Alike in Dignity

by Michael Arram


Yuli and Willem did not know the English term 'gobsmacked' and neither Rothenian nor German had an equivalent word, but that was what they were.

'Woof!' Willem exclaimed eventually. 'I like the decisiveness.'

'You sure, baby?' Yuli said, squeezing his hand. 'It'll be hard.'

A firm nod answered him. 'It's the only way for me to have a life … the only way to have you in my life.'

'Then I'll be there with you, in every way I can.'

'Hmm,' Willem considered. 'Your parents won't like it of course, but with you at seventeen there'll be absolutely nothing they can do legally. You realise that it'll embarrass your Vater when it gets out.'

Roman grimaced. 'I didn't want this, and I know it'll hurt all of us in different ways, but there's no alternative.'

'Have you and Klara made arrangements?' Willem asked.

'Uhuh. She has a small extra bedroom. She's already slowly moving my favourite stuff into it, my clothes and bedding, bit by bit making it home for me.'

'She really loves you,' Yuli smiled. 'But how's she going to make a living when she quits her job?'

Roman shrugged. 'She tells me that she's been turning down better paid jobs for years, just to look after me. She'll have no lack of work, and she doesn't need my parents' references to get it.'

'Of course, you'll still get your Hofkapelle scholarship …' Yuli mused.

'And our fees for our public performances. Maybe we can get more of them.'

Willem beamed. 'Great, you two! This is all positive. And here's another thing!' The two looked at him questioningly. 'Well, haven't you seen the publicity over the past few days? Posters all over the gymnos and a website too? Song for Rothenia! It's time Starcrossed made a bid for pop fame.'

The Ministry of State was not in the Government Quarter, but in new offices in Martzfeld, only two blocks from the grandeur of the Peacher corporate headquarters. The ministry had occupied a wing of the Strelzen Residenz in the days of the Second and Third Republics, but when the monarchy was restored it had to find a new home. It seemed to Henry the ministry had done well out of the deal. It was now housed in a modern blue glass block facing on to the shops and transport hub of the central terminus plaza. He signed himself in at the reception desk and awaited Teresza Monicec.

When she arrived Frau Monicec proved to be a small bird-like woman in her forties, her glasses hung on a thin chain round her neck. She walked over to Henry briskly and offered a hand.

'Herr At-vood, of course. I recognise you from the TV. I was wondering when the media might get interested in our work here.'

'Really? Why is that?'

'Ah! The journalistic leading question! Marvellous. I'm being interviewed. Should I be asked for my consent to be recorded at this time? Yes? Well do so, by all means. But you mustn't identify me directly. I will be an unnamed "ministry source". How exciting.' She beamed.

'Er … good. Have you got anywhere we can have a private chat?'

'Certainly. Indeed. This way.'

She led Henry across the elegant slate-floored foyer to an area of seating with an outlook into a glass-roofed interior garden court. Henry took out his recorder since it seemed to be expected, though he made pencil notes as usual.

'So perhaps you can start by describing what it is you do, Frau Monicec.'

'Teresza, please. I work in a department set up in the Third Republic under President Maritz. It was after Parliament allowed cases of restitution to be pursued by persons dispossessed under the former communist regime. There was a deluge of cases, naturally, led of course by the family of our present king. His father lodged very extensive claims, as indeed did many of the pre-war aristocracy.

'The families of Jewish businessmen and industrialists whose assets were seized under the Nazi Government General of Ruritania were the second wave of claimants, as the Horvath regime had delayed and eventually suppressed their claims after the war. The Ministry of State was overwhelmed, so an entirely new investigative and prosecution agency was formed, which was called the High Commission.' Her eyes went a little unfocused and a small smile took possession of her mouth. 'Those were the great days. There were dozens of us in just my section, crammed into offices up in the dormer floor of the Residenz.'

'And what did your section do, Teresza?'

'We had great fun … well, intellectually speaking of course. The old Okranske Dienst had kept absurdly meticulous records of its nefarious doings: interrogations, counter-intelligence, even its planned assassinations. We were able to use its own archives to document the ORD's murder of General von Tarlenheim in Paris in 1954, and we brought a dozen of its operatives to justice; several of them are still in the Arsenal and Interpol has current warrants out for a few of them, the ones who took refuge in Russia and the Balkans. What parties we had in the old days when we got a conviction! We had our own table at the Flavienerhof back then.'

'Ah! Is this why Count Oskar knows you?'

Frau Monicec smiled brightly. 'The prince as he was then … yes, we had a good deal of sympathy for his family, and my section was able to assist his claims quietly. The Justice Ministry was less than cooperative to claimants, so we in the High Commission did what we could to redress the balance.

'Of course the great days are gone now. Much of our caseload has long been settled one way or other. The High Commission was officially wound up two years ago, but there are still ongoing cases and new claims are lodged every now and again, so those of us who are left are called the Department of Claims and Reconciliation.'

Henry nodded. 'So how can you help my investigations, Teresza?'

'I was wondering about that. Perhaps you can tell me more detail of what's at issue.'

Henry obliged and produced his copies of the ORD intelligence reports. Frau Monicec frowned at the papers, and suggested they go up to her office. She signed Henry in and they took an escalator. Her office was a small box of a room with files stacked high on every surface, but at least she had a nice outlook on the garden court and a window ledge crammed with unusual cactuses.

'Now, let's see' she mused, as she placed her glasses on her nose and brought her computer out of sleep mode. 'The National Archives is perfectly correct. These are reports made on ORD stationery in 1988. Not only that but I think I recognise the signature as that of an ORD mid-level functionary from other files of that time.'

'Oh!' said a somewhat dashed Henry. 'So they're genuine?'

'Genuine? You have to define genuine. Just because these forms were filled in by an ORD clerk in 1988 and signed by his supervisor doesn't necessarily mean that they report genuine contacts and events, though such things genuinely did happen … the informing I mean. The domestic department of the ORD was all too keen on enticing desperate and not particularly ethical young people into its web of informers. They wanted to know about dissidents, but also about any contacts with the West or change in attitudes to the Soviet Union. Some graduated on to being active agents, recruiting their own little coteries of sneaks.

'You might not remember the writer Milos Govanec. He was unmasked before you would have come to Rothenia. He came through the May Rising as quite the hero of the barricades and was even elected to Maritz's first parliament as a Social Democrat. But once the files were opened to researchers his name began coming up.

'He spent two years claiming it was all a setup and he was the victim, not the villain, even having the nerve to sue the National Archives for enabling his 'unjust' persecution. Eventually his web of deceit and treachery caught him out though. He must have sent a dozen of his journalist colleagues to the ORD's domestic gulag in the Arsenal.'

Henry shook his head. 'You're right, I don't remember the name. I'll read up on that case, though. What happened to him after he was caught?'

'Oh, not much could be done beyond a few years in an open prison. I think he left the country after release, worried some of his victims might be less forgiving than the Third Republic's judges.'

'So what about these supposed files?' Henry pursued.

'Wait a moment while I search my database. It's extensive for the last two years of the Second Republic, when the communist hierarchy was becoming ever more desperate and corrupt. You see, the more intelligent elements of the ORD began to realise that the game was up well before the Berlin Wall fell. So they shifted assets, sold off armaments and chemical weapons to dubious buyers and got into all sorts of mischief, the wicked rostacij.

'Some were just trying to enrich themselves while they could, but others had an idea of funding terrorist cells, the success of which you yourself witnessed with the assassination attempts on the young Elphberg just prior to the restoration … yes, I was involved in that investigation, working closely with his Excellency Count Oskar. At a guess I'd say you've stumbled on another one of those attempts to create a pernicious legacy for the ORD to exploit, but not one, I have to confess, that we encountered back in the days of the High Commission. Most interesting.'

'So what are you suggesting, Frau Monicec?'

'Teresza, remember.' She paused and concentrated on her screen. After several minutes she turned back to Henry. 'I think I can work out something of what this is about. The signature on both sheets is by Martin Sepka, a rather incompetent bureaucrat in the Surveillance Directorate. He was an uninteresting fellow who ended his days as a bus driver in Husbrau; I think he died about five years ago.

'Now I would imagine his involvement in this affair is only that he signed a bundle of papers fed to him by the real perpetrator, which he probably never actually looked at. It is possible he might have been the person responsible for feeding the Gratzke document to the press, but he clearly could not have been behind the Lucic one. So we must find some other suspect. It would have been one of his subordinates, obviously, but which?

'This will take a little time, I'm afraid. But my database has a complete breakdown of the Surveillance Directorate for 1988, so I can generate a list of likely suspects for you. Since we had to track their subsequent careers, I can maybe even narrow things down more. Give me a week or two and I'll be able to send over a file which you can pursue. Will that do?'

'Brilliant! Thanks, Teresza.'

'Not at all. It's brought back the old days. But you can do one thing for me in return.'

'Nothing corrupt I hope?'

'Not very, Henry. But if you could find me two tickets for the Song Contest Final in May, my Natasha and I would be so grateful.'

Yuli sat at a terminal in the gymno study centre, Bolslaw and Willem looking over his shoulder. Application to join the first heat of Song for Rothenia had to be done online.

'Okay. I'll put in Starcrossed as name of the act; might as well make it official. Names of performers? That's me and Romesczu. We're a duo! Can't put in an address for him, as we don't know where he'll be next week. Name of nominated agent (if any)? That's you Willemczu. Sorry Bolo, no box for road manager.'

'Really? You'd employ me? You must be nuts.'

Yuli frowned. 'Is that it? I think I've filled all the boxes. You want to press Send, Willemczu?'

Willem grinned and tapped the key. 'There you go. Our passport to fame, fortune …'

'… substance abuse, alcoholism, perverted sex with hookers and rehab,' Bolo finished. 'I knew my life would eventually spiral downwards. I thought it would be when I failed my bacca, but it looks like I'll be led by you two into a seedy underworld of drugs and sex instead. Bit of a relief really.'

'Don't get ahead of yourself,' Willem replied. 'The Strelzen City regional heat is 5 February, a Saturday. So you and Romesczu have only got a couple of weeks to get a stage act together, and he's never sung pop, has he?'

Yuli stretched in his seat to relieve some of the tension. Eventually he observed, 'He can do it, I'm sure. He quite surprised me at the Christmas concert last year. But it won't be easy to get him to loosen up, I know, and singing along with me will stress him out.'

'How's that?' Willem asked.

'His voice and mine … let's just say that it's like a scrappy little mongrel getting it on with a greyhound; it will be awkward, inelegant and difficult to pull off. He's such a perfectionist.'

Bolo guffawed. 'Awesome image. He's got to get himself down to your level.'

'No point expecting me to get up to his, that's for sure.'

Willem changed the subject. 'Any news of your tatti?'

Yuli slumped. 'Nothing good. The Supreme Court case is due to be tried, but the Council of the Szcabnyi has voted to suspend him. They don't want his problems to affect the outcome. He had to hand back his office keys. It's killing him being stuck at home.'

'Shit. Poor Uncle Radek. I'm coming to your place tonight. Maybe I can cheer him up.'

'Talk sport. It's about the only thing that distracts him. Otherwise he frets. Tatti's a guy who has to be in charge doing something. Mutti's tearing her hair out at his moods.'

'I got an idea,' Bolo contributed. Yuli and Willem turned to him, surprised. Bolo spread his hands. 'Get him involved with Roman's Great Escape. You need to tell him about it anyway, why not get him to help? It'll distract him at least.'

Willem looked impressed. 'Damn! He's right. It's overdue you brought your folks up to speed. There's no need for you to face this on your own. They liked Romesczu, didn't they?'

Yuli thought about it. He'd kept his personal troubles from his parents, who had troubles of their own, but using one problem to cancel out another made a sort of sense. Besides, he was moving into a situation where Roman and he might soon be much more of a couple. He felt a thrill in the region of his groin. His life suddenly had romantic possibilities again.

'Er, tatti? Gotta moment?'

'Too many of them, son. No, really. What's up?' Radek Lucic gave a pale and apologetic smile.

'It's about Roman.'

'Oh … sorry, son. I keep on meaning to ask about him but things … y'know.'

'I understand, don't apologise. Look. His home life is getting really bad. You know they sent him away over the holidays, and now they've stopped him going to the Hofkapelle. He can't take it and … well … he's gonna leave home.'

His father paused for some moments, as if coming back into sync with the universe, then he frowned. 'I dunno if that's a good idea, son. It may seem romantic and an escape from present difficulties, but it won't go well. He'd much better try and sort things out with his parents.'

'It's not just that, tatti. There's some weird sh … er, stuff going on at his house. Really weird. Let me explain.'

Radek Lucic's frown deepened as Yuli repeated what Roman had found and what he made of it. 'So you see, tatti, going may be safer than staying. He doesn't trust his mother any more and he can't talk to his father. Then there's this Hadjek creep.'

His father let out a low whistle. 'Hadjek … that changes things a bit. I don't know that much about him. I thought he was just another one of Dieter's bright young Nazis, the next generation of the CDP, hard-right Catholic neoliberals all. But if this is true, then it looks like Dieter's invited a serpent into his nest.'

'So you'll help?'

'Me? How did we get there?'

'He needs to leave home for his own safety, tatti. He can't trust his parents and is dubious about the police.'

'What do you think I can do?'

'A getaway vehicle would be nice.'

His father pondered this. 'Well … I suppose. You don't expect refuge for him here?'

'No, no. He has his old nurse who's very happy to lend him a bed for now. Mind you, if he did escape, I hope you'd make him welcome here when he visits.'

'Of course. Your mutti thinks he's wonderful.'

'And you?'

Radek Lucic gave a small chuckle. 'Obviously, I think he's wonderful too. I never disagree with your mother. Okay, son, I shall be outside gunning the engine as young Roman climbs over the wall. Count on me. When is it?'

'He's seventeen a week Wednesday, on the nineteenth. Then he's an independent adult.'

'Sounds like a plan then.'

A hug followed, and Yuli went off cheerfully to school. He found Willem loitering at the end of the lane on Domstrasse.

'How'd it go, Yuli leblen?'

'Tatti's on board, and best thing is how he brightened up when we were discussing it. It cut through his depression.'

'Even more excellent.' They sauntered in silence down the hill towards the Arsenal. It was a chilly and grey morning and not yet fully light. The streetlights were still on. Eventually Willem resumed. 'Do you think it's odd that his parents still let Romesczu attend gymno knowing you're there?'

'I asked him. He said he never talks about me at home and they don't ask him. From the way they act, he thinks they've decided that the affair has gone off the boil, what with the embarassment of the oral sex episode and the long separation over the holidays. They're just doing their best to limit our possible meetings so it doesn't rekindle. They don't have much respect for Romesczu's strength of will. In fact I don't think they realise what a determined little soldier he's growing up to be. They still see the traumatised little boy he once was.'

'He's gonna need all his determination before this is all over, however it ends.'

'I believe you. But I think my baby'll surprise them, maybe us too.'

Yuli collared Roman as he encountered him passing by the study centre with a stack of books, looking incredibly cute with a pen stuck behind his perfect ear. He dragged his lover into a classroom and uninterrupted kissing followed for some time.

When they finally resurfaced, Yuli caught his breath as Roman said 'You know, it's been two months since we fucked.'

Yuli raised his eyebrow. 'Two months and sixteen days. I've been counting, but the drought will soon end. Mutti gave me to understand that she would be offended if we didn't think it acceptable for us to share my bed at home. So sex is definitely permissible at the Lucic home. I'd guess it wouldn't be advisable at Klara's place.'

Roman spread his hands. 'It wouldn't seem right. Not that she doesn't guess we've done it, of course, but I'd feel as if I was abusing her hospitality.'

'So delicate, baby.' Yuli kissed him again, then changed the subject. 'I'm serious about the Song Contest you know.'

'I'd guessed. I think we have a chance. If we win it … well, all sorts of things could happen.'

'I think they'd happen even if we lost. Starcrossed is an act I'm comfortable with; he can go places. So the thing is … are you comfortable with him?'

'It's a bit scary when someone starts talking about himself in the third person, Yuli.'

'Am I? I suppose I am. But Starcrossed is not Yuli: he's cool and sexy and – get this – girls wet their panties when he pouts in their direction.'

'Er … ugh. You are cool and sexy as Julius Lucic too y'know. Well, I think so.'

'Thank you Romesczu. Anyway, with two cool and sexy dudes up on the stage the impact will be doubled. Are you up for this?'

'Like George Michael and that other guy …?'

'Better than them, baby. What I'm trying to say is that my shy and beautiful Romesczu will need to undergo the same Starcrossed transformation as I have, and we've only got two weeks and a bit before the first heat. So we need to practice. Next Thursday, after you do your bunk from home, I've arranged with Mattyas that we skip the Hofkapelle and go on stage together at Lisztomania for the first time. Willem's squared it with the management. It's the Rodolfer student night. Jumping in the deep end I know, and we'll have to find some time to rehearse. Our friends at the Technische will let us use their studio lunchtimes. It's the only time and place available …'

'Until next Wednesday, and then the world changes.'

'Indeed it does.'

'But I was hoping to go back to the Hofkapelle that Thursday. I'll need the money.'

'I know, baby. But just this one week. Don't you worry, Romesczu, I'll square it with Mattyas, and he can explain it to Herr Pelikan. They'll wait another week to have their star tenor back.'

Henry scanned the list of the entrants that had flooded the Song Contest website. 'Fuck! There can't be that many acts in Strelzen!'

'Wassat, boss?' Marek Toblescu was occupying the armchair that took up a large part of the available space in Henry's office.

'There's dozens of entrants for the Strelzen heat, and not many less for Husbrau and Zenden. We'll have to subdivide them for the regional heats.'

'Most of them will be crap, boss.'

'Stop calling me "boss", Mareczu. We're colleagues as of yesterday. You're an Eastnet journalist, same as me. Is that why you're wearing a tie?'

'Seems right. As does calling you boss. Okay, can you be my mentor then? Apparently I need one.'

'Sure, you're welcome to learn my bad habits. Hey! Here's a name you'll recognise. Starcrossed has entered the city heat.'

'That'll interest your friend Davey. You should ring him. Looks like the kid is going mainstream at last. Maybe he'll be willing to talk to Davey now.'

'Damn right it will interest him. I'll give Davey a ring tonight.' Henry unglued his gaze from the screen. 'So Mareczu, how're things going with you and Rolf? Any progress?'

Marek grinned. 'He's a bit of a stuffed shirt, but he knows his business. I can't joke around with him like I do with you, but he's my dad's age so what can I expect? We're covering the Supreme Court hearing together next week. We're writing up separate features for our editors, but consulting about content. His plan is we subtly raise the temperature by making it look like two esteemed news outlets are independently asking critical questions about the case for a North Martzfeld development; not exactly taking sides but … y'know … sowing doubts.'

'Isn't that a bit tricky at this stage?'

'Nah. Dr Abentauer says we have enough already to blow the lid off many of the principal developers if things get nasty. So, my master, will you look over my draft?'


Willem and Yuli were settling their nerves before the Big Gaol Break by blowing the dust off Willem's Playstation and renewing their acquaintance with a pair of Italian plumbers.

'Takes me back,' Yuli mused. 'Remember that old Gameboy you had?'

'First one anyone had in our elementary class, as I recall. It's up on the shelf there with those old cartridges it used. Bit of an antique now, but hey, it was fun in its day.'

Willem's phone buzzed. 'Can't be Della,' he said, puzzled. 'Number withheld. Prosim? Wo ist?' He concentrated and switched to English. 'Of course I remember you. Mister Davey, right? I have your number, but how did you get mine?'

Yuli sat up, cocking an eyebrow at his friend, who was listening to a stream of English. 'Okay, Mister Davey. Well sure, Starcrossed is definitely going ahead with his entry, but now he's a pair of singers, not just a solo guy on the keyboards. Well I don't know if they want to talk to you, but I shall get in touch and ask. No, no, I'll ring you. Promise.' He hung up and stared at the phone for a few moments before refocusing on Yuli. 'That was the Englishman I mentioned, the one who heard you at Lisztomania and got all enthusiastic. Somehow – he won't tell me how – he's got wind that you're going for the Song for Rothenia. He's willing to come all the way to Strelzen to meet. I think you should.'

'Really, why?'

'Well firstly, he really does know the music business. And secondly I did some digging. He's a top British manager, including that rock group you despise, Live Action. Not only that, the reason he was in Strelzen when he heard you was because he's an old school friend of our Red Elphberg. None of this got mentioned while he was talking to me, and that's a good sign in my opinion. The guy's modest and not a poseur.'

Yuli mused on this and finally shrugged. 'I trust your judgement Willemczu. If you say so, then I'll meet him, though I'm not sure Romesczu will want to. But I will ask my leblen. When do you suggest? Before or after the Strelzen heat?'

'I'd suggest after. There's not much point meeting if the judges chew you up and spit you out. Not of course that they will. Are you sleeping here tonight?'

'Sure. I love to be in your bed.'

'Er … wanna fuck?'

'My ass could do with the exercise, and you have quite a talent that way. On my back this time. You have a wonderful cum face, and it adds to the experience.'

'Let me tell you about your orgasmic grimace one of these days. But I like watching you twisting and squirming. So very sexy. Will we carry on with the sex after Romesczu breaks out of prison? He knows we do it, yes?'

'Well we made sure Della knows and she doesn't mind. I told Romesczu long ago that we've been doing stuff since we were kids and were still doing it, and he thought it was sexy. He said he rather envied me, though we hadn't fucked at that point. We'll see how it goes. I certainly won't hide it from him. If he says to stop it, we'll stop it.'

'Okay. Della doesn't want me to stop it at all. She gets off on the details. She'd love to watch, I think, but that's definitely off the table.'

'What pervs we are. Romesczu's the only normal one, strange to say.'

Yuli and his father sat in the dark Volvo parked down the hill from the Von Ebersfeld residence. It was late at night and a hard frost had descended on the city of Strelzen. The road was icy underfoot. Their breath steamed and there was ice forming on the inner face of the car's windows.

'Time?' Radek Lucic asked for the sixth time in the past half hour.

'Ten past eleven, tatti. It won't be long now.'

'Thank God. The cold has crept up as far as my knees. What's keeping him?'

'The parents were going to mark his birthday with a quiet family dinner. Things were too edgy to go out to the restaurants his mutta adores. So he said.'

A dark figure emerged through the part-open gate. Yuli shot out the car and ran to help. Roman was struggling with two heavy cases.

'Wow, baby! What you got here, your bed and the shower unit?'

'Oh … when I came to packing up stuff from my room, there were just too many things I couldn't bear to leave behind. Books mainly. I'd forgotten how heavy they can be. It was murder getting the cases quietly down the stairs. Fortunately mutta relies on pills to get her beauty sleep.'

Yuli heaved the larger of the cases. The two boys got them to the rear of the Volvo and levered them into the back. Yuli headed back to the front seat, and paused as he realised Roman had not immediately followed him.

'Okay, leblen baby?'

'Yes, Yuli mine. It's just that one should pause before such a step. Like bracing yourself on a springboard before diving.'

'I understand.'

Roman took a deep breath, and opened a rear door. The car purred to life and pulled away as he belted himself in, heading for Klara's Sudmesten apartment. Yuli looked back to see tears glistening on Roman's cheek as the streetlights caught his face.

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