When Reggie came to he found a pair of concerned and blessedly human blue eyes staring into his. His cheek stung slightly, which caused him to conclude that Lance had slapped him to try to bring him around.
'You alright, baby?'
'Umm... I might ask you the same, angel-boy.'
'It was awful! Horrible! I never want to do it again.'
Reggie pushed himself up to sit next to his still-naked lover. 'You did ruin a perfectly decent pair of briefs. I liked them too. What was so horrible about being an angel again?'
'It wasn't the same as the last time, before I grew up. This time I was so... distant and detached. Human love isn't angel love, and the worst thing about the transformation was I couldn't feel any more about you than I feel about anyone else!'
Reggie hugged Lance's warm body. 'Is that why you cried?'
'I knew I loved you, but I couldn't feel it any more. You see, angels love all people, not just one.'
Reggie had his hand to his mouth. 'That is horrible. Oh, Lance, I'm so sorry.'
Lance sighed. 'I'd better get dressed. Can you give me the handij number of your pet marine?'
'Sure. What're you gonna do, Lance?'
'Make an arrangement about an expedition to the Wejg tonight, if he's free. I wanna get this over with.'
'Do you know what you'll do when you're there?'
'Not a clue. Maxxie says I gotta look for Luc Charpentier, and he wouldn't have said that if he didn't know I'd find him.'
'So Maxxie knows the future?'
'Some of it, the bits he can understand. He's still only a little kid, baby. He'll have seen me and Luc together, but he couldn't explain where or how we'll meet. He doesn't even know what a bar is, let alone a brothel.'
'Are you sure you do?'
'Reggie, inside my head is a large part of human history. Everything people have ever done, however dissolute or perverted, is registered there.'
'How do you live with that?'
'I usually don't think about it, but believe me when I say there is nothing people can do which will ever surprise me.'
Reggie gripped his hand. 'Tell me you'll be alright.'
Lance smiled. 'Worried about Satan's ass, baby?'
'Always, and it's the most gorgeous ass in the whole world.'
'I'll be fine, baby. Maxxie's a lot more worried about Luc than about me, so I guess it'll work out, however uncomfortable it'll be to live through.'
'I don't get it, Lance. What's so important about that toxic French SOB? He's never been of use to anyone. He's moody, manipulative and mean.'
'Tell that to Maxxie. Odd thing is that Barry - who has every reason to hate him - spoke up for him too the other day. I can't see it, but there are people who feel sorry for Luc.'
Lance turned and sought out Reggie's lips. As he pressed Reggie down on the bed he began pulling at his lover's clothes. Without much preliminary, once Reggie was naked on his back, Lance separated his knees and thrust up into him.
Reggie arched and gasped, fixing his eyes on his lover's. 'You need this don't you, baby?' he struggled out with between gritted teeth. He was beginning to realise that sex was desperately important to Lance as his way of asserting his threatened humanity against the cosmos.
Lance kissed him before whispering, 'Is it okay?'
'I love you more than life, my dark angel.'
Lance was by then too far gone in their play to manage a response.
Panicked by the disappearance of his possessions, Barry stood irresolute in Luc's attic room. He was bursting for a pee, too. Eventually his bladder overcame his inhibitions, so he padded naked out of the room. Since the attic had no loo, he clenched his jaw and headed down the dusty stairs. A boy laughed in a room close by, causing Barry to flinch and place his hands over his genitals.
The reek of urine took him to a promising door, beyond which he found a filthy toilet. The floor was cold and slimy under his feet. Although there was no lock and the door wouldn't close, he began pissing anyway. His cock deflated as he emptied himself, but his feeling of relief was only temporary. Hearing a snigger behind him, he turned to see two younger male teens outside, grinning as they watched him. Neither wore anything more than a soiled pair of shorts. He saw their feet were dirty and their toenails painted.
'Where's Luc?' he demanded. He would kill the French boy if this was his idea of a joke.
The kid with the wider grin answered, 'English? Nice cock. Big, yes?'
Barry's hands automatically covered himself, causing the two teens to erupt and counterfeit his action for exaggerated effect.
'Where's Luc!' he repeated.
'Lucky gone,' the cheekier one replied.
'I want my clothes!'
'No clothes,' the boy sniggered. 'Come! Come!'
Barry reluctantly followed the two into a room bare of anything but mattresses and the debris of a meal. The quieter one kept grabbing at Barry's hand to pull it away from his groin, sniggering as he did so. Barry finally slapped at him, causing the boy to pout. The two youngsters snuggled together on one of the mattresses, their backs to the wall, looking Barry over with curiosity.
Noticing a pair of discarded briefs on the floor, Barry grabbed them and pulled them on, though they were way too small for him. He dared not check them for cleanliness first. 'Who're you?' he demanded.
'Me Laszlo! He Franco!' the cheekier one provided.
'You live here?'
Laszlo shrugged and did not reply.
'How do you get out of here?'
'Out?' Laszlo repeated. 'No out!'
'Where's the door?'
Laszlo shrugged again and pointed down. Barry realised the two were not going to be any help, and maybe they were retarded. He left the room and went down to the next floor. Here there were rooms with furniture, but when he looked through the doors, all were empty. A further stair took him down to the door by which he and Luc had entered, now heavily locked and bolted. There was indeed no exit. He toiled back upstairs, his feet becoming nearly as grimy as Laszlo's and Franco's.
Staring down at him from the landing was another, older teen, the thin one Luc had earlier thrown a pack of cigarettes to, who was smoking one even then. He at least had on a tee shirt in addition to his shorts. 'You Barry?' he enquired, with an obviously better command of English.
'Gone. He be back. He say get you ready.'
'Ready for what?'
'Customers,' said the boy.
'You one of us now! So I make you nice for men.'
'You can't make me do that.'
Hearing a deep chuckle behind him, Barry turned with a sinking heart. It was Sczneczen himself. 'You wanted a job, kid, and this is the only vacancy I have. Now get those stupid briefs off. I want you shaved and cleaned out.'
'You can't do this!'
Sneering, Sczneczen ostentatiously pulled out a large knife and cleaned his fingernails with it. 'You'll be surprised what I can do, Pony Boy. You may even be surprised by what you can do after tonight. It's a big party, and you'll take the pressure off the rest.'
'I want my clothes!' Tears were now in Barry's eyes and there was a sob in his voice.
'You won't be seeing them again, kid. Your skin is all the covering you got. From now on, all you have is what I let you have, and at the moment that isn't much.'
He was suddenly close to Barry, a sadistic gleam in his eye. His knife was cold on Barry's hip as it sliced through the tight briefs that were the only thing preserving the boy's modesty. Then Sczneczen had Barry's balls in his fist. With the blade now grazing the base of his scrotum, Barry squealed but didn't dare struggle.
Sczneczen snarled in his ear, 'I could make a lady-boy out of you, Pony, especially after what you did to my business venture. Don't tempt me. Sooner you come to terms with your new life the better. Now let Vito shave your ass and balls and douche you out. You be good and you can fuck him. In fact, you can fuck him for the clients to watch.'
Barry was struck dumb. How could he escape this horror? He had a dawning suspicion that he was not intended to be one of the brothel's long-term residents. Once Sczneczen had made as much money from his body as possible, he would be permanently retired.
Oskar rang ahead, and the queen was waiting in her office when they arrived. She was accompanied by Maxxie, perched on the sofa opposite her desk. He was intently reading, a new skill of his. The three men bowed as they entered, first at the little king, then at the regent.
'Hey, Osku! Fritzku! Tomasczu!' Maxxie shouted enthusiastically.
The queen smiled indulgently at her offspring. 'I said he could stay here if he was quiet. As you can see, he heard every word I said. So boys, you've been successful?'
Oskar smiled. 'Yes, ma'am, or at least I hope so. We didn't open the envelope once we'd retrieved it. That's a job for you and Maxxie.'
'Oh, why's that?'
'Well, ma'am, you need to look at the way it is addressed.'
The queen took the sealed envelope and scrutinised it. She gasped, 'But...!'
'Yes, ma'am. It was written two decades ago.'
'Mummy! Can I look?'
Harry stared bewildered at her son and handed the envelope to him. He examined it carefully, then slowly spelled out the English words: TO HIS MOST PIOUS AND STEADFAST MAJESTY, MAXIM II, BY THE GRACE OF GOD, KING OF ROTHENIA. 'Mummy! That's me! How very clever!'
Harry shook her head. 'It's beyond clever, Maxxie. Your mummy and daddy were not much more than your age when it was written.' She glanced at Oskar. 'The princess of Vinodol did not mention this!'
'No, ma'am. Perhaps we ought to call her over from the Osraeum. I think she may have more to tell us now.'
The queen placed the envelope carefully on her desk, as if it were an unexploded bomb. She talked briefly to her outer office on the com, then picked up the envelope again. 'This wax has the Thuringian wyvern embossed on it. It was Prince Leopold who sealed it, not my late father-in-law, Lord John Burlesdon.'
Twenty minutes later the princess of Vinodol arrived. Peering round the office she caught sight of Maxxie, who was beaming at her. 'Hullo, Nanny Vinodol!'
To the surprise of everyone else present, the old princess smiled back at her great-grandson before favouring him with a stiff bow. 'Well, my little majesty, have you been a good boy for your mother?'
'Oh yes, nanny!'
'Give your nanny a kiss, then off you must go.'
The boy didn't seem inclined to argue. Taking his book, he trotted over to the princess, craned up to kiss her offered cheek, and skipped off.
When he had left, his mother turned to the princess and indicated a seat. 'Elenja, did you know about the address on this envelope?'
The princess inclined her head, apparently unable to make a gesture as commonplace as a nod. 'I observed it when the prince gave it to me. I asked him about it and what it might signify, but he declined to answer. It was at Heinrichshof and he was in the last months of his life. My son had just died and we were together commiserating.
'Leopold was in a fey mood that day, most unlike himself. Of course he was dying, and he knew it, which must account for a lot of his oddity. However, he told me the copy of my younger son's deed of resignation lodged at Burlesdon was but a facsimile, and that the envelope he had given me contained the original. I was to spirit it away to a place of safety in a location of my choice.
'We Kesarstejnes and Burlesdons had recently recovered our estates in Rothenia, permitting me to move home here from my English exile. It was a simple thing really to go over to Hentzen and conceal the deed in a hiding place whose existence only one or two of us were privileged to know. I had every right to be in Hentzen. I was of course the grandmother of the young Lord Burlesdon, as well as a trustee of his estate in Rothenia. That, I am afraid, is almost all I can tell you, but, my dear, I would be very interested to see what is inside the envelope I concealed so long ago.'
'Why did you ask little Maxxie to run off just now, Elenja?'
The old princess looked grim. 'Prince Leopold did tell me that what was within the envelope with the deed must be kept from the Elphbergs until the time was ripe, because he rather feared it might not bring happiness to the family. I suspect the prince placed revelations within which ought not to be given to the young king as yet.'
The queen sighed, and reached for a letter opener. 'We shall see quickly enough.'
Lance stood irresolute in his bedroom at Fridricsgasse. He had promised Reggie he would ask Damien to join the expedition into Strelzen's red-light district. Though Lance could see the sense in this, and certainly would have felt a lot safer with Damien covering his back, there was something in him resisting the suggestion. Much to his discomfort, his angelic instincts were now awakening, and he rather thought that - like it or not - he should trust them.
He went into his closet and pulled out an anonymous hoodie. He was by then a well-grown teenager, not far off his full adult growth. He reckoned that if he kept the hood up and wore bulky clothes, he might pass on the Wejg as more mature than he actually was. His face would need concealing, however, both because of its obvious boyishness and its alarming beauty. The hood would help a lot, and some wide wrap-around plastic shades would cover even more.
He sighed. There was no way he could tell his parents about what he was planning. Slumping on to his bed to lace up his Converse high-tops, he wondered if he should leave a note on his worktable to explain his actions. His dads, being good about his personal space, would not trespass into his room, he knew. He paused, then scribbled some brief words describing where he was going, though not why, other than that it was important to do so and he was 'under orders from above'. That might help them if things became really involved and he went unavoidably missing.
He paused to assess a pang of love and loss that suddenly pierced him when he thought of Henry and Ed. It reassured him, however, confirming that his parents as much as Reggie kept him anchored in his humanity. He added a postscript to his note in which he told his dads quite how much they meant to him.
Feeling strengthened, Lance put up his hood and made his quiet way out the back door, through a gap in the fence and on to Fridricswejg. It was already late evening, and the streetlights were shining. After hopping a tram down the hill on Modenehemestrasse, he soon found himself in the Rodolferplaz.
He sidled over to the statue of Henry the Lion and leaned up against the towering granite plinth. There were a group of backpackers near him, one of them strumming a guitar. Being a native of Strelzen, Lance was all too aware of the reputation earned by this part of the Plaz, though it seemed pretty quiet at that time of the evening. There were still late shoppers going in and out of the stores down the west façade of the great square.
He was taken by surprise when Lance-Corporal Lobowicz appeared from around the statue, wearing what Lance imagined was full cruising gear. A slashed wife-beater fully revealed the young marine's impressive physique, as well as the tattoos which thickly populated his right arm. He had a stud in his right ear and very tight jeans, with the area of his groin heavily brushed to highlight a formidable package.
'Y'aw right, Lance?'
The boy shrugged. 'A bit nervous, if truth be told.'
'You'll be fine, but you'd better act like you're with me, 'kay?'
The marine inserted a hand in Lance's back jeans pocket as they strolled down the Plaz, making no pretence of doing anything other than touching up his young companion. When they reached Club Liberation at the top of the Wejg, Lobowicz pushed Lance up against an advertising column and meshed groins with him.
With the marine's face close to his, Lance complained, 'You're getting into this.'
Lobowicz grinned. 'You're seriously cute, Lance. Sorry, but no one said I couldn't enjoy myself as well as help you out... an' you got a boner, too.' The marine's face straightened momentarily. 'This is a good place to watch the Wejg, 'kay? An' if we're making out, no one's gonna bother us. Just keep your eye open over my shoulder.'
For the next twenty minutes, Lance endured the marine's overpowerful deodorant, mouth wrestling and intrusive hands. Eventually a hooting group of straight British stag-nighters convinced even the marine that they'd better move on. Hand in hand, the two plunged into the jostling crowd packing the Wejg's narrow causeway.
Neon and laser flashes dazzled Lance and the din of screams and laughter beat on his ears. So this was Strelzen's nightlife. He missed Damien. He could imagine his friend's eyes alight at what was going on here, but it just confused and disorientated Lance.
Lobowicz shouted in his ear, 'This is the sorta place we'd best try! It's got a real bad reputation!' He dragged Lance into the packed, dark recesses of Bar Melmoth.
'You want clothes, so put on!' Vito threw some pieces of assorted clothing at Barry.
Barry caught and held up a pink, embroidered tee-shirt that ended inches above his navel, and a pair of leather pants. 'But these are girls' clothes!'
'Men like... so tough shit. Sit there.'
Barry perched naked on the side of a bath. Although his groin and backside were already hairless, Vito got down and shaved off the light fuzz on his lower legs as well. Barry did not object even when Vito pulled out nail varnish and painted his broad toenails. Lipstick was applied to his mouth and mascara to his eyelashes.
Vito stood back, hand on hip and frowned. 'Look crap but it have to do. Get in clothes, or you want I get bad man?'
Beyond humiliation by then, Barry fitted himself into what had been offered, before following Vito into the large room on the first floor. The two younger boys, Franco and Laszlo, were already on a sofa punching each other and arguing in a language which was not Rothenian, so far as Barry could tell. Two new older teens had appeared from somewhere. He recognised the dark, muscular figure of Luc's friend Boromeo, who gave him a saturnine grin and ambled over.
'Hey, it's English boy! How nice! Saw pictures of you.' Boro took Barry round the waist and pushed his hand down the front of the hot pants without any preliminary. He felt around inside, and whistled. 'No shit! Big cock!' He called over to Franco and Laszlo, pointing at Barry. 'You see this! He fuck both of you at once!'
The two ignored him; it was doubtful they understood what he was saying.
Barry hissed, 'Boro, where's Luc!'
Boro shrugged carelessly. 'This not his place. He on Wejg. Why matter? He might come if his boyfriend here. Depends.'
'Old guy he live with sometimes. Lots of money, and he really likes Luc's ass. He and his friends have party here tonight, so Luc might come I guess. Hope not. More krone for me.' With a more serious look, the Rothenian offered a bottle of beer from a side table to Barry. 'You have a few. It not be so bad if you get drunk, believe me.'
Following the advice, Barry gulped down the cold liquid.
At that point Boro, having lost interest in Barry, joined Vito in lighting up a cigarette. He took Vito on his lap and pulled down his shorts to play with what was revealed. Laszlo in the meantime was wrestling with Franco, bare legs flailing and striking him from time to time. Eventually Laszlo succeeded in pinning his partner, after which the two began making out.
The other new boy, pale and nervous, sat on the sofa arm next to Barry and hesitantly attempted to stroke at his package. He withdrew his hand when Barry batted it away, but soon tried again.
Vito called over to Barry, 'Hey! English! Let him touch you up. Get in the mood. Men be here soon.'
Barry succumbed. The stranger insinuated himself on to Barry's lap, draping his arms round Barry's neck, seeking his lips. Barry had no choice but to co-operate, and was sucking the boy's bad-smelling dick when heavy footsteps came from below.
Tommy, Oskar and the queen were still in her office when the time came for Maxxie's bedtime. He and little Prince Leo ran in to climb on their mother's lap for their goodnight kisses. She excused herself and took the two boys to their bedrooms.
Tommy looked across the table at Oskar. 'This definitely qualifies as major weirdness, wouldn't you say?'
Oskar put his hands behind his head and stretched before agreeing. Picking up the paper the queen had been scrutinising when her children arrived, he began reading out loud what was written there:
My dear king and cousin, the old prince had written in English. There have been times in the past when Elphbergs have been given visions of the future. I had never thought to be so favoured, but here at the very end of my life I have now been singled out. When I was a boy, the great Maxim your predecessor and namesake told me of the dream granted Queen Flavia concerning the fall of her house and the triumph of the Thuringians, which she recounted to his father. Then Maxim too in his day was visited several times by a spirit of prophecy in the guise of the Victorian patriot Oskar of Tarlenheim. In the last days of his reign, the future of Rothenia was opened to him in a vision. He was given sight of the Second World War and the grim Communist years which were to follow. He was also given tokens, however, that the Crown of Tassilo and the spirit of his people would rise above such trials, and that one day an Elphberg king would sit again on the throne of his ancestors.
It appears now to me that the days of Restoration are approaching fast, for Communist regimes have collapsed across Europe, and Rothenia is once more a free republic. The heir of Rothenia is but a child, my young fatherless cousin, Rudolf Burlesdon, but he is a boy of some strength and capacity, so much is clear to me. And in these past few days I have more than once been given signs that the Elphberg cause is not without hope.
I was in my library at Heinrichshof leafing idly through a history of Rothenia when it appeared to me that I turned the page to a scene that had no place being there. It seemed to be a tinted woodcut of a coronation scene in the cathedral of St Vitalis, but not one that could ever have happened. The figure on the throne, with the archbishop holding the crown of Tassilo above his head, was a child, younger than the present Lord Burlesdon, and blond of hair, not dark red, as young Rudolf is.
By the crowned monograms on the hangings of the cathedral, the child king must have been named Maxim, for they announced the reign of M II R. On one side of the throne acclaiming the boy king were three handsome young men in the uniform of the Royal Rothenian Corps of Gentlemen, as it had been when I was a child at the first Maxim's court during the Great War.
On the other side of the throne towered an angel, dark of wing and beautiful of countenance, though terrible in aspect. His great head was horned, though he looked anything but diabolic to me. His spear was at the breast of a man fallen in front of the throne, and that man's face at least I knew. Though older, it was plainly that of Robert Rassendyll, young Lord Burlesdon's uncle.
I therefore believe I was being given divine reassurance that all I have worked for will in the end come to pass, even though I will not live to see it. I also have been given a warning that Robert Rassendyll will in time - for all his professions of repentance - revert to his evil ways. So I have taken steps through my trusted and beloved friend, the princess Elenja, to have the document enclosed herein placed beyond Robert Rassendyll's reach until it is needed, for it reveals him as the villain he is, a man entirely unworthy to ascend the throne of Rothenia.
And so may God bless you, dear child, and may you have a long and blessed reign in Strelzen. My vision reassures me that you will have many friends and God's protection. There are perhaps further things I could say, for more has been revealed to me, but that is for another time. We will speak again. Your devoted and loving cousin, LEOPOLD P.'
'So, Tomacszu, what do you make of that?'
'It seems like good news to me,' Tommy decided. 'Our little Maxxie will be crowned after all.' He reached over and scanned the deed of resignation and the signed confession that the envelope had also contained. 'Robert Rassendyll will never be able to explain this away.'
'That's not what I meant. The three young men Prince Leopold saw beside Maxxie's throne can only be Damien, Reggie Mayer and Matthew Oscott, while the ominous angel...'
'I think so too. It seems he is going to reassume his wings, and soon. God alone knows what that will herald. It may not necessarily be a comforting development. I think we had better get hold of Henry and Ed fast. They need to know what's going on.'
Tommy picked up his mobile and managed to raise Henry at home. He did his best to describe recent developments at the Residenz. 'Can you check on your son, Henry?' he asked as he completed his explanation.
'I'm already on my way upstairs, Tommy.' There was a pause. 'Oh fuck! He's gone, and he's left a note on his desk.' There was a longer pause followed by a hissed exclamation. 'Oh double fuck!'
Bar Melmoth was packed that evening. Lance and Lobowicz were consequently pressed into a dark corner, which for the moment suited Lance fine. The club was loud with throbbing music and shouted conversation as men tried to talk other men into sex. Dancing was going on in a different part of the club.
Lance was rather grateful for the marine's arm draped possessively over his shoulder. Those men in their vicinity who could see them were giving Lance serious attention, as he had taken off his shades and his hood had fallen. He was scanning the club so far as he was able, but there was no sign of Luc Charpentier.
After a while, Lobowicz shouted in his ear, 'I gotta get some beers. It looks weird just standing here. You be alright?'
Lance nodded more confidently than he felt. The marine left and pretty soon Lance felt like a gazelle who had innocently wandered into a lion's den. Men circled and stared, while Lance tried not to meet their eyes. Soon enough a drunken older American guy pressed up against him and slurred, 'Hey kid! You beautiful for free, or do ya do it for rent?'
Lance firmly removed the man's hand from his backside. 'Not interested,' he shouted back.
'Ya don't know what you're missing, chicken.'
Lance was sweating. He was a remorselessly polite young man, and being deliberately rude was quite beyond his capacities. But the man was close and trying to get closer. Lance edged away from him towards the doors, men cursing as he trod on their feet. One group shoved him hard, and he ended up on the damp floor. A bouncer finally hauled him up by his hoodie and marched him to the exit, shoving him forcefully out on to the Wejg. 'And don't fucking come back. We don't want no renters in here!' was shouted after him in Rothenian.
Lance was red with embarrassment as passers-by jostled him, laughing at his discomfiture. Now what was he to do? He couldn't go back in and he'd lost his escort. Bewildered, he wandered off south down the Wejg through the crowds. Noticing a stretch of empty wall next to a gaudily illuminated sign displaying a collage of bare-breasted pole-dancers, he took refuge there. As he did so, he became aware that there was a half-concealed gate next to him leading into a dark alley. From out of the gloom came the distinct sound of male sobbing.
Lance peered round the broken gate into the shadows. A single bulb cast some dim light on to the head of a young man hunkered amongst the refuse that littered the alley. Like a lost little boy, the stranger was screwing his fists into his eyes in his distress. It was not a pose Lance would ever have associated with the worldly, sarcastic and confident Luc Charpentier, but nonetheless, the crying boy was Luc.
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