The Heart of Oskar Prinz

VII

By Michael Arram

The powerful scent of spirits filled his nose, and Will sat up abruptly. The oh-so-familiar voice said concernedly, 'I told you that you were shaken. Let me help you to this chair.'

A wonderful male fragrance surrounded him as he was lifted and helped into a low armchair, covered with a throwover. He was in a small living room with a worn carpet. A kitchenette opened on his left side and a larger bedroom on the other. A tall uncurtained window was shuttered in front of him. The furniture was a bit old, but everything was neat and tidy, apart from the dog hairs all over the floor which had got on Will's jeans too. Marietta was in her dog basket under the window looking concerned at him. Reluctantly, Will looked round to the man sitting at the table beside him. He smiled down at him. There was no doubt. It was 'Marc Bennett' who had saved him on the streets of Strelzen. And he was just as amazing as on the DVD, although he seemed taller in person.

'Er... thanks, Oskar' he said.

'Take a drink,' Will needed no second invitation. He gulped it down, grateful for the bite it took out of his throat as it went.

'Very good.'

Will was aware of everything. The man had a wonderful scent, some sort of perfume, he guessed, and his smile was seduction itself. Lots of pictures covered a small side table by the open kitchen door: groups of children and adults, one or two of an unmistakable and very pretty Oskar as a boy. It was weird. Will had never visualised Marc Bennett as part of a family, just as a randy whore. But here he was, a real man with parents and a history and a bad razor cut on his chin for good measure, as he now noticed. One thing was clear enough to a newly sensitive Will, the man was as gay as he was. 'Gay for pay'! Hah! Up yours, Harry you cynic.

'Are you feeling better, my friend?'

'A lot.' He cleared his throat, 'Tell me Oskar, what do you do for a living?'

'I am a model. Not regular work, but it keeps the... wolf from the door, as you say in English I think. Odd, as you have no wolves in England, although we do here in our mountains. The rest of the time I study at the Rodolfer Universitat here in Strelzen... mediatheknik... er, I think you would call it Media Studies. It's not a very arduous course and students here can take their time over their baccalaureate.'

'Are you a Strelsener?'

'Ach no. I'm a country boy, from Husbrau in the north, the small town of Terlenehem, if you've heard of it?'

'Tarlenheim?'

'Yes that's the German name for it. My big sister and my baby brother still live there, but my parents are dead.'

'I'm sorry.'

'It happened four years ago, traffic accident. So now me and Helge have to look after little Fritz, that's my brother. He's ten.'

'That's quite a responsibility.'

'Helge is a saint. She does most of the work, but I send what money I can. What about you, Will. Where do you live in England?'

'Well, I work as a schoolteacher in a small town called Whithampsted, which you'll have never heard of, I'm sure,' Oskar grinned and shook his head, 'it's in Berkshire in what we call the Home Counties, the counties around London.'

'London I have heard of. A cousin of mine is working there as a nurse. One day I will go to visit.'

'I was born and brought up in Plymouth, a seaport in Devon. My parents live there still.'

'Other family?'

'A younger sister in university at Leeds, a city in the north.'

'You have a wife, a partner or a girlfriend?'

'No, I'm homosexual and at the moment, unattached.' Wow, thought Will, that slipped out with ease in present company. He was sure that his confession would bring a similar one from Oskar, but none came, which disconcerted him. He had shown his, and expected Oskar to reciprocate. Oskar just nodded, as if he had expected it.

'Homosexuality has only been recently discovered in Rothenia, under communism there was none of course.' Then Will noticed Oskar's dancing eyes, and burst into laughter. Oskar joined him, looking handsomer than ever. He had a delicious laugh.

'I was at Club Liberation tonight.'

'Yes, I know it,' was the ambiguous reply. 'It is for the tourists I believe.'

'Are there other gay clubs in town?'

Oskar smiled, 'I think so, but not for tourists. Are you here with friends?'

'Yes I am.'

'That's good.'

Will was beginning to wonder where the conversation was going, because he was perfectly convinced it was going somewhere. Oskar smiled at him in silence for a while. Then he spoke.

'Thank you for not calling me Marc.'

Will chuckled, 'You knew that I knew?'

'I was impressed that you fainted when you saw me, though.'

'The second time tonight.'

'Pardon me?'

Will told him the story of his meeting his other great idol that same night. By the time Will had finished Oskar's eyes were streaming with tears as he hiccoughed with laughter. Will was a born teacher and he could tell a very good story.

Oskar wiped his eyes, 'That is Strelzen, it is a magical place, believe me. A great place for stories to come to life. So you know Matthew White and Andrew Peacher?'

'No, just Matthew and for the first time tonight.'

'He is very beautiful, the most beautiful man in the world, I think. Wait.' Oskar got up and went to a drawer. He pulled out a book and handed it to Will with a smile. It was full of cuttings and pictures of Matt White.

Will looked up startled at Oskar, 'Dear God, not you too!'

Oskar looked at him, just as startled. 'What you...?'

'Yes.'

'Oskar looked at him with a new expression in his eyes, 'What a sad pair of gay bastards, yes?'

'Fraid so.'

'So now you know what makes Marc Bennett jerk off. Let me get another drink.' It was as he put the brandy down next to Will that Oskar leaned in and kissed him, a long, provocative and lingering kiss that made the hairs lift on the back of his neck. As their lips slowly separated, Oskar whispered, 'I hope you will not faint again.'

'No,' replied Will, also in a whisper, 'although I may manage a heart attack.' Oskar laughed low in his ear, the sexiest sound Will had ever heard in his life. His fragrance filled Will's nostrils, and Oskar pulled him to his feet. They kissed again. As he was probing that wide mouth and licking those beautiful lips, Will opened his eyes and saw Oskar's eyes directed downward and to the side. He broke off. Oskar was frowning a little.

'What's up?'

'That has never happened before.'

'What?'

'Marietta. By now she should be barking. She doesn't like me kissing other men in her presence, but she is not bothered by you, Will. How very... odd.'

'It's a strange night for all of us.'

'Come with me, Will. I think, like Marietta, that you are no ordinary man, and I really want you to spend the night with me. I just want you to know – in case you have doubts – that I am no prostitute, and that I only sleep with men who are special to me.'

Will sternly suppressed the observation that obviously that did not include the guys in the DVDs.

They were both naked by the time Oskar closed the bedroom door on Marietta, and his tawny body, lean and muscular, strange and familiar, was there in front of Will, who stood a little shyly in front of this godlike boy. But Oskar was staring at him in genuine surprise, 'Will... I didn't. But you are quite... pretty.'

'Pretty!'

'Not the word?'

'Not the word... men are handsome or good looking.'

'Then you are handsome.'

'Thank you, but no one has called me that before.'

'Nor pretty either?'

Will closed with the man, embraced that warm and silky flesh and kissed him again. They moved to the bed, and Oskar's mouth moved slowly down his body, until it engaged with his already-straining penis. He began sucking and licking Will in just the way he did on film, his passionate eyes glancing up at Will regularly, the familiar half smile on his face. It was as if Will had stepped into a movie. He brushed the heavy fringe of hair away from Oskar's face in just the way the actors did in the DVD. It was really weird, but oh so sexy. Will then did something that did not happen in his DVDs; he moved round into the 69 position and took Oskar's long and cabled penis in his mouth, and began practising the skills he had learned with Harry. Judging by the gasps from down by his groin, he was doing just fine too. After ten minutes they broke off. Oskar leaned up on one elbow, his eyes sensuous and provocative.

'So, what do you want to do, you rascal,' he said. Will did a double take. That was a line from Rothenian Boys 10. Oskar knew it too and burst into a peal of laughter.

'Bastard,' he laughed and leapt on Oskar and wrestled him.

'No. Fuck. I tickle!' the Rothenian yelped.

Will paused and looked down at the boyish and beautiful face, 'That's not in the films.'

'Films aren't real, Will. I actually am a real person. I have athlete's foot too.'

'You're kidding.'

'Want to see?'

'Later, Oskar. In the meantime would you mind if I went on top?'

'No problem, Will. I'm versatile, as you will have no doubt picked up from the DVDs.'

'From behind?'

'You're living out Rothenian Boys 7 aren't you?'

'Yes. And another thing. I've never fucked a man before, so tell me what to do.' And before Oskar could answer, he added, 'Something tells me that my sex life will be all downhill after tonight... but what the hell.'

Oskar and Will awoke to the scratching of Marietta on the door. She pushed the door open and sniffed at the used condom on the floor, till Oskar picked it up and binned it. Oskar padded out naked and fed his terrier. He returned stretching. He indicated a door behind his bed. 'There's just room for two in my shower,' he said.

After an erotic shower and a blowjob for Oskar from Will, they dressed.

'Marietta and I will walk you to your hotel, my Will. It is still early. Only seven. I hope you will not have been missed.'

They went down the stairs and out into the empty early morning street. A tram was clanging in the distance. 'I love this city,' said Will earnestly.

'Most people do in the end. It is a very special place.' Oskar agreed.

They walked silently for the most part, but very contentedly, at least Will thought so. He kept sneaking glances at the tall and handsome boy walking beside him, in long shorts, sandals, tee shirt and unbuttoned over shirt, wearing expensive sunglasses. He could not believe this was not fantasy, but Oskar stayed real nonetheless. A true fairy tale, he thought.

At the hotel entrance on Flavienplaz they separated. Marietta licked his hand goodbye. He patted the dog affectionately. 'Here's my mobile number, Will,' Oskar said, giving him a scribbled note, 'Ring me this evening please, I beg.'

'Oh yes,' he replied, 'I most certainly will'.

As he let himself into the room quietly, Will was working on explanations, but they became redundant when he saw that Harry was not alone in bed; he was with last night's Rothenian boy from Liberation, and the floor was scattered with their clothes. The two were still fast asleep. Will was relieved. He changed from his suitcase, and went down for breakfast without waking them. When he came back up at nine, the shower was going in the bathroom and both men were in there. He grinned as they emerged damp and naked. The Rothenian looked shocked and covered his genitals.

'Morning, Harry.'

'Oh, hi! Er... where were you last night?'

'Like you, getting to know Rothenia better.'

'Aah... this is Viktor.'

'Morning, Viktor!'

'Er... hello. I shall be going then.'

'Goodbye Viktor.' The boy dressed rapidly and disappeared without a goodbye kiss.

Harry looked a little crossly at him. 'You're not going to come over all censorious on me are you?'

'No, not in the least, Harry. I'm just glad you're having a good time. Screw who you want. It don't bother me.'

Harry looked closely at him, and then looked relieved as he concluded that Will was being genuine. 'That's OK then, but I suppose that this means we're history now.'

'Yup. But it was fun while it lasted, and I have to thank you for it. You changed my life for the better, Harry, and for that I'll always be your friend.'

Harry smiled. 'I have to say, it's nice that you're so mature about it. You're a real babe, Will Vincent, and you'll always be high in my top ten.'

'Thanks. Now I gotta get out. I'm meeting someone.'

'New boyfriend? The one I saw you dancing with?'

'No. Just this guy I met in Liberation.'

'English?'

'He's from Northampton.'

'Go for it.'

The big car was waiting outside and Terry was at reception. His face cracked in an elfin grin.

'You look well. Got back safely?'

'Thereby hangs a tale. I'll tell you sometime.'

Terry looked intrigued, but didn't pursue it. The others were waiting.

'Where to today?'

'The palace,' said Matt.

'But it isn't open to the public, I thought,' Will said.

'Aah, but we aren't the public. We're from Marlowe Productions UK Ltd, purveyors of documentaries to the discriminating, and you three are my production assistants... unpaid of course.'

'I'm thinking of industrial action for a raise,' Terry chipped in.

'But I'll buy lunch.'

'That's OK then. I'll call it off.'

'My PA in London wired the president's office with your names this morning early. You have clearance. Got your passports?'

'Christ no,' said Will. 'I'll get it from the desk. Won't be long.'

The car drove up directly to the massive wrought iron gates opening on to the Rodolferplaz, passing the huge statue of King Henry. A black-uniformed state policeman with white gloves, holding a machine gun on a white strap, waved them through after checking their passports and making a radio call. Guards in full dress blue uniforms, somewhat reminiscent of those of the US Army, were pacing the forecourt. The car moved slowly under an arch at the side of the great frontage and into a cobbled courtyard. It pulled up at the foot of a wide stone staircase. A white-haired man in white tie and a tailed black coat wearing a red, black and white sash diagonally across his chest, was waiting for them. Suddenly, Will wished he had dressed more formally.

There were handshakes all round. The gentleman introduced himself in good English as Mr Pokolosky, assistant chef de protocole of the palace. He seemed a mild and very pleasant man. Will immediately liked him. He led them up into the state rooms. They emerged in a long first floor gallery with tall windows on to an inner courtyard.

'This is the gallery of King Rudolf III. That is his portrait at the east end.' They looked and saw a handsome and ironic looking red-haired man, in a black suit with the ribbon of the Order of the Rose across his chest. 'And at the other end facing him is his famous sister, the Princess Osra, Grand Duchess of Mittelheim.' They gasped. The portrait was of a phenomenally handsome red-headed woman. 'The artist was an Italian, I believe, who later committed suicide, for love they say of the princess. The portrait was very faithful, and you can see how such beauty might have maddened any man.'

Not us at least, reflected Will, and he caught Ramon's eye. They smiled. 'Osra is an unusual name,' he said.

'It is Rothenian.' said Mr Pokolosky, 'The Elphberg dynasty derived from the marriage of Rudolf of Elphberg, a Swabian, with the Duchess Osra, the last descendant of Tassilo, in 1436. The name was frequently used thereafter in the dynasty, and is the feminine form of the Rothenian Oskar. "Oskar und Osra" is the Rothenian equivalent of what you English would say "Darby and Joan", I think.'

'Fascinating.'

Pokolosky took them down the gallery, and opened the great doors into a large chamber. A wall was covered with rosettes and stands of pikes and swords. 'This is the Salle des Armes, the Guard Chamber. It was here in 1717 that an attempt was made on the life of Henry the Lion by a Bavarian assassin. The pistol misfired and the king ran him through with his own sword, something he did quite regularly it appears: he was a very autocratic and bad-tempered man.' He pointed to a grand canvas covering an entire wall, showing massed troops and a general on a caracolling white horse. 'That is the king on the field of Luchau in 1722 when he defeated the Poles led by the Count of Saxony, later the Mareschal Saxe, and on the other wall is Henry as a young royal prince at the siege of the Turks in Trieste.'

They moved on to the next tall chamber. 'This is the Great Antechamber. Along that wall is a series of portraits of eighteenth-century European monarchs, including your George II, a relation by marriage of Rudolf III, who was his aide-de-camp on the field of Minden under the pseudonym of the count of Elphberg. Rudolf was fond of England and stayed there regularly before his succession in 1739. He was a member of Whites, the gentlemen's club, and a fellow of the Royal Society. Rumour has it he left several unofficial Elphbergs behind him in England after his stays. He fought three duels at Vauxhall.'

'Now that,' said Matt, 'is the sort of information we can use.'

Pokolosky pushed open the further set of doors, 'This is the Presence Chamber, with the throne.'

A long pillared hall led down to a great chair raised on a dais of six steps, a gloomy and dusty crimson baldachino hanging over it. The arms of Ruritania, circled by the Order of the Rose, were mounted behind the throne.

'Is this room ever used nowadays?' Will asked.

'The President of the Republic is sworn in on the steps of the throne, but no one ever sits on it.'

'Are there any pretenders now to the throne of Ruritania?' Will pursued.

'As you will know I think, the last king, Albert of Thuringia, was unseated and exiled in 1917. He died in 1943, I think, in Switzerland. There was a daughter who carried the claims into the House of Savoy, so the pretender to the throne of Italy also claims Ruritania. But there is no royalist party in modern Rothenia. Had there been any Elphberg claimant still living, things might be different. There is still much good will towards that house, but Rudolf V, assassinated by an anarchist in 1862, and his widow and cousin, Queen Flavia, who died childless in 1880, were the last of the line.' Pokolosky paused, and then smiled slightly. 'They do say however that Rudolf III, his great grandfather, cuckolded the English Earl of Burlesdon, and that the family, which still survives, is therefore an illegitimate line of the Elphbergs.'

'More good stuff,' muttered Matt, scribbling in a notebook.

Pokolosky drew their attention to a massive canvas facing the throne, above the entry. 'You see there a portrayal of the coronation of King Rudolf V. He is seen enthroned, taking the homage of his cousin, and later wife, Flavia.' They looked curiously at the huge picture. It was set in the cathedral of Strelzen. The robed nobility and vested clergy were standing on the king's right watching the homage. A dark moustachioed nobleman in uniform stood next the king holding upright a ceremonial sword, and looked oddly disgusted with the proceedings. On the other side was a party of courtiers in a variety of colourful military costumes. A face leaped out at Will, above its gold laced collar. 'Hey,' he said, 'That's the count of Tarlenheim.'

Pokolosky looked surprised. 'You have studied the nineteenth-century court of Ruritania?'

Will smiled, 'I saw his monument in the cathedral yesterday.'

Pokolosky nodded, 'Of course. He was allowed burial next Rudolf V and Flavia, whom he faithfully served all his life. He was a famously handsome man, as you can see.'

Pokolosky led them back through to the gallery and along to the offices of state, still occupied by the ministry of the interior. The rooms were out of bounds, but there were many interesting works of art in the busy corridors. Later, they walked the palace grounds, which were laid out in the English manner. Pokolosky paused at a tall white Gothic monument beside the path. It was inscribed in Latin

RUDOLFO

Qui in hac civitate nuper regnavit

In corde ipsius in aeternum regnat

FLAVIA REGINA

Before anyone said anything, Will translated:

'To Rudolf, who reigned lately in this city and reigns for ever in her heart – Queen Flavia'

Pokolosky looked impressed. 'Well read young man. Yes, that is correct. This is the original monument to the king that the queen set up in the cathedral after his assassination, but it was moved here in 1880, to the spot where the king fell, when they were laid together forever in a new tomb.'

'This is a city where romance becomes real, isn't it sir?' Will said quietly, his heart swelling and his eyes suddenly and unaccountably blinded with tears.

Pokolosky looked closely at Will and smiled gently. 'That is what many have said, young man, and what many still say. They also say that anyone who has felt true love will feel at home here, and never want to leave.'

Will felt Ramon's warm hand take his briefly, and squeeze it. Matt too was smiling at him, 'I was a bit worried how we might manage without Andy to translate for us, Will,' he said, 'But here you are, and I'm so grateful.'

Lunch was in a fine restaurant by the river Starel, low down near the slow brown waters flecked with willow leaves, swans drifting by with the current, and sightseeing boats chugging past upstream.

'This is a winner, historically and scenically,' enthused Matt. 'I can already feel it coming together in my head. It'll get interest too. The world outside is just getting to know about Rothenia. If only I could find that Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin had an affair with an Elphberg, I could sell it to the Discovery Channel for a mint.'

'When are you going into production?' Terry asked.

'We gotta spend maybe six months to a year in development, then we need six episodes sorted. But the Elphbergs are going to be episode one; believe me, it'll make the series. I just need to find a hook on which to hang it.'

After lunch the waiting limousine drove them smoothly south to the royal summer palace at Zenden. The autoroute was very busy with big lorries thundering in both directions, south to the Balkans and north into Germany. Factories hemmed in the motorway on either side, a lot of them derelict, as Will noted. They passed some very unattractive housing blocks as they entered the sprawl of Zenden, with sterile apartment towers on bare grounds. Will grimaced, Rothenia had not escaped the blight of the Cold War and communist central planning.

But they turned off the autoroute and up into the hills above the industrial city. In a shallow, wooded valley they came abruptly on the long frontage of a neo-Classical château, with three great pavilions, at the end of a long gravel drive. It was painted yellow and white, and the drive was shaded by pollarded trees. A policeman at the grand gates inspected Matt's documents and waved them through a striped barrier, which he lifted.

The car crunched to a halt under the terrace. They got out and stretched. 'The ministry of the interior has given us clearance to poke around,' said Matt, 'although the castle isn't open to the public. It's the country residence of the President and is used for international summits.'

A young army officer in green, with a braided collar and peaked cap appeared. He shook hands in the formal Rothenian way. He was a blond, and Will began to notice that there was a generic young male Rothenian face; there were hints of Oskar in the man's cheeks and eyes. It made him shiver. 'Welcome to the castle of Zenda,' the officer said, introducing himself as Major Antonin, the garrison commander. He led them up onto the terrace, and pointed out features of the grounds from their vantage point. Guards snapped to attention in their black, white and red striped sentry boxes at the main door as he led them into the cool interior of the early nineteenth century range.

'This part of the château was added by King Ferdinand during the Napoleonic period,' he explained. 'The king liked his comfort and wouldn't put up with the more primitive conditions of the old castle. But oddly, he did not demolish it. It is said that this was in deference to his mother, Margaret of Tuscany, who had retired there after the death of Rudolf III, and to his aunt, the Princess Osra, who claimed that she owned it. So here it stands to this day.'

The back of the modern wing opened on to a grand terrace, with a wide moat beyond the wall, almost a lake. A long stone bridge communicated with a tall, white fairy-tale castle on a small island. It looked like a miniature Amboise. A drawbridge closed the end of the bridge. They cheerfully laboured up the spiral staircase of the keep, and looked out over the trees. Since the castle was in a shallow valley, there was not much to see apart from treetops, but Will caught the distant glimpse of another stately home on a distant hilltop. 'Major? What's that place?'

'That is the Fursterberh, or Festenburg. It was once a castle of a dynasty very much at odds with the Elphbergs and their predecessors, but it came into the hands of the loyal house of Tarlenheim, and the counts lived there up until the nationalisation of 1948.'

'Are there still Tarlenheims?'

I do not know, but if there are, they will be in much reduced circumstances, like the rest of the former Rothenian aristocracy. President Tildemann left them alone, but the communist regime of Horvath was very hostile. A lot went into labour camps and did not come out again. It was an unhappy period. You English still have your lords, do you not? And they govern you, is that not so?'

'No,' said Matt with some satisfaction, 'we've finally relegated them to history.'

'Ach. Well Rothenia and its aristocracy is just as complicated a subject as your English lords and you. Our lords and barons were mostly Rothenian, but they took to German ways and the German language in the middle ages. Yet it was these same aristocrats who sponsored the National Revival in the nineteenth century, patronised Rothenian composers, novelists and poets. People still think as a result that they were a good thing, and it is not a disgrace to claim descent from a noble Rothenian house, at least not since the May Rising. President Maritz is himself from a noble family of Glottenberh and is happy to say so. There have been moves to make some token restoration of confiscated properties, but it is a legal minefield. So Fursterberh is an agricultural college and likely to stay that way.'

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