Not so much later, they were naked on the bed, luckily they were dozing quietly when Hartnell knocked, but entered before waiting for a reply.
"I'm sorry to disturb you, Your Royal Highness, but General Mallows is on the military circuit."
"What military circuit? Oh, yes, I did have a briefing. We'll be there shortly."
"I suggest dressing gowns are appropriate for urgent matters."
They were shown into a small room with a table full of radio equipment. By now, Conrad was fully awake and remembered his briefing as he pressed the microphone button.
"This is Prince Conrad."
"General Mallows here. I'm supposed to be rescuing you, but apparently you have fresh orders."
"I don't have orders for you, but we're concerned about locals who are trapped indoors without heating. We'd like to bring them to Tolberg while we work out what to do."
"Our base camp is about 10k South of you. We've got a couple of Sisus though one was intended as backup. We'll travel cross-country and will be with you in half an hour."
"I think I know the area." Conrad said, "There's a ridge in front of you. Once you cross it, you'll be in thick fog and very icy conditions. By the way, what's a Sisu?"
"Sisu Nasu, sir. It's a Finnish ATV, all terrain vehicle, and designed for their northern territories. It should cope."
"OK! You're the expert. Jim, fetch Dave will you."
When Dave arrived, Conrad explained the situation before General Mallows asked, "Can you think of any extra equipment we may need?"
"Mrs Wilhems may need a wheelchair. Mr. & Mrs Goodhew's daughter is visiting. Her baby's due in January, and she was going home for the New Year. Can you get Zimmer frames with spikes instead of rubber caps? One or two others may be a bit unsteady."
"They'll have to use the wheelchairs. I assume the rest have proper footwear." General Mallows said, "We've got a medic with us, but we'll try not to give him any work."
"Excuse me, Your Royal Highness, but the Prime Minister's office is on the secure line with a conference call." Hartnell said, as he returned.
"Dave is a local guide, General." Conrad said, "I'll leave him here because he can help more than I can."
"Good afternoon, Your Royal Highness." Richard Courtney said, "I assume you recognize George Hanley who has joined us. Bruce MacPherson has resigned and, as deputy Prime Minister, I'm stepping in. As leader of the opposition, George has agreed to work with the government to deal with the present emergency."
"OK." Conrad said, "Why phone me? Surely it's Dad who should be informed."
"You may have heard on the news; MacPherson's view is local authorities should know local conditions and be prepared to deal with them. He was trying to block government funds. There is another issue. There were going to be several arrests in the sex ring scandal, but the storm has delayed them. Bruce MacPherson is on the list together with a number of MPs on both sides of the house."
"OK, but why phone me?"
"This storm is not only the worst on record, it's defying the forecaster's computer models, and what information we do have suggests it's going to get worse. It's a bad time for confidence in the government to disintegrate."
"You're still not answering me."
"He's trying to explain the background." George Hanley interjected, "Basically lad, we need a figurehead who'll give us time to sort the shit out."
"OK! I get that, but isn't that what Bruce MacPherson wanted? Me as a mouthpiece?"
"And my party doesn't want some snot nosed kid meddling in politics." George replied, "We can't even recall parliament in these conditions. It's not only the MPs who'll struggle, it's the ancillary staff who won't make it, especially since they're scattered for the Christmas break. Just give us a breathing space if you can."
"I'll see if Seb can set up an interview for me." Conrad said, "I won't lie or hide anything, but I'll try to sound cheerful. Just set my mind at rest. Prince Bartholomew wasn't involved, was he?"
There was an uncomfortable silence. Finally, Richard Courtney asked, "Why do you ask, sir?"
"He's my brother, so I know how his mind works. I guess I was hoping it didn't go that far, but I'm guessing you don't want to tell me something."
"Let's just say, he's a person of interest, sir."
"OK! I'm hanging up now." Conrad said, "I need to brief Seb and Jim."
Adrian Chapman readily agreed to an interview, and Conrad watched as Seb and Dave set up the stage in the press room.
"You must be very busy, Your Royal Highness, so thank you for speaking with us."
"Good evening Mr. Chapman. Officially I'm waiting to be rescued, so I'm not that busy."
"I see. My information is you're rescuing neighbours."
"You'll have to ask Seb for the details, but the scene behind me is from a camera outside transmitting to a projector aimed at the screen. He tells me the camera is just five metres from the house, so you have some idea of how foggy it is. Our rescuers are arriving in ATVs, the best we've got, and they're finding conditions bad. Three hours ago, I was told they would only take half an hour, and they'll still be at least an hour. We're just not well enough trained to try anything on foot."
"And do you still intend to remain at Tolberg?"
"It depends on the best use of resources, and it's beginning to look as if it would be better to evacuate completely."
"Does the resignation of Bruce MacPherson affect your decision in any way."
"No, why should it?"
"There's suddenly a political vacuum so rescue operations are losing direction."
"I'm taught at school, the strength of a democracy is that no-one is indispensable. I can't make political comments but maybe I can comment on newspaper articles, and I kept reading how Bruce MacPherson refused to work with anyone. Could his replacement find common ground with the opposition, and the factions in his own party, to provide a stronger lead?"
"Even so, there are already criticisms over the government handling, especially the slow response to fund aid."
"My own experience is we were caught out. One day there was a thaw, the next we risked getting lost and breaking our legs if we got more than a few metres from the lodge. Even on the small scale we're working, it's taking time to get organized. I can imagine the problems over the whole region."
"So the rumour Bruce MacPherson is about to be arrested on child sex charges will not affect rescue operations?"
Conrad paused, "Seb is shaking his head, so I guess that question is a bit too political. All I can say is, I've spoken to both Richard Courtney and George Hanley, and they were both more interested in dealing with the emergency than who might be arrested."
"Thank you, Your Royal Highness."
"Those kids are good." George said to Richard when they spoke after the interview, "It was a good point about being caught out and getting organized. What about his comments on MacPherson?"
"Normally I'd protest, but he didn't say that much, and it's what we asked for; a chance to get organized."
"What about your plans to change the constitution?"
"We have to deal with the emergency and get through the arrests. If we don't, Heinrich Martens and his tree huggers will form the next government."
"Top politicians don't get arrested." Dave said after the interview, "They always cover it up."
"Prince Bartholomew's conviction has set a precedent." Hartnell said, "You must ask how popular Mr. MacPherson was in his own party, and you must ask how many would sacrifice him to save their own skin."
Not long after, Conrad's father, the King rang. "I wanted you in Tolberg to keep you out of trouble. That interview was unwise."
"Both Mr. Courtney and Mr. Hanley asked me to make it. They need time to get organized, and I didn't comment on anything political."
"I'm not complaining, but my press office is in a right tizzy. Personally, I agree with you, but be careful, please. Since your uncle Raphael is stuck in Monte Carlo you may as well bring your friends to Elbourg."
"All of them, Dad?"
"Believe it or not, it's your mother's idea. She's extremely worried about you, so anyone looking out for you is suddenly her best friend. I think the idea, it's you or Raphael, makes a difference as well. You can take over the guest wing, and you can invite us to Christmas dinner. We're both missing Barty, so maybe you can brighten Christmas for us."
"Seb and Jim's parents were coming to Tolberg." Conrad said.
"I said, take over the guest wing. The guest list is your problem, but let the staff know as soon as you can."
"Will do, but I think I can hear a tank. I guess the army's here." Conrad said.
"Then go. Stay safe, son."
It was not a tank but two Sisus, and Hartnell was already showing General Mallows into the lounge.
As Conrad arrived, the general straightened and saluted. Conrad bobbed his head in return, saying, "Relax, General. We don't go in for ceremony here. What are your orders?"
"To get you to safety, sir." General Mallows replied, "I also understand, you have your own rescue operation under way, and I'm to help, providing it doesn't compromise your safety."
"We're above the Devil's Slide. I've heard stories of people slipping near the top and sliding nearly half a kilometre. There aren't any homes on the slide but there're some up here with us and just as trapped. We need your expertise to get them here, and then down to Valley Farm. This fog is covering everything with ice, and we can't even find the drive."
"Dave is a part-time guide and lives at the bottom of the Devil's Slide. You and your men should have some food, and he can describe the local situation."
General Mallows was slightly insulted he was expected to eat in the kitchen, but both he and his men were a little confused when they were served by a Prince.
"You say the slope is noticeable from about here?" General Mallows said pointing to a map, "Can we reach those last two cottages on foot?"
"Mr. Lautner is seventy but still walks into the village every day. Mr. Clancey works on the ski lift, and is trapped there. Mrs Clancey is at home."
"You have good information."
"We have a neighbourhood watch. The coordinator, Basil Hathaway is below the Devils Slide, but he phones everyone, and then keeps me informed. People are beginning to get cold, but there's nothing urgent yet."
"Right, sir! We'll start with the Clanceys and the Lautners while we're least tired. Can Mr. Hathaway ring and warn them we're coming?"
"Yes, and you should take Dave, Hans and Chris to pair up with your men."
"With respect, sir. My men are trained; we don't need civilians slowing us down."
"Dave?" Conrad said.
"Mrs Downley has a piano across her front door, so you have to use the back door." Dave said, "She'll only unlock that if she knows you. Mr. Lautner has two dogs, and he'll not leave them behind …"
"I get the idea." General Mallows interrupted, "You have local knowledge and a familiar face. Let's move."
Jim and Conrad were losing track of time. It was dark but with the fog, it made little difference as they fetched chairs for everyone. They prepared more stew and waited.
"I hope they don't get lost." Seb said.
"Those ATVs have all the latest navigation gear." Conrad said, "They couldn't have got here without it. Dave will be fine."
Seb looked at him and grinned. He might have replied, but Jim's phone rang.
"Hello, Mum." Jim said as he answered, putting it on speaker, and nodding to Conrad.
"It's Conrad, Good Evening, Mrs Poulson." Conrad said.
"Er, Good Evening, Your Royal Highness." Stella replied, "Jim, when will you be able to visit? Your grandparents will be so pleased to see you."
"I don't know if I can, Mum. This weather's stuffed everything up. Dad's coming for Christmas Day, and it looks as if it's going to be at Elbourg because we're evacuating Tolberg. What with security after Seb and Jamie's kidnapping, it's all a bit weird."
"I suppose half of your father's family will gatecrash. Are you going to abandon ours? We are worried about you."
"Yeah! You're so worried you started that stupid custody case. Dad's coming because he looked after Conrad. Friends of ours will be coming to Elbourg for the New Year's Ball, so we'll be busy especially if the weather stays bad. We'll try in the New Year before school starts."
"What do you mean by 'we'?"
"Conrad and Seb will come as well. Conrad likes to get to know our families."
"Yes, but we want a chance to talk to you. Your exams are coming up, and you need to start making sensible decisions about your future."
"You mean join your family firm instead of Dad's family's. I'm not joining either, and I'm not keen on visiting while you're applying for custody. I'm going to work with Dad, and I'm going to support Conrad. Honestly? I don't want to see either family until they accept I'm gay, I want to work with Dad in the nursery and be with Conrad. Oh, and Mum. Merry Christmas."
"We just want you to be reasonable. At least let's discuss your prospects."
"Well, I could freeze to death at Tolberg, get nagged by Granddad all Christmas or spend it with Conrad in a royal palace. Guess which one I prefer."
The problem for Stella was, she liked her family having royal connections. There was a round of office parties and when socializing with clients, it did not hurt customer relations if Jim's friendship with Conrad came up in conversation. Grandfather even managed to overcome his distaste for Jim's lifestyle to have pictures of him and Conrad together hanging on his office walls, and Stella did not realize it was why she could no longer visit Elbourg.
"I suppose staying at Elbourg Castle is a wonderful opportunity. Just be on your best behaviour and do as you're told."
"I can't do that, Mum. Conrad's got some kinky ideas he wants to try."
"Really, Jim." Stella exclaimed, "Try to be serious. Prince Conrad won't put up with your silly jokes for long. I have to go. Think about what I've said. I love you but I should go."
"Let's see." Conrad said, "I've got hassles with the government, and you've got hassles with your family. You know what, though. I don't want to swap."
"I don't blame you. If I speak to any of them, I always end up feeling guilty. I just don't like any of them." Jim replied.
"No. Your Dad's OK, though. I love my parents, so I guess we're lucky we've got someone, and each other."
"We've also got Hartnell. We'd better get to the kitchen and make mad, passionate stew together."
There was not that much to do until they heard the Sisus return. Conrad and Jim stood either side of the door greeting arrivals, taking coats and petting pets to make everyone welcome. Brian directed them to the kitchen for hot food and drinks and then into the living rooms. General Mallows waited until he could speak to Conrad.
"We'll take a break then fetch the rest. When everyone is assembled, we'll start ferrying you all down to our base camp. We understand the importance of what we're doing, and how you couldn't abandon so many people in these conditions. However, our priority is to get you to safety. I am instructed you are to go on the first trip, and I'm to do what it takes to see you comply."
"Dad's phoned you then?" Conrad chuckled.
"He has. The first contingent will be all the youngsters, Mrs Goodhew's daughter, plus the more elderly. Two of my men will stay behind to help close up, and I want Dave to stay with them as the familiar face."
"I thought we'd all go together." Conrad said.
"In theory, if one Sisu breaks down, the other should be able to take all the passengers, so we shouldn't overfill them. We've also got to keep inquisitive dogs from a terrified parrot, not to mention Mrs Downley's suitcase. Pets and hoarders did not figure in the planning."
"Not very military then." Conrad chuckled.
"No, as Dave said, we can either take time explaining or go with the flow. We'll do it the safe way and make it two or three journeys.
"I'd better help Jim. He's trying to make them feel at home, but they don't know him."
Everyone was too upset at leaving their homes to respond to anyone's efforts to welcome them. Neighbours chatted to each other, but some just sat quietly, and while many were simply uncomfortable at the idea of their prince fetching them food and drink. Jim and Conrad were relieved when the Sisus returned with the last of the evacuees, but they were distracted by a sudden commotion. Mrs Goodhew's daughter's waters had broken. The medic hurried over to examine her before reporting to General Mallows. Conrad and Jim also joined them.
"I think the baby's coming at a rush, sir," the medic said, "It could be the stress, but I don't think we should move her. I need a radio link with a paediatrician because this is outside my training."
"I'll show you where the radio is." Conrad said.
"No." General Mallows snapped, "I want the first load away now, and that includes you unless you're a trained midwife."
"It seems you're the captain after all, Hartnell." Conrad chuckled, "For the record, do whatever is needed to make everyone comfortable."
"Yes, Your Royal Highness." Hartnell replied, "If the General agrees to leave two of his men behind, Chris and Hans can show them the generator and fuel supplies and go down on the second trip."
The first group made their way to the ATVs and settled in. They were spartan but comfortable, so most dozed lulled by the rumble of the engines and the warmth of the cabin. Even assorted pets seemed content to settle. The ATVs were well sprung, they were following the path they had made going up to the lodge, and the trip did not take much more than hour. Arriving at lower farm was almost an anti-climax.
It was late, so it was dark, but overhead the stars shone in a clear sky, though they had to walk from the lights of the camp to see them.
"It's so black, still." Conrad said, "I suppose it's the blackout. You usually see a glow from the villages."
"There's a helicopter waiting for you, Your Royal Highness," an army major said.
"Thank you, but we have friends coming down on the second trip. We'll wait for them."
Major Kutchner was unhappy, but he had little choice.
Hans, Chris, are you coming to Elbourg?" Conrad asked when they arrived.
"You don't need us any more, Conrad." Hans replied watching the major frown, "You don't want us there."
" What's that survivor thing where everyone wants to stay together ?" Conrad asked, "If nothing had happened, I probably wouldn't have known you existed. I do know now, and I'm guessing there won't be much for a gay couple here. It won't be deliberate, but everyone thinks family at Christmas."
" Were you referring to Stockholm Syndrome, Your Royal Highness?" Major Kutchner asked.
"Probably." Conrad replied, "Can the helicopter take six?"
"Yes sir, but my orders are to get you away immediately."
"Try radioing General Mallows. He'll tell you I want to be sure everyone is settled before I leave."
Major Kutchner smiled, "I was warned, sir. I assure you, we're doing everything we can."
"I'm sure you are." Conrad replied, "I just want to see it through. Come on, Jim."
Conrad had spotted the farm manager and wanted to speak with him.
"Can you cope with so many evacuees?" Conrad asked.
"Yes Your Royal Highness. It'll be a squeeze tonight, but tomorrow we can ferry some to the station. We'll do what we can for those without family or friends."
"OK! Is there anything you need?"
"We need someone to guarantee payments. We'll be able to claim from disaster relief funds, and the like, but it'll take time."
"I've heard it mentioned before. I'll approve any expenditure to give everyone a decent Christmas."
"Yes, Sir. Local trains are pretty chaotic still, but they're almost back to normal in the lowlands. We'll cope with the rest."
Lower Farm was being used as a staging point for several rescues, and the press was grudgingly allowed access to watch events. While Conrad was talking to Major Kutchner, Seb strolled over, looking for faces he recognized. He was approached by an affable looking reporter followed by his camera team.
"Sebastian Walker? How does it feel to be rescued by abandoning a pregnant woman?"
"Do you work for RNN?" Sebastian asked, "Shouldn't you identify yourself?"
"And you are dodging my question."
Seb strode off with the reporter chasing after him yelling, "The viewers have a right to know."
A group of reporters was standing, trying to keep warm and hoping for a story, perked up as Seb arrived and angrily turned to his pursuer, demanding, "Now repeat your question."
"We have reports you and Prince Conrad demanded you be rescued first, and a pregnant woman left behind."
Sebastian turned to the rest of the reporters. "Please verify what you can before publishing. If anything, Prince Conrad caused a constitutional crisis by refusing to leave according to government plans until neighbours trapped by the weather were safe. There is a pregnant woman at the lodge, and is about to give birth. She is so close, the medic did not want her to travel. The only ATVs available were at the lodge and had to come down to collect extra medical equipment. The conditions need specialists to deal with it so local guides and arctic soldiers were more useful. Prince Conrad and Jim's role was to make sure there was always hot food and drink available and to reassure the elderly and the nervous. They only left because they weren't useful any more, and they came down with the people they were helping."
"Can you explain more about the constitutional crisis. Did anyone try to block the rescue."
"No. It was an adult thing. You know. You can't do that in case …" Seb paused but continued, "I guess I've blown my witness protection coming over here."
"Just to confirm. Only specialists are left at the lodge."
"There're a few locals, but they are fit and understand the conditions."
"And Prince Conrad insisted his neighbours be rescued before him."
"Yes. Sorry, I've got to go. I'm getting very tired."
The RNN reporter knew he had lost his encounter while the rest still preferred dealing with Seb to a professional. They liked conflict to make a story, and Seb had hinted at a political row. King Constantine understood as he watched the interview live. It was Christmas and a time for feel good stories so Conrad would do well out of the reports. Richard Courtney agreed with the king, but it did not add to his Christmas spirit. There was a coalition of oddball groups who insisted Prince Bartholomew was still the rightful heir. He would have to be careful because the current theory being discussed was that aliens had created a mass delusion to frame him. However, a prince who had no interest beyond finding the next girl and getting as high as possible might make a more pliable figurehead, especially if libel laws were tightened to prevent unfavourable reports being published.
It was dawn before an ATV returned, and Dave hurried over to Conrad.
"Only Greta is left," he said, "The rest are soldiers or medics. They decided if we broke down, we were all fit enough to survive until the second ATV arrived, but it's standing by in case something goes wrong at the lodge."
"What are you doing now?" Conrad asked, "Can you get to your parents?"
"No! Dad wants me to stay safe, and it's still a case of not travelling unless you have to."
"I'm sure Seb will want you to come to Elbourg with us, so we waited for you. Shall we go?"
Dave blinked as he took in what Conrad was saying. Christmas at Elbourg. That would be an adventure. The sun was rising and tomorrow would be Christmas Eve.
Others also watched events on TV. Both sides of Jim's family saw him constantly by Conrad's side and thought about the financial benefits if only Jim entered the real world.
"He's such a nice boy." Aunt Clara said as she watched Seb give an interview. It was at her pensioner club's Christmas dinner, and those seated near her groaned, knowing what was to come.
"It's such a shame he refused the treatment his father arranged for him. All that fuss over the other boy, he was probably killed by his father. They're all rotten to the core, just like Prince Conrad's family. Did you know I met His Royal Highness, and he actually made me a cup of tea? You wouldn't believe how nice he was then, but I suppose the drugs and all that gay sickness have turned his mind by now. The sooner we get a republic and that nice Prince Raphael takes over the better. He'll put a stop to all that gay nonsense."
Richard Courtney agreed with Aunt Clara, Prince Raphael was nice, never having an opinion of his own. Unfortunately he had been interviewed about the crisis while standing in the foyer of a four-star hotel sipping champagne. It did not match up to pictures of Conrad trudging through the snow supporting an elderly man while Jim tried to control two excited dogs. The media war was still hopelessly in Conrad's favour. The media rehabilitation of Prince Bartholomew would become his highest priority in the New Year.
It was nearly dawn before Conrad and Jim crawled into bed and fell into an exhausted sleep. They were still tired when they woke mid-morning content to talk quietly.
"Have you ever fancied Seb?" Jim asked.
"No. Why should I?"
"I suppose it's what I wanted, but the TV talks about you and Seb and I'm only somewhere in the background."
"OK! Yes that's true, but think about it. Seb and I are a straight couple, or a double act for the media. I watch you: how you stand up to your family, how you helped your neighbours and how you just accepted stuff at Tolberg. I was a bit scared when the power went off, and maybe you were too, but you didn't show it. It's why it's you I love, not Seb, but I wonder what he's learnt off Dave."
"I reckon it's Dave doing the learning." Jim giggled, "I've got this idea though. You and me on our sides, sixty-nining while Hans ploughs you and Chris does me."
"Yeah! Who knows? We'd better practice the sixty-nining."
King Constantine had somewhat different plans for Chris and Hans. They were woken late the following morning and asked to join the King for coffee.
"Please sit down and relax." King Constantine said as they arrived, "I might not manage to be as friendly as Conrad, but I'll try."
Both young men relaxed a little, trying to comply.
"My problem is, my staff want Conrad's bodyguard replaced with a new, fully trained team because they see the breakdown of boundaries as unprofessional and a breach of etiquette, and they also want his movements to be restricted. However, a rebellion is brewing. There won't be fighting in the streets, but a faction is seeking to undermine the constitution and introduce a more totalitarian one. Prince Conrad is a primary figure resisting the faction, and I need to allow him latitude to be himself. Jerky, slightly blurred pictures of him skating in a public session and helping another skater does more than a dozen professional shoots."
Hans and Chris nodded uncertainly as the King paused before continuing, "Conrad is the face of all that's good with the status-quo. His bodyguard team understand he needs to push the boundaries and in return, he listens to them. They're on leave, and I want to keep Conrad in the castle as much as possible, so their relief won't have much to do, but I have no idea who else he intends inviting. Enjoy your stay here, but please keep your eyes open for trouble, and phone Mrs Brampton if something is wrong. I don't know what will happen after the holiday, but at the least, we'll find you a cottage at Tolberg."
"What did you make of that?" Hans asked as they headed back.
"I don't know." Chris replied, "Conrad keeps hinting he'd like a four way session, and his dad wants us to keep an eye on him. I reckon we should have stayed in the stables."
"Then we'd still be pretending we're straight. We'll never get another invite to Elbourg, so let's enjoy it. We'll stay quiet and let the kids get on with it."
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