HENRY AND THE BALANCE OF PROBABILITY
‘Interesting experience,’ mused Henry, leaning back in the car seat.
‘Yer just being nice.’
‘No, really. I can’t recall ever committing a genuine criminal act before. I’m the sort who goes back to pick up a bus ticket he’s dropped, rather than risk being thought a litter-lout.’
‘That’s a bit sad, Henry babe.’ Justin was once again in the front, having won the ritual game of rock, paper, scissors.
‘So … tell me what we learned.’
‘Sweet Fanny Adams, Henry,’ sighed Terry. ‘We couldn’t find anything there other than stuff relating to the resort building: no secret minutes, no plans, nothing.’
‘Justy spent some time trying to download computer files.’
His friend shrugged. ‘Waste of time too. That was by far and away the most boring burglary I’ve ever committed; we weren’t even on the brink of discovery! Nothing to get the adrenalin going. I’m a bit disappointed for you, Henry babe.’
‘You’ll get the idea that crime is all one big yawn. I’d hoped to give you a more exciting time.’
‘I’ll live with it. What time’re we going to be back in Strelzen?’
‘About three,’ Terry replied. ‘You want to be dropped off at the Residenz?’
‘If you can. Then I suppose you’ll be going back to Justin’s.’
‘Gotta drop this hire car off first. Then me and Justy need to have a think about what to do next.’
‘It’ll be a three-vodka problem. This business is gonna take a lot more time than I thought,’ Justin observed. ‘So are you gonna tell us why Rudi’s screaming at you to get your arse to the palace?’
‘Nope. Mendamero business is not for sharing.’
Justin pursed his lips. ‘You don’t know what a chill that word sends down my spine. You still got any of your powers?’
‘Not that I’ve noticed. Sometimes, when I’m in bed trying to get to sleep with Ed snoring next to me, I try to do that consciousness trick, where I float free and rise above the Earth. But I’m locked up in my head again, just like the rest of you. Still, it can be a bit restful, as if I were meditating, so not all loss.’
‘How about time travel?’
‘I watch Dr Who a bit for comparison’s sake, but really, the way I did it was harder. And before you ask, I can’t do teleportation, read minds or raise the dead. Tobias removed all my powers the last time we parted, in the place called Eden.’
Justin was charmed. ‘Tell me again what it was like.’
Henry did his best to oblige.
‘So is that where we go when we die?’
‘I don’t think so, at least I didn’t see any dead people hanging around that rather select neighbourhood. Lance keeps being asking about death, but he’s adamant that angels don’t know what happens to humans after they die. He did sorta hint that seraphs, who are closest to God, have been let into the secret. If Lance ever asks me, I could tell him what Tobias dropped into our conversation in Jerusalem: that a seraph could – if he wished – contact the dead boy, Jed Scudamore. What’s more, it must have been a seraph who brought Mark Tolmie back from the dead to join Gavin as guardian of the late, lamented Icon.’
While Justin and Terry quietly digested this, Henry meditated on the one last great secret, known only to him, Ed and the Mendamero Men: the true fate of Mark Tolmie. For the soul inhabiting the body of the baby prince, Maxim Elphberg, was that of Mark. He had been given the chance to live a full and fulfilling life as a reward for his supreme heroism and self-sacrifice during the fall of the fortress of Biscofshalch.
Had the time now come to share this knowledge with the king and queen? Rudi and Harry were well aware that their baby was the child of prophecy, born to be the greatest of the Elphberg line. Yet till now he had merely been a baby, bright, loving and cute to be sure, but to all appearances only an ordinary little boy. The couple had been given the mercy of two years of normal family life – or at least a life as undramatic as such a family could have – but now those days were at an end. The boy had demonstrated powers of a startling nature, whose manifestations could only increase. Who or what was the Golden Elphberg? The mystery was of a class far beyond that of who had killed Jakob Olmusch.
The Rodolferplaz McDonald’s was as crowded as it normally was on a weekday in July. Mattie and Reggie were sent upstairs to secure a table, while Damien and Lance got the orders. Fortunately, none of their friends from the International School were around, though Lance was half-embarrassed to meet Téodor Voynovich in the queue for the express till.
‘Er … hi, Todo!’
The boy gave off some peculiar signals to Lance’s inexperienced eye, shifting uneasily next to him, but clearly eager to talk. ‘Oh … umm. Lance! You didn’t ring. Did you lose my handij number?’
‘No, no. It’s been sorta crazy the last couple of days.’
‘Me and my friends are having a thing tomorrow night … you can come if you want. You know, we can do … stuff.’
Lance noticed the hungry and edgy look in Todo’s eyes again, and it made him uncomfortable. He did his best to close the older boy down.
Damien helped. He had been eyeing Todo during the interchange. ‘You Todo Voynovich? I heard all about you from some mates of mine in the fencing club …’ He fixed Todo with a penetrating gaze. ‘… and I mean all.’
Todo went white, then red. They reached the till and gave their order. After that Damien made sure he was between Todo and Lance.
As they were taking their monumental stack of chicken-nugget boxes upstairs to Reggie and Mattie, Damien switched back to English. ‘You don’t wanna have anything to do wiv that jerk, Lance.’
Damien shook his head at his friend’s stubborn naïvety. ‘He’s trouble. Them boys at St Wladislaw have got a reputation.’
‘Come on, Lance! I knows yer understand about jerking off and stuff. Well, it’s a big thing at the Catholic Gymno. There was a scandal about a priest and some of the boys only last year. I’ll bet Todo was in that crowd.’
‘So what did he want?’
‘Him and his friends would really like to get you in their group, mate. Hand jobs and blow jobs would only be the start of it.’
‘Couldn’t you tell?’
‘I thought he was simply trying to be friendly.’
‘Yuh … well, I recognise that sort of friendly, believe me. Iss time you did too, Lance. Looking like you does, yer going to be a target. Yer a typical angel; yer juss wants to think the best of people.’
They had paused to finish their conversation at the top of the stair. ‘Is this growing up, Daimey?’
Damien looked sad as he nodded. His acquaintance with abuse went back a long way, as Lance himself knew. ‘Fraid so.’
Lance scowled. ‘It sucks!’
‘Tommy, we’re moving you out of the Residenz.’ The king’s eyes were kind, despite the brusqueness of his tone.
‘Why, Rudi?’ Fritz asked.
‘Well, neither of you can go back to your place, Fritzku. The press is besieging it like an army of Huns with cameras. We have a couple of apartments in the Osraeum which are vacant. I’ve had the palace comptroller over there sorting out one for the pair of you. I thought you’d appreciate the privacy. The paps won’t find out you’re there for a while yet. So?’
‘Sure. That okay with you, darling?’
Tommy nodded. ‘If it’s quiet. I guess we all need time to think.’
The king gave his tight smile. ‘I’ll have the chamberlain get to work. Give him an hour and your bags and stuff will all be neatly laid out for you at the Osraeum. However, Henry will be here in a short while, according to his last text, and I think it’s best that you both stay for the meeting. He may have questions for you, Tommy.’
The king moved them down to his private office, where Harry and the baby prince were already waiting. Maxxie was puzzling over some large-size Lego bricks on the floor, making tentative tries at raising a structure, calling his mother’s attention to his ‘fort’.
She looked very abstracted, but rallied. ‘Fritz? How’s Helge?’
‘She was out staying at Olmusch with old Count Oskar, offering condolences and helping with the arrangements. I’m expecting her back in the capital today.’
The queen nodded. ‘Can you or Oskar ask her to the Residenz? I’d like to talk to her.’
Saying he’d get on it right way, Fritz flipped his handij to text his sister.
As tea was being served, Henry arrived.
‘Useful day?’ Rudi asked.
Henry gave a sly grin and shook his head, saying he’d tell the king later and off the record. The news that Helge would be there soon brightened his mood a little. ‘I really need to talk to her too. Jakob Olmusch confided in her more than anyone else, so she may have some idea what was going on. I’m sure the police interviewed her, and she may be willing to share the information, now her fiancé is no more.’
Fritz intervened. ‘We don’t know if they had ever got to the point of planning marriage, Henry. That was just Oskar’s assumption.’
‘Really? They were together a lot.’
Harry looked quirky. ‘There are reasons besides the obvious for men and women to get together, Henry. What you and the others don’t appreciate is that Helge and Jakob had interests in common beyond their lineage.’
‘What, like car-boot sales?’
‘Sorry, sorry. Okay, I’ll take your word for it. What do I know about heterosexuality?’
The Mendamero Men had occupied their favourite table at the Rodolferplaz McDonald’s. It was on the first floor, with an outlook on to the square, where on a normal day they could spot acquaintances and friends as they passed below. It was also in a sheltered alcove created by a corner screen and a bank of rubber plants. They were out of sight of the rest of the bustling restaurant.
Today was not a normal day. Papers were spread across the table, weighted down by nugget cartons and coke cups.
‘Does your mom know you don’t get the veggie option from the menu when you come here?’ asked Mattie.
Reggie coloured. Vegetarianism was compulsory at his house. ‘I need to keep my strength up,’ he asserted, a little defensively.
‘You ate three boxes of eight nuggets!’ Lance marvelled.
‘Well, I need a lot of strength!’
The boys laughed until Damien called them to order. Then they waited expectantly as a frowning Reggie consulted his notes. ‘This is Karl Olmusch’s briefcase,’ he announced.
‘So what was it doing on them stairs?’ queried Damien.
‘Well, Mr Director, he must have been there around the time of his brother’s murder.’
‘Ace!’ exclaimed Mattie. ‘So our Fritzy’s off the hook.’
Reggie shook his head sadly. ‘It’s not as simple as that. We knew from Daimey’s dad that Mr Olmusch was already there before the murder. What we don’t know was what he was doing in the secret passage.’
Lance spoke up. ‘What about the documents in the case?’
Reggie pursed his lips. ‘I think I now know what Mr Olmusch was doing back in the palace skulking around. There’s stuff here he wouldn’t want anyone to find.’
The boys stared. This was what they wanted to hear. ‘Tell us more, Reggie,’ urged Lance.
‘It’s like this, Men. Mr Olmusch is in trouble. His family lands are deep in debt, and he’s been stealing from the Rotheniske Adelsgenossenschaft, of which he was executive secretary. Not just that, but he’s also been taking money from some development going on up on Lake Maresku.’
‘How d’ya know this?’ asked Mattie, entranced.
‘Cos someone was blackmailing him. There are anonymous letters here accusing him of the thefts and demanding a meeting, with copies of documents and accounts which prove it!’
‘Fookin’ amazing!’ exclaimed Damien. ‘So Olmusch was in the palace to meet his blackmailer, yes?’
‘Looks like it, Mr Director,’ agreed Reggie.
‘He’s just moved to the top of the list of suspects,’ Lance cried. ‘Yay, Fritzy!’
Reggie looked unconvinced. ‘Don’t forget General Brantesberh. Mr Karl Olmusch had a motive alright, but only if it was his brother who was blackmailing him. There’s no sign of that here. And why would your brother blackmail you by anonymous letter anyway? What’re we gonna do with this evidence, Mr Director?’
Damien dipped a chicken nugget in ketchup and munched it meditatively. ‘I guess we have to pass it on to Uncle Terry. He’ll know what to do.’
Maxxie turned from his growing Lego model. ‘Kiss, Unca Henry!’
Henry leant over and picked up his godson, who hugged him round the neck.
‘Where are Lance and Daim-ee?’ the boy demanded.
‘Up to no good, baby,’ Henry replied. Taking the little one over to the big sash windows which looked down on to the inner courtyard, he studied Maxxie’s grey-blue eyes, startlingly like those of the late Mark Tolmie. Henry was willing to believe that the soul of his dead friend was to some extent influencing the growth of the body surrounding it. When Maxim had been born, the eyes had been the generic blue of any small baby, but since then the colour had shifted in a significant direction. The boy’s face, however, was not Mark’s. It most resembled that of Harriet Peacher.
‘So tell me, Maxxie, did you kiss Tommy’s bada better?’
The boy nodded.
‘That was a kind thing to do.’
‘Tomm-ee’s my friend. He was hurting.’
‘Did you feel anything funny when you did it?’
Maxxie shook his head. ‘Can I go back to my fort?’
‘Sure, baby. Off you scoot.’ Henry put Maxxie down.
The boy returned to his mother’s knee. He was soon hard at work on his Lego bricks, apparently oblivious to what was going on around him.
Henry for his part placed a chair between Harry and the king’s desk. Then he faced Tommy across the coffee table, asking him to give his account of what had happened when his mouth was healed.
When Tommy was done, Henry shoved his hands deep in his pockets and pondered. The worry on Rudi’s and Harry’s faces left him no choice really. He had to tell them what he knew.
A question from Maxxie drew Henry’s attention back to the boy. ‘Mummy? Cousin Louis has a little brother. Can I have one too?’
Harry smiled over at Henry. ‘He means the latest addition to Tom Bernenstejne’s brood. He plays with Louis Bernenstejne sometimes, though “playing” is saying a bit much for what they do. They just squabble over their toys.’ The queen transferred her attention to her son. ‘We’re not planning on another baby soon, Maxxie.’
‘You cost so much, darling, we couldn’t dream of another one like you for quite a while.’
Although Maxxie smiled, Henry was touched with a moment of sadness. He knew Harry was unable to conceive another child after the trauma of Maxim’s birth. She had been one of the major casualties of the Eschaton affair.
As Henry was considering how to begin addressing the subject of Mark Tolmie, the white tower Maxxie was patiently constructing out of toy bricks reminded him of something. He stared, suddenly shaken. It looked uncannily like the tower of … oh my God! Biscofshalsch.
The king glanced over, startled. ‘Henry, you’ve gone pale.’
The king’s study was quiet when Countess Helge von Tarlenheim was announced. Tommy and Fritz had left for their new quarters in the Osraeum. The king and queen were hand in hand at the window, staring out abstractedly. The only noise was from the fitful chitchat between Henry, sitting on his chair, and Prince Maxim, now busy colouring in a picture book. His ‘fort’ stood unregarded on a corner of the coffee table at which the toddler was working.
The queen went over to welcome Helge. Taking seats together on the sofa, the two women conversed in low voices for a while.
Henry noticed that Helge was also closely observing Maxim at work. The boy looked up randomly and smiled at the countess.
‘Rudi?’ Henry began, moving to stand at the king’s side.
‘He’s still your son. He isn’t Mark Tolmie. He doesn’t have Mark’s memories or experiences. He’ll grow under your influence alone.’
‘Oh, I know that, Henry. Of course he’s not some sort of cuckoo chick in our nest. That’s not what’s worrying Harry and me. You must know by now how parents want desperately to protect their children … Ed tells me you’re becoming really twitchy about Lance’s emerging sexuality. But with our little Maxxie, Fate is already taking him away from us. Prophecy trumps our parental rights and duties. We feel powerless, and that’s a terrible burden for any parent.’
Reflecting on his own growing experience of parenthood, Henry thought he saw the king’s point. Nonetheless, he had some reassurance to offer his friend. ‘There is this, Rudi. The boy’s powers are not developed. I bet if you asked Maxxie to go and cure someone he wouldn’t be able to do it. His limited circle of family and friends are all that are socially real to him, and it’s their hurts which distress him enough to try to do something about them. It’ll be a long while yet before his abilities will be controllable and evident to anyone outside his family.’
The king pondered this for a while before turning to the others. ‘I think it’s time we pooled our thoughts about my son, and the way he’s developing.’
The queen picked up Maxim and cuddled her little boy into her lap. He seemed very happy to be there, gazing about with big eyes at the adults seated round the table.
Helge seemed composed, and when invited by Rudi to give her opinion, she did so in a voice that was even and under control. ‘I think we all know St Fenice’s prophecy about the Elphberg kings. I’m aware that a copy of her words made its way to Burlesdon by the hand of Prince Leopold of Thuringia, who discovered them at Tarlenheim before the château was destroyed.’ She recited them from memory:
‘Of the prince of Albion.
Black the head
Golden the heart
The builder, the peacemaker
The anchor of hope.
Of the king restored.
Red the hair
Of the boy king
Hero of his age
Slayer of the evil one.
Of the greatest in name.
Golden the head
Loving the heart.
Scholar, warrior, saint
The one who died yet lived.’
The king smiled. ‘Yes, we knew this secret in England. It was what convinced your brother Oskar that I was destined to succeed in my bid to recover the throne of Rothenia for my family. It’s not just Maxxie who’s a child of prophecy. I had to live with my burden too. And I have fulfilled my destiny, for it was to the sword of Henry the Lion that the Antichrist fell.’
Helge nodded. ‘Then what my ancestress said about the last Elphberg is all the more important. Like little Maxim, he is golden of hair and is indeed the greatest in name, for its Latin version maximus means just that: “greatest”. Perhaps you can make more sense of the rest than I.’
Rudi and Harry looked at Henry, who spoke up. ‘I think I can. You know of the resurrected boy, Mark Tolmie, who assisted Gavin Price in defending the Icon to the last. When Mark fell to the Antichrist, the spirit of the spear that slew him drew out his soul and kept it safe.’
This information was clearly new to Helge, whose expression became intense. ‘Do you mean what I think you mean …?’
‘Yes. The baby prince was born dead after Harry’s ordeal at Wenzelsberh, but Damien Macavoy was a witness when the spirit of the spear placed Mark’s soul in the stillborn child and reanimated him.’
‘The spirit of the spear?’
‘An archangel sent from God.’
‘Can you be sure of this?’
‘The angel never left earth. He too was transformed by his act of resurrection. He’s my son, Lance.’
Helge’s hand went to her mouth. ‘Is this true, Mendamero? If it is, no greater thing has happened in this world for millennia.’
‘Does this knowledge help you shed any more light on the prophecy?’
The countess pondered a while before answering. ‘Only a little. The task of the Levites was done when Gavin was taken by the Icon. Of course we knew he was destined to play a part in the final battle with the Antichrist.’
‘You may remember that many objects were stored at Tarlenheim under the Icon’s protection.’
‘Gavin tells me he moved them to Biscofshalch, in which case they were destroyed at the fall of the fortress.’
‘That is as may be, and if so it is as well they were. Many were dangerous, kept there to remove them from human sight and reach. There were books of secrets and enormous power, and only the least of these was the journal of my ancestor, Count Oskar the Great of Tarlenheim. It’s famous as the Golden Portifor.’
‘Did it have more prophecies?’
‘I looked into it, as perhaps I should not have. There were no prophecies … but there were strange diagrams and drawings. I think they were spawned by the demented visions the count experienced in his drug-fuelled trances.
‘The most striking was the last. The naked figures of two very beautiful boys – one of them winged – were locked in combat with a snake-like being, whose coils were tightened round the cities of the world.’
Henry was bemused. ‘And you think this may relate to little Maxxie?’
‘One boy was blond. The angel was dark of hair, and looked very like your son.’
‘How’re you feeling, Helge?’
‘Thank you for asking, Henry. Not good, is the answer.’
‘It was a terrible way to lose someone you cared for.’
‘What was more terrible was to find how little others cared for Jakob. He was not an easy man to deal with, I know, but he was honest and well-meaning, and to me at least very affectionate. He had so much to offer.’
‘Do you have any idea why someone would want to kill him?’
‘I have talked at length to Captain Mannstejne, to no real effect. I only know that something was preoccupying Jakob. I assumed it was the usual problem of his brother Karl.’
‘I’m aware of the tensions between the two of them. But the Olmusch brothers have never come to blows before, so why now?’
‘Who can say? May I give you a lift anywhere? My car is in the stable yard.’
‘Thanks. I need to go home to Ed and see what our boy has been getting up to today.’
‘To be a parent to an incarnate angel. I can’t even begin to imagine the problems.’
Henry shrugged. ‘He long ago stopped being a problem, and he’s now just a joy. There is no more loving a boy than Lance. He’s so full of fun and wonder that every day with him is a voyage of discovery for us both.’
For the first time, Helge smiled. ‘And he is so lucky in his parents.’