HENRY IN HIGH POLITICS
Terry got the three boys back to school in plenty of time for breakfast, dropping them at the lane on the Ludlow Road leading to the copse where their deadly adventure had begun. A dawn mist had settled across the school grounds, rising from the surface of the Mere and its stream. Rudi and David were thus able to enter the school buildings by the refectory door unobserved, allowing them to mingle with the early breakfast queue. Ed galloped across to Longley to change out of his stinking clothes and take a quick shower.
The sixth-formers at Medwardine had their own private rooms, and since the three had no history of sneaking in and out of the grounds to the pubs in the town, the boys’ overnight absence had not been noticed.
Ed was surprised to find how ravenous he was when he rejoined Rudi and David, whom he found chatting as if they were old mates. He settled opposite Rudi, and gave him a straight stare. ‘Talk, Rudi.’
Rudi sighed, and looked at him and David. ‘Can I first shake you by the hand, Ed?’
‘By charging in like that you may have done far more than save my life.’
‘Okay, but enough of the mystery.’
Rudi had not finished. ‘And David, you’re an irritating twat, but I want us to be friends. So this is a big sorry. Will you please just shake my hand? This is me begging.’
David redeemed himself by grinning and doing just that.
‘Now the explanation. You’ve been to Rothenia, Ed. What do you know about the Elphbergs?’
Ed smiled, glad Henry had remorselessly tutored him on Rothenian history and culture. ‘They were a German princely family that inherited the duchy of Rothenia in the mid-fifteenth century. When they became kings in the seventeenth century, they were really successful in holding their country together. It was a shame that their line ended in 1880 with the death of the great Queen Flavia, leaving the country to be ruined by a bunch of German wankers. I’ve seen how Rothenians still place flowers on the grave of her and her hubby, Rudolf V … apparently they even did it under the Communists, and some were sent to labour camps as a result.’
‘Did you ever see a portrait of Rudolf III?’
‘As it happens, yes I did. There’s a good one in the Tarlenheim Palace. Sardonic looking bloke, wasn’t he, and he was a …’ Ed suddenly looked hard at Rudi and his face took on a startled expression.
Rudi smiled. ‘Yes, a redhead. Quite a resemblance, isn’t there?’
‘In 1738 Rudolf, then crown prince visited England and stayed a few months. He had an affair with the countess of Burlesdon and they had a son. The Lord Burlesdon of those days had no choice but to put up with it, because royal princes could get away with murder, literally. In the end, Lord Burlesdon may have been grateful. He had no other children and a young healthy boy had been provided free of charge to carry on the Burlesdon line – although, of course, the boy was no Rassendyll, he was an Elphberg …’
‘… but illegitimate.’
‘Naturally. Illegitimate, but not unacknowledged. The royal house of Ruritania were happy to call the Burlesdons their cousins. King Ferdinand, the son of Rudolf III, even visited Burlesdon House in the 1790s, and stayed for the shooting. We have a picture of him in the gallery, next to his half-brother, the sixth earl. In 1868, Queen Flavia went so far as to grant us a noble estate, the confiscated castle and lordship of Hentzen. I am in fact earl of Burlesdon in England and count of Hentzau in Rothenia. In 1880 there was some talk of transferring the succession of Ruritania to the tenth earl, my ancestor Robert Rassendyll. Unfortunately, the illegitimacy meant that the then-cardinal archbishop of Strelzen crushed the idea, so the succession went to the German dukes of Thuringia.’
‘I think I see where this is going,’ exclaimed Ed, looking a little excited.
Rudi smiled. ‘The fact that a true Elphberg line lived on in England has never been forgotten. Indeed, between 1910 and 1919 my three-times-great uncle, Maxim Elphberg, was king, and though the Rothenians eventually dumped him, he was something of a hero. After that there were Rassendylls living in Rothenia till 1939 to remind them. But the monarchists never got the upper hand over the republic, and my great-grandfather screwed up big time by playing footsie with the fascists.’
‘Have the people now changed their mind?’ asked Ed.
‘The country is in crisis, and all of a sudden people remember what the Elphbergs did in their day, especially Flavia and Maxim. A country needs something to unite around, and a popular monarchy can do that. My granddad keeps on mentioning the success of the present Spanish royal family in similar circumstances. Many Rothenians want an Elphberg king again.’
‘You!’ said David, finally catching on.
‘Me,’ Rudi affirmed with a smile.
‘Oh my God,’ whispered David in awe. ‘I’ve gone and thumped a king!’
‘No, you thumped an earl, who might yet be a king.’
Ed frowned. ‘But how do you get round the illegitimacy thing?’
Rudi succeeded in adopting a professorial air, though waving around a breakfast sausage impaled on a fork did not add to the effect. ‘You could argue that it became void when Rothenia joined the Council of Europe after Communism fell and subscribed to the European Convention on Human Rights and various other conventions. Under one of them, illegitimacy no longer excludes someone from his rights of succession, which would make me truly the heir to the throne of Rothenia.
‘When Britain signed up it made a reservation covering succession to its throne, but of course Rothenia didn’t have a throne at the time so didn’t bother. I suppose you could argue just as well that signing up to the Convention didn’t change anything retrospectively, but in that case I would add that Maxim Elphberg-Rassendyll actually managed to get himself crowned in the civil war of 1910 and then rule for nine years, illegitimacy or no illegitimacy. I’m his closest heir.’
‘King Rudolf VI of Rothenia.’ Ed himself was more than a little awed.
‘That’s me … possibly.’
‘Bloody hell!’ said David and Edward together.
‘Well, that explains a lot, sir,’ said Ed.
‘You called me, “sir”,’ observed Rudi.
‘One day I may be calling you “your majesty”, sir.’
‘Let’s stick with Rudi for now … but not “Broody”, please.’ Rudi gave a sheepish sort of grin.
‘Okay, you’re the king. There’s a lot left for you to explain, though. You came running out of school last night expecting to meet someone in the trees. Who was it?’
Rudi grimaced. ‘This is where I’m going on guess work. I’ve been preparing for this … oh, since I was born. My grandmother is a really special lady, herself a countess and princess of Rothenia. My father died when I was very young, before he could pursue his claim. She then started training me in the history and traditions of my family, so when the time came I would be able to take up the struggle.
‘Well, the time came early last year, when a monarchist group began to make real progress. My grandmother was contacted by its chief organiser, a Rothenian nobleman with contacts across the media and throughout national life. The Third Republic is already on the ropes and the nation is crying out for a unifying force. We think it’s the monarchy.
‘You’ve been to my country, Ed. You know how very formal a place it is. There are deep wells of tradition ready to be drawn upon, but the deepest and purest is the monarchy. Uncap that, and the nation will be refreshed. All that’s best about the place will be renewed, and people like those CDP hardliners will be washed away. They are only on the rise because Rothenians have no hope. By offering my people a real alternative, I can give them hope. It’s my time.’
Ed stared at his friend, who suddenly seemed like a different person: fluent, passionate and inspired. He scratched his head. ‘You’d have my vote, Rudi, if I had one. But how did you get suckered into that ambush?’
‘Got a call on my mobile. The guy said he was from the London embassy and wanted to arrange an urgent meeting for me with the president in advance of the elections next Monday. I was to rendezvous with his agent on the school perimeter.’
‘And you believed him?’
‘I had no reason not to. My mobile number is only known to the Elphberg loyalists, and he said he had it direct from their leader, my friend Count Oskar.’
David raised his eyebrows. ‘And you didn’t ring this Oskar guy to double check?’
‘Of course, yes! But I couldn’t raise him. By then it was time for the meeting. Events are already moving fast, and secrecy has been the main thing all along.’
David shook his head. ‘I dunno mate, you’re a bit trusting.’
Rudi, once more a seventeen-year-old, shot him a quirky look. ‘It’s gonna take a while to get used to your concern for me, Bounder.’
Unabashed, David carried on, ‘Rudi, does your mum know about this?’
‘Of course. It was my dad’s dearest wish to bring monarchy back to Rothenia, and she supports me right down the line.’
‘Wow. Seriously? Y’know, for a seventeen-year-old, you’re some cool guy.’
‘Fifteen-year-olds have before now led armies into battle, Davey boy. Where was I? Oh yes. Now, with the elections next week, the key point has come. Maritz has played a careful game. My guys think he may be ready to jump into the monarchist camp, now that it’s in his party’s interest to do it. That’s why I was so easily suckered into that trap. It was a call I was expecting.
‘Your guys?’ Ed was suddenly deeply curious.
‘I’ve secured the support of the regional TV conglomerate, Strelsenermedia. There’s been a media and Internet blitz in Rothenia over the past week, and a national Web petition in favour of the monarchy is already attracting huge numbers of signatures.’
Ed was looking intently at Rudi. ‘Strelsenermedia. You mean Will and Oskar?’
Rudi frowned. ‘Yes, I was aware you know Will Vincent and Count Oskar zu Terlenehem. Oskar mentioned he knew two boys in this school. He thought you and I would get on, and you would help me find acceptance. But by then, I’d crapped up, knocking little Henry down the way I did. It could have been a disaster if Henry hadn’t turned out to be the decent sort of human being he is.’
‘That’s my little babe: decent and a human being. So. Things are suddenly clearer. Will and Oskar are very close to my foster fathers, Sir Andrew Peacher and Matthew White. Terry was chief security adviser to PeacherCorp. So who turned up like the cavalry when things went pear-shaped yesterday? No less than Terry O’Brien, the head PeacherCorp enforcer. That was no coincidence. Matt and Andy are up to their eyes in this business.’
‘I see what you mean,’ mused Rudi. ‘So Will and Oskar have bigger players behind them? Is that what you’re suggesting?’
‘I wouldn’t put it exactly that way. I don’t think my foster dads are interested in world domination, but they would help Will out if he asked. Matt and Will are very close mates. If Will wanted a special eye kept on you, Matt would go to Terry. He’s awesome, as you have seen for yourself. Now, the final question is this: how has there been such a bad breach of security?’
Rudi shrugged. ‘No idea. I need to know more about what was going on there.’
‘So who were last night’s thugs, do you think?’
‘At a guess, they were probably agents of the Communist-era secret service, the ODR. The CDP has close associations with some unsavoury elements in the former Communist regime. They’re up to their old dirty game, and looking to come back on the CDP’s coat-tails. It’s the reason Rothenia needs me; they’re the alternative.’
‘So now what?’ David asked. ‘How can we help?’
Rudi did a double take. ‘Scratch that. This is too dangerous. You’re innocent bystanders; don’t even think of taking out an option on this business. I go alone to Rothenia.’
‘I think Terry may have his views about that.’
Ed’s phone went at that moment. It was Terry. ‘Hey, favourite babe, how are you feeling?’
‘Bushwacked about sums it up. What’s going on, Terry?’
‘That will be made clear in the fullness of time, O muscular one. Have you and your little friends got your passports with you?’
‘I have, and Henry has his at home, I know. Hey, Davey. Have you got your passport here in school? Yes? Why do you want to know, Terry?’
‘I’d like to borrow you all for a few days. Matt and Andy say I can have you, and Mr and Mrs Atwood are okay to take Henry. Can your mate David come too? We need a couple more teens and then we’re good to go … them and a school minibus and a load of uniforms and tennis gear.’
‘How are you going to get hold of a Medwardine school minibus? No … I don’t want to know. I’ll organise the uniforms and tennis gear if you can organise the extra teens.’
Terry laughed. ‘I’ve already got two in mind. Bring along two extra sets of Medwardine uniforms, one David-sized and one your size. See if David can swing consent, then ring me back.’
David called his parents. They gave him disgruntled permission to stay at Trewern rectory for the week, although they complained it was short notice.
When Ed rang Terry back, he received a mass of instructions, as well as orders to be in the school car park at three with the required gear. Then they would make a quick detour to Trewern and head for the motorway.
‘Is this dangerous, Terry?’ he finally asked.
‘Oh yeah. Deadly. But with a bit of cheek, we can pull it off.’
At three o’clock, Ed was in the car park. He had a big sports bag with sets of Year 11 blazers, ties, white shirts and grey trousers he’d scavenged from mates in the block. Risking humiliation, he, Davey and Rudi were already in school uniform. He felt odd, as if he’d regressed two years. His gear was a bit tight at the armpits and crotch, but it just about fit still. He’d also got bags full of school tennis gear he’d taken from the sports store.
A minibus in Edward VI Grammar livery drew up. Terry, dressed in mechanic’s overalls, was in the front seat. ‘Ows it goin’, guvn’r?’ he enquired in passable Cockney. ‘This ‘ere brand new van’s been recalled by the manufacturer. The engine blocks are faulty. I reckon it’ll be a fortnight before the school can ‘ave it back. Shame innit? Get in lads and be quick about it.’
Terry drove straight to Trewern, where they picked up Henry. After he and Ed had a quick hug with mum and dad, they were on their way.
Henry breathlessly asked what the fuck was going on, and where were they really going, because he didn’t believe the half-arsed story Matt had given his parents. It took all the way to the M6 finally to explain it to his satisfaction. He looked at Rudi with some awe.
Rudi smiled back. Now they were on the road he was happy enough.
It was late in the evening when they reached the outskirts of Ipswich, and drew up with a crackle of gravel in the car park of the ‘Haddesley Hall Garden Centre and Pet Supplies’. Two very familiar figures were waiting with bags.
Henry leaped out the sliding door and into the arms of a pretty and cocky looking lad, kissing him frantically and being spun round. As he broke off he yelled, ‘Justy! It’s holiday time!’ and they laughed together hilariously. Ed had in the meantime grabbed and determinedly kissed the other lad, bigger and stockier than his friend, and quite a match for Ed in looks and build. Rudi stared and David was shy.
Justin Peacher-White and Nathan Underwood were introduced, after they had hugged and kissed Terry, Justin doing it with a peculiar tenderness. David looked as though he wished someone would kiss him.
Rudi was still staring. ‘I take it then that everybody here is gay, apart from me and David.’
‘Er, actually,’ said David, ‘you’re the only straight here. I’m gay too.’
Henry and Ed laughed delightedly, and Henry went dancing round David singing in his dreadful voice, ‘He’s outed! He’s outed!’ Then he gave David his first public boy-on-boy kiss. Ed hauled Henry off him a little roughly, smiled at David, and then lifted and kissed him too. ‘Welcome to the margins, Davey babe.’
‘Great,’ observed Rudi. ‘By the way, I am not a homosexual … I hope that is understood.’
‘Wan’ some tea or somefink before we’re off? We got time, Terry?’ asked Justin.
‘No lads. Just lock up and we have to go. Who’s running the centre for the next week?’
Nathan smiled. ‘The gardener’s wife has been helping out on the till for a month now, and her husband’s happy to keep the plant stock in order for the week. Business should survive. It’s the quiet time of year.’
‘Okay, now strip off and get in these uniforms Ed brought,’ Terry ordered.
Justin took him literally, and was standing in only socks and boxers in the car park before he dressed up in blazer and tie. He looked strangely convincing as a schoolboy. He felt really odd, as he later said, because he’d spent most of his time and energy as a kid avoiding being anywhere near schools.
In ten minutes they were loaded and ready. Before they pulled out of the car park, Terry fixed two professionally printed banners to the front and back windows: ‘MEDWARDINE SCHOOL: EUROPEAN TENNIS TOUR’ they said, with the school badge appropriately emblazoned. Terry then changed into a very skilful recreation of a games teacher’s casual gear, complete with Harlequins tie and a sports jacket with patches. When he even began projecting the mannerisms, Henry could see why he had been pursuing a career on the stage.
David was impressed. ‘How could you get those banners done in just a couple of hours, Terry?’
Terry grinned at him. ‘Money, Davey babe, and Jenna being scary.’
David gave the distinct impression that he liked being called ‘Davey babe’ by Terry. It must have been for him a sort of rite of passage orchestrated by a senior gay, Henry concluded. Davey was one of them now, and Henry wondered if in fact Terry had already spotted him for what he was.
They reached Harwich just in time for the loading of the night ferry to Rotterdam. They were all too excited to sleep, although Terry had booked double cabins. They changed out of the uniforms and into casuals, so they could sneak into the bar. As usual, no one wanted to risk Henry’s being challenged, so he was hidden behind the bigger lads. But in fact it was Justin who was refused at the bar, much to his amusement. A flourishing of his passport got him his pint of lager.
They all leaned towards Terry, and Henry asked him what the plan was. ‘Iss to get … er, Rudi … to Strelzen safely. Simple as that.’
‘But it won’t be simple, will it, Terry?’ said Nathan.
‘No, it won’t. I’ve been in touch with Oskar. The border police are jittery, and the CDP has mobilised agents all along the frontier. We won’t get past the border without being inspected closely. But a party of English schoolkids passing through on a tennis tour isn’t gonna get too much attention, I hope. Bermann’s men may know our overall plans now, but this bit they aren’t aware of.’
‘And how do they know our plans?’ Ed asked, although he guessed the answer.
‘That bugger Willemin is playing both sides against the middle. I owe him for that. Mind you, iss probably his revenge for the last time we had a face-off – he lost bad that time. But I thought we wuz mates now. We stayed with him in his villa near Split only two years ago, me and Ramon …’ Terry tailed off and his eyes glazed. An uncomfortable silence fell over the table.
It was broken by David, of all of them, saying with great sincerity, ‘We were terribly sorry to hear about Ramon dying like that, Terry. He sounds like he was a great guy.’
Terry smiled at David. ‘You’re a nice kid, y’know? Yeah, he wuz the best. Endlessly loving, patient and so kind. He taught me that relationships aren’t all about getting your end away, and that there are people you can settle with and be everything to. And now he’s gone. I don’t think you meet two people like that in your lifetime.’
Terry talked with such gentle sadness that there was very little anyone else could think of saying.
Henry felt a prickling in his eyes. He grabbed Ed’s hand and squeezed it, feeling properly guilty about his little flings with David.
Nathan roused them by asking if there was any backup.
‘Oh yeah,’ said Terry. ‘Jenna, Zeke and a couple of teams are already in Holland. They’ll be shadowing us in hired cars. Also I’ve got guys getting a safe house ready near Strelzen, the location of which won’t be known to anyone likely to tell Mr Willemin.’
Rudi finally roused himself. ‘Terry, there is one question. You knew that Willemin had blown our scheme to the CDP, didn’t you. How was that?’
‘Not soon enough, I’m afraid. The call came through from Oskar only just in time for me to get a team together. Thank God I was staying in Medwardine, keeping my eye on the school.’
‘I saw you one day!’ cried Ed. I told Henry, but he wouldn’t believe me!’
‘Clever lad!’ Terry laughed. ‘It was touch and go at the end. I was there watching them Rothenian agents, but I could do nothing as Jenna and Zeke were still trying to get to me. If Ed and Davey had not intervened, I’d have had to try to pick them off on me own, which would have been seriously risky. You two gave me time to assemble me squad. You wuz a real head-scratching problem for them; they wuzn’t too bright, I think. They had to retreat to their hideout to get the clearance to … well, to kill you along with Rudi.
‘So far as Hendrik is concerned, all I can say is that there are people close to him who are loyal to you, sir, and who let us know that he wuz feeding intelligence to Bermann’s people. They are still at work in your interest. Make no mistake, sir. There are many in your land who are willing to risk a lot so you may sit on the throne in your palace of Strelzen.’
‘It will not be forgotten when that day comes,’ said Rudi, and all the boys got an eerie feeling they were indeed in the presence of a king, albeit a king in exile. Even Justin couldn’t seem to think of anything flippant to say.
‘Now babes, who’re the couples here? Double cabin keys for Justy and Nate, and for Henry and Ed. Off you go and keep the noise down. Sir, you’ve got one to yourself. Davey, you’re with me … sorry.’
David gave a gentle smile and said he wasn’t bothered.
Henry stared hard at him; there was something new in that expression. Whenever David looked at Henry, there was yearning need in his eyes. This was different. It seemed David was maturing a bit, losing his teenage self-absorption. He was sorry for Terry and had been touched by his loss, so much was clear. Henry came to the conclusion that Davey was going to be a really nice guy when he finally did grow up.
They finished their drinks. Henry and Ed went to their cabin. Terry said he would wander on deck, although Henry suspected he was going to check out the entire ship before he retired.
Ed and Henry stripped and snuggled up on the lower bunk. It was a tight fit. ‘Want to spank me again, Ed?’ Henry smirked. ‘Look, my bum is still a bit red.’
Ed gave a little laugh. ‘Just remember that I can do it, naughty Henry. No, I need to talk about what happened.’
Henry embraced his lover hard, wrapping as much of himself round Ed as he could, while Ed spilled out the terror and confusion of the last twenty-four hours.
‘The thing that scared me most, Henry, was not that my life was on the line, although I know now that it was. No, I was kidding myself nearly to the end that it was just some sort of chaotic kidnapping of Rudi gone wrong. It was what happened after Terry’s team released us. Jenna and Zeke, and probably Terry too, killed those guys. Maybe not in cold blood, and, yes, it was to save our lives. But one moment those three blokes were alive and the next they weren’t. The look on Jenna’s face after she’d done it, too – it was totally cold. It was horrible. It’s only now here with you that it’s hit home. Those three guys were murdered – self-defence, perhaps, but murdered. I was an accessory to it, as my vile parents would no doubt tell me. Whatever, I can’t see myself going to the police in any hurry. I’ve stepped out of what’s normal into someplace else.’
‘It’s high politics, Ed. Forget morality; this is the land where the ends justify the means. And, like you, I’m already having second thoughts about this jolly holiday of ours. It seemed so exciting – another glamorous trip to Strelzen – but you should read the history books about what went on there in the old days. Romance and happy endings don’t necessarily go together.’
Ed hugged Henry hard. ‘I’m a bit scared, little babe … what have we got ourselves into? I guess we just have to be confident that Terry will look after us. I don’t see Matt and Andy letting us go if they thought we were in serious danger.’
‘Hmph,’ Henry snorted. ‘Terry may be awesome, but no one’s immortal. I get the impression that Ramon’s death has left him a bit crazy … in the sense that he no longer really cares what happens to himself.’
They lay a while listening to the hum and throb of the ship around them as it ploughed its furrow across the North Sea, and with no thoughts of sex in their heads at all, they fell asleep, as innocently as the children they all too recently had been.
Will and Oskar entered the presidential palace through the stable yard. ‘Do they still keep horses here?’ Will wondered.
‘The presidential guard has a mounted section, but I think their horses are housed down by the Arsenal. I believe the old royal coaches and landaus are gathering dust in those outbuildings.’
‘Had you thought that, if your plan comes to fruition, this will again become the Residenz of Strelzen, the chief royal palace of Rothenia?’
Oskar gave a little smile. ‘I think about it all the time.’
As the two men walked towards the limestone bulk of the palace, Will seized Oskar’s hand and squeezed it tightly. ‘What you’ve achieved is amazing, my Osku. I can’t tell you how much I admire you. None of it is for yourself, and no one will ever really know what it is you’ve done.’
‘The men I love – you and Petey – you know and that is enough for me.’ Oskar squeezed Will’s hand in return, then relinquished it.
They glanced in on the Hofkapelle as they passed up the rear staircase. Oskar grimaced and shook his head. ‘Look at this mess. It wasn’t the Communists who stripped the chapel out. It was those Thuringian usurpers in the nineteenth century. It’ll take a lot of money to restore this place to the house of worship it once was.’
Will noticed some shredded flags hanging in rags from poles set high in the walls. ‘Were those the banners of the Knights of the Red Rose?’
‘They were indeed. And up there you can see the remains of the ensign of my house. That marked the stall of Prince Rudolf, the last Rose Knight of my family before the fall of the monarchy.’
‘Doesn’t the republic make knights?’
‘Yes. Matt White is one. But to me they’re meaningless decorations. The government hands them out to industrialists and retired MPs.’
Will laughed. ‘And there speaks the former prince of Tarlenheim.’
Oskar smiled. ‘Please don’t expect me to be bourgeois, Willemju. My blue blood cells are programmed to destroy any symptom of egalitarianism in my body.’
The two were met at the head of the stairs by a young man in a smart suit. ‘Herr von Tarlenheim? Herr Vincent? The president is ready for you. It’s this way to his private apartment.’