by Michael Arram
‘Er ... hi, Uncle Henry!’
Henry surveyed Maxxie, who was rallying, but still flustered. ‘Didn’t expect to see you here, sunshine. Come to think of it, I didn’t expect to see anyone mortal here. Does your mother know where you are? Better still, where does she think you are?’
‘In school, I guess.’
‘School? You’re dodging off lessons? This is truancy with a difference.’
‘No, no. I’m not cutting class. I’m sorta between classes. There’s no time here, you know that, Uncle Henry. Mrs Andreyvna thinks I went to the can.’
‘How often do you do this?’
‘Oh ... not that often ... but sometimes ... y’know.’
‘No, I don’t know. You tell me, Maxxie.’
‘We-e-e-ll. It’s Lance’s people, y’know, the angels. They sorta called to me ... for help. It was, I dunno, couple of months ago Earth time. They were so happy when I found them. They were hiding here, frightened. Toby’s friends had driven them out of the World Beyond once the archangels had been sent to join Lance. So since then I come see them when I can. They’re learning to play and stuff.’
‘Play? You’re teaching the angelic host to play football?’
‘And hide and seek. They love that one.’
‘I didn’t think they had bodies.’
‘I showed them how to make some. Wasn’t easy.’
‘You’re humanising them.’
‘Yeah, I suppose. It’s better than the thing Toby did to Mikey, Yuri and the twins: way better.’
‘And the spear, sunshine?’
‘Oh! It’s Lance’s. He sent it to them with a message. That’s why they decided to call me, so they can send it back to their prince with their reply.’
Henry pondered the magical boy, wondering if he was getting the whole story. Finally he decided the time had come for a bit of direction. ‘You’re not to do this again, Maxxie. Sorry, but off-planet excursions are forbidden from now on.’
‘But Uncle Henry! I said I’d be back!’
‘You go to school. Now. I can’t see how you can put in a good day’s work with Mrs Andreyvna when you’re also having extended playtime up here.’
‘You’re not gonna tell mom?’
‘What do you think?’
‘Well, before I’m grounded, can you take this, then?’ The boy heaved the spear off his shoulder and offered it to Henry. He took it gingerly, remembering the last time he had held it. There was not so much as a spark this time around.
‘I’ll catch up with you later, Maxxie.’
The boy gave Henry a dejected half wave, and then faded out, leaving Henry more than a little bemused.
Eventually he shrugged, and concluded that he’d better get back himself. With that he was on the peak of Kaleczyk, the sky around full of wheeling avians. Henry searched for the brightest blue wings, and hopped around trying to get attention.
Eventually he was spotted and Davey fluttered down to meet him. ‘Whassup, Outfield?’
Henry gave a helpless gesture. ‘You’re not gonna believe this. You may want to sit down.’
‘Don’t do much sitting these days; you look frayed.’
‘I need to talk, and only you’ll do.’
Davey took the news standing. He stood quiet a long time after he heard of Henry’s encounter with Terry beyond the grave.
Eventually he shook his glorious horned head. ‘You can’t imagine how this makes me feel, Outfield. Relieved, comforted and torn all at the same time. It’s like the party has gone elsewhere, and he’s gone with it.’
‘You’re not jealous of Ramon are you?’ Henry blurted, and then wished he hadn’t.
The lambent eyes of the avian flared briefly. ‘Don’t be a twat, Henry. I never met the guy. Anyway, from what you say, there’s nothing much to be jealous about. No, it’s that I miss him still, and I can’t be patient like your mates the Dead claim to be. I suppose I’m always gonna be torn, and as an avian I have such a long time to wait. The advantages of a short life have just become apparent to me. Seems there’s tragedy in whatever form humanity takes.’
Henry could not but agree. He sighed. ‘I’ve got a hard thing to do now Davey. It seems to me that you and I should go somewhere to chat. Since you kidnapped me last, this time it’s my turn.’
Davey’s head looked up, ‘Wha …!’
They were in Eden. Davey looked around with curiosity. ‘Wow! So this is …?’
‘Yeah. Pretty amazing innit.’
‘And you can come here any time you like?’
‘I suppose. It goes with the Mendamero job.’
‘So what’s to discuss?’
‘Oh … the future of humanity, in both its forms.’ Davey was still looking around for something, or someone. Henry shook his head, regretfully. ‘You won’t see him here, Davey. They’ve all left the island now and gone back beyond their metaphorical sea. Tell you what though, I can do a thing.’
‘Do what thing?’
‘This.’ Henry concentrated and took his friend’s body. He untriggered its avian nature and held Davey in statis as he repaired the human body that was its broken template.
‘Jesus, Henry! What’ve you done!’ Davey looked in shock at his restored human body, naked on the bank of the stream.
‘Call it a favour. Now at least you can go to Terry’s funeral and sort out all your affairs.’
‘But can I go back to being an avian?’
‘Yup, I’ve left you able to. Just trigger yourself. But the same applies as to everyone else. Do it too often, and you’re stuck. I can’t unstick Max and Gavin, for instance. They’re permanent avians.’
Davey slumped on to the grass. ‘My dick’s tiny.’
Henry suddenly burst out laughing. ‘Is that all you’ve got to say?’
Davey reached up and pulled Henry down. ‘Come sit here. Now, kiss me.’
‘I said, kiss me. It’s what I need. And take your clothes off.’
‘Er … is this?’
‘Yes. I need a body to comfort me, and you’re it. Let me help you.’ Henry did not resist, and indeed, for once, was all too happy to co-operate. Kissing soon became more intimate as Davey’s lips moved down his body.
‘Henry, can I …?’
Henry looked up in the handsome face of his friend and former lover. ‘Go for it Davey. Let’s fuck properly for once.’ He winced at the entry. ‘Not … aah! It’s not that tiny, Davey!’
Soon enough, Davey settled into the familiar rhythm, pounding Henry on his back on the grass, the blue sky of Eden above him.
Davey pumped hard into him and slumped. They kissed again. ‘That was worth waiting for,’ Davey laughed and lay back alongside Henry on the grass, toying with his stiff dick.
‘The best, because I love the man I was fucking.’
‘Love you too. Now, you gonna help me with the future of humanity thing?’
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. Where’re the kids?’
‘School or back in uni. Things are as back to normal here as they ever get in Rothenia. When does Rudi return?’
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. 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. 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 still two hundred of them occupying Kaleczyk, and we’re only now getting to grips with parents from SIS who’ve found that their girls have left home and mutated into pregnant, winged hybrids. There’s twenty of them, including Helen. Justy’s about to become a granddad.’
‘As happy as could be expected in the circumstances. I managed to patch him back up so he could go to Terry’s funeral in Cranwell, but he prefers to be in avian form, so he’s returned to Kaleczyk, where he’s been appointed their Chancellor or something. 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.
‘Yes, but Mendamero’s a bit short of ideas on the subject. 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 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 adviser, 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 humans. 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.
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 in the Šiška district, 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.
Henry 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.
Just for that day, in amongst them were two private soldiers called Atwood: Mike and Lance, whom their comrades had demanded march with them in acknowledgement for their contribution to the victory at Kaleczyk. Mike had spent three days preparing his uniform. No buttons had ever been so mirror-like.
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.
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 kettledrums 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 Hungary.
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.’
END OF PART ONE