Princely Love

by Flaulus

Chapter 15

As New Year's Eve approached, the boys got steadily more excited. The news was good, there would be snow for the rest of winter but for now it was manageable, and it would be business as usual. The ice field at Tolberg was all but gone, and those evacuated were returning home. Hartnell had decided Hans and Chris should become permanent house staff, and the three of them were busily preparing the lodge for their own celebrations.

For at least ten minutes, Seb was devastated that Dave wanted to go home but then consoled himself by texting Jake Holmine who found himself being driven by his Dad to Elbourg. Jake's father did not want his son to be gay. Until then, the idea disgusted him, but driving into Elbourg Palace watched by the little group of tourists often seen at the gates, let him see some advantages in Jake experimenting.

Jake hated the idea he might be gay, but was equally scheming. Seb was a celebrity, and some was bound to rub off onto him. In Jake's favour, he knew little would come of it except he had successfully broached the subject with his father without any trauma, by preying on his father's weakness. Seb had become wise enough to understand Jake's plans, and he was happy for another relationship without too much of a bond between them. By contrast, Billy and Sven were surprised at how close they had become, while Jim and Conrad were almost seen as a married couple.

Early afternoon on New Year's Eve, a coach arrived carrying their school friends. Mrs Jacobs got out first, looking nervously around as palace staff escorted the excited youngsters to the guest wing. Mrs Brampton approached her.

"Would you like a cup of tea while the youngsters sort themselves out." Mrs Brampton asked.

"I should keep an eye of them." Mrs Jacobs replied.

"I wouldn't worry. I heard more 'Thank Yous' in those few minutes than I ever heard from the Brookdales lot. I'll tell you a little secret, we never allowed female staff to serve them either."

"Why are teenagers invited then?" Mrs Jacobs asked, "I'm sorry, that sounded brusque."

"Not at all. It is a family event as much as anything, and young royals need to learn just like everyone else. You'll find model rail enthusiasts, and the French ambassador's son will be among them. The French ambassador is a widower so will be alone though Billy and Sven will probably talk to him, or rather his nieces by phone."

"You've let Billy Taverner near the French ambassador. God in Heaven."

Mrs Brampton smiled, "They get on. I gather they're teaching him how to be cool."

"God in Heaven,"

"Oh, it gets more interesting. The Russian ambassador will also be here. Politically things are cool between Russia and France but the Russian ambassador has heard about the pictures of Sven taken for Jean-Paul's nieces, and he's got a daughter about the same age. I don't think Sven has the same following in Russia but if the Russian ambassador mellows a bit, it could help some difficult negotiations."

"You haven't got a shot of vodka for that tea have you?" Mrs Jacobs asked.

"It's not that serious. How can I put it. A little extra grease on the bearing might help, but the wheel will still turn without it. What I was trying to say, your students are proving to be more of an asset than a liability, so please relax and enjoy yourself."

"It's my first royal event as well, so I suppose I am a bit nervous."

"Don't be. The staff will deal with your students."

Mrs Brampton was right, Conrad's guests were outside their comfort zone and a little awed. They did not object when boys and girls were segregated, so they could change. They gratefully responded to the staff's suggestions, so the girls in particular gasped in wonder as cosmeticians transformed their features while boys were equally grateful getting help tying bow ties to perfection.

"Jim's the expert." Conrad chuckled, "Someone always has to tie mine."

"Typical rich kid." Billy retorted, "You can't do anything for yourself."

"I've seen your efforts, Billy." Conrad chuckled, "You'd better let Lampton do yours as well."

"If you don't mind, Lampton. We must seem a real rough lot."

"Not at all, sir. If I may, it's not being able to tie a tie that makes a gentleman; it's how he acts. Those who think they're entitled are rarely gentlemen. Allow me to brush your jacket."

Winter events could be disrupted by the weather, so guest could arrive well before the invited time. Some would arrive early and sit in their cars so not to seem too eager, but others enjoyed a quiet period where they could greet friends and acquaintances. Other years, Conrad would arrive shortly before his parents but this year, his friends were eager to join in the evening.

"They didn't announce us." Sven said.

"Who to?" Billy replied, "We're the first."

"And we're the only ones who don't have to show our invitations." Conrad added, "We were already in the palace."

"What do we do now?" Another boy asked. He was nervous and holding his girlfriend's hand so tightly, she winced.

"I think that's Mr. and Mrs Astamine arriving." Conrad said, "Remember what Lampton said about entitled people? Watch!"

A band was playing quietly but as Mr. Astamine handed over a card, the servant receiving it turned to a microphone and announced, "Mr. and Mrs Astarmine."

Mr. Astamine snapped angrily at the servant who said, "Mr. and Mrs Astamine."

Everyone turned to Conrad, puzzled.

"He likes his name repeated twice, so he complains that his name is said with an 'R' in it, but I can't hear any difference. Let's head for the supper room. He won't like having to wait for us to be served."

A couple forgot, but the rest managed to walk round the dance floor instead of across it without being reminded.

"It's how ladies and gentlemen behave." Conrad said, as the Astamines strode across the floor.

Dancing would not begin until the king arrived, so the floor should remain pristine until then. Ladies could choose their own food from the buffet and then sit down while their escorts fetched drinks. It had all been explained at their rehearsals, and the reasoning. Diets could be complicated so each had to choose their own food, drinks were a simpler affair, and it saved space at the bar.

"Don't we get table service?" One of Conrad's classmates asked.

"There are waiters, but we'd need so many. Besides, it's a ball not a banquet, and it's a good way of getting the guests to mingle."

"Except the Astamines." Jim whispered.

The Astamines had stood in an angry silence waiting for space at the buffet. They listened to other announcements, not particularly interested. The supper room was steadily filling and as Conrad said, people were greeting friends and generally chatting. Conrad recognized a couple of friends, Denzel and Frederick from Brookdales and waved them over, making introductions.

"How's school?" Denzel asked, "Ludale and his lot reckon you're running with a street gang by now. I must say though. I didn't realize street gangs scrubbed up so well."

"I take it the Ludales are off somewhere exotic." Conrad laughed, "What is it, scuba diving in the Antarctic or skiing up the Himalayas?"

"As long as they don't spend the holiday in this sorry little backwater, I don't care. Dad and I are talking about me changing schools as well. That lot are just taking over and Mr. Ludale is a major benefactor now."

He turned to Yvonne, "May we have a dance if your card isn't full?"

"I think I've got space for a little one." Yvonne replied and Denzel laughed delightedly.

"Don't you have a date?" Conrad asked.

"I asked Freddie along. His parent's divorce is a bit, er, difficult, neither is coming in case the other is here, so I asked him along. Besides, there's always someone to dance with. Now what's all this about you and a boyfriend? I often wondered, but I didn't think you'd be allowed to be so open. What gives?"

"Just what you read. I'm not fond of raves and nightclubs any more."

"Yeah. You tried to warn me, and Dad didn't like bailing me out of a police station," he glanced at the door, "Oh God. Jeff Portallion's arrived. Can I hang here?"

"Ludale's best pal." Conrad explained to the others, "And the Astamines are heading for the parents. How about we circulate and start booking dances?"

"That's a girl thing." Yvonne said, "Denzel, how many do you and Freddie want to book with us."

"Which one of you is the gangster's moll and going to make us an offer we can't refuse? Sorry, but Portallion does think that way, and I'd love to wind him up."

"Betty? How about it?" Yvonne replied.

Some people are big because they're fat, others are big because they are well-endowed in the right places. Betty was feminine, beautiful and with a bosom most beauty queens would envy. She also loved drama. Denzel watched fascinated as she sashayed over to Jeff who watched her, eyes firmly fixed on her chest. No-one ever discovered what Betty said, but Jeff's eyes became wide and round, and he nodded not daring to speak. As Betty returned, her smile lit up her face, and she winked.

"OK, I've got a slave for the evening so hands off," she said.

Denzel, Freddie and Conrad looked on amazed as Jeff fetched Betty a drink.

"Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas any more." Freddie murmured as everyone looked at him.

"The Wizard of Oz," he explained, "I know it's ancient, but Mum likes it, and we've watched it a couple of times. I've heard the line used a few times and get what it means now. We sure aren't in Brookdales."

Mrs Brampton was neither staff, nor a guest but was on duty. If nothing went wrong, she would relax and increasingly become a guest. She was watching Conrad's friends carefully but so far the atmosphere was more relaxed than most events she had attended. Mrs Jacobs and her husband stood next to her for a time, also ready to go back on duty, but relaxed as Mrs Brampton said, "It's very sexist, you know. The ladies are expected to ask the men for dances, and it's bad form for them to refuse. Poor old Sven is getting swamped."

"Yes, I've seen dance cards on films, but I didn't realize it still happens."

"It's being used a lot more tonight, and I think it's got something to do with Conrad. When Prince Bartholomew was here, he and his cronies discussed the girls as if they were horse-trading. If they didn't pass muster they could be left standing all night while popular girls got the dances, and the most popular girls were the ones who opened their legs."

"And Conrad told his dance class they should circulate and include everyone. The school dance was livelier even without skinheads wanting to smash the place up." Mrs Jacobs said, "Arnold's a fair dancer. Feel free to add him to your card."

Jim and Denzel were laughing as Conrad joined them.

"I don't know why he's got one, but I'm on Terry Zeeland's dance card." Denzel said. "I didn't know he was gay."

"He's not. I think you teased him once too often in the locker room now he's waiting for you to back down." Conrad said.

"He's going to be disappointed then. It's putting him on the spot too so why is he doing it?"

"I said, he expects you to back down first, and then he'll say you can't go through with a dare."

"And like I say, he's going to be disappointed. Surely he knows there'll be real gay couples dancing?"

"I don't like him all that much, so we don't talk, but it's just like him to pull a stunt like this here."

"Well, I'm not going to back down, but I won't make a fuss. I'll just out dare him. Is that OK?"

"It is with me." Conrad said, "We could set Betty onto him instead."

As Denzel went to look for Freddie, Jim asked, "Is it me or is there something about Brookdales?"

"I didn't invite anyone from Brookdales. Some are here because of their parents, but it's a smaller group. By now, there'd be a good-sized group hanging around Barty. His group don't have the same hold so others are being seen. Jamie's dad thought he had a way to my dad through me, and a lot of Barty's friends were like that. Denzel's dad is a university professor and Denzel got a scholarship to Brookdales, so he's probably more of an outsider than I was. Denzel's dad briefs my dad on science projects. They get on, so the family gets invited. Ah! I thought so."

Jim looked suitably puzzled so Conrad continued, "Over there. Richard Courtney and the Astamines."

"Is that a problem?"

"No, but they seem friendly with Jeff Ludale and are ignoring us. I hope I'm not sounding snobby, but you'd expect them to be all over me."

"Lampton's entitled people hanging out together." Jim said, "Where's Mr. Courtney's family?"

"At a guess, Courtney sees tonight as a business opportunity, and you don't involve family. Have you seen the girl he's with? I bet that's his secretary by day and his girlfriend at night. I told you about his kids, so it's just as well."

"I think I'm ready to go." Jim said, "It's getting far too political."

"Jim, this is just the start while guests arrive. The Ball doesn't even start until Dad gets here. Besides, didn't you invite Richard?"

"I tried. Grandfather Bandon decided it was inappropriate, and Richard could not afford to hire an evening suit or the fares."

"You should have asked Dad to invite him. Surely that would have worked?"

"I didn't want to involve him. Richard's sent us tickets for a play he's in. I'll go and see how we get on after."

"Stay detached and observe, tonight." Conrad said, "I'm glad Denzel's here but watch how Jeff and his friends treat him."

"Yeah. Denzel is looking out for Freddie. They seem OK. Where's Seb?"

"In some quiet spot telling Jake Holmine about his adventures. I bet they're planning to rope Freddie and Denzel into some fun."

"But you said they're not gay."

"No. I said Terry Zeeland wasn't gay, but why do you suppose Denzel and Freddie are so close? You're not the only one to have friends in the closet."

"OK, but Denzel doesn't seem to be the type to hide anything in the closet."

"Let's see. Denzel's dad might be a top scientist, but he's also religious. He says he can take material things in the bible with a pinch of salt but not spiritual and ethical matters, so does he consider being gay material or spiritual?"

Mrs Brampton was still keeping an eye on events as she took a phone call.

"Yes sir! Everything is going well. Most of the guests have arrived, and I can't see any problems."

She walked to the Master of Ceremonies and at a second call she nodded to him.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, The King and Queen."

Everyone stood up and looked to the entrance. The National Anthem played, and the guests bowed and curtseyed as King Constantine and Queen Esmeralda entered the ballroom.

"You know, Prince Conrad's friends are quite charming," a guest said to Mrs Jacobs, "I'm so glad that terrible lot from Brookdales is missing because my daughter is usually ignored, but her card is filling nicely tonight. It's such a pity the prince's new school doesn't take boarders, I'd like my daughter to finish there."

The King and Queen stepped onto the dance floor, and the band played the first waltz. After they had completed a circuit, Jim took a deep breath as Conrad pulled him onto the floor. He heard a few gasps but floor rapidly filled. Mrs Brampton looked on, but she need not have worried, though she expected two other gay couples, there were five on the floor, one a lesbian couple. Moreover, she was sure two of the couples were not part of Conrad's group. However, there were fewer wallflowers, and most seemed to be enjoying themselves.

She glanced towards Jeff Ludale and his friends. In his senior year, Jeff was eighteen and entitled to his own invitation to represent his family. The group was far smaller than usual and if anyone was ignored, it was them, but as adults, they were allowed alcohol and that could cause trouble.

The senior prom guests from Conrad's school were also entitled to drink alcohol, but they were being careful. The second dance caused a little jealousy for the King danced with Yvonne and the Queen found Sven.

"It's my prerogative to dance with the latest model on the scene," she said.

Billy did not dance that time so chatted to Jean-Paul.

"Your boyfriend is a celebrity, now." Jean-Paul said.

"He doesn't reckon it'll last." Billy replied, "Let's face it, we're only Conrad's hangers-on."

"I don't think Prince Conrad has hangers-on." Jean-Paul replied, "He has friends who support each other. There is a difference."

"Yeah, but look at us. We shouldn't be here."

"If you don't believe a ball is a place to enjoy yourself, but is a place to cement business deals, network and move up the pecking order, then no, you shouldn't be here. I have no idea who that girl who keeps looking at you is, but a ball is a place where youngsters should gather and have fun so why are you still talking to me and not dancing with her?"

Later, Denzel was talking to Conrad, "Terry's called off his dare. I told him I was coming out tonight, and he couldn't get away fast enough. I only wound him up a couple of times and only because he was having a go at someone else, but now look at him. He couldn't tell Jeff Ludale quick enough."

"Are you coming out?" Conrad asked, "What about your Dad?"

"He saw me dance with Freddie. He's a bit quiet and uneasy when he talks to me, but it means he's thinking things over, and then he'll think whatever Mum tells him to. All she said was, 'I knew it'."

"What about Freddie?"

"He's panicking because everyone is guessing. I bet he denies being gay and claims he only danced with me for a joke. My next dance is with the Honourable Cecilia Hanworth. It won't matter whether I'm gay or straight, she'll still try to feel my balls."

"Craig warned me." Conrad said, "It seems she stumbles, reaches out to grab something to steady herself, and it's never your arm. OK, I need a favour. I don't need Richard Courtney thinking I've turned someone else, and Ludale turns anything he hears into something nasty."

"Gotcha. I'm booked to dance with girls for the rest of the evening, so it won't be a problem."

During a break the King managed to speak to Mrs Jacobs and Mrs Brampton.

"I hope I'm on your cards tonight, ladies." he began, "It's going well. Lady Zaruth is telling everyone how it's her sixtieth New Year ball and how wonderful it is having charming young men willing to dance with her. I'm afraid you're badly upsetting the Home Secretary, Mrs Jacobs." As Mrs Jacobs looked puzzled, the King added, "With Billy and Sven charming the French ambassador, and a good proportion of the aristocracy impressed by your student's behaviour, the idea our top civil servants should only come from the top schools is taking a dent. Richard Courtney's group wanted Conrad to go to a military school where he could be indoctrinated. Instead, he's doing things his way, and I'm proud of him. You're doing an excellent job of teaching him."

As the King led Mrs Brampton onto the dance floor, Mrs Jacobs turned to her husband and said, "It's all above my pay grade."

"But you're coping, My Dear. Everyone says you can relax so shall we take a turn round the floor?"

Axel was dancing with Lady Elsinhaart.

"I used to think becoming a toy boy to some rich, lonely widow who set me up in my studio was the way to go." Axel said, "Now, I'm working for art school, and building up my portfolio."

"And I thought you were only dancing with me because I am a rich, lonely widow." Lady Elsinhaart laughed, "I'm almost disappointed."

"It's all right. I'm underage, so we'd have to wait for a few years anyway. Will you come to my eighteenth birthday?"

As they left the dance floor, Lady Elsinhaart grabbed Axel's hand and led him to the Queen.

"Meet my toy-boy in waiting," she grinned, "It's such a shame, but by the time he's old enough, I'll be too old and decrepit."

She turned and curtseyed, "Thank you, young man. Now go and make your girlfriend as happy as you've made me."

As Axel left, she turned to the queen and said, "I'd be happy to spend all my money on a young man like him, but it wasn't the money. I felt as if he was dancing with me because he wanted to."

Denzel's dad found himself talking to Jim's.

"Aren't you concerned about your son's morals?" Professor Yenton asked.

"Morals, no." Mr Poulson replied, "Conrad was at a crossroads and could have gone the way of his brother. Instead, Conrad's becoming an impressive young man, and to a great extent, it's because he's found a loving and stable relationship. In return, Jim has become much more confident and outgoing. My own moral, respectable relationship with my wife was far more destructive."

"You see their mental and spiritual well-being as overriding their physical sins."

"I've never thought of it in those terms, but yes, I do. I take it, you're worried about your son."

"Yes, I am. I understand his friendship with Freddie and I suppose I'm proud of him for standing by his friend, but I fear the affection is one way, and Denzel is being used."

"Or it's what you're hoping, and it'll make Denzel straight." Mr. Poulson said.

"Said out loud, it sounds so confused, but I fear you're right."

"My family's attitudes had rubbed off on me more than I realized, so it's nothing compared to how confused I was. If it's any consolation he's getting on with Conrad and Jim, and I've come to respect their choice of friends. Let him figure his own problems, and be there if he needs you."

"God Bless You." Professor Yenton said, "My wife would never forgive me if I turned against our son, and I think I understand now, so thank-you."

As midnight approached, so a happy tension built up. Everyone joined in the countdown and then, dead on time, thousands of balloons drifted down, released from nets in the ceiling. Guest formed groups singing before breaking up and shaking hands. Even Richard Courtney was caught up in the excitement, shaking Seb's hand and wishing him a happy New Year as if he meant it. The band played again and Billy found himself dancing with Mrs Jacobs.

"Is this going to be a tradition?" Billy asked.

"What the head teacher dancing with the biggest troublemaker in the school? I don't see why not."

Jeff Ludale staggered slightly as he brushed up against Ray Davis, a senior student from Conrad's school."

"Can't you plebs watch where you're going?" Jeff snapped, his voice a little slurred.

"Since we're sober, yes we can." Ray retorted.

Jeff prodded Ray with a finger, "Watch your mouth. You're only tolerated until Prince Conrad remembers his position. Maybe I should teach you some manners anyway."

"You can try. Outside on the lawn after 1pm."


"I was told to behave until the older guests left. What about you?"

"I don't need to be told. I know how to behave."

"Apparently, you don't." An elderly gentleman, tall and distinguished even though he was leaning heavily on a cane, said, "This young man did nothing to offend you and you are behaving like a boar. I suggest you leave before you make more of a fool of yourself."

"My Lord, you are taking sides with some trash from the backstreets over one of your own."

"Your family is not one my own. It is a jumped up gang of gamblers who think money is everything. Whatever his background, at least he is behaving like a gentleman, and I hope he and his young lady will join me at my table for a glass of champagne to celebrate the New Year."

Ray felt the invitation to be more of a command than an invitation as he and Judy, his girlfriend, sat down.

"He called you, My Lord." Ray said uncertainly.

"You may call me Charles. Since my wife died, I'm content to watch and observe, especially now my damned leg is giving out."

"Was it a war wound?" Ray asked.

"No, I tripped on my grandson's toy, and since arthritis is setting in, I'm unlikely to get the full use back. I'm sorry I don't have a more exciting story to tell you. I take it, this is your first event in society, so how are you enjoying it?"

"It's wonderful, like a fairy story." Judy exclaimed.

"I'm delighted to hear it. Palace balls have been a little strained of late. You can guess why, but this has been one of the better ones. I've been keeping an eye on young Ludale, and he's looking for trouble. If you look toward the doors and to the left, you'll see another young man. He's from a different school which sees itself as a rival to Brookdales, and he thinks himself just as entitled to get drunk. Let's wait until they spot each other."

"How do you know all that?"

"My mind is still sharp, and I depend on knowing people. Let's just say, my bank would not lend to either of them."

"I'd better not come to you for my student loan then." Ray smiled.

Charles gave a loud hearty laugh before saying, "Lady Elsinhaart has been telling everyone about your friend's unique sales pitch. Here's my card. Student loans are dealt with by a government agency, but we could discuss opening an account with us. We'd like to attract the younger generation, and even if you're buying a second-hand car, our name gives you extra status."

"Just because I wimped out of a fight?"

"No, because you knew it was the wrong time and the wrong place. You see. It's starting."

Jeff was jabbing the youth Charles had pointed out with his finger as he had done with Ray, but the youth had knocked Ray's hand away, and they were squaring up to each other. Waiters who suddenly looked more like bouncers were closing in.

"The staff know what to do. Hardly anyone will notice." Charles said.

Charles was proved right as the two youths were hustled away, and the waiters returned, looking like waiters again.

He looked thoughtful for a moment, before saying, "You and your friends may be able to help me. I own a small ski resort and this year's weather has disrupted bookings. The so-called in-crowd will be off to St. Moritz, or somewhere following the A-Listers, but we need publicity. I'm not a writer, but imagine something on the lines of, 'Following their successful introduction into society at the King's ball, a group of youngsters enjoyed skiing at Fultol'.

"It doesn't flow, but I think I get why you want us to go. It'll be expensive though."

"You will be my guests, so you need not worry about the cost. It's advertising so, I may have to pay you for some of your time. Putting it vulgarly, a lot of your fellow plebs will be out of a job unless the holidaymakers come back, and I see a chance to help everyone."

"You make being a pleb sound much nicer than Ludale did. I'll ask around."

"Thank you."

Ray sought Conrad out, asking for his advice.

"Dad says Lord Horsham is as straight as a dye. He's a London banker, but he's semi retired and spends his time in this country. He was an Olympic skiing champion, and he still tries to promote it. Speak to Mrs Brampton. She'll know about visitor numbers and the rest, so take it from there."

A little later King Constantine was chatting with Lord Horsham.

"I hear you've been mixing with our less well-connected guests. It's not like you."

"I am more comfortable with my own kind." Lord Horsham replied, "I happened to overhear a dispute with Ludale and one of His Royal Highness's friends, Ray Davis. You know, I could imagine Davis agreeing to an old-fashioned duel. I'm sure he would have suggested their seconds sort out the details, but it didn't go that far. I was beginning to believe the dire warnings I had got at my club about tonight, yet the reality is so different, I decided on a little experiment and treated Davis as one of our own. He was quite open about his circumstances, but it was a throwaway remark as if it was unimportant. Lady Elsinhaart's young man was equally good-humoured."

"So were others. I think it was part of Conrad's training, and it seems to have worked. So what's this about using them for a publicity stunt."

"I was the crass one out of step with tonight, and I feel a little guilty. I was unsure whether a simple invitation would seem patronizing, so I made an invitation seem like a business deal. We need to open holiday resorts again so there is a publicity campaign underway, and these youngsters would make a good news story, but not much more. I'll leave the rest of the promotion to others.

"So you're not going to sully your hands that much."

"Let's just say, I'm showing my gratitude. I was beginning to believe the Courtney-Fergusson clique are trying to maintain traditional values, yet young Davis seemed to do so without even knowing what they are."

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