'Daddy!' King Maxim of Rothenia climbed up on to his father's lap.
Rudi put down the file he was trying to get to grips with and hugged his son. 'So how's things? Bored? Missing school?'
'A bit. Emil's on holiday in France, and Stefan's with his granny in Rechtensberg. But Lance is coming round after lunch with his brothers.'
'Didn't Henry and Ed tell you? They've been sent here.'
'Lance has brothers? I take it these wouldn't be your normal run of siblings?'
'Like you and Leo.'
Maxxie sniggered. 'No. But I've not met them, so I don't know.'
'Why do they want to meet you?'
'Oh, y'know, they're angels ... it's sort of like polite.'
'There are angels in Rothenia? This I must see.'
'They won't be like with wings and haloes ... that's so silly. They'll look like boys.'
'Still, it's not often you get a chance to meet real live angels, apart from Lance, and he's old news. Is there anything you're not telling me?'
'Me? No. But Lance texted me that one of them wasn't well and couldn't come, so there'll only be three of them ... Gabe, Mike and Yuri. Anyway, dad, what're you doing?'
'Me? You know about the problems in the Middle East ...'
'... and the Balkans.'
'Right. Well, they're getting more dangerous.'
'Mummy was telling me. There's this new leader who's gobbling up islands and countries and turning himself into an emperor.'
'Yes ... his name is Malik-rammu.'
'The Great King.'
'Is that what it means? No one mentioned that. How did you know?'
'Oh ... I do languages a lot. People once called a god that. Not a nice one either.'
'Interesting. We're trying to work out what his plans are. There's a fair amount of intelligence coming out of Greece, where the Alliance has managed to maintain links and agents. It looks like he's now putting pressure on Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania. Macedonia is resisting, but the other two are going to put themselves under his protection. He can offer them access to oil supplies for their power stations.'
'Does that mean he's getting nearer?'
'It does. It also means he has a plan, and some smart intelligence himself. He's taking over as much as he can without fighting at all, watching the West break apart and picking up the pieces. At this rate, he'll be at the gates of Vienna before Christmas.'
'Daddy, will there be fighting?'
'Yes, Maxxie. It can't be avoided. This man means business.'
Theo began to wander from the streamside where Tobias had left him. He had lost track of any personal time, though time was passing, as the stubble on his chin revealed. There were deep woods on one side of the stream, and these he avoided; there was too much chance of getting lost once he had passed beyond the sound of the tumbling water.
He did not feel hungry, and he certainly had not felt the need to relieve himself since he had arrived in this strange place. He took an occasional drink, and that seemed to cater for all his bodily needs. Being a Marine, and having something of an affection for the sea, he decided to head downstream on the theory that villages and towns tended to be built on rivers, and rivers led eventually to an estuary. The boy Tobias had been gone a while, and there seemed to be nothing to stop Theo from leaving the place he had been dumped in.
Beyond the occasional stubbed toe, hiking naked caused him no trouble.. Indeed, it gave him an odd feeling of utter freedom. He did not miss his clothes, and rather liked the caress of an unaccustomed breeze around his testicles. The sun was never oppressively hot, and though he rested from time to time, he did not feel like so much as a nap. The woods retreated eventually from the banks of the stream, which flattened out into a small lake. He caught what he thought might be the dim blue shape of mountains upstream, but then the woods came back close to the banks and he lost sight of them.
The tangle of trees and bushes was so close for a while that Theo started leaping from flat rock to flat rock along the water's edge. Eventually he began wading through pools, a great advantage of hiking with no clothes on. Small, bright fish swam companionably alongside him.
It finally occurred to him that floating on a raft might be an option if the stream deepened and strengthened. When he looked around, however, he saw no broken branches or fallen tree trunks with which to make one. Damn, he thought, sure could do with a boat.
Bizarrely, as he turned the next bend in the stream, what should he encounter but a small rowing boat tied up at a neat little jetty. Well damn me! He clambered on board, and took a seat.
Looking round for other signs of life, he realised there was not even a path leading to the jetty. Little caring to whom such a boat might belong, he cast off and used an oar to fend it out into the stream, where it turned into the current and gathered speed. For a while he helped it along with the occasional scull, but soon he shipped the oars and just let the shore slowly pass by. He drifted that way for maybe five or six lazy miles before the woods abruptly ended as another stream joined his. He was now embarked on a proper river, though the transparency of its water was like no other he'd ever come across. He could see right to the bottom, where weeds and fish seemed close enough to touch, though they must have been deeper than a man was tall.
He passed through grasslands which rose to gentle hills on either side of the broadening river, its banks occasionally shaded by sweeping willows. Having found no sign of habitants or habitation in all the miles he had passed, he was coming to the chilling conclusion that the land was entirely deserted, when he noticed the hills rising around him and the river speeding up as it flowed on to the wide surface of a great lake. There were several wooded islands ahead of him, on the largest of which he spied the white shapes of stone buildings, mirrored in the limpid waters below. Theo unshipped the oars and began rowing.
Reggie met Lance underneath the clock of the Fenizenkirk on Mikhelstrasse. 'Where're the new guys?'
'With Henry, Ed and a lot of bags in the city mall. Marky and Helen are gonna help Ed take the clothes back home on the tram, and you, I, my brothers and Henry are for the palace. Come over to the Starbucks, babe. We need a quick word before we meet them at twelve.'
Lance led his lover into the café and queued for his usual strawberry frap. Reggie, a caffeine addict, had a much more elaborate order to put in. Although Rothenian baristas never seemed quite to get the American precision with which he attempted to personalise his drink, they were at least tolerant and smiled a lot.
The two found a small table in the corner of the packed shop, where laptops were up on every surface. 'So tell me, Lance.'
Lance took a pull at his straw, savouring the cold, creamy drink appreciatively. 'It has to be Toby behind all this. He wants my brothers out of the way, and he's manoeuvred the Council into exiling them into this Universe. He's effectively decapitated the opposition. But that can't be all. He'll be using this opportunity to bring his policy to the fore.'
'The destruction of our Universe?'
'No doubt about it, and we can see things beginning to indicate that he's not just at work on the Council. He's meddling here. His attempt to manipulate little Maxxie failed, so now he's found another cat's-paw.'
'The Turkic Confederation?'
'My thought too, baby. I can't believe he was insane enough reveal himself to humans, so how has he done it?'
'I've read a lot on the Battle of Chios. It was military genius what their warlord did, but not beyond human capacities.'
'Yet look at what's happened since. An empire's rising almost effortlessly. The United States has withdrawn from Europe, unable even to take vengeance on its enemies. The cost is huge. In the Confederation's wake come population shifts, collapse of communities and public services. Cities are emptying and starvation is beginning. Your friend the Internet's shrinking. Try e-mailing someone in Damascus or Algiers; there's no connection. There's a power famine all over the West, now that oil from the Gulf goes to Asia, not Europe. Nigeria and Russia are the only regular sources apart from the North Sea, and neither of them is exactly stable. Tell me that Toby's not cheerleading for this. Ed's pretty sure the Confederation will march on Central Europe, and Rothenia in particular. And who lives in the heart of Rothenia?'
'Only the world's great hope.'
'Exactly. Reggie, there may be a time soon when I'm gonna have to reveal myself, and the chaos that follows will be beyond imagining. I have a feeling that Toby's counting on it.'
'Like in those movies when aliens arrive?'
'Worse. There's a reason why religion has to be a matter of belief and conscience. Imagine a world where it's compulsory because everyone knows it's true, and where angels can regularly be seen in the sky.'
Reggie concentrated. 'Oh! I see what you mean.'
'Yeah. It'll become all about fear, power and manipulation, not about striving to understand your heart and soul, and to be better than you are. Humanity will lose its reason to be. It'll have the answers it doesn't really want. There will no longer be hope, only a certainty you have to live and die with.'
'So a moral as much as military Armageddon is coming.'
'Nicely put, my love.' Lance took a deep pull on his pink frap, and looked straight in Reggie's pale eyes. 'Did I ever say how much you make all this worthwhile, my own angel? You're my bridge between worlds. I see now why I'm here. No wonder our mating shook the Council to its core.'
Reggie flushed red as his Lance's words sank in. The very prince of Love loved him. Tears streaked his cheeks, but he mastered himself and brushed them away. His voice a little shaky, he asked, 'Is this why your brothers are also here? Maybe there's more behind Toby's plan than Toby himself knows. The Council seems to have recognised that something new has happened, and maybe that's more important than Toby's scheming. If your brothers cross the same bridge as you have, won't Toby's plots have been for nothing, because the angelic orders will be transformed and Heaven brought closer to Earth?'
'It'll all be for nothing if the Turkic Confederation lays waste this land. Come on, Reggie, drink up your diuretic sludge. Time to meet the lads and go see Maxxie.'
'Couldn't he help?'
'You'd think so, wouldn't you, but he's a human eight-year-old with all the limits that go along with it. He's more a wild card than a trump, babe. It's down to us.'
Reggie and Lance wandered out into the street. They found Henry and the three boys staring up at the clock, waiting for the midday chimes. As the puppets performed, Yuri, in a pink hooded top, denim skirt, ankle socks and pink trainers, clapped and squealed, his eyes shining. 'Again! Again!' he called out as the mechanical show ended and people around about smiled at the pretty, excited girl. He turned to hug Lance. 'It's wonderful! Isn't it great? All these nice people.'
'Having a good time, Yuri?'
'Yes, my brother. Helen's so sweet and that nice fat boy too. I'm so looking forward to school and more shopping! Helen and I are going to ... to hang out in the mall and look at the dress shops. You should see my new clothes! I picked out this really pretty summer number, it's got flowers all over it.'
Lance laughed and took Yuri's arm, leading him and the rest towards the Rodolferplaz. Yuri kept up a running commentary and jabbered questions all the way up the square. Mike paced silently behind alongside Henry. Reggie was attempting to get something out of Gabe and seemed to interest him for a while with his historical commentary on the buildings.
They entered the forecourt of the Residenz and passed the security checkpoint at the side gate. It was at this point that the band of the Foot Guards struck up and the company of the guard paraded. Mike went rigid and stared as the elite Rothenian troops went through the ritual of changing the guard with their accustomed precision. Their blue, red and gold uniforms were gorgeous in the summer sunshine, and digital cameras were trained on them in great numbers by the tourists beyond the palace railings.
'You okay, Mike?' Lance asked.
'This is astonishing,' came the breathless reply. 'The drill movements are like a ... symphony. It is awesome. I wish Marky were here. Did you know there are two guard infantry regiments in the Rothenian army? Marky told me. The other is the Guard Fusiliers. Their facings are white and gold.'
'I sure did. My dad used to be its colonel. He's still got his uniform somewhere round the house.'
'Really? I must see it.'
'Dad'll be happy to show you, I'm quite sure.' Lance regarded his suddenly enthused brother with some bemusement.
A team from the security services was expecting them in one of the guard rooms. The three boys were photographed and fingerprinted. Apparently Gabe's picture and fingerprints would do for the absent Rafe too. A thick folder of documentation was handed over to Henry. Rothenian ID cards were produced and laminated on the spot. Passports would follow by courier the next day. Henry collected and kept the cards for the boys, making a mental note that they needed wallets.
An aide was at hand to usher the party to the palace's council chamber, where they found the royal family (apart from Princess Osra) waiting. Rudi came forward to inspect Lance's brothers, studying them curiously as Henry introduced them. He shook hands with Mike, who by then had realised what the gesture signified. Gabe and Yuri were less quick on the uptake.
'I thought these were Lance's brothers,' Rudi addressed Henry, 'but I appear to be meeting a sister.'
'Tell you about that later, sir,' Henry whispered.
In the meantime, the three ex-angels had focussed their attention on the figure of the king, in tee-shirt, hoodie and jeans, standing next to his seated mother, the Queen Regent.
Having got free of Rudi, Mike led them to Maxxie, and went promptly to his knee and took the boy's hand, kissing it. He was followed by a serious-looking Gabe and then Yuri, who grinned at the little king. Maxxie laughed and kissed Yuri on both cheeks before he rose.
Gabe looked around his brothers and pronounced with considered solemnity, 'Lord King, we have come to acknowledge you as the One, and to pledge you our faithful service for all eternity.'
'Cool,' responded Maxxie. 'Wanna meet Leo? He's my brother.'
So there was another round of introductions to the younger prince, if no homage. He did, however, ask for a kiss from Yuri, who seemed to be a hit with both of the royal siblings. In fact, Maxxie asked his mother if he could take Yuri and Uncle Henry to see the dogs in the upper gallery. The three disappeared rapidly, leaving a stolid Mike and an uncertain Gabe seated next to Lance on a sofa.
Lance, Rudi and Harry tried to include Gabe and Mike in the conversation, but it foundered. In the end, Lance talked about his upcoming university course in politics at the Rodolfer, on which he was as enthusiastic and engaging as ever. He tried not to notice the odd glances the royal couple kept on throwing at his brothers.
It was twenty minutes later when Maxxie returned to the chamber with his party, flushed and happy. Not long after that, Henry decided to spare his new children further torment and took them back to Fridricsgasse.
As Lance was leaving, he found Maxxie following him. 'Lance, can I talk to you?'
'Sure, Maxxie. What's up?'
'When I played with Yuri and held Gabe's hand, I felt there was something wrong with them.'
'Wrong? What do you mean?'
'They're all sick inside and getting sicker.'
Lance stared. 'Sick, how sick? Sick with what?'
'Dunno, but it's bad. It's as if little lights were going off inside them, one by one. And another thing: you've got it too.'
Malik-rammu, Lord of the Turkic Confederation, Conqueror of America, Protector of the Faithful, Chosen of God, was finding that the trappings of state were beginning to gather around him, like it or not. Having escaped them for the moment, he was enjoying the body of a pretty German teenager his guard had taken from the streets of Thessaloniki, after disposing of the family. The boy had since lapsed into sleep, tears still wet on his cheeks from his introduction to anal sex. He was the first pale, Western blond Malik had taken for his use, and it made him smile when he recalled that soon he would have his pick of the streets of every Western capital. This boy was therefore a little special. He would have the youngster shaved and altered, the first of his collection. If the boy were obliging and enthusiastic, he might ascend to a high place in Malik's growing retinue.
The bed lurched and Malik sat up, alarmed. Another blond boy had joined him. 'Who's this?' asked the Nameless One.
'I think he said his name was Kurt. His family got trapped in the fall of Athens. Sad story. He's ... er, an orphan now. I'm all he's got.'
'Touching that you care for him so. I see I've given you a taste for blonds.' The Nameless One caressed the other boy's small buttocks and reached between his thighs. The German youth stirred, squawked and looked wildly around as his testicles were gripped and fondled. 'You're going to take these from him,' he mused, though he kept his comments to Turkish.
'It's the custom. He'll not need them; it's his ass that's important. Castrated, he'll keep his looks for longer.'
'Whatever. We have to talk some more. Come outside.'
Malik followed the Nameless One on to the balcony of his mountain retreat. The sun was low over the distant sharp ridges of Mount Olympus and the air was balmy, laden with summer scents.
The boy was wearing singular gear: braided tight pants and a short frogged jacket in black and silver, which made him look almost military, though Malik suspected it was more calculated to revealed his perfect little butt and generously proportioned genitalia. He also realised it was intended to excite him, and it was manifestly succeeding. The boy was clearly wearing no underwear. His footwear was no more than soft black buskins which climbed halfway up his calves.
Malik shifted to English. 'What's with the uniform?'
The teenager laughed. 'The whole world is going to war, so I'm getting in the mood. Look at it as a measure of your success. Less than a year ago, before I sought you out, you were no more than a bandit in northern Iraq. A few convenient deaths, some clever intelligence and here you are, lord of the Middle East and a modern-day Khagan of the Hordes. We will of course go further. How soon before you can launch yourself at the Danube Basin?'
'Has to be soon. I can't keep this level of force in the field for any long time. I don't mind them quartering themselves on cities and towns, but my commanders quickly start to get territorial and forget they have to move on from their fat little fiefs to the next conquests. I had to have my Sanjak-beg of İzmir executed publicly for questioning my goals. He had been with me from the beginning, so it was a blow. I sent bits of him to the governors of the other Anatolian sanjaks as a reminder of who was the emperor.
'Our next strike cannot be delayed. My Horde must be fully committed to war and not given time to settle anywhere. The fragility and mutual hatreds of the Balkan nations have to be exploited. With one determined thrust I can advance as far as Budapest, and after that, fear will do my job for me. So tell me, where have you been?'
'I had a lot of business after Chios. Have you missed me?'
Malik meditated on this dangerous, miraculous youth who had first appeared to him out of the desert surrounding a campfire where he had been licking his wounds after a bruising defeat from a Kurdish warlord. Sitting unafraid amongst Malik's band of thugs, the Nameless One had told him how he might turn the tables on the Kurds, and somehow he had believed the boy.
One of his men, who had attempted to sample the boy's singular beauty, had been turned inside out ... literally. No one else dared even approach the stranger thereafter, though Malik had, to the awe of his men. And after he had seized his first town, the two of them had sated their passion while machine guns rattled in the streets outside, and distant screams filtered through the open window, along with the smell of burning. The memory fuelled Malik's sexual excitement.
'I have missed you, boy.' He knew instinctively that the Nameless One had a desire to be dominated by him, and that the boy half resented his own need. The rougher their sex, the more the youth had squealed and clung to him. He was feeling confident enough to go a lot further with him that afternoon. Asking no permission, he pulled down the boy's leggings and inserted a finger. The youth gasped and squirmed but did not resist. Malik was excited enough by then to thrust up, and as he did so, he ripped off the boy's top. The naked back was warm beneath him as it arched in pain, but the Nameless One still did not resist him, though he surely could have done.
Malik's rigid cock forced its way through the youth's inner flesh as he gasped, writhed and sobbed beneath him. 'You like this, little bitch? Yeah? This what you want, yeah?'
'Please!' Was he begging for more, or for a halt? By then Malik didn't care. He clasped the youth hard and hauled him to the bed where the German boy scooted away from Malik, watching wide-eyed as the now-naked stranger was put in the same position he had recently endured.
The back of his neck gripped hard, the Nameless One was bred like an animal, his cries of pain exciting Malik further as the hold on the boy's neck turned to a choking lock. Bellowing his climax, he crushed the youth to him, pulsing out his ejaculation. At last he released the boy, coughing and gasping, and pulled out of him. Feeling strangely content, he hauled the German youth over, placed him on the back of the exhausted Nameless One and manipulated him to use his erection for the first - and possibly last - time on another.
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