'Fritzy! I'm back here!' Lennie Rassendyll waved at the big man as he entered Café Jednorocz. She felt a certain relief. Fritz was not always so punctual.
He smiled his particularly friendly smile and came over, greeting people as he passed their tables.
She knew the prince of Tarlenheim was very popular in his native land, the more so because of his reputation as a bon viveur and adventurer with both sexes. Rothenia was not an Anglo-Saxon country, where a public man's sexual appetites were a weapon against him. Rothenians in general adored a man who loved life.
He regarded her quirkily. 'Would have missed you, Lennie, you being so tiny and all!'
'Still using my height against me, I see. When will you grow up, your serene highness?'
'When you stop patronising me, your royal highness.'
Lennie rolled her eyes. 'It took just two minutes for us to start bickering again. How do we do it?'
Fritz looked startled, then faintly amused. 'You just said an odd thing.'
'Yes. You said, "How do we do it?" That's new. It's usually me who's to blame.'
'Perhaps I'm learning it takes two to make an argument. I'm sorry, Fritz.'
'I think so. I must have upset you over Tommy.'
Fritz turned solemn. 'It was hard to take, your sleeping with my former lover and present friend. There was a moment when I thought I might have to horsewhip him, but I grew out of it.'
'Yes, I started contemplating horsewhipping you instead, and somehow that seemed a more fun thing to imagine.'
'So, you blamed me.'
'Oh yes. Tommy's a lovely guy, the person I've most enjoyed sharing a bed with, and you'll know that's quite a standard for comparison. I half thought we might one day get back together again, but you proved he had other ideas. And now he's going to enter into a partnership with Bela Alexandrij.'
'He hasn't asked me to be a bridesmaid.'
'I don't think it works quite that way, at least judging from the gay weddings I've been to. But I doubt he's forgotten you, Lennie. You're not an easy woman to forget.'
'It sounds like Tommy's wedding is going to be quite the social event.'
'Yes. It's inevitable. He wanted to keep it quiet for Bela's sake, but it seems Tommy's too well-known both in Rothenia and abroad for that to happen. It'll draw the paps. Harry's offered the Residenz ballroom. It'll be secure from the press, and grand enough for the presence of royalty and the more liberal section of the aristocracy. Poor Bela.'
'It was because of Harry I asked to see you.'
Fritz raised an eyebrow but said nothing.
'She's a good friend, and I really don't like what's going on between her and my father at the moment.'
Fritz shifted into sympathetic mode, the one Lennie liked best about him. 'It must be difficult, I know. How can I help?'
'Please tell me what's really going on. I'm getting very suspicious of my new stepmom. A lot of what she's saying makes no sense to me.'
Fritz gave her a considering look. 'I can tell you, Lennie darling, but I'm not sure you'll like what you hear. What's more, you might not want to talk to me ever again, something I don't think I want to risk.'
'No. I've got to the point in life when I have to look at my relationships, which in my case is like reviewing old war films. We fought our way through our twenties, Lennie, and looking back I can't for the life of me remember why. We seem to do it because we have no other way of conducting a relationship. Oh, I know I'm infuriating. I infuriate myself nowadays. But we have so much in common... and the sex was good, wasn't it?'
For the first time, Lennie bit back a remark she would normally have made, in this case that apparently he rated Tommy more highly in bed than her. She was feeling the same emotional ennui as Fritz evidently was. She smiled. 'Are you asking for a truce, Fritzy?'
'An armistice, darling. We need each other too much, I think. And another thing.'
She looked at him curiously.
'I found the idea of Tommy and you in bed – in fact you and anyone else in bed – made me angry. I think it should be me who's there.'
'Oh Fritz. But let's not get off topic. Tell me about the succession crisis.'
'Very well, Lennie darling, but first let's order some wine. You're going to need it.'
'So explain it to me again,' Barry urged. 'I thought what you had to say in Civics was very interesting.'
Marky was on his bed, barefoot in tee and boxers. Barry was on Marky's computer chair wearing only his briefs, which did not much disguise his formidable endowment. Somehow sitting like this with Marky felt more than a little exciting. He was to sleep over at the chancellery that night.
Marky pulled his knees up to his chin and pondered. 'As I said, Barry, Rothenia is not like the countries around us. For all that we had to go through Nazi pogroms and a Communist dictatorship, the aristocracy is still very important here. We could not be exterminated and we helped each other in the bad days. Then the May Revolution came and the failing Communist regime was overthrown. President Maritz was himself an aristocrat. When the courts allowed the reclamation of the old estates, it cost the government a huge amount, even more so when the king returned.
'The young king proved to be a brilliant politician and the first chancellor, Trachtenburg, was his friend. Markets were liberalised, there was massive investment from outside – especially from PeacherCorp – and government revenues went up on the back of an expanding economy. So for a while everything in Rothenia worked out. We aristocrats did well too. The EU common agricultural policy helped our fortunes. Taxes of course went up, but nonetheless the first decade of the century was a boom time for Rothenia.
'The recession halted all that, unfortunately. Unemployment rose and government finance was crippled. It was not as bad as in some parts of Europe of course. The Royal Bank of Rothenia used its low exposure to buy up a lot of failing banks in London, New York and Paris. It's now as big as Santander in the markets. Still, Rothenians were willing enough to believe the CDP when it said it would cut taxes, reduce government waste, and help the agricultural poor, of whom there are quite a lot in this country.'
Barry was strangely charmed at this lecture, or at least he was charmed at the intensity and articulacy of the lecturer. He would not have been half as interested if it had come from one of his teachers. 'You're good at explaining this, Marky,' he confessed in artless flattery.
From his blush, it seemed Marky was deeply pleased by the compliment. 'I am thinking of studying political science and contemporary history at the Rodolfer.'
'Is that a degree which army officers take?'
'Oh yes. Of course, were I contemplating a technical branch of the army or the Letfhmecht... er, the air force... I would pursue science. But I wish to serve my king in the Guards.'
Barry loved it when Marky talked in that old-fashioned way. He was also in growing awe of his friend's determination and focus, so different from his own scatterbrained way of thinking. Barry had little idea as yet what he wanted to do with his life. But Marky had a compelling idealism and self-belief that was both challenging and impressive.
'Could I join the Rothenian armed forces?' Barry wondered idly.
Marky glowed. 'Oh yes! One of our best generals is Lance's father, Edward Cornish. He commands the Guards division. All our army adores him. He is very popular, and his being gay means nothing to them. He is of course English born, but now a Rothenian citizen. But because of the EU you could still be English and in our army. Would you truly like to be a soldier?'
'When you talk about it, I really would. But I don't think I have the brains to be an officer.'
Marky stared at Barry. 'That is silly, of course you do. Come sit by me.'
Barry willingly enough joined Marky on the bed, and was thrilled to find himself taken round the shoulder by his friend. Not only that, Marky began massaging his right deltoid in a way intended to be reassuring, but which was actually arousing. Barry's dick tingled and thickened rapidly.
He went red. 'Uh oh! Stiffie alert,' he warned, before it became too obvious. The bulge in his briefs soon became intolerable. 'Sorry Marky, can I go...'
But Marky held on to him. 'I too am hard, Barry.' Barry looked down to find the purple head of Marky's cock already pushing its way above the elastic of his boxers. 'It happens. Don't worry about it. We are both men, yes?'
'Okay,' Barry agreed sheepishly. He dug in and brought out his sizeable member, letting it hang down in all its glory. 'That's a bit of a relief,' he confessed.
Marky was mesmerised. 'It is so big. Can I just...?'
A thrill of excitement went through Barry. 'Er... sure.'
Marky took and stroked Barry's cock. He licked a finger and ran it round the rising tip. Barry sighed, 'Ooooh... that's great.'
'That's the first time I ever touched a man there,' Marky breathed. 'It's hot and really hard. It's so big too. Twice the size of mine. Do you come harder with something like that?'
'I dunno. It squirts up to my neck, sometimes even over my head. I've got white spots all over the headboard of my bed where it's taken off the varnish.'
'I shoot high too.' It seemed Marky was giving up even pretending their evening was not to be sexually charged. He pulled off his shirt and pushed off his boxers. Barry too was naked by then. Marky and he regarded each other, Barry giving his friend a nervous smile.
Marky went for it, putting his hand round Barry's head to draw their lips together. Kissing went on for a while, and then Barry went down on Marky's straining cock, using the skills he had cultivated with his various sexual partners in Rothenia. Eventually Marky groaned and fountained in his mouth.
Afterwards they lay together, clasped. Marky marvelled, 'My first sex with another boy. Thank you Barry. Will you sleep with me tonight?'
'Oh yes... try and stop me.'
'Good. This is my dream. And will you fuck me? That also is my dream. It is all I ever think of, a man inside me.'
Barry kissed him. 'I'll try, but my cock isn't for beginners. I've only successfully got it into one boy. Which reminds me. Unless you have lube and condoms, it wouldn't be safe.'
Marky laughed. 'What sort of army officer would I be did I not plan ahead? I have these things, in desperate hope that I would meet a beautiful boy and have the courage to ask him to sleep in my bed. Now here you are. This is too good.'
'I think so too.'
They dozed off holding each other tight. As he fell asleep, Barry reflected that he had never felt this relaxed and comfortable in the same position with Lance.
Reggie Mayer liked the U.S. embassy in Strelzen, the former urban palace of the counts of Cerecszgrad, or Schwartzstadt. Reggie had enjoyed exploring its baroque grandeur while a young boy, when his mother was deputy chief of mission. He knew it had been built in the seventeenth century in what was now called the Second District. Somewhere he had a file of plans and pictures of the place he had compiled from his research in the National Library. The embassy website still displayed the historical page he had designed as a ten-year-old, which a delighted ambassador had been happy to incorporate. He was glad his government had not relocated the mission to more modern, suburban premises, as it had done in other capitals.
Reggie had made his way to the embassy from the International School at the end of the day, hoping for a lift from his mom. He had been told to go and get something to eat in the staff cafeteria, a spectacular room on the first floor, the former master bedroom. It retained its glorious plaster ceiling with pendants, and magnificent pine panelling carved by a baroque master. A portrait of President Eisenhower occupied the wall above Reggie's head. Other presidents looked down benignly on the staff as they ate in very elegant surroundings.
A uniformed figure slid in opposite him, placing his food tray on the table. He took off his white cap and smiled at Reggie. 'Hi! You're the ambassador's son, right?' It was Lance Corporal Lobowicz. Reggie's heart fluttered, then sank. The guy must be more than a little obsessed to try a move on him at the mission.
'Er... yeah. Hi!' Reggie shook hands. He had to admit the marine was awesome close up. His face was strong-jawed and the skin taut under the buzz cut. Lobowicz clearly worked out to the max.
He started wolfing down his high calorie meal, talking as he chomped. 'So you're from Maryland, yeah? I'm from Baltimore.'
Reggie kept a grip on his libido. 'That's cool. How long have you been posted here?'
'This is my second year. Great place. Love the people.'
'Do you get out much?'
'Well, yeah. Strelzen has some major clubs and bars. You gotta love Europe. I don't suppose you've been down the Wejg?'
'No, but I've heard a lot about it.'
The marine sought and held Reggie's eyes. 'There's this bar, Melmoth. It's terrific. You'd enjoy it.'
'Are you offering to take me?' Reggie knew he was being hit on, and was morbidly interested to see how far it would go. 'I've heard it's for gays.'
'Guys here say you like that sort of thing. I could get ya in, if you want. Or maybe, y'know, we could have fun someplace else.'
Lobowicz had skated out on to thin ice, and must have realised it. Reggie responded, 'I don't get much space to myself. You know I'm only fifteen.'
Lobowicz deliberately replied, 'Fifteen's old enough. I'd had half a dozen guys by the time I was sixteen. I really liked the older ones.'
'Are you coming on to me?'
'You're cute, know that?'
Reggie decided things had gone far enough. Any further and he would either have to deliver his underage body to this hunk, or report him for misconduct. There was also this: What would an affair with a marine at the embassy do to his mother's reputation?
Feeling something of an ache of regret, Reggie said firmly, 'Thanks. You're a really studly guy. But if I reported this conversation you'd be busted straight out of the Corps. What do you want, a career or my skinny butt?'
Panic stared back at him. 'Hey! Don't get me wrong. Just being friendly, one guy to another.'
Reggie smiled. 'I appreciate it. See ya around.' He got up and left, swearing in his head. Would he ever get laid?
Barry walked right into Lance on Tuesday morning as he entered school. He didn't react rapidly to the situation. He could hardly do so after the night he had just had. He'd not slept much, he and Marky just dozing between several active sex sessions. Marky's stamina was equal to his sturdy physique. After a few attempts it had even proved up to taking Barry, who eventually worked all the way into the swearing and groaning boy under him – a thing he had not quite achieved with Luc. But the sweat Barry was sliding around in on Marky's back and the scent of him as Barry pressed into his hole were potent aphrodisiacs. After that it was paradise for both of them. Now he was caught between ecstasy and bewilderment.
'Barry, you alright?'
'Uh... yeah.' He rallied and came back to the present. 'Lance, I'm sorry things haven't worked out between us. You're a great guy and all, but maybe we're not sort of meant for each other, know what I mean?'
It occurred to Lance that he was being dumped. Despite his having fully intended to do the same to Barry, it hurt. Probably it hurt most because Barry had beaten him to it.
'Oh... right... well, no hard feelings?'
'No, no.... none. Sorry and all that.'
'Okay... see ya round, Bazza.' Lance, somewhat bemused, watched Barry wander on into school. At least their relationship had been sorted out. He shouldered his bag, and was wondering where he himself should be heading when he became aware that the world was definitely out of synch. All had gone deathly quiet in the normally bustling foyer, where boys and girls had paused in midstep.
Lance squinted round and detected a teen boy who had no business being amongst the rest, standing there, arms folded, regarding him with a rather superior smirk. 'You!'
Mattie Oscott nudged Reggie. 'Will ya look at that? His tongue must be coming out her ass!'
Reggie rolled his eyes. 'Did anyone ever tell ya how crude ya can be, Fatso?'
'Me crude? Daimey's got no shame. They're practically having sex in the hall.'
'Considering the time those two have wasted, I'm surprised they don't combust.' Reggie shook his head. He was delighted for his friends, but he registered that Mattie must be feeling isolated. Till then, Mattie and Damien had balanced out their friendship circle: two straight mates against two gays. But the balance had been disturbed, as Helen introduced a new centre of gravity into their rotating relationships.
It was going to be a while before it settled down. For the moment, Damien wanted nothing more than to be with his girlfriend, which meant the Mendamero Men would have to get used to being without his cheerful direction. Reggie thought this inconvenient, as the Barry-and-Luc business was by no means over as far as he was concerned. But how was he to attract Damien's attention through the obscuring cloud of pheromones that now enveloped him?
Perhaps he should talk it through with Lance. But Lance was by no means as decisive and direct a boy as Damien, and getting him to act was not always easy. Lance, in his hesitancy about the world, tended to prevaricate, something the Barry business had revealed with great clarity.
Reggie was coming to the uncomfortable conclusion that it was all up to him. He sighed. Where was Lance anyway? He must have arrived at school, as Damien was busy necking with Helen against the lockers. Lance always drove him in.
Reggie looked round. Also absent, and indeed absent for several days now, was Luc Charpentier. Reggie certainly didn't want to talk to the French boy, who made him nervous. Nonetheless, there was still a mystery that needed sorting, and Luc was the key to it, he was sure. And if the key was Luc, the deposit box was in the Wejg. But how could he find the nerve to go there?
'My, how you've grown,' the blond teen observed.
'What're you doing here, Tobias?'
'Do you know, I think you're hostile. Yes, definitely hostile. And since we're using names, what shall I call you? The Destroyer? Nemesis?'
'I've settled for Lance Edward Atwood. He's who I've become.'
The seraph regarded Lance carefully. 'Whatever your opinion of what the Council did to you, it's worked. You've changed. You have depth and focus, your aura is quite different, and it's not just that you're human. No, you are gaining something the orders don't have, not even the erelim. You're a new creation.'
Lance pondered. 'Look, Toby. I don't need this. I was exiled to the world of humans to live out a life, and here I am. For all it can be painful, I've learned to embrace mortality. Maybe that's the change you see. But you and I have no business talking. You should not have come.'
'It was not my choice.' The seraph took him by the arm.
In his physical manifestation, Tobias was somewhat shorter than Lance. The seraph put up his lips for a kiss, and Lance – giving the same quirky look his father Henry had patented – obliged. He held Tobias and eventually found the grace to smile down into his face. 'I don't hate you, you know.'
Tobias shrugged. 'That's a human thing to say. Hate is irrelevant. Arguing is what you and I have always done, it's our role.'
'I can't say I've missed it. Most humans find it tiresome too. Now I am human, I find myself asking whether you even like me, Tobias.'
'Like? Isn't that the same as love? '
'No it isn't, and the distinction is important. By your nature you love everyone. Love to you is like water to a fish, your existence is inconceivable without it. But to like, that's different.'
Tobias seemed intrigued. 'How?'
'It's a matter of choosing to be with someone because of the happiness they give you. It's to enjoy them, to be friends.'
Tobias thought about it, then his face brightened. 'I think I may like you, Lance. I have... missed you. Is that a sign?'
Lance kissed his head and released him. 'It's a start. You're getting quite wise for one of the erelim.'
Tobias beamed, then sobered. 'The One has arisen.'
'I guessed that.'
'He has accepted his fate, which puts you in a strange position. The Council requires you – human or not – to become his servant. We all are now his servants, perhaps. But you must be with him in this world to help keep him safe and obey his commands.'
'But I am human.'
'That, I would say, is an advantage at present. None of us could occupy such a post, but you can. Besides, you don't have to be with him twenty-four hours a day; he has many others who love and care for him. But you know who he is, and he knows you for what you are, so your situation has advantages.'
Lance considered this. It seemed his room for manoeuvre in the world was being constrained. 'It sounds unfair to me. I was to have the freedom that is given to human beings, a liberty in which to make choices and grow. You're taking that from me.'
'No, no. He would never dream of turning you into his slave. But you must accept. Your nature means you have no choice.'
'I know that. Dammit. Very well. So what are his commands?'
Tobias smiled. 'He has deep concerns about a boy you know.'
Lance frowned. 'Is that it? One boy?'
'It is of course more complicated, for this particular boy lies at the heart of a conspiracy. He must be saved and the conspiracy foiled. That is your quest.'
Bela was nervous as, Tommy admitted, he had every right to be. Not that Bela had never met Queen Harriet before. He had given her a tour of the Osra Centre on two occasions, and she had been very nice to him. But still, Bela was nervous. Tommy reckoned he knew why. Bela had to start a new social life as Tommy's partner, which meant coming to terms on occasion with Tommy's celebrity and high connections. Bela was a fish out of water. Tommy's heart went out to him.
The queen entered her office, talking as she came with two female aides, one of whom was balancing a stack of files. She finished up and turned her smile on Bela.
He stood and did the Rothenian bow. 'Majesty,' he murmured.
She came up and he blushed as she took his hand. 'I'm glad you're here, Bela. Partly it's because I so wanted to congratulate you on your engagement to Tommy. I'm sure you'll both be very happy together.'
Bela bowed his thanks, but had nothing to say.
The queen continued, 'The second thing is of course your adventures on the Wejg, a place, I have to say, to which I have not ventured. No one seems to want the queen to cut a ribbon at the opening of a new bar or strip club. Palace life so limits one. But I hear all about it from my dissolute private secretary.'
'You'd be a hit there, ma'am,' smirked Tommy.
'No doubt. Can you buzz in Oskar, Tommy? It's time for a strategy conference.'
The three took seats on a grouping of sofas, and the queen reduced Bela to stupefied silence by pouring a coffee for him. Oskar von Tarlenheim appeared soon after, and signalled Bela to take his seat once more. Bela had shot up respectfully when the count of Modenehem had entered the room.
'Now boys, let's get to work,' the queen announced. 'We have new information, I believe, Tommy?'
'Yes, ma'am. Bela has provided us with a crucial clue. As you know, Henry, Fritz and I began keeping a low-key surveillance of the Wejg a couple of years ago, and Bela has been running the operation off and on. He's been feeding us some useful information about the various gangs operating in Strelzen and their links with the shadier parts of our political world, notably the one in which your husband's uncle operates.
'He and Felip Ignacij have been observing a Wejg character called Wulf Sczneczen, who's been involved with several gangs over the years. He's got a base of operations in a club called Melmoth, set up on the Wejg by – of all people – Davey Skipper six years ago. A while later he sold it on to Sczneczen's backers.
'It's becoming clear who they are. The Rotheniske Adelsgenossenschaft and Count Robert Rassendyll are somehow mixed up in it, probably through Hendrik Willemin, who has been a pal of Sczneczen's for some years, so Felip says. Then there's a hard-line group from the CDP led by that man Alfons Hadjek, the party's deputy leader.
'Of course there's more to them than Bar Melmoth, but they've become visible to us there because Hadjek has needs... not to put too fine a point on it, he lusts after rent boys. Tell them what you know, Bela.'
The young man hesitated, staring round the group. 'Er... your majesty, excellency... it's not easy to describe night life on the Wejg...'
Oskar gave a chuckle. 'No need to be coy, Bela. I was once part of it myself, as Felip would no doubt tell you.'
'Yes, sir... he did mention your adventures there in the old days. Well, ma'am, most of the Wejg business is pretty straightforward: soaking foreigners for overpriced drinks in strip clubs or brothels up and down the street; drug pushers and female hookers at the south end; rent boys just off the north end in the lanes behind Liberation. There are pedrastijnes who live off the boys, and pimps who live off the girls.
'Sczneczen runs quite a stable of boys, but it became clear to me and Felip that his activities have got wider than the Wejg lately. He has an online business of some sort: peddling gay and straight porn and renting escorts. But he has a select clientele for specialised tastes.'
The queen looked cold. 'Specialised tastes?'
'Young teens, ma'am.'
'Thirteen to sixteen or so; it depends on the looks. Hadjek and his associates themselves enjoy the goods... excuse my being so crude in your presence.'
The queen shook her head. 'Carry on, Bela.'
'But he also uses the boys as inducements and I think entrapment. That's what was going on when I saw him with Hadjek. They were paying off the librarian Wöhlich with access to their stable. We know there's a boy-brothel somewhere in the Third District, but haven't yet tracked it down.'
The queen looked depressed. 'And the city police turn a blind eye to this?'
Bela sighed. 'No ma'am, they watch it intently. Then they tap the likes of Sczneczen for bribes to look the other way. It's been going on for years. Half the runaway kids of Central Europe pass through the Wejg and the pedrastijnes do the police a favour by taking them off the streets.'
Harry sat pensive. 'So you have discovered that Hadjek is a hypocrite and a paedophile, and can link him in with some very unsavoury characters. That's something, at least. The Wöhlich business is of course very suggestive. The only thing he had to offer was access to the last copy of Count Robert's resignation of his claims to the throne. So I imagine what Bela and Felip saw was his payoff after handing over the deed. It does of course also link Count Robert with Hadjek, Sczneczen and organised crime in the capital. What do you think, Oskar?'
The chief of staff stirred. 'While this is all very good, we need more evidence than just a picture of Hadjek with his hands on a boy's groin. We need to link him in with the RA and Count Robert. More than that, we need to get hold of these boys and secure their evidence. Can that be done, Bela?'
Bela nodded. 'I've been trying to pin down the boys associated with Sczneczen's business. I'm ready to go further: get names and talk to some of them. But I have yet to locate Sczneczen's boy-brothel. He has one or two older boys who recruit for him. If I could get hold of them, I'd have much better evidence and an idea of who Sczneczen's clients are.'
The queen pursed her mouth. 'Then I would ask you, Tommy and Felip to pursue your enquiries with as much speed as you safely can. Tomorrow the Assembly begins debating the motion to depose my son as king of Rothenia.'
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