Everybody stared at Lance. Eventually Mattie coughed and said, 'Would you repeat that?'
'There are two parties in the Great Council, as I said: the erelim and the angels. My people have a great sympathy for the material universe and its inhabitants. The erelim, on the other hand, rarely have anything to do with it. Though they have an intellectual understanding of existence, they really don't see the reason for what they call an inferior, tragic and painful state of being. As a result, they decided the coming of the One was the obvious point to bring it to a close.'
Reggie had taken Lance's hand. 'I thought you were the Destroyer, Lance.'
'So I was, but I was also the Renewer. I gave people hope of better things, of new growth out of decay. I understood what the erelim never can, that mortality is a gift: it's vital and alive, it allows change and growth. Human love is so very different from placid angelic benignity. It comes with passion, tears, betrayal and astonishing sacrifice. I see all this now so clearly, in ways I could not before, when I was an archangel.' His hand squeezed Reggie's hard.
'So what do the angels want?' Helen quizzed.
'We're more patient than the erelim. We think the One can be to the created Universe what the Creator is to the Kingdom Outside. We think he'll change things, if his power can be established, bringing Heaven closer to Earth, if you see what I mean.'
'Er.... this God, right?' Mattie said. 'He really exists? So what's the Great Council thing about, telling people what to do, and all the plotting and stuff?'
'Ask the easy ones, why don't you?' sighed Lance. 'Think of Rothenia as an echo of the Kingdom Beyond. Then God is like our Harry or Rudi – at the heart of it all, watching and caring, but above politics.'
'But King Rudi was decisive and a great leader,' Helen objected.
'And so God can be too. But now is not the time for that discussion.' Lance turned to Maxxie. 'Are you following all this, little one?'
Maxxie gave a slight nod. 'I think so, Lance. Though it's hard.'
Lance reached over and took the boy off Damien's lap, to snuggle him and kiss his hair. 'Now answer me this, little one: Whose idea was it to reactivate my angelic nature?'
'Well, Toby said I needed a protector, since he couldn't be here all the time. So we agreed to give you your nature back. Was that wrong?'
'It wasn't exactly wrong, baby, but why didn't you ask me first?'
'I don't know. Toby didn't seem to think it was important, and he is on that Council thing so I didn't say anything.'
'Okay, then, here's another hard question for you, Maxxie. When you do things – you know what I mean – how do you feel?'
The child meditated. 'Well, it's like when I read a book. I see all sorts of things and make a story out of it. Is that what you mean?'
'Not quite. When you talked to Luc, you spoke to him in French. Did you know you were doing that?'
'It sort of came to me... Toby lent me the knowledge when I told him I wanted to help Luc.'
'You let him in your head?'
'I suppose. He's so wise and clever, and told me ever so much. And he is good... you said so.'
Lance kissed the troubled boy again before looking round the group. 'It's becoming clear to me what's happening.' He cuddled Maxxie tighter. 'Now baby, tell me this. Laszlo and Franco...'
Maxxie squirmed uncomfortably in Lance's arms at the mention of those names.
'... you wanted to help them, I know. You were sitting on Toby's lap, weren't you. He talked to you in your head, didn't he?'
'He said the poor little ones were so unhappy, the best thing was to send them home where no one could ever hurt them again.'
'Do you know where he took them?'
Maxxie nodded. 'To the place where people go in the end, the place I came from.'
'You weren't sure about doing it though, were you?'
Maxxie shook his head, but said nothing. It wasn't clear whether he was agreeing or disagreeing with Lance.
Lance continued, 'But Toby said it would be alright, it would be for the best. He does that a lot, doesn't he, speaking in your head? Sometimes he even gives you words to say.'
'It's a bit weird when he does. But he's a grown-up and a seraph, so it must be alright. And he did help Luc and Barry.'
Lance gave Maxxie a final hug, and set him on his feet. 'Now baby, you must promise me a few things. You must never let Toby do that again. If you say no, he can't do it. If you think something he suggests isn't right, you mustn't agree to it. You're doing things at the moment which you shouldn't be doing, such as sitting in judgement ... but you have no ability to judge. Like me, you have to grow as a human before you can dare to do that.
'Toby knows this, and he's taking advantage of you. He's getting you to do what he wants you to do, rather than what's right for you to do. Those two young boys had their lives to lead, and though their childhood started horribly, they might yet have been turned to good. Others they could have helped will never now receive it. The love they had for each other is lost to this world.'
Maxxie put his hands to his face. 'Are you angry with me, Lance? Did I do a bad thing? I'm sorry. I can bring them back!'
'Laszlo and Franco... if you want me to.'
'No, Maxxie, it's too late. The point is not to use your powers until you're a lot older and know what you're doing. You've got so much to learn about people before you can help them and the world they live in. Do you understand me?'
The little boy, who had become more and more unhappy as Lance started laying down the law, was by then gulping and soon was sobbing. He blindly sought out Helen, who picked him up and carried him round the room, stroking his back and soothing him.
Reggie stared at Lance. 'Toby and the erelim are out of control? Are they going to end the world?'
Lance quirked up a corner of his mouth. 'I'm afraid they'll try, but they won't find it so easy after today. Fancy using the One as their cat's-paw... the arrogance of it! Toby needs a good kicking. He's been working on this behind my back since the Eschaton. I'll have that seraph. He's never beaten me yet!'
Damien appeared less than convinced. 'Looks to me like we have a fight on our hands, lads. Biggest ever too!'
The teens applied themselves to comforting and reassuring an anguished Maxxie. It took a while.
Barry curled up in Luc's arms. They were enjoying another post-coital moment in the spare bedroom of the Fridricsgasse house, their clothes strewn all over the floor.
Barry sank his nose into Luc's hairy armpit. 'You smell a lot better.'
'I used Ed's roll-on deodorant. I never realised soldiers had such things, but then he is pédé.'
'Tell me, Lucky, why do Rothenian boys look different from... well, French and British lads for instance?'
'A point I have observed. British and French kids look very similar... well, northern French at least, I leave out the Midi... which for a boy born in Paris is the right thing to do. Rothenians and southern Germans have pin heads, have you observed? Long necks and cheek bones out of proportion to the face. It can be very attractive, but often not. Also the lips tend to be large. Not good. As a result, boys from our part of Europe stand out, and are objects of great desire.'
'You were a huge hit in your brief moment of stardom on the web, and I don't just mean that monster queue between your legs. Voyeurs all over Central Europe were in love with your exotic British charm. The comments on our site... You would have blushed... indeed you would, your naïve modesty was one of the things about you that so turned me on that first day.'
'Why did you get involved in all that shit, Lucky?'
Luc brooded briefly. 'I suppose the money, and the rebellion such activity represented. I was arrogant as a child. I thought I could do anything and no rules applied. The sex with the St Wladislaw boys was good, and doing it for everyone to watch... it got me hard. It was Todo who began it all. He was addicted to wanking on the web. Then we started performing as a pair, which was how that vile Sczneczen found him, and afterwards me. The dark mood I lived with brought me to the Wejg and his premises. He had me tattooed; he liked to mark his boys.'
Barry ran his fingers over the stars ornamenting Luc's flanks and flat belly down to his crotch. 'Did you have to get naked and shaved to have this?'
'How else? Sczneczen watched it done, he really got off on it.'
'I'd like to get them too. Would you mind?'
'Marked like me? Would I mind? Not as long as I can watch! I know the man who did it, though getting to his parlour these days will be harder. But I would like it. I would however suggest that you ask your parents first; we are being good boys now.'
'And what about you, Lucky? What's going to happen?'
Luc gave a very Gallic shrug. 'I am living for the moment, Barry. This is a comfortable place and I'm enjoying it. I'm even smoking out of doors, just to be nice.'
Barry kissed him. 'That monster queue of mine...'
'Let me get on my stomach. I seem to have spent a lot of my time recently being impaled on long, sharp objects. Something tells me this will be more pleasurable than the last time I was penetrated.'
The autumn evening was darkening to deep blue outside the Residenz as the Regency Council assembled in extraordinary session. Tommy had changed out of drag in respect for the presence of the princess of Vinodol. She would never have understood and it was pointless taxing her patience.
Tommy was in his office chair, with Oskar sitting on the desk. While waiting for the council members to arrive, the two were watching Eastnet 24 playing on the wall screen. 'Looks like rumours are already circulating on Parlementplaz,' Tommy observed.
'Good,' agreed Oskar. 'The news had best come in drips, so people can get used to the idea.'
The TV showed cars coming and going through the Chancellery gate and an Eastnet commentator getting very excited in his dialogue with the studio. The scrolling headline ran, BREAKING NEWS: EASTNET LEARNS QUEEN REGENT HAS ASKED VON LAUERN TO FORM COALITION GOVERNMENT.
Oskar was still brooding. 'I hope this is for the best. I don't trust the CDP.'
'Von Lauern's not so bad, especially now he has to rely on the more liberal section of his party. He's been forcibly moved to the centre. Are you ready for the grand finale to a great day, Osku?'
Oskar's mood brightened. 'I can't tell you how much I've been waiting for this. Pity he's about to become my brother's father-in-law.'
'It's for that reason Harry's decided not to go public.'
The two men picked up folders and headed down to the council chamber, where the members were already finding their seats. The queen was at the head of the table, and her staffers took chairs by the wall.
Harry opened the meeting with a rap of her pen. She smiled. 'It appears, highnesses, excellencies and gentlemen, that the crisis in the monarchy has receded. I have here the text of the statement Count Robert Rudolf Rassendyll of Hentzen has issued to the press this evening through the Rotheniske Adelsgennosenschaft. It withdraws his claim on the throne absolutely and forever, with only the reservation of the claims of his daughter, the Princess Royal. He expresses his full confidence in the Queen Mother and the arrangements for the regency set up by his nephew, the former King Rudolf VI. He goes on to state, "In the light of the general world crisis, and the need for harmony within the Kingdom of Rothenia at this time, I regret I have pursued so ill-advised a claim. I call for review of the succession rights to the throne of Rothenia and their closer conformity to those of modern European monarchies." Rather well put, I thought.'
Tom Bernenstejne grinned. 'Not surprising, ma'am, since you wrote it yourself.'
The queen held up another piece of paper. 'And here is a draft of letters patent under my seal and that of my son raising our beloved and faithful kinsman, Robert Rassendyll, to the dignity of Duke of Glottenberh, with the title of "highness".'
'That sets a new standard of irony in official documents,' observed Will Vincent. 'Why are you being so generous? The man's a thief and a conspirator...' He looked hastily across at the princess of Vinodol. '... saving your presence, serene highness.'
'Please don't mind me,' the old princess observed. 'I would lock my son up in a dungeon in his own castle and feed him on bread and water, had I my way.'
Harry shrugged. 'I imagine the press will work out that there's more to this abrupt abandonment of his claims than first appears. He'll have a lot of explaining to do to his erstwhile supporters. But as for granting him the title, I think the royal family needs to demonstrate some unity to the people. This at least seems to hint at some generosity within the Elphberg clan.' She shuffled her papers. 'Now we need to move on to my son's coronation. All the arrangements have been knocked back, so I propose postponing it till the end of November. How does that sound, your eminence?'
'Which Sunday would that be, your majesty?'
'The Sunday before Advent, the twenty-third of the month.'
'The Feast of Christ the King! Very propitious, ma'am. I will make the arrangements.'
'Come on, Luc! Shift your skinny butt!' Lance battered on the door of what was coming to be called 'Luc's room' in the Atwood-Cornish household.
The reply was muffled by a door and a duvet, but was probably obscene, Lance concluded. He bounded down the stairs to scavenge for his car keys. He was chomping on the ham-and-egg baguette handed him by Mrs Willerby when a tousled and yawning Luc finally appeared, pulling on a black tee-shirt. Ready for him too, Mrs Willerby passed him a flask of coffee and a brown paper bag showing grease spots. It was heavy with the filled croissants she baked herself, which Luc adored. He had gained points by telling her so. He smiled warmly at her, and, amazingly to Lance, she dimpled back at him.
'I detect some impatience, mon copain.'
'It's your first day back at school, Luc. You might be more eager.'
'Perhaps, but I would hardly call it the return of the hero. I do not see the students of SIS lining up to welcome me back. I am not over the moon to be restarting my formal education.'
'You know the terms of the court order.' Luc had been signed into the custody of Ed and Henry, and his residence on Fridricsgasse was looking less and less temporary. Lance was not sure what he thought about that. He still found Luc an irritant.
'I would have expected the Lord Satan to be less enamoured of rules than it seems he is.'
They drove silently round the corner, Luc in the back seat, to pick up Damien. 'Mornin', lads!' he chirped. 'Hey! Pukey! It's back to school for yer! Bet yer pleased.'
Although Damien got just a sullen grunt for reply, he turned round in his seat beaming nonetheless. 'C'mon, Pukey. Bazza'll be bouncing up and down waiting for yer at least. He's missed yer, even if no one else has.'
That comment finally elicited a twisted smile from the French boy. Lance had observed previously that Luc didn't seem to mind Damien's casual insults.
It had been several weeks since Luc had taken up residence in the Atwood-Cornish home. Apart from a bitter row between the two boys about Luc's tendency to smoke under Lance's bedroom window and flick cigarette butts on to the pool cover, things had remained largely peaceful between them.
Ed Cornish had taken control of Luc, using the teen-wrangler skills he had acquired while a company commander in the Rothenian army. Luc had developed something of an awe for the general, and permanent changes had been made as a result. Although Luc continued to smoke, his clothes no longer reeked of tobacco; Mrs Willerby saw to that. Moreover, he had lost his shabbiness and the unhealthy look he had worn for years. A good diet, a generous clothing allowance, and principally his increasing devotion to his beloved Barry had changed his outward appearance. He might never lose his sarcastic demeanour, Lance thought, but emotional stability and the simple fact that he was cared for made a huge difference. He could be as charming as Lance himself if he so desired, and was increasingly demonstrating it.
Luc turned out to be wrong about one thing. There were a couple of boys waiting at the entrance for him. Barry for one, of course, but the other was Marky, who came up and took Luc's hand. 'So you are back, French boy. I was eager to greet your return to Year 12. When I came back here myself, I was so happy to see my friends. I wanted you to feel something of that. I know we have not been close till now, but I think things have much changed between us, am I right?'
Luc was plainly moved. 'You do not mind my attachment to Barry? He was your boyfriend for a while.'
Marky shook his head. 'It was sad when we were separated, but I think I see now Barry and I were never to be. Yes, I am happy for you both.'
Barry was standing smiling next to the Rothenian boy. 'You're quite a guy, Marky,' he pronounced. He looked at Luc, 'Well, say something nice, Lucky. I know you can.'
Luc gave a fluid and very elaborate bow, the sort that would have been perfectly acceptable at the Versailles of the Sun King. 'Merci bien, monsieur le comte, pour vos très amiables félicitations sur m'arrivée à ce lieu d'instruction supérieure.'
Damien looked his admiration. 'Now that,' he proclaimed, 'is serious irony. You juss gotta love it, doanchya?'
Marky merely laughed. And so Luc Charpentier returned to full-time education, hand in hand with his lover and surrounded by friends.
That evening the Mendamero Men clambered into Lance's car. Luc had gone home with Barry, though not to sleep there; that was still a step too far for the elder Hignetts.
Lance was intent on celebrating the end of Reggie's grounding, but first they had an appointment to keep. Lance found a parking spot just off Stracenzstrasse, and Damien led the boys to an elegant shopfront, which proclaimed in golden italic: A.I. Markowics: Costumiers and robe makers to the Court of Rothenia.
Half an hour later the four were admiring themselves in front of the shop's dressing mirrors. All were in the uniforms of Gentlemen of the Royal Household: high-collared tunics in Elphberg green, laced and buttoned with silver, with heavy epaulettes. The trousers and facings were carmine with silver braid. Two shop assistants were on their knees buckling swords to the boys' waists, while the others paused to join in the admiration. The coming coronation had the shop working overtime.
The manager glowed with satisfaction. 'This is the court dress for Pages of the Presence according to the regulations of the sixteenth year of Queen Flavia. Of course were you eighteen years of age, the braid and lace would be gold. But no doubt when you reach that age, you'll have outgrown these and will be fitted for new uniforms. Very handsome I must say. Now the helmets.'
Silver casques with carmine plumes were produced and carefully fitted. After an orgy of phone snapping with their handijs, the four disrobed and watched as their regalia was carefully packed away. Delivery was promised for the weekend.
The Mendamero Men spilled out on to the street, highly elated and amused. 'Where now, lads? The Wejg?' queried Mattie.
'I've booked our usual table in McDonalds on Mikhelstrasse,' Lance replied, a little sourly.
'Whassup wiv you, Reggie?'
'Yer walking a bit... well, odd.'
'Trust you to notice.'
Mattie was grinning all over his round face. 'You idiots did it, didnya?'
'What did they do?' Damien was consumed with curiosity.
'I'll tell him if you don't.'
Reggie was blazing red and lost for words, obliging Lance to reply. 'I wish I hadn't got into that conversation with Fatso here. You know when I transform, I get sorta... enhanced?'
Mattie was near hysterics. 'In the dick department. Yeah, we know.'
'Well, Reggie wanted to find out what might happen if I transformed when we were in the middle of, er... doing it.'
'So yer did it... yer tosser!'
'Yeah. I did. Never again!'
Reggie finally spoke up. 'It was like someone stuffed a fire extinguisher in my butt. They must have heard the squealing in Hofbau.'
'I did turn it off straight away!'
'But not before I felt the full force. Jesus! I'm never gonna want size again... ever!'
'I'm not that small,' Lance retorted defensively, 'even in human form. And what about you? You nearly broke off my horns when you grabbed them like that!'
Reggie gave something very like a little flounce. 'Please don't compare the inconvenience. It was convulsive. I couldn't help it.'
Damien was still chuckling happily when they reached Lance's car.
Although it was the first day of November, the weather remained dry and bright in Strelzen. Crowds of paparazzi were being kept back by police on Wenzelgasse, where the guests for the partnership ceremony of Thomas Entwhistle and Bela Alexandrij were queuing to get in the side door of the Ostberg Palace.
Both men had wanted to keep the event low key, but the fact that the queen regent of Rothenia and her husband, the prince of Elphberg, were to be there killed that plan stone dead. Other celebrities flooded in. The Peacher circle was well-represented. Present also was the playboy gay boy Prince Martin Anton of Thuringia, who arrived with his friend Davey Skipper, both men the epitome of international male chic.
No cameras flashed for an anonymous pair of young men who took the red carpet hand in hand. Max Jamroziak and Gavin Price were however greeted and fêted by a large group of friends waiting for them at the head of the staircase.
'Welcome back to the old country, Max!' Ed Cornish, in a civilian suit for once, wrung his hand. Gavin in the meantime was being kissed and hugged by Henry.
'Interesting scar,' Ed observed, looking at Max's cheek. 'Is that recent?'
Max touched the red line. 'Yeah, wasn't quick enough when we took on a rogue incubus high above Leeds. Fortunately, the doctor doesn't think it'll be permanent. And you shoulda seen the mess my Gav made of the incubus! Where's my Tommy babe? Need to go see him and pick up the ring. He said he's got makeup to cover the mark. He wants me picture-perfect for the photos.'
Henry led Gavin off to a buffet table. They picked up glasses of mineral water and found a quiet corner by one of the salon's tall windows. Down on Modenehemestrasse the Friday morning traffic ground past the palace.
'So what do you think, baby?' Henry asked.
Gavin's little face concentrated. 'There's definitely an increase in demonic activity in Britain. It's been noticeable the past three months. We can't just cope on weekends anymore. It's going to interfere with the day job if I'm not careful. Apart from his part-time management position in Orton's, Max is easier in midweek than I am, now he's doing his doctorate. But I'm nine-to-five, me. I can't just take time off work.'
'You've got this sensitivity to the supernatural, baby. What did you perceive when your plane entered Rothenia yesterday?'
'A feeling of power the like of which I've never experienced before, not even when the Icon was functioning. It's as if the sun has come to earth and is blazing away in the heart of Strelzen, in the Residenz to be precise.'
'He's the One, isn't he,' Gavin stated.
Henry nodded. 'Lance has told me that much, though my baby is holding out on me about some other stuff, I can tell.'
'What's going on, Henry? You're bothered, obviously.'
'It's not anything I can put my finger on precisely. Things are great at home. Lance has got his Reggie and they're blissful. Our baby has grown up so fast. Our new gay stray, Luc, is... well, manageable. He's certainly challenging and interesting.'
'So what is it?'
'There's a crisis brewing, bigger than the Eschaton. You see symptoms of it everywhere, and the demonic activity is just a small part of it. Borders are loosening between this world and the Beyond, nowhere more so than here.'
'There aren't any demons in Rothenia, Henry. Believe me, they couldn't stand the light emanating from Maxxie. I imagine that's why the infestation rate is up elsewhere.'
'I want you to come back to Strelzen and stay a while, Gavin baby. You and Max will be here for the coronation anyway, won't you? I want you to see if you can get something out of Lance. He may tell you what he won't tell me.'
'Sure, Henry my Henry. Umm... I suppose this means Mendamero's back in business?'
'Fraid so. While I have no powers other than my cuteness and appeal to Rothenian ladies of a certain age, nonetheless I have a good deal of experience and a lot of credit with the Great Council, what with defeating the Antichrist and bringing up the Destroyer of Worlds and all. They owe me.'
'Without powers Henry, you can't do much.'
'Lance has been given his angelic identity back, if he wishes to assume it, though he ain't that cute little angel-boy anymore. In fact, he's huge, dark and powerful, from what I saw on the Wejg. He can help if he wants.'
The back of Henry's neck prickled. A familiar presence had manifested itself behind him. He turned. 'Good to see you, your royal highness... y'know, that just don't sound right, Rudi. You'll always be a majesty to me.'
'A word, Outfield,' requested Rudolf, prince of Elphberg, in his familiar heavy way.
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