François rattled his handcuffs. ‘This is a bit excessive, wouldn’t you say, Gillot?’
The train lurched and rattled, but Gilles was unresponsive. He had not had much to say since his fraught farewell to Felix. The train was now a hundred kilometres from Chasancene and crossing into François’s former empire. The clacking of the wheels on the tracks changed as the train rumbled on to a many-piered bridge across the Great River. There was not much to be seen; what openings there were in their compartment were mere slits, and they were all cuffed to their seats. But at least they were together.
Joerg was dozing on Ruprecht’s shoulder. For all the distractions, Ruprecht’s attention kept recurring to the latest evidence of the Great Mind’s activity in the material world. It had given them the key to the mysteries of the Ancients, it had revealed that it had been at work inside the very head of their greatest enemy, and it had found ways to draw all of them within its inner world of the spirit. He was profoundly grateful for the comfort it had extended to his dying brother, but it was also clear that the Mind was not able to act without mortal agents and their task was looking increasingly difficult.
‘Tell me, Fran, is there anything new in your dream world; do you two still share visions?’
François shrugged. ‘When we dream, we roam the Plains together on horseback and we live in the herd, but though we talk to many bulls and cows and learn much from the most ancient of the humans, we’ve not seen our grandfathers. You’re having more luck in that respect it seems. Fancy Cory still being able to commune with the living!’
Gilles came around at that point. ‘Thank God for that,’ he said fervently. ‘My Kreech will go into loving arms when he …’ Then the boy was weeping wretchedly. Somehow François was able to embrace him, despite the cuffs, and the two stayed hugging a long time, Gilles subsiding into sniffles.
There was a long silence as the train rattled on its way. Eventually Joerg came around and asked if anyone had any idea where they were. François ventured the opinion that they were heading through the southern Empire towards Westrecht, but confessed he had no way of knowing where they might be at the moment. ‘But once it gets dark,’ he said, ‘we should still be within the Empire and well north of Westrecht. Non-stop, it will be a two-day journey by rail to Ardheim. I hope they remember to feed us.’
‘Never mind that,’ Joerg said, ‘I need to pee.’
Kicking on the compartment door produced a disgruntled guard and eventually a chamber pot, which had to be moved around by foot from one to another to use, and once employed it sat jammed in a corner adding a certain tartness to the atmosphere. A meal eventually arrived by the hands of Erwin Wenzel, closely supervised by soldiers. He made a point of removing the chamber pot when he left.
Night fell and one by one they dropped off to the swaying of the train as it carried on its way south through the darkness. They had speculated before they slept on the possibilities as to what the Mind might get up to in the present circumstances, and Ruprecht was not surprised to awake to sunlight as soon as he apparently dropped off.
All four of them this time were together in a grove and appeared to be of the same age, early pubescence. François and Gilles, as alike here as twin boys, were already engaged in a discussion with two sitting men who had them in their arms. Ruprecht guessed them to be the Imperial brothers Jean-Charles and Armand. Two other men were looming over him and Joerg: one was Cory O’Connor, the other his lover François, as gloriously handsome as his uncle Armand.
‘Awake, Robby?’ Cory asked.
‘Good.’ He was picked up, cuddled and kissed, while François did the same to Joerg. Cory continued. ‘You boys are having it rough, and we’re sorry.’
‘Thank you for what you did for Kreech, grandad. It made it easier.’
‘He’s helping us even in his sickness. He has made a link in this place with Kristijan, who regards him with real affection; they laugh and cuddle together innocently. Little Kris is responding more and more to others in a healthy way, at least while he’s in the herd. Kreech is playing with him at this moment … I keep Kreech safe here as much as I can, for soon enough it’ll be his home. You know that, Robby.’
Even in that place there was a shadow of grief. Words caught in Ruprecht’s throat and all he could do was nod.
Joerg piped up. ‘Grandad, will it make a difference to the Kristijan back in the world?’
‘We have to reach from here to try to heal him, Georgie’ came the reply. ‘If we can, the way to the future will be truly open. He already flinches from what he is in daytime. Were he to renounce his anger and paranoia … who knows what could be accomplished? As it is, Kristijan of Ardhesse is the only one who can prevent the Second Landing or worse, pervert it to his own uses.’
‘The Second Landing?’ Ruprecht asked. ‘Wasn’t that something that was supposed to happen in the year 200?’
‘So we English came to believe, Robby. We knew that under Hartland was a hidden chamber in which the means to summon the fireships was concealed, but that it was flooded with an airborne poison during the erdbeesten attack. We knew that in two hundred years the chamber would be safe to open once more but of course long before then our kingdom fell and with it was lost the last of the knowledge of the Ancient colonists. Still, the fact was remembered amongst the clergy of the Holy See, many of whom were English in origin, though they did not know how to access the chamber or where indeed it was. But that knowledge we here do have, and it is now in the heads of the young Emperor and his brother King, over there with their grandfathers.’
‘But can it still work after all these years, grandad?’ Joerg enquired.
‘Yes dear, it can. The Ancients built systems and vessels that had to last the centuries that it took to travel between stars. My own grandfather was born in the void and many of his forefathers before him, yet their ships carried them faithfully and faultlessly to get here. Nine hundred years is nothing to such technology, and the great starships out in orbit will function still, as do their shuttles. They just need the command, and that too is in the head of François and Gilles. But first they have to repair the Oracle.’
‘What’s that?’ Ruprecht asked.
‘It’s the artificial mind that controls all the ground-based systems, but the ancient explosion that flooded the control chamber with radiation damaged it beyond its ability to repair itself. It functions still, but it’s blind, dumb and deaf.’ Cory looked over to the other group. ‘The Council of the Great Bulls is over. Time to go, but maybe my boys would like a ride across the plains first?’
Joerg laughed. ‘Oh yes please, grandad!’
François and Gilles bounded over grinning all over their identical faces. In this place there was hardly any way to tell them apart. They put their fists on their hips and sized up the other pair.
Gilles laughed. ‘Cute, Robby. You’re actually cute as a kid. I’d never have believed it. Bet I could wrestle you now.’
‘Yeah? Try it!’
‘Dare me? I’m the prime here!’ He lunged at Ruprecht, while Joerg went for François in his support. The men laughed and cheered as they watched the boys tussle vigorously. At the end of an energetic bout, Ruprecht had Gilles under him, the boy’s cheek pressed into the grass, while François had Joerg down next to them.
Regaining his breath, Ruprecht laughed in Gilles’s ear. ‘So who’s the prime now?’
‘Seulement si tu me baises, Robby!’ the boy hissed back.
‘I will if you don’t submit.’ He had Gilles’s genitals gripped tightly in his hand.
‘Yeah, yeah. I submit. Careful with those, Robby, though I don’t know if they’ll work here.’
Armand lifted Ruprecht off Gilles and commented. ‘Yes, they will, though you have to be in a form different from this one. But that’s for another day. Come on boys, we have your mounts ready. Go and enjoy your ride.’
Ruprecht was placed on his horse by Cory and Joerg was placed behind him, while François did the same for the other two. ‘Grandad?’ he asked.
‘Tell Kreech … you know.’
He was kissed. ‘Trust me, my own Robby. There is still cause for hope. We have other plans you don’t know of. You aren’t the only living humans we can talk to.’ With that Cory slapped the horses’ rumps and the four boys galloped side by side on to the vast green and blue space of the celestial plain, antelope scattering ahead of them. They whooped as they raced towards the sunset, gigantic in the west, shimmering in a molten sky.
They came around almost together, blinking and stretching out the stiffness in sleeping upright, but all nonetheless rested.
‘What did the primes have to say, Fran?’ Joerg asked. ‘Bet you were glad to see them again.’
The boy shrugged. ‘We were. We kicked around what was likely to happen once we got to Ardhesse. But it’s good just knowing they’re watching over us, even if there’s little they can do to help on the ground.’
‘It’s light outside,’ Joerg declared. ‘We’re slowing down.’ The train clanked as carriages and couplings bumped together. A whistle shrieked and the carriages rattled and shuddered over several sets of points. Then they came to a halt with a great hiss of steam. There was a sudden silence, before they heard the voices of workmen shouting outside. The voices were Francien, so they were still within the Empire it seemed.
Their door rolled back. ‘Good morning, gentlemen.’ It was Colonel von Ampfeld. ‘Breakfast will be along in a few minutes. I hope you managed to get some sleep.’
‘Where are we, colonel?’ Ruprecht responded.
‘In a siding on the border with Westrecht. We’re filling with water and coal. His Serene Highness intends to press on directly. The Emperor is rather keen to see you, it appears. We expect to be in Ardheim before nightfall. The lines have been cleared for us through Westrecht and Ardhesse.’
Breakfast duly followed. They were left in peace to eat it, and even let out into the corridor one by one to use the toilets. But the cuffs were replaced and after half an hour the engine let off a loud hoot and to the clanging of a bell and the groaning of couplings the train began chugging forward. It got up speed and within ten minutes they were crossing a great bridge.
‘We’re back in Alleman lands, boys,’ Ruprecht said. ‘I wish I felt cheered by the idea.’
Their train did not pull into Ardheim’s Hauptbahnhof, but finished its long journey in a siding in a marshalling yard to the west of the city. The four prisoners were marched out, still cuffed, to find several closed carriages waiting, with an escort of a dozen uhlans. Gilles and Ruprecht were placed in the front one. Erwin Wenzel followed on in the last carriage with the valises the prisoners had been allowed to bring, but there was no time for a change of clothing.
Their carriage lurched and pulled away. The blinds on the windows were left up, so they had a good view of the route they were taking.
‘Bad news,’ Ruprecht observed. ‘We’re going to the Waltherborg Palace. That means that we’ll be in Kristijan’s demented playground, where he can deal with us away from public attention.’
The carriages rattled through the suburban streets and out into the woodlands to the west of the city. They passed a sentry box and entered a dark lane under trees. Eventually they drew up at the rear of the palace, and were taken through a side door into a guard room. All four captives were uncuffed and escorted by a file of guardsmen through the dingy back corridors and eventually by means of a side door into one of the state rooms of the southern wing.
Kristijan was leaning against a marble chimney piece, with the Baron Meisel deferentially hovering in a window recess. The Allemanic Emperor seemed less than triumphant, despite having his principal rival in his power, standing dishevelled and the worse for wear on the carpet of one of his salons.
‘Outside!’ he ordered the soldiers. ‘My dear colonel, you may remain. You too, Your Serene Highness.’
Kristijan walked over to take Gilles by the chin and scrutinise his face. ‘The potboy of the Auberge aux Falaises. My word, you have grown up nicely; and the very image of His Former Imperial Majesty; quite uncanny. This is the first mystery I wish explained to me, Rupe. So get to it.’
Ruprecht obliged as far as he could, while Kristijan frowned with concentration as he did so. When Ruprecht had finished Kristijan walked along the line of prisoners to François. ‘So here we are again.’ He sniggered. ‘This is so choice. The Emperor François XII is a Parmentier, of the same blood as the potboy! I can barely believe it. What a family! Just like a genealogical seesaw, with you on the top of the plank and little Gillot on the bottom. But still the same family and when you two come together, like volatile chemicals … kaboom! You blast a door in time between universes.’
Ruprecht felt obliged to say, ‘Your Imperial Majesty needs to be aware of the momentous nature of this revelation.’
Kristijan rolled his eyes. ‘I can hardly escape it, can I Rupe! There is a brooding and sinister Mind, invisible and all-powerful, and it presumes to treat me as its puppet!’
‘It’s not sinister, Kris. It offers something great and good to you and your people. You’ve seen the promise burning bright in the night sky as the great ships approach closer to Terre Nouvelle. The churches are beginning to fill with your trembling people. If you are their emperor, you must lead them now.’
‘Emperors don’t take orders. They are above all others. The world kneels to them!’
François looked Kristijan straight in the eye. ‘If that’s what you think, then you aren’t Emperor of Terre Nouvelle, Kris. The emperor guards the Herd. Deep down, you know it too. Yours is a different lineage and a different fate. Cory is your ancestor, not the Great Bull, Jean-Charles. You’re one of the despised English in your descent. So who are you to demand deference?’
Kristijan actually recoiled and then came back at François in fury, striking him hard across the face. ‘Kneel to the Emperor, you Francien peasant! Kneel!’ He turned. ‘Vinseff!’
Anton seized François’s arms, pulled them behind his back and levered the boy to his knees at Kristijan’s feet. Kristijan sneered. ‘Last time you were in that position, François, you had my cock in your mouth. You loved having it there too.’
François looked up defiantly, a bright red mark across his cheek. ‘In those days, I thought you were worthy of my love. Then you taught me otherwise.’
Kristijan struck him again. This time Gilles went to his knees with a cry, to take François in his arms. He looked up coolly at Kris from the carpet. ‘Your grandad Cory would be really proud of you! Didn’t the herd teach you anything? What would Robbie and Georgie think of you, let alone your friend Kreech?’
Kristijan staggered back. He retreated to the fireplace, staring, his mouth loose. ‘How do you know? How…?’ he muttered.
Anton Vinseff eagerly intervened. ‘Shall I deal with them, Imperial Majesty?’
Kristijan just looked blank. Then he switched his gaze to the colonel. ‘Confine them till later. I’m going to my … private quarters.’ He left in haste, his men staring after his back.
The Prince of Forez took charge. ‘Is there a cell in the palace for these men?’
The colonel suggested the guardroom. They were marched back along the corridors and found themselves packed into a cell which opened off the office of the sergeant of the watch. There was room for three to sit on the narrow bed. They were offered some food and drink, then shut in the dark, for night had now fallen. Gilles stood by the barred window, staring earnestly up into the sky, where the Three Sisters burned; brighter now, but in a much wider spaced triangle than they had been in living memory.
‘They’re as bright now as they were in the days of the Landing,’ he observed. ‘We have memories of the sky in those days, Fran and I.’ He paused. ‘It’s my husband’s last night on earth, and I can’t be there with him.’
François reached up to take his hand. ‘I’m so sorry, Gillot my brother. But he’s with family and friends who love him. And the way things are going, we may join him soon enough on the celestial Plain, and not just in our dreams either.’
‘Now isn’t that odd,’ Joerg observed to the group. ‘Grandad Cory predicted Kreech’s death, but had nothing to say of our fate.’
Ruprecht pondered that, but shrugged. ‘He said there is cause for hope, Georgie mine. Sleep my friends. There is still comfort and love to be found in our nighttime communion with the Great Mind.’
They all four attempted to settle in their cramped conditions, Ruprecht obliging Gilles to take his seat on the bed, while he stretched out his long legs on the cold stone floor. He was not there long. Boots stamped and keys rattled.
‘Prisoner Graf von Aalst, you will follow me!’ called a voice.
There was no help for it. Ruprecht levered his tall frame up, and was hustled out into the guardroom where soldiers replaced his cuffs. Then he was taken out into the night. The Marshal Prince of Forez and the Baron Meisel were awaiting him in the courtyard under a lantern, swathed in dark cloaks against the damp. The soldiers escorting Ruprecht departed.
‘Well, minheeren, and exactly what is this about?’ Ruprecht had a pretty good idea in fact, but it was a perverse sort of victory to try to get them to confess that they intended his assassination. They did not oblige him.
‘This way, your Excellency,’ the Baron said.
‘Where are we going?’
‘Somewhere quiet where we might talk, that’s all.’
He was prodded out into the formal gardens behind the palace pavilions, the lawns shimmering grey in the light of the Sisters. They left a dark track across the grass through the heavy dewfall the night had brought. Eventually they got to the deep, stone-lined fosse running along the back of the palace grounds, which prevented the beasts of the park trespassing within the gardens. There the group paused.
Just across the great ditch the sleeping bodies of a large herd of common erdbeesten dozed, the bulls still awake and patrolling further out in the park, alert for leopards.
‘So what do you want to talk about?’ Ruprecht asked.
The Baron seemed to be in charge. ‘It’s this. Four days ago the Patriarch left his palace on his own, walked down through the Holy City, out the Sint-Pol Gate and kept walking. He was of course followed by his aides and chaplains, but he just shook his head when they asked what he was doing, and kept on heading westward. He is in his late seventies and uses a stick, but he had covered twenty kilometres before nightfall, a crowd of worried clergy and guards trailing after him. As night fell, he knocked at the door of a peasant cottage by the road, and begged food and a bed. The next morning he carried on, and crossed into Ardhesse in the afternoon. The border police dared not stop him nor the hymn-singing crowd that was following. This evening he is in the town of Vincenzborg, as a guest of the mayor. A crowd of twenty thousand Ardhessians with crosses, banners and candles are keeping vigil in the market place outside, and I do hope they’re keeping the noise down for the old fellow’s sake.’
Ruprecht was surprised. ‘How does this concern me?’
The Baron tutted. ‘The manifestations in the night sky have the whole continent on edge. And many have noticed that it was the day before the Sisters moved in the sky that the Patriarch left his palace. People are relating the two events. Many thousands of Allemans are processing to meet the Patriarch on his way; whole villages behind their priest and cross. No one knows where he’s going, as he refuses to answer questions on the subject, other than to say he’s going to an important meeting.
‘The great Francien cities too are roused. There is no violence, but entire populations are occupying the city squares, singing or praying, with their bishops. They are displaying banners and relics of St François, the Second Emperor. Our garrisons are confined to barracks. It would be unsafe for them to venture out into the streets. In effect, we have lost control of the Francien Empire without a blow being struck.’
Ruprecht was stunned. He had been kept in the dark about these events since his arrest. He could guess why. ‘And I suppose the Emperor Kristijan hasn’t reacted in the way you expected?’
‘He’s most unlike his usual decisive self.’
‘Aah … but it’s not a military problem. It wouldn’t interest him. I imagine you will have found him abstracted of late … though sleeping rather well for all that.’
Vinseff snarled. ‘I told you he knew something!’
The Baron gave an irritated toss of his handsome head. ‘His Imperial Majesty’s asleep now. Until recently he would go for long periods barely taking any rest. He would often work through the night for a week at a time and seem no worse for it. Though he would then disappear for days within his … er … intimate household. But four weeks ago all that changed. And over the past eight nights he seemed even eager to be in bed at what most people regard as a normal hour; waking late and, his chamberlains say, reluctantly. His temper has worsened too, though it was always erratic. He was observed playing hide and seek with two of the younger kitchen boys out in the park three days ago.’
Ruprecht laughed. ‘And you think his psychosis has finally come to the point where he can no longer be counted on to rule his ramshackle realm and direct his armies?’
‘He’s not himself,’ Vinseff declared. ‘He’s lost it!’
‘On the contrary, minheeren,’ Ruprecht replied. ‘I rather fear it’s worse than that. He’s regaining his sanity.’
‘What’s happening to him, Graf? What’s going on above our world?’ Baron Meisel was getting urgent. ‘It’s evident you know more than you’re telling.’
‘I can tell you this much,’ Ruprecht said. ‘I have a feeling that no more than three days from now the world as you know it will change for ever, and you two gentlemen in particular will need to find a new way to make a living. Don’t ask for details, as I don’t know them. But I’m pretty much sure of one thing; His Holiness the Patriarch is heading for the Montenard Republic, and the canton of Hartland in particular. Also if you want answers out of him, try asking him in English.’
The marshal and the spymaster looked at each other. The Baron sighed. ‘His Imperial Majesty has left orders that you and your associates, including the pretender François of Aix, are to be brought to him at his private pavilion in the park, where he is sleeping tonight. I believe you know the place?’
‘Indeed. I spent a memorable evening there. His Imperial Majesty is sleeping … with friends?’
The marshal-prince rolled his eyes. ‘He got rid of the old crew apart from his boy-handler. His new friends are somewhat … younger.’
Ruprecht remembered Willy, the talented catamite who had stage-managed the Masque of the Erdbeesten he had witnessed in an earlier visit to the Waltherborg Palace. The boy was as pretty, sinister, dark and languid as ever. He was leaning up against the wall of the villa which was Kristijan’s hideaway within the park, taking drags from a cigarette. He was idly watching a group of four pubescent boys running and playing in the trees, shrieking and laughing. The boys were barefoot in various states of undress, while Willy just wore a white shirt, open to his navel and barely covering his butt, which he was scratching, his thick, dark cock was visible and hanging heavy.
He nodded to the Baron and the Marshal-Prince, saying, ‘I’ll tell him you’re here. He’s awake.’ He sashayed indoors calling out in a rather bored voice ‘Kris! It’s them!’
Kristijan emerged looking absorbed in something else, wearing a loose cotton robe and also smoking. ‘I’ll see the pretender and Rupe. Take off their cuffs. The rest can wait outside. You too, Baron and whatever your name is … Vinseff.’ He looked over to the frolicking children and his face changed to a gentle and human smile. ‘Georgie! Don’t you be so rough with our Robby!’ A cute little blond, wrestling with a taller, dark and skinny boy, grinned and waved at Kristijan, then carried on.
The villa was as Ruprecht remembered it, though the hormonal stink of its previous occupants was gone. The floor was cluttered with expensive toys and discarded boys’ clothes. Castles, toy trains and soldiers were everywhere. Kristijan picked his way elegantly through the mess and led Ruprecht and François upstairs. There was a wide bed in the main room, big enough for several people, the sheets and blankets tumbled.
Kristijan reclined against the head board and indicated a sofa opposite. ‘Well, here we are,’ he said. He looked saner and quieter than Ruprecht had ever seen him.
‘How did you sleep, sire?’
‘You know, Rupe, because you were there, you and the professor. Robby and Georgie. I should have realised.’
‘So, everything’s clearer to you now, yes?’
Kristijan stared at him. ‘I, you and the professor were boys, myself younger than you pair. We’ve played together before; it was the first time I was happy and peaceful there. It was before I realised Grandad Cory was my friend. This time we were all three together on horseback, me in front of you, and Georgie clinging on behind, riding across that great empty plain. Looking for …’
‘Kreech. We were looking for him.’
‘Who is he really?’
‘He’s my brother, Felix. But he wasn’t there. We couldn’t find him. Do you know why?’
‘He told me. We meet most nights and we have such fun and laugh so much: him, me and our grandad. He told me that in the world he’s sick and getting worse and that soon he will have to leave. And last night we couldn’t find him. It wasn’t my best dream in that place.’ He glanced over at François. ‘You know this place too?’
‘Yes I do,’ François replied. ‘I and Gilles are brothers there, we walk and ride as sons of the Great Bulls; we hold council with our grandsires every night. We’ve met Cory, your grandfather. But he leads another herd, the one to which you and Rupe belong.’
Kristijan’s faced shifted into a less sane and more suspicious mode. ‘And what exactly do you and your bulls plan in your council? How to unseat me from my throne?’
François came back at him urgently. ‘No, Kris. That’s not anyone’s plan. Thrones and crowns may soon be irrelevant in any case. Haven’t Cory and Kreech tried to explain to you what’s happening? You know more than most people about what’s happening above our planet and what might happen if the fireships blaze in our skies once again. Kreech and Cory want it to happen; don’t you?’
The narrowing of Kristijan’s eyes told Ruprecht that François was doing more harm than good with his artless enthusiasm. ‘Go away, François,’ he said in a tired voice, then called down the stairs. ‘Willy! Take the Francien outside. He’s boring. Send up little Robbie. You stay, Rupe.’
The catamite could be heard calling outside for one of the boys. François got up and hesitated. ‘Kris, we could still be friends, despite everything that’s happened between us. Just listen to the Herd.’
‘Go!’ Kristijan insisted, more shrilly now. François left as a tall boy of around twelve thudded barefoot and bare-chested up the stairs and bounced on to the bed next to Kristijan, who smiled and took the boy round his shoulder, kissing his curly dark hair.
‘Give me hugs, Robby,’ he asked, and the boy happily unloosed Kris’s robe, exposing his lean body and clasped him round his waist, giggling. ‘Tickles later,’ Kristijan said. He looked over to Ruprecht. ‘I picked him because he looks like you in my dreams.’
‘Where did you find your little gang, Kris?’
‘Oh, military orphanages, homeless prostitute’s brats; so many discarded and homeless children in Ardhesse. It’s a scandal. I’ve got plans for children’s refuges and hospitals. Do you think Cory would approve? They’ll be in the name of the Emperor Kristijan Trust.’
‘I’m sure Cory would be very pleased,’ Ruprecht affirmed. ‘He’s changed you. Is that why you’re so angry?’
Kristijan took the boy in his arms, caressed and kissed him for a while, ‘Robby’ nuzzling him back. Then Kristijan sighed. ‘I’m so tired, Rupe. I feel empty all day long. Nothing engages me, just these little ones and their innocent play … though they’re not so innocent when they play with Willy. Little rascals, aren’t you?’
‘Soon enough. Off you go and get ready, you and Georgie.’
‘Can I go in front this time?’
‘It is your turn to go there, Robby. Besides you poked me in the back with your stiffie last time.’
The boy laughed. ‘I go hard when my thing rubs your bum. It tingles nice.’
He jumped up and, dropping the trousers which were all he wore, he bounded downstairs, calling out for his friends.
Kristijan commented. ‘We like riding bareback through the park. Just like on the Great Plain: just like you and I did that last time. It gives me peace.’
‘Kris, you’ll never have peace in this world, now you know what sanity is.’
‘Thank you for confirming what I already know. These lucid moments with the children and in my dreams are all the more painful because they don’t last. The ministers bother me and I get annoyed, but I couldn’t really care less. All I do is wait for the sun to go down, then the boys and I snuggle in bed and for a while my head is quiet.’
‘Let us go, Kris. You know we mean you no harm. We need to be at Yorck; that’s where François and Gillot can complete their mission.’
Kristijan sighed. ‘Oh very well. But the colonel has to go with you. I know you and your honour, so swear to me that you’ll come back when the job’s done. You and the Francien pretender, but Gillot and the professor can go free.’ He sat up and wrapped his robe around him. ‘Come along,’ he ordered.
They walked downstairs and out on to the lawn where the other three captives were sitting. The gang of boys was running and hallooing in the woods, the odd flash of a pale body shining out from time to time as a child scampered through a shaft of light. Willy too had disappeared.
Kristijan lit up a cigarette. ‘These four are to be let go and make their way to Yorck.’ he declared to the Baron and the Prince. ‘Colonel, you’ll accompany them. The Graf has given his word that he will return within the week, and so must the pretender. But the other two may do as they wish. No doubt the Ritter Gilles will wish to be at Ostberg for the ceremonies of his husband’s interment.’
The Baron looked nervous. ‘Sire! Is this wise?’ he said tentatively.
‘This is insane!’ the Prince of Forez declared much more volubly. ‘You can’t be so mad as to let Von Aalst run off. You’ll never see him again!’
Kristijan took a drag on his cigarette and surveyed the prince with distaste. He slowly let the blue smoke exhale, then he said, ‘Vinseff, you really don’t get men of honour. Hardly surprising in a thief and a scoundrel. Oh … and of course, in a coward who ran from a meeting to which he had been challenged. You’ve been a useful scoundrel till now, but it seems you now think you can run the Empire better than I. So tell you what, my dear Vinseff, I made you a prince and he’s a count, so you’re not so far up the Golden Ladder that you can deny a meeting. So, if you want to stop Ruprecht going off into the blue, carry out the duel you ran away from and kill him. What d’you think, colonel?’
Von Ampfeld grinned under his moustache. ‘I’ll be delighted to second the prince, sire.’
‘But … you can’t!’ protested Vinseff.
‘Oh I can. What’s more, if you refuse the engagement, I’ll have you stripped naked and placed in the erdbeesten barn till the beasts finish with you. I had fun there with the boys a while ago. I’d like to see how you manage in the cage under a bull. Jacki squealed so nicely, but he was so good with big cock. You don’t like going under, I hear.’
‘No … this is …!’ Vinseff was sweating and tugging at his cravat. He looked around, pleading.
‘I’ll second you, mon frère et père,’ Gilles declared.
Kristijan’s face had resumed its mad cockiness. ‘Excellent,’ he exclaimed. ‘Today is beginning to look up after all.’