They held hands again as they walked over to the Poulsons.
"Welcome, Your Royal Highness." Grandfather Poulson said, "It's an honour to receive you."
"Thank you." Conrad replied, "It's a pleasure to meet Jim's family."
"Er, yes. Please come in."
They were shown into a room and Conrad could see money oozing from every item. Even the lavish Christmas decorations seemed to be the best money could buy.
As they were invited to sit down, Grandmother Poulson said, "Perhaps you would prefer this armchair. I'm sure you're tired of James clinging on all the time."
"Thank you, but I've clung on to him enough when things got too much, and he is worried about introducing me."
Conrad sat on a settee with Jim beside him sensing the disapproving stares without having to look.
"Did you have a nice Christmas, Your Royal Highness?" Grandmother Poulson asked, "I trust James behaved himself in front of your parents."
"Mother had someone to talk about horses with and Dad had some someone to discuss model railways with. Jim and I could have danced naked on the dinner table, and they wouldn't have noticed." Conrad replied.
"Yeah, and Dad only seemed interested in Mrs Walker, so he wouldn't have noticed either." Jim chuckled.
"Really, James. You shouldn't have such ideas. If all the adults were ignoring you, shouldn't that tell you something about how embarrassed they are?"
"Don't forget, there're two of us." Conrad interjected.
"Yes, maybe we should change the subject. Your Uncle Sam said he'd stop by. He's still looking out for modelling opportunities for you. I would have thought a boy like you would have jumped at the chance."
"That's Uncle Sam's line, and I didn't believe him when he tried to explain what he meant."
"Yes, but you must understand, respectable firms will remember all this gay nonsense and won't employ you. You may find an accountancy partnership in some backwater, but you'll be stuck there, and who would marry you?"
"I'm going to agricultural college and then I'm going to work with Dad. He started teaching us a bit about the business and Mr. Dawlish shows us how his winery works." Jim replied.
"Teaching us? Who else is he teaching?" Grandfather Poulson asked irritably, "He's not bringing outsiders into a family business, is he?"
"It's Conrad, so he's not really an outsider."
"Er, no, but surely such work is beneath you, Your Royal Highness."
"I wish you'd call me Conrad. It's not appropriate to use my title when I'm here as Jim's boyfriend. I enjoy the work, and I'm thinking of having a vegetable garden at Elbourg. The trouble is, I'll be away during the term and looking after it may be beneath the palace gardeners."
"Boys do not have boyfriends. They have unfortunate crushes and may experiment, but homosexuality is too unnatural for you to have a true relationship. You will find out when you prepare for all your royal duties." Grandfather Poulson pronounced.
Both boys noticed the emphasis on 'all'. Both accepted Conrad would get married eventually because it was part of the 'job', but it would not be a problem until Conrad was in his twenties.
"Jim was hoping to be reconciled with at least one side of his family so could we change the subject?"
Grandmother Poulson picked up on the idea they could outdo the Bandons and replied, "Yes! You're right. I gather you're quite the sportsman."
"I played lacrosse at Brookdales and now I play football. Jim's a swimmer of course."
"Is he? Good for you, Jim."
"We were going to go skiing while we were at Tolberg, but the weather got too bad to do anything outside, and I got to enjoy cycling during the summer." Conrad continued, "Farm work is good exercise, too."
Even Grandfather Poulson could sense the tension easing though he sat glowering, not taking part in the conversation. He was beginning to accept Conrad and Jim were friends and that had to be good for the family. He could also admit he had little conversation outside of work and as the conversation moved on from sport to school and then family, so he found it harder to believe either boy was gay. Well, holding hands was a bit odd, but he could explain it as some boyish protest.
"Georgina would love to invite you to the wedding." Grandmother Poulson said as the family chat continued, "But some people are worried about your relationship and letting it influence other impressionable teenagers."
"To be honest, I don't want to go anywhere if it would cause a row." Jim said, "Conrad shouldn't get caught in a family fight, so I don't think I'll go."
"You shouldn't let your condition interfere with your family duty." Grandfather Poulson snapped then saw his wife glaring at him, "Very well, you both seem to be decent young men, but you are misguided and should get treatment. I'll say no more because your Grandmother is enjoying your visit so much."
Conrad suspected Grandmother Poulson was enjoying getting one over on the Bandons more, and she would have preferred openly siding with her husband.
It seemed Jim agreed with him for he said, "I think it's time we went so there's time to pop in and see Conrad's parents."
Visiting the King and Queen was an excuse Jim's grandparents could not argue with, and they were soon on their way.
"My parents won't be back from the barracks they were visiting." Conrad said, "It was a good excuse though."
"The oldies talk about all this psychology stuff, and it's got me thinking." Jim said, "Does my family just grind kids down and make them feel bad, so they do as they're told?"
"Make them lose their confidence. It makes sense. Do you want to do something about it?"
"Yeah, but what?"
"There's not much you can do unless you want to invite them to Tolberg in the New Year. How many are you thinking of?"
"I'm sure Dan is gay. Joe keeps getting told our family buys art and being an artist is not a suitable job. I like Liam, and he's fine with me, so why does he keep ending up in young prisoners institutes? On Mum's side, you saw Richard, what do you think?"
"All boys, I notice." Conrad grinned, "About our age."
"There are a couple of girls, but it might be harder to help them. Honestly, they could become artists like Joe especially if they locked themselves away in a studio and only came out when the family had a suitable boy for them to marry."
"I don't get how they're so feudal. Surely it's child abuse." Conrad said.
"Or strict parenting. I wasn't locked in a dark cellar or anything, I was just reminded the family had standards."
"And you were reminded two hundred times a day. I get it. Your dad did well to beat it and get you out of it as well."
"Yeah, and I'm getting worried about the ball."
"OK! There'll be about five hundred guests at the ball, even if it's supposed to be a family event, but it's the one function where kids are welcome. There's about forty coming from our school and technically, anyone under eighteen will be under Mrs Jacobs' supervision because it's a school trip. I'd guess there's usually fifty or more of school age, and again under eighteens will be with their parents. Many of them are being pushed to enter society. You know, become known in the right circles."
"Yeah, I know that." Jim said.
"Five more kids won't make much difference, so you could invite them. The biggest problem is underage drinking."
"I don't see the connection. Are you saying my family and friends are all drunks?"
"No. In theory parents look after their children and see they don't drink, but at Brookdales, older kids told younger ones how to grab a drink and hide, and Barty's friends thought they could do what they liked. Our lot are coming on a school trip, and will get into trouble if they try it."
"So no booze for us." Jim chuckled, "I can live with that. It's not really a family do though, is it?"
"It's the one where Dad has the biggest say in the guest list. Last year he invited the president of the national Model Railway Society, and I bet he's coming again. He's not someone parliament would invite, though he and the French Ambassador hit it off. When the ambassador's son wasn't around, they talked golf."
"Weird. It's not like they say on TV." Jim chuckled.
"No. Richard Courtney will be there looking for the dirt. His eldest daughter is twenty-three. She'll demand a waiter is sacked if he holds the tray crookedly. The oldest son is twenty-one and complains that someone in his position can be accused of rape or sexual harassment for attacking a waitress. Someone in her position should be only too pleased to serve him."
"You're joking." Jim gasped.
"I think it was Barty's attitude too. They were all friends. Their attitudes didn't go down well with Dad, but your family is a pussy-cat compared to mine and its hangers-on. With luck, a lot of them will have some other event to go to."
Conrad was pleased to see Jim looking happier. He had exaggerated a little, but a good few top families would be at the ball, agreeing with the Courtney children to varying degrees, and hoping Richard Courtney would restore the old order. Others were content to follow the King's lead and try to treat people on their merits. Conrad was sure his classmates would be a little awed by the evening and so, they would be on their best behaviour, Mrs Jacobs, Mrs Walker and Mr. Poulson would have little to do. He sighed. Politics was always in the background spoiling everything, but Richard Courtney needed to launch an attack, and he would talk up any problem caused by a load of plebs forgetting their place. Inviting some of Jim's cousins was trivial compared to the rest.
Billy and Sven arrived the next day. They had taken a train to the city but were a little bemused by a chauffeur holding up a card bearing their names. Billy would have been content if they had been taken to some cottage on the edge of the grounds, but was startled to be driven through the main entrance: where kings and queens arrived. What was even worse, the king was standing there, talking to another visitor.
"Welcome boys." he said as Billy and Sven bobbed their heads, "Come and meet the French ambassador."
As Sven shook hands, Jean-Paul Reynard smiled, "Ah, the boyfriend who denies his friend is gay. You have quite a following in France."
"I do?" Sven said, confused.
"I think it was the mystery. When it turned out William really did have a boyfriend, teen magazines became interested."
"My nieces demand I get your autographs. If I can get your picture without your shirt, I'll be the best uncle ever."
"Oh!" Sven gasped again, "Is it OK to talk about it here?"
"Jean-Paul's son and Seb's friend Dave are renovating the electrics on my railway, so it's not an official visit." King Constantine explained, "Seb is at a loose end, so he might help if you're willing. For now, I'd like Billy to join Jean-Paul and myself in a matter affecting our two countries."
"Me!" Billy gasped in his turn as the King grinned.
As Sven was guided to the guest rooms the King took Billy and Jean-Paul to his study and invited them to sit.
"Because Jean-Paul and I are on such good terms, trade between our two countries is a little easier. Because of the arms scandal, other contracts have come under greater scrutiny and when a key engineer's car skids on ice into a river, the question can become, what did he know and was it an accident?" The King began and Billy nodded puzzled but intrigued.
"Peotr Ressinger is as straight as a dye and kept out of shady deals, but he needs to replace that engineer. There are plenty of engineers at the moment, but the one who died was involved in a major project for the French government. Since corruption descended to junior levels, taking on a new engineer will be a lengthy process while he is vetted. Jean-Paul has warned me the French government is not going to be very sympathetic to our problems so may cancel if there are any delays."
Billy nodded again still wondering why he was involved. He became even more puzzled as Jean-Paul added, "There is one engineer who was, shall we say, a person of interest to our security people, but they lost interest because the family seemed incorruptible. He was of interest because of his son's friendship with Prince Conrad, and you know, your family has already been closely scrutinized."
"Yeah, but Dad was only a foreman." Billy said, "I still don't get it."
"If our estimate of your father is: he considers himself a down-to-earth working man, and the bosses are full of diplomas in business studies knowing nothing about real-life, what would you say?"
"Yeah. He's got all sorts of diplomas in engineering, and Mum nagged him to go for promotions, but he never did." Billy said.
"And he'd never accept a job if he thought it was because of your connections." King Constantine said, "Peotr is willing to interview him, if possible today, because of his qualifications, his experience and his integrity. I'd like him to go because keeping a major export project on track will give us a much-needed boost in reputation. The French government will keep a major green energy project on track."
"But it wouldn't have happened if I hadn't become friendly with Conrad."
"No. We wouldn't have heard of him, and we would have found another solution eventually, but this one just presented itself."
"Do you want me phone Dad?"
"Yes. Will you do it here or do you want to go somewhere private?"
"You want me to do it now? Is it that important?"
"How would you like Richard Courtney to claim our industry needs a shake up and propose his style of legislation? Besides, Peotr knows we're having this conversation and is hoping to see him today."
By answer, Billy took out his phone, and put it on speaker-phone.
"Hi, Dad. I've got here safely, but it's got weird. You see I'm talking to the King and the French ambassador, and they want you to go for a job at Ressingers. They reckon you're qualified, and you've passed all sorts of security checks because we know Conrad. They reckon you're the only one who can be processed quick enough."
"Are you serious?" Billy's dad exclaimed, "Is someone winding you up?"
"No, it's straight up."
"You know I won't take a job out of favouritism."
"Yes, and I get why they need someone quickly. How long do you normally wait for an interview? You could have this one today. If someone from Ressinger's phones you and tells you all about it, will you at least go for the interview?"
"OK! No promises mind. I love you so look after yourself."
As they hung up, so the King said, "Well done, Billy. It's not going to save the country, but it adds weight to our endeavours. More importantly, I'm going to see what's happening to my railway and Jean-Paul wants to know if he's going to be nominated Uncle Of The Year."
When they were shown to the guest quarters, they were taken to the swimming pool where Jean-Paul was startled to find the boys naked, and no adults present. Sven wore the briefest of speedos as he posed for Seb. Seb spotted them and hurried over.
"Sorry about this." he said, "The other adults are in the sitting room. It's our exercise time and skinny-dipping is better than wet clothes."
"And you're all gay." Jean-Paul said, "I understand, but I'm not sure these photos are suitable for my nieces."
"We've done them. Sven is just fancying himself as a porn star. Look!"
Seb turned the camera so Jean-Paul could see the screen. All the boys wore swim shorts, and Sven looked even more masculine as he tried more natural poses. There was a short video of the Sven, Jim and Conrad racing lengths of the pool. Jean-Paul was impressed. Seb had taken near professional quality shots making Sven look sexy but not enough to offend parents; typical teen mag shots.
"Billy, you can borrow a pair of Conrad's shorts and change, so we can do a couple of boyfriend shots."
"Thank you, Sebastian." Jean-Paul said when they were done, "I am very grateful. Are you sure it's acceptable though? My nieces are bound to share them."
"The shots of Conrad are of him swimming or just talking to someone. They're not posed and swimming is good exercise. I made sure the rest have plain backgrounds, so they could be anywhere. The GPS data is turned off and there's other stuff. The metadata will show when it was taken but not where."
"You've been briefed."
"Yep. The palace knows they'll end up on-line, but they don't try to block it, they guide it."
"I'd better leave. My son, Andre, is supposed to be ready to go, but I doubt if I'll drag him away, yet."
"Sven, take Jean-Paul through to our parents. I'm sure they've got drinks on the go by now." Seb said.
It was one of those relaxed, quiet days when people could just take it easy and enjoy the peace, and even Jean-Paul was happy to relax away from his official duties. He was still there in the evening when the King sent for him and Billy.
"Peotr Ressinger has just phoned me." The King said, "Apparently Billy, your father refused to be impressed by limousines and helicopters, and prowled around the factory taking notes, asking most of the questions."
"That sounds like dad. I guess he failed the interview then."
"On the contrary, Peotr showed him around himself, courtesy of his royal connections and agreed the list of changes needed. Apparently the last engineer knew his stuff but was unwilling to rock the corporate boat, at least according to your father. How would he react if he suspected sabotage?"
"He caught a guy smoking near flammable stuff. Dad chucked him off the shop floor, reported the incident and insisted he be fired. After a machine broke and spoiled a massive job, the management asked him if it was deliberate. Dad said it was an accident until he found proof. It was something like that because when he told us, he said something about not having management starting a witch hunt."
"Good. Jean-Paul and I have worked to build a good relationship between our countries. If Ressingers suddenly dropped out of the picture, that relationship would be dented. Other firms would scrabble for the contract and if I mentioned bribes you'd start getting the idea and who was behind it. I agree about witch hunts and conspiracy theories, but when an accident is well-timed and there are one or two vague discrepancies in what happened, let's just say there's a red flag."
"I still don't get it." Billy said.
"Supposing someone had done an adequate job for years then suddenly things started going wrong. As an example, new tools suddenly became inferior and broke causing delays. Now the person buying in could be tired, needing a break, but he might also have been paid to slow work down. When too many examples crop up, his superiors start getting suspicious, and he has an accident and dies before he can reveal his contacts, it's a red flag."
"Hey, is Dad in danger?"
"No, because he's already suspicious. Apparently he kept asking if someone was trying hurt Ressingers. It's what impressed Peotr. Your dad figured a lot out by himself."
"I'm still not sure. Has he got the job?"
"Yes. He's already on salary, and Peotr has authorised him to make the changes he's suggested."
"I still don't get it." Billy said, "He was just a foreman now he's into all this."
"The luckiest break of all was Conrad going to that rave. It forced him to think about his life, what he wanted to be and who would be true friends. Your dad would have failed any conventional job interview for not being a team worker and a strong union supporter, but neither will he be susceptible to bribes. Do you get the idea? He's outside the system and untainted by it."
"Seb's got his break into the media because Conrad got on with him. Seb won't care how he got his chances but Dad will worry some other guy without royal connections could have deserved the job more."
"Conrad trusted Seb, does well on social media, and we're learning it can't be controlled like the mainstream. Your dad happened to have a son who was in the right place at the right time, so yes, there's a degree of luck to all this. There were other candidates, but none who had turned down bribes from the papers."
"I think I get it." Billy said, "It's all about who you can trust. That's the chances other people haven't had. I think Dad will accept it."
"OK! I did what you wanted this morning. Why are you talking to me now?"
"Jim's custody hearing will be in the New Year, and it's only going ahead because someone is financing a hopeless case. The government is milking the investigation into the paedophile ring. Two of Conrad's group were victims, so it'll become suspicious if a third member is hurt for any reason. However, when it's business as usual in the New Year, they'll return to undermining the constitution. One of their favourite attacks is suggesting Conrad and Jim are predators jumping on kids. We might be creating a conspiracy or someone may try to connect it all together. You're more detached than Conrad, Jim or Seb and you won't be shy about speaking to me if you spot something that troubles you. Next question?"
"I was just wondering why the French ambassador was here."
"My government's assessment is: Richard Courtney is planning a coup, but Prince Conrad's popularity is eroding the popular support he needs. It is worried because the stability of the region seems to depend on a bunch of schoolboys of, shall we say, humble backgrounds."
"And it's worried about us being gay."
"On the contrary, the Code Napoleon decriminalized gay activity in 1791. Our age of consent is fifteen, so you would encounter fewer problems in my country than in yours. M. Courtney is allied to political parties in France. They are in the minority, but we're happy to see their support undermined."
"So if he could, he'd disrupt the New Year Ball and blame us." Billy said.
"Adults can be sneakier, and allegations about predators make juicy stories whether they're true or not." King Constantine said, "Add in someone paid to make them, and you see where we're going with this."
"They want to split us and France, they want everyone to hate Conrad. Is there anything else?" Billy asked.
"Yes, but leave it to us. Understand you're more welcome than you might expect so enjoy your stay at Elbourg. We just ask you keep your eyes open."
Later Conrad, Jim, Seb, Dave and Sven gathered round.
"It sounds like what he said to Chris and Hans." Conrad said, "It's a pity palace-life got too much, so they volunteered to help Hartnell."
"Yeah, fake car accidents, plots and stuff is pretty weird. I feel like James Bond when I'm asked to do something." Billy exclaimed, "Hans and Chris felt weird because they were older than us and didn't like doing sex stuff around us."
"If what you say is right, they might be right too. It could be illegal sex." Seb said.
"I don't think we can be accused of preying on adults, can we?" Billy asked, "What about Dave?"
"We've got other things going." Dave said.
"The only guy I'm worried about is Ethan; the boy from the skating rink." Conrad said, "I got the feeling he wanted us to do something."
"You don't mean he was gay and wanted to play, do you?" Billy asked.
"No. It was something else, but he felt wrong. That's all I've got."
"If I got your dad and Jean-Paul right, he could accuse us whether we did anything or not."
"Jean-Paul!" Conrad exclaimed, "You're getting pally with the French ambassador, are you."
"Why not when he wanted porn pics of Sven. Is that a risk?" Billy retorted.
"No, they weren't that bad and Sven got well into it." Seb said, "That's the thing. Conrad, this is your life. You know what's OK with an ambassador. We're just guessing."
"OK! What about me and Andre?" Dave asked, "He's just eleven. Mind you, soldering wires to rails isn't that sexy."
"RNN could make peeling potatoes sexy, if they got a story." Jim exclaimed, "Billy's dad has a new job, we survived Tolberg and Seb seems to be over his kidnapping. Let's focus on that, and enjoy the New Year Ball."
"Jim's right." Conrad said, "We've got through a lot so let's just enjoy ourselves. Elbourg is my family's home, and we have friends like everyone else. Dad's got his railway nerds who visit. Mum will invite anyone who can talk horses, and I have my school friends visit. OK, if Jean-Paul was here as ambassador with a declaration of war we might be a bit formal but when he's a dad bringing his son to play trains, don't worry."
"Jamie would love being here." Seb said, "He would have objected to being friends with Chris, Hans or Dave because they're just servants. I miss him, but I was wrong to invite him to stay, and I guess I'm still muddled. Jake Holmine at school wants to hook up. He's not coming to the ball, but we've chatted online."
"You're saying that in front of Dave?" Billy exclaimed.
"Why not?" Seb countered, "When we're back at school, Dave will be in Tolberg, and I'll be back home. He won't want his mates to find out he's been having sex with a fifteen-year old, and I'm not going to pine away for him."
"Any thoughts after Jake?" Billy asked.
Seb grinned and Conrad thought he shook his head a little too quickly, but Dave had nodded. Billy noticed too. Still thinking about the conversation he had earlier, he saw Seb having a series of jilted lovers out for revenge. Was it a threat? Billy shook himself. No. Dave agreed with Seb and seemed more focussed on getting to university, so was he using and dumping Seb? He stopped himself again. They were two guys having some fun. Leave it at that.
But Billy couldn't let go. What about Mrs Walker's reaction? Seb was fifteen and although she and Mr. Poulson were pretty tolerant, would she let Seb play around? Still, his own parents had let him go on a fairytale holiday to a castle with his boyfriend. It occurred to him that the biggest loser was Craig, Jim's pal from way back. It seemed his parents saw teenage sex and pregnancy too closely linked so fairytale breaks were out. Craig and Jim were drifting apart which was a pity, but at least they'd get together at the ball.
In desperation Billy grabbed Sven's hand and pulled him towards their bedroom unaware Mr. Poulson was having a similar conversation with Mrs Walker.
"Are we handling this chaperoning thing right?" Mr. Poulson asked, "They seem to be running around half-naked all the time and should they be sleeping together?"
"I'm more worried about Seb, and not because he's my son. I didn't like Jamie much, but he liked a quiet family life even if our family was beneath him. The rest are in pretty stable relationships, but Seb's going to chase anything in trousers. I'm surprised he hasn't dumped Dave for one of the younger footmen, by now.
"Don't you mind?"
"I'm worried but what can I do? Ground him? I guess I agree with you, at least I know who he's with, and his first two choices could be worse. I'll get really worried when he gets older, starts going to nightclubs and doesn't have to be a mature royal spokesman. He'll put a Mardi-Gras entry to shame. At least, they can't complain about us."
Her hand slid under the duvet seeking out Mr. Poulson's groin.
Not so much later, Jim was lying on his stomach allowing Conrad's rigid pole to enter him. Conrad's closeness seemed right, his eagerness seemed right, and the sensations being generated told him all was right with the world.
It was Richard Courtney who found everything wrong with the world. They were Russian, and they called themselves businessmen who had invested in plans which seemed to be stalled and far from fruition. A better description of them would be loan sharks linked to organized crime. Had Ressingers gone under, scrutiny could have been diverted. Instead, the French contract was still secure, and the firm's reputation could ensure they get a highly lucrative contract from Russia. The loan sharks were missing out on more business, and the French deal was not going to Richard's friends who could have milked it to wriggle out of the massive debts the scandal had caused.
What was worse, the loan sharks had invested in other businesses and one, involving snuff movies, prostitution and child slavery was being investigated by Richard. They were not interested in his position as Home Secretary except for what he could manipulate in their favour; they only saw him turning against them and costing them money. Richard Courtney was getting desperate.
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