Alike in Dignity

by Michael Arram


The Baron Staufer was a tall man, looming behind Roman a whole head and more taller than Yuli, who stood rooted to the spot on the bridge feeling like a child caught in an act of naughtiness. It was a feeling he immediately resented. What, after all, was he doing? Kissing his boyfriend, who loved him. Roman had gone rigid in his arms, his eyes wide with shock.

The baron answered his own question. 'You are the accompanist, Julius Lucic. How long has this been going on, Roman?' The tone of the question was not angry, but not particularly friendly either.

Roman separated from Yuli and put his back against the bridge parapet, his head down, mute. Yuli braced himself as he rallied.

'Sir, Roman and I have been boyfriends since the summer.'

The baron ignored him. 'Roman?'

'Er … it's as … Julius … Yuli says, sir.'

'Then it must stop.'

'But sir! How can you …?' Yuli exclaimed.

The man loomed over Yuli and finally deigned to notice him. 'I can say what I wish, young man. My son is sixteen and too young to get involved in a relationship with anyone, boy or girl. He is my responsibility, and he needs special care, because he is vulnerable. So this will stop. Do you hear me? Now get over to the car, Roman. Go!'

With a hesitant, backward look at Yuli, Roman shuffled towards the Osten Tor.

His father however did not move, but stood looking down at Yuli with a considering stare. Finally he said 'So Herr Hadjek's suspicions were correct. And you've been … attached … to my son for several months, yes? No doubt you've talked a lot. Tell me, has he told you how he ended up in Sudmesten Central? No? I thought not. So perhaps you two are not quite as close as you might have thought. Now you listen to me, young man. I have no intention of taking Roman from his gymno; he's doing too well. Better than we'd ever thought would have been possible.'

He held up his hand as he saw Yuli was about to burst in. 'Yes, yes. No doubt you will say that your … relationship … has something to do with that. It may even be true up to a point, though to me the improvement began once he found friends in the Hofkapelle. As I said, he will continue to attend your school, and continue to sing in the Hofkapelle. But I will strongly represent to Herr Pelikan that you're not in my view a suitable pianist to accompany him, and I think he will listen to me. After all, he may find the question as to how he let two of the boys in his choir begin a relationship, which he's encouraged, difficult to explain to the dean of the Chapel Royal, whose views on the subject I can guess.

'I can't stop you two associating at school, and I won't try. But I urge you to step back from the … er … romantic element of your friendship. Roman will listen to me when I tell him the same. You're both too young, far too young, and Roman is … fragile, in ways you don't understand.'

Yuli was red and getting angrier. 'It's about my father, isn't it. This is all about your grudge against him.'

The man shook his head. 'You really have no idea, child. Remember what I said.' He turned and stalked back to his car, and Yuli gazed after him, stunned. Then he turned and leaned over the bridge parapet, staring unseeing at the moonlit waters below.

Yuli woke in Willem's bed. He had gone straight to the Krals after his interview with Roman's father. He couldn't face his own tatti. He and Willem had talked late, showered and drifted off together into sleep. As ever, he found Willem spooned around him and his friend's erection tight between his ass cheeks. Willem kissed his shoulder and held him close, so it seemed he had been awake for a while.

'Okay?' he asked softly.

'No, Willemczu mine. Why can't life be simple? Why can't it be like when we were kids?'

Willem chuckled. 'Cos we're not kids any more? Seems the likeliest explanation.'

'Very wise … you are a wise fellow, Willemczu. So what's the way out of this?'

Willem let him go and stretched out on his back. 'It's nothing to do with your tatti, that I can believe. Maybe the old baron was actually being straight with you. That weird thing he said about Roman … what was that about?'

Yuli lay next to Willem and pounded his memory for anything Roman might have said about his old school. Nothing. He shook his head. 'No idea, Willemczu.'

'Want that blowjob I owe you before we go to gymno?'

Despite the circumstances, Yuli chuckled. 'It may be the last such offer I get for a while. But I gotta talk with Romesczu. Maybe he can clear it all up before tomorrow's party. It's putting a dampener on it for me.'

'No blowjob then? I was looking forward to doing it for a change.'

'Liar. I won't forget though, leblen Willem.'

Henry Atwood looked up from one of the many draft designs for the set of the 2005 Song Contest. He glanced over at his office calendar. Deadlines were coming up faster than he liked. He was a little pleased when Marek Toblescu rapped on the doorframe of his office. He appreciated the distraction.

'Hey, kid. Anything to report?'

'A few things, boss. Can I sit down? Thanks. I've been through the newsfiles here and over at the Ruritanischer Tagblatt and got the main phases and chief players of the Sixth District and Martzfeld Developments sorted. I've been talking to Herr Wolfram. He's been really great. He's giving me a list of registries, archives and government offices I need to start tracking companies, directorships and contracts through. I had no idea.'

'Me neither, Marek.'

'One problem though.'

'What's that?'

'PeacherCorp. Its European division is incorporated in Frankfurt, and I can't get there on a tram, like I can the other places.'

'Ah … maybe I have contacts that'll help. Give me a list of your requirements.'

'Cool! This is fun.'

Henry chuckled. 'You really mean that. You must hate Accounts that bad.'

Marek shrugged. 'The people are okay, but the job is … way tedious. Okay, I'm off. Just checking in. I'll report back when I have something. You should see my flow charts … just awesome.'

Yuli didn't see Roman till lunchtime on Monday, when Della brought him over to Yuli in the study centre. The boy's eyes were a little reddened.

'You've been crying, baby.'

Roman's eyes were down, and he didn't look up. He just shook his head.

'How was it at home. Really bad?'

Again the head shake. Della sat on the armrest of Roman's chair, and stroked his hair. 'Come on Romesczu, time to tell Yuli what you told me.' Roman looked up at that, and his expression was disturbingly hopeless.

'What did your Vater mean about your last school, baby. Please tell me.'

Roman began hesitatingly. 'I suppose you should know … but I could never find the strength, and I thought the darkness was all behind me.' There was a long pause. 'It was at the beginning of Year 10 in the Deutsches Gymnasium. There was a mean gang who began picking on me. It got really bad: filthy messages in my locker, parcels of shit in my backpack, shoving, and finally … well, I was … they had showers … and …'.

'Don't say any more, baby.'

'It got too much but I couldn't say anything. They were relentless and it went on for ages. Vater was cross at me because my results were going down the drain. Mutta had … er … other things on her mind. So I … had a breakdown.' He dried up.

Yuli was at a loss. 'A breakdown? What, like you went catatonic?'

'No … I wish I had.' He paused, gathered himself, and went on. 'I took an open razor to school. I have no memory of why, or of what I did, but maybe I was intending to do some dramatic act of self-harm. Instead I went wild with it in the changing room. I slashed one of the bullies, the youngest of them. I'll never forgive myself for that. He was a little shit, but he didn't deserve the scar.'

'Oh … my God.'

'I woke up in a clinic, a week later. I was on a cocktail of drugs and therapy for two months. That was before I turned up here in Sudmesten Central for a fresh start. But the past … it never goes away.' He gave a deep sigh.

'But what about the police and stuff?'

'One of the teachers had worked out what was going on. He documented their abuse, found witnesses and forced the bullies to confess. So they were thrown out. I was told not to come back either, and placed on probation pending psychiatric reports. So there it is. That's what my father was talking about. You see now why he's so protective? Don't think badly of him.'

Yuli grasped his hand and squeezed it hard. 'I don't, but how can what we have together harm you, Romesczu? Seems to me that you're still the victim here. He's taking away from you the music that's made you whole again … let alone my love.'

'We'll get through this, Yuli leblen. They can't stop me loving you.'

'But you won't be at our birthday party tomorrow.'

A slight smile crossed Roman's face. 'At least I'll be missed. I wouldn't have been were it not for my Yuli.'

'Cold consolation, Romesczu.'

Lisztomania was packed with Year 12 kids already by six o'clock. Music was thumping from the mixer decks where one of the student DJs was presiding. Dancing and a certain amount of drinking was going on. Illicit booze had been confided to Bolo to dispense on the understanding that he'd do so sparingly and monitor the kids renowned for having weak heads, so things were happily relaxed and not threatening. If worse came to worst, a heavy-set bouncer had been employed by Willem's dad to sit discreetly in a corner, his eyes roving around looking for any warning signs.

Yuli danced with and was hugged by every girl in the club. By now everyone in his year knew the story and sympathy washed over him like a warm tide. So the evening was not as bad as he had expected. He just wished he could have danced with Roman.

At eight, while everyone was still relatively sober, an improbably-sized cake embellished with seventeen burning sparklers was brought in by Della and her mates. Cheers broke out and Yuli was urged up to the keyboard on the stage. He grinned as he played the traditional birthday song, which was given a rousing chorus, with Willem hanging round his neck as he did so. The two boys kissed theatrically at the conclusion to laughter and catcalls, some of them rather obscene.

As the hubbub subsided, Yuli flicked several switches, engaged a slow beat, upped the volume and his fingers began to call out chords from the keys. The crowd fell silent. He felt a little inspired, though some of that might have been the two cans of Pilsner he had imbibed. For the past week he had been doing a lot of work on his bedroom keyboard and a new electronic piece had emerged into his mind, based on the Brauer song, which he still could not get out of his head.

He shouted into the mike: 'This song's for my oldest and best friend! The best friend anyone could ever have! This is for the Noble Heart! This is for my big brother Willemczu, whom I love!' Huge cheers broke out.

And whether it was the lager or some other impulse, the music began to swell in his head and moved down to his fingers like lifeblood from his heart. Yuli had a pretty reasonable voice, and sang in the school choir as a tenor-baritone when needed. He began with the refrain: Edler herz, dar zu Bozh! He sang the eighteenth-century words, but the tune would have been barely recognised by old Wolfram Brauer. On the third refrain he noticed that arms had crept around his schoolmates' waists as they stood and swayed, and their voices rose to meet his. Eyes sparkled with tears all around him as he finished on a powerful chord.

'Man! You have to record that!' Willem said at his shoulder.

'Damn right!' seconded the student DJ. 'I can make it happen too.'

Henry grinned up at Peter Peacher, who gave him a narrow stare in return. The White Tree at six in the evening was quiet and Alfons was apparently off work. His assistant barman, a young Brazilian who was also his boyfriend, had found a coffee for Henry. He didn't ever say much, but he had a glorious smile.

'Want a coffee, Pete? Ernesto will get you one.'

'I'm here to pay a debt Henry,' he growled. 'I could have guessed there would be a price for your help back last spring.'

'I'm wounded. To find that you think of me, one of your oldest friends, in such transactional terms.'

'It's not me who called in the favour, dude, so allow me the luxury of resentment. How's Ed?'

'Good, I think. He's on night duty at the palace the rest of the week. So I'll get to see him by the weekend.'

'Okay. When you call him, Oskar says he'd like for you pair to join us out in Templerstadt on Saturday. Eddie is over from Britain, so every distraction will be welcome. Him and Rudi are not exactly close either, and their Majesties are going to be there too.'

'Great! You don't really hate me after all. I'm comforted.'

Peter rolled his eyes. Then he shifted to a grin. 'I gotta say it's a new one for me. Getting the CEO and COO of a major international corporation to commit industrial espionage against his own firm, of which he is the major shareholder. It's a disconcerting crime. I keep thinking I should inform on myself to me. But then I get carried away with the adventure of it all. What an odd life I lead.'

Henry laughed. 'But then, you're a weird sort of capitalist. So what've you got for me?'

Peter pulled a folder from his inner coat pocket. 'I've abstracted all the contract dates with all the parties involved in the Martzfeld purchases: you know I bought up a lot more of the district than just the site for the Peacher corporate headquarters? The Royal Bank of Rothenia paid through the nose for their site. I love making money off banks, such a change. We still lease six blocks there. So … we had contact at some point with all the main players in the Martzfeld development and all the construction firms involved. Oh yes … and there's a file there of meetings with Nuevemesten officials we dealt with over the infrastructure contracts. But it's all above board, really. Tedious stuff.'

Henry shrugged. 'I'm not looking for crimes. It's names of firms and individuals I want. I wasn't expecting any more from you. My … er … target was already pretty rich before the Martzfeld thing happened.'

'Might I ask who this target is?'

'You might. But I won't tell you. It could yet turn out to be a blind alley.'

'Journalists,' Peter scoffed. 'You know, I have a feeling that you'd not hesitate to investigate me if you thought there was a story there.'

'I'd recuse myself,' Henry laughed. 'There are limits. You're a mate, and always have been. I'd turn your misdeeds over to your sister to punish.'

'Now that's terrifying. I have had the frightening experience of seeing Harry in a temper you would not believe. It was like being in a whirlwind of ice shards, and I wasn't even the target.'

'No? Who was? Surely not Eddie?'

'God no! Harry has a different way of dealing with him. He'd die rather than upset her. They're so close. No, it was poor dad.'

'You're kidding.'

'Am not. Dad is a slow speaker at the best of times and once she started in on him over his reaction to Eddie's embrace of the thoroughly unprofitable humanities he was lost: stabbed through and through by four logical and unanswerable arguments before he could draw breath. Of course, dad hadn't bothered criticising his beloved Harry when she opted for languages, so he was screwed for sexism too. I swear he was almost in tears by the time she stormed off.'

'Let's hope she's in a good mood on Saturday then.'

A letter was awaiting Yuli when he woke up on Wednesday, as was a sharp hangover. After the party he and Willem had been sneaked into a Technische campus bar and had not made it back up to the Domshorja till well after midnight. No one was waiting up. The Lucics assumed that if Yuli was not back he was at the Krals, and the Krals assumed Willem was at the Lucics. It was a useful strategy of obfuscation that the boys occasionally exploited.

'What's that about?' his mother asked Yuli.

He opened it, focussed and then threw it down in disgust. 'The dean of the Chapel Royal has terminated my assistant organist post for "conduct unbecoming a member of the royal household". Now I wonder what that would be?'

'What! You can't be serious! Just because you fell in love with that nice Von Ebersfeld boy? Your father will go up in flames over this.'

'Don't tell him, mutti. He's got enough to worry about with the press.'

'You can't let this go, Yuli. It's discrimination … homophobia!'

Yuli looked at the letter again. 'Apparently, there is an appeals procedure and a conciliation service, but I'm not to show up at the Residenz again, and my security pass is cancelled.'

'I'll be willing to bet that the Von Ebersfeld boy's still persona grata. This is coming from his father, you can be sure. The bastard.'

Yuli felt too emotionally tired to resent the baron's interference. 'He's just doing what he thinks is right for Romesczu.'

'Leblen, that was a positively mature reaction, as well as very charitable! Are you sure you're alright?'

'No, I'm not. I'm tired. But I'm not giving up either. Give me a chance to rally, mutti. I … I really need space at the moment.'

Frau Lucic gave her son a troubled look. What Yuli had not told her was that the letter also detailed 'a public act of indecency carried out within the confines of the Hofgarten, inconsistent with the dignity of the Crown estates'. Apparently one of his and Roman's Thursday evening encounters had not been beyond the range of the palace security cameras, as they had mistakenly assumed.

Yuli and Roman still could meet and talk in gymno, and since Roman got there first in the morning he was invariably waiting for his boyfriend in the school porch. They always kissed, heedless of the other kids, and because of Yuli's massive profile of coolness in the school it was never so much as noticed by the crowds passing by.

Roman giggled when they separated. 'Ooh! You stink of booze. How much did you have last night?'

'Enough for a bit of a headache this morning, baby. Thanks for the card! Though it was a bit … naughty. You made it yourself I hope? I'd not like to think pictures of your erection were commercially available.'

They laced arms and walked slowly to their home room, where Yuli presented Roman with that morning's letter. He flushed red and then white.

'So I assume my Romesczu didn't get a letter too?'

'That's … a disgrace!'

'I'm afraid your Vater has done his worst. I won't be able to appeal that charge, as it happens to be true, and no doubt they have the tapes. It won't make your Vater any happier though. The dean would have had to share the grounds of dismissal, so he knows what we got up to. But how did he talk the dean into not throwing you out as well?'

Roman was still bright red. 'I … I don't think that it was my Vater who organised this.'

'No? Then who?'

'It would be Herr Hadjek, his chief of staff. He and my Vater … It was Herr Hadjek who was the teacher at the Deutsches Gymnasium who helped stop the bullying. They became friends and …'

'… he does all the dirty work?' Yuli suggested.

'It's not like that.'

'But you don't like him.'

'I never said that.'

'You didn't have to, leblen Romesczu. I can read you these days. It's not what you say, it's what you don't say.'

Roman's mouth gaped. 'What do you mean?'

'Leblen, you always say nice things about people, or you keep your mouth shut. It's what makes you so perfect. If you'd liked this man Hadjek, you'd have eagerly said grateful things about him, since he'd been good to you. But you didn't.'

Roman went red again, then relaxed into a quirky smile. 'I'll start trash talking people just to confuse you, idiot!'

'That's my boy.'

'I'll not go to the Hofkapelle tomorrow, whatever they say. I'm quitting.'

'No, my loyal baby. You get a lot of happiness from the Hofkapelle. You have real friends there.'

'It won't be the same without you, and it's one less place we can meet.'

'Which is no doubt what the Hadjek creature intended.'

'I'm afraid you're right,' Roman sighed. 'What do we do?'

'Not a clue, leblen.'

Templerstadt was an ancient Tarlenheim house in Husbrau province, which Peter Peacher and Oskar von Tarlenheim, his partner, had reclaimed for the family. Henry loved it. It had a walled and cobbled manor court, with a gatehouse and hall block, as well as a magnificent fourteenth-century chapel. No expense had been spared in restoring it and bringing it up to twenty-first-century standards. To the east side of the old hall were now all the facilities a Peacher would demand: well-equipped modern kitchens, a large indoor and outdoor pool, gym, offices and games rooms. A screen of trees below the eastern lawns hid a new garage block, beside the refitted nineteenth-century stables. There were many Rothenian domestic staff in bright green Tarlenheim livery, but they were unobtrusive.

Henry preferred to hang around in the older rooms, and particularly liked the parlour and drawing rooms at the north end of the hall. There was something of the cosy English country vicarage which had been preserved in their décor: fringed standard lamps, sofas, armchairs and walls hung with landscapes. The diamond-paned casements had an outlook over the paddocks, where a couple of Oskar's horses were grazing, swathed in tailored blankets against the cold. He felt at home there.

Henry had an ear cocked for the arrival of the royal motorcade. It was unmistakable when it came, as the police car heading it rumbled through the gatehouse, its blue and red lights flashing. An SUV full of Sichertsdeinst agents spilled its black-suited contents into the court as the grey royal Mercedes, the royal lion banner on its bonnet, pulled to a sleek stop behind. Oskar was awaiting the king and queen and welcomed them formally into the house. Henry put down his magazine and went out into the hall to greet his old friend.

'Morning, Outfield.'

'Hey, Broody.'

'Don't call me that. How many times do I have to tell you?'

'Hey, Harry! At least you got out on the right side of the bed this morning.'

The king gave a snort of laughter. 'You got that wrong, Henry.'

'What? Oh sorry, Harry. I hope it wasn't something I did?'

The queen was indeed decidedly tense. 'No, Henry. I'll tell you later. Where's Pete and Eddie?'

'Out the back doing something competitive and masculine. I think Ed is cheering them on.'

'I'll go give my siblings a hug. Don't start talking palace shop with Oskar, Rudi! This is a weekend off.'

The king rolled his eyes. 'It's okay, darling. Osku, Outfield and I have other things on our minds.'

'We do? Is this about the Song Contest, perchance?'

'The boy is psychic.'

Oskar sat them in the hall and a deferential footman took orders for drinks, bowing low to the king before departing.

'So Henry,' the king commenced, 'give me an update and reassure me Eurovision 2005 is not going to be a national embarassment.'

'When did you get so interested in light entertainment, Rudi?'

'Bizarrely, this camp little Songfest of yours does tend to engage people not just on a national, but on an international level. You might be surprised when we heads of state get together how often it comes up. As a result, it will be a national humiliation if Rothenia fails to deliver in Strelzen next year. Trachtenberg has told me he expects me to be available to present some sort of trophy. The Turks got a lot of international cred from this year's success in Istanbul, and Eastern Europe has something to prove too. Even more bizarrely, it all falls on your narrow shoulders.'

'Build me up, why don't you. But it's going okay so far. I admit we have concerns, not least with the venue: the old Humanist Hall on Festungstrasse. It smells like a decaying cinema to begin with. It's got space, but we're having to draw heavily on Eurovision funds and sponsorship to refit the stage, seating and facilities. It's closing for the rebuilding work in January, not that anyone will notice. It's barely used these days.'

'Sounds like Will Vincent's going to have to dig deep. Is the rivalry with RTV worth that sort of investment?'

'Will's canny, Rudi. He's entered into a partnership with the owners. I think he's accumulated a 51% share. He sees a future for it as an entertainment venue and performance area which Strelsenermedia can utilise long term: it'll be the large studio space we've lacked till now.'

Oskar grinned. 'You shouldn't underestimate Will's business sense, sir. He invests his money with care.'

The king nodded. 'What other concerns are plaguing your nervous disposition, Outfield?'

'The process of choosing the song begins in the new year. We're calling it "A Song for Rothenia" and the regional heats are scheduled for February. The final round will be televised on 19 March, which will commence the big build-up of mass popular enthusiasm ready for the big day on 21 May.'

'Tell me the song will be in Rothenian, not in cheesy pseudo-English.'

'We're leaving it to the artists. We're not going all cultural totalitarian on this. The singer has to be comfortable in what's being sung. Svetlana was so powerful a hit 'cos she could express herself best in her own tongue. The younger sort of Euro-artist may be happier in the international language.'

Rudi relaxed. 'Understood, Henry. That reassures me. Very good. Let's all go out the back and say hello to my in-laws.'

The three men strolled though the house and found the Peacher siblings sitting on the terrace, despite the crisp cold. It was a sunny day under a crystalline sky, and very pleasant, with the fragrance of a wood fire in the stable below scenting the air. The outside pool was covered for the winter. Henry took a chair next to the queen and looked out over the late autumn landscape of Husbrau, ridge upon ridge of leafless trees fading into a purple distance. The snow and ice would not be long in coming.

Queen Harriet was also musing quietly as her brothers and their friends bantered and guffawed across the table. Henry, curious at her abstraction, finally asked her what was on her mind.

'Huh? I'm just really pissed off, Henry. I've worked hard and invested a lot in building up the music at the Hofkapelle. Rothenia has a strong Classical and religious culture, and it's a spiritual and cultural asset that needs to be cherished, because it will bring returns to our nation quite as important as material ones. I know you must have felt this. Rothenia is a land with an inner strength denied to other countries. So it needs avenues of expression. I thought I'd cracked it, but this morning both my Kapellemeister and organ scholar, as well as half the choir, have resigned.' She shook her head. 'Just what I need. But I'll sort it. Oh … it's Christmas at the Château of Zenda this year. I hope you and Ed will be joining us.'

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