HENRY AND THE BALANCE OF PROBABILITY
Tommy and Fritz had been warned to be up and ready early at Templerstadt. They tagged along with the royal motorcade travelling south to the capital, tucked in between the royal limousine and the security van. Tommy grinned when four outriders on motorcycles joined the cavalcade at the fringes of the city.
Before rush hour, the Radhausplaz had been blocked off. Workmen had placed barriers along the front of the Tarlenheim palace, and the paparazzi still camped out at the main arch had been moved on unceremoniously. The Strelzen city police were not tolerant at the best of times. With the king and the general staff imminently expected, and a growing mob of interested tourists clogging the square, they were even less tolerant than usual.
The efforts of the police gave the motorcade a clear run to the Tarlenheim palace. With little delay the cars shot under the arch and into the courtyard. People had been waving and cheering as the king drove up the square.
Tommy and Fritz got out of the Mercedes and stretched, feeling awkward in their casuals. The inner courtyard was thronged with uniforms and gold braid as the armed forces’ senior staff assembled, some in smoking groups. Soldiers in green and air force officers in light blue jackets chatted while going through security checks at the entrance hall.
The entire crowd of officers stiffened to attention when they saw their king and commander-in-chief get out of his car. After he leaned back in to kiss his queen and his son, the limousine and RSS van were off once again to deliver them back to the Residenz.
Saluting his men, the king entered the palace, escorted by Fritz. The crowd relaxed. Tommy hung round, unsure what to do, until a twitch came at his sleeve.
A short and much-bemedalled army officer piped up in English, ‘Hey, Tommy babe!’
Tommy did a double-take, finally recognising the grin of Henry Atwood under the peaked cap. ‘Wow, Henry! Nice duds! Love the khaki-and-gold-lace combo!’
‘You should see me in full dress. I look like an animal is sitting on my head. Can I introduce my adjutant, Captain-Lieutenant Ottokar Willemin?’
Henry said some words in Rothenian to the officer, who offered his hand, smiled and stumbled out with, ‘Sharm-ed.’
‘He’s got no English,’ Henry commented. ‘Seen Ed yet?’
‘Fritz and I’ve only just got here from Templerstadt.’
Henry took out his mobile and went to check his messages.
‘Don’t bother,’ Tommy informed him. ‘The general’s here!’
To Tommy’s surprise, Henry and Ottokar came to attention with Germanic precision and snapped off salutes to Brigadier General Cornish as he arrived with his staff of three officers in tow. Bringing up the rear was Lance Atwood in jeans and a tee-shirt, talking animatedly to a tall and very handsome captain carrying a briefcase.
Ed returned the salutes as precisely as they were offered. He issued a volley of instructions in Rothenian to his staff, then made some casual observations in the same language to Henry and Ottokar.
‘What’d he say?’ Tommy asked Lance out of the corner of his mouth.
The boy giggled. ‘He was telling his officers to go check if the PowerPoint presentation is set up in the gallery, then said to Henry and Otto that they’d better be there early to make sure they get good seats.’
‘Why’re you here, Lance?’
‘Mrs Willerby’s gone back to Britain to see her aunt, who’s not well. So I had to tag along ’cos no one else can look after me. What about you?’
‘Much the same, really. Since Fritz is hosting the event, he’s with the king. There’s no one to take care of me either.’
‘I s’pose we’d better look after each other then.’
‘Seems like a plan.’
Lance caught Henry’s attention. ‘Dad? Tommy and I are going to go up to the Metz Room to keep out of the way.’
‘Fine, babes. Lunch is at half twelve in the lower gallery.’
Lance ruthlessly and unapologetically pillaged a side table for crisps and canned drinks as they wove through the chatting groups of officers in the lower gallery. Then he and Tommy disappeared across the house to Fritz’s bedroom, where there were a TV and a DVD player, as Lance very well knew. They settled down to argue about which channel to watch. Tommy was okay viewing the cricket, while Lance was tolerant in regard to lifestyle programmes, so they lounged around the room quite at ease with each other, swopping channels.
Tommy still found it strange to be sitting and joking with a startlingly beautiful twelve-year-old who was a secularised archangel, but there was an endearing ordinariness about the things Lance liked and laughed at which helped him a lot. The boy was as charming as he was beautiful. In any case, Tommy sympathised with adolescents, having had such a grim time as a teenager himself.
Noticing as they chatted that Lance was continually mentioning ‘Lucasz’ or ‘Captain Voynovich’, Tommy soon realised that the boy had a serious crush of some sort on his dad’s young adjutant. He found it cute, but forbore to comment.
Meanwhile, a different sort of concern had begun to bother him. Eventually he had to ask, ‘Lance?’
‘Huh?’ The boy took a break from stuffing his mouth with Pringles.
‘You don’t have to answer this if you don’t want to, but er …’ Casting an apprehensive glance at his young companion, Tommy faltered. Rallying, he continued, ‘You know you are – or you were – an angel …’
Lance gave a slight grin, nodded and then stated firmly, ‘I’ve got no idea.’
‘But I didn’t ask my question!’
‘You were going to ask me what happens after you die.’
‘Did you read my mind?’
The boy shook his head. ‘Everyone who knows where I came from eventually asks me that … apart from my dads. But the Great Council doesn’t know about human fate. Only He knows the answer to that question, and He doesn’t say.’
‘What’s … He … like?’
Again the slight grin and head shake. ‘There’re no words to describe it. But now I’m human I’ve found there are things which are a bit like what it is to be with Him. It’s the same as when I finally make sense of a puzzle that’s been in my head for ages, or when I think of something that’s just spot on and right, or when the pattern of a piece of music takes over my head, or – best of all – it’s like a cuddle from my dads when I’m tired before they carry me up to bed.’
Tommy thought about it, and decided to ask no more.
Henry sidled up to Fritz in the lower gallery. ‘How’re you doing, Fritzku?’
Fritz shrugged. ‘Oh … y’know.’
‘Don’t let it get to you, baby. Your friends are right behind you. You can count on that.’
‘Thanks Henry, and it’s nice they are. But Helge’s attitude has not been a help, and that bastard Olmusch has ruined any hope of family solidarity. Speaking of the devil …’
Henry saw his bugbear, General zu Brantesberh, standing with Jakob Olmusch further down the gallery. The pair were holding coffees and staring coolly round them, as if daring any common soldier to approach. They looked in Henry’s direction but did not acknowledge either him or Fritz.
Ottokar was by now at his colonel’s elbow. He chipped in resentfully, ‘Is Brantesberh still in the army? I thought he took early retirement to go off and run his noble club … oh, sorry, Serene Highness, I didn’t mean to …’
Fritz heaved a sigh. ‘Don’t count me in with the snob-mob, Otto, please. They want me to join just so they can throw me straight back out again.’
Henry gave a snort. ‘And don’t count General so-called zu Brantesberh in with them either. The ‘zu’ and his nobility are all in his head. His people are working class from the dodgier districts of Zenden!’
‘What? You’re kidding!’
‘It’s true. Tomas Weissman knew the family when he was a kid.’
Otto looked grimly delighted. ‘Someone should tell his mate Olmusch! They say he’s pulled strings and called in all sorts of debts to get Brantesberh the top job in the Adelsgenossenschaft, just because he thinks he’s the “right sort of man” for the job. It’s too rich for words!’
Henry frowned. ‘I know you hate Olmusch, Otto, but keep out of it, please.’
Otto looked piously innocent. ‘Are you giving me an order, colonel?’
Henry did not trust that look.
‘Stop staring at my gun, babes. You can’t play with it.’
‘Who says I’m staring at yer gun.’
‘I do. And there’s a murderous glint in your eye too. What’s gotten into you? I’ve never seen you like this.’
‘There you go again! You’ve been sitting next to me all the way from Templerstadt like a boy-shaped thundercloud. And you were rude to Nate when he packed your bag for you.’
‘I said sorry.’
‘I admired the grace with which you did it.’
‘That wuz irony, right?’
‘There you go again.’
Damien Macavoy slumped down in the front passenger seat of his dad’s car, folding his arms tight round his chest and glaring out at a world he very much disapproved of at that moment. The silence and glare lasted all the way to Strelzen, and it was not until the car rumbled under the arch of the Tarlenheim palace that he uncrossed his arms.
After locating the parking space in the courtyard that Fritz had promised him, Justin led his silent son into the palace. He discovered Fritz speaking to the caterers in the lower gallery. ‘Hiya, Fritzy mate!’
‘Hey, Justy man! Good to see you and Daimey. Sorry about the chaos.’
‘Where are the soldier boys?’
‘In the ballroom, listening to a series of tedious briefings about attrition and hi-tech mayhem. Careful what you say about “soldier boys”, though. Two of them are “soldier girls”, including the Rothenian air force’s first female major general.’ He surveyed Damien. ‘Welcome, Son of Justy! I didn’t expect you.’
‘Lo, Fritzy.’ Damien made a struggle not to be surly.
Noticing the effort, Justin put a comforting hand on his son’s shoulder. He was relieved when the boy moved closer and pressed up against him.
To Fritz he said, ‘I need to find Henry and Ed.’
‘They’ll all be out at half twelve. In the meantime, you can both go play with Tommy and Lance in the Metz Room.’
‘Lance!’ exploded Damien, twisting away from his dad’s arm.
Fritz looked surprised at the vehemence of Damien’s exclamation. ‘Good news, huh? Henry and Ed had to bring him. Wanna go up?’
‘Yuh,’ Damien growled. ‘See yer.’ He marched off determinedly.
Justin watched his son disappear. ‘Hey, wait! Sorry, Fritz, I’d better get up to the Metz Room myself. I don’t know what’s got into him lately. Can you tell Henry I’m here? We’re supposed to be meeting at lunchtime with Rudi’
Fritz watched them go. He was just about to turn back to the caterers when Aloysius the porter caught his eye.
The man bowed respectfully with a murmured salutation of ‘Durchlaucht,’ and motioned his master over. ‘Serene Highness, Count Karl Olmusch is at the gate, though the police won’t let him pass. Their captain is asking what to do with him.’
Fritz nodded. ‘I’ll go out.’
He found the elder Olmusch brother looking hot and bothered between two unfriendly Strelzen police officers. There had clearly been an altercation of some sort. ‘Aha! Fritzku! Can you tell these two … gentlemen … to let me through? I have to see General zu Brantesberh.’
Fritz was puzzled. ‘It’s not a good day, Karl. Don’t you know the king is here? The RSS will want you to have clearance. Can’t it wait?’
‘Well … no. It’s RA business. The results of the meeting in Hofbau.’ The man held up a briefcase.
Fritz’s face darkened. ‘Then it definitely can wait.’
Karl realised his error. ‘Look, I’m sorry about the Adelsgenossenschaft’s statements concerning you and that young fellow. You know it had nothing to do with me. But some of them are Jurassic Catholics. The eighteen-seventies passed them by, let alone the nineteen-seventies. You know how it is.’
Fritz’s frown did not lighten. ‘You’d better come in, Karl. But stay in the reception hall. The Sichertsdeinst people there won’t let you go any further in any case. A hint: they’re the men with no necks in dark suits, with those little coils of wire by their ears.’
Karl laughed nervously and followed Fritz, who told him to take a seat near one of the stoves. He called over a security operative and explained the situation. After listening and muttering into his mic, the man assured Fritz that he would see to it. Fritz took one last look at Karl clutching his briefcase, then went back to the caterers.
Henry was pleased with himself. He had managed not to nod off while all four of the morning’s speakers had given their presentations. Although he might have been biased, he thought his Ed had been far and away the best of the bunch: humorous, insightful and dynamic.
Coffee had helped, though the drink had its usual effect on his bladder. It was during a comfort break that he encountered a smirking Otto leaving the toilets next to the ballroom. Entering, he found a pensive Jakob Olmusch staring blankly into the plate mirror. Henry despised the man, so ignored him as he got on with the business that had brought him to the loos. Still, he was surprised by how long the major stood there silent. He had just about finished peeing and was almost on the point of saying something, when Olmusch snapped his fingers and abruptly left without a glance at Henry.
Henry was gathering his papers at the conclusion of the final presentation when he observed Olmusch and General zu Brantesberh deep in conversation at the ballroom door as other officers flooded out past them.
‘Ready, sir?’ Otto asked solicitously.
‘I thought we’d join Ed for the buffet.’ Henry paused. ‘Otto, what did you …?’
But Henry didn’t get to finish his question. Otto stiffened to attention as Rudi came up behind them. Henry turned and executed as perfect a salute as he could manage. Rudi was picky about such things.
‘At ease, Colonel. I need you for a moment.’
Henry remembered he was supposed to be in conference with Justin Peacher-White very soon, but Rudolf Elphberg was not someone you could deny. He followed the king to a window embrasure. The formidable nature of the man meant they would not be disturbed. No one approached Rudi lightly.
Henry waited. One also did not initiate conversations with the king, who at the moment was brooding heavily on some problem.
At length Rudi began, ‘The RA meeting at Hofbau yesterday got through a lot of business.’
‘You know I turned down the invitation to be its president and patron?’
‘Good decision, I thought.’
‘Yes. But my Uncle Robert thinks otherwise. He’s decided to take up the post and give the snob-mob some Elphberg support.’
‘Ah!’ Henry commented. ‘That explains what he was doing out at Olmusch on Wednesday.’
‘I met Count Robert there with Karl Gustav. I thought it was just a neighbourly visit, but there was clearly more to it.’
‘Interesting that our curiosity is going in the same direction, Outfield. Anyway, they’ve made further denunciations of poor Fritz. They went so far as to call on him to resign his title and estates in favour of Helge.’
‘Fritzy doesn’t need that sort of pressure at the moment.’
‘I agree. The boy’s state of mind worries me. But they’ve also now presumed to criticise His Majesty for his ill-advised support of the errant prince. Get this: they see me as a bad influence on the country’s moral framework and family values!’
‘It appears we have a new player in Rothenian politics.’
‘They prepared the ground too. The Christian Democrats welcomed the RA’s statement, expressing the party’s concern for the undermining of Catholic teaching in these latter days, and implying King Rudolf is as much to blame for it as is the declining economic position of our nation.’
‘A political ambush then.’
‘Yes, and they’ve caught me on the back foot too. Oskar’s frantic at the Residenz.’
‘So what do you want from me, sir?’
‘Information, Outfield. You usually know things before anyone else. What’s more, it seems you’ve already uncovered an unsuspected link between the elder Olmusch boy and my uncle.’
‘You can’t make too much of it, Rudi. Your uncle and Karl Gustav’s dad have been friends for years. That may be where the connection lies.’
‘There’s a brain behind all this, Henry. Brantesberh, Willemin, the Olmusches, my Uncle Robert, they’re all involved in something. I can’t set the Security Service on them, as much as I might like to, but you and Justy can help me. Get on with it, will you?’
‘Yes sir, on my way. Justy awaits.’
Rudi relaxed into a smile. ‘I feel better already. Off you hop, Outfield.’
Henry grinned and snapped a salute to his commander-in-chief. Heading for the ballroom door he looked around for Otto, who was nowhere to be seen.
Tommy was bored. He liked Lance a lot, but when all was said and done, the boy was not a grownup. He was a little relieved when the door of the Metz room opened, until he saw it was just Damien.
‘Lo,’ the boy said, wandering in. He seemed abstracted.
‘Daimey!’ Lance too must have been bored, for he suddenly perked up. His friend slumped down next to him, sitting by the railings at the end of the state bed. Damien muttered a few words to Lance, and seemed to tune in on the athletics event Lance was watching on Sky Sports. Lance flicked his own attention back to the screen.
A few minutes later the cavalry arrived. ‘Justin!’
‘Hey, mate! Can I come cuddle up to you on the bed?’
‘Sure, I could, er …’
Justin bounded on to the covers next to Tommy and whispered in his ear, ‘… do with the adult company?’
Tommy whispered back, ‘You read my mind.’
Justin laughed. ‘Kids are great, but Nate and I find that you sometimes need more mental stimulation than they can offer. Don’t feel guilty about it. You can still love ’em. Wanna coffee or something?’
‘Yeah … but aren’t the staff overrun by an occupying army?’
‘Nah. The ministry’s paying for outside caterers, while the palace staff are in the courtyard smoking and complaining they’re overworked. Giss a mo.’ Justin picked up the bedside phone and tapped in a number. Showing a breezy confidence with staff that Tommy did not have, and in passable though London-accented Rothenian, Justin ordered up refreshments. ‘Leave it to the kids and all you’ll have is coke and crisps, that right, mates?’
Daimey growled something inarticulate, but Lance grinned. ‘What else is there worth eating, Uncle Justy?’
‘See what I mean? Iss a wonder they haven’t all got scurvy.’
Waiting for the coffee and cakes to arrive from the kitchen, the two men talked through the latest developments with Fritz. Tommy found Justin surprisingly sympathetic despite all his brashness and exuberance.
Eventually Justin checked his watch, a chunky gold Rolex. ‘That Henry should have been here by now. Fritzy was supposed to tell him I was up in the Metz room. Lunch should be starting, and we only got ninety minutes. Suppose I’d better go looking for him.’
Tommy couldn’t stand the thought of further confinement, and now Lance had a companion, he felt free to leave the boy. ‘I’ll go for a wander too.’
He rambled up and down the lower corridor, then into the lounge to stare at the tourists in the square below. There was quite a mob of them hanging round and hoping for a glimpse of the king. Others might have been drawn in by the sight of a line of police outside the Tarlenheim palace.
It was clear the police had not expected quite so big a mob, for there were not enough officers to cope with the onlookers. The barriers next to the Wenzelgasse corner of the square were giving way where the remaining paparazzi had clustered. As Tommy watched, the movement of the crowd shoved a tall and rather distinguished-looking old gentleman into a cameraman. An altercation followed when the pap shoved back. He was immediately set upon by a group of elderly ladies with shopping bags, berating him for his disrespect. A knot of blue-uniformed police closed in and a very typical Rothenian dust-up ensued, everyone shouting and waving their arms at once. Tommy grinned as the gesticulating mob surged around the corner. He liked these people.
He ate an apple from the bowl of fruit Fritz always kept in the lounge, then wandered out again. A turn brought him on to the grand stairwell and into the seminar crush. Army and air force officers balancing plates and drinks were talking in groups, some sitting on the stairs, others blocking the door to the lower gallery. Tommy climbed the next flight, looking for somewhere peaceful to settle. Suddenly a tall man in a general’s uniform coming downstairs bumped into him on the corner. The man ignored Tommy’s yelp.
‘Hey! Say excuse me, willya?’ Tommy protested. Shaking his head, he carried on upstairs.
Lance had begun to notice that his friend was unusually quiet. As Tommy left he turned and said, ‘You okay, Daimey?’
He recoiled as he met a cold, aggressive glare. ‘You and I gonna talk, Lance.’
‘Thass a question I should be askin’ you … yer two-faced … bastard!’
The two boys were now on their feet. Lance was horrified and Damien was doing something that Lance did not recognise, but which a more experienced boy would have realised was squaring up for a fight. Damien’s face was pale, his shoulders were hunched and his fists clenched. His jaw was set and he was trembling on the edge of attack.
‘Why did you call me that? What’s wrong?’
His words jerking out with deliberation, and using his palm to push Lance at every word, Damien growled, ‘Yer went after Helen behind me back. Yer thought you had yer chance now she’s dumped me. You’re a fookin’ traitor. I thought yer was me friend.’ A final shove sent Lance back hard into the door panel.
Lance didn’t know what to do. He was confused and in emotional agony. The boy he secretly loved was picking a fight with him! ‘No! You got it wrong! Listen to me! Yes, I went to see her, but only to try to help. I was helping!’
Damien’s face still glared. It was all too evident that his anger had as much to do with his own loss as with Lance’s supposed treachery. ‘Iss all over the school that you and her are tight. I had loads of texts.’
‘It’s those girls … Olga and Tatiana. They’re lying! I was only …’ It was too much. Lance’s face was flooded with tears which soon became huge sobs. Never having experienced such pain in all his brief life, he went down to his knees and curled up. He wanted to die.
Damien stood staring down at his best friend, who was having an emotional breakdown at his feet. He suddenly felt dazed and shaky as the adrenalin drained out of his system. He knelt and put his hand on Lance’s shoulder. It made no difference.
Damien began to panic. He had confronted other boys without ever getting this reaction. Lance was not like other boys, however, and was unused to such extremes of emotion. Damien realised he needed to get an adult, but how could he explain why Lance had got into this state? Then it was Damien’s turn to feel woeful. What had he done?
He pulled Lance into him and hugged him hard. ‘Lance! Snap out of it, please! I dint mean it. I’m really, really sorry!’ His own tears began to fill his eyes.
It was as Damien’s tears dropped on to Lance’s face that the older boy started coming to himself. He found he was being hugged by his friend, who was nuzzling his hair and crying over him. Lance’s sobs abated and he clung tighter to Damien’s body. Damien pulled his friend’s head close to his own and then the amazing happened: Damien kissed him! Admittedly, it was only on the hair and forehead, but still Lance was being kissed by the boy he was obsessed with. He could feel the sweet pressure of Damien’s lips on his own skin.
When Damien realised that the paroxysm he had provoked was ending, he pulled away a little so he could look into Lance’s wet face. ‘You better?’
Lance blinked his eyes clear. ‘I’m sorry Daimey,’ he whispered.
‘Nuh, iss me that should be sorry. I dunno what got inta me. Hang on.’ Damien found a handful of soiled tissues in his jeans pocket and tenderly wiped Lance’s face, then kissed him again, this time on the cheek.
The sudden reversal of mood almost sent Lance under again. He was ecstatic with an overwhelming pulse of joy, which instantly stiffened his uncontrollable dick. It was the catching of his penis in his underpants which forced him to twist himself upright rather than betray his physical excitement by shoving his hand down his front and freeing his dick.
The boys sat side by side, unable to think of what to say. Finally Damien asked, ‘So iss all lies?’
Lance nodded. ‘I went to talk to Helen to see if I could get her to forgive you for whatever it was, then I walked into Olga the Horrible and her friend Tatiana as I left. They lied about me!’
Damien began to feel foolish. He briefly considered a full apology but veered away from such an extreme measure. ‘Okay! But it wuz stoopid going there. I knows yer was trying to help, but Helen’s my problem, not yours, Lance.’
‘I know that now. I’m sorry Daimey. You know I’m your friend!’
‘I knows.’ Damien pulled Lance into a deep hug, which would have to do for the apology he simply couldn’t manage. It was then he felt a pronounced bump rubbing against his leg.
He broke off and grinned. ‘Yer got a stiffie, Lance!’
Lance flushed bright red, once again lost for words.
Damien laughed. ‘S’alright, we all gets ‘em. Don’t worry, it’s not that …’ Then the penny finally dropped and a lot of signals from his friend made sense. ‘Lance, are yer …?’
Lance couldn’t say a word.
Damien went up on his knees and pondered his friend. ‘Look, iss okay. It doan make any difference. I’ll not say anyfing. It can be our secret if yer want. So …?’
Lance slowly nodded. And bizarrely his heart was flooded with relief. The elephant in his room had been acknowledged at last and the big secret was no longer throttling his heart. ‘I’m gay, I think,’ he murmured.
‘Well,’ Damien grinned. ‘I really does owe yer an apology. There’s no way you and Helen are tight, is there?’
Lance smiled back hesitantly. ‘No, I suppose not.’
‘Have yer told Uncle Henry and Ed?’
‘No. I imagine I’ll have to, though. They’re not going to mind and may even be delighted, but somehow I just can’t bring myself to do it.’
‘I knows what yer means. Me dad was always making bad jokes ’bout me and Helen. And then he did the … yer knows what.’
‘Yuh, it wuz fookin awful. The sex lessons in school wuz bad enough.’
Damien slumped down beside Lance again, and they both laughed out loud. Lance was happy once more, happier than he had been for months. Maybe he could not confess the true extent of his feelings for Damien, but it didn’t matter. They were friends again, and could talk the way they always had, without restraint and in perfect trust. He could accept being gay as long as he had Damien’s friendship.
The two boys stood up. Damien looked round. ‘Less go for a walk, Lance. Iss boring in here.’
Lance agreed. He needed to do something physical, and a walk was as good a thing as any. They found their way to the stairwell, from which the officers were beginning to drift back into the lower gallery and the ballroom.
Lance glimpsed Henry and Justin in deep conversation just within the gallery. He caught his dad’s eye and was rewarded with a wink and smile. Maybe it was because he was still feeling vulnerable, but at that moment his heart pulsed with love for his father. It was borne in on him that maybe in the end all might be well with his world. He waved at Henry and followed Damien up to the landing.
The boys paused. ‘The upper gallery’s cool,’ Damien observed. ‘We can play skating.’
‘Yuh! Yer takes off yer shoes and them polished floorboards are so smooth iss like ice skating. But you gotta keep away from them big vase things. They’re priceless.’
‘Odd phrase,’ Lance remarked. ‘If they’re priceless, they can’t be worth anything, can they?’
‘Right enough,’ agreed Damien. ‘I wonder what Reggie would say?’ Just then raised adult voices came down from the gallery above. Damien looked disgruntled at the obstacle to his plans. ‘Oh fook … they’re up there too. Sit down here, Lance.’
They occupied one of the steps to wait till whoever it was upstairs had finished. After a few moments, the voices died down. The boys were preparing to move when they heard a distinct cry in English of the word, ‘Never!’ It was followed by a wooden thud.
Silence fell. No one came down the stairs. Damien looked at Lance, shrugged, and eventually led the way up to the gallery, which stretched away in front of them. Doors opened off to the right, vases and statues were set between the windows on the left, and a tall portrait occupied the end wall opposite them.
At first sight the gallery appeared empty. Then Damien saw a man standing up against the panelled wall some metres away. ‘Excuse me, sir,’ Damien chirped up in Rothenian, a language in which he always sounded civil, despite himself. ‘We came here to play. Are you finished with your business?’
There was no reply. Lance thought the man’s posture was very odd, as if he were giving a formal bow.
‘Hey, sir?’ Damien approached the man curiously. It was an army officer, his cap fallen to the floor beside him.
All at once Damien breathed out a prolonged ‘Fo-o-o-o-k!’
‘What is it?’
Damien pointed. The man was pinned to the panelling by a sword through his upper chest, with his head lolling forward and his hands hanging loosely at his sides. That he was dead was not in doubt. A small thread of dark blood was dripping from the sword hilt to the floor in front of him.
Lance gasped, ‘We’d better get your dad!’
‘Fo-o-o-o-k!’ was all that Damien could think of in reply.