Michael Arram






  The following week passed quickly for Henry and Gavin.  They had their hands full briefing Wardrinski and Bannow, which left them little time for themselves.  The weather had turned cool and overcast, quite unusual for a Rothenian summer.  Since that made outdoor filming difficult, most of the shooting was done indoors.  One day, everyone drove over in a convoy to Glottenberh where, with the help of the king, they had a private viewing of the relic of the Black Virgin at the Vitalenkloster.


  On Friday night, the crew packed up.  Henry and Gavin said farewell to the house at Templerstadt with very real regret.  As they took their leave, Oskar blessed and kissed them in the most formal Rothenian fashion.


  Their sadness did not last long, however.  The grand summer ball awaited them in the capital, and Matt was running them down.  Fritz had successfully taken his driving test that week and insisted he would chauffeur Helge in her Fiat.  She did not seem too happy at the prospect, though Fritz was gleeful.  They were all to reassemble at the Tarlenheim palace in the New City.


  Henry was on pins to see Terry and David.  He was not disappointed.  The familiar curly head and lean body were waiting in the courtyard, standing arm in arm with Davey.  As soon as Henry and Gavin had dumped their bags in the entrance hall, the four friends closed in a long hugging session.


  A van full of Tarlenheim domestic staff had also transferred to Strelzen, and soon the great house was operational again.  The under-chamberlain was on hand to greet the prince when he drove into the yard.


  Fritz drew up the Fiat with a jerking screech.  Helge looked pale.  Although she said she did not want to talk about the trip down, Henry got the idea it would be quite a while before she allowed her brother behind the wheel of her car again.


  Fritz dragged Henry up to his den under the roof space to help remove the dust sheets from the epic train set.  Fritz did not seem to be in any hurry to grow out of his boyhood hobby, and was soon happily engaged in laying out his favourite rolling stock.  Henry was given a lecture about Fritz’s new project, the building of a facsimile of King’s Cross station to match his model of York on the other end of the set.


  ‘I made a pilgrimage to York station when I was in England, Henry.  It was so strange to see it full of real people, instead of the models I’d painted.  I kept on wanting to pick up porters and put them back in the right place.’


  ‘Seriously weird,’ Henry agreed.  Finally he had to ask, ‘How are things between you and Harry, Fritzy?’


  The prince stiffened, then replied slowly, ‘Fine so far as I know.  She is a guest of the king this weekend at the royal palace.’


  ‘And Eddie is at the palace too.  You know that.’


  ‘Hmff,’ Fritz snorted, in a comment which indicated he thought Eddie’s presence at the palace was only for form’s sake.


  Henry left him brooding.  Later that afternoon, he was surprised to find the boy alone in the upper gallery, stamping and shouting as he made passes with a cavalry sabre he had taken down from the wall.  He did it with some skill.  Fencing was a sport still taught to young Rothenians, and Henry recalled that the national team regularly won gold or silver at the Olympics.


  The prince grinned at Henry’s surprise, saying, ‘It gets rid of tensions very nicely, I find.’  Henry did not quite like or trust that grin.








  Henry’s anxieties were swamped by the preparations for Saturday’s grand ball.  When seven o’clock came at last on that beautiful Strelzen evening, Henry and Gavin got into a limousine with Fritz and Helge.


  There was a long queue of cars heading up the Rodolferplaz to the palace gates, flanked by a big crowd of onlookers.  The social élite of Rothenia surged up the green-carpeted steps, lined with troopers of the Life Guard in their top boots, white uniforms and silver-crested helmets.  The massed paparazzi flashed their cameras in great volleys, and Henry for the first time in his life heard shouts of, ‘Henry!’ ‘Henry Atwood!’ as they scrambled to get the best shot.  He grinned, waved, and went up the stairs hand-in-hand with a totally bemused Gavin.  So he was now a celebrity, in a small way.


  At the head of the stairs, the usher announced their names and they joined the throng making its way into the state ballroom.  Gavin was immediately taken under Helge’s wing.  Henry sneaked a plate of vol-au-vents from the buffet table set up along one side, and retreated into a corner to watch the show.  He was soon joined by Eddie, who had already downed at least one glass of pink champagne.


  ‘Well dude,’ he said over the hubbub of conversation, ‘how ‘bout this?’


  ‘You’d rather be surfing on Walbrough South Bay, wouldn’t you.’


  ‘Maybe.  But this will be fun.  Oh, hey, there’s something you need to know …’


  Before Eddie could finish his comment, Will and Felip joined them.  Felip was grinning all over his handsome, feline face.  ‘So, are you going to dance the night away, Henry?  Will has been having lessons, haven’t you, lover.’


  Will looked a little embarrassed.  ‘Ever since I heard that men can dance with men here, I wasn’t going to let the gay team down.  Not that I’d ever compare with Terry or Felip …’


  ‘... or David,’ Henry butted in.  ‘He’s really something.  He’s the king of the Cranwell club scene.  He and Terry have been practising their waltzes and polkas.  I have a feeling Terry’s out to prove something tonight.  The most Gavin and I will be able to manage is a 1-2-3 waltz step, but we’re going to do our bit.’


  A stir at the main door and a sudden fanfare announced the king and demanded a hush from the assembled mass.  The guardsmen on the door presented arms, and the whole of the room curtseyed and bowed in the king’s direction.  Rudi was in the white and gold uniform of colonel of the Life Guards, looking truly sensational.  Henry noticed he was followed by two handsome aides-de-camp in blue and red, plumed shakos under their arms and swords belted to their waists, their hair thick and gold.  One was Oskar with his ribbon and star, and the other was … my God, Ed Cornish!


  The king began circulating among his guests.  Soon it was Henry’s turn to shake the royal hand.  ‘You may want to say hello to Oberleutnant Cornish, here, too.’


  ‘When were you conscripted, Ed?’  Henry half-envied the pretty uniform, the blue coat frogged in gold, the red trousers laced in hussar style.  Ed wore polished black knee boots, and had the golden aiguillettes of a general-staff officer hanging from his left shoulder.  He wore his order round the neck to complete the picture.  He looked perfect.


  Ed was clearly enjoying the dressing up, a part of his character Henry had glimpsed in Strelzen the previous year.  ‘His Majesty gave me an honorary commission when I was his equerry in London last November.  My regiment is the Guard Fusiliers of Modenehem, and Colonel Antonin is my commander.’  He grinned.  ‘Cool, huh?  I can do the heel-clicking thing, too.  The colonel’s around here somewhere, I must go and salute him.’


  ‘You’ve certainly mastered the military art of surprise, Ed,’ chuckled Henry.  ‘What on earth are you doing here?’


  Ed shrugged.  ‘The king said he wanted me, so of course I came.  We’re really good mates.  He’s been very kind to me, little babe.’


  Henry shook his head.  ‘I didn’t mean to imply you had no business here, Ed.  It’s just I didn’t know you were coming.’  He half-suspected Rudi was trying to push him and Ed together for the summer.  But then the king knew that Henry and Gavin were pretty firm, so perhaps Henry was being overly suspicious.


  ‘And how’s your Rothenian coming along, Ed?’ Henry asked in Rothenian.


  Ed grinned and answered in the same language, ‘Coming along little by little, my friend.’


  ‘Well done, Ed!  I knew you could do it.’


  The king was moving along by then, and Ed took off behind him.  Henry looked after him bemused.  Gavin joined him, asking, ‘Was that who I thought it was with the king?’


  ‘It was indeed.’


  King Rudolf made his way slowly to the dais of the ballroom, where he said some suitable Rothenian words which Henry translated for Gavin.  Immediately a fanfare sounded, signalling the appearance of a grey-haired man, tall and distinguished.  The king announced that his well-beloved uncle Robert was to be known from that day forward as count of Hentzau, a title which the king resigned to him and his heirs.


  Another fanfare pealed out.  This time a red-haired girl in a beautiful white satin dress approached the dais.  ‘My people, I present to you our beloved cousin, Eleanor Osra Flavia Elphberg-Rassendyll, who will be known henceforth as HRH the Princess Royal and heir-presumptive to our throne of Rothenia.’  A great surge of applause spread out across the ballroom.


  The king then looked round, nodded to the orchestra and took his cousin’s hand.  She was small and very beautiful in the delicate and elfin way of some red-haired women.  He took her hands, grinned, and the dancing began.  They were a glorious couple, and whispers flew around the hall as rumours of an impending royal marriage were instantly created out of thin air.


  When the first dance ended, the king resigned the princess to Fritz, who smiled and bowed, knowing his duty.  Then the king walked purposefully towards Harriet Peacher.  With a soft waltz beginning in the background, he produced a red rose from his golden cartridge belt, presented it to the lady, bowed to kiss her hand and – to massive applause and a surge of gossip – led her out on to the floor.  Not only did they dance magnificently, it was also quite clear they took considerable enjoyment in each other’s company.  The rumours promptly changed direction.


  Other couples joined them, whirling round under the chandeliers.  Terry and David caused a major stir and gasp, though the court gazette had made it perfectly clear that gay couples were acceptable.  They were superb, like professional ballroom dance partners, and Henry caught David’s grin as he flashed past.  Will and Felip passed by him too, as did Oskar and Helge.  Henry looked at Gavin, who gave a broad grin and winked.  They joined hands, and were off in the crowd.  Henry concentrated on the rhythm and their movement, while Gavin tried not to stand on his feet.


  They just did the one dance, just to prove a point really.  Then they retired with honour to a side room and got soft drinks.  They sat on a sofa and talked about the amazing kaleidoscope of colour present that evening, and how handsome a people the Rothenians were.


  After an hour they went in search of Fritz.  They found him in a corner of a downstairs room on his own, which was most unlike him.  Henry was pretty confident there were many young people around with whom he was acquainted, apart from the Peacher set.  Henry had been swapping remarks with him for only a few minutes when he noticed a certain wildness about Fritz’s eyes and a slur in his speech that his barman’s experience told him was advancing drunkenness.  This was a first.  Fritz was a very moderate drinker, but he had obviously been putting it away steadily since he got to the ball.  With a significant look, Henry told Gavin to look after Fritz, and went in search of Oskar.


  Finding him took a while.  Henry saw the king dancing with Madame Trachtenberg. Then he noticed Eddie and Harriet dancing a polka with amazing style and enthusiasm.  They were a delight to look at.  In his white tie, Eddie could have been one of those charming and cultured nineteenth-century American males you find in Henry James novels.


  Henry finally discovered Oskar talking to a stocky figure familiar from the previous year’s adventure, none other than the right-wing politician Piotr Bermann.  Oskar introduced Henry as a member of Matthew White’s production team.


  Bermann sized him up carefully.  Apparently Henry’s name was known to him.  ‘Mr Atwood, a pleasure,’ he said in his grating voice.


  Henry likewise expressed his pleasure, with equal sincerity.  ‘Tell me, Mr Bermann.  I understand your father was very much a resistance hero during the war.’


  Bermann bowed in acknowledgement.  ‘My father was responsible for making Husbrau a very uncomfortable place for the German and Slovak troops garrisoning it.  He took the surrender of Modenehem from the German commandant in advance of the Red Army’s arrival.’


  ‘I hear he also tried and executed the Gauleiter of Husbrau without waiting for a war-crimes tribunal.’


  Bermann grimaced.  ‘The man was a monster to whom justice could not come too quickly.  It earned my father the title “Friend of Israel” from their government in 1958.’


  ‘It does indicate he was a decisive and impatient man.’


  Bermann looked Henry right in the eyes.  ‘Those are the men who get things done which need to be done.’


  Henry was becoming aware that there was a definite subtext to this conversation, and that he needed to keep it going.  ‘I always think such men are not to be found in the limelight but behind the scenes, doing what needs to be done out of the public gaze.  Don’t you think so?’


  Bermann’s gaze became more intense.  ‘When the enemies of all that is good and right lurk in the shadows, then the defenders of justice need to be there too.’


  Henry returned the gaze.  ‘But then, who is to say that what they do is justified?  Who is to prevent them doing things that are wrong.’


  ‘It is all in the cause, Mr Atwood.  God prospers those who are in his service and confounds the unjust.’


  ‘Yes, I imagine that is what everyone says who takes justice into his own hand.’


  Bermann was looking sphinx-like.  ‘Do you have anyone particular in mind when you say that, Mr Atwood?’


  ‘It’s just a general observation.  Secrecy is a disease, I think, Mr Bermann.  Those who are obsessed with it have something to hide.  It’s only according to their own protestations that they are the good guys.’


  Bermann was by then frowning openly.  ‘It seems we do not think alike, Mr Atwood.’  He bowed stiffly and moved away.


  Oskar chuckled.  ‘Thank God he’s gone.  Not an easy man to talk to, Henry.’


  ‘Oh, I’m not so sure, Oskar.  I believe he just told me quite a lot I needed to know.  Er … can you come with me?  Fritzy’s had a bit too much to drink, and someone should take him home.’


  Oskar was properly concerned.  He placed his shako on his head, gripped his sword hilt and together they sought the side room where Henry had left Fritz.  Gavin was still there, sitting in a chair, but his slumped posture indicated all too clearly that he had gone down to another seizure.  Henry looked into his fixed eyes.  Gavin was completely out of it.


  Henry glanced round.  There were French windows opening on to the twilit palace garden, from which raised voices were coming.  Henry and Oskar headed outside at speed.  Two men were standing there on the grey lawn, arguing hotly: Fritz and Rudi.


  Rudi was saying, ‘You are a child, Fritz, and she is a mature woman.  She has given you no commitment, only friendship.  You cannot make such demands of me, your king.  Grow up, you silly boy!’


  Henry recognised that the Elphberg temper had been roused, and anything now could happen.


  Fritz retorted, ‘But I knew her first.  A man of honour would have seen my interest in her and withdrawn!’


  ‘Who in the devil’s name do you think you are talking to, damn you, Tarlenheim!  I am the king.  None dares doubt my honour.  Step back, I say!’


  Fritz had moved on the king with fists balled up, and whatever his real intentions, Rudi perceived a threat and struck the boy hard in the face.  Down Fritz went.  Looking up with blood on his lip and a glare of pure anger, he said coolly, ‘That demands satisfaction.  The blow was witnessed.  If you are a man, you know what follows next.’


  Rudi was breathing heavily.  ‘The king cannot be challenged without incurring the penalty for treason.  However, my dear Tarlenheim, the earl of Burlesdon will be very happy to meet you at dawn here in the palace gardens.  Swords, I think?’


  Fritz stood.  ‘My brother will be my second.  Who shall he call upon?’


  ‘Colonel Antonin will be sufficiently discrete, I think.  Until tomorrow.’


  The king and the prince bowed to each other, and the king stalked back into the illumination of the ball, leaving Oskar and Henry staring appalled at Fritz.


  ‘What in God’s name have you done, you young fool!’ Oskar growled, his face aghast.


  If Fritz was drunk, his anger had burned the effects of the alcohol away.  He simply retorted, ‘I have remembered that I am a Tarlenheim, and not to be pushed aside by the tyranny of any damned king.’


  At last Henry realised precisely what a Rothenian prince might be like.  Scratch the amusing boy and underneath was the heir to centuries of feud, touchy honour and autonomy, the curse of Rothenian adelskultur.  He had never fully known Fritz, he realized, and was suddenly seeing the reverse side of the confidence and dignity he had so admired in the boy.


  Oskar perhaps recognised this.  He simply said formally, ‘You have issued your challenge, Durchlaucht, and so it must be.  But bear this in mind.  Should that man fall to your sword, all the plans I and others have made for the stability and peace of our motherland fall with him.’  He knew his brother.  The comment made its way past the adrenalin, alcohol and anger.  Fritz looked troubled.


  Asking Henry to make sure Fritz got home immediately, Oskar returned to the king.  Henry gently took Fritz’s arm, and walked him slowly and silently through the palace to the courtyard.  Henry found the Tarlenheim car and told the driver to take the prince back to the palace, then dashed off to the ballroom to look for Gavin.


  Fortunately, David Skipper had found him first and was holding him up.  ‘Outfield, has this happened before?’ he asked, looking very concerned.


  ‘Only since we came to Rothenia.  It seems to be something in the air.  Look, Davey, can you stay with Gavin?  I need to go and find Terry in a hurry.  Okay?’  David nodded.


  Terry was out on the floor with a very glamorous Rothenian woman.  Henry tapped him on the shoulder as the dance ended.


  ‘Hey sweet babe, you cutting in?’


  Henry shrugged.  ‘Only if the next one’s a waltz.’


  As it happened, Strauss’s Queen Flavia waltz was next on the programme.  Terry danced away with Henry – Terry leading, naturally.


  Henry explained things as they spun around through the press.  It was testimony to Terry’s powers of concentration that he did not so much as break a step.


  ‘Right, Henry babe.  This is pretty dreadful news.  I’d never have thought Fritz capable of something so rash and dangerous.  But I sometimes forget the boy’s not English.  Pity it’s swords.  If it was pistols, they could be tampered with.  Blades, on the other hand, can only be blunted, and that would be noticed.’


  ‘You really think they’re going ahead with this madness?’


  ‘They’re Ruritanians, babe, course they will.  It’s still the nineteenth century here in some ways.’


  ‘Isn’t there anything we can do?’


  ‘Er … pray?’


  Henry looked over to where King Rudolf was unconcernedly eating a bowl of ice cream and chatting with his uncle and a group of army officers.  Henry noticed that Colonel Antonin was one of them, and he at least did look concerned.


  When the dance ended, Henry left with Terry’s promise to talk to the king if he had a chance.  Oskar too was attending the king, at a distance, talking to Ed Cornish.


  Henry found David sitting holding Gavin’s hand.  Gavin had come back to full consciousness and said he had a story to tell.


  ‘Henry, it was different from before.  In the past I’ve just sort of drifted off into a warm haze.  This time I saw things in the clouds.  There was a great dark arch and I sort of floated inside it.  It was really black and scary to start with, but finally a light grew.  I was in this big space, like a honeycomb.  In front of me was a large door-shaped recess carved with a lot of letters.  I knew I had to get through it, but I didn’t know how.  Then a tremendous voice said, ‘Mendamero will show the way!’ I turned to look who had said it, when there was a flash and I began to fall.  Then I woke up.’


  ‘We need to talk more about this, baby.  But first we have to get you back to the Tarlenheim palace where, I have a feeling, nobody will sleep much tonight.’


  The car was back for them and Henry and Gavin were whisked away.  David and Terry were as usual staying at the Hilton on Martzfeld.


  Henry got Gavin to their room.  Seeing how tired he was, Henry insisted he go straight to bed.  Henry himself prowled the palace.  Led by the sound of clashing steel, he eventually found Fritz in the gallery with Oskar.  They were fencing in masks, and it was quite clear that both men were very skilled.  Whatever Oskar might have felt about the duel, his sense of duty to the prince, the head of his family, was foremost in his mind.


  Henry wondered how good a swordsman Rudi Burlesdon might be.  He could not remember Rudi ever mentioning a facility with blades.  On the other hand, Rudi had never mentioned he was a rider, either, yet he excelled on horseback.


  There was clearly nothing to be said to the Tarlenheim brothers, so Henry went looking for Helge.  She was where he expected, sitting in the baroque oratory on the first floor, leafing through a devotional book.  Henry was intrigued to note in passing that it was an edition of St Fenice’s Revelation of the End Time.


  She looked up as he entered.  ‘Yes Henry, I know what Fritz has done.’


  ‘Can’t you do anything?’


  ‘I have said what I had to say, but Henry, he is the prince, and he has passed the age of adult responsibility.  I can only deplore the foolish pride behind what he proposes, but not prevent it.  Sit with me a while, dear Henry.’


  So Henry took a seat and held her hand.  It had been a tumultuous evening.  His head was buzzing with ideas, his mind racing to fit together pieces of the puzzle that were beginning to fall into place at last.  Levites, Acolytes, Terlenehem, Medeln and all the writings of St Fenice rotated in his mind as if it were a tumble drier.  Suddenly, as can happen, a pattern began to emerge practically of its own accord.


  After a while, Helge asked how Gavin was.  Henry told her about the latest episode.  She gripped his hand hard as he described Gavin’s vision.  She seemed deeply interested.  ‘The boy may have second sight, Henry.’


  ‘You think?  According to him, it runs in his family.  One of his Welsh ancestors was supposed to be a seer.’


  ‘Yes, these things do run in families, and the Celtic peoples are particularly given to prophecy and visions, or so I have always understood.’


  Henry wanted to know things, and had forgotten that Helge, the descendant of St Fenice, was quite likely to be the one who could tell him.  ‘Helge,’ he began hesitantly, ‘it is said that St Fenice left guardians, or Levites, behind her to watch over what she called the Ark of the Lord.’


  ‘So her prophecies say, yes.’


  ‘What she doesn’t say is what is in the Ark.’


  ‘What do you think is there, Henry?’


  ‘I think it’s what Alastair Bannow says it is, an icon of Our Lord, painted in His own lifetime – a relic of great power and a channel into this world of divine purpose.  It had strength sufficient to protect itself from Arab armies and Bohemian iconoclasts.’


  ‘Then it would indeed be very powerful and capable of looking after itself, wouldn’t you say?  Why then need Levites?’


  ‘Because in the old Temple, the Ark of the Covenant needed attendants, men to move it around, and to be alert for danger.  The Levites of the True Face are there to keep it concealed, I don’t know why, but then the divine is supposed to be mysterious.  In any case, I’m now pretty sure the Levites do exist.’


  Helge looked at him curiously.  ‘How is that, Henry?’


  ‘People have always commented how remarkable it is that the Tarlenheim family has produced a male heir in every generation since the tenth century.  It isn’t unique, but it is unusual.’


  ‘You think the counts of Tarlenheim have occupied the office of Levite from generation to generation, as Dr Bannow implies?’


  ‘No, I don’t.’


  ‘Really?  So what are you saying, Henry?’


  ‘The truly unique thing about the Tarlenheims is that, since the fourteenth century, they have produced not just a male in every generation, but at least one female too.’


  ‘Ah!’  Helge’s look became remarkably intense.


  ‘No, it’s not the sons of the House of Tarlenheim who have been Levites, it has been the daughters.’


  ‘But Henry, Their hair shall be red as copper is red …


  ‘… and golden as the sunlight is golden.  I think the office has been shared between red-headed female Elphbergs and golden-haired female Tarlenheims, in the same way as Countess Fenice and Duchess Osra were partners in keeping the secret in the fifteenth century.  Princess Osra was a Levite in the 1770s, and so I’ll bet was Queen Flavia in the Victorian age, alongside the eldest Tarlenheim woman in every generation.’


  Helge smiled.  ‘So you think I am one of the Levites, Henry.’


  ‘I do.’


  ‘And you therefore think I know where the True Face lies.’




  ‘Why are you telling me this?’


  ‘Because if I can work it out, so can others.  You have heard of the Priory of St Veronica?’


  ‘The fascist mystics before the war?  They are long extinct.’


  ‘I don’t believe so.  In fact, I believe I talked with the Master of the Priory less than two hours ago.’


  Helge was undoubtedly startled.  ‘How can you know that?’


  ‘I can’t know for certain, but the balance of probability leads me to conclude that Piotr Bermann is the Master, and that you are the Levite.  The fact that I am telling you this should indicate whose side I am on.’


  Helge frowned.  ‘In such circumstances, Henry, there can be no sides.  You cannot make a conspiracy against God.  It would be like taking an oath to abstain from breathing.  It cannot be done.  The very act defeats itself.’


  ‘So are you the Levite of the Ark?’


  ‘Don’t be silly Henry, it’s just your overheated mind running away with itself.  You really need to get some sleep.’


  Henry returned her straight gaze.  There would be no confession from Helge, so much was clear.


  He took his leave, but didn’t go to bed.  He went to his room and changed into his black jeans, pullover and dark top.  He was still sitting brooding in the chair next to a sleeping Gavin as the light broadened in the sky and dawn began to break over the city of Strelzen.