Ruprecht had no idea whether the Baron's agents had him under observation, but he assumed they did. There was little chance therefore of passing on to his home government the intelligence he had just obtained from the king about the breathtaking act of arrogance His Southern Majesty intended to commit next week.
To proclaim himself emperor! For all the Alleman discontent down the centuries with Francien political hegemony, the Imperial succession had run unchallenged for eight hundred years, since the great Jean-Charles, King and Lord of the Plains, had declared himself Emperor of Terre Nouvelle in the year 86 – one of the few solid dates that could be attributed to the first century. Ruprecht knew now what few others did, that the First Emperor had erected his throne on the wreck of the English kingdom of Kholnai, a realm that the Franciens had then busily excised from history, pretending that the Empire and Patriarchate had been founded simultaneously, the secular and spiritual leaders of humanity appearing together, each validating the authority of the other. It was deft and ruthless, and had left Ruprecht with a high idea of the political skill of the semi-legendary First Emperor, Jean-Charles, father of the sainted François of Aix.
But the present Francien Emperor, the twelfth François, was now a political refugee, believed to be seeking asylum in the Protectorate States on the North-East Coast, his realm occupied and partitioned between King Kristijan's military henchmen. Vieldomaine capitulated the same day Aix fell, and its dynasty fled to the Montenards for shelter, a huge historical irony considering the Republic's long years of mutual hostility with the Lowlanders.
Ruprecht desperately wished Joerg was with him in Ardheim, but he was visiting his sick mother in Hochrecht and would not be returning to the South Kingdom till after the university summer recess. All he could do was write bland missives home, though before he had left he and Joerg had discussed placing certain innocuous phrases in them as alerts, which would mean nothing to the Ardhessian operatives who would doubtless be opening and reading them. So in that weekend's letter, after giving a favourable opinion on Colonel von Ampfeld Ruprecht wrote to the effect that he'd heard from Hans that his former subordinate, their good friend Lieutenant von Erdwald, had received a handsome promotion. 'Von Erdwald' was the one of their codes for Kristijan and his appearance in Ruprecht's letters was a message that he'd had a significant personal interview with the king.
After sending off his letter to the post office at the hands of Matthias there was little else to do. At the weekend, the patriotic bunting blossomed more densely yet around the capital and large banners appeared blazoned with Kristijan's handsome face, looking rather more sane and collected than the real thing, hung over every government building. The banners were adorned with imperial crowns, not the famous Ardhessian coral diadem, the most ancient surviving royal crown in Terre Nouvelle.
Government proclamations of the new Allemanic Empire were placarded everywhere on the Monday, and on the day of the imperial inauguration itself the ambassadors of the East and North Kingdoms were recalled from Ardheim. Dreiholmtz felt called upon to issue a declaration repudiating any claim by 'Kristijan of Ardhesse, calling himself Emperor' to sovereignty over other Allemanic states. It was subscribed by the Grand Duke of Hochrecht, the Protector of Bernicia and the several petty sovereigns of the Protectorate States. The impact of the riposte was somewhat blunted by the appearance of the Francien King of Athalante at the coronation. He and the Duke of Vieldomaine acknowledged the new emperor in return for, respectively, the resumption of trade between the empire and the West Kingdom and restoration to the duchy.
Part of the lavishly reported sequence of investitures associated with the festivities in Aix was the elevation and homage of six of Kristijan's marshal-generals, raised by him to the status of Peers of the Empire. Ruprecht raised his eyebrows to see amongst their number His Serene Highness the Prince of Forez, a new domain hacked out of the north-western provinces of the former Francien Empire. The beneficiary was none other than the sometime stable-boy and mercenary dragoon, the former Captain Anton Vinseff.
Work continued in the Royal Institute of Archaeology, and it was absorbing enough to distract Ruprecht from the political tumult turning his world upside down. His and Joerg's review publication had been noticed, and various historical societies where his works had already appeared wanted to know more. He got his team to undertake scientific reports on the Val de Rougiet and Turwald sites, while for publication in a leading popular journal he wrote an elegant piece called 'Kholnai: Lost Kingdom of the English', based on his linguistic work but incorporating some of the new archaeological data. Matthias proved a gifted draughtsman, and frequently blushed at the many compliments the team bestowed on his plans and sketches.
The colonel in the meantime had sorted out the Institute's finances and found a storehouse where the boxes and cases of finds could be deposited. He masterminded their transport and organisation. Two weeks after the proclamation of the empire, he suggested that now might be a good time for him to scout out the current state of affairs on the dig site in Hartland.
'Would the Montenards let an Ardhessian ex-military officer across their borders, Colonel?' queried Ruprecht.
'The borders are open,' the colonel replied. 'Things seem to have settled down after His Majesty's little trespass.'
'His "little trespass" cost over thirty Montenard lives, and many more Ardhessian.'
The colonel shrugged. 'The Montenards look at things differently from others, minheer Graf. Centuries of wars against would-be conquerors toughen you up. They're an admirable people in that regard: independent, self-reliant and not easy to daunt, but they don't hold grudges. His Majesty – I mean His Imperial Majesty – got off lightly from his gamble. I shall be fine. Letters of introduction to the mayor of Yorck and your rancher friends should do the trick.'
'Take care then, Otto. Could you check on the state of the cellar and the tunnel that leads towards the hill? I'd appreciate your opinion as an engineer as to the white ceramic substance that closes it off. Joerg hired a watchman to look after the finds we had to leave behind. It would be a good idea to get them packed and sent here if you can find the time. Our credit's good in the town. I don't think you'll need more than a week at most.'
'I shall telegraph progress, Excellency.'
A letter had been despatched from Blauwhaven as soon as Joerg returned from Hochrecht. His mother appeared to be on the mend. He had some news of Gilles's dreams:
'He tells me they continue, and they're more or less always the same. He pursues and meets the strange hybrid child on the path in the moonlight, but he no longer wakes up at the point the creature confronts him. The child fixes him with its uncanny eyes but though the creature says nothing Gilles has started hearing voices in his dream, lots of them, but he can't make out what they're saying, though he says they sound urgent. Kreech says that he's started tossing, turning and talking in his sleep, but that hitting him with a pillow sorts him out. Then he settles again. I'm wondering if these dreams relate to the change in his life that moving away from home will entail. He may be a confident lad in general, but who knows what insecurities such a move may be triggering inside.'
He also had some coded observations:
'I heard about young von Erdwald too: quite a leap up the promotion ladder. Most people seem to think he's bitten off more than he can chew with his latest posting. Myself, I think they're underestimating the lad, and that quite a few people we know will have to eat their words. Hans agrees. His squadron has moved up the Inner Sea, and he's exercising off the Protectorate States. He thinks he may be asked to take the other von Erdwald boy on board his ship as a favour to the family.'
The other Erdwald boy? For a moment Ruprecht was stumped. Kristijan had no siblings. Then it clicked. Did Joerg mean to tell him that the Emperor François was being given asylum on board a Bernician warship? Then was he to be harboured in the Confederacy, an Allemanic state? The Emperor Kristijan might very well be enraged at that. God knows what he might do in retaliation. The news also implied that Dreiholmtz's Protectorate States were not willing to extend François's stay there, which indicated that they were under direct military threat despite the power of the East Kingdom behind them. Military hostilities between the East and South Allemanic kingdoms would be something entirely new and ominous in the high politics of Terre Nouvelle.
Midsummer Day was set for a huge military festival in Ardheim to celebrate the all-conquering glory of Ardhessian arms. The royal hunting park became an enormous tented camp for the scores of thousands who were to parade through the city. Ruprecht observed sardonically to himself that the camp would curtail for a while His Imperial Majesty's more baroque activities in the grounds of the Waltherborg Palace. Not for the first time, he wondered what became of the boy Jacki, whether he was really to be thrown out on the streets by Kristijan or disposed of in a more terminal way, or indeed whether the threat was just part of the constant mental torments that Kristijan inflicted on those admitted to his inner circle.
The Institute's four research assistants were loyal Ardhessians all, so he gave them the day off to watch the grand parade. To his surprise the youngsters were eager to take the colonel, freshly returned from Hartland, along with them. He had a grandfatherly air to him which attracted the young, and they wanted the benefit of his expertise to explain the military minutiae. Matthias was not unhappy to be whisked off with them too, which meant that on the big day Ruprecht was alone in the offices of the Institute, whose windows rattled alarmingly at the huge cannonade that commenced the day's events. The guns of the city's fortresses and the battle fleet anchored in the eastern roads of the harbour combined to deafen the city and send all its razorbills into the sky. Ruprecht couldn't see anything from the windows apart from the buildings opposite, but he could hear the distant bands and cheering as the Emperor rode with his army and his marshals through the city, from Waltherborg to the Kristijanenplatz at the gates of Hendrijksborg. There were to be tableaux and fountains running with wine in the great square. Hampers of sweets were set on every city corner for the children, a gift from their doting monarch, father of his people.
Ruprecht was at his desk, absently listening to the occasional blare of military music as bands passed the end of the road, when a prolonged knocking at the street door beneath his window began to irritate him. He went to the window and looked down. A shabbily-dressed youth was battering at the door below. He raised the window sash and peered out. Hearing the noise, the lad stopped his hammering and looked up. Dirty and unkempt it may have been, it was still the pretty face of Jacki the Catamite.
'Monsieur, j'ai besoin de votre aide! Monsieur! Pour l'amour de Dieu et son Sénéchal!' The boy was near frantic. Looking up and down the empty street, Ruprecht clattered down the stairs and opened up to the lad, who pushed past and slammed the door behind him.
Jacki went to his knees and wrapped his arms round Ruprecht's thighs, staring up wildly at him. 'Oh monsieur, aidez moi! They'll kill me. They're after me!'
'Who's after you? Why do you think I can help you?' He hauled the boy to his feet and gripped his shoulders.
'I can help you, monsieur, if you'll only help me. I know things. He doesn't know I do, but I listen, monsieur. He thinks I'm stupid. Well, he's the fucking stupid one. Connard! He's ordered me killed!'
'How do you know that, Jacki?'
'Jacques. I'm Jacques. He called me that. Fuck him! They're following me. Have you food? Could I wash my trousers? They stink.'
Stifling a smile at the odd priorities in the panicking boy's head he took him by the arm and pulled him into the concierge's office on the ground floor, where he'd just brewed a tea. The boy slurped down the offered tepid drink and crammed biscuit into his face.
'When did you last eat, Jacques?'
'Three days now. He had flunkies push me out of the palace with just the clothes I was wearing when the Baron took me out of the whore-house. No money, nothing. I went back to the brothel, but I saw one of the Baron's men in the doorway. They knew I'd go back, and were waiting for me. But I wasn't so stupid as to just go up and knock on the door. I watched the place first. I spent the last two nights under the railway arches on Linderdam. But they're looking for me there now. Monsieur! You have to help me!'
It looked like danger had found Ruprecht out. The thing most worrying him was whether he was being set up, with this dubious boy's either willing or unconscious compliance. He wasn't going to underestimate the Baron's deviousness. He might well be capable of orchestrating this manoeuvre and herding Jacques in the direction he wanted him to go, so as to get Ruprecht in his master's bad graces.
'Why did you come to me, Jacques?'
The boy looked shrewdly at Ruprecht over the rim of his mug. It was not an expression Ruprecht had previously seen on his face, and he at last realised that 'Jacki' was an act this boy-whore had perfected. He had sensed Kristijan preferred his catamites to be pretty and highly-sexed but stupid and ineffectual, so he could despise what he was fucking. Jacques had become what his patron wanted, as any accomplished whore would.
'Monsieur, Kris may be a genius and brilliant and all that, but when he's in his playhouse he runs off at the mouth like he's one of a gaggle of thirteen-year-old girls. Always having to be clever. Who the fuck was he trying to impress? But he isn't so mad as to let me wander off freely into the world with all I've heard and done.'
'So you're offering to sell me state secrets?'
The boy shrugged. 'It's all I have, since you don't want my ass. He talks about you a lot; obsessed with you in fact. So I know you have contacts and your family are princes.'
'What's your price, Jacques?'
'I want to live, monsieur. That's my price. You can get me out of this shit. I don't know anyone else who can.'
'Were you followed here?'
'No, monsieur. The Baron may be powerful but his eyes can't be everywhere, and I kept away from the places where I used to hang out once I knew he was after me. And everyone's watching the parades and getting drunk. He's got a lot more to worry about today than me.'
'How do you know he's not having me watched?'
The boy for the first time gave a grin. 'Oh monsieur, Kris would have him flayed. He'd never have you harmed or bothered, except by himself. In his insane way he's in love with you, didn't you know?'
All Ruprecht could do was take Jacques home. Now the boy was being offered assistance he calmed down from his panic, and became the chatty and gregarious whore that lay beneath the imposture he had practised in order to survive in the Waltherborg ménage. He was a type of which Ruprecht had some experience, and there was also the matter of Jacques's physical resemblance to Gilles, which could not but make him well-disposed to the boy though he knew he should resist the feeling. He had little reason to trust him.
His name, he claimed, was Jacques Levaillant, son of a Francien dockside prostitute who had taken him down the West Coast from port to port till they had ended up in Ardhesse when he was twelve, and old enough for pimping to men. He had no idea who his father might have been, except his name was probably not Levaillant. He had no clue where his mother was nowadays either, though he had an older sister who was cohabiting with a ship's chandler in Mortenshaven.
'I can't go there,' Jacques commented, 'the Baron might know of her and be watching.'
Ruprecht walked alone to his door, and entered. Matthias was not yet back from the festivities down in the city though it was getting dark now; he was doubtless waiting for the fireworks over Hendrijksborg. He had instructed Jacques to lurk in the back lanes behind his villa till he put a light in the rear lounge, and not come over the back wall till he was quite certain the house was not under observation.
Jacques swarmed easily over the wall, having an athletic physique rather like Gilles's, though he was more lightly built. He sat in the kitchen and Ruprecht served up the leftovers of the previous night's dinner. He rummaged through his own and Matthias's clothes to find something suitable, though there was little in his wardrobe that could fit the boy. He found Jacques already stripped in the kitchen, with his clothes soaking in the sink at which he was standing, displaying his small smooth rear. He looked over his shoulder as Ruprecht returned, sending a surge of blood into the man's penis, for when Jacques did so he looked just like Gilles had the night they shared a hotel room en route to Ostberg.
This time there were no moral considerations to hold his inclinations back. He and Joerg had never sworn any exclusiveness in their relationship, and when the subject had come up his lover had just shrugged and refused to express a view. Ruprecht came up behind the boy and ran his hands down his body. Jacques cooed and shifted in his grip, 'Baiserons-nous?' he whispered, and Ruprecht found the boy already hardening when his hands encountered the modest-sized cock. 'Do me while I'm still dirty, please monsieur,' he urged. Ruprecht picked him up in his arms, the boy clinging to his neck and offering his mouth. He carried him up the stairs and stripped while still kissing.
When the glory of Ruprecht's erection was revealed, Jacques's eyes lit up. 'Quelle bite! C'est énorme. Comme erdebête!' He laughed and raised his legs to display his rear, which was looking a lot better than when Ruprecht had last seen it, after Jacques's ill-advised coupling with the erdbeest bull. Before penetrating Jacques Ruprecht explored it carefully with his fingers, finding his hole loose but ready. The boy heaved and arched on his bed as his interior was massaged, but with desire, not any apparent pain. He took Ruprecht's size with practiced ease and urged him on with all the artificial compliments that prostitutes employed to excite their clients. Ruprecht put his hand over Jacques's mouth to silence him, then raised himself on his arms so he could watch the slim, brown body beneath him as he built up to one of the hardest hammerings he could remember giving any other male. The ecstasy on Jacques's face was not counterfeit, and he climaxed strongly over himself with just a few strokes of the hand as he was fucked, pearly drops spattering his body from navel to forehead.
As they lay together, Ruprecht still hard in the boy's rear, he had to ask. 'Did Kristijan force you to take the erdbeest?'
The boy wriggled on Ruprecht and giggled. 'No. It was his forcing us to put our cocks up those stinking cows' twats I hated, standing there in shit and mud up to our ankles. But I wanted an adventure with a bull ever since he took us to watch the beasts in the park. I really do like size and what it can do to you. But I forgot that animals don't care about what's under them, they just fuck at any angle, so I got ripped. If it had you been doing me in that cage I'd have come with excitement. You're fantastic.'
'Whore talk,' smiled Ruprecht.
Jacques gave him a hurt look. 'It happens to be true … can I call you Rupe now you've fucked me?'
Ruprecht couldn't help but kiss the boy's beautiful, swelling red lips, though the smell he was giving off was anything but pleasant. 'Come on Jacques, I'll give you a bath.'
The boy batted his eyelids coyly at Ruprecht as he was picked up from the bed and placed in the bathtub. The water was still quite hot in the boiler, so Jacques could luxuriate as he was soaped and massaged. Ruprecht washed his thick dark hair for him and even rubbed him dry after he was lifted from the bath. With a lopsided grin, the boy said 'Merci, papa!' when he finished, and gave Ruprecht a little kiss and a chaste hug as a thank-you, before trying on what clothes he could offer. The result was surprising; though in distinctly proletarian gear, the way Jacques tied his neckerchief and arranged his borrowed waistcoat was remarkably stylish, as if he were an aristocrat playing a workman in amateur dramatics.
'Little one, you really look nice,' Ruprecht commented. To his astonishment, Jacques actually blushed. He wondered if it was possible to train oneself to do that; such a skill would be quite an asset for any whore.
'I look nicer in a dress,' he curtseyed.
'So you dress up as a girl too?'
'I can be quite convincing.'
'Then maybe that's our ticket out of here. All I need to do is get the clothes.'
Jacques beamed. 'Rupe! That's brilliant! I should have thought of that. I can tell you where to go for them.'
The front door opened and an astonished Matthias stood in the hall doorway, as Jacques eyed him with deep interest.
'I think it'll be someone else who's going for your new wardrobe, Jacques.'
Ruprecht could not stop eyeing the very pretty teenaged girl sitting opposite him in his carriage. She was expensively dressed, with tasteful jewellery in her ears and around her wrists. Her small feet were coyly peeping out from under her grey silk dress, and she sat up very primly in the manner of the best-brought-up young ladies, looking out at the Ardhessian countryside as it rattled past. Her voice was a little throaty perhaps, but the tone of her question was undeniably feminine.
'How long to the frontier, papa?'
'Only ten minutes, my little one,' smiling at his daughter like the proudest of fathers. 'Are you comfortable? Is there anything I can get you?'
'Oh, no thank you, papa.' She blushed and looked down, the ladies in the compartment smiling indulgently at such a charmingly demure girl.
Were it not for the fact that he was running for his life Jacques would have been having the time of it, putting his all into a performance on which his life did actually depend. He had no papers, and he had to cross the border into the Holy See to get to safety. Ruprecht had little in the way of a plan, and all he could do was play it by ear.
The train for the Holy City squealed to a stop at the last halt before the frontier and black-coated gendarmerie boarded. The train stayed steaming at the platform as the officers checked each carriage. When they got to first class they became far less brusque and much more deferential. There was a cardinal bishop with his chaplains in the compartment before theirs, which was why Ruprecht had selected it.
'Oh papa,' his daughter suddenly burst out. 'I must … I really must … go!' And she blushed and indeed burst into tears.
'Oh my dear, but I have no idea … where it is, and … what am I to do? I cannot offer you help.'
To his great satisfaction a kindly matron next to his daughter told him not to distress himself, she'd be delighted to help the young lady, and she must follow her.
As the woman ushered Jacques out into the corridor she encountered the gendarmes and gave them short shrift in the face of this feminine emergency, and the men got quickly out of her way when she waved her papers under their noses. It never occurred to them to ask for her young companion's.
The train got back under way and a relieved and happy girl reappeared, delighting the compartment with the kiss she gave her papa and the pretty little hug around his neck.
Another lady complimented him on such a fine young daughter as they alighted at the station before the Holy City. A fiacre waiting at the stand took them on a delightful ride up through the pines to the Casa Levitica, Jacques producing a dainty white parasol for shade. He squealed with delight when the house came into view. 'Oh Rupe! It's beautiful! Is it yours?'
Feeling disturbingly paternal about this pretty young thing opposite him, he laughed. 'No, little one, my brother rents it.'
'Oh! The queer prince of Ostberg. I hope I get to meet him.'
'He's married to his Grunderknabe, pretty one, who is utterly deadly with a blade, so I would be cautious on whom you use your wiles.'
Jacques shed his disguise once they were indoors then, wearing nothing but the white slip of a cache-sex, wandered out on to the marble terrace beyond the loggia and stood looking across the valley to the incomparable grandeur of the Holy City under the crown of the White Basilica. He stood there silent for a long time, resting on a balustrade and looking like a graceful statue of a faun. When Ruprecht went up behind him it was to find the boy in tears. He hugged this surprising catamite around his smooth brown shoulders and kissed his curling raven hair.
'It's so beautiful Rupe, I've never seen anything as beautiful.'
'Do you swim, Jacques?'
'Not really. I used just to splash about with the other tarts in the dock feeder and try to avoid the town bullies when they came down demanding free samples.'
'There're towels laid out on the recliners, and the pool will be warm at this time of day. Go splash about.'
'Only if you'll come and take a free sample.'
Ruprecht laughed and kissed the boy. 'Go and relax, Jacques. You're safe now, and I don't need to be seduced any more. For a while you're in a place where you don't have to be anything but Jacques Levaillant, or buy safety with your backside.'
'But I really want you to! That thing of yours is a dream.'
'Tonight. You can have all you want then.'
Jacques sniggered. 'All I want would be more, I think, than any one man could provide.'
'And there goes the moment. Keep your slip on until the servants come out to you at the pool with drinks and a tray.'
'After that it comes off; I need to jerk. This is heaven, but I'm not dead.'
Ruprecht had informed his office that he was heading for the Patriarchal Library for a week's research, finishing work on his book on the early annals. Matthias had been left behind with strict injunctions about keeping his head down and his mouth shut. It was only once he was across the frontier that Ruprecht dared communicate with Ostberg, and the lines ran hot between the Casa Levitica and the Farcostan Palace.
The second day after his arrival in the Holy See, Erwin Wenzel appeared. He bowed to his lord. 'Excellency, the Princess Regent's sent me down to escort your young charge north. Where is he?'
'Take a look out at the poolside, it's worth it.'
Erwin came back with an eyebrow raised. 'A very pretty boy. The same cast of beauty as our own Gillot. I have the clothing you asked for; is it possible he can look respectable?'
'Do not underestimate the boy; his ability to act a part is uncanny. What's his role this time?'
'Manservant to the seneschal of Blauwhaven. I have a set of appropriate Bernician papers for him. The Protector's Office is eager to interview the lad. They're happy to meet his terms, which are rather modest in the circumstances, though I imagine he'll run through the money soon enough. I'm familiar with his sort.'
'He may surprise you. His plan is to open a haberdasher's shop; he's gifted that way, as I have cause to know.'
'The call of the streets will be too much for him.'
'Maybe, but I think his experiences with His Imperial Scumbagness may have been one of those life-changing episodes we hear of. He just needs to find an inexhaustible boyfriend who's hung like a horse, or failing that he'll be happy with just the horse.'
'Oh, I see. A size queen.' Erwin shot his master a meaningful look, which glanced off Ruprecht's innocent demeanour.
Ruprecht went out to Jacques, who smiled up at him from the recliner where he had been naked for the past two days, apart from brief episodes for meals, and repeated episodes in Ruprecht's arms. He slept most of the time he was out in the sun, and Ruprecht knew enough about the boy by now to see that the events of the past week, and indeed his previous edgy life in the retinue of Kristijan of Ardhesse, had taken their toll. He was reacting to the stress, the reaction all the more acute considering the place he now was. The frantic sex was all part of it. It was sex without conditions or manipulation, probably the first he had ever had.
'You need to go tomorrow early. The Confederacy will give you all you ask for. Where do you plan to settle, little one?'
The boy stretched his slim brown body languorously on the recliner, and gave a glorious smile. 'Ostberg sounds lovely, Rupe. I'll look around. Maybe your people will help me.'
Ruprecht handed Jacques a card. 'This is the address of my business agent, Herr Vincent. Once Bernician Intelligence has finished with you, contact him. I've written to ask him to find you a small apartment in a nice part of the city. He'll also discuss your business plans. If you convince him, I've asked him to buy a share in Jacqui's Couturerie. I have faith in you, pretty one.'
The boy stared. 'Why are you so nice to me?'
Ruprecht laughed. 'Because of a boy called Bruno whom I never met, but ask Minheer Wenzel about him on the journey north. The minheer will give you the names of places and of people who share our outlook on life, who'll be happy to have fun with you but not drag you down while they do it. Also, I've seen enough of you to know that you may very well make a go of your future, Jacques Levaillant, and I want to buy in on the ground floor. So relax, you're being exploited.'
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