Sighing, Malik-rammu caressed the small rump of the boy sharing his bed. The teenager was a pretty, blond Serb, carefully selected by his domestic staff. Malik simply did not have time to cruise the city looking for one he might want, even if the streets had been in any state to be cruised. Belgrade was in ruins after its population had chosen to fight for it, building by building. The boy had come from a refugee camp, and was perfectly willing to be in Malik's bed, enthusiastic even. And that was the problem: Malik wanted resistance.
Still, the sex wasn't too bad. He shoved the boy's shoulder. The boy stirred and turned, a little dazed. Malik indicated his needs, then settled back on the pillows as a wet mouth closed round his cock. The anonymous youth kept at it heroically, devoting himself entirely to pleasuring his temporary master.
Lying there, Malik meditated the peculiarity in his character that made him perfectly civil to docile and compliant lovers who bored him, and inhuman to those who gave him the defiance he craved. This boy would get his handful of dollars, be shown the door in the morning and leave undamaged. That German lad ... he would have been mutilated, changed, kept close by Malik's side and never let go. It was what substituted for love with Malik. Bizarrely, had the German's corpse ever been found, he would have had it decently prepared and properly buried. The defiance was the link he prized.
A hesitant knock on the door made Malik sit up. Only one thing could drive his personal guards to interrupt his recreation. He pushed the boy away and found a robe. 'Well?' he challenged Atib, his bodyguard.
'It is Him, Lord. He has returned. The Nameless One is below.'
'Unusually polite of him,' Malik grumbled. 'Send him up.'
Tobias was in his black uniform, a rather perky military cap now tilted on his head. He strolled in and surveyed the Serb prostitute in a jaundiced way. 'I don't suppose I have to ask what he's doing here.'
Malik caught the disdain, and a smile broadened on his face. The Nameless One's betrayal of his jealousy was a wonderful weapon to use against him. 'He's for general use - bought and paid for. Strip for me, Nameless One, but leave the cap on.' Malik returned to his bed and watched Tobias comply. 'Now, bend over and put your hands on the ground. Boy, go fuck him!' Gestures reinforced the message.
The somewhat puzzled Serb did as instructed, massaging himself erect and beginning an unceremonious entry into the stranger's exposed rear. He pulled off when Tobias protested vociferously, until Malik indicated that the boy was to grip Tobias hard by his hanging testicles. After that Tobias took the intrusion with no more than subdued cursing, as indeed he took a lot of increasingly demeaning acts over the next hour.
Soiled and humiliated, Tobias lay exhausted and in pain on the bathroom floor while the Serb was paid off and sent away.
Malik returned to sit on the side of the bath and contemplate his playmate. 'Fun, yes? I have missed our interludes of amusement, however, so I really think I have the right to know where you go when you're not ...' he gestured vaguely, 'here - for want of a better word. You are allowed to kneel before me now, by the way. But do not get dressed. I prefer you this way in my presence. Put that hat back on. It makes you look so ridiculous.'
Tobias got to his knees and retrieved the military cap, tears in his eyes. Brushing them away, he choked back something very like a sob. 'There are other struggles I make on your behalf, in places you could not comprehend. There are those who think my actions in this place are wrong, and they are gaining influence for all that I have ... removed ... their leadership.'
'So, you are fighting for me in the heavens as my loyal slave, yes?'
'Well, that's what you are, are you not? I believe you to be djinn, as in the old stories: secret and magical beings who submit themselves to the bidding of great kings, such as I.'
'I am not ...'
'Cease talking. I have thought much on this. Your willing submission to the least of my whims tells me that you are bound to my service and must obey me. I need my people to fear your power, so I will show you respect outside my quarters, but within them you are lower than an insect, and will behave accordingly. You may not talk unless I allow it, nor may you depart from me without my consent. Understood?'
Tobias gaped as these rules were laid down. Malik coolly studied the boy's eyes. He was openly torn between his burning sexual need and the humiliation he both resented and craved. For a moment Malik was deeply excited to see rebellion rising in the boy, but slowly Tobias's head sank between his shoulders, and he murmured a submissive 'Whatever you say.'
Malik pressed him down to the tiles with his foot. 'You call me master, and lord.'
Tobias's head jerked up again, but slowly he responded as required: 'My master and my lord.'
'Now, slave. You will not leave my court again. I shall not permit it. Your presence is too useful to me. What do you say?'
'No ... master.'
On the Wednesday of his first week in the Rodolfer, Lance took a flier thrust into his hand on Universitätsplaz. The glossy card, which was advertising student night at Club Liberation, showed brooding Falkefilm types pouting at him, while topless men danced under lights in the background. With a shock, he realised there was no one to tell him he couldn't go there, and no one whose permission he had to ask. For the first time he understood what adult freedom really was. Eyes widening, he reached for his handij.
Lance made the introductions at King Henry. 'This is Luc, Vassie. Luc used to live here once upon a time.' He indicated a group of zoned-out teenage potheads against the statue's plinth. 'And this is Bazza, Luc's boyfriend. Lads, this is Vassilji; he's eager to experience our town's seedy nightlife. Luc is the expert on it.'
The French boy reached out and gripped Lance's ear, twisting it till its owner squealed, 'Yow! Geroff!'
'Lance, mon cher, I do not know why I call a putain d'un pédé like you my friend. You're not in the least respectful to my greater savoir vivre concerning the social side of this city. We are pleased to meet you, Vassie. How dangerous a night do you want?'
Vassie beamed. 'Just wanna dance.'
'That we can arrange. We had best start slowly however. There is a chic little bar on the southern Plaz, where we can build up to Liberation. On va!'
It was pleasant under the lime trees. Lots of other student groups were out on the Plaz, though mostly they were straights. Still, straight and gay students alike shared the Rothenian obsession for talking serious politics and philosophy. As the sun went down Lance's group was alternately sipping light Czech beer and disputing with students from the Technische about the usefulness of NATO in the current crisis. Luc was holding his own on the merits of the Prince of Elphberg's leadership when he finally noticed Vassie's longing looks towards the far corner of the great square.
'Time for Liberation, I think,' he commented. 'Where are you guys off to?'
The Technische students were in their second year, so had experience to draw on. They were heading way down the Wejg for a new basement club which specialised in the latest German techno-trance. Lance made a mental note of it, his mind not as yet much clouded by the beer. As soon as Reggie was allowed to hit the night life with him, he wanted to be guide and mentor to his lover. A stream of envious texts had been causing Lance's handij to bleep at regular intervals that evening.
The groups broke up with serious Rothenian handshakes all round. Then Luc led his party to the lit-up façade of the famous gay club. Student night was mixed, and the management played to student musical tastes. There were three rooms, each featuring a well-known current DJ mixer, including a famous one from the UK. Barry was agog. 'Never got near him when I lived in Surrey. And here he is in Strelzen. Amazing!'
'That'll be Davey's doing,' Lance commented.
Vassie cocked an ear. 'Davey?'
'Davey Skipper owns and runs Liberation. You must have heard of him. He's big in the music scene on two continents.'
Vassie stared. 'I've heard of him, of course. But ... Davey?'
'He's a friend of my dads'. They were at school with him.'
Vassie looked at Lance in wonder. They occupied a place way down the line. But it was a warm night and the student crowd was happy, without too many complete drunks. Lance's outstanding looks always drew attention, and being a long-time resident of the city, he was on speaking terms with quite a few of his age group, not just those from the SIS. So they passed a cheerful-enough hour chatting and joking as the line slowly shuffled to the doors.
Lance felt exalted and more fully human than he ever had. He was gratified to see how well Vassie was responding to his first gay night out in the big city. He basked in the boy's open admiration.
'Good, isn't it?' he observed to his new friend, who impulsively hugged him and kissed his cheek. And whether it was the moment or the beer, Lance kissed Vassie back, long and hard on the lips, meshing tongues and feeling the immediate stirring of an erection. Breaking off, he noticed Luc and Barry staring at him, and his moment of human exaltation ended in an equally human trough of embarrassment, guilt and self-doubt.
Ed Cornish and Rudi Elphberg were meditating on things other than military in the former king's private office in the Ostberg Palace.
'Kids,' brooded Ed. 'I just don't get them. I'm bloody sure I wasn't anything like the current crop we've been saddled with. If it's not the delinquent twins or that sex-mad girl, it's their older brother the brainless gym bunny. You can't have a decent conversation with any of them, not like Lance. God! I miss that boy, and he's only been gone a month.'
Rudi chuckled. 'Try parenting the saviour of the Universe ... not that he isn't sweet. The other day he picked up the guitar Henry got him years ago and started strumming it, and now you can't get it out of his hands. He's good too, amazingly so.'
'Native talent,' Ed observed. 'Lije was musically gifted, so Gavin says. It's probably resurfacing in his latest incarnation.'
'He certainly doesn't get it from me or his mother. We're arranging lessons. They don't do music theory in his year-group at the SIS, but he clearly will benefit from more than just tuition with chords and suchlike. Looks like you need a drink, Ed. I have a bottle of whisky in my lower drawer for just such occasions.'
The two sipped at the amber fluid in silence for a while. Eventually Ed spoke up. 'My guess is that war will be on our frontiers within a month or so.'
Rudi shrugged. 'Our projections say otherwise. NATO is suggesting eight weeks. Why is the Rothenian general staff more pessimistic?'
'Tom Bernenstejne and I were chewing it over yesterday. We think the Horde will head direct for the heart of the alliance if it can once defeat the Hungarian army. It won't bother doing what it's done before: settle down in the new province to sack, loot and absorb resources.'
'Their emperor's not attempted to incorporate Serbia into his khanate, and he's just carrying out destructive raids into Croatia. Belgrade's a staging post for him. He'll be on the move within days.'
'Risky ... like his hero Napoleon's drive into Russia. It didn't work out well for the little Corsican.'
'The stakes are higher for Malik-rammu. Tom and I believe his legions are out to do one thing alone ... to destroy Rothenia. He would throw away a hundred thousand lives just to see Strelzen in flames and the heart of Western resistance torn out.'
Rudi frowned into his glass, then drained what remained in it. 'Air reconnaissance is showing no sign of massing armies or the build-up of materiel.'
'He has no heavy armour; food is all he needs, and like Napoleon he'll strip the land as he goes to obtain it. His army will travel fast and light, like locusts. Hungary is in for it.'
'I think they know that, but the Hungarian army has massed at Mohács to repel Malik's legions. It's learned some lessons from the defeat of Bulgaria and Serbia.'
'Not the luckiest location for them to choose,' commented Ed. 'Still, we can but hope. Trouble is, if the Hungarians are intending to meet him in the open field, they're shaping to lose. Hungary's frontier isn't defensible to the south. It's too open to his tactics.'
The prince pondered this for a while as he stared into the bottom of his empty glass. 'We can only wait now. The work at Kaleczyk is well in hand. Whether they come sooner or later, we're as ready as we'll ever be.'
Damien Macavoy pulled out of Helen. Their love-making had intensified since their time as avians, to the point where Helen had begun making observations on the increase in her partner's libido. She got no answer. Damien gathered her to him, and held her until he felt her relax into sleep. He gazed up at her bedroom ceiling, for it was one of the nights they spent in her parents' home.
Damien knew why he was so horny. He had not forgotten Prince Leo's warning about the fatal consequences of his absorbing the power of the Talisman. That very morning, as he took his pre-school dip in his parents' pool, Damien had observed unmistakable signs that his body was starting to give way under the strain of housing such power. His tendons were beginning to stand out on his legs, neck and arms. His frame was wearing away, and some grey hairs were appearing in amongst his dark curls. It would not be long before it was noticeable to his lover, but until it was he intended to join with her as often as he could.
Damien's left hand felt for his right bicep and caressed the armlet clasped there. The metal was warm and tight against his skin, though it didn't pinch or press. It was a constant reminder of the reason he had taken on this burden. He had a whole people to care for, not just Helen.
Once again he lay sleepless wrestling with the future of his avians, and as usual he got nowhere. Some of them wanted to find an inaccessible mountain valley and build their own lives away from humanity. But when he asked them where such a valley was to be found in the modern world, they had no ideas. Another faction was all for avian summer camps in the more remote Rothenian forests, but when he asked for ideas as to how they were to evade observation from campers or hunters, they could not answer him.
One thing none of them wanted to do was reveal themselves to the adult world, not even to Gavin Price. It seemed avians had an inbuilt instinct for evasiveness.
Damien was certain that soon a decision would be required of him and that this prescience stemmed from the power of the Talisman. He also believed it was somehow linked to the threat of the Turkic Confederation, whose black-clad legions were no more than four hundred kilometres from the borders of Rothenia. His school cadet force was being given live-ammunition training, its instructors not even pretending the exercise was academic.
His two dads had been in military gear when he'd left home that morning. Seeing Nathan in khaki disturbed Damien. His second dad was a big, peaceable man. That he had taken up arms was some measure of the crisis his world was facing.
Damien was therefore worried. He began ticking off his own plans. The decay of his human body was concentrating his mind powerfully. He and Reggie had been running their own analyses of the current situation, and Damien was forming his own ideas and strategies for the coming war, quite independent of the plans Major Willemin had for the SIS cadet force. He had a target list of member boys and girls who might be recruited as avians, and he was ready to move that week. His kingdom was about to expand.
'What's up, Lance? Who's that pretty blond kid you're with?' A familiar voice broke in on Lance's gloom, over the throbbing of the ambient sound.
'Oh ... er ... hi ... er, Davey.' An encounter with Davey Skipper at Liberation was the last thing he wanted. Vassie was out on the floor with Luc and Barry. Lance, despite the interest he generated, was glued to a wall. In his hand was a plastic glass of beer, which he was not touching. He blamed the booze for the incident in the queue.
'So, the blond?'
'His name's Vassie. He's from Luchau, a friend I made at the Rodolfer.'
'Nice-looking boy; he'll get laid tonight if he wants. How about you?'
'Are you after being laid?'
'Me? No way. I'm tight with Reggie, me.'
'So where is he?'
'He's not eighteen, and his mums would never let him do the scene till he's left school.'
Davey chuckled. 'Seems to me his mums' disapproval wouldn't stand in the way of the pair of you if you were determined to party.'
'Yeah, well ... I'm not sure if it was a good idea coming here at all.'
'Cruisers been pestering you, baby? I'll have security sort 'em.'
'No, no. Though I hate it when they stare at me like that. No, I did a stupid thing in the line outside.'
'Tell Uncle Davey.'
So Lance did, and felt a lot better when he had. Davey Skipper had acted the part of honorary uncle since Lance had been small. Lance had always felt a sympathetic bond with the man, who was also no ordinary looker.
When Lance had finished, Davey smiled a little wistfully and commented, 'Like father, like son.'
'Henry was just like you. Seriously. There was part of him that wanted so much to be a bad boy. And I was his Vassie.'
'You're kidding me.'
'Am not. Your dad was quite a sexy piece of work when he was a teen. I had the hots for him almost as soon as I knew I was gay. Not only that, but we did it quite a bit, and behind Ed's back too.'
'What! They never mentioned that!'
'We were horny kids. I'm not saying it didn't mean anything, 'cos it very much did. Nor am I saying there were no consequences, because it led to Henry's decision to break up with Ed.'
Lance was agog. 'So that was how he ended up with Gavin at uni! I thought he and Ed separated when they left school. But it was you!'
'Sorta. Actually, by then I'd found my Terry, and Henry and I were just good friends. But yes, I was the catalyst for Henry's discovery that he was not yet ready for constancy. Point is, baby, do you feel the same? Are you wanting to find a field to play?'
'Me? No way.' Lance pondered for a moment. Reggie's handsome triangular face surfaced in his mind, which swelled with warmth at the image. He looked over at Vassie, being danced against by two older guys and clearly enjoying the attention. No such feeling about Vassie assaulted him. He took Davey's arm and kissed the man's cheek. 'Thanks, Uncle Davey. I needed that talk. Now ... fancy a shag in the back office?'
'You cheeky little ...!' Davey burst into laughter. 'Come over to the bar, and I'll tell you all about Henry, Ed and me. It's quite a funny story. But if you ever give it away to your dads that I told you ...'
Tobias squatted, naked and sullen, in a corner of his master's bedroom. A cuff round one ankle was stapled to the floor by a short chain, but that was not what kept him from leaving. The true imperative was the longing Malik-rammu inspired in him, amounting to an all-consuming hunger. He had been there on the floor for hours now, unregarded and ignored, confined to his human body. The solitude and impotence were doing something unexpected to him. He was becoming introspective.
Another new thing was the growing trouble evident in his body. He was physically hungry and thirsty. He had not eaten or drunk before in such interludes. His stay in a material body had never been longer than a few hours. But he had now been in this body for all of two days, and was discovering it had compelling needs other than sex. It was something his master was aware of, for placed just out of his reach were a bowl of water and some objects Tobias tentatively identified as biscuit. The scrapes on his ankle revealed where his need had impelled him to strain to grasp at them - fruitlessly - despite the warning Malik had given him.
The irony was that he could at any time have summoned those things into his hands by his seraphic power, or dissolved his chain into air for that matter, but this had been forbidden him. So he squatted, thirsty and starving, getting a perverse feeling of fulfilment from the personal cost of obedience to his master.
And that was the subject of Tobias's introspection: his willing submission to the cruelty of this mortal man. How did it satisfy him? What was the reward?
Emerging from sleep some hours later he saw Malik's feet in front of him. A hand caressed his hair. 'So you were obedient.'
'Yes, lord,' he croaked.
'But look at your ankle. You tried to reach the bowl, didn't you.'
Blow after blow rained down on his buttocks as Tobias howled and squirmed, sobbing out his apologies. Eventually the beating stopped, then the bowl was pushed under his face. Desperate, he lapped at the water while a hand held his neck and soothing words fell on his ear. Finally his ankle was uncuffed and strong arms lifted him on to the bed. He was crying with a mixture of gratitude and pain as he was allowed the privilege of impaling himself on Malik's erection and riding him hard. Tobias's tears when at last he fell asleep in Malik's arms were not all from humiliation and self-loathing.
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