HENRY AND THE ESCHATON
Dawn was breaking in the sky that Damien could see through the windows of the military hospital, which was quiet now the panic was over. He had dozed on a sofa in the maternity waiting room, his hand still grasping the spear. Although it no longer glowed, he could still somehow feel a vitality in it. No one had suggested he give it up. He caught whispers about how he had come by it and what he had done with it.
Nathan had come in and out as he had news. Sometime after midnight he woke Damien gently and gathered him into his arms. ‘The baby didn’t make it, love.’
‘She’s very ill, but she’ll get better.’
He hadn’t cared that Nathan’s tears were dripping on his head. He was crying himself, and must have continued till he nodded off on the sofa under a blanket, overwhelmed by reaction, grief and a feeling of uselessness. Now, in the early morning light, he saw his two dads still asleep on the other sofas. He dreaded meeting Queen Harry and King Rudi, not liking to think how they would feel after losing the child they had so planned for and wanted.
He sat up and stretched. He felt painfully stiff from the manhandling he had experienced at the hands of Gareth, which had left him bruised.
He went to use the loo, bringing the spear with him and propping it up in the corner as he unzipped. Two orderlies in the stalls looked at him oddly, then went back to talking. Damien realised with acute discomfort that they were discussing the aftermath of the baby’s death.
‘There’s a problem because it was stillborn. We put it in the chapel, but since it was not actually born or baptised, there can’t be a mass. They can’t even toll the city’s bells for it.’
Damien growled up at them, ‘He wasn’t an “it”. His name was Maxim and he was a prince!’
‘Easy, kid! You with the palace party?’
‘They’ll be having prayers in the chapel for the royal family at nine, okay?’
Damien left, trailing the spear behind him. He saw the sign for the chapel and followed it, determined to say his own prayers before anyone else got there.
He found the chapel empty. In front of the altar, a heartbreakingly small white box had been placed on a catafalque draped with the red-lion Elphberg banner. A tall candle burned at each corner. Although the coffin was open, Damien was reluctant to approach. He sat on a bench just within the entrance to pray for the baby prince with whom he would never play.
As he raised his tear-filled eyes, he became aware that he was not alone. Lance was perched on the next seat, looking tenderly at him. ‘Hi, Daimey!’ he murmured.
Henry’s knee had been strapped up while Rudi went in to see his wife. The king had been mute on the helicopter trip to the hospital. Mostly he had sat with his head in his hands, only rallying when he had to enter public view after the chopper landed. Henry wondered at the dignity and patience he assumed in dealing with the brigadier who was the hospital director and with the consultants awaiting him, considering all he had on his mind.
After the king had gone up to Harry, Henry had stretched out in a side ward and napped. Ed had mounted guard outside the queen’s room to ensure the bereaved couple were left to themselves.
It was as the sun was coming up that Henry woke to his shoulder being shaken by a stern-faced king, who had dark marks under his eyes. He looked frighteningly controlled. Henry did not think he had been able to cry, for all his grief.
‘I have to ask you this, Henry.’
Henry knew what was coming. ‘No, sir, please don’t.’
You still have your power, don’t you?’
‘Then you can bring my son back to life. God knows what we suffered here for his sake. He cannot grudge me this.’
‘I swore an oath.’
‘Damn your oath! You can do this, give my country hope and continue my dynasty. Harry can never have another child … did they tell you that?’
‘No sir. I’m so, so sorry.’
‘Then that bastard of an Antichrist will have won.’
‘Sir, please, you must have faith. There’s a reason for this.’
‘Go tell that to Harry!’
Henry now was in tears. This was too much for his gentle heart. He had found he could stand up to his own imminent death, but not to his friends in awful pain. He walked out of the ward and made his way to the chapel.
‘Henry! I’m sorry,’ the king called after him.
He turned. ‘Don’t be, Rudi. I’m going to make my apologies to your son. Tell Ed he’ll find me there.’
‘I’ll come myself, Henry. I need to see the boy just once.’
‘How come yer got out, Lance?’
‘Oh … that part of my job’s done. You unlocked me when you killed the Hellhound.’
Damien’s mind was working now. ‘I thought yer job wuz to help Mendamero and the king.’
‘Oh yeah, but I don’t just do destroying, donchya know. I also do the other thing … renewing.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘It means I’m nearly there, Daimey! One more instalment and I can go … maybe get my reward. They owe me big time now. Specially after this gig! Is that the baby?’
Lance got up and padded down the aisle. He was in his usual nude state, his small blue horns sharp on his forehead. He reached the coffin and peered in.
Damien was alarmed. ‘Hey! Someone might come in. They wouldn’ understand, Lance.’
The other boy looked at him and smiled, then held out his hand. ‘No one’ll come in, Daimey. I’ve made a spell. Bring the spear over. I need it.’
Reluctantly, Damien approached the ominous box. He found even now he could not look at what lay there wrapped in oyster-white silk. Silently, he gave the spear to Lance.
‘Yuh! Yer killed him, then it turned out he died so the Antichrist would lose his power. So he wuz really a hero.’
‘He was, but like me he had been cheated again and again. That’s why the Great Council decreed he may now live his full life.’
‘I didn’t kill him, Daimey. He was dead to begin with. I took his soul from his resurrected body, and it survives in this spear still. And now I’ve found a new home for it, a place where he can live a long life, loved and loving.’
‘What? Yer can’t mean …’
Fire crackled up and down the shaft held in Lance’s hand. His smile became a little sad. ‘Bye Daimey! It’s been great. You’re the best friend a guy ever had … could ever have.’
But the angelic boy had turned his attention to the bier. Golden threads of flame snaked out of the glowing spear and sought the coffin. The spear pulsed with light, as did Lance himself.
There was a silent flash and three things happened. A baby cried lustily, the spear disappeared, and Lance collapsed to the floor of the chapel.
Damien was at a loss. Stepping over the prostrate Lance, he looked at last down into the coffin. A red-faced baby was moving restlessly in its wrappings, its mouth wide, expressing its outrage. Damien remembered his baby sister and recalled what to do. Picking up the little prince he cuddled the infant into the crook of his arm, making clucking noises and grinning all over his face.
A shout brought his attention to the chapel door. With mouths as wide open as that of the crying baby, his Uncles Henry and Rudi were standing there dumbstruck. Damien walked carefully to the king and held up his son to him.
Rudi took the baby without a word, gazing down at the miracle. ‘Did you do this, Henry?’
‘Er … no sir, I didn’t.’
‘Yuh,’ grinned Damien. ‘An’ he needs his mum. Bet he’s hungry.’
Rudolf Elphberg looked from one to the other and then at last wept as he carried his son to meet his mother.
Henry took Damien by the shoulder. ‘What happened here? My God! Is that who I think it is? The Destroyer?’
‘Yuh, me mate Lance. Wass up wiv him?’ Henry and Damien went to stand by the unconscious naked boy and look him over.
Damien touched his warm shoulder. ‘Well, he’s alive, Uncle Henry.’
‘What’s happened to his horns? He looks like a normal kid.’
Then Damien chuckled. ‘So he got his reward. He wanted to grow up, but they’re gonna make him do it the hard way! Lance is a human boy!’
‘He put Lije’s soul in the dead baby’s body and woke up Prince Maxim! Innit brilliant?’
‘Oh my God! I’d kill that Tobias if he weren’t immortal. This gets more complicated all the time. Okay, babes. Go find your dads and tell them what’s happened. They’ll probably not believe it at first, but get them up to see Harry and the baby and they will.’
‘Whatchu gonna do, Uncle Henry?’
‘I need to have a serious chat with a seraph. Now get going. Oh, and when you see Uncle Ed, send him down.’
Henry took off his coat and bundled up the unconscious boy in it, then lifted him on to a bench, wincing at the pain in his leg. He carefully studied – what did Damien call him? – Lance. The child was perhaps ten years old, quite well-built and very good-looking with the same cheeky face as his friend Damien. He had dark straight hair, not unlike Henry’s. His skin was fine-grained, with a dusting of light freckles around his straight nose. He gave a slight hiccup in his sleep and there was some dried mucus around his nostrils. Clearly he could do with a wash. This was not the idealised angelic creature Henry had first met. Instead, Lance had been rendered fully human.
Sitting patiently with the boy while waiting for Ed Cornish, Henry became aware of a subdued uproar as the news spread through the hospital. Nurses and soldiers ran past the open entrance to the chapel. A doctor came in, stared into the empty coffin, looked scared and then ran.
It was fifty minutes until Henry’s patience was rewarded. Ed came in, obviously flustered. ‘Babe? Damien just found me. What on earth’s going on? The hospital’s in a turmoil like a disturbed anthill, with people dashing about everywhere. The director’s threatening to have the queen’s medical team struck off! The baby’s alive! I just saw Rudi in tears for the first time in his life. Oh … and listen!’
Henry did. The bells of the city of Strelzen had begun pealing out in joy for the birth of a crown prince to the house of Elphberg. The windows rattled as a double royal salute began to be fired from the park of Bila Palacz.
‘While all this fuss is going on, you and I are going for a trip, Ed.’
‘What do you have in mind, and who’s this kid?’
‘This, believe it or not, is the creature called variously the Destroyer of Worlds, the Angel of Death and Nemesis. At the moment he goes by the name of Lance, and apparently he’s one of the Mendamero Men.’
Ed gave a nervous laugh. ‘Seriously?’
‘Absolutely. Time to have a word with his relatives. Can you carry him? My knee’s giving me grief.’
Ed easily lifted Lance and stood holding the boy in front of him. ‘So where are we going?’
‘You’ll enjoy it. Some cultures call it the Garden of Eden.’
‘Right here’s where I enjoyed one of the best G&Ts I’ve ever had in my life. Want one?’
‘Not while I’m carrying this kid.’
‘Put him down on the grass there. Give me my jacket.’
‘Then he’ll be naked.’
‘No, he won’t. Look!’ All at once Lance was dressed in jeans, tee-shirt and trainers. He dozed on.
‘Can I do that?’
Ed Cornish concentrated on a pebble. It stayed a pebble. ‘Damn!’
‘What did you want?’
‘Oh nothing … just a solid gold TAG Heuer.’
‘I’m disappointed in you.’
Henry looked around. As usual it was late on a sunny morning. He was standing beside the same stream as before, its crystal waters rushing and chattering over their bed. Unidentifiable colourful birds flew across the sky and between the great tree trunks of the woods bordering the stream. Then he noticed a very odd thing: Nowhere in this scene was there any evidence of death or decay, no fallen trees, no leaves spotted with mould.
‘So what are we doing here, little babe? ‘S nice though.’
‘I’m expecting a visitor.’
They sat on the rock. ‘Attractive-looking kid, that Lance.’
‘Too much like Damien for my peace of mind. I have the impression they get on like a house on fire. An interesting image, actually, as I would not put deliberate arson beyond either of them. How’re you doing, Ed?’
‘Still stunned by it all, and hoping it’s over. Er … you don’t think it is over, do you.’
‘No. I suspect Tobias has more surprises for us, the two-faced so-and-so.’
‘Really, Henry, you do have the lowest opinion of me.’ Tobias had materialised behind them. ‘Or possibly the highest. How could anyone take Mendamero by surprise? Congratulations to you both. This is Colonel Cornish? A real pleasure.’
Tobias was as he had been in Jerusalem, a beautiful blond teenager in slacks and a white shirt. He offered his hand to Ed, who took it cautiously. Then with a shy smile he gave Henry a kiss on the cheek. Henry, not so crabby as to rebuff him, kissed him back.
They all three sat by the stream, listening to the birds of paradise singing around them. ‘Everything seems to be working out well. The Antichrist has fallen and his evil is dissipating fast. The name and works of Bishop John James of Cranwell are already fading from people’s consciousness. I imagine, when they make future lists of the bishops of that diocese, he may even be forgotten. Only in Rothenia will there be a memory of all these events. Which is at it should be, for that nation’s faithfulness and courage must always be remembered with honour.’
Henry was less positive in his assessment. ‘But there have been losses. Rothenia no longer has an Icon to bless it.’
‘Yes, that’s true, but it now has instead the high and mighty prince Maxim Henry Leopold Ferdinand Louis Franz Elphberg, duke of Mittenheim, one day to be King Maxim II of Rothenia, and a prince the like of which the world will have never seen.’
‘Not surprising, since the prince’s soul will be that of the remarkable Mark Tolmie. Will he have any memory of his former life?’
‘His disposition and intellect will be the same, but he will have no memories of his tragic first stab at existence or his time as Elijah the Guardian. Nonetheless, as he grows he will be found to be wise and collected far beyond his years. You will cherish the tale of his heroism and sacrifice on his behalf. He will live now the best life a man could hope for, full of love, challenge, honour and adventure. And so the world comes into balance once more.’
‘And talking of balance, what about the Destroyer here?’
‘He’s long been a problem for the Great Council. It’s a matter of need outweighing fairness. But he hasn’t made any friends over the matter.’
‘Why have you turned him into a human boy?’
‘He wished to be a grownup above everything else, and so now he will be. It’s just that he’ll do it the proper way. He has been given the gift of mortality … and it is a gift.’
‘Will he know who he is?’
‘Oh yes, that’s part of the challenge, you see. He has few powers left to him, and those he has are mostly rooted in his knowledge. He must be a feeble mortal and learn the joy and pain of an existence bound by time. In that way and no other can he grow.’
‘Pity the pair that have to bring him up.’
‘Yes, indeed,’ said Tobias. Then he changed the subject. ‘And now the question of Mendamero. My dear, you must be aware that you are now in a very peculiar position. Do you think you and I can go off and have a private chat for a moment? I’m sure Colonel Cornish won’t mind.’
‘Don’t worry on my part. I’ll keep an eye on the boy and think seriously about TAG Heuer watches.’
Henry and Tobias walked down the stream together, talking as they went. ‘You see, you’ve done all we asked of you and more, Henry. You have been faithful and the Great Council is very grateful. You did not use the power with which you were invested except in direst need. The utmost test was the death of your friend’s child. You might have revived it but chose not to, and because of that the world will now be trebly blessed. As I said, you have been faithful.
‘This leaves us with a problem, however. For all his evil, the Antichrist was harbinger of a better world to come, and you could be part of it. A significant portion of the Council wishes to leave you with your powers. But if you are … You follow my meaning?’
Henry brooded at the news, so gratifying and so alarming. ‘You wish me to replace Enoch?’
‘No. That is not what I meant.’
They walked along in silence, Henry lost in a deep reverie over the import of Tobias’s words.
Finally the seraph broke in on his thoughts. ‘I think you understand what I’m saying, don’t you?’
‘I do. The Antichrist has been defeated and the One who defeats him is He who may bring the kingdom.’
‘Yes, Mendamero. But there is always the choice made in the wilderness. You may choose otherwise with no dishonour to yourself.’
Henry looked around. They had walked out on to the smooth surface of a pool. He saw fish lazily swimming below his feet.
‘The Antichrist gave me a similar choice. He offered me the rule of the world in return for my allegiance. Did he mean it?’
‘I imagine he did. Immoderate ambition was one of his many faults. He would have forged an army to assault heaven, with you as his very able lieutenant. But of course he would have corrupted you. You would have become lower than his Hellhounds and lost your soul, which would have gratified him immensely.’
‘I’m just not up to this emperor thing, Toby. As for the other, are you serious?’
‘Perfectly. The Council is of the opinion that you could be the One, should you choose.’
‘And if I choose not?’
‘Then you will go back to being Henry Robert Atwood with no discredit. The One must choose his own destiny, and should it not be you, it will eventually be another.’
‘When will that be?’
‘The day someone accepts when offered the possibility.’
‘I suppose you’d calculated that I’m a gay man.’
Tobias laughed. ‘As you acutely observed when first we met, I am homosexual too in this body. Many – though not all – of the inhabitants of this realm are sexually ambiguous, and it comes out when we take human form.’
‘So that answers the question of the androgynous aspect of angels. You’re all a bunch of queers!’
‘Glad to be gay, as you would say, Henry. So what will it be?’
‘The answer is no, Toby. I haven’t got so high an opinion of myself as to take that course with my life. I know my weaknesses.’
Tobias looked regretful. ‘I’m sorry to hear it, but we are patient and remain expectant. Well, we had better return to the others.’
As they walked back to where Ed and Lance were waiting, Henry marvelled at the choice he had just been given. The Second Coming of Henry Atwood. Astonishing beyond any measure! But it made a sort of sense, just not the sort he wanted anything to do with. He was all too human. To be what Tobias offered, a man would have to be humble and courageous beyond anything he was capable of.
They came up with Ed again, who was still staring hopefully at the yellow pebble. ‘Do you think it’s a bit more golden than it was, babe?’
‘Give it up, Ed. How’s sleeping beauty?’
‘Looking seriously cute. He’ll make some couple very unhappy one day.’
Tobias’s glance flickered from Ed to Henry. ‘Now there is this last thing.’
Henry caught the edge in the seraph’s voice. ‘You don’t mean …?’
‘The Great Council would consider it an immense favour if you two would take the boy on.’
‘What?’ yelled Henry.
‘Fantastic!’ echoed Ed.
‘Hey! Are you serious?’
‘Well yeah! I’d love a kid, and this one would be an amazing challenge.’
Tobias was grinning. ‘There is also this. He is a member of one of the celestial orders, so as a human he will grow up homosexual. You two could have a lot to offer him while he matures physically and emotionally.’
‘But he’s not exactly my greatest fan. Frankly, I would like my child to adore me.’
‘You’ll work it out. The man who brought down the Antichrist can bring up the Angel of Death.’
‘Maintenance,’ Henry stated firmly.
‘If the Council want us to take him on, we want some sort of child support.’
‘I’m sure we can come to an arrangement. How about a Hellhound as babysitter?’
Henry goggled at him.
Tobias chuckled. ‘I think I may finally be getting the hang of this humour business.’
‘This place is a tip!’ Lance remained unimpressed with the Postgasse apartment which was now his home.
‘It’s just temporary. Ed … I mean, your dad … is looking for a new place out in the Sixth District. There’s a property near Fridricswejg which looks promising.’
‘Oh … do I get my own room?’
‘Absolutely, probably en suite.’
‘I want a PS3 like Damien’s.’
‘Would you settle for a PS2?’
Lance Edward Atwood sat in a shabby armchair staring moodily at his legal parent. Just home from school, he had changed into his favourite skinny black jeans, red Converse sneakers, Strelzen Zoo tee-shirt and hoodie. He had grown to like clothes a lot and looked good in them.
Bags of apparel were scattered everywhere. Henry had no idea why children needed so many clothes. He couldn’t remember having been so pampered himself. Since they had nowhere to put Lance’s extensive wardrobe, they left it in carriers.
Neither Lance nor Henry was entirely convinced their arrangement was working. Ed was much more ebullient about the whole thing.
‘Your grandma will be round tomorrow when I’m going in to clear my desk at Eastnet.’
Lance gave a little smile. He had been an instant hit with Marjorie Atwood, and the feeling was mutual. He was just the sort of outgoing, cheerful boy she loved. There was no doubt Lance was an affectionate child when he forgot to sulk. He adored chattering away with his new grandmother.
The problem was that Lance had not agreed to the Great Council’s solution to his complaint. Needing to blame someone for his unhappiness, he had decided Henry was the culprit. There was a distance between the two which was increasingly uncomfortable to both. Henry was learning about parenting the hard way.
The Great Council had been obliging. Lance Edward Atwood had been backloaded into existence with a family and a history. He was the abandoned ten-year-old son of Henry’s uncle Charles, who had in fact died childless in a motorbike accident in Australia at age twenty-six. Henry had never even met his uncle, the family black sheep. If Lance’s DNA was ever tested, however, it would be found to share the right proportion of the Atwood genes. Lance had a British passport and his relatives would slowly begin to recall his existence. He would do well at both Christmas and birthday, having cannily elected to be born at midyear.
The Ultras would remember the true story, of course. Justin in particular was agog, terrifying Henry with stories of Damien’s recalcitrant early years. ‘Oh yeah, and the worst is yet to come,’ he gloated.
Slowly life was changing for the new family. At the moment, Lance was occupying the apartment’s spare bedroom. Ed was frankly delighted to have a son to play with and take to the sporting events Henry couldn’t abide. There would now be family holidays, a new car, and a big house with a pool in Strelzen’s suburbs. Henry was by no means unhappy about it all. Nonetheless, he and Lance simply had not yet clicked as father and son.
In other ways, though, Lance was becoming reconciled to his new life. He had been enrolled in the Strelzen International School in the year above Damien and Reggie. The loss of his supernatural powers didn’t appear to bother him too much. With so much to learn about mortal life, he didn’t seem to have time to miss his previous existence.
His knowledge of certain subjects – notably history, religion, maths and astrophysics – startled his teachers, who were equally astounded by his total ineptitude with literature, geography and social studies. He was a natural athlete, already in the under-tens basketball and fencing teams along with Damien. He was, of course, a star swimmer and diver in whom the national-team scouts had been showing interest. Lance and Ed occupied the sofa in the evenings, avidly discussing the sports channels.
Henry just wished he could get more into being a parent. He had long accepted that, as a gay man, he was not likely to have much to do with fatherhood. Although he had regretted it, he had learned to live with it. Now he had a family delivered to him on a plate.
‘So … er, how was today?’
Lance brightened a bit. ‘School was good. I had recess and lunch with Reggie and Damien. Did you know Mattie’s dad has been offered a job in the university here, and they’re moving to Strelzen after Christmas?’
‘Actually, no I didn’t. I don’t have the Mendamero Men’s sources of intelligence.’
‘What’s for dinner?’
Food was very much a new experience for Lance. He relished it, though there had been painful things to be learned about the consequences of eating. The worst involved embarrassing lessons in toilet training, which Lance and Henry alike had found humiliating.
‘We thought we’d go out to Berwinckels once Ed gets back.’
‘We’ll meet up with friends there.’
‘Justin, Nathan and Daimey to begin with.’
Lance sparkled. ‘That’s great! Daimey’s dad’s amazing.’
‘You mean Justin.’
‘There’s also Nathan.’
‘He’s nice too.’
‘Have you ever talked to Damien about his two dads?’
‘Yeah. What’s all this about?’
Henry took a deep breath. ‘I’m sorry we’re not getting on.’
Lance glanced at him under his dark brows, but said nothing.
‘I’m really glad you’re my kid, honest! But I didn’t expect this any more than you did. I just wish we could go back and start again.’
Lance seemed to have made a decision. The next words came out of clenched jaws. ‘You could be nicer. You go all stiff and cold when I do something wrong. I’d rather you told me off, like Nathan does Daimey, and …’
Lance suddenly looked very vulnerable. ‘You don’t hug me, like Ed and Grandma Atwood do.’
‘I don’t?’ Henry was disconcerted. He was and always had been a physically affectionate man. Then he admitted the truth to himself. He had not once embraced his child in the three weeks they had been living together. It was as if a barrier was stopping him. It was his turn to feel vulnerable.
‘I’m sorry, Lance … but I can put that right.’ Taking a risk, Henry held out his arms. He suddenly had an armful of warm boy, who hugged him tight round the neck and for good measure kissed him on the cheek. Henry answered in kind.
Father and son settled into the chair. They stayed there silently for quite a while as their new relationship began to work its way through their stubborn heads. Henry finally got so far as to admit to himself that he and Lance were just too alike for their own good.
Berwinckels in Mikhelstrasse was a Rothenian institution. Somehow it had survived war and Communist dictatorship intact. It was a chocolatier and ice-cream parlour founded in the nineteenth century by the eponymous Herr Berwinckel, an Austrian whose moustachioed portrait still hung in the upstairs café. It was very much a family-orientated business, and a descendant of the original Berwinckel still ran it.
Henry, Ed and Lance found Justin, Nathan and Damien already installed at a table. The two boys grinned and sat close together, immediately engaged in their private joking world of school and family gossip. They only looked up when asked about drinks and the menu. Damien chose for Lance, who did not yet have the background in food to know what he might like.
‘Anyfing wiv fries is good. Extra fries is even better.’ Such was Damien’s wisdom in the matter of diet.
‘How’s leisure then, Henry babe?’ Justin asked.
Henry had taken a year’s leave of absence from Eastnet to sort out his new life. This had been assisted by a substantial and not entirely accidental win in the Rothenian national lottery, which was the Great Council’s contribution to Lance’s upkeep.
‘Odd. I’m listless and bored. I may take up writing. At least Magda’s off my back, and I’ve had the satisfaction of sacking Constanzia the cleaner. I no longer give a monkey’s about cleaning the Postgasse flat.’
Nathan rolled his eyes. ‘You never did seem to care much for it.’
‘True, but I don’t feel guilty anymore. We’re hiring a housekeeper for our new home, a friend of Mrs Atkinson’s who’s happy to move to Rothenia to expand her CV. My mum insisted. She said she didn’t want her new grandson dying of food poisoning before our first Christmas.’
Ed broke in with news that he’d made an offer on a five-bedroom executive house in Fridricsgasse, only two blocks from the Peacher-Underwood home. The boys looked up at that.
‘What’s my room like?’ Lance demanded.
Ed smiled. ‘Big, with a double bed and your own bathroom. You’ll love it, baby. The main reason I took it is the pool. It’s not only enormous, it’s got a high board you can practise on.’
‘Fantastic!’ Damien chipped in. ‘Think of the pool parties when summer comes!’
‘Yup, it’ll be a social centre for the International School’s Years 4 and 5. Next year’s looking good. I’ve been given a desk job at the ministry, so I’ll have regular hours. Major Anders is going to babysit the Fusiliers for the time being.’
Justin looked eager. ‘Shall we all do a special holiday this winter? I really fancies Aspen at Granddad Peacher’s mountain lodge. Wanna ski, Lance? Yer can bring Reggie and Mattie too. I can see it now: the Mendamero Men on snowboards!’ He laughed.
‘New Year’s got to be at Andy and Matt’s. It’s a tradition,’ Henry explained for Lance’s benefit. ‘And it’ll be Christmas in Strelzen. Your granddad Atwood would not be too happy if we missed the services at St Edwards.’
The Right Reverend Robert Atwood had ended up as full-time Anglican Bishop of Central Europe when the ecclesiastical debris from Bishop Jack’s disappearance from history had settled. He had transferred his pro-cathedral from Prague to Strelzen. His first episcopal act had been to issue a form of service for the celebration of same-sex unions. He was much enjoying the controversy he had kicked up.
‘Any news from Gavin?’ Nathan asked.
Henry smiled. ‘He’s applied to do sociology at Stevenage in the next academic year. So it’s back to uni for the boy. He seems happy. Max intercalated his third year after all the upset in Rothenia. He and Gavin will be together for at least two years in Stevenage, cos Max intends to do a master’s degree after graduating. Davey is footing the bill, saying he’s to blame for mucking up Max’s studies. Myself, I blame Bishop Josep Jamroziak – may he rest in peace.’
‘Are they … y’know, getting on?’
‘They’re living together in Max’s hovel for the moment. They plan to get their own flat next year. Yeah, I think they’re happy bunnies. Gavin’s taking up where he left off. He says his memories of being Enoch are fading fast, which is probably as well. He did and saw things that could only disturb a sane mind.’
‘You’re in touch a lot?’
‘I’ve become the big brother he never had. After all, there’re seven years between us. I’m even giving him relationship advice. He seems so young to me now!’
There came a sudden sound in the street outside, a mixture of cheers and applause slowly building up. Henry looked at Ed. ‘Is it them?’
‘He said he would. It’s what Rothenians do, and the royal family should be no different.’
Damien and Lance ran over to the windows to join the other patrons craning out to see what was happening in Mikhelstrasse below.
Lance was excited. ‘It’s the king and queen with baby Maxim in a pushchair. They got half a dozen security guys around them, and Prince Fritzy too!’
Damien called over, ‘They’re coming in!’
Soon enough the royal couple were entering the restaurant, Rudi solicitously assisting the queen up the steps to the first floor. She was carrying the baby, while a grinning Fritz trailed behind with the folded pushchair.
The management of Berwinckels was out in force, ushering the king and queen to seats next to Henry and Justin’s party and finding menus. Damien and Lance quickly latched on to Fritz, always good for a laugh, who soon had the two boys howling with merriment.
King Rudolf beamed at his friends as he sat down. There had been major changes in him since the events of early November. He had become gentler and more content, barely snapping at Henry for weeks. He was delighted to change the crown prince’s nappies, and thought it the height of happiness to be kept up all night by his crying and to be vomited over. Henry was increasingly glad he had been given Lance ready-made at age ten.
Harry sat next to Henry. ‘This is the first time I’ve been out since the hostage incident. You wouldn’t believe the relief it is to be on my feet, Henry. And look! Thin again! Well … thinner anyway. Here, you hold junior. You’re a dad yourself now. Get used to the demands!’
Henry took the baby gingerly. HRH Maxim Elphberg, duke of Mittenheim, was asleep and stayed that way. ‘You guys seem happy.’
‘Oh we are. Believe me, every day we wake up seems like a blessing. You don’t forget in a hurry such things as what happened in Wenzelsberh. Rudi’s so good, too.’ She looked fondly on her husband, who beamed back at her. ‘The baptism is going to be a week next Saturday in the Hofkapelle, and we want you to be one of the godfathers.’
‘Well, thanks. Delighted. Do I have to give him something?’
Through a private smile he replied, ‘Then I think the boy needs a guitar. I have this feeling he’ll be musical.’
The queen did a double take. ‘Really? It’s not traditional. Oh well, if you like.’
‘I do. I feel as though I’ve known this little tyke for years.’
‘I imagine it’s the Peacher resemblance in him. Rudi says he looks a bit like my father.’
‘Maybe that’s it.’
‘And how are you and Lance getting on?’
‘We’re getting there. He’s loving and lovable. I’m beginning to think nothing else matters. I have a feeling he’ll be very good for us, even when we get to the years of hormonal angst.’
‘Fancy him turning up like that, just out of the blue.’
‘It astonished me. But for the family’s sake, I had to take him on. Ricky couldn’t since he’s just acquired a small baby of his own, and mum and dad have got their hands full now that dad’s a prince of the church.’
‘Yes, Rudi told the cardinal the Anglican bishop would be invited to the baptism. That’s a new thing in Rothenia.
‘You know … Lance looks surprisingly like you, Henry.’
‘He does?’ In fact several people had observed a supposed similarity. ‘But then he is my first cousin. He has the Atwood genes.’
The queen smiled. ‘I hope so. The world needs more of them. Now … I’m going to have my first latte in the best part of a year.’
Henry nursed the baby a while as the queen placed her order. Then he asked, ‘How’s motherhood?’
‘Worth the effort, for all it was a close-run thing. But to have little Maxim in my arms is just … I can’t describe it. The pain and fear simply fade away when I look in his blue eyes. I love the darling so much. And now you’re a father too, Henry.’
‘That was perhaps the biggest surprise of the whole Eschaton business.’
‘Lance is a beautiful boy, so funny and charming, a credit to the Atwood clan. How is fatherhood treating you?’
‘I wish I could say the pain and fear fade entirely away when I look in Lance’s blue eyes, but he’d think I was such a prat. Still, I believe we’re getting somewhere. The thing is, they don’t tell you how much you’ve got to change to be a parent. Life just does not go on as before. It’s like a runaway rollercoaster ride. What a challenge!’
‘Mendamero’s greatest adventure.’
‘I couldn’t have put it better.’