Ruprecht left for Ardheim the next week, though not without first discussing Gilles's troubling dreams with Joerg.
'It's probably his age, Rupe. He's coming out of adolescence, and it's long been known how mental confusion and trouble can manifest itself at that point: the onset of serious migraines usually begins at sixteen or seventeen when the brain is changing, and some mental conditions appear, though I do hope that's not the case here.'
'Not nice ones. Personality disorders for instance.'
'What are the symptoms?'
'Delusions. Imaginary voices.'
'Thank you. I didn't need to know that.'
Joerg shook his head. 'I don't think we're looking at that here. He has his visions at night, not in full daylight.'
'Keep a close eye on our boy, little one. I can tell he's disturbed by this shit. I'm worried about who'll be able to monitor him when he's at university. And I used to be anxious about Kreech. How's he, by the way?'
Joerg shrugged. 'There's been nothing much since that fever in Vieldomaine. He's still short of breath after too much exercise, but there's been no outbreak of inflammation of the lungs. He'll be better placed than anywhere else in the Holy See: the weather is endlessly sunny and fine, the temperature even and winter rheums and seasonal colds rarely get much of a grip on the population.'
'Could a cold actually trigger an attack?'
'Anything that might lead to a chest infection which disrupts his lesions is bad. He ought really to keep out of crowded cities, though for the sort of active, gregarious, endlessly inquisitive youth our Kreech is, that would be a real burden.'
'Mutta will be with them at the Casa Levitica till Christmas, that'll help ease my anxiety. Come on Matthias, bring the valise. Time to go.' He kissed Joerg, who stayed waving at the paddock edge till the carriage disappeared into the woods.
As they were waiting for the connection for the Great Southern Line at Schwarzwald, Ruprecht asked the boy how he was settling into the service of the House of Aalst-Blauwhaven.
Matthias blushed but said without hesitation that it was a dream. 'And the young lords were so nice to me the other day, saying how sorry they were they'd upset me and not to be embarrassed because they were just idiots.'
'I'll bet that made you blush even more. They have no tact.'
Matthias gave a little laugh. He was more confident dealing with older men, Ruprecht had observed. He'd have liked to ask how things were working out between Matthias and Erwin, but that would not do. Besides, it was pretty evident that the boy was devoted to the seneschal, even though there were five years between them. Since Matthias was with his master in his capacity of academic secretary he was in a neat black suit, in which he looked very handsome. Erwin had selected it personally for his young lover, and paid for it himself since he wanted it tailored to his own exacting standards.
As they waited for the Ardheim express, for the first time Matthias began questioning Ruprecht about their work. 'Excellency, I was much interested in what the new evidence is telling us about the early years of the three peoples. I was interested in the way our Alleman ancestors ended up where they did.'
'We now know that the captive Allemans were driven south by the cold of winter and their herd bulls. They must have taken an annual migration route the northern erdbeesten followed which brought them down the east coast to warmer climes. The Francien captives on the other hand stayed on the central plains, just migrating up and down the Great River with the seasons. Would that mean that there were two populations of royal erdbeesten, each with its own annual migratory rhythm?'
'I hadn't thought, but I suppose it does.'
'Then, rather oddly, it was the movement of the erdbeesten which dictated where the Alleman and Francien peoples eventually settled under English protection.'
'Surprisingly so,' Ruprecht agreed.
'So how did Allemans recolonise the north?'
'I'd think that it was a secondary colonisation after the English had liberated them. Nordrecht isn't mentioned as a kingdom in the early sources till the middle of the second century, and Dreiholmtz a generation later. There has to have been a massive population expansion amongst Franciens and Allemans in the first century, and we can guess why. The herded humans had nothing to do but forage, tend the children they had and breed more. The forced matings herd bulls imposed on their women reduced them to the status of breeding cows; it must have been hideous for the intelligent and professional women amongst them.
'Human boys as they grew to adulthood would adopt the erdbeesten herd behaviour in which they themselves had been bred. They'd fight for dominance and demonstrate it by relentlessly raping and breeding any and all fertile females, with no family structure to limit their predatory sexual behaviour. A female in her life could produce two dozen or more children, though likely not all would survive. I doubt that more conservative breeding in nuclear families reasserted itself till the idea of landed property passing from father to son became established, and that might have taken more than a century. It would only be then that the birthrate slowed.
'I'd guess the English were far outnumbered within a generation, and were squeezed out of existence in the end. The overcrowded Franciens crossed the sea westward to expand into Athalante, and also took over the northwest of the Mainland. Allemans shifted back north up the erdbeest migration route, which many of them must have followed up and down the coast in their herds for at least a generation. That's likely enough what the savage bog people of Heilige Moss were doing when they died: heading south for winter as and when the erdbeesten had taught them. Allemans also crossed the sea eastwards early on to settle Dreiholmtz.'
Matthias's evident interest in his exposition had encouraged Ruprecht to pontificate rather more than was his habit. His lecture was cut short by the arrival of the southbound express. As he settled into his compartment, his mind turned to a different yet related subject, Gilles's dream-visions. It was disturbing to him that the world of the boy's dreams was the brutal and primitive world he had just described to Matthias.
It was a brilliantly sunny southern day when Ruprecht and Matthias arrived at Ardheim. Black, blue and white flags and were everywhere, as were men in uniform, though Ruprecht also noticed the number of disabled veterans begging along the main streets. The Great Southern War was being fought at a high price; he had been reading that the siege of Aix had so far cost the besieging Allemanic Army 20,000 casualties, never mind the horrific toll on the civilian population from starvation and the relentless artillery bombardment pounding the beautiful Imperial City.
Imperial armies were still in the field in the north-western provinces, but incapable of relieving the capital. The young emperor was believed to be rallying his forces while his emissaries were fruitlessly attempting to persuade the governments of Nordrecht and Dreiholmtz to mediate a peace settlement.
A shift of mood had taken place in the news media, and the boy-emperor was now being portrayed as a lonely and noble figure even in the Allemanic papers, at least in those published outside Ardhesse and Westrecht. The Bernician newssheets in particular had begun to lose their fascination with King Kristijan and were wondering what exactly his ultimate aim was. Admiration was giving way to suspicion along the east coast, where the dominant maritime power of Dreiholmtz was adopting a more openly hostile stance towards Ardhesse. The Bernizienabendtspost Ruprecht had in his bag featured two opposing photographic portraits of the Emperor François and King Kristijan, carefully selected, Ruprecht thought, to make the king look feral and shifty, while the emperor appeared handsome and spiritual. François had indeed a dark Francien beauty, the sort that Ruprecht knew sexually attracted Kristijan, the same beauty that his own Gilles possessed. In fact there was a marked facial similarity between his ward and the fugitive emperor, who were of an age. He could see now why Kristijan had seduced his imperial classmate into his bed at their military college.
A cab deposited them in the north of the city, amongst the large and distinguished buildings of the Carolinaean University. The lanes were full of male students in the tasselled caps traditional in Allemanic universities. Though there were female students, they lived cloistered apart in their own halls and colleges. Ruprecht followed directions to his Institute, a large brass plate on the door confirming that he was at the correct location.
A ring at the bell brought Hextie Rampuy to answer it. She beamed delightedly and couldn't stop herself hugging Ruprecht round the neck and kissing a scarlet Matthias on the cheek. 'Oh chief! It's great to see you! You too Mattie! You're right on time for tea.'
They were ushered into a tiled hall and up an imposing staircase lined with portraits of academic worthies, then through a double-valved door into a large room with tall windows looking out on the street below. Ruprecht looked around; his four assistants had made a workroom of it, pushing the sofas and armchairs to the sides and setting up trestle tables stacked high with papers, files and labelled boxes of finds. An erdbeest skull was staring at him from amongst the pottery trays. The other three came up smiling eagerly with hands extended, and he got another hug from Della.
A fifth person was in the room, a moustachioed man in his late fifties standing in a window recess. Della introduced Colonel Otto von Ampfeld, who had arrived that very morning as the new assistant director. As introductions were made, Ruprecht noted he had a very firm handshake and a keen eye. Ruprecht was shown through another tall door into a well-fitted study, with a full length portrait of King Kristijan over the large marble fireplace.
'This is your office, chief. Hope you like it,' Hextie commented. 'The other desk in the corner is for the colonel.'
He took a seat behind his own large desk and indicated an armchair to the colonel, who presented his letter of appointment.
'It's signed by the king's own hand,' Ruprecht commented.
'His Majesty asked me personally to undertake the post. I could not of course refuse.'
'What was your previous appointment, sir?'
'I was in the office of the quartermaster general, Excellency. Before that I was commander of the Railway Corps of the Royal Engineers.'
Ruprecht gave a smile. 'You may find this post rather relaxing then, colonel. The responsibilities are no more than babysitting half a dozen wayward and abstracted academics.'
The man smiled in a way that gained him credit with Ruprecht. This was no Dr Tribecs. The problem was the extent of his dependence on his royal master; Ruprecht rather thought the colonel was an old-school soldier-aristocrat with a stubborn loyalty to the Crown, however psychopathic the head beneath it. But at least the colonel would not, he imagined, be reporting to Baron Meisel.
'The way His Majesty described things, Excellency, I was given the impression that your Institute was doing work that might very well turn our world upside down, and the papers the king sent me to read have not disabused me of the notion. I feel privileged to be sitting here.'
'Have you any linguistic or historical proficiency, sir?'
'Nothing other than what I picked up in grammar school. The rest of my education was in the field. I am fluent in Francien however.'
'Very good. Welcome to the Institute, sir. Your first task will be to sort out our rather complicated finances.'
'Ah yes, I heard that my predecessor was a difficult fellow. They were not happy to have him return to the Linguistics Faculty, I gather. I will get busy, if I may. Perhaps tomorrow you could sketch out for me your immediate plans and needs, and maybe I could share with you my ideas for large-scale excavation at Yorck, if ever we get to go there.'
Ruprecht had taken a small villa in the hills to the north of the university, with a fine view across the city roofs to the glittering waters of the harbour surrounding the long low shape of Bornholm fortress, his previous place of residence in Ardheim. To the left of his view, the towers of Hendrijksborg Castle rose dark and formidable on its low hill in the city centre. Ruprecht could just about glimpse a standard flying over the Black Tower. The king was in residence, it appeared.
Matthias had acquired the skills of home organisation from Erwin, and soon the rented house was aired, his clothing was hung and his shaving materials laid out impeccably in the bathroom.
'He'd never forgive me if I fell from his high standards, Excellency,' Matthias smiled when he was complimented. 'He's also taught me a few basic meals, and after I've been to the market I can offer you one of three simple variants on the theme of meat and legumes.'
Ruprecht laughed and ruffled the boy's thick blond hair; it seemed they were settling into a comfortable relationship.
As the evening fell and the sun sank towards the west, a postal dog cart pulled up outside the front garden and a messenger knocked at the door. Matthias took the note and passed it on to his master. He sniffed the envelope, its odour as much as the printed address betraying its origin; from the desk of the State Minister of Police, the Baron Meisel.
'My dear Graf. I write at His Majesty's instance to ask you to be at the Waltherborg Palace tomorrow evening at half past the tenth hour. His Majesty wishes to discuss your findings in the north. He will offer you dinner and a conveyance to return to the city. I am, your Excellency, your most obedient servant. Meisel.'
'I'll be eating out tomorrow, Matthias,' he called out to the kitchen.
The Waltherborg Palace was not that distant from Ruprecht's rented house, not more than four kilometres, just beyond the city's north-western outskirts. He decided therefore to take an evening walk rather than a carriage out along the road to the royal country residence. At the entry to the park he encountered a guard post, where the baron's note secured him admission and he was directed to take the path through the southern lawns past the fountains, where he would be met by a member of the chamberlain's staff.
The broad limestone front and the elegant pavilions of the royal pleasure gardens were golden in the light from the setting sun, which flashed orange off the many windows and the glasshouses at the southern end of the range. As he walked up towards the palace, Ruprecht was overtaken frequently by military despatch riders from the city. Helmeted Foot Guards paced the southern terrace or stood sentry in striped and gabled boxes.
A waiting vice-chamberlain bowed, saying 'Your Excellency, His Majesty is detained in council and sends his regrets that he must postpone dinner till the first hour of the night, and hopes you can amuse yourself till them. He suggests that you explore the antiquarian cabinet of his late great-uncle, the Duke of Marienborg, which is is not generally open to scholars. In the meantime I will send refreshments. A footman will come at the proper time to direct you to the North Pleasaunce, where His Majesty prefers to entertain private parties.'
As it happened, the access to the books, objects and cases of curiosities of the royal collection was absorbing. There were volumes of illustrated Summaria going back to the third century, and staring down at him in pride of place the polished skull of a royal erdbeest, the date and place of its killing in western Ardhesse inscribed on it. The credit was claimed by King Andreas of Ardhesse in the year 224, which likely enough made the creature the last of its kind to die at human hands in the Southlands. Ruprecht thought the skull looked back at him accusingly.
The knock at the door surprised him; it was getting dark outside, which he hadn't noticed as the gaslights had already been lit in the room. The footman led him through the marble corridors of the palace and out the rear of the central pavilion.
'The North Pleasaunce is the summer dining room, sir,' the rather knowledgeable servant said chattily. 'It was built in the seventh century and is in fact older than the present main range. There was a fashion in those days to eat courses in different locations around the palace; the pleasaunce was for nuts and dessert, I'm told. His Majesty's grandfather had it refitted for small parties. A subterranean tunnel with a rail system connects it with the main house, so that the courses can be whisked from the kitchens and served still hot.'
'Remarkable,' Ruprecht said, for it was.
'Now sir, go through the gap in the hedge, along the alley and beyond is a wide lawn. You'll see the lights on the other side. Good night, sir.'
Ruprecht went down the alley and reached the lawn, grey in the twilight. He stopped to light a cigarette. He had some nerves about this meeting, though he was confident enough that he presently had Kristijan's goodwill. But the king was nothing if not unpredictable, and his moods veered alarmingly.
As he exhaled the blue smoke Ruprecht looked up at the sky, where the stars were out and bright, though the Three Sisters had not yet risen. He could see the lights of the dining pavilion ahead in the distance. Woods bordered the lawn on the right, but to his left there was a broad prospect out into the king's great hunting park beyond.
Movement caught his eye in the trees to his right. He stared. Grey shapes were shambling through the woods, pausing and rooting around, then moving on. Ruprecht was suddenly alarmed. The park contained a large number of erdbeesten, as he knew well, but he was unaware as to where they might be encountered within it. Had a herd wandered into the palace grounds? Maybe they were docile enough to be let out of the enclosed park. He froze, alarmed but still curious to see the creatures at close quarters.
A pallid cow wandered out with three calves around her legs, followed by two other females. They went to their knees and began digging with their hands, as the calves fixed their mouths on their hanging breasts and began sucking. What? But common erdbeesten females walked on all fours, they weren't bipedal. Then out from the trees patrolled four males, their smooth faces and rippled foreheads perfectly clear in the twilight: these were royals!
One of the bulls approached a scavenging female and proceeded to mount her vigorously, only for the hooting prime to run up behind him and cuff him off of her. The junior bull shook its bony head then roared a challenge, throwing out its arms, while the prime answered vigorously. Their penises had rapidly erected. They charged together and grappled, butting foreheads again and again with an audible crack. The prime had the other around his chest and turned him in his arms. He reached through his opponent's legs from behind and took his genitalia in his hands. The loser gave an agonised hoot as he was forced by the grip down on to his knees and, with a triumphant howl, the victor plunged his large cock deep into him and began roughly sodomising his defeated rival. The prime grunted his way to ejaculation, held still and then completed the ritual.
In the meantime, the other two bulls had taken advantage of the prime's preoccupation with the challenge to mount two of the females and were frantically mating them, while the calves continued to suck on their nipples. The prime lifted off his victim and roared at the two rutting bulls, who pulled out and went on all fours in submission. He then sniffed the air and to Ruprecht's horror started casting around in his direction. Fixing his dark eyes on the human he began a deliberate walk towards him, the other bulls following along behind. Six feet away from him the prime threw out his arms and roared a challenge, his penis still rampant. Ruprecht was too bemused even to run for the palace buildings.
Then the prime reached up to its head and removed its mask, shaking out the curly hair beneath and grinning broadly. 'Well, Rupe, like our little drama?'
Kristijan was bubbling with hilarity at the success of his masquerade. He hadn't bothered to dress again, just put a light robe on and took a chair in the dining kiosk. The three teenage boys from his ménage lolled around naked on a sofa, getting their body paint on the upholstery. One was lazily masturbating himself, indifferent to the three young boys playing unsupervised on the carpet at his feet, the women having gone to wash their own paint off.
'They're quite talented whores the Baron found me, and I do believe one of them actually appears on the stage from time to time. Come here little one,' he commanded, and a pretty boy of about eight got up and came to him. Kristijan placed the boy in his lap and kissed his curly hair. 'I have no idea where they got the children, but they did well. Was it fun, little fellow?'
The boy, who had secured a cake, nodded.
'Children are quite talented with fantasy. Did you get milk from mummy's tits, little one?'
The boy laughed and nodded again. 'Lots, Kwis,' he replied in his high voice. 'It dwibbled all down my fwont!' Kristijan tickled him on the flanks and the boy giggled and wriggled in his arms.
'Are these ticklish too?' Kristijan was playing now with the squirming boy's nipples. Then he picked him up, pressed his mouth against the child's lower belly and blew a fart. The boy thought that funny, and laughed even more when Kristijan held him up by his armpits, turned him round and repeated the experience with each of his bare buttocks.
'Such a sweet little fellow, we've had so much fun. D'you know, I think I could be quite a loving father.' He smiled ambiguously as he put the boy down. The child ran back to his playfellows and found another cake, while Kristijan called over to his catamites to shower and go back to what he called their playroom. They lounged their way out, the masturbator leaning down to ruffle the three boys' heads as he went.
'That's Willy,' the king commented. 'So good with the little ones. He was all day naked in the woods with them, getting them to be little erdbeesten calves. He had such fun with one of their mothers showing them what bulls and cows do, and he and André showed them what bulls and bulls do too! The boys particularly liked pooing in the open air, I believe.'
The women returned, curtseyed to the king and led away the children, who waved to their monarch as they went. Kristijan played with his erdbeest mask and took a seat at the dining table, indicating that Ruprecht should sit opposite. 'So give me your review, Rupe. How was it?'
'I nearly wet myself.'
The king burst into his innocent and incongruous boy's laugh. 'Exactly what I hoped. Alas that the Ardhessian public will never see the production. The gang and I have been playing erdbeesten and humans for quite a few days now out in the park. Very sexy. I have to thank you for the erotic stimulus, old Rupe.'
'Didn't your own personal herd object, sire?'
'It's not safe to approach, my dear. Its bulls don't play. They mean business. A number of trespassers have learned that to their cost over the years. But the gamekeepers remove them to sheds when I want the grounds to myself. Did you know my fellows keep up the quality of the stock by selective breeding? We go for size and ferocity, of course. It's quite something to watch; there are cages which hold the bull and cow in place, and the bull fucks away at what's under him very energetically. The cage rattles and shakes like nobody's business. It makes me feel inadequate.'
'Where's Jacki, sire?'
Kristijan gave a mischievous look. 'He's not too well, alas. You see, the gang and I went over to the barns a few nights ago, and we … experimented. I was so taken with the evidence you'd found of interspecies mating that I wanted to see what it was like. So we went into the pens with the cows and found that they do indeed submit to humans if your perform the required rituals. Bit smelly though and not much fun, except watching the boys' faces as they do it.
'What was fun was the other experiment. You know how Jacki soooo likes big cock? He was game to be mounted by a bull, so I got a keeper to put him in a breeding cage. Well. Once the bull started ploughing him there was no stopping it, for all his yelling. So we just let him get on with it till he was done with Jacki. He pissed up him when he finished, which must have added to the discomfort. You should see his asshole … the bruises! He had to be stitched up, but the doctor says he'll heal eventually. Such a martyr to science. Anyway, enough of my tedious domestic news, I am on absolute pins about your work, Rupe. You have not disappointed me, and confess: my idea of excavating the Alleman prefecture was a good one, wasn't it?'
'Yes sire. We're processing the files we found, and the results are very interesting. Though not complete they indicate a population of 4,000 Deutschen at the Landing, and we can assume a similar number of English and Franciens.'
'It's what the early Allemans called themselves, die Deutschen.'
'How odd. Is there any other evidence of that name form?'
'No sir. It appears in no early source I know of. It seems to have been forgotten in the massacre of the Year 4 and its aftermath.'
'The settlement you investigated was surely too small to house that number.'
'We assume there were satellite farmsteads; it would seem likely. They had to put a good deal of ground under cultivation to feed themselves. But the erdbeesten must have easily been able to pick off the outer settlements and drive their males to their killing field, or possibly they just killed them on the spot. It won't be easy to find such farmsteads however, I imagine they were demolished with the same thoroughness as the prefectures were.'
'Tell me about this technology you found.'
'We're putting it back the way we found it in Nordrecht. A voltaic specialist we borrowed from the Natural Philosophy Faculty is coming to give his opinion next week.'
'Good. But he must be made to understand there is to be complete confidentiality.'
'Yes, sire. I have however begun to publish brief résumés of the historical findings. It's too big a thing to keep undercover entirely.'
'That's as may be, but the Ancient technology stays secret, and must not leave Ardheim.'
'Do you think there will be anything amongst it that can be useful, sire?'
'We're neither of us in a position to say, are we Rupe. But one never knows. Now, food I think. I'm really quite hungry; dominating a herd takes so much energy. We'll go over to the playroom and visit Jacki before you go, so you can see the mess the bull made of his rear end. You'll understand a lot better what that Mertovsky boy had to endure. I'm surprised he was still walking after it.'
Ruprecht had the landau driver put the hood down as he was driven back into the city. His head was reeling from the final bombshell, and from the glimpses he had been given of the private world of the mad king of Ardhesse. What alarmed him more than anything else was that Kristijan had been perfectly comfortable for him to witness the extreme nature of his erotic games. He had either concluded that Ruprecht was in no position to reveal his lifestyle, or was planning that sooner or later Ruprecht would be rendered unable to. Ruprecht put to one side the further disturbing thoughts that, because he was queer, Kristijan had assessed him as sharing his perversions, or that he had begun to regard him as a confidant, an elder brother figure. He did seem to take a particular delight in talking to him, and in shocking him with his lifestyle and views.
The 'playroom' had proved to be a detached villa in the park woodland; the 'gang' were half a dozen dark and pretty boys, none of whom exhibited much in the way of intelligence. Ostentatious and deliberate farting seemed to amuse them greatly, and that was the activity they were delighting in when Kristijan arrived. The look that darkened Kristijan's face provoked an educational reaction amongst them, however. The catamites blanched or looked deeply fearful, though the king said nothing. One raced to open the terrace doors.
What intellect they had was focussed on adornment and personal hygiene. When they settled after the flash of Kristijan's anger, the boy Willy began moaning about getting the paint out of his bodily cavities; another went back to paring his toenails, and a third took up a razor to shave his leg hair. They slept together on mattresses in an upper room which reeked of perfume and semen, and that was where Ruprecht and the king found the boy Jacki, lying naked on his stomach. He was made to kneel up and display his perineum, red and yellow with bruises and abrasions; his anus gaped loosely, the black of congealed blood in the tear which had been stitched up.
'Does it hurt still?' Ruprecht asked, feeling oddly sympathetic towards this dim and easily-led rent boy. It brought back memories of Erwin's account of his self-destructive but beautiful friend, Bruno.
Jacki looked back mournfully, his puffy eyes wet.
'He can't eat, poor thing,' Kristijan said. 'It's out of the question for a while. So he's on liquids. I'm not letting him have opiates. He might get to like them too much, and frankly he needs to learn a lesson. You're a silly boy, Jacki, what are you?'
'Silly, Kris,' he snuffled.
'No more erdbeesten boyfriends, Jacki my love. Stick to human cock. Rupe here's more your type. D'you want him, Rupe? He's beginning to bore me. No? He's pretty, just like your little potboy. I'll have the Baron send him back where he found him then. Say your goodbyes.'
With that exhibition of cold indifference, Kristijan became urbane and serious once more, and they discoursed intelligently about future plans as they strolled back to the palace, the king apparently indifferent to the fact he was wearing nothing but a thin cotton robe. Kristijan was still in courteous mode when he resigned Ruprecht to a vice-chamberlain and took his leave.
'By the way, my dear Graf. I'll be away for the next month or so in the north. Aix surrendered this morning to my troops, and I'm crowning myself Allemanic Emperor in the Basilica of St François next Tuesday.'
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