The Green Side
It was Wednesday morning. All over Rothenia men and women were waking up and addressing the day's business, beginning with the choice of what to have for breakfast. In Fridricsgasse 2273 there was never much debate on that point. Nathan already had the outsize box of Cheerios on the table, a jug of milk beside it. He alone of the family varied his routine, which today was a cinnamon bagel and sliced apple. However, since Reggie had slept over with Damien, Nathan's greater resources would be called upon that morning. Reggie was not keen on cereal.
The boy himself appeared in his pyjamas just then, scratching his little butt.
'Morning, Reggie. What'll it be? Grapefruit? Toast? Grapefruit on toast?'
The boy gave his cute smile and opted for a banana smoothie, if that was alright.
'Course it is, sweetness. One banana smoothie coming up in a moment. Damien still asleep?'
'... and snoring.'
'Ah... just like his dad.'
The boy spread himself over the table top and looked up. 'Nathan?'
'You know you're a man.'
'I believe I do.'
The boy giggled. 'And Justin's a man.'
'Well... how did Damien get born?'
Nathan, having lived with a very inquisitive child for quite a while, was not easily phased now by this sort of question. 'He's got a mum, just like you have, but he lost touch with his dad even before he was born. Then his mum got very ill and now she's in a special hospital. Although she's getting better all the time, until she's completely well she can't take care of Damien. Luckily, right about then his dad found him and we took him on for good.'
'And what about your dad, darling?'
'I don't know who he is. Mum says he was a donor. Is that right?'
'I think I understand. Do you miss not having a dad?'
Reggie studied his smoothie for a while, making Nathan anxious that he had upset the boy. But Reggie looked up and seemed fine. 'No. I mean, I never had one, and Esther and mom are great. I'm not the sort of kid who plays football and stuff, so I guess if I had a dad I might be a disappointment to him.'
Nathan ruffled the boy's pale hair. 'Sweetheart, if I were your dad, I'd be very proud of you, believe me.'
Reggie gave a little smile and a pink blush coloured his cheeks.
Damien wandered in yawning at that point and, without a word, poured himself a bowl of cereal and milk. He chomped rapidly to the bottom of one bowl, then filled a second. By this time he was communicative. 'When's the tank coming for us?'
'Tank? Who said anything about a tank?'
'King Rudi. He said me and Reggie could do our placement today and he was inspecting the army troops in... somewhere I can't remember. So he must have a tank instead of a car.'
'Darling, he mentioned no tank. So far as I know, there's a photo shoot for the press with you and the king at the palace at eight. Then he's taking you both with him to Luchau, where's he's inspecting the Fifth Brigade. But I imagine Rudi at least will be in uniform, so you've got that to look forward to.'
'Cool.' Damien seemed satisfied. But as it turned out, his memory of what the king had said was better on that point than Nathan's. The roar of a powerful engine in the road outside brought Justin downstairs and the boys to the window.
Reggie squealed, 'It is a tank!'
Nathan was taken aback. 'What? It can't be. The local council would create merry hell! The treads would cut up the tarmac.'
Justin checked the gate monitor. 'S not a tank, iss a Humvee. And look who's driving it! Iss Ed Cornish in his military togs. I'll get the door.'
Major Edward Cornish had been born in England but had become a Rothenian citizen to serve in the army, where he was an officer of a guard infantry regiment as well as a frequent royal aide-de-camp and equerry. He and his partner, investigative journalist and Eastnet media personality Henry Atwood, were both very close to King Rudolf. Because of Ed's long friendship with Nathan and Justin, he'd been assigned the onerous responsibility of picking up Damien and Reggie for their day's placement.
He didn't seem too put out by the job. 'Hey, soldier!' he greeted Damien, picking him up and swinging him round.
'Uncle Ed!' Damien whooped and squealed as he was thrown up in the air and caught.
Ed set the boy down carefully. 'And you must be Reggie Mayer.' He put out his large hand and gravely shook Reggie's small one. Reggie seemed charmed.
Justin brought over a mug of coffee and offered it to the major. 'Sugar? Right?'
'Cheers, Justy. I've been delegated to take these two hellions to the palace. Thought they'd appreciate the military theme of the transport.'
Nathan laughed. 'You thought right. Won't be any trouble getting them dressed and ready this morning.'
The boys were in fact already heading back upstairs.
'Whoa! Wait!' Ed produced two film-wrapped packets. 'The queen thinks of every detail.'
He handed one each to the boys, who tore them open. Two miniature army uniforms fell out.
'Oh my!' sighed Reggie when he realised what he was holding: a regulation army combat uniform in a digital camouflage pattern, topped off with a beret.
Ed smiled at the boys' reactions. 'The army cadet scheme keeps a store of boy-size kit, though we had to look hard to find a couple this small, but here they are. Get a move on, soldiers!'
Damien and Reggie snapped to attention and saluted smartly. 'Yes sir!' Then they ran out to change, jabbering excitedly.
Ed grinned at his friends. 'So where're you headed today, Justy?'
Justin shook his head. 'Nuffink as exciting as those two are goin' to enjoy. Security inspection at the Glottenberh plant, wiv... oh great... a health and safety procedures trial'
Ed looked sympathetic. 'Bummer.'
Prema fastidiously took a bowl of muesli from the side table in the breakfast room of the Kung Heinrich den Leuwen. Vedayah, on the other hand, heaped his plate high with ham, eggs, mushrooms and hash browns. He ignored Prema's raised eyebrow.
'How can you be hungry, Chris?'
'Gotta eat, babes. We'll need all our energy today.'
'Don't you have any nerves?'
'Nah. You can only survive tennis at the international level if you forget you have them.'
Prema chewed his birdseed meditatively, wondering why he didn't feel more nervous himself. Maybe it was Vedayah. The man exuded confidence the way a bonfire warms those around its flames. He seemed quite fearless.
They had both dressed that morning in denims and black leather jackets. Vedayah had also equipped them each with large black shades. When he had tried his on the previous night, the mild and patient Prema decided they made him look sinister, which in turn made Vedayah laugh, for that seemed to be the intention.
Vedayah had been lying naked and languid across the bed after their sex, coaching his lover in what they had to do the next day. Sex in a bed had been a new experience for them, apart from their liaisons with the Lady Benefactor, which neither felt counted. Normally they coupled in the grounds or barns of the monastery, anywhere they could snatch some moments to themselves. In the hotel, with hours and plenty of leisure to make love, they had taken full advantage of it. That might have been another reason why Prema was feeling so relaxed at breakfast.
Eventually Vedayah cleared his plate, leant back, stretched and belched. 'Okay, bro, time to go!'
And now a chill hand did grip Prema's heart. But he gamely stood, picked up his bag and followed his lover out to the van. Vedayah had already settled the night's bill from the wallet-full of krone the abbot had given them.
Once behind the wheel, Prema took a deep breath and paused. He said a prayer to the Great Ones, entrusting himself and the day's work to them. He felt a kiss on his cheek. Vedayah gave him a sunny smile and told him he loved him. And strangely, all Prema's fears melted away at the shock of those words, never said to him before by anyone other than the members of his family.
'I... I... love you too, Chris, more than any other guy I ever met. You're amazing!'
'I'm a shit, dude, but you and the monastery are changing me, more than you could even guess.'
'I don't believe you.'
'Believe it or believe it not, lover. Point is, I wanted to say it before we started. So we understand each other. Yeah?'
'Yes. Whatever you say. But I have every confidence in you, babe, you know that.'
'Good, cause we have a long and strange day ahead of us. Let's go. You know where.'
The Volkswagen pulled out into the early morning traffic of the city of Glottenberh, Prema intent and calm at the wheel.
The photographer fluttered his hands. 'Ohmigod, the little boy is just sooo cute! Stand there darling. Ohmigod! Look at the pretty little smile. Soooo cute with the little soldier uniform. And your little friend too. Aren't you the charmers.'
'Ohmigod he's a tiny li'l Brit too! Would you just stand there, angel sweetie?'
'Why doan you foo...'
Nathan stepped in. 'I think the boy's just a little overexcited at the moment. The king, the costume, you know.' He steadily guided Damien away from the American features photographer, whose mouth was hanging open with disbelief.
'He'll think you're homophobic, sweetheart.'
'How can I be homophobic? Both me dads are gay.'
'There's different sorts of gay, Damien.'
'He's the bloody irritatin' sort, thass for sure. Like a fookin' girl!'
'He's the media, baby. Smile and put up with it, and watch the language.'
'Me dad beats up people like 'im.'
'That would be because he's a photographer, not because he's a nellie.'
'Opposite of butch.'
'Ask your dad.'
'I doan geddit.'
'Me neither sometimes, sweetheart.'
King Rudolf came over to Reggie, Damien and Nathan. 'Sorry. I tried to get Bolslaw Meric, but he has a shoot in Berlin and sent this bloke instead. He's a bit...'
'Nellie,' provided Damien.
The king burst out laughing. 'Where did you get that one? Never mind – I don't think I want to know. I'll just go and say a few words to him and make sure he has the press shots. Then we can actually get going.'
Reggie was beaming around the room. Damien smiled at his friend's pleasure. 'Fun, innit?'
'It's a dream, Daimey. I can't believe this. The king's so nice. I just love his uniform.'
Other than a peaked cap, the king was wearing the same uniform as the boys, embellished only by a general's rank insignia, pilot's wings and a name tag which said ELPHBERG. They were to go to Luchau in a royal motorcade, but not the usual one. Since there would be cross-country manoeuvres, they were in four-wheel-drive Humvees. The secret-service van was to be left behind, as the army would be in charge of its commander-in-chief's security that day.
By eight-thirty the press were bundled into a late breakfast hosted by Count Oskar, who was to stay in the office, and the royal party was left alone. Major Cornish was to be equerry. The rest of the staff was made up of a colonel from the adjutant-general's office and two bright young lieutenants from the defence ministry.
Queen Harry turned up to give Damien and Reggie a kiss and send them on their way.
The king led off, adjusting his cap as he left the Grande Salle of the palace. Drums beat on the marble staircase, a line of guardsmen in blue presented arms with a crash and stamp, and the royal banner bent in salute. The two boys trotted after King Rudolf, who was striding out at his usual pace. They conscientiously duplicated the salutes he gave to the standard and returned to the officers he passed. The guardsmen grinned at the sight.
'Up you go, lads.' The king lifted Damien into his 'Humvee of state', as he called it.
Ed Cornish swung Reggie up on the other side. 'Damn! I knew I should've put kids' seats in the back.'
'I doan need a kid's seat anymore, Uncle Ed,' Damien complained.
'You sure? Seems only yesterday I was belting you into one in the back of Henry's Toyota.'
'Can we get on?' said the king irritably.
'Sorry, sir.' Ed checked his personal radio, then issued an order. The camouflage-green convoy revved their engines and turned out of the palace yard, the red and gold of the royal banner fluttering from the roof of the king's Humvee. When all the vehicles had passed under the arch and into the great forecourt, police opened the palace gates. There were more salutes and the band of the Guards broke into the national anthem. The ever-present tourist crowd waved enthusiastically and cheered, while the king waved back from the front seat.
Once clear of the palace, the convoy picked up pace as police outriders raced ahead. The front vehicle, blue lights flashing, led them rapidly through the city. Traffic stopped when they roared down Rodolferplaz and Königstrasse towards the inner ring-road. The motorcade turned at speed on to Festungstrasse, which police had blocked off, then hit full throttle as it tore eastward over the Arsenal Bridge heading for Luchau.
'Uncle Rudi?' Damien had been debating how he should address the king of Rothenia, but could think of no better name than the one he habitually used.
He seemed not to have trespassed on the uncertain good nature of the king, who replied, 'Yes, sweetheart?'
'Y'know yer got a uniform and all, and yer runs the army. Well, does the king ever fight in battles and stuff?'
The king smiled. 'It happens, though not recently. The Elphberg kings were valiant soldiers in the past. Luchau, where we're going, was the site of a great battle nearly 300 years ago, in which my ancestor King Henry the Lion personally commanded his army and defeated the Poles.'
Reggie joined in. 'That was a long time ago.'
'More recently than that, King Maxim fought with his troops at the Spa Hills against an invasion of German mercenaries. As the German advance was wavering, he led the guards, sword in hand, in an attack that turned the battle. We have a huge painting of it in the gallery. He was a very brave man, though they say he was modest about his soldiering abilities.'
'Not like you, sir,' chuckled Ed.
'What I mean is that you're the most hands-on commander-in-chief the army's had in centuries. You learned to pilot an F-14 so you could be a credible head of the air force, and if we had a navy, I bet you'd have learned navigation.'
The king laughed in delight. 'I think I would like to have been a soldier if I hadn't been marked out to be king. I envy you, Ed. You have your battalion to command, and you're really good at it. For me it's too often playing soldiers. But in modern Europe, my chances of leading an army in the field are pretty slim.'
Damien thought about it. 'Yer could declare war on somewhere wiv a small army, and beat the crap out of 'em. Sorta like an exercise.'
'How about Liechtenstein?' Reggie suggested. 'It's small but rich.'
The king grinned and shook his head. 'Liechtenstein's out, lads. The prince and I are related. I'll think about Luxembourg though.'
The convoy hit the A2 and, leaving the police outriders behind, drove eastwards, headlights blazing.
Justin Peacher-White in the meantime was in autoroute traffic 80 miles ahead, driving up the A27 from Kesarstein to Glottenberh. Yawning, he decided this was about the nadir of his job so far. Health and safety. He grimaced. How could safety be a consideration in security work, which had an in-built element of risk? But he had dutifully read the procedures file Magarethe had given him, and would duly sit through the seminar at Glottenberh, looking knowledgeable.
He turned in through the gates of the Peacher plant at nine-thirty, right on time. The supervisor and the regional managers were waiting in the foyer of the office block, curious to see the Peacher wunderkind from central office.
Justin shook hands, was introduced and then asked everyone to adjourn to the conference suite. After coffee was served, the presentations began.
Justin knew he dared not fall asleep. He caught covert stares from around the table. If he nodded off it would be noticed, so he doodled conscientiously on his pad while the wave of words washed across his head. Actually, however, he was busy memorising the names of the people round the table. When the questions about policy and procedures began, he wanted at least to look to be in control.
After the third presentation ended, Justin called for coffee. It was now half eleven and he had got no sense of the meeting, or the sense behind the procedures they were discussing, But he had an idea. A young woman whose name tab said ELSE VIERHOFEN had appeared as bored as he was.
Justin had a theory – based on his own experience – that the most bored people in school classes were the most intelligent in the group, not the most stupid. Coffee in hand, he evaded the supervisor and went over. 'Lo, I'm Justin Peacher-White.'
The girl looked at him warily before adopting the executive face. She reached out and offered a brisk handshake. She was a pale blonde woman dressed in a grey suit with no particular style. 'I know of you, of course.' Her English was clipped and Germanic, and she was clearly nervous.
'Iss a pretty useless meeting so far, wouldnya say?'
She stared hard at him. Was this some sort of complicated executive test?
'What I said, Else. Haven't a clue what these guys are on about, and I'm supposed to be senior Vice-President of PeacherCorp Europe.'
She dared to think Justin was for real. 'Er... it's because they have not any idea what they are talking about either, I think. The documents they are proposing are in most cases downloaded from other firms, and do not fit our needs. To make them do so, they make the procedures more elaborate and safe-looking, but in fact they are simply – how you say – ticking boxes.'
'That explains it then. You're the health and safety No. 2 here in Glottenberh, that right?'
'Yes it is.'
'And I'll bet you have your own ideas how it could have been done.'
She looked at Justin curiously. 'Indeed.'
'Fine.' Justin called the meeting back to order. 'People! Listen up. I have to tell you that I appreciate your hard work an' all, but I got this idea that the documents we're looking at doan fit our needs. What I'm thinking is that we use the plant here at Glottenberh as a trial case. I bin impressed with the team here. So, er, Hans over there, he can produce and implement a procedure. I want it in place in two weeks. Else here – she can come over to Strelzen wiv a draft end of next week and fix up a meeting wiv me. Right? Everyone happy? Great. Now less move on with that inspection, okay?'
By three, Justin was ready to get back home. He texted Nathan to give him notice he was leaving, had a last conversation with Hans and Else, and threw his briefcase in the back of his Jaguar sports. At three-thirty, he drove out through the main gate, waved at the security men and turned north to the ring road.
At the junction, traffic was moving slowly. Justin tapped the wheel to the time of the Arctic Monkeys track which was hammering away from the sound system. A big Serbian lorry loomed in his rear-view mirror, while a white Volkswagen van blocked the way immediately in front of him. The road seemed jammed for no apparent reason.
Then, almost before he realised it, he was in trouble. A large SUV travelling the other direction stopped next to him and boxed him in. Large men suddenly surrounded his car, holding guns in his face. They yanked him from his seat, pulled a bag over his head and threw him in the back of the van.
It roared off, the doors slamming shut on him.
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