Queen Harriet smiled up at Tommy from her desk. 'Married? I'm so pleased for you. I'm sure you and Bela will be very happy. But where will you live? I don't pay you enough to afford anywhere decent.'
Tommy laughed. 'I think it's time I had my raise.'
'Oh very well, dammit. You're getting to be an expensive luxury, Thomas. But you're worth every penny. I don't know what I'd do without you, especially at the moment. Sit down, sweetheart, and tell me everything you found out in Germany.'
Tommy obliged, ending by saying, 'It had to be checked out, but the end result was the same. All three copies of the deed your husband believed to exist have disappeared, even the one which had to have been most secure, the copy old Prince Leopold retained.'
The queen looked pensive, and, to Tommy, depressed. 'Then we're dependent on what Oskar can do with Parliament. He says the chancellor is not unsympathetic, seeing the succession question as a distraction from the real business of government.'
'A pity his party doesn't agree with him. Ma'am, there's an appointment in your diary you will probably wish to cancel.'
'Yes. It's the princess of Vinodol, the king's great-grandmother. She asked to see you last week, but it was impossible.'
The queen made a gesture of futility. 'She is on the Regency Council. I suppose I can't say no.'
'I'll try to keep it brief.'
'Elenja is a great character but she can be wearing. All she wants to tell me about at the moment is that I'm bringing up Maxxie without sufficient regard to the ancient traditions of Rothenia. She might reflect what those ancient traditions are doing at the moment to Maxxie's claim to be king.'
'She'll be here in time for morning coffee. Shall I order it up for you, ma'am?'
When the queen agreed, Tommy bowed himself out of her office. He began work on the pile of files and e-mails which had stacked up during his jaunt to Thuringia. He was so absorbed in his work that the buzz of his telephone took him by surprise. He located his suit jacket, and stiffened his sinews to receive the queen's appointment.
Elenja zu Kesarstejne, Princess and Margravine of Vinodol and dowager Viscountess Lowestoft, always made Tommy nervous. She was not a woman of any particular gifts to make her formidable; she simply was. She had a tongue which took no prisoners, a capacious memory for Rothenian genealogy and history, and perfect aristocratic determination.
The princess had married the young Lieutenant John Rassendyll, Lord Lowestoft, in 1948 in London, where she had fled to escape the Communist takeover of Rothenia. Five years later Captain the Lord Lowestoft was dead from a Chinese sniper's bullet in Korea, and she was the widowed mother of two small boys. She had brought them up to know their heritage and the expectations that their royal lineage laid upon them. In turn, she had instilled in her equally formidable grandson, Rudolf Elphberg, a driving will to reclaim the Rothenian throne.
The princess might have been in her mid-eighties, but she took the staircase of the Residenz rather than the lift access her grandson had installed when he had renovated the palace. Tommy waited patiently at the head of the top flight. He knew better than to offer his arm.
'Mr Entwhistle,' the princess pronounced, with some apparent distaste. Tommy noticed that many years' residence in exile in England had given her complete mastery of English surnames and their idiosyncrasies.
Tommy did his best Rothenian head-jerk, which passed for a bow. 'Your serene highness, her majesty is at your disposal. Could I ask you to keep the meeting as brief as possible? You'll understand that the current situation makes great demands on the queen's time.'
Tommy expected the retort, and was hardly surprised when the princess clenched her withered fist on her walking stick and drew herself up. 'Young man, age brings few advantages and privileges, but there is this: I will take as much time as I please over my business here. Now I'll thank you to announce me to the Queen Regent.'
Tommy bowed her through into the queen's inner office without another word. He had done his duty. It was now up to Harry to manage her visitor.
Barry Hignett embraced his misery. It seemed to be a vast grey creature which had taken up residence in his life. It prowled his small bedroom in his unhappy home, stalked beside him when he walked the streets of Strelzen, and sat next to him in class. Wherever it was, it sucked life, light and cheerfulness out of the world.
The shame of Saturday at the Spa was the latest thing it continually gibbered about in his ear. He had gone there fearing the embarrassment of public nudity. The danger had in fact been in his endless capacity for putting his foot in his mouth. Why was he such a dick?
The shock of his own stupidity in letting out Marky's secret to a third party, even though it was Lance Atwood, continually brought a cold sweat to his brow. The look in Marky's wide eyes at the enormity of Barry's gaffe had skewered him with humiliation. Worst of all was the row in the car with Lance on the way home after the afternoon was over.
Lance had said gently, 'I think I was not supposed to know that Marky is gay. Don't worry, I won't mention it to anyone.'
Somehow Lance's sensitive consideration just made it all worse. The fact that it was necessary to cover Barry's stupidity was a renewed accusation. He had retorted, 'I should think not. If your father ever heard that, poor Marky's dad would be finished.'
Lance had gone cold, then had said carefully, 'Two things: the first is I would never let out the secret to anyone; the second is that even if Henry knew about it, he would never use it against Marky's father politically. He is a deeply ethical and admirable man, and I take what you just said very badly.'
If Barry had apologised at that point the damage might have been contained, but he had gone on to try to justify himself and belittle his offence.
The journey had ended in silence. There was neither goodbye kiss nor promise to meet up on Sunday. Fuck him then, Barry's misery pronounced. He thinks more of his dad than of you. So Barry sat on the car-park wall during break on Monday, avoiding contact with his year. He hugged his misery to himself. It was his only friend.
After a while, even Barry's internal preoccupation could not prevent his noticing an interesting grouping on the lower-school side of the car park. A few younger kids had spilled into it from their enclosed yard, and were playing around the gate. One of them was Maxxie, who was not alone. An older boy was sitting next to him on a low wall. He looked as if he could be a Year 12 student, but Barry did not recognise him.
The two were strangely intent, Maxxie talking earnestly to the teenager, who was listening carefully and nodding from time to time. Although Barry could not see the older boy clearly, he was certainly handsome, with hair as rich and blond as Maxxie's. He might have passed for Maxxie's older brother, though that was of course impossible. He wore a simple white shirt and slacks.
As Barry was thinking about getting up to have a closer view, the teenager stood. He then did something very unexpected: He knelt in front of Maxxie on the tarmac, took the child's right hand and kissed it. Maxxie in turn smiled, leaned over and kissed the teenager's forehead.
The stranger quickly stood, strode across the car park and was lost among the lines of vehicles. Barry called after Maxxie, who turned and grinned. 'Hiya, Barry!'
'Who was that guy you were talking to?'
Maxxie cocked an eyebrow. 'You saw him, didya?'
'Well yeah! He was a Year 12 boy, right?'
'No, just a friend come to say hello. You really saw him? Describe him.'
'White shirt, blond and tanned.'
'You did see him then. I expect it's hanging round with Lance that does it.'
Maxxie laughed. 'Helps your eyesight!' He skipped off to join a group of friends. He was soon running round in a game of touch, until the bunch of them were ordered back into their yard by the supervisor.
Bewildered, Barry returned slowly to the purgatory he had created out of his life.
Nathan Underwood cuddled his partner on their sofa. He was still wearing his park-supervisor's gear, whereas Justin Peacher-White was in boxers and a tee. He had taken a rare Monday off from work and vegetated at home. He was currently munching through a tube of Pringles with some relish, careless of the crumbs getting everywhere, as Nate noticed.
'You see, Nate, it's a statement of the way I've got PeacherCorp Security sorted. It runs like a well-oiled and dangerous machine. It don't need me.'
Nate rolled his eyes. 'Okay, what's the real reason.'
'Can't fool ya, can I, Nate me mate? Okay, the real reason is my need to do my parental duty. Soon as Daimey was off, I had a team with dogs in to check the house for drugs. I spent three hours trying to crack his laptop, with no luck. He's getting too fucking fly for that.'
'What in God's name are you on about, you mad bugger?'
'For Chrissake, Nate, you must have seen it. He's on coke or some combination of letters which mimics coke's effects. The personality change is pretty damned obvious. His body language is all over the place. He hugged and kissed me before he went to bed last night and told me how much he loved me. He was singing in his shower this morning... I mean, singing! He's got such an awful voice too. He danced down the path to Lance's car like he was on a disco catwalk!'
Nate took the Pringles off his partner. 'I sometimes wonder at the way your intellectual processes are so easy to derail. Why don't you consider the obvious, you tosser? He's in love!'
'Helen. She's finally surrendered to the inevitable. And if you think he's weird now, wait till they've had sex, which knowing our Daimey will be pretty damn soon. He's out of his mind with joy, not chemical substances.'
'Christ! I thought Helen was a lost cause. When did it happen?'
'Saturday at the Spa. He announced it this morning at breakfast, before kissing me and telling me I was the best dad in the whole world.'
Justin flared. 'The manipulative little bastard!'
'He told me I'm the best dad in the whole world!'
Lennie Elphberg-Rassendyll, princess royal of Rothenia, stirred her latte abstractedly. The woman opposite her was anything but abstracted however.
Dressed in dramatic white and gold, Her Excellency the Countess Eleanor Marquesa Elphberg-Rassendyll of Hentzen seemed in fact charmed by everything around her. 'Strelzen is quite the surprise, darling, really. This little café is as sophisticated and – I have to say – every bit as expensive as anything I've patronised in Georgetown or on the Rue St-Honoré. The duck pâté is really quite delicious, and the toast crisp and warm.' She dabbed at her lip gloss with a damask napkin.
Lennie had suggested meeting at a beautiful little bistro on Stracenzstrasse which Tommy had introduced her to. The last time she'd been there, it had been evening and she had been delighted by his handsome, laughing face on the other side of the candles, in keen anticipation of the sex which was to follow.
Strelzen had since lost its attraction for Lennie. It was not as if she'd had any serious expectation of a long-term relationship with the charming and handsome bisexual man who had wandered into her bed. It was clear enough that Tommy had not intended more than to pursue amusement either, but he had been the one who had broken it off, and she felt cheated.
With a slight shake of her head Lennie focussed on her stepmother's musings.
'Of course, I expect the coronation of little Maxim will have to be cancelled. It seems the people here are far more attached to their traditions than his father thought.'
'Cancelled?' Lennie was astonished. 'Surely it won't go that far. Do you seriously think Daddy will let it get to that point?'
Ellie feigned surprise. 'Darling, it has to be! Your father is the rightful king of Rothenia, the traditions of the country make it inevitable, and then I expect you will be queen after him.'
'What? I have no intention of being queen of Rothenia, Ellie! The only reason I'm a princess is because I was the sole Elphberg heir before Rudi married Harry and produced Maxim and Leopold. Besides which, even if Daddy became king, little Maxxie would still be his heir in the end, because men take precedence in the Rothenian succession.'
Ellie examined her nails closely. 'Oh, I think you may be wrong about that, dear. That nice Mr Hadjek explained it all carefully to me.'
Lennie raised her eyes. Yet she could not entirely dismiss Ellie's fantasising. There was something not right about all this. 'Ellie, how was it that Daddy consented to my nomination as princess royal and heir to Rothenia if, as is now being claimed, he still had a valid claim himself?'
Ellie looked momentarily confused, then rallied to what was apparently the prepared line. 'It was virtually a coup d'état when young Rudi seized the throne, you know that dear. He was over sixteen, so there was no doubt about his claim, but he conveniently forgot about Robert.
'You know there was bad blood between them, dear? Of course you were only a child, but Robert has told me how Rudi blamed him for living when his own dear father died. Rudi is such a complex and – I have to say – peremptory man. He is wilful and always has to have his own way. NATO may perhaps be the best place for him; it will teach him his limits.'
Lennie was not altogether convinced by her stepmother's revisionist view of history, but it reminded her that she had one person at least to whom she could resort for better information. As she and Ellie air-kissed outside on Stracenzstrasse and Ellie got into the waiting limousine, Lennie was already on her mobile.
'Fritz, is that you? We need to talk.'
It happened when Barry least wanted it. Nipping into the school's rather smelly and antiquated senior-boys' loos, he bumped into Marky coming out. Marky stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. Regardless of the anxiety in his bladder, Barry did not resist.
Before Marky could begin, Barry struggled out with what he knew he had to say. 'Marky, I'm sorry. I'm a complete twat. You trusted me and I let you down. I'm really, really sorry, and I'll understand if you never want to speak to me again.'
Marky looked confused. 'Twat? What is twat?'
Barry blushed. 'Er... I dunno. But it means useless wanker, or idiot or dickhead, or whatever you wanna call me. I deserve it.'
Marky smiled, and as he did, the misery creature took flight from Barry's side. 'I do not think you a dickhead, Barry my friend.'
'But I let out your secret to Lance.'
Marky shrugged. 'That was a pity, but it could have been a lot worse. Lance Atwood is of course your boyfriend, and he can be trusted to keep it to himself. He is a very fine guy I think.'
Barry gaped. 'You're not mad at me?'
'No. How could I be? You are my friend. I chose you.'
Something Rothenian was going on there which Barry did not quite get. But his heart was flooded with relief nevertheless. 'One thing,' he observed. 'Lance and I have split. We had a big row afterwards, and we aren't speaking.'
'I am sorry.' Marky looked his regret. 'Would it help if I were to talk to Lance?'
'No.' Barry heaved a sigh and told what he knew to be the truth. 'I'm not too unhappy about it. I don't think Lance and I are really compatible. We've been on eggshells almost since the beginning. I mean, he's truly amazing, but I'm just not good enough for him.'
'Not good enough for him!' Marky exclaimed. 'That is a silly thing to say. You must be a twat.' Then he laughed, his green eyes twinkling, and Barry laughed with him. How was it Marky could always lift him like this?
'Scuse me, Marky, but I need the loo.'
'I am sorry. You must do your pee. But come home with me tonight. I would like that, and it will take your mind off things, yes?'
Barry agreed, then raced to a stall.
'Rough day, Tomasczu?'
Stripping off his tie and suit jacket, Tommy disappeared into Bela's shower, before throwing out the rest of his clothes. Bela followed him into the bathroom and found him under the cascading water, hands braced on the tiles, with his back outwards. There was something very erotic in the sight of such muscular shoulders and splayed, tight rear. A stirring occurred in Bela's groin which, in the circumstances, was unfamiliar. Following up on this new possibility, Bela too stripped off and followed Tommy under the water, clasping his body.
Tommy looked round for a kiss, which he got. Bela's cock was caught in the channel of his lover's buttocks, and he began a gentle humping. Suddenly he very much wanted to go further, He had never penetrated a man before, but the lithe body of his lover thus exposed to him was erotically arousing in a new way.
'Tommy... can I?' he breathed in his lover's ear.
There was a pause, perhaps surprise, but Tommy urged him on. 'Go for it, baby!'
Bela gripped his cock and probed at Tommy's rear. It caught and he pushed. For a moment he panicked as the pressure seemed to want to expel him, until all at once he broke through. Tommy groaned, and Bela gave something very like a yell of triumph. His cock swelled even harder inside Tommy, and soon he was thrusting away. It was as if he had regained his manhood. There was little technique and he soon came, but when he did it was as if stars had burst in his head. It had never been like this with the girls and women he had fucked on the Wejg when he was a teenager. It seemed he really was gay. He clung to Tommy, cock still large in his lover, vaguely aware that water was beating down on his head and coursing over his body.
Tommygrinned back over his shoulder. 'Wipe your dick when you take it out, baby. That was glorious. The first time you've had me. I love you!'
They kissed under the cascade before eventually getting down to the serious business of washing each other.
Sitting together later as they dried, Bela asked Tommy why the day had been so rough.
'I worry about Harry. This is all dumped on her: the future of the Elphberg monarchy, the peace of Rothenia. Then there's little Maxim. He's no ordinary boy. She must worry about him all the time.'
'You think she's cracking up?'
'I think she could do with some serious help.'
'Well, maybe I can provide it.' Bela looked a little smug, and Tommy knew him by now well enough to detect the mood.
'What's up, Belaczu?'
'You remember that man Wöhlich from Heinrichshof? The castle librarian? I was sure I knew him from somewhere, and when I met Felip for lunch, I remembered. Felip recalled him too. It was at Bar Melmoth one night when we were prowling for leads to the opposition's activities. We saw the MP, Hadjek, touching up some rent boy, but he wasn't alone. Come and look at these pictures Felip took and copied to me.'
Both still naked, they headed for Bela's laptop. He brought up a picture. Though taken in a dingy bar, it was nonetheless crystal clear. There was Hadjek kissing a teenage boy, his hands groping the boy's crotch. Next to him, looking sour and envious, was no less than Heinrichshof's librarian, Herr Wöhlich.
Tommy stared. This was the connection that made all suddenly very clear. 'Wow!' he gasped.
Reggie Mayer saw Barry Hignett pass by in the distance, across the hall. Lance, sitting opposite him on the lunch table caught the drift of his eye.
'Yeah.' Reggie coloured. He did a lot of that around Lance. 'So is it over?'
'I dunno, Reggie. But he did a bad thing and seemed to think he could excuse it. Then he slagged off Henry! I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Does this make him a jerk?'
Endlessly fair, Reggie shook his head. 'No, not really. No one likes to be in the wrong, Lance. It makes you uncomfortable and you say or do anything to try to look good. Call it social panic.'
'It certainly made me think less of him. Still, I suppose I ought to do the forgiveness thing. No one explains to you how hard it is. It's much easier to be angry. Why is that, Reggie?'
Reggie had fallen easily into his old role of explaining humanity to Lance, the outsider. Sitting there across the table from every gay boy's or straight girl's dream of male teenage beauty, it was all the more incongruous. From Lance's looks and inbuilt angelic serenity, any observer would think him the most together person on the planet, but he remained confused and often hurt by what he experienced. Only Lance's parents, Reggie and perhaps Damien seemed to realise this.
Reggie's heart, as ever, went out to his friend. He was not over his feelings for Lance, and never could be. Yet somehow, he could not have the conversation that would express them, not even now when Barry was in eclipse in Lance's heart. So instead, he rambled on about anger, and how humans were so very apt to give in to its power.
Lance laughed and looked straight into Reggie's eyes. 'I can't see you ever getting angry, Reggie. You always seem so cool about things.'
'I do? I get angry too, maybe not often, but when people I love are hurt, I get very angry.'
Lance's smile remained on his face. 'If you were ever angry with me, Reggie, I don't know what I would do.'
He got a wistful gaze back. 'That's never going to happen.'
Lance gave him a meditative look, then fumbled for his shoulder bag. 'I'd better go find Bazza and try to talk it out. Thanks, Reggie. You're the best.'
As Lance's amazing rear disappeared between the chairs, Reggie reflected that such praise might very well be the most he ever got out of his relationship with angel-boy. He really ought to move on.
There were possibilities. A young marine at the embassy was definitely giving him the eye. To say the guy was hunky was an understatement. Reggie could fantasise – and indeed had, with his hand on his dick – about sex with Lance Corporal Lobowicz. However, since Reggie was not yet sixteen, anything the marine did with him would constitute statutory rape of a minor, which would take most of the romance out of the encounter. Lobowicz would end up in the brig and the key would be thrown away.
Reggie had also noticed the shy interest shown by a Year 10 Rothenian aristo, Artem zu Nikolasberh. Being rather more alert to signs of gayness than his friends, Reggie was always meeting Artem's eyes. Too bad he was only fourteen and more boyish than was appealing to Reggie. But he might at least be a distraction.
Reggie looked up and there indeed was the young blond teen, sitting alone, staring at him intently. When he caught Reggie's eye, he looked away, blushing rather sweetly. For a moment, Reggie hesitated. Then his moral sense asserted itself. He could not lead such a young boy on, just for his own amusement. He was better than that.
So, what was it to be? He was so fed up of being a virgin. Damien and Mattie seemed to assume that Reggie was sexless: a creature of intellect. If they only knew the teeming sensuality that went with an imagination as profound as his.
Henry Atwood was brooding when Lance came in, though his mood instantly lightened at the appearance of his son. 'Hey, baby!'
He was enveloped in a big hug. 'Hi, dad. You look as though you have constipation.'
'All internal and stuff. What's up? Ed run away with a soldier?'
'Most amusing, darling. Since you ask, it's the political situation. Have you been following the succession crisis?'
'Did it in civics today. Weird. Maxxie himself was just down the corridor and there we were debating whether he should be king or not.'
Henry was intrigued. 'And what did Year 12 of the International School decide?'
'Bit predictable, actually. The Aristos were firmly in favour of tradition, which meant King Robert Rudolf – it's the Rothenian way. The Anglos – that's me, Bazza and Jamie Summerson – were all for Maxim II, largely cos he's cute, but also because he represents a more modern Rothenia, in line with present-day Europe.'
'Bet that didn't go down too well.'
'Marky von Lauern led the counterattack; there's a surprise. He said that Rothenia was a land built on tradition and you couldn't just choose which ones you keep and which you dispense with. Change one, and you risk losing the soul of the nation. He was quite rhetorical. Impressive, really. Bazza thought so, anyway. He changed his vote.'
Lance gave his dad a quirky look. Henry picked up his cue. 'Sit down, baby. Tell me about it.'
Lance took the indicated seat on the sofa and put his head in his father's lap. Henry smiled and stroked the boy's hair, waiting. 'Dad, I wanna drop Barry. He's not right for me. It was his butt I really wanted. You were right when you asked me what it was, lust or love. Turns out it was lust.'
'What changed your mind?'
'He can be a complete... what does Nate call Damien's dad?... yeah, "tosser", that's what he is, or he can be.'
'Did something happen at the Spa?'
'Oh... so you noticed.'
'You were upset when you came back. We pick up on these things.'
Lance smiled. 'There I was, thinking I was so cool. Yeah, he was pretty shitty to me. So, I wanna drop him. Is it acceptable to do it by text?'
'No, baby. It's got to be face-to-face. Anything less is chicken.'
'Damn. I thought so. Sure you couldn't do it for me?'
Henry laughed. 'It's all part of being human.'
'Why do ya both always say that?'
'It's our jobs as your parents to be boring and predictable.'
'You guys are never that. Okay, my turn, dad. What were you so gloomy about when I came in?'
'Fine. You have the right to ask. It's like this. Maxxie's friends are picking up some indications that there is more to this political ambush than the press has yet uncovered. You remember the Tarlenheim Palace Murder and who was responsible.'
'Oh yeah, Wicked Uncle Robert. But he got away with it.'
'Yes, well now he's following up with an even bigger scheme. He really did resign his claims on the throne back in the 1990s, and did it by deed. But all three copies of the document have now disappeared, and we can guess why. He intends to be king, and the fact that there are Rothenians like your friend Marky means he's in with a chance.
'We think he removed and destroyed the copy that was in Burlesdon House after he disposed of his own. Somehow he got at the principal copy being kept in Thuringia, which has also vanished. It's now only Rudi's word against his that there ever was such a resignation, and Rudi doesn't even know the circumstances which led to it. His father and old Prince Leopold of Thuringia were the only ones who did, and any record they might have left has disappeared along with the deed itself. With me so far?'
'Yeah. Wicked Uncle Robert's greed and his resentment of his nephew, right?'
'You're getting the hang of people, baby. Exactly so. Anyway, there are other interests pushing the crisis along. Your Uncle Rudi was liberal and reforming, and attracted such people to his circle. He and Chancellor Trachtenberg made a lot of changes in this conservative country. When your friend Marky's dad got elected, it was because of a serious backlash.'
'So Wicked Uncle Robert is tied into right-wing interests, and will help the Von Lauern government undo all the good stuff Uncle Rudi did.'
'Including equal rights for gays, you might note.'
Lance sat up abruptly. 'Oh! That's bad.'
Henry agreed. 'This will be an unfriendlier country to us if he has his way. We haven't been able to link Von Lauern with Robert Rassendyll yet, but we can tie him to Hadjek, one of the party leaders, and as unpleasant a man as they come.'
Lance was pensive. 'So you think that there's an inner group working to its own agenda with Wicked Uncle Robert.'
'Exactly, and Chancellor Von Lauern may only be their poster boy.'
'Poor Marky,' Lance said seriously.
'Poor all of us, if they get their way.
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