HENRY AND THE BALANCE OF PROBABILITY
Lance was a lot brighter the next morning when Damien and Mattie came over for the day, and was positively cheerful in the evening. Henry thought it better not to say anything further about ‘the talk’, although he did observe after Lance went to bed, ‘Did you notice something new with our kid?’
‘He was bloody funny about Damien and Helen. I nearly wet myself when he did his imitation of Damien going gooey-eyed over Helen’s iPod compilation. Getting the names of the bands all wrong!’
‘That’s what I mean. Lance has developed a wicked sense of irony. It’s wonderful, but it’s a sign he’s growing mentally as well as physically.’
‘Well hooray for that. But he seemed great today, a joy to be around.’
‘That’s adolescence, Ed. You should remember the mood swings.’
‘Er … no.’
‘I was there. You haven’t forgotten, have you?’
‘Oh … you mean the … er …’
‘… kick up my backside that day at Medwardine when we were sixteen.’
‘It had a happy ending.’
Henry only harrumphed, knowing there was no point pushing it.
Monday was a workday. Ed wore his general-officer’s undress uniform to breakfast, laying his peaked cap, richly decked in gold lace, on the counter. A rectangle of medal ribbons formed a colourful expanse above his breast pocket. His dark-blue trousers had a double gold stripe down their length.
‘Very smart, Ed.’
‘Thanks. You look pretty good in your military gear too … just so petit! Don’t see you in it often enough.’
‘You’re gonna gave a long wait till the next time, then.’
‘No. Have you forgotten Rudi’s senior seminar in a couple of weeks?’
‘You’re a full colonel and Rudi’s equerry. Course you are. As a guard colonel you can even bring your own staff. Now, before I go on to the Ministry I’ll drop Lance off at Reggie’s. I guess they're going to spend all day painting models.’
‘Ta! I need to be on time today, first day back at Eastnet and all.’
‘You’re being the anchor for the afternoon news?’
‘I’ll have the set on in my office. I shall review your performance with some harshness.’
‘You do that, sweetheart. Don’t forget we’ve got Ottoczu and his missus over for dinner.’
‘Mrs Willerby’s on the case. It’ll be good.’
‘Any further news from the Tarlenheim palace?’
‘Fritzy’s gone to ground.’
‘I’ll ring him and get him around here.’
‘Great idea. Make sure he brings that Tommy boy too!’
Fritz and Tommy were out and about in Mikhelstrasse. They were waiting with the perpetual tourist crowd for the mechanical clock on the Fenizenkirk to perform.
‘You watch, the tourists always applaud after the puppets do their thing, as if they were actors!’
Eleven o’clock began to chime. ‘Here you go, get your camera running.’
Fritz’s mobile went. ‘Oh, hi Henry! Where are you? What, back at Eastnet? I had no idea. Things are fine, thanks. Nice of you to ring. But this isn’t just courtesy, is it? You know what I mean. Nate told you about me and Tommy? Yeah … right. Okay, want to eat out? Ribaud’s? You know I have a hereditary table there as prince of Tarlenheim. Tomorrow at seven-thirty it is.’
‘Was that who I thought it was?’
‘Yup. Henry Atwood. He’s heard … in fact they’ll all have heard by now. I just hope it hasn’t got back to Helge before I have a chance to explain.’
‘Perhaps you should ring her up.’
‘Yes, sweetheart, I will. Trouble is, now she’s involved with that Jakob Olmusch, she’s not as accessible as she once was.’
‘Who’s this Olmusch guy?’
‘He’s a cousin. There are two main lines of the Tarlenheim family. There are the princes of Tarlenheim, of whom I am the latest and most unworthy …’
‘Thank you. But also deriving from the Marshal-Prince Franz I are the barons of Olmusch and counts of Verheltschjaen, of whom my cousin, Oskar III von Tarlenheim zu Olmusch-Verheltschjaen, is the current head. Jakob is his younger son.’
‘So they’re as aristocratic as you, then?’
‘Indeed they are.’
‘What about the princes of Murranberg?’
‘You mean Rupert Wemmyss’s lot? No, they’re not Tarlenheims. King Maxim created the title of prince of Murranberg for his wife’s son by a previous marriage. She was a Tarlenheim, so the first prince, Philip, called himself by the name Underwood von Tarlenheim zu Templerstadt. Since he just had daughters, the title eventually passed into a British family. But though they’re not really Tarlenheims, the Wemmysses keep up the family connection with Rothenia.’
‘Do you really have a hereditary table at Ribaud’s?’
‘Can’t fool you can I, Tommy leblen? Anyway, you don’t have to wear boy clothes if you don’t want.’
‘Perfectly. I adore you and everything about you. So if you want to wear a cocktail dress and heels, I’m very happy to carry your handbag, leblen … you’re not going to cry are you? That would be such a stereotype.’
Reggie Mayer watched Lance work at his Warhammer 40K Chimera. Lance was a painstaking and meticulous painter, whose hand-eye coordination was as impeccable as one would expect of a star athlete. But Reggie was quite as much interested in the curve of his friend’s cheek and the fluttering of his long eyelashes as in his brush technique. Their quiet hours together in Reggie’s basement workroom were among the happiest of Reggie’s young life.
They chatted desultorily about school friends, Imperial Guard uniforms, family and TV. It was very companionable, and warmed Reggie’s large heart.
Lance seemed to feel it too. At one point he looked up with a soft little smile and said, ‘I love doing painting, Reggie. You sit here and it’s all peaceful. Nobody bugs you and everything makes sense.’
Reggie returned the smile. ‘Things can get complicated, can’t they? My mom and Esther should get into it. They’re always worrying.’
‘Well, money and school fees. Then Esther’s art don’t sell much, and they bicker about who’s keeping us going. Stuff like that.’
‘Is everything okay?’
‘They’ve been at it for as long as I can remember. Things don’t actually get worse, but then they don’t get better either. Besides, I worry whether mom will have to accept a new posting. I don’t want to leave Strelzen.’
Lance stared. This sort of uncertainty and impermanence had not occurred to him as part of his life. ‘You can’t leave Rothenia! The Men need you!’
Reggie flushed. An unworthy part of him wished Lance had said, ‘I need you.’ Reggie soothed. ‘They’re always fussing about it. Nothing’ll happen. How ’bout you and your dads?’
Lance looked a little puzzled. ‘What d’ya mean?’
‘Well … what are they like?’
‘Like dads, I s’pose, always making bad jokes and telling me what I can’t do. Apart from the fact that there’s two of ’em, I guess they’re like any other dads. Why d’ya ask?’
‘Just wondered. Mom and Esther are sorta different. Esther does the home stuff, and mom is at work a lot.’
‘Henry’s been home up till now, so I guess that’s like your place, but Mrs Willerby looks after our house. Henry’s not good at domestic stuff. He went back to work at Eastnet today … maybe we can see him on the 24 Hour News this afternoon. I wonder if his being away all day will change things. Up till now it’s been Ed who’s always at work … ’cept when Henry’s with the National Guard. But now ya mention it, Henry does more of the hugging and kissing stuff, once I got him trained.’
‘You like talking to him, don’t ya?’
‘He’s funny, and sorta grows on you. When I first met him I thought he was pushy and too clever for his own good. But he’s changed … or maybe I have. I dunno. But he makes me laugh a lot, and he knows when just to listen, or be quiet. I like that.’
‘Mattie’ll be round this afternoon.’
‘Not Daimey?’ Lance was disappointed and a little cross. It was as if he was being stood up.
‘He’s round Helen’s.’
Seeing Lance’s face go briefly dark, Reggie once again made the wrong conclusion.
Lance rolled his eyes as he pulled his fingers out of the big bowl of Mrs Willerby’s home-made parsnip crisps. ‘Ya won’t miss one or two.’
‘With you it quickly turns into one or two dozen,’ Henry observed.
‘Ottoczu and Julia will be here soon. Then you can ruin your appetite on crisps.’
‘Saw you on telly this afternoon at Reggie’s.’
‘You look taller on the screen than you do face-to-face.’
‘Something which is commonly said. I could hardly look shorter.’
‘Who was that daft woman you were sitting with?’
‘Irma Velovnja? My co-anchor?’
‘She kept grinning at you like a lunatic.’
‘Probably nerves, sweetheart. You’d be nervous too if it was your first time in front of the cameras.’
‘Wouldn’t. Sides, I have been. State TV did a feature on my team when we won in Prague last year. Couldn’t see much of me, though.’
‘They did show your first public tower dive, baby. You won the Group 6 forward event too. You looked very cute on the podium.’
Lance grinned proudly, reliving the moment. His prowess on the platform was a key way he was establishing his humanity. Although the exceptional body he occupied would have allowed him to excel at any sport, it was the physical grace of diving which most attracted him. His natural competitiveness was now channelled in that direction.
The doorbell chimed, and as Henry went to answer it, the parsnip crisps began disappearing rapidly.
Ottokar Willemin and his wife were favourites of Ed’s and Henry’s, and so were not infrequently invited round to their Sixth District home. The couple were in their early thirties and childless. They were very fond of Lance, who gave the ritual high-five to Otto when he entered bearing the flowers which were the traditional Rothenian gift from dinner guests to their hosts. The conversation immediately shifted to Rothenian, as neither of the Willemins knew English.
It was pure coincidence that another member of the Willemin family was on Henry’s mind that night, and that Ottokar happened to be the son of Hendrik Willemin’s elder brother. It was just after Lance had disappeared up to bed that Henry observed to Otto over a brandy, ‘I see your Uncle Hendrik’s back in town.’
It was Julia who replied. ‘He was missing his homeland after so long in Slovenia. Of course his mother isn’t too well at the moment, which was why the Ministry of Justice was willing to let him back in.’
Ed looked sympathetic. ‘Sorry to hear about your grandma, Ottoczu.’
The man grinned. ‘She’s fine. Despite being in her seventies, she still plays badminton and rides a bike everywhere – in Glottenberh, for God’s sake!’
Julia disagreed. ‘She had a bad patch with her heart a couple of months ago, Otto.’
‘She’s fine now, though.’
Ed nodded. ‘So you think your uncle was playing the system?’
‘It wouldn’t be the first time. He’s an old rostac!’ Ottokar used the affectionate but antiquated Rothenian word best translated as ‘rascal’. ‘I worked for him a bit while I was in Strelzen studying to be a teacher. It wasn’t the … y’know, Falkefilm stuff … I mean, I’m not that good looking. But I did a bit of security work on the Wejg. You would not believe half the things I saw and did back then, Henry.’ He fondly took his wife round the waist. ‘Then I met Julia, and life got a lot less crazy.’
‘So, what’s your uncle’s present scheme?’ Henry insinuated.
Otto looked at Henry over the rim of his brandy snifter with a quirky smile. ‘Why not ask Major Olmusch?’
‘What, Count Jakob? What’s he to do with Hendrik Willemin? I can’t imagine they have much in common.’
‘Neither did I, but there they were at Ribaud's a few weeks ago, right before the exercises, having a deep conversation, just the two of them. Julia and I were there for our anniversary dinner. Being fair to Uncle Hendrik, he ordered us a bottle of champagne and came over himself to offer his good wishes … unlike that frozen-faced son of a …’
‘Well he is! Henry, what’s that English word you use for him?’
Ottokar laughed and rolled out the phrase. ‘He’s an arrogant git.’ Then his face clouded over. ‘And he deliberately insulted Julia.’
‘Oh, Otto … it wasn’t like that.’
‘I stood to introduce you. He neither acknowledged me as a fellow officer of the king’s army, nor you as my wife. Uncle Hendrik went red. He saw it, and I think he took it badly too. We may not be noble, we Willemins, but – well, apart from Uncle Hendrik – we are respectable people.’
Henry frowned. ‘It sounds in character to me.’
‘He’s just socially inadequate,’ Ed demurred.
‘No, he really is a nasty piece of work. Didn’t Henry tell you what he did before the final parade at Luchau?’
Ed gave Henry a look. ‘Yes he did. But I thought we agreed it was because Olmusch is just a tosser – another useful English word for you.’
Ottokar shook his head. ‘No, he’s a bad man.’
Ed was not convinced. ‘If Helge von Tarlenheim has taken up with him, he can’t be as bad as you say.’
Henry refrained from observing that Helge, possessing the bluest blood in Rothenia, could hardly be looked down upon even by Count Jakob Olmusch.
‘By the way, Otto, if you’re free Saturday after next, I have a job for you which you might like.’
‘The king’s holding his annual senior seminar for the officer corps. Wanna come? I need an aide.’
‘What, me? With the Alfensberh elite? Really?’
Ed grinned at Henry. ‘It’s a great idea, little babe. Rudi’ll like it too. The reservist corps should be represented at these events.’
Otto smiled broadly. ‘I’d better get polishing my medal.’
‘Hi! That you, Helen?’
‘Reggie! I don’t often hear from you. How are you?’
‘Good, thanks. How’s the summer going?’
‘Okay … do you want Daimey? He’s already gone home.’
‘No, no. Er … I just thought I’d like to talk.’
‘That’s nice. What about?’
Reggie scrolled desperately through his mind and found salvation. ‘It’s a Mendamero Men thing. Damien says you wanna join officially, and I need to make a membership card for ya.’
‘Oh! Sure! What do you need?’
‘Well … can I come round your place tomorrow with my laptop? Then I can show ya the design and personalise it.’
‘That’ll be nice. What time? Tatiana and Miri will be here at eleven.’
‘At ten then.’
Reggie hung up. His little face took on a look of determination. He was going to help Lance in any way he could. But first he needed information, which meant he must talk to the lady herself to see how the land lay.
Lance Atwood was awake in bed, wondering what the hell was happening to him. Life used to be so simple. Only a couple of months earlier he was a straightforward boy, into games, with parents he loved and trusted, and friends to die for. Life finally made sense. His cosmic problem was being sorted, as even he could see. He was learning about humans and the strange, contradictory nature of their mortality. He had discovered the true meanings of beauty and time – and the sadness they could bring – in ways that none of the Great Council ever had. Then this!
He delved back into his memories. When had it begun? Damien was the key to it. Lance had been fascinated with him even before becoming mortal. The time he had drawn Damien down to his den in the Underworld, he had made sure the boy got naked so they could wrestle, warm skin on skin. Why? It had made him excited even then, he knew. But at the time he had still been one of the Orders and his physicality was not sexual. He had rationalised it as a desire for play and friendship.
Then came the transformation into a real ten-year-old. The sheer joy and exhilaration of mortality and physicality had intoxicated him, fully absorbing him for quite a while into the strangeness and challenge of an organic life. The need to breathe, drink, eat, piss and defecate was overmastering – even humiliating – but unavoidable, like an adventure-park ride you could not get off. Suddenly he had discovered the key which unlocked the mystery of humanity for him, by falling in love first – as children need to do – with his parents. The emotion had overwhelmed him with its sheer power and desperate poignancy. In the struggle to understand his own humanity, he had been coming out on top, or so he had believed.
All at once his body had ambushed him. His musculature had developed with his physical prowess. Hair had grown in his armpits and around his genitals. He had of course known why this should be. He was even apprehensive about it when he had remembered it was happening, although there had been no immediate, discernible impact. Or had there been?
He liked being around boys, even seeking out encounters with them. He had delighted in wrestling and holding his friends’ bodies, and loved it most when Damien and he had shared a bed. He had engineered situations where he could see his friend naked. He had enticed Damien into grab-ass games, and found him very willing, because his friend too was a very physical boy.
But now it had gone one step further. He lay there recalling with longing the day a couple of months before when Damien – in a hilarious, over-the-top moment – put his hand down the back of Lance’s shorts and pushed an exploratory, probing finger up between his buttocks. In an immediate reaction to the remembered excitement of that forbidden intrusion into his hole, Lance felt the now-familiar tingling and thickening of his dick as it inflated with blood. At some unknown point his penis had taken on a life of its own. What’s more, it seemed a lot larger than he first remembered it, even when it was flaccid.
He sighed and groaned. There was no escaping this further humiliation. He stripped off his top and pushed his pyjama bottoms down to his knees. Even the movement of air on his naked flesh had become sensual. His right hand gripped his dick while the other began probing into his body, finding his anus sweaty and unresisting. He imagined it was Damien’s finger again and that his friend was in bed with him.
Lance’s imagination was quite up to the idea of Damien’s stiff and sturdy dick following his finger. Lance could literally feel the younger boy between his legs, leaning over him to take possession of his all-too-willing body. He wondered if it would be painful, supposing it ever happened. When the runaway roller-coaster of his orgasm seized him, he watched as his penis ejaculated several forceful jets of fluid high above him to spatter down on to his chest. The shudders of his masturbatory ecstasy went on for quite some time, to be followed by the familiar downturn in mood.
Coated with a large quantity of his seminal fluid, he realised he needed to avoid smearing it everywhere. He would die if his parents got to know what he did before he slept. He looked to his bedside table and noticed for the first time that a box of tissues had been placed there. What? Oh, fuck! They guessed!