by Michael Arram
Tommy moodily watched the streamed debate from the Assembly on his office TV. He had given up trying to work. A knock on his door announced the queen. He stood.
‘Tommy, you have your set on? Good. Mind if I watch with you?’
‘Not at all, ma’am. I could do with the company. The next programme will be Henry’s interview with your husband’s uncle, I think.’
‘Should I send out for popcorn?’ Harry smiled comically at the thought.
‘I have a feeling it won’t be entertaining, ma’am.’
The queen, dressed casually in slacks and a silk top, took the sofa, while Tommy stayed behind his desk. ‘How’s Maxxie dealing with all this, Harry?’
‘It goes over his head, I think. He’s only met his great-uncle a couple of times, and doesn’t know what’s at issue between them. Although he understands he’s king, it’s not very real to him. It’s like a game. What really matters to him are school and his friends. He seems to care more about celebrating Emil zu Warnstejne’s seventh birthday than about his coronation. In fact, he lost interest in the coronation when he realised it wasn’t a party during which he’d get presents.’
Tommy laughed. Within minutes the Eastnet 24-hour news anchor was introducing his network’s latest coup, the first interview with the rival claimant for the throne. ‘Nice tie,’ Tommy observed. ‘Henry must have given it some thought for once.’
The Henry on the TV screen smiled at the Rothenian public and introduced Count Robert Rassendyll. He paused and then began, ‘The viewers will be glad of a chance to meet you, sir. You’re not well known to the Rothenian public. Perhaps you’d like to introduce yourself?’
Tommy was impressed at the count’s coolness, as well as the standard of his Rothenian. ‘Thank you, Herr At-vood. I am the former king’s uncle and the grandson of Jakob Elphberg-Rassendyll, the man who ought to have been king in succession to the great Maxim.’
‘You knew the late King Maxim, I believe.’
‘Indeed I did. As a boy, I often visited Belsager, his English home. I was sixteen when he died. A very great man.’
‘He certainly was, sir.’ Henry grew more intense. ‘Do you see yourself as his heir, and if so, in what ways?’
The count relaxed in his chair. ‘I remember King Maxim saying to my brother and me … I must have been eleven at the time … that one day the red-lion flag would fly again over Strelzen’s Residenz. He told me so much about this beautiful land, its history and traditions. My elder brother, alas, was unable to carry the torch King Maxim lit in our hearts, but I like to think that in me his love of Rothenia still burns.’
Henry’s intensity seemed to deepen. ‘You’ve lived a very retired life since moving to Rothenia on your nephew’s accession.’
Count Robert gave a faint shrug. ‘I’m well-enough known in Hentzen and Eisendorf, Herr At-vood. I have also been involved in the Adelsgennosenschaft, an organisation which does a lot of good work in Rothenian society. Too many Rothenians assume that, unless something happens in the capital, it doesn’t happen at all.’
‘Is that why you identify so closely with the CDP, sir?’
Tommy grinned at Henry’s sally. ‘Gotcha!’ he mouthed at the queen.
But Count Robert wasn’t going to be caught out so easily. ‘Now where do you get that idea, Herr At-vood? I’m very glad to have CDP support in my current appeal to the people of Rothenia for my rights, and I am recognised as an admirer of the chancellor’s, but I have no association with any party. It would be most improper in a king.’
Tommy burst out at the screen, ‘Hadjek! Ask him about Hadjek!’
The queen shook her head. ‘He can’t, Tommy. This is TV, not the newspapers.’
Henry seemed to know it too. Besides, he had a more profitable tack to follow. ‘Tell me, sir. The palace maintains you resigned your claims on the throne several decades ago. How do you account for this?’
‘A misunderstanding. Certainly, when my nephew took the throne my rights were not acknowledged. Indeed, he went so far as to designate my daughter as heir apparent. Rudolf was young and ill-advised, but in the circumstances, with a teenage king likely to sit on the throne for many decades, my rights were entirely peripheral – in truth, a matter for academics only. If Rudolf had no children, my daughter’s rights were guaranteed in any case. So why make a fuss at a time of national joy?
‘But as things have turned out, my rights are not academic after all. The attempt by my nephew to name as king his son, the young Duke of Mittenheim, are clean against the 1856 constitution, which still dictates the succession to the Rothenian throne. It was time for me to stand up for the tradition of Rothenia, and so I have. It seems that many of my compatriots agree with me too.’
Tommy observed that Henry’s jaw had clenched. It looked as though he was not going to let things rest there. ‘I’m sure we appreciate all that, sir. What many of us still don’t understand is how it was that you accepted the situation at the Restoration. You made no protest, not even a token complaint, at the way the succession passed over your head to your daughter. Clearly, you’ve changed your mind about your rights since then.’
‘What can I say, Herr At-vood? Those were turbulent days. You must remember them yourself, though you cannot have been very old at the time. Events were moving fast and the political situation was both euphoric and highly unstable. One assassination attempt had already been made on my nephew. It would not have helped things to show dissension in the small royal family, would it?’
Henry hung on grimly. ‘And once again things are every bit as unstable, sir. Yet here you are, doing just what you said you wouldn’t do during the Restoration crisis.’
Count Robert shot a keen look at Henry from under his white eyebrows. ‘Do you believe in Destiny, Herr At-vood?’
It seemed that Henry for once was taken aback. ‘Er … what?’
‘I asked you if you believe in a fate that guides Rothenia.’
‘Er … I suppose …. yes, I do.’
‘I also. In the present situation of global emergency we need experienced hands at the helm of our nation’s course. I am convinced that I am one such man.’
‘Well damn,’ hissed Tommy. ‘The old bastard is a master at this. He’s got Henry on the run.’
It seemed that Tommy was right. Henry rallied, but the rest of the interview rarely got beyond the mundane.
Reggie looked up from his iPhone-8G, which was playing a podcast of the Rassendyll interview from Eastnet. The Mendamero … People … were clustered round it, Helen sitting on Damien’s lap.
‘Sorry, Lance,’ pronounced Damien. ‘But the guy’s juss given your old man a major sorting.’
Lance was disappointed for his dad. ‘That’s the problem with TV face-offs. Henry says you win on people’s weaknesses. But the old guy was too cool. He knows that Henry couldn’t launch accusations on air at him without the proof and detail newspapers can offer. Henry thought the guy would be flustered by cameras, but it looks like he was wrong.’
Reggie sighed. ‘It’s going to do the count’s cause some good. He came over well: sober and idealistic. The CDP types are going to be all the more enthusiastic about pushing his candidature. What time we going into town?’
Damien checked his watch. ‘Pretty soon. The speeches will already have started in the Plaz. They had a stage put up next to the Voydek statue.’
Helen kissed him on the cheek. ‘That’s the nearest you’re ever going to get to the Wejg, Daimey.’
‘You what? Sorry, babe. But I have a programme of major dissolute behaviour planned for me sixteenth birfday, and the Wejg is in there somewhere.’
‘Fine, provided I get to go with you.’
Damien grinned at the thought. ‘As long as you’re into bein’ dissolute wiv me, no problem, girl. Got your car, Lance?’
‘It’ll be a squeeze. Why don’t I just leave it in the car park, and we walk from the school? A lot of the other guys are moving now.’
The joint influence of Damien, Helen and Lance meant that a good half of the upper school of the SIS was joining the LGBT march, even some of the Aristos. Homemade banners were much in evidence in the senior hall when chattering groups began departing for the Rodolferplaz. Barry Hignett latched on to his friends as they were exiting the building, and walked alongside Reggie and Lance.
They entered the great square to the north of the Wejg to find the southern end under its lime trees already packed. Leading members of the gay community and Trachtenburg’s Unity Party were gathering there for the speeches, always a major part of any Rothenian rally.
The SIS students were absorbed into the already large crowd. Lance took his place with his back to a tree, arms around Reggie, who was standing in front of him. The two handsome gay teenagers drew smiles, and Lance noticed a lot of cameras pointed their way.
Mattie was annoyed to find the statue of Tildemann was not so easy to climb as that of Jakob Merczin. He confessed to Damien that statue-climbing had become for him the definitive act of rebellion.
When the speeches began, Barry found he didn’t have the Rothenian to follow what was being said. He wished Marky was there. His attention very soon wavered and he drifted off through the crowd. Suddenly, looking down towards the Wejg, he spotted a familiar dark figure leaning moodily against an advertising column. It was Luc.
His decision made, he edged around the fringe of a group of lesbians and came up behind the French boy. ‘Bonjour, mon copain!’ he shouted in Luc’s ear, enjoying his panicky jump.
‘Fils de salope! T'es vraiment trop con, putain!’
‘You what?’ Barry grinned in Luc’s annoyed face.
Luc relaxed into a frown. ‘What do you want, enculé?’
‘Thought I’d come and say hello. You’ve not been around for a while.’
‘I have left school. I’ve got better things to do.’
Luc surveyed Barry, who surveyed him back. The French boy was looking more sallow than ever. He had a purple bite on his neck and his clothes were unkempt. There was a smell of stale beer about him, as much as the familiar stench of tobacco.
Luc leaned closer. ‘There is a man. He’s going to get me out of this shit-hole. I have this place in the Third for the moment, but soon we will go to Berlin … he has a cool apartment and plenty of money. I’ll be his live-in boy when he’s there, but when he’s not, I can do what I want in an amazing city. I can live my dream.’
Barry shook his head, angry for Luc. ‘So this guy wants your skinny butt. Great. What about when he gets tired of you? You’ll be thrown out on the streets. Luc … this is a disaster.’
Luc gave him a sidelong look. ‘You think I am stupid? So he throws me out. Bien! I have pictures and files. He’ll wish he never had met me if he turns out to be connard.’
‘I thought you hated being fucked.’
‘J’enculera si nécessaire. Your cock would be a challenge for any enfoiré!’
‘Luc, give it up, go home.’
Again Barry got that sidelong look. ‘Why should you care? I fucked you over good.’
‘Maybe. But you got fucked over back.’
Luc stared. ‘So it was you who destroyed our site! I thought as much, though Todo said you were too stupid to manage something like that. How did you do it?’
Barry shook his head. ‘None of your business.’
‘It was that pretty boyfriend of yours and his mad friends. Don’t tell me. But he’s dropped you now for the American boy. Look at them over there! Ça fait chier.’
‘I think it’s cute,’ Barry asserted. He returned Luc’s frown. ‘I hope it goes alright for you, Luc. Seriously.’
Although the French boy narrowed his eyes, something gave in him and he relaxed into a twisted smile. ‘Merci,’ he replied in a soft voice. Then he hunched his shoulders and slouched back down to the narrow packed lane of the Wejg.
The buzz of the telephone in her apartment somewhat startled Lennie Rassendyll. It so rarely happened. She took most of her calls on what she termed her ‘cell’, though for everyone else in Rothenia, even Reggie Mayer, they were handijs.
‘Er … prosim?’
A familiar and dreaded voice shouted back. ‘Is that you, Elenja?’
‘Oh … hi, grandma.’
‘Hi? Why do you rejoice in those Americanisms? Never mind. I want you to come down to see me in my apartment.’
‘You’re in the Osraeum? I had no idea. Can you give me an hour or two?’
‘I really don’t think so. At my age, I may not be here in an hour or two, and there are things that need saying.’
‘What’s it about, grandma?’
‘I am waiting, Elenja.’
Lennie gave into the inevitable. She didn’t bother to put on her shoes, trotting barefoot down the green-carpeted stairs of the palace to tap on the princess of Vinodol’s door. It was open.
The princess was sitting on her sofa, bolt-upright as usual. She seemed to have graduated from the stiffest school of deportment the nineteen-forties could offer. Her English accent was of the same vintage as that of Queen Elizabeth, with whom she had a more-than-casual acquaintance. She looked askance at her granddaughter’s state of undress. Lennie decided she could not have walked into a more disapproving glare had she appeared in the apartment nude.
They exchanged ritual kisses, during which Lennie caught a strong whiff of concentrated lavender. She took the offered seat by the window.
Her grandmother fixed her with an intense stare. ‘I have heard from Count Oskar von Tarlenheim zu Modenheim that his brother the prince has proposed marriage to you. Is that correct?’
‘Er … yes.’
‘And you have accepted?’
‘Er … I have.’
‘Did it occur to you to ask the senior member of your family first?’
‘I did. I went to Harry and requested the royal consent.’
‘Aah. Well, that was not mentioned. Good. I see you haven’t entirely lost your sense of propriety living in Greenwich Village.’
‘Grandma, I never lived in Greenwich Village … well apart from that month between apartments six years ago when I slept on Rosemary’s sofa.’
‘Please focus, dear. When is the wedding to be?’
‘November, at Medeln Abbey.’
The old woman seemed pleased, though she didn’t smile. ‘So, a religious ceremony, and in the traditional place for the Tarlenheim family. I will speak to the bishop of Modenheim. I’m sure he will be happy to preside.’
‘Well, I …’
‘And your father …?’
‘He’s happy about it. He said he was getting worried I’d never settle. My stepmother seemed to want to take the credit for it.’
The look of disdain the princess gave would have filled volumes. ‘I rather doubt her opinion is worth heeding.’ Now she did give the faintest of smiles. ‘Her royal and serene highness, Elenja Flavia Osra, Princess Royal of Rothenia and princess of Tarlenheim: it is a good and most suitable match, the first between a Tarlenheim and an Elphberg. The man is eccentric, to say the least, but I hear he has a good heart. His grandfather was a very fine man, though I only met him when I was a girl. What about your … job?’
Lennie knew her grandmother had a prejudice about professional women, one of her many prejudices in fact. ‘I’ve sent in my resignation, but I have hopes of finding something in the commercial publishing line in Rothenia. Oskar says he has a few possibilities in mind.’
‘Hmph! You have a duty to bear children. I would put that first. You’re not getting any younger, Elenja.’
‘You modern girls. For a lady, family is far more important than career. He may not say so, but Prince Franz is thinking it, I’m sure.’
‘You’ll have to get used to calling him Fritz, grandma. I believe what’s uppermost in his mind at the moment is the rebuilding of his house at Tarlenheim.’
‘Really!’ The old woman managed to convey a certain enthusiasm which even approached approval. ‘Then I imagine he’ll soon turn to thinking of children playing on its hearth.
‘Now, I have brought you here for a purpose. My grandson, the former king, has been in touch with me and asked me to do something for him. You may be aware that your great-great-grandfather, the tenth earl of Burlesdon, was in Rothenia when the famous queen whose name you bear passed away. Before she died, she gave him her coronation ring, which has been kept in the Burlesdon family ever since. Rudolf wants you to have it, and asked me to give it to you.’
The princess took up a green box from a side table and handed it to her granddaughter. ‘My dear, I’m quite sure you’ll be as worthy to wear it as the queen who once did.’
Lennie clicked open the box and saw the thick gold band with its sculpted bezel within. For some reason, her eyes flooded with tears at her grandmother’s words. She went over and embraced the old woman. ‘Thanks, grandma. I’ll try to be good to Fritzku.’
When they separated, her grandmother was smiling. ‘I’m sure it will go well. I’m certainly praying it will do so. That and all this business with your father have me on my stiff knees for much of the day. Why is he doing this, Elenja?’
Lennie shook her head. Her father was a mystery to her.
The princess frowned. ‘Just as when he was a boy. Always scheming to get the better of his brother. No good will come of this, mark my words. There will be tears.’
‘Ay up! We’re off!’ Damien brandished the large Elphberg flag he had somehow acquired – but probably not paid for.
The friends joined the shuffling throng as it began its slow progress up the Rodolferplaz. Onlookers clapped and waved. Many smiled, particularly at Lance and Reggie walking hand-in-hand at the head of the SIS contingent. Above their heads a homemade banner declared in English, SCHOOLKIDS 4 FREEDOM TO LOVE FREELY.
Barry caught up with them. There was quite a large number on the march. The tail had yet to leave the Wejg as the head of it was turning on to Lindenstrasse.
Chanting was going on all along the column, but many of the Rothenian SIS kids were singing folk songs. Those foreigners who could joined in. Lance, with his very fine voice and memory for songs, was soon taking the lead. Cameras focussed on him. He was a sight to draw eyes: young and beautiful, his face glowing with enthusiasm. He had a rainbow flag across his shoulder that a man had pushed into his hand.
When Festungstrasse approached, however, their cheers, chants and songs began to meet competition, as when a strong river meets the tidal surge of an estuary. The northern end of the park of Bila Palacz was crammed with the CDP counter-demonstration. Megaphones harangued the LGBT column as it crossed the ring road on its way to Parlementplaz. Jeers and shouts of Gaij kluge! met them.
The south side of Lindenstrasse under the trees had a line of blue-clad city police, some on horses, to divide the two demonstrations. They had helmets and shields, but when Barry reached the far side of Festungstrasse and came abreast of the CDP people, he noticed that the line was worryingly thin and already under pressure.
The LGBT marchers were chanting now, ‘Maksijm! Maksijm!’ Apart from the noise, however, most of their column passed peacefully on into Parlementplaz to join the throng already gathered there. The louder chants of the main demonstration began to drown their CDP rivals.
Barry was level with the Chancellery gates when he saw, perched on top of a column above the heads of the crowd, a familiar figure waving. It was Marky, doing what he could to show solidarity with his friends, even if he couldn’t agree with their point of view. Barry caught his eyes, and shot his own grin back.
It was at that point when something happened further back along the line. Barry felt it as a sort of shock. The march halted but people began pressing against him from behind. Barry was taller than the average, so he could see missiles in the air and mounted police using their batons. The chants faltered, cries and screams rising in their place.
‘Barry! Barry! Look out!’ came Marky’s voice from the Chancellery gate.
The police line had collapsed, allowing CDP militants in black ski masks and wielding clubs to push in among the LGBT marchers. People tried to run, but the press was too dense.
‘Lads! To me!’ bellowed out a commanding voice. It was Damien. Years of their bending to his will got him automatic obedience from the SIS teens. He marshalled his group of boys into a wedge around Helen and the other girls. He had broken the staffs of his flag and the school banner to use as makeshift batons. The dark-clad militants charged at them, only to find themselves met by a company of fit and determined teens. Damien led a counter-charge, and bigger men appeared to fly away from him.
Barry stood bemused in the middle of it all. He stared astonished as Lance, the most peaceful and amiable boy he had ever met, seemed transformed when under attack. Lance, appearing to grow larger, gripped a stocky man around the neck to lift him effortlessly off the ground and hurl him back amongst his comrades. Barry could not be seeing this!
The shock of a blow to his head brought home the reality of what was happening. As he reeled and fell, strong arms took him and dragged him out of the press under the trees. Blood flowed into his eyes.
‘Barry! Barry! Are you alright?’ It was Marky’s voice.
Henry was in Parlementplaz covering the demonstration. Standing on the steps of the National Library, he was sipping a carton of coffee while exchanging chat with the smiling crowd around him. He was a popular figure in the Rothenian media.
All at once his instincts caused a tingle in the back of his head. Green uniforms could be glimpsed in a bunch at the corner of the library. He excused himself and walked briskly around the Eastnet van, signalling a camera crew to follow.
Silently, the lane between the library and the Supreme Court had filled with soldiers. Most of the men were relaxed and unhelmeted, some sitting along the pavement. They looked curiously at Henry and his crew. A young officer barred his way. Although he didn’t know the man, Henry recognised the insignia of the Guard Fusiliers, Ed Cornish’s old regiment.
‘Can I talk to Colonel Anders, lieutenant?’ he asked, politely.
‘I’m sorry, sir, but this area is closed.’
‘On whose orders?’
‘Er … General Cornish, sir.’
Henry smiled. ‘You know who I am?’
‘Sorry colonel, but it’s more than my life’s worth to let you through. You can talk it out with the general after work.’
Henry laughed. He took out his handij and rang Ed’s number.
‘I’m busy, little babe. This better be important.’
‘One of your officers is very politely telling me I can’t report what’s going on round the side of the library.’
‘Tell him he’s a good lad then.’
‘What’s so important that the press can’t tell the world about it?’
‘My boys are there in case trouble happens, not to start it.’
‘Who’s gonna start it?’
‘The CDP is filling Bila Palacz as we speak. Didn’t someone tell you?’
‘What! But Lance and Reggie are in the LGBT march! I said they could. Daimey and Helen are there too, and Mattie.’
‘Oh, dammit! They may be walking into trouble. At least they’re with Daimey. He’ll look after them.’
‘I’m off down there myself, intrepid reporter that I am.’
‘Yeah, well, you look after yourself too. I don’t have my white horse here to come riding in on to haul your pretty little bum out of trouble.’
Henry snapped his handij closed, and was about to order his crew down to Lindenstrasse when an ominous swell of crowd noise rose above the chatting and laughing in the square. Henry recognised it instantly. He had heard the snarl of a mob roused into anger before, and it was not a pleasant sound.