Henry still found the absence of tobacco smoke in the White Tree a little odd, however welcome it was to a non-smoker. ‘Hey Alfons!’ he cheerily greeted the barman, receiving an affable response. It seemed that Alfons at least had now come to terms with the new regime.
‘How’s the major?’ he asked.
‘Pretty good. And Ernesto?’
‘Oh, back visiting his parents in Belo Horizonte.’
‘Bet you wish you were in Brazil with him.’
Alfons shuddered. ‘Not if I have to meet his witch of a mother. Uggh. What’ll it be?’
‘Got any of that nice flavoured Swedish cider.’
‘Yes. But don’t tell anyone. It offends serious drinkers. What’s happened to your usual order of gin and tonic?’
‘No reflection on your fine selection of gins, but it’s a bit early in the evening, and I have a meeting.’
‘Herr Peacher again?’
‘So you made the connection?’
‘I was here for his sister’s birthday party, remember. He’s a hot-looking man, and difficult to forget once seen.’
‘I’ll tell him that.’
Henry took a table and spread out his city edition evening paper. Things were quiet in Strelzen at the moment, but that was about to change, and how much they would was something Henry earnestly hoped he was about to discover.
He looked up as the door opened and the second customer of the evening entered. ‘Hey Pete! Over here!’
‘I see ya, midget. And why are ya shouting? There’s only you and Alfons in here. Prosim Alfons!’
‘Dobre Vesser, Herr Peacher. I wouldn’t recommend what Henry’s drinking.’
‘Choose a red wine, and bring over the bottle. We may be here a while.’
Henry was impressed. ‘Your Rothenian’s really come on.’
‘It helps to be around Oskar and his friends, believe me. It helped today too. So you want to hear what I’ve been up to, yes?’
‘So, little Henry, I gave them the full Peacher show in our most impressive boardroom, the one with the Dutch masters and the grand outlook over the city.’
‘You have more than one boardroom?’
Peter rolled his eyes. ‘How is it ya always pick out an entirely irrelevant detail and totally derail peoples’ train of thought? Is it some sort of journalistic tactic?’
‘Er … no. Just interested that’s all.’
Peter shook his head and sighed. ‘Anyway. I’m as pissed off as Rudi about this Strelsenerwald – or North Martzfeld – business, or whatever you call it. More so, as it’s been a year’s delay to date, and delay means loss of money to me. So I had our big name consultants and technical managers assembled to describe one after another in simple terms to the assembled Ratsherren and Szcabnyi the annoyance they’re causing and the opportunities they’re passing up, just because they’re in a stupid pissing contest. You shoulda seen them. Had them down either side of the table, and two Nobel laureates patiently explaining basic economics to them as if to children. They looked embarrassed and chastened, as if the teacher had caught them jerking off under the table at the back of class.’
Henry giggled. ‘Nice image. Of course you had other advantages than the home one. Radek Lucic has shifted over to your camp and my boy Marek has helped send down four of the Ratsherren of the Nuevemesten for corrupt dealing. Curiously, they were the ones who were most keen to get the Baron Staufer sacked, and now he’s been exonerated officially.’
‘So anyways, I couldn’t of course count on rationality alone to sway politicians, so I then turned to the one argument they can never resist.’
‘Exactly, Henry dude. You’re coming along in the ways of the world. I offered them a two prong deal good only till the conclusion of the meeting. To the Staramesten I offered a big parcel of Martzfeld I still own within their borough exclusively for the development of affordable housing, with credit guarantees for construction and a government promise of infrastructure.’
‘They’ll call it Peachertown.’
‘No, it’ll be Peachergrad or some such Slavic name. Me. The proprietor of a Project. I coulda guessed eventually us Peachers would end up as slumlords.’
‘So what did you offer the Nuevemesten?’
‘The baron and I had a private chat, so I know where they’re uneasy. As a result I offered to take on the entire development of the Strelzen Municipal Airport. Not the cost, you understand, but the raising of finance, contracts and planning. All of which goes with a government commitment Von Ebersfeld and Lucic jointly leveraged from Trachtenberg to extend the express line north to the new airport and develop it alongside a new line round the back of the Domshorja up to the top of the hill, via the new suburb of the Staramesten. And of course a successful Peachergrad connected with the city centre will pay its rates into the shabby old borough’s coffers.’
‘I gave them till four o’clock to take it or leave it.’
‘They took it of course. The lawsuit is over, and everybody wins … apart from Peachercorp that is.’
‘Aw come on … I know you, it’ll turn to gold in the end. It always does.’
‘Good for business generally, I suppose, even the affordable housing. Minions have to live somewhere.’ He took a meditative sip at his glass of red. ‘So how’re the preparations for the big day going?’
‘Pretty well. I don’t want to say “amazingly” as that sort of hubris would be immediately followed by a catastrophe. But okay. The only problem recently has been getting the district registrar to Zenda and then home again. It’s quite a hike and the taxi rate is criminal, but one of Ed’s lieutenants whose family lives in Zenden City has volunteered to drive her.’
‘Are Nathan and Justy coming?’
‘Just Justin, their kid’s still in school and Nathan won’t allow Damien time off outside holidays. Justy’s on a gig in Berlin that week, so he can slip across the border with ease. Why d’you ask? I can sense a purpose behind that question.’
‘I’ll tell ya, but you gotta keep it to yourself. Thing is, dad and I have been pondering the lack of business acumen in our little clan. Other than me none of the family have much inclination that way. I may well be the obvious and anointed heir, but it would be better for the firm if there were more of a family presence. We both have homed in on Justy, whose career to date has demonstrated all sorts of desirable business traits.’
‘What, like street smarts, ruthlessness and a total want of principle?’
‘Exactly. You might have added unconventionality and daring. So the idea is to lure him into the family business at a senior level.’
‘Hang on. You’re contemplating hauling Justy over to Rothenia full time? That’s … awesome. But I can think of one major obstacle.’
‘You mean Nathan. Obviously he may have his own ideas. But if I can persuade Justy, I can trust him to persuade his Nate.’
‘I wouldn’t get your hopes up, Pete. But it’s not so much Nathan and his gardening business, it’s their kid. He really needs stability at the moment; he’s made so much progress. Hauling him off to Rothenia would just not help him.’
‘Hmm, I see your point. But we can wait a while. We’re looking for a long-term solution, not a quick fix. I won’t press Justy for now, instead I’ll hold off and pounce at the right time. He lives a hectic life; sooner or later he’ll want to settle down, and Peachercorp will be there waiting.’
Richard Atwood hugged his little brother. ‘You picked a nice day for your sorta-wedding, and some strange place.’ He looked about him at the wide, sunlit green lawn around the Thuringian mausoleum, a lawn occupied now by a huge marquee and a milling crowd, the ladies in hats and the men in sober suits or dazzling in the glorious full-dress uniforms of the Rothenian Guards Division. The sky was a clear and cloudless blue above the trees. The band of the Guard Fusiliers was playing cheerful music on the lawn, with a group of small kids staring enraptured at them.
‘Where’s Helen?’ Henry asked.
‘Having a reunion with her brother and David Skipper.’
‘So Mark made it, excellent. Then we’re only waiting for … and here they are.’
The band abruptly stopped its selection of American show tunes. In the sudden silence every officer present stiffened to attention and the National Anthem played. Arm-in-arm, their majesties the King and Queen of Rothenia appeared in the clearing from the direction of the palace, followed by all three of the queen’s brothers, along with Oskar von Tarlenheim and his brother, the prince, home from the States for the summer.
‘Show-stealer that,’ Ricky said under his breath. ‘You got things to do. I’ll go collect Helen and find mum and dad. See you later.’
Henry progressed slowly through the crowd, shaking hands and having his back slapped. He found his intended in conference with Roman von Ebersfeld, the young Freiherr elegant in an obviously tailored suit.
‘Hey little babe! Roman says he’ll sing without Yuli’s accompaniment.’
The boy nodded seriously. ‘Hello Herr At-vood! Congratulations on a glorious day. Yuli and I went inside the chapel earlier and tested the acoustic. It’s magnificent. The keyboard would just detract from the song. Is that alright?’
‘You’re the boss, Romesczu. We’re all looking forward to it,’ Henry said, and Roman went off in search of his own partner. ‘So checked everything? Caterers? Bar? Your best man just arrived in his usual unobtrusive fashion, by the way.’
Ed laughed. ‘I noticed. Davey’s over with Mark and your sister-in-law. We’d better go and find the registrar and see if she’s ready to start.’
Henry smiled up at him. ‘You look magnificent, hunk. Gold, white and Ruritanian blue are just your colours. How long did it take you last night to polish those buttons? They’re like mirrors.’
‘Oh, as long as it took. You made an effort on your dress shoes too. I didn’t know we had any polish round the place, and if we did, where I could possibly find it.’
‘I went out and bought some specially. It’s a special occasion.’
‘It really is. So let’s get to it. Take my arm, little babe.’
‘I, Henry Robert Atwood, give you, Edward, this ring as a symbol of my devotion to you. Wear it with pride and carry my love with you each and every day.’ A distracted Davey Skipper presented Henry with the plain gold band he had in his waistcoat pocket, after a prod from Rudi. Henry placed it on Ed’s ring finger, to match the one already around Henry’s own. Applause rippled round the arc of chairs ranged about the apse in which Prince Leopold’s monument was situated.
There was a long moment of silence, and from behind the congregation a true and serene voice, the voice of Roman Von Ebersfeld, broke straight into the untranslated lyrics of ‘Un giorno sai per noi verrá’. The hush only seemed to get deeper as the boy’s transcendent voice filled the great space. Prickles ran up and down Henry’s spine and his vision blurred. And it was as if for this one moment he had been given the grace to truly hear music as others did.
There was a long silence after the last notes died away, and the registrar’s voice was audibly trembling when she asked Ed to repeat after her: ‘I, Edward, take you, Henry, to be my civil partner in law from this time forward, for as long as we both shall live.’
Once they’d both repeated the formal legal words, she pronounced: ‘In the presence of your friends, family and witnesses it gives me great pleasure to declare that you are now in the law of Rothenia civil partners one to another. Congratulations.’
Applause and cheers filled the space of the mausoleum, where such sounds had never before been heard, and somehow the building for that moment lost its solemnity, and the windows sparkled in shafts of sunlight. Out of the corner of his eye, Henry thought for a moment that the young faces on the marble monument off to their side appeared actually to be laughing.
As the guests and the new couple spilled out through the great doors, it was to find an arch of swords formed by the officers of the Guards Division, which they walked under in a blizzard of confetti, arm in arm, to the band playing Mendelssohn’s Wedding March.
It was Starcrossed’s second day at the studio of Torre del Rey and Yuli and Roman had adjourned to the secluded beach below the castle, secluded enough to dispense with clothing. They were flat out on towels after a leisurely morning in the studio with the resident technicians. The Mediterranean was sparkling and the sky was cloudless. Their tanned skin greedily absorbed the heat for the moment, but Roman was already debating out loud with himself about spreading one of the umbrellas laid out for the convenience of the castle guests.
Yuli smiled. He had learned that these vocalised internal arguments were very much a characteristic of his Roman, and he found them utterly endearing. Eventually he stirred himself to ask: ‘When are the guys landing at Málaga?’
‘Hmm?’ Roman squinted at his handij, which was never far away from him, even when he was naked. ‘The flight from Strelzen arrives at two, and the castle minibus should be there to pick them up, so they’ll be here maybe by four.’
‘Great. This place is awesome. Mister Davey’ll be here this weekend to hear the early takes, and decide whether to kick us out or not.’
‘He won’t, and you know it. Though maybe best not to tell him about the work we’re doing on Lucic Opus No. 1. Our month in Spain must be expensive for him.’
‘Not as much as you might think. Willemczu was telling me that the castle is owned by his company and a lot of its costs can be deducted from tax. In fact Mister Davey only loses money if it’s empty. Before we leave there’ll be two other acts arriving to record, and one of them isn’t a Skipper Associates signing. That’s the sort of booking that’s really profitable for him. But the studio has gotten attention after Live Action named their second album after it.’
‘Castles in the Air? I mean, there’s a castle here and it’s up on a cliff, but not that high above the sea.’ Roman was up on an elbow now facing Yuli.
‘Herr At-vood explained it to me at Zenda. “Castles in the air” is an English phrase, it means …’.
Roman nodded. ‘I know, it means a day dream or fantasy, yes?’
‘Right, baby mine. One of Live Action took French at university and the same phrase in France is châteaux en Espagne.’
Roman smiled. ‘I get it … “castles in Spain”. Perhaps a bit too self-consciously clever. And that’s why you don’t like the group that much.’
Yuli’s hand had by now reached out and he was fondling Roman’s sun-browned penis between thumb and forefinger, enjoying the thickening and hardening he was eliciting. Pretty soon it was rearing up from Roman’s groin and its light pink glans had budded out of its sheath. Precum beaded and ran down on to Yuli’s hand, glistening in the sunlight. Their eyes met. Yuli winked at his lover. ‘I’ll go on my belly, okay leblen baby? Here on the empty beach before we have to worry about other guests.’
Roman chuckled. ‘Some of the guests about to arrive would be delighted to watch us go at it, I think.’
Yuli let go of his lover’s erection and spread face down on his towel, taking his buttocks and pulling them open as Roman knelt between his legs. He sighed as his ass was slowly filled and a sun-heated body settled on his back. Teeth gently nibbled at his right ear. It drove Yuli wild, as Roman well knew.
Willem and Yuli perched on the battlements of the Torre del Rey swinging their legs, despite the gulf of air and seething, dark sea below them. Willem had absolutely no fear of heights, as Yuli had learned when they were boys on the Domshorja. Willem had awed the members of their little gang by casually strolling along the top of the wall along Lazarettengasse, on the other side of which was a cliff-like retaining wall with a drop of thirty metres. It gave him huge cred in their gang, even more so when he did an absurd little dance on the very brink. Yuli had felt obliged to join him up there, but was not quite as comfortable with heights as his friend had been. Still he was feeling comfortable now perched high above the Mediterranean. Comfort was a feeling Willem had always inspired in him.
‘So Krista and Bolo, how did that happen?’
Willem laughed. ‘God alone knows. I don’t think either of them could explain it. But it may be that Krista likes the idea of making such a guy jump at the twitch of her eyebrow, you know, taming the school wild man. And it could be she gives Bolo the excuse for abandoning his old ways, now he’s gonna be a law student. You notice how the weight has fallen off him. He looks quite good these days, more like he was when we first met him, when he was thirteen.’
‘So, mutual convenience?’
‘Well that and the sex, which is pretty wild.’
‘Bolo told you?’
Willem sniggered. ‘Oh, he let me know it’s happening, but for the details I have Della, who gets them unexpurgated from Krista.’
‘Sure, but on the usual conditions. You know that interesting dildo? Well, so now does Bolo. He takes it up the ass on all fours and she gets off on the other end. Apparently he comes hands free from the pressure of her self-pleasuring. She’s pretty physical, as you might imagine.’
‘Holy fuck! Do they do anything vanilla?’
‘Every now and again, no doubt, he’s not small in the dick department. They like it outdoors. I gather they’re getting to be a regular act down by the Stadtbad.’
‘How will it end?’
Willem tutted. ‘Why do you assume it will?’
‘Krista’s off to the army pretty soon isn’t she? That may be the natural end.’
Willem shrugged. ‘An on-off long distance relationship may suit them. Me and you aren’t that way inclined. We like being domestic with our partners. So …?
‘You and Roman. Own place? I’ve seen your bank balance. It’s so healthy it’s glowing. You could afford a nice flat as well as that piano you keep going on about, three of them in fact.’
Yuli stared down at the waves bursting in foam over the rocks below. Eventually he responded. ‘We’re not ready for it. We need the domestic back-up. And now Roman’s mum is in custody, he can go home and spend evenings with his Vater and they both like that, though he won’t sleep there, not after what happened. He’s yet to tell his Vater about the spycams in his room. They’re gone now by the way. That Hadjek shit must have gained access and removed the evidence. But at least Romesczu has full access to his walk-in wardrobe again. Twenty new pairs of shoes. I counted them.’
‘Wow. That puts my two decaying pairs of trainers in perspective.’
‘Hmm. Anyway, as far as I’m concerned I don’t want to leave my home, not yet. It would upset tatti and mutti. Also I’d miss our occasional night together. So maybe after our first year at the Conservatory we’ll be ready for the move, when we’re settled academically. It’s likely I’ll take over from Mattyas when his organ scholarship ends next year, and then living up on the Horja will get to be inconvenient. But till then, life goes on in its own even tenor.’
‘Good. In the meantime Della and I are going along on our own path. She’s taking a year out, and applying for the music course at the Rodolfer for 2006. She’s always wanted to go backpacking, so we’re debating heading abroad for three months after Christmas, once we’re eighteen. How about that?’
‘Really? Now I’m envious. Any ideas where? Obviously not Europe or North America. It’ll be too cold.’
‘Oh Thailand, Bali, Hong Kong and New Zealand are under discussion. I’m not short of cash as you know, and her folks aren’t either. So we’ll be hauling round top-of-the-range backpacks and staying at only the very best hostels, the ones with less than two cockroaches to the square metre.’
‘Wish we could come, but our music has first claim on us. Our time for travel will arrive, no doubt. I’d love to go back to America. Remember our sixteenth in Florida? I so want to see New York.’
‘Stick with Starcrossed and you could be there quicker than you might think.’
Yuli shook his head. ‘No. That’s not for us. Sorry if it goes against your commercial ethic Willemczu, but it’d be a wrong turn. We were born for a different sort of music. Are you annoyed at us?’
‘Me? God no. I understand why you’re pulling out. No one better. Are you thinking that losing the temporary job with Mister Davey bothers me? It doesn’t. I have the Kral family business to occupy me, and all sorts of little scams. I’ll just watch out for the next big opportunity.’
‘You’re such a grown up, Willemczu. We’ll miss your support once the Starcrossed adventure is over.’
Willem laughed. ‘You still need me. You two aren’t going to give up Schustergasse, are you? Who else will negotiate with the Lisztomania management? Though maybe we’ll need to rebrand you. A new name perhaps? Something which will distance you from Eurovision?’
‘There’s a thought. Any ideas, Willemczu?’
‘No Action?’ he offered, in English.
‘I’d kick you if I wasn’t afraid we’d both plummet to our deaths.’
Willem laughed and got down from the wall, helping Yuli’s descent. They hugged for a long time then headed back down to find their friends.
Late that night Yuli woke from a doze, the warm feeling in his anus reminding him that he had been penetrated several times over the past few hours. He turned on his side and contemplated the unfamiliar naked body next to him. Curious, he reached over and stroked Della’s nearest nipple. She stirred, opened her eyes and grinned up at him.
‘So now you’ve seen a man fucked up the ass,’ he whispered close to her ear.
‘Two men,’ she whispered back. ‘Willemczu certainly delivered. It was nice of you and Romesczu to satisfy my curiosity. You boys are pretty generous. Thanks for taking my ass too. Can’t have been easy for you.’
‘Actually, it was no trouble at all with you on your front. Not sure I could have done you from the other direction, but Romesczu was happy to give it a try.’
‘He kept it up with no problem.’
‘It was erotic to watch him bring you off. You made him come too.’ Yuli’s hand strayed to Della’s groin and searched around for the evidence of Roman’s ejaculation. She opened her legs wide and stirred erotically as he continued, gently stimulating her with his fingers and pushing deeper. Pretty soon she was hissing and with a gasp she arched and climaxed yet again. She was very sensitive to stimulus, as he knew from Willem.
Willem stirred as the bed moved. He sat up, leaned over Yuli and kissed Della, then he kissed Yuli.
‘So that’s a big itch scratched,’ he said. ‘You okay?’
‘More than okay. I loved what we did. I’m very hard. Ready to cross another boundary?’
‘What, you taking my ass?’
Yuli grinned at Della. ‘What d’you think?’
‘You won’t be the first up there,’ she commented with a malicious gleam in her eye.
Willem rolled his eyes. ‘She borrowed Krista’s favourite toy. It was tough going.’
Yuli muffled a snigger. ‘So can I …?’
‘Course you can. Just take it easy and use the lube.’ He got on his back and raised his legs to his chest.
Della shook Roman’s shoulder and he reared up blinking, hair in his eyes. ‘Wake up Romesczu, your services may be needed again soon.’
Davey Skipper, unclothed apart from a very cool pair of shades, had adopted the prevalent Rothenian naturism at the Torre del Rey. His guests had given up clothing in and around the castle over a week ago, and had declared there would be no return to it when the new guests arrived. Starcrossed had even been recording nude. In fact Roman had composed some rather risqué lyrics on the theme which Yuli had set to music. Last night at dinner they had much amused the dining room with a performance, and it would be added to the album, though suitably modified. Davey calculated that he could use the story of that track’s genesis to get some attention in the music press. He looked over at the next recliner on the battlements, and prodded Willem in the bicep. The boy opened his eyes and looked over at Davey with his usual engaging grin.
‘Yes, Mister Davey?’
‘I just wanna say it’s been great working with you.’
‘Well thank you, sir. I could say the same, and I am sorry it has to come to an end.’
‘That’s not your fault, Willemczu. But you’ve done everything asked of you and impressed me no end, and all for 4000kr a month. What are your plans now school is out? University?’
‘Oh no, sir. Business is all I want to do … well, that and a bit of travel in the new year with my Della after my eighteenth.’
‘Good plan. Get the wanderlust out of the way. When you’re back however, I have a proposal.’
Willem’s eyebrows raised. ‘And what is that, Mister Davey?’
‘I bought an apartment in the Third District earlier this year. Initially it was just for convenience and as a bit of an investment. But the way things have developed it seems to me that there may be more opportunities for Skipper Associates in Central Europe than I originally thought, and the Third District may be seeing more of me than I had planned.’
Willem got up on one elbow, his face interested. ‘Are you about to offer me a job, sir?’
‘I am. I opened a Berlin office before I came here, and I’m investing in it and in Rothenia too. You can be my Strelzen office. Proper salary, with benefits and travel. You can work with Berlin to begin with, but make your own arrangements in Rothenia. Yazz is already on board so there’s the makings of a team. You’ll want to keep some time for Krals and that is fine with me. I know your work ethic and it won’t let me down.’
Willem lay back on the recliner. ‘Wow,’ he said.
‘So is that a yes?’
‘I will need to look over the contract, but if it is satisfactory, I will do it.’
Davey reached over and shook the boy’s hand. ‘Taking care of my flat is part of the deal, though. Understood?’ he added.
‘Yes sir. Thank you. I can’t wait to tell Della. She worries about me and my future.’
Davey leaned back, relaxing and enjoying the warmth of the afternoon sun which seemed to soak through to his very core. It had been a remarkably satisfying year, and with the magical tunesmith who was Yuli Lucic busily at work in the studio here in the Torre del Rey he could look forward to much more profit and enjoyment in the long term.
As he was slowly sliding toward sleep, Davey’s mind turned in a different but not unusual direction for him: Henry Atwood. Davey had particularly valued this year for the frequency his path had crossed with his old and first love. He was delighted to find that a mutual ease persisted between him and Henry, and had not been at all altered by the civic partnership to Ed Cornish.
What his mind was pondering was however not so much Henry, but what had happened while he stood at Outfield’s shoulder during the partnership ceremony. Davey had been idly looking into the apse in which the Leopold monument stood. Indeed, it had kept drawing his eyes almost as if they were compelled by some external force. Around the apse were religious frescos, with the usual depictions of saints and angels in neo-Gothic costume, rather like the ones in Medwardine school chapel he used to stare at when bored during assemblies.
One group in the fresco particularly drew his eye. It was a maternal-looking female saint with two children at her knee and a book in her hand, though she was looking outwards and not down at the children or the book. To her side was an angelic figure, a darkly-handsome winged boy naked apart from a kilt to strategically cover his groin, leaning casually on a spear which seemed a little too big for him. Now it had seemed to him that the woman and boy were staring hard at Henry in a way impossible for two-dimensional figures, but nonetheless the direction of their gaze was unmistakable. And then, just as Henry was about to make his vow, the gaze of the angel had shifted. His dark wings had flexed. He had looked full in Davey’s face, and winked.
In conclusion, it would not be right if I did not make a sincere apology to Ukraine, which was the actual winner of the Eurovision Song Contest in Istanbul in 2004 and which staged the very successful 2005 contest in Kyiv. For the sake of this narrative it was displaced by Rothenia, but this was not done to diminish the people of Ukraine, who have had enough else to put up with recently. Peter has done his usual noble and brilliant job correcting facts and grammar in the resulting story of Yuli and his Romesczu. Perhaps an apology to the genius of William Shakespeare might be a good idea too, before I put down my metaphorical pen.