It was an eager and increasingly hilarious group of teenage boys who dominated a corner of the reception in the throne room antechamber after the new American ambassador to Rothenia had presented her credentials. Reggie was passed around his three old comrades for big hugs. He made laughing comments on Mattie's rotundity and Damien's relative shortness (for Reggie was now close to Lance's height). When he confronted Lance himself, the two gay boys openly kissed as well as embracing.
'Man, I can't tell ya how good it is to see ya!' proclaimed the American. 'And to be back here...!' He beamed around the glittering throng. Much of his former nervousness and uncertainty seemed to be gone, as Lance noticed – but then he too had grown in confidence through his adolescence.
Damien grinned. 'Thought yer'd be wired up wiv braces and all specky, mate, but look at yer!'
Reggie confessed, 'I'm wearing contacts, but I never needed my teeth fenced, thank the Lord. Hey! It's your dad, Lance!'
The imposing figure of General Cornish came striding up to grab Reggie's hand and wring it vigorously, welcoming the boy back to Rothenia.
'Good to be back, sir, and thank you,' Reggie responded. He asked after Henry and Mrs Willerby, and all his old friends in the Peacher circle.
The general smiled as he answered, ending by saying, 'Will you come over to the king, Reggie? He has a job offer for you. The rest of you can tag along too.'
Maxxie was sitting on the throne of his ancestors, swinging his legs and chatting to his mother, who had a chair at his side. A smiling Ms Mayer was standing on a lower step. Maxxie looked up at the new arrival with a grin. 'Hi, Reggie!'
The American boy did a commendable Rothenian bow. 'I'm surprised you remember me, your majesty. You were only knee high to a grasshopper when I left Strelzen.'
'Course I remember you, Reggie, you and all the Mendamero Men. I so wished I could be in your gang when I was little. But now you can be in mine. I've talked to your mummy, and she said she can give you permission to be one of my esquires. So that'll be you, Daimey, Lance and Mattie. See? You're all four together again!'
'That's great, sir. Can't tell you how much I appreciate it. I'd just love to be your esquire.'
'And you get a uniform. It's really cool!'
The queen intervened. 'I imagine you boys want to go off somewhere and catch up, yes?'
'You bet, your majesty!' confirmed Reggie, eyes shining.
'Then you'd better go change out of your penguin suit, dear,' warned his mother. 'I expect you home by ten, no later, hear?'
'Sure, mom. I have a change in the bag, back of our limo.'
Damien led the way down to the forecourt, re-establishing the old pattern of leadership. After retrieving Reggie's bag, they trooped to the Reitschule yard so he could admire Lance's Audi. The boys tumbled in, and Lance drove them to their usual place of resort, Damien's home on Fridricsgasse.
'It's changed a bit,' Reggie commented, as he looked round Damien's bedroom.
'Yuh, well, the cartoon posters had to go. Yer like the ninjas, though? I also added some straight soft porn, just so the dads doan' forget I'm not like them. They keep talking to me like I'm gay too. Me dad offered me some Abercrombie & Fitch pictures. They forgets.'
Mattie grinned. 'Must be hard being a disappointment to 'em.'
'I'll make 'em granddads just to spite 'em if they're not careful. Anyways, iss great to see yer, mate. Yer've well changed though. Whatchu think, lads?'
They all agreed that Reggie had indeed 'well changed,' which reminded Reggie he still had his evening dress on. He disappeared into the bathroom, to emerge tousled and casual, his formal white-tie gear carefully stowed on a hanger. The neatness was so very Reggie.
'Good,' concluded Damien. 'Now less get down to business, lads. The usual thing's going down: evil being on the rise and us under threat – or I should say, Bazza.'
'Bazza?' Reggie queried.
'Lance has a boyfriend, and he's in the shit... not because he and Lance are screwing, mind, but because Barry's been a bit incautious. Remember that Luc Charpentier?'
Damien proceeded to his explanation, not noticing the preoccupied look on Reggie's face or the glances the American boy kept shooting in Lance's direction. Preoccupation had long been a another Reggie characteristic.
When Damien paused, Reggie professed admiration at the way he had handled the first Luc crisis.
'Yuh, well, Reggie. It woan' be so easy this time round. We're dealing with pictures and videos on a remote server, packed full of security. You up to it?'
Reggie shrugged. 'I can only look. Do ya have a Plan B, Daimey? Ya always used to!'
Damien meditated, then glanced uneasily at Lance. 'Yuh, I does. But Lance ain't gonna like it.'
Tommy smiled at Lennie across the candles on their table at Ribaud's. 'So you're staying on for the coronation.'
'I could hardly not do so. Harry was very sweet, and it is such a family occasion.'
'And is your father as happy with it all?'
Lennie gave him a closed look, which was all the answer Tommy needed. He didn't press the point, but the exchange did emphasise for him how much he was exploiting his relationship with Count Robert's daughter. What did he want out of it? Had she come to the same conclusion about his interest in her?
'Do you like this place?' she asked, changing the subject firmly.
'Ribauds? It's a bit of an institution. Oskar is fond of it, but then he is very old-school Rothenian, Pete and Fritz prefer the Fourth District restaurants. Thing is, Ribaud's is useful for political lunches; a lot of conspiracy goes on here between the hours of twelve and three. It's where MPs and ministers still come to be seen. I suppose that's another reason Oskar likes it. To be honest, I'd rather eat in Berwinckels, even if it is full of kids. It's a lot livelier.'
Lennie laughed. 'I wish you'd told me that before. I could murder for a burger and fries.'
Tommy smirked. 'Darling, we don't even think of such things. We both have waistlines we treasure and have worked hard for.' He scanned the large menu. 'Now, what do you think? The steak is always nice, and, of course, mostly protein.'
A bottle of thick Tavelner red arrived at their table, and they toasted each other. It was shaping up to be another highly enjoyable evening, with the usual sweaty ending in Lennie's bed.
Somehow, their conversation did not stray far from politics. Lennie was not au fait with Rothenian affairs nor was her command of the language particularly good. She had therefore, it seemed, decided that Tommy could offer an informative seminar to bring her up to date.
'So the Christian Democrats are very right-wing and conservative, yes?'
'Absolutely, but they're a miscellaneous coalition of interests. The dominant faction currently is headed by Chancellor von Lauern, a social conservative and a devout Catholic. He's out to cut the national debt and slim down public services. But it's social policy that really energises him. He's got a whole raft of hard-right measures before Parliament. Homophobic ain't in it. You should hear his attack dogs ranting about the gay mafia the former king Rudolf encouraged at court. Yet Oskar still deals with the CDP. I don't know how he does it.'
'Bet they love you.'
Tommy shrugged. 'I am, and I quote, "a symptom of the degeneracy of Rothenian public life. It is a cause of great concern for the upbringing of the crown prince that the queen allows such a creature in her household."'
'Really? That's terrible. They said that?'
'And a lot more. Have you ever read the Roteniske Spegele? No? It's an education about the Jurassic Catholics who now run our country.'
'Our country, Tommy? Did you take out Rothenian citizenship? I thought you were as British as I am.'
'You're British, Lennie?'
'Dual nationality. But the question was about you.'
Tommy chuckled. 'Truth is, I'm increasingly thinking of myself as Rothenian, the more thinking I do in Rothenian. And identity was always a negotiable concept with me in any case.'
'Don't you feel Rothenia is becoming less welcoming to special people like you?'
'No. The Rothenian in the street is open and friendly to gay and trans people – although there are exceptions, of course. The real problem is with the CDP, whose heartland is rural and hostile to what they see as the loose morals of the big city. There are always people who'll believe the hard-right press when it says it's the fault of queers and other minorities that their country is going down the tubes. Up till now King Rudolf has checked that tendency. To have such a man behind liberal democracy – gay-friendly yet as heroic as any Elphberg has ever been – has stifled the extremists. But now... I wonder.'
'You don't think Harry can hold the line?'
Tommy shook his head. 'I know her as well as anyone. She is every inch a match for her husband. But do the people know that? And King Maxim the Second may be a wonderful boy, but he is only a boy, as far as they're concerned.'
They chatted on, and eventually Tommy managed to guide the conversation around to different concerns. 'I've saved up a weekend, Lennie. How about you and I take off to somewhere nice? It's the Oktoberfest in Munich, across the border in Bavaria. It could be fun.'
Lennie laughed. 'Are you trying to get me drunk so that you can have your wicked way with me?'
'I know precisely how wicked you can be, baby. Shall I make the reservations?'
'Well... I was supposed to see daddy, but he's going to be busy moving into the new house with Ellie. I'm sure he'll understand. Yes, let's do it!'
Tommy reached across and joined mouths with his lover. As he broke away, he was aware of a startled look in Lennie's eyes. He was also aware of a looming presence behind him. He turned. It was Fritz, and his eyes were cold.
Barry paced up and down his room. The time had finally arrived when he could not put this off anymore. Coming out was no easy thing after he'd concealed the fact for so long. Still, it had to be done. He thumped downstairs into the lounge. 'Mum! Dad!'
There was a stir from the kitchen. 'Barry?'
He found them close together at the oven, as if they'd just broken apart from something they shouldn't have been doing.
'Umm... could I say something?'
His father took on a cautious air. 'Look, if it's about the allowance, we'll review it after Christmas...'
'No, no, dad. It's fine. No, it's about... er... me.'
'Okay. Carry on.' His parents looked apprehensive.
'You might want to sit down.'
His mother now looked scared. 'You haven't had time to get a girl here pregnant... and you didn't have a girlfriend back in Surrey.'
Barry bit his lip and struggled to hold back a nervous grin. This was it. 'No, look, mum. That's... er... not something you'll ever have to worry about with me.'
They looked puzzled. Clearly, neither of them had a clue as to what was coming.
There was a long silence. Unconsciously, they had gripped hands. That was bad. Finally his dad said, 'Are you... sure?'
Barry could only nod. Words had failed him.
His mother looked suspicious. 'It's that Atwood boy, isn't it. I didn't trust him as soon as I saw him. He's talked you into doing things with him.'
Barry shook his head violently. 'No, mum. It's not like that. I love Lance.'
'I knew it! He's messed with your head. Well, I'm not having it. I'll ring his parents and give them a piece of my mind.'
'No! I knew you'd get the wrong idea. This is about me, not Lance. I'm gay... I was always gay! I've just been lucky enough to find a good guy to be gay with.'
'You've been having sex with him? It's got to stop. Tell him, Darren. He's your son.'
His dad appeared overwhelmed, but rallied. 'Look... son. You say you're gay. Maybe you are and maybe you aren't. But your mother's right. Hanging round with the Atwood boy isn't going to help. You need time to sort your ideas out. So from now on, you stay away from him.'
'He's in my school, in my classes.'
'I can't help that. But out of school, you'll have nothing to do with him.'
Now anger boiled. Barry stood up abruptly 'You two are out of your minds. How is keeping me away from the boy I love gonna help me?'
His mother wasn't giving up, however. 'You dumped it on us, Barry. Don't expect us to take something like this calmly. It'll be a while before we can get to grips with it, so from now on, you're grounded, and grounded hard. Until we've worked out what to do, you come home directly after school. If you see friends, they come round here, got it?'
Barry took a deep breath, gave his parents a cold look, and left for his room without a word. Until they achieved some closure with his announcement, argument was pointless.
Lance checked his texts and swore.
'What's up?' asked Reggie, whom Lance had driven home to the ambassadorial residence up in the Seventh District after their conference at Damien's. Considering the fuss it took to get his Audi past security, Lance had readily agreed to Reggie's suggestion that he visit for a while and look over the place.
The residence occupied a substantial villa high on the Strelsenern Anhöhen, with an outlook south across the Nuevemesten, now a black space starred with gold and blue streetlights glittering under the moon. It was at that very prospect that Lance was gazing as he checked his iPhone.
He sighed. 'Bazza's told his parents he's gay, and they've not taken it well. He's grounded and has been warned off having anything more to do with me. Apparently they think I'm to blame because he fancies boys' arses more than girls' boobs.'
'Bad. It's at times like these when ya can be grateful for our unconventional parents.'
That's not all. Luc and Todo have been at him tonight, with threats and crude pictures. It's a good thing his dad at least knows he's gay, but their threat to out his porn activities will only make things worse for him in the end.'
Reggie shrugged. 'I'd better get to work. If only there weren't so much to do here.' He indicated the stack of unpacked boxes around the walls of his second-floor bedroom.
Lance smiled and impulsively hugged his old friend, remembering as he did that it was to Reggie he had first confessed his sexuality four years before. Reggie willingly nestled into his embrace.
'Quite a change from your old place in Sudmesten, isn't it? I've missed you, Reggie.' Lance murmured, then broke the hug and settled on the bed. 'So, did you have any boy luck in the States?'
Reggie gave him a quirky look and shook his head. 'I didn't hide the fact that I was gay in high school. It was a good place, with an active GSA and all. It was just there were no boys who did anything for me, though a couple were very happy with the idea of doing things to me, especially in ninth grade and soph year.'
'You look good, Reggie, really good. Have you been working out?'
'Not really. I found I was okay at track, particularly the sprint and hurdles. I guess it had its effect, the way all the help you gave me with my swimming did. I just filled out as I grew. But Lance... I mean... you!'
Lance laughed. 'Well, you know why I turned out like this. And have I paid for it. People I might be friends with never come near me, while those who run after me are like that shit Luc: they just want my shapely ass. If only I'd thought things through when I incarnated.'
Reggie was intrigued. 'Has there been any contact with your... er... relatives? Any sign of angelic power?'
'No. I'm just a boy now, if too good-looking by half to be normal. Tobias and my former colleagues have kept their distance, although...' Lance looked pensive.
'There are things I feel at times which I don't think other humans do. I know something big is coming. I don't know what it is, but I do know it's just around the corner. Then there's Maxxie.'
'Has he been showing signs of where he came from?'
'Memories of being Lije? No, nothing like that. But he isn't by any means an ordinary boy; he has emerging powers. He says and does things that no six-year-old could. And then, there are the cures.'
'Henry told me that Tommy, the queen's chief of staff, got horribly beaten up and damaged in prison, but Maxxie simply kissed him and made it better. On top of that, there's little Prince Leo.'
'What, has he got powers too?'
'No, a sweet kid, but just your ordinary run-of-the-mill prince. The point is, he shouldn't exist. You remember how badly Queen Harry was injured in the Eschaton business? She was not supposed to be able to bear any more children, but three years later along came Leo anyway.'
'And this means...?'
'Maxxie cured her too. He so wanted a little brother and he wasn't going to let a hysterectomy get in his way.'
'So what's your conclusion?'
'There's another cosmic tsunami on the way, and it concerns Maxxie. Damn! It's so cool I have you back to talk these things through with. I somehow can't do it with Daimey. He's into solving present problems, not planning how to deal with the next one, and Mattie... great guy, and totally a mate, but out for a laugh most of the time.'
Reggie coloured, always a striking phenomenon in a boy of such a pale complexion. Lance noticed it and smiled. It was a characteristic he had forgotten about his friend.
Reggie clearly had something on his mind. 'Lance, what happened with Helen Debies? Did she and Daimey ever get back together?'
Lance shook his head. 'They're sort of friendly. She acts like an older sister to him, the type who doesn't take any crap. As a result, he can't be easy round her. He's not settled on one girlfriend. I think he's slept with about a third of the females in his year group. He's grown up just as randy as you'd expect. But y'know, I think he only does it to prove to Helen he can. Does that sound odd?'
'I dunno. I'm not good on straight mating behaviour.'
'Anyway, she's hooked up with Marek von Lauern, a great guy in my year. He came to SIS after your time.'
'Son of the chancellor?'
Lance laughed. 'I see you've done your research, as always. Come on, let's get these boxes open. You've got work to do.'
'Goodnight, Lennie.' Tommy gave the princess a kiss on the cheek at the gate to the Osraeum.
'You're not coming in?'
'Er... perhaps not tonight.'
'Fritz rattled your cage.' She stated it as a fact.
Tommy admitted it. 'I'd never seen him like that: chilly with aristocratic hauteur. That's not the Fritz I know.'
'You mean it's not a Fritz you've yet met. But this one's in there amongst all the others. I think, when all else is stripped away, he's the real Fritz underneath the rest, the prince and head of the house. It's where he gets the strength to survive the emotional chaos of his life.'
'You make him sound hard and selfish, which he isn't.'
'That was the Fritz who drew a sword on the king of Rothenia as a seventeen-year-old, because he decided the dignity of the house of Tarlenheim had been insulted by an Elphberg.'
'I'd heard the story.'
'Well, you'll also know that Rudolf Elphberg is a very similar man, but even more so, being a king. That's why he and Fritz get on so well, despite the swordfight. They recognise each other for what they are.'
'All this talk of swords is making me nervous. You don't think that he'd...?'
Lennie laughed. 'You really don't know him, do you. You're not a man of his class. He would never challenge you; besides, he loves you.'
'Then what was all that coldness about.'
'I think, darling, it was more to do with me than you.'
'Oh! Is he going to challenge you to a duel?'
'Now there's a thought. And why not equal opportunities for women in modern Rothenia? I'd be willing. How nice to be able to play with such phallic objects.'
Tommy shook his head. 'D'you know, Lennie, you can explain Fritz better than anyone I've ever met.'
'I've had years to get frustrated with him, believe me. I spent a long time thinking of little other than Fritz, and you're hearing the fruit of many painful hours of reflection. So good night. Will I see you at the gym tomorrow?'
'How about Munich?'
'I'll let you know. Night.'
Barry walked into school under a cloud. Instead of lightening his load, his coming out had worsened matters. He could no longer count on the support of his parents, and his home had turned into a hellhole overnight. His mother had launched into him before school, telling him they were considering sending him back to England to live with his grandparents in Winchester.
Even the sight of an anxious Lance didn't ease his trouble. His treacherous head simply associated Lance with the crisis. He knew it wasn't fair, and to his credit, he mustered a small smile on sighting his lover. But his heart remained in his boots.
Lance fell in beside him. 'Bad, huh?'
'Yeah. Really bad. I'd never have said anything if I'd thought this would happen. They just weren't the parents I thought I had.'
'I'm so sorry, Bazza. I'm sure they'll come round in time. Maybe it's only the suddenness of it all. When they have time to think about it, they'll remember you're their son, not some queer cuckoo in their nest.'
'Nicely put, Lance.'
'Sorry, baby. Still, here's some good news. Reggie Mayer's back in town, and he's on your case.'
'The American ambassador's son? You really do know everyone, don't you. Why is Reggie good news?'
'He's as clever as they come with IT... genius level. If anyone can attack Luc from that direction, it's Reggie.'
Barry did not find himself particularly relieved by Lance's assurance of Reggie Mayer's intellectual eminence. The number of people who knew of his humiliation was expanding way too fast. He and Lance took a low-key departure and Barry went off to find his home room.
As he stepped through the door, Luc sidled up beside him. The look on the French boy's face was cold, and he clearly meant business. 'Salut, mon copain. Let me say this just the once. If you don't turn up chez Todo tomorrow night, the pictures go to your dear papa, you understand?'
'Yeah. I understand. What have you got planned?'
Rather than triumphant, Luc briefly looked relieved at this sign of Barry's apparent surrender. 'Something different. I want to fit that monster of yours in some other boys. Our patrons love variety.'
'If you think I'm gonna do Miro, you can forget it.'
Luc caught his breath. 'So... you did see it.'
'It's sick what you did.'
'Miro wasn't complaining.'
'He's just a kid.'
'He has hair on his balls. He's old enough.'
'Tell that to the police.' Luc went silent, leading an emboldened Barry to continue. 'How did you get involved in this, Luc? Who's behind it? You can't tell me you thought this whole business up yourself. Someone had to give you the money for all the equipment and the site.'
Luc was back in control. 'You ask too many questions, English boy. I want your dick engaged, not your brain.' He moved away from Barry, who stared moodily after him.
Barry was taken aback a little when someone immediately sat at the table on the other side of him. It was Marky. 'That boy is bad news, Barry. You should not encourage him.'
Now Barry's heart did lift. Marky was a friend uncontaminated with the crap which was soiling his life. They exchanged news and Marky invited him round to the Chancellery again.
'I'm sorry, Marky. I'm having grief with the parents at the moment. I picked a bad time to come out to them. Maybe, though, they'll be happier if I hang round with a straight kid and allow me to go. I guess I can only ask.'
Marky looked troubled, and Barry was touched that his friend seemed to care so much about him, even if he was gay. Marky smiled eventually and said how much he hoped Barry's parents would relent. He got a broad grin in return.
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