HENRY IN HIGH POLITICS
Wednesday morning was another free day for the boys. When Ed and Henry went down to the breakfast buffet, they found Terry already there on a table with Justin and Nathan. Terry was looking fed up.
‘Whassup wiv you two?’ he snarled at the older pair. Nathan was in awe of Terry and was not happy to find the man angry with him. He mumbled something apologetic. ‘Well bloody sort it out quick,’ Terry growled. ‘If it’s what I think it is, then you’re being totally moronic, Nathan. You should have learned by now that Justin may be wild, but he can be trusted. I’ve had it wiv yer.’ He threw his napkin on the table, ruffled Henry’s hair and left.
Henry got hold of the newspapers laid out for guests and started translating them for Ed, and David too when he turned up a little later. David was barely paying any attention, but Ed at least was an intent listener.
With all results in by then, the elections had solidly endorsed Trachtenberg’s Unity party, which together with the rump of the SDP now commanded a huge majority in Parliament. The CDP had been shattered at the polls by the surge in royalist feeling. Bermann had not been allowed to resign, because his party had sacked him summarily, and itself had called stridently for the reign of King Rudolf VI to begin in Rothenia. As far as all parties were concerned, the election had turned into a plebiscite about the Elphberg restoration, and the verdict of the people was decisive.
Henry, absorbed in his papers, took a bundle of them with him when he and Ed went back up to their room. David came along with them, nursing his mobile, trying to work out how long it would be cool to wait before attempting to raise Anton.
At ten they were called down to reception and found Oskar there, in sober suit and tie.
‘Hey, Oskar! You look official,’ Ed observed.
‘Lord Burlesdon is putting together an ad hoc staff, boys, and I’ve been nominated as interim chief. I’m to liaise with the new government while we sort out how the kingdom of Rothenia is to be revived.’
Henry was on fire with curiosity. ‘The Crown, Oskar, tell us about it. Where was it found? Who found it?’
‘No doubt your friend Rudi will be happy to tell you, boys. That’s why I’m here. You’re all three wanted at the Osraeum, to do this hanging thing. He’s missing his friends, though I was told not to say that.’
They went chattering to Oskar’s car, and were driven to Gartengasse. The eighteenth-century palace, named after a famous Elphberg, Princess Osra of Mittenheim, had been kept in decent repair since the days when it had been King Maxim’s residence. Soldiers and police were now posted at the gates, where a large crowd had gathered. Many were staring up at the great banner tugging at the flagpole above the house, as if they couldn’t believe what they were seeing. Cameras flashed at the car when it passed into the Osraeum’s front court. As the boys walked toward the main entrance, Henry had to be restrained from waving to the people.
Inside, the place was eerily quiet. Oskar explained that as yet there were no staff, other than the government concierge who kept the place maintained for its occasional state visitor. A cook and waiter, who had been loaned to Rudi from the commissary in the presidential palace, had brought breakfast across with them.
Rudi’s status was causing headaches. At the moment he was being classed as a state guest, until President Maritz could complete negotiations over the shape of the new coalition. The hard decisions were being left to the incoming Trachtenberg government. Trachtenberg himself was expected at the Osraeum late that afternoon.
Rudi was sitting on the back of a bench on the terrace of the garden, wearing casuals and looking indeed a little bored. He seemed to be in reaction to the stress and euphoria of the past few days. He brightened up when his friends arrived, however, and even put up with Henry’s hug. They sat on the grass in the sun.
‘You looked so cool on that horse yesterday!’ Ed, a city boy, was always awed by skill with animals.
‘Oh, that was no problem. I’ve been on horses since I was a toddler. Besides, the army selected a pretty even-tempered mount.’
‘So has everything worked out as you’d wanted?’
‘Pretty much. Trachtenberg’s a good man and an imaginative politician. He knows what to do; it’ll be a pleasure working with him. Will did a fantastic job with the media. His channels are giving us an easy ride, and of course Rothenia’s fallen in love with its monarchy all over again.’
‘And that bothers you, doesn’t it?’ Henry guessed.
‘Always perceptive, little Henry. Yes, it does a bit. Getting to be king was relatively easy …’
‘… that’s “no shit, Your Majesty” … but staying king, Henry, that’s tough. I’m the new toy. They’ll soon get bored and find I wasn’t quite what they wanted after all. Then there’s the press. That man Willemin still worries me, though Oskar says Terry has it covered.’ He looked surprised when his friends giggled. ‘Okay, what do you know?’
Ed told him, and it was then Rudi’s turn to laugh. He shook his head. ‘I wish I’d been there, but clubs and bars won’t be part of my life from now on.’
‘Oh, I dunno, Rudi,’ Ed countered. ‘When we’re back in Medwardine – providing you’re coming back – we’ll make it a priority to drag you to the old King Billy in Huntercombe. They’re not too particular who they serve there.’
It was the turn of Henry’s insatiable curiosity. ‘So, the Crown. Tell all!’
Rudi shook his head. ‘You wouldn’t believe the details if I told you. Just let’s say Oskar and Will had been in search of it since last year. They unexpectedly found clues among family papers in my house at Burlesdon, and at Heinrichshof in Thuringia. They discovered it had been in the Salvatorskirk all along, hidden away by the priests of the church in the sealed burial vaults. In the end, once it was clear that I was going to make a bid for the throne, Oskar says they were pleased to arrange the hand-over. The Crown is my property after all.’
‘The ceremony where you revealed it … I mean, outstanding, Rudi!’ Henry enthused. ‘Totally awesome. Never seen anything like it. All the people kneeling like that for the blessing. Just amazing!’
The four had a late lunch at the Osraeum, sitting round the TV in Rudi’s temporary apartment overlooking the garden. It was pretty cheerful being all boys together again, going over all the old Medwardine gossip.
‘And you’re really coming back?’
‘I’m really coming back. Oskar’s gonna suggest they appoint a council of regency when I’m in England. The British press are already excited. Go and have a look at the papers on the table over there. The tabloid end is like a dog with two tails. Not just the Windsors to hound, now they’ll have the Elphbergs too. The Eton story’s already surfacing in the redtops. “The Thug King”: nice headline, huh?’
‘Sounds like Trinity term will be fun,’ mused David. ‘Think of the cash I can make selling you down the river, mate. I can be a “source close to King Rudi”, or one of those “close friends” who seem very keen to discuss your dirty laundry, as close friends do.’
Henry caught light. ‘What about the unofficial biographer? You’ve gotta have one. Hell, it could be me! Rudolf of Ruritania, the best-selling book by Henry Atwood. The talk shows. The celebrity-magazine interviews. The literary parties. The house in Hampstead. The unfortunate incident on the Heath. The relaunch of my career. The Booker Prize nomination …’ Henry came down from his flight of fancy to see the rest of the boys staring at him. ‘… so, I can dream, can’t I?’
The boys were at a loose end after they left the Osraeum. David made his hesitant call to Anton, whom he arranged to meet up with in the Rodolferplaz early in the evening. He then went off shopping for presents for his parents and sisters.
Ed had remembered to get one of Bolslaw’s close-ups of Rudi signed by the king-to-be, who added a personal message to the old man on the back. Ed and Henry took it to the Rodolferplaz, where they found the photographer in his studio. Bolslaw was delighted that they had done him this favour, and insisted on taking them to the old inn a few doors up the square for an early lunch. He charmed them with his stories of gay life in Strelzen under the Communist regime, when he had worked for the state film corporation making propaganda documentaries. ‘All those tractors, but the farm workers were hunky and so obliging. I had hair in those days, of course.’
They told him their story and he laughed uproariously. Finally, he leaned over and said, ‘Boys, you are very special. Now, don’t take this the wrong way, but I would really like to get some photos of you together. No. Not sexy stuff, but there’s something between you I’d like to capture. Will you do it?’
Henry looked into his watery eyes and saw nothing but good humour there, so he nodded and said it was okay by him. Ed also agreed.
Bolslaw had his studio set up for a shoot. He looked the boys over, told them to get barefoot and bare-chested, and change into identical loose black trousers. Then he posed them in various ways, but it never got more erotic than kissing each other. Bolslaw took them to the computer and showed them the shots.
‘Bozh men!’ swore Henry in Rothenian. He had never thought of himself as in any way a good-looking boy, though he did think he had character. Now Bolslaw’s skill with the lens had brought out that character and the love between him and Ed, and apotheosised them. ‘Damn, I look so good!’ His thin chest and slender limbs just pointed up his vulnerable charm and Ed’s protective love for him. ‘And you, Ed … what a golden god!’
Ed fondled Henry’s bare shoulder as they stood together gazing at the screen. ‘Aren’t you the pretty one, little babe? He’s brought out all I see and love in you. Bolslaw, you are a genius.’
The old man smiled fondly at them. ‘I think so, too.’ They gave their consent for him to show the photos publicly, and signed an agreement about royalties, if any. Then he took Henry’s address and said he would send them the full set. He would frame and ship to Matt and Andy, Ed’s foster parents, what he thought was the best one. They kissed and parted.
‘This city just gets better and better for me, little babe,’ sighed Ed. ‘Let’s come and live here when we’ve finished uni, hey?’
‘Tempting, very tempting. And we are after all best pals with the soon-to-be-king. Maybe we can get Will to give us a job, but you’ll have to learn the language.’
‘Oh yeah, I forgot.’
Henry and Ed went out the back of the building, avoiding the Rodolferplaz, and found their way back to the hotel by a circuitous route. They had planned to spend the rest of the afternoon watching satellite TV in their room. Then David showed up and they fell to discussing his forthcoming date with Anton, and how to handle it.
In the end, a nervous David insisted that Ed and Henry come with him to meet Anton. He was very edgy. After the previous day’s excitement at Liberation, he and the Rothenian boy had decided on a quiet cup of tea under the lime trees at the end of the great plaz. Anton turned up looking very nice in casuals. David did the Rothenian handshake thing, but when he went to kiss Anton on the mouth, the Rothenian boy shied away, looking at Ed and Henry.
‘It’s okay, Anton,’ Henry said in Rothenian, ‘we were there last night.’
Anton gave Henry a very shy little grin. The boy was quite a turn on. ‘So this is unique – an Anglo-Saxon who talks Rothenian.’
‘Excuse the directness,’ continued Henry, pushing the boat out a little and sticking to Anton’s native language, ‘but David’s worried about the unprotected sex you had last night.’
Anton looked startled, then nodded. ‘He needn’t be. I’m clean and I knew he was a virgin.’
Henry frowned. ‘Well make sure you tell him, but take your time … he deserves to sweat over that piece of recklessness.’
Switching to English, he turned to David. ‘I was just saying that Ed and I need to move along. We’ll leave you and Anton to get to know each other. Maybe see you later for dinner, if you don’t find something else to do.’ He added a little maliciously, ‘Play safe this time.’
As they wandered off, Ed commented, ‘Pretty couple they make. It’s a pity they’ve only got a couple of days together.’
‘Maybe … but it’s the holiday romance thing, isn’t it? Days of stolen passion, all the sweeter for being so few. How about that for Henry wisdom?’
‘Superlative, little babe … if trite.’
Oskar and Peter had grabbed a moment to themselves on Stracenzstrasse, at a small café Oskar had been patronising since his student days. It was not much more than a narrow shop front, but the aromatic smell of coffee roasting and fresh pastries baking within was infinitely welcoming.
‘Herr Prinz!’ The proprietor greeted Oskar with the name he had gone by at the Rodolfer, then offered a hand first to him and afterwards to Peter.
‘This is Herr Peacher, my good friend.’
The man winked at Peter. He clearly knew something of Oskar’s lifestyle but didn’t seem to mind. He said he would bring drinks over.
The two men took a table at the back of the busy shop. When the coffees arrived, Peter managed to thank the man in Rothenian, which got him a big grin.
‘So my darling, you’re beginning to learn the language of the country.’
‘If little Henry Atwood can do it, it can’t be that difficult.’
‘Henry’s command of Rothenian is exceptionally good, aided by the advantage of non-stop chatter online with my brother, together with home tuition from a former British agent in Rothenia. Will Vincent is a better example. He picked it up phenomenally quickly when first he came here. I take full credit for it; you will be quite as good too it if you can find the time. I’ll be very happy to help.’
‘I want to put down roots here, Osku. This place gets more interesting all the time. The whole business of the Crown … there’re mysteries I don’t fathom. Will says he saw this phantom of an ancient nun in the mausoleum at Terlenehem, and then it turns out that seventy-odd years ago she had been in the Salvatorskirk arranging for the concealment of the Crown. How could that be?’
Oskar took a meditative sip at his tall glass of mélange. ‘The king is come again, and my nation is waking up. Who knows what will awake with it? You know enough of my family to understand that it has a strange history, from the time of Count Oskar the Great and maybe before then, for all I know. But I’m certain of this much: The boy who rode the white horse into the heart of Strelzen is the true king. I begin to believe all the things foretold about him. He is to be hero of his age, and though he may be but a teenager, I sense the potential in him already. His composure, strength and joy are something I never dreamed to see in such measure in any human being. He is one that even a mature man such as I would be happy to follow. Great things are in preparation … of that I have no doubt.’
Peter gave a momentary stare at Oskar. ‘You’re like no other man I know when you say such things, Osku my prince. You give me all the more reason to stay here. It looks like it’ll be a fun ride. Which is why I did this.’
‘Did what, Petey?’
Peter pulled out a thick envelope from his inner jacket pocket. ‘Open it, darling.’
Looking puzzled, Oskar extracted the contents. He flattened them on the table top, then looked up with wet eyes. ‘You did this for me?’
‘For you, Osku. I never thought to love a man the way I love you: a man so strong, so wholly admirable and yet so tender. I’d give you all of PeacherCorp wrapped in gift paper if I thought it would make you happy. This was just a small thing.’
Oskar shook his head. ‘I sometimes forget quite what wealth you command, my Petey. Templerstadt, its house and estate – this is no small thing. To my family, it is a great thing indeed. How did you do it?’
‘Me? I just wrote cheques, hon. I had Peacher lawyers negotiate with your cousins in the US, and my local agents sorted out the claims of the Rothenian government. So here they are, the deeds of the Tarlenheim estate of Templerstadt. The real work begins now. It’s gotta be a house we can both live in … our first home. I for one am gonna spare no expense. I found this architectural partnership in Hofbau that's good with restoration work. They’re sorting out specifications. I think we’ll find room for a pool, a gym and whatever else is needed for the home of an entrepreneur and a political operator. Osku, will you please marry me and make me happy for the rest of my life?’
Oskar leaned over to kiss his young lover. ‘You’re more than I ever thought I would find in life, my Petey. I’ll think about it. I’m not saying no. Just ask me again sometime soon, when the king is crowned in Strelzen. By the way, I think you should know there is no gay marriage in Rothenia. We call it a civil partnership.’
‘Whatever. I want to stand up with you as my life partner, Osku. Call it what you like. It’s what I want.’
‘Little babe, will you stop staring down the Wejg.’
‘Come on, Ed. Justy and Nate went down there when they were our age.’
‘Yeah, and you know the story of what happened. Why so keen, Henry? You were all prim and proper in Amsterdam.’
‘Yeah, yeah. I’m not suggesting we actually go in any of the bars and stuff … only, y’know, look!’
‘Or ogle … I think you have ogling in mind.’
‘Maybe. Ooh look! There’s Erotic Dream City! Remember the branch in Kesarstejne last year where you bought our … um … toy?’
Ed chuckled. ‘I still have it in my bedside table in Longley.’
‘Just as well. My mum would be delighted to find it in my room in one of her regular drug sweeps disguised as cleaning.’
‘Your mum’s a saint, Henry. Without her, your room would soon become impossible. I might look for days and not find you. What would that do to my libido?’
‘Fire you up, I hope, sex god. I’m getting really horny. Maybe we should head back to the hotel. Perhaps Justy and Nate might be interested in some … er, fun.’
Ed went quiet for a moment. ‘You know what Nate and I were doing while you and Justy were getting it on?’
‘Er … no.’
‘Nothing. He gave my dick a few jerks, and I did the same for him; we had no real interest in doing what you two were up to. But you and Justy really got into it.’
‘Well … he’s a sexy piece of work, you know that.’
‘I know. And so it seems are you. You were so into it that it was hot watching the pair of you, but a little alarming too. Sex means a lot to you, Henry babe, more even than it does to Justy. He wouldn’t have gone the whole way with you, I could tell. He kept looking at Nate and giving him the come-on. It was all about getting his guy fired up. You, however, were making love to Justy.’
Henry was beginning not to like where the conversation was going. ‘Well, y’know, it was just part of the … flow of things.’
‘Yeah, yeah. I wasn’t criticising, little babe. We were all there together and it was good. It wasn’t as if I objected. I was just saying.’
Ed paused. ‘It seems we have different attitudes to our favourite pursuit.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘Nothing … nothing at all.’
But Henry couldn’t help thinking that it meant a lot more than he wanted to know at that moment. They walked silently back up the Rodolferplaz.