Stunned at what he was seeing, Ruprecht rallied and called down the inn stairs to Joerg. When the light step of his lover came up the stairs behind him, he took Joerg’s shoulder and pointed silently at the sky.
‘Jesus the Seneschal!’ he breathed. ‘What am I seeing?’
‘What our boys have done.’
‘Is there a telescope in the inn?’
‘I have no idea, but I doubt it. We need to get one. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the theory has always been that the Sisters were a nearby group of planetoids, but this cannot be. They are closer, and getting closer still.’
Joerg shook his head. ‘The boys will know. Let’s ask.’
The three youths were beaming, as if they’d just played a huge joke on humanity. François looked a query. ‘Are the ships moving into close orbit?’
‘Ships? They’re ships?’ Joerg squeaked. ‘They must be huge!’
‘They’re the starships that brought our ancestors from Earth.’
‘Earth? Isn’t that an English word?’
‘It was our original homeworld. The European Union was one of its empires. It was able to find the resources for interstellar colonisation and built three vast ships, one financed by each of its principal peoples, the French, British and Germans: those were their true names, not Franciens, English and Allemans. When they found Terre Nouvelle they spent years observing the world below and preparing to colonise it. Eventually the people landed by means of planetary shuttles – what we call fireships – and they left the starships in distant orbit. The plan was to use them as science stations and eventually to employ the starships’ power and their vast resources to support and extend the colony as its population grew. The Great Mind of the erdbeesten put an end to all that, of course.’
Joerg shook his head. ‘What are you doing with them?’
‘Moving them into range so the planetary shuttles can eventually be activated,’ François said. ‘That’s all we can do for the moment with the help of the failsafe device. You see, there’s a major problem. The English prefecture housed the control hub for the ships – the installation you found under the hill near Yorck. It contains a … I’m not sure what to call it – let’s say a mechanical mind engineered by Ancient humans. It has all the knowledge of the Ancients and the capacity to deploy and land the shuttles and much more besides, and it can talk to and advise its human makers. It’s sentient and immortal, but it’s been severely damaged.’
‘Severely damaged? Was that the thing in the shape of a horrible, decaying creature the Great Mind showed you, when you had your vision of your ancestors, the brothers Jean-Charles and Armand?’
‘Yes. The Great Mind showed us it in that form, though it has no body as such. The Mind can sense it and feel its pain, but is unable to comfort and heal it. That’s what Gillot and I have to do.’
‘And you know how to?’
‘Yes, we do. The Great Mind placed the knowledge it acquired from the dead human engineers within the very essence of the Parmentier lineage, what the Ancients called our genetic code. Once Gillot and I fully joined our minds in our last vision, it was awakened in us.’
Ruprecht looked at the two eager faces of the Francien boys, and suddenly hope flooded into his mind; hope for his brother, lying bedridden and weak between them. What if the resources of the Ancients could help and even cure Felix?
‘What’s your plan, François?’
The emperor shot a look at Gilles. ‘We have to head to Hartland. It shouldn’t be too difficult to get to the Montenard capital from here and then take the line south. We could be there in just a few days, but you have to come with us, Rupe. You can deal with the locals.’
‘Hey! What about me?’ Felix cried and then coughed distressingly.
Gilles took his hand. ‘Dr Joerg will be here with you. Maman will look after you as if it were me in that bed. Mutta is on her way to Chasancene too. Trust me, my Kreech, we have to go. We’ll be back soon enough, I promise.’
Ruprecht thought it wise to make his excuses and leave at that point, taking Joerg with him. They took his usual table in the back parlour and he lit up a cigarette; something he’d been trying to do less of in recent months. He found his hand was shaking when he lit up.
He met Joerg’s eyes. ‘What do you make of all that?’
‘Incredible. I can’t calculate the impact this will have on our world. All that technology and knowledge, just sitting under a hill in the Montenard Republic and our boys have the key to it. How incredibly dangerous, and yet exalting at the same time.’
‘And if it got in the wrong hands?’
‘It doesn’t bear thinking about. You believe that Kristijan’s unhinged mind somehow senses the danger and potential of all this?’
Ruprecht nodded. ‘The only pair of hands that power will be safe in are those of that beautiful Francien boy upstairs … the true emperor of this world and the rightful heir both to the Colony of the European Union and the Great Mind of the Herd, and by his side has to be François’s brother in body and spirit, our own Gillot, a king now amongst men. They must ascend together to the rule of Terre Nouvelle, bring war to an end and begin the building of something very great, a new sort of realm, transcending the world of the material and the spirit, a world in fact where there is no final death and where the living can continue to commune with the departed.’
‘Good heavens! You think this is what will happen?’
‘The Great Mind is walking in the thoughts of the living once more, and it’s extending itself as it strengthens. François and Gilles have joined with the Mind and soon will they will take up their rule in this world as the Great Bulls of the Plain reborn; they are going to rule as brother monarchs, Emperor of Humanity and King of the Franciens enthroned together at Aix. Can’t you see the new light in their eyes? I think they’ve already gone beyond the purely human.’
Joerg sat dumbfounded as the implications of the situation were spelled out for him, then he made his excuses and went back upstairs to check on Felix. Ruprecht called in Erwin and Matthias and together they began planning the mission south to Hartland. They had to be gone by tomorrow evening, they decided, when Mutta was expected in Chasancene.
Weary, Ruprecht sought his bed, and found Joerg already curled up within it, looking as ever like a small boy in the innocence of his face and the abandon of sleep. A tear came into Ruprecht’s eye as he felt a surge of affection for this little man who had slowly taught him the meaning of love and devotion. He wrapped himself around Joerg and fell quickly into slumber.
Ruprecht woke with a yawn, and hugged Joerg’s body to himself. He was warm and happy, but things seemed unusual, and it slowly dawned on him that he lay on grass out of doors, and though the thick blond hair in his eyes was Joerg’s by the smell of it, it wasn’t quite the same. Nor was he. He snapped awake and sat up. They were in a large clearing in woods and the sun was coming up through the leaves. Warm and scented air was playing across his naked body, which both was and wasn’t his. He was a boy again, and the small and pretty blond child his own age stretching languorously next to him was Joerg, no more than twelve or thirteen years in age, freckled and cutely snub-nosed. Around them humans and erdbeesten were stirring, males, females and children sitting up and stretching, the youngest mobile ones heading for the nearest available breast.
‘Little one?’ His voice came out at a register it had not occupied since before he was a teenager.
The child Joerg’s eyes went wide with surprise and then delight. ‘Rupe! We’re in the Mind!’ he chirped in a boyish treble. ‘You were right! It’s getting stronger. It’s reaching out to the living! It’s brought us here.’ Then he laughed. ‘You’re really sweet as a kid; so gangly, but actually rather cute with it! Small in the willy region too, no bigger than me there. Who’s the little one now?’
Ruprecht looked down at his groin and found barely a dusting of hair above his penis, which was just the small tube of a boy barely pubescent, the foreskin bunched above the glans in a way he had quite forgotten. ‘Had it occurred to you we’re here because we’re actually dead?’ he replied. ‘That’s the other way to enter the Mind.’
Joerg’s smile was wiped temporarily from his freckled and elfin face, but it soon came back. ‘So be it. I’m ready for the next stage if we’re here together. But somehow I don’t think we are dead; I think I’d feel more different, less connected to the other reality. Hang on, I have to try this.’
He crawled over the adjacent body of a sleeping calf and knelt up in front of an erdbeest cow, who looked tolerantly down at him. He took its left breast, palped it and sucked at its nipple. He licked his lips at the result. ‘It’s warm and sweet and so rich, Rupe. Give it a try.’ Then he stood up, grinned and hugged the cow round her neck. She snuggled him into her and hugged him back, licking and caressing his neck and ears with her long red tongue. Joerg gave a very boyish giggle as she did so. ‘Not going to sample it? Oh well.’ He kissed her cheek then took Ruprecht’s hand, leading him off to the bulls’ station under the eaves of the trees.
‘This is where we’ll find the Herd prime who brought us here,’ he stated. And there indeed were a row of mature males, erdbeesten and human bulls and somehow they were communing, the boys could tell, even though the erdbeesten couldn’t actually talk. One human male rose, a tall but not heavily built man with sharp hazel eyes and a large shock of straw-like hair. He held out his arms to them. The pair knew him and ran to him, for it was their turn to call out ‘Grandad!’ which they did spontaneously in, of all things, English. He cuddled and kissed them, calling them his ‘Robby’ and ‘Georgie’. They kissed him back, clinging to him and feeling that same overwhelming emotional warmth and safety Gilles and François had said they experienced when they met their ancestors.
At last the man stood, picking both children up to seat them on his strong arms as they held him round the neck and he walked them out of the clearing through a screen of trees and on to the Great Plain, green and blue in the rising sun.
‘So you know me, little Robby?’
‘Well yes, grandad. You’re Cory O’Connor, prince of the English and lover of the first emperor François, but how …?’
‘The Great Bulls, including my own lord and prince, François, bred the herd. As his consort and lover he had me impregnate many captive English cows alongside him, and when we took wandering Allemans into the Plains herd I bred them as well. I must have sired over a hundred human calves, and from them descend many of your Alleman noble and royal houses. Including both of you, my children, for though you don’t know it, you both have far more of my genetic inheritance than most Allemans, which is why I think you fell in love with each other. It’s why you’re here, as I have the strength now to call to me the closest of my own children. I’ve been trying with another one of you for quite some time’
‘Who’s that, grandad?’ Joerg chirped.
Cory kissed him. ‘My sweet little Georgie,’ he said. ‘The other is one who is all but myself reborn, a handsome but wayward prince among men.’
‘Not …? Oh surely not!’ Ruprecht exclaimed, as Cory put them both down on the grass. There on the plain stood a very beautiful straw-headed child of maybe seven years of age, but there was little of beauty in the angry curl of his full lips and the mean squint of his clear blue eyes.
The child stood and placed his little fists on his narrow hips and glared defiantly up at the bull. ‘I want to go home! Now! I don’t like these dreams. I’ll kill you if you don’t let me go! I’m the emperor! You have to do what I say.’ Frustrated, the child stamped his right foot and almost vibrated with annoyance, then tossing his head he ran off across the grass shouting some very rude words.
Cory sighed. ‘Go fetch him, kids.’
Joerg and Ruprecht ran lightly after the child. He was fast, but their longer legs eventually brought them up with him. ‘Kris! Wait!’ Joerg shouted.
‘No! I hate you! I hate all of you!’ Then he stopped and looked at the two older boys suspiciously. ‘Who are you? I don’t remember you from the other dreams.’
‘You’ve been here before?’ Ruprecht piped up.
‘Lots of times. I hate it. Horrible people and monsters everywhere. Who are you? How do you know my name?’
Joerg held out his hand. ‘Do you want to play with us?’
Kristijan pouted, looked around and then gave a little nod. Joerg grinned. He tapped the smaller boy’s shoulder and shouted ‘You’re it!’ Then he scampered off, Kris chasing him. But Kris dodged back abruptly, slapping Ruprecht’s bare butt as he passed.
‘It’s you!’ Kris screamed. Then he was off across the grass.
‘Robby!’ Joerg yelled. ‘Get into it!’
‘Robby?’ Ruprecht was still rooted to the spot. ‘Oh, right! Er … yeah. Tag, isn’t it?’
An indefinable time later three red-faced and sweaty boys lay breathing heavily, flat on their backs in the prairie grass and flowers with Kris between the older boys. ‘That was so cool!’ Kris said. ‘You’re fun. This is a better dream than the other ones. Look at this!’ Kris gripped his little dick and sent a strong stream of yellow pee straight up into the air. It spattered down on Ruprecht’s belly and chest. He leapt up.
‘You brat!’ he shouted, as Kris and Joerg choked with laughter.
‘C’mon Robby! It’s fun. Can I go home now? I’m tired.’
Ruprecht sat back down next to him. ‘What happened in the other dreams, Kris?’
The little one stretched and frowned. ‘That man was in them, and freaky creatures like erdbeesten but with people heads. They kept telling me off for hurting people … but I’m just playing. And anyway, if I don’t do all that, the bad people will get me. So I have to, you see?’
There was a strange pleading edge to the boy’s speech. He rolled over towards Joerg. ‘Will you give me a snuggle, Georgie? I like you.’
‘Of course, Krissie.’ Joerg smiled and took the smaller boy in his arms, squeezing him tight and kissing his cheek.
There was a steady rumble behind them and they all three leapt up, to see two horses galloping in their direction. Joerg soothed Kris. ‘It’s alright, little one. Don’t worry, let me pick you up.’
Cory was riding one mount and leading another. Kris scowled up at him from Joerg’s arms. ‘Robby and Georgie, I’ve brought you this beast to ride. Come on, Kris. Get up here. This is the way home.’
‘No,’ the boy shook his head. ‘Don’t like you.’
Joerg kissed him. ‘Go on, Krissie. He’s our grandad. He won’t hurt you. He really loves you.’
‘He’s always angry at me.’
Joerg kissed him again. ‘If you’re good, maybe he’ll let us play again. Now say bye bye.’
Eyeing Cory suspiciously, Kris mumbled goodbye and consented to be lifted up in front of the man. He gave a little wave as the horse leaped forward and was off across the plain.
Ruprecht laughed. ‘I wonder how much of this he’ll remember. Come on Georgie, this is our chance to do the bareback riding our boys liked so much.’ He swarmed up on the horse’s back and Joerg struggled up behind him. Gripping Ruprecht tight round the waist he pressed against him seeking a stable seat, then Ruprecht kicked the horse’s flanks with his heels. With a double whoop they were off across the plain.
‘This is amazing!’ Joerg shouted in Ruprecht’s ear. ‘I love you, Robby!’
Ruprecht awoke to a smiling face gazing into his own. ‘Georgie,’ he said. ‘That’s the right name for you at last. My own Georgie. You were so good back there in the Mind.’
Joerg clasped him tight. ‘And you’re my Robby. I want to go back there, but we have to wait till Grandad Cory calls us again, and who knows when that will be?’
‘I don’t feel in the least tired despite all the running and riding around in our dreams, just warm, happy and rested.’
‘Nothing will ever taste as good to me again as that erdbeest milk I sampled. You should have tried it. Weird, being in the same dream as you.’
‘And Kristijan of Ardhesse,’ Ruprecht pondered. ‘He was only a small child there, while we were in the early stage of puberty. Why do you think that was?’
‘At a guess I would say that the Mind wanted him at a stage of his mental development before his psychoses began to bite, while there was still a chance of reaching him.’
‘It clearly hadn’t worked, at least until they brought us into the scenario as the sort of elder boys that a little one would be bound to look up to and want to play with. You were awesome, Georgie. You’d worked out the Mind’s game, hadn’t you?’
‘Yes, it wasn’t that difficult. What will be difficult – if it ever happens again – will be to accomplish anything with the corrupted mind of Kristijan. How can anything that happens in that strange place have any effect in this world?’
‘But you did do something. Little Kris wanted your approval; he listened to you and wanted to hug and kiss you. You reached him alright. But will that affect his behaviour in real life?’
‘It might make him worse,’ Joerg sighed. ‘Time to get up. You have a big day ahead of you, you and our Great Bulls. You’re off to Hartland.’
They washed and dressed, and followed their noses downstairs where bacon and fresh bread were being prepared by Monsieur Parmentier.
‘You know,’ Ruprecht observed, ‘I reckon there are still things in this world that can rival erdbeest milk.’
Whistling cheerfully, he entered the taproom to find an early customer occupying it, reading a paper, spectacles on his nose. The man looked up. ‘Good morning, Excellency.’
It was Colonel von Ampfeld.
‘Take a seat, minheer Graf. You too, professor. We really need to avoid a fuss.’
‘You followed us here?’
‘I’d been waiting for you to decamp from Ardheim for some time, since it was obvious your research had reached a dead end in the south and Hartland was inaccessible. I must say the Easterners’ attack on Zuidholm was a complication. But as soon as our agents found your house empty it was obvious to me that you would head for Ostberg, and our people were awaiting your arrival when you entered the Residenz. After that it was easy to track you, though I have to say I was surprised when the trail brought me here. Until, that is, I found out about the other guests in this pleasant little auberge, and amongst them no less than the former Francien emperor. Tell me, minheer, did you really think His Imperial Majesty would not keep more eyes on you than those of the dubious and easily distracted Baron Meisel?’
Ruprecht shook his head, fighting off a momentary panic and ignoring the dead weight in his stomach. ‘You’re not one of the Baron’s agents? I assumed you must be.’
‘No, sir. His Imperial Majesty tends not to put all his trust in one person, which is very wise of him. The Baron might have thought I was his creature, but I report to the Minister of War.’
‘What do you want of us, Colonel?’
‘I’m afraid you and your associates here must accompany me south. I understand His Imperial Majesty is determined to get to the bottom of the marvels you and the good professor have been unearthing.’
Joerg snorted. ‘Then he’s wasting his time. That can only be done in Hartland. That’s where we were heading today. You should let us go and get on with it, then your emperor will get his answers.’
‘I’m afraid that’s not possible. It’s not up for discussion. You’ll have worked out by now that this house is surrounded by imperial agents and local police. There is no escape for you.’
Ruprecht was boiling with frustration. ‘You surely cannot mean to haul off my brother, the prince, to the south? He’s seriously ill in bed, and won’t be leaving it.’
‘That needs to be determined. The Governor-General is expected here any moment, and he has the authority to make these decisions. In the meantime, I suggest you and the professor make as good a breakfast as you can in the circumstances. I think I will join you if you have no objection. Then perhaps you might go upstairs, professor, and tell the former emperor of the Franciens that his presence is requested below by the Prince of Forez.’
Breakfast appeared at the hands of a nervous Alphonse Parmentier. It seemed the colonel had already placed the order before Ruprecht and Joerg had come down.
‘Tell me, Excellency, the paper has a story this morning about strange portents in the night sky. The Three Sisters have noticeably shifted their position and are brighter. Does your research tell you anything about this?
‘I’m no astronomer, colonel, though I may try to get hold of a telescope.’ Looking to change the subject, Ruprecht began on a new tack. ‘Tell me, Colonel. When you made your site visit to Yorck, that wasn’t all you were doing was it?’
The colonel gave him a sidelong look. ‘I am a colonel of engineers, Excellency. Obviously my professional eye would pick up things.’
‘Such as fortifications, routes, railways, batteries, lines of fire, that sort of thing?’
‘As you say, minheer. But espionage would have been rather dangerous in the circumstances.’
‘And what do you make of all this, colonel? The Ancient technology and all its implications?’
The colonel meditated for a while. ‘It seems to me, gentlemen, that whichever realm and sovereign secured the knowledge you have found must rule Terre Nouvelle, and so it would be by far and away best that it come into the hands of Ardhesse. Should the Easterners add it to the edge they already possess in weaponry and technology they would become unassailable, and cause every throne to tremble. The attack on our fleet last week was yet another demonstration of how far in advance they are of other realms. It appears that they have developed vessels that are powered by voltaic generators and that can submerge themselves. Undersea warships! No one had expected that. The submarine ships utterly destroyed many of our anchored capital vessels, though they were massively protected by shore artillery, with the loss of only one of theirs, and that by an accident. We are unable now to reinforce our garrison on Zuidholm, and the island must fall in the end to the Easterners.
‘I hear rumours that they are experimenting with airships too. That may seem fanciful, but the Ancients had their fireships, and since you have proved that much of the legends about them are true, then flight must be possible for men. What if Dreiholmtz did develop its own fireships? What use our armies then?
The colonel checked his watch. ‘Now, professor. Perhaps you had best go to attend to your patient and bring the other young men downstairs. The Marshal Prince of Forez will be here very soon.’
Joerg silently left the table and took the stairs. As he went, Ruprecht observed to the colonel ‘I’ve taken you for an honest soldier, Otto. You must know the Prince of Forez for a scoundrel and a creature of the Baron’s. How can an officer of your distinction and good sense stoop to work with such men?’
‘You’re not a soldier, minheer Graf. Were you one you would know it is service to his lord and king that is a soldier’s principal duty. Uncongenial companions in the discharge of our duties are but one more inconvenience in the military life, one of many I might say.’
Ruprecht had always thought well of the colonel, and the quiet politeness as he stood on the appearance of François at the foot of the stairs and the well-judged bow that followed underlined the man’s decency.
‘François of Aix,’ he said, ‘I have to inform you that you are under arrest in the name of His Imperial Majesty as an enemy of the Allemanic Empire. I further …’
The colonel halted in mid-sentence, for another boy had appeared behind François, to all intents and purposes his double.
‘Der Teufel!’ he swore. ‘What’s this, Graf? Some strange trickery?’
‘This is my heir, the Ritter von Blauwhaven, consort of Ostberg.’
‘But he’s the living image of the …’
‘Emperor of Terre Nouvelle? Yes he is, and there’s a reason for it, if only you’d listen to me, colonel. There are things about this you should know, why don’t you …’
The inn door opened and the morning light flooded in. Three Allemanic grenadiers entered followed by the imposing figure of an imperial marshal-general, who removed his plumed helmet as he came in.
He paused to survey the group staring back at him. ‘You have the former emperor? Excellent. Now who is this? Good heavens! Is this the Francien boy from Blauwhaven? My word. What a resemblance! I had not appreciated it. Well! Two for the price of one. His Imperial Majesty will be pleased. I shall escort them in person to Ardheim, colonel.’
‘Not so fast, Anton,’ Ruprecht demanded. ‘He’s a Bernician citizen and consort of a sovereign prince of the Confederacy. You have no right to apprehend Gilles.’
The Prince of Forez sniffed and rolled his eyes. ‘We’ll let the diplomats argue about that. By the way, my dear Graf, you might remember that whatever your opinion of me, I do now have rank that must be respected.’
‘You also have an engagement of honour that you failed to fulfil, Vinseff. So don’t stand on a dignity you don’t possess.’
Anton ignored him. ‘Colonel, we need to be away from here soon. Round up the pack of these rebels and spies and have them at the Central Station by midday. I have my personal train awaiting us at the North Siding. Understood?’
The colonel bowed. ‘As your Serene Highness commands.’
With a final stare at the two boys, the marshal-prince resumed his helmet and left, though the grenadiers stayed behind.
‘I suggest you all pack your valises gentlemen,’ the colonel advised. ‘You heard the Governor-General. Now Excellency, about the sick prince, how is he this morning?’
Ruprecht looked at Gilles, who said ‘There’s no improvement, and he barely slept for coughing last night. He can’t be allowed to travel. He must stay here with Dr Joerg to look after him.’
The colonel shook his head. ‘My orders are clear, the professor must accompany us south. But the Prince of Ostberg is not such a person as can be apprehended, it would be tantamount to a declaration of war on the Confederacy and my imperial master would not want it, whatever his governor-general here may think. For political reasons as much as for his health the prince will remain, but you, young sir, must come with us.’
‘But he’s my husband!’
‘Nevertheless, you will come with us. You have my sympathy, minheer Ritter, for, old and dried-out though I may look I too was once joined to a Grunderknabe. But you’re a man now young fellow, and you must know that you can carry his love with you when you leave your lover behind.’
Gilles went red, and turned away.
‘Do as he says, Gillot,’ Ruprecht said. ‘Mutta will arrive soon. He will be cared for and loved. What about my servants, colonel?’
‘You may take one of the two.’
‘Then Matthias will stay with the prince, and my seneschal accompany me.’
‘Very good. In one hour then.’ The colonel snapped his fingers and left, taking the soldiers with him.
Ruprecht looked at the two boys. ‘I’m sorry it came to this,’ he said.
‘Oh, I’m not,’ François said, looking strangely unconcerned.
‘Well, I am sorry about Gillot and Kreech, but I have a feeling this was meant to happen; one way or another we have to get to the South, and this way Kristijan’s arranging the transport. I think you’d best go and make your farewells to Felix, Rupe.’
Felix’s condition had worsened overnight. His face had a sheen of sweat, and his eyes were glistening and feverish. Joerg was at his bedside holding his hand. There was a fetid smell in the air, vaguely like rotting fish. Ruprecht realised the implication of this. Sepsis was ravaging what was left of Felix’s lungs. He sat on his brother’s bed.
‘I’ve dosed him up,’ Joerg said. ‘He’s in no pain. It’ll be days rather than weeks. I’m sorry. I’ll give you two some time.’ He kissed the boy’s head and left.
Felix was coherent still, though he spoke slowly and with the occasional cough into the blood-stained cloth he held. ‘Dr Joerg told me what’s happened. You’ll beat the bastard, don’t worry. I have faith in you and my Gillot. Sorry I won’t be there to see it.’
Ruprecht realised there was no pretending now, so he hugged his brother’s feverish body as gently as he could, kissed him and told him how proud he was of him.
The boy gave a cough and a chuckle. ‘Tell Hans to look after Ostberg. He’ll have to take my name. What a joke. Felix Hans, prince of Ostberg. He’ll have to give up his ship. He won’t like that.
‘Listen Rupe, before you go I have a thing to tell you. I didn’t tell Dr Joerg or he would have thought he was drugging me up too much, but I had a weird dream last night, or weirder than usual. I woke up sleeping amongst flowers under a blue sky, grass all around me, just some distant trees. It was warm and I was just a small kid again. Then when I sat up a horse came riding towards me, with a big blond man on it, and another little kid placed in front of him. None of us had a stitch on. It was just like Gillot’s dreams the Mind sent.’
He paused for a long fit of coughing. When he had regained his breath he resumed. ‘Odd thing. I seemed to know the man, though the kid was a stranger. He placed the boy down next to me, a pretty but resentful little tyke he was. Then the man led the horse off to the shade of a stand of trees while us two eyed each other up. “Wanna play wrestling?” I asked. “Tag is better” he said. So we were up and chasing each other. It was great. I’ve not been able to do something like that without pain or weakness for ages, my lungs filling so freely. Then we wrestled and he loved tickles, it appeared. “You’re cool!” he said. ‘D’you know my friends Georgie and Robby?” I had to say no. So we sat and talked nonsense for ages like little kids do, and I quite got to like him. His name was Kris, he said. He said the man was his grandad, though he looked younger than you to me.
‘When the man came back with his horse he picked us both up and placed us on its back, me in front and Kris clinging behind, just like in Gillot’s dream. He kissed me when he placed me up there, though Kris refused him. “Kreech, my little one, I will come for you again in three nights’ time. Be ready. The herd awaits you.” Then he patted the horse and it trotted off across the plain to the distant horizon. Kris and I rode together with the wind in our hair and we laughed with the joy of it. It was an omen from the Great Mind wasn’t it?’
Ruprecht nodded, tears filling his eyes. His voice shaking, he said ‘Let me tell you about our dream last night.’ When he had finished, Felix looked pensive.
‘So that was the mad king of Ardhesse before he was warped. Well, well. I have a feeling he and I’ll meet again. But I know we won’t, so hug me brother, and then get yourself off. I want time to have a good cry and get myself decent for Mutta. You know what she’s like. I’ve left instructions at Blauwhaven for my burial. Not the tombs at Freiborg please, but that lovely mausoleum at the Farcostan Palace. I’d ask for the beach where Gillot and I first fucked, but explaining that to Mutta might be difficult.’ The last thing Ruprecht heard from Felix as he left was a chuckle and the muttered remark ‘What a joke!’ It was said without bitterness.