Ruprecht occupied a seat at the salon's circular table between Gilles and François, who sat opposite one another, silent and staring into each other's eyes.
Joerg had arrived and, somewhat shaken by the sight of Gilles facing his apparent duplicate, examined the two youths. The emperor had been too dazed to object. The little doctor frowned at his scribbled notes, then looked up and gave a cough to gain attention.
'If I may, Imperial Majesty and Gillot.'
The emperor gave a tight smile. 'Call me François, since it appears I am among family.'
'Then sire, I will offer the following observations. In almost every physical way you two are closely similar: hair, eye colour, teeth even. But you are not identical in the way some twins are. May I ask, sire, if you have any birthmark?'
'An interesting strawberry shape on my left inner thigh.'
Joerg nodded. 'Gilles is flawless, he has no marks on him other than the usual scattering of small moles which dust the skin of one of his dark complexion. Your skin is much the same, François.'
Gilles stirred. 'What do you mean? We're similar but not twins? Looking at François's face is like looking into a mirror.'
'That's the odd thing. Unlike with actual identical twins, there are a number of variations: in the nose shape, for instance, and the line of the lower jaw. Of your physical features only the eyes are truly identical. This is why photographic images will show no more than a strong resemblance between the two of you. But in person none of these dissimilarities register because François has your exact expression, tone of voice, colouring, height and posture. His hair curls as yours does and even his bodily odour is yours. It is unaccountable, but even stranger is this. I cannot express it in scientific or medical terms, but your … presence is the same.'
'What do you mean by that, sir?' the emperor asked.
'As I said, sire, I cannot express it. But stranger though you are to me, being in your presence is as if I were in Gillot's, whom I love dearly. Excuse me sire, but there's no possibility that in some way a relative yours visited Chasancene and, er … ?'
'Out of order, Dr Joerg!' Felix exclaimed. 'Dear Mabire Parmentier would never, ever do anything like that.'
'François and I were born on the same day,' Gilles observed, ignoring the sideshow. 'I always thought it odd that when we celebrated the emperor's birthday in Chasancene, it was my birthday too. At what time of day were you born, François?'
'Exactly at the eleventh hour of the night, Gilles, as the dawn began to lighten the sky, so my mother told me.'
'As was I,' Gilles said. 'We entered the world at the same moment.'
Ruprecht spoke up. 'My poor Joerg is faced by a phenomenon without scientific explanation, so it falls to me suggest that it must be the supernatural we look to for answers.'
Joerg shook his head. 'I object to so quick a resort to irrationality. There may well be a scientific explanation, we just don't know what it is yet.'
Identical questioning expressions of Gilles and François were directed at Ruprecht. It was uncanny. He could see in each face the image of his beloved ward, and though he knew beyond doubt that the face to his left was truly Gilles's he could imagine otherwise, which gave him mental double vision.
'We'll get no further here and now, my dears, but we must pursue this,' the Princess Regent concluded. 'Something this uncanny cannot but be significant. The banquet commences in only half an hour, and I suggest that François, the doctor and Ruprecht not attend; we cannot have Gillot and the emperor in close public proximity. As Your Imperial Majesty is here incognito, no apologies should be necessary. I will have dinner sent in for you three gentlemen; you can keep each other company and, I suggest, do some serious thinking. Come Felix, Gilles and Hans!'
There was silence while footmen arrived and laid the table, during which time the three went over to a window recess and sipped at tea. Ruprecht could not but stare at the abstracted emperor over the rim of his cup while he groped for conversational topics.
'Sire, are you aware that it was I and my brother Hans who helped Kristijan of Ardhesse escape from the Empire after his attack on you?'
The emperor's surprise was evident. 'What? No, I knew that he was suspected of slipping on board a ship at Port François, and much of the river traffic was searched. Hans is a naval officer of Bernicia, surely? How could he be connected with the affair?'
'He was at the time a lieutenant-commander in the Hochrechtner navy. Kristijan stowed away on board his corvette, on which I was a passenger. Hans landed us on Vieldomainois territory and I got him to Chasancene, from where Ardhessian agents smuggled him south after some … inconsequential adventures.'
'So you know the man personally? How very strange.'
'I know him better than I'm comfortable with. Indeed, I am currently in the embarrassing position of being his academic agent in a very sensitive investigation he's funding. Sire, forgive any disrespect, but he had a story as to how it came about that he was on the run from your École militaire; having now met you I'm beginning to have some suspicions as to the entire truth of what he told me.'
A sardonic look occupied the emperor's face. 'Kristijan and the entire truth are somewhat opposing concepts. Don't spare my blushes, Excellency, report what he said.'
'Sire, it was that you and he had a sexual affair, that in the course of an emotional contretemps you drew on him and he disarmed and flattened you with the hilt of his sword, cutting your face.'
The emperor grimaced. 'As I said, one never gets the entire truth from Kristijan. Yes, there was an affair, my first and to date only one. You know him, so you can only be aware of his beauty and seductiveness,'
'He seduced me, sire. Not long after you. Experience and common sense are little defence against his wiles and sensuality.'
'There was a fight too, but you did not get the full story obviously. In his time at the école Kristijan particularly enjoyed seducing the youngest class of cadets, who all too easily fell prey to his charm and confidence. He most enjoyed deflowering virgins, as I was when he entered my bed. But I was not enough for him. Behind the back of the school authorities he set up quite a ménage; the école admitted veterans' children as young as eight, my dear sir, and he was eventually discovered in their dormitory by the supervisor.
'What could I do when I found out but confront him? No one else could. It was made all the more painful in that he had convinced me of his genuine love for me. Damn the man! So yes, there was a fight, in which I did indeed draw on him and he struck me down. But it was not fought over my possessiveness and immaturity.'
'Then you followed up by unleashing war against Ardhesse, sire?'
'Could you imagine such a creature on the throne of one of the four kingdoms? It was not just his preying on children so young to satisfy his lust, my eyes had been opened. I saw him at last for what he truly was; a sadist, getting his pleasure from the domination and use of others, a man utterly without morals or conscience. How could I not attempt to thwart his possession of the crown, even at the cost of his odious uncle claiming it over his head? Bad man though he is, his nephew is far worse. So as Emperor I had to do my duty, even to levying war against another realm. My family is an odd collection of people, but fearless justice is something we have always endeavoured to do: il faut que protèger l'harde contre les léopards.'
'What did you just say, sir?'
The emperor looked puzzled at the enquiry. 'You don't recognise the text, sir? It's inscribed on the ancient tomb of St François, which lies in the crypt of his basilica. I don't suppose you will have seen it; it's not generally open to the public, but on the Day of the Dead the imperial family make vigil there amongst our ancestors, and that text is drawn to the attention of all the young princes. It's our unofficial motto: 'Keep the leopards from the herd.'
'Keep the leopards from the herd,' Joerg ruminated later to his lover. 'I've heard of that tomb, but few have seen it, as no one goes into the Imperial burial vault at Aix but the family and the imperial provosts of the basilica. Nonetheless there is a seventh-century woodcut of the tomb in the Antiquités de la Basilique Impériale by Provost Georges. We have a copy at home. It shows a plain stone slab set on a table, rather roughly squared but clearly incised with a pattern of plains flowers. There's a heraldic erdbeest carved in the centre, though from its style that feature's a much later addition, The legend, though, isn't shown in the picture of the top of the slab, perhaps because it's carved around the edges. Do you think, Rupe, that St François's is a genuine second-century tombstone?'
'I do. I think it was carved just after the year 100 by men only a generation away from the days of herded humans. More than that, it's a direct link between the Imperial House and the days when humans were herded by the erdbeesten. I think Jean-Charles and his son weren't just riders of the plains, they had been human bull primes first.'
'And that means …?'
'The pair were at one time in close and intimate contact with royal erdbeesten. Remember how the notes of Maria told of the bulls guarding the sleeping herd against leopard packs? What's carved on that tomb is a herd prime's job description, drummed into a human brain. The Imperial House must derive its authority and mission directly from the erdbeesten, not the Colony that the erdbeesten sacked and the first emperors finished off. The erdbeesten live on still, but in the Imperium.'
Joerg shrugged. 'Well, that's a fascinating insight if you're right, but how does it help us to understand the present situation?'
'There was a hybrid erdbeest calf in each boy's dream. A creature half human and half erdbeest.'
'Rupe, if you're about to suggest that humans and erdbeesten interbred and there's a bloodline from the aboriginal form of intelligent life on this planet to the Emperor François, just forget it. It's impossible. No erdbeest bull could breed a woman, and no human male could breed a cow. You might as well try to impregnate a horse. The sperm of one species was never compatible with the eggs of the other.'
'And another thing, how come the entirely humble Vieldomainois family of Parmentier has produced a child who is a living double of the emperor?'
'They come from Champs Dolent originally.'
'They lived at or near the ancient Francien prefecture, and maybe they have done for generations, going back across the centuries to the days of the Herding. The Parmentiers may not have ever been noble, but maybe there is more to them than appears, something deep in their past. If our theory of early human society is correct Imperial blood must have been spread liberally around the human herd, since primes would have the first right to breed the human cows and would deny their wombs to lesser males. So it would not be that surprising to find physical convergences within the Francien population.'
Joerg pondered this. 'Jacques Levaillant is Francien, and you say he too has a physical resemblance to Gillot, and thus to the emperor; not as close as those two are, but still close enough for you to remark upon it. Maybe you have something, but how does this explain the dreams?'
'Not easily, but let's go back to what we know of royal erdbeesten behaviour. Maria's memorandum suggested that the creatures were gestalt, their minds united and in constant telepathic communication, which could direct action at several levels. It kept seasonal time for the species, directing mating and migration. That may indeed have been how it originated, for the common erdbeesten, their primitive cousins, seem to act in much the same way to this day; we've both seen it.
'But what about the higher level? The gestalt was conscious and drew its information from its roaming herds. The eyes of the erdbeesten must have observed and patiently analysed the human newcomers to their world for several years and fed back the information into the gestalt mind. But it did not try to talk with humankind, perhaps as baffled as to how humans communicated as humans were about erdbeesten. When the Allemanic humans began to take erdbeesten forcibly from the herds and run tests on them, probably invasive tests, the individual beasts must have cried silently to their herd brothers for help, and it came dramatically as the entire erdbeesten species was mobilised by the gestalt and combined to destroy the threat from the colonial males and incorporate the surviving women and children into their herds. The gestalt mind dealt with the human colony as an individual prime bull would have dealt with a dangerous and challenging male.'
Joerg nodded. 'You put it very well, Rupe, but again I ask how that helps us. What are you suggesting?'
'Why are we assuming that the gestalt stopped analysing the humans once they had been forcibly taken into herds? Maybe the corporate mind finally broke through its incomprehension and talked to human minds. It may have been too late, but the tomb of the first Emperor François is some evidence that before the gestalt drifted into oblivion some humans were in communication with it.'
'Good heavens! My word, if that were true then …'
'… maybe the gestalt continues in some form, perhaps even in human heads.'
'Like those of Gilles and François?'
Joerg pondered this for some moments and then gave a happy smile. 'Hah! There is a scientific explanation then.'
'Don't be smug, little one mine. Let's go and report this to the emperor. He must have dealt with his aides by now. He can spare a week in Blauwhaven, he says. We have that long to investigate the link before our boys disappear to university.'
The small remnants of the imperial household were put up in the rectory of Blauwhaven, apart from the emperor's personal valet, a discreet and collected individual not dissimilar to Erwin Wenzel.
François was already well aware of the relationship between Gilles and Felix, but the further pairings took him aback. 'Does every bed in this house have two males in it?'
'In this wing, sire, yes. I hope that doesn't make you uncomfortable?'
'No, Excellency, it makes me envious. It's something of himself a Francien emperor could never be honest about with his people. Attitudes in the Empire, my empire, are not as liberal as amongst Allemans. Do you know that there's no evidence that any of my predecessors on the throne were homosexual? Unless one of them was and hid it well, I may well be unique to date in my line. That was another reason why Kristijan was so seductive to me; he was so open about his sexuality. I envied him, at least then. Now I know that there is more to loving other men than just joining bodies. To begin with one must choose the right body.'
'Wisely said, sire.'
'As I told you, monsieur, you may call me François. Your two boys have already decided I'm "Fran".'
'Have they invited you down to the pool by the woods?'
'No. Is that significant?'
'Clothing is not required, and they like putting on a show.'
The emperor looked momentarily nervous. 'I … perhaps that might not be a good idea.'
'They have sensitivity and tact on a good day. They probably thought that too.'
Joerg was keen to commence observations. He spent the first night François was at the schloss by his bed with a watch and notepad, recording the youth's sleep pattern. Gilles slept in Joerg and Ruprecht's bed, while Ruprecht made corresponding observations from an armchair. Felix had to sleep alone. At breakfast both boys recounted their night visions, which were identical, as were the recorded movements they made in their sleep.
'Was the vision in any way more distinct now you are in physical proximity?'
'No, doctor,' François replied. 'It was as before. Was that so for you too, Gillot?'
'Like Fran said, but I didn't … er … shoot in my sleep.' He blushed slightly, and the corresponding look in François's eyes told everyone that his dreams sometimes also culminated in an ejaculation.
The three boys had quickly become 'Fran,' 'Gillot' and 'Kreech' to each other, and were as rapidly intimate as outgoing teenage boys tend to become.
Joerg frowned, and concluded 'Then with Felix's permission we move to the next stage. Gillot and Fran should sleep together tonight.'
'Fine,' Felix agreed, 'but I stand watch with them.' He turned a mock-fierce look on the pair. 'No funny business in our bed, Fran. You two can do what you like in your head, as long as I get a full account afterwards … with nothing left out.'
Gilles and François exchanged identical sheepish looks.
Ruprecht was up early the next morning, but he found all three boys already at the breakfast table in their nightshirts. They were talking intensely across their plates and cups. They looked up when he entered.
'So something happened?'
'Damn right,' Felix said. 'It was amazing. We're just working on a written account for you and getting the story straight. Are the horses outside?'
'I hadn't noticed.'
'We want to go riding on the moors. Nude and bareback.'
'They've been back in time! Really! They've roamed with the herd and ridden with Jean-Charles, Armand, the first François and his Cory! It's amazing! I'm so envious. So they told me they'd show me what Francien boy warriors did; nothing left out!'
'Are you alright with this, François?'
The young emperor's eyes were alight. 'Rupe, it was astounding! I was … we were … there, with my … our … ancestors. It was more than a vision. We talked and … other things. We met royal erdbeesten!'
'Who's Cory? Who's Armand?'
'Jean-Charles's brother, my ancestor! The Great Bull of the Plains!' Gilles stated proudly.
'The second emperor was a homo like me, and Cory was his mate!' François stated, just as proudly.
'No Von Aalsts in your vision by any chance?'
The boys laughed hilariously, threw off their nightshirts and ran naked and laughing from the room, François slapping Gilles's handsome bare butt as they ran, a butt entirely identical to his own. The three deliberately galloped their horses past the breakfast room window, an exhilarating and erotic sight, but curiously François and Gilles rode the same horse, François in front and Gilles behind him, holding him tight around the waist.
Joerg wandered in yawning not long afterwards. He looked a question and got a rundown on the news from the night. 'Good heavens!'
'Fran and Gillot are over the moon. They've had real answers, and I'm bursting to find out what they are. What's more, they've been given gifts. You can see it in their eyes. François has found affirmation in that the greatest of the emperors, the first of his name, was like him, queer. He's no longer having to apologise for what he is. Gillot for his part has been given a lineage and a story of greatness past that goes with his name. He's no longer an intruder into the aristocratic world. He's greater than us all! He's of the Imperial line, from the brother of the first emperor.'
Later that morning Joerg and Ruprecht were called down to the pool by a breathless and still naked Felix. 'We want to tell you down there, and don't come with clothes. We're gonna be boy-bulls all day today.'
They found Gilles and François lying facing each other, heads resting on elbows, talking animatedly and smiling like the closest of friends. Felix went to sit between them and the pair reached up to caress his cheeks and shoulders. Gilles then got up and surrounded his husband, kissing and nuzzling the back of his neck softly and sweetly. He looked up at Ruprecht.
'This is how the ancient François sat with his Cory, it was so beautiful,' he said.
They shifted into a circle. 'So tell us everything,' Joerg demanded.
François looked at Gilles, who nodded to him, and it was the emperor who began; fittingly, Ruprecht thought.
'Gilles and I awoke together, or so it seemed. We were lying on grass holding each other among lots of other warm naked bodies, and they smelled nice, not stinky. We were ourselves, but as if we were kids, maybe ten or eleven; we had no hair down there anyway. The sun was getting up and it was a glorious day on the plains, which were as they must have been in ancient times, with vast stretches of green grass, and small woods disappearing blue into the early morning air. I could see antelope cropping in the distance, and stilt birds were pecking at the ground close by. As I sat up next to Gillot, he took my shoulder and it was real, I mean I really felt him touch me and his warm belly press into my back. I smelled his body and it was like herbs and milk. It wasn't a dream. I could direct my own movements. Is that what it was like for you, Gillot?'
'It was. I could feel your shoulder, smooth and warm under my hand. I could smell the oils in your hair. And I was hungry. Other kids got to their knees and a woman with heavy breasts knelt up. Little ones toddled over to take her nipples. Then when they let go bigger kids took them in their mouths. A woman was next to us and offered herself so we both took a breast. It was amazing to taste when her milk spilled into our mouths, rich and sweet, not like human milk really is, I think. A couple of squeezes and sucks and we were satisfied, and she smiled down on us as we fed, as if she were our mother. I've never felt so content.'
François resumed. 'So then we stood up, and the herd was rising around us. But it wasn't just humans. There were erdbeest cows and calves sleeping there too, and two calves took our place at the human woman's breasts as we stood, and she smiled down at them just as she did on us. The bulls were sleeping in the tree line, and they got up a little later. When they did they were magnificent, human and erdbeesten alike, potent and strong creatures with, … well, I can't imagine having what some of them had between their thighs. I'd have to walk bow-legged. Cows went up to them to offer grubs and vermicules. They nestled into their laps and fed them by hand, erdbeesten cows feeding human males and human women feeding erdbeesten bulls. The human bulls kissed and stroked the female erdbeesten as they ate and the erdbeesten licked the human women with their long tongues; but it was intimate rather than erotic.
'Two of the young human bulls were behaving differently. They'd been sleeping in each other's arms and now they were sitting waiting for us, wrapped together like Gillot and Kreech are. One was handsome and dark-headed and the other straw-haired and paler in body, but both were beautiful. The dark-haired one beckoned us over. We ran over eagerly because we could see that he was our kin; he had our look.
'They separated, knelt up, opened their arms to us and cuddled us, kissing our cheeks as if they were our fathers and we their young sons. Then the dark bull took our hands and he led us through the trees, where we found two horses waiting. They lifted us up and placed us on the same mount, me in front and Gillot behind holding me tight, as if he were a younger brother clinging on to me as his elder, friend and protector. I had no brother till then, but now I do.' His eyes met Gillot's and there were tears in the emperor's.
After a pause François continued. 'The two men likewise mounted their horse and led us out on to the plain under the rising sun. We rode for quite a while, and it was all real, because the horse's pelt was rough on my thighs; Gillot's sweat was slick on my back, and he went hard pretty often between us.'
Felix sniggered. 'Ha! Even the dream-Gillot can't stop doing that!'
François rolled his eyes and resumed. 'We reached a large wood and a whistle from the dark bull halted the horses, He slid off his mount to help us down, then he put me on his shoulders and the pale one put Gillot on his and they walked us under the trees.
'I put my arms round his neck and snuggled into his rich long hair which smelled so good, and I asked him his name. He gave a laugh. "It's the same as yours, little one. I'm François, and this is Cory, my mate."
"Where are we going?" I asked, and my voice was a child's voice.
"To meet Father and Uncle, the Great Bulls of the Plain. We have things to tell you, our children."
'After a short while a path led us into a clearing, and on a mound in the centre rich in flowers waited two seated men. They were powerful and beautiful, each in their way. We were put down on the ground in front of them. The one on the right held out his arms to me and I knew him, and I ran to him shouting "Grandpère!" while Gillot ran to the other man shouting the same happy greeting. They took us in their great arms and crushed us to them and kissed us. I have never felt so safe and loved. I knew my grandsire for the first emperor, and Gillot knew his for the emperor's brother.'
Ruprecht broke in. 'What told you that, Gillot?'
'I just knew, Rupe, as if I'd always known. All of it was so familiar. It was the dream world that I've been half-aware of for so long, it was the world of the Human Herd. It's where I think I mostly belong.'
'I also,' François agreed. 'I wake after good dreams and I remember fragments of it, but in last night's vision I was there in truth.'
'So what then?' Joerg pursued. 'You were called there for a reason, what was it?'
François replied. 'This is where it got scarier. Out of the trees now came erdbeesten; there were bulls, cows and calves and they led with them a human male, or what was left of him. He was a mess, his skin red and hanging off him. I could see his insides and his feet were just bloody bones. His eyes were white, filmy, blind blanks. Grandpère cuddled me tight and told me I was safe and I was not to be scared. "What is he?" I asked, horrified. "What happened to him?"
'Grandpère told us that what we saw was a creature in pain, but that the Great Mind could not reach him to help him, for he still lived. "It has little power to reach the living, for it no longer dwells in living minds but in the clouds, the wind and the grass. You see, my children, in the early days when humans came to this world the Great Mind of the erdbeesten was strong, and once it found it could acquire the minds of our human dead it began to talk to some of us living humans. But as the erdbeesten were slaughtered by King Connor's vengeful soldiers the Mind had fewer living hosts, and in the end it migrated from the material world, though it continues to live and grow. But it is unable now to address the living, except for two very special boys: you, our petits-fils.
"You can hear the Mind, for you are children of the Great Bulls of the Humans who joined with it before the herd was murdered. In its last years the living Mind had enough power to enter and change the very fabric of a man, our own father. So, as his elder descendants by myself and my brother Armand, you are precious agents of the Mind, the only ones left to us in the world.
"You alone can help that tortured thing you see here. If ever it could be redeemed, the world would change for ever and so many wrong things could be put right and old wounds healed. Should you succeed, the Herd Mind will be reborn greater than ever before."
"But how?" Gillot asked him. "Where is it? How do we reach it?"
'Then François said the answers were within us, placed there long ago in the seed of our family by the Mind while it was still walking in the herd. It was promised by the fading Herd Mind that Gillot and I would one day be born and that together we could unlock that knowledge, but it was never revealed how to him, other than it must be done by our joining together, the way erdbeesten join.
'The walking horror was still amongst the erdbeesten, who were trying to soothe and comfort it but having no success. So our grandsires picked us up and carried us in their arms away from that horrid scene and out again on to the plain. They kissed us, placed us back on our mount and told us to ride out into the grasslands as the herd brothers we were. "Where?" we asked. "Homewards," Grandpère replied, "to your ancient home, Gillot. Take your brother and find there an old friend. He'll show you how, if you walk with him. He's waiting for you." Grandpère slapped the horse's butt and we rode on to the plains, the wind in our hair and the sun's warmth caressing our bodies. We waved as we went, and they shouted words of love after us.'
Gillot continued. 'We woke up at that point, in a close embrace in bed. How long had we dreamed, Kreech?' he said in his husband's ear.
Felix picked up a notebook. 'You fell asleep at the third hour, and the pair of you got restless at the seventh, at which point you came together and started moving against each other. You relaxed into deep sleep at the ninth hour and woke just after dawn. You looked so cute together.'
'The vision said you had to join the way erdbeesten join …?' Joerg said. 'That means one of you mounts the other. Are you willing to do that?'
François reached across to cup Felix's cheek and stroke it. Felix nuzzled and kissed his hand. 'I don't mind them doing it, if it'll help,' he said. 'Gillot loves me I know, and Fran does too because he and Gillot are closer than brothers. I feel as though I've known him as long as Gillot, which in a way I have. If they do each other I won't feel threatened, though … I'd like to be there when it happens.'
Ruprecht joined in. 'I'm not sure it's going to be as simple as just copulating. You must first go to Gilles's "ancient home", which can only mean Champs Dolent and what was once New Paris. But that's now part of Kristijan's empire and the Duke of Vieldomaine is an Ardhessian puppet ruler. A division of Kristijan's troops under a Marshal-General garrisons the duchy. It has become hostile territory into which it'll be perilous for François to venture. His life would be forfeit if he came into the hands of King Kristijan.'
The emperor shrugged. 'What good am I to anyone now? I can't protect the herd from my throne, for I no longer have one. But if I can save that tortured thing, whatever it is, I may do a greater deed yet, a deed fit for the seed of Jean-Charles and François.'
The boy's eyes glowed with idealistic determination, and Ruprecht realised that he was in the presence of one who was truly meant by nature and fate to rule, lead and guide, the very antithesis of his rival, Kristijan of Ardhesse.
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