The Crown of Tassilo 3








Michael Arram








  Leo arrived early at Piotreshrad, full of concern for Martin but not necessarily happy with him.


  ‘Go on, say it!’  Martin knew the look Leo was giving him, patient and a little resigned.


  ‘Darling, I don’t have to, do I?’


  ‘No, I suppose not.  You don’t like my trawling those seedy clubs and … you don’t like my desire for casual sex.’


  Leo dropped his eyes.  ‘No, I don’t.  The trouble it’s already got you in should have told you what a mistake it is.  I … well you know you’re enough for me.  Yes, it’s nice to explore and experience a new body once in a while, especially if he’s funny and nice, but you want it all the time, Marty!’  Leo looked sadly in Martin’s face, discomfited now.


  Martin was torn, a little resentful perhaps, but mostly anguished that at last he had experienced a solid and unmistakable rebuke from his lover.  He hung his head, unable to reply.  Then Leo had his arms about him and was kissing him frantically.  Martin responded, but there were tears on his cheeks.


  Abruptly, Leo broke off and walked away, then turned to glance back.  ‘I do love you, you know.’


  Martin sighed.  ‘Yes, I know, although it gets harder all the time, doesn’t it?’


  Leo stood silent for a moment before murmuring almost to himself, ‘If equal affection cannot be, Let the more loving one be me.


  Martin stared at Leo with some wonder, and at the solemnity of his face with trepidation.  He felt he daren’t approach Leo, whose expression held something dauntingly noble and dignified, but neither did he dare leave.  Leo was in that moment very much the prince, and to walk away without his permission would have been a discourtesy of an unthinkable sort.


  ‘Go on, Marty.  Go and sort yourself out.  Have a bath and a nap.  I’m sorry for what you went through.  Really.’


  Martin departed without a word.








  Gus Underwood, count of Eisendorf, was not a man to let matters lie.  That afternoon he convened a council of war in the long lounge overlooking the lake.


  It was a day of showers and sunlight.  As Leo stared moodily through the French windows across the space between himself and the opposite lakeshore, he saw dense grey veils of rain sweeping over the shining surface of the water.  Rather like my life, he thought.  And then he paused breathless as the sun caught a shower and threw a brilliant rainbow from shore to shore.


  He knew Martin was gazing at him anxiously from the other side of the lounge, but he did not return the gaze.  He was too depressed about their relationship.  Was he disappointed in Martin?  A little, but he was more disheartened by the growing realisation that his lover could not give him something he most wanted: an exclusive, mutual devotion.


  Leo knew he was himself by nature monogamous, while Martin was pulled towards promiscuity.  That Martin loved him was not in doubt, but for Martin, love and sex were two different things.  He could adore Leo while enthusiastically bedding a complete stranger and see no contradiction or betrayal in it.


  Up till now, Leo had not felt challenged by Martin’s philandering, but suddenly he did.  He frowned as he pondered why this should be.  What was there in his background that made him long so urgently for security?  An unloving father?  An absent, feckless mother?   He was an orphan before he was ten years of age, a sensitive boy longing for parental affection.  Since he had come into his grandfather’s care, he had not lacked for that.  And with Martin, he had found a tantalising possibility of romantic love.  Martin was as beautiful, intelligent and as caring a mate as might be imagined.  The problem was that Martin’s aspirations did not match his.


  I need Pip to talk it through with, Leo realised.  But Philip Underwood was not there, and would not be for a day yet.


  In the meantime, Gus cleared his throat.  ‘Yesterday, Tildemann’s government lost a vote in parliament on the defence budget.  In a few days it faces a vote of confidence which it may well lose.  Even if it manages to survive, every week thereafter will be a hard-won victory.  When it finally does lose, the government will resign and call elections.  A very uncertain period in our national life is about to begin.


  ‘What’s worse is that Marcus is ill.  It’s not generally known that he visited a clinic in Bern a month ago, and although he has told no one what the problem is, cancer is suspected.  Whether he recovers or not, his leadership is weakening, and at a bad time.


  ‘It’s bad for several reasons.  There is the strength and ambition of the KRB in Husbrau and the Nazis in Mittenheim.  Both of these extremist groups will try to capitalise on the period of uncertainty.  Then there is the economic situation.  The international markets are overheated and credit is out of control.  I foresee problems – very considerable problems – over the next year or so, and they will have a dangerous impact on the political life of Rothenia and many other countries around it.’


  Leo ended the silence that followed by objecting, ‘Grandfather, you seem to have taken sides here.  We – I mean King Maxim and I – can’t really be perceived as friends of the republic, but you imply that we should be.’


  Gus shook his head.  ‘Actually, I think we should all try to be friends of Rothenia.  Marcus Tildemann is a great man.  It was not by his plan that Rothenia rejected the monarchy.  He was never happier than in those brief months when he worked with Maxim.  Regardless, Tildemann has always tried to be the servant of this nation and work for its freedom and peace.  We are on the same side, because that’s what we want too.’


  Welf von Tarlenheim adjusted his glasses and bridged his hands in front of his chin in a very professorial way.  ‘That may be true, Gus, but I’m not sure what you think we should do.  Our concern here is for the house of Elphberg, notwithstanding whatever feelings we may have towards Marcus Tildemann.  The present crisis may in fact ultimately help a restoration if it reveals an instability in the republic.’


  Gus disagreed.  ‘If it leads to Stefan Gulik’s taking power, then I rather doubt he intends the Elphbergs any good.  And that’s the point.  He’s seized on James Rassendyll as his cat’s-paw, through whom he is tapping into the goodwill and nostalgia felt towards the Elphbergs.  If Gulik obtains control, you can be sure James will end up a hapless prisoner in the royal palace, a puppet for the KRB.  A king of that sort would be the ultimate disaster to our ambitions for the dynasty.  Better there never be a king again than that the last Elphberg king should be such a man.’


  ‘Then what do you propose, Gus?’ asked Princess Maria.


  ‘I’m not entirely sure, my dears.  I wish we could talk some sense into James’s head, but there’s no getting near him.  For that matter, there’s no talking to him either.’


  Leo interjected, ‘And the Crown of Tassilo?  What if James or Gulik gets hold of it?  We know how important it is, in so many ways.’


  Welf nodded.  ‘I agree.  The KRB is bending all its resources towards finding it.’


  ‘It’s safe,’ Gus insisted firmly.  ‘Believe me when I say that.  Maxim left it in good hands.’


  Eric piped up from the corner where he had stationed himself.  ‘Excuse me, sir.  May I just observe that there are still some ways we could help Tildemann.  You have the resources to assist his party with a little discrete funding.’


  Gus glanced around and smiled.  ‘It’s an idea, thank you, Eric.  I will think about it.’


  Leo had his own concerns.  ‘We don’t know enough about what’s going on at Hentzau, or in the Tildemann government either.  You used to have quite an intelligence operation going in Rothenian political life, grandfather.  Is there anything you can do about that?’


  Gus gave his grandson an approving look.  ‘You’ve put your finger on it, my dear.  Of course, I still have many friends in political life and they do provide information.  But it’s not like things were in the Thuringian days, when the secret service was being more or less run in the Elphberg interest.  That happy situation could not survive the abdication.  It would not have been proper.  But maybe I have not been as energetic in collecting political information as I should have been.  Something can be done about that.  Perhaps you and I should talk about it later.’


  Welf gave a grin which seemed to be provoked by some internal memories.  ‘I have an idea about Hentzau at least.’


  Gus raised an eyebrow in question.


  ‘My university is running an archaeological programme in the Arndt valley, and the faculty is discussing the next big dig.  Now, there is an early Rothenian fortified site near the castle of Hentzau.  We already have the consent of the municipality to begin work, but we’re stalled through lack of cash.  If you could quietly arrange some funding, the department of archaeology would leap at the chance to break out its shovels and trowels.  Professor Bjelerocz is chomping at the bit.  He has a theory about its having been the seat of a sub-kingdom that once existed between Glottenberh and Husbrau.  The place would be teeming with students and academics, just the sort of crew where our agents could easily fit in.’


  Leo caught Martin’s eye and nodded.


  Martin returned him a sheepish smile.  ‘May I volunteer?’








  The weather continued unsettled.  Leo took Pip’s arm and walked him along the terrace, where a cool wind from the lake below gusted a spray of rain into their faces.


  Pip, as always, read his cousin like a book in large print.  ‘What is it, my dear?  Martin?’


  Leo looked bleak.  ‘Yes.  How did you guess?’


  Pip hugged his arm tight.  ‘It’s pretty obvious.  He’s the only person who can make you ecstatically happy one minute and brutally depressed the next.  So what’s he done this time?’


  ‘Well, nothing that he hasn’t been doing since Medwardine days.  You remember in the fifth how he ran after Metcalf’s younger brother, seduced and then dumped him – to get his own back on the family, he said.’


  ‘I thought that was bad.’


  ‘I suppose it was.  It showed he could be conscienceless when it came to sex.  We had a row about it, and didn’t sleep together for two months.’


  ‘And he fell for that boy Wyndham in the meantime and then fell out with him.’


  ‘He did?  You never said.’


  ‘It would only have made you unhappier, Leo.  But I also remember what you were like when you two made it up.  It was as if the sun had come to earth in Temple House.  Really quite lovely.  I envied you two so much.’




  ‘That’s it though.  For all Martin is wayward and a bit promiscuous, he always comes back to you and sets you alight like no one else can.  So what’s the problem?’


  ‘I can’t cope with it anymore when he does it with other men.  I really want him so much, I can’t share him.  I’m afraid I’ll lose him one day to one of his tricks, and the awfulness of that prospect fills my worst nightmares.’


  ‘I understand, Leo, really I do.  I’d shoot myself if I thought Katherine was being unfaithful; it would be the end of my emotional life.  You’re in the same boat, but the problem is that Martin isn’t like Katherine.  He doesn’t see sex and love as the same thing – or rather, he doesn’t understand when you tell him that his sexual behaviour says something about your relationship…  Sorry, I’m not expressing this well.’  He laughed suddenly.  ‘I wish I were a homosexual, just for your sake, Leo.’


  They had stopped at the end of the terrace, where Leo rested his head on his cousin’s shoulder.  ‘I wish you were too.  Life would be simpler.  So your advice is to try to understand Martin, and not resent his straying?’


  ‘I’m afraid that’s all you can do.  I think – I know – he doesn’t stray from you in his head.’


  ‘If only I could be sure of that.  The Eric business had me rattled for a while.  The man’s older than we are – at least in sin.  He’s sharp and clever.  Fortunately, he loves knowledge and the money markets even more than he does sex.  Martin’s devotion to the past simply bores him.’


  ‘Martin’ll change.  Give him time.’


  ‘No, Pip, hear me out on this.’  Leo paused, sorting his feelings and choosing his words.  ‘My row with Martin has opened up windows on my life I’d rather had stayed closed.  What I see through them is difficult for me, but I have to face it.


   ‘You know the story of my parents, how my father used my mother for his own ends.  Every time I think of myself and a woman, it’s my father that comes to mind.  He haunts me still.  I can’t simply put what he did behind me and forget about it. 


  ‘And that’s the heart of the matter.  I accept that sooner or later I myself must marry.  The way Martin makes me feel with his philandering puts me in mind of a conversation I had with him on this very subject.  I told him that my wife would be some poor woman offered up as a sacrifice to the continuation of the Thuringian dynasty – that because I loved him, and always would, she would have to live with just the leavings of my affection.


  ‘Can’t you see what a cruel fate that would be for a decent, loving woman?  And there I was, willing to put her through the same thing I’m unwilling to accept from Martin.  If I were to treat my wife that way, God help me, I would believe myself to be as much the manipulative monster as my father was.  I can’t allow such a thing to happen.’


  Leo stood tense and trembling with the intensity of his emotions.  Pip stared at him aghast, shocked by the depth of the emotional scars his cousin had revealed.  ‘What will you do?’


  ‘I’ll have to think about it.  I don’t quite know yet, but whatever it turns out to be, you have no idea how much you’ve helped me, just by being you, Pip dear.  At this moment, you’re the rock to which I can cling when conflicting duties and desires threaten to drag me under.’


  Pip had no real rejoinder to this revelation.  ‘Just keep an even keel, Leo.  He loves you.’


  They strolled on pensively.  When the conversation restarted, Leo determinedly kept it to the subject of Katherine and her impending meeting with the Tarlenheims at Templerstadt.








  It being Good Friday, Gus and several others had gone down to the church for the liturgy.  Leo and Pip had been included in the group as a matter of course.


  Martin did not feel obliged to attend because, as a nominal Anglican, the Catholicity of the household was not held to concern him.  He had taken refuge in the back parlour, where English newspapers and reviews were laid out daily.


  Eric came through the door balancing a plate stacked with toast on top of a cup of coffee.  ‘Did you know there’s a fast today?’  He looked incredulous.  ‘I mean, Marty, a fast!  No one eats all day!  I stole the bread from the kitchen and toasted it myself in the drawing-room fireplace.  I won’t tell you the extremity I had to go through to get some butter.’


  ‘I think there’s to be a big dinner to compensate you tonight.’


  ‘You’re not bothered?  My dear, it’s like the middle ages!  The dogs get fed, but not we atheists.’


  ‘I’m not an atheist.’




  ‘At least, I don’t think so.  I think I’m agnostic.’


  ‘Ah well, if you’re going to have doubts, you might as well be dubious about them.’




  ‘Let’s have sex, as soon as I’ve finished this toast.’


  ‘What, here?  Now?’


  ‘No one’s around.  They’re all being pious and the children are down there with them.  You look very sexy and I’m as randy as a ferret in heat.  Hmm.  Forget the toast, let’s just do it.’  He rapidly removed his clothes, assisted by the fact that he wore no underwear.  His greasy lips were pressed erotically to Martin’s as he began unbuttoning Martin’s shirt.


  Martin broke away.  ‘What if someone comes in?’


  ‘Isn’t that half the fun?’


  Martin’s resistance crumbled and pretty soon he was face down on the carpet, Eric above him panting and groaning in his ear.  It was quick and passionate.  They lay back on the carpet when they were spent.


  There was a clunk of a car door outside on the terrace.  Martin shot up looking round wildly.  ‘Eric, I’ll kill you!’ he hissed.  He struggled rapidly into his clothes as Eric simply lay there, flat out and naked on the floor.  ‘Get bloody dressed.’




  There were voices in the hall outside.  Martin frantically adjusted his collar and tie as he moved cautiously to the door.


  ‘Shirt’s out at the back,’ Eric sniggered.


  ‘God, the smell in here.  Why do I listen to you?  Get dressed!’


  ‘I’m getting dressed, bossy-boots.’


  ‘And open a window.  How’s my hair?’


  ‘I could eat it.’


  Turning round, Martin caught the grin and returned it with interest.  ‘You’re a beautiful madman, Eric Kirby.’


  Martin sidled out through the door.  ‘Oh, Mr Wardrinskij.  Were you expected?’


  It was Stefan Gulik’s confederate in the hall, hat in hand, a footman standing deferentially by.  ‘I had hoped to talk to the count of Eisendorf, or the prince, if they’re here.’


  ‘I’m afraid they’re down in the town.  It’s Good Friday, you know.’


  Wardrinskij made a dismissive gesture, seemingly intended to comprehend organised religion.


  Eric joined them from the back parlour.  ‘Mr Wardrinskij, is it?  Good morning, I’m his excellency’s confidential secretary.  Perhaps you could tell me what this is about?’


  ‘I’ll be happy to wait till the count and the prince return.’


  Eric directed the footman to show Wardrinskij into the lounge.  Drinks and a snack were sent in, the fast notwithstanding.


  ‘Well, you can’t force religious observance on the poor old Nazi,’ Eric commented as he and Martin stood in the hall awaiting Gus’s return.


  ‘What’s up, Eric?’


  ‘I really have no idea, but were I to guess, I’d say it has something to do with the precariousness of the Tildemann government.  Wardrinskij’s the acceptable face of the KRB, intelligent and cultured.  I could quite fancy him, but for the fact that he has a wife, two children and a mistress in a little house in Starel Heights.’


  ‘What, all together?’


  ‘Silly.  You know what I mean.  By the way, dearest, would Prince Leo be happy with the little encounter we just had in the back parlour?


  Martin scowled.  ‘No.  I wish I hadn’t done it.’


  ‘But I hope you’re glad you did.’


  ‘It was as good as ever, Eric.  You are something, and you know it.  But Leo is getting very … possessive.  I hardly dare say or do anything anymore, he’s so prickly.’


  Eric looked narrowly at him.  ‘I didn’t realise.  Had I done so, Marty, I wouldn’t have pushed you.  I like … respect Leo more than I can say, and I value the happiness of this house.’


  Martin reached around Eric’s shoulders and hugged him.  ‘We’ll get through it.’








  Leo sat next to his grandfather on the sofa.  Mr Wardrinskij was opposite them, across a coffee table.


  Gus seemed unperturbed by the man’s appearance at Piotreshrad.  ‘I hope you’ll remain for dinner.  I can certainly offer you a room to stay over.’


  ‘Thank you, excellency.  I’ll be delighted to accept.’


  Leo leaned forward.  ‘I take it there is a serious purpose behind your visit, Mr Wardrinskij.’


  ‘Indeed, your royal highness.  You’ll be aware that the Tildemann government is trembling on the brink of collapse, and with it the republic.’


  Gus cleared his throat.  ‘That’s perhaps making unwarranted assumptions.  Tildemann has survived other crises.  He may survive this one.’


  Wardrinskij gave a twitch of his head.  ‘He’s ill.  He’s lost his majority.  The electorate are turning to other parties … not least my own.  If he loses the vote of confidence next week, all will be up for him.  Then the elections will uncover the real will of the Rothenian people.’


  ‘And are you so confident of the people’s will, Mr Wardrinskij?’  Leo had a quizzical look on his face, which seemed to nettle the KRB man.


  ‘The movement I represent is ready to take power, and the Direktor has no doubt that the KRB sums up the will of the people.  We already control a fifth of the seats in parliament.’


  ‘That being so,’ reflected Gus, ‘I’m at a loss as to why you’re here.  We don’t seem to have anything to offer a bandwagon already on its way.  But since you are here, you must want something.


  Wardrinskij was unembarrassed.  ‘We can be of mutual use, I’m sure.  I’m well aware of quite how much of this country’s industry and enterprise depends on you, excellency.  I don’t think you’ll find the KRB is in any way hostile to business interests.  Indeed, you’ll soon discover that we don’t believe in the workers’ unions being left unregulated.’


  ‘My companies have rather good relations with the unions.  I’ve made sure of that.’


  ‘We admire your principles exceedingly, excellency.  Such entrepreneurs as you are a great national asset.  The Direktor wishes you to know that, when he is in power, he will be very eager – indeed determined – that you shall be the man to direct the national economic corporations.’


  ‘How … kind, though it sounds like a bribe of sorts.’


  ‘It’s an opportunity for one of the greatest businessmen of modern times.’


  ‘And in return?’


  For the first time, Wardrinskij appeared uncomfortable.  ‘To be blunt, Lord Burlesdon is not quite the candidate for the monarchy we’d looked for.  He lacks … solidity.’


  Leo smiled slightly.  ‘Cousin James is not up to much on a podium.’


  ‘No.’  Wardrinskij heaved a slight sigh.  ‘He is also less than happy with the Direktor’s way of doing things.’


  Leo now laughed.  ‘Well, good for James.  He’s that much of an Elphberg after all.’


  Gus too smiled.  ‘So is this a renewal of an invitation for Leo to become the pretender to the throne?’


  Leo snorted.  ‘Forget it.’


  Wardrinskij looked momentarily annoyed and wasn’t quick enough to disguise it.  Was it, thought Leo, that he resented being sent on a fool’s errand?


  Whatever the emotion was, the man covered it up quickly.  ‘No, that is not it.  His royal highness was perfectly clear when last we spoke.  But there is this, gentlemen.  It may well be that the Direktor will take power soon.  Should that happen, you will have to come to a living arrangement with the new government.  I’m simply asking that you burn no bridges at this point.’


  ‘Especially a bridge with Cousin James on it, you mean.’


  ‘If you say so, your highness.  I cannot at this point predict how the relationship between the Direktor and Lord Burlesdon will develop.’  Wardrinskij did not disguise a brief smile.  ‘But whether his lordship becomes King Jakob or not, Mr Gulik wishes you to know that he would value a relationship with you independent of the Elphberg connection.


 ‘And after all, excellency,’ he added, turning to Gus, ‘you have devoted your long life to the Elphberg interest.  Even if the wrong Elphberg is on the throne, you will not wish to oppose him openly.’  Wardrinskij gave him a shrewd glance, which caused the old man to look a little put out.  Wardrinskij had read him too well.








  ‘So that was it?’  Martin was in bed with Leo.  Leo did not seem to want to hide from the rest of the household the fact that he was sharing his room with Martin.  Welf had merely smiled two days before when he walked in on them in the library, Leo on Martin’s lap.


  Leo nodded in the dim light of the bedside lamp.  ‘He’s astute enough, is Wardrinskij.  He knows that the KRB is well placed to gain power, and like any effective politician, he wants to keep doors open to the wealthy and influential.’


  ‘Seems to me that James may be in over his head.’


  ‘Me too, though I can’t be sorry for him.  Did you see him in that ridiculous tasselled hat and those cavalry boots?  He looked like a circus entertainer.’


  ‘Oh, I don’t know,’ Martin chuckled.  ‘Thigh boots are such a turn-on.’


  He wormed up next to Leo and went to kiss him.  Leo squirmed away.  ‘No, Marty.’


  ‘No!’  Martin was shocked and then annoyed; this was his first experience of rejection from his lover.


  ‘I don’t feel as though I want to.’


  ‘Is this because of Eric?’  Then Martin blushed as he realised what he had said


  ‘Eric?  Are you sleeping with him still?  Oh for God’s sake!’


  ‘It means nothing, really.’


  Though he knew he should have resisted it, Leo rode the surge of hot anger that suddenly bubbled up through the cracks in his psyche.  His face took on a new severity.  The time had come, he felt, to lay down the law, if things were ever to change between Martin and him.


  ‘Oh but it does.  It means a lot to me.  I don’t want you to promise what you can’t perform, Marty, so I’ve held off putting it on the line.  Now, though, I think the time has come for this.  Martin, leave my bed!  There’s a room next door you’ve not occupied.  That’s where you’ll sleep from now on.  And take your bags.’




  ‘Get … out … of … my … bed!’  Leo was up on his knees now and clearly angry, his normally soft voice raised to a pitch Martin had never heard before.


  For a moment Martin’s blood ran cold, before he flamed into anger himself.  ‘Don’t bloody treat me like some stupid … girl!  I’ve told you what I feel.  You know it’s only you …’


  ‘GET OUT!  I can smell other men on you.  It makes me feel sick.  It makes me feel used, as if I were just one of a dozen whores you took your jollies with.’


  Martin clamped his jaw tight.  Saying something was worse than saying nothing.  He threw on a robe, gathered his clothes, grabbed a bag and silently left, Leo glowering at him from the bed.  He went next door to the dark, cold bedroom where no fire had been lit.  It was ten o’clock.


  Martin rang the butler from the room’s phone and ordered a taxi for six the next morning.  Though it was Easter Saturday, there would still be a full train service to Strelzen.  Then he wrote notes to Professor von Tarlenheim, to Philip and to Gus.  He wrote none to Leo.


  He spent much of the rest of the night in the armchair, fully clothed, or leaning out of the window with a lit cigarette.  Before dawn, he washed and shaved.  He was ready when the footman came to wake him and take his bags to the taxi.


  The sky began to go grey and the stars fade as he stood on the platform of Piotreshrad station.  He could see the sun touch the distant hillside on which Gus’s house stood.  A window flamed into light with the reflection of the dawn.


  It was difficult to say what Martin’s predominant emotion was.  He was angry, horrified, distraught, penitent and hurt, all at once.  But he acknowledged that deep down it was his baffled pride which was rising to the surface.  He had been cast off by his prince, he felt, like a plaything.


  Well, if that was all he was, then so be it.  Piotreshrad and Heinrichshof would see him no more.  He had more self-respect than to court further rejection.  But pride or not, tears filled his eyes as the Strelzen train pulled out at seven.








  Philip Underwood regarded Martin coolly from across the tablecloth at Brown’s.  Their joint Sunday-morning date for breakfast with Leo had abruptly ended, but Pip had insisted that Martin join him that third Sunday of Trinity term for afternoon tea.


  ‘I’m not going to argue with you, Tofts.’




  Pip lit a cigarette, then looked at Martin through the curling smoke.  ‘It’s pride, you know, in both your cases.  But answer me one question.  Do you want it to end, and end like this?’


  Martin looked down and away from those piercing blue eyes which were fixed on his face.  Eventually he said, ‘We’re not compatible, Pip.  I can’t change, and he can’t cope with what I’m really like.  How could we ever be truly happy, with him suspicious of my every move and me always apologising.  What sort of relationship would that be?’


  ‘I could cut the balls off both of you, I suppose.’


  ‘Very amusing.’


  ‘I feel like it.’


  ‘What would it accomplish?’


  ‘I’d feel better.’


  Martin smiled, despite himself.


  Pip continued, ‘As I said, I’m not here to argue with you, but I do have a message from my Uncle Welf.’




  ‘You remember volunteering to join the dig at Hentzau?  Well, he hopes you still will.  In fact, it’s important that you do.  Gus has been in touch with Sir Maurice Henson.  You’re to lead an Oxford University team to join Professor Bjelerocz’s dig at the end of May.  If the scheme has any chance of success, it’ll only be if you and I are there, keeping the place under observation and ready to act.’


  ‘So you’re coming too?’


  ‘Oh yes.  I insisted.  I’ll be one of your diggers.  Katherine’s quite keen on it as well.  She’ll be good with a spade.’


  ‘I hope Leo isn’t included.’


  Noticing Pip’s face suddenly grown cold, Martin began stumbling out an apology.


  Pip cut him off.  ‘You know that was an unworthy thing to say.’


  ‘Yes I do … I’m sorry.’


  ‘We’ll discuss it no more.  Now, we’re being given a sizeable sum to fund the dig and the travel.  Welf will join us too, in his propria persona of a university professor.  I’m to be translator for the English students.  Is there anyone else you’ll need?’


  Martin thought about it for a moment.  The memory came to him of a man who had leaped to his defence in the face of overwhelming odds, one who had suffered for his sake and whom he had not ever properly thanked.  ‘Yes, there’s a fellow I know in Strelzen, a labourer, but very intelligent and one of us, if you know what I mean.  He’ll be the perfect foreman, someone I can trust and to whom it will be safe to reveal a bit of what we’re really up to.  I’ll write to him and offer him the job.’


  ‘Fine.  Give me his name and I’ll make sure Welf knows.  Now, will you come for a drink with me tonight?  None of your molly-houses though.’


  Martin gave him a wry glance.  ‘Of course not.  I don’t go to the Ploughmen anymore.’


  ‘Hallelujah!  The boy can learn.’