by Michael Arram
THE GREAT UPRISING
Henry Atwood, member of parliament for the fourth and sixth city wards of Strelzen, sat back in his seat outside his favoured pavement café at the south end of the sunny Rodolferplaz, idly watching pigeons scavenge the pavements in the dappled light under the trees. He wondered yet again what Lance and his siblings were up to in their new avian life, and fought once more the gulf of loss that opened in his heart as he did so. It had been a year now since the Great Uprising and there had not been – nor could there be – any news of the colony. He had asked Maxxie what he knew, but just got a shrug, though the ten-year-old boy-king had admitted he too wished he could find out. But the Petakh planet was too far away for Henry’s drained powers to project himself, though he had tried several times. It left him with a bad headache.
The busy city hummed and bustled all around him, busier than he could ever remember it. The victory over the Horde had major consequences for Rothenia, now the central and directing power in Europe. A resurgent West was basing itself on Strelzen. Reviving international associations had set up headquarters in the town in the wake of the arrival of NATO, the European Bank and the International Monetary Fund; the United Nations was currently talking of shifting some of its agencies from Geneva.
Cranes and rising towers were rearing up over the Martzfeld roofs upriver of the Nuevemesten. The government was embroiled in continuous arguments over the expansion of the city’s business district. The Von Lauern administration was pro-business and reluctant to confine development to sites where they would not dominate the baroque glories of the ancient and historic capital. Henry fought the good fight now in parliament as well as the media. He was civilly hated by his CDP colleagues.
Henry’s eleven o’clock appointment came swinging south towards the café. Oskar von Tarlenheim had his grinning son Piotr on his shoulders, clinging to his dad’s ears. Henry called over a waiter, and a coke and cappuccino were brought to the Tarlenheims as they arrived.
Uncle Henry got a hug and kiss from the boy, now five years old, who then devoted himself to sucking at the straw of his coke and swinging his legs in his seat.
‘How come you’ve got the kid today?’
Oskar relaxed in his chair. ‘I took the day off, the first for quite a while. It’s the school holidays at Terlenehem.’
‘My fault, I know. When Rudi set up the Oecumene, what could I do but volunteer to resume my role as his civilian chief-of-staff? Anyway, today is a Piotr day. That right, son?’
The boy stopped sucking up his drink, grinned and nodded his head vigorously. ‘Daddy’s taking me to the Spa to play!’ he announced gleefully.
‘Well, I won’t keep you long from the fun. Got what I asked for, Osku?’
Oskar produced a manila envelope. ‘It took a while and I had to call in favours. Why didn’t you use your super-powers, Henry?’
‘They’ve been on the blink since the day of the Uprising. I can still do the travel hops pretty well, but a lot of other stuff doesn’t work like it once did. Me and Maxxie had to expend an enormous amount of power to force open the worm-hole, or rift, or whatever you want to call it. The Universe is unforgiving of that sort of meddling, it appears.’
‘So you have limits. I’m relieved. Drink up, Piotrescu. We need to get the tram. See you soon, Henry.’
The two men kissed. Piotr looked back and waved at Henry from his place on his father’s broad shoulders as they disappeared up the Plaz.
Henry promptly opened the envelope and scanned the contents. He quickly finished his coffee and headed inside the café to enter the men’s toilet. He never re-emerged.
Janko Ciric and Kristijan Dotchev were happily sharing Kris’s kitchen table for their summer project work. They attended the same private college in Ljubljana, though they were in different years.
Janko took a pen out of his mouth and asked ‘You and Tovyan thought of a holiday yet?’
Kris looked up. ‘Tovyašin doesn’t get holidays as a concept, though he’s nice about it.’ The boy blushed, rather prettily. ‘He says every day with me is a holiday, so why do we need to go away to be any happier than we are?’
Janko made a gagging motion in response. ‘You should work on him.’
‘Oh, I have. I told him it was expected that we should go and visit Vuk’s grave in Strelzen. Those words “it’s expected” always catch him off balance. He’s never entirely sure he’s got the hang of things. So Strelzen it is. I think he’ll want you and your mum to come too, but after Strelzen I’ll be able to get him to travel a bit more, I hope. I always wanted to visit Disneyland Paris and do the rides.’
‘Me too!’ Janko affirmed. It was as he was returning to his books that the apartment’s entryphone buzzed.
Kris got up and responded. Janko heard a puzzled and halting interchange. Kris looked over. ‘It’s a foreign guy. I can’t understand what he wants. Come and try out your English.’
Janko obliged with a shrug. He could make nothing of the blurred figure of a man on the CCTV. ‘Hello! I Janko. Who want? What want?’
The stranger paused and launched a volley of English down the phone, most of which Janko did not get but he did hear the name Tovyan Bošvic.
‘Want Tovyan, guy? He not here. Who you?’
The blur gave the distinct impression that it was frustrated. Janko turned to his friend. ‘You know a Heinrich somebody? No?’ He turned back to the phone. ‘Tovyan with car. Change wheel. Down in basement. Bye!’
On the doorstep below Henry swore. One power he did not have was tongues, and though he had an excellent command of the principal European languages, those did not include Serbian and Slovenian. He was not often at a disadvantage linguistically, and so he did not take it well when he was on the back foot. He had made the hop from Strelzen to the address in Ljubljana the Rothenian Sichertsdeinst had located for Tovyan Bošvic, only to be stymied by an entryphone.
Henry looked around. He’d caught the word ‘basement’ and saw that the apartment building had an underground car park. He sauntered past the barrier and down the ramp. There was a line of cars, and under one of them a pair of legs was poking out.
‘Tovyan!’ he called out. A tousled and puzzled head emerged as the boy swarmed out. He saw Henry and his smudged face showed first bemusement and then delight. Henry was touched. He and Tobias the seraph had not had the easiest of relationships, but it seemed that Tovyan Bošvic now saw things differently.
Tovyan held up his hands, oily even after wiping them with a rag. ‘I can’t shake yours, Henry, but it’s good to see you. How on earth did you find me?’
Henry went straight up to the boy to hug and kiss him. ‘You look happy, sunshine.’
‘Oh, I am. As you can see, I finally clicked with the material world.’
‘And how. There’s a boyfriend?’
‘Kris … a very worthy person. I love him deeply. He makes me laugh all the time.’
‘You have come on. I never got so much as a chuckle out of you, and many find me irresistibly amusing.’
‘I imagine the Antichrist died laughing.’
‘It was more a Wizard of Oz moment ... you know, “I’m melting ... melting! What a world ... what a world!”’ Tovyan stood puzzled. Henry just laughed. ‘Still a way to go culturally then. Kris will explain.’
‘He does a lot of that.’
‘You told him everything, then?’
‘Of course. Vuk made me understand love and honesty. I owe him so much.’
Henry hugged Tovyan close once again. ‘I was sorry about him.’
‘He taught me all the good and all the hard lessons about mortal life. I could never betray his teaching. And one day ...’
‘You’ll be together again. But the waiting is hard.’
They nestled together for a while, then Tovyan disentangled. ‘Come on upstairs, you must meet my Kris, and Vuk’s little brother, Janko.’
They climbed up to the apartment and the introductions were made. Unfortunately little more could be said until after Tovyan cleaned up and changed, though Janko did his valiant best within his limited resources.
‘So you ... TV man, yes?’
‘I was. I’m a politician now.’
‘Politician? Ah yes. I know. Crook? Thief?’
‘What? Er ... what?’
Janko gave an impish grin and laughed hilariously. Tovyan returned and ruffled the boy’s short hair. ‘You have to forgive Janko. His humour is often somewhat Serbian.’
Henry took an armchair and the other three the sofa. Tovyan draped his arm around Kristijan, who cuddled into him while Janko curled up with his head in Tovyan’s lap. It occurred to Henry that his old foe had done considerably more than learn about love, he now attracted it in great quantities.
‘You keep the place tidy,’ Henry observed.
‘That’s Mrs Ciric. She’s appointed herself adult in charge of me and Kris. She doesn’t believe the birth certificate the Rothenians forged for me. I don’t mind. It’s nice to have an honorary mum to fuss over me. Now Henry, I’m sure there is more to this visit than sociability.’
‘You’re right. I’ve been instructed to contact you.’
‘Instructed? By whom?’
‘The Dead have given me their counsel about the future of humanity. It involves you. If there is to be moral change in human society, it’ll stem from the One. But if there is to be material change it seems to our dead friends it’ll come from you. I apparently am the linchpin of the wagon that’ll need to be got rolling pretty soon, the link between you and Maxxie. There is a deadline of sorts: some looming catastrophe for which humanity must be prepared.’
‘I thought that was the Horde.’
‘Malik-Rammu – may he rest in torment – was just a catalyst.’
‘You never found him?’
‘Nope. No body and no trace of him. Rudi thinks he was killed in the Starel Gap and was washed away in the river, like so many others. I have my doubts. But it’s been over a year now and he’s not resurfaced in any sense of the word. That can only be because he’s dead.’
Tovyan gave a reserved look. ‘He’s left a troubling legacy, for everyone.’
‘You’re not blaming yourself are you?’
There was a long silence, in which an anxious Kristijan gripped and kissed his lover’s hand. Apparently he recognised these episodes of internal trouble in his Tovyan.
The ex-seraph shook his blonde head. ‘How can I not? I just have to live with it, and hope that in the end the Creator’s mercy will turn my treachery to good.’
‘You have grown so very much, Toby’ Henry reassured him. ‘The Tovyan you’ve become will redeem the seraph’s errors, I’m sure. And that’s the point I need to take up with you. Maxxie tells me he has hopes you’ll address humanity’s relationship with the world in which it lives, and bring the two into balance.’
Tovyan rallied. ‘And how and when is this going to happen?’
Henry smiled. ‘It’s begun. You’ll have heard of the Oecumene?’
‘Certainly. The grand duchy of Slovenia entered it two months ago. There was a big ceremony. It’s like a new European Union.’
Henry shook his head. ‘Yes and no. The principles and ideals are similar, but Strelzen is not Brussels and the Oecumene is not confined to Europe. The resemblance is more to the old Holy Roman Empire: a federation and customs union of states linked by allegiance to a common good and a legal relationship to a … I suppose you have to call him an emperor.’
Tovyan’s eyebrows raised. ‘Rudolf Elphberg?’
‘With his prestige and energy, there could be no other. Negotiations have already begun at the highest level. It’s likely he’ll be proclaimed within the year.’
‘And how would this be an advance? The old Empire was corrupt and reactionary and the European Union was ineffectual in its incompetence and infighting.’
‘Ah well. All the negotiations have been happening in Strelzen, in the vicinity of Maxxie.’
‘You mean the One has been manipulating people?’
‘No. But he has been telling his father which of the politicians, ambassadors and administrators he senses to be gifted men of high principle, imagination and competence, rather than place-men and profiteers. The former will be forwarded and promoted within the Oecumene, and the others sidelined and – if necessary – exposed for their corruption. Europe’s political class is about to experience an invisible Renaissance and Reformation all in one go. Corruption, egotism and unrelieved stupidity will rapidly disappear within the Oecumene’s governing elite; even in the Balkans, where government has long been about inequality, racism and intimidation. Harmony and the common good will advance, and those parts of the world outside the Elpherg imperium will have to live up to its ideals. That’s the theory anyway.’
‘You can’t stop people freely electing the stupid, evil and corrupt. Isn’t that one of the arguments against democracy?’
‘True, but from now on there will be a mighty sheepdog to protect the flock from those who would be wolves and draw their teeth; no one will be able to escape his vigilance.’
‘An Elphberg imperial dynasty.’
‘That’s the plan. I rather like it. It’ll keep Maxxie away from his X-Box.’
‘So what about me in all this?’ Tovyan asked. ‘How do I fit in?’
‘Ah, now that’s the really big question, Dr Frankenstein.’
Tovyan and Kris waved off Henry at the apartment door. Tovyan noted that Henry trotted down the stairwell before dematerialising. He appreciated the consideration. It would have disconcerted Kris and Janko.
‘So who was that, Tovyašin?’
‘That’s a difficult question to answer now, my Kris. He was once a man, but I rather think he’s something a lot more than that now.’
‘Really? He seemed normal enough for a guy in his thirties, even a gay guy. Nice smile and good dress sense for someone his age.’
‘He’s Mendamero, to whom I myself centuries ago gave the title “the Warrior of God”, and that is indeed what he has become.’
‘Wow! Like an angel? Like you were?’
Tovyan gave a rueful shake of his head. ‘No, better than me by a very long way. He’s the man who defeated the Antichrist and opened the way for the One to enter our world, the ambassador of humanity to the Afterworld and the very voice of God to mankind ... he is in fact the person I failed to be. So believe me when I say he is someone very much better than I was. You should be glad he exists.’
Silence greeted that announcement. Tovyan closed their door and the boys cleared the kitchen table. Drinks and sandwiches appeared and they chatted desultorily about school and holidays until Janko decided it was time to go. Tovyan then took Kris’s hand and led him to their bed, where they made gentle love for the rest of the afternoon. Kris realised that his abstracted lover needed the reassurance of his body and was glad to offer him his touch, kiss, warmth and penetration.
Hours later, awaking from a doze with his cheek pressed to Kris’s chest and right hand still between his lover’s thighs, cupping his plump genitals, Tovyan was once more clear-headed. He yawned, then pulled Kris to him.
‘Kristijan mine, I’m going to tell you what I am being called to do, and you can help me so very much.’
His lover gave him a soft kiss. ‘Are you going to experiment on me?’
Tovyan chuckled. ‘How do you do that?’
‘Just go to the centre of every anxiety I have and turn it upside down. Then you make me laugh at it. You take the pain out of life and put back joy where it was. I love you so much, my Kris.’
‘Tovyan and Kris against the whole world!’
‘That’s our motto. There can no longer be one without the other.’
There was a long and comfortable silence, which Kris broke by returning to the subject. ‘Seriously, Tovyašin, what are you going to do?’
‘That’s up to me, but Henry suggests that the time may have come to force a human evolution.’
Kris had been caressing Tovyan’s nearest nipple as he lay alongside him. Now he sat up and put his arms around his legs. Tovyan admired the slim, well-proportioned body of his lover beside him and stroked down the ridge of Kris’s spine. The boy was increasing in desirability as he grew, his hair now grown out and naturally tousled. Their new life had filled out his pinched face and there was no longer any doubt Kris was a handsome boy, even in glasses. Tovyan caught girls, and the odd boy, staring at his lover in the corridors of their college. He did not notice, but he too drew stares.
Tovyan got up behind Kris and pressed against his back, clasping him with his legs and arms and laying his head against his warm shoulder. ‘I couldn’t improve on you, Kris. You’re perfect for me. But a lot that’s wrong with the human race could be put right with some change to its genetic structure.’
Kris leaned back to snatch a kiss. ‘What about smelly feet?’
‘We’ve beaten that with you, my Kris. I could spend all day sucking your toes. No, I’m thinking more in terms of disease and decay. Why does the human aging process have to be so abrupt and uncomfortable? Why is the body so susceptible to degenerative illness? There will be a reason, and I have to find it. When I have, maybe there will be scope for a redesign.’
‘You can do this?’
‘I can try. The human genome is available still, or will be when the internet is rebooted and restored. I need to start untangling it. I think I can.’
It was a bright Strelzen afternoon, and Henry was bored at home. Ed was away on campaign, commanding an army group establishing Oecumene control over Eastern Turkey and supporting the new Kurdish state which Rudi had brought into existence under the Oecumene’s protectorate. He had selected as queen of the Kurds the guerrilla leader Maxxie had pointed out to his father. She was the only local warlord who had protected rather than exploited the people under her control. ‘Also, she’s hot,’ the boy had whispered sotto voce in Henry’s hearing.
Henry walked the edge of their covered pool. It barely got used now Lance and the boys had gone. Again Henry felt the pain of loss. He moped a while and then slipped out the back through the hole in the fence Lance and Damien had customarily used for access when they didn’t want to be observed.
He went up Fridricsgasse looking for company. On an afternoon like this Nate might well be gardening. As he got to the Peacher-Underwood home and accessed the gate, he heard the unmistakable sound of a furious Justin from the back garden. As a curious Henry was going round the corner of the house he was cannoned into by a running figure haring along barefoot and indeed bare of everything else apart from a wadded tee-shirt clasped over his crotch. It was a teenage boy, red of face and frantic. Dropping his last claim on modesty he clasped Henry.
‘Sir! Help me! The madman, he will kill me! He has a knife! He swore he’d neuter me!’
‘Whoah, kid! Who’ll kill you?’
At this, Justin came tearing round the corner, knifeless. ‘You little git! Wait till I get my hands on you! Hang on to him, Henry!’
The boy had fallen to his knees as Justin caught up with him. A hand in the boy’s dark curls hauled him to his feet, hands clasped over his genitals.
‘What the fuck’s up, Justy?’
‘I caught this little git and Sunni Mae at it on a recliner out the back.’
‘Excuse me, Justy, but isn’t this His Royal Highness, Mátyás Habsburg-Lorraine, Crown Prince of Hungary?’
‘He could be the Emperor of China for all I fucking care, sniffing round our kid like an alley cat!’
‘Sir, please sir! We had done nothing! We were swimming and ...’
‘And fucking what?’
‘We kissed, that’s all!’
‘Somehow the nakedness does not convince, kid.’
‘I swear! We were just skinny-dipping.’
‘Looked to me you were ready for action, sunshine. Don’t give me crap.’
Henry intervened. ‘Look Justy, I don’t think Rudi would take kindly to your castrating his cousin, that and giving Hungary a cause for war with Rothenia.’
Justin released the boy, who scrabbled for his tee-shirt and swarmed into it. It just about covered his modesty. There were tears in his eyes and Henry was rather taken by his romantic earnestness in the circumstances. ‘Sir, you must understand, I love your daughter. She is everything to me. I can’t live without her.’
‘Go and get dressed, sunshine, then get the fuck back to wherever you’re staying. Where’s your security anyway?’
The boy shrugged. ‘I gave him the slip. It was not too hard.’
‘Unlike your cock. Get the rest of your clothes, you little tosser.’
Henry could see Justin was coming off the boil. ‘I’ll run him home, Justy.’
Mátyás disappeared. Justin ran his hands through his curls. ‘I never had this with Daimey. I have to ride shotgun on his sister. There are no limits with her.’
‘The lad seems touchingly sincere. It’s sweet. Also he has a really cute butt.’
‘Which I will kick from here to the Residenz if he tries sneaking in without permission again. Bloody royalty. Think they own the world.’
‘Well, technically ....’
‘Don’t start, Henry. You can be pedantic, know that?’
‘I’ll be back after I drop him off. We can pursue the discussion. I could do with the distraction. Go easy on Sunni.’
Prince Mátyás huddled fully dressed in the passenger seat of Henry’s car, arms tightly crossed, hugging his rib cage.
‘When did you meet Sunni?’
The boy came back into focus and seemed willing to open up to Henry’s sympathetic questioning. Perhaps he was desperate to confide his feelings to someone now they were in the open. ‘It was after the victory parade last year, sir. She was so funny and open, not like any other girl I’d ever met. We’ve been skyping and texting ever since when we’re able. I’ve been so desperate to see her in person again. Today was my only chance and I had to take it.’
‘It’s love then.’
‘Do you think we’re silly, sir? I know I’m only sixteen ...’
Henry melted, which was not too difficult a thing with him. He began to see why Sunni had not in the end joined her brother as an avian. ‘Mátyás, I met the love of my life when I was sixteen, and so, truth to tell, did Justin Peacher-White. It took me a while to realise I’d found the end of the rainbow, but Justin and his Nathan have been solid since they were teens.’
‘End of the rainbow …?’
Henry laughed. ‘Your English is exceptional, Mátyás. Is that the result of Sunni’s private tuition?’
‘She makes me laugh, sir, all the time. She’s fifteen, I just count the days till I can make her a proposal of marriage.’
‘You’d make her Queen of Hungary? My word. Have you talked this through with your parents?’
‘They would think me foolish.’
‘Why? Is it because they want to marry you into another royal family? I thought commoners were okay as partners for princes nowadays. Besides, she is a Peacher, if only by adoption.’
The boy bristled at what he plainly perceived to be a slight to his honour. ‘I did not know she was a Peacher heir when we first met, sir. In fact she has never mentioned it.’
‘I understand, Mátyás, and I was not implying money came into your thinking. I was just asking if you expected your parents to argue against your association with Sunni.’
The boy was silent for a while before replying. ‘I don’t know, sir.’
‘Give them a chance, kid. My guess is that, loving you as I’m sure they do, they’ll just argue that you should give the relationship time, and if a couple of years down the road you two are still keen on each other, then they’ll not object to something so important to your happiness.’
‘Do you really think so?’
‘I think you should show some faith in your parents, Mátyás.’
The prince nodded solemnly. ‘Thank you, sir. You have given me wise counsel, and I am obliged to you.’
Henry was rather impressed with the dignity of the boy’s response. It reminded him of the young Rudolf Elphberg in one of his better moments. He stopped off at the entrance to the Residenz on Brückestrasse, and cheerily returned the prince’s shy wave as he turned to go in to face the music.
An inarticulate growl answered Henry from behind the marshal-prince of Elphberg’s desk in the Ostberg Palace. It was clearly not one of Rudi’s better moments.
‘Should I greet you as your imperial majesty?’
‘Outfield, will you kindly make appointments to see me through my office. Just materialising in my study like this is somewhat on the discourteous side.’
‘I thought you’d appreciate the distraction.’ Henry felt a little hurt.
The marshal-prince threw himself back in his seat. He was as usual in his general’s uniform. His lips quirked, by which Henry knew that he was not actually in the doghouse. ‘I’m assuming this is important.’
‘Sorta. Did you hear about what young Prince Mátyás got up to, the scamp?’
‘Apparently you saved his life and ability to continue the Hapsburg line. He spoke very highly of you.’
‘I don’t think Justy would have done what he was threatening. But he did have a right to be cross. The kids were being pretty irresponsible, and being besotted isn’t that much of an excuse even if you’re hormonal and sixteen. Mátyás is something of a romantic, you know.’
‘I like the boy as it happens. He has a lot of Rothenian traits. He intends to join the Hungarian armed forces rather than go to university. I believe that his parents have been reasonable over his infatuation. As soon as Sunni is sixteen she’ll be allowed the status of official girlfriend to the crown prince, so sleepovers will be permitted. Maybe that’ll cure them.’
‘Or maybe not. I hope not anyway. I value romance in others.’
‘Perhaps you can get to the point …?’
‘Oh, sure. I tracked down young Tovyan. You’re right. He’s changed amazingly: likeable, happy, dignified and so very human. We had the talk.’
‘So he’s prepped and in the loop. Excellent.’
‘The other thing ...’
‘Why do I know I’m not going to like this.’
‘It’s Maxxie, Rudi. He’s hitting puberty early. They all do nowadays, but you must have noticed.’
The marshal-prince shrugged. ‘He’s had a growth spurt, but his voice hasn’t noticeably changed. Neither I nor his mother get to see him in the buff nowadays and we never go to the Spa; he’s got very private about his body and his space. But that’s normal for his age isn’t it?’
‘Yes ... but. Take it from me that he’s showing signs of increasing sexuality ... straight by the way.’
Henry adopted a frosty tone. ‘I’ll ignore that remark.’
Rudi spread his hands. ‘You know what I mean.’
‘Maybe. The point is, he won’t be your normal adolescent.’
‘I guess I know that, but then he wasn’t a normal anything, was he.’
‘It’ll hit him differently.’
Rudi shook his head. ‘I don’t follow. Are you saying he’ll use his powers inappropriately?’
‘No, Rudi. Maxxie has a very powerful moral sense for a boy his age. My fear is that his powers will use him.’
‘I don’t get it.’
‘Adolescence is going to rewire his brain ... principally to his dick, and what just happened to young Mátyás is going to happen to him, but to the power of a thousand. He is going to be bemused and utterly besotted by the opposite sex, who will be irresistibly drawn in huge numbers to the sort of young man he’ll grow into: handsome, charming, charismatic, royal and loaded. But the point is that of all the ones hurling themselves at him he’ll be drawn to the sort of girl or woman he thinks needs saving.’
‘Oh. Oh my God!’
‘There are so many out there, and they’re all highly unsuitable.’