Michael Arram







  Hasty footsteps approaching the chapter office caused Oskar to switch his attention from Father Wladislaw to the door.  An elderly clergyman rushed in, breathing heavily.  He stared at Oskar and Peter.  ‘So which of you knew the shibboleth?’


  ‘The shibboleth?’ Oskar responded.  ‘The passage of scripture I cited?’


  The clergyman nodded.  ‘I am Father Serge, archpriest of this church.  You seek the Crown of Tassilo.’


  ‘Er … yes.  You mean you have it?’


  The man shook his head.  ‘I can give you no answers till I know more.  Who are you, young man?’


  ‘I am Oskar von Tarlenheim.’


  ‘Ah!  The former prince.  Yes, I know of you.  So also did your kinswoman, Mother Maria Nativitata, apparently.’


  ‘You’re talking in riddles, father.’


  ‘Perhaps, and maybe I cannot make all clear.’  Father Serge indicated they should take chairs round the table.  ‘Now, tell me how you came here knowing that shibboleth.’


  He  accepted the grimy postcard of the late President Tildemann’s deathbed when Oskar handed it to him, then listened closely to the explanation.


  ‘And you believe the shade of the abbess led you to us.’


  ‘Bizarre though it may be, I can think of no other solution.  Perhaps you can tell me what lies behind all this mystery?’


  The archpriest had examined the card with considerable interest while Oskar spoke.  Looking up he commented, ‘Very well.  You will know something of the Crown’s history since the death of Queen Flavia: how it was concealed by Elphberg loyalists, and brought out of hiding in 1910 in time to secure the accession of Maxim Elphberg.  In 1919 it dropped from sight once more.  The king did not entrust it to the republic on his abdication.  He freely admitted he had given it to anonymous guardians in trust for the future and had no idea himself where it was being kept or even who the guardians were.  He would say only that it would be produced on some future day, when the time was ripe for the Elphbergs once again to ascend the throne of Rothenia.


  ‘Our part in this came in 1930, after the burial of Tildemann.  Following the service, the Reverend Mother Abbess of Medeln asked to see the archpriest of that day.  She was a very formidable character, as you must surely know: the daughter of Prince Franz III and, as a child, a favourite of the former Queen Flavia’s.  The abbess told the archpriest that the guardians of the Crown were hard-pressed to find a safe shelter for it.  One of them claimed to have had a revelation that the Salvatorskirk was the place where the Crown might be concealed in the heart of the city and yet remain safe down the generations, despite war and revolution.  She proposed that the chapter should become its guardians.


  ‘My predecessor was deeply troubled by this charge, as you might imagine.  We are a college of priests, all different, some trustworthy and some less so, as with any group of men.  The archpriest was thus very reluctant to undertake the responsibility.  It is said, however, that as he and the abbess were talking in the church by the altar of the Annunciation, he felt his shoulder gripped.  Turning, he found the figure of the archangel had grasped his robe and was scowling in his face, “like an angry boy,” he later said.  I believe he may have fainted at that point.  Once he was restored to his senses, he and the abbess agreed that the archpriest and the sacrist alone of the chapter should be the custodians of the object and the prophecy that went with it.’


  ‘The scriptural verses?  Is that what you mean?’ demanded Oskar.


  ‘Verses?  We were told only of the passage from Luke.  We were one day to expect a Rothenian prince to enter our church and ask after the abbess of Medeln.  When he did so, we were to challenge him with that particular chapter and verse of Luke.  The prince was to be the man to whom we were to surrender the Crown.  What other verse do you mean?’


  Oskar frowned.  ‘A very ominous one from the Book of Revelation, as you may see from what I believe to be the abbess’s note on this card, written perhaps on the very day she interviewed your predecessor in this church.  My friend, I thank you for your safe custody of the great treasure of the House of Elphberg.  Now the time has come to surrender it.’


  ‘Will you take it, excellency?’


  Oskar pondered for a long while as the others waited.  Eventually he came to a decision.  ‘No.  My feeling is that the hand of the king alone should receive it.’


  ‘The king, sir?  But there is no king.’


  ‘He is coming, father.  And this is how you should prepare for him.’








  Henry took his mind off his aching rear by scratching a more metaphorical itch.  ‘Hey, Rudi!’


  The earl looked up from his politics textbook.  He seemed in a less tense mood than he lately had been.  ‘What can I do for you, Outfield?  Take a seat.’


  ‘I think I’ll just lean up against the window here, if that’s alright.’


  Rudi shrugged.  ‘Whatever, Henry.’


  ‘You’re on the phone an awful lot.’


  ‘Would you believe I have friends back at Eton who worry about me?’


  Henry gave a little smile at Rudi’s irony.  The boy could betray a rather grim humour at times.  ‘Come on, Broody.  Reveal.’


  Rudi crossed his arms and leaned back.  ‘Henry, you’re a pain.  That curiosity bump of yours really will get you into trouble one day.  What explanation would satisfy you?  Westenra tells me you’re concerned I’m dealing in Viagra.’


  ‘What!  I never …’


  ‘Online gambling?  Day trading?  Chat lines?  Phone sex with Lithuanian prostitutes?  Your imagination is as endless as your cheek.’


  Henry had gone bright red.  ‘I … er …’ he stuttered.


  But Rudi was actually smiling quirkily at him.  ‘Relax, Henry, I’m sure you’re genuinely concerned about me, so I’m not outraged at your nosiness.  Just do one thing for me, will you?’


  ‘Er … what’s that?’


  ‘Mind you own bloody business!’


  It was as Rudi was turning away that his phone rang yet again.  He glanced at the screen and gasped.  Ignoring Henry, he answered in a stream of Rothenian: ‘Prosim, leblen freund, wojne jeszt?  …  Sezst treu!  Den kron!  Bozhje men!’


  ‘Crown … what crown?’ Henry butted in.


  He was instantly quelled by the flaming eyes turned on him by Rudi.  ‘Will you shut up, Henry?  And clear off before I use my boot on your rear.’


  Deciding that the present state of his backside made discretion the better part of valour, Henry scooted.








  Oskar closed his mobile and took Peter’s arm.  ‘So leblen, things are running fast to their conclusion.’


  ‘I’m bemused, Osku.  Since that incident with Tim Caird, I know this city can be a strange place, but the weirdness seems to follow you around like a stray cat.’


  ‘I’m beginning to realise there may be something going on behind all this.  I feel as though greater forces than political ambition are at work here.  That abbess from the past seems to have some ability to reach out to the present to mould events.  It is scary.’


  Peter hugged Oskar’s arm to him.  ‘But it could be a good thing.  If these forces are working for you, it’ll make your – our – job easier.’


  ‘So it is a joint effort now?’


  ‘You bet.  This is just way too cool.’


  ‘Then we’d better get over to Strelsenermedia to update Will.  But first I have another meeting, and this one is for me alone.  Can you go in the Flavienerhof and get yourself a coffee and cake.  I am likely to be about an hour.’


  ‘So who is it, Osku?


  ‘Shall we say a former colleague of mine who wants to work for the king, and has some news for me.’








  Henry closed his textbook and stretched.  This was it, the end of term.  School was breaking up tomorrow and the Easter holidays were beginning.  After that it was the exam period.  His carrel door opened and in sidled another of his concerns.


  ‘Hey, Outfield.’  Davey met no resistance when he leaned over and kissed Henry thoroughly.


  Henry broke off.  ‘You ready for home?’


  ‘Just about.  I’ll miss you, Henry.’


  ‘Yeah … and our wanking sessions.’


  Davey grinned.  ‘I’ll save it till I’m back, then hose you down with what I’ve stored up.’


  ‘Ugh.  That’s an image I won’t be able to escape.’


  ‘In a sexy sort of way?’ Davey asked hopefully.


  ‘Not really, no.  The word sticky comes to mind.  Could you just find yourself a boyfriend?’


  ‘Suggestions gratefully received.  Problem is, you and Ed are the only out gays in our year.  The upper sixth is about to depart.  You want me to cruise Year 11?  There’re one or two who might just be sorta gay.’


  ‘You thinking of Jamie McAndrew?’


  ‘Aargh!  He’s so camp!  He’s like, “Ooh!  OhmiGod!  Aren’t you a sweetheart!”  He can’t keep that loose mouth of his shut.  I might as well tape our conversations and put them on the Web.  Besides, he’s so bitchy.  Why can’t there be more people like you, Henry?’


  ‘I dunno.  Probably cos I’m unique, I suppose.  How are things with you and Broody?’


  ‘We had a mutual sneering contest over breakfast this morning.  He’s such a dick.’


  ‘No more rows at least.’


  ‘He’s beneath me.’  Davey grinned and departed.


  Henry had actually been fired up by the exchange with his sexual nemesis, to the point where he found he had a stubborn erection, and felt the need to do something about it.  Stowing his inconvenient stiffie in a more comfortable position in his underpants, he buttoned his suit jacket and went in search of a source of satisfaction.


  He found it at a computer terminal, scanning its e-mail.  The room was quite full so Henry had to be careful as he sidled up behind Ed.  ‘Need a fuck bad, baby,’ he whispered in his lover’s ear.  ‘Meet you at the place of last resort.’


  Twenty minutes later, Henry was up against a tree in a secluded part of the copse in the school grounds, his trousers round his ankles and something large forcing its way between his buttocks.  He swore.  There was only spit available for lube and Ed was a big boy, but Henry took it nonetheless.  Soon he was beyond caring.


  Ed had stripped naked despite the cold and possibility of discovery.  Henry looked at the bare feet planted on the ground on either side of him.  It was all too sexy.  He pulled off his own upper clothes as he was being fucked, and threw them to one side.  He was rewarded by the warmth of Ed’s chest and belly pressing against his back.  A hand gripped his penis and soon he was shooting his load on to the ground as Ed came hard inside him.


  Ed gave a low laugh.  ‘God, that was good.  But it’s March and even my goose bumps have bumps on them.  I’m gonna pull out.  I’ll see if I’ve got a tissue to wipe your bum, little babe.’


  They cleaned up and dressed.  Ed adjusted Henry’s tie and hair, kissed him and, satisfied, the pair headed back to the block.








  The crisis began that evening, the Thursday before the end of Hilary Term.  Ed was missing his mobile, and had not found it in the block or in his boarding house.  He got Rudi to call his number.  The phone was clearly on, but he couldn’t hear his ring tone anywhere round.  He began to wonder if it had come out of his trouser pocket when he had stripped before servicing Henry that afternoon.


  It was already getting dark when he reached the copse in the school grounds.  He hunkered down and began feeling through the leaf debris at the ‘place of last resort’ as they called it.  He searched for quite a while, and had almost given up when he felt cold metal at his fingertips.  He got up with a triumphant smile.  The mobile had been a handsome Christmas gift from Matt, and he would have hated to have to confess he had lost it.


  As he pocketed it and headed back to school, he observed a car pulling up a side lane running alongside the copse.  That was odd, for the lane was a dead end, only ever used by the groundsman’s tractor.  The headlights went out.  There was something furtive about this sort of behaviour that intrigued Ed, until it occurred to him that the intruders might well be a courting couple.  He began to stroll back towards Longley House, where he boarded, but stopped dead when he saw three men emerge silently from the car.  Even in the gloom he could make out that they were large blokes, dressed in leather jackets.   By then very suspicious, he melted behind a tree.


  The men entered the wood and hunkered down on the margin.  When one raised a pair of night glasses, Ed decided that was definitely cause for suspicion.  He contemplated ringing the police, but the men would likely hear him.  Besides, his battery was low.


  Time passed.  One of the men took up his own mobile and made a call.  Then they surveyed the long bulk of the school’s south front, lights glowing in many of the windows.  A few kids were out walking late before the ten-thirty curfew.  Ed saw David Skipper strolling back alone from the chapel, where the choir had been rehearsing.  As he was going up the steps to the refectory door, he was nearly knocked flat by Rudi Burlesdon emerging at speed.  Even at that distance Ed could hear David swearing.  Rudi went back and picked him up.  Ed even heard him making apologetic sounds, but David was having none of it.  There was soon a low and furious argument going on.


  Before long, Rudi turned his back on David and marched down the grassy bank to the Mere, across the stream and up the other side towards the trees where the group of men and Ed were sheltering.  With that, David became even angrier and chased after Rudi, putting a hand on his shoulder just as he reached the woodland.  Rudi, thoroughly pissed by then, spun around and went to clock David on the chin, but this time David was ready.  He swayed his head out of the way and punched back, face alight with triumph as he knocked Rudi flat.


  At that moment the three men rose around them.  Two seized David, one slapping a hand over his mouth.  The third pulled Rudi up and put a half-nelson hold on him.


  Without stopping to think, Ed charged into the group, grabbing one of the men holding David and kneeing him in the balls as they both went down.  David bit the hand of the other man and, as he yelped, David elbowed him in the gut and pulled free.  Both David and Edward turned on the man holding Rudi, but froze.  A gun was covering them, and that changed the odds.  They raised their hands.


  The two other men came up behind them.  Ed felt ropes roughly bind his hands in the small of his back before a rag was stuffed hard in his mouth.  He was thrust through the trees towards the car, David stumbling ahead of him, also bound.  The two boys were unceremoniously shoved into the boot and the lid shut on top of them.  Rudi must have been put inside the car, which pulled off and bounced down the track.  Ed was lying on smelly, oily rags, which made him feel sick.  David was sprawled on top of him.  After driving for an indeterminate time, the car stopped, but no one came to get them out immediately.


  After what could have been an hour, a metallic creak and the smell of fresh air told the boys that the boot had been opened, although it was too dark outside to take in any details.  Strong hands hauled them out and put them on their wobbly legs.  They were pushed into a lit doorway.  The sudden illumination blinded Ed, but when his eyes adjusted he saw they were in a bare, dilapidated room.  Rudi was tied to a chair, and they were soon treated the same way.


  So, thought Ed, this must be a kidnapping, and these guys must be gangstersThey probably think Rudi will be worth quite a tidy sum.  Ed wondered precisely how wealthy Rudi’s family was.  David and he were from much more modest backgrounds, in which there were no millions to be paid for them.  Ah but, said Ed to himself, my foster fathers are worth dozens of Rudis, if the kidnappers only knew it.  Of course, they couldn’t have known, because it was clear he and David had just blundered in on the main event.


  No one showed any interested in them.  The kidnappers seemed indifferent as to whether anyone saw their faces, which – had Ed thought about it – was a very bad sign.  The men did not say much, apart from one who made several long calls on his mobile at intervals.  Was he seeking instruction?  What the men did say was not in English.  Ed supposed it might have been Czech or Rothenian.  Henry would have known, but Ed thanked God that his small lover was safe elsewhere.  His heart ached when he remembered the smiling face he adored.  He began to wonder if he would ever see Henry again.


  Hours passed.  Ed felt the pressure building up in his bladder until it became agonising.  He finally lost control and was humiliated by a stream of hot piss coursing down his right leg and puddling under his chair.  The leg of his trousers grew dark as it soaked up the urine.  The men noticed and laughed, but did nothing to help.  Ed struggled uselessly with his bonds.


  It must have been getting near dawn when all at once the lights in the cottage went off.  The three men cursed, and one scrabbled for a torch.  When the beam came on, its owner started looking inside cupboards for a fuse box or a meter.  Suddenly there was a huge bang, and smoke billowed everywhere.  Had the man done something stupid with the electricity?  No.  There were now more than three dark shapes in the smoke.  Someone pushed Ed’s chair over and he came down hard on his side.  There was the pop of a silenced hand gun on at least four occasions.  In the silence that followed, torch beams swept the murk, and Ed found himself lifted upright.  His bonds were cut and he was helped to his feet.  An anonymous dark figure in a ski mask with a heat-sensor visor over it removed his gag, allowing his huge, hacking coughs to join the others he heard around him.


  Ed was led away from the house into the cool, pre-dawn country air.  The grey light revealed a rundown hut and a weed-grown yard, surrounded by woods.  Probably it was a gamekeeper’s cottage.  He sank gratefully to the ground next to Rudi and David, the latter sporting a nasty cut on his brow.  Noticing how badly the boy was shaking, Ed gathered him in for a hug.  ‘You okay, Davey?’


  ‘No.  I’m scared shitless … ooh, you stink of piss.’


  ‘Yeah, well, I didn’t have the forethought to go for a pee before I was kidnapped did I.’


  They heard a chuckle as one of the anonymous figures emerged from the house and pulled off his visor and mask.  It was Terry O’Brien!


  Ed looked hard at this apparition.  It was Terry alright, although the face was subtly changed: a little haggard and visibly marked now by a deep grief, as Ed guessed.  But the elfin grin was still there.  ‘Hello, public school babes.  How you doin’?’


  ‘Who the fuck are you?’ burst out Rudi.


  ‘Would you be Lord Burlesdon?’ Terry asked.


  ‘What if I am?’


  Ed thought Terry would snap back at the rudeness, but far from it.  ‘Glad to meet you, sir.  You’re safe for the time being, but as I’m sure you know, we have to move fast.  This incident has presented us with some real problems.’


  Rudi enquired, rather more coolly by then, ‘So who are you?’


  ‘He’s Terry O’Brien,’ Edward explained.


  ‘God, Edward!  Are you in on this too?’


  ‘No.  Rudi, I don’t know what the fuck’s going on here – less than you it seems – but I do know Terry.  He used to be my foster father’s bodyguard.’


  ‘Actually, Edward babe, I was his Head of Security.  A subtle difference.  I had bodyguards working under me.’


  ‘So you’re a Peacher employee?’ Rudi asked.


  ‘Yes, sir, or at least I was,’ Terry responded.  Ed noticed there were none of the playful modes of address towards Rudi that Terry used towards him, Justin and the other teens in the Peacher set.


  Ed said, ‘Terry, I don’t know what’s going on here, but I’ve been knocked down, gagged, tied up and shoved in a car boot.  One thing I do know: this was no simple kidnapping, was it?’


  Terry looked at Rudi, almost as if asking for his permission to break a confidence.  ‘No, Ed.  This was something of a very different order.  You might say it was an attempted assassination that went badly wrong when you and your mate here blundered in on it.  But you might just have saved Lord Burlesdon’s life, and that is something which in the circumstances may be of very great significance.’


  Ed turned to Rudi.  ‘Why would someone want to kill you, Rudi?’


  Rudi shook his head and got up.  ‘Later,’ he said with some dismissiveness, ‘I’ll tell you later.  Now you, Terry.  You know where I must go and why.  Perhaps you may have some means to get me there, quickly and secretly.’


  ‘I think I do, sir.  But let me assemble my team.’  At his call, two other masked figures appeared and stripped off their hoods.


  The slimmer one shook out long blonde hair.  ‘Jenna!’ shouted Ed.  She was Andy Peacher’s current Director of Security.


  ‘Hi, Edward.’  She gave him her usual wintry smile.


  The other was a thickset, silent man, whom Terry introduced as Zeke Alonzo, one of his former employees.


  ‘What’s happened to the kidnappers?’ David asked hesitantly.


  ‘Sudden career change involving wings,’ replied Jenna brusquely.  David knew to ask no more.


  Terry looked David over.  ‘You I don’t know, sweet babe.’


  ‘David Skipper, I’m Rudi’s … I mean, Ed’s … friend.  And what’s with the “sweet babe” business?’


  Terry’s grin widened.  ‘Just being friendly.  Now, I have a van a half mile down the track, so I hope you’re up to walking.  We have to get you all back to school well before eight-thirty and it’s already six o’clock.  I hope you don’t have too many lessons.  I doubt you’ll be able to concentrate.’


  ‘But I must be out of the country tomorrow!’ Rudi cried.


  ‘And so you shall be, sir,’ Terry assured him.  ‘Meanwhile, it is very important that you try to keep up the appearance of a normal school day until three in the afternoon.  If you don’t, too many warning signals will go off.  And don’t worry.  The whole school is now under heavy guard by my people.  No one will get past us.’


  Rudi looked Terry over.  ‘And who do you work for, Mr O’Brien?’


  ‘Why, sir, you, and the future of Rothenia.’








  ‘That bastard will pay for what he’s done!’  Oskar paced the lounge of the Tarlenheim Palace in a fury.  Peter, Will and Felip were in a huddle at the fireplace, watching Oskar’s rage, a very rare and intimidating sight.


  Felip seemed the least daunted.  ‘I would agree with you, Osku, but how can you prove it was him?’


  ‘We know alright.  Hendrik’s been playing one side off against the other.  Once our sites went on the attack, and the Web petition began growing, the CDP went into a panic.  They know an Elphberg claimant’s out there.  What they didn’t know was where to find him and how to get at him.  Hendrik was all too happy to oblige.’


  ‘But how did they learn the boy’s mobile number?’


  Will Vincent sighed.  ‘We think they may have sympathisers in Strelsenermedia.  I haven’t been as security-minded as I might have been.’


  Oskar punched the palm of his right hand.  ‘Hendrik will die if we were too late and their hit squad took the boy out.  Thank God Terry O’Brien and his team were on site.  That’s because of you, Petey.’  He strode to the tall windows overlooking the Radhausplaz and glared down at the great square, empty but for the early morning street cleaners.  He and his friends had been up all night awaiting news.


  Oskar spun around as Peter’s mobile buzzed.  A long conversation ensued, during which Peter grinned and signalled thumbs up to the others.  Will sat down abruptly and put his head in his hands.


  Peter passed the phone over to Oskar for some further conversation.  When he had finished and returned the mobile to its owner, he commented, ‘Dramatic events in England, my friends.  The young Elphberg lives, while his would-be assassins do not.  Too bad.  It would have been most instructive to question them.  Now we must think what to do next.’


  ‘The boy needs to be here, and soon,’ Will observed, ‘but the CDP and its paramilitaries have revealed their hand.  They will stop at nothing to remove him from the field of play.  They have agents everywhere.  How can we get him into the country with any secrecy and safety?’


  Oskar nodded.  ‘Good question, leblen.  So perhaps the time really has come to talk with President Maritz.  He surely must see that our interests are his on this issue.  The petition must have got his attention.  You know him best, Will, so I suggest you set up a meeting.’


  ‘Pity … I was hoping for some sack time after the night we’ve just had.  Ah well.’


  ‘And as for the boy,’ Oskar mused, ‘we’d best leave his arrival in his kingdom for Terry to manage.’