Ruprecht was not able to settle after the interview with his grandmother, and what was more there was no way of relieving the impact of her bad news by sharing it with a confidant. He just had to bottle up his worry and tension. For a while he paced his apartment, taking up his books to stare at them blankly, and then put them down. Finally, he rang for Gilles and instructed him to have a horse saddled.
'Do you ride, Gillot?' he asked.
'Good, then go down to the stables and order two mounts for the main courtyard in half an hour. You can do duty as groom. We'll go and inspect the park. I have some news for you, too, which I'd like to discuss outside the palace.'
Gilles raised an eyebrow, but like the good manservant he was chose not to pursue any curiosity he might have had. It occurred to Ruprecht after he had sent the boy on his errand that Gilles might not have known where precisely to go to arrange for mounts, but half an hour later two horses were nonetheless waiting in the courtyard, with Gilles attentively holding the reins of the one that had been chosen for his master, a muscular black stallion with its inconveniently proud red horns severely cut back.
He smiled, saluted the boy with his crop and hauled himself up into the saddle. Gilles effortlessly and athletically vaulted on to his yellow, striped mare, and demurely trotted it out of the gate arch after Ruprecht.
Once in the park, they cantered together down a long tree-lined ride which ran several kilometres inland. It ended at a round hill on which was erected a monumental domed structure, Ruprecht remembered it well. He urged his mount up the steep incline and dismounted at its door. Gilles followed him within. Under the dome was a cavernous interior which, Ruprecht observed, could do with some housekeeping; dust and stone fragments littered the broken tiles of the floor.
'What is this place, monsieur?'
'I used to come here a fair amount as a boy, Gillot. I suppose it was the historical resonances, which already had me hooked back then. This is where the seventh-century princes of Ostberg were laid. You'll see plaques up there to Felix IV, Felix V, Felix Johann and Felix August.'
'Ah … they all have the same name as your littlest brother, the present prince.'
'Yes, Felix XI as he is. When my mother decided he would likely be her last son, she named him Felix as it was a fair bet Ostberg would be his.'
'Ultimo … thingy,' nodded Gilles. 'Why do some have two names?'
'If a Felix died childless, then the title passed back up the family tree to the next successor by ultimogeniture, and if he already had another name, he added Felix to it when he became prince.'
'I see, monsieur. Felicitous.'
'My boy, was that a pun?' Gilles adopted an innocent look.
Despite everything on his mind, Ruprecht gave a tight smile and led the boy back outside. He stood and looked back over the park to the domes and roofs of the palace.
'So sad,' he murmured.
'Gilles, the next prince is likely to be Felix Hans.'
'Monsieur le Comte? What?'
'I heard this morning that my littlest brother has been diagnosed with phthisis … the consumption.'
The boy fell quiet. Eventually he said simply, but feelingly, 'Oh, monsieur.'
The next morning Ruprecht rose less early, and the sun was well up before there was a tap on the door. It was Gilles with a message that the prince was delayed and was not expected till at least midday. Ruprecht ordered breakfast on the terrace and told Gilles to take the rest of the day off. He should at least have one day in the week to himself. When the boy asked what he was expected to do with himself, Ruprecht shrugged and told him to explore the grounds, but keep out of the formal gardens and private rooms.
After breakfast, Ruprecht got a book, threw off his clothes and headed naked down to the private cove below the palace, careless of observation from the house. He lay out for a while in the sun but failed to find the concentration to engage with his studies. For a while he dozed, and waking groggy and hot he plunged into the waves, finding some relief in the shock of the cold water and the physical effort of swimming out to his and Hans's rock. The tide was going out so the shelf was fully exposed and too hot to relax on for long. So he swam back and retrieved his volume, making his way to the concealed entrance to the grotto, and found a perfect place to perch at its seaward end, lit by the westering sun and warm enough. There for a while he managed to absorb himself in the works of Joachim of Antejhem.
He had a view of the beach from where he had settled, and looking across he observed a figure appear on the sand, not far away. It was Gilles. Clearly, no one had told him the little bay was strictly reserved for family and guests. It was also clear he had no idea he could be watched from Ruprecht's vantage point. The boy was mesmerised by the waves coming in, and had removed his lower clothing. He paddled a while and kicked at the waves. He lost his balance and went over. Sputtering and laughing he emerged, and things began to get interesting.
Gilles pulled his wet shirt over his head and threw it back up the beach, then he stood naked in the sunlight, the foam around his ankles. He threw back his head, closed his eyes and spread his arms, revelling in the sun and the sea air caressing his body. Ruprecht was mesmerised in turn. He could see the boy's curling black patch of pubic hair at the root of his flaccid cock. It was a thick, long tube, with only a small dark opening, and the large plump scrotum pushed it up high.
Gilles looked around him cautiously, and after he had concluded he was unobserved a dimple appeared in his flawless buttock as he put pressure on his bladder, and a strong golden arc of urine hosed out of his penis as Gilles added his own personal tributary to the great ocean. He erected rapidly while he did so, and the result was an impressive thick, straight length that rose high. The head that emerged from the retracting foreskin was a round, pale purple helmet. Gilles examined and weighed his erection for a while, and Ruprecht caught his breath at the possibility that he was about to have a sexual performance from the boy. But then Gilles ran into the sea, his upright cock wagging heavily as he splashed through the water. He turned and threw himself backwards into a breaking crest. Ruprecht could hear him laughing delightedly.
The boy played around for a while in the waves, then he returned to spread out on the sand and apparently dozed. Ruprecht had enjoyed the show immensely, but after a while began to consider whether it would perhaps be the time to disillusion Gilles of his belief that he was alone and unobserved. Before he could act a second naked boy appeared, and gave an impish grin as he kicked sand all over Gilles's brown and flat belly. A nettled-looking Gilles sat up abruptly and squinted at the newcomer. Ruprecht couldn't catch any words but apparently peace was soon made, and the second boy took a seat next to Gilles in the sand. The two were soon chatting and not long afterwards were on their sides leaning towards each other, heads resting on crooked arms, alternately laughing together and intent on each other's words. Clearly a boyish alchemy of friendship was beginning out in the sunlight. It was a magical and charming sight.
The newcomer was a pale, skinny specimen with wispy blonde hair, and since his back was towards Ruprecht he could see the boy's small butt was marked by several angry red or purple spots and welts. His ribs stuck out like rails. Eventually the two got up and strolled down to the waves. Gilles bent over and raised himself on his hands, walking around on them as the other boy looked on, deeply impressed. Gilles's legs hung forward, his long penis jutting out and flopping from side to side as he lumbered along. It was both a comical and arousing sight. Gilles tried to get his new friend to duplicate his own prowess, but after a lot of laughter they gave up. Then the pair splashed each other in the sea to get the sand off, walking out to the depth of their thighs, and at that point the blond put his arm companionably around Gilles's waist, pulling him close so their flanks came together, the Francien boy smiling and reciprocating.
The pair stood for a while and looked into each other's eyes briefly, then in what seemed to be a reaction to the moment of physical intimacy, the pale newcomer launched himself out into the waves, beginning a leisurely crawl out in the direction of the shelf, though Gilles stayed where he was. It was now the stranger's turn to demonstrate prowess, for Gilles was not a swimmer.
The newcomer returned and there was a discussion which ended in a swimming lesson, the pale boy holding Gilles in the waves to assist him to float, arms under his shoulders and buttocks. They were much closer now to Ruprecht, and for the first time he got a good look at the other boy's face. He was taller and further on in adolescence from when he had last seen him, but it was his little brother Felix.
Ruprecht called out for Gilles when it came to the point of getting his white tie straight before dinner. The boy emerged from the dressing room and efficiently sorted out his master.
'What did you do with yourself today, Gillot?'
The boy grinned. 'I went down to the sea, monsieur. I splashed in the waves. I've never done that before. It was cold to start with, but you soon stop noticing.'
'Do you swim, Gilles?'
'No monsieur, or at least not yet. I met a boy who said he'd teach me.'
'Oh, who was that?'
'Another servant … or at least I assume so. He spoke Francien brilliantly, though he was an Alleman I think. Very clever and funny. He was exactly my age. I wonder if I'll meet him in the local school if I go there part-time like you suggest? That would be good.'
'I may know his family. Did he give his name?'
'Gottschalk, he said. He didn't mention his surname.'
Ruprecht swore in his head. Felix was being abominable, and abusing Gilles's artless desire for friendship. With Felix, getting a laugh out of any situation was always the most important thing. Consumptive or not, he would get a clip around the ear.
'Are you seeing him again?'
'He said he wanted to meet me same place tomorrow, but I told him my duty made that impossible.'
'Quite right. No doubt you'll see him around again. He must be something to do with the estate.'
'He seemed to know his way around the place, monsieur.'
'Ouch!' The prince of Ostberg looked outraged as his brother swatted him around the head. 'What was that for?'
'Ah … right … the nice Francien boy.' Felix had the grace to look embarrassed. 'How did you find out?'
'He's my valet de chambre, idiot. He's a thoroughly decent kid and he does not need his head screwed with by you.'
Felix shrugged, 'Honest, Rupe. I never meant anything. I went down to the private beach, and he was sunning himself. I could have got the guards to arrest him. He had no business being there. Instead I just chatted and was decent … alright, maybe I got a bit carried away. I rather liked being Gottschalk for an afternoon.'
'Come here.' Ruprecht hugged his little brother and kissed him on the forehead, noting as he did how thin the boy was. 'You're going to be a brat forever aren't you, Kreech.'
The boy shot him a closed look. 'I can think of worse things.'
The arrival of their grandmother and several guests in the salon ended that conversation, as the local gentry and merchants came up to bow over the young prince's hand. Felix took it in his stride. It seemed he had grown in other ways than physical; the nervous and restless thirteen-year-old he had been when Ruprecht had last seen Felix could never have been so patient.
Ruprecht ended up as he usually did placed next to a cleric, in this case the bishop of the neighbouring confederated state of Schwarzwald, in which, as it happened, Ruprecht's own new estate of Blauwhaven was situated. So he engaged the bishop with some curiosity on local politics and the personality of his overlord, the sovereign margrave of Schwarzwald. Ruprecht would be a member of the upper chamber of its estates by virtue of his possession of the barony. As a detached lordship of the house of Ostberg the obligation had previously been undertaken by a proctor-general, but Ruprecht would be expected to do his duty as a legislator in person. He was not sure he was ready for it.
Then he and the bishop got on to the much more interesting topic of the Holy See, the small patriarchal principality that lay on the east coast between the Bernician Confederation and the kingdom of Ardhesse, and which had been fought over by both in the past, excommunications notwithstanding. The bishop was interested in Ruprecht's view, as a past visitor to the Holy City, on the latest conflict between the orthodox and evangelical factions in the patriarchal Curia.
'His Holiness believes the Summarium to be an accurate recollection of the Christian revelation,' Ruprecht observed, 'but not the literal word of God. That seems to me to be the orthodox position. And it helps me. As long as the orthodox control the Curia, I'm allowed to use the Patriarchal library. The evangelicals don't take kindly to scholars who treat scripture as a historical artefact. What have you heard, Reverence?'
'His Holiness is in good health as far as I know, but he is in his later seventies and they say that Cardinal Bishop Abraham has accumulated a good deal of support amongst the College. Should he attain the patriarchate, you might find access to the library less easy to come by.'
Ruprecht frowned. If the balance was tipping against the orthodox, then he should get to work on the earliest texts while he still could. He must get to grips with his master project, and soon.
Dinner lasted longer than Ruprecht was happy with, but eventually all rose to their feet for the farewell toast to the prince's health. Ruprecht caught his grandmother's eye as he raised his glass with the others. Felix stayed seated, impassive.
After the brothers had said good night to the princess, Ruprecht collared Felix and manoeuvred him to the sitting room of his own apartments. 'Do I have to?' his brother complained. 'I'd have liked another afternoon as Gottschalk. It was fun, and Gilles is … well, really nice.'
Ruprecht shot his brother a keen look. 'Look, Kreech, I know things are hard for you, and it's not easy for a boy in your position ever to have good friends, but if you do want to be true friends with anyone, that friendship must be based on trust and honesty.'
'That's all very well. But once he knows who I really am, I'll never get anything out of him but bowing and scraping.'
Ruprecht gave a little smile. 'Don't underestimate Gilles. He's already surprised the hell out of me on several occasions.'
'What do you mean?'
'Maybe he'll tell you, if he finds you worthy of trust. If he does, you'll be the lucky boy. Now I'm going to ring for him, and the rest is up to you.'
'Stay here then while I do it.'
There was a measured and discreet tap on the door that Ruprecht was already recognising as a characteristic of Gilles. The boy came in and caught sight of his master and the other figure sitting in the armchair. Ruprecht watched his reaction keenly. Gilles did a quick double take and then stood still for a moment before bowing low to both and saying, 'Monsieur le Comte, Monseigneur le Prince, may I be of assistance?'
Felix's face clouded and he burst out petulantly, 'See! I told you! Bowing and scraping. I hate my life.'
Ruprecht by contrast, went up to Gilles, took him by the shoulder and smiled. 'Good boy Gillot, how did you work it out?'
'Monsieur, he was in evening dress and sitting in your presence, so he could have been none other than the prince, and there is a slight resemblance in the face.'
'Cool as an ice floe. Excellent.'
'May I go now, messieurs?'
Felix got up. 'No, you may not. I order you to be as you were this afternoon!'
'Your Serene and Most Excellent Highness wishes me to take all my clothes off?'
'Yes! No! Of course not! You're taking revenge on me, and I won't have it.'
'Monseigneur is mistaken. I hold Your Serene Highness in the very highest respect.'
Ruprecht was increasingly amused, while his brother was getting more and more heated.
'Look, Gillot. Can I just be Gottschalk with you again!'
Gilles gave him a momentary sad look and shook his head, but said nothing.
'You're just mad, and you're hurting me.' Suddenly Felix fell back on the chair, in tears. Gilles looked at his master hesitantly. Ruprecht nodded, and Gilles went down on his knees in front of the prince. He gently put a brown hand to Felix's chin and made him look in his eyes.
'Monseigneur, you have to understand. People like me can't associate with people like you. It's too complicated for us to be friends.'
'But … but … I need …'
Ruprecht felt it was time to intervene. 'Gillot, go easy on my brother. He meant you no harm, and I think maybe you should forgive him for the trick. It was done without malice. You get one day off a week, yes? Well on that day, put off the dutiful subservience and go and learn to swim with this local lad I know called Gottschalk. He's a good kid and at the moment he needs all the friends he can get.'
'Please,' urged Felix through wet eyes.
Gilles squeezed his hand. 'Are you Gottschalk at the moment, Monseigneur?'
'If you want me to be.'
'Very well. You pull a trick like that again and I'll beat the shit out of you, Gottschalk. Friends worth having don't do that sort of crap to each other.'
'Sorry. We friends now?'
'Yes. Now is there anything I can do for you, messieurs? No? Then good night.'
After Gilles had withdrawn, Felix looked up astonished at his brother. 'He's just like you said he was!'
The next morning a very cheerful Gilles insisted that he should shave his master.
'Have you done this before, Gillot?' Ruprecht enquired, watching the boy work up a lather.
'Well, not for myself obviously, monsieur. But I have watched my father do so, and I think I have a steady hand. Besides, it will be good practice for when my own beard appears.'
Not entirely convinced, Ruprecht lay back in his dressing room chair and the boy got to work. It was quite distracting to have Gilles's handsome face and his strong brown fingers active so close to him, so much so that he quite forgave the several nicks the boy inflicted on his jaw and nostrils.
'A moment, monsieur. The bleeding soon stops. My father puts pieces of paper on them, thus. There, I expect you'll heal up nicely in a week or two.'
Ruprecht grabbed the laughing boy and put him unresisting over his knee, sharply punishing his shapely rear. When he let Gilles up, Ruprecht had an erection, and decided not to do that again, even though Gilles seemed not to have minded in the least.
'Gillot, I think it's time to make some plans for you. You should be back in school. I made some enquiries and you can join the several boys and girls on the palace staff who attend afternoon school in the estate village. Your Allemanic is improving quite quickly, and I think that in less than a month, if we're still here, you'll be able to manage the lessons fine.'
'Yes, monsieur. I will be very happy if we stay here.'
'How much of that will be because of Felix?' Ruprecht ventured.
Gilles shrugged and coloured. 'He is not what I expected a prince to be, monsieur. Very different from that murderous Ardhessian scum who destroyed my home. Felix is like a proper boy and we talked so much. But he is consumptive. It is sad.'
'Yes it is. You know why he has been sent south?'
'It is the warmer climate and the sea air, monsieur, is it not? They slow the progress of the disease and ease his breathing.'
'He had a bad episode back home in Freiborg a few weeks ago. The coughing was very distressing, I hear, and he brought up blood from his lungs. Our mother was deeply upset. A number of her family have been victims over the years. The fact that he has chosen you as an intimate is a relief to me. It connects him closer with the daily world and takes his mind off his illness, and I think you'll be able to watch out for him when you're together.'
'You may count on me for that, monsieur. You have my solemn promise.'
At breakfast, one of the butlers placed a bundle of letters in front of Ruprecht. His post had finally caught up with him. The envelope from Hans was quickly slit and opened. He read it intently. It seemed that his brother's corvette had been indeed stopped by Imperial warships off Vambourg, but he had resisted their request to search his vessel or to produce Ruprecht. After a tense standoff, the fortuitous approach of two Hochrechtner destroyers upriver persuaded the Imperial fleet to let Leopard resume its course. A major diplomatic blow-up between the Empire and the Grand Duchy was still going on, and Hans had fully briefed the foreign ministry in Groothuis as to the circumstances that led to the incident.
Hans had attached press cuttings to his letter. These not only dealt with the naval incident on the Great River, but carried reports about an assassination attempt on the Emperor and the expelling of the Vieldomainois and Imperial ambassadors from Ardhesse in a diplomatic protest about a serious act of discourtesy to the young king on his northern travels. A cutting from the Zuidnernzeitung, an independent Montenard publication, carried rumours that King Kristijan had been placed in custody on his return home. He had disappeared into the island fortress of Bornholm in the harbour of Ardheim, and was not expected to re-emerge. The proclamation of his uncle as King Horst IV was believed imminent.
He put aside the family letters from his mother and sisters, and took up another, addressed in Allemanic in a sprawling hand he did not know. He slit open the envelope, removed several sheets and began reading:
To His Excellency the Graf Ruprecht von Aalst zum Freiborg
Presbytery of Schwarzwald. Friday, Eve of St Aloysius of Benetheim, 888.
My dear Graf
Do please forgive my writing to you like this out of the blue, but some common acquaintances have suggested that I contact you and that you would not be offended by the approach. I have read your recent publications in the series, Urkunden des Geschiednis Allemanischer, and in particular your analysis of the Ardhessian Fragments, which I found utterly riveting, and indeed revelatory.
I have been working on much the same area as yourself, though I have not yet ventured into print. My particular enthusiasm is the study of the immediate post-Landing period up to the time of the Great Schism. Our mutual friend Dr Emile des Préaux of Chasancene has mentioned in recent correspondence your discovery of lost sections of the Annals of the Patriarchate preserved in transcripts by Bishop Joachim and your plan to publish these. I would be most eager to discuss the historical significance with you if it is at all possible, and if chance brings you to the South again. I am often at the Patriarchal Library.
My particular approach is a new one; an alliance between the surviving record and a novel process I call 'investigative excavation'. I enclose some reports of recent digs I undertook with fellow enthusiasts in the margravate of Schwarzwald on the site of an early Allemanic fort in the vicinity of the present ruler's castle of Rauffsburg. I hope you will find it revealing of social conditions in archaic Allemanic society.
I would greatly appreciate, minheer Graf, the chance to discuss these and other matters of common interest, and I do so hope it may come to pass in due course.
I am Your Excellency's most humble servant.
The Reverend Dr Joerg Tannerman.
Not a nutcase then, reflected Ruprecht. His publications attracted all too many eccentrics with particular hobbyhorses to ride all over his lawn. He had developed a capacity to ignore them, however persistent. But this fellow was obviously a scholar, and known as such to people he respected. And he was in Schwarzwald, within range of his new home at Blauwhaven. The chances of a meeting were therefore quite good. He made a mental note as he perused the manuscript copy of the good doctor's 'Excavation Report', which he found somewhat technical and obscure, though he guessed that the points the writer was trying to explain were not insignificant. But Ruprecht was a man for texts.
Felix appeared in his pyjamas, and kissed his brother on the cheek as he settled next to him at the table. Ruprecht noticed with concern that the boy had filled a plate but merely picked at his food. Close up, his skin was a little waxy and his hair was thin in places.
'What are you up to today, Kreech?'
'My tutor arrived last night, so back to the books for me this afternoon.'
'What, up in the old schoolroom? Me and Hans suffered there under the harsh rule of Dr Siemens for the best part of two years. He was one for the stick across the shoulders. I hope your fellow isn't as brutal.'
'He's not so bad. He's a youngish fellow, Meister Willem Andrecht. Strict, but I've not had the stick from him yet. Maybe I behave better than you and Hans did.'
'That would surprise me. I hope it's not too boring on your own.'
'Yes, that's a problem. You can't hide behind other fellows when he asks a question and wants an answer.'
It was as Ruprecht picked up his papers to leave that he had an idea. 'Felix, how about if you had company in the classroom?'
'What do you mean? Hang on, you don't think …?'
'Couldn't be better, I'd say. He doesn't have much to do for me in the afternoons.'
Felix beamed blissfully up at his brother. 'I love you, Rupe.'
It was a week later that Ruprecht took his customary afternoon walk with his book down to the cove. It was a particularly mild afternoon, and the sea was a flat calm milky blue. He took up his favourite place at the seaward end of the grotto, which he had made a bit more comfortable with cushions and towels from the house. He stripped and enjoyed the sun on his body. Eventually he dozed, to be awoken by boys calling and splashing outside in the bay.
School was out and Gilles and Felix had come romping down to the beach, in very high spirits. There had been progress in the swimming lessons it seemed, and the two were out on the rock shelf, Gilles floating and looking up at his friend, who was dangling his legs in the water. The inevitable eventually happened, and Felix's ankles were grabbed. He was hauled into the sea and the two fought in the water, splashing around, until Felix's superior skills forced Gilles to try to escape back on to the shelf. He pulled himself up, his brown body shining and sleek, then pulled Felix after him.
Suddenly, it struck the watching Ruprecht that there had been a subtle change in the interaction between the two. The wet boys were face to face, and standing still. Gilles's hands slowly ran down Felix's flanks to rest on his lower cheeks. The two stared into each other's faces and then their mouths closed. The two boys were on the cusp of something far more than friendship.
The kissing went on, while Felix's hands took Gilles's buttocks and pressed their groins close. Eventually their lips parted. Some soft words were exchanged, and Felix smiled as he looked down between them. They sat together on the shelf and dangled their feet over the edge, hand in hand. Felix was very erect, his cock long and red at the tip. Then, in a gesture of sweetness and trust, he rested his head on Gilles's shoulder while taking him by the waist. Gilles let him rest there for some minutes then turned and with a look of infinite tenderness kissed Felix's wet hair.
It was a sight to break hearts and Ruprecht turned away, all unworthy to witness it, or so he felt. He walked back into that echoing cavern where he too had once ventured beyond friendship with another boy, but then abandoned him to the darkness.
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