HENRY AND THE BALANCE OF PROBABILITY
Sunday dawned over Strelzen to reveal Tommy and Fritz entwined in the Metz room. When they had returned to the palace they found they had been drained by the evening’s events. Once they had undressed and Tommy had cleaned up his face, they had just hugged each other in bed and fallen straight asleep.
The bells of the cathedral began their carillon at eight. The tall belfry of the Salvatorskirk answered them from the New City. As the sound coursed across the city’s red roofs, the lesser churches took up the rhythm. Pigeons fluttered into the air, disturbed as they sunned themselves on towers and tiled rooftops.
Fritz stirred, then shook Tommy. ‘Time to face the music, leblen.’
Sighing, Tommy opened one of his eyes. ‘And this was supposed to be my dream. I’ll dress … conventionally.’
‘It’ll make things easier, baby.’
They made their way quietly down to the breakfast room. Fritz took Tommy’s hand before they entered.
Oskar was already there, sitting at the head of the table, meditatively chewing on some toast. He looked up at them without expression. As they poured their drinks and silently took seats on either side of him, he handed a newspaper to Fritz. ‘I had Laszlo go out and get all the papers this morning … call it a hunch.’
There, on the front page of the Roteniske Spegele, a popular Sunday tabloid, was a close-up picture of Fritz crossing the Flavenierplaz hand-in-hand with Tommy, people staring as they passed. Fritz glanced at the headline and his heart sank: ‘Prince Franz and Trans-boy Sensation’.
Oskar observed, ‘You should try the web. There were a lot of people with handijs out last night. One site has even correctly identified young Mr Entwhistle, probably from some rumours that made the English celebrity blogs before you returned. I think we can say you are well and truly outed, Fritzku, and a lot of women will be very disappointed.’
When Fritz had nothing to say, his brother continued, a pained expression on his face. ‘I wish you’d talked to me about your bisexuality before this …. or do you prefer to be called gay now, Fritzku?’
Fritz looked up. ‘I’m just in love with another man, Osku. Surely you understand that?’
Oskar’s look softened. ‘You know I do, bruderjesku lebjen men. But I never guessed we had more in common physically than blond hair and a lineage. There’s no going back now, either. Several journalists and an Eastnet crew are lurking about the Radhausplaz gate. You’ll have to make a press statement. Do you still have that American agent who was cleaning up after you in the States?’
‘Daniel? Yes. I’ll e-mail him, if he hasn’t already spotted the latest Prince Fritz sensation from the web. It’ll cost me. Also, he’ll want to market the bloody story to milk as much cash out of it for both of us as he can. This sort of thing makes me sick. It turns me and my romantic life into a product to be placed.’
Tommy was open-mouthed. ‘Is this celebrity? Shit. It stinks!’
Oskar gave him a cool gaze. ‘Welcome to our world, Thomas Entwhistle. It’s yours too now. You can try to keep your head down, and we’ll do our best to protect you. However, the press and public are hungry to know about Tommy, the transvestite lover of Franz of Tarlenheim, and won’t easily give up.’ He looked back to Fritz. ‘Helge will be down from Modenehem this afternoon. You’ll have to talk to her and explain things.’
Henry had his laptop booted up on the breakfast bar. The wall TV was consequently off. Although the other males in the house usually had the sports channels on by then, Ed was having a lie-in after the previous night’s clubbing, while the boys were still out for the count.
Henry was uneasy for several reasons. He was worried about Fritz and Tommy. Having already received several texts from the newsroom demanding his take on the Tarlenheim story, he knew their romance was by now public property. Fritz was very much a media figure in his homeland, where Rothenians were vicariously proud of his international celebrity. But Henry knew all too well the corrosive nature of fame on the friends and family of the ones who possessed it. Matt White and Andy Peacher had taught him a lot about what it meant, and in a small way he had been a victim of it himself. Tommy was a delight, and must have a confident personality to be what he was so openly and courageously. Now he was in the eye of the press, however, how strong would he remain?
On another front, Henry was getting more puzzled by Hendrik Willemin’s latest venture and the involvement in it of characters like Brantesberh and Olmusch. He checked his files. He had depositions from the conspirators who had attempted to assassinate Rudi back at the time of the Elphberg restoration. Some of them had been former Communist military cadres. Despite their having turned evidence against dissident Republican army units, there was no indication that the leaders of those units had been identified or purged from the army after the fall of the Maritz government and the elections that had brought in Chancellor Trachtenburg. It had been thought better in the circumstances to offer amnesty, or simply draw a line through the investigation.
Time to do some sleuthing, then, but he had to be careful. Fortunately his civil partner, who was the army’s most dynamic and talented as well as its youngest general officer, had contacts and friends throughout the military hierarchy.
Then there was Lance. Ed was laughing off the first symptoms of the boy’s oncoming adolescence and its inevitable problems. Henry was not sure Ed was right to do that. He knew – who better? – how gay teenagers were driven underground emotionally by the demands of their unconventional sexuality. He also knew that parents were not always the best-placed people to deal with it, even if they were gay themselves.
Damien stumbled into the kitchen in an old pair of Lance’s pyjamas. ‘Morning sweetheart.’
The boy yawned. ‘Lo, Uncle Henry.’
Henry had the Cheerios ready. He knew better than to attempt conversation before Damien had topped up on carbohydrates. The boy poured and chomped on autopilot.
‘Still sleeping. What day’s it?’
‘Listen to the bells.’
‘Oh yuh! Sunday. Yer lose touch in holiday time.’ Damien was perking up.
‘You two got any plans today?’
‘Thought we’d go round my place. Mattie and Reggie said they’d come too.’
‘So the Mendamero Men are gathering. What’s up?’
‘Don’t believe you, sweetheart. With you four, there’s always something up.’
Damien snorted, but disdained to reply.
Lance trailed in some minutes later. Almost immediately Sky Sports was on, driving Henry from the kitchen. The boys were deep into the West Indies test at Lords. Living in Rothenia, Lance had never actually attended a cricket match, though he had played out the back with Ed, who said he had the makings of quite a bowler. Since cricket was Ed’s game, Lance had developed a major curiosity about it.
Things had got to the point where Ed had tentatively suggested it might be in Lance’s interest as a star sportsman to board at their old school in Medwardine from Year 9 onwards. The suggestion of shipping Lance off to England had frankly horrified Henry. Seeing his reaction, Ed had backpedalled furiously. But it was still an unresolved question between them.
A clattering of dishes alerted Henry that the boys were finished in the kitchen. Ed appeared, stretching, and ruffled both boys’ heads as they passed en route to dress so they could go to Damien’s house.
‘Nathan knows you’ll be coming, right?’
‘And you’re eating back here, Lance, got it? Usual time.’
Ed watched them depart. ‘What’s up?’
‘Something. But we’ll never find out. Here’s a question for you, general. Think back to the days when Rudi claimed the throne.’
‘That’s a long time ago, now.’
‘Well maybe. But who do you know in the current military hierarchy who was in a position of authority then?’
‘That’s going into remote history as far as the Rothenian army’s concerned. A lot of the generals at that time were still Communist vintage, but they’ve all gone now. Rudi pensioned some off, and others retired. You need to look at who was in the next level down … senior aides at the ministry and adjutants in the General Staff. A lot of those were there by the patronage of the higher-ups, people like Brantesberh as it happens, and they’ve climbed higher since. Brantesberh was adjutant to General Mikhelovics, a Jurassic monster from the days of Horvath. The stories about him! He was grossly fat, a drunk and a lecher, and reckoned he was the soldier’s friend because he’d come up from the ranks.’
‘Can ya …’
‘You didn’t wait till I finished!’
‘You were going to ask me to find out who was attached to Mikhelovics’s office in those days, and in the other staff posts.’
‘Well … maybe.’
‘Can’t do it, baby. It would breach so many rules, not to mention my own personal code of ethics.’
‘I love it when you’re ethical. Gets me all fired up.’
‘Now you’re trying to seduce me.’
Henry pouted and posed. ‘Moi?’
‘Yeah … toi. Go on, then.’
‘Seduce me. Kids are gone and it’s Pauline’s day off. Oops, there goes what little clothing I have on. C’mere yer sexy little devil!’
The house echoed with whoops as Henry was chased from room to room, finally to be pinned down over a washing machine. He was laughing while being stripped and thoroughly fucked, the metal cold beneath his belly and erect dick. Then, grinning happily, he was flung over Ed’s broad shoulder and carried up to bed, where he was offered a more leisurely repeat performance.
‘So … I don’t have to make her that membership card then, Mr Director?’
Damien looked uncomfortable. ‘Well, not yet … no, Reggie.’
The other three boys gazed sombrely at their leader. The Mendamero Men were sitting on their official meeting place, otherwise known as Damien’s king-size bed. No one seemed to know what to say, and Damien wasn’t the sort of boy you felt you should cuddle to show sympathy.
In the end his oldest friend, Mattie, suggested that the only appropriate thing in the circumstances would be to watch a movie, such as the latest Star Trek franchise. They agreed, and Mattie went off to scavenge for supplies to munch.
When Damien disappeared into his bathroom, Reggie took his chance with Lance. ‘What do ya think we should do?’
‘Dunno, Reggie. Poor Daimey. He was really upset last night.’
‘Why did Helen drop him?’
‘They had a row about … y’know, boy-girl stuff.’
Reggie didn’t know. He was therefore a little uneasy that his trip to see Helen might have had something to do with the breakup, though if so, it had been totally accidental. He tried to look ingenuous. ‘Maybe someone should go and talk to Helen. That might help.’
Lance nodded soberly.
‘Would you do it, Lance? She really likes you.’
‘She does?’ Lance hadn’t noticed it.
‘Yeah! She thinks you’re totally cool. I’m sure she’ll listen to you.’
‘I was thinking of it,’ Lance confessed. ‘Anything to help Damien. I can’t stand to see him unhappy like this.’
‘Just don’t say anything. He might get cross if he thought you were … y’know.’
Lance didn’t quite follow Reggie’s drift, but nodded anyway. He was never entirely confident he was getting the subtext of any human situation.
One thing that took him aback was a sudden powerful urge to do all he could to help the friend he loved, however hopelessly. He could at least attest to his devotion to Damien by an act of great and selfless sacrifice. Damien would never realise it, maybe, but the nobility of the gesture would soothe Lance’s heart. Lance Edward Atwood did not know it, but he was a romantic, and so destined for more than his fair share of unhappiness in life.
‘Very conventional, leblen.’
‘I was always told that, if I had to make an appearance in court, smart, sober dress might impress the judge favourably.’
‘Which chapter is that in Tommy’s Book of Tactical Dressing?’
‘What’s your sister like?’
‘A bit intimidating if the truth be told. She was a school teacher for many years and she kept me in order effortlessly, at least till puberty. Of course, you know about the business which revealed that she was the last of the Levites.’
‘Yes … the time you got your scar.’
Fritz quirked up a side of his mouth, an action which emphasised the line across his right cheek. They were walking the upper gallery, and Fritz stopped Tommy next to a number of swords framed on the wall.
‘Was it one of these you used in the duel with the king?’
Fritz nodded, pulling out a light cavalry blade. ‘This was the sword of my ancestor Prince Franz III. It was the weapon I used that day – foolish boy that I was. But it redeemed itself, for on another, braver day I killed one of the Antichrist’s Hellhounds with it at the siege of Belvoir castle.’
Tommy caught a scent once more, as he occasionally did with Fritz, of the air of a different world. He knew his lover was the prince of an ancient house, yet somehow you could forget that when he was being so ordinary and funny. The gulf only opened up between them when matters that Fritz deemed to touch on his honour were discussed. Then Tommy was forcibly reminded that Rothenia was not Britain, and Fritz was a different species of man from any other he had ever met. He did not fully understand it, but he was learning to respect it. He knew that behind the laughing face of his lover lurked a modern-day hero.
Fritz tested the weight of the blade, then struck some very professional poses.
‘The web says you were in the Rothenian Olympic fencing team.’
‘True. But I didn’t win any medals. Want to try it out for size?’
Tommy grasped the hilt and was surprised by the weight. ‘You must have strong wrists.’
‘I’m also an Olympic-level wanker.’
Tommy laughed. ‘What do I do?’
Fritz took another blade and showed Tommy some lunges and steps. Tommy grinned as he imitated his lover. ‘Not bad, Tomasczu. You have a certain grace and coordination; you could be a fencer.’
‘Something tells me I wouldn’t enjoy the costume. White is so not me.’ Relaxing, Tommy replaced the sword on the wall.
They had been marking time in the gallery until Countess Helge arrived. They found her in the drawing room, an elegant woman in a dark dress, blonde like her brothers, and even more aristocratic looking if possible. She was not alone. Count Oskar was standing at the fireplace with a man dressed in immaculate military uniform whom Tommy did not know. It seemed the stranger was well acquainted with Fritz, however.
Fritz went over to shake his hand in the serious Rothenian way. ‘Jakob, I didn’t expect you today.’
Peaked cap under his arm, the man bowed stiffly over Fritz’s handclasp. ‘Szeren Hochheit.’ Then he swept Tommy with a very cold look, so hostile that Tommy felt his neck hairs lift.
Fritz indicated seats and pointedly positioned himself next to Tommy. There was a pause as each wondered who was to open the discussion.
Oskar finally broke the silence. Keeping to English he stated, ‘The press seems finally to have woken up to your relationship with Thomas.’
Fritz shrugged. ‘It was going to happen eventually.’
Countess Helge joined in, her accented English low but forceful. ‘Then why did you keep it concealed for so long, Fritzku. Were you ashamed of it?’
‘No, of course not. But I foresaw the eventual discomfort of this conversation. Besides, I needed time to assess what Tommy meant to me. I can now say without any reservation that he is everything I want in a partner.’
Helge looked momentarily as if she had been struck in the face. ‘So … the expectation of children? The hopes of our dynasty? Are they nothing to you now?’
‘I will not be the last prince of Tarlenheim. There are others of our lineage who can inherit the title after me. The Templerstadt and Olmusch branches are still there.’
‘But had you thought that if I marry and have children, then the next prince will not be a Tarlenheim but from a new line?’
‘That’s as may be.’
‘Are you asking me to put a halt to … my own hopes of happiness?’
Fritz shot up and did something no Englishman would ever have done: He fell to his knees before his sister and seized her hands. Tears were on his cheeks as he reassured her passionately in his native tongue, ‘Nen! Sczwester lebljen men! Nechedje! You must pursue your own happiness! Never let pride in lineage come between you and that!’
Count Jakob looked down grimly at Fritz. ‘It would to me seem … that you urge on others the szelbstucht – how you say – the selfishness you embrace for yourself, not happiness!’
Fritz leapt to his feet again, his face red. ‘Have a care, Olmusch. You have no part in this.’
Oskar too was now on his feet, hands extended. ‘Enough! Jakob! Fritz! Sit, the pair of you! This must not be an occasion for pointless anger.’
Jakob glowered at Oskar, but subsided.
Oskar continued, ‘My brother, I want you to know that I do understand your wishes. I accept that you and Thomas are in love, and that it is a genuine love for you both. But what next? Will you seek a civil partnership? You are both still young. When Peter and I took our vows, it was as two mature men who knew the world for what it is, and people for what they are. We were ready. Are you?’
Tommy finally found his voice. ‘Well … no.’
Fritz’s head wrenched round. ‘No?’ he echoed in disbelief.
Tommy took his hand. ‘We have years ahead of us, Fritzku. I truly believe they’ll get better for us. I just don’t want to tempt the gods by taking vows. I’m still learning about myself. I don’t yet know if I’ll change. I hope not. But I really am not sure. And a partnership is a scary thing at twenty-one.’
Fritz opened his mouth to speak, then closed it.
‘You see, Fritzku?’ his sister observed. ‘It’s the princess all over again. You frightened Eleanor by your passion and demands.’
Count Jakob seemed spitefully pleased by the turn of events. ‘There, look! Even the pohadkje kluc sees it!’ he declared. Tommy heard a stifled gasp from Helge and saw Oskar’s eyes widen.
Fritz had taken Jakob by the throat and was holding him up against a wall before Tommy was even aware that a crisis had occurred. ‘You call my Tommy that! You animal, to do so in my own house! You will apologise!’
‘Fritz!’ Helge cried.
Oskar now was up and separating the two men. It was not an easy task, but Oskar was powerfully built and Fritz would not physically resist him.
Jakob Olmusch was propelled into a seat, where the countess stayed him by a hand on his shoulder. ‘Oskar, Fritz! No more. This must end. I won’t have this sort of tension!’
For once Fritz defied her. ‘It was neither I nor Tommy who provoked that last outburst!’
‘Enough, I say!’ Helge stared her brother down.
‘Let’s get out of here, Tommy.’ Fritz took his lover’s arm and they left the room. Outside the door, he paused to collect himself, giving Tommy a slight smile with more than a hint of sadness in it. ‘That did not go well.’
‘No,’ agreed Tommy. ‘I have to ask, even if I’ll wish I hadn’t. What was it he called me?’
‘Pohadkje kluc? It translates as “effeminate boy-bitch” though it actually is a lot worse than that. It has overtones of male prostitution. Soldiers – especially sergeant majors – use it a lot.’
‘I do wish I hadn’t asked.’