Michael Arram










  As promised, Josep had Will back on his examination couch again on Monday.  Looking pleased at the progress on Will’s shoulders and abs, he prescribed more of the same.  ‘But you are so pale, you English boys.  No wonder your vitamin levels are so low.  Which reminds me.’  Will felt the thin stab of another injection in his bum.  ‘Thirty minutes a day in the ultraviolet cabin from now on.’


  The working out continued.  Afterwards, as they undressed to use the tanning rooms, Oskar looked askance at Will.  ‘You’re not keeping your underpants on, are you?’


  ‘Er … yes?’


  ‘Don’t you want an all-over tan?’


  ‘Well, I suppose.  Do I drop them here?’  He stripped off and went into the tanning capsule, putting on the small goggles.  Soon he was bored, standing there feeling very naked and exposed in the blue light, watching a grim Romanian pop video on the screen in front of him.  But he looked at his reflection and was rather smug about his chest development, the sudden bulk in some areas, and slimness in others.  Even his balls seemed tighter.


  Will also noticed an odd thing: his pubic bush had sprung a trail up to his navel that had not been there before.  He seemed bushier between the thighs, too.  He shrugged.  Must be all the testosterone he was pumping now.  His pubes were due an appointment with a pair of scissors.


  The day at the library went well, although Will’s concentration was even more astray than the previous week.  Still, with all that had happened over the weekend, he could hardly be surprised.  He was also even more urgent for sex in the loos.  Having come prepared Oskar allowed it, this time letting Will mount him.  The orgasm was intense as Will fired eight heart-stopping pulses of semen into his lover’s hot interior.


  Every day Will’s lust for his Oskar grew.  His appetite for food matched that for sex.


  By Friday the files had stacked up even higher, leading Will to begin preparing a master index.  Oskar had produced some creditable synopses of the principal Elphberg biographies in Rothenian, and had gone beyond the books to the periodical literature.  Will had got permission to photocopy what they found, after paying a big fee, and at week's end had accumulated a huge pile.  He was able to speed read them and highlight interesting passages.


  They decided to celebrate at Ribaud’s and plan their next moves.  They took an inside table and went for the beef this time.  It was a leisurely meal, helped down with two bottles of a rich red wine from the south of the country.


  Oskar chuckled.  ‘You’ll be farting all night!’  That was a bit unfair, it seemed to Will.  Oskar was just as much an offender, but as he said, ‘Whoever heard of a prince farting?’


  ‘If Marietta doesn’t complain,’ retaliated Will, ‘why should you?’


  ‘So what about next week?’


  ‘I’ve been looking around things and we need to check out any big provincial collections of art.  There’s a gallery of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Rothenian pictures at Modenehem which a lot of the books take plates from.’


  ‘I know it,’ Oskar said.


  ‘We can take the express on Monday after the gym session.’


  ‘No, I don’t think so, Will.  It’s closed Monday, so I suggest we spend the morning sorting and packing the stuff we already have.  Then we can post it to England, e-mail our progress to Matt’s PA from the University where I have an account, and in the afternoon hit the Spa and chill out.  Also, we should ring ahead to talk to the curator.  I know her.’


  ‘Oh, that’s convenient.’


  ‘Isn’t it?’ Oskar answered, a little shortly Will thought, even in his mildly drunken state.


  Will looked around.  ‘Oh fuck, it’s your boss again!’


  Hendrik had arrived with a curly-headed, feline young man in tow.  It was no less than Max Wolf, as Will recognised, even though Max was wearing clothes.  When Oskar raised his glass to them, they smiled and nodded back.  Will thought Max kept staring at him.


  Will went for the local pudding, an amazing confection of apricots, cream and meringue.  Oskar watched him, faintly disgusted, before excusing himself to go to the loos.  It was not long before the door banged and he was joined by Hendrik next to the porcelain.  Oskar was not at all surprised.


  ‘The English boy is looking well and has a good appetite.  I see Josep knew what to do.’


  ‘Yes, and there’ll be no more of it.  Two shots of his steroid cocktail are more than enough for any normal man.  Stacking drugs like that is dangerous.  We don’t know enough about the man’s medical history to burden his metabolism in that way.  He’s already rippling in the chest, and shrinking in the testicles.  Yet he is as randy as a mountain goat in season.’


  ‘He’s still pale.’


  ‘We’re trying to do something about it, but UV only makes him red.  You’ll just have to colour-screen the shots.’


  ‘It doesn’t always work, as you should know,’ Hendrik objected.


  ‘Yes, I look like I was painted chestnut in my publicity shots.’


  ‘We need to get started soon.’


  ‘It’ll be the end of this week.’


  ‘Good.  I am intrigued as to how you can talk that pretty and respectable English boy out of his clothes and in front of the cameras.  However, you have delivered so far, you clever boy, so I shall trust you.’


  ‘And you haven’t forgotten that this time I get a finder’s commission as well as my fee.’


  ‘This is going to cost me big, Oskar.’


  ‘But you know it’ll be good.’


  ‘Yes, I’m sure it will be.  Felip will break him in,’ Hendrik added.


  ‘What?  That wasn’t part of the deal.  I thought that was to be me.’


  ‘Hardly.  The punters want variety.  You will star in the main production.  But “Jason Williams” will be an interesting novelty to come out of Rothenia.  Our first American model will make us look good.  He really is quite a catch, so gauche and so pretty.  I understand now what you saw in him that night in Liberation.  For his marketability, though, we need him with different bodies in different situations.’


  ‘Then make sure Felip behaves.’


  Hendrik smiled benignly.  ‘Of course.’




* * *




  The following Monday they skipped the gym.  Oskar went for his clinic tests, while Will stayed at the flat to box and list all the files they would be dispatching to England.  When Oskar returned, they caught the tram for the University, where they found the computer suite more or less empty, since it was the vacation.  Rapidly typing out their joint report in his excellent English, Oskar attached to it a series of the choicer images they had found and e-mailed it off


  At a bit of a loose end once Oskar had rung Modenehem, they looked round.  There were some old buildings ranged about the fifteenth-century Grand Chapel of St Thomas Aquinas, the core of the campus, where mass for the soul of the founder, Duke Rudolf II, was once more being said daily by a college of superannuated priests.  The School of Theology was the oldest faculty, housed in a sixteenth-century hall.  The library, even after the depredations of the twentieth century, was still famous and admired for its liturgical collections.


  ‘Look!  It’s the Tarlenheim arms!’ called out Will, pointing to the decoration of a grand sculpted doorway.


  ‘Yes.  That’s the hall for foreign students, built in 1678 by my ancestor, Count Oskar the Great, after whom I was named.’


  ‘It must feel odd seeing bits and pieces of your family history scattered all over this country.’


  ‘Not half as odd as …’ Oskar began, and then shut up abruptly.




  ‘I was just going to say, that the Tarlenheim legacy has moved around a bit too.’




  ‘Nothing,’ Oskar muttered tersely, and suggested they get out to the Spa.


  From Parlementplaz they caught a bus, which ran out along an avenue straight to the western hills.  Its last stop was the Spa, a series of palatial nineteenth-century hilltop structures set amidst impressive grounds.  It was not unlike Alexandra Palace without its radio mast.


  They paid at the main gate and entered the pleasure gardens.  In the Spa reception they hired towels, plastic sandals and robes.  They left their clothes in lockers, putting the keys on cords around their necks.


  ‘No trunks?’ asked Will nervously.


  ‘Grow up,’ answered Oskar with a grin.  He took Will to a big outdoor pool where mineral waters bubbled up from natural warm springs.  Naked people of all ages and both sexes were everywhere, some attractive, most not.  Oskar nonchalantly dropped his robe and took a seat in the bubbling blue water on a submerged ledge, where he relaxed against a plastic pillow.  Will followed his example and hastily joined him.


  The water was comfortably warm and steamed a little.  There was a mild stench in the air which reminded Will a little of rotten eggs.  He realised it was sulphur he was smelling.  Relaxing on his own ledge he commented, ‘Now I see why Rothenians are willing to get naked on DVD so readily.’


  ‘The nudity taboo isn’t so strong here as in the West, that’s true,’ Oskar agreed, ‘and if you’ve got it, the Rothenian way is to flaunt it.  It helps Hendrik find his young men.  See the boy over there opposite us?  That’s Radik, a Falkefilm scout.  Summer’s a good time for locating new talent.’


  Will saw a dark boy, naked except for a pair of shades, lying on his stomach in the sun, a towel under him on the grass.  He was surreptitiously scanning the passing groups, looking for suitable males giving him the eye.


  Will was beginning to find the Spa quite a sensuous experience, he admitted to himself.


  ‘Relaxed?’ Oskar asked after fifteen minutes or so.


  ‘Sure am.’


  ‘Then let’s do the baths.’


  They got up and went dripping indoors.  Oskar carried his robe and didn’t bother to put it back on, so Will steeled himself to walk naked in public after him in the open air.  It was just too arousing to see that perfect bum in front of him in the sunlight.  But after a while the nakedness stopped bothering him.  If people were looking at him, they were being surreptitious about it.


  They took the cold plunge first to clean off the spa water.  Oskar swam a few lazy lengths of the pool, but Will shot out as soon as he was in.  ‘You’re tough,’ he said in admiration, sitting on the edge to wait for his lover.


  ‘Just used to it,’ Oskar rejoined.  ‘Okay, now the caldarium.’


  Although they kept their sandals on, they left their robes and towels on a ledge.  They walked round the indoor spa pool, then through a long, shallow, warmer trough like a sort of submerged corridor, to approach two sets of doors from which steam emerged.  Women took the left-hand doors, men those on the right.


  The humidity inside sent Will into an immediate blind sweat.  Oskar had to lead him over to a bench, as he could barely see where he was going.  They lay out sweating amongst a lot of other bodies.


  Once they’d got used to the steam and heat, Oskar whispered into Will’s ear, ‘Watch that guy over there.’


  Out of the corner of his eye, Will glimpsed a paunchy man in his late thirties with a towel over his groin.  Another man sidled up to him and quickly slipped his hand under the towel.  They hastily got up and disappeared out a side door.


  Oskar grinned at Will.  ‘Don’t ever come in here and lay a towel over your lap.  It’s the code that you want a blowjob.  He’s being sucked off right now in the corridor.  If you don’t want to be bothered, go naked.’


  ‘Oskar, life is too damned complicated for me.’


  ‘It’s all part of the rich tapestry …’


  ‘You’re a bit of a philosopher, do you know that?’






  Under cover of the steam, they kissed happily.


  Half an hour later, they made their way back to the cold plunge.  Will shrieked as he jumped in, but felt fantastic when he got out.  ‘This is great!’


  ‘It’s what made the ancient Romans world conquerors.’




* * *




  Later, enervated by the heat of sun and water, they put their robes and sandals back on, found their lockers and dressed.  Will was in a better mood than he had been for weeks.  The sense of irritation and the lack of focus seemed to have been purged away.


  He and Oskar strolled out of the Spa precinct and found a table at a roadside café opposite.  They sat under a spreading vine, took two chilled glasses of the local fruit wine, and watched the crowds moving in and out of the grounds.


  ‘Willemju, my dearest love,’ Oskar observed with a complacent smile, ‘you look at home here.’


  ‘I feel at home here, more at home than I do at home.’


  ‘Rothenia seems to suit you, my darling one.  I think it would suit you even if you weren’t with me.  You were born to come here.  It happens, you know.  My father once told me a strange story – a very strange story – of an Englishman and this country.  He warned me never to recount it to anyone except my own son, but since I will never have a son, I think I will tell you, and Fritz when he is older.  And he in turn will tell his son, for he will be prince and count one day, although he does not know it yet.’


  Oskar was clearly warming up to launch into a very long tale.  Will was intrigued, so he called over a waiter, in what was now quite fluent Rothenian, to order a chilled bottle of the wine.  He was rewarded with the usual dazzling smile he got as a foreigner speaking the language.  It made you instantly popular in Strelzen.


  ‘Now, my Will.  Have you heard of the English counts of Burlesdon?’


  ‘We call them earls, but yes, I’m familiar with the name.  I also know that Rudolf III was a playboy prince who slept with the countess of Burlesdon.  As an unexpected parting gift he gave her a red-haired baby boy, whom the earl adopted as his own son, with none to deny him.  Thus it is that today’s Burlesdons are in fact Elphbergs.’


  Oskar’s mouth had dropped.  He took Will’s hand in his, looked seriously at him and said, ‘If I ever underestimate your cleverness again, Willemju, take a hammer and beat my brains out.  How do you know this?’


  ‘Mr Pokolosky told us the story on his tour of the presidential palace a couple of weeks ago.’


  ‘Ach, then I see where you got the information.  There is a lot more to the story, however, that I do not think Mr Pokolosky knows.  In fact, I may be one of the few people in Rothenia – and perhaps the world – who does.


  ‘In 1854, a younger brother of the then earl came to our land on holiday.  His name was Rudolf, Rudolf Rassendyll, which is the Burlesdon family name.  Rudolf, of course, was a cheeky reference to the scandalous Rassendyll ancestry.  Rudolf was tall, powerful and red-headed, just like his ancestor King Rudolf III.


  ‘Now it happened that the Englishman arrived here in the days immediately preceding the coronation of Rudolf V.  The new king’s father, a most unpopular monarch who had never been forgiven for the brutal suppression of the people in the Strelzen rising of 1848, had just died.  His eldest son, the new Rudolf, was not too popular either, and there were radicals enough in the kingdom ready to revenge the butchery of 1848 by removing him.  The aristocratic opposition party was headed by Rudolf’s own half-brother, Duke Mikhel, who saw his chance to take the throne.


  ‘My ancestor, the Franz who is buried at Strelzen cathedral, was equerry to Rudolf V at that time, and assistant to the marshal of the household, a steady old soldier called Sapt.  It is, you understand, from that Franz – who was called generally Fritz, just like my brother – that this story ultimately comes.  King Rudolf and he were friends, but he could not stop the king from over-indulging himself in a hunting lodge in the woods of Zenda, when an agent of Duke Mikhel’s slipped the king drugged wine.  He was unconscious on the morning of his coronation and could not be woken.


  ‘However, also at the hunting lodge was Mr Rassendyll, whom the king had encountered walking in the woods of Zenda and invited in as a cousin – it was his humour.  When the plot was discovered, Sapt persuaded Mr Rassendyll to take the king’s place and substitute for him at the coronation.  The king and Mr Rassendyll both had the look of their common ancestor, Rudolf III, you see.’


  ‘My God,’ interjected Will, ‘is this true?’


  ‘It is a story, but it is certainly as true a one as can be.  For it is so true it can be told to but one person at a time.  How more true can you get?  I will continue.  So here we have Mr Rudolf Rassendyll of Burlesdon in England crowned king of Ruritania, while the king, the real king, was hidden away in a cellar, sleeping off the effects of the drug.  But when Mr Rassendyll, my ancestor Fritz and Colonel Sapt reached the lodge, he was gone, kidnapped by the duke’s agent, a nasty piece of work called Hentzen.  They had no choice but to hurry back to Strelzen and have Rassendyll resume his reign as king, while Mikhel held the real king for ransom.’


  ‘A bit of a standoff, then.’


  ‘Certainly.  But in the meantime, Flavia of Elphberg, the king’s cousin and intended bride, had met and fallen for Rassendyll, evidently a fine figure of a man.’


  ‘More and more complicated.  How was it resolved?  For I assume it was resolved one way or another.’


  ‘Rassendyll, Fritz and a party of soldiers surrounded the castle of Zenda.  Rassendyll himself swam the lake to the old castle and saved the captive king, while Fritz and his men broke down the doors of the modern château.  The Duke Mikhel was by then dead inside, killed by intrigue within his own party.  Rassendyll indeed was nearly killed himself when he fought the radicals, and though he escaped, he may have wished he had not, for he then had to watch Flavia, the love of his life, marry another, the king he had himself saved from death.  And she knew him too for Rassendyll, and not the king, and she loved him back.’


  ‘This is incredible,’ cried Will.  ‘What Matt White would give for it!’


  Will was quelled by Oskar’s stern glare.  ‘You understand the concept of secrecy, do you not?’


  ‘Of course, Oskar.  You have carried this story in your head since you were a boy, and I will do no less.  Forgive me.  It was just the surprise.  But there is a reason you have told me this, I think?’


  ‘Yes, there is, and it is in the moral.  Can you see it?’


  ‘Er … never impersonate a king and fall for his girlfriend?’


  ‘My darling Will, there are times when I think you might look better with a broken nose.’




  ‘I have not yet finished in any case.  Years went by.  The royal marriage was not happy.  Although Rudolf V proved a good king, employing clever ministers, and restoring parliament, he was an unhappy and suspicious man.  His queen meanwhile hung on to a fantasy of Mr Rassendyll that she was besotted enough to indulge.  In the end a compromising letter came into the hands of an anarchist nobleman – quite a contradictory concept, wouldn't you say? – who was the same Hentzen I have already mentioned.  Rassendyll returned to Ruritania, which he should not have done, and tried to recover the letter.  But the anarchists moved on the king in the forest of Zenda, where Hentzen miscalculated and murdered him in 1861.’


  ‘In 1861?  But that’s not right.  Rudolf V’s reign ended in 1862.’


  ‘So many people think, but they are wrong.  The king was murdered, but there was another man who looked exactly like him.’




  ‘The very man.  He and his friends, including my ancestor Fritz, disposed of the royal body.  Rassendyll took the king’s place in Strelzen, becoming once again King Rudolf so that he might hunt down the anarchists and make the land safe for his beloved Flavia.  He succeeded.  Hentzen was cut down, but alas, at the end, an assassin escaped the sweep and shot Rassendyll to death in the palace grounds.  And so Rudolf V died twice.’


  ‘And the body in the cathedral …’


  ‘… is that of Mr Rassendyll, and his queen lies beside him.’




  Oskar smiled,  ‘Now that’s a story, isn’t it?’


  ‘Wow.  I hope you Tarlenheims make sure it never dies.  It should always be remembered that there was once such romance and chivalry in this world.’


  ‘I think that is why Prince Fritz eventually told his son, the Prince Rudolf, who told his, and so on to my father and me.  It has never been written down.’


  ‘I am honoured that you confided in me too,’ said Will.  ‘But you mentioned there was a moral.’


  ‘There is, and one day it may be important, my Will, that you remember it.  It is this: There is such a thing as nobility in the world, but noble actions are sometimes carried out in dark places by desperate men.  They may seem no better than brigands, yet nonetheless, what they do is still noble and the end they pursue is not selfish, but the greater good.’


  Will suddenly recognised that in Oskar he had met a better teacher than he could ever be.  He was just puzzled as to what he was supposed to have learned.