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Mike Arram

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  1. Mike Arram

    Chapter 20

    The saga will continue ...
  2. ‘Pass me that Fodor’s, Ed.’ They were relaxing in their hotel room after leaving items of evening dress scattered around. Henry was in his boxer briefs, bare feet up on the room’s desk. Ed – naked, dishevelled and gorgeous – had just come out of the shower towelling his hair. Henry’s briefs were tented out accordingly. Part of his anatomy was expecting an imminent treat. Ed came up behind Henry, knelt next to his chair and began lightly kissing his shoulders. His fingers strayed inside Henry’s briefs, which he began slowly pushing down over his thighs. Henry wiggled his bum to assist the removal. Ed’s warm fingers closed round his erection and began skilfully stroking and stimulating it. Regardless of the potent distraction, Henry scanned the index for ‘Glottenberh’. As Ed’s mouth closed over his glans, tongue teasing his slit, Henry began reading: ‘Glottenberh (Ger. Glottenburg). Former independent Rothenian duchy, annexed to the Kingdom of Ruritania, 1788. Pop. 90,600. The cathedral of St Boniface fdd 1004. The Benedictine abbey of St Vitalis (Vitalenkloster) features the national shrine of the Black Virgin (q.v.) …’ That was as far as he could go before he groaned and threw the book aside, burying his fingers in the thick blond hair of the head between his legs, pumping up and down on his penis. ‘Can I make love to you, Ed?’ Henry gasped. His lover lifted off him and nodded. They stood. Henry put Ed over the edge of the bed and prepared his hole patiently. Although normally a top, Ed by no means disliked being taken by Henry, who held him high him round the ribs, belly against his lower back, pushing down into his hole. Henry knew Ed liked to feel his penis running over and exciting his prostate. Ed was biting and gripping the coverlet by the time Henry spurted inside him. Kissing and hugging, they moved up on the bed, where Henry brought Ed off with his helping hand. Finally, Ed got round to asking, ‘Why does Rudi want just you to go to Glottenberh with him?’ ‘He seems to think religion is my thing, because my dad is a vicar, and none of his other friends are that way inclined, I guess. Also, I speak Rothenian, which an equerry has to do.’ ‘What’s so special about January 3rd?’ ‘It’s the feast of St Vitalis, the patron saint of Rothenia, the German monk who converted the pagan inhabitants of the Starel basin in the eighth century. There’s a national pilgrimage, which for the first time since 1919 will be led by a king of Rothenia. This is a very Catholic nation, Ed, and their faith means a lot to them. The king is the advocate of the shrine of the Black Virgin, so the image will be carried in procession through the streets of the city because he is present.’ ‘Black Virgin? I don’t suppose it has anything to do with Africa, does it?’ Henry smiled. ‘It’s an ancient Byzantine icon, presented to Duke Tassilo by Emperor Otto the Great. It apparently cures infertility. It’s okay, I won’t say a prayer for you. I don’t want you getting pregnant on me, now we’re going our separate ways.’ Ed gave a tight sort of smile. ‘You’re on about that a lot, Henry.’ ‘It’s on my mind a lot, Ed. Especially after sex like that. Ed, I … oh, never mind.’ ‘Never mind what …?’ ‘Now’s not the time or place.’ Although troubled, Ed hugged Henry hard, enclosing his smaller body protectively. Henry sighed and snuggled. This he liked as much as sex, the way Ed could just surround him with warmth and make him feel loved and safe. Who else would ever do this for him? And how could he survive without it? *** Oskar came by for Henry on the Tuesday morning, coming up to the room to kiss and embrace him. Oskar was very fond of Henry. He said there was something of the young Will about him, and he still loved Will, so much was obvious, despite his undeniable devotion to Peter Peacher. Henry enjoyed being hugged by Oskar. The man had an amazing fragrance, which Henry could still smell on himself hours later. He thought it must be fantastic to share a bed with the man – and what a man, too, gorgeous and beautifully proportioned. Letting his mind run down those channels simply added to Henry’s unease, of course. His mind was always running down them, and it just seemed to be getting worse. He was adrift emotionally, and he knew it. Oskar was in a dark suit, and Henry had dressed the same way. Oskar’s car ran under the palace arch to join the motorcade – which included six police motorcycle outriders and three vans full of security men – already awaiting Rudi’s departure. The royal BMW was warming its engine, the Elphberg flag fixed to its bonnet. After the king emerged, a palace footman in green tailcoat and white tie called Henry out of Oskar’s car to join him. ‘Morning, your majesty.’ ‘Hi, Henry. Do you ever do the rosary, you Anglicans?’ ‘Er, no … well, not my sort of Anglican anyway. I hadn’t noticed you doing it much at Medwardine either, Rudi.’ ‘It’s a devotion my grandmother’s fond of. I’ll give it a go later. You okay, Henry?’ ‘Sure, sure.’ ‘You look abstracted.’ ‘Just like you to start getting sensitive at the oddest of times, Rudi.’ ‘You’re not bothered by a day of Catholic devotion, are you?’ ‘Heavens no! It’s … well, it’s personal. Thanks and all, but I want to keep it personal.’ ‘Okay. No probs.’ They chatted about the day ahead of them, current Rothenian politics and the unexpected side of kingship, and were still at it when the motorcade pulled off the autoroute into the outskirts of Glottenberh. Glancing out the window, Henry was astonished to see crowds lining the road even at the edge of the city, ignoring the cold and the heavy grey clouds lowering over the roofs. Red-lion flags were everywhere. Rudi laughed as he got Henry waving out the window in that odd way royals do. When the convoy pulled up outside the basilica of the Vitalenkloster, built on the lines of the imperial church at Speyer, the bells began ringing and the concussions of the guns of the royal salute banged back from the west front. Rudi, with Henry a pace behind him, stood hand on heart as the band of the re-formed Royal Foot Guards played the national anthem. The bishop, in rochet, purple mozetta and cassock, came up to shake hands and usher the king into the vast spaces of the great church. The abbot and community were within the west door, the abbot wearing a gold pectoral cross and purple skull cap as a sign of the full privileges of his ancient house. Rudi caused a stir by going on one knee to kiss the abbot’s ring of office, an act of royal humility followed by subdued applause. The abbot and monks, behind a cross and candles borne by acolytes, led the way down the packed church, beautifully chanting the Te Deum in Latin as they went. Rudi was placed on a throne-like chair at the head of the nave. Henry, as equerry for the day, had a seat behind him. It was cold in the church, and Henry was chilly without a coat, his breath steaming. Since he was at the focus of a major religious festival, however, he was forced to ignore it. He looked at Rudi, motionless in front of him and also coatless, and marvelled at the self-control kingship demanded. The man was superhuman. The monks brought down the icon from above the high altar and there was a period of devotion and readings as it was censed and venerated. It was finally presented to the king to kiss. He was the only person allowed this devotion, the icon being technically his own property as the heir of Duke Tassilo. It was then placed by the king himself on a flower-filled litter carried on the shoulders of ten members of the fraternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, dressed in tail coats and breeches with papal medals round their necks. Down through the church passed the procession, headed by the bishop, abbot and monks, together with a multitude of boys in albs carrying censers and candles in tiny lamps. Henry was a little awed as well as astonished to see the boys all barefoot, despite the winter cold. After the icon came the king, the provincial governor, the chief of police and the commanding general of the army district. Henry and Oskar brought up the tail. They wound through the streets, accompanied by applause in the continental way. Rothenian hymns were sung at every station. Eventually the procession disgorged into the packed marketplace, where it was greeted by the awesome sight of thousands of people, young and old, going to their knees to welcome the icon. As they did so, the first flecks of snow began to drift down from the heavy brownish clouds. It was almost scary in its timing: ‘Celestial ticker tape,’ Oskar whispered in Henry’s ear with a little smile. The procession finally made its way up into the cathedral, where the icon was placed on the altar for public veneration before mass was celebrated. Henry was rather glad to see the boys reassuming their shoes and socks. He had been a little worried about them. He went up to the altar with Rudi to receive a blessing from the bishop, but did not take communion. He reflected that in the circumstances it might have caused a minor diplomatic incident: Anglican equerry to the king of Rothenia elbows his way to the altar to take the sacrament at a Catholic State ceremony. He thought back to what the Head had said to him about a career in the Foreign Office. Maybe it was an idea after all. There was a late lunch and reception at the former ducal palace, which was now the University of Radelngrad-Glottenberh. Henry circulated with the king for a while, until he got into a conversation with a party of Glottenberh youths who had been invited along to represent the student body. They were pleasant Rothenian kids, a little older than he, of course, but they didn’t make him feel patronised. They were disappointed at his determination to speak Rothenian, as they wanted to try out their English on him. They were very intrigued about their king, the girls especially. Henry was hard put to be discrete without being evasive, but he thought he managed it. The king left the room for a series of meetings with local officials, which Henry was not required to attend. One of the female students volunteered to show him the old palace chapel, since he said he was interested in churches. Her name was Lise, and she was clearly very attracted to Henry. This was a first for him, but from the way she smiled and hung about him, there seemed little doubt that he was indeed the object of her sexual attention. Wow, he thought, this is what life might have been like if I had been different from what I am. He was very friendly back, which was as far as he could go. However, the novel idea that he might be attractive to women further disturbed his already confused mind. Lise took him up to the organ gallery overlooking the former ducal palace chapel. The place was a mass of baroque sculpture, and the reredos climbed all the way to the roof in an involved confection of cherubs, saints and patriarchs. It clearly belonged to the school of church decoration that seemed to owe more to the stage than to scripture. Glancing over the railing, Henry noticed a series of ducal tombs down in the nave. Anxious to see more of them, he descended a twisting spiral staircase to the floor below, where he examined each tomb in turn. He quickly discovered that Lise’s interest in him did not extend to counterfeiting enthusiasm for the architecture of death. She said she’d be back to pick him up in half an hour. He began with the medieval tombs, an unusual line in front of the high altar at the east end, obviously moved from somewhere else. Four crowned effigies lay flat, their feet to the east, ducal swords unsheathed and resting on their shoulders. The execution was very fine, and although Henry was no expert, he guessed they had been made elsewhere than Rothenia – Flanders maybe. Down the centre of the nave lay the early modern dukes of Glottenberh, in the armour and ruffs of the age of Gustavus Adolphus, and the wigs and lace of the age of Louis XIV. He finished with a very intriguing monument, the last duke, Willem Stanislas VI, who had died aged eighteen in 1788. It was composed in a Classical style, the boy – very handsome apparently – depicted lying rather erotically in just a few convenient drapes. It was deliberately sensuous, and Henry remembered reading somewhere how the erotic was a part of the art of death: smooth flesh and swelling muscle used to counterpoint the transience of human beauty and the tragedy of mortality. The boy’s mouth was slightly parted and his eyes were open, as though he was still drinking in light and breath. Henry could not resist running his hands down the torso and long limbs, marvelling at the delicacy of the sculptor’s art brought out in the faint lines of veins and the play of muscle under the skin, made beautifully real in stone. As Henry reflected on the shortness of this boy’s years, and all the disappointed hopes that had lain on him, his own situation came home to him with greater force than ever before. In two weeks he himself would be eighteen. He could see his way forward in life and his path did not lead him in the same direction as Edward’s. They would separate, and time would take them apart. Although what they had was so very fulfilling, there was no future for them as a couple because it was not sustainable. Bitter though it was, there was only one conclusion. As Henry looked at the last duke of Glottenberh, he knew that at least in his case there would be other opportunities. Maybe he would never recapture the poignant delicacy of his life’s first love, but it was only that: the first love. There would one day be another, or so he could hope. He shook off his confusion. He had made up his mind. *** Ed was smiling when Henry came through the door of their hotel room. The bags were already packed and waiting on the bed for the taxi to the airport. He hugged Henry and kissed him, before noticing the tears standing in his lover’s eyes. ‘Henry, what’s up?’ he asked nervously. ‘Edward,’ Henry replied slowly but firmly, ‘I have a thing to say.’
  3. Christmas holidays came all too rapidly. Henry was unpacking his locker again, and about to say goodbye to Ed. At least they would meet up the week after Christmas, when Ed had petitioned – in fact demanded – that Matt and Andy take Henry with them to the Rothenian Alps. As usual, Henry’s mum and dad were joining the grandparents somewhere sunny for that week, so everything was working out nicely. Rudi had likewise demanded of the parents of his growing number of straight friends at Medwardine – which included Mark Peters – that their sons join him for his winter stay at the castle of Zenda, south of the capital. David, though now out and proud at school, was one of this group too, and his attendance was particularly required in Rothenia because he was Rudi’s study buddy for their business coursework. The grand finale for them all would be Rudi’s New Year’s Ball in the capital. The monarchy was living up to the people’s hopes of providing a focus for the nation’s social as well as political life. Oskar had drafted a regular programme of major events and levées which would form a stable social calendar that would not disrupt the young king’s education too badly. Jammed in the edge of the hall mirror at home, so that visiting parishioners could admire it, was an ornate invitation card, gold embossed, from HM the King of Rothenia to Henry Robert Atwood Esq OHL. It was a nice Christmas. Ricky, Henry’s brother, was in a really good mood after having been reunited with his girlfriend, Helen Peters. Henry could hear the consequences of it if he paused outside Ricky’s room door when Helen was sleeping over. It had to be said that Henry, in his curiosity about the heterosexual urges he did not possess, lingered there a little more than was healthy, straining to catch the groans and squeals. He sneaked off, ashamed of himself, in the end. Henry’s dad celebrated services in five different churches on Christmas Day. As a result, by late afternoon he was lying comatose on the sofa in the lounge. Henry was going through his university options with mum, who agreed with him that Cranwell was the best of the bunch. Unfortunately, the finances did not look good. Between them, mum and dad earned enough to reduce the level of maintenance grant he could hope for, but not enough to offer much support. What was more, during Henry’s first year, Ricky would still be in his final year at Manchester. ‘Face it,’ declared mum, ‘we timed you two really badly. But you are at least going to get some sort of rebate on your fees if your grades are what you expect, and Cranwell does offer the best deal.’ ‘Cranwell McDonald’s it is then,’ sighed Henry. ‘I’m sorry, Henry,’ mum commiserated. ‘When you were born, university fees were not something we expected to have to pay, or we would have tried to save for them. Your university career clearly isn’t going to be as carefree as ours was in the eighties.’ Henry hugged his mum. ‘I wasn’t criticising, honest. I shall put my shoulder to the wheel. I want to do university and it’ll pay off in the end.’ Mum was still not happy, and indeed was a little resentful at another’s luck. ‘It looks like Edward will be enjoying a very different university career, with Peacher money behind him and the high table of Trinity in front. Yet you don’t seem envious, darling. That says a lot about you.’ ‘It’s the fact that we’ll be in two different universities that bothers me most. Ours is such a staccato relationship … on and off all the time. I’d hoped that cohabiting at university would be our chance to find out how compatible we really are.’ Mum gave him a narrow look. ‘That sounds almost as if you had some doubts.’ Henry sighed once again. ‘Not about him, mum. It’s me that’s the bother. I’ve not been a good boy. I played around with David Skipper, whom I fancied a bit, and I wonder if I can live up to the standards Ed expects of me. If we’re over a hundred miles apart, the possibilities of drifting away from each other are multiplied. I don’t think I can resist temptation. If I have an itch I need to scratch it.’ Mum gave Henry a calculating look. ‘Then perhaps you just have to give each other time to grow a little. Coming out so young has forced you and Edward to be more mature than your years might allow. Maybe in this case separation might be better. You both need space to grow. And, yes, I can see the guilt building up in you, Henry. You two may have had a rough time, but you are both sensitive boys and have learned a lot more about love than most people your age. The point is, you just haven’t had a chance to learn how exceptional your experiences have been.’ Henry laughed. ‘It makes me think about poor Fritzy. He’s on his third girlfriend now, and he’s only fourteen. All his little affairs seem to go wrong, like clockwork. But I see what you mean. By the time he’s my age, he’ll have more experience of relationships to draw on, and know better how to value them when they go right. Is that what you’re saying?’ ‘Something like that, although it’s complicated by your being gay, poor Henry. Life will never be easy for you.’ *** ‘So it’s to be Cranwell for you, is it?’ Matt White was smiling very indulgently at Henry. ‘Looks like, Matt.’. ‘Good old Finkle Road, how I miss it.’ Matt’s smile widened. ‘Seriously?’ ‘Well, yes. It may seem like a row of crummy terraces to you, but for me it represented my discovery of life. Finkle Road to me was what the Beagle was to Charles Darwin: where I really began.’ ‘That’s an interesting way of putting it. I hope it works out the same way for me.’ ‘University is about all sorts of education, little Henry, not just academic. Cranwell was very good for me. I still go down there from time to time; I’m a research fellow of the history department. Also, my dad still owns 25 Finkle Road, where I lived when I was a student. ‘That’s what I want to talk to you about. One of the flats there falls vacant next year. My dad says you can have it rent-free if you’ll take over the duty of maintaining the house … changing light bulbs and weeding the garden sort of thing.’ ‘Seriously?’ ‘Seriously. You’ll miss out on life in hall, but hall’s a mixed blessing. You’re a confident, pleasant and funny kid. You’ll make lots of friends without the hall experience.’ ‘Matt … that’s brilliant! It’ll help no end.’ ‘Thought so. Good. It’s settled then. But I do have an ulterior motive. Dad has deliberately emptied the house and we’re refilling it carefully for a reason.’ Henry was intrigued. ‘And what would that reason be?’ ‘Have you ever met Andy’s youngest brother, Eddie?’ ‘Yeah … last New Year at your house.’ ‘Oh yes, I remember. How did you get on?’ ‘Okay … he’s very dry and American. We had a good couple of days. What’s this about?’ ‘Andy’s father, the great Richard Peacher, is moving back to the UK, which is bad news for the Republican Party. He fell out with the President over middle-eastern policies. He’s bought a place in Suffolk, quite near Andy’s, and a big house in Mayfair here in London. The point is, Richard will be putting Eddie through university in Britain, not the US. Eddie has not been a good boy this last year, and not just the usual pot-smoking, as I hear. This didn’t get into the papers, but he tangled with the justice system of the state of California and had a narrow escape. He’s not got the sort of grades to interest the leading universities, even with the Peacher money, so he has been shuffled off to Cranwell. He’s going to be the second Peacher to live in 25 Finkle Road, which is why we’re vetting the other occupants. You, we know we can trust, Henry.’ Henry smiled. ‘That’s doubly brilliant, Matt.’ All of a sudden the Cranwell experience was beginning to look very interesting. ‘I’ll give your number to my dad and you can sort out the details between you. Just get your A Levels.’ Henry couldn’t resist doing a Henry thing, and launched himself round Matt’s neck to kiss that beautiful man. Matt smiled and hugged Henry back. ‘You know who you remind me of?’ he asked. ‘Who?’ ‘My little Andy when he was a teen. You’ve got all the puppy-like affection and humour … as well as the shortness.’ Henry laughed. ‘Just need the money then, don’t I?’ He was staying briefly in Highgate before they flew out to Rothenia. It was great to be reunited with Ed and cuddle in next to him at night, to wake up during the night and find arms around him. But they both admitted that Matt’s house had suffered when Justin moved out. It might have been quieter but it had lost an aura of cheerfulness. To his astonishment, Henry heard Mrs Atkinson regretting Justin’s absence. ‘But he annoyed the hell out of you, Mrs Atkinson,’ he protested. ‘Oh, that was all on the surface. He was smelly, noisy and undomesticated, but he brought some life to the house. Although Edward is a nice boy, quietness and politeness and – save us – tidiness, do not add to life’s interest.’ ‘You’re a complicated person, Mrs Atkinson.’ Justin was between contracts for Terry and had gone down to Ipswich, where he was cheerfully manning the tills and stocking shelves for Nathan at the garden centre. Matt said Justin seemed to enjoy it very much. His pet-supplies idea was paying off in a modest sort of way, which pleased Nathan, who was trying to hike the profit margin for his uncle. Haddesley Hall was not a major stately home and needed all the income it could get, apart from agriculture and tourism. The next day, a row of vans stood in front of Matt’s house, and staff were busily loading them with bags. Andy had come up from Suffolk. The two men were sitting happily together over breakfast, facing Ed and Henry, while Matt went through the details. They were taking a Peacher jet to the airport at Rechtenberg and going from there to a mountain chalet Matt had rented above the city. On the day itself they were to be taken by helicopter to Strelzen for the ball at the Residenz. Matt was checking that the boys had the required dress. It was then that Andy mentioned Terry’s intention of joining them. ‘It surprised me, because he’s no great fan of skiing. He used to say that anything likely to give him a leg injury and affect his dance practice was obviously not worth the trouble. Now, he wants to join us for New Year.’ Henry gave a noise between a snuffle and a giggle. Matt raised an eyebrow. ‘What do you know that we don’t, Henry?’ ‘It’s Davey.’ ‘Davey being?’ ‘Our friend, David Skipper. He and Terry fell for each other big time down in Cranwell when Terry gave us a lift for the open day.’ ‘I don’t believe it!’ declared Matt. ‘Well I do,’ retorted Andy. ‘When he went on the scent of pickups in the old days, it was always slim and dark younger boys he chased, and your Davey is just that, isn’t he? Slim and dark, and quite pretty too.’ Henry pursued the point. ‘Davey’s gone to Zenda to join Rudi’s house party, so Terry’s decided to come to Rothenia too. I can’t believe it’s coincidence. I bet they’ve planned a date.’ Andy looked at Matt, who said, ‘It’s as well. Poor Terry couldn’t grieve forever … but a teenager? I’m not sure that that’s such a good thing … saving your presence, lads.’ ‘No offence taken,’ said Ed. ‘But don’t prejudge Davey. He’s very sensitive – oversensitive some might say – and very kind, when his brain’s working properly. I think he might do Terry good. It may only be a temporary fling, but I’m quite sure Davey will be the better for it. He’s different with Terry, not so prickly and wayward. It’s like Terry steadies him and puts him on an even keel.’ Andy snorted. ‘I’ll keep my fingers crossed. It’s nice you two boys agree the affair has mileage in it. You obviously like your friend.’ Henry nodded, although he felt a little troubled when he looked at the smiling and relaxed face of his own boyfriend. Was there still mileage in their affair? *** Rechtenberg airport was full of school parties from Britain returning from and arriving for the skiing. Nine months of monarchy had made a noticeable difference. The post boxes had a crown above the postal horn. Many things, including the post office, the national airline, the railways and the national bank, were now ‘kungliche’ or ‘Royal’. The airport shops had a range of King Rudolf wares: mugs, posters, postcards and tea cloths. Henry resisted the temptation to buy any. Vans and cars were waiting to take them up into the mountains, where their ‘chalet’ turned out to be more substantial than the word indicated; it was in fact practically a small hotel. Attached to the property was a ski instructor, who took Henry in hand as a beginner and Edward as an intermediate. They had a good time, although Henry doubted he would ever have any real talent for the sport. He did feel cool on the piste, sipping his vin chaud and posing in the fashionable and expensive gear Matt had bought him in London. Henry and Ed had a really good time on their own with Matt and Andy. The two men were an education to be around, and the depth of their relationship was a little awesome to Henry, whose doubts about himself were not letting up. Of the two, Matt was the one he found easier to relate to, and so he manoeuvred himself into a one-on-one encounter off the slope when they went to get a coffee. Matt smiled at Henry. ‘You okay, little one?’ ‘Is it that obvious?’ ‘Mmm, to me anyway. You really are very like what Andy was as a boy. You could always read what was going on behind his eyes, especially when he was uncomfortable … so, spit it out, Henry.’ ‘It’s like this, then. With me and Ed going our different ways when we’re off to university ... I’ve got doubts, Matt. I’m pretty sure I’m not the stuff long distance relationships are made of. To be honest, I suspect there’s a bit of the tart in me. I haven’t got the moral strength to turn the stopcock on my sex drive. I’ve already been in trouble a couple of times. Ed forgave me, but he’ll have a lot more to forgive when we’re over a hundred miles apart. I’m sure he doesn’t see it. I think he believes I’m as steady a guy as he is. But I know I’m not. Tempt me and I will fall. I just hate the idea of disappointing him and worry that he may learn to despise me.’ ‘Oh, Henry, you think I can advise you? I’m the wrong person. It’s Andy who has strayed away from our bed, not me. The real authority on bed-hopping is Terry … not that you’re ever likely to be as adventurous and wild as he was. Or is it because I’m enough like Ed that you want to see how I react?’ ‘Maybe,’ decided Henry sadly. ‘Then what can I say? Ed is a fine man … I won’t call him a boy any more … besides, he’s eighteen now. He is straightforward and steady. I have no doubt he has a great life and career ahead of him, because he has recognised who he is, subdued himself and caged his passions. You said once that, when you first met him, he was frustrated and unpredictable. Now he’s conquered that and gone through fire with his parents. But Henry, you haven’t. You have a loving family and have had a wonderful upbringing. What you haven’t had is any really harsh challenge in your life. Even coming out at Medwardine seems to have been easy for you.’ Henry felt it necessary to assert that his decision to come out had not been without its cost, until as he began he realised it was not so. Somehow he had maintained his popularity amongst his peer group. He faltered. Matt continued, ‘You’re a lovely, happy boy, Henry, and you I will call a boy. It’s not just because you’re still seventeen. People like you instinctively. They see the charm and happiness of the boy you still are and they love you for it. What you have yet to find, however, is a foundation of experience on which to build something more mature. Basically, little man, you’ve not needed to grow up because life has been kind. You can’t go on being a boy, though. Growing up is about learning to make tough choices, and what’ll happen next year is going to be the first big trial of your life.’ Henry’s heart fell. He had hoped Matt would have an easy solution, rather than revealing to him things about himself he did not really want to know. His woeful look touched Matt. ‘I’m sorry, Henry, telling you this is like kicking a puppy, but it has to be said. And I have no solutions. Someone’s going to get hurt over this university business. It’s in your hands who that person will be, and how he will be hurt. Scary, isn’t it, life? All I will say is that, when push comes to shove, you have to be your own man, if you’re going to be a man.’ * * * Terry turned up on the morning of New Year’s Eve. ‘Have I missed the skiing? Shame. Might have broken something interesting. You okay, Henry? Brave little lad, doing this terrifying thing with snow.’ ‘Nicely timed, Terry,’ said Andy, who was a demon on the slopes. ‘You have indeed missed the last day’s skiing.’ ‘Aw shucks. When’re we off to the party?’ Matt smiled. ‘The helicopter’s coming to pick us up at four. It’s formal, so as a knight of the Order of the Rose, you’d better have your insignia.’ Terry grinned a little sheepishly. ‘Well, I couldn’t exactly not bring it, could I? Poor Andy, you’re the only one without a Rothenian gong.’ Andy laughed. ‘Oh, give me a break. However, I’ve brought my insignia from my British knighthood. I may not be as colourful as you, but still I shall not be out of place. Rudi will be proud of us.’ Flying in over Strelzen in the early evening was an experience. At Matt’s request, the helicopter pilot took them in an arc across the city so Henry could see the street plan and buildings from above. They landed at a small, private airport north of the Spa, where a big car was waiting. Since they were already in full dress, the car took them directly to join the long queue up the Rodolferplaz, as the social élite of Rothenia gathered for the first great occasion of its new calendar. Matt and Andy’s party rather stood out when they went up the grand staircase, as it didn’t include females, but such was the crush that it hardly mattered. At the door of the ballroom a chamberlain took their tickets before announcing them in stentorian tones. They were swept into a world of colour and music. People were standing around in groups, waiting for the dancing to start. Oskar, in suit and decorations, soon found Matt, Terry and Andy. He dragged them to a side table to update them on events, leaving Ed and Henry to find a glass of wine and stare around. At eight on the dot the boom of the chamberlain’s staff rapping on the floor subdued the murmur. An avenue opened through the crowd as the king appeared at the door, with the countess his mother on his arm. The national anthem played, the room bowed and curtseyed, and the king made his way to a pair of chairs placed on a dais. He spoke a few suitable words, took his mother on the floor, and the dancing began. Rothenians are great dancers, and the Strausses in their day had worked at the Ruritanian court. It was exciting to see the couples moving and spinning to the chamber orchestra. Ed and Henry sat it out, as there was no chance of male-on-male dancing there. Terry stood by them for a while, twitching with the need to get out on the floor under the blazing chandeliers. ‘Why couldn’t you be a transvestite, Henry?’ he cursed. ‘Sorry, I think,’ Henry apologised. Finally Terry found an unattached lady who was willing to take a chance with this dashing and handsome man wearing an order of chivalry across his chest, and out they spun. The boys didn’t see him again for hours. In truth, after the first excitement the ball became boring for them, and they were only too glad when David showed up and led them into a side room where food was laid out. ‘So, how’s it been, Davey?’ Ed asked. ‘Interesting. There are two Rudis, y’know. There’s the Medwardine Rudi, who chews the end of a pencil when he’s thinking and tells very risqué jokes. Then there’s this other Rudi lurking inside: the king, cool and very self-possessed. He seems to switch from one to the other without any problem. I reckon he’s a high-level schizophrenic.’ ‘That would account for a lot,’ Ed reflected. ‘What happened at Zenda?’ ‘It was great … Morton, Westenra, Ahmed and Peters were there too. The castle’s amazing. It’s got this medieval fairy-tale keep in the middle of a lake, and this grand neo-Classical mansion next to it. Christmas was awesome. Rudi threw this banquet for the foresters and their families: roasted oxen, barrels of wine, flambeaux sort of thing in this big feudal hall. The next day we went out in Tyrolean hats with dogs to shoot boar. Thank God we didn’t see any; I’m not sure what I would have done. Peters let his gun off, cos he goes shooting with his dad, but it knocked him flat and brought a tree branch down.’ He looked around expectantly. ‘Seen Terry?’ ‘We came with him … he’s out there in the ballroom lost in a world of waltz.’ ‘He’s gonna teach me to dance. He says I have the perfect body for it.’ Henry laughed. ‘I’m sure he thinks you have the perfect body for a lot of other things too.’ David actually blushed. ‘We’re going away for a few days after this is over, and he’ll get me back to England.’ Henry had to ask, ‘Are you coming out to your parents, Davey?’ David shook his head. ‘I may be out in school, but I’ll leave breaking the news to my ‘rents till I go to university. I’m not eighteen till March. It’ll save problems. Then me and Terry can go to the next stage.’ ‘Which is?’ ‘He’s gonna buy a flat in Cranwell and we’re gonna live together when he’s in town.’ ‘That’ll save costs too,’ Henry reflected, a little enviously. At that moment, a sudden stir in the crowd round the tables caused his neck to prickle. He turned to find the king behind him and people bowing and curtseying. Henry too gave the Rothenian bow, although he didn’t take Rudi’s hand to kiss as some Rothenians did. ‘Cool party, your majesty.’ ‘You’re not dancing, Henry.’ ‘I asked Westenra, sir, but he turned me down flat, the git.’ ‘You’re not his type, Outfield. Now, I have a proposal for you of another sort.’ ‘Sir?’ ‘In two days, I have a date to keep in Glottenberh with the Black Virgin. I want you to come with me.’
  4. Rudi and his Secret Service bodyguards disappeared from school in a black SUV immediately following the end of the last period on Friday. Edward and Henry waved him off. Their own transport would arrive on Saturday, the first day of exeat. David came up behind them. ‘So, there goes the king. It was nice of him to put us on the coronation guest list. The rest of the sixth is dead envious. They wish now they’d been as nice to him as we were when he first came here.’ Edward laughed and hugged David round the shoulder. ‘You’ve got a nerve, Bounder boy! You’re lucky Rudi’s the forgiving sort.’ ‘How’re you getting to Strelzen, Davey?’ ‘My ‘rents are coming for the ride. We’re all taking the plane from Heathrow. They’re really impressed. They’ve even forgiven me for the lies about my supposed stay at the rectory at Easter. My sisters have sworn eternal hatred against me – unless, that is, I introduce them to the hunkiest young monarch in the world.’ ‘You gonna look up Anton?’ David shot him a hard look to inform him that he had crossed a line. ‘Sorry,’ Henry mumbled. David relaxed a little and changed the subject. Clothes were on his mind, as they not infrequently were. Henry had begun to notice that David was something else out of uniform. His sense of style was innate; he dressed with imagination and not at all tribally. There was nothing of other boys’ lazy reliance on dominant Indie, Emo or Heavy Metal kit. Even his tee-shirts were exceptionally well-selected. David had spotted a marked-down suit from an on-line house. Together with a loose silk tie, he thought it would make him look like something from a Milan catwalk. ‘You should talk to Matt White while we’re in Rothenia, Davey. He’s just like you when it comes to clothes; he’s got effortless style.’ ‘Wow … like, that god would talk to a lowly fashion acolyte like me?’ ‘He is very like you, Davey. There should be opportunities for you two to get acquainted. He and Andy aren’t what you’d expect.’ ‘I’d guessed. Ed thinks they’re awesome.’ ‘They’ve been unbelievably good to him and me both, that’s a fact.’ *** A tailback of limousines was drawing up along the south side of the cathedral and disgorging all sorts of elegantly dressed people, some wearing decorations and orders. When their turn came, Matt and Andy led Ed and Henry through the south transept door past a line of cavalrymen with drawn swords. The former mounted section of the Presidential Guard had been reconstituted as the revived Royal Rothenian Lifeguard, and their new uniforms were beautiful creations in white and gold, with silver crested helmets. The four slid into seats next to Will Vincent, who was already eagerly scanning the programme for the musical content. They had good seats, just behind the ambassadors and EU commissioners. Rothenia had decided the consecration and coronation of King Rudolf VI would be a fitting occasion to celebrate its rebirth as a nation. More planning had gone into it than for a World Cup, and the excitement had risen exponentially since the Crown of Tassilo and other national relics had been placed on public display in the Radhaus of the Neuvemesten. The enormous queues across the Radhausplaz recalled the pilgrimage devotions of the middle ages. A number of church congregations had indeed processed to the Radhaus behind their banners and crosses. For Henry, it was totally fascinating to sit there soaking in the atmosphere of a great state occasion in a venerable and historic church. Across from them in the north transept he could see the faces of the European royals, prime ministers and presidents who had flown in. He briefly caught the eye of his own queen’s representative, the Prince of Wales, whose well-known face was in the front row opposite, along with what his programme told him were the kings and queens of Spain and Sweden and the crown princes of Denmark and Sweden. Elphberg relations from the houses of Thuringia, Bourbon-Sicily, and Bavaria were in the row behind, along with several Hapsburg-Lorraines. There facing them sat himself, little Henry Atwood from Trewern. He beamed with delight at the incongruity of it all. Noticing the TV cameras set up in the triforium, he resisted the temptation to wave and shout, ‘Hi, mum!’ He knew she and dad would be watching the televised broadcast from Rothenia. A fanfare ripped through the murmuring in the church. First came a great procession of ecclesiastical dignitaries, followed by the princes of Rothenia and Rudi’s family: his grandmother, the princess of Kesarstejne-Vinodol, leading them all. She was walking with a stick on the arm of Rudi’s grandfather, the Duke of Munster and La Coruña, but was upright and proud on that day which saw all her hopes for the Elphberg dynasty fulfilled. Rudi himself came last, flanked by the Gentlemen of the Household in elaborate uniforms of the nineteenth century, bearing their silver halberds. Rudi’s train was carried by ten pages in Elphberg green and silver. A great anthem welled up from the choir, and the service was under way. It was Count Oskar von Tarlenheim zu Modenehem who had the honour of bearing the Crown of Tassilo to the archbishop for the moment of coronation. ‘Would have been better if we could have had a big tub of popcorn – the sweet stuff, not the salty – like in the multiplex in Ipswich,’ was the only complaint that Justin later had to make. ‘Was impressive, and Rudi did a good job. Looked cool in that white uniform and that long robe-type thing. Did well not to trip over it. Liked his chair too.’ He smirked when Henry told him he loved him. Following the mass, in which Terry and Justin, both Catholics, communicated, they picked up their cars again and this time headed down to the royal palace, up the Rodolferplaz and through the gates. Justin and Henry waved enthusiastically at the crowds waving at them. Justin began blowing kisses, until Terry gave him a stern look. ‘Wass happening now, Uncle Terry?’ Justin asked. ‘Buffet in the palace, I’m told, and the first royal levée in nearly a century.’ ‘Wass a levy when iss at home?’ ‘You stand around and make inane conversation with inane people and get your picky taken with His Majesty.’ ‘Aw right. Iss not fun, then?’ ‘No.’ But in fact it was great fun. Henry found himself talking to a boy his own age, foreign but with perfect English. They soon found they had common ground – an interest in strategy games – and swopped tactical hints about several of Henry’s favourite titles. The foreign lad, Henry and Ed each copped a glass of fruit wine from a footman and had a good laugh in the corner. A while later Fritzy came over to join them. ‘Getting on okay with Gustav, are you?’ ‘You bet,’ replied Henry. ‘He’s a real mate, even if he is the Crown Prince of Sweden.’ Rudi had changed into a morning suit and was circulating very regally, accompanied by Mr Pokolosky, the domestic comptroller, and Oskar. After about three quarters of an hour, a trumpeter gave a brief fanfare, and palace servants brought in an unsheathed sword and a kneeler. They placed the kneeler on the lowest step of the dais. Grasping the sword, the king ascended his throne. ‘Royal brothers and sisters, my cousins the peers of Rothenia, my lords, ladies and gentlemen,’ he began. ‘One of the pleasanter duties of monarchy is the reward of those who have done great service to the nation. I hope this assembly will bear with me as I do just that, because there are several people in this room worthy of high honour. When your names are called out, please go to the chamberlain, and he will instruct you as to what to do.’ The former president, Mr Maritz, was called out and smiled as he was cited for his great services to Rothenia in the post-Communist period. Kneeling, he received the grand cordon of the Order of the Rose and was awarded also the title of baron. There was a round of applause, after which several of his former cabinet received lesser honours. Then a loud voice spoke out: ‘Mr Willem Vincent.’ Will looked very grave as he went up to receive the grand cordon of the Order of the Rose, and came back beaming, resplendent in red sash, star and gold chain. Suddenly ‘Mr Terence O’Brien’ was called, and a stunned Terry was pushed forward by a shove from Will. He knelt to receive the Order of the Rose, and the accolade of knighthood. He came back with ribbon and star, moving as if he were in a dream. Several generals and officers received decorations, including Major Antonin, but just when Henry thought it was all over, the voice came again: ‘Mr Henry Atwood.’ His knees went wobbly when he saw a lane open in front of him. He knelt before a grinning Rudi to have the ribbon and medal of the sovereign’s personal Order of Henry the Lion, second class, placed round his neck. ‘Gotcha, you little queer,’ the king whispered to him as he rose. ‘Bastard,’ Henry whispered back. Ed, David, Justin and Nathan got the same award each in turn. ‘My,’ commented Edward as they stared at each other, ‘don’t we all look distinguished.’ *** ‘So, amuse me,’ said the ironic don opposite Henry. ‘Eh?’ Henry replied. He was intimidated. He had spent a lousy night in cruddy student accommodation at St Mark’s College. There had been a sherry reception for candidates in the master’s lodge: ten nervous sixth formers standing around making brittle conversation with the admissions tutor and some of the fellows. Henry had been unable to relate to the group of his peers, who had all been state-school kids. Although Henry had been one of them till he was fifteen, they were plainly intimidated by his name badge with a famous public school on it. And he could not stand sherry, he had decided. Henry shifted in his seat. He did not like the man opposite him. ‘I’m afraid I don’t have a stand-up routine.’ This was not the way his sixth-form tutor had said it would go, with the interviewer supposedly creating a relaxed, chatty environment in which Henry could showcase his enthusiasms. The don’s face shifted from ironic to sardonic. ‘In that case, tell me about your A Level coursework.’ So Henry launched into a description of his personal project – the symbolism of death in East Shropshire graveyards. He went into detail about his methodology, which, his history teacher had told him, would be what they wanted to know about. ‘Hmm. Pleasantly parochial little study,’ was the patronising response. ‘Of course you’ve read Llewellyn and Ariès?’ ‘Er … who?’ ‘They would have given you the broader context that your empirical study seems to need. Ah well. Can’t expect too much. Medwardine your school, is it?’ Henry hated this guy. ‘Yes,’ he confirmed. ‘Bloch still the head of history there?’ ‘Mr Bloch is my teacher, yes.’ ‘You seem to show all the features of his teaching.’ Henry fumed … how much more obnoxious could this man get? This was deliberate intimidation, which he had been assured should not happen in Cambridge interviews. He shut down. Saying something might be worse than silence. He gave short answers to questions between long pauses. The don took up none of the issues he had carefully advertised in his personal statement. He left without shaking a hand that was not in any case offered. On Cambridge Station that afternoon he found himself waiting next to a girl who had also been at St Mark’s. He found her easy to chat with outside the artificial interview environment. She had been in front of the same don as Henry. ‘What a love,’ she enthused. ‘He fell over backwards to be pleasant and helpful. I was surprised he didn’t offer me a sweet.’ Henry was gobsmacked, until it hit him: St Mark’s College had previously got into trouble for failing to recruit any state-school pupils for the tenth consecutive year. This time around, Henry concluded, it was going to be different. His rejection letter arrived promptly at Trewern rectory a week later. No Cambridge for him. Ed, who had received an offer from Trinity, was devastated. All Henry’s other options offered him places without interview. Henry and Ed debated the consequences at his home that weekend. ‘I said it might happen,’ Henry reflected, ‘but you wouldn’t talk about a Plan B in case it did. I suppose you got an offer from Cranwell too?’ ‘Er … yeah. I did.’ ‘Spit it out Ed. I know what’s going to happen. You’re going to take Cambridge as firm offer and Cranwell as your insurance, aren’t you?’ ‘I’ve always wanted to go to one of the big three, Henry.’ ‘And so you must, Ed … no, I mean it. I’d be stupid and selfish if I tried to talk you out of it. But it’ll be different universities for us.’ ‘You could take a year out, Henry, and go for Cambridge again next year.’ ‘That’s advice for the desperate, and I at least would like to graduate in the same year as you, Ed. Ours is destined to be a long-distance university romance, I’m afraid.’ Henry’s light words disguised a deep unease at the developing situation. Ed smiled regretfully. ‘Are you going down to the open day at Cranwell?’ ‘Oh sure, Davey’s coming, you coming too?’ ‘Absolutely, and I’ve got us a lift.’ ‘How did you manage that?’ ‘Terry will be here on Friday to see Rudi about the contract, and he’ll drive us down to Cranwell. His parents will put us all up and we can do the open day thoroughly.’ ‘Uhh … Terry and Davey, good combination?’ ‘Oh, he must be over it by now.’ *** David was by no means over his resentment. The sight of Terry’s elfin, smiling face brought back all the humiliation of his naïve and reckless Strelzen romance. He went quiet, and would hardly say a word. But Terry was a grown-up and talked amusingly and happily most of the way down the M6 and up the M4 to Cranwell. They chatted about Rothenia, about Justin – as mad as ever, Terry said – and about Cranwell, a place Terry still had a great affection for. They heard his teen cruising stories again, and remembered to laugh in all the right places. Of course he had not gone to Cranwell University, so he could not tell them too much about the academic atmosphere, to which he was an outsider. But Andy and Matt certainly could, and Terry urged Henry to take the next opportunity he had to buttonhole them on the subject. Cranwell was an average little city: ring road, perimeter multiplex and regional mall, Victorian housing stock, and all the main High Street outlets. It gave off a sort of familiar friendliness that appealed to Henry, to whom it was of course a big city. Terry drove straight to his parents’ place. ‘Now this, my lads, is the famous Finkle Road,’ he announced as they turned on to a long street lined with late-Victorian terraced houses. ‘Wass famous about it?’ asked a jaundiced David, who had been quietly negative about Cranwell since they arrived there. ‘It’s the student area. This is where Matt and Andy, Will Vincent, and Alex Johnson all lived in their day. Puke Alley, the locals call it … iss carpeted with sick in freshers’ week. Something to look forward to, eh?’ ‘What, vomiting your guts up and sliding round in it?’ ‘Iss what students do, innit?’ Terry turned off Finkle Road and into a modern cul-de-sac with large executive-style houses. He pulled up in the drive of one. A small, well-dressed lady came out as they were unloading, and you could see where Terry had got his looks from. Terry picked up his mother and hugged her. ‘You’re not taking care of yourself,’ she complained after studying her son critically. ‘You’ve lost weight, and the bags under your eyes … ! You look years older.’ ‘Good to see you too, mum,’ Terry said, shaking his head. ‘These are my young friends Edward, Henry and David. They’ve come down from Medwardine for a university open day. Ed is Matt and Andy’s foster kid.’ ‘It’s nice to see you, boys,’ said Mrs O’Brien, giving them the once-over and apparently approving of what she saw. She led them into a well-furnished house – perhaps over-furnished with glass ornaments and Catholic devotional objects. ‘Terry’s dad Harry is at work. He’s a Chief Superintendent and it’s his first week as commander of the city division,’ she announced with perfectly understandable pride. Terry’s dad had risen through the force and had already had one interview as an Assistant Chief Constable, so Terry had told them, with a good deal of pride himself. Henry and Ed were sharing a bedroom as usual, but so too were David and Terry. David’s sour look said he didn’t like it at all. Following an ample dinner provided by Mrs O’Brien, Terry suggested the boys go and check out Cranwell’s nightlife. He said he knew they would be okay. ‘I’d suggest the King’s Cross, which is the only gay pub in town, but Frank, the manager, would never serve you and only give you a load of abuse. Iss a wonder the place survives.’ So the boys explored the High Street and Swindon Road. It was a busy Friday night and the student population was out in force. In a city-centre wine bar they got talking to a table of first-year boys, who gave them the lowdown on what was quite a vibrant nightlife. They were warned about Riversiders, the local chav population. There was a bit of trouble in some pubs where poncy students were loathed. ‘Oh and don’t go near the King’s Cross – it’s the gay pub. The queers’ll have your pants down as soon as look at you.’ Henry rolled his eyes and gave a quirky look at David, who grinned back. Once Terry was out of the way, David became his pleasant self again. As a result, it was a good evening and they arrived back at Terry’s parents’ house in a merry but not drunken state. They were introduced to Mr O’Brien – a more thickset and shorter version of his son – with whom they had a coffee before heading off to bed. Henry and Edward had the guest room. David and Terry were in Terry’s boyhood room, ‘… where I got me first blowjob, handjob and fuck. The Spirit of Libido Past hangs heavy in this place, so watch out, Davey.’ David just gave him a neutral and sidelong look. After spending a chaste night, Ed and Henry were up early – but not as early as David, who was nursing a coffee at the kitchen table, already dressed. Henry looked at him quizzically. ‘Did you have a row with Terry in the night?’ ‘Er … not exactly.’ ‘There’s something odd about you.’ Ed butted in. ‘Stop being nosy, Henry. You’re a typical country boy.’ ‘I’m not being nosy, I’m just concerned. What happened?’ ‘Terry took my cherry.’ ‘You what!’ ‘He fucked me. That huge thing of his played pool with my kidneys.’ Henry’s jaw sagged. ‘Did you want him to?’ ‘Well, yeah … sort of,’ admitted David. ‘He was going to sleep on the sofa in his room, and I just couldn’t hold out under that sort of consideration and niceness, could I? So I pulled back the duvet, and he joined me. We were lying back to back, and he was being very nice, but … have you seen him without clothes?’ ‘Obviously not.’ ‘He’s amazing. Not much hair on his body, and very athletic with beautiful long legs and such small feet. All-over tan too. Even not erect, his dick was causing a bulge in his pants, and his arse is so muscular and tight. So I sort of turned in the night and snuggled up to him and I couldn’t help myself fondling his monster. It was already stiff. It’s not exaggeration, he must be nine inches, and a huge set of balls.’ ‘One of which is a prosthetic, so Justy said.’ ‘Really? You’d never know. So he stirred and turned towards me. I could feel him smiling in the dark, and then he just cuddled me to him and I sort of melted. He’s such a strong and powerful man and I just wanted him. So I began kissing and wanking him gently and he was groaning in my ear, and then he turned me. Now, I’d never been penetrated before, because Anton was such a bottom, and Terry seemed to know this when he began fingering my hole. So he flipped the switch of the bedside light and smiled down on me … he looked so gorgeous and I more or less begged him to do me. He got some old KY still in the bedside drawer and must have spent half an hour opening me. ‘It was sensational, but when he started putting himself in me … God did it take ages. It was like someone had inflated a balloon in my bum, I was so full. And then he began fucking me. I was down on my tummy with a pillow under my cock. He just took it slow, and all he seemed to want to do was give me pleasure, and once the pain had gone away, it was pleasurable. I just wanted him to fuck me forever, and he must have delayed coming for ages. We did it bareback too … d’you think that was wise?’ Henry, stunned, blurted out, ‘Oh, yes I’m sure Terry is clean and he knows you are.’ ‘After that he just held me … and – I don’t know whether I should tell you this – he cried as we began kissing afterwards. So I kissed and licked up his tears and he told me what a beautiful boy I was and how I had brought him back to life after a long winter … that was a lovely thing to say, wasn’t it? And I wouldn’t let him go but held him till the sun came up. I left him asleep. I’m in love, Henry.’ Ed and Henry stared at each other, until Ed said, ‘Well, there’s more mileage in this one than Anton. Young career guy, intelligent, fit, probably already a multi-millionaire, and the most dangerous gay in the western world. God help the homophobe who picks on you, Davey.’ Henry added, ‘Besides, he must have real feelings for you, Davey. He wouldn’t have done it otherwise. He’s such a controlled guy. It’s been a year since Ramon died. I think maybe he’s ready to rebuild his life. But it’s awesome that he’s picked you.’ ‘Awesome … yeah that’s the word. When we went to Rothenia I thought there was something in the way we sat and talked there, and he seemed to like me a lot. It’s just that Anton came along and, y’know …’ Terry appeared at that point, wearing just boxers. He went to the fridge to get orange juice and as he turned he smiled at the boys. David, who was sitting a little timorously at the kitchen table, looked up at him through his long dark lashes. Terry leaned in and gave him a kiss so thorough that Henry was afraid David would spontaneously combust. Terry took his hand and grinned at the other two. ‘I’m guessing Davey told you what we got up to in the night.’ ‘And some,’ agreed Ed. ‘Could you give us a few minutes, cos I think me and Davey have some things to say to each other.’ Ed and Henry smiled and left. Although Henry kept on asking leading questions for the rest of the day, it was a while before he found out what Terry and David had discussed. As the boys left the O’Brien household with their campus maps in hand, all David would reveal was that they both wanted to carry on with it, but were going to go slow and take it step by step. Henry said he thought that was the best idea. They went to register with the tour guides first, then had a good scout round the campus and library. The history department was in an old townhouse next to a city-centre park. Henry went to introduce himself to the tutor and students manning a desk in the foyer there. A swarthy man with a naff moustache had a badge on saying ‘Professor J. Faber: Admissions’. Henry waited for him to deal with a girl and her parents before approaching him. Professor Faber checked his list. ‘Oh yes, Medwardine School. I hope you had a good trip down from Shropshire, Henry. Are you Henry or Harry?’ ‘Henry. Me and some friends came down last night and stayed over. Could you tell me something about bursaries and scholarships? My dad’s a vicar and I’m going to be on a full maintenance grant, so every little counts.’ ‘I can imagine. My eldest boy starts university next year and it’s going to be a nightmare. We offer university scholarships for anyone who gets ABB at A Level, but on top of that the department awards a number of privately funded scholarships for deserving cases who score AAA. They’re called the Marlowe Fellowships, although they were set up by an alumnus of the department called Matthew White. They’re worth £4000 a year and there’s a lot of competition for them.’ ‘Matt White?’ ‘Oh … you know him? He was once a student of mine.’ ‘Know him? He’s my … boyfriend’s foster father. He’s the reason I’m looking at Cranwell. He speaks very highly of the place.’ ‘Ah. I see. Well then. You know all about him. Is it that Justin lad who’s your boyfriend?’ ‘Justy? God no!’ ‘Thank goodness. He is rather strange.’ Henry laughed. He liked Professor Faber. ‘When did you meet Justin, sir?’ ‘Henry, this is university and I’m not a schoolteacher. You call me Prof Faber or, if you are feeling particularly bold, Jeremy. I met young Justin at one of Matt’s house parties early last year. It was for media types and professional historians to mingle and be creative. I think we mostly got drunk. Justin was hanging round the house and decided to have a game involving running ball bearings down the bannisters with the aim of smashing empty bottles he’d lined up in the hall.’ Henry sniggered. ‘That’s Justy, alright! How did it end?’ ‘The housekeeper attacked him with a broom handle, so far as I can recall. Alright, let me check your details. Ah. You’ve decided on History and Theology. That’s a pity. The Marlowe Fellowships are for History, English or English and History, but not that particular joint option.’ Henry’s heart fell and his face with it. He had counted on that extra support. Oh bugger, it looked as though he would be working shifts in the Cranwell McDonald’s. But Cranwell had made a positive impression on him. He interrogated Professor Faber about the course and was gratified by the man’s accessibility and good humour. The tutor in Theology was just as pleasant. They had a quite a bit to chat about, since he and Henry’s dad had been to the same training college. All in all, by the time he met up again with David and Ed, Henry had decided that Cranwell would be his first choice. Ed was quite willing to make it his insurance, although he typically refused to commit himself till he had seen the other institutions on his list. David floated along in an abstracted dream world, although he said Cranwell was very nice. Frankly, Henry was convinced that if he had asked what David thought about the lowest circle of hell, he would also have replied it was very nice. When they got back, Terry was waiting with the car ready. After hugging his mother goodbye, he got them all aboard, with David, not unnaturally, in the front seat. They talked about Cranwell, and David announced he was definitely going to do Economics and Business Studies there. Henry was delighted, but suspicious. He had a feeling that David’s veering away from his stated preferences for Durham and St Andrews was part of a personal agenda of some sort involving Terry. Meanwhile, Terry was beaming from ear to ear and making whispered little jokes with David, who was giggling like a girl a lot of the time. Henry could not but think the problems of a seventeen-year-old schoolboy and a twenty-four-year-old executive carrying on a love affair were not going to be resolved all that easily. When he looked at the happiness in Terry’s face, however, and remembered the sadness that used to be there, he could only pray that Terry would find a way to pull it off. He had come to share Justin’s and Nathan’s adoration for the man.
  5. There was excitement in the block on the first day of term. A Rothenian Secret Service agent had been assigned a room in Temple House next to the king’s, while a police guard was permanently stationed on the main gate to deter paparazzi. The school had by then got its act together. The boys were firmly instructed in assembly that His Majesty the King of Rothenia was to be registered and addressed as ‘Rudolf Burlesdon’. He was to be treated in every way like any other sixth former. ‘Morning, Rudi,’ Henry greeted the king as they passed in the bottom corridor of New Building. Rudi was being stared at by an open-mouthed group of Year 7 boys lining up for a lesson. ‘Hey, Henry!’ returned the king. ‘How was summer?’ ‘I worked in Camden.’ ‘Then more exciting than mine … they put me on a special course of Rothenian constitutional history, with my own personal professor. My God was he a bore. I only managed a week away with mother at the castle of Zenda. The weather was so dreadful we spent most of our time playing bridge with the security guards. Can you imagine how tedious that was?’ ‘I can only guess.’ ‘Where’s Davey?’ ‘I would have thought you’d seen him, being Temple and all.’ ‘He seems to be avoiding me.’ ‘No. It’s the past he’s avoiding.’ ‘Deep, Henry. What on earth do you mean?’ Henry described the last Rothenian days of David Skipper and the tragedy of Anton, while cautioning him that David was now firmly back in the closet. ‘So my best guess is that Davey was so angry at Fate, the poor kid, that he decided just to say “Stuff it. Stuff the lot of you.” Despair turns to anger, anger to blame, and he blamed all of us, particularly Terry, on whom fell the unfortunate duty of talking some sort of sense into him.’ ‘Poor Terry. He didn’t deserve that. As if he didn’t have enough to deal with. I thought he liked Davey.’ ‘I think he did. But he’s a grown man with big projects. He’s moved on, so far as he can after losing the love of his life. His big venture seems to be taking off. Justin jetted out to Boston as part of a team for his first contract last week, the lucky bunny. He’s been having small-arms lessons too. Why does everyone I know have interesting lives, apart from me?’ Rudi laughed. ‘Oh come on, Henry. Many people – even straight guys – might be happy to swap your happy little Trewern life for what you call excitement. You’re just looking over the fence at the grass you think is greener … but it’s only spray paint.’ ‘Yes, Your Majesty.’ ‘Watch it, Outfield. Now, why don’t we go on over to Temple and see if we can talk some sense into young Bounder. Also we can look at the UCAS pack together; I’d appreciate some advice.’ ‘I thought it was settled that you had to go to Oxford because of family reasons.’ ‘Yes, but I’ve got to make more choices than just Oxford to fill out the form. And what with one thing and another – governments falling, attempts on my life, planning my coronation, that sort of thing – I just haven’t been able to get round to it.’ So Henry and the king went across the field to the common room of Temple House and settled down to some serious reading. Rudi logged on to the Web and they began a careful searching through university sites. ‘Of course,’ reflected Rudi, ‘it was always inconceivable that I should go anywhere other than St John’s, where father went and grandfather and the whole Rassendyll lineage. I wonder if there ever was a chance I wouldn’t get in? Now I’m a king I suppose the question is even more rhetorical, but I have to go through the motions. What about you, Henry?’ ‘Me? Ed’s keen on our going to Cambridge together.’ ‘But you’re not, I take it?’ ‘No … but don’t tell him that. I fancy something respectable and redbrick, not elitist or … it has to be said, expensive. My parents can’t give me much and it has to be reasonably cheap, because I’ll be doing university on support grants and loans. Ed comes from money, and although he no longer lives with his parents, Matt and Andy have made it pretty clear that cash will be no object in his higher education. They’ll pay for him to go wherever he wants.’ ‘Lucky Ed. It sounds like you’ve got some interesting times ahead of you. Haven’t the forms got to be submitted in just six weeks?’ Henry looked unusually morose for him. ‘Yup … I don’t know what to do, Rudi.’ ‘What grades have they predicted? You might get some sort of bursary.’ ‘God was I stupid. I decided to do four A Levels and keep on with French. Fine, the school’s otherwise predicted AAA, but they’ve assessed me as a B in French, and that looks worse than if I’d just done the standard three. The hubris of Henry: my pride is going to be my downfall.’ The two boys kicked around possible insurance places for half an hour and examined university Web pages. But Henry had got nowhere by the time the door bumped open and he had his first encounter of the term with David Skipper. It was clear enough that David was over Henry. There was no interest at all in his eyes, and the body language was entirely indifferent. But he did give a tight smile, say hello and shake Henry’s hand, although he did not ask about the summer. He was determined to be polite and Henry was quite as polite back. David’s greeting towards Rudi was considerably more friendly, and Rudi seemed genuinely pleased to see his former nemesis. They talked a bit, although no one made any reference to their Rothenian adventures. Henry went off to lessons and then for a discreet snogging session with Ed in his carrel. They kept their ears cocked for passing friends. Ed said he had already bumped into David, who was positively effusive in his direction. ‘Face it, babe, he hates Terry for scuppering his dream of young love in Strelzen. You he dislikes for being his first and unattainable love. He associates you and Terry both with the worst pain of all: heartache. He doesn’t want anything to do with either of you if he can avoid it. Terry he’ll probably never see again, but he has to see you on a daily basis. It’s never going to be comfortable for him till he grows up a bit.’ ‘Great.’ ‘You can’t solve the world’s problems, little babe. Stop being such a martyr. It’ll sort itself out; it usually does.’ Henry grunted. He would never attain to Ed’s equanimity. His mind still kept throwing up suggestions to help people he cared for, and he cared very much for David Skipper. *** At the end of the first week, Henry’s mobile chirped while he was in the common room. He didn’t recognise the identity. ‘Hello, it’s Henry,’ he announced. ‘Hi, Henry, it’s Alex Johnson. Remember me?’ ‘Er … hi. Yeah. We met in London at Terry’s big launch.’ ‘Good, you do. And you remember my occupation?’ ‘Journalist, right? Look … how did you get my number?’ ‘I explained my problem to Matt, and he gave me your contact details – reluctantly, I have to say.’ Henry was cross. ‘He had no business doing that.’ ‘Easy, Henry. Wait till you hear me out. You’re friends with the king of Rothenia, right? Remember I was going out to Strelzen? When I was there, I was in touch with their Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They said they were going to allow one English, one French and one German interviewer access to the king this year, with a photo shoot. I got on a list they’re giving the king to select from.’ ‘And this concerns me how?’ ‘Jeez, you’re a tough little devil, aren’t you? Look, I’m not asking you to pull strings or anything, just give me a hint as to what might swing it for the Guardian. It’ll be quite a coup for my paper …’ ‘… and you.’ ‘Well yes, naturally. Come on, kid, Matt and Andy are old mates. They’ll tell you that I’m a straightforward and serious journalist, and I’ll do a good job. No axes to grind or anything. Give us a hint, Henry.’ Henry thought about it. ‘Okay. One thing that’ll get Rudi’s notice is if you include a Rothenian photographer in your tender. There’s a good one, very famous in his own country, Bolslaw Meric. The king knows him and likes his work. I’ve got his card somewhere. Hang on.’ Henry found Bolslaw’s details and passed them on to Alex, who was effusively grateful. Henry rang off, irritated. In bed with Ed that Sunday before church, he rang Bolslaw in Strelzen. The old man was delighted to hear from him, and Henry teased him by describing precisely where he was and what he was doing. ‘You young boys, inexhaustible and shameless. You’ll be doing it for a living one of these days, naughty Hendrik.’ Henry laughed and asked him if he’d heard from England. ‘As it happens, I have been approached by your Guardian newspaper. They want to use me for a photo shoot with our king. Isn’t that fantastic? My fame seems to be spreading, and not before time. Any later and it will be posthumous. But … who told you?’ Henry explained that he had suggested Bolslaw to the Guardian’s foreign editor. ‘My word, I seem to have been entertaining quite an influential boy that wonderful day the king returned. Then I shall be seeing you soon, my pretty Hendrik! For I have received first-class British Airways tickets to Heathrow for next Friday. The shoot will be at your school on Saturday.’ ‘Brilliant. I shall make sure I’m around for morning prep.’ ‘Prep?’ ‘School homework … I don’t know the Rothenian for it.’ ‘I think I get the idea. Until then, my love.’ Ed was amused by the whole thing. ‘Henry the media broker. Do you think we’ll get to watch the interview?’ It took place in the school library, and lasted about an hour. The delight for Henry and Edward, although not David, was that Terry had driven Alex down from London. Alex and Terry were old friends, and apparently they had worked together in the past. Of itself, that news made Henry a bit happier about trusting the journalist. When the boys had given him a restrained welcome, Terry said he had driven Alex down because he had business of his own with the king. Bolslaw set up in the library to take some formal shots after the interview. He was out of his usual ill-fitting tee-shirts and dressed in a blue safari suit, which for him was subdued. He smiled at Ed and Henry when he and his assistant carried his boxes past them, but he concentrated on the business at hand. Alex grinned at Henry as he shook hands with Rudi after the interview, then departed to find a coffee, as he said. ‘Come on in, sweet boys,’ Bolslaw whispered hoarsely at Ed and Henry. ‘His Majesty said he’d like some company while I practise my dark arts.’ They sat on a table while Rudi had formal pictures of himself taken in an armchair, and at a window. Then Bolslaw wanted a less formal shot of the king studying with friends, so Ed and Henry posed cheerfully with him, spreading out Henry’s prep and the contents of an UCAS pack. After that Bolslaw went out into the grounds and took a number of informal shots of the king in New Quad and the chapel cloister walk. When he had finished, Rudi, Bolslaw and the boys returned to the library and viewed the results. As Henry expected, they were phenomenally good. Bolslaw had used the light in the old library to brilliant effect. He had the knack of catching faces just slightly off guard when they were at their most revealing. Rudi’s determination and dignity, even in his eighteenth year, were deeply impressed on his handsome face. ‘Excellent, Mr Meric,’ enthused Rudi, ‘you have a great gift. I don’t think there is one picture here which I would be unhappy to see in print. This one I shall recommend to the Chancellor as a possible official portrait to put in Rothenian embassies around the world.’ The old man looked on the verge of tears, and he did the Rothenian thing of going down on his knee – slowly and awkwardly in his case – and kissing the king’s hand. He received a kind blessing, and the king helped him to his feet and gave him a Rothenian double kiss. Tears were running down the old man’s face as he packed up his cases. Terry came in at that point for his meeting with the king, while Henry and Ed walked Bolslaw to his car. ‘So goodbye, boys. I hope we’ll be seeing each other again.’ ‘Sure, Bolslaw,’ Henry confirmed. ‘It’s Rudi’s coronation in exeat week … that’s a mid-term holiday we have. Rudi didn’t want to do it in term time. Missing school would have been a bad example to the youth of Rothenia, or something like that. We’ll surely look you up.’ Bolslaw hugged Henry hard before he got in. ‘What can I say, pretty boys. You’ve made me very happy, Henry. That was the greatest shoot of my career … and I include the porno shots from Falkefilm here.’ They laughed, and said they hoped to see him again in Strelzen. ‘Oh, and Henry, I have this for you.’ He handed Henry a parcel, kissed the boys and drove off with his assistant. Henry unwrapped the gift. It was a book in Rothenian, whose title read: The New Art of Bolslaw Meric. Plate XV was marked, and when they turned to it, there in full-page black and white was one of the more solemn portraits of Ed and Henry the old man had taken earlier that year. It was entitled ‘Achilles and Patroclus’. ‘Wow!’ exclaimed Edward. ‘I’m an objet d’art …’ ‘… with a Classical edge.’ They hung around the library until Rudi had finished his meeting with Terry. Alex was hanging round too, expecting to go take Terry to lunch. He said he would like it if the boys came along, and perhaps suggest somewhere reasonable. Ed thought the Maltsters in Huntercombe was the best local pub restaurant. It was the other pub in the village – nicer than the King Billy but it would never serve underage kids. Terry came out and shook the king’s hand. After Rudi took his leave, Terry told the boys to get their bags and join him in his car, the neat Jaguar. ‘Navigate me, Henry,’ he ordered. It was an enjoyable meal. It was also frustrating, because Terry and Alex were in a mood to reminisce. Terry was a native of the small university city of Cranwell in north Wiltshire, and it was to Cranwell University that Alex had gone to study Politics before moving on to start his career with Reuters. Matt and Andy had been there too, as well as Katy and other people whose names the boys did not recognise. Finally the old friends remembered that Ed and Henry were there by the looks of boredom that had come over them. Alex was conciliatory. ‘So … er, lads, I suppose you must be thinking about uni now too, yes?’ Ed replied, ‘We’re thinking about Cambridge together.’ ‘Not the States then?’ Terry had taken his Dance and Theatre degree in a liberal-arts college in Virginia. Henry sighed. ‘Cost is an issue in my case.’ ‘Oh yeah … they’ve put the fees up everywhere, haven’t they,’ Alex sympathised. ‘I’m not sure I’d have bothered with uni at all if that had happened in my day.’ ‘And Cambridge is not the cheapest, or the easiest to get into.’ Henry heaved another sigh. ‘But we’re gonna give it our best shot, aren’t we, Henry?’ soothed Edward. He turned to Terry. ‘So are you going to tell us why the king wanted to see you?’ Terry just laughed. ‘My business is confidential, Ed. Of course not. But you may find out in due course.’ Alex picked up the bill and Terry dropped the boys off at Trewern rectory. Henry led the way to his room and dumped the application details on his desk. He sighed yet again. ‘Let’s sort this, Ed. If you think we must, I will put down Cambridge as my first choice, but I just don’t have your confidence that I’ll make it there.’ Ed reassured him. ‘You underestimate yourself, Henry. You’ll do well in the interview; you’ll walk it, no problems.’ ‘If you say so. Still, I have to give serious thought to my insurance offers. It’s traditional to go for Exeter, Bristol and Durham in case of refusal by Cambridge, so Mr Patton says, but I don’t want to do that.’ Ed raised an eyebrow. ‘No, I’m going to do the sensible thing. There are good universities out there that are a lot cheaper. I’m gonna put down Canterbury, Cranwell and Gloucester, all well-known for History and Theology.’ ‘I’ll put down Cranwell, ‘cos Matt and Andy went there and they both liked it, but other than that I’ll go with Mr Patton’s suggestions.’ ‘And there’s the gay scene,’ mused Henry. ‘What, is Cranwell famous for it?’ ‘The very opposite. It’s more or less non-existent there according to Terry, who ought to know, as he spent most of his late teens hanging round public toilets in the town. I don’t actually want to go where there’s a big gay student community. I’d go to Brighton for that. You get ghetto-ised. Don’t want that. So. We’re done then. I’ll boot up the box. Let’s fill in forms, Edward mine.’ *** Before the end of October, the application forms were done, the personal statements polished and the head of sixth form had stamped them with his approval. Henry pressed the button and sent his passport to the future winging on its electronic flight. It was a good day that day. The school B team in hockey which Henry captained had its first, belated victory under his leadership, while Ed’s A team went down hard to a second-rate school – not that Henry was in any way into Schadenfreude. As they were coming off the field, a grinning figure in a very expensive suit and shades was waiting for them on the touchline. ‘Bloody hell!’ exclaimed Henry. ‘Nice legs … if a bit muddy,’ replied Justin. ‘What’re you doing here?’ Ed asked, more than a little taken aback. ‘Catching up on your non-existent schooling?’ ‘Don’t be daft. Iss work innit.’ ‘It is? You here to do the gardens?’ ‘Security work, little Henry, security work. I’m here doin’ a preliminary inspection for me boss, Mr O’Brien … but you can call him Terry.’ ‘How did you get here?’ ‘Got me firm’s car now, haven’t I? Nice little Honda, iss fallen in love with Nathan’s Clio. They shag in the garage at Haddesley when they think we’re not looking, dirty little machines.’ ‘So business is good?’ ‘Business is fuckin’ fantastic, mate. I had a month on tour in Boston and New York as security to a British boyband. They were all fuckin’ gay too! Bet their fans’d never guess what they get up to in the dressing rooms. I had to make sure no one found out, and stop meself being shagged by them too. Anyway, Terry’s opened up a US office in Chicago, run by his mate Zeke Alonzo. I’m on their contract list so I could be back there in the new year. Just love the States. All this and nineteen too!’ The rest of the teams had streamed by their captains by then, eyeing Justin curiously as they passed. ‘What’s the business that brings you here?’ insisted Henry. ‘Iss the king. The local police have warned they haven’t got the manpower to seal the school, so iss been contracted out to O’Brien Associates – “We Keep Yer Out of the Papers” – thought that up meself. Good slogan, yeah?’ ‘Actually not bad … so does this mean you’ll be coming down to Medwardine?’ asked Henry, bemused with the idea of Justin wandering round his school being outrageous, and rather hopeful that it might actually happen. ‘Nah … Terry said over his dead body when I suggested it, but he did tell me I could do the assessment, which is why I’m here. You wanna come up to see the king wiv me?’ ‘We need to have a shower first.’ ‘Ooh, can I come and soap your dicks?’ ‘Yeah … okay,’ agreed Ed. ‘What, really?’ ‘Of course not. We don’t even soap each other’s. We play it cool here at Medwardine.’ ‘Boring. Which way is it to …’ Justin consulted a notebook filled with his surprisingly neat handwriting. ‘… Temple House?’ ‘We’ll meet you in reception in twenty minutes and take you up there.’ *** ‘Hey, your Kingship!’ Thus did Justin Peacher-White greet Rudolf VI of Rothenia. ‘Hey back, your Justyness.’ The king laughed, apparently delighted. He was in the common room with David Skipper, puzzling over their Business Studies coursework. ‘Can we talk, Rudi?’ ‘Talk away.’ Justin pulled out his notebook and pen. ‘Okay, the main fing as I see it is those fuckin’ paps – “Kill a Pap for Christmas” is a bumper sticker I bin working on for Terry. We can’t seal off the grounds here … not wiv so big a perimeter. The police is puttin’ a guy on the gate, which is good as far as it goes. What we really need now, though, is a guy in the house wiv yer, and that’ll cost.’ ‘The bill goes to the Rothenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, so don’t worry about it. How will this interfere with what my bodyguard does?’ Rudi nodded to the corridor where a shaven-headed Rothenian Secret Service agent sat, staring at Justin in disbelief. ‘Different jobs, Rudi. He’s there to take the bullet for you. Our guy will be there to stop different sorts of shots. And of course Terry has good sources in pap-land. He tends to know when the tabloids and celebs have put out a call for compromising pickies of people. You get all that expertise with the package.’ ‘Seems okay to me, but bear in mind I don’t want to be followed about by a pack of minders, especially in school.’ ‘It won’t work like that, Rudi. Our guy in the school will be minding the premises from the inside, not tagging you around so much, except when you leave and do functions. Oh, and Terry says to tell you the deal don’t include foreign travel, iss only domestic, and he’ll do a discount for you, since you’re a mate. Whaddya say?’ ‘Done deal. I’ll e-mail the minister. But I have a veto on the guys Terry chooses, okay?’ ‘Sure nuff, Rudi. Fancy a pint at the King Billy tonight? Ed and Henry are puttin’ me up at Trewern.’ ‘We are?’ *** There was no problem about accommodating Justin at the rectory. Mum had fallen for his gamin-like charm the previous year, and – like most middle-aged women – thought his humour, coarseness and rough edges were endearing. Henry had concluded that Justin filled a blind spot in the middle-aged-female psyche. The bodyguard drove David and Rudi out to Trewern in his black SUV. There they picked up the other three to ferry them over to Huntercombe. Henry sat next to the man, chatting away in Rothenian. His name was Roman Felipic. He was normally on surveillance duty at the airport, so he was enjoying his foreign posting, especially as he was being paid extra. With no wife or family, he didn’t feel guilty about it, and he was on alternate shifts with his friend Alexei. They had lodgings on High Street in Medwardine. Finding the Wednesday night quiet at the King Billy, they made the back snug their own, and got their pints – or in Henry’s case, a gin and tonic, Terry having converted him to spirits. Rothenia was the main topic of conversation that night, as might be expected, and David finally opened up a little. Time had healed his hurt about Anton, making the subject of Strelzen no longer such a difficult one for him. Justin gleefully told once more his story of the seduction of Hendrik Wilemmin, leaving Rudi sitting there open-mouthed at his shameless audacity. He warmed to his topic, and his graphic accounts of the highly erotic orgies he had witnessed backstage in the States left nothing to the imagination. When Henry dashed to the loo, he found the cubicle already occupied by David. ‘Fucking hurry up, Davey, I’ve got to jerk off bad.’ The door banged open, and David pulled him in. David had lost his clothes below the waist and he soon tugged Henry’s trousers down as well. He closed his hand over Henry’s dick, causing his friend to fountain very quickly. Then they switched places and Henry did the same for David. David sat on Henry’s lap, wiggling warm buttocks on his still half-erect penis. As they broke apart, Henry kissed him, saying, ‘So we’ve decided to be gay again?’ ‘Oh, shut up, Henry. I could never really be anything else with you around. By the way, thanks for doing that. Odd, but your hand job gave me some perspective again. Anton was crap at BJs. Just wanted me up his arse all the time. I could do better.’ ‘Good,’ Henry kissed him again. ‘Come on. We’ll be missed, or worse still, miss another of Justy’s hot stories.’ Once back in the snug, he surreptitiously fondled David’s crotch under the table, trying to make him wriggle or giggle. It was an odd way to make it up, but somehow it worked. When they emerged from the pub at chucking-out time, Henry sensed that he and David Skipper were friends again, which made him happier than he had been for months. Although Justin had downed a few, there was nothing wrong with his reactions as it transpired. Between the King Billy and its car park there was a row of clipped shrubs. While Rudi and the rest of the boys slid the door back and climbed into the SUV, Justin darted behind the row and hauled up a slim man by his hair. Justin gave him a sharp punch in the gut. When the man doubled over, Justin deftly took a black object from his hand, removed something which he pocketed, and then dropped the object, crushing it under his heel. ‘Evening, fucker,’ he pronounced amiably. ‘Why doan’ you interduce yerself proper next time?’ ‘You’ll fucking pay for that,’ the man gasped. ‘Who’ll pay for it?’ ‘You! You arsehole. Oh fuckin’ Christ … tell that bastard to get that thing outa my face!’ Roman the bodyguard had by then unholstered his pistol and was pointing it at the stalkerazzo’s nose. ‘Look,’ Justin explained in tones of ineffable reasonableness, ‘iss regrettable an’ all, but there you wuz hangin’ round bushes in the dark, pointin’ an unidentified object at a foreign head of state. Lucky we didn’t shoot you. Anyways, if yer gonna make a claim, I doan’ work for the king, so who you gonna invoice? So jess fuck off like a good pap, and go huntin’ Big Brother microstars. They ain’t so dangerous. Bye now.’ He pushed the man backwards into a flowerbed, and got everybody into the SUV. ‘That could have been nasty, Rudi.’ He held up the memory card of the expensive digital camera he had just crushed underfoot. ‘King of Rothenia caught drinking underage in an English pub. Wouldn’t have looked good. You really do need media protection.’ Rudi looked a little stunned. ‘I see what you mean. You’ve sold it to me.’ ‘Justy,’ whispered Henry suspiciously a little later on, ‘you didn’t plant that guy in the bushes, did you?’ Justin laughed. ‘Henry! What a high opinion you have of me!’
  6. Mike Arram

    Chapter 13

    They’ll be there for the coronation, no worries
  7. Try as he might, Henry found it very difficult to acclimatise back to school when it resumed after the Easter break. First there was the celebrity. It was known that the three of them had been with Rudi in Strelzen and seen him become Medwardine’s most celebrated pupil overnight. Of course, they couldn’t do more than talk of the state ceremonial and the popular reaction to Rudi’s appearance in the country. The more exciting stuff had to be buried. Henry got most of the attention, as David had come back sulky and moody. Even his tennis mates got fed up with him. It was not till the school tennis team beat the crap out of Harrow that David became anywhere near tolerable as a companion. Ed was off to the nets and on to the cricket field as soon as he was back, making him more or less inaccessible, even to Henry, who declared this was his major complaint against Trinity term. So Henry became the only reliable source of information about King Rudolf of Rothenia, who was, it seemed, going to be the school’s most famous inhabitant when he reappeared, which would not be until the first exam week. Even the Head got Henry into his study and quite shamelessly pumped him about what was going on in Rothenia. ‘It seems you were right about the boy all along, Atwood. He’s certainly been good for next year’s recruitment. Parental enquiries are up by 250%. If we admitted girls it would be 2000%. I heard from the countess his mother that he shall undoubtedly be returning … apparently he likes us.’ ‘He does, sir. He intends finishing his A Levels here and going on to Oxford.’ ‘Should I make him a prefect, I wonder?’ ‘He might think you’re sucking up, sir. And he does have a bit of a short fuse.’ The Head laughed. ‘Well, perhaps not. Cornish tells me you’re fluent in Rothenian.’ ‘Cornish exaggerates where I’m concerned, sir.’ ‘Have you thought of a career in the Foreign Office when you leave university, Atwood?’ ‘Er … no. No I hadn’t, sir. ‘You should do. You seem to take kings and revolutions in your stride, and you have a facility with languages. Think about it.’ Henry promised he would. *** It was at the end of May that normality resumed when the A2 courses commenced. There was also a new challenge that took Ed and Henry by surprise, although it shouldn’t have. The lower sixth was herded into the lecture hall, where the head of sixth began to explain the process of university application. They were taken through the procedures used by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, and the online form-filling. So far as selecting a university was concerned, however, they were told to get on with it. For most of the boys the choice was limited: Oxbridge, St Andrews, Bristol or Durham. ‘We could go for Cambridge, babe,’ suggested Ed. Henry was less keen. ‘I’d be surprised if you didn’t get a place, but I’m not so confident. Do we want to go to the same uni?’ As he said it he glanced up at Ed through his dark lashes. He was not surprised to see a look of shock at the idea of separating come over his lover’s face. Ed gathered himself. ‘It’s together for me, babe, or not at all. That’s why Cambridge or Oxford would be best. We could be in the same town but in different colleges, and with plenty of social space around us.’ ‘Yes, Ed, I see that, but what if you got in and I ended up somewhere else, like, I dunno … Cardiff or Wolverhampton. It’s not an unlikely scenario. I’m not as academic as you.’ The boys also had to register course preferences in advance. Ed had already decided on History, but Henry was torn as to whether he would loyally carry on with his best A Level, Religious Studies. Ed advised against it. ‘Theology in university is not RS, little babe. And remember last year, how you were a totally brilliant researcher when we were dealing with the case of Jed and Nathaniel. Dr Mac said you were a natural.’ Eventually Henry compromised on joint History and Theology, although Ed insisted he was making a mistake. David, as it turned out, was keen on St Andrews. When they talked about it, Rudi said he had a hereditary obligation to go to St John’s, Oxford, academic home of the Rassendylls since the eighteenth century. *** The first fortnight back, Henry tried to get David into some approximation of his former cheeriness. Unfortunately, David was having none of it. In the end, Henry gave up, unwilling to tolerate the rudeness. Indeed, if it got much worse, he rather feared Ed would step in and teach David a forcible lesson in manners. Henry hated to admit defeat, but talking to David just seemed to make things worse. So he doggedly pursued his A Level studies (he decided to keep up his French and take the risk of doing four subjects at A2) and just contented himself with being friendly to David when they ran into each other. That stopped too, however. David came back from Rothenia apparently heterosexual, or so you might assume from his joining in with the straight porn and the leching after females which were part of the sixth form subculture. Henry could take no more. He started avoiding David Skipper. So June passed into July and Trinity term wound up. Henry emptied the contents of his locker into a bag and prepared to vacate the premises. It was always intriguing what he found when he did that: letters from the school which he should have delivered to his parents; an essay he would have sworn he had handed in; a bar of chocolate he had forgotten and which defied even his sweet tooth in its present state. At the back he found the picture of Ed, David and himself that Bolslaw had taken in his studio the day Rudi had ridden on to the Rodolferplaz. Somehow it made him feel depressed. The three boys laughing at him out of the picture seemed strangers. Ed came home in the school minibus with Henry that last afternoon. They got off at Huntercombe with Mark Peters, rather than going the whole way to Trewern. They were planning to have a few post-school drinks at the village pub, the King Billy. Henry’s big brother Ricky was already there, sitting at the bar and gazing with rapt attention at Helen, Mark’s sister, who worked there as a barmaid during holidays. ‘Mine’s a lager, Henry.’ He didn’t shift his gaze from Helen as he said it. ‘Okay, Ricky, but why am I paying?’ ‘It’s getting expensive spending the day here with Helen. Ted gets grumpy if I don’t buy a drink.’ ‘How do you work out that I can afford it?’ ‘You have precisely £156.00 in your post-office account, which is exactly £156.00 more than is in my account – leaving out the overdraft of course.’ ‘And you know this how?’ ‘I looked in your account book.’ ‘That’s private, that is.’ ‘Yeah, ‘spose it is.’ Henry fetched the drinks and gave his brother the pint, accompanied by a polite suggestion that he should get a job. Then he went over to the window seat in the snug with Mark and Ed. As he put the drinks down, Mark was saying that David Skipper had become a real pain in the arse the last few weeks of term. ‘What happened to him in Rothenia? He came back all moody and withdrawn, and … you ain’t gonna like this, you two … he was quite nasty about you behind your backs. Saying stuff about you – not exactly homophobic, but sneering like. Course, there’s always a few morons who’ll laugh at crap like that, especially in this year’s lower sixth, who’re a right bunch. So what d’you know?’ Henry looked at Ed, and all he could do was shrug. There was no way they would out David, especially as now he seemed to have decided that his gay interlude was an episode he wanted to forget. ‘What are you doing this summer, Marky?’ Ed asked. ‘Dad wants to take me golfing in Bermuda for a fortnight, while mum and the girls – except Helen of course – want to go to Florida. I know it sounds boring but I’m keen to try out golf. What about you guys?’ ‘I’ll be staying in Shropshire, I think,’ grumbled Henry. ‘In the end Dad couldn’t get another exchange; he left it too late. But I may get up to London for a week with Ed, and Ed’ll be down here for another week. So it’ll be just about tolerable. I’d get a job, but there’s nothing out here in the sticks other than the bacon factory at Wallerstone, where you’ve got to be eighteen and tired of life to work there.’ Ed added, ‘My foster dads haven’t told me what’s up, if anything. They usually travel a bit in Europe, and if they do I may go along with them. Or I may be packed off to some mates near Ipswich, or maybe go up to Edinburgh to see my gran. It’s very much up in the air, is this summer.’ *** It began as a very tedious vacation for Henry. His mother and father were working, so sometimes he might go a whole day without speaking to anyone between breakfast and dinner. He began to worry that he was losing the power of speech. From e-mail and text he found that Ed wasn’t in a much better state. Matt was working and Andy was involved with a youth project in Peterborough, leaving Ed reduced to playing cards with the housekeeper some days. He had no friends in London to hang around with. By the second week, however, things improved for him when, observing his boredom, Matt found him a temporary job in his firm in Camden. Mostly it was just photocopying and stapling, as Ed told Henry, but at least he got to talk to people. Halfway through the second week, Matt White called Henry's dad and said that, according to what he was hearing from Ed, Henry was in terminal boredom, which he’d be happy to alleviate by offering him employment similar to Ed’s. Accepting with alacrity, Henry took the train up to London the very next day, expecting to stay the best part of a month. He reached Highgate just as Ed was returning from work that Wednesday. There was a joyous and sweaty reunion almost immediately, followed by dinner with Matt and Andy, and then a further reunion involving a bath and a lot of splashed water. Henry got the best night’s sleep he’d had for weeks, wrapped in his Ed’s arms and legs. After that things moved along nicely. At the end of the second week, Henry looked in awe at the brown envelope of his first pay packet. The contents weren’t much, but he tucked the slip away to put in his box of life souvenirs, which included copies of the pictures that Bolslaw had taken in Strelzen, and the admissions wristband for his first clubbing experience in Liberation. The boys used some of the cash to buy tickets for Ipswich and spent a weekend with Justin and Nathan. Justin was very different in the garden centre. Dressed smartly in green sweatshirt and trousers, he was cheerful, polite and knowledgeable with the customers, of whom there were quite a lot. Nathan showed them round. ‘We’re close enough to Ipswich to draw in the suburban clientele, and of course we get the passing trade from visitors to Haddesley Hall. So we’ve had to expand the staff.’ There were in fact three sixth-formers working the tills and shelves under his tight supervision. ‘They’re easier to manage than Justin,’ he commented with a smile. Henry and Edward did some local sightseeing, but were happy just to spend the evenings in the cottage. Uncle Phil had modernised it for Nathan, who kept it neat with very little help from Justin, although he said he didn’t mind. The stay at the cottage was somewhat erotic, in that their time together in Amsterdam had dismantled barriers between the two couples. They lay together in the little front room the Friday night. Justin quickly lost his shorts as Nathan played with him. After that, it didn’t take long for Ed to remove any obstacles to wanking off Henry. Soon the pair were cuddled naked together, as were the Nathan and Justin. Neither couple became more active in their joint sex than foreplay, but the later climaxes in bed were all the more enjoyable for what they had done it in front of each other. ‘What a pair of pervs, eh?’ smirked Ed. ‘Maybe, but sexually gratified pervs.’ Henry sniggered. ‘That Justin’s an animal when it comes to sex. Totally up for it and completely shameless.’ ‘Hmm … watch out, Henry. It’d be both me and Nathan tanning your hide if you tried it on with Justin … and don’t deny he attracts you. I can see it on your eyes, you randy little sod.’ ‘No, no … I wouldn’t do anything like that, but he is so totally hot when he’s with Nathan. I’d never imagined someone could lose themselves so completely in sex.’ Ed gave him what could only be described as an old fashioned look, which made Henry a little apprehensive. On the Saturday afternoon there was a surprise and very welcome visitor when Terry turned up in an impressive Jaguar. Henry whooped and leapt into his arms, while Terry laughed delightedly; he hadn’t realised that Henry and Edward would be there. He refused to sleep on the couch at the cottage, though, instead putting up at a local pub. He had been at the cottage on several weekends, Justin later said, and it seemed to do him good. Terry had told them he wanted to see them all that evening. As they sat together in the pub’s lounge, he talked Henry into joining him in a gin and tonic, despite the scoffing of the other boys. ‘Mmm,’ approved Henry, ‘I thought it was a rule that alcohol had to taste awful. I’ll have a pint of gin and tonic next please, Ed.’ Terry asked after David, then frowned at the news from Medwardine. ‘The silly boy’s gone and lost the plot. He wouldn’t be the first, I suppose.’ ‘How’s the business doing?’ asked Ed ‘I haven’t started it officially, but the launch event’s in a fortnight. You can all make it, I hope?’ ‘Justy’s got to be there, so I shall,’ said Nathan. ‘Seeing as it’s our last weekend in London, we’ll be there too,’ confirmed Henry. ‘Good,’ I’ve hired the hall of the Quiverers’ Company, off Cheapside. I thought I might as well push the boat out, now I’m pushing me boat out. There’s a fair take-up of invitations by former clients, especially from the Roedenbeck Corporation and PeacherCorp.’ ‘What sort of work are you looking for, Terry?’ Terry grinned. ‘You can bet very little of it will be as exciting as what we did in April. Mostly it’ll be corporate security consultancy. I’m well known in the circles of personal security and dealing wiv the paps, however, so there’ll be a fair bit of minding for the rich and famous. They can be prima donnas, thass for sure, but I don’t mind the fuss, being a pretty easy-going kind of guy. Now Ramon …’ Terry went unfocussed for a space and, when he came back, it was with a sad little smile. ‘It don’t get easier, babes, it really don’t.’ Henry, who was sitting next to him, reached out and squeezed Terry’s hand. Terry pulled him over and kissed the top of his head. ‘Pity you’re spoken for, little Henry, or I know what I’d be doing.’ Ed smiled. ‘You’re welcome to borrow him for a bit, providing you promise to return him in the same condition you took him in.’ ‘No,’ replied Terry, ‘you two were meant for each other. Bless the pair of you, you don’t half cheer me up, you kids. All full of life and beans.’ *** Quiverers’ Hall in the City of London is a fine Classical building, still on the same site as the first hall, built in 1334. For Terry’s launch event, the garden at the back was hung with hundreds of lights, and the buffet tables were laid out on the master’s terrace. It was a very fine August evening, the city traffic muted in the shelter of the enclosed garden. A giant screen set against the medieval brick perimeter wall that had survived the Great Fire was playing a very professionally produced promo video for O’Brien Associates. Guests were arriving, and the four lads were already investigating the free bar. They were in evening dress. Henry had still been able to fit comfortably into the outfit Matt had got tailored for him for Justin’s eighteenth the previous October. It had been hanging ever since in Ed’s wardrobe at Highgate. ‘Just an orange juice for me,’ decided Henry moderately. ‘Champagne for me, mate,’ Justin ordered, ‘and make that a double … nah, juss kidding.’ He was looking very pleased with the turnout. A dozen City chief executives and corporate chairmen were already there, with a dozen more promising to come. The catering, on the grand scale, would have done credit to the imperial palaces of ancient Rome. If there were no larks’-tongue pasties amongst the pyramids and towers of food, it could only have been an oversight. More guests surged through the door. Henry homed in on Matt’s cousin, Katy Amphlett, who had come across by taxi from the High Court, where she was currently defending in a major criminal trial. She was still twirling her wig absentmindedly. ‘Hello, Henry, dear.’ They had met at Matt’s New Year’s party, where she had made a sympathetic link with Henry. She gave him a little kiss and grabbed his arm. They were much of a height. ‘So did he do it?’ Henry asked curiously. ‘Eventually.’ ‘That’s fantastic. Congratulations, Katy! You’ll make another mismatched couple in the height department, just like me and Ed.’ Katy laughed. ‘The wedding’ll be next December. Want to be a bridesmaid?’ ‘Now, now. Does Matt know?’ ‘I told him just after his brother popped the question. I’m going to be his sister-in-law.’ ‘Carl is one hell of a hunk. You have all of my envy. Shame he’s not gay like his brother, or I’d be fighting you for him.’ ‘You’d lose, Henry. I fight dirty.’ ‘How are you two ever going to meet up? He’s always in swimming pools here and abroad, and you’re always in the High Court or the Old Bailey or somewhere.’ ‘We’ll be imaginative. You and Edward manage it, despite the difficulties.’ ‘But we’re never going to have babies!’ ‘People cope … now there’s a face I’ve not seen for a while.’ Katy stopped at the sight of a stocky and cheerful twenty-something coming down the garden steps. ‘Alex Johnson … you’ve put some weight on you.’ They kissed, and Alex shook hands with Henry, whom Katy introduced as one of Matt’s young protégés. ‘Alex was at uni with me, Matt and Andy. He’s Washington editor of Reuters.’ ‘Was … Katy. I’m coming back to the UK as foreign affairs editor of the Guardian … and that was an unkind cut about my weight.’ ‘You’re half again the man you were.’ ‘It’s Benny’s cooking … I take it you’re gay, Henry, or you wouldn’t be one of Matthew’s ducklings. Well, Benny and I are a couple. Ben’s in publishing.’ ‘Is he coming back too?’ ‘Depends. He’s already got transferred once to keep us together. I doubt his bosses will be sympathetic if we do this every two or three years. So I may lose weight as a result. Tell me, Henry, how did you come to be part of the Peacher ménage? Are you a friend of that odd Peacher-White lad?’ ‘I am, as it happens. I first met Justin in Strelzen on holiday, but my boyfriend Ed – that’s him over there – was fostered into Matt and Andy’s house when his parents broke up.’ ‘You know Strelzen, then? I’m off for Rothenia at the end of the week to coordinate a feature on Europe’s latest restored monarchy … with an English-born king, what’s more. When were you last there?’ ‘March.’ ‘What, at the time of the election?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Did you see the king at all?’ ‘I went there with him. He’s in my sixth form.’ Katy was by then having near hysterics as Alex grappled with far more revelations than he could easily cope with. He took a deep breath. ‘Does the entire world revolve around you now, Henry?’ Henry nodded. ‘Pretty much.’ ‘Seems like I can forget about the trip to Rothenia. I might as well stay here and interview you.’ ‘No comment.’ ‘What, none?’ ‘Nope. I don’t trust the press, and Rudi’s a big mate, so I wouldn’t reveal anything he hadn’t cleared me to tell you.’ ‘The reputation of the press, and what it’s done to the free interchange of information.’ Alex gave what seemed to be a genuine sigh. ‘Okay, you can at least tell me if he’s coming back to the UK to carry on his education.’ ‘Yes he is … but that’s already in the public domain.’ ‘Fantastic. I’m gonna get me a drink.’ He ambled off, and Katy hugged Henry’s arm. ‘Nicely done, Henry. Alex is a friend, but I’d never trust him either when he had his reporter’s hat on. You did very well there. Look! It’s the main event.’ The chief executive of the Roedenbeck Corporation, a friend of Terry’s, tapped a glass, causing the large crowd of City people and journalists to pause in their gabbling. He introduced himself and Terry, told a few funny stories involving embezzlements that Terry had foiled, and announced he was awarding O’Brien Associates its first major contract. Following the applause, Terry gave his marketing spiel and introduced his management team. Then it was back to the drinks and food. The whole thing wrapped up around nine. Justin and Nathan had hoped to carry on in the City pubs, but being Saturday everything was closed. Instead, they got a cab to Soho, and found a heaving gay bar that Justin knew in Rupert Street. Although they were crushed into a corner, Nathan and Ed shouldered their way to the counter and got drinks. Henry cast an eye around. It was not like Club Liberation: much more grungy and – he thought – oppressive and suspicious. There was none of Rothenia’s relaxed good humour. This was all tense and metropolitan, and the boys’ evening dress was attracting attention. Henry wanted to go home, but Justin would have his fun, and was not to be denied. It was way past midnight before they spilled on to the street. The first thing they saw was a man being publicly screwed by another man against a wall, their trousers round their knees, with passers-by staring. It made Justin’s night; it merely made Henry feel ill. He would have been glad to get on the train the next morning had he not been leaving Ed behind.
  8. David went missing that evening. He failed to turn up for dinner and didn’t check back into his bedroom at the hotel. On Thursday morning, Terry was getting frantic. ‘That little sod’s gonna get me into deep shit. We were supposed to be off today. If I don’t deliver him back in good nick to his parents on Friday, there’re going to be some serious and difficult questions asked of Henry’s dad. What is the kid playing at?’ ‘It’s love Terry,’ Henry contributed wisely. ‘It does weird things to us all. You know that.’ But he too was worried. They had no contact number for Anton, and David had turned off his mobile. On Thursday evening Terry restlessly patrolled the Wejg and Rodolferplaz, questioning the Club Liberation regulars. Several knew Anton, but not where he lived or much else about him, except that he was hot and available to the right sort of young guy. Justin joined him and started chatting to the more dubious residents of the Wejg, the rent boys who clustered in doorways and back lanes two blocks down from the club. They weren’t much use, although one claimed to have been paid by Anton for a blowjob. Despite not believing him, Justin shrugged and chatted with the prostitutes anyway. He grinned when he got propositioned by a big German bloke. ‘Not working tonight, mate, but I’m sure me colleague here will be happy to assist.’ Unexpectedy, it was Nathan who picked up David’s track. He had decided to try out the waiters in the gay cafés near Liberation with a picture of David he had on his mobile, and he struck gold with one. ‘Yes. He was in here with a pretty blond boy this evening. They held hands. It was quite sweet. They walked off to the National Opera. I think they were going to the Stravinsky concert.’ So Nathan, Justin and Terry lurked in the portico of the Strelzen Opera House at ten-thirty as the doors opened and the crowd flooded out. When Anton and David appeared together, Anton was startled to find himself surrounded and blocked by three determined and fit young men. ‘So, David,’ snarled Terry, ‘maybe you can tell me when you were thinking of turning up? We go back tomorrow.’ David looked defiant. ‘I’m staying on.’ ‘You told your parents?’ ‘I will do. I’m staying with Anton. What we’ve got going is just too good to let go. I may never have another chance like this in all my life.’ ‘And you’ll live how?’ ‘Anton’s got a little apartment. I’ll get a job. We’ll survive.’ ‘And your A Levels, university, friends?’ ‘I’ll pick up with all that later. But I’ve found the love of my life.’ ‘David,’ scoffed Terry, ‘you are seventeen, and you have found a lover. You have not found the love of your life.’ David gave him a hard look. ‘And how old was Ramon when he met you?’ ‘That’s not comparable. I at least knew all about sex. This is just your dick in shock. Mr Atwood will get in terrible trouble if you don’t turn up in school on Sunday. Would you want to be responsible for that sort of shit? How about you, Anton? Want a live-in lover in your little apartment, do you?’ Anton looked harassed. ‘David and I have something going, it’s true. But hey … I don’t want any trouble – I mean … him to get in any trouble. David, you’ve got to think of your friends and parents.’ Terry gave a tight little grin. Anton had been having fun with what he believed was a rich western kid and was not up for consequences. Now it was David’s turn to look harassed. ‘This is all bollocks. I’m old enough to do what I want.’ ‘And not old enough to do what is right,’ returned Terry coolly. ‘Here, Anton. You seem a nice kid. Be fair. Do you need a lodger?’ Anton took David’s hand. ‘To be honest, David, it really would not be convenient, much though I like you.’ David looked deeply shocked and then distraught. ‘You … don’t want me with you?’ Anton wasn’t a bad man and could not witness unmoved the fragile heart in front of him cracking. ‘You’re a lovely person, David, and quite something in bed, but it wouldn’t be right for either of us.’ It was too much for David. His eyes flooded and he blushed scarlet, looking round wildly, his mouth open. Then, with an unbearable look that made even Terry ashamed, he stalked off. Terry sighed. ‘Follow him you two, and don’t let him get near the river.’ *** Friday was now to be their last day. While tackling their croissants and fruit salad, Henry and Ed had been comparing views about David’s state of mind. It surprised them to see Oskar enter the Hilton’s breakfast room and come over to their table. He was yet again in a suit. ‘Is this official, Oskar?’ Ed asked. ‘Not really. I just left the Osraeum. The king said there was something going on that you would not want to miss.’ Henry’s ears pricked. ‘You just said “the king”.’ Oskar gave a broad grin. ‘Your good friend, Rudolf Elphberg, came to an agreement last night with Chancellor Trachtenberg.’ ‘Chancellor Trachtenberg?’ ‘The Third Republic is dead … or will be in about an hour. If you want to see its last throes, finish your meal and come with me. Terry said it would be alright.’ Henry and Ed hastily downed their drinks, and with Ed still chewing on his toast, the pair followed Oskar out through the foyer into an official-looking car with a uniformed driver. ‘Looks like change is already in the air, Oskar,’ Ed observed. ‘It certainly is. I took up my appointment this morning as chief of staff and high steward of the household of his Most Pious and Steadfast Majesty, the King of Rothenia. His majesty was gracious enough to bestow on me the title of Count of Modenehem, as will appear in the palace gazette, which will be published for the first time this morning in the Ruritanischer Tagblatt.’ Henry’s eyes widened. ‘Wow! Oskar, this is seriously big stuff! What’s Fritzy say about it?’ ‘He’s very happy for me. He of course assumes the position of Lord High Marshal of the realm, which is hereditary in our family. Ruritania is come again, boys. Herr Trachtenberg has chosen not to take up residence in the palace, but has moved into the old chancellery in Bila Palacz. The king will move his banner from the Osraeum to the Residenz this afternoon and reoccupy the house of his ancestors, the first Elphberg to live there since the great Queen Flavia died.’ The car made its slow way through the rush-hour traffic of Strelzen. Once free of the Modenehemstrasse junction, they crossed the Starel and took a winding route along the bluffs north of the river. Oskar pointed out the art-deco block in which Will and Felip lived. Eventually they emerged on a square behind the archiepiscopal palace, and turned into a car park belonging to Strelsenermedia. Will was waiting. He kissed Oskar before taking his arm and walking them all up to the Erchbischofsplaz. The square beneath the cathedral’s west front was already filling with curious Strelseners. A line of soldiers in Ruritanian blue was drawn up along the precinct wall of the abbey of St Waclaw. Next to the abbey’s gate was a wide balcony built out of the wall, used in past centuries as an open-air pulpit. It was currently hung with a red-lion banner. Oskar shouldered his party to the front of the crowd. He suggested that Henry might want to set his mobile to video. He had his own adjusted already. There was a media presence on a hastily erected viewing scaffold under the archbishop’s residence. The hubbub of the crowd rose as figures appeared on the balcony. Henry could see the cardinal archbishop himself in red, as well as a general officer and a number of men in suits. A trumpet flourish silenced the crowd and drew attention to the general. He unrolled a scroll, removed his peaked cap and all the soldiers below him also uncovered their heads. He began: ‘Since the departure from this realm of the late King Maxim of glorious memory, the throne of Rothenia has stood vacant, and the sacred Crown of this realm lost to human view. Now one has come to claim the throne again, by right, by election and the manifest disposition of Almighty God, of which a token is seen in the recovery of the aforesaid Diadem, known as the Crown of Duke Tassilo. Therefore, the lawful authorities of our land of Rothenia, met in council, have resolved this day that the Most Noble, Most Serene and Most Potent Prince Rudolf Robert Maxim Elphberg is lineally, justly and lawfully next heir of the blood royal of this realm, and do heartily, joyfully and unanimously acknowledge and proclaim that the said Royal Prince is now become Rudolf VI, by the Grace of God Most Pious and Steadfast King of Rothenia. May Almighty God, by whom kings and princes do reign, bless the Royal Prince Rudolf VI with long and happy years to reign over us. And thereunto we his subjects submit and oblige ourselves, in all faith and hearty and humble affection. Given at the Residenz of Strelzen in Council this day of the Crucifixion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. God save the King!’ As the general finished, the soldiers and people raised a great cheer. Amidst the clangour of bells from the cathedral and the abbey, there boomed across the city the first report of the 101-gun salute to herald a new age in the history of Rothenia. ‘And so the world changes,’ mused Oskar. ‘For the better, my love,’ Will answered him. ‘Great days are come, the like of which the world has never seen.’ Henry stared up at Oskar, and found the man’s eyes to be wide and unfocussed. It was as if Oskar was not even aware of what he was saying. *** The trip back to the UK was nowhere near as pleasant – nor as dangerous – as the trip out to Rothenia had been. David looked like he was in a world of his own as they loaded the Medwardine minibus. Ignoring everyone, even Henry, he slumped in a corner and watched the landscape pass by with no interest whatsoever. When they stopped for lunch at Leipzig, he stayed in the van. ‘Not hungry,’ he said with perfect politeness and total indifference. In the service station’s restaurant, the others all turned to Terry. ‘Don’t look at me. If I knew a cure for a broken heart it’d be a different bloke sitting here, babes. Get some sarnies in the shop; he might feel hungry later.’ When they got back in the van, David was asleep and slept on all afternoon. Henry thought he probably hadn’t gone to bed the night before, after Justin and Nathan had brought him back. Nathan and Justin were a lot happier together now. There had been decisions made and a lot of talking between them. Terry was going back into the security business. ‘It woke me up, little babes. Without Ramon I ain’t gonna make it on the stage. So I’m taking on contract work for PeacherCorp. I’m buying a flat in the East End, and taking offices near Canary Wharf. Pete’s already getting his people to find me a place. Iss time to do the big thing and commit to the future. O’Brien Security Associates is going into business. And me first associate is Justin Peacher-White.’ ‘What!’ exclaimed Ed and Henry, though they kept the volume down with David flat out on the back seat. Nathan said, with some regret, ‘My chavvy babe’s good at it, unfortunately. I won’t stand in his way. He’ll still live with me at Haddesley Hall, and he’ll work in the garden centre between contracts, but he has his gifts and his own career. It’ll be hard, but I love him too much to argue against it.’ Justin cuddled into Nathan. ‘You’re a good man, lover. It’ll make for plenty to talk about when I’m home wiv you in our cottage. Sides, the prices Terry charges, I’m gonna make meself a mint.’ They reached Rotterdam within plenty of time for the overnight ferry to Harwich. David woke up bleary-eyed and accompanied them to the cafeteria, where he sipped listlessly at a coffee and nibbled some biscuits. Then he slipped away. Henry found him later sitting out under the stars on the deck. He snuggled up to David, took his hand and kissed it. ‘It’s awful seeing you like this, Davey.’ David grunted. ‘It won’t seem so bad in a few weeks.’ ‘I’ll never forgive him,’ David said with cold decision. ‘Anton wasn’t that bad a bloke, David. Just out for a good time with a handsome guy … the handsome guy is you, incidentally.’ ‘I wasn’t talking about Anton. It’s that fucking Terry O’fucking Brien! He’s ruined my life, the cunt. Okay, he may have lost all his own happiness with Ramon gone, but he’s fucking making sure no one else is happy either.’ ‘Now hold on …’ ‘It’s no use you defending him, Henry. Oh yeah, it was the sensible thing. Back to the UK and back to school, and then university and then a job in some fucking boring fucking bank, but in the meantime, I’ve lost the chance – don’t care how feeble – of real happiness with a super bloke with a super body in the most amazing city in the world.’ ‘It didn’t look that promising a relationship at first sight … though Anton was a bit gorgeous,’ Henry admitted. ‘Not the point, Henry. It’s back to hopeless Medwardine, where I’ll never meet anyone near as sexy as Anton. A year of celibacy, and then on to some grey university, where the most romantic bloody thing likely to happen will be consciousness-raising seminars in some poxy and earnest Gaysoc. It’s not life, Henry, not the way we’ve lived it for the past week; it’s a treadmill.’ Henry had to admit that David had a point of sorts. What David was forgetting was that he was only seventeen, and had a lot of life stretching ahead of him. Henry realised he just couldn’t see past the pain at the moment. It looked like time would have to be the healer there. Nobody got much sleep that night. David didn’t come down off the deck and his bed in Terry’s cabin was not needed. He looked like shit in the morning, but then he didn’t seem to give a shit either. Terry drove them to Paddington, where he gave Ed and Henry a loving hug. Henry winced when Terry reached out to David, only to be sharply and coldly rebuffed. ‘Look, I’m sorry, right?’ Terry said. ‘Davey, you couldn’t just give up your future in a gamble on a doomed relationship.’ David simply glared levelly at him and growled, ‘Fuck you. If I ever see you again it won’t be for want of trying to avoid you.’ Terry looked deeply shocked. Nathan snapped, ‘Mate, that was too strong. You had no call to speak to Terry that way.’ ‘Fuck you too, fuck the whole lot of you.’ He stormed off towards the Underground, en route to meet his dad at Euston. They stared at each other. Henry said regretfully, ‘Don’t take it too much to heart, Terry. He’ll come round in the end.’ ‘Yeah … yeah, I suppose.’ Terry looked as though something had deflated inside him. But he rallied, hugged Ed and Henry again, and told them he looked forward to seeing them over the summer sometime. Then Justin and Nathan said their goodbyes, and Terry took them off to Liverpool Street to catch their own train. The van would be taken back to Medwardine the following week by a contract driver. The train delivered them on time at Shrewsbury, which was unusual for a Sunday. Henry’s dad was waiting, full of curiosity about the historic events they had witnessed in Strelzen during their so-called tennis tour. Henry dropped his bags in the hall of the rectory with a certain relief. Ed and he hugged his waiting mother and, after some tea and exchange of news, took themselves off to their bedroom, where they had a gratefully early night. There really was no place like home.
  9. Wednesday morning was another free day for the boys. When Ed and Henry went down to the breakfast buffet, they found Terry already there on a table with Justin and Nathan. Terry was looking fed up. ‘Whassup wiv you two?’ he snarled at the older pair. Nathan was in awe of Terry and was not happy to find the man angry with him. He mumbled something apologetic. ‘Well bloody sort it out quick,’ Terry growled. ‘If it’s what I think it is, then you’re being totally moronic, Nathan. You should have learned by now that Justin may be wild, but he can be trusted. I’ve had it wiv yer.’ He threw his napkin on the table, ruffled Henry’s hair and left. Henry got hold of the newspapers laid out for guests and started translating them for Ed, and David too when he turned up a little later. David was barely paying any attention, but Ed at least was an intent listener. With all results in by then, the elections had solidly endorsed Trachtenberg’s Unity party, which together with the rump of the SDP now commanded a huge majority in Parliament. The CDP had been shattered at the polls by the surge in royalist feeling. Bermann had not been allowed to resign, because his party had sacked him summarily, and itself had called stridently for the reign of King Rudolf VI to begin in Rothenia. As far as all parties were concerned, the election had turned into a plebiscite about the Elphberg restoration, and the verdict of the people was decisive. Henry, absorbed in his papers, took a bundle of them with him when he and Ed went back up to their room. David came along with them, nursing his mobile, trying to work out how long it would be cool to wait before attempting to raise Anton. At ten they were called down to reception and found Oskar there, in sober suit and tie. ‘Hey, Oskar! You look official,’ Ed observed. ‘Lord Burlesdon is putting together an ad hoc staff, boys, and I’ve been nominated as interim chief. I’m to liaise with the new government while we sort out how the kingdom of Rothenia is to be revived.’ Henry was on fire with curiosity. ‘The Crown, Oskar, tell us about it. Where was it found? Who found it?’ ‘No doubt your friend Rudi will be happy to tell you, boys. That’s why I’m here. You’re all three wanted at the Osraeum, to do this hanging thing. He’s missing his friends, though I was told not to say that.’ They went chattering to Oskar’s car, and were driven to Gartengasse. The eighteenth-century palace, named after a famous Elphberg, Princess Osra of Glottenburg, had been kept in decent repair since the days when it had been King Maxim’s residence. Soldiers and police were now posted at the gates, where a large crowd had gathered. Many were staring up at the great banner tugging at the flagpole above the house, as if they couldn’t believe what they were seeing. Cameras flashed at the car when it passed into the Osraeum’s front court. As the boys walked toward the main entrance, Henry had to be restrained from waving to the people. Inside, the place was eerily quiet. Oskar explained that as yet there were no staff, other than the government concierge who kept the place maintained for its occasional state visitor. A cook and waiter, who had been loaned to Rudi from the commissary in the presidential palace, had brought breakfast across with them. Rudi’s status was causing headaches. At the moment he was being classed as a state guest, until President Maritz could complete negotiations over the shape of the new coalition. The hard decisions were being left to the incoming Trachtenberg government. Trachtenberg himself was expected at the Osraeum late that afternoon. Rudi was sitting on the back of a bench on the terrace of the garden, wearing casuals and looking indeed a little bored. He seemed to be in reaction to the stress and euphoria of the past few days. He brightened up when his friends arrived, however, and even put up with Henry’s hug. They sat on the grass in the sun. ‘You looked so cool on that horse yesterday!’ Ed, a city boy, was always awed by skill with animals. ‘Oh, that was no problem. I’ve been on horses since I was a toddler. Besides, the army selected a pretty even-tempered mount.’ ‘So has everything worked out as you’d wanted?’ ‘Pretty much. Trachtenberg’s a good man and an imaginative politician. He knows what to do; it’ll be a pleasure working with him. Will did a fantastic job with the media. His channels are giving us an easy ride, and of course Rothenia’s fallen in love with its monarchy all over again.’ ‘And that bothers you, doesn’t it?’ Henry guessed. ‘Always perceptive, little Henry. Yes, it does a bit. Getting to be king was relatively easy …’ ‘No shit!’ ‘… that’s “no shit, Your Majesty” … but staying king, Henry, that’s tough. I’m the new toy. They’ll soon get bored and find I wasn’t quite what they wanted after all. Then there’s the press. That man Wilemmin still worries me, though Oskar says Terry has it covered.’ He looked surprised when his friends giggled. ‘Okay, what do you know?’ Ed told him, and it was then Rudi’s turn to laugh. He shook his head. ‘I wish I’d been there, but clubs and bars won’t be part of my life from now on.’ ‘Oh, I dunno, Rudi,’ Ed countered. ‘When we’re back in Medwardine – providing you’re coming back – we’ll make it a priority to drag you to the old King Billy in Huntercombe. They’re not too particular who they serve there.’ It was the turn of Henry’s insatiable curiosity. ‘So, the Crown. Tell all!’ Rudi shook his head. ‘You wouldn’t believe the details if I told you. Just let’s say Oskar and Will had been in search of it since last year. They unexpectedly found clues among family papers in my house at Burlesdon, and at Heinrichshof in Thuringia. They discovered it had been in the Salvatorskirk all along, hidden away by the priests of the church in the sealed burial vaults. In the end, once it was clear that I was going to make a bid for the throne, Oskar says they were pleased to arrange the hand-over. The Crown is my property after all.’ ‘The ceremony where you revealed it … I mean, outstanding, Rudi!’ Henry enthused. ‘Totally awesome. Never seen anything like it. All the people kneeling like that for the blessing. Just amazing!’ The four had a late lunch at the Osraeum, sitting round the TV in Rudi’s temporary apartment overlooking the garden. It was pretty cheerful being all boys together again, going over all the old Medwardine gossip. ‘And you’re really coming back?’ ‘I’m really coming back. Oskar’s gonna suggest they appoint a council of regency when I’m in England. The British press are already excited. Go and have a look at the papers on the table over there. The tabloid end is like a dog with two tails. Not just the Windsors to hound, now they’ll have the Elphbergs too. The Eton story’s already surfacing in the redtops. “The Thug King”: nice headline, huh?’ ‘Sounds like Trinity term will be fun,’ mused David. ‘Think of the cash I can make selling you down the river, mate. I can be a “source close to King Rudi”, or one of those “close friends” who seem very keen to discuss your dirty laundry, as close friends do.’ Henry caught light. ‘What about the unofficial biographer? You’ve gotta have one. Hell, it could be me! Rudolf of Ruritania, the best-selling book by Henry Atwood. The talk shows. The celebrity-magazine interviews. The literary parties. The house in Hampstead. The unfortunate incident on the Heath. The relaunch of my career. The Booker Prize nomination …’ Henry came down from his flight of fancy to see the rest of the boys staring at him. ‘… so, I can dream, can’t I?’ *** The boys were at a loose end after they left the Osraeum. David made his hesitant call to Anton, whom he arranged to meet up with in the Rodolferplaz early in the evening. He then went off shopping for presents for his parents and sisters. Ed had remembered to get one of Bolslaw’s close-ups of Rudi signed by the king-to-be, who added a personal message to the old man on the back. Ed and Henry took it to the Rodolferplaz, where they found the photographer in his studio. Bolslaw was delighted that they had done him this favour, and insisted on taking them to the old inn a few doors up the square for an early lunch. He charmed them with his stories of gay life in Strelzen under the Communist regime, when he had worked for the state film corporation making propaganda documentaries. ‘All those tractors, but the farm workers were hunky and so obliging. I had hair in those days, of course.’ They told him their story and he laughed uproariously. Finally, he leaned over and said, ‘Boys, you are very special. Now, don’t take this the wrong way, but I would really like to get some photos of you together. No. Not sexy stuff, but there’s something between you I’d like to capture. Will you do it?’ Henry looked into his watery eyes and saw nothing but good humour there, so he nodded and said it was okay by him. Ed also agreed. Bolslaw had his studio set up for a shoot. He looked the boys over, told them to get barefoot and bare-chested, and change into identical loose black trousers. Then he posed them in various ways, but it never got more erotic than kissing each other. Bolslaw took them to the computer and showed them the shots. ‘Bozh men!’ swore Henry in Rothenian. He had never thought of himself as in any way a good-looking boy, though he did think he had character. Now Bolslaw’s skill with the lens had brought out that character and the love between him and Ed, and apotheosised them. ‘Damn, I look so good!’ His thin chest and slender limbs just pointed up his vulnerable charm and Ed’s protective love for him. ‘And you, Ed … what a golden god!’ Ed fondled Henry’s bare shoulder as they stood together gazing at the screen. ‘Aren’t you the pretty one, little babe? He’s brought out all I see and love in you. Bolslaw, you are a genius.’ The old man smiled fondly at them. ‘I think so, too.’ They gave their consent for him to show the photos publicly, and signed an agreement about royalties, if any. Then he took Henry’s address and said he would send them the full set. He would frame and ship to Matt and Andy, Ed’s foster parents, what he thought was the best one. They kissed and parted. ‘This city just gets better and better for me, little babe,’ sighed Ed. ‘Let’s come and live here when we’ve finished uni, hey?’ ‘Tempting, very tempting. And we are after all best pals with the soon-to-be-king. Maybe we can get Will to give us a job, but you’ll have to learn the language.’ ‘Oh yeah, I forgot.’ Henry and Ed went out the back of the building, avoiding the Rodolferplaz, and found their way back to the hotel by a circuitous route. They had planned to spend the rest of the afternoon watching satellite TV in their room. Then David showed up and they fell to discussing his forthcoming date with Anton, and how to handle it. In the end, a nervous David insisted that Ed and Henry come with him to meet Anton. He was very edgy. After the previous day’s excitement at Liberation, he and the Rothenian boy had decided on a quiet cup of tea under the lime trees at the end of the great plaz. Anton turned up looking very nice in casuals. David did the Rothenian handshake thing, but when he went to kiss Anton on the mouth, the Rothenian boy shied away, looking at Ed and Henry. ‘It’s okay, Anton,’ Henry said in Rothenian, ‘we were there last night.’ Anton gave Henry a very shy little grin. The boy was quite a turn on. ‘So this is unique – an Anglo-Saxon who talks Rothenian.’ ‘Excuse the directness,’ continued Henry, pushing the boat out a little and sticking to Anton’s native language, ‘but David’s worried about the unprotected sex you had last night.’ Anton looked startled, then nodded. ‘He needn’t be. I’m clean and I knew he was a virgin.’ Henry frowned. ‘Well make sure you tell him, but take your time … he deserves to sweat over that piece of recklessness.’ Switching to English, he turned to David. ‘I was just saying that Ed and I need to move along. We’ll leave you and Anton to get to know each other. Maybe see you later for dinner, if you don’t find something else to do.’ He added a little maliciously, ‘Play safe this time.’ As they wandered off, Ed commented, ‘Pretty couple they make. It’s a pity they’ve only got a couple of days together.’ ‘Maybe … but it’s the holiday romance thing, isn’t it? Days of stolen passion, all the sweeter for being so few. How about that for Henry wisdom?’ ‘Superlative, little babe … if trite.’ *** Oskar and Peter had grabbed a moment to themselves on Stracenzstrasse, at a small café Oskar had been patronising since his student days. It was not much more than a narrow shop front, but the aromatic smell of coffee roasting and fresh pastries baking within was infinitely welcoming. ‘Herr Prinz!’ The proprietor greeted Oskar with the name he had gone by at the Rodolfer, then offered a hand first to him and afterwards to Peter. ‘This is Herr Peacher, my good friend.’ The man winked at Peter. He clearly knew something of Oskar’s lifestyle but didn’t seem to mind. He said he would bring drinks over. The two men took a table at the back of the busy shop. When the coffees arrived, Peter managed to thank the man in Rothenian, which got him a big grin. ‘So my darling, you’re beginning to learn the language of the country.’ ‘If little Henry Atwood can do it, it can’t be that difficult.’ ‘Henry’s command of Rothenian is exceptionally good, aided by the advantage of non-stop chatter online with my brother, together with home tuition from a former British agent in Rothenia. Will Vincent is a better example. He picked it up phenomenally quickly when first he came here. I take full credit for it; you will be quite as good too it if you can find the time. I’ll be very happy to help.’ ‘I want to put down roots here, Osku. This place gets more interesting all the time. The whole business of the Crown … there’re mysteries I don’t fathom. Will says he saw this phantom of an ancient nun in the mausoleum at Terlenehem, and then it turns out that seventy-odd years ago she had been in the Salvatorskirk arranging for the concealment of the Crown. How could that be?’ Oskar took a meditative sip at his tall glass of mélange. ‘The king is come again, and my nation is waking up. Who knows what will awake with it? You know enough of my family to understand that it has a strange history, from the time of Count Oskar the Great and maybe before then, for all I know. But I’m certain of this much: The boy who rode the white horse into the heart of Strelzen is the true king. I begin to believe all the things foretold about him. He is to be hero of his age, and though he may be but a teenager, I sense the potential in him already. His composure, strength and joy are something I never dreamed to see in such measure in any human being. He is one that even a mature man such as I would be happy to follow. Great things are in preparation … of that I have no doubt.’ Peter gave a momentary stare at Oskar. ‘You’re like no other man I know when you say such things, Osku my prince. You give me all the more reason to stay here. It looks like it’ll be a fun ride. Which is why I did this.’ ‘Did what, Piotrescu?’ Peter pulled out a thick envelope from his inner jacket pocket. ‘Open it, darling.’ Looking puzzled, Oskar extracted the contents. He flattened them on the table top, then looked up with wet eyes. ‘You did this for me?’ ‘For you, Osku. I never thought to love a man the way I love you: a man so strong, so wholly admirable and yet so tender. I’d give you all of PeacherCorp wrapped in gift paper if I thought it would make you happy. This was just a small thing.’ Oskar shook his head. ‘I sometimes forget quite what wealth you command, my Piotrescu. Templerstadt, its house and estate – this is no small thing. To my family, it is a great thing indeed. How did you do it?’ ‘Me? I just wrote cheques, hon. I had Peacher lawyers negotiate with your cousins in the US, and my local agents sorted out the claims of the Rothenian government. So here they are, the deeds of the Tarlenheim estate of Templerstadt. The real work begins now. It’s gotta be a house we can both live in … our first home. I for one am gonna spare no expense. I found this architectural partnership in Hofbau that's good with restoration work. They’re sorting out specifications. I think we’ll find room for a pool, a gym and whatever else is needed for the home of an entrepreneur and an ace political operator. Osku, will you please marry me and make me happy for the rest of my life?’ Oskar leaned over to kiss his young lover. ‘You’re more than I ever thought I would find in life, my Piotrescu. I’ll think about it. I’m not saying no. Just ask me again sometime soon, when the king is crowned in Strelzen. By the way, I think you should know there is no gay marriage in Rothenia. We call it a civil partnership.’ ‘Whatever. I want to stand up with you as my life partner, Osku. Call it what you like. It’s what I want.’ *** ‘Little babe, will you stop staring down the Wejg.’ ‘Come on, Ed. Justy and Nate went down there when they were our age.’ ‘Yeah, and you know the story of what happened. Why so keen, Henry? You were all prim and proper in Amsterdam.’ ‘Yeah, yeah. I’m not suggesting we actually go in any of the bars and stuff … only, y’know, look!’ ‘Or ogle … I think you have ogling in mind.’ ‘Maybe. Ooh look! There’s Erotic Dream City! Remember the branch in Kesarstejne last year where you bought our … um … toy?’ Ed chuckled. ‘I still have it in my bedside table in Longley.’ ‘Just as well. My mum would be delighted to find it in my room in one of her regular drug sweeps disguised as cleaning.’ ‘Your mum’s a saint, Henry. Without her, your room would soon become impossible. I might look for days and not find you. What would that do to my libido?’ ‘Fire you up, I hope, sex god. I’m getting really horny. Maybe we should head back to the hotel. Perhaps Justy and Nate might be interested in some … er, fun.’ Ed went quiet for a moment. ‘You know what Nate and I were doing while you and Justy were getting it on?’ ‘Er … no.’ ‘Nothing. He gave my dick a few jerks, and I did the same for him; we had no real interest in doing what you two were up to. But you and Justy really got into it.’ ‘Well … he’s a sexy piece of work, you know that.’ ‘I know. And so it seems are you. You were so into it that it was hot watching the pair of you, but a little alarming too. Sex means a lot to you, Henry babe, more even than it does to Justy. He wouldn’t have gone the whole way with you, I could tell. He kept looking at Nate and giving him the come-on. It was all about getting his guy fired up. You, however, were making love to Justy.’ Henry was beginning not to like where the conversation was going. ‘Well, y’know, it was just part of the … flow of things.’ ‘Yeah, yeah. I wasn’t criticising, little babe. We were all there together and it was good. It wasn’t as if I objected. I was just saying.’ ‘Saying what?’ Ed paused. ‘It seems we have different attitudes to our favourite pursuit.’ ‘What does that mean?’ ‘Nothing … nothing at all.’ But Henry couldn’t help thinking that it meant a lot more than he wanted to know at that moment. They walked silently back up the Rodolferplaz.
  10. The first bell began ringing from the cathedral of Saints Andrew and Vitalis at ten, and, taking their cue from the mother church, the other bells of Strelzen awoke and sang. This was not the change ringing Henry knew from England, but the raucous and joyous carillon of continental Europe. As the noise swept and surged across the city, it set Henry’s nerve ends tingling. Terry had used his contacts to get them all into the Hilton, a new development on the low hill of the Sixth District, dipping into his not inconsiderable personal wealth to book luxury accommodations. So Henry and Ed woke in great comfort in an ample bed which they had used to the full the previous night; the smell of their multiple couplings was still hanging in the air. Ed went naked to the windows. He swept back the curtains, gazing down on the city from their ninth-floor eyrie. All looked quiet from that height, although the clanging and reverberating from the bell towers was audible even through the double glazing. The view was to the southeast over the palace grounds to the New City beyond. He could see the Rodolferplaz was already filling with people. Ed bounded back to bed, pulled the covers off Henry and slapped his small rump. ‘Come on, little babe, it’s Rudi’s special day. We can’t miss any of this.’ They showered quickly and dressed. Henry rang David’s room to make sure he would be downstairs waiting for them. Nathan and Justin were going to do their own thing, while Terry was busy with some jobs Will and Oskar had given him. Henry’s wallet was bursting with a huge wad of cash Terry had pushed into his hands with a kiss. While waiting for Ed to finish up in the bathroom, Henry checked Eastnet. Rudi was expected in Strelzen at noon, coming down from Modenehem in a special train. He was in a strange position. He could not be treated as a private citizen, but neither was he officially a public figure. The news bulletins referred to him as the ‘prince of Elphberg’ or ‘count of Hentzen’. He had been an absolute gift for the media, embargoed from reporting the election results till the polls closed. His every move was still being broadcast. Even now with the returns coming in, the arrival of an Elphberg in the capital was eclipsing the news concerning the collapse of the CDP’s bid for power. Trachtenberg, Maritz and their aides had disappeared behind closed doors to carry out negotiations about who would lead the new liberal coalition, and when they would schedule the referendum on the restoration of the monarchy. The rise of the Unity party had been relegated, as it were, to the back page. The current lead item on Eastnet 24 was the civic reception organised by the local authorities for the man everyone expected would soon be king. Until a new government had been formed, the participation of national-level politicians was ruled out. Rudi was therefore to be met at the railway station by the Burgomeister of the Nuevemesten and the Staroman of the Staramesten, the two cities of Strelzen, and the cardinal archbishop, who were clearly rejoicing at their moment in the national spotlight. *** Henry led his friends round the perimeter wall of the palace through streets swarming with happy, excited people. They bought Elphberg flags from the street traders. David scoffed at the tacky plastic ones showing Rudi’s smiling face, but Ed bought a few anyway so he could embarrass his friend with them when Rudi returned to school. Big though it was, the Rodolferplaz was jammed, and there would have been no getting a view if the boys had not been tipped off to go to No 33. Will’s old friend, a producer and cameraman called Bolslaw Meric, had a fourth-floor office and studio on the west side of the great square, where he had already set up his cameras in the window. ‘Hello, English boy queers. My facilities are at your disposal.’ He was a bald man in his sixties, rather fat and very roguish. Will had told them he was harmless, and not to worry about his mannerisms. They went to shake hands, but he gave them Rothenian double kisses, brushing their cheeks with his moustache, which gave off the smell of tobacco and what Henry thought might be absinthe. He showed them to his window, tall and wide, with plenty of room for them as well as his cameras. They hung out and looked over the packed square. All the other windows were full of people too, and most had flags hanging from them. Red and yellow bunting and drapes were everywhere. For the first time in many decades, workmen had taken out the posts, opening the royal drive up the centre of the square as a processional way. It was lined all the way up to the statue of Henry the Lion by soldiers in blue dress uniforms. When they leaned out, the boys could see the jutting apse of the Salvatorskirk further up the square, hung with religious banners. Apparently the ecclesiastical authorities were being given their moment to greet the Elphberg heir too, for a platform had been erected beneath a heavy brocade canopy. Henry wondered quite why such elaborate arrangements were needed. The bells of the city had fallen silent, other than those of the Salvatorskirk, which still clanged away above the crowded square. Once they had got used to Bolslaw they found him very pleasant company, if more than a little risqué. He had them open-mouthed with his stories of working in the gay-porn empire of Falkefilm. He made no secret of of his belief that Will Vincent was the hottest porn actor he had ever laid eyes on, brief though Will’s career had been. ‘You knew he was in porn then, naughty boys?’ David and Henry confessed to having seen clips from An American in Strelzen. David admitted to having subsequently tracked down all Oskar’s DVDs. ‘That Oskar,’ sighed Bolslaw, ‘so beautiful and so uninhibited. One of the greats of course, but he did not have the vulnerable sexiness of sweet Willemczu. I wish they’d made more than just that one film, but it still sells big for Falkefilm. It’s reckoned to be a porn classic. Look: across the square and north of us is Rodolferplaz 12, where Falkefilm has its offices. You can see the pretty boys hanging out the windows of the top floor studios waving flags. The gay community here in Strelzen is very enthusiastic about their new king. Not just that he is quite a hot-looking guy, of course. They seem to think that, once kings are in fashion, queens may have an easier time. Then there is all the dressing up for the new royal court.’ The boys were in stitches by then. He had cokes for them in his office fridge. ‘You’re like a gay granddad, Bolslaw!’ Henry chortled. ‘And you’re a nice-looking boy, little Hendrik. If you ever fancy a shoot, you’d take a sexy set.’ ‘What, not me?’ David groused. Bolslaw gave him a once over. ‘Not enough character for me, young man. But the less discriminating might like you.’ David guffawed, not in the least offended. The boom of an artillery piece from Bila Palacz rattled windows and sent pigeons into the air all over the city. The prince of Elphberg had reached the Kung-Rodolfs-Hauptbahnhof, and the municipal authorities had authorised a salute as near to a royal one as they dared. Henry asked Bolslaw if he had a TV set but was told he didn’t want one in either his office or apartment. He blamed television for the down-turn in the film industry that had been his living. Apparently, he had worked with Pasolini in Italy in the sixties. Henry was impressed. After about twenty minutes a stir in the crowd and the distant sound of military bands alerted them to Rudi’s approach. There were orders shouted over the murmur of the crowd, followed by a ripple along the line of soldiers leading up the square, as they presented arms. Cheers and applause began to be heard from Mikhelstrasse where it led into the plaza. Henry craned around the corner of the window jamb trying to see, with Ed pressing up behind him looking over his shoulder. Suddenly, military music sounded loud as a large band entered the square at the head of the procession. Flags began waving amid cheers and applause. A mounted squadron of Guards trotted on to the sanded cobbles of the royal drive, led by Rudi. He was not in an open carriage as they had expected, but riding a proud, beautiful, white stallion. He was wearing what they took to be a Rothenian general’s uniform, rich in gold braid and hung with aiguillettes – so that had been the emergency tailoring he had referred to. The red sash of the Order of the Rose lay across his chest, its star glittering at his breast. A laced shako with tall white plumes in the Austrian style graced his head. As Rudi entered the square and the roar of the vast crowd reached him, his horse skittered. With a masterful hand he checked it, bringing it back under control. He took off his shako and raised it to the crowd, a huge and boyish grin all over his handsome face, his red hair glowing as if lit by something more than Strelzen’s sunshine. He was a sight to see, still boyishly vulnerable but full of strength and hope. ‘Long lebst Kung Rodolf! Long lebst den Cherven Elphberg!’ rolled out again and again. Rudi replaced his cap with a flourish and rode on towards the head of the square. Henry found his cheeks were wet with tears, as few were not in the Rodolferplaz. Bolslaw blew his nose. ‘That I have lived to see such a day,’ he muttered in Rothenian. Then he let out an exclamation. ‘What is this? Why has the boy stopped at the church?’ Upon reaching the Salvatorskirk, Rudi had indeed reined his mount in. Once more he removed his shako, which he handed to the officer commanding his escort. The bells suddenly ceased their ringing, and a hush fell on the thousands assembled in the square. ‘Maybe he’s gonna ask the cardinal for a blessing?’ suggested David. ‘Listen!’ hissed Henry. The sound of a choir chanting rose above the murmur of the crowd, when out on to the square from Lindenstrasse came a religious procession. Henry heard the sound of Bolslaw’s heavy camera as he captured the historic moment. Acolytes bearing banners and candles preceded the chapter of the Salvatorskirk in their glittering copes. High amongst them on a litter they carried a tall reliquary, draped in red and gold. The choir’s anthem was suddenly preternaturally loud in the Rodolferplaz. Henry could distinctly hear the repeated phrase ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord’. The crowd stirred as it realised that something extraordinary was about to happen. ‘No! It can’t be!’ Henry exclaimed. ‘What is it?’ Ed asked. ‘I don’t believe it! It’s gotta be … but, how?’ Rudi vaulted easily from his mount and climbed on to the platform below the apse of the church, where the litter halted before him. He carefully removed the veil from the reliquary. There was utter silence in the square, followed by a great roar as the crowd realised what they were seeing. For Rudi had taken the Crown of Tassilo from the reliquary and raised it above his head! Eerie silence returned once more, and as Henry watched, everyone in the square – clergy, soldiers and people alike – fell to their knees. Clear above the rustling and a few muffled sobs Rudi’s voice rang out: Bozh zechne zu, men folk. En otchosciske zechnen pren men detchen. Bozh zechne voyje prubehn und pruchehn. (‘God bless you my people. A father’s blessing on his children. God bless your going out and coming in.’). It was the kungliche pozechnen, said by an Elphberg to his people in the heart of Strelzen, and the bells of the city rang out wildly in reply. To lighten the moment, Ed asked, ‘Did you get a good one of Rudi on his horse?’ ‘Rudi, you call our young Elphberg Rudi?’ Bolslaw dabbed at his wet eyes. His eyebrows were raised. ‘Of course,’ replied Ed. ‘Didn’t Will tell you we’re at school with him?’ Bolslaw’s jaw hung loose. ‘This was not mentioned. Heavens! So you know him well?’ ‘Well enough to have punched him twice!’ David explained with a grin. ‘Dobra Bozh!’ swore the old man. They had to spend the next quarter of an hour satisfying his curiosity. Rudi in the meantime had resumed his mount. With the crowd milling round him – soldiers and people both – he began a slow progress up the square. Many there were who grabbed at his hand to try and kiss it. His cavalry escort had its work cut out to force a way through the press to the Osraeum Palace where Rudi was to stay that night. Others surged after the Crown as the clergy returned it to the Salvatorskirk, where it was to rest amongst flowers on the high altar till it was required for what everyone was now certain would be the inevitable coronation of King Rudolf VI of Rothenia. For the first time since 1919 the royal banner – the plain red lion on yellow of the Elphbergs – was raised over the city, as it broke from the flagstaff of the Osraeum. Henry later learned that the banner unfurled that day was the same one that had been laid on the coffin of Queen Flavia during her state funeral, then raised for Maxim Elphberg on the day the Thuringian dynasty fell. While crowds milled around the square, singing national songs in a mood of huge euphoria, the boys stayed in the studio. Bolslaw pulled a bottle of Rothenian fruit wine out of the fridge so they could toast the health of King Rudolf VI while they viewed his photos. They selected a few and he printed them out, giving them one that he said he wanted them to get Rudi to sign for him if they had a chance. Then he insisted on taking a few shots of them, singly and together, as souvenirs he said. They signed one of all three of them for the old man. They kissed him back this time when he kissed them. ‘Goodbye, pretty boys … come back and see me sometime soon! Bozh men! What a day!’ *** Visitors were staying on and partying all over the city, waiting for the huge fireworks display over the presidential palace that had been promised for after sunset. It was with difficulty and quite a delay that the three boys managed to find a late lunch on Mikhelstrasse. Afterwards, they went to stare at the people patiently queuing to get in to the Salvatorskirk to see the Crown. The long line already stretched far along Lindenstrasse and would be there – and indeed growing – all night. They decided not to join it, instead going off to meet Nikki Baltasar, Henry’s friend, at his home in Sudmesten. When other kids from the Anglican church youth group in Strelzen turned up, Nikki’s parents had a celebratory barbeque in their back garden. It was a brilliant afternoon and evening for the lads. Davey in particular was a big success with the Rothenians, both for his looks and charm. When they got back to the hotel a little before the fireworks display started, all three reckoned they must have had a far better day of it than the others. A phone call brought Nathan and Justin to join them in watching the awe-inspiring display as it erupted from the palace grounds just below them. ‘What did you two do today?’ Henry asked Nathan. Justin scowled at him. ‘You mean when we weren’t arguing and sulking? We watched the parade, then hit the Wejg. It was half-price Guinness in the Irish bar.’ ‘What’s got into you two?’ asked Ed. ‘Not saying,’ snapped Justin. ‘Don’t seem that Lord fuckin’ Underwood here will let anyone do anyone a favour.’ ‘Cut it out, Justy.’ ‘No, you!’ ‘I give in.’ ‘Good.’ A moody silence descended on the group until David wondered, ‘What’s up tomorrow? Wanna take us down the Wejg, Justy?’ ‘No chance mate … the mood he’s in, Terry might kneecap me. Anyways, I got an appointment I gotta get ready for.’ ‘Okay, Justy, confess. What’s the mystery?’ Henry demanded. ‘Not saying. Iss private.’ Henry turned to Nathan. ‘You know, don’t you?’ Nathan gave him a cold look. ‘Yeah, I know. But Justy’s right. It’s not to be talked about. Maybe later, but not now.’ Somehow all of them were glad at that point to disappear to their respective beds. *** On Tuesday morning, the queue to see the Crown was still so far down Lindenstrasse that Ed and Henry gave up the idea of joining it, They decided instead to wander the streets of their favourite city and visit some of the places they loved the most. As they crossed the Rodolferplaz, Henry cried out, loud enough for people to turn and look, ‘Hey, it’s Justy! Justy!’ It was indeed Justin, who desperately motioned Henry to cool it. ‘What’s he doing?’ Henry asked Ed. ‘Dunno, but keep it down, Henry. I think he’s up to something. This has the stamp of Terry O’Brien all over it.’ So they walked past Justin, dodged down a side lane and were followed into it by the lad himself. ‘What’s going on, Justy?’ Ed demanded. ‘Stuff. Like I told you. Now will you fuck off and let me get on wiv it?’ ‘This is Terry, isn’t it?’ ‘Yeah … it’s security stuff. I done work for him before. We makes a good team, so will yer please bugger off before yer screws everyfink up?’ ‘Okay, we’re out of here, but you’d better fill us in later.’ They made a good day of it. Returning to the Salvatorskirk late in the afternoon, they found the queue now reached all the way to the ring road. They walked on past the end and climbed the hill to the Strelzen Hilton, where Terry was waiting for them in the lobby. He seemed pleased about something. ‘Fancy clubbing tonight?’ ‘What, us … being scene gays? Oh man!’ exclaimed Edward. Terry gave a tight smile. ‘It’s not New York or London, but such as it is you can sample the Strelzen scene. Club Liberation’s having a special Ruritanian night, so I arranged some fancy costumes for you, with the help of Oskar and Will. They’re on your beds. See you in an hour.’ Henry and Ed found beautifully tailored nineteenth-century dragoon uniforms in their room, complete with real swords and plumed silver helmets. They even fitted, though matching Henry’s small size could not have been easy. ‘Sir Elton would be proud of us,’ Ed declared, as he preened himself before the mirror. They looked like the cast of a comic opera when they were all down in the lobby waiting for the car. Terry was dashing in a hussar officer’s pelisse and tight pants, a curved sabre at his belt. Nathan was an imposingly tall grenadier, Justin a monocled and beribboned general. It was David, however, who was frankly superb as a breastplated guard cavalryman, his long legs encased in boots and spurs, his head adorned by a tall helmet. He jingled as he walked. They practised saluting and heel-clicking and fell about. They drew quite a crowd in the hotel, which cheered them as they emerged into Rodolferplaz to join the colourful queue for the famous gay club. Most people had made an effort to look nineteenth century. The small gay transvestite population of Strelzen had gone to town in ball gowns, bustles and ostrich feathers. Cameras were flashing in all directions. Henry was trying to get shots of everyone on his mobile. ‘My first gay night club! This is so un-Trewern,’ Henry crowed. ‘Not even Shrewsbury could match this, little babe,’ Ed assured him, a little ironically Henry thought. Terry paid the entrance fees and they more or less strutted into the club, which was an amazingly colourful sight that night. They secured a booth in the tabled area, and stared round at the mass of people. There were rather juicy young Rothenian waiters, done up that night in the long aprons and waxed moustaches of the Café Royale. ‘This ain’t like many clubs, little babes. Bit old fashioned, but mercifully pretty much drug-free, which is why I’m reasonably happy to bring you younger boys. There’s a dark room if you really must …’ ‘Dark room?’ asked Henry. ‘Place to shag,’ explained Terry. ‘They keep the lights down.’ ‘Oh … right.’ Henry blushed under his helmet, though he couldn’t have said why. David had taken his tall, crested helmet off, and was getting a lot of attention – much more than the rest of them. Henry had got used to David’s looks and body, and had forgotten that he was rather better looking than the ordinary boy. Then a very pretty blond Rothenian dressed up like a Victorian aesthete leaned over their booth and asked David if he would care to dance. David hesitated and looked at Terry, who shrugged, so David nodded. His top boots gave him a little difficulty when climbing out of the booth. He swore and unbuckled the spurs, then disappeared into the crowd. It was a while till they saw him again, which was when Ed talked Henry on to the floor, and they had a go at dancing. David was in passionate liplock and close embrace with the Rothenian, sporting a massive erection visible in his tight white breeches, and a look of total bliss. The pair disappeared, and when David finally turned up again, he had a very smug look on his face. ‘Okay. What happened?’ Ed hissed. ‘Fucked him,’ David grinned. ‘What, here? How?’ ‘In the toilets. I got my boots off and breeches down. He took all his clothes off and bent over the loo. Then I fucked him up the arse! I don’t believe it. I’ve done it! I’ve fucked a guy, and what a looker! What a fucking, hot tight arse! His name’s Anton, and I got his number. We’re gonna do it tomorrow too! All fucking day! Oh bugger, bugger! Why do we have to go back home on Thursday?’ Henry laughed. He was very pleased for his friend. Ed leaned over and kissed him, saying, ‘So can we assume from this, Davey, that you’re over Henry?’ David gave a delightful laugh. ‘I’ll never be over Henry, but I’ve found a distraction at least.’ Terry reappeared at this point with Justin, with whom he had been dancing. He listened to the news and looked at little solemn as he stared at David. ‘Sorry, Davey babe, but I’ve got to ask. Did you do it bareback?’ David raised an eyebrow. ‘Er … I did it with my trousers round my knees.’ Justin looked amused. ‘He means, did you put a condom on?’ ‘Er … didn’t have one. Anyway, he was only a young bloke.’ Terry looked even more solemn. ‘He may have been young, but he was able to take you up the arse with very little preparation, so he must be pretty experienced and he must have been doing it without protection for quite a while. They have HIV here too, Davey babe.’ David’s blissful expression evaporated, and Henry hated seeing it replaced by a look of sick fear. ‘Wha …?’ David stammered feebly. ‘Oh God, no. Oh please … don’t let this be happening.’ ‘Trip to the clinic for you, little one,’ Terry decreed, and Henry was almost sure there was a tinge of malice in his expression. That was the end of the night as far as David was concerned. Ed and Henry spent the next half hour trying to reassure him. ‘There’s HIV here, sure, but a lot less of it than in the west. And anyway, did you tell him he was your first?’ ‘Well sorta,’ David nodded. ‘I said I didn’t have much experience.’ ‘There you are then, Davey,’ concluded Henry, his fingers crossed. ‘He obviously sticks to other young blokes, maybe virgins, just so’s to minimise the risk.’ David began to look a bit happier. It was a straw to keep him afloat. Ed asked, ‘So will you still meet him tomorrow?’ David sighed. ‘If it’s gonna be a short life, it’d better be a merry one. Fuck it. Yes.’ Ed grinned. ‘That’s our Davey. So what was it like?’ David grinned back. ‘I thought you knew?’ ‘I only know what it’s like with my Henry.’ David took on a confiding air. ‘We started making out and he kept rubbing my dick, and I got my hands down the back of his trousers and felt his bum, and fingered in his crack looking for his … y’know. He was squirming against me … oh God, so hot, I’m going hard again. Then he whispered in my ear – as he was licking it – that he had to have my English dick in him. So we got in this stall and he just lost his clothes, like one moment they were there and the next they were gone, stuffed down the side of the loo. I struggled out of these fucking boots. He pulled my breeches down and said he couldn’t wait any more. So he just stuck his bum in the air and I felt round with my dick till I found his hole. I pushed. It caught and sort of slid in after a bit. And then … well, my body just took over. Wham, wham, bang!’ ‘Did he enjoy it ?’ ‘He said it was great. Maybe it was just the danger and the moment.’ David gave a regretful little laugh. ‘It couldna been my technique. After that, he sat on my lap and we kissed a bit, then he dressed and said to ring him tomorrow morning as he was going home.’ ‘You can’t have performed all that bad then.’ *** It must have been a little past midnight, when they were all sitting together again with drinks, that a tall presence loomed over the table. A big man, doing a very passable impersonation of Edward VII, sucked at a cigar and smiled down at them through his beard. ‘Good evening Terry,’ he said in a mid-Atlantic accent. ‘I see you’ve brought your travelling harem with you.’ Terry grinned back up. ‘Evening, Hendrik. I thought I might see you. How you doing?’ ‘Fine, thanks for asking. Introduce me.’ ‘Lads, say hello to my old acquaintance Hendrik Wilemmin, otherwise known as Anton Aramis, founder and proprietor of Falkefilm, owner of this joint – for which I can forgive him a lot – and of much else besides in Rothenia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Hendrik, these are Ed and Henry, Justin, Nathan and David. Visiting Rothenia on a school tennis tour.’ ‘My, you corrupted them quickly, Terry. Even for you that’s fast. Seriously, I was sorry to hear about Ramon. He was a great guy.’ Terry looked momentarily affected, and replied with a quiet thank you. ‘Come and sit down, Hendrik. You should socialise more with your customers. You’ve never gotten into the mine-host thing properly.’ ‘Terry, I employ people to do that. But you are not any ordinary customer. Come over to my booth. I have a few things to say.’ He disappeared to the other side of the club. ‘Now, boys, I’ve got some dealing to do. Justy, await the call.’ Justin grinned and polished his monocle, for which he had developed a strange affection. Ed looked hard at Justin. ‘Are we about to find out what you’ve been up to?’ ‘Sure, Eddie baby. You know when I saw you guys after lunch on Rodolferplaz?’ ‘Uh huh.’ ‘I was on my way to an appointment that had been fixed for me with Falkemodel – Hendrik’s gay porn agency.’ ‘Fixed for you?’ ‘Hendrik’s got only one weakness. He insists on auditioning all the new Falkefilm models and checking them out.’ ‘Checking them out?’ ‘Wanking them off, sometimes more.’ Nathan was glowering in the corner. Ed nodded and looked as though he understood something. ‘So,’ asked Henry, ‘who fixed the appointment? Justin grinned. ‘The same Elphberg sympathisers at Falkefilm who told us Wilemmin was selling us out. I was put on his day’s schedule as if I had been one of the boys picked up by their scouts. So I went up to the offices … just like me and Nate did last year when we got a bit drunk like, only this time I went all the way.’ ‘And enjoyed it,’ muttered Nathan. Justin looked momentarily annoyed, then gave an odd look at Nathan, as if he were an adult and Nathan a child. ‘Oh yeah, I enjoyed it, Nate. I’m more alive when I do these things than at any other time. Accept it, Nate. Iss what I am. I know you want to come and protect me, but babe, I’m a pretty mean piece of work meself. ‘S time you grew up and dealt with it. We ain’t kids in the back gardens of London anymore. Me, I was never a kid anyway.’ Although Nathan still looked rebellious, Ed asked Justin to continue. Justin nodded his head and went on. ‘So okay, I goes up to the reception and there’s three of us waiting. Nice looking lads … actually juicy-looking, super-hot lads; all of us wuz eighteen. They wuz nervous, cos I doan fink they’d done gay sex, and I doan fink they knew yet that they’d have to go all the way wiv Falkefilm. So I made ‘em even more nervous by coming on to one of them … y’know, hand-on-the-inside-of-his-thigh sorta thing. He freaked a bit but still sprang a boner. The other guy was more coy and up for it, I fink, so I came on even harder to him. I tried to talk him into a shag in the loos while we wuz waiting, only that freaked him. So like when they went in before me they wuz nearly wetting themselves with nerves. They musta done crap interviews, cos they got bounced straight back on to the street … did ‘em a favour really, I fink.’ ‘This was all in the plan?’ Ed asked, fascinated. ‘Terry’s plan, yeah. The two nervy virgins had been picked deliberate like – the coy dark-haired sexy sort we know turns Hendrik right on. And so it was my turn, the third of the dark-haired beauties, and a Westerner too. We know Hendrik likes Westerners.’ Henry was gaping. ‘This was a seduction scene? Bloody Nora!’ ‘Oh yeah. By now he was all fired up and frustrated. He must have tried it on wiv the second Rothenian, cos the kid came out of the room at a run and went straight in the lift. So it’s my turn now. I goes in all quiet and looking up at him through me long curlies and – be fair, mates – I’m not unpretty now, am I?’ ‘Anything but,’ confirmed Henry. ‘So he gave me the Falkefilm family spiel, sorta drooling at me as he does, and tells me to strip, which I do – no pants, by the way – and I spring a stiffie straight up. All the time I’m making love to him wiv me baby blues, and being sorta shy but eager wiv it. He can’t help himself, he comes over and starts wanking me, and then he really gets into it. He kisses me and tells me to display me arse, which I do, and he …’ Nathan got up and left with a snarl. ‘He what?’ David breathed, his interest in the scene very obvious. ‘He finger-fucks me, and I really get into it, moaning and cooing like. And I even rub meself against his leather sofa till I comes. That sort of spoils the moment, cos it’s expensive Italian leather and it’ll have to be cleaned, so he gets a bit cross. Otherwise, I think Nathan might have had a lot worse to forgive.’ Ed was confused. ‘I don’t get it. You seduce this bloke, but how does it help Terry?’ ‘Oh, well, guess! Wilemmin’s room was secretly wired for video coupla days ago by dissident technicians in the firm, friends of Will’s boyfriend, Felip, who Hendrik fired last year after he got into a head-to-head wiv Will over Rothenia’s future.’ ‘Oh … wow, so Hendrik is now filmed doing homosexual acts with a young lad who might easily have been underage! It’s blackmail,’ Ed concluded. ‘No, Ed, iss insurance. Hendrik is goin’ to use the fact that Rudi’s chief agent and the CEO of Strelsenermedia – Hendrik’s main rival – were gay porn actors, and he has footage to prove it, and some. He knows Will and Oskar have backed the winner in the election. He’s gonna threaten to piss all over the Elphberg parade if he doan get the same deal from Trachtenberg as he was going to get from Bermann.’ ‘Which was?’ ‘Licence to buy TV stations as well as run newspapers in Rothenia, which is currently illegal. He wants a bigger market share. He wants more money. What he’s telling Terry at the moment are his terms for Oskar’s surrender. And what … whoa, looks like I’m needed. Hold this monocle for me Henry. I’m going to introduce meself to Mr Wilemmin properly and give him a copy of the DVD we co-starred in. It’s Hendrik’s turn to get fucked, the dirty bastard.’
  11. A bang at the door woke the boys at six-thirty; the entwined couples stirred. Justin farted catastrophically, quickly swamping the lingering scent of sex in the room. ‘There, I fucking told you,’ Nathan groaned. He threw off the covers and wrinkled his nose in distaste. ‘Shall we shower in pairs?’ He made the question rhetorical by dragging Justin naked out into the corridor and along to the showers. Henry and Ed began kissing, until Henry broke off, dived under the duvet, and spent ten minutes sucking Ed off. When the others came back, Henry scampered away hand-in-hand with his Ed for their turn, and took him in a standing fuck in the stall. Since that was not something he’d previously tried, their differences in height meant Ed had to adopt an odd position so Henry could manage it. They strolled back with towels over shoulders, grinning as they met David coming out of his room in his boxers. They each gave him a kiss, and Henry rubbed his friend’s cock through his pants as they passed. ‘What did I miss last night?’ David groaned. They were all in reception by seven-thirty, demurely dressed in blazers and ties. The breakfast was as basic as the rooms, but they could at least eat as many somewhat dry croissants and rolls as they could stuff down themselves. ‘No fuckin’ Cheerios,’ grumbled Justin, ‘only fuckin’ millet.’ ‘Okay, little ones, listen up. It’s Palm Sunday and in Rothenia it’s the eve of election. We must be in the country by the end of today. If Maritz wins, life will get very interesting. If Bermann wins, we slink back to England, ‘cos there’ll be nothing else we can do. I hope it’s as simple as that, but you never know.’ Henry was at his post when the minibus pulled away. By the time they crossed the German frontier and were following the signs for Münster on the autobahn, he was convinced there were cars following them. He mentioned this to Terry, who laughed and told him he was very clever. He called back to Justin and asked him if Henry was right, Justin guffawed then gave detailed, accurate descriptions of three cars and their drivers. ‘Justin’s a natural, little Henry babe. He’s quick on his feet and very observant. It’s his criminal background. Yeah, they’re all my team. They’re taking it in turns to tail us, swopping five cars back, and five cars forward.’ They pulled off at Göttingen for an early lunch in a modern restaurant near the university. They were allowed no more than an hour before the van was off again. It was a long, tedious journey. Rudi and David shared the iPod David had thought to bring. Apparently Rudi liked heavy metal, which opened up a new aspect of Rudi’s character to Henry, when he was told. Justin dozed, something he could do for long periods – like a squirrel, as Nathan said. Nathan and Ed talked off and on. They had fallen into quite a close friendship, for they had a lot in common. Meanwhile, Terry piled on the miles through Saxony, crossing into the Czech Republic and heading up the valley of the Vltava until the splendour of Prague appeared beneath the Žižkov TV tower. Henry’s skills were tested to the limit as he got them to the rendezvous point next to the National Theatre. ‘You’ll like this place, Henry,’ Terry said. He led them into a large art-deco café overlooking the street and the river. Pointing out a picture of an absinthe drinker from the turn of the previous century, he remarked, ‘Thass famous, that.’ He made them eat heartily, warning them ominously that he could not guarantee when their next meal would be. An English couple stopped off at their table and said hello. The man was charmed to see them, as he was an Old Medwardinian who had recognised their ties and blazers. Terry hissed at Henry to give him a games-teacher’s name. Then he stood and introduced himself as Mr Walker. ‘It must be Easter holidays,’ the stranger commented. ‘Er … yeah,’ Terry mumbled. ‘We’re on our way to Rothenia, we’re the Year 11 tennis team,’ Henry butted in brightly, smiling. ‘We’re playing the high school at Modenehem, the national champions, tomorrow.’ ‘We called it the fifth form when I was at Edward VI,’ the man reminisced with a smile. ‘Are they good, these Rothenians?’ ‘The fuckin’ best, mate,’ blurted Justin into a suddenly frozen group. The couple stared open-mouthed at him. Terry, leaning close to them, whispered, ‘Tourette’s syndrome.’ ‘Ah!’ said the wife and explained it to her husband. He still looked taken aback as he wished them luck and moved on. After they were gone, Terry gave Justin a stinging crack behind the ear. ‘Plonker!’ ‘Ouch!’ *** There was a five-mile queue at the Rothenian frontier. All cars were being checked, not just lorries as was the usual case. It was late afternoon by the time green-uniformed border police banged the side of the van and asked Terry for the group’s passports. There followed a cursory check and a demand to know their destination, after which a Labrador was sent in to sniff around. It showed great interest in Justin, who growled uneasily, ‘Geroff, mutt!’ When the dog lolloped towards another vehicle, they were sent on their way. ‘Get us to Modenehem, Henry. It’ll be about half an hour from the frontier. Christ, I’m knackered.’ Five minutes later, Justin announced, ‘New car following us, Terry.’ Terry went suddenly into a very controlled mode. ‘Giss a description, Justy.’ ‘Black BMW, three blokes wiv cropped hair, three cars back. Our cars are nowhere to be seen.’ ‘Let me know if they move to pass us. Oh, and Rudi?’ ‘Yeah, Terry?’ ‘Keep your head down. Henry, reach inside my jacket under my left armpit and pull out what you find there.’ Henry extracted a pistol, which he held gingerly. ‘Now, being extremely careful, put it in between my legs.’ Henry complied, feeling very nervous. ‘Next, Henry, in my left jacket pocket is my mobile. Take it out and bring up the directory. Got it? Okay, you’ll see the name Antonin. Ring him and when he answers – as I hope to God he will – say the word “Renovatio”.’ ‘That’s all?’ ‘Get to it.’ Henry did. The tones were quickly followed by a male voice saying, ‘Prosim?’ ‘Renovatio,’ Henry replied as instructed, trying not to let his voice shake. After a breathless pause, there came a suppressed exclamation and the line went dead. ‘Lads,’ Terry announced, ‘I’m sorry to say that life may be about to get exciting. They’ve taken out our escort somehow, but we’re not quite as defenceless as they might think. Justy, give me a heads-up when they move to come alongside us, which they will do in about five minutes, I would guess. Then all of you get down on the floor, and don’t you fucking dare look up.’ It was only three minutes later that Justin yelled. Terry shouted, ‘Now, on the floor, boys! I’m hitting the pedal.’ The van surged forward into the traffic, careering round a Hungarian cattle truck and gaining speed up the fast line. Terry kept glancing intently in the wing mirror. ‘Fuck, we’ll never lose ‘em. Henry, keep your head down. Cat’s out of the bag now. I ‘spect they’ll have cars up ahead to block us. So we get off this road damn quick.’ The motorway chase went on for four more minutes. At the intersection before Modenehem, Terry pulled off a savage turn through the traffic on the outer lanes and roared down the ramp, lurching through the involved junction and on to a two-lane country road heading east that was signposted for Medeln. ‘You know where we’re going, Terry?’ shouted Justin from the back. ‘Hope so. Sneak a peek and tell me if they’re still with us.’ Justin knelt up, and as he did the back window burst in with a crack. Justin dived, glass in his hair. ‘Yeah, still wiv us,’ he announced coolly. ‘They seem to be getting fed up wiv us too.’ ‘Bastards,’ hissed Terry, ‘firing at a busload of kids.’ ‘With one very dangerous kid among them,’ responded Rudi. ‘Terry, if they’re gonna catch up with us, it’s me they’ll want. I’d rather they got me than have the blood of my friends on my head too. Pull over.’ ‘Sir, no! You’re not just a man, you’re Rothenia’s future.’ A faint crack reached them as another shot was taken at the bus. It seemed to miss. The road wound about and Terry was able to make the van a difficult target. When they came at last to a straight stretch, however, two quick shots took out a rear tyre. The van fishtailed and Terry had no choice. He swerved on to a farm track, burst a gate into flinders and pulled up. ‘Out, out!’ he yelled throwing open the side door. The lads ran into the woods. ‘Down!’ They huddled behind him. Ed threw himself on top of Henry, hugging him tightly. Terry took a bead on the path. A movement down the track drew a shot from him. ‘Ha!’ he crowed, ‘that’ll slow ‘em down a bit. They want you alive, sir. They’re not firing to kill …’ A volley of shots ripped through the leaves above them. ‘.. or possibly they are.’ ‘Terry,’ said Ed, ‘we should head deeper into the woods and try to hide Rudi.’ ‘No. Our best hope is to stay here. And will you stop bobbing up to see what’s goin’ on, Justy?’ ‘What do you know that we don’t?’ asked Nathan. Terry listened carefully. ‘That!’ he announced. Straining their ears, they heard a sudden thumping in the air, getting louder, deeper and angrier. Soon it was a roaring and the branches and leaves around them thrashed. A big green helicopter moved slowly over the treetops above them. There was a thunder of heavy machine guns that caused the black BMW down the track to explode in flames, the heat and concussion buffeting their faces. Two other helicopters were settling into a field, and troops in battledress were pouring out. The boys stood up, overwhelmed. Terry holstered his gun with a grin on his face. ‘You okay, sir? Lads?’ Henry started breathing again. ‘Fine, Terry. By the way, I just ain’t Matt Damon material, I’ve decided.’ Ed grabbed and hugged his shoulder. He could feel Ed’s heart pounding and his body shaking. A detail of a dozen helmeted soldiers carrying machine guns were coming up the track, led by an officer in a flak jacket and peaked cap. They stopped and the officer stepped forward, his eyes searching the group for Rudi. He snapped to attention, clicked his heels in the Germanic way and saluted crisply. ‘Welcome home to Rothenia, Your Majesty.’ Rudi came forward very coolly and shook the officer’s hand, asking in Rothenian, ‘Your name, soldier?’ ‘Major Antonin of the Presidential Guard, sir.’ He turned back to his men. ‘Present … arms!’ The detail came to rigid attention and slapped their weapons. Beaming, Rudi told the major to put his men at ease. ‘Have you secured the criminals?’ ‘Yes, sir. What would you like done with them?’ With a sidelong glance at Terry, Rudi responded. ‘Keep them in custody for now. I need to get to Modenehem at once. Have you some inconspicuous form of transport available? I’m afraid our van will no longer serve.’ The major smiled and saluted again, with a twinkle in his eye, saying pointedly, ‘As the king commands!’ ‘Not yet the king, major, and depending on the people, maybe not ever. But I thank you and your men in the name of the house of Elphberg. By the way, how the hell did you know where we were and that we were in danger?’ The major succeeded in looking boyish. ‘A company of troops is just coming up now, sir. You and your friends can ride back in one of the trucks. The president put the Guards depot in Modenehem on alert three days ago. Ever since you crossed the frontier, the General Staff has been tracking your van with GPS by means of the signal from Herr O’Brien’s mobile phone. He was given authority to call us out as a last resort.’ Henry, who had been following the Rothenian conversation intently, laughed when the significance of his phone call was explained. Rudi turned to Terry. ‘You might have told me about your fail-safe, you know.’ ‘I hoped it wouldn’t be necessary. After all, the kidnap and assassination of the Elphberg boy in Rothenia would not have helped the CDP much, but their dark allies don’t believe in half measures, it seems. Could I advise you, sir, that we must keep you under cover till at least tomorrow?’ Henry noticed how Rudi suddenly was no longer just another teenage schoolboy, but now had assumed control of events. Terry was no longer telling him what to do, only offering advice very deferentially. Henry looked at Rudi and realised he was not what he had been. Rather, he was a king returned to his kingdom, and he expected to be treated as such. Even experienced, grown men like Major Antonin and Terry were bending to his will. Henry remembered something and tugged urgently at Terry’s arm. ‘What about Jenna?’ Terry slapped his head and took his mobile back from Henry. He rang Jenna’s number and paced up and down till he got a reply. After talking a while he smiled at Henry. ‘Still at the frontier, little Henry babe. It looks like we were spotted by CDP sympathisers in the border police. They let us through, but pulled our escort over. Jenna said they were stopping any car with British or Americans inside. She’s dead frustrated, poor babe. They must have teams looking for Rudi at every major entry point. Luck was with us, though. If there had been a bigger team at this frontier we might have been boxed in and pulled off the road a lot earlier.’ Three army trucks roared up just then and a company of infantry marshalled in the road. Major Antonin escorted Rudi back down the lane. As he reached the troops an order was shouted, and with a crash they presented arms. When the major invited him to do so, Rudi inspected the men and exchanged a few words with them. Some of them forgot discipline to the point of smiling, even though they were an élite unit. It looked very odd indeed to see a boy in English school uniform taking the salute from a line of full-grown men in battledress. At the end of the line, a lieutenant removed his cap and quite unselfconsciously went down on his right knee, took Rudi’s hand and kissed it. Rudi put his hand on the young man’s head and spoke a few words to him. The young officer stood again, beaming with pride. Henry whispered to Ed, ‘He’s just done a big thing. Rudi said the king’s blessing over that man’s head, a pozechnen they call it … the officer must be from a noble family. I think now I see how desperately this country wants its king back. It’s so formal a land and its rituals only work when there’s a king to orchestrate them. Will and Oskar know what they’re doing.’ *** The army truck had them outside the Tarlenheim house in the small cathedral city of Modenehem in fifteen minutes. The major himself rode in the back with them. He stood at the salute as Rudi and the rest jumped down with their bags, then thumped the back of the cab. The truck growled off down the road. ‘Okay guys, I see we’re expected.’ The front door of the big townhouse burst open and Fritz tore across the courtyard to hurl himself at Justin, giving him a huge hug and a kiss on each cheek. Justin laughed and hugged the boy back. Oskar and Will followed the young prince out and stopped in front of Rudi, Oskar bowing from the waist. After letting go of Justin, Fritz knelt before Rudi as the lieutenant had, kissed his hand and received the same blessing. Oskar, tears in his eyes, exclaimed, ‘To think, sir, that an Elphberg would be coming home to his kingdom in my lifetime. Welcome to our house. But get in fast. We don’t want you seen by too many people.’ As the double doors closed behind them, Fritzy grabbed Henry and hugged him. ‘It’s great, Henry. It’s like being in the spy movies. And Oskar … wow, he’s like some revolutionary hero: Oskar the Red! The CDP had people watching us till Oskar talked to the police commandant, who had them picked up. The Christian Democrats may be strong here in Husbrau, but the Tarlenheims count for much more in this city.’ Henry studied Fritzy. The boy had grown since Henry had last seen him, and the two of them were now quite equal in height. He had filled out in the shoulders, too, and had more than just down on his upper lip. The boyish prettiness, while still evident, was fast giving way to the features of a young man. All the signs said this was going to be one handsome prince. ‘And Natasha?’ Fritz looked lofty. ‘I have moved on. I found her a little immature for my taste.’ ‘So that’s two girls who’ve dumped you.’ For the first time since they had known each other, Fritz showed annoyance, and it was directed at Henry. Oops, he said to himself, I’m not good at reading heterosexuals. Fritz gave him a quirky stare. ‘I wish I had a friend who knew about girls … there are too many gays in my life.’ ‘I’m sorry, Fritzy. I’m an idiot. I should know what being a young teen is like.’ In the meantime, the others had moved into one of the reception rooms. Fritzy took Henry’s hand and squeezed it, letting him know he was forgiven, then led him to a room which had been transformed into some sort of command centre. Several channels were playing on muted flatscreen monitors. People wearing headsets were working on computer terminals. A meeting was going on around the table. When Rudi entered, everybody stopped what they were doing and stood. There was a burst of applause and a lot of smiling. He went round being introduced to people, and receiving the short jerky bow which Rothenians gave to kings and princes. There was not much room there for a party of English schoolboys. After they briefly glanced around, Terry took all of them but Rudi out again into the hall. Fritz came with them. ‘Upstairs is less crowded, if you want,’ he informed them, and they followed him up the balustraded stairs. Henry introduced David to him. ‘Nice to meet you, David,’ he said, then added regretfully, ‘Another gay, I suppose.’ David smiled and admitted it. They filed into the upstairs drawing room, with its line of tall windows overlooking the street. Henry glanced down, noticing CDP posters on the street lamps and telephone poles outside the front courtyard. They appeared to be outnumbered, however, by others bearing the Elphberg lion, red on gold, and a crown. Apart from that, Modenehem seemed to be going about its daily business. The angelus was ringing, concluding vespers in the cathedral. A jet airliner was black against the pale evening sky. Terry threw himself on a sofa. ‘That’s me job done, lads. I’ve delivered me royal package, and you’re safe too. Nathan, ring Matt and Andy to tell them the job’s done and everybody’s okay. If you describe what happened at the frontier, though, will you sorta play down the drama? Don’t want them worried, do we?’ Nathan looked incredulous. ‘We were shot at, for God’s sake!’ They sat around, still in their Medwardine School uniforms. ‘What we gonna do now, Terry?’ Justin asked. ‘Don’t be disappointed, Justy. I doubt the action is over yet, but my responsibility for it is, thankfully. I’m juss glad I got you all here in one piece. Now remember, there’s big events goin’ on in this country, boys, and you’ll be glad you did your bit in them. Take in the grandstand view. History’s bein’ made and we wuz part of it for a while.’ *** As night was falling over Modenehem, Henry, Ed and David decided to go out into the cathedral square. The great church’s west front was lit by floodlights, and the square was bright with TV lighting. The world’s media had finally woken up to the significance of the Rothenian elections. German, American and British camera teams were in the square interviewing. A huge TV screen in front of the Radhaus was showing the crowds surging round the capital’s Rodolferplaz. Henry squinted. It seemed to him that the only banners showing in Strelzen were red and gold. No Unity, SDP or Christian Democrat colours could be seen, which was very odd. Although the crowds were less in Modenehem and there were many CDP banners, red and gold still predominated. Henry noticed that even some of the CDP supporters had the Elphberg colours tied to their arms. He nudged Ed. ‘There’s something going on here that no one counted on.’ ‘What are they shouting, Henry?’ ‘They’re calling for “The English Prince”, Ed! I suspect Will, Oskar and Maritz have put a match to a much bigger firework than they expected. I think events have overtaken them. They’re riding the tiger, and it’s gold and red, not gold and black. The people want their king back.’ ‘It’s fun though, isn’t it?’ David could hardly contain his excitement. ‘Seems more of a party than an election event,’ Ed remarked. The hotdog and burger sellers were doing a roaring trade, and the cafés were full. Some groups were singing national songs. The boys were fortunate to find a table outside the big gasthaus, where they sat next to a party of youngsters who were eager to talk. The Rothenians, all of whom spoke good English, told them they were lucky to be in the country that weekend. Henry was intrigued as to why the young people of Rothenia wanted the monarchy restored. ‘He’s so good looking,’ one girl giggled, ‘he makes your Prince William look so ordinary. And he’s a red Elphberg – that was always the best of luck in the old days.’ Her friend threw her a cold look. ‘It’s like this. The Third Republic was cobbled together when the Communists were thrown out. Boring and talentless men with no feel for the people. I suppose Maritz is nice enough, but he’ll never set the world alight. We Rothenians need passion in our leaders – and that applies to German Rothenians and Slavic Rothenians both. We all want our king, and he’ll be a glorious Elphberg, a Rudolf. He’ll be the soul of Rothenia. He’ll bring us back to life.’ David asked, ‘Don’t you think you’re expecting a bit much from a seventeen-year-old boy?’ ‘He is no ordinary boy,’ countered a lad, ‘he’s an Elphberg. They have the devil’s hair and the devil’s luck.’ Henry whispered to Ed that he pretty much agreed. ‘What do you think will happen in the election?’ David enquired. The second girl smiled. ‘Does it matter? The politicians haven’t got any choice this time. They have to bring the monarchy back.’ Henry was getting a little annoyed with all this gushing Rothenian emotion. It didn’t appeal to his English pragmatism. ‘What about the German problem? They don’t believe they get a fair deal from the government. A king in Strelzen may make them feel better, but what can he do about discrimination?’ ‘He’s an Elphberg … have you got any idea how powerful that name is in Rothenia? If the king thinks his people are being badly treated, he will make sure it is put right.’ Henry sighed. ‘A nation of romantics.’ The girl smiled rather nicely. ‘Short and merry lives are what Rothenians pray for, English boy.’ As they strolled back to the Tarlenheim house, Ed commented, ‘They aren’t English, Henry. There’s no point getting annoyed with them. Think of their history: continual wars and occupations. They only have their own sense of identity to console themselves with. They’ve earned the right to live in the past, if that’s what they want.’ Henry suddenly noticed people passing them in increasing numbers, talking excitedly. When they reached the little square in front of the Tarlenheim townhouse, they found it already packed, with more crowding in from all sides. Police were forcing their way through the massed crowd and lining up in front of the house’s tall railings. The street traders had been very alert. Big yellow flags with rampant red lions were being waved above the crowd, along with national tricolours. The cameras were already being set up in raised parts of the square, with reporters talking in front of them. Henry listened to the general buzz of conversation. ‘Guys, they’ve heard he’s here. They want to see Rudi!’ The crowd had hemmed them in and was now pushing them forward, towards the house. Chants began: ‘The English prince!’, but increasingly, ‘We want the king! We want the king!’ All the lights were on in the Tarlenheim house, where figures could be seen moving at the windows. Henry wondered whether Oskar and Will would try to tough it out and deny that Rudi was there. Suddenly the tall window above the front door was opened and a tricolour draped from its edge. The crowd instantly realised what that meant. For the first time in his sheltered life, Henry heard the roar of humanity in full throat. It sent prickles all over him and brought tears unbidden to his eyes. Shouts began of ‘Long lebst den Kung!’ Henry found he was doing it too, as were his friends. At last a tall, redheaded figure in a dark suit appeared in the window. If Henry had thought he’d already heard how loud a crowd could be, he found he was wrong. The cries were redoubled, only to be eventually swamped by the rising wave of the national anthem sung by thousands of voices: a very moving sound. It broke up in cheering and vast applause. Every time it looked as if Rudi was leaving the window, the crowd roared again, their flags waving frantically. After about fifteen minutes of this, someone inside realised that the crowd would stay all night unless they were talked to. A bullhorn had been found for Rudi, and when he raised it a quite uncanny silence fell as every person in the square concentrated on picking up what the youthful voice was saying. Henry made out most of it. ‘People of Rothenia! My people! (A roar broke out at that point.) This is an important night for us. Tomorrow’s vote will dictate the future of our country. We await your verdict, the people’s verdict. But one thing I know for certain: You want a king in Strelzen, and I … I am an Elphberg!’ An even greater roar broke out, echoing back from the house fronts of the square, with renewed shouts, this time ‘Long lebst Kung Rodolf!’ The crowd at last appeared satisfied. Although quite a few seemed inclined to stay the night, thousands more began breaking away and heading home, singing. Candles appeared in hundreds of hands, and those who were determined to keep a vigil for their king settled down in a small sea of flickering flames. The police formed little knots of blue uniforms, as excited as the people. Some lit up cigarettes. As they were picking their way towards the gates, David said, ‘Wasn’t Rudi brilliant? Where did he learn to speak like that? He must have improvised it. He really seemed like a king.’ ‘Genetics,’ Henry concluded. Going up to a police commander who had moved to block their way, he explained that they were English guests of the prince’s, caught up in the crowd. The commander listened and, since they were self-evidently English, went through the railings to ask at the door. After speaking to someone within, he signalled to his officers to let the three boys through. A lot of people stared at them as they passed the police cordon and entered the building. Terry was in the hall looking concerned. ‘No problems, babes?’ ‘Just a lot of excitement … awesome!’ David enthused. ‘You were right, Terry, history’s unrolling before our very eyes. What was going on in here? The crowd took you by surprise, didn’t it?’ ‘Certainly did. But it was a fantastic boost for the Elphberg cause. Have you seen the crowds in Strelzen and Zenden?’ ‘What’s going on there?’ Henry asked. ‘Huge, spontaneous monarchist demonstrations. The Ministry of the Interior estimates half a million on the streets in the capital. President Maritz issued a statement reiterating that, if his coalition survives the election, he will declare the restoration of the monarchy as soon as the result is confirmed.’ ‘Bloody hell!’ the boys gasped. ‘Just as good news is that the CDP have said they will “work towards the restoration of the monarchy and examine all options,” which hasn’t satisfied the crowds. Bermann got booed in his home town when he announced it. He looked taken aback and shifty. It won’t do him any good.’ ‘So what happens next,’ asked Henry. ‘Babes, our work here is done, so me and you are taking the school van and heading south to Strelzen. The army towed it to the engineers’ workshop in the Guards depot and fixed it up as good as new. The Head will never guess it took three bullets.’ ‘What about Rudi? What’s happening with him?’ Henry pursued. ‘He’s planning his own arrival in the capital. He’s not our concern anymore. He’s got lots of advisers to help and direct him. Rudi’s left our commonplace sphere, babes. He will be the King of Rothenia before the end of next week.’ ‘Double bloody hell!’ exclaimed David. ‘Come and have a drink, babes. The kitchen’s empty, even if every other room in this house is like an anthill. If you want something alcoholic, I ain’t going to stop you.’ Given the option, the lads decided to go for cokes. Henry burped and asked, ‘Are Justy and Nate coming with us to Strelzen?’ ‘Oh yeah … Justy and me got some business in the capital.’ Henry looked a question and Terry continued, ‘Iss sort of private, Henry. Maybe I’ll tell you later.’ ‘Don’t mean to be nosy,’ Henry apologised. ‘No, s’okay, I wasn’t annoyed or anything. Now, I ‘spect you’re all ready for bed. We gotta double up. You two couples are together in the servants’ quarters upstairs, and Davey’s with me again, in one of the first-floor guest rooms.’ David looked a little pleased, Henry noticed. Then he noticed something else: Terry had a new expression on his face as he peered through his lashes at their friend. When Henry and Ed were snuggled together in bed, they found it very difficult to sleep. They were in the front of the house, where the murmur of the crowd outside was constant. Henry told Ed how much he loved him, and kissed him deeply as a thank-you for his spontaneous gesture of protection in throwing his body over him when the bullets flew. Ed got a bit shaky as he vowed he would much rather he himself was killed than his little lover should get so much as a stubbed toe. There followed a long silence, ended by a giggle from Henry. ‘What is it, little babe?’ ‘Nothing … just watch Bounder boy at breakfast.’ *** David was definitely preoccupied in the morning. He abstractedly put a spoonful of sugar on his toast. Ed stared at him, then looked a question at Henry. With a sly smile Henry asked, ‘Sleep well, Davey?’ David all but jumped. ‘Er … yeah, fine, no problem.’ ‘Awesome bloke that Terry, isn’t he?’ ‘Yeah … totally awesome. Scary, funny and so, so kind.’ ‘Kind?’ Henry raised an eyebrow. ‘Y’know … I mean he cares about everyone he knows. He’d do anything for a mate. That sort of bloke.’ Henry glanced at Ed, then back to David. ‘Anything you want to tell us?’ David gave an embarrassed laugh. ‘Is it that obvious?’ ‘You’ve fallen for Terry, haven’t you?’ ‘Er … big-time. What a fantastic guy … and the age difference, it’s not that much. He’s just twenty-four!’ Henry grabbed David’s hand. ‘Stuff the age difference, Davey. Go for it.’ ‘But why would a bloke like that care for a kid like me? He could have his pick. And anyway, his boyfriend’s only been dead for a month or two. He’s still grieving. It’s a bit indecent even to think he’d be interested.’ Ed pursed his lips. ‘If you don’t mind my asking, what did you two do last night?’ ‘We lay together on his bed and talked. I told him about my coming out, and he told me about his experience … wow, some experience too! He seems to have shagged half Wiltshire when he was my age. He was kind … we sort of snuggled up. Then when I woke up he was hugging me, spooned up behind me. Fast asleep, mind, although his dick was hard up against my bum.’ ‘Were there clothes involved in this scenario?’ Henry was desperately curious. David went red. ‘I had my boxers on, but he was naked.’ Then he burst out, ‘Wish he’d taken my ass, but he just smiled and gave me a kiss in the morning. Didn’t even rub my hard on like you did. And he said that was the first night’s sleep he’d had since Ramon died.’ David looked almost tearful, until a memory made him grin. ‘The size on his dick … nine inches if it’s a centimetre, and curved upwards. Very muscular. The thought of that in me …. ooh.’ ‘Shut up, David!’ growled Ed. ‘You’re getting Henry excited and me feeling inadequate.’ Terry appeared at that point, looking a lot more cheerful than he had done for a while. He ruffled David’s dark hair and greeted them. ‘Rudi – I suppose I can still call him that – wants to see you before you go. He’s in the command-centre place with Will, having lots of strategy meetings. He just took a call from President Maritz.’ The three Medwardine boys shuffled into the front reception room. Rothenian secret servicemen now manning the door scanned them in an unfriendly way. Terry explained that the president had assigned them to Rudi earlier in the morning. Rudi and Will were alone in the room, watching the wide screen TV mounted on the wall. Will had a notebook open. ‘How’s it looking?’ asked Ed. ‘Not too bad,’ Will responded. ‘Projections are that Husbrau will still go for the CDP big time, but Husbraueners would vote Christian Democrat if they had an ape as candidate – and this time they more or less did. Nationally, however, they look unimpressive. The Unity party’s topping the polls, which makes an interesting dynamic. The Social Democrats are more or less unchanged. If Unity and Maritz get together, the new coalition won’t need the little parties. Bermann’s day is done, if our projections don’t lie. Maritz and Trachtenberg will cut a deal, it’s almost certain. My guess is that, although Unity is the smaller party, Trachtenberg will head the government. The people are tired of Maritz, while Trachtenberg’s brilliantly timed call for the restoration of the Elphbergs made him wildly popular, even with non-Germans.’ ‘Sir,’ said Henry to Rudi, for that form of address seemed appropriate now, ‘what about you?’ Rudi smiled. ‘I think I’ll be a king, Henry. I’m going down to Strelzen. It’s already arranged with the president.’ ‘What about your homework?’ Henry smirked. Rudi gave a barking laugh. ‘I’ll be back at Medwardine for the AS exams, Henry. Mother’s just been on the phone telling me that if I thought I was getting out of A Levels by having myself crowned, I was to think again. No, we’ll be seeing a lot of each other yet.’ Henry was delighted. Before he could stop himself, he did a very Henry thing and hugged Rudi, who hugged him back hard. ‘There,’ he said, ‘my bodyguards are crap. You should be dead by now.’ ‘Will we see you before we go back, Rudi?’ ‘I hope so, lads. You’ve got my mobile number, haven’t you? It still works. Make sure you’re in the Rodolferplaz tomorrow for midday. I imagine it’ll be quite a sight, though I can say no more than that. Oh, and believe it or not, I have an emergency appointment with a tailor, so off you go.’ They loaded up the school minibus round the back of the house, as the square at the front had filled again with people. The police had kept the back lane open, however, so they made their exit without much trouble. Justin and Nathan were having an argument about something when they got on. Nathan was plainly a little cross with Terry too, although he wouldn’t say why. They cheered up when they hit the autoroute to Strelzen, however. Henry and Ed amused themselves by giving David a rundown on their favourite city. Traffic was heavy, and they got stuck in a tailback well before reaching the outer city ring-road. Henry, as ever, was immediately on the case, taking them off the motorway and on to the boulevards down to the Government Quarter and University and under the trees of Bila Palacz. ‘Look lads! Look!’ Along the main roads, workmen were putting up hangings of red and yellow on the lamp posts. Portraits of Rudi were everywhere. Most windows had tricolours or Elphberg flags hanging from them. Strelzen was getting ready to welcome home the man who would be its king.
  12. Justin, eyes alight, was on deck as soon as the ferry’s Tannoy warned of their imminent docking. ‘Amsterdam innit!’ ‘No, Justy,’ Nathan reminded him for the third time, ‘it’s Rotterdam Europort.’ ‘Same difference.’ ‘Not really. One’s full of containers, and the other is full of sex workers and drug dealers.’ ‘Which is this one?’ ‘Look around.’ ‘Fuck. Boxes everywhere. When am I ever gonna get to see the capital of skunk and porn?’ Nathan sighed. ‘Whoever said travel broadens the mind obviously hadn’t met you.’ Henry was creasing himself. He came up to Justin, whom he loved dearly, kissed him lightly on the cheek and hugged his arm as he leant at the rail. ‘We’ll be at Skunkopolis for lunch, Justy.’ Justin kissed Henry back and brightened. ‘What, really?’ ‘Yeah. I think we’re going to stop off there for Terry to brief his people.’ ‘And do you fink we’re gonna have time to do adventurous stuff?’ Nathan raised his eyebrows. ‘As if what we’re already doing isn’t adventurous enough, Justy. It’s the call of the sleaze, ain’t it, animal babe?’ ‘Look, Nate me mate. You’ve known me long enuff now. I’ve got me natural level … pretty basic as it happens. I can’t go to a place and not live low life to the full. Have I ever gotten you into any real trouble?’ Nathan’s jaw hung slack as he stared at his partner. ‘You’re kiddin’ me! Your previous adventures have got me drugged, drunk out of my mind, signed up with a gay porn studio and nearly date-raped! Henry, can you believe this guy?’ Henry, by then incoherent with laughter, staggered off to find Ed. All the boys assembled on the car deck, demurely dressed in Medwardine school uniforms and looking as clean and deceptively innocent a party of late teens as ever could be. ‘Yer doin’ me proud, lads,’ smiled Terry, unlocking the doors to the van. They piled in, Henry snuggling next to Ed, who peered at him. ‘Henry babe, you need a shave.’ ‘Really?’ ‘You’re getting hairier, y’know. There’re black wisps appearing round your sweet little nips, and I’m gonna have to take a razor to your bum. You can borrow my gear tonight to do your face.’ ‘Is it that bad?’ ‘No, you’re still soft rather than bristly, but there’s no doubt my little Henry is a man … and your dick’s bigger too.’ Henry laughed. ‘Maturity, here I come!’ David was sitting in front of Henry. Henry leaned over the seat to give him a quick kiss on the cheek. With a big grin, David asked, ‘What’s that for?’ ‘For coming out, you sweetheart. Did you get much sleep?’ ‘Not much. Mostly we talked. Terry says he barely sleeps at all nowadays. He’s so sad, but he can still be funny too. The things he told me about his sex life when he was our age … it was a real education.’ Henry was intrigued; he’d never got that close to Terry. ‘It’s a good thing he’s talking to someone, Davey. You’re doing him a real favour. From what I hear, he was never given a chance to grieve properly for his Ramon.’ ‘I guessed that.’ David twisted his head closer to Henry’s ear and whispered, ‘He was crying in the night when he thought I was asleep … sort of dry sobbing. I lay quiet. He seems the kind of bloke who would think it weak to be seen like that.’ ‘Oh jeez, poor guy.’ Terry was however fully in control that morning, driving skilfully on the busy autoroute north to Amsterdam. ‘Henry,’ he called out, ‘slip in the front here. Will says you’re brilliant at map reading.’ ‘Henry the Navigator, that’s me!’ Henry replied, squirming over to take the empty front passenger seat next to Terry. He found the maps and city plans, quickly located himself and began briefing Terry on the route ahead. He showed an unerring instinct for which lane the van needed to be in. As the flat countryside sped past, Terry was soon smiling. ‘How long’s your mate Davey been out, Henry babe?’ ‘I’ve known he was gay since last year. We sort of do stuff we shouldn’t. I figured that out because Ed spanked me when I told him.’ Terry guffawed. ‘Do David’s parents know?’ ‘No. In fact, nobody does apart from the people in this minibus. I’m not sure he’s ready to come out fully yet, though there’s no doubt he’s gay. He’s awfully nice.’ ‘Why Henry, you fancy him!’ Henry blushed. ‘Yes, well, maybe I do a bit. But it’s complicated.’ Terry chuckled. ‘It’s complicated because you’re a kid with a moral outlook … not like me, I’m afraid. Poor Ramon had a lot to put up with …’ The remark was followed by a long silence. The Hague sped by. ‘Terry, what’re we going to do when we get to Amsterdam?’ ‘I’m not entirely sure, sweet babe. We may have to spend the night there. Jenna’s made a booking in the name of King Edward VI Medwardine in a cheapish hotel that’s well-known for taking school parties.’ ‘That’s good news for Justy then. He wants to be dissolute so bad.’ Terry laughed again. ‘You do cheer me up, you kids. You’re the best medicine I could have hoped for.’ ‘Terry, Andy told me you’d retired from security work. What brought you back?’ ‘Difficult one.’ Terry paused a long while. Henry began to think he wasn’t going to answer, but finally he did. ‘When Ramon died, nothing I was doing seemed worth a tinker’s cuss any more – I was going to say “worth a fuck”, but, hey, you’re a kid. Without him by my side, I didn’t want to be on the boards or in the chorus. I just couldn’t face New York, so I came back to the UK, which was better because Ramon had not been there much with me. I did nothing but doss around at my parents’, or climb mountains, or work out at gyms. Then two weeks ago, Mark – Jenna’s husband – rang me to say that a big thing was in the air at PeacherCorp, and would I help out. ‘As soon as I strapped on my gun, I felt better. I wish I knew why. Life … began to sort of tingle once more. Not knowing what was going to happen next, I was on the edge again. Maybe I’m even looking forward to serious danger … hell, death would be one way out.’ Suddenly Terry became contrite. ‘Sorry little babe, I shouldna said that last thing. There’s no way I would deliberately lead you kids into a situation where you were in serious danger.’ Henry stared at him solemnly. ‘Death is one way out, of course. But I don’t think Ramon will be too pleased with you if you turn up before you’re scheduled to. He’ll be waiting happily and patiently for you in an amazing place.’ Terry’s eyes snapped to Henry so quickly the van swerved slightly. ‘What did you say?’ ‘Only what I know to be true.’ Terry’s cheeks were suddenly streaked with tears. Eyes still fixed on the road, he said quietly, ‘Yeah, Matt told me what happened to you and Ed last year. I didn’t believe him – but it was true, wasn’t it?’ ‘Oh yes, and Ed can tell you too. We had a glimpse of the other side. You can take it from me that you will one day be with Ramon again in a place beyond your dreams. He can wait. So can you.’ ‘You really are a vicar’s kid, you’ve got that way of talking. Thanks, little babe.’ He pulled Henry up against him, and kissed the top of his head. Henry got a whiff of tobacco smoke. ‘Smoking is a form of suicide, y’know,’ he chided in a scolding voice. ‘Hah … tell Justy. I cadged the ciggies off him.’ Henry looked back. ‘You still smoking, Justy?’ Justin sniggered. ‘Oh yeah. Giving it up’s easy. I’ve done it dozens of times now.’ *** The hotel in Amsterdam near the Central Station was pretty basic, but clean. Terry checked them in. They were careful to call him ‘sir’ whenever they talked to him, keeping up the masquerade. Ed and Henry were put in a long room with Justin and Nathan. David and Rudi had a double, and Terry was in a single. After making a few mobile calls, he told them the rest of the day and the evening were theirs. They were to change into casuals. ‘Sir,’ he warned Rudi, ‘I must ask you to stay with me. I’m sorry. I know you’d rather be with your friends, but we can’t assume we’ve crossed to the Continent unobserved. I know we weren’t followed from Rotterdam, but that’s neither here nor there. If we were spotted on the ferry, they would have called ahead to alert agents here.’ ‘I’ll stay with you and Rudi, Terry, and keep him company,’ offered David. ‘You’re a good lad,’ Terry complimented him, and David beamed. ‘Now, I’ve got a wad of euros here to spread around between you other four. Take it from me, though, that you will be searched before you get back on the minibus. I don’t want no problems at the Rothenian border. They’re really hot against drugs. ‘And another thing. I ain’t really your teacher, as a result of which if you get into any serious trouble it’s okay for me to shoot you in the kneecaps. Remember that, favourite babes.’ They laughed and went thundering up to their room to change, then came thundering back down and out on to the streets with a whoop. ‘Do your magic, Henry,’ commanded Ed. ‘Dam Square is this way, guys!’ Amsterdam was warm, though it was not yet Easter, and the midday sun was a watery yellow in a humid, faintly hazy sky. The four boys were just one amongst many wandering groups of young males. They sat and talked with other British lads in the square and were tipped off as to a cannabis café that wasn’t too particular. Justin grinned. ‘You gonna tell on us, Henry?’ ‘Nope. Though I’m not going to smoke. These places gotta serve coffee too, haven’t they? Or they wouldn’t be cafés.’ Henry surprised himself by his coolness in following the others into the dingy sink of iniquity they found off a small side street near the city museum. He wondered why. He decided it was probably because he was with Justin, who seemed unfazed and unaffected by any wild situation, and also because he was in the shelter of two big blokes like Nathan and Ed. While the others took a table and got drinks, Justin haggled by the counter and came back with some papers and a small packet. Soon he had a spliff and was sucking away, adding to the ambience of oily smoke. When Henry’s nose began to tickle in the vegetable stink, he wondered whether he was getting high. Realising he didn’t know what to look for, he shrugged off the idea and sipped at his double espresso, which he hoped would cancel the effect of the weed. Justin grinned and twitched his eyebrows. ‘Thass ambition number one achieved. You wanna know the next one?’ Ed gave him a hard look. ‘Let me guess … live sex show?’ Justin’s grin widened. ‘Live gay sex show.’ ‘You’re on your own mate,’ Ed informed him. ‘Sorry, but no,’ Henry agreed. ‘I think I’ll do something more cultural.’ Justin suddenly looked alarmed. ‘Aw, come on. How ’bout you, Nate? Yer knows what this means to me.’ ‘You and public sex, you sad little git,’ Nathan scolded. ‘Why should I pander to your perversions?’ Justin cuddled against his lover. He tried and failed to put on an appealing puppy-dog face as he looked up. ‘Iss cos you love me, innit.’ ‘Give me that, chavvy babe.’ Nathan snatched the spliff and took a deep drag. ‘Okay, I’ll go with you, but only to keep you out of trouble. It’s eleven-thirty now. How about we meet you guys at the Oude Kerk at three? You can do the Rembrandt House and pick up a nice lunch, and as you do, remember my sacrifice. They say the shop windows round the church are worth goggling at, even if you’re gay.’ Justin was bouncing in his seat, ready to move on. His twitchiness was probably enhanced by the marijuana. Henry and Ed surreptitiously watched their fellow customers for a while, then took their leave. ‘I hope they’ll be okay,’ Henry worried. ‘Justin’s like a cat, little babe. Throw him in the air and he’ll always fall on his feet. And our Nate is a big strong guy. Anyway, I hope Justy does get into a club where he can wank off till he’s stupefied. Don’t forget we’re in the same room as that sack of hormones tonight.’ *** They were still waiting at three-thirty at the Oude Kerk, and the limited charm of the prostitutes in the shop fronts had long worn off. Neither of them could raise Nathan or Justin on their mobiles. Ed had just suggested they head back to the hotel when the other two finally appeared round a corner, bickering. Justin was very disgruntled. ‘Fuckin’ total waste of money! Didn’t see any penetration. He was going bald and in his thirties … “Fresh Twinkie Sex” my fuckin’ arse. His mate was a real screaming queen too. Couldn’t even get it up as he minced across the stage.’ ‘You saw one guy jerk off.’ ‘You think! I saw him lift his bum and squeak. That was that.’ ‘Guys,’ Nathan sighed, turning to the others, ‘your caution about following sleaze-boy here was perfectly justified. The price to get in and the cost of the drinks more or less cleaned us out, and it was, as Justy has eloquently explained, a total waste of time and money. How was your afternoon?’ ‘Rather enjoyable as it happens.’ ‘As I feared,’ grumbled Nathan. ‘The wages of sin are acute boredom.’ Henry chirped up with a smile. ‘Never mind, Nate, we got some compensation for you … we found a sweet little gay bar for young people at the nicer end of the Warmoesstraat. Let’s go wave the rainbow flag and be upfront queers for a bit.’ Justin was still grumbling when they got their drinks and found a table in a clean and well-appointed bar full principally of gay and lesbian students. He eyed up the next table as Nathan got him an Indonesian beer. ‘Maybe I should shave me head and get some new piercings.’ ‘Your hair is gorgeous … Matt spends a fortune on it. Shaving it would be a major cultural tragedy. Also, I’d have nothing to hold on to when I take you from … oops, sorry lads, you probably think that’s too much information.’ ‘I hold Henry under the armpits myself, but I go in low and hard. You take Justy with his bum high I imagine.’ Nate looked shyly lecherous, an odd expression, but that’s the only way to describe it. ‘Yeah … I do. Even thinking about it’s getting me hard. No dark room here, eh Justy babe?’ Justin’s face cleared and he laughed. They stayed in the bar eyeing up the Dutch boys and being eyed back for a whole ninety minutes, before they had to rush up the street to keep their dinner appointment with Terry and the others. Terry was quite cheerful when they arrived, although David and Rudi gave off a distinctly bored air. Terry led them on foot to the dock of a low canal cruiser that offered dinner. ‘I booked a table here, babes. It’s probably not the best food in Amsterdam, but the local Peacher guys say it’s not bad. For me, though, the point is that it’ll be difficult to bug our conversation.’ ‘Is that likely?’ Rudi queried. ‘No sir,’ replied Terry, ‘but after so many years in this game you get to assume automatically that someone is after you – occupational paranoia.’ They took their time over the meal, which was a pretty passable Italian. The only excitement about it was the scene when Justin tried to sneak garlic bread past the vigilant gaze of Nathan. ‘No, you little sod … give it here.’ ‘No! Iss mine, you bastard.’ There was a subdued wrestling match under the table. ‘Stop it, the pair of you,’ Terry growled. ‘You’re rocking the fucking boat. Whass going on?’ Nathan finally wrenched most of the bread out of Justin’s hands, leaving him with a small portion which he defiantly chewed and swallowed. ‘It’s Justin’s digestive plumbing. If any garlic gets in it, he produces vast quantities of gas. You’ll know it tomorrow, you guys,’ he added, glancing significantly at Ed and Henry. At the end of the meal, Terry looked out on the converging perspective of the darkening canal and the long lines of gabled frontages they were chugging past. ‘Just a few things to say, lads. Firstly, so far as my people can tell, we’re undetected. There may be agents here in Amsterdam, but if so, they’re not on the lookout for you, sir. ‘And sir, Oskar asked me to pass on a message from your mum. She said she was praying for you, and that you were to remember Rudolf V, how he lived and died. What does that mean?’ ‘It’s something known only to the Rassendylls and Tarlenheims,’ Rudi replied, his eyes literally blazing. There was silence. Terry resumed. ‘Back in Rothenia, the election will be on Monday, and tomorrow the blackout on election broadcasts begins. Tonight there’s a very special feature on Eastnet and the commercial channels about a monarchist solution. With that the Elphberg restoration will hit the mainstream. Will Vincent says the online petition has now passed a million signatures and all the political parties are waking up to the vote potential. The key thing is that President Maritz brokered a secret meeting this morning with Helmut Trachtenberg of the Unity Party. Rather than risk the CDP’s taking the balance of power, Trachtenberg has agreed to form a coalition with the remnants of Maritz’s Social Democrats after the election, and set up a constitutional convention to dismantle the Third Republic. This all depends, of course, on quite how badly the election savages Maritz. It is very possible that the Social Democrats and Unity Party will fail to raise a majority between them. The desperate last throw is that Trachtenberg has agreed to give a broadcast tonight proposing the monarchist solution, as if it came from him. It won’t do his core vote any harm – quite the opposite – and it may sway a lot of voters away from the CDP and the Communists. ‘Now boys, it’s eight o’clock and the boat is about to dock. Just down the street is an Internet café, which Jenna rented for the evening so we could set up a big screen to show the Eastnet feature and phone-in. We would have done it in the comfort of the PeacherCorp offices, but if anywhere’s likely to be watched, it’s there.’ In a subdued mood, Terry and the six boys walked down along the canal side to the café, which had posted a notice on the door saying it was closed. Jenna and two men were awaiting them. When Rudi entered, they automatically covered him as if he were the US president. Henry thought how this might be his future now, although Rudi didn’t seem too fazed by it. There was no sign of a proprietor and it was two other security men who served them soft drinks. The big wall screen was already playing the streamed Eastnet channel, which was showing a live broadcast from the Rodolferplaz in Strelzen. Eastnet journalists were interviewing people in the street, where it was pretty evident that Will Vincent’s Internet campaign had produced dividends. Elphberg banners were everywhere. Some young people were even wearing red lion masks. Henry was pleased to find he could follow most of the interviews. He was particularly riveted when one middle-class lady said that, as far as she was concerned, you couldn’t trust politicians with the future. Only the monarchy had ever worked, as it saw itself holding the kingdom in trust for future generations. A guy in the background shouted out, ‘We want the Elphbergs!’ When some members of the crowd responded that they were dead and gone, three or four others came back to contradict them, shouting that they wanted the ‘Prinz Angliske’. The reporter looked confused at that point, and moved elsewhere in the crowd. Nonetheless, as the programme ended, calls for ‘the English prince’ were still echoing in the great square, along with much flourishing of red-and-gold banners. Henry whispered summaries of what was going on to Nate and Ed. Justin had got himself a beer and was apparently zoned out. Terry looked at Rudi, who was translating the comments for him. ‘Couldn’t be better, sir. Will’s campaign is coming together. Though I wonder whether Oskar had those guys planted in the crowd. One of them looked suspiciously like a Falkefilm model.’ After a few adverts, which got Justin interested again, the feature began. It was presented by the Strelsenermedia director of news and information, Oskar’s old university friend, Tomas Weissman. The present crisis was briskly outlined, and the state of the parties summarised. It looked on the face of things as if the CDP was headed for victory if the Maritz coalition came apart and the fragments moved to the right. Doubting that interpretation, Henry did some quick maths. If the Social Democrat vote held up and the Unity Party performed to its best, then a Maritz-Trachtenberg coalition would easily overshadow the rest. Although the programme didn’t mention this as an option, it did give a powerful diagnosis of the failures of the Third Republic, and heavily pushed the idea of reform. Henry noticed Rudi go tense at that point, and sit forward in his chair. Tomas began a lead into a recorded portion with clips from Matt White’s influential documentary on the Elphberg dynasty. He continued by discussing the 1880 crisis and the disastrous accession of the Thuringians. Then he recalled the suppressed claims of the Burlesdon Elphbergs, disappointed in 1880 and again in 1919. There were shots of Rudi’s home in Suffolk, where the camera mounted a grand staircase focussing on portraits of successive earls from the sixth to the thirteenth, Rudi’s dad. Tomas was waiting at the top of the stairs to lead the way along a great gallery and through tall double doors. Henry prodded a tense Rudi in the back. ‘Nice pad you got there, mate.’ Tension made Rudi giggle. ‘Watch the next bit,’ he hissed. And there he was, standing at a marble fireplace in a well-cut suit, looking rather handsome if not so tall as in person. He shook Tomas’s hand and greeted him in perfect Rothenian. They took facing chairs in the classic celebrity interview style. ‘Sir,’ Tomas began in Rothenian, ‘many of our viewers will know little about you.’ An amazingly relaxed Rudi smiled warmly. ‘I am the Elphberg heir, Herr Weissman, Rudolf Robert Maxim Elphberg-Rassendyll, direct descendant in the male line of King Rudolf III. I’m seventeen and finishing school in England, despite which I know Rothenia intimately. In fact, I hold dual citizenship, and I am count of Hentzau as well as earl of Burlesdon here in England.’ ‘Your Rothenian is very good, sir,’ continued Tomas. ‘I can’t tell it isn’t your first language.’ ‘My grandmother is of the family of Vinodol-Kesarstejne. She had me speaking Rothenian from the time I was a baby, and I have spent several summers in the country, where I am landowner.’ ‘There’s a lot of interest at the moment, sir, in a restoration of the monarchy. Your ancestor of the same name was excluded from succession by the illegitimacy of his descent from Rudolf III.’ ‘That was 1880, Mr Weissman. In 1910 Rothenia accepted Maxim Elphberg, brother of the eleventh earl, as king. That removed any obstacle for a claim to succession by an illegitimate descendant.’ ‘Do I take it from that, sir, that you consider yourself a claimant to the ancient throne of Ruritania?’ ‘I do. There is nothing I would like better than to be the next Elphberg king. It’s something I have been preparing for all my life: to restore the great tradition of tolerance that my ancestors blessed their kingdom with. I want to be a new focus for unity in a troubled country, the way the Bourbons have been in Spain and the house of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha in Belgium. Of course, the future of Rothenia is for the people to decide. But with a king in place above the squabbles of the Parlementplaz they will at least be able to rally to one national figurehead.’ ‘Sir, how do you feel about the present crisis in Rothenia?’ ‘I know ethnic divisions are opening up which could be closed by a touch of Elphberg glue. Although my family was once German, it came to express all that is best about Rothenia – the warmth, the passion and the courage that are at the heart of my people: warmth of brotherly love, passion for justice, and courage to grasp a neighbour’s hand. The idea that there may be some who think Rothenia would be a better place if it were turned into another Bosnia is insanity … I know what Rudolf V and Flavia would have thought of such an absurd notion.’ ‘And I imagine we know what Henry the Lion would have done about it?’ Rudi gave a polite laugh. ‘Rothenia has earned its right to be ranked with the great European democracies. It was Rudolf V who promoted parliament within the old constitution. My people now have a choice before them. If they choose to recall my family, I will be honoured to answer their call.’ Tomas thanked Rudi, and turned to the camera. ‘So there he is, ladies and gentlemen, the man who would be King Rudolf VI.’ The broadcast returned to the studio, where Tomas kicked off a marathon call-in with a panel of constitutional experts. The phone lines were jammed. Halfway through, he responded to breaking news he was hearing by announcing that they were switching over to Rechtenberg city hall, where Helmut Trachtenberg was making a statement. Appearing at a podium ranked with mics, he began by reading a carefully prepared declaration to which he said his party’s central office had just agreed. The Unity Party was fully committing itself to constitutional reform as the only possible way to hold the country together. In furtherance of that reform, it would support the restoration of the monarchy. Cameras flashed and there was a tumult of shouting. When the programme finally got back to the call-in, a poll was establishing that over three-quarters of the callers wanted reform and two-thirds wanted the monarchy back. The petition site had crashed from the number of hits on it. ‘Either that,’ reflected Terry, ‘or that git Hendrik has taken it down.’ It was as the news came on that Will Vincent engineered a cunning ambush on the CDP. When Eastnet journalists flat-footed Bermann by telling him of the Unity Party’s announcement, he went into a frantic and ugly tirade that left little doubt about the nature of the government he would head, and was guaranteed to turn off any floating voters. It was broadcast regularly every fifteen minutes thereafter on the rolling news. To cap it all, President Maritz, when likewise challenged, gave a measured and statesmanlike response that he would by no means rule out a constitutional convention or a referendum as possible avenues of future unity. ‘Like clockwork, boys, like clockwork,’ Terry chortled as they got up to leave. ‘Will and Oskar have done a brilliant job … but now it’s up to the voters, who’ll have their own ideas, I don’t doubt.’ ‘Hey Rudi, when did you do that interview?’ asked Ed. Rudi looked a little shy. ‘Oh, er … Eastnet came and filmed it at exeat. I had to find a way of getting the grandparents out of the house, which wasn’t easy.’ ‘No wonder you were so tense,’ Ed went on. ‘Did you think up all that yourself?’ ‘Actually yes, I did, though I tried it out on Oskar first.’ ‘Cool,’ decided Henry. ‘When we get back, you can do the next sixth-form assembly.’ *** The boys were drained intellectually by the time they returned to their modest hotel, but physically they were humming. Ed and Henry followed Nathan and Justin up to their room, where they arranged the beds into two doubles and then sat on them. ‘How do we do this?’ Ed asked a little nervously. Justin grinned suggestively at the question but it was Nathan who answered. ‘Guys, I’m sorry but I’ve got to have my little mate’s arse and now.’ Justin smiled and nodded. Nathan continued, ‘If you want to be modest, then you’d better give us half an hour. But I rather hope …’ Ed looked at Henry and then they too nodded. Ed closed with Henry and began kissing him while stripping him, and Nathan did the same to Justin. Soon the smaller boys were naked, and Justin was grinning lasciviously at Henry over Nathan’s shoulder as his lover kissed and sucked at the hollow space in his neck. Nathan broke off and shed his own clothes, followed not long after by Ed. Lying on their adjacent beds, the couples began a protracted session of foreplay, heightened amazingly by each watching the other. Soon it went beyond voyeurism as Henry was given his chance. He and Justin left Ed and Nate and began making out big time, their lips around each other’s cocks, while the bigger men sat masturbating each other watching their respective mates engaged in an erotic frenzy of sucking, stroking and fingering. Justin’s passion was a revelation to Henry; he squirmed like an eel on heat and made small moans of passion as Henry’s fingers and lips aroused him. At one point his head dived between Henry’s buttocks, his tongue easily penetrating his open anus and searching around inside him till Henry lost it, groaned and looked down as his cock leaked cum on to the sheets below him. Nathan eventually could wait no more. He hauled Henry off Justin, put Justin on all fours, and began rimming him patiently and persistently. Ed took Justin’s place and did the same with Henry. Henry laid his head down on his arms and smiled across at Justin, who made kissing actions with his lips. Henry was soon moaning again. After ten minutes, Nathan began preparing Justin with his fingers. Henry felt his own lover’s fingers do the same, followed by the cool drip of lube on his hole. The bigger boys entered their lovers simultaneously, Henry and Justin both up on fours with their backs arching as they were penetrated. For a while Ed matched Nathan, who had covered Justin and was pushing into him slowly and patiently. Henry loved watching Justin’s beautiful cock swaying between his legs with the thrusts. Ed soon pressed Henry down flatter into the bed and reached up under his arms. Henry loved this part as Ed possessed him totally, burying himself deeper and deeper until he was as far in as he could go, then rotating his hips and reaming Henry with his length. The further stimulation to Henry’s already stimulated prostate was awesome, making him groan and bit the sheets. Noticing Justin’s lustful eyes fixed on his, Henry reached across the gap in the beds and ran his hand up and down Justin’s arm. Justin caught the hand, kissed it and sucked Henry’s fingers. Both Nathan and Ed now began pumping hard into their lovers. Ed lost it first, almost crushing Henry as he tensed and shot deep inside him. They both collapsed, still connected, while Nathan finished off Justin, pulling him up from the bed and gripping him round the waist as he did the final thrusts hard up into the slim kneeling boy clasped to him. Then they too fell forward. They all lay dazed, until Justin rose on his elbows and crowed, ‘So I got my live sex show after all … and man, was it fucking hot!’
  13. Terry got the three boys back to school in plenty of time for breakfast, dropping them at the lane on the Ludlow Road leading to the copse where their deadly adventure had begun. A dawn mist had settled across the school grounds, rising from the surface of the Mere and its stream. Rudi and David were thus able to enter the school buildings by the refectory door unobserved, allowing them to mingle with the early breakfast queue. Ed galloped across to Longley to change out of his stinking clothes and take a quick shower. The sixth-formers at Medwardine had their own private rooms, and since the three had no history of sneaking in and out of the grounds to the pubs in the town, the boys’ overnight absence had not been noticed. Ed was surprised to find how ravenous he was when he rejoined Rudi and David, whom he found chatting as if they were old mates. He settled opposite Rudi, and gave him a straight stare. ‘Talk, Rudi.’ Rudi sighed, and looked at him and David. ‘Can I first shake you by the hand, Ed?’ ‘Why?’ ‘By charging in like that you may have done far more than save my life.’ ‘Okay, but enough of the mystery.’ Rudi had not finished. ‘And David, you’re an irritating twat, but I want us to be friends. So this is a big sorry. Will you please just shake my hand? This is me begging.’ David redeemed himself by grinning and doing just that. ‘Now the explanation. You’ve been to Rothenia, Ed. What do you know about the Elphbergs?’ Ed smiled, glad Henry had remorselessly tutored him on Rothenian history and culture. ‘They were a German princely family that inherited the duchy of Rothenia in the mid-fifteenth century. When they became kings in the seventeenth century, they were really successful in holding their country together. It was a shame that their line ended in 1880 with the death of the great Queen Flavia, leaving the country to be ruined by a bunch of German wankers. I’ve seen how Rothenians still place flowers on the grave of her and her hubby, Rudolf V … apparently they even did it under the Communists, and some were sent to labour camps as a result.’ ‘Did you ever see a portrait of Rudolf III?’ ‘As it happens, yes I did. There’s a good one in the Tarlenheim Palace. Sardonic looking bloke, wasn’t he, and he was a …’ Ed suddenly looked hard at Rudi and his face took on a startled expression. Rudi smiled. ‘Yes, a redhead. Quite a resemblance, isn’t there?’ ‘How …?’ ‘In 1738 Rudolf, then crown prince, visited England and stayed a few months. He had an affair with the countess of Burlesdon and they had a son. The Lord Burlesdon of those days had no choice but to put up with it, because royal princes could get away with murder, literally. In the end, Lord Burlesdon may have been grateful. He had no other children and a young healthy boy had been provided free of charge to carry on the Burlesdon line – although, of course, the boy was no Rassendyll, he was an Elphberg …’ ‘… but illegitimate.’ ‘Naturally. Illegitimate, but not unacknowledged. The royal house of Ruritania were happy to call the Burlesdons their cousins. King Ferdinand, the son of Rudolf III, even visited Burlesdon House in the 1790s, and stayed for the shooting. We have a picture of him in the gallery, next to his half-brother, the sixth earl. In 1868, Queen Flavia went so far as to grant us a noble estate, the confiscated castle and lordship of Hentzen. I am in fact earl of Burlesdon in England and count of Hentzau in Rothenia. In 1880 there was some talk of transferring the succession of Ruritania to the tenth earl, my ancestor Robert Rassendyll. Unfortunately, the illegitimacy meant that the then-cardinal archbishop of Strelzen crushed the idea, so the succession went to the German dukes of Thuringia.’ ‘I think I see where this is going,’ exclaimed Ed, looking a little excited. Rudi smiled. ‘The fact that a true Elphberg line lived on in England has never been forgotten. And between 1910 and 1919 my kinsman, Maxim Elphberg, was king, and though the Rothenians eventually dumped him, he was more than a little of a hero. After that there were Rassendylls living in Rothenia till 1939 to remind the people they existed. But the monarchists never got the upper hand over the republic, and my great-grandfather screwed up big time by playing footsie with the fascists.’ ‘Have the people now changed their mind?’ asked Ed. ‘The country is in crisis, and the people have never forgotten what the Elphbergs did in their day. The idea of the Elphbergs is tied up inextricably with Rothenian greatness, especially the great days of Henry the Lion, of Flavia and Maxim. A country needs something to unite around, and a popular monarchy can do that. My granddad keeps on mentioning the success of the present Spanish royal family in similar circumstances. Many Rothenians want an Elphberg king again.’ ‘You!’ said David, finally catching on. ‘Me,’ Rudi affirmed with a smile. ‘Oh my God,’ whispered David in awe. ‘I’ve gone and thumped a king!’ ‘No, you thumped an earl, who might yet be a king.’ Ed frowned. ‘But how do you get round the illegitimacy thing?’ Rudi succeeded in adopting a professorial air, though waving around a breakfast sausage impaled on a fork did not add to the effect. ‘You could argue that it became void when Rothenia joined the Council of Europe after Communism fell and subscribed to the European Convention on Human Rights and various other conventions. Under one of them, illegitimacy no longer excludes someone from his rights of succession, which would make me truly the heir to the throne of Rothenia. ‘When Britain signed up it made a reservation covering succession to its throne, but of course Rothenia didn’t have a throne at the time so didn’t bother. I suppose you could argue just as well that signing up to the Convention didn’t change anything retrospectively, but in that case I would add that Maxim Elphberg-Rassendyll actually managed to get himself crowned in the civil war of 1910 and then rule for nine years, illegitimacy or no illegitimacy. I’m his closest heir.’ ‘King Rudolf VI of Rothenia.’ Ed himself was more than a little awed. ‘That’s me … possibly.’ ‘Bloody hell!’ said David and Edward together. ‘Well, that explains a lot, sir,’ said Ed. ‘You called me, “sir”,’ observed Rudi. ‘One day I may be calling you “your majesty”, sir.’ ‘Let’s stick with Rudi for now … but not “Broody”, please.’ Rudi gave a sheepish sort of grin. ‘Okay, you’re the king. There’s a lot left for you to explain, though. You came running out of school last night expecting to meet someone in the trees. Who was it?’ Rudi grimaced. ‘This is where I’m going on guess work. I’ve been preparing for this … oh, since I was born. My grandmother is a really special lady, herself a countess and princess of Rothenia. My father died when I was very young, before he could pursue his claim. She then started training me in the history and traditions of my family, so when the time came I would be able to take up the struggle. ‘Well, the time came early last year, when a monarchist group began to make real progress. My grandmother was contacted by its chief organiser, a Rothenian nobleman with contacts across the media and throughout national life. The Third Republic is already on the ropes and the nation is crying out for a unifying force. We think it’s the monarchy. ‘You’ve been to my country, Ed. You know how very formal a place it is. There are deep wells of tradition ready to be drawn upon, but the deepest and purest is the monarchy. Uncap that, and the nation will be refreshed. All that’s best about the place will be renewed, and people like those CDP hardliners will be washed away. They are only on the rise because Rothenians have no hope. By offering my people a real alternative, I can give them hope. It’s my time.’ Ed stared at his friend, who suddenly seemed like a different person: fluent, passionate and inspired. He scratched his head. ‘You’d have my vote, Rudi, if I had one. But how did you get suckered into that ambush?’ ‘Got a call on my mobile. The guy said he was from the London embassy and wanted to arrange an urgent meeting for me with the president in advance of the elections next Monday. I was to rendezvous with his agent on the school perimeter.’ ‘And you believed him?’ ‘I had no reason not to. My mobile number is only known to the Elphberg loyalists, and he said he had it direct from their leader, my friend Count Oskar.’ David raised his eyebrows. ‘And you didn’t ring this Oskar guy to double check?’ ‘Of course, yes! But I couldn’t raise him. By then it was time for the meeting. You know how bad reception is in this place. Events are already moving fast, and secrecy has been the main thing all along.’ David shook his head. ‘I dunno mate, you’re a bit trusting.’ Rudi, once more a seventeen-year-old, shot him a quirky look. ‘It’s gonna take a while to get used to your concern for me, Bounder.’ Unabashed, David carried on, ‘Rudi, does your mum know about this?’ ‘Of course. It was my dad’s dearest wish to bring monarchy back to Rothenia, and she supports me right down the line.’ ‘Wow. Seriously? Y’know, for a seventeen-year-old, you’re some cool guy.’ ‘Fifteen-year-olds have before now led armies into battle, Bounder. Where was I? Oh yes. Now, with the elections next week, the crisis has come. Maritz has played a careful game. My guys think he may be ready to jump into the monarchist camp, now that it’s in his party’s interest to do it. That’s why I was so easily suckered into that trap. It was a call I was expecting. ‘Your guys?’ Ed was suddenly deeply curious. ‘I’ve secured the support of the regional TV conglomerate, Strelsenermedia. There’s been a media and Internet blitz in Rothenia over the past week, and a national Web petition in favour of the monarchy is already attracting huge numbers of signatures.’ Ed was looking intently at Rudi. ‘Strelsenermedia. You mean Will and Oskar?’ Rudi frowned. ‘Yes, I was aware you know Will Vincent and Oskar zu Terlenehem. Oskar mentioned he knew two boys in this school. He thought you and I would get on, and you would help me find acceptance. But by then, I’d crapped up, knocking little Henry down the way I did. It could have been a disaster if Henry hadn’t turned out to be the decent sort of human being he is.’ ‘That’s my little babe: decent and a human being. So. Things are suddenly clearer. Will and Oskar are very close to my foster fathers, Sir Andrew Peacher and Matthew White. Terry was chief security adviser to PeacherCorp. So who turned up like the cavalry when things went pear-shaped yesterday? No less than Terry O’Brien, the head PeacherCorp enforcer. That was no coincidence. Matt and Andy are up to their eyes in this business.’ ‘I see what you mean,’ mused Rudi. ‘So Will and Oskar have bigger players behind them? Is that what you’re suggesting?’ ‘I wouldn’t put it exactly that way. I don’t think my foster dads are interested in world domination, but they would help Will out if he asked. Matt and Will are very close mates. If Will wanted a special eye kept on you, Matt would go to Terry. He’s awesome, as you have seen for yourself. Now, the final question is this: how has there been such a bad breach of security?’ Rudi shrugged. ‘No idea. I need to know more about what was going on there.’ ‘So who were last night’s thugs, do you think?’ ‘I’m pretty sure thye were past agents of the Communist-era secret service, the ODR. The CDP has associations with some unsavoury elements in the former Communist regime. They’re up to their old dirty game, and looking to come back on the CDP’s coat-tails. It’s the reason Rothenia needs me; they’re the alternative.’ ‘So now what?’ David asked. ‘How can we help?’ Rudi did a double take. ‘Scratch that. This is too dangerous. You’re innocent bystanders; don’t even think of taking out an option on this business. I go alone to Rothenia.’ ‘I think Terry may have his views about that.’ Ed’s phone went at that moment. It was Terry. ‘Hey, favourite babe, how are you feeling?’ ‘Bushwacked about sums it up. What’s going on, Terry?’ ‘That will be made clear in the fullness of time, O muscular one. Have you and your little friends got your passports with you?’ ‘I have, and Henry has his at home, I know. Hey, Davey. Have you got your passport here in school? Yes? Why do you want to know, Terry?’ ‘I’d like to borrow you all for a few days. Matt and Andy say I can have you, and Mr and Mrs Atwood are okay to take Henry. Can your mate David come too? We need a couple more teens and then we’re good to go … them and a school minibus and a load of uniforms and tennis gear.’ ‘How are you going to get hold of a Medwardine school minibus? No … I don’t want to know. I’ll organise the uniforms and tennis gear if you can organise the extra teens.’ Terry laughed. ‘I’ve already got two in mind. Bring along two extra sets of Medwardine uniforms, one David-sized and one your size. See if David can swing consent, then ring me back.’ David called his parents. They gave him disgruntled permission to stay at Trewern rectory for the week, although they complained it was short notice. When Ed rang Terry back, he received a mass of instructions, as well as orders to be in the school car park at three with the required gear. Then they would make a quick detour to Trewern and head for the motorway. ‘Is this dangerous, Terry?’ he finally asked. ‘A little. But with a bit of cheek, we can pull it off.’ *** At three o’clock, Ed was in the car park. He had a big sports bag with sets of Year 11 blazers, house ties, white shirts and grey trousers he’d scavenged from mates in the block. Risking humiliation, he, Davey and Rudi were already in school uniform. He felt odd, as if he’d regressed two years. His gear was a bit tight at the armpits and crotch, but it just about fit still. He’d also got bags full of school tennis gear he’d taken from the sports store. A minibus in Edward VI Grammar livery drew up. Terry, dressed in mechanic’s overalls, was in the front seat. ‘Ows it goin’, guvn’r?’ he enquired in passable Cockney. ‘This ‘ere brand new van’s been recalled by the manufacturer. The engine blocks are faulty. I reckon it’ll be a fortnight before the school can ‘ave it back. Shame innit? Get in lads and be quick about it.’ Terry drove straight to Trewern, where they picked up Henry. After he and Ed had a quick hug with mum and dad, they were on their way. Henry breathlessly asked what the fuck was going on, and where were they really going, because he didn’t believe the half-arsed story Matt had given his parents. It took all the way to the M6 finally to explain it to his satisfaction. He looked at Rudi with some awe. Rudi smiled back. Now they were on the road he was happy enough. It was late in the evening when they reached the outskirts of Ipswich, and drew up with a crackle of gravel in the car park of the ‘Haddesley Hall Garden Centre and Pet Supplies’. Two very familiar figures were waiting with bags. Henry leaped out the sliding door and into the arms of a pretty and cocky looking lad, kissing him frantically and being spun round. As he broke off he yelled, ‘Justy! It’s holiday time!’ and they laughed together hilariously. Ed had in the meantime grabbed and kissed the other lad, bigger and stockier than his friend, and quite a match for Ed in build, if not looks. Rudi stared and David was shy. Justin Peacher-White and Nathan Underwood were introduced, after they had hugged and kissed Terry, Justin doing it with a peculiar tenderness. David looked as though he wished someone would kiss him. Rudi was still staring. ‘I take it then that everybody here is gay, apart from me and David.’ ‘Er, actually,’ said David, ‘you’re the only straight here. I’m gay too.’ Henry and Ed laughed delightedly, and Henry went dancing round David singing in his dreadful voice, ‘He’s outed! He’s outed!’ Then he gave David his first public boy-on-boy kiss. Ed hauled Henry off him a little roughly, smiled at David, and then lifted and kissed him too. ‘Welcome to the margins, Davey babe.’ ‘Great,’ observed Rudi. ‘By the way, I am not a homosexual … I hope that is understood.’ ‘Wan’ some tea or somefink before we’re off? We got time, Terry?’ asked Justin. ‘No lads. Just lock up and we have to go. Who’s running the centre for the next week?’ Nathan smiled. ‘The gardener’s wife has been helping out on the till for a month now, and her husband’s happy to keep the plant stock in order for the week. Business should survive. It’s the quiet time of year.’ ‘Okay, now strip off and get in these uniforms Ed brought,’ Terry ordered. Justin took him literally, and was standing in only socks and boxers in the car park before he dressed up in blazer and tie. He looked strangely convincing as a schoolboy. He felt really odd, as he later said, because he’d spent most of his time and energy as a kid avoiding being anywhere near schools. In ten minutes they were loaded and ready. Before they pulled out of the car park, Terry fixed two professionally printed banners to the front and back windows: ‘MEDWARDINE SCHOOL: EUROPEAN TENNIS TOUR’ they said, with the school badge appropriately emblazoned. Terry then changed into a very skilful recreation of a games teacher’s casual gear, complete with Harlequins tie and a sports jacket with patches. When he even began projecting the mannerisms, Henry could see why he had been pursuing a career on the stage. David was impressed. ‘How could you get those banners done in just a couple of hours, Terry?’ Terry grinned at him. ‘Money, Davey babe, and Jenna being scary.’ David gave the distinct impression that he liked being called ‘Davey babe’ by Terry. Davey was one of them now, and Henry wondered if in fact Terry had already spotted him for what he was. They reached Harwich just in time for the loading of the night ferry to Rotterdam. They were all too excited to sleep, although Terry had booked double cabins. They changed out of the uniforms and into casuals, so they could sneak into the bar. As usual, no one wanted to risk Henry’s being challenged, so he was hidden behind the bigger lads. But in fact it was Justin who was refused at the bar, much to his amusement. A flourishing of his passport got him his pint of lager. They all leaned towards Terry, and Henry asked him what the plan was. ‘Iss to get … er, Rudi … to Strelzen safely. Simple as that.’ ‘But it won’t be simple, will it, Terry?’ said Nathan. ‘No, it won’t. I’ve been in touch with Oskar. The border police are jittery, and the CDP has mobilised sympathisers all along the frontier. We won’t get past the border without being inspected closely. But a party of English schoolkids passing through on a tennis tour isn’t gonna get too much attention, I hope. Bermann’s men may know our overall plans now, but this bit they can’t be aware of.’ ‘And how do they know our plans?’ Ed asked, although he guessed the answer. ‘That bugger Wilemmin is playing both sides against the middle. I owe him for that. Mind you, iss probably his revenge for the last time we had a face-off – he lost bad that time. But I thought we wuz mates now. We stayed with him in his villa near Split only two years ago, me and Ramon …’ Terry tailed off and his eyes glazed. An uncomfortable silence fell over the table. It was broken by David, of all of them, saying with great sincerity, ‘We were terribly sorry to hear about Ramon dying like that, Terry. He sounds like he was a great guy.’ Terry smiled at David. ‘You’re a nice kid, y’know? Yeah, he wuz the best. Endlessly loving, patient and so kind. He taught me that relationships aren’t all about getting your end away, and that there are people you can settle with and be everything to. And now he’s gone. I don’t think you meet two people like that in your lifetime.’ Terry talked with such gentle sadness that there was very little anyone else could think of saying. Henry felt a prickling in his eyes. He grabbed Ed’s hand and squeezed it, feeling properly guilty about his little flings with David. Nathan roused them by asking if there was any backup. ‘Oh yeah,’ said Terry. ‘Jenna, Zeke and a couple of teams are already in Holland. They’ll be shadowing us in hired cars. Also I’ve got guys getting a safe house ready near Strelzen, the location of which won’t be known to anyone likely to tell Mr Wilemmin.’ Rudi finally roused himself. ‘Terry, there is one question. You knew that Wilemmin had blown our scheme to the CDP, didn’t you. How was that?’ ‘Not soon enough, I’m afraid. The call came through from Oskar only just in time for me to get a team together. Thank God I was staying in Medwardine, keeping my eye on the school.’ ‘I saw you one day!’ cried Ed. I told Henry, but he wouldn’t believe me!’ ‘Clever lad!’ Terry laughed. ‘It was touch and go at the end. I was there watching them Rothenian agents, but I could do nothing as Jenna and Zeke were still trying to get to me. If Ed and Davey had not intervened, I’d have had to try to pick them off on me own, which would have been seriously risky. You two gave me time to assemble me squad. You wuz a real head-scratching problem for them; they wuzn’t too bright, I think. They had to retreat to their hideout to get the clearance to … well, to kill you along with Rudi. ‘So far as Hendrik is concerned, all I can say is that there are people close to him who are loyal to you, sir, and who let us know that he wuz feeding intelligence to Bermann’s people. They are still at work in your interest. Make no mistake, sir. There are many in your land who are willing to risk a lot so you may sit on the throne in your palace of Strelzen.’ ‘It will not be forgotten when that day comes,’ said Rudi, and all the boys got an eerie feeling they were indeed in the presence of a king, albeit a king in exile. Even Justin couldn’t seem to think of anything flippant to say. ‘Now babes, who’re the couples here? Double cabin keys for Justy and Nate, and for Henry and Ed. Off you go and keep the noise down. Sir, you’ve got one to yourself. Davey, you’re with me … sorry.’ David gave a gentle smile and said he wasn’t bothered. Henry stared hard at him; there was something new in that expression. Whenever David looked at Henry, there was yearning need in his eyes. This was different. It seemed David was maturing a bit, losing his teenage self-absorption. He was sorry for Terry and had been touched by his loss, so much was clear. Henry came to the conclusion that Davey was going to be a really nice guy when he finally did grow up. They finished their drinks. Henry and Ed went to their cabin. Terry said he would wander on deck, although Henry suspected he was going to check out the entire ship before he retired. Ed and Henry stripped and snuggled up on the lower bunk. It was a tight fit. ‘Want to spank me again, Ed?’ Henry smirked. ‘Look, my bum is still a bit red.’ Ed gave a little laugh. ‘Just remember that I can do it, naughty Henry. No, I need to talk about what happened.’ Henry embraced his lover hard, wrapping as much of himself round Ed as he could, while Ed spilled out the terror and confusion of the last twenty-four hours. ‘The thing that scared me most, Henry, was not that my life was on the line, although I know now that it was. No, I was kidding myself nearly to the end that it was just some sort of chaotic kidnapping of Rudi gone wrong. It was what happened after Terry’s team released us. Jenna and Zeke, and probably Terry too, killed those guys. Maybe not in cold blood, and, yes, it was to save our lives. But one moment those three blokes were alive and the next they weren’t. The look on Jenna’s face after she’d done it, too – it was totally cold. It was horrible. It’s only now here with you that it’s hit home. Those three guys were murdered – self-defence, perhaps, but murdered. I was an accessory to it, as my vile parents would no doubt tell me. Whatever, I can’t see myself going to the police in any hurry. I’ve stepped out of what’s normal into someplace else.’ ‘It’s high politics, Ed. Forget morality; this is the land where the ends justify the means. And, like you, I’m already having second thoughts about this jolly holiday of ours. It seemed so exciting – another glamorous trip to Strelzen – but you should read the history books about what went on there in the old days. Romance and happy endings don’t necessarily go together.’ Ed hugged Henry hard. ‘I’m a bit nervous, little babe … what have we got ourselves into? I guess we just have to be confident that Terry will look after us. I don’t see Matt and Andy letting us go if they thought we were in serious danger.’ ‘Hmph,’ Henry snorted. ‘Terry may be awesome, but no one’s immortal. I get the impression that Ramon’s death has left him a bit crazy … in the sense that he no longer really cares what happens to himself.’ They lay a while listening to the hum and throb of the ship around them as it ploughed its furrow across the North Sea, and with no thoughts of sex in their heads at all, they fell asleep, as innocently as the children they all too recently had been. *** Will and Oskar entered the presidential palace through the stable yard. ‘Do they still keep horses here?’ Will wondered. ‘The presidential guard has a mounted section, but I think their horses are housed down by the Arsenal. I believe the old royal coaches and landaus are gathering dust in those outbuildings.’ ‘Had you thought that, if your plan comes to fruition, this will again become the Residenz of Strelzen, the chief royal palace of Rothenia?’ Oskar gave a little smile. ‘I think about it all the time.’ As the two men walked towards the limestone bulk of the palace, Will seized Oskar’s hand and squeezed it tightly. ‘What you’ve achieved is amazing, my Osku. I can’t tell you how much I admire you. None of it is for yourself, and no one will ever really know what it is you’ve done.’ ‘The men I love – you and Pete – you know and that is enough for me.’ Oskar squeezed Will’s hand in return, then relinquished it. They glanced in on the Hofkapelle as they passed up the rear staircase. Oskar grimaced and shook his head. ‘Look at this mess. It wasn’t the Communists who stripped the chapel out. It was those Thuringian usurpers in the nineteenth century. It’ll take a lot of money to restore this place to the house of worship it once was.’ Will noticed some shredded flags hanging in rags from poles set high in the walls. ‘Were those the banners of the Knights of the Red Rose?’ ‘They were indeed. And up there you can see the remains of the ensign of my house. That marked the stall of Prince Rudolf, the last Rose Knight of my family before the fall of the monarchy.’ ‘Doesn’t the republic still have the order?’ ‘Yes, though it makes no knights. Matt White has a Grand Cross. But to me they’re meaningless decorations. The government hands them out to industrialists and retired MPs.’ Will laughed. ‘And there speaks the former prince of Tarlenheim.’ Oskar smiled. ‘Please don’t expect me to be bourgeois, Willemczu. My blue blood cells are programmed to destroy any symptom of egalitarianism in my body.’ The two were met at the head of the stairs by a young man in a smart suit. ‘Herr von Tarlenheim? Herr Vincent? The president is ready for you. It’s this way to his private apartment.’
  14. Hasty footsteps approaching the chapter office caused Oskar to switch his attention from Father Wladislaw to the door. An elderly clergyman rushed in, breathing heavily. He stared at Oskar and Peter. ‘So which of you knew the shibboleth?’ ‘The shibboleth?’ Oskar responded. ‘The passage of scripture I cited?’ The clergyman nodded. ‘I am Father Serge, archpriest of this church. You seek the Crown of Tassilo.’ ‘Er … yes. You mean you have it?’ The man shook his head. ‘I can give you no answers till I know more. Who are you, young man?’ ‘I am Oskar von Tarlenheim.’ ‘Ah! The former prince. Yes, I know of you. So also did your kinswoman, Mother Maria Nativitata, apparently.’ ‘You’re talking in riddles, father.’ ‘Perhaps, and maybe I cannot make all clear.’ Father Serge indicated they should take chairs round the table. ‘Now, tell me how you came here knowing that shibboleth.’ He accepted the grimy postcard of the late President Tildemann’s deathbed when Oskar handed it to him, then listened closely to the explanation. ‘And you believe the shade of the abbess led you to us.’ ‘Bizarre though it may be, I can think of no other solution. Perhaps you can tell me what lies behind all this mystery?’ The archpriest had examined the card with considerable interest while Oskar spoke. Looking up he commented, ‘Very well. You will know something of the Crown’s history since the death of Queen Flavia: how it was concealed by Elphberg loyalists, and brought out of hiding in 1910 in time to secure the accession of Maxim Elphberg. In 1919 it dropped from sight once more. The king did not entrust it to the republic on his abdication. He freely admitted he had given it to anonymous guardians in trust for the future and had no idea himself where it was being kept or even who the guardians were. He would say only that it would be produced on some future day, when the time was ripe for the Elphbergs once again to ascend the throne of Rothenia. ‘Our part in this came in 1930, after the burial of Tildemann. Following the service, the Reverend Mother Abbess of Medeln asked to see the archpriest of that day. She was a very formidable character, as you must surely know: the daughter of the third Prince Friederich Franz and, as a child, a favourite of the former Queen Flavia. The abbess told the archpriest that the guardians of the Crown were hard-pressed to find a safe shelter for it. One of them claimed to have had a revelation that the Salvatorskirk was the place where the Crown might be concealed in the heart of the city and yet remain safe down the generations, despite war and revolution. She proposed that the chapter should become its guardians. ‘My predecessor was deeply troubled by this charge, as you might imagine. We are a college of priests, all different, some trustworthy and some less so, as with any group of men. The archpriest was thus very reluctant to undertake the responsibility. It is said, however, that as he and the abbess were disputing in the church by the altar of the Annunciation, he felt his shoulder gripped. Turning, he found the figure of the archangel had grasped his robe and was scowling in his face, “like an angry boy,” he later said. I believe he may have fainted at that point. Once he was restored to his senses, he and the abbess agreed that the archpriest and the sacrist alone of the chapter should be the custodians of the object and the prophecy that went with it.’ ‘The scriptural verses? Is that what you mean?’ demanded Oskar. ‘Verses? We were told only of the passage from Luke. We were one day to expect a Rothenian prince to enter our church and ask after the abbess of Medeln. When he did so, we were to challenge him with that particular chapter and verse of Luke. The prince was to be the man to whom we were to surrender the Crown. What other verse do you mean?’ Oskar frowned. ‘A very ominous one from the Book of Revelation, as you may see from what I believe to be the abbess’s note on this card, written perhaps on the very day she interviewed your predecessor in this church. My friend, I thank you for your safe custody of the great treasure of the House of Elphberg and Rothenian people. Now the time has come to surrender it.’ ‘Will you take it, excellency?’ Oskar pondered for a long while as the others waited. Eventually he came to a decision. ‘No. My feeling is that the hand of the king alone should receive it.’ ‘The king, sir? But there is no king.’ ‘He is coming, father. And this is how you should prepare for him.’ *** Henry took his mind off his aching rear by scratching a more metaphorical itch. ‘Hey, Rudi!’ The earl looked up from his politics textbook. He seemed in a less tense mood than he lately had been. ‘What can I do for you, Outfield? Take a seat.’ ‘I think I’ll just lean up against the window here, if that’s alright.’ Rudi shrugged. ‘Whatever, Henry.’ ‘You’re on the phone an awful lot.’ ‘Would you believe I have friends back at Eton who worry about me?’ Henry gave a little smile at Rudi’s irony. The boy could betray a rather grim humour at times. ‘Come on, Broody. Reveal.’ Rudi crossed his arms and leaned back. ‘Henry, you’re a pain. That curiosity bump of yours really will get you into trouble one day. What explanation would satisfy you? Westenra tells me you’re concerned I’m dealing in Viagra.’ ‘What! I never …’ ‘Online gambling? Day trading? Chat lines? Phone sex with Lithuanian prostitutes? Your imagination is as endless as your cheek.’ Henry had gone bright red. ‘I … er …’ he stuttered. But Rudi was actually smiling quirkily at him. ‘Relax, Henry, I’m sure you’re genuinely concerned about me, so I’m not outraged at your nosiness. Just do one thing for me, will you?’ ‘Er … what’s that?’ ‘Mind you own bloody business!’ It was as Rudi was turning away that his phone rang yet again. He glanced at the screen and gasped. Ignoring Henry, he answered in a stream of Rothenian: ‘Prosim, leblen freund, wojne jeszt? … Sezst treu! Den kron! Bozhje men!’ ‘Crown … what crown?’ Henry butted in. He was instantly quelled by the flaming eyes turned on him by Rudi. ‘Will you shut up, Henry? And clear off before I use my boot on your rear.’ Deciding that the present state of his backside made discretion the better part of valour, Henry scooted. *** Oskar closed his mobile and took Peter’s arm. ‘So leblen, things are running fast to their conclusion.’ ‘I’m bemused, Osku. Since that incident with Tim Caird, I know this city can be a strange place, but the weirdness seems to follow you around like a stray cat.’ ‘I’m beginning to realise there may be something going on behind all this. I feel as though greater forces than political ambition are at work here. That abbess from the past seems to have some ability to reach out to the present to mould events. It is scary.’ Peter hugged Oskar’s arm to him. ‘But it could be a good thing. If these forces are working for you, it’ll make your – our – job easier.’ ‘So it is a joint effort now?’ ‘You bet. This is just way too cool.’ ‘Then we’d better get over to Strelsenermedia to update Will. But first I have another meeting, and this one is for me alone. Can you go in the Flavienerhof and get yourself a coffee and cake. I am likely to be about an hour.’ ‘So who is it, Osku? ‘Shall we say a former colleague of mine who wants to work for the king, and has some news for me.’ *** Henry closed his textbook and stretched. This was it, the end of term. School was breaking up tomorrow and the Easter holidays were beginning. After that it was the exam period. His carrel door opened and in sidled another of his concerns. ‘Hey, Outfield.’ Davey met no resistance when he leaned over and kissed Henry thoroughly. Henry broke off. ‘You ready for home?’ ‘Just about. I’ll miss you, Henry.’ ‘Yeah … and our wanking sessions.’ Davey grinned. ‘I’ll save it till I’m back, then hose you down with what I’ve stored up.’ ‘Ugh. That’s an image I won’t be able to escape.’ ‘In a sexy sort of way?’ Davey asked hopefully. ‘Not really, no. The word sticky comes to mind. Could you just find yourself a boyfriend?’ ‘Suggestions gratefully received. Problem is, you and Ed are the only out gays in our year. The upper sixth is about to depart. You want me to cruise Year 11? There’re one or two who might just be sorta gay.’ ‘You thinking of Jamie McAndrew?’ ‘Aargh! He’s so camp! He’s like, “Ooh! OhmiGod! Aren’t you a sweetheart!” He can’t keep that loose mouth of his shut. I might as well tape our conversations and put them on the Web. Besides, he’s so bitchy. Why can’t there be more people like you, Henry?’ ‘I dunno. Probably ‘cos I’m unique, I suppose. How are things with you and Broody?’ ‘We had a mutual sneering contest over breakfast this morning. He’s such a dick.’ ‘No more rows at least.’ ‘He’s beneath me.’ Davey grinned and departed. Henry had actually been fired up by the exchange with his sexual nemesis, to the point where he found he had a stubborn erection, and felt the need to do something about it. Stowing his inconvenient stiffie in a more comfortable position in his underpants, he buttoned his suit jacket and went in search of a source of satisfaction. He found it at a computer terminal, scanning its e-mail. The room was quite full so Henry had to be careful as he sidled up behind Ed. ‘Need a fuck bad, baby,’ he whispered in his lover’s ear. ‘Meet you at the place of last resort.’ Twenty minutes later, Henry was up against a tree in a secluded part of the copse in the school grounds, his trousers round his ankles and something large forcing its way between his buttocks. He swore. There was only spit available for lube and Ed was a big boy, but Henry took it nonetheless. Soon he was beyond caring. Ed had stripped naked despite the cold and possibility of discovery. Henry looked at the bare feet planted on the ground on either side of him. It was all too sexy. He pulled off his own upper clothes as he was being fucked, and threw them to one side. He was rewarded by the warmth of Ed’s chest and belly pressing against his back. A hand gripped his penis and soon he was shooting his load on to the ground as Ed came hard inside him. Ed gave a low laugh. ‘God, that was good. But it’s March and even my goose bumps have bumps on them. I’m gonna pull out. I’ll see if I’ve got a tissue to wipe your bum, little babe.’ They cleaned up and dressed. Ed adjusted Henry’s tie and hair, kissed him and, satisfied, the pair headed back to the block. *** The crisis began that evening, the Thursday before the end of Hilary Term. Ed was missing his mobile, and had not found it in the block or in his boarding house. He got Rudi to call his number. The phone was clearly on, but he couldn’t hear his ring tone anywhere round. He began to wonder if it had come out of his trouser pocket when he had stripped before servicing Henry that afternoon. It was already getting dark when he reached the copse in a distant part of the school grounds. He hunkered down and began feeling through the leaf debris at the ‘place of last resort’ as they called it. He searched for quite a while, and had almost given up when he felt cold metal at his fingertips. He got up with a triumphant smile. The mobile had been a handsome Christmas gift from Matt, and he would have hated to have to confess he had lost it. As he pocketed it and headed back to school, he observed a car pulling up a side lane running alongside the copse. That was odd, for the lane was a dead end, only ever used by the groundsman’s tractor. The headlights went out. There was something furtive about this sort of behaviour that intrigued Ed, until it occurred to him that the intruders might well be a courting couple. He began to stroll back towards Longley House, where he boarded, but stopped dead when he saw three men emerge silently from the car. Even in the gloom he could make out that they were large blokes, dressed in leather jackets. By then very suspicious, he melted behind a tree. The men entered the wood and hunkered down on the margin. When one raised a pair of night glasses, Ed decided that was definitely cause for suspicion. He contemplated ringing the police, but the men would likely hear him. Besides, his battery was low. Time passed. One of the men took up his own mobile and made a call. Then they surveyed the long bulk of the school’s south front, lights glowing in many of the windows. A few kids were out walking late before the ten-thirty curfew. Ed saw David Skipper strolling back alone from the chapel, where the choir had been rehearsing. As he was going up the steps to the refectory door, he was nearly knocked flat by Rudi Burlesdon emerging at speed. Even at that distance Ed could hear David swearing. Rudi went back and picked him up. Ed even heard him making apologetic sounds, but David was having none of it. There was soon a low and furious argument going on. Before long, Rudi turned his back on David and marched down the grassy bank to the Mere, across the stream and up the other side towards the trees where the group of men and Ed were sheltering. With that, David became even angrier and chased after Rudi, putting a hand on his shoulder just as he reached the woodland. Rudi, thoroughly pissed by then, spun around and went to clock David on the chin, but this time David was ready. He swayed his head out of the way and punched back, face alight with triumph as he knocked Rudi flat. At that moment the three men rose around them. Two seized David, one slapping a hand over his mouth. The third pulled Rudi up and put a half-nelson hold on him. Without stopping to think, Ed charged into the group, grabbing one of the men holding David and kneeing him in the balls as they both went down. David bit the hand of the other man and, as he yelped, David elbowed him in the gut and pulled free. Both David and Edward turned on the man holding Rudi, but froze. A gun was covering them, and that changed the odds. They raised their hands. The two other men came up behind them. Ed felt ropes roughly bind his hands in the small of his back before a rag was stuffed hard in his mouth. He was thrust through the trees towards the car, David stumbling ahead of him, also bound. The two boys were unceremoniously shoved into the boot and the lid shut on top of them. Rudi must have been put inside the car, which pulled off and bounced down the track. Ed was lying on smelly, oily rags, which made him feel sick. David was sprawled on top of him. After driving for an indeterminate time, the car stopped, but no one came to get them out immediately. After what could have been an hour, a metallic creak and the smell of fresh air told the boys that the boot had been opened, although it was too dark outside to take in any details. Strong hands hauled them out and put them on their wobbly legs. They were pushed into a lit doorway. The sudden illumination blinded Ed, but when his eyes adjusted he saw they were in a bare, dilapidated room. Rudi was tied to a chair, and they were soon treated the same way. So, thought Ed, this must be a kidnapping, and these guys must be gangsters. They probably think Rudi will be worth quite a tidy sum. Ed wondered precisely how wealthy Rudi’s family was. David and he were from much more modest backgrounds, in which there were no millions to be paid for them. Ah but, said Ed to himself, my foster fathers are worth dozens of Rudis, if the kidnappers only knew it. Of course, they couldn’t have known, because it was clear he and David had just blundered in on the main event. No one showed any interested in them. The kidnappers seemed indifferent as to whether anyone saw their faces, which – had Ed thought about it – was a very bad sign. The men did not say much, apart from one who made several long calls on his mobile at intervals. Was he seeking instruction? What the men did say was not in English. Ed supposed it might have been Czech or Rothenian. Henry would have known, but Ed thanked God that his small lover was safe elsewhere. His heart ached when he remembered the smiling face he adored. He began to wonder if he would ever see Henry again. Hours passed. Ed felt the pressure building up in his bladder until it became agonising. He finally lost control and was humiliated by a stream of hot piss coursing down his right leg and puddling under his chair. The leg of his trousers grew dark as it soaked up the urine. The men noticed and laughed, but did nothing to help. Ed struggled uselessly with his bonds. It must have been getting near dawn when all at once the lights in the cottage went off. The three men cursed, and one scrabbled for a torch. When the beam came on, its owner started looking inside cupboards for a fuse box or a meter. Suddenly there was a huge bang, and smoke billowed everywhere. Had the man done something stupid with the electricity? No. There were now more than three dark shapes in the smoke. Someone pushed Ed’s chair over and he came down hard on his side. There was the pop of a silenced hand gun on at least four occasions. In the silence that followed, torch beams swept the murk, and Ed found himself lifted upright. His bonds were cut and he was helped to his feet. An anonymous dark figure in a ski mask with a heat-sensor visor over it removed his gag, allowing his huge, hacking coughs to join the others he heard around him. Ed was led away from the house into the cool, pre-dawn country air. The grey light revealed a rundown hut and a weed-grown yard, surrounded by woods. Probably it was a gamekeeper’s cottage. He sank gratefully to the ground next to Rudi and David, the latter sporting a nasty cut on his brow. Noticing how badly the boy was shaking, Ed gathered him in for a hug. ‘You okay, Davey?’ ‘No. I’m scared shitless … ooh, you stink of piss.’ ‘Yeah, well, I didn’t have the forethought to go for a pee before I was kidnapped did I.’ They heard a chuckle as one of the anonymous figures emerged from the house and pulled off his visor and mask. It was Terry O’Brien! Ed looked hard at this apparition. It was Terry alright, although the face was subtly changed: a little haggard and visibly marked now by a deep grief, as Ed guessed. But the elfin grin was still there. ‘Hello, public school babes. How you doin’?’ ‘Who the fuck are you?’ burst out Rudi. ‘Would you be Lord Burlesdon?’ Terry asked. ‘What if I am?’ Ed thought Terry would snap back at the rudeness, but far from it. ‘Glad to meet you, sir. You’re safe for the time being, but as I’m sure you know, we have to move fast. This incident has presented us with some real problems.’ Rudi enquired, rather more coolly by then, ‘So who are you?’ ‘He’s Terry O’Brien,’ Edward explained. ‘God, Edward! Are you in on this too?’ ‘No. Rudi, I don’t know what the fuck’s going on here – less than you it seems – but I do know Terry. He used to be my foster father’s bodyguard.’ ‘Actually, Edward babe, I was his Head of Security. A subtle difference. I had bodyguards working under me.’ ‘So you’re a Peacher employee?’ Rudi asked. ‘Yes, sir, or at least I was,’ Terry responded. Ed noticed there were none of the playful modes of address towards Rudi that Terry used towards him, Justin and the other teens in the Peacher set. Ed said, ‘Terry, I don’t know what’s going on here, but I’ve been knocked down, gagged, tied up and shoved in a car boot. One thing I do know: this was no simple kidnapping, was it?’ Terry looked at Rudi, almost as if asking for his permission to break a confidence. ‘No, Ed. This was something of a very different order. You might say it was an attempted assassination that went badly wrong when you and your mate here blundered in on it. But you might just have saved Lord Burlesdon’s life, and that is something which in the circumstances may be of very great significance.’ Ed turned to Rudi. ‘Why would someone want to kill you, Rudi?’ Rudi shook his head and got up. ‘Later,’ he said with some dismissiveness, ‘I’ll tell you later. Now you, Terry. You know where I must go and why. Perhaps you may have some means to get me there, quickly and secretly.’ ‘I think I do, sir. But let me assemble my team.’ At his call, two other masked figures appeared and stripped off their hoods. The slimmer one shook out long blonde hair. ‘Jenna!’ shouted Ed. She was Andy Peacher’s current Director of Security. ‘Hi, Edward.’ She gave him her usual wintry smile. The other was a thickset, silent man, whom Terry introduced as Zeke Alonzo, one of his former employees. ‘What’s happened to the kidnappers?’ David asked hesitantly. ‘Sudden career change involving wings,’ replied Jenna brusquely. David knew to ask no more. Terry looked David over. ‘You I don’t know, sweet babe.’ ‘David Skipper, I’m Rudi’s … I mean, Ed’s … friend. And what’s with the “sweet babe” business?’ Terry’s grin widened. ‘Just being friendly. Now, I have a van a half mile down the track, so I hope you’re up to walking. We have to get you all back to school well before eight-thirty and it’s already six o’clock. I hope you don’t have too many lessons. I doubt you’ll be able to concentrate.’ ‘But I must be out of the country tomorrow!’ Rudi cried. ‘And so you shall be, sir,’ Terry assured him. ‘Meanwhile, it is very important that you try to keep up the appearance of a normal school day until three in the afternoon. If you don’t, too many warning signals will go off. And don’t worry. The whole school is now under heavy guard by my people. No one will get past us.’ Rudi looked Terry over. ‘And who do you work for, Mr O’Brien?’ ‘Why, sir, you, and the future of Rothenia.’ *** ‘That bastard will pay for what he’s done!’ Oskar paced the lounge of the Tarlenheim Palace in a fury. Peter, Will and Felip were in a huddle at the fireplace, watching Oskar’s rage, a very rare and intimidating sight. Felip seemed the least daunted. ‘I would agree with you, Osku, but how can you prove it was him?’ ‘We know alright. Hendrik’s been playing one side off against the other. Once our sites went on the attack, and the Web petition began growing, the CDP went into a panic. They know an Elphberg claimant’s out there. What they didn’t know was where to find him and how to get at him. Hendrik was all too happy to oblige.’ ‘But how did they learn the boy’s mobile number?’ Will Vincent sighed. ‘We think they may have sympathisers in Strelsenermedia. I haven’t been as security-minded as I might have been.’ Oskar punched the palm of his right hand. ‘Hendrik will die if we were too late and their hit squad took the boy out. Thank God Terry O’Brien and his team were on site. That’s because of you, Piotrescu.’ He strode to the tall windows overlooking the Radhausplaz and glared down at the great square, empty but for the early morning street cleaners. He and his friends had been up all night awaiting news. Oskar spun around as Peter’s mobile buzzed. A long conversation ensued, during which Peter grinned and signalled thumbs up to the others. Will sat down abruptly and put his head in his hands. Peter passed the phone over to Oskar for some further conversation. When he had finished and returned the mobile to its owner, he commented, ‘Dramatic events in England, my friends. The young Elphberg lives, while his would-be assassins do not. Too bad. It would have been most instructive to question them. Now we must think what to do next.’ ‘The boy needs to be here, and soon,’ Will observed, ‘but the CDP and its paramilitaries have revealed their hand. They will stop at nothing to remove him from the field of play. They have agents everywhere. How can we get him into the country with any secrecy and safety?’ Oskar nodded. ‘Good question, leblen. So perhaps the time really has come to talk with President Maritz. He surely must see that our interests are his on this issue. The petition must have got his attention. You know him best, Will, so I suggest you set up a meeting.’ ‘Pity … I was hoping for some sack time after the night we’ve just had. Ah well.’ ‘And as for the boy,’ Oskar mused, ‘we’d best leave his arrival in his kingdom for Terry to manage.’
  15. Oskar kept on catching sidelong glances from Peter, as if the younger man was sizing him up before broaching a difficult subject. Finally, Oskar grabbed him as he passed by the armchair in the drawing room of the Tarlenheim palace. ‘Sit here, Piotrescu. Tell me what is up.’ Not resisting either the action or the command, Peter settled back into Oskar’s lap. ‘Okay, Osku. You want to know what all those calls were about. It’s like this: Dad’s on the move. He’s going back to the UK. If he migrates, the centre of gravity of PeacherCorp travels with him. There’s a major restructuring about to happen, and I’ve told him I want to be at the centre of it.’ ‘So what does this mean, leblen?’ ‘It means I’ve left Yale and I’m gonna be president of PeacherCorp Europe.’ Oskar frowned. ‘So, you will be heading back to London.’ ‘Nope, babe, I’ve talked dad into locating PeacherCorp’s regional headquarters in Strelzen.’ ‘What!’ ‘Cool, huh?’ Oskar stared. ‘Do you know what this will do to the local economy? It is amazing!’ ‘Sure is. I got free rein to organise it too. Course, the low corporation tax here swung it. You could say the Maritz years are finally paying off. It’s top secret though, babe. PeacherCorp is setting up a temporary HQ in a new block by the airport, but there’ll need to be somewhere more permanent soon. I already have my guys buying up big areas of the Martzfeld from the Nuevemesten people in the name of dummy corporations. Can’t give the property market a chance to rise before I’m ready for it.’ Oskar nodded. The Martzfeld had once been an area of pasture and rough heath along the bank of the Starel to the northwest of the city. Used in the old days for military manoeuvres and reviews, it had been colonised by grim apartment blocks during the nineteen-fifties and sixties. Only the drug-dependent and desperate lived there now, amid serried ranks of grey buildings, many of them empty. Oskar mused, ‘This, I suppose, is capitalism. You know that area is going to rise because you intend to locate a major corporation there. So you buy up all the available real estate at dirt-cheap prices and turn a huge profit selling what you don’t need to other corporations.’ ‘Or you can call it speculative investment.’ Peter grinned. ‘It’s all risk, babe. How do I know your government will agree to the necessary infrastructure improvements? Without them, the land’ll be worthless. And here’s the down side for you. I may have told you what I just did, but now you have to forget it. If the Tarlenheim Stiftung starts buying alongside my holding companies, and our relationship gets out, there will be very difficult questions asked.’ Oskar stared, then grinned comically. ‘Why Piotrescu! You’re ethical! Is that not bad for business?’ Peter gave a laugh. ‘Don’t be a jerk, lover.’ ‘So I take it the move to Strelzen is not personally motivated?’ Peter closed briefly with Oskar’s mouth. ‘I believe in business and pleasure combined. I think this means cohabiting … are you ready for it, Osku?’ Oskar didn’t give himself a chance to hesitate. He nodded decisively and hugged Peter hard. ‘This is it, Piotrescu, the big one. I want it. I want you.’ ‘So where will we do this big thing?’ ‘We can take up residence here for the time being. I have my room on the second floor, which is big enough for two of us. But I suppose you are thinking of our own place. The Sixth District is getting populated by the new Rothenian middle classes; many ambitious modern houses are going up. It would be convenient for Martzfeld.’ Peter grunted with disapproval. ‘Don’t mean to be snobby, Osku, but that’s not my scene. I want to live out of the city, though within commuting distance.’ Oskar pondered. ‘There is the Wenzlerwald. It is a district called in Rothenian the Horjhaszelesnjes, or “The Green Hills” as you might say in English. That is where Horvath and his cronies built their dachas. They were not the first either. The minor court aristocracy started colonising it in the nineteenth century, those who did not have their own estates. It is less than twenty-five kilometres from the city’ ‘That sounds more like it. I’ll have my people look into it.’ ‘Your people! Piotrescu, you already sound like a CEO.’ ‘Intimidating, ain’t it dude? I’m still me though!’ ‘This is good, Piotrescu, really good. It means you and I can be together, and explore our relationship. There is also what we were discussing in London.’ ‘Terry?’ ‘Precisely.’ *** Henry sat upright, snuggling his naked body into Davey’s warm, bare back, clasping his friend with his legs, his erection running up the channel of Davey’s backside. Unable to stop himself, he began kissing the other boy’s shoulders. Once again, they were naked together, watching more of Davey’s new porn collection. This time it was wrestling, after which the victor got to fuck the loser. ‘There are men watching them, too,’ Davey marvelled, almost distracted from the devoted milking Henry was delivering to his cock. ‘Look, you can see! Fancy being fucked with all those guys watching from a stand!’ Henry’s dick was also straining hard against Davey’s warm flesh as he watched the laptop screen over Davey’s shoulder. Davey’s hair smelled fantastic, a perfect complement to his bodily aromas, Henry thought, sniffing with appreciation. He switched one hand to manipulating Davey’s left nipple, which caused the boy to squirm. ‘Go on your hands and knees, Davey,’ Henry requested. He got instant compliance. Henry ran his thumb down the crack revealed in front of him, stroking the exposed anus, a slit shaded darkly with hair. Breathing deeply, Henry closed with Davey’s most intimate part and began a thorough rimming. ‘Oh, Jesus! Jesus fuck!’ Davey swore. ‘I can’t believe … oh my God!’ Henry broke off and had to say, ‘I love your smell, Davey. Shower soap and sweat, lovely.’ ‘Oh please fuck me, Henry, please!’ Henry sat back on the bed. Much though he wanted to do what had been asked of him, it was that single step too far. He looked at the delicious sight of David Skipper submissive and beautiful before him – the curving muscles of his limbs, the slim belly, the hanging genitals, and most of all the tight buttocks and what was revealed between them – and marvelled that he could resist. He had to do something, however, so he placed himself under Davey’s long, hanging dick and fed it into his mouth. Davey got the message, and Henry found his throat full of penis. He was experienced enough by now to take the energetic thrusts, and with a suppressed howl, Davey rapidly came inside him. Henry disengaged. ‘Bit loud, Bounder.’ ‘It was amazing. Let me do it for you.’ ‘Er … no. I don’t think so.’ David turned to face Henry on the bed. ‘Why not, Henry? We’ve done almost everything else.’ ‘It’s just jerking off, Davey. That’s all it is.’ Henry did not really convince himself even as he was saying it. ‘So let me do you then.’ ‘No … I can’t. Stop pushing.’ ‘It’s okay, Henry.’ David reached out and pulled Henry towards him. Henry allowed himself to be gathered close. He was beginning to realise that David might be brash and hasty, but he had a deep sensitivity to others that made him much more attractive to Henry than did the appeal of his good looks. David’s arms were around him, hair brushing his cheek. He felt a kiss. ‘I know you’re with Ed, and I don’t want to take his place. Understood?’ ‘Glad you realise that.’ ‘I do. But I also need you, ‘cos there’s no one else to keep me from going mad. You don’t know how lonely it is for me, Henry. If I didn’t do this with you, I don’t think I could go on. It’s contact with someone who understands. Now, are we clear? Sure, let’s not fuck. I can deal with that. Though if you ever change your mind, Henry, let me know. Now, get your clothes on. Just come back sometime so we can do it again. Right?’ ‘Well …’ ‘Glad that’s settled.’ *** ‘Public schools always give me the creeps.’ Matt White had huddled himself into an armchair in Medwardine’s reception area in the Tudor building appropriately called Old School. He did indeed look uncomfortable. Andy Peacher looked bemused. ‘It’s only a school.’ ‘Okay for you, you went to one just like it yourself.’ ‘So what is it? The air of social confidence, the embedded privilege?’ ‘Maybe. There’s a long history of being common in my family.’ ‘I don’t follow you, Matt. Take Henry. He’s just an ordinary kid … well, in social background anyway. He gets on fine here.’ ‘Everyone loves Henry. It’s his personality. Check your mobile. Where are the two of them? Having lessons in social dominance and exclusion?’ ‘Shut up, Matt. Here’s a text: Ed’s on his way. Nothing from Henry.’ Matt got up and examined some of the display cases. ‘Huge on trophies, aren’t they?’ ‘It’s their way, sweetheart. Adolescent boys get off big time on tall shiny cups and shields.’ ‘Really?’ Andy chuckled. ‘You and Henry have more in common than you like to think. He too is a sporting anti-hero.’ ‘What? I thought Henry was captain of hockey or something.’ ‘He’s captain of the hockey B team in a school where rugby is the supreme exercise of manhood.’ ‘Not good then.’ ‘Actually, it is good. I think it shows that, little queer though our Henry is, he has a surprising gift for leadership and inspiring other men, even straights.’ ‘Odd that. You’d think Ed was the man’s man. Henry seems … well, a bit childish. I don’t mean that in a bad way. He’s cute and cuddly. I always feel I should offer him a sweet and pat him on the head. It sounded odd to me just then, when you called him a man.’ ‘You should talk to him more. The boy has depths.’ ‘I will. I promise. But here’s the main man.’ Matt embraced Ed as he arrived, then passed him on to Andy. He took a seat between them, retaining Andy’s hand. ‘How are my dads?’ ‘Just passing through,’ Matt replied. ‘We took a detour to come say hi to our boy. In fact I insisted on it, since the ultimate end of our trip is Andy’s mother.’ ‘Oh, you mean …?’ ‘Yeah,’ Matt growled, ‘the demon queen of Nuneaton.’ ‘Matt!’ warned Andy. ‘Okay, okay! I admire your determination to do your duty, sweetheart, I really do. But I also resent her forcing me into the role of an intruder in her life to whom she has to be polite, because she’s too well-bred to express her deep irritation with me.’ Ed gave a quirky look. ‘Not just me with the weird mother, then?’ Andy became baleful. ‘Shut up the pair of you. My mum’s my mum. No more.’ Matt caught Ed’s eye, and they both subsided. While the three were still exchanging chit-chat, Henry appeared at the run. ‘Sorry! Sorry! Didn’t see the time.’ ‘Nearly given up on you, little one,’ said Matt, with a mock frown. ‘We’ve just got time to take you both out for lunch. Your headmaster says it’s alright.’ They headed for the High Street gate, the men enjoying very much the boys’ news and views on their school year. ‘So you have a genuine earl in school,’ Andy meditated. ‘I was at Rugby with the son of a viscount … not really that impressive in retrospect, I suppose, but it was Ed Roedenbeck, bless him.’ Henry chipped in. ‘I don’t think of Rudi as a lord. I mean, he’s just Rudi: a mass of contradictions and eccentricities. He’s ramrod straight, gloomy one moment, sarcastic the next, and then suddenly kind and considerate. I just don’t get him. He’s totally fascinating.’ ‘And amazingly good-looking,’ Ed added. ‘But so straight – in the other sense. You can’t even fantasise about doing it with him. It’s inconceivable. Just as well, I suppose. You’d get really annoyed with me, wouldn’t ya, little babe?’ Henry blushed deep red. *** After waving off Andy and Matt, the boys were returning up High Street to the school. Suddenly Ed thought he caught sight of a familiar face above the heads of the people around them. ‘Henry … that’s Terry O’Brien!’ ‘Don’t be daft. He’s supposed to be in the States. I don’t see him.’ ‘Yeah, but you’d need a box to stand on to see anything in a crowd. Come on. He’s turned down Castle Street. After him!’ They pushed and manoeuvred through the pedestrian mob as rapidly as they dared, until they became inextricably caught behind a young mother pushing a double-wide buggy. There was no way of getting past her other than impolitely. By the time they reached the Castle Street corner, no Terry or anyone who looked remotely like him was to be seen. Convinced that his eyes had not deceived him, however, Ed pulled Henry down the street, and even checked out the pubs. There was no luck. Discrete enquiries by e-mail to Ipswich and Highgate produced only the information that Terry was thought to be still in the States, although he had said he would eventually go down to his parents in Wiltshire. ‘That might explain it, Ed,’ said Henry. ‘He could be living with his parents and taking his mind off stuff by doing sight-seeing. Medwardine’s quite the tourist magnet, and he could reach here easily on a day trip.’ Ed was not convinced. ‘If he was coming to Medwardine, you’d think he’d remember we were here and say hello.’ Henry looked a little solemn. ‘It may be that, in his condition of grief, avoiding people he knows is his first priority.’ They looked sadly at each other. *** Will Vincent was no great fan of Ribaud’s restaurant, but if you were involved in Rothenian public life in any capacity, you could not avoid the occasional meal there. It was where business was done. Hendrik Wilemmin was sitting at his usual table in the back of the main room. He rose to greet Will, holding on to his hand a little longer than was customary amongst business acquaintances, before making an expansive gesture to offer him a chair. The conversation opener over the starters was at least conventional. ‘So, Willemczu, how’s business with you?’ ‘Fine. Eastnet 24-Hour News goes live Saturday. Tomas Weissman is in melt-down. This is Strelsenermedia taking over the airwaves of Eastern Europe. We’ve got coverage in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia, and are launching a German-language service to cover the Federal Republic and Austria. We’ve opened offices in Vienna, Prague and Frankfurt.’ ‘I admire the ambition behind it. How’s the advertising revenue?’ ‘Not as strong as I’d like, but it should pick up. The on-line site has way better margins. It was about websites that I wanted to talk.’ ‘Yes?’ Willemin settled back in his chair and crossed his arms. ‘You’re aware Oskar and I have been using your servers for our ventures in political blogging and websites. You have to know that with the elections coming up fast, we’re about to go highly vocal on the Elphberg candidature. Our sites are already getting a lot of hits, domestic and otherwise.’ Willemin shrugged, his face set and unsmiling behind his beard. ‘I’m not going to stand in your way. You know that. So far as it goes, you have my vote. I don’t charge you for the server space.’ ‘Yes, well. I’d like a little more.’ ‘Such as?’ ‘You have two of the more popular tabloids in Rothenia in your stable. Now would be a good time to jump on board the Elphberg train.’ ‘Are you boys planning a coup or what?’ ‘No … well, yes, a coup of sorts. Just let’s say that we have more in our armoury than websites.’ ‘Then it’s me that needs to be offered more, Willem.’ ‘What d’you mean, Hendrik?’ ‘You’re asking for me to talk to my editors so they’ll further the cause of that English boy, am I right?’ ‘Yes. I suppose.’ ‘If I do, I want something in return.’ ‘What can we offer?’ ‘Your influence. Rothenian law prevents me from owning both newspapers and broadcast media. It’s a stupid restriction. I want it gone.’ ‘Hendrik, you know we can’t do that. Even if we can pull off the restoration of the Elphbergs, the king will have limited political power. It’s the elected government which will make or change the laws. You have to deal with them.’ Willemin brooded on this before nodding slowly, as if accepting the argument. ‘The question then is, who will form the next government? And who is it in my interest to support? Willemczu, I think you’ve had all the assistance I’m inclined to offer.’ ‘Please, Hendrik, you must see that the stability of the country is in all our interests. The renewed monarchy will give us that, and maybe more. All I’m asking is for a couple of friendly editorials. You can’t lose.’ ‘Perhaps, and perhaps not. I’ve said my say, Willemczu. When do you plan on bringing the boy to Rothenia from his English school?’ Will shrugged. ‘It does depend on the election, as you say. He needs to be in Rothenia before then. The CDP, the SDP or Unity? Where do they stand?’ ‘I doubt if any of them would want a king in the Residenz. It would complicate their little games.’ ‘Come on, Hendrik, you don’t really believe that. I may not have been born Rothenian, but even I get a thrill at the idea of the red-lion banner flying from the flagpole of the Residenz after all these years. Those politicians you despise are Rothenians. They know the people and what they think of the Elphberg past.’ ‘Maybe. I’d rather worry about the steak menu for the moment. That means a red Tavelner, I think. How’s Oskar doing these days?’ *** Ed’s sporting prowess had a downside. It meant that his commitment to various rugby, hockey and soccer teams took him away from Henry every other weekend of term. Henry had to accept the separation, but he certainly didn't have to like it. He had a powerful sex drive and was beginning to recognise that he needed all of Ed’s enthusiasm to keep him satisfied. The Easter holidays were on their way, giving him weeks of rutting to look forward to, but in the meantime he was resorting more and more to his old autoerotic ways – and, of course, David Skipper. What to do about the sex with David? Henry knew what he should do really. He got Ed alone out on the grounds, and told him about the mutual wanking sessions and the oral sex. He looked timorously at his lover, whose face was unreadable. Eventually Ed growled, ‘You don’t love him, do you?’ ‘Christ, no. He has an amazing body, but no, I don’t love him.’ ‘And does he love you?’ ‘He thinks he does, but he doesn’t.’ ‘Henry, you’re a randy little sod, and at first, when you were telling me all this, I was a bit disappointed in you. But then I remember the other boys I fancy, and if I was sex-starved maybe I’d do the same. And I know I’ve not been with you enough lately, so maybe I feel a bit guilty too. Just please don’t do it again or I’ll have to add myself to the list of people who have beaten the crap out of Davey Skipper. Now get over by those trees.’ ‘Why?’ Ed marched Henry out of sight, ripped his trousers down, put him over his knees and spanked his bare arse – and not lightly. Henry squirmed and stifled his yelps. His bum was hot and red when Ed had given him five. ‘Now let that be a lesson to you.’ ‘Bastard.’ ‘You’ve gone erect. Maybe we should try cuffs and whips.’ ‘No!!’ *** Accompanied by Peter Peacher, Oskar von Tarlenheim entered the dim spaces of the Salvatorskirk as above them in the belfry the chiming began for mass. It was barely seven-thirty and they were well-muffled against the chill of the spring morning. ‘Jeez, babe. Couldn’t they put heating in this place?’ Peter kept his voice to a whisper. ‘I don’t believe the residents complain, Piotrescu.’ Oskar looked round. The great church was still dressed for Lent, with rich purple hangings on and around the nave altar. Early-morning mass, however, was held in the chapel of the Annunciation, one of the many side altars off the north aisle. A blaze of candles was lit on the east side of the chapel in front of the life-size fifteenth-century image of the archangel Gabriel addressing the Virgin at prayer. The angel was strikingly boyish, Oskar thought, dark-haired and somehow cheeky-looking. It was most unusual iconography, but then the Nuremberg school could be highly eccentric. A dozen or so shop workers and security guards were already at prayer when the two men settled into the back row. Having been brought up Catholic, Oskar found no difficulty with joining the devotions. Peter, on the other hand, was uneasy and looked rather out of place. He tried to follow his lover’s actions during the service, which was conducted in a business-like fashion by the celebrant. As the final commendation was given from the altar, the congregation stood for the priest’s departure. Some settled back for a brief period of private meditation before the reserved sacrament, but soon took their leave. Eventually, Peter and Oskar were the only people left. The disrobed priest returned to snuff out the altar candles and put away the sacred vessels. Smiling down at the two men from behind the altar, he asked, ‘May I help you gentlemen?’ Oskar smiled back. ‘Perhaps you can. My young American friend here is a graduate historian visiting Strelzen. He’s researching the Tildemann years, and as we were talking last night, it occurred to him that the Salvatorskirk might have some records relating to Tildemann’s state funeral in 1930.’ The priest assumed a look of interest. ‘It’s not often we get such requests, but I may be able to help you. I’m Father Wladislaw, the chapter sacrist, and I’m something of a historian myself. I’m sorry, I should have asked. Does your friend understand Rothenian?’ ‘Not very well, I’m afraid, though he reads it adequately. I’ll translate.’ Oskar briefly sketched out the conversation so far, and Peter nodded wisely. The priest continued. ‘I have a little spare time. If you’ll accompany me to the chapter office, I can show you some interesting memorabilia of the event. In those days the chapter kept scrapbooks, and of course there is all manner of registers and accounts if your friend would really like to go into the detail.’ So the pair followed the priest out through an unsuspected north door, which led through a paved yard to a narrow – and plainly very old – building occupying the space north of the church behind the Rodolferplaz frontage. ‘My word!’ exclaimed Oskar. ‘I had no idea this was here.’ ‘This is the old chapter house, mostly seventeenth century, I believe. It’s one of Strelzen’s secret treasures. It’s the clergy house, so we don’t open it generally to the public. Come this way.’ He led them out through another door and into a miniature cloister, the small, enclosed grassy space and the walkways around it populated with monuments to departed clergy. A medieval door led into a long room filled by a polished table and lined with cupboards. The priest indicated seats to Oskar and Peter, then began rummaging through drawers, pulling out large ledger books. ‘You’ll find this interesting,’ he declared, opening a dusty blue volume. ‘These are rare pictures taken at the time of the 1910 massacre on the Plaz, when troopers rode down demonstrators against King Albert. Here! There’s a series of photographs of Tildemann actually in the square being hurried to shelter by his supporters. This one shows Maxim Elphberg himself, as he worked to save the wounded. It was the beginning of his special relationship with our chapter, though of course, living in the Osraeum palace, he was technically our parishioner.’ ‘Ah yes,’ Oskar observed, ‘the Residenz is exempt from diocesan and parish jurisdiction, being under the authority of the bishop of Luchau as arch-chaplain to the king, and dean of the chapel royal.’ Father Wladislaw looked very pleased with his audience. ‘You know your history too, sir! Not many Strelseners are so well-informed.’ ‘You said you had materials concerning Tildemann’s funeral.’ ‘Certainly. Here’s the collection.’ The priest opened another large volume. Oskar and Peter leafed through it, finding a dozen pages of yellowed newspaper clippings featuring the funeral, including some grainy but unrevealing photographs. Following that section came several programmes from the day’s event, one signed by King Maxim Elphberg, who had returned to Strelzen to say farewell to his old friend. It was when the next page was turned that Oskar caught his breath, and went pale. It was so noticeable that the priest exclaimed, ‘Sir, are you alright?’ Oskar was staring at a large photographic plate. ‘These people! Who … who’s that nun?’ The priest looked startled, and then intense. He continued slowly, almost cautiously, ‘Why sir, that’s the famous abbess of Medeln, Mother Maria Nativitata, a very great person in the Rothenian Church between the wars. She was a good friend of the late president’s, though he was not much of a church-goer himself.’ ‘My God! It’s her! The woman in my dreams! The woman Will saw in the Tarlenheim mausoleum!’ Now it was the priest’s turn to go pale. He went to a table and picked up a phone, dialling an internal number. ‘Serge! Come quickly! It’s happened.’ He looked intently at Oskar, making an effort to gather himself. ‘Now sir, tell me if you will, what is the ninth verse of the eleventh chapter of the Gospel according to St Luke?’ The man phrased the question as if he were asking for a password. ‘And I say unto you, ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you,’ Oskar responded. ‘My God!’ the priest breathed. ‘The prophesied day has come. The king will return!’
  16. It was the end of exeat and Henry was by then aching to be with Ed. When they made their restrained greetings in the sixth form block on an unusually warm March morning, it was very difficult for both of them. Kissing and hugging were not an option in school, let alone the other things they desperately wanted to do. In the end their combined libidos got too much for them. Henry dragged Ed into his carrel, jammed a chair against the door, covered the window with his prefect’s gown and struggled out of his clothes. Ed was not far behind him. ‘How do we do it, Ed?’ Henry whispered. ‘There’s no space to lie on the floor, and the furniture won’t take the strain.’ ‘Never mind that, got the all-important lube?’ Henry delved into his suit jacket where he kept a small tube of KY in hopes. ‘Okay, now we have to be quiet and … er, original.’ The boys somehow achieved both objectives. Their coupling was passionate and carried out in a very peculiar position, which put great strain on Ed’s developing physique, but they managed. They kissed long and hard before cleaning up and dressing. Ed held Henry and simply stared into his eyes. ‘Babe, that was just the best. No wonder I love you,’ he breathed before taking his leave. ‘Funny smell in here,’ said David as he entered the carrel shortly afterwards. ‘Yeah … must be the furniture polish.’ ‘Doesn’t smell like furniture polish … oh well. Henry, I’ve come to a decision.’ ‘You’re going to make more of an effort with Rudi?’ ‘Huh. Be real. No, I’m going to join a gay support network online. I’ve already got three sites and I’m ready to register with one that’s specifically for teens, or at least it claims to be.’ ‘Oh … great.’ ‘Thanks for the enthusiasm.’ ‘Sorry, Davey. No, it’s good that you’re doing this. I’m sure it’ll help.’ ‘Yeah and I’ve also taken out a subscription to a gay porn site. It’s totally amazing what these guys do. I’m blowing my nuts three times a day.’ ‘Aah, okay. Less socially responsible, but whatever turns you on. What if you get caught?’ ‘I’m using the wi-fi modem on my laptop, and deleting the logs. Should be okay providing no one walks in on me. Hey, why don’t you come round one evening and we can wank off together?’ ‘Davey, somehow I should have realised there was a getting-Henry-naked subtext to all this. It is not going to happen. Enjoy your cybersex.’ ‘Curses!’ David grinned very fetchingly, which reminded Henry that a part of him was quite as willing to be naked with Davey as with his Edward. *** ‘Well, Rudi, how was your granddad?’ Henry had his first encounter of the week with his friend on Tuesday. ‘My granddad? Oh … yeah. Fine, thank you for asking. He’s gone back to Richmond.’ ‘All set up for the rest of the term?’ ‘Very much so … look, sorry Outfield, gotta take this call. Catch up with you later.’ Rudi dashed off, leaving Henry puzzled in his wake. Henry shrugged and went to seek out David. ‘Hey, Bounder! How’s the porn?’ ‘Shh! For fuck’s sake, Outfield! Mr Brokenshire’s just down the corridor. He might have heard!’ ‘The porn?’ ‘Oh … pretty amazing actually. All these hunks happily performing the most intimate acts before cameras, just for my entertainment. It’s unbelievable. You can actually see them doing it. Wanna … er?’ ‘No thank you,’ Henry responded primly. ‘Ed would have an opinion on that. Now you’ve had a nice long break, you feeling more well-disposed towards Broody Rudi?’ ‘Broody Rudi? Very amusing. I like that one. He’d just better keep outta my way, the jerk.’ ‘Give it up Davey.’ ‘No chance. It’s undying enmity, like … I dunno … Athens and Sparta sorta thing, or the Predator and Arnie Schwarzenegger.’ ‘Which one are you?’ ‘Need you ask? The heroic underdog, of course.’ ‘Rudi’s not a monster, Bounder. Okay … he’s not the easiest guy to get to know, and maybe he’s not a bundle of laughs, but the more you do get to know him …’ ‘Yeah, yeah. You’re just being nice, Henry. You can’t help it. It’s like benign Asperger’s with you. You can’t see the nasty in anyone.’ Henry bridled. ‘Great! Well thank you, David Skipper, for making my essential niceness into a mental disorder. I’m going to go find and torture a Year 7 kid hideously, just to prove how normal I am.’ He stalked off, leaving David chuckling but unrepentant behind him. *** Oskar put his hands behind his head and allowed himself to feel a little happier. The sleeping body next to his stirred and then farted, but somehow that did not take away from the moment. Of course, a lot of it was due to his having spent several days with Pete, during which he had done little but rut relentlessly, which was no trouble to him. He had allowed the major concerns on his mind to sit ignored in their in-tray for a while. Perhaps Pete was feeling the same. Oskar turned and spooned up around the younger man, kissing the nape of his neck and running his hand up the ridges of his well-toned abdomen. It was clear to him that his lover had come to a crossroads in life and was hesitating as to which direction to take. Pete did not like quitting anything, but college and the States were now grown intolerable to him for several reasons. Pete’s indecision had stirred something unusual in Oskar, a feeling of concern and protectiveness for this young man who was, after all, only just out of his teens. There was a vulnerability in Peter Peacher that perhaps Andy alone in his family could see, but which was very clear to Oskar. It touched something in him that only Will Vincent previously had. Oskar did not in general like protracted relationships with other men, wanting nothing more than to join with their bodies, preferably with them under him. He had however freely offered himself to Will, and was thinking of doing the same with Pete, though he was not entirely sure he wanted it. A voice murmured into the bedclothes, ‘Again, Osku? That’ll be the fourth time tonight.’ Pete turned and they meshed groins. Pete was hard, and began thrusting gently at Oskar. He threw back the duvet and pressed down on the older man, pushing Oskar’s legs out and causing him to raise his buttocks. There was mischief in Pete’s eyes as he grinned at his lover. They had done this in play before. Pete jabbed hard to find Oskar’s entry. He had till then been wrestled off at this point, but for once his very solid erection found its mark and Oskar’s anus was put under pressure. They both were startled, Pete the more so. But he pushed on, and with a suppressed cry of triumph he breached Oskar. At that point Oskar rebelled. He started thrashing under Pete, who hung on to him and kept pressing in. At last Oskar’s flailing limbs and heaving body succeeded in expelling Pete, but there was something smouldering now in the younger man’s eyes. They began struggling in earnest, falling off the bed and rolling over the floor. A side table went flying, the lamp set on it smashing as it fell. At last, Pete managed to pin Oskar under him. When Oskar tried to raise himself on all fours to throw off his assailant, Pete thrust mercilessly down into him. Oskar resisted momentarily, then surrendered. Squatting over his now submissive lover, Pete felt his cock run the length of Oskar’s sphincter and be gripped. Then he was pumping furiously into Oskar, both men grunting with mingled shock, pain and excitement. Pete came very fast, but with what an orgasm! He yelled it out to the world before rolling on to his side on the carpet as Oskar collapsed under him. Oskar went up on to his elbows, a peculiar look on his face. Eventually, he kissed Pete’s forehead. ‘Do you feel better for that?’ ‘Better, Osku? That was the first time you let me in … why was it such a struggle?’ ‘I don’t take it …’ ‘… except professionally?’ Oskar frowned. ‘That was not a nice thing to say, Petey.’ ‘Sorry, Osku, I didn’t mean it like it came out. You let me do it, I felt you give way.’ ‘My body betrayed me … it remembered another time with a different lover for whom I had the same feelings.’ ‘Will Vincent.’ Peter paused. ‘You two still fuck?’ ‘We do.’ ‘Not criticising, dude. I wouldn’t blame you. Will’s amazing for his … er …’ ‘Age?’ ‘Umm. Yeah. Look, that didn’t come out right either. I know there’s a few years’ difference between us, but I don’t think about it when we’re together – or ever, for that matter. You’re my sexy Euro-hunk; my Mr Bel Ami.’ Oskar shook his head, then laughed. ‘What Falkefilm has to answer for! I’ll have to live with Oskar Prinz, or should I say Marc Bennett, for the rest of my life. Is it a problem for you, leblen?’ Peter kissed him on the mouth, a lingering kiss that seemed to say a lot of what needed to be said. ‘I love you, Oskar Prinz,’ he murmured as their lips separated. ‘You’re unique: sexy, super-smart and strong. I’ve never met anyone like you … well, apart from Terry O’Brien.’ ‘And you had sex with him?’ ‘Absolutely. Him and Ramon both. That was an awesome weekend. Are we both gonna be exclusive from now on?’ ‘That depends as to what “from now on” means. Leblen, I think I feel more for you than I have for any other man … and I include Will, here, though indeed Will was very different. You’re not him. He was naïve and charming, a man-child. That has never been you. I’d guess you were … how do you say? … whip-smart, even as a teen.’ Peter reached over and stroked Oskar’s flanks. His expression had become suddenly concentrated. He had indeed reached his emotional crossroads, as Oskar had sensed. ‘You say you feel more for me than for any other man … but Osku, that’s ambiguous. I think I read you. You mean that you’re not sure you’re truly capable of love.’ Oskar blushed, a very rare event. He had not expected quite so perceptive a reaction. ‘I am a whore,’ he replied, ‘and my sort gives up true emotion when we resign our bodies to other men.’ ‘I don’t believe that any more than Will did. There’s a heart to Oskar Prinz, it just won’t reach out to others because …’ ‘Because what?’ ‘... it’s afraid it’ll be hurt. It’s afraid to entrust what’s left of love in it to another, because things would be just too horrible if it were spurned and betrayed.’ Oskar stared at this boy who was reading his innermost heart. ‘How do you know this?’ ‘Because I love you, Osku, and your mind has been my study for some time. There is no man in my experience that has ever approached you. And there’s more too. When I took you just now, you resisted fiercely, but there came a moment when I could tell you wanted me to do it. Although you fought hard, I knew in the end you’d let yourself be forced into the submissive role, because in surrendering you knew you’d win.’ ‘Win? Win what?’ ‘Love. That's what surrender means for you, Oskar Prinz. Your love has to be taken from you, not given. Am I making any sense?’ Oskar took the younger man to his broad chest. ‘Yes you are, leblen men. You’ve earned my submission to you. You’re more than worthy. I’m yours entirely, my love and my heart. Ai du menje odhevstet.’ Then with a sudden surge of freedom, Oskar sat up on his aching butt, despite the risk to the carpet of Andy’s guest room. ‘Now, since all barriers are gone between us, it’s time to tell you some secrets, and what it is I have been doing these past six months. I think you can help.’ *** The rest of Trinity term was tranquil at Medwardine, but with exams and assessed essays for the lower sixth approaching all too fast, that was hardly a surprise. Absorbed by his revision schedule, Henry had to restrain his interest in the web and in Rothenia, where civil troubles seemed to have subsided in anticipation of the national elections. They were fixed for the Monday of Holy Week, as was traditional in that Catholic country. Nonetheless, Henry used what odd moments he had to read up about his new hero, Leopold of Thuringia. He was sitting in Trewern churchyard on one of the memorial benches one Saturday when Ed was away on a hockey fixture. It was a warm afternoon for mid-March, and Mr Andrews from Glebe Farm was giving the grass its first trim of the year. The fresh smell caused Henry’s nose to itch. He wondered if he was getting hay fever. ‘Ahoi, jong Hendrik! Denn klenne, ja?’ ‘Prosim, Doktor Mac!’ Henry put down his book and beamed at his friend. Dr Mackenna took the seat next to him. ‘What have you there, my boy? Oh! The new biography of Prince Leo. I saw it advertised. I wonder if I could borrow it after you’ve finished with it.’ ‘Sure, Dr Mac. I know you don’t like talking about wartime stuff, but you were in Rothenia in the forties when he was. Did you ever …?’ ‘… meet him? Well, yes I did.’ ‘Wow! What was he like?’ ‘You understand I was a mere lieutenant in the Special Operations Executive, on my first posting. The prince was a bit too grand a character to have much to do with the likes of me, but I did meet him the once, and even had a chance to talk with him. I had more to do with Martin Tofts. I suppose nowadays you’d call him the prince’s boyfriend, but in my view that’s a silly term to apply to such men.’ ‘How about lovers?’ ‘Better. For they were very much in love, and quite unembarrassed about it, despite the climate in those days for homosexual men. As I was saying, I worked for Martin Tofts in Glottenberh, where SOE based their operations. I accompanied him once up to Lake Maresku when he was liaising with the prince. I drove Sir Martin to Leo’s house above the lake, and was taken in to meet his royal highness.’ ‘Pretty impressive that Martin Tofts trusted you. The book says they had to go to extraordinary lengths to avoid their communications being detected.’ ‘It was in the last year of the war, when the German armies were already in retreat. The Russians had got as far as the Carpathians, and German troops were being pulled out. The Slovaks who replaced them could be brutal but were not that interested in counterespionage. They had their hands full with the guerrilla campaign that had already begun along the Massif border.’ ‘So what was the prince like?’ ‘Very kind and gentle, as it happens. His wife had arrived with their twin boys that very weekend, as the Allied bombing had reached Ernsthof and the house at Saint Hildeburg had been badly damaged. When with his children, Leo was a delight to watch. I hadn’t thought that men such as he could have paternal feelings, which proved how little I knew.’ ‘How did Martin Tofts get on with the kids … and Mrs Prince?’ Dr Mac laughed. ‘Oh … very well. Those were different days, Henry. People were much more formal and civilised than here at the end of the century. I rather think the archduchess was more fond of Sir Martin than otherwise. He was, as I imagine you might say, quite the hunk.’ Henry laughed. ‘What did you talk about with the prince?’ ‘He wanted to know a bit about me. He spoke perfect English, of course, having been educated at your school and at Oxford. Oddly enough, my boy, he had something of the look of you, though slightly taller and with receding hair in those days. Yet I see a shadow of him in your eyes. There’s not something you’ve failed to tell me, is there?’ ‘Not that I know of, Dr Mac, though when I was little I did like to think I was the secret son of a multimillionaire who would one day come and claim me. Not really fair on mum and dad, who are the best when it comes to parents.’ ‘It’s not an uncommon fantasy, Henry, even in happy children. Where was I? Oh yes! The prince and I chatted. He wanted to know how things were in Britain, and how the bombing had affected London. I had been at Oxford for a year before I was called up, so we had something in common. We even knew the same tutors, though I was at Keble and he had been a St John’s man. That was it, really, just chit-chat. But I’ll never forget his eyes.’ ‘What was so special about them?’ ‘They were dark and almost luminous. It was as if they were a direct window on to his soul. I’ve never seen anything like them since. They mesmerised me. Though he was not a handsome man, like his lover, the eyes made him seem quite beautiful. Odd, but there you are. It’s not the sort of thing you can get from a photograph.’ Henry sighed. ‘It would have been great to meet him. You’re so lucky.’ The old man laughed. ‘It’s nice to have lived long enough to be envied by a teenager! Well there you are, that’s all I can tell you about him. He was buried at Zenda in the Thuringian mausoleum in the great park. You’re too young to remember the fuss when Sir Martin died some months after the prince, and was buried beside him.’ ‘You mean people protested? That’s so horrible.’ ‘No, not that sort of fuss. The family knew it was the prince’s wish, and honoured it. He was put quite near his rather romantic mother, the countess of Rechtenberg. It was the sculpted cover placed over Martin and him that caused the fuss. It was the prince’s final statement about his homosexuality. Don’t they have a plate of it in your book?’ Henry had not skipped ahead to look at the pictures. He riffled through, searching for the darker and heavier leaves that marked the plates. When he opened the last one, there it was, a full-page art plate taken from a point above the tomb. Two young men were lying together hand in hand, as if on a grassy lawn, looking at each other with a most remarkable expression; mingled love and anticipation were on their faces, and it was as if they were about to burst into laughter. Henry’s breath caught in his throat. He recognised the look. It was the one he got from Edward, just before they cracked up over a mutual joke. The two were depicted as late in their teens, slightly older than he and Ed: university age perhaps. Though Martin Tofts had been a handsome man, they were both transfigured by that look of delighted anticipation. They were barefoot, in loose shirts and trousers, as they might have been at a tennis party on a summer’s day between the wars, and they were so beautiful Henry felt tears spring into his eyes. He glanced up to find a kindly look in Dr Mackenna’s face. ‘I think you see what I mean, Henry.’ ‘Yes, I do. If I ever needed to be convinced that love is stronger than death, I’ll only ever need to look at this.’ ‘Of course there were bigots who shouted about it, but most people just had to see it to realise what it meant.’ ‘I’ve gotta go and visit it, Dr Mac.’ ‘Not this year I fear, Henry, not this year.’ *** Rudi had calmed down a lot at school, so much was clear. But Henry had an idea it was not because he had become acclimatised to Medwardine, but because he was being distracted by something else. He was often on the web till late at night in the study centre, Ed said, and he would disappear in a rush outside to take calls on his mobile. ‘I’d guess he’s into online betting big time,’ Ed suggested. ‘You seriously think so?’ ‘Oh yeah. I even asked Westenra what he thought, since you were worried about his own addiction. He said I spend too much time with you.’ Henry snorted. ‘Cheek! Mind you, it would account for the tenseness. Maybe he’s over his head in debt and is scared his mum will find out. It’s what aristocrats do, isn’t it?’ ‘It’s not what Fritzy does.’ ‘No, well, Fritzy seems to have the other aristocratic obsession … sex. He’s getting really tedious about him and Maria and their pubescent fumblings.’ ‘Actually,’ said Ed, ‘that was over two days ago. He’s now into Natasha. Despite his bravado, I think Maria dropped him rather than the other way round.’ Henry took a gulp from the coffee he’d been nursing so long it had gone cold. He scanned his French coursework, sighed and sent it for printing to the study centre’s machine. As the printer whined and hummed into action, he looked over at Ed, blond head down over a book, and thought about Prince Leo and his Martin. Henry’s heart pulsed with some very strange and unfamiliar emotions. It was a while before Henry realised that the thing stabbing at his heart was anxiety. He knew he desperately loved the boy whose profile he was studying. But with love, he was finding, came fear. He could not quite put his finger on where the fear originated. He thought of Leo and Martin, once teens like Edward and him in this very school. Apparently they had been unable to do much about it in those distant boarding-school days, when everyone lived close together and the masters were very alert to signs of inappropriate relationships. He and Ed were so much luckier. Though they had to restrain themselves at school – just as a hetero couple would – they could live as lovers. Maybe that was the problem: consummation. For Leo and Martin, every moment of happiness was stolen and fragile. He and Ed had it all by comparison: acceptance and approval from friends, and Henry’s family at least. They could even be domestic in Trewern or Highgate. It had all gone so well for him. Life should not be this easy. Those two long-ago boys would probably have shaken their heads at his luck, and think they had been hard done by. But in fact, their love seemed more jewel-like to Henry because of the grim setting out of which it shone. Of course, his memory reminded him, the book had said that Martin Tofts had spread it round a bit as a young man. He had not been monogamous, even at Medwardine with all the difficulties. Several old boys had later claimed to have shared a bed with him. So was Henry’s growing fixation with Davey Skipper such a wrong thing? Probably Martin Tofts would have laughed at his scruples. But he had them all the same, and he feared the consequences of indulging in what he knew Davey would very much like to share. *** Against his better judgement, Henry’s libido persuaded him in the end to accept David’s invitation to join him in his room after prep one night. David whispered that he had some downloads on his laptop that Henry really needed to see. ‘Get comfy, Henry,’ he advised, locking his door. When they settled on David’s bed, Henry became ominously conscious that David was wearing no more than boxer briefs and a tee. He could not but enjoy the sight of David’s long and elegant legs, only lightly dusted with hair below the knees. Henry sighed. If it was going to be a wankathon, there was no resisting it. He stripped down to his boxers and scooted over next to David, their bare arms warm against each other and the laptop between them. ‘Oh fuck …’ Henry groaned. ‘It’s going to happen, isn’t it.’ David looked eager. Henry tugged off his boxers and pulled David’s shirt off. David ripped off his own pants and sat there, erect and throbbing. Henry admired the sight very much. David was quite something naked, and Henry could not but stare at what was revealed. There was not much hair on Davey’s body, apart from some thick dark curls gathered above the root of his penis. ‘Nice dick,’ Henry stammered out. ‘You think?’ David asked coyly. ‘How does it compare with Ed’s?’ ‘A bit slimmer and darker, but yours is very … elegant. Yes, elegant. Not a word you’d normally use for dicks, but in your case Davey …’ Davey had his hand on his length and was massaging it eagerly, without any signs of self-consciousness. ‘Aww … this is just too good, Henry. This is what I dream of all the time.’ ‘We’re not going beyond wanking, Davey,’ Henry warned him, taking his sizable penis in hand and gently worked at it. ‘Come on Davey, show me what you’ve got.’ ‘Fantastic. Will you let me go on top?’ ‘No, idiot. On your laptop.’ ‘Oh, right … I downloaded this from an East European site. Take a look at those bods … and the passion, wow!’ David hit Enter and moved his hand to stroke Henry’s own stiff but rather smaller cock. Henry shifted his bum; it was all too enjoyable. The opening credits of a streamed video appeared. ‘Anton Aramis presents Falkefilm,’ it said, and Henry absently noted the postal address in Strelzen. The next credit was a panoramic view of the city itself from the cathedral, as Henry recognised, followed by the title ‘An American in Strelzen – 1. Starring Marc Bennett, and introducing Jason Williams.’ The first scene was the international airport. Although Henry had never been there, it had to be Strelzen, its signage in English and Rothenian. A dark-haired, handsome man in his early twenties came through the barrier, smiling with a very familiar coyness at the border guard. Henry was astounded when the facial close-up left no room for doubt. It was Will Vincent! But the surprises were by no means over. The scene shifted to an urban setting, with Will walking along absorbed in a street map. He collided with a tall and very handsome blond boy, and fell on his backside. The blond reached down and picked him up laughing. It was Oskar! Jesus wept! Henry was so stunned it did not even register that David had closed with his penis and was suckling its head enthusiastically – until, that is, David raked him with his teeth. ‘Ouch!’ Henry yelped. David moved off him looking apologetic. ‘What’d I do?’ Henry rallied. ‘You don’t suck people off like that.’ ‘You do it this way.’ He began working on David, who was soon somewhere in seventh heaven, his head up and neck muscles taut. All the while Henry’s gaze was riveted on scene after scene on the laptop’s screen of hot sex between Will and Oskar, incredibly hot sex. So it was a total surprise when David shifted to hard panting, lifted his bum, groaned and came tumultuously in Henry’s mouth. Henry swallowed. Sitting up, David stared at him. ‘That was beyond brilliant, Henry … God, I love you!’ Henry frowned. ‘No you don’t, Davey. You just love sex. I can see it in your eyes. You don’t look at me the way Ed does.’ ‘Okay, I love having sex with you. Will you … take my cherry? I’ve got lube and stuff, condoms if you want.’ No, but squat up here and wank me off. That’s a fair swap.’ David obliged, perhaps with more enthusiasm than technique. Henry found it quite a turn-on to watch himself being serviced by such a good-looking boy, naked, his dark hair hanging in his eyes. Henry blew a heavy load that spattered both their faces and chests. David hesitated. ‘What do I do now?’ ‘You get a tissue.’ ‘Aren’t you supposed to lick it up?’ ‘You might do, but tissues work better.’ ‘Can we do this again, Henry, please?’ ‘I dunno. It seems too much like being unfaithful to Ed. But I’m not going to lie and say I didn’t enjoy it … you are very beautiful, Davey.’ And David gave him a coy smile, very like Will Vincent’s as it happened. ‘Now, Davey, I want you to copy some clips from that video on to my flash drive for me.’
  17. The boys followed the obsequies for poor Ramon at a distance. He was buried in Houston, where his family lived. There was an unhappy scene at the requiem when the family denied Terry a place amongst the lead mourners, and there were some ugly words thrown at the gay section of the congregation after the service. It was only the powerful advocacy of Ramon’s aunt, Mrs Fuentes – Andy’s former housekeeper – that stopped further humiliations. Ramon’s family had never come to terms with his relationship with Terry, and they were not in a forgiving mood. Terry was not even allowed to contribute to the headstone. Andy told Ed that he was heartbroken and looked years older. He had been denied the normal mechanisms of grieving. After the funeral, Terry went back to Los Angeles to visit the places where he and Ramon had first met, at which point Matt and Andy lost track of him. They confessed they were a bit worried. They returned to London ten days after they had left, and immediately summoned Ed up to Highgate. Henry waved him off at Shrewsbury station, musing a little selfishly (as he admitted to himself) that at least he had avoided loneliness for most of the holiday fortnight. Meanwhile, he had finally pulled off what his brother Ricky had failed to do: wear down his father on the subject of an Internet connection. In truth, the diocese had also leant on Mr Atwood, as all clergy were supposed to be on an e-mail directory. The archdeacon had got quite shirty with him. So, although Henry and Ed were apart, they were at least in close touch. Henry more or less had a monopoly on the use of the Internet. His father was not enthusiastic about the web, his mother soon lost interest in it, and Ricky had gone on holiday to Ibiza with his new girlfriend Helen, Mark Peters’s eldest sister. For the last few days of the exeat, Henry took station at the new window on his world with his usual concentration, and found much there to fuel his interest. Rothenia was bubbling with rumour and discontent, and the current crisis was inspiring new media manifestations, especially opinion sites and blogs. The famous national newspaper, the Ruritanischer Tagblatt, had at last gone on-line. It offered a generally liberal take on events, and was pro-Maritz though not overwhelmed by the quality of his leadership. Henry gratefully added www.ruritanischer-tagblatt.rn to his bookmarks. Despite the site’s not being a particularly polished production, it gave Henry a doorway for deeper exploration into cyber-Rothenia, where he found things he had not expected. Links led him to a series of blogs whose authors seemed remarkably well informed about the internal workings of the government and media. There was an awesome amount of detail and high-quality graphics. Henry began to suspect those blogs of being backed by serious money not available to the CDP, whose clunky sites were uninformative and close to useless – rarely updated except with new pictures of the CDP leader, Bermann, at yet another rally or party dinner. Eventually the blogs led Henry to some visually stunning Rothenian political and historical sites that opened up a further world, one closed to the western media, which were taking little interest in the developing crisis. Monarchism was unexpectedly on the rise in Rothenia. He discovered a magnificent site at www.longlebstdenkung.rn offering huge resources for the Elphberg and Thuringian past of Rothenia and links to rival discussion boards. Henry was absorbed by the debates about Prince Leopold of Thuringia, or King Leopold II as the sites called him. The fact that the late duke of Thuringia had been openly gay utterly captivated Henry, whose mind went haring off after this entrancing historical character. He even ordered a recent biography from Amazon, which of course he could now do. He signed up to a discussion board on the rights of King Ernst Karl, as it called the present duke of Thuringia, and whiled away many happy hours chatting online in Rothenian to people in Strelzen, Ebersfeld, Ernsthof and Wisconsin about the pros and cons of the overthrow of King Albert, extolling the virtues of his son, and debating conspiracy theories about the murder of the king’s mistress in Berlin as well as the king’s own ultimate assassination in 1919. A high point for Henry was his discovery of the Crown of Tassilo site. It was an awesome compilation of conspiracy mania regarding the whereabouts of the lost national treasure, unseen since the abdication of King Maxim, and – some said – largely responsible for the success of his coup against King Albert. Its reappearance in 1910 had swept Maxim Elphberg on to the throne, and its disappearance with the king in 1919 opened up a hole in the national psyche. While there was no shortage of theories about what had happened to it, and where it might be found, Henry began to lose interest when the Templars made their inevitable appearance. He did not think it likely that the Crown of Tassilo was alluded to amongst the carvings of Rosslyn Chapel. In more serious moments, Henry caught up on current news. Regional elections in Husbrau had returned only Unity and CDP MPs, squeezing President Maritz’s SDP coalition down to a majority of one. The coalition was looking frail, as the CDP’s star was rising in opinion polls in the rest of the country. National elections were scheduled for the end of June and the Unity party was expected to sweep the board, giving the ethnic German party the balance of power in Parliament, a development which would only enrage the CDP further. A disturbing new trend was that gangs were deliberately trashing German businesses and schools to provoke a further German backlash. The CDP was suspected of being behind them. It looked to Henry as though there were anti-democratic forces at work in Rothenia. There were also disturbing rumours that cells of the former secret police, the Okranske Dienst, and Communist cadres in the military were becoming active and were linked to the CDP. Henry had been startled to find his friend Will Vincent mentioned a lot on various sites. Will’s recent TV series on Rothenian history, with its authoritative analysis of the stresses and strains over the centuries, had generated a huge wave of nostalgia amongst Rothenians for the old Ruritanian days. The reign of King Maxim was again and again mentioned as the golden age of Rothenian political life. Then why did the idiots throw him out? Henry kept asking himself. Fritz was nearly as good a correspondent as the distant Edward in London, even though all Fritz really wanted to talk about was his progress in getting inside the knickers of the unfortunate Maria, who seemed for the time being more than willing to cooperate. Fritz was touchingly confident that Henry would not tell on him to his brother and sister. His description of his first blow job was exhaustive and indeed exhausting. He also wanted to compare notes on Henry’s technique in sucking off Ed and whether he came in Henry’s mouth. Coming in Maria’s mouth seemed to be the next great ambition of the precociously dissolute prince of Tarlenheim. *** Rudolf Elphberg-Rassendyll, pretender to the Rothenian throne, chewed his pencil end abstractedly, then took the damp, shredded object out of his mouth and regarded it with distaste. He must break this damned childish habit. It was not kingly. He put away his diary, whose keeping was something he had begun when only eight, in the aftermath of his father’s death. It had somehow helped to have that as a vent for his confusion, grief and hurt. He had reflected at the time how little people left behind of themselves in the world, and a diary seemed to offer a chance for him to record his life as he lived it. There was now a tidy stack of notebooks in his bedroom desk drawer, written in his increasingly confident and bold hand. He booted up his desktop, but found no mail had come from Rothenia, where all had gone quiet since Will left for the States. Oskar was a poor correspondent. You only heard from him when there was a crisis or a major development. But in any case, Rudi would be seeing Oskar soon. Their schedule demanded it. There was a tap on Rudi’s door. It was Mrs Doherty, the Burlesdons’ housekeeper, with a message from his mother. He was wanted in the drawing room, as his grandparents had arrived. ‘Rudolf! Dear boy. My … you have grown. He’s grown, hasn’t he, Vi? Six feet if he’s an inch. All of a sudden. It hardly seems yesterday you were off to Palmers in your short trousers. Now you’re a proper man. Nearly old enough to go into a public house.’ Don Alejandro Carlos Luis Jacobo Fitz-James y Toledo, the Most Excellent the 12th Duke of Munster and Duque de La Coruña – with many other titles besides, not least Grandee of Spain – crossed his thin legs and regarded his grandson with some apparent curiosity. As he did so, he took his wife’s hand fondly and squeezed it. Violette had become his second wife three years before, following the annulment of his first marriage to Rudi’s real grandmother, a much older woman than Violette, who was a former Dior model and still looked like a fashion plate. The duque, despite his name and titles, was as English in manner and upbringing as he could be. His father had dabbled in liberal politics in Spain between the wars, then fled the country before Franco’s defeat of the Republicans, although not before prudently sending most of the family’s movable assets ahead of him to England. The Fitz-Jameses had eventually settled in Richmond, and were now very comfortably off, after the eventual recovery of their extensive Galician estates, a gift by the king of Spain to the duque’s ancestor, Charles Henry Fitz-James, created duke of Munster by his father, the exiled King James II and VII. La Coruña and many other ducal and comital titles had been acquired over the centuries since. The duque was near the apex of Catholic nobility, and was moreover a direct descendant of the Stuart kings of Great Britain, though through an illegitimate son of King James by his mistress, Arabella Churchill. The same liaison had produced the first duke of Munster’s elder brother, the more famous Marshal Duke of Berwick. It was because of his grandfather that Rudolf, earl of Burlesdon, had a line of descent from Alfred the Great, as much as from Tassilo of Rothenia. The lineage also brought him kinship with nearly a dozen Spanish dukes and marquises. Rudi might have been intimidated by his grandfather – as a younger boy he certainly had been – but recent events had brought home to him the reality of the claims to which his Rassendyll blood entitled him. Great though his grandfather might be, Rudi could one day be greater yet in the eyes of the world: the crowned sovereign monarch of an ancient realm. Unconsciously, his back stiffened. Somehow a telepathic impulse seemed to communicate this to the old man, who regarded his grandson with deeper interest. ‘He looks very like his father, don’t you think, Eugenia?’ The countess of Burlesdon smiled fondly up at her son. ‘More handsome, I think.’ Rudi smiled back down at her and settled on the arm of her chair. The duquesa chimed in. ‘The red colouring, is that from his father?’ Her husband guffawed. ‘It’s from much further back. The Burlesdons are more than they appear, and the blood that runs in my grandson’s veins comes from the Rudolfine house of Ruritania. He’s as royal as I am – that is, he’s as much an Elphberg as I’m a Stuart.’ ‘Oh! You mean …?’ ‘Wrong side of the blanket, my dear.’ Again that same impulse moved in Rudi and he spoke deliberately in answer to his grandfather. ‘More royal, I believe sir. For my great grandfather’s uncle was in his day king of Rothenia. He took the name of Elphberg and acquitted himself with great honour in the post to which God had called him.’ His mother took Rudi’s hand and pressed it. Those words, which might have come out as pompous in the mouth of any other seventeen-year-old, had the ring of quiet and sober dignity in her son’s. His grandfather certainly seemed to think so. His face took on an air of detached amusement. ‘So are you planning to take off to Strelzen, dear fellow? From what the BBC was saying, the place very much needs a king at the moment. Look what Juan Carlos did for the old place; who would have thought a Bourbon would have that in him! Do you think you could do the same for old Ruritania?’ ‘We call it Rothenia, sir.’ ‘“We”, Rudolf? Are we becoming more royal as we speak?’ ‘I do have a Rothenian passport, sir. I was merely aligning myself with the rest of my countrymen.’ The duque gave a somewhat equivocal grunt, then changed the subject. ‘I hear good reports of your progress at Medwardine School from the princess your grandmother, which I have to say is something of a relief after what happened last year … not that I’m criticising, you understand. I admired your motivation in dealing with that pervert, though your mode of action might have been more circumspect, a point I made to the provost when the headmaster insisted you be withdrawn.’ ‘I like Medwardine, sir. It’s a different sort of place.’ His mother squeezed his hand. ‘He’s settled there. I met some very nice friends he’s made … what were their names?’ ‘Atwood and Cornish, mother. An … er … odd couple, but they’ve been solid with me.’ ‘Solid … is that teenage argot?’ enquired his grandfather. ‘It means decent, sort of thing. Apart from that, so many of my relatives have been there. There’re pictures of Prince Leo and King Maxim in New and Temple, and they still keep my grandfather’s cricket bat in a glass case, the one he scored a century with in eight overs against Eton in 1945!’ The duque laughed. ‘You clearly treasure that particular connection, my boy. Well, well, I never met Lord Lowestoft, but from what I’ve heard from the princess your grandmother, he was quite the man. Hardly surprising that in his day he was quite the boy too. I’m pleased, really. What fine men they all were. You could easily forgive Leo his little idiosyncrasy. I think you know what I mean.’ Rudi gave a slow nod. ‘I’ve met some good guys who are gay … Outfield and Cornish are boyfriends, but they’re now my best friends.’ The duque’s eyebrows shot up. ‘My dear young fellow, you are so very broadminded. But that’s the younger generation for you. Just please don’t turn out to be one of them, for the sake of your house. Other than you, there’s only Robert’s girl Lennie left to inherit, and with her the Rassendyll name would end forever.’ ‘Elphberg, sir,’ responded Rudi quietly but firmly. ‘That is my name.’ *** Rudi hunched his shoulders as the relentless Norfolk rain rattled on his Barbour jacket. He trudged and squelched his way through the mud of Burlesdon Coverts wishing he’d put a hat on. Unfortunately, he had a teenage conviction that hats looked idiotic on him, so he had stalwartly passed by the assorted cloth caps hanging on the rack of the butler’s pantry. He wondered idly why the idea of wearing the antique glory of the Crown of Tassilo on his head did not seem so ridiculous. Rain was trickling its way down his back from his soaked hair when he reached the Waterloo Folly. He looked up at the crumbling brick battlements of the hundred-foot tower raised by one of his ancestors to celebrate Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon in 1815. The wooden door was sagging back on its rusted hinges, so he pushed on in. It was at least dry within, for the leaden roof far above him remained sound. He smiled, guessing that Outfield would enjoy this quirky historic building, judging by the guy’s peculiar devotion to graveyards and country churches. Betjeman Boy, he called Henry in his head, rather amused by the literary resonance of the remark. Why did he like the little queer? In reply, the Elphberg side of his inheritance stated firmly: He has helped you freely when he had no need to do so, and indeed every reason not to. Henry Atwood is an honourable man for all he’s a homo, and you, Rudolf Robert, 14th earl of Burlesdon, are under a deep obligation to him. His watch showed midday as he heard the splash and squelch of someone approaching. Peering out, he was delighted to discover Oskar von Tarlenheim. The two shook hands at the door. Although the Rothenian at least was wearing a hat, he still managed to be irritatingly cool. ‘Kungliche hochheit,’ greeted Oskar in deferential salutation, giving the Rothenian head-jerk which passed for a bow in that nation. ‘You call me so, excellency,’ Rudi replied with a small smile, ‘but I don’t think you should.’ ‘Perhaps, sir,’ Oskar replied. ‘However, it seems wrong that I should acknowledge the current duke of Thuringia in that way, and not you.’ ‘He is the grandson of a king, Oskar. You have to go back to Rudolf III of Ruritania till you find a king in my lineage. I know Rudolf Rassendyll and Maxim Elphberg were both of my family and wore the Tassilisnerkron, but I am descended from neither of them.’ ‘Of course I defer to you, sir. The point is, all Elphberg loyalists now acknowledge that Robert Rassendyll, designated by Queen Flavia to be her heir, should properly be reckoned in the Elphberg succession, especially as his younger son Maxim was actually crowned. That does alter your status, and if the princes of Hanover may be called royal highness – though none has been king since 1866 – then so can you be.’ Rudi shook his head, but said nothing more about it. Oskar therefore continued, ‘Tomas Weissman and his crew will be here tomorrow, sir. Is all ready?’ ‘Yes. The princess my grandmother has talked to my mother, who will take the duque and duquesa to Thetford for lunch. We should have three clear hours.’ Oskar shrugged. ‘Three hours does not give us a lot of time for filming, sir. Tomas will not be happy. It means he will only be able to get in a couple of takes.’ ‘Then I had better be on my game, excellency.’ The count looked dubious, but shrugged again. ‘There will be the chance to edit the tapes later, at least. Now we need to look at the issue of security.’ ‘Security?’ ‘The blogs and websites are already active, and in two weeks they will be going on the attack. That’s the point at which the opposition will realise where the danger is coming from.’ ‘You think the CDP is insane enough to try to take me out of the running, Oskar?’ Rudi felt mildly amused. ‘There is an element amongst them which used to belong to the old ORD, the Okranske Deinst of Horvath’s days. It may not have been as notorious as the East German Stasi, but it was mean and brutal in its day. It was responsible for assassinating General Henry von Tarlenheim, my cousin, who was leading the democratic opposition in exile in Paris during the early 1950s. I would not be too confident that those days are gone, sir. Bermann is a brute and an extremist. He sees me and my like as blood traitors to Slavic Rothenia and collaborators with the Germans. There are more like him than I care to contemplate. They are organised and well-funded. If they hate me, they will loathe you.’ ‘So what are you suggesting, Oskar?’ ‘We have no funds for proper security, but I will ask around and see what can be done. Mostly however it will be about you being careful, sir. Take no risks, and keep your eyes open. At least the school where you are is relatively secure. It will not be easy for the ill-disposed to get at you without being observed.’ ‘You really think they will come after me?’ Oskar shook his head. ‘I have no idea. But these people are dangerous, and they have a lot to lose in the event of a Restoration. Do not underestimate the threat.’ *** Oskar von Tarlenheim reached his hired car, which he had parked at a pull-in on the other side of Burlesdon Coverts. He needed to get himself over to check in the Eastnet crew at Swaffham … those absurd English place names. Just as he was about to pull on to the narrow country lane, his mobile buzzed. He checked its screen and immediately turned the car engine off. ‘Peter? Where are you?’ ‘Just arrived at Heathrow, dude; late-night flight from JFK.’ ‘When was this arranged?’ ‘A summons from the old man. Big things are brewing in Peacherland.’ ‘How did you know I was in the UK?’ ‘Terry O’Brien told me.’ ‘And how did he know?’ ‘You don’t ask those questions of Terry. I had enough trouble tracking him down. I need that guy, and I was lucky enough to have his friend Zeke on detail at Yale. Terry won’t talk to anyone else at the moment, but he’s still in contact with Zeke and Jenna. Anyway, dude, I’ll be staying at Matt and Andy’s. Where are you?’ ‘Eastnet business. I am on location for the next two days in … er, the Midlands.’ Peter Peacher seemed to catch something in Oskar’s voice, and there was a pause. ‘So you got time to meet up in London?’ Oskar replied decidedly, ‘Of course. How long are you here for?’ Oskar almost heard the shrug in his lover’s voice. ‘That’s an open question.’ ‘But your studies?’ ‘You checked the airport bookshelves recently? That bastard Tim Caird’s book hit the stands last week. It’s selling well and the little shit is on every talk show in the States. Yale is not a good place for me to be at the moment. Talk to ya later, babe. Just reached passport control. See ya, hunk!’ *** Two SUVs hired from Stansted airport turned up in the drive of Burlesdon House at eleven the next morning, on the dot. Oskar pulled in behind them in his Audi. He went over to Tomas Weissman to shake hands in the serious Rothenian way. ‘So this is a noble English château, Osku? I must say it is impressive.’ He indicated the mellow brick frontage of the great Jacobean house, with its acres of diamond-paned windows and lead-domed corner turrets. ‘Nowhere near as impressive as the occupant. Are you properly briefed?’ ‘A teenage English prince? Not really necessary, surely. Did you say he speaks Rothenian or German? You know my English is not up to studio standards.’ ‘He speaks both. His Rothenian is perfect. Here he is … and mind your manners, Tomasczu!’ Tomas turned, and Oskar heard a sharp intake of breath. Tomas swore, ‘My God! You didn’t mention the looks. He’s a Red Elphberg to the life!’ ‘I did warn you,’ smiled Oskar. Tomas did not need to be told to bow over Rudi’s hand; somehow it seemed a natural thing to do. ‘Hochheit, can my team set up immediately?’ ‘By all means, Herr Weissman. I thought you might like to record some footage in the gallery, where we have portraits of King Ferdinand and his half-brother, the sixth earl, side-by-side. There is a striking resemblance.’ ‘We can film a brief walking tour through the château, sir. It’ll be useful for filling. Your Rothenian, sir … it’s … I can’t tell that you weren’t raised in Strelzen. There’s a distinct accent of the city in your voice.’ ‘I was there as a younger boy. My grandmother and father brought me up speaking Rothenian from the cradle. I didn’t talk English till I was four.’ ‘Can I check where the interview is proposed to take place? We must get it right first time. Laszlo, the location manager, will wish to position the lights. Sorry to have to push.’ ‘I understand. The housekeeper will show your people where to go. What are you going to do, excellency?’ Oskar shrugged. I’ll stay out of the way, sir. But can I have a brief word?’ Oskar led Rudi to one side as the crew struggled past with the paraphernalia of the film studio. ‘It’s the Crown. I need your permission to be a little more decisive when I return to Strelzen. Everything indicates that its present hiding place is in the crypt of the Salvatorskirk.’ Rudi nodded. ‘What do you mean by decisive?” ‘I can’t believe it lies with King Maxim, who was only buried there in my lifetime … no, I think it’s concealed with his friend, Marcus Tildemann,.’ ‘Your vision?’ ‘The crown rested on his coffin in my dream.’ ‘So crowbars are in order, you think?’ ‘Yes, I’m afraid so. I will do what I must, even though to my mind it’s more than a little indecent. He was a good man, and should not be disturbed in such a way.’ ‘If there’s any chance it’s there, you must do what you think fit, excellency. With that in our hands, anything is possible.’ ‘So I believe, sir.’ Rudi mused. ‘Knock and it shall be opened unto you.’ ‘Sir?’ ‘From what you told me of your discovery at Heinrichshof. A strange choice of biblical phrase. Do you suppose it means more than might appear at first sight?’ ‘I have no idea. I think you’re wanted by Tomas.’ Oskar watched Rudi stride up the broad steps to the pillared doorway of the house. A moment later he hunched his shoulders and followed.
  18. Things at Medwardine got worse. Rudi seemed to have lost his social confidence – or at least the will to be social – and retreated into his room. David did not have enough moderation and self-control to keep his grievance to himself, and so stirred up his friends against Rudi. All in all it was a difficult week, only lightened by the fact that Ed had decided to join Henry’s crusade. He went out of his way to talk to Rudi, sitting with him at meals, and even visiting him in his room after lessons and prep. ‘You’re right, Henry,’ he concluded. ‘He’s not such a bad bloke, apart from the tendency to flip at irregular intervals. Not much into sport, either, but you could make the same criticism of nicer people. I suggested he come and visit the rectory this weekend, if he didn’t mind hanging out with queers.’ ‘Blimey, what did he say?’ ‘He got all offended that we might believe he cares what people think about him. So he said yes. I sort of talked him into it without meaning to. I amazed even myself …’ Dad and mum were okay with it, even after Henry admitted that Rudi was an aristocrat. Dad countered with a pious platitude: ‘We are all one in the eyes of God … now, I think that earns me fifty points in the religious cliché game, Henry – not just bottom-clenchingly awful, but also appropriate.’ It was a long-term competition he and Henry had going. Rudi was different with adults, as it turned out. Mum was perfectly charmed. ‘And he’s good-looking, too, in a pale, redheaded sort of way. Lovely green eyes and delicious freckles. He’ll be a lady-killer. He’s not another one of your gay friends, is he?’ ‘No, mum, this one plays with a straight bat, as Edward likes to say.’ Rudi was quite relaxed with Ed and Henry as well, even when he walked in on them snogging in the lounge on Saturday afternoon. ‘Don’t mind me,’ he commented, although his smile was a little on the forced side. They went back to their mouth exercises. On Sunday he was happy to join them in church. Announcing he was a Catholic, however, he said, ‘I won’t take communion if that’s all the same, Mr Atwood.’ But he did come forward to receive a blessing, which Henry thought was sensitive. He hung around after the service, chatting to old ladies, while Ed and Henry cleared up. The word that Rudi was a lord had got round the church like bird flu, and a certain sort of parishioner was very excited. It was as Ed and Henry had finished off and were coming out of the vestry that an odd thing happened, or at least it seemed odd later. Dr Mac was bringing up the collection plate, and upon seeing Henry he smiled and as usual said, ‘Ahoi, dobra denn.’ But before Henry could answer, Rudi responded automatically, ‘Prosim, men freund, dobra denn.’ Henry stared at him, while Rudi looked as though he’d been caught out saying something he shouldn’t. Dr Mac smiled and congratulated him, before heading on into the vestry. ‘You speak Rothenian, Rudi! Not only that, but you speak it pretty well!’ ‘Oh … er, yes. My grandmother is Rothenian. Besides, it’s a sort of family tradition. We had an estate in Rothenia up until the war, and young Rassendylls used to go out and manage the farms there, until we finally lost it in the nationalisation of 1948. Father had just begun the legal process of reclamation when he was killed; in fact, he was flying out to Rothenia when his plane went down. After that it was on hold till I came of age under Rothenian law. Now mother’s about to restart the process.’ ‘How much land is there, and in what part of Rothenia?’ asked Ed, very curious by then. ‘It’s quite a lot actually. My ancestor was given the castle of Hentzen and the entire Hentzen estate by Queen Flavia. You’ve heard of her, I imagine?’ ‘We know quite a bit about Rothenia, Rudi,’ Henry replied. ‘We were there last summer and we’ve got quite a few Rothenian friends.’ ‘Oh!’ Rudi took on an air of indifference. ‘Really?’ ‘We were in the capital, Strelzen. We spent a month there, the best time I’ve ever had.’ ‘Me too,’ Ed affirmed. ‘Have you been there yet?’ ‘Oh … umm … yes. We … er … used to go stay with relatives sometimes, usually at Christmas for the skiing. Though it’s been a while since the last time.’ Henry asked, ‘Have you been following the news? It looks bad at the moment there.’ Rudi shut down, in a rather odd and very decided way. ‘I expect it’s exaggerated. Now. Tell me about this interesting tomb in the churchyard.’ All in all, it was an enjoyable weekend, and they were quite cheery with each other on the minibus back to Medwardine on Monday. After assembly, Ed and Henry adjourned to the terminals to check up on their e-mail accounts. Ed signed in. ‘Hey! Here’s one from Fritzy! You gotta read the whole thing, babe.’ Henry did. Hi Edward and Henry. Thank you for your concern, but we are fine up here in Modenehem. The news says that there was only a small problem in Zenden City, although the riot police were sent in, which doesn’t sound so small a problem to me. We saw Oskar on TV the other night. He was presenting a current-affairs programme on Eastnet. He was talking to Helmut Trachtenberg of the Unity Party – loud and aggressive man – and Piotr Bermann of the CDP – even more loud and aggressive. It was very funny. They both lost it and started fighting each other. Oskar and the cameraman had to separate them, and Oskar got a punch that gave him a black eye. Helge told me off for laughing. There’s a lot of politics going on, and that nice President Maritz will have to resign. I like him. He is very kind and always has a laugh with me when we meet. I will let you know if anything happens. Are you coming to stay? It would be nice. Helge says there will be less tourists this year because of the trouble. PS. I have a girlfriend. Her name is Maria. She is hot. Henry smiled. ‘Poor old Oskar. Too bad Fritzy’s a dead loss when it comes to information, but I suppose you can’t expect very much of a fourteen-year-old, even one who’s a prince.’ ‘I’m not so sure of that, Henry,’ Ed countered. ‘If you read between the lines, you can see Fritzy’s picking up lots of bad signals. He knows things are going wrong, he just doesn’t want us to worry.’ Ed continued to look at his e-mails. ‘Oh. Here’s one from Andy.’ That was Andy Peacher, one of Ed’s two London-based foster fathers. ‘I’d better check … oh my God!’ Henry’s gaze snapped to Ed’s face, which had suddenly acquired a fixed intensity and look of shock. ‘Whassup?’ Ed explained unhappily, ‘Bad problems, little babe. You read it.’ Dear Ed. Sorry not to ring, but by the time you receive this I’ll be somewhere in the States with Matt and I’m not entirely sure where. There’s been a tragedy. You’ll remember that our friend Terry O’Brien had a lover, Ramon Villa. I don’t think you met him … really great bloke and they were very much in love. They were living in Greenwich Village, Ramon teaching in a downtown Manhattan school, and Terry looking for work in theatres. Ramon came home on Friday complaining of a headache, and by midnight he was in pain all over his body and delirious. Terry got him to hospital, but there was nothing they could do. He died of meningitis on Saturday morning. It’s awful. Matt and I are leaving by overnight flight to be with Terry. I don’t expect we’ll be coming back soon. This buggers up our plans for your Easter holiday, but I hope you can stay with Mr and Mrs Atwood, at least for the first week. We’ll be in touch as soon as we know what the plans for the funeral are and how long we’ll need to be here. God knows what this will do to Terry. We’ll ring as soon as we know anything. Love, Andy. ‘Oh my God!’ exclaimed Henry in his turn. They had met Terry at a big London function and had liked him a lot. He was very much a hero to their friend Justin. He had taught Henry how to waltz, and they had heard some of his scandalous cruising stories. They had also picked up that he had quite a history as a security consultant and bodyguard to the rich and famous. He had given that up for a career in the arts, however, and was just taking his first steps towards Broadway. Henry resolved to make sure that Terry’s and Ramon’s names got on the Trewern prayer list for the week. It was all so very sad. And although Henry’s perspective on death was for many reasons not as bleak as some people’s, he did not underestimate the poignancy and blackness of the grief that went with it. He had recently experienced quite how cosmically powerful that sort of grief could be. Ed heaved a sigh. ‘Do you think your mum and dad will be okay about it?’ Henry nodded. ‘Oh yeah. Aside from the tragedy, they’ll be delighted at the excuse to put you up for a week, and Dad loves having two young servers in the sanctuary. It’s a sort of status symbol for vicars.’ Ed absently scrolled farther down the inbox. ‘Hey, babe. Here’s another e-mail from Fritzy, sent only half an hour ago, probably just before he went to school.’ Hi Edward and Henry. I don’t know if you had heard but our friend Terry has lost his boyfriend Ramon. Everybody here is upset. I did not know Ramon well, but Terry I know and love a lot. He is so terribly funny. Although they have had their differences, my brother Oskar thinks highly of him as well, and he is very close to our good friend Will Vincent. Will was in Modenehem late last night to say goodbye. He is going to fly today to New York to join Matt and Andy to do what they can for Terry. This is not going to be a good summer, I can feel it. Oskar was on the phone a lot when he was here, talking to many different political people, as was Will. But they won’t tell me anything. Love. Fritzku. Ed looked downhearted. ‘It seems the tribe are assembling across the Atlantic to support Terry.’ ‘You feel left out of it, don’t you Ed.’ ‘A bit. I know it’s a bit egotistical of me, because I barely know Terry, but I felt I was becoming part of the Peacher set. But it looks like I’m not so much a part of it that I’m included in its tribal gatherings.’ ‘I’ll ring Justin and see what he knows.’ Henry flipped his mobile, but got only voicemail. He then tried the number for Nathan Underwood, Justin’s boyfriend, who was managing a garden centre in Suffolk, near Ipswich. This time there was a reply. ‘Hey, little Henry! I suppose you’ve heard the bad news?’ ‘Yes. That was why I was ringing. Is Justin going over to the States?’ ‘Already gone. I drove him to Ipswich, where he took the early train to London. Matt had booked him on a flight to New York. I’m still here though, stacking growbags and manning the till.’ ‘Will you be going over later for the funeral?’ ‘I doubt it. Businesses don’t run themselves. Terry understands. I sent my condolences by Justin and by e-mail. How are you guys?’ ‘A bit upset. We like Terry. But with Matt and Andy gone abroad, Ed’s having to stay here with me in Shropshire for most of the holiday.’ ‘That’s some sort of silver lining for you, then.’ ‘I guess. But Ed loves Matt and Andy and was looking forward to getting back together with them in London. He hopes he’ll be seeing them in the second half of the holiday.’ ‘Yeah. Well nice to hear from you … but I got customers. Oh, and don’t forget you’ve got AS exams to revise for. Cheers, little Henry babe!’ Henry put his mobile back in his pocket and gave Ed a résumé of the conversation. Ed shrugged. ‘That’s Nathan, always pragmatic. Also, he’s right. We could do without distractions. There’re oral exams only a fortnight after we get back, and the draft coursework for History and English is due in on the day school restarts. We’d better get cracking, little babe. Remember how effective a revision team we were for our GCSEs?’ Henry did. The previous August he had chalked up 3 A* and 6 A grades, with only one B. Ed had totalled out on A’s, with 6 A*. *** Oskar pouted, a very unusual expression for him. Will thought he looked even sexier when he did it, despite the bruises round his right eye. ‘It’s not too bad,’ Will offered in reassurance. Oskar brightened a little. ‘Really? I could kill that oaf Bermann. And in front of the whole nation too! Perhaps I will murder Bermann. It may solve some problems. I’m sorry you have to fly abroad now, Willemczu. I can ill afford your absence. We were making real progress.’ ‘I must go, Osku.’ ‘I know, I know. I am very sorry for Terry’s loss, and it is the right thing for you to be there for him, but how long is it likely to be?’ ‘At least a week, I think. We can still manage to do this one bit of sleuthing before I go. In his last text, Felip said he’d be here soon; then we can talk it through. Time for another coffee? I’ve got well over an hour before I need to be on the shuttle to the airport.’ When Felip arrived, Oskar was at the counter of the Mikhelstrasse Starbucks, negotiating his way through the elaborate ritual of ordering from a patient barista. Felip looked feline and gorgeous in skinny jeans and leather jacket, shades up in his tight curls. He exchanged a double kiss with Will, who took his partner’s hand as they settled next to one another. Open intimacy between gay men was rarely a problem on the streets of metropolitan Strelzen, where young straight men too customarily kissed one another on greeting, to the confusion of foreign visitors. Oskar returned with the tea he knew Felip preferred. They embraced and pressed cheeks. Once they had settled, Oskar began. ‘I see this morning as just a scouting expedition. We must examine the lie of the land before we go further. The ten o’clock mass will be over in a few moments, and the church will empty. February is not a big month for tourism, and our visitors tend to flock to the cathedral and Waclawkloster rather than the Salvatorskirk.’ Felip intervened. ‘Let me be clear, Osku. You believe that the Crown is hidden away somewhere in the Salvatorskirk?’ ‘I do. It all fits … my dream, the curious postcard in the mausoleum and the location too. Not only is President Tildemann buried in the crypt, so also are King Maxim and my cousin, Queen Helge. The Salvatorskirk was a collegiate church under royal patronage in the old days. It’s ancient, too, far older than the Neuvemesten that was built around it. It’s on the Roman road that used to run from Modenehem eastwards to Kesarstejne. Legend has it that the first church was established on the site where Duke Tassilo’s body rested for the last stage of its journey from Ebersfeld, where he died, to his burial place on the hill of the Altstadt. It couldn’t be more appropriate as the place to conceal the Crown!’ Will and Felip meditated on this until Oskar, eager to be away, urged them to drink up. He led them quickly along the street through the throngs of weekday shoppers until they came out on to the Plaz. A couple of blocks more brought them to the towering apse of the Salvatorskirk as it shouldered its way out on to the great square, where they turned on to Lindenstrasse and came to the south door under the soaring belfry. Once inside, the city noise was muted. The windows of the great urban church were set high, an arrangement calculated to close out the racket of the mundane world. The most recent remodelling of the Salvatorskirk had been accomplished by Duke Rudolf V in the first great flowering of Rothenian baroque. He had conceived the project on a grand scale: the soaring Classical vaulting and the torrents of sculpture were a combination that commanded immediate awe in the visitor. Will could do nothing but pause to admire the effect. Even Oskar’s restless pace slowed as he came out into the great space of the nave. The gold and blue of the round window above the reredos produced a breath-stopping coruscation as its light was reflected on the limestone and marble of the sanctuary beneath. ‘Amazing,’ Will breathed, though he had been in the church a dozen times since he had first arrived in the city. There were few dynastic tombs in the church, but immediately before the high altar was laid the soldier, Jan Elphberg, Duke Rudolf’s younger son, count of Husbrau and marquis of Merz. He and his marchioness were sculpted on the high chest, he in armour, she in ermine, both with hands together in prayer. Their chantry mass was still celebrated by the clergy of St Saviour’s chapter. ‘Should we contact the archpriest?’ Will wondered out loud. ‘No,’ Oskar responded, ‘or at least not yet. We may in the end have to do things he would not approve of. The crypt is this way.’ They paid their ten krone to the old lady sitting at the head of the stairs among a collection of postcards and booklets concerning King Maxim. Will picked up a paperback reprint of Welf von Tarlenheim’s classic biography of the great man. Felip purchased several portrait cards. ‘He was hot,’ he whispered in Will’s ear. There were a few tourists wandering amongst the low vaults beneath the church. Spotlights picked out the recess below the high altar where the king and queen lay in polished marble sarcophagi under fresh flowers. Oskar craned close to that of King Maxim. Will followed his eyes. Sculpted on top of it in marble was a life-size facsimile of the Tassilisnerkron, above the body of the king who had been the last Elphberg monarch to carry it on his brow. Satisfied, as it seemed to Will, that it was no more than a replica, Oskar led them back along the crypt to a plain slate ledger stone, ornamented simply with the words: MARCUS TILDEMANN : SERVANT OF HIS COUNTRY. It always surprised Will that the Communist regime had left both this and the Tildemann statue untouched. But then, the Communists had not touched any of the royal monuments in the capital either. Their excrescences of proletarian art had been erected in the Government quarter, and none had survived the May Rising. Horvath’s Brutalist mausoleum still stood in the heart of his native city of Zenden, however, and Eastnet had reported increasingly frequent wreath-layings and demonstrations there by stubborn adherents to his cause. An attempt to break up the largest of them by the state police had led to two days of rioting a few weeks before. ‘So what now?’ asked Will. Oskar, brooding on the problem, looked up and shrugged. ‘You go get your flight, and Felip will go with you to kiss you goodbye at the barrier. As for me, I will sit here and make my devotions. I will pray for guidance as to what to do next, and pray also for the soul of Ramon Villa.’ *** Edward and Henry were as industrious and conscientious as ever throughout the week before exeat, the two weeks of holiday in the middle of Hilary Term. Ed also studied in the evenings with Rudi Burlesdon, helping him a lot with his History and English. Rudi was grateful, and indeed was forming a genuine friendship with Ed, while Henry held the line with David Skipper. ‘I really like him,’ Ed confessed to Henry one morning over a coffee in the block. ‘It takes a while, but when you get through the prickliness, there’s this amazing guy hiding in there: completely honest and totally straight … in the conventional sense. You get the idea he’d think it a dishonour to his dignity and birth to tell a lie, even a little white one. He’s the sort you feel you have to measure yourself against. He’s a natural leader.’ ‘But don’t you think there’s something mysterious there?’ ‘Whatchu mean, little babe?’ ‘Not sure. He may be as honest as the day is long in Greenland in midsummer, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t things about him which are enigmatic.’ ‘Like what?’ ‘I dunno, I’m just saying. He blanks me on a lot of stuff.’ ‘You are incredibly nosy.’ ‘What, me? Bollocks! I’m just deeply concerned with the human condition, I am.’ ‘Yeah, as I said … intrusive. Westenra told me you wanted to know about his on-line gambling habit.’ ‘He left the screen up in the study centre. I thought he should know of my concern.’ ‘He rather got the impression you were pumping him for tips about playing poker.’ Henry blushed. ‘He misinterpreted my interest.’ Ed laughed out loud. ‘There’s a part of you that wants to be naughty so badly, little one.’ Henry drew himself up, which in his case was not very far. ‘You have no business reading me. Please stop it.’ *** It was a relief to all when school ended with no further flare-ups between Rudi and David. It was a pity Rudi had no interest in rugby or hockey, as that would have much expanded his circle of acquaintances. The only games option he took up was in fact the rather specialised minority interest of fencing. Edward reported that Rudi’s facility with the blade was quite awesome, but his fierce competitiveness made him no friends there either. Ed and Henry kept him company outside New Building after assembly on the final Friday before exeat. Cars were loading all round them, and high-fives and handshakes – even the occasional hug – were on general offer as friends parted for the holiday. Hardly anyone gave such an acknowledgement to Rudi, which saddened Henry a lot. But then, when he thought about it, the idea of hugging Rudi Burlesdon simply could not register in his imagination. ‘So … er, what you got planned for the next couple of weeks, Burlesdon?’ Henry had to ask, despite catching Ed’s amused glance. Rudi shook himself out of one of his frequent fits of abstraction. ‘What? Me? Oh … stuff.’ Henry gritted his teeth. ‘Stuff like what? Travel?’ ‘No. I’ll be at home. The family will be there, my grandparents are up from London.’ ‘Grandparents?’ Rudi seemed for once to have dropped his guard. ‘My mother’s father. He pays my school fees. I expect he wants some evidence that he’s getting his money’s worth after the Eton fiasco.’ ‘Would that be the Duke of Munster?’ Rudi’s brow clouded. ‘Yes, I do believe that information is freely available in Debrett’s. Are you stalking me, Outfield?’ Ed guffawed. Rudi was picked up by his mother, Lady Burlesdon, a thin woman who would look very much at home on the cover of Country Life, if indeed she had not been there already. ‘Mother, these are my friends, Henry Atwood and Edward Cornish.’ Henry resisted the impulse to curtsey to the countess. She smiled and was very pleasant as they shook hands. ‘Hello boys. It’s a relief to find that Rudi has made friends here … not something he managed in his last school after three years. But this place has a very good pastoral reputation, and it was encouraging to find that I have only received two letters complaining about Rudi this entire year so far. I have box files of them from his last school.’ Rudi’s pale face reddened. ‘Mother, I don’t think Ed and Outfield want to hear that.’ ‘“Outfield”? Is that what they call you, Henry?’ Henry laughed. ‘Yes. I’m so poor a cricketer that I always get put as far away from the action as can be. Also there’s a sort of pun: “Outfield” and “Atwood”. It’s cleverer than most school nicknames.’ He didn’t mention that the nickname had become even more popular when Henry outed himself in Year 11. After waving Rudi and his mother off in their latest-model Land Rover, they hauled Ed’s bags to the Trewern and Huntercombe minibus. It was almost a relief when they climbed down at Harper’s Lane. ‘That was one fuck of a half-term, little babe,’ sighed Ed as they staggered up the lane to the rectory. ‘It’s a miracle we’re over it in one piece. The rest of it had better be quieter for all our sakes.’
  19. ‘Okay, Davey. Tell me what happened.’ Henry had gone over to Temple House and tracked David to his room. They were sitting on his single bed, their backs against the wall. ‘Oh, it was my fault, I suppose. But he’s such an arrogant fucker. He came up to me in the block and said he had finally discovered that I hadn’t come clean under my own steam, but because you had pushed me into it. Nevertheless, he said – the pompous arse – he was willing to let bygones be bygones out of respect for you. And I was supposed to smile and shake his hand!’ ‘Which you didn’t, of course.’ ‘No chance. I told him that if he hadn’t been such an arrogant bastard, none of it would have happened in the first place. He seems to think he’s allowed free rein to fly off the handle, and we’re just there to cushion his landing! So I said a few choice words about his being the heir to centuries of arrogance and privilege, and what could anyone expect of someone of his parentage …’ ‘Ah. That might not have been too clever. His dad’s dead and it hurts.’ David looked a little embarrassed. ‘Well, I was angry. So he flipped and hit me in the mouth. I just jumped back enough not to lose my teeth. Then Ed and the lads piled in and separated us.’ ‘Leaving us with as big a problem as before. Davey, I know you hate Burlesdon’s guts, and I agree he is a difficult bastard, but he’s not a monster, far from it.’ David tentatively snaked an arm round Henry’s waist and gave him a light kiss on the cheek. ‘You’re such a softy, Henry.’ Henry couldn’t stop himself snuggling closer to David. He liked intimacy with other boys, and he and Ed had got into social kissing with their gay friends outside school. ‘Don’t you start, Bounder,’ he cautioned. ‘I’ve just been patronised by Ed on that very subject. But I’m not some sort of soft touch. I just want to be fair.’ ‘Then be fair to me, Henry. I seem to be the one who’s getting beaten up regularly.’ Henry turned round and gave a quirky smile into David’s face. ‘But you ask for trouble, mate.’ David closed with Henry’s lips as he said this, and before either of them knew it, they were making out, with David on top. Henry struggled up. ‘Down, Davey!’ ‘It’s not just me with an erection.’ Henry grimaced. ‘It’s mechanical. Stop doing this, Davey. I’m monogamous. You’ve got to find your own boyfriend.’ ‘Where?’ ‘How should I know? My experience is that you have to wait for someone to kick you in the arse. It’s a pity Terry’s not here.’ ‘Who’s he?’ ‘Terry O’Brien. He’s a friend of some friends. He started shagging, or being shagged, when he was sixteen and made quite a career out of it, according to our mate Justin. But I think he lived in the public-toilet-cruising end of the shagging market, which doesn’t seem quite your style, Davey.’ It was David’s turn to grimace. ‘Desperation is taking me in that direction, Outfield, believe me. I so wanna lose it … my virginity that is. What’s it like having Ed’s dick up your bum?’ ‘How do you know we do anal?’ ‘The way you shift in your seat in Religious Studies sometimes.’ ‘It’s personal. All I’ll say is that it’s not what you expect, and you really do have to use lube.’ ‘I shall treasure that advice,’ David assured him, and then laughed. ‘You do cheer me up, Henry. Bless you.’ ‘What are we going to do with you, Davey?’ ‘Threesome sex?’ ‘You’re incorrigible!’ *** ‘Osku! Hey! Is this what we’re searching for?’ Oskar looked up from an unruly stack of letters that had just come loose from the tape binding them. ‘What do you have there, my Will?’ ‘I thought at first it was a diary, but it turns out it’s one of Sir Martin Tofts’s notebooks from his excavations at Old Hentzau in … erm … 1930, when he and old Leo were still undergraduates at Oxford. There’re some loose leaves tucked in the back cover. They’re written in Latin, of all things.’ ‘A language you read well.’ ‘It’s a skill that’s come in surprisingly useful in my life. The words diadema Tassilonis drew my immediate attention.’ ‘And now you have mine. What else does it say?’ ‘Give me a moment.’ Will put his head down for some minutes, then slowly looked up. ‘The notes are jotted on a rough plan, which seems to me to be of old Medeln Abbey. He’s marked a red cross on the area to the rear of the high altar, and next to it the words tumba beatae Feniciae, “the grave of St Fenice”. It looks like he and his prince were digging around in Medeln as much as Old Hentzau in 1930.’ ‘What does it say?’ ‘There’re the words “Crown of Tassilo”, as I said, but then under that heading there’s something about discovering the tomb and opening it, but finding it empty. Then there’s a passage in red capitals he calls VERBA CUSTODIS … “Words of the Guardian”. By the way, why’s St Fenice so important?’ ‘You must have heard about her, Will.’ ‘Yeah, a bit … when I was researching for the Elphberg documentary. She was one of Rothenia’s national saints, a mystic and prophetess of the fifteenth century. Didn’t she end her days at Medeln with her friend, the Duchess Osra?’ ‘So they say, though I thought her tomb was lost. Fenice was my ancestress. She was in fact St Fenice of Tarlenheim, though I think she lived not at Tarlenheim but mostly in the forests of northern Glottenberh on the ancient family estate of Verheltschjaen, which was her dowry. My sister Helge could tell you a lot more about her. She has long had an interest in Fenice and a devotion to her cult. It has cost us a lot in candles. What are these “Words of the Guardian”, Will?’ ‘Er, hang on … right, here you go. Missa est ad locum securitatis novum: “It has been sent to a new place of safety,” and Potius ille sepultus inter antecessores nostros apud Tarlenheim est, et ita quaestio proventa erit: “Instead, he was entombed with our ancestors at Tarlenheim … and that may be what has given rise to the problem.” What on earth do we make of that?’ ‘I have no idea. It obviously meant a lot to old Sir Martin, so much so that he had to write the words down. But we know nothing of the context in which they were uttered, or who it was who spoke them, other than that we may assume it was a keeper of a great secret.’ Will brooded. ‘There is one thing. The second quotation talks of “our ancestors” so we can assume that the mysterious Guardian was a Tarlenheim by birth. Perhaps then we had best concentrate our researches on what those two boys were up to in 1930. Did the prince keep a diary?’ Oskar sorted through a pile of notebooks. ‘I can’t find anything that looks like a diary. But here is an appointment book for the year. It gives us some clue as to when the prince was in Rothenia, where I would guess those enigmatic words must have been spoken by someone to him and his boyfriend.’ Oskar pored over the thin volume, making notes on a pad. Then he looked up. ‘It was in September 1930 that Leo and Martin were at Medeln, after a summer involved in the politics of the day. It was the time when James Burlesdon made his bid for the throne. It seems from some of the names here that young Leo was more deeply implicated than I thought in the election campaign that saved Tildemann’s government. ‘But at the end of the summer he was involved in his lover’s famous excavation at Old Hentzau, and in the arrangements for his cousin’s marriage.’ ‘His cousin?’ ‘Prince Philip of Murranberg, the son of Queen Helge by her first husband, and thus a cousin of mine too. We count him as a Tarlenheim.’ Oskar made a dismissive gesture and moved on. ‘In September they were all staying at the ancient Tarlenheim house of Templerstadt.’ ‘Templerstadt?’ ‘A beautiful place above the Taveln valley, only a kilometre or so from Medeln Abbey. You’d like it. It used to be owned by some cousins, though they lost it in the nationalisation of the 1940s. They fled abroad to America, where they still live in Illinois. The old house has been empty for decades. I walked up there a few weeks ago from Modenehem. It’s falling into ruin, which is a shame. Until my cousin Oskar Welf gets his backside into gear, ownership of the house and estate remains in dispute between his branch of the family and the government. Oskar paused and Will did not interrupt his moment of reflection. Eventually, Oskar recommenced, ‘This business of the Crown apparently all comes back to my family, not to Prince Leo and his Martin. I’m beginning to think something has been kept from me.’ ‘You Tarlenheims certainly do seem to collect mysteries, Osku. So what are you suggesting?’ ‘That I'd better get back home and start following leads there. Time is pressing. I suppose the search here at Heinrichshof was always likely to be a wild goose chase, but if we could have found the Tassilisnerkron, so much we hope for would be easier to accomplish.’ Will frowned. ‘It’s not like you to give up easily, Osku.’ ‘I’m not giving up, men leblen. It's just that we could spend weeks here and get no closer than we have today. But now I think I know where to go next.’ ‘To the resting place of your ancestors?’ ‘Exactly.’ *** Will snapped his handij closed. ‘The office is going apeshit,’ he observed. An abstracted Oskar came briefly back into focus and raised an eyebrow. Will continued, ‘It’s the CDP and Unity interview. They’ve got Bermann and Trachtenberg to agree to go one-on-one in our studio. State TV must be spitting teeth.’ ‘So what’s the problem?’ ‘Bermann’s put up a mass of conditions. To begin with, he wants the interview hosted by a non-German. That’s directed against your mate Tomas Weissman, you can bet. The CDP hates him after that feature he did on its links with ex-Communists.’ ‘Did he suggest anyone he might want instead?’ ‘Well, yes. You.’ ‘Me?’ ‘He probably thinks that, as one of the premier aristocrats of Old Rothenia, you’ll be more sympathetic to him. Your studio appearances are usually in arts programmes after all; you don’t show your hand.’ ‘How little he knows. When is it?’ ‘The end of next week. Is it okay?’ Oskar shrugged. ‘How much work can it be? I just have to make sure that the pair of them don’t talk over each other.’ He looked around the churchyard of Terlenehem, where small golden and blue flowers were beginning to poke through the long dry grass of winter and colour the greening mounds of the graves. ‘Helge said she’d be here. Where is she?’ ‘She told me she had to get the key from the sexton.’ ‘Old Demitri only lives down the road. What’s keeping her?’ ‘Excuse me, milenkh men, but you seem preoccupied. What’s up?’ Oskar gave Will a long stare from under his thick blond fringe. ‘I had a dream last night which has unsettled me … I’ve never experienced anything like it. I’m not sure if I want to again either.’ ‘What … like the business with the grey ghost in the Tarlenheim palace?’ Oskar shook his head. ‘Nothing like that. It was just a dream, but a very vivid one all the same.’ Will was about to ask Oskar to tell him more, when a call from the churchyard gate announced Helge’s arrival. Will smiled. Even Helge could not look elegant in rubber boots – which she was wearing, she had explained, because she feared snakes emerging from the long grass into the spring warmth. The sexton’s key in hand, she led the way to the portico and wrought-iron gate of the Tarlenheim mausoleum. As Oskar fitted the key in the lock, his sister stopped him. ‘Osku, what is it you are looking for amongst the dead?’ Oskar straightened. ‘I told you, schwetzer men. Will and I have unearthed some clues that connect this place with the Tassilisnerkron.’ ‘I can’t believe it. I am also very uneasy about penetrating these vaults.’ ‘Mutta und tatta … I know. It seems a little like blasphemy. But they are with the angels, leblen … they left just empty husks behind them.’ He stooped back down and unlocked the gate. It pushed open easily, the sexton seemingly having kept the hinges well oiled. Will flicked the switch on his lamp, and a short, packed-earth passage was revealed, leading northwards into the hill towards a ‘T’ junction. The wall opposite them was honeycombed with loculi, mostly empty, though Will could see three of them occupied by the coffins of departed members of Oskar’s lineage. Oskar led the way to the junction. Inside the passages, the air was still. There was no scent of death that Will could detect, only a certain damp mustiness. He could feel a slight movement of air on his right cheek. Noticing a dim light coming from that direction, Oskar took the lamp from Will and led them towards it. As they moved forward, they noticed the loculi became more populated. Large velvet-covered coffins studded with brass nails gave way to soldered-lead sarcophagi, the older ones anthropomorphic. Beyond an arch they entered a chamber lit dimly from far above through a dirty, glazed dome. Within were a dozen large and impressive cast-leaden sarcophagi laid east to west, which reminded Will irresistibly of the Hapsburg coffins ranked in the vaults of the Capuchins in Vienna. Will examined the nearest, a box ornamented with classical detail, balanced on lion’s feet. Embossed on its lid were the lion and roses of the arms of Tarlenheim, set under a pavilion topped by a princely coronet. The words SERGIVS IV COMES PRINCEPSQVE : OBIIT MDCCCXL announced its resident and the date of his death. It seemed this eastern chamber housed the remains of the princes and princesses of Tarlenheim. One sarcophagus standing above the rest had on the lid an effigy of a bewigged Roman general, clasping a marshal’s baton and rising as if at the resurrection on Judgement Day. Will gazed at it, fascinated. There amongst his descendants lay the first of the Tarlenheim princes of the Empire, the famous eighteenth-century field marshal. Will all but jumped when Oskar spoke in his ear. ‘This mausoleum was erected early in the nineteenth century, when the old collegiate church of St Fenice at Tarlenheim was dissolved. Its vaults were emptied and the Tarlenheims of centuries past transferred here. There are a few of us still in the parish church, but we mostly end up in these vaults.’ ‘Not Friederich Franz, the friend of King Rudolf V … or should I say Rudolf Rassendyll? He’s in the cathedral of Strelzen.’ Oskar chuckled. ‘Yes, and of course my wicked namesake, Count Oskar the Great, the seventeenth-century sorcerer, is elsewhere also.’ ‘Where?’ ‘No one actually knows. But they do say a black carriage from hell took him away from the Tarlenheim palace in the Neustadt at dead of night, so there may have been nothing of him to bury. Useful, as he was an excommunicate.’ Helge was hugging herself, as if afflicted with cold. ‘What are we to look for, Osku?’ Oskar glanced around. ‘Clues, I suppose, and some evidence of disturbance in the last century.’ ‘Was this place in use under Communism?’ Will inquired. ‘No, though mutta and tatta were buried here in the teeth of opposition from the local commissar. They’re in the other wing with our cousins, the Verheltschjaen and Templerstadt Tarlenheims. There’s another chamber like this where the medieval exhumations were placed. It’s almost like a filing cabinet of noble corpses.’ Will followed Oskar and the pool of light thrown by the lamp back up the passage to the junction. Helge trailed behind them. The sunlight from outside was quite blinding when Will turned to look back up towards the gate. Oskar carried on down the tunnel comprising the west wing of the mausoleum. He paused at two particular loculi, where plain pine coffins had been placed at eye level. Tattered wreaths were still fixed to the feet of the boxes. Will remained respectfully behind Oskar and Helge as they paid silent tribute to the mortal remains of their parents. While standing there, Will began to sense something. He would almost swear he had seen movement out of the corner of his eye, back towards the chamber of princes. When he turned to look there was nothing, but the feeling of an alien presence continued to oppress him. When Oskar and his sister moved on along the passage, the feeling intensified. Will’s neck prickled. The lamp revealed another arch and a corresponding western chamber beyond. Within were the shapes of ancient effigial tombs removed from the old church of St Fenice, with a great sarcophagus on a dais towering above them all. Will had to stop, feeling drawn to look behind them. He burst out, ‘Oskar! There’s someone else in here!’ Oskar turned back. ‘Has someone followed us in?’ ‘I saw a figure in white robes at the junction in the sunlight. It went the other way, in the direction of the eastern chamber.’ ‘White robes? What, like a nun’s?’ ‘You saw it too?’ ‘Not now, no … but last night in my dream. We must follow!’ The two men strode rapidly back the way they’d come. They encountered no one as they emerged into the vault of the princes. ‘I … must have imagined it,’ admitted Will as they looked around. ‘There’s nowhere for her to have hidden.’ ‘Not unless she got in bed with one of my ancestors.’ Oskar frowned, and held up the lamp. ‘Wait! There is something.’ He handed the lamp to Will and stalked over towards the tomb of the Marshal Prince of Tarlenheim, whose blank leaden eyes gazed up to his invisible Saviour. Grabbing an arm of the effigy, Oskar hauled himself atop the sarcophagus. He grinned as he looked down on an astonished Will and Helge. ‘You won’t believe this.’ He held up a printed card. ‘It was placed in the marshal’s hand, and I’m pretty sure it was not there when we first came in. Let’s get outside. I think we may have found our clue.’ *** Will shook his head. ‘You can’t be serious!’ Then, catching the faint smile on Helge’s lips, he exclaimed, ‘You believe him, don’t you. The pair of you are insane.’ The three were occupying a table in the Red Rose restaurant in Terlenehem’s market place. Helge took Will’s hand. ‘This is a strange land, dear Willemczu, and our family has a peculiar history. This sort of thing is not unprecedented with us, as you must know. My brother’s namesake, the Victorian patriot Oskar Maxim, haunted our family for a generation after his death at the hands of Albert of Thuringia. The late King Maxim is said to have seen him several times. So did our cousin Welf, who hinted at it in his biography of the king.’ ‘So what or whom did I see in the mausoleum this morning?’ Helge shrugged. ‘I have no idea.’ ‘And what was this dream you had, Osku?’ Oskar took a sip at his small glass of Volwart’s fruit wine. ‘It was not the usual sort. I was in a long procession of men in overcoats, marching through the streets of Strelzen. It was cold … winter I think. Up ahead a military band was playing with muffled drums. Black armbands were everywhere.’ ‘A state funeral then,’ Will interjected. ‘I believe so. And I think I know whose it was.’ He held up the card in his hand so that Will could see it. It was a mourning card, with a post-mortem photograph of the deceased, a thin man with a grey moustache laid out on a bed surrounded by white lilies. It was grimy with dust, as if it had been in the Tarlenheim mausoleum for decades. ‘So where did the nun come into it?’ ‘We emerged on to the Rodolferplaz and filed past the gun carriage upon which was laid a coffin draped with the national flag. But also on the coffin was something that should not have been there, from which I knew it was a dream. It was the Tassilisnerkron, which is laid only on the coffins of the kings of Rothenia, yet this was no royal funeral. ‘There were several clergy around the gun carriage, holding candles and a processional cross, and among them stood a nun in white robes, her hands within her scapular, upon which was an elaborate jewelled cross. She caught my eye and held it. She was a formidable woman, for all her lack of inches. I would recognise her again anywhere.’ Will was gripped. ‘What happened then?’ ‘Nothing at all. I looked into her eyes, and she into mine. There was a moment of vertigo, and then I was awake in my own bed in a sweat.’ Will reached out for the card, which Oskar handed over. He looked at the back, and found it was a postcard, with the printer’s name at the bottom and an address given as ‘Gildenfahrbsweg 322, Strelzen III’. Verses in Rothenian were scrawled across the card in faded ink. Will puzzled them out. Of the king restored. Red the hair Of the boy king Hero of his age Slayer of the evil one. ‘What is this?’ he demanded. ‘You obviously recognise these words.’ Oskar nodded. ‘It’s part of a longer prophetic poem by no less than St Fenice of Tarlenheim on the sequence of Elphberg kings. A copy was given to me by the princess of Vinodol, who had it from old Prince Leopold of Thuringia, though she did not know where he had unearthed it. Those lines are the prophecy which describes the king after Maxim.’ ‘So that is where all your sense of conviction is coming from! A fifteenth-century prophecy?’ ‘It is uncanny, is it not, Willemczu? But there were of course other reasons. However, to find those verses turning up now, and here of all places, is beyond coincidence. Look at what else is written on the card.’ ‘It says: Luc. 11.9. Apoc. 6.2. These are Biblical references.’ Helge smiled broadly. ‘From the Gospel according to Luke: “And I say unto you, ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” The other is from the Book of the Revelation to St John. “And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer.”’ She sobered. ‘I think we may conclude that we are being offered assistance by some unknown hand.’ Oskar’s expression was more excited than Will had ever seen it. ‘What next then, Osku?’ he asked. ‘Back to Strelzen. We have much to do.’ ‘And who is the dead man on that card?’ ‘Well, leblen, do you not recognise President Marcus Tildemann?’
  20. It was chapel on Monday, and Henry was as nervous in tutor group as a Roman martyr before a lunch appointment with the lions. ‘You okay, little babe?’ asked Ed solicitously. ‘Nope,’ was the twitchy reply. ‘Why, oh why, did I volunteer for this?’ Henry had consented to take a Monday assembly. ‘After all, Atwood,’ the Head had said, ‘your father is a vicar and Miss Prendergast says that you’re her best pupil. It’s good experience. I’m sure you’ll be fine. The week’s theme is “Tolerance”.’ ‘Sir, you know I’m gay.’ ‘The fact has been mentioned.’ ‘You aren’t putting me up there as an exercise in tolerance, are you, sir?’ ‘Handle it any way you want to, Atwood. I have every confidence.’ So Henry was pacing nervously about the common room, his flash drive with PowerPoint presentation clutched in his sweaty hand. An escort of sympathetic friends walked him from the sixth-form block to the chapel. ‘You’re only here to stop me doing a runner, aren’t you?’ he complained, a little unfairly. ‘Wish I could kiss you,’ Ed breathed in his ear, before Henry made the long walk down the chapel aisle to the lectern. A screen was already lowered above his head. He talked about margins, and how society squeezed people out to the edge. He had slides of Travellers, Gypsies, Untouchables, and American Indians playing above him. He said that it was at the margins where a society showed its health, or not. Tolerance allowed the disadvantaged to make their own culture, which, if society was really open, could funnel back into the richness of the host culture and transform it. He had slides of rap musicians, gay pride marchers, aboriginal art, and ended up with a crucifix as the classic symbol of how a society could be totally transformed from the margins inwards. As usual for him, Henry began hesitantly, but was soon talking with real passion, and even hit the rhetorical as he finished. ‘You want to know the future? Then don’t look to Science. Don’t look to Parliament. Look to the disadvantaged. Look to the outsiders. That’s where it’ll come from, and it won’t be what you expect!’ There was a momentary hush as he finished, breathing heavily, and then a storm of applause came down from the benches, with a few appreciative whistles and whoops from the somewhat prejudiced members of the Lower Sixth. He blushed as he walked up to his stall, leaving the chaplain to round off. Hands thumped his back as he stumbled past his friends. He was hugged by several of the sixth as he left, which with the head patting and hand shaking left him feeling rather weepy before he finally found refuge in his study carrel. He kept on playing and replaying the high points in his head: the rapt attention from the younger boys, the proud smile on Miss Prendergast’s face, the handshake from the Head. Maybe I could be a teacher, he was thinking as a knock came on the carrel door and a boy entered. It was a sheepish-looking Rudi Burlesdon. Henry smiled. ‘Come in, your lordship.’ The boy grunted, ‘News gets round, dunnit.’ ‘The fourteenth earl, eh? What do I call you? I mean, you call me a “little queer” so I should be able to find something patronising to say about a member of a decaying over-privileged social order.’ ‘Not my fault I inherited a title, is it?’ ‘Not my fault I was born gay, is it?’ ‘Truce, Outfield. I’m here ‘cos I owe you an apology. It was you who saved my butt over the cannabis charge, wasn’t it?’ ‘Who told you that?’ ‘Never mind. But stories get round. You discovered that Skipper had set me up, and you talked him into confessing. Don’t deny it.’ ‘Okay, I won’t. But from my point of view it wasn’t your butt I was saving, it was Davey Skipper’s. And he’s worth five of you.’ For the first time, Rudi looked upset at something Henry had said to him. ‘I’m sorry you think that,’ he said quietly, and became suddenly formal and – Henry had to admit – rather dignified – a bit like Fritzy zu Terlenehem on a good day. ‘But to square my conscience I had to come and thank you, which I have done, and if in any way I can return the obligation, I will.’ He turned to leave, and Henry felt a bit as though he’d been outplayed when he had a winning hand. ‘Whoa, your lordship! Not so fast! I have questions. Sit down here, if you think you can stand the implications that people might draw about your sexuality.’ Rudi stopped and gave Henry an unfathomable look. ‘Henry,’ he said, ‘I don’t notice anyone else in the block ashamed to be seen with you and Ed, and I certainly am not.’ ‘Bit of a turnaround in your attitudes, isn’t it?’ ‘I’m fundamentally reassessing my views, Henry. Now. Shake my hand.’ They shook and smiled at each other, and Henry had to admit that once the scowl had left Rudi’s face, he was quite pleasant to look at. Not only that, but he even seemed familiar, in a way Henry could not quite put his finger on. Rudi stretched out his six-foot frame and crossed his arms, gazing quirkily at Henry. ‘So what do you want to know, Outfield?’ ‘When did you get to be an earl?’ ‘My father died in a light-aircraft accident when I was seven – sad, really, I never got to know him. I did the usual thing in the Rassendyll family. My mother put me through Palmers prep school, and I moved on to public school, Eton in my case.’ ‘But you came here for the sixth, how’s that?’ ‘I punched a teacher.’ ‘Jesus! You did? You dangerous dude. Why?’ ‘I found him interfering with a little kid.’ ‘Ah … is that the misconceived reason you don’t like gays?’ ‘In one.’ ‘But to be gay is not to be a paedophile, y’know. So many homophobes love that fiction. Had he interfered with you?’ ‘No, but the kid he was molesting was crying. Anyway, he was fired and arrested. My mother was asked to withdraw me from the school, as I was being … difficult.’ ‘Difficult?’ ‘You really want to know everything, you nosy little queer.’ ‘It’s part of my charm.’ For the first time Rudi gave a loud laugh. ‘You do have charm, little Henry, in bucket-loads. You also give a good assembly.’ Henry smiled, and Rudi continued, ‘I had issues with the way the school’s power structures worked, and it does have power structures. I booted a member of Pop up the arse.’ ‘That’s interesting. I tend to get on well with boys who boot people up arses … that was how me and Ed made friends.’ ‘He booted you in the bum?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Weird as well as charming.’ ‘And what’s “Pop” when it’s at home?’ ‘It’s the inner circle of prefects at Eton. They have ridiculous privileges and a high opinion of themselves. The particular prefect I booted just happened to be a Saudi Arabian prince.’ ‘So it was an honour to be mown down by you really.’ ‘As you say, Henry. When she was asked to withdraw me, mother chose this school as it has a strong disciplinary tradition and we have an old family connection with it. My grandmother, bless her, hadn’t wanted me to go to Eton in the first place. It was my mother’s family, the FitzJameses, who were the Etonians. The duke, my grandfather on her side, put up the fees for me. ‘So here I was sent, and for a while it looked like it was a bad decision, but now I’m not so sure.’ Rudi hesitated. ‘I could be okay here Henry, I begin to see that. I just got off on the wrong foot. You and Ed … and yes, even Skipper and Peters … you’re good guys. But what can I do to make up for all the aggression and unpopularity?’ Henry began to see the lonely boy he had sensed in Rudi Burlesdon right from the beginning, and sympathised. ‘You need to relax, Rudi. Hang out with me and the lads. I’ll make sure they accept you. Oh, and make it up with David Skipper. He’s a great guy, and very popular.’ ‘That’ll be hard.’ ‘Life is, Rudi. One thing: You said your family name is Rassendyll?’ ‘Yes. I’m Rudolf Robert Maxim Rassendyll, fourteenth earl of Burlesdon, Viscount Lowestoft and Baron Rassendyll in the peerage of Great Britain. Bit of a mouthful, so it gets abbreviated down to the main title. For one reason or another I like Rudolf as a name, although without the red-nosed-reindeer associations, so my mother called me “Rudi” from when I was tiny, and Burlesdon is my title.’ ‘It’s a pleasure meeting you, your lordship.’ Rudi got up and shook Henry’s hand again. They arranged to have lunch together. After Rudi left the carrel, however, Henry still thought there was something mysterious about the other boy that he had not yet fathomed. Henry talked it all over with Ed in study period. ‘You think he’s basically okay then?’ Henry nodded. ‘He’s a bit of a classic really. Deep down I think he is a naturally friendly kid, but he has this powerful moral sense which forces him into difficult situations. He doesn’t lack courage either, and the result is that he ends up as a scary loner with a reputation for losing it. You can’t try to fix the world’s problems when you’re a teenager, but Rudi doesn’t see that. You’ve got to feel sorry for him. Also, he has this duty thing going. I expect losing his father at such a young age dumped a lot of expectations on him. He’s an earl and he has a stately home and responsibilities coming out his ears. No wonder he’s a bit brusque and harsh.’ Ed kissed Henry lightly on the cheek. ‘I love you, you little softy you. You’re always looking for the best in people. So where’s his stately home?’ ‘Somewhere in East Anglia, Burke’s Peerage said.’ ‘And you want me to be nice to him over lunch?’ ‘Yes. He’s your sort, Ed, when you get to know the boy behind the scowl. Powerful and straightforward, even if he lacks your kindness and gentleness. But how we reconcile him with Davey, I really don’t know. And unless we do, he’ll never be accepted. Davey has too many mates who’ll always take his side.’ At lunch Rudi came and sat with Ed and Henry, and they had an enjoyable enough time. Peters came by and was civil. A few of the hockey set joined them, seeming more curious about Rudi than hostile. When David saw them together, though, he went and sat on another table, an unreadable but not friendly look on his face. At the lesson bell, Henry and Ed departed for History, while Rudi went towards the block. Afterwards, Ed had Law while Henry went to the study centre to log in and e-mail Fritzy and Nikki. As Henry was finishing up, he heard the ominous sound of voices shouting outside, and one of them belonged to his Ed. He ran out of the computer suite to find a gang of sixth formers looking on as Ed held Rudi down with an arm lock. David, who had blood on his lip, was being restrained by two of his tennis mates. ‘Now bloody what?’ Henry snapped. Rudi was hauled to his feet, his face contorted with pain, as Ed was not being gentle with him. Westenra, the deputy head boy, demanded, ‘What happened, Cornish?’ ‘Some sort of difference of opinion, Westenra. Burlesdon here took a swipe at Bounder, but they won’t say why.’ Westenra asked the same question of both boys. They looked furious but refused to excuse themselves. ‘Then that’s it,’ Westenra pronounced. ‘Skipper, you’re excluded from the block for a week. Burlesdon, since it’s your second offence in one term, you’re excluded till after the Easter break. Now get out of my sight. The pair of you are barbarians!’ *** Far away in the great castle a clock chimed eleven. It was dark now outside the tall windows. Will looked across a rampart of file boxes at Oskar. As if through telepathy, Oskar met his eyes and smiled. ‘What does this remind you of, Osku?’ Oskar stretched and his smile broadened to a grin. ‘A certain day in the National Library in Strelzen. You were high on steroids and desperate for a fuck. We did it in the toilets. The smell of backed-up drains and disinfectant still turns me on.’ Will’s smile faded. ‘How’re things between you and Peter Peacher?’ Oskar shot him a quirky look. ‘It’s been nearly a year, but we’re still circling round each other and sniffing. The trouble is we’re both alpha males, which makes us reluctant to commit, because commitment will mean one of us will have surrendered to the other’s ambitions. ‘It’s great when we’re together, of course, even if we do argue. But we’re not together that often. He’s in New Haven, and I’m here. He’s got his studies to finish, and until this business with the Elphbergs is sorted out, I have no space in my life for romance.’ Will gave a little smile. ‘He is quite something: like a dream of a surfer – tangled blond hair hanging over his forehead, broad shoulders and brooding eyes. You’d hardly think Andy was his brother.’ ‘And money too, you were going to say?’ ‘You’re hardly a pauper, Osku.’ ‘But no one’s in his class.’ ‘He’d be an idiot to let you go.’ ‘A scary, driven man like me?’ ‘A loving, sexy guy like you.’ Oskar shrugged. ‘You see a side of me that not many do, men Willemczu. Other than Pete, I’ve found no one else who’s woken that part of Oskar Prinz. I’m grateful for the times Pete and I have together, though they’re getting further and further apart. I’m just glad you and I stayed friends, despite what I did.’ ‘I’ve long forgiven you, men leblen.’ ‘And now you have Felip. In the end, it worked out best for you. I know Felip, and you’ve got from him what you need and what I could never have offered you. You’re a man who needs a loving partner in life, not a restless obsessive.’ Oskar’s face took on a troubled look. ‘I despair of myself. First it was rebuilding the Tarlenheim fortunes, and now I’m on a crusade to restore a monarchy and transform a nation. I never pick the easy ones, do I, men leblen?’ ‘It’s what makes you so very admirable, Osku. And it’s time for bed.’ Will took Oskar’s hand and raised him. They kissed. Hand in hand, they sought Oskar’s room through the castle’s empty corridors. Kissing became passionate as the door closed behind them. ‘You want me?’ breathed Oskar. ‘Always. It’s no disloyalty to Felip. We both love you.’ ‘And I you both. Come, my pretty Willemczu, I dream of your slim body when perhaps I should not. Sex with you was always so very good. I’m glad we can still share that much of ourselves.’ *** Henry made Ed a coffee and sat with him on one of the study centre’s window seats. ‘Well that blew up in our faces,’ he said sadly. ‘You did your best Henry. You couldn’t have done more. Don’t give up. How did your researches go on the web?’ ‘I’ve got a few printouts to check over. I e-mailed the lads, but obviously no reply yet. Fritzy’s in school at Modenehem, so I doubt we’ll hear from him for a few days. Look at this one first. It’s from an EU site on the “Rothenian Achievement”. It’s about the recent history of German-Slav relations in Rothenia. Seems that an ethnic divide is beginning to open up all over the country, which is at the root of the recent rioting.’ Ed nodded. ‘Apart from the bilingual signs everywhere in Strelzen, I don’t remember hearing much German when we were there.’ ‘Nikki’s from a German family, I seem to recall, but Germans live more in the south, around Rechtenberg, and in Mittenheim and Husbrau, towards the Saxon and Bavarian borders. Anyway, you can summarise the recent history pretty easily. Old Rothenia went through a civil war in the later part of the middle ages and a German princely house, the Elphbergs, took charge of the west of the land, which they called Ruritania. Germans became culturally and economically dominant there. But the eastern part of the land, the province of Glottenburg, for a long time remained independent and Rothenian under a branch of the ancient ducal family. So though German culture was dominant into the Victorian period, Rothenian hung on, and although the aristocracy, like Fritzy’s family, spoke German and embraced Gemran culture for a while, they were mostly Slav in origin. And it was families like them who helped create a Slavic renaissance in Ruritania in the nineteenth century. ‘The Elphbergs did a brilliant job of nation building. They had a talent for attaching the Rothenian lower classes to their dynasty. They were really popular. Queen Flavia in particular worked very hard to keep the balance. She sponsored a Rothenian schools movement, patronised Rothenian poets and writers, and made the universities bilingual. The chairs of Rothenian literature and history in the Rudolf University in Strelzen are the Flavia chairs. She made Rothenian fashionable but at the same time managed to keep the German minority onside. They still put a fresh red rose on her tomb in the cathedral daily, as they have done since she died in 1880.’ Ed nodded. ‘We saw it when we went there with Oskar and Will last year. I thought that was quite a gesture.’ ‘They also used to celebrate her birthday even in the free republic between the wars, and Flaviendenn – Queen Flavia’s Day – was restored in 1990 after the May Rising. But once she was dead things went to the bad. The new dynasty were Germans through and through, and related to the Prussian Hohenzollerns. They pulled the plug on government support for Rothenian education and culture. Even though the Thuringians were overthrown in 1910 and an Elphberg held the throne again for a while, the First Republic of Marcus Tildemann had little time for the German minority. The Germans redeemed themselves in the Second World War by resisting the Nazi occupation as hard as the Slavs did. But under Communism, of course, Rothenian Germans were looked down upon by association. Bilingualism ended and German language schools were closed. It was total repression, made worse when refugee Germans from the Czech Republic and Hungary settled in Rothenia and, unlike the native Germans, were a poor underclass.’ ‘But Rothenia’s not like that now, is it? Seemed happy enough to me.’ Henry shook his head. ‘This is where the commentators are divided. The Third Republic after the May Rising made a nod towards ethnic German rights. They brought back bilingualism, and German-language schools were allowed to open. President Maritz’s government made a big thing about this when Rothenia went for EU membership … what good boys we are, and so on. The EU site goes right over the top about the “Rothenian Achievement”. But if you look at this stuff from the Rothenian blog sites I read, it’s not such a rosy picture. The government may have allowed German schools, but didn’t give much support. They didn’t revive German teaching in the universities and colleges, or the ancient chair of German Literature in the Rudolf University in Strelzen. There’s subtle job discrimination too. You can get a government job if you only speak Rothenian, but if you only speak German there’s no chance.’ ‘What’s sparking things off then, Henry?’ ‘Look at this printout from The Economist’s site. These are some neat diagrams showing relative income levels of Germans and Slavs in the expanding economy. Ethnic Germans – and there are quite a few of them – are having a bad deal. There is a German voting bloc in Parliament, which in desperation has broken away from President Maritz’s ramshackle government. But the main danger to him is ominously the right-wing nationalist Christian Democratic Party, the CDP, which is anti-EU and determined to Maritz down.’ ‘And the riots, where are they coming from?’ ‘One wing of the CDP is more than a bit racist. And there’s rumours that ex-Communist cells are encouraging the unrest. Now the Germans too are getting organised, and have their own party … bizarrely they call it the Unity Party. The blogs say both sides are fomenting violence so as to secure their voting base.’ ‘Rothenia ain’t that idyllic a country at the moment then.’ ‘It never has been, Ed, from what I can see. It just looks idyllic.’ *** Will felt kisses pressing on his bare shoulders. Oskar was still deep inside him as they lay on their sides, Oskar spooned up around him, his distinctive scent embracing Will as much as his arms. Will sank into a lazy happiness, though he didn’t feel quite ready for sleep yet. It was a feeling that took him back to the halcyon days of his sexual awakening in Oskar’s shabby Lindenstrasse apartment. It seemed that Oskar too was not quite exhausted, despite their long and energetic coupling. He wanted to talk. ‘That was the best, leblen. How long can you stay in this enchanted castle with me, on my quest for the mystical crown?’ ‘I have a few days yet, but I have to be back in Strelzen for Monday. I’m meeting Hendrik Wilemmin, remember?’ ‘Is that necessary, Willemczu?’ ‘He can be useful. He has so many connections …’ ‘Some of them even above-board.’ ‘And he’s contributed hard cash. For a man like Hendrik, that’s real commitment. We couldn’t have set up the blogs and websites without him.’ Oskar grunted, ‘He’ll want his payoff in the end. There’s not an ounce of idealism in him.’ ‘I thought we decided I’d manage the media end, and you’d plan the political coup. Eastnet’s successful and growing, but it can’t match the State media as yet. We need the backing Hendrik and his associates can offer. I’ve drawn all I can from the Peacher well for the moment. Soon I want to go twenty-four hours with our news channel, and it’ll take a lot of investment.’ Oskar hugged Will tight around his ribcage. ‘I’m not criticising, leblen. His involvement just makes me nervous. All I’m saying is that we should keep an eye on Hendrik.’ Then he chuckled in Will’s ear. ‘You can leave it to me … I may have some ideas.’ ‘A pity Terry O’Brien’s out of circulation.’ ‘What makes you think he’d be interested in our problems?’ Will thought he detected some sourness in Oskar’s voice. He let it pass. He knew the two men had issues, and that Oskar didn’t share his veneration for the former Peacher security chief. He turned in Oskar’s arms and engaged with the man’s broad mouth. ‘Thank you, Osku,’ he eventually murmured. ‘I’ll sleep well tonight.’ ‘I too. Bless you, men Willemczu.’
  21. Mike Arram

    Chapter 2

    Are these the same versions that are on Awesome Dude? Glad they're holding up still. No, these are updated, corrected and further revised to take account of the later stories that were added on. Sort of retro-fitted. 🙂
  22. Henry Atwood spent most of the morning brooding in the common room. It took three consecutive mugs of coffee for him to come to a decision, so he was well wired and pretty twitchy when he got to his feet and crossed the field again to Temple House. This time he went up to the top floor, to the house prefects’ common room. There was only one boy present. ‘Hey, Bounder.’ David looked up and gave a ghost of a smile. Henry continued, ‘Nasty bruise on your rather classically chiselled cheekbone, mate. How did that happen?’ David shuffled his feet guiltily … not an easy thing to do when sitting down at a work desk. Then he gave a faint grin. ‘Walked into a door, Outfield.’ Henry sat down next to him, deliberately close so that their thighs were actually touching. Despite not liking what he was about to do, he put his hand on David’s and held it. The other boy’s breath caught and his brown eyes looked a little wild, but he did not move his hand away. ‘Why did you get in a fight with that maniac Burlesdon, Davey?’ David flushed red at the affectionate use of his name and mumbled something inarticulate. ‘It was about me, wasn’t it?’ David gazed into his friend’s eyes. ‘I couldn’t just let him get away with it, Henry. Knocking you down like that and calling you a queer.’ Henry gave a little laugh. ‘But I am a queer. The point is that I have a boyfriend who can take very good care of himself and me, if he wants to. It wasn’t necessary for you to jump in, was it?’ ‘He’s an evil bastard, Henry. The thought of him attacking you was more …’ ‘Davey, you’re not my boyfriend … but you’d like to be. Davey, be honest with me.’ David looked indecisive and scared. Henry knew he was doing a harsh thing, but it had to be done, or worse things would follow. Finally, David looked down, a tear appearing on his cheek. He nodded. ‘You’re gay too.’ Another nod. ‘Davey, that’s all you’ve got to do, acknowledge it. You don’t have to come out, and I won’t tell anyone.’ Tears were streaming down David’s beardless brown face by then. ‘But I do love you, Henry. You’re all I can think of. It’s cracking me up, it’s …’ He could not finish, because Henry closed with his mouth and kissed him. Henry caught David’s eyes, wide with shock, before they closed in ecstasy. He massaged the other boy’s lips with his, then took David round the back of the head and pushing his tongue into the wet paradise beyond. David’s tongue met and licked along his own. Henry broke off. David’s chest was heaving and Henry had to admit he looked very desirable, flushed and sexually aroused. Henry put his hand on David’s erection through his trousers and massaged it gently, tracing the shape of his cock. It seemed quite a handsome organ at first acquaintance. David closed his eyes and moaned. Henry unzipped him and pushed a hand inside, finding the slit in his boxers and gripping the hot, hard penis within. He began gently stroking up and down. ‘Oh God! Oh God!’ David was moaning under his breath. Henry picked up the pace. David’s mouth was slack and his head was back. Henry released David's cock to engage again with his mouth. Breaking off the second time, Henry asked gently, ‘Do you love me, Davey?’ ‘God … do I!’ was the breathless response. ‘Where did you get the cannabis you put in Burlesdon’s room?’ Henry asked just as gently. ‘It was … what?’ David looked poleaxed. ‘It wasn’t yours. Where did you get it?’ ‘No, I …’ Henry disengaged with the boy. ‘Do you lie to those you love, Davey?’ David sputtered. Henry carried on remorselessly, ‘You found it in another boy’s room, didn’t you. You planted it in Burlesdon’s bedside cabinet, then tipped off the housemaster.’ Rallying, David began to look defiant. ‘The guy’s a cunt, Henry. I couldn’t let him get away with what he did to you. He should have been expelled. The school will be better off without him.’ ‘Davey! It’s not your decision, and for all that Burlesdon is a cunt, it’ll do nothing for the state of your soul to get rid of him in this way. Besides, how well do you know him anyway? God knows the problems some kids bring to this school with them. You’ve got to go to the housemaster and tell him what you did.’ ‘Henry, no … I can’t! It’ll be me that’s expelled.’ ‘Nevertheless, that’s what you’ll do, because if you don’t, I will.’ David’s defiance was gathering pace. ‘Then it’ll be my word against yours, Henry.’ Shaking his head, Henry said grimly, ‘Davey, think about it. I’ve got no history of friendship with Burlesdon. If I come out with this story, the head of sixth is more likely to believe me than a boy Burlesdon beat the crap out of last week.’ David looked distraught. ‘But what will they do to me, Henry?’ Henry took his warm hand and stood, making David stand with him. ‘Tell the truth, or as much of it as you can. It’ll be hard, and it’ll get round. There will be punishment, but believe me, nothing like the punishment you’ll suffer in the long term if you try to stick to your lie. Davey, you’re a good kid. This sort of weight on your conscience will destroy you. For your own sake, Davey, you gotta do this.’ David stared at his feet, tears coursing down his cheeks once more. ‘Okay. But only for you Henry … oh God, if only you could love me the way you do Ed! It breaks me up. But please go on calling me Davey, it makes me feel as though I’m special to you.’ Henry couldn’t stop himself, although he knew it would have been better if he had. ‘You are special to me, Davey. You’re a friend.’ *** ‘How in fifty-three kinds of fuck did you get him to cough up?’ Ed marvelled. Henry shifted in his seat in the block. Now that he had to confess to Ed, he was nervous. ‘Well … er, I, sort of … seduced him.’ Ed screeched, ‘You what? He’s gay? You actually seduced him … went to bed with him?’ ‘No, no … not that far, but I touched him up and wanked him.’ Ed looked at Henry as if he were a stranger. ‘How did you know he was gay? I didn’t pick it up.’ ‘It’s not you he’s fixated on, Ed. He’s been following me around with cow eyes for six months now.’ ‘Talk me through it.’ ‘You’re not angry with me?’ Henry glanced timorously up at his lover. ‘I’m not pleased with you,’ Ed retorted a little gruffly. ‘I had to get him to confess … it was the only way I could think of. I knew he goes weak at the knees around me.’ ‘Tell me you didn’t enjoy it.’ Henry took a deep breath and lied. ‘It wasn’t like that. Rudi was going to be expelled and discredited for something he didn’t do. There was a lot more at stake than my virtue.’ Ed’s face softened. ‘I suppose. Just warn me in advance next time. And there better not be a next time.’ *** Will Vincent gazed idly round the vast entrance hall of the Schloss Heinrichshof while he waited. A flight of stairs ascended to an upper hall, where far above he could glimpse a hammer-beam roof. Trophies and animal heads were everywhere. With something of a professional eye, he examined a suit of fifteenth-century tournament armour set against the wall. A part of Will would always be the schoolteacher he had once been, before romance and personal tragedy had borne him off to Rothenia and a new life in the emerging Central European media industry. A red-coated footman who was hovering at the bottom of the great stair suddenly stiffened. Will turned and inclined his head, murmuring a deferential ‘Königlich Hochheit’. ‘Mr Vincent, good morning and welcome to Heinrichshof.’ The Thuringian prince’s English was perfect; indeed, it very much still carried the imprint of his education at Medwardine and Cambridge. Prince Ernst Karl was the younger of the twin sons of the great Leopold, who had died some eight years before. Sixty years of age, he still had an air of youth, tanned and fit – the cosmetic effect of great wealth, Will concluded. The prince indicated the stair and led him off a landing, through a passage and into a comparatively small withdrawing room, which communicated with the great hall through a set of double doors. Oskar was already waiting there. He turned to greet Will with that specially warm smile he revealed at times to those he cared for. Will almost had to stop himself from running up and taking his former lover in his arms. The prince gestured to a grouping of chairs near a tall Gothic window, sat back in one of them and steepled his fingers. ‘Now, my dear Tarlenheim, what can I tell you? It is something to do with my late father, is that right?’ ‘Yes, sir. A year or two ago, when I was in London, I met with the Princess Elenja of Vinodol, the widow of Lord Lowestoft … I believe you know her?’ ‘Indeed I do. She was a great friend of my dear father’s. We saw her a good deal back in the fifties and sixties, though it has been the best part of a decade since we last met. It was at my father’s funeral at Zenda. That was a tragic year for us both. She lost her son, the earl of Burlesdon, that same year.’ ‘It is the fortunes of Princess Elenja’s grandson, the late earl’s son, Rudolf Elphberg-Rassendyll, which bring me here, sir.’ The prince frowned at the name. ‘My good father was very – some might say, excessively – generous to that particular family in his day.’ Will noticed the slight grimace. It seemed the present head of the Thuringian family had not approved of the frequent financial bailouts the earls of Burlesdon had needed to keep afloat during the lean years for the English aristocracy since the Second World War. The prince continued, ‘Although I say nothing against the late earl, some might not consider his younger brother – that scoundrel Robert Rassendyll – deserving of the generosity with which my father treated him. He certainly took a chunk out of the hand that fed him.’ Oskar made a brief gesture of dismissal. ‘I don’t think money is any longer an issue with the Burlesdons, sir, though I don’t doubt your father’s generosity to them. It’s your father’s antiquarian researches that I’m intrigued by.’ ‘Antiquarian researches, Tarlenheim? It was the late Martin Tofts who delved into the past, not my father.’ ‘The princess gave me to understand, however, that there was one area of historical research which did concern your father deeply: the fate of the ancient crown of Rothenia, the Tassilisnerkron.’ Prince Ernst Karl raised his eyebrows, then burst out laughing. ‘I believe, my dear count, that it’s kept on a shelf somewhere.’ ‘Sir?’ ‘Right next to the Holy Grail.’ *** David went like a lamb to the slaughter and told his story. He refused to say in which room he had found the cannabis, stating only that he had found it round the school. He gave as his reason for his actions that he had been in a fight with Burlesdon, had lost and wanted vengeance. Because there was no implication that he had himself smoked, he was not expelled. But he had the humiliation of losing his house-prefect’s badge, and the agony of having his parents summoned to school. Through it all, Henry held his hand, at least metaphorically. The weekend after he was finally released from suspension of privileges, Henry and Ed discreetly whisked him away to Trewern. They were sitting out in a favourite spot in the churchyard that Saturday, an unseasonably warm day early in March. The sky was a fresh blue and little white clouds were scudding across it. ‘Hang round with us, Davey,’ Ed informed him, ‘and they’ll work out you’re gay too.’ ‘What’s left that can humiliate me, guys?’ David replied ruefully. ‘Besides, maybe it is time I faced up to it … and you don’t mind me lusting after your Henry?’ ‘Yeah, I certainly do,’ Ed retorted with a cheerful sort of snarl. ‘But we’re learning, me and Henry, that gays don’t quite work to the same frame as your heteros. There’s Will and Oskar for instance.’ David raised an eyebrow. ‘They’re friends of ours, they live in Strelzen and they work for a media company there. Oskar and Will fell for each other in a really big way some years ago, and they were deeply into each other, but for some reason that no one would explain to us, Oskar blew it big time. Not that he cheated on Will, we were told, but he did something completely unforgiveable. ‘Anyway, Will and he split, and you’d think they’d hate each other for the rest of their lives, but no. Will got off with his present boyfriend, Felip, and they’re very happy. But Will forgave Oskar and they’re still close friends, though they don’t do sex and stuff, or at least I think not, and Oskar’s got his own boyfriend now too. That’s the thing, see!’ David wasn’t quite getting it. ‘What’s the thing?’ ‘Gays can fall out of love but stay friendly. It’s not like heteros when they fall out … like my mum and dad for instance, who hate each other like poison since the divorce. The idea of them kissing and having a drink together, the way Oskar and Will do, is not conceivable. It’s a different dynamic.’ Henry was a bit relieved, now he was hearing the fruits of Edward’s reflection on gay love and faithfulness. It seemed his straying from the path of strict righteousness was being somehow accommodated. The three boys wandered into the church, where Henry gave the guided tour. Ed and David humoured him, and David at least found his enthusiasm very fetching. Henry’s eyes lit up when he was totally engaged in explaining something. David was by no means over him. As Henry was pointing out some Anglo-Saxon remains in the nave, the vestry door banged and an amiable old gentleman emerged blinking into the church. ‘Ahoi, Dr Mac!’ Henry shouted gleefully. ‘Ahoi! Prosim, Hendrik!’ the old man replied. ‘Nach sei faust!’ ‘What’s all that about?’ David asked, puzzled. ‘Hello, Dr Mac, this is our friend David from school. David, this is Dr Mackenna, the churchwarden. Dr Mac, he wants to know what that was all about.’ ‘I was telling him not to shout in church. Henry was on holiday in Rothenia last year, David, and began picking up the language. Now it so happens that I was in military intelligence during the war. I worked with the Rothenian and Czech resistance, so I had a facility with Rothenian, which I haven’t completely lost. Henry’s learning it as a personal project, and he’s got quite a talent.’ ‘Yeah, more than for the French I’m supposed to be doing for A Level. Pity they don’t do A Level Rothenian, isn’t it?’ ‘I believe some schools do, if not yours,’ pronounced Dr Mac. ‘But you can get Rothenian state radio on the web, so I’m told, which is good practice for Henry, and he’s bought some books from Amazon.de. All in all, Henry could survive as a tour guide already, I’d say, and he has friends in Rothenia he can e-mail.’ ‘Yeah, there’s Nikki Baltasar and Fritzy zu Terlenehem. Really good mates. We miss ‘em, don’t we Ed?’ ‘Especially Fritzy … they broke the mould after they made him. Wish we could go back there this summer, but it doesn’t look as though Henry’s dad can get an exchange in Strelzen twice in a row.’ Henry nodded sadly, then perked up. ‘Strelzen’s totally amazing, Davey. The sun shines every day. The city’s more beautiful than you could believe, and the people are kind and helpful … apart from tram conductors, that is.’ Dr Mac cocked a bushy eyebrow. ‘You might perhaps not want to go there this summer, however.’ Ed and Henry stared at him, puzzled. The old man continued, ‘I don’t know if you’ve been following the news recently, Henry, but there’s a constitutional crisis brewing. President Maritz is being forced out of office by a coalition led by right-wing, anti-EU nationalists. It’s beginning to look messy, and there were riots in Zenden two days ago.’ ‘No, I hadn’t heard. It’s not made the main news here.’ ‘The BBC is not what it once was,’ sighed Dr Mac, ‘but I still listen to the World Service, and that’s a bit more international. There was a feature in the Economist last week … I’ll give it to you or your father on Sunday. Bye, boys.’ After they said goodbye, Henry looked at Ed with a troubled expression. ‘I hope Fritzy and the guys are okay.’ Ed raised his eyebrows. ‘We’d better get in touch. Damn. It’s a pity your dad is so against the web, isn’t it?’ They went back to the rectory and looked at a new strategy game David had brought with him: ‘Imperial Ambition’, a sort of empire-building game based on eighteenth-century Europe. Henry laughed to find that Ruritania – the old name for Rothenia – was one of the possible sides to play. They gleefully clicked on the Ruritanian icon and, in the role of King Henry the Lion, soon found ways to subject Europe to their rule, at least at Beginners level. As Ed was building up the Ruritanian army for a massive onslaught on Prussia, he constructed a new general. ‘Hey, little babe … look who I got!’ Henry and David peered over his shoulder at the character screen. ‘It’s the Field Marshal Count von Tarlenheim. We’ve got Fritzy in the game!’ David stared at them curiously. Henry explained, ‘Our friend we mentioned, Fritzy zu Terlenehem in Rothenian; he’s fourteen now, and he’s the prince of Tarlenheim, direct descendant of the famous field marshal in this game.’ David was impressed. ‘How did you meet a prince, for God’s sake?’ ‘We were in Strelzen last year on an exchange. Dad was looking after the Anglican chaplaincy during August. The director of music in the church there is Will Vincent – y’know, the Will of Will and Oskar. Turns out he’s an influential bloke in the local media. He introduced me and Ed to little Fritzy, and we got on really well. Will’s ex-boyfriend Oskar is Fritzy’s big brother, but he resigned the title to Fritzy.’ David exclaimed, ‘Well that trumps me. The only titled bloke I’ve met is an earl.’ ‘Oh yeah,’ Henry muttered abstractedly as one of the Ruritanian armies occupied Silesia, ‘who’s that?’ David looked puzzled. ‘But you know him too.’ ‘I do?’ ‘Doesn’t the gossip from Temple House ever reach you guys? It’s Rudi Burlesdon. He’s the fourteenth earl for God’s sake. Why do you think the Head was so cagy about expelling him?’ *** ‘So that’s the twelfth earl of Burlesdon … looks a lot like a startled rabbit.’ Will Vincent smiled up at a portrait on the wall of one of Heinrichshof’s tall galleries. Oskar smiled too. ‘He was not a man of much charisma, so I’m told. But he was certainly ambitious. By teaming up with the Rothenian fascists before the war, he had hopes of getting himself crowned king. He tried to do a Mussolini in 1930 and march on the capital, having proclaimed himself King Jakob at a rally at Strelsfurt. It was a complete fiasco, and he was lucky not to end up in prison. He had some sort of breakdown not long afterwards; the princess said it might have been a stroke. He was quite different after that … rather mild and confused, she said, but still totally useless as a landowner. He nearly managed to ruin the family financially before he died in the sixties.’ Will pondered the information. ‘Are you sure the Rothenian people are going to be any more receptive to the idea of an Elphberg king now? They’ve been through the Second World War, the Reich’s occupation and Horvath’s dictatorship. They’re even further away from their royal past than they were in the interwar years.’ Oskar shook his head vigorously. ‘I remember as a boy when King Maxim and Queen Helge were brought home for burial in the Salvatorskirk. Throughout all those troubled years, the light of his golden reign just grew brighter in people’s minds. He was one of the greatest Elphbergs: brave, compassionate and wise. The crowds were enormous, more than a million Rothenians filed past the coffins when they lay in state at the Radhaus. My tatta took me by train from Terlenehem to join the queue. I can still remember the tears on everyone’s faces. ‘People have forgotten James Burlesdon, thank God. Now we must remind them that he has a great-grandson, and convince them that Rudolf Elphberg-Rassendyll can renew Rothenia the way the great Maxim did.’ The dubious look on Will Vincent’s face had not gone away. ‘Is this seventeen-year-old boy so very special?’ ‘Had you met him, you would not need to ask. He is truly a Red Elphberg: Rudolf V to the life.’ Oskar indicated a Victorian canvas along the gallery, where a handsome monarch in chasseur uniform was contemplating the regalia of Rothenia laid on a table next to him. Will studied the scene closely. Set among the rods, sceptres, orb and gilded swords was a striking image of the Tassilisnerkron. Oskar continued, ‘Don’t forget your own contribution to this, men leblen. That epic documentary you helped produce for Matt White led to a renaissance of interest in the Elphberg past. It’s still being repeated on prime-time television. Fritz is being asked more and more for the pensk pozechnen … people go down on their knees to him even in the streets of Modenehem. Imagine if an Elphberg were in the Residenz of Strelzen to offer the blessing of blessings, the kungliche pozechnen … a father’s blessing to his people! It could not be a better time. But it must be done soon. The political situation is dire.’ A discrete cough drew the attention of the two men to the appearance in the gallery of a red-coated footman, who indicated a door at the end and bowed them through it. A large table had been covered with green baize, and a variety of boxes had been stacked on top of it. A diffident man in his fifties was hovering. ‘Gentlemen? The prince has asked that I let you see all his father’s papers. As you’ll observe, there is a great deal of material here. Do you know what it is you’re looking for?’ Will regretfully shook his head.
  23. Mike Arram

    Chapter 1

    Yeah, I was a little proud of that crack by Peters. 😏
  24. ‘Get outa my way, you little queer!’ A shoulder charged Henry in the back, sending him spinning into a doorpost. A star of pain went supernova behind his right eye, and he ended up hard down on his bum in the upper corridor. He heard his assailant pound a little further along the corridor, then stop. ‘Outa my way, Cornish,’ snarled the same voice. ‘No,’ came a surprisingly cool and determined reply, ‘cos first you have to go back, pick up Henry and apologise.’ ‘Me! Apologise to little fairy boy there? You’re kidding. Now outa my way.’ ‘Oh dear,’ sighed Ed Cornish, ‘then I’ve got no choice, have I?’ There was a crack followed by a solid thud. The floor bounced under Henry’s bottom as a heavy body landed on its back next to him. Henry blinked his watering eyes at Ed, who reached down, hooked him under the armpits and lifted him up, setting him on his shaky legs. ‘You okay, Henry babe?’ ‘No … I can’t see out of my right eye, and someone’s stuck a white-hot needle through my temples.’ He sensed there were other concerned sixth formers round him. Mark Peters murmured, ‘You’re gonna have a shiner, Outfield. You okay on your feet? Good.’ Henry heard a muffled thud next to him. Ed tutted and said, ‘Peters, you shouldna kicked him in the side like that when he’s down.’ ‘No? Where should I have kicked him?’ ‘Between the legs?’ ventured Ed. ‘Oh yeah,’ Peters said. ‘You never think of such things at the time, do you?’ Henry felt he had to reassert his existence at that point. He wiped his left eye and tried to focus on the figure unconscious on the floor beneath him. ‘Who was it?’ ‘Would you believe it was Rudi Burlesdon?’ said Mark Peters. ‘Oh. I suppose I would. Is he out for the count?’ Ed prodded the prone boy with his foot. ‘He just groaned, so I guess he is in fact coming round. If, that is, he wasn’t just lying doggo in the first place, the git. Henry, did he say what I thought he said to you?’ ‘He called me a “little queer” if that’s what you mean.’ Mark let out a hiss of breath. ‘He never did!’ ‘Wish I’d hit him harder then,’ Ed growled. ‘To be technical,’ said Henry a little pedantically, ‘he did not in fact say anything other than the truth. I am small, I am homosexual and I’m …’ ‘Hold it, Outfield,’ interrupted Mark, ‘I’d prefer not to hear the details of your and Ed’s sex life. It’s bad enough my not having one of my own.’ Henry squinted down on Rudi Burlesdon, who was now struggling to his knees looking decidedly unfocussed, as two upper-sixth formers hauled him up. One of them told Ed that he’d take Burlesdon down to the head of sixth and give the details of the incident. ‘Which are?’ asked Ed. ‘That he made an unprovoked homophobic assault on our little Outfield, and that he was restrained in a commendably moderate way by Edward Cornish and Mark Peters, who remonstrated with him. Okay?’ ‘Fine.’ Ed pushed his face into Burlesdon’s. ‘Now, you git, even so much as look at Henry Atwood in future, and I’ll fucking kick you in the balls so hard they’ll pop out your ears. Got it?’ There was no answer, just a sullen glare on the other boy’s face as the older ones hauled him off. Ed clapped his hands and smiled around at the surrounding group, busily dusting down Henry. ‘And that, hopefully, will be the last we see of young Rudi, and very good riddance too. Assault is an eminently expellable offence and a homophobic assault should properly deserve death, in my partisan opinion.’ *** Rudi Burlesdon sat hunched in a corner of what the Head liked to call ‘the executive suite’ in New Building. Everything hurt, particularly his jaw, which he was rubbing tenderly. It was difficult for him to work out which emotion was dominant in his aching head. To begin with, he was humiliated to have been punched flat by that queer Cornish. A wash of anger coursed through him. He desperately wanted a rematch. The bastard had taken him unawares. But he supposed that their sort leapt to defend their bum-boys, like animals did their mates. Atwood made him sick with his queening round. He’d heard rumours the pair of them did ‘it’ in the block. Yet everyone thought it was funny, rather than just sick. New emotions surfaced. Unwelcome images forced themselves into his head. That insinuating pervert Dr Weaver at Eton, whom he had walked in on feeling up a little kid in Savile’s Yard. His hand still throbbed as he remembered the surprised look on the bastard’s face when Rudi’s fist connected with his nose. Rudi had managed to close both of the filthy pervert’s eyes before the senior boys hauled him off. Where was the justice? Weaver would never have a chance to do that again to any kid, maybe, but it was Rudi who had paid the price. Expelled. Then the anger ebbed as rapidly as it had surged, leaving him feeling woeful. The woe was compounded when his eye caught a large tinted photograph behind the secretary’s desk. He remembered why he was at Medwardine. For there, wearing an elaborate uniform starred with orders of chivalry, hand on sword, was the most famous member of his family, looking down on him calmly but, Rudi thought, accusingly. A door opened behind him, and a tired voice requested, ‘If you’ll come this way, your lordship?’ *** Henry got his black eye, but felt strangely ambivalent towards the boy who had given it to him. He was in fact curious about Rudi Burlesdon. ‘Oh, Henry,’ Ed scolded, ‘you’re not off on another salvation kick, are you?’ ‘No. But he’s a bit intriguing, isn’t he?’ ‘Actually, he’s a pain in the neck. What is it with you, little babe?’ ‘What do you know about him?’ Ed shrugged. ‘He arrived a week after the beginning of Michaelmas term. He boards in Temple House, thank God, with the other Slytherins. He’s got no friends and he has a serious temper problem. Redheads: it’s always the same story. Oh wait … now I see what’s going on here. Henry, you’re projecting on him, aren’t you. You’re trying to compare your experience of arriving in Year 11 and not having any friends, with his. But you’re sweet, cute and kind, and he’s a thug with issues. There is no comparison. Now repeat after me … I will not go looking for trouble.’ Henry just laughed and went off to double Religious Studies with Miss Prendergast, there to confront another of his current problems. Henry Atwood was a sensitive boy, not much given to self-love, which – as he said to himself – was just as well, because in looks he was ordinary, and in build a bit slight. Henry’s strength was in personality. That was why he had picked up the problem of David Skipper quickly. David was one of the other two in the lower-sixth Religious Studies group, and well before Christmas Henry had realised it was not enthusiasm for the subject that had decided David to choose A-level RS. There had been a term of his being tongue-tied every time Henry tried to talk to him, and then after Christmas a tendency to act like a limpet any time Henry was near. David was in lust with Henry, so much was clear. What was not clear was how far he had accepted his own homosexuality. Henry rather suspected that David was in denial of what his body was telling him, and was rationalising his urges as a simple need for friendship. Henry knew that David’s father was a colonel of a tank regiment and David was a service boarder. Not a good background to be gay against. But the really serious part of the problem was that Henry was not immune to David Skipper, who was the first boy apart from his Ed who had sexually stirred him. It was a different feeling from his attraction to Ed, a handsome and swashbuckling young man, intelligent and courageous, a boy to admire. David was dark and pretty, slightly better built than Henry, and beautifully proportioned. Naked he must be a sight to see, Henry’s libido had concluded, causing his penis to react accordingly. David was quite a tennis player by all accounts, while Henry’s sporting accomplishments were pitiful. It was the mirror thing, Henry concluded. David resembled him physically, but was a sort of perfected Henry in face, coordination and build. Only self-love, Henry muttered to himself, but then with a grin decided that of the two, he had the nicer bum. ‘Morning miss,’ said Henry cheerily, for Religious Studies was his favourite subject and Miss Prendergast his favourite teacher. David looked up into Henry’s face and moved his bag off the next chair in a clear invitation for Henry to sit beside him. He beamed when Henry did it. ‘Hey Outfield, you okay? Your right eye’s a bit puffy.’ ‘Er … walked into a door.’ ‘It must hurt … can I have a look at it?’ Henry had to go along with it, and tried not to enjoy it too much when David’s cool fingers delicately moved over his face. He saw with no surprise at all that David was erecting while doing so. When he realised it was happening, David backed off and placed his bag in his lap. ‘Er … you’re going to have a black eye,’ he stammered. ‘I’d already worked that out, thank you, Bounder.’ Bounder was David’s nickname. ‘Are you alright, Henry?’ Miss Prendergast too was concerned. ‘Thank you miss, I will live, honest. You wanna look at my eye too, Morton?’ The third member of the class grinned and said he would pass. *** ‘Rudolf?’ A chill ran down Rudi’s back. If there needed to be any more evidence that he was really deeply in it, the appearance of his grandmother at Medwardine was all the proof necessary. ‘Uh …’ ‘Please don’t stand there with your mouth open, young man. I have come here all the way from Norfolk, and the drive was most uncomfortable.’ ‘Er … who …er?’ Rudi knew his grandmother did not drive. ‘In due course, Rudolf. This is about you. Your mother, poor woman, has been driven to the point of distraction these past months. I hardly need to say how very, very disappointed I am at this latest example of your lack of judgement and self-control. How many times have we discussed this before today? You have all the enterprise and courage of Henry the Lion, but without temperance and judgement it becomes mere rashness. It will help no one.’ Rudi hung his head. There was a pause, and he felt a hand brush his thick red hair. ‘My dear, if you are ever to be what we hope you will be, to realise your father’s dreams, this must stop. Take a firm grip on your passions. It is asking much of a boy of your age, but you must now be more than a child. Before you can rule others, you must first learn to rule yourself. Now tell me what happened.’ Rudi stumbled through an explanation which, to give him due credit, was painfully honest. His grandmother sat brooding when his story came to an end. Eventually, with a sigh, she began, ‘Rudolf, there are things in your family history you really must be aware of. You perhaps remember old Prince Leopold, your cousin.’ The boy nodded. ‘You know of his heroism during the wartime occupation. You know how much we owe to him for the generosity with which he long supported our family when it fell on hard times. Without him, you would not now be able to pursue the great goal you do. Had it ever occurred to you to wonder why it was he and the archduchess his wife never lived together?’ ‘Er … no. I thought they just didn’t like each other.’ ‘They respected each other well enough, but the point is that old Leo was what you’ve just described that other boy as … such a very odd use of the word. He was gay.’ ‘Gay!’ ‘He was as fine a man as I have ever met, and the fact that he was deeply and passionately in love with another man made not a jot of difference to my opinion of him. I loved him dearly, as did everyone else who met him. Now, what was it which sent you running out of school in such a hurry that you had to knock down that poor boy?’ ‘I … er … had a call from Oskar von Tarlenheim and I couldn’t get a signal in the block. I knew it was important, and … well … the kid got in my way. I didn’t mean to hurt him. It just happened.’ ‘Have you apologised to him?’ ‘Say sorry! To that mincing little …! Er … no.’ His grandmother sighed again. ‘You will at least be glad to know that your return call is now unnecessary. Oskar is the one who drove me here. He arrived at Burlesdon last night.’ ‘Oh! That’s great!’ For the first time Rudi’s face lightened. ‘You like and respect the count, don’t you?’ Rudi burst out with enthusiasm, ‘Well yes, grandmother! He’s a Tarlenheim. I remember all you’ve taught me about that family and its great loyalty to our house. Besides, he’s really something: so cool and clever. If anyone can help me, it’ll be him.’ The dowager gave a pale smile. ‘While I believe he is all you think him to be and more, I should perhaps mention this one fact about him that you seem not to have observed. He too is a homosexual.’ *** Oskar von Tarlenheim dug his hands deep into the pockets of his rather Continental-looking trench coat. The wind across Medwardine’s playing fields whipped at his coat-tails and fluttered his thick blond hair. Rudi paced silently alongside him as they slowly strolled the terrace in front of New Building. Out on the fields the under-14s Rugby XV was training, the boys’ calls and shouts blown to them by the wind from the Welsh mountains, blue in the far distance above the treetops. Eventually Oskar spoke, but in Rothenian. ‘Hochheit kungliche, you seem unusually quiet.’ Rudi shot him a half-embarrassed look. ‘It’s this business. I’m distracted. Sorry.’ ‘Sir, I had hoped this move to your father’s old school might help, but you seem not to have settled. Now there’s the business of an assault on this smaller boy. Let me say straight away that I cannot believe for one moment you did what the school alleges.’ ‘No, no! It was an accident, honestly. I didn’t mean to do it, I just ran into him, then his mates piled on top of me. I was the one who got damaged.’ ‘Your grandmother is seeing the head teacher now. She can be very persuasive, and I’m sure something will be sorted out. But we cannot have the things happening here that occurred at Eton College. Affairs are getting to a critical point. You understand?’ ‘I do, Excellency. Really. It won’t happen again.’ ‘Good. Then I will say no more about it. The websites are going live this week, and after that the danger begins. A lot of people will be looking your way now, and not every expression will be friendly. Security is an issue we must take seriously.’ ‘Am I not safe here?’ ‘With the stakes we’re playing for, nowhere is safe, sir.’ ‘And the search? How is it going?’ ‘It’s going nowhere at the moment. Will Vincent is at work on the surviving family papers we can locate, but there’s not much. I’m going back to Burlesdon with your grandmother. She and I will be checking through the muniment room, then I have to go to Heinrichshof.’ ‘Heinrichshof?’ ‘The last man who seems to have known of its location was Prince Leopold of Thuringia.’ ‘Oh … right, my … er … gay cousin.’ Oskar flashed a sidelong glance at the boy. ‘Yes, the old fellow was gay. He’s buried at Zenda with Sir Martin Tofts, his lifelong lover and partner. I hope you have a chance to visit their tomb one day. You owe both men more than you can possibly imagine. ‘Talking of gay men, another reason I thought Medwardine might be a good place for you is that there are a couple of boys here who are friends of my little brother Fritzku’s, two fine lads who are also boyfriends. We met them back home last year. They would make you very welcome, and they know the old country. What were their names? One of them was Henry something.’ ‘Henry Atwood?’ ‘Yes, that was the fellow! Why are you looking at me so strangely?’ *** The news soon got round that Rudi Burlesdon was not to be expelled, although he was confined to the school premises and placed on Headmaster’s detention. He did not come back to the block, as the sixth-form council suspended his privileges. Henry ‘Outfield’ Atwood was a popular member of the lower sixth, despite his notorious gay affair with Ed Cornish. As Mark said, ‘If Burlesdon was after popularity, he might as well have shot Bambi on Princess Diana’s grave.’ That was Wednesday. It was the hot topic for the rest of the week, that and Bounder’s getting in a slugfest with Burlesdon on Thursday afternoon in their boarding house, and coming off the worst. Henry sighed when he heard about it. He might have guessed it would happen. Come Friday, Ed joined Henry on the day-boys’ minibus that went in the direction of Henry’s home in the village of Trewern, where Henry’s father was priest-in-charge of eight Shropshire parishes. Ed was a boarder, but his foster parents and the Atwoods had arranged for him to spend the weekends with his boyfriend. They shared Henry’s large bedroom, and a lot of Ed’s clothes, books, CDs and games were now part of Henry’s domestic environment. Henry was known to sleep with items of Ed’s clothing under his pillow when his lover wasn’t there. His mother might have thought it cute except that he tended to use Ed’s unwashed boxers, which were, he claimed, more evocative of the full Cornish body odour. Henry’s mum said he was disgusting. As usual, the pair helped with making Friday dinner and cleared up after. They then headed directly for their bed and vigorously caught up on what they had denied themselves during the week. Ed slumped onto Henry, still embedded in him. He squirmed gently over Henry’s sweaty back, clasping him hard with his strong arms and kissing his neck. Ed was developing into a very skilled lover: sympathetic, unselfish and more sensitive than many people would have expected of him. Eventually, Ed fell out of his Henry and rolled off him. They snuggled, Ed spooning protectively up round the smaller boy, printing tender kisses on his shoulders, ears and neck. Henry sighed with the cosy delight of it and pushed his little butt back into Ed’s crotch. As they were drifting off, Ed said a bit dozily, ‘Burlesdon’s in more trouble, little babe. They found cannabis in his bedside table. He’ll be gone by next week. He swears it was nothing to do with him, but the Head is tough on drugs on the premises. Frankly, he is screwed, and not in the nice way you screw me. So you can forget about the git. He’s outta here.’ Henry sat up. ‘He had marijuana in his room?’ ‘Yeah. Wassup?’ ‘Just that it’s odd. The cleaners are in there every day, and everyone knows that the housemaster does random searches of the upper-school boys’ rooms. So who would put weed in just the place it was most likely to be found?’ ‘He’s new to the school. Probably he didn’t know how dull it was to keep his weed there.’ ‘But you knew, and you don’t smoke. He’d be bound to have been warned by now. It’s the boarder subculture. He’d know, however unpopular he was.’ ‘Oh God, Henry,’ moaned Ed, ‘I feel a crusade coming on.’ Henry picked up a pillow and hit him with it. Ed pulled him down, there was laughter and bodies threshed round under the duvet. Eventually they slept. *** Henry did not go directly to prep on Monday. Instead he crossed the fields to Temple House, a gaunt Victorian building overlooking the rugby field. He tapped in the weekly code on the security box and pushed open the heavy door, scarred by generations of energetic youth kicking and slamming it. He checked the room list and, finding that Burlesdon was in No 24, went up. The door was closed, so he knocked. A muffled ‘fuck off’ came from inside. A little nervously, Henry opened it anyway. A tall, redheaded seventeen-year-old stared at him. ‘What you want? You’re about the last person I expected to see. Come to gloat, have you?’ Henry twitched an eyebrow. ‘No. I haven’t.’ ‘Then what the fuck do you want?’ ‘Can I sit down?’ ‘No, fuck off. You heard me!’ The boy’s ears were bright red, which seemed to be a warning sign. Henry ignored it, especially as he sensed that if Burlesdon were not angry he would be crying. Indeed, he might have been doing just that before Henry knocked on his door. There was an air of woeful desperation about him, and Henry had a very soft heart. ‘I don’t think that was your weed they found.’ Burlesdon stared at him. ‘What?’ he gulped. ‘How d’you know?’ ‘Because I don’t think you’re that stupid, Burlesdon.’ The redhead’s face fell. ‘Fuck. I thought you might know something.’ ‘It wasn’t yours, was it?’ Henry repeated. ‘No, it wasn’t.’ The boy flexed his large hands and balled them into fists. ‘And if I knew who did it, I’d beat his face into splinters of bone, the fucking bastard cunt …’ Henry looked at him quirkily. ‘Has anyone ever told you that you have an anger-management problem?’ Burlesdon gave him a hard look. ‘You come over here to be patronising, or to be helpful?’ ‘Helpful, I think.’ Henry’s fear of this angry boy was beginning to ebb. ‘Why did you knock me down last Wednesday?’ ‘You were in my way,’ Burlesdon replied, as if that was all there was to it. ‘So do you knock everyone down who’s in your way and dump a load of homophobic abuse on them?’ ‘You are a cocksucker, aren’t you?’ ‘Don’t you think that expression is a teensy bit offensive?’ ‘I don’t like queers, Outfield. You have a problem with that?’ ‘We are all entitled to our views, I suppose. So when you called me a “little queer”, you were just being …’ ‘… descriptive, yeah. Can’t stand you, but it doesn’t mean I’m into gay bashing. I was just in a desperate hurry to get outside and use my mobile. I told the Head that, but I have the impression you’re one of his blue-eyed boys.’ ‘What was so important?’ Henry asked. ‘None of your fuckin’ …’ ‘Okay, okay. I get it. Keep your secrets, man of mystery. But before we bring this uncomfortable interview to a close, could I just ask who would have a grudge against you sufficient to frame you for possession of a Class C drug on the school premises?’ ‘You.’ ‘I got no grudge against you, Burlesdon, whatever you might think. Anyone else?’ ‘Your pansy boyfriend.’ ‘… who could effortlessly rip your intestines out and make interesting artistic arrangements with them.’ ‘Then no one here,’ Burlesdon finally muttered. ‘That means there are people elsewhere who might do it.’ ‘I told you … it’s none of your fuckin’ …’ ‘I get it. That’s it then. Okay, I’ll be on my way.’ Henry turned to leave. ‘Wait!’ Burlesdon cried. ‘Sorry I knocked you down,’ he mumbled. Henry raised an eyebrow. ‘Thanks. If anything else occurs to me, I’ll let you know. Bye then.’ The woeful look was back on Burlesdon’s face. ‘Bye,’ he sighed. And Henry felt sorry for him, which, as things were to turn out, would have consequences beyond anything either of them could possibly have imagined.
  25. Henry Atwood is still in the sixth form of Medwardine school. He is intrigued by new arrival, Rudi Burlesdon, red-headed, sullen and alienated. Henry likes to help, but once again gets way out of his depth, for in Rothenia a new spirit is rising and Rudi is not the boy he appears to be.
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