Excelsior

by David Clarke

Chapter 5

"Yes, I'm alive," I said to Wolfie, "but I won't be if you don't let me breathe!"

"Sorry:" he said, relaxing the hug a bit without actually letting me go. "But what happened? Where have you been?"

"That's an excellent question," said Pointy Beard, "and we'd all like to hear the answer. But give him a chance, Wolfie: he hasn't even had a chance to sit down yet. Come on, Leo – come and sit down, and bring your friend, too." And he indicated a comfy-looking sofa at one side of the room.

"Leo?" I asked. "Who's Leo? And what did he mean by 'And' just now?" I turned to look at the butler. "You never gave them my name."

"Ah," said Pointy Beard. "Sir Edmund did warn us you've been suffering from amnesia. It appears that you still have that problem… look, come and sit down, and then we'll all introduce ourselves, and you can tell us where you've been for the past four years. Allchorn," (this to the butler) "I'd like you to stay, because I'm sure the other servants will have questions, and if you hear it first-hand you can make sure that no stupid rumours start to circulate."

The butler bowed and closed the door, taking up station beside it.

"Now," said Pointy Beard, "I am Lord Folliot of Chisbury, and I've been looking after the estate in your absence. The previous duke was my brother-in-law. You seem to remember Wolfie…"

"Not really," I interrupted. "In fact it might be best if you just assume I can't remember anything at all."

"Very well. In that case let me present Wolfgang-Christian, Markgraf von Brandenburg-Bayreuth."

That name made me and Alex look at each other – so that was why I'd thought of it when I was trying to come up with the names of European aristocrats.

"He's been our guest for several years now, for reasons which I'll explain later," Lord Folliot went on. "And this is Air Admiral Sir Neil Faulkner, who is visiting for a day or two, and over there is Lord Brookhampton, our neighbour, and finally here is Jonathan Hall, our estate manager and administrator."

"I see," I said. "And who am I?"

"You are Leo de Courtenay, Fifth Duke of Culham."

So that explained it: the butler had been announcing me, not telling me who Pointy Beard was. But the idea that I was a duke seemed completely absurd.

"Are you sure?" I asked. "I mean, how do you know?"

"Because you lived here for the first ten years of your life," said Lord Folliot. "And Sir Edmund says that you still have the watch you were given on your tenth birthday, too. There's no possible mistake. Besides, you clearly recognised Wolfie – nobody outside the family calls him that."

"So… what about my parents? Where are they?"

"I'm sorry," he said. "Your father was killed in battle five and a half years ago, and your mother… she died on the same day that you disappeared, when Daedalus went down."

"Was that the ship that was shot down by the Eagles?" I asked.

"Exactly. So you do remember."

"No," I said. "Not really. But I've been having a recurring dream about it – at least, I'm fairly sure that's what it's about. Was my mother the captain?"

"Yes, she was, and she was one of the best. She was a tremendous loss, not just to the family but to the country too."

"But… my dream has taken me up to the point that the second Congreve struck, and they said there weren't any parachutes… jumpshades, I mean. So how did you and me and Wolfie survive?"

"Caroline – that was your mother – kept one in her personal locker. She wanted to give it to Wolfie – he has precedence, you understand. But Wolfie wouldn't take it – he wanted you to have it. So you argued for a bit, and eventually Wolfie forced you to take it, but then you refused to jump without him, and so the pair of you clung onto each other and jumped together. Then one of the deck crew came down to the bridge, and when he found there were no shades he tried to give his to Caroline. She wouldn't take it either: she said I had to go, because you and Wolfie would need a man to look after you – you were both only ten, of course. So we argued, because even when she gave me a direct order as captain I refused to take her shade. In the end she stood by the hole in the wall and said that unless I put the shade on immediately she was going to jump without one. There was an outside chance that she might survive the crash if she stayed on board, so I gave in and took it, and there hasn't been a day since when I haven't regretted it, because the ship came down in open country and the entire bridge crew died. Your mother was the bravest woman I have ever known."

"So what happened to you and me?" I asked Wolfie.

"Everything went well at the start," he told me. "We were only small so it was no problem for the shade to take us both. But as we came close to the ground the wind suddenly got up and you had to take the control lines to prevent the shade from collapsing, and I was not strong enough to keep hold of you. So I fell, and the wind took you away. I landed badly, and after that I was unable to see where you went.

"Your uncle landed not too far away from me, so I was able to call for help. A number of the engineering and deck crew had managed to jump clear – they had their own shades, of course – and a couple of them landed close enough to help too, and so they kept me warm and controlled the blood loss until they could get a carriage for me. But they were so busy looking after me that they did not have time to go looking for you, and by the time the carriage reached me it was already dark."

"We looked as best we could," said Lord Folliot, "but in the end we had to call it off for the night. Next morning we organised a proper search: one of the French navy ships cruised above the probable landing area while the militia checked on the ground, covering the areas of woodland where you might not have been visible from the air. Eventually the French found your shade: it looked as if you had been blown into one of the megaliths at the Great Circle, because the shade was basically intact, but there was blood high up on the stone. But there was no other trace of you. We thought that perhaps you had banged your head and stumbled off somewhere, but no matter how far we searched, that was the last trace of you we found until today.

"We thought that you had to be alive, and in the end the only other explanation we could think of was that one of the Eagles had dropped troops and they had taken you and smuggled you out of the country – we were fairly sure the Eagle couldn't have landed because there were no signs, and besides, Gouvion-St-Cyr was still in the area – it would have been suicide for an Eagle to try landing beneath an enemy ship. But we received no ransom demand, the French were confident that if the enemy had landed on their coast they would have been picked up, and none of our agents abroad could find any word about you. So – what really happened?"

"I don't know," I said. "I have no memory of anything before I woke up in a barn near Winterbourne Stoke. But – and this is going to sound insane – the barn wasn't in this world. Somehow I stepped through some sort of hole between worlds, and when I woke up I was in a completely different one. Of course, because I couldn't remember anything at all I had no idea that I had left my own world – in fact I didn't know this one existed until today either.

"The problem is that I still can't remember anything at all, other than the glimpses I got in my dream. I suppose that was part of the last day and that it stuck in my head, but I can only remember from the point where you spotted the second enemy ship to the moment one of the crew told you that the jumpshades had been destroyed by the first Congreve. So even if I am the duke, you're going to have to teach me absolutely everything from scratch."

"Maybe not," said Mr Hall, the estate manager. "I've heard of cases of amnesia before where something happens to trigger a shock, and that clears the mind and the memories return. If we could find a suitable trigger… perhaps we should consult a physician."

I thought he might be onto something there – after all, I'd already had one small part of my memory restored when Alex had taken hold of my penis, although I certainly wasn't going to mention that now.

"I'd certainly be in favour of that," I said. "It'd take forever to relearn ten years' worth of stuff… well, I suppose it would take ten years, but you know what I mean."

"So what was the other world like?" asked Wolfie.

"Different," I said. "I mean, you can see that from our clothes. It would take a long time to tell you about it, but I suppose we're going to be here for a while, so we'll be able to tell you about it as we go along."

"Are we staying?" Alex whispered in my ear. "I mean, I suppose it could be fun to be a duke, but you don't know anything about this place at all. Perhaps being a duke means you have to sit in Parliament all day long listening to a lot of old farts droning on about the price of peas in Norfolk or something."

"Well… I think I ought to stay for a little bit at least," I whispered back. "After all, they've been looking for me for four years. Besides, right now we don't know how to go back, so we haven't got a lot of choice. In fact…"

I looked around the room. "Everyone, I want to introduce Alex. He's from the other world, and we've been friends more or less since we met. Of course I'd be happy if he were to decide to stay here with me, but he has a family in London – the other London, I mean – and so he'd like to at least be able to go back if he chooses to. The problem is that we have no idea how we got here, or how to get back – so one thing I want to do is to try to find a way. We'd both appreciate any help you can give."

"We will do whatever we can," said Lord Folliot. "And in the meantime we will be happy to welcome your friend as our guest. And that brings me to another issue: the ducal bedroom has been closed up for four years, and it will need to be aired out. Your own old room has also been closed, but being smaller it will be easier to bring it back into use – I know Wolfie goes in there frequently, so it won't need a great deal of airing. Would you be prepared to use it for tonight? That should give Mrs Sweeting enough time to prepare the master bedroom."

"I think I'd probably prefer to stick to my old room for the time being," I said. "It'll be time enough to think about using the ducal room when – or if – I get my memories back. Until them I'm not really the duke at all."

"Well…if that is what you wish. Perhaps seeing your old room may be the trigger to restore your missing past. In fact, perhaps this would be a good time for you to have a tour of the house: maybe you will remember something else. Wolfie, perhaps you could show Leo around? And Allchorn, please ask Mrs Sweeting to make up Leo's old room, and also one of the guest rooms not too far away from it."

"Come on, then," invited Wolfie. "Let us see if you remember anything."

He started to move forwards, which is when I realised that he was sitting in a wheelchair. It didn't look like any wheelchair I had ever seen before, though: it was made of polished wood and had brass fittings, and it looked quite heavy, although since it was moving of its own accord I supposed that wouldn't be a problem. I assumed it was electric, but when we got out into the hall it slowed down and stopped, at which point Wolfie turned to us and asked "Could one of you wind me up, please?"

Alex and I looked at each other. I'm sure he was thinking the same thing that I was: we could easily make some pointed remarks about Wolfie's hair colour or his freckles, or some even less politically acceptable ones about him being in a wheelchair, but it seemed unlikely that this was what he was asking for.

"The handle is on the back of the seat," he went on when neither of us moved, and at that point I spotted a large brass crank-handle hooked onto the back of the chair. I unhooked it and Wolfie indicated the hole it went into on the right hand side of the seat.

I turned the handle until it wouldn't turn any more and replaced it on the back of the chair, and Wolfie flicked a switch. The chair started to roll forward again.

"You've got a clockwork wheelchair," I said in disbelief.

"Yes. Why should I not have? It works perfectly well, and it is not as if there is an obvious alternative, is there? Can you imagine a steam-powered wheelchair? I suppose it would be nice and warm in the winter, but it would hardly be practical. I would need to have a fireman with me all the time, and he would need a little cart to carry the coal…"

"You could get a self-loading firebox, like the ones on the newer car… I mean, auto-carriages," I said.

"Sure, if I did not mind a chair the size of a carriage. I do not think it would fit through any of the doors in the house, though."

"What's wrong with an electric wheelchair?"

He let go of the little lever and the chair stopped. "Sorry?" he asked, staring at me.

"An electric wheelchair," I repeated. "You do have electricity here, don't you?"

"What is electricity?"

I gaped at him, and then I looked at the lights fixed to the wall nearby. At first glance they looked electric, but then I looked more closely and saw that what I'd taken for cables were in fact pipes, and that the lights had little white mantles instead of bulbs.

"These are gas, aren't they?" I asked.

"Of course. What did you expect – candles?"

"You mean, you really don't know what electricity is?"

"Sorry. Anyway, this is the library."

Oh, my God, I thought, a world without electricity. How was I going to survive that?

The library wasn't particularly big, but it did have floor to ceiling shelves all around the walls, and a couple of island shelves, too. In one corner was a door that led into a reading room furnished with a couple of comfortable-looking club chairs that stood on each side of a fireplace, and also two reading desks equipped with gaslights.

Next to the library was a billiard-room which contained a full-size billiard table at one end and a number of chairs at the other, next to a window offering a view of a formal garden. Also on the ground floor were another receiving room, a large dining room whose long table could probably accommodate twenty people, a smaller dining-room whose table was set for six, a room that looked like another dining room but which Wolfie said was the conference room, and finally a ballroom large enough to entertain a couple of hundred people. The ballroom alone was bigger than Auntie Megan's entire house.

"And back there," said Wolfie, indicating a door behind the great staircase, "are the kitchens, the scullery, the storage and prep rooms and the servants' dining room. Now let us go upstairs."

I thought he was going to find that difficult, but on the other side of the staircase a small lift had been installed.

"I am afraid it is only big enough for my chair," said Wolfie. "Could you meet me on the first floor?"

I wondered how the lift worked in a house with no electricity, until I saw Wolfie turning a handle at one side of the cabin. Apparently the lift was clockwork, too.

Alex and I walked up the stairs. The first floor contained a couple of morning rooms and a study – the study was clearly in use as there were papers all over the desk – and in the far corner was the office used by Mr Hall the estate manager, who seemed to keep his paperwork in a much more orderly fashion. There were two full bathrooms and two separate WCs, and the rest of the rooms on this floor were bedrooms. The ducal bedroom was huge, and the bed looked old enough to have been slept in by King Henry VIII, and large enough for most of his wives to have shared it with him at the same time.

"Bloody hell!" exclaimed Alex. "If you shared that with your wife you'd need to communicate with her by telephone! 'Hello, darling, I'm on my way over to your side. I'll be there in half an hour'."

Okay, that was a slight exaggeration, but I really didn't fancy sleeping in it – or at least not until I was a lot bigger.

Wolfie indicated Lord Folliot's room, though he didn't take us inside, and pointed out the guest room the visiting Air Admiral was using. There were two other bedrooms on this floor, neither of which was in use at present.

On we went, up to the second floor – Wolfie used his lift again – and here, on one corner, was my bedroom. It was twice as big as my room in London, though the bed itself was a mere double, rather than the monstrosity in the ducal bedchamber.

"They moved your clothes and most of your toys into storage about a year after you went missing," Wolfie told me, which explained the empty cupboards and wardrobes. "I do not suppose the clothes will fit you now, though. I am sure Uncle Gil will arrange to get some new ones for you, but you can borrow some of mine in the meantime – we are about the same size, I think."

"Uncle Gil?" I queried.

"Lord Folliot," he clarified. "Of course he really is your uncle, but we both always called him 'Uncle Gil' - his first name is Gilbert."

Before I could answer that the door opened and a middle-aged woman in black came in, followed by a couple of maids with their arms full of bedding.

"Oh! Sorry, Master Leo," she said. "I didn't know you were here. We'll come back later."

"No, that's fine, Mrs Sweeting," I said, guessing that this must be she. "We're just looking round. We'll get out of your way."

"As you wish, Master Leo. And can I just say that it's good to have you back with us."

"Thank you," I said. "I'm afraid I can't remember being here before – I expect Allchorn told you about the amnesia – but I'm sure it'll come back to me sooner or later."

"Well, let's hope so," she said.

"She has obviously forgotten what you were like," commented Wolfie as we went into the next room, which proved to be his. "One time she caught us climbing one of the chimneys – inside it, I mean. We had been reading about how chimney-sweeps used to send boys up the chimneys to clean them and we wanted to see if it was possible – we would have been about eight, I think. We came down with about half a ton of soot on our clothes and in our hair and we had walked it into the carpet before she caught us. That was the first time your father actually beat us – and the last, as it turned out, because he died four months later."

"How did he die?"

"It was in the Winter Retreat of 2005. Your father was commanding the rear-guard as Marshal Faivre's army was pulling back to the Rhine, but he held back from the general retreat in order to give Wilhelm-August of Saxony time to extricate himself from Wetzlar and join the retreat. By the time Wilhelm-August caught up with him they had been cut off. They fought their way back to the Rhine, where Faivre's men had been holding a bridge for them near Bendorf, just north of Koblenz, but only about a third of the troops had crossed it when an Eagle somehow avoided the rocket batteries and bombed the bridge. Your father was still on the far side.

"Some of the troops managed to swim across, but most of the others were killed or captured. We were told that Grand Duke Mikhail tried to stop the attack, but there were communication problems, and by the time the firing stopped your father was dead. The Grand Duke actually sent your mother a personal apology, for what that was worth, and your father collected a sackful of posthumous medals, from the Saxons and French as well as from Britain, though those are not much compensation for losing your husband or your father, either. He was a brave man, though."

It seemed odd that I couldn't remember any of that. Surely if your father dies in war – or anywhere else, come to that – you would remember it? But I still couldn't remember anything about him.

We continued our tour. The only other occupied bedroom on this floor was Mr Hall's, and that was over in the other wing, directly above his office – he had a private staircase between the two. Otherwise there were some more guest rooms, a nursery with a bedroom for a nanny beside it, two bathrooms and a school-room.

"Ah," I said. "Does that mean you… we… have a private tutor, then?"

"Yes. Obviously we are on holiday at the moment, but from September we will be back in here."

"Why aren't we at a proper school?"

"Mainly because we are not exactly normal children: in addition to ordinary lessons we do a lot of practical training. Your mother was grooming you as her successor, and since you disappeared Uncle Gil has continued my training, and I am sure he will want to do the same with you. Of course my uncle might not be prepared to let me captain a ship in battle, but there is no reason why you cannot."

"You mean that I'm going to be trained as an airship captain?"

"Well, if you get your memory back you will find that you have already had a lot of training. And if you have inherited your parents' courage you will be an excellent one."

Somehow 'Wartime airship captain' had never figured among my career choices, and nor had it ever been covered in careers days at school.

"So who is your uncle, and why won't he let you do it?" I asked.

"Because I am fifth… at least, I think it is still fifth – in line to the throne of Prussia, and my uncle – who is second in line – will not let me take the risk. His two boys are only three and five, so they are still at risk of childhood illnesses, and after me the succession becomes really complicated. Of course it is all academic: the way things are at the moment there is no realistic chance of Prussia being liberated in the near future. Still, I am fairly sure that I will be grounded from all combat flights, just in case. My uncle was livid when he heard that I had been on Daedalus.

"Anyway, that is about it for the tour. Shall we go back downstairs, or would you prefer to wait for Mrs Sweeting to finish preparing your room?"

"What about the third floor?" I asked.

He gave me a stare. "That is just servant quarters," he said. "Most of them have not been used for many years, either. The staff here used to be a lot bigger, apparently."

"I'd like to see anyway," I said. "Except… Alex, would you mind waiting down here? You can wait in Wolfie's room, or in mine once it's ready. We won't be long."

"But why…?"

"Because I want to try something that might help me to remember. Trust me – please?"

"Okay, you're the duke," said Alex, and he headed back towards Wolfie's room, though he looked back over his shoulder as he went.

"Come on, then," I said to Wolfie.

"The lift does not go up to the third floor – we did not think it was necessary."

"Then I'll carry you."

"It is all right," he said, standing up. "I can walk – I am just likely to be a little slow, that is all."

The staircase up to the third floor was narrower and much more functional than the one to the first and second floors, and the one at the front of the house – the one we were on now – was hardly ever used. Those servants who lived in the house used the third floor rooms in the other wing, and those could be accessed from the rear or servants' staircase that ran all the way up from the kitchen area.

Up here were box rooms and storage cupboards and…

"Stop!" I said. "I had one other memory flash, and it was about this floor. There's a room we used to use as our private hideaway, and I want to see if I can find it without you telling me which one it was."

I set off along the corridor with Wolfie at my shoulder. The doors all looked the same, but surely I would recognise the one where…

I ducked a little to bring my point of view down to where it had been when I was ten, and then I just knew. I marched briskly forward and grabbed the door handle… and found that the door was locked. My shoulders slumped – I'd felt sure…

And then I looked at Wolfie and saw that he was grinning and holding up a key.

"Dear God, he remembered," he said, under his breath and in German.

"Yes, I did," I replied in the same language. "Give me the key, Wolfie."

"Why are you speaking German?" he asked, giving it to me.

"Well, because you are… no, wait, that's not it," I said as I unlocked the door. "It was a club rule, wasn't it? We only speak German in our HQ."

I opened the door, and now I got a real memory flash of the room as I had last seen it, with several of our toys on the furniture and the twin paintings on the wall above the fireplace, my childish attempt at the red eagle of Brandenburg and his not much better effort at my leaping lion…

"What happened to the paintings?" I asked, still in German.

"You really do remember! I left them here for a long time – I could not get up the stairs without a lot of effort, and in any case I kept hoping you would come back. In the end I took them down and cleared everything out of here. They are down in my room now. Then I put the dust-sheets on and left. This is the first time I have been in here for … almost two years, I think. But now you are back, perhaps we should air the room out a little."

He went and opened both windows. Because this was a corner room they looked out to the front and side of the house, allowing us to see a large part of the grounds.

"So," he continued, "can you remember anything else? Like why we chose this room, perhaps?"

"Because it's on the corner, so we can see a long way… no, it wasn't that, was it? I can't see it, though."

I carefully removed the dust sheet and lay down on the bed.

"Come and sit beside me," I said, and when he was sitting at my side I took his hand and closed my eyes. I couldn't see anything specific, but I was aware of a tremendous sense of belonging, as if lying in that room with Wolfie at my side was somehow at the core of my being, or at least, the being of my younger self.

"Wolfie, I'm really sorry," I said, reverting to English.

"Why are you sorry?"

"Because you've been waiting for four years for Leo to come home, and when he finally gets here you find out that he isn't really Leo at all, just a complete stranger wearing his face. And I can sense what an important relationship you had with him, so I can understand how difficult this must be for you."

He didn't look very happy at that moment, so I pulled him down to lie next to me, hugged him and, as I had done previously with Alex, gave him a gentle kiss on the cheek. And at that moment I had another flash of memory – just a quick one, but one that answered his question.

"I know why we chose this room," I said, getting up and walking over to the fireplace.

It took me a while to find it, but eventually I located the hidden catch, and when I pressed it the entire left-hand side of the recess opened up, revealing a black hole behind it.

"Can you remember where it goes?" asked Wolfie, returning us to the use of German.

"No, but I'm really looking forward to exploring it. I bet there are plenty of memories stuck in there!"

"I have not been in there since you went away," he told me. "The passages are very narrow and the stairs are too difficult for me to manage on my own. But if you are with me you can make sure that I do not fall."

"Just what is the problem with your leg?" I asked.

"Close the panel and I will show you."

I managed to do that almost without thinking about it and when I turned round I saw that Wolfie had undone his belt and was in the process of removing his trousers. Once they were off I saw that his left leg ended just below the knee, and below that was a wooden prosthesis, held on with a set of straps. He undid the straps and handed me his wooden leg.

"I told you that I landed badly," he said. "Actually I smashed my foot, ankle and leg up almost completely: both the bones in the lower leg were broken in several places. They did try to put it all back together, but in the end they had to give up. At least they managed to save my knee, otherwise I'd be unable to bend my leg at all, and that would make it awkward to get about. As it is I can walk, although it gets uncomfortable if I have to go very far."

"Oh, God, Wolfie," I said, putting the prosthesis down on the bed and sitting next to him. "This is my fault – if you'd been wearing the shade it wouldn't have happened."

"No, it would have happened to you instead, and I would feel even worse. Look, Leo, it was not your fault, all right? You had to take the steering lines or we could both have been killed. It was my fault for being too feeble to hold on to you. And it could be a whole lot worse: we are both alive, and we are together again… even if you are stuck inside your other-world person for the moment, I know you will find the way out sooner or later."

"Those straps have left some nasty marks," I said, lifting his legs onto the bed so that he could lie down. "Maybe we should get Alex to help: he's really good at massage."

"I would sooner you did it, to be honest. I know you are not going to laugh at me."

"Nor would Alex. He's really nice, Wolfie – he's been a great friend, and I know you'll like him when you get to know him."

I rubbed the area where the straps had marked the flesh. I didn't really know what I was doing, but the marks seemed to fade a little. I found myself looking at his underwear, which was a plain white cotton garment that was roughly the shape of a pair of boxers but without any buttons on the front or, so far as I could tell, an opening either. I was pleased to notice that there wasn't too much of a bulge there – hopefully I wasn't going to get shown up again if…

If what? I thought. No matter what history there might have been, my memory told me that I'd never met him before, so wasn't it a bit soon to be thinking about… well, that sort of thing?

I dragged my eyes away and let go of Wolfie's leg.

"Do not stop," he said, grabbing my wrist. "That felt good. If your friend can do that better than you he must be a real expert. Look, Leo… I want to like your friend, because it is clear that you like him very much. But… I am scared he will come between us."

"I don't think he will. Even without my memories I can tell that we had something very special, and once I get my memory back I don't think anything could get between us. But the point is that Alex won't want that, either – he'll just want what's best for me. I trust him. And… look, I think we should go back downstairs now. I'm going to want to spend a lot of time here with you, because I think the key to my memories is probably in this room, or perhaps through that panel in the fireplace, but right now I want to get back to Alex. This isn't his world, and everything here is going to be strange to him. I don't want to leave him on his own for too long."

"No, you are right. Can you help tighten the straps for me?"

He re-attached his leg and I tightened the straps, and then we put the dust-sheet back on the bed and went downstairs, though we left the windows in our room partly open to get the air circulating. We found that Mrs Sweeting had finished preparing my room (and the windows were open there, too), and that it was looking more like a normal bedroom. Alex was standing by one of the windows looking out at the grounds.

"Any luck with the memory?" he asked me.

"Just a couple of little flashes. I'm pretty sure it'll come, but I don't know how long it might take."

"Just relax," he advised. "The more you worry about it, the harder it'll be. Like you said, it'll come in the end, so just take it easy until it does."

There was a painting of a coat of arms above the fireplace now, and since the charge on the shield was a leaping lion I assumed that this was the arms of the dukedom. The lion looked familiar, and when I pulled my watch from the pocket of my bag I found out that the engraving on the front was identical.

"Look, Alex," I said, holding the watch up next to the painting. "I think that's why there's no name on the inside – after all, the lion in astrology is called Leo."

"More likely your mother did not put a name because you were now the duke," suggested Wolfie. "Your father died over a year before your tenth birthday, so perhaps having the leaping lion of Culham on the watch is a way of saying that it belongs to the duke."

"Yes, but loads of crests have lions on," said Alex. "It could belong to anyone with a lion on his shield."

Wolfie shook his head. "Most lions on shields are rampant or passant," he said. "Yours is a lion salient, and gardant, too – it's unique. A lion in that attitude could only be a Culham lion."

"So that's how Sir Edmund knew straight away who I was – or probably was," I said. "I suppose it's useful to be unique."

"You're just uniquely weird," said Alex. "Your coat of arms ought to have a large nut in the middle, surrounded by a wreath of nuts, underneath a nut tree."

"One day I'm going to dig out the Demetriou family crest," I said. "A large ox dormant, supported by a pair of baboons, I expect."

On another day that would have led to him jumping on me, but perhaps he was inhibited by Wolfie's presence, because he just gave me the finger instead.

Supper that evening was magnificent and took a very long time, and I actually lost count of the number of courses. I wondered if we were trying to impress the Air Admiral or if this was what every meal here was like, and I thought that if this was typical I was going to need to start doing some serious exercise if I didn't want to end up morbidly obese by Christmas. After the final course we politely declined Lord Folliot's invitation to join the men in the billiard-room for a cigar (though I don't think he seriously expected us to say yes, somehow) and said that we would retire for the night instead: it was late, and we'd had a rather eventful day, after all.

We went upstairs and waited for Wolfie by the lift shaft, and when he arrived we walked slowly towards our rooms.

"Can I ask a favour, MM?" said Alex. "See, they've made me up a room, but… I know this is going to sound well lame… but could I come and sleep in your room tonight? I can bring the mattress and sleep on the floor. It's just, with this not even being my own world... it feels… well, you know."

"Of course you can," I said. "Actually I'd prefer not to be on my own either. Go and get your stuff, and I'll help Wolfie with his leg."

"Huh?"

"I'll explain later. I'll see you in five minutes, okay?"

I followed Wolfie into his room and closed the door.

"I can manage on my own, you know," he said.

"I know that. I just wanted a chance to say 'Goodnight'. But since I'm here I might as well be useful."

So I helped him take off his trousers and then remove his leg, and then I rubbed the areas marked by the straps again.

"I am definitely going to ask you to do that every evening," he said. "Still, perhaps you should go – your friend will be waiting."

"Don't worry about Alex," I said. "He'll be fine. Give me your shirt and I'll hang it up for you."

So his shirt came over his head and I hung it and his trousers up in a small cupboard close to the bed, and then to my immense disappointment he took a long nightshirt from under his pillow and pulled it over his head. And only then did he reach underneath it and remove his underwear.

"Ha!" he said. "Got you – you should see the look on your face! You were hoping I was going to undress completely, were you not? And do not bother to lie. You have not changed at all!"

"What do you mean?"

"You liked making me undress. Of course, I liked making you undress, too – we played a lot of games like that. So, do you still want to see me undressed?"

"Well, yes, if you're offering." I didn't see any point in lying, and I was definitely curious, especially about whether, if he had any hair, it would be the same colour as the hair on his head.

"I knew it," he said, grasping his nightshirt. "You may be surprised – there have been some changes."

He pulled the nightshirt over his head and dropped it on the bed beside him. Of course I couldn't remember how he had looked before, but I guessed that the most significant change was the hair, because he did have some, thin curls of reddish-gold. There wasn't that much of it, but it looked good and it made me feel jealous.

"I bet you just kept some of the clippings last time you had a haircut and glued them on," I said.

"Check for yourself," he said.

I wasn't going to refuse an invitation like that, so I took hold and tugged gently. Of course I knew perfectly well that the hair was natural, but touching it – and it was somehow softer than I had expected – felt good. He obviously thought it felt good too, because almost at once he began to get an erection.

"I see that still hasn't grown a lot," I commented, though I had no idea how big it had been before. It didn't look that big, though, probably no more than four inches.

"And yours has, I suppose?"

"Well… not really, if I'm honest," I admitted.

"Show me, then."

So I undid my belt, lowered my jeans and boxers to my knees and lifted my shirt out of the way.

"Aha! No hair," he commented. "That means I win the bet."

"What bet?"

"A long time ago we had a bet about which of us would grow hair first. I will tell you all about it when we are next upstairs. As for the rest… your balls are quite big, but I think my penis is still bigger."

"Crap!"

"Again, perhaps we can find out tomorrow. I will find a measuring rod."

He pulled his nightshirt on again, and I took that as my cue to get dressed too. I'd have liked to do a little more, but maybe this wasn't the time or place – I really didn't know what Alex would have said if he had caught us doing things we shouldn't, and I didn't want to find out, either. So I said goodnight to Wolfie, turned off his lamp and went back to my room. Alex was sitting on the side of the bed in his boxers.

"I don't really need to bring the mattress in here, do I?" he asked. "After all, the bed is big enough for both of us, isn't it?"

"Yes, I should think so," I said.

"Good. Then could you just go along to my room and turn my light out? I'm not sure how to do it, and I don't want gas leaking all night."

One of the servants had presumably lit the lamps in our rooms and so we hadn't had to touch them yet. I knew how they worked because I'd been on a holiday with Auntie Megan and Uncle Jim where we had stayed in a caravan that had gas lighting.

"Come here," I said, going to the lamp on my wall. "You see this little valve? All you have to do is to turn it until it's at right angles to the pipe. Go and do the one in your room while I get ready for bed."

He was back before I'd finished undressing, so obviously the valve hadn't given him any problems. I stripped down to my boxers and fished my shorts out of my bag along with the flashlight, which I put on the little table beside the bed.

"You're not actually going to wear those, are you?" he said, looking at the shorts.

"Well… I thought I should, just in case there's an emergency and we have to get up in the night."

"There won't be an emergency," he said. "This house has been here for… I dunno, two hundred years? So what makes you think it's suddenly going to burn down the moment we arrive?"

"Okay, I won't wear the shorts," I said.

"I should damned well think not," he said, and he pulled off his boxers and got into bed. I went and turned the lamp off and then removed mine and got in next to him.

"It's been a strange day, hasn't it?" he commented.

"It has. Look… I don't know how things work around here: for all I know an army of servants burst into the room at half-past six in the morning, all singing a merry song, and they open the curtains, drag us out of bed, dress us and hustle us downstairs for a fifteen course breakfast, all before we've even woken up. So how would you like me to do what I owe you now, rather than risking putting it off until the morning? Maybe that would at least add a decent ending to your strange day."

"It certainly would – just as long as you're sure. Like I said before, I don't want you to feel you have to."

"I don't. I feel that I want to, though."

I wriggled close to him, and he put his arm around me and pulled me closer still.

"Now I'm relying on you to get the bedding out of the way in time," I said. "I really don't want to get the servants talking on our first night here."

"Okay. But take your time – we've got all night!"

I had no memory of having ever done this before, although I was starting to think it likely that Wolfie and I would have done this for each other during my last stay in this house. Nonetheless, I had no real technique for doing it to someone else, so I just had to hope I wouldn't make too much of a mess of it. To start with I just stroked his body, and when I got to his groin I concentrated first on stroking his balls and feeling the thick, soft hair. And even when I took hold of his penis I began by holding it gently and caressing it slowly, and only started to rub it after a couple of minutes.

"That's great, MM," he encouraged me. "Keep doing it like that."

Of course I couldn't see what I was doing, but I didn't really need to: what I was holding was certainly too big to slip out of my fingers. It felt hot and hard and even bigger than it had looked back in the tent.

"Nearly there," he said, a lot sooner than I had expected.

"Do you want me to stop?" I asked.

"Not this time. This time I just want…"

He pushed the bedding away from his body, and I just kept going steadily until I felt it pulse in my hand, and then I just held on while it jerked three or four more times.

"Okay," he said, finally. "That's it. There are some tissues in the left hand pocket of my bag."

I grabbed the flashlight and rolled out of bed, finding the tissues and passing them to him, and then I held the torch while he cleaned himself up. We weren't sure what to do with the evidence – there wasn't a waste bin in the room, and in any case I found myself thinking about what the servants would say if they found them there. But Alex had the solution.

"I need a pee, so I'll flush them," he said, grabbing his boxers and pulling them on.

I got back into bed, and he reappeared a couple of minutes later and joined me.

"So, was that any good?" I asked.

"No, you need a lot of practice. Maybe if you do that for me twice a day from now on you'll have a good technique in a month or two."

"Yeah, right. Come on, Alex, seriously, was it okay?"

"It was wicked, awesome, sick or whichever word you like... probably here they'd say that it was 'rather extraordinary' or something like that. But, yeah, I really liked it, and you did it perfectly. Thanks, MM. It's not everyone who can say he's had that done for him by a duke."

It was quiet for about five minutes, and I thought he'd gone to sleep, but then he said quietly, "If you get your memory back… you're not going to forget me, are you?"

"No, of course not! This place might have been the first ten years of my life, but you've been the last three, and I'm not going to forget that. It's not like an 'either-or' situation: there's no reason why remembering the missing bit should make me forget everything else, is there?"

"I know that logically, but… I'm still scared, okay? What happens if you turn into their missing duke and just forget about me?"

"I won't. I think me and Wolfie were really close before, but even if I get my memories of him back, you're still going to be my friend, okay? Nothing is going to change that."

"Promise?"

"I swear, okay?"

I wriggled close to him and hugged him, and he hugged me back, and in that position we fell asleep.

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