The audience in the palace orangery rose to its feet in applause that was more than polite. Felix broke into a grin as he bowed his acknowledgment, then held out his hand to his mother and led the applause for his accompanist. But the acclaim was really for him, for his playing in the Auerbach duet for flute and keyboard had been truly exquisite. The audience returned to its seats and Felix hesitantly announced that he wished to play some variations on Francien country dances he had himself composed. 'I call them Dancing with Gillot,' he explained, and his eye caught his brother's as he said it. He gave a nervous laugh. 'I will quite understand if some of you wish to leave at this point.'
Then he was off, and the delightful arabesques of sound that flowed from his instrument tied the listeners firmly to their seats. They listened rapt and in dead silence, then obliged him to encore the work.
Many young people swarmed to congratulate Felix afterwards. His mother meanwhile made her way to Ruprecht. 'It's good to see him like this,' she observed. 'I almost gave up hope, but the move to Ostberg has been marvellous for him. He's recovered his heart and happiness. A doctor did tell me that the flute-playing strengthens his lungs and improves his chances. It's a good thing he feels able to take it back up. He was always such a lively, positive little boy.'
'Cheeky too, beyond measure. You indulged him hopelessly.' But Ruprecht was smiling as he replied.
'I give you full credit, Ruprecht. You've always been there for him, you and Hans. Your being here has been half the reason for his improvement, I'm sure.'
Ruprecht inclined his head. As he did he caught a glimpse of the domestic servants crowding the far orangery door, allowed to witness the entertainment at a distance. Among them he glimpsed a plum-coloured jacket. 'Mama, I wanted to talk with you about that. I'll be moving down to Blauwhaven in a week or two. I'd like it if I can take the Kreech as a guest for a while. I really would like to keep an eye on him myself.'
His mother frowned. 'I'm not sure about that, dear. Ostberg has doctors and a sanatorium for consumptives up in the hills of the interior, the place is famous for it. The skills to nurse Felix are all here, which was one reason to send the boy to his grandmother.'
'Yes mama, I know. But Schwarzwald is further south again, and the climate is perfectly suited for a consumptive, always dry and sunny. The winters in Ostberg can be stormy. Schwarzwald too has doctors and also – please note – the famous thermal springs at Bad Heisel, which are within a day's train ride of Blauwhaven. Once you and I leave Ostberg the Kreech will only have his grandmother, and she is a very busy woman. Please humour my anxiety for him.'
As ever, his mother promised to think about it. He never got a direct answer from that direction. It was either that, or 'I'll talk to your father.'
Ruprecht circulated, as he knew he must, talking to land agents and their wives, gentry from the hinterland of the principality, industrialists from the city and clerical grandees. He did his best to be a charming Hochrechtner aristocrat, a credit to his grandmother. He had rather be at his desk, or relaxing on his bed with Gilles and Felix after dinner, something he was doing increasingly often.
The pair were surprisingly happy to resort to the older man, and giggle with him over their sometimes quite outrageous innuendos while teasing him with little displays of their sexuality, which had usually recharged by then after their earlier private romp. They were exploring a whole new physical world and needed him to pretend to be shocked by the many lines they were crossing. They soon drew out the details of his visit to the whorehouse, and were especially taken with his encounter with the effeminate boy in the cache-sex. The next day Felix confided he had had Gilles undress and act out the scene, employing a kerchief and piece of string as a prop. Gilles went red and hit him with a pillow but that didn't stop Felix.
'We couldn't get his thing to fit in the pouch. It's too big and just flopped out all the time. And once he was halfway hard there was no chance. But it was really fun. He did a sexy dance for me with nothing on, just like a prozzy boy. I don't suppose you and your captain will take us with you next time you go?'
'There won't be a next time, and in any case no. You'd certainly enjoy it far too much, you pair of perverts.'
Felix howled with laughter, and wiping his eyes asked 'When's your next date?'
'In a few days. He's going to look out a new valet for me.'
'What!' Felix screeched. 'How can you …!'
'Because once we're down in Schwarzwald, Gilles has to be someone else if he's to live with us. That means he has to become a gentleman, not a servant.'
The two boys looked awestruck and entwined fingers. 'It so has to happen!' Felix sighed. 'I'll make Gillot a graf or a ritter or something.'
Ruprecht shook his head. 'You'd have fun explaining that to Grossmutta, besides which the terms of the Confederacy don't allow you to multiply higher dignities without the consent of the Protector and Chamber of Princes. Ritter will be fine though. I believe it involves poking someone with a sharp instrument, so in fact you may already have done it to Gillot anyway.'
It was Gilles's turn to howl, rather than simply blush from the incorrigible forwardness of his increasingly boisterous and perfectly shameless boyfriend.
Ruprecht and 'his captain' got together at an uptown café for their next assignation. Where to go next remained the problem, as Anton lived in barracks and Ruprecht could not return with him to the Farcostan Palace. In the end, they visited a well-known homosexual hangout on the edge of the domainal forest and did it in the bushes.
They sat together and shared a cigarette in the aftermath, looking up at the stars and listening to the distant grunts and gasps of sexual congress going on in the undergrowth around them. 'It's sort of romantic,' Ruprecht observed ironically.
'But hell on your knees,' Anton laughed. 'My uniform pants may not recover.'
'We could have done it naked. I'd have liked that.'
'The police occasionally beat the bushes, and then where would we have been? The grandson of the Princess Regent caught with an army captain in flagrante would have made a great headline for the Bernizienkronikel. It sells a lot of copies on those sorts of stories.'
'I thought Bernicia was a bit more relaxed about homos?'
'I suppose it is, but flushing out queers still makes for good gossip, just like revealing politicians' rutting habits they'd rather keep quiet.'
Ruprecht sucked on his cigarette, making the end glow bright red in the dark beneath the trees, where Anton was a darker shadow next to him behind his own chip of red light. 'Come on Toni, finish your ciggy. Let's stroll down to the citadel gate, and I'll pick up a cab.'
Just outside the pool of lamplight, the two men kissed their farewell. Anton handed over a note. 'This is the address of a fellow who might serve as a valet for a homo; he's one of us and discreet I think. Only twenty but he's had a varied career. He was a friend of one of my regular boys, but was never in the whorehouse so far as I know. He can read and write, and I believe he's originally from quite a decent family, though obviously he fell out with them when his proclivities became known. Works in a tavern at the moment and lives in its back shed, but he's looking to better himself. Give him a try. When are you leaving for the south?'
'It'll be in ten days' time if I get my mother's consent to take young Felix with me. You might come down to Blauwhaven if you have any leave due. The two boys are unhealthily fixated on what we do together. They'd be delighted to meet you and compare notes.'
'And I them. They sound like a delightful pair of young sodomites.'
'Tell them that, they'd cherish it. They appear to believe they've invented sex.'
Anton and Ruprecht shook hands and promised to meet up in a few days for another assignation. In the meantime it was still well before midnight, so Ruprecht scrutinised in the lamplight the address Anton had given him and found it was halfway down the hill. He made his way to the doors of The Wilful Erdbeest, as the inn was enigmatically named, and took a seat in the public room. A waiter asked for his order, but proved not to be the young man named on the note, Erwin Wenzel. He said he believed Erwin was on washing-up duty, and a few coins purchased his promise to convey the message that a visitor was interested in meeting him.
Ruprecht had time to finish his glass of wine before the fellow eventually appeared, wiping his hands on a soiled towel. He was in a bar apron and trousers but no upper clothes, so his narrow and hairless chest was on display. His hands and thin arms were ruddy from a night's immersion in dishwater. He was not a particularly prepossessing sight, but though Ruprecht realised he was not catching Erwin Wenzel at his best the idea was to catch him off guard. Ruprecht had learned from his diplomatic experience that more was to be learned from people when they were unprepared. The man's expression at least was alert, and he was properly diffident about taking a seat in Ruprecht's alcove so remained respectfully on his feet.
Ruprecht got straight to the point. 'You've been recommended to me by a friend, Captain Anton Vinseff. I'm looking for a new valet, and he believes you might suit. If you're interested, perhaps you can tell me what your relevant experience is.'
The youth stumbled through a catalogue of what he thought might be useful skills he possessed, though had no experience of work in any household to offer and stammered to a halt in the end.
'The main thing I'm looking for is discretion, Herr Wenzel.'
'Captain Vinseff told me you have one useful qualification you haven't as yet mentioned. You prefer sex with men.' The youth blushed and looked down. 'I and my friends are that way inclined,' Ruprecht continued. 'Since you are too, you know the caution by which we must conduct ourselves, and you'll not be overly distressed at what you may witness in my household. I also have to be able to trust you.'
The boy's head came up at that point and his expression was more decided and a little hard-edged. 'Minheer, maybe I am a queer, but I don't do it for money or for the sake of a living wage. I hope that's not part of the duty you have in mind.'
Ruprecht caught the evidence of past abuse in the young man's attitude. Anton had not mentioned that. 'You don't have to answer this, Wenzel, but I'd like to know if you've had sex with men for money in the past.'
'If I say yes, will that rule me out?'
'I think you've already told me the answer to that question, but no, it won't disqualify you.'
'Then I'll be honest, minheer. There've been times when I've really been down, and didn't have much choice. But not recently, nor for two years actually.'
'What's been your relationship with Captain Vinseff?'
'He wasn't one of the ones who paid me for sex, if that's what you mean. I had a friend he did it with a lot … once had a friend, I should say. It's been a while since I saw Bruno. People like him tend to disappear.'
'I understand. I can assure you that I'm looking for a valet, pure and simple. You'll also have to take care of the domestic needs of my ward, who is only that, a young man I've undertaken to educate and bring up. I have no relationship with him; he has in fact his own lover with whom he is very happy. Now, I ask again, could I trust you?'
The man met Ruprecht's eyes. 'You can, minheer,' he answered. 'I would do my best to justify your faith in me.'
'Very good. We'll meet again, but not here. I'll want you to come to me at the Farcostan Palace for a further interview. I've scribbled a note here which you should hand over to the duty officer of the guard when you arrive. He then will pass you on to me. Would some time on Saturday afternoon be possible?'
The address startled Wenzel, but he rallied after favouring Ruprecht with a closer look. So it was agreed.
The next morning's ride took Ruprecht and Gilles across the Oiselet bridges into the northern quarter of the city of Ostberg. Halfway up the slope was a wide terrace lined with arcaded shops and cafés with a fine outlook over the opposing southern slope of the city. They left their mounts with a street boy and Ruprecht led Gilles to a large tailoring establishment. As they came to the door Ruprecht put his hand on the boy's shoulder and propelled him inside.
'Minheer, I should wait outside and keep my eye on that little street rat. I don't trust him.'
Ruprecht shook his head. 'Gillot, today we have to start your new life.'
An immaculately dressed attendant bustled up. He took Ruprecht's card and his eyebrows raised.
'Minheer Graf, a great pleasure. I believe you have an account with us, how can I help?'
'May I introduce the Jonker Gilles von Aalst-Parmentier, my ward. He's got to the age when he needs his own account with a tailor, so in view of your connection with my brother the prince I thought this establishment might be suitable for him, especially as the Jonker is attached to the court of Ostberg and is likely to accompany His Highness when he needs to be re-measured and more generally on his shopping expeditions.'
The man smiled broadly; young and dressy aristocrats were the meat and drink of his trade, and this new customer was a handsome young buck from one of the Confederacy's most influential courts. 'We would be delighted to accommodate the minheer Jonker in any way we can. We would in view of the circumstances be happy to offer generous terms of credit so the Jonker may fit out his wardrobe as and when it suits him.'
Ruprecht had a lot of confidence in Gilles, but did not think that any teenager should be given carte blanche of quite that breadth. 'I think we should limit him for the moment to purchases where I personally sign off the expense.'
'Of course, Your Excellency. What do you have in mind?'
'The Jonker has shot up of late and needs a complete wardrobe. Hardly anything he has at the moment fits him. So I think you should provide for all his likely needs: formal, informal and sporting.'
The tradesman beamed. 'We will take the Jonker's measurements, and then suggest perhaps some ideas for his informal wardrobe which he might consider.' He bowed to a dazed-looking Gilles and invited him to the counter, where he and a couple of other functionaries descended on the boy hunting animals on a fresh kill. Ruprecht grinned and browsed a display of kerchiefs for a while, keeping half an eye on the comedy across the store.
Gilles was no different from any other lively and intelligent boy, and after he got past the bashfulness of being attended on by a squad of obsequious elders the colours, drawings and patterns paraded in front of him became rapidly more absorbing. A shop boy of his approximate dimensions was brought out to model various suits and accessories. More and more Gilles caught Ruprecht's eye and grinned across at him; he was enjoying himself and finding he had views which, to be fair to them, the salesmen were rather skilfully bringing out.
After an hour Gilles returned to his side, quite bewildered. The list of essentials the shop produced was very long. 'Minheer …'
'Call me Rupe,'
'Minheer Rupe, this is an awful lot of money!'
'Gilles, it's not money, it's credit. They'll eventually get paid but not for quite some while. They won't be bothered, as they'll simply add on a large percentage to make up for the inconvenience. Then everyone's happy.'
'But that's throwing money away!'
'Yes Gillot, it is. It's what people expect aristocrats to do. You start counting the pennies and you'll make a lot of people very unhappy.'
'But I'm not an aristocrat.'
'I beg to differ, minheer Jonker. If I and the prince of Ostberg say you are, then you are indeed an aristocrat.'
'And you gave me your noble name.'
'Yes I did. Gillot, have you forgotten that the only reason I'm standing here listening to your complaints is because you saved my life? My opinion and that of my brother is that you're quite as worthy to carry our noble name as anyone of our family has ever been. Once you're my legal ward, it's yours in any case as that is how you'll be registered by the notary. In a week or so you really will be Minheer the Jonker Gilles von Aalst-Parmentier, so get used to the name.'
A hug from the boy and a kiss on the man's cheek ended the debate. Ruprecht left, giving the manor house at Blauwhaven as the address for delivery of Gilles's purchases.
Ruprecht took the lit cigarette from Felix's mouth and flicked it over the cliff path to the sand below. 'Kreech, you're an idiot, and I'm surprised at you for letting him do it, Gillot.' He'd gone padding down to the cove in his robe for a swim and found the two on a bench on the path, just out of class.
Felix looked nettled. He'd never liked to be caught out, and liked it even less when Gilles too was in the doghouse. 'One of the doctors said tobacco smoke is beneficial for the lungs. I was just giving it a try.'
'Minheer, it was my fault, I got them from one of the butlers.'
'Then you're both idiots,' Ruprecht snarled, though the pathos behind the boys' little plot could not but move him. 'Don't do it again. You've both met those old men who hack and cough in the morning before they light up. It clearly doesn't do their lungs that much good. I should give it up before it gets to mine. Come on down to the beach.'
They all trotted down, stripped and played in the waves for a while. Gilles was turning into a strong swimmer. In the end they sat on the shelf, dangling their feet in the passing waves, one boy on each side of Ruprecht. He took them each around a bare shoulder, pulled them close and kissed the top of their heads. Gilles reached up to kiss him back nicely and firmly on the lips and then nestled his head trustingly into his guardian's shoulder.
'I've got something to do you can help me with,' Ruprecht began. 'I've got someone coming for an interview as my valet tomorrow. I'd like it if you two took a look at him; after all, we'll all be living at close quarters in Blauwhaven so your approval of him is needed.'
The pair looked at each other across Ruprecht's chest and readily consented. They were still elated after the permission Felix had just received to move south to Schwarzwald with his brother for the late autumn and winter. It went with a lot of parental caveats, but it looked like Felix and Gilles would be sleeping together for the foreseeable future unless there were other guests; depending on the guests, perhaps even then.
'I'll go now,' Ruprecht suggested, 'so you two can fuck in peace.'
Felix shot him an impish look. 'We don't mind if you stay and watch. You might learn something.' Gilles rolled his eyes.
'Go do it in the grotto. Remember what I said.'
The pair laughed, plunged into the sea and raced each other across the bay. Gilles's penis was already hanging heavy when he hauled out of the water and propelled his lover into the grotto entrance, one or two of his fingers evidently stuffed inside Felix's own entrance to assist his onward progress, judging by the way Felix was walking on his toes and wiggling his small and spotty behind as he pranced his way inelegantly across the sand.
When he appeared at Farcostan, Erwin Wenzel was directed to the rear of the palace. He was in a rather more respectable guise than Ruprecht had last seen him. He wore a worn but well-brushed black suit and polished shoes. He sported a slightly yellowed neckerchief that had seen better days, but overall showed he could be presentable within his means, which was no doubt his intention.
'So, Herr Wenzel, let's take a stroll out on to the rear terrace. Normally of course you shouldn't come here. The terrace, lawns and gardens are for family and guests.'
'Yes, Your Excellency.'
'You have a good grasp of etiquette, I see.'
'My father is a clergyman, minheer. He associated with the local gentry.'
'Need I ask why you no longer live at home?'
'It was three years ago, minheer. The usual thing. It got around that I and another boy were … linked. I did not deny it when I was confronted. I was packed off to a relative in Ostberg who was supposed to make me see the error of my ways. I didn't care for how he went about it, so made a bid for my independence.'
'How's that working out for you?' For the first time Ruprecht got something resembling a smile from the man, albeit a lop-sided one. 'We move to Schwarzwald next Thursday, just before the prince's mother returns to Freiborg,' he continued. 'I'm going to …'
Ruprecht noticed Wenzel's attention was attracted to something behind him. He turned. Two young footmen in canary yellow palace livery had approached. Both bowed. The thinner of them began, 'Your pardon for interrupting, Your Excellency. I have a message from Her Serene and Most Excellent Highness. She would be pleased if you could join her immediately. I believe it is a matter of some urgency. The young prince is causing … er … difficulties. The guards have restrained him, but you know how he is. He drew a sword on his tutor yet again.'
Ruprecht gave an internal groan. 'Gottschalk, isn't it?'
'Yes, Your Excellency. Thank you for remembering. We servants are so gratified when masters like you are good enough to remember our names.'
'Don't mention it. Perhaps you could accompany Herr Wenzel here for a while. Take him round the palace offices which you, as servants, know so well. Return him to the entrance hall in an hour. I should have the prince under restraint by then. I expect we'll have to increase his medication.'
The footman gave a solemn bow. 'It would be our pleasure, minheer Graf. Do come this way, Herr Wenzel.'
Bemused, as well he might be, Erwin Wenzel followed the two liveried youths on a tour of the less public areas of the palace, which Gilles at least would know quite well by now. How the pair could believe that their little masquerade would convince anyone was beyond Ruprecht, but at least it would test Wenzel under pressure. He went through the palace by way of the ground floor, and encountered his mother and grandmother in a garden room. He kissed both and took a seat.
'Do you know much about Blauwhaven, Ruprecht?' his mother enquired.
'Grossmutta assures me that it is in good repair. I assume it's everything a manor house should be.'
His grandmother sniffed. 'It's been over thirty years since it was used by the family. It's been employed as a dower portion for Ostberg women for four generations now. The last I heard of anyone staying there was your great aunt Hilde, my dear. That was after she left her oaf of a husband, who was all too fond of beating her. He was an Ardhessian, I recall.'
'Talking of Ardhessians, Grossmutta, do your sources have anything further to say about the fate of King Kristijan? The last I heard he had been imprisoned by the Regent his uncle.'
'The Prisoner of Bornholm is what the press are calling him. The reports from the Protector's office talk of some unrest amongst the Ardhessian nobility. It was expected his uncle would dispose of the king, but there is a faction amongst the younger peers of Ardhesse who are agitating for his release. They held a muster in Weistetten just outside the capital to intimidate the Regent. There might just possibly be a civil war in the offing in the South. At any rate Duke Horst has not made any preparations for proclaiming himself king, so no doubt he's biding his time, either that or trying to evade conflict with the Empire by keeping his nephew out of circulation.'
'Toadying to the Empire won't make him popular in Ardhesse. They're still steaming about the murder of Kristijan II by the old emperor.'
'Yes indeed my dear. That was quite the scandal when I was a young girl. But you shouldn't assume that people are the puppets of events. You historians tend to do that. The murder brought the wrath of all four kingdoms down on the Empire and curbed its power for a generation. Kristijan II may have died, but the Allemanic Alliance was his posthumous victory. Ardhessians of any sense know that they won that conflict, for it confirmed their primacy amongst the Allemanic states.'
Ruprecht nodded. 'The thought that Kristijan III is now the heir to that pre-eminence makes me more sympathetic to his uncle, nonetheless. I wonder how long the old order may last. I am as you say but a historian, Grossmutta, but I know you too sense the world is changing. I had a conversation with young King Kristijan on that very subject. And when a king is talking of revolutionary times and the decay of the old regime, then troubled days are already here, wouldn't you say?'
His grandmother didn't disagree with Ruprecht, but suggested he should talk on the subject with the current Protector of the Confederacy should he get a chance. This was the young Duke of Altenbergen, a principality inland on the Montenard frontier. He was elected by his fellow confederated princes as their substitute monarch under the peculiar constitution of Bernicia, which was in effect an oligarchy of a score of princes who had deposed their grand duke two centuries before and subsequently elected a presiding Protector in his place from amongst their number. Ruprecht took a tea with his mother and grandmother and then went in search of Erwin Wenzel and his two chirpy guides.
He found the three of them reclining rather more casually than servants ought on a set of steps in a corner of the busy palace courtyard, watching a troop of dragoons from the Ostberg Princely Guard preparing to mount up as an escort, while grooms were preparing a carriage for the Princess Regent, who was about to depart for a state council meeting in the Residenz of Ostberg. Maintaining the act, the two boys shot to their feet and made grave bows, a little too low perhaps, to Ruprecht. Wenzel gave a more traditional inclination of the head.
'So, thank you Gottschalk, you and your friend may go now. I'm sure you have many duties to perform. I do hope you don't get in trouble with the chamberlain for your eagerness to be of service to me.'
Gottschalk gave another low bow. 'It is our great pleasure to perform Your Excellency's most trivial whim, as loyal and devoted servants of the House of Ostberg.' Then both boys headed off, grinning over their shoulders at Ruprecht once they were sure Wenzel couldn't see them.
'Herr Wenzel, perhaps I should make it clear that the present Prince of Ostberg is not a homicidal maniac.'
'No minheer, but he is a bad actor.'
It was that dry remark that finally tipped Ruprecht into a decision. He offered his hand to Wenzel, who looked surprised and then gratified at what it meant. Ruprecht counted banknotes into his hand with instructions that he should use the money to get himself to Blauwhaven within three days, after he had wound up his affairs in Ostberg. A letter would be sent to the agent of the estate to notify him that Herr Wenzel would be arriving in advance of his master, and that he should be assisted in readying the house for occupation.
Since the prince of Ostberg was travelling south, several carriages were drawn up in the courtyard for his departure. His tutor must of course accompany him, and his grandmother insisted on detaching an assistant cook from the Farcostan Palace on loan till Ruprecht found one for himself. Ruprecht suspected that the trunks on the carriages were stuffed with supplies for a month.
Felix took his seat opposite Ruprecht after a long goodbye from his mother, accompanied by many injunctions that he was to do what he was told by his brother and take great care of his health. Felix was in a ferment of adolescent impatience by this time, touchingly mixed with a boyish reluctance to separate from his mother. He did not disdain to lean out of the carriage window and wave till he was out of sight of her when the cavalcade departed the palace.
Felix settled down in his seat and watched the world bowl past as the carriage took the high road south. Ruprecht surveyed the boy closely. He was excited, that was for sure. He had regained his colour since arriving in Ostberg and was to all outward appearances healthy, though his brother knew that Felix was just in a period of remission as his lungs fought off the first outbreak. The hope remained that his frame might yet resist the disease, and he must be given every assistance to do so. A specialist doctor from Bad Heisel would attend him when required.
'You and Gillot are happy with my choice of valet?'
'As we said before, Rupe, he seemed discreet enough. He didn't spill anything to us, despite us being so persistent and quite clever about it. So I expect he'll keep our sexy goings-on at Blauwhaven to himself. Me and Gillot didn't think he was all that nice looking, so no competition there. Were you interested in him?'
'Not that much. What sexy goings-on are you two planning on when we get there?'
Felix grinned. 'You'll never know, though you may hear us at it. Gillot likes shouting his head off when he comes. He can't help it. But the main thing is we're sleeping in the same bed from now on. That's true isn't it? You wouldn't lie to us?'
'It's true. You'll officially occupy the same bedroom, and there won't be any disguising it by putting two beds in there. We'll not hide it even from the servants and your tutor.'
'Just awesome. We can't wait. We're going to have days when we just stay in bed and screw all the time.'
'I think you'll find your bodies may impose limits on that sort of recreation, even at your age.'
'Gillot's cock's all puffy and red at the tip we do it so much. He says the salt water from our sea-bathing stops it getting more sore. Is there a beach at Blauwhaven? We love the naked swimming and doing the nasty in the open air and sunlight. So totally sexy.'
'From what Grossmutta said the place is up on the hills above the town and quite a way from the sea. That's one reason you're going there: high up in the coastal mountains the weather's dry, unchanging and invariably clear. Nakedness around the place will be fine by me, though not where the servants can be upset by it, so I think there will have to be rules until we get to know the place better.'
Felix shrugged. As far as he was concerned it was a dream come true, and he knew well enough that the cohabitation with a lover he was being offered was a privilege given very few boys of his class, even young heterosexual males. This was why there were so many brothels catering for the needs of young aristocrats, and so many pregnancies amongst domestic staff.
Ruprecht knew well enough that many of his peers saw little wrong in pressing their unwanted intentions on young servants, male and female, though it was a practice he himself found offensive. He was well aware that he had at least two elder bastard siblings from his father's youthful encounters with local women in Freiborg; one of these half-brothers was in fact now a senior priest.
The carriages left the tarmacked high road forty kilometres south of Ostberg, and entering Schwarzwald turned on to the coastal highway. The nature of the coast was now less cliff-bound as it curved to the south west. It was a steeply inclined littoral range ascending to above a kilometre in height in places. The east-facing hillsides were terraced for specialised agriculture depending on the height, for a variety of micro-climates were on offer to exploit. It was a rich region, as could be seen from the well-built farmholds and manor houses, painted white or light pastel shades, which overlooked the terrace of the coastal road. The sea below was a white-flecked dark blue. From their vantage point they could see many steam vessels ferrying their cargos north from Ardhesse across the seas to the East Kingdom, the rich archipelago of Dreiholmtz, untouched by war for centuries, safe behind the protection of its unchallengeable navy.
After a stop at a hostelry to refresh their horses and take a meal, they plodded on down the coast for forty more kilometres till the cultivated terraces ended and the coastal range began to be covered by the forests of black pines which were characteristic of the region. The city of Schwarzwald was not far over the hills when they encountered the first signposts for Blauwhaven. Eventually the road forked, with the left branch winding down to the sea and Blauwhaven port and railway station. The branch they took to the right began climbing, and if they continued following it they would reach a pass across which the Schwarzwald city road ran. In only two kilometres the thick woods closed around their road, and eventually they reached the gate to the domain of Blauwhaven, crested by the stone cockatrices of Ostberg.
The carriages began lurching as they took to the uneven track beyond the gate. Coming out of the woods, their track took them across a rough paddock where there were a few tethered horses and buffalo. A sandstone-fronted house of ancient appearance brooded over an outlook which reached over tumbled heathland to the shining horizon of the distant sea.
'Home?' queried Felix, his eyebrow raised.
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