Michael Arram







 The boys followed the obsequies for poor Ramon at a distance.  He was buried in Houston, where his family lived.  There was an unhappy scene at the requiem when the family denied Terry a place amongst the lead mourners, and there were some ugly words thrown at the gay section of the congregation after the service.  It was only the powerful advocacy of Ramon’s aunt, Mrs Fuentes – Andy’s former housekeeper – that stopped further humiliations.  Ramon’s family had never come to terms with his relationship with Terry, and they were not in a forgiving mood.  Terry was not even allowed to contribute to the headstone.  Andy told Ed that he was heartbroken and looked years older.  He had been denied the normal mechanisms of grieving.


  After the funeral, Terry went back to Los Angeles to visit the places where he and Ramon had first met, at which point Matt and Andy lost track of him.  They confessed they were a bit worried.  They returned to London ten days after they had left, and immediately summoned Ed up to Highgate.  Henry waved him off at Shrewsbury station, musing a little selfishly (as he admitted to himself) that at least he had avoided loneliness for most of the holiday fortnight.


  Meanwhile, he had finally pulled off what his brother Ricky had failed to do: wear down his father on the subject of an Internet connection.  In truth, the diocese had also leant on Mr Atwood, as all clergy were supposed to be on an e-mail directory.  The archdeacon had got quite shirty with him.  So, although Henry and Ed were apart, they were at least in close touch.  Henry more or less had a monopoly on the use of the Internet.  His father was not enthusiastic about the web, his mother soon lost interest in it, and Ricky had gone on holiday to Ibiza with his new girlfriend Helen, Mark Peters’s eldest sister.


  For the last few days of the exeat, Henry took station at the new window on his world with his usual concentration, and found much there to fuel his interest.  Rothenia was bubbling with rumour and discontent, and the current crisis was inspiring new media manifestations, especially opinion sites and blogs.


  The famous national newspaper, the Ruritanischer Tagblatt, had at last gone on-line.  It offered a generally liberal take on events, and was pro-Maritz though not overwhelmed by the quality of his leadership.  Henry gratefully added www.ruritanischer-tagblatt.rn to his bookmarks.  Despite the site’s not being a particularly polished production, it gave Henry a doorway for deeper exploration into cyber-Rothenia, where he found things he had not expected.


  Links led him to a series of blogs whose authors seemed remarkably well informed about the internal workings of the government and media.  There was an awesome amount of detail and high-quality graphics.  Henry began to suspect those blogs of being backed by serious money not available to the CDP, whose clunky sites were uninformative and close to useless – rarely updated except with new pictures of the CDP leader, Bermann, at yet another rally or party dinner.


  Eventually the blogs led Henry to some visually stunning Rothenian political and historical sites that opened up a further world, one closed to the western media, which were taking little interest in the developing crisis.  Monarchism was unexpectedly on the rise in Rothenia.  He discovered a magnificent site at www.longlebstdenkung.rn offering huge resources for the Elphberg and Thuringian past of Rothenia and links to rival discussion boards.  Henry was absorbed by the debates about Prince Leopold of Thuringia, or King Leopold II as the sites called him.  The fact that the late duke of Thuringia had been openly gay utterly captivated Henry, whose mind went haring off after this entrancing historical character.  He even ordered a recent biography from Amazon.


  He signed up to a discussion board on the rights of King Leopold III, as it called the present duke of Thuringia, and whiled away many happy hours chatting online in Rothenian to people in Strelzen, Ebersfeld, Ernsthof and Wisconsin about the pros and cons of the overthrow of King Albert, extolling the virtues of his son, and debating conspiracy theories about the murder of the king’s mistress in Berlin as well as the king’s own ultimate assassination in 1919.


  A high point for Henry was his discovery of the Crown of Tassilo site.  It was an awesome compilation of conspiracy mania regarding the whereabouts of the lost national treasure, unseen since the abdication of King Maxim, and – some said – largely responsible for the success of his coup against King Albert.  Its reappearance in 1910 had swept Maxim Elphberg on to the throne, and its disappearance with the king in 1919 opened up a hole in the national psyche.  While there was no shortage of theories about what had happened to it, and where it might be found, Henry began to lose interest when the Templars made their inevitable appearance.  He did not think it likely that the Crown of Tassilo was alluded to amongst the carvings of Rosslyn Chapel.


  In more serious moments, Henry caught up on current news.  Regional elections in Husbrau had returned only Unity and CDP MPs, squeezing President Maritz’s SDP coalition down to a majority of one.  The coalition was looking frail, as the CDP’s star was rising in opinion polls in the rest of the country.  National elections were scheduled for the end of June and the Unity party was expected to sweep the board, giving the ethnic Germans the balance of power in Parliament, a development which would only enrage the CDP further.  A disturbing new trend was that gangs were deliberately trashing German businesses and schools to provoke a further German backlash.  The CDP was suspected of being behind them.


  It looked to Henry as though there were anti-democratic forces at work in Rothenia, with the objective of getting back to the brutal days of the former Communist dictator, Horvath.  There were also disturbing rumours that cells of the former secret police and Communist cadres in the military were becoming active and were linked to the CDP.


  Henry had been startled to find his friend Will Vincent mentioned a lot on various sites.  Will’s recent TV series on Rothenian history, with its authoritative analysis of the stresses and strains over the centuries, had generated a huge wave of nostalgia amongst Rothenians for the old Ruritanian days.  The reign of King Maxim was again and again mentioned as the golden age of Rothenian political life.  Then why did the idiots throw him out? Henry kept asking himself.


  Fritz was nearly as good a correspondent as the distant Edward in London, even though all Fritz really wanted to talk about was his progress in getting inside the knickers of the unfortunate Maria, who seemed for the time being more than willing to cooperate.  Fritz was touchingly confident that Henry would not tell on him to his brother and sister.  His description of his first blow job was exhaustive and indeed exhausting.  He also wanted to compare notes on Henry’s technique in sucking off Ed and whether he came in Henry’s mouth.  Coming in Maria’s mouth seemed to be the next great ambition of the precociously dissolute prince of Tarlenheim.








  Rudolf Elphberg-Rassendyll, pretender to the Rothenian throne, chewed his pencil end abstractedly, then took the damp, shredded object out of his mouth and regarded it with distaste.  He must break this damned childish habit.  It was not kingly.


  He put away his diary, whose keeping was something he had begun when only eight, in the aftermath of his father’s death.  It had somehow helped to have that as a vent for his confusion, grief and hurt.  He had reflected at the time how little people left behind of themselves in the world, and a diary seemed to offer a chance for him to record his life as he lived it.  There was now a tidy stack of notebooks in his bedroom desk drawer, written in his increasingly confident and bold hand.


  He booted up his desktop, but found no mail had come from Rothenia, where all had gone quiet since Will left for the States.  Oskar was a poor correspondent.  You only heard from him when there was a crisis or a major development.  But in any case, Rudi would be seeing Oskar soon.  Their schedule demanded it.


  There was a tap on Rudi’s door.  It was Mrs Doherty, the Burlesdon’s housekeeper, with a message from his mother.  He was wanted in the drawing room, as his grandparents had arrived.


  ‘Rudolf!  Dear boy.  My … you have grown.  He’s grown, hasn’t he, Vi?  Six feet if he’s an inch.  All of a sudden.  It hardly seems yesterday you were off to Palmers in your short trousers.  Now you’re a proper man.  Nearly old enough to go into a public house.’


  Don Alejandro Carlos Luis Jacobo Fitz-James y Toledo, the Most Excellent the 12th Duke of Munster and Duque de La Coruña – with many other titles besides, not least Grandee of Spain – crossed his thin legs and regarded his grandson with some apparent curiosity.  As he did so, he took his wife’s hand fondly and squeezed it.  Violette had become his second wife three years before, following the annulment of his first marriage to Rudi’s real grandmother, a much older woman than Violette, who was a former Dior model and still looked like a fashion plate.


  The duque, despite his name and titles, was as English in manner and upbringing as he could be.  His father had dabbled in liberal politics in Spain between the wars, then fled the country before Franco’s defeat of the Republicans, although not before prudently sending most of the family’s movable assets ahead of him to England.


  The Fitz-Jameses had eventually settled in Richmond, and were now very comfortably off, after the eventual recovery of their extensive Galician estates, a gift by the king of Spain to the duque’s ancestor, Charles Henry Fitz-James, created duke of Munster by his father, the exiled King James II and VII.  La Coruña and many other ducal and comital titles had been acquired over the centuries since.  The duque was near the apex of Catholic nobility, and was moreover a direct descendant of the Stuart kings of Great Britain, though through an illegitimate son of King James by his mistress, Arabella Churchill.  The same liaison had produced the first duke of Munster’s elder brother, the more famous Marshal Duke of Berwick.


  It was because of his grandfather that Rudolf, earl of Burlesdon, had a line of descent from Alfred the Great, as much as from Tassilo of Rothenia.  The lineage also brought him kinship with nearly a dozen Spanish dukes and marquises.  Rudi might have been intimidated by his grandfather – as a younger boy he certainly had been – but recent events had brought home to him the reality of the claims to which his Rassendyll blood entitled him.  Great though his grandfather might be, Rudi could one day be greater yet in the eyes of the world: the crowned sovereign monarch of an ancient realm.  Unconsciously, his back stiffened.  Somehow a telepathic impulse seemed to communicate this to the old man, who regarded his grandson with deeper interest.


  ‘He looks very like his father, don’t you think, Eugenia?’


  The countess of Burlesdon smiled fondly up at her son.  ‘More handsome, I think.’


  Rudi smiled back down at her and settled on the arm of her chair.


  The duquesa chimed in.  ‘The red colouring, is that from his father?’


  Her husband guffawed.  ‘It’s from much further back.  The Burlesdons are more than they appear, and the blood that runs in my grandson’s veins comes from the Rudolfine house of Ruritania.  He’s as royal as I am – that is, he’s as much an Elphberg as I’m a Stuart.’


  ‘Oh!  You mean …?’


  ‘Wrong side of the blanket, my dear.’


  Again that same impulse moved in Rudi and he spoke deliberately in answer to his grandfather.  ‘More royal, I believe sir.  For my great grandfather’s uncle was in his day king of Rothenia.  He took the name of Elphberg and acquitted himself with great honour in the post to which God had called him.’


  His mother took Rudi’s hand and pressed it.  Those words, which might have come out as pompous in the mouth of any other seventeen-year-old, had the ring of quiet and sober dignity in her son’s.  His grandfather certainly seemed to think so.  His face took on an air of detached amusement.


  ‘So are you planning to take off to Strelzen, dear fellow?  From what the BBC was saying, the place very much needs a king at the moment.  Look what Juan Carlos did for the old place; who would have thought a Bourbon would have that in him!  Do you think you could do the same for old Ruritania?’


  ‘We call it Rothenia, sir.’


  ‘“We”, Rudolf?  Are we becoming more royal as we speak?’


  ‘I do have a Rothenian passport, sir.  I was merely aligning myself with the rest of my countrymen.’


  The duque gave a somewhat equivocal grunt, then changed the subject.  ‘I hear good reports of your progress at Medwardine School from the princess your grandmother, which I have to say is something of a relief after what happened last year … not that I’m criticising, you understand.  I admired your motivation in dealing with that pervert, though your mode of action might have been more circumspect, a point I made to the provost when the headmaster insisted you be withdrawn.’


  ‘I like Medwardine, sir.  It’s a different sort of place.’


  His mother squeezed his hand.  ‘He’s settled there.  I met some very nice friends he’s made … what were their names?’


  ‘Atwood and Cornish, mother.  An … er … odd couple, but they’ve been solid with me.’


  ‘Solid … is that teenage argot?’ enquired his grandfather.


  ‘It means decent, sort of thing.  Apart from that, so many of my relatives have been there.  There’re pictures of Prince Leo and King Maxim in New and Temple, and they still keep my grandfather’s cricket bat in a glass case, the one he scored a century with in eight overs against Eton in 1945!’


  The duque laughed.  ‘You clearly treasure that particular connection, my boy.  Well, well, I never met Lord Lowestoft, but from what I’ve heard from the princess your grandmother, he was quite the man.  Hardly surprising that in his day he was quite the boy too.  I’m pleased, really.  What fine men they all were.  You could easily forgive Leo his little idiosyncrasy.  I think you know what I mean.’


  Rudi gave a slow nod.  ‘I’ve met some good guys who are gay … Outfield and Cornish are boyfriends, but they’re now my best friends.’


  The duque’s eyebrows shot up.  ‘My dear young fellow, you are so very broadminded.  But that’s the younger generation for you.  Just please don’t turn out to be one of them, for the sake of your house.  Other than you, there’s only Robert’s girl Lennie left to inherit, and with her the Rassendyll name would end forever.’


  ‘Elphberg, sir,’ responded Rudi quietly but firmly.  ‘That is my name.’








  Rudi hunched his shoulders as the relentless Norfolk rain rattled on his Barbour jacket.  He trudged and squelched his way through the mud of Burlesdon Coverts wishing he’d put a hat on.  Unfortunately, he had a teenage conviction that hats looked idiotic on him, so he had stalwartly passed by the assorted cloth caps hanging on the rack of the butler’s pantry.  He wondered idly why the idea of wearing the antique glory of the Crown of Tassilo on his head did not seem so ridiculous.


  Rain was trickling its way down his back from his soaked hair when he reached the Waterloo Folly.  He looked up at the crumbling brick battlements of the hundred-foot tower raised by one of his ancestors to celebrate Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon in 1815.  The wooden door was sagging back on its rusted hinges, so he pushed on in.  It was at least dry within, for the leaden roof far above him remained sound.  He smiled, guessing that Outfield would enjoy this quirky historic building, judging by the guy’s peculiar devotion to graveyards and country churches.  Betjeman Boy, he called Henry in his head, rather amused by the literary resonance of the remark.


  Why did he like the little queer?  In reply, the Elphberg side of his inheritance stated firmly: He has helped you freely when he had no need to do so, and indeed every reason not to.  Henry Atwood is an honourable man for all he’s a homo, and you, Rudolf Robert, 14th earl of Burlesdon, are under a deep obligation to him.


  His watch showed midday as he heard the splash and squelch of someone approaching.  Peering out, he was delighted to discover Oskar von Tarlenheim.  The two shook hands at the door.  Although the Rothenian at least was wearing a hat, he still managed to be irritatingly cool.


  ‘Kungliche hochheit,’ greeted Oskar in deferential salutation, giving the Rothenian head-jerk which passed for a bow in that nation.


  ‘You call me so, excellency,’ Rudi replied with a small smile, ‘but I don’t think you should.’


  ‘Perhaps, sir,’ Oskar replied.  ‘However, it seems wrong that I should acknowledge the current duke of Thuringia in that way, and not you.’


  ‘He is the grandson of a king, Oskar.  You have to go back to Rudolf III of Ruritania till you find a king in my lineage.  I know Rudolf Rassendyll and Maxim Elphberg were both of my family and wore the Tassilisnerkron, but I am descended from neither of them.’


  ‘Of course I defer to you, sir.  The point is, all Elphberg loyalists now acknowledge that Robert Rassendyll, designated by Queen Flavia to be her heir, should properly be reckoned in the Elphberg succession, especially as his younger son Maxim was actually crowned.  That does alter your status, and if the princes of Hanover may be called royal highness – though none has been king since 1866 – then so can you be.’


  Rudi shook his head, but said nothing more about it.


  Oskar therefore continued, ‘Tomas Weissman and his crew will be here tomorrow, sir.  Is all ready?’


  ‘Yes.  The princess my grandmother has talked to my mother, who will take the duque and duquesa to Thetford for lunch.  We should have three clear hours.’


  Oskar shrugged.  ‘Three hours does not give us a lot of time for filming, sir.  Tomas will not be happy.  It means he will only be able to get in a couple of takes.’


  ‘Then I had better be on my game, excellency.’


  The count looked dubious, but shrugged again.  ‘There will be the chance to edit the tapes later, at least.  Now we need to look at the issue of security.’




  ‘The blogs and websites are already active, and in two weeks they will be going on the attack.  That’s the point at which the opposition will realise where the danger is coming from.’


  ‘You think the CDP is insane enough to try to take me out of the running, Oskar?’  Rudi felt mildly amused.


  ‘There is an element amongst them which used to belong to the old ORD, the Okranske Deinst of Horvath’s days. It may not have been as notorious as the East German Stasi, but it was mean and brutal in its day.  It was responsible for assassinating General Henry von Tarlenheim, my cousin, who was leading the democratic opposition in exile in Paris during the early 1950s.  I would not be too confident that those days are gone, sir.  Bermann is a brute and an extremist.  He sees me and my like as blood traitors to Slavic Rothenia and collaborators with the Germans.  There are more like him than I care to contemplate.  They are organised and well-funded.  If they hate me, they will loathe you.’


  ‘So what are you suggesting, Oskar?’


  ‘We have no funds for proper security, but I will ask around and see what can be done.  Mostly however it will be about you being careful, sir.  Take no risks, and keep your eyes open.  At least the school where you are is relatively secure.  It will not be easy for the ill-disposed to get at you without being observed.’


  ‘You really think they will come after me?’


  Oskar shook his head.  ‘I have no idea.  But these people are dangerous, and they have a lot to lose in the event of a Restoration.  Do not underestimate the threat.’








  Oskar von Tarlenheim reached his hired car, which he had parked at a pull-in on the other side of Burlesdon Coverts.  He needed to get himself over to check in the Eastnet crew at Swaffham … those absurd English place names.


  Just as he was about to pull on to the narrow country lane, his mobile buzzed.  He checked its screen and immediately turned the car engine off.


  ‘Peter?  Where are you?’


  ‘Just arrived at Heathrow, dude; late-night flight from JFK.’


  ‘When was this arranged?’


  ‘A summons from the old man.  Big things are brewing in Peacherland.’


  ‘How did you know I was in the UK?’


  ‘Terry O’Brien told me.’


  ‘And how did he know?’


  ‘You don’t ask those questions of Terry.  I had enough trouble tracking him down.  I need that guy, and I was lucky enough to have his friend Zeke on detail at Yale.  Terry won’t talk to anyone else at the moment, but he’s still in contact with Zeke and Jenna.  Anyway, dude, I’ll be staying at Matt and Andy’s.  Where are you?’


  ‘Eastnet business.  I am on location for the next two days in … er, the Midlands.’


  Peter Peacher seemed to catch something in Oskar’s voice, and there was a pause.  ‘So you got time to meet up in London?’


  Oskar replied decidedly, ‘Of course.  How long are you here for?’


  Oskar almost heard the shrug in his lover’s voice.  ‘That’s an open question.’


  ‘But your studies?’


  ‘You checked the airport bookshelves recently?  That bastard Tim Caird’s book hit the stands last week.  It’s selling well and the little shit is on every talk show in the States.  Yale is not a good place for me to be at the moment.  Talk to ya later, babe.  Just reached passport control.  See ya, hunk!’








  Two SUVs hired from Stansted airport turned up in the drive of Burlesdon House at eleven the next morning, on the dot.  Oskar pulled in behind them in his Audi.  He went over to Tomas Weissman to shake hands in the serious Rothenian way.


  ‘So this is a noble English château, Osku?  I must say it is impressive.’  He indicated the mellow brick frontage of the great Jacobean house, with its acres of diamond-paned windows and lead-domed corner turrets.


  ‘Nowhere near as impressive as the occupant.  Are you properly briefed?’


  ‘A teenage English prince?  Not really necessary, surely.  Did you say he speaks Rothenian or German?  You know my English is not up to studio standards.’


  ‘He speaks both.  His Rothenian is perfect.  Here he is … and mind your manners, Tomasczu!’


  Tomas turned, and Oskar heard a sharp intake of breath.  Tomas swore, ‘My God!  You didn’t mention the looks.  He’s a Red Elphberg to the life!’


  ‘I did warn you,’ smiled Oskar.


  Tomas did not need to be told to bow over Rudi’s hand; somehow it seemed a natural thing to do.  ‘Hochheit, can my team set up immediately?’


  ‘By all means, Herr Weissman.  I thought you might like to record some footage in the gallery, where we have portraits of King Ferdinand and his half-brother, the sixth earl, side-by-side.  There is a striking resemblance.’


  ‘We can film a brief walking tour through the château, sir.  It’ll be useful for filling.  Your Rothenian, sir … it’s … I can’t tell that you weren’t raised in Strelzen.  There’s a distinct accent of the city in your voice.’


  ‘I was there as a younger boy.  My grandmother and father brought me up speaking Rothenian from the cradle.  I didn’t talk English till I was four.’


  ‘Can I check where the interview is proposed to take place?  We must get it right first time.  Laszlo, the location manager, will wish to position the lights.  Sorry to have to push.’


  ‘I understand.  The housekeeper will show your people where to go.  What are you going to do, excellency?’


  Oskar shrugged.  I’ll stay out of the way, sir.  But can I have a brief word?’  Oskar led Rudi to one side as the crew struggled past with the paraphernalia of the film studio.  ‘It’s the Crown.  I need your permission to be a little more decisive when I return to Strelzen.  Everything indicates that its present hiding place is in the crypt of the Salvatorskirk.’


  Rudi nodded.  ‘What do you mean by decisive?”


  ‘I can’t believe it lies with King Maxim, who was only buried there in my lifetime … no, I think it’s concealed with his friend, Marcus Tildemann,.’


  ‘Your vision?’


  ‘The crown rested on his coffin in my dream.’


  ‘So crowbars are in order, you think?’


  ‘Yes, I’m afraid so.  I will do what I must, even though to my mind it’s more than a little indecent.  He was a good man, and should not be disturbed in such a way.’


  ‘If there’s any chance it’s there, you must do what you think fit, excellency.  With that in our hands, anything is possible.’


  ‘So I believe, sir.’


  Rudi mused.  ‘Knock and it shall be opened unto you.’




  ‘From what you told me of your discovery at Heinrichshof.  A strange choice of biblical phrase.  Do you suppose it means more than might appear at first sight?’


  ‘I have no idea.  I think you’re wanted by Tomas.’


  Oskar watched Rudi stride up the broad steps to the pillared doorway of the house.  A moment later he hunched his shoulders and followed.