'Where have those two gone?' asked Max Jamroziak of his partner, Gavin Price.
'Chrissie was desperate for some sort of pie, and I sent Pete along with him in case he got lost. Though I suppose even Chrissie couldn't go too far astray. We areon a boat.'
'This is the nightmare travel experience from hell, Gav. How many days since we left London?'
'This is day three. We were lucky to catch this ferry to Cuxhaven. Think of it: power outage has shut down the Tunnel, the Calais crossing has a week's tailback, and all the Dutch and Belgian ports are shut 'cos of the civil war in Flanders. If we can just get to Germany things'll look up.'
'Pity we couldn't fly.'
'Yeah, Max, we know why we can't do that. Last time it took hours for us to return to human form. Next time, transformation could be permanent, and then we'd be living our lives with wings and lit-up eyes. People might well stare.'
'No. I meant, pity we couldn't get an airline flight.'
Gavin shrugged. 'Rudi would have paid, but I hate being a freeloader, especially since we've got those two with us. 'Sides, sweets, flights are few and far between nowadays. Not like it was when we were kids, and you could hop over to Ibiza for ten quid and a check-in fee. It seems like a different world nowadays.'
'It is a different world, and it's falling apart. We know what's causing it, too. By the way, tell me again why we're bringing Chris Wilshire and Pete Lewis with us.'
'Cos Pete needs a break, Max. Chrissie's in his second year of unemployment, and keeping up his morale and a roof over their heads is wearing out our little Welsh soldier. He doesn't earn a lot as a civil servant. Rothenia on the cheap seemed a good idea at the time, and they do at least know about the weirdness.'
For a while the two stared aft of the ferry at the white furrow it was ploughing through the dark sea. Theirs was the last crossing from Harwich, and a sailor had told them it might be the last one for quite a while too. The ferry company was shifting its service north to Ebsbjerg. The Low Countries were too politically volatile and the German ports too close to the trouble. Denmark and France provided safer points of entry to the Continent.
Max took Gavin's hand. 'Babes, I suppose this is the last of England for us.'
'Well, we did pack up our flat before we left.'
'It's not just us on the move. All the Ultras are making their way to Rothenia, ready to fight for her again. Terry and Davey I know are quitting the UK for good. They're making their arrangements. Davey has a house now in the Green Hills, where Matt and Andy already are, with Andy's brother Eddie and his Tanya. Once we get there, the team will be complete, and I think we're being drawn together for a purpose.'
Gavin chuckled. 'You think Chrissie's beingdrawn to Rothenia for the same reason?'
Max didn't smile. 'Considering the strange things we've seen, babes, I wouldn't be surprised. Rupert Wemmyss is there nowadays too, working on the family estate near Maresku.'
'We'll look him up. Did he ever settle?'
'Last I heard from him on Facebook, he'd been in a series of relationships with hunky Rothenian farm labourers. Not much of a future in them, but fun for a while, he said.'
The pair subsided and returned to pondering the churning of the sea in the wake of their passage.
'S good!' Chris Wilshire beamed as he gestured with his knife at the schnitzel fast disappearing from his plate. The sauerkraut, on the other hand, was being given a wide berth.
'Your sort of cuisine, Chrissie mate,' Max agreed. 'Spuds and meat, and no embarrassment of green veg.'
Pete was chewing thoughtfully on something called pork knuckle, which clearly was not impressing him.
'I can't believe you two have never been abroad before,' observed Gavin.
Chris remained engrossed in the question of cuisine. 'So ... er, whass Rothenian food like?'
Max responded, 'Rich stews and goulashes are a speciality, but otherwise nothing too adventurous. Hopefully you'll be finding out tomorrow.'
They had made it as far as Munich, where they had splashed out on a sit-down meal in a homely restaurant under the shadow of the Marienkirche. Pete and Chrissie had been seriously impressed with Gavin's command of German.
His attempt at prophecy did not come off, however. Despite his optimistic prediction to Max, their troubles had only begun at Cuxhaven. The western railway routes were shutting down as the civil war in Belgium spilled on to Dutch territory and even threatened to involve Germany. With bridges blown up and several villages on the border in flames, the Bundeswehr had sealed the frontier.
In the end they had needed several days to make it as far as Munich. The remaining Deutsche Bahn services across the federal republic were being disrupted by large-scale troop movements eastwards. Passenger trains were diverted into sidings as endless freight trains loaded with armaments and tanks trundled slowly by.
Munich seemed peaceful, however, and the people calm. Knowing Rothenia was but one more train journey away, Gavin was allowing himself to unwind a bit.
Pete was still jumpy. 'So where are we staying in Strelzen?'
Max replied, 'Our old friends Henry and Ed have a house full of kids at the moment. Apparently they've had a refugee influx from some relatives. Davey's city flat's too small ...'
'Thass Davey Skipper, right?' Chrissie chipped in.
'The one and only. So we're staying with Fritzy.'
'Who's Rupe's cousin, yeah?'
'Umm ... yeah. You know Fritz is a Rothenian prince, don't ya? His "house" is in fact the Tarlenheim palace.'
'Fuck me! No package tour this one, is it.'
'No,' pursued Max. 'My Gav's pretty well-connected in Rothenia. Bit of a national hero in fact.'
Pete continued to seem a little anxious. 'How long we gonna stay, Max? It's already taken the best part of a week to get this far. I've only taken three weeks' leave from the job.'
Max gave him a reassuring look. 'Don't worry about it, Pete. If all else fails, we can get you on a flight back to the UK.'
'But the expense ...!'
'We can do it. Don't hassle.'
'Well ... thanks, then. I'm sure it won't come to that, although the world seems to be going to hell in a handbasket.'
'Yeah,' agreed Chris. 'Makes you think I was right all along about never leaving Britain.'
The journey from Munich to Mittenheim was less fraught than what had gone before. As the Bavarian countryside glided past the windows of their second-class carriage, Max noticed Gavin visibly relaxing. He was aware of doing it himself, never more so than when the train crossed the small river Luyn and entered Rothenia's westernmost province. Tears unaccountably started in his eyes when the familiar twin towers of Mittenheim's cathedral appeared blue and distant above the trees which ran along the trackside.
Max caught Gavin's gaze. 'It's the One, isn't it,' he observed.
'Yes ... it can only be, and there's the extra-special warmth I get from his spiritual signature, because it's the same as Elijah's was.'
'Whatchu two on about?' Chrissie demanded.
'How do you feel, now you're in Rothenia?' Max asked by way of a reply.
'Awright! This it then? How soon till we get to Strelzen?'
'There's a connecting train which takes us to the Westbahnhof. Knowing Rot-Bahn, it'll be on time and it's less than an hour to the capital. The tram from there is direct to Radhausplaz, so we'll be at Fritzy's for a late lunch.'
Chrissie beamed at the mention of lunch. 'One of them goulashie things, y'think?'
Gavin frowned. 'Best behaviour, Chris, right?'
Peter intervened. 'I'll make sure he's good, won't I, love?'
The unlikely pair opposite Gavin and Max clasped hands. Max cared for both of them deeply but, like others, he had never quite understood what a whip-smart and sensitive man like Peter Lewis had ever seen in a disorganised, unattractive lump like Chris Wilshire. Gavin claimed he did, but also said that Max would never understand because he was the social opposite of everything Chris represented. 'You've never lived on the social margins, Dr Jamroziak,' Gavin had pronounced.
Despite many obstacles, Max had recently completed his doctorate in English literature, much to Gavin's delight and pride. Unfortunately, his chances of employment by an English university were remote following the catastrophic effects of economic collapse and government mismanagement at the beginning of the second decade of the twenty-first century. Part of the rationale for their leaving the UK was to check out the job market in Rothenian universities. Max had a Rothenian passport and had made a point of mastering the language over the past few years.
When the train from Mittenheim pulled into Strelzen's Westbahnhof, the four young men found they were awaited. 'Tommy babe!' Max whooped, throwing himself into the arms of their old friend and fellow graduate of Stevenage University.
Tommy Entwhistle was in sober suit and tie, yet somehow managed not to look conventional. Alongside him was the stout figure of Rupert Wemmyss, another of their Stevenage cohort, who shook hands all round, not being the hugging sort.
'Did you bring your car?' Max asked hopefully.
'Sorry, Max. I could never have got you all in it. I rarely use it. Besides, Bela's got it at the moment. You might think of a taxi with all these bags.'
'Eek!' Gavin replied. 'This is Strelzen. Are you out of your mind? Taxis are for tourists, and they never make the mistake of getting in one twice.'
Tommy nodded wisely. 'They're more expensive now with the price of fuel going sky-high, even the hybrids and gas-powered vehicles. Fact is, the taxi is an endangered species in this city.'
'No loss. You can help us haul the bags on the tram,' Max decided. 'Don't tell me they're less frequent nowadays.'
'Nope. Trams are as efficient as ever. It's the buses that are disappearing.'
The friends manhandled their baggage out on to the Spastrasse junction, and managed to get promptly on the tram to Radhausplaz. Soon they were clicking merrily along Lindenstrasse, as Tommy filled Max and Gavin in on political developments. Chrissie was gazing curiously out at the streets of the foreign city. Rupert and Peter were catching up with each other's life, not having seen one another for two years.
They struggled off at the Radhausplaz stop. It seemed to Max as though there were a lot less tourists in the great urban square, dominated by the Rothenian Gothic tower and frontage of the Radhaus of the Nuevemesten.
'That the palace then?' queried Chrissie pointing to a long façade along the north of the square.
'The very place,' confirmed Tommy. 'I've gotta head back to the Residenz, so kisses, boys. Rupe will take you to the door. See you all later. I'll be in contact about the Ultra meeting. I think it's scheduled for the weekend out at Matt and Andy's. Henry won't be free till then. He's out doing something classified in Glottenberh. That's all I'm allowed to say. He got called up with the first cadre of reserves.'
Gavin shook his head in wonder. 'My Henry - a brigadier general! Who ever would have thought it in our Finkle Road days?'
'These are strange times, Gav. And they test the mettle of all sorts of people. See ya!' Tommy took off across the square heading for his office in the Residenz.
'Okay, boys,' Max announced. 'Ready for the Tarlenheim Palace?' He smiled when Peter conscientiously tried his best to tidy his dishevelled boyfriend. 'Nervous, Pete? No need to be. You've met Fritzy before.'
'Yeah, but not to talk to much. Do I call him "sir" or something?'
'Nope. He's Fritz. His missis on the other hand is a Royal Highness, so a bit of caution there won't go amiss. But I think she's generally called Lennie. We got away with calling her that at the wedding last year.'
Rupert led the party across the square and pulled the bell at the great gate. A porter in a bright green coat peered out. The names of Herr Price and Herr Doktor Jamroziak got them instant admittance. Fritz came down into the inner courtyard, his face wreathed with smiles, and as usual put his guests at their ease, even the hyper-tense Peter. Gavin got a big hug and a large arm stayed round his shoulder as they were taken up to the domestic rooms on the first floor. Rupert followed after, looking very much at home. But then, he was Fritz's cousin.
The prince beamed around the group. 'So my friends, I won't ask if you had a good trip, since we were expecting you four days ago. At least those of your texts which got through were upbeat. I've had lunch laid out.'
He led them into a drawing room, where a footman was presiding at a buffet table. Plates were loaded up, drinks taken, and they all lolled around chatting - apart from Chrissie, who was sitting bolt upright, petrified at his surroundings. He wouldn't even take a bite of his sandwich in case he committed a social gaffe.
The arrival of the princess of Tarlenheim with her red-haired baby on her hip relaxed even Chrissie, as the infant countess Helge Maria scooted around the floor and used his leg to lever herself upright. Chrissie, who had a younger sister, was surprisingly good with babies.
Princess Elenja sat next to him and succeeded in eliciting something of a social response. 'So, like, you're American, er ... princess?'
'Call me Lennie. No, Chris, I worked in the States in publishing before I married Fritz. I was actually educated in England, and did my degree at Royal Holloway. You were at Stevenage, right?'
'Yeah, with these guys.'
'Not till I met my Pete; he changed my life.'
She laughed. 'It took more than a decade for Fritzy and me to decide who had the right to change whose life. Eventually we found a way, involving babies.'
'Oh right ... complicated ... Fritz was involved with my mate ... er ... Tommy for a while.' Then Chris blushed almost as red as his spots.
The princess just laughed. 'Tommy cut quite a swathe through Rothenian high society. He and I had a fling too. But he's settled now with his Bela, so we're all happily paired off. You should eat that food.'
Chris had relaxed enough by then to begin cautiously clearing his plate.
Max was holding forth on the situation in Britain. 'It's not a happy place. The American withdrawal from Europe hit the politicians hard. They counted on the so-called "special relationship" for a lot of their weight in the world. But the States has gone isolationist, what's left of its forces pulled back to defend the homeland. The Brits have to come to terms with being no more than the inhabitants of a group of islands off the coast of Europe. London's still London, though.'
'Ah ... London!' breathed Fritz, throwing a quirky look at his wife. 'My natural habitat till I was in my thirties. Now I commute between the new house at Terlenehem and Strelzen. These are interesting days for bankers. Investment is a tricky business when the bigger economies are in the East, but the dominant markets are still in the West. The Royal Bank of Rothenia now operates out of Hong Kong, not that I'll be going there on a visit anytime soon. The only safe way is via the States and across the Pacific, and even myindustry is unwilling to pay the rates the airlines demand. We mostly do business by video conferencing when satellite traffic allows.'
'It's an unsafe world,' Gavin agreed. 'Not like when we were kids. Which is why me and Max are here. We can follow the news. The invasion of the Balkans by those Turkic fanatics is more than just a human crisis. This is the follow-up to the Antichrist. Armageddon is beginning.'
'Those are Rudi's thoughts too.'
'And these legions of death are heading directly towards Strelzen and Maxxie, aren't they.'
'So I believe. My Ultra uniform is being laundered as we sit here.'
'Ultras?' queried Rupert from his seat at the window. 'I've heard that name before, Fritzku. What's an Ultra?'
'We were the volunteers who joined Rudi in the fight against the Antichrist. He gave us a uniform and a motto: Ultra Ultima - 'beyond the end of time' - and the name stuck. I'm proud to be one. I guess Max and Gavin count too, since they were at the siege of Belvoir.
Gavin nodded. 'It's war then. I could see the Germans moving troops southwards and eastwards.'
'Yes. I'm not supposed to know the details, but Harry tells me the German army is being deployed to defend the Slovenian and Austrian republics. Polish troops will be reinforcing the Czechs, and we're to work with the Slovaks.'
'How soon will they be battering at the gates of Vienna?'
'They're busy digesting Bulgaria at the moment, and Bosnia has fallen to them without a fight. The Croats aren't waiting to be picked off. They've already launched assaults into enemy territory, although they aren't finding it easy to engage the invaders. There's no support from the subject population, and the Turkic troops are hard to pin down in the field. According to the latest reports, a Croatian column was cut off a few days ago and completely destroyed. The Serbs are under attack not just from the Turks, but also from the Kosovars, their mortal enemies. It's a mess. However, it may take months yet for the troops of this emperor of theirs to fight their way up the Danube beyond the Iron Gates. Hungary will be next.'
'I don't think Max and I will be going back to Britain. We gave up our flat and put our stuff in storage before we left.'
'Is this a premonition, Gavin?'
'Partly, and partly it's to do with practicalities. There's no job for Max in Britain, and I can take my skills anywhere.'
'You'll both be welcome here, you know that. I'm quite happy to put you up in this place till you find somewhere of your own. It's empty a lot of the time, since Lennie prefers little Helge to live out at Terlenehem, where she's close to her Uncle Oskar, her cousins and her godmother.'
'That's great, Fritzy,' chipped in Max. 'Here's a good base to find work. We'll polish your silver for ya till we can pay you rent.'
Fritz laughed. 'I don't think so, though you might help with the dusting. That's always a problem with a big urban mansion like this. On the other hand, the new château of Tarlenheim may look like it was built in the eighteenth century, but believe me when I say that behind the façade everything is very much of the twenty-first - apart from the furniture and art we've brought back from the museums and galleries where the Communists put them. Does either of your friends want the tour of this place?'
The twelve avians sat around on the grass beside the river flowing through the eternal morning landscape. They had become aware - without any pronouncement on Damien's part - that it was time to return to Earth. Damien occupied a low rock and the others lounged mostly in their pairs, though Reggie and Gabe sat together. A common intellectuality had turned into a close friendship between the two boys, who had been briefed by Damien to lead the discussion.
Reggie rose nervously, his wings shivering in reflection of his mood. Gabe's eyes smiled reassuringly up at him through the thick fringe of his mane of dark hair. Gabe at least knew what was supposed to come next.
'I guess we've all made good use of our time here,' Reggie began.
'You bet!' declared Mattie Oscott, cuddling Yuri closer. She was perched on his thigh, beaming all over her face. The others laughed. Mattie and Yuri's enthusiasm for each other had exceeded that of any of the other couples. Mattie's hand was currently cupping her small, left breast and stroking its erect nipple.
'Er, yeah,' Reggie continued, a little off his stroke. 'Soon we'll have to go back.'
'Shame!' several called out.
'Maybe ... yeah. Still, we came here to find out about our new selves. We have and it's all been good, though strange. For humans, sex is usually private, 'cept in certain places we're not supposed to know about. Wedo it best on the wing, which means we're in full view. In this climate clothing would be pointless, and the idea of wearing anything in this form seems wrong in any case. We have colours and markings which are intended to be seen. We'll never need clothes.
'Our skin isn't human, either. We've all noticed how it provides us with amazing insulation when flying high above the ground. We're wind-proof and weather-proof. Another thing too: none of us boys have stubble any more, though some have body hair. No shaving for us.'
Gabe spoke up from his place on the ground. 'Our females have been talking of reproduction. We cannot know yet how fertile our species is, how our females come into season, or the answers to many other questions about our anatomies, female or male. Here would be the wrong place to find out, Reggie and I think. However, if we are to form a society, we must consider offspring. What will they be like when they're born? We have no idea. And what of sex on the wing in a society with children below watching us mate? My brother and I can change sex periodically, though it is not entirely under our control when we do so. Is that to be a feature of the human-hybrids, or only the angel-hybrids?'
'Point is,' Reggie continued, 'it would take an entire research institute decades to even begin to address these and many other questions. We'll have to answer them by living as avians. But where? Gabe and I see us becoming an undercover society back on Earth: weekend avians. Unfortunately, there are few places which could harbour our lifestyle back home.'
Marky put her hand up. 'What about living here? The weather never changes and it's perfect. We don't need to eat at all and there is no sickness.'
Lance replied, 'We can't stay in Eden. This place has allowed us a period of grace but it won't tolerate us for much longer. Something is restraining the elementals from approaching us, I can feel it, which makes me believe that we're being watched over. But it's temporary. This isn't a place for mortal beings, and we avians aremortal. We will age and eventually die anywhere else. We can't colonise Eden because it's not a place of growth, only of continuance. I think that's why our females haven't become pregnant, for all the chances they've had. New life can't begin here. Looks like I have to be the expelling angel, for the second time.'
Reggie nodded. 'Gabe and I believe the answers about our future are on Earth, not here. So we should go back, though first we need to make a decision. We've talked it over with Luc, Mikey and Lance. They're unanimous that to become a permanent society we must choose an avian leader, and the only candidate is Damien.' He looked around and saw nods of agreement from the others. 'It's you, Daimey. The Dead love you ... and so do the rest of us. Will you be our king?'
Damien looked at Helen, who reached up, took his hand and squeezed it. Seemingly unaccustomedly pensive, he answered slowly, 'Well ... thanks. I'll do it for as long as I can.'
There was a burst of cheers and applause. Reggie sat down and Lance rose. 'This place has one thing going for it: the imaginary will become real here, if you have the need. So we debated a sign of your kingship. A crown won't work on an avian head, and we wouldn't know what to do with it when you weren't wearing it, so we thought up this.' Lance held up a large armlet delicately made of precious metal and stones. 'It'll fit around your upper arm, and once on you, it won't come off so long as you live. It's magical. I've made it so that it'll adapt to you whatever form you take. Also it'll only ever clasp round the arm of the true avian king. Are you willing to wear it?'
Damien took the armlet from Lance and pondered its intricate filigree and figuring. Within the design he could see the ominous shape of an armed avian warrior at battle with a demon. 'Not one for bling, me,' he eventually pronounced. 'Ain't a job I can turn down, though. Put it on me, Lance.'
It clicked closed on Damien's right bicep, where it glittered and sparkled in the sunlight. Somehow he could not feel its weight or any pressure from it, though he knew it was there.
'So we has a one-avian government, and iss me. But we has found other things here. Gabe and Reggie are our brains; Helen and the girls are our heart and our future; Lance is our strength and soul; Mikey and Luc are our warriors; Mattie and Bazza ... well, you guys keep us laughing.'
'Great!' Barry rolled his eyes. 'The morale officers!' Everyone laughed on cue.
Damien continued, 'We've got a lot to think about still. We're never gonna be fully human when we return. From now on we're outsiders amongst our own kind. But we're family, and thass what counts, guys. Lance, how much time will have passed since we left?'
'Not long. An hour or so, maybe.'
'Then stand together in yer couples. Lance, when yer ready, take us back.'
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