The next few days were the happiest Conrad could remember. He even saw working as a farmhand as good exercise. He had friends who accepted who he was and did not care. Seb's joke was part of the acceptance as was the idea that in the evenings, he and Jim wanted to be alone. When they were alone, they were sometimes happy just to find out about each other, their tastes in music, films and hobbies.
"One thing I do miss from home." Conrad said, "And that's dad's secret hobby. He's built his own model railway. There are long halls on each floor of Elbourg Castle, and he's commandeered the top floor. When I was a kid, he let me crash trains and just laughed. He said it was meant to be enjoyed."
"It sounds like fun." Jim said, "I'd love to see it."
"If he likes you, he'll show you whether you want to or not. He says it's an icebreaker when people are nervous, but he just likes showing it off."
"You never mention your mum." Jim said.
Conrad paused marshalling his thoughts, "Dad and I love her, and she's great, but she hates the idea I'm not staying at some fancy resort. She's not a snob or anything, she worries. She won't change the décor in their private quarters, so you can imagine what she thinks about me not going back to Brookdales. Don't be surprised if she stays in their quarters."
"She friendly enough when she's on the news."
"That's not change. It's what we do; we charm people, and she's good at it."
Talking relaxed them but as they relaxed, another activity became more interesting and exploring each other's bodies without feeling embarrassed was still an adventure.
Jim was expecting a car when they gathered at the winery. Their other friends were there to see them off and none of them took much notice of the drone of an approaching helicopter. They became more interested as the drone became deafening, and they watched as it landed in a field.
"The car's here." Conrad said, grinning as he watched the other's confusion.
Their friends watched as Conrad ushered Jim to the helicopter and as the pilot clambered out, stood to attention and saluted. Conrad straightened and bowed his head in response.
"Why didn't he salute, Mr. Dawlish?" Seb asked.
"He's not in the military and saluting is for servicemen. Bobbing his head like that is a royal response."
It was the first time they had seen Conrad behave like a prince, so although it was a small incident, it made a deep impact on them.
"There will be palace staff and possibly an ambassador or two watching." Conrad said, "There're always people coming and going. Just stand beside me and when I introduce you, bow your head. You can try a 'Good Morning, Your Majesty' if you like, but for a first go keep it simple. He may be fitting us between trying to greet the President of Somewhere and the Archbishop of Thingummy, in which case we'll have to stand and wait, but otherwise it'll get informal very quickly."
Jim nodded nervously. "I just hope I don't get too nervous and trip against him."
"One visitor was sick all over him. Try not to outdo him."
Jim grinned, a little happier. "You don't see that on TV."
"No, garden parties when people are in groups are easier. This poor guy was alone and a model railway enthusiast, and it was stage fright. Nowadays, they trot out the story every time they have a few glasses of wine. Ready?"
Conrad made his own bow, then introduced Jim. It went well as King Constantine said, "Good morning. I am pleased to see you, but please excuse me for a moment."
He turned to his visitor, "I'm sure we can sort this out, and we're scheduled for another meeting later today. While I get my ministers' position on your proposal, perhaps you'll excuse me, so I can greet my son."
"Of course, Your Majesty." The visitor replied, "I was briefed."
When King Constantine approached the boys, he held out his arms to hug Conrad. While still holding his son, he looked at Jim and said, "Welcome. We weren't too sure what time you'd be arriving, so it was business as usual. Was it very difficult getting Conrad up in time, James? My staff never could."
"He's not that bad. We usually started work on time, sir." Jim replied.
"You really are a good influence then." The King laughed, "We've arranged a two-bedroom apartment for you. Both bedrooms have a double bed, so you can choose your sleeping arrangements."
"Oh!" Jim gasped, blushing as King Constantine laughed. By now they were comfortably seated in a ring of armchairs.
"Don't worry, James. If he's in your bed, he's somewhere private and not in a nightclub embarrassing himself and us. You've probably noticed, we encourage your friendship, but as you know, it's got political reasons. Our popularity rating hovers between 60 and 65%. If it ever consistently dropped below 50%, the Republicans would actively campaign for the abolition of the monarchy. My older son has done a lot of damage and is pulling us down. After Conrad's trouble at the rave, we dropped to below 55. The fear was, if I had two wastrel sons, who would succeed me? Your bike accident was the best thing that could have happened to us. It's certainly good for Conrad to have such a good friend, but you're leading him into what we thought were unthinkable situations. The mainstream media are a bit snooty about them but social media is fascinated. Have you seen the pictures of you swimming?"
"One or two." Jim replied.
"Our idea would have been pictures of him swimming a token length of an Olympic pool and going home not long after the cameras. Do you see the difference?"
"He's brought our rating up to 66%, so do you see why we meddle so much in your love life?"
"I think so, but I would have thought a gay prince would have pushed your ratings down."
"So would I." King Constantine agreed, "There is debate about it and it's not surprising considering your sexuality. If Conrad ever became first in line to the throne, you would have to share him with a string of girls anxious to provide his successor, but even that would be a few years down the line. For now, officially, you are a schoolboy crush while his hormones settle down. I'm sorry if you find it insulting, but it's a penalty for becoming involved in a royal family."
"It's been explained before." Jim said, "I do get it, and most people will think it's wrong but better than leaving a load of girls pregnant."
"And you're too polite to add anything about distancing himself from his brother."
"It has been mentioned as well." Jim grinned.
"I'm sure it has."
Jim's phone rang.
"Sorry," he said, "I should have turned it off. It's Mum's ring."
"Then please answer it."
When Jim was home with his father he liked his father's support, so he put it on speaker. Without thinking, he did so, now.
"Hello, Mum." he said.
"Hello James. How are you? What's all this I hear about you talking to Prince Conrad. I hope you didn't start that gay nonsense."
"I'm fine Mum. Thank you for remembering to ask. Conrad and I are friends. I'm with him now, and we're having an early night to try all sorts of gay nonsense."
Jim saw Conrad screw up his face, but the king smiled.
"I wish you wouldn't say such things. With your father dragging you down all the time, why would a prince be so interested? Why don't you come and stay with me? You'll meet the right people then."
"I'd like to come and see you because I do miss you, Mum, but I'm not sure when."
"That would be lovely. Could we at least discuss your problem, face-to-face?"
"If you insist, Mum, but I'll be bringing some friends. I'd like you to meet them."
"Yes, dear. It would be nice to see a bit of your life." she replied far less enthusiastically.
They talked a bit more and hung up.
"The last time I met her she tried persuading me to go to a therapy camp, and it got too intense. The thing is, supposing she does want to make up?" Jim said.
Conrad took his hand to reassure him, as King Constantine said, "Let's see how tomorrow goes. If it's a success, stay an extra day and invite her to tea. The lake cabin might be suitable. It's still on palace grounds but remote enough to distance her from the crown. Are you all right?"
"I think so. I'd like to be alone for a while." Jim replied.
"Yes, of course. I'll have someone to show you to the gardens. Get some fresh air."
As Jim nodded and stood, Conrad tried to join him, but his father shook his head. When Jim had gone, he said, "It's beginning to sink in what being your friend means. It'll be worse when he finds himself in the papers with some offensive remarks about his sexuality. He's a fine young man, and I'm impressed with your choice of a friend, but he needs time to process what's happening."
Conrad nodded, "His mother wants him to stay with her, so he can go to a better school and meet nicer friends. Does it sound familiar, Dad?"
"Point taken. You'd better start thinking about school next term. Where do you want to go?"
It was later, when they were in their bedroom and Jim seemed reluctant to touch Conrad, that Conrad became worried.
"I'm just not the right person for you, am I?" Jim asked, "I don't mind being a servant or something at anything formal but if you go out with friends, I'll have to wait for the papers to see what girl you're with. We'll never even be able to hold hands in public, will we?"
"You could go to university in another country, and it'll be you forgetting me." Conrad replied, "One reason I love you is because you care for people, so suppose you end up in some third world country digging wells? I couldn't follow you. Besides, you're thinking like my Dad that real friends are guys I go riding with, or play polo with, and spend holidays skiing with.
"For now, you are my best friend. I like Adam even if he is grown up, and I like Craig and Seb, but I didn't like John so much because I think he hates me. I tried to be friends with guys at school, and you'd like some of them. Others were friendly, so I'd have a word with my dad about a project their dad was involved with. Others thought going to a rave was just slumming it, and they'd get away with it because of their position. They assumed I thought the same way. I don't. I'd rather watch you explain to Mrs Harrison how you copy her shopping list to the supermarket website and pay with her bank card. Do you ever think she'll get the idea you don't bring a load shopping piled on the back of your bike?"
"No." Jim replied, looking happier, "I'm being stupid, aren't I?"
"No, but I have a confession to make. I do look at girls, and I do think about marriage and having children. Then I think about you, and how right it feels when we're laying together. We've just got to work it all out. Do you want me to sleep in the other bedroom?"
"No, and I'm sorry. It's Mum, and her 'gay nonsense' crack. I suddenly thought it was all we were: a bit of gay nonsense. Sorry."
Conrad held out his arms, and Jim stepped into his hug. They kissed, before helping each other to undress. Jim was still a little upset and Conrad was relieved Jim did not want to leave. It was a night for holding each other and sleeping in each other's arms.
The following morning, both boys were briefed on the ceremony and after a light lunch, they set off in two separate cars. Conrad was concerned Jim would be upset being separated but Jim replied, "It's like a play. You're the star, but I'm still in it."
Conrad's car drew up to the red carpet, those waiting for him bowed, and escorted him to the dais. Jim waited until everyone was settled and looking to the front before he got out of the car to watch. Conrad duly accepted the gold scissors to cut the ribbon, then paused.
He was not supposed to make a speech but said, "I know I'm supposed to say: it's a great pleasure to be able to open this new ward, but I can tell you why I mean it. I'm young enough to need it if ever I'm ill."
His remark produced cheerful laughter as he turned to cut the ribbon. The ceremony was over, the press had their pictures, and the event broke up as the dignitaries were led away to a side room for refreshments. An aide fetched Jim to stand beside Conrad.
"This is my friend, Jim Poulson." Conrad said, "As you know, I'd like to spend time seeing how the place works and Jim can talk to anybody."
"We were briefed when the plans were changed. We'll have our own photographer if that's all right, but he knows not to interfere."
Conrad nodded. A little later they were shown into the ward. A group of children were playing an indoor skittle game. A badly aimed ball came Conrad's way, and he picked it up. Everyone waited, so he took his own go. A patient, a year or so younger than Conrad but the oldest one present, smiled as he took his turn.
"Do you get told you should set an example for the younger ones?" Conrad asked.
"Sometimes, it's fucking difficult trying to be perfect."
"Tell me about it." Conrad exclaimed, "I bet there's a whole line of secretaries lining up to tell me what I've done wrong today."
Hospital staff were scandalized the boy had dared to swear in front of the prince, but the two boys continued to take their turns and soon the group were talking and laughing. Jim went to another boy he had noticed. The boy still in bed, a bandage round his head, a leg in plaster and various drips with machines monitoring him, but he was conscious and crying softly.
"Does it hurt?" Jim asked.
"No, I just wish Dad would get here. I think Mum was hurt worse than me, but no one will tell me."
"I think you're allowed to be selfish and just think about yourself." Jim chuckled.
"Yeah, but I can't stop worrying."
"I'm Jim. I'm here with Prince Conrad."
"I know. I've seen you on Facebook. Mum says he shouldn't mix with queers, but you seem nice enough."
"Oh!" Jim said, suddenly embarrassed.
"I don't care. A gay kid got beaten up at school, and I didn't like it. Are you going to try to stop that sort of thing?"
"I don't know if I can. I'd like to."
"How come you didn't get beaten up?"
"It's happened once or twice, but not too badly. What's your favourite subjects at school."
They continued talking, and the boy seemed much calmer. At one point he exclaimed: 'I wish Dad would get here'. Jim took his hand, and the boy gripped it tightly, falling asleep. A nurse came over.
"Thank you, so much." She said, "You've calmed him more than anything we've tried."
"How's his mother?" Jim asked.
"You can let go of his hand now, the sedatives have finally kicked in, and he'll be asleep for hours. Come out to the nurse's station."
Jim complied, and the nurse said, "It was a car crash. His mother was killed, and he has serious internal injuries. His father works on an oil-rig, and they're trying to get him home."
"Oh! Will he be all right?" Jim asked.
"It's not looking good, but if it's any comfort, you've probably increased his chances. If he's calm, his body has more energy to heal."
At that moment, an aide was talking to Conrad, and all the children were giggling happily.
"We're way over time, sir. His Majesty is waiting for you."
"Jim seems to have something to deal with. We'll wait for him."
"Sir, you should not keep His Majesty waiting, and you need to clean yourself up."
A little girl about six years old had asked him if he liked wearing makeup.
"I sometimes wear some on TV." he replied.
"You're on TV today. Can I do your makeup?"
Social media was filling with pictures of Conrad sitting cross-legged on the floor, with bright red but smudged lips, pink cheeks and eyeliner that spread way beyond his eyes. The photographer was uncertain whether he should take a picture but Conrad looked at him and smiled.
The following morning Conrad had breakfast with his father.
"Where's James?" the king asked.
"Upset and tired." Conrad replied, "The father didn't arrive until nearly two in the morning. Jim's never known anyone that ill before, and it got personal because the kid just wanted to hold his hand if he woke up."
" You'd better get back to him, then. He's earned his rest. By the way, one paper ran a headline: Why You Should Never Work With Children. It's g ot before and after shots, one of you at the ceremony and another with the little girl. It's a good humorous piece on why royals should keep to the script, with other examples of things going wrong . Well done."
"Anything on Jim?"
"There is, but it's usually just paragraphs tagged onto your story. Most manage a quote from staff grateful he calmed the boy, but there's one. It's on an Internet page by an extreme right-wing religious group. It more or less says it's typical of perverts; they'll find any excuse to fondle a boy."
"He only held the boy's hand." Conrad exclaimed.
"They know that, but it doesn't fit with their ideas unless it's talked up."
"Even the boy said something. I'll warn him."
Jim was awake when Conrad got back to their bedroom.
"Sorry." Jim said, "I guess I've been really rude skipping a meal with the king. I don't suppose there's any news on Tony."
"So that's the boy's name. No. We can find out when we go down. Dad's pleased with the publicity, and you're a celebrity now."
"I hope it's OK."
"Well! You've got your enemies. Loony right-wingers tried to make your hand holding a sin, but that's normal. The hospital is saying good things about you though."
"How can holding a sick boy's hand be a sin? I didn't do anything wrong."
"No-one says you did. Dad's happy, and that's what matters. So far as the nutters are concerned; they can't have a gay getting good publicity. It's bad for their message."
"I wouldn't have touched him if I had known."
"Then their post would have been about how you were cold and unfeeling just sitting there, bragging about how superior you are."
"Tony's mum thought the same, though. I don't want to cause trouble."
"Idiot. You're not causing trouble. Let's see if we can charm your mother this afternoon. Will she make it at such short notice?"
"It'll depend on the house she's trying to sell. If it was to one of my friends, it would be easy. If it was to one of yours, it would take an earthquake knocking it down to cancel."
Conrad laughed but added, "Not everyone accepts us being gay, but our friends do. Do you realize not everyone accepts our different positions, but our friends do? I'm just thinking acceptance is a problem if you do anything the least bit different."
"Sometimes you think too much. I get it though, but the comments worry me. I feel as if I'm messing things up."
"Dad doesn't think so. He didn't mind you skipping breakfast because you needed to rest. If he had been unhappy with you, he would have sent an aide to fetch you."
" I still worry though."
"Let's phone your Mum. No. Not your phone." As he spoke, he picked up the internal phone, "Hello. I want to invite a Mrs Stella Poulson to tea today. Would you make the arrangements please? We'll use the lake cabin."
Jim did not hear the reply, but heard Conrad say, "Yes, she is. Thank you."
As he hung up, he said, "Don't be alarmed, but her details are in your security file. It's routine to check up on anyone we're associated with, just in case you're connected to a bomb throwing anti-monarchist group. I mentioned some of my school friends might use me to get their dads in a bit of influence. Jamie's dad is near to bankruptcy, so he's a prime candidate, but we know the details. He never discusses his father's business except to say he's worried. You'll have to meet Jamie; he's a great guy."
"I sorta guessed you'd check up on me, but it feels weird now you've mentioned it." Jim said.
"Are you OK, though?"
"Not really. I feel as if I'm walking naked down the street. Is anyone watching when we get naked together?"
"No." Conrad replied, "The family likes its privacy as well, so security's like a fence and goes round us, but it's not all over our private areas."
"But when we were by the river, we were being watched."
"Yes. If a crowd of gay bashers armed with bats had come charging down, security would have stopped them because they were outside the fence. If you and I got into a fight, they wouldn't have done anything because we'd be inside the fence."
"Sorry, I just don't like the idea of a bunch of oldies knowing what I'm doing all the time. OK, they know we sleep together, but it feels as if there's a record of how many times we've kissed."
"Do you want us to split up?" Conrad asked.
"I don't want to, but I don't want any more posts like the one about me holding Tony's hand."
"I get it. I'll understand if you want to break with me, but we could talk to Dad. I don't know if he can do anything though."
It seemed odd to Jim that Conrad had to phone the appointment's secretary to arrange an audience, but Conrad described it as phoning him at work, and it seemed after lunch in his private office was convenient.
"Come and sit down, boys." King Constantine said as they entered the office, "What can I do for you?"
"Yes it is a problem." he said after Conrad had explained, "On balance, you were a great success, James. An early morning newscast had an interview with Tony's father. Apparently he's grateful and will ask his fellowship to pray with all their might, to save you from your sins."
"Oh!" Jim gasped.
"There's a compliment in there somewhere." The King laughed, "The press office has had a couple of questions on the succession if Conrad turns out to be gay. The response is, we do not speculate on the possibility of Prince Bartholomew not succeeding. However, there are too many articles on whether Barty could be bypassed somehow. Just between us, I'm as fed up with his antics as much as anyone else, and something has to be done."
"Oh!" Jim repeated.
"More and more are assuming you are boyfriends. It started almost as soon you met, and the media discovered you're gay, James. Any hope of killing it ended when you went to the hospital, yesterday. You gave gossipers a field day with your body language. Here's the odd thing. The consensus is, you're steadying Conrad and making sure we don't have two out-of-control princes."
The King paused, "Conrad. From a family perspective, I could not be more proud of you. I want you to start receiving a daily briefing on state affairs, and I want you to consider your position if you do become first in line. You should not discuss any of it with James, but it's not an order, just a very strong request. Please have a good reason for going against my wishes."
Conrad frowned, "How serious is it with Barty?"
"When a queer prince is compared favourably with a straight red-bloodied, sporting prince? What do you think?"
Conrad's frown turned to a grin, "Jim won't like that comparison."
"I get the point, so it's OK." Jim replied, "Where is His Royal Highness?"
"James, so far as I'm concerned you're family. I suppose you'd call the fathers of your other friends as mister whatever-their-name-is. I'm not sure Mr. Saxebourg is appropriate, so it might be better to call me sir, but by all means refer to Conrad's brother as Barty. He's got cousins all around your age, and you can use their first names as well. Now, to answer your question, he's making a nuisance of himself at the races."
"Did Dad help?" Conrad asked as they returned to their apartment.
"Partly. I'll try to get used to the publicity because I want to be with you."
Conrad kissed him on the cheek. Jim did not realize the King found Prince Conrad happier and more settled. Unlike his brother, Conrad did not find opening the ward a tedious bore and although he looked to Jim for encouragement, the people he spoke to felt as if he was interested and genuinely pleased to meet them. Publicity and security could upset anyone, and he worried about how it would affect Conrad if it drove Jim away.
"I hope Jim isn't annoying you with his gay nonsense, Your Highness." Stella, Jim's mother, said as they sat looking out over the lake."
"We're boyfriends, and it's not nonsense so far as I'm concerned." Conrad replied, "Please, call me Conrad."
"Er, thank you. Surely you're upset about the comments in the papers saying you're gay."
"Still, I suppose once school starts you won't be seeing much of Jim."
"I'm thinking I'd like to stay with Mr. Dawlish and go to Jim's school if we can't find a gay friendly school."
"Surely your father would never allow it." Stella exclaimed.
"Allow what?" The king asked as he stepped out of the cabin onto the balcony where they were sitting, "Please don't get up. I am intruding, but I'm pleased to meet the parent's of Conrad's friends. So, what won't I allow?"
"Me going to the same school as Jim." Conrad replied.
"Brookdales has issues to sort out, and I don't think it's suitable for Conrad for now. I am considering a small private school for them, but it's not easy to find one that's gay friendly. My thinking is, Borsham College has a good educational standard and with the support of Jim's friends, Conrad will settle in quicker."
"You're not going separate them? I've seen some nasty comments about Jim."
"Conrad would never forgive me if I didn't include James in the plans. I will discuss it with both you and his father first, of course. They made an excellent team yesterday. So far as the comments are concerned, there's something you have to accept, James: if only one-third of the reports are adverse we have a publicity triumph."
"I see. It's lovely here. Thank you so much for inviting me." Stella said.
"It was James' invitation but of course, you are most welcome. I must go, but please stay for as long as you wish."
In fact, Stella was ready to go. She desperately wanted to be amongst the in-crowd, yet it seemed her son was further in than she could ever hope to be, and she had made a bad mistake. Rather than admit to having a gay son, she had avoided answering questions about him, preferring to pretend it was another Jim Poulson in the news.
How could she get round it? A phone call from the palace, a limousine to pick her up, and it was unlike her to cancel a viewing on such a smart property. Of course. She had kept quiet because she needed to be briefed. Now she could show how proud of Jim she truly was. A couple of pictures on the office wall. They would impress customers. Jim had sent one, a selfie but it included Jim, Conrad and a couple of others, hangers on not worth bothering about, but Jim and His Highness Prince Conrad looked good. That's the one to show. Unaware security would be checking on her, and exploiting her royal connections would see her frozen out, she hung a large print on the office wall where her clients could not miss it.
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