Harriet, by the Grace of God, Queen of Rothenia, did not invite the Very Reverend the Dean of the Chapel Royal to take a seat when he entered her private office. Instead she fixed the clergyman with a cool glare as she played with a very sharp letter-opener in a way that suggested to him she was contemplating doing something with it other than open envelopes.
‘So, Herr Moscowicz, I seem no longer to have a musical establishment in my Hofkapelle. Perhaps you can explain how this has happened?’
A stronger man than the dean would have been intimidated by the look on the queen’s face. Dean Moscowicz was beginning to feel sweat trickling down his back under his purple-sashed cassock.
‘Your Majesty, it was a matter of chorister discipline. I really had no choice. The assistant organist and one of the choristers — both males, you understand — had been carrying on an affair, and if that were not bad enough, they were caught on security cameras … er …’ A raised eyebrow forced the dean to continue. ‘Er … well, they could be clearly seen on the security cameras indulging in a homosexual act, Majesty.’
‘Tell me Herr Dean, do you make a habit of checking the palace cameras?’
‘No, no ma’am. It was drawn to my attention by one of the state policemen.’
‘Indeed. We’ll go back to that in a moment. So the boys were doing what exactly?’
‘I believe it was an act of … er … oral sex.’
‘And they were doing it in full sight of the palace so that anyone might have looked out the rear windows and seen them?’
‘Well, no ma’am. They were concealed in bushes by the east wall of the Reitschule.’
‘I see. And the two young men were …?’
‘The organist Julius Lucic and Roman von Ebersfeld.’
The queen’s gaze became distinctly more hostile. ‘So both have been dismissed from the Hofkapelle.’
‘Er … I … no.’
‘The Lucic boy’s contract was terminated, but … um … Von Ebersfeld was allowed to continue as chorister, though with a warning, of course.’
‘I find that very odd, since I assume both were equally complicit in the act. Why were both not dismissed?’
The dean was now red and perspiring sufficiently to need to mop his brow with a handkerchief. He remained mute.
‘Perhaps the Baron Staufer interceded for his son?’
‘Er … no, ma’am. Not the baron. It was his chief of staff, a Herr Hadjek. It was he in fact who phoned me early last week to tell me of his suspicions that the pair were having an affair and engaging in acts of homosexual intimacy on the palace grounds, and that the baron was distraught.’
‘Ah … all is becoming clearer. So the palace security was in fact asked by you to step up surveillance on choir practice nights and the result was that their liaison was — with a bit of effort — detected.’
‘And this Herr Hadjek … he was acting for the baron?’
‘I have no idea. I assume so. The Baron Staufer seemed to know about the affair when I contacted him.’
The queen furrowed her brow. ‘But if the baron knew … then why would he want his son humiliated on camera just to provide evidence. Didn’t you find this odd?’
‘Odd, ma’am? I don’t …’
The queen held up her hand and frowned at her letter-opener as the dean sweated. Eventually she said, ‘Of course you were right to exert discipline.’
‘Really ma’am? Thank you.’
‘But unfortunately the hamfisted and unjust way in which you did it so outraged and offended the Kapellemeister and the majority of the musical establishment of the Hofkapelle that they felt they had no choice but to resign in mass protest.’
‘Ma’am, I …!’
‘Herr Dean. I notified the Bishop of Luchau of my deep displeasure at your conduct as soon as your fellow canons advised me of it. If you had dismissed both boys from the Hofkapelle I — as much as the Kapellemeister — would have been annoyed, but I could not have faulted you for evenhandedness at least. However, Lucic was sacked and Von Ebersfeld was not, and you have no explanation for this inequity other than you didn’t want to upset the Burgomeister, young Roman’s father. And why was that?’
‘Ma’am … when I talked to him last Sunday I found him deeply distressed … I mean … he is a prominent member of the Faith and a papal knight!’
The queen finished for him ‘… and a nobleman, while Lucic’s father is probably an atheist and most definitely a commoner. The Almighty might not be too impressed by the first of these, but when, tell me, did the latter quality become a sin in His eyes?’
‘The bishop is awaiting you in the Chapter committee room, I think. Good day, Dean Moscowicz. I really don’t think the lord bishop wishes to be kept waiting.’
The queen’s gaze brooded on the door that closed behind the dean as he made his abject departure. There was something more to this business than clerical homophobia or the snobbery of the Burgomeister and his minions. Her brother had been complaining to her of the disruption to his plans to expand the business district of Strelzen caused by the rivalry between the Staramesten and Nuevemesten of the city. Now it seemed to be impacting on one of her projects to enhance the civil society of Rothenia. Another symptom, perhaps, of those conflicts over the soul of the nation being fought out between the mystical forces which had taken the life of young Gavin Price.
She pushed her intercom and asked for her next appointment to be sent in, Herr Pelikan, the Kapellemeister. Her face cleared. Charm was now the order of the day.
‘Wow! So the whole Hofkapelle went on strike ’cos of us! Seriously?’
‘Uh-huh. Mattyas Cohen said there was no way he’d carry on without his assistant so he resigned. Herr Pelikan told the dean that without Mattyas he had no intention of carrying on himself. When he announced it Thursday, all but six of the choristers walked out with him.’
‘You stayed though. Why?’
Roman shrugged. ‘I guess I’m not a socialist. My blue blood would have clotted in my veins. Besides I’m in enough trouble at home.’
Yuli took his hand across the study-centre table. ‘I’m sorry leblen baby. It’s none of it fair, is it? How bad is it at home?’
‘On the surface, things go on, but everything is tense underneath. Vater is upset but I think … I can feel … he’s scared to talk to me about it all. Scared! Of me?’
Yuli nodded. ‘Maybe he fears another breakdown. I think a little better of him, even if he’s doing his best to split us up. He really does care for you.’
Roman squeezed Yuli’s hand. ‘See! So you do believe what I said.’
‘Yes, but he still is wrong in what he’s doing.’
‘I’m hoping and praying it’ll all blow over eventually.’ He paused, then smilingly asked ‘Tell me about the recording studio at the Technische.’
Yuli smiled back a little ruefully. ‘It’s no way near as grand as it sounds: just a grubby, smelly tiled room in a portacabin at the back of the Musike Fakultät block. Still, they have this huge multi-track console and all the technical recording stuff, and the students have cobbled together some pretty amazing computer backup.
‘So I went in with my six tunes in my head, and they brought out this humungous MIDI keyboard, jerry-built I think, and I began inputting my melodies and harmonies. It was all a bit intimidating; headphones and blinking lights. A half dozen students wandered in to help, and added some backing tracks of their own, including a nifty beat. Vocals come next week and then the mixing. I wish it could be you singing, but it has to be me the way things are. You’d really rock Edler Herz, and that’s a fact. Maybe when things have settled down we can do a special mix featuring Romesczu!’
‘What are you gonna do with the tunes when they’re finished?’
‘They’ll burn some CDs for me, but they’re also talking about getting an independent label interested, and — I dunno — putting them in the iTunes store, maybe? I think I may be a work project for them. They’ve not talked to me about money. They also said I have to think up a professional name as an electronic artist; something in English.’
Roman glowed at him. ‘I think it’s wonderful and exciting, and maybe if you become a huge pop sensation you can be my prince, the one who takes me away from captivity and out into the wide world where we can live an exciting and cosmopolitan life.’
Yuli laughed and then sobered. ‘We’ll daydream about it, if it makes you happy. I wouldn’t get your hopes up though. I’m not even sure I want to be a pop sensation. Oh hey! My handij’s buzzing. Wow! Text from Mattyas. Would you believe it? Strike’s off: management has surrendered. My sacking’s been rescinded, and an apology is in the mail!’
‘See!’ Roman grinned. ‘Fairy tales can come true. Now go make your multi-million fortune and global fame in the music industry.’
‘Thursday nights are ours again. No more blowjobs in the undergrowth, though. Once bitten … in a manner of speaking.’
Henry got off the express tram at the Martzfeld business district terminus. The line ended in a rather exposed plaza, across which an icy wind was scything as it funnelled out of the canyon-like surrounding streets. Henry lifted his collar against the cold. Gritty ice crystals tumbling down out of a low grey sky stung his face and drifted in the wind, blown like sand across the paving. He headed to a Starbucks in a nearby row of retail outlets. He had to remind himself that he was in Strelzen. It could have been Canary Wharf or La Défense.
Inside was warm and Henry ordered a hot chocolate, which seemed appropriate to the weather. He picked up a Ruritanischer Tagblatt and settled down on a soft armchair watching office workers scurry across the plaza outside. A couple of hardy smokers were occupying chairs beyond the window, sub-zero winds or not. He began to feel cozy.
He texted Peter Peacher where to find him, and a quarter of an hour later a tall blonde figure in an expensive wool coat entered the café, his lower face swathed by a scarf. He winked over at Henry as he unmasked and ordered his cappucino. Several of the patrons looked up, a few with a start of recognition, and carried on staring as Pete took the overstuffed armchair opposite his friend. Melting ice crystals sparkled in his tangled hair.
‘Is this like, undercover, Henry?’
‘Not when half the café is staring at you over the rim of their grande americanos. Is this sort of attention what life is usually like for you?’
‘Nope, though it has to be said I am a god to the folk in these parts. Normally I have acolytes go out and get me my coffee. I had to think hard before remembering how to do it. Last time was in New Haven two years ago.’ Peter took a sip from his mug. ‘Tastes different here, why is that?’
Henry shrugged. ‘I have no idea. I doubt Rothenian milk tastes any different from milk anywhere else. The coffee blend’s standard Pike Place. Put it down to the exotic Ruritanian ambience.’
‘I shall. So little Henry, you’ve really got me interested in this civic warfare between the commie Staroman and the aristocratic Burgomeister. I wanna know more, and it’s not just ’cos of the North Martzfeld scheme. It’s this undercover business about branding Herr Lucic with supposed secret police connections. It seems to me that if someone’s willing to go to lengths like this to remove him, I’ve got bedfellows in the deal whose lack of principle could get me the wrong sort of headlines. That right?’
Henry shrugged. ‘Our investigations haven’t got that far yet. In any case it’s with the Supreme Court now whether the Nuevemesten claim is valid or not. And it’ll not be hearing the case till the New Year. The Burgomeister and his pals pulled it off very cleverly in the District Court, but so far as I understand things the ball was passed upwards, as the case had constitutional implications. The Justices of the Supreme Court will be looking at the case rather more closely now; they won’t be all that impressed by smart Frankfurt lawyers, and not in the least nervous about their competence to make a ruling.’
‘So you think the ambush on what’s his name … Lucic … was an attempt to bring him down and end the case by other means? Someone’s devious. The Burgomeister?’
‘The more I look at the man, the less likely it seems to me. No, it’s more probably one of his young men on the Prefecture staff — a little coterie too clever, partisan and ambitious for their own good, I think. Brings to mind Nixon’s White House, on a small scale.’
Peter chuckled. ‘And Eastnet as the Washington Post, yeah?’
‘And an Atwood instead of a Woodward … and Bernstein. I should dream.’
‘It’s the good fight, dude. Don’t sell yourself short. Any movement on your investigation of the Sixth District development?’
‘Nah. It’ll be the New Year before my able and enthusiastic staff will have run all the leads to earth.’
‘You have staff?’
‘His name’s Marek, and he’s very keen, but his voice broke only a couple of weeks ago.’
‘Still has his acne, but he is impressive in his drive and the way he’s negotiating his learning curve. He left me behind weeks ago. He understands numbers.’
‘I’m counting on your keeping me in the loop, Henry. I’ve earned the heads up if you sniff something rotting under the woodpile.’
‘You have, and I’m grateful. It shall be as you ask.’
‘We’re down in Zenda for Christmas with the royal court. Sis told me you’ve been invited. She’s pulling out all the stops this year, and if you’re Queen of Rothenia, there are a lot of stops to pull.’
Henry laughed. ‘The asking was just a formality in both our cases. You’ll be there anyway ’cos Oskar’s on duty, and I’ll be there ’cos Ed’s on guard. You been to Zenda before?’
‘Er, nope. I hear it’s awesome, especially if the lake’s iced over and snow’s deep on the ground. I’ve been promised a boar shoot.’
‘That’ll be the day I do tourism. There’s a place there I’ve always wanted to see, the Thuringian mausoleum in the Great Park, which is usually locked.’
‘What’s the attraction?’
‘There’s a special tomb. I’ve only seen the pictures, but they’re amazing. And since I’m a guest of the royal family, I have every expectation the doors will be opened for me. Are Matt and Andy coming over from England?’
‘I guess. Maybe Davey and Terry too?’
‘One can only wish. Davey has … er … some ideas about next year’s Eurovision spectacular.’
‘Tell me more.’
Henry grimaced. ‘Absolutely not. No way.’
When Yuli returned to the Hofkapelle that Thursday he was bundled up against the sleet, which was still drifting down out of the night sky and whirling in the lamplight. The guards at the Reitschule Gate, swathed in their greatcoats, smiled at him under their caps. Yuli didn’t smile back; he wondered if they’d seen the tape of Roman saying goodbye to him on his knees a few weeks ago.
A warm welcome awaited him in the organ loft and, with a grin, Mattyas handed him a folder. ‘Music for you to learn. You’ll be here late tonight. The boss is giving you the Mass setting in two Sundays’ time. Me, I’ll just turn the pages and watch you sweat.’
‘So I’m really back then.’
‘And I’ll bet you thought a new career as a pop star was beckoning. The Technische guys were buzzing last night in Lisztomania about your first recording session. I’m expecting a CD, okay?’
Yuli gave a lop-sided smile. ‘It was fun, but I’m glad to be back here, as long as I don’t have to talk to that mean dean.’
There was a snort. ‘Rumour has it that he’s on his way to a new appointment in darkest Mittenheim. I heard that the queen was not happy at the rebellion in the Hofkapelle.’
Yuli mused at this and then a concern surfaced in his mind. ‘Me and Roman had a palace engagement booked for next month. What’ll happen to that? His father swore I’d never accompany him again.’
‘You’d better ask Herr Pelikan. He wants to talk to you after the choir rehearsal.’
Yuli was at the bottom of the loft stairs as the choristers left. He would have said his farewell to Roman with a hug and kiss, but a hatchet-faced man in a suit was loitering at the chapel door — one of the Burgomeister’s aides, Yuli did not doubt. So all they could do was to exchange helpless looks.
‘Julius?’ The Kapellemeister had never yet called him ‘Yuli’, as everyone else in the Hofkapelle did. They took a seat in the nave as Mattyas carried on practising above them. ‘I’m sorry for all this difficulty, it can’t have been at all nice for you.’
‘No, sir. But Roman and I really valued the support from the choir and yourself. It made all the difference.’
‘I think it’s Her Majesty that you have to thank. She took the episode personally and the musical partnership between you and Roman is one of her good causes. She is not going to let that go, and after she had … er … dealt with the dean, she moved on to the second obstacle, as I understand. I imagine that it was not easy putting pressure on the Von Ebersfeld family, and I’m not entirely sure how it was done, but apparently the opposition to the musical association between you and Roman is withdrawn, though not the personal. So the December engagement at the Residenz on the State List is back on. The one condition is that you two now must rehearse at the Von Ebersfeld house in the Sixth, under supervision I have no doubt.
‘But there is something else. The Chapel Royal has another responsibility than the Residenz, which is the château of Zenda, where the royal family will spend the Christmas season. There is a smaller royal chapel there, the Kungliche Fenizenkapelle. Though it has no permanent choral and musical establishment, it has its own chaplain and we meet its musical needs when required, as it will be this year. It does have a rather fine — if modest — organ: locally built in the nineteenth century for King Henry II, who played a bit himself and is said to have designed the case. You’ll like it.’
‘Like it?’ Yuli interjected.
‘Since Mattyas has other commitments over the season, Her Majesty formally requests that you take charge of the keyboard of the chapel for the services between Christmas Eve and the morrow of the Epiphany, during which time the court will be in residence at Zenda. I believe the honorarium will make it quite worth your while, if you can square it with your parents.’
‘Go away for Christmas …?’ Maria Lucic was clearly dubious.
‘… and the New Year. But I get paid stacks of cash for the inconvenience. I’ll be able to patronise Le Snip with a clear conscience from now on, mutti. Also I won’t be needed much between Stefansfest and Briskefest, so I can be back on the Domshorja with you for the days before New Year’s Eve. A lot of the choral scholars will be at Zenda too, and Herr Pelikan. He’s organised a minibus back to Strelzen.’
His mother sniffed. ‘Willemczu will miss you, and how about Roman?’
‘There was never much of a chance of seeing Romesczu over the holidays, the way his parents carry on.’
‘Queen Harriet herself seems determined to change that … but then two of her brothers are gay, so my magazines say. You may be meeting them.’
Yuli was struck by the thought, but then reflected that he and the scholars were below-stairs staff so there wouldn’t be much mingling with the king’s guests.
His mother had digested the situation. ‘Well, we wouldn’t stand in your way, leblen, though we’ll miss you. We’ll have an early Christmas especially for you.’
Yuli at seventeen was still very much an adolescent, and he was as mesmerised by the sparkly things of life as any other boy of his age, to the unconscious neglect of — though not indifference to — whatever else was going on around him. But there was a wistfulness to his mother’s remark that he could not miss. His empathy engaged.
‘Things okay, mutti?’
‘Mmm? Well yes, mostly. I do worry about your tatti though. He never says anything, but I can tell the stress over this development business is getting to him. Then there’s those vile press allegations that he was a police agent back in the Horvath days. The file’s been forwarded to the police, who say they’re investigating. That’s brought his rivals in the Staramesten out into the open. He’s had to retain a lawyer, which we have to pay for.’
‘Oh! I had no idea,’ Yuli said, concerned. Then, with a typically extravagant boyish mood swing, ‘If my music money can help, you’re welcome to it!’
His mother took his brown cheeks between her hands and kissed his forehead. ‘You’re a good boy, Yuli. I don’t think it’ll come to that, but I appreciate the thoughtfulness behind the offer. Really.’
With some trepidation, Yuli pressed the entryphone at the Von Ebersfeld residence. He had been informed through Roman that he would only be allowed in the house in the evening when a parent was present. He rather suspected he wouldn’t be so much as given a glass of water while he was there, just so he didn’t feel too encouraged to stay.
The voice that answered the buzzer was neither Roman’s nor that of his mother or father, but a female voice he identified as that of Klara the maid. He was admitted to the house and carefully removed his shoes. This time he had made sure his socks had no holes in them, indeed he had spent some time selecting just the right socks for the rest of his ensemble. Somehow it added to his confidence. Klara indicated the rear lounge and there he found Roman sitting with his mother. She sized him up as openly as he returned the favour. She stood, but did not offer her hand.
‘You are Julius,’ she stated, somewhat redundantly. ‘I expect you to be gone by seven. Roman has homework.’ She squeezed her son’s bicep and left without a further word.
Roman met his eyes and gave him a faint shrug. ‘Let’s hit the Christmas selection,’ he said.
So they spent an uninterrupted two hours working through Götsch’s arrangement of Still, Still, Still. It took a lot of adjustment to get it to work with Roman’s register, but the final result was quite sublime. Both boys were lost in it, and tears were in Yuli’s eyes on the final run-through.
Roman grinned. ‘A definite must. The old ladies will be weeping.’
‘Leblen cynic,’ Yuli responded. ‘I wonder if the ambassadors and politicians will just talk through it. It’s the message that does it for me. And I’m not a churchgoer.’
They parted with just a meaning look, and Klara ushered Yuli out. As he left she followed him out of the door. ‘Can I call you Yuli?’ she whispered.
‘Yes, sure Klara.’
‘I just want to quickly say that you’re the best thing that has ever happened to my unhappy Romesczu. You’ve made him so cheerful, I’ve not seen him like this since he was eleven years old. Take this bag. It’s my special stollen loaf. Romesczu loves it. I hope you do too.’
She handed him a heavy paper bag and sent Yuli on his way with a smile. Apparently he had an ally within the Von Ebersfeld castle.
‘Play it again, Yuli kamrad.’
Yuli applied himself to his keyboard, while Willem relaxed appreciatively on his bed, hands behind his head. Yuli’s fertile imagination had been stacking up, or rather visualising, tunes. He had no word for it, but Julius Lucic was synaesthetic. Composition for him was easy, as his mind visualised music as patterns of colour and lines, and he followed their logic. Melody and harmony just tumbled into his mind when he was in the mood and properly relaxed.
Willem did not realise it, but what he was hearing came direct from a pool of pure creativity. It arrived in the world without a score to mediate it or any period of reflection.
‘That was just amazing, like surfing sound waves,’ Willem commented as his friend finished.
‘Nicely put, Willemczu.’
‘So have you had any idea what your sorta alias is gonna be for the label?’
Yuli shook his head. ‘Don’t get ahead of yourself.’
‘It’s gotta be English.’
‘I suppose ’cos electronic dance or house is the international music and English is the international language. How about … I dunno … YuliCool? You’re fucking laughing. Stop it, asshole.’
Willem sniggered. ‘Sorry. Well, it is sorta hip, but maybe a bit too selfconsciously hip. Also Yuli is your name, to those who love you, and the idea is it’s an alias, a stage name.’
Yuli went quiet and pondered. After a while, he looked across at his friend. ‘Maybe I’ll go for something emotional, something about the way I feel at the moment. My life’s so complicated. I’ve found the perfect boy but I can’t get near him and everyone — well everyone except friends and family — seems to be getting in the way. How about Starcrossed?’
Willem gave a sharp look at him. ‘Deep, Yuli. But decidedly cool in a melancholy sorta way. You don’t really think like that do you?’
‘Sometimes I do. It’s as if I’m at the mercy of Fate.’ He snuggled up to Willem, who held him around his shoulders and kissed his hair.
For a while they were quiet. Then Willem knelt up and removed what little clothing Yuli was wearing. ‘Time to pay that debt I owe you.’
‘Absolutely. I bet I can do it better than Della too; not that you’ll ever find out.’ Willem stripped himself and lay down between Yuli’s brown smooth legs. He took his friend’s penis and slowly massaged it to full erection. Then, with a pause and a grin up at Yuli, he took the purple glans into his mouth and swirled the spongy skin with his tongue. Yuli groaned and laid back as Willem explored his cock and balls with his mouth. It took twenty leisurely minutes before he spasmed and came.
As his panting relaxed, Yuli observed ‘You swallowed.’
‘Mmm. Jury’s out on that one, Starcrossed. Sweeter than I imagined. Leaves an aftertaste though.’
Yuli cuddled into Willem’s embrace and kissed his cheek. ‘You’re amazing, Willemczu. You can do that again to me any time.’
‘That’s my plan. When was the last time you had a chance to do anything with Romesczu?’
‘Couple of weeks, and the drought looks set to continue indefinitely, or at least till we leave for university.’
‘Yeah, well we’d better hope that Momma and Poppa Von Ebersfeld don’t choose to send our Romesczu to Heidelberg or Berlin or even further afield, where you can’t afford to chase him.’
‘Unless Starcrossed becomes an international sensation, maybe?’
‘There is always that, I guess.’
Willem flicked the light and spooned up around Yuli in the dark as he always did. He lay holding his friend till he relaxed into deep breathing and slept. Willem nuzzled Yuli’s fragrant hair and kissed his warm shoulders as he too drifted off.