Alfons the barman looked up from his paper as the chattering group in battledress entered the White Tree. He brightened as he saw Ed Cornish in the lead.
‘Ah, major! What’ll it be?’
Ed looked around. ‘I thought the place would be full? Where is everyone? I told my guys this place was packed for Song Contest days.’
Alfons shrugged. ‘That’s next month, isn’t it? No, it’s May of course. The crowds don’t turn out for the national final. I suppose you’ll want the TV on.’
‘Sure enough. So this is only an event for hard-core Eurovision buffs like us? I am surprised, indeed disappointed at the fickleness of the gay population of Strelzen. I’d have thought this year it’d be different. We’re the winners! And the hosts!’ He turned to his grinning fellow officers. ‘First round’s on me, fellers. I have a horse in this race. And no, I don’t mean Colonel Atwood. My money’s on Starcrossed. Remember that name, boys.’
The off-duty officer corps of the Guard Fusiliers was not unacquainted with the White Tree, the site of a memorable party thrown by Henry Atwood on the occasion of his Ed’s promotion to major. So they happily got in their drinks and made a corner of the bar their own.
The wall screens came to life, showing shots of a happy, cheering studio audience.
‘There’s Henry warming them up!’ Captain-Lieutenant Broznic called out. ‘He looks bigger on the stage.’ There indeed was Henry Atwood in smart suit and tie, alongside Hermina Beruskova in her best sparkly dress, welcoming the viewing public to the finals of the Song for Rothenia. The pair of presenters took turns to introduce the acts, playing canned footage of interviews done earlier in the day.
‘That’s my boys! Starcrossed!’ Ed called out. The dark one’s Yuli and the blond’s Roman. Still in school. Talented kids.’
‘Shy lads. All the grandmothers of Rothenia will be voting for them,’ Captain Braun commented.
‘They’re only seventeen. Check you’ve got your handijs ready for the voting,’ Ed urged. ‘And think how savage your grandmas will be to you if you vote the wrong way.’
The Henry on the bar wall screens looked well in control of things as he explained the way the final would play out and the sequence of acts.
‘That’s good!’ Captain Braun observed. ‘Your lads are fifth out of six, so they’ll be more in the voters’ minds.’
‘Doesn’t work that way,’ Broznic countered. ‘They’ll show reprises as the voting goes on.’
The screen Henry carried on his warmup of the crowd. ‘And now everyone, this is what a winner sounds like. From last year’s Eurovision triumph in Istanbul, I give you Svetlana and Lebe als ist!’
‘She’s not done much since last year,’ Captain Braun commented. ‘Failed to get any traction in her career. There was supposed to be an album in production.’
‘The song didn’t do that well outside Central and Eastern Europe,’ added a cynical lieutenant. ‘So none of the western labels took her on.’
The chanteuse ended her ballad to warm applause and cheers from the crowd. Henry took the lady’s hand and bestowed a kiss on it. ‘A great lady! Thank you once more! Everyone. Svetlana!’
Hermina Beruskova took over and began the introduction of the first act, a highly choreographed group of four singers backed by the studio orchestra and a troupe of dancers.
‘Nice movers,’ Broznic called out, ‘very professional. But what was the song about?’
‘Bland pseudo-English,’ Ed agreed. ‘You hear half a dozen Eurovision songs like that every year. Which is why they do the dancing. Otherwise they’re just not memorable.’
It was the fourth act that got Ed concerned. It was a four-piece band from Hofbau, but the song itself had actual mileage. The singer, who also played lead guitar, had a good voice and the song had a certain wit about it, mocking the trials a rather controlling woman put her boyfriend through. It was in Rothenian and the audience loved its folksiness.
‘That won’t play out well in Europe,’ Ed grumbled. His friends and colleagues exchanged glances but said nothing.
When the applause died down Hermina Beruskova moved to centre stage while technicians shifted the instruments.
‘So for our fifth song, another Rothenian number,’ she said. ‘Two Strelsener boys called Starcrossed: Yuli and Roman. The song is Ruce en Ruce, or “Hand in Hand” as the English would say.’ She moved to Yuli as he took his place behind his keyboard. ‘Are you planning to sing it in English if it becomes the Song for Rothenia, Yuli?’
‘Er … we have an English version,’ Yuli finally said into the mic. ‘But we think it speaks for itself in whatever language.’
‘Nice answer, kid,’ Broznic commented. ‘She was out to trap him. What’s her game?’
‘She must have money on those Hofbau boys,’ Ed grunted. ‘She was undressing the bassist with her eyes.’
When the welcoming applause died down, Yuli let a long moment of silence settle in the studio before his opening chords.
‘The kid knows his trade,’ Broznic said.
‘Shut the fuck up Klaus!’ A suddenly attentive group of officers put down their beers.
Three minutes later, the cognoscenti of the Guard Fusiliers burst into whoops and applause.
‘Shit, major!’ said a lieutenant. ‘That blond kid’s voice gives me the chills. Never heard anything like it.’
Ed was smug. ‘Told you. Now where are those handijs?’
‘And now to all the people at home … or in bars across our nation! Time to vote. You know the routine. Lines open in thirty seconds. There will be six numbers on the screen. Ring the number for the act you want to deliver the Song For Rothenia on 21 May here in Strelzen. Remember you can only vote once. You’ll have eight minutes in which we’ll remind you of each artist and their song. Take it away Hermina.’
Henry was sweating in his suit. He could not play favourites, but even his handicapped senses told him that Yuli and Roman’s performance had been exceptional, despite being so minimalist in its delivery. He skipped backstage to the well-upholstered green room, where the six acts were resting up on giant sofas, their eyes glued to the big screens around the wall.
His ear mic picked up Moricz. ‘Steadicam’s on you, Henry. Thirty seconds with each excited act, then we cut to the clips.’
Henry did the rounds of the first four, and when he got to Starcrossed found them sitting hand tightly in hand without family, friends or an agent to support them. They looked a little lost.
‘Hey Herr At-vood!’ Yuli greeted him with a relieved grin.
‘Davey’ll be really proud of you,’ Henry quickly said to the boys before he was back on air. ‘Great song, kids!’ he said for Rothenia’s benefit. ‘How do you think it went?’
It was Yuli of course who replied. ‘We did our best, sir. We hope it’s good enough. But there were five other good acts out there. Can we give a big shout out to our friends at Sudmesten Central?’
Henry did a stage wave to the camera with the boys. He was impressed by their modesty, and then registered that it was not calculated. Yuli really was that nice.
‘So let’s give the viewers a reminder of what made your song special.’
Henry finished up and signed over to Hermina, who was presiding over the voting and declaration. He quickly got Moricz on the wireless coms. ‘Listen. In case Starcrossed wins get a camera on their gymno friends in the audience. I spotted a big bunch of them third and fourth rows from front on the right. It’ll be a great reaction shot.’
‘Done as soon as said, Henry. This is going well. At least three solid winners. RTV must be puking. Viewing figures are high.’
As Henry took a quick swig from a water bottle, he recollected that his own performance was also under scrutiny that evening. A team from the EBU was in the box with Moricz, and a report on Strelsenermedia’s organisation and Henry’s presenting skills would duly be made to M. Scavolini in Geneva on Monday.
Hermina was now calling the results, which were appearing on a huge screen in the form of a rising bar graph. The performers behind him were breathless. Hermina was now calling the fourth act. ‘And it’s a sensational and well-deserved 40,600. I can hear the cheering all the way from Hofbau. And now for Strelzen’s Starcrossed.’
The fifth bar began to rise. It reached 30,000, and there were gasps as it hit 40,000 and then a burst of cheering came from the studio next door as it kept going, 50,000, 60,000 and finally it stopped at 70,500.
Henry was right next to Yuli and Roman, whose jaws were hanging loose. ‘It’s you, boys!’ he grinned. ‘Looks like we’ll be working together for the next couple of months.’
A stunned Starcrossed stumbled out of the studio into another burst of camera flashes and shouted questions. Radek Lucic was gunning the engine of the family car at the kerb nearby. Willem, with the able assistance of Bolo, pushed the media scrum aside and got Yuli and Roman into the car. Bolo squeezed in after them to Roman’s complaints from the crush. Willem slid into the front.
‘Okay, Uncle Radek! Hit the road.’ He turned to look into the back. ‘Well, you’ve done it now, you two!’
‘Where to, Willemczu?’ Herr Lucic asked, clearly rather bemused.
‘Head for the Horja, I think. Aunt Maria will want to hug her little genius. Hold on. Phone. It’s Mister Davey for you, Starcrossed.’ He offered the handij to Yuli.
‘Congrats, Yuli boy!’ the voice came from the phone. ‘Great set!’
‘You saw us, sir?’
‘Oh yeah. A friend of mine streamed it to me live from Strelzen. Yazz. You met him last Saturday. Clever guy. Likes your music too. Edler Herz will be released on Monday to grab the momentum while it’s there to be grabbed, and the EP of mixes will follow in a couple of weeks. My boys love it.’
‘That’s … er … very good, sir. It’s all a bit … er …’
‘Overwhelming,’ Roman contributed.
‘Goes with the job. Willem’s gonna have his work cut out minding your little butts. But he’s a cool kid. Hold on to normality while you still can. Church tomorrow and school on Monday, right?’
‘No school, sir. It’s the Easter holidays. But we will be as normal as we can. Here’s Willemczu again.’
Willem carried on a conversation with London as the car reached the city centre and climbed up the Domshorja. Roman in the meantime pulled out his own handij and had a brief chat with Klara, who’d watched the contest on TV, then he wistfully tried another programmed number. There was no reply. His eyes caught Yuli’s and he shook his head sadly.
Yuli and Roman got a hilarious reception from their colleagues at the Hofkapelle, who seemed pleased for them, despite the ribbing. But in the loft as the choir and congregation were gathering below for the Palm Sunday procession Mattyas queried how the sudden fame was going to affect his commitment to the scholarship.
Yuli shrugged. ‘There are a bunch of interview requests and photo shoots Willemczu is fielding, but he and Mister Davey reckon the first burst of interest will die off for a while. It’s still two months to the Song Contest. Feed the media for a week and then hide is Willem’s strategy. Which’ll give us all time to complete our Bacca work. I guess if we were the Hofbau band we’d be milking the next two months for all they’re worth …’
‘They are. See the papers this morning.’
‘Yes, well … that’s not our strategy. We neither of us want to be superstars. We just want to make our music.’
‘Good answer, Yuli.’
By the end of the morning, Yuli’s sense of normality had stabilised. The demands of the music, the age-old ritual and the serenity of the chapel took charge of him and he had lost his jitteriness when a palace footman apprehended him and Roman in the antechapel as they left. He carried a request that Yuli and Roman join Their Majesties in their private apartments.
‘Just an ordinary Sunday …’ Roman commented drily.
They found the royal couple relaxing, still in their church gear, though the king had loosened his tie.
‘Well, I suppose congratulations are in order,’ the queen commented with an amused smile.
The king ordered them to a sofa, and repeated his wife’s congratulations. ‘Of course, I voted for the Hofbau band,’ he added.
‘He did not,’ the queen quickly responded, seeing the look on Roman’s face. ‘The king of Rothenia is above politics. Rudi has no vote.’
‘Er … and when did our Song for Rothenia become political, sir, ma’am?’ Yuli queried.
‘The moment it was a winner, kid,’ the king declared. ‘The eyes of the music-loving peoples of the free world will be upon our nation in May, and it’s a matter of national pride that it goes well. Not meaning to put even more pressure on you boys; our media will be doing that of course. I hope Strelsenermedia is taking its responsibilities towards you seriously.’
‘Was there a prize for the winner, other than the burden of national expectations that just landed on your shoulders?’ the queen asked.
‘Umm … our agent Willem Kral handles all that. Don’t know, ma’am.’
King Rudolf frowned magnificently. ‘Putting you boys through all this, there damned well should be some support for you. Get your father on it, Yuli. Radek knows about social justice.’
‘And talking about fathers,’ Queen Harriet leaned forward, ‘I have to ask you about your parents, Romesczu. The baroness is back in the family home I understand, on supervised detention pending hearings before the examining magistrate ahead of possible indictments. Did you know this?’
Roman was flushed and took his time to reply. ‘Your majesty … we haven’t talked since I left home, apart from when mutta went after me that day. I’ve tried but …’.
The queen shook her head. ‘I’m disappointed in them. Your mother … well, I could believe it. But I’m surprised at Dieter, I really am. He may not be the most demonstrative of men, but I never had any doubt about his feelings for you.’
The king joined in. ‘Me too, Roman. I can’t get involved obviously, but I have ways of keeping my eye on what’s going on in the Nuevemesten. Dieter’s position as Burgomeister is not secure, as I understand. He has rivals there. But no internal proceedings can be made against him since no allegations about his complicity have been made as yet. His enemies in the Prefecture are rallying on his possible involvement with the smearing of your father, Yuli. They’re demanding a police investigation to follow up on Eastnet’s report. So Dieter has his hands full of problems at the moment.’
Roman met Yuli’s eyes, and shook his head silently.
Yuli spoke for him. ‘We just can’t work out why it is that he refuses all contact with Romesczu, sir.’
The queen gave the boys a compassionate look. ‘Had it occurred to you that it’s not anger that’s blocking him, but embarrassment. Seriously. A man like him is not good at acknowledging he’s in the wrong, and when he knows he is then the mortification of it paralyses him. You might consider the possibility that he’s ashamed of himself.’
There was a long silence, ended by a discreet tap at the lounge door following which a team of domestic servants arrived and set up a light lunch on the round table. The talk turned to the music of the Hofkapelle. Roman did not add much to it, in fact the king contributed a lot more. Yuli was coming to realise the man had considerable depths.
They took their farewells. The queen gave the boys a hug and the king gave them a firm handshake and his best wishes. ‘I’m sure you’ll both do us proud, win or lose. Henry Atwood’s a man to be trusted to have your best interests at heart. Not sure I could quite say the same about Davey Skipper. He has his business, and from what I understand, you both have a very exploitable talent. Don’t be exploited.’
‘I think they meant well,’ Roman observed as they trotted down to the Reitschule Gate.
‘At least school’s out for the next two weeks,’ Yuli said. ‘So we won’t have to put up with all the attention there. And Holy Week will keep us occupied. It looks like quite a musical adventure for us. Tatti and mutti are actually going to attend the Easter Sunday mass to hear me massacre the Dupré. But first, the media blitz.’
‘New aviators, Willemczu?’
Yuli was amused to find Willem awaiting them at the bottom of the lane, leaning coolly against the brand new limousine he had been permitted to hire for the day by Skipper Associates. Strelsnermedia was carrying most of the costs, but had no choice other than to cede control of the boys and their appearances to their manager and his agent. So Willem was having a wonderful time glued to his handij, issuing releases through Strelsenermedia and negotiating fees with the press for one-on-one interviews with Starcrossed, the new Rothenian pop phenomenon.
Willem was also keeping track of their other enterprise. Edler Herz was already attracting notice and many downloads.
‘Yazz is looking into you two making a video,’ Willem said. Roman looked briefly alarmed.
The car wormed its way through the rush hour traffic down to the Nuevemesten and dropped them off at the south end of the Rodolferplaz at the ornate Second Empire frontage of the Grand Hyatt König Heinrich II. A porter in a top hat opened the car door for them, but at least no cameras flashed. Henry Atwood was loitering in the elegant foyer waiting for the three boys.
He greeted them cheerily. ‘Morning lads, ready for a hard day’s work at the celebrity face? My mum loves this place. The afternoon cream teas are as good as anything Vienna has to offer, she says, and she’s an authority on such matters, believe me.
‘So Willemczu, I’ve had a conference room booked and set up for the press event at ten, and they’re already assembling, the vultures. Some guy of Davey’s called “Yazz” has a studio photographer coming in at one-thirty and you can use the same suite. Then you have the use of the room for the one-on-one interviews you’ve programmed. One of my colleagues called Marek Toblescu is amongst them. Go easy on him, he’s never done this sort of feature before. And he likes your music; he hangs round Lisztomania. You want lunch here? I can set it up. Strelsenermedia has an account.’
The three exchanged glances. ‘We have our own arrangements, sir,’ Willem pronounced.
‘Berwinckels,’ Roman muttered.
‘Okay then guys,’ Henry breezed on. ‘This isn’t the horrible world of the British press, and I don’t expect too much trouble from the Rothenian pack. Still, you’re going to get loaded questions about your “romantic interest”. Our Rothenian hacks are too polite to set up cameras outside your houses, though I wouldn’t be surprised if the more enterprising are searching out your online presence. When school goes back these are the ones who’ll be hanging round the gates looking for comments from any of your “friends” who’re keen to trash you.’
Willem frowned. ‘Warnings will be issued, Herr At-vood.’
The man smiled sympathetically. ‘Enjoy the ride, kids. Not all of it will be bad.’
‘Fries, Romesczu. Think of the fries. How can you refuse?’
‘I hate you, Willemczu. You are manipulative.’
‘Oh, you noticed?’
Roman rolled his eyes. ‘I couldn’t miss it could I. But it has its uses. You ruled the press conference like a master. Between you and Herr At-vood, we barely had to say anything.’
‘We could just sit there and look shy and sweet, which I think we did quite well,’ Yuli concurred.
‘So McDonalds? Bolo and Della said they’d join us as long as it’s the Flavienerplaz one. Bolo’s coming ‘cos it’s just down the road from home, and Della ‘cos it has a McCafé. So everyone’s happy.’
Their friends were already at the door of the restaurant, which was packed due to two concurrent birthday parties, for a nine- and a ten-year-old respectively it appeared from the banners. Bolo was sent for fries while the others made a table their own in the café section, which was free of little kids.
Yuli looked around. ‘Y’know? As long as this sort of place seems the height of my social aspirations, I think it’ll keep me grounded.’
Roman surreptitiously scanned the clientele. ‘Our fame hasn’t reached here as yet. I can’t see a spark of recognition anywhere.’
‘Long may that continue,’ Yuli commented. ‘What’s planned for tomorrow?’
Willem consulted his handij. ‘A couple more interviews at the hotel in the morning. In the afternoon, I’ve now heard from Yazz and we’re down to his little techno-kingdom to start work on a video … and don’t look like that Romesczu. If you can perform on stage before thousands, you can cope with cameras and a production crew. That’ll also take care of Wednesday.’
‘Okay, but that’s it. We have chapel duty and rehearsals for the rest of the week,’ Yuli pronounced. ‘The shelter of Mother Church has never looked so welcoming.’
‘Uh-oh!’ Bolo paused from stuffing Roman’s abandoned fries into his mouth and pointed out the window. ‘Want me to move them on?’
A small group of excited pubescent females were glued to the window outside, their handij cameras focussed on Starcrossed. Roman met Yuli’s eyes and shrugged. So they grinned fixedly out on to Flavienerplaz, where the girls were daring each other to go in and beg for autographs.
‘The hat, mutti?’ Yuli was stunned at his mother’s Easter get-up.
‘You like it?’ His mum beamed. ‘I’m told it’s expected for the Hofkapelle. Well, that or black lace mantillas, but I don’t trust Danuka in the office on that particular point.’
Radek Lucic shrugged as he caught his son’s eyes. ‘We’ve had an invitation to the royal gallery, so we’d better get up there. Shouldn’t you be in your loft by now?’
‘It’s full, the Rodolfer crew are having a riot up there with Mattyas. I need Stanislaw’s feet on the pedals at the crisis points in the Dupré. He brought his mates to mock me when it all goes wrong.’
‘You’ll do great, son. I can’t wait.’
Yuli looked round the sunlit Hofgarten, ablaze with flowers and ladies in their Easter finest as they thronged into the Residenz. Watching his parents disappear into the crowd, Yuli took the undercroft entrance to the Hofkapelle. The choir were chattering and happy as they relaxed before the bell for prayer. He caught Roman sorting his music folder. The boy beamed at him and Yuli’s heart gave a little leap, as it always did.
‘Are you lost, Yuli?’
‘I had to come down to make sure mutti and tatti found their way to the chapel alright. But as I came down I saw something you need to know about. Your Vater is in the chapel nave.’
‘What?’ Roman’s eyes widened.
‘He’s sitting on his own near the back on the left.’
Roman looked blank.
‘Gotta go, leblen baby. But now you know. I’m hoping he’s come to talk. Love you.’
Yuli took the choir stairs to the side door into the antechapel. Mattyas was already on the bench in the loft and music drifted out of the open doors as the last of the congregation crowded in. The Baron Staufer was head down intent in prayer, as it seemed.
Yuli had little to do though the service, as the Rodolfer students monopolised the organ. So he had time to get nervous as the mass below came to its joyous end. Mattyas was at his elbow and Stanislaw was poised next to him on the bench to assist.
The deacon’s voice boomed out from the altar ‘Ite! Missa est!’ and Yuli’s fingers roused the great organ above him. He was exhilarated as the instrument filled the chapel with rolling chords the way it had rarely done since he had been given charge of it. ‘Awesome!’ Stanislaw said loud in his ear as Yuli at one point took his hands off the keys and they played a coda on pedal alone. They all sat stunned as the final chords echoed under the coffered vaults, to be aware that there were still many of the congregation who had stayed to hear the performance, though the royal party and the choir had gone. Voices bubbled up from below in the sudden silence. Herr Pelikan had come up from the nave and privately delivered the applause that the congregation below could not.
‘Well done, boys, well done. That was fun wasn’t it? Tidy up now. You’re expected downstairs. The palace is offering prosecco and Easter eggs in the Hofgarten. You’ve earned them.’
‘Have you seen Romesczu, sir?’
‘Er, no. But your parents are below.’
Yuli gathered his folder and he trotted down to be hugged by his mother. ‘That was really you up there? Yuli leblen, it was amazing. I was all chills.’
‘Have you seen Romesczu? His father was in the congregation.’
His father looked around. ‘Not in here. They must be outside.’
They went out through the great doors, and there indeed were the Von Ebersfelds, father and son, and they were talking, Roman more animated in conversation with a parent than Yuli had yet seen him.
There was no escaping the encounter, and Yuli walked up unapologetically to Roman’s side and took his offered hand when he reached him, looking straight into the baron’s eyes as he did so. He was met by a considering rather than a hostile look.
The baron was collected as he began. ‘It seems you have a talent, Julius Lucic. I could not but admire your performance just now. And you are a composer and arranger too, Roman tells me.’
‘Yes sir. Though at the moment the only recognition I’m getting is in the field of popular music.’
The baron appeared to digest that remark, though Yuli assumed he must know all about the Song Contest. Eventually he said ‘I’ve had a talk with my son, perhaps the one I should have had much earlier. You’ll be aware of recent circumstances affecting my wife and myself, which make it better that he not be at home. But Roman wants me to tell you that it isn’t your relationship that prevents us taking him back. As far as I am concerned I’m willing to confess my mistake in attempting to prevent it. You are good for him, and I cannot deny the reality of your feelings for him and his for you. But it was never because you are gay that I opposed it, but for a concern for his mental health, a concern which it now seems is unnecessary. He is happier and healthier than he ever has been.’
‘I’m glad you think so, sir. And he’ll be even happier now you’ve talked. At least that was not a problem I had when my father was having his recent … difficulties.’
The baron looked over Yuli’s shoulder. ‘So Lucic, I hear you’ve been offering hospitality to my son.’
His father’s voice, gruffer than usual, was close by Yuli’s ear. ‘You have a problem with that, Dieter?’
The baron stiffened but answered equably enough. ‘No. In fact I’m very grateful for it.’
‘He’s a fine boy, Dieter, and you should be proud of him.’
‘Oh, I am.’ The baron gripped his son’s shoulder and gave the first smile Yuli had ever seen appear on his face. It didn’t alight there for long.
‘So, Dieter,’ Radek Lucic continued. ‘With things the way they are, I assume you’ll be settling the Strelsenernwald lawsuit. The Nuevemesten is going to find little sympathy in Luxembourg when the case comes up in June.’
The baron’s right eyebrow ascended. ‘Don’t be ridiculous, Lucic, The Supreme Court may have made the referral, but the ECJ will soon throw your expensive nuisance suit out.’
‘Nuisance suit! The Staramesten has every right to that land you and your cronies are out to plunder! Haven’t you learned your lesson yet?’
‘And what do you mean by that, Lucic?’
‘Dirt sticks, Dieter. Seems to me your wife’s troubles would have taught you that!’
The baron looked icy. He turned to Roman. ‘My handij will take your calls from now on, Romesczu.’ He glared at Radek Lucic, then turned on his heels.
Yuli recognised when his father was not to be challenged, and now was one of those times. But he could not stop himself saying, as he looked in his eyes and again took Roman’s hand, ‘That was a short rapprochement, tatti.’