Michael Arram










  ‘Okay, Davey.  Tell me what happened.’  Henry had gone over to Temple House and tracked David to his room.  They were sitting on his single bed, their backs against the wall.


  ‘Oh, it was my fault, I suppose.  But he’s such an arrogant fucker.  He came up to me in the block and said he had finally discovered that I hadn’t come clean under my own steam, but because you had pushed me into it.  Nevertheless, he said – the pompous arse – he was willing to let bygones be bygones out of respect for you.  And I was supposed to smile and shake his hand!’


  ‘Which you didn’t, of course.’


  ‘No chance.  I told him that if he hadn’t been such an arrogant bastard, none of it would have happened in the first place.  He seems to think he’s allowed free rein to fly off the handle, and we’re just there to cushion his landing!  So I said a few choice words about his being the heir to centuries of arrogance and privilege, and what could anyone expect of someone of his parentage …’


  ‘Ah.  That might not have been too clever.  His dad’s dead and it hurts.’


  David looked a little embarrassed.  ‘Well, I was angry.  So he flipped and hit me in the mouth.  I just jumped back enough not to lose my teeth.  Then Ed and the lads piled in and separated us.’


  ‘Leaving us with as big a problem as before.  Davey, I know you hate Burlesdon’s guts, and I agree he is a difficult bastard, but he’s not a monster, far from it.’


  David tentatively snaked an arm round Henry’s waist and gave him a light kiss on the cheek.  ‘You’re such a softy, Henry.’


  Henry unconsciously snuggled closer to David.  He liked intimacy with other boys, and he and Ed had got into social kissing with their gay friends outside school.  ‘Don’t you start, Bounder,’ he cautioned. ‘I’ve just been patronised by Ed on that very subject.  But I’m not some sort of soft touch.  I just want to be fair.’


  ‘Then be fair to me, Henry.  I seem to be the one who’s getting beaten up regularly.’


  Henry turned round and gave a quirky smile into David’s face.  ‘But you ask for trouble, mate.’


  David closed with Henry’s lips as he said this, and before either of them knew it, they were making out, with David on top.


  Henry struggled up.  ‘Down, Davey!’


  ‘It’s not just me with an erection.’


  Henry grimaced.  ‘It’s mechanical.  Stop doing this, Davey.  I’m monogamous.  You’ve got to find your own boyfriend.’




  ‘How should I know?  My experience is that you have to wait for someone to kick you in the arse.  It’s a pity Terry’s not here.’


  ‘Who’s he?’


  ‘Terry O’Brien.  He’s a friend of some friends.  He started shagging, or being shagged, when he was sixteen and made quite a career out of it, according to our mate Justin.  But I think he lived in the public-toilet-cruising end of the shagging market, which doesn’t seem quite your style, Davey.’


  It was David’s turn to grimace.  ‘Desperation is taking me in that direction, Outfield, believe me.  I so wanna lose it … my virginity that is.  What’s it like having Ed’s dick up your bum?’


  ‘How do you know we do anal?’


  ‘The way you shift in your seat in Religious Studies sometimes.’


  ‘It’s personal.  All I’ll say is that it’s not what you expect, and you really do have to use lube.’


  ‘I shall treasure that advice,’ David assured him, and then laughed.  ‘You do cheer me up, Henry.  Bless you.’


  ‘What are we going to do with you, Davey?’


  ‘Threesome sex?’


  ‘You’re incorrigible!’








  ‘Osku!  Hey!  Is this what we’re searching for?’


  Oskar looked up from an unruly stack of letters that had just come loose from the tape binding them.  ‘What do you have there, my Will?’


  ‘I thought at first it was a diary, but it turns out it’s one of Sir Martin Tofts’s notebooks from his excavations at Old Hentzau in … erm … 1930, when he and old Leo were still undergraduates at Oxford.  There’re some loose leaves tucked in the back cover.  They’re written in Latin, of all things.’


  ‘A language you read well.’


  ‘It’s a skill that’s come in surprisingly useful in my life.  The words diadema Tassilonis drew my immediate attention.’


  ‘And now you have mine.  What else does it say?’


  ‘Give me a moment.’  Will put his head down for some minutes, then slowly looked up.  ‘The notes are jotted on a rough plan, which seems to me to be of old Medeln Abbey.  He’s marked a red cross on the area to the rear of the high altar, and next to it the words tumba beatae Feniciae, “the grave of St Fenice”.  It looks like he and his prince were digging around in Medeln as much as Old Hentzau in 1930.’


  ‘What does it say?’


  ‘There’re the words “Crown of Tassilo”, as I said, but then under that heading there’s something about discovering the tomb and opening it, but finding it empty.  Then there’s a passage in red capitals he calls VERBA CUSTODIS … “Words of the Guardian”.  By the way, why’s St Fenice so important?’


  ‘You must have heard about her, Will.’


  ‘Yeah, a bit … when I was researching for the Elphberg documentary.  She was one of Rothenia’s great national saints, a mystic and prophetess of the fifteenth century.  Didn’t she end her days at Medeln with her friend, the Duchess Osra?’


  ‘So they say, though I thought her tomb was lost.  Fenice was my ancestress.  She was in fact St Fenice of Tarlenheim, though I think she lived not at Tarlenheim but mostly in the forests of northern Glottenberh on the ancient family estate of Verheltschjaen, which was her dowry.  My sister Helge could tell you a lot more about her.  She has long had an interest in Fenice and a devotion to her cult.  It has cost us a lot in candles.  What are these “Words of the Guardian”, Will?’


  ‘Er, hang on … right, here you go.  Missa est ad locum securitatis novum: “It has been sent to a new place of safety,” and Potius ille sepultus inter antecessores nostros apud Tarlenheim est, et ita quaestio proventa erit: “Instead, he was entombed with our ancestors at Tarlenheim … and that may be what has given rise to the problem.”  What on earth do we make of that?’


  ‘I have no idea.  It obviously meant a lot to old Sir Martin, so much so that he had to write the words down.  But we know nothing of the context in which they were uttered, or who it was who spoke them, other than that we may assume it was a keeper of a great secret.’


  Will brooded.  ‘There is one thing.  The second quotation talks of “our ancestors” so we can assume that the mysterious Guardian was a Tarlenheim by birth.  Perhaps then we had best concentrate our researches on what those two boys were up to in 1930.  Did the prince keep a diary?’


  Oskar sorted through a pile of notebooks.  ‘I can’t find anything that looks like a diary.  But here is an appointment book for the year.  It gives us some clue as to when the prince was in Rothenia, where I would guess those enigmatic words must have been spoken by someone to him and his boyfriend.’


  Oskar pored over the thin volume, making notes on a pad.  Then he looked up.  ‘It was in September 1930 that Leo and Martin were at Medeln, after a summer involved in the politics of the day.  It was the time when James Burlesdon made his bid for the throne.  It seems from some of the names here that young Leo was more deeply implicated than I thought in the election campaign that saved Tildemann’s government.


  ‘But at the end of the summer he was involved in his lover’s famous excavation at Old Hentzau, and in the arrangements for his cousin’s marriage.’


  ‘His cousin?’


  ‘Prince Philip of Murranberg, the son of Queen Helge by her first husband, and thus a cousin of mine too.  We count him as a Tarlenheim.’  Oskar made a dismissive gesture and moved on.  ‘In September they were all staying at the ancient Tarlenheim house of Templerstadt.’




  ‘A beautiful place above the Taveln valley, only a kilometre or so from Medeln Abbey.  You’d like it.  It used to be owned by some cousins, though they lost it in the nationalisation of the 1940s.  They fled abroad to America, where they still live in Illinois.  The old house has been empty for decades.  I walked up there a few weeks ago from Modenehem.  It’s falling into ruin, which is a shame.  Until my cousin Oskar Welf gets his backside into gear, ownership of the house and estate remains in dispute between his branch of the family and the government.


  Oskar paused and Will did not interrupt his moment of reflection.  Eventually, Oskar recommenced, ‘This business of the Crown apparently all comes back to my family, not to Prince Leo and his Martin.  I’m beginning to think something has been kept from me.’


  ‘You Tarlenheims certainly do seem to collect mysteries, Osku.  So what are you suggesting?’


 ‘That I'd better get back home and start following leads there.  Time is pressing.  I suppose the search here at Heinrichshof was always likely to be a wild goose chase, but if we could have found the Tassilisnerkron, so much we hope for would be easier to accomplish.’


  Will frowned.  ‘It’s not like you to give up easily, Osku.’


  ‘I’m not giving up, men leblen.  It's just that we could spend weeks here and get no closer than we have today.  But now I think I know where to go next.’


  ‘To the resting place of your ancestors?’










  Will snapped his handij closed.  ‘The office is going apeshit,’ he observed.


  An abstracted Oskar came briefly back into focus and raised an eyebrow.


  Will continued, ‘It’s the CDP and Unity interview.  They’ve got Bermann and Trachtenberg to agree to go one-on-one in our studio.  State TV must be spitting teeth.’


  ‘So what’s the problem?’


  ‘Bermann’s put up a mass of conditions.  To begin with, he wants the interview hosted by a non-German.  That’s directed against Tomas Weissman, you can bet.  The CDP hates him after that feature he did on its links with ex-Communists.’


  ‘Did he suggest anyone he might want instead?’


  ‘Well, yes.  You.’




  ‘He probably thinks that, as one of the premier aristocrats of Old Rothenia, you’ll be more sympathetic to him.  Your studio appearances are usually in art programmes after all; you don’t show your hand.’


  ‘How little he knows.  When is it?’


  ‘The end of next week.  Is it okay?’


  Oskar shrugged.  ‘How much work can it be?  I just have to make sure that the pair of them don’t talk over each other.’  He looked around the churchyard of Terlenehem, where small golden and blue flowers were beginning to poke through the long dry grass of winter and colour the greening mounds of the graves.  ‘Helge said she’d be here.  Where is she?’


  ‘She told me she had to get the key from the sexton.’


  ‘Old Demitri only lives down the road.  What’s keeping her?’


  ‘Excuse me, milenkh men, but you seem preoccupied.  What’s up?’


  Oskar gave Will a long stare from under his thick blond fringe.  ‘I had a dream last night which has unsettled me … I’ve never experienced anything like it.  I’m not sure if I want to again either.’


  ‘What … like the business with the grey ghost in the Tarlenheim palace?’


  Oskar shook his head.  ‘Nothing like that.  It was just a dream, but a very vivid one all the same.’


  Will was about to ask Oskar to tell him more, when a call from the churchyard gate announced Helge’s arrival.  Will smiled.  Even Helge could not look elegant in rubber boots – which she was wearing, she had explained, because she feared snakes emerging from the long grass into the spring warmth.


  The sexton’s key in hand, she led the way to the portico and wrought-iron gate of the Tarlenheim mausoleum.  As Oskar fitted the key in the lock, his sister stopped him.  ‘Osku, what is it you are looking for amongst the dead?’


  Oskar straightened.  ‘I told you, schwetzer men.  Will and I have unearthed some clues that connect this place with the Tassilisnerkron.’


  ‘I can’t believe it.  I am also very uneasy about penetrating these vaults.’


  ‘Mutta und tatta … I know.  It seems a little like blasphemy.  But they are with the angels, leblen … they left just empty husks behind them.’  He stooped back down and unlocked the gate.  It pushed open easily, the sexton seemingly having kept the hinges well oiled.


  Will flicked the switch on his lamp, and a short, packed-earth passage was revealed, leading northwards into the hill towards a ‘T’ junction.  The wall opposite them was honeycombed with loculi, mostly empty, though Will could see three of them occupied by the coffins of departed members of Oskar’s lineage.


  Oskar led the way to the junction.  Inside the passages, the air was still.  There was no scent of death that Will could detect, only a certain damp mustiness.  He could feel a slight movement of air on his right cheek.


  Noticing a dim light coming from that direction, Oskar took the lamp from Will and led them towards it.


  As they moved forward, they noticed the loculi were became more populated.  Large velvet-covered coffins studded with brass nails gave way to soldered-lead sarcophagi, the older ones anthropomorphic.  Beyond an arch they entered a chamber lit dimly from far above through a dirty, glazed dome.  Within were a dozen large and impressive cast-leaden sarcophagi laid east to west, which reminded Will irresistibly of the Hapsburg coffins ranked in the vaults of the Capuchins in Vienna.


  Will examined the nearest, a box ornamented with classical detail, balanced on lion’s feet.  Embossed on its lid were the lion and roses of the arms of Tarlenheim, set under a pavilion topped by a princely coronet.  The words SERGIVS IV COMES PRINCEPSQVE : OBIIT MDCCCXL announced its resident and the date of his death.  It seemed this eastern chamber housed the remains of the princes and princesses of Tarlenheim.


  One sarcophagus standing above the rest had on the lid an effigy of a bewigged Roman general, clasping a marshal’s baton and rising as if at the resurrection on Judgement Day.  Will gazed at it, fascinated.  There amongst his descendants lay the first of the Tarlenheim princes of the Empire, the famous eighteenth-century field marshal.


  Will all but jumped when Oskar spoke in his ear.  ‘This mausoleum was erected early in the nineteenth century, when the old collegiate church of St Fenice at Tarlenheim was dissolved.  Its vaults were emptied and the Tarlenheims of centuries past transferred here.  There are a few of us still in the parish church, but we mostly end up in these vaults.’


  ‘Not Franz III, the friend of King Rudolf V … or should I say Rudolf Rassendyll?  He’s in the cathedral of Strelzen.’


  Oskar chuckled.  ‘Yes, and of course my wicked namesake, Count Oskar the Great, the seventeenth-century sorcerer, is elsewhere also.’




  ‘No one actually knows.  But they do say a black carriage from hell took him away from the Tarlenheim palace in the Neustadt at dead of night, so there may have been nothing of him to bury.  Useful, as he was an excommunicate.’


  Helge was hugging herself, as if afflicted with cold.  ‘What are we to look for, Osku?’


  Oskar glanced around.  ‘Clues, I suppose, and some evidence of disturbance in the last century.’


  ‘Was this place in use under Communism?’ Will inquired.


  ‘No, though mutta and tatta were buried here in the teeth of opposition from the local commissar.  They’re in the other wing with our cousins, the Verheltschjaen and Templerstadt Tarlenheims.  There’s another chamber like this where the medieval exhumations were placed.  It’s almost like a filing cabinet of noble corpses.’


  Will followed Oskar and the pool of light thrown by the lamp back up the passage to the junction.  Helge trailed behind them.  The sunlight from outside was quite blinding when Will turned to look back up towards the gate.


  Oskar carried on down the tunnel comprising the west wing of the mausoleum.  He paused at two particular loculi, where plain pine coffins had been placed at eye level.  Tattered wreaths were still fixed to the feet of the boxes.  Will remained respectfully behind Oskar and Helge as they paid silent tribute to the mortal remains of their parents.


  While standing there, Will began to sense something.  He would almost swear he had seen movement out of the corner of his eye, back towards the chamber of princes.  When he turned to look there was nothing, but the feeling of an alien presence continued to oppress him.  When Oskar and his sister moved on along the passage, the feeling intensified.  Will’s neck prickled.


  The lamp revealed another arch and a corresponding western chamber beyond.  Within were the shapes of ancient effigial tombs removed from the old church of St Fenice, with a great sarcophagus on a dais towering above them all.  Will had to stop, feeling drawn to look behind them.  He burst out, ‘Oskar!  There’s someone else in here!’


  Oskar turned back.  ‘Has someone followed us in?’


  ‘I saw a figure in white robes at the junction in the sunlight.  It went the other way, in the direction of the eastern chamber.’


  ‘White robes?  What, like a nun’s?’


  ‘You saw it too?’


  ‘Not now, no … but last night in my dream.  We must follow!’


  The two men strode rapidly back the way they’d come.  They encountered no one as they emerged into the vault of the princes.


  ‘I … must have imagined it,’ admitted Will as they looked around.  ‘There’s nowhere for her to have hidden.’


  ‘Not unless she got in bed with one of my ancestors.’  Oskar frowned, and held up the lamp.  ‘Wait!  There is something.’


  He handed the lamp to Will and stalked over towards the tomb of the Marshal Prince of Tarlenheim, whose blank leaden eyes gazed up to his invisible Saviour.  Grabbing an arm of the effigy, Oskar hauled himself atop the sarcophagus.  He grinned as he looked down on an astonished Will and Helge.  ‘You won’t believe this.’  He held up a printed card.  ‘It was placed in the marshal’s hand, and I’m pretty sure it was not there when we first came in.  Let’s get outside.  I think we may have found our clue.’








  Will shook his head.  ‘You can’t be serious!’  Then, catching the faint smile on Helge’s lips, he exclaimed, ‘You believe him, don’t you.  The pair of you are insane.’


  The three were occupying a table in the Red Rose restaurant in Terlenehem’s market place.  Helge took Will’s hand.  ‘This is a strange land, dear Willemju, and our family has a peculiar history.  This sort of thing is not unprecedented with us, as you must know.  My brother’s namesake, the Victorian patriot Oskar Maxim, haunted our family for a generation after his death at the hands of Albert of Thuringia.  The late King Maxim is said to have seen him several times.  So did our cousin Welf, who hinted at it in his biography of the king.’


  ‘So what or whom did I see in the mausoleum this morning?’


  Helge shrugged.  ‘I have no idea.’


  ‘And what was this dream you had, Osku?’


  Oskar took a sip at his small glass of Volwart’s fruit wine.  ‘It was not the usual sort.  I was in a long procession of men in overcoats, marching through the streets of Strelzen.  It was cold … winter I think.  Up ahead a military band was playing with muffled drums.  Black armbands were everywhere.’


  ‘A state funeral then,’ Will interjected.


  ‘I believe so.  And I think I know whose it was.’  He held up the card in his hand so that Will could see it.  It was a mourning card, with a post-mortem photograph of the deceased, a thin man with a grey moustache laid out on a bed surrounded by white lilies.  It was grimy with dust, as if it had been in the Tarlenheim mausoleum for decades.


  ‘So where did the nun come into it?’


  ‘We emerged on to the Rodolferplaz and filed past the gun carriage upon which was laid a coffin draped with the national flag.  But also on the coffin was something that should not have been there, from which I knew it was a dream.  It was the Tassilisnerkron, which is laid only on the coffins of the kings of Rothenia, yet this was no royal funeral.


  ‘There were several clergy around the gun carriage, holding candles and a processional cross, and among them stood a nun in white robes, her hands within her scapular, upon which was an elaborate jewelled cross.  She caught my eye and held it.  She was a formidable woman, for all her lack of inches.  I would recognise her again anywhere.’


  Will was gripped.  ‘What happened then?’


  ‘Nothing at all.  I looked into her eyes, and she into mine.  There was a moment of vertigo, and then I was awake in my own bed in a sweat.’


  Will reached out for the card, which Oskar handed over.  He looked at the back, and found it was a postcard, with the printer’s name at the bottom and an address given as ‘Gildenfahrbsweg 322, Strelzen III’.  Verses in Rothenian were scrawled across the card in faded ink.  Will puzzled them out.




‘Of the king restored.


Red the hair


Of the boy king


Hero of his age


Slayer of the evil one.




  ‘What is this?’ he demanded.  ‘You obviously recognise these words.’


  Oskar nodded.  ‘It’s part of a longer prophetic poem by no less than St Fenice of Tarlenheim on the sequence of Elphberg kings.  A copy was given to me by the princess of Vinodol, who had it from old Prince Leopold of Thuringia, though she did not know where he had unearthed it.  Those lines are the prophecy which describes the king after Maxim.’


  ‘So that is where all your sense of conviction is coming from!  A fifteenth-century prophecy?’


  ‘It is uncanny, is it not, Willemju?  But there were of course other reasons.  However, to find those verses turning up now, and here of all places, is beyond coincidence.  Look at what else is written on the card.’


  ‘It says: Luc. 11.9.  Apoc. 6.2.  These are Biblical references.’


  Helge smiled broadly.  ‘From the Gospel according to Luke: “And I say unto you, ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.”  The other is from the Book of the Revelation to St John.  “And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer.”’  She sobered. ‘I think we may conclude that we are being offered assistance by some unknown hand.’


  Oskar’s expression was more excited than Will had ever seen it.  ‘What next then, Osku?’ he asked.


  ‘Back to Strelzen.  We have much to do.’


  ‘And who is the photograph of on that card?’


  ‘Well, leblen, do you not recognise President Marcus Tildemann?’