It was chilly in the early light as Ruprecht von Aalst clambered up on deck, stretched and looked around. The pleasant smell of breakfast reached his nostrils from the galley astern of him as he picked his way across the ropes and chains of the foredeck to the prow. Morning mist obscured the quays and bustle of the great port in which his transport was moored, but his ears picked up the muffled shouts of stevedores, the whistle and clank of a shunting engine further along the quay, and the foghorns of merchant ships passing slowly by out in the fairways of the Great River. It was dank and the world smelled of fish, engine oil and coal. Somewhere in the mist was the bell-like clanging of metal being beaten.
Ruprecht leaned on the rail and looked out over the green waters until they faded into grey obscurity. The mist would soon burn off, and after that it would be a fine autumn day, perfect for the homeward voyage downriver to Groothuis. A sudden bustle and tramp from the stern gangway heralded the morning ritual of the raising of the ensign. A miniature imperial flag had already been raised from the foremast above him as a courtesy to the port, but their own grand ducal ensign did not fly at night. A distant, shouted order, the stamp of the marine guard salute and a drawn-out whistle honoured the breaking out of the national flag.
As expected, the ship’s commander joined him immediately afterwards at the rail. ‘Morning Ruprecht, sleep well?’
‘A bit cramped. Couldn’t you have got yourself command of a larger boat, Hans?’
Lieutenant-commander von Aalst rolled his eyes at his brother’s wilful obtuseness. ‘It’s a ship, not a boat, Rupe. You make do with what you can get in our small establishment, old fellow. I like my Leopard. She’s sleek and fast, and for that I can put up with the narrow bunks.’
‘She is a beautiful boat, Hans. I make no complaint, especially since you’re making no charge for sailing me home.’
‘The life of the scholar doesn’t pay well, does it old chap?’
‘It doesn’t pay at all, Hans.’
‘Write a book. Isn’t that what scholars do to gain fame and income? Mother will be pleased, and so probably will father; it would be evidence that his toleration of your eccentricity had produced a return of sorts.’
Ruprecht snorted. ‘Me eccentric? What about you? The first member of our lineage to take a commission in the navy!’
Hans shrugged and then grinned. ‘Well, after you refused to enlist in the army, like any dutiful von Aalst should, my sin was nothing by comparison. Besides, I like a blue tunic. Army green is so bland, don’t you think? And if we were ordered south to the tropics naval whites are dazzling … if ever so difficult to keep free of grease.’
‘And of course you never need to get saddle sore or make a route march. You go everywhere in comfort …’
‘And real style. My little Leopard can run.’
‘So when are we off?’
‘After breakfast and the change of watch, and once the mist clears. There are big ships out on the river which would plough us under and not even notice the bubbles as we go down. Ah … look! The sun is breaking through.’
The river mist began indeed to shred and burn away as the sun climbed. Port François and its quays, warehouses, cranes and tangled, shining railway lines emerged into full daylight. The naval dockyard where Leopard was moored was downriver from the city. The Great River was so broad at this point that the further shore would have been barely visible anyway, even had the view not been blocked by a long line of moored battleships of the Imperial Fleet out in the fairway of the left bank.
Lieutenant-commander von Aalst meditated on the naval might suddenly unveiled in full sunlight, perhaps considering how little his own small navy could do to oppose it. He bade farewell to his brother and sought his bridge. The air above the ship’s grey funnel began shimmering as the boilers were stoked, and smoke began to issue from the stack.
Ruprecht lit the first cigarette of the day and savoured it for a while. The corvette’s cutter was under a tarpaulin behind him. As he was contemplating moving himself to Leopard’s tiny wardroom and getting his breakfast, a stir out on the quays drew his attention. A section of blue-coated military gendarmerie had appeared around a corner, and their mounted commander was directing them into the warehouses; a search was in progress. Ruprecht would have guessed it was an anti-smuggling operation had this not been a naval dockyard, where security would always be tight, or so one would imagine, even if this was one of those rare occasions when the Empire was not at war with any of its neighbours.
The gendarmerie commander trotted his mount down the lines to the corvette and reined in, looking up at Ruprecht as he leaned on the rail. He saluted Ruprecht with an unusual politeness for a police officer and hailed him in Francien, though he knew he was talking to an Alleman.
‘What ship is this, monsieur?’
‘His Grand Ducal Highness’s corvette Leopard, captain,’ Ruprecht replied civilly in the same language.
‘From Haut-Rives, monsieur? May I come aboard?’
‘You must seek the permission of an officer for that, captain. I am just a passenger. Allow me to alert the crew.’
As Ruprecht left the rail and picked his way back along the deck, he would have sworn for a moment he saw the cutter’s tarpaulin briefly twitch.
Ruprecht didn’t return to the rail once he had notified the watch officer of their visitor. His stomach was demanding attention and had to be satisfied, even if the ship’s motion might later make him regret the decision.
He was savouring the last of his plate of ham, fried potato and eggs, when his brother appeared at the wardroom door, annoyed. Ruprecht looked a question.
‘Bloody imperials,’ Hans snarled. ‘They always push the limit. The Conventions give immunity to all naval vessels in foreign ports, but the Empire still acts as if every other country was no more than one of its provinces.’
‘Their policeman had the nerve to suggest he had a right to search my ship.’
‘Well exactly. I’d have been cashiered for allowing such an insult to His Grand Ducal Highness’s flag. I sent him off with a flea in his ear.’
‘And provoked an international incident.’
‘I kept my swearing to Allemanic, which I don’t think he understood. Still, he must have picked up I was annoyed.’
‘Did he mention what he was looking for?’
‘Not in so many words. Some sort of convict, I thought he said.’
‘That’s that then. When are we casting off?’
‘Ten minutes. Steam’s up and tide’s on the turn.’ Hans resumed his cap and headed for the bridge.
Ruprecht took another cigarette from its case and sought the open air. Smoking was forbidden below decks on HGDHS Leopard. He noticed two green-coated marines at the gangplank, rifles in hand, giving an unfriendly eye to the party of gendarmes on the quayside. As Ruprecht was surveying the scene, another figure cantered along the dockside towards Leopard. The amount of gold braid and the blue and red naval uniform indicated a senior officer of some sort. The newcomer dismounted and handed the reins to a policeman. He saluted the watch officer who had arrived at a run, and was given permission to come aboard. The officers then disappeared together up to the Leopard’s bridge. A few minutes later a sailor came looking for Ruprecht.
When he reached the bridge, Hans had his arms tightly crossed in that stubborn way Ruprecht remembered from their childhood days. The lieutenant-commander introduced their visitor with a certain curtness.
‘My dear brother, this is Contre-Admiral des Aulnaies of His Imperial Majesty’s Navy, port admiral of this facility. Sir, may I introduce His Excellency Graf Ruprecht von Aalst zum Freiborg, an accredited agent of His Grand Ducal Highness’s Foreign Service. Please explain to him the problem, if you will.’
A very polite bow succeeded the introduction. ‘Votre Excellence, the problem is a delicate one.’ The admiral spoke with what to Ruprecht was a strange combination of caution and earnestness. ‘I received last night a telegraph communication from the capital. As you may know, His Imperial Majesty commenced his training at the École Superieure des Études Militaires at Saint-Amand earlier this year.’ Ruprecht was well aware that the current emperor, François, was but fifteen years of age and under his mother’s regency, which was one reason why their world was experiencing a rare period of peace. ‘There was yesterday an … incident at Saint-Amand.’
‘Incident, admiral? Can you be specific?’
‘I’m not fully informed. However I believe His Imperial Majesty was subject to a vicious assault by a fellow student, which may have amounted to an assassination attempt. The assailant escaped the college, and is being searched for. His stolen mount was found wandering on the outskirts of Port François last night’
Ruprecht inclined his head in his best consular way. ‘I am of course desolated to hear of this unfortunate incident, so distressing to the Empire and its friends, among which I know you are aware His Grand Ducal Highness is numbered. But how can we help?’
‘It is likely the assassin may attempt to board a ship; the city is currently sealed. Obviously the river is the quickest exit from the empire. It is very important that he be apprehended.’
‘Indeed,’ Ruprecht nodded, ‘justice must be done on the fellow.’
The admiral came close to squirming. ‘Ah … well, here there may be a … difficulty.’
‘How so, my dear sir?’
‘I … the point is … apprehension is all we are seeking; you see the assailant, another cadet you see, is not … how can I say it, subject to the usual possible restraints.’
‘Can you be more specific?’
‘No, your excellency, there are issues of great sensitivity involved.’
‘Ah! But there is not much that can be done in any case. Why do you think he might have sought refuge on Leopard?’
‘I can at least say that the assailant was an Alleman, though I hasten to say he is not one of His Grand Ducal Highness’s subjects.’
‘How odd. I think I can assure you with full confidence that no such person could possibly have boarded His Grand Ducal Highness’s corvette. Is that not so, lieutenant-commander?’
Hans gave a nod. ‘We keep a close watch on the dock when we’re in port. Sailors, sir, you realise ...’
The admiral inclined his head in assent. The point had come when he had to insist on an illegal search or back down. One look at the determined set of the Hochrechtner naval officer’s face and the assurance of the inconvenient diplomat at his elbow convinced the port admiral that he must take the foreigners’ assurances and leave. It was done with all the diplomatic and naval niceties, and though his arrival had been too hectic for these to be observed the admiral left to the whistles of a bosun’s pipe and the salutes of the corvette’s officers lined up along the rail.
The ship was soon casting off, while Ruprecht kept out of the way on the foredeck as the lines were loosed. He stayed at the prow as the steam corvette got under way. He remained at his station when the crew manned the rails as the corvette’s signal gun saluted the imperial flag floating over the harbour fort. The deck began to vibrate as the ship’s turbines accelerated and its propellers thrashed the water. Leopard surged out into the main channel with a fine turn of speed and raced along beneath the line of anchored battleships, leaving a foaming wake to mark her passage. As they turned into the tidal race and followed the river’s course on its south-eastern bend Ruprecht finished his cigarette and flicked the stub over the side. He strolled back to the cutter and said casually, ‘I think you can come out now, young man.’
Ruprecht was intrigued as to who might answer his summons, but was utterly astounded by what did appear. The perfection of the boy’s flawless face under its tousled golden curls was one reason perhaps; the other was the identity of that face, which he knew perfectly well, if only from newspapers and daguerreotype cards. He bowed low.
‘An unexpected pleasure, Your Majesty.’
The boy had remarkable self-possession for one of his age and station, caught in such a position. He silently and athletically leaped down to the deck, and straightened his tight blue cadet tunic. He was not far short of Ruprecht in height, though he cannot have been much over sixteen years of age.
‘You are a Hochrechtner diplomat, I believe? Did I catch the name of Graf von Aalst?’ he enquired pleasantly.
‘Yes, Your Majesty, and I am at your service.’
‘Very good. Perhaps you will summon the captain of this fine vessel.’
Ruprecht bowed again and waved over a gawping sailor, whom he sent off for Hans. In the meantime, the young king leaned over the rails, watching the waters slide past the ship and the now-distant shore.
‘A very fine vessel, minheer, and very fast,’ he observed, with an evident boyish pleasure.
‘Is that why Your Majesty was good enough to choose it for your … er, escape?’
The king gave a pleasant chuckle. He seemed to all intents and purposes to be having the time of his life. ‘It was the fact it was an Allemanic ship, as much as its apparent turn of speed, minheer. If there had been an Ardhessian vessel in port of course …’
‘Could you perhaps give me some details as to why you need to leave the Empire in such haste?’
‘I hope you’ll excuse my silence on that point for the time being.’
Ruprecht inclined his head, and as he did his brother arrived looking rather irritated. Hans froze when he recognised the second figure at the rail. Ruprecht did his best to match the insouciance of their unexpected guest.
‘Commander, may I introduce His Southern Majesty King Kristijan III of Ardhesse. Your Majesty, this is the captain, lieutenant-commander Graf von Aalst, who is also my younger brother.’
The boy king smiled. ‘I see the resemblance. My dear lieutenant-commander, it seems I must ask you, as a representative of my good cousin the Grand Duke of Hochrecht, for your temporary hospitality.’
Hans rallied. ‘Er … Your Majesty is of course entirely welcome. We are at your service. May I however ask …’
‘Of course, lieutenant-commander. But may I first request some refreshment? It has been a long and somewhat arduous night.’
Hans paused, then motioned over a wide-eyed midshipman, with orders to take the king to the wardroom and get him whatever he asked for. Once the pair had disappeared, Hans removed his cap and wiped his brow. ‘What in God’s name is going on, Rupe? What is the king of Ardhesse doing on my ship? How do I get out of the court martial for this?’
‘That’ll be the trick, won’t it? As to what he’s doing here, I have no idea. But I’d imagine that he was the mysterious assailant of the Emperor François about whom the admiral was so reticent. No doubt His Majesty will give us the details in due course, if it suits him. In the meantime, were I you I’d head full speed for Groothuis. The sooner we’re on the right bank of the Great River, the happier I’ll be.’
‘You think we’ll be followed?’
‘Go put your crew on watch. I’d imagine that the telegraph has been busy out of Port François, and when we get to the next imperial naval station down the river we may find a reception committee of some sort.’
‘That’ll be Vambourg, on the frontier with the Protectorate States. There’s a destroyer flotilla based there. You really think the imperials would dare to stop a neutral warship?’
‘I hope not. On the other hand, the Empire does have a reputation for ignoring treaty restrictions when they become inconvenient and picking up the pieces later.’
Hans again took off his cap and ran his hands through his hair, another habit of his which Ruprecht remembered from their childhood. ‘If that happens, I can’t outrun an imperial destroyer, and I certainly can’t outgun it either. Listen. In ten kilometres the southern channel will run close to the right bank of the river. It’s still Francien land there, but not imperial territory.’
‘I know it quite well,’ Ruprecht commented dryly.
‘You studied in the University of Vieldomaine, didn’t you? I’d forgotten. Take the overland route to Hochrecht, or maybe find an Ardhessian consulate and hand His Royal Nuisance over. Then it’ll be their problem, not ours. We have to act quickly though. The long meander after that will bring us within sight of Vambourg. I’ll get out the charts and organise things; you go sort out His Majesty.’
Ruprecht found the young king at ease in the wardroom. The boy seemed to have a gift for projecting a sort of confident ease he’d never before observed in any adolescent to that degree. King Kristijan was seated against the bulkhead, his long legs stretched out in front of him as he munched casually on a sausage, while the lanky and sandy-haired midshipman he’d been entrusted to was sitting opposite the king, smiling and hanging on his every word, evidently hypnotically charmed by his companion. Before he opened the wardroom door, Ruprecht thought he’d heard the pair giggling over some adolescent joke. The midshipman respectfully shot to his feet when Ruprecht entered. Apparently he didn’t see the incongruity in sitting in the presence of an anointed sovereign.
‘Your Majesty,’ Ruprecht commenced, ‘I’m afraid that if you wish to maintain your … freedom to act, your stay on this vessel will need to be brief. We rather think we’ll be intercepted before we make Hochrecht, and the best plan may be to put you and I ashore as soon as possible.’
The boy king’s face clouded. ‘I do not wish to fall into the hands of imperial agents, minheer Graf. I had hoped my friends and allies of Hochrecht would not let me down in this.’
‘Within a half hour, Your Majesty, we will be able to land you in Vieldomaine. It is not imperial territory, and the Empire’s agents cannot … er, discommode you there with any ease. I have contacts in the duchy who will assist your onward progress, and I believe your government maintains an embassy in Chasancene.’
The boy pondered the plan and nodded. ‘Chasancene, you say? That is certainly a possibility. Do I understand you intend to accompany me?’
‘Yes, sire. I think it would be to the honour of my sovereign that I escort you to a place where you can be properly received, and make sure that a safe journey home will follow on from that.’
The boy brightened. ‘Very well, minheer Graf, I’ll be obliged to both yourself and your prince if you can arrange that for me.’ He then turned to the midshipman and became a rather different lad. ‘Sorry, Kurt. We’re going to miss out on the guided tour. I’d have loved that.’
The Hochrechtner boy blushed and stuttered out his regrets. The king took Kurt’s hand and pressed it. ‘Some other time maybe, if God wills it.’ Ruprecht registered that the king took some time to release the other boy’s hand, as the midshipman blushed redder yet.
Ruprecht was musing on what he had witnessed as he led the king on deck. His brother was waiting with an armful of clothing. ‘Your Majesty, this is a Hochrechtner junior officer’s gear which one of my sub-lieutenants has contributed. Perhaps you might get dressed in the cabin here. It’ll be better if you’re in some sort of disguise travelling through Vieldomaine. We don’t want you to invite more attention than is necessary.’
The king took the bundle and disappeared through the indicated door. After he had gone, Hans asked his brother if he had enough money to get by, then pressed a heavy purse on him before waiting for an answer. ‘And take good care of yourself, as much as your royal refugee,’ he added. ‘There’s something about this I don’t like … actually, there’s a lot about this that smells of fish.’
The corvette’s launch delivered Ruprecht and his royal responsibility to a sandy beach on the right bank, remote from any settlement and backed by woodland. The crew promptly headed back to the ship, which was a hundred metres out in the fairway. Hans was at the rail supervising, and before the launch was even properly aboard the corvette began to gather way again. Ruprecht waved back at his brother as the ship’s bow wave appeared and the vessel surged back out into the main tidal stream, trailing white smoke. How Hans would account for the missing diplomat if Leopard was stopped and boarded was a matter of some concern to Ruprecht, but at least they would now have a head start, even if the imperials managed to guess their escape route.
The diplomat turned to the incognito monarch at his side. The borrowed uniform was a bad fit and the trousers exposed a lot of sock, yet somehow the boy managed to look elegant. Ruprecht concluded a boy like him would have looked elegant wearing an old sack. Still, the cap at least masked the head of golden curls and its peak shaded the boy’s famous face. That would have to do.
‘Now sire, we must get our story straight. I’m on my way to the capital en route for Hochrecht, and you are a naval midshipman I’m escorting home. Your mother is very ill.’
The boy put on a mock-serious expression. ‘I’m desolated to hear that.’
‘You are Kristijan von Erdwald; a member of a minor but prolific gentry family of the coastal province of Meercosten. Do you know anything about my – our – homeland?’
‘No, minheer, I regret that I don’t; though I think I do manage the accent rather well.’
‘Yes, Kris, you do.’
Ruprecht noticed the sudden tightening of the king’s jaw at that unsanctioned abbreviation of his name. It seemed he was not quite as accessible a character as he liked to pretend. Ruprecht breezed on regardless, rather pleased at having pricked the boy’s unnatural composure.
‘Your lack of papers may pose a problem in due course, but maybe we can get you to your country’s embassy before it becomes an issue. Now we must walk. I have a fair idea of where we are, but we need to get inland before we explore the possibility of transport. Imperial agents are everywhere in Vieldomaine, and the riverbank settlements will be the first places they look for you.’
‘That seems a good plan, minheer.’
‘Excellent, then let’s go. And if I call you Kris it’s merely so you get used to the imposture, and not through any discourtesy, Your Majesty.’
The boy nodded acceptance, and the pair pushed their way through the belt of woodland and found themselves in a wide expanse of river meadow, divided up into closes by drainage ditches, which could be crossed by plank bridges. Sheep were dotted everywhere, heads down in the grass. After about a half kilometre they encountered a thick hedge, and a gate gave them access beyond into a common field, a spire indicating where the settlement was that farmed it. They reached its single street without getting too muddy. The weather recently had been quite dry. There was a smithy, and the ringing of a bell hanging at its door brought out a surprised-looking artisan.
Ruprecht gave his easy smile and asked where the nearest rail halt was. Some head-scratching on the smith’s part produced the conclusion that it was ten miles away at Belfort, but that the carrier’s cart had already left for the town. The smith had a horse for hire that could be left at his cousin’s near Belfort station, and a payment concluded the deal. Ruprecht mounted and the disguised king swarmed up behind him, taking him round the waist.
As the horse ambled on to the Belfort road, the boy murmured in his ear, ‘My thighs are going to regret this, minheer.’ He pressed his groin close into Ruprecht’s rear with no apparent physical diffidence, and squirmed around to get as comfortable as he could. Then he giggled as the hardness of his substantial erection was the inevitable result against Ruprecht’s back. ‘Sorry,’ he murmured in Ruprecht’s ear, but in a sultry way that confirmed Ruprecht’s suspicions about the boy.
In the situation he was in, Ruprecht had little hesitation in following up. ‘So, Kristijan, when you and the emperor had your fight, was it about his fondness for you, or your fondness for other boys?’
There was that giggle again. It seemed the boy was going to be frank. Ruprecht wondered if his decision to confide in him indicated the king was feeling less than secure in his current situation. He needed a friend, and confidences bought trust.
‘Oh, you know boys, minheer. I think you’re a man of the world. François is such an emotional kid. He wrote me these long romantic poems, like something out of the days of the Noble Wars. But really, it was ridiculous. Did he expect me to marry him? Can you imagine? Perhaps I shouldn’t have laughed. That was bad, but then to draw on me! I had to disarm him, and a sabre guard in the face can give you a nasty black eye, and such a clear and fine eye too.’
‘You shared a bed?’
‘Just the once. He was very enthusiastic, but clearly he had never done it before.’
‘Whereas you, sire?’
‘Oh, well … let’s not get into counting.’
‘May I ask if you deliberately seduced him?’
‘Why do you ask?’
‘I’m a diplomat, sire, we collect information.’
A silence preceded the boy’s next comment. ‘Kings do too, minheer, and the way you looked at me is something I’ve seen often enough. I don’t imagine I could seduce you as a way of assisting my interests?’
‘Am I to assume that your affair of the heart with his imperial and adolescent majesty was more an act of foreign policy than …?’
‘He took it rather more seriously than I thought he would. My mistake and lack of experience I guess.’
Ruprecht halted their mount in the empty road, and turned in the saddle as the teenager embraced him hard and his smooth cheek pressed into the man’s. The boy blew softly into Ruprecht’s ear. Then with a laugh he abruptly dropped off the horse’s back on to the road.
‘Come sit here,’ the boy commanded as he indicated the roadside bank, where he settled himself.
Ruprecht dismounted and joined him, looping the reins around their mount’s horns. He felt called on to say something to this out-of-control adolescent which could only turn into a moral monologue, but feared he would make himself ridiculous. ‘Kristijan, I’ve taken my share of male backsides; my first was when I was your age. But life isn’t just about that.’
The boy smiled quirkily. ‘You’re lecturing me! How very sweet!’
‘Let me guess. It’ll have been the École Militaire where you first escaped your uncle’s close supervision and got the chance to live out your libido. All those boys on heat, and you being who you are. Just too easy for someone who looks like you do. But for all your assurance, I don’t think for a moment you’ve done it yet with a man. Not only that, I’m willing to guess that this is all about you trying it on with a man for the first time, just to see if you can do it.’
Kristijan pouted, definitely displeased to have been read that way. ‘If you’re not interested, you needn’t take it out on me by being boring.’
Ruprecht let out an internal sigh, and gave up. He had known other boys like Kristijan, and understood a little of how their minds worked. He stood and recovered the horse’s reins. ‘Come along, Your Majesty. Let’s stroll a while and give you a chance to cool down a little.’
So they walked the horse along the country road in silence for ten minutes or so, then the king suggested it was time to remount. ‘The imperials are, after all, in hot pursuit of me, minheer. It would not do to give up our temporary advantage.’
This time there was no coquettishness as Kristijan settled behind Ruprecht. As he urged their mount to a trot, Ruprecht experienced no consequence of the enhanced friction of the boy’s groin with the small of his back.
The station at Belfort was not particularly busy when they arrived around midday. It would be ninety minutes before the slow train to the capital arrived, so the man and boy disposed of their mount and found a dingy auberge, which nonetheless served a rather good plat du jour. Their attendant was female, so the king was not too distracted from his food and company.
‘What do you think might be the consequence if the Empire managed to track us down?’ Ruprecht mused.
The boy shrugged. ‘I expect I’ll be hauled back to Saint-Amand and kept under close confinement until the Empress Regent decides what to do with me and how to defuse the international crisis I appear to have caused. Little François will, I expect, try to knife me if he’s allowed near enough, just like his grandfather did to my great-grandfather at the Conference of Aix. He really is passionate in his likes and dislikes, and of course the other cadets do exactly what he tells them if they know what’s good for them. As for you, I imagine you’ll not survive the experience of being my chaperon if they catch up with us.’
Ruprecht noticed that the king’s equanimity seemed not in the least disturbed by that last speculation. ‘Your Majesty seems to understand the way things work pretty well for a boy of your age,’ he observed, with a trace of sardonicism.
‘Oh, my uncle the Regent of Ardhesse is an education to be around, believe me. Besides, I read history with quite as much enthusiasm as I chase boys. It’s the only true education for a ruler.’ He paused for a moment and then looked directly at Ruprecht, who found the sharp intelligence revealed there a contrast with the previous lazy sensuality in this strange, royal boy’s gaze. He was as changeable as the northern weather. ‘Young Kurt back on the boat said you’re a historian by trade, not a diplomat.’
Ruprecht inclined his head. ‘You didn’t waste your time with the midshipman, I see.’
‘Five minutes more and I’d have had him on his knees in front of me. I’ve heard naval cadets are all for that sort of thing.’
‘He did seem smitten. He was not entirely correct however. I am accredited as first secretary to the consulate general at Port François. But it’s not a full-time post, I’m also a Fellow of the Hochrechtner Institute of Historical Sciences. I help edit and publish historical texts in our much-admired Urkunden des Geschiednis Allemanischer series. We correspond with your own Royal Academy of Historical Philosophy; I believe Your Majesty is its patron.’
‘I am? That sounds like more fun than the things they usually make me do.’
Ruprecht raised an eyebrow. ‘You really are interested in history?’
‘Surprised? Yes, I am. It’s the only part of my academic education which really inspires me. So tell me minheer, what’s your current project?’
‘We’ll save it for the train. I booked us in second class, I hope you don’t mind.’
‘Not at all. It’ll be the first time I’ve travelled by rail in anything other than my own royal train. I shall thoroughly enjoy the experience of being plebeian.’
Yet again, King Kristijan astonished Ruprecht. They had a compartment to themselves, and the boy drew the gist of Ruprecht’s historical work out of him with a questioning which was both intense and informed, the like of which in fact he had never before experienced outside a lecture hall. The eyes of most non-specialists he tried to talk to about his work soon glazed over. Besides that, he was so deeply absorbed in the theory and sources of his work that he found it difficult to get beyond first principles with anyone other than his peers. Not so with Kristijan.
‘You’ve read Joachim of Antejhem? Seriously? In the original English?’
The king smiled quite charmingly. ‘Ancient languages are necessary for ancient history, which I particularly enjoy, so I just learned it.’
‘How? It’s not a school subject.’
‘It’s not so very different from Allemanic, and a lot of the vocabulary and syntax is similar to Francien.’
‘True, I suppose. Still, Joachim’s English was pretty badly corrupted by copyists. In fact I’ve been working on a new edition for the past three years, which was why I was in Chasancene; the ducal library there has many very old manuscripts, all uncatalogued. I found three partial texts, all many years older than the fifth-century copy Diechmann used, with much better English.’
‘Really? Was there any new information?’
‘A great deal, some of it about your dynasty before the Noble Wars.’
‘Go on,’ the boy insisted eagerly.
‘There’s a genealogy which traces it all the way back to the original Landing, to a certain Horst. He’s probably legendary, but he was supposedly one of the Twelve Peers of the First Emperor. The great-grandson the genealogy gives him is however a real historical figure, King Hendrijk.’
The boy’s eyes shone. ‘Hendrijk the Founder? Anything else?’
‘Quite a lot about early Ardhesse in his reign in fact. There’s a book there if I ever get around to it. It appears Hendrijk subjugated several lost English tribes in his conquest of the south, which if I interpret it correctly makes it look as if you Ardhessians are more English than Allemanic in your descent. It’s just your royal house that was Alleman.’
The boy let out a whoosh of air. ‘Seriously? When that gets out there’ll be a hell of a fuss. I’d advise you not to go looking for a publisher in Ardheim; my uncle would not be too pleased. Just as well you’re a Hochrechtner.’
‘My thoughts exactly. But if you consider it, the incidence of obviously English names in your early noble houses is quite marked: the Malcolms of Altmeinz, the Kevins of Zeeborg, the Codys of Weisswald.’
‘I hadn’t thought of it like that. Maybe that’s why I found English so easy to read: my dear old grandmother was a Zeeborg.’
Ruprecht gave a dutiful laugh, then checked his pocket watch. ‘Chasancene in about twenty minutes, sire. Then I have to think what to do with Your Majesty. I would imagine it’s a strong possibility that the Ardhessian embassy will be under observation, and likewise the Hochrechtner consulate general if they’ve made the link between me and your escape. We need to hole up somewhere to discover what the Imperial press is saying about things.’
‘Perhaps we should simply take another train east … or even directly south.’
‘Through the Southern Alps? Not friendly territory for anyone of your blood, sire.’
‘But at least it’s Allemanic … sort of.’
‘And each one of its pretty towns and deep, green valleys has been laid waste at some time or other by your family.’
The boy shrugged. ‘The Montenards respect us, however.’
‘There is also the problem of your lack of papers and your present and temporary identity as a Hochrechtner naval officer.’
‘I suppose you favour heading east then.’
‘It makes sense, sire. But we need to spend at least one night in Chasancene … though I must most sincerely ask Your Majesty to behave while we’re there.’
The boy’s perfect right eyebrow raised. ‘What? Why?’
Ruprecht saw no sign of any pursuit at the Gare Centrale of Chasancene. There were no suspiciously lurking agents at the barriers, nor was there any unusual police presence. He got the king to carry his bag from the train, which the boy did with a certain enthusiasm for the role of attendant minion. There was something of the natural theatric about him. Only Ruprecht’s papers were cursorily checked at the barrier, Kristijan was just motioned through, so the story they had rehearsed in advance was unnecessary. Ruprecht had doubted it would be needed; Vieldomaine was an easy-going sort of place and for that he loved it.
They browsed the shops on the concourse briefly while scanning the crowds. Then they took a cab from the stand, which Ruprecht directed to a pleasant auberge in one of the Old City’s most scenic half-timbered streets, below the ducal château. The inn was gabled and flower boxes were at every window. A few old men were drinking on benches outside, and the young waiter serving their beer turned as the cab drew up and its passengers disembarked.
‘Monsieur le Comte! It’s you! But we weren’t expecting you back!’
Ruprecht did a double take. ‘Gilles, my dear boy. Haven’t you filled out! Have your maman and papa any space for me and this young fellow for a night or two?’
Gilles’s eyes flickered towards Kristijan, who stared back with deep interest, sizing up a teenage boy not much younger than himself, but with a beauty that matched his own. ‘Teufel!’ the king muttered under his breath.