by Michael Arram
Lennie Rassendyll was no happier after her meeting with Fritz than she had been before it. He had made his play for her, so much was clear. But had he changed? Could she cope with the emotional rollercoaster ride that had been their previous relationship? Was there any evidence he had become more stable than he had been in those days? Did she love him? She had known Fritz for so long, and shared so much pain and fun with him …
Tommy’s affair with Fritz had stunned her as much as it had the celebrity media. But now she had met – and indeed slept with – Tommy Entwhistle, Lennie could appreciate the reason Fritz’s bisexuality had emerged. Tommy was amazing!
In her head, she tried to compare the two men. Who would be the better partner? Both were charming, kind and intelligent, and each in his way was a man to be trusted. Who would be the better father? At that point, Fritz surged ahead. She could imagine him with a child, and Tommy not at all. Fritz was all for family and duty. Though that feature of his character had caused some of the worst outbreaks in his chequered life, it would nonetheless make him a devoted parent.
Could Fritz be a faithful husband? Here she had her doubts. His sexual life had been too much about gratification lately. There had been a time when he had seemed to be lurching from relationship to ill-judged relationship because he was desperately looking for the right partner. For a while it appeared he had found what he was looking for in Tommy, but even that promising start had faltered. Yet Fritz had not cheated on Tommy, she reminded herself. His promiscuous phase had begun after the two men had broken up. Had it been despair on Fritz’s part?
A wash of sympathy for Fritz surged into her mind, and it bore her to a conclusion in her internal debate. It was time to take a risk. She reached for her phone.
‘You two really missed sumfink last night, that right, Mattie?’
‘It was awesome!’
Lance rolled his eyes. ‘I think we got the message. But Reggie and I had … er … other things on our minds last night.’
Mattie smirked. ‘Bet your minds had nothing to do with it.’
‘Let’s not go there,’ urged Reggie. ‘So what was the awesomeness, Daimey?’
Damien looked unaccustomedly meditative. ‘It was definitely cool being in the square wiv all them young people. It wuz a bit like the game me dad took me to at the Emirates Stadium last time we went to see me nan and me sister: huge crowd and lots of noise. But there wuz more to what happened here. It wuz like a whole nation stirring and coming awake. It wuz a big message being broadcast at the Assembly, telling ‘em they wuz getting it wrong about little Maxxie.’
‘It was like a revolution!’ proclaimed Mattie, eyes shining. ‘Man, I just felt the need to burn buses and build barricades! But no one seemed interested, not even Daimey.’
‘Uncle Henry wuz there. He took us in the Eastnet van and showed us the demos going on in Hofbau and Zenden. All the cities had turned out for Maxxie.’
Helen drifted over and settled next to Damien, whose arm crept round her, the same way Lance’s arm had crept round Reggie as they sat together at their usual hall table.
‘You missed sumfink last night, girl!’
‘Girl!’ Helen frowned. ‘I am a woman, and when will you start talking proper English? I know you can do it when you try.’
Damien seemed delighted at the rebuke. ‘Me girl’s good for me, innya babe?’
Helen seemed equally delighted at his affable defiance. ‘What a lifetime of challenge is ahead of me. Will you guys be going to Parlementplaz again tonight?’
Mattie growled, ‘Try and stop us, sister. The Mendamero Men gotta be there.’
Helen gave a little smile. ‘Mendamero People.’
‘The name’s not exactly inclusive, is it?’
‘Me girl means she’s one of us, innya babe?’
Helen gave a very feminine and mischievous grin. ‘Can’t let you boys have all the fun.’
Mattie looked uncomfortable at the idea. ‘But Mendamero Men has got … y’know … sorta …’
‘Alliteration?’ suggested Reggie.
‘Yeah! That!’ Mattie asserted. ‘Mendamero People has no rhythm.’
‘Can’t help that.’ Helen’s smile broadened. ‘Live with it.’
Mattie beat his head on the table, before raising it to ask, ‘What time shall we be there tonight?’
Damien meditated. ‘How about six? Me girl’s at my place tonight. We’re allowed two sleepovers a week. Tonight’s our night at Fridricsgasse.’
Lance demurred. ‘Can’t be there straight away. Reggie and I have a thing to do first.’
‘Yeah, baby. Henry told me this morning there’ll be an LGBT march in support of the Regency leaving from the Rodolferplaz at five. I’m gonna join it, and I hope Reggie will too.’
Despite its occurring to Reggie that the U.S. ambassador’s son ought not perhaps to get involved in Rothenian politics, he was not going to miss the chance to walk hand-in-hand with Lance through the streets of Strelzen under a rainbow flag. He agreed.
‘Oh fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! I’m gonna be late!’
Tommy leapt out of bed, leaving Bela blinking and staring at him. ‘Wha …?’
‘I should have slept at the palace last night! It’s past fucking eight. The queen’ll have me hung, drawn and quartered.’ He hopped around trying to get into his cruising gear, which was all the clothing he had with him.
Bela sat up. ‘Take the tram from the station, if you can get on one in the rush hour. Mind you, dressed like that, most people’ll give you a wide berth.’
‘And those that won’t I wouldn’t want to meet. Eek! No time for moisturiser or even a shower! That’s the first time in my life. I feel like a plague carrier. Do I smell?’
‘Beautifully, and I love the stubble.’
‘Oh shit! I’m off. See you tonight at the Residenz. Gotta go! I’ll text you.’
A quick kiss and Tommy ran off down the Osra Centre stairs, whose early-rising inmates stared open-mouthed at him in astonishment.
The city traffic was already congested at the station hub, but the trams were blessedly unaffected. Not having his card with him, Tommy fumbled for change at the ticket dispenser. Although he had to stand in the crowded express to the Financial District in Martzfeld, at least it clicked unimpeded on its way up Königstrasse. It emerged into the Rodolferplaz before eight-thirty, so there was as yet a chance that his lateness would go unremarked.
Flyposters had been busy in the night. At every tram stop there were rainbow handbills announcing an LGBT rally that afternoon in the Rodolferplaz, with a march afterwards to Parliament. It even had a web address for information: www.glot.strelzen.rn/long-lebst-kong-maksijm.
Tommy was musing on this as he hopped off at the Salvatorskirk stop. He had to take the front forecourt entrance to the Residenz, and run the gauntlet of jokes from the police on duty. Fortunately he had his ID in his shoulder bag.
It was nine when he reached his office door, to find Oskar von Tarlenheim waiting for him, eyebrow raised. ‘A night on the Wejg, Tomasczu?’
‘Yeah … late, sorry. Has the queen noticed?’
‘She’s been asking for you since she saw Maxxie off to school.’
‘But I need to speak with you first. Can you spare a moment?’
‘I ought to get out of this gear.’
‘It won’t take long.’ Tommy led the way into his office, where Oskar took a seat as Tommy perched on his desk. ‘Have you seen the fliers up around the city?’
‘Yes. It looks like the liberal backlash is beginning. You were right.’
‘And the CDP is well aware of it too. They are sponsoring a counter-demonstration in Bila Palacz tonight, outside the Chancellery. Supporters are being bussed in from all over Husbrau and Glottenberh.’
‘Oh! They’re looking for trouble, then.’
‘They assured the city police commandant there won’t be a problem, then deliberately chose their venue because it’s in the city’s jurisdiction. The State police wouldn’t have let them in Parlementplaz with the current gatherings going on, but the park's close enough to the square for there to be the possibility of clashes.’
‘What’s going on, Oskar?’
‘I think the more radical elements in the CDP are being egged on by … someone. Unrest on the streets can only strengthen the government’s hand. The Regency would then be seen as compromised by street violence, and the queen’s grip on affairs would appear shaky. That animal Hadjek was on State radio last night insinuating that the palace had itself staged the demos of the past two days.’
‘You’re suggesting there’s going to be trouble tonight?’
‘The CDP extremists will be doing their best to make sure of it. You’ve got a busy day ahead of you, Tomacszu. I’ll be making strong representations to the chancellor to ban all demonstrations tonight, and letting the press know I have. Your job will be to get the palace line out to your friends in the media: they must be convinced the queen believes the government has lost control of its supporters. Two can play at Hadjek’s game. Oh, and one more thing …’
‘Why do I know I won’t like this?’
‘Talk to the defence ministry and the Guards barracks. There are security implications about the situation I don’t like. Strelzen is simply not equipped for demonstrations at this level. There will be many hundreds of thousands out tonight. Harry is commander-in-chief, whether she likes it or not, and national security is her responsibility.’
‘Oh, hi, Lance!’ Barry was a little cautious at his friend's approach. It was the ex-factor. Barry was worried there might be issues involved in any meeting with him.
Lance smiled, however. ‘Gissa hug, idiot.’
After the two boys pressed cheeks, Barry felt less tense. It seemed there were no hard feelings … and notably there were none between his legs. Lance no longer stirred him sexually, which was an interesting discovery. Another change was that he could no longer catch any scent of Lance’s remarkable body odour.
Lance let him go. ‘So, you gonna join me and Reggie in the LGBT march this afternoon after school?’
‘Oh! I’d like to, but things are still rough with the parents. I would if I could. Maybe I could just do the march and then head home straight away.’
‘Great. We’re all going; the Men – and Helen too – have decided to walk with us. It’s not just for gays. I, er … couldn’t get Marky to agree, for obvious reasons.’
Barry nodded, regretting more than a little that he himself couldn’t walk with his boyfriend, as Lance could.
‘How’re you and Reggie?’
Lance gave a celestial grin. ‘Tight and comfortable, thanks. Have you seen Luc by the way?’
‘He’s not been in school for over a week. I heard from a girl who lives next to his block that he’s left home and done a runner. His mother isn’t too concerned, apparently.’
Lance sighed. ‘That guy is so fucked up. How could anyone ever do anything for him? He won’t be helped.’
Barry looked meditative. ‘Yeah, I know what you mean, but …’
‘There were the odd moments when he could be okay. I know he was just out to use me and all, but sometimes when we talked he seemed to be after something else, a friend maybe. He’s a shit, I know, but even though he screwed me over, I felt there were still times when we had things to say to each other. Odd that.’
Lance appeared surprised. ‘You don’t hate him then?’
‘No. I don’t think I do.’
‘Forgiveness is very good for the soul, Bazza.’
Barry was irritated. ‘Don’t start that religious crap, Lance.’
‘I believe in it. I have to.’
‘Well, I don’t, and I wouldn’t even if an angel landed next to me and told me I was a twat.’
‘You’re a twat, Bazza.’
‘Oh, very funny.’
‘It’s a scoop, Henry! You’ve done it again.’ Tomas Weissman was beaming.
‘Yeah, well. Congratulate me when it’s over.’
‘But you’re in there first with an interview with King Robert Rudolf.’
‘Don’t call him that. It’s bad luck. Besides, now I’m worried.’
‘He’s a devious bastard. He knows I’m a mate of his nephew's and a close friend of the queen's. So why is he so eager to allow me to interview him?’
‘He might just be arrogant.’
‘Perhaps. But he isn’t stupid. I won’t be drinking anything he offers me.’
‘That’s a bit paranoid.’
‘Tell that to the late Jakob Olmusch and his brother.’
‘You still think he bumped them off?’
‘He killed Jakob in person, and he had Karl garrotted in the Arsenal prison … it was made to look like suicide. Karl was his friend and supporter, but still couldn’t be allowed to live. He knew too many compromising things about Robert Rassendyll.’
‘The coroner thought differently, as I recall.’
‘My sources say otherwise. Uncle Robert is a throwback to the medieval Elphbergs. There is nothing to restrain his lust for power and manipulation, certainly not conscience. Yet on the surface he can be all old-world courtly charm; no one could ever believe him capable of all the evil he’s done.’
‘You’ve got a real job ahead of you then, Henry. Best of luck. Is he coming here for the interview?’
‘At one o’clock, so he’ll feature in the afternoon bulletins. No doubt he wants to raise support for the rally this evening in Bila Palacz.’
‘I’ll be sure to be here to welcome him. After all, he might well be the next king of Rothenia. The Assembly has called for a committee report, which’ll be presented this afternoon. Rumour is it’s against the Regency.’
‘Ain’t that just great!’
‘So … er, saving Luc Charpentier?’ Reggie looked into the brooding face of his lover.
Lance turned his gaze on Reggie, whose heart gave a skip. It was a lover’s smile he met that came out of a simple delight in being in Reggie’s presence. It was almost a solemn moment, bringing home to Reggie that he – nerdy, pale Reginald Fulbrook Mayer – set alight the heart of this beautiful man in front of him, a man he himself entirely adored.
‘It’s gotta be easier than saving Private Ryan.’
Reggie’s synapses sparked. ‘I have an idea. There’s a fit young marine in the embassy who’s … well, stuck on me. He told me he goes to the Wejg a lot for fun …’
‘We’re naïve and innocent teens. What do we know of Strelzen’s vice world? He could take us there, look after us and show us round. We can keep an eye out for Luc while we’re at it.’
‘Lance, you don’t think I’d let you go there unprotected from the wicked men who’ll want their evil way with you.’
‘This is Satan you’re talking to, Reggie.’
‘You need a sidekick, Batman. Live with it.’
Lance sighed comically. ‘Such a bossy bottom. Fine. Damien would probably be more use, but if Maxxie had wanted him to handle this, he would have said. Can you talk to the guy?’
‘Somehow he’s always around when I’m at the embassy. I suspect he’s stalking me.’
‘Sounds like a weirdo, baby.’
‘He’s not the world’s greatest intellect, that’s for sure. Still, once he’s seen you, my problems will be over. He can fixate on you instead, angel-boy.’
‘You going to the embassy after the march?’
‘What time will it be over?’
‘Dunno. I expect there’ll be speeches and stuff when we get to the Parlementplaz. Maybe you’ll be able to talk to your marine tonight, if we’re lucky. See if you can fix it up before the weekend. I’d guess the Wejg gets busy on Fridays.’
Tommy knew when Queen Harriet was nervous. She had a way of biting at her lower lip. She was doing so at that moment.
There was a discrete knock on the door of the Residenz’s council room, and two footmen bowed in a formidable array of green and blue uniforms.
The queen, standing at the fireplace, indicated the chairs round the long table. ‘Gentlemen, do please take a seat.’ She took her own first, knowing that protocol demanded all must be on their feet while she herself was standing.
The officers complied, placing their braided caps on the table in front of them. The aides had attaché cases, from which they extracted notebooks and iPads. General Cornish of the Guards division, the senior officer present, took the seat at the queen’s right hand. Major Voynovich, his divisional adjutant, was next to him. The brigadier general commanding the Strelzen garrison was opposite General Cornish, while other brigadiers and field officers stretched in some order of military precedence further down the table. It was quite impressive.
The queen looked along the polished expanse of mahogany. ‘Gentlemen, I have been advised that we should consult in the light of the demonstrations and marches scheduled to take place in the city this afternoon and evening. The State police commander has serious concerns about the close proximity of two rival gatherings in and near the Parlementplaz. He does not have the men to deal with any major unrest that might occur, and he has some very sarcastic things to say about his colleagues in the city force who have let it happen.
‘There is also the complicating factor of a gay and lesbian march which will pass along Lindenstrasse between the two demonstrations. I believe we need some options in case things get out of hand on the streets over the next few days. The State police tell me they do not have sufficient personnel to contain any serious violence. The parallel demonstrations in the other cities have left them with no reserves to deploy to the capital.’
Ed Cornish looked around his colleagues. ‘Ma’am, I think I speak for all of us when I say we are reluctant to get involved in any confrontation with civilian demonstrators. Our troops are not trained for riot work, and the appearance of green uniforms on the street will do more harm than good.’
The queen nodded. ‘I’m aware of that, general. But if worse does come to worst, the government will ask me for support as commander-in-chief, and I must have options and plans ready to meet the eventuality.’
Brigadier Kucic, the commander of the garrison, coughed. ‘Ma’am, the best we can offer are a few companies of military police. They at least have some acquaintance with law enforcement and measured response. Also they are equipped to deal with rioters. We could make them available to the police commander in the Parlementplaz as a reserve and keep them out of sight behind the National Library.’
Major Voynovich spoke up. ‘With your permission, sir. It seems to me the flashpoint is going to be along Lindenstrasse. The gay march will attract those of the CDP cadres who are out to cause trouble, and the marchers will need protection as they pass Bila Palacz. A couple of hundred military police will not be enough to help there.’
The queen nodded. ‘That is my concern too. My preference would be to have sufficient force already on the ground to deter violence. But the civilian authorities have first to call on the army before such force can be deployed. The police so far have asked only for reserve manpower. Therefore we can only react, and not pre-empt.’
Ed Cornish sighed. ‘I would suggest, ma’am, that General Kucic and I get together and select the most suitable junior officers we have, and form squads around them. We’ll equip them with what riot gear we can muster, and I and my staff will liaise with the State police to devise a containment strategy in case things get out of hand. It’s the best we can do.’
The queen seemed to be in agreement. The discussion went on for a further fifteen minutes, until she called it to an end. The officers stood with her, then broke up into earnest discussion groups.
Tommy buttonholed Major Voynovich, whom he knew socially from their common acquaintance in the Atwood-Cornish circle. ‘Lucascz, I appreciated what you had to say about the LGBT march, but is there something you’re not telling us?’
The major smiled. ‘Were you out last night, Tomasczu?’
‘Why do you ask? Have you been talking to Oskar?’
‘No. It’s just you forgot to wipe off your makeup.’
‘Oh dammit! No wonder those colonels were giving me the eye. Why didn’t Harry say?’
‘Probably too worried by all this to notice. But in answer to your question, we at the Guards barracks don’t have any extra intelligence of trouble. It’s just that the general and I are perfectly well aware there are going to be elements of the CDP crowd desperate to cause mayhem. They’ll want to antagonise the police into overreacting, so they get to look like victims of the liberal conspiracy at the heart of Rothenia. That’s why the general is so reluctant to become involved. Bringing in the army will make it a direct confrontation between the right-wingers and the Elphbergs.’
‘But what else can she do?’
‘Nothing. She’s been trapped.’
Henry made sure he was in the foyer of the Eastnet studios when Count Robert Rassendyll arrived, accompanied by a bullet-headed minder and Katya, his young media aide from the RA office. The old man smiled as he spotted Henry’s diminutive, besuited figure.
‘Welcome to Eastnet, excellency,’ began Henry breezily.
‘What an impressive building, Mr Atwood,’ the count responded amiably in English. ‘So medieval on the outside, and yet, once you get indoors, so very high-tech. Rather like Rothenia itself, wouldn’t you say?’
‘It was once a hospital dedicated to St Luke, I believe, run by a Rothenian order of canons which was the origin and inspiration for our Humanitarian Order of St Lucascz. You can still see traces of the hospital chapel.’
‘Fascinating. I must do the tour one day.’
‘And I would be delighted to take you around, sir. If you will follow me, I’ll introduce you to Will Vincent, the CEO. Have you met before?’
‘No. Another of my nephew’s influential friends I’ve not yet run into.’
Henry thought he detected a barb in that remark. Eastnet had been unashamedly pro-Elphberg from the beginning of the reign of Rudolf VI.
Will was all affability, though it was clear he had no intention of making any politically related comment, despite Katya’s leading remarks about current media allegiances. From there Henry took the count and his people into a side room.
‘Makeup?’ the count said quizzically. ‘Is that necessary?’
‘It’ll only be a light dusting, sir. It helps the cameras once the lights come on.’
‘My dear lady wife would be so amused. Makeup is very much her department.’
Henry went into the interview studio. It was to be a recording, not a live broadcast. Tomas Weissman was grinning at him from the producer’s box. Henry had decided on an informal face-to-face without the desk he tended to prefer. It had at least to look relaxed, even if he didn’t himself feel in any way easy in his mind about the business. What was Count Robert’s game?
The old man took his seat opposite Henry comfortably enough. Katya was laying down some ground rules about editing the interview to Tomas, who was listening politely.
‘When do you propose airing this interview, Mr Atwood?’ Count Robert asked.
‘I imagine, once it’s edited, it’ll go out this afternoon with the features in the 24-hour news cycle.’
‘Very good. I much look forward to it. This is my first appearance before cameras, you know.’
‘You seem very cool about it, sir.’
‘Oh … at my age, one loses a lot of one’s former nerves. One no longer fears being seen a fool. Age, y’know. It has its advantages.’
‘You seem very fit, sir. I’d imagine you could still perform well with a sword in your hand.’
A sharp look from under the count’s eyebrows told Henry he had scored a hit.
‘My researchers tell me you were once quite the fencing champion.’
‘Humph! They have done their work. That was at Medwardine school, many years ago. It’s a family tradition. A king of Rothenia must be proficient with horses and arms.’
‘Nowadays, sir, kings and chancellors have a greater need to be proficient with the media and the Internet. I imagine you’ll have to spend more time before cameras than you might like, should your bid for the throne succeed.’
‘We shall no doubt see, young man. Now, are we ready?’
‘Yes sir. Remember not to look directly at camera, and when you see the red light go on, recording has begun. The floor manager will count us down. And we’re off …’