by Michael Arram
The senior hall of the International School was buzzing the day after the Bila Palacz riots. State TV had attacked Dr Manciewicz, the principal, for approving those of his students who joined the LGBT march. He had responded robustly on State radio that morning, and podcasts of the interview were being played on many iPads. When the principal strode into the hall, his students rose to applaud him.
He was there for another reason, however. He targeted a sheepish, red-faced Barry. ‘Mr Hig-er-nett, a moment of your time, please.’
Barry trailed out of the hall under the eyes of the whole senior school. Could his life get any worse? He was put to sit in the principal’s outer office, where he spent a while under what he imagined was the disapproving glare of Manciewicz’s PA and the openly curious stares of the staff and students who passed through.
After twenty minutes the intercom on the PA’s desk buzzed and Barry, his heart thumping hard, was brusquely ordered in. He thought he knew why he was there.
The principal greeted him peaceably enough. ‘Sit down, Mr Hig-er-nett.’ He then undid all the good by favouring Barry with a long, considering study. Eventually he continued, ‘I have been reviewing your progress here with my staff. They do not in general seem to have much that is negative to say about you. On the other hand, with one exception, they have very little that is positive to say either.’
Barry mumbled something largely incoherent about new schools and disorientation, and was listened to patiently until he dried up.
Dr Manciewicz began again, ‘In normal circumstances I do not bring up the issue of a student’s sexual orientation, but in your case I must. That you are a gay man is hardly a secret here. What has been up to now is your … er, attachment, to another student, Count Marek von Lauern. First thing this morning I spent a very difficult half hour with his mother, who told me frankly that I must either expel you from this school, or she would withdraw Marek.’
‘Oh … but sir!’
The principal held up his hand. ‘Wait, young man! I could only make one response to such an ultimatum, which was to say that in my view your sexuality was irrelevant to your place in the SIS, and her demand was quite unreasonable. You are not in my office to be expelled. This school is accepting of its students, gay and straight, as I made perfectly clear on the radio to the entire nation this morning.
‘The countess von Lauern may think differently, but that’s her affair. The reason you are here is for me to tell you that your behaviour to date has been thoughtless and selfish. As a result we have lost Marek von Lauern, an entirely admirable young man who has made a big contribution to this establishment in his time here; a contribution you have not to date matched. Now, it may be that this will change. I certainly hope so. You are dismissed.’
Tears in his eyes, Barry got up and trailed out of the principal’s office more or less heartbroken. He had been busted hard, and he was shattered. It seemed to him he had managed to lay waste not just his own life, but Marky’s too. He went into the now-empty senior hall and wept as he had not done since he was a small child.
‘I’m grounded,’ Reggie sighed.
‘Not surprised,’ Lance sympathised. ‘Your mom couldn’t do any less, considering everything.’
‘But that means I can’t go to the Wejg with you!’
‘You’re in enough trouble, baby. And after all, you did cause a minor international incident. But you can give me your marine’s contact number, and I’ll take it from there.’
‘I’m not happy about this, Lance. You can’t go in there on your own.’
‘I won’t be. I’ll be with your soldier friend. He seems fit enough.’
Reggie shot Lance a sour look, an unusual expression for him. ‘I was hoping for a bit of adventure for once. Promise me you won’t do anything … mad.’
‘I won’t. Anyway, I was thinking about asking Daimey to come along.’
Reggie looked even less happy. ‘Well dammit! Still, I suppose you’ll be safe enough with him on your tail.’
Lance hugged his lover. ‘Reggie, I’m really sorry you can’t make it. It would have been our first proper – or maybe improper – date. I’ll make it up to you, I promise.’
Reggie sighed once more, before recurring to present concerns. ‘How did it go with your dads last night?’
‘Ed didn’t get home till awfully late, so I was spared the full inquisition. Henry did at least say the Eastnet camera wasn’t quick enough to catch me in my … er, new guise. Some shaky handij footage got through to the newsrooms, but the pictures show very little beyond blurs. I’m off the hook.’
‘I know.’ Lance took on a pensive aspect. ‘Thinking about it, I realise it must have been bloody Tobias again. Henry suggested as much. You may remember his powers started surfacing just after an interview with that … seraph. Tobias has triggered something in me, overriding my humanity. Only he has the power to do that, and Maxxie must have told him to use it.
‘I believe our little messiah and I need to have a word. He should have asked before he did something like that. I know he’ll have had his reasons, and yesterday’s riot may have been what prompted him to do it. But if my transformation had got on video it would have caused all sorts of major problems. We were luckier than we had any reason to expect.’
Reggie was intrigued. ‘Can you do it now? I’d love to see Satan in all his glory.’
Lance scowled. ‘It’s not a party trick, baby. I didn’t do anything at all to set it off, so far as I can recall. Henry thought the catalyst for the transformation might have been an adrenalin rush, as happened with Gavin’s guy, Max Jamroziak. Apparently it still occurs when he and Gavin are demon hunting. Henry’s heard they have great sex afterwards. It goes with a massive enhancement in the genital department. I’d better text Gavin and see if he has any hints. Hey, maybe if I ask Maxxie, he’ll trigger you too!’
Reggie was startled. ‘What! You can’t do that!’
Lance appeared truly devilish for once. ‘Oh, can’t I? If Satan’s back on the road, I’ll do what the, er … hell I like. The Archangel Reginald … it has a certain ring to it.’
The Regency Council was in full session. Tommy sat behind the queen musing on the dynamic of what was going on. There was a party, led by the cardinal archbishop, which was beginning to resign itself to the prospect of King Robert Rudolf. ‘Ma’am, I have to say that, if the Senate ratifies the report of the Assembly and listens to the Supreme Court, there is nothing we can do. We would be setting ourselves against the constitution.’
Harry did not respond, but Oskar von Tarlenheim did. ‘Personally, I think the constitutional argument is weak. The 1856 constitution is accepted as defunct in every other respect except the royal succession. The Third Republic specifically voided its provisions in 1990! The fact that Maxim I succeeded in 1910 over the head of his infant nephew Jakob is not relevant. The 1856 constitution was undeniably active at that point, but now it isn’t.’
Tom Bernenstejne shrugged. ‘What do you suggest, Oskar? You’re perhaps right about the constitution, but the Supreme Court doesn’t think so. The justices based their opinion on the fact that the 1990 constitutional convention did not specifically void the royal succession provision, and the Restoration tacitly accepted that the old constitution still had some validity.’
Oskar shook his head. ‘How could it? The monarchy was not on the agenda in the aftermath of the May Rising in 1990, as we all recall. It was the Restoration eleven years later that changed the game. I think we can take this further, to Strasbourg. It would seem to me that an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights is perfectly in order. It would certainly stall things for Robert Rassendyll.’
Harry sighed. ‘It might stall matters, but not resolve them. The Supreme Court of Rothenia would need to allow the appeal. Would it?’
Oskar gave a small smile. ‘I’d have thought it would be glad to get the case off its hands.’
The queen shook her head. ‘In the meantime I have to sit like a squatter in the Residenz and face down my mother and stepfather with a shotgun, is that it?’
A sharp voice cut in on the debate. The princess of Vinodol had seemed to be dozing, staring down at the table, but the impression was misleading. ‘This really has gone on long enough! My younger son is not the sort of man who should be occupying the throne of Rothenia in these latter days, you may believe me. I have kept my counsel up till now in hopes that this might be resolved by the Parliament and court, but plainly the affair is going against the Regency.’
Harry was thoroughly startled. ‘What are you saying, grandmother?’
‘I am the only person now who has any recollection of the business in 1994 which led to Robert’s resignation of his claims. Yes, don’t stare at me like fishes in a bowl! He did resign his claim on the throne, and indeed the succession to his father’s earldom in England.’
‘But grandmother …!’
‘Sit quiet and listen, then you’ll hear the full story, although it reflects little credit on the Rassendyll family, and if it becomes public it will be embarrassing to us all. I rather fear that is what my son is calculating on. While he may well suspect I know what happened, he is devious enough to gamble that, if it is so, I will keep quiet for the family’s sake. But to have such a man as king … well, that is the worse option, and I won’t have it.’
Henry and Tomas Weissman were mesmerised by the parliamentary debate playing out on State TV. It was rare for the proceedings of the Assembly to grip anyone, but that day was an exception. The two men sat with their coffees in Tomas’s office and watched the Von Lauern government collapse in slow motion.
The trigger was the announcement of the Senate’s endorsement of the call for the Regency to step down. The chamber erupted with cheers and moans. Trachtenberg took the podium and made a passionate appeal to the house to reconsider. They should do so, he said, not on the grounds of resisting the supposed liberal bias in the Regency but on what was appropriate for a twenty-first-century monarchy. There were broader concerns than just short-term political considerations.
Chancellor von Lauern appeared impressed by the arguments, and stood to reply. He began by professing the greatest respect for Queen Harriet. The house was indebted to her for her firm response to the previous day’s rioting in the capital. The government was not insensible to the need to proceed with circumspection, and haste at this point might seem indecent.
He was disconcerted to be immediately barracked by a large section of the CDP benches behind him. Hadjek and his cronies were sitting smugly in the middle of the demonstration. The chancellor ploughed on for a few minutes, but was eventually shouted down by his own party. He sank to his seat, openly bewildered at the ruthlessness of the ambush.
One of his own vice-chancellors immediately launched into an attack on his boss, condemning what he called the flouting of the express will of the people backed by the justices of the Supreme Court.
There was uproar behind the chancellor, but it was obvious the majority of the CDP was not with him. Eventually, Hadjek rose to almost instant silence. This was clearly the coup de grâce, and the man approached it like a matador. With a light smile and pause for effect, he proposed a vote of no confidence in Chancellor von Lauern’s administration. It passed without a division. The government had fallen.
To Barry’s surprise, he was still able to text Marky von Lauern. Apparently Marky’s handij account had not been cancelled, and he still had his phone. But he found Marky reticent in replying. He thought he could guess why. Marky had been discovered by his mother in the throes of anal sex with another boy. Not only was his family background conservative and highly religious, but to their joint embarrassment the pair had found they couldn’t separate. Panic had made Marky clamp on Barry’s dick, tying them together until Barry deflated, which with a penis like his took time. All the while the countess stood there shouting hysterically in Rothenian. Eventually, Marky, towel clutched over his groin, pushed her outside. It was the most traumatic thing either boy had ever experienced.
They had not met since. Marky was no longer a student at SIS, and did not respond to Barry’s texts. In the end, Barry just had to speak with him, though he guessed Marky’s parents had absolutely forbidden such contact.
When Marky answered, he did not seem at all pleased that Barry had rung. ‘I am sorry, Barry, it is a bad thing for us to talk. My parents have said I should not speak to you. I promised them. I should not have answered this call.’
‘But Marky! I need to know you’re alright! And … I miss you so much. We haven’t talked since it happened.’
‘I am not alright. I have been removed from a school I loved and my many friends. My parents look at me as if I was a stranger. My father ….’ Marky’s voice faded, and Barry could guess at the tears running down his brown cheeks. He just wanted to be there, kissing them away.
Marky caught himself. ‘Well, it is done. My secret is no longer a secret. I am a boy who loves boys and they know it. I must now live with the consequences. My poor father cannot understand that this has happened and been added to so many others of his troubles. My parents see it as a mental disease, or your evil influence over me. I have had hours with Father Woytek … horrible, silly man. But I have told them I am gay, and that is that. In the end I said if I must go down into hell then at least I will be in good company there. My father was appalled.’
‘What’s going to happen to you?’
‘I leave Strelzen tomorrow for our house in the country. Then I will go back to the Jesuit school in Glottenberh. How stupid. It is all boys. What does my father think occurs among them? I will just have to be patient till I go to Alfensberh.’
‘You’re still keen on the army?’
‘More so than ever. My brothers tell me our army has many gay officers, including great men like General Cornish, who stopped the riot in Bila Palacz. My brothers have been good to me since that horrible thing happened. It is strange to think our army is a welcoming place for gay men, but so it is, thanks to our King Rudolf. There at least I can be myself.’
‘And what about us?’
Marky sighed. ‘It seems, my Barry, there is no more us. I will always remember you, and maybe one day we will be able to see each other again. It just seems so long till I am eighteen and free of all this.’
‘Remember me, Barry.’ There was a pause, followed by string of Rothenian words spoken too rapidly for Barry to understand, before Marky rang off.
The princess of Vinodol seemed to appreciate the drama of her intervention in the council’s discussions. She paused a long while before continuing. No one dared hurry her.
‘The old prince of Thuringia was a fine man. Oh, I know he got much criticism for his open homosexuality, but even his dear wife, the late Archduchess Flavia Helena, had nothing but good to say of him. In the nineteen-seventies, he became something of a hero to the emerging gay liberation movement, and he deserved those people’s veneration.
‘I knew both him and his wife well of course, for Prince Leopold deeply concerned himself in the affairs of the Rassendyll family. King Maxim had been his guardian when he was an orphaned boy, and Leo even kept up a sort of friendship with my father-in-law, the twelfth earl. That must have taken some patience, for Lord James Burlesdon was a difficult and perverse man.
‘The problems with my younger son Robert began in the nineteen-eighties. He took after his grandfather in many ways, for he too could be perverse. Robert was ambitious, yet petulant when his unrealistic schemes came to nothing. Time and again I had to ask Prince Leo to bail him out of the consequences of his miscalculations.
‘The Rassendyll family fortunes had been crippled by the loss of our Rothenian estates during the war, and by the subsequent Communist confiscations. There came a point on Lord James’s decease in 1964 when death duties meant we would have had to sell Burlesdon itself. As some of you will know, at that point Prince Leo stepped in and purchased the estate, gifting it in trust to the family and restoring our fortunes. It was an act of immense generosity and faith in my son, the thirteenth earl, then only a boy of course.
‘But for all Prince Leo’s assistance, there was not much we could do for my other son. Nor did Robert help himself. He fell in with a rich and feckless set of friends at Oxford, and did not have the money to keep up with their fast living in London after university. He tried to make his fortune in the property speculation boom in the capital in the early eighties, and for a while seemed to be doing well, apart from the occasional revelations of his high living and drug-taking in the popular press. But the collapse of the market in 1987 revealed the extent of his unsecured borrowing. It cost Leo millions to save him from bankruptcy.
‘In an attempt to put him on a straighter course and get him away from his old associates, Prince Leo offered him an appointment in the office of his Bermuda agents. The Thuringia estate had bought up numerous properties in the crown colony between the wars, and the investment has since paid off handsomely. I believe the Thuringian Stiftung now owns a large part of the financial district of Hamilton, as well as half the golf courses in the colony.
‘My son was given a very responsible position in the estate office, and I’m sorry to have to say that he thoroughly abused his position of trust. This time he indulged in outright larceny, and was arrested as he attempted to board a flight to New York, heading for Buenos Aires.
‘You may ask how he avoided prison. This time it was thanks to my elder son, John. He had great affection for Robert, though it was not returned, I fear. He pleaded with Prince Leo for the family’s sake to drop the charges against his brother, and with some reluctance the good old man – then in his last illness – did so, though only on condition that Robert sign both a confession and a deed of resignation on all his claims to the Rassendyll estate.
‘John made over a small allowance to his brother, an act of generosity which more or less concluded their relationship. A few months later, John’s aircraft went down as he was travelling to Rothenia. Prince Leo died in Germany not long afterwards.
‘Robert seemed a different man after that tragic year. He was more settled. I dared to hope his narrow escape from utter disgrace had changed him, and for a long while it seemed it had. He had taken a nice girl to wife in his Bermuda years, and they had a delightful daughter, Elenja. They lived a retired life, but comfortable enough. Robert even had some modest success in the land-management line … country sports are an abiding interest of his.
‘Robert had little to do with his nephew as the boy grew up. My daughter-in-law, the dowager countess, could not abide Robert, and I have to say that I myself preferred he have no contact with my grandson, though little Elenja was always welcome at Burlesdon House. Rudolf rather romantically offered him the Hentzen estate at the Restoration … against my advice.’
There was a long silence around the council table. Eventually Will Vincent addressed a question to the queen. ‘How much of this did you and your husband know, ma’am?’
‘We knew there had been some trouble between his father and uncle, and what was called a “misunderstanding” with the Thuringian estate when Robert worked in Bermuda, which led to the deed of resignation. But that’s all.’
Oskar had a troubled look about him. ‘My dear princess, we are much indebted to you for your honesty about your son’s past. But how does this help us? The deeds of resignation have all been destroyed, so far as we can tell.’
The princess of Vinodol shook her head. ‘That is not the case,’ she pronounced, with a decided air.
There was a collective gasp. The clatter as Oskar dropped his heavy Mont Blanc pen on the table was loud in the sudden silence.
It was the end of the afternoon, and Lance stood in the junior schoolyard as the small ones flooded out past him. He gave a frown when he saw a shining blond head approach. It was Maxxie, as usual surrounded by his pack of friends.
Lance stood square in front of the little king. ‘Maxxie, I’d like a word with you.’
The boy grinned up at him, while his friends stared in dismay at the senior’s intimidating height. ‘You look cross with me, Lance.’
‘Cross is a good word for it … your majesty. Come over here. You and I need to talk.’
‘Okay,’ Maxxie said cheerily. ‘But Tibor won’t like it.’
‘So Tibor can have me arrested. You little ones! Scat! Move it! Now!’
Maxxie’s gang took one look at the obviously annoyed senior before shooting off to their mothers.
Lance put his hands on his hips and glared down at Maxxie. ‘Okay, what did you get Tobias to do to me?’
‘Oh … not much. I mean, I know you like being human now, so I wasn’t going to spoil it for you, honest. Bet you can’t change just if you want to, can you?’
‘No I can’t … but you could have warned me.’
‘I wanted to, but it’s not easy, and I thought Toby would tell you.’
‘He didn’t. You know he and I have issues, don’t you?’
‘No one said.’ Suddenly Maxxie looked crestfallen. ‘I’m sorry, Lance. I thought you might like it, and it helped in the park, didn’t it?’
‘That’s neither here or there, Maxxie. It would have been a disaster if more people had seen it. You don’t know how terrible the face of a revealed archangel is to humans. I can’t appear as a kid these days. Satan’s the real deal now. What are you playing at?’
‘But you know, Lance. This business with my dad’s uncle’s not really important.’
‘Isn’t it? It got lots of people injured yesterday.’
‘Well … okay. Maybe that’s not what I meant. I’m sorry people are getting hurt and all that. But I can’t do anything about it … that’s a grown-up thing. My mummy will sort it out. She’s clever.’
‘So what is important?’
‘People. You know that. And I want to help that French boy. I like him.’
‘You like Luc Charpentier?’
‘Yeah. He’s in a mess and I worry about him. He hurts. I don’t like that and now he’s in real danger. You gotta save him, Lance. It’s really important.’
Lance took a deep breath. ‘So, how do I do it?’
‘How would I know? I’m not seven yet.’
‘Somehow, Maxxie, I thought you’d have more to offer.’
‘Well … I can do this.’ The little boy clicked his fingers.
‘What did you just do? I didn’t feel anything.’
‘You can transform now, when you want. That might help, only … if you do, it’ll be the real thing. You’ll be your full adult form.’
‘Wings and spear?’
‘Uh huh, and the horns again. I’d be careful when and where I did it if I were you. Look, gotta go. It’s Dr Who tonight on TV. But there is this … when you go to that Wejg place, you’ll find help where you don’t expect it.’
‘You what? Maxxie! What does that mean?’
But the boy was already off through the school gate, where his minder was waiting for him.
Lance stood bewildered, staring after him.