political culture, and a free press is necessary for that. So what better way than to allow a daring new title to open and let it to get away with murder? Eventually the rest will follow suit if the water proves warm. But at the same time, I can keep its rhetoric short of the incendiary.’ ‘Sire, I am impressed. That’s so far beyond the subtlety of the Baron Meisel.’ ‘Oh, old Meisel wasn’t subtle, he was just sneaky. Not the same thing. I sent him a pile of nice new shirts and a bottle of perfume to keep him happy on Bornholm. He’s safer there for the time being. A lot of his victims would so like to have him strangled … slowly. Anyway, I was talking about Uncle Horst. The Easterners told me confidentially they really don’t want him anymore and asked would I … handle the problem for them. Now I thought that cynical, and in my usual mad and contrary way I’d rather not have anything to do with garrotting the old chap. Ideas?’ ‘The Holy See is the traditional place for dethroned monarchs and refugee princes to seek sanctuary, sire.’ ‘Yes, but he’s such an old pagan. Ah well, His Holiness and I are best friends at the moment, so I’ll ask him to send Uncle Horst a letter of protection. No one can touch him while he carries that, providing he ends up in the Holy City. Jolly good. Thank you Otto. Tomorrow, we’ll be on the move. Since the seas are now safe for me, I propose boarding one of the few battleships Dreiholmtz left me and taking a trip up the east coast, to pay my respects to the other Allemanic sovereigns, and so they can acknowledge my wonderfulness and new precedence. The Foreign Ministry’s been busy and it seems that Ostberg, Hochrecht and one or two of the little princes of the Protectorate will be willing to see me, despite their preference for dowdy old Queen Wilhelmina. Still, it’s a start. It’ll be a challenge for you. I imagine the cliffs will be lined with people ready to open up on me with a sniper’s rifle. I count on your industry to save me for posterity, old Otto.’ The king rose, and the Brigadier rose with him, to bow low and take his leave. He was up all night to make the best arrangements he possibly could for his beloved young master. *** Several months’ residence at Blauwhaven had been good for Ruprecht and Joerg. They had finally set the day for their Schuleneheit celebration, which was to be the following Acclamation Sunday. The town leaders and clergy had all accepted invitations, which may have had a lot to do with the fact that the King of the Franciens the Prince of Ostberg and several other great persons besides would be adding lustre to the occasion. The pair were walking the harbour mole that fine morning. ‘I do love the way the sea twinkles like that. It lifts the heart,’ Joerg said dreamily. ‘Are you eating that red meat I prescribed?’ ‘I’m not anaemic.’ ‘No, but if I have to suck blood from the ball of your thumb, I want it rich in nutrients.’ They reached the Confederate fort to find Lieutenant von Altstadt smoking next to the lowered drawbridge. He greeted them cheerily. ‘Big ship entering the bay, gentlemen. And I would guess she’s Ardhessian.’ Ruprecht took the lieutenant’s pocket telescope and focussed on the turreted grey mass of a battleship steaming steadily shoreward, then he scanned the flags. ‘A Southern vessel alright,’ he commented. ‘I can see an admiral’s pennant at the mast behind the stacks, and … now that’s odd, why would the royal banner of Ardhesse be breaking from the mainmast above the bridge?’ The lieutenant looked startled. ‘That could only be because the king himself’s on board. It’s a hint to the fort to make the proper salute. Excuse me!’ He dashed back across the bridge. Some minutes later there was the sound of a bugle and the rumble of guns running out. A great billow of smoke burst with a puff from the seaward side and there came the echoing bang of the first of the forty-one guns of a royal salute. A semaphore telegraph began jerking its signals from the tower above them and Ruprecht could see flags making reply from the battleship’s bridge. A return salute to the Bernician flag began from its guns. Many curious spectators turned out to watch the big vessel make a majestic turn in the bay and anchor. Sailors could be seen readying a steam launch, which was soon being lowered and passengers taken on board. Ruprecht took Joerg by the shoulder. ‘I think we’re about to have an enigmatic visitor.’ ‘Kreech coming home?’ ‘I do believe so, though I’m pretty sure he won’t admit it. Let’s get up to the house.’ An hour later Ruprecht was pacing his cluttered study when, as expected, a messenger arrived from the mayor to warn him that a great personage who had just disembarked at the harbour proposed visiting the castle if His Excellency would be so gracious as to consent. Consent was returned and at midday Ruprecht and the castle staff were lined up at the entrance when a carriage escorted by two policemen brought the King of the Allemans to his door. All hats were removed and Erwin in his best seneschal’s coat opened the carriage door for the king to alight, bowing low as he did. ‘Good day to you, Your Excellency. Nice to see you again, Professor. Well, ugly old place you have here, minheer Graf, but solid I dare say.’ ‘Indeed, Your Majesty. Could I invite you in? Hello, Brigadier.’ His Allemanic Majesty smiled affably around him. He was in a white suit with a straw hat, looking more handsome and elegant than ever. ‘My dear Graf, I was passing so I thought I’d look in. I don’t think we parted on the most comfortable of terms at Yorck, and I regret that. You know how much I admire and respect your work.’ ‘Your Majesty is too kind.’ ‘Not at all.’ They entered the gloomy outer hall. ‘My dear fellow, it gets worse. You really should knock this old place down and rebuild it in a modern style. You could have electric light and all the modern conveniences, some I doubt we could currently imagine. The Patriarchal Institute at Yorck has already examined televisual devices that the Ancient Oracle was willing to share.’ ‘I find this grim old castle not an unsuitable residence for a historian, sire.’ ‘Well, well. Just an idea. Now, is the hall through here? Very baronial. I’ll take a seat if I may. Perhaps you and the professor will sit with me. Brigadier, if you’ll usher the rest out and perhaps the good seneschal will send in some tea. I’m parched. Many thanks.’ When the three were seated the king resumed. ‘I’m on way up the coast, with the next stop a state visit to Ostberg, to visit your brother the new prince. Then onwards to Hochrecht and the Protectorate, but I really did have to stop here first, as there are a couple of things I need to do at Ostberg in which I need your help.’ ‘Really, sire? What could they be.’ ‘Well first of all, old Rupe, I have to enjoy the most unusual experience of visiting my own tomb.’ Ruprecht scowled. ‘So you’re no longer keeping up the masquerade, you young rascal?’ ‘He told you of course, Georgie,’ the king said, glancing at Joerg. ‘Yes he did, and I think it’s unconscionable.’ Kreech held up his hands. ‘Don’t rush to condemn. I was taken aback you’d penetrated my brilliant disguise, Rupe. How did you?’ ‘It was the look you directed at Gillot’s bum as he walked away from you. It was pure Felix. Then there was the king’s sudden onset of sanity. I could put two and two together. I knew that the real Kristijan was getting more and more frantic about leaving the Herd. What I didn’t know was that the Great Mind could send you back to his body, instead of him.’ Kreech looked solemn for a moment. ‘It wasn’t an easy decision for me to come back, believe me. It wasn’t just little Kris who didn’t want to return, but the Bulls made a deal. I can still go back at will to the Plains in my dreams, and in return I would occupy the body of the one person on whom the future of Terre Nouvelle turned and I could direct the course of world events in a new way. It was a hell of a sacrifice for me to make. You know what it’s like there.’ ‘And what about Gillot … and Fran,’ Ruprecht pursued. Kreech looked grim. ‘It was Felix von Aalst whom Gillot loved, not Kristijan of Ardhesse. My real death ended that marriage.’ He directed a stern look at his brother. ‘Don’t you dare condemn me! You should know what it cost me.’ There was a long silence, broken by Joerg. ‘We do, Kri … Kreech. Excuse me. I’m having mental double vision here. But there are compensations. You can breathe freely and enjoy one of the finest male bodies on the planet, as well as enormous status. The view from the fourth rung of the Golden Ladder must be wonderful. How on earth did you think up that solution for the Allemanic problem?’ ‘Oh, Gillot and I were discussing that in bed one night, ages ago when the original Kristijan claimed to be emperor.’ He looked momentarily tearful. ‘And now it’s François laughing and plotting in bed with my Gillot. I have agents who tell me these things. Yes Rupe, I know very well what my consent cost me.’ Ruprecht looked at the sad and handsome king opposite, out of whose eyes looked his beloved little brother. His heart melted. ‘Very well Kreech, enough has been said. If I haven’t told you already, I am proud of what you’ve accomplished, proud and amazed. What other wonders will you achieve?’ Kreech grinned again, a very familiar grin, not unlike the one his old face had produced. ‘I have many, many ideas. But first, I want to see how Prince Felix Hans is doing and establish friendly relations with Ostberg. There’s also other sorts of friendly relations I want to pursue. You see, I met a boy ...’. *** Jacques Levaillant presided over his emporium with wit and a degree of acerbic Francien charm. Women found him irresistible, with his instinct for design, colour and fabrics. He dressed and acted the part of couturier well, with a beautifully-cut suit and fine linen. His tight frock coat and colourful waistcoat were already one of the familiar sights of the fashionable world of Ostberg. He was also a martinet as far as his shopworkers were concerned. There were now a half dozen of them, all female, slim and superbly dressed by their employer. Jacques did not trust male workers in this business and he had standards. Most days his shop was crammed, customers vying for the attention of ‘Monsieur Jacki’ and clamouring for his advice. That afternoon was no different. Shopworkers held up fabrics, took measurements and fluttered around the demanding lady customers, while Monsieur Jacki held court in the centre of his little kingdom, criticising, advising and (sometimes) admiring. Occasionally husbands and fathers, not to mention the occasional suitor, crossed the borders of the shopfront into Jacky’s realm, though they were not that welcome. They were at least allowed to buy from his stock of elegant handkerchiefs and cravats. Out of the corner of his eye Jacky observed such a fellow enter his shop, tall and a very handsome figure of a youth. But he could not afford to be distracted and left the intruder to be dealt with by his minions. When next he focussed the young man was still browsing the corner of his shop. This time Jacky registered the fine grey frock suit beautifully cut to fit his broad shoulders, and that was not all. There was something ominously familiar about the man’s rear view and the rich curls of his golden blond hair, let to grow below his collar. He turned to face Jacky and approached. The couturier gaped, and then grabbed a pair of shears ready to hand on a measuring table for cutting fabric. ‘You! You bastard! I’ll kill you before you get me again!’ he screamed. The whole shop turned and gaped at the tableau: Jacky trembling with mingled fear and rage, the point of his steel scissors in the face of a taller and very handsome young man, a face familiar from every newspaper and magazine in Terre Nouvelle as that of Kristijan of Ardhesse, King of the Allemans. Several female witnesses to the scene fainted. The king put up his hands peaceably, as astonished as the witnesses. ‘Easy, Monsieur Levaillant! It’s me.’ ‘I know it’s you, you cunt. I’ll kill you rather than go back to your whorehouse!’ ‘I mean, it’s me … Kreech!’ ‘What?’ The shears trembled in his hands. ‘Kreech! From the Great Plain. We fucked! It was good! Better than good.’ Several more women fainted. The scissors clattered to the floor. ‘It’s not possible. You’re screwing with my head.’ ‘I know I look like Kristijan … but he’s passed,’ the king said in a much lower voice. ‘You met him on the other side. The little kid, Kris. I took his discarded body. Actually, I’m a dead man.’ He looked down plaintively at the discarded weapon. ‘And I nearly was again.’ The Francien boy shook his head. ‘I don’t believe this,’ he said, and then ran out the door and down the street, brushing past Brigadier von Ampfeld as he went. Kreech ran out after him. ‘Fuck and damn,’ he growled to himself. ‘This is not going well.’ He called after the fleeing Francien boy. ‘But I only wanted to ask you to go out with me for a drink!’ He turned to meet the raised eyebrow of the brigadier. *** ‘Well, you buggered that up pretty well,’ Ruprecht observed to a disconsolate Kreech. They were in a drawing room at the Residenz. ‘I thought he’d be alright when I said the magic word. I told him it would be me, even if I looked like someone else.’ Ruprecht shook his head. ‘Jacky’s not you, Kreech. He panics, he’s very emotional. All that would have occurred to him when his arch-enemy appeared in his own shop would be that his life was in danger.’ ‘So what do I do now? The King of the Allemans can’t scour the streets of Ostberg looking for a runaway couturier. He was so cute too in real life, even wearing clothes.’ ‘I don’t think you can do anything. Leave it up to Mattie. He’s got strangely knowledgeable about Ostberg’s underworld for such a nice boy. And now you’d better see Hans. Are you going to tell him who’s really in your head?’ ‘Would he believe me?’ Ruprecht gave a weary smile. ‘Is there anything he wouldn’t believe after the past couple of years? But maybe it would not be a good idea. Hans needs to be his own man and rule Ostberg as its rightful prince. He’s grieved for you and let you go. If you told him, how could he not tell Mutta and Grossmutta?’ Felix nodded. ‘It’ll maybe be harder for me. I can only meet as a stranger those who loved me.’ ‘Not at Blauwhaven, Felix dearest. There you can come and be yourself, my little cat-monster.’ Felix smiled, went over and hugged his brother. As they broke apart there was a discreet knock on the door, and the brigadier looked around it. ‘Sire, His Excellency’s secretary has returned, with a … companion. He requests an audience.’ Felix-Kristijan straightened his jacket and nodded his silent consent. Mattie appeared propelling a rebellious-looking Jacky in front of him. He glared defiantly at the king, who held up his hands peaceably. ‘Please, Jacky, just listen to me. And if you won’t listen to me, listen to Rupe here. I know you trust him. I am not the Kristijan you knew.’ Ruprecht walked over and took the Francien boy’s shoulder. ‘It’s true, Jacky. The body may be Kristijan’s but the mind inside it is my brother Felix, whom we call the Kreech. I’ve been to the Great Plain in my dreams, so I know it’s a real place where strange things happen. There you met my brother, who died but was then reborn in the world in Kristijan’s empty body. I know it’s a problem for you that he now inhabits a body you learned to hate and fear, but his eyes are my brother’s, and the more I’m with him, it’s easier to see Kreech and not Kristijan. It’ll be true for you too, if you give him a chance.’ Jacques looked at Ruprecht not Kreech. ‘It’s true then? Kristijan’s dead? Good! He might have been a cute little kid, but he was a vile man. The things he did to us.’ His gaze switched hesitantly to the present occupant of Kristijan’s body, and lost a little of its hostility. ‘How can I trust you?’ Kreech held out his hand. ‘Come back with me to the Plains tonight. I can take you, and we can start our talk there, where I’m still me. There’s so much about you I want to know, you strange little man.’ ‘You can do that?’ ‘It’s a gift I have, but you need to sleep beside me. Will you do it?’ ‘And can we …?’ Kreech grinned. ‘Oh yes. All the time. And maybe, if you let me, when we wake up again. This body’s pretty well hung, as you may well know already.’ ‘He was a crap lover, the dead king. He had no idea what to do with it. Not like you. He preferred watching others. Fine. I’ll give you a chance. Me being a Prince of the Great Herd and all, I can condescend that far.’ King Kristijan of the Allemans smiled and bowed low to the dressmaker. ‘My lord, in the new world to come, many stranger things will happen, I’m quite sure.’ THE END
  16. Mike Arram

    Chapter 34

    Joerg and Ruprecht sat on the outer ring of chairs in the great marquee. It was the second day of the Congress of Yorck and it was warm under the roof of canvas and brocade, where the air smelled very much of crushed grass. There had been great progress. The first day had been devoted to the negotiation of the peace agreement between Ardhesse and the Empire. It had proved to be far easier than anyone expected; the Ardhessian delegation had accepted a return to the boundaries before the war, the Empire allowing the peaceful evacuation of Alleman garrisons from within its borders. The failure of a Dreiholmtz representation to appear had left the status of the Protectorate States in suspension, but Kristijan had surprised everyone by allowing the Empire to take them under temporary and nominal tutelage in return for the passage south of the Allemanic troops stationed there. All recoverable loot was to be returned, and reparations waived by both parties in view of the general devastation that had been visited across the Empire, Ardhesse and Westrecht in the course of the Ardhessian War of Succession and the subsequent War of the Allemanic League. In fact Kristijan of Ardhesse was doing nothing but surprise people, encouraging Ruprecht’s suspicions of him even further. He had always been affable and controlled in public, but instead of strained and edgy the condition now seemed entirely natural to the man. He made nothing of the arrangement of the head of the table: the Emperor and Patriarch side-by-side on raised thrones under canopies while Gilles, the newly-crowned King of the Franciens, was enthroned on the step of the dais below them and to the right of the Emperor. Both Gilles and the Emperor were in the dark blue and red uniforms of Imperial generals, wearing the light blue watered-silk ribbons of the Order of St François. The only difference between the two was that the Emperor had white silk ribbons adorning his bullion epaulettes. Kristijan had been content with a throne on a dais opposite them without a canopy, while the kings of Westrecht and Athalante occupied thrones facing each other across the middle of the long table. The Patriarch placed his spectacles on his nose and blinked down at the paper in his hand. ‘Today’s business, your majesties, most reverend lords, highnesses, excellencies, men of blood and commoners, is the restoration of the Golden Ladder, which is the source of order in our world and which has been sadly disrupted of late.’ He looked around. ‘The coronation of a second emperor during the reign of another may not be unprecedented in our history, though it was in the past a consequence of civil conflict within the Imperial House, the House Parmentier. But a sovereign other than a prince of that House taking the Imperial title is unprecedented in eight centuries. We are of a mind that this is an innovation that may not be allowed to continue. ‘But then also the taking of royal titles outside the Imperial House and the Four Kingdoms is likewise a novelty that some find difficult to accept.’ The young King of Westrecht glared at the imperial and patriarchal dais, and then looked anxiously for support to his ally of Ardhesse. Kristijan arose and smiled around him, speaking evenly and confidently. ‘It seems I have caused a lot of the difficulties we’re considering today. It perhaps then falls to me to help resolve them. I shall therefore begin by renouncing absolutely and in perpetuity any pretension to the style of emperor, Allemanic or otherwise. There should be but one emperor in Terre Nouvelle, whose undisputed authority and wisdom in these days of change will be more essential than at any time in our past. Il faut que il’y étais un taureau seul pour diriger le harde.’ And so saying he bowed to the dais opposite. There was a sudden hush, and the Emperor rose. ‘I bow in turn to my royal brother’s wisdom and sense,’ he declared, causing protocol to tremble as he offered rather more than just an inclination of the head, though not quite the low bow that Kristijan’s had undeniably been. Then he took his seat again as talk broke out all around the great tent. Kristijan remained on his feet and held up his hand. Such was the man’s charisma that there was instant silence. ‘However, these are days of change. The Golden Ladder’s rungs would not be the worse for some rearrangement, and so I ask His Holiness to consider the institution of a second dignity alongside and equal to that of King of the Franciens, and that is the elevation of the King of Ardhesse to be King of the Allemans, to precede other kings, who will now once more be four, in the new order of seniority of Nordrecht, Dreiholmtz, Athalante and Westrecht. My throne will occupy the second step of the dais to the left of the Emperor, as the King of the Franciens is to his right. I like him will have the privilege of remaining seated and crowned at mass or in assemblies in the Patriarch’s presence. Then at last the vexed question of the equality of Franciens and Allemans in Terre Nouvelle will be addressed. Westrecht will inherit the dignity of His Southern Majesty, and I as King of the Allemans will be His Allemanic Majesty.’ Now a storm of debate broke out around the table. The Patriarch called a recess, and indicated that the Emperor and the King of the Franciens should withdraw to discuss the proposal from Ardhesse. Then he called the sovereigns of the other kingdoms to consult, apart from the East Kingdom which had boycotted the Congress and the North Kingdom whose monarch was still en route. ‘Kris’s flare for the dramatic is the same as ever, Robby,’ Joerg observed to Ruprecht during the recess. ‘Are you sure about your suspicions?’ ‘It’s him, but it’s not him. He’s looking better too, healthier and more serenely beautiful than it should be possible for any human male to be. There is something odd going on here, believe me.’ He kept the king under observation as far as he could. Kristijan circulated around the assembly, and wherever he joined a group there were smiles and animated talk. He pressed the flesh as if he were really interested in the person to whom the hand belonged. Eventually a herald called out and all stood as the Emperor and the Patriarch returned. François and Gilles headed directly towards Kristijan, and for some minutes they made a little group engaged in intense talk. Eventually the knot broke up and each returned to his seat, the Emperor pausing for a whispered conversation with the Patriarch before resuming his. Ruprecht briefly caught something in the glance Kristijan had cast at the retreating backs of François and Gilles, something strangely familiar. The herald called out again and the Patriarch stood, all apart from François and Gilles standing too. ‘It is resolved and ordained by the authority of Holy Church that Kristijan of Ardhesse shall ascend the throne of King of the Allemans, with precedence above all sovereign kings and after the titular King of the Franciens of the House Parmentier. It is also resolved that he will take a new name for his dynasty, henceforth to be the House Connorson. I will myself perform the coronation this day fortnight in the White Basilica of the Holy See. Any rights his uncle Duke Horst of Ardheim may claim as a consequence of this elevation are proclaimed perpetually null, void and entirely extinguished, on pain of the Church’s excommunication should he presume to make any such claim. King Kristijan names as his heir presumptive his nearest cousin, Gerhard, duke of Wilbertsee, created now Prince Royal of Ardhesse. The title of the King of Westrecht as the most junior of the Four Kings is confirmed by the same authority of Holy Church.’ Applause rippled around the assembly as the Patriarch looked up. Kristijan exercised his new privilege as King of the Allemans and sat in the presence of the presiding Patriarch. He smiled around him in obvious satisfaction at the outcome, and it was clear the applause of the assembly was intended for him. ‘He may yet be known as Kristijan the Peacemaker,’ Joerg whispered in Ruprecht’s ear. ‘I don’t believe it,’ Ruprecht hissed. *** Ruprecht joined the imperial retinue for the evening’s banquet. The Montenards had done wonders, with chandeliers blazing on stands the length of the dining tent, glittering off a respectable array of silver plate and porcelain, which had been shipped down from the Protector’s mansion in Sint-Willemsborg. Some wives and daughters had been able to join the politicians and princes present, which added to the glamour of the occasion. If the cuisine did not quite match the display, no one felt inclined to mention it. Ruprecht was privileged to take a seat at the Emperor’s end of the table, where places were set for the King of the Franciens on his right and the King of the Allemans on his left. King Gilles was occupying his exalted station with all the dignity Ruprecht had expected of him, for since the moment the Emerald Garland of Saint François had been placed on his brow he had seemed transformed. Nothing convinced Ruprecht of the living reality of the boy’s lineage more than the equanimity with which he accepted his coronation. It can only have come from his blood; yet he was still nonetheless his ward Gilles, just his loving and generous Gillot transformed into an imperial prince and loyal brother to the Emperor. King Kristijan Connorson of the Allemans was for Ruprecht an even greater mystery. He was seated on the other side to him and only three seats away. He observed the king closely, smiled at his jokes and joined the applause for his wit, which Ruprecht had to admit was as sharp and riotous as ever. What was not the same became increasingly evident to Ruprecht as course succeeded course. King Kristijan was as sane as he was. The wild eye and moments of absence and distraction were entirely gone, as was the compulsive need to shock and startle. Nor was it just Ruprecht who was having trouble getting to grips with the new Kristijan. As they laughed and attended to their affable and charismatic sovereign, the Ardhessian courtiers present were also showing signs of struggling to come to terms with their unpredictable king’s new mood. Where was the half-demented military genius they had previously served? It had to be the power of the Great Mind which had accomplished this miracle, but how? And why had Grandad Cory not discussed it with him? But the miracle was nonetheless welcome. Kristijan had single-handedly turned the Congress into a triumph of the first order, an event which, Nordrecht and Dreiholmtz consenting, might well herald centuries of peace in Terre Nouvelle, just when humanity needed breathing space to accommodate the rediscovery of its ancient scientific heritage, along with all the attendant dangers. Ruprecht tried to get Kristijan’s attention, but when he was not entertaining their end of the table the king seemed focussed on his royal brother opposite. For all their joint history, Gilles was getting more and more engaged and charmed by the new Kristijan across the table. From the snatches of their conversation that Ruprecht caught the two kings were talking of ordinary things, of horse-riding and swimming, of the literature and poetry they enjoyed. Their faces were alight with shared enthusiasm, and since both were very beautiful men it was a sight beyond charming. But more and more there came to Ruprecht that strange air of familiarity in what he was seeing, and it was not just the memory of that night in the Auberge aux Falaises in Chasancene when he had found two teenage boys sharing a bench in the inn’s backyard under the castle cliff, talking of the night sky and exploring their common attraction. The banquet ended late when the Emperor finally rose and all, including the two kings at his left and right hand, bowed low to him as he left the table. Gilles made a civil goodnight to Kristijan and went to follow François back to the Oracle, and as he did Ruprecht again caught that same look in Kristijan’s eyes when they followed Gilles. The king recovered from his abstraction and went out the opposite side of the tent, his household following at a deferential distance. It was now or never. Ruprecht elbowed through the ministers and councillors who had formed behind their king and said in loud tones that could not be ignored ‘Your Majesty! May I request the privilege of a brief audience?’ The king turned in the shocked silence that followed Ruprecht’s violation of protocol. But the smile on his handsome face was mild and indulgent. ‘Your Excellency? How may I assist you?’ Ruprecht gritted his teeth before breaching more protocol. ‘A private word would be deeply appreciated, if Your Majesty would be so good as to indulge the further presumption.’ Kristijan inclined his head, and though his smile was gone his tone remained polite. ‘You are pressing me, sir. That is not done. But if the matter is important, I can spare some moments. I fear you must first submit to a thorough search by the general here. You know Brigadier Von Ampfeld, I believe. He was appointed High Constable of the Household this afternoon. The post is new to him and he consequently takes my security very seriously indeed.’ After a thorough frisking and pocket search he was allowed to join Kristijan in the lamplit field beyond the tent flap. The king surveyed him curiously. ‘And what can I do for you, your Excellency?’ ‘No longer Rupe, Your Majesty?’ ‘I’m trying to live the role more than I did, minheer Graf. I don’t wish to push you, but it is late, so perhaps you can get to the point.’ ‘Do you mind if I smoke, sire?’ ‘I rather do, sir. It is not a habit I indulge in any longer.’ ‘Very wise, sire. I should do the same. I promised my brother before he died that I would make the effort.’ There was a moment of silence before the response. ‘Ah yes, Prince Felix, a sad loss. An honest and open-hearted boy, I hear. I admired the way he embraced his sexuality, not to mention his taste in his lover. As you know, I’ve not been lucky enough to find a suitable Grunderknabe, but one day … who knows?’ Ruprecht took the plunge. ‘I don’t think Gillot will ever be able to love you in that shape the way he did in your old body, my Kreech.’ *** ‘What did he say?’ Joerg’s eyes were wide. ‘Nothing … for a while. Then he gave a queer little smile and suggested I was confused, and said it was because of my bereavement. After a moment’s hesitation, he left.’ ‘So is he or isn’t he Felix?’ ‘It was that hesitation that confirmed it for me. He was fighting the impulse to confess.’ ‘How could it possibly happen?’ ‘I don’t think that’s a mystery,’ Ruprecht stated. ‘The real Kris was desperate to stay safe, warm and sane as a child of the English Herd. with his grandma to cherish him and the Great Bull Cory to protect him; he loathed what he was in the daytime. So he must have simply refused to return to his sleeping body. The Great Mind then must have the power to transfer the consciousness of one of the celestial herd into the abandoned body of a living person.’ ‘Apparently so,’ said Joerg. ‘And it’s a huge coup for the Great Bulls. Felix in Kristijan’s body dominated the Congress and may have given the world the chance of centuries of peace and progress. But now what, Robby? Does he have to return to the Mind, or will he live out Kristijan’s lifespan as King of the Allemans?’ Ruprecht considered this. ‘Felix was born to rule. It was obvious from the time he was a young boy; he was so very talented with people. And now he’s been given a chance to fulfil his potential, the gift of a healthy body and a position of great power in a time of crisis. He can heal Ardhesse and build bridges between the peoples of Terre Nouvelle. Yes, I think he’s going to reside in Kristijan’s body for its natural lifetime and do even greater things before he returns to the Herd. The only thing he won’t have is someone by his side who loves him. The King of the Franciens and the King of the Allemans can never go through Schuleneheit, even if Gilles could accept Felix in Kristijan’s body.’ ‘You don’t think he could?’ Ruprecht shook his head. ‘I don’t doubt that the combination of Kristijan’s beautiful face and body and Felix’s presence and personality will produce a human being of unprecedented seductiveness. I imagine thousands will fall in love with him, but Gilles won’t be one of them. The Felix he loved lives now only in his memory and no living person can match that image, even if Gilles could be brought to believe that Felix continued to live on in another body.’ Joerg shook his head. ‘What about the other problems this causes?’ Ruprecht looked a question. ‘How can you tell his mother and grandmother that Kreech is still in the world when they’re mourning around his coffin? And how about you, Robby? You’ve adored your little cat-monster since he was born, and now you’re in a position where you can see him at a distance, yet never approach him, let alone hug him the way you used to. What about your own unhappiness?’ *** The Congress went into a two-week recess at the close of its fourth day. Nordrecht’s king arrived in haste and accepted the dispensation the Congress proposed, especially as it made him the most senior of the Four Kings. Dreiholmtz had finally decided to acknowledge that the Congress was occurring, and indeed was manifestly beginning to panic over the outcome of its deliberations with regard to the disposition of the Oracle and its Ancient technology. An Eastern envoy had arrived and asked for a period of grace while his government put together a suitable delegation to join the Congress, though Queen Wilhelmina III would not appear, as that might be interpreted as her recognition of Kristijan as King of the Allemans. So the fourth day of the Congress ended with the Patriarch and Emperor jointly declaring with the Protector of the Republic that the site of New London was to be considered as an enclave of the Holy See and under the jurisdiction of the Church. Rancher Simonsen was so heavily compensated for his acquiescence that even he could find no cause for complaint, especially as he retained the grazing rights. Gilles and François sealed the Oracle when they left it, but told Ruprecht they were still able to maintain contact with Charlot and each other, showing him slim alienware boxes they called ‘handsets’, apparently an English word. Following the closing mass the King of the Franciens assumed his new state. Early the next morning he entered a carriage escorted by a troop of cavalry of the Imperial Guard bearing his royal standard of the gold erdbeest on blue, and followed by vehicles carrying his new household. They took the road to Ostberg, for he was to be chief mourner at the funeral of Prince Felix. Ruprecht and Joerg travelled in King Gilles’s carriage, much to his relief. ‘If I have to say goodbye to Fran for a while, you two are the ones I’d most like to be with instead.’ Joerg nodded. ‘Being with other people has to be hard after what’s happened. Still, as a king and an imperial prince you can at least keep those you don’t want to be with at a distance.’ ‘Fran and I are going to live together when we go home to Aix. He says there’s a wing at the Imperial palace where two bedchambers communicate, and we’re going to share a bed once the doors are closed behind us. We’ve been sleeping in each other’s arms since the Herd dreams started and it’s been a comfort. I think maybe soon we’ll start doing more – in real life, I mean, rather than what we did in the Herd. We both need it desperately and we love each other enough … maybe not the way Kreech and I were in love, but enough to know we can be happy together. Fran’s never had a real partner before, and I just can’t sleep alone anymore. Is that bad?’ Joerg shook his head. ‘No, it’s good. Kreech would understand. He loved you both very much, and we know that the three of you did more than kiss and hug at Blauwhaven.’ ‘It’s true, we liked to show Fran what we did together and he liked to watch, and sometimes he joined in with us. We practised some things with him so he would know what to do if he ever found a boy he liked. He was ever so shy about asking if he could touch us. Kreech thought he was really cute, but then, since he looks so much like me that was no surprise.’ ‘Give yourself time,’ Ruprecht urged. ‘Don’t push it, but if you can find comfort in each other’s arms no one has the right to condemn you. Though of course they will. Everyone knows you’re a homo, Gillot. And soon it’ll get around that you and the Emperor are sharing a bed. But maybe it’s time the Francien people confronted the truth that men can love each other without there being any reason to condemn them for it. The Allemans have gone along with it for centuries. The world’s changing fast, and getting the Franciens to accept homosexual love is only a small thing in comparison with some of the things they’re going to have to accommodate.’ The coach rattled along the highways of the Montenard Republic and there was silence within it for many miles. The party picked up a further escort of Confederate dragoons at the frontier, so it was an impressive cavalcade that entered Schwarzwald as night fell, and for the first time a salute of forty-one guns paid tribute to Gilles’s royal status. The Margrave’s Life Guard lined the torchlit way up to the castle, where a state reception and banquet had to be endured. Early the next morning the Marshal of the Household roused the court with the news that His Francien Majesty proposed to make a private visit of one night to the Manor of Blauwhaven. In a simple black suit, Gilles, followed by Ruprecht, Joerg and Erwin, took horse and clattered out of the castle. The only concession he made was to allow an armed police lieutenant and the captain of his guard, both in civilian dress, to ride behind at a distance. The party came down over the moorland early that afternoon, the shining sea opening before them, clouds of razorbills skimming the waves for food. Ruprecht breathed in the salt air and discovered he had been homesick for his ugly old castle. He caught Joerg’s eyes and thought he read the same feeling in them. Ruprecht found Gilles that evening where he knew he would, sitting in the mellow light of the setting sun on the lawn where he and Felix used often to play. He was talking at the handset, and when Ruprecht took a seat next to him he was astounded to see a living, talking image of François grinning out of a screen. The Emperor gave him a cheery wave. ‘Can you see me, Rupe?’ ‘I can. This is odd. Where are you?’ ‘Chasancene. I’ve just persuaded the treacherous old duke to stand down in favour of his son, Prince Louis François. I knew him from the military college; he was pretty decent to me. He was the one who warned me about Kristijan’s taste for young boys, so you could say he kicked the whole crisis off.’ He switched his gaze to Gilles. ‘So baby, I’ll be thinking about you tomorrow. It’ll be tough, but you’ll be happier when it’s over. Come back to me soon. Love you!’ Gilles replied in kind and kissed the screen. The Emperor laughed. ‘Have you any idea how weird that looked? A giant set of Gillot lips descending on me!’ Gilles blew a raspberry. ‘Yeah, we both know about you and the Gillot mouth descending on you. Bye, sexy!’ He pocketed his handset and looked around him, then said ‘I don’t suppose I’ll ever come back here. My future’s not in Blauwhaven, Rupe, but in the Francien lands with Fran and with Charlot at Yorck. Once Fran is back in his capital he’s going to start sorting things out in the Empire. I’ll go down to the Oracle and carry on our work with Charlot. Once the Oracle is fully back in working order we’ll get the Montenards and Patriarch to agree to allow a research institute to be built in the New London enclave, somewhere scientists and philosophers can begin to acquire the knowledge that will allow us to reoccupy the motherships waiting for us outside the atmosphere. They can advise us on what technology can safely be released for the nations of Terre Nouvelle to develop.’ ‘And so the great change in our world will begin,’ Ruprecht replied. ‘It’s a good plan, although I doubt the Easterners will be that happy about it. There will go their industrial and technological edge. We’ll all be on the same level.’ ‘I asked Charlot about the disease which killed Kreech,’ Gilles continued. ‘He said it was once known amongst humans as “tuberculosis”. He was surprised that it had crossed the stars with the colonists, who had all been carefully vetted before departure. But he said it was a disease which lays dormant and, given the right circumstances, was liable to break out again and even mutate into new forms. Charlot said he believed it was possible to eliminate it, though he could never have provided us with a cure in time to help Felix as the mothership laboratories didn’t maintain any samples of the “bacteria” that cause it. Still he did tell us how to test for its presence, and once that’s done our physicians will know how to proceed.’ They sat silent for some time, then Ruprecht asked ‘Do your dreams of the Herd continue?’ ‘No, Rupe. Not since that last time. Charlot can talk to the Great Mind as he wishes, but the Mind will talk to the living only through the Lady Eve now. The celestial Plain is closed to all of us until the course of nature brings us there.’ ‘A pity. I’ll miss those rides and our grandads. Georgie really got to like erdbeesten milk a lot. I think he may have withdrawal symptoms.’ He looked over to the house. A one-horse trap from the station rank had drawn up and two young men were alighting. ‘That’s Mattie down from Ostberg, and … good heavens! I never expected to see him here!’ Gilles’s head turned. ‘Who’s here?’ Ruprecht smiled. ‘Somehow I’m rather glad he’s turned up. It’s Jacky the couturier, Kristijan’s former catamite. He and Mattie are friends, so I’m told. Just friends though.’ Ruprecht and Gilles got up and wandered back up to the house, where lamplight was now glowing in the windows as the sun went down. They found Jacky in the hallway; he grinned when he saw Ruprecht and called out rather more loudly than was strictly polite ‘Hello, Your Excellency! Mattie said I should come! Bet you never expected to see me again?’ ‘A bet you win, little tramp. But I’m glad you’re here.’ He turned to Gilles, whom Jacky was sizing up with great interest. ‘Your Majesty, may I introduce Monsieur Jacques Levaillant, who played a dramatic part in our fight against King Kristijan when he was out to conquer the world.’ Wide-eyed and tongue-tied for once, Jacques bowed low to the king. Gilles smiled and kindly offered his hand to the slight boy who looked so much like him. ‘Monsieur Levaillant, I understand you lived up to your name in your service to the enemies of Ardhesse, and so in the name of my brother, the Emperor, I thank you for your bravery and the assistance you gave our cause.’ ‘Your royal majesty,’ Jacky stuttered. ‘No one said there was a king here. You look just like me!’ Gilles laughed. ‘So I understand. Kristijan liked a certain sort of Francien beauty in the boys he bedded, and you have it: clear and dark brown skin, white teeth, crimson lips and thick dark hair. Very pretty. You would very much appeal to him, as I know I did too.’ Jacky blushed red. ‘That’s not true, sir … you’re very much better looking than me, really. Your suit is well-cut too.’ Rupe grinned. ‘Have you heard about the changes in King Kristijan, Jacky?’ The boy scowled. ‘Don’t believe it, Excellency. It’s just another scheme he has. I’ll never forget the things he did to us in the Waltherborg and how much he enjoyed it, especially the humiliation. He nearly had me killed, and I’m pretty sure he succeeded in doing it with other boys he sent away.’ Ruprecht demurred. ‘There have been promising developments. I hear he’s closed down the Waltherborg Palace and opened the park to the public. He’s set up children’s homes and refuges all over his kingdom. He’s emptied Bornholm of political prisoners and put the Baron and a lot of his colleagues inside it instead.’ Jacky shook his head and scoffed back ‘It’s a trick, just you watch.’ Ruprecht indicated his guests should move to the hall, where tea was available. Erwin had recovered the rule of his domestic empire and had intimated to his lord that he would be staying there for the foreseeable future as some things had got out of hand. Ludwig had returned to Blauwhaven after Felix’s death and was acting now as Erwin’s right hand, with the title of house steward, while Mattie held the official appointment now of Ruprecht’s secretary. As he was no longer a domestic Mattie remained in the hall. Jacky perched on the edge of his seat, a little uneasy in polite company. ‘So how’s business, Jacky?’ Mattie answered for him. ‘He’s a sensation in Ostberg, Excellency. There’re queues of ladies all down the street outside his emporium. He’s going to buy up two adjacent shops and is thinking of expanding into manufacture. Herr Vincent says Jacky has a natural head for business.’ Strangely, Jacky looked shy at that. ‘I’m paying a return on your investment, Excellency. I’m ever so grateful. That’s why Herr Vincent and Mattie wanted me to come see you. I have to ask you if you want to expand your investment as the business gets bigger.’ That was easily answered, and Ruprecht followed up with another question. ‘Have you found any love life for yourself?’ Jacky shook his head and made a little moue with his pretty mouth. ‘I’m too busy, Excellency. But there are places where I can get … you know.’ ‘I suppose I do. So no partner. Never mind. Love can catch you by surprise, that’s my experience.’ He looked fondly across at Joerg. ‘We have a Schuleneheit to celebrate here at Blauwhaven before the end of the year. We’ll make a party of it. I’d like you to be there, Jacky.’ Sincere and happy congratulations followed from everyone, and a beaming Gilles went over to hug both men. He was in tears. *** With the tolling of bells and the flat detonations of minute guns from the citadel opposite, the bier of Prince Felix XI of Ostberg was borne out of the Residenz and carried downwards through the streets of his city, the route lined by mute crowds, most of them dressed in black. Eight muscular soldiers toiled beneath the weight of the double coffin. A black damask pall was laid over it and the coronet of Ostberg and a wreath of white flowers had been placed atop. Four of Felix’s brothers, including Ruprecht, held the corners of the pall. Behind the coffin walked side by side Felix’s heir Hans, in the uniform of a Bernician admiral, and Grunderknabe Gilles, King of the Franciens, garbed as an Imperial general, black cloaks draping their shoulders. Behind them walked the Protector and the princes of the Confederacy. The late prince’s grandmother and mother, heavily veiled in black, rode in a landau behind, with soldiers of the Life Guard of Ostberg marching alongside and riding behind them, their carbines reversed. At the Oiselet Bridge the bier party gratefully transferred the coffin to a gun carriage for its journey onward to the park of the Farcostan Palace. And so Ostberg bade farewell to its young prince, many of the populace following on behind the bier, to mass in a huge throng below the hill as the coffin was carried up to its final place of rest in the mausoleum. When all was done and accomplished it was King Gilles who closed the great bronze doors behind his lover. Confederate artillery in the park fired a salute of 31 guns and the reign of Prince Felix Hans began.
  17. Mike Arram

    Chapter 33

    Expect a surprise next chapter. Or I hope so. 😊
  18. Mike Arram

    Chapter 33

    Ruprecht took a while to gather his thoughts before responding. Even so, he beat Joerg and the colonel to it. ‘Gillot! What in the Seneschal’s name are you up to? Why did you lock yourself in? And look what you and Fran have done to a beloved and respected geographical feature! The locals may sue. They used that hill for pasture.’ ‘Not any more. They were just borrowing it anyway. The dome’s only been parked here.’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘It’s not a hill, or a dome; it’s a fireship … well, sort of. Why don’t you come in?’ Joerg climbed up on Ruprecht’s shoulders to be hauled up by Gilles, then they let down ropes to pull the others up. The three men entered a very strange world. Light within was ambient, and the interior of the dome was as well lit as if it were full daylight. They found themselves in a long, curving and empty corridor. ‘Where’s Fran?’ asked Joerg. ‘He’s talking to Charlot.’ ‘And who’s Charlot?’ ‘He’s the artificial consciousness in this installation which the Herd Mind knew about but couldn’t talk to. Now it can, because we’ve rebooted him. The two minds have been catching up on nine centuries of history.’ ‘He’s a male? What’s a “reboot”? Is that an English word?’ Gilles shrugged. ‘We shut him down and turned him on again. He’s not male, but you have to choose one name or other and his official title is Charlemagne, which he says means ‘Charles the Great’ and Charles is a boy’s name. He appreciates Charlemagne’s a bit of a mouthful, so he’s happy with Charlot. The ancient Allemans called him Karl, he says. He keeps on calling us “French”. He speaks all sorts of languages but he’s happiest in English, so you two won’t have a problem.’ ‘What happened to “Oracle”?’ ‘That’s just his function, but he’s a real person too so he has to have a name. He’s really nice and so very grateful to be cured. Come and say hello!’ They followed Gilles as he strode confidently along the corridors, leading them deeper into the interior and then up spiral stairs to what appeared to be a central domed chamber. A great dark pillar occupied its centre, sparkling with dots of many-coloured light which blinked in and out, and occasionally moved. François was on his back working inside a hatch in the wall, only his lower body sticking out. He was talking to someone. ‘That better?’ he called out in Francien. A voice as ambient as the lighting answered back in the same language. ‘Thanks! I now have full visual imaging. Let’s see.’ Suddenly another person appeared in the room, as if by magic out of nowhere. He was apparently in his forties, tall and dressed entirely in white. He somehow seemed familiar to Ruprecht. He looked down and flexed his hands. ‘Excellent,’ he said, his voice this time apparently coming from his mouth, rather than the walls and floors. He smiled at the newcomers. ‘You must be Ruprecht, Joerg and someone addressed only as “the colonel”. I would shake hands, but this is just an image from my databanks constructed as an interface, the semblance of a man once called Kevin O’Connor, a friend of mine.’ ‘You have friends?’ Joerg asked in English. ‘I do. And I have to tell you I’m pretty picky as to who I choose to include amongst them.’ ‘“Picky”? That’s an English word?’ Joerg was puzzled. ‘Discriminating. Selective. Judgemental. I do love the synonymous nature of the English language, such fine shades of meaning appeal to me. It’s nice to speak it again after all these many years, and a relief to find that people still know it, though Gillot tells me that you’re rather special people. Your accents are heavily Germanic, but you are comprehensible.’ ‘Are you fully briefed on what’s currently happening out in the world?’ Ruprecht asked. ‘Yes, from both sides,’ Charlot replied. ‘Pardon me?’ ‘I mean from what Gillot and Fran can tell me, and from what the Great Mind has to contribute. Wait … I think I can do a thing.’ The image of Kevin O’Connor briefly flickered, and then there were two images in the room. ‘Good gracious!’ Colonel von Ampfeld cried. The new manifestation was in the shape of a towering royal erdbeest bull, though it had human eyes and a mobile mouth, for it smiled. Charlot looked pleased with himself. ‘Welcome to the day-to-day reality of life … what do we call you? “Great Mind” seems rather formal.’ The image looked around and its smile broadened. ‘Some of us know this place well,’ he observed. A number of us think “Legion” might be appropriate as a name, though ill-omened. Many of the humans amongst us think a female form would be better than this, as we do not wish to be intimidating to the living. Can this be arranged?’ Charlot’s image flickered once more, and the bull was replaced by a less alarming erdbeest cow with full breasts, again with human eyes and a mobile mouth. ‘Call us Eve, for we are the mothers of many of you,’ she said, smiling warmly around at the humans. ‘I have to say that the People … I mean, the erdbeesten … among us find this necessity of naming difficult. It disrupts the … gestalt. But we now understand individuality, with each human, though sentient, isolated from the others, at least till they join us. We have learned in the Herd.’ Ruprecht shook his head to clear it. ‘Lady Eve, can you tell us about the Patriarch? How is it that he is on his way to this very place?’ She swept Ruprecht with her smile. ‘Robby, your Herd greets you. The Patriarch is of the same English line as you; he is a child of Cory, so like you we can talk to him in his dreams. He is coming here because your Great Bull asked him.’ ‘And what will he do once he is here?’ ‘That is not up to us. We can shape, but not determine events. But tomorrow we will have brought to this place the Patriarch and the Emperor, not to mention the King of the Franciens. We will also have the one who calls himself Allemanic Emperor.’ ‘Kristijan? He has escaped your spell?’ Eve’s smile faded. ‘He could not be contained once the choice was made. Yes, he is coming, but not at the head of an army. He is already at the borders of this land, and its Protector will permit him to enter it to join us tomorrow, providing he rides with only a small escort and that he comes prepared to discuss peace. They will all meet here, as is only suitable. This was the place where the fate of the People and the Humans in this world was decided for good and ill nine centuries ago. It will be the place where your people must decide a new future for themselves.’ ‘I knew your race’s birth world, the Earth,’ Charlot added solemnly. I am updating the centuries of data that followed the colonists on their flight here. The stream ended five hundred years ago, abruptly. If that world any longer maintains human life, it is at a basic level; the last communications mention only unrest and plague. Humanity here must avoid that fate, and with the help of the Great Mind, it may do so, for it offers an existence without conflict or fear of final extinction, the one your religions only promised, but which it can deliver.’ François emerged from under the console wiping his hands on a rag. His fingers danced across a coloured board, and suddenly the air shimmered between him and the others. He turned and reached into the coruscating air. He laughed. ‘The control surfaces recognise my genes. They take my instructions.’ The coruscation stilled and instead they could see a view outside the dome, as if through a window floating in the air. As François waved his fingers, the view changed and swooped, then arrowed down the River Sabern to Yorck. ‘What are you doing!’ Joerg yelped with surprise, his tender stomach lurching. ‘Is this technology?’ François grinned with delight. ‘Oh yes. And it’s amazing! The scientists of Dreiholmtz will wet themselves.’ The window in the air focussed on the town, which was already busy. Streams of people on horseback, foot and in carriages could be seen thronging the roads to Yorck from the south. The Montenard military had arrived and fields were filling with tents along the banks of the Sabern. Poles had been erected and the flags of the major nations were fluttering from them. Ruprecht noted that the flag of Dreiholmtz was missing. ‘Gilles,’ Charlot announced, ‘I have accessed the telegraph network.’ ‘What?’ Joerg marvelled. ‘How can you do that?’ The image smiled over at him. ‘I can focus electromagnetic radiation on the cables that pass by here and send pulses to make signals. I am now conveying the Emperor François’s summons to representatives from Aix and all the continental nations to a Congress of Yorck in the name of His Imperial Majesty and His Holiness the Patriarch.’ Charlot’s smile became a grin. ‘I have to say it’s a wonder and delight to me how the political landscape of this world has unrolled over nine centuries. I shall be revelling in it and studying it for years. I have some hopes I can make comparative studies with Earth’s socio-political development. You seem here to be in a state comparable to America and Europe during the latter stages of the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century. Fascinating. Do you know, I’ve always found the study of the humanities more absorbing than the science and technology I was constructed to monitor and dispense. Displacement I imagine.’ Ruprecht was beginning to get the idea that Charlot was more than overjoyed to be able to communicate once more after centuries of silence. He turned to Von Ampfeld. ‘Colonel,’ he said, ‘I think it’s time you left now. Go and brief your master on what’s happening here.’ ‘But …!’ ‘I have to insist. We all know you’re here as an Ardhessian agent, but it’s no longer appropriate that you should be able to offer Ardhesse privileged information denied to the other nations.’ The man nodded. ‘Very well, Excellency. It has been most interesting to witness all this. Have you a message for my own Imperial Majesty?’ ‘Only that he should come prepared to shape a peace for both Franciens and Allemans, one that will last for the ages. The rewards to his people for his cooperation will be immense, giving him fame as a great King rather than a notorious warmonger.’ Gilles grinned. ‘Can I shake your hand, colonel? You’ve been decent enough to us. Will you do us a last favour? Will you tell Minheer Wenzel to ride out here with our bags and some supplies? We’re all going to stay with Charlot from now on. I’ll bet the landlord of the Blue Stallion will be delighted. He can rent out our rooms for something phenomenal.’ The colonel complied, bowing low over Gilles’s hand and thus acknowledging his royal status, if tacitly. After Gilles had led him out of the control room, François refocussed his window on the world. ‘Look there!’ he observed. ‘Montenard soldiers are showing up outside. It’s a company of Jäger taking up positions around the Oracle. Their captain’s having a difference of opinion with Rancher Simonsen. Pity we haven’t got sound with the pictures. And now the colonel’s joining them. He’s sorting the soldiers out.’ Ruprecht shook his head. ‘Montenards don’t like their property rights messed with. It’s legal to shoot intruders on your property in the Republic. Yes, there the soldiers go. Chased off by an irate rancher who’s probably calculating how much profit he can extract from access to the site and how to close out his three colleagues from their share. He may sue Charlot for illegal trespass.’ The O’Connor image smiled. ‘It would make for an interesting legal case. Am I a person in Montenard law? If so shouldn’t I be suing the good rancher for trespass on my property? I have so much missed the complications of daily human life. It used to absorb a large amount of my available processing power.’ François closed down his screen and stretched. ‘There are living quarters below, Rupe. No food of course, but otherwise this old place is still habitable.’ ‘You said this installation is a sort of fireship. What did you mean?’ Joerg asked ‘The Oracle was the advance ship for the colony,’ François replied, ‘designed for planetary landing to house pioneer explorers, on-site laboratories and a computer core … that’s Charlot, though he’s elsewhere too.’ ‘What?’ ‘Charlot’s also installed on each of the mother ships … the Three Sisters. When we triggered the failsafe, the computers on each of the three great starships came out of stasis. So when we purged and rebooted Charlot down here he automatically regained his memory and capacities, which had been stored up there.’ ‘My head’s reeling,’ Joerg confessed. ‘But are you saying this is a ship which can take off into the sky?’ ‘Oh yes,’ Gilles confirmed. ‘We shifted all the earth off the outer skin by testing the main engines. We can lift off if we want to.’ Joerg grinned like a little boy. ‘So finally, I’m on a fireship. Amazing!’ ‘I’ll give you a tour while Fran carries on working on the control interface. Lady Eve? Can we all meet later? The conference room is set up for multiple holographic projection.’ The image generated for the hybrid Mind inclined her head and then faded away. *** Erwin Wenzel appeared at the perimeter established by the Montenard soldiers not long after midday. Gilles alerted the rest of the crew and Ruprecht followed him down through the ship. Rancher Simonsen was still in the neighbourhood and rode up with a dozen of his hands, all ostentatiously carrying unholstered rifles. There was another altercation, during which Erwin trotted his horse and the pack pony he was leading through the lines and up to the dome. He stared at the smooth white cliff above him until a door appeared in the sheer surface. Gilles poked his head out and cheerily waved. ‘No room here for horses, but I can throw a rope down for you and the supplies,’ he hallooed. Then he yelled across to the Rancher. ‘Herr Simonsen? Can you take Erwin’s horses and return them to town?’ The man trotted his own horse across, a nervous look on his face. ‘Is that you up there, Jonker Gilles? What have you got yourself into?’ ‘All sorts of trouble, sir!’ the boy replied cheerfully. ‘There’ll be hell to pay when the Patriarch turns up tonight!’ ‘I don’t doubt it,’ the man said. ‘You’ve made a right mess of the pasture hereabouts, and the river’s running brown with the dirt you kicked up. What is that thing?’ ‘It’s a fireship, Herr Simonsen! That’s why His Holiness is coming. This is the Second Landing.’ The rancher frowned. ‘Well if that’s so, I would hope that someone will ask before landing any more of your ships on my property.’ ‘This one’s been here since before you were thought of, sir!’ ‘I’ll thank you to keep a civil tongue in your head, young man,’ the Rancher bridled. ‘Sorry, sir. Can you help Herr Wenzel scramble up? He’s getting on a bit.’ A couple of ropes snaked down. Erwin tied one to the largest basket of provisions, which Gilles hauled up. He struggled up himself next, and the last baskets were hauled up with the Rancher’s help. ‘Thank you, Herr Simonsen!’ Gilles shouted, as the man rode off, shaking his head and grumbling. Gilles turned to the seneschal. ‘Where’s Mattie, Erwin?’ ‘He’s with Master Kreech at Ostberg, sire. He got him ready for the journey and never left him. He’s sitting with him now at the Residenz.’ Gilles stood rigid a moment, and then walked off without a word. Erwin looked at Ruprecht. ‘Er … Excellency, should I have kept my big mouth closed?’ ‘No my lad, you did nothing wrong, it’s just that for some moments Gillot forgot his grief. Now I imagine it’s back, along with a lot of guilt that the love of his life left his mind for even a few minutes.’ *** Erwin marvelled at the kitchen in the Oracle ship. ‘I have no idea what most of this stuff is, but some things don’t change. I’ll guess this is an oven, Charlot?’ ‘Correct, Master Seneschal,’ came the ambient and disembodied voice. ‘So is that glass-fronted box next to it; it heats whatever you put into it invisibly. I’m afraid you’ll have to remove the remains of the stores that have been mouldering, irradiated here in his kitchen for centuries. Do you have refrigeration out there in the world.?’ ‘What?’ Ruprecht butted in. ‘We do have something like it: an artificially cold environment produced by moving ice in great quantities from the mountains to store in underground rooms lined with straw bales. Very useful for the mass storage of meat. But you have more economical ways of doing that?’ ‘Indeed, Excellency.’ Charlot had rapidly and indeed enthusiastically acquired the social register of the society in which he now found himself. He continued. ‘Those tall white cabinets will keep whatever you put in them cool or frozen. But you’ll first have to empty them. Then I’ll turn them on. I have restored power to the bathrooms. I flushed and replenished the water tanks of this vessel before disconnecting the valves for the engine test. You will have hot water and full sanitary facilities. I believe there are even towels, though they may well be musty after being sealed in plastic all these years. There is a laundry too if you want to freshen the fabric.’ ‘Plastic?’ asked Ruprecht. ‘I believe His Francien Majesty once called it “alienware”.’ Ruprecht began to think that Charlot was trying a little too hard to acquire and employ the correct forms of address appropriate to his new shipmates. ‘You had best call him Gillot, and Minheer Wenzel is Erwin.’ ‘And are you happy to be “Rupe” or “Robby”?’ ‘Rupe would be best. Robby is my herd name. It’s special to me and Joerg.’ ‘Ah yes. You and “Georgie” are mostly Anglo-Irish in descent and in the ethereal world of the Great Mind you’ve joined your British ancestors. Most remarkable. It seems that the Anglophone colony is reasserting itself after dozens of generations.’ ‘Er … yes. Are there replies from your telegraphy?’ ‘Indeed. His Imperial Majesty’s council is on its way to Sint-Willemsborg and then south to Hartland and sends loyal greetings to their lord. They have had Gillot proclaimed King of the Franciens and Prince Imperial in Aix according to the Emperor’s command. The governments of Vieldomaine, Hochrecht and Bernicia have all responded with varying levels of incredulity, but all are despatching senior envoys in advance of their princes. Nordrecht is temporising while Westrecht and Athalante are obeying the Allemanic Emperor’s order to send representatives to join his own mission. The government and military of Dreiholmtz is outraged that I can monitor its radio transmissions and send it signals. They were quite rude about my trespassing on their wavelength. I got the impression that the Easterners intend to carry on warfare regardless and will ignore the invitation. My belief is that the Congress will be mostly assembled in two days, though the Athalantiens may take a while longer to make it, and the Nordrechtners even longer.’ ‘Thank you, Charlot. The Patriarch and his cardinals are now entering Yorck. There is an immense crowd to greet him. I hope the old fellow takes a rest. He’ll have a lot to do to chair the Congress.’ *** The religious procession from Yorck arrived at the Oracle at noon of the next day. The Patriarch was still walking so as to complete his pilgrimage; many of his cardinals were less steadfast, and followed in carriages. The Patriarch seemed very fit despite his days on the road. A large number of diplomats and one or two heads of state were included in the long tail of people on horse and foot that followed the Patriarch, though the scanner didn’t reveal Kristijan among them. ‘That’s the Protector of Bernicia and the Margrave of Schwarzwald, my overlords as Lehensherr of Blauwhaven,’ Ruprecht said for Charlot’s benefit. And I think that’s the so-called King of Westrecht with a couple of Alleman marshal-generals.’ ‘So-called, Rupe?’ ‘He was elevated by Kristijan, so the validity of his coronation is not accepted by Nordrecht and Dreiholmtz.’ ‘Will they accept the elevation of Gilles as King of the Franciens?’ ‘They’d better,’ François remarked. ‘I am the undoubted Emperor of Terre Nouvelle, and that title is within my gift. Patriarchs and emperors have the right to create any title, which was of course Kristijan’s excuse for making a king out of a grand duke once he had created himself emperor. But in fact we’ve settled on the Empire and Four Kingdoms as the political structure for humanity on this world since the third century.’ ‘Is the Golden Ladder to be restored then, Fran?’ Joerg asked. ‘Is that one of the matters the Congress will consider?’ ‘Since both I and His Holiness are here, it would seem to be the right time and place,’ the emperor said. ‘I think the time has come to go down and greet the Patriarch, Gillot and I. Is it alright if we wear these old colonial uniforms we found, Charlot?’ ‘By all means, Your Imperial Majesty. You have a right to anything you find on this ship and on the greater ones outside the atmosphere. I recognise you as true heir to the Colonial Administration of the European Union, which once owned – or rather employed – me. I will consequently answer to you and to His Francien Majesty, your herd-brother, in all things.’ *** Unfortunately the tunnel to the comm centre had collapsed when Charlot had tested the engines, so the only way down was from the lowest outer hatch by sliding down ropes, which neither François nor Gilles managed to make look majestic or even elegant. In fact Gilles collapsed to his knees heavily on landing. Ruprecht, being taller, made a better job of it. ‘Merde! I’ve got grass stains over my white uniform trousers,’ Gilles swore. François sniggered and straightened both his face and his jacket before turning to face the crowd of onlookers and pilgrims, which had not dared approach the great white dome nearer than three hundred metres. ‘Come along Your Majesty!’ ‘Behind you, Your Imperial Majesty!’ The two young monarchs strode side-by-side towards the knot of dignitaries around the white-robed Patriarch, seated on a camp chair. As they got closer, the old man laboured to his feet. To Ruprecht’s eye he did not seem the worse for his days on the road; the stiffness was to be expected in a man in his late seventies. He peered through his round spectacles at François and Gilles as they reached him. ‘You are François, the Emperor?’ he hazarded, looking at Gilles. ‘No, Your Holiness. That’s me!’ François declared. ‘My word, young man. It is you! I had no idea you had a brother. In fact I’m perfectly sure you don’t; I certainly don’t remember one from your coronation two years ago. Yet this other young man is your very image.’ ‘It’s a long story, Your Holiness. But this is Gilles Parmentier, my cousin by blood and herd-brother in soul. I have created him Prince Imperial by right. How are you, sir?’ The old man smiled. ‘All the better for some fresh air. I would think you may be one of the few who knows why I walked to this place.’ ‘Yes, sir. I imagine you have been visited in your dreams by a blond young man who claimed to be your grandad, and who spoke in English. He told you his name was Cory and introduced you to his herd with whom you walked. Were you in the guise of a child?’ ‘So it’s true what he said. That if I came here, I would witness the promised Second Landing and that all the princes of Terre Nouvelle would gather before my throne?’ ‘It is true, Your Holiness, and not least among those who will come is another of Cory’s line, Kristijan of Ardhesse. Did you meet him in your stay on the celestial plain? A small and very pretty curly-haired child?’ ‘We played. He was charming and open-hearted, not at all like his adult version. He clung to his grandad piteously when he was told he must go home. So what then is this shining dome, Imperial Majesty?’ ‘It is one of the fireships of olden days, hidden beneath this hill by the Ancients. It is inhabited by a … spirit of great power, who once served them before the catastrophe that led to the Fall of Man. He has slept for nearly nine centuries, but I and my brother with our combined knowledge have awakened him. He has undertaken to return to the service of humankind and is willing to reveal to us all the lost knowledge of the Ancients, but only on one condition: that humanity will first unite in peace.’ The Patriarch removed his spectacles and stared silent for a while beyond François and Gilles to the enigmatic structure looming above them all. ‘Your angel offers great gifts, but his price may be difficult to meet. Both the East and South Kingdoms will not be easy to bring to the table, and King Kristijan – I will not call him emperor – has opened up a rift between Francien and Alleman which will not readily close again. How do you propose to proceed, sire?’ ‘I would hope you will take the chair of the Congress, Your Holiness. I would ask you to open it with the coronation of my brother Gilles as King of the Franciens, the first prince so honoured in several generations; my household is bringing the appropriate regalia from the treasury of Aix. No better place or occasion could be found for such a consecration. Then I would ask you to preside over the discussions. I and my advisers have drafted a plan, which the technology of the fireship will be able to publish across the world by telegraphy and telephony. The heads of the proposals will be known in all the capitals by tomorrow morning.’ The Patriarch pondered, and then laid a hand on François’s shoulder. ‘My boy, you have my full support and that of Holy Church. The Way of the Seneschal is the Way of Peace. You’re proving yourself a worthy occupant of your throne. My blessing on you.’ He looked around. ‘I’d best get back to the college of cardinals. They’re scared out of their wits, poor dears, and missing their palaces. The Imperial delegation is expected this afternoon, and the Protector of the Republic is rising to the occasion. I’ll inform him of your plans, and we’ll make the necessary arrangements. The Congress will commence tomorrow at the eighth hour. They tell me the weather is going to be very fair for a coronation.’ *** Flares lit up the vicinity of the Oracle all that night, workmen and soldiers toiling in their garish light. ‘The Protector certainly has the bit between his teeth,’ François observed as they watched the work through the screen. ‘It’s not often the Republic is in the centre of international events, so maybe he feels he has to live up people’s expectations.’ A huge marquee decked with brocade and banners was rising downriver, raised to house the Congress’s discussions. Other pavilions made a small tented town around it, each ensigned with the tricolours and armorial sovereign banners of each nation present. Tables, carpets and chairs were stacked around the marquee. More practically, the Montenard army installed camp kitchens and dug latrines downstream of the Congress site. They all retired to the narrow single beds which were all the Oracle had to offer. Joerg clung tight to Ruprecht. ‘Do you think we’ll dream tonight?’ he asked. ‘I’d be surprised did we not.’ They drifted off and, as was the way of things, awoke in a sunlit woodland clearing. They sat up this time as young adolescents, maybe thirteen or fourteen years of age. Joerg giggled as he looked down. ‘I’ve got hair now, and your dick is as long as is normal for you; though not for most people. Listen, can you hear?’ Ruprecht cocked an ear. ‘It’s singing. The sound of deep male voices,’ he said. ‘And it’s coming from over there through the trees.’ They got up and clasped hands. They walked along a dappled path and broke out into sunlight again into a broad forest lawn. It was full of human and erdbeesten bulls, and all were singing, even the erdbeesten. There were no words, just an entwining of voices in harmony. In the centre of the lawn was raised a great flower-covered mound, high on which stood the first Great Bull of the Human Herd, Jean-Charles. Sitting at his feet were his son and namesake the first emperor and his brother Armand, and lower down again many other young and vigorous males, all of the same dark cast of Francien beauty. ‘It’s the emperors of the first centuries, all gathered around the founder of their dynasty. But where’s the first Emperor François and his lover, Cory?’ Ruprecht asked. Joerg looked around. ‘Here they come, and they have our two boys with them!’ Cory led Gilles by hand in a lane through the crowd while from the other direction came the first François, with his descendant, the twelfth of that name. Both boys were now their proper age and in this place there was no way of telling them apart other than the identity of their conductors. They led them together up the mound. Ruprecht and Joerg squirmed through the throng to get to the front of the crowd, and there they found many boys of all ages, sitting cross-legged at the feet of the ring of bulls at the base of the mound. The boys smiled up at them and made space so they too could sit and watch. A boy his own age, lean and brown in body, took Ruprecht tightly around the waist when he sat, kissed his cheek and bade him welcome. He was fair of face with rich curling dark hair and smooth perfect cheeks, though he was mature enough to have tight black curls at his crotch. His nipples were small and faint against his dark tan. His feet were long and narrow with well-shaped toes, between which the boy was picking unconsciously with his right hand, absorbed as he was with what was happening on the mound. Ruprecht surreptitiously looked around as much of the ring as he could in hopes of seeing Kris and maybe his brother Felix amongst the children, but there were no blonds in that group of Parmentier males, in fact the only ones to be seen were Cory and his own Joerg. ‘What’s your name?’ Ruprecht asked his neighbour, but the only answer he had was a smile and a chuckle. ‘What’s happening?’ ‘The Great Bull of the Herd is raising up the new Primes for our living family, Robby. They will accept his lordship. From now on the Herd of both this world and yours will be one and the Great Bull will no longer be separated by death from his family, his rule will be universal. Watch!’ The elder Jean-Charles took François and Gilles by the hand and embraced them. Then he presented them to the assembly. ‘Let the leopards run from us!’ shouted Jean-Charles. ‘Let them run!’ the assembly answered. ‘The Herd will sleep safe!’ ‘Greet our new bulls! Emperor and King! Brothers and Lords of Men!’ Ruprecht’s companion whispered in his ear. ‘Come with me, Robby, but quietly.’ Ruprecht went to reach over and prod Joerg, cross-legged and absorbed in the rite a little further along from him. But the strange boy held his arm and put a finger to his lips, then he crawled through the legs of the crowd of men and erdbeesten behind them. Ruprecht followed the boy’s smooth brown backside close enough to see the light hairs around the pit of his anus and feathering his inner thighs. When they were clear of the crowd the boy stood, and Ruprecht stood with him. His hand was taken and he was pulled rapidly to the tree line surrounding the lawn. ‘What is it?’ he asked. The boy took his hand and tugged him under the trees. ‘Look up, Robby!’ he said. Ruprecht did so and saw several pairs of boy’s legs dangling from a high branch. Four blond youngsters were sitting together watching the ceremony. His companion leapt to catch a low branch and swung his lean body athletically up into their tree, pulling up Ruprecht behind him. He came up unsuspected behind the boys, absorbed in the doings at the mound. He padded along the thick branch and grabbed hard the biggest of the blonds. ‘Gotcha, Chrissy!’ he laughed. Chrissy swore in English as he struggled to maintain his perch. ‘Fuck you Frankie! I’ll kill ya!’ Frankie laughed and settled next to the blond, taking him affectionately around the shoulder. ‘Only fair, I guess.’ He looked at Ruprecht. ‘Come sit here, Robby. You know little tyke, donchya?’ A delighted little face beamed at him. ‘Robby! It’s me, Kris! Give me hugs!’ Ruprecht settled next to little Kristijan, who swarmed on to his lap. ‘What are you doing here, tininess?’ he asked. ‘I’m in the herd now! See, you met Chrissy. He was my grandad! He’s taking care of me with his boyfriend, Frankie. They do sex all the time.’ Startled, Ruprecht looked at the grinning boys. You were Kristijan II of Ardhesse? And Frankie? You’re François X … the emperor who stabbed him to death?’ ‘Oh … we’re over that,’ said Chrissy. ‘I do a lot of stabbing him now, but not with a metal pointy thing.’ ‘I didn’t know you were homos?’ Frankie laughed. ‘In life we weren’t, but things are different here. We join in the HerderdH with the bodies of those who can love us back best. In his forgiving me I learned quite how awesome a guy Chrissy is, and after that … well, I can’t exist without joining with him …’ ‘… All the time!’ giggled Kris. ‘I’m going to have a real boyfriend one day, Grandad Cory says; someone just like Frankie is to Chrissy.’ Ruprecht was puzzled. ‘You’re here in your sleep, Kris?’ The boy shook his head vigorously. ‘No, Robby. I’m Herd now. Grandad Cory let me stay forever, I don’t know how many days ago and I’ve not been sent back.’ ‘But … that’s not possible. You’re at Yorck!’ Chrissie grinned over Kris’s head at Ruprecht. ‘Little bro’s really here for good, Robby.’ Ruprecht was momentarily stunned. ‘Then, who’s at Yorck?’
  19. Mike Arram

    Chapter 32

    Kristijan had a sofa brought out on to the lawn of his retreat, and was looking amused as the preparations for the duel were carried out. Three of his four pet boys were sitting next to him, knees drawn up to their chins, wide-eyed. Little blond ‘Georgie’ was on his lap, being cuddled close. Willy couldn’t maintain his air of sensuous boredom, and he was leaning over the back of the sofa, grinning and whispering to the children. Swords had been brought across from the palace, and Ruprecht was testing his blade, exchanging passes with Gilles, whose talent for fencing under the tuition of Lieutenant von Altstadt at Blauwhaven had burgeoned. He was deliberately pressing Ruprecht hard. On the other side of the lawn Anton was idly swishing his blade around without taking up the colonel’s offer to warm him up, he was however using the opportunity to size up Ruprecht’s style and method. He was faintly smiling. Ruprecht recognised the fencer’s gambit of projecting confidence. So he retaliated with a trick of his own by allowing himself to be disarmed by Gilles, who was very apologetic about it. It served its purpose however, for out of the corner of his eye he saw Anton’s smile broaden. Ruprecht went over to Joerg, ‘You know why I’m doing this?’ ‘To p-p-piss me off?’ The little man was not happy. ‘It’s honour, Georgie. I’ve not forgotten what that asshole did to Ludwig and Erwin at Blauwhaven. It’s also to make sure the Baron loses his one ally in the military; though the honour thing comes first, of course.’ Joerg was no happier. ‘Do me a favour and just get wounded: that I can fix with luck. Oh, and take your shirt off. Duelling in white linen gives your opponent a better mark.’ Ruprecht took his hand and met his eyes. ‘Georgie, if I survive this I want us to go through Schuleneheit. It’s time we married. Please say yes, I love you so much, never more than at this moment.’ Joerg just stared open-mouthed, his eyes filling with tears. He gave a silent nod, which was enough for Ruprecht, who leant down and kissed him. Eventually Kristijan clapped his hands and signalled that he wanted the duel to begin. Ruprecht removed his shirt and gave it to Gilles. The colonel was chosen to commence the meeting, and raised a sabre for the pair to touch. He dropped it and the duel commenced. Ruprecht soon discovered they were more evenly matched than he had expected. He may not have been a professional soldier, but he had practised a lot on the lawns of Blauwhaven with his two boys and the lieutenant. Anton may have been a professional, but his swelling belly under his waistcoat told its tale of the downside of prosperity. Within three minutes, Anton’s slowness had earned him a blade through his left shoulder. The colonel separated the pair and looked at Kristijan. ‘Oh, get on with it! If the prince wants to stop Rupe from going to Hartland, he has to kill him, that was the deal.’ The colonel looked at a sullen Anton, who shook his head. The duel recommenced. Anton resumed aggressively, pushing Ruprecht back and seeking an opening, but he rapidly flagged and after two more minutes he laid himself open to Ruprecht’s blade, which ran him through his waistcoat above the right hand pocket. He was down. ‘You may slit his throat, Rupe,’ Kristijan called over cheerfully. ‘The boys would like a show.’ Ruprecht put the tip of his blade to Anton’s neck. ‘Do I and my seneschal get our apology?’ The man growled up at him. ‘Yes, yes. I was wrong. Now, can I have the doctor?’ Joerg was quickly at work, stripping the man’s upper body. Kristijan wandered over with his boys, so they could stare at the blood. ‘Will he survive, doctor?’ he asked. ‘Yes, sire. Rupe ran him through in just the right spot. He’s missed the arteries and at worst nicked a kidney.’ Kristijan shook his head. ‘That was a deliberate mercy strike, Rupe. You’re bad. There I was hoping you’d kill him. So now I have to go through the fuss of getting him to hospital and sending flowers. Oh well, I’ll retire him since he’s in disgrace. He’s managed to gather enough loot to live comfortably enough. Maybe the Bernicians will have him back now he’s stood his duel. So perhaps you’ll be good enough to clear off to Hartland, Rupe, you and your friends. Keep me up to date. I imagine if the Terrible Twins do their magic I’ll know soon enough anyway. Come on kids! Willy and I want to play herd games in the woods.’ *** Erwin was smiling as he loaded their bags into the back of the six-horse carriage he had somehow managed to hire. He was still looking amused as he climbed on to the box next to the driver and the carriage lurched off, taking the country roads northwards. It was not an easy ride, and Joerg was looking green with the swaying of the vehicle before they left the outskirts of Ardheim. ‘Hans should be here,’ he groaned. ‘I feel seasick.’ Gilles looked sombre again. ‘Hans is where he needs to be, with Mutta and Kreech. My husband’s course is almost run now.’ ‘I’m sorry, Gillot. My stomach was doing my thinking.’ ‘No, Dr Joerg. Don’t apologise. Nothing can stop it, but I can best live up to my prince’s memory if I follow this expedition through to the end. And against the odds we have a chance to finish our work, thanks to a mad and distracted emperor.’ ‘No,’ Ruprecht asserted. ‘It’s thanks to the Great Mind. We should be at the frontier with the Republic tomorrow. We need to sleep tonight. I wonder what the Mind will show us?’ ‘I have hopes,’ Gilles said, with sudden passion. Ruprecht could imagine what he meant. If he could no longer see his Kreech in this world, maybe he could find him in the world of the Mind. François too understood this. Sitting next to him, he took Gilles’s brown hand in his own and pulled his head on to his shoulder, kissing his hair. ‘My brother,’ he whispered. ‘We’ll find him on the Great Plain together.’ *** By nightfall they were at the small town of Kenstatt some miles south of the frontier. There was a decent coaching inn still functioning, for the railway north to the Republic ran some thirty miles to the west, and no branch line had as yet been constructed in the Kenstatt direction. The host was impressed by their equipage though a little puzzled as to why four obviously superior guests wished to share one chamber, but he shrugged and assigned them the largest suite in his inn. Erwin Wenzel, who had not experienced any night-time visions, had an ample room all to himself, like the colonel. After the host had done scratching his head at the eccentricities of the gentry, he observed that he had enjoyed a full hostel the previous night. ‘Many folks are heading towards Sint-Andrasborg to see the Holy Father pass by. This town’s empty today; so many have gone to watch him on his way and ask his blessing. They say twenty thousand are following him, but none are going hungry or without shelter. The cardinals are meeting him at the frontier with the Montenards, for it is now obvious that His Holiness is going to cross into the Republic. The Protector himself will be at the border to greet him, they say, with all the Montenard bishops.’ When they got to their room and began taking turns with the bathroom they discussed this latest development with the colonel. François and Gilles had finally decided it was time to shave, for there were now definite dark wisps on both their upper lips, and Gilles wanted to shape François’s thick hair. So the former Francien emperor was sat in a chair with a towel around his neck while Gilles wielded the scissors and razor. ‘You have to look your best if we meet the Holy Father, Fran. He still recognises you as the rightful emperor, so you need to be smart.’ ‘We’d better get ahead of him if he’s really going to end up in Hartland at Yorck,’ Ruprecht reflected from the sofa. ‘That’ll still be two days’ walk for the old fellow. We need uninterrupted access to the site. I’ve sent Erwin to telegraph Rancher Simonsen to expect us tomorrow and have a crew ready. He’s also going to reserve rooms in the Blue Stallion before the inevitable rush.’ The colonel mused on this. ‘It shouldn’t be too difficult to resume work at Yorck. When I was there earlier this year I had the two shafts you dug last year revetted and roofed, so it will be possible to resume work on them, but from what I gather, you’ll be more interested this time in the tunnel from the control room to the hill housing the Oracle. It’s intact and clear. It’s still early autumn, and the weather should be mild for several weeks yet. ‘By the way, young man,’ he added in Gilles’s direction, ‘I’d appreciate a trim if I could persuade you.’ ‘Certainly, colonel,’ Gilles smiled. ‘My rates are very reasonable.’ Ruprecht and Joerg went out into the market place as the sun went down to watch the Three Sisters rise in the south, and they were not the only ones staring up at the sight, one or two individuals had large telescopes mounted. Joerg observed, ‘The starships probably have hulls made of the white ceramic substance we encountered at Yorck, so no surprise they shine so brightly. I wonder if that fellow would let me take a look through his eyepiece?’ Joerg walked over and negotiated access to the telescope. Its young owner turned out to be a dedicated amateur astronomer. ‘I always thought there was something odd about the Sisters,’ he said, ‘even before they moved in the sky. They were so uniform in appearance and brilliance, and you could definitely see through the lens that their disks were the same size, which is very odd if they were the planetoids common wisdom maintained they were. The seven planets orbiting round our sun all look so different. Then of course they moved, and it must now be evident to all people of education that the objects are artificial and possessed of an ability to power their own motion.’ ‘So what do you think they may be, sir?’ Ruprecht inquired. ‘Why, fireships, minheer! What else could they be? This must be the Second Landing!’ ‘But they’re not actually landing, just taking up a new station in the sky.’ ‘Maybe so, but they are closer in. A fellow I know who is good with mathematics has calculated that they must now be within 20,000 kilometres of our atmosphere, ten times closer than they were before. They’re surely poised for something.’ Ruprecht could not disagree with that observation, so thanking the man for allowing access to his telescope, they returned through the crowd to the inn. The colonel had by then retired for the night, and Gilles had finished his barbering. They retired to their respective beds, but not before Gilles had asked them to sit for a while in silent prayer for Felix and his safe passage to the Eternal Herd. Ruprecht and Joerg woke hopefully in a woodland glade, bright with morning light. They were as ever in the form of pubescent boys, and another smaller boy was dozing between them; it was Kris as a child. He sat up and rubbed his eyes, then grabbed Joerg around the neck and kissed him, grinning all over his sweet little face. Ruprecht got the same treatment. ‘Are you going to help me, Robby?’ ‘Help you do what, little Kris?’ ‘Help me find Kreech of course! He must be here somewhere, but I can’t see any herd.’ They all three stood, the older boys each taking one of Kris’s hands. They led him through the wood, occasionally allowing him to swing between them, an amusement that made the child giggle. Eventually they came out of the trees and in the distance they saw a large human herd trekking across a plain; there must have been thousands of them. A handsome bull loped towards them, sized them up and silently indicated that they should join the herd as it moved slowly on its way. Several blond children danced out of the crowd towards them, stopping and staring before getting close enough to chat. The bull led them to a group of females excavating for grubs, and Kris joined a small band of expectant little ones watching for results. One by one, each child was offered a mouthful and finally it was Kris’s turn. A beautiful human woman looked up from where she was crouching and smiled at the boy, brushing his tangled blond hair from his smooth forehead. Then she gathered him into her body and offered him a grub, which he swallowed with evident delight. ‘You’re the prettiest little fellow,’ she said, ‘but then I always knew you would be.’ Kris looked wondering into her face. ‘Grandma?’ ‘Yes, sweet one. The Great Bulls have allowed you to come to me at last. This is our herd, and all these humans you see are our family, down to the Connors who were the originators of our line.’ ‘Why Grandma?’ ‘Because here you’re loved as you should be, despite all you’ve done. Do you wish to walk with us?’ He nodded vigorously. She picked the child up and placed him at her breast. He took her teat and fell quickly asleep as he suckled on it, his mouth still moving though his eyes were closed. ‘Why’s he still here, my lady? Why’s he not returned to the material world?’ Ruprecht asked, and then bowed to her, for he knew that in life this woman had been one of Ardhesse’s greatest queens, the force behind forging the Allemanic Alliance after her husband’s murder. She smiled down at the two boys. ‘The great Jean-Charles has ordained it so. Kristijan will take the milk from my breast and when eventually he awakes, he will be healed by it and fully sane, and then he will have choices to make. His living body will not wake in his palace in the morning, and his spirit will not return to it. So the Great Mind has determined.’ ‘But that means …’ Joerg began. ‘Walk along with us, children. This herd is not yours, but you have kin here. So go amongst us and play with the other children, they’ll be delighted to have you join in their games.’ ‘Is Felix walking here, my lady?’ Ruprecht blurted. ‘He has passed, Robby. He is on the celestial Plain, if that is what you wish to know. But he is not in this herd.’ She smiled and strolled off, nursing Kris as she did, other females coming up to admire the child. But the boy slept on, his mouth now disengaged from her breast, smiling gently as he slumbered. *** Joerg and Ruprecht awoke with the dawn. François and Gilles were still sleeping in each other’s arms, a moving sight. Joerg padded across to them and looked closely at their faces as they slept, then returned to the warmth of Ruprecht’s arms. ‘Their eyes move under their closed lids in their sleep, as if reacting to what happens in their dream world.’ Ruprecht’s own mind was elsewhere. ‘So my little brother is dead. May he walk in peace with the Herd.’ ‘He was a gentle soul, and a great loss to Ostberg and the world. He was so gifted with people of all ranks and degrees, at ease with the humble and the great. Those are rare talents. I’ll get dressed and have a word with the village priest before we leave. His name should be included at mass.’ ‘What about Kristijan? Is he dead too?’ ‘The Queen didn’t say exactly that. She just said that his consciousness would not return to his body in the morning but be kept in the Herd. I’ll bet there’ll be panic at the Waltherborg Palace when Willy can’t wake the emperor up.’ Ruprecht mused. ‘They may be keeping him out of the way while the next few days’ events unwind. It’s one way to stop him meddling. A bit devious really.’ A rustling of sheets opposite announced that François and Gilles had returned to the world. They kissed on the mouth and both sat up, François placing his arm round Gilles’s bare shoulder, and kissing his cheek. He looked across. ‘We didn’t find Kreech. How about you two?’ Ruprecht related their own nightime experience. ‘So the Queen told us that Felix is now walking the plain, and his life is done in this world, but she had nothing more to say other than that the Herd has, in effect, taken Kris’s consciousness prisoner. What about your experience?’ Gilles answered. ‘It was different this time. We woke as boys our own age in New London before it was attacked. We could see downriver beyond the town a big white dome: the complex containing the Oracle.’ ‘Our clothes were really odd, shiny and tight,’ François added. ‘It was morning and other kids, boys and girls of all ages, were heading off to school with packs on their backs. But we went across the river to fields where there were paddocks full of horses. We joined men shifting bales of hay into the paddocks so they could feed, and we petted them. We then saddled up several and mounted them, placing rifles in the saddle holsters. It was then that someone noticed spires of black smoke from down the river, so a party of us rode hard a kilometre downriver to find a cluster of farmsteads on fire and dozens of erdbeesten bulls driving naked and weeping humans, women and children, away from the settlement back towards the town. The countryside was alive with the beasts. Our leader and several others drew their rifles and began picking off the bulls. The rest of us rode hard into the erdbeesten and used our mounts’ weight and hooves to drive off the rest. ‘The women we liberated told us that the bulls had appeared with the dawn, surprised the settlement, killed the men and older male teenagers and set light to their homes, stripping the survivors naked and herding them north. We left them to follow after us as they could and rode hard back to the Colony. New London was burning. It was swamped with hundreds of bulls, who had already rounded up the human males into one group, and the rest of the colonists into another, where they were silently and efficiently processing them, ripping the clothes off the females and boys. They were assessing the boys’ physical development, hauling the older ones towards the group of mature males, ready to be executed. Several boys our own age were screaming and struggling in the bulls’ arms, one was killed as I looked. We unshipped our rifles and began picking the bulls off again, though there were too many of them for our weapons. But I and Gillot went down to the paddock , broke it and stampeded dozens of horses towards the erdbeesten, who scattered, which allowed the human males to begin fighting back with anything to hand. I picked up a long iron spike and rode among the bulls braining or spearing them as I passed. ‘The erdbeesten seemed unable to react to the unexpected resistance and were bemused by the use of horses. Many began lumbering off northwards. But a party of them had already forced an entry into the comm centre and killed the duty crew. Several colonists with guns pursued them along the tunnel and we could hear shots ahead of us, that and the echoing hoots of the bulls as they stampeded up into the control centre and the Oracle chamber. The bulls seemed to have some inkling as to the importance of the place, and we could hear shattering and wrenching as they devastated the equipment. Then there was a silent, white flash from up ahead and the sudden claxon for a radiation alert. Gilles and I stumbled back down the tunnel but by then it was already too late. We knew we were dead men. That’s when we awoke.’ Silence followed François’s account of the last days of New London. Eventually Ruprecht said, ‘That may have been your final briefing from the Great Mind. What we saw when we breached that tunnel was as the English left it. The poisoned humans had been pulled out and stacked in the cellar, perhaps because it was too dangerous to move their bodies outside. Volunteers had donned protective suits to try to penetrate and repair the damage in the Oracle chamber, but had failed. So the chamber was sealed and left to time to clear the poison while the settlement above it was abandoned. When we get inside I have no doubt we will find erdbeesten bulls and human engineers within, left where they had died.’ *** The party had no difficulty in crossing into the Republic. As soon as they reached Lindern they made for the telegraph office. After an hour’s wait, Ruprecht emerged and took Gilles in his arms as the others looked on. ‘He died last night at the fifth hour; Mutta and Grossmutta were with him. He was peaceful at the last. They’re taking him home to Ostberg to lie in state at the Residenz. There’ll be public mourning for two weeks followed by the state funeral. We’re required home as soon as possible.’ It was a quiet drive north into Hartland. Gilles sat at the window of their carriage, indifferent to its lurching over the less than perfect road surfaces of the rural roads. He just stared out on the world as it went past. He only came round when François pointed out where the burning homesteads had been in their vision of the night before. Joerg observed how field boundaries seemed still to mark where the ancient farm had been. They entered Yorck soon after, and unloaded at the waiting inn. The landlord was delighted to see them and happy to make arrangements with his ostler to return their equipage back to Ardheim. Though evening was approaching, Gilles and François were not going to waste any time. They hired mounts and headed for the stables, taking lanterns with them. ‘No delay, Rupe,’ said François before he went, ‘this has to be done quickly, for all our sakes.’ Colonel von Ampfeld protested that they should not go alone. ‘Then come along with us, colonel. But we have to go. There’s no danger other than what we create ourselves. Come along later, Dr Joerg, if you must. But we can’t wait till tomorrow.’ ‘Joerg will bring some refreshments with him when he gets to the site. As for me, I had best report to Grossmutta and find out where the Patriarch has got to on his pilgrimage. He must be approaching the border of the Republic by now. I’ll join you when I can.’ It took over an hour before Ruprecht had completed his tasks. He found Joerg still waiting for him at the inn, saddlebags ready. ‘Any news?’ ‘The patriarch was irritated at the fuss on the border, and was apparently quite cross with the Protector of the Republic about it. He walked right past the reception committee and on to the road leading to the Saberndaal. He’s coming directly here, Georgie.’ ‘That’s a bit irritating really. It means we only have today and tomorrow before His Holiness arrives. What on earth will he do or say when he gets here?’ ‘In other news, Grossmutta has brought Felix home. A special train took his body to Ostberg and he’s lying among flowers and candles at the steps to his throne in the Residenz. The coffin will be open for two days. The queue to pay respects is already half way down the hill. The whole city is turning out.’ ‘Time to see what’s under the hill, Robby. Despite the circumstances, I have to confess to a thrill when I think of what may happen next.’ They mounted, and rode across the darkening moors to the low hill that marked the site of New London. The horses kept to an ambling pace, for they did not like night riding. They dismounted at the entrance to the cellars, and found the colonel there with a cigarette. ‘They sent me out,’ he confessed. ‘They thought the smoke might cause a problem with … what did they call ‘em? The sensors.’ ‘Any progress?’ ‘Plenty, Excellency. They went up to the box at the side of the inner door, tapped in a combination of letters and numbers and the damned thing slid open without so much as a creak, just a hiss of escaping gas.’ ‘Did you go in?’ ‘We did. It smelled very odd too. As you suggested, within the first chamber were the mummified corpses of a dozen erdbeesten bulls and several human males. The outer chamber had been smashed up and there were signs of an explosion, though nothing as dramatic as I had expected. They had me take the bodies out. An unpleasant job, but the remains were not weighty, and I could roll them on to a sheet then drag them along the tunnel. They’re stacked below. You might wish to see what a royal erdbeest bull looked like, professor.’ ‘We’ve seen enough of them in our dreams, Colonel,’ Joerg said, ‘but they’ll be a thrill for any zoologist to dissect.’ ‘Very well then, gentlemen. Follow me.’ They clambered down the steps and into the familiar gloom below. Lamps were lit along the tunnel, at the entrance to which were the colonel’s pile of salvaged corpses from within the control chamber. Joerg paused to examine a colonist, still in his uniform jacket. Another was in a green protective suit, which had nonetheless been unable to preserve his life. After Joerg had satisfied his curiosity, they headed along the tunnel, to reach the end and find only a blank wall of white polymer. The control complex had been sealed against them, but Gilles and François were within. *** After an hour they gave up. The handle on the outer door had been disabled from inside. ‘Do you think they did this, or is it the work of some internal system?’ he asked the colonel. ‘When last I saw them,’ he replied, ‘they seemed perfectly confident in what they were doing. They cleared away the trashed machinery and began excavating under some consoles. They said their first objective was to restore the power which the Ancient engineers had shut off while they tried to contain the poison seeping out of the complex.’ ‘It could be that they succeeded and an automatic system has begun carrying out a programmed series of instructions,’ Joerg concluded. ‘It may be a defence mechanism of some sort.’ ‘That’s not too reassuring,’ Ruprecht observed. ‘that would mean that the artificial mind within has taken control away from them, and they’re trapped. But waiting here will do no good. It must be the fifth hour by now. We’d best return to the Blue Stallion and get some sleep, who knows but the Great Mind may try to contact us?’ So they quit the hill and rode slowly back, leading the boys’ mounts with them. It was well past midnight when they finally got to bed. Ruprecht and Joerg lay in each other’s arms brooding about the day’s events. Sleep was elusive, but eventually came. They awoke in the early morning with the sunlight flooding their suite. Their sleep had been entirely dreamless. It seemed the Great Mind was no longer communicating with them. The Blue Stallion was bustling when they met the colonel in the parlour for breakfast. ‘It’s as well you gentlemen arrived when you did,’ the landlord observed. ‘We heard this morning that His Holiness’s pilgrimage is passing this way. The Protector himself will be staying here this evening. People are renting out rooms in the town at sixty thalers a night! I’ve tripled my rates, though obviously not for you gentlemen, being as how you’re already here.’ Rancher Simonsen arrived before they reached the bottom of their teapot. He joined them in a cup. ‘You gentlemen going out to the hill? I’ll accompany you. How d’you do, colonel? A pleasure to see you again.’ It seemed the two elderly gentlemen had made good friends during the colonel’s last visit to Yorck. The rancher had the Francien morning paper from Sint-Willemsborg, which Ruprecht borrowed off him. The Hiraut des Montagnes was well-respected as the quality paper in the Francien language, much read across the Empire, where journalism was kept under a degree of state control. The Hiraut benefitted from the Republic’s free press and from Sint-Willemsborg’s place as a southern hub in the railway and telegraphy system of Terre Nouvelle. Ruprecht was rapidly absorbed in what the Hiraut’s correspondents travelling with the Patriarch had to say about his pilgrimage. It covered the front page. Turning the page, he was equally struck by reports from the Empire about the withdrawal of Allemanic troops from the northern and central provinces, and their abandonment of Aix. The Imperial flag was again flying in the capital and the reign of François XII had been proclaimed as restored, but there was no news from Hochrecht as to when His Imperial Majesty would cross back into his realm. It occurred to Ruprecht that François needed to know all this as soon as possible. His oppressed people were counting on him. The third page carried a report from the Ardhessian correspondent, reflecting on curious happenings at the court of the Allemanic emperor, who had not been seen in public for a week now. There were rumours that he had been immobilised in his summer palace by a stroke or an epileptic fit. But he quoted sources in the Chancellor’s office as saying that the Emperor-King was at his desk in the Hendrijksborg Castle planning the retaking of Zuidholm from the Easterners and scheming to recover control of the Francien Empire. ‘Here’s an odd thing, Georgie,’ he remarked when the colonel had disappeared to the toilet. ‘The sleeping spell on Kristijan’s been broken or lifted. He’s back in circulation in Ardheim, if this paper’s to be believed.’ Joerg shrugged. ‘It’s the Baron I’ll bet. He’ll be leaking false reports so that the true situation isn’t discovered for a while. Without his patron, he’s a dead man and he knows it. Were I him I’d be planning a long stay in Athalante.’ They rode out of the small town and took the familiar road to New London, Rancher Simonsen riding along with them. There had been no change in the night. The site was empty and all was quiet. The Rancher left them at the entry to the comm centre, much to their secret relief. He said he had some stock to move to take advantage of the approach of the pilgrimage. All was quiet below, but not dark. Strips of ambient light now illuminated the tunnel approach to the white door, which was still closed against them. They stood a while at a loss, because banging on the impervious surface was a clear waste of time. Eventually Joerg suggested they go back and make some arrangements about the corpses found within the control hub. It took an hour to shroud them and stretcher the remains of each erdbeest and human to a storage shed belonging to the excavation. Scientific as ever, Joerg made neat notes about each individual as he was shrouded and numbered each body. Once they had finished they stood in the bright morning light and surveyed the hill. The earthquake took them unawares, and they fell as the ground shifted beneath them. They stayed down as the earth did not so much tremble as shudder and then vibrate. ‘Look!’ the colonel cried. The temporary roofs over their excavations in the hill collapsed and fell into the shafts. Then great cracks opened in the mound, and with a huge groan the grass and earth simply slid off the vibrating surface beneath, and a great cloud of dust obscured the sky. When it had cleared they stood on the once more stable ground staring at the result. A great white dome now stood shining in the sun to their south and, as they watched, six tall metal spikes of aerials emerged with a metallic whine from the top and climbed dozens of metres above it. They picked their way south towards the featureless ceramic wall, and as they reached it, a previously invisible hatch was outlined in front of them, and then opened inward. A grinning head poked out. It was Gilles. ‘Morning all!’ he called cheerily. ‘Want to come in and meet our new friend Charlot?’
  20. Mike Arram

    Chapter 31

    François rattled his handcuffs. ‘This is a bit excessive, wouldn’t you say, Gillot?’ The train lurched and rattled, but Gilles was unresponsive. He had not had much to say since his fraught farewell to Felix. The train was now a hundred kilometres from Chasancene and crossing into François’s former empire. The clacking of the wheels on the tracks changed as the train rumbled on to a many-piered bridge across the Great River. There was not much to be seen; what openings there were in their compartment were mere slits, and they were all cuffed to their seats. But at least they were together. Joerg was dozing on Ruprecht’s shoulder. For all the distractions, Ruprecht’s attention kept recurring to the latest evidence of the Great Mind’s activity in the material world. It had given them the key to the mysteries of the Ancients, it had revealed that it had been at work inside the very head of their greatest enemy, and it had found ways to draw all of them within its inner world of the spirit. He was profoundly grateful for the comfort it had extended to his dying brother, but it was also clear that the Mind was not able to act without mortal agents and their task was looking increasingly difficult. ‘Tell me, Fran, is there anything new in your dream world; do you two still share visions?’ François shrugged. ‘When we dream, we roam the Plains together on horseback and we live in the herd, but though we talk to many bulls and cows and learn much from the most ancient of the humans, we’ve not seen our grandfathers. You’re having more luck in that respect it seems. Fancy Cory still being able to commune with the living!’ Gilles came around at that point. ‘Thank God for that,’ he said fervently. ‘My Kreech will go into loving arms when he …’ Then the boy was weeping wretchedly. Somehow François was able to embrace him, despite the cuffs, and the two stayed hugging a long time, Gilles subsiding into sniffles. There was a long silence as the train rattled on its way. Eventually Joerg came around and asked if anyone had any idea where they were. François ventured the opinion that they were heading through the southern Empire towards Westrecht, but confessed he had no way of knowing where they might be at the moment. ‘But once it gets dark,’ he said, ‘we should still be within the Empire and well north of Westrecht. Non-stop, it will be a two-day journey by rail to Ardheim. I hope they remember to feed us.’ ‘Never mind that,’ Joerg said, ‘I need to pee.’ Kicking on the compartment door produced a disgruntled guard and eventually a chamber pot, which had to be moved around by foot from one to another to use, and once employed it sat jammed in a corner adding a certain tartness to the atmosphere. A meal eventually arrived by the hands of Erwin Wenzel, closely supervised by soldiers. He made a point of removing the chamber pot when he left. Night fell and one by one they dropped off to the swaying of the train as it carried on its way south through the darkness. They had speculated before they slept on the possibilities as to what the Mind might get up to in the present circumstances, and Ruprecht was not surprised to awake to sunlight as soon as he apparently dropped off. All four of them this time were together in a grove and appeared to be of the same age, early pubescence. François and Gilles, as alike here as twin boys, were already engaged in a discussion with two sitting men who had them in their arms. Ruprecht guessed them to be the Imperial brothers Jean-Charles and Armand. Two other men were looming over him and Joerg: one he knew to be Cory O’Connor, the other must be his lover François, as gloriously handsome as his uncle Armand. ‘Awake, Robby?’ Cory asked. ‘Yes, grandad.’ ‘Good.’ He was picked up, cuddled and kissed, while François did the same to Joerg. Cory continued. ‘You boys are having it rough, and we’re sorry.’ ‘Thank you for what you did for Kreech, grandad. It made it easier.’ ‘He’s helping us even in his sickness. He has made a link in this place with Kristijan, who regards him with real affection; they laugh and cuddle together innocently. Little Kris is responding more and more to others in a healthy way, at least while he’s in the herd. Kreech is playing with him at this moment … I keep Kreech safe here as much as I can, for soon enough it’ll be his home. You know that, Robby.’ Even in that place there was a shadow of grief. Words caught in Ruprecht’s throat and all he could do was nod. Joerg piped up. ‘Grandad, will it make a difference to the Kristijan back in the world?’ ‘We have to reach from here to try to heal him, Georgie’ came the reply. ‘If we can, the way to the future will be truly open. He already flinches from what he is in daytime. Were he to renounce his anger and paranoia … who knows what could be accomplished? As it is, Kristijan of Ardhesse is the only one who can prevent the Second Landing or worse, pervert it to his own uses.’ ‘The Second Landing?’ Ruprecht asked. ‘Wasn’t that something that was supposed to happen in the year 200?’ ‘So we English came to believe, Robby. We knew that under Hartland was a hidden chamber in which the means to summon the fireships was concealed, but that it was flooded with an airborne poison during the erdbeesten attack. We knew that in two hundred years the chamber would be safe to open once more but of course long before then our kingdom fell and with it was lost the last of the knowledge of the Ancient colonists. Still, the fact was remembered amongst the clergy of the Holy See, many of whom were English in origin, though they did not know how to access the chamber or where indeed it was. But that knowledge we here do have, and it is now in the heads of the young Emperor and his brother King, over there with their grandfathers.’ ‘But can it still work after all these years, grandad?’ Joerg enquired. ‘Yes dear, it can. The Ancients built systems and vessels that had to last the centuries that it took to travel between stars. My own grandfather was born in the void and many of his forefathers before him, yet their ships carried them faithfully and faultlessly to get here. Nine hundred years is nothing to such technology, and the great starships out in orbit will function still, as do their shuttles. They just need the command, and that too is in the head of François and Gilles. But first they have to repair the Oracle.’ ‘What’s that?’ Ruprecht asked. ‘It’s the artificial mind that controls all the ground-based systems, but the ancient explosion that flooded the control chamber with radiation damaged it beyond its ability to repair itself. It functions still, but it’s blind, dumb and deaf.’ Cory looked over to the other group. ‘The Council of the Great Bulls is over. Time to go, but maybe my boys would like a ride across the plains first?’ Joerg laughed. ‘Oh yes please, grandad!’ François and Gilles bounded over grinning all over their identical faces. In this place there was hardly any way to tell them apart. They put their fists on their hips and sized up the other pair. Gilles laughed. ‘Cute, Robby. You’re actually cute as a kid. I’d never have believed it. Bet I could wrestle you now.’ ‘Yeah? Try it!’ ‘Dare me? I’m the prime here!’ He lunged at Ruprecht, while Joerg went for François in his support. The men laughed and cheered as they watched the boys tussle vigorously. At the end of an energetic bout, Ruprecht had Gilles under him, the boy’s cheek pressed into the grass, while François had Joerg down next to them. Regaining his breath, Ruprecht laughed in Gilles’s ear. ‘So who’s the prime now?’ ‘Seulement si tu me baises, Robby!’ the boy hissed back. ‘I will if you don’t submit.’ He had Gilles’s genitals gripped tightly in his hand. ‘Yeah, yeah. I submit. Careful with those, Robby, though I don’t know if they’ll work here.’ Armand lifted Ruprecht off Gilles and commented. ‘Yes, they will, though you have to be in a form different from this one. But that’s for another day. Come on boys, we have your mounts ready. Go and enjoy your ride.’ Ruprecht was placed on his horse by Cory and Joerg was placed behind him, while François did the same for the other two. ‘Grandad?’ he asked. ‘Yes, dearest?’ ‘Tell Kreech … you know.’ He was kissed. ‘Trust me, my own Robby. There is still cause for hope. We have other plans you don’t know of. You aren’t the only living humans we can talk to.’ With that Cory slapped the horses’ rumps and the four boys galloped side by side on to the vast green and blue space of the celestial plain, antelope scattering ahead of them. They whooped as they raced towards the sunset, gigantic in the west, shimmering in a molten sky. They came around almost together, blinking and stretching out the stiffness in sleeping upright, but all nonetheless rested. ‘What did the primes have to say, Fran?’ Joerg asked. ‘Bet you were glad t see them again.’ The boy shrugged. ‘We were. We kicked around what was likely to happen once we got to Ardhesse. But it’s good just knowing they’re watching over us, even if there’s little they can do to help on the ground.’ ‘It’s light outside,’ Joerg declared. ‘We’re slowing down.’ The train clanked as carriages and couplings bumped together. A whistle shrieked and the carriages rattled and shuddered over several sets of points. Then they came to a halt with a great hiss of steam. There was a sudden silence, before they heard the voices of workmen shouting outside. The voices were Francien, so they were still within the Empire it seemed. Their door rolled back. ‘Good morning, gentlemen.’ It was Colonel von Ampfeld. ‘Breakfast will be along in a few minutes. I hope you managed to get some sleep.’ ‘Where are we, colonel?’ Ruprecht responded. ‘In a siding on the border with Westrecht. We’re filling with water and coal. His Serene Highness intends to press on directly. The Emperor is rather keen to see you, it appears. We expect to be in Ardheim before nightfall. The lines have been cleared for us through Westrecht and Ardhesse.’ Breakfast duly followed. They were left in peace to eat it, and even let out into the corridor one by one to use the toilets. But the cuffs were replaced and after half an hour the engine let off a loud hoot and to the clanging of a bell and the groaning of couplings the train began chugging forward. It got up speed and within ten minutes they were crossing a great bridge. ‘We’re back in Alleman lands, boys,’ Ruprecht said. ‘I wish I felt cheered by the idea.’ *** Their train did not pull into Ardheim’s Hauptbahnhof, but finished its long journey in a siding in a marshalling yard to the west of the city. The four prisoners were marched out, still cuffed, to find several closed carriages waiting, with an escort of a dozen uhlans. Gilles and Ruprecht were placed in the front one. Erwin Wenzel followed on in the last carriage with the valises the prisoners had been allowed to bring, but there was no time for a change of clothing. Their carriage lurched and pulled away. The blinds on the windows were left up, so they had a good view of the route they were taking. ‘Bad news,’ Ruprecht observed. ‘We’re going to the Waltherborg Palace. That means that we’ll be in Kristijan’s demented playground, where he can deal with us away from public attention.’ The carriages rattled through the suburban streets and out into the woodlands to the west of the city. They passed a sentry box and entered a dark lane under trees. Eventually they drew up at the rear of the palace, and were taken through a side door into a guard room. All four captives were uncuffed and escorted by a file of guardsmen through the dingy back corridors and eventually by means of a side door into one of the state rooms of the southern wing. Kristijan was leaning against a marble chimney piece, with the Baron Meisel deferentially hovering in a window recess. The Allemanic Emperor seemed less than triumphant, despite having his principal rival in his power, standing dishevelled and the worse for wear on the carpet of one of his salons. ‘Outside!’ he ordered the soldiers. ‘My dear colonel, you may remain. You too, Your Serene Highness.’ Kristijan walked over to take Gilles by the chin and scrutinise his face. ‘The potboy of the Auberge aux Falaises. My word, you have grown up nicely; and the very image of His Former Imperial Majesty; quite uncanny. This is the first mystery I wish explained to me, Rupe. So get to it.’ Ruprecht obliged as far as he could, while Kristijan frowned with concentration as he did so. When Ruprecht had finished Kristijan walked along the line of prisoners to François. ‘So here we are again.’ He sniggered. ‘This is so choice. The Emperor François XII is a Parmentier, of the same blood as the potboy! I can barely believe it. What a family! Just like a genealogical seesaw, with you on the top of the plank and little Gillot on the bottom. But still the same family and when you two come together, like volatile chemicals … kaboom! You blast a door in time between universes.’ Ruprecht felt obliged to say, ‘Your Imperial Majesty needs to be aware of the momentous nature of this revelation.’ Kristijan rolled his eyes. ‘I can hardly escape it, can I Rupe! There is a brooding and sinister Mind, invisible and all-powerful, and it presumes to treat me as its puppet!’ ‘It’s not sinister, Kris. It offers something great and good to you and your people. You’ve seen the promise burning bright in the night sky as the great ships approach closer to Terre Nouvelle. The churches are beginning to fill with your trembling people. If you are their emperor, you must lead them now.’ ‘Emperors don’t take orders. They are above all others. The world kneels to them!’ François looked Kristijan straight in the eye. ‘If that’s what you think, then you aren’t Emperor of Terre Nouvelle, Kris. The emperor guards the Herd. Deep down, you know it too. Yours is a different lineage and a different fate. Cory is your ancestor, not the Great Bull, Jean-Charles. You’re one of the despised English in your descent. So who are you to demand deference?’ Kristijan actually recoiled and then came back at François in fury, striking him hard across the face. ‘Kneel to the Emperor, you Francien peasant! Kneel!’ He turned. ‘Vinseff!’ Anton seized François’s arms, pulled them behind his back and levered the boy to his knees at Kristijan’s feet. Kristijan sneered. ‘Last time you were in that position, François, you had my cock in your mouth. You loved having it there too.’ François looked up defiantly, a bright red mark across his cheek. ‘In those days, I thought you were worthy of my love. Then you taught me otherwise.’ Kristijan struck him again. This time Gilles went to his knees with a cry, to take François in his arms. He looked up coolly at Kris from the carpet. ‘Your grandad Cory would be really proud of you! Didn’t the herd teach you anything? What would Robbie and Georgie think of you, let alone your friend Kreech?’ Kristijan staggered back. He retreated to the fireplace, staring, his mouth loose. ‘How do you know? How…?’ he muttered. Anton Vinseff eagerly intervened. ‘Shall I deal with them, Imperial Majesty?’ Kristijan just looked blank. Then he switched his gaze to the colonel. ‘Confine them till later. I’m going to my … private quarters.’ He left in haste, his men staring after his back. The Prince of Forez took charge. ‘Is there a cell in the palace for these men?’ The colonel suggested the guardroom. They were marched back along the corridors and found themselves packed into a cell which opened off the office of the sergeant of the watch. There was room for three to sit on the narrow bed. They were offered some food and drink, then shut in the dark, for night had now fallen. Gilles stood by the barred window, staring earnestly up into the sky, where the Three Sisters burned; brighter now, but in a much wider spaced triangle than they had been in living memory. ‘They’re as bright now as they were in the days of the Landing,’ he observed. ‘We have memories of the sky in those days, Fran and I.’ He paused. ‘It’s my husband’s last night on earth, and I can’t be there with him.’ François reached up to take his hand. ‘I’m so sorry, Gillot my brother. But he’s with family and friends who love him. And the way things are going, we may join him soon enough on the celestial Plain, and not just in our dreams either.’ ‘Now isn’t that odd,’ Joerg observed to the group. ‘Grandad Cory predicted Kreech’s death, but had nothing to say of our fate.’ Ruprecht pondered that, but shrugged. ‘He said there is cause for hope, Georgie mine. Sleep my friends. There is still comfort and love to be found in our nighttime communion with the Great Mind.’ They all four attempted to settle in their cramped conditions, Ruprecht obliging Gilles to take his seat on the bed, while he stretched out his long legs on the cold stone floor. He was not there long. Boots stamped and keys rattled. ‘Prisoner Graf von Aalst, you will follow me!’ called a voice. There was no help for it. Ruprecht levered his tall frame up, and was hustled out into the guardroom where soldiers replaced his cuffs. Then he was taken out into the night. The Marshal Prince of Forez and the Baron Meisel were awaiting him in the courtyard under a lantern, swathed in dark cloaks against the damp. The soldiers escorting Ruprecht departed. ‘Well, minheeren, and exactly what is this about?’ Ruprecht had a pretty good idea in fact, but it was a perverse sort of victory to try to get them to confess that they intended his assassination. They did not oblige him. ‘This way, your Excellency,’ the Baron said. ‘Where are we going?’ ‘Somewhere quiet where we might talk, that’s all.’ He was prodded out into the formal gardens behind the palace pavilions, the lawns shimmering grey in the light of the Sisters. They left a dark track across the grass through the heavy dewfall the night had brought. Eventually they got to the deep, stone-lined fosse running along the back of the palace grounds, which prevented the beasts of the park trespassing within the gardens. There the group paused. Just across the great ditch the sleeping bodies of a large herd of common erdbeesten dozed, the bulls still awake and patrolling further out in the park, alert for leopards. ‘So what do you want to talk about?’ Ruprecht asked. The Baron seemed to be in charge. ‘It’s this. Four days ago the Patriarch left his palace on his own, walked down through the Holy City, out the Sint-Pol Gate and kept walking. He was of course followed by his aides and chaplains, but he just shook his head when they asked what he was doing, and kept on heading westward. He is in his late seventies and uses a stick, but he had covered twenty kilometres before nightfall, a crowd of worried clergy and guards trailing after him. As night fell, he knocked at the door of a peasant cottage by the road, and begged food and a bed. The next morning he carried on, and crossed into Ardhesse in the afternoon. The border police dared not stop him nor the hymn-singing crowd that was following. This evening he is in the town of Vincenzborg, a guest of the mayor. A crowd of twenty thousand Ardhessians with crosses, banners and candles are keeping vigil in the market place outside, and I do hope they’re keeping the noise down for the old fellow’s sake.’ Ruprecht was surprised. ‘How does this concern me?’ The Baron tutted. ‘The manifestations in the night sky have the whole continent on edge. And many have noticed that it was the day before the Sisters moved in the sky that the Patriarch left his palace. People are relating the two events. Many thousands of Allemans are processing to meet the Patriarch on his way; whole villages behind their priest and cross. No one knows where he’s going, as he refuses to answer questions on the subject, other than to say he’s going to an important meeting. ‘The great Francien cities too are roused. There is no violence, but entire populations are occupying the city squares, singing or praying, with their bishops. They are displaying banners and relics of St François, the Second Emperor. Our garrisons are confined to barracks. It would be unsafe for them to venture out into the streets. In effect, we have lost control of the Francien Empire without a blow being struck.’ Ruprecht was stunned. He had been kept in the dark about these events since his arrest. He could guess why. ‘And I suppose the Emperor Kristijan hasn’t reacted in the way you expected?’ ‘He’s most unlike his usual decisive self.’ ‘Aah … but it’s not a military problem. It wouldn’t interest him. I imagine you will have found him abstracted of late … though sleeping rather well for all that.’ Vinseff snarled. ‘I told you he knew something!’ The Baron gave an irritated toss of his handsome head. ‘His Imperial Majesty’s asleep now. Until recently he would go for long periods barely taking any rest. He would often work through the night for a week at a time and seem no worse for it. Though he would then disappear for days within his … er … intimate household. But four weeks ago all that changed. And over the past eight nights he seemed even eager to be in bed at what most people regard as a normal hour; waking late and, his chamberlains say, reluctantly. His temper has worsened too, though it was always erratic. He was observed playing hide and seek with two of the younger kitchen boys out in the park three days ago.’ Ruprecht laughed. ‘And you think his psychosis has finally come to the point where he can no longer be counted on to rule his ramshackle realm and direct his armies?’ ‘He’s not himself,’ Vinseff declared. ‘He’s lost it!’ ‘On the contrary, minheeren,’ Ruprecht replied. ‘I rather fear it’s worse than that. He’s regaining his sanity.’ ‘What’s happening to him, Graf? What’s going on above our world?’ Baron Meisel was getting urgent. ‘It’s evident you know more than you’re telling.’ ‘I can tell you this much,’ Ruprecht said. ‘I have a feeling that no more than three days from now the world as you know it will change for ever, and you two gentlemen in particular will need to find a new way to make a living. Don’t ask for details, as I don’t know them. But I’m pretty much sure of one thing; His Holiness the Patriarch is heading for the Montenard Republic, and the canton of Hartland in particular. Also if you want answers out of him, try asking him in English.’ The marshal and the spymaster looked at each other. The Baron sighed. ‘His Imperial Majesty has left orders that you and your associates, including the pretender François of Aix, are to be brought to him at his private resort in the park, where he is sleeping tonight. I believe you know the place?’ ‘Indeed. I spent a memorable evening there. His Imperial Majesty is sleeping … with friends?’ The marshal-prince rolled his eyes. ‘He got rid of the old crew apart from his boy-handler. His new friends are somewhat … younger.’ *** Ruprecht remembered Willy, the catamite who had stage-managed the Masque of the Erdbeesten he had witnessed in an earlier visit to the Waltherborg Palace. The boy was as pretty, dark and languid as ever. He was leaning up against the wall of the villa which was Kristijan’s hideaway within the park, taking drags from a cigarette. He was idly watching a group of four pubescent boys running and playing in the trees, shrieking and laughing. The boys were barefoot in various states of undress, while Willy just wore a white shirt, open to his navel and barely covering his butt, which he was scratching. He nodded to the Baron and the Marshal-Prince, saying, ‘I’ll tell him you’re here. He’s awake.’ He sashayed indoors calling out in a rather bored voice ‘Kris! It’s them!’ Kristijan emerged looking absorbed in something else, wearing a loose cotton robe and also smoking. ‘I’ll see the pretender and Rupe. Take off their cuffs. The rest can wait outside. You too, Baron and whatever your name is … Vinseff.’ He looked over to the frolicking children and his face changed to a gentle and human smile. ‘Georgie! Don’t you be so rough with our Robby!’ A cute little blond, wrestling with a taller, dark and skinny boy, grinned and waved at Kristijan, then carried on. The villa was as Ruprecht remembered it, though the hormonal stink of its previous occupants was gone. The floor was cluttered with expensive toys and discarded boys’ clothes. Castles, toy trains and soldiers were everywhere. Kristijan picked his way elegantly through the mess and led Ruprecht and François upstairs. There was a wide bed in the main room, big enough for several people, the sheets and blankets tumbled. Kristijan reclined against the head board and indicated a sofa opposite. ‘Well, here we are,’ he said. He looked saner and quieter than Ruprecht had ever seen him. ‘How did you sleep, sire?’ ‘You know, Rupe, because you were there, you and the professor. Robby and Georgie. I should have realised.’ ‘So, everything’s clearer to you now, yes?’ Kristijan stared at him. ‘I, you and the professor were boys, myself younger than you pair. We’ve played together before; it was the first time I was happy and peaceful there. It was before I realised Grandad Cory was my friend. This time we were all three together on horseback, me in front of you, and Georgie clinging on behind, riding across that great empty plain. Looking for …’ ‘Kreech. We were looking for him.’ ‘Who is he really?’ ‘He’s my brother, Felix. But he wasn’t there. We couldn’t find him. Do you know why?’ ‘He told me. We meet most nights and we have such fun and laugh so much: him, me and our grandad. He told me that in the world he’s sick and getting worse and that soon he will have to leave. And last night we couldn’t find him. It wasn’t my best dream in that place.’ He glanced over at François. ‘You know this place too?’ ‘Yes I do,’ François replied. ‘I and Gilles are brothers there, sons of the Great Bulls; we ride and hold council with our grandsires every night. We’ve met Cory, your grandfather. But he leads another herd, the one to which you and Rupe belong.’ Kristijan’s faced shifted into a less sane and more suspicious mode. ‘And what exactly do you and your bulls plan in your council? How to unseat me from my throne?’ François came back at him urgently. ‘No, Kris. That’s not anyone’s plan. Thrones and crowns may soon be irrelevant in any case. Haven’t Cory and Kreech tried to explain to you what’s happening? You know more than most people about what’s happening above our planet and what might happen if the fireships blaze in our skies once again. Kreech and Cory want it; don’t you?’ The narrowing of Kristijan’s eyes told Ruprecht that François was doing more harm than good with his artless enthusiasm. ‘Go away, François,’ he said in a tired voice, then called down the stairs. ‘Willy! Take the Francien outside. He’s boring. Send up little Robbie. You stay, Rupe.’ The catamite could be heard calling outside for one of the boys. François got up and hesitated. ‘Kris, we could still be friends, despite everything that’s happened between us. Just listen to the Herd.’ ‘Go!’ Kristijan insisted, more shrilly now. François left as a tall boy of around twelve thudded barefoot and bare-chested up the stairs and bounced on to the bed next to Kristijan, who smiled and took the boy round his shoulder, kissing his curly dark hair. ‘Give me hugs, Robby,’ he asked, and the boy happily unloosed Kris’s robe, exposing his lean body and clasped him round his waist, giggling. ‘Tickles later,’ Kristijan said. He looked over to Ruprecht. ‘I picked him because he looks like you in my dreams.’ ‘Where did you find your little gang, Kris?’ ‘Oh, military orphanages, homeless prostitute’s brats; so many discarded and homeless children in Ardhesse. It’s a scandal. I’ve got plans for children’s refuges and hospitals. Do you think Cory would approve? They’ll be in the name of the Emperor Kristijan Trust.’ ‘I’m sure Cory would be very pleased,’ Ruprecht affirmed. ‘He’s changed you. Is that why you’re so angry?’ Kristijan took the boy in his arms, caressed and kissed him for a while, ‘Robby’ nuzzling him back. Then Kristijan sighed. ‘I’m so tired, Rupe. I feel empty all day long. Nothing engages me, just these little ones and their innocent play … though they’re not so innocent when they play with Willy. Little rascals, aren’t you?’ The boy giggled. ‘Will’s dirty! He likes doing gross stuff. Can we go riding in the park?’ ‘Soon enough. Off you go and get ready, you and Georgie.’ ‘Can I go in front this time?’ ‘It is your turn to go there, Robby. Besides you poked me in the back with your stiffie last time.’ The boy laughed. ‘I go hard when my thing rubs your bum. It tingles nice.’ He jumped up and, dropping the trousers which were all he wore, he bounded downstairs, calling out for his friends. Kristijan commented. ‘We like riding bareback through the park. Just like on the Great Plain: just like you and I did that last time. It gives me peace.’ ‘Kris, you’ll never have peace in this world, now you know what sanity is.’ ‘Thank you for confirming what I already know. These lucid moments with the children and in my dreams are all the more painful because they don’t last. The ministers bother me and I get annoyed, but I couldn’t really care less. All I do is wait for the sun to go down, then the boys and I snuggle in bed and for a while my head is quiet.’ ‘Let us go, Kris. You know we mean you no harm. We need to be at Yorck; that’s where François and Gillot can complete their mission.’ Kristijan sighed. ‘Oh very well. But the colonel has to go with you. I know you and your honour, so swear to me that you’ll come back when the job’s done. You and the Francien pretender, but Gillot and the professor can go free.’ He sat up and wrapped his robe around him. ‘Come along,’ he ordered. They walked downstairs and out on to the lawn where the other three captives were sitting. The gang of boys was running and hallooing in the woods, the odd flash of a pale body shining out from time to time as a child scampered through a shaft of light. Willy too had disappeared. Kristijan lit up a cigarette. ‘These four are to be let go and make their way to Yorck.’ he declared to the Baron and the Prince. ‘Colonel, you’ll accompany them. The Graf has given his word that he will return within the week, and so must the pretender. But the other two may do as they wish. No doubt the Ritter Gilles will wish to be at Ostberg for the ceremonies of his husband’s interment.’ The Baron looked nervous. ‘Sire! Is this wise?’ he said tentatively. ‘This is insane!’ the Prince of Forez declared much more volubly. ‘You can’t be so mad as to let Von Aalst run off. You’ll never see him again!’ Kristijan took a drag on his cigarette and surveyed the prince with distaste. He slowly let the blue smoke exhale, then he said, ‘Vinseff, you really don’t get men of honour. Hardly surprising in a thief and a scoundrel. Oh … and of course, in a coward who ran from a meeting to which he had been challenged. Tell you what, my dear Vinseff, you’re a prince and he’s a count, so you’re not so far up the Golden Ladder that you can deny a meeting. So, if you want to stop Ruprecht going off into the blue, carry out the duel you ran away from and kill him. What d’you think, colonel?’ Von Ampfeld grinned under his moustache. ‘I’ll be delighted to second the prince, sire.’ ‘But … you can’t!’ protested Vinseff. ‘Oh I can. What’s more, if you refuse the engagement, I’ll have you stripped naked and placed in the erdbeesten barn till the beasts finish with you. I had fun there with the boys a while ago. I’d like to see how you manage in the cage under a bull. Jacki squealed so nicely, but he was so good with big cock. You don’t like going under, I hear.’ ‘No … this is …!’ Vinseff was sweating and tugging at his cravat. He looked around, pleading. ‘I’ll second you, mon frère et père,’ Gilles declared. Kristijan’s face had resumed its mad cockiness. ‘Excellent,’ he exclaimed. ‘Today is beginning to look up after all.’
  21. Mike Arram

    Chapter 30

    The Herd Mind has things in mind for our Kreech, but I won't spoil the twist ...😉
  22. Mike Arram

    Chapter 30

    Stunned at what he was seeing, Ruprecht rallied and called down the inn stairs to Joerg. When the light step of his lover came up the stairs behind him, he took Joerg’s shoulder and pointed silently at the sky. ‘Jesus the Seneschal!’ he breathed. ‘What am I seeing?’ ‘What our boys have done.’ ‘Is there a telescope in the inn?’ ‘I have no idea, but I doubt it. We need to get one. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the theory has always been that the Sisters were a group of planetoids orbiting our sun, but this cannot be. They are much, much closer, and getting closer still.’ Joerg shook his head. ‘The boys will know. Let’s ask.’ The three youths were beaming, as if they’d just played a huge joke on humanity. François looked a query. ‘Are the ships moving into close orbit?’ ‘Ships? They’re ships?’ Joerg squeaked. ‘They must be huge!’ ‘They’re the starships that brought our ancestors from Earth.’ ‘Earth? Isn’t that an English word?’ ‘It was our original homeworld. The European Union was one of its empires. It was able to find the resources for interstellar colonisation and built three vast ships, one financed by each of its principal peoples, the French, British and Germans: those were their true names, not Franciens, English and Allemans. When they found Terre Nouvelle they spent years observing the world below and preparing to colonise it. Eventually the people landed by means of planetary shuttles – what we call fireships – and they left the starships in distant orbit. The plan was to use them as science stations and in due course to employ the starships’ power and their vast resources to support and extend the colony as its population grew. The Great Mind of the erdbeesten put an end to all that, of course.’ Joerg shook his head. ‘What are you doing with them?’ ‘Moving them into range so the planetary shuttles can eventually be activated,’ François said. ‘That’s all we can do for the moment with the help of the failsafe device. You see, there’s a major problem. The English prefecture housed the control hub for the ships – the installation you found under the hill near Yorck. It contains a … I’m not sure what to call it – let’s say a mechanical mind engineered by Ancient humans. It has all the knowledge of the Ancients and the capacity to deploy and land the shuttles and much more besides, and it can talk to and advise its human makers. It’s sentient and immortal, but it’s been severely damaged.’ ‘Severely damaged? Was that the thing in the shape of a horrible, decaying creature the Great Mind showed you, when you had your vision of your ancestors, the brothers Jean-Charles and Armand?’ ‘Yes. The Great Mind showed us it in that form, though it has no body as such. The Mind can sense it and feel its pain, but is unable to comfort and heal it. That’s what Gillot and I have to do.’ ‘And you know how to?’ ‘Yes, we do. The Great Mind placed the knowledge it acquired from the dead human engineers within the very essence of the Parmentier lineage, what the Ancients called our genetic code. Once Gillot and I fully joined our minds in our last vision, it was awakened in us.’ Ruprecht looked at the two eager faces of the Francien boys, and suddenly hope flooded into his mind; hope for his brother, lying bedridden and weak between them. What if the resources of the Ancients could help and even cure Felix? ‘What’s your plan, François?’ The emperor shot a look at Gilles. ‘We have to head to Hartland. It shouldn’t be too difficult to get to the Montenard capital from here and then take the line south. We could be there in just a few days, but you have to come with us, Rupe. You can deal with the locals.’ ‘Hey! What about me?’ Felix cried and then coughed distressingly. Gilles took his hand. ‘Dr Joerg will be here with you. Maman will look after you as if it were me in that bed. Mutta is on her way to Chasancene too. Trust me, my Kreech, we have to go. We’ll be back soon enough, I promise.’ Ruprecht thought it wise to make his excuses and leave at that point, taking Joerg with him. They took his usual table in the back parlour and he lit up a cigarette; something he’d been trying to do less of in recent months. He found his hand was shaking when he lit up. He met Joerg’s eyes. ‘What do you make of all that?’ ‘Incredible. I can’t calculate the impact this will have on our world. All that technology and knowledge, just sitting under a hill in the Montenard Republic and our boys have the key to it. How incredibly dangerous, and yet exalting at the same time.’ ‘And if it got in the wrong hands?’ ‘It doesn’t bear thinking about. You believe that Kristijan’s unhinged mind somehow senses the danger and potential of all this?’ Ruprecht nodded. ‘The only pair of hands that power will be safe in are those of that beautiful Francien boy upstairs … the true emperor of this world and the rightful heir both to the Colony of the European Union and the Great Mind of the Herd, and by his side has to be François’s brother in body and spirit, our own Gillot, a king now amongst men. They must ascend together to the rule of Terre Nouvelle, bring war to an end and begin the building of something very great, a new sort of realm, transcending the world of the material and the spirit, a world in fact where there is no final death and where the living can continue to commune with the departed.’ ‘Good heavens! You think this is what will happen?’ ‘The Great Mind is walking in the thoughts of the living once more, and it’s extending itself as it strengthens. François and Gilles have joined with the Mind and soon will they will take up their rule in this world as the Great Bulls of the Plain reborn; they are going to rule as brother monarchs, Emperor and King of the Franciens enthroned together at Aix. Can’t you see the new light in their eyes? I think they’ve already gone beyond the purely human.’ Joerg sat dumbfounded as the implications of the situation were spelled out for him, then he made his excuses and went back upstairs to check on Felix. Ruprecht called in Erwin and Matthias and together they began planning the mission south to Hartland. They had to be gone by tomorrow evening, they decided, when Mutta was expected in Chasancene. Weary, Ruprecht sought his bed, and found Joerg already curled up within it, looking as ever like a small boy in the innocence of his face and the abandon of sleep. A tear came into Ruprecht’s eye as he felt a surge of affection for this little man who had slowly taught him the meaning of love and devotion. He wrapped himself around Joerg and fell quickly into slumber. *** Ruprecht woke with a yawn, and hugged Joerg’s body to himself. He was warm and happy, but things seemed unusual, and it slowly dawned on him that he lay on grass out of doors, and though the thick blond hair in his eyes was Joerg’s by the smell of it, it wasn’t quite the same. Nor was he. He snapped awake and sat up. They were in a large clearing in woods and the sun was coming up through the leaves. Warm and scented air was playing across his naked body, which both was and wasn’t his. He was a boy again, and the small and pretty blond child his own age stretching languorously next to him was Joerg, no more than twelve or thirteen years in age, freckled and cutely snub-nosed. Around them humans and erdbeesten were stirring, males, females and children sitting up and stretching, the youngest mobile ones heading for the nearest available breast. ‘Little one?’ His voice came out at a register it had not occupied since before he was a teenager. The child Joerg’s eyes went wide with surprise and then delight. ‘Rupe! We’re in the Mind!’ he chirped in a boyish treble. ‘You were right! It’s getting stronger. It’s reaching out to the living! It’s brought us here.’ Then he laughed. ‘You’re really sweet as a kid; so gangly, but actually rather cute with it! Small in the willy region too, no bigger than me there. Who’s the little one now?’ Ruprecht looked down at his groin and found barely a dusting of hair above his penis, which was indeed that of a boy barely pubescent. ‘Had it occurred to you we’re here because we’re actually dead?’ he replied. ‘That’s the other way to enter the Mind.’ Joerg’s smile was wiped temporarily from his freckled and elfin face, but it soon came back. ‘So be it. I’m ready for the next stage if we’re here together. But somehow I don’t think we are dead; I think I’d feel more different, less connected to the other reality. Hang on, I have to try this.’ He crawled over the adjacent body of a sleeping calf and knelt up in front of an erdbeest cow, who looked tolerantly down at him. He took its left breast, palped it and sucked at its nipple. He licked his lips at the result. ‘It’s warm and sweet and so rich, Rupe. Give it a try.’ Then he stood up, grinned and hugged the cow round her neck. She snuggled him into her and hugged him back, licking and caressing his neck and ears with her long red tongue. Joerg gave a very boyish giggle as she did so. ‘Not going to sample it? Oh well.’ He kissed her cheek then took Ruprecht’s hand, leading him off to the bulls’ station under the eaves of the trees. ‘This is where we’ll find the Herd prime who brought us here,’ he stated. And there indeed were a row of mature males, erdbeesten and human bulls and somehow they were communing, the boys could tell, even though the erdbeesten couldn’t actually talk. One human male rose, a tall but not heavily built man with sharp hazel eyes and a large shock of straw-like hair. He held out his arms to them. The pair knew him and ran to him, for it was their turn to call out ‘Grandad!’ which they did spontaneously in, of all things, English. He cuddled and kissed them, calling them his ‘Robby’ and ‘Georgie’. They kissed him back, clinging to him and feeling that same overwhelming emotional warmth and safety Gilles and François had said they experienced when they met their ancestors. At last the man stood, picking both children up to seat them on his strong arms as they held him round the neck and he walked them out of the clearing through a screen of trees and on to the Great Plain, green and blue in the rising sun. ‘So you know me, little Robby?’ ‘Well yes, grandad. You’re Cory O’Connor, prince of the English and lover of the first emperor François, but how …?’ ‘The Great Bulls, including my own lord and prince, François, bred the herd. As his consort and lover he had me impregnate many captive English cows alongside him, and when we took wandering Allemans into the Plains herd I bred them as well. I must have sired over a hundred human calves, and from them descend many of your Alleman noble and royal houses. Including both of you, my children, for though you don’t know it, you both have far more of my genetic inheritance than most Allemans, which is why I think you fell in love with each other. It’s why you’re here, as I have the strength now to call to me the closest of my own children. I’ve been trying with another one of you for quite some time’ ‘Who’s that, grandad?’ Joerg chirped. Cory kissed him. ‘My sweet little Georgie,’ he said. ‘The other is one who is all but myself reborn, a handsome but wayward prince among men.’ ‘Not …? Oh surely not!’ Ruprecht exclaimed, as Cory put them both down on the grass. There on the plain stood a very beautiful straw-headed child of maybe seven years of age, but there was little of beauty in the angry curl of his full lips and the mean squint of his clear blue eyes. The child stood and placed his little fists on his narrow hips and glared defiantly up at the bull. ‘I want to go home! Now! I don’t like these dreams. I’ll kill you if you don’t let me go! I’m the emperor! You have to do what I say.’ Frustrated, the child stamped his right foot and almost vibrated with annoyance, then tossing his head he ran off across the grass shouting some very rude words. Cory sighed. ‘Go fetch him, kids.’ Joerg and Ruprecht ran lightly after the child. He was fast, but their longer legs eventually brought them up with him. ‘Kris! Wait!’ Joerg shouted. ‘No! I hate you! I hate all of you!’ Then he stopped and looked at the two older boys suspiciously. ‘Who are you? I don’t remember you from the other dreams.’ ‘You’ve been here before?’ Ruprecht piped up. ‘Lots of times. I hate it. Horrible people and monsters everywhere. Who are you? How do you know my name?’ Joerg held out his hand. ‘Do you want to play with us?’ Kristijan pouted, looked around and then gave a little nod. Joerg grinned. He tapped the smaller boy’s shoulder and shouted ‘You’re it!’ Then he scampered off, Kris chasing him. But Kris dodged back abruptly, slapping Ruprecht’s bare butt as he passed. ‘It’s you!’ Kris screamed. Then he was off across the grass. ‘Robby!’ Joerg yelled. ‘Get into it!’ ‘Robby?’ Ruprecht was still rooted to the spot. ‘Oh, right! Er … yeah. Tag, isn’t it?’ An indefinable time later three red-faced and sweaty boys lay breathing heavily, flat on their backs in the prairie grass and flowers with Kris between the older boys. ‘That was so cool!’ Kris said. ‘You’re fun. This is a better dream than the other ones. Look at this!’ Kris gripped his little dick and sent a strong stream of yellow pee straight up into the air. It spattered down on Ruprecht’s belly and chest. He leapt up. ‘You brat!’ he shouted, as Kris and Joerg choked with laughter. ‘C’mon Robby! It’s fun. Can I go home now? I’m tired.’ Ruprecht sat back down next to him. ‘What happened in the other dreams, Kris?’ The little one stretched and frowned. ‘That man was in it, and freaky creatures like erdbeesten but with people heads. They kept telling me off for hurting people … but I’m just playing. And anyway, if I don’t do all that, the bad people will get me. So I have to, you see?’ There was a strange pleading edge to the boy’s speech. He rolled over towards Joerg. ‘Will you give me a snuggle, Georgie? I like you.’ ‘Of course, Krissie.’ Joerg smiled and took the smaller boy in his arms, squeezing him tight and kissing his cheek. There was a steady rumble behind them and they all three leapt up, to see two horses galloping in their direction. Joerg soothed Kris. ‘It’s alright, little one. Don’t worry, let me pick you up.’ Cory was riding one mount and leading another. Kris scowled up at him from Joerg’s arms. ‘Robby and Georgie, I’ve brought you this beast to ride. Come on, Kris. Get up here. This is the way home.’ ‘No,’ the boy shook his head. ‘Don’t like you.’ Joerg kissed him. ‘Go on, Krissie. He’s our grandad. He won’t hurt you. He really loves you.’ ‘He’s always angry at me.’ Joerg kissed him again. ‘If you’re good, maybe he’ll let us play again. Now say bye bye.’ Eyeing Cory suspiciously, Kris mumbled goodbye and consented to be lifted up in front of the man. He gave a little wave as the horse leaped forward and was off across the plain. Ruprecht laughed. ‘I wonder how much of this he’ll remember. Come on Georgie, this is our chance to do the bareback riding our boys liked so much.’ He swarmed up on the horse’s back and Joerg struggled up behind him. Gripping Ruprecht tight round the waist he pressed against him seeking a stable seat, then Ruprecht kicked the horse’s flanks with his heels. With a double whoop they were off across the plain. ‘This is amazing!’ Joerg shouted in Ruprecht’s ear. ‘I love you, Robby!’ *** Ruprecht awoke to a smiling face gazing into his own. ‘Georgie,’ he said. ‘That’s the right name for you at last. My own Georgie. You were so good back there in the Mind.’ Joerg clasped him tight. ‘And you’re my Robby. I want to go back there, but we have to wait till Grandad Cory calls us again, and who knows when that will be?’ ‘I don’t feel in the least tired despite all the running and riding around in our dreams, just warm, happy and rested.’ ‘Nothing will ever taste as good to me again as that erdbeest milk I sampled. You should have tried it. Weird, being in the same dream as you.’ ‘And Kristijan of Ardhesse,’ Ruprecht pondered. ‘He was only a small child there, while we were in the early stage of puberty. Why do you think that was?’ ‘At a guess I would say that the Mind wanted him at a stage of his mental development before his psychoses began to bite, while there was still a chance of reaching him.’ ‘It clearly hadn’t worked, at least until they brought us into the scenario as the sort of elder boys that a little one would be bound to look up to and want to play with. You were awesome, Georgie. You’d worked out the Mind’s game, hadn’t you?’ ‘Yes, it wasn’t that difficult. What will be difficult – if it ever happens again – will be to accomplish anything with the corrupted mind of Kristijan. How can anything that happens in that strange place have any effect in this world?’ ‘But you did do something. Little Kris wanted your approval; he listened to you and wanted to hug and kiss you. You reached him alright. But will that affect his behaviour in real life?’ ‘It might make him worse,’ Joerg sighed. ‘Time to get up. You have a big day ahead of you, you and our Great Bulls. You’re off to Hartland.’ They washed and dressed, and followed their noses downstairs where bacon and fresh bread were being prepared by Monsieur Parmentier. ‘You know,’ Ruprecht observed, ‘I reckon there are still things in this world that can rival erdbeest milk.’ Whistling cheerfully, he entered the taproom to find an early customer occupying it, reading a paper, spectacles on his nose. The man looked up. ‘Good morning, Excellency.’ It was Colonel von Ampfeld. ‘What …?’ ‘Take a seat, minheer Graf. You too, professor. We really need to avoid a fuss.’ ‘You followed us here?’ ‘I’d been waiting for you to decamp from Ardheim for some time, since it was obvious your research had reached a dead end in the south and Hartland was inaccessible. I must say the Easterners’ attack on Zuidholm was a complication. But as soon as our agents found your house empty it was obvious to me that you would head for Ostberg, and our people were awaiting your arrival when you entered the Residenz. After that it was easy to track you, though I have to say I was surprised when the trail brought me here. Until, that is, I found out about the other guests in this pleasant little auberge, and amongst them no less than the former Francien emperor. Tell me, minheer, did you really think His Imperial Majesty would not keep more eyes on you than those of the dubious and easily distracted Baron Meisel?’ Ruprecht shook his head, fighting off a momentary panic and ignoring the dead weight in his stomach. ‘You’re not one of the Baron’s agents? I assumed you must be.’ ‘No, sir. His Imperial Majesty tends not to put all his trust in one person, which is very wise of him. The Baron might have thought I was his creature, but I report to the Minister of War.’ ‘What do you want of us, Colonel?’ ‘I’m afraid you and your associates here must accompany me south. I understand His Imperial Majesty is determined to get to the bottom of the marvels you and the good professor have been unearthing.’ Joerg snorted. ‘Then he’s wasting his time. That can only be done in Hartland. That’s where we were heading today. You should let us go and get on with it, then your emperor will get his answers.’ ‘I’m afraid that’s not possible. It’s not up for discussion. You’ll have worked out by now that this house is surrounded by imperial agents and local police. There is no escape for you.’ Ruprecht was boiling with frustration. ‘You surely cannot mean to haul off my brother, the prince, to the south? He’s seriously ill in bed, and won’t be leaving it.’ ‘That needs to be determined. The Governor-General is expected here any moment, and he has the authority to make these decisions. In the meantime, I suggest you and the professor make as good a breakfast as you can in the circumstances. I think I will join you if you have no objection. Then perhaps you might go upstairs, professor, and tell the former emperor of the Franciens that his presence is requested below by the Prince of Forez.’ Breakfast appeared at the hands of a nervous Alphonse Parmentier. It seemed the colonel had already placed the order before Ruprecht and Joerg had come down. As they ate, Ruprecht began to rally. ‘Tell me, Colonel. When you made your site visit to Yorck, that wasn’t all you were doing was it?’ The colonel gave him a sidelong look. ‘I am a colonel of engineers, Excellency. Obviously my professional eye would pick up things.’ ‘Such as fortifications, routes, railways, batteries, lines of fire, that sort of thing?’ ‘As you say, minheer. But espionage would have been rather dangerous in the circumstances.’ ‘And what do you make of all this, colonel? The Ancient technology and all its implications?’ The colonel meditated for a while. ‘It seems to me, gentlemen, that whichever realm and sovereign secured the knowledge you have found must rule Terre Nouvelle, and so it would be by far and away best that it come into the hands of Ardhesse. Should the Easterners add it to the edge they already possess in weaponry and technology they would become unassailable, and cause every throne to tremble. The attack on our fleet last week was yet another demonstration of how far in advance they are of other realms. It appears that they have developed vessels that are powered by voltaic generators and that can submerge themselves. Undersea warships! No one had expected that. The submarine ships utterly destroyed many of our anchored capital vessels, though they were massively protected by shore artillery, with the loss of only one of theirs, and that by an accident. We are unable now to reinforce our garrison on Zuidholm, and the island must fall in the end to the Easterners. ‘I hear rumours that they are experimenting with airships too. That may seem fanciful, but the Ancients had their fireships, and since you have proved that much of the legends about them are true, then flight must be possible for men. What if Dreiholmtz did develop its own fireships? What use our armies then? The colonel checked his watch. ‘Now, professor. Perhaps you had best go to attend to your patient and bring the other young men downstairs. The Marshal Prince of Forez will be here very soon.’ Joerg silently left the table and took the stairs. As he went, Ruprecht observed to the colonel ‘I’ve taken you for an honest soldier, Von Ampfeld. You must know the Prince of Forez for a scoundrel and a creature of the Baron’s. How can an officer of your distinction and good sense stoop to work with such men?’ ‘You’re not a soldier, minheer Graf. Were you one you would know it is service to his lord and king that is a soldier’s principal duty. Uncongenial companions in the discharge of our duties are but one more inconvenience in the military life, one of many I might say.’ Ruprecht had always thought well of the colonel, and the quiet politeness as he stood on the appearance of François at the foot of the stairs and the well-judged bow that followed underlined the man’s decency. ‘François of Aix,’ he said, ‘I have to inform you that you are under arrest in the name of His Imperial Majesty as an enemy of the Allemanic Empire. I further …’ The colonel halted in mid-sentence, for another boy had appeared behind François, to all intents and purposes his double. ‘Der Teufel!’ he swore. ‘What’s this, Graf? Some strange trickery?’ ‘This is my heir, the Ritter von Blauwhaven, consort of Ostberg.’ ‘But he’s the living image of the …’ ‘Emperor of Terre Nouvelle? Yes he is, and there’s a reason for it, if only you’d listen to me, colonel. There are things about this you should know, why don’t you …’ The inn door opened and the morning light flooded in. Three Allemanic grenadiers entered followed by the imposing figure of an imperial marshal-general, who removed his plumed helmet as he came in. He paused to survey the group staring back at him. ‘You have the former emperor? Excellent. Now who is this? Good heavens! Is this the Francien boy from Blauwhaven? My word. What a resemblance! I had not appreciated it. Well! Two for the price of one. His Imperial Majesty will be pleased. I shall escort them in person to Ardheim, colonel.’ ‘Not so fast, Anton,’ Ruprecht demanded. ‘He’s a Bernician citizen and consort of a sovereign prince of the Confederacy. You have no right to apprehend Gilles.’ The Prince of Forez sniffed and rolled his eyes. ‘We’ll let the diplomats argue about that. By the way, my dear Graf, you might remember that whatever your opinion of me, I do now have rank that must be respected.’ ‘You also have an engagement of honour that you failed to fulfil, Vinseff. So don’t stand on a dignity you don’t possess.’ Anton ignored him. ‘Colonel, we need to be away from here soon. Round up the pack of these rebels and spies and have them at the Central Station by midday. I have my personal train awaiting us at the North Siding. Understood?’ The colonel bowed. ‘As your Serene Highness commands.’ With a final stare at the two boys, the marshal-prince resumed his helmet and left, though the grenadiers stayed behind. ‘I suggest you all pack your valises gentlemen,’ the colonel advised. ‘You heard the Governor-General. Now Excellency, about the sick prince, how is he this morning?’ Ruprecht looked at Gilles, who said ‘There’s no improvement, and he barely slept for coughing last night. He can’t be allowed to travel. He must stay here with Dr Joerg to look after him.’ The colonel shook his head. ‘My orders are clear, the professor must accompany us south. But the Prince of Ostberg is not such a person as can be apprehended, it would be tantamount to a declaration of war on the Confederacy and my imperial master would not want it, whatever his governor-general here may think. For political reasons as much as for his health the prince will remain, but you, young sir, must come with us.’ ‘But he’s my husband!’ ‘Nevertheless, you will come with us. You have my sympathy, minheer Ritter, for, old and dried-out though I may look I too was once joined to a Grunderknabe. But you’re a man now young fellow, and you must know that you can carry his love with you when you leave your lover behind.’ Gilles went red, and turned away. ‘Do as he says, Gillot,’ Ruprecht said. ‘Mutta will arrive soon. He will be cared for and loved. What about my servants, colonel?’ ‘You may take one of the two.’ ‘Then Matthias will stay with the prince, and my seneschal accompany me.’ ‘Very good. In one hour then.’ The colonel snapped his fingers and left, taking the soldiers with him. Ruprecht looked at the two boys. ‘I’m sorry it came to this,’ he said. ‘Oh, I’m not,’ François said, looking strangely unconcerned. ‘What?’ ‘Well, I am sorry about Gillot and Kreech, but I have a feeling this was meant to happen; one way or another we have to get to the South, and this way Kristijan’s arranging the transport. I think you’d best go and make your farewells to Felix, Rupe.’ *** Felix’s condition had worsened overnight. His face had a sheen of sweat, and his eyes were glistening and feverish. Joerg was at his bedside holding his hand. There was a fetid smell in the air, vaguely like rotting fish. Ruprecht realised the implication of this. Sepsis was ravaging what was left of Felix’s lungs. He sat on his brother’s bed. ‘I’ve dosed him up,’ Joerg said. ‘He’s in no pain. It’ll be days rather than weeks. I’m sorry. I’ll give you two some time.’ He kissed the boy’s head and left. Felix was coherent still, though he spoke slowly and with the occasional cough into the blood-stained cloth he held. ‘Dr Joerg told me what’s happened. You’ll beat the bastard, don’t worry. I have faith in you and my Gillot. Sorry I won’t be there to see it.’ Ruprecht realised there was no pretending now, so he hugged his brother’s feverish body as gently as he could, kissed him and told him how proud he was of him. The boy gave a cough and a chuckle. ‘Tell Hans to look after Ostberg. He’ll have to take my name. What a joke. Felix Hans, prince of Ostberg. He’ll have to give up his ship. He won’t like that. ‘Listen Rupe, before you go I have a thing to tell you. I didn’t tell Dr Joerg or he would have thought he was drugging me up too much, but I had a weird dream last night, or weirder than usual. I woke up sleeping amongst flowers under a blue sky, grass all around me, just some distant trees. It was warm and I was just a small kid again. Then when I sat up a horse came riding towards me, with a big blond man on it, and another little kid placed in front of him. None of us had a stitch on. It was just like Gillot’s dreams the Mind sent.’ He paused for a long fit of coughing. When he had regained his breath he resumed. ‘Odd thing. I seemed to know the man, though the kid was a stranger. He placed the boy down next to me, a pretty but resentful little tyke he was. Then the man led the horse off to the shade of a stand of trees while us two eyed each other up. “Wanna play wrestling?” I asked. “Tag is better” he said. So we were up and chasing each other. It was great. I’ve not been able to do something like that without pain or weakness for ages, my lungs filling so freely. Then we wrestled and he loved tickles, it appeared. “You’re cool!” he said. ‘D’you know my friends Georgie and Robby?” I had to say no. So we sat and talked nonsense for ages like little kids do, and I quite got to like him. His name was Kris, he said. He said the man was his grandad, though he looked younger than you to me. ‘When the man came back with his horse he picked us both up and placed us on its back, me in front and Kris clinging behind, just like in Gillot’s dream. He kissed me when he placed me up there, though Kris refused him. “Kreech, my little one, I will come for you again in three nights’ time. Be ready. The herd awaits you.” Then he patted the horse and it trotted off across the plain to the distant horizon. Kris and I rode together with the wind in our hair and we laughed with the joy of it. It was an omen from the Great Mind wasn’t it?’ Ruprecht nodded, tears filling his eyes. his voice shaking, he said ‘Let me tell you about our dream last night.’ When he had finished, Felix looked pensive. ‘So that was the mad king of Ardhesse before he was warped. Well, well. I have a feeling he and I’ll meet again. But I know we won’t, so hug me brother, and then get yourself off. I want time to have a good cry and get myself decent for Mutta. You know what she’s like. I’ve left instructions at Blauwhaven for my burial. Not the tombs at Freiborg please, but that lovely mausoleum at the Farcostan Palace. I’d ask for the beach where Gillot and I first fucked, but explaining that to Mutta might be difficult.’ The last thing Ruprecht heard from Felix as he left was a chuckle and the muttered remark ‘What a joke!’ There was no bitterness in his brother’s voice.
  23. Mike Arram

    Chapter 29

    Ruprecht paced his office, regardless of the looks the colonel was shooting at him from under his bushy brows. When he had tired of that, he issued out into the workroom and joined the small crowd around Joerg and the Ancient box. ‘Anything?’ ‘No, Rupe. It came on, hummed to itself, and then went off. We’ve gone over everything that might have triggered it. Nobody was near the table when it came alive. Other than that there’s nothing that could have influenced it so far as we can tell.’ ‘So the trigger was external to this building?’ ‘There was no action or anything material that might have done it within, that’s for sure. This is not one of the boxes that were wired to a current by the scientists at the Carolinaean. Now, there is a temperature difference in one of these black elements, which I assume to be the power source responsible, but it’s cooling rapidly. It may have burnt itself out.’ ‘Is Matthias back from his errand yet?’ ‘No, Chief,’ Hextie replied. ‘Tell him I’ve gone across the road to the university when he returns. I’ll be there with Professor Wilnius. He may be able to tell us whether the boxes he has have shown signs of life. From there, I’ll head home. Keep this fellow under close observation in the meantime. If it misbehaves again, I want to know immediately. See you later, Joerg.’ Ruprecht in fact had little intention of visiting Professor Wilnius. Once he was sure he was not being followed he strode rapidly towards the telegraph office, encountering Matthias hurrying back towards the Institute. ‘Any reply?’ ‘No, Excellency. I waited for over an hour. But there was no response from Vieldomaine. If he is out at Val de Rougiet it may be a while before Erwin gets the message from the Champs Dolent office and can reply.’ ‘Dammit.’ ‘The clerks know to relay any reply to our villa, sir. I tipped them heavily. What would you like me to do?’ ‘Go into the Institute and play things cool, particularly when the colonel is around. I wasn’t going to, but I’ll head off to the Natural Science Faculty and make my promised call on Professor Wilnius after all. Maybe there was a corresponding reaction there, but it would depend if it was detected and on whether anyone was working with their two boxes at the time. He’ll want to rush off to the Institute as soon as he knows. Maybe he might have ideas.’ ‘Do you really think that the sudden activity has something to do with Their Majesties?’ Ruprecht’s stern face relaxed into a lop-sided grin. ‘Mattie my lad, I’m absolutely certain of it.’ *** ‘Time to decamp, little one mine.’ Ruprecht and Joerg were in bed, and Ruprecht was massaging and kissing the small man’s smooth back and small, shapely buttocks, while he squirmed from the attention. ‘Like this, Rupe?’ ‘Not that urgently, but I think that things are moving to a crisis and Ardhesse has given us all that it can offer. It would be dangerous to play on Kristijan’s board for much longer.’ ‘Things are waking up, aren’t they … lost and dangerous things.’ ‘I believe so, and our boys are at the heart of it. We need to be with them now. It seems to me that this Great Mind has been playing its own game all the time. Kristijan might think he has Terre Nouvelle at his feet, but there’s been a far bigger struggle going on all around him which he can’t even see, while François, the true Emperor of Terre Nouvelle, has been in the thick of it. Kristijan’s just been boxing with shadows.’ ‘Kristijan’s not completely in the dark, he’s sensed that great events are happening. That’s why he conscripted us. I wonder if he knows more than he lets on.’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘If the Great Mind is as active as you say, it could have touched on Kristijan’s consciousness. He’s insane and evil right enough, but also brilliant and unconventional. He may have sensed he’s being played, and that might well be why he wanted us on his team. It could also be why he’s trying to usurp the Empire for himself.’ ‘That’s an alarming thought, because in that case he may well follow us if we run for it. I don’t see that we’ll get a chance to interrogate him on what happens in his dream world, though …’ ‘Though what?’ ‘The Masque of the Erdbeesten he subjected me to takes on a different significance if you’re right. Maybe it was an echo of his own dreams, rather than just a sick sexual fantasy. Speaking of which, ready for me?’ ‘Oh yes. I want it.’ Ruprecht went on all fours over his lover, his heavy member hanging hard. He let it find its target and slowly pressed down with his groin until, accompanied by a groan of deep satisfaction from Joerg, it was swallowed up by his welcoming hole. Ruprecht took his time pressing home, and let Joerg dictate the pace. Well before he was ready to thrust he came, and he came again twenty minutes later, to their deep mutual delight. *** The departure from Ardheim was not easy to orchestrate without Erwin Wenzel to mastermind it, and in the end they simply had to leave most of their goods and papers behind them. An additional problem intruded itself that same night. Lying in bed asleep after satisfying their passion, Ruprecht and Joerg awoke together around the eighth hour as repeated concussions shook their bedroom window, rising abruptly to a rumble, louder and more continuous than thunder. Light flickered across the ceiling, and Joerg shot out of bed. They had a good view of the city and the harbour. ‘There’s lights like red flame in the sky beyond Bornholm!’ he called over. ‘That’s where the noise is coming from.’ All of a sudden a huge concussion shook the house. ‘Jesus the Seneschal! A big white light and a huge cloud billowing up into the sky!’ Ruprecht by now had joined him. ‘It’s the Dreiholmtz Navy. Has to be. The anchorage of the Ardhessian fleet is out there in the eastern roads. They’re being bombarded, or more likely torpedoed; looks like it’s a pre-emptive strike by the Easterners. That must have been a big ship taking a hit to its magazine.’ By now the lights were all on in their street, and people were standing in front gardens. The shore batteries had by now added their thunder to the storm of explosive shells, seeking to protect the anchored fleet. The rumbling and explosions went on till dawn, with several more titanic blasts that sent concussion waves across the city. The smell of gunpowder was heavy in the morning air, and huge columns of smoke rose pink and black from beyond Bornholm into the lightening sky. As it turned out, the morning newssheets revealed that there was more to the attack than a surprise naval strike. An Eastern expeditionary force had simultaneously landed on Ardhesse’s island of Zuidholm, some thirty kilometres south of the mainland, and fierce fighting was raging along its length and breadth. ‘That’ll not do Kristijan’s reputation any good with his people,’ Ruprecht observed. ‘He’s delivered perpetual victory since he began his wars. Now Ardhesse is under attack. His popularity will take a hit.’ ‘Let’s hope. But it’ll make leaving this madhouse more difficult.’ ‘On the other hand it’ll disorganise Baron Meisel’s agents. They’ll have better things to do than watch us. It’s definitely time to go.’ Operating under the assumption that they were being watched, Ruprecht, Joerg and Matthias departed separately. Ruprecht left en route for the Holy See at the end of the working day. Joerg went home but took an omnibus to pick up a train for Bernicia once the sun had gone down. Matthias left last, leaving the lights on in their villa, travelling by the suburban lines to make his circuitous route to the frontier with the Montenard Republic, which he crossed without incident, under orders to head directly north to join up with Erwin. In fact the precautions in the end were superfluous. The scrutiny of their papers at the border was no more thorough than usual. The soldiers were looking for Easterners. Ruprecht and Joerg posted resignation letters to the Baron before they left the country. It seemed appropriate. Their time at the Institute had not been unpleasant, and they regretted leaving their bright young staff. They joined up again at Blauwhaven, where they found no news from Vieldomaine and no forwarded telegrams. They did however find a command from the Princess Regent to get to Ostberg as soon as they possibly could. By now Ruprecht was worried. The three boys were overdue. He and Joerg were taken directly into the princess’s study in the Residenz. She looked up from her desk. ‘Ah! At last. I’ve sent telegrams everywhere for you.’ ‘What’s been going on, Grossmutta? We’ve heard nothing.’ She gave a little smile. ‘It’s nice to know that sometimes I have the advantage of you. The Confederate Embassy in Chasancene has been relaying some remarkable stories about your three adventurers.’ ‘Where are they? They were supposed to be back by now.’ ‘Still in Chasancene, and annoying our ambassador with the demands being made on his legation to keep a refugee emperor and his two madcap young friends from being noticed by Ardhessian intelligence.’ ‘Why won’t they leave?’ ‘They claim that they can’t leave before they’ve completed their investigations. From what I can ascertain, they’ve already managed somehow to cause a small earth tremor which has shaken northern Vieldomaine. I really think you two had best go and get them. Also Felix is unwell, and I think he needs your services, Doctor.’ *** Jean-Charles Parmentier brooded in the gloom of his refuge, the only light filtering through the open door from the trashed control room outside. He was hungry and dirty, but at least he was safe, safer now perhaps than any human on Terre Nouvelle. He fingered the pistol he’d found overlooked, trodden into in a pile of trash the erdbeesten had discarded in the chaos of the sack of New Paris. He had no clothes or shoes, and had found none in the ruins. The erdbeesten had made a particular point of stripping their captives of every trace of their technology and civilisation: they were to live as herd animals from now on. He had struggled as a young bull had thrown him on his back, sat on him and ripped off his clothing, then gone still as it had taken his genitalia tightly in its hands, felt his balls and examined his penis with care. Satisfied as to his sexual immaturity, fourteen-year-old Jean-Charles had then been hauled up by his scruff and thrown among the crying females and younger boys penned in by a circle of hissing erdbeesten cows. Christophe next to him had not been so lucky. Sixteen, he was judged differently. His neck was efficiently broken by the same bull who had pardoned Jean-Charles. His corpse was hauled off somewhere for disposal. Jean-Charles had felt guilty that he could never stand Christophe, the arrogant fucker. He would have loved him to have been with him now. He and his surviving family had been allotted to a human group of twenty within an erdbeest unit of about sixty, with three mature bulls and a particularly ill-tempered prime. They were herded up and down the river valley for several weeks. One day, at an unheard signal, the bulls had begun mounting the females, human and erdbeesten alike, in an orgy of mass copulation. Jean-Charles had tried to pull off the bull who had begun forcing himself on his elder sister, but it had taken it as a challenge and instead he had been the one screaming and struggling as something huge burned its way up inside his ass and filled his lower gut with piss. Fortunately in retrospect it was the least developed of the bulls. Then cast aside, he had watched his elder sister and mother forced on all fours alongside the herd cows and all the other mature human females submitting to being bred repeatedly by the bulls, while he held his younger sister and tried to comfort her. He had shit blood for a week. Come December he had left, taking three other desperate adolescent boys, including his friend Marcel. But they had lost Marcel in the dark that first night. Maybe he’d been retaken by the bulls. In a panic when a leopard pack was sighted a week later, they had dispersed and run for it. He did not think Laurent and Armand had escaped them. The idea had been for them to find help, to contact the English or Germans and alert them to the French situation, but the land was empty: Jean-Charles had seen no vehicles, on the land or in the air. It had been borne in on him ruthlessly that the other national zones too had been attacked and sacked. And the continental mass of Terre Nouvelle was too huge for him to find his way naked and barefoot the thousand kilometres through the mountains to the English zone, or cross the vast flood of the Great River to find the Germans. It had been a miracle that he had found the remains of New Paris. Jean-Charles had not starved or frozen since his capture. He had found that rainwater ran off human skin quite as well as erdbeesten hide. Warmth was to be had at night pressed among the soft bodies of the herd. His months with the herd had taught him some things other than to keep out of the way of bulls: what legumes to eat, where to dig for grubs, slimy but edible and nourishing to humans as much as erdbeesten. He had balked at sucking erdbeesten breasts, but the smaller human children thrived on the rich milk that they along with the herd calves were offered. It was leopards and the cold which were the main threats to him as he wandered, but deep in the comm bunker, wrapped in a plastic bed cover with a twig fire, he had survived the worst of the weather and no leopard pack came near. Now it was time to go. It was full light now, so he took a couple of charcoal twigs and began writing: 2155-COL.5. FEVRIER. 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. He dropped the twig and scanned the litter he had found; some plastic ware which hadn’t burned with the rest of the sacked town and a couple of read-outs on erdbeesten he thought might help, but the technical nature of the English had defeated him. Then there was his last hope, if he only knew what to do with it. So, naked except for the gun hanging heavily from his neck on a lanyard, he headed out, picking up a stick he had sharpened and hardened in the fire as a primitive spear. He padded out into the comm centre and made for the outer hatch. Outside spring had come to the ruins of New Paris, green shoots pushing up through the floors of the roofless and wrecked homes and the paving of the empty streets. The comm tower loomed above him. The erdbeesten had ignored it, only ransacking the junction boxes at the base. They had not climbed up to the middle platform; they simply did not look upwards. But Jean-Charles had been up there often with his father, who had been the chief watch comm officer, and he had sat up there in the breeze, his legs dangling over the edge despite his mother’s warnings, and gazed out over the colony and the new world he had first set foot on at the age of ten. The free movement of air on his skin and the warmth of the golden sunlight still entranced him; after a life spent shipboard till the Landing, planetbound life had been endlessly fascinating. He looked down at his body. He was no longer the boy he had been when last he sat up there with his father. Six months had brought changes. Herd life had bronzed and toughened his body; his crotch was now covered with thick curly black hair and the penis that grew out of it seemed twice the size it had been when he was first herded, hanging down well past his balls and swinging as he walked, a member quite as big as that of any erdbeest adolescent his age. His belly was corded and muscular, and there was hair now dusting his forearms. He had wrestled other boys and also erdbeesten calves, who had a concept of play much like that of human children it seemed. Male calves never said a thing or smiled but they had an idea of fun: they liked to chase, and particularly to wrestle to get other males beneath them, rehearsing their mating and domination rituals. Latterly his strength and agility had been sufficient for Jean-Charles to get the calves under him, which gave him a certain savage satisfaction after his rape. When he did, he was more often than not fully erect, and since there was no choice he flaunted his length in front of girls and boys, rather than cover it. If they all three could hide away from the bulls and their own mothers Cécile and Thérèse would touch it and giggle when it jumped at their touch. He was allowed to touch their crotches and budding breasts in exchange. The other human boys would chant at him ‘Baisez le bête!’ when he had a calf under him, until the squeals of the calf brought a bull over to drive them off, running and making obscene gestures back at him, which the bull couldn’t understand. At the base of the tower he checked the box he had salvaged from above. It had its own back-up power unit which he had connected; there was no likelihood the power would be drained any time soon. The box was designed to last, fashioned out of the seamless and indestructible polymer that provided the skin of the starships. He couldn’t take it with him and he had no idea how to make it work, but he did at least know what it could do. It was the failsafe, the trigger that would contact the fleet parked in distant orbit and initiate … something, his father had not told him what. Jean-Charles hefted the heavy box and slowly heaved it by stages out of the ruined settlement and up the hill. Halfway up was a rock around which he and his friends had played; it had been their fort. There he began digging away the soft soil at its base and placed the box in the resulting hole, covering it over with soil and leaves. One day maybe he would find a surviving adult who knew what to do to activate the signal, and they would retrieve it; until then he must play by the herd rules. A week later, with three chambers of his pistol empty after he encountered and drove off a leopard pack, he found the ambling figures of a mixed human and erdbeesten herd as it rose from its night rest. They were returning north from their winter migration. It was his own herd. Familiar human children and calves suckled at breasts and human females scavenged for grubs. And there amongst the group of six adolescent girls were his sisters! He wandered into the camp and the humans looked up and shouted, the erdbeesten regarding him with their usual calm indifference. Once his younger sister unwrapped herself from him he asked ‘Maman?’ She burst into tears, and it was a boy’s voice that answered. Marcel had come up behind him. ‘A bull broke her neck when she tried to fight him off.’ Jean-Charles looked around. ‘Which one of the fuckers?’ he asked calmly. Marcel pointed out the prime. He took his pistol and coolly walked over. He walked directly up to the beast, staring in its eyes. He threw out his arms, bared his teeth and gave out his best approximation of a challenge hoot. The bull’s dark eyes narrowed and it responded with a roar. As it began lumbering towards him, he raised his pistol and shot the thing through its bony forehead. It lurched and fell face forward at his feet. He turned to face the herd and gave out his own roar, a howl of anger and outrage that came from deep within him. The bull who had raped him repeated the challenge. They closed, but though smaller Jean-Charles was far more agile. Remembering his rugby days, he feinted and got behind the bull, using his left hand to seize its genitalia between its legs from behind, and he twisted savagely. The beast howled. He used the butt of the pistol to club it hard on the back of its head, then the bull was on all fours in front of him. Somehow he had gone as erect as the bull during the crisis, and after his experience of play with male calves it was automatic for him to mount the stunned beast and seek its asshole. His length slid easily into a warm softness and for the first time his cock was sheathed in hot flesh. Uncaring of the gaze of the human herd he started fucking himself fully hard and then stopped, forcing his bladder to piss. If he could complete the ritual many of his problems would be solved. His urine flowed into the defeated bull, then yelling a spontaneous war cry he pulled out of it, forcing the stream to stop for the moment. The two other grown bulls went submissively on all fours and, his erection harder than ever, Jean-Charles sodomised both, their strange dry smell in his nostrils, letting loose more spurts of his piss inside them. Then he roared at the rest of the herd, cuffing Marcel when he failed to adopt the submissive pose with the others. ‘Do it! I have to piss in you too,’ he ordered. ‘This is the way it has to be from now on. If I do it to you, you’ll be a bull and we can fuck the girls all we want. It’ll be our herd.’ Marcel stared around, then dropped on to his knees and pulled his ass cheeks apart. This time, in mounting excitement Jean-Charles lost control and fucked his way to completion within a crouching circle of the watching herd, stroking Marcel’s smooth brown flanks and taut belly as he climaxed inside him. They began mating the human girls who were old enough to breed that evening before the sundown ritual. They ignored protests, but Cécile and Thérèse offered anything but resistance to Jean-Charles in any case. *** Vieldomaine didn’t show much sign of being under Allemanic occupation, and its soldiers and police looked the same as ever. The new imperial flag did however fly from the keep of the ducal château, Kristijan’s white imperial erdbeest on a striped background of blue and black. The Vieldomanois golden erdbeest was relegated to the gatehouse. Erwin met them at the station. When Joerg observed how little things seem to have changed, he shrugged. ‘There are two regiments of the Allemanic Legion in barracks in the south of the city, and the duke’s own army has been sent off to occupy the Protectorate States, where I doubt Franciens are very popular. The Imperial governor-general resides out at the Belvedere, the smaller suburban palace next to the hunting park.’ He coughed. ‘It’s the Prince of Forez.’ Ruprecht groaned. ‘God save us. It has to be him: Anton Vinseff!’ Joerg giggled. ‘I don’t think we’ll be leaving our cards at the Belvedere.’ They took a cab to the Auberge aux Falaises. Cécile was outside on the bench playing with a doll. She bounced up to Ruprecht in delight. ‘Monsieur le comte! You must bow to me! Cousin François says I am a princess!’ Ruprecht smiled, bowed, took the girl’s hand and kissed it. ‘Mademoiselle la princesse, I salute your imperial highness.’ She laughed, took his own hand and led him into the auberge, which looked the same as usual, though the regular drinkers were yet to appear, for the day was only now just beginning to turn to evening. A figure he initially took for Gilles was in a bar apron behind the counter, but it was in fact the emperor. The boy grinned. ‘Hello Rupe, welcome to the Imperial Palace. House Parmentier bids you welcome!’ ‘House Parmentier?’ ‘It seems I am a Parmentier, the true name of the Imperial House. My brother Gilles still carries the ancient name which my branch forgot, but I’ve taken it again.’ ‘And how do you know this, sire?’ ‘The usual, Rupe. Talking dreams.’ ‘And how’s Felix?’ François’s grin faded. ‘He’s upstairs in Gillot’s bedroom. Dr Joerg will be very welcome.’ Joerg took the hint and headed for the stairs. He already had his medical bag in his hand. Ruprecht took a seat at the bar counter. ‘Mine’s a light beer, François.’ ‘Coming up, Rupe.’ ‘You’re enjoying yourself.’ The emperor’s Gillot-like grin reappeared. ‘More than at any time since my dear father died. With Gillot I have everything I lost and more, since Kreech comes with the package.’ ‘You’ll have to find your own lover one day, sire.’ ‘I can only hope. I sometimes wish I’d been born Alleman. But maybe in the new world things will be different.’ ‘New world?’ ‘We’ll talk later, Excellency. I have customers, please excuse me.’ And the emperor went off to serve two regulars, who not unnaturally assumed that it was Gilles taking their orders. Ruprecht resumed his usual place in the back parlour, to be joined by Erwin. He asked for his account of the expedition so far. ‘The boys arrived without trouble at the auberge, though of course there was quite a scene when the emperor was introduced. But they managed to explain everything to Madame Mabire’s satisfaction. Needless to say, she was most favourably impressed with His Imperial Majesty. They took horses out to Val de Rougiet the next morning and Monsieur Lemarignier tells me they were in the cellars most of the day. When they left they went up the hill and came down with a heavy package carried between Gillot and François. It’s in Gilles and Felix’s room now. They were hard at work at it much of the night and the next morning there was an earth tremor.’ ‘What on earth do you mean?’ ‘The room trembled, the glass rattled and the three boys whooped. So I knew they had something to do with it.’ ‘And Felix?’ ‘They admit that he was feverish before they began their mission, but he would not stay behind. The coughing began the night after they had been out to Val de Rougiet, and the next day he couldn’t get out of bed. Which is why they worked in his room. Excellency, his sputum has been bloody again.’ The gloomy news silenced Ruprecht for a while. He looked up when Joerg returned. His look was not encouraging. ‘His lesions have opened and he’s coughing up blood. There’s an infection. Opiates will help ease the pain and cough, but I’ve had to increase the dose, which is in itself dangerous. He’s very feverish and I have no idea how to bring his temperature down.’ ‘So it’s bad. What are the chances?’ ‘About fifty-fifty for a temporary recovery but this is the final decline. Rupe, I’m sorry. I’ve seen it before, I can’t hide it from you.’ A lead weight took the place of Ruprecht’s heart. Though the news was not unexpected, that did not help ease the sorrow. ‘I’ll take a moment,’ he said. ‘Then I’ll go up and see him. Where are the other two?’ ‘In with him. They do more good than the opiates.’ Once he felt composed he went up the stairs, pausing at the door of Gilles’s room. There were cheerful young voices within, though they were punctuated periodically by racking coughs and silence. He went in, to find Felix and Gilles on the bed and François seated on the floor, his back against a wall. All three smiled up at him. He went over to ruffle Felix and Gilles’s hair then sat at the foot of the bed. ‘So let’s hear it. Who’s going to tell me?’ ‘That’ll be me,’ said François. ‘Fine, Gillot?’ ‘Go for it, mon frère.’ ‘Right. We rode out on hired horses to Val de Rougiet, and Farmer Lemarignier was very helpful. He said he’d closed the site but he’d be happy to let us in for the day. So the boys took me around the ruins and showed me what they’d found, but then we were at a bit of a loss.’ ‘No you weren’t,’ Felix interjected, ‘you knew exactly what you had to do.’ He started laughing but it turned into a coughing fit. He put a cloth to his mouth to conceal the bloody result. ‘Yes, well,’ François continued. ‘I guess we did. So we went into J-C’s bolthole and looked at the message.’ Gilles sniggered. ‘J-C’s erotic art has been whitewashed by the farmer so as not to offend the lady tourists.’ François laughed too. ‘It would have been better had it been left, but we undressed and well … got in the mood, all three of us. And after some fun, in the end I mounted Gillot and did what bulls do in his ass and as I peed … well, he and I woke up, in the same place but not, if you follow me.’ Gilles kicked in. ‘He was still on my back but the third person in the room was the original Jean-Charles Parmentier, father of our grandfathers. He looked about fifteen, a bit more muscular than we are …’ ‘… and quite a monster bite for a boy his age, I think,’ François continued. ‘I got off Gillot and we sat back and looked at him, and he looked at us. He took us by our hands, and I think our bodies were now his age. He led us out of the cellars and up above ground, and it was the past. A big steel tower was high above us, and there were houses, roofless and burned but with the walls still standing. It was New Paris just after it was sacked. We followed him up the hill behind the town and came to an outcrop of rock, and we sat on it and looked out on the world. ‘“Grandpère,” I said, “what are we to do?” He hugged us round the shoulders, saying “Protect the herd, my own boys, it’s what we bulls must do. A new age is coming, and you will be the primes that destroy the leopards and lead the herd to new and richer plains. Now, below this rock is something I placed in the ground for you one day to find, though I did not know it at the time. And in your bodies is something the Great Mind stored deep in our lineage, which only needs to be awakened for everything to begin.” ‘“How do we do that, grandpère?” I asked. He smiled, and kissed us again. “An act of love is all it takes, join bodies and the knowledge will be released.” Then he was gone, but we were still there, and we made love on that rock and it was beyond glorious.’ ‘Of course,’ Felix butted in, ‘it was only in their heads, so I could hardly find grounds for divorce.’ Gilles rolled his eyes. ‘It was intense but in a different way from the physical act, yet still deeply erotic, and it was Fran who went on top of me to fuck. Then as we both climaxed we woke up and we were still naked in the cellar, but Fran had come inside me hugely, not peed, and I had shot just as hard under me.’ Felix shrugged. ‘To me all that seemed to have happened was that Fran had gone up Gillot and I saw his bum squeeze as he peed, then they went rigid for … maybe sixty seconds, and Fran fell back on his butt and his slimy cock popped out of Gillot.’ Ruprecht was bemused to say the least. ‘And what happened then? Did you have some sort of revelation?’ Gilles shook his head. ‘Sorry to disappoint, Rupe, but no … well, not immediately. We all got dressed again, feeling a bit sheepish. Then we went up the hill behind the site. The crag was there, just like in the dream. We had a shovel and we dug under it. Sure enough, there was a large container, which it took both me and Fran to pull out. ‘I think it was made of the same stuff you found in Hartland, but you can confirm that. It’s over there in the corner, under the blanket. Fran and Kreech got it up on the spare horse while I distracted the farmer. Once we smuggled it inside the auberge we stood it by there. We worked on it all night but we couldn’t get it open. It was when the sun came up and lit up my room that it started humming. After an hour, a green light blinked on as if it was deep inside it and it began to vibrate. When Fran and I both put our hands on it to steady it, the light switched to red. There was a sudden … I don’t know how to describe it. What would you say, Fran?’ ‘Like a dark flash in our heads. And suddenly I had memories I never had before. I knew what the box was, and I looked in Gillot’s eyes, and he did too. We both had the same vision: the hill at Hartland. Then the ground rumbled and everything shook in the house.’ Ruprecht was stunned. ‘And what is it, this box?’ ‘A trigger and a signal, Rupe. Look! The sun’s down and the stars are coming out. The Three Sisters should be coming up over the shoulder of the castle cliff. Go and look at them from the back bedroom, and tell us what you see.’ Ruprecht went out into the passage and found a rear window. The three stars were opening in the sky but there was something odd about them. It took him a while to realise what it was, but eventually he realised they were brighter, and farther apart.
  24. Mike Arram

    Chapter 28

    At last the day came. Trunks were stacked outside the front entrance for the carrier, for Gilles and Felix were proposing to make the whole journey to university on horseback. ‘Naked?’ Ruprecht queried. His brother grinned. ‘Wouldn’t that be exciting? I somehow don’t think we’d get away with it, though. I don’t suppose we’ll be able to at the Casa Levitica either, pity.’ ‘I’m sure you’ll find other ways of having unconventional fun as long as Mutta isn’t looking.’ Felix looked amused at the thought. ‘We’re actually undertaking a survey of Southern Bernician early sites for Dr Joerg en route. Now we know what we’re looking for, he has the idea for a national survey of antiquities and ancient settlements. He’s very keen to extend it into Ardhesse, since he has the manpower at the Institute. He’s given us an itinerary and a camera to play with.’ ‘And His Imperial Majesty?’ ‘Gillot and Fran are down by the pool having a serious heart-to-heart.’ ‘Are you getting jealous, Kreech?’ ‘Me? Why would you say that?’ ‘The past week has been very intense for you two. Gilles has found a brother whom it’s pretty obvious he loves deeply, and it’s mutual.’ Felix flashed his own brother an unusually serious glance. ‘Rupe, you can love your brother deeply and still have plenty left for your husband. Trust me. I know.’ For once, Ruprecht found himself on the back foot in an exchange with Felix, who had just demonstrated an emotional maturity that he usually did not choose to display. For a few moments, it was borne in on Ruprecht that he had taken the easy way and accepted Felix as he presented himself, happy-go-lucky, fun-loving and humorous. He had forgotten the quicksands on which Felix built his façade. His life could tumble into the abyss at any point; one day it would, and no hand outstretched could save him. While he yet lived, Felix enjoyed his life, and his loves were the more poignant and deeper for the sentence which hung over him. His insouciance was just one more defence, but one he put up for those who loved him, not for himself. Ruprecht reached out and took Felix in his arms, hugging him silently. What was there to say? The two Francien boys came round the corner of the schloss ten minutes later, talking earnestly. The faces of both lit up with an identical look when they saw Felix, and Ruprecht felt like an idiot. There was no danger there; anything but. If the minds of the Francien boys were telepathically linked in some way, then Gilles’s brimming love for Felix simply overflowed into François. Jealousy was an impossibility, and Felix was doubly loved. ‘You two pretty boys finished?’ Felix chirped. Gilles took the emperor by a shoulder and hugged him close. ‘We think we’ve sorted out a secure way for us to communicate. Fran’s people have a network of telegraphic addresses up and down the East Coast which act like mailboxes; they also use them to keep in contact with his agents still in the Imperium. He’s given me my own cipher book, which is unique to us two. He’s going back to the Protectorate States where his government-in-exile is. But we’ll be able to keep in touch about Herd business.’ ‘Herd business?’ François nodded vigorously. ‘Gillot and I are the heirs of the Great Bulls. We protect the Herd. That was always my family’s main business, often as we forgot it. But no more. The Mind has awoken in us, and the Herd walks again in mortal minds.’ ‘Does that make me the Great Cow of the Plains?’ Felix was Felix once again. François laughed. ‘It doesn’t work that way, Kreech. You’re our herd brother, sworn to our mission … as soon as we know what it is.’ ‘That’s the thing,’ Gilles affirmed. ‘University or not, we need to discover what it is we can do to reawaken the Mind and bring it back fully into this world, whether it’s by visions, books or digging in an archaeological trench. Dr Joerg’s road mission for us in southern Bernicia is just another step on the way. Who knows what we might uncover? You and Dr Joerg are in it too, Rupe. You have to help us.’ ‘Oh, I think you can be sure of us,’ Ruprecht replied. ‘It’s as fascinating a mystery for us as it is for you two. Our problem is that the Leopard Emperor is looking over our shoulder.’ François was struck by that remark. ‘Leopard Emperor! A great code for Kristijan, Gillot. Add that to the book. Kristijan is the Leopard. Now kneel.’ ‘What?’ ‘Kneel before me, Gilles von Aalst-Parmentier, Ritter von Blauwhaven, Consort of Ostberg, scion and heir of Armand, de jure Prince Imperial and King of the Franciens, brother of the First Emperor.’ Looking puzzled, Gilles knelt before the Emperor of Terre Nouvelle, who took his hands between his and said solemnly ‘Gilles Parmentier, little though I have left in land and authority, yet I name you my own true and loving brother and Prince Imperial of my realm, King of the Franciens, second in dignity only to the Imperial Throne. Arise, Monseigneur.’ Gilles rose, and as he did Felix and Ruprecht fell to theirs. ‘Long live Your Francien Majesty,’ Ruprecht found himself saying with bowed head. ‘Amen,’ echoed his brother. *** Ardheim was gloomy and oppressive under a brassy sky and sullen clouds when Ruprecht and Gilles arrived at its Hauptbahnhof. Ruprecht picked up a sheaf of newspapers and perused them in the cab on the way to their villa. They found it aired and made ready for them by Erwin and Matthias, who had preceded them. ‘Tea’s a possibility, Excellency,’ Erwin stated as he took his master’s valise. ‘But the milk is spoiled by this horrible weather. It should have broken in a thunderstorm by now, but it just gets more and more humid. When the lightning begins we’ll have quite a show across the city, I don’t doubt.’ Joerg went out into the shade of their small back garden with a book. Ruprecht continued poring over the papers, looking for a sense of what was going on in Ardhesse. Press censorship meant that little was said openly other than in adulation of the emperor-king, but between the lines it was clear that Kristijan was planning further ventures. Editorials ranted on about the East Kingdom as a nest of fratricidal treachery against the ‘rightful emperor of the Allemanic people’, by which seems to have been meant Kristijan’s claim to rule the entirety of Terre Nouvelle as Allemanic Emperor. The Protector of Bernicia and the Grand Duke of Hochrecht came in for their own share of vituperation, while military provocations were alleged against the Alleman Empire by the pygmy nations of the Protectorate States, allegations whose veracity Ruprecht seriously doubted. Ruprecht went out to Joerg, who raised an eyebrow in query. ‘He’s stoking warfare all around the eastern boundaries of his self-proclaimed empire,’ Ruprecht told his lover. ‘Someone’s going to get it, and at the moment it looks like the East Kingdom is in his sights, with the first broadside to be directed at its protectorates so as to oust Dreiholmtz from the Mainland and take full control of the north bank of the Great River estuary.’ ‘Wouldn’t it be a bit odd if his General Staff’s plans are so easily to be read; available on the street corners of Ardheim?’ ‘I’m sure you’re right, little one. But war of some sort is planned, and Kristijan’s whipping it up. He enjoys it too much to want it to end. The question is how soon he intends to unleash it.’ ‘He’s setting up a difficult target this time. How can he reach the Three Islands? They’ve never been conquered.’ Ruprecht demurred. ‘The Easterners have had their civil wars, and I seem to recall that in the sixth century, an emperor – was it François VI? – actually landed on Mittelinsel with an army in support of Prince Moritz’s claim on the throne …’ ‘You can be a pedant, Rupe. Anyway Moritz eventually lost and Queen Wilhelmina remained on the throne, so technically it was an unsuccessful invasion. It doesn’t count.’ Ruprecht smiled fondly at his lover. ‘I love our arguments. They usually come down to points of genealogy, not home décor or finances. I wonder what Kreech and Gillot argue about.’ Joerg laughed. ‘Not much I think, though now they might fall out over rank. Felix is at least ten levels of precedence below our own Vieldomainois potboy. The Prince Imperial and titular King of the Franciens is the third highest ranking human being on Terre Nouvelle, and is placed above even the Four Kings on the Golden Ladder, with his own throne on the dais of the Imperial Seat at Aix; the only man apart from the Emperor who may sit in the presence of the Patriarch. Our Gillot can even look down on Kristijan of Ardhesse!’ ‘Just as well it’s all nominal then. It’ll never have any reality, even if François regains his throne. The Imperial Council and Assembly would never allow Gillot’s elevation to be ratified. Still, I like François all the more for the gesture. He must have sensed Gillot’s lingering insecurity about the position I placed him in. Gillot hides it well, but if I can detect it then it will be perfectly transparent to François, his herd brother. By speaking one sentence, François eliminated any lingering feeling of inferiority the boy might feel in anyone’s presence.’ Matthias came out with a sheaf of mail for Ruprecht along with a jug of chilled fruit juice. The envelope bearing the crest of the Allemanic Emperor did nothing to improve Ruprecht’s day, and as he slit it open lightning ripped across the heavy sky above him; the rumble of thunder that followed in its wake was like the detonation of distant artillery. *** The imperial equerry who took charge of Ruprecht and Joerg in the outer courtyard of the Hendrijksborg Castle was not catamite material to Ruprecht’s eye. He was blond, well-built and obviously a nobleman. If there was a pronounced bulge in the crotch of his cavalry breeches, to which Ruprecht’s eye automatically wandered, then that was the only feature of the equerry’s appearance that he thought would appeal to Kristijan’s tastes. Major the Graf Willem-Kristof von Arteveldt was indeed a nobleman, and as he made polite conversation on their long walk along the passages of the royal fortress of Ardhesse it turned out he was a soldier of some considerable experience for his age, which Ruprecht estimated at the late twenties. He also clearly idolised his emperor, to whose eccentricities he seemed entirely blind. Ruprecht was worried at the imperial command that he should bring Joerg to the meeting. He did not in the least like the thought of subjecting his lover to Kristijan’s wild humours. But at least this time the meeting was to be in the heart of the capital, not in the Waltherborg Palace where Kristijan acted out his dangerous and sick fantasies. And indeed when they reached the anteroom to the royal apartments, Ruprecht found it full of general officers and frock-coated councillors, as a meeting was breaking up. Kristijan was among them in affable monarch mode, acting the part of a sane man rather well, apart from the tendency of his gaze to dart about restlessly. As he spotted Ruprecht he burst out loudly ‘Ah Excellency! Professor! Do come through! Such a pleasure to cast aside the cares of state for just a moment.’ Kristijan awaited their respectful bows, and then was so condescending as to put a friendly arm around Ruprecht’s shoulder and usher him past the grenadiers and into his private study, where he took a seat behind his desk and steepled his hands. Ruprecht and Joerg remained standing, as they must. ‘My dear Rupe,’ he smiled, ‘and this is the little fellow I’ve heard so much about. I’ve enjoyed your reports, my dear professor. Perhaps a little dry, but nonetheless most illuminating. And the good Colonel von Ampfeld is most complimentary about the way you manage your assistants and the expedition with which you accomplish your work plans. He believes my investment is paying off very nicely. Well, come along, take seats.’ Ruprecht sat and enquired innocently after the health of their mutual friend, Jacki. The emperor-king frowned and glanced at Joerg. ‘I had to discharge the boy from my service, Rupe. He was … well, tiresome will do as a description.’ ‘Did he return to his previous occupation, sire?’ ‘I have no idea and could not care less,’ Kristijan retorted. ‘Now the reason we are here is for you to explain what the next stage should be, after the successes of the Nordrecht expedition. You tell me, Rupe.’ ‘Sire, the natural scientists at the Carolinaean are bemused and intrigued by the Ancient technology we shipped south. They’ve come to the conclusion that – as we first surmised – the machinery must be powered by voltaic energy, though what it does is a mystery. Their best guess to date is that one of the boxes may well be some sort of communications array, but it’s only a guess. They tried to apply a voltaic current to it but after all these centuries no result could be expected, and none was achieved.’ ‘So what next?’ ‘Hartland, sire. The English prefecture, or New London, as they once called it, is the key to it all, and what lies under the hill may be the treasure vault. We found nothing like it at the Francien or Alleman prefectures. We have to get back there.’ ‘Yes, but unfortunately our Montenard friends are not in the least sympathetic to our scientific curiosity. It is most annoying, indeed frustrating. I suppose I could lead an army into the Republic to be massacred, as my ancestors so often have done, but I have better things to do with my troops. So I’m expecting suggestions. Professor?’ ‘S-s-subterfuge, Imperial M-m-majesty.’ The re-emergence of the stutter told Ruprecht all he needed to know about Joerg’s state of mind. ‘Perhaps you could u-u-unpack that g-g-gnomic reference, professor?’ Kristijan was unable to resist the temptation to mock the impediment. Ruprecht gritted his teeth. ‘W-w-we c-c-can only … m-m-masquerade as … s-s-something else.’ Ruprecht hated the malign turn on the emperor-king’s lips, because the glance he got from Kristijan revealed it was Ruprecht’s discomfort that he was aiming at not Joerg’s, and he achieved his aim as Ruprecht butted in. ‘Neither the professor nor I are Ardhessian citizens, sire, and we have good relations with the locals. We can go back in under false colours as we are known locally as Bernicians; the problem will be our Ardhessian team.’ Kristijan leaned back in his chair. ‘You’ll understand that they have to accompany you. I pay the costs, gentlemen, and I make the terms.’ ‘We realise that, sire. But if a group of Ardhessians appear in the southern cantons of the Republic after the events of last year they will be immediately interned as suspected foreign agents.’ ‘Didn’t the colonel nonetheless make a stay in Hartland earlier this year? I believe that’s in your report.’ Ruprecht was quite sure that his deputy director, affable and decent fellow though he was, was making separate reports about the Institute’s work and activities to the Ardhessian government, but he was willing to pretend otherwise. ‘He travelled in the guise of a private citizen, sire, and I believe he went so far as to make his site visit part of a supposed walking tour of Hartland. He was interrogated thoroughly on his crossing into the Republic and encountered police agents at suspiciously regular intervals. The Montenards take their security seriously, sire.’ The emperor-king frowned. ‘Find a way round it, Rupe. I want results by the new year.’ ‘I have some ideas, sire.’ Kristijan cocked his head and gave a less sardonic smile. ‘I don’t doubt it. I have high expectations of you, gentlemen. Send me the details of your scheme within the next two weeks. Now do forgive me, things are a bit busy today. My armies occupied the Protectorate States this morning, and not a shot fired. The Easterners just declared war on me. I do hope for your sake that the Confederacy doesn’t follow suit, or you two will be enemy aliens.’ *** ‘Any news from the boys?’ Joerg had joined Ruprecht in the small kitchen in the conciergerie of the Institute. It was the only place there where it was safe to talk freely. ‘A chatty letter from Kreech this morning, during the course of which he confided the rather significant morsel that cousin Franz has made it down to the Casa Levitica for their Reading Week house party.’ ‘Cousin Franz? You don’t mean …?’ ‘François got away from his place of exile in the Duchy of Pasgau before Kristijan’s troops seized it. He’s lying low in the Holy See with Gillot and Kreech.’ ‘Isn’t putting that sort of information in a letter dangerous?’ ‘Not really, I think. We do have a Cousin Franz; my uncle Colbrand’s third son, a nice kid who’s Kreech’s age. But it wouldn’t be him at the Casa Levitica, as he was born blind and he’s not often out of the house at Gieleborg. I imagine one of the Baron’s people will have seen this letter and whoever it is will have been briefed on the Von Aalst genealogy, so Kreech’s snippet is designed to seem credible enough. But there’s more. Kreech diffidently suggests we join the house party to please Mutta. And that’s as good as telling us that he desperately wants us there.’ ‘Are we going?’ ‘Oh yes. But I’ll reply just as diffidently. So François is in the Holy See? Why not Dreiholmtz? I suppose he doesn’t want to be seen as yet another pretender at the court of His Eastern Majesty alongside Horst the Odious of Ardhesse. Knowing him now the way I do, I can see how a boy like François, with such a high idea of his position, would find taking refuge in the East Kingdom humiliating.’ Joerg shrugged. ‘He can hardly afford that sort of pride. He’s also bringing our two boys into some danger.’ ‘Kreech is a Von Aalst. He will see his honour as demanding that he give sanctuary to François and damn the consequences, and as another Von Aalst I entirely agree with him. We’ll take the train this weekend.’ *** The train journey to the Holy See was uneventful, and when the fiacre brought them up to the Casa Levitica there was no sign that a refugee emperor was in residence; no guards, flags or scurrying minions. As Ruprecht and Joerg greeted Mutta in the loggia he asked where everybody was. ‘Gillot and Kreech are dutifully pursuing their studies at the Patriarchal Library.’ ‘And … er … Cousin Franz?’ Mutta gave a little laugh. ‘By the pool. A handsome sight, and of course the very image of our own beautiful Gillot.’ ‘Did they explain it all to you, Mutta?’ ‘Yes, Rupe, and I have to say I was enthralled. What wonders! And I thought all your pottering about the past was no more than dilettantism.’ ‘Mother! I’m hurt!’ She laughed and took his and Joerg’s arms to walk them out on to the poolside, where they found François in a light silk robe, with a book. He looked up and smiled Gilles’s smile at the arrivals. Ruprecht and Joerg bowed low. They took seats under an awning, which belled and flapped gently above them like a sail in the sea breeze. Young Ludwig, in a fetching white and plum livery robe, brought out chilled drinks. ‘Tell us how you got here, sire,’ Ruprecht asked. ‘The Allemanic forces crossed the frontiers of Pasgau unopposed before dawn a week ago. It was not unexpected, and the Duke had already prepared a launch to escape from his Residenz, which backs on to the harbour. The Dreiholmtz navy was offshore to discourage any attempt by the Imperial Fleet to blockade us into the port. As it happened the Duke chose to stay in his little realm, but he had me, my household and the ducal and imperial confidential papers hurried on board the launch to be taken out to the flagship of the Inner Seas Fleet. The High Admiral wanted to take me to Mittelinsel but I wasn’t going to put myself in Eastern power: my ancestors would have risen from their graves in protest! The admiral was civil enough to put me on a destroyer, which conveyed us to your native land, Rupe. And that’s where the imperial government-in-exile now resides, giving out that His Imperial Majesty is closeted in Gieleborg Castle, not far from your own Freiborg.’ ‘But you are in fact here, sire.’ ‘Indeed. The day after we arrived at Gieleborg, I ordered a valise packed and told my people to keep up the pretence that I was moping around Hochrecht and deny anyone an interview. So with one bodyguard and the valise, I took the train south to the Holy City with the papers of no less than your cousin Franz von Aalst. Your uncle Colbrand was most helpful.’ ‘Why, sire?’ ‘I miss my brother Gilles … seriously. When we’re together our minds interlock in some arcane way and our happiness in each other spills over between us. We’ve found that distance breaks the link. Our dreams are getting more urgent too.’ ‘What’s happening in the dreams?’ Joerg asked. ‘We walk the woodland path and meet the hybrid child as before, but the Three Sisters in the night sky above us blaze brighter, and the voices in our heads are louder. At times they even seem intelligible, though we can never remember what’s said when we wake up.’ ‘Anything new at all?’ ‘As before, we share the dream without needing to be in the same bed. But last night …’ ‘Last night?’ asked Joerg. ‘Wait till Gillot and Kreech are back. We need your advice, yours and Rupe’s, doctor.’ Gilles and Felix arrived late in the afternoon in white linen summer suits, sporting flowers in their buttonholes but wearing the regulation student caps. They hurried out into the gardens, pausing only to greet Mutta before joining François on his recliner, the emperor kissing both of them. ‘We’re ready for the pool, Mutta!’ Felix announced. ‘That sounds like a dismissal, my dears. Very well. Dinner is at seven, so be ready for it: full festal dress, remember.’ She took up her parasol and disappeared within the villa. Ruprecht was already undressed by then, and Joerg jumped after him. The three boys whooped as they leapt in as soon as they were out of their clothes, and there was a romp for a while; afterwards they all lay out under the awning, though unlike Joerg Ruprecht found it difficult to join the siesta. François, Gilles and Felix on the other hand drifted off, Felix lying between the other two. Ruprecht had finally fallen into a doze when a shout brought him back from his siesta. He sat up. Joerg too was just coming around but Gilles and François were wide awake and staring into each other’s eyes. ‘What?’ Ruprecht asked groggily. ‘It happened again!’ François exclaimed. ‘What did?’ ‘It wasn’t the hybrid boy in the dream we had yesterday, but a real human kid of about fourteen, dirty and naked, his hair all over the place, with a pistol hanging around his neck on a lanyard shouting at us both urgently. Gilles and I were together on the path this time, not alone. But we couldn’t hear a word the kid was saying. It was a bit horrible … he was pleading with us, but no words came.’ ‘I know who it was!’ Gilles asserted. ‘It was the J-C of the bunker at Val de Rougiet, with the gun he scavenged on the way to find his mother and sisters. We were supposed to help him.’ ‘What? How?’ Gilles gave him a determined look. ‘I don’t know, but it’s now we have to do what the Great Bulls our grandfathers told us. We’ve already discussed this with Felix, Rupe. I know you’re going to tell us we’re not to go, but we all three have decided we must head towards Vieldomaine tomorrow. And we go on our own, not with you or Dr Joerg. We’re being called there.’ Ruprecht took a deep breath. ‘Fine. I can’t stop you two, insane though what you’re planning is, but please not Felix. He has to stay.’ ‘No!’ Felix exclaimed. ‘Not a chance. Fran and Gillot say they need me for this, and you can’t stop me.’ ‘Please Rupe,’ the young emperor urged. ‘Gillot won’t go without Kreech, and I can’t go without Gillot.’ ‘Had you thought what would happen if you fall into Ardhessian hands, sire?’ ‘Of course I have. But running and hiding gets my cause nowhere. My ancestors did not do things that way.’ Ruprecht shook his head. ‘I feel as though I should be locking you in a cellar, but there are forces at work here that won’t be denied. I can only hope they’ll give you some sort of protection too. You’ll do your best to keep us informed by telegraph, right! If you’re going to be Franz von Aalst, François, I suggest you work on your Allemanic accent. Gillot will help; his is impeccable. You on the other hand sound like a Francien tourist, and a supposedly Allemanic lad sounding like a Francien can only be suspicious. In fact you had better let Gillot do all the talking in Vieldomaine. Then there’s your appearance. Your face is not exactly unknown in Chasancene, sire.’ ‘How long do you think your mission will last, Gillot?’ Joerg asked. ‘We just need to get to Val de Rougiet and hope we can trigger whatever it is we’re being asked to do, Dr Joerg. We’ll know soon enough if it works. So it could be only a few days, though I’d very much like to call in on maman, papa and Cecile, and let them meet Fran. He’ll stun them.’ Joerg continued. ‘I ask because we have to get back to Ardheim. Kristijan wants to hear our plan to get our team into Hartland and finish off the exploration of the English prefecture. We can’t afford not to deliver the scheme. So if things go wrong in Vieldomaine, we won’t be best placed to help.’ ‘Also, you only have a week’s holiday available from your university course,’ Ruprecht reminded his charges. At dinner later, Ruprecht found he could not share the suppressed excitement around the table and for once he fully shared his mother’s trepidation when she heard what was being planned. But the boys went directly from the table to pack, or rather to get Ludwig to pack for them. The villa was bustling before dawn, and cabs were ready to take the Val de Rougiet expedition to the station. All the adults could do was to wave the boys off. They had at least dressed down, and François had adopted a broad-brimmed hat to shade his face. He regretted that he did not have time to grow his first moustache, but a pair of tinted wire-rimmed spectacles offered some small disguise. Ludwig went with them, dressed like a decidedly scruffy lower servant. Ruprecht was quite taken with the servant boy’s sensitivity to the situation. After the cabs had disappeared into the dawn, Mutta, Ruprecht and Joerg returned to the house for a sombre breakfast on the terrace. She was still unhappy. ‘Call me foolish, my dears,’ she said, ‘but I have a distinct feeling this little adventure of theirs is going to turn out to be more complicated than they expect.’ *** Joerg looked up at Ruprecht across his worktable at the Institute. Hextie and Della were on the other side of the room, cataloguing the contents of another Ancient cabinet full of enigmatic machinery. ‘So you cheated?’ ‘Of course I did. As soon as I saw they’d never listen to sense, I just made token protests and sent Ludwig to wire Grossmutta with the news. Chasancene is now full of Bernician agents. The available rooms in the Auberge aux Falaises have all been taken by our operatives. No one’s going to get close enough to François to recognise him as the emperor if they can help it. Erwin’s in Val de Rougiet; he got very friendly with Monsieur Lemarignier, and he’s arranging the boys’ trouble-free and exclusive access to the site. It’ll be closed to other visitors while they’re there; cost me a bit, but better safe than sorry.’ ‘I’m relieved. I hope you’ve told Mutta.’ ‘I did. She was very worried and rightly so. Kids. You can never tell them anything, so I didn’t bother trying. They’re convinced nothing can touch them.’ ‘It’s their stage of development. I’ve read a paper on human physiology which suggests that organic chemicals released into the body in adolescence do some very odd things to the male brain: delusions of invincibility, mood swings and so on. A professor in Aix has been doing some interesting work dissecting the corpses of the younger soldiers. There’s been no shortage of them recently.’ ‘Erwin’s been wiring me twice a day. The boys have been staying at the Auberge for the past two nights and so far have kept their heads down and stayed out of trouble. They sent a note to Monsieur Lemarignier asking his permission to revisit the site, claiming falsely to be working for the Royal Institute. Erwin had a laugh over that.’ ‘My word! The imposture! Have they no shame?’ ‘Apparently not. The good farmer has of course readily allowed them access. Hopefully they’ll be in and out today, and then be on their way home. In fact, by my calculation they should have finished whatever they want to do by now.’ ‘Good,’ Joerg said. ‘You wonder what precisely they might meet there. So far all their visions have been true ones. Mad though their little expedition might be, the results could be as intriguing as their previous adventures in the mind.’ They carried on working, and it was at the ninth hour when a strange noise intruded into their consciousness from across the work room: a protracted hum followed by an uncanny squeak, repeated four times. Hextie shrieked. ‘Chief! Professor! The Ancient box! There’s a green light come on inside it!’
  25. Mike Arram

    Chapter 27

    Ruprecht occupied a seat at the salon’s circular table between Gilles and François, who sat opposite one another, silent and staring into each other’s eyes. Joerg had arrived and, somewhat shaken by the sight of Gilles facing his apparent duplicate, examined the two youths. The emperor had been too dazed to object. The little doctor frowned at his scribbled notes, then looked up and gave a cough to gain attention. ‘If I may, Imperial Majesty and Gillot.’ The emperor gave a tight smile. ‘Call me François, since it appears I am among family.’ ‘Then sire, I will offer the following observations. In almost every physical way you two are closely similar: hair, eye colour, teeth even. But you are not identical in the way some twins are. May I ask, sire, if you have any birthmark?’ ‘An interesting strawberry shape on my left inner thigh.’ Joerg nodded. ‘Gilles is flawless, he has no marks on him other than the usual scattering of small moles which dust the skin of one of his dark complexion. Your skin is much the same, François.’ Gilles stirred. ‘What do you mean? We’re similar but not twins? Looking at François’s face is like looking into a mirror.’ ‘That’s the odd thing. Unlike with actual identical twins, there are a number of variations: in the nose shape, for instance, and the line of the lower jaw. Of your physical features only the eyes are truly identical. This is why photographic images will show no more than a strong resemblance between the two of you. But in person none of these dissimilarities register because François has your exact expression, tone of voice, colouring, height and posture. His hair curls as yours does and even his bodily odour is yours. It is unaccountable, but even stranger is this. I cannot express it in scientific or medical terms, but your … presence is the same.’ ‘What do you mean by that, sir?’ the emperor asked. ‘As I said, sire, I cannot express it. But stranger though you are to me, being in your presence is as if I were in Gillot’s, whom I love dearly. Excuse me sire, but there’s no possibility that in some way a relative yours visited Chasancene and, er … ?’ ‘Out of order, Dr Joerg!’ Felix exclaimed. ‘Dear Mabire Parmentier would never, ever do anything like that.’ ‘François and I were born on the same day,’ Gilles observed, ignoring the sideshow. ‘I always thought it odd that when we celebrated the emperor’s birthday in Chasancene, it was my birthday too. At what time of day were you born, François?’ ‘Exactly at the eleventh hour of the night, Gilles, as the dawn began to lighten the sky, so my mother told me.’ ‘As was I,’ Gilles said. ‘We entered the world at the same moment.’ Ruprecht spoke up. ‘My poor Joerg is faced by a phenomenon without scientific explanation, so it falls to me suggest that it must be the supernatural we look to for answers.’ Joerg shook his head. ‘I object to so quick a resort to irrationality. There may well be a scientific explanation, we just don’t know what it is yet.’ Identical questioning expressions of Gilles and François were directed at Ruprecht. It was uncanny. He could see in each face the image of his beloved ward, and though he knew beyond doubt that the face to his left was truly Gilles’s he could imagine otherwise, which gave him mental double vision. ‘We’ll get no further here and now, my dears, but we must pursue this,’ the Princess Regent concluded. ‘Something this uncanny cannot but be significant. The banquet commences in only half an hour, and I suggest that François, the doctor and Ruprecht not attend; we cannot have Gillot and the emperor in close public proximity. As Your Imperial Majesty is here incognito, no apologies should be necessary. I will have dinner sent in for you three gentlemen; you can keep each other company and, I suggest, do some serious thinking. Come Felix, Gilles and Hans!’ There was silence while footmen arrived and laid the table, during which time the three went over to a window recess and sipped at tea. Ruprecht could not but stare at the abstracted emperor over the rim of his cup while he groped for conversational topics. ‘Sire, are you aware that it was I and my brother Hans who helped Kristijan of Ardhesse escape from the Empire after his attack on you?’ The emperor’s surprise was evident. ‘What? No, I knew that he was suspected of slipping on board a ship at Port François, and much of the river traffic was searched. Hans is a naval officer of Bernicia, surely? How could he be connected with the affair?’ ‘He was at the time a lieutenant-commander in the Hochrechtner navy. Kristijan stowed away on board his corvette, on which I was a passenger. Hans landed us on Vieldomainois territory and I got him to Chasancene, from where Ardhessian agents smuggled him south after some … inconsequential adventures.’ ‘So you know the man personally? How very strange.’ ‘I know him better than I’m comfortable with. Indeed, I am currently in the embarrassing position of being his academic agent in a very sensitive investigation he’s funding. Sire, forgive any disrespect, but he had a story as to how it came about that he was on the run from your École militaire; having now met you I’m beginning to have some suspicions as to the entire truth of what he told me.’ A sardonic look occupied the emperor’s face. ‘Kristijan and the entire truth are somewhat opposing concepts. Don’t spare my blushes, Excellency, report what he said.’ ‘Sire, it was that you and he had a sexual affair, that in the course of an emotional contretemps you drew on him and he disarmed and flattened you with the hilt of his sword, cutting your face.’ The emperor grimaced. ‘As I said, one never gets the entire truth from Kristijan. Yes, there was an affair, my first and to date only one. You know him, so you can only be aware of his beauty and seductiveness,’ ‘He seduced me, sire. Not long after you. Experience and common sense are little defence against his wiles and sensuality.’ ‘There was a fight too, but you did not get the full story obviously. In his time at the école Kristijan particularly enjoyed seducing the youngest class of cadets, who all too easily fell prey to his charm and confidence. He most enjoyed deflowering virgins, as I was when he entered my bed. But I was not enough for him. Behind the back of the school authorities he set up quite a ménage; the école admitted veterans’ children as young as eight, my dear sir, and he was eventually discovered in their dormitory by the supervisor. ‘What could I do when I found out but confront him? No one else could. It was made all the more painful in that he had convinced me of his genuine love for me. Damn the man! So yes, there was a fight, in which I did indeed draw on him and he struck me down. But it was not fought over my possessiveness and immaturity.’ ‘Then you followed up by unleashing war against Ardhesse, sire?’ ‘Could you imagine such a creature on the throne of one of the four kingdoms? It was not just his preying on children so young to satisfy his lust, my eyes had been opened. I saw him at last for what he truly was; a sadist, getting his pleasure from the domination and use of others, a man utterly without morals or conscience. How could I not attempt to thwart his possession of the crown, even at the cost of his odious uncle claiming it over his head? Bad man though he is, his nephew is far worse. So as Emperor I had to do my duty, even to levying war against another realm. My family is an odd collection of people, but fearless justice is something we have always endeavoured to do: il faut que protèger l’harde contre les léopards.’ ‘What did you just say, sir?’ The emperor looked puzzled at the enquiry. ‘You don’t recognise the text, sir? It’s inscribed on the ancient tomb of St François, which lies in the crypt of his basilica. I don’t suppose you will have seen it; it’s not generally open to the public, but on the Day of the Dead the imperial family make vigil there amongst our ancestors, and that text is drawn to the attention of all the young princes. It’s our unofficial motto: ‘Keep the leopards from the herd.’ *** ‘Keep the leopards from the herd,’ Joerg ruminated later to his lover. ‘I’ve heard of that tomb, but few have seen it, as no one goes into the Imperial burial vault at Aix but the family and the imperial provosts of the basilica. Nonetheless there is a seventh-century woodcut of the tomb in the Antiquités de la Basilique Impériale by Provost Georges. We have a copy at home. It shows a plain stone slab set on a table, rather roughly squared but clearly incised with a pattern of plains flowers. There’s a heraldic erdbeest carved in the centre, though from its style that feature’s a much later addition, The legend, though, isn’t shown in the picture of the top of the slab, perhaps because it’s carved around the edges. Do you think, Rupe, that St François’s is a genuine second-century tombstone?’ ‘I do. I think it was carved just after the year 100 by men only a generation away from the days of herded humans. More than that, it’s a direct link between the Imperial House and the days when humans were herded by the erdbeesten. I think Jean-Charles and his son weren’t just riders of the plains, they had been human bull primes first.’ ‘And that means …?’ ‘The pair were at one time in close and intimate contact with the royal erdbeesten. Remember how Maria told of the bulls guarding the sleeping herd against leopard packs? What’s carved on that tomb is a herd prime’s job description, drummed into a human brain. The Imperial House must derive its authority and mission directly from the erdbeesten, not the Colony that the erdbeesten sacked and the first emperors finished off. The erdbeesten live on still, but in the Imperium.’ Joerg shrugged. ‘Well, that’s a fascinating insight if you’re right, but how does it help us to understand the present situation?’ ‘There was a hybrid erdbeest calf in each boy’s dream. A creature half human and half erdbeest.’ ‘Rupe, if you’re about to suggest that humans and erdbeesten interbred and there’s a bloodline from the aboriginal form of intelligent life on this planet to the Emperor François, just forget it. It’s impossible. No erdbeest bull could breed a woman, and no human male could breed a cow. You might as well try to impregnate a horse. The sperm of one species was never compatible with the eggs of the other.’ ‘Maybe not.’ ‘And another thing, how come the entirely humble Vieldomainois family of Parmentier has produced a child who is a living double of the emperor?’ ‘They come from Champs Dolent originally.’ ‘So?’ ‘They lived at or near the ancient Francien prefecture, and maybe they have done for generations, going back across the centuries to the days of the Herding. The Parmentiers may not have ever been noble, but maybe there is more to them than appears, something deep in their past. If our theory of early human society is correct Imperial blood must have been spread liberally around the human herd, since primes would have the first right to breed the human cows and would deny their wombs to lesser males. So it would not be that surprising to find physical convergences within the Francien population.’ Joerg pondered this. ‘Jacques Levaillant is Francien, and you say he too has a physical resemblance to Gillot, and thus to the emperor; not as close as those two are, but still close enough for you to remark upon it. Maybe you have something, but how does this explain the dreams?’ ‘Not easily, but let’s go back to what we know of royal erdbeesten behaviour. Maria’s memorandum suggested that the creatures were gestalt, their minds united and in constant telepathic communication, which could direct action at several levels. It kept seasonal time for the species, directing mating and migration. That may indeed have been how it originated, for the common erdbeesten, their primitive cousins, seem to act in much the same way to this day; we’ve both seen it. ‘But what about the higher level? The gestalt was conscious and drew its information from its roaming herds. The eyes of the erdbeesten must have observed and patiently analysed the human newcomers to their world for several years and fed back the information into the gestalt mind. But it did not try to talk with humankind, perhaps as baffled as to how humans communicated as humans were about erdbeesten. When the Allemanic humans began to take erdbeesten forcibly from the herds and run tests on them, probably invasive tests, the individual beasts must have cried silently to their herd brothers for help, and it came dramatically as the entire erdbeesten species was mobilised by the gestalt and combined to destroy the threat from the colonial males and incorporate the surviving women and children into their herds. The gestalt mind dealt with the human colony as an individual prime bull would have dealt with a dangerous and challenging male.’ Joerg nodded. ‘You put it very well, Rupe, but again I ask how that helps us. What are you suggesting?’ ‘Why are we assuming that the gestalt stopped analysing the humans once they had been forcibly taken into herds? Maybe the corporate mind finally broke through its incomprehension and talked to human minds. It may have been too late, but the tomb of the first Emperor François is some evidence that before the gestalt drifted into oblivion some humans were in communication with it.’ ‘Good heavens! My word, if that were true then …’ ‘… maybe the gestalt continues in some form, perhaps even in human heads.’ ‘Like those of Gilles and François?’ ‘Exactly.’ Joerg pondered this for some moments and then gave a happy smile. ‘Hah! There is a scientific explanation then.’ ‘Don’t be smug, little one mine. Let’s go and report this to the emperor. He must have dealt with his aides by now. He can spare a week in Blauwhaven, he says. We have that long to investigate the link before our boys disappear to university.’ *** The small remnants of the imperial household were put up in the rectory of Blauwhaven, apart from the emperor’s personal valet, a discreet and collected individual not dissimilar to Erwin Wenzel. François was already well aware of the relationship between Gilles and Felix, but the further pairings took him aback. ‘Does every bed in this house have two males in it?’ ‘In this wing, sire, yes. I hope that doesn’t make you uncomfortable?’ ‘No, Excellency, it makes me envious. It’s something of himself a Francien emperor could never be honest about with his people. Attitudes in the Empire, my empire, are not as liberal as amongst Allemans. Do you know that there’s no evidence that any of my predecessors on the throne were homosexual? Unless one of them was and hid it well, I may well be unique to date in my line. That was another reason why Kristijan was so seductive to me; he was so open about his sexuality. I envied him, at least then. Now I know that there is more to loving other men than just joining bodies. To begin with one must choose the right body.’ ‘Wisely said, sire.’ ‘As I told you, monsieur, you may call me François. Your two boys have already decided I’m “Fran”.’ ‘Have they invited you down to the pool by the woods?’ ‘No. Is that significant?’ ‘Clothing is not required, and they like putting on a show.’ The emperor looked momentarily nervous. ‘I … perhaps that might not be a good idea.’ ‘They have sensitivity and tact on a good day. They probably thought that too.’ Joerg was keen to commence observations. He spent the first night François was at the schloss by his bed with a watch and notepad, recording the youth’s sleep pattern. Gilles slept in Joerg and Ruprecht’s bed, while Ruprecht made corresponding observations from an armchair. Felix had to sleep alone. At breakfast both boys recounted their night visions, which were identical, as were the recorded movements they made in their sleep. ‘Was the vision in any way more distinct now you are in physical proximity?’ ‘No, doctor,’ François replied. ‘It was as before. Was that so for you too, Gillot?’ ‘Like Fran said, but I didn’t … er … shoot in my sleep.’ He blushed slightly, and the corresponding look in François’s eyes told everyone that his dreams sometimes also culminated in an ejaculation. The three boys had quickly become ‘Fran,’ ‘Gillot’ and ‘Kreech’ to each other, and were as rapidly intimate as outgoing teenage boys tend to become. Joerg frowned, and concluded ‘Then with Felix’s permission we move to the next stage. Gillot and Fran should sleep together tonight.’ ‘Fine,’ Felix agreed, ‘but I stand watch with them.’ He turned a mock-fierce look on the pair. ‘No funny business in our bed, Fran. You two can do what you like in your head, as long as I get a full account afterwards … with nothing left out.’ Gilles and François exchanged identical sheepish looks. *** Ruprecht was up early the next morning, but he found all three boys already at the breakfast table in their nightshirts. They were talking intensely across their plates and cups. They looked up when he entered. ‘So something happened?’ ‘Damn right,’ Felix said. ‘It was amazing. We’re just working on a written account for you and getting the story straight. Are the horses outside?’ ‘I hadn’t noticed.’ ‘We want to go riding on the moors. Nude and bareback.’ ‘What?’ ‘They’ve been back in time! Really! They’ve roamed with the herd and ridden with Jean-Charles, Armand, the first François and his Cory! It’s amazing! I’m so envious. So they told me they’d show me what Francien boy warriors did; nothing left out!’ ‘Are you alright with this, François?’ The young emperor’s eyes were alight. ‘Rupe, it was astounding! I was … we were … there, with my … our … ancestors. It was more than a vision. We talked and … other things. We met royal erdbeesten!’ ‘Who’s Cory? Who’s Armand?’ ‘Jean-Charles’s brother, my ancestor! The Great Bull of the Plains!’ Gilles stated proudly. ‘And Cory?’ ‘The second emperor was a homo like me, and Cory was his mate!’ François stated, just as proudly. ‘No Von Aalsts in your vision by any chance?’ The boys laughed hilariously, threw off their nightshirts and ran naked and laughing from the room, François slapping Gilles’s handsome bare butt as they ran, a butt entirely identical to his own. The three deliberately galloped their horses past the breakfast room window, an exhilarating and erotic sight, but curiously François and Gilles rode the same horse, François in front and Gilles behind him, holding him tight around the waist. Joerg wandered in yawning not long afterwards. He looked a question and got a rundown on the news from the night. ‘Good heavens!’ ‘Fran and Gillot are over the moon. They’ve had real answers, and I’m bursting to find out what they are. What’s more, they’ve been given gifts. You can see it in their eyes. François has found affirmation in that the greatest of the emperors, the first of his name, was like him, queer. He’s no longer having to apologise for what he is. Gillot for his part has been given a lineage and a story of greatness past that goes with his name. He’s no longer an intruder into the aristocratic world. He’s greater than us all! He’s of the Imperial line, from the brother of the first emperor.’ *** Later that morning Joerg and Ruprecht were called down to the pool by a breathless and still naked Felix. ‘We want to tell you down there, and don’t come with clothes. We’re gonna be boy-bulls all day today.’ They found Gilles and François lying facing each other, heads resting on elbows, talking animatedly and smiling like the closest of friends. Felix went to sit between them and the pair reached up to caress his cheeks and shoulders. Gilles then got up and surrounded his husband, kissing and nuzzling the back of his neck softly and sweetly. He looked up at Ruprecht. ‘This is how the ancient François sat with his Cory, it was so beautiful,’ he said. They shifted into a circle. ‘So tell us everything,’ Joerg demanded. François looked at Gilles, who nodded to him, and it was the emperor who began; fittingly, Ruprecht thought. ‘Gilles and I awoke together, or so it seemed. We were lying on grass holding each other among lots of other warm naked bodies, and they smelled nice, not stinky. We were ourselves, but as if we were kids, maybe ten or eleven; we had no hair down there anyway. The sun was getting up and it was a glorious day on the plains, which were as they must have been in ancient times, with vast stretches of green grass, and small woods disappearing blue into the early morning air. I could see antelope cropping in the distance, and stilt birds were pecking at the ground close by. As I sat up next to Gillot, he took my shoulder and it was real, I mean I really felt him touch me and his warm belly press into my back. I smelled his body and it was like herbs and milk. It wasn’t a dream. I could direct my own movements. Is that what it was like for you, Gillot?’ ‘It was. I could feel your shoulder, smooth and warm under my hand. I could smell the oils in your hair. And I was hungry. Other kids got to their knees and a woman with heavy breasts knelt up. Little ones toddled over to take her nipples. Then when they let go bigger kids took them in their mouths. A woman was next to us and offered herself so we both took a breast. It was amazing to taste when her milk spilled into our mouths, rich and sweet, not like human milk really is, I think. A couple of squeezes and sucks and we were satisfied, and she smiled down on us as we fed, as if she were our mother. I’ve never felt so content.’ François resumed. ‘So then we stood up, and the herd was rising around us. But it wasn’t just humans. There were erdbeest cows and calves sleeping there too, and two calves took our place at the human woman’s breasts as we stood, and she smiled down at them just as she did on us. The bulls were sleeping in the tree line, and they got up a little later. When they did they were magnificent, human and erdbeesten alike, potent and strong creatures with, … well, I can’t imagine having what some of them had between their thighs. I’d have to walk bow-legged. Cows went up to them to offer grubs and vermicules. They nestled into their laps and fed them by hand, erdbeesten cows feeding human males and human women feeding erdbeesten bulls. The human bulls kissed and stroked the female erdbeesten as they ate and the erdbeesten licked the human women with their long tongues; but it was intimate rather than erotic. ‘Two of the young human bulls were behaving differently. They’d been sleeping in each other’s arms and now they were sitting waiting for us, wrapped together like Gillot and Kreech are. One was handsome and dark-headed and the other straw-haired and paler in body, but both were beautiful. The dark-haired one beckoned us over. We ran over eagerly because we could see that he was our kin; he had our look. ‘They separated, knelt up, opened their arms to us and cuddled us, kissing our cheeks as if they were our fathers and we their young sons. Then the dark bull took our hands and he led us through the trees, where we found two horses waiting. They lifted us up and placed us on the same mount, me in front and Gillot behind holding me tight, as if he were a younger brother clinging on to me as his elder, friend and protector. I had no brother till then, but now I do.’ His eyes met Gillot’s and there were tears in the emperor’s. After a pause François continued. ‘The two men likewise mounted their horse and led us out on to the plain under the rising sun. We rode for quite a while, and it was all real, because the horse’s pelt was rough on my thighs; Gillot’s sweat was slick on my back, and he went hard pretty often between us.’ Felix sniggered. ‘Ha! Even the dream-Gillot can’t stop doing that!’ François rolled his eyes and resumed. ‘We reached a large wood and a whistle from the dark bull halted the horses, He slid off his mount to help us down, then he put me on his shoulders and the pale one put Gillot on his and they walked us under the trees. ‘I put my arms round his neck and snuggled into his rich long hair which smelled so good, and I asked him his name. He gave a laugh. “It’s the same as yours, little one. I’m François, and this is Cory, my mate.” “Where are we going?” I asked, and my voice was a child’s voice. “To meet Father and Uncle, the Great Bulls of the Plain. We have things to tell you, our children.” ‘After a short while a path led us into a clearing, and on a mound in the centre rich in flowers waited two seated men. They were powerful and beautiful, each in their way. We were put down on the ground in front of them. The one on the right held out his arms to me and I knew him, and I ran to him shouting “Grandpère!” while Gillot ran to the other man shouting the same happy greeting. They took us in their great arms and crushed us to them and kissed us. I have never felt so safe and loved. I knew my grandsire for the first emperor, and Gillot knew his for the emperor’s brother.’ Ruprecht broke in. ‘What told you that, Gillot?’ ‘I just knew, Rupe, as if I’d always known. All of it was so familiar. It was the dream world that I’ve been half-aware of for so long, it was the world of the Human Herd. It’s where I think I mostly belong.’ ‘I also,’ François agreed. ‘I wake after good dreams and I remember fragments of it, but in last night’s vision I was there in truth.’ ‘So what then?’ Joerg pursued. ‘You were called there for a reason, what was it?’ François replied. ‘This is where it got scarier. Out of the trees now came erdbeesten; there were bulls, cows and calves and they led with them a human male, or what was left of him. He was a mess, his skin red and hanging off him. I could see his insides and his feet were just bloody bones. His eyes were white, filmy, blind blanks. Grandpère cuddled me tight and told me I was safe and I was not to be scared. “What is he?” I asked, horrified. “What happened to him?” ‘Grandpère told us that what we saw was a creature in pain, but that the Great Mind could not reach him to help him, for he still lived. “It has little power to reach the living, for it no longer dwells in living minds but in the clouds, the wind and the grass. You see, my children, in the early days when humans came to this world the Great Mind of the erdbeesten was strong, and once it found it could acquire the minds of our human dead it began to talk to some of us living humans. But as the erdbeesten were slaughtered by King Connor’s vengeful soldiers the Mind had fewer living hosts, and in the end it migrated from the material world, though it continues to live and grow. But it is unable now to address the living, except for two very special boys: you, our petits-fils. “You can hear the Mind, for you are children of the Great Bulls of the Humans who joined with it before the herd was murdered. In its last years the living Mind had enough power to enter and change the very fabric of a man, our own father. So, as his elder descendants by myself and my brother Armand, you are precious agents of the Mind, the only ones left to us in the world. “You alone can help that tortured thing you see here. If ever it could be redeemed, the world would change for ever and so many wrong things could be put right and old wounds healed. Should you succeed, the Herd Mind will be reborn greater than ever before.” “But how?” Gillot asked him. “Where is it? How do we reach it?” ‘Then François said the answers were within us, placed there long ago in the seed of our family by the Mind while it was still walking in the herd. It was promised by the fading Herd Mind that Gillot and I would one day be born and that together we could unlock that knowledge, but it was never revealed how to him, other than it must be done by our joining together, the way erdbeesten join. ‘The walking horror was still amongst the erdbeesten, who were trying to soothe and comfort it but having no success. So our grandsires picked us up and carried us in their arms away from that horrid scene and out again on to the plain. They kissed us, placed us back on our mount and told us to ride out into the grasslands as the herd brothers we were. “Where?” we asked. “Homewards,” Grandpère replied, “to your ancient home, Gillot. Take your brother and find there an old friend. He’ll show you how, if you walk with him. He’s waiting for you.” Grandpère slapped the horse’s butt and we rode on to the plains, the wind in our hair and the sun’s warmth caressing our bodies. We waved as we went, and they shouted words of love after us.’ Gillot continued. ‘We woke up at that point, in a close embrace in bed. How long had we dreamed, Kreech?’ he said in his husband’s ear. Felix picked up a notebook. ‘You fell asleep at the third hour, and the pair of you got restless at the seventh, at which point you came together and started moving against each other. You relaxed into deep sleep at the ninth hour and woke just after dawn. You looked so cute together.’ ‘The vision said you had to join the way erdbeesten join …?’ Joerg said. ‘That means one of you mounts the other. Are you willing to do that?’ François reached across to cup Felix’s cheek and stroke it. Felix nuzzled and kissed his hand. ‘I don’t mind them doing it, if it’ll help,’ he said. ‘Gillot loves me I know, and Fran does too because he and Gillot are closer than brothers. I feel as though I’ve known him as long as Gillot, which in a way I have. If they do each other I won’t feel threatened, though … I’d like to be there when it happens.’ Ruprecht joined in. ‘I’m not sure it’s going to be as simple as just copulating. You must first go to Gilles’s “ancient home”, which can only mean Champs Dolent and what was once New Paris. But that’s now part of Kristijan’s empire and the Duke of Vieldomaine is an Ardhessian puppet ruler. A division of Kristijan’s troops under a Marshal-General garrisons the duchy. It has become hostile territory into which it’ll be perilous for François to venture. His life would be forfeit if he came into the hands of King Kristijan.’ The emperor shrugged. ‘What good am I to anyone now? I can’t protect the herd from my throne, for I no longer have one. But if I can save that tortured thing, whatever it is, I may do a greater deed yet, a deed fit for the seed of Jean-Charles and François.’ The boy’s eyes glowed with idealistic determination, and Ruprecht realised that he was in the presence of one who was truly meant by nature and fate to rule, lead and guide, the very antithesis of his rival, Kristijan of Ardhesse.
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