HENRY AND THE BALANCE OF PROBABILITY
Tommy mooned around the Tarlenheim palace all Monday. Fritz was back at his desk in the financial district. Tommy rather suspected his lover was burying his insecurities and tensions in his work.
Countess Helge and her boyfriend had stayed for a formal and uncomfortable meal on Sunday evening, when there was little conversation, merely forced politeness. The couple had left for the Olmusch country house immediately after the dinner. Tommy had been glad to see them go.
There was very little to do in the palace other than surf the web and watch TV. The servants produced food and drinks when required, which was not often because Tommy did not like to ask. Tuesday was almost as bad until, wandering the galleries and staring at the pictures, Tommy literally bumped into the broad chest of Count Oskar.
Oskar relaxed a little. ‘Tommy it is then. Are you alright?’
‘Ah! I understand. You have no friends in the city, and Fritz has to go out to work so we can afford this grand pile.’
‘Is part of it yours?’
‘No, it is all Fritz’s, though I have a room for when I stay over in the city as I did last night. Peter and I live out at Templerstadt, a former Tarlenheim house that we bought back for the family. You must come out there sometime.’
Tommy smiled a little. He found Oskar intimidating, yet the man was trying to be friendly. Tommy appreciated the effort, especially at a moment when he was more or less alone in a foreign city.
Oskar seemed to sense this and made a decision. ‘Would you like to take a walk, Tommy?’
‘Sure. But haven’t you better things to do than shepherd a tourist round Strelzen?’
‘Tommy, you’re my brother’s chosen lover. Now it may be that I might have visualised a very different … person from yourself as his eventual partner. However, men I very much respect – Phil Maddox and Matt White, not to mention Gavin Price – are unanimous that you are a special person, one very much worthy of Fritzku’s love. So let us get this perfectly clear: You have my blessing on your relationship.’
Oskar took Tommy by the shoulders and pressed him against his chest in a close hug, which Tommy found infinitely comforting, not least because Oskar used the same fragrance as his brother. ‘Thank you,’ he breathed, when Oskar let him go.
Oskar smiled and led him down to the side door of the palace, the one that gave on to Wenzelgasse, where they were safe from observation by the press still haunting the Radhausplaz gate. The photographers were in any case expecting a transvestite, whereas Tommy was in anonymous boy-clothes: simple pale jeans, a tee and a hoodie. Much of his face was hidden by a pair of outsize reflective sunglasses he had put on to match his mood.
A couple of blocks and their walk took them on to the open spaces of the Rodolferplaz, under the cliff-like walls of the Salvatorskirk. Oskar led the way through the morning shoppers and tourists to the corner of the square, then along Brückestrasse by the Hofgarten wall.
The count chatted amiably about the history of the royal palaces of Ruritania, and pointed out to their left the Osraeum, facing across Gartengasse to the trees of the Botanic Gardens. ‘That place is in many ways a rather superior building to the Residenz, or the Old Palace, less grand and more sensibly arranged.’
‘Who lives there now?’
‘Several minor Elphbergs, such as Fritz’s former fiancée, Eleanor Osra, the Princess Royal, and her father, Count Robert Rassendyll of Hentzen, when they’re in Rothenia. The Orbeck Bernenstejnes, the king’s close cousins, also have apartments there. It’s a regular little colony of blue-bloods.’
‘Do they pay rent?’
‘I think you call it in English a “peppercorn rent”, merely a token. Count Robert and his daughter certainly are not well off.’
‘Why haven’t I heard of this Count Robert, since his nephew is so famous?’
‘He’s an odd character, and not easy to get to know. There is some history between him and the king. He has the old Rassendyll estate at Hentzen, which is rundown and needs a lot of investment.’
‘What’s the king like?’ Tommy had to ask.
‘Like no one you can imagine. There has been nothing to compare with Rudolf Elphberg in many centuries. I hope you get to meet him. You have many friends in common, after all.’
‘Where are we going now?’
‘I thought you’d appreciate a tour of the palace while the royal family are away. They don’t get back from the States till tomorrow.’
The two men had reached a side gate on the corner of the Hofgarten. A complex of stables and garages and a grand Classical structure were gathered round a cobbled yard. State police carrying machine guns were on duty, and blue-clad guardsmen were in sentry boxes at the gate.
Though Oskar was casually dressed, the police and soldiers snapped to attention. The police lieutenant took Tommy’s details and issued him a visitor’s pass to hang round his neck by a lanyard.
‘This is the old Reitschule yard, and the big hall is where the Elphberg princes and princesses of the early nineteenth century could exercise on horseback indoors on cold, wet days. Do you want to see the state coaches? No? I don’t blame you. Tedious.’
They strolled the gardens beyond the yard, and walked the willow-shaded paths around the small lake. The city sounds from outside the walls were muted. It was almost like being in a country park, were it not for the distant spires of the cathedral visible through the trees.
Oskar greeted a gardener by name as they passed the flower decks below the north front of the palace, before leading Tommy into the central block through a side door. Taking a green-carpeted stair upwards, they emerged on a landing at the first-floor level. ‘This is worth seeing,’ Oskar observed, indicated a breathtaking, vaulted baroque space through a grand door. ‘This is the Hofkapelle. Magnificent, yes? The Elphbergs of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were such Catholic princes. The heart of the Residenz had to reflect this, so it was a fully fledged collegiate church. Although the dean and chapter are now long gone, it still has a choral foundation and is the chapel of the Most Illustrious Order of the Red Rose, our principal Rothenian order of chivalry. The hanging banners are those of the current knights, who include myself, my brother and your friend Henry Atwood.’
‘Oh yes! Henry got it for that business in Tarlenheim.’
‘He did indeed, and some among the old nobility were not too pleased with the king for his generosity to his English friend.’
‘Don’t tell me … Olmusch.’
‘Amongst others. The revival of the aristocracy since the restoration has been remarkable, but not entirely welcome. You get wonderful men like Tom Bernenstejne, the king’s cousin, who’s a high-flier in the military, but you also get too many “sleaze-jobs”, as my Petey calls them: free-loaders, snobs, profiteers on the old estates. It was ever so, I imagine.’
They moved on into the palace. As they walked the state rooms, Tommy raised the courage to start asking some personal questions close to his heart. It occurred to him that Oskar was expecting no less by taking him on this tour.
‘Helge doesn’t think much of me and Fritzku getting together.’
‘No. She had a hard enough time dealing with my homosexuality. I was intended to be the salvation of my dynasty, the one who redeemed our fortunes and, of course, provided the requisite heir and spare. She came to terms with it in the end. First Will Vincent taught her that gay men can be decent and selfless, and then she met young Gavin Price and found they can also be heroic. Peter sealed it, for he is a very formidable, yet very loving man. He’s perhaps the only one I could ever accept as my equal and partner, for I am arrogant, as you may have noticed.’
Tommy smiled and shook his head in disagreement.
Oskar continued, ‘The problem lies with Fritz. She never thought it was fair that the burden of our rank should have fallen upon his young shoulders. He was a wonderful boy, open, friendly and a pure delight to be with. He still is all these things. It would be unfair to say Helge loved him more than me, yet she certainly thought of herself more as his mother than his sister. He was so young when we were orphaned. She can never come to terms with his being an adult. She sees him always as a child; indeed, she half wants him to be one.
‘But Fritz is wilful and occasionally both rash and uncontrolled … I think you know something of his more absurd moments. Helge sees that as immaturity.’
‘Not you, though.’
‘No, it is the man he is. But to Helge he still has to grow up. I have no doubt she sees Tommy Entwhistle as yet another of his passionate and temporary fixations.’
‘What about you, Oskar?’
‘I disagree with her. You represent something new with Fritz. I don’t simply mean the homosexuality – though that took me aback – but also the longevity of the affair and the way he behaves around you. There are none of the absurd emotional displays and unrealistic demands on his lover we have learned to expect in him. I think he is deeply in love with you in a way he never has been with anyone else.’
‘Do you think Helge will come around in the end?’
‘Possibly. Jakob Olmusch is the problem there.’
‘Why? If he marries Helge and they have children, won’t his offspring become the princes? That should make him pro-Tommy, wouldn’t you say?’
‘Don’t underestimate Jakob. Whatever else he may be, he is not a selfish man. Tarlenheim pride is deeply engrained in him. He would rather you and Fritz broke up than have Fritz enter into a necessarily childless union with you. He would see that as proper and preferable, even though it might be to his personal advantage if you two settled down together.’
‘So Helge won’t come to terms with Fritz and me, and Olmusch will continue to kick up as big a fuss as he can?’
‘I’m afraid so, Tommy. Still, there is one thing I can do. I want you to come and stay with Pete and me for a couple of days. Fritz will drive you out after work and stay over. You’ll like Templerstadt; it’s a happy house.’
‘We’ll have to be back in Strelzen for the weekend … Fritz says there’s this army event.’
‘Yes, the king’s annual senior seminar for the top brass in the army and air force. The Tarlenheim palace will be tangled up in miles of gold braid. Henry will be there too.’
‘He has depths. He’s a senior army reserve officer, as well as the king’s friend and equerry.’
‘I have to meet King Rudi!’
‘In the meantime, you can see his latest portrait. It’s in the gallery here.’
Lance Atwood hopped off the tram at the stop nearest Reggie’s house. Ascending the gentle slope of Reggie’s street, lined by small flower-filled gardens, he turned as he reached the top to walk backwards up the last few metres. The view at this point was exceptional, for the red roofs of the Sudmesten district were now below him. Across them, through towers and domes, he could glimpse the architectural glories of the Nuevemesten. Looming blue in the distance were the three spires of St Vitalis’ cathedral growing out of the clustered medieval rooftops of the Staramesten, the old city of Strelzen.
It was early on a fine Wednesday morning, the air still cool but warming fast. Lance was a boy very sensitive to aesthetic stimulus, and the onset of adolescence was intensifying the pleasure he felt in colour and beauty. Though not in the least effeminate, he was finding that the sight of so ordinary a thing as a blossom against a blue sky could deeply stir his emotions and bring tears to his eyes. Life experienced from the inside was so different from life observed.
He shrugged and made his way along the brick path to Reggie’s door. ‘Morning, Esther!’ he cheerily greeted Reggie’s mum’s partner, to be answered by a smile. Like many intelligent boys his age, Lance could mask his internal hormonal storms behind a deceptive veil of open good humour, especially in the presence of adults outside his family.
‘He’s in his room, Lance sweetheart. Go get yourself a drink. I’m out back in my studio.’
Reggie had a small back bedroom with a vista over descending roofs south towards the airport, where a jet rumbled upwards from behind a low hill opposite as Lance watched. The room was cluttered with books and computer equipment. The boy himself, still in his pyjamas at his keyboard, hastily minimized a screen as Lance entered.
‘Whatchu doing, Reggie?’
‘Oh … nothing.’ Although the giveaway tinge of red in Reggie’s pale cheeks indicated quite the opposite, Lance would never have pressed and embarrassed his friend. Had he investigated, however, he would have found Reggie’s picture files congested with images of Lance, especially of him at swimming events.
When Reggie began dressing, hopping around to get into his briefs, Lance looked away from the skinny bottom thus exposed. He found Reggie not physically interesting in the slightest. ‘I’m gonna go down to talk to Helen at eleven. I texted her and she said that was good.’
‘Oh … great! What’re you gonna say to her?’
‘Err … dunno. Any ideas?’
‘About girls? Haven’t a clue. I suppose you need to say that … I dunno … Daimey’s really upset.’
‘That’s good. But will she believe me?’
‘Daimey is upset.’
‘Yeah, yeah! I know that. It’s just that he won’t show anyone. It’s his image.’
‘You could say he’s really, really sorry about … whatever it was.’
‘But we don’t know what it was.’
‘Well … had you thought maybe she’s sorta dumped him cos … maybe she loves someone else?’
‘What! Did someone tell ya that?’
‘No, no! But it happens. Maybe she fancies another boy.’
Lance’s face clouded over. ‘That’s bad! Daimey’s totally brilliant. If she don’t fancy him, then maybe her standards are a bit unrealistic.’
Reggie stared at his friend with his pale grey eyes, admiring Lance’s loyalty to their friend. ‘I don’t get girls, but maybe they don’t look at guys the same way as we do.’
‘Waddya mean, Reggie?’
Reggie was suddenly confused as to what he was actually saying. He stammered, ‘I honestly dunno … maybe I watch too many DVDs.’
Lance nodded. He was himself developing into a romantic-comedy addict. Films like that helped him solve his problems of dealing with human relationships. They also made him feel good somehow. As a result, he thought he understood a little of what Reggie was saying.
The boys kicked around the subject of Helen and Damien a while longer, but in the end agreed that Lance must play it by ear. Reggie made a point of urging Lance to be ‘careful’. Lance nodded, though he didn’t quite get why Reggie was so insistent on it.
‘Come back and tell me what happens,’ Reggie also insisted.
‘Shall do,’ agreed Lance. He squared his shoulders and marched out blindfold to do battle with the forces of heterosexuality.
Driving to work on Wednesday morning, Henry noticed a scrap of gold and red fluttering high over the palace down below as he followed his elaborate route along the winding back lanes of the Strelsenern Anhöhen. He did not normally take his car to the office, not least because of the parking problems on the hill of the Staramesten, but today he would be driving out to Ober Husbrau after his morning stint on the news desk.
Sure enough, the first item on the domestic-news slate was the royal family’s return to the capital. There was nice footage of little Prince Maxim and his mother on an unofficial side-trip to Disney World, which would keep the royalist matrons of Rothenia charmed and enthralled. The king’s presence in the States was glossed over, even though Eastnet knew about it. After all, he had not been there on a state visit.
Henry was through makeup and at his desk, cheery and collected, well in time for the ten o’clock bulletin. He did his three hours, handed over to the weather report, and was out of his suit by one-thirty, plenty early enough for the trip north through Husbrau.
He was at Piotreshrad in good time to make his four-o’clock meeting in a café-bar on the resort’s famous boardwalk. Henry rather liked Piotreshrad, with its family atmosphere, its hordes of Czech, Polish and German tourists, and its timeless resort amusements. He ordered a latté and settled down to watch the cute boys and girls parade past. Beyond them were the sailing boats and jet-skis cutting white furrows across the blue waters of the lake.
Henry rose. ‘You must be Walther. Thanks for agreeing to meet me.’
The young man took a seat opposite Henry. A waitress immediately appeared and asked for his order.
Henry surveyed the man. He was well built and rather good looking. His manicured fingers and artfully highlighted hair betrayed Walther to Henry for what he was: a Falkefilm model. ‘Felip Ignacij said you were between shoots at the moment.’
Walther smiled and nodded. ‘It’s good work when you can get it. But there are quiet times, so I found a temporary job in Herr Willemin’s office.’
‘That’s what Felip told me. He also said you had ambitions to get into journalism.’
‘I’ve just finished my baccalaureate in creative writing at the Techniske.’ He stared hard at Henry. ‘It would be great to get an internship with Eastnet.’
‘That might easily be arranged. You know we're extremely interested in Herr Willemin’s business ventures. They’ve created a lot of news column-inches over the years. I hear you’re in the construction offices across the lake.’
‘What is it you want?’
‘Information, like any serious investigative journalist.’
Walther seemed to have made his decision. ‘I have to say, Herr At-vood, that Willemin’s enterprise here seems aboveboard to me. This is not the first site on which I’ve worked.’
‘Then, no problem. Can you tell me anything about the visitors to his site? Visitors out of the ordinary run, I mean.’
Walther pondered the question. ‘Mostly they’re businessmen and contractors, but there are others.’
‘There’s a high-ranking soldier who’s been a few times.’
‘Tall? A cold fish?’
Walther grinned. ‘Yeah, that sums him up. Not like the officers I’ve slept with; nice guys and fit with it.’
Henry laughed. ‘I could say the same. It sounds like Brantesberh.’
‘This officer, he came with another old guy once. He was very deferential to him.’
‘What did he look like?’
‘Tall too. Distinguished. Not much else I can remember.’
‘That’s something at least. Thanks, Walther. You’ve been a help. If there’s anything else, here’s my card. And that internship is yours. Give me a ring when you finish your contract here.’
‘Thank you, Herr At-vood.’
They chatted a while about common acquaintances, then Walther departed.
Henry went down to the lake, bought an ice cream, and marked time for half an hour. Then he retrieved his car and took the autoroute towards Eisendorf, turning off at the outer ring-road and following a lesser road up over the ridge and down into the Arndt valley. His Garmin Sat-Nav gave him the cue to turn along a leafy lane, at the end of which he found the white stuccoed walls of a rather fine Classical mansion. Deer grazed in a paddock beneath oak trees. It was the château of Olmusch.
Fritz took the call. ‘Oh, hi! Yeah fine … okay, so you know about it. Fine, fine! No really. Yes I suppose it is a new low even for me … You’d better ask her about that.’
He looked up from the handset, and mouthed something at Tommy, who had been massaging his feet. Tommy mouthed back, ‘The king?’ and got a nod.
‘What! Now? But we’re on our way to Templerstadt! Okay, be like that, your majesty … and him too? We’re honoured … really.’
Fritz hung up. ‘Apparently I am the first item on his majesty’s agenda on the evening of his return to his nation. We are commanded and required to appear at the Residenz after Prince Maxim is in bed … which is eight o’clock.’
‘Do I need to change?’
‘You look great, baby. It’s casual at the palace out of office hours. We’d better take the car. We can drive on out to Merz after I’ve been duffed up by Rudi.’
‘I hope you’re exaggerating.’
The flare of cameras as Fritz’s Mercedes drove under the arch betrayed the continuing presence of paparazzi in the Radhausplaz. Tommy at the wheel resisted the temptation to put his foot down. A scooter with a photographer on the pillion took off after them and veered dangerously in front in order to get a shot as they made their way along Lindenstrasse.
‘God!’ Tommy swore. ‘This is what Princess Di had to put up with!’
Fritz directed Tommy to take the front palace gate, and the presence of state police persuaded the scooter to turn away.
They were directed to park on the forecourt. Fritz led Tommy in through a front entrance, up some stairs and past sentries in full dress. A green-coated footman opened a door at their approach. They were suddenly in a more domestic environment, for they had reached the private apartments.
A very beautiful woman with her blonde hair in disarray emerged from a bathroom carrying an object swathed in a towel. A cute toddler held out his arms to Fritz from his wrappings. ‘Unca Fwitzy!’
‘Hiya, Maxxie! How was America?’ A grinning Fritz took the heir to the Rothenian throne in his arms.
‘Watch out Fritz, he’s very damp. You must be Tommy.’ Queen Harriet of Rothenia turned her full gaze on Thomas Entwhistle, who stood gobsmacked in the presence of his idol.
‘Er … yeah … er, your majesty.’
The queen smiled and took him by the arm. ‘Thanks for coming. Rudi and I so wanted to meet you. Little Maxxie’s running late tonight. Jetlag works differently on kids, as we’re discovering. Come this way …’
The queen opened a door for Tommy and ushered him into a modern lounge. A man who could only be Rudolf Elphberg stood up from the sofa where he had been sprawled amongst a scatter of paper and files watching TV. He was striking in appearance: tall and good-looking of course, but the main impression he gave was one of concentrated power and intellect. This was someone to whom you refused nothing, who inspired instant obedience.
Tommy – being Tommy – also registered that the king’s dress sense was pretty indifferent: flip-flops and uncoordinated tee-shirt and jeans.
Fritz followed Tommy in, carrying the prince.
The king’s aquiline face softened, leaving behind nothing more than the look of a devoted father. ‘C’mere, champ!’ He took his son, who cuddled up happily to his dad.
The queen handed over pyjamas, which the king efficiently fitted his son into, then kissed him. ‘Okay, Maxxie?’
‘Mummy take me. Kiss Fwitzy!’ Fritz got a hug and small kiss, Tommy only a small smile and a speculative look.
Tommy found the boy more than just charming. There was something about his eyes and look that hinted at an intellect uncommon in such a small boy.
‘Sit down, you two,’ said a commanding voice once the boy had gone. They sat. The king gave them a considering stare. ‘Fritz, you really have excelled yourself this time. As if there weren’t already enough gay men in my inner circle. Harry won’t let me near Henry in case I make a pass at him.’
Fritz smiled a little. ‘We’re not gay, Rudi.’
‘But you sleep together, and Tommy here likes to wear dresses, as I hear.’
Tommy stirred himself. ‘I’m a transvestite, sir. That doesn’t mean I’m gay. We’re bisexual.’
‘For all the difference that makes to the press. Very well. It’s not an issue as far as I’m concerned, you know that. But something tells me your family are not going to be too happy with you, Fritzku. Indeed, the count of Olmusch-Verheltschjaen himself has been on to me. Old Oskar Olmusch seems to think of himself as the Tarlenheim patriarch by default.’
Fritz flushed. ‘I respect him of course, but he has no right …’
The king held up his hand. ‘Exactly what I told him. Besides, your cousin Maxim Welf von Tarlenheim has a much closer interest. Aren’t old Max and his children the next in line for the title if you drop dead?’
‘After Helge, yes. But Jakob’s … er, devotion to Helge has brought the Olmusches into a closer orbit recently, and our families intermarried a bit in the last century.’
‘The end result is a crisis in our reborn aristocracy, Fritz. The families seem to be polarising. There’s a faction demanding you stand down as prince.’
Fritz went white. ‘What! The … the … troglodytes!’
‘And get this. Now that they’ve revived the Roteniske Adelsgenossenschaft, the nobility’s trade union, they want to blacklist you. Aren’t people great? The RA will have a meeting tomorrow and I believe you will be on the agenda. Bet they didn’t send you an invitation!’
Fritz was stunned.
The king continued, ‘Really Fritz, you shouldn’t feel too bad about it. This has been brewing for a while. You’re just the catalyst, not the cause. The aristocracy has got much of its lands back and is finding a leading place in many of our walks of life. Your brother Oskar showed the way there, and of course it’s by no means all a bad thing. I now have an officer corps rich in talent and tradition.
‘The down side is that some of them think they have a right to reclaim their old place in political life, and in a modern democracy there’s no place for that. As a result, I’ve refused their invitation to become Patron and President. Some of them will be happy I have. They’re no fans of mine.’
‘Who’s behind this?’
‘Why, I do believe the executive secretary of the RA is a certain General zu Brantesberh. He sent me his resignation from the army along with the news. This means that there’s some serious money behind the RA, a fact which I have to say intrigues me. Tomorrow’s meeting was arranged long before the news of you and Tommy broke. I really think I need to talk to a few friends about it.
‘You’re going out to Templerstadt after this, yes? Well, you’ll find Justy and his family are there already. I’m trying to get in touch with our Henry too, but his mobile’s off at the moment. His office says he has a meeting up in Ober Husbrau. When I or Ed get him, we’ll be joining you for Friday morning. I’ve cleared my diary.’