The Count of Sky shrugged out of his dinner jacket and tossed it onto a thin metal valet stand by his study’s hermetically sealed door. He pressed his shimmering opalescent phone to his ear with his shoulder, waving in the Butler who popped his head around the cabinet with a tray of tea and whiskey.
“Oui. Oui Mademoiselle, c’est vrai. Oui. Demain nuit. Je vous envoyee un auto pour vous, et un garde du corps. Oui. Merci. Oui la Therese Manon est saine et sauve.” As he talked, he fiddled with the paper thin translucent remote loosely pasted to the bank of holographic projection screens built to double as bookends on the scattered wall of elm wood shelves. The Butler stifled a smirk and pulled the flimsy device from the Count’s hand and flicked it to life with a series of taps and finger slides. One at a time, twelve holographic screens burst to life with an electric hiss. The Count glanced at his compatriot and popped his cufflinks out of the crisp french cuffs of his impeccable white dress shirt, phone still pressed to his shoulder and ear.
“Et les autres. Oui. La plaisir c’est mon Mademoiselle Zayn. C’est mon. Oui. Au bientôt.” The Count eased his neck off his shoulder with a low growl and caught the phone before it tumbled to the ground.
“Is she nervous?” The Butler poured two cups of tea and pulled a small flask from his back pocket, draining in a healthy amount in each cup. The Count put his phone on the table beside the sticky remote and rubbed the bridge of his nose with a weary hand.
“Perhaps. Her domicile was broken into last night. Again. More belligerents looking for the Therese Manon, I’d wager. Honestly, where do these deviants hide? We’re a bubble floating on a string.”
“The people recognize the painting is priceless, even without the news down below.”
“I’m more concerned that the scoundrel who got the painting up here is found. There’s too much connected with that canvas and Mademoiselle Zayn has taken far too massive a risk for what should have been a simple appraisal. New Boy and that Circuit fellow are as silent as the painting and it’s getting hard!”
The Butler’s brow furrowed, he doffed his jacket to the same metal valet which held the Count’s and he untied his tie, letting it drape on the woollen fabric of the two dinner jackets. He fondled the fabric in his fingers, brushing his thumb against a small spot of lint until the Count’s hands wrapped around his.
“Kennet, you’re done tonight. Be done. Let the Maid clean up later.” The pale blue eyes of the Count reminded Kennet of a Robin’s Egg he’d seen on a documentary at the Academy. Birds, well, Robins never made it on the ecological manifest for the atmospheric city of Abha. Kennet leaned up and pressed his lips to the Count’s, glad for the quirk of a smile growing on the weary aristocrat’s face.
“I could say the same, Haakon.”
Haakon, the Third Count of Sky, rolled his shoulder and pulled his lover’s hand until his thigh collided softly with the antique love seat surrounded by glowing holographic screens.
“News, then I’m done. I promise, Kennet. Something’s bothering me ab-“
“About the Therese Manon.”
“I want to see if it’s made the global news.”
“Mmhmm. Ten minutes, then you’re mine.”
“Till morning, till always.” Haakon smiled and took a seat, folding his arm over Kennet’s shoulder and finally loosening his tie. The screens flickered and formulated each to a different station. A commercial for a no-water hair treatment, a new game show’s advertisement, throngs of news.
“. . . marks the third day of water riots in California’s San Diego suburb. . . “
“. . . famine in Kuwait, Iraq and Iran has caused the deaths of seven million . . .”
“… War in Italy today halted by the march of the Commonwealth’s infamous Knights, in their first campaign since the Argentinian Crater…”
“… Save your taps for drinking and order your new heat-blast dish cleaner today only $11,999 or three equal…”
“… Tether today, when a new protest group, the Earth’s Engine Army tried to clear out the thirteen thousand squatters whose predecessors set up camp around the Abha Tether forty years ago. The UN Peace Keepers charged with maintaining the integrity of the Experimental Abha Tether have called for a ceasefire between the groups, before winter sets in the Canadian North. King George of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth called for peace in an address at the base of the Tether yesterday, and held up the fifteen-million strong petition to the United Nations Consortium of Extra Planetary Colonization to conclude the preliminary experiment at Abha and let colonization plans for the Moon begin in earnest by Spring, next year. The Mater Machina reportedly sent twelve Android Representatives and a group of NEONs to run a free clinic at the Tether and treat everything from gunshot wounds to malnutrition and the common cold. . . ”
“. . . anniversary of the Global Gardener’s Summit, where the G8 nations promised seven billion dollars to the education and cultivation of urban vegetable gardening worldwide. The Mayor of Vancouver hit the news today with a mandate that every free wall space be retrofitted into vertical garden space. This follows his ‘No One Hungry’ re-election campaign promise last year that his municipal government would plant fruit bearing trees in public spaces from hereon out. The Global Coalition for Self-Sustainance is heralding Mayor Tsao-Ferguson as the most forward thinking politician since Queen Isabel of Norway and Iceland reunited with King Bård-Magnus of Denmark and Queen Svala of Sweden to sign the Scandinavian Unity in Local Food Source Accord…”
“A breaking news bulletin. Lyons, France. A quiet art gallery on the outskirts of Lyons has become a global sensation overnight.” The Count sat forward, his hand gripping the fabric of Kennet’s shirt.
“More on that at eleven. To Sports, where Chelsea Football Club had a rousing victory over Liverpool Football Club’s Keeper Sean Dresden. . . ” He sat back, deflated.
Haakon and Kennet sat with eyes flickering and faces paled by the holographic projections’ lights as news of riots, famines, water shortages and overcrowded transit systems purged the delight of a full day’s work from their sensibilities and statures. The Count leaned forward with his elbows on his knees, sipping the tea and whiskey until the cup was as empty as the hope those below had of a new world. His back bowed. His eyes watered.
Each night was a lesson in repetition, each morning a reminder of the night before. Kennet rubbed Haakon’s back and massaged the back of his neck with an idle, understanding hand.
“If they only knew…” The Count whispered, staring at a shot of women rushing school children to a radioactive safe zone in Japan’s city of Kyoto. Another screen flashed with the number for a company which traded old petrol cars for hot electric microcars, another played an ad for a new kind of pressure cooker with a matronly woman holding up the carcasses of that evening’s fish dinner with a healthy large jar of water. ‘Now, nothing is wasted! Just like Grandma used to make!’ Her plastic smile made Haakon shiver in a frequent and undesirable revulsion.
“Lieben’s discussed this. The citizens can’t know. Abha…”
“Yes, I know. I just. . . we’re lying to them, Kennet. Every day I go through the streets, I solve issues and redistribute our plenty until the citizens of Abha are satisfied and I don’t shirk my duty, this was the task I was given. I’m not angry, I’m impatient. What more can I do? Until Lieben lets the verdict ring like the silencing gong the planet below is hungry for, I worry we’re only a flicker. A spark on a piece of wet tinder. What more does the damned android want!? What more can we prove? Now that damned painting goes missing from Lyons and turns up here!? The Therese Manon could ruin us. All of us. A painting!”
“I know. Haakon, you’ll do it. I have faith in you.”
“Oh, well that makes one of us.” Haakon nodded and smirked through the side of his mouth, glancing over at his rock. “Marry me.”
“No. Not yet.”
“But Kennet, we have permission from Parliament, the Archbishop, what else are you looking for? A sign from God, perhaps?”
“It would help. A couple of angels telling us we won’t be damned if we do would be welcome.” Kennet stifled a snort and pulled Haakon into his arms, running his fingers in the elder man’s hair and kissing his brow.
“We agreed we wouldn’t get married until Bård was taken care of. Once the line of succession is dealt with, I’ll be your husband.” The man said.
“Till death, you said.” The Count mumbled into Kennet’s cotton clothed chest.
“And maybe beyond it, if those angels get involved.” Kennet grinned into Haakon’s blonde hair, his emerald eyes bewitched by the bank of screens shedding Abha’s only shadows across the expanse of his forehead. Food riots, water wars and wastelands scoured with more people than ecological sense. The world was paused on a whimper and Haakon held the saviour’s key. The Butler-by-day shifted on the couch, pushing off his shoes and pulling his leg onto the seat. He curled his darling into his chest and felt the steadiness of Haakon’s breathing level out as Haakon’s head lolled heavily on Kennet’s shoulder. Heavy was the head which bore the crown.
How much heavier was the Android Queen’s head, Kennet wondered? What else could Lieben want before the experiment of Abha was proven and the colonization of the Moon could begin? Kennet gripped Haakon closer, his teeth biting into his cheeks as the central screen played out the story of an art critic and gallery owner who found a painting by the same artist who had painted the Therese Manon. . . The Therese Manon.
Catastrophe had many forms in the myths and legends of bygone times. This generation’s catastrophe came not with an atom bomb or a cavernous pit of the genocidal dead unearthed in central Africa or Slavic Nazi Europe. It was the brush strokes of a painter who had been found in two places: Abha and France.
How did the Artist break a barrier so vast that not one person in one hundred and twenty years could put foot on both places? Was the Artist the Nouveau Icarus flying into the sun’s hard and aching rays, or was the Artist ephemera dancing on atomic particles and possessing separate people in separate places? Could it have been a fluke? A publicity fakery?
If the Artist had passage to and from Abha, the experiment itself became a tainted, tangled mess with a hypothesis impossible to prove. Would Lieben look kindly on the compulsion for human exploration and curiosity, or would she perch on her throne in Chernobyl’s atomic wasteland and cluck her tongue - the unconvinced step-mother damning the human race to a life of cinders, table scraps and dirty sinks? For Abha to be considered a success, the experiment had to be infallible. How could there be a hole so big to let a painting through?
Haakon would find the Artist. He’d seal the plug-hole guarding this Eden and put in its place a blazing sword of fire, until the heavens opened and the modern gods called its citizens to miraculous new homes. Kennet prayed the angels in charge of hidden paradises would hurry up and close the gate, before their heavenly realm became another pipe dream crumbling to the ground by its one tether to the planet below.
It wasn’t long until a raucous crash woke Haakon from his impromptu nap.
“Mmh! What…” He rubbed his face and sat up, trying to get his bearings.
Kennet sighed and shrugged on his dinner jacket, then opened the study door.
“Bård, you devil! Can’t you keep quiet for pity’s sake?” The Butler fought with doing up his top button as a loose and virile cackle broke the silence better than the vase had, knocked from its place. The Butler walked briskly to pick it up and check for breaks.
“Chill.” Bård laughed, slumping into the wall and sliding down in nothing but a pair of jeans, one shoe and a tank top ruddied by bursts of blood red and grass green. His chuckle broke to a thick hiss, he rubbed his pair of swollen knuckles and shook out his hands.
“Konnie asleep, yet?”
“Oh. Woops.” Bård shoved the back of his hand against his lips and tried to splay a look of concern on his excited, bruised face. Kennet sighed through his nose and righted the vase, then roped his arm around Bård’s shoulder and hefted him up the wall.
“Where were you? We missed you at dinner.”
“Investigating what, the sound bone makes when it cracks under a set of brass fists?”
“Wow, you’re touchy. What happened? Did Konnie fall asleep in mid-foreplay? Again? Night Ken. Night Konnie!” Bård giggled and stumbled toward his room, shrugging out of Kennet’s grasp.
“Don’t touch me, man.” He shut the door with a heavy clang. Kennet sighed and vacuumed the floor before the influx of morning visitors shone in with their messages, mail cards and honourable mentions before breakfast. He put the vase back, angling its’ single long crack toward the wall.
“That was my grandmother’s vase.” Haakon leaned against the doorframe of his study and rubbed his stubbled chin. He bit his lower lip and glared at the door of his younger brother’s suite. The succession, the Android Queen and a planet below frothing at the mouths of their own overpopulation. It was all too much for a thirty two year old Norwegian Royal born on a bed of sky.
“Perhaps he could marry a troll?” Kennet quipped. Haakon laughed all the way to the bed he shared with Kennet’s secure and patient arms.