Saturday dawned over the ancient and beautiful city of Strelzen. Crowds began drifting into Erchbischofsplaz in the Old City not long afterwards, though the police barriers stopped any approach to the cathedral's west front. Even if the marriage of Count Robert Rassendyll of Hentzen and Eleanor Marquesa was not a state occasion, the guest list guaranteed widespread attention.
For Henry Atwood, it was a workday. He was in the crowds interviewing tourists and Strelzen residents with the linguistic facility that was his particular gift. He was surprised by the amount of interest in the wedding of the king's uncle, since Robert Rassendyll kept a low public profile. Ellie Marquesa, on the other hand, was a well-known international figure, and thus a guaranteed magnet for the paparazzi.
About ten, the limousines began rolling up to the west door, and cameras flashed everywhere as one celebrity after another got out. The cheers began for the royal family. Queen Harriet and her two sons, dressed in miniature Life Guard uniforms, were given the biggest one of all. Pausing at the door, she and the boys saluted the crowd. Little Prince Leo was clearly delighted with the attention, waving frantically to the adoring matrons of Rothenia as his smiling brother rested a gloved hand on his shoulder.
The king, in morning dress – accompanied by his grandmother, Elenja of Kesarstejne, Princess of Vinodol, and Prince Fritz of Tarlenheim – also received an enthusiastic reception. Then there came a pause, during which Henry could hear the sound of an organ voluntary drifting out from the cathedral doors, clear despite the subdued chatter of the crowd around him.
The cardinal appeared in full pontificals with a host of attendant clergy, in time for the arrival of the final two limousines. The first disgorged a bevy of bridesmaids, led by the princess royal. The prevailing colour was peach, as the Eastnet fashion correspondent next to Henry explained to the camera.
A respectable cheer went up for the bride, who emerged in an orange confection that matched rather well her Californian tan. Her train was long, and the princes took a while to get it under control at the church door. Henry caught a quirky look shot by Maxxie at his little brother, who laughed back at him. Then the marriage party disappeared inside.
Having seen them safely off, Henry handed over to another reporter for the rest of the broadcast, and took the opportunity to return to the Eastnet offices just behind the archiepiscopal palace.
He found Tomas Weissman, the head of news and features, getting agitated in the foyer. Like Henry, he had been initiated into the tenor of the king's broadcast that afternoon. Henry himself was quite cool about it, now he knew it was inevitable. He rather thought, however, that Tomas's unease would be the general reaction of most Rothenians.
Henry put on his most sober-looking suit and tie, the one which hung in his office in case of national emergencies, and went up to the news studio. Tomas himself took the desk at midday as dozens of staff crowded in behind. Rumour had got round that something big was in the offing.
At twelve all the Eastnet channels switched to a scene of the Elphberg flag flying over the Strelzen Residenz, and the national anthem played. Tomas appeared, looking very solemn.
'Good afternoon. This is a special announcement brought to you by Eastnet following an important development in our national life. At twelve today the palace issued the following bulletin. It is announced that his most pious and steadfast majesty, King Rudolf the Sixth, will sign this afternoon an instrument of abdication of his throne in favour of his son, his royal highness, Maxim Elphberg, Duke of Mittenheim. A Council of Regency headed by his mother, the queen consort, will exercise royal power under the constitution on behalf of King Maxim the Second. His majesty, King Rudolf, will address the nation at three this afternoon on all channels and networks to explain the pressing reasons that have made his action necessary. God save the king!'
The national anthem rolled out once more. When it ended, Henry looked round the stunned faces of the Eastnet staff, to see tears coursing down the faces of several men and women. A blurring in his own eyes told him he was one of them.
Barry was in his room in the small modern house in the Ninth District which was now his home. He could hear his mother downstairs in the kitchen. His father was probably dozing in his study. Barry was becoming accustomed to the rumble of jets on their final approach to land at the nearby international airport. His small bedroom looked down through tall windows and shutters on to a side road off the autoroute to the airport. A tram clanged past the end of the road as he peered out.
At last a sleek little BMW nosed its way in his direction and stopped outside the house. Barry clattered downstairs. His mother smiled at him with a certain relief at the first evidence that her son was settling in this strange, new environment. 'Your friends?'
'Yes, mum! Gotta go!'
Barry trotted down the garden path. Marky grinned at him from behind the wheel, and Helen from the back. After kissing Helen's offered cheek, Barry slotted himself into the bucket seat next to Marky. He felt so continental and cool. He put on a pair of Aviators he had been keeping for just such an occasion. 'Where are we going?'
'Helen wanted to drag us to the Spa. But I said totally no.'
'My er... dick would shrivel most unimpressively in the cold. You have to get naked up there.'
The others laughed at his reaction. Helen explained that it was an idea he had better get used to, as sooner or later he'd end up going there with other kids. He would look rather silly if he was the only person covered. Rothenians were nudists by nature, even stripping off in parks. For some reason, Barry looked at Marky and blushed deep red.
Marky giggled. 'Helen has seen all I have got. If she can survive that, I think she may survive a naked Barry. Wow! Do you remember when Lance last went there? Girls and boys both were following him around in a mob.'
'And he didn't even notice, until the staff requested him to dress and leave. He was quite upset.'
'He's a really nice guy,' Barry affirmed, 'and Daimey too.'
Barry caught in the rear view mirror the stare Helen gave him. 'So it's "Daimey" now, is it? He's okay, but believe me when I say you can have too much of him.'
Marky cut in. 'Since I have no directions from you, my friends, and since I do not wish to spend the day at the malls, I have decided we are going to Lake Maresku.'
'It's a bit of a way to go, Marky.'
'But it is out of Strelzen, which today will be a madhouse.'
'What do you mean?' asked Barry.
'You have not heard the news? The king has announced he will abdicate. I could not stay home today. The Chancellery is like an... anthill, you say? Father is having meeting after meeting.'
'Oh! Wow! That must be a shock to you all.'
'It certainly is,' Helen agreed. 'The king is very much loved and respected here.'
'Why has he done it? Some sort of sex scandal?'
Marky pulled the car up so short that Barry nearly hit the dashboard. Barry looked into the suddenly cold face of his friend. 'You are a foreigner, Barry, so let me say this to you in all friendship. Rudolf Elphberg is a great man, and every true Rothenian would resent such a slur against our king. Were you not a foreigner, you would be walking home from here. Were you a Rothenian who said such a thing, I would take you out of this car and beat the... sczaca... you say shit, yes? I would beat the shit out of you.'
Barry suddenly felt as though he were two inches high. 'Sorry,' he apologised in a very small voice. The car pulled off again.
'Of course,' Helen observed from the back, 'you're lucky you're not a Rothenian nobleman, or Count Marek here would have had to kill you.'
'The duel is still practised by males in this country. If you kill in a duel, Rothenian law treats the death as a crime of passion, and you are charged with manslaughter rather than homicide.'
'I had no idea. Just as well I'm common then.' He looked hesitantly at Marky. 'Umm, can you use a sword?'
He was relieved when Marky smiled back. 'Yes, of course. All Rothenian boy Aristos take fencing lessons. I believe Damien Macavoy may be the best fencer in the school. We treat him as an honorary Aristo.'
'He doesn't sound like an Aristo to me.'
Helen laughed. 'He's a very different boy in Rothenian, believe me: cultured, classy and educated. I think he deliberately speaks the English of the lower classes in order to distance himself from his unusual position, with which he is not comfortable entirely. Also his father's English is not, er... standard.'
'You know a lot about Daimey.'
'We've been friends for so many years.'
'Excuse me, Helen, but you don't always seem to like him.'
There was silence from the back seat, and Barry once again cursed his lack of tact. He now had friends and all he seemed to do was alienate them.
But Helen wasn't offended, apparently. With a rueful chuckle she came back with, 'Some people are born to be uneasy with each other, however much they might like it to be otherwise.'
She changed the subject. 'So, Barry, did you have a girlfriend when you left England?'
Barry blanched. He had known this point would come, and had wondered what he would say when it did. Thinking of Lance Atwood, his bravery and openness, Barry made a bid for self-respect. 'I'm gay,' he announced, 'and I never found a boyfriend in England.'
'Aw come on, Oskar. Gissa break!'
'No, Henry. You know Rudi won't give Eastnet preferential treatment over State TV.'
'But the whole world wants to know the story! A one-on-one interview with cute Hendrik At-vood is what the Rothenian public wants... demands! It'll reassure the nation.'
'Henry, you aren't even convincing yourself.'
'Okay... what about the queen. Can I interview Harry?'
'Talk to Tommy in her office.'
'He's already laughed down the phone at me.'
'At least I didn't do that.'
'This is so unfair. You wait. One of these days you'll want a favour from me, and .. and...'
'I dunno. Maybe I'll just sneer at you.'
'Henry, you're far too nice a person for that. Lunch out at Templerstadt tomorrow? Pete and I could do with some cheering up. Bring Lance. Pete thinks he's great.'
'I'll check his diary and get back to you. Bye!'
Henry put his suit jacket on and trotted down to the news studio. It was his turn now to do the solemn introduction, only this time he was introducing King Rudolf himself. He settled behind his desk and looked at the camera. The floor manager counted down and he was live. He didn't need the cue unrolling in front of him.
'Good afternoon. The nation is still coming to terms with the shocking announcement from the palace at noon of King Rudolf's abdication. So now it's over to the Residenz and the king himself, who will explain to us all the reason for this dramatic development in our national life. Ladies and gentlemen, His Majesty the King.'
Henry settled back in his seat as his laptop showed the Eastnet broadcast shifting to the king behind his desk in his private office. The same picture was going out on every channel. He spoke in Rothenian with German subtitles.
Rudi clasped his hands in front of him and began. 'People of Rothenia... my people. These are dangerous days for the world around our small nation. As king, I have been privileged to serve you now for thirteen years, years which have seen rising prosperity in our land, and growing respect in the world for what it is we as a people represent. Nothing has distinguished Rothenia in this past decade as much as the fervour with which it has embraced freedom and democratic principles. We have more than made good the sad decades of Communist dictatorship, so that now this is a land to be proud of: tolerant, progressive, law-abiding and enterprising.
'This has been your achievement, and yours alone. When I look at the world around us and its problems, I see how lucky we have been as a nation. Here all people work together for the common good. Corruption is absent. Decency and fellow-feeling prevail. Would this were as true of the rest of the world.
'We see around the globe, and recently even within Europe, states which are failing, populations without hope or aspirations, where daily survival against the odds blights lives, where freedom and law are in retreat. That is not our story, but whether we like it or not, it might become so, as these problems encroach on our borders.
'It has come to the point where I can serve you better outside Rothenia than within it as king. The Western leaders have unanimously asked me in the current emergency to assume control of NATO as both Secretary General and Chairman of the Military Committee. They have said that no one else can command the respect of the member states and initiate those actions which need to be taken for the defence of freedom and our way of life. I cannot undertake this task and simultaneously be your king.
'I have had to choose, and my choice is to lay down the Crown of Tassilo. It may only be for a while that I must do this, but our constitution demands that in the meantime there be someone to wield the powers of the king, which cannot be done in absentia. Therefore I have decided to abdicate in favour of my dear son, Maxim, who will, for the time being, occupy the place of king, while the powers of that office are exercised on his behalf by my beloved wife, Harriet, advised by a Council of Regency.
'And now, my dearest people, I must take my leave of you as your sovereign. And I ask you to say with me, God save Rothenia, and God save King Maxim!'
The camera lingered on the king for a while, then the Rothenian tricolour took his place, waving from a flagpole with the mountains of Tirolen as backdrop. The national anthem played, and even in the soundproofed studio high on the Domshorja, Henry could feel the distant concussion of artillery from the park of Bila Palacz, as the thunder of a 101-gun salute marked the end of one reign and the beginning of another.
Barry returned home from his excursion to Maresku a very happy boy. He, Marky and Helen had done little other than stroll the boardwalk, throw pebbles into the lake and eat ice cream, but somehow the afternoon had been perfect. He had quite forgotten his troubles, and when he had been deposited back outside his home, he had received a kiss from Helen and a warm, masculine hug from Marky, who seemed indifferent to the fact that Barry was now an out gay boy. They were going to meet up again in the week.
His happiness was assisted by a text from Lance Atwood, who wanted him to come over and would pick him up that evening. It never occurred to him that the offer might have been made other than in friendship, which said something for his modesty.
He explained this to his parents, who were increasingly impressed by what looked like their son's developing social triumph in Strelzen. 'And Marek is a count and the chancellor's son?' his dad marvelled.
'Younger son, yeah.'
'And this Lance Atwood... he's in with the young Peacher set?'
'His best friend is Damien, who's the son of Justin Peacher-White.' Barry wondered what the parents would say if they knew of his other, less desirable, social connections in Strelzen.
When Lance arrived he actually entered their house. He greeted Mrs Hignett with a small smile, seeming not to notice that she did not reply but only stood there, mouth agape. As Barry followed Lance out she grabbed her son's arm and whispered, 'Tell me his dad is just as good-looking, and if he's after a mature woman for a relationship, put in a good word for me. Don't tell your father I said that.'
There wasn't much conversation on the trip to Fridricsgasse, other than some chit chat about Lake Maresku. Lance seemed pleased that Barry had made friends with Helen and Marky.
When they arrived at Lance's home, he remarked. 'The 'rents are both out. What with the abdication, Henry's presenting features non-stop for several networks, and Ed is at the Residenz with the king... sorry, I mean ex-king. We have to call him the Prince of Elphberg now.'
'Wow! D'you know the guy?'
'Uncle Rudi? Not an easy man to know, but he and my dads have been close since they were at school together.
'Anyway, it's Saturday night. Mrs Willerby's off with her friends living high on the Wejg, but she always leaves a pot roast in the oven for the men of the house. I'll heat it up. Want some too?'
The two boys sat eyeing each other over the kitchen table. In Barry's case there was a lot to eye up. The closer one got to Lance the more painful his beauty became. Barry's libido had long ago decided that Lance was in a class way beyond anything he could reasonably lust after, and consequently he found himself quite unable to regard this boy in any sexual way. Indeed, the very idea of his touching or kissing Lance seemed more than a little presumptuous; it was even faintly blasphemous.
After the meal they adjourned to the garden lounge, where Lance tuned in to Eastnet. It was non-stop coverage of the abdication and its consequences. Barry couldn't follow it, but Lance translated.
'You're amazing with languages,' Barry remarked.
'Thanks, Barry. It's just a trick. I have that sort of mind.'
Barry thought perhaps the time was come to get to know this boy-god better. 'Marky told me you used to be a keen diver.'
Lance frowned, causing Barry's heart to drop to his boots. Had he pushed too hard again? But the reply when it came wasn't offended. 'Yeah, well. You probably heard what happened before the London Olympics.'
'Yes. It was very bad what the British did.'
'They were playing the system. I was so psyched up for the event – I mean, I was only fourteen – that I just couldn't come to terms with the letdown. I found I'd lost both the motivation to train and all the competitiveness I'd had before.'
'That's really sad.'
Lance gave a little giggle. 'Ed – my dad – certainly thought so. He spent a fortune upgrading our pool out the back. But I still use it a lot. Do you swim?'
Barry was surprised to be asked. 'I sorta do a dog-paddle.'
Lance gave a little smile. 'Our circle uses the pool pretty regularly. Come out and see.'
Lance led Barry to the patio. Beyond it, a large covered pool occupied most of the back yard, with a very impressive tower looming up over the house. Barry expressed his awe.
'Wanna have a dip? I can run the cover back.'
The evening was cooling off, but not cold. Still, Barry hesitated. It would mean he could see this amazing boy unclothed, but that very possibility froze the speech centres of his brain. His delay seemed to persuade Lance that Barry wasn't enthusiastic.
'Some other time then maybe, when it's warmer and the other kids are over.'
'Yeah, that'll be good,' Barry was quick to say.
They sat out on some poolside recliners. As the sun went down the sky was getting darker, allowing one or two stars to appear over the treetops. Lance took on a serious air. 'Have you heard from Luc?'
Barry's heart was chilled at the name he had managed to distance himself from all day. 'Er... no. But I dread to check my e-mail. He's not going to let me go, is he?'
'I guess not. But you have Damien on your side now. He's been online all afternoon.'
'Yeah. He loves a challenge, does Daimey, and – no offence – your Luc problem has made him a really happy guy. Did Luc give you any hints what'll happen next?'
'He sorta implied that I'll be needed for something next week. He's got a backer who'll want to see me...'
Barry blushed hard. 'I'll have to perform for him one way or another.'
Lance stood up and paced around. 'That's dreadful... I mean, really horrible!'
Barry looked up at him timorously. 'I guess you must think I'm a real slut.'
Lance stared. 'What! You? Of course not.' He sat down next to Barry and took him round the shoulder. 'Look. Just as I did, you trusted a shit who wasn't worthy of trust. But that doesn't make you stupid or slutty. You're a good guy who wanted what every other boy – or at least gay boy – wants: a nice partner to make love to and explore his feelings with. How's that slutty?'
Barry was stunned to have this angelic-looking creature so close to him, and to be expressing such warm feelings to him. He had to ask. 'Have you ever had a boyfriend, Lance?'
Lance shrugged. 'You mean apart from the Luc disaster? Well... no.'
'That's sad. You're such an amazing guy.'
'The looks you mean? They're just bad planning.'
'What? Bad planning?'
Lance looked flustered. 'I mean... accidental, yeah... accidental.'
Barry paused, confused, but came back with, 'It's not your looks that make you amazing, Lance. You're kind and considerate and just plain nice.'
Lance's face was suffused with a simply gorgeous shade of red. 'Really?'
'Oh, yeah. Really.' Oh fuck, Barry finally decided. I'm going for it. His arm snaked around Lance's waist, he turned his face and found Lance's mouth was already open and going for his. As their lips met, Lance moved on to his knees to straddle Barry, taking him round the back of his head with one hand. A tongue pushed into Barry's mouth and – my God! – he and Lance were making out. Barry could happily have died at that point and not thought life had cheated him. This was so unlike what it had been with Luc.
He was pushed back on the recliner and the kissing just went on and on. When they finally broke apart, Lance smiled down at him. 'My dick is just about ready to snap off.'
Barry laughed back. 'Mine too. Lance , I...'
Lance seemed to understand what he meant. He just said, '... me too. Can we do more of this kissing thing? It's way hotter than I thought it'd be. It looks messy and silly in the videos, but – wow! – when you actually do it!'
They went back to their mouth exercises. Barry was wondering what might happen next, when the sound of a car door clunking shut from in front of the Atwood-Cornish house brought both boys round. Lance gripped Barry's hand hard. 'Bazza, you and I...'
Barry understood him and nodded. 'I think so.'
A celestial smile lit up the godlike face Barry had just been kissing, the perfect mouth he had just been probing with his tongue. He had a real boyfriend at last, who – my heavens! – was the most handsome teenager on the planet. But his party-pooping mind reminded him of what he did not want to recall. A pity about that fucking Luc, isn't it?
'No Fritz tonight?' asked Lennie, as she entered the Osraeum gym.
Tommy raised an eyebrow. 'I wasn't expecting you, either.'
'The wedding party was over pretty fast. Daddy seemed a bit distracted by everything happening around the place. Rudi had only told him about the abdication yesterday. Daddy and his new wife took off to Maresku just before the king's broadcast. I thought you'd be at the Residenz, Tommy.'
'Oddly enough, it's pretty quiet there, the calm after the storm, I guess. The king – I mean the Prince of Elphberg – is packing. He goes to Mons on Sunday to take up his new duties.'
'Is your job affected?'
'I should say so. Harry is now Queen Regent, and I've actually got a media team working for me. It's not just me on my own. As of tomorrow, I'm Principal Private Secretary to Her Majesty the Queen Mother. No salary increase though.'
Lennie smiled very nicely at him. 'I'm very pleased for you. How's Harry coping?'
'Surprisingly well. She's quite as strong in her way as the ex-king, and she's had several weeks to prepare for this. She and Rudi have it all planned out. He'll be back alternate weekends, and he's taken a Belgian château so she and the kids can join him for holidays. Oskar is remaining as nominal chief of staff for King Maxim. Wow! That came out almost naturally. The regency council will be a real help to her. Will Vincent has been nominated, which I think is a good move, even though RSTV may complain. But you need the best media advice in odd times like these are.'
Lennie sat down on a bench. 'I wish them well, I really do.'
Tommy sat next to her. 'How long are you going to stay in Rothenia?'
'A couple more weeks.'
Lennie gave Tommy a sidelong glance. 'Why is it good?'
He returned the glance, looking down her singlet to the soft small mounds of her pale breasts. He caught himself idly wondering what might be the colour of her body hair. She had the flame-red head of the Elphbergs. 'I've enjoyed our evenings together.'
'And there are times when I'd rather the evenings turned to nights, and the nights to mornings.'
She put up her head, and he leaned down. This time there were no interruptions. The kissing was good, her mouth soft and welcoming. He pulled her to her feet. They kissed some more.
He lifted her singlet off and massaged her pink and prominent nipples while renewing their kissing. She kicked off her trainers and did not resist him as he pulled down her shorts and socks. She stood naked in front of him. On his knees, he closed with the bright patch of red revealed between her legs, and sought the involved folds of pink flesh it covered.
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