Michael Arram










  In the end, Will moved in with Felip, who had taken a good apartment in the Old City in the days when he had plenty of money.  It was a modern complex on the riverside bluffs of Strelsenern Anhöhen, looking south over the New City.


  They couldn’t have done better.  The bedroom had a beautiful view towards the Rodolferplaz and the palace.  There was a balcony to sit out on, a study, a lounge, big bathroom and kitchen.  Although Felip had pawned some of his furniture and possessions, they got them back, and the end result was very tasteful.


  Will kissed him.  ‘You know how to make a home, Felip.  I love this place.  While I’m here on Marlowe Productions business I’ll sublet it from you at commercial rates.  That’ll clear some debts.’


  Felip was pleased.  ‘There’s plenty of cupboard space, too.  Let’s go get your stuff.’


  Will had the impish pleasure of telling Melanie he was moving out to stay with a friend.  Her face fell.  ‘Don’t worry Melanie, I’ll be checking in daily.’


  ‘I thought we might go out and do the bars and stuff,’ she complained.


  ‘Melanie, girls don’t go to the sorts of bars I like.’


  ‘Oh, does that mean you’re …?’


  ‘Yes, I’m gay.  I thought you knew.’


  ‘It missed me out, and this friend …?’


  ‘Is my lover, Felip Ignacij.’


  ‘Well I suppose that puts a different spin on it.  Can you find out if he has a straight brother?’


  After the taxi deposited him back on the Heights, and while they were heaving his cases up the stairs, Will dutifully asked, ‘What family do you have, Felip?’


  ‘The usual: mother, father, irritating little brother.  But they live in Bratislava.’


  ‘You’re a Slovak?’


  ‘No, but dad is a diplomat.  He moves around all the time, and when I was seventeen I refused to do it anymore.  So I seceded and started a life on my own, with the great and evident success you see here.  A Falkefilm scout found me showing off in a gay gym.  Money just fell through my pockets in those days, so Hendrik had no trouble talking me out of my pants.  That and the ego, of course.’


  They visited the landlord to pay the arrears, along with a three-month advance, much to his delight.  Then they got themselves comfortable in the apartment, opened a bottle of fruit wine, and sat out on the balcony looking at the city in the misty afternoon sunshine.  They had smiles on their faces.


  Felip eventually observed, ‘I want to go out tonight.’




  ‘Liberation,’ Felip added with a malicious grin.


  ‘Why?’ Will responded suspiciously.


  ‘It’ll get back to that bastard Hendrik that I’ve survived without him.  What’s more, he’ll see that Max Wolf and Jason Williams are in each other’s pants.’


  ‘Is this wise?’


  ‘I can’t see we’ll be any the worse off.  It’ll be fun to be the celebrity queens of the Rodolferplaz tonight.’


  The idea appealed to the reckless side of Will’s personality, so he agreed.  First, however, he had to fix up the next day’s meeting.  It was one he was very interested in, and he wanted Melanie and Felip there with him.




* * *




  The Wejg was quite busy that night, the cafés next to Club Liberation unusually full.  To gauge the temperature of their celebrity, Felip and Will took an outside table on the square, under the trees next to General Hoydek.  The gay couples and groups circled round them, staring.  Some just stood still and stared.


  As they joined the queue for Liberation, the onlookers swarmed along behind them.  ‘Hey Max, give us that smile!’  ‘Hey Jason, give us a blowjob!’  All the voices reached them in American and British accents.  They smiled round them and waved, to whoops and a rattle of applause.  Soon they were signing tee-shirts and scraps of paper.  Mobile cameras were pushed in their faces, as men hung round them getting their pictures taken with porn stars.


  ‘Is it always like this for you?’ Will hissed.


  ‘I think it’s the Jason effect,’ Felip muttered back.


  They were given quite a reception by the door staff, who slapped Felip on the back and shook Will’s hand.  The admission price was waived; their presence was good for business.


  Will’s heart lurched a bit when they got inside.  His last time there he had been high on Oskar and steroids.  Now he was hand in hand with a quieter, happier man who was no one’s whore.  They danced long and intimately, kissing deeply as they moved and breaking off to smile in each other’s eyes.


  ‘Jeez it’s just like that film,’ Will heard an American voice say.  ‘Wish I had my camera.’


  ‘Christ, they’re really an item,’ agreed a British one.


  Felip whispered in Will’s ear, ‘Let’s gave them a show.’  He stepped back and stripped off his top, throwing it into the air.  Will’s heart pulsed, and Jason Williams effortlessly took him over.  When he too threw his top away, the floor erupted and cheered.  They danced on, necking with great passion, their hands down the back of each other’s loosened trousers, their backsides more or less hanging out.  Rubbing their groins together raised very obvious results.  It was a riot as men craned and stood on tables to see.


  ‘Christ!  They’re going to fuck here on the floor.’  For a moment Will thought that was exactly what Felip had in mind, and he was even in two minds as to whether he would say no.  But Felip grinned into Will’s face and whispered, ‘Take a bow, Jason.’  They separated, smiled round at the floor, and did a stage bow.  There was another great cheer.


  ‘Don’t ever let me say you can’t act,’ Will said out of the corner of his mouth.


  As might have been expected, their tops never came back.


  People slowly got back to their own concerns.  At that point, a waiter approached and tapped on Will’s bare shoulder.  ‘Mr Williams, Mr Wilemmin would like the favour of a word.’


  Will looked over into a corner and saw Hendrik with a raised glass in his hand.  He was alone.  Will glanced at Felip, who shrugged and found a seat at the bar, where he got a lot of attention.  Will ambled over to Hendrik with something of a swagger to sit opposite the man.


  ‘Good evening, Will.’


  ‘Mr Wilemmin.’


  ‘Call me Hendrik, we are old friends.  I wanted to say welcome back to Rothenia, Will.’  He surveyed his former employee.  ‘You were an expensive indulgence for me, as it turned out in the long run.  You robbed me of Oskar, who was good for at least two more years, I thought.  Then you introduced that blond wolf O’Brien into my fold.  Had I known you had such dangerous friends I would never have signed you.  But there it is.  It is pointless being wise after the event.’


  Will gave a quietly satisfied smirk.  ‘You seem to be making money nevertheless.’


  ‘I won’t pretend that your one big production has not done excellent trade.  Indeed, you seem to have given me a major edge over my rivals.  The standard of your acting and improvisation …’ he paused, looked at Will and burst into delighted laughter. ‘You were bad boys, but you read the market better than I.  Now we cannot be so lazy in our skin flicks.  Wit sells, it seems, although finding it in our line of business is not so easy.  And now you have stolen Felip away from me too.’


  ‘I got the impression you had finished with him.’


  ‘No, I was just leaving him out in the cold for a while.  He became unmanageable, and now I see why.  He loved you.’


  Will nodded and smiled.  Hendrik appraised the man in front of him, his handsome, muscled torso shiny with sweat, his thick brown hair matted and tangled, his dark eyes bright.  ‘Boy, excuse the cliché, but I could have made you a star.  I could still.’


  ‘Not interested.  It’s just the money you miss, Hendrik.’


  ‘No.  You do not understand me at all, Will.  But I see no point in explaining myself.’  He sipped at his wine, then, looking Will in the eyes, he commented, ‘You won’t find him at Terlenehem, you know.’


  ‘What?’ Will responded, his face wiped blank.  The significance of the remark sank in like a lead bar on a paper boat.


  ‘Yes, I know about him.  I finally got round to investigating my Oskar.  There were too many strange signals he was giving out.  It was not too difficult to track down his university friends and find someone who could talk the truth out of them.  Not that they were disloyal to him.  Oskar’s friends never are.’


  Will’s eyes narrowed.  ‘And some of his friends have very dangerous friends of their own.’


  ‘A threat?’


  ‘A promise.  You will leave him alone.  I think you know I mean it.’


  ‘I will never underestimate you again, William Vincent, be sure of that.  But again, you do not understand me.  Does it not occur to you that you and Felip are not the only ones to come under Oskar’s spell?’


  ‘You mean what I think you mean?’


  ‘Perhaps.  But surprisingly I do not want to go to bed with him.  I am not usually inclined towards boys, although in your case …’


  ‘I guessed.’


  ‘Did you now?  You are a very special person, Will, and I do not deny that I find you deeply arousing.  But we are talking of Oskar.  The fact is that he meant a lot to me as a friend.  I could talk to him the way I never could to any of my other boys.  My plan was to take him into the business in the end as manager of Falkefilm.  Now I know the truth about him, I see why I liked him so.


  ‘Whether you believe me or not, it makes no difference.  But Oskar and I are both lonely, driven men: he by his past and his lineage, I by the need to succeed in the world, in a country where any sort of success is so very difficult.  Think about it.  And I say this to you, something I have said to no other living man.  I envied him what he had with you.  So if there is a time when he needs help and I can give it, he will have it.  You mean to find him?’


  ‘No.  That was not my plan.  But tomorrow I will at least find out what happened to the estate of the prince of Tarlenheim.’


  Hendrik gave him a considering look, and a small smile.  ‘You will find it an interesting story.  Remember what I said.  Good night, my sweet Willemju.’




* * *




  Felip could drive and had a current licence, which was a very useful discovery.  They rented a BMW and by noon the next day they were at Modenehem, where Will had set up lunch at the magnificent gasthaus on the cathedral square.


  The curator of the Husbrau Regional Gallery, Marie Esterhazy, soon joined their table.  They stood to greet her, although Will had to prod Melanie.  Once he had introduced the team, they all sat down and began exchanging leisurely pleasantries in the Rothenian way, Melanie smiling fixedly as Felip whispered into her ear a summary of what was being said.


  After they had ordered, Will moved on to business.  He explained that production was to begin in a month, so he needed to secure access to the collections.  He also hoped to include her as an interviewee – with an appropriate fee, of course.


  Marie was delighted, perhaps more for her collection than for herself.  ‘Your Dr White’s handsome donation helped us buy a number of court miniatures from the Tarlenheim estate, so I am very happy to help.  And please tell Dr White that his name is now high on our new-donors’ board.’


  ‘You’ll be able to tell him yourself, Marie.  He will be in Modenehem soon.  Since we will be especially interested in featuring the major canvasses you have here, can you tell me what happened to the Tarlenheim estate?’


  ‘Of course.  As you know, the prince moved his case successfully to the Supreme Court.  With the level of research he had been able to achieve, the government in the end offered no counter arguments.  Therefore, the art objects we have, as well as the ones scattered around the ministries and former royal palaces, were restored to their rightful owner.  Fortunately for us, in many cases the estate simply returned them on loan.  Very generous.  One or two have been sold abroad to raise capital, I think, but not those of any national significance, for which I am extremely grateful to the count.


  ‘The Festenberh estate was unanimously adjudicated to the prince, although the issue of some of his claims on Terlenehem is still in dispute.  The agricultural college at Festenberh has now leased the house back from him, but he is in possession of the forest and the farm lands, as well as the famous breweries.


  ‘Then there was the palace in Strelzen on the Radhausplaz, together with the townhouse and properties here in Modenehem.  The government did not fight for any of them, considering it could make no case since his arms are emblazoned over the main gates of both houses and this entire quarter of the city.


  ‘The prince is now living here in Modenehem with his sister.  If you want to have his permission to use the Tarlenheim collection, you need to approach him.’


  Well, thought Will, at least that much has turned out well for Oskar.  How to approach him, though?


  In the end they booked rooms for the night at the gasthaus.  Will asked Felip to make the call.  Felip did not yet know the identity of the prince of Tarlenheim, and Will was in two minds whether he should tell him.  Felip talked to Helge, as it appeared when he said that ‘the lady countess was very nice to him.’  He fixed an appointment for ten the next morning.


  Will spent a troubled night, and passed on breakfast.


  Felip noticed his mood.  ‘What is it, Will.  Does the idea of meeting a prince make you nervous?’


  ‘This particular one, certainly.’


  The Tarlenheim townhouse in Modenehem was very impressive: a tall, pedimented mansion set back from a small gravelled square, flanked by stable and office wings.  Although the wings were more or less derelict, some money had recently been spent on the main house.  Its shutters were freshly painted, and flowers were blooming in boxes and outsize vases.  A small Fiat was parked before the steps to the front door.


  When Will jerked hard on the bell pull, a raucous jangling set a dog barking somewhere within: a very familiar bark.  The door opened and Marietta dashed out.  Scenting Will, she went into a frenzy of delight, bounding up to his chest.  He grinned despite himself and pacified the terrier with the aggressive petting she loved.  He looked up and saw Helge, who put her hand to her mouth in surprise.


  He too was surprised.  The harassed country school teacher was gone.  In her place stood an elegant aristocrat in a well-cut black dress with subdued jewellery.  ‘Will!  I was not expecting you!  Are you the production assistant from Dr White’s company I was waiting for?’  She gave a dazzling smile and took both his hands.  ‘Come in.  Fritzku will be so glad to see you.  Welcome to our house.’


  ‘How do I find the lady countess?’


  She laughed and gestured around at the fine marble floors and grand staircase, the portraits and the chandelier.  ‘You find me as a countess, of course.’  Will knew that in Rothenia, as in other Central European countries, the practice was for brothers and sisters to share noble titles, although of course there was only one prince-count of Tarlenheim.  Fritz would now be Count in Tarlenheim, but Oskar was the Count and Prince of Tarlenheim.


  ‘Come through to the sitting room.’  She sat with him on a vast sofa.  ‘We got all the furniture back from the sack of Tarlenheim.  We sold most of it, but we kept enough items to furnish this house, where we have decided to live.  None of us wanted to leave Husbrau.  Festenberh is just too big and grand for these days; we could never live there.  But we’ve started work on the palace in Strelzen, where the government had put the ministry of transport.  It’s a mess, and they’ve had to agree to repair and refurbish it.’  She pointed to a canvas over the fireplace portraying Franz III, dressed as a hussar of the old royal guard,   ‘You’ll like that, it’s the only one we took out of the gallery.  Oskar made a point of it.’


  ‘How is he?’ The question burst out of him.


  Her face clouded.  ‘He revealed everything to me, Will, the appalling things he did to get the money, the terrible wrong he did to you.  I told him … God that I had not … that he had disgraced the family name.  He disagreed, insisting he had disgraced no one but himself.  And that was why he did it.’


  ‘Did what?’


  She looked surprised.  ‘You had not heard?  The prince of Tarlenheim is now Franz the Sixth, our Fritzku.  At Christmas, Oskar resigned his claims in favour of his brother by notarised deed.  He took only a little money and has been gone away months now.  He had done his duty to the family, he said, so the only duty he had left was to himself.


  ‘Do not think he did to you that terrible thing and escaped the consequences.  Don’t ever think there is anything wrong with Oskar’s heart.  I saw him when he came to Terlenehem afterwards.  He was soul-sick and looked like an old man.  His merriment had left him, never to return.  He shut himself in his room for three days after you sent him the money by Mr O’Brien.  He could not touch it.  He gave it to me to take care of and send on to the lawyers.  In the end there was far more than we needed, and all because of you.’


  ‘So where is he?’


  ‘I do not know.  He left three months ago.  There has been no word, and I expect none.  When he has somehow found a way to forgive himself, I will see him, not before.  It has broken Fritzku’s heart; it is as though he has lost mother and father once again.  But he will be happy to see you.’


  Fritz was due home from the local Grendschule for lunch.  It did Will’s heart good to see the boy’s face come alive on discovering him there.  Fritz leapt up and hugged him round the neck, before turning him loose with a laugh oddly like Oskar’s.


  ‘Will, this is so good.  I have no tree to show you today, but now I am the prince of Tarlenheim, I shall have the old one in Terlenehem cut down and brought here on a truck.  How about that?’


  ‘A bit excessive, sir.’


  ‘You called me sir,’ the boy said with a twinkle in his eye.


  ‘You are the prince, sir, as you said.  I think you were born to be one.’  Will looked at the boy seriously, and was very moved.  And Ruritania provided him with the proper words to express such emotion, as only Ruritania could.  ‘God bless Prince Franz, latest of a most noble house.  I salute you, Serene Highness.’


  Fritz gazed back at him, and became very solemn.  What Will saw in Fritz’s eyes sent him to his knees before the young prince of Tarlenheim, to kiss the boy’s hand.


  Fritz pushed Will’s hair back and kissed his brow, then blessed him in a husky adolescent voice.


  When Will looked through his tears at the boy’s happy smile, he found he had forgiven Oskar everything.  He had offered his pain to the house of Tarlenheim as a knight might offer his honourable wounds to his feudal lord.  And so at last he was fully healed.


  ‘Don’t get up yet, Will,’ Helge stayed him.  ‘We have something for you.’  She brought a heavy gold object from the mantelpiece and gave it to Fritz.  He slipped it on Will’s ring finger as his sister said, ‘Take this as a token of thanks from the house of Tarlenheim, which has never had a more faithful friend than you, William Vincent.  It is the signet ring of Franz the Third, who also loved a noble Englishman.’


  ‘Your servant forever, Serene Highness,’ he murmured, half to himself, as he rose to his feet.