Henry Atwood sat at his study desk, surveying a pile of newsprint. The constitutional crisis had certainly awoken the enthusiasm of the Rothenian press. His mobile chattered at him once again; it had been a busy morning. This time it was Tommy Entwhistle.
'Not got long, Henry, but Oskar told me to ring you.'
'Bela and I are heading for Germany.'
'It's the queen's orders.' Tommy briefly explained the nature of the emergency. 'We've got to be at Heilbrod by this evening, to find the elusive piece of paper by which Count Robert Rassendyll resigned his claims on the throne. I need information, so tell me a bit about this Prince Leopold. I'm hearing a lot about him at the moment.'
'Leopold of Thuringia was quite a guy. He was the father of the present duke, who's the younger of his two twin boys, though don't be misled by the fact of offspring. Old Leopold was as gay as a goose. The love of his life was Sir Martin Tofts, the distinguished Oxford archaeologist, but they say he had a few other high-profile lovers too: that's Wikipedia, so believe it or not, as you prefer. Old Leopold was the only son of the last Thuringian king of Ruritania. In the confusion at the end of the First World War he ended up as the ward of King Maxim Elphberg, who raised him.
'It would take me too long to describe his political adventures. There're a few good books on his wartime career, which was pretty thrilling. There's even some talk of a Hollywood screenplay, now it's fashionable to be brave and queer. But anyway, after the war, he settled in West Germany and carried on collecting art at Heilbrod. His collection was enormous, and his son's just gone on adding to it. Another thing he did was assist in the reclamation of the Rassendyll estates in Rothenia after the fall of Communism. He was very close to Rudi's dad, Lord John Rassendyll, and the earl's premature death was quite a blow to the old boy. He didn't live to see Rudi reclaim the throne of his ancestors.
'He's buried next to his mother and grandfather, the count of Eisendorf, at the Thuringian mausoleum in the park at Zenda. There was a sensation when his long-time lover Martin Tofts was buried next to him and a joint tomb laid over them. Nowadays it's very much the queer tourist draw. They're depicted in marble as young men lying next to each other, hand in hand, smiling in each other's faces. It's quite beautiful. I go there when I want a good cry. It's where Ed and I took our vows.'
'Fascinating, Henry. Somehow Fritz and I missed that one when we did the tourist thing. Do you know anything about Heilbrod other than what I can find online?'
'The choicer items of the Thuringian art collection are there, the ones you only get to see on application. It's a lovely baroque mansion with pretty gardens, but reputedly like a fortress in terms of security. It would have been a good place to put an important family document for safety, which was no doubt what Prince Leopold thought.
'Now it's your turn to answer my question, Tommy babe. What do you know of the circumstances in which Count Robert resigned his claim?'
Henry heard a light laugh from his phone. 'You think that I, the confidential secretary to the Queen Regent, would answer a question about the royal family? Henry, you're a journalist. Even if I knew the answer, I wouldn't tell you. Be real.'
Henry was not offended. This sort of reaction went with the job. 'But it's interesting, isn't it?'
'Ask the Prince of Elphberg.'
'I might just. Rudi may be less close-mouthed now he's an ex-king.'
Tommy flipped shut his handij. 'That was certainly useful.'
Bela shrugged. 'Henry's a decent guy for a reporter. Are we ready?'
'Yes, sweetheart, and you're driving.'
'No problem, Tomasczu. But keep your hands to yourself when I'm concentrating on the road. It's fast driving on the autobahn, and we have to cross Bavaria by teatime.'
'You don't actually have a gun, do you?'
'No. Were you serious when you suggested it?'
'It was the queen's idea. But guns seem a bit excessive to me. Who's going to link two men in your clapped-out Passat with a desperate bid to save the throne for young King Maxim?'
Bela looked dubious. 'I'll keep an eye on the rear view mirror. It is possible you are being followed. If this is the conspiracy you suspect, they'll know that there's a copy of this deed in Germany, and that the queen trusts you as her confidential agent. If they're going to watch anyone, it will be you, Tomasczu.'
The two men were talking across the roof of Bela's car in the Reitschule yard. They got in and drove off down Lindenstrasse, following the signs for Modenehem. By the time they got to the German frontier, Tommy had given up staring at the traffic behind them. It was giving him a crick in his neck.
The trip across the Federal Republic was uneventful. The E56 took them to Regensburg and the E50 nearly all the way to Mannheim. They only stopped to refuel and have a snack in a service area on the Bavarian border. Bela managed the transactions. Although his German might have been acquired on the Wejg, it was a lot better than Tommy's.
The Passat had no sat-nav, so the final stage of the journey was navigated by printout from Google Maps. As a result, there were several wrong turnings. It was beginning to get dark when they finally reached the main entrance to the château of Heilbrod, its great columns surmounted by stone Thuringian wyverns. The wrought iron gates were figured with the monograms and arms of Prince Leopold.
There were uniformed security men on duty. They inspected Tommy's and Bela's documents with some care and little friendliness. A call to the house eventually confirmed they were expected.
Bela was directed to a stable yard, and from there another security man escorted them to a door at the rear of the house. A series of passages brought them eventually to the front and the entrance hall, a remarkably light and airy space with a view through glass doors out along a canal to the trees of the park beyond. A slim, boyish figure was waiting for them, smiling his welcome, which was expressed in a rather good, if camp, English.
'Tommy liebchen, kisses!'
'Marty! No one said you'd be here!' The somewhateffete young man sashayed over and offered his lips. Tommy obliged. When he had finished with Tommy, Prince Martin Anton of Thuringia sized up Bela. Making his decision, he went looking for a kiss there too.
'Who're you, sweetheart?'
'This is Bela, my partner.'
The prince gave a smirk and said he hoped to become better acquainted.
'You know why we're here, Marty?'
'Oh yes. This tiresome document that dear Harry wants to know all about. Well, Frau Wettin has looked all through the muniment boxes and there's nothing. I've been on the phone to daddy, who says I can be trusted to check the safe in his study. Frau Wettin has the codes, so if you're ready?'
They followed the prince's small, undulating rear through the corridor of the west wing. Tommy found his hand gripped by Bela, who hissed in his ear in Rothenian, 'Partner?'
Tommy grinned. 'Yup. Will you marry me, Bela Alexandrij?'
Bela stopped and stared at him. 'Are you serious?'
'Never more so.'
'Don't you think this is just a little...?'
'...precipitate? Hardly, considering we've been sharing a bed for the best part of two years. No, I've thought about it a lot over the past few days. Let's make this for life. It's worked for Henry, Will and Oskar. What do you say?'
'I love you, you mad Englishman. Yes. I will marry you. Kiss me.'
A rather loud cough echoed along the corridor. 'Do you think you two could save it for later?'
Lance Atwood was deeply confused, which was not unusual for him when it came to human relationships. Somehow they always got away from him, just when he thought he had them screwed down tight. The problem this time was Barry's resentment at being helped out. Lance was very limited in his options regarding whom to ask to explain it to him. Damien or Mattie would just laugh, so in the end he sought out Reggie.
The American boy listened patiently as he explained. 'So what did I do wrong?'
His old friend smiled. 'Nothing, Lance. You were as well-intentioned as ever.'
'So why is he sulking at me?'
'Try this. What if it had been Damien instead of Barry?'
Lance paused for thought. That was a difficult one. He first had to imagine a gay Damien, which was next to impossible. Then he had to visualise a Damien who wasn't capable of taking charge of the world around him. Finally it clicked.
'Barry's a dominant top? Is that what you're saying?'
Reggie nodded. 'He may not know it yet, but that's it, I'd guess. Maybe he wouldn't put it in these terms, but he may feel like you cut his balls off.'
'But so far, he's gone under,' Lance blurted, then blushed. His colour however was nowhere near as red as Reggie's.
'That's as may be,' muttered Reggie. 'The point is, it's probably not what he wants, deep down.'
'Oh! I hadn't thought about that.' But now he had begun thinking about it, Lance realised he didn't like the idea of having to take the receptive role either, at least not with any regularity. Barry's first experiment with his backside had been pretty near disastrous. Was it because Lance's body simply didn't want it? He shook his head as if to clear it.
'Are you gonna tell me what you did with the Strelzen Gay Boys site?'
Reggie nodded. 'I made some progress. It looks like they use Todo's machine to connect with the server, as much as Luc's. It doesn't matter now anyway. I've cracked both of them, and the server will recognise me as either machine. I have the upload access codes, and that's just the beginning. I've got a site map and I'm slowly taking over Luc's empire, though he won't know it. In twenty-four hours I can knock it offline permanently, but first I need to find what Luc's mixed up with. I left my machine downloading his e-mail and web log. Then I'm gonna hack the server itself.'
'Reggie, that's totally amazing!'
The American smiled as he basked in Lance's admiration. 'Back in Maryland, I didn't have much else to do but hone my web skills.'
Lance was troubled to hear the downbeat tone of his friend's voice. 'Reggie, that's a sad thing to say. You've got a lot to offer people.'
Reggie hastened to reassure Lance that he hadn't meant it like that. But Lance didn't entirely believe him.
Henry Atwood was beginning to get desperate. His usual sources at the palace had dried up on him just when he most needed them.
He moodily pocketed his iPhone and returned to the decaf cooling off in front of him. For mid-September, the weather was still warm and sunny under the lime trees at the southern end of the Rodolferplaz, giving the midmorning café business a lively boost. For a while Henry idly watched the tourists and shoppers, until with a start he recognised a uniformed figure swinging past him.
'Lucasz! Hey! It's me, Henry!'
The officer stopped, squinted and then smiled. He came over and sat opposite Henry, placing his cap on the table. Major Lucasz Voynovich was Ed's trusted divisional adjutant.
'Morning, colonel.' Army officers never forgot that Henry held a reserve commission in the Guards, and King Rudolf's departure to NATO had not altered Henry's link with the Rothenian monarchy.
'I haven't stopped you on your way to somewhere important, have I?'
'No, Henry. In fact, any distraction is welcome. I was about to hop a tram to my parents' house in the Ninth. New trouble with Todo. You know Téodor, my little brother? My parents say he's caused them more problems than all the rest of us put together.'
'Lance and he know each other, I think, though they're not exactly friends.'
'It's his friends who are a lot of the trouble, particularly a foreign boy whom he's taken up with. Smoking, going to bed at all hours, they suspect drugs, and of course he's now announced he's gay. Well, that's not a problem, other than the fact that my being gay got them used to the idea that homosexual boys can be equally well-behaved and helpful round the house. Todo is anything but that.
'He had a gang of St Wladislaw boys over last night and it got way out of hand, what with the noise and the drunkenness. He's grounded, and I'm to go talk sense into him. Fat chance! Todo is a spoiled little brat who's been allowed his own way too often. I'm telling them to take him out of that school and put him in a state Gymno.'
'Sorry, Lucasz. I feel almost guilty that Lance is such a decent guy, apart from his inability to handle money.'
'Lance is a great kid. Has he found anyone special yet?'
'I'm glad to say he has. A new English feller at the SIS; really nice boy, if tall. There's a thought. Why not send Todo to the International School?'
'No chance. The foreign kid he's taken up with is there.'
'Really? Who's that?'
'French boy, I think.'
'Not Luc Charpentier?'
'Oh God, is he notorious?'
'Fraid so, Lucasz. He was sniffing around Lance for a while, but our lad had more sense than to take up with him. Anyway, I'm glad you came past. Have you seen this morning's papers?'
'I have. You're talking about the constitutional crisis, yes?'
'Is it a crisis yet?'
'The Spegele says it is. The radio news is full of it. I was talking with some guys in the officers' club at the Guards barracks. They were very concerned.'
'I'll bet. King Rudi steps outside the country for one minute and all hell breaks loose.'
Lucasz shook his head. 'It's not that so much. We're a little worried about the other ranks. If the rest of the army is like the Guards division, the rank and file venerated King Rudolf and adore his son, whom they consider a really fine young fellow. The idea that little King Maxim might be deprived of his father's throne by the CDP government seriously upsets the army, and since a lot of the soldiers – maybe even a majority of them – voted CDP, that should tell you something.'
'How do they feel about the king's uncle?'
'They've never heard of him, and want nothing to do with him. We know it's tradition for the king to be an adult male if there's one available, but that was a rule devised for the Middle Ages. No modern European monarchy follows it.
'Look, it's nice to see you, Henry, and I wish I could stay for a drink, but mum's going frantic. I'd better get on.' The major took his leave.
Henry brooded on his news for a while, then got back on his iPhone.
At lunch break Barry found he didn't care to go and join Lance and Damien's inner clique. He was discontented, although not sure why. Instead he went looking for Helen Debies. He found her with two girlfriends in the assembly hall, helping a Year 1 group put up a display of autumn leaves and fruit: some sort of project. Amongst them was Maxxie, who was busily chatting with Helen, whom he clearly knew well.
'Barry!' the boy cried in delight.
'I'm glad you came by,' Helen said. 'We need someone your height to fix these upper panels. I was about to ask Maxxie to stand on his friend Janoscz's shoulders.'
'I wanted to!' the boy whooped.
'Yes, I'm sure you did, Maxxie, but I wasn't willing to risk it. Now be good, and get on with tacking that panel in place. Marthe will help you.'
She turned to Barry and gave him a collage to pin up. Then she observed in a low voice, 'I was so glad to hear Marky told you his big secret. You can help him so much, and he's...' she paused. 'You and he will get on great,' she continued. 'We're thinking of another drive on Saturday. He said to ask you if you can come.'
'Things are still bad with my parents at the moment, but they're less bothered if I hang out with Marky rather than Lance.'
'And talking of Lance and the Mendamero Men, where are they?'
'Mendamero Men? Who are they?'
Helen laughed. 'I was one once. It was Damien's gang when we were little. It was he, Lance, Mattie Oscott, and of course Reggie.'
'I have no idea. It was just a name they had. But now Reggie's back, it's like old times. All four of them, heads together, plotting.'
That was when it finally occurred to Barry why he was uncomfortable around Lance at the moment. He was feeling like an outsider. The thought of all those years of Lance's joint history with Reggie Mayer began to make him somewhat jealous. It was when Reggie had returned that this sense of exclusion began.
Having admired the developing Year 1 display, Barry wandered out into the car park. A whiff of tobacco smoke behind him alerted him to Luc's presence before he heard the satiric, 'Bonjour, mon copain.'
Barry turned to see the French boy looking the worse for wear. For some reason – probably that same feeling of alienation from Lance – Barry took a seat on the wall next to Luc. 'Bad night?'
'A party at Todo's yesterday evening. Things got out of hand. He was out of his head, and then there was a scene when his father ordered us to leave.'
'There goes your porn studio.'
Luc gave a twisted grin. 'There are other places. You never did answer me about... well, the other possibilities for money-making.'
'You mean selling my arse for that man in Bar Melmoth? Not a chance. Why do you do it?'
Somehow, maybe because of his tiredness and depression, Luc was willing to answer. 'It is not so bad, and then there's the money.'
'You don't convince me, Luc. I remember the way you were after I did you that time. You didn't like it.'
Luc scowled. 'I don't like being treated that way. I'm no rent boy.'
'Then what are you?'
'I don't do demand, I do supply. And very soon...'
'Just say I've found a guy who will make everything good. Au'voir maman et Piotr!'
They sat silently for a while. Barry knew this sad boy was going down the can, and wished there were something he could say to make a difference. But what?
A scuffle drew both their attention to the Year 1 kids spilling out of the assembly hall, their interior decorating done. Last came Maxxie, who paused by the two older boys and looked up.
This time Luc found something to say. 'Vous êtes sa majesté le roi, oui?'
Maxxie looked solemn. 'Tu te souviens duquel je disais, enfant du Dieu?'
Luc shook his head, with a strange smile on his lips. 'Le petit roi est devenu fou.'
'Il ne serait pas ton sauveur, enfant. Venez à moi quand tout serait confondu.' With another sad shake of the head, Maxxie skipped off.
'What in heaven's name was all that about?' Barry queried.
Luc made no answer, just staring open-mouthed after the child.
Henry alighted from the tram at the Parlementplaz, the great square on Lindenstrasse beyond the park of Bila Palacz, its south side graced by the classical front of the national Parliament. Henry headed directly up the wide steps to the portico. Several people smiled and greeted him as they passed, for he was well-known in the centre of Rothenian public life.
Henry found his way into the echoing marble foyer, with its great stairs leading up on the left-hand side to the Assembly, and on the right to the Senate. Henry clipped the press ID to his suit pocket and took the stairs to the right, as the Senate cafeteria was by far the better of the available catering outlets.
As he ascended, he gazed at the enormous canvas of Hirth's magnificent Defence of the Palace, painted after the Strelzen riots of 1880. A handsome army captain was defying the mob, pistol in hand, on the central stairs. Henry knew the officer depicted was no less than the English adventurer Augustus Underwood, later count of Eisendorf and grandfather of Prince Leopold of Thuringia. He mused as to whether a biography could be written there. He must check what the sources were for Augustus Underwood's life. Perhaps the man's kinsman and namesake, Danny Hackness's boyfriend, would know.
Henry found the Senate cafeteria humming. He looked round and homed in on the table where Taszlo Janovicz, a CDP senator, was just settling himself. Taszlo, one of the more open-minded conservatives in the chamber, was out of sympathy with the hard-line right. Henry knew by experience that he could count on Taszlo to be indiscreet.
'Good morning, Henry. Somehow I am not surprised to meet you here today. The vote's in just half an hour.'
'Which way will it go, Taszlo?'
'I think you know.'
'And what then?'
The older man leaned closer over his coffee. 'This is of course off the record, but the party's getting out of control. Von Lauern is being dragged along by the right-wingers who are dominant in the CDP in the Assembly. It's a trade-off. They support his social "reforms" and he allows them to attack the liberal clique around the Queen Regent.'
'Do they seriously think they can unseat young King Maxim?'
The senator shrugged. 'They're going to see how far they can go.'
'How far is that?'
'I've heard that today's motion will be followed up a remonstrance. If that goes through, some are even willing to propose a bill of deposition and declare for King Robert Rudolf.'
'Is it? Robert Rassendyll and his glamorous Californian countess were here yesterday, wining and dining CDP senators, and declaring how much in sympathy with the CDP agenda they were. It seems they at least are serious about his bid for the throne.'
'King Robert Rudolf and Queen Eleanor! I can't believe it.'
'Believe it or not, Henry, the first moves towards it are about to take place on the other side of the building. Now you tell me something. Is it true what Count Robert is claiming, that there was no formal resignation of his claims?'
Henry scowled. 'If Rudolf Elphberg says there is such a document, then it exists.'
'Like many of my colleagues, Henry, we are therefore curious as to why the former king's uncle is so confidently putting his case.'
Henry's misgivings returned in force. That was his major worry too.
Dr Mechtild Wettin was unexpected. She was a willowy, beautiful woman, one of the rarest types, those for whom spectacles do not detract from their beauty. She was evidently quite an intellectual as well, for the keeping of the legendary Thuringian art collection to be in her hands. Apart from a developing irritation with her reflexive habit of flicking her long, blond hair out of her face, Tommy could find no fault in her.
She addressed Prince Martin Anton, 'Your highness is mistaken, I'm afraid.'
Marty took it meekly. 'How is that, Mechtie?'
'The document in question is not in the study safe, and never was.'
'Well, where did my queer old grandfather put it?'
'It's not the sort of document he would have kept at Heilbrod, highness. It may either be in one of the Zurich deposit boxes or at Heinrichshof, where Prince Leopold spent his last years reclaiming the Thuringian estate after the collapse of the German Democratic Republic.'
'Heinrichshof, ughh! Ghastly mausoleum,' commented Marty. 'Grandfather was a martyr to the place. But it's the most venerable of our residences, so the old fellow wanted to make a dynastic point.'
'What about Zurich?' asked Tommy.
'Also pretty ghastly, but only father will have access to those deposit boxes, and he won't be back for... ages. He likes the West Indies far too much.'
Dr Wettin dissented. 'I could suggest that he give Prince Karl, your eldest brother, power to search the family muniments lodged there. It could be done, though it might take a few days, and of course the prince might have other plans.'
'Karl? He does nothing but breed polo ponies. He's his grandmother's son. Half horse himself.'
Tommy sighed. 'So what you're both saying is that you have no idea where the Thuringian copy of the deed of resignation was put, and finding it is going to be a major problem.'
The archivist looked sympathetic. 'If Prince Ernst Karl agrees, I'd be happy to travel to Heinrichshof with you and assist. Surely, however, Count Robert Rassendyll must know where the deed was kept.'
'That's what alarms me. I have no doubt that whatever copy he had is now well and truly destroyed, along with the one that was once at Burlesdon. I don't doubt he will be aware of what happened to Prince Leopold's copy, and will have made plans to deal with it.'
'I say!' enthused Marty, his public-school English accent thick. 'Now this is getting to be fun! You mean the Machiavellian old codger will procure violence and assassination to become king? This is wonderful, the eighteenth century come again! I have to go with you to Heinrichshof tomorrow. Family honour demands it!'
[For those who use webmail: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, etc). Each browser is subtly different or we'd give fuller instructions here. If it pastes with %40 in the middle, replace that with an @ sign.]