'Morning, Grossmutta,' Ruprecht looked up from his paper and greeted the princess as she arrived in the breakfast room. Outside it was another glorious early autumn day, the lawns at the rear of the palace still twinkling with a heavy dew fall.
The princess kissed him on his head and took up another of the morning papers, while a footman poured a cup of the herbal tea she insisted she enjoyed.
'Is there anything interesting happening out in the world I should know of?' she asked.
'Nothing of any great moment,' he replied. 'There's a rather good article in the Bernizienkronikel about the new applications of voltaic energy. Natural philosophers in Dreiholmtz have found ways of lighting houses with it. Apparently the result is dazzling.'
The princess shook her head. 'I can't keep up with all this. It sounds more dangerous than gaslight, which is alarming enough in its own right. Frankly, I only trust candles; so easy to manage. I will not have gas in my chambers.' She sipped her tea before resuming. 'On another subject, I've noticed quite some improvement in Felix since he arrived. There's been no recurrence of the coughing fits, and he looks healthier. He's eating properly too.'
'It'll be the sunlight and clearer air, you can be sure. But Grossmutta, we must not get our hopes up. The phthisis offers bouts of remission, but it always returns.'
The princess heaved a sigh. 'And isn't that the tragedy of the disease. You'll know how your aunt Mechtild was taken by it quite young. Your mother … well, it's the renewal of a nightmare for her. She and Mechtild were so close, and now it's taking Felix from her too.'
'When is mama to arrive?'
'Tomorrow. She will at least be glad to see Felix so much improved … and so happy too. He's taken up his flute again. We must have him to play for the guests tomorrow, the boy's a marvel on the instrument. His mother delights in accompanying him on the keyboard.'
Ruprecht remarked internally on the current glowing happiness of his manservant, and put it down to the same reason. Not that the boy was any the less punctilious in his duties, but when Felix was around Gilles's eyes were constantly straying. Ruprecht had also caught him the last evening hanging around outside the closed door of Felix's apartments, listening intently to the music coming from within.
When he returned to his dressing room Ruprecht found Gilles sharpening the razor ready for his shave. The youth's shaving technique had developed quickly, and he had also graduated to tentatively trimming his master's hair, since it was growing unkempt and Ruprecht was reluctant to go into the city for a professional cut. The credit that Ruprecht had acquired since the estate of Blauwhaven had been conveyed to him had persuaded local tailors to visit and take his measurements. Four new suits and a multitude of shirts and other accessories had finally provided Gilles with a domestic empire to rule, and indeed also his own livery jacket in the plum colour of the House of Aalst. It clashed horribly with the Ostberg livery, which was canary yellow, but Gilles wore it with evident pride around the palace.
Ruprecht did not make any effort to discover the progress of the love affair between the boys, but assumed that eyes and fingers were meeting in the schoolroom and trysts in the private cove below the palace were where it was mostly pursued. He had stopped going down to the beach, as the voyeurism involved might have been tempting but would also be offensive to his view of himself. The boys were being discreet, which was not surprising where Gilles was concerned. It was Felix's caution which was the surprise, and was perhaps testimony to the depth of his passion for the Francien servant boy. Felix was not going to risk his happiness with dangerous liaisons. Since Gilles was invariably fresh and clear-eyed in the morning, Ruprecht doubted that he was taking a risk by creeping through the palace after midnight to join Felix in bed. If their love was being physically consummated, it was happening down on the sand or on the shelf in the secluded bay.
As Ruprecht settled back for his morning shave he reflected that he should really be heading down to his new home in the margravate of Schwarzwald, as there were many decisions awaiting his attention. But it would involve separating Felix from his source of happiness, which in the circumstances would be a cruel thing to do. Felix's love for Gilles was going to be a precarious enough affair. It was not just his illness; adolescent affections were so mercurial, and although homosexual love was generally tolerated and accommodated in Allemanic aristocratic society, it was not talked about and was no enhancement to a man or woman's reputation, especially when one partner came from below stairs. So for the moment Ruprecht was trapped in Ostberg by his own deep affection for his brother and his brother's lover, who happened to be his manservant.
Gilles grinned into Ruprecht's freshly-shaven face. He had spontaneously shifted to Allemanic in their conversation, which did not surprise his master. It would have been the effect of the boy's pillow talk with Felix. 'Not so much as a scratch, minheer!'
Ruprecht smiled back. 'Clever lad. How's the schooling going?'
'His Serene Highness and I pursue mathematics, geography and natural science in the afternoon. My grasp of the language is not good enough to join him in language, history and literature, which he studies in the mornings with Meister Andrecht, but maybe soon … of course minheer, only if that is acceptable to you. Are we to have our morning ride?'
'Yes indeed. Horses for ten if you please.'
For the first time since arriving at the palace Ruprecht took the long road to the city, and it was past eleven when they reached the fortress of Ostberg and looked down into the dramatic bowl of the city beneath, with its busy harbour and the river congested by the traffic of barges. The noise of the city was a constant hum even up on the hill. The purpose of the trip was for Ruprecht to stock up on cigarettes, and he had remembered a rather good tobacconist near the citadel entrance, on a commercial street rich in the diverse and colourful uniforms of the Bernician military.
He left Gilles outside with the mounts, removed his hat and went into the dark, aromatic interior of the shop. A garrison officer was at the counter negotiating a purchase, and Ruprecht browsed the wares on display until the captain completed his transaction. He was a dragoon in a short yellow shell jacket which exposed quite a fine ass in his tight green trousers. Ruprecht quickly raised his eyes as the man turned and so only briefly swept his face, but he registered something familiar in it before the officer departed. It seemed he too had been noted by the man, from the evidence of his own brief hesitation when their eyes met, but the captain went on out.
When Ruprecht left the shop he found the dragoon officer still outside, in amiable conversation with Gilles, and hoped the boy was not being sized up for a recruiting bid of some sort or other. But it seemed the man's interest was in Ruprecht, not his handsome valet.
The captain put his hand to the peak of his forage cap. 'Am I talking to the Graf Ruprecht von Aalst?' he politely enquired.
'Yes indeed minheer, but do I …?' He looked close at maddeningly familiar face. The man was his age, quite pleasant looking if a little ruddy in the face. He had the light moustache favoured by his branch of the armed forces, and it was sandy in colour. 'Good heavens!' Ruprecht continued. 'Are you …?'
'Captain-lieutenant Vinseff of the Graf von Bielowicz's Dragoons.'
'My God, it's Anton!'
The two men grasped hands, and after a momentary internal qualm of post-adolescent embarrassment on Ruprecht's part fell into conversation. The captain himself seemed perfectly at ease with the man who had briefly been his lover, a long age ago, the man who had in fact taken his virginity.
The captain's life story was quickly told, how soon after Ruprecht had left Ostberg he had joined the dragoons as a trainee farrier and through his knowledge of horse management and general competence risen quickly, first to sergeant-farrier then to corporal-major of horse. His professional skills and social ease had attracted the notice of the aristocrat who owned the regiment and he had been commissioned ensign at twenty-four, finally securing his own troop of horse this very year.
Ruprecht realised there were several things not being said here, which he would have liked to pursue. But Gilles by now was getting edgy, for he had to join Felix in the schoolroom in only a couple of hours. So Ruprecht produced his card and exchanged it with Captain Vinseff's. The man scribbled an address on the back and a little hesitantly suggested a meeting in a few days to catch up. In the emotional state he was in Ruprecht was more than happy to agree. So all was fixed and the look in the captain's eye when they shook hands in parting seemed a shade more than friendly. Ruprecht saw no wedding ring on his finger.
As they rode back to the palace it was obvious that Gilles was deeply curious about the encounter outside the tobacconist. It was now perhaps time for the inevitable talk with the boy, and this was as good an occasion as any.
'Gilles my lad, that captain was an old friend. We knew each other when we were your age at the palace.'
'Oh yes, minheer, and was he a soldier then?'
'No, he was a groom in the stables.'
Gilles was impressed. 'Then he has done well for himself, minheer. He's an officer, and yet he came from a common background like me. But how did you and he …?'
Ruprecht reined in his mount and allowed the boy to pull alongside him. 'Gilles, there is a beach beneath the palace which is out of bounds to all but the family. Do you know of it?'
The boy blushed bright red and didn't answer.
'Anton and I used to ride out daily from the time when I was fourteen and old enough to mount a full-sized horse. We got friendly and we used to go swimming down there, and … let's be clear about this … we soon became more than friends.'
'Sir … do you mean …'
'We fell in love is what I mean, and just so as to avoid any doubt on your part, I am still today a man who loves other men … if I can find the right one. Anton and I made love down on that beach when we were sixteen. Now, is there anything you want to tell me?'
Gilles was shaking and tears streaked his cheeks. Whatever he wanted to say was choked in his throat. Ruprecht smiled and put his hand to the boy's cheek; it was wet, soft and warm and Ruprecht stroked it affectionately. 'You love my brother deeply, don't you.'
'Yes … minheer,' Gilles hiccupped out.
'And you and he are meeting on the beach to make love.'
Gilles nodded and sobbed, 'Please, monsieur … don't send me away. It would kill me … kill Felix.'
'Believe me, with the lessons of my own life behind me I have no intention of separating you and my brother. You both have my blessing and if I can help you two onwards in your relationship, I will.'
Gilles launched himself at his master and hung around his neck, hugging him hard. It was quite a while before he broke off the embrace, and when he did there was snot smeared all over his wet face. For once, the boy looked less than perfect, yet even more desirable were it possible. Ruprecht deeply envied his little brother. He handed Gilles his handkerchief, and worried about the state of the shoulder of his jacket.
'Now then, Gillot,' he continued, 'as we now fully understand each other, we can make some rules. Firstly, you and Felix must be careful. It's not safe to have sex down on that beach. Although the cove can't be seen from above, there are concealed outlooks which allow the shelf where you two have probably been fucking to be observed from several directions. Have you found the grotto on the south side?'
'Er … no, minheer.'
'It's a lot safer. And you two have indeed been …?'
'Yes, minheer. Since last week.'
Ruprecht grinned and ruffled Gilles's dark curls. 'Then there are some items that I'll let you have which will improve the experience for you both. Also, now we understand each other, I think that you and my brother had best use my bedroom in the evenings before dinner when I'm not around, as long as you don't make a mess all over the bedclothes and you tidy up properly afterwards. Outdoor sex is so very hard on the knees.'
Gilles snorted with half-embarrassed laughter.
'Needless to say, this aspect of all three of our lives is one that we will keep very quiet about. Palaces are dreadful sinks of gossip, and Felix needs to be protected for so many reasons. It's less important for me maybe. You should know that the Graf Hans and my grandmother the Princess Regent are both well-aware of my preferences, though Hans is not inclined our way himself. Just out of curiosity, did King Kristijan try it on with you when he was at the auberge?'
'Kris? No minheer, though he did make sure to show me his … dick … when we peed together and he had a good look at mine. Do you think he wanted to … put it in my bum?'
'Oh yes. Believe me, he found you very interesting. Lucky for you he had other things on his mind those two days.'
'I should have hit him harder then, minheer.' Gilles had recovered his self-possession, and was clearly coming to terms with the new state of affairs, where he could openly discuss his homosexual affections with Ruprecht. 'Can I tell all this to Kreech … I mean, to your brother, His Serene Highness?'
'He lets you call him Kreech? Yes, of course you can. What does he call you, when you're … you know?'
Gilles coloured beautifully. 'Oh … all sorts of things … but Gillot mostly.'
'Sweet,' Ruprecht observed. 'And now I have to say further things that you will find uncomfortable. Felix is consumptive. You know that.'
All the joy fled from Gilles's face.
Ruprecht continued with deliberation. 'It is a disease that he is unlikely to survive. Some few do shake it off, and we hope against hope his move to Ostberg may increase the Kreech's chances. But the odds are not good. The thing is this. Doctors tell us that though the disease may not be as infectious as the plague it can be transmitted to others, no one knows how. But if anyone is likely to catch it from another consumptive, it is his lover. By making love to my brother you put your own life at risk, Gilles.'
The boy looked back at him with quiet seriousness. 'I know that, minheer. Don't think I don't. The consumption was in Chasancene, and I knew families where it was rife. But … believe me, I cannot turn away from that boy. He's my life. If he's my death too, then so be it.'
Gilles flicked his reins and rode on. Ruprecht looked after him and wondered quite how much the boy knew of the disease and the trials Felix's illness would put him through as it progressed.
Ruprecht was daydreaming at his desk when a tap on the door heralded his brother's arrival. The boy looked flushed and concerned. School had been out an hour, so Ruprecht could guess what was on his mind.
'Not down at the beach, my Kreech? Where's Gillot?'
Felix threw up his hands. 'How did you know?'
'I was in the grotto when you two first met in the cove, of course. I was also there when you two had your first kiss out on the rock in the bay, or I think it was your first kiss. It was beautiful by the way.'
'You saw my hard-on? Jesus Christ the Seneschal! Now I am so embarrassed.'
'From what I saw, you have nothing to be embarrassed about. I'm sure Gillot hasn't complained.'
'You didn't see us fucking did you? That would be so sick.'
'No I did not. That would be – as you quite properly say – sick. Was it fun?'
'You do it, you should know.'
'I have lubricants that assist the experience. You're welcome to them.'
'We can use your room? That'll be way better.'
'Straight to the practicalities. That's my Kreech.'
'I'd rather Gilles could sleep with me all the time. We talk about that, going to bed together and waking up side by side in the morning.'
Ruprecht shook his head. 'Come here, Kreech.' His brother grinned and settled on his lap, cuddled tightly in his arms. He kissed the boy's hair. It was like when Felix was just an elfin child he carried everywhere in his arms, or on his shoulders. 'I love you so much, my little cat monster. Now I have an idea. I am desperate to get down to my new home in Blauwhaven. But if I do, Gilles has to go with me, and that I think would break my Kreech's heart. So … when our mama has had her chance to mother you and see how much better you're doing here, I shall invite His Serene and Most Excellent Highness to join his brother for an extended visit in Schwarzwald, and ….'
'Oh wow! You mean me and Gilles can … all the time, and sleep in the same bed and …'
'You can learn about each other in peace and far away from suspicion, comment and prejudice. We'll have the house to ourselves, though you'll have to keep your activities away from your tutor.'
'I think he knows. We're a bit obvious, though Gillot likes to think we're not. Why are you being so nice to us?'
'Because, my Kreech, I was once sixteen and in love with another boy, and I never had any of the chances you're about to get. It spoiled my life. I won't have yours spoiled that way, not while I can prevent it.'
'And what about this captain of yours Gillot met …?'
One of the things Ruprecht had to get to grips with was his new prehistory of the Mainland and Islands. So, while Gilles was in the schoolroom with Felix the next day, he cleared a table and set out his evidences.
What sources did he have? The standard text of the Annals of the Patriarchate, which had been edited heavily, as he now knew, at the end of the fourth century. But, courtesy of Bishop Joachim, he now had some much older material, as old as the second century, which the good bishop had found in now-lost texts of the Annals, and other places which Ruprecht had yet to identify.
There were other well-known sources, including a series of official biographies of the patriarchs, compiled in authorised form in the fourth century but drawing on much older material. There were also the lives of a variety of saints of the Church, some of which were genuine and had much historical material incorporated within them. There were the parallel Imperial Annals; a dubious source for early history as their main purpose was to justify the Empire's claim to lordship over the Four Kingdoms and primacy over the Patriarchate. Still, they were obviously based on now lost ruler-lists and panegyrics from an earlier age so could not entirely be discounted.
Curiously, the most evocative source was The Voyagers, a 30,000 line Francien verse epic which purported to tell the tale of the Landing and the coming of mankind to his world. It had very little historical foundation, but its insights into early post-Landing society remained vivid and had inspired many novelists. A colleague who specialised in early linguistics had also drawn Ruprecht's attention to many archaic passages in the epic, which he believed were not originally Francien but a second-century versification of an English prose original. If true, the whole epic would need to be reassessed as a historical source.
Let's begin, he said to himself. What do we know for sure? Humanity arrived in his world some 888 years ago, if the chronology of the Annals was to be trusted, which a number of respectable scholars doubted. His remote ancestors supposedly came from another world and were already divided into three cultures when they arrived: Francien, Alleman and English. They transmitted to this earth very little of the history and culture of their home world, other than their languages and the Summarium, a compendium of religious and ethical sayings and tales which had been written down from memory, perhaps within two generations of the Landing. The catastrophic discontinuity between pre-Landing and post-Landing humanity must be significant, but significant of what? Then there was the puzzle of the extinction of the third and originally dominant culture, the English.
There were of course prejudices and fictions which obscured his search for historical truth. Evangelicals in particular had put forward an entirely unhistorical myth about the exile of humanity from Heaven due to their sinful rebellion, led by the evil and magical race of the English. They pointed out that the word corresponded to the Francien 'anges' and Allemanic 'engeln', the winged spirits of Heaven. By their account, the Francien and Alleman humans who lived outside the celestial city of Eu were seduced by the English into a siege so as to seize Eu from God and his seneschal and heir, Jesus Christ. But on their defeat by the loyal legions of seraphs and cherubim all three races were exiled to Earth below, and cursed to live in a state of perpetual warfare. The English were doubly cursed to be the slaves of the other two races, and their extinction was the result of the desire of the good among the Alleman and Francien to escape their evil influence and return once more to Heaven. Such beliefs were rife amongst the poor and illiterate of the Mainland nations, which had suffered more from centuries of warfare than had the peoples of the Islands.
The orthodox were not so credulous. To begin with, the myth of the Fall was clean counter to what The Voyagers had to say about the Landing, other than the leadership it awarded to the English in the events. They pointed out that the Summarium which was the foundation of their faith was originally an English document, as was also indeed the earliest canon of the mass. Were that lost race so evil, how come the foundational documents of the Christian faith were written in its tongue? The evangelicals had a number of unconvincing answers to that argument.
It was these very ideas that he broached the following evening in an Ostberg restaurant, when he had his first assignation with Anton Vinseff. The captain wore well-cut civilian dress which suited his slim and athletic form well. When they met and shook hands in the foyer, Ruprecht was a little surprised to see a blue carnation in the captain's buttonhole. It was a recognition signal between middle- and upper-class male homosexuals, but sufficiently well-known generally in society for it to draw a raised eyebrow from the maître of the dining room. It did not say much for the captain's tact, though it clearly indicated his hopes for the evening.
Ruprecht listened with genuine interest to Anton's account of his rise through the ranks, which made a rather good story. He recognised something of the boy Anton had been in the man across the table from him. What had attracted Ruprecht to him in those long ago days had been his self-possession and forthrightness, and indeed sometimes he wondered who had seduced whom between the two of them, even if Anton had for the most part placed himself under when they had their sadly few bouts of active sex.
When the captain courteously enquired as to what Ruprecht had been doing since their parting, he was not surprised to see Anton's eyes grow fixed and glazed after a while, even though Ruprecht confined himself to the better-known historical events his work involved. It was the usual reaction to his little lectures, which made Ruprecht suspect he would never have made a successful teaching academic. Still, Ruprecht had hoped for a little more social effort on Anton's part.
At the conclusion of their meal, Anton suggested a quiet little bar he knew further down the hill. 'Weiter den Berg hinunter' was a phrase which in the city of Ostberg meant going down the drain in social terms, because the closer one got to the river and the docks the more squalid and unsafe the streets became. The double-entendre was probably intentional. But the bar Anton proposed turned out to be quiet, clean and comfortable, and the red wine he ordered for them was more than satisfactory.
As they lit their second cigarette, Anton caught Ruprecht's eye. 'You know your leaving Ostberg broke my heart,' he said abruptly.
Ruprecht gave him a small smile. 'I don't think I was that happy about it either.'
'You never answered my letters.'
'I kept them though. I may have wept over them. We were children, Toni.'
Anton gave a start at that. 'Toni! No one's ever called me that but you. I can remember you soothing me with it when you fucked me that first time on the beach.'
'That day is one I always go back to in my head. I can see your neck bowed in front of me as I screwed you; there was a white zit on it visible between your hair which I just so wanted to squeeze. Amazing what your head thinks of when your body is otherwise engaged.'
Anton laughed, then grew more serious. 'You were so beautiful. I can see you splayed out like a frog on your back as I pushed into you that first time. I sucked your toes as I did it, I was so far out of my head with lust for you. I can still taste the salt and grit on them. I may have had a lot better sex since, but by God it'll never match the excitement of those first times.'
'No indeed. I jerked off to the memory when I went down there some days ago.'
'You know what I mean.'
Ruprecht laughed. 'For old time's sake? Yes, of course I want to. You've grown into a handsome man, Toni. I'll bet you have quite a bit more to offer than that skinny boy groom once had.'
'Then let's get a cab. There's a place even further down the hill where rooms are readily available.'
'By the hour?'
'Let's say I have a long-standing arrangement.'
An anonymous door gave on to a dimly gas-lit passage where an over-dressed madame greeted Anton with a flamboyant kiss. On a second look, Ruprecht decided that the madame may perhaps have been a monsieur under the heavy make-up.
The room beyond was clearly a whorehouse, with a variety of cross-dressed and semi-naked boys sprawled on sofas awaiting customers. The night was still young at that point. The smell of the place was an ugly mixture of cheap perfume and damp walls with an underlying pungency of male hormones. One dark youth caught Ruprecht's eye. His curling hair and flashing white teeth had a resemblance to Gilles which dragged his gaze to the boy. He stared a moment too long. The youth got up and sashayed over, the resemblance to Gilles rapidly disappearing. He wore nothing but a pink cache-sex and nail paint; his pubic and belly hair had been shaved but the unattractive stubble was reappearing in the large expanse of groin that his slip revealed. His effeminacy was not appealing to Ruprecht, though Anton clearly was affected. He took the teenager by his genitals, which he cupped and manipulated in their pouch as the boy giggled and squirmed theatrically in his grip, making eyes at the other whores over his shoulder.
'Shall we take this one with us?' he asked, half seriously.
Ruprecht shook his head, at which the boy gave a resentful flounce and rejoined his colleagues on the sofas, pouting and flipping a finger at Ruprecht as he settled back amongst the others.
Anton seemed amused at the show, but guided Ruprecht by his arm through a further door. Stairs led them to a corridor and a door off that into a small but reasonably clean bedroom, though they had not escaped the whorehouse smell. Anton had become aroused by the encounter with the boy whore and he quickly stripped off his lower clothes to reveal quite a respectable erection. His equipment was indeed on a different order to what Ruprecht remembered from their youth, and that in turn aroused Ruprecht. Soon they were together naked on the bed, and fellatio led very quickly to Anton mounting him from behind. The result was sufficiently enjoyable for Ruprecht to invite a second and more leisurely session, and then they slept.
Ruprecht awoke from his doze to the sounds of a busy night outside in the bordello. A rhythmic thumping on the wall next door indicated commercial activity in progress, while muffled squealing and giggling between several boys indicated a multiple coupling in the room on the other side of them. The squalidity of the place did not bother Ruprecht that much. It was not indeed the first such establishment he had patronised. Port François had similar institutions, though they were rather cleaner since the Empire licenced and policed them. Perhaps he should suggest that same measure to his grandmother here in Ostberg. He grinned at the thought and pressed his belly against Anton's buttocks. He kissed the man's exposed and freckled shoulder while gently stroking his flat belly down to his sticky limp penis. Anton stirred and turned. They kissed for a while.
'Good then?' Anton asked, with a rather touching hint of uncertainty.
'Very good, Toni. You've grown up to be a big boy.'
They lay together for some moments before Anton observed, 'You've not got off. I'll get a boy to blow you if you want. Or you can fuck him.'
'Not necessary since you're here.'
Anton shook his head. 'No offence, but I don't take it any more.'
Ruprecht sat up. This was unexpected. 'I have this memory of you and me several times …'
'That was then. I only do the man's part now.'
The man's part! That jarred. His brow clouded. 'Oh! Then the only sex on offer with you is where I take the "woman's part", is that what you mean?'
Anton too sat up and put his arms round his knees. 'I didn't want to offend you, Rupe, but it looks like I have. Let me explain. I owed a lot of my advancement in the early days to putting it out for the sergeants and commissioned officers who were interested. I took it up the chute day after day for years, for much the same reason as those boys out there. There were times … well, maybe you can imagine. Nowadays the idea of being fucked or sucking a cock just makes me sick in the stomach. I'm sorry.'
Ruprecht saw the grimace on Anton's face as he made this confession, and took him round the shoulder in sympathy. 'It's alright, Toni. I can at least see why you might not want to. Have you had a serious relationship since those days? Someone to make sex less of a transaction.'
Anton shook his head sadly. 'Tonight was a first, which is why it was special to me. So, shall I call for a kid?'
'I don't think so, but sit face-to-face and do a handjob on me if you're up to that.'
And that apparently was fine, though when Ruprecht finally came, flexing his warm and well-used anus as he spasmed his offering over both their bellies, it disturbed him that it was the memory of the sinuous squirming of the boy whore in Anton's grip that pushed him over the edge.
'Funny smell on your clothes, minheer,' Gilles observed as he awoke his master the next morning.
'It's like the auberge but with a women's scent all mixed in. A bit nasty really.'
'Is this you wanting to know what I got up to last night?'
Gilles tried to look innocent, but then subsided into a mischievous grin. Their relationship had rapidly shifted since the conversation in the forest. It had to be said in his favour that Gilles did not attempt to be over-familiar with the man who was still his employer, but the intimacy in which they now lived meant that Ruprecht was treating the boy in much the same way as he treated Felix. Nor did it feel wrong actively to encourage the intimacy. There was little need now for the personal reticence that should be between master and servant, and soon there would be even less with the plans he had in mind.
He pulled Gilles down on to his bed and hugged him. He got a kiss on the cheek, which Gilles apparently liked giving him since they were both now avowed homosexuals.
'I went to see the captain and, well …'
'You did it with him! Excellent.'
'Why so pleased for me?'
'Because me and Kreech are so happy doing it, I want you to be too. It would not be fair otherwise. Was it good?'
'Good enough. You may find my drawers are somewhat messy as a result.'
The boy giggled and held his nose theatrically. 'I fart Kreech's stuff into mine after he's done me. I have to wash them in my sink. I daren't hand them over to the laundry. I'll do yours for you too.'
'Gillot, you don't have to.'
'Yes I do, minheer.'
'You had best start calling me Rupe, like Kreech does. You're my little brother now too, well brother-in-law technically.'
He got another hug and a soft kiss, but a firm refusal to comply with the liberty he was being offered. Then Gilles was up and preparing the shaving materials as he addressed his responsibilities as valet, which he did not do any the less conscientiously than he ever had done. The boy hummed unconsciously to himself as he did so, in the fullness of his perilous happiness.
Ruprecht had already concluded that the master-servant relationship would not survive the move to Blauwhaven. Once there Gilles Parmentier would commence a new life as a young gentleman fit to be the associate of the prince of Ostberg, and would be introduced to the neighbourhood as Ruprecht's legal ward and a kinsman of the House of Aalst. Felix and Gilles must move in the same circles if they were to be happy, and Ruprecht was fairly confident Gilles had the poise, wit and confidence to make the shift into upper middle class society with reasonable ease.
Even if the relationship with Felix didn't work out – and for several reasons it was beset with perils – Ruprecht had decided Gilles was going to be his long term commitment, and was happy that he should be. Gilles had after all saved his life and was making what was left of his brother's more than tolerable. That of course meant he would need a new valet. Perhaps he might ask Anton if he could recommend anyone.
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