Michael Arram







  The party was over.  Gus and Danny were picking up litter from the lawns and around the pool and stashing it in black plastic bags.  Justin was at the front door paying the man from the bouncy-castle hiring firm, while Nathan was chatting with Moira and Esther at the poolside.


  In the meantime, Damien was sitting with Reggie up in his room.  They were playing on Damien’s XBox 360, but Reggie was not doing too well at their game.


  ‘C’mon Reggie.  This in’t like you.  You’re good at Final Command IV.  You’re at top level.’


  ‘Sorry, Daimey.  I just can’t concentrate.’






  ‘She’ll have forgotten about it by tomorrer.  There’s not much more than air in her head.’


  ‘She won’t.  She’ll have all her friends at the gate chanting, “Where’s the king, Reggie?” – stuff like that.  She hates me.’


  ‘Have you ever met the king?’


  Reggie looked sheepish.  ‘Er … no.  I was in the crowd when he visited the embassy for talks, the day the Secretary of State stayed in Rothenia.  She shook the hand of my mom, who was standing next to me.  The queen was there too.  She’s American, y’know.’


  Damien nodded abstractedly.  There was a lot he had not told his friends about his contacts in Rothenia.  As he machine-gunned numerous electronic SS troopers and blew up a Panzer, he mused on Reggie’s problem.  He could of course leave Reggie to be humiliated.  A less caring boy would probably have concluded it would teach Reggie a lesson.  But Damien made few close friends, and those he did make he would never let down.


  Later that night, while Reggie was sleeping curled up next to him, Damien slid silently from his bed and out into the dark house.  There was a light on downstairs, and laughter suddenly burst from the lounge.  His dad and Nathan had kept Gus, Danny and Pavel behind for dinner and then drinks.  It was turning into a late night, as none of the boys were working that weekend.


  Damien knew what he was after.  He padded into the study and found his dad’s mobile charging on the desk.  Detaching it, he summoned up the address book and copied down several numbers on a Post-it note.  Then he replaced the mobile.


  As he headed to the back of the house, he was busy adding those numbers to his own mobile.  When he got to his playroom, which was next to the bedroom where Reggie was sleeping, Damien looked consideringly out into the night, across the lights of Strelzen to where the floodlit cathedral towers dominated the city.  He hoped no one had gone to bed at the palace.


  He pressed a number and waited.


  ‘Hello?  Who is this?’ asked a bemused-sounding voice.


  ‘Auntie Harry, ‘s me, Damien.’








  Danny, Gus and Pavel ambled happily out into the night, with Nathan and Justin waving them off from the door.  Pavel had stayed on after he had come back with his parents to pick up Anatole, and had been invited to dinner.


  ‘Your cousin is an amazing cook,’ Pavel remarked.


  ‘Nathan is a veritable Apuleius,’ beamed Gus.


  Pavel looked puzzled.  ‘Beg pardon?’


  Danny shrugged.  ‘He gets this way when he’s had a few.  It’ll be Shakespeare next.’


  They wandered on down to Modenehemstrasse, and crossed at the lights.  Traffic was streaming out of the city as the concerts and shows were ending.


  When they got to the inner ring road at Festungstrasse they stood undecided.  Pavel was keen on going on to Liberation, and Danny was more than half inclined to go along with him.  Gus was clearly at capacity with alcohol, and though not by any means drunk yet, he would be if he carried on.  He decided it for them.  ‘Adieu, my dears.  I am for bed.’


  ‘I think I’ll go on with Pavel,’ Danny blurted, wondering why he felt a little traitorous when he said it.


  Gus smiled blandly at his boyfriend.  ‘Farewell then, my love, I bid you all a good night.’  He ambled off back to the campus.


  Pavel took Danny’s arm, which caused a tingle to shoot up his spine.  They carried on down the boulevard into the heart of the city.


  There was a huge queue down the Wejg at the foyer of Liberation.  Fortunately, Pavel and Danny now had free access to the side door, so they were soon in the pulsing heart of Strelzen’s gay clubland.  It was gays only on Saturday night, and the bar was heaving.  Pavel shouted in Danny’s ear, and pointed upstairs.


  The second floor was packed and there was a lot of shining flesh.  Lights flashed and rippled across the crowd.  Pavel took Danny’s hand and pulled him through the watchers on to the floor.  The scent of male hormones and mingled antiperspirants filled Danny’s nostrils, while the beat pounded his skull.  He surrendered to the moment and the alcohol, dancing as he had never danced before, furiously and flirtatiously.  Pavel was smouldering in front of him and his top had vanished.  He pulled off Danny’s tee-shirt as Danny raised his arms, and they moved close.  Bodies met, then lips.  Danny was making out, all inhibitions crumbling.


  Breaking liplock, Pavel mouthed the words ‘I want you,’ and Danny’s treacherous dick was telling him that was the way it desired the evening to go.  His head buzzed and his stomach felt empty.


  They glided across the floor, Pavel pushing aside a guy who tried to move in on Danny.  When they reached the stairs to the third floor, however, Pavel found his way blocked again, but this time there was no barging past the obstacle.  It was Davey Skipper, smiling a little quizzically at them both.


  Talking was pointless.  Instead, a twitch of his head indicated he wanted to talk to Danny.


  Pavel let go of his hand reluctantly.  Danny found himself manoeuvred through a side door marked PRIVAAT, into a quieter space with chairs.


  Davey looked concerned.  ‘Are you okay, sweetheart?’


  Danny sagged down into a seat and ran his fingers roughly through his dripping hair.  ‘Bit pissed,’ he muttered.


  ‘I only ask because you were on the way upstairs where the shagging can happen.  And I think young Pavel had shagging on his mind.  Are you and Gussie alright?’


  ‘Yes … no … I dunno,’ Danny admitted.


  Davey sat opposite Danny and eyed him curiously.  ‘Babes, I think you have a touch of the infatuation about you.  Pavel is cute – not my type, but cute.  I also think he’s more than a little desperate for it since he broke up with Yuri.’




  ‘His boyfriend.  They separated pretty violently out on the dance floor when Pavel refused to go back to Moscow with him.  You see, Pavel has fallen in love with the liberal sexuality of Rothenia.  Here he can be out, proud and gay.  In Russia, that would be very unwise.  Pavel won’t go back to the gay underground of Moscow.


  ‘You’ve only ever had it off with Gussie, haven’t you?’


  Danny looked up at his employer.  ‘Is it that obvious?’


  ‘Yes.  And you’re curious as to how it would be with another boy, aren’t you?’


  Danny nodded, then sighed.  ‘Pavel is hot.’


  ‘Beware, Danny.  He wants more than a casual shag.  He wants you to be his new boyfriend, and oddly enough, you look more than a little like Yuri.’


  ‘What … does Yuri look like a human squirrel?’


  Davey laughed.  ‘Don’t do yourself down.  You have a really ripped body, and your eyes …  You can go back to Pavel, babes, if you want.  That is, if you’re sure that’s what you want.  Many relationships aren’t harmed by sleeping around.’


  ‘What about you and Terry?’ Danny couldn’t help blurting, and then blushed violently.


  But Davey just looked him over and shrugged.  ‘Sweetheart, I know he shags around still.  I don’t mind, because that’s Terry, and he’s proved so many times over that I’m the only man he ever wants to be with as his partner.  But you don’t know how Gussie would react, do you?’


  ‘No.  He’s such a wonderful … amazing … man, but I can’t read him emotionally.  I don’t think there’s anything I could do to stop him loving me.  But it would kill me to disappoint him, to see a sadness in his eyes I’d caused.  He’s a much better man than I am, I know that.’


  Davey was quiet for a while.  ‘You really should talk about this with Gussie.  You’re trying to protect him, I think.  But Gussie is far stronger than you believe.  He’s not the one that needs protecting, babes.’


  Davey got up and pulled Danny to his feet.  ‘Off you go, and make your decision.  It’s up to you.’


  Danny nodded mutely, then impulsively hugged Davey.  He felt a light kiss on his cheek as they separated.  He went out into the din and crowd of the club where he saw Pavel loitering nearby.  The Russian met his eyes hopefully.  Danny went over to him and took him by both hands.  ‘I can’t,’ he mouthed.


  Pavel nodded sadly.  Leaning close to Danny’s ear he shouted, ‘Let’s go home.’








  It was Monday and the street outside the International School was choked with cars dropping off kids.  Although Justin had already driven away, Damien still lurked at the entrance.  Year 4 and 5 boys and girls alike smiled at him and paused to greet him.  He nodded, giving a casual response.  He had been the king of his last school, but it had been rural and small.  He was finding the extent of his notoriety and fame in Strelzen rather unsettling.


  Moira Mayer’s silver SUV pulled up and Reggie dragged himself out apprehensively.  He was even paler than usual.  He gave his mother a distracted farewell, shouldered his backpack with an almost heartbreaking resignation and walked slowly, head down, towards the entrance.


  Damien joined him as he reached the crowd at the gate.  ‘Lo, Reggie.’


  ‘Oh … er, hi Daimey.’  When he got close, Damien could see the sick perspiration on his friend’s white face.  He looked ill.


  Reggie gulped and asked, ‘Is Olga and her gang there?’


  ‘Fraid so.  You ready to bluff this out?’


  ‘Spose.  Oh, what an idiot I am.’


  ‘Chin up, me mate.  Let’s do this together.’


  ‘You’re a real friend, Daimey.’


  ‘Yeah … jess remember that, Reggie.  I’ll always be yer mate.’


  They pushed through the throng, beyond which the female alpha gang was waiting in a smug line, sarcastic smiles on their lips.


  Olga smirked.  ‘Well, it’s little prince Reggie.  When’s the king coming then?  Is he gonna be flying in on a helicopter, or what?’


  Reggie cleared his throat.  ‘You think you’re so clever, Olga Massenavic!’


  ‘Oh Reggie!  You mean King Rudi can’t make it today?  But you promised us!’  The other girls tittered.


  Reggie was on the brink of tears.  That was apparent to Olga, whose eyes lit up as she saw her triumph about to become complete.


  Then Damien chipped in.  ‘Yuh, the king can’t make it today.’


  ‘What?’  Olga looked puzzled at the intervention from an unexpected direction.


  ‘Nah.  But Reggie got the queen to agree to come.’


  ‘Oh … don’t make me laugh.  You can’t be serious, you …’


  The parental cars had mostly disappeared from in front of the school by then, so the attention of the playground was instantly grabbed by the thundering of several motorbikes in the street outside.  Four black-uniformed state police outriders roared past and then stopped.  Following a breathless pause, two dark-suited secret policemen entered and took station on either side of the gate.  Behind them appeared a devastatingly attractive blonde woman, tall and dressed in the height of Parisian couture designed specifically to disguise the bulk of a primagravida but enhance the special glow seen only in someone expecting her first child.


  ‘Oh my God!’ shrieked one of Olga’s acolytes.  ‘It is her!  It’s Queen Harry!’


  Olga’s jaw hit the playground tarmac before bouncing back into place with a click.


  Harriet winked at Damien and switched her gaze to a stunned Reggie.  ‘Good morning, Reggie dear.  The king sends his apologies, but affairs of state … you know how it is.’


  With an elbow in the ribs Damien prodded Reggie, who stammered out a weak, ‘Uh … uh … yeah … your … majesty.’


  The queen smiled sunnily around the silent playground, full of children paralysed and rooted to the spot.  ‘It’s lovely to see you all this morning.  Please don’t stop what you’re doing.  I only have a few minutes, but I thought I’d stop off to say hello to my friend Reggie Baier …’


  ‘Mayer,’ Damien muttered under his breath.


  ‘… Mayer.  Well, Reggie dear, perhaps you’d like to come and see me off in the car.  Would your little dark-haired friend like to join us?’


  In a trance, Reggie followed the queen out of the playground to the car, Damien tailing along behind, resisting the temptation to smirk.  ‘In you go, sweetheart,’ she said, as they reached the chauffeur holding open the rear door of the royal limousine.


  Reggie did as ordered, the queen following him a little more slowly.  Damien hopped in afterwards as the door closed.


  The queen gave Damien a little peck on the cheek, her eyes glittering with merriment.


  ‘Ta, Auntie Harry,’ the boy grinned.


  Reggie was coming back into focus.  ‘The queen is your aunt?’


  ‘Yuh.  Well, sorta.  Actually me dad is her nephew.  He’s a Peacher.’


  ‘But your name is Macavoy!’


  ‘Yuh.  Odd that, innit.’


  The queen smiled.  ‘It livened up my morning, dears.  It really is so boring being … er, expectant.’


  ‘Yuh, dad said you’re up the duff.  Is it a boy?’


  ‘Yes, sweetheart.  He’ll be your cousin, when he appears.’


  Reggie was putting things together.  ‘So you rang the queen up and asked her to come … and she did?’


  Harriet laughed.  ‘I owe Damien a favour, and to be honest, I didn’t have much else to do this morning.  My diary has been cleared for the next three months.  Well now, I suppose you’d better be getting back to your lessons.  But … I tell you what, perhaps you can come round to the palace on Wednesday after school.  I’ve been meaning to ask you and your father to tea, and there may be something you can help me with.  Perhaps Reggie will come too.  I’ll have my chief of staff ring your parents.’


  The boys said their goodbyes and left, Reggie staring as the cars and outriders departed.  A small crowd had gathered in the street.


  Damien took Reggie round the shoulder.  ‘There, I told yer I’d be yer mate.’








  Danny did not go to Gus’s room when he returned to the dormitory block in the early hours.  Head still buzzing, he sat on his bed, hands pressed to his temples.  He had been on the brink of infidelity to his Gussie, the undoubted love of his life, the boy to whom he knew he was utterly devoted in mind – though apparently not in body.


  Danny had always thought himself to be as constant as the sunrise and as unchanging as the stars in his affections.  Now he knew differently, and was a little scared of what he was learning about himself.  He had always faintly despised those who were tempted and fell, but that was before he himself had been tempted and felt the insinuating power of a rival attraction.  He was still attracted to Pavel.  The thought of the slim, dark Russian boy was causing him to break out in a sweat.


  Danny rolled back on his bed, hugging a pillow to his chest.  He had no idea when he finally fell asleep, though it seemed to him that he had barely dozed off before he was woken by the sunlight shining through the thin, ragged curtains of his room.  He staggered up, still dressed from the previous night.  He stripped, grabbed a towel and headed for the communal showers.


  The shower block was primitive, with slimy floors, cracked tiles and a distinct, dank stench about it.  But at least the water descended on him like a hot torrent, battering his head.  While other naked men came and went, some greeting him, Danny carried on standing there under the nozzle, hoping the water would wash away more than just the sweat and dirt on his body.  And strangely, it did seem to help.


  Feeling more awake and balanced, Danny shaved, brushed his teeth and returned to his room.  He knew he had to talk things out with Gus, and he went straight to his lover’s room.  But Gus was gone.  At that time of day, he could only be in the library, so Danny walked to the centre of the campus.  He found Gus in what he knew was his favourite place, high in an alcove on the library’s upper gallery, under a portrait of his Rothenian relative, the prince of Murranberg.  He had told Danny he felt at home there, for a similar portrait hung in one of the parlours of Haddesley Hall.


  For all the trepidation he felt, Danny’s heart glowed when Gus looked up and smiled a misty welcome at him.  It was always as if the sight of Danny recalled Gus from some deep dream in a distant place, like an enchanted prince awakening in a fairytale castle.  The sheer beauty of his boyfriend took Danny’s breath away, the brownish translucent skin, the tousled head of thick blond hair, the wide blue eyes.


  It was Gus’s eyes that Danny particularly registered that morning.  There was a quality about them that had become more and more evident in recent months: in their reflective depths he was seeing the emergence of something very like serenity, and even wisdom.  Danny was beginning to realise that his onetime oddball boyfriend was growing and changing faster than he could keep up with.


  ‘Gussie baby, I love you,’ he breathed.


  Gus smiled, almost to himself.  ‘And I love you too.’


  ‘I know, darling.  You’re the greatest thing that ever happened to me … that will ever happen to me.’


  Gus’s smile broadened.  ‘Ah … but will you say that if you realise your ambition of getting on the cast of Hollyoaks?’  He paused.  ‘How was the club?  Did you and Pavel have fun?’


  It was time for the confession.  ‘We danced a lot … and he really got into it.’


  Gus’s face was still cloaked in the same impassive smile as he said, ‘He loves you, Danny.’




  ‘I love you, so I can see it perfectly clearly when others do too.  What’s more, I think you are attracted to him.’


  Danny stuttered a little before coming out with, ‘You seem not to mind.’


  Gus reached up and took Danny by the hand, drawing him down into his lap and hugging him close.  ‘I’m not sure that I don’t mind, but I do believe that, whatever happens, you’ll continue to love me.  However, I don’t think sex with Pavel would be a good idea.’




  ‘He really does love you, Danny, but you won’t ever leave me for him, I know that.  The problem is that he would want you all for himself.  It would hurt him too much when he realised he could only ever have part of you.’


  ‘Oh!’  Would his lover ever stop amazing him?


  Apparently not, for Gus went on, ‘You shouldn’t resist having sex with other boys who attract you, providing you play safe and are sure it’s only a mutual passion you’re satisfying.’


  ‘But Gussie …!’


  He was shushed as if he were a child.  ‘We’re gay men, Danny.  It’s not unusual for the likes of us to want sex, good or bad, with any number of others.  If you don’t do it when the impulse is so strong in you, you’ll become frustrated and resentful.  So do it.  Tell me about it if you like, or not if you don’t want to.  I don’t think I’m a jealous man, or at least if I am, I’m only jealous for your love.  You must never love anyone else.’


  Danny wrapped himself around Gus.  After a while, through his tears, he sobbed, ‘I could never … ever, love anyone else.’








  Damien sat on the kitchen worktop with a bland smile on his pretty, urchin face.


  ‘Okay babes, whatchu do?’  Justin was staring at his son with some concern.




  ‘Nuffink?  The palace wuz just on to me office saying Auntie Harry wanted yer round for tea on Wednesday.  They said she’d already mentioned it.’


  ‘Can I go?’


  ‘Thass not the point, angel, and yer knows it.  When did yer meet Harry?’


  ‘She came to our school.’


  Justin sighed internally.  When Damien got like this, reconstructing what had happened would be like extracting teeth.  Every little clue would have to be jerked out of him with no context to explain it.  Only Gus could get Damien to tell him things directly, and Justin had no idea how he did it.


  ‘When did the queen come to yer school?’


  ‘This morning.’




  ‘She said she wuz passing.’


  ‘And she just stopped to see you?’


  ‘No.  She wanted to see Reggie too.’


  ‘Reggie?  How does she know about Reggie?’


  ‘She’d met his mum.’


  ‘The queen of Rothenia, one of the world’s richest women, stops off at your school in the backstreets of Strelzen just to say “hi” to you and yer little friend?’


  ‘Well, yuh!’


  ‘That don’t seem unlikely to yer?’


  ‘She’s me auntie, inn she?’


  Justin was stumped.  He knew very well there was a story he was not going to hear from his son.  He resigned himself to having to winkle it out of the queen herself, though he knew that Harriet’s quirkiness might close her down too in solidarity with Damien, whom she adored.


  Damien’s bland smile took on the edge of victory.  ‘So can I go?’


  ‘Well, yeah, I s’pose.’


  ‘Good.  I’ll ring Reggie.’  He hopped to the floor and shot out of the kitchen en route to his room.








  The Lady Benefactor was leaving the monastery.  The monks had lined up on the steps outside the front door to bow their farewells.  Her chauffeur and bodyguard were loading the SUV with an extraordinary number of bags.


  ‘Now, my dear abbot,’ she said as she shook his hand, ‘I hope to be back with you in ten days or so.  My business is keeping me in Strelzen.  It would be lovely to enjoy some more of that spiritual exercise your monks do so well.  This place is wonderful.’  She looked around at the community and beamed.


  Behind his round spectacles, the abbot’s eyes looked apprehensive.  ‘Of course, dear lady.  You are always welcome here.  I hope you think of the community as your family.’


  Vedayah muttered in Prema’s ear as the line of monks once again bowed with steepled hands to Mrs Marquesa, ‘… only if she’s into incest, the randy cow.’


  The Lady Benefactor pulled her Armani sunglasses out of their nest of blond hair and took her seat in the rear of the SUV.  The car disappeared down the drive towards the Ranstadt road.


  The abbot stood looking after it indecisively, while his monks turned away to pick up the threads of their disrupted routine.


  Vedayah and Prema went indoors to the library, where they sat at the study desk in the empty room.  Prema pulled a sheaf of printouts from his robe’s inner pocket.  After spreading them flat, he produced a note pad and pencil.


  Vedayah looked at him moodily.  ‘When’s the big day gonna be, Mal?’


  ‘Thursday next.’


  ‘And where’s it gonna happen?’


  ‘They’ll take him at Glottenberh at the PeacherCorp regional office, where he’s got a meeting.  And then …’


  ‘Yeah, I know what you mean.’


  ‘How’ll we be able to get at him?’


  ‘Just so happens I’m working on it with Krishanna.  He needs supplies ‘cos of all the cow and her guys consumed.  I fixed it that he’ll tell the abbot he needs to send us in a van down to Glottenberh.  We’re in favour at the moment after our … sacrifice.’


  ‘Don’t tell me about it.  I want to do the purification rite today.  I still can smell her on me … yuk!’


  ‘Yeah.  Anyway, once we’re there …’


  ‘What’ll we do?’


  ‘We’ll give those bastards a surprise.  Did you send those counterfeit mails to Josseran, the ones I composed.’


  ‘Yes … but Chris?’


  ‘I know.  Just trust me.  We’ll pull it off.  All you need to do is keep cool, babe.’


  ‘Easy to say.’


  ‘Of course it is.  By the way, we need civilian clothes.’


  ‘I’ve got them.’


  ‘You’re good, Mal.’  Vedayah smiled sunnily at his lover, whose bowels melted at the sight.  He stood and gave Prema a long kiss.  ‘Let’s go down to the sauna and get started on the purification, eh?’