Terre Nouvelle

by Michael Arram

III

The cocking of the pistol was preternaturally loud in the quiet parlour. Ruprecht's mind was racing though his tongue was frozen. To be sure, he had sadly underestimated the ferocity and ruthlessness of the young king who was pointing the gun at his head, seduced as he was meant to be by his angelic looks and whimsical charm. Thank God he had kept from the king the fact that Gilles had been let in on the secret. Gilles's distrust of his smiling, hilarious guest was now fully justified, but at least he and his family would not be included in the king's 'tidying up'. The shot that terminated his life would wake them all of course, but Kristijan would be long gone before they could make sense of the corpse on their floor and the missing midshipman. The king would be well out of the city before any alarm was raised.

Kristijan gave a genuinely demonic grin. 'My dear Graf, you surely knew I could not let live an agent of a foreign government who possessed so much compromising information about the head of state of the kingdom of Ardhesse! My God, you've sodomised the king! You are, sir, a genuine romantic.'

'I would have never …' Ruprecht stuttered.

Kristijan rolled his eyes, evidently enjoying the opportunity to vaunt over the man who had presumed to control him. 'Of course … your honour … Really! You expect me to trust in that compromised ideal? You're an agent of a foreign state! Dead men tell no tales, minheer. Living ones can't keep their mouths shut. Now sir. You were the first full-sized man to penetrate me, for which I thank you. There is a certain reciprocity in the fact that you are in turn going to be the first man I've shot to death. I have quite looked forward to discovering how I would perform when this point in my life finally arrived. I am glad to report that my hand is steady and my pulse even. Goodbye, my dear …'

The frying pan caught the king hard on the back of his head with a bell-like clang. He went down flat on his face, the revolver skittering across the floor. As Ruprecht looked into the wide eyes of Gilles Parmentier, who had crept up behind the fallen king, his tongue mercifully reengaged.

'Gilles, you're a hero. Go get some cords and tie His Majesty up before he recovers from his collision with reality.'

The boy nodded and raced to the kitchen. Ruprecht may have been spared death for the moment, but his life was suddenly a lot more complicated. Nonetheless, though he was a scholar he was also the son of two score generations of warriors. As Gilles trussed Kristijan up he instructed the boy in what he must do. Gilles took a lamp and went outdoors to politely summon the waiting Ardhessians to assist their king with his luggage. They were confronted with the king's revolver and bundled into the cellars of the Auberge aux Falaises, where their gagged and bound king awaited them.

The Parmentier family was roused and Gilles's parents and sister brought downstairs in their nightclothes. Ruprecht did his best to explain the situation, but it took a while for Gilles's father to understand the seriousness of their plight. Madame Parmentier was much quicker on the uptake.

'So, Monsieur le Comte, you believe that all our lives are in danger?'

'Regretfully, I have to say it is a possibility. It's not just that Gilles struck down an anointed king, an act of lèse-majesté which theoretically carries the death penalty should he ever enter Ardhesse; the youth is also malevolent. He was going to kill me, until Gilles prevented it. Now that he knows Gilles is aware of his identity he will assume the boy also knows what he has been up to, and he won't rest till your son too is dead. He is vengeful and will not tolerate being bested by a mere potboy, as he will see it. The rest of you are perhaps in less immediate danger, but I would recommend that you vacate Chasancene for a while, perhaps a good while. When he has the means he may pursue you so as to find Gilles.'

The woman shook her head. 'We have a country property out beyond Champs Dolent, which my sister keeps for us. We can move there for a while. But the auberge? What of it?'

'Maybe you can lease it. Perhaps it would be best to leave it empty for a while. As for Gilles …' He caught the boy's eyes. 'I can take him on as a valet for now, and watch over him for a while. He'll be safer with me than anywhere else. I may even find enough money to pay him a wage.'

Gilles's eyes fixed on Ruprecht's, and for all their current situation he saw eagerness enough there. The boy was more than ready to leave the daily grind of the inn, even though it meant separation from his family.

'You'd do that, sir?' Madame Parmentier asked, then turned to her son. 'What do you say, Gillot?'

'Maman … it would be better. Monsieur le Comte is our friend. He'll be a good and fair master, I know.'

Ruprecht chipped in. 'I will have to travel for a while for my own safety, so Gilles will get to see something of the world. I also intend to add to his education. He's a bright lad, and a brain like his needs to be trained.'

Madame Parmentier was less impressed at that idea. 'Hmmph … well as long as the boy doesn't get ideas above his station.' She turned to her husband. 'Alphonse, we'll need to be packing. I'll deal with Cecile. Off we go now. We need to be away with the dawn.' She clapped her hands and began bustling around. Gilles was carried off in the domestic whirlwind, leaving Ruprecht to think what to do next.

He went down to check on the cellar, and found the young king of Ardhesse awake and glaring at him over the bandana that covered his mouth. Ruprecht sat down next to the boy, but chose not to loosen the gag. Kristijan had said all he wanted to hear from him. Now it was his turn. 'I just wished to say farewell, Your Majesty. You scoffed at my honour as a Von Aalst. Princes have died for less, and it would be the view of many of my class that I would be entirely justified in slitting your throat as you lie there for what you have said, let alone what you have done.

'You have failed to learn what all kings must, which is rather disappointing in a young man who professes the study of history, so here is a lesson that I wish you to take to heart. The nobles in the Empire and the Four Kingdoms all have this in common, Alleman and Francien alike: we are the guarantors of the people against the tyranny of corrupt kings. Rulers who fail in their duty to protect their people and to do impartial justice have lost their right to rule, and it is the duty of my class to overthrow them and choose a better king from among the royal kindred. I would ask you to remember those of your predecessors that learned this lesson too late; no king can command his people just because he wears a crown. It is his integrity which gives him that right.

'Therefore, do not scoff at noble honour. It is a sword with two edges. It serves both you and your people, but when it is drawn between the two it must be for the cause of the people's safety and not yours. Now, Your Majesty, I might at this point draw the attention of the Empire to your current whereabouts and feel that I had done no more than was just. But it would not be in the interest of my government to do this; we are after all part of the Allemanic Alliance which your great-grandfather constructed and which has kept the Empire at bay for generations.

'I'll arrange it that the embassy will be told of your circumstances, and then no doubt someone will come to free you and your men and you can resume your journey home, though how it's done is no longer my concern. So I take my leave, Kristijan. There is now a state of mortal enmity between Your Majesty and the House of Aalst. I and my kinsfolk shall do all in our power to frustrate and punish you for the insult you have done us, and you should hope that you never in future find yourself at the point of my sword.'


Gilles objected when Ruprecht picked up his own valise at the auberge door, which he had just closed behind them. 'Monsieur le Comte, it isn't right. It's my job. I am your valet now!'

'Oh, Gilles. Just for now let it pass. I've got to get used to having a servant of my own, and I'd remind you that the well-stuffed pack you have on your back is more than enough for you to shoulder.'

The other members of the Parmentier family had already left with most of their worldly goods in the carriage that had been meant to convey King Kristijan from Chasancene. Madame Mabire Parmentier had agreed that the vehicle and its team was some small compensation for the upset done to their lives. They would make arrangements to sell it after they had reached Champs Dolent and use the money to make up for their losses over their temporary vacation from the Auberge aux Falaises. She seemed remarkably sanguine about departing the city, and Gilles muttered that she had long been complaining about never seeing enough of her own family. Nonetheless, there were many tears as Gilles said farewell for the foreseeable future to his parents and sister, with a pledge that he would write when he could and use the post office at Champs Dolent as their address.

It was midday when they reached the Gare Centrale and it would not be until the evening that Emile des Préaux would anonymously notify the embassy. So Ruprecht bought them both lunch from a stall and they sat on the benches of the waiting room to eat it. Ruprecht contemplated the boy at his side chomping happily away at his sandwiches and began to come to terms with the new responsibility in his life.

'Do you know much Allemanic, Gillot?'

'Only a little, monsieur. Enough to serve commercial travellers in the taproom.'

'So, learning my language is one thing you have to do. Also you need proper clothes; a dark suit is usual I think, with livery for formal occasions. Unfortunately my financial circumstances may make it a while before we can provide you with that.'

The boy nodded seriously. 'It will be a great honour for me to wear the livery of the noble house of Aalst, Monsieur le Comte. Is it to the great house at Freiborg that we're going?'

'No, Gillot. In the unlikely event that Kristijan could get his uncle's government to take my pursuit seriously, it would be my home that they would first investigate. I have a better plan. Do you know anything about the Bernician Noble Confederation?'

'It is south of your homeland, monsieur, is it not, and north of the lands of the Holy See, along the eastern coast?'

'Very good. Well, in the Confederation one of the largest states is that of Ostberg, and it is to Ostberg we are heading.'

'Is there a particular reason, monsieur?'

'There is indeed, Gillot. There is indeed.'


It was three whole days before the travellers reached Ostberg. Ruprecht had enjoyed the journey. Gilles was a joy to be with, and not just for his singular dark Francien beauty. Leaving home was a liberation for the boy, and his curiosity about the world he found himself in was endless. He would listen attentively to his master's explanations about foreign customs and places, repeat perfectly all the necessary Allemanic phrases he needed to acquire, and do his duty as valet as far as their somewhat limited circumstances permitted.

On the first night they took a room at the Hochrechtner capital before changing to the Great Southern Railway. Gilles brushed Ruprecht's clothes, polished his shoes to a state they had never before experienced, and neatly set out his shaving equipment for the next morning at the room's washstand. When it came to bedtime, Ruprecht offered the boy a side of his bed, but Gilles shook his head, his sensibilities clearly offended. Instead he made a nest for himself out of cushions and a blanket near the door.

The boy stripped down to his drawers to wash and Ruprecht from his bed had a fine view of Gilles's slim torso and those enticing curves where his belly and back melted into his groin and small buttocks. Gilles's hairless legs and smooth feet could not have been more perfect. A dark patch showed through the thin material of his worn pair of drawers where a pubic bush had grown. As much as the hair in his armpits and his husky voice this confirmed to Ruprecht the boy's sexual maturity, advertised also by Gilles's sharp and (to Ruprecht) heady male scent. When Gilles turned and smiled, half-embarrassed, at his master over his bare shoulder, it was the most unconsciously seductive sight Ruprecht had ever seen in all his life.

Ruprecht suppressed the lust rising between his legs. He dare not initiate a sexual relationship at this point. He did not doubt that the boy would tolerate his advances, but there were so many issues involved. The idea that Ruprecht would be exploiting a position of power over Gilles was troubling to his own idea of himself as a nobleman, and then there was the fact that Gilles was barely fifteen years of age and probably sexually innocent. Who was he to initiate a boy a decade younger than himself into homosexual intercourse? If it was to happen, Gilles's virginity should be lost in fumbling encounters with his peers, not by the rampant thrusts of a full-grown man, however besotted and tender he was with the youth. Ruprecht's dreams that night were torrid to say the least.

His mind was still wrestling with his libido when the southbound express to Ostberg finally reached the spectacular stretch of coastal track carving its way by terraces and through tunnels along the red cliffs above the vast furrowed expanse of the Eastern Ocean. Gilles stared open-mouthed at the panoramas the twisting course of the railway continually opened.

He turned back from the compartment window, 'Monsieur! This is … amazing! That is the sea! I have never seen it before.'

'It's a beautiful part of the world, Gillot. You'll love it here.'

'How long till Ostberg, monsieur?'

'About an hour now. I'll be glad to be back. It's been quite a few years since Hans and I lived here as boys. I have very happy memories.'

'The Graf Hans is your next brother down, is that so monsieur?'

'Yes. I have three older brothers, two of them twins, then there's Hans, two sisters and of course the Kreech.'

'The Kreech?'

'Short for 'Creature'. It's what we call him. He's the youngest. His name is actually Felix.'

'Ah … like the cat?'

'Very good, Gilles.'

'And how old is the minheer Graf Felix?'

'Your age, as it happens, but he is not a Graf.'

'No sir? But I thought all of your brothers and sisters shared the dignity of count.'

'In most noble Hochrechtner families that would be true, but my mother was the daughter of the last prince of Ostberg, and it is the custom of that land that succession is through male ultimogeniture at the point of death of the old prince. Felix, as her youngest son, is therefore prince of Ostberg and addressed as His Serene and Most Excellent Highness.'

'Monsieur?'

'I'll explain it some other time. It is complicated, believe me.'


The concourse of the Grand Southern Station at Ostberg was a marvellous structure, quite as noble a building as Ruprecht remembered it. It was a cathedral for the industrial age, its high halls and corridors faced with sheets of the local pink marble. However hot it was outside, the station was always airy and cool, and the sunlight reflected and filtered by the marble made it seem as though it was perpetually dawn within.

Ruprecht led Gilles through the crowded halls till they emerged through tall doors into a blaze of sunlight that lit the city square beyond. 'Well,' he observed, 'I sent a telegram ahead of us to Grossmutta, and as usual she has gone completely over the top.'

An escort of dragoons was drawn up behind a landau with the princely arms painted on the door, which a liveried groom was holding open for Ruprecht. A small crowd of onlookers raised a cheer when he mounted the step into the carriage, though he could not imagine they knew who it was they were cheering. He gave a wave, since it seemed expected. An apprehensive Gilles was directed to take a seat on the box, where he settled unhappily next to the coachman clutching his master's valise, his own pack at his feet. The groom clung on behind.

With a jerk the carriage was off and rumbling down from the station to the river bridges through the busy city streets, the dragoons jingling and clopping behind. Mounted police joined the cavalcade and stopped traffic at every intersection. Ruprecht pulled his hat low over his eyes. His grandmother would have her little joke.

The city of Ostberg was built around a vast natural bowl where the cliff-bound coast of Bernicia was low and was breached by the river Oiselet, at the end of its long journey to the sea from the Southern Alps far inland. Ostberg's prosperity was based on the fact that it possessed the finest natural harbour along the continental east coast between Hochrecht and Ardhesse. It was now also an important hub in the continental railway system. To Ruprecht's eye, the city had grown considerably from his boyhood days. When the carriage crossed the Oiselet bridge and climbed the opposite slope he found the upper reaches beneath the ancient fortress, which had once been parkland, were now covered in new villas, while inland and upriver an unpleasant yellow tinge to the air indicated growing industrial activity.

The carriage wound up the southward slope of the city, past the fortress, over which waved the red and gold-barred flag of Ostberg, and crested the hill to rumble down along a new tarmac highway through the domainal forest beyond. The dazzling southern sunlight flickered across his face as it filtered through the leafy roof overhead. A dozen kilometres through the trees brought them out on to the lawns of an open park, where buffalo cropped, and the road ended at the massive gates of the Farcostan Palace, the summer residence of the princes. An honour guard turned out to present arms as the landau rumbled through the gate and into the courtyard within.

The dragoons drew their swords and saluted as Ruprecht descended from the carriage, while their officer held the door open for him, gloved hand at his forehead. He caught the panicky eyes of Gilles as he sat on the box clutching his valise, and indicated that the boy should climb down. Several liveried domestics closed in to fight over Ruprecht's single bag, and it rapidly disappeared out of Gilles's hands and indoors. A chamberlain looked askance at Gilles and then bowed the Graf von Aalst up the shallow steps and through into the echoing marble entrance hall, its lantern dome far above their heads.

'Where is the princess, my grandmother?' Ruprecht asked brusquely. Having been directed to the princess's study in the state apartments of the east wing, the one with the sea view, he instructed the flunky to find quarters for his valet de chambre, and directed that Gilles be appropriately fitted out for his role. 'My baggage may take a week or so to arrive,' he lied. Gilles reluctantly followed the broad back of the chamberlain to the rear offices of the palace, with an unhappy backward glance at his master.

Ruprecht ran up the state staircase and paced through the anteroom, where several petitioners were awaiting the princess's attention. Guardsmen saluted as they rolled back the tall doors so he could walk through into the presence chamber beyond. A confidential secretary then bowed him through the door to the left of the throne of Ostberg, under its tasselled baldachin.

The dowager princess regent looked up from her desk, and gave her kindliest smile. Ruprecht bowed and then went for her kiss. Princess Liesbeth Maria, Regent of Ostberg, was now in her seventies, but seemed as brisk and alert as he always remembered her. In fact she seemed barely changed from his teenage days at the court of Ostberg.

'Come sit by me, Ruprecht.' She took a seat on the study sofa and patted the cushion next to her. 'I have to say,' she continued, 'I am not pleased it has taken you so long to return to Ostberg. It's been two years since I saw you, and you are a very poor correspondent. How is the diplomatic service working out?'

'Not that well, Grossmutta. In fact I'm going to resign my appointment.'

'Do excuse me if I harrumph at this point, my dear,' she sniffed. 'I always thought it was a bad idea. Your father … well I won't say a word against my son-in-law, whose judgement I deeply respect, not least because he married my daughter … but he is a man of limited imagination. You were never fitted for state service in the military or elsewhere. Your head is always in your dusty books. But what can I do for you? I have a librarian already.' The princess took his hand and squeezed it, so as to take the sting out of her remark.

'I've come for your advice, Grossmutta. I'm at a crossroads, which as you know are dangerous places. Let me tell you of my recent adventure in Vieldomaine, so you understand quite how dangerous things have got. May I smoke while I tell the tale? It's a long one.'

The princess regent frowned down that suggestion, but invited Ruprecht to continue. She listened intently to his account of his meeting with the king of Ardhesse, somewhat edited of course. She was silent for a while after he finished, then got up and paced the carpet before the room's empty hearth, the long silk train of her dress rustling behind her. Eventually she spoke.

'Of course I know his uncle. Something of a brute, and not the sort of man you would entrust with the upbringing of any youth, especially such a wild one as this king appears to be. So he is a boy who loves other boys?' Her eyes caught Ruprecht's as he nodded. He guessed that stories of his own activities as a youth in Ostberg and Freiborg might well have reached her. 'In itself,' she continued, 'that is neither here nor there, especially in a king. But this Kristijan is as ruthless in affairs of the heart as it appears he also is in affairs of state. What has he done to poor young Emperor François? The peace of our increasingly dangerous world depends on balance between the Empire and the Four Kingdoms; to have the King of the South and the Emperor in a state of sworn and perpetual hatred can only be bad. Sooner or later rulers must compromise. But those two boys will hate each other till death.'

'I don't feel that kindly towards the king of Ardhesse myself,' Ruprecht felt obliged to say.

'And your brave young manservant saved your life? The House of Aalst is obliged to him, and I feel obliged to the boy also. Do you wish that I take him on the establishment here? He sounds to be a promising young fellow.'

Ruprecht smiled. 'That's kind, Grossmutta, and I may take your offer up on his behalf in due course, though at the moment I feel personally responsible for him.'

His grandmother chuckled. 'And yet he may well starve if he has to rely on your fortune in the world. Well, well. Something will have to be done for you if not for him. Let me think a while. It would certainly be safer for you to be at the court of Ostberg for the time being. You must keep your head down, which in your case means with your nose in a book, I suppose. Very well. I shall give this all the consideration it deserves. Dinner is at seven here, as you may remember. I hope you have some clothing which will pass as formal? I will not have shabbiness at my table, Ruprecht.'

He bowed to kiss his grandmother's hand and took his leave, his heart a lot lighter than when he had arrived. A footman in the yellow livery of the palace was awaiting him in the presence chamber with directions to the apartment that had been assigned him. He asked that his valet be sent up to him. A transformed Gilles arrived promptly.

'Gillot, have I got anything vaguely presentable to wear at dinner tonight?'

The boy grinned. 'If you were a bit smaller, monsieur, you could borrow my new gear.'

Ruprecht surveyed his neatly turned-out valet, in black suit, highly polished shoes and crisp white tie. 'Very nice, Gilles. The staff here did a good job. Now I'm embarrassed to be seen around you.'

Gilles laughed. 'I'll go and see what there is to be found, monsieur. The vice-chamberlain is Francien and very friendly. He's the one who found me this suit, and I'll bet he's got other wardrobes to raid.'

Ruprecht pondered that innocence was sometimes a very useful quality. He could imagine why the vice-chamberlain of the Farcostan Palace was being friendly to this handsome Francien boy. But perhaps he was underestimating Gilles's worldly wisdom; it wouldn't have been the first time. The boy had depths and had after all been brought up in the environment of a public house in contact with all sorts of men, one or two of whom would undoubtedly have been predatory on younger males.

Before dinner time arrived, Ruprecht emerged from his bath to find a selection of dark suits, shirts and shoes laid out on his bed from which to select. Gilles hovered to brush his jacket and adjust his tie. He did it with an efficiency and seriousness which proclaimed that he was aiming to be the perfect manservant for his benefactor. For that, if not for anything else, Ruprecht loved him.


Ruprecht woke early the next morning. He felt somehow refreshed, indeed almost rejuvenated, to be in Ostberg. He had lived here with his grandmother from the age of thirteen till his sixteenth birthday, along with Hans for a lot of that time. He knew the Farcostan Palace intimately from the explorations and expeditions he and his brother had delighted in when they stayed there.

He went to the tall open window and drank in the superb view. He was on the floor above the state apartments at the end of the east wing, not far from the sea cliff, and the sun had just come up behind the palace. The sea dazzled and sparkled, and flocks of white razorbills were circling and screeching over the waves below as they sought their breakfast. Ruprecht however needed a cigarette. Barefoot and in just a light robe, he took the backstairs out into the garden and lit up appreciatively on a bench with a sweeping view down to the cliff top. He grinned as he finally flicked away the stub of his second cigarette. Then he strolled through the damp grass, cool on his feet, till he found the hidden path that led to a rough stair which zigzagged down through scented shrubs to the secret beach far below, where he and Hans had spent many happy and innocent hours in and out of the water. It had been peculiarly their place, for only the gardeners amongst the palace staff were allowed there, and then only on sufferance to maintain the path.

The private cove was just as he remembered it, entirely enclosed by sandstone cliffs apart from an opening to the east. The sand was clean and pink and the tranquil sea a translucent blue. Ruprecht stood on the beach, and could not work out for the life of him how he could have forgotten the beauty of this secret place. He threw off the robe and ran down to the waves, plunging in to head for a half-submerged shelf of rock he remembered from those hot summers of long ago. The sea was cold in the shadowed cove, but he soon got used to it before he hauled himself out on to the stone table where years before he and Hans had played and swum almost every day, or so it seemed.

After a quarter of an hour, he plunged back in to swim lazily across to the southern side of the cove and haul himself out into a grotto which nature had carved, but which human art had fashioned into a cool, pillared and private space, vaulted, and echoing with the rush and slap of waves. Ruprecht had read in later days that a previous prince of Ostberg used it for liaisons with his several mistresses. He had himself put it to something of the same use, for it was here that he had one evening brought little Anton Vinseff, the groom, and they had explored precisely what two males could do with their bodies.

Ruprecht stood where he had twelve years before knelt up and over Anton's taut and ridged back and inserted himself into that fascinating dark space between the boy's round buttocks, as Anton squirmed and swore beneath him from the pain. But Anton had nonetheless taken his cock, and later, on his back, Ruprecht had taken Anton's smaller one with the help of a lot of spit. It had seemed only fair that they lost their virginity mutually. Maybe at the time in their adolescent infatuation they had fancied they loved each other; Anton had been crying when he packed Ruprecht's bags on the trap for his return home to Hochrecht a few days later. In those long-ago days the separation had seemed a heartbreak from which they both would never recover. Ruprecht had even received three or four ill-spelled letters from the stable boy he had left behind. He had kept them somewhere, he recalled.

In his current state, Ruprecht became rapidly erect, and only a few strokes were enough for him to pay the debt to his libido with several heavy spurts far across the stone floor on which he stood. The power of the orgasm left him in fact momentarily faint. He had to take a seat on a marble bench to catch his breath. There was a thought. Was little Anton still on the palace staff? He would not be that skinny, sandy-headed youth any more, but a man his own age. Had he married a chambermaid and raised a brood of his own? Maybe he had gone for a soldier. Stable staff often joined the noble cavalry regiments to escape the daily grind.

Shaking his head, Ruprecht followed a tunnel that brought him through a narrow and concealed exit on to the sands, which by now were warming up as the sun was climbing high in the southern sky. He retrieved his robe but put it over his shoulder and walked defiantly naked back up the cliff path, his penis still heavy and swinging between his legs as he climbed. He stopped for a long piss in the bushes just before he reached the cliff-top lawn so as to fully deflate himself before resuming the silk gown.

When he greeted Gilles, laying out his toilet in his bedroom, Ruprecht found to his intense interest that his infatuation with the boy had ebbed somewhat. Maybe it was his renewed contact with his own youth that had given him perspective, but for now Gilles seemed no longer an object of crude and disturbing lust, but rather a sweet and admirable youth who brought with him a memory of his own distant past. Long may that continue, he hoped.


'Good morning, Grossmutta.' Ruprecht had received a summons from the princess, whom he found as usual behind her desk, working through the boxes of state papers delivered daily to the palace from the capital.

She indicated an armchair and took a seat opposite him. 'Now my dear, I have given things a lot of thought. Frankly, I would like to have given you a sinecure, but I have dedicated my regency to eliminating grace and favour jobs for the nobility which bring salaries and no expectations of any service. I won't make an exception for family. Now, I have been exchanging telegrams with your parents, and they agree that it would be no hardship for them to bring forward and adjust the arrangements they had been planning for you in any case. Your three elder brothers and your sisters were always going to be accommodated within the county of Aalst, but you and Hans had your mother's marriage portion reserved for division between you. What I propose is to execute that division now, with Hans's consent. Your father has undertaken that Hans will be agreeable just to take a cash settlement, which clears the way for you to take the estate at Blauwhaven for yourself.'

'Grossmutta! Seriously?'

'Indeed. Of course there is some danger in this. I'd never taken you for a man of business, and so I'm going to ask you for now to allow the management of the estate to be delegated to Herr Vincent, my personal land agent. He'll manage the estate and maintain the house, and pay the profits into your bank account. Of course, my dear, once you find your feet you may wish to take control of the estate yourself. But for now, I believe it is in quite good order and you may be better advised to leave it to a professional steward, like Vincent, until you accumulate some capital. What do you think?'

'I'm delighted, Grossmutta. Really. Are you sure Hans will be fine with it? I mean, investments go up and down, and returns are uncertain.'

A cloud crossed his grandmother's face. 'That is true, but … my dear, I have to tell you that Hans's prospects are not now what they once may have been.'

'What do you mean, Grossmutta?'

She gave a sad shake of her head. 'Your brother Felix arrives tomorrow from Freiborg. He cannot now stay in the north. His mother may follow him down.'

Something cold and slimy took hold of Ruprecht's heart as he saw the look in his grandmother's eyes.

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