The launch pulled in under the lee of a stone dock belonging to the fortress. Ruprecht was hurried up the green, wet steps and through a barred portal looking north across the dark, white-capped waves to the distant city of Ardheim. Once inside, a mild, grey-haired gentleman greeted him. ‘Minheer the Graf von Aalst, I believe? My name is Heinz Althoff, the lieutenant governor of this fortress. I have been asked to assign you quarters, if you’ll come this way.’
Rather taken aback by the civility of his introduction to one of his world’s more notorious state prisons, Ruprecht paced alongside his gaoler, two armed guards following.
‘You will find, excellency, that you can be quite comfortable in Bornholm, though as with most such facilities the comfort of your stay tends to depend on your ability to pay for it. I’m assuming that the credit of a member of the house of Aalst is good. Your valise has followed you to Ardheim and will be brought to your quarters, after it is carefully searched of course. You will be allowed the use of pen and books, and your meals will be brought to your cell. Nothing special, but I imagine your expectations of the cuisine of Bornholm are not high.’
‘No indeed, minheer,’ Ruprecht responded with equal politeness. ‘I would naturally wish to communicate with my family and representatives of the governments of Hochrecht and the Confederacy.’
‘Ah well, there I’m afraid I cannot help you. You are in confinement sir, and there are specific instructions regarding your ability to communicate with the outside world. I have no doubt the reasons will be soon made plain to you, if they are not self-evident already. You may expect visitors fairly soon. Now, this is your cell. I’m assuming you would prefer this one as it is on the side towards the city; our better-off guests prefer quarters on this side, though they cost rather more.’
Ruprecht could not but chuckle. ‘So my captors are charging me rent?’
His gaoler was not offended. ‘We do have accommodation we can offer you gratis, Excellency, but I rather think you’d not be interested. It is … primitive … in the facilities it offers.’
Ruprecht was ushered within the heavy oaken door. The room was whitewashed, which compensated for the gloom he otherwise might have expected from the small size of the glazed and barred window. Through it he could see the spires and towers of Ardheim across the waters of the great harbour. He turned and inclined his head to his gaoler. ‘This will do very well then, Minheer Althoff.’
‘Good. Then I’ll leave you to settle in. Meals are at the usual times, and you can purchase wine and fruit as you will. Just ask the floor superintendent. You will find him obliging.’ He bowed and left, the keys rattling as the door was locked behind him.
Ruprecht examined the furnishings of his new quarters. There was a truckle bed, a little small for a man of his height, a table and chairs, a washbasin and a commode, which he hoped would be emptied regularly. He walked to the window and found the casement would open inwards. He breathed in the sea air, the nearest thing to freedom he would enjoy for the foreseeable future. He looked down to the oily waves surging against the stones of the island fortress a sheer thirty metres below him. Escape was clearly more of a dream than an option.
Someone had once said to Ruprecht that confinement should not be too troublesome to a true scholar. After forty-eight hours of it, Ruprecht could only snort with derision. He had his valise and the books and notes it contained, as well as his writing materials. But he could not settle. He paced his cell, his mind constantly reverting to Joerg and what he would have done in the aftermath of his arrest. Once the Ardhessian military had departed from Hartland, he would have wired the news to Grossmutta and probably Freiborg also. Ruprecht’s family’s considerable weight would be promptly brought to bear on Ardhesse through diplomatic channels.
More worrying to him would be the reaction of Felix and Gilles, currently residing in the Holy See, less than two hundred kilometres to the east of his present place of detention. The madcap attitude to life the pair had already displayed would render them prey to all sorts of romantic ideas, mostly picked up from adventure novels. He would not put it past them to venture in their naïve bravery into very dangerous places. He just hoped Mutta and Hans would be alert to restrain them.
He had no doubt that the Ardhessian foreign ministry would already be fending off diplomatic notes from at least two Alleman governments on his account, so he expected some attention to be paid to him fairly soon, nor was he disappointed. A civil little note from Herr Althoff, passed to him with his breakfast on his third day, advised that he was to expect a visitor in his cell in mid-morning.
Steps and a rattle of keys at the fourth hour told him his visitor was a prompt man of business. He was intrigued as to who was to interrogate him; it turned out to be a handsome young man barely in his thirties, in a frock coat and cravat of remarkably good taste and fine make. Ruprecht was not himself a dressy man, and he rather distrusted people who paid too much attention to dress and toilet. This young man brought a faint scent of summer flowers into the cell with him.
‘Minheer Graf,’ he began, ‘I see you are well set up here, and as comfortable as the circumstances permit.’
‘Indeed sir, and I am hoping you are here to tell me that those circumstances are about to end with my prompt release. Exactly what am I charged with?’
‘Charge, Excellency? I don’t believe it has come to that. You are here as a … guest of His Southern Majesty, who has let it be known that if you venture within his realm or the reach of his officers you are to be apprehended and detained at his pleasure. His sign manual is the warrant. There was no charge specified so as to bring about a legal process, and none is needed. It is the king’s will you should be here, and going back to my legal education I would say what brings you within this cell must be therefore a trespass in the realm of lèse majesté, the king’s own personal law. If there was any offence committed against his person and the state, then His Majesty alone is cognisant of it. But you may know more about that than I presently do.’
‘You have the advantage of me, sir,’ Ruprecht observed while pondering that.
The young man smiled. ‘I beg your pardon, Excellency. I am Hugo von Feilinghem, the Baron Meisel von Feilinghem. I imagine you may have heard of me; indeed I believe we are distantly related through my mother, who is your mother’s second cousin. I am His Southern Majesty’s Minister of Police. May I take a seat?’
Ruprecht eyed the young man a little more closely, as he dusted the chair bottom with a scented handkerchief, took his place and smiled around him with a remarkable degree of equanimity. That the baron was queer was evident enough to a man of Ruprecht’s experience, and it would perhaps account for the man’s intimacy with King Kristijan. Such a monarch would need very much to trust his minister of police, and to appoint a homosexual to the post would suit Kristijan admirably. When the king was looking for a police chief Baron Meisel was doubtless already a native of a demi-monde where conspiracy, treachery and sexual deviance flourished. The deal was that the king would protect him, and the baron would in return deploy his intelligence, deviousness, knowledge and contacts in support of his protector.
It was already an unusual interrogation, since the baron seemed actually to have few questions for him and almost appeared to be waiting politely for Ruprecht to lead the conversation, which he was not about to do.
Eventually the baron enquired whether he had been well-treated during his forced journey to Ardheim.
‘I have to say I encountered some very polite gendarme officers who were more than apologetic about the inconvenience they were putting me to.’
‘Do you know, Excellency, I have observed that as His Majesty has opened up the higher ranks to men of – shall I say? – humble origins, the general standard of civility and indeed adherence to noble etiquette has gone up rather than down in Ardhessian society.’
‘And why do you think that is, minheer Baron?’
‘I’ve given it a good deal of thought, sir. It isn’t, in my view, because the lower orders have all along been harbouring an unsuspected politesse. It seems more likely to me that their sudden transportation into higher circles is the cause, making them more particular than otherwise about social niceties. Why, do you know, my people are dealing with a positive epidemic of fatal duelling and affairs of honour amongst an officer class whose members a mere few months ago were no better than stable hands and artisans. Manners are a prestigious new toy that they just adore playing with.’
‘Perhaps you’re underestimating the good nature of the common people of Terre Nouvelle, my dear baron.’
‘Perhaps so. May I ask, minheer Graf, what took you to a place where the course of events brought you within range of my agents?’
‘Why was I in Hartland, you mean? I would have thought you were aware that my vocation is as a scholar and historian.’
‘There are no libraries of any note in the southern valleys of the Republic, sir.’ The baron smiled affably.
‘It was not books that brought me there, baron, but a different sort of investigation.’ The baron raised a quizzical eyebrow, and after a pause Ruprecht continued. ‘I’m sponsoring a range of excavations on ancient sites, with the aim of reconstructing what we can of early society on Terre Nouvelle from the relics our early ancestors have left.’
‘Ah, really!’ Something stirred in the man’s eyes, and it suddenly became clear what his game was. He was eager to know the source of his master the king’s interest in Ruprecht, who was after all no very significant character in the world of politics and power. Such a man as Meisel could not bear mysteries, and the most dangerous mystery of all was the direction of his erratic royal master’s whims.
‘The king has some interest in the area of early human history, I believe’ Ruprecht commented.
‘So I have observed,’ the baron agreed. ‘His Majesty’s knowledge of the classics is really quite remarkable. I believe he reads English with some facility.’
Ruprecht resisted doing more than smiling and offering a noncommittal comment on His Majesty’s precocious intellectual accomplishments. It would seem that the reason for Kristijan’s close interest in Ruprecht had not been shared with his most confidential agent, and the man was therefore at something of a loss as to how to deal with his prisoner. Unless Ruprecht was willing to volunteer information, nothing could be got out of him till the king decided his fate. The reflection gave Ruprecht some amusement, which – with the one diplomatic skill he ever mastered – he kept scrupulously from his face.
Were it not for the fact that Ruprecht was confined between four thick stone walls in an island fortress, he might have felt he had scored a point over his Ardhessian enemies. But the perverse satisfaction he was getting out of this interview could only ever be hollow. He and the baron continued sparring lightly until the minister eventually decided he had spent enough time satisfying his curiosity about Ruprecht and politely took his leave, though he did not shake his hand. Ruprecht wondered whether the man felt the trouble of taking a boat out into the harbour had been worth the effort, but he supposed there were other reasons for the baron to be on Bornholm than himself. So he took up a notebook and pencil and resumed work on his new edition of the Annals of the Patriarchate, reflecting that he might as well make some use of his enforced period of study, until His Curly-Haired Majesty deigned to decide what to do with him.
One thing that was denied Ruprecht in Bornholm was access to newspapers. He supposed it was a way of bringing home a prisoner’s isolation from the outside world. After only a week in the fortress he was losing a sense of the passage of time. His only distraction other than his books was the busy life of the harbour beyond his window, which had a sort of routine of its own. He could glimpse the eastern harbour roads where commercial shipping anchored overnight in lines before receiving signals from the harbourmaster to proceed to their assigned berths. The Ardheim fishing fleet streamed past the west of the island every evening to spend the nights harvesting the rich grounds and banks between Zuidholm and the Mainland.
Several naval corvettes made regular patrols across the harbour mouths and often anchored in the lee of the fortress, so he was able to observe and identify the small warships at quite close quarters. He wondered idly how Hans was getting on in his new command, the Bernician heavy cruiser CWS Felix the Great. Grossmutta had performed the christening ceremony at Ostberg and chosen the name for the ship with her usual humour. ‘It’s lucky,’ she’d maintained. ‘Should I have called it the CWS Kreech?’
Now midwinter was past the southern weather was its usual predictable, sunny self, though the condition of the sea varied with the wind force and direction; sometimes placid and twinkling, at other times surging past in great ridges if the ocean swell was coming from the south past Zuidholm. It was one of the latter sort of days when Ruprecht observed a new corvette taking shelter close under the lee of Bornholm. A flock of white razorbills whirled around its stern hoping to scavenge any dumped waste. A small launch put off from its port side and battled the swell to reach the fortress dock, which was out of Ruprecht’s sight.
He was still observing the ship when a rattle of keys announced a visitor. Herr Althoff ushered in two junior naval officers, who nodded to the lieutenant governor to depart. The taller of the two beamed at Ruprecht from under his peaked cap, and he had no difficulty recognising the madly handsome face of the king of Ardhesse. The other youth was a stranger.
‘Well Rupe, what nice quarters I’ve given you!’
Ruprecht bowed. ‘So Kristijan, are we Your Southern Majesty today or the Jonker Kris von Erdwald?’
The king grinned even more broadly as he turned to his companion. ‘See Jacques! Just as I said. No deference at all. What have I done to lose your respect, Rupe old sausage? Oh, I remember! I was going to blow your brains out on our last encounter! Tsk. You’re as small-minded as you would have been had I been able to pull the trigger. Where’s the potboy by the way? Did you get to screw his sweet little tush? He’s so juicy, Jacki. You’d love him. Just don’t let him near any frying pans, the kid’s quite deadly.’ The king gave his delightful and disconcerting boy’s laugh, the one Ruprecht remembered so well.
The other youth took off his cap and rolled his wide and rather gorgeous eyes. He was around sixteen, and obviously not a midshipman. Ruprecht concluded he must be one of the king’s rumoured stable of pretty Francien Grunderknaben. It occurred to Ruprecht that the physical resemblance this Jacques had to Gilles could not have been accidental, there was a cast of male aesthetic that stirred Kristijan. But, pretty though the boy was, he did not possess anything like the affecting beauty or charm of the present Ritter von Blauwhaven. Ruprecht was more than a little relieved to find that Kristijan plainly had no idea of the fate of the Parmentier boy and only a mild interest in it, though he seemed to remember Gilles’s backside well enough.
Kristijan took one of the chairs and leafed through Ruprecht’s notes, without bothering to ask for permission. Common courtesy was as ever far beneath him. The king’s quick eye danced across the documents.
‘Tell me, minheer Graf, what were you up to in Hartland? I was so very curious when I heard that my soldiers had swept you up in my advance on Westrecht, now liberated from the Imperial yoke, as any good Alleman will be glad to know.’
‘Exactly what you’ll have discovered from my notes there, sire. It was a historical investigation.’
‘Ah yes. The good Baron Meisel reported as much. He so wanted to meet you, largely I think to find out why you were such a matter of interest to me. He might have asked Jacki: you would have told him wouldn’t you, lover boy? We don’t have secrets, me and Jacki, at least not about what happens in bed. He even knows the exact dimensions of your epic Schwang. He was quite impressed when I gave him the benefit of my recollection. He’d love to try you out; he really does like doing it with big men – even more when I join in – but I’m afraid I’m getting jealous in my old age.’
The Francien youth tossed his head once more at the king’s banter. He plainly had a lot to put up with, but didn’t have much to offer in the way of repartee. Ruprecht made a mental note that Kristijan’s tastes went towards nubile prettiness in his bed partners, but as far as intellectual stimulation went he could talk enough for two.
Kristijan tossed the papers back on the table. ‘Now, Rupe. Tell me about your own conquest – the little priest they tell me you’ve shacked up with? Oh yes, you may well raise your eyebrows. My agents have been doing their own sort of digging. A certain Dr Tannerman, a physician, failed academic and erratic clergyman, but a man with a burning mission to dig holes in the ground the length and breadth of the Mainland and Islands. Now, mania interests me. You see, I respect maniacs, being one myself. My madness has a method, and I tend to assume that other talented lunatics have reasons for their compulsions, especially when such a man can drag the likes of you along with him in his wake. Talk, Rupe. There’s something going on here, and I really do want to know what it is. I’m willing for you to sit in this cell till the boredom induces you to open up, and there isn’t much your rather stern grandmother can do to stop me.’
‘Indeed. She gave me quite the talking to, in my own throne room too. She knew my late father rather well in his day, you see, so I was unable to deny her entrance to the palace and she is of course the Princess Regent of Ostberg. She marched right through my Guard Grenadiers as if they weren’t there. “You young nuisance!” she called me. I mean me! Kristijan the Conqueror! Nemesis of the Empire, and what have you. For a moment I thought she was going to take me by the ear.’
Despite himself, Ruprecht smiled at the thought.
Kristijan laughed again. ‘See! I make you amused.’ Then his mercurial face was intellectually intent. ‘Go sit down on the bed, Jacki. Rupe here has a story to tell me, one he started telling me on the road to Chasancene the first time we met: the story of how Terre Nouvelle began, I believe.’
‘Very well, sire. I shall tell you what you want, and if it bores you rigid it’ll be some compensation for what you’re putting me through. In a year or two you’ll be able to read about it in the papers in any case.’
So he collected himself and began the tale, sorting it out in his head as he talked. He was still talking half an hour later when a tap on the door heralded a very nervous Governor, who blanched when the king frowned at him. ‘Minheer, I do not believe I asked for you.’
‘Your Majesty, of course … but it’s been so long since you entered the cell … I was alarmed for your safety.’
‘You might have been more concerned about my refreshments, man. Green tea for me. You, Rupe? Jacki will have a light ale, though it is not good for him at this time in the morning. Run along.’
‘So, my dear Rupe, let me get this straight. You have not only found the legendary site of the Landing in Hartland, you actually discovered a dead and desiccated Ancient, a certain Mr Phillips, may the Lord God rest his wandering soul. Oh, and of course lots of bones of dead Ancients, Francien and English, murdered by a mysterious enemy from the stars, as it appears.’
‘Indeed, sire. We think we have the sequence of events sorted at least. The preserved scientific papers we found at Champs Dolent in the refugee boy’s hideout indicated that the Ancients arrived above our world some time before the actual Landing, and they spent a while – seasons, maybe years – studying the wildlife and environment. I imagine they were looking for pre-existing intelligent life, but found none. There were three peoples on their fireships, the Franciens, Allemans and English … well, four if you include this smaller tribe of Irish, unknown to history, who were apparently allies of the English colonists.
‘The Landing itself occurred in Hartland, but the three peoples spread out and each set up a province ruled by an Administrator under the overall direction of a colonial president, their sort of king, Guillaume le Rou.’
‘Guillaume le Rou, le bon capitain … Remarkable! He was a real person?’
‘It seems so, but I fear his reign was short. Before four years were out, all three zones and their capitals were laid waste. The Francien adult males, and we assume also the Allemans, were massacred, their wives and children enslaved. The English too were attacked, but they had some success in fighting back. They took casualties but survived and I think they tried to salvage the remnants of the colony. They even chose a new president, Connor the son of Kevin O’Connor, “Kevin L’Anglais” as we know him. It may be that the English were able to liberate and assist their enslaved Francien and Alleman friends over time, but rebuilding the crippled settlements into what history knows as the kingdom of Kholnai must have taken them many years. Their technological prowess suffered a fatal blow during those years of warfare, though why and how this should have happened we do not know.
‘By the time from which the first historical sources survive, three generations later, memory of the original enterprise and its disastrous early years had faded into legend. I imagine there was little to salvage from the pillaged settlements, and the three peoples had as much as they could do to survive day-to-day on their new world. Any early records they may have made were not preserved.’
The king demurred. ‘Or haven’t been found yet. Well, now I understand the good Dr Tannerman’s mania. To find such things!’
Ruprecht took a plunge. ‘Perhaps Your Majesty might see his way clear to letting us get on with it.’
Kristijan was engaged in some internal meditation, and did not reply immediately. He was still pondering when the drinks arrived. Ruprecht took his and waited, while Jacki the Catamite picked at his well-shaped nails and ignored the beer he was offered.
Eventually the king stirred, finished his tea and stood. The other men stood with him. ‘I’ll have to give it some more thought, Rupe. You realise that I have certain distractions at the moment, and indeed it’s been a welcome relief to come over and have a chat. But I must get back across the harbour. My army invades the southern Empire next week, and I have cities to sack and all that sort of thing. But I tell you what, I’ll let your annoying little brother visit, which may satisfy your dreaded grandmother for a while.
‘Come on Jacki, all the talk about that cute Vieldomainois potboy makes me randy. You can dress up in nothing but a bar apron, and we can have some fun acting out my deranged fantasies about what inn service ought to be with the gang. Sorry you can’t come, Rupe.’
Ruprecht could do nothing but bow to his back as the king of Ardhesse left.
A very frustrating few days followed for Ruprecht. He did not think Kristijan had mentioned a possible visit as a means of tormenting him, but the fact that Felix was in Ardheim, just across the harbour, was frustrating and also worrying. If Felix was there then so inevitably was Gilles, and that was a cause for real concern. Felix’s household would be under observation by Baron Meisel’s agents and Minheer the Ritter Gilles von Aalst-Parmentier zum Blauwhaven was bound to attract notice for several reasons. He might even be expected to attend court functions where the king was present. He just had to hope Gilles had the good sense to keep his handsome head down in Ardhesse. And what of Joerg? His plucky little lover had been active in organising a response to Ruprecht’s abduction, and maybe he too was now in Ardheim. The warm feelings that thought inspired in Ruprecht quite took him aback. It appeared he was deeply in love with his pretty little doctor.
After his personal interview with King Kristijan his Bornholm gaolers had begun according Ruprecht a high degree of consideration. Books and newspapers had become readily available, some even from outside Ardhesse, and he was allowed a daily promenade on the upper battlements with other favoured residents. It was quite pleasant up there in the sunny afternoons, as the breeze from the south got up and the land warmed. Chess and cards were possible, and frustrated though he may have been Ruprecht was now less bored.
Through conversation with the inmates and the newssheets they loaned him he was able to update himself as to the course of the Great Southern War, as the editors were calling it. King Kristijan’s bold strike through the Montenard republic at the Imperial occupation of Westrecht had been a brilliant success, trapping the Emperor’s army and forcing its mass surrender. Nearly seventy thousand Francien troops were in Ardhessian hands, including fifteen generals and two Imperial princes, the Emperor François’s uncles. The remnant of the Imperial forces that had fought their way back to the great fort of Rivières was a wretched phantom of the proud army that had marched south to occupy Westrecht.
However the young emperor was anything but daunted, and was in part encouraged by the failure of the other two Allemanic kingdoms to oppose his invasion of the South. Nordrecht and Dreiholmtz were not mobilising their forces despite a rising popular adulation for the brilliant young king of Ardhesse, ‘banner-bearer of Freedom’ as the Hochrechtner Volkischerfreiblatt hailed him. The Montenards were less happy. The Republic had fully mobilised and any future trespass across its borders would incur terrible costs, though Ruprecht doubted the king would care; he had already got what he wanted. The previous day, King Kristijan and the Grand Duke of Westrecht had presided over a glittering review of their forces on the northern border of the principality, in which a new Alleman Volunteer Legion had made its appearance, recruited generally across Terre Nouvelle; three entire divisions of infantry, cavalry and artillery.
Visitors were not generally allowed on Bornholm, but the commencement of the Lenten and Advent seasons were exceptions, when passage out to the island was allowed to relatives and friends who had sufficient influence to secure a place on the lighter which sailed out daily from the naval dockyard. The Saturday before the Southern feast of Karneval was advertised to the inmates as a possible day, which caused some stir in the afternoon chess club.
Ruprecht caught himself taking particular care of his morning shave and the tying of his cravat that Saturday, which caused him some inward amusement. Still, he was not philosophical enough to resist a rising excitement at the fifth hour, when he had been told that visitors usually arrived.
The jingling of the floor supervisor’s key chain confirmed that he had been on the list for permitted visitors, and he smoothed his hair before the deferential gaoler ushered two smiling faces into his chamber. He had Felix and Joerg hugging him hard within seconds. Tears leaped unaccustomed into his eyes.
Eventually they separated and sat on either side of him on the bed. Felix looked around.
‘Not what I expected a prison cell to be. Honestly Rupe, it’s not much different to your workroom at home … without all Dr Joerg’s boxes of pottery of course.’
‘You look well enough, Rupe, they don’t seem to be starving you. Let me check your pulse and eyes.’
‘If you two would rather I went off for a stroll for half an hour …?’
‘Shut up, Kreech,’ Ruprecht rejoined. ‘We’ve only got an hour or so, and there’s a lot I need to know, and some things you need to hear too.’ He recounted his interview with the king. ‘He’s as unpredictable as ever, but to my surprise more than interested in you and your ideas, Joerg. He took it all in, and had some ideas of his own to offer. It may be my passport out of here.’
Joerg shook his head. ‘I don’t trust him. There will be reasons within reasons why he’s seized on our excavations and theories. You can be sure he intends to make use of them, and not in ways we’ll like.’
That raised another anxiety in Ruprecht’s mind. ‘Where’s Gillot? Please tell me he didn’t come to Ardheim with you.’
Felix grinned. ‘He did and he didn’t. Grossmutta got the Protector to loan us Hans’s big ship. Gillot and I are actually residing out on the good ship Felix the Great. You can’t see it, but it’s anchored in the western roads. Gillot’s kept on board polishing the brasswork and scrubbing the decks. He looks so pretty in his sailor suit. No, seriously. Captain Hans put him in a lieutenant’s gear, he says there’s nothing like a uniform to make people anonymous … and sexy. He didn’t say the last bit, of course. We’re allowed on shore as long as he stays in his uniform; Grossmutta doesn’t believe the Ardhessians would touch a Bernician officer.’
‘What’s happened out at Yorck?’
Joerg shrugged. ‘I haven’t been back since the Ardhessian invasion. Before I left for Sint-Willemsborg I hired one of the ranchhands as caretaker and he’s living out on the dig, in the cellar. It’s been cleared of the bones and they and Mr Phillips are now residing in graves in the churchyard. There’s not much we can do till you’re released, and King Kristijan has other things on his mind at the moment.
‘The princess told me this morning that his vanguard crossed the river Merch into the Empire yesterday. He’s called on all Allemanic princes to unite under his leadership to destroy Francien power for good.’