Thursday 1 July 2004 was a memorable day for Yuli Lucic in several ways. The first was that Herr Pelikan collared him before practice and told him that he was to play the introit and processional on Sunday, so he should get the score from Mattyas and prepare with him. Also he was to accompany an anthem during the mass.
He picked up the score: the Pie Jesu of Fauré’s Requiem, but marked for tenor voice. He could guess which tenor it would be. He looked over at Roman, intent on his preparation in his stall. The boy looked up just at that moment and grinned as he caught Yuli’s eye. Yuli raised the score, pointed and shook his head. Roman gave a theatrical shrug. They both knew the piece was originally for soprano and could only by sung by the most flexible and skilled of tenors, as it soared into a register only counter-tenors normally occupied. Herr Pelikan was taking a risk with this anthem; less of a risk giving Yuli the organ part, which was unobtrusive.
Come the time for rehearsal, Yuli was ready. At Herr Pelikan’s nod from below, Yuli gave the opening note and softly led in. Roman’s voice opened its wings and soared effortlessly into a blue heaven. He did not even look at the score when the orchestral accompaniment joined in delicately. The tapping on the music stand brought them back to earth.
‘Gentlemen, ladies. You must for once — and once only — take the voice as your lead, not my good self. Play to him. Place your trust in young von Ebersfeld, for this will be his show. Roman? Any problems?’
‘No sir. It’s no strain.’
Herr Pelikan smiled. ‘Good. I think on Sunday, Roman, you’ll sing from my desk where the orchestra can see you. This is Her Majesty’s personal request for Sunday, to be sung after the consecration while the clergy communicate. Any disappointment I’m sure will be subject to severe retribution from Queen Harriet. The Arsenal Prison at the very least.’
Yuli had to stay behind after the choir departed, to work for an hour or two on Sunday’s duties with Mattyas. ‘Bit scary that anthem,’ Yuli commented.
‘It’s a challenge Yuli, but I think we know you’re both of you up to it. I’ll have the mirror angled so it’s fixed on Roman’s face, and you’ll be able to follow his every move.’
‘He’s brilliant, isn’t he.’
Mattyas smiled meaningfully at Yuli. ‘He is exceptional, but he’s gone well beyond even his usual standards this past month.’ Yuli blushed, and failed to respond. ‘Oh, and Yuli, take great care when you go down the stairs on your way out. I believe the bottom step can be treacherous if you don’t watch yourself.’
Shouldering his backpack, Yuli eventually said his farewells and stumped his way down to the chapel, pondering as he did that his affair with Roman was no secret amongst his new Hofkapelle friends, and that Mattyas was letting him know that everybody was more than fine with it.
As the stair turned he saw a small package and an envelope set in the middle of the bottom step. He picked them up, took them out into the Residenz garden and sat on a bench in the shade under the Hofkapelle apse. He found a hand-made greeting card emblazoned in rainbow letters HAPPY YULIJMONAT! Inside, Roman had pasted several pictures of Yuli’s smiling face from photos Yuli did not know he had taken, and the message ‘My Yuli! A whole month dedicated to you! 31 Yuli Days!’
Yuli grinned to himself and unwrapped the small parcel. It was a recent and professional shot of a pensive Roman in a frame with a loving message ‘To keep under your pillow, and maybe one day, on our bedside table’.
There was a certain mix of realism and hopefulness about the message that warmed Yuli’s heart. They both knew that though they might want a future together, navigating their way to it would be difficult. Yet they both dreamed of it. Yuli kissed the picture of his Romesczu, placed it in his backpack and headed home.
Now that Strelsenermedia had committed its bid for the Eurovision Song Contest to the EBU and Henry was in good odour with Tomas Weissman, he was allowed off the leash temporarily, at least till the bid was decided.
‘Is this really a potential story, Henry, or is this you off on one of your historical kicks?’ Tomas had been leafing through the contents of the research material stacked on Henry’s desk. He was scrutinising a somewhat decrepit and smelly nineteenth-century urban history of Strelsau, going by the name of Archaiographia Starelensis. Henry had picked it up cheap at a second-hand bookshop in the back lanes of the Domshorja.
‘Can’t say as yet, boss. But one way or other there has to be a story in it, or at the very least a feature on the urban development of our fair city.’
‘Two weeks, and I want a full briefing. And you’re not exempt in the meantime from assignments on the Eastnet international desk. You weren’t hired to pursue domestic news stories. And don’t drag anyone else into it. I know you when you get the bit between your teeth.’
Henry took this as consent, and that afternoon began serious work on the current politics and personalities of the Staramesten and Nuevemesten municipal authorities. The time had come to arrange that meeting with Herr Lucic, the Staroman. Of the two mayors, he seemed likeliest to be forthcoming. He was a passionate man, by all accounts, and in Henry’s growing experience of politicians, passionate men could be counted upon not to keep their mouths shut when they ought to.
There was of course no applause when Roman finished his sublime rendition of the Pie Jesu that Sunday, but it was notable that the celebrant had paused in his prayers at the altar and did not commence communicating the other clergy until a full five seconds after the final notes of the voice, organ and orchestra had faded away. Mattyas resumed his place on the bench with a whispered ‘Good job, Yuli,’ and Yuli went to take a look out on the chapel. The king and queen were heads down at prayer and the congregation was awaiting its invitation to communicate. Roman had disappeared from the rostrum and was making his way back to his stall.
Following the recessional, Yuli helped Mattyas pack up and tidy the loft. The congregation had long departed when he got to the bottom of the stairs, but he found Roman kicking his heels waiting for him, and Herr Pelikan bustling towards the both of them with a broad smile.
‘Julius! Excellent job this morning. I’ve had consent from the dean to add you to the chapel’s official establishment as a junior organ scholar. It doesn’t come with a salary but there is a grant for your expenses. Also a letter goes to the principal of your gymno under the seal of the comptroller of the household which may allow you to be more flexible with the time you spend with us during term.
‘There is also this. Her Majesty the Queen is very much taken with Roman’s performances since Paulenfest. I’m to tell you that Her Majesty will be most pleased if Roman will consent to join the the State List.’
‘The State List?’ Roman asked.
‘The royal household and the ministry of state maintains a list of artists for performance at public events and private functions in the Residenz and other palaces.’
‘Wow! Romeszcu!’ Yuli burst out, then blushed hard.
‘And that’s not all. Roman will be retained as a solo singer, but solo singers need regular accompanists. That will be you, Julius, if you’re willing.’
‘Willing!’ Yuli was wide-eyed with astonishment.
Radek Lucic contemplated his son quirkily. ‘So it seems I’ve bred up a monarchist!’
‘Tatti, it’s not like that.’ Yuli was somewhat dashed at the sceptical way his news was received by his father.
His mother rallied to him sharply. ‘Radek, I think you might try a little harder to be pleased for Yuli. This is real recognition of him as a serious musician. An accompanist at public events! You’ve been happy with his progress up till now, this is churlish.’
Herr Lucic spread his hands. ‘I didn’t mean it quite like that. I’m really happy for our boy. Honest. But the palace …? I thought you’d join the Symphonia, or the orchestra of the National Opera or something like that, or do what you and Willem kept going on about last year — getting into electronic music and making a fortune on iTunes. That one I’d have liked, by the way. Weren’t you thinking of the Conservatory after your baccalaureate?’
‘I can still go to the Conservatory. I probably will, but tatti, the Hofkapelle is getting to be a really big deal in the Strelzen music scene. It’s a sort of career short-cut, it’ll be huge on my CV. I can’t help it if it’s also a symbol of feudal oppression of the masses and the chaining of the human spirit, can I.’
Herr Lucic abruptly barked his laughter. ‘I heard your mother very distinctly in that last remark. I am pleased for you, son, I really am. Don’t get me wrong. But I just wonder if this will be the first of those compromises with the world of power that life imposes on idealistic youth.’
Maria Lucic shook her head. ‘Exactly as I said before, sweetheart. You’re growing up fast — too fast for us, Yuli. Even your insensitive brute of a father feels it.’
Yuli looked from one to the other of his parents. They were sometimes beyond him, but that their eccentricities arose from their love and care for him he never doubted. He shot them a sudden malicious grin. ‘Oh, and I need my own evening dress and a bow tie.’
Roman laughed so hard on the phone at Yuli’s account of his parents’ reaction that he got hiccups. When he’d caught his breath he said sweetly ‘They seem mad, but utterly adorable.’
‘I think that sums them up. I have your picture on my bedside table, Romesczu. It’ll be the last thing I see when I go to sleep and the first thing when I wake up. I just wish that it was Romesczu in the flesh. I’m hard just thinking of us in the same bed.’
‘Me too. I’m gonna have to … y’know … before I can sleep tonight.’ Roman had a way of not referring directly to sex acts that was in its own way quite sexy.
‘Do you really want to do it with me, leblen men?’
‘More than anything. Have you had sex with anyone, Yuli?’
‘Me and Willem started jerking together when we were kids. There were a couple of others too. Lucacsz Voynovich once put his finger hard up inside me where the sun don’t shine while he was jerking me off. He said it would make me come harder.’
‘Did it? What was it like?’
‘It didn’t match expectations. I wonder how a dick would feel. I’m looking forward to finding out. Did you ever do something like that?’
There was a noticeable pause before the answer came. ‘Nothing like that. No. It seems innocent enough, even with Willem. I’m not jealous. But what people were saying about you two was not entirely wrong was it.’
Yuli sighed. ‘No … and leblen, I’m beginning to suspect that Willemczu may not be gay, but his feelings for me were not entirely just about our deep and brotherly friendship. There was always a vibe from him when we jerked that he was into it for my sake as much as for the relief. He was as often as not the one who initiated it.’
‘You think he really does love you?’
‘No, but I think he was thinking about it … know what I mean?’
‘He had invested in me, leblen. I was his emotional life, Romesczu. And it’s sad to see how torn he now is. He needs to get himself laid, and fast. Anyway, how did your Mutta and Vater take the news?’
Again the pause. ‘I think they were very happy for me. Mutta is a huge fan of the Queen you know, so the divine Harriet’s part in it was more than enough for her. Vater was more practical about it. Anyway, I have at last mentioned to them a friend I have from school called Julius, who is to be my accompanist and with whom I have to start arranging rehearsals before we go away to Sardinia. I think this may help us get together more, at least for a little while.’
‘Excellent. But where?’
Roman gave it some thought, then came out with ‘There’s the gymno?’
‘The piano in the rehearsal room is rubbish, take it from me.’
‘Then there’s the Hofkapelle. It has a baby grand trundled behind the pulpit. I don’t suppose they’ll mind if we use it, the grand I mean. We have a piano here at home in the back lounge, how about your place?’
‘I couldn’t recommend the acoustics. I have my trusty electronic keyboard. It’s not a cheap one. I bought a whole pile of gear last year after my great aunt Ludmilla died and left us a bit of money. I’ve got speakers and a beatbox too. Willemczu and I had this idea I’d become an electronica sensation and he’d be my manager.’
‘Oh, you’re into pop and stuff?’
‘I’m into anything musical that appeals to me. And that’s a thing too.’
‘What’s a thing?’
‘We’re gonna have to have us a repertoire, leblen. So we’d better start making our own personal playlist.’
Time was limited and Henry was determined. He was not to be put off by the Staroman’s dragon of a secretary, who held out for two days saying that he should talk instead to the Chair of the Planning Committee, the City Archivist or the Legal Department.
Finally Henry was in the anteroom of the Staroman in the Radhaus, being glared at disdainfully by the dragon. He adopted an air of blithe innocence as she did her best to delay the interview further. Finally, fifty minutes later than the agreed time, she ran out of options and admitted him brusquely into the presence of the Staroman.
Herr Lucic seemed unaware of the battle that had raged outside his office. He got up courteously and came around to shake Henry’s hand. Having met his son, Henry could see something of Yuli in his father, though the man’s hair was receding and he was thick around the waist.
‘Dobre Denn, Herr Staroman,’ Henry said, politely.
‘We’ve not met have we, Herr At-vood?’
‘No sir, but we do have a common acquaintance in your son, Julius.’
The man nodded. ‘He mentioned you’d encountered him in the Residenz garden.’
‘A very polite and intelligent young man, I found him.’
‘We’re proud of him, Maria and I. And as a result of meeting you he spends a lot more time at the Residenz these days.’
‘How’s that, sir?’ Henry was puzzled. This was not in the script.
‘He’s attracted the attention of the Kapellemeister at the palace. He’s now a junior organ scholar in the Hofkapelle.’
‘Talented as well as pleasant. I’m pleased for him. I may be seeing more of him soon then.’
Herr Lucic returned to his chair and gave Henry a look over, while indicating a seat for him. ‘I seem to remember you have a connection with the palace, Herr At-vood. You and our king are old schoolfriends, is that not right?’
‘Yes, sir. I occasionally do duty as his equerry.’
‘And he invested you as a Knight of the Rose a few years ago. Not that I dispute his right to do so, but it came as a surprise that a twenty-year-old man should thus acquire one of the highest dignities in the land, and he a foreigner.’
This was getting uncomfortable. It seemed the Staroman too was capable of research, and was using it to back-foot him. Henry gave a deprecatory shrug. ‘Foreigner no longer, sir. I was naturalised as a Rothenian citizen two years ago. My partner Edward is a Rothenian army officer.’
The Staroman inclined his head in a neutral sort of acknowledgement of Henry’s avowal of his homosexuality. It did not seem to bother him. ‘So what can I do for you Herr At-vood.’
‘Do you mind if I tape the interview, sir? I’ll take notes also.’
‘Take your notes Herr At-vood, but put your machine back in your satchel.’
‘As you prefer, sir. Now then. It’s about North Martzfeld.’
The man bristled, as Henry had calculated he would. His voice acquired an edge. ‘That’s the name the developers have put on their plans and portfolios, I believe. It has no other existence than in their heads. It is in fact a district within the bounds of the Staramesten, and if it has any name it goes by the one it’s enjoyed since the middle ages: the Strelsenerwald.’
‘So perhaps you can explain to me why it is the authorities of the Nuevemesten believe otherwise, sir.’
‘Sheer bloody-minded ignorance, I would suggest. Our legal office has a stack of parchment, terriers and rentals going back to 1667 which leave no doubt about the fact that the entirety of the forest of Strelsau has been within our bounds for three centuries and more. What have they told you, Herr At-vood?’
‘To be honest sir, absolutely nothing. They seem reluctant to talk about it to Eastnet,’
A sardonic smile greeted that remark. ‘Which may be because they are embarrassed for evidence. As of next month they can take their claim up with the courts. We are lodging a plea of trespass with the District Civil Court of the Province of Strelsau. They can bring their evidence before the judges if they have any, which I doubt they do. It’s speculation on the Burgomeister’s part.’
‘And you sir, should the court find for you, will you be … speculating?’
‘What does that mean, young man?’
‘The area is ripe for development, so will you be expecting the developers to turn to you instead of the Nuevemesten.’
‘We shall see, won’t we, Herr At-vood. It’s not the development we object to, it’s theft.’
The Von Ebersfeld residence was behind high walls near the top of the hill of the Sixth District, with lush shrubs visible through the iron barred gate, shading a parking space and a short brick drive leading up to the door. There was a lot of plate glass in the house frontage Yuli could see. He and Roman had found that, apart from the unacceptable piano in the gymno, no other instrument was immediately available for their rehearsals but the one in the Von Ebersfeld lounge.
‘It’s a good one,’ Roman said, ‘or at least it looks like it might be. It’s very well-polished by Klara.’
‘Ah. You have servants.’
‘Well, she doesn’t live in,’ Roman said apologetically. ‘There’s a gardener too, but only three days a week.’
‘Thank God. For a moment, I thought I might be dealing with the aristocracy.’
Roman giggled, and gave Yuli a quick kiss and a squeeze of the hand. ‘Are you okay with this, leblen.’
‘I guess. Do I have to meet your parents?’
‘No, they’re both out.’
‘So we could … mess around?’
‘Klara. She notices things.’
‘Oh. Pity. But they know I’ll be here?’
‘And they don’t mind?’
‘Well, no. As far as they’re concerned Julius from school is only my accompanist.’
‘So I’m just a servant too?’
‘Fortunately they don’t know what low tastes I have in men … yet.’
‘When’ll they be back? It’s four now.’
‘Vater is never back before seven.’
‘Huh! Just like my Tatti.’
‘And Mutta? … depends I guess on all sorts of things: how long she and her friends need to get to the bottom of the wine bottle and how many bottles they have; whether she can find just the right dress, scarf, jacket, necklace, or whatever, on Mikhelstrasse; when she gets her pedi and mani appointments. All sorts of things really.’ The boy looked momentarily sad.
‘Romesczu? Are you okay?’
‘Oh … me? Yuli, I love my Mutta and she loves me, I know she does. But she’s not a traditional Rothenian housewife. It’s something I’ve had to get used to as I grow up. And my Yuli needs to know this, because we share everything, yes?’
‘We do. Count on me.’
‘I do, leblen men. You’ve changed so much for me. So, here we go.’
The interior of the Von Ebersfeld house was style-magazine perfect; it either had been professionally decorated or the Baroness had real ability. Perhaps both. Yuli was intimidated by the flower arrangements, paintings and disconcertingly, yet elegantly placed vases and ornaments. Everything was immaculate, and only a teenage boy who looked and dressed like Roman could not look out of place there. Yuli wondered a little unworthily if his mother regarded Roman as just another domestic art object, more interesting from being mobile and breathing.
Roman did not do any of the things Yuli would do on getting home: dumping his backpack, raiding the fridge, hallooing cheerily to his mother or pounding up the stairs to his room. Indeed he seemed to behave as a guest might: removing shoes and hanging up his jacket and backpack in a closet. Yuli made sure to take off his trainers too, acutely aware that his socks were a bit worn and showed skin.
‘This way, leblen.’ A barefoot Roman led him through the house, their feet sinking into thick carpet pile, and into a rear lounge with a plate glass wall giving on to a deck and lawn. A large pool glittered beyond it, and mature trees divided the property from the neighbours. A grand piano occupied a corner of the room.
‘It’s been tuned. Vater sometimes has drinks parties and hires a pianist for them.’
Yuli went over and discovered it was a Steinway, which he knew could not be had for less than 400,000 krone. ‘Did you ever learn, leblen?’
Roman smiled a little. ‘I had lessons when I was small, but I never got into it. Mutta can actually play quite well, but she rarely does. So … er … what next?’
Yuli took the seat and raised the fall board. These days, as a developing organist, he had to pause to recall the different techniques he needed to employ with each instrument. But he had commenced his training on a piano, and his bedroom keyboard kept him in touch with his inner pianist. He grinned at an anxious Roman and struck a few chords, then gave into the temptation to show off and began his favourite lounge pieces, the ones Willem loved, settling into his own jazz arrangement of Cry Me a River. The instrument was good, and its elegant and sad notes surged through the house as Yuli became fully confident in it. He smiled over at Roman, who had his hands to his mouth and shining tears in his eyes.
When he paused, Roman shook his head. ‘And they think I’m the talented one.’
‘Imagine me playing here nude with an erection,’ Yuli grinned.
There was an instant mood change, as Yuli had wanted, and his Romesczu’s eyes sparkled now as he laughed. ‘Pervert. It’s all I’ll be able to think of now. Hush! Klara’s in the house.’
Yuli retrieved the scores he had brought with him after raiding the school’s music files. He had been able to locate a number of Schubert and Wolf lieder and had a book of Rothenian traditional and modern songs. He’d already marked the ones that interested him with tags and tried out the music at home.
Roman took the scores and they began. Yuli had not acted before as solo accompanist, only occasionally for the school choir and that one time in the Hofkapelle. He did not immediately find it easy to play in support of a single voice and there was some delay as the two searched for a dynamic without a conductor, and occasionally faltered. Yuli finally remembered what Mattyas had advised him: look at the singer’s eyes, once you were sure of the tune. So he did and slowly things became easier. Indeed, there was something sensual in the way their eyes met and engaged, to the extent that Yuli became uncomfortably erect. He stopped to adjust himself.
‘Is this gonna happen on stage? Are you hard too?’
Roman nodded. ‘Maybe we’d best do it naked after all.’
‘It might bring in a certain sort of music buff, but I’m not sure I’d want to meet them.’
There was a sudden rattle and chiming of glass. Both boys turned. A dumpy lady in a black dress had arrived with a tray of drinks. Klara, obviously.
‘I wondered if you young gentlemen would like something, Master Roman?’
Roman blushed hard, obviously concerned as to whether their flirting had been overheard, though the lady seemed oblivious. But he recovered himself and acted the son of the house quite collectedly.
Before she left, the lady stopped and said, ‘May I say, young sirs, that was really quite splendid. I was entranced in the kitchen. It took me back to when you were a little lad, Master Roman, you would sing all day long, so open and cheerful you were.’
Yuli sipped an orange juice rattling with ice, while Roman just drank tap water. ‘Okay, Romesczu, I think we’re getting somewhere. I gotta say these simpler traditional songs from Merz province are helping me get into this. What do you think?
Roman nodded his agreement. ‘I think that if I’m to have a repertoire for public occasions, it might be a good idea to feature Rothenian composers and songs. Like for instance if we’re at functions for ambassadors or foreign dignitaries.’
‘Very diplomatic, leblen. Okay. We’ve got some time, so we’ll focus on them. I’d better go at six.’
After carefully checking for the absence of Klara, they took their time kissing goodbye on the doorstep before Yuli left.
‘Do they let you go to the Spa?’ he asked as he let go of Roman’s hand. Roman shook his head sadly. ‘Shit,’ Yuli said, feelingly.
Willem had come round eager for a report on Yuli’s expedition to the Sixth District. It was another hot evening, and they were down to their underpants. Willem was deeply interested in what he had to say. ‘Wow. They are totally upper class. The mother sounds a bit … well … selfish and up herself.’
Yuli shook his head. ‘No. Romesczu picked up that I might think that, but when he says there’s genuine feeling there I believe him. The dad on the other hand; another workaholic, not unlike my own dear tatti.’
‘So when are you going round there again?’
‘Maybe next week, but actually there won’t be a necessity now. Herr Pelikan has cleared it with the dean for me and Romesczu to use the piano in the chapel. Hey … want to come?’
Willem smiled. ‘Yeah! I’d like to hear Roman and you together. But can you get me in the Residenz?’
‘I’ll ask Mattyas on Thursday. He can probably pull off a visitor pass.’
‘You gonna do it in the nude?’
Yuli laughed. ‘Shouldna told you that, perv. It’s a seriously kinky thought, though probably blasphemous. Y’know his bloody parents won’t even let him go to the Spa.’
‘Too much like what commoners do, I imagine,’ Willem commented. ‘Bad news for you, ‘cos you know there are one or two places in the Gardens where you can safely screw, even if you’re not supposed to. Remember that time when we were kids and we skulked in the shrubbery back of the old orangery and we saw that man and woman, and we both tried to kid each other they were just wrestling … well, they weren’t.’
‘Oh yeah, I forgot that.’ Yuli freed his trapped cock from his briefs, and let it rest on his lower belly. ‘What’s the Bolo situation?’ he asked.
‘No better. He’s quarrelling with me too now. Apparently I’m too easy on you. Sooner or later I’m gonna plant one on him. I thought he’d have cooled off by now, but no. I’ll give it to the end of term. After that, you and me go back to walking down together when the new school year starts, and not calling for him this time. Okay?’
‘Yes. You know what I think about you and me. Best friends forever. Will you stay over tonight? I need you next to me. I miss your cute snoring in your sleep. It’ll help me no end.’
Willem grinned. ‘I miss you too, farting boy. Also there is this. Your mother was interrogating me yesterday as to why I don’t sleep over any more. She thinks maybe we had a bust up. Little does the poor woman know. What’s to stop you telling her about Romesczu?’
‘Nothing I guess, I don’t think they’ll care less. They may even be hoping you and I are boyfriends. But if it’s to be done, I have a feeling Romesczu needs to agree before I out myself, and him with me. Don’t you think?’