'I'm glad I've got you two here together.'
'Why's that, Rudi?' inquired Henry mildly.
'While my dynasty's been struggling for survival in Rothenia the past couple of months, I've been getting increasingly suspicious.'
'It's the weirdness, isn't it? There's a perfect storm of a political crisis blowing up in the everyday world. Then just as I answer the call of the western leaders to help tackle it, things go apeshit in my kingdom. If someone was trying to sabotage my contribution to world peace, they couldn't have arranged it any better, so I assume this is bigger than it looks. Thank God Harry is the Princess Leia-brand of heroine.'
'Seriously, Rudi. She's been amazing.'
'That's no surprise to me, Outfield. I know exactly what manner of woman my wife is. I bless the day I met her. So also should Rothenia.
'It doesn't alter the fact that we were ambushed by something a lot bigger than my arsehole of an uncle, who, believe me, won't get off as easily as he may have thought he had. I know him for what he is now. You can count on Rudolf Elphberg for payback!'
Henry nodded. 'We know you've been there for Harry behind the scenes, Rudi.'
'So answer my question... and you're very quiet, Gavin.'
Gavin blushed. Henry knew that Rudi had always intimidated him, and it was a while before Gavin responded hesitantly. 'Er... well... things are, sorta... y'know...'
'Carry on, Gavin.'
'Hmm... well, yes. It seems to Henry and me that things are brewing.'
'Is this the Eschaton all over again?'
'No, sir,' Gavin continued reluctantly. 'That can only happen once. However, it is a consequence of the Eschaton. Rothenia now houses the One, the human who will reconcile heaven to earth and change history irrevocably.'
Rudi let out a long breath. 'Tell me more.'
'The One has to be special, a human of great purity and humility. He also has to have died and lived again. He must embrace his fate freely, knowing the price he will pay.'
'And there is such a person.'
Henry coughed. 'Actually, there have been at least two.'
'I was offered the job.'
'If you don't mind, Rudi, yes, me! It's not so strange. I may not be... er, entirely pure, but I am kinda cute and I did die and get revived back in the old days, before I met you. After the Eschaton, the Great Council offered me the chance. I turned it down.'
'The Great Council?'
'It's time you knew all this, Rudi. It's dangerous to keep it from you any longer. The Great Council is the ruling body of the Kingdom Beyond, the place outside our universe. It's a parliament of the angelic and seraphic orders. My son Lance is one of them.'
'Lance was the spirit in the spear, the one who slew the Hellhound that had taken Harry hostage at Wenzelberh. He's an archangel... quite an important one, I think, though he's evasive on the details. When I first met him, his material guise was that of a young boy. The Council wouldn't permit him to mature mentally and his physical shape reflected their attitude. After his remarkable performance during the Eschaton business, however, they decided to reward him by allowing him to grow up – provided he did so as a true human. Was he pissed about it at the beginning! Ed and I were asked by a representative of the Council to make a home for him and be his dads, and that's where their wisdom showed itself. He blossomed in a family environment. Look at him now! The finest young man you could possibly imagine. We're so proud of him.'
Rudi shook his head. 'This is just too much to take in, Henry, even if I did ask.'
'I'm sorry, sir. I don't think we have time for further explanations now. After the ceremony, though, you and I and the rest of the Ultras had better sit down somewhere quiet and talk it through.'
The former king of Rothenia gave a sudden grin, with the result that he looked at least a decade younger. 'The Wejg!'
'All the time I was sitting in the Residenz, it was denied me. I've never been on Gildensfarbswejg. Now that I bloody well can be, we'll go to Davey's club... what's it called?'
'Liberation,' replied Henry weakly.
'The very place.'
Rudolf Elphberg put down his litre glass of Löwenbrau and beamed around him. 'So this is a gay club. It seems a bit quiet.'
'It's the end of the afternoon; it warms up later... and where did you tell Harry you were going?' asked Henry.
'For a drink with my friends. And here we are.'
He, Ed, Gavin, Max, Davey, Fritz, Oskar and Henry between them had taken up an alcove. Mercifully, no one was paying much attention to their corner, despite their all still being dressed for a wedding.
'Did you want anything to eat? The kitchen's hasn't closed yet,' Davey offered.
'What do I do if some man makes a pass at me?' Rudi enquired.
'Tell him you're not interested and let him live. This isn't the cruisiest of joints,' Davey replied. 'There are other places down the road if you want to get adventurous, Broody.'
'Just asking,' the former king replied. 'Do they do crisps? This is the first bar I've been in since I was seventeen. I remember the crisps.'
Davey called over a busboy and a stack of British-brand potato crisps was soon placed on the table. 'Compliments of the house,' Davey smirked.
'Can we focus?' Henry reminded them. 'Let me kick off here... Mendamero's privilege.'
Several eyebrows went up around the table as the ominous name was spoken once more.
Henry soldiered on. 'I think we all know bits of the supernatural history, but – apart from Ed and Gavin – you guys don't know all of it. First there's how Ed and I came by our son. He wasn't the abandoned child of my late uncle Charles, as some of you may still think. It's like this...' The men around the table listened intently as Henry repeated the story of Lance Atwood's genesis.
When Henry finished, Oskar shook his head. 'He seems very human; a funny boy, ever so polite and a little shy. But the looks! I suppose his origins account for the stunning beauty.'
Ed responded with emphasis, 'Make no mistake: Lance is human. It was planned by the Great Council that he would gain his long-promised maturity by growing up as a boy in a human household, and he has done so – triumphantly. But the rules have now been changed, both for him and for us.'
Henry took up the tale. 'And here we have to reveal something about young King Maxim II. Rudi and Harry know most of this. You'll remember the late Elijah, the resurrected boy called Mark Tolmie? Though he died at the tower of Biscofshalch, the young archangel Lance drew his soul into the enchanted Spear. When the baby Harry was carrying was delivered dead, Lance placed Elijah's soul into the body and re-animated it. Maxxie is therefore a human being who has suffered death not once, but twice.
'Such a child could not be anything other than a focus of power in the world. It started when he was a toddler and began manifesting healing powers, and it's been growing more evident the older he gets. Now it appears that the erelim, the seraphic beings who currently dominate the Great Council, have persuaded the child to accept the mantle of the One.'
'The One!' exclaimed Davey. 'Why do I not like the sound of that title?'
'Too big a fondness for science-fantasy DVDs?' suggested Fritz with a grin.
'The One?' Rudi mused, apparently not much disturbed by the revelation. 'I suppose I should not be astonished. This is the prophecy of the Golden Elphberg, isn't it? Allow me to remind you of the last two of St Fenice's Elphberg pen-portraits:
Of the king restored.
Red the hair
Of the boy king
Hero of his age
Slayer of the evil one.
Of the greatest in name.
Golden the head
Loving the heart.
Scholar, warrior, saint
The one who died yet lived.'
Henry nodded. 'Not surprised you have that off by heart, Rudi. It gives you a good review.'
There was a chuckle. 'It also predicts the boy would succeed me while I was still young. For a while I feared that my days on earth were numbered, until I got the call from Washington and realised it was my time as king which was limited, not my life. My greater task lay beyond my reign.'
Henry's mouth fell open. 'Oh! I hadn't thought of that! So all these years...'
'I was half-convinced I might be the brilliant, heroic young king who died tragically early.'
'You never said!'
'My father died in his thirties, and the possibility of premature death sort of preys on your mind as a result. It didn't mean I wanted to sob on people's shoulders about it.'
Henry stared at this remarkable man, who never ceased to have the capacity to astonish him.
Rudi gave him a quirky look. 'Finished, Outfield?'
'Er... no, Rudi. If Maxxie's the One, there are going to be major consequences ahead. How do I put this...'
'The end of the world is nigh?' suggested Davey.
Gavin spoke up strongly, despite blushing at his temerity. 'No, Davey, it's not like that. But it does mean that the Kingdom Beyond and our world will come closer. There'll be supernatural aftershocks, and no one knows how powerful they'll be.'
Rudi frowned. 'I think we may say that at least one human being does, and that's your son, Henry. Lance has to be drafted. I need his input.'
'What do you mean, Rudi?'
'A number of things. The reason I'm sitting in NATO HQ at Brussels is because the world is beginning to fall apart. You know how bad things are in the Second and Third Worlds. Now it's spreading to the First World. They started talking about 'failed states' a decade ago. Years of recession and inflation have made them a reality in Europe too. The Balkan states are all but unmanageable, with shattered economies and dysfunctional governments, and they're in the EU. North Africa and the Middle East are in a state of insurrection and constant low-level warfare. The situation is going to get a lot worse too. Something tells me the appearance of the One, together with this worldwide civil chaos, is no coincidence. Why this should be, I do not know, but I rather suspect your Lance does.'
'So what do you suggest? He usually stonewalls us over supernatural stuff. He's good at it.'
'Get what you can out of him, Henry. He loves and respects you too, Ed. See if you can talk him into the National Guard when he gets to be seventeen. I want him available and under orders.'
'Are you serious?'
'War is threatening, my friends, and the defence of Europe and our liberties is my task. You are my Ultras, and I haven't forgotten that. I think we may be confident that you'll be pulling on your uniforms once more, and maybe soon. Henry, you have your unit already, and I believe you'll soon have a reserve commission as brigadier general in the post. General Antonin tells me you're to form and command an élite Strelzen brigade of the National Guard around the sixteenth battalion. You'll even get armour and artillery to play with.'
Henry's jaw dropped. 'It's that serious?'
'And some. Now, how about another glass of this rather fine beer, fellows? You can buy it, Fritz, you need to congratulate me.'
Rudi favoured his friends with a broad smile. 'Harry's pregnant again... and it'll be a girl this time.'
Fritz von Tarlenheim took his princess in his arms as the music struck up. Then they were off across the dance floor laid over the pool of his brother's house at Templerstadt. Lennie Rassendyll had worn white for all that Tommy could do to discourage her, arguing that it was her mother's dress and therefore was exempt from his critical eye. Tommy himself was demurely and conventionally dressed in a morning suit. He followed the newly married couple out on to the floor with Davey Skipper. Bela was glued to the wall with Henry and Ed.
'Those kids have been at the booze, big time,' Henry observed to his partner. The Mendamero Men and Helen had occupied a table and were already well into their second bottle of champagne. Damien was alarmingly hilarious, while an out-of-focus Reggie was all too obviously plastered.
'I'll have a word with the waiters,' Ed declared, moving off to make sure no further bottles would end up in front of the youngsters.
'How's marriage suiting you, Belaczu?' Henry asked.
He got a quirky smile back. 'It's not as I expected. The new flat's taking up a lot of our time, there's so much to do. The builders still haven't sorted out the shower room to Tommy's satisfaction. The thing is, we only have one home now, so we have to set rules about space, and who does the shopping after work – all that stuff.'
'Tommy's put on a little weight.'
'Don't let him hear you say that, Henry. He blames my cooking, but the point is he will eat so much of it. He's getting lazy about the gym too, since he's not living near the Osraeum anymore. These are all things we must come to terms with. But it's mostly good. You know what it's like.'
'I do, and believe me when I say it just gets better.'
Ed returned, bringing flute glasses for Henry and Bela. 'To the bride and groom!' he announced.
'Fritzy and Lennie!' Henry echoed. 'God, they look so handsome together. Fritzy's a different guy. Look how he's slimmed out and lost that lazy look in his eyes. He's the Fritzy we knew ten years ago, full of energy and laughter.'
Ed nodded. 'He's back on track, that's why. He's found a fantastic woman who's his equal in all respects, and he's surrendered to his own compelling need to continue his dynasty. She'll be pregnant before the end of next week, if she's not already. Bet you it'll be the first red-headed Tarlenheim.'
'What about him?' Henry indicated the new duke of Glottenberh, moodily watching his daughter and her prince dance across the floor.
'Somehow, I don't think we've seen the last of him, little babe. But at least now Rudi knows who's to blame for all the recent shit. He won't be caught out twice. Frankly, I do not envy Wicked Uncle Robert one little bit.'
'You're great, Damien. I mean... a total bud. Did I ever tell you I love ya? I mean really love ya.... I mean, not like I love Lance, of course, but I love ya... I really do.' Reggie smiled blearily into Damien's amused face, before sagging on to Mattie's broad shoulder. 'An' Mattie, I mean... like solid, reliable ol' Mattie. You're great too, and I love ya as well. Not like I love Lance, of course, but...'
'Yeah, mate,' Mattie Oscott replied, holding Reggie up. 'I think we get the message. Love you too.'
Lance looked a little alarmed. 'I'd better get him to the loos and stick his head in a bowl of water. Isn't that what you should do?'
'Dunno, Lance.' Damien grinned innocently. 'Never been that pissed. Least he's not turned violent.'
'Not with Reggie.' Helen smiled. 'Alcohol just weakens inhibitions. Reggie's not a violent and repressed personality, quite the opposite. So he's just doing what he really wants to do: tell you how much he likes you all. That's our Reggie.'
'Still,' Lance demurred, 'he's being weird. I'm glad I don't touch this stuff. I'll get him up and walk him round... oh! He's asleep.'
'There yer are mate, problem solved!' declared Damien. 'Mattie, see if yer can pick him up and put him down on that bench wiv the cushions. Make sure he's on his side and sit wiv him a bit.'
Helen and Damien changed seats to be on either side of Lance. Damien gave another meditative sip at the pale gold fluid in the flute he was holding, apparently fascinated by the strings of tiny bubbles rising magically from the bottom to the top of the glass. Eventually he came out with it. 'Me and me girl are wondering if yer've told us everyfing, Lance... or should I say Satan?'
'You gonna hold that against me?'
'Only that yer never told me. Why didnya?'
Lance shrugged. 'As I explained when we first met, humans judge you by names. That particular name carries a lot of baggage – too much of it really. It would have made things difficult.'
'And yer an archangel, when yer at home. From what you say, a really important one too.'
'If Tobias is the seraph closest to the material world, I'm the angel closest to God. It sorta thrusts you into a leadership role, like it or not.'
Helen took Lance's arm. 'You don't like it, do you, Lance?'
'No, I don't.' He sighed. 'I was just getting into being plain old Lance Atwood, a pretty boy with great parents and friends, a neat little Audi, and an amazing boyfriend with a developing drink problem. Dammit, I'm still only sixteen! I wanted to do so many things. Maybe I'd get back into competitive diving. I could do a gap year travelling in Australia and New Zealand; that would have been good. Then there's university: My dads and I were just turning our minds to what course and where to go... Incidentally, what about you two? Where are you thinking of going?'
Damien looked surprised. Apparently the Macavoy-Underwood household hadn't yet got to grips with the idea of Damien and higher education. 'Dunno mate, depends where me girl goes, dunnit.'
Helen reached past Lance and took her boyfriend's hand. 'We'll cross that bridge when we get to it. We were talking about you, Lance. It seems to me there's something you're going to have to do that you don't like.'
Lance brooded for some moments. 'You're right, and Reggie won't like it either.'
'I can't tell you, not before I've discussed it with my baby.'
'Sounds ominous, Lance.' Damien quirked a lip up. 'I hopes yer doan fink yer can leave us out of this adventure, though.'
Lance eyed his best friend uneasily. 'I'm not sure this is one for the Mendamero Men. It'll be painful enough for Reggie.'
'Painful! What are yer talking about?'
But Lance just shook his head. 'I was going to dance with my baby, but he's out of things at the moment. What about you and me, Helen?'
She dimpled. 'My animal-boy wouldn't have asked me that in a million years. I'd love to, Lance.'
'Hey! Thass my girl yer walking off with, Satan yer devil!'
'Yes, well, Daimey. Next time be quicker to ask and don't leave the way open to temptation.'
'Shouldn't you have ordered a carriage and four, little babe?' Ed smiled to see a Strelzen yellow cab ticking over in their drive.
'How else to get to the cathedral? We can't drive, and I won't be there on Eastnet time. You can leave your car at the Life Guards when you pick up your horse.'
'Your uniform is a mess... as ever.' Ed began adjusting the full-dress rig of a colonel of the Foot Guards, to which Henry remained entitled. He patted Henry's shoulders. 'Nice. Don't sit on your bearskin this time. Where's our baby... sorry... babies?'
'Coming!' hollered Lance as he thundered down the stairs. 'Luc's still in the bathroom. He's moody, 'cos he hasn't got a pretty uniform like the rest of us.' Lance was in his stunning outfit as an esquire of the royal household, plumed helmet and sword in his white-gloved hands.
'Luc!' shouted Ed up the stairs. 'Get your arse down here! Taxi's waiting.'
Luc emerged. He did not in fact look half bad at all. He'd been provided with a well-cut dark suit, which went nicely with his brown complexion and long hair. Catching sight of the expectant faces, he struck a pose. Even Lance laughed.
'Looking good, our kid,' Ed admitted.
Henry indicated the door. 'On our way, then. See you at the cathedral, Ed. Hey... hear that?' The bells of the city of Strelzen had begun to peal, the sound washing across the city to reach the hill of the Sixth District, where Fridricsgasse was situated.
Mrs Willerby kissed both boys goodbye at the front door and told them how handsome they looked, causing a blush to colour Luc's sallow face, perhaps for the first time ever. He was going to sit alongside Helen, Barry and Marky in the nave, in a block of seats reserved for SIS kids.
The taxi had to drop Henry and the boys at the rear of the Waclawskloster, which was as close as the driver could get. They joined the crowds flocking up the lanes behind the cathedral. Lance and Henry got curious looks: Lance in green, silver and carmine; Henry in blue, red and gold, both with swords at their thighs. They deposited Luc with his invitation card at the south transept door, and watched him queue with the guests. He seemed for once excited, rather than projecting studied boredom.
Henry and Lance went round the south side to join the blaze of uniforms at the great west doors, now standing wide to welcome the king of Rothenia on his coronation day. The sound of the cathedral's bells was loud in Erchbischofplaz, which was already packed with spectators, though it would as yet be over an hour before the king arrived.
Lance, spotting a group of green uniforms and silver helmets, went to join his colleagues, the esquires and gentlemen of the household. The older men who were the gentlemen were leaning on ceremonial halberds dating from the seventeenth century, with which they would escort the king. It was the job of the Mendamero Men to walk alongside the train of the royal mantle: 'To make sure no one trips over it,' as Damien summarised their duty for the day.
Henry, who had requested to remain Rudi's aide-de-camp on state occasions, found his station next to the Prince of Elphberg, resplendently decked out as field marshal of Rothenia
'Morning, Outfield.' The former king greeted him cheerily, briskly returning Henry's punctilious salute.
'Walk with me, Henry,' Rudi continued. Cars were arriving bearing the principal guests. Several foreign monarchs and heads of state were in Strelzen, and Rudi had undertaken to do the meeting and greeting at the cathedral door, before handing them over to ushers and clergy.
While awaiting the arrival of the German president, Henry asked how Maxxie was. Rudi quirked a lip. 'Oh, our pocket-size Messiah has been a bit clingy lately. Harry thought he was getting a little anxious about the arrival of a sister, though Leo's ecstatic that there'll be a baby in the family other than he. It took a while, but I finally got out of the boy that Lance was to blame.'
'Lance? What's he been up to?'
'Apparently Maxxie admitted he'd been "bad" and Lance told him off.'
'Really? Any more details?'
'No. Maxxie clammed up, more from embarrassment than anything else, I think. The point being, everyone's always told him what a good boy he is... as indeed he is, especially with his brother. To be caught out doing something wrong has shaken his little world. He adores Lance, and to have your son cross with him over what he did upset him badly.'
Henry was deeply intrigued. 'So my baby is on the case behind the scenes? That's no small relief. The sort of naughtiness the One might get up to could be cosmic in its implications. I'll feel a bit safer in my bed.'
'Maxxie's been snuggling on my lap a lot lately. He's aware we know about his special situation. He's beginning to talk about it, which is an even bigger relief to me and his mother. We no longer feel he's living his own secret life. It's good to know he wants us to be part of it. We're really grateful to Lance for that, as Maxxie admitted he'd been told off in part for keeping things from us. I could make Lance a duke if he wasn't already an archangel.'
Another car arrived and disgorged its occupants, their highnesses the duke and duchess of Glottenberh. Ellie was as ever elegant. She had invested heavily in a stunning tiara, perhaps as compensation for being denied a place in the coach procession from the Residenz. She was still complaining.
'Really, Rudi. This would have been so much easier had I been allowed a lady-in-waiting and Robert an equerry. I am the king's grandmother, after all. I can't tell you how strange people find it.'
Rudi ignored her and studiously took his uncle's hand. Cameras flashed and flickered across the square as the press recorded this significant moment of family rapprochement. 'Good morning, uncle.'
The duke gave him a distant look. 'An important day for you, Rudolf.'
Rudi had kept hold of his uncle's hand. 'Yes, sir. But more so for Rothenia. Had it been you in that coach, I can assure you I would have been in the crowd with a handgun.'
The sudden, overt hostility took even Robert Rassendyll aback. 'Now... I say!'
The former king leaned in close to his uncle. To the crowd it would have looked as if the two men were sharing a private joke, but Henry heard the blistering and deliberate words that were spoken. 'If you ever plot against my wife and son again, I will personally put a bullet in your head, you murdering old bastard.' Then with a pleasant smile he let go of the duke's hand and turned to meet the British prime minister.
The last of the foreign dignitaries had entered the cathedral. A stir passed through the crowd. Rudi and Henry noticed the sergeants and officers of the guards lined along the square and Domstrasse move to inspect their men. The sound of a distant band and cheering reached them from across the river.
'Takes me back a few years, Rudi, to your own big day.'
'What children we were,' was the smiling reply. 'But we became men, and have filled a man's part.' The former king took on a distant look. 'Now we're entering a new and very frightening world, but we do so together, and in that I take great comfort. There were never more noble knights than the present king of Rothenia has around his throne.'
Henry caught the flash of his son's smile from under his helmet as, across the square, the corps of royal gentlemen formed up to greet their king.
'And the king's esquires too, Rudi. Don't forget them.'
Thomas Anthony George Entwhistle OSL, domestic chamberlain to His Most Pious and Steadfast Majesty, Maxim II, by the Grace of God, King of Rothenia, gave a little wink at his sovereign, perched on the tall throne in the centre of the choir of St Vitalis' cathedral.
The king grinned back. He was clearly enjoying himself, and hisbehaviour since Lance Atwood had lifted him on to his elevated seat had been perfect. Maxxie had recited his coronation oath without so much as a glance at the book held in front of him.
Tommy had borne the phial of holy oil and the silver spoon for the anointing past the king to the cardinal on his throne to the south side of the high altar. The cathedral choir began singing an arrangement of the Veni Creator, as Lance, helmet removed and the full beauty of his face revealed, took the king in his arms and carried him before the altar.
The little king knelt on the top step. Sunlight blazed down from the upper windows and illuminated his small white-uniformed figure, briefly isolated in the great church. The cardinal approached and began the Latin prayers. Maxxie held out his hands to receive the anointing on his palms, and then his forehead.
The boy stood to face the congregation and, as the slow, rhythmic chords of Handel's great anthem filled the church, the light brightened even more around him, until it seemed to some that he himself was the source of it. And when the choir broke out with Zadok the Priest, it seemed to others that more voices were singing than were present in the choir stalls.
A very serious Lance once more picked up the king and took him back to his throne, where the other esquires arranged his mantle. The various items of regalia were presented to him, though he was required only to hold the sceptre of the kingdom, the same as used for the coronation of Rudolf I of Ruritania, nearly four hundred years before.
The king's father, the prince of Elphberg, brought up to the cardinal the Crown of Tassilo, the ancient symbol of Rothenian rulership, now well over a millennium old. The cardinal took it and held it above the boy king's head. In Rothenian, he declared:
O God the Crown of the faithful:
Bless we beseech thee this Crown,
and so sanctify thy servant Maxim
upon whose head this day thou dost place it
for a sign of royal majesty,
that he may be filled by thine abundant grace
with all princely virtues:
through the King eternal Jesus Christ our Lord.
As a great AMEN rolled out through the Church, the cardinal put the ancient diadem on a cushion. The prince of Tarlenheim, the Lord High Marshal, then handed the cardinal a lighter gold circle to be placed on the boy's head. The circlet, although designed for one of the eighteenth-century queens of Ruritania, fitted Maxxie well enough.
The cardinal held out his arms, declaring in a loud voice, 'ECCE REX VESTER!' And all the people cried, 'God save the King! Long live the King! May the King live forever!'
And strangely, after the last crashing declaration, one beautiful voice – loud beyond the measure of man – spoke unscripted into the sudden silence, as Lance Edward Atwood called out from beside the throne, 'AMEN! SO BE IT!'
In concluding this story, I want to record my gratitude to my indefatigable editors, alpha and beta: Rob, Terry, Andrew and James.
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