In writing this story I have been much helped by the enthusiasm and dedication of my elite group of editors, Rob, Terry and Peter, as well as the alert reading of James, who has deep sympathy for my characters and knows how to express it. This story concludes the events opened up in The Regency, and indeed before then in Henry and the Eschaton, though it is not necessary to have read those stories before this one. But in case you haven't then this cast list will help.
Matt White and Andy Peacher are the alpha couple who began all this. They fostered two gay boys who are important to this tale.
The first was Justin Peacher-White, Matt and Andy's adopted son, a senior executive with PeacherCorp based in Strelzen, the Rothenian capital. He is the most uncivil partner of Nathan Underwood, a National Parks supervisor. Justin's son is Damien Macavoy(17), who is deeply in love with a very beautiful Rothenian girl, Helen Debies(17).
The second was Edward Cornish, now a career officer in the Rothenian army, whose civil partner is Henry Robert Atwood - of whom many strange tales are told - an investigative journalist for Eastnet TV in Rothenia. Henry and Ed in their turn fostered Lance Edward Atwood (18), a young man of most unconventional origins, whose boyfriend is Reginald (Reggie) Fulbrook Mayer (17), son of the US ambassador to Rothenia.
Due to force of circumstances, Ed and Henry have given a home to a French boy, Luc Charpentier (18), who smokes way too much. His long-suffering boyfriend is an English expatriate in Strelzen, Barry Hignett(18).
Damien's oldest friend is Matthew (Mattie) Andrew Oscott (18), son of Paul and Rachel, Matt and Andy's friends. Mattie is not gay, or even happy, but that's about to change bigtime - the happiness, I mean.
Henry and Ed have numerous friends, the most important to this tale being Gavin Michael Price, a business-systems consultant in London and part-time demon hunter, whose enthusiasm for terminating demons is shared by hisboyfriend Maxim (Max) Josep Jamroziak, an unemployed post-doctoral academic from a Rothenian family.
Very close also to Henry and Ed is Rudolf (Rudi) Elphberg, former king of Rothenia, who is currently attempting to hold together NATO. He is devoted to his beloved wife Harriet Peacher, sister of Andy and now HM the Queen Regent of Rothenia. Their children are: HM King Maxim II (Maxxie) of Rothenia (8); HRH Leopold (Leo) Elphberg(6), duke of Radelngrad; and HRH Osra (Ossie) Elphberg, princess of Rothenia (not yet one year old).
Rudi, Henry and Ed are closely linked to the doyen of Rothenian aristocrats, HSH Franz (Fritz) prince of Tarlenheim, a banker married to Rudi's first cousin, HRH Elenja (Lennie) Elphberg, princess royal of Rothenia and princess of Tarlenheim. They have a newborn child, Helge Maria. Fritz's elder brother, Oskar von Tarlenheim, count of Modenehem, is a political operator and chief-of-staff to the queen regent. His civil partner is Peter Peacher, CEO and chairman of PeacherCorp, younger brother of Andy. They have had two children by surrogate mothers: Piotr Oskar (2), count in Tarlenheim; and Eupheme Adeliza Peacher. The children are cared for by Fritz and Oskar's elder sister, Helge.
Close to Henry from his schooldays is the media entrepreneur, David (Davey) Skipper, whose civil partner is Terence O'Brien, a security specialist. They have property and ventures in Rothenia, though they are based in London.
There are other recurring characters, who will be introduced in the appropriate places. But now, the story ...
Majestic in the evening light, the bulk of the USS Aleutian Islands began its slow turn northwards through the Carpathos Strait into the Aegean. Crete was a dark mass on the western horizon. The stars were beginning to glint in the blue vault of the heavens arched over the wine-dark seas below. The assault ship, the pennant of the rear admiral commanding the group fluttering from its mast, was surrounded by its escort of cruisers and destroyers, sizeable ships all, yet dwarfed by Aleutian Islands.
This was not a time of war, even though the margins of Europe were disturbed with insurrections and littered with the debris of collapsing states. Nonetheless, the power of a United States naval strike force remained a central bulwark of NATO security. In fact, with the withdrawal of US land forces and missiles from Europe, it was the only bulwark left. The Sixth Fleet had been relentlessly run down by economies and cutbacks, but its remaining warships and the assault vessel's aircraft and Marines would daunt any upstart power in the region.
The group had just completed its cruise up the coast of Palestine and on to Cyprus, sailing deliberately hull-up on the horizon so that from dunes and cliff tops, impotent militias could observe the parade of massive Western firepower. The usual strength of the strike group was depleted that evening because of the skiffs and armed trawlers those same militias occasionally sent out, seeking to prey on commercial traffic along the Turkish coast. The Sixth Fleet's lesser warships were elsewhere, shepherding the convoys now necessary to get commercial shipping safely across the eastern Mediterranean to Suez. Here Egyptian armed forces still exerted some control, denying the fortified isthmus to the warlords, jihadists and raiders who were the only powers remaining in the wreck of the Near Eastern states.
By dawn, the strike force was approaching the Aegean coast of Turkey, the centre of the most troubling recent crisis to hit NATO, affecting as it did one of the organisation's own member states. Although Turkey still had a government in name, it sat isolated in Istanbul. Anatolia had collapsed in on itself, with Kurdish and Armenian spheres taking bites out of the fringes. The region was otherwise dominated by a loose alliance of Syriac and Turkic militias who had set up a rival Turkish Islamicist puppet regime in Ankara to give themselves some sort of legitimacy.
It was that confederation which had drawn the attention of NATO, because it had developed ambitions. A dozen Greek islands had found it necessary to beg for protection as they came under economic and military pressure from the Turkish mainland. The strike group was there to remind the region that some powers in the west were too big to challenge directly.
The task force slowly moved through the Strait of Chios. Attack helicopters rose from Aleutian Islands and thuttered towards the island. A pall of smoke covered the town of Chios itself as US Marines expelled the militia raiders who had recently occupied and claimed the island. The choppers buzzed low across the mountains of the east coast, occasionally strafing fleeing groups of black-garbed paramilitaries.
By late afternoon, the strike group's task was all but done. There remained only the need to underline the point it had just made. With the helicopters recalled, the strike force began slowly moving up the strait towards the open waters of the gulf beyond. The board of inquiry convened to investigate what happened next could never account for why the flag officer in command did not immediately withdraw Aleutian Islands from the strait and stand out into the open sea. It would never have a chance to question him.
Some sort of retaliation from the mainland was anticipated, since the Turkic confederation under its shadowy overlord had established its headquarters in nearby İzmir. The former armed forces of the Turkish Republic had been the most powerful in the region. Following the collapse of the republic, no one quite knew where its military assets had gone. Fortunately, NATO had managed to disable its own missile bases before evacuating, and the Turkish navy's warships were laid up in port, so far as NATO intelligence was able to establish.
However, as the strike group reached the narrows of the strait and turned to pass east of the island of Inousses, a squadron of four corvettes made their presence evident when they left the base at Foça. They were flying an ensign otherwise unknown to the observers on the bridge of the assault ship: a black flag with what appeared to be a winged figure in white in its centre.
The small size of the vessels made their appearance seem no more than bravado or defiance, for they could not block the progress of the US vessels towards İzmir, or ward off the vengeance about to descend on that city. Two destroyers moved forward of the carrier to offer cover and scare off the threat.
It was at that point that Aleutian Islands shuddered in the water. Then a massive explosion shook it and several of its escorts. Soon it was listing. Claxons erupted from the fleet. Destroyers and cruisers circled, some searching for the assailant, others seeking to assist the crippled command ship. As they did, their warning systems alerted them to a greater threat, an impossible number of surface missiles flying in low towards the ambushed fleet. Many failed to impact, meeting the hail of fire from the ships' close-in weapons systems, but more came and broke through the technological shield. Soon the once mighty naval strike force was a litter of burning and sinking vessels, leaving the way clear for the corvettes to close in like jackals to make NATO's defeat a total one.
From his high vantage point on the patio of a luxury villa on the Karaburun peninsula, a tall figure looked down on the hell he had let loose. A titanic concussion that shook the windows of the villa beat on his ears. The assault vessel erupted in flame, its magazines exploding. With that the keel gave way, allowing the bow and stern of the tortured ship to separate and sink.
'A fascinating sight,' said a young voice from behind him. 'What does it do for you?'
The man paused a while before replying, 'Why do you need to know?' He turned to see a slim, boyish figure, a dark shadow against the French window. He held out an arm, and the teenager permitted himself to be clasped to the man's side.
The boy shrugged. 'My own feelings, so far as I can ascertain them, are disturbed. There is a certain awe mixed with what might be horror. This body is very difficult to control. Strangely, it seems to want sex most of all.'
The man chuckled. 'I get that way after a big deal, kid. You always want my dick anyway. With you it's been a compulsion from the first time we met.'
The boy hugged the big man's arm. 'You are ... fascinating. Weak and human you may be, but to this body you seem powerful and irresistible. There are times ...'
'Nothing.' The boy freed himself from the man and leaned over the balustrade. You have achieved our goal. 'That is good.'
'Thanks to you. How did you know the US systems would be slow to recognise the signatures of those vintage submarines mothballed in their pens at Foça?'
'The technological empires of the Western world put too much confidence in their circuits and chips. Now, with their economies failing and skills in decline, they have neither the men, the fuel, the expertise nor the machines to resist a more brutal power, as you are finding. Twenty ancient torpedoes have brought low the Hercules of the West.'
'Seems we just need to shove and the whole tree shakes its fruit into our open mouths. Now there is nothing to stop me moving on Athens and Istanbul, and once my forces are in Europe, the rest of NATO will eventually fall to me.'
'And by what name will you be known to your victims?'
'I am the Great King, and the commencement of my rule will be proclaimed this day week from the minarets of Istanbul.'
The boy seemed abstracted momentarily. 'What is that?'
The man cocked an ear at the fitful chatter of machine guns drifting up from the beaches below. 'My troops on the beach are making sure that no American sailors who reach shore survive the experience.'
'That is not ... merciful.'
The man gave a low laugh. 'Mercy is for the unassailable. I have a way to go yet before I can afford that luxury. What would I do with prisoners anyway? My own men are a strain to provide for in this new world we are part of. That's one more reason we need to launch our assault across the Aegean. I must have the wealth of Europe to reward my janissaries.'
As he spoke he was suddenly aware that he was alone. He snarled to himself. The damned boy was always doing that.
'Can't get the stink of cordite off my hands,' complained Reggie Mayer, sniffing at his fingers.
His friend Damien Macavoy rolled his eyes. 'Put up wiv it, mate. How's the tea coming on?'
'Getting there. I'd try to brew up some coffee, but Lance can't stand the stuff. Tea's easier anyway, ya just sprinkle leaves in boiling water.'
'We'll make a Brit outa yer yet, Reggie. Course, yer needs a strainer to get the leaves out before adding milk.'
'No milk, no strainer. These are military exercises, remember? We're roughing it, sarge.'
Damien grinned as he flipped up a tab hanging from his battledress jacket, displaying the three chevrons of his rank. 'Doanchu forget it either, me mate. What a bunch me platoon is!' Switching to Rothenian he shouted, 'Tea's up lads! ... and, er, lasses.'
A couple score of young faces emerged from the tents pitched in a clearing in the forest of Luchau. The cadet section of the Strelzen International School was on manoeuvres with its parent unit, the Sixteenth Infantry Battalion of the newly constituted 1st Strelzen National Guard Brigade (King of Rothenia).
Damien had come alight with Lance's suggestion that all the Mendamero Men join up. They were the core of what was now quite a thriving student cadet unit in the three upper years of their school.
Lance grimaced as he sipped at Reggie's brew, but he would not comment. The same delicacy did not apply to Private Luc Charpentier, though he kept his grumbling to his native French: 'Pisse de chat!'
'Officer!' Damien barked. His platoon put down its tea and sprang to its feet, standing at attention. 'Major Willemin, sir!'
'At ease, soldiers. Just a warning. The brigadier will be over to debrief you at fifteen hundred before the bus arrives to take you home. Could I just thank you all for your enthusiasm and efficiency over the past week. The battalion has loved having you here.'
The two platoons grinned and saluted the departing officer. The NCO of B Platoon, Sergeant Helen Debies, came over, draped her arms over Damien's shoulder and kissed him.
'Hiya darling,' Damien smirked. 'Thass not much of an example to the troops, is it?'
'Sorry, Daimey, this business of sexual relationships amongst soldiers has got me confused. I thought it was fine as long as I only kissed other sergeants.'
'I'm okay wiv that, cos that means Private Reggie can't kiss Lance on active duty.'
Reggie caught that remark. 'What did ya say, Daimey?'
'I said yer can't snog Lance cos he's a corporal.'
'Ya only made him a corporal cos you thought Corporal Lance was funnier than Lance-Corporal Lance.'
Lance raised his eyebrows. 'There I was thinking it was because of my supreme valour and total efficiency.'
Damien snorted. 'Okay, demonstrate the total-efficiency thing by getting these tents packed up ready for the bus. Platoon A to take responsibility.'
'Yes, sarge.' Lance gave an amiable salute and got his section to work. It was as the dismantled tents were being stacked to put in the school trailer that the growling engine of a Humvee approaching along the forest track announced the arrival of the brigadier general. The two sergeants rapidly had the troops in line and stood them meticulously at attention.
'At ease, soldiers,' urged Brigadier-General Henry Atwood, commander of the 1stNational Guard Brigade. He gave the lines of cadets a close scrutiny and pronounced himself satisfied.
'Cheers, Uncle Henry!' smirked Sergeant Damien Macavoy.
'Thanks, dad!' affirmed Corporal Lance Atwood.
'Did you have a good time out in the woods, babes?'
'Shouldn't call servin' soldiers "babes", Uncle Henry. People would think you're being patronising.'
'Ah ... but you're still my kids. You always will be. When you get home, Lance, you can tell your other dad that I should have wrapped up here by Friday. Dinner's on him when I get there. What are you guys going to be doing for the rest of the summer vacation?'
It was Lance who replied. 'Swimming, the Spa, and, in the case of me, Bazza and Luc, preparatory reading for our university courses.'
Henry looked quirky. 'Can't recall my taking it that seriously myself. The Rodolfer must be stricter than Cranwell. Be good in any case. Bye, boys! Bye, Helen!'
The cadets scattered. Some got busy packing, but Lance slipped a hand into Reggie's and led him away from the camp deeper into the woods.
Reggie caught what was on Lance's mind. It wasn't too difficult, as it was on his too. They hadn't made love since their arrival at Luchau, and both young men were desperate for it.
It didn't take long before they were lost in their sexual play. 'Do me, Reggie!' Lance demanded.
Lance's lover drew back from kissing the object of his devotion. 'Really? Why now?' Lance was not generally keen on taking the submissive role in the pair's couplings.
'Somehow I want you on my back, Reggie. I know you want it too.'
Reggie was usually happy to go under, but certainly had no objection to penetrating the amazing body of his lover. They got to work, and with some groaning and grimacing Lance found himself on all fours, with a squatting Reggie, hands on Lance's back and pale hair in his eyes, thrusting down hard into him.
Lance could not contain himself, letting out the mindless exclamations that go with good sex and bad porn. 'Fuck me! That's it, babe! I'm your fucking bitch!' They were the sort of embarrassing words that no one wants overheard, but as bad luck would have it, Lance and Reggie had witnesses that day.
There was a giggle from the dense foliage they had supposed would conceal them from observation. Reggie halted his thrusting, and Lance's head shot up. 'Who the fuck ...!' he called out.
He and Reggie separated. Reggie scrabbled for his underpants, but Lance stood naked, angry and beautiful, staring round him. 'If that's you, Luc, I'll tear you apart, I really will. No one fucks with the Lord Satan!'
With a rustling in the bushes several young men cautiously appeared. Looking up from struggling into his trousers, Reggie stopped dead, his mouth hanging loose. All four of the strangers were in their teens, and all had hair of an identical dark shade, the same colour as Lance's, as it happened.
'You! What are you doing here?' Lance obviously recognised the strangers.
'Lance, who are they?' demanded Reggie.
Lance Atwood turned to his lover. 'They're my brothers. And they shouldn't be here!'
Marine Corporal Theo Lobowicz crawled on to the shore through the bursting waves and litter of sea-drift. The sky glowed behind him and the concussion of great explosions still pounded his ears. He collapsed exhausted and looked down along his body to his bare feet, still being lapped by the waves. He could feel the angry burns along the left side of his body getting steadily more painful as the numbing effect of the sea water wore off. The burns were caused by the same detonation that had hurled him from the assault ship into the sea far below. His clothes were gone. He groaned as he turned.
Other bodies had been thrown up by the sea. A dead sailor lay alongside him. Apart from a sock on her left foot she too was naked. Though apparently physically unscathed, her fixed eyes told their tale. The pallor of her corpse made the roots of her pubic hair seem almost green under the skin in the bright moonlight.
From further along the beach came groans and cries for help from the wounded. As the corporal tried to raise himself he saw men walking along the beach toward him. For a moment he thought help had indeed arrived. Then one of them lifted a groaning sailor by the hair, and shot him through the forehead.
With nothing else to do, Lobowicz began pulling himself across the sand. His legs didn't want to work. Another shot came from behind him. He didn't look at approaching death, he just gritted his teeth and kept stubbornly hauling himself forward, till a boot in the small of his back pressed him down in the sand.
He felt the cold muzzle of a pistol at the nape of his neck, but it was withdrawn almost instantly. He was aware of a presence in front of him. Opening his eyes he saw a pair of bare feet, dusted lightly with sand, the feet of a teenage boy with barely any hair on them, the toes small and almost boyish with pale, well-shaped nails. They were very beautiful male feet, and since Corporal Lobowicz was a gay man, he could appreciate that, despite his death being imminent.
A boy's voice reached his ears, speaking English in a precise British accent. 'This one. How odd! He has ... no, how can that be possible? There's a mystery here. Leave him to me.'
The armed men said nothing. Indeed, they seemed very keen to get away from this mysterious English boy. He sat down next to Lobowicz.
'Water!' the Marine begged.
The boy ignored the plea. 'I need to know something. Now tell me, do you know a Lance Atwood?'
'What? What the fuck?'
'His mark's all over you. Did you have sex with him?'
Lobowicz groaned. 'I wish.'
'So you do know him.'
'Went on the Wejg ... one night ... last year.'
'The Wejg. That's in Strelzen. How very, very odd. And now you're here.'
'Was on attachment ... to the embassy.'
'Ah. How unlucky that you were transferred to the former Sixth Fleet.'
'Water ... please!'
'You seem rather badly hurt. How sad for you. All part of being human, I suppose. Would you like me to kill you? It'll be quick, I promise.'
'Do what the fuck you like,' Lobowicz snarled.
'Oh ... it's not about me, er ... Mr ... what is your name?'
'Lobowicz. Corporal Lobowicz.'
'Thank you. No, it's about you and all your primate friends. The point is, you people live all your lives in pain, with the odd bit of pleasure thrown in. The pleasure is rather fun, I'll admit. I've been doing something of a study of it. But I can't see that it's much compensation; indeed, I rather think it's just an incentive for you to reproduce.'
Lobowicz was beginning to find this conversation bizarrely amusing. 'Won't get no kids outa me ... gay.'
The retort seemed to cause his interrogator to pause. 'Yes, it is an anomaly I'm struggling with. Perhaps you can help me with it.' A hand took his shoulder, and the next Lobowicz knew he was no longer lying on sand, but stretched on grass in full daylight with a stream running next to him.
The boy was beside him still. 'You'll like it here,' he commented absently.
Andrei Cosmescu ached all over. He ached from being thrown through the door on to what passed for his bed. He ached from the beating his mother's latest lover had laid on him. Mostly, though, he ached because this time he had not managed to protect his sister from the blows that rained down on them both. She lay next to him whimpering. In the light from the street lamps outside, he tried to see how badly injured she might have been. He struggled up painfully, murmuring what comfort he could.
A tooth had come loose in the latest beating. He pulled at it and spat it out into his palm. In better times his mother would have told him to keep it and put it under his pillow, where a shining coin would have appeared in the morning. Her descent into drug dependency had ended those days.
Maria's moans subsided, and he thought she slept. He hoped so. Andrei sat on the edge of the unkempt bed which was all the refuge they had, and put his head in his hands. He had stopped crying some time ago. His mind ran through the usual soothing daydreams. Maybe his grandmother would come from Romania and take them away from this hell to her rural smallholding he remembered so fondly. He had never met anyone claiming to be his father, so that avenue of hope was closed. Nor did he draw any from this foreign city where people spoke a language he did not understand, and where he had never yet been to school or strayed far into the streets.
He supposed his mind had done that thing it sometimes did, crying out to anything or anyone to help him and Maria. He wondered later if that was what caused the eerie glow to begin in the corner of his room. He stared as it grew brighter, lighting up the squalor of the slum apartment. Then it was gone, and in its place a figure was sitting in the dark. It seemed to be a boy of his own age.
Beyond fear, Andrei asked, 'Are you a ghost?'
A chuckle came out of the dark, and then a voice answered him in perfect Romanian. 'No, I'm a boy. My name's Maxxie. What's yours?'
[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. If the email address pastes with %40 in the middle, replace that with an @ sign.]