The Crown of Tassilo 3








Michael Arram








  It fell to Pip to end the hesitancy.  ‘How do we get down into the church, Marty?’


  Martin glanced quickly about.  ‘Er … that way!’  He pointed to a door which opened into the northeastern pier of the crossing.


  Pip took the lead, the wings of his unbuttoned mackintosh flapping against the walls as he strode rapidly along the gallery.  With the other three hurrying after him, he was already descending the stair that corkscrewed through the great pillar.  He seemed careless of the noise he might be making, although Martin reflected that the banging in the choir would drown any scrape and clatter of their descent.


  Pip stopped abruptly at the bottom of the stairs. Everybody else piled up behind him while he fumbled and rattled at the catch of the door.  Finally getting the trick of it, he pushed out into the back row of the northern side of the nuns’ stalls.  The hammering was still echoing in the church.  Crouching down, he signalled the others to follow him.  They crawled along the row, the desks concealing them from the view of the choir.


  They reached the high altar unobserved.  However, when Martin peeked over the ledge of the desk he was hiding behind, it seemed the precaution had been unnecessary. The noise had its source beyond the reredos screen, out of sight of the choir.  No one could see them.  Realising this, all four stood, Kate cursing a torn stocking.


  ‘What now?’ Leo hissed.


  ‘One of us needs to get round and find out what’s going on.  The noise is coming from where the shrine was,’ Pip replied.  ‘Martin’s smaller than I and pretty agile.  I suggest he should climb up that screen and look through it.’


  Leo looked troubled but nodded.  Martin clenched his jaw.  Slipping past Pip, who squeezed his shoulder in acknowledgement, he mounted the steps to the high altar.  The reredos was pierced with Gothic tracery above man height.  Regretting the necessity, he climbed on top of the altar table, discovered ledges and finger holds in the masonry, and pulled himself upwards.  After some minutes’ silent struggle, he found himself clinging to two pilasters, from which he could look down into the ambulatory twelve feet below.


  An extraordinary sight met his eyes.  Four men were there, and Abbess Maria Nativitata with them.  He had no trouble identifying Arno Piotrowicz, the dark and intense young man covering the abbess with a revolver.  She was sitting on a wall bench, perfectly calm, her hands concealed within her white robe.  Calm she might have been, but there was no mistaking the distaste on her face at the sacrilege being done to her church.


  James was standing diffidently to one side, his attention divided between the abbess and the nearby excavation.  His hands were thrust into his pockets.


  It was to the digging party that Martin’s eyes were particularly drawn.  One was Crowley.  He had been active, marking out the site of the hole with a mystic pentacle chalked carefully and elaborately on the ambulatory floor next to the looming shrine of St Fenice.  Although Martin had no idea what the diagram signified, he felt there was something very wrong about seeing it in that place.


  Crowley himself was levering at a flagstone, the sleeves of his shirt rolled up over his brawny arms and his bald head glistening with perspiration.  Martin did not know the other man, but on seeing the distinctive skull badge pinned to his lapel, decided he must be one of Piotrowicz’s followers.


  Crowley stopped for a moment and wiped his brow with a handkerchief.  ‘Nearly there,’ he observed.


  ‘Good,’ answered Piotrowicz in English.  His voice was silken and somehow menacing.  ‘We don’t have more than an hour before Compline.’


  ‘Have you got everything ready?  When it’s free, it’ll be dangerous.  You’re wearing your amulets?  They’re your only protection.’


  James stirred himself.  His voice was acid with patrician scorn.  ‘I really don’t see the need for this mumbo jumbo, Crowley.  You say the Crown is “protected” and I’ve gone along with you so far.  But this …’  he gestured disdainfully.  ‘It’s absurd and superstitious.’


  Piotrowicz cut in.  ‘Excellency, Dr Crowley has been right so far.  Please let’s follow his directions until we unearth the Crown.  If he’s wrong, then will be the time for recriminations.’


  James snorted and walked off to one side, as if to distance himself from the unsavoury proceedings.


  The abbess watched the exchange with an impenetrable expression, then addressed James in Rothenian.  ‘I’m glad you’re not enamoured of this travesty, your excellency.  I cannot say how it hurts me to see an Elphberg involved in such blasphemous proceedings: breaking into the abbey, defacing a holy site and disturbing the resting place of a saint of the Church.’


  Piotrowicz gave a feline smile.  ‘You did not say “disturbing the bones of a saint of the Church”, reverend mother.  I find that significant.  You know Fenice is not buried either here or under that shrine, don’t you.’


  The abbess did not reply.


  He continued, ‘It is as I said.  What lies here is a different treasure, one that Oskar the Great sought in his day.  The Crown is in its protection, and once we break its repository open … then our cause will be immeasurably strengthened.  The thing is awesome in its possibilities.  Oskar talked of its power over the elements, over life and death itself.  It is a mystic talisman whose power is beyond any known in the world.’


  Crowley’s strange eyes were gleaming as he returned to his task.  When the chink and scrape of steel on stone resumed, Martin carefully squirmed down from the screen and sought his friends.  He quickly recounted what he had seen and heard.


  Pip snarled, ‘They’re armed, blast it.  So there’s not much we can do about things.  We have no time to get the police, and – saving your presence, darling – an abbey full of women is not going to be much help.’


  Kate eyed him coolly.


  Leo on the other hand was pensive.  ‘Look, this may go against your instincts, Pip, but I vote to let them get on with it.  If there’s nothing there, they’ll look like fools and will slink away.  But …’


  Pip nodded.  ‘You do think something is there, don’t you.’


  ‘Yes I do, and Crowley’s caution may well be justified.  Oskar the Great found something in this church centuries ago, and it did for him.  I have a feeling these fools in their greed for power may get more than they bargained for.  How did the abbess look, Marty?’


  ‘Perfectly calm, as if she knew what was about to happen.’


  ‘There you are then.  She may not be happy with what’s going on, but she certainly seems to expect that whatever lies hidden there is going to do something to defend itself.  When it does, that will be the time to move.  Agreed?’


  Pip smiled, and nodded.  ‘Get back up there, Marty.’








  It took ten more minutes of work before Crowley hissed at his companion to get ready.  Piotrowicz joined them to help lever up the dislodged flagstone, which was more like the ledger stone of a tomb in dimensions and thickness.  It could not be fully raised, but the three men together managed to wedge and rotate it so it could be turned to reveal what lay below.


  Martin caught his breath as he craned to see what had been unearthed.  The men around the raised stone obscured his view, but he caught their exclamations.


  Crowley had solemnly put on white linen gloves marked with cabbalistic symbols.  He knelt and began working at what seemed to Martin to be a trap door in the floor beneath the stone.


  ‘It isn’t locked or sealed,’ Crowley remarked.  ‘I think it can’t have been opened in decades.’


  ‘What?’ exclaimed James.  ‘Then the Crown cannot be there, and we’ve wasted our time!’


  Piotrowicz looked up at the earl from the floor.  ‘It does not follow that the Crown was deposited with this treasure, only that it was placed in its protection.  She knows!’


  The abbess disdained to reply.


  Crowley began a series of incantations mixed with elaborate hand gestures.  The words were nonsense to Martin, to whom they sounded like Latinised gibberish.  Despite the constraints of time, Piotrowicz listened patiently.  This struck Martin as ominous.  The Rothenian had seemed to be thoroughly pragmatic, for all his clear fanaticism.  That such a man countenanced Crowley’s nonsense had alarming implications.


  The incantations ceased.  Crowley lifted the trap door and all the men craned to look into the space below.  Unregarded, the abbess stood up and moved closer.  As she did so, she glanced up and caught Martin’s eye.  He gasped.  She knew he was there!  But how …?


  Crowley reached down into the hole and raised an object.  The men bent over it to examine what he held up.  It was a plain wooden box, not much bigger than Crowley’s hand.


  ‘Is this it?’ Piotrowicz asked.


  Crowley frowned.  ‘I … really … don’t know.  It smells of power.  I can feel it.  Can’t you sense it?’


  ‘I thought it would be something more imposing.  Where is the celestial light that Oskar the Great told us of?  There’s not the enchanted barrier we were expecting.’


  Crowley concentrated.  ‘It may be a Hermetic key.  I repeat: I can feel the echo of power from it somewhere nearby.’


  ‘What does that mean?’


  ‘We must open the box.’


  ‘Do we need to do it here?’


  ‘The abbess must be close at hand when we do.  Yes, we do it here and now.’


  Piotrowicz looked around.  He signalled his man to stand back and glared at Maria Nativitata.  ‘Lady, I suggest you come here and open this.’




  ‘If there is a trap, I had rather you feel its bite.’  Piotrowicz paused.  ‘It is sealed.  Excellency, what does this look like to you?’


  James reached over and took the box, considering it.  ‘It’s an impression of Queen Flavia of Ruritania’s private seal.’  He stared at the abbess.  ‘Now what is the connection between my family and this object, may I ask?’


  The abbess stayed silent.  Piotrowicz took the box and handed it to her.  ‘Open it.’


  ‘Very well,  If that is what you wish, I shall do so.’  She manipulated the box, broke the royal seal and raised the lid.


  Nothing happened.


  Piotrowicz snatched the box from her.  Martin, from his vantage point, caught the gleam of silver on velvet.


  ‘Crowley, remove what’s there and tell us what you think it is.’


  The black magician eagerly delved into the box with his gloved hand and lifted out an object.  ‘It’s a silver death’s head, like your own lapel badge, Arno, but larger and I think much older.  It looks like the ones depicted in the drawing of St Fenice’s revelation, the badges of the holy women.’


  ‘Does it have power?’


  The man frowned.  ‘I believe … yes, it has a resonance of the Beyond.  But it isn’t the treasure we were seeking.’


  The slump of the men’s shoulders suggested they no longer thought the risk they were running had been worth the result.


  ‘So where does this leave our search for the Crown?’ insisted James.  ‘Are you telling me this has been a wild goose chase?’


  Crowley, becoming impatient, flourished the object.  ‘Here!  Here is the answer.  I feel its power.’


  James was becoming irritated in turn.  ‘In the name of heaven, Arno, take that thing from him.  I seriously think this man’s been imposing on me all along.  He’s a fraud and a charlatan.’


  Crowley bellowed, ‘Fraud!  Charlatan!  I can blast you with a curse that will wither you as you stand.  Fool!  You do not know what powers you meddle with!’  He held up the silver object and let out a string of incantations.


  ‘Give it to me, Aleister!’ cut in Piotrowicz.


  ‘Take it from him!’ shouted James.


  The fourth of the party, catching Piotrowicz’s eye, seized Crowley from behind and clamped his arms to his sides.  James reached over and snatched the silver skull.  When he did so, several things happened.


  It was as if a great musical chord had rolled through the abbey.  The air vibrated with the sound, which to Martin appeared to echo back from the great organ in the pulpitum behind him.


  ‘Fool!’ screamed Crowley.  ‘You touched it …’ and then his voice choked.  He fell to his knees, clutching at his throat.  James stood rigid, seemingly frozen with surprise, the skull still gripped in his hand.  Piotrowicz, suddenly off balance, reeled and staggered across the flagstones like a landlubber crossing the deck of a storm-swept ship.  He collided with St Fenice’s shrine and collapsed against it, twitching.  The man who had held Crowley dropped to the ground unconscious.








  In the centre of this scene, the abbess stood unaffected, seemingly pondering the afflictions visited on the men who had so violently broken into her abbey.  Then she looked up and called to Martin, ‘Come down, Zacchaeus!’


  Martin found he could do nothing but obey.  He swarmed down from his perch to meet his friends.  ‘She knows we’re here.’


  ‘What was that awful sound?’ asked Kate urgently.


  ‘I think it may have been the answer to our mystery,’ answered Martin.  ‘Whatever it was disabled James, Piotrowicz and the others.  She’s waiting for us, and I don’t think she’ll take no for an answer.’


  Leo shrugged.  ‘Then let’s not keep the reverend mother waiting.’


  With him at their head, the four trooped out of the sanctuary.  They entered the ambulatory and found their way behind the screen.  Mother Maria Nativitata was waiting for them, apparently oblivious to the frozen or twitching men around her.  She silently motioned them to come with her into the side chapel where Princess Osra was buried.


  ‘Now, my children.  I suspect I know why you are here.  You’re still pursuing the Crown of Tassilo, yes?’


  ‘No, reverend mother,’ contradicted Leo.  ‘We began doing that, but we found further and deeper mysteries.’


  The abbess smiled a little.  ‘I imagine it was your royal highness who panicked my nephew into removing that particular object from my abbey.’  She held up her hand.  ‘Yes, it’s gone to a new place of safety, and I suggest you not trouble Henry von Tarlenheim about it.  But then, I think you are no longer concerned with that treasure.’


  ‘No, reverend mother.  We only wanted to make sure it was safe from Lord Burlesdon, and now that it is, we are relieved of any worry about it.  Count Oskar wanted us to go further, you see.’


  Now the abbess was undoubtedly startled.  ‘Oskar the Great?  You’ve communed with him?’


  ‘No, I mean your elder brother, the Count Oskar who died in 1880.’


  The abbess paused as if to gather herself.  ‘There seem to be more forces at work here than I had perceived, Prince Leopold, and you are a very strange agent for them to choose.’


  ‘Why?  Is it my youth, or my birth?’


  ‘You are the son of my brother’s great enemy, that’s true.  It is very odd indeed that he should fix on you.’


  ‘But I’m also the grandson of … not to put too fine a point on it … the man he loved.  You know what sort of man Count Oskar was.’


  The abbess nodded.  ‘That was no secret, but it lost him no friends here.  The abbess of those days wanted him buried at Medeln, you know, for he was a great favourite in this cloister as a youth.  Instead, he was entombed with our ancestors at Tarlenheim … and that may be what has caused the problem.  Yes indeed, I think that may have been it.’


  ‘I’m sorry?’


  ‘I can’t explain.  However, it may well be that my late brother has indeed communicated with you from beyond the grave.  If so, there will have been a pressing reason.’


  ‘Not just with me, but he has also spoken to Martin.’


  ‘Clarify, please,’ she insisted.


  Martin, blushing rather, obligingly told the story of his night-time encounter with the dead count at Hentzen.


  The abbess was silent.  ‘So what you are telling me is that Count Oskar has singled you two boys out and directed you to Henry von Tarlenheim, and through him to me.’


  ‘Yes,’ Leo affirmed.  ‘That’s exactly what we think, and what just happened by the shrine is the reason why.  The Crown of Tassilo is not what your dead brother wanted us to find, but the treasure behind it, the mystical force that lies at the heart of Rothenia, the one that Count Oskar the Great found in his day, to his undoing I believe.’


  The abbess seemed once more taken aback.  ‘How did you …?  You really are a very unusual young man, Prince Leopold.  Very well.  I will not deny there are forces associated with St Fenice and this land which are as powerful as they are carefully concealed.  But despite all precautions, my ancestor, Count Oskar the Great, did penetrate the veils laid around the … treasure, shall we call it.  I will not say where he found it, but the finding of it was certainly death to him.’


  ‘We think he found it here, reverend mother.’


  ‘And how can you be so sure?’


  ‘There is a letter in the Tarlenheim archives that says Medeln was the final destination of his itinerary in 1687, and, so far as I can tell, he was not seen alive afterwards.’


  The abbess gave a pale smile.  ‘I thought all believed a black coach bore him away to hell from his house in Strelzen.’


  Leo smiled in turn.  ‘A useful story by which to account for the abrupt disappearance of a renowned and notorious sorcerer, but hardly the truth.  No, it was here that he died.’


  ‘What power can reside in a house peopled only by feeble women, Prince Leopold?’


  Martin joined in.  ‘The power represented by a silver death's head, abbess.  The same that is sculpted in stone on Princess Osra’s monument behind us, of which the original is currently gripped in the paralysed hand of James Elphberg-Rassendyll out in the church!’


  ‘What happened to those men?’ demanded Pip.  ‘Are they ill?  Have they had seizures?’


  The abbess turned to look gravely at the four stricken grave robbers.  ‘I suppose you might say they are lucky.  Had they really uncovered what they were so desperate to find, they would have experienced the same fate as that unwise adventurer, my ancestor.  The brute Crowley had some inkling of the power he might encounter.  Never mind his mumbo jumbo, his gloves protected him from the raw energy that courses through the silver.


  ‘But once touched by a living hand, it awoke.  And since that hand belonged to an Elphberg, the effect was all the greater.  For there will come a day – so it is predicted – when an Elphberg king will take that object and use it to awake strange forces so as to cure his land of an affliction.’


  ‘A Golden Elphberg?’


  Once again the abbess was clearly surprised.  ‘You know of that prophecy of St Fenice's?  That is very remarkable, prince.’  She gave Leo a long, appraising stare.  ‘I confess, I really do not know what to make of you.


  ‘However, this is all academic.  You have seen too much, and those men there have presumed too far.  And that is something which must be attended to.’


  A chill hand suddenly gripped Martin’s heart.  Abbess Maria Nativitata was a small and slight figure, but an undoubted authority and confidence radiated from her.  The threat she posed to them was a very real one.


  Leo, however, remained calm.  ‘What do you propose, reverend mother?’


  The abbess studied Leo.  ‘There shall be no harm done to any of you, be sure of that.  But the knowledge you have acquired – I know not how – is too dangerous to be left current in the world.  And as for those selfish fools …’  She indicated the group in the ambulatory.  ‘… they must be dealt with now.’


  Maria Nativitata withdrew from the chapel, leaving the four no choice but to follow.  She went first to James, standing stock still and staring as if into a great void.  Pondering him, she decided, ‘He could never have been king; had he been, all would have been lost for the Elphbergs.  But you know that, don’t you?’  She looked keenly at Leo.


  Leo realised that indeed he did know.  ‘Yes,’ he agreed.  ‘That’s the real reason why Maxim had to abdicate.  It was not just to accommodate the views of the people and the spirit of the times.  Had Maxim been king till he died, James would have succeeded him, and all sorts of terrible things might then have happened.  But the way it has fallen out, those future Elphbergs …’


  ‘… will one day rule, and Rothenia will be great among the nations in some distant time, as would not have happened had a King Jakob sat on the throne.  Because he abdicated, the last Elphberg king will be remembered as wise, brave and honourable by the people.  The name of Elphberg will continue to be a banner for those who love this land and wish it well.’


  The abbess walked to James’s side and took the talisman from him.  He stayed rigid, with no further supernatural manifestation occurring.


  ‘What is that badge, reverend mother?’ the archeologist in Martin had to ask.


  She glanced down at it with an unreadable expression.  ‘It is what you see, a token once worn by the Duchess Osra, the friend of Fenice, and by many Elphberg women after her.  Flavia had it last.  Following her death it was entrusted to the abbey, and buried here.  As for the power it manifests, that is not something I will discuss, other than to say it is nothing compared to the greater force with which it was once in contact.’


  She reached up and placed the silver badge on James’s forehead.  His eyes flickered as a deep bass hum seemed to fill the abbey.  Then he sighed and slid bonelessly to the ground.  The hum faded from the air.


  Leo looked at James with a troubled expression.  ‘What will happen to him?’


  ‘He will find that his sleep has done him good.  Now to the others.’  She touched the talisman to the foreheads of each of the other three men in turn.  She stood back as they stirred and blinked, rising to their feet.  They looked blank and confused, evidently surprised to find themselves in the abbey.


  ‘It was nice of you to come, gentlemen,’ said the abbess briskly. ‘But I think your driver must be impatient by now.  I’m sorry not to be of help.  Perhaps you could assist Lord Burlesdon to his car.  He seems overcome.’


  Obediently, the three manhandled the earl to his feet, and then they slowly lurched in a group towards the west door.


  The abbess watched them as they went.  ‘Poor Mr Crowley.  He’s just experienced a genuine supernatural visitation, but will never recall it.’


  ‘They will have no memory of today’s events?’ asked Leo.


  ‘No, yet I think Lord Burlesdon may be a different man to deal with in future.  The talisman has a power to heal, and in his case there are wounds it will seek to close.  As for the others … who can say?


  ‘Now as for you young people, I have to extend the same cleansing to you.  You have learned far too much for your good and the good of Rothenia.  Though I think you mean well, you have knowledge which must not be let loose in the world.  So I ask you to surrender freely to the power in this talisman, and let it empty your minds.  It will not harm you, for you are all I think good-hearted and well-intentioned.’


  ‘And if we do not?’ Pip objected.


  ‘Then there will still be the same result.  Your acquiescence is not necessary to me, though I think your mental state will be better if you do not resist.’


  The four looked at each other and Leo spoke for them all.  ‘We will submit, though I think you are wrong.  Your late brother was trying to tell you something by all this, as much as us.  He seems to have believed the secret should not be kept to you Levites alone.’


  The abbess looked momentarily troubled, but soon collected herself.  ‘Who will be first?’


  Pip as usual led the way, taking his Kate by the hand and lowering his head as he stood in front of Mother Maria Nativitata.  She kissed his forehead before placing the silver badge there.  The humming noise vibrated in the air once more, and Pip stood shaking his head.  In the meantime, Kate was touched in the same place, and she grabbed Pip as if momentarily dizzy.


  Leo looked at Martin and smiled.  Joining hands, they approached the abbess.


  She kissed each on his forehead.   ‘God’s blessing on you both,’ she whispered.  Then Martin felt the metal on his brow and it was if a tide had risen in his brain.  Ideas and voices that were not his own swirled around his mind, leaving him disoriented in a world become unstable.


  Leo clasped his arm hard as he too was touched.  An instant later, their minds clear, they found the abbess gazing at them compassionately.  ‘It was delightful to see you all, and we so look forward to the wedding next summer.  I’m sorry there’s no time for tea, but Compline is in only ten minutes.  Some other time maybe?’


  They took their leave, Pip and Kate very confusedly.








  They walked back through the darkening landscape, the river gurgling to their left.  The rising moon assisted their progress, while the lights of Templerstadt on its hill also guided them on their way.  Pip went first with Kate, sure of the path along this river valley which had been his childhood’s playground.


  Leo and Martin strolled silently arm in arm.  Eventually, as they were approaching the footbridge, Leo commented, ‘I still remember it all.  How about you?’


  Martin chuckled.  ‘Me too.  I’m glad we both managed not to let on.  But I think Pip's and Kate’s memories actually were altered.  They seem to think they’d just been talking to the abbess about the wedding arrangements for next June.’


  ‘Whereas we have found some answers, it seems.  But why are we proof against the influence of the skull badge?  Can it be because the power it represents disagrees with the abbess, its Levite, I wonder?  Perhaps Count Oskar was not acting for himself in all this, but for a greater presence which made him its servant.  So he worked from beyond the grave to establish Maxim and then – and it’s very flattering – to save me from my father and bring me to Rothenia.’


  ‘Yes, and we should be even more flattered because he made sure we stayed in love, and brought us both to Medeln.  But to what greater end?’


  ‘Because the Levites aren’t enough, I think.  They’re guardians, but the thing they protect isn’t passive in their care.  It reaches out into the world and seizes people: Oskar himself, my grandfather, Maxim and now you and me, darling.  And we’re shaped and set to helping Rothenia and its people in ways the Levites don’t understand or appreciate.’


  ‘The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, you think?’


  ‘Yes.  What’s more, it seems obvious the crisis we have to weather is yet to come.  We’ve only yet seen the storm clouds gathering.  Fortunately, before they darken the sky, we’ve also been given a merciful glimpse of the sunlight beyond.’


  ‘So we’re reassured there’s hope and we’re not alone?’


  ‘I think so, darling.’


  They took each other’s hand as they crossed the footbridge beneath the stars opening in the sky above them.  They no longer felt a need to talk, but followed Pip and Kate towards the welcoming lights of home.








  The Rodolferplaz was crowded that March morning.  Khaki-clad republican troops lined the routes in and out of the broad square.  The palace front was hung with black drapes, billowing occasionally in the gusty breeze.  It was a fine Monday in springtime, despite the bracing weather that obliged the teeming crowds to muffle up well against the chill of the wind.


  There were no flowers on the coffin drawn by the gun carriage, for it was the season of Lent and Rothenia was very much still a Catholic country.  The Rothenian tricolour laid across the coffin provided the only spot of brightness in the funeral of President Tildemann.  Behind the gun carriage walked the representatives of the senate and parliament, and the places of chief mourner were occupied by General Voydek and the interim president.  Tildemann was a widower whose marriage had been childless.


  Though King Maxim felt it inappropriate to take a place in the funeral procession, he, Queen Helge and Prince Leopold were conspicuously present in the congregation awaiting the coffin in the Salvatorskirk.  Leo indeed was to read one of the lessons in the mass at the special request of the government, which still had lingering hopes that Maxim or Leo might be persuaded to take the throne in the aftermath of Tildemann’s death.


  Any fears that the KRB and James Elphberg-Rassendyll might attempt to use the crisis to renew James’s bid to be king had subsided.  The KRB was too interested in securing ministries in the next coalition government to rock the boat, while James was rumoured to be contemplating a permanent return to England after a suspected mild stroke.


  The solemn funeral was followed by interment in the crypt of the Salvatorskirk, where the late president had chosen to be buried.  A subscription had been opened to finance a statue in the square above.  And so Marcus Tildemann, servant of his country, was properly laid to rest.


  The royal family made a discrete exit after the ceremony and adjourned to a reception in the Tarlenheim palace.


  Leo and Martin eventually found themselves in the gallery with the king and Prince Franz.  They stood together at one of the great windows looking down into the Radhausplaz as the two young men explained to the prince of Tarlenheim something of what had transpired at Medeln.  He shook his head, not so much in disbelief as in evident wonder.


  ‘And why do you tell me this, sire?’ he asked Maxim.


  ‘The boys and I have discussed this over and over since their return from Rothenia.  We are without any direction here.  The abbess, your aunt, has her task, and we now know what it is.  No doubt she is making her provision for the future.  However, we ourselves are also in indirect contact with whatever it is she tends, which is in apparent disagreement with her plan to keep it secret and concealed against some future crisis.


  ‘It is clear, highness, that your family will be as much concerned in that future as my own, and so we too must take this moment to lay our plans, to the extent we can, even if we know less about this force than the abbess plainly does.


  ‘We must be prepared for this future storm, in which it seems to me that Leo has been singled out for some great role.  The talisman would not remove either his or Martin’s memories.  Some force wants them ready and able to act when the time comes.’


  ‘And that power itself, should we try to locate it?’


  ‘Unlike Piotrowicz and his allies, we should learn from the example of your ancestor, Oskar the Great.  There are some treasures which are too dangerous to hunt, for to succeed is to court death or madness.’


  They continued to debate possible future actions, but in the end resolved nothing more.


  Afterwards, Martin and Leo dodged the reception and went out into the square.  Martin picked up a copy of the evening paper, which was just coming on to the streets.  They sat in a small café and ordered fruit wines, then fell to thumbing through the news of the day.  After perusing several pages detailing the life, achievements and exequies of Marcus Tildemann, Martin pointed out to Leo the latest reports from Berlin.


  ‘A new chancellor and a conservative government acting by presidential fiat.  It doesn’t look good, Leo.’


  ‘No, it doesn’t.  I’ll be spending part of the summer in Thuringia, where I hope you’ll join me.  I need to get to grips with what’s happening in my native land.  Heinrichshof is a good base to have.  With elections coming up, I want to see how I can help those members of the Landtag who have the republic’s interests at heart.  For all Maxim’s belief that a crisis is in store for Rothenia, I think there are even bigger ones threatening our neighbours.’


  Martin agreed.  ‘But we must first graduate, my dear.  And you have two years yet to run, while I need to think about my future.’


  Leo smiled and took his hand under the table.  ‘But that at least is fixed.  You’ve taken permanent residence here, my darling.’  He indicated his heart.  ‘Nothing else is really important...  Oh! … that and of course where the next dig will be!  You could be nothing other than an archaeologist.  Anything else is unthinkable.’


  ‘I’ll sharpen my trowel, then.’


  ‘You do that.  Now, back to the hotel.  Did I mention Maxim has asked us to dine with the family this evening?  We’ll have to dress.’


  Together they walked out on to the city square through the growing dusk as the streetlamps of Strelzen flickered into life.