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Mike Arram

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About Mike Arram

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    65
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    Gay
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    Fantasy
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    History, Red Wine, Travel, Architecture, Crusader Kings II

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  1. Mike Arram

    Chapter 30

    Actually there’s more to come. I couldn’t leave these characters alone. Next up, the story of Justin and fatherhood. 😏
  2. Henry dumped his bags in the lounge. He was so very glad to be back in Finkle Road. It was normality. He looked around. Memories of Gavin were everywhere, but they didn’t depress him. A small smile played around his mouth. ‘Where are you baby?’ he queried softly. When he went up to what had been their room, he stared in astonishment. Gavin’s clothes and books were all gone. There were none of his possessions to be seen, only an envelope lying on the bed. Henry opened it gingerly. It was in Gavin’s handwriting. ‘Henry my Henry. I’ve been given time to tie up the ends of my old life. I didn’t want you to have to clear out my stuff. It might have been painful for you, and I’ve caused you enough pain, my poor darling. My parents think I’ve gone abroad for overseas service, which in a way I have. The Registry has the distinct impression that I’ve withdrawn from my course. There will be no awkward questions. So now I can say goodbye. Love you forever, my own one. Talk to me often. I may hear you. G.’ Tears in his eyes, Henry dropped the letter on the floor. It was perhaps inevitable that it was not there when an hour or so later he went back to find it. Eddie arrived just at that point in a Peacher car, whose driver helped him in with the bags and surf gear. Three expensive boards were leaning up against the banisters. ‘So how was Malibu?’ After twenty minutes of technical discussion and statistics, Henry finally learned that UCSU Surfing Soc had excelled itself on the Pacific Coast in three critical areas – sport, fornication and recreation. They had surfed all day and shagged and partied hard all night. Henry would be getting the unexpurgated anecdotes at regular intervals over the coming academic year. ‘And next June it’s Hawaii, no shit dude.’ Eddie was beaming at the thought. ‘All the guys are gonna come, maybe more this time … then, hell! Oz for the third year. Man, we are the coolest society in the Union. Chicks really flock to us!’ ‘So we’re back on the chicks trail, are we?’ ‘I was never off it, little dude. I made good use of my time back in California. Tina just made me more cautious. I insist now on an affidavit about the chromosomes of each lay before we undress. What d’you think?’ ‘I think you need to find a good girl who’ll keep you in order, and who’ll take the pressure off me.’ The next arrivals were Matt and Andy, who had decided to make the nostalgic trip back to Finkle Road to bring Ed down. Matt was quite brazen about his agenda. ‘We think Ed’s made the right decision so far as his future is concerned. There are opportunities here which Cambridge just cannot match.’ He grinned and twitched a perfect eyebrow at Henry. ‘Yes, I can see very well why Ed should quit the world-class, élite History Faculty of the University of Cambridge and come to the underfunded red-brick world of Cranwell, where the staff-student ratio reads like very long odds on a clapped-out nag in the 3.30 at Kempton Park. However, please don’t let me put you off the idea. ’Scuse me, but I’m off to work. I’m already approaching my credit limit and I need a cash transfusion to help me out.’ Henry walked down to the junction with College Road feeling almost as content as he did when strolling the Rodolferplaz. You can be quite happy, he found, even though there is a tinge of sadness to your life. Maybe the sadness even helps highlight what’s good about it. The trees were still green along the street and flowers filled the Memorial Gardens. It was a bright and breezy day. The leaves above him lifted and rustled, causing sunlight to flicker across his face. The air was warm. It was at this point, when Henry realised he and Gavin would never keep a bar together again, that the mixture of powerful emotions he had been juggling overwhelmed him utterly. He quickly turned into the gardens, took a secluded bench, put his head in his hands, and let the pain cry itself out. He didn’t sob, just let the tears flow freely as he surrendered to the great feeling of loss that had finally caught up with him in Cranwell. At last he searched his pocket for a hanky and blew his nose. He felt better – still weepy, but better. He knew it wouldn’t ever be as bad again. *** Henry had supposed that returning to the King’s Cross would be like coming home. Actually, he barely recognised the place. The peeling old brewery-painted sign was gone. There was nothing in its place. Terry had said he’d shelled out a fortune on the refit, but Henry had not expected it to be quite so stylish. The whole exterior had been repainted and the windows all replaced. Round the first-floor stage was a bold and modernistic fascia proclaiming: THE KING’S CROSS: FREE HOUSE & LICENSED CLUB: AN O’BRIEN ENTERPRISE. Henry pushed the new swing-door open. The stickers on the glass made it pretty clear that there was a dress code and that this was a gay pub. He gasped. Everything was super-plush. Terry’d had the builders knock the public and lounge bars together. A dartboard and pool area had attracted the old regulars, who were all still in residence and looked quite at home. Haggis was leering at a couple of young lads snogging on a nearby bench. They returned disgusted glares at him as they surfaced from time to time. There was a new guy behind the bar who smiled a little shyly. ‘You Henry?’ he asked in a heavy Riverside accent. ‘Hi! I’m William. Frank said yer’d be in. Yer awright? Yer eyes’re a bit red.’ ‘Just the final throes of hay fever,’ Henry lied. ‘How long’ve you been working here?’ ‘Since the grand reopening a month ago. Wharra night! It was 50p a pint if yer wuz prepared to kiss another guy full on the mouth. I got swollen lips and quite a bit of tongue. It brought in gays from as far as Reading and kept out the straights. There wuz quite some action going on in the bogs by closing time!’ Henry laughed. ‘Did anyone offer to snog Frank?’ It was William’s turn to laugh. He was just past twenty, slim, dark and more than a bit cute. It was pretty obvious that he was one of Terry’s boys. He confirmed it when he told Henry that Terry had taken his cherry when he was working in a local hotel a few years before. ‘He’s got an amazing cock, Henry. Nine inches and curved. He was my first and took ages to get it in me. Life has been a series of disappointments ever since. But it’s looking up. He met me in town and gave me this job, much better than the crappy County Radisson. It’s great what he’s done here, innit?’ Henry liked William a lot. A certain fey boldness about him told Henry that he had never been short of partners. They made a good team at the bar and were soon very comfortable with each other. Indeed, they were so comfortable that William had made a determined pass at Henry before the end of the shift, clearly not wanting to waste an opportunity if one presented itself. Henry just smiled and said no way. ‘How’s life, Frank?’ Henry asked when the manager’s sour face finally put in its appearance. ‘So you’re back. Your little friend at least came and said goodbye.’ Henry was stunned. ‘Er, what? Gavin? When did he do that?’ ‘After you two broke up, must have been six weeks ago. Yes. It was just after the contractors had moved on to fit out the club.’ ‘And you saw him … in person?’ Frank stared at Henry suspiciously. ‘I just said that.’ ‘How did he look?’ ‘He’d lost the glasses … must be wearing contacts now. He seemed pretty fit, so he must be working out too. What happened, did he grow out of you?’ Henry gave a grimace. ‘That’s one way of putting it. So what did he say?’ ‘Just that he appreciated the job, and that I wouldn’t be seeing him again for quite a while. But he thanked me very nicely for making his year at Cranwell so memorable. I thought it was a kind thing to do. I liked him a lot, though not as much as your Rothenian friend Frankie.’ ‘Did Gavin mention me?’ ‘You? Why should he? It was me being let down. Fortunately, Terry found the new kid just after. It’s not easy to get staff in a gay pub, believe me.’ ‘Oh, I believe you.’ Henry went off in confusion to wash some glasses. *** Henry was manning the LGBT Soc desk at the Freshers’ Fair. It was he now who had the ‘VP Gay and Lesbian Affairs’ badge on his chest. Manda and Fiona had gone on to do matching MSc’s in Biological Science at Stafford. Henry had inherited the task of reassuring just-out gay and lesbian students and handing out leaflets. But there were a couple of differences this year. Firstly, Wayne Clanchy had been banned from the Union, so there was no need to bother about him getting near the new students. Secondly, the orientation event had become a gay freshers’ dance at the new King’s Club. What was really wowing the society was that the great Matt White would be making a personal appearance and signing posters. Henry was getting a lot of unjustified credit for his enterprise. Actually, Matt was just down for a few days to stay with Terry. ‘Hey faggot!’ Eddie had the next desk along, signing up potential surfers for his society. He had a longer queue than Henry. Henry grinned across and blew a kiss. The first-year surfers looked bemused as their president blew a kiss back. Another pair of trainers appeared in front of Henry. He looked up to find Ed Cornish grinning down at him. ‘I’m new to Cranwell, but I’m not a fresher. Am I still eligible for the disco?’ Henry gave a little smile. ‘Course you are, Ed. You’d better have this orientation pack, too, not that you’ll need it.’ ‘Oh, I dunno. This is a lot different from Cambridge, little babe. When’re you packing up?’ ‘Four, I think.’ ‘Will you take me for a drink at the King’s then? I’ve yet to meet Frightful Frank.’ Henry agreed with a smile, assuring Ed that he wouldn’t be disappointed. Ed wandered off to check out the Sports Union. Towards evening, Henry and Ed walked companionably through the streets of Cranwell. ‘It’s not bad here, little babe,’ Ed observed. ‘You really seem to be getting into it.’ ‘Do you want to hear a confession?’ ‘Sexual in nature?’ ‘Not this time. No, the fact is I loathed Cambridge.’ ‘What! You never said.’ ‘I felt too sheepish. I was so determined to get there, and despite all your warnings that it would compromise our relationship, I bulldozed through with it … and at what a cost. Then there I was. It was just like Medwardine, only more so. I can see why public-school types congregate there. It’s practically an extension of public school. The problem is that in school you had to get on with your year group, and you made up a sort of community. But in Cambridge it all flies apart, and you’re isolated. I don’t know what I would have done without Guy. I didn’t get selected for any of the university teams … I wasn’t good enough for a blue, not even in hockey. That was a real blow to the Cornish pride. ‘Baby, I was desperate to get out by the end of the year. Coming here was not a stratagem just to get back into proximity with you. I needed to make a new start, and Matt and Andy told me as much. Are you disappointed in me?’ Henry took his hand briefly as they walked, his heart going out to Ed as it all too easily did. ‘Never, my Ed. You did the Cornish thing and went for the gold. How could I ever resent your doing what you were driven to do? I always feared you hated me for the way I hurt you in Strelzen after the coronation.’ Henry had let their hands drop by that time. Ed clutched Henry’s back again, though they were in a main street. He pulled Henry to a stop. ‘Hate you!’ His voice cracked. ‘Henry … I could never … you’re …’ Ed mastered himself with a very great effort. Inarticulate though his response was, Henry understood exactly what he was trying to say. Unwillingly, it sent a thrill right through him. This untouchable tower of strength, this school hero, was telling him exactly how weak, foolish and fallible he was. That was all it took to burst the dam of reticence between them. ‘Ed … you know you said we should be brothers?’ Ed nodded mutely. ‘I’ve suddenly got this urge to commit incest.’ And in the middle of Cranwell High Street in rush hour, Edward Cornish burst into tears. *** It was reading week, and Henry had decided he had to bite the bullet. He had not been back to Trewern since that dreadful weekend there with Gavin in February. Calls to his mum had abruptly dropped away. He tried to tell himself he shouldn’t have resented the treatment dealt out to Gavin. Everybody had been perfectly civil, but he knew the civility had been no more than a mask for polite indifference. However, Henry was learning that he must not dwell on grudges. He was also learning that the idols of his childhood, his mother and his first boyfriend, were as fallible and human as he knew he himself could be. The announcement that he was returning for a few days was greeted with such relief and warmth that he knew the recent distance between them had hurt his parents much more than it had hurt him. The additional information that he was coming with Ed Cornish was greeted with a brief silence and the timorous question as to whether it meant that … He confirmed that it did indeed mean he and Ed were boyfriends again. His mother finally said to Henry, ‘About Gavin... Darling, we are so sorry we didn’t embrace him the way we should have. I realize it was bad of me. It was just that he was so different from Ed, and you know how I like boisterous and lively boys. But the fact you loved him should have told me he was an out-of-the-ordinary person. I should have tried harder. I’m so sorry. Are you dreadfully unhappy about your break up?’ Henry sighed. What he had originally felt for Gavin was beyond his capacity to describe to his mother, and what he felt now, equally so. So he just said he was okay, the separation had been inevitable and there were no hard feelings. He rang off, feeling a bit lighter in heart at least. Church Stretton station was just the same as ever, and there was Dad in his collar with his arms out. Henry ran into the welcoming hug and felt like a boy again. Ed too got a hug, an even tighter one. They bundled into the Volvo and headed east through the familiar lanes and hedges to Trewern. Ed and Henry relaxed. Ed laughed as he recalled Henry straining to pedal up a particular hill on one of their biking expeditions. Henry laughed as he remembered Ed’s bemused but loyally interested expression while being dragged round Shropshire churchyards. Henry hugged his lover’s arm in the back of the car. ‘We were so good together as teens, Ed, and I’m so glad we’re good again. I know it’s stupid to think of people as being destined to fall in love. But somehow I think we were.’ ‘Just look what happened when I broke it up by going for Cambridge – unhappiness for me and tragedy for you.’ ‘Oh, Gavin baby was no tragedy, Ed. He was an epic hero hiding in a nerd. He was Clark Kent and I was Lana Lang. It was never going to end happily, but it was in no way tragic. It was more like a mum or dad waving goodbye to their child as he went off into a bigger world. It’s sad and hopeful at the same time.’ ‘Nicely put, little babe.’ ‘That’s “Kapitan-leutnant babe” to you, soldier.’ ‘Yes, sir!’ They laughed and laughed. Mr Atwood smiled softly as he drove. He had his boys back again. *** On Saturday, Ed and Henry were lying in the grass in Trewern churchyard, in their favourite place between the graves of Jehoiadah Scudamore and Nathaniel Corner. Henry was resting with his head pillowed on Ed’s stomach while Ed was questioning him about his vision at the Marienkloster of Medeln. ‘To me that was the strangest thing of all, little babe. You seemed to be talking to Jed Scudamore, who had come to you with a warning. But it wasn’t Jed.’ ‘No, it wasn’t Jed. He said as much. I just can’t decide if it was some sort of angelic being or … Him, you know.’ ‘Technically, babe, it was more likely to have been the former than the latter. I thought God communicates with the world through angelic messengers and agents. He doesn’t do it in person.’ Henry mused, ‘So was it a common or garden-variety angel, an archangel or one of the really big ones? Seraphim are the highest likely to communicate with the world directly, special messengers from the court of Heaven. But they are rarely ever seen by men. I wish he’d introduced himself properly instead of being all mysterious. And why did he adopt the appearance of Jed?’ ‘Oh, that’s easy, Henry. Angels have no form. They adapt to need and circumstance. Your guy took a form that he knew would reassure you. Be fair, you always fancied Jed rotten. I don’t blame you. He was magnificent, like a young Matt White.’ ‘Too small a dick, though.’ ‘How big’s Matt’s?’ ‘Pretty large, according to Andy.’ Ed turned to stare at Henry. ‘Andy talks to you about having sex with Matt?’ ‘We have no secrets. He tells me about Matt, and I tell him about you.’ ‘He never asks me about you.’ ‘It’s a bottom thing. Don’t worry about it.’ Henry had reverted to his preferred passive sexuality with great glee. Once again he was surrounded and possessed by a strong male body, and they had been frantically catching up on lost time since the beginning of term. It was no disloyalty, Henry thought, to acknowledge that this was the way he liked sex, being the willing repository for the seed of a powerful thrusting man. Gavin had never been able to do that for him. The opening of the priest’s door nearby caused them to sit up and look. ‘Dr Mac!’ Henry leaped up and ran to the old man. ‘Back from the Caribbean cruise then? You look nicely tanned. How’s Mrs Mac?’ ‘Fine, fine, Henry dear boy. You look like a new man … Ah, back with Edward, I see. That explains a lot.’ ‘Have you got time for a chat, Dr Mac? There’s a lot to tell you about the KRB, the Priory and Mendamero!’ The old man laughed. ‘You’re welcome to as much of my remaining time as you’d like, dear Henry.’ They sat together on a bench in the October sunlight, and Henry began the story of his latest Rothenian expedition. They talked until lunchtime. Dr Mac finally scratched his head. ‘Always you surprise me, dear boy. That such things happen! I must go away and think about it all.’ He stood up stiffly. As he was walking off, he suddenly stopped and glanced back at Henry. ‘I had a very amusing thought about the name MENDAMERO.’ ‘You did? What was it?’ ‘It’s the crossword enthusiast in me. If you rearrange the letters you get the two Latin words Ad Nemorem.’ ‘Yes? And that means ... ?’ The old man smiled. ‘At-wood.’ *** In the bar of the King’s Cross, a small group of old friends had gathered. Paul and Terry were sitting close together, as close as if they were the lovers they once had been. Paul had his arm round his oldest friend’s shoulder. ‘Y’know, Paulie,’ commented Andy, ‘you make a very convincing gay.’ ‘Why thank you, Andy. I shall take that as a compliment. The finest people of my acquaintance are all gay.’ ‘He means me,’ laughed Matt. ‘No, me,’ grinned Terry. ‘I mean all three of you, my dearest friends.’ ‘So why did you decide to take the offer of a permanent post in Cranwell?’ asked Matt. ‘Columbia seemed very interested in you.’ ‘Because when all is said and done, the people I love are all here in England. What worried me was what Rachel would say about it when we discussed the job. But she said she thought Mattie would be better off growing up in a terraced house in a small city in the UK, rather than in some New York apartment block. She’s got interviews for a couple of jobs in local government. It looks like we’ll do fine, and we’ll try to get over to Oregon whenever we can to see her folks.’ ‘Good,’ Andy nodded. ‘I’m glad you’re over this side of the Atlantic, ‘cos I really want to see my godson from time to time. And little Henry Atwood would have been distraught if he had lost his playmate, not to mention the invaluable source of income he draws from babysitting. Why do you pay him so much?’ ‘I was once a poor student myself, and I still have the debt to prove it.’ Paul smiled to himself. ‘You two guys seem to have done the impossible and made a family for yourselves.’ Matt looked at him. ‘We didn’t intend to, but yes, we have acquired our boys. Justy and Ed in particular, both young men of whom any father could be proud. But we have Henry and Nate too – loving, splendid men, and both in relationships that have a lot of strength in them. Henry especially seems to be going places. Yet we once thought Ed was the driving power in their partnership.’ Andy tutted. ‘Ed will do okay, my Matt. But it looks like we’ll be losing them to Rothenia in time. They’re both in love with the place, and Henry wants to work with Will Vincent.’ Matt nodded. ‘I don’t think it matters, though, because we have so many friends there too. How about we buy a castle near Strelzen, a real one with towers and dungeons – though not too big, think of the dusting – something like Templerstadt? I love that house! ‘What about you, Terry? How are things between you and Davey?’ ‘Alright. Davey loves the life I live, and he has the freedom to do the things he likes. He really is the dance king of Cranwell club land. Besides, he’s taken on the part-time management of the King’s Club. He’s made it quite the chic venue for young gays in the region. He has a talent for spotting the upcoming acts and booking them. It’s not like it was between me and Ramon, of course. Davey’s a very different man. Despite my mobile lifestyle, we have a relationship that works, though it would probably be better if we saw each other rather more. But Henry keeps Davey sane.’ He checked his watch. ‘Paulie, I gotta be off, but I’ll see you and Rachel for dinner, yeah?’ ‘Absolutely … oh and please don’t let Mattie play with your gun this time.’ ‘Hey, I made sure the safety was on!’ ‘That’s neither here nor there. Okay, I’m off too.’ Terry and Paul kissed and hugged Matt and Andy before taking their leave. Matt looked at Andy. ‘So babe, here we are back in Cranwell. I thought we swore an oath to leave it behind us and move on.’ Andy laughed and leaned in to kiss his partner. ‘Life has its own ideas, my Matt. Moving on seems to involve moving in circles, don’t you think?’ ‘That’s not a problem, providing you learn to deal with things better the second and third times around. Look at Henry and Ed, stronger and wiser men now, in a totally transformed relationship. They’ll go the distance, I think, now that Henry has taken over the moral leadership.’ ‘And Justy and Nate?’ ‘Two totally different characters. A gadfly orbiting a bowling ball at speed is an image that comes to mind. That is a bit unfair to them, though, because Justy has a great ability to love as well as to annoy.’ Andy laughed as he agreed. ‘They’re a very stable pair, and totally devoted to each other. Haddesley is a place brimming with happiness when they’re together.’ The two men smiled and looked into each other’s eyes for a while. Matt took Andy’s hand. ‘We’re surrounded by love, my babe. Do you know why?’ Andy shook his head. ‘It’s no small thanks to you. Your sweetness attracts the good in others. You gently encourage love the way a gardener encourages growth. It’s no wonder we have such friends as we do.’ Andy looked up at him through his pale lashes. ‘And you, Matt, what do you do?’ ‘What, me? I love you, pure and simple. That’s what I was put on Earth to do. That’s all I have ever wanted from life. Thank God for you. Imagine what might have become of me had we never gotten together. I’d probably be a very lost and lonely man, struggling hopelessly to find just a speck of love and warmth, as all too many people have to do. But with you I have the mother lode.’ ‘You underestimate yourself, my beautiful Matthew. I’m just what you made me, the lost boy you found and gave a home too, here between your arms, the only home I ever need. Odd, isn’t it? I could buy anything in the world I fancied, but what I fancy most is being right here with you, and that’s a thing no amount of money could never buy. I really am the man who has everything.’ Matt grinned as he looked in those sparkling blue eyes, the same eyes that had gazed into his own in passion while they had made love as teenagers, the eyes that had set his soul alight. There was a web of fine lines around them now and the cracks of crows’ feet appearing, but they still were beautiful and always would be. He smiled. ‘It’s the kids, babe.’ Henry and Ed were coming in through the doors just then, hand in hand. Signalling them over, Matt and Andy rose to greet the younger men, Andy kissing Henry, and Matt kissing Ed. The newcomers took the chairs vacated by Terry and Paul. They all smiled contentedly at one another. Matt took some time to size up Henry and compare him with the prematurely wise sixteen-year-old who had turned up on his doorstep that anxious night long ago in Highgate, when Ed had been abandoned by his feckless parents. Matt had loved the boy Henry was then for his tender support and loyalty to his boyfriend. He admired the full-grown man Henry had now become for his great courage and endless capacity to be true and loving without reserve. Henry had grown in strength and maturity during this past summer of crisis. Ed was taller and broader physically, but Henry had an air of confidence that marked him as the leader of the pair. He had great things ahead of him in life, so much was clear. Andy was asking them about their immediate plans. Ed was replying, ‘Henry wants us to get over to Rothenia for a week. Colonel Antonin has plans to throw a party at the Guards barracks in Strelzen for the two ornamental adjutants with whom the Guards Brigade has been saddled. The other officers are keen to meet us, apparently.’ ‘Yeah,’ laughed Henry, ‘I bet they’ve got some sordid initiation rites to put us through involving anal sex. Will they be surprised!’ Andy tutted. ‘What a corrupt imagination you have, little Henry. I blame Terry.’ ‘It’s easy to blame Terry, Andy, but I’m afraid the decadence is all self-generated. Even Gavin couldn’t suppress it, and my baby was on the threshold of sanctity.’ Ed laughed too. ‘The colonel actually wants to put us through a crash course in weapons training and military drill. He says he can’t stand the idea of having two officers who aren’t able even to salute properly, let alone give an order. Henry can ride a horse, but I’ve got to learn now too, so we can ride in Rudi’s staff on National Day in January in the big parade. We’re even gonna get paid when we’re on duty, though only at reservist rates. Still, every little helps.’ Matt smirked. ‘Is that why the piercing is gone, Henry?’ Henry looked impish. ‘Oh, I had to take the brow one out in Rothenia. But I … er, got another one as compensation, though it isn’t visible to anyone but Ed.’ ‘What, nipples, bellybutton …’ ‘No,’ guffawed Ed. ‘It’s lower, and a bit thrilling when we do certain things.’ Henry gave a quirky smile. ‘I couldn’t in all conscience be VP for Gay and Lesbian Affairs in UCSU unless I had something way out to prove to the troops that I am seriously alternative. So far, however, no one’s asked to see it apart from Davey, the perv.’ Matt and Andy laughed long and hard. ‘And you showed him?’ ‘It’s nothing he hadn’t seen before.’ It was a measure of how far Ed had changed that he was laughing too. His jealousy of David had been a thing of the moment. He and Henry trusted utterly in each other. Suddenly their eyes caught and drank each other's in. They leaned close and kissed with a passion that defied the world and caused the room to fall silent in appreciation. When they broke their liplock, Henry could have sworn he saw a waif-like face smiling at them through the crowd at the bar. EPILOGUE The company of guardsmen straightened as their captain barked. The Guard Fusiliers of Modenehem were a gorgeous sight in blue and gold tunics with white facings. Their plumed shakos tossed as they presented arms at the sergeant major’s order. The captain, his two lieutenants and the sergeant major drew swords and brought hilts to their lips, for the king and queen of Rothenia were riding by in their carriage. The bells were ringing across the city and millions of rose petals were blowing like a pink and red snowstorm into the faces of their majesties, who waved and smiled to either side. When King Rudolf caught the captain’s eye, he winked. Kapitan Edward Cornish OHL, Rothenian citizen and professional soldier, smiled as he ordered his men to stand at ease. He sheathed his sword and let the sergeant major marshal his company back to the barracks. They had leave that night in Strelzen and were itching to hit the town. The city was in party mood, for the king had married his queen. The fountain in the Rodolferplaz would be running with torrents of wine, as it had not done since 1854 at the marriage of Rudolf V with Flavia. Ed walked with the crowd up to the palace railings, stopping on two occasions to have his picture taken with groups of American tourists. ‘My God, but you speak English very well, sir,’ said one gentleman. ‘If you’d told me you were an Englishman, I’d have believed you.’ Ed thanked him and smiled even more broadly. He pressed on through the dense crowds. A word with the state police on the side palace gate got him access to the courtyard. He saluted the standard of the Foot Guards on parade as he paced under the arch. Then he relaxed, and sprinted up the stairs to where the wedding reception was laid out in the state rooms. He went straight for another uniformed figure, a major in the blue and red uniform of a royal aide-de-camp. With no sense of incongruity at all, he saluted the major and followed up with a grin and a pantomime of a kiss. People around just smiled, for the love affair between Kapitan Edward Cornish and Henry Atwood was well known and approved in the court of Rothenia. ‘Got your speech sorted, little babe?’ Ed grinned a little mischievously. ‘Yeah, and I’m wearing a diaper in case I wet myself when I have to stand up. They’re all here, y’know, the surviving crowned heads of Europe, God knows how many prime ministers and presidents, and half the EU commission – not to mention my mum and dad!’ The Rev’d and Mrs Atwood had moved that year to Strelzen to take over the chaplaincy and be near their son and his partner. Will Vincent sidled up with Oskar. ‘Don’t drink too much, Henry, you’re only playing soldier. You’re still duty-producer on Eastnet tomorrow. I want to see you dispensing the news, not making it.’ Henry looked quirky. ‘Yes, Herr Baron.’ For Will Vincent had been granted the title that past week for outstanding services to the Rothenian media and industry. Fritz escorted Helge up to join the group. His on-off affair with the princess royal meant that at the moment they weren’t being seen together. ‘She has the Elphberg temper, Henry,’ Fritz had confided, ‘and you know what that means. I’m lucky to escape with my balls intact sometimes. But she is addicted to me, and especially my sizeable … y’know. She can’t keep away from me, and one day soon she’ll surrender and realise it was meant to be.’ After a long chat with the Tarlenheims amid a lot of laughter, Henry dragged Ed over to the Peacher family group. Richard Peacher, who had just given his daughter away, stood proud with his sons and younger daughter gathered around him. Sylvia Peacher was chatting in a rather forced manner with another, taller woman, very elegantly dressed. Henry looked at her with interest. It was the mother of the twins and Peter, the notorious Mrs Marquesa, there to see her daughter become a queen. Henry sidled up to Eddie and grabbed him under the arm. His friend grinned at him. ‘Hey faggot Henry! Don’t you gay guys just love the dressing up?’ ‘It’s the nearest I get to being a tranny, Eddie. And we know how you like trannies.’ ‘Hey, no fair, Henry dude! I had a drink with Tina only last week in the King’s. Tina’s had the operation and now he’s a proper she.’ ‘Any happier?’ ‘You guess.’ ‘What were you doing down in Cranwell?’ Henry was intrigued. They had all graduated the previous year and left their alma mater. ‘Oh … seeing Dr Paulie. Y’know I’ve taken a year out? I finally decided what it is I want to do, so next year I begin my doctorate in nineteenth-century science fiction, under Paulie’s supervision.’ Henry was delighted, though not surprised. Eddie’s starred first in English had made research work a decided possibility. Henry expressed his pleasure the only way he knew, with a hug and a kiss, which were graciously received by his friend. He caught a look of disgust crossing the face of Eddie’s mother, but couldn’t have cared less. A stir in the crowd brought the king and queen their way. Henry and everyone else close by bowed and curtsied. Harriet was more beautiful than ever, and looked born to be a queen. Rudi too was glowing, with a warmer and kindlier expression on his face than any Henry had ever seen there before. ‘Well, Outfield, let’s head for the balcony. The Peacher and Elphberg families will join us, and I want you to stand beside us too.’ Henry bowed as the king and queen passed him and stepped through the French windows on to the great balcony. He followed Rudi out into the sunlight, to be met by the roar of hundreds of thousands of human voices. He looked up to watch a squadron of F-15s thunder low across the palace and out over the Rodolferplaz, trailing red, white and black smoke. Henry smiled and waved a white-gloved hand back at his fellow countrymen. This was home, and what a home it was. Here were friends and everyone he loved, and somewhere out there too was his Gavin. ‘Hey baby,’ he said to the vacant air, ‘didn’t we do well!’ THE END
  3. Mike Arram

    Chapter 29

    Actually the fat lady has not yet sung. Loose ends still to be tied.😏
  4. It was Sunday, and the bells of Strelzen were ringing out for mass in its many churches. Henry was sitting in his room in the private wing of the royal palace. After Helge had shared the news of what had happened at Terlenehem with a few selected friends, the king had insisted on Henry's staying with him. ‘Henry, you really have done it this time. You have exercised your courage on a cosmic stage. Do you think I can let that pass, even though it cannot be acknowledged publicly?’ The court gazette lay open on a side table. ‘Saturday. At a private investiture. The Grand Cordon of the Rose to Mr Henry Atwood OHL. Henry Atwood GCR commissioned kapitan-leutnant in the Regiment of Foot Guards and appointed adjutant to HM the King.’ ‘There,’ Rudi said as he kissed Henry. ‘My little gay Lancelot is now truly a knight and a warrior, and some justice has been done to him. Pity you’re so short for a guardsman, Henry.’ ‘I’d rather have been a sailor.’ ‘We’re a landlocked country.’ ‘Do I get paid?’ ‘No. The commission’s honorary. Your student debt’s your problem, Henry.’ ‘Still, I’m one rank higher than Ed Cornish. And mine’s the premier infantry regiment in the army. He’ll have to call me sir!’ The king smiled. ‘That’s only right and proper.’ Henry was awaiting the call to summon him to the Chapel Royal. Mass was at ten o’clock and he was in attendance with Fritz. Bizarrely – or perhaps not, considering this was Rothenia – Rudi and Fritz were better friends than ever, despite the king's having almost killed the prince by running him through the body with a cavalry sabre. Henry looked at himself in the mirror. Gavin would have been blazing with delight to see Henry in military dress. Short though he was, he looked magnificent in a dark blue, gold-buttoned coat with red and gold facings. A gold stripe ran down the seam of his red trousers, and golden aiguillettes hung from the captain’s epaulette on his left shoulder. The star of his order was pinned to his chest and the order of Henry the Lion was around his upright collar. The bearskin cap was a problem. Fortunately, he didn’t have to wear it, just keep it tucked under his arm. The sword was another difficulty. It seemed too long for him. A pity his face was so boyish. He simply could not look stern. The phone buzzed, a secretary asking him to join the king in the Grande Salle. So Henry trotted down the great staircase, unconsciously adopting a military pace on reaching the public rooms. He was unnerved when the guards in the palace presented arms as he passed, only barely remembering to return the salute. Rudi was in a blue suit, and Henry remembered to salute him too, before shaking his hand. Harriet Peacher was standing beside him, ravishing in a beautiful summer frock from Paris. It was pretty clear to the whole world now that there was a love affair in full bloom at the palace. Harriet and Eddie’s father was expected within days for some serious discussions with the king. Harriet smiled brightly. ‘My heavens, Henry. You look gorgeous, quite the gay blade.’ ‘Oh very funny, Harry!’ Strangely, he could not grieve for Gavin. He somehow knew the boy was out there somewhere and loved him still, even though Henry could not see him. The king said, ‘Henry, I had a word with the archbishop. He is more than happy for you to take communion. He even offered to issue an indult to that effect.’ ‘Then I will communicate. Thanks, Rudi, that means a lot, especially at the moment.’ Mass was gorgeous, with a newly reconstituted chapel choir made up of choral scholars whom Rudi was sponsoring from among the members of the university music department. The bishop of Luchau was celebrating. The palace staff were all in attendance, as well as the king’s guests. It soothed Henry very much, and, despite the difficulties of the sword, he sank to his knees at the elevation with deep reverence. While he contemplated the mystery of the mass, Henry tried to make sense of what he had witnessed over the past few days. He had seen the inauguration of a new phase in the relations between the divine and Creation, he was quite sure. Something had come into the world as a result. Maybe God was responding to the development of human history, the development that had brought forward so many people like Piotr Bermann. Henry wondered if he would see more of how it developed. And always his mind returned to his vision in the abbey of Medeln. To whom had he been talking? It had looked like his friend Jed, but the presence had denied that. Could it have been Someone he dared not name, even in his head? Only that Someone could have done for him what had been done in the tombs of the Tarlenheim family. After Mass, Henry and Fritz wandered out into the palace grounds. ‘I would have thought you’d be a bit wary of coming out here, Fritzy, what with all that garden equipment lying around.’ ‘Ha bloody ha, as you might say, Henry. No, it’s hanging round Harry that causes the pain. I feel so abandoned and so regretful. Though I know she never loved me, still I think I really did love her. It was like no other feeling I ever had. And how about you, Henry? You too have lost your love, and he was a wonderful person. I can understand how you feel.’ Henry took Fritz’s arm and held it tight. The prince leaned down and kissed his hair. ‘Come on, Henry, let’s go in and have lunch. Then we can go over to the Tarlenheim palace and you can help me build King’s Cross station. How about that for consolation?’ ‘I couldn’t ask for better.’ Fritz gave him an odd look. *** Henry smiled across the table at Fritz, who was working on the station clock tower. Henry was painting figurines, the sort of task he could be trusted with. Fritz smiled back. It was late in the evening and Fritz had got them glasses of fruit wine. They were very companionable. He felt closer to his friend than ever before. It was a bond forged both in mutual sadness and in mutual escape from death. ‘Your scar’s mending, baby,’ he said, then caught himself and blushed. ‘Sorry Fritz, for a moment I forgot whom I was talking to.’ ‘Don’t mind me, Henry. Call me baby. It’s quite nice. Is that what you called Gavin?’ ‘Yes, though it was a bit patronising. He was not at all babyish. In fact, he was – is – a more courageous and stronger man than I. But somehow we liked it, it expressed something about us.’ ‘You usually topped with him, is that right?’ ‘Your prurient curiosity again, Fritz?’ ‘Oh yeah. But the fact that you topped made him the dependent part of the couple, at least sexually.’ ‘I suppose. It must be hard for a straight man like you to understand how guys interact sexually in a relationship.’ ‘Oh, I don’t know about that. The Internet is a great help. I read the story sites, there’s a lot to be learned from them about all sorts of sexualities, especially the way-out ones. And when it comes down to it, straight and gay are just opposite ends of a continuum. Gay guys sometimes father kids, and otherwise straight guys have sex with men for a lot of reasons.’ ‘Loneliness?’ suggested Henry. ‘Amongst other things.’ Fritz put down his model and looked into Henry’s eyes. Then he leaned over and cupped his friend’s cheeks in his warm hands. ‘Henry, I don’t want to sleep alone tonight. I want to sleep with you. Will you do this for me? We’re lonely, we’re unattached. I think we love each other, just a little. I have to confess I have wanted to try gay sex for many years. Now I think the perfect time and the perfect partner have come my way. Will you?’ Henry was astonished and so was his penis, which sprang erect. Fritz released him, and sat back looking hopeful. Not trusting his voice, Henry nodded. Fritz beamed. ‘This is fantastic!’ Then he looked puzzled. ‘Er … what do we do?’ Henry could not help chuckling. ‘Well, first we find a bedroom, and then we take it from there. Have you got lube? I want you up my bum, Fritzy … but are you willing to take it?’ Fritz nodded decidedly. ‘I want the full experience.’ Henry stood up and offered his hand to Fritz. Fritz took it, and came close to Henry. For a moment they looked into each other’s eyes, and then Henry snuggled into Fritz’s bigger body. When their lips met, Henry knew it was for real. They galloped down to Fritz’s room, and even before the door was closed, clothes were being shed in every direction. Henry threw his briefs across the room and turned to find Fritz fully nude, holding out his arms to his friend. Henry had not seen Fritz naked, and his revealed and beautiful member was on the lines of Ed’s, thick and proud. He was fully erect. All of a sudden Henry was nervous. It had been a while since he had encountered the demands of something like that. Later, Fritz pushed himself up, kissed Henry and smiled. ‘How was I, baby?’ ‘A totally fantastic fuck, Fritzy. You should think of taking it up full time. What did you think?’ Fritz smiled back at him. ‘It answered a lot of questions I had, Henry. Now I know what Oskar feels like when he gets mounted by Peter. I think Pete usually tops him. I heard them once. I couldn’t believe queer sex was anything but fun after that.’ Henry reached up and traced the scar across the bridge of Fritz’s nose and cheek. ‘So … er, you wouldn’t mind doing me again?’ ‘What, now?’ ‘You’re seventeen. Seventeen-year-olds are legendary, Fritz.’ Fritz laughed. Henry saw that his cock was indeed ready for action again, and Fritz did not disappoint him, either then or when he took Henry for the third time two hours later. They woke late the next morning, cuddling together a while in bed before going off to enjoy a shower and then dress. Over a late breakfast, they waxed a bit clinical about their love-making. ‘So what have we learned, Fritzy?’ ‘I like sex, I like it a lot. And most of all, I like it with those I love – you for one, my Henry. I don’t think I’m lost to heterosexuality, though. Girls are great too. But I know a lot more about myself now, and what pleasures me. Maybe you and I will never fuck again, but if a man attracts me in future, I won’t resist if I find I have feelings for him.’ ‘You’re so beautiful, Fritzy. I can’t imagine anyone not falling under your spell. Is there anyone else at the moment?’ Fritz looked confidential. He leaned forward. ‘You may think less of me, my Henry, and suppose it’s a rebound thing, but … have you seen the Princess Royal?’ Henry gave Fritz a disbelieving look. Fritz appeared a little sheepish, but came back defensively. ‘She is my age, and she’s so very pretty, so cool and clever. We danced the night of the ball, and if I hadn’t been all hung up on Harry, I would have said something to her then. She came to visit me in hospital, you know … twice. Although I don’t want to get ahead of myself, I do have her MSN address. I’m going to chat her up on line.’ Henry laughed, reached over and pulled Fritz toward him for a long kiss. Breaking off he murmured, ‘In all the centuries since St Fenice, only one Tarlenheim woman has ever made an Elphberg marriage. So do you suppose perhaps the time has come for an Elphberg woman to marry a Tarlenheim?’ *** The filming of the Bannow documentary broke up in some confusion. Rumour had it that Professor Wardrinski was suffering from stress, perhaps even a complete breakdown. He returned abruptly to England. A month later, the Independent was the first paper to break the news that the great atheist had become a Christian Scientist. Soon he was appearing on talk shows defending the existence of God and the reality of religious experience. Henry shrugged and smiled. Strangely, the conversion surprised very few people. It was unkindly suggested by some commentators that he did it because it was more challenging to defend the religious side of the argument. Matthew White too shrugged, though he did not smile. But he had enough in the can to edit together the documentary he wanted to make. Henry fed him some surprising further evidence to add to the production. Wardrinski would not resent it now. In fact, he was quoted as saying that Matt White was unnecessarily hostile to the possibility that there was something behind the case for the True Face. Henry stayed on all summer in Rothenia at the royal palace and at the Tarlenheims’. He and Fritz made love a few more times, each time with increasing delight in each other, even though they knew it was only for mutual comfort. But it did comfort Henry very much, and he was grateful for the loving arms that held him at night. He was quite active in the king’s household, often performing the duties of adjutant and equerry. One night ten days after the events that had changed Henry’s life, the king called together a small group of friends for a conference about what had happened in the Tarlenheim mausoleum. It had been portrayed in the media as an attempt by gangsters to loot works of art from a famous monument. Bermann’s disappearance had been explained as a guilty bolt to seek refuge abroad. The meeting was held in the secure council chamber of the palace. Queen Flavia looked down on the participants from above the mantelpiece, painted in her robes of state. Henry suddenly noticed, as he had failed to do so before, the skull badge of the Levite depicted together with the insignias of the Garter, the Rose and the Golden Fleece. The guide book said it was a ‘memento mori’. Henry now knew better. Rudi took the head of the table with Oskar opposite him. Henry sat on his right and Helge on his left. Matt, Terry, David and Ed Cornish were also present, as was Eddie Peacher. Henry had specially requested that Eddie be invited, saying he had a right to know why Gavin would no longer be seen in Cranwell. ‘So where is the little dude?’ Eddie asked, after the whole thing had been explained to him. Henry shrugged. ‘In those final moments, I got the impression from his words that he’s still in this world. But what state is he in? Gavin touched the relic and yet lived. He can’t be purely human any more.’ ‘You mean, he’s like an angel?’ Eddie was gripped. ‘No. I suppose the closest idea for me is how writers imagined King Arthur was after the last battle, when he was taken off to Avalon. He was still human, but in closer touch with the divine than the rest of humanity. Although he was still involved in the world, his perceptions were wider than ours. Gavin’s that way too, sort of like a prophet or judge was in ancient Israel. My beautiful waif, what has he grown into?’ Ed Cornish looked very moved at Henry’s words. ‘What about the Chamber of the Ark and its treasures? Where are they now?’ Henry shrugged again. ‘They’ve moved out of mortal sight for the time being, I would suppose, but not out of the world. In fact, I’m pretty sure they’ve not even left Rothenia.’ All eyes snapped to Henry. The king stirred. ‘Why do you say that, dear friend?’ ‘There’s a thing in the air which the sensitive always feel about this country, Rudi, even if they don’t know the things we know. It’s as if the place has a hidden centre of gravity around which everything revolves. Then there is Will’s idea that passions run deeper here than elsewhere. He also thinks people are enhanced just by being within the boundaries of this land. I can’t sense any lessening of that feeling. How about you, Helge?’ The countess nodded emphatically. ‘I believe you’re right, Henry. Your Majesty, your kingdom still contains the greatest treasure in the world, though it’s now hidden from us.’ Terry grinned. ‘There’s a treasure hunt still to be had, then. Old Man Bannow can write a sequel to Staring in the Face of Christ.’ Oskar smiled down the table at Henry. ‘There’s something that puzzles me, dear little Henry. It’s the prophecy. It really does imply that Mendamero was a person, and not a password.’ ‘What, the business about being as wise as Deborah and bold as Samson? It’s a bit obscure.’ ‘Is it?’ Matt’s lips curled with a secret smile. ‘Not to your friends, dearest Henry.’ Henry blushed. ‘Try as you like, Matt, you can’t make MENDAMERO into anything Henry-related. Let’s let the dead bury the dead, eh? The prophecy is time-expired.’ *** Henry Atwood’s became a familiar face in the Rothenian media. He was interviewed on an Eastnet chat show. He learned to his delight that he now had a gay fan-site hosted from a Strelzen server. He knew his friends were reluctant to see him leave, especially Fritz. It was even suggested he should transfer his credits to the Rodolfer Universität and pursue his studies in Rothenia, where fees were low and living was cheap. Indeed, Helge was quite clear that he could live at the palace rent-free. But that would not do. Henry liked Cranwell far too much, and he knew Eddie Peacher needed him. Eddie and he hit the Wejg one evening. They found their way through the hustlers and prostitutes to the Irish bar, which Justin had recommended. Sitting over a chilled Guinness, Henry asked how Harriet was managing with the media frenzy. ‘We’ve always had to deal with the interest, Henry dude. We did a joint shoot for Teen Vogue when we were only fourteen, just after Dad married Momma Sylvia. The curiosity has been continuous ever since, though recently they’ve been a lot more interested in her than me, for obvious reasons.’ ‘But this is a different order of interest. They’re doing the Princess Di thing all over again.’ ‘Bad comparison, dude. Harry’s a cool customer, and Rudi’s got no former lovers in the closet. It’s the real thing between them. There’s no doubt of it. I reckon they’ll marry after he graduates. She’ll have another year to run at Vassar, but I expect her college will be delighted to have a queen in the senior class.’ ‘I hope I’ll be on the wedding list.’ ‘Henry, I have a feeling either you or Ed Cornish will be the best man.’ That observation stopped Henry in his tracks. While gathering his wits together, he applied himself to his half-litre of Guinness. He found he rather liked the drink, though he had never tried it at the King’s Cross. It was stout and not beer, however, so perhaps there was a difference. Eddie shot him a look. ‘How’s the grieving for Gavin going?’ ‘He’s not dead, Eddie, and it’s not as if we broke up or anything. It was like what happened in days of old – the knight leaving on a quest and his love having to wave him off, knowing he would be gone maybe for years. That’s my Gavin – a brave knight whose mission is greater than any human ties he had, even to me. It doesn’t mean I can’t still love him, and I know he loves me, wherever he is.’ ‘Well, I’m glad. But what about 25 Finkle Road? We’ve lost a tenant, dude … not that he was paying rent, but it will be bad without the guy. We need someone new, and I think I know who.’ ‘Oh … you do?’ ‘Sure. I bumped into this guy who dropped out of his university place, but wants to start up again in a different school. He’s thinking of Cranwell. He’s heard good things about it.’ ‘Well sure. But how do we know we’ll be compatible?’ ‘You’re about to find out. Hey, Ed! Over here!’ ‘What!’ screamed Henry, as Ed Cornish appeared in the bar and headed over to their table. He sat down and smiled into Henry’s face. ‘You dropped out of Cambridge! Are you nuts, Ed?’ Henry was genuinely annoyed. Ed sensed it and wilted a little. ‘Easy, Henry. Let me live. I’ve already put in my request for a place in History at Cranwell. Admittedly Prof Faber was astounded, but he’s happy to accept my transfer.’ ‘What happened to all that business of wanting to excel in the best available school, all that subdued contempt for the redbrick end of the higher education market?’ Ed looked uncomfortable. ‘I’ve grown up a bit, Henry. Honest. It was just my competitiveness talking. I know now there’s more to being a student.’ ‘Now hang on a minute here … I trust you don’t have any, y’know, ideas.’ Ed looked offended. ‘Certainly not. It would be pretty damned insensitive of me in the circumstances. No, I’ll be occupying my own room … I’ve got no hopes about sharing.’ Henry gave his ex-lover a narrow look. He was not deceived. He could see the hopes lurking just below the surface. Why else would Ed transfer? It couldn’t be because of disappointment over Guy Worsman. But he let it pass and swallowed the story. ‘Then I suppose it’s alright. What have Matt and Andy said?’ ‘I haven’t told them. I expect they’ll be okay with it, though.’ So do I, thought Henry. He knew what a pair of romantics Ed’s former guardians were.
  5. The darkness of the tunnel was not so absolute when Henry and Terry penetrated beyond the entrance. There was enough light for ferns to survive, growing out of the damp walls. Ten yards in they came to a junction, with tunnels leading off to left and right. Above them they could barely make out a low brick dome. At first all seemed silent, but as Henry listened, he heard a distant rip and crunch echoing down the walls from the left. He and Terry moved silently across the sanded earth floor of the catacomb. Another arch loomed above them, and beyond it was a rotunda of some sort, with a skylight spilling a dim gleam into the space below. A great and ancient sarcophagus lay immediately under the dome. The walls were a honeycomb of slots, or loculi, many occupied by leaden coffins, some boxes but most being anthropomorphic in shape. Men were pulling out the lower ones, levering the decaying lead apart and spilling their contents on to the floor. Rags of shrouds and decomposed corpses were grotesquely strewn in the dust. Piotr Bermann, standing beside the sarcophagus, was directing the monstrous work. Two of his acolytes were holding Gavin, Wardrinski and Helge at gunpoint. ‘Stop this blasphemy!’ Helge suddenly hissed. Bermann coldly replied, ‘Then tell us what we need to know, woman. It will be easier that way. We will find the relic, you may be sure.’ ‘It is not amongst the bones of my family. You are desecrating them to no purpose.’ ‘Then where is it? Tell me!’ Wardrinski cut in. ‘Let us go. This is all nonsense. You cannot seriously be expecting to find some magical talisman in this dreadful place. I cannot believe that such stubborn superstition exists in a modern country.’ Bermann told his men to stop. ‘Enough. I believe she is telling the truth. We will try another tack. Bring the boy over here!’ Gavin was roughly shoved in front of Bermann. Henry looked with mingled surprise and awe at his lover, who stood tall, taller than Henry ever remembered seeing him. His gaze was quite unafraid. ‘You, boy! You know something, I’m sure of it.’ Gavin replied perfectly calmly, his shyness and hesitancy all gone, ‘I know that you have no idea what it is you’re doing; what it truly is that you seek or even what it may be capable of. All you want is power over others, but death awaits the hand that moves against the Ark. You shall not touch it and live.’ His words seemed to disturb the acolytes. They looked uneasily at their leader. ‘Nonsense,’ Bermann exclaimed. ‘We know more than you think. Others have sought it before us down the ages and they left records of their search. We know it can open a doorway to inconceivable wealth and eternal life. So tell me more, boy. Because you do know more, don’t you.’ ‘I do not know where the relic is. Only Mendamero knows. Listen. He is almost here.’ Gavin’s words made the acolytes even more uneasy, causing them to whisper one to the other. Bermann put his shotgun to Gavin’s temple. ‘Countess, I will first shoot this boy, if you do not tell me the place where the Ark may be found. Then I will shoot the professor. Then you will die, and I will take this place down stone by stone until I find it. You shall not stop me completing the work of the Priory and begin the crusade to rid our land from its corruption!’ Terry prodded Henry gently. ‘There are too many of them. I can only take out six at most.’ Henry looked around, and an idea swelled up in his heart. ‘Look, Terry, I have a plan. Go back to the others. Get the police from the Modenehem barracks. I’m pretty confident I can delay them for a while.’ Terry hissed, ‘What have you got in mind?’ ‘Just go, before I wet myself and chicken out. But it will work. Now go.’ Terry hesitated, kissed Henry quickly and left. Henry straightened his clothes, and with as much coolness as he could muster, stepped out into the rotunda. All spun round to look at him. Bermann exclaimed, ‘Who in God’s name …?’ Henry raised an eyebrow at him. ‘You were expecting me, I think. Mendamero is here.’ There was a shocked pause. Bermann stared blankly at Henry. ‘You are Mendamero? But you are the English boy, the hanger-on of the king. How can you be Mendamero? He is to save our land. He will be Rothenian.’ ‘I don’t believe St Fenice actually said that Mendamero was going to be a native Rothenian. After all, she herself was a Magyar by birth. The Ark holds a treasure which belongs to every nation, not just this one. You fool. You really do not know what you are tampering with, do you. You are like some silly child, probing in an electric socket with a screwdriver, just to see what will happen.’ ‘Bring him over here.’ Men closed behind Henry and herded him up next to Gavin, who was smiling at him with a calm serenity that was quite frightening in the circumstances. Had Gavin flipped? Henry noticed that the acolytes were reluctant to touch either of them. Once out under the dome, Henry realised that the rotunda had three alcoves the height of a man, in addition to the entrance arch. The ones opposite the arch and to its left were blank. The third, now in front of him, was curiously carved with letters to form an inscription that reminded him of a word puzzle. I N H O C M O D O D E I V I R H O C A N T E M O V I T V T V I D E R I T F A C I E M D E I I N F I D E M E T S P E M V I T A E Æ T E R N A L I S I N C H R I S T O Henry stared at it. Bermann followed his gaze and gave a wicked grin. ‘Do you know what this signifies, Mr Atwood? No? It is in Latin, which is not much taught in English schools now, I believe.’ Gavin said in his new, clear voice, ‘It is a warning to the likes of you. It says, “The man of God should proceed in this manner if he should wish to see the face of God – in faith and in hope of eternal life in Christ”.’ Henry was stunned. He did not know Gavin understood Latin. Indeed, he was quite certain Gavin had no Latin at all. Bermann was also disconcerted. ‘Yes,’ he grunted, ‘that is what it says. But I think it gives us a key, rather than a warning, because beyond that arch may lie what we wish to find. So, Mr Mendamero, perhaps you can tell us how to proceed. Or shall I have to shoot your boyfriend first, just to encourage you?’ Gavin whispered in Henry’s ear, ‘Remember my dream, Henry: “Mendamero shall show the way”.’ Henry moved over to the panel, which reached up to his head height. Each letter was set into a sort of compartment having a copper hook below it, all green now with the verdigris of age. He scanned the puzzle a moment, and in a flash of inspiration the answer came into his mind. He took the hook under the M on the first row of letters and gave it a tug. It slid outwards slowly, accompanied by a grinding noise from behind the wall, deafening in the sudden silence that filled the rotunda. It ended with a thud. Henry could not keep from chuckling. So this was MENDAMERO – not a man, but the key to a puzzle. He pulled out the E on the second row with the same result as for the M. Perhaps had he pulled out the wrong letter, things would have been different, maybe even catastrophic. He carried on slowly, pulling out each letter in turn. It was only the seventh row which caused him problems, because it gave him a choice of E’s. He thought for a long time before opting for the first. The second was part of a diphthong. The clunk and grind behind the wall confirmed his choice. Eventually he had completed all but the last letter, taking it as slowly as he could. I N H O C M O D O D E I V I R H O C A N T E M O V I T V T V I D E R I T F A C I E M D E I I N F I D E M E T S P E M V I T A E Æ T E R N A L I S I N C H R I S T O By now Bermann had seen the way the riddle was to be solved, and reached forward to pull out the O himself. Henry tried to stall him. ‘Wait! Have you any real idea what lies behind that wall? Do you truly suppose the relic will allow itself to be approached? You know the prophecy as well as I do.’ ‘Fool!’ snarled Bermann. ‘We are the righteous ones who may approach the relic. It was being kept for us. Don’t you see?’ He moved forward eagerly and wrenched out the final letter. This time a titanic crash boomed out from the wall, a sound that set their ears ringing. The rear of the alcove retreated slowly before them as old machinery began to function. At a certain point the wall halted, pulled the letters back into their compartments and opened like a door. The entrance had reset itself, ready to close again upon its treasure. Everyone, even Wardrinski, leaned forward to see what was revealed. Only blackness met their eyes. One of the acolytes came forward with an electric lamp. He clicked it on, but nothing happened. He shook it, to no avail. It was dead. The acolyte looked at Bermann, clearly bewildered. ‘It was working just five minutes ago.’ Bermann too was troubled. He gestured with his gun. ‘You four, go forward. If there are traps, it’s only right that the Levite and her friends should run the risk first.’ Henry was prodded to Helge’s side. ‘Do you know what’s in there?’ ‘No Henry,’ she replied. ‘It has not been necessary for a Levite to open the wall for over a century. My aunt and predecessor mentioned no traps or devices, however, just that if the time ever came for me to enter, I should do so prayerfully and with preparation.’ So Henry said a prayer as he was shoved forward with the others. Once past the door, they found themselves in a dark passage. There was a strange metallic tang in the air, perhaps created by the grinding of the old machinery. The passage was not absolutely dark, however. A dim light grew in front of them as their eyes adjusted to the gloom. Gavin whispered, ‘Let me go forward first. I am in less danger from this thing than any of you.’ ‘How do you know, baby?’ ‘I just know.’ Henry felt a kiss on his cheek. Gavin began moving forward, supporting himself by a hand on the wall. The passage went on a long way, and from the feel of the living rock under his fingers, Henry knew it was burrowing under the hill behind the church. Eventually they came out into an open space. It was lit by sunlight streaming down through a shaft in the roof, which almost blinded them. Henry glanced back. Only Bermann and two of the acolytes had followed them. The others had either refused to pass the arch or been ordered not to. Judging by his own emotional state, Henry rather thought it was the first option. The feeling of being in the presence of something deeply forbidding had been growing on him with every step he took. Looking around him, Henry realised the seven of them were standing in an artificial sandstone cavern. It was featureless except for a square panel above the opposite entrance, which warned starkly: NOLI TANGERE CHRISTVS DOMINI. Gavin gestured at the words. ‘“Touch not the Lord’s Anointed!” This may be your last such warning!’ A reluctance to move on gripped Henry’s heart. He was not alone in knowing that the warning boded no good to any of them. Bermann too was struggling with some inner turmoil. But he was resolute, if nothing else. Taking Gavin by the arm, he forced the boy forward in front of him like a shield. Then he pointed to Henry. ‘Bring that one along after me. Keep the rest of them here.’ Henry was seized and pushed ahead of an acolyte. The new passage stretched dimly ahead of them, although Henry was quite sure that what light there was came from no natural source. As the earth floor gave way to flagstones, yet another arch appeared. Dim light radiated from within it, and a number of objects could be seen bulking beyond. The inner chamber walls were wood-panelled, which did not surprise Henry in the least. At this point, Henry’s feet began to feel leaden. It was as if he were suddenly on a steep slope. Every step became a real effort to make. The two Rothenians seemed also to be having trouble. Only Gavin appeared to be unaffected. However, it was not so much the physical effort that was the problem, it was more the distinct unwillingness of Henry’s mind to push his body onward. Images kept appearing to him: petty and silly grudges he had kept up over the years, harsh words he had spoken deliberately, uncharitable thoughts he had entertained. His entire unworthiness was being demonstrated to him by a force that understood him all too well. He knew that it did not hold him in contempt for what he had said and done, but he also knew that at the end of the passage he would come face to face with a presence he was not worthy to encounter. He sank to his knees, tears streaming from his eyes, and hung his head. Gavin reached down and stroked his hair. Henry looked up at the boy in wonder. Gavin’s eyes held such love for him that he was both humbled and exalted by the sight. With that the oppression eased, and he could at least think again. Bermann too had mastered himself, though at the cost of an effort that had brought beads of sweat to his forehead. The other Rothenian had dropped his gun, and was on his knees weeping softly, his face buried in his hands. Bermann clapped his sawn-off shotgun to Henry’s head. ‘Now, boy. Get the thing,’ he gasped to Gavin. ‘You know what it is and where it is.’ Giving Bermann an unfathomable look, Gavin sighed as if disappointed in something. Then he moved on into the chamber to stop before a great lidded sarcophagus, the tomb of St Fenice, Henry guessed. Gavin pulled back the lid with no apparent effort. As he did so, the room brightened. Sparkling in the growing light were all sorts of glittering and gleaming objects – other precious relics and lost treasures, Henry did not doubt. Gavin reached in, straightened and held up a large gabled box. Henry had no difficulty recognising the reliquary from the illumination. It appeared to be fashioned of silver, and was shining through Gavin’s hands. An insistent hum filled the air, seeming to Henry to be mingled with a distant sound, as of music. What Bermann heard must have been different, for a new look of horror began to grow in his eyes. But the man had an iron resolve, as souls must if they wish to court damnation. He roughly hauled Henry to his feet before croaking to Gavin, ‘Bring it here. Bring me the Ark!’ Gavin slowly walked forward, only to stop and remonstrate one last time, ‘You may not touch it. Don’t you see the precipice on which you stand? It will forgive you. It will let you go if you just repent of your folly and turn back. It’s still not too late.’ Bermann howled with anger. He released Henry, who slumped to the ground. ‘Give me the damned thing!’ he bellowed. He raised the shotgun once more, but this time pointed it at Gavin. The threat to his lover freed Henry’s limbs. Part of him was very scared because he knew the inevitable cost, but another part knew what he had to do. He leaped to grapple with Bermann. He had the barrel of the shotgun in his hands and was wrestling for possession. Bermann glared into his eyes, a vein ticking in his temple, his face covered in a sheen of sweat. An explosion occurred between Henry and Bermann. Henry smelled the cordite and even saw the whiff of blue smoke. For a moment he was triumphant, feeling no pain, but then his legs buckled and he went down on his knees, dragging the gun from Bermann’s hands. His stomach was a ragged red ruin, and he wished he’d not looked down at it. He slumped to his side. Shadows gathered around the edges of his vision. Ignoring Henry, Bermann was reaching out to take the Ark from Gavin with both hands. Gavin was resignedly offering it to him. A pulsing flare of light hid the result, as blackness claimed Henry. A cool hand on his forehead recalled him briefly. A voice was saying, ‘Goodbye, Henry my Henry. Live. Love. Enjoy. We will meet again some day, maybe here or maybe in another place.’ ‘No,’ he whimpered. ‘Don’t leave me, baby.’ ‘You will be healed, Henry. It was always meant to be this way.’ Shouts were echoing in the tunnel as Henry fell into darkness. *** Henry woke. He was out in the churchyard under the trees. The fresh and warm summer air was round about him. There were state policemen everywhere. A cuffed acolyte was taken past him as he looked up. Ed Cornish, Davey Skipper and Terry O’Brien were staring down at him with very troubled faces. Henry convulsively reached down to his stomach. He looked. The front of his shirt was little more than bloodstained and blackened rags, but the smooth and undamaged flesh of his abdomen could be seen beneath it. ‘Where’s Gavin?’ he croaked. ‘We don’t know, sweet babe,’ Terry replied. ‘We found you and one of the acolytes unconscious at the entrance to a large chamber under the hill. You were lying in a pool of blood. But whose blood it was I don’t know, as you’re quite untouched.’ ‘Helge, where’s she?’ ‘She’s talking to the police commandant. What happened to Bermann?’ Henry sat up, despite feeling that his head was spinning. ‘I don’t think anyone’ll be seeing him again, not in this world, and possibly not in the next either.’ Then the ache began in his heart, which knew that neither would he be seeing Gavin. ‘Did you see anything else?’ Terry shook his head. ‘Only a huge stone sarcophagus standing empty in the middle of a big, panelled room. Was there more to see? We passed a stone door with letters on, and we found the acolytes all huddled together in an excavated cavern with Helge and Wardrinski. Bermann’s men were very happy to surrender. Then we came upon you and the other guy a small distance further on by the archway into the second chamber. It had no exit apart from the way we went in.’ ‘This other guy, the Rothenian you found with me. What sort of state is he in?’ ‘An odd one, babe. He’s in a trance. His eyes are open but he can’t see, and he doesn’t hear anything said to him. either. He’s deep in shock.’ ‘Get me up, please,’ Henry asked. ‘I need to talk to Helge.’ Henry struggled over to the countess, who was being saluted by the commandant as he left. She looked in his face uneasily. ‘Henry, oh Henry! I need to know exactly what happened in the tomb. I saw the light and heard the noises. Gavin?’ ‘He’s gone, Helge. He’ll never be back. The Ark took him, as it took Bermann, though I think it took Gavin to a very different place.’ As he spoke those words, the tears began coursing down his cheeks, cutting channels through the smoke and dirt that had soiled his face. But through his tears, he told Helge all he could remember. Helge held Henry in her arms, and kissed his forehead. After a while she said, ‘I don’t think he’s gone, Henry dearest. He was the foretold warrior, the pure in heart. His fate was long fixed. You know the story of the Holy Grail, don’t you Henry? It was Gawain who was allowed to approach the relic rather than his friend Lancelot, who was the greater champion but was forbidden to go on because of his sins. Gawain was taken to join the company of Grail knights, while Lancelot laboured on in the world in sadness and regret. ‘So maybe it will be with you, but only if you are not strong enough to take up the gift of life that Gavin gave to you. Don’t grieve for him. He now has a new task. The work of the Levites is done. Somewhere Gavin must be making a new fortress for the Ark, until the day of its full revelation is come. It may not be long delayed.’ Henry sighed. ‘Then what’s left for me?’ ‘Live. Love. Enjoy,’ Helge replied, with a slight smile. ‘And you are loved by so many, Henry.’
  6. Normal life persisted in going on. The next day the crew was filming at Medeln once more, and Henry and Gavin had to be there. This time, it was Alastair Bannow in front of the cameras. Not surprisingly, Henry was abstracted, hardly a good condition for the man in charge of the day’s interview. Lights and equipment were set up in the centre of the abbey nave, where Henry was to put questions to Dr Bannow. Henry’s side would be replaced later by voice-over, leaving only Bannow’s answers to feature in the final version. Nonetheless, Henry’s role was more responsibility than he liked. What was worse, he at last possessed incontrovertible evidence that Bannow had been right all along, yet he dared not reveal his knowledge to anyone. He found it difficult to look straight into the man’s eyes. ‘Tell me, Dr Bannow. Why do you think Rothenia is such a special place?’ Bannow looked at Henry with some puzzlement, so Henry amplified. ‘Why do you allege that the True Face ended up here, of all places?’ ‘It’s purely a matter of dynastic history, not even divine providence. A series of marriages brought it to this country. Here it has stayed, because the marriage of Fenice of Hungary produced a very long-lasting dynasty still influential in modern Rothenia.’ ‘And where do you suppose the relic might now be found?’ Henry was rather interested in Bannow’s possible answer. Bannow shook his head. ‘I have no idea,’ he confessed. ‘I merely suggest the lineage of the counts of Tarlenheim may know the answer to that question.’ ‘Oskar of Modenehem, the guardian of the present prince, has utterly denied any connection the family might have with such an object. Do you believe him?’ ‘I think there is a case to answer, that is all.’ ‘Can you tell us about the place of the abbey of Medeln in all this?’ ‘As you know, St Fenice was abbess here in the fifteenth century. I have no doubt her Meditation on the Face of Christ was the result of her prolonged contemplation of the True and Holy Face which she brought with her to Rothenia. She must have had it beside her within these walls. I imagine it was concealed here after her death, and for all we know, it may be concealed here still.’ ‘But a detailed survey of the abbey and its precincts has found nothing.’ ‘It is not at all unprecedented for modern-day people to underestimate the talents and abilities of our ancestors. Just because it has not been found does not mean it isn’t here. What are we looking for, after all? It can only be a small, flat object, an ancient painting. Very easy to conceal, I would imagine.’ ‘And this relic, would you say it has any supernatural power?’ ‘The power to do miracles you mean? Oh, I have no time for that sort of thing. The portrait is an amazingly important historical relic, that’s all. It isn’t necessary to descend to superstition. The fact that it may survive is miracle enough for me.’ Henry put several more questions to the man before the producer whisked Bannow away to film in locations around the abbey. Henry and Gavin went for an early lunch at the caterers’ trailer. They took it into the cloisters and sat on the stone benches on the sunny north walk. ‘How are you this morning, baby?’ ‘I’m alright Henry. I don’t feel so weak today. In fact, I feel quite vigorous, all tingly.’ Henry looked at Gavin. Indeed, he did seem full of life and, if it were possible, more robust and larger than usual. His dark eyes seemed to glitter, which all of a sudden caused Henry to notice one reason why Gavin looked so different. ‘Baby? Where are your glasses?’ ‘Funny thing, Henry. My eyesight seems to have improved a bit. The glasses were beginning to make everything look fuzzy, so I stopped wearing them this morning. What do you think?’ ‘What do I think? Gavin, this is really odd. You were short-sighted and needed corrective glasses. Yes, eyesight can improve, but for fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds, not someone who’s nineteen like we are.’ Of all the troubling things that had happened so far, this was the worst. Whatever powers had Gavin in their grip were changing him, not just in personality but even physically. Henry was aghast. Yet how could he stop it? Only by leaving Rothenia in a hurry, he concluded. He gave that option some very serious thought, though in the end decided it would not do. The thing, whatever it was, had Gavin in its power, and that power was plainly tremendous. Would it let Gavin leave? Henry thought not. ‘Baby,’ he finally said, ‘I’ve got to go for a walk. Don’t wander away from the crew, in case you have another of your turns.’ Henry paced along the cloister and took the door into the south side of the abbey church. The interior was empty, apart from the litter of the camera crew. He found his way to the ambulatory and sat in a radial chapel dedicated to St Michael and All Angels, as he later noted. The sun was coming in through the narrow Romanesque windows high up in the walls. Henry meditated deeply on what was occurring to those he loved. How deeply began to be apparent to him by some strange external signs. A vast silence descended on the great church, a silence that extinguished even the creaking and cracking of the ancient building. No sigh of a breeze and no footstep disturbed the profound calm. It was a sentient silence, in which Henry felt he was not alone. At its heart was a presence, warm and accepting. With a rising sense of alarm, Henry realized the presence was reaching out to him. Had this been what Gavin had felt? Henry gradually became aware that an arm had taken his arm, without causing him to flinch, and that someone was sitting next to him where no one had been before. Warm lips kissed his cheek. He turned, and found a familiar handsome and Byronic face smiling into his. ‘Hello, dear Henry,’ his visitor grinned and kissed his cheek. He took his time about it. Henry had to grin back. ‘Randy as ever, Jed?’ The boy looked puzzled. ‘Jed? Oh, you mean …? Well, never mind, Jed will do for now. Henry, I think you can guess why I am here.’ ‘Hopefully to answer some questions.’ ‘Yes, some perhaps. The Council has decided that too much is required of you for you to go into it unprepared. And so in justice to you I was sent into the world, which is a thing that has rarely happened. Mainly I have to warn you of a decision you must make, one that is coming hard upon you. The hour is at hand. Do you understand what I mean?’ ‘The hour of Mendamero.’ ‘That is indeed what I mean.’ ‘Who or what is he?’ ‘Don’t you know? Time will tell you, my dear. But principally you must not forget this. All too soon you will be required to make a choice. When that time comes, do not be afraid of the sacrifice. Remember, those who want to save their life will lose it, but those who lose their life for my sake, they will save it.’ Henry was badly disconcerted at those ominous yet familiar words. However, he managed to shake the fear off. ‘Tell me where the Icon is, please.’ ‘It lies amongst my servants, where they have been laid for many generations. You know where it is. Look into your heart, Henry, child of man.’ At those words, Henry peered deep into the face before him, then straightened up in wonder. ‘You’re not Jed, are you.’ The handsome and boyish countenance smiled and seemed to fade out in the sunlight that suddenly flooded the chapel. All around Henry, the world had returned to life. He heard the buzz of conversation from down in the nave, and the scrape as chairs were moved across a stone floor. He looked at his watch with astonishment. A full hour had passed in what had seemed a few minutes. Henry stood stiffly and gazed about him. He headed back to find Gavin, only to discover the cloister empty. He asked around, but neither the producer nor anyone else had seen Gavin. The boy could not have gone home without a car, and he could not drive. Henry reached for his mobile. *** Terry, David and Ed Cornish were at the abbey within ninety minutes, which indicated to Henry that Terry had flouted quite a few traffic regulations. ‘So you think he’s been kidnapped.’ Terry was tapping his teeth, as he tended to do when he was concentrating. ‘I certainly do.’ Henry was impatient rather than distraught. In the Conan-Doyle phrase, the game was afoot. It was time to be up and doing. Despite having little clear idea what it actually was he should be doing, Henry was certain great events were happening and probably not too far away. He knew he was meant to be part of them, if only he could figure out what they were. ‘Who has kidnapped him?’ Henry took a deep breath. He really had no time for this. ‘There is a Rothenian organisation called the Priory of St Veronica which believes Gavin may be the key to a great secret. He isn’t, but that won’t stop them taking him apart until he tells them something.’ ‘Who’s behind this organisation?’ ‘There are a Master and twelve Acolytes. The Master is Piotr Bermann, remember him?’ ‘Oh yeah. Now things are sounding more likely. But what is this secret?’ ‘It’s the secret that Alastair Bannow is on about, the whereabouts of the Icon.’ David stared at Henry. ‘But that’s a pile of total crap!’ Henry took another deep breath. ‘I thought so once, but even before we got here I was turning up new evidence that persuaded me this thing really does exist. You remember that day at the British Museum, Ed? Not only does it exist, but over the past few weeks it’s been gradually taking over my Gavin. He’s changing and I can’t protect him. Oh God!’ Henry was suddenly in floods of tears, head in hands. He felt a familiar powerful set of arms embrace him and – half reluctantly – he nestled into the tall man who whispered in his ear, ‘Easy, little babe!’ Henry heard Terry’s voice say quietly and compassionately, ‘Where is this thing Henry? Do you know?’ ‘No,’ he sniffed. ‘But Countess Helge does.’ ‘Helge? Good God!’ ‘Yes, Helge. She is what’s called the Levite, the guardian of the Ark in which the relic is kept.’ Henry looked up through wet lashes at an astonished David. ‘Henry, you really have excelled yourself this time.’ As if in reaction, Henry gave a sobbing laugh. Terry was his usual decisive self. ‘Alright, favourite babes, in the car and quick. We go to find the countess.’ The car tore off to the ridge road. It was a large and powerful BMW, which explained the speed with which Terry had covered the distance from Strelzen to northern Husbrau. Within minutes they were at the lodge of Templerstadt, and the porter was slowly pulling back the great gate. As they reached the house, Henry was already opening the car door. He pounded into the main range, shouting for Marek the chamberlain. A surprised Marek eventually appeared in an apron stained with polish. ‘Mr Atwood, sir?’ ‘Where is the countess, Marek?’ ‘I believe she is here, sir. She was entertaining Professor Wardrinski, who was not filming today at the abbey. Have you tried her suite?’ Henry raced upstairs. He found the door to her rooms ajar and went in without knocking. There was no sign of her, but there was a chair knocked over, and her copy of the works of St Fenice was flat on the carpet. Glaring up at Henry was the phrase His Ark lieth amongst thee in its chamber of cypress wood. His servants lie wakeful around it, as Samuel in the Holy of Holies. Terry quickly searched the room. ‘There’s been a struggle, Henry. It looks as though your friends have done more than one kidnap today. How did they get into the house unobserved?’ ‘There is a cart track and a ride that leads up from the valley. A four-wheel drive could probably get quite close to the back of the house without being observed.’ ‘So what now, sweet babe?’ Terry asked. ‘Have you any clue where they would go?’ Henry thought. The boy in the vision in the abbey had told him that he did know the location of the Ark. He looked wildly around Helge’s room. There were a series of watercolours on the walls. They showed places around Terlenehem and Modenehem dear to the countess. Directly ahead of Henry was a picture of the church of Terlenehem, with the Tarlenheim mausoleum behind it. His Ark lieth amongst thee in its chamber of cypress wood. His servants lie wakeful around it, as Samuel in the Holy of Holies. ‘My God!’ Henry shouted. ‘That’s it. How could I have been so stupid!’ ‘What? Tell us, Henry.’ ‘Once you know that the Levites were Tarlenheims, where else could the Ark be but in their mausoleum? That’s where its servants lie resting. That’s where Fenice was placed when she was moved by Osra from Medeln. The mausoleum was built at the same time as the abbey was renovated. It’s so obvious – so bloody obvious that those bastards in the Priory must know it too. That’s where they are!’ *** The streets of the small town of Terlenehem were deserted, though the Rose restaurant seemed to be enjoying a busy trade. A coach party of US tourists had crowded it out, probably doing the Bannow trip. If only they knew, Henry mused. Several large cars were parked by the church gate, including a familiar black SUV and a big four-wheel drive. Henry heard a click beside him. Terry had drawn his gun and checked the magazine. Henry took a deep breath. The four of them flitted from gravestone to gravestone, Henry in the lead. ‘Stop, Henry,’ Terry said, as they reached the corner of the church tower. ‘They’ll have posted sentries. Let me go first. David and Ed, keep back. If you hear a shot, call for the police direct. Ed, you’ve got enough Rothenian to make the call, yes?’ Ed nodded and bit his lip. ‘Henry, you’re with me.’ Terry was down on his belly, regardless of the fate of his suit. Henry squirmed after him. Terry paused behind an altar tomb to sneak a look. ‘One sentry, and he’s keener on trying to see what’s going on inside than looking out. He’s dead meat. Stay put, sweet babe.’ Terry was off on his belly at a surprising pace. Henry quickly lost sight of him. An instant later there was a thud as Terry brought the sentry down. He signalled and Henry came running, to find that Terry had already used his own tie as a gag, and the man’s belt to bind him with. The iron gates of the mausoleum were open. The wreaths Oskar and Fritz had placed on them were still there, though fading. Henry looked into the black arch that lay beyond. A miasma seemed to reach out from it and chill his heart. He sensed that death lay beyond the arch in more ways than one. He swallowed hard. ‘Terry, I’ll lead. Whatever’s in there knows I’m coming, even if Bermann does not.’
  7. Henry intercepted Oskar and Fritz as they descended the stairs to the side door of the palace. Oskar was still in his uniform, while Fritz had changed into black trousers and a plain white shirt. Oskar carried a long leather case, which Henry assumed contained the swords for the duel. ‘You may not come, Henry. It will not be allowed,’ frowned Oskar. ‘Will you two please come to your senses?’ Henry pleaded. ‘This is the end of the twentieth century.’ ‘That may be so, Henry,’ replied Fritz stiffly. ‘But there have been counts of Tarleneheim for ten centuries and, in all those years, our honour has been unassailed. A blow, even from a king, touches that honour too closely. There will be satisfaction.’ Henry began to get angry, yet it came out not as resentment but as a considered rebuke. ‘You are fools, the pair of you. This isn’t honour, it’s vanity masquerading as dignity. You are not the man I took you for, Franz of Tarlenheim. I will be leaving this house. I can’t bear it.’ Fritz was hurt by Henry’s words, so much was clear. He looked sad. ‘Then at least wish me well, my old friend.’ Henry’s eyes filled with tears. ‘I can’t do that, Fritz. I can only pray you come to your senses before it’s too late. I won’t be here when you return.’ Fritz hesitated, looking at his brother, but the prince surfaced again behind his eyes. Without a further word, he passed out of the palace into the dim and empty streets of the city, where a black car waited in the dawn light. Servants were already moving around the palace. Henry asked the under-chamberlain to pack his and Gavin’s gear. Then he used the hall phone to secure a double room for them at the Holiday Inn. He woke Gavin gently, telling him to dress quickly because they were leaving. He explained things to Gavin while his puzzled lover shaved and a servant removed the bags to the hall. Gavin was mute as they went down. Helge was waiting at the door with the dog, Marietta. ‘There is no male of our house to give you the parting blessing, my dear friends, so I hope you will accept it from me.’ Henry said they would be honoured. The countess pronounced the words and kissed them both on the forehead. There were tears in her eyes as she did so. Henry grasped her hand and fervently wished that things would end happily. The taxi ticking outside the main palace arch whisked them away south in the direction of the airport. As they went, Henry raised Matt on his mobile and, without apologising for the early call, filled him in on the serious turn of events. ‘My God!’ Matt exclaimed. ‘I must rouse Will and Tomas. If this gets known to the media, all hell will break loose, let alone if one of those idiot boys kills the other. Tomas needs to be at Eastnet to monitor things. Henry, get a taxi over to the Strelsenermedia studios as soon as you finish checking in. Charge it to the firm. I’ll meet you there.’ It was seven when Henry reached the studios in the Old City. The streets remained empty. In the newsroom, however, there was a subdued bustle and great curiosity as to why the CEO and the Director of News Programming had turned up unexpectedly before the night shift left the offices. Matt was waiting for Henry at the door. ‘Felip is at the statue of King Henry in his car,’ Will informed them. ‘He’s keeping an eye on traffic in and out of the palace. He says a military ambulance arrived ten minutes ago, lights flashing.’ ‘Oh God, doesn’t look too promising does it.’ Matt groaned. ‘No,’ Will agreed. ‘Curses. There’s no penetrating the Residenz and we have no one inside we can contact.’ Henry piped up at this point. ‘Fool that I am. There is someone!’ He rang Ed’s mobile number, and after a minute a sleepy voice murmured, ‘Yeah?’ ‘It’s Henry. Ed, get your bum out of bed, and listen to me.’ He explained what had happened the previous night. ‘Now if you’ve got that, shift yourself and scout the palace. Find Colonel Antonin, he’s a mate of yours. He is Rudi’s second.’ Ed sputtered, but seemed to have taken it all in. He rang off in a hurry. The men in the studio paced silently up and down waiting for news. Felip called to say that the palace seemed quiet. There was no sign of a returning ambulance, which could either be good news or the worst. Henry’s mobile chirped and he flipped it open. ‘Little babe?’ ‘Ed?’ ‘There’s been a casualty, that’s for sure. Soldiers have sealed off the palace gardens, and Colonel Antonin is there looking very stern. I saw paramedics at work on the terrace, before a guardsman insisted I return inside. I had no choice. He pointed his gun at me.’ Henry relayed the news to a shocked Matt, Tomas and Will. Will looked at Matt. ‘It’s in the public domain once blood has been spilled. Matt, I’ve got to do this.’ He turned to his news editor. ‘Tomas, get on to the palace and challenge them to confirm or deny that there has been a duel involving the king.’ Tomas nodded and went off to find a phone. Henry tried in the meantime to get more news out of Ed, who could only report that the entire garden front of the palace had been closed off. Even the servants were being turned away. Tomas returned after fifteen minutes. ‘The palace press office has denied the stories about a duel, but does say there was an unfortunate accident in the park as the king was jogging with his friend, the prince of Tarlenheim. A statement is to be issued in an hour.’ Felip rang at that point to tell them he was in pursuit of the ambulance, which was speeding out of the palace gate with police outriders. Another ten minutes and he rang again to let them know the ambulance was heading towards the military hospital. The morning bulletins were holding off on the news until the palace statement. Will drove across the city to hear it being given live. Eastnet cameras went with him. The statement was not read by Oskar, but by one of the under-secretaries. Henry watched it in Matt’s office. ‘This morning at six-thirty, His Majesty the King took his early morning exercise, running circuits of the palace park. He was accompanied by his private secretary the count of Modenehem and by his good friend the prince of Tarlenheim. In the course of running, the prince lost his footing and fell badly on some gardening equipment. He is currently in critical condition at the Strelzen Sector Military Hospital. His Majesty and the count did what they could to assist the prince, but he had lost a lot of blood by the time paramedics reached the scene. The king will join the prince’s family at his bedside.’ ‘Jesus Christ!’ Henry exclaimed. ‘The poor fools went through with it. What are you going to do with the story, Matt?’ ‘I imagine Eastnet will repeat the palace line. Anything else would be too damaging to the king. If word gets out about a duel, it can only be rumour. It makes me wonder what to make of Rudi. How could he endanger all he has accomplished by such an obviously reckless act?’ ‘He has that Elphberg temper, Matt,’ sighed Henry. ‘We saw it on display enough at school.’ *** Henry, Gavin and Ed went to the hospital late in the afternoon, but Fritz was receiving no visitors. Oskar was in the foyer, looking awful. He kissed Henry and hugged him tightly. ‘You were right little Henry, so right.’ ‘How is he, Oskar?’ Oskar gathered his wits. ‘The duel was ill-matched. The king can handle a sword like a master-of-arms. I suppose I might have guessed it would have been a skill he acquired. He was in the Eton fencing team, apparently, before he went to your school at Medwardine. He is as stern a man as any of his ancestors. He was fighting to kill from the beginning, or so it seemed to me, whereas Fritz fought like a boy at an exercise. He hesitated far too often. The king took first blood with a deep slash across Fritz’s nose and right cheek. Alas, his looks will never be the same. Despite the pain and the blood, Fritz fought back hard and had the king open for a stabbing stroke, but he paused, giving the king the chance to run him through the gut. He was unconscious as he dropped. Like a man woken out of a dream, the king fell on his knees beside Fritz. I only hope the woman they fought over was worth the horror of that moment. It was the most terrible thing I have ever witnessed. I cannot talk to Helge. The look on her face when I told her was dreadful. She is with the boy now, and will not leave him.’ Peter Peacher arrived at that point to take Oskar away. Ed looked at Henry and Gavin. ‘Babes, there doesn’t seem anything we can do here.’ ‘I want to stay, Ed,’ said Henry. ‘Me too,’ echoed Gavin. And so they did, though Ed left after a while. Henry was not reassured by the appearance of an army chaplain carrying the Host in a bag round his neck and wearing a purple stole. He knew too well what they signified. While the chaplain was inside the room, Helge came out and looked solemnly at the young men. She sighed. ‘He’s sinking, dear boys. The internal bleeding was too great and his organs are failing.’ Henry felt hot tears in his eyes. ‘He can’t be dying, Helge!’ But she shook her head. Then Henry remembered something. ‘Helge, the black coach did not enter the palace last night! There was no omen of the death of a Tarlenheim. There is still hope.’ ‘Not in medical science, Henry.’ Suddenly she caught her breath. She moved forward and clasped Gavin’s face between her hands, staring deep into his eyes. An instant later she took his hand and pulled him with her into the room. Henry followed them. Fritz lay with his eyes open, pale and wired up to a lot of equipment. His lips were moving in response to something the chaplain had said. Helge asked the priest to give them a moment. He looked surprised but did as she requested. Helge went up to her brother and whispered into his ear. He gave a mute nod and his eyelids began drooping. Helge stood Gavin opposite her. He appeared a little scared, looking down on poor Fritz. Helge took Gavin’s right hand and placed it on Fritz’s forehead. She said a few low words to Gavin, who closed his eyes. Then she took from a pouch around her neck a metal object. She touched it to Gavin’s forehead and said some more words. He stiffened involuntarily, and began swaying slightly where he stood. Everything went very quiet. Henry felt rather than heard an insistent hum in the air. He thought he recognised it. There was no doubt that something was happening. Gavin’s hand on Fritz’s forehead took on a strange look, almost as if he were clasping the head of an electric torch. The hand became translucent the way alabaster is. The hum in the air became yet more insistent. Fritz suddenly arched on the bed, and took in a great gulp of air. His eyes shot open, and he stared round wildly. At that moment, Gavin collapsed. Henry ran to his boyfriend, dropping down beside him on the floor and nestling his head. Henry looked up at Helge. ‘What just happened? What did you do?’ Helge gazed at him with a strange, almost compassionate look and said only, ‘The warrior of God is come and his hands bring healing, not death.’ ‘Is Gavin Mendamero?’ Henry demanded. ‘No, Henry, but like David of Israel, he is both prophet and prophesied. The crisis is upon us, and you must help me.’ ‘So you are the Levite!’ ‘I am the Levite.’ *** ‘You bloody well deserve that scar,’ Henry growled unsympathetically. ‘You are a hard man, Henry.’ Fritz, still a little pale, was by then sitting up in bed. The tubes had been removed from him, though the monitor had yet to be disconnected. The doctors were finding it difficult to forgive him for recovering so abruptly when the prognosis had been so grim. ‘The plastic surgeons will make most of it disappear. What’s left will remind you not to be such a bloody arsehole in future.’ ‘I am very contrite. But I couldn’t stab the king when it came down to it, even though I had him at my sword’s point. Give me some credit for that, Henry the Merciless.’ He paused. ‘You think it makes me look a little dashing, romantic even? The fencing scar used to be highly regarded in the old days.’ ‘It makes you look as though your face is falling off, Fritzy, you idiot.’ ‘Kiss me Henry.’ Henry pecked him on the lips. ‘No, properly.’ And Henry reluctantly closed in for the sort of deep kiss he liked to share with David and Justin. ‘What was that about, Fritz?’ Henry wondered as he broke off. ‘I needed to find out if I was still attractive, of course. I shall not be needing my looks to pursue Harriet Peacher any more. So maybe I’ll try my luck with the boys. I had better hope Harriet never finds out what the king and I did, or she may decide to finish me off. It seems she and Rudi really are falling for each other. Oskar says the two of them are off on a joint holiday before university resumes. A bit immature and hasty, don’t you think?’ It had been a week since the duel. Strelzen was buzzing with rumours of a royal romance, which had already spread to the English-language tabloids. The idea of Her Majesty Queen Harriet of Rothenia was exciting the world’s press. Nowhere was the interest more intense than in the States. The potential queen was after all a US citizen, and this was a far bigger thing than Princess Grace of Monaco had been. Henry took his farewell of Fritz after promising to visit again and let him know how Gavin was doing. Henry frowned. Gavin was not exactly ill, but he was not himself at all. When he had come around in Henry’s arms, he had been weak and distant. Henry had taken him back to their hotel room, where Gavin had finally been able to get about on his own feet. Once on the bed, however, he had gone off into a somnolent state as if what had occurred had drained him. ‘What happened, Gavin?’ Henry had asked as soon as his lover appeared more connected. ‘I’m not sure, Henry. I was standing there feeling sorry for Fritz, who is a really lovely human being and was so horribly mangled. Then I met Helge’s eyes and I felt someone telling me I could help him. She put something cold on my forehead, and the next thing I knew I was down on the floor.’ ‘Don’t you remember anything?’ ‘There was that nice warm feeling again, and – don’t think I’m being silly here – it seemed I was very close to someone who loved me. It was the same way I feel when we’re together, my Henry, but even deeper.’ ‘Did you know you cured Fritz?’ ‘I can’t believe that.’ ‘A light came from you, baby, and some sort of power. Something uncanny happened.’ Henry had been unable to get anything further from Gavin. He finally had to accept that Gavin really knew no more than he was saying. *** After leaving Fritz, Henry picked up Gavin from the hotel and they made their way to meet Helge at the Veronkenkirche, the church of St Veronica. It was a large, fifteenth-century parish church in the Old City, tucked under the south walls of the Benedictine abbey of St Waclaw, a Gothic barn of a place. It clearly had some deep meaning for Helge. She had said she had a lot to ask Gavin and a lot to tell him. Henry perceived that Gavin was in for a crash course in religious expression. Henry delivered Gavin to Helge at the church’s south door, but was not allowed to stay as the two talked. He had found the Levite, but she would not answer any of his many questions. He grimaced in frustration. In any case, Henry had to go back to the Strelsenermedia offices on the other side of the hill for a consultation with Matt. The next day they would be off to Medeln once again, this time to film Dr Bannow, and Matt wanted to be fully briefed. When Henry returned to the Veronkenkirche at five he entered, to find Helge and Gavin were still talking. They were sitting together in a large box pew at the head of the nave, Helge holding Gavin’s hand. Henry loitered within the door. Chancing to look up at the medieval stained glass above him, he was astounded to see another rendition of the Vision of Fenice, in the half-window above the door. He was no expert but Henry had learned enough about architecture in his Trewern days to recognise the window dated from the time of Fenice herself. It occurred to him later that the face of the saint in the glass might well have been painted by someone who had seen the lady herself in the flesh. The subdued conversation between Helge and Gavin ended, and they rose to approach him. Henry looked intently at his lover’s face, and what he saw there did not reassure him. Gavin had always been open. His emotions usually chased themselves across his face with no attempt at concealment. Now a veil had descended. Henry could not tell whether it was because of some inner turmoil or because his baby had been changed by his recent experiences. What he did know was that it deeply troubled him. He decided he was not going to let Helge get away from him again. When she and Gavin stood up, he was quick to buttonhole her. ‘Helge. I must know. What is happening to Gavin?’ She gave him an unfathomable look. ‘I wish I could tell you Henry, but I really don’t fully understand it. We Levites only know that one day a crisis will come and the Icon will be threatened. St Fenice does not tell us the nature of the threat, only that a warrior will be found to defend the great relic. How he is to do it is unknown.’ ‘Do you think Gavin is changing? Does he have … powers?’ ‘No, I don’t think so, Henry. It is only that he can be a channel for a very great power, something that has been slumbering for many centuries but is now awakening.’ ‘And Mendamero?’ ‘He is the key to the mystery. I imagine that Mendamero will be the one with the answers, not I. We Levites are only keepers, Henry. We keep the secret safe. We are no more than caretakers, but even such a lowly charge is one of great trust and honour. “I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than to dwell in the tents of ungodliness.” The psalmist had it right. It is the watchword of our order. Look at this.’ From the same little bag about her neck that Henry had seen in Fritz’s sickroom, Helge produced a silver object. Henry stared at it as she held it up in the palm of her hand. It was a skull badge, and Henry needed no great expertise to conclude that it was medieval in origin. It was set in a figured band, around which was embossed the legend: CONSISTERE MALO IN LIMINE DOMVS DEI MEI: QVAM MORARI IN TABERNACVLIS PECCATORVM. Henry was awed. ‘Is this the same brooch that St Fenice wore in her day?’ ‘It is.’ ‘And what about the brooch the Elphberg Levites wore?’ ‘That was buried with Queen Flavia in 1880. It was thought her line had come to an end, of course. Now it seems we were premature, and should have had more faith in the prophecies.’ ‘What do you know about these skull talismans, Helge?’ ‘I believe they were made for Countess Fenice and Duchess Osra when they entered the abbey of Medeln. However, there is more to them than simple ornament. The silver from which they were made is older than their fashioning. I believe the metal was once in very close contact with the Face itself, perhaps as clasps on its framing. They may have been brought up out of Constantinople, Satala or even Edessa. You may touch it, Henry.’ Henry gingerly extended a finger towards the skull. The metal was strangely cold, despite having been held in a human hand. It seemed to shiver very slightly or vibrate to the touch. Henry gasped, ‘It’s alive, Helge!’ ‘Yes, I think it is. It draws its life from the relic, which is why I had to see what happened when it touched Gavin. As I had speculated, it opened up a channel between him and the relic, whose strength could then flow through him. Nor did it just flow. Gavin was able to direct it. He feared for Fritzku’s life. I’m sure he was praying for Fritz in his way, and so the power turned to my brother’s healing.’ ‘Have you ever seen the Icon, dear Helge?’ ‘No, Henry, only in the greatest peril and necessity may we so much as approach it. Like the Ark of the Covenant, it is not safe for even the godly to touch. Our task is to conceal it.’ ‘But you know where it is.’ ‘It is in the possession of the handmaiden, dearest Henry, and its servants lie wakeful about it. That is all you need to know. It is safe.’ ‘If it really is safe, Helge, why are you so concerned? And why is Gavin now revealed as the prophesied warrior?’
  8. The following week passed quickly for Henry and Gavin. They had their hands full briefing Wardrinski and Bannow, which left them little time for themselves. The weather had turned cool and overcast, quite unusual for a Rothenian summer. Since that made outdoor filming difficult, most of the shooting was done indoors. One day, everyone drove over in a convoy to Radelngrad in Glottenberh where, with the help of the king, they had a private viewing of the relic of the Black Virgin at the Vitalenkloster. On Friday night, the crew packed up. Henry and Gavin said farewell to the house at Templerstadt with very real regret. As they took their leave, Oskar blessed and kissed them in the most formal Rothenian fashion. Their sadness did not last long, however. The grand summer ball awaited them in the capital, and Matt was running them down to the city. Fritz had successfully taken his driving test that week and insisted he would chauffeur Helge in her Fiat. She did not seem too happy at the prospect, though Fritz was gleeful. They were all to reassemble at the Tarlenheim palace in the New City. Henry was on pins to see Terry and David. He was not disappointed. The familiar curly head and lean body were waiting in the courtyard, standing arm in arm with Davey. As soon as Henry and Gavin had dumped their bags in the entrance hall, the four friends closed in a hugging session. A van full of Tarlenheim domestic staff had also transferred to Strelzen, and soon the great house was operational again. The under-chamberlain was on hand to greet the prince when he drove into the yard. Fritz drew up the Fiat with a jerking screech. Helge looked pale. Although she said she did not want to talk about the trip down, Henry got the idea it would be quite a while before she allowed her brother behind the wheel of her car again. Fritz dragged Henry up to his den under the roof space to help remove the dust sheets from the epic train set. Fritz did not seem to be in any hurry to grow out of his boyhood hobby, and was soon happily engaged in laying out his favourite rolling stock. Henry was given a lecture about Fritz’s new project, the building of a facsimile of King’s Cross station to match his model of York on the other end of the set. ‘I made a pilgrimage to York station when I was in England, Henry. It was so strange to see it full of real people, instead of the models I’d painted. I kept on wanting to pick up porters and put them back in the right place.’ ‘Seriously weird,’ Henry agreed. Finally he had to ask, ‘How are things between you and Harry, Fritzy?’ The prince stiffened, then replied slowly, ‘Fine so far as I know. She is a guest of the king this weekend at the Residenz.’ ‘And Eddie is at the palace too. You know that.’ ‘Hmph,’ Fritz snorted, in a comment which indicated he thought Eddie’s presence at the palace was only for form’s sake. Henry left him to brood. Later that afternoon, Henry was surprised to find the boy alone in the upper gallery, stamping and shouting as he made passes with a cavalry sabre he had taken down from the wall. He did it with some skill. Fencing was a sport still taught to young Rothenians, and Henry recalled that the national team regularly won gold or silver at the Olympics. The prince grinned at Henry’s surprise, saying, ‘It gets rid of tensions very nicely, I find.’ Henry did not quite like or trust that grin. *** Henry’s anxieties were swamped by the preparations for Saturday’s grand ball. When seven o’clock came at last on that beautiful Strelzen evening, Henry and Gavin got into a limousine with Fritz and Helge. There was a long queue of cars heading up the Rodolferplaz to the palace gates, flanked by a big crowd of onlookers. The social élite of Rothenia surged up the green-carpeted steps, lined with troopers of the Life Guard in their top boots, white uniforms and silver-crested helmets. The massed paparazzi flashed their cameras in great volleys, and Henry for the first time in his life heard shouts of, ‘Henry!’ ‘Henry Atwood!’ as they scrambled to get the best shot. He grinned, waved, and went up the stairs hand-in-hand with a totally bemused Gavin. So he was now a celebrity, in a small way. At the head of the stairs, the usher announced their names and they joined the throng making its way into the state ballroom. Gavin was immediately taken under Helge’s wing. Henry sneaked a plate of vol-au-vents from the buffet table set up along one side, and retreated into a corner to watch the show. He was soon joined by Eddie, who had already downed at least one glass of pink champagne. ‘Well dude,’ he said over the hubbub of conversation, ‘how ‘bout this?’ ‘You’d rather be surfing on Walbrough South Bay, wouldn’t you.’ ‘Maybe. But this will be fun. Oh, hey, there’s something you need to know …’ Before Eddie could finish his comment, Will and Felip joined them. Felip was grinning all over his handsome, feline face. ‘So, are you going to dance the night away, Henry? Will has been having lessons, haven’t you, lover.’ Will looked a little embarrassed. ‘Ever since I heard that men can dance with men here, I wasn’t going to let the gay team down. Not that I’d ever compare with Terry or Felip …’ ‘... or David,’ Henry butted in. ‘He’s really something. He’s the king of the Cranwell club scene. He and Terry have been practising their waltzes and polkas. I have a feeling Terry’s out to prove something tonight. The most Gavin baby and I will be able to manage is a 1-2-3 waltz step, but we’re going to do our bit.’ A stir at the main door and a sudden fanfare announced the king and demanded a hush from the assembled mass. The guardsmen on the door presented arms, and the whole of the room curtseyed and bowed in the king’s direction. Rudi was in the white and gold uniform of colonel of the Life Guards, looking truly sensational. Henry noticed he was followed by two handsome aides-de-camp in blue, plumed shakos under their arms and swords belted to their waists, their hair thick and gold. One was Oskar with his ribbon and star, and the other was … my God, Ed Cornish! The king began circulating among his guests. Soon it was Henry’s turn to shake the royal hand. ‘You may want to say hello to Oberleutnant Cornish, here, too.’ ‘When were you conscripted, Ed?’ Henry half-envied the pretty uniform, with the Ruritanian blue coat faced in white and laced in gold. Ed wore polished black knee boots, and had the golden aiguillettes of a staff officer hanging from his left shoulder. He wore his order round the neck to complete the picture. He looked perfect. Ed was clearly enjoying the dressing up, a part of his character Henry had glimpsed in Strelzen the previous year. ‘His Majesty gave me an honorary commission when I was his equerry in London last November. My regiment is the Guard Fusiliers of Modenehem, and Colonel Antonin is my commander.’ He grinned. ‘Cool, huh? I can do the heel-clicking thing, too. The colonel’s around here somewhere, I must go and salute him.’ ‘You’ve certainly mastered the military art of surprise, Ed,’ chuckled Henry. ‘What on earth are you doing here?’ Ed shrugged. ‘The king said he wanted me, so of course I came. We’re really good mates. He’s been very kind to me, little babe.’ Henry shook his head. ‘I didn’t mean to imply you had no business here, Ed. It’s just I didn’t know you were coming.’ He half-suspected Rudi was trying to push him and Ed together for the summer. But then the king knew that Henry and Gavin were pretty firm, so perhaps Henry was being overly suspicious. ‘And how’s your Rothenian coming along, Ed?’ Henry asked in Rothenian. Ed grinned and answered in the same language, ‘Coming along little by little, my friend.’ ‘Well done, Ed! I knew you could do it.’ The king was moving along by then, and Ed took off behind him. Henry looked after him bemused. Gavin joined him, asking, ‘Was that who I thought it was with the king?’ ‘It was indeed.’ King Rudolf made his way slowly to the dais of the ballroom, where he said some suitable Rothenian words which Henry translated for Gavin. Immediately a fanfare sounded, signalling the appearance of a grey-haired man, tall and distinguished-looking. The king announced that his well-beloved uncle Robert was to be known from that day forward as count of Hentzau, a title which the king resigned to him and his heirs. Another fanfare pealed out. This time a red-haired girl in a beautiful white satin dress approached the dais. ‘My people, I present to you our beloved cousin, Eleanor Osra Flavia Elphberg-Rassendyll, who will be known henceforth as HRH the Princess Royal and heir-presumptive to our throne of Rothenia.’ A great surge of applause spread out across the ballroom. The king then looked round, nodded to the orchestra and took his cousin’s hand. She was small yet very beautiful in the delicate and elfin way of some red-haired women. He took her hands, grinned, and the dancing began. They were a glorious couple, and whispers flew around the hall as rumours of an impending royal marriage were instantly created out of thin air. When the first dance ended, the king resigned the princess to Fritz, who smiled and bowed, knowing his duty. Then the king walked purposefully towards Harriet Peacher. With a soft waltz beginning in the background, he produced a red rose from his golden cartridge belt, presented it to the lady, bowed to kiss her hand and – to massive applause and a surging ripple of gossip – led her out on to the floor. Not only did they dance magnificently, it was also quite clear they took considerable enjoyment in each other’s company. The rumours promptly changed direction. Other couples joined them, whirling round under the chandeliers. Terry and David caused a major stir and gasp, though the court gazette had made it perfectly clear that gay couples were acceptable. They were superb, like professional ballroom dance partners, and Henry caught David’s grin as he flashed past. Will and Felip passed by him too, as did Oskar and Helge. Henry looked at Gavin, who gave a broad grin and winked. They joined hands, and were off in the crowd. Henry concentrated on the rhythm and their movement, while Gavin tried not to stand on his feet. They just did the one dance, only to prove a point really. Then they retired with honour to a side room and got soft drinks. They sat on a sofa and talked about the amazing kaleidoscope of colour present that evening, and how handsome a people the Rothenians were. After an hour they went in search of Fritz. They found him in a corner of a downstairs room on his own, which was most unlike him. Henry was pretty confident there were many young people around with whom he was acquainted, apart from the Peacher set. Henry had been swapping remarks with him for only a few minutes when he noticed a certain wildness about Fritz’s eyes and a slur in his speech that his barman’s experience told him was advancing drunkenness. This was a first. Fritz was a very moderate drinker, but he had obviously been putting it away steadily since he got to the ball. With a significant look, Henry told Gavin to look after Fritz, and went in search of Oskar. Finding him took a while. Henry saw the king dancing with Madame Trachtenberg. Then he noticed Eddie and Harriet dancing a polka with amazing style and enthusiasm. They were a delight to look at. In his white tie, Eddie could have been one of those charming and cultured nineteenth-century American males you find in Henry James novels. Henry finally discovered Oskar talking to a stocky figure familiar from the previous year’s adventure, none other than the right-wing politician Piotr Bermann. Oskar introduced Henry as a member of Matthew White’s production team. Bermann sized him up carefully. Apparently Henry’s name was known to him. ‘Mr Atwood, a pleasure,’ he said in his grating voice. Henry likewise expressed his pleasure, with equal sincerity. ‘Tell me, Mr Bermann. I understand your father was very much a resistance hero during the war.’ Bermann bowed in acknowledgement. ‘My father was responsible for making Husbrau a very uncomfortable place for the German and Hungarian troops garrisoning it. He took the surrender of Modenehem from the German commandant in advance of the Red Army’s arrival.’ ‘I hear he also tried and executed the Gauleiter of Husbrau without waiting for a war-crimes tribunal.’ Bermann grimaced. ‘The man was a monster to whom justice could not come too quickly. It earned my father the title of “Friend of Israel” from their government in 1958.’ ‘It does indicate he was a decisive and impatient man.’ Bermann looked Henry right in the eyes. ‘Those are the men who get things done which need to be done.’ Henry was becoming aware that there was a definite subtext to this conversation, and that he needed to keep it going. ‘I always think such men are not to be found in the limelight but behind the scenes, doing what needs to be done out of the public gaze. Don’t you think so?’ Bermann’s gaze became more intense. ‘When the enemies of all that is good and right lurk in the shadows, then the defenders of justice need to be there too.’ Henry returned the gaze. ‘But then, who is to say that what they do is justified? Who is to prevent them doing things that are wrong.’ ‘It is all in the cause, Mr Atwood. God prospers those who are in his service and confounds the unjust.’ ‘Yes, I imagine that is what everyone says who takes justice into his own hand.’ Bermann was looking sphinx-like. ‘Do you have anyone particular in mind when you say that, Mr Atwood?’ ‘It’s just a general observation. Secrecy is a disease, I think, Mr Bermann. Those who are obsessed with it have something to hide. It’s only according to their own protestations that they are the good guys.’ Bermann was by then frowning openly. ‘It seems we do not think alike, Mr Atwood.’ He bowed stiffly and moved away. Oskar chuckled. ‘Thank God he’s gone. Not an easy man to talk to, Henry.’ ‘Oh, I’m not so sure, Oskar. I believe he just told me quite a lot I needed to know. Er … can you come with me? Fritzy’s had a bit too much to drink, and someone should take him home.’ Oskar was properly concerned. He placed his shako on his head, gripped his sword hilt and together they sought the side room where Henry had left Fritz. Gavin was still there, sitting in a chair, but his slumped posture indicated all too clearly that he had gone down to another seizure. Henry looked into his fixed eyes. Gavin was completely out of it. Henry glanced round. There were French windows opening on to the twilit palace garden, from which raised voices were coming. Henry and Oskar headed outside at speed. Two men were standing there on the grey lawn, arguing hotly: Fritz and Rudi. Rudi was saying, ‘You are a child, Fritz, and she is a mature woman. She has given you no commitment, only friendship. You cannot make such demands of me, your king. Grow up, you silly boy!’ Henry recognised that the Elphberg temper had been roused, and anything now could happen. Fritz retorted, ‘But I knew her first. A man of honour would have seen my interest in her and withdrawn!’ ‘Who in the devil’s name do you think you are talking to, damn you, Tarlenheim! I am the king. None dares doubt my honour. Step back, I say!’ Fritz had moved on the king with fists balled up, and whatever his real intentions, Rudi perceived a threat and struck the boy hard in the face. Down Fritz went. Looking up with blood on his lip and a glare of pure anger, he said coolly, ‘That demands satisfaction. The blow was witnessed. If you are a man, you know what follows next.’ Rudi was breathing heavily. ‘The king cannot be challenged without incurring the penalty for treason. However, my dear Tarlenheim, the earl of Burlesdon will be very happy to meet you at dawn here in the palace gardens. Swords, I think?’ Fritz stood. ‘My brother will be my second. Who shall he call upon?’ ‘Colonel Antonin will be sufficiently discrete, I think. Until tomorrow.’ The king and the prince bowed to each other, and the king stalked back into the illumination of the ball, leaving Oskar and Henry staring appalled at Fritz. ‘What in God’s name have you done, you young fool!’ Oskar growled, his face aghast. If Fritz was drunk, his anger had burned the effects of the alcohol away. He simply retorted, ‘I have remembered that I am a Tarlenheim, and not to be pushed aside by the tyranny of any damned king.’ At long last Henry realised precisely what a Rothenian prince might be like. Scratch the amusing boy and underneath was the heir to centuries of feud, touchy honour and autonomy, the curse of Rothenian adelskultur. He had never fully known Fritz, he realized, and was suddenly seeing the reverse side of the confidence and dignity he had so admired in the boy. Oskar perhaps recognised this. He simply said formally, ‘You have issued your challenge, Szeren Hochheit, and so it must be. But bear this in mind. Should that man fall to your sword, all the plans I and others have made for the stability and peace of our motherland fall with him.’ He knew his brother. The comment made its way past the adrenalin, alcohol and anger. Fritz began to look troubled. Asking Henry to make sure Fritz got home immediately, Oskar returned to the king. Henry gently took Fritz’s arm, and walked him slowly and silently through the palace to the courtyard. Henry found the Tarlenheim car and told the driver to take the prince back to the palace, then dashed off to the ballroom to look for Gavin. Fortunately, David Skipper had found him first and was holding him up. ‘Outfield, has this happened before?’ he asked, looking very concerned. ‘Only since we came to Rothenia. It seems to be something in the air. Look, Davey, can you stay with Gavin? I need to go and find Terry in a hurry. OK?’ David nodded. Terry was out on the floor with a very glamorous Rothenian woman. Henry tapped him on the shoulder as the dance ended. ‘Hey sweet babe, you cutting in?’ Henry shrugged. ‘Only if the next one’s a waltz.’ As it happened, Strauss’s Flaviener waltz was next on the programme. Terry danced away with Henry – Terry leading, naturally. Henry explained things as they spun around through the press. It was testimony to Terry’s powers of concentration that he did not so much as break a step. ‘Right, Henry babe. This is pretty dreadful news. I’d never have thought Fritz capable of something so rash and dangerous. But I sometimes forget the boy’s not English. Pity it’s swords. If it was pistols, they could be tampered with. Blades, on the other hand, can only be blunted, and that would be noticed.’ ‘You really think they’re going ahead with this madness?’ ‘They’re Ruritanians, babe, course they will. It’s still the nineteenth century here in some ways.’ ‘Isn’t there anything we can do?’ ‘Er … pray?’ Henry looked over to where King Rudolf was unconcernedly eating a bowl of ice cream and chatting with his uncle and a group of army officers. Henry noticed that Colonel Antonin was one of them, and he at least did look concerned. When the dance ended, Henry left with Terry’s promise to talk to the king if he had a chance. Oskar too was attending the king, at a distance, talking to Ed Cornish. Henry found David sitting holding Gavin’s hand. Gavin had come back to full consciousness and said he had a story to tell. ‘Henry, it was different from before. In the past I’ve just sort of drifted off into a warm haze. This time I saw things in the clouds. There was a great dark arch and I sort of floated inside it. It was really black and scary to start with, but finally a light grew. I was in this big space, like a honeycomb. In front of me was a large door-shaped recess carved with a lot of letters. I knew I had to get through it, but I didn’t know how. Then a tremendous voice said, ‘Mendamero will show the way!’ I turned to look who had said it, when there was a flash and I began to fall. Then I woke up.’ ‘We need to talk more about this, baby. But first we have to get you back to the Tarlenheim palace where, I have a feeling, nobody will sleep much tonight.’ The car was back for them and Henry and Gavin were whisked away. David and Terry were as usual staying at the Hilton. Henry got Gavin to their room. Seeing how tired he was, Henry insisted he go straight to bed. Henry himself prowled the palace. Led by the sound of clashing steel, he eventually found Fritz in the gallery with Oskar. They were fencing in masks, and it was quite clear that both men were very skilled. Whatever Oskar might have felt about the duel, his sense of duty to the prince, the head of his family, was foremost in his mind. Henry wondered how good a swordsman Rudi Burlesdon might be. He could not remember Rudi ever mentioning a facility with blades. On the other hand, Rudi had never mentioned he was a rider, either, yet he excelled on horseback. There was clearly nothing to be said to the Tarlenheim brothers, so Henry went looking for Helge. She was where he expected, sitting in the baroque oratory on the first floor, leafing through a devotional book. Henry was intrigued to note in passing that it was an edition of St Fenice’s Revelation of the End Time. She looked up as he entered. ‘Yes Henry, I know what Fritz has done.’ ‘Can’t you do anything?’ ‘I have said what I had to say, but Henry, he is the prince, and he has passed the age of adult responsibility. I can only deplore the foolish pride behind what he proposes, but not prevent it. Sit with me a while, dear Henry.’ So Henry took a seat and held her hand. It had been a tumultuous evening. His head was buzzing with ideas, his mind racing to fit together pieces of the puzzle that were beginning to fall into place at last. Levites, Acolytes, Terlenehem, Medeln and all the writings of St Fenice rotated in his mind as if it were a tumble drier. Suddenly, as can happen, a pattern began to emerge practically of its own accord. After a while, Helge asked how Gavin was. Henry told her about the latest episode. She gripped his hand hard as he described Gavin’s vision. She seemed deeply interested. ‘The boy may have second sight, Henry.’ ‘You think? According to him, it runs in his family. One of his Welsh ancestors was supposed to be a seer.’ ‘Yes, these things do run in families, and the Celtic peoples are particularly given to prophecy and visions, or so I have always understood.’ Henry wanted to know things, and had forgotten that Helge, the descendant of St Fenice, was quite likely to be the one who could tell him. ‘Helge,’ he began hesitantly, ‘it is said that St Fenice left guardians, or Levites, behind her to watch over what she called the Ark of the Lord.’ ‘So her prophecies say, yes.’ ‘What she doesn’t say is what is in the Ark.’ ‘What do you think is there, Henry?’ ‘I think it’s what Alastair Bannow says it is, or rather was. Once an icon of Our Lord, painted in His own lifetime – a relic of great power, power sufficient to protect itself from Arab armies and Bohemian iconoclasts, power so great I don’t doubt that the picture it once was is by now consumed, and what is left is a golden window into the Beyond, through which one may peer to see what lives there, and what lives there may look back at you. Not a gaze many could stand and still live, I think.’ ‘Then it would indeed be very powerful and capable of looking after itself, wouldn’t you say? Why then need Levites?’ ‘Because in the old Temple, the Ark of the Covenant needed attendants, men to move it around, and to be alert for danger. The Levites of the True Face are there to keep it concealed, I don’t know why, but then divine purposes are supposed to be mysterious. In any case, I’m now pretty sure the Levites do exist.’ Helge looked at him curiously. ‘How is that, Henry?’ ‘People have always commented how remarkable it is that the Tarlenheim family has produced a male heir in every generation since the tenth century. It isn’t unique, but it is unusual.’ ‘You think the counts of Tarlenheim have occupied the office of Levite from generation to generation, as Dr Bannow implies?’ ‘No, I don’t.’ ‘Really? So what are you saying, Henry?’ ‘The truly unique thing about the Tarlenheims is that, since the fourteenth century, they have produced not just a male in every generation, but at least one female too.’ ‘Ah!’ Helge’s look became remarkably intense. ‘No, it’s not the sons of the House of Tarlenheim who have been Levites, it has been the daughters.’ ‘But Henry, Their hair shall be red as copper is red …’ ‘… and golden as the sunlight is golden. I think the office has been shared between red-headed female Elphbergs and golden-haired female Tarlenheims, in the same way as Countess Fenice and Duchess Osra were partners in keeping the secret in the fifteenth century. Princess Osra was a Levite in the 1770s, and so I’ll bet was Queen Flavia in the Victorian age, alongside a chosen Tarlenheim woman in every generation.’ Helge smiled. ‘So you think I am one of the Levites, Henry.’ ‘I do.’ ‘And you therefore think I know where the True Face lies.’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Why are you telling me this?’ ‘Because if I can work it out, so can others. You have heard of the Priory of St Veronica?’ ‘The fascist mystics before the war? They are long extinct.’ ‘I don’t believe so. In fact, I believe I talked with the Master of the Priory less than two hours ago.’ Helge was undoubtedly startled. ‘How can you know that?’ ‘I can’t know for certain, but the balance of probability leads me to conclude that Piotr Bermann is the Master, and that you are the Levite. The fact that I am telling you this should indicate whose side I am on.’ Helge frowned. ‘In such circumstances, Henry, there can be no sides. You cannot make a conspiracy against God. It would be like taking an oath to abstain from breathing. It cannot be done. The very act defeats itself.’ ‘So are you the Levite of the Ark?’ ‘Don’t be silly Henry, it’s just your overheated mind running away with itself. You really need to get some sleep.’ Henry returned her straight gaze. There would be no confession from Helge, so much was clear. He took his leave, but didn’t go to bed. He went to his room and changed into his black jeans, pullover and dark top. He was still sitting brooding in the chair next to a sleeping Gavin as the light broadened in the sky and dawn began to break over the city of Strelzen.
  9. When Henry awoke the next morning, he felt a different air about the house of Templerstadt. There was a sense of distinct activity in the air. Servants were passing and re-passing in the passage outside his and Gavin’s bedroom. Henry got up and peeked downward past the window drapes to see gardeners placing hangings and floral baskets around the courtyard. Two secret service agents had taken over the gatehouse. One of them was speaking into a radio. The king would be arriving from Strelzen at ten-thirty, and it was already nine. Henry shook a very dopey Gavin awake and dragged him into the shower. They had some subdued fun, but were ready and dressed in half an hour. ‘What’s the king like, Henry?’ Gavin asked for the third time. ‘Tall and red-haired – a very determined guy. He’s got amazing dignity and presence when he’s on show to the world. You’d never know he has the genuine Elphberg temper, although that was on display a fair amount in the sixth form at Medwardine. He had a lot of issues in those days, but he’s different now. He’s awfully clever, in a fierce sort of way. I think Professor Wardrinski and he might get along quite well if they ever met. Intellectually, they have a lot in common. ‘Rudi’s studying PPE at Oxford, where he’s well on course for a blazing first, so Ed says.’ ‘What’s PPE? Sounds like games at school.’ ‘It’s Politics, Philosophy and Economics, baby. Budding politicos do it, so it was a good choice for our friend Rudi. Anyway, he and Ed keep in touch, and Ed was over staying with him several times during the year. I think Ed accompanied the king as equerry last year in the Remembrance Day service in Whitehall. Don’t you recall we watched it on telly?’ ‘Oh yes, he laid a wreath on behalf of the Czech and Rothenian pilots who fought in the RAF during the Battle of Britain. Do I dare call him Rudi?’ ‘No, baby. The first time you talk to him you call him “Your Majesty”, and after that “sir”. You must never ask him a question. He has to talk to you first before you speak to him. It’s called protocol.’ Gavin laughed. ‘That must be hard for you, Henry.’ ‘What? Cheek. You know me too well, baby!’ Harriet and Fritz were sitting close together eating breakfast. They were laughing hilariously when Henry and Gavin came into the room. Henry got coffees for Gavin and himself, and watched the other couple curiously. There was no doubt that Harry had fallen into an easy relationship with Fritz, but Henry could not work out if it was getting in any way romantic. Nonetheless, the two of them left together after saying their good mornings, and clearly had joint plans. ‘So what do you think, Gavin baby?’ ‘Oh … Helge says Fritz has really been smitten hard by Harry, but she thought Harry was not the sort of woman to commit to anyone in a hurry. She believes the two years’ difference in age would mean a lot to Harry.’ ‘And yet they were chatting away there ten to the dozen.’ Gavin did not reply. He was sipping his coffee slowly. Henry got the idea his lover had something to say to him. Sure enough, Gavin put down his cup and asked, ‘Henry, tell me why you believe in God.’ Henry was knocked back by that one. Still, it was something he knew they had to talk about, so he said, ‘I notice you didn’t ask, “Henry, why are you religious?”’ ‘Isn’t it the same thing?’ ‘No, not really. Religion is the way you respond to your idea of a deity. Believing in God is a different thing altogether. But you asked, so I’ll answer. I believe in God because I feel His presence every day. In everything I see and do, I feel God in and around me. That’s all the proof I need, though I know it’s not enough for some or even most people.’ ‘And is He good?’ ‘Oh yes, very good.’ And Henry knew exactly what was coming next. ‘So why do bad things happen, Henry? Why are there wars, plagues and massacres, why do gays like us get murdered just because they’re gay, why … all sorts of horrible things?’ ‘Oh, you do ask the big ones, don’t you. I could say that a lot of the terrible things happen because people make them happen, all on their own, in defiance of God’s will. But that would be too easy, because there are diseases, natural catastrophes, countless things you can’t blame on people. To try to answer your question is to go into deep water, baby. But I did A-Level Religious Studies, and I’ve got a module to take in Theodicy when I get back for the second year, so I shall do my best. ‘Okay. First off, you could say God has created for the Universe a set of circumstances and rules which are the best He could do, but which allow things to happen that are bad for the likes of us if we’re caught up in them. Even so, on balance the huge majority of lives are not touched by them. So God has created a world where a happy life is possible for most people.’ ‘Hang on, Henry. Do you mean you don’t think God is all-powerful and can do anything?’ ‘As it happens, no, I don’t think He’s all-powerful. Because there is a second consideration. Jesus died very young … why? It was terribly unjust and horrible. If God had been on the job, Jesus needn’t have died. So God can be powerless. Yet even though Jesus was tortured and killed, His life still was incredibly important, because God could make something of it. God can retrieve things. There was a resurrection.’ ‘I think of it as if we were shellfish on a beach. So far as we know, we’re just floating around in the water. God is the tide, moving us the way He wants us to go, even though we don’t realise He’s doing it. He’s got His own way of pulling us around, whatever dreadful things we do in the world. ‘There’s also a third thing. If our existence continues after death – and I’m perfectly confident it does, as you well know – then God can continue the process of saving souls in a different place, a place closer to him, until we’re ready to meet Him face-to-face. I suppose I’d have to say I just believe there’s far more to the Universe than we could possibly know, with God at work in ways we have no idea about. Does that answer your question?’ ‘I’ll have to think about it, Henry.’ ‘What put all this into your head, baby?’ ‘I’ve been talking to Helge. She’s very religious, you know. I like her an awful lot, and I can’t imagine someone like her – so good and so wise – could believe so firmly in something stupid.’ ‘Whereas you think I could?’ Gavin looked embarrassed. ‘No, that’s not what I meant at all, Henry. You know I met you and fell in love with you long before you told me you were a Christian.’ ‘I know, Gavin my darling baby. There’s a lot more to say about this. I’ll give you time to pick holes in my logic. Shouldn’t be too difficult. When it comes down to religion, logic has to give way to illogical belief in the end. You believe because you feel you must, not because anyone can prove that you should.’ ‘And if someone like me can’t share such a belief and doesn’t understand?’ ‘Then, Gavin, you have to pity me as a sad but lovable nutcase.’ *** Henry and Gavin went to change into something not quite formal, but still more than casual. Henry had a pair of comfortable chinos and loafers with shirt and sweater that seemed to fit the day’s mood. Gavin wore a white tee under a smart shirt he had bought in Oxford Street, and well-cut jeans without the fashionable worn and tattered look. When they went down to the courtyard, they found everyone else had done much the same – apart from Oskar, who was in his usual sandals, long shorts and sleeveless tee. But then, he worked daily with the king, so he knew what he could get away with. Gavin was bobbing up and down next to Henry as two police outriders thundered into the courtyard, followed by a black BMW with the royal banner fluttering above the windscreen. An SUV full of secret-service types rolled in behind. It might have seemed like overkill, but as Henry well knew the king had survived two assassination plots before he was eighteen. The BMW’s driver raced round to open the door, and King Rudolf emerged with a grin. He was no Windsor. He was wearing cargo pants, trainers without socks and a knitted top over a tee. Oskar went to greet him first, then introduced the house guests. After shaking hands with the older ones, the king finally reached Henry. His eyes lit up. ‘Well, little Outfield, back in my kingdom again?’ ‘Glad to say I am, Your Majesty. You seem to be keeping it nice.’ The king laughed and gave Henry a big hug, whispering in his ear, ‘I’ve missed you, Henry.’ He stepped back, turned and said, ‘You have to be Gavin.’ Gavin squeaked, ‘Yes, thank you, Your Majesty.’ Then he blushed bright red. ‘You’re a very lucky boy.’ ‘I know, Your Majesty. Henry’s brilliant.’ The king smiled at him and shook his hand, before moving on to the Peacher twins. ‘Eddie and Harriet, nice to meet you. I’ve heard a lot about you from Peter.’ ‘Cool, Your Majesty dude,’ said Eddie with a grin. Harriet did a proper court curtsey, as Helge had done. She stood, her eyes met those of the king, and there followed a pregnant pause, the sort when the world goes still around two people. Henry noticed it and Eddie did too. Rudolf took Harriet’s hand, bent and kissed it. Their eyes locked once more as he looked up. This time another pair of eyes noticed them, and Fritz flushed with annoyance. The king took Helge’s arm and led the others indoors in a chatting group. Henry and Gavin held hands as they walked. Gavin hissed, ‘You didn’t tell me what an out-and-out babe he is! I never realised redheads could be so utterly gorgeous! I nearly wet myself when he talked to me.’ Henry laughed. ‘I just forgot. To me he’s simply Broody Rudi, as we used to call him in the sixth, before he was king. His nickname was “Chicken”, cos it irritated the hell out of him.’ Lunch was laid out in the great dining room. Servants were everywhere. Peter had been coached by Oskar to do the formal Rothenian welcome, which he ended with the opening toast. He raised his wine glass and offered, ‘The House of Elphberg’. Everyone applauded and Rudi acknowledged the compliment. The king was sitting at the opposite end of the table from Peter, with Eddie and Harriet on either side. He made himself very charming to both siblings, although Henry noticed his eyes straying again and again to Harry. Gavin was talking earnestly to Helge, leaving to Henry the unaccustomed task of trying to hold up both ends of a conversation with Fritz. The prince was moody and withdrawn, and the looks he kept casting down the table towards Rudi and Harriet were hard ones. As the lunch moved on to coffee, Rudi made an announcement after first formally asking the host’s permission. Though brought up in England, Rudi had been educated by his formidable grandmother, Elenja of Kesarstejne, in proper Rothenian formality. ‘My dear friends, some of you already have your invitations for the Summer Ball at the palace in Strelzen next week. It is an important occasion for me personally. My uncle the Honourable Robert Rassendyll will be here from England so I can invest him as the new count of Hentzen. His daughter, my only cousin Eleanor Osra Flavia, will be proclaimed Princess Royal and heir presumptive to the throne. Oskar has extra invitations for everyone here, and I hope you all will be able to accept. It is the beginning of the season and will inaugurate the new Strelzen Summer Music Festival. And Henry …’ Henry perked up. ‘Yes sir?’ ‘Male on male dancing is to be allowed by royal command.’ ‘Oh wow! Pity Terry won’t be here.’ The king laughed. ‘Oh yes, I sent him a personal message to make sure he will be coming. Also I want to see Davey Skipper. I hope you all have time to get appropriate dress.’ ‘Brought my medal, sir!’ Henry announced with glee. *** Rudi joined them at the poolside that afternoon. Henry dozed next to Gavin after the heavy lunch, while the more muscular men present – including the king – worked it off with a vigorous game of water polo in the indoor pool. Fritz had disappeared. Henry woke following an hour’s nap. Gavin was still completely flat out next to him. His recliner creaked as Rudi sat down beside him. ‘Well, Outfield, have you got time for a chat?’ ‘Certainly, sir. Wanna go and get something cool? Let me adjust the umbrella to protect Sleeping Beauty here.’ Henry pulled a cool cotton robe over his hot skin. Rudi had slipped his tee-shirt on. They walked barefoot to the grass and wandered around the outside of the house. In the shade of the north side they found a couple of chairs on the lawn. Rudi caught the eye of a passing servant and ordered cold drinks. The man bowed and hurried off. Henry waited patiently for the king to say what he had in mind. Rudi grinned. ‘How was your first year then, Henry?’ ‘Quite a shock, Rudi. Not the academic work, though it is demanding doing History and Theology. The thing is, I had not expected to have to grow up so fast. I got a job that brought me into Cranwell’s sleaze centre, or what was the sleaze centre till Terry bought it. The things I’ve seen and had to do, you wouldn’t believe. But mostly it’s been Gavin. He’s not needy or whiney, bless him, but he’s utterly devoted to me. He puts me in charge and I have to be the moral leader in our relationship.’ ‘And you love him?’ ‘Oh yes. There’s a very real purity about him with which I’m still coming to terms. He’s not exactly naïve and he’s not exactly straight-laced – not with the things we do in bed, at least – but he is just absolutely open and completely possessed by the finer feelings of humanity. He hasn’t a bad word to say about anyone, apart from his vile brothers, though he’s certainly got reason for that. But this doesn’t make him weak, far from it. In some ways, he’s the strongest man I’ve ever met. He’s so shy he’s scared of being in the same room as a stranger. At the same time, he’s done the bravest things I’ve ever seen a man do, totally without flinching.’ ‘You certainly find them, Outfield. Suppose I were to tell you that Ed Cornish is more in love with you now than ever.’ ‘I wish you wouldn’t. I thought we’d found a new level of relationship in London over New Year. We swore eternal brotherhood.’ ‘That was good intentions on his part, I would imagine. But he and Guy have parted, though they needn’t have because Guy is staying in Cambridge for postgraduate work. I suspect it’s because Ed can’t get you out of his head.’ ‘Has he told you this, Rudi?’ ‘Not in so many words. But he’s my best friend, he really is. He’s even trying to learn Rothenian. And I know him inside out, gay or not.’ ‘I’m sorry to hear that, Rudi. Because Gavin and I are the real thing, y’know.’ ‘Yes, I see that, Outfield.’ He paused, then confided, ‘That Harriet Peacher is really something!’ Henry laughed a little. ‘I thought you were spoken for, Rudi.’ The king looked sheepish. ‘You mean Angela? We went out for a bit, she’s in my college. I believe she’s actually a cousin of mine, one of the Dalrymple people. We’ve even ... er, consummated the relationship. But I rather think it’s the celebrity she’s in love with, not Rudi Burlesdon. No, there isn’t any mileage in that affair. She got what she wanted out of it, a spread in Vogue and a modelling contract. So … what about Harriet?’ Henry gave him a quirky look. ‘Fritzy’s already been showing interest there, and it would upset him no end if you moved in on her.’ Rudi frowned. He did it rather well, with a certain brooding majesty, like a thunderstorm coming up from behind a line of hills. ‘Henry, he’s only a boy. She’s two years older than he is.’ ‘Boys can dream too, sir. You should know that.’ The king sat quietly while a servant came up and offered them their drinks on a silver tray. Finally he mused, ‘She is really something, Henry. Intelligent, beautiful …’ ‘And very, very wealthy.’ ‘That’s hardly a consideration, Henry.’ ‘I’ll tell you one thing that should make you think twice.’ ‘What is it?’ ‘Marry her and Justin will become your nephew!’ Rudi stared at Henry. ‘Me,’ he guffawed, ‘the monkey’s uncle!’ *** Henry was more than a little troubled by the king’s confidences. He knew Fritz well enough to understand that the boy was in dead earnest, seized by a full Rothenian passion for Harriet Peacher. Fritz was the prince of Tarlenheim and, even in the twenty-first century, the traits of his ancestors were realised in him. Although the passion was disguised with humour and whimsy, Henry could nonetheless sense it lying just beneath the surface. Fritz had all the potential for noble anger and decisive action so marked in his forebears. The Tarlenheims had always been loyal to the Elphberg monarchy, but they were as volatile as the rest of the Rothenian nobility when it came down to affairs of the heart. The Rothenian adelskultur, as they called it, had survived unchanged by the twentieth century and the dictatorship of the proletariat. By the time Henry got back to the poolside, Gavin had woken and gone back to the main house. Henry found him in their room, changing, but soon put a stop to that. He threw off his own robe and shorts, wrestled Gavin to the floor and ripped his pants down with a minimum of resistance. Having mastered his lover, Henry pushed him face-down into the carpet, found an entry and pounded his backside hard, just the way he knew Gavin liked it. His groin slapped Gavin’s buttocks loudly as he became more and more frantic with his thrusting. Gavin responded to Henry’s open lust for him with huge enthusiasm. He said it excited him no end to think another boy wanted his body as badly as Henry did. All too soon they were exhausted from their rutting. After a quick shower to clean up their emissions, they decided it was time to get ready for the evening’s fête. *** Dinner that night was to be fully formal – white-tie, with decorations worn in honour of the king’s presence. Henry and Gavin opened their wardrobe and extracted the film-wrapped evening suits that Matt had generously ordered to be tailored for them. They spent a long time getting themselves ready. When they were as perfect as they could be, and had buttoned up their black waistcoats, Gavin very seriously placed the red-and-yellow ribbon with the attached medal of the Order of Henry the Lion (in the Second Class) round Henry’s neck. Then Gavin kissed him and told him how beautiful he was. They went down to the drawing room hand-in-hand, to be met at the door and kissed by Peter Peacher. He looked at them approvingly. ‘You’ll do very nicely.’ Then he grinned. ‘We’ve got two additional guests tonight, babes. You’ll love this, Henry – Alastair Bannow and Chad Wardrinski. The king made a point of it.’ The boys entered a magnificent setting from a bygone era. The walls were lined with Oskar’s liveried staff in footmen’s garb, complete with powdered wigs. The chamberlain stood at the head of the room in a full-bottomed eighteenth-century coat over a green-and-gold waistcoat, holding a gold-headed staff. Servants were waiting with drinks for the guests. Matt, Oskar and Fritz wore the red sashes and stars of their Order of the Rose, and King Rudolf and Fritz in addition wore gold chains of the grand cordon. Eddie came up and smiled quirkily at Henry. ‘Nice little order, chivalrous dude.’ ‘Why, thank you, Eddie. I didn’t know you had these sorts of clothes.’ ‘Dad has them made. There’s a closet full of them in the Mayfair house. Harry brought them over, didn’t you, sis?’ Harriet looked radiant in diamonds and a stunning sky-blue silk ball gown. She smiled at her brother. ‘You clean up beautifully, Eddie. Those clothes look magnificent on you. It’s great to get a chance to see you like this. You and I are going to dance till dawn at the Summer Ball.’ She grinned at Henry like a tomboy urchin. ‘Bet you’d never guess that Eddie dances superbly. Mom sent us together to have lessons when we were nine, and we’re natural partners.’ Eddie gave her a shy grin that Henry would never have believed him capable of. Henry looked around. Dr Bannow and a lady who Henry assumed must be Mrs Bannow were talking very civilly to Matt. Wardrinski was chatting with the king, who was clearly enjoying the encounter. Henry sidled closer. Wardrinski noticed him, and seemed both surprised and faintly annoyed that he was there. Rudi gave his trademark evil grin and called Henry over. ‘Professor Wardrinski, do you know my old friend Henry Atwood? He sometimes acts as my equerry when he’s here in Rothenia.’ Wardrinski blurted out, ‘You know this young man, sir?’ The king laughed. ‘You ought to know, professor, that Henry here is one of the best-connected young men in Britain. We were at school together.’ ‘Ah,’ said Wardrinski in a rather resentful way, ‘the old school tie. Some of us have had to make our way in life without it.’ Henry couldn’t resist saying, ‘I owe a lot of my fame to modelling, professor. Apparently there are quite a few people out there who admire my good looks.’ Wardrinski looked as if he were sucking a lemon. Rudi laughed and returned to his conversation, holding Henry’s arm to stop him from moving away. ‘So, professor, you seem unwilling to acknowledge the efficacy of the relics that are the religious heritage of my kingdom.’ Wardrinski shrugged. ‘I’m sure the relics are important national treasures, sir. I wouldn’t say a word against them.’ ‘Ah, but do they have more than historical significance?’ ‘Obviously, sir, they have a national meaning and reinforce your people’s sense of their own identity. The Black Virgin of Glottenberh is a focus of a national festival. For all that your Church peddles superstition and bolsters ignorance, there has been an alliance with the state here in Rothenia which has done something to help keep the nation together. But I imagine the link has weakened in recent years.’ The king frowned. ‘There was a great surge in attachment to the Catholic Church under Communism, and the cardinal archbishop was a major player in the May Rising of 1989. There has been a cooling off since, although I believe the Church still commands a greater allegiance within my kingdom than it does in other countries. But the question was whether you see the cult of relics as having any spiritual meaning.’ Wardrinski hunched his shoulders, unwilling to offend a king in his own kingdom, but unable to set aside his ingrained pugnacity. Finally he replied, ‘Spirituality to me is a word without meaning, so spiritual meaning has to be a complete oxymoron.’ Henry felt obliged to chip in. ‘Again, it comes down to this, professor. You won’t accept people’s feelings about their inner lives, however strong they are.’ ‘Young man, it is just subjectivity. I have told you this already. Don’t you see that we cannot as serious scientists accept anything as being real which cannot be objectively assessed and measured?’ The king laughed. ‘The very thought! Imagine devising a system of units to measure spirituality. What would you call it, Henry? How about a ‘chant’?’ ‘Good, sir,’ smiled Henry. ‘Then you could start regulating the whole business of religion. A priest could generate a kilo-chant, a bishop a mega-chant. We could have an EU commissioner to deal with complaints from humanists about spiritual pollution if they lived next to a church. I mean, a parish church might generate as many as sixty kilo-chants per Sunday, more if it belonged to an Established church. Cathedrals might be monsters, as many as fifty mega-chants, but nothing compared to a two hundred-mega-chant monastery. You can see why your local atheists might get annoyed, all that irradiation by unshielded prayer.’ Rudi had caught fire with the idea. ‘Suppose we could channel it somehow into a European spirituality grid. Think of it, with the UK down to a mere six percent of the population attending church, we could transfer mega-chants from more religious societies to less to keep everything in balance. Now there you are, Professor Wardrinski, how about that as a way of rationalising and measuring religion?’ Wardrinski had a look on his face which indicated he thought he was being sent up, but could not quite see the joke. ‘As I keep on telling people, sir, religion brings out the illogicality in people.’ Henry drifted away again and began chatting with Mrs Bannow, whom he found charming. When next he looked, he saw the king deep in conversation with the Peacher twins. Gavin was talking to Fritz, who kept casting black looks in the direction of Harriet and the king. It was soon time to take places for dinner. The chamberlain thumped his staff and two footmen opened the door into the grand dining room. The king led the way with Mrs Bannow, followed by Oskar and his sister, and Peter with his. The rest of the party entered in more random pairs, though Henry made sure he was with Gavin. By some awkward coincidence, Wardrinski had to walk stiffly in with Bannow, and they ended up sitting opposite each other. Peter took the end of the table opposite the king and formally opened the dinner with a toast to his distinguished guests. Bannow and Wardrinski both gave identical stiff smiles and nods. The dinner was elaborate and lengthy. With Gavin sitting opposite him, clearly delighted by the evening and looking quite handsome, Henry did not mind at all. He had Fritz on his right, and tried to work out how the younger boy was feeling. But Fritz had all the self-command of an aristocrat and gave little of himself away. The candlelight glinted off silver, crystal, jewellery and orders of chivalry. Henry was quite entranced. The food too was magnificent, for Peter had brought in a chef from Milan. It was past midnight when Oskar rose and gave the formal blessing that concluded the meal. Henry was stuffed with a dinner the like of which he had never experienced before in his life. He saw the same satiety in Gavin’s eyes. They slid into bed with no thought other than sleep in their heads.
  10. Fritz was very excited to be going back to Terlenehem. It had been several years since he had last seen his childhood home. It had to be said that beneath his usual projection of cool Oskar was detectably moved by the homecoming. They were sitting in the front of Oskar’s BMW, two beautiful young men perfectly unconscious of their beauty. They chatted like little kids, pointing out their important places to Henry and Gavin. Gavin was catching Henry’s eyes and smiling. ‘… and that was where Oskar taught me to swim, in the deep part of the stream there. He was sixteen, and it was just before mutta and tatta died,’ Fritz was explaining to them. ‘We’d better go and see them, Fritzku,’ his brother said. ‘I’ve got flowers in the back.’ ‘Great. We can tell them what we’ve been up to … at least the clean stuff!’ Fritz laughed. Henry reflected that these were two very different brothers from Eddie and Peter Peacher, although he did not doubt the Peachers loved each other in their own strange way. The car turned into the small town and drove along a picturesque main street, colourful with window boxes full of red geraniums. A big church dominated the end of the street. Taking the cross street in front of the church, they followed a lane which led to the railway station. Well before reaching the station, however, they pulled up outside a neat wooden cottage with a garden full of tall sunflowers. Both the Tarlenheims sat silently, wrapped up in their memories. Henry and Gavin held hands. ‘That was the last refuge of the House of Tarlenheim during all my life until I went to do military service,’ sighed Oskar. ‘Father rented it from a local collective in the Communist days, the bad days. He was a clerk in the mairie – he, the prince of Tarlenheim.’ ‘But everyone loved him, Osku. The funeral was enormous, great crowds of people.’ Oskar sighed again. ‘And I could not be one of them. The army kept me in barracks … oh the bastards, the bastards.’ He was gripping the driving wheel so hard his knuckles were white. Fritz reached over to hug his brother. ‘But you beat them, Osku, and you more than completed what Father started. You were as good as a father to me, too. I love you so much, my brother.’ Tears were running down the cheeks of both young men, and, it has to be said, the cheeks of their English guests. Oskar kissed Fritz, and gave a little smile. ‘Yes, the Tarlenheims are once again what they were, and an Elphberg king reigns in Strelzen. What is left to ask for?’ ‘A princess of Tarlenheim?’ Fritz’s impish humour effortlessly resurfaced. Oskar laughed. ‘I will happily wait for a few years to see that, Fritzku.’ Henry thought perhaps a potential princess had already been selected, but kept his idea to himself. They all got out of the car and went down the lane some yards, so Fritz could show Henry and Gavin his climbing tree and the high platform Oskar had made for him in it. Meanwhile, Oskar went to call on the present tenants of the cottage. When the three youths came back, they found him happily chatting with the young couple, whose small child was hanging on to the mother’s skirt. The appearance of Fritz caused a certain shyness. The woman gave a bobbing curtsey to the prince, the man a brief bow from the waist. They were Fritz’s tenants, as the cottage lay within the Tarlenheim estate. He took their hands and said a few formal words in Rothenian, which seemed to gratify them immensely. On the drive back towards the small town, Oskar dropped his companions off at a gate so they could take the river path to the remains of the old château. Fritz, knowing Henry’s insatiable interest in antiquities, led the way to the terrace and broken walls, all that was left of the house the Red Army had reduced to rubble in 1948. The gardens too had been levelled and turned into pasture. But they climbed up the hill behind the ruined house where the earthworks of the old castle could still be seen, and jagged fragments of ancient masonry pierced the grass. Henry took a little sketch of what he could work out about the pattern of the foundations. He wondered if he could determine where the ‘high chamber’ of the Vision had been, but there was no chance of that. All the while he kept his eye on Gavin, who actually seemed quite chirpy that morning. The three friends eventually climbed back down to the old house, then crossed the river by a narrow footbridge. They followed a path along the far bank that brought them back into the town. Will and Felip’s car was already drawn up outside the inn where they were to have lunch. The street was quite full of people, and Fritz was in among them straight away. He hugged old ladies, punched boys’ shoulders and shook men’s hands like a politician seeking re-election. In his case, it was all genuine. He knew those people, and loved them as much as they loved him. He soon found a gang of his old schoolmates and almost immediately told Oskar he was off to lunch at his friend Ceslaw’s house. He promised to meet up with his companions at four by the church. After they waved him off, Oskar led them into the restaurant. It was past one o’clock, and the dining room of the Rosa zu Terlenehem was full. Fortunately, Oskar had reserved a table for his party. The Rosa had received a Michelin star, one of the few in Rothenia, so Henry was looking forward to a good meal. The host was quite attentive as Will and Felip did the ordering for Henry and Gavin. Oskar meanwhile was enjoying himself, circulating about the room to greet old friends and acquaintances. When he finally returned to the table, the conversation turned to current politics, which interested Henry deeply. Will Vincent remained very much engaged in the affairs of his adopted land, and had a lot to say about the successes and failures of Chancellor Trachtenberg’s administration. Will was not too keen on the adoption of the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ economics of neo-conservative capitalism. In his opinion, privatisation was being pursued too quickly and too indiscriminately, allowing national assets to fall into the hands of conscienceless multinationals. ‘What, like the Peacher Corporation?’ Henry asked with a smile. ‘Well yes, to an extent,’ Will replied. ‘Though it has to be said that Peter Peacher is more interested in kick-starting new enterprise than in asset-stripping. His father’s policy has always been investment in economies, not ripping off the public by buying up monopolies and then milking them on behalf of the shareholders. But even PeacherCorp internationalises the economy, and opens Rothenia to the vagaries of global markets.’ ‘But be fair Will! The standard of living has been transformed since you moved here,’ protested Oskar. ‘So far, everyone has benefited. Strelzen is becoming the market hub of Eastern Europe. Look at the amazing financial district growing up along the Starel, and the phenomenal headquarters building Lord Rogers designed for the National Bank. Even some German conglomerates are transferring here because our corporation tax is low. Strelsenermedia – and you should know – is an international corporation which is more or less home-grown. It’s a player in the media of surrounding countries too, even Austria.’ ‘I’m just saying we don’t need the worst aspects of globalism here, where faceless corporations end up pulling the strings of national governments and looting their economies. That’s just so not Rothenian. And I’m not sure Trachtenberg thinks long-term enough.’ ‘So who put him there, Will?’ ‘The people did, Oskar.’ ‘Yes, but you told them he was there, and what sort of man he was. So don’t complain of the consequences, my love!’ Will grinned at Oskar, who smiled broadly back. Adopting a more serious expression, Oskar leaned across the table. ‘There are parliamentary elections coming up, Will. Maybe it’s time you thought of standing for one of the Strelzen seats. The Unity Party or the Christian Democrats would put you on their lists.’ Will gave him a quirky look. ‘How long do you suppose it would be before my starring role in that gay porn classic An American in Strelzen came to light, Oskar? It’s too risky. We may have gagged Hendrik Wileminn, but there are others out there who would love to use such information. Face it, you and I both are compromised as electoral candidates.’ Oskar heaved a sigh. ‘I guess you’re right, my Willemu. We made our choices and, though they’ve mostly brought us great happiness, there are still some bitter consequences.’ He looked woefully at Will. Everyone around the table knew what he was referring to. Felip smiled at the two former lovers. ‘My dear and cherished friends, be satisfied. You are both strong men who have done very great things. You have saved this country from a terrible fate, and helped bring it prosperity and freedom. You have been instrumental in restoring its king, who is the greatest man of us all. These are halcyon days. Don’t you feel it? Aren’t we often told that, for the good of the many, the few must sometimes embrace pain and unhappiness? If you do so willingly, your reward will be even greater in the sight of God.’ ‘Amen to that,’ echoed Henry, moved by Felip’s well-chosen words. ‘That’s exactly what St Fenice said in her Revelation.’ The others looked at him curiously. Oskar commented, ‘I never got around to reading early Rothenian literature.’ Henry ploughed on. ‘It’s in her Revelation of the End Time. She says Rothenia will one day have a saviour who will preserve it at a terrible cost to himself.’ ‘Really? I didn’t know that,’ mused Will. ‘I’d heard of St Fenice, of course, she’s more or less the patron saint of Rothenian literature. But she’s like William Langland is to English speakers – hardly anyone reads her. What got you interested in her?’ ‘It was Matt’s documentary, mostly. But then she sort of took over. Did you know Rothenia had fascists between the wars who adopted her prophecies as the basis for a programme of national renewal?’ Oskar smiled. ‘Oh yes, the KRB, they were big in Husbrau in my great-grandfather’s time. He had a lot of trouble with that Gulik man, who called himself “Den Direktor”. Horrible people goosestepping all over our lovely land like Nazis.’ ‘Why did your great-grandfather have trouble with him, Oskar?’ ‘I can’t remember exactly, but Gulik was convinced the Tarlenheims had hidden St Fenice’s body somewhere. He got up a campaign with the archbishop of the day – not a nice man himself – to recover Fenice and re-inter her in the Marienkloster. It was just nationalistic propaganda. Gulik wanted to pose as a moral leader of the nation.’ ‘Did you know that Kamil Bermann, one of Gulik’s croneys, was the father of your old enemy Piotr Bermann.’ ‘I think someone mentioned it. Old Bermann was quite famous in Husbrau. He was born in Modenehem. His son Piotr has disappeared from sight lately. His own party dumped him after its election fiasco, for which he rightly got blamed.’ ‘Any news of him?’ inquired Henry, with a degree of serious interest. Will butted in. ‘I heard from the Minister of the Interior that he’s hanging out with the remnants of the former Communists, looking to found a new party. They’ve latched on to the anti-immigration and anti-EU issues. He’s marking time till the economy takes a downturn, at which point his populist agenda might spark some interest.’ Henry had an ominous feeling about what he was hearing. It sounded like Bermann was definitely active in pursuit of something. ‘Oskar, did the police track down that black SUV which was hanging round the estate yesterday?’ Oskar looked blank, and then remembered. ‘No ... but I still believe they were just journalists. You can’t get rid of them.’ *** At four o’clock, the six men assembled outside the gate to the churchyard. Oskar had retrieved three fine wreaths from the boot of his car. Led by Oskar and Fritz, they trooped through the gate and threaded along the lines of graves. Henry asked Fritz why many of the headstones had iron stanchions with hooks arching over them. ‘It’s to hang lamps on through the night of All Souls. It’s an old Rothenian tradition. We keep vigil that restless night, when the dead walk.’ Somehow, Fritz’s remark gave Henry the serious creeps. It made him think back to his experience with Ed, Justin and Nate when he was possessed by the spirit of Jehoiadah Scudamore in the woods near Trewern. Though no one else seemed to notice, Henry shuddered at the thought.. They came at last to the north-western corner of the churchyard and the Tarlenheim mausoleum. Although the morning had been bright, clouds had gathered during lunchtime, making the impressive pedimented building look gloomy and austere. The arch was closed with a locked wrought-iron gate. A wind had got up, and was sighing through the long grass in a melancholy way. ‘You okay, baby?’ Henry asked Gavin, who had been trudging after Henry with his usual cheerful docility. ‘Yes, my Henry, though …’ He hesitated. ‘What is it, Gavin?’ ‘Nothing, but I feel a little … odd.’ ‘In what way, odd?’ ‘Like nothing I’ve ever felt before. It’s not a bad feeling. But my fingers seem all tingly, as if they’re giving off sparks, and I can feel every pulse of my heart right through my body. Do you think I’m alright?’ Henry gave a little chuckle. ‘You’ve not been sniffing something toxic, have you?’ Gavin didn’t chuckle back. He looked pensive. Henry came closer, letting the others go ahead. He peered intently into Gavin’s face, finding something about it that struck him. The dark eyes were very much alive and dilated. Gavin’s whole body was radiating an indefinable air of almost tangible energy. He looked different, too, not quite so much like a shy waif. There was a curious sort of vigour about him, as if he had swelled significantly. Henry took his warm hand and led him up to where everyone was waiting. He noticed a new strength in Gavin’s grip, yet when he looked again at the smiling face beside him, it seemed much the same as ever. Henry was still puzzling over this when the Tarlenheim brothers placed their wreaths on the mausoleum gate, then stood a while with heads bowed. The others left them alone with their memories. From a discrete distance, Henry thought he could hear them speaking to their lost parents, interrupting and correcting each other as children do when talking to adults. Then the brothers embraced, kissed and came back hand in hand, to be kissed and embraced by their friends in turn. They all began drifting back towards the cars, and it was only when he got to the churchyard gate that Henry realized Gavin was nowhere to be seen. After a quick look around, he told the others to wait. He headed back to the Tarlenheim mausoleum, and there indeed was Gavin, holding on to the gate and staring fixedly into the dark interior. When Henry got close enough, he noticed the peculiar rigidity of Gavin’s body. The boy was in the throes of another seizure. His face was white, his gaze unblinking and fixed. There was no undoing his convulsive grip in the iron stanchions. Henry called loudly back to the cars. In the end, Fritz came running with Felip. They looked concerned, but had no constructive suggestions to make apart from slapping Gavin across the face. Henry would have none of that. Eventually, Gavin gave a shuddering breath, unclamped his hand from the gate and looked around – first puzzled, then worried. ‘Did I do it again?’ he asked plaintively. ‘Yes, baby,’ Henry confirmed. ‘What happened this time?’ ‘I was walking behind you, Henry, when I felt something pulling me back. It was that really cozy warm feeling again, and I just sort of drifted off. Next thing I know, I’m here.’ ‘It’s like sleepwalking,’ Fritz observed. ‘But he wasn’t asleep,’ Henry objected. ‘I’ve heard of it happening to people who are apparently awake,’ declared Felip. ‘Are you alright now, Gavin?’ ‘Thank you, yes. I don’t feel bad. In fact, I feel better than I ever have.’ ‘Let’s get back to the car, baby.’ Henry felt no happier about the incident, whatever Gavin said.
  11. Mike Arram

    Chapter 21

    Gavin is a lot more than he may once have seemed, with mystical Celtic origins behind him; it’s no accident he carries the name of Gawain, the purest of Arthur’s knights, and Gavin will share his fate.
  12. The next morning, Henry was up early. It was a Tuesday with no filming scheduled, so he decided to go rambling round the Templerstadt estate. He let Gavin lie in. He took a quick bite of toast and bacon from the provisions already laid out in the breakfast room, then left by the front door. Henry’s first destination was the old chapel, which he’d been itching to get to see ever since arriving at Templerstadt. The chapel had been given a major makeover at some time in the late middle ages, judging by the flamboyant Gothic tracery and finialled doorway. Henry hoped to find earlier fragments of the original chapel of the Knights Templar, an order which had been suppressed in Rothenia in 1308. The door clanked and creaked open, revealing the dim and bare interior. Although Oskar had said it had not been used for religious purposes for some years, there was still a stone altar and some wall monuments, as well as an old box pew. Henry jumped. The pew was occupied. ‘Helge?’ he exclaimed in Rothenian. ‘You’re out early.’ The countess smiled. ‘And so are you, Henry dear. I expect it’s antiquities which have brought you here, rather than the rosary.’ ‘Yes … I’m afraid so. I’m sorry if I disturbed you.’ ‘No, don’t worry. I came over just after dawn. It’s wonderful watching the windows light up and the sunshine fill this building. It’s a great place to think about God and give thanks for life and creation. You’re a religious boy, aren’t you Henry?’ ‘Yes, I suppose I am.’ ‘It shines out of you. You’re a boy who has been faithful to what you are and to the God who created you. I wish Oskar and Fritz were more than dutifully Catholic. It’s a major battle getting either of them to church.’ ‘There’s always hope. My dad had nothing to do with churches from when he was ten till he was twenty-five, and now he’s an Anglican priest.’ ‘Then I will hope,’ she smiled. ‘Helge, thanks for being so good with Gavin. He’s terribly shy, and you were kind to take him off and talk to him that first day.’ ‘He is a lovely boy, Henry, very … pure in heart. It is so rare a quality. You’re very lucky to be with him. I used to have a great deal of trouble accepting gay relationships, but then one day Oskar brought Will Vincent home with him to our cottage in Terlenehem, and Will was such a fine man, so upright and kind. Fritzku was devoted to him ten minutes after meeting him. Will was responsible for restoring our fortunes, despite the terrible thing Oskar did to him. Do you know the story?’ Henry shook his head. ‘Then perhaps I should tell it to you some other time. And now Oskar is happy with Peter; they are equals in body and mind. They are both such clever men. Oskar has found his way in life with Peter’s guidance and support. He is now what the Tarlenheims always were and should be: leaders in Rothenian society and politics. And count of Modenehem, too! His father would have been so proud, just as I am.’ ‘Helge, what do you think about all this business with Alastair Bannow and the supposed portrait of the Holy Face?’ ‘What do I think of it? It is a very great inconvenience, Henry. Our houses in Strelzen and Modenehem are under siege, and Fritz is in hiding. People like us don’t have normal lives as it is. Bannow has heedlessly and carelessly made it worse. I will give him a piece of my mind if he comes here. I’m sure Matt knows that, and will keep us apart. When I think of the months I’ve had to live without my Fritzku, I could scratch the man’s eyes out.’ Henry smiled. He rather thought Helge might very well go after Bannow, given half a chance. He continued, ‘But this idea of a portrait of Christ surviving hidden here somewhere in Rothenia ... what do you make of it?’ Helge came to the brink of a gesture as inelegant as a shrug. ‘There are many strange things in the world, but that would certainly be as strange as any. I leave it to the Church to determine. I believe the archbishop of Strelzen has recently said the Church does not recognise the existence of such a relic and has found no reason to suppose it was ever in this country.’ Henry did shrug. ‘Let’s hope that settles everything down. But I rather think it won’t.’ ‘Neither do I,’ Helge confirmed. ‘People believe what they wish to be true.’ She got up and took her leave. Henry mooched around the chapel for a while and then followed the countess out. He went under the gateway and took a small path leading round the back of the house. There he found a long lawn which turned into a ride, lined by some very tall sycamores. They were full of birds and birdsong at that early hour. Henry’s trainers got soaked with the heavy dew. About a mile from the house, Henry sat up on a gate and enjoyed a gorgeous view along the Medeln valley. Far in the blue distance, he could make out the twin spires of Modenehem cathedral. Much nearer at hand he glimpsed through the trees the cluster of white buildings forming the Marienkloster. He considered what he had discovered there. He had learned that the Levites truly did exist, and if they existed, so did the treasure … or at least (his critical mind insisted) it had existed until the 1770s and the days of the great Princess Osra. She had moved it, but where? Henry knew she had once held wide possessions in Rothenia, especially in the duchy of Mittenheim. It really could be anywhere. His Ark lieth amongst thee in its chamber of cypress wood. His servants lie wakeful around it, as Samuel in the Holy of Holies. Henry knew the prophecies and indicators off by heart now: VBI XPTI FACIES ESTNE. (Where is the face of Christ?) IN ARCA DOMINI. (In the ark of the Lord.) VBI ARCA DOMINI ESTNE. (Where is the ark of the Lord?) IN MANIBVS ANCILLAE SVAE. (In the possession of his handmaiden.) Henry thought about the ‘ark’. He was convinced the word did not refer to the Ark of the Covenant. He had checked dictionaries and found that ‘arca’ was a Latin word simply meaning chest or box. The picture was kept in a chest of some sort in a panelled chamber belonging to a Levite. That’s what the riddle indicated. Maybe the chamber once had been at Medeln, but now it was somewhere else ... but somewhere in Rothenia, he was certain. Henry jumped off the gate and for a while followed a cart track that ran down into the valley. Before going far, however, he turned and walked back towards the public road that ran past Templerstadt. As he turned a corner, he noticed a black SUV parked in a pull-over. It was empty, he saw. He also saw it was the same car he’d seen outside the abbey the day before. The conclusion could only be that interested parties had them under observation. He must mention it to Oskar or Matt the first chance he got. He memorised the number plate. *** ‘Hey Oskar,’ hailed Henry as he got back to Templerstadt. The count was just crossing the hall passage barefoot, a robe wrapped round him, his hair tousled. He looked drop-dead gorgeous. ‘Good morning, Henry. How did you sleep?’ ‘Very nicely, thank you. Oskar, who would have men watching the house at this time?’ Oskar was suddenly wide awake. ‘Tell me about it, little one.’ Henry did so. Oskar thought a moment. ‘It seems to me that if they were also watching the abbey yesterday, it is Matt or one of his people who is under surveillance. Which makes me think perhaps it is the religious lunatics after him. They must know he is up to something with the Vera Icon. Maybe they want to kidnap and torture Bannow to get the secret out of him. If this is so, I will certainly be glad to help them.’ Henry stared at Oskar, who smiled at him in return. ‘It’s almost certainly journalists, Henry. Come up with me to our room.’ Peter Peacher was sitting up in the bed, sipping a coffee. ‘Morning Henry,’ he said with a grin. ‘Come sit next to me.’ He grabbed Henry round the waist when the smaller man sat on the bed, kissed him and ruffled his hair. Peter smelled gorgeous, just like Oskar and Fritz. ‘I never had a chance to thank you for what you’ve done for Eddie, sweet babe.’ Henry nestled into Peter. He had the same powerful limbs and frame as Ed Cornish, and it was seductively familiar to feel his embrace. Henry grimaced. ‘For the fiftieth time, Pete, it was Eddie who did it all himself. He deserves the credit. Why don’t people give him his due?’ ‘Probably because we’re not used to it. But you have been a really good friend to him, you and little Gavin. Be fair. If you had not been so discreet and sensible, it could have been a very different year for him. Instead, he finished it as an A student. You should hear what Dad is saying about you, Henry.’ While Henry was blushing, Oskar went over with Peter the report on the SUV. Peter looked interested. ‘I’m sure you’re right, Osku,’ he said, using the Rothenian diminutive for his lover. ‘It’s going to be those damned journalists … although they’re not the usual paps. This lot seem to be that rarer breed, the investigative type. What can you do?’ Oskar frowned. ‘I’ll put a call through to the Ministry of the Interior. With the king coming here in a couple of days, they’ll want no suspicious characters hanging round Templerstadt. The state police have a barracks in Modenehem. I imagine they’ll send out a patrol and move the bastards on. Besides, the secret service will be arriving tomorrow to set up a perimeter. No one will get near the house. ‘Henry dear,’ he continued, ‘Fritz and I are going over to Terlenehem tomorrow. We might meet up for lunch with Will and Felip when we’re there. Do you and Gavin want to come for the day? I’m there on business, but Fritzku wants to see some of his male friends … not the girls, they don’t speak to him. You can go and see the old castle too, what’s left of it.’ ‘Great! Matt’s shut down unit filming until the king’s visit is over. I’d love to come. I’ll ask my Gavin.’ *** Henry went to see if Gavin was awake, but found him still buried under the duvet, snoring gently. After kissing his boyfriend’s hair, Henry changed into his trunks and padded down to the pool. Eddie Peacher was there, swimming lengths powerfully and easily. Fritz and Harriet were sitting together outside on the terrace, deep in conversation. Although Henry had little experience in such things, the pair seemed to be very friendly, leaning close together as they laughed. ‘Looks like my sis is going to be a princess at this rate, Henry dude,’ Eddie observed as he paused near the poolside, shaking his wet hair out of his face. ‘Does that make me like a prince-in-law or something?’ ‘No, Eddie. It just makes Harriet a lucky girl. But aren’t you reading too much into it?’ ‘Guess I may be, but I’ve never seen her quite like this with any other boy. She usually keeps them at a distance, but not Fritzy.’ ‘He is younger than she is, but he’s a lot more grown up than any seventeen-year-old I’ve ever met.’ ‘It’s OK by me. I love the dude, but she will try to mould him. Harry’s that sort. Quiet, but she doesn’t give up if she sees something she thinks needs changing, oh yeah! I have nineteen years’ experience of that. There is some of Mom in her for sure.’ ‘What about you, Eddie?’ ‘Waddya mean, what about me?’ ‘How many women did you screw in the last academic year?’ ‘Dunno. A lot.’ ‘Was any of them special to you?’ ‘Hell, dude, they were all special. It’s just that none of them so far have kept my interest. I’m sorry if I sound arrogant, but that’s the way it is, Henry. It’s going to be a long-term process finding the woman for Eddie. My cock isn’t complaining about it, at least.’ ‘There was Tina …’ Eddie stared at Henry, then guffawed and pulled him into the pool with a great splash. He held Henry under for a while, before letting him up gasping. ‘What a thing to say, you little punk!’ Henry grinned. ‘You did sort of admit he was the best fuck you had all year.’ Eddie held Henry. ‘Yeah, but I thought he was a girl … he fooled you too, man. Tina was sexy though, more in control of me than the real girls. Maybe that’s what I’m looking for, a woman that’ll stand up to me, rather than lie down for me.’ Henry snatched a kiss, and said, ‘She’ll be lucky, whoever she is.’ He swam off, only to be overtaken not long afterwards by Eddie. They spent a while together in the pool, with Eddie giving Henry some serious coaching on his swimming technique. Finally Eddie told him, ‘You could be quite a swimmer, dude, with a bit more upper-body development. You should take little wuss Gavin with you to the Union gym sometime and do weights.’ Henry laughed. He didn’t see that happening. The two boys got out and headed back into the house, Eddie’s arm heavy on Henry’s shoulder in a way that Henry found both companionable and comforting. They passed Matt in a swimsuit heading the other way. Eddie wolf-whistled him, causing Matt to turn and stare. ‘How straight are you, Eddie?’ ‘Dunno, how gay are you, Henry? I can fancy a good bod ... and be fair, Matt White is totally awesome. I could watch his perfect body and perfect face for hours. They don’t come more amazing. Difference between you and me, little Henry, is that you can jack off when you think about him and my big bro fucking. Me it leaves cold.’ ‘So why the wolf whistle?’ ‘Just wanted to rattle his cage.’ ‘You’re naughty, you are.’ *** Henry went up to dress. Gavin was finally awake and stretching. They both slept naked, so it was easy for Henry to pull off his swimming shorts and prepare for action. He found his lover very desirable in his languorous waking state, warm and dishevelled in the bed. Henry loved how Gavin’s slim and hairless body was sprawling and displayed, the snatch of dark hair punctuating his crotch, and the way his cock was swelling – and swelling for Henry alone. Henry cuddled into Gavin’s arms and began arousing him. This time Henry wanted to be the one who was penetrated and enjoyed. Some twenty minutes later, head down in the pillow and glorious sensations pulsing from his anus, Henry felt Gavin stiffen and spurt deep inside him. Gavin squirmed on top of Henry and waited for his cock to leave in its own good time. Then they dozed. It was all so enjoyable. Henry was in a euphoria of physical stimulation. The two of them finally emerged for lunch, and found it being laid out on tables on the sunlit lawn at the back of the house. Henry had noticed that Peter and Oskar employed quite a large staff. For formal occasions, the footmen were dressed in the Tarlenheim livery colours of bright green and gold, with the Tarlenheim badge of a rose decorating their buttons. The head of the household was a chamberlain rather than a butler, and had golden keys on the lapels of his laced tailcoat. Fritz had told Henry that Oskar had looked out the old servant families in Terlenehem and Modenehem, and recruited from them. Marek, Count Oskar’s chamberlain, was the great grandson of the chamberlain of the Prince Franz of King Maxim’s reign, and the sixth generation of his family to serve the Tarlenheims. The lunch appeared on tables under umbrellas. Cold drinks, cold meats and salads were offered in abundance. Most of the party was dressed casually, with Eddie, Fritz and Henry barefoot and in shorts. Gavin sat next to Countess Helge, whom he liked for her gentleness and her kindness towards him. Oskar’s dog Marietta sat between them, looking from one to the other with restless interest and hopes of being fed from their plates. The informality of the diners was a delightful contrast to the starched white napery and solid silver cutlery. After lunch, Fritz and Harriet went down to the tennis courts again. Once more they were followed by raised eyebrows and some significant looks. Henry and Gavin joined Eddie on the terrace by the pool, just soaking up the sun. Gavin had his iPod and was soon dozing again. Henry looked at his boyfriend carefully. Gavin had a slight smile on his little face, and his prescription sunglasses were pushed back in his hair. He didn’t seem listless the way you might if you were ill. He just seemed sleepy. Henry wondered if it was a glandular problem. Eddie and Henry got to talking about the impending Cranwell Surfing Soc tour of the US West Coast. Fifteen lads had taken places for the full month. Eddie had secured a luxurious beach house from one of his father’s friends at no cost, but with a serious indemnity in the case of damage. ‘Hey, they’re my guys. They’ll behave!’ Eddie said confidently. Henry smiled to himself. He knew Eddie’s boys all too well. They would behave impeccably when sober, but after a few … They continued talking over Eddie’s plans, in which Henry was becoming keenly interested. Before long, Peter Peacher wandered on to the terrace, talking into a mobile. He finished his call and sat down next to Eddie. The recliner creaked alarmingly under the weight of two powerfully-built men. ‘Hey little bro,’ Peter said. ‘Word is, you did good in your little English college.’ Eddie’s look hardened. ‘The University of Cranwell isn’t a little English college, dude. It’s got 15,000 students and some seriously good faculty, like Paulie for instance.’ ‘Yeah, yeah, Eddie. I’m not doing down your alma mater.’ ‘Good, cuz y’know, I don’t recall saying anything off-hand about that place you went to for a while … somewhere on the East Coast, wasn’t it? A college in some declining industrial port or other?’ It was now Peter’s turn to look hard at his brother. ‘Yeah, New Haven has seen better days. But Yale is pretty well known, and not easy to get into.’ ‘Not too difficult to get out of either, bro,’ Eddie smirked. ‘There were serious reasons why I had to drop out, you know that.’ Peter was getting heated, and Henry was getting anxious. He began to see that the two Peacher brothers had some issues. ‘Easy, easy, Petey,’ soothed Eddie, having scored his point. ‘No offence meant. Hey, I know you wanted to get out there and run the business. You always did. I was just saying maybe you might never have really been university material.’ Peter was being wound up skilfully, as Henry could see all too well. In a tightly controlled voice, the older brother said, ‘Bro, your SAT score was not even half mine. Course the fact you went into the exam hall stoned out of your mind probably confused the issue.’ ‘It was just meant to take the edge off the boredom, but hey, it led to some pretty imaginative answers, didn’t it?’ ‘You’d think the first time you sucked a spliff would have put you off it. You puked into the pool at Santa Barbara … Christ, you were only ten!’ ‘Yeah ... and whose spliff was it?’ ‘What?’ ‘You think I didn’t follow you and your scuzzy friends that day? You were all sitting round naked in that clearing, circle-jerking and smoking dope. Arty and I were watching you from the bushes. That was the day I guessed you were gay, Petey. Jordan had his finger up your butt while he was jerking you and you were loving it.’ Eddie gave an obscene impression of a boy writhing blissfully on an impaled butt. ‘You little bastard!’ ‘If I’d told on you I’d have been the bastard, but despite all the stuff you dumped on me, I still covered your ass.’ ‘Covered my frickin’ ass! You fuckin’ scumbag motherfucker!’ Henry leaped aside as the two men hurled themselves at each other, grappling, gouging and rolling across the terrace. Gavin sat up, looking confused and gawking at the fight. Henry grabbed him protectively, while shouting at the Peacher brothers to cool it. The two men were up and Eddie slugged Peter hard in the face. Down Peter went, and Eddie stood looking at him gleefully, wringing his hand. Then his legs were cut from under him by a skilful turn of Peter’s body and he went over into the pool. Peter plunged in after him, and the continuing fight churned up the surface of the water. ‘Should we get someone?’ Gavin asked anxiously. ‘I don’t think they’ll kill each other,’ Henry said reassuringly. ‘Besides, apart from Terry, I don’t know anyone who could stop them. I get the feeling this has happened before.’ Five minutes’ thrashing round in the water seemed to have exhausted them, strong though they were. The blows became laboured and less effective. In the end, they stood looking at each other, their chests heaving. Then bizarrely they grinned, hugged for ages, and finally kissed. ‘I won that, fucker,’ Eddie asserted. ‘You little wuss, you don’t even win on sibling rivalry,’ Peter retorted. ‘Do too.’ ‘Do not.’ ‘Love you, bro,’ chortled Eddie. ‘Give me some tongue next time you kiss me, like you do with Henry babe,’ laughed Peter. ‘Hey,’ protested Henry, ‘leave me out of it.’ ‘Yeah,’ echoed Gavin, ‘or I’ll give the pair of you a right sorting!’
  13. Henry and Gavin had a great day. They played tennis doubles that afternoon with Harriet and Eddie, and were wiped off the face of the court without minding it at all. Gavin was entranced to be in an environment where servants laid out lunch in the beautiful gardens, and chilled drinks were available at the ring of a bell. ‘Henry! I like this being rich! Can you make our fortune, quickly?’ Henry laughed. ‘Baby, you’re the one who’s good with figures. Just enjoy an away-day in paradise. It’ll be back to work on Monday.’ They watched as Oskar and Peter mopped the floor with the twins in their turn. Eddie was a surprisingly bad loser where Peter was concerned. It was the legacy, Matt said, of a bitter childhood rivalry between the two brothers. ‘Peter was an obnoxious little sod until he was fourteen and finally gave in to the fact that he was gay. It was only then he stopped resenting Andy. It’s quite a story. Terry tells it best, as it was he who was Pete’s salvation. Pete is one of Terry’s boys. They actually had a fling in the past.’ ‘Does David know?’ ‘I doubt it. But he’s not the jealous type, is he?’ ‘I guess not. Even though he was desperate to get into bed with me, he never resented Ed Cornish. Any news of Ed, Matt?’ ‘I think he and Guy are having their farewell holiday in the Caribbean.’ Henry’s heart gave a leap. ‘Farewell! What’s happened?’ Matt smiled at Henry. ‘Nothing. Just life. Guy has finished his first degree at Cambridge, and though they’ve had fun, the two of them have decided that theirs is not a life partnership. They’re going to stay friends but split up as lovers. Henry … what’s that I see in your eyes? You have your cute little Gavin, and he should be enough for you. I quite fancy him myself at times.’ Henry was flustered. ‘Yes… of course I do. But Ed and I were lovers. You don’t lose interest in a bloke overnight. I’ll always be his friend, which is why I’m concerned for him.’ Fritz arrived as the tennis was winding up, and had a very emotional reunion with Oskar and Helge, his brother and sister. He cast an eye over at Harriet and went straight to her, offering his hand but seeking a kiss. He was delighted when he got it. He received a hug from Eddie, but Henry doubted it compared with what Eddie’s sister gave him. Fritz was adjusting his erection as he separated from Eddie, who must have felt it against him, judging from the strange look he gave the prince. Fritz took a seat between Helge and Harriet as the party assembled in the drawing room before dinner. He was utterly devastating in an evening suit, charming in conversation and perfect in his stunning beauty. Henry did not think it was his imagination that Harriet was beginning to be very much affected by this seventeen-year-old demigod. She went in to dinner on his arm, as Helge did on Peter’s. It was a superb setting that Sunday evening. The grand dining room was lit only by candles, which sparkled in the jewels of the two ladies present and in the eyes of the young men. Wit and laughter rippled up and down the table. Henry had everyone in stitches with his descriptions of working life in the King’s Cross. Gavin sat opposite him, just smiling and looking his satisfaction at having a lover such as Henry. All too early, Matt asked Oskar’s permission to leave the table. Filming was beginning at Medeln early the next morning. Matt wanted his crew to be ready before sunrise, so he dragged a protesting Henry away with him. Gavin tagged along dutifully. Even he seemed reluctant for bed this once. *** Henry and Gavin stood together under the trees in the north of the abbey park in the early Monday morning. The sun had just risen over the Marienkloster, and the ground mist was dispersing. It was more than a little cold, making them stamp their feet and rub their hands together as they waited for the minibus to arrive with Wardrinski from Modenehem. They had been up at four-thirty, in time for Matt to drive them down to the abbey from Templerstadt at five. Henry had the script marked up and ready. The Rothenian crew was milling around drinking coffee from thermos flasks, or munching pastries provided by the caterers. Matt was discussing the light with the unit director. Henry was enormously interested in the filming process, which he had yet to witness. Silver reflectors, lights and sound gear were lying everywhere. He left Gavin sipping a mug of coffee and went over to introduce himself to the crew as a translator if needed, and to ask them what jobs they did. He picked up a lot of specialised Rothenian vocabulary very quickly. Eventually the minibus drew up outside the west end of the abbey, and Professor Wardrinski came over with his minder and driver. He exchanged a few observations with Matt before going on to pick up breakfast. ‘Baby,’ said Henry, ‘why don’t you and I go and look in the church. The crew doesn’t think the light will be good enough to film for another hour or two.’ Henry led the way round to the west doorway, where the monument’s concierge was standing looking at the film crew. Henry greeted him in the Rothenian way and they traded views on the weather. The concierge told them the church was closed to anybody other than Marlowe Productions people that Monday, and pointed to the signs and the closed notices on the small car park. ‘It will cause trouble,’ he complained. ‘The Americans come in busloads from Strelzen to get in and look for the portrait of Christ that the book says is here somewhere. They are not a patient people.’ Henry looked over at the car park. Although it was still very early, sure enough, there was already a black SUV standing on the road outside. A group of men sat in it looking out the windows, apparently bored. After thanking the concierge, Henry and Gavin entered the dim, empty abbey. Their footsteps scraped and echoed, making them feel they should whisper to each other. Henry had heard from Matt that the sensational tomb of the Princess Osra, sister of King Rudolf III, was to be found in a chantry chapel. He found his way there, and both he and Gavin looked up at it in awe. The princess was in the process of bursting out of her tomb at the bodily resurrection, putting a sinister-looking Death to flight. She was rising to be received by the Virgin Mary and by angels reaching down from the clouds. Henry pointed out to Gavin the rich death symbolism: the flaming urns, the serpent swallowing its tail and the butterflies, to symbolise the defeat of death and the eternity in heaven which followed resurrection. ‘What about that, then?’ Gavin gestured curiously to the princess’s sculpted robe. ‘What’re you pointing at?’ ‘She’s wearing a brooch.’ ‘She is?’ Henry squinted up, and pulled over a chair to stand on so he could get a closer look. There was indeed a brooch pinned to the princess’s breast. Henry let out a gasp. ‘I don’t believe it,’ he sighed. ‘She’s got the same skull brooch as in the picture of Fenice’s Vision. Princess Osra has to have been one of them!’ ‘One of whom?’ ‘One of the Levites … the guardians of the icon. God! It makes sense. She was abbess of this house in the eighteenth century. She was the one who rebuilt it. And Fenice’s tomb disappeared during that time. It must have been Osra who moved it … and the True Picture too! I wonder if the Priory of St Veronica knew that? ‘Wow! Gavin baby, this is a seriously big discovery. We have our first Levite! An Elphberg too. Their hair will be red as copper is red. So the hair prophecy does make sense, at least for the red Elphbergs. But who are the golden-haired ones? Fritzy says it isn’t the princes of Tarlenheim, and I believe him.’ Gavin was excited. ‘What do we do next, Henry?’ ‘Er … we think about it for a bit. But this is a serious clue that there’s more to be discovered, and that we’re on the road to discovering what it is. In the meantime, let’s go look around the altar, where St Fenice was once buried.’ The two young men walked out of the north aisle chapel and up to the simple wooden screen that partitioned off the sanctuary. They passed through a gate between the east end of the former nuns’ stalls and the communion rail. Henry scanned the pavement of the steps to the high altar, but saw no remnants of burials, just plain flagstones, clean and straight-cut. He imagined they had been re-laid when the EU had funded the refurbishment of the famous abbey five years before. They strolled out through the opposite door of the screen and eastwards along the ambulatory behind the high altar. Henry knew this was the area where major shrines were often placed in great churches, as it was near the high altar. Here Fenice had lain from the mid-fifteenth century until Princess Osra’s builders had swept her shrine away. But was there any trace of the monument now? Henry paced behind the altar, inspecting every flagstone closely. It was a while before he realised that he was on his own. He looked around. Gavin was huddled on a stone bench around the apse of one of the radial chapels, where he apparently had fallen asleep. Henry was puzzled. Gavin had seemed very excited, yet now he was out for the count. Henry went over and shook his shoulder, but got no response. A little alarmed, Henry looked close into Gavin’s pale face. His eyes were open and unblinking, the pupils contracted. His mouth was slack. Henry shook him again, harder, calling, ‘Gavin, baby. What is it?’ Gavin suddenly came back into focus. ‘Henry? What?’ ‘You were having another funny turn, baby. Are you alright?’ ‘Yes. I think so. I just felt a bit dizzy and sat down, and then you shook me. How long was I out?’ ‘Maybe ten minutes. Has your family any history of epilepsy?’ ‘No, I don’t think so. Do you suppose I’ve had a fit?’ ‘Er … I don’t know. Back in school, Martin Wolcombe had fits, although he was always pretty dopey after them and also sometimes threw up. You seem to be fine now, but I think we’d better get you checked out by the unit doctor. I’ll tell Matt.’ Leaving Gavin sitting down and looking unnerved, a somewhat troubled Henry returned to his inspection of the area. There was no sign of any foundations of a major structure such as a shrine, although there was room for one at least. Henry had just about finished when a flutter of what he thought must have been a pigeon in the vaults made him look up. On the vaulting immediately above where the shrine might have been, he saw something painted. A haloed head and a hand giving a benediction leaned up over Henry. It was a Christ face and, faded though it was, its hair was light in colour and it plainly had no beard. *** Matt picked up Henry’s subdued display of alarm, and Gavin was packed off immediately to the hospital at Modenehem for a checkup. He insisted he was feeling fine, and was happy enough to go without Henry. An English-speaking Rothenian production assistant accompanied him instead. Henry waved them off from the car park. Turning to go back, he noticed the black SUV was still on the road. When he paused to examine it, the driver started the engine and drove off in the same direction as Gavin’s car had gone. Henry was urgently needed that morning. Wardrinski was in an ebullient mood, and Henry had to tag after him as a translator and script editor. A lot of the filming was for wallpaper shots, with Wardrinski pacing the gravelled paths in the manicured grounds, or walking the aisles and staring up at the vaults. There was one long scene where the professor expounded on what Bannow had to say about St Fenice. He was sitting in a medieval nun’s stall in the choir of the abbey. ‘Somewhere here in this church,’ he intoned with a sweeping arm gesture, ‘was once concealed the portrait of Christ, or so we are told. We have followed the itinerary Dr Bannow sketched out for us, from Syria, to Armenia, to Istanbul and Budapest, and now we end up in a tranquil abbey set in the hills and woods of modern Rothenia. But we find no evidence for concealment of such a portrait. Dr Carlovic of the department of archaeology at the Rudolf University has scanned the choir and found none of the secret vaults which thousands of Bannow fans come here to look for. There is no trace of St Fenice herself. So we ask again: What is the evidence? In this case, it’s a book of religious meditations by this nunnery’s abbess, which happen to centre on the face of Christ, one of a dozen such that survive from the middle ages. Only for Dr Bannow, this one is different, as he claims the abbess had actually seen a representation of the Christ face painted in His own lifetime. What is the evidence? Well, none really, it has to be said.’ Henry reflected that, what with ivories, illuminations and prophecies, there seemed to him to be quite a lot of evidence. He had tipped off Matt about the remains of a Christ-face painted on the ceiling above the shrine, and they went to look at it. The cameraman came over too. He set up floods and got a good zoom shot which he displayed on his laptop. Henry asked him to burn the shot onto a CD for him. ‘Professor Wardrinski?’ Henry could not help but ask. ‘Intriguing, isn’t it, how this image and those of the Satalan basilicas a thousand miles away show a beardless and light-haired Christ. How would you account for that?’ Wardrinski gave him a sharp look. ‘There could be very many reasons … not least the eccentricity of the individual artist. But it is clear that the reference here is simply to the Fenice woman’s book of meditations, nothing more. All it testifies to is a primitive belief that the eyes of the dead retain some ability to see things around them. Fenice is given the opportunity to contemplate her Saviour even in death.’ The professor went off then for a long interview with Dr Carlovic, the archeologist who had made a detailed survey of the abbey during its recent restoration. Henry knew Matt was having Carlovic’s data converted into magnificent CGI reconstructions of the abbey as it was in Fenice’s day. Some of them were being displayed on a laptop as the two academics talked to camera. Henry was fascinated. Dr Carlovic had located the foundations of the shrine and a few fragments. From these he had extrapolated its size and probable shape. It had been a massive structure, looming up over the altar, and the painted Christ face on the vault above the shrine had been devised to look over its summit into the church, as if a gigantic Christ had been standing behind it. The reconstruction was eerie to say the least. *** Matt and Henry packed up and had a late lunch at an auberge that Matt knew of. Afterwards, they drove back to Templerstadt. Henry ran upstairs to find Gavin, who was lying on their bed. ‘You okay, my baby?’ Gavin smiled. ‘Yeah Henry. I’m fine, really. The doctors did all sorts of tests, and I don’t have epilepsy or anything else they could find quickly. They even did a body scan. All they could suggest was some sort of post-viral condition. I did have that flu in February, didn’t I?’ ‘What happened to you in the abbey didn’t seem very post-viral to me, baby. It was more like you were in a trance. Don’t you remember anything about it?’ Gavin looked introspective for a while. ‘No,’ he said slowly, ‘not really. I wandered over to sit down and watch you, and I must have clicked off. But I do remember feeling warm and cosy first … more than that, really. It was as if I were in a little cloud of warmth and something else, maybe acceptance.’ ‘Have you felt anything like that before?’ Gavin went silent for a minute. ‘You might think I’m a bit nuts, but I started getting this feeling of … being at home as soon as we reached Strelzen. It was like my heart was swelling. It sometimes makes me feel quite sleepy and dozy, just as when I was a tired little boy and cuddled up to my mum, and she hugged me.’ ‘Hmm,’ Henry mused, ‘then it doesn’t seem to me that you’re ill at all. It’s Rothenia doing something to you. It does it to everyone. It did it to Rudi most of all. When he became king he was almost a different human being.’ ‘King Rudolf? He’s coming here in a couple of days, they said downstairs. He flew into Strelzen this morning.’ ‘Oh! Then we’d better get your bowing and etiquette up to scratch, baby.’
  14. ‘So what are you going to do, Henry?’ Gavin had been riveted by what Henry told him. They were sitting huddled over a table in the somewhat depressing bar of the Strelzen Holiday Inn. It had taken three gin-and-tonics to finish the story. ‘What am I going to do? I suppose I’m going to continue my investigations, baby. I’m more and more convinced that Bannow was right and that Rothenia has a secret at its heart. Indeed, that it actually does have a spiritual heart, that pulses … something … round itself.’ ‘Do you seriously think that Oskar and Fritz know the secret?’ ‘I’m perfectly convinced that they know nothing about it, which does not mean they aren’t in some way involved in it.’ ‘How?’ ‘No idea, baby. This is no ordinary secret. People have been aware of the presence of an uncanny thing in Rothenia since St Fenice’s days. The Hussites tried to break into Tarlenheim castle way back in the time of Count Jerzy the Black. They were after it then, I’m quite sure, probably to destroy it, as they were not exactly in favour of religious pictures. The way the castle was saved tells you something of the power of this thing. Although help was given, its deadly influence left a mark on the house of Tarlenheim ever afterwards. You know the story of the Grey Spectre?’ ‘No. But it sounds really cool. Tell me about it.’ Henry was near the bottom of his fourth gin-and-tonic by the time he finished, and he was beginning to feel the effects. Gavin was hanging on his every word. ‘You think the icon thingy was still in the castle in those days?’ ‘I do. I also think Fenice moved it to the ducal abbey of Medeln soon after, when she retired there to live as a nun. She concealed it in the abbey somehow. But she left guardians. The prophecies say as much: “Their line will always be fruitful of Levites.” The Levites were the guards and attendants of the Temple of Solomon, a hereditary caste. Fenice seems to be referring to them when she says that “their hair will be red as copper is red and gold as the sunlight is golden.” Now if she said just gold, she might have meant her own people, the Tarlenheims, while red sort of hints at the Elphbergs. But she says they will be red and gold, and that’s not possible. The Elphbergs are either red- or black-haired.’ ‘Ahah!’ Gavin intervened with a certain amount of excitement. ‘But aren’t the Elphberg flag colours red and gold?’ ‘Yes, but the prophecy says it’s the guardians’ hair which is red and gold,’ Henry replied regretfully. ‘Oh,’ murmured Gavin, a little dashed, but then he perked up. ‘There’s also Mendamero. He seems a fascinating character.’ ‘Fenice predicts that this Mendamero person will one day appear and save Rothenia, or the relic, or something. The KRB fascists had an idea that Mendamero would be a mystical figure who would renew Rothenia, a bit like the Nazis wanted to breed a superman to renew the Aryan race. The KRB was in pursuit of the icon of Christ. It seems they made the same deduction as I did about it, that it was hidden somewhere. They so desperately wanted to find it and find out who Mendamero was too. But they wanted it to increase their own power. It was a way of seizing domination over the minds of Rothenians, and maybe of fighting Rothenia’s enemies as well.’ ‘Raiders of the Lost Art,’ said Gavin solemnly. Henry looked at him, caught the twinkle in his eye, and they laughed. After a while, Henry carried on. ‘We seem to have all the evidence that the KRB had. Old Man Wardrinski found an ancient woodcut of a lost illumination of the Vision of Fenice, with an intriguing hint as to where the relic might be found. The Priory decided, from what the inscription round the illumination said, that the relic was buried for safety’s sake with the bones of one of the dead female saints of Rothenia. This is what “in manibus ancillae suae” might mean … it was in the possession of Christ’s handmaiden. The Priory was so convinced of this, it seems, that its agents secretly opened up all the graves to which they could get access. Urghh. Rifling through old bones at dead of night to find the treasure. Since they had so many sympathisers amongst the Catholic hierarchy, they seem to have managed to tick off most of their list. But the one they could not find was Fenice.’ Gavin was still focussed on Mendamero. ‘This guy, this promised saviour?’ ‘Yes?’ ‘Do we know anything more about him?’ ‘He will be bold and wise … which is part of the job description for saviours, I would say. His name is a code, so people think. The Priory of St Veronica worked out 144 meaningful combinations in Rothenian, Czech, Polish and German, desperate to find out who he might be and whether they could tie him to Gulik and his movement. But scholars point out that if you rearrange the letters in Latin, you get “memorande”, which they think just means “things to be committed to memory”. Fenice had been given a revelation. Although she was supposed to pass it on, she wasn’t going to broadcast it generally. She knew its meaning, but she was careful how she lifted the veil on her prophecy. Perhaps only the Levites know the full significance.’ ‘Pity. I like crosswords.’ ‘You do? I never knew that.’ ‘So there are still things you have to learn about me, my Henry?’ Gavin smiled a little secretively, and then looked serious. ‘You’re going to try to find this thing, aren’t you.’ ‘I am.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Pardon me?’ Gavin looked anxiously at Henry. ‘It’s not as if it wants to be found. Probably it’s waiting for a future time still distant when it will reveal itself.’ ‘You talk of this thing as if it had a mind of its own.’ ‘It seems to have its own purposes, which its guardians may not know, but they’re protecting it for that future time anyway. And from what you say, it doesn’t sound to me like it’s a picture now, if it ever really was. Everybody talks about it as a thing of light. Perhaps it’s more like a window now than a portrait. Whatever, its Guardians must be alarmed by the way things are going at the moment. Alastair Bannow has drawn the world’s attention to the secret, and intelligent people like you, my Henry, are on the case. Then there is this Priory … why do you think it’s defunct? It could still be out there, still on the lookout for this national talisman, eager to use its power for its own purposes.’ ‘Oh! I hadn’t thought of that. It would be a complicating factor … and scary too! But Wardrinski’s father fled Rothenia during the war. You would think all his colleagues were either dispersed, dead or killed. They would need to be in their eighties by now, or even older.’ ‘What about their children? The Priory may have passed its mission on to them.’ ‘Old Man Wardrinski didn’t have much success in that department. His son stands for exactly the opposite of the things he supported. Professor Wardrinski must have been really turned off by his father’s Catholicism and nationalism. He became a militant atheist and is more British than the Last Night of the Proms.’ ‘The other guys in the picture may have had more success. Have you got their names?’ ‘Er … yeah. They’re in my notebook, which I have here. Let’s see. Gulik, Wardrinski … don’t recognise the other names, except … oh!’ ‘Have you found something?’ ‘I don’t know. But there’s a Kamil Bermann here. I wonder ...’ ‘Do you know the name?’ ‘I do. Kamil Bermann was the last Direktor of the KRB, after his predecessor shot himself when he saw the Nazi swastika waving over the Residenz in Strelzen. Bermann held that post for only a few months before the Nazis clamped down on his organisation. Although he may not have been a particularly nice man, he refused to provide blond-haired recruits from his own fascist organisation for the SS, and he wouldn’t co-operate in the roundup of the Rothenian Jews. After that, Bermann became a resistance leader and a national hero in a small way. Now, there was a Piotr Bermann who was till recently the Social Democratic Party leader, and nearly got elected president last year, before the Elphberg monarchy was restored. Do you think Piotr Bermann might be Kamil’s son?’ ‘It’s a lead, Henry.’ ‘You think Piotr Bermann might be linked into the Priory?’ ‘What do the Social Democrats believe in?’ ‘Er … they are very right wing, anti-German and hyper-nationalist … hmm, not too different from the KRB, I suppose. I guess he could be one of the Priory. The problem for Piotr Bermann was that his followers were also natural royalists as well as right-wingers. When he stood out against the restoration of the monarchy, the party ditched him. It’s an interesting idea to pursue. I’m glad I shared this with you, Gavin baby.’ They smiled at each other, before Henry led Gavin off to bed. *** The rest of the week was spent knocking the screenplay into shape and making final arrangements for the filming, which was to begin the next week. On the Friday, Matt closed the last of the files laid out on his office table and smiled at his two young assistants. ‘Oskar wanted me to tell you two that he’s putting you both up in Templerstadt itself, not in the hotel at Medeln with the rest of the Marlowe people. Fritz is going to be back soon and he wants to see you both. He can’t go back to Modenehem because of the problem with the religious zealots. Eddie and Harriet are flying in tomorrow under escort from Justin.’ ‘Oh, fantastic!’ enthused Henry. The Templerstadt house-party was shaping up to be fun. All his favourite people were going to be there, apart from David and Terry. David was at home trying to work something out with his parents, while Terry was in the USA on a contract. ‘So get yourselves packed. I’ll pick you up from the Holiday Inn on Saturday morning, OK boys?’ ‘Absolutely, Matt.’ ‘Have you got any plans for tonight?’ ‘Yes,’ said Gavin decidedly. ‘We’re going clubbing.’ ‘We are?’ *** ‘I’ve asked round, and people say this is more your typical Rothenian gay club,’ said Henry. ‘The White Tree,’ Gavin observed. ‘It sounds nice, a bit Tolkeinesque.’ ‘Tolkeinesque?’ queried Henry, before remembering that Gavin was a complete Lord of the Rings addict. He had read and re-read the trilogy twice already since he had been living with Henry – it was a fixture on Gavin’s side of their bed. The extended-edition DVDs were very visible on their entertainment shelf. Henry regrouped. ‘Will said Oskar and Felip used to be regulars there, though he’s only checked it out a couple of times himself. It’s a bit more working-class than the glitz of Liberation.’ Gavin looked a little disappointed; he had heard a lot about Liberation. He had thought he and Henry would be hitting the Wejg, Strelzen’s red-light district. But he was a trusting little body, and knew Henry would have his reasons. Henry did. Will had warned him that his poster fame had spread to Strelzen, and he would get a lot of unwelcome attention from the foreign gays in Club Liberation. The boys looked at the low-arched door in a side street off the Flavienplaz. Above it was a small, illuminated sign. A hand-lettered card on the door said, a little forbiddingly, ‘Privaat Club’. There was no indication that this was a gay bar at all. Henry smiled at a nervous Gavin and led the way in. The White Tree was low-roofed and dimly lit, which added to the impression that it was quite full. A lot of eyes turned to look at them. There were a couple of groups of younger men, most in their early twenties. They looked fit and quite well buffed. Will had said the Falkefilm boys tended to meet at the Tree, rather than in Liberation, and the groups eyeing up Henry and Gavin could well be the ones. Henry headed for the bar. The stocky barman gave him a neutral look, but brightened a little when Henry greeted him in Rothenian. He and Gavin took glasses of fruit wine to a side table near a group of Rothenian lads. ‘Not a lot happening here, Gavin baby.’ ‘I guess not. I’d even settle for a pub quiz.’ ‘According to those notices, they have a disco on Saturday, which we’ll miss.’ They sipped their wine in silence for a bit. All at once, Henry became aware that a dark-haired Rothenian boy was being egged on to talk to them. Eventually he slipped into a vacant chair at their table. ‘Excuse me,’ he said politely in English, looking at Henry, ‘but are you Hendrik Atvood?’ Henry stared at him. ‘Er … who wants to know?’ The boy smiled winningly at him. ‘My name is Radik. I am good friend of Bolslaw Meric. He talks a lot about you, Hendrik. We have your poster in Falkefilm offices.’ ‘Crikey! You’re a Falkefilm actor? I bet you know Felip Ignacij and Oskar Prinz.’ ‘Yes, they are old friends, and I think you are friend of theirs too, yes? Would you come to sit with us, as friends of friends?’ Henry grinned. Having a drink with a collection of Falkefilm babes was probably most foreign gays’ idea of heaven. It was certainly high on the list of Henry’s ideas for a good night out. They slipped across and the introductions were made. Most of the boys were around twenty, although Radik was in his later twenties now, and ready to retire, he said with a small smile. They were all typically polite Rothenian boys, except that they were better dressed than the average and very well buffed. You could hardly imagine they took their clothes off and had public sex for a living. They looked like prosperous students or young office workers on a night out. Henry began explaining what had brought them to Strelzen. They all knew Matt White, and were duly impressed. A blond, good-natured boy called Fridric said he knew Will Vincent too. They had auditioned together for Falkefilm, and he had been dying to be cast with Will. ‘No such luck, of course,’ he said in Rothenian. ‘He is very famous now and very wealthy. Most people think he is a native Rothenian, but he still spoke with something of an English accent in those days. We see each other sometimes, and he’s offered me and Radik jobs when we finish with Falkefilm.’ ‘Yes,’ said Radik, ‘but Mr Wileminn will give me a job running the website. So I may stick with Falkefilm. Business gets better all the time. Because my English is good, I went on a publicity tour to Cape Town and Buenos Aires only last year … what a life, eh?’ Henry diplomatically introduced the idea that Will and Hendrik Wileminn had fallen out over the restoration of the monarchy the previous year. The Falkefilm boys eyed each other. Finally Radik answered, ‘There was some problem, we heard, and I won’t say that Mr Wileminn did not stamp and swear a lot when his side lost, but they seem to have made it up. Will was at Hendrik’s Dalmatian villa a month ago when we went there to film Rothenian Boys 17. That was when two of us got up Fridric’s butt at the same time for the camera. You were walking bow-legged for two weeks, weren’t you, Freddie?’ Another boy eagerly added, ‘Yeah, but the naked beach-volleyball match was the best. The winners got to fuck the losers on the sand in the open. It was the coolest sex I ever had, and the result was not fixed, no way.’ ‘The sand got everywhere though,’ Radik grimaced. ‘I’m still finding it in my orifices.’ A lot of similar stories later, Henry and Gavin’s trousers were ready to split with the internal pressure. The Falkefilm boys were likewise fired up, and they intended to do something about it too. They decided on Radik’s apartment in Sudmesten for what sounded like something that would have quite interested Caligula, and were keen that the two English boys join them. Henry caught Gavin’s eye. Gavin looked half-tempted but scared. Henry therefore thanked them, but said no. He didn’t think he possessed the sort of stamina to join in the multiple couplings of such a fit group of serious hunks. They seemed genuinely regretful, but took their leave in the formal Rothenian way between men. ‘Wow,’ sighed Gavin with a rather cute smile. ‘I’m glad I argued against Club Liberation tonight.’ ‘You did what?’ *** Matt drove them north to Templerstadt in person. It was a cheerful journey. Matt was in a good mood, now that the confrontation between Bannow and Wardrinski was over. There had been no major incident, despite Wardrinski’s attempts at taunting the American. The ill-concealed discourtesy had merely made Bannow puzzled. He was clearly a man who had not encountered much in the way of deliberate rudeness in his cloistered and imaginative world. Bannow and Wardrinski were now carefully separated, the American in a very fine country hotel near the abbey of Medeln, and the professor in a hotel in Modenehem. Henry sat in the front and navigated. Gavin dozed in the back; indeed, he seemed very sleepy a lot of the time, to the extent that Henry was thinking of mentioning it to Oskar when they got to Templerstadt. Finally they left the national routes and moved on to the country roads. The car climbed up a ridge with a superb view of the Starel basin and southern Husbrau below them. Then they turned north, following a shallow river valley, in which they could glimpse below them through the trees the white buildings of the church and convent of the Marienkloster at Medeln. The road dipped up and down the heavily wooded ridge. Henry had to be quick to notice the avenue leading to the house of Templerstadt, protected by a lodge and tall gates, as well as by signs identifying the turnoff as a private road and forbidding trespass. Matt pulled up to the lodge and sounded the horn of his BMW. An old porter came out and, after Henry identified the occupants of the car, smiled and opened the gates. They drove along a tree-lined drive which curved gently up through fields to a cluster of buildings on a low hill. The car rumbled under a Gothic arch and into a large gravelled courtyard. To their right was a jewel of a medieval chapel, beautiful with buttresses, finials and tall lancet windows. To their left were what must formerly have been stables, and directly ahead rose the façade of a fine brick range of many mixed periods of architecture. It was quite simply the most delightful group of buildings Henry had ever seen. It reminded him a little of the quad of an Oxford college he had once been to, though the buildings were not so regular. Matt pulled up in front of the big oak door. When they got out of the car, they heard a dog faintly yapping inside the house, but otherwise everything was peaceful. Henry said, ‘Wow! Oskar and Pete have certainly found domestic nirvana.’ Matt looked around. ‘This place is amazing. Will told me that Peter has built a conservatory down there behind the stable block, with gym, sauna and quite a sizeable indoor pool.’ The door opened, and a servant in a waistcoat came out. He bowed slightly and asked in English whether they were Dr White and friends. Matt smiled and acknowledged it. As the servant was opening the boot of the BMW, a small terrier dashed out of the door and started dancing round Matt, who knelt down and patted the animal. ‘This is Oskar’s dog, Marietta … they’ve been together for quite a few years now.’ Having satisfied herself by licking Matt all over his face, the dog turned her boisterous attentions on Henry, whom she seemed to be able to identify as a doggy type of person. Henry obliged with the required petting. It was as Marietta turned to Gavin that a very odd thing happened. The terrier froze and stared up at the boy. Her tail stopped wagging. She seemed mesmerised by him for a full minute. At last she slowly moved towards him and simply licked his hand, then sat next to him, staring fixedly up at the boy. Henry and Matt stared. ‘Has a dog ever done that to you before, baby?’ Henry asked. ‘Er … no. Mostly they ignore me,’ Gavin replied slowly, clearly a little disconcerted by the dog’s fixed gaze. Marietta trotted close behind him as they went inside. ‘Nice place,’ gasped Henry. They entered directly into a passage, on the right of which a large sitting room welcomed them with tall diamond-paned windows lit up by the sun. Heraldic stained glass featured the arms of the Templars, the archdiocese of Strelzen and the diocese of Modenehem. Although large, it was nonetheless a comfortable room, with the scents of summer drifting in through an open casement, and sunlight patterning the parquet floor. Soft sofas and chairs were grouped around, and there was a TV. Oskar came through the opposite door, towelling his hair: he had been in the pool. He looked very relaxed, lean and tanned. ‘Hello Matt. Hi boys! Do you want a drink or something? Lunch is not for an hour. We’re having it by the pool, so get changed if you want to take advantage of the water. And who’s this?’ Oskar looked with interest at Gavin. ‘Oskar,’ said Henry, ‘this is my boyfriend, Gavin. Gavin, this is Count Oskar of Modenehem.’ They shook hands, Gavin trying not to stare too hard at the vision of unclothed masculine beauty in front of him. Oskar gave him a friendly grin and indicated the way to the pool, before telling the servant Cesar to take their bags upstairs so they could change first. Marietta trotted off after Oskar, with one backward glance at Gavin as she went. ‘This is some place, Henry,’ Gavin said as they followed Cesar to their assigned bedroom. ‘Welcome to the jet set, baby. Do you think you’ll be alright?’ ‘There’s a lot of people, and it is a bit scary. But I know Matt and Fritzy, and Eddie’ll be here too. I know Peter Peacher is super-scary, but I like his brother a lot. I think I’ll be okay, as long as you hold my hand, Henry.’ ‘That’s what I’m here for.’ The two lovers padded downstairs in their swimming trunks, along a communicating passage and out on to the sunlit poolside, where the light filtered through a glass wall. There was a terrace beyond the glass, with a number of recliners and umbrellas. One of the chairs was occupied by a bronzed and golden-haired man, perfectly naked apart from a pair of shades. He was muscular and handsome, not unlike his younger brother, Eddie, although somehow the features were more regular and better arranged. This was Peter Peacher, at twenty-two years of age the chief executive of PeacherCorp Europe, and as troublesome to the stock markets as his father was. Henry knew him from house parties in Highgate, and they had common friends in Terry O’Brien and Justin Peacher-White. Peter heard them approach and stood up with an unapologetic smirk. Henry introduced him to Gavin, and Peter gave the boy a smiling welcome and a handshake. He had the two boys sit down while he showed them what he had laid out on the ground next to his chair. It was the plans for the new European offices of PeacherCorp in Strelzen. Peter had gone for low-rise, in a modern version of a baroque cloistered complex complete with gardens, reflecting-ponds and small lakes. Henry was impressed. ‘You gonna put up a statue of your dad here?’ he pointed. ‘Cheek,’ Peter snorted. ‘What do you think, Oskar darling? Who would you put up statues to in the new Peacher HQ?’ ‘It’s not a bad idea, leblen men,’ smiled Oskar. ‘You might think of Rothenian heroes … or why not Terry O’Brien if you want a Peacher hero?’ ‘Yay …’ cheered Henry, ‘statue of Terry! That’s got my vote.’ Peter smiled. ‘You don’t have a vote, Henry. But I will suggest something along those lines to the architect, though not the Terry idea, never mind how much I love him.’ He stood up and stretched his lean frame. ‘I’d better get some trunks on. Helge and the twins are on their way here now with Justin. Go and have a swim, guys.’ So Henry and Gavin went back inside, jumped in the pool and splashed around for a while. Gavin was not a bad swimmer, better than Henry in fact. He’d had more of a chance to practice in urban pools than had Henry. They were floating around peacefully when suddenly a fountain of water went up between them. Justin had sneaked in and cannon-balled on top of them. As Henry came up spluttering he felt his trunks ripped off him deftly. In an instant, Justin was out and away with them. Henry had no choice but to pursue him out on to the terrace shouting, ‘Come back, you bastard!’ So it was a wet and naked Henry who ran right into Harriet Peacher and Countess Helge coming round the side of the house – precisely what Justin had intended. ‘Ohmigod!’ Henry shrieked, clasping his hands over his genitals as the women stared at him in astonishment. Gavin came racing up with a towel which he wrapped round Henry. Justin was sitting on a nearby wall in total hysterics. ‘I am so, so sorry,’ Henry burbled as he flushed bright red. Harriet recovered first, telling him with a smile that it was OK … she was used to the sight of her brother’s equipment perpetually on display. Countess Helge, however, was not looking at Henry at all, but was directing a quite inscrutable gaze at Gavin. The boy himself had not noticed, as he was intent on saving his Henry from embarrassment. *** After that inauspicious beginning, the Templerstadt house party could only improve. Justin was obnoxiously triumphant about his humiliation of Henry, an attitude that could not be allowed to stand unavenged. But how to get back at him? After all, Justin was the grand master in the dojo of street wisdom. In the end, Henry borrowed an Allen key off Oskar and spent an hour carefully loosening the screws of Justin’s bed, to the point that it still looked firm but hardly anything kept it together. Justin had a boyish habit of bounding on to his bed, as Henry knew very well. That night when Justin headed off to bed, Henry and Gavin sneaked upstairs behind him. They listened at the door as Justin went through his evening ablutions. They heard the toilet flush and the padding thud as the naked Justin raced to leap up on to the covers. Then they heard his yell as, with a very satisfying and tremendous crash, the bed collapsed under him. Gavin smiled at Henry and Henry smiled back. They shook hands, and retired to their more stable place of rest. Justin looked up from his morning Cheerios as Henry and Gavin came in for breakfast. To his credit, he grinned and called a truce. ‘Won’t underestimate you again, Henry.’ ‘Sleep alright?’ ‘I moved to the sofa.’ ‘When’re you going home, Justy?’ ‘As soon as Fritzy gets here, which should be some time tomorrer. Me boy Brian will be escorting ‘im on to the Strelzen flight from Heathrow ‘bout now. Brian’ll drive him straight here. He should make it around lunchtime. Then Brian and me gotta get off to pick up a boy-band contract in Stockholm.’ ‘What a tough life.’ ‘Sure is.’ Countess Helge and Harriet appeared at that point. Henry doubted Eddie would surface before early afternoon. Harriet gave Henry a little kiss and sat down next to him, smirking. ‘I can’t get yesterday out of my mind, Henry.’ ‘It’s bolted into my short-term memory too, Harry. I’m thinking of suing Justy for the trauma he caused me.’ ‘Hey, don’t sue me!’ Justin protested. ‘Sue Terry’s insurers.’ ‘How was stripping and humiliating me part of your job?’ Justin thought a moment. ‘I wuz outa control due to … post-traumatic stress disorder,’ he said with some relish. ‘Iss me occupation, innit. Iss too much for me brain to cope wiv an all.’ ‘Stuff your brain,’ retorted Henry. ‘It’s a sense of morality you lack, you little criminal.’ Justin laughed. In the meantime, Helge was having a quiet conversation with a shy Gavin, who was quickly opening up under the influence of the woman’s kindness and warmth. They talked for a considerable time, and soon Gavin was smiling and laughing in a way he did with very few others. Helge took him out on to the terrace arm-in-arm after they had breakfasted. That flabbergasted Henry. He’d expected Gavin to tag him around for days before gaining the confidence to interact independently with people, but Helge plainly had a gift for dealing with pathologically shy post-adolescents. Henry put it down to her school-teaching background. When they met up at lunchtime, Henry asked Gavin what he and Helge had been talking about. ‘Oh, just stuff,’ he replied. ‘She wanted to know about my family and where we came from. My dad works on our family tree, y’know. Did I tell you that we were descended from the famous Dr Evans Price?’ ‘No. What’s he famous for?’ ‘It’s a bit of a laugh really. Old Evans Price – my great-great-great grandfather – was a very eccentric doctor in South Wales at the end of Queen Victoria’s reign. He was a complete nutcase. He reckoned he was the last of the druids, and went round dressed in green tights and a white sheet, with an oak wreath on his head. He looked a bit odd in Pontypridd market in the 1880s. But he’s most famous for being prosecuted for cremating his dead baby son on a hillside near Llantrisant in 1886 – like the ancient Celts did, he said. He defended himself in the High Court and won. As a result, the government had to legalise human cremation in Britain.’ ‘How weird,’ Henry grinned. Gavin shrugged. ‘Every family has weirdos.’ ‘No, weird that you’re Welsh, baby!’ ‘Oh … ha ha!’ ‘Any more skeletons in your family wardrobe?’ ‘Not really. But Dad says we’re descended ultimately from Meilyr ap Rhys, a great medieval poet and seer. He was a member of a Welsh royal house going back to Arthurian times. That’s why Dad called me Gavin.’ ‘Gavin’s a Welsh name?’ ‘It’s the English version of Gawain … I’m Gawain ap Rhys.’ ‘That’s really cool, baby. I like that. You’re my little Welsh prince.’ Gavin laughed. ‘There. I bet you thought Fritzy was the only prince in your life.’
  15. ‘Studs out, baby, suits on. Today we are media executives.’ A neatly turned-out Henry picked up his battered briefcase, and gave an equally smart Gavin a small kiss. They trooped down to reception, where a taxi was waiting. There was a meeting at a rented HQ located in the Strelsenermedia Building in the Old City of Strelzen, at which Henry was very eager to be present. He had to be early for a briefing beforehand with Matt, whose PA and research assistant he would become that day, for the duration of the project. Gavin, falling quickly into the role of Henry’s assistant, took the briefcase with a very serious look on his face. At the Strelsenermedia reception desk, Henry asked for Matt’s temporary offices. He collected IDs for himself and Gavin, which they pinned on each other’s breast pocket. The Rothenians had been very efficient. Matt’s office already had a nameplate on the door, and the adjacent office advertised H. ATWOOD and G. PRICE, above PERSONAL ASSISTANTS TO MR WHITE. ‘Gavin, we got desks!’ laughed Henry. ‘Mine’s the one with the window behind. You can have the one with the plant on it, cos you’re the one who’ll remember to water it. Hey! That was my first executive decision … and now my second. I need you to keep notes of the meeting, and particularly what the two prima donnas say.’ ‘Yes sir, Mr Atwood!’ Gavin saluted; he was enjoying this. He checked his desk. ‘Henry! They’ve left us two second-hand laptops.’ ‘How kind! And they’re both linked to the web. Let’s boot up. We can play Civilization IV multiplayer, and I just happen to have brought the setup disk. It’s in my briefcase – in fact, it’s about all there is in my briefcase.’ Henry worked out how to use the internal phone. He waited till nine-thirty, then dialled his boss. ‘Matt, it’s Henry. Do you want me and Gavin now?’ ‘Henry, lovely to hear your tuneless voice. Come on through. It’s going to be a day and a half, and no mistake.’ The pair knocked and entered the large corner office, with its rather splendid view across the Starel and the New City to the palace, bright in the morning sunlight. They took the seats indicated for them at the side of a table. Matt sat at the other side, with several thick files in front of him. ‘So it’s the battle of the giants in …’ he checked his watch, ‘ninety minutes. You’ll find flak jackets hanging on the back of your office door.’ ‘And they’ve never met in person before?’ asked Gavin. ‘Apparently not. I expect Bannow to be rather polite and civilised. Paulie says he’s one of those very cultured and good-mannered Americans, with a great deal of natural dignity.’ Henry snorted. ‘I wish I could say the same about our Professor Wardrinski. How much did you have to pay to get Dr Bannow to consent to get in front of the cameras?’ ‘An awful lot. I had to sell an interest to National Geographic to afford him in the end. Wardrinski had better not find out the difference between their fees. Also, he wanted conditions such as no face-to-face confrontations on camera. ‘Henry, I’ve got all the files and your research here. I need you whispering in my ear while we iron out the details of filming. What’s Gavin going to do?’ ‘Make notes, boss.’ ‘Okay, good. The producer will be in with us, but we thought we’d meet separately from the full team, in case it gets really hairy. Excellent. Will Vincent said he wanted to see you for a moment, if you’ve got time, Henry. After you have your chat with Will, if he’s in, I suggest you and Gavin go get a coffee, then come back here fifteen minutes beforehand. OK, off you scoot.’ Gavin went next door with instructions to tidy up the office, while Henry trotted upstairs to Will’s executive suite. He found Will’s secretary, who told him to take a seat. After ten minutes he was sent in, to be received into Will’s arms and given a big hug and kiss. ‘Nice office, Will,’ he said, and it was. ‘Lovely to see you, Henry. My, you’ve grown a bit.’ ‘But not upwards.’ ‘Height is relative, little one. There are other ways of being a big man. Henry, would you like a summer job here in Strelzen next year?’ ‘Oh God! Would I!’ ‘I’ll take that as a yes. Of course, we can’t pay the sort of rates you’d get in London, but you’ll be quite well-off, because accommodation here is so cheap. You’ve got a boyfriend, Fritz was saying.’ ‘Gavin, yes.’ ‘Does he speak Rothenian? German?’ ‘No, he’s your typical English monoglot.’ ‘Pity. Maybe I could find a job for him nonetheless, sweeping the floors or something.’ Henry laughed. ‘I’m sure he’ll appreciate it. It’ll be so good, Will. What have you got in mind?’ ‘Eastnet. We’re always in need of production assistants with good English to work with the agencies. You have native English, and pretty passable Rothenian too. I’ll be putting you on the news desk, working for Tomas Weissman, our head of news and features … I think you know him.’ ‘Yeah, nice guy. I met him at the palace last year.’ ‘You impressed him, and now you have Marlowe Productions on your CV, so you’re even more attractive.’ ‘Hey, this is great Will … I’d love a few months in Strelzen, to see if I’d like to make it a longer stay one day, like you did.’ ‘I can recommend it. This place saved my life … you know the story. It’s so different from Britain, or even France, which I like well enough.’ Something stirred in Henry’s mind. ‘Tell me Will, what is it about this place which makes it feel so different. You’re probably the person best qualified to answer that question. Cos – you’ll think me mad – I feel, not exactly different in Rothenia, but enhanced. I’m more Henry-like … it’s nuts, but do you know what I mean? And Rudi – when he became king – he was a man not just transformed, but transfigured. I thought it was the grooming for the crown his grandma and mum gave him, but I wonder …’ Will looked at Henry with some consideration. ‘It’s odd your saying that, but there is something of a difference between me when I’m in Plymouth visiting mum and dad, and me when I’m walking Mikhelstrasse. And it’s a feeling that’s grown on me since the king returned. Henry … what are you implying?’ ‘Nothing … I really don’t know, Will.’ Will looked a little suspiciously at Henry, then smiled and asked if he had time for a coffee. Henry said he would pass. The big meeting between Bannow and Wardrinski would be in twenty minutes, and he wanted to prepare himself. He also wanted to rig Gavin for a storm. Gavin hated loud arguments: they made him cringe. Henry and Gavin slipped into Matt’s office in the wake of the ladies bringing coffee and a platter of rather fine Rothenian cream cakes. ‘Down boy,’ hissed Henry to Gavin, whose fatal weakness for sweet things he had learned to recognise. Wardrinski arrived first. Henry thought the professor looked quite Rothenian, now he was in the land of his ancestors. You would have taken him for a local had you passed him on Radhausplaz. However much he might have looked like a native, though, he certainly did not look at ease. Odd, because the prospect of a fight would normally get him quite excited. Henry wondered if it was he who was putting Wardrinski on edge – after all, he had faced the man down in Camden last January, and Wardrinski didn’t look as if he would take defeat easily, especially from a kid. Matt was all affability. ‘Chad! You looked so tanned. How was the desert?’ Wardrinski perked up at this point; apparently he had enjoyed his adventures in the Middle East and Turkey. He and Matt chatted amiably for a while about the filming in Syria. The professor had been impressed by the antiquities he had seen However, he was predictably dismissive of the remnants of ancient Christian communities he had encountered in the desert, communities which sounded both deeply melancholy and very interesting to Henry. Finally a tap on the door announced Alastair Bannow, who was ushered in by an assistant producer and followed by his own publicist. Henry was impressed first of all by how tall the American was. Bannow was a man in his mid-fifties. His skin was weathered, while his hair and small, pointed beard were silver. He looked very like Hollywood’s idea of an old frontiersman. The only thing discordant with his hawk-like image was a certain unfocussed and distant look in his blue eyes. Matt did the introductions. Bannow shook hands politely with Wardrinski, then sat opposite his nemesis. ‘Gentlemen,’ said Matt, ‘I hope your accommodations in the Hilton are comfortable?’ The two academics nodded. ‘Very good. I think we’re likely to be filming here for the best part of two months. This won’t be continuous, of course, and I imagine you have other projects that will take you away from Rothenia off and on. Henry here has a basic schedule for filming which we need to get agreed today, and we have to keep certain days clear. ‘The other thing on the agenda for this week is to approve the script. Now I understand, Dr Bannow, that you wish to talk unscripted to camera?’ Bannow stirred, and said in a rather dry and high-pitched voice, ‘That’s right. I prefer to speak without constraint on camera.’ Matt nodded – this had already been agreed. ‘That’s fine, although as I said, that does not mean we won’t edit what you say.’ Bannow made a vague gesture with his hand, which might have indicated acceptance. Matt continued, ‘If that is understood, Gavin will distribute a provisional list of locations and dates, and we can start checking them against our diaries.’ The meeting swapped dates for the next half hour, and it was pretty clear to Henry that both Bannow and Wardrinski were playing status games. Each was trying to impress the other with the commitments he had pencilled in over the next two months. Henry thought Bannow won hands down, with lecture engagements in Tokyo and Chicago, and filmed interviews with three separate networks. Wardrinski just had a presentation before the Royal Society and a lecture to the Secular Society. But at least they weren’t shouting at each other – yet. There was to be a lunch at Ribaud’s, the well-known Rothenian restaurant on Neueplaz, to which Henry was invited, but not Gavin. Gavin was happy enough about that, and said he would dust the office and pretend to work. If Gavin needed anything, most of the Strelsenermedia staff had some English, so Henry wasn’t too worried about him. Ribaud’s was a new experience for Henry. Matt wanted to eat outdoors on that sunny Strelzen day, and Henry was delighted to see Oskar, Fritz’s big brother, at another table. Making his apologies, he went over to get a hug. ‘Sit down, Henry.’ He was introduced to a couple of Oskar’s colleagues at the palace. They were having a leisurely business lunch, getting ready for the summer season. The king was returning from Oxford the following week, and Oskar had masterminded a busy social schedule. There was also the first state visit to the USA in September to fine tune. King Rudolf was a media sensation across the Atlantic, where he would have several days along the East Coast. Oskar was buzzing with it. Finally Oskar got round to Fritz. ‘He has been to stay with you, Matt was saying.’ ‘We had a fun weekend, that’s for sure.’ ‘How is he dealing with the separation from home, Henry?’ ‘He seems to love being Frankie Prince, that’s all I noticed. Not that he doesn’t miss you and Helge, but he looked more than a little delighted not to be the prince of Tarlenheim for a while.’ ‘Hmph,’ growled Oskar. ‘That Bannow person made Fritzku’s life a misery. Some people should be prosecuted for writing without due care and attention. I wish it had been libellous, I would have loved to have had the lawyers on him.’ Henry grinned. ‘You could go and tell him yourself. That’s him with the beard, sitting next to Matt.’ Oskar’s look hardened. ‘I would, but you know Rothenian ideas about hospitality, Henry.’ His handsome face cleared. ‘But now you’re in Strelzen, I know the king will want to see you, so you had better leave your contact details with me. Besides, you need to come out and see Pete and myself in our new house at Templerstadt. I know Matt intends to be there sometime soon. Edward and Harriet Peacher will be staying with us for a lot of the summer too. Or have you seen enough of Eddie, now?’ Oskar looked mischievous. ‘Not at all, Oskar. Eddie is a very good friend, my best non-gay friend apart from my brother.’ Henry took his leave and returned to Matt’s table. He found that in the meantime the conversation had gone from edgy to brittle. ‘So, Mr Bannow …’ Wardrinski was beginning. ‘It’s Dr Bannow,’ came the swift interjection. ‘Naturally … yes,’ Wardrinski agreed, with an annoying simper. ‘Dr Bannow, could you tell me how it is that holiness travels down a genetic bloodline?’ Bannow looked stony-faced at Wardrinski. ‘I don’t think I ever said that.’ Wardrinski looked innocent. ‘Surely that’s the implication of your book. Don’t you say there is a particular lineage in which holiness and power is concentrated, running from Ephesus in the first century to Rothenia here in the twenty-first, and doesn’t this lineage now safeguard a holy treasure?’ Bannow was now looking at Wardrinski as if he were a particularly irritating insect. ‘I said nothing of the sort. I suggested that there were some strange things about certain families and certain places that raised questions. I did not have the answers. I would propose that scientists look at the evidence I presented, and make up their minds about what it means. That is what scientists do, is it not? Look at evidence and construct theories?’ ‘Yes, of course it is,’ Matt cut in, and sidelined them towards the menu. The meal was not a relaxed experience. Henry concluded that, had Gavin joined them, the tension in the air would have given his nervous boyfriend heartburn. Henry had hoped to talk to Bannow about some of the things he had learned while reading the works of St Fenice, and the various depictions of her Vision he had encountered. But Bannow wished to make no general conversation, and did little more than murmur comments on the food and the restaurant to his publicist. So Henry concentrated on the meat dish and on making contributions to support Matt’s laboured attempts to keep up a conversation round the table. It was not until the dessert course that Henry got Bannow’s attention. ‘Dr Bannow, I was very interested in what you had to say about the facial similarity that runs in the Tarlenheims.’ Bannow focussed on Henry, and gave him a small smile. ‘Yes, er … Mr Atwood, isn’t it?’ ‘That’s me, I’m Henry. Is there any other example of a face passing down the generations quite like that?’ ‘There are Hapsburg lips and Windsor noses, but no, nothing like it that I have ever read about.’ ‘You make no conclusions about it in the book, but do you have any theory?’ ‘None, Henry. But it is odd, and odd coincidences often indicate that there are new things waiting to be discovered.’ ‘So you think that there might be a scientific way of accounting for it?’ Bannow smiled at Henry again. ‘I’m open to any reasonable explanation.’ Henry decided he liked Dr Bannow, despite the purgatory the man had put Fritz through. By now Wardrinski was chafing to take command of the conversation. ‘It seems quite clear to me that a lot of this oddity is simply that people want to see a likeness, the same way they see the Virgin Mary in patterns of mould on subway walls. They want to make something out of a similarity, so as to experience the thrill of a pseudo-miracle. And the only thing stranger than the idea of a divine miracle is the willingness of some people to countenance it.’ Henry got the idea he had just heard an aphorism that had been recycled several times. He also caught a mocking stress on the word some. ‘I suppose,’ he said, ‘a scientist with an idea that the structure of the universe is regulated by laws which permit of no exceptions would find the idea of a miracle of any sort absurd.’ ‘Exactly. This idea of the miraculous flies in the face of all scientific observation.’ ‘Ah …’ said Henry, ‘but assume for the sake of argument that one day someone – a qualified scientist – observed such an exception.’ Wardrinski’s face took on a look of intellectual distaste. ‘A pointless scenario. Unless exceptions to the laws of nature could be repeated under laboratory conditions, they could always be explained away as subjective errors on the part of the observer. And if they could be repeated, then they would not be miraculous or exceptional, but simply a part of nature we don’t yet understand. The point about miracles – such as I think you are describing – is that they don’t recur when you want them to, but only when divine providence determines. They can never be objectively tested.’ ‘But they might happen.’ ‘No … I said they can always be explained as errors or wishful thinking. So the respectable – indeed the only permissible – standpoint is that they do not happen. You merely play with language.’ Henry saw he was getting nowhere. He knew he had himself once experienced the supernatural – not just he, but several of his friends. The power of that experience was not to be denied, which was the problem with Wardrinski’s reasoning. Once one experienced such a revelation, all the logic in the world would not explain it away, even if it was not possible to convince others of what had been seen. Matt was looking on in an amused way, while Bannow was decidedly interested in the exchange between Henry and the professor. ‘I’ll be interested in your take on the Tarlenheim face, then,’ Henry concluded. *** Henry and Gavin were lying on the bed that night. Gavin had his glasses on, reading the draft of the scripts for the conference in the morning. Otherwise, he was naked. So too was Henry, who was taking advantage of the fact by attempting to distract his lover. Currently he was stroking the length of Gavin’s erection, moving his hand slowly, then cupping and massaging the smooth and shaved balls. He was thinking hungrily about the moist purple head that had emerged from Gavin’s foreskin, and concluded that it needed more-urgent attention. ‘Happy, baby?’ ‘Oh yes, Henry. It was a good day. But I was glad that I didn’t go to that lunch with you.’ ‘There was a bit of a row. Bannow and Wardrinski did not disappoint expectations.’ ‘You like Dr Bannow?’ ‘I think I do, a bit. He’s a lot more human than the professor. But they’re both very odd men. They’re too caught up in their own ideas to notice much what they’re doing to the world around them. Basically, someone needs to tell their mums that they’re not safe to be let out on their own.’ Gavin laughed, then squirmed as Henry’s mouth closed around his penis. A long, sweaty time later, Gavin turned to Henry and smiled in his face. ‘I do love what you do to me, Henry. You’re so patient with me.’ ‘Gavin, you’re everything I want. It took me a while to realise it, but you make me a man … not because you’re sort of girlie, but because you make me confront what I am and what I want out of a relationship. You give me all of yourself, and I have to show I deserve the gift, because it is such a special one.’ And that was it, thought Henry. Gavin gave endlessly and asked for nothing back. His was the true fullness of love, trust and self-giving. Gavin had given himself in just the same way to Wayne, and been abused and ridiculed, yet that had not stopped him being quite as generous to Henry. The boy was special, and he cuddled into Henry in total trust. Henry hugged him protectively. This was his lover, and what a brave little soul he had turned out to be, too. They slept in the complete happiness of mutual devotion. *** The second of the two scheduled days with Wardrinski and Bannow together was as uneasy as the first. Henry noticed that all the sniping was coming from Wardrinski’s side and that Bannow was bemused by it rather than particularly resentful. Still, the filming schedule was being agreed, and the production was coming together. In the afternoon, Henry slipped away with Gavin to the National Library and raided the catalogues. Gavin wasn’t much help but he was at least company. Mostly he sat and read the English-language newspapers. Henry did a catalogue search for the Priory of St Veronica, and turned up very little. What he did find was that the devotion to Veronica had entered Rothenia from France by way of Hungary late in the fifteenth century. It had been popular ever since, and particularly prominent till recent years in the province of Husbrau in the north. On digging deeper, Henry was intrigued to find that Veronica was supposedly a Palestinian woman whom Christ had cured. She had gone to Rome with a miraculous portrait of Christ and cured the Emperor Tiberius with it. Henry sighed. Yet more evidence of the veneration of Christ’s face that Bannow had missed. A cult of St Veronica growing up in the same province of Rothenia which contained the castle of Tarlenheim was one more coincidence pointing towards Bannow’s conclusion. Henry ransacked the library for books on Stefan Gulik and the KRB. There were quite a few of them. He called up the most recent, a heavy and academic tome. Henry searched the index in vain for references to Professor Wardrinski’s father, but the book ended with the 1930 attempted coup and Karl Wardinski was only mentioned in passing as one of the members of the counter-coup in the KRB that unseated Gulik. What finally caused Henry to sit up was a large section of plates in the centre of the book, with a range of photographs of the KRB in action: fighting with Communists on the streets of the city of Zelden in the 1920s; marching in torchlight processions; parading on Corpus Christi and the national day, Flaviendenn; and playing football in huge summer camps in the 1930s. At the end were portraits of the movement’s leaders. One of them had Henry reaching for the photocopier. Gulik and twelve regional KRB commandants were standing in full uniform in a line in front of a religious building Henry did not recognise. On their chests were identical badges featuring death's-heads designed just like those in the woodcut of the Vision of St Fenice in old Mr Wardrinski’s notebook. Henry had no doubt he was looking at the Master and Acolytes of the Priory of St Veronica, wearing their insignias. They stared glassily at him out of the large photograph. They looked very like a group of men who would not hesitate to rifle through ancient graves if by doing it they could find a religious talisman of great power. Finally, Henry called up books on the cults of Rothenian saints. Fenice rated an entire chapter for having been the most celebrated of the nation’s medieval saints, as well as a literary figure. There was nothing new in it. Of greater interest to Henry was what the book had to say about her place of burial, something the Priory of St Veronica had apparently looked for but failed to find. The Annals of Medeln, a sixteenth-century compilation, said that Fenice had died in the abbey and had been buried with the rest of the sisters, but had been translated to a tomb near the high altar on her canonisation. There was a description of quite a substantial shrine, plated with silver by Duke Rudolf III. But the shrine had been dismantled in the 1770s when Princess Osra remodelled the abbey, saying it lacked Classical elegance. Fenice’s body was lost either during the building work or when the abbey was occupied by French troops from Napoleon’s army, which had marched into Strelzen in 1808. The closing bell rang, and Henry filed away his notes. ‘OK, babe?’ he asked Gavin. ‘Ready for dinner, yes.’ ‘Good, because I’ve got a bit of a story to tell you about St Fenice and Dr Bannow’s holy portrait of Christ.’ It was time for Henry to share his thoughts, and there would be no one more interested than his superstitious little Gavin.
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