Henry in High Politics

XII

By Michael Arram

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 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 both boys liked electronic dance, 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 is 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 an almost suicidal 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. We're the ones who are expendable.'

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 reason we knew of this little ambush was because 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 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. 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 at last 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 streetlamps 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 in 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 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 mass 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 king 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'd better 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 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 through Bila Palacz.

'Look lads! Look!' Along the main roads, workmen were putting up hangings of red and yellow on the lampposts. 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.

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