HENRY IN HIGH POLITICS
Henry Atwood spent most of the morning brooding in the common room. It took three consecutive mugs of coffee for him to come to a decision, so he was well wired and pretty twitchy when he got to his feet and crossed the field again to Temple House. This time he went up to the top floor, to the house prefects’ common room. There was only one boy present.
‘Hey, Bounder.’ David looked up and gave a ghost of a smile. Henry continued, ‘Nasty bruise on your rather classically chiselled cheekbone, mate. How did that happen?’
David shuffled his feet guiltily … not an easy thing to do when sitting down at a work desk. Then he gave a faint grin. ‘Walked into a door, Outfield.’
Henry sat down next to him, deliberately close so that their thighs were actually touching. Despite not liking what he was about to do, he put his hand on David’s and held it. The other boy’s breath caught and his brown eyes looked a little wild, but he did not move his hand away.
‘Why did you get in a fight with that maniac Burlesdon, Davey?’ David flushed red at the affectionate use of his name and mumbled something inarticulate. ‘It was about me, wasn’t it?’
David gazed into his friend’s eyes. ‘I couldn’t just let him get away with it, Henry. Knocking you down like that and calling you a queer.’
Henry gave a little laugh. ‘But I am a queer. The point is that I have a boyfriend who can take very good care of himself and me, if he wants to. It wasn’t necessary for you to jump in, was it?’
‘He’s an evil bastard, Henry. The thought of him attacking you was more …’
‘Davey, you’re not my boyfriend … but you’d like to be. Davey, be honest with me.’
David looked indecisive and scared. Henry knew he was doing a harsh thing, but it had to be done, or worse things would follow. Finally, David looked down, a tear appearing on his cheek. He nodded.
‘You’re gay too.’ Another nod. ‘Davey, that’s all you’ve got to do, acknowledge it. You don’t have to come out, and I won’t tell anyone.’
Tears were streaming down David’s beardless brown face by then. ‘But I do love you, Henry. You’re all I can think of. It’s cracking me up, it’s …’ He could not finish, because Henry closed with his mouth and kissed him.
Henry caught David’s eyes, wide with shock, before they closed in ecstasy. He massaged the other boy’s lips with his, then took David round the back of the head and pushing his tongue into the wet paradise beyond. David’s tongue met and licked along his own.
Henry broke off. David’s chest was heaving and Henry had to admit he looked very desirable, flushed and sexually aroused. Henry put his hand on David’s erection through his trousers and massaged it gently, tracing the shape of his cock. It seemed quite a handsome organ at first acquaintance. David closed his eyes and moaned. Henry unzipped him and pushed a hand inside, finding the slit in his boxers and gripping the hot, hard penis within. He began gently stroking up and down. ‘Oh God! Oh God!’ David was moaning under his breath. Henry picked up the pace. David’s mouth was slack and his head was back.
Henry released David's cock to engage again with his mouth. Breaking off the second time, Henry asked gently, ‘Do you love me, Davey?’
‘God … do I!’ was the breathless response.
‘Where did you get the cannabis you put in Burlesdon’s room?’ Henry asked just as gently.
‘It was … what?’ David looked poleaxed.
‘It wasn’t yours. Where did you get it?’
‘No, I …’
Henry disengaged with the boy. ‘Do you lie to those you love, Davey?’ David sputtered. Henry carried on remorselessly, ‘You found it in another boy’s room, didn’t you. You planted it in Burlesdon’s bedside cabinet, then tipped off the housemaster.’
Rallying, David began to look defiant. ‘The guy’s a cunt, Henry. I couldn’t let him get away with what he did to you. He should have been expelled. The school will be better off without him.’
‘Davey! It’s not your decision, and for all that Burlesdon is a cunt, it’ll do nothing for the state of your soul to get rid of him in this way. Besides, how well do you know him anyway? God knows the problems some kids bring to this school with them. You’ve got to go to the housemaster and tell him what you did.’
‘Henry, no … I can’t! It’ll be me that’s expelled.’
‘Nevertheless, that’s what you’ll do, because if you don’t, I will.’
David’s defiance was gathering pace. ‘Then it’ll be my word against yours, Henry.’
Shaking his head, Henry said grimly, ‘Davey, think about it. I’ve got no history of friendship with Burlesdon. If I come out with this story, the head of sixth is more likely to believe me than a boy Burlesdon beat the crap out of last week.’
David looked distraught. ‘But what will they do to me, Henry?’
Henry took his warm hand and stood, making David stand with him. ‘Tell the truth, or as much of it as you can. It’ll be hard, and it’ll get round. There will be punishment, but believe me, nothing like the punishment you’ll suffer in the long term if you try to stick to your lie. Davey, you’re a good kid. This sort of weight on your conscience will destroy you. For your own sake, Davey, you gotta do this.’
David stared at his feet, tears coursing down his cheeks once more. ‘Okay. But only for you Henry … oh God, if only you could love me the way you do Ed! It breaks me up. But please go on calling me Davey, it makes me feel as though I’m special to you.’
Henry couldn’t stop himself, although he knew it would have been better if he had. ‘You are special to me, Davey. You’re a friend.’
‘How in fifty-three kinds of fuck did you get him to cough up?’ Ed marvelled.
Henry shifted in his seat in the block. Now that he had to confess to Ed, he was nervous. ‘Well … er, I, sort of … seduced him.’
Ed screeched, ‘You what? He’s gay? You actually seduced him … went to bed with him?’
‘No, no … not that far, but I touched him up and wanked him.’
Ed looked at Henry as if he were a stranger. ‘How did you know he was gay? I didn’t pick it up.’
‘It’s not you he’s fixated on, Ed. He’s been following me around with cow eyes for six months now.’
‘Talk me through it.’
‘You’re not angry with me?’ Henry glanced timorously up at his lover.
‘I’m not pleased with you,’ Ed retorted a little gruffly.
‘I had to get him to confess … it was the only way I could think of. I knew he goes weak at the knees around me.’
‘Tell me you didn’t enjoy it.’
Henry took a deep breath and lied. ‘It wasn’t like that. Rudi was going to be expelled and discredited for something he didn’t do. There was a lot more at stake than my virtue.’
Ed’s face softened. ‘I suppose. Just warn me in advance next time.’
Will Vincent gazed idly round the vast entrance hall of the Schloss Heinrichshof while he waited. A flight of stairs ascended to an upper hall, where far above he could glimpse a hammer-beam roof. Trophies and animal heads were everywhere. With something of a professional eye, he examined a suit of fifteenth-century tournament armour set against the wall. A part of Will would always be the schoolteacher he had once been, before romance and personal tragedy had borne him off to Rothenia and a new life in the emerging Central European media industry.
A red-coated footman who was hovering at the bottom of the great stair suddenly stiffened. Will turned and inclined his head, murmuring a deferential ‘Königlich Hochheit’.
‘Mr Vincent, good morning and welcome to Heinrichshof.’ The Thuringian prince’s English was perfect; indeed, it very much still carried the imprint of his education at Medwardine and Cambridge.
Prince Ernst Karl was the younger of the twin sons of the great Leopold, who had died some eight years before. Sixty years of age, he still had an air of youth, tanned and fit – the cosmetic effect of great wealth, Will concluded.
The prince indicated the stair and led him off a landing, through a passage and into a comparatively small withdrawing room, which communicated with the great hall through a set of double doors.
Oskar was already waiting there. He turned to greet Will with that specially warm smile he revealed at times to those he cared for. Will almost had to stop himself from running up and taking his former lover in his arms.
The prince gestured to a grouping of chairs near a tall Gothic window, sat back in one of them and steepled his fingers. ‘Now, my dear Tarlenheim, what can I tell you? It is something to do with my late father, is that right?’
‘Yes, sir. A year or two ago, when I was in London, I met with the Princess Elenja of Vinodol, the widow of Lord Lowestoft … I believe you know her?’
‘Indeed I do. She was a great friend of my dear father’s. We saw her a good deal back in the fifties and sixties, though it has been the best part of a decade since we last met. It was at my father’s funeral at Zenda. That was a tragic year for us both. She lost her son, the earl of Burlesdon, that same year.’
‘It is the fortunes of Princess Elenja’s grandson, the late earl’s son, Rudolf Elphberg-Rassendyll, which bring me here, sir.’
The prince frowned at the name. ‘My good father was very – some might say, excessively – generous to that particular family in his day.’
Will noticed the slight grimace. It seemed the present head of the Thuringian family had not approved of the frequent financial bailouts the earls of Burlesdon had needed to keep afloat during the lean years for the English aristocracy since the Second World War.
The prince continued, ‘Although I say nothing against the late earl, some might not consider his younger brother – that scoundrel Robert Rassendyll – deserving of the generosity with which my father treated him. He certainly took a chunk out of the hand that fed him.’
Oskar made a brief gesture of dismissal. ‘I don’t think money is any longer an issue with the Burlesdons, sir, though I don’t doubt your father’s generosity to them. It’s your father’s antiquarian researches that I’m intrigued by.’
‘Antiquarian researches, Tarlenheim? It was the late Martin Tofts who delved into the past, not my father.’
‘The princess gave me to understand, however, that there was one area of historical research which did concern your father deeply: the fate of the ancient crown of Rothenia, the Tassilisnerkron.’
Prince Ernst Karl raised his eyebrows, then burst out laughing. ‘I believe, my dear count, that it’s kept on a shelf somewhere.’
‘Right next to the Holy Grail.’
David went like a lamb to the slaughter and told his story. He refused to say in which room he had found the cannabis, stating only that he had found it round the school. He gave as his reason for his actions that he had been in a fight with Burlesdon, had lost and wanted vengeance. Because there was no implication that he had himself smoked, he was not expelled. But he had the humiliation of losing his house-prefect’s badge, and the agony of having his parents summoned to school. Through it all, Henry held his hand, at least metaphorically. The weekend after he was finally released from suspension of privileges, Henry and Ed discreetly whisked him away to Trewern.
They were sitting out in a favourite spot in the churchyard that Saturday, an unseasonably warm day early in March. The sky was a fresh blue and little white clouds were scudding across it. ‘Hang round with us, Davey,’ Ed informed him, ‘and they’ll work out you’re gay too.’
‘What’s left that can humiliate me, guys?’ David replied ruefully. ‘Besides, maybe it is time I faced up to it … and you don’t mind me lusting after your Henry?’
‘Yeah, I certainly do,’ Ed retorted with a cheerful sort of snarl. ‘But we’re learning, me and Henry, that gays don’t quite work to the same frame as your heteros. There’s Will and Oskar for instance.’ David raised an eyebrow. ‘They’re friends of ours, they live in Strelzen and they work for a media company there. Oskar and Will fell for each other in a really big way some years ago, and they were deeply into each other, but for some reason that no one would explain to us, Oskar blew it big time. Not that he cheated on Will, we were told, but he did something completely unforgiveable.
‘Anyway, Will and he split, and you’d think they’d hate each other for the rest of their lives, but no. Will got off with his present boyfriend, Felip, and they’re very happy. But Will forgave Oskar and they’re still close friends, though they don’t do sex and stuff, or at least I think not, and Oskar’s got his own boyfriend now too. That’s the thing, see!’
David wasn’t quite getting it. ‘What’s the thing?’
‘Gays can fall out of love but stay friendly. It’s not like heteros when they fall out … like my mum and dad for instance, who hate each other like poison since the divorce. The idea of them kissing and having a drink together, the way Oskar and Will do, is not conceivable. It’s a different dynamic.’
Henry was a bit relieved, now he was hearing the fruits of Edward’s reflection on gay love and faithfulness. It seemed his straying from the path of strict righteousness was being somehow accommodated.
The three boys wandered into the church, where Henry gave the guided tour. Ed and David humoured him, and David at least found his enthusiasm very fetching. Henry’s eyes lit up when he was totally engaged in explaining something. David was by no means over him.
As Henry was pointing out some Anglo-Saxon remains in the nave, the vestry door banged and an amiable old gentleman emerged blinking into the church.
‘Ahoi, Dr Mac!’ Henry shouted gleefully.
‘Ahoi! Prosim, Hendrik!’ the old man replied. ‘Nach sei faust!’
‘What’s all that about?’ David asked, puzzled.
‘Hello, Dr Mac, this is our friend David from school. David, this is Dr Mackenna, the churchwarden. Dr Mac, he wants to know what that was all about.’
‘I was telling him not to shout in church. Henry was on holiday in Rothenia last year, David, and began picking up the language. Now it so happens that I was in military intelligence during the war. I worked with the Rothenian and Czech resistance, so I had a facility with Rothenian, which I haven’t completely lost. Henry’s learning it as a personal project, and he’s got quite a talent.’
‘Yeah, more than for the French I’m supposed to be doing for A Level. Pity they don’t do A Level Rothenian, isn’t it?’
‘I believe some schools do, if not yours,’ pronounced Dr Mac. ‘But you can get Rothenian state radio on the web, so I’m told, which is good practice for Henry, and he’s bought some books from Amazon.de. All in all, Henry could survive as a tour guide already, I’d say, and he has friends in Rothenia he can e-mail.’
‘Yeah, there’s Nikki Baltasar and Fritzy zu Terlenehem. Really good mates. We miss ‘em, don’t we Ed?’
‘Especially Fritzy … they broke the mould after they made him. Wish we could go back there this summer, but it doesn’t look as though Henry’s dad can get an exchange in Strelzen twice in a row.’
Henry nodded sadly, then perked up. ‘Strelzen’s totally amazing, Davey. The sun shines every day. The city’s more beautiful than you could believe, and the people are kind and helpful … apart from tram conductors, that is.’
Dr Mac cocked a bushy eyebrow. ‘You might perhaps not want to go there this summer, however.’
Ed and Henry stared at him, puzzled.
The old man continued, ‘I don’t know if you’ve been following the news recently, Henry, but there’s a constitutional crisis brewing. President Maritz is being forced out of office by a coalition of former Communists and nationalists. It’s beginning to look messy, and there were riots in Zenden two days ago.’
‘No, I hadn’t heard. It’s not made the main news here.’
‘The BBC is not what it once was,’ sighed Dr Mac, ‘but I still listen to the World Service, and that’s a bit more international. There was a feature in the Economist last week … I’ll give it to you or your father on Sunday. Bye, boys.’
After they said goodbye, Henry looked at Ed with a troubled expression. ‘I hope Fritzy and the guys are okay.’
Ed raised his eyebrows. ‘We’d better get in touch. Damn. It’s a pity your dad is so against the web, isn’t it?’
They went back to the rectory and looked at a new strategy game David had brought with him: ‘Imperial Ambition’, a sort of empire-building game based on eighteenth-century Europe. Henry laughed to find that Ruritania – the old name for Rothenia – was one of the possible sides to play. They gleefully clicked on the Ruritanian icon and, in the role of King Henry the Lion, soon found ways to subject Europe to their rule, at least at Beginners level.
As Ed was building up the Ruritanian army for a massive onslaught on Prussia, he constructed a new general. ‘Hey, little babe … look who I got!’ Henry and David peered over his shoulder at the character screen. ‘It’s the Field Marshal Count von Tarlenheim. We’ve got Fritzy in the game!’
David stared at them curiously.
Henry explained, ‘Our friend we mentioned, Fritzy zu Terlenehem in Rothenian; he’s fourteen now, and he’s the prince of Tarlenheim, direct descendant of the famous field marshal in this game.’
David was impressed. ‘How did you meet a prince, for God’s sake?’
‘We were in Strelzen last year on an exchange. Dad was looking after the Anglican chaplaincy during August. The director of music in the church there is Will Vincent – y’know, the Will of Will and Oskar. Turns out he’s an influential bloke in the local media. He introduced me and Ed to little Fritzy, and we got on really well. Will’s ex-boyfriend Oskar is Fritzy’s big brother, but he resigned the title to Fritzy.’
David exclaimed, ‘Well that trumps me. The only titled bloke I’ve met is an earl.’
‘Oh yeah,’ Henry muttered abstractedly as one of the Ruritanian armies occupied Silesia, ‘who’s that?’
David looked puzzled. ‘But you know him too.’
‘Doesn’t the gossip from Temple House ever reach you guys? It’s Rudi Burlesdon. He’s the fourteenth earl for God’s sake. Why do you think the Head was so cagy about expelling him?’
‘So that’s the twelfth earl of Burlesdon … looks a lot like a startled rabbit.’ Will Vincent smiled up at a portrait on the wall of one of Heinrichshof’s tall galleries.
Oskar smiled too. ‘He was not a man of much charisma, so I’m told. But he was certainly ambitious. By teaming up with the Rothenian fascists before the war, he had hopes of getting himself crowned king. He tried to do a Mussolini in 1930 and march on the capital, having proclaimed himself King Jakob at a rally at Strelsfurt. It was a complete fiasco, and he was lucky not to end up in prison. He had some sort of breakdown not long afterwards; the princess said it might have been a stroke. He was quite different after that … rather mild and confused, she said, but still totally useless as a landowner. He nearly managed to ruin the family financially before he died in the sixties.’
Will pondered the information. ‘Are you sure the Rothenian people are going to be any more receptive to the idea of an Elphberg king now? They’ve been through the Second World War, the Reich’s occupation and Horvath’s dictatorship. They’re even further away from their royal past than they were in the interwar years.’
Oskar shook his head vigorously. ‘I remember as a boy when King Maxim and Queen Helge were brought home for burial in the Salvatorskirk. Throughout all those troubled years, the light of his golden reign just grew brighter in people’s minds. He was one of the greatest Elphbergs: brave, compassionate and wise. The crowds were enormous, more than a million Rothenians filed past the coffins when they lay in state at the Radhaus. My tatta took me by train from Terlenehem to join the queue. I can still remember the tears on everyone’s faces.
‘People have forgotten James Burlesdon, thank God. Now we must remind them that he has a great-grandson, and convince them that Rudolf Elphberg-Rassendyll can renew Rothenia the way the great Maxim did.’
The dubious look on Will Vincent’s face had not gone away. ‘Is this seventeen-year-old boy so very special?’
‘Had you met him, you would not need to ask. He is truly a Red Elphberg: Rudolf V to the life.’ Oskar indicated a Victorian canvas along the gallery, where a handsome monarch in chasseur uniform was contemplating the regalia of Rothenia laid on a table next to him.
Will studied the scene closely. Set among the rods, sceptres, orb and gilded swords was a striking image of the Tassilisnerkron.
Oskar continued, ‘Don’t forget your own contribution to this, men leblen. That epic documentary you helped produce for Matt White led to a renaissance of interest in the Elphberg past. It’s still being repeated on prime-time television. Fritz is being asked more and more for the pensk pozechnen … people go down on their knees to him even in the streets of Modenehem. Imagine if an Elphberg were in the Residenz of Strelzen to offer the blessing of blessings, the kungliche pozechnen … a father’s blessing to his people! It could not be a better time. But it must be done soon. The political situation is dire.’
A discrete cough drew the attention of the two men to the appearance in the gallery of a red-coated footman, who indicated a door at the end and bowed them through it.
A large table had been covered with green baize, and a variety of boxes had been stacked on top of it. A diffident man in his fifties was hovering. ‘Gentlemen? The prince has asked that I let you see all his father’s papers. As you’ll observe, there is a great deal of material here. Do you know what it is you’re looking for?’
Will regretfully shook his head.