Kristijan of Ardhesse had by no means forgotten his captive. A week after his visit from Joerg and Felix, Ruprecht had a second encounter with the Baron Meisel. The minister sent a polite note ahead of him; Ruprecht found himself sniffing the paper, which as he half-expected was highly scented. The baron arrived promptly at midday bringing a picnic with him – complete with a tablecloth and chilled white wine – which he was delighted to share with Ruprecht.
‘We are family, Excellency, so let’s share a table.’ He sat with his legs elegantly crossed, and smiled around him as if he were in a fashionable restaurant. He talked about mutual relatives, some of whom Ruprecht had met at family functions in Hochrecht and Ostberg. Then he got on to the progress of the war, enthusing about the genius of his royal master, whom he seemed genuinely in awe of.
‘His Majesty personally directed his cavalry divisions in a dramatic manoeuvre that severed the Imperial rail links to the north of Rivières. Four cities are thus cut off and under siege by the army of Westrecht, while our three corps and the Alleman Legion march on the fortress itself. I believe the Emperor must therefore commit to battle, which is His Majesty’s plan.’
Ruprecht was not as clued in on military matters as his brothers and Gilles. ‘And why is that a good thing, Baron?’
Meisel smiled. ‘I am no soldier either, minheer Graf. But those who are tell me the key to modern warfare is to maintain mobility in the field until a powerful and decisive blow can be delivered to the enemy. Once you allow a war of attrition to develop – a war of sieges and lines – then no decisive victory can be expected when the forces are equal, as in this case they more or less are.’
‘His Majesty is counting on a single throw of the dice to settle his quarrel with the Emperor? Isn’t that reckless?’
‘With my king, the dice are always loaded, sir, as the military minds of Terre Nouvelle are learning. There has been nothing quite like him in many generations. He is very much a king for our own modern days.’
Ruprecht didn’t argue with that assertion. ‘Would you be so good as to tell me what His Majesty’s plans are regarding myself?’
The baron smiled pleasantly. ‘The very reason I’m here, though I was enjoying your company too much to be in a hurry to get around to it. So, my dear cousin, here is the good news. His Majesty is most impressed with the project which you and Dr Tannerman are pursuing, and fully intends to support it. I have here letters appointing you as Director of the Royal Ardhessian Institute for Archaeological Studies, a new scientific body to be nominally based at the Carolinaean University of Ardheim, in which Dr Tannerman is to be appointed Regius Professor of Historical Philosophy. I believe the salaries are quite handsome. You are to have funds to recruit research associates of your choice and to finance excavations. His Majesty insists only that you accept as Assistant Director an academic gentleman of his own choosing.’
Ruprecht was not blinded by the generosity. His research was being hijacked by King Kristijan, and for his own purposes, as Joerg feared. The Assistant Director would be the king’s agent within the project, reporting back to him directly.
For all his suspicion of the king’s motives, Ruprecht was in no position to resist the royal will. They did after all want the same thing: answers to the mystery of their world’s history and humanity’s arrival in it. With the power, resources and influence of King Kristijan behind him, there was no doubt he would be in a far better position to find them. And of course if he refused his confinement would doubtless continue indefinitely, unless the bored king chose to terminate his existence. He looked up from the letter of appointment and smiled at the baron. ‘I will of course accept.’
‘Excellent, my dear cousin. I had no doubt you would. The launch from your brother’s warship will be at the fortress dock at the ninth hour, on the dot with naval precision I am sure. You are to report your plans to me at the Ministry as soon as you have consulted with the new professor. His Majesty however expressly asks that you suspend your activity in the Republic for the time being. Ardhessian academics will not receive much of a welcome in the southern cantons for a good while I fear.’
‘But, for heaven’s sake! That’s where we were at last finding solid answers! What does the king suggest?’
‘Nordrecht, my dear Graf. The Alleman prefecture there is the one ancient location you have yet to identify.’
‘Archaeological Studies,’ Joerg mused. ‘It has a ring to it.’
‘More so than “Investigative Excavation”. I believe it’s a word of the king’s own devising.’
‘Then we’re not in a position to object to it, really.’
‘Are you alright with this, little one?’
Joerg smiled. ‘For all that it’ll be a nuisance to have King Scumbag breathing down our necks, you’re right in thinking that it removes many difficulties from our path. I know that you’ve been free-handed with funding, but your resources aren’t infinite. So yes, I’m alright with it. We’ll just have to be careful with this Assistant Director person.’
The reunited lovers were sitting in the senior wardroom of the heavy cruiser CWS Felix the Great. It was a large, wood-panelled room, quite elegantly appointed. Felix complained about this, as in an act of fraternal mischief by Captain Hans he and Gilles only had access to the junior wardroom where the under-lieutenants and midshipmen ate and socialised. It was noisy and smelly, Felix said. The food was dreadful too, and Hans just laughed when he asked him to do something about it. Gilles on the other hand was anything but unhappy with shipboard life. As a Vieldomainois boy the sea to him had always been a romantic dream, and the stay on the warship had confirmed him in his desire eventually to seek a naval commission. He also venerated Hans, who was being very encouraging and helpful to his Francien foster-brother. Felix was a little discomfited by this unsuspected ambition in his lover, but was loyally standing by Gilles, knowing that they first had four years together in university before Gilles would enter naval college, if he held to his determination.
Hans himself entered at that point. He looked rather splendid in post captain’s uniform, with four bands of gold lace on his sleeve and heavy bullion epaulettes on each shoulder. He placed his laced cap on the table and took a seat. ‘We’ll be under way in ten minutes. Young Gillot has asked permission to be on the bridge as we leave the harbour roads – the lad’s very keen. We’ll put him and Kreech ashore as we pass the Holy City, and drop you two off at Blauwhaven; then I’m off on joint exercises with the East Kingdom’s fleet for a week as commodore of the Confederate Cruiser Squadron. The Easterners are getting very nervous about the situation on the Mainland.’ He beamed. ‘I get to raise my flag for the first time.’
‘Your flag? You’ve got lots of flags! It’s like a laundry line out there when we leave port.’
Joerg shook his head. ‘Hans means he’ll raise his own flag at the mainmast as commodore of a squadron, with post captains under his command for the duration of his commission. It means he’ll be almost an admiral, which considering he was captain of a corvette not too long ago is quite a jump.’
‘Oh, sorry! I had no idea. Congratulations, Hans.’
‘If the position is made permanent, I’ll get to be Counter-Admiral under Admiral von Gurlitz-Aschenau, then the flag stays at the mainmast and I get a flag captain of my own to do all the hard work on Felix the Great while I swan around on the admiral’s bridge and drink tea.’
Ruprecht was somewhat concerned at the news. ‘Does this mean you’ll not be available to ferry us around anymore? That’s a little inconvenient.’
Hans guffawed. ‘I can order other people to do it.’ He listened to the throbbing that was beginning to vibrate the wardroom floor. ‘The turbines are getting powered up. We have a voltaic telegraph now that gives commands to the engine room and main guns without anyone needing to bellow down a tube. Those Dreiholmtz engineers have given us voltaic lights all over the ship and we’re promised an ether-telegraph.’
‘Voice telegraphs which allow you to speak to ships even over the horizon.’
‘They project sound through the ether. It’s an amazing invention. The Confederacy will possess the only ships with it other than the Royal Navy of Dreiholmtz. Must go. See you at dinner here, first hour after sunset.’
‘Well,’ Ruprecht observed when his brother left, ‘our world’s technology is moving ahead. Ether-telegraphy? How does that work?’
‘It’s a simple theory. We’ve long known that sound moves in waves through the air, just as signals pulse along telegraph lines. The sound of a voice can be transformed and condensed by voltaic energy into a tight wave which carries over large distances and is transmitted by masts or poles into the ether. Sensitive receiving poles can pick it up perhaps hundreds of kilometres away. I have heard that Dreiholmtz is in ether contact with its legations and embassies across the Mainland, and that its envoys can speak direct to the foreign ministry without the need for telegraphic code and signals. There’s been one of those masts over the Ostberg legation since I’ve been in Bernicia.’
Ruprecht pondered this modern marvel. ‘Joerg? I suppose we can assume that the Ancients had this technology.’
‘Undoubtedly, I would say.’
‘Would that account for the foundations of those metal pylons at the prefectures, do you think?’
‘I suppose it might.’
‘They were very tall. Didn’t you estimate their original height at around forty metres?’
‘That was my projection.’
‘Structures that tall must have been designed to speak not to the other prefectures, but to something else a lot further away.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Maybe there were other star vessels than the fireships in which the Ancients landed. Maybe they were just their equivalent of Hans’s steam launches. Maybe the big ships by which they travelled the stars are actually still anchored up there, outside our world in the dark of space.’
Erwin the seneschal beamed all over his face as he welcomed his lord back to his castle. It seemed to Ruprecht that he had been away rather longer than the six weeks his latest adventure had consumed, though he had been in fear of his life for some part of that, which tends to make life go at a faster pace than normal.
The weather was now balmy, and it was a great relaxation to shed his clothes and join Joerg lying out by the pool, or to ride the moorlands and clifftops of his coastal estate. In the evenings they planned out the Nordrecht expedition.
‘Our medallion gives us, as ever, an approximate position,’ Joerg commented. ‘This time it will be a little easier as the star marking the prefecture is quite close to the east coast, no more perhaps than thirty kilometres inland.’
‘I’m still pissed that we can’t get back to Yorck. We were so close there to something really big. Now it’s snatched away from us by war and politics.’
‘I can be philosophical about it. After all, think what we discovered at Champs Dolent. The Alleman prefecture too might have its secrets. We’ll get back to Yorck eventually; King Scumbag will make certain of that.’
Ruprecht checked over the map of the North Kingdom. He had never been there, though he was a well-travelled man. It made up the north-eastern quadrant of the Mainland and was popularly supposed to be snowbound and forbidding. But, as he knew, the coastal piedmont and inland plains and forests of Nordrecht were perfectly temperate, except of course in midwinter. An alpine range deep in the realm’s interior had been a perfect rampart of defence against the Empire to its south and west, and that did have snow all year round, unlike the Montenard alpine homeland in the south. Ruprecht though had no plans to venture that far.
Once their Ardhessian associate director had arrived, the Institute’s first expedition would travel by scheduled coastal steam packet to the port of Gerhardtsheim, which was the nearest city to the approximate site of the ancient Alleman prefecture.
Joerg and he had been given liberty to recruit a team of their own choosing other than Ruprecht’s deputy, so letters and telegraph messages had gone out to a number of young scholars of their acquaintance, advertising the possibility of paid employment in the emerging discipline of ‘archaeology’ as they now called it, deferring to their royal patron’s wishes.
Quite a few expressed interest, and Ruprecht had proposed interviewing a group of them in Ostberg, in a public room in the Residenz, since the court was presently at the Farcostan Palace. ‘And if that doesn’t intimidate them nothing will,’ observed Joerg.
The scheduled day brought six potential associates to the interviews, the direction of which Ruprecht largely left to Joerg. All six were southern Allemans, as that seemed politic in the circumstances. Talking to the two women in the group brought back Joerg’s stammer, but he was at ease with most of the candidates. In the end they appointed four of them, including both women, and arranged for all to meet at Gerhardtsheim the week after First Mass Sunday. Ruprecht and Joerg would have hopefully found premises as a temporary centre for their Institute of Archaeology by then. Neither unfortunately had any academic contacts in Nordrecht to ease the venture.
In the third week of Lent a letter duly arrived from Baron Meisel informing them that His Majesty – despite conquering and occupying the southern half of the Empire and coming within striking distance of the capital city of Aix – had appointed a Dr Malcolm Tribecs as Assistant Director.
Ruprecht smiled broadly. ‘It’s Scumbag’s little joke meant for me. He knows the persistence of English personal names in northern Ardhesse was a stimulus of my theory of early settlement history in the south. He’s found an academic with one. I hope the man is more than just a name. Do you know anything about him?’
Joerg shrugged. ‘He’ll be a dependable nonentity who’ll be reporting over our heads to the sinister baron; there’s nothing much else to know, is there? The problem will be finding something for him to do.’
‘The houses are different,’ Joerg observed as their ship eased into the harbour of Gerhardtsheim.
‘It’s the North Kingdom. What do you expect, little bull? We’re over 1500 kilometres from home.’
‘They’re wood. You don’t register that houses are mostly stone and brick down south. I suppose it’s the greater availability of timber up here.’
‘There is that, but there’s also the fact that timber homes offer better insulation in their harsh northern winters. Even living in our sandstone castle by the southern seas, I occasionally wish on gloomy days for a more homely and warm ambience.’
The northern weather, as it happened, was anything but wintry at the moment. It was a beautiful spring day, and fresh green was appearing in the wooded hills around the small port city. Painted in a variety of pastel shades, the houses climbing up from the sea front were reflected in the still waters of the harbour. It was a beguiling sight, and all in all Ruprecht’s first impression of the Frozen North was very positive.
Without any institutional support, the party from Blauwhaven rented rooms in a boarding house to serve as offices and accommodation; much to their landlady’s delight, as it was early in the season to have let more than half her available rooms. Erwin set up a temporary workroom and assigned quarters to the incoming research associates, and to Dr Tribecs. The entire Royal Ardhessian Institute for Archaeological Studies was assembled, and indeed tightly packed on a miscellany of chairs, three days after they had arrived in Gerhardtsheim.
Dr Malcolm Tribecs turned out to be a nondescript portly gentleman with a doctorate in modern linguistics, which explained why neither Ruprecht nor Joerg had any acquaintance with his work. It tended to confirm what they expected, that it was not for his ability to assist the Institute’s work that he had been appointed. Ruprecht’s first conversations with the man were formal and distant, and he expected they would remain that way. They had their first clash when it came to his area of responsibilities.
‘Your field of linguistics may be useful if we manage to turn up any further ancient writings from the Landing period,’ Ruprecht had observed.
The man shook his head. ‘I’m afraid I have no English, Herr Director. I was given to understand that my responsibilities were to be in the administration of the Institute. I was vice-dean of the Faculty of Language and Literature at the Carolinaean.’
‘Ah well. My plan is that we’re all working academics here, and you will be expected to wield a shovel with the rest of us.’
‘Of course, Herr Director, if that is what your require of me. All I was saying was that my background is in project administration.’
Ruprecht was perfectly aware that this position would give Dr Tribecs all the opportunity he would require to monitor the expenditure, reports and much of the correspondence of the Institute on Meisel’s behalf. Unfortunately it couldn’t be avoided, and Dr Tribecs was conceded that sphere for his own.
‘But the point is,’ Ruprecht commented to Joerg, ‘that two can play at that game, and I have a seneschal whose duties include protecting his master’s interests at all costs. So I’ll alert Erwin that we have a snake in our midst, who might turn out to be a viper.’
The serpent in question was sitting among the research team as Ruprecht began his introduction to their project, sketching out progress and theories to date. Tribecs was indeed taking up a good deal of the available room. He would have to lose some weight to be able to contribute any real assistance to the excavation.
The bright young faces of the four associates were a different matter, and Ruprecht was pleased to see them becoming deeply absorbed in Joerg’s explanation of their work to date, and the crucial juncture to which the research had come. Joerg had the local photographer in Blauwhaven convert many of his plates into glass transparencies, and the room became breathlessly still as, slide by slide, the team was introduced by means of a lantern projector to the massacre site of Préaux du Sang, the bolt-hole of Jean-Charles at Champs Dolent and the bog people of Heilige Moss.
Joerg paused as the gathering absorbed his reconstruction of humanity’s early days on Terre Nouvelle. The group was beginning to charge itself up for the inevitable academic interchange when Joerg held up his hand and resumed (rather dramatically) with the latest discoveries at Yorck, in his view the undoubted Landing site. He topped it off with the discovery of the body of the Ancient and the implications of the technology that might lie beneath the mound to the south of the prefecture.
Awe-struck silence greeted his last remarks. Finally one of the ladies, Adela von Franck, a small and pretty blonde almost exactly Joerg’s own dimensions and colouring, put up her hand. ‘Then why are we here, Professor Tannerman? We should be in Hartland completing your exploration.’
Ruprecht answered for him. ‘War and politics, Fräulein. No Ardhessian scientific team will be welcomed by the Montenards; they’d be assumed to be espionage agents. So until the international situation improves we’re making the best of things, and we know that somewhere within thirty kilometres of where we’re sitting is yet another of the colonial prefectures, perhaps the most interesting for us as being the original settlement of the Alleman people on our world.’
‘And don’t forget,’ Joerg pointed out, ‘that each of the prefectures so far has provided some remarkable insights into early human society on Terre Nouvelle.’
Dr Tribecs coughed at this point, and interjected forcefully ‘Neue Welt!’
‘I beg your pardon?’ Joerg asked.
The man frowned. ‘I’d prefer it, Herr Doctor-Professor, if we used the Allemanic term. Don’t you think that continuing to use the Imperial name for our world is to consent to centuries of Francien subjugation? Our king is creating a different and better place.’
Ruprecht shot the man a steely look. He’d already had enough, and now the fellow was presuming to throw his weight around. ‘Dr Tribecs, can you tell me what your job title is?’
‘What is your job title?’
‘You know it.’
‘Indeed I do, and it says you’re the Assistant Director of this Institute. Academic policy decisions are not in your sphere, and any more such interventions without prior discussion with the Director will not be well received. That is the last warning you will get.’
Tribecs was a bully, Ruprecht clearly saw, and a brusque slap across his face now would be for the best, though it would not make for an easy future relationship. The man went white and then red, and could not prevent a glare of hostility in Ruprecht’s direction, which he met with a level stare until Tribecs looked down. The discussion that followed was, unsurprisingly, muted.
The government of Nordrecht, unlike those of the southern states, sponsored a national geographical institute, which in conjunction with the corps of engineers of the Northern army produced quite excellent maps and surveys of the kingdom in a number of scales. They were not supposed to be available to the general public, but Erwin Wenzel had somehow obtained several surveys of the province in which they were commencing their search.
‘I wish we’d had these in Vieldomaine,’ Joerg commented.
‘They’re certainly good to have here. The other two prefectures were riverside sites, and I don’t suppose the northernmost one will be any different. So how about we take an approximate location based on the medallion map and mark off maybe twenty square kilometres around it, then see how many river valleys it contains?’
After about half an hour’s work with pencils and rulers they had a search area. ‘It’s pretty corrugated as landscapes go,’ Joerg noted. ‘I make at least six potential valleys leading north-west from where we are on the coast. It just so happens that one of the quadrants of our search area is covered by this large-scale map which shows individual fields, with banks and drains all neatly marked.’
They pored over the map and noticed a familiar pattern close to the largest of the rivers that crossed their area, the river Sprungsee. Within a broad wooded loop of the stream near the village of Turenwald was clearly marked the familiar double enclosure and the laconic words uralte Ruinen: ‘ancient ruins’.
‘Interesting name for the local village.’ Ruprecht observed.
‘Tower Woods.’ Joerg responded.
‘I think we have our site. God bless Nordrechtner cartography. One problem sorted.’
‘And what about another problem?’
‘The odious Dr Tribecs? Passive and aggressive both at the same time, an odd mixture in one personality.’
‘He’s not just inefficient, he’s positively obstructive. I’ve had priest colleagues just like him; they cause more problems than a nest of heretic Evangelicals. They’re untrustworthy and deceitful, but put on this masquerade as being righteous and hard done by. They set whole parishes by the ears. The man’s done nothing about transferring Ardhessian funds to a local bank, yet I know he has a letter of credit. He’s twice said he’s done it, but Erwin checked at the bank and they said he hadn’t been there. How’re we to pay the kids?’
‘No problem then. I’ll get the local police to arrest him for indolence and ineptitude.’
Joerg heaved a sigh. ‘Take it seriously, Herr Director.’
‘I’ll march him down there personally. If all else fails I’ll exercise my noble right to cane his fat backside. It’s his attitude of mind that concerns me. It’s something King Scumbag has managed to tap into, as if he’s infecting a whole nation’s minds with his madness. The hatred that seethes in Tribecs is disturbing.’
‘You’re right about Kristijan being at the root of it. How better to mobilise Alleman populations than convince them that the Franciens are out to obliterate them as a people, and that unless they take up arms they and their families are doomed?’
‘It’s new to me.’
Joerg shook his head. ‘Sometimes you’re so naïve, Rupe. As an aristocrat you live in an international world. Your people speak both languages as a matter of course. Your class intermarries with Franciens and you share a common noble culture. On the backstreets of our cities you’d find Tribecs’s views are not so uncommon, and all sorts of crude names are applied to Franszkis by people who’ve never met one. King Scumbag has seized on it and is turning it to his advantage; it’s another way for him of levering noble ideals out of public life. The man is demonic.’
Another uncomfortable interview with Dr Tribecs followed, with the man assuring Ruprecht that the finances had all been sorted and that payment for the associates was in hand. Ruprecht by now knew what he was dealing with and coolly emptied the man’s valise in front of him to secure the letter of credit, which was unopened. He confiscated the man’s papers and discharged him on the spot.
‘So, that’s him sorted,’ he smiled at Joerg. ‘I’ve had Erwin escort him to the station, he can take the long journey overland. Perhaps he’ll enjoy his passage through Francien lands to get back to Ardhesse.
Joerg shook his head. ‘I don’t think he’s sorted. He’ll scurry back to the Baron, and you may not have noticed but only he can deposit this credit note. It’s in his name.’
Ruprecht shrugged. ‘I have my own funds. Erwin insisted I have a reserve in case of trouble: Herr Wenzel wins again.’
‘You didn’t tell me!’
‘I had hoped I’d not need to. But Erwin half expected that the Baron would make life difficult, even though his royal master wants the project to succeed.’
‘Why’s that?’ Joerg was bemused.
‘The Baron doesn’t like rivals for the king’s ear, and I speak directly to him at a level the king does not normally allow. He wants us discredited, and cares little for our work. I wonder if he realises that crossing the king on this particular project may be dangerous for him.’
‘Dammit, Rupe, things were so much easier when we were happily digging away with the boys and farm labourers at Champs Dolent. I miss our two gems so. Where are they now?’
‘They’re still down in the Holy See, but Mutta is going to take them on a tour of the islands of Dreiholmtz, in part to see Heinrich, my oldest brother, who’s a refugee from the paternal hearth. Mutta can also look in on her cousins in Zuidhinsel. Then they’re back to Blauwhaven, probably at Kirkfest. I’d rather Felix stayed there with Mutta and their tutor. We’ll be back in Bernicia by midsummer I’d hope, maybe with results.’
‘And a lot poorer. This season will come out of your pocket, for all Kristijan’s promises.’
‘It’s up to Meisel to find a replacement and reimburse me. I’ve sent letters direct to Kristijan, copied to the Baron, making allegations about Tribecs’s honesty and sobriety and enclosing a rather compromising document he was writing in which he suggests that you and I are in a corrupt and degrading sexual relationship. Imagine! The oaf appears to have failed to register that both his great patrons are homos too. It was Erwin’s idea.’
Joerg beamed. ‘Want to corrupt and degrade me for a bit?’
‘Couldn’t think of anything more sordid by which to debase myself. C’mere little bull!’