The Auberge aux Falaises had hosted Ruprecht during his extended stays in Chasancene over the past years. When first he arrived at the auberge Gilles Parmentier had been a doe-eyed, shy child of eleven, still in school. Ruprecht had watched him grow to be a slim, serious youth who was drawn progressively into the family business and seemed resigned to it, though several long conversations had indicated that the boy had considerable intellectual resources, considerably more than was needed to run an inn.
What Ruprecht had not been in a position to observe till now was how Gilles's latest growth spurt had transformed him. His hair was dark and curling and his open face evenly tanned. Consequently his white teeth flashed when he smiled, while his long neck, his fine jaw line and the tilt of his head were enough to break the heart of anyone with any aesthetic sense, for he was the very perfection of male youth, in a bar apron.
Gilles returned his gaze from Kristijan to Ruprecht and gave his warm, shy smile then ushered him indoors, shouting 'Maman! C'est notre Comte Ruprecht! Il est retourné!' Gilles's voice was throatier and deeper than when Ruprecht had last heard it. Kristijan trailed after them, still carrying Ruprecht's bag, but with his wide eyes fixed on Gilles's rear.
The lady of the inn appeared, her face wreathed in smiles. Ruprecht was offered a kiss. Suddenly, despite the circumstances, he felt at home and experienced a powerful compulsion simply to stay here. It took him quite aback. Where had that come from? He had done some of his best work to date in the low-beamed back parlour, smoking endless cigarettes as he pored over his notes and books. He had enjoyed the evenings out on the benches having half-serious conversations with young Gilles and his little sister, and telling the boy about the places he had seen and tales of long past ages, Gilles with his elbows on the table and his face in his hands, blue eyes shining with interest.
To Ruprecht's great surprise, he had now discovered for nearly the first time in his life that he had an emotional attachment to a place and to the people in it; something his parents had failed to provide him with. He was still abstractedly pondering this when his hostess weighed in on him with many questions: how long was he staying, would he like his usual room, who was this young officer? The last question brought him back to reality.
'Ah, Madame Mabire. May I introduce the Jonker Kristijan von Erdwald, a midshipman in His Grand Ducal Highness's navy, travelling with me back to Hochrecht. His return home is required for rather urgent family reasons, so I'm afraid we'll only be here two nights at most.'
Mabire Parmentier was desolated but bustled off to get their rooms ready, while Gilles asked for any orders for food and drink. It was now well on in the afternoon, and dinners tended to be taken late in Vieldomaine, so Ruprecht ordered a late luncheon and a jug of the country's rather fine white wine.
As he and the king seated themselves in the back parlour, Kristijan grinned. 'Is he why I have to be on my best behaviour?'
'No, it's me. If you embarrass or upset Gilles I'll castrate you, Your Majesty.'
'Is he yours then?'
'Don't be disgusting. I've known the lad since he was small.'
'Well, small is something I'll bet he isn't any more. So handsome. Do you know, he's the spitting image of my late bed partner, François, without the black eye of course. Curious. Oh well, so be it. I've never yet had a peasant; I'd imagine the smell is a bit off-putting.' But the king was still eyeing up Gilles like a cat does a pigeon as the boy brought in their meal, so Ruprecht made a point of sending Gilles out to buy the evening editions of the local papers for him before Kristijan's drooling became too obvious.
'This is good wine,' Kristijan commented appreciatively. 'The food's pretty fine too. The commissary at the École was ghastly. I came to the conclusion that the catering was deliberately vile as part of the military training, so we could survive any privation in the field. In my year there were a sovereign duke, five peers from three different realms and I don't know how many other titled youths. The annual fees the École charges could pay for the finest chefs from the Mainland or the Islands, so I doubt it was an economy measure.'
'Then tell our host you enjoyed his efforts.'
'Is that what common people do?'
'No, it's what decent people do.'
'It's not done in my family. My uncle slaps and kicks the servants. He makes a point of it in fact. They are to regard any attention from a Prince of the Blood as a great favour.'
When Mabire came in to ask if they required anything else Kristijan nonetheless thanked her for the meal quite charmingly in his excellent Francien, and sent his compliments to Monsieur Parmentier in the kitchen.
'What a pleasant young man,' she whispered in Ruprecht's ear as she cleared the table. Kristijan caught the words, as he was supposed to, and grinned his most satanic grin straight into Ruprecht's face.
Gilles returned with a pile of newsprint as the dishes were removed. Kristijan took the uppermost, the Mercure Impérial, without bothering to ask Ruprecht first, causing Gilles's eyebrows to raise before he left for the kitchen. Kristijan caught Ruprecht's warning look, rolled his eyes and asked mock-meekly, 'May I, Monsieur le Comte?'
'Certainly, young man,' Ruprecht replied, and surreptitiously kicked the king's ankle under the table. He riffled through the local papers and found nothing about any incident at Port François, or about any naval activity on the river. He held out his hand and Kristijan passed him the Mercure, which would have been printed only a couple of hours ago across the frontier. Nothing. So it looked like the imperial government was sitting on the incident for now.
'It looks like your brother got away,' the king commented.
'Either that or he surrendered to a search; though I think the latter unlikely.'
'Good. What's next then?'
'We'll take a stroll to the Ardhessian embassy on the Place des Armes. All being well, I could be out of your curly hair in an hour.'
Kristijan looked a little wounded, or at least acted it well. 'I am grateful for your efforts, minheer,' he protested.
So Ruprecht led the king out on to the picturesque and winding streets of Chasancene, taking a route beneath the cliffs on which the great château stood, until they reached a point where the promontory fell away and the streets opened on to a large square. To their left was the castle gate, with its four round towers topped with pointed roofs. A large banner bearing the gold erdbeest on green of Vieldomaine hung from the battlements, rippling lazily in the light wind that had got up with the cool of approaching evening. Ranked around the Place des Armes were numerous tall and distinguished brick and stone buildings, while directly opposite them the pair saw the black, white and blue tricolour of Ardhesse hanging over a doorway.
'Looks quiet,' Ruprecht observed.
'No sign the square is being watched. We might as well drop you off now.'
The king pondered. 'Then perhaps there's no harm in returning for dinner at the Auberge aux Falaises.'
'You were that impressed with the cooking, sire?'
'Minheer,' the king said a little stiffly, 'I'm well aware that your esteem for me may not be as high as my royal status might require, nonetheless I respect good people and … good food. I would enjoy nothing so much as an evening in which I can for once be nobody of more consequence than the boy-sailor, the Jonker von Erdwald.'
Ruprecht could not restrain a smile. The boy sometimes revealed that he was more than might be expected from his upbringing. He inclined his head respectfully. 'Very well, Your Majesty, we will go back, and see how the land lies in the morning. I do hope, though, that this is not just a plan to get your hand inside Gilles Parmentier's trousers.'
The boy laughed a proper boy's laugh, just like he had back on Leopard with the midshipman, Kurt. 'I shall behave, minheer. Unless young Gilles suggests otherwise himself, of course.'
News had got around the small city and several of Ruprecht's local friends were gathered at the auberge, Monsieur Valmont the castle archivist and Doctor des Préaux of the ducal library amongst them. The conversation grew rapidly more academic. Kristijan sat in a corner after the meal, perusing the newspaper and at one point dozing. Ruprecht noticed young Gilles hanging around the doorway when he was free, trying to follow the repartee, he thought.
Later on that evening he was astonished, and more than a little suspicious, to see Kristijan and Gilles carrying trays of empty mugs from the bar to the kitchen, both boys grinning together over some joke. When Ruprecht went to take a leak in the outside toilet he peered through the steamed-up windows of the kitchen as he passed. His astonishment was complete. The boys were together at the washing trough, sleeves rolled up, dealing with the stacked dishes and apparently engaged in some back-chat with Gilles's father. Ruprecht shook his head as he completed his task. King Kristijan III of Ardhesse had an endless capacity to surprise.
The party began to break up and the farewells and handshakes took some time. By the time the auberge was empty, it was near midnight. Ruprecht found Gilles and Kristijan wide awake in the backyard, at either end of a bench set under the castle cliff. They were resting their heads on their hands and peering straight up at the night sky, their legs comfortably tangled.
'See monsieur,' Gilles called over to Ruprecht, 'Kris is telling me about the planets you can observe from down here. Unlike stars, you see, they don't twinkle. Why is that, Kris?'
'It's the atmosphere, Gillot,' Kristijan replied with a certain confidence, which proved that whatever else his upbringing had done to him, he had at least been well schooled. 'It bends the light from the stars the same way you sometimes see the air shimmer above a pavement on a hot day. It doesn't affect the light reflected by planets in the same way, because although planets are so much smaller than stars, being enormously closer they are like tiny disks to our eyes, and the stars like points. Coming from an apparently broader source, the light doesn't get refracted nearly so much.'
'Kris studies navigation by the stars, monsieur. You have to if you wish to captain a warship as he does.'
Ruprecht bid the pair goodnight, pondering that if the king wished to seduce the younger boy in that mood, it would not be possible to object. But though he could not object he felt an indefinable pang, which as he stripped for bed he eventually put down to jealousy.
When some time later he surfaced from sleep to hear steps climbing to the next room, to which Kristijan had been allotted, there was only one pair of feet evident. 'Good,' he mumbled into the pillow, and fell asleep again.
They were called early for breakfast, as Ruprecht had asked. A yawning Gilles dropped the morning papers on the back parlour table and went to lay the table, as a wonderful smell of new bread and frying bacon came from the kitchen. A fresh-looking Kristijan joined Ruprecht as he scrutinised the press.
'The imperial frontier was closed last night towards Vieldomaine,' Ruprecht observed. 'No explanation from Aix, but plenty of speculation from the local papers. The imperial ambassador was summoned to His Highness the Duke, but whatever he said has not been released. The only official word is that it is a temporary measure.'
'Ah then,' the king speculated, 'it looks like they've decided to chase me, and obviously I must have headed south.'
'So we will get you to the shelter of your compatriots as soon as breakfast is over, though I rather fear we should after all have gone to the embassy last night.'
'Maybe so, but my uncle must by now have been informed of the … difficulty I've caused our government. I would imagine that it's no longer just the Imperials who're on the lookout for me.' The king paused and looked Ruprecht in the eye. 'I have an idea. It shouldn't be any problem to send a note to the embassy. Not only that but little Gillot would be perfect for the mission. Who could suspect a tradesman's boy of carrying secret communications from a fugitive king in his bread tray?'
Ruprecht shook his head. 'I'm not sure about involving Gilles. There would be some danger involved, and also it would mean explaining something of our present circumstances to the boy.'
The king sniffed. 'Very protective, minheer. Are you sure you …? Never mind. Gilles is an intelligent lad, and the sort of boy who is up for an adventure. I can tell, believe me.'
'What were you up to last night, Kristijan?'
The king grinned. 'Oh, if the conversation had turned that way, I would have been very happy to pursue things. But Gilles is just … plain nice and uncomplicated. Believe me when I say that those of my age I associate with have their own agendas already, boys and girls alike. In some ways it makes them easy to deal with. To put it bluntly, their asses are up for sale by their families if I want to buy.'
'And you are in the market.'
'Of course, though I am a discriminating purchaser. Which, now I think about it, was what made little François so enticing initially. For all his unreasonableness, he had no other motive than romantic passion. After all, what can an emperor want from a king?'
'Nothing but love, I guess. Didn't he choose well.'
The king's eyes literally flamed at him. 'Don't you judge me, man!' he hissed. 'It is not your place. God alone may do that.'
Ruprecht was completely taken aback; it was if a bucket of cold water had been thrown in his face. He was even more taken aback at the feeling of embarrassed guilt which went with it. For all their difference in age, he stumbled into an apology, which the boy cut off with a peremptory motion of his hand. An icy silence followed as Gilles bustled in with the breakfast tray.
Feeling oddly as if he should placate his offended companion, Ruprecht asked Gilles to join them after breakfast, and to check with his parents if he might spend some time on an errand that needed doing. Gilles grinned his assent and went happily off to ask permission.
After some time eating without exchanging a word, the king looked a little less frosty as Ruprecht submitted to his plan.
'I'll follow your suggestion, sire. Perhaps you'll write a note to your ambassador explaining something of the situation and your present predicament. Do you have your signet?'
'No, but my sign manual will be recognised. Besides, I think I know this ambassador. He is the Ritter Matthias von Aschenhem; I may have fooled around with his son Gerhardt at some point, though nothing overtly sexual, we were much too young.'
Ruprecht bit back his comment this time. He simply provided the king with the necessary writing materials from his attaché case, and let him get on with it. In the meantime he went in search of Gilles, whom he encountered in the common bar, apparently on the way back.
'Monsieur le Comte, papa says it's quite alright for me to go on an errand for you and Kris.'
Ruprecht took the boy by the shoulder and sat him at a table. 'Now Gillot, it's not quite a straightforward job. To begin with it's confidential. No one must know that you're carrying the note Kris will give you. It needs to be delivered to the Place des Armes, at the Ardhessian embassy.'
'I'm going to confide in you, Gillot. You're a bright lad, and I think trustworthy, so I'm going to tell you some things that you're going to have to pretend you never knew.'
The boy grew serious. 'You may trust me, Monsieur le Comte.'
Ruprecht smiled at the young face in front of him, so alert, serious and intent. 'To begin with, Kris and I came here as fugitives. We're on the run from the Empire.'
Gilles's eyes had widened. 'Kris? But he's just a kid like me.'
'No, not like you. Not like you in so very many ways. Take a look at this card.' Ruprecht handed the boy a postcard he had surreptitiously picked up at the Gare Centrale while they had been scanning the terminal for imperial agents.
Gilles looked up. 'It is of the young Emperor François at a review with his generals, taking the salute.'
'Look at the face of the figure immediately behind him, the tall one with a plumed Allemanic helmet.'
Gilles stared again at the sepia photograph. 'Why, it looks like … like Kris. Is it his brother?'
'No, it is Kris, or I should say, His Majesty King Kristijan of Ardhesse.'
Instead of gaping and looking stunned, Gilles simply scrutinised the picture more carefully. Ruprecht was rather impressed at the boy's coolness. 'I believe you're right, sir. Yes, it is him. But last night when we talked he was so convincing. I fully believed he was what he said he was, a young naval officer.'
'Gillot, the boy is quite gifted that way.'
'So I see, sir.' He pondered matters briefly, and added, 'Then he is quite a dangerous person.'
'You liked him, I thought.'
'I liked the boy he was pretending to be. But now I don't know who I was talking to, other than that he is a very great person in the world, a royal majesty.'
Ruprecht acknowledged that this boy whom he had thought he knew was also not quite what he had assumed. Gilles had a remarkable degree of cool judgement for his years. 'Very well, Gillot. For now you should continue to accept as genuine the act which Kristijan is performing. It is important, as he is in hiding and on the run from his enemies. The message you will carry is to his country's embassy, which must be alerted to his presence. Once he is within its doors, he'll be safe. I suggest you dress up as a baker's delivery boy and take the dog cart to the tradesmen's entrance. I'm counting on you to make sure the ambassador gets King Kristijan's note. Are we clear?'
Gilles nodded. 'What will you do, sir?'
'Once we get an acknowledgement from the embassy, I'll get the king safely there somehow. Then with a huge sense of relief I shall resume my journey home to Hochrecht.'
Gilles dropped his head. 'Your friends will be sad to hear that, monsieur.'
Ruprecht could hear something in the boy's voice that made him put his finger under Gilles's chin and lift his face. He smiled into it, and was stirred by the earnest look he got in return, but there was no time to ponder its significance. He patted Gilles's shoulder and told him to get ready, then went to retrieve Kristijan's missive.
'All done, sire?' He found the king contemplating a sealed envelope.
'Minheer Graf, perhaps it might be an idea if this is sent as an enclosure within your own personal stationery, sealed by your seal. It will get more notice that way at the embassy door. Young Gilles may be sent packing otherwise.'
Ruprecht chose not to object to the evident fact that the king had been examining the contents of his attaché case in his absence and without his permission. Common politeness was not just beneath him, he seemed to believe it existed for no other reason than to be outraged. Ruprecht drew out the necessary items and complied with the request. 'Well sire, all done. I'll send it on its way, and then we can contemplate your departure from this little refuge.'
The king cocked his head and gave his more human smile. 'At least there will be no packing. I have only these borrowed clothes, which I must say I shall be glad to change out of.'
Gilles already had the dog cart at the front door. The boy took the envelope and placed it in the bread-basket behind him, covering it with a check cloth. Then he tapped the pony's flank, and with a jerk the cart was rattling off down the street towards the Place des Armes. Ruprecht watched Gilles disappear, troubled despite himself.
He grew increasingly agitated over the next two hours when Gilles did not reappear. Kristijan seemed untroubled and objected strongly when Ruprecht finally declared he was going down to the Place des Armes to find out what had happened. 'Minheer, Gilles is beneath suspicion. Why would any lurking imperial agent apprehend one amongst many common delivery boys in a foreign city on the off chance that he was carrying secret correspondence? If you blunder into the square, they're much more likely to be on the lookout for you. I have no doubt that the Imperial Secret Service has a file on you as a foreign diplomat, and they know you were on your brother's boat. Your picture will be in their sweaty hands, I'm perfectly sure.'
'Then why the delay?'
'I imagine it's because the letter was read promptly and he was detained, possibly so he could bring us back a reply.'
Ruprecht acknowledged the sense in this, and paced the back parlour until the rattle of the dog cart brought him out into the cobbled street. Gilles was returning, and gave a grin and a wave as he sighted him. He hauled the empty basket out and passed it to Ruprecht. 'They took the bread and tipped me five whole crowns, monsieur!' he cried. 'They have sent a reply sealed with the ambassador's own seal. I waited in the kitchen for it. It's in the basket.'
Ruprecht returned to the parlour where he found the amused king coolly awaiting him. Kristijan took the proffered envelope, opened it and perused the contents, which he did not choose to do more than summarise for Ruprecht's benefit. 'Very good. The embassy has already been apprised of the general circumstances of my sudden need to depart Saint-Amand, and my uncle intends to make me suffer for it. Ah well, I expected no less. The embassy is under close observation by both imperial and ducal agents, as are all its staff, and I am not to approach it. However, there are Ardhessian operatives also in this city, and they will be contacted by covert means. I am to expect a carriage at the door of the auberge this evening, which will take me south. My only task is to stay under cover, so it appears I have another day ahead of me as the Jonker von Erdwald. … yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum, as I believe the good jonker might say.'
Ruprecht thought it best to keep his head down likewise. He had papers and notebooks in his valise, and so he settled in the back parlour and got on with his edition of the works of Bishop Joachim of Antejhem. It was in the castle library of this very city that he had discovered the ancient parchment codex which provided him with a treasury of new information about the darkest age of his world's history.
Ruprecht was one of those historians who was secretive about his sources, and when he had discussed the codex with Kristijan on the train there was a lot he left out, even though the king was not a professional rival.
In amongst the chronicles of Joachim were English passages that had clearly been copied from much older writings, though they were not attributed. But several clear textual parallels had suggested to Ruprecht that Bishop Joachim had access to a version of the Annals of the Patriarchate which did not now survive, and which indeed must have reached back to the second century, well before the Schism. He had a copy of the Annals with him, and he was currently comparing the printed text of the official version, established well after Joachim's day, with the notes he had taken from the Vieldomaine manuscript.
Ruprecht mused on the differences and large lacunae in the two versions. Much had been stripped out of the Annals since Joachim had seen them, so much was clear. Why? His current theory was that there were religious reasons. The Great Schism, when there had been no promised Second Coming on the 200th anniversary of the Landing, had provoked more than one episode of religious warfare in the third century. Maybe the text of the Annals was edited and cleaned up after the third and final War of the Patriarchs, in Joachim's own lifetime?
Ruprecht's itch of curiosity niggled away at the edges of his mind like a persistent rat gnawing at a grain sack. If he could scrape together the money, a trip to the Holy See ought to be next on his agenda. He had access to the Patriarchal Library through his former professors, and maybe it was time to get behind the printed version of the Annals and see what the manuscripts themselves revealed. Besides, it would give him a chance to hear English still spoken, as it was in the liturgy of the mass offered at the White Basilica and in the readings from the Summarium, still cherished by the faithful in its original language.
Ruprecht stretched. It was well past lunchtime, and he hadn't seen anything of Kristijan for a while. He went out into the main rooms of the inn and could hear the Parmentiers busy about the bar and kitchen. He found Kristijan in the yard stretched out on the bench under the cliff, apparently meditating on something. At least he wasn't with Gilles, which reassured Ruprecht.
'Everything alright, sire?'
The king shrugged. 'I'm bored. I tried it on with Gilles earlier, but he just went red and ran away.'
'You what!' Ruprecht bellowed.
'Ha! I knew that little lie would get you going. When are you going to admit that you want that pretty boy's bum?'
'Now look here …!'
'Come off it, minheer. Your eyes follow his cute little tush everywhere. The kid is frankly gorgeous, and I think he's one of us. He hero-worships you. It wouldn't take much to get him into your bed. You'd be doing him a favour.'
Ruprecht took a deep breath. 'Even if you're right, Kristijan, I have obligations of gratitude to his parents. It would not be to my honour to fool with Gilles.'
The king sat up on his bench. 'Oh, honour! The mainspring of your class's social dominance. Princes of course cannot afford the luxury, only the pretence. Look, minheer, I am so bored, and I'm stuck here for hours. Do me a favour and fuck me. It's been ages and from what I've seen of you, I'll not regret it. I assure you, you won't either.' Kristijan stood and sashayed over to the man, draping his arms over his shoulders. He closed for a kiss, and Ruprecht gave in.
Ten minutes late the boy's shapely buttocks and his wide-open anus were displayed as he put himself on all fours. Kristijan eventually squirmed himself to a heavy climax on Ruprecht's bed, stimulated by no more than the work on his rear end. Then the man mounted the boy, drawing appreciative gasps for the size of what he slowly worked into him. It was nearly two hours before they finished their coupling, by which time Kristijan had climaxed twice more.
They lay together in the afterglow, as Ruprecht tenderly toyed with the boy's now limp and sticky penis, the scent of their semen heavy in the airless bedchamber. Kristijan had come heavily and hard each time he ejaculated, and seemed to have hugely enjoyed each occasion. Threads of his semen coated Ruprecht's chest hair from their final session. The boy had ridden his erection long and energetically till sweat plastered his curls to his head. His tight abdominal muscles had rippled as he moved his slim body to massage the man's cock with his rectum and his face had screwed up with concentration on the overpowering sensation his movements were creating within him. Ruprecht kissed Kristijan on the mouth, and his aggressive tongue was not denied.
Eventually the boy sat up. 'You'd better get yourself washed, minheer. You smell like a rather illegal whorehouse. Thank you. I enjoyed that experience as much as I thought I would. Your cock is by far the thickest and longest I've ever had … so that's what taking a man is like: most enjoyable.' He retrieved his clothing but dressed only in white shirt, boots and trousers, leaving the rest bundled on the floor. It made him look like a common schoolboy, an impression added to by the childish fringe of curls hanging in his eyes.
'You're so beautiful, Kristijan,' Ruprecht admitted. 'How come you've turned out like you have?'
The boy shrugged. 'I like being me. I had no choice about the direction of my desires, or the way they overwhelm me. But I know it's not my sexuality you're referring to, minheer.'
'No. It isn't. But I'll say no more. Your Majesty is rather beyond me in so many ways.'
The boy gave his rare, genuine smile. 'Good. The scholar can achieve wisdom after all.'
Ruprecht took Kristijan's advice and cleaned himself up to the best of his ability. He changed to a fresh shirt from his valise, then settled down to work out what to do once the boy king was safely out of his hands. He was determined to get away early the next day. Kristijan had correctly read the state of his feelings about Gilles; the Parmentier boy was all too interesting, and Ruprecht was vulnerable at the moment. He needed to get himself out of the situation, especially if Kristijan was right and Gilles was fixating on him.
Money was a problem, to begin with. His salary from the diplomatic service was barely enough to cover his living expenses, and in any case his term of consular duty was now concluded. He might get free board and lodging at the family home, but his father did not believe in continuing allowances for his sons beyond their graduation from military college, or in his case university. In due course he would inherit a share of the family estate, but that would be years down the line. He needed to gain more sponsorship. Perhaps he should apply to the National Academy of Philosophic Sciences. Then there were his former professors, maybe they might have ideas. Court patronage was not very likely; the current grand duke was not the man his father had been.
So where next indeed? He riffled the pages of his notebook, and a photograph fell out, a scenic card showing a dramatic landscape of towers, hills and cliffs. A smile broadened on his face. All of a sudden he had a plan. He sat, took out his pen and made some calculations about time, route and money, before replacing the cap with a click.
Feeling now cheerful, Ruprecht made his way down to the back parlour. Kristijan wasn't around but he rather suspected he would be shooting the breeze out the back with Gilles, enjoying his last few hours of being anyone other than the king of Ardhesse. He wondered whether Kristijan guessed that Gilles had been let in on the secret of his identity.
Evening was coming, and the usual regular customers filtered into the bar. The Parmentiers began to prepare for a busy night, and to his surprise Ruprecht glimpsed Kristijan in an apron, once again helping out in the kitchen and the taproom. He concluded that the youth must be really bored.
Dr Emile des Préaux appeared and demanded Ruprecht's full concentration on the draft for a new library catalogue which he had brought with him and which was to be published in the new year. It forcibly reminded Ruprecht that with the library's contents becoming more accessible the manuscript of Bishop Joachim he had found would soon be brought to the attention of the wider academic community. Time therefore to finalise his own plans and push forward.
On taking a cigarette break, Ruprecht observed Kristijan leaning over the bar counter, openly flirting with some young workmen while he served them. He certainly had a talent for risqué repartee that had them bellowing with laughter, though Gilles looked unimpressed when he passed by with a tray of food, as Ruprecht was a little pleased to see. The noise got so intrusive that Monsieur Parmentier appeared from the kitchen, wiping his hands on his apron, and told Kristijan to keep it down. The boy complied with no apparent bad grace.
The evening passed into night, and still no carriage had appeared. It looked like Kristijan would not be leaving in time to escape scrutiny at the bars of the city gates, though Ruprecht assumed that the Ardhessian agents would have some plan to avoid that particular obstacle.
The auberge began emptying. At last the doors were shut and the outside lamps extinguished. Gilles and Kristijan cleared and swept the public rooms and a little before midnight Gilles's parents bade Ruprecht goodnight, asking what time he wished to be awakened the next morning. Monsieur Parmentier solemnly paid over quite a substantial sum in tips that Kristijan had apparently earned from appreciative customers, and the boy took them with a smile and a wink at Ruprecht. Gilles too disappeared to bed, maintaining his act of ignorance and promising to say his goodbyes to Kristijan in the morning, though he knew from Ruprecht that the boy would be gone before dawn. This left the inn's two final guests to take seats next to the dying wood fire in the back parlour.
Ruprecht checked his pocket watch. 'Well sire,' he observed, 'it looks like your flight from Chasancene will be through the dark of night. Did your ambassador tell you when to expect your transport?'
The king shrugged. 'He couldn't specify a time, but then I didn't expect it to be here early, as I imagine there will be any number of difficulties before the scheme can be accomplished.'
'You intend to go like that?'
Kristijan gave his giggle. 'You can return his jacket to that fellow on your brother's boat if you will. I emptied the pockets before I left it in your room upstairs; nothing in them now but lint. My conductors will bring a suitable change of clothing, and I really do hope they are a better fit than this.'
'Very well then. Ah! That was the midnight chimes from the cathedral tower I heard, and isn't that the sound of wheels outside?'
The two stood and faced each other across the hearth. Ruprecht reached for the boy's hand. 'I think this is where we say goodbye, Your Majesty. May I say it's been a real education.'
The king gave a little laugh and shook Ruprecht's extended hand. 'Indeed. My thanks in return; you did far more than courtesy required, minheer Graf.' He returned his hand to his pocket and withdrew a revolver, which he cocked and pointed at Ruprecht's forehead. 'Now there is only the final tidying up to do.'
[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. If the email address pastes with %40 in the middle, replace that with an @ sign.]