THE HEART OF OSKAR PRINZ
With the powerful scent of spirits filling his nose, Will sat up abruptly. The concerned and oh-so-familiar voice said, ‘I told you that you were shaken. Let me help you to this chair.’
A wonderful male fragrance surrounded him as he was lifted and helped into a low armchair covered with a throw.
He looked around himself. He was in a small living room with a worn carpet. A kitchenette opened on his left, a large bedroom on the other side. A tall uncurtained window was shuttered in front of him. The furniture was a bit old, but everything was neat and tidy – apart from the dog hairs all over the floor which had got on Will’s jeans too.
Marietta in her basket under the window was looking at him with concern. Almost reluctantly, Will turned his gaze to the man sitting at the table beside him, who smiled down at him. There was no doubt: It was ‘Marc Bennett’ who had saved him on the streets of Strelzen. And he was just as amazing in person as on the DVD, although he seemed taller.
‘Er … thanks, Oskar,’ he muttered.
‘Take a drink.’
Will needed no second invitation. He gulped it down, grateful for the bite it took out of his throat as it went.
‘Very good,’ he coughed.
Will was aware of everything. The man had a fascinating scent: his own odour, mixed with some sort of subtle perfume, Will guessed. Oskar’s smile was seduction itself. By the open kitchen door stood a small side table covered with lots of pictures of children and adults, including one or two of an unmistakable and very pretty Oskar as a boy.
It was weird. Will had never visualised Marc Bennett as part of a family, just as a beautiful, randy whore. But here he was, a real man with parents and a history and a razor cut on his chin for good measure. One thing was clear enough to a newly sensitive Will; the man was as gay as he was. ‘Gay for pay’? Hah! Up yours, Harry you cynical bastard.
‘Are you feeling better, my friend?’
‘A lot.’ He cleared his throat. ‘Tell me Oskar, what do you do for a living?’
‘I am a model. Not regular work, but it keeps the … wolf from the door, as you say in English, I think. Odd, because you have no wolves in England, although we do up in our mountains. The rest of the time I study at the Rodolfer Universität here in Strelzen … mediatheknik … er, I think you would call it Media Studies. It is not a very arduous course and students can take their time over their baccalaureates.’
‘Are you a Strelzener?’
‘Ach no. I’m a country boy from Husbrau in the north, the small town of Terlenehem, if you’ve heard of it.’
‘Yes, that is the German name for it. My big sister and my young brother still live there, but my parents are dead.’
‘It happened four years ago, traffic accident. So now Helge and I have to look after little Fritz, that is my brother’s name. He is twelve years of age.’
‘That’s quite a responsibility.’
‘Helge is a saint. She does most of the work, but I send what money I can. How about you, Will? Where do you live in England?’
‘Me? I work as a schoolteacher in a small town called Whithampsted, which you’ll have never heard of, I’m sure.’ Oskar grinned and shook his head. ‘It’s in Berkshire in what we call the Home Counties, those around London.’
‘London I have heard of. A cousin of mine is working there as a nurse. One day I will go to visit.’
‘I was born and brought up in Plymouth, a seaport in Devon. My parents live there still.’
‘You have other family?’
‘A younger sister in university at Leeds, a city in the north.’
‘You have a wife, a partner or a girlfriend?’
‘No, I’m homosexual and, at the moment, unattached.’ Wow, thought Will, that slipped out with ease in present company. He was sure his confession would bring a similar one from Oskar, but none came, which disconcerted him. He had shown his colours, and expected Oskar to reciprocate.
Oskar just nodded, as if he had expected it. ‘Homosexuality has only been recently discovered in Rothenia; under Communism there was none of course.’ Then Will noticed Oskar’s dancing eyes, and burst into laughter.
Oskar joined him, looking handsomer than ever. He had a delicious laugh.
‘I was at Club Liberation tonight,’ Will confessed.
‘Yes, I know,’ was the ambiguous reply. ‘It is for the tourists I believe.’
‘Are there other gay clubs in town?’
Oskar smiled. ‘I think so, but not for tourists. Are you here with friends?’
‘Yes I am.’
Will was beginning to wonder where the conversation was going, because he was perfectly convinced it was going somewhere.
Oskar smiled at him in silence for a while. Then he spoke. ‘Thank you for not calling me Marc.’
Will chuckled. ‘You knew that I knew?’
Oskar nodded. ‘I was impressed that you fainted when you saw me, though.’
‘The second time tonight.’
Will recounted how he’d met his other great idol that same night. By the time he had finished, Oskar’s eyes were streaming with tears as he hiccoughed with laughter. Will was a born teacher and could tell a very good story.
Oskar wiped his eyes. ‘That is Strelzen, it is a magical city, believe me. A great place for stories to come to life. So you know Matthew White and his rich boyfriend?’
‘No, just Matthew and tonight for the first time.’
‘He is very beautiful, the most beautiful man in the world, I think. Wait.’ Oskar got up and went to a drawer. Pulling out a book, he handed it to Will with a smile. It was full of cuttings and pictures of Matt White.
Will looked up startled at Oskar. ‘Dear God, not you too!’
Oskar stared at him, just as startled. ‘What, you …?’
‘Oskar looked at him with a new expression in his eyes. ‘What a sad pair of gay bastards, yes?’
‘So now you know what makes Marc Bennett jerk off. Let me get you another drink.’ It was as he put the brandy down next to Will that Oskar leaned in and kissed him, a provocative and lingering kiss that made the hairs lift on the back of his neck. As their lips slowly separated, Oskar whispered, ‘I hope you will not faint again.’
‘No,’ replied Will, also in a whisper, ‘although I may manage a heart attack.’ Oskar laughed low in his ear, the sexiest sound Will had ever heard in his life. His fragrance filling Will’s nostrils, Oskar pulled him to his feet. They kissed again.
As he was probing that wide mouth and sucking on those beautiful lips, Will opened his eyes to see Oskar’s eyes directed downward and to the side. He broke off when he noticed Oskar frowning a little. ‘What’s up?’
‘That has never happened before.’
‘Marietta. By now she should be barking. She does not like me kissing other men in her presence, but she is not bothered by you, Will. How very … odd.’
‘It’s a strange night for all of us.’
‘Come with me, Will. I think, like Marietta, that you are no ordinary man, and I really hope you will spend the night with me. I just want you to know – in case you have doubts – that I am no prostitute. I only sleep with men who are special to me.’
Will sternly suppressed the observation that obviously he was not including the guys in the DVDs.
They were both naked by the time Oskar closed the bedroom door on Marietta. His tawny body, lean and muscular, strange yet familiar, was revealed to Will, who stood a little shyly in front of this godlike man. But Oskar was staring at him in genuine admiration. ‘Will … I didn’t realise. But you are quite … pretty.’
‘Not the word?’
‘Not the word … men are handsome or good-looking.’
‘Then you are handsome.’
‘Thank you, but no one has called me that before.’
‘Nor pretty either?’
Will closed with the man, embraced that warm, silky flesh and kissed him again. His right hand closed around the velvet muscle of Oskar’s left buttock, stroking and massaging it.
They moved to the bed. Oskar’s mouth worked slowly down Will’s body until it engaged with his already-straining penis. He began sucking and licking Will just the way he did on film, his passionate eyes glancing up at Will regularly, the familiar half-smile on his face.
Will felt as if he had stepped into a movie. He brushed the heavy fringe of hair away from Oskar’s face in exactly the way the actors did in the DVD. It was really weird, but oh so sexy.
Then he did something that did not happen in the DVDs. He moved round into the 69 position and took Oskar’s long and cabled penis in his mouth, with which he began practising the skills Harry had taught him. Judging by the gasps from down by his groin, he was doing quite well.
After five minutes they broke off. Oskar leaned up on one elbow, his heavy eyes sensuous and provocative. ‘So, what do you want to do, you rascal?’ he growled.
Will did a double take. That was a line from Rothenian Boys 10. Oskar knew it too and burst into a peal of laughter.
‘Bastard!’ Will exclaimed and leapt on Oskar to wrestle him.
‘No. Fuck. I tickle!’ the Rothenian yelped.
Will paused and looked down at the young and beautiful face. ‘That line’s not in the films.’
‘Films aren’t real, Will. I am actually a person. I have – what you call it? – athlete’s foot too.’
‘Want to see? It is very ugly. Red and flaky.’ The man had suddenly turned into an impish boy, determined to shock.
Will laughed. ‘Later, Oskar. In the meantime, would you mind if I went on top?’
‘It is not a problem, Will. I am versatile, as you will have no doubt picked up from the DVDs.’
‘You’re living out Rothenian Boys 7, aren’t you?’
‘Yes. And another thing. I’ve never fucked a man before, so tell me what to do.’ And before Oskar could answer, Will added, ‘Something tells me that my sex life will be all downhill after tonight … but what the hell.’
* * *
Oskar and Will awoke to Marietta’s scratching on the bedroom door. She pushed it open and sniffed at the used condom on the floor. Oskar picked it up and binned it, then padded out naked to feed the dog. He returned stretching. Indicating a door behind his bed he suggested, ‘There’s just room for two in my shower.’
After some erotic playtime under the spray, they dressed.
‘Marietta and I will walk you to your hotel, my Will. It is still early. Only seven. I hope you will not have been missed.’
They went down the stairs and out into the empty, early-morning street. A tram was clanging in the distance. ‘I love this city,’ said Will earnestly.
‘Most people do in the end. It is a very special place,’ Oskar agreed.
They walked silently for the most part but very contentedly, or at least Will thought so. He kept sneaking glances at the tall, handsome man strolling beside him, dressed casually in long shorts, sandals, tee shirt and unbuttoned over-shirt. His wrap-around sunglasses looked expensive.
Oskar was completely real, yet Will could not believe this was anything other than fantasy. A true fairytale, he thought.
The two men separated at the hotel entrance on Flavienplaz. Marietta licked Will’s hand goodbye. He patted the dog affectionately.
‘Here’s the number of my handij … I mean, my cell phone.’ Oskar gave Will a scribbled note. ‘Ring me this evening please, I beg.’
‘Oh yes,’ he replied, ‘I most certainly will.’
As he let himself into the room quietly, Will was working on explanations. They became redundant when he saw that Harry was wrapped around last night’s Rothenian boy from Liberation, and the floor was scattered with their clothes. The two were still fast asleep.
Will was relieved. After changing from his suitcase, he went down for breakfast without waking them. When he came back up at nine, the shower was going in the bathroom and both men were in it. He grinned as they emerged damp and naked. The Rothenian looked shocked and covered his genitals.
‘Oh, hi! Er … where were you last night?’
‘Like you, getting to know Rothenia better.’
‘Ah … this is Viktor.’
‘Er … hello. I shall be going then.’
‘Cheers, Viktor.’ The boy dressed rapidly and disappeared without a goodbye kiss.
Harry glanced a little crossly at Will. ‘You’re not going to come over all censorious on me, are you?’
‘No, not in the least, Harry. I’m just glad you’re having a good time. Screw who you want. It won’t bother me.’
After studying him closely, Harry looked relieved as he concluded that Will was being genuine. ‘That’s okay then, but I suppose this means we’re history now.’
‘Yup. But it was fun while it lasted, and I have to thank you for it. You changed my life for the better, Harry, for which I’ll always be your friend.’
Harry smiled. ‘I have to say, it’s nice you’re being so mature about it. You’re a real babe, Will Vincent, and you’ll be forever high in my top ten.’
‘Thanks. Now I gotta get out. I’m meeting someone.’
‘New boyfriend? The one I saw you dancing with?’
‘No. Just this guy I ran into at Liberation.’
‘He’s from Northampton.’
‘Go for it.’
* * *
Terry was at reception. When he saw Will, his face cracked in an elfin grin. ‘You look well. Got back safely?’
‘Thereby hangs a tale. I’ll tell you sometime.’
Terry seemed intrigued, but didn’t pursue it. The others were waiting in the big car at the entrance.
‘Where are we going?’
‘The palace,’ replied Matt.
‘But I thought it wasn’t open to the public,’ Will observed.
‘Ah, but we aren’t the public. We’re from Marlowe Productions UK Ltd, purveyors of documentaries to the discriminating, and you three are my production assistants … unpaid of course.’
‘I’m thinking of industrial action for a raise,’ Terry chipped in.
‘But I’ll buy lunch.’
‘That’s okay then. I’ll call it off.’
‘My PA in London faxed the president’s office with your names this morning early. You have clearance. Got your passports?’
‘Christ no!’ Will exclaimed. ‘I’ll get it from the room. Won’t be long.’
The car drove past the towering statue of King Henry directly up to the massive wrought-iron gates opening off the Rodolferplaz. A black-uniformed state policeman, wearing white gloves and holding a machine gun on a white strap, waved them through after first checking their passports and making a radio call. Presidential guards in full-dress blue uniforms, somewhat reminiscent of those of the United States Army, were pacing the forecourt.
The car moved slowly under an arch at the side of the great frontage and into a cobbled courtyard, where it pulled up at the foot of a wide stone staircase. An elderly man was waiting for them. He was dressed in white tie and black tailcoat, with a red, black and white sash draped diagonally across his chest. Suddenly, Will wished he had dressed more formally.
There were handshakes all round. The gentleman introduced himself in good English as Mr Pokolosky, assistant chef de protocole of the palace. He seemed a mild and very pleasant man, whom Will immediately liked. He led them up into the state rooms occupying a long, first-floor gallery with tall windows giving on to an inner courtyard.
‘This is the gallery of King Rudolf III. That is his portrait at the east end.’ They saw a handsome and ironic-looking red-haired man in a black suit with the ribbon of the Order of the Rose across his chest. ‘And at the other end facing him is his famous sister, the Princess Osra, Grand Duchess of Mittenheim.’ They gasped at the portrait of a phenomenally handsome red-headed woman. ‘The artist was an Italian, I believe, who later committed suicide, for love they say of the princess. The portrait was very faithful, and you can see how such beauty might have maddened any man.’
Not us, at least, reflected Will, catching Ramon’s eye with a smirk. ‘Osra is an unusual name,’ he ventured.
‘It is Rothenian,’ explained Mr Pokolosky. ‘The Elphberg dynasty derived from the marriage of Rudolf of Elphberg, a Swabian, to the Duchess Osra, the last descendant of Tassilo, in 1436. The name was frequently used thereafter in the dynasty, and is the feminine form of the Rothenian Oskar. “Oskar und Osra” is the Rothenian equivalent of what you English would say: “Darby and Joan”, I think.’
Pokolosky took them down the gallery and through great doors opening into a large chamber, where they found a wall covered with rosettes and stands of pikes and swords. ‘This is the Salle des Armes, the Guard Chamber. It was here in 1717 that an attempt was made on the life of Henry the Lion by a Bavarian assassin. The pistol misfired and the king ran the miscreant through with his own sword, something he did quite regularly it appears; he was a very autocratic and bad-tempered man.’
He pointed to a grand canvas covering an entire wall, showing massed troops and a general on a caracoling white horse. ‘That is the king on the field of Luchau in 1722, when he defeated the Poles led by the Count of Saxony, later the Mareschal Saxe. On the other wall is Henry as a young royal prince at the siege of the Turks in Trieste.’
They moved on to the next tall chamber. ‘This is the Great Antechamber. Along that wall is a series of portraits of eighteenth-century European monarchs, including your George II. He was related by marriage to Rudolf III, who was his aide-de-camp on the field of Dettingen under the pseudonym of the count of Elphberg. Rudolf was fond of England and stayed there regularly before his succession in 1739. He was a member of Whites, the gentlemen’s club, and a fellow of the Royal Society. Rumour has it he left several unofficial Elphbergs behind him in England after his stays. He fought three duels at Vauxhall.’
‘Now that,’ decided Matt, ‘is the sort of information we can use.’
Pokolosky pushed open the farther set of doors. ‘This is the Presence Chamber, with the throne.’
A long, pillared hall led back to a great chair raised on a dais of six steps, a gloomy and dusty crimson baldachin hanging over it. The arms of Ruritania, circled by the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rose, were mounted behind the throne.
‘Is this room ever used nowadays?’ Will asked.
‘The President of the Republic is sworn in on the steps, but no one ever sits on the throne itself.’
‘Are there any pretenders now to the throne of Rothenia?’ Will pursued.
‘As you will know, I think, the last king, Maxim Elphberg, abdicated in 1920. He had no children, but the claim to the throne lingers on in English, German and Italian families. There is strong royalist feeling in modern Rothenia, where the Elphberg name still counts for much. Moreover, there is a mystical attachment to our national symbol, the Crown of Tassilo, which has been lost since King Maxim’s day. The succession question is a complicated one, I believe.’
‘More good stuff,’ murmured Matt, scribbling in a notebook.
Pokolosky drew their attention to a massive canvas above the entry facing the throne. ‘You see there a portrayal of the coronation of King Rudolf V. He is enthroned, taking the homage of his cousin, and later wife, Flavia.’
They gazed curiously at the huge painting. Set in the cathedral of Strelzen, it depicted robed nobility and vested clergy ranked on the king’s right to watch the homage. A dark-moustachioed nobleman in uniform stood next the king, holding upright a ceremonial sword while looking oddly disgusted with the proceedings. On the other side was a party of courtiers in a variety of colourful military costumes.
A face leaped out at Will, above its gold-laced collar. ‘Hey,’ he said, ‘that’s the count of Tarlenheim.’
Pokolosky appeared surprised. ‘You have studied the nineteenth-century court of Ruritania?’
Will smiled. ‘I saw his monument in the cathedral yesterday.’
Pokolosky nodded. ‘Of course. He was allowed burial next to Rudolf V and Flavia, whom he faithfully served all his life. He was a famously handsome man, as you can see.’
Pokolosky led them back through to the gallery and along to the offices of state, still occupied by the ministry of the interior. The rooms were out of bounds, but there were many interesting works of art in the busy corridors. Later, as they strolled through the palace grounds, which were laid out in the English manner, Mr Pokolosky paused at a tall white Gothic monument beside the path. It was inscribed in Latin:
Qui in hac civitate nuper regnavit
In corde ipsius in aeternum regnat
Before anyone said anything, Will translated: ‘To Rudolf, who reigned lately in this city and reigns forever in her heart, Queen Flavia’
Pokolosky was impressed. ‘Well read, young man. Yes, that is correct. This is the original monument to the king that the queen set up in the cathedral after his assassination. It was moved here in 1880, to the spot where the king fell, when the two were laid together forever in a new tomb.’
‘This is a city where romance becomes real, isn’t it sir?’ Will said quietly, his heart swelling and his eyes suddenly and unaccountably blinded with tears.
Pokolosky peered closely at Will and smiled gently. ‘That is what many have said, young man, and what many still say. They also say that anyone who has felt true love will feel at home here, and never want to leave.’
Will felt Ramon’s warm hand take his briefly and squeeze it.
Matt too was smiling at him. ‘I was a bit worried how we might manage without Andy to translate for us, Will. But here you are, and I’m so grateful.’
* * *
Lunch was in a fine restaurant by the river Starel. They sat low down near the slow brown waters flecked with willow leaves. Swans drifted by on the current, and sightseeing boats chugged past upstream.
‘This is a winner, historically and scenically,’ enthused Matt. ‘I can already feel it coming together in my head. It’ll draw interest too. The world outside is just starting to know about Rothenia. If only I could find that Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin had an affair with an Elphberg, I could sell it to the Discovery Channel for a mint.’
‘When are you going into production?’ Terry asked.
‘We’ve got to spend maybe six months to a year in development. We need six episodes sorted by the end of it. But the Elphbergs are going to be episode one; believe me, it’ll make the series. I just need to find a hook on which to hang it.’
After lunch the waiting limousine drove them smoothly south to the royal summer palace outside the city of Zenden. The autoroute was very busy with big lorries thundering in both directions, south to the Balkans and north into Germany. Factories hemmed in the motorway on either side, although a lot of them were derelict, as Will noted. They passed some very unattractive housing blocks at the edge of Zenden’s sprawl, sterile apartment towers on bare grounds. Will grimaced. Rothenia had not escaped the blight of the Cold War and Communist central planning.
They turned off the autoroute and up into the hills above the industrial city. In a shallow, wooded valley they came abruptly upon the broad, yellow-and-white frontage of a neo-Classical château, with three great pavilions, set at the end of a long, gravel drive shaded by pollarded trees. A policeman at the grand gates inspected Matt’s documents and waved them through after lifting a striped barrier.
The car crunched to a halt under the terrace. They got out and stretched. ‘The ministry of the interior has given us clearance to poke around,’ said Matt, ‘although the castle isn’t open to the public. It’s the country residence of the president and is used for international summits.’
A young army officer in green, with a braided collar and peaked cap, appeared. He shook hands with them all in the formal Rothenian way. In his blond good looks, Will began to notice a generic young male Rothenian face. There were hints of Oskar in the man’s cheeks and eyes. It made Will shiver.
‘Welcome to castle of Zenda!’ the officer exclaimed, introducing himself in fair English as Major Antonin, the garrison commander. He ushered them on to the terrace, pointing out features of the grounds visible from their vantage point. At the main door, guards in black, white and red-striped sentry boxes snapped to attention as he led them into the cool interior of the early-nineteenth-century range.
‘New part of château added by King Ferdinand during time of Napoleon,’ he explained. ‘This king like comfort. Would not put up with more primitive conditions of old castle. But odd, he did not demolish. Is said this was because of mother of king, Margaret of Tuscany, who retired to Zenda after death of Rudolf III. Also there was aunt, Princess Osra, who claimed she owned château. So here! Old castle stand to present.’
The back of the modern wing opened on to another, grander terrace, beyond whose wall spread a wide moat almost big enough to be called a lake. A long stone bridge communicated with a small island, upon which rose a tall, white fairy-tale castle that looked like a miniature Amboise. A drawbridge, down at the moment, could be opened to block the end of the bridge.
They cheerfully laboured up the spiral staircase of the keep to gaze out over the trees. Since the castle was in a shallow valley, there was not much to see apart from treetops, but Will caught the distant glimpse of another stately home on a far hilltop. ‘Major? What’s that place?’
‘That is Furstenberg, or Festenberh. Once castle of lords very much angry with – you say hostile to? – Elphberg rulers and earlier ones. It come into hands of loyal lords of Tarlenheim. Princes of this house live there until nationalisation of 1948.’
‘Are there still Tarlenheims?’
‘I do not know. If there are, they will be very poor, like the rest of former Rothenian lords. President Tildemann left lords alone, but Communists of Horvath very hostile. Many went into gulags and not come out again. It very unhappy period. You English still have your lords, do you not? And they govern you, is that not so?’
‘No,’ contradicted Matt with some satisfaction, ‘we’ve finally relegated them to history.’
‘Ach. Rothenia and its lords is just as complicated as your English lords and you. Our lords and barons mostly Rothenian Slavs, but they took to German ways and German language in medieval days. Yet same aristocrats sponsored National Revival. They supported Rothenian composers, novelists and poets.
‘People still think so that our lords were good thing. Is not disgrace to claim descent from noble Rothenian house, at least not since May Rising. President Maritz is from noble family of Glottenberh. He is happy it is known. There is some restoration of stolen properties by state, but is bad … difficult in courts. Lawyers make money out of it, not many more. So Festenberh is agricultural college and will that way stay.’