'So who is she?'
Tommy looked up at Bela, startled. The Rothenian was on his elbow, playing with Tommy's balls. As usual, the two were in Bela's bed at the Osra Centre. 'Er... what?'
Bela gave Tommy a long, intense stare. 'I can smell her on you, and have done for the past two weeks.'
Tommy sat up. Was he ready for this? He knew it was time for a decision, one he had been putting off for far too long.
He impulsively put his arms around Bela, who did not resist him. Tommy kissed his lover's cheek and then sat holding him. 'Are you mad at me?'
Bela gave him a quirky look. 'Only if you're going to drop me because of her.'
A strange feeling took hold of Tommy at those words, almost as if his world had trembled. What was it? Loss? Guilt, definitely.
'We've never sorted out our relationship. Why is that, Belacszu?'
Bela shrugged, and Tommy held him tighter.
'Maybe it's time we did. Do you love me?'
The Rothenian's eyes became wet. 'From the first moment I saw you, all damaged and in tears as they dragged you naked past my cage in the Arsenal. Don't ask me why. Afterwards when I talked to you, you re-awoke my heart with your beauty and distress. You gave me light, Tomasczu, and then my freedom. How could I not love you? There's nothing you could do to change my feelings. These past three years have been a new life for me.'
'So why have you never said anything?'
'How could I? A man like you, so clever and so important, with all your celebrity friends, working at the Residenz. I don't belong in your world, Tomasczu. I have no claim on you. I could not burden you with my love.'
Tommy kissed him. 'You're breaking my heart, Bela. You can't really believe such things. Is this why you and Felip get on so well?'
Bela nodded. 'We have a lot in common. We've got boyfriends who are in the public eye, where we can't stand with them.'
'But Felip accompanies Will Vincent to receptions and parties... you won't come with me, I stopped asking in the end.'
Bela was shaking his head. 'I'd disgrace you, Tomasczu. I have no education and nothing to offer.'
Tommy frowned. Bela's lack of self-esteem was perhaps natural in a man of his deprived background, but the time had arrived to confront it. And it was time for choices as well. What was he doing with Lennie? Just amusing himself with an attractive woman. Nothing would ever come of it, and they both knew it. He was dodging his real responsibility, the man who he had always known loved him. He had chosen to evade the consequences of that, because Bela had let him. But now, with Bela hurt and lost, only he could do something about it.
The young man looked at him mutely, his eyes wet.
'Let's get this quite clear. You're not worthless, and I'm proud of your love for me, because I know how much it has cost you. Now get your clothes on.'
'Because we're going down to my car, then we're driving up to the Residenz where we will undress again, and where we will sleep tonight.'
'In the morning we'll go looking for starter courses at the Technische, because it's time you made up for your broken education. You're still young, Bela, and we have the world ahead of us. And... one more thing.'
'Yes?' Bela looked at him wide-eyed.
'I love you, you delightful idiot, and I'm even more of an idiot for avoiding saying it for so long. I love you, Bela Alexandrij , and we're going to show it to the whole world.'
Damien looked uneasily at Lance. 'You okay?'
'I feel dirty.'
'You only got sucked off.'
'And I had to wank myself twice. It hurts the third time.'
'Really? Not for me. And I can do it four times on the trot.'
'Thanks. Now I feel inadequate too.'
Damien tried to hide a grin, and failed. 'Yer did it, though.'
'Yeah, I did it, and it nearly put me off sex for good. Anything from Reggie?'
'Nah. Wanna sleep over tonight?'
Lance gave him a concentrated look. 'Where did that come from? We haven't shared a bed for ten months.'
'Yer smells nice. I misses it.'
'That's not it. And I wish I could say the same about your smell. The reason it's been ten months since the last time was you and that garlic pizza. It was like sleeping next to a volcanic vent... the noise was pretty disgusting too.'
Damien laughed and hugged his friend. Many found his and Lance's relationship an odd one: an out gay whose best friend was a very active alpha straight. Damien had been brought up amongst gays, however, and was the better for it; he had no fear of difference.
'So yer gonna stay?'
Lance kissed his cheek. 'Course. You're being nice to me, and I like it.'
Damien sat at his computer desk, where Strelzen Gay Boys were at play. He had taken out a subscription to the site. Lance thought he was rather too interested in the activities portrayed, though apparently more on the lines of marvelling about the size and variety of dicks on show than what was being done with them. Damien had also managed to identify at least four of the boys as pupils of St Wladislaw's.
'Yer not up on the site yet. They only has two updates a week. If Reggie gets his skates on, yer may avoid public exposure yet.'
'Do you think Luc'll keep to the deal?'
'Does he want yer again?'
'He asked. I put him off.'
Damien looked pensive. 'I'd not have expected any less. I doan' fink he'll try blackmail like he did with Bazza. He knows yer doan' have conventional parents, and he'd not want Henry or Ed getting to know about his site. So-o-o...'
'You think he had more cameras trained on me than just the hand-held, don't you.'
'Pretty much. Fact is, for maximum profit he has to have yer face as well as yer dick and bum on display to the world.'
'Hey! Here's a message from Reggie the Man! His little bug is active, he says. He can't take long to talk. He'll need a few hours before he knows whether the scheme's gonna work.'
'That sounds like good news, as well as a late night for Reggie. Can I use your shower?'
'Course. Take the blue towel.'
Lance came back into the room drying his hair. Damien had shut down his machine and was already under the duvet. 'How comes yer hair never does stupid things when yer leaves it wet? Even yer bed-head looks good. Iss juss not fair!'
Lance snuggled up to Damien, who put his head on Lance's chest. Lance kissed him. 'I love you, you mad bugger. Know that?'
'Platonically of course.'
'Can I say something?' Damien went up on his elbow.
Lance sighed. 'Whenever you say that, I don't like what comes next.'
'It's about Bazza.'
'What about Bazza?'
'Yer said yer loved him.'
'Yer've known him not much more than a week. It took yer dads two months to discover they did. And my dads, well, yer knows the story.'
'Are you telling me I don't love him?'
'Lance, yer special, very special. Dammit, I really need Reggie to explain this...'
'What?' Damien frowned.
'Nothing. I'm sorry. What do you want to say, Daimey? I'm listening.'
'Okay, it's this. You're an archangel, right?'
'I was. I'm human now.'
'But you wuz an archangel. Yer granddad told me that angels are born out of the purest love in the universe, unlike humans, who're a bit... well, imperfect.'
'Apart from Helen.'
Damien rolled his eyes in mock exasperation. 'There you goes again, now shut up and listen. Iss a bit obvious to people that yer not like them. They senses it. Yer the sorta bloke who dogs come up to, waggin' their tails and lickin' yer hand. Babies and old ladies juss home in on yer, yer so, well... nice.'
'I don't always feel like I'm nice. I get angry and frustrated.'
'But I've never seen yer pick a fight once, nor say a bad word to anyone, even bloody Olga Massenovic. The point is this, mate: yer just set up by yer nature to love people. Bazza wuz the first bloke who it was possible to go all the way wiv... the first halfway decent gay guy who came yer way.'
'What are you saying?'
'Yer on a short romantic fuse, Lance. Yer primed to fall in love. Yer can't help yerself. Soon as yer touch-paper's lit, yer goes off. I'm not sayin' Bazza isn't a good bloke, but he might not be the right bloke.'
Lance was silent.
'I'm thinking. How will I know when it is the right guy?'
It was Damien's turn to pause and ponder. 'Dunno,' he finally admitted. 'All I can say is that I haven't found the right girl yet. I know plenty of 'em who're fun and sexy, but none of 'em sets me alight.'
'So you're looking, then?'
'And what do you mean "set me alight"?'
There was another long pause. 'When it finally happens, iss gotta be like me dad and Nate... they sorta interlock, not juss the sex thing – which I don't wanna know about – but together they're more than they are apart, know what I mean? Nate fills in all the blanks in me dad, and me dad sorta makes Nate wake up and be interesting. No girl's done anything like that for me yet.'
'Wuz that a Helen-related comment?'
'Maybe. Depends if you're gonna hit me or not.'
Damien chuckled, and snuggled back into Lance. 'Helen is a special case, Lance. Maybe we found each other too soon. All I knows is that she doan' set me alight. Mostly she looks disapproving of me.'
'That's not quite true, Daimey, and you know it. She just won't join your fan club. She's got her own views.'
'Maybe. Will yer turn the light out? Night, babes.'
Tommy was in his corner chair again as the Council of Regency assembled. The queen was still getting Maxxie off to school. From the low and anxious murmurings round the table, it seemed to Tommy that the council members were worried.
Queen Harriet entered and went straight to the chair at the head of the table. There was no social chat before this emergency meeting. The council got straight to business.
She rapped her pen on the table and the subdued muttering of voices was quelled. 'Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, there is only one item of business this morning: the question of the disputed succession. You'll be aware of the move by conservative groups in Parliament to contest the succession of my son to the throne. The chancellor has advised me that the government has no choice but to support an emergency motion which will require me to justify the exclusion of Count Robert Rassendyll from the throne.
'This is of course a political ambush, laid with some care to be triggered as soon as my husband left the country. It will get into the press today, and then we will find ourselves in an intolerable situation. May I have your comments?'
Will Vincent was the first to respond. 'It's already in the morning editions. The Rotheniske Spegele has led with it. Eastnet is featuring the story in the recurring bulletins. We have no choice. State TV is of course following hard on our heels. The rivalry with my channels means that they're taking a distinctly pro-Rassendyll line.'
Oskar von Tarlenheim followed on. 'I've been in constant touch with our allies in the Unity Party and Social Democrats. The parliamentary motion will easily pass, I'm afraid. Most CDP MPs see it as a further way of getting at the liberal parties, and are doing it because they're happy to cause their political opponents discomfort. I don't think there's any particular commitment to Count Robert's claims in the CDP, except in the most ultra-Catholic and conservative wing. But the appeal to ancient Rothenian custom will rally them to his side.
'I think the question we all have to answer is exactly how it was that the count was sidelined from the succession. There is no doubt that in the normal course of events he should have succeeded your husband as king. Rothenian custom is clear. But there was the matter of his deed of resignation. King Rudolf was perfectly confident that his uncle had accepted exclusion from the throne, and that there was no need for us to prepare to meet a legal challenge. Unfortunately, it now looks like we sadly miscalculated.'
The queen sighed. 'My husband has told me there was a document signed by his uncle in 1994 to formalise the resignation. It was supposedly lodged in the archives of the estate office at Burlesdon House in Norfolk. Needless to say, I put in an urgent call to the countess of Burlesdon yesterday. She and the estate steward ransacked the deed boxes, and the document in question is nowhere to be found.'
The cardinal archbishop looked a little shocked. 'Are you suggesting it was removed? If so, by whom?'
Queen Harriet frowned. 'It's too early to point the finger, but if it comes down to a choice between calling my husband a liar and proclaiming his uncle a thief, I know which option I will choose.'
Tomas Bernenstejne intervened. 'There surely must have been more than one copy of the deed. It had to be notarised and kept by a third party to have been valid.'
'So my husband told me. The deed was drawn up between his father, Lord John Rassendyll; his uncle, Robert; and the duke of Thuringia, Prince Leopold. A copy was certainly lodged at the prince's house of Heilbrod in the Rheinpfalz. I'm trying to get hold of Prince Ernst Karl, the current duke, but apparently he is in the Bahamas. What I therefore propose is that my secretary, Thomas Entwhistle, immediately head for Germany to investigate the Thuringian family archives.'
The council approved this move, then went on to consider the wording of a statement to be issued to the press in response to the parliamentary motion.
As the meeting dispersed, the queen called Tommy over. 'And who will you ask to go with you, Tommy?'
'Thank you for landing me with this, ma'am.'
Harry relaxed into a grin. 'It's fun and adventure, isn't it? I'd suggest you take someone who can handle himself.'
'Then it will be Bela.'
'Bela Alexandrij? The Osra Centre manager?'
The queen raised her eyebrows. 'I missed that, Tommy. Fritz was complaining to me just yesterday that you and Lennie were sharing a bed. You are never predictable, are you.'
'It was the Lennie affair that made me decide to choose, and the choice fell on Bela. We've been having a low-level affair since I split up from Fritzy, and it was Lennie who finally made me realise what it was I wanted out of a partner. It's sort of official now.'
'I'm pleased. What does Lennie think?'
'Er... not too happy with me. No princess likes to be dumped for an ex-convict of the other sex, but – after a frank exchange of views – she could not pretend she ever had any serious intention of keeping our affair going after her time in Rothenia was over.'
'Amazing! When can you and Bela head off to Germany?'
Tommy had been thinking things through. 'Heilbrod is deep in the country, so we'll take a car. I hope we can be off this afternoon, if Bela can arrange cover. Fortunately he has an assistant manager. We might make it by this evening. Will you be able to warn Heilbrod that we're on our way?'
'Consider it done... and Tommy?'
'If Bela has access to a firearm, I suggest he take it.'
Barry Hignett walked into the International School's front entrance to be confronted immediately with three of his major concerns. Lance Atwood turned from an earnest conversation with Damien to give him a smile so warm it was almost radioactive. Also nearby, waiting by the reception desk and looking irresolute, was Marky. Lurking in the background was the lean and – he thought – menacing figure of Luc.
Barry walked up to Lance and Damien, but didn't give them a chance to start a conversation. 'Scuse me guys, can I catch up with you in a minute? I need to talk to Marky.'
Was it his imagination, or did Lance look disappointed at him? Was he expecting a kiss in front of the whole upper school? Barry couldn't worry about that. He took Marky's arm.
Marky gave him a hesitant look. 'I am fine, Barry. I wish we'd had more time to talk last night.'
'It was a bombshell to drop into a conversation. Had you told anyone before?'
'Helen, of course. She has been so good, but I just had to tell a boy I could trust, especially a gay... especially another gay boy.'
'Are you gonna come out here?'
Marky looked really scared. 'I dare not. It would hurt my father too much.'
'I'm not gonna out you, Marky. But how does telling me help?'
'It is the... I think you say, elephant in my room, yes? Some secrets are so big they take over your whole life. You are unable to think of anything else. Helen has been great, but with you I can talk to another gay boy, one who knows what it is really like, and shares my feelings. And you are also...' Marky abruptly shut up, and blushed. 'Anyway, it is such a relief to me that I can talk to you. Lance was never a possibility.'
'How can I say this? He is too unapproachable. The looks are of course intimidating, but then there are his connections here. He is an Anglo. I am an Aristo. We do not mix.'
'He likes you a lot.'
'That is nice to know.'
'I thought I was an Anglo too.'
'You are a new boy to the school. You do not have the associations with the others, though...'
'I did not like it when you began to be friendly with that Luc Charpentier. He is a strange boy, and not nice to know.'
'Well, that's over for good.'
'Why is that?'
'Since you've been so honest with me, I'll tell you, but not here. We have a few minutes before registration; come out into the car park.'
Lance and Damien observed Marky and Barry slip outside. 'Have yer told Bazza yet how yer bought his peace of mind?'
'I was gonna do it this morning. To be honest, I'm not sure about it now. He might take it badly... along the lines of what right have I to meddle in his life?'
'Since he cocked things up so badly, he'd have a nerve to say that. I thinks yer's a hero, mate. Yer coulda told me what I could do wiv my stupid risky idea, but yer went through wiv it like a trooper.'
'It was only a little jerking off and some groping in the end. Still, it wasn't easy doing it in front of three other boys and a camera, even if I'd already made out with two of them when I was a kid.'
'Zactly. Yer did it all for Bazza. It wuz a bit romantic, I think.'
'Funny thing. Neither Luc or Todo seemed all that happy to be in my pants in the end. They were having a major row when I left. I couldn't work out what it was about.'
'Any news from Reggie?'
'A text this morning which seemed hopeful-like. He should be along soon... and here he is!'
'Hey, guys!' Reggie and Lance hugged unselfconsciously in full sight of the upper-school kids flooding past. One or two smiled. No one looked disapproving. Everyone knew both boys were gay, and Lance was always treated as a special case in the International School.
'So what's new, Reggie?'
'Tell you later. Don't have much time now. Gotta get to my class'
'Is it good news?'
Reggie smirked. 'Sorta.'
Lance looked at Damien. 'What was that about?'
'Dunno. Here they come back again.' Marky and Barry had returned from the car-park door. Marky glowered across the reception hall at Luc, who caught his glare and responded in kind with a single raised finger.
Barry finally joined Damien and Lance. Barry smiled a little nervously at Lance, who took his leave of Damien and piloted Barry to their homeroom as the morning bell went.
They sat on adjoining desks as their teacher went through the electronic register while the class of sixteen-year-olds carried on with their subdued conversations.
'Yeah. How about you?'
'Considering everything, not too bad. There's a thing I have to tell you. You know how Luc let you off the hook?'
'I couldn't believe it. I still can't quite believe it. Something tells me there's more to come.' Suddenly Barry took on a suspicious air. 'Did you and Daimey do something without telling me?'
'Er yeah... it's confession time.'
Barry gave him a quirky look. 'There's a lot of that going on at the moment.'
'Sorry, Lance. Get it off your chest.'
'Okay. To begin with, you understand how much I hated what Luc was doing to you. That's why I did what I did.'
'Offered him something he wanted more than you.'
'Me. He and Todo Voynovich both tried it on with me ages ago, so we have a history. I knew they'd trade if I offered them my... er, body. Luc was happy to drop you for the chance of filming me doing... er, stuff.'
Lance was taken aback by the furious hissing retort from Barry. 'What! You bloody idiot, Lance! How could you be so stupid? To throw yourself away on those two and expose a body like yours to the web pervs. It's not just stupid, it's sick. I'm not worth that!'
Lance rallied. 'Well... I think you are. Look, I didn't do it without thinking it through. To begin with, he can't blackmail me like he did you. Then there's Reggie.'
'What's Reggie Mayer got to do with it? Was he part of the package?'
'I was able to plant a bug on Todo's machine. Reggie'll be able to use it to screw up their little enterprise for good and all, and take you off line. Believe me, it'll be worth the risk.'
There was silence. Lance regarded his lover uneasily. Barry had a look of frowning concentration on his face which Lance found intimidating. Finally Barry came out with the question: 'Why didn't you run this past me first?'
Lance had only one answer to that. 'Damien sorta got the bit between his teeth once I'd agreed. You were out of it because of your parents. We had to move fast to head Luc off. You're not mad at me, are you?'
'I'm not pleased with you, and especially not with Damien. Did it occur to either of you that I could have planted Reggie's bug with less suspicion than you could?'
'Umm... well, it seemed like a good idea. Come on, Bazza, you were carrying the whole weight of this. I was worried about you.'
Barry shook his head. 'There's something about this I don't like. I don't know what it is, but I feel abused.'
'You feel abused! I don't get it.'
The two boys looked at each other uneasily, before being obliged to move as the class broke up for first period.
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