"Look, there," Johannes whispered. "Under the grey rock. Something's moving."
"I see it," whispered Matteo. He wriggled forward a few inches. There, where rock and water met, was a shadowed undercut, and next to it a shallow sandy slope where a nesting turtle could heave itself out of the cool pond and bask in the dappled sunlight of the woodland summer. "Keep your head down, don't startle it."
Obediently, Johannes ducked down. Both boys stared intently at the water, where the flicker of sunlight on the ripples struck through to a mottled creature underneath, giving them the briefest glimpse of a pale underbelly, a clawed foot....
"It's a toad!" said Matteo.
Johannes huffed, flopping over onto his back and revealing grass-stained knees. "I'm sorry," he said.
"No, look," said Matteo, enchanted. "He's a midwife toad. See the way the skin on his back is so uneven? It means he can shelter his eggs until they hatch. He's the very best of papas."
He poked Johannes to emphasise the point, right in that ticklish spot under his ribs, but with the occasional and irritating gravity of the heir to a throne, Johannes failed to succumb. He rolled over instead. They were shoulder to shoulder. Johannes had one hand on Matteo's back, light and warm. His father was the King. Matteo's was dead.
The toad burped. Johannes said, thoughtfully, "If a prince kisses a frog, does it turn into a princess?"
It had been months since Matteo had gone through the main gate to the palace. This time, he had been summoned, and it was daylight. The portcullis was raised, and the soldiers were marionette stiff in their scarlet uniforms, knotted gold braid binding cuffs and collars. Matteo was wearing his father's knee breeches and tailored court coat, tight across the shoulders and smelling faintly of mothballs. His shoes were his own, polished so fiercely the thin leather squeaked as he walked. The letter in his hands was the king's.
"Count von Tarlenheim," snapped Count Petyr Zaunseburg von Knorring, Usher of the King's Privy Chamber, the black staff of his office looking far more formidable now than when Matteo and Johannes had spent the night before May Day plaiting it with ribbons.
The Count sent to all the way to London for the Gentleman's Nourishing Cream he used on his moustache, and had his shirts starched so stiffly his neck came up in boils, but Matteo still swallowed before he held up his letter. Bergania's regal seal was blood red.
"I've been summoned," he said. His throat was dry. He coughed.
"Indeed," said Count Petyr, and took the letter between finger and thumb. He unfolded it with terrible deliberation. "So it appears." Reluctant hesitation. "His Majesty is in the Empire Study. Boy," the Count hissed. "Do not speak until spoken to. Do not touch anything - anything, you hear me? Address His Majesty, if you must, as Your Majesty. Do not forget to bow."
"Sir," Matteo acknowledged, trying to square his shoulders and feeling the stitching give. This was, he thought, a disaster. Why had the King summoned him? Had he and Johannes finally gone too far? There was the incident with the chickens, but they had cleared that up and Eugene had laughed in the end. And Mr Shipton had been kind as well as forthright when refusing their application for the Mount Everest reconnaissance expedition....
Count Petyr's footsteps echoed with awful authority as they processed through the Audience Hall, where all the gilded chairs were empty and the great throne, a diplomatic gift from Empress Catherine of Russia crested with viciously clawed gilt eagles, loomed from the shadows. The servants kept the curtains closed to preserve the colour in the tapestries, Johannes said, although his own bedroom windows were thrown wide open to catch the breeze from the mountains.
They passed the Hall of Kings, with its rows of portraits and covered cabinets of miniatures. Matteo winced as they passed Holbein's Alphonse I, the new paint on that courtly gentleman's upper lip uncomfortably obvious. The Privy Passage. The Blue Room, the Red Room....
Count Petyr, flourishing his staff, tolled two strikes against the door to the Empire Study. He was at attention, stiff as a clothes rack. The King, answering was equally rigid, despite fumbling with the door handle as if he'd never had to open one before in his life. Maybe he hadn't. Matteo had always drawn a line between Johannes, who was his, and the image of the Crown Prince, who was Bergania's, and the King with his gold braid and despatch boxes was on the far side of that line. He was, still, Bergania's king. Matteo bowed. The King, unmistakably, blushed. "Very good of you to attend, Count," he said.
Matteo had been boy or, that boy, for years, to the King. He said now, "Thank you, Your Majesty."
"Well, run along," the King said to Count Petyr, and held the door open.
Matteo followed him inside, and closed it very quietly behind them.
The Empire Study was, as so many rooms in the palace, equipped with spindly, damask-covered furniture of doubtful pedigree and threadbare patches. The desk in the window was a little more solid, the better to bear the weight of its elaborate phalanx of pictures of royal aunts, uncles, and second cousins across Europe, most with dogs, some with ponies or bath-chairs. There were many such photographs across the palace, silver framed. The maids spent hours dusting.
The King, inexplicably, was stacking the pictures against the wall. Matteo, hurrying, said, "Your Majesty, should I-"
Then the King flipped up the cloth over the desk. Under it was the gleaming mahogany of the desktop, and two sets of drawers, inlaid with ivory. Pulling out a set of keys, the King unlocked one of them. The lock, Matteo noticed, was smooth and freshly oiled. From inside the King drew out a leather bag that had its own, separate padlock. Inside the bag, wrapped in worn velvet, was a miniature. The gold of the setting glinted with miniature diamonds.
The King's fingers were gentle. He tipped the portrait to the light.
"This is Louise," he said.
Obediently, Matteo leaned forward. He saw a watercolour of an unexceptional woman, in a blue dress, with hair caught up in untidy ringlets and a generous décolletage. She was not smiling, but she looked amused, although it was hard to pick out much expression from a painting little larger than his thumbnail.
"I knew her...before my marriage," said the King. "She lives in England now. In a little village, by a river. She has two pug dogs and a housekeeper, and she writes books of a kind no...no lady would have in her drawing room." He was still looking at the miniature. "She was always writing," he said. "I used to buy her...there is a shop in Milan which sells notebooks, and pens...I would have bought her diamonds, but..."
"She sounds happy," Matteo offered, at last. He was shocked to his bones. The portrait was, must be, of the King's mistress, although the King had been married for nearly thirty years and there had never been a whisper of scandal. The queen, of course, was a woman who pursued good works with a concentration that suggested her marriage was not entirely happy, but what royal marriage was? They had been second cousins, she and the King, and no Berganian monarch would be unfaithful, not after Paul the Adulterer, found naked in a wardrobe by his entire privy council. The shame lasted.
"You think so?" said the King. "I hope so. There was always the settlement, of course, but that was all done through my father and the lawyers."
The Old King, the King's father, had died thirty years ago, but speaking of Louise the King's voice still ached. Matteo had to dig his fingernails into the palm of his hands not to say, "Write to her. Visit her."
The King snapped the miniature shut. "So you see, Count, this is all perfectly proper. One of the traditions of Bergania. Tell the girl, of course there will be an allowance, and there is money set aside already for the settlement, afterwards."
"I'm sorry?" said Matteo.
"The girl," said the King. "The girl for my son. Pick someone who understands us. A Berganian is always good, of course, but there is the small matter of the exile afterwards - it simply won't do, of course, for her to stay here. We are a small country. The fuss over Ludwig - he would choose a girl from the mountains, and then she wouldn't leave, so of course his queen found out..."
"I'm sorry?" Matteo said. "You want me to find a girl? For Johannes? A...mistress?"
"For Johannes," said the King. "Yes. Who else could I ask?"
Matteo could say nothing.
"I do understand that the war...well, the Tarlenheim estates, of course, there would be..."
The estates had been sold. Matteo's chin snapped up, although his legs felt weak.
"All your expenses will be covered," said the King. "A private arrangement, of course."
"But this is absurd!" said Matteo. His knees did not seem to be sustainably underneath him. He sat down, heavily, on one of the spindlier chairs, which squeaked. Matteo ignored it. "This is the twentieth century! Johannes can find his own girl! If he wants one!"
"My cousin introduced Louise and I," said the King. "I often wished...well, her father would never - she was Jewish, you see, although he was an admirable man, a scholar, you understand - but the thing is-"
"But the Queen!" said Matteo faintly.
"I would never allow my son's wife, whoever she will be, to be hurt by such an association, any more than I would my own Queen," snapped the King, suddenly taller, harder. The King had kept the Italians and the Austrians and the Romanians out of Bergania for all the years of the First World War. He had forced the communists into parliament, and (to Matteo's regret) saved Bergania from revolution, for the communists had come to realise how hard running a country actually was. He had given a land-locked nation a Navy, rehabilitated the medical school and the university, and forced through the vote for women when every bishop in the country had been opposed. Johannes' father was a formidable and effective monarch.
The monarchy was consuming. Johannes barely saw his father.
"Johannes isn't...like that," said Matteo weakly.
"The Prince appears to have no notion of how an heir might be conceived!" said the King. "It is your role, Count, to educate him. I would appreciate considerably more discretion than in your usual endeavours, but haste is of the essence!"
"Johannes is nineteen, your majesty," Matteo said. He felt as if he had fallen into a Parisian melodrama.
"I am not!" said the King. "And if my son is to - I require - there is no time, Count!"
He was still flushed. Matteo, horrified, realised the King's hands were shaking. "Sir," Matteo said, and then ran for a chair as the King clutched at his chest. The flush, terrifyingly, bleached from his face. "Sir! Are you well? Shall I call for a doctor?"
"Just the..." the King panted, and pointed at his waistcoat pocket.
Matteo, searching, found a little bottle of tablets. There was water on a side table, and he raced to get a glass and then had to hold it steady for the King to swallow. "Can I get someone for you?" he asked. "Count Stuffed - Count Petyr? The Queen? Johannes?"
"Don't...you will not tell them," the King said, still clutching his chest. "I forbid it. Bergania must be strong."
"Johannes-" Matteo said. "Your son. I must-"
"He is a fine boy," said the King. "You are his friend. You know him."
"Yes," said Matteo.
"Help me in this," said the King. "I beseech you."
How could he not? On his knees, holding his King steady, Matteo promised, his throat dry. He promised, too, never to divulge a word of anything - anything, the King insisted, clutching that small bottle of tablets - that had been said in that room, between them. He wrapped up, gently, the portrait of the young Louise, who had and still was loved by a king, and placed it into its bag, and then back into the desk. He replaced, carefully, the desk cover, and then the photographs, and by then at least the King was a healthier colour, so that when he was ordered to leave it was an order he could obey.
"Count?" the King said.
Matteo had almost reached the door.
"Ask her..." said the King. "Ask her to be kind, this girl, to my son?"
Lilli Capreese was the kind of girl who cheerfully kept several respectable wives blissfully happy, regarding, for example, Mr Graffenhoch's unfortunate liking for rubber bathing suits or Mr Lapin's predilection for cavorting on mountain meadows with gentle indulgence. She had a sweet smile, a charming giggle, and the kind of impractical red silk underwear from which a generously proportioned woman could spill with bounteous abandon. Johannes could not fail to succumb, Matteo thought, for what gentleman could resist someone who could quote Ovid while bouncing up and down in a bed of gentians, barely restrained by the slick straps of a custom made corset? Lilli, the whole troubling matter having been bared to her over tea and cakes, was gratifyingly enthusiastic, and waved away any question of payment with horrified patriotism. "Matteo, darling," she said, all big blue eyes, "My own dear gentlemen are so very kind, but-" she leaned forward, "Have you seen the prince?"
Matteo had seen the prince. Aged eleven, diving into the Dragonfly Pool, aged twelve, sneaking into a blanket bivouac that was cruelly interrupted by the palace guard, aged thirteen, sweetly embarrassed by his breaking voice, aged fourteen, growing into the size of his hands and the breadth of his shoulders, aged fifteen, consciously naked at the hot springs, an image that had replayed itself over and over in shameful repetition behind Matteo's closed eyelids. Aged sixteen, laughing, aged seventeen, in uniform. In Basel, where they had gone to University together, the freedom they had fought for and won from the King. Their first mountain cat, their first swords, the first time they tried to cook, the first time... Aged nineteen, searching the Dragonfly Pool for a longed-for turtle.
He and Lilli planned. There was a train. A missed connection, a mislaid reservation, a single free compartment heavily upholstered in red velvet, a samovar, silk sheets.
"He was perfectly charming," Lilli said afterwards, all her furs pulled close and the glorious pearls of her choker arrayed like armour. "So polite! And his smile - Matteo, when he smiles-"
Matteo nodded. He knew Johannes' smile. All Johannes' smiles.
"I wore a chiffon robe, and roses," Lilli said, and mimed the gentle fall of a seductively draped wrap over a dimpled shoulder. "No gentleman has - but he did. He did the belt up himself! And then he slept on the floor!" She was close to tears. "I tried so hard!"
Matteo passed across a clean handkerchief and signalled for more hot water. Lilli dabbed at her eyes. "Oh, Matteo, even when I said I was scared of being alone he just patted my hand! And then - he sent flowers!"
Only the application of several slices of sachertorte restored her smile. Matteo, finally left alone with the crumbs, found his own particularly rueful.
"I thought you'd be on the train," said Johannes, kicking Matteo's boot. "Where were you? I had to face Mr Pinzhoffer on my own, and you know what he's like - all arched eyebrows and pins in awkward places."
"Well, if you will go to the best tailor in Europe," Matteo muttered. He tugged at the hem of Johannes' trousers, which had once been Matteo's grandfather's and were disgracefully bagged at the knee and thin at the rear. Johannes swore they were the most comfortable things he owned. "Get down. Don't disturb her."
"There is one?" asked Johannes, his face suddenly bright with enthusiasm, tumbling down onto the moss. "Really? Matteo!" He was peering everywhere but where she actually was, intent as a puppy.
"She's basking," said Matteo. "Look, over there, by the ferns." She was beautiful. Her shell gleamed olive in the sunlight, the yellow speckles on her skin cheerfully colourful. Her face, eyes half closed, seemed to show a ruminative contentment. She was a European Pond Turtle, shy and rare, and this was the first time Matteo had ever seen one.
"Oh," said Johannes, and became very still indeed.
"They can live up to hundred years old," whispered Matteo, still awed. "And maybe, if we're lucky - if we're really lucky - she's already laid her eggs."
"Here?" Johannes was whispering too. "But where - are there two of them?"
"I don't know," said Matteo, and then, because he couldn't help it, he said, "I'm sorry I missed the train."
"It's all right," said Johannes. "In the end - well, there was a muddle with the compartments, and - if you'd been there-"
"Meet anyone interesting?" said Matteo, very casually.
It was only because they were so close that he felt Johannes take a deep breath. Then Johannes said, carefully, "If you'd been there, you would have known."
He should, Matteo knew, say something. Anything. He should apologise, he should suggest the presence of the Latverian Hooley Team, or Isadora Duncan, or that mustachioed mad genius Salvador, he should-
"I can't believe you picked a turtle over me," Johannes said, knocking their shoulders together.
Matteo snorted, relieved. "I did not," he said.
"But then," Johannes went on. "I hear you've been courting Miss Lilli Capreese." His mouth was curling at the edges. "Sachertorte. Confidences over the samovar."
"I think the turtle's moving," Matteo suggested, dry-mouthed.
"She's very lovely. Do we expect eggs?" Johannes enquired.
Gretl had freckles, and goats. She was Johannes' nurse's great grandniece, and she had the same ferocious efficiency, and a face with a little button nose and slanted, sparkling eyes that crinkled up at the corners when she smiled. Matteo liked her immediately, and he thought Johannes would, too. The two of them met at a ski-lodge, deserted in summer, and sat out on the mountain grass while Matteo tried to explain that he was looking for a girl to take his best friend in hand.
"It's fine," said Gretl. "Really. Aunt Maria explained."
"What?" spluttered Matteo.
"Well, someone has to," Gretl said practically. "And it'd be better if it's one of us. A Berganian."
Gretl looked at him with kindness. One of her goats, chewing placidly, peered over her shoulder. "There are no secrets in the palace," she said, and patted his hand. "Now then. What is our Prince truly like - outside it?"
For Gretl, Matteo led Johannes further into the mountains than they had ever gone before, pointing out the shy alpine flowers, a orchid, a group of mountain butterflies, all bright flashes of colour. The sky was blue, the eagles wheeled overhead, and in Johannes' undivided attention he himself almost forgot why they were there. Nothing was as beautiful as their country in summer. He couldn't imagine how people lived elsewhere - how could one give up the merry hillside streams, or the pattern of clouds dappling a mountain ridge?
"It's getting late," Johannes observed.
Startled, Matteo glanced up. The sun was low in the sky, their shadows long, and the wind swiftly cooling. He shivered. "We should find shelter," he said. "I'm sorry, I-"
A goat bell tinkled.
"It's rremarkably useful," said Johannes evenly, "That there's a lodge just over the ridge. You first."
Matteo dragged his knapsack back onto his back. Johannes stood smiling down at him, hands in his pockets: he'd had the flask, and the sandwiches, but Matteo had bread, and a rug, and an oil lantern, and a packet of sausages, and a sharp ewe's milk cheese and a fork to toast it with... In retrospect, it was probably obvious he'd planned to stay out overnight.
"Thanks," he said, and let Johannes give him a hand up.
Gretl was already at the lodge, briskly efficient. The fire was lit, a kettle boiling merrily over the flames, and Matteo could see fresh hay peeping over the edge of the loft. "Well," he said awkwardly, ducking under the lintel, "What a-"
"Gretl!" Johannes said, and hugged her. "How are you? How's the research going? Are those professors in Heidelberg treating you well?"
Matteo sank down onto a providential stool, and put his head in his hands.
They toasted bread and cheese over the fire, and Johannes produced a grubby set of cards, although by the time the stars came out they had abandoned playing and were instead exchanging some of the ideas they had all come across at University - new ideas, ideas of progress, and democracy, and rebellion. "A constitutional monarchy," Johannes said, rolling the words on his tongue, trying them out. "It works in Britain..."
"Have some more apple cake," Gretl said, and, "Of course, if you wanted to continue your studies, I'm sure some sort of time share could be arranged."
"I think I have to eat the pomegranate seeds for that," said Johannes, and smiled up at her. "Matteo?"
Matteo was trying hard to melt into the background, although it was difficult, for the ideas were fascinating and Johannes kept trying to draw him into debate. "I think I'm a little tired," he said. "And it's a lovely night. I thought I'd sleep outside."
"Are you sure?" Gretl said. She had one eyebrow raised.
"What a good idea!" said Johannes. "What a good plan to bring the rug!" He was already gathering up their belongings. "Gretl, you'll join us?" He was all enthusiasm.
"You're sure..." Gretl began, looking between them. "The loft's very comfortable, and there's plenty of space. We could share?"
"That's not-" Matteo began.
Johannes' arm landed firmly across his shoulders. "We'll be fine outside," he said.
Gretl laughed. "I'll leave you to it," she said. "If I miss you in the morning, it was good to meet both of you. Good luck!"
"You too," said Johannes, and steered Matteo out of the door and into the blankets.
They slept back to back under the stars, warm as rabbits.
"I don't know," said Matteo, peering at the sandy bank where the female turtle often basked, and where they thought she'd buried her eggs. "The Field Guide says that the eggs always hatch in spring, but Dr Bloch writes that if there's a long, hot summer they might hatch in autumn."
"Well, we can't dig them up," said Johannes. It was the hottest day of the year so far, and he was sitting on the edge of the pool, dangling his feet in the water. Sweat dampened the heavy linen of his shirt and gleamed on his forehead.
"We can't let them freeze to death, either!" Matteo said. "If they hatch in September - the first frosts are October." It seemed improbable. Even in the shade of the trees, his own shirt was sticking to his back and his feet were prickly with heat in his boots.
Johannes sighed. He paddled one foot in the water, ripples stretching out across the pond, glinting in patches of sunlight. The dragonflies were out, flashes of stained-glass colour over the water. "We'll be in Basel in October," he said.
"We'll know by then," Matteo said.
Johannes unbuttoned his shirt cuffs. He must have come from a function at the palace, for his trousers were familiarly ragged, but the shirt was starched and the buttons mother-of-pearl. He tugged at it, and then, impatiently, dragged the heavy material over his head and crumpled it in his hands. Sunlight dappled the pale skin of his shoulders and glinted on the fine hair on his forearms. Johannes fenced. His muscles were long and lean.
It was entirely unfair, Matteo thought, that his best friend should have such ridiculously long eyelashes.
"You know I have other commitments," Johannes said. "I'll do my best, but - I can't camp out here all summer, Matteo."
"You have to hand out medals and open playgrounds?" Matteo snorted.
"Honouring our soldiers and welcoming our children," Johannes said. "Berganians. Like you and me."
"You are not the king," Matteo said. He felt miserable, oversensitive, as if he was on the edge of a summer cold.
"Not yet," said Johannes.
The Countess Elizabeta von Turenhort was an expereienced and discreet seducer of European royalty. Long married, she was a perennial visitor at courts across the continent, her husband retired to Baden-Baden years before and her children safely sequestered at boarding schools of the bracing variety. In person, she was a tall woman, severely buttoned into her riding habits, her hair disciplined under her hat and her boots gleaming. They had met at a house party, she and Matteo. He remembered a fur rug, the Countess naked but for her diamonds, smiling, and a particular and peculiar variety of speckled toadstool...
He did not remember the harshness of the Countess' voice, heard echoing behind the closed door of room twenty-four.
"Remove yourself," she screamed. "And take your little lackey with you!"
Something smashed against the bedroom door, and Matteo, standing guard in the hallway, found himself on his feet. "J - Joshua!" he shouted, because Johannes had at least been dissuaded from using his own name at the kind of hotel where Countesses could take their younger, royal, lovers. "Joshua!"
"Ma'am, I think there's been a misunderstanding," said Johannes, his voice sounding firm, and near to the door.
"I think so," hissed the Countess.
There were steps coming up the staircase, slow and deliberate. A maid popped her head out of a door along the corridor. Matteo glared at her.
"Joshua!" He rattled the doorknob.
"It was not my intent to impugn your honour," Johannes said, strained.
"Well, it was mine!" snapped the Countess. "You failed! So take your inadequate self and get out!"
"I'll leave my card," said Johannes swiftly. "If there's anything I can ever do-"
"Out!" roared the Countess.
Matteo had at last managed to pick the lock. He had the door open just in time for a champagne flute to fly out of it, shattering against the gilded frame of a tempestuous seascape. Johannes stumbled after, his shirt in shreds and his boots in his hands. Matteo grabbed him. "Are you all right? We have to get out of here!"
Johannes ripped himself away from Matteo's hands. His glare was so furious, after the measured calm of his voice, that Matteo took a step back. "How could you?" Johannes snarled. He was flushed, colour hectic along his cheekbones and at the tips of his ears, hands white-knuckled. "Enough, Matteo!"
The doorman had reached the top of the stairs. Matteo tried to grab Johannes by the elbow, and was shrugged off. "We have to go," he hissed.
"Don't do this to me again," Johannes said, not at all quietly. "I am not my father." He had drawn himself up, his chin jutting at the dangerous, stubborn angle that always reminded Matteo of that portrait of Peter II in full armour, sword in hand, painted against a background of defeated Turks and improbably martial cupids offering heavenly assistance. "No more countesses. No more - girls. Not like that."
The maid's eyes grew wide. The doorman hesitated, drawing himself up. His moustache quivered. Behind the door, Matteo could hear the decided thud of the Countess' riding boots, coming nearer.
Johannes stepped forward. He had both hands on Matteo's shoulders, fingers digging in, holding Matteo still. The metal of his signet ring was heavy against Matteo's collarbone. They were the same height, but while Matteo was not looking Johannes had learned how to carry himself like the king in anger. He loomed.
Matteo's knees felt like cotton. "I'm sorry," he muttered.
Johannes had him against the wall. The frame of the seascape was cutting into his back. "You're my best friend," Johannes said, "The one person I can - trust."
"Johannes," Matteo tried, and had to clear his throat, and then watch Johannes's eyes flick down to the bob of his Adam 's apple and up again. He had extraordinary eyes, Matteo's prince.
Those eyes were widening, watching him. Matteo couldn't look away. He said, "I promised."
"I know," said Johannes. Then he said, "I'm not asking you to break that promise. I'm asking you to renegotiate the terms."
"What - anything," said Matteo, "Johannes. Anything."
Johannes's hands flexed. He said, "Are you sure?"
Of course Matteo was sure. He said, "Yes," and "Johannes-"
Johannes kissed him. His mouth was firm and warm and at first clumsy and then assured, and he had one hand on Matteo's chin, and his eyes were still open, Matteo realised, as his own closed. He seemed to have a hand in Johannes' hair. His knees were no longer weak but buckling. The temperature had, inexplicably, risen by at least ten degrees. "Oh," he said, when he had a chance, and then Johannes tilted his head and they were kissing again, and why had Matteo not thought of this before? It was the best of ideas, it was amazing, it was like breathing champagne instead of air. He made an wordless noise to try and indicate his approval of the whole situation.
"I'd offer you diamonds," said Johannes, a little breathless, "But I think you'd prefer a new pair of boots."
Matteo kissed him again, only a little distracted by the diamonds. Boots. Notebooks....
What a perfect, perfect idea, Matteo thought. His heart skipped a beat, thinking of the far more suitable Lilli and her scarlet underwear. "But I don't own any negligees!"
"I don't think nightdresses are necessary," Johannes said. He was laughing, very softly, against Matteo's mouth. "Not part of the settlement."
"I hated constitutional law," Matteo protested.
Johannes kissed him again.
"And I'm not signing a contract," Matteo said. "It's a means of legitimising oppression and - Johannes!" He had had no idea his neck was that sensitive. There were stars behind his eyes.
"Sir," said someone behind them, very discreet.
Matteo dragged Johannes' head up and kissed him again, harder.
"Not now, Josef," said Johannes, against Matteo's cheekbone.
"I have a room key, sir," said Johannes' bodyguard, who should have snoring in his bed back in the hotel where they were registered, rather than standing in the hallway of a less-than-respectable hotel and failing to disguise his amusement behind a veneer of formality.
"Well, why didn't you say so?" demanded Johannes.
Johannes had to stop kissing Matteo to reach for the key, which meant that Matteo could at least make an attempt at a reasoned objection. He said instead, "Oh, good plan," and "Well, you could have said, you idiot," And then, "Yes, yes, everything, never mind about the buttons!"
The turtles climbed out of their nest on the first day of September. By the time Matteo had made it up to the Dragonfly Pool, stumbling in the dark, one of the babies was already scrambling towards the water. In the light of a red-glassed lantern, Matteo watched, enthralled, as others poked their tiny heads through the crumbling sand and scented water. After the awful, black-draped hush of the palace, the endless lists and issues of protocol with which he had never had to contend and of which, with Johannes sequestered with his privy council, he now seemed to be the final arbiter, the uniforms and the protocols and the endless scheming, the small miracle of every emerging nestling was a joy beyond words.
"...I brought blankets, but I can see you're already equipped," Johannes said, very softly.
Matteo was lying on the ermine and velvet monstrosity of his equerry's cloak. He said, "I could hear you coming from a mile away. Where's Josef?"
"With his family, where he should be," said Johannes.
There were rustlings in the forest behind them, and the occasional gleam of a shielded flashlight. Matteo ignored them.
"Move over," said Johannes. "I've got sausage and apfelkuchen."
Obligingly, Matteo shifted. Johannes dropped down beside him, slipping extra rugs off his shoulders and producing a diplomatic bag stuffed with waxed paper packets and a flask of coffee.
"You could have told me," he said.
Matteo shrugged. "I thought you'd be busy," he said. Even to himself he sounded petulant, and he could feel Johannes still for a moment.
"I will always...try to have time for you," Johannes said.
He stopped unwrapping, and touched Matteo's shoulder. Matteo could feel his whole body yearn towards that touch. He thought of the exquisite, dusty miniatures of women without names, portraits in cabinets covered with dustsheets, the opera dancers, the milkmaids, and the Russian princesses who had loved Bergania's kings.
A rush of nestlings surfaced, tiny flippers flailing against the sand, small, wise heads and sculptured miniature shells.
"Still," said Matteo, "At least I can stop sneaking through the corridors when we get back to Basel."
Another fought its way to freedom.
"Matteo," said Johannes.
"Gretl writes to say she's going to Costa Rica in spring," Matteo said. "She's researching sea turtles." He could hear the longing in his own voice. "You could come."
Johannes' hand lifted. "Matteo," he said. "I am the King."