Terre Nouvelle

by Michael Arram


'Rupe was beautiful!' Felix coughed on his roast buffalo.

Captain-lieutenant Vinseff raised an eyebrow at Ruprecht opposite him across the dinner table. 'Why's it so strange?'

Gilles leapt in. 'Rupe's really good looking for an old man!' he protested, in what was perhaps not one of his more diplomatic moments.

Anton laughed. 'I can see him now in my mind's eye, and believe me he was more good-looking then than you are now, Serene Highness. And yes, minheer Gilles, he still is a handsome man, even if he is not far from the grave, as you so nicely put it.'

Gilles blushed and looked down. 'I didn't mean it like that.'

Ruprecht quirked up a smile. 'I know what you meant, Gillot. Don't get agitated. I'm not offended.'

Anton proceeded. 'It was all I could do not to look at him when I saw him at the palace, and when I ended up as his groom I was so happy. He was friendly and so kind to me, not like the other lords in the palace. I on the other hand was not so special.'

'Your ass was very special,' Ruprecht growled. 'I used to watch it mesmerised when you were in your riding breeches, so tight and so small. Besides, you're one of those lucky men who get their full looks when they're out of their adolescence. No one would say you're not handsome now.'

Both boys nodded. 'Apart from the moustache,' Felix commented.

'What's wrong with it?'

'Don't like them, personally. But I understand soldiers have to have them.'

Anton raised an eyebrow, then gave a sly smile. 'They have one big advantage when you're doing it with a man.'

The two boys looked at each other then at Ruprecht. As usual Felix got it first. 'Oh, you mean when you do the bum kissing thing?'

'Felix!' Ruprecht and Gilles exclaimed together.

The prince blushed for once. 'Just saying,' he mumbled, but the look he shot Gilles confirmed for Ruprecht that the pair had advanced to that level of sexual activity and probably beyond.

'So anyway,' the captain continued, 'we joked a lot and he made me laugh, then one day he asked me to go down to that cove below the palace. That evening we did, and we talked and talked, no longer master and servant, just two teenage boys lying down together on our stomachs in the sand as the waves washed our toes. The talk turned to sex, as it does, and he told me he liked boys not girls. I agreed. Well, I would have agreed with anything he might have said at that point, but it happened to be true. Rupe put his hand on my bare ass and he looked in my eyes and kissed me, and that was as far as it went that first time. But I can't recall being happier in my life than at that moment.'

Gilles was entranced. 'That's just so beautiful. Just like me and the Kreech. And in the same place too. That beach is magical.'

Felix too was fascinated. 'And you went on to do sex there?'

Ruprecht replied as Anton met his eyes. 'Yes, a couple of times. But we didn't have too long. I was hauled back to Freiborg and the long argument about my future began with papa. You might remember it, though you were only small.'

'Yes, it was hateful for you because you wouldn't follow family tradition and join military school. But in the end Grossmutta talked papa into letting you go to university. I'm going to do that too. Grossmutta said it's more appropriate for a modern prince than four years in barracks.'

'I agree too,' Gilles interjected. 'I want to go to university if Rupe lets me. You will, won't you Rupe?'

'Could I deny you anything, Gillot?' The boy shot a grateful look at his guardian through his long eyelashes.

The boys were allowed two glasses of red wine with the meal, but not cigarettes. After the table was cleared Anton and Ruprecht went out onto the lawn the gardeners had recently created outside the dining room, while the two boys disappeared to their apartment after making their goodnights. It was long after dark, and the clear southern sky sparkled with stars. Anton took Ruprecht's hand and held it. 'This is nice,' he said. 'So different from when we were kids. Those two boys of yours are beautiful, and so lucky.'

'They deserve it; they're both very special.'

'And so very randy. Did you ever do it with the dark one? He is really something else.'

'No. I liked him too much as a human being to take advantage of him, even before he fell for my brother.'

'He is gorgeous though: that faultless brown skin and dark hair; teeth like porcelain and full lips. Those eyes … I've never seen his match.'

'Well, you wouldn't where you go looking for boys.'

'All too true. You've seen Madame's stable. The best you can say for them is that they're kept clean.'

'And what about your young troopers? From what you say, they're expected to bend over for the officers.'

'There are one or two worth the cost, because believe me fucking a young trooper is the same sort of transaction as that which buys a boy-whore, except that the price is promotion and privileges.'

'How did we end up like this, Toni?'

'We grew up, Rupe my love.' The captain flicked away his cigarette, trailing its sparks into the dark. 'Come, let's fuck and pretend we're still sixteen and that none of the other shit ever happened.'

The next afternoon, after a long ride, Ruprecht and Anton resorted again to the pool, and were dozing on their backs in the sun when whoops and splashes announced they were no longer alone. Eventually the boys came over and sat cross-legged in front of them, clearly ready to explore the limits.

'You two are way bigger than us,' Felix observed cheekily.

Anton pushed himself up on his elbows and took a good look at what was poking up from Gilles's pubic bush. 'Minheer Jonker has nothing to be ashamed of, but Your Serene Highness … well, it's not a credit to your rank I would say.'

Felix threw grass onto the captain's midriff. He brushed it off and unselfconsciously stroked himself erect, the boys kneeling up and watching closely as he did. Gilles's hand had gone to his own cock unthinkingly. Ruprecht's tool likewise reacted to the sight.

'So now we're all hard. Time to cool off.' Ruprecht leapt up, grabbed his brother, turned him in his arms, put his right hand under Felix's crotch, unavoidably encountering the softness of his scrotum, and placed his left arm round the boy's chest to get a purchase so as to hurl him into the water. The captain in the meantime grabbed Gilles and wrestled him resisting into the pool. Ruprecht leaped after them, and for a while all four roughhoused and shouted, or in Felix's case shrieked, until eventually, chests heaving, they crawled back to the lawn.

Anton promptly squirmed on to Ruprecht's wet back and without ceremony began entering him. Too taken aback to buck the man off him, Ruprecht looked across only to see Gilles likewise mounting his brother, and at that point he surrendered to his lust. Head on arm he watched the two boys coupling, erotically fascinated, as Anton's length slid easily in and out of him. Gilles's slim brown body undulated as he energetically fucked his pale lover, his hands under Felix's armpits clasping his shoulders, the two boys grunting out their passion.

'What a sight,' Anton whispered in Ruprecht's ear. 'Couldn't you just fuck that boy? Look at his perfect ass cheeks clench. Think how much of his juice he'll squirt in your brother's hole. Oh fuck, I'm …!' He climaxed with a gasp and as he did Ruprecht also came as his cock ground into the dirt beneath his belly.

Anton slumped heavily on top of Ruprecht, spent. Gilles in the meantime carried on humping Felix hard until with an agonised shout he made a final thrust up into him. Felix squawked as Gilles unloaded. Then they rolled apart, both boys looking over at the adults, more bewildered at what their lust had led them into than anything else.

As they all lay flat out and exhausted Anton suddenly laughed, the only one of the four at ease with the situation. 'God! I love the outdoors.'

At breakfast Gilles and Felix were subdued, both browsing the morning papers, which were brought up early from the town by a groom. They sat together with barely a word to say to Ruprecht. The captain in the meantime was still asleep in Ruprecht's bed. It had been an uncomfortable night as Ruprecht, still fired up with the vision of Gilles mounting his brother, made an urgent play to fuck his bed partner and was again denied. So there was no sex, and the men slept at a distance from each other.

Once the boys had disappeared to the schoolroom, Ruprecht sought his study in a meditative mood. The episode by the pool yesterday had been inevitable perhaps, between Gilles' and Felix's raging hormones and the aggressive and open sexuality of Anton. They had all wanted it to happen, but now it had Ruprecht was perfectly sure he did not want it to happen again. His fascination with Gilles had already been barely contained, and he had just made self-control more difficult to sustain. He would never rid himself now of the image of the lithe and vigorous adolescent within touching distance of him, utterly lost in sex, thrusting hard into his passive lover, his blue eyes blank with lust as they stared momentarily into Ruprecht's. He guessed from their uncharacteristic introversion this morning that the boys felt something of what he did, and that perhaps they had spent a lot of the night talking about it.

Eventually he gave up trying to work at his notes and rang the bell for Erwin Wenzel. He appeared promptly. The man had lost his starveling look since he arrived at Blauwhaven, though it could hardly be said he had gained much in weight. The plum livery jacket of the House of Aalst provided most of the colour around his person. 'Saddle up, Erwin,' Ruprecht commanded. 'We're going for a ride.'


'You can ride, can't you?'

'Yes, minheer, but the point is why the sudden wish to ride with me?'

'A rather depressing observation, young man. Let's just say that there's no one else in this house I'd wish to keep company with at the moment.'

'I understand, minheer … I think.'

The grooms brought Ruprecht's favoured grey striped stallion and a brown mare for the manservant from the stables. His mount recognised Ruprecht and bowed its ugly head for him to scratch behind its crimson horns, its long tongue snaking out to lick his ear.

'Horses never like me that much, minheer,' Erwin observed as they mounted up, and indeed his mare didn't so much as look around to see who had climbed up on her back.

'They're strange beasts, my lad. They have the oddest likes and dislikes. As a man of my class I've been around them all my life, so perhaps they recognise the confidence. Stablehands always get their faces thoroughly licked, I've noticed.'

'They go wild for the captain,' Erwin observed drily.

Ruprecht headed down the road to the town without further comment. He was not feeling particularly wild about Anton at the moment, and he was beginning to realise that Erwin picked up considerably more of what was going on around him than he let on. Indeed, there seemed to Ruprecht to be things the valet was not saying.

They dismounted at the Blauwhaven post office. Erwin went in to check for deliveries while Ruprecht took their mounts to the livery stable next door and hired two loose boxes for them, since he was in no hurry to get back to the Anton problem. He strolled out on to the harbour mole, taking his time walking along it towards the low and menacing mass of the fort. The fishing fleet was out, though its litter of baskets, cables and nets still congested the quay. He wished prosperity and a rich sea harvest to them; the rents his estate gained from the port's fishing licences were a not insubstantial part of his new income.

A small grey warship was anchored out in the fairway beyond the fort. For a moment Ruprecht thought it might be Leopard, but the ensign at its stern was that of Dreiholmtz, not Hochrecht. The Bernician flag was fluttering at its prow, so it was on a courtesy visit to the little port. The East Kingdom had long been in close alliance with the Confederacy. Centuries of diplomacy had given it great influence down the east coast of the Mainland, from Dreiholmtz's own Protectorate States on the north bank of the Great River estuary, across to Ruprecht's own homeland of Hochrecht and further south down to Bernicia. The harbours of Hochrecht and Bernicia were the conduits for its manufactures to enter the continental trade network, and the source for the raw materials that fed its factories. The prosperity of the city of Ostberg and the busy and extensive southern railway network, much of it funded by Dreiholmtz capital, were consequences of this.

Ruprecht sauntered back to the town and found Erwin Wenzel awaiting him deferentially. He suggested they browse the shops of the town's new commercial area to the north, which had grown up in response to its burgeoning resort trade. So they spent the next hour making domestic purchases, which in the end were so numerous as to need to be brought up by the afternoon's carrier wagon. Ruprecht pocketed his new supply of cigarettes and a bottle of clear lubricant, which he found he needed to renew frequently for the boys' sake. They used so much of it he sometimes wondered whether they were drinking it.

It was as they were trotting on to the upward road to begin their return to the house that Erwin made a leading comment about his former friend Bruno. 'He got through crates of that stuff every month, minheer.'

'Much in demand, was he?'

Erwin sighed. 'He was very pretty, minheer. He barely looked fourteen even when he was seventeen. Those sorts of looks were very much in demand in the brothel. He could take heavy use, unlike a genuine pubescent. Men like the captain prefer them young-looking, but also like riding boys hard.'

'You knew Captain-lieutenant Vinseff well in those days?'

'He was an ensign then, but he had a reputation, minheer, as I think you know.'

Ruprecht took up the invitation he was being given. 'What aren't you telling me, Erwin?'

'Me, minheer? Nothing. Or at least nothing you can't work out for yourself.'

'You hate him.'

'It's not my place …'

'You're in my service, Herr Wenzel, so it is very much your place to keep your master informed of things that touch on his honour.'

'Minheer, your honour is one thing and your affections another. I would not presume to criticise your bed partner, especially if you have committed to him.'

'Talk, young man.'

The man frowned and then made his fateful decision. 'On my own head be it then. Yes, I hate him. I loved Bruno so far as it was possible to love such a boy, for to be sure he was never going to love me back the same way. He was too flighty and romantic.'

'You were sleeping together? The captain thought not. Which is maybe why he thought you were harmless to his interests, so could safely be recommended to me.'

'We shared a bed for sex on sadly few occasions. He was as outstanding in looks as the young master Gilles is, believe me. But the captain and his friends used Bruno relentlessly at that whorehouse, in ways I do not wish to describe. No wonder he ran away from them. I just wish he'd have run to me. So far as I'm concerned those men murdered Bruno, and they've done the same to others.'

'His account of things was rather different. There's more?'

'I don't know about the captain, but I don't think that fucking boys who just looked under fourteen was all his friends did.'

'Damn it man, you should have told me this before!'

'May I say, minheer Graf, that till now I had no idea whether you were a person I could confide in.'

'And now you do?'

The man pulled up his horse as they were ambling up the road, and gave Ruprecht a straight look. 'Minheer, I never met a man of honour till I met you, so please excuse the time it has taken me to make up my mind. But that you are a man to trust I now believe; the way you deal with the Jonker and His Serene Highness has been a delight for me to see. I like our little household far too much to want to see it contaminated by Vinseff, and I respect Your Excellency too much to keep the truth about your … associate … from you. You should know he has been asking me leading questions about the prince and his relations with his grandmother ever since he arrived.'

'So, he thought he could use you to spy on the prince, did he? I'd guessed that he would have hopes of advancement in the service through associating with us, though that didn't concern me particularly – it's the way the world is. His questioning you about confidential family relations is a different matter, however.

'Here's a question you may perhaps be able to answer. He won't take the bottom part in sex. Any idea why?'

'Fear of the pox, minheer. You get it from taking cock, everybody says, not the other way.'

'He says he took a lot of men inside him when he was younger.'

'Probably true, and probably the reason he can no longer bring himself to do it, even though it would help him seduce you. I imagine he was glad to escape infection until they eventually stopped using him. His associates at the whorehouse were mostly army officers, men older than him. I imagine they brought him on and introduced him into their circle. He'll have sold his soul to them for promotion. One of them was I think a Confederate general, though I don't know his name.'

'Erwin, you were right to tell me this. You are an observant man and I value your trust immensely. I think I may be making demands on it in due course, especially after my brother comes of age and takes up the government of Ostberg.'

'An event we all fervently pray will happen, minheer. His Serene Highness is a fine young man of great promise, a worthy son of the House of Aalst. You may both count on my loyalty.'

'Till death?'

The man looked startled. 'Minheer? You would do that?'

Ruprecht reined in his ambling mount. They were on an empty stretch of heathland overlooking the twinkling sea below. A gust of wind suddenly rushed up the hill towards them, causing the whin bushes to thrash about.

'Get off your horse and stand by my foot,' Ruprecht commanded. He drew a penknife and cut a line down the ball of his right thumb. It was an ancient Allemanic warrior ritual, practised since before the Noble Wars. He held out his bleeding hand, which Erwin Wenzel took. 'Now, do you want to do this?' he asked.

The younger man looked in his eyes, nodded and said the ritual words clearly, his own eyes suddenly brimming with tears. 'My lord, I am yours till death. My life is yours and yours alone.' Then he sucked Ruprecht's blood from the cut and swallowed it.

'You know what this means, boy?'

'Yes sire. I am now Antrustion of your House, sharer in its fortunes. I will proudly take your mark, and die rather than betray you.'

Ruprecht smiled. 'It also means I have to pay you a lot more. You are my Seneschal, Erwin Wenzel, the one on whom I will build all my trust. As the Lord Jesus is to God, so you are bound to me.'

'Amen, lord,' Erwin said. 'May I burn in hell should I ever fail you. What is your command?'

Fortified now by the assurance of Erwin Wenzel's devotion to his interests and his house, much of Ruprecht's inner care and confusion fell away. He knew finally that his hopes about Anton Vinseff were no more than romantic illusions. The man had been thoroughly corrupted by the life he had led. Ruprecht's mind persisted in making excuses for him, for what they had shared as youths could not easily be forgotten. But he knew a man was made by his own choices, and Anton had gone into dark places with open eyes. All that was left was to decide how to get him out of his house with a minimum of fuss. Ruprecht was still enough of a diplomat to prefer to avoid conflict if he could, even if it meant smiling in the face of an enemy. Was he able to put up with Anton for the rest of the week? Since he now had taken on a seneschal and councillor, he requested his advice. Erwin gave off a distinct air of gratification at the fact of being asked.

'I agree with Your Excellency. A sudden break would be ill-advised; you know him now as no friend to our House, but there's no need to alienate him further. Best if you can put up with him for the next few days and then slowly distance yourself from him. He'll put it down to the sexual rebuffs he has inflicted on you.'

'I'm not the sulky sort, Erwin my friend.'

'Of course not, minheer. But I would guess the captain expects the worst from people.'

'A remark full of a certain sad wisdom, Erwin.'

'You may borrow my handkerchief if you wish to weep over it, minheer.'

Ruprecht burst out laughing, and for the first time that he could recall Erwin chuckled along with him. It seemed that Ruprecht was not the only one feeling heart's ease as a result of their conversation.

The returning pair encountered the captain talking to the stable hands in the yard. He was putting on a cheerful air, though with his new insight Ruprecht could detect that it covered the man's unease. He was concerned that he might indeed have offended his host. At any rate, he came over and offered Ruprecht a cigarette and his professional opinion on his mount.

'The grey stripes suggest he's from the east Montenard herd. Hardy beasts and very patient; good for road work, which is no doubt why you got him.'

'Actually, he came with the house. But I like the brute. He has a nice even pace, which as you say makes him a good road horse.'

As Ruprecht dismounted, the captain asked if he were going to the pool. 'Not today, Toni,' he replied, keeping his tone mild and neutral. 'It's the boys' afternoon for exercise at arms. Lieutenant von Altstadt from the garrison will be up here in an hour or two. He's an accomplished fencer. And now I must get to work in my study. I'll see you at dinner.'

The two men sat over wine and cigarettes after dinner, while Gilles sang Francien songs in a throaty but controlled tenor to his lover's flute accompaniment. The pair were for them subdued, and took themselves off to bed without being told.

The papers that day had been full of the escape of King Kristijan of Ardhesse from his cell on Bornholm Island with, it was said, the help of a cabal of young magnates, who had taken the field with their regiments and rallied to his banner in the north of the country. The Regent and his allies had likewise mobilised their forces and had proclaimed Kristijan to be illegitimate, the prelude for Duke Horst to claim the throne himself.

'Civil war in Ardhesse: now there's an opportunity,' Anton commented.

'How's that?'

'Both sides will be contracting noble regiments from all over the Allemanic South, especially from Bernicia. My colonel will be putting out feelers towards the Regent as we sit here. Wars of succession are seriously profitable, as they just go on and on. Besides, the colonel's not happy with his contract with the Confederacy; this way he may be able to negotiate new terms of service with the Protector even if he doesn't march us south to Ardhesse.'

Ruprecht pondered this professional insight. 'You may be wanting to get back then,' he commented. 'How much does this mean to a captain of horse?'

'There'll be a substantial bounty from Ardhesse for the officers if we ship south and the Confederacy doesn't put in a counter-bid for us. The big money will be if we get orders to ride a chevauchée across the rebel lands. That's when warfare gets seriously profitable. I know lieutenants who've retired on the proceeds of loot and ransoms.'

'I never thought I'd say this, but poor Ardhesse. It's not had internal disorder for over a century; all its warfare has been aggressive campaigns outside its borders, with the Empire and the Montenards.'

'All the richer the pickings for the noble regiments then.'

'War is such a business,' Ruprecht reflected. 'My father runs our two Aalstener grenadier regiments like a full-scale enterprise. My twin brothers are their lieutenant colonels. One's contracted to the government of Vieldomaine, the other to the North Kingdom. It's perfectly conceivable that they could be on opposite sides in the same battle.'

'Very confusing that would be. But look on the bright side, Rupe, contracting pulls a lot of the sting out of war. It's one reason it's such a polite affair. You aren't going to massacre or be massacred by enemy soldiers that you've already served with under a different employer.'

'But as our friends in the Church would say, it's no easier on the unarmed masses.'

'Tell that to the Montenards. They're the armed masses, which is one reason it's a dangerous affair taking warfare into their lands. They take no prisoners. There's no profit in mountain campaigning. But Ardhesse … that's going to be serious money.'

After another glass the men went up to bed, and to avoid an open breach Ruprecht had to strip and settle next to a man he now felt nothing but distaste for. He almost flinched when Anton's hand stroked his belly and cupped his balls. Sighing internally, he turned towards the man and reached over his hips to fondle his buttocks.

'Rupe,' Anton whispered, 'you can fuck me if you want. I'm sorry I was so against it last night, but … y'know.'

Ruprecht looked in the man's eyes and saw no enthusiasm there. He took him by the chin. 'You'll not enjoy it, Toni. Whatever your reasons, it would cost you too much and I couldn't do that to you.' Ruprecht kissed him on the lips, pondering how far he could go with the dissimulation. One thing he was sure of, he wouldn't take the man into him again. So he groped for Anton's erection and they began a mutual jerking session. It took a while but they both managed an ejaculation, and slept in the afterglow.

Ruprecht made sure to be up well before the captain, as he didn't want to give him an opportunity to pursue a further attempt on his backside.

He encountered a raised eyebrow from Erwin Wenzel as he brought in the morning coffee and papers. 'Minheer, I hope you slept well?'

'In peace, thank you Erwin.'

His seneschal expressed his sympathy by going about laying the table quietly. Gilles arrived followed by a yawning Felix, both wearing their shirts but no drawers beneath. Ruprecht tried not to stare at the long and elegant legs which Gilles's state of déshabillé revealed. The boys kissed Ruprecht chastely as they made their way to their seats and started on the stack of toast Erwin had left. He enquired about their progress in their exercises with Lieutenant von Altstadt. They were moderately pleased with themselves, and apparently Gilles's progress was considerable.

'Now here's a thing you two must know,' Ruprecht continued, showing Felix his gashed hand, which still stung and burned. 'I performed the Antrustion ritual yesterday.'

'Wow! Was it with your captain?' Felix blurted.

'What's an Antrustion ritual?' asked a puzzled Gilles.

'It's an Allemanic thing, Gillot,' Felix responded. 'It's very rare and very special. It's when a lord offers his lifeblood to a favoured servant and takes him into his House. He can only do it once.'

'Isn't that what happened to me?'

'No Gillot,' Ruprecht replied. 'I adopted you as a child of the House of Aalst and you became a noble jonker when I did it. This is different. I spilled my blood and gave it to a man to drink, which made him my Seneschal; my chief counsellor and a servant bound indissolubly to our House till his death. It makes him a minheer as far as the other servants are concerned, and he gets a lot of gold lace on his livery coat as a result.'

'So, who …?' Felix began. 'Oh … it's Erwin! That's great!'

'You like him?'

Both boys nodded vigorously. 'He's hard-working, straightforward and decent,' Gilles bubbled. 'Little Ludwig says all the other servants respect him even though he's still only young.'

'Not a bundle of laughs, of course,' Felix added.

'He has a certain dry humour, as I'm discovering,' Ruprecht replied. 'But you both must treat him differently now; he's up there with Meister Andrecht and Herr Vincent in our domestic pantheon.'

Gilles and Felix applauded when the man himself entered bearing a tray of eggs and bacon. He acknowledged their approval with a slight inclination of his head.

'Hail to the Seneschal of Blauwhaven! Hail to the loyal minheer Erwin!' proclaimed Felix playfully. He got up to deliver a low bow, which exposed his skinny butt to the world as his shirt rode up.

'My thanks, Serene Highness. I will not of course be picking up your discarded underclothes in future. I am far too grand.' He left with something of a smirk on his face.

Ruprecht could not bring himself to go to the pool. Though he took lunch with Anton he then excused himself, pleading a need to catch up on estate business.

It was in mid-afternoon that a shadow crossed the window of his study and Gilles banged on the glass, beckoning him urgently to come out. The boy was naked. He appeared to have run to the house from the pool.

'Rupe! Suivez moi! Vite! Vite! C'est Louis!' The urgency of the moment caused him to revert to his native language.

He was heading back across the lawn to the trees when Ruprecht emerged, running as effortlessly and gracefully as a gazelle, his long legs flashing. He took after the boy who was by now far ahead of him,

When he reached the pool he stopped dead at the tableau that met his eyes. Three naked figures were there and Erwin, fully clothed, was on the ground among them, apparently unconscious. Anton was standing over the man, arguing with Felix who was seated, a naked smaller boy nursed in his arms. It was Ludwig, who was sobbing and clinging tight to Felix. Gilles reached his lover. He knelt protectively behind him and embraced him, an angry glare clouding his handsome face, snarling fierce Francien curses at the man towering over them.

'What in God's name …' Ruprecht began.

'This is a stupid misunderstanding!' Anton Vinseff shouted. 'The damn fool of a man wouldn't listen.'

'Shut up, Anton. I want to hear what Felix has to say.'

'Rupe, this asshole was trying to rape little Ludwig when Erwin intervened. So he struck Erwin down and just carried on. Me and Gillot saw it all as we were coming down through the woods.'

'What the fuck!' yelled the captain. 'It's only a little bitch of a bumboy! What's wrong with you people?'

Ruprecht strode up to the man and struck him hard across the face. 'Go get dressed, Anton.'

The man staggered back up. 'You're throwing me out over this!'

'No. You're a captain and a gentleman. I struck you. You've been challenged.'

'You can't challenge me over this squealing kid.'

'No. But you struck an Antrustion of the House of Aalst, my Seneschal. That's a mortal offence for which there can be no apology. You'll need to go back to Ostberg to recruit a second from your regiment. I shall meet you in three days, at dawn below the mausoleum west of the Farcostan Palace. It'll be sabres and to the death.'

Felix resigned Ludwig to the arms of Gilles and stood. Despite the circumstances he managed to say with great dignity 'I will of course second my brother. As prince of Ostberg, I may not be gainsaid on the matter.'

Ruprecht smiled as he bowed low to Felix. 'It will be a great honour for me, Your Serene Highness.'

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