Michael Arram








  First thing on Tuesday morning, Oskar made a call to the clinic.  Will, lying back in bed stroking Marietta, saw him go tense.  Will’s heart lurched, and he was not reassured by Oskar’s look when he turned around.


  ‘So now the athlete’s foot makes sense,’ Oskar swore.  ‘Will, how does your glans feel?’


  ‘OK, well, a bit reddish and sore round the rim, and my foreskin’s a little puffy, but no problem.  Just too much sex, I guess.’


  ‘Will, I have what we call in Rothenian “vyrfebr”.  I do not know what it is in English, but I seem to have given it to you.  It is very infectious and irritating, but I suppose things could be a lot worse.  We have to go and pick up medication.  No sex for three days.’


  ‘Sounds like what we call thrush,’ Will groaned.  ‘Oh shit!’


  ‘My thoughts exactly.  After this week, though, you and I will never have protected sex with each other again.  I am yours alone, my Will.’


  ‘Oh!  Every cloud …’


  ‘Pardon me?’


  ‘Just an English saying.’


  Stopping by the clinic on their way to the railway station, they slathered the cream on to each other in the toilet.  ‘That was not in the least erotic,’ Will observed as he wiped his oily hands with a paper towel before zipping up his fly.


  The train that day was a lot smarter and faster than the rickety old one that had taken them to Terlenehem.  They found seats facing each other across a table.  Unusually for him, Oskar had dressed more formally than was his custom, with slacks, an open dress shirt and light sports jacket.  Generally he favoured long shorts, jeans or cut-off trousers, with all sorts of baggy shirts and sweat tops, and had not compromised his informality even at the National Library.  Now, however, he looked every inch the young aristocrat, which Will realised was not accidental.  Oskar was up to something.


  Modenehem was as pretty as Will remembered, with geraniums still blooming in their window boxes on the square.  The gallery was at the back of the Radhaus, under a bilingual sign that read: Husbraniske Hradiske Gallerij/Galerie Regionale v. Husbrau.  Around the doors stood a number of foreign tourists, among them a big party of French children with a teacher.


  At the modern desk they asked for the curator, a young woman in glasses who emerged promptly and went straight up to Oskar.  ‘My dear prince,’ she gushed with what Will thought was a genuine smile, ‘it’s always a great pleasure to welcome you here.’


  She means it, Will concluded.


  ‘Thank you, Marie.  I did not think you would be so pleased to see me.’


  ‘I have the greatest respect for you and your family, sir, you know that.’


  ‘Hmm.  Even though I’m trying to put you out of a job?’


  ‘Hardly, sir.  It will be a blow if it happens, but our collections are more extensive than you seem to realise.  Besides,’ she twinkled, ‘there is always the possibility of long-term loans.’


  ‘I am glad, Marie.  You know there is nothing personal in this.’


  ‘Of course.’


  ‘May I introduce a historian friend from England, Mr William Vincent.  Will, Dr Marie Esterhazy.’


  ‘A pleasure,’ she said in English.


  ‘Enchanted,’ Will replied in Rothenian.


  She smiled and relaxed, as always happened when a Rothenian met a foreigner speaking the local language.


  ‘How can I help?’ she asked, and Will explained the project.  She became quite excited.  She led them into the grand exhibition room, indicating that this would be where they would find the principal items.  She also informed them there was a stack, and a big number of plates and woodcuts that she would show them after they had browsed.


  What they had to survey was a phenomenal collection of Rothenian court paintings from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries.  They were dazzling and Will wandered around open-mouthed, Oskar tailing moodily after him.


  ‘This is a gold mine!’ Will enthused.


  ‘You think?’ growled Oskar, sourness evident on his face.


  ‘What’s up, Oskar?’


  ‘Have you looked at the frame of that one?’


  Will craned forward to the nearest canvas, a superb depiction of Henry the Lion in chasseur green hunting the stag in the forest of Zenda.  The rich, heavily gilded frame was a mass of scrolls and vines, but at top and bottom he recognised without any difficulty the arms of Tarlenheim.  ‘Ah,’ he murmured after a moment’s reflection, ‘all is now clear.’


  ‘The core of this collection is the contents of the Château of Tarlenheim’s former galleries.  I want these pictures back.’  At that point Oskar looked ferocious, an expression Will had never before seen on his lover’s face.  ‘The local commissar stripped the house of pictures and furnishings before the Russians blew it up.  The bastard left our family archives inside it, though, so all our records and titles went up with the rest of it.


  ‘Why won’t the government let you have them?’


  ‘Its lawyers know I’m having a hard time gathering the documentation to reconstruct what was actually there.  With this one, the frame’s the giveaway.  Unfortunately, most of them were re-framed by the government under Communism.  There are no catalogue marks on the backs, and indeed there is no surviving catalogue at all.  They’re trying to fob me off with some token restitutions, but I won’t have it.’  He pounded his right fist in his left hand, and for a moment looked every inch the prince he was.


  ‘Marie’s not a bad person, although she’s paid by the government.  Between you and me, she has slipped me one or two references that have helped me along a lot.  But it’s a very involved and expensive process, especially as I have other irons in the fire.’


  ‘Such as?’


  ‘To begin with, the Festenberh and Terlenehem estates.  The government could easily give them back.  Festenberh is state land at the moment.  Although Terlenehem was nationalised and redistributed, I’d settle for just the forest, the mineral rights and the site of the old castle.  The local people are aware of this and support me a hundred percent.  They’ve known me since I was a baby, and they loved father and mother.  There have even been demonstrations outside the municipality offices.’


  ‘How long have you been fighting this case?’


  ‘Father began it eight years ago and covered a lot of ground.  But we had no money, or friends with money, so it moved painfully slowly, using cheap local advocates, all of whom were useless.  Then father and mother were killed, and I went off the rails.  You know the government refused to release me from national service as a way of quashing our most promising court case?  As a serving soldier I could not legally take the government to court, and it all has to be done through me.’




  ‘But Helge carried on, God bless her, and now maybe you can guess a little more how I fell into Hendrik’s world.’


  ‘Oh!’ exclaimed Will.  ‘The money!’  He was stunned at what that revealed about Oskar.


  ‘Yes, the money.  It’s the only way a penniless Rothenian boy like me could have raised that sort of sum, and it has made quite a difference.  We now have a Strelzener lawyer who is first rate, although he’s greedy.  Matthew White’s cash has moved things on too, putting me on the verge now of the final push.  The case goes to the Supreme Court in a month’s time, because the government advocates have run out of ways to block it.’


  ‘This is great!’ Will cried.  Then he noticed Oskar’s expression, ‘But that’s not the whole story, is it?’  Oskar shook his head unhappily.  ‘But, my God, the things you have done to fight the case, giving up your body and …’


  ‘… my soul, perhaps you were going to say?’


  ‘No, my Oskar.  I know you too well.  I was going to say honour.’


  ‘Yes, well, honour among princes is a very negotiable quality.  To recover what is ours for my family, there are even worse things I would do.’  He glanced at Will in a very uncomfortable way.


  They continued to browse the canvases.  ‘Look,’ Will enthused, ‘it’s Prince Fritz!  And that must be his Helga and their children … doesn’t the older boy look like our Fritzku?’


  ‘The boy became Prince Rudolf, named after Mr Rassendyll, I suspect, not after Rudolf V as people assume.’


  ‘There’s a real resemblance between you and the Victorian Fritz, although his facial hair conceals it a little.’


  ‘Father said so too.  He also claimed it was a sign.’




  ‘He always thought it would be I, not he, who restored the family fortune.’




  ‘There is a strain of tragedy in every great family, you know.  We have had more than our fair share of it in this last century.  I believe father had an idea that the new century would be our salvation, only he died before he could see if he was correct.  It’s just Rothenian romanticism, my Will.  Don’t take it too seriously.’


  The day passed.  Marie sent out for lunch and gave her free time up to guide them through her enormous collection of political prints.  She did not mind Will’s copying as many as he liked, by Xerox or digital image.  She also found him a box of slides of the paintings in which he was most interested.  She asked no fee, but Will made a mental note that Matthew White would be sending a handsome donation to her gallery.


  It was a very enjoyable day.  Even Oskar’s moodiness could not stand against the cheerful attitude of Will and Marie.  After the gallery closed they bought her dinner, during which Oskar demonstrated quite how charming he could be.  Marie, clearly very attached to him, extended her affections to Will.


  The talk got around to current Rothenian politics.  The province of Husbrau was apparently the power base of the right-wing Christian Democrat party.  Marie Esterhazy, as a university-educated woman who had lived in Austria for a while, seemed to find Husbrau annoyingly backward.  ‘Living here in Modenehem you see the best and worst of Rothenian political life.  This is not a nation that ever took easily to democracy.’


  Oskar nodded agreement.


  Will tried to argue the point.  ‘There was Tildemann, who seems to have been something of a constitutional hero.’


  ‘True,’ conceded Marie.  ‘But his Republic was a precarious creation, born out of the crisis of the Great War.  It was crippled at birth.  Too many Rothenians loved King Maxim and regretted the way the Powers and radicals forced him from the throne.  The Republic staggered from one crisis to the next: rival royalist groups, our own home-grown fascist movement, the Great Depression, occupation, and eventually a Communist dictatorship.  No one looks back at the First Republic with any affection, for all that they acknowledge Tildemann’s virtues.’


  Oskar growled, ‘Our nation was never happier than under the Elphbergs.  Even a bad Elphberg king was better than a republic.’


  Marie laughed.  ‘You might well say so, serene highness.’


  Oskar looked a little sheepish.  ‘I’m not saying that just because I’m a Tarlenheim, Marie.  Take Rudolf V and Flavia, or the great Maxim for that matter.  The Elphberg charisma forged one nation out of Germans and Slavs.  When our two peoples worked together under the Crown of Tassilo, we advanced.  Remember the huge crowds that turned out to see Maxim and his queen reburied in Strelzen!


  ‘Now look at the place!  Germans and Slavs bickering, all the optimism of the May Rising vanished.  The economic reforms have stalled.  What’s the only solution our bankrupt politicians have?  Back to Communism or harsh libertarianism!  That’s not a choice worth making.’


  Marie laughed.  ‘I see, a romantic!  Why am I not surprised?’


  ‘You may mock, dear Marie.  But there is a third way.’


  ‘Hold on,’ Will intervened.  ‘I thought you told me there was no clear claimant to the throne.  Anyway, who nowadays would want to restore a monarchy?’


  Oskar shot Will an amused look.  ‘This from a subject of Her Majesty the Queen!  Rothenia, my dear Willem, is not Bulgaria or Montenegro.  It is an ancient monarchy whose royal family was never unpopular in the old days.  If the Communists had not taken us over, we’d have put our Elphbergs back on the throne after the war.’


  ‘But there is no pretender to the throne … is there?’


  ‘As it happens, a continuing line of Elphbergs still exists, and some among us would like to see the Crown of Tassilo placed on one of their heads in the cathedral of St Vitalis.


  ‘How could that be, if the Crown has been lost for nearly a century?’ objected Marie, bemused.


  ‘What’s been lost may be found again, Marie!  King Maxim hid it away somewhere.  He always insisted it never left Rothenia, though no one knows what happened to it after his day.’


  She shook her head.  ‘You’re a Ruritanian romantic, my dear prince.’


  Oskar gave them an odd glance: part pride, part quirkiness.  ‘What else would you expect from a man such as I?’




* * *




  Oskar was very quiet on the train back to Strelzen.  Will did not resent it; he thought he could understand why.  Eventually he said what he knew he had to say.  ‘What is it you’re not telling me, my Oskar?’


  Oskar looked momentarily startled, then relaxed.  ‘Too many things, my love, as perhaps you guess.’  His eyes glistened.  ‘I do love you, I really do.  You believe me, don’t you?’


  The sudden pleading in his voice worried Will.  This was not the Oskar he was used to, cool and confident to the point of cockiness.  ‘Yes I do,’ he replied simply.


  ‘Prince and whore.  What a combination, my Will.  How do I live with myself?’


  ‘Because of the greater good.’


  ‘So you remember.’


  ‘Yes.  I also remember your telling me that one day I should be your loyal knight.’


  ‘Ah.  Then I must tell you the day has arrived.’


  Will sat up, recognising a crisis when it came up and spat in his face.


  ‘It is a simple thing, but it has devastating consequences.  I have to file a bond of a million krone with the Supreme Court in two weeks’ time to indemnify the costs of the prosecution.  I have only a half million.  If the bond is not filed, the case goes by default and I have to begin all over again.’


  ‘You can get a loan, surely.’


  ‘I have no assets to pledge as collateral.  We only rent the cottage in Terlenehem, and Helge spends most of her salary on it.  Loans are not as easy to come by here as in the West, from what I have heard.’


  Will thought of his maxed-out card debt and winced.  ‘Don’t you know anyone who can stand surety for you?’  The legal terms were forcing him back into English, but Oskar caught the drift of what he was saying.


  ‘My friends are as poor as I am.  Although I have of course many relations amongst the other aristocratic families, we’re mostly penniless.  Those who aren’t are not a charity.


  ‘You can have everything I have … everything!’ exclaimed Will, and he meant it.


  Oskar smiled softly.  ‘I knew you would say that.  Just my luck to fall for a poor Westerner with debts, wasn’t it?  What have you got?’


  ‘The quarter million krone which Matt gave me.  It’s yours, even if I have to walk back to Britain.’


  ‘I will take it then, but we still need another quarter million.’


  ‘Oh.’  Will, thinking out options, hit upon the inevitable.  ‘What about Hendrik?  Would he give you a loan?’


  ‘Think, my Will.  He does not know who and what I am.  If he did, the possibilities for blackmail are endless, and I would not put it past him.  It is because of him that I have not given interviews in the press, as Helge thinks I should, to rouse public sympathy.  I dread the day he does make the connection, which he will soon turn to a profit.  Also, I suspect the interest on any loan I could obtain from Hendrik would be enormous.  However, he offers another possibility.’


  ‘Oh no, Oskar, surely you aren’t going to earn it that way again?’


  ‘There’s a special title in production, and I am in line for one of the two starring roles.’


  ‘Will that give you enough?’


  ‘More than half of it, certainly, but not enough.’


  ‘Then what can we do?’


  ‘I said there were two starring roles.’




  Oskar looked like a man on the edge of a big dive into uncertain waters, and an ominous feeling took possession of Will.  Oskar cleared his throat, and for the first time in their relationship, he would not meet Will’s eyes.


  ‘Hendrik has seen you twice in Ribaud’s.  The actor needs to be a Westerner and a native English speaker.  He wants to cast you.’


  Will froze.  He had no idea how long he stood there silent.  His mind had gone quite blank.  Oskar finally looked up at him.  Will had never seen his lover scared before, but he was scared then.


  Finally Will’s brain reconnected with the rest of him.  ‘And this will give you enough?’


  ‘More than enough.’


  ‘Oskar, do you know what starring in a porn film will do to me?’


  ‘I can guess.  After all, I have some experience of this.’


  ‘No, to me, not you.  We are two different men.  For me it will likely be the end of a career I was born for.  School teaching and porn acting are not really compatible professions, or at least parents think not.  Then there is my self-respect.  I know you sacrificed yours, but I also know why: I understand and can even admire you for it, because I feel the pain behind it.  These reasons do not apply to me, however.  I am an ordinary man.  There is no great narrative in my quiet life to justify such a sacrifice, or at least there wasn’t till we met.’


  Oskar hastened to interject.  ‘Please, Will, you are looking at it in a negative way.  It’s unlikely that anyone you know will ever see the film.  Even if they did, what could they say?  After all, they were watching gay porn, for God’s sake.  The only people who bother me are the gangs of roaming Yankee gays in this city, who think my ass is theirs because they’ve seen pictures of it.  These I can avoid.  You’ll never see them in … Whithampsted.  You can still teach, still get on with your life.’


  The train shook as it went over some points.  They had reached the outskirts of Strelzen.  Will shook his head.  ‘No more, Oskar.  I don’t want to talk about it.  Not now.’


  They did not speak at all till they left the station barrier.  Will said, ‘Go home, Oskar.  I need to walk and clear my head.’  Oskar nodded, hesitated, and despite being on the station concourse, kissed Will’s cheek in not quite the Rothenian way between males.  Then he left.


  Will walked out on to the darkening streets of Strelzen.  He glanced up at the floodlit cathedral.  His feet took him up through Sudmesten to the Domstrasse.  He walked across the bridge and climbed the hill.  At last he found a seat on the south side of the old abbey of St Waclaw, where he could look out over the city.  Gazing down on the lights, silver and gold, was like scanning an ordered galaxy of stars.


  The low rumble of city traffic wafted up to him.  Dogs barked in the far distance.  When the cathedral bell rang out midnight, Will still sat on the bench, his mind churning.  It was not his lover’s request that bothered him most, however, but rather the question of Oskar’s heart, and what it was worth.


  At a quarter of an hour after midnight, Will took out a card and flipped his mobile to make a long call.  Then he braced himself, walked back down the Domstrasse, up Mikhelstrasse and on to Lindenstrasse.  He found the lights still bright in Lindenstrasse 122, Apt 6.  He entered through the front door, Marietta skipping all round him.  Oskar stood when he came in and hesitated to move.  Will went up to him, took him in his arms, kissed him and whispered in his ear, ‘Yes.  But only for love of you, Oskar Prinz.’