HENRY AND THE BALANCE OF PROBABILITY
Lance was bewildered as he left Helen’s house. She had been nice to him – she was after all a nice person – but her steely willpower on the matter of Damien had taken him aback. Although they hadn’t exactly argued, Lance had found it difficult to get her to explain why she and Damien had broken up. She had simply dismissed him with an, ‘Oh! You wouldn’t understand. Boys don’t.’
She was right. Lance didn’t. He was musing on the problem when he walked slap into Olga Massenovic and her friend Tatiana, strolling arm-in-arm, giggling.
‘Er … hi!’ Lance understood girls like Olga even less than he understood Helen.
‘You’ve been at Helen’s!’ Olga smirked and winked at Tatiana.
‘Er … yeah.’
Olga leaned close and said, ‘You’re a quick one … and he’s your friend, too!’
‘Oh, we know. We knew there was something there all along, didn’t we, Tatiana?’
‘I don’t know what you’re on about.’
Tatiana and Olga giggled hysterically. ‘Be like that, Lancey dear!’ They wandered off, looking back over their shoulders with an air of superior knowledge at an even more bewildered Lance.
He finally shrugged and continued on to Reggie’s house, where he found his friend waiting in the front garden. Sitting under a flower-entwined trellis, they held an autopsy on Helen’s reactions. ‘There has to be someone else,’ Reggie finally concluded.
‘That’s bad!’ Lance growled.
Reggie looked as though he wasn’t surprised at Lance’s reaction. ‘Until we find out more, though, we’ll just have to wait and see. Wanna watch my new DVD box set? It’s Babylon 5.’
‘Amazing sci-fi series from way back. Esther thought it was brilliant then, so she got me the set. Fantastic alien civilizations, she said … really well thought out with religions and culture and all.’
Lance nodded absently. ‘Yeah, aliens can be cool.’
Reggie’s jaw dropped with astonishment. Lance tended to say things like that to you when you were least expecting it. ‘You’ve met aliens?’ he squeaked.
Henry was greeted at the front door by Count Karl Gustav von Tarlenheim zu Olmusch, the heir to the estate, Jakob’s elder brother. ‘Is it the butler’s day off, Karl?’
‘Henry! Welcome to our house! We’ve never had a butler. There should be a housekeeper, but she’s escaped.’
Henry laughed. He and Karl Gustav had always hit it off, ever since they had first met through Oskar von Tarlenheim. It never ceased to amaze Henry how different Karl was from his brother Jakob. ‘How’re Christiana and the young heirs?’
‘In Copenhagen with the relatives. But I’m here working the estate and keeping us all on an even keel. I hope you don’t mind if I take a moment to finish off some business with an associate. Do you know Rob Rassendyll?’
Henry was intrigued. ‘You mean the king’s uncle?’
‘You must have met him.’
‘Not to talk to. He has the reputation of being a recluse.’
‘Oh, Rob’s not at all like that, just a bit of an introvert. He’s been a friend of my dad’s for years. I’ve always considered him an uncle to me too, if the truth be told. Come on through.’
Count Karl led Henry to a peaceful little drawing room with an outlook on the deer park. A tall clock ticked away in the corner. Outside the sash windows, midges danced their complicated measures in the deepening shades under the oak trees. It was a very beautiful evening in one of the parts of Rothenia most similar in appearance to England. Henry briefly felt a rare spasm of homesickness.
A rather English-looking country gentleman stood as Henry entered. He had well-combed grey hair, still showing strands of red, and a thin moustache. Henry took his hand. ‘Good evening, excellency. I’m Henry Atwood.’
The count of Hentzen, nearly a foot taller than Henry, looked down on him coolly. ‘My royal nephew’s friend, I believe? I’ve seen you on the television of course. It makes you seem taller.’
‘So several people have said, sir.’
‘Oh, don’t call me sir, young man. It’s my nephew and daughter who rate as being royal here in Rothenia, not old Uncle Robert.’ Henry was aware that, as neither the son nor brother of a king, Robert Rassendyll had been denied royal status by stiff Rothenian protocol. His daughter had been accorded the title of royal highness because she had been the heir apparent to the crown until the birth of Prince Maxim two years before. This was Henry’s first inkling about the nature of the differences between King Rudi and his uncle. It seemed there was an uneasy family dynamic there. He wondered if the birth of little Maxim had made it worse. Count Robert would not now be the father of a sovereign queen.
Their host intervened. ‘Tea? No?’
‘I have to be going, Karl. I don’t like driving in the dark, and it’s over an hour back to Hentzen.’
‘You’ll be in touch about the Hofbau meeting?’
‘Certainly, certainly. I really should meet my nephew to discuss the whole Adelsgenossenschaft business. He suggested getting together on Saturday, although really I can’t see what I might have to offer.’
Henry piped up. ‘Saturday, excellency? The king will be engaged at the Tarlenheim palace that day.’
The count inclined his head. ‘I’ve been invited for lunch, but I had to decline. What’s your interest in the king’s itinerary, Mr Atwood?’
‘Only that I’ll be there too.’
‘Indeed, how’s that?’
‘I’m a reservist officer, and I’m to be present at the day’s events.’
‘Well then, till some other time and occasion, young man. Don’t bring your cameras!’
Count Robert chuckled as Karl ushered him out into the hall. Left alone for the moment, Henry amused himself with a copy of an updated Almanach de Gotha laid out on the table, while the muted voices of the two men finishing off their business rose and fell outside the door. Henry was quite absorbed in the involved genealogy of the counts of Kesarstejn and princes of Vinodol when the front door closed on the count of Hentzen.
Karl returned smiling. ‘Dad and Jakob are here at the moment, and of course Helge. Still no sign of the announcement, though.’
‘She and Jakob have been rather close for eighteen months now. I’d have expected them to announce their engagement before this.’
‘Something tells me Helge is not likely to get carried away in her personal life. I imagine that, whatever she does, she’ll take her time about it.’
‘They seem like chalk and cheese to me. I can’t honestly work out what she sees in him … you’ve met him?’
‘Then you know what I mean. Never mind that. Why should you care about family problems like Jakob? So, how can I help you, Henry? You’re not here in a personal capacity, are you?’
‘Not this time, no. I’m picking up some interesting signals from the criminal frequencies of this fair land, and strangely, they concern your brother.’
‘What! Jakob? Then your wires are crossed, Henry. Whatever else you can say about him – and you know my feelings about my dear brother – he is a very strait-laced character, believe me.’
‘So what’s such a strait-laced character doing associating with Hendrik Willemin?’
‘Willemin? No connection there at all so far as I know.’
‘Didn’t you know about his involvement with a resort development on Maresku?’
‘That? Our Familjenstiftung – the Olmusch Foundation – is an investor … a lot of our people are.’
‘The Roteniske Adelsgenossenschaft, the Association we’ve revived to represent noble interests in Rothenia. Jakob persuaded the investors that General zu Brantesberh would be a good director for the resort project, as he’s taking up the job of executive secretary of the RA.’
‘The Socialist Veterans of Rothenia are also investors.’
‘They’re a pressure group for former Communist army officers, and some very dubious names are associated with it.’
‘Odd bedfellows for the nobility, were you going to say? You seem to have some sort of conspiracy theory brewing in your head, Henry. Isn’t that an occupational hazard in your line of work? What do you think is going on?’
Henry shrugged. ‘I don’t know, but many of the names involved with the project are of people who are anti-democratic and hostile to the Elphbergs. Then there’s Willemin, whose chequered past you must be aware of. He’s the driving force in fund raising.’
‘A perfect storm of suspicion then. And perhaps wind is all it is.’
‘Maybe, but it’s worth investigating all the same. Investigating is what I do. So tell me about the RA, Karl.’
‘What do you want to know?’
‘It might make a feature for our news programming … you know, Rothenia’s aristocratic renaissance.’
Karl shrugged. ‘Very well. Your research would tell you, Henry, that the Roteniske Adelsgenossenschaft was founded in the First Republic, not long after King Maxim’s abdication and the dissolution of the old Reichsräthe – or House of Lords, as your English compatriots put it. It was a pressure group for landowners and a welfare society of sorts.’
Henry nodded. ‘But didn’t it get tangled up with the KRB, the Rothenian Fascist movement?’
Karl shook his head. ‘The monarchism of the KRB attracted some aristocrats, it’s true, but most were put off by the rabble-rousing of its leadership. The Adelsgenossenschaft was more interested in combating the so-called army reforms which made us such an easy victim for the Nazis.’
Henry shook his head. ‘I’ve read a different version of that story, Karl. It’s certainly true that there were aristocrats who tried to alert the republic to the dangers of running down the military. There were others, however, who were more interested in preserving estates and tax privileges, opposing the farm labourers’ union … and we all know about the Rothenian aristocrats who enlisted in the SS … they weren’t even ethnic Germans!’
Karl stiffened. ‘Renegades and traitors. Every nation has them. We prefer to remember resistance leaders like Henry von Tarlenheim: now he was a true Rothenian hero and a great son of our house.’
Henry wasn’t going to argue the point. ‘What does Oskar think about it?’
‘The Adelsgenossenschaft? He has no comment. As the king’s chief-of-staff he can’t be seen to be involved with pressure groups, and Fritz – unfortunately – can’t be bothered.’
‘It wouldn’t be his thing.’
‘Now there’s a surprise: his “thing” turned out to be transvestite blond youths.’
‘Only one … and Tommy’s something special.’
‘He’d better be. From what Jakob has been saying, the fellow is a cross between a rent boy and a femme fatale.’
Henry reddened. ‘He’s been saying that publicly?’
‘It’s not just him, but yes. He wants Fritz to resign the title he has disgraced, and he’s got the Adelsgenossenschaft to back him. The issue is coming before the board meeting tomorrow. It’s being held in the Radvovedske Castle at Hofbau, very appropriate don’t you think? The fortress where Duke Waclaw II bumped off half his aristocracy at a Christmas party in … when was it, 1352?’
Henry flared. ‘If I were of a suspicious turn of mind, I’d say that Jakob has an interest in Fritz’s doing just that. Helge would then get the title, and since he is more or less engaged to her, he would become prince of Tarlenheim on their marriage.’
Karl gave a sarcastic little smile. ‘My thoughts exactly. His revenge on me.’
‘You must have picked up the tension between us, Henry. Jakob has long thought he would make a better count of Olmusch than I would. He feels that primogeniture has tricked him out of his birthright, and I sometimes think there isn’t a lot he wouldn’t do to take my place. Do you know, only last year he made allegations to the public prosecutor that I was embezzling funds belonging to the Stiftung! Father used to call me Esau. A bad joke, I thought.’
Henry was good with Biblical allusions, and gave a sad little smile at the comparison. ‘You’d better hope that your dad hasn’t got a taste for goat stew.’
‘Fortunately not, and his health is quite good too. Now, can I get you a drink? Only the one, though, since you’re driving. How’s your boy Lance?’
Not long afterwards, Henry took his leave. Before going far, however, he remembered to check his mobile. He pulled his car over on to the verge and found a number of missed calls. The one that made his neck prickle was the very significant number which had ‘Broody Rudi’ programmed next to it. Now what?
Tommy turned off the main road to Modenehem and on to the lane Fritz indicated. The Mercedes effortlessly took the steep incline into the hills above the river Taveln. ‘It’s beautiful, Fritzku.’
Fritz smiled. ‘This is my country, Tommy: Husbrau. Down there is the abbey of Medeln, and further up the river is Terlenehem, where I spent my childhood. And here is Templerstadt.’
Tommy flicked on the headlights in the gathering gloom of evening. The sky above was still a pellucid blue, yet the shadows under the spreading sycamores were getting dense enough for the lights of a large house to be visible on the next bluff. It was deep dusk when the car pulled up at a medieval gatehouse which pierced the wall of an attractive residence of jumbled roofs and miscellaneous historical periods.
Waving them through the gate, the stocky Rothenian security guard in a suit and tie smiled at Fritz, then stared curiously at Tommy. He clearly read the tabloid press.
The car rumbled under the arch into a courtyard. Golden lamplight spilled out through the door and diamond-paned casements of a magnificent hall. Dark on the right loomed a Gothic chapel, under whose wall Tommy stopped the Mercedes.
Fritz got out and stretched. ‘Leave the keys in, leblen. Someone will come later and park it for us.’
Oskar emerged from the front door, giving both of them strong hugs, together with a kiss on the mouth for Tommy, who accepted it gratefully. Taking their arms he informed them, ‘We have other guests; come see.’
In the entry passage they found a pretty boy with dark, curly hair, his hands shoved deep into the pockets of his cargo shorts. He looked curiously up at Tommy. ‘You Damien?’ Tommy had to ask.
‘You the bloke who wears the dresses?’ came the surly retort.
‘Damien!’ Fritz could see Tommy was disconcerted.
‘Wassup with you, baby?’
‘Nuffink.’ The boy walked off, morosely.
Oskar watched him go. ‘He’s been like that since he got here. It’s most unlike him.’
Fritz shook his head. ‘Sorry about that, Tomasczu. He’s usually more fun. It must be his age.’
The group moved farther into the interior of the hall, where three men were standing. One was obviously Damien’s father, and the well-built man so close beside him could only be his partner. Tommy realised he was about to meet Justin Peacher-White and Nathan Underwood. The third man’s tangled hair was Peacher blond, thus announcing Peter Peacher, Oskar’s partner.
After handshakes and introductions occurred, Fritz kicked off by asking, ‘Has Damien hit puberty?’
Justin laughed a little ruefully. ‘It came out when I got home at lunchtime. He’s been dumped by his girlfriend.’ Tommy noticed the trace of North London still evident in the former street kid’s accent, despite his now being one of the anointed Peacher heirs and a vice-president of several of the biggest Peacher corporations. There would come a day when he would also be one of the richest men in the world.
Nathan didn’t laugh. ‘Poor kid. He really liked Helen and has no idea what’s hit him or what to do with himself. You’ve got to feel sorry for him.’
Peter gave a quirky look, took Oskar round the waist and hugged him to his side. Tommy had a sudden disorienting sense that he had crossed into a wholly gay social world which, regardless of having so many gay friends, he had never experienced before. He wondered if Fritz had the same impression, and somehow, by the semi-telepathy that lovers have, he knew Fritz was feeling it too. He took his lover’s arm and squeezed it.
Peter asked Nathan, ‘So you wouldn’t recommend this parenting business?’
Nathan looked puzzled. ‘Don’t get me wrong. He’s a total joy a lot of the time. The most lovable thug you could possibly imagine.’
‘Thass me boy!’ Justin gave a delighted laugh. ‘Let’s hope we feel the same about him when he’s sixteen and gets piercings.’
Nathan smiled. ‘If he’s like his dad at sixteen, God help us all.’
Peter dissolved into laughter. ‘I remember that boy … as innocent-looking and as dangerous as an iceberg, with most of his capacities below the surface. It was in the Peacher yacht off St Kitts that we met for the first time. Y’know, he single-handedly thwarted a conspiracy that was meant to have destroyed my brother Andy.’
‘Juss the first of my many exciting adventures.’ Justin sipped a flute glass of Prosecco appreciatively. ‘I ain’t changed either!’ he added, a little defensively Tommy thought.
Justin then gave Oskar and Peter a narrow look. ‘What was behind that question, by the way?’
‘You know … don’t look innocent.’
‘About parenting? Well, Oskar and I have been thinking about children …’
‘What? You’re kidding!’
‘Why not? Despite being gay, our best friends have somehow managed to acquire children, so why can’t we?’
Oskar grimaced. ‘Peter has some crazy idea about fertilising a donor egg with a mixture of both our sperm, then getting it implanted in some rent-a-womb. It would be a toss-up as to which of us was the father. I have my doubts, as may be evident.’
Nathan reflected, ‘Parenting is rarely what you expect it to be. Look at us. We had no idea what Justy had spawned till we were in our twenties, and if we’d chosen a kid, it wouldn’t have been Damien. But what happened next proves just how wrong you can be.’
Fritz sighed. ‘Why does everyone want to talk about kids at the moment?’
Oskar picked up his brother’s unease and moved on. ‘How were Rudi and Harry?’
Fritz gave a chuckle. ‘Rudi’s fine, though very much fired up about the RA business.’
‘He’ll be out here Friday for a summit on that very subject,’ Oskar commented. ‘He let me know just after you left the palace. The Adelsgenossenschaft has a big meeting tomorrow in Hofbau. I gather you’re on the agenda, Fritzku.’
‘Is there anywhere I’m not under discussion nowadays?’
‘Apparently not. The king’s on your side, though. He’ll not stand for any impertinence from a self-selected group of blue-blooded busybodies.’
‘The Adelsgenossenschaft issued a statement to the press this morning demanding that the king sack you as his equerry for state events.’
‘Great. How much more humiliating can this become?’ Fritz recollected himself and grabbed Tommy’s hand. ‘I don’t blame you for any of this, leblen. I went into it with my eyes open.’
Tommy felt woeful. ‘But I bet you didn’t realise quite how bad it would get.’
Lance cuddled up to Ed on their sofa, feeling dozy but strangely happy. At an emotional and half-conscious level this had a lot to do with the closeness of a big and powerful male body, a loving and devoted father who he instinctively knew would do anything to protect him. So he snuggled even closer and a strong arm reached down to embrace him. He felt a kiss on his hair. ‘Love you dad,’ he murmured.
‘Love you too, baby. Ready for bed yet?’
‘It’s early. I thought I’d stay up till Henry comes home.’
‘Okay, stay up then. But Captain Voynovich will be round in the next half hour.’
‘My adjutant. Now dad’s a general, he gets to appoint a staff. So I have a major for an aide and two captains for adjutants. They do exciting things like driving me round and carrying my bags.’
‘Who’s Captain Voynovich?’
‘In my opinion, one of the brightest and best young officers to come out of Alfensberh in a decade. His career has stalled in the unexciting environment of the signals regiment. I intend to help him on his way by attaching him to my office in the ministry.’
‘Let’s hope he thinks so after living with my unreasonable demands for a few months.’
‘You gonna make him polish tanks or something?’
Ed chuckled. ‘No, baby. But after a week at the ministry he may be wishing that was what he was doing.’
The doorbell chimed, and Ed got up to answer it. He ushered in a young officer in uniform, cap in hand. Lance stared. The man was … simply amazing. Lance didn’t have the vocabulary to express the sudden surge of feelings that swept him from toes to hair roots. It was different from what he felt for Damien, but somehow the same too.
The captain smiled at Lance, whose sinews and bones all but liquefied. He stammered out a reply to the man’s greeting and gathered himself to return the handshake with proper Rothenian formality.
Was it the face, the body or what? The man had deep, laughing green eyes and an open, friendly expression. That might account for the feeling of instant fascination, but there was so much more about him that Lance was totally captivated.
As Ed went to get him a coffee, the captain settled in the warm spot where Ed had been sitting. He was excitingly close to Lance. Not wanting to miss the opportunity to get closer, the boy sat up and leaned forward.
‘What’s your name, captain?’ he asked. As he did so, he found he was talking in a new way for him, insinuating and coy. He did not know it, but an uncontrollable part of his brain was telling his inexperienced body to try to seduce the man next to him.
The captain smiled. ‘It’s Lucasz, Lance. It’s my father’s name too.’
‘Have you got any brothers?’
‘As it happens, I have two of them, one of them not much older than you.’
‘What’s his name?’
‘Téodor, but we call him Todo.’
‘Does he go to Gymno yet?’
‘Just starting. I’ve seen you on TV. You’re quite some diver, aren’t you?’
Lance blushed hot and red with pleasure. ‘Oh … I try.’
‘You’re really good. Don’t be modest.’
‘Do you swim?’
‘Soldiers have to, but not to competitive level.’
‘We have a pool out the back. You can … er, I mean, if you ever want a swim. You can bring your …’ He tailed off. Suddenly he was appallingly embarrassed at what he was saying, or trying to say.
The captain seemed not to notice. He just smiled. ‘Why that’s kind. Perhaps one day you’ll get the chance to see how bad a swimmer a soldier can be, like a leaky tug in a gale.’
Lance said seriously, ‘Maybe we can work on your technique.’
The captain was chuckling when Ed returned with drinks. Lance sat rigid with tension as his dad and the captain discussed the arrangements for Saturday at the Tarlenheim palace. He hung on the young man’s every word and memorised his every action. When he left, Lance stood close to his dad on the doorstep to see the captain off, cherishing the kind look that went with the farewell handshake. It was not Damien he thought about that night as he defused his libido before sleeping, but of being possessed and surrounded by the athletic male body of someone very like Captain Lucasz Voynovich.
Henry pulled into the forecourt of their home in the Sixth District. It had long been dark by then, but he noticed the light on in Lance’s room, which was very unusual. Lance was an active boy who tended to go to sleep quickly.
Ed was in the lounge in sweatpants and tee, his bare feet up and a bowl of popcorn in his lap, watching Eastnet News.
‘When did angel-boy say good night, babe?’
‘Umm … what time’s it? About half an hour ago, after Lucasz left.’
‘He’s still awake.’
‘Odd, I thought he was tired when he went up. Maybe he’s talking to the Men’
‘Damien’s with his dads out at Templerstadt. Reggie’ll be in bed by now. Mind you, Mattie makes his own rules about bedtime. Rachel and Paul are way too liberal with him: seen how fat he’s getting?’
‘How was your day? How’s Karl?’
‘Unsettled. That brother of his is a total pain in the arse, you can tell. What’s the chance that Jakob has some form of Asperger’s Syndrome?’
‘What d’you mean?’
‘He just can’t seem to connect with people.’
‘I’d believe it, except for the fact that he can be deliberately nasty. He understands enough about human behaviour to know how to wind people up when it suits him. Nope. Jakob is pompous, self-righteous and ambitious. It’s his own ego that gets in the way of interaction.’
Henry sighed. ‘Then how is it a nice person like Helge has hooked up with him?’
‘Come on, little babe. You’ve seen enough odd couples in your day. Bet there’re a lot of people who can’t work out what I see in you!’
‘Cheek! I’m cute, me. Everyone says so.’
‘Not true, sorry, Henry babe. Only the discriminating say so.’
‘Your point being …?’
‘Not sure I have one. I think what I mean is that Helge may have her own ideas about what makes a man attractive to her. And no cheap cracks!’
‘Dick size. I know how your mind works. Helge’s different. Maybe she thinks she can sort of … help him, y’know … grow. Women are like that. They’re never happier than when they’re trying to change you – or civilise you, as they like to call it.’
‘Tell me about it. I had two years of Magda … aargh!’
‘Well, there you are, then. Hey! Don’t put that mug down on the table without a coaster. Y’know what Pauline Willerby will say!’
‘Point proven, brigadier. I rest my case. Even gay couples can’t escape it. Okay. Now … Lance.’
‘What about Lance?’
‘Don’t look innocent, Ed. You have to have the talk.’
‘I’ll get round to it.’
‘How can I encourage you? How about I ask Rudi to design a new medal for facing a situation of extreme parental embarrassment with valour? He’ll be sympathetic, especially as ten years from now he’ll have to go through it with Maxxie. What’ll we call it? The Cringe Cross?’
‘The Red-faced Order of the Cold Sweat?’
‘So you really are shying away from this! Oh, Ed. My poor soldier! You make me feel all sorry for you. But it has to be done.’
‘You went and put a box of tissues on his bedside table.’
‘Er … it seemed a good idea.’
‘Henry! That was forcing the issue. Poor Lance. He was so embarrassed. Pauline found them hidden under his bed.’
‘But at least …’
‘Don’t say it! I will do it. Just stop pushing.’
Bottling up his next remark in order to let Ed off the hook, Henry went over and cuddled up to him for a while, just to show no hard feelings. A hug reassured him that Ed too was in a peaceable mood. Eventually Henry was carried up to bed, arms round Ed’s neck, something he rather liked as Ed well knew. He nuzzled his lover affectionately as they climbed the stairs. They were kissing when the door closed on them, and naked in each other’s arms within ten seconds.