Kristijan brought Tovyan his coffee and set it carefully on the breakfast bar of their apartment in a block poking above the roofscape of Ljubljana. After kissing his lover he turned to move away. Instead, Tovyan grinned, pulled the boy back by the elastic of the briefs which were all Kris was wearing, tugged them down and went to his knees to bury his face in the awesome small butt he spent a lot of his spare time dreaming about. After a while Tovyan followed up his tongue with a more rigid organ and the day began for them with a delicious coupling in full sight of the capital of the recently proclaimed Grand Duchy of Slovenia.
Winter had passed, although through their picture window snow showed brilliant white on the distant peaks of the Alps. They had brought the Cirics north with them, Janko and his mother having no desire to return to Serbia. So now mother and son were set up in a small house out in the suburb of Šiška, where Janko was settling into secondary education.
It was a glorious time for the two boys, independent and in the full flush of their love. They had decided to stay in the Slavic lands, but within convenient reach of Wien, where Tovyan had his eye on the prestigious university medical school.
Both he and Kristijan had enrolled in a private city gimnazjum. Kris was gaining a facility in Slovenian and had got to the point where he could take courses that would eventually earn him a matura and entrance to university, although he was in no hurry. Tovyan, on the other hand, was studying hard for a different purpose. His formidable intellect was already causing the college some consternation as he crafted his academic progress towards medicine and the biological sciences. Had he not been such a dunce at literature and philosophy, he would have been terrifying to the faculty.
They still had their truck, parked in a lock-up two streets away. It was taxed and properly registered in Mrs Ciric's name, but unfortunately they couldn't legally drive a heavy goods vehicle because of their ages. However, since by courtesy of the Rothenian security services Tovyan was a documented eighteen-year-old, he could drive a car. He had therefore purchased a nifty little hybrid which he spent a lot of time fine-tuning, disassembling and then putting back together for no reason apparent to Kristijan other than that he enjoyed it. There was always oil under Tovyan's fingernails. He was with great patience teaching his lover to drive.
Still unclothed, Kristijan recovered his glasses and sat back on an equally naked Tovyan occupying the sofa. Tovyan flicked on their TV as he hugged Kris into his lap. The sudden, astonishing shift towards monarchism across Europe had made Tovyan a little suspicious of its motivation. Currently the news programme was filled with the election of the new grand duke. The Habsburg candidate seemed to be running ahead in the polls, but there was a late rally for the Prince of Windisch-Grätz. The election would establish the dynasty in Ljubljana Castle by popular mandate.
'It's fascinating,' Kris pronounced. 'Is it because of Maxxie?'
'I suspect so. Our world and the World Beyond are beginning to sync. The World Beyond is what you might call a constitutional monarchy, and it's having an impact on human society. In the month just gone we've had the proclamation of kings and queens of Scotland, Serbia, Bohemia, Saxony and Bavaria, while Thuringia once again has a sovereign prince. The fact that the last four share a border with Rothenia makes me suspicious of where it's coming from, to say the least. Despite Bavaria, Thuringia and Saxony being German federal Länder, people seem indifferent that they're part of a Bundesrepublik. They now have kings and dukes all the same. Berlin calls it a "socio-cultural movement".'
'Better get ready for school, or we'll be late.'
'Sure, love. But I don't want you to take your little butt off my groin. I like it there.'
'You're hard again. Let me … ooh … oh!' Kris wriggled till he was impaled on Tovyan, and worked hard to bring himself off. By then, a second load had been deposited inside him. He hurried his beloved Tovyan to the shower, and so their day began, with love, laughter and joyous union, spiced by the promise of many more such days to come. Tovyan reflected that, as punishments for cosmic terrorism went, it was pretty merciful.
Lieutenant-General Edward Cornish dumped his bag in the front hall of his Fridricsgasse home. Andy Peacher came out with a glass of Prosecco which he pressed on his one-time fosterling with a grin. 'Hail to the conqueror of Constantinople! That's you and Sultan Mehmet II.'
Henry appeared and let off a party popper. 'Best I could do at short notice. The triumphal arch and firework display don't arrive till Wednesday. Still, Mrs Willerby and my mum have laid on a spread out back, and now it's February it's not too cold on the patio.'
'It's good to be home, believe me, though getting back was a total pain. I had to ride through Thrace before I could pick up a military transport at Plovdiv. The roads are unusable: mud and IEDs everywhere.'
'He gets to fly. He should be landing to a civic reception at Strelzen Municipal tomorrow. I gotta be there for the big party Saturday, so I'd better be sparing of the booze today. You're supposed to be there too, little babe. I believe there's yet another medal to decorate your uniform. You'll have to grow a bit to add to the available expanse, that or have someone follow you around with the surplus medals pinned to him.'
Henry looked smug. 'My collection's gone international. The defender of Kaleczyk now has the Czech Medal of Heroism and the Thuringian Order of the Wyvern.'
'What's this about your resigning your commission?'
'Oh … Broody noticed, did he?'
'There's been comment, especially as another star was coming your way.'
Henry shuffled a little. 'I was never a soldier, Ed, not really. Okay, I could do it, but then people have to do such things in wartime. Now I think wars will soon be going out of fashion, at least in Europe. I have other interests.'
'So it's back to the news studio?'
'Actually no, only freelancing: we need the money, even though the kids have literally flown the nest. My plan is to stand for MP for one of the city wards in the next round of elections.'
Andy broke in. 'Me and Matt have been encouraging him. Henry's got the popular touch. He's signing up for the Unity Party. Helmut Trachtenberg has been very keen. Military heroes play well to the electorate, and left-of-centre parties rarely get them.'
The three men joined Matt in the garden lounge. Heaving a sigh, Ed crossed his legs and settled into his usual armchair. 'What's the news with Justy and Nate?'
Henry smirked. 'Oh … Nate had a miraculous recovery, courtesy of yours truly, and they're on their second honeymoon. Damien's sister, Sunni Mae, has moved to Strelzen, so their rapture is somewhat modified by having to deal with a young teen girl around the house. Damien's been ordered to resume human guise this week – like it or not – for his sister's benefit. They'll all be coming over a bit later.'
'And these avians … what's going on?'
'Ah, we're marking time on that one. There're four hundred of them occupying Kaleczyk, and we're only now getting to grips with parents from SIS who've found that their kids have left home and mutated into winged hybrids. What's more, I gather twenty of the girls are pregnant, including Helen and Marky … he swapped gender, by the way.'
'As happy as could be expected in the circumstances. He was gutted he couldn't go to Terry's funeral in Cranwell, but he's trapped in avian form.'
'Couldn't you do something about that?'
'No. There are limits to the powers of Mendamero 0.2. There's no viable human body to return him to, so he remains a birdman. He's sold all his interests and combined the proceeds with Terry's estate to create an O'Brien Foundation dedicated to supporting young gay men in Britain and Rothenia. Matt's taking on the chairmanship.'
'I'd like to see our Bounder.'
'He's really amazing now. You wouldn't believe it … or maybe you would. You were there in Belvoir when Max flew in with Gavin, weren't you? All the goodness inside Davey has been crystallised into physical beauty. The avians are without exception a handsome people, but some of them are truly ethereal. You remember that German boy, Kurt Osterwelle, the one Malik enslaved? He's been recruited and he is something else – until, that is, you meet his boyfriend, a shy Serb called Klement, who is something else again. They're two blond demi-gods. A sight of them together hand-in-hand is like an aesthetic slap in the face.'
After topping up Ed's glass, Matt took up one of his questions. 'What's going to happen with this miraculous new species? I can't believe they'll be content to wait out their lives on a Rothenian mountain. Although they seem to be all for freedom and space, there's nowhere in the world they can live like that.'
'Antarctica?' Andy mused.
'A bit boring, I'd guess. Penguins don't make intelligent company or good eating, and white scenery is … well, monochrome,' Matt responded.
Henry shook his head. 'I've no answer. It's such a shame. Just to breathe the air of their little enclave is to share their vibrancy and super-abundant vitality.'
'Not a job for Mendamero, then?' Ed commented.
'Nope. I may have gone seraphic again, but the original rules apply – or so, er … the Creator told me.'
'You talked to … Him?' shrieked Ed.
'Sorta. It was a couple nights ago in bed. I was doing that consciousness thing … know what I mean? No? Oh well … I was doing it anyway. It's restful. I was panning out through the spiral arm and suddenly I wasn't alone. Now that was scary. It was like discovering you had company when you were soaking in the bath with the door-catch down.
'Course, there was nothing physical out there. But I got the distinct mental impression of a very human inhuman person.'
'Well, He isn't really like us, yet I felt that He and I had common ground. I think it was humour more than anything. You can't expect too much clarity when He talks to you without an intermediary. I guess that's how St Fenice experienced Him. Apparently He's given up on seraphs. There's a heck of a sorting going on in the World Beyond.'
Andy was gripped. 'So what did He sorta say?'
'That He's got a purpose for me beyond this business of the avians, but that it's confined to this Earth. I may use my powers in small things, but they'll be needed for something bigger much further down the line. There's a plan in which Maxxie is the central character, and it's in his lifetime that it'll be executed. I'm to be his assistant, not his boss. Tovyan Bošvic is another major player, and I'm to make friends with him and keep contact. But all three of us, even Maxxie, are mortal humans. We'll have human lifespans, nothing more. We're not gods.'
'Well … that's a relief: you not being a god, I mean. Not sure how I'd deal with a deity in my bed … all that incense, constant drone of prayers sorta thing. Might be restful to a certain sorta guy. Don't think it's me, though. Did I tell you I beat Tom Bernenstejne? I took Istanbul before he liberated Athens. Beat him by two days!'
'Ah, you lieutenant-generals. Just like big kids.' Henry's grin was very human.
He was pushed to the front of the group of generals by several of his smiling colleagues. 'Over here, Henry!' ordered General Antonin. 'No one will get a shot of you otherwise.' Cameras were flashing as the 'saviours of Europe' (Roteniske Spegele) assembled for the victory festivities in Strelzen.
The parade was marshalling in the park of Bila Palacz, which had not seen such a mass of military grandeur in over a century. Twenty thousand troops were to march, and even as the Rothenian general staff was mounting, the bands of the Bundesrepublik contingent were swinging off on to Spastrasse to the fanfare-like rhythm of the Preussens Gloria.
Henry was for the only time in his fitful military career wearing general officer's full dress, including the crested helmet that made even him look tall, especially on a horse. Despite his impending resignation, his promotion to major general had been rushed through, so two stars and a crown adorned his saddle furniture and epaulettes. He was to ride in front of the Kaleczyk garrison, headed by the former Sixteenth National Guard battalion, its standards crowned with laurel and adorned by its new title of the Guard Jäger of Sudmesten (Herzog v. Thüringen). His old unit was garbed for the first time in full dress guard tunics of Ruritanian blue with green-and-silver facings, crested kepis on their heads. They were now the premier unit of the National Guard, the élite of the reserve.
Henry walked his docile mount to the head of his brigade, his aides, Fritz von Tarlenheim and the field officers joining him. The band of the Guard Jäger, in Elphberg-green-and-silver state tunics, struck up old Ruritanian marches, and when the brigade's turn came to lead off, burst for the first time into the Rodolfs-Marsch, the prerogative of Guard regiments in the Rothenian army. A huge cheer greeted it from the assembled thousands. As Henry and his staff moved out from the park behind the band, tears filled his eyes, not for the last time that day.
Never before had the royal city of Strelzen seen such glory and grandeur, as the sovereigns and presidents of Europe gathered to acknowledge and honour Rothenia's victory for the West, and the Red Elphberg who had won it.
So Henry Atwood rode the Modenehemstrasse through billowing clouds of petals and the salutes of artillery, while his fellow citizens cheered their hearts out. He only wished Lance and Mike could have marched with the unit in which they had served with such distinction, though that was not possible. But still, as he caught sight of the cathedral when the parade entered the Plaz, it did occur to him that there were some unusually large birds circling the spires.
Henry's brigade filled the last space at the head of the Rodolferplaz south of King Henry. As his men stood at ease, the cavalry bands jogged slowly past to the thunder of kettle drums and the blare of trumpets. They were followed by the General Staff, amongst whom was his Ed riding alongside their old friend Tom Bernenstejne, prince of Orbeck.
Then came the cavalry regiments of the Guard, with last of all the Life Guard, glorious in white and gold. Huge cheers greeted the final party, Rudolf Elphberg and his staff, riding behind a dark forest of captured Horde standards, which were thrown at the feet of the king, standing with his mother and younger brother on a raised dais, wearing a miniature marshal's uniform, bareheaded to honour his army. His golden hair burned brighter than the winter sunlight.
The marshal-prince dismounted at the palace gate and went to join his wife and sons, in front of the blaze of uniforms of the assembled sovereigns and princes. The boy-king resumed his helmet as the royal salute boomed out across the city and the national anthem played. After its chords died away, the entire Plaz – apart from the mounted troops and officers – went to its knees, soldiers and citizens alike, and with uncanny clarity the boy pronounced the kungliche pozechnen over the heads of his people. The cheering that followed lasted for a half hour, until the king and his guests retired into the Residenz. At that point the fountains of the Plaz began running with wine.
'So you got a uniform too, your royal highness?'
'Yeah, Uncle Henry. Mummy said that it wasn't fair that Maxxie gets to dress up and I don't. So she made me colonel of the Guard Dragoons. She said I should be, cos I like horses.'
'Neat gear, Leo. I like the green and gold. What do you think, Maxxie?'
'Leo's gonna be a soldier when he grows up, just like our dad.'
Henry gave the king a sharp look. It wasn't always clear whether the boy was prophesying or just speculating. 'What about Ossie?'
Leo giggled. 'She could have a job puking and pooping. She's soooo good at it.' The brothers looked at each other and dissolved.
'Not gonna get much sense out of you two today, am I?' Henry moved down off the dais of the throne, into the colourful crowds thronging the state rooms of the Residenz. He picked out a human Damien, escorting a slim and lively-looking girl who was clearly his sister, mingling in a crowd of teenage royalty from several nations. With her brother's linguistic assistance, Sunni was attempting to flirt with the fourteen-year-old crown prince of the newly-restored kingdom of Serbia.
While Henry stood watching them with some amusement, Rudolf Elphberg startled him by appearing behind him unexpectedly, as was his wont. 'A word, Outfield.'
'Oh, er … hi!'
'Ed told me you've gone seraphic again.'
'Yeah, well … it's like papilloma virus, really hard to shift once you've got it.'
'I'll file that in the box of quotes of yours I'll do my best to forget you ever made. It's a big box. We need to talk about Kaleczyk, and the avian race that now occupies part of Rothenia.'
'You owe them a lot, Rudi. They saved Kaleczyk from the Horde.'
'Yes, I know that. But Harry and I also know they can't stay there. For all my people are tolerant and unusually alive to the strangeness of the universe, the avians are attracting too much attention. Now the Internet is coming back online, the tube sites are starting to feature some very odd videos which can only have been taken by the soldiers sealing off the reservation. Meanwhile, the chancellor's been on to Harry about the strict quarantine of the Kaleczyk military zone. The local farmers are kicking up a fuss.'
'I'm open to ideas, Rudi.'
'Time for a summit, I think. We have the avian king here, so how about you, Damien, Maxxie, Harry and I all meet in the council chamber after the conclusion of this reception? Time for treaty negotiations between the respective sovereigns, I think, with you and me as the mediators.'
Henry slid into a seat at the polished table next to Damien, while Rudi took one next to his wife, the Queen Regent. Maxxie sat at the end of the table between his parents, balanced on a fat cushion. Tommy Entwhistle was perched behind the king, making notes.
Harry opened proceedings. 'Let's start by being formal. Damien, I'm offering you recognition as king of the avians, and within these walls you are entitled to royal address and protocol. How will that be, your majesty?'
'I'm getting used to it, Harry,' the young man said. 'Hear that, Uncle Henry?'
'That's a necessary first step to opening negotiations,' Harry resumed. 'King you may be, as true a king as ever has been, according to the way such elevations occur. You are manifestly king dei gratia. But you're not a sovereign monarch. You rule over a people and law with no territory. And that's a problem. Is the world ready to deal with a human hybrid species with uncanny power? Not yet, I think, if ever.'
'I'm sure too that many humans would want to be like you, given the chance,' her husband added. 'Then what? A struggle between humans and avians over this world's limited resources? It's a scenario which disturbs me.'
Henry intervened. 'I've laid down some rules about bringing humans over. Neither Damien nor Lance can now do it. Only Maxxie. The question for me is why?' He turned to the boy. 'Why did you start increasing the avians, sir?'
The boy shrugged. 'It was time, Uncle Henry. There were lots of people who needed help, so I gave it them. Now they have friends and family they never had before. They're loved and needed. Being avian is so cool.'
Damien quirked a smile. 'Still don't alter the problem of where we're gonna be avian, Maxxie. It bothers me as much as it does your dad.'
'There's Eden,' Henry mused. 'Lance could take you back.'
'We thought of it, but it's not a place for mortals. There's no new life there and no growth, change or death. I wonder if our babies would even come to term there.'
Maxxie shook his head decidedly. 'Can't go back. Many of the seraphs have been exiled there anyway. It's their punishment for helping Tobias do the wicked things he did when he was a psycho.'
Henry stared. 'Really! You know this?'
'Oh yeah. Mummy let me go on a visit before bed yesterday. So I went to chat to the angels while I was there. They're not happy; they really miss Lance and his brothers. And they had an idea.'
'Oh yeah. Thing is, no one ever asks them what they think, and never has. That's 'cos of the bossy erelim. But the angels see everything. They had an idea of a place for the avians, and they told me how to find it.'
The long convoy of cars reached the checkpoint for Kaleczyk. The soldiers sprang to attention and saluted when they observed the occupants. Rudolf, marshal-prince of Elphberg, directed the motorcade to proceed at speed to the hill. The cars wound into the pass of Andreshalch and stopped at the base of the Kaleczyke Horja. When Henry checked the morning sky above, it was clear and empty. Not an avian was to be seen.
The party unloaded and started the trek up the peak. As they neared the summit, they began encountering avians, who surveyed them curiously with their glowing eyes. For some it had been six months since they'd seen a human. They were at work, carrying burdens to the mountaintop. None were coming down.
The whole community in their several hundreds was at the peak, gathered in a crowd where previously Henry's garrison had stood to hear his commission read. The base of the monument and its obelisk, newly repaired, shone white in the mountain sunlight. The humans were all bundled in overcoats against the day's chill, although it didn't seem to trouble the naked avians at all.
Maxxie let go his mother's hand and walked amongst the avians, grinning and greeting them by name. The humans took the other side of the monument: the Atwood family with Ed and Mrs Willerby; Nate, Justin and Sunni; the Tarlenheims; the Oscotts; the US ambassador and her partner; the parents of the SIS kids who had joined the tribe and weren't coming back.
Finally, Maxxie climbed up to the platform and motioned Henry to join him. Out of their people stepped the avian king and queen, and stood in front of them. Without being told, they knelt before the golden-haired boy.
Looking round Maxxie declared, 'We've come to say our goodbyes, but Daimey and Helen want me to do a thing first. I brought them a present!'
Henry gave Maxxie an object wrapped in silk, which he took out and held up. It was an armlet fashioned of platinum, silver and diamond, the counterpart of the one on Damien's arm. He gave it to Damien, who smiled and passed it to Helen. She herself clicked the armlet on to her right bicep, where it shone and glowed with a white light.
'Only the partner of the avian ruler can wear that,' Maxxie declared. 'It's a sign that Daimey and Helen are now married in our sight; they're the mother and father of their people, the petakhij, the Great Family. Long live the King! Long live the Queen!' the boy shouted in his high, clear voice, and all their people cheered.
'And now we have to say goodbye, because they're leaving us for good and all their people with them. Where they're going there's no return, but we know they'll always remember and love us as they build their kingdom. One day, though, in a place beyond imagination, we'll be together again, in our common home, human and avian both. Until then, we'll be together in our prayers and dreams.'
All fell silent. Maxxie took Henry's hand and stared up at the sky. Everyone looked up. Henry felt power passing out of him to be channelled through the boy. For a while there was nothing, but eventually Henry caught a shimmer in the air high above the peak. The shimmer sparkled and a rift opened in the sky, a blue light shafting out of it in irregular pulses.
Damien and Helen stood. He looked at Maxxie and asked, 'Is it now?'
'Now,' the boy confirmed.
Damien shouted his orders and the avians rose slowly into the air. The most powerful males combined to haul many containers suspended on ropes, while the meledhij carried the fledglings in their arms. All the rest were heavily laden with bags slung across their bodies, some of the females, including the queen, well on in pregnancy. They climbed in their flights, the king and queen following. Mike was the first to reach the rift. He signalled Damien and entered it, flight after flight disappearing after him. Eventually only two couples were left: the king and queen, Lance and Reggie. They gave one last wave to those gathered below, before they too were gone. The rift flared briefly blue, then the morning sky was once again clear. On the Kaleczyke Horja there was only the sound of subdued weeping from women and men alike.
A broad, green country opened out below the avians, who hovered for a while to take stock of their new world despite the many burdens they were carrying. Lance – one of Reggie's hand gripped in his – gestured with his spear-hand. In the dark-blue sky above them hung two moons. A great river looped across the plain below, and in the distance was the shimmer of a sea on the far horizon. To their right was a long, forested ridge, of which an isolated outlier stood up from the plain.
Damien signalled and Mike led the way down to the landmark. Unknown creatures scattered in their herds at the sight of the avians swooping low over the grasslands heading for the hill. Startled birds of some sort burst from the roof of the woods as the avians landed amongst the curiously formed trees.
The people unburdened themselves in the clearings of the hill's peak. The rusty commercial containers were opened and unloaded. Mike and Marky led a patrol to circle the hill and scout out the environs. Anton and his men began a survey of the site, locating water sources. Others erected a village of tents. All was purposeful. The novachekij, perched up in the branches to keep out of the way, watched with wide eyes while the adults and meledhij worked.
The golden sun in the sky, not much different from the one under which they had been born, reached its zenith and declined. Evening came and fires sparkled on the hilltop. The smell of cooking pervaded the air as Lance and Damien took flight to the highest tree of the hill.
The sky was purple above them. Lance smiled at Damien. 'And now, my lord king and greatest friend, comes the final resolution, here on this strange world light-years and lifetimes away from the one where you were born. For this is where you save my people.'
'Do it, Lance.'
The Satan lifted his spear and hurled it high into the sky. It did not fall back. Instead it appeared to rip the fabric of reality. There were cries from the people below as golden light blossomed in the sky like a second sun and lit up the dusky landscape. Falling from the light came many shapes fashioned of the same brilliance, settling like hundreds of shining flakes on to the hill below.
The avians stood amongst their bonfires facing outwards. Radu and Marsin peered into the trees. Vague shapes were moving towards them. Seeing one emerge in front of him from between the trunks, Marsin moved towards it, trying to make out what it was. As he did so, it seemed to coalesce into a strange avian which blinked at him, its wings flexing and yellow eyes focussing on his. As he stared, it seemed to him that breasts swelled out on its ribcage and its pelvis widened. Almost before he realised what was happening, a beautiful female was smiling at him. Many more such greetings were going on all around him.
He took her hand. 'Who are you?' he breathed
She answered in perfect Serbian, 'My name? I … don't know. I've come here to find one. Our lord the prince Satan called us down. We come to experience mortal life and learn about love. We come to renew both our races. Can you teach us?'
Marsin grinned, suddenly blissful. 'I can try.'
The city Antonsberh dreamed quietly that late summer afternoon, where the white towers of the University were lit up with golden light as they emerged from the home-trees. School was out and the novachekij were playing in the fields of the plain. A sentry warrior flew high above, the sun glinting on her golden body armour.
Justin Helenson, prince of the royal House Macavoy, and his younger mate, Henry Gabeson of House Atwood-Gemini, were doing what they spent far too much of their time doing since they'd reached sexual maturity. They rather liked doing it on the ground, which many of their usakamaradij thought a little kinky. But as Justin said, with the trademark wicked grin he'd inherited – had he but known it – from his mythical human granddad, 'The thrusting is more forceful if you have your feet planted in the earth, especially if your partner is pushing back, braced against a tree.' Henry did not disagree; indeed, the noises he was making indicated huge enthusiasm.
They were disturbed by a flock of novachekij bounding around them. 'Justy!' 'Highness!' 'Henry!'
'Oh, for fuck's sake,' Henry swore. 'Don't you kids have any manners?' Sex might often have been public amongst the avians, but there were limits. Novachekij were supposed to keep well away if it was happening on the ground.
'It's monsters!' hissed a small girl.
An older boy with her scoffed. 'No it's not, it's humans. I recognise them from the pictures.'
'Humans? Here?' Justin and Henry separated, their rutting forgotten. They looked up at the sound of the sentry giving the alarm. Taking to the air, the young men flew out over the grasslands, where they spied two walking figures, one bright white and both wingless. They arrowed down to confront the intruders.
The younger was a mature male, tall, white-skinned and golden-haired. As Justin focussed, however, he realised the man was not white-skinned at all. He was wearing the human coverings called 'clothes'. His companion was a smaller male, his hair grey, dressed in blue and white, things Justin provisionally identified as 'jeans' and a 'shirt'. Their feet too were covered.
The younger male human gave the pair a grin and spoke in perfect avian. 'Hi! Who're you? Let me guess … a Macavoy prince.'
'Justin, lord of the Riverlands, eldest of the majalath of Queen Helen.'
The human seemed very interested. 'You have siblings?'
'Prince Nathan Helenson and Princess Anna Damienschera, who has her own majalath. Who are you?'
'The name's Maxim Elphberg. This here is Henry Atwood. I guess you'll have heard of us?'
Prince Justin's mate's mouth sagged. 'Henry Atwood … my granddad!'
'Well, Uncle Henry, welcome to Shagalot.'
Henry burst into laughter and hugged the king hard. This second avian city was even more beautiful than the forest city of the plains, excavated as it was out of a limestone mountainside. The oolitic stone carved like butter when freshly cut, then set harder than flint after exposure to the air. It permitted fantastical pillared and coffered chambers, alight with glowing crystals and figured with gorgeous murals. This was the city Petakhrad, 'Home of the People'.
The avians could do ceremony well. The throne room of the palace of House Macavoy was filled with princes of the Radkornatij and lined with warriors, armoured in jewelled gold and armed with tall pikes.
'My turn.' A blue-winged avian grabbed Henry and kissed him thoroughly.
Henry quirked on his release. 'I remember that taste. David, lord of the Clublands, if I mistake not.
'So you met my crown prince, Justin II?' Damien laughed.
'Couldn't miss the resemblance. Justy with wings. So you're a granddad too now, Daimey?'
'Our daughter presented us with three grandkids a couple years back: two girls and a boy.'
'Who's the dad?'
'Rothenian lad called Felip Cerevic. He was the youngest of the human-born changelings, a baby when he was brought over. Quite a catch for our Anna.' The king turned to Maxim. 'So, our royal brother, what brings you to our neighbourhood, and … er, how did you get here? Discovered warp drive, have you? Here, take my throne … no, seriously. It's by right yours.'
To great applause, Maxim lifted himself up on to the golden throne of House Macavoy, and seemed to expand to fit its avian dimensions. The throng below hushed in awe as their king and queen knelt before the human to kiss his hand in homage.
After they rose, Maxim addressed the assembly; he was at his best on such occasions. 'Winged people, Petakhij, angel and human-born! My friend and chancellor of my realm on Earth, Henry Robert Atwood, father of several of your great houses, has joined me to come among you bearing greetings from your human kinsfolk and as a token of the links that still bind our peoples. We come that we may confer this once, and in hopes that this may not be the last such meeting. For the prophets among both our peoples and the wise ones among the Dead say clearly that one day, in times yet remote, human and petakh will meet again on a great but dark day, whose nature is veiled.'
The assembly looked grave at these portentous words. Damien nodded. 'Rafe Atwood has revealed this to the Radkornatij. We did not realise it was known on Earth. So I decree this: Let this vision be carved in my palace and in the parliament chamber and university halls of our people, that it may not be forgotten. And now let us show our guests hospitality.'
The king of Rothenia looked a bit introspective. 'Maxxie … what's up?'
He shot a shamefaced look at Henry. 'Er … after the banquet I got talking to some of those avian girls. God, they're frank. They wanted my cock real bad … to tell the truth I wasn't too unhappy about the idea, myself. It started fine, but they talked me into a myelhei. They said they'd make sure I didn't fall. So up into the air I went with my cock up a girl's tight ass, frigging away nicely. Okay, not your thing I know. Then I took another up the front … amazing; I had to hang on by scissoring and push upwards. As I was on the back of a third, one of their boys got carried away and couldn't resist trying a human ass, and it's not allowed to say no. Pretty boy it was, name of Karol, one of their great musicians as it happens. Fortunately he realised his mistake before it got too painful. I even kissed him. Don't think I'm going gay, though, any more than Uncle Eddie was when he shagged that trannie.'
'How do you know about that?'
'Uncle Justy when he was pissed, of course. Eddie confirmed it during a night on the Wejg, when I moved incognito amongst my people.'
Henry shook his head. King Maxim II of Rothenia was the darling of the tabloids for his rumoured sexual adventuring. It went with his image as the 'rock king', the only European monarch ever to star on the pyramid stage at the Glastonbury Festival, for he was an acclaimed guitar hero. He showed no sign of settling down, though he was in his thirtieth year and his younger brother Leopold, duke of Radelngrad, was already a father.
'Well, let that be a warning to you, Maxxie. You can have too much of a good thing.'
'What did you do, Henry?'
'Caught up with all our friends, took hundreds of digital snaps … oh, and slept with Davey and his mate, an angel-hybrid called Cornelius, but not as adventurously as you. It was like being between two feather bolsters; quite cosy actually. Cornelius can do the same thing as my boys Rafe and Gabe, and shift gender at will. So after a lot of discussion he and Davey tried for kids, and now have twin novachekij. They crawled all over us. Cute kids, and what else would you expect of the offspring of Davey Skipper and an angel?'
'So what's the news?'
'Apart from the fact that there are a Terence and Ramon Corneliusson of House Skipper? These are one happy people, their cities growing and realm expanding. They have huge problems, not least that there be monsters in these lands … my boy, Mike, isn't called Dragonslayer for nothing. He, Marky and their kids have quite a military force going and it's needed on their marchlands. But they're rising to the challenge.'
'Talking of challenge, I'm gonna get me some more of those cute chicks, I think. Uncle Eddie'd so envy me. These are one sexy people.'
'And your dad won't be impressed with your interpretation of the phrase "foreign relations".'
'Dad's got his empire, and I got my needs. Don't often get a chance like this. It's the only decent holiday I've had in years. Usually I have to sneak out of the palace in Strelzen like an errant teenager.'
'I don't suppose you're going to get dressed.'
'Clothes seem a bit irrelevant here and I like my junk swinging about, just like Uncle Eddie. I guess it's nothing to be ashamed of, because all the boys and girls here comment approvingly on it. Look, how about this superb armlet they presented me with? Isn't that cool? They want me to look like one of their own kings. So generous. Now I have to give them something in return.
'Nother thing. They've got this amazing stringed instrument. I've been playing on it: wonderful resonance. And have you heard their novachek choirs singing? It's beyond belief. I'm jamming with them tonight in the palace hall. What about you?'
'Gav and Max are flying in for me. We're spending the night at their lake house. My kids'll all be there too … and grandkids: I have twelve of the imps, and one of them – Edward Markieson of House Atwood-Lauern, has triplet boys with his missis, who just happens to be another of my grandkids, Helen Matthewschera of House Oscott. A great-granddad already, and I'm only in my mid-fifties! We've got a hell of a lot of catching up to do, and we'll only be here a week, remember?'
Gavin and Henry walked hand-in-hand alongside the deep blue waters of Lake Maresku, as the avians nostalgically called it. It even had a small village settlement called Nueve Piotreshrad. It was on a wooded island a kilometre from there that Max and Gavin had built their home-tree. The lights of Petakhrad could be seen in the mountains to the north on a clear night, and it was clear that evening.
'You look distinguished, Henry my Henry,' Gavin said.
'You mean I look old.'
'Old can be distinguished,' Gavin laughed. 'And the Chancellor of Rothenia must be distinguished. How is it, being middle-aged?'
'Oh, not so bad as they say. I stiffen in the limbs a bit in the morning, but I don't feel much different. Parliament and my old friends in the press keep me lively. Ed's put on a bit of weight now he's no longer in the field. He retired as Marshal of Rothenia to run the O'Brien Foundation. Prince Tom Bernenstejne was elected King of Poland.'
'Blimey! Matt and Andy?'
'Much the same. Both living quietly in Wenzelsberh, where Andy's got into gardening. Ed and I are there when we can be, Justy and Nate more so. Nate and Andy spend a lot of time planning cascades and parterres.'
'What happened to Daimey's sister?'
'You mean Her Majesty the Queen of Saxony? The Wettins wanted a wife for King Daniel Augustus with Peacher money, and Damien made over his trust fund to her before he left.'
'And the emperor and empress?'
'Oh, you heard? Yes, the Oecumene was proclaimed ten years ago and Rudi elected universal emperor, with most of Europe, the Near East and North Africa acknowledging his authority. The capital is in Istanbul. I go there for summits on occasion. The imperial court is something else, which is all Harry's doing; Rudi was never much for that sort of thing.
'Odds are the imperial title will go to the Elphbergs in perpetuity, or at least I hope so. It would be nice if the One were also to be emperor, but Maxxie grew up surprisingly human. Adolescence hit him as hard as any boy. He may have transcendent powers, but the rather large and handsome thing between his legs runs his life. A string of bad affairs with unsuitable women; who'd have believed it of that sweet little kid he was when you last saw him? Now he's got a reputation, the sort that goes down well in France, but hardly anywhere else.
'His Uncle Eddie was a bad influence, cos just as Maxxie was coming into heat, Eddie started rediscovering his inner tearaway. Fritzy helped a lot in getting the boy back on track, when he took Maxxie in hand a couple of years ago. He's been better since. But now he's here in sexual Wonderland. I suspect that's what this mission is all about: masses of sex without consequences. He doesn't only use his powers for the good of others.'
Gavin shook his head. 'Things play out so unexpectedly. I'm glad you came. I love you so much, my Henry. Our separation is an aching void in my heart. I wish you would stay and turn avian, but you won't, will you.'
'No baby, my life is destined to be played out in other places, and there are people elsewhere who need me. There's a crisis coming back home, I can feel it, a moral one. Tovyan Bošvic, the brilliant young head of the World Health Organisation, has been on to me with some worrying statistics. Mendamero will be needed, and the One too, if I can get his head out from between women's legs.'
Hearing a call of small children's voices behind, Henry turned to see three avian toddlers, their wings not yet unfolded, stumbling along the white sand toward him, their parents in relaxed pursuit. They reached him and he gathered them up in his arms: three children who kissed and hugged him artlessly, their hair a rich Atwood brown, the colour his once had been.
Gavin smiled archly. 'Well, Henry, aren't you the gay granddad!'
And Henry laughed, for he was taken back to another time and a room overlooking the Rodolferplaz, on the great day the king returned, and the world changed forever.
A final thank you to all my editors and readers over the years, who have been wonderful in sparing the time to read these stories and comment on them, to their great improvement, and my enhanced ejoyment in writing them.
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