The rest of the stay in the Montenard canton of Neuhausen was enjoyable but in the way a holiday would be, especially as on their last day snow fell in great quantities from a brown-tinted sky. Fortunately it failed to block the Central Line, though it succeeded in turning the city into a magical place and made their last night there highly memorable. The city was full of blue shadows and its lamps sparkled on the snow crystals.
‘I love snow,’ Felix sighed. ‘I’m going to get some for Ostberg.’
‘How?’ Gilles asked.
‘When I’m ruling prince, I’ll have it shipped in from the Alps by freight trains, or possibly move Ostberg somewhere up by Nordrecht on the map. I’ll get our Dreiholmtzian allies to tow it north with their battleships.’
Gilles was amused. ‘Somehow I knew you’d have a plan. Hey, we could go to a Nordrechtner university! Does education stretch that far north, Rupe?’
‘I believe so. The König Karls Universität at Grossen Halberstadt is well regarded. Its department of Snow Studies and Ice Formation is the leading one in its field.’
Everyone seemed in a good mood for some reason, though it could not have been success in their search, as the frieze in St Bruno’s Chapel above the city was as far as that went. But even the normally sombre Erwin Wenzel was cheerful.
‘He’s had a fling with that Montenard guide we had last week,’ Felix informed them. ‘I saw them going into a tavern together, and next I saw the guide was leaving our inn early yesterday morning, grinning fit to bust. Erwin’s had his pencil sharpened you can be sure. Bet he stinks of horse manure, ‘cos that guide ponged a bit. Take a big sniff as you go past him, Gillot.’
They were at dinner in their inn’s main room, and the place was packed out. The quality of the food was good, especially the Montenard sausages. ‘Made of horsemeat,’ Ruprecht commented, ‘and surprisingly nice with the herb mixture they add.’
Gilles looked twice at the sausage impaled on his fork, shrugged and ate it anyway. ‘So when’s the next expedition, Dr Joerg?’ Somehow neither boy could ever manage to address Ruprecht’s lover without the title.
The little man pondered. ‘Winter isn’t possible … well, you can see why now, can’t you? But I think that we’ll take a look at Hartland canton in the run up to next Holy Week.’
‘Hey!’ Felix protested, ‘That’s when we’ll be down in the Holy See for our matriculation.’
‘There’s no alternative,’ Ruprecht replied. ‘In any case, Mutta has taken a lease on the Casa Levitica. She’s planning to be there for at least twelve weeks, sorting you two out for when you begin university after midsummer and, like it or not, you have to be there with her the whole twelve weeks.’
Gilles’s eyes widened. ‘That makes it all suddenly very real. Me and Kreech in student caps!’
‘Well, Mutta wants to organise quarters for you off campus and engage servants for your new household, Kreech. When you leave Blauwhaven next year, you two will be your own masters. So it’ll be very real.’
‘But we’ll come back to Blauwhaven!’ Gilles protested. ‘You’ll both be lonely without us. We bring liveliness to your staid and boring scholarly lives.’
Ruprecht smiled at the genuine feeling behind the banter. ‘And you’ll be welcome to return whenever you like. But Alleman jonkers at seventeen take a big step towards independence, either into higher education or the army. You’ve made your choice and we support you, but we all can still look forward to family holidays, and I have a feeling Mutta plans to be keeping a discreet eye on you both for at least your first year there.’
‘What can we get up to in the Holy See?’ Felix said innocently.
‘You’ll do just what other students do,’ Joerg commented, ‘and have the headache to prove it. Student priests are the worst, as you’ll discover. My time in seminary was hangovers punctuated by stomach upsets. I’m surprised I survived without developing scurvy. I think I ate an apfelfrucht once. It may have staved it off.’
‘And what about my medical treatment?’ Felix asked. ‘Who’s going to take over from you?’
‘I’ll be down for checkups and at need, but I know some very competent colleagues down in the Holy City; you’ll make a pleasant change for them from invalid cardinals and decaying bishops.’
The Hauptbahnhof at Sint-Willemsborg where they changed for the line to Bernicia was bustling, and they had a long wait for their connection. Meister Andrecht joined them, bearing magazines. He listened attentively to their account of the chapel of St Bruno.
‘My great-grandfather was a herdsman in the Lower Hartland valley right on the Ardhessian border,’ he commented. ‘The Montenard Southern herd is prized for its blacks and brindled stallions. The old folks down there will tell you it was the original domesticated horse herd, from which all the others were bred. I have no idea where they get that idea from; I imagine the Imperial and Athalantean herdsmen have their own claims in that regard. There are one or two good books on techniques of stockmanship and herding, but no one has as yet researched the history of the horse so far as I know. Perhaps someone should.’
Joerg frowned in concentration at that remark, which by now Ruprecht recognised as a sign that an idea was brewing in his head. ‘Something up, little one mine?’
‘Hmm? What? Oh, horses and herds. Willem’s right. I’ve never yet read anything on the domestication of Terre Nouvelle’s wildlife. You’re the historian, what do the early histories say?’
Ruprecht pondered in silence for a while before responding. ‘Second-century sources, such as they are, talk of buffalo raids by mounted warriors between the early kingdoms, tribes and lordships. So buffalo and horses must have been domesticated in the first generations of settlement. I’ll bet horses were easy to tame. They’re such equable and peaceful beasts: they don’t move much once you get off them other than to crop grass and they rarely need a lot in the way of spurring to get them to go full stretch. I think it’s generally believed that horses were first found in the southern Alps and Piedmont of Ardhesse and appeared in the Plains and Northlands much later … oh!’
Joerg smiled. ‘I see your mind has followed the same track as mine.’
‘The very area where Kevin Lengleis and the English set up their kingdom. So was it by domesticating horses and fielding cavalry that the English gained military pre-eminence over Franciens and Allemans?’
‘The sculptor of that frieze in St Bruno’s chapel was certainly very proud of Montenard horsemen and “Kevin Connorson the Englishman” seems to have had a legendary status as a cavalry leader for two centuries and more after his death, even after the English kingdom had collapsed.’
Ruprecht considered this insight. ‘It makes a lot of sense, but isn’t it one of those ideas that seduce you just by its tidiness? These are only tiny scraps of evidence which can be arranged in all sorts of different ways to make a variety of stories.’
Joerg had to agree, and concluded that the exploration of the canton of Hartland was all the more pressing as a result.
The tense political situation in the South had not abated by the late Advent of 889. The Von Aalst household migrated from Blauwhaven to Ostberg for the holiday season, and joined others of the family in the city’s Residenz with the Princess Regent as hostess. Felix made a ceremonial drive through his capital on his arrival and Ruprecht was relieved to observe that the boy prince’s popularity was undimmed amongst his people; not only that but his Grunderknabe, the handsome Ritter von Blauwhaven, was getting a share in the cheers, especially amongst the women.
Ruprecht and Joerg did not join the state entry and reception. Joerg could have no status at the Residenz since the pair were not legally sworn in Schwuleneheit. Instead they went to find rooms for the little doctor at a comfortable commercial hotel further down the hill towards the Oiselet. He was going onward the next day to spend the Christmas period with his family in Hochrecht, so the pair had an afternoon of discreet passion in his bed before they separated. There was a reluctance to part that was another new thing for Ruprecht to experience; living with Joerg had become natural to him in ways he had never experienced with another male. They fit together so well there was a gap in Ruprecht’s soul at the thought of farewell, even though the separation would be brief.
The next day, feeling the same feelings but more so on his return from seeing Joerg off at the railway station, Ruprecht was met by a footman in the entrance hall of the Residenz with a note requesting and requiring him to attend on the Princess Regent. He found Hans also waiting in the anteroom to their grandmother’s council chamber. ‘What’s going on, brother mine?’
Hans, in a blue naval frock coat, shrugged. ‘I was summoned from Hochrecht yesterday. My admiral told me I was on indefinite leave.’
On admittance, the two found a table surrounded by several military officers and other men in dark suits and cravats, but at the head of the table was not the princess but the elected Protector of the Noble Confederacy, the Duke of Altenbergen.
‘Minheeren, excellencies, do come in, we’re most grateful you could join us.’ The duke was his usual urbane and collected self. ‘I imagine you’re wondering why you were asked here. The answer is a simple one, the Princess Regent has communicated to us something of your experiences with the young king of Ardhesse the year before last, just after he fled the Empire.’
The princess, at the duke’s right hand, caught Ruprecht’s eye. ‘Ruprecht, His Highness is most curious about what your encounter revealed of the young man’s state of mind.’
‘He’s completely out of it, Your Highness,’ Hans broke in decidedly. ‘Forty-three different states of insanity in one head.’
My brother’s right.’ Ruprecht added apologetically. ‘In turns he’s charming, sober, acute, seductive, anarchic and homicidal, an entirely fragmented personality without a moral compass to steady it, just a driving need to impose himself on any situation he’s in.’
The duke inclined his head. ‘Unfortunately he’s also entirely without fear and is a developing military phenomenon. We initially thought his successes were down to the commanders who defected to his cause from his uncle, but it seems that the strategic daring and organisational genius were increasingly all his own. Experienced officers three times his age and ten times his experience in the field are deferring to him like children.’
‘Excuse me, Highness,’ Ruprecht interjected, ‘there’s nothing much else we can tell you than what you already know.’
‘Really? His sexuality is becoming a matter of common gossip in Ardheim. Now it happens you are openly homosexual, minheer Graf. Is there anything you can tell us about the king in that regard?’
Despite himself Ruprecht coloured. ‘The boy’s decidedly queer, Duke, if that’s what you need to know, and promiscuously so.’
‘So rumour amongst the Ardhessian diplomatic corps has it. He has a taste for pretty Francien boys it seems, dark beauties who’re procured for him. They go into the Waltherborg Palace, and there’s some debate about whether they ever come back out. Strangely, this is known to his army but appears to make not a speck of difference to his wild popularity amongst the rank and file. I believe they call him “little Mechtild”, but in affection, not contempt. Why do you think this is so?’
‘Soldiers are strange creatures, Highness,’ Hans replied for his brother. ‘What they value most in their generals is good fortune and self-possession in the face of danger. They want a leader they feel will bring them through any bad situation. King Kristijan has just those qualities. They won’t give a fig for the rest.’
The Duke-Protector pondered this for a while, then looked directly at Ruprecht. ‘Your grandmother has suggested that I ask you to undertake a mission. The Grand Duke of Hochrecht has concurred and so has seconded your brother to join you to assist your mission. The governments of both Bernicia and Hochrecht have come to the conclusion that the Empire is inevitably going to launch a war of aggression against Ardhesse, and defy the Allemanic Alliance to intervene. The point of the matter is that we don’t perceive any advantage in doing so on behalf of a deranged and very dangerous rogue monarch. This needs to be conveyed unofficially to King Kristijan, or rather to those of influence in his government to whom he might still be listening. Obviously you can’t approach him directly, but we still have high-level contacts at his court. Hopefully he’s not so erratic as to be beyond the reach of reason. He must strike a deal with the Empire.’
Ruprecht was puzzled. ‘But the East Kingdom, Your Highness: surely it will support Ardhesse in a confrontation with the Empire?’
‘It needs Bernicia and Hochrecht to threaten the Empire from the East. Without us it can only fortify its Protectorate States and make demonstrations in the Inner Sea. It hasn’t the military manpower to tackle the Empire on its own. Dreiholmtz will have to go along with us. At least it has Duke Horst on ice to employ in its own interest if Kristijan is overthrown. This is something King Kristijan must be made to understand, that he is essentially on his own.’
‘And what about Westrecht?’
‘It will be the highway into Ardhesse for the Imperial armies, and there is nothing we can do about it.’
Ruprecht was disturbed at this analysis, to the extent that the reticence towards power he had cultivated as a diplomat gave way. ‘So much for the Allemanic Alliance then, sire?’
The duke gave him a sharp look. ‘It was not designed to protect the likes of a king like Kristijan III of Ardhesse. Once he’s off the board, the game can begin once again.’
‘Then, sire, all we can hope is that King Kristijan obligingly gets himself killed on the battlefield.’
Hans was bored. ‘Remind me, why are we here? It’s like visiting the zoological gardens at Groothuis. When you’ve seen the leopard snarl and rip up a buffalo steak, that’s the sum of it.’
Ruprecht demurred. ‘To be honest, I always enjoyed the aviary: all those multi-coloured stilt birds and the carnivorous blood hawks. I tended to hope the wire cage would give way and the blood hawks would get amongst the stilts and razorbills.’
‘Young Rupe the Anarchist. When are we going to see anything interesting? We’ve been standing on this platform for the best part of half an hour, and it’s midwinter, which in Ardhesse means it’s humid, misty, grey and depressing.’
The pair had arrived in Ardheim the last weekend of Advent, and Ruprecht had conceived an ambition to view the royal hunting park while it was still open to the public. So the brothers took an excursion from the capital of Ardhesse out to the great enclosed plain to the northwest of the city, within its remarkable castellated wall, which ran in an irregular oval for over a hundred kilometres, enclosing woods, lakes and broad lawns, grazed by herds of buffalo, wild horses, antelope and of course the prized herd of erdbeesten. There was also a hunting leopard pack, which was allowed to prey on the herds to keep the numbers down naturally, and to weed out the weaker stock.
The royal estates office allowed the citizens of Ardheim two periods within the year in which to view the herds. This could be done from platforms set between the towers of the park wall. Only the king and his favoured courtiers were allowed to ride within the park enclosure itself, for at its southern end stood the elegant pavilions and gardens of the Waltherborg Palace, the royal country residence.
It was the last of the open days, and the market stalls on their viewing platform were already shut up, so they had been denied refreshments. Hans fortunately had brought his pocket telescope with him, so when the erdbeest herd finally made its slow appearance Ruprecht had the means to scrutinise the beasts.
The creatures ambled out of a screen of woodland, the larger males to the rear of the herd, periodically rising on to their back legs to scan for predators. Their flat faces and dark, forward-looking eyes gave the upright beasts a look of intelligence, though they were in fact little more sentient than horses. The females scavenged the ground as they wandered for legumes, edible vermicules and ground-grubs with their digging claws, their young walking alongside. The smaller calves suckled for nourishment, though the more mature ones picked over the small pits their mothers dug for grubs that might have been missed. The males used their height to look for fruit and berries in the lower hanging trees, and ripped off small branches to give to the females and calves on which to chew.
The erdbeesten wandered lazily across the lawn in front of the platform in a peaceful parade. Ruprecht picked out the prime bull, notable for his musculature and more or less permanently bipedal progress. He remembered what Joerg had said, and noted how the herd seemed to respond to the prime’s direction although it was barely audible or evident as to how it was conveyed. The herd made little noise apart from low, rattling hoots occasionally directed by the cows to their offspring, who piped back their own quaint responses to their mothers.
There was only one episode of excitement in the hour the beasts were in view. The prime bull got agitated at a lesser male who seemed to be heading directly towards the rear of a scavenging cow. The prime loped quickly up on two legs and let out a challenging honk at the adolescent male, who dropped on all fours and raised his rear end. The prime promptly mounted him and copulated for a few thrusts, then relieved himself inside the youngster, who stood patiently and accepted the herd discipline. Ruprecht observed through the telescope that the erdbeest penis was thick and long, but not much more so than a well-endowed human male’s. It certainly didn’t compete with the members that stallions and bull buffalo proudly displayed.
‘Well, that looked like fun,’ Hans observed drily to his brother, with a wink. A nearby middle-class lady who had put up her parasol to screen the lewd scene from her eyes shot Hans a cold look.
The rain beat down on the Kristijanenplatz, the wide square outside the formidable fifth-century royal fortress at the heart of the city of Ardheim. Hans and Ruprecht, dressed in nondescript black with their hats low over their faces, kept to the colonnades on the east side of the square. A company of Guard grenadiers, wrapped in their greatcoats, was marching through the downpour towards the towers and cavernous gatehouse of the Hendrijksborg. Ruprecht did not envy them in the least. It was not a good day to be mounting guard. Ardhesse’s humidity in its brief winter season was a trial in every respect. The pavement of the square steamed.
He was a little unsure of the wisdom of meeting the Chancellor of Ardhesse in the government quarter, but he had been assured by the Bernician ambassador that in the current atmosphere within the ruling class of Ardhesse the unaccountable absence of the chancellor from his desk might be taken as even more suspicious. ‘It’s the young king, minheer Graf,’ the ambassador confided to Ruprecht. ‘His Minister of State, a devious young thug called the Baron Meisel, plays up to His Southern Majesty’s paranoia. Frankly, were it not for the chancellor’s indispensability in financing the war effort, Meisel’s insinuations would have had him rowed out to the Bornholm Fortress some months ago and deposited in its cellars for the rest of his days.’
Hans was duly informed that he must be alert to the attention of the many police agents on the streets of Ardheim. ‘It was bad enough in his uncle’s day, but King Kristijan has taken surveillance to a whole new level,’ the ambassador complained. ‘The only publicly acceptable postures amongst the upper and middle classes are egregious patriotism to Ardhesse and utter devotion to its king. Ardhesse was never a happy land, but no one can remember it as being this unpleasant.’
When the two brothers reached the Chancery building they took care to appear as nothing other than members of the crowd of supplicants queueing at the ushers’ desks. Someone was however on the lookout for them. When they eventually reached an usher he asked them no questions, but issued a pass without so much as a glance up at them. Once in the anteroom beyond the foyer a black-suited gentleman approached and indicated a side door. It opened on a bare stone spiral stair which took them to an unmarked door. Their guide tapped, listened and indicated the brothers should enter, closing the door behind them. They had come through a discreet side door into a large and panelled stateroom, its tall windows looking across the rain-swept Kristijanenplatz to the dark, turreted mass of the Hendrijksborg, the seat of royal power. The gas lamps were lit because of the gloom of the day.
The Chancellor of Ardhesse rose from behind a desk and offered them his hand courteously, introducing a heavy-set and grizzled soldier in general’s uniform as the Graf von Zuidhof. Ruprecht was intrigued to recognise the name from Felix and Gilles’s endless war bulletins as one of the leading royalist generals of the civil war, yet here he was associating with the suspect chancellor and foreign emissaries.
‘Minheeren Grafen, I would wish you a good day, but this morning you find Ardheim at its seasonal worst. I am glad to greet you however, even though I rather suspect you bring no good news. So let’s get it over with.’
Ruprecht delivered the bad news, which the Ardhessians took without displaying much emotion, though they exchanged glances from time to time.
The chancellor brooded for a while before observing ‘They cannot of course come out and say this publicly, as it would inflame the situation even more. But even had the Alliance come out forcefully in support of Ardhesse, it would not stop the oncoming war.’
‘Will the news make any difference to the king, excellency?’ Ruprecht had to ask.
The chancellor shook his head. ‘His Majesty views the world the way he wishes it to be, minheer Graf, and I suspect the more war-torn it is the more it suits him.’
The general stirred himself at that point. ‘He is a young man beyond anything I’ve ever yet met. His utter fearlessness is not so unusual in the young, but his coolness under fire is nothing to do with bravado. He never loses his head or ability to calculate, and his command of the topography of the battlefield and the shifting bodies of troops moving across it is unique in my experience. I think it is in part because he does not see his troops as human beings, merely as factors in complex equations. Oddly enough, he is himself more self-controlled and human in the field than he is at any other time. His Excellency the Chancellor is correct. I fear that, horrible though such a thought may be, warfare is the only thing that brings peace to his chaotic mind, and so he will always be desiring battle. There has never been such a dangerous man in all the history of Terre Nouvelle.’
Hans demurred. ‘Surely the forces arrayed against him cannot but triumph, general?’
‘No doubt his uncle thought the same last year, but we see how that turned out. Make no mistake, what he accomplished was military genius. Another odd thing is the way that, inhuman as he is, he has the ability to inspire loyalty in his subordinates, sometimes men who should know better. I cannot pit myself against such charisma. Time and again his commands I thought ill-judged, even suicidal, pulled victory from apparent defeat. He also has a knack of selecting officers who can further his cause and will follow his every order without demur. He promoted my colleague, Ernst Wolfram, from aide in the Quartermaster General’s office to colonel general and chief of staff in a matter of three months. But Wolfram, it turned out, is a logistical genius with a grasp of the detail of the army down to company level. I swear he knows each individual howitzer in the Royal Artillery by name. The king issues orders, and Wolfram makes them possible.’
Ruprecht asked ‘Will King Kristijan fight then, sir?’
‘I believe I’ve already answered that question, young man. The devastation and bloodshed will mean little to him. War against the Empire would be to him an enjoyable and absorbing distraction, all the more attractive because of the difficulty in resolving it.’
Ruprecht then addressed himself to the chancellor. ‘Excellency, may I ask how this message is to be conveyed to the king?’
‘You may, young man, and the reply is that it will be done in council and publicly.’
‘Isn’t there some danger in doing this?’
‘There is. I can imagine the response from His Majesty, as well as the probable consequences for me. But for the sake of Ardhesse the Alliance’s blunt message has to be delivered. I would be failing in my oath of office were I to neglect to confront the king and council with reality.’ The man’s stern face softened for a moment. ‘Could you tell your dear Grossmutta that it is thus I do my duty both to my homeland and to her memory, and take care to give her my eternal salutations. Such a beautiful young woman when she visited the court of Ardhesse in the days of Kristijan II, improbable though that may seem to her grandsons. Now one final piece of advice. Leave this city as quickly and quietly as you may. I have no doubt that the odious Baron Meisel will be hot on the trail of the Alliance’s emissaries as soon as he finds out that you have been in communication with me, which will be rapidly enough I fear. Minheeren Grafen, God be with you, and may He save us all in the coming days.’
Ruprecht and Hans made it back safely to Ostberg for the Christmas festivities, and delivered their account to the Princess Regent.
‘What a fine young fellow the young Graf Andreas was at the court of Ardhesse. It really was a wrench to leave him, but I was already promised to your Grosspapa, and Andreas was my final fling before marriage, bless him. Well, I honour him for the statesman he has become. There are not now many of his stamp. I heard this morning he has been obliged to resign as chancellor in disgrace, but at least he’s not in Bornholm. That damnable king has however taken his sons as hostage for his good behaviour, and they are in detention at one of the fortresses on Zuidholm, an island being increasingly populated with Ardhessian dissidents.’
‘So what will happen now, Grossmutta?’
‘It’s already happening. There have been border incursions by Imperial troops along the frontier with Westrecht these past three days. The Grand Duchy has already appealed for the assistance of the Alliance, but only Dreiholmtz has offered even moral support. His Holiness the Patriarch has preached a Christmas sermon on the subject of fratricide. The other members of the Alliance have merely sent diplomatic protests to Aix but Ardhesse has been silent. I have no doubt that will be all the encouragement the Imperial Council will need to proceed with the occupation of Westrecht. Then Ardhesse will make its move for good or ill.
‘Now Hans my dear, your very nice admiral has been in touch with me. He says you’re finding increasing need to be in places other than Hochrecht, which is not good for your ship or your career. But he did have a constructive suggestion, which the Protector has been happy to endorse. The Confederate Navy is expanding, and the Duke has asked our Admiralty to explore your transfer to the flag of Bernicia. I believe our High Admiral is expecting you down at the naval yard this afternoon at three. He has a proposal for you.’
‘Really, Grossmutta! That’d be … amazing! I’ll go polish my epaulettes. See you, Rupe!’ He kissed his grandmother, beamed at his brother, saluted both and departed.
‘What’s on offer, Grossmutta?’ Ruprecht asked.
‘Transfer at a higher rank, I believe, and his own ship, much bigger than his Leopard, as full post captain.’ Her face became more serious. ‘It’s all part of a growing move towards militarisation which does not bode well for the future, though men like our Hans will find opportunity enough as a result. Over the last two months, the yards of Dreiholmtz have launched three heavy cruisers commissioned by the Confederacy with all the latest technology, and one of them will be for Hans to play with.’
‘Good. In the meantime he can hang around the palace and keep you amused, Grossmutta.’
‘He does it very well. Now you had best go and find your two charges. They’re avid to discuss your latest adventures in the south. I’ve been letting them read my state papers to inform their political analyses; it’s a good education in statecraft for our young Prince Felix. I have to say, their sharp young intellects are as useful to me as the deliberations of my cabinet. They have a way at coming at problems from quite unexpected angles. They sit in my office and analyse data for me, when they’re not making me laugh. They’re a delight, the pair of them. They make me and your mother feel blessed.’
The return to Blauwhaven did not occur till the Feast of the Kings in the year 890. Though it was cold still in Ostberg, down the coast the weather remained as mild and sunny as usual. The afternoon of their return, Ruprecht joined the pair at the pool and watched them frolic and swim. They ended up on the opposite side a hundred metres away, standing half out of the water in the shade of the trees. They did not do much to disguise the fact that Felix was enthusiastically entering Gilles from behind. He kept looking over his shoulder as he humped his lover to check if Ruprecht was watching. He was, and had to find some relief with his hand as a result.
They eventually returned after an undisguised and shouted orgasm from Felix that had echoed in the dell. They lay out on the grass in the sun on either side of Ruprecht. Gilles’s body had by now reached full maturity, and Ruprecht surveyed it with an undisguised interest which Gilles seemed to expect and indeed demand. There was still no hair on his chest, but the bush at his groin was thicker and was colonising his lower belly with a line up to his navel. His penis was still thick with arousal and showing most of the swelling and well-shaped purple glans. It was a very respectable size, his balls now furred with dark hair and hanging low between his open thighs. His musculature was a man’s and not a boy’s but still smooth and pleasing. He had the perfect graceful proportions of a statue sculptured by a master, but he lived and breathed.
Felix by contrast remained scrawny, wiry rather than muscled, for all that he exercised as much as his condition allowed and could be very active in fencing classes. His natural pallor was overlaid by a tan that his perpetual nudity gave him, but the contrast between his and Gilles’s colouring remained marked. His flaccid penis was rather longer than Gilles’s, with a red tip showing through the retracted foreskin, his sandy hair providing only a light pubic bush. His upper body was still mottled with the purple and red bruising of adolescent acne, which had fortunately refrained from ravaging his cheeks overmuch. His hair was thicker now than it had been in his earlier sickness and hung in a heavy fringe in his eyes, a style that Ruprecht believed Felix had copied from Joerg. It looked good on him, showing off his perpetually alert and cheeky face to exceedingly good effect.
Felix may not have been a handsome boy but he was certainly appealing, as the steady devotion of Gilles was attesting. Their Schwuleneheit had fixed their adolescent passion into something more stable and adult, a partnership of mind and body most couples did not attain until they were much older, and some never at all. Their sexuality was quite open now their affair was a public matter. They kissed and held hands unselfconsciously before the staff and even on the streets of Blauwhaven. Such was their nature, they had never experienced open rebuke or scorn from anyone, although behind their backs might have been a different matter. Ruprecht continued to envy them, not least because his own relationship with Joerg, though loving and, it seemed, lasting, was not so fearless. The nature of his shy and undemonstrative lover would simply not allow them to be what the boys so effortlessly were.