Armed with the address of my old home Darm and I took public tube cars to get there. We didn’t want to draw attention to ourselves by landing in the grounds in an aerial craft. Fortunately, Darm had a low public profile (nearly as low as mine, he told me, with a grin) and he was usually able to move about the city without being recognised, albeit with a discreet IG escort.
No one seemed to notice us and we chatted like the teen boys we were until we arrived at the street where we had to get out. The guards with us were among the youngest in the IG. They were dressed like us, and we hoped that anyone watching would simply think we were a group of friends on an outing.
We found the address and walked up the driveway to an impressive locked gate with a sentry box. There was no one at the post but there was a communicator built into the wall. I could have retrieved my electronic key card from the bank and used it to gain entry, but I didn’t want to frighten anyone, or risk my own safety and that of Darm and our escort, by suddenly appearing inside the property. As it was I felt bad enough about turning up unannounced, but I wanted my meeting with Yoso to be spontaneous. I didn’t want him being coached as to what to say.
I pressed the button on the communicator.
A male voice asked me to state my name and reason for calling.
“I am Lucien Döhm. I am accompanied by my friend Darm and an escort. I wish to meet with Yoso.”
Several minutes passed. I was wondering whether I should have used my card after all when the voice came through the communicator again. “Apologies for the delay. Please wait until a staff member arrives.”
Two or three minutes later an armed guard appeared in the guardhouse. He opened the door and asked which of us was Lucien Döhm.
I stepped forward. “I am Lucien Döhm.”
“Sir, please step into the room so that I can check your credentials.” He looked to our escort. “One of you may accompany Mr Döhm if you wish, but I assure you I only wish to confirm his identity.”
The IG guys nodded, and one of them followed me into the guard post.
The Döhm guard looked me up and down. He smiled. “It’s been a long time, Lucien, but I’d wager my life that it really is you!”
The smile and the voice brought back a rush of memories. This man had played with me in the grounds of our home. Suddenly, his name came to me. “Arden?”
The man grinned. “Yes, that’s me. I’m glad you remember me. I’m the only staff member still here from the time before…” he trailed off.
“Before my parents disappeared,” I finished for him.
“Yes. It was such a sad affair.” He paused, then became businesslike. “Well, let’s get this over with.” He switched on a computer on the desk and picked up a hand-held scanner. “Lucien, please try not to move while I scan you. It will only take a few moments.”
I stood stock-still in the centre of the room and he moved the scanner across in front of my chest, then held it in front of my face for a few seconds. Finally, he asked me to hold up my wrists and scanned them as well.
We waited for a few seconds, Arden watching the computer screen. “ID CONFIRMED: LUCIEN DÖHM” appeared.
“Yay!” Arden said. He went through a similar procedure with Darm and then the guard detail. He was surprised to find that Darm was the crown prince and that our escort were IG members but, satisfied that we were all genuine, said, “Okay, let’s go up to the house, and I will introduce you to Yoso.”
As we walked through the grounds more old memories returned. There was an ancient oak tree that always shed an enormous amount of foliage in the autumn. I had loved to roll and hide in the leaves. We passed a neat lawn where my mother and I had enjoyed picnic lunches, and a garden bed that was always filled with wonderful fragrances. I had mixed feelings about being there, and I really didn’t want to delve too deeply into those feelings. I needed to meet Yoso, though, so I tried to put my thoughts and memories aside.
When we arrived at the house Arden offered to entertain our guards while Darm and I visited Yoso. Since we were in a secure compound no one had an issue with that. Arden took us all to the front door. Waiting inside and looking very apprehensive was a teenaged boy. Arden introduced us (“Lucien Döhm and his friend, Darm”, as we had requested) and took his leave.
I held out my hand. “Hi, Yoso, I’m pleased to meet you.”
The boy gulped. “Y-you are?”
I was taken aback. “Yes, why–” I broke off, suddenly realising that Yoso was probably feeling threatened. He was aware that he was supposed to be Lucien Döhm. Although, from what the secretary had told me, Yoso knew that he was not, he had only just found out that the real Lucien was alive. And, almost immediately, I was right in his face. “Oh, crikey, I’m sorry, Yoso. I’ve done this all wrong.”
Darm chuckled. Yoso just looked puzzled.
“Yoso, if you’re worried that I’ve come here to kick you out or something, then you don’t need to. I just wanted to meet you and talk with you. And see some of your art—I’ve been told you’re into art and music.”
Yoso visibly relaxed.
I had a sudden revelation. Perhaps my name itself was intimidating. “Yoso, I really am Lucien Döhm, but for the last ten years I’ve been known as Echo Menier, and most people are still calling me Echo. You can, too, if you like.”
“I’d like that,” he said, quietly. “It’s a nice name.”
He turned to Darm and did a little bow. “Um, Y-Your Highness…”
Darm held out his hand. “Hello, Yoso. Please, just call me Darm. I’m not one for formalities.”
Yoso took the offered hand and shook it gently. “O-okay.”
Darm said, “I’m surprised you even recognised me.”
Yoso blushed. “Um, well, I kind of painted a portrait of you…” his voice trailed off. I was beginning to understand why he had wanted nothing to do with the corporation. He seemed too gentle altogether for that world.
“Really?” Darm asked. “Wow!”
I decided we needed to make things easier on Yoso. “Do you have a place where you’d be more comfortable? Where we can just talk as kids?”
“Um, would my studio be all right?”
“Anywhere is fine with us,” I said.
Darm nodded. “Echo really did come here just because he wanted to meet you,” he said. “I came to keep him company. We had no intention of making you uncomfortable. If we’re causing you to feel threatened we can leave and come back another time.”
“No, it’s all right. I’m just a bit overwhelmed.” He seemed to make a decision. “Let’s go to my studio. That’s where I go when I’m feeling stressed.”
Yoso led us towards the back of the house and turned into a long corridor. Right at the end he opened a door that led into a different world.
The first thing I noticed was that the huge room was flooded with light from the window that formed one entire wall. The second was that the other three walls were covered with paintings and that the air was redolent with the smell of oil paints. Finally, I realised that the room was roughly divided into two zones. In the centre of one was an easel holding an unfinished picture. The other part of the room contained a grand piano and more sound and computer equipment than I had ever seen in one place before.
“Blimey!” I exclaimed. “Did you do all these paintings?”
I gazed in awe at not only the number but also the quality of them. To my ignorant eye they looked amazing, and very, very good. Some of the pictures were portraits, and I could easily recognise the subjects. Most of the rest were landscapes. They were mostly of places I didn’t know, but I did recognise a couple of them. “I was told you were good,” I said, “but… wow! Just… wow!”
Darm had moved into the room, but I was too busy looking around to notice what he was doing. “Echo, come and look at this,” he called.
I turned towards the voice and saw him standing at the easel. I walked over. Looking out at me from the canvas was a likeness of Darm.
“Is this the portrait you were talking about?” I asked.
I grinned at him. “You’re very talkative, aren’t you?”
Darm punched me on the shoulder. “Don’t tease the poor guy! He’s had enough trauma today!”
I punched him back. “Trauma? I’ll give you trauma!” I hit him again, and then tried to trip him up.
Darm wrapped his arm around my neck and squeezed. He was a bit taller than me, and quite a bit heavier, so I really didn’t have any chance of winning a tussle with him. “Okay, okay, I give!”
He let me go and we looked at each other and laughed. We’d only known each other for a short time but already it seemed like we were brothers. Perhaps because of the circumstances that had thrown us together Darm and I had developed a deep companionable friendship.
Yoso was laughing, too. That was good to see because his whole face lit up and the stress that had been showing drained away.
We examined the portrait of Darm, which Yoso said he had painted from a digital image. It was very good, and he had caught the essence of Darm’s personality somehow. I found it hard to believe it hadn’t been painted from a personal sitting. When I mentioned that, Yoso explained that when he looked at a photo he often got a feel for the person behind the image, and that was what he had put into Darm’s portrait.
We asked him to show us around his studio. He spent a long time showing us his pictures. He seemed happy to answer all our questions, including why or how he had come to paint some of them.
“What about your music?” I asked. “Is that as good as your artwork?”
Yoso blushed. He was very cute when he blushed. “Um, what do you want to know?”
“Can we hear something?” Darm asked.
Yoso sat at the piano, thought for a moment, and began to play. The first piece I recognised as Beethoven’s Für Elise. I was no musician, but I’d once had to study the history of music. Für Elise was one of the most recognised pieces ever composed, I’d learned, and I was pleased that Yoso played the whole piece rather than just the first theme. At the end of that he grinned and launched into Chopsticks, a piece of music nearly 300 years old that apparently was still one that every piano student learned. I had never heard it played the way Yoso did it, though. He played it through, then played it through again as if he had the music upside down, except that he was playing it by ear. Darm and I, standing either side of Yoso, burst out laughing.
Yoso smiled and nodded, acknowledging our enjoyment, and began to play something that I knew was a Chopin polonaise, but that was all I could remember. When he finished that piece he started another that I did not recognise. The notes seemed to roll over each other as they climbed up the scale. Then they suddenly crashed down, and it was like they fell in a heap. There was a very brief pause and then the notes came alive again, each one trying to outdo the one before as they rose up and dipped down like waves. Yoso seemed to be off in another world as he played. His eyes were closed and his head was swaying gently in time with the music. His fingers seemed to flow over the keyboard effortlessly, and I was mesmerised as I watched the way they caressed the keys, coaxing out of that piano the most amazing sound I had ever heard. The piece ended with a series of individual notes rising up the scale. There was a pause, and then it ended with a lone high note that faded gradually into silence.
I just stood there, entranced. I looked over to Darm and it was obvious he was as stunned as I was. Then I looked at Yoso. He was casting his eyes from Darm to me and back again, and I think he was holding his breath. Darm began to applaud. I joined in.
“Yoso, that was amazing!” I managed to say.
The boy’s face creased into a huge smile and he began to breathe again. “Thank you,” he said, quietly.
“I recognised the first three pieces,” said Darm, “but what was the last one?”
I turned to Yoso to see what he was going to say, but before he could answer Darm spoke again.
“That was the… the… most awesome thing I have ever heard played on a piano. Who is it by?”
“Um, I wrote it myself,” Yoso answered, blushing.
“Crikey,” I exclaimed, “you’re a… a…” I faltered, looking for the right word, “legend!”
Yoso hung his head. I was sure he was blushing again.
“Have you played that for anyone else?” Darm asked.
Yoso shook his head. “Well, only my tutor and my guardian. And Rebecca and Arden.”
It turned out that he rarely played for an audience, preferring to keep his music private. For one thing he seemed to believe that he didn’t play very well. Second, he feared that his own compositions would be thought amateurish.
“I don’t even know why I played that one for you guys,” he said.
“Well, I’m glad you did!” I said. Darm agreed.
We were all feeling a bit peckish by then, so Yoso took us to the kitchen where Rebecca, the housekeeper—who turned out to be Arden’s wife—made us drinks and set out some delicious biscuits. We chatted easily while we ate, and then Yoso took us to his bedroom. There, we made ourselves comfortable. Yoso sat at his desk, Darm made himself at home and stretched out on Yoso’s bed, and I settled on the floor leaning against the bed.
Yoso was much more relaxed now, so I decided it was time to get to the purpose of my visit—the chat we had to have.
“Yoso,” I began, “I would like to confirm some things that I’ve been told. Do you mind if I ask some awkward questions?”
He looked a bit surprised, but nodded. “Um, okay.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I understand that you don’t wish to be involved in the running of DöhmCorp. Is that correct?”
I had already decided that Yoso wore his heart on his sleeve, and his reaction to my question confirmed that. I doubt that he could have hidden his feelings if he had tried. He looked horrified.
“Oh, no! I, um… I… no! I just couldn’t do it.”
“Is it correct that you have no family or relatives?”
“Yes, my parents both died when I was very young. They had survived a pandemic which killed all of their family members, but they retained pathogens that caught up with them and killed them later. I don’t remember them at all, and I’ve only known all that for a couple of years.” He stopped to breathe. “I was in an orphanage before my guardian brought me here.”
At the mention of his guardian he looked pained.
“You’re worried about your guardian, aren’t you?”
“What have you been told?”
Yoso took a deep breath. “That he has been arrested because of something that happened years ago. The imperial guard came here and asked us a lot of questions. They said Errol is in the palace.”
Tears began to fall down Yoso’s cheeks. “I don’t want anything to happen to him. He’s always been good to me, even when I couldn’t do what he wanted of me.”
“Yes.” He was sobbing now. He looked stricken. “What’s going to happen to me now? I don’t have anywhere to go. He and Arden and Rebecca are all I have, apart from my tutors.”
“Well, I hope I can set your mind at rest. Your guardian is in the custody of the imperial guard, but he is no longer under arrest. I’ve talked to him and I think he was relieved to find that I was alive and well and that I am intending to take my place as head of DöhmCorp. He was arrested because it was believed that he may have taken part in a scheme to defraud people of social security payments–”
“No!” Yoso was vehement. “He would never do that! He’s always dinned into me that I need to be honest and true to myself. That’s why he wasn’t upset with me when I didn’t want anything to do with DöhmCorp. And, what’s more, he always became angry when he heard of anyone acting dishonestly. He’s told me countless times that he’s proud that DöhmCorp is an honest company.”
Well, that was a turn-up! Here was testimony to an aspect of the secretary’s character that I hadn’t even sought. It was obvious that Yoso respected and liked the man, and the thought that Errol would do anything dishonest appalled him.
“Yes, I’m beginning to see that myself. He told me his side of the story and I’m inclined to believe him. That’s why he’s no longer under arrest. There is another matter, however, that I need to sort out… and I haven’t decided what to do about that yet.”
Yoso then proved the truth of the secretary’s words when he had told me the boy was bright and capable.
“You’re talking about his trying to pass me off as you?”
Yoso looked me in the eye. His tears had dried up now and he had a determined look on his face. Whereas earlier he had seemed timid, now he was forceful and passionate. Words tumbled out quickly. “Echo, um… he’s agonised over that for years. We’ve had many long talks about it, especially since I made it clear that I wasn’t cut out to be a corporate executive. He really regretted the deception, but he had a dilemma that, last time we talked, he was still trying to solve.”
He paused, and took a deep breath before continuing. His eyes were moist again. “He is the best thing that ever happened to me. If he hadn’t brought me here I doubt very much that I would have discovered my love for music and art. Well, I might have discovered it, but it’s very unlikely that I would have been able to do anything about it, living in an orphanage.”
I nodded. I knew how limited my own ambitions had been just a few weeks earlier.
Yoso went on, “He was very supportive of me when it came to my art and my music, and he encouraged me all the way along. I probably would not have achieved all I have without his pushing me, telling me I could do better. He believed in me more than I believed in myself.”
He paused again. I nodded, smiling my encouragement. He continued. “The dilemma was that he had me, an artist and musician he wanted to see succeed, but who was supposed to be someone he could not be. Last time I saw him he was still trying to figure out how to provide for me, but at the same time provide the Döhm Corporation with an heir.” His tears returned. “We were sitting in my studio. Both of us were crying and he told me he felt like Atlas holding the entire weight of the world. And the next day we were told that he had been arrested.”
I stood up and moved over to Yoso. I took his arms and pulled him out of his chair into a hug. He was sobbing again, and tears were falling from my own eyes. When I looked over at Darm he joined our hug, wrapping his arms around both of us.
It took a few minutes but Yoso eventually calmed down. He retrieved a handful of tissues from a box on his desk and wiped his eyes and blew his nose.
I was watching what he was doing but I was so deep in thought that it hardly registered. With the three of us standing together in the middle of the room I came to a conclusion.
“Yoso, I think I may have the solution to the dilemma. I’m not upset with you, because the things that have happened were not your fault. You’re just kind of caught up in someone else’s problems. You were brought here in the name of DöhmCorp, and you have actually done me a favour because your presence prevented the winding up of the company. I still have some questions for your guardian, and some thinking to do, but I’ve made a decision.”
The other two boys looked at me. Yoso looked hopeful. Darm had a tiny smile on his lips, as if he already knew what I was going to say.
“I like what you have shown Darm and me today, and I would hate it if you weren’t able to continue with your art and music. So, I can solve the first part of the dilemma. Whatever happens with Errol Daventry, I will provide everything you need so that you can continue painting and composing. You can stay here for now, and I will cover all of the household expenses, including paying Arden and Rebecca. If it turns out that you need to move out in the future I will see that you have a suitable place to live, with all expenses covered, including the cost of mov–”
I didn’t get any further. Yoso just about strangled me in a hug. Darm caught my eye and nodded, a huge smile on his face.
When Yoso finally let me go, I said, “I have one request in return, though.”
Yoso looked a little worried.
“Actually, it’s two requests. First, I think your art and music should be shown to the world, not hidden in your studio. Will you allow me to find someone who can guide you in how to achieve that?”
He looked hesitant.
“Don’t worry, I’ll make sure no one tries to compromise what you believe in, or tries to make you pander to particular markets or whatever.”
Yoso’s face relaxed. “Um… I think I can do that. Will you guys be around, still?”
“For sure,” I said. “I want to come and visit you regularly, if you’ll let me, and I’m hoping that you’ll come and visit me, too.”
He grinned, and nodded.
Darm said, “That goes for me, too, Yoso. I loved your music, and I’d really like to hear more. So, I’m hoping you’ll let me visit as well.”
Yoso grinned and nodded again. “Okay… what was the second request?”
“Oh, yes. Will you come to the palace and play that piece of yours for Darm’s parents?”
“Th-th-the emperor?” Yoso’s face paled and he looked horrified.
I was about to reply with some platitude when I remembered how I had been overawed when I found out that Darm was the crown prince. I was a bundle of nerves when I had to meet the emperor. Before I could answer Darm came to my rescue.
“Yoso, my parents love music, and they love hearing it played well. They support young artists through a family foundation. I would have asked them to support you but Echo has beaten me to it. They would love to hear you play… and I know they will love you!”
He pulled Yoso into a hug. “And they’re not scary! They’re actually pretty ordinary people.”
“I can vouch for that,” I said. They’re really nice.” I paused for dramatic effect. “I don’t know how they ended up with Darm, though!”
Yoso laughed. I hoped I would hear that laugh more often in the future.
It was time to return to the palace. Darm called for a troopship to pick us up, along with the guard detail, no longer worried about creating a scene, and we left after agreeing to contact Yoso to arrange his visit to the palace. I was disappointed that I didn’t get to spend any time with Arden, but I assured him I would be back. I did let him know that his and Rebecca’s jobs were secure.
Three days later I went to see Yoso again, this time with only my IG escort.
Darm had waxed lyrical about Yoso’s music and had talked his parents into inviting Yoso to hold a small recital at the palace. They had to rearrange an appointment or two but the date was set, and I was bearing their invitation to hand to Yoso in person. Giving in to Darm’s and my urging, they had invited the director of the Imperial College of Arts, who was a personal friend, to hear Yoso play. I was instructed to ask Yoso to prepare a program of standard classical pieces, together with some of his own compositions, to last about one hour. We had decided to invite Errol Daventry and Yoso’s music tutor, too, hoping that their presence would encourage Yoso to play at his best.
Yoso wasn’t expecting me to return so soon after our first meeting, but he gave me a huge hug when he arrived in the entry hall after being told he had a visitor. He was a bit overawed when, with a flourish, I handed him the invitation.
“Oh, my gosh! What will I play? What will I wear? I’ll be so nervous!”
I took pity on him and told him his tutor and Errol would be there. That knowledge had a remarkable effect and he immediately calmed down. “Hey, just close your eyes and pretend you’re in your studio playing for Errol, and think of how he’s always encouraged you.”
He gave me a thin smile. “That might work.”
“Good. Oh, Arden and Rebecca will be there, too, as well as Darm and me, so you will know most of the people. You won’t need to dress up. It’s an informal private recital, it’s not like it’s in the Imperial Theatre with the whole world watching the broadcast.”
“I guess…” Yoso looked unconvinced. “What should I play?”
“Well, I reckon you should play everything you played for Darm and me the other day, including the upside-down version of Chopsticks! But, what about your music teacher? He should be able to suggest things you could include.”
“Of course!” He shook his head. “Why didn’t I think of that?”
That settled, Yoso took me to his studio to show me a new painting. I gasped when he led me to his easel. He was working on a portrait of me! It captured exactly the uncertainty I was still feeling as I eased into my new role as owner of DöhmCorp.
“Crikey! Yoso, that’s awesome!” I gave him a hug. “But, why me?”
He blushed cutely. “You have an interesting face… and… um… it’s kind of a thank you for what you’re doing for me—allowing me to stay here, and paying for my education and everything.”
It was my turn to blush. “Well, I thought it was the right thing to do, and it’s not as if I can’t afford it.”
“Well, it means the world to me, so I wanted to show you that I appreciate it.”
I looked at him. “Hey, if I have an interesting face, then you do, too. We look a bit alike, you know—although you haven’t got my wing nut ears.”
Yoso’s cheeks reddened.
“Have you done a self-portrait?”
“No, I never thought I was worth it.”
“Oh, Yoso, you are! I hope you’ll paint yourself one day. How about sitting at the piano, or standing at your easel? Either of those would be great, I reckon.”
“Hmm, I’ll think about it.”
That was as far as I dared take the conversation. Yoso was so self-conscious he might have retreated into his shell if I’d pressed him. We went to find Arden and Rebecca.
It was afternoon tea time, so they were both in the kitchen, talking with my escort guys. Rebecca was preparing a snack for us and Arden was helping.
I handed Arden their invitation to Yoso’s recital. He frowned when he saw the imperial crest and seal on the envelope.
“Don’t worry,” I said, “it’s good news.”
Arden grabbed a knife and slit the top of the envelope. He pulled out the card and took a few seconds to read it. “Holy crap!” His wife gave him a sharp look.
“What is it?” she asked. Arden held out the card. “Holy crap!” Rebecca exclaimed as she read it.
We all laughed.
“Yoso, this is excellent!” Rebecca said. She stepped over and wrapped him in her arms and kissed the top of his head. “You deserve this. I’m really pleased for you.”
“Thank you,” Yoso said with a smile. He hugged her back, then Arden ruffled his hair.
“It’s an informal evening, so you don’t need to dress up or anything,” I told them, “although I suppose jeans and flannelette shirts are out.” I told them Yoso’s tutor and Errol would be there, but didn’t mention the ICA director. Yoso was worried enough as it was.
We all sat down at the kitchen table and chatted as we snacked. Arden and Rebecca wanted to know all about my life in the orphanage and how I had discovered my true identity. They listened, rapt, as I told the tale.
For my part, there were things I wanted to ask about. Curiously, I felt ambivalent about the house. I knew I had lived there for the first few years of my life, yet I had no memory of it. The prompts I had felt when I walked through the garden on my first visit—and my recollections of Arden—were not repeated inside the house. I hoped that Arden would be able to answer my questions and also tell me a little about my mother and father.
“Arden,” I began, “I barely remember my parents. What were they like?”
“Oh, they were wonderful people. They were warm and caring, and they both doted on you. They were genuine and down to earth, and they were great to work for.”
“My history class studied the Döhm dynasty. We found out a lot about the company, but almost nothing about the family. It seemed as if no one knew anything about them, that they had cut themselves off from the world.”
“Well, I think the Döhm family has always shied away from publicity. Lukas and Rosalie, certainly, were very private, but they weren’t reclusive or antisocial. They had many close friends and they spent time with them. They just didn’t like to be in the spotlight and they weren’t into publicity for its own sake. They didn’t care about being seen with the latest celebrity or whoever.
“They attended functions if they believed doing so would serve a purpose, but they refused to attend anything just to be seen or to enhance someone else’s status. And they resolutely refused to allow the Döhm name to be used as clout, or to endorse anything, whatever the purpose.
“I remember they even turned down invitations to the palace for what they called window dressing.”
“Window dressing?” I asked, “What does that mean?”
“You know… garden parties for visiting dignitaries… soirees for politicians… things like that. They just weren’t interested in who was visiting or who was in favour this month.” He paused. “Well, they were interested—they kept a keen eye on what was going on in the world—but they didn’t feel the need to be part of all that stuff. The ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ philosophy left them cold. They got involved if they really needed to, but more often than not they simply ignored it.” He grinned. “They loved spending time with you, though!”
I gave Arden a tentative smile. “I wish I could remember all that. I hardly even have any memory of what they looked like.”
I recalled one of the queries I had. “Walking in here the other day, I got some flashes of memory… picnics on the lawn… playing under the old oak tree… the smell of the flowers… playing with you… but I don’t remember anything in the house at all.”
“Well, not long after your parents were lost there was a fire which destroyed most of the house. It was rebuilt, but, of course, everything in it was gone. All the furnishings were replaced, so nothing that you would have been familiar with remains. Yoso’s studio is new, so you wouldn’t have any memory of that, anyway.”
“Ah, I see. That would explain the lack of memories.”
Rebecca had left the room while we were speaking. She returned carrying a large, thick book in a slipcase, and handed it to Arden.
“Oh, yes,” he said, “I would have forgotten. Lucien, there were lots of photos of you in the house, but they were all lost in the fire. I found this album in a safe that survived. It contains a lot of printed photos of you and your mother and father. There are also some disks, but I haven’t looked at those, so I don’t know what they hold.” He pushed the book across the table to me. “The photos all have captions, so you will be able to work out what and who they show. The writing is your mum’s, and I’m pretty sure she began the album as a record of your childhood. It’s yours, and you should have it.”
I closed my eyes, trying to prevent tears falling, and swallowed hard. I ran my hand over the slipcase, aware that my mother’s hands had touched it years earlier. With difficulty I composed myself. “Thank you,” I whispered.
Wondering what I was about to find, I took the album out of its case and opened the cover. On the title page was my name in beautiful handwriting, together with my date of birth and a photo of a tiny, naked baby boy.
I gulped. “Is that me?”
Arden stood and moved around behind me. “Yep, that’s you!” he said. “Taken in the hospital right after you were born, if I recall.”
In awe and wonderment I turned the pages of the album. Page after page of photos chronicled my first few years, each image captioned in the same beautiful hand. Arden assured me that it really was my mother’s writing. “I always admired it,” he explained. “I could never work out how handwriting could be so exquisite.”
Arden was able to provide background to a lot of the photos. For example, there was a picture of me riding a tricycle. I was nude, and covered in some sort of flaky stuff. The caption simply said, ‘Lucien, after a visit to the old stable!!’. I noted the double exclamation mark.
“What on earth’s going on here?” I asked.
Arden laughed. “Ah, yes, I remember that day. There is an old stable down at the bottom of the garden. You disappeared and I was roped in to help look for you. We couldn’t find you anywhere, until, eventually, you came riding out of the stable yard looking like that.”
“What is all that stuff?” I asked.
“Well, you found an ancient drum of molasses and got it open somehow. You smeared molasses all over yourself—after you took your clothes off—and then you must have rolled in a feed bin that still had chaff in it. Then, apparently satisfied with your new look, you happily rode out to head back to the house.”
We all laughed. “What did my mother say?”
Arden chuckled. “She was laughing too much to say anything for a while. Then she hosed you down to get the worst of it off, before she dumped you in the bath. Molasses is pretty sticky, so I imagine it took a while to get you clean.”
“What is molasses, anyway?” Yoso asked.
“I think it’s a byproduct of sugar refining. It’s brown or black stuff, a bit like honey, but thicker. It was used as a feed supplement in the stables. We got rid of the drum after that incident.”
“Ha!” Yoso said, turning to me, “your mum didn’t like your new look!”
We could have kept going for hours, but I needed to get back to the palace. By that time I felt quite at home with Yoso and his carers. I promised to return so we could continue looking through the album. I was happy to agree to that because Arden had proved to be a mine of information.
Just as I was leaving, Arden gave me something to think about. “Lucien, I think there’s one thing that will tell you a lot about your parents. As you look through that album, keep an eye out for your nanny.”
When I returned to the palace I was carrying Yoso’s portrait of Darm as well as my photo album. Yoso had completed the portrait since our first visit.
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