'Have you got a moment, daddy?'
Robert Rudolf Rassendyll, count of Hentzen, peered amiably at his daughter over the top of his copy of the morning's Rotheniske Spegele. 'How can I help, Lennie? It's not money, is it? Your stepmother may be of more use in that case.'
Lennie Rassendyll took the seat next to him at the breakfast table of his Osraeum apartment. 'There are a lot of things really, daddy. But let's start with the wedding. Fritz and I have settled on Martensfest, which is Tuesday 11 November.'
The count lifted an eyebrow. 'That's sooner than I expected, dear. Are you sure it'll give you time to do all the planning you girls enjoy so much?'
'Some women might make an egofest out of it, daddy, but not me.'
'You might reconsider, my dear. After all, with things going the way they are, it's likely to be a State event. You'll be the king's daughter by then. I was thinking of making you duchess of Glottenberh as well as princess royal... a sort of wedding gift for you and Fritz. I'll make it hereditary. It can be added to the Tarlenheim compendium of titles.' He gave a snuffling chuckle.
'Er... thanks. You seem confident of the outcome of your bid for the throne.'
The count smiled to himself. 'Your stepmother has been talking to people at Cartier. She's very excited about the coronation. She has something special planned for her crown. There's an old one in the Treasury belonging to Queen Flavia which she wants to have broken up and redesigned.'
'The diamond Flavienerkron? But daddy! That's a national relic! It was sent to the States to avoid the Communists getting hold of it. It's nearly as precious as the Tassilisnerkron!'
'Yes, I did mention it might upset the historians, but she has the bit between her teeth these days. It's quite touching really.'
Lennie shook her head in disbelief. 'What are you hoping to get out of this, daddy?'
The count pursed his lips before answering, 'Only my rights, child. I should be king and it will do the nation no good if its great traditions are flouted. I see my accession as Fate. My brother, your late uncle John, would not have made a decent king. Nice enough chap, mind you, but never had an idea what the role demands. It was tragic that he died, but in some ways a mercy for Rothenia. Young Rudolf was much more the thing, but Fate has removed him from the throne too. What more proof can there be that Destiny always intended me, your father, for this role? It may be that Destiny is pointing to you too, my dear.'
'But little Maxim is next in line!'
'Stuff! He's just a child. All sorts of things might happen between today and my departure from the scene. Now, my dear, the wedding to Prince Franz... how can I help?'
Lennie struggled to focus. 'All I was going to suggest was that you be there to give me away.'
He reached over and patted her hand. 'You can count on me. I won't let anything get in the way. It makes me very happy that you two have finally settled your differences. It's an excellent match in every way.'
'Good. I was wondering about what I should wear. What happened to my mother's wedding dress?'
Count Robert stared. 'My dear... I had not thought. I really don't know. I got rid of most of her personal possessions not long after her death.'
'I remember her showing it to me. It was beautiful. We talked about how I would get married one day. I'd love to take my vows in it. It would be as if she were with us on the day.'
Her father's face softened. 'It's a lovely idea. There are boxes of ours still in storage in Surrey. I'll ask someone to check what's there.'
Fritz and Oskar settled into Tommy's Volkswagen as he nosed it out of the Reitschule yard, turning right on to Brückestrasse into the morning traffic. They had taken his anonymous little car, not wanting to attract attention. Secrecy had been tight since the queen had suspended the Council meeting, sending everyone out of the room except her chief of staff and her private secretary. They alone had heard the princess of Vinodol confide the whereabouts of the missing deed of resignation, and how she had obtained it. It appeared Prince Leo had insisted she take possession of the Burlesdon copy, not trusting its safety to the Rassendylls themselves.
Oskar was cramped in the back and to Tommy did not seem to be in one of his best moods. 'Of all places to put that damnable document, the old princess had to hide it there!'
Fritz on the other hand was clearly amused. 'It's nice weather for a drive in the country. It's autumn, leaves are falling but the sun's shining. I was glad to take the day off myself.'
'I hope you two know what we're doing, cos I certainly don't,' complained Tommy from behind the wheel. 'And what are you going to do if we manage to get hold of it?'
'Leave that to me,' snarled Oskar. 'It's payback time as far as I'm concerned.'
Fritz for his part was merrier than either of the others had seen him in years. He was laughing at his brother now. 'Did you tell Rudi?'
'What did he say?'
'Not a lot. Mostly he was choked with laughter.'
Tommy added, 'The queen thinks it's funny too. You can see how the weight has fallen off her shoulders. It's a relief to me as well. I've been worried about her for a while now. At last she can see an end approaching to all this mess over the succession.'
Fritz changed the subject. 'How're your partnership arrangements going, Tomasczu?'
It was Tommy's turn to laugh. 'I finally pinned Bela down to a date. He wants it to be on the first day of November.'
'Where will it take place?'
'That was another problem we finally settled. We're booking a room at the Ostberg Palace. Harry offered the ballroom at the Residenz, but I work there. I don't want to be married in what is practically my office. It'll be a quiet occasion. Bela has no family, and I only have my mum, sister and nieces. My dad won't come back to Europe for a gay wedding, you can bet.'
'But you both have lots of friends,' Fritz reminded him. 'We'll all want to be there for you. Who're going to be the best men?'
Tommy shot a sidelong glance at his former lover beside him. 'I asked Max Jamroziak. Bela wants Felip Ignacij.'
'Good choices,' Fritz affirmed with a smile. 'Lennie wants you among her bridesmaids.'
Muffled expletives came from the back seat, while Tommy guffawed.
'Honestly,' Fritz assured him, 'I think she's serious. She wants to shake up her stiff Catholic relatives.'
'I won't settle for less than matron of honour.'
'Done! I'll tell her.' The mischievous expression on Fritz's face made him look a decade younger. Tommy felt he had to remark on the fact.
'I'm feeling good, Tomasczu,' Fritz replied. 'I've finally done something right, and the longer the arrangements go on, the righter it feels. Lennie and I are different people from the kids we used to be. I know that might sound unromantic, but the fact is, I'm ready to settle and so is she. We always got on...'
'... apart from the incandescent rows,' interjected Oskar.
'They happened, I agree, and they were mostly my fault. But between the arguments, we never had any problems. And now we've both learned a lot more about life and relationships. It's time to put all that experience to use.'
'I think it's great,' Tommy enthused. 'I love you both, and I just know you'll be happy this time around.'
Fritz smiled contentedly. 'My playboy days are over, and it's such a relief, believe me. What time will we be at Hentzen?'
Oskar answered from the back, 'About lunchtime. Then the fun begins.'
At some point around lunch break, Barry decided he couldn't cope with his life any longer. Some kids were clearly shunning him. He was being blamed for Marky's removal from the school, and Marky had lots of friends who missed their Aristo companion. Whom could he turn to? Helen and Daimey at least would be friendly, but he couldn't brave the senior hall. He walked out of school and on to the narrow streets of the Third District. No one noticed him leave.
Barry wandered along the pavements with no clear idea what to do. Home was out of the question. He would find no refuge there from his angst – far from it, in fact. His parents had become even more troublesome following the events of the last few days. Paying no attention to where he was walking, he allowed his feet to take him into some shabby and tangled lanes north of König-Heinrichstrasse. At length a narrow passage littered with broken garbage bags brought him out on to a road he recognised. Neon signs flashed and groups of men slouched around doorways. It appeared the Wejg was not as busy at midday as on the weekend afternoon he had been there in company with Luc and his friends from the Catholic Gymno.
Barry turned right and headed towards the Plaz end of the red-light quarter. Entering the gay section of the Wejg, he felt eyes appraising him. Perversely, he welcomed the attention. He was at least among his own people there. He made a fateful pause outside Bar Melmoth, and peered into its blackness. A slim figure was moving amongst the mostly empty tables.
Shouldering his bag, Barry walked in through the open doors. 'Luc?'
The boy turned. 'Putain! T'es fou? You should not be here, fool. Go back to school!'
But Barry dropped his bag and slumped on to a seat. 'I can't, Luc! It's all gone wrong. I'm running away.'
Luc stared at him. 'Idiot! You have home and family.'
'They hate me. School hates me. I need to get away. You can help me.'
'You've got a place. Put me up. We can... y'know.' Barry blushed hard.
'You're selling your ass to me?'
'It's not that we haven't done it before. You liked it.'
Luc shook his head. 'It's different now. You should not be here. If Sczneczen ever works out you helped bring down his site, he'll make you pay bigtime.'
That remark penetrated even Barry's misery. 'So he was your backer?'
The door darkened as two men entered, one of them Sczneczen himself. He looked Barry over, then addressed Luc. 'Your friend Pony Boy come for a ride, has he, Lucky?'
Luc was obviously flustered. 'He's just leaving.'
'I'm looking for a job, Mr Sczneczen,' Barry announced, rather more boldly than he felt.
He got a long stare in return. 'I've got a boy to clear tables... when he can be bothered. What use are you?'
Barry looked down at his boots.
'What do you think, Lucky?' Sczneczen asked, much to Barry's surprise.
Luc shot a scared look at his patron. 'He's no good. We have no use for him. Get rid of him.'
Sczneczen gave a lazy smile. 'I disagree. Some would say he has a major asset. Lucky, you can take our new kid round to the house. Show him where he can sleep.'
'I don't think...'
Sczneczen snarled, 'Leave the thinking to me, kid. He can sleep with you. Got it?' Barry caught the older man's intense glare at Luc, who nodded reluctantly.
Luc took Barry's bag and led him out on to the Wejg without another word. They trailed back down the street until they reached a narrow side passage next to a massage parlour. An anonymous door opened on to a dark staircase. There was a strange scent in the air, laden with tobacco smoke and reeking of hormones.
'The place stinks,' Barry observed.
'You get used to it,' Luc answered curtly. He led Barry up three uncarpeted flights. As they passed a door, a thin teenager in just a pair of briefs emerged, yawning and scratching his small butt. He eyed up Barry curiously before directing a stream of Rothenian at Luc, who reached into a jacket pocket and threw him a pack of cigarettes.
'In here.' Luc opened a door. The illumination in the attic room came through a grimy skylight. There was a double mattress on the boarded floor with a rumpled duvet tossed carelessly across it. Luc dropped Barry's bag and turned to him. 'Well, now you are here. Bienvenu à ma vie.'
'I thought you were living with this guy.'
'Only on the weekends. This is where I am the rest of the time.' Luc sat on the bed and kicked off his trainers. He had no socks. He reached behind a pillow and pulled out a stash, lighting up a reefer. He inhaled, then offered it to Barry, who sat beside him and took a hit. They stayed there silent for a while, taking turns.
Eventually Barry had to ask, 'What's going to happen?'
'You should go home, that's what.'
'But you'll get into trouble. I can tell.'
Luc shot him a look, followed by that rare quirky smile the French boy could at times reveal. 'Perceptive of you, mon copain. But I'll survive. For the moment, Sczneczen can't touch me. Why can't you go home?'
Barry took another hit, then told Luc the story of the last few days. 'I just can't face it anymore. Anything's better than that.'
As Barry had been sharing his woes, Luc had been massaging his shoulder. Now Luc lightly kissed his cheek. 'I'm sorry, Barry. C'est merdeuse.'
Barry cuddled into Luc, needing the reassurance. Somehow the boy's strong body odour didn't bother him as much as it once had. It was at least familiar. Whether or not it was the pot, he found himself responding to Luc's stroking and whispers. Before long they were kissing and soon afterwards their clothes were shrugged off.
'Quelle bite! I had forgotten. Let's see how far I can get it down my throat.'
Their love making went on for a while, and it may have been well over an hour before they had both satisfied themselves, taking turns on top. Exhausted between mingled passion and despair, and dazed by the effects of the drug, Barry sank into a deep sleep.
The bang of a door downstairs awoke him. He was alone in Luc's bed. He could still smell the boy on him. Outside the skylight, evening had come. He looked around for his clothes, shoes and bag. Nothing. All his possessions were gone and he was naked.
Ambassador Mayer was not so mean as to forbid Reggie from having friends at home, even if he was grounded. So after school, Lance drove him to the residence. He parked in the front drive and they pounded up the stairs to Reggie's room, with its fine view over the Nuevemesten.
Reggie threw himself on to the bed, eyeing Lance. 'So Maxxie gave you a gift?'
Lance ran his hands through his hair. 'Yeah... now I'm really worried.'
Reggie could not hide his curiosity. 'You gonna try it out?'
'I want to, but I'm alarmed as to how it'll go down. When I was the Destroyer, I manifested as a little kid.'
'I remember, you were really cute with sharp little blue horns. You were always naked. Odd thing, you looked way hotter when we bullied you into clothes and shoes.'
'So I turned you on even then?'
'I should say so. Look at this.' Reggie delved into a box under his bed and pulled out an old pair of child's briefs. 'Don't think me weird, but these were what you were wearing that time in Matt and Andy's house at Wenzelsberh, before the siege. When you vanished back into the spear, I just had to have them. I stole them from Daimey. I used to keep them under my pillow.'
Lance surveyed his lover curiously. 'Wow! Did you ever have it bad.' He smiled, settled next to Reggie and kissed him thoroughly. 'I love you baby, even though you're beginning to creep me out.'
As they broke apart, Reggie grinned. 'Better take your clothes off. You might expand like the Hulk when it happens, and I love your top.'
'Okay, we're gonna do this.' Lance stripped down to his rather sexy designer briefs, figured with dancing flames and the legend HOT FOR YOU repeated around the band. Henry had got them for him as a joke.
Reggie had Lance stand in the middle of the room, then asked him, 'Shall I count down?'
Lance gave a nervous grin. 'Might as well.'
Reggie sat in the centre of his bed, hugging a pillow. '5-4-3-2-1... Oh my God!'
Lance had briefly frowned in concentration, then the universe did something deeply uncomfortable. Reggie's room suddenly became a strange place, for it was home to a towering figure which had to be the same dimensions as a mountain, yet was contained by the ceiling. Vast black wings burst from Lance's shoulders as his mouth opened in apparent agony, his body swelling and contorting while Reggie watched. The underpants simply burned away and what was revealed hanging between Lance's legs was breathtaking to say the least.
Lance's great blue eyes were now luminous as they focussed on Reggie, who cowered away from him. Azure horns tipped with gold burst from his forehead, curving forward as they grew to their full length.
The angel moved slowly to kneel beside Reggie's bed, as if having difficulty synchronising its motions with the turning universe. It held out both arms to Reggie, who frantically shook his head. He dared not approach such a being, even though he knew that within it was his Lance. But then he saw shining tears in its eyes, and all the sorrow of creation beat on Reggie's head. He hurled himself at what once had been Lance and the arms of that celestial body took him. The angel rose holding him and its rich, dark lips approached his own. It was too much. Reggie fainted.
Tommy pulled into a parking slot in the picturesque little town of Hentzen. The three men stretched as they emerged from the Volkswagen.
Fritz pointed out a well-known hostelry which was supposed to be good for lunch. While they ambled across the market square, he indicated to Tommy some of the chief sights of the town. 'The big church at the west end is the old priory of St James. It housed monks till after the war, when they were expelled by the Communists. The town church faces it. The castle is on the hill above, behind those houses.'
Oskar ushered them into the Black Bear, where he asked a passing waitress for a table. Although the restaurant was already busy, they were given a place near a window. Tommy liked the ambience: very Rothenian traditional. They ordered the special, a wild-boar-and-apricot stew.
Gazing around, Tommy noticed the number of nineteenth-century portrait prints on the dark panelling. 'Who are those guys?'
Oskar replied, 'Mostly old counts of Hentzen, a very talented and dangerous bunch: hereditary enemies of the Tarlenheims, I should add. They became extinct in 1862, when King Rudolf V personally executed the last of them... you know the story?'
'The death of Black Rupert? I should think so. It'd make a great movie.'
Fritz grinned. 'I see it as a musical: all those hussars in tights and pelisses high-kicking across the stage.'
Tommy snickered. 'I see our time together has had a lasting effect, Fritzku. Those wonderful nights enjoying the Eurovision Song Contest have left you with a legacy of camp.'
Oskar rolled his eyes. He was the most un-camp gay Tommy had ever met. 'Perhaps we should focus. Thanks to the princess of Vinodol, here we are in Hentzen, and the castle is up on the hill behind us. Any ideas how we're to get inside it?'
Fritz sobered. 'Knock on the door? The simple approach may be the best.'
'And what shall we say?' his brother pursued.
'We're a location crew scouting out Rothenia for a new film?' suggested Tommy.
'We're inspectors from the department of ancient monuments?' Fritz smiled at the thought.
'Hmm. I think the casual tourist approach might be best.'
'Whatever you say, Osku.'
Following lunch and a bottle of red Voslauer, the three men climbed the hill to the castle. They found it a stiff walk, as the approach wound its way through rocky outcrops and stands of trees before eventually confronting them with a double-towered gatehouse.
'Impressive,' admitted Tommy.
'And in very good repair,' added Fritz. 'Look! It's flying the old Rassendyll banner.'
Tommy glanced up to see a great green flag displaying a white hart flapping from the battlements in the hilltop breeze. 'Does this mean the count's in residence? I thought he was still in town.'
'He is,' Oskar pronounced decidedly. 'Were he here, we would most likely find the Elphberg banner flying. Besides, since the wedding, he and Ellie mostly live in the Green Hills. It's more convenient for the airport and the city.' They paused to catch their breath, admiring the fine prospect of the Arndt valley and the distant hills of Glottenberh.
'Okay, let's do this.' Oskar grasped the hanging bell pull next to a large sign which said Residenz Privaat. The jangle of the bell within could be heard even outside the castle walls.
The response was surprisingly quick. Within a minute a bolt scraped back and the wicket door in the great gate opened. A middle-aged man in a green jäger jacket looked out. 'Can I help you, gentlemen?'
Oskar smiled. 'I hope so. Dr Esterhazy of the regional art gallery recommended that if I were in Hentzen I should call at the castle. I have an interest in nineteenth-century Rothenian portraiture.'
The porter considered this, then slowly shook his head. 'If you'd notify the estate steward in advance sir, I'm confident something could be arranged. But now...'
Oskar kept his countenance. 'I understand. How disappointing. The prince and I were in the neighbourhood, and...'
'Why yes. This gentleman is Prince Franz of Tarlenheim, and the young man with him is his personal secretary. We were on our way to the Czech border and stopped at Hentzen for lunch.'
The man had made a decision. 'I recognise his serene highness, of course. Do please come in. I'm sure the steward would have no objection in the circumstances.'
They were ushered into the courtyard beyond the gate and followed the porter to a domestic range opposite. It was a rather impressive residence, quite well maintained. They were asked to remain in the entrance hall while the porter found the housekeeper. When she eventually bustled up, she proved to be quite pleasant and well-informed.
Oskar introduced himself as Herr Doktor-Professor Paul Oscott of the Rodolfer. 'Oh, you are English?'
'Yes indeed. I am in the Language Fakultät, and have some interest in identifying portraits of nineteenth-century patrons of the Rothenian arts. There is a series of publications the Fakultät sponsors where such information is most useful. The prince here is one of our sponsors.'
The housekeeper gave a Rothenian bow to the rather handsome serene highness in her living room. She was very happy to identify and comment on the whole range of Hentzauer portraits on display. She made no difficulty about Tommy's taking digital shots of the pictures.
Oskar seemed to be genuinely enjoying himself. His knowledge of the nineteenth-century Rothenian aristocracy was rather impressive. After nearly an hour, he looked at his watch. 'My dear Frau Zelikin, there is one portrait that Dr Esterhazy mentioned which we haven't yet seen, that of Count Ruprecht.'
She smiled. 'Ah! The Black Count of Hentzau! That canvas has long been consigned to the North Parlour, which many think very suitable. The more superstitious say his phantom can be seen there. Stuff and nonsense, though he did die excommunicate by the bishop of Luchau, his cousin. I can let you in of course, though the light is very bad. I would ask you not to use flash photography.'
Fritz intervened. 'My dear Frau, may I ask that, when you have put my friends in that dark chamber, you spare me some time to show me the collection of swords?'
'Certainly, Durchlaucht! I saw you compete with our Olympic fencing team. Nothing would give me greater pleasure!'
She let Oskar and Tommy into a small and poky parlour off the great hall, then ushered Fritz off to the castle gallery.
Tommy looked at Oskar once they were on their own. 'Do you know where to look, Osku?'
The count grinned. 'Oh yes. It's very famous in Elphberg family history, at least among those privileged to be in the know. This chamber was the place where the Crown of Tassilo was hidden during the years of the Thuringian monarchy.' He went over to a fitted and carved dresser. 'Here!' He pointed at a panel where a lion was depicted battling a wyvern. He found a penknife and ran it along a joint in the panel; there was a click and a spring opened it like a door.
Oskar reached within to pull out a thick manila envelope, sealed in green wax. 'This, Tomasczu, is what I think we have come for.'
With an ironic bow from Oskar at the portrait of Black Count Ruprecht, he and Tommy left the chamber in search of Fritz.
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