'How about this, Danny? Bund Universitšt Homosexualnij (Gaij, Lesbiske, Ovupohlavnij, Transexualnij).'
'GLOT. Well, it has a little more character than LGBT. Quite a mouthful. Still, it's nice that the Rodolfer Universitšt has a link to it on the front page of its website. Any idea what they do?'
Gus Underwood clicked on another link. 'Without much grasp of Rothenian, I can only guess, Danny. But the pictures look lively.'
'Ooh! Now he's cute.'
'I imagine they've picked the good-looking gay students for the publicity shot. Besides, he may have left by now. I hope so for the sake of our relationship.'
Daniel Hackness chuckled and ruffled the thick blond hair of his boyfriend sitting at the screen of a terminal in the empty sixth-form common room of Temple House. He leaned down and fixed his lips to Gus's for a brief kiss. Although they were not out at their school, King Edward VI Medwardine, plenty of people must have had their suspicions.
They broke off, letting Gus log out of his account. He picked up his file and they trotted down the stairs together and across to New Building for their last English lesson before study leave began. It was the only group they shared, so they made the most of it, occupying the same table at the back of the room and playing footsie. Danny couldn't be trusted not to go further when he thought he could get away with it, which meant Gus occasionally found a hand exploring inside his underpants - as he did today.
Danny was amused and a little baffled. 'How come you're not distracted?' he whispered.
'Because I've mastered the art of concentration,' Gus whispered back.
'That's not what you said when we did it in the woods last Sunday. The word you used was "animal" if I recall correctly.'
Danny's face took on an abstracted and goofy look. 'Oh yeah ... I remember.' But he was in no hurry about removing his left hand from the warm and secret nest it had found.
The class dragged on, with urgings from the front to extensive revision and prompt handing in of coursework. A2 examinations were only eight weeks away and then ...
It had been Gus's idea. When he tended to think about it, Danny admitted that most of the good ideas were Gus's. Danny's special talent was to realise it, not resent it, make plans and pursue them.
Back in September, just after arriving in the upper sixth, they had sat together at a screen in the study centre, ignoring the pool table for once. Gus was industriously and methodically going through a list of university websites in preparation for their final UCAS choices.
Danny twitched on eyebrow. 'But I thought you'd choose Oxford or Cambridge, Gussie.'
Gus turned and gave him a look. 'You shouldn't take things for granted, Danny. I'm determined we're going to the same university, and though you're a respectable scholar, Oxford or Cambridge for you would be a gamble. I was thinking about London, in fact. You want to do Applied Mathematics and I want to study Philosophy, so King's or University College would be perfect.'
'But London's so expensive. My big brother Wesley's at St Martin's doing art - when he's sober - and it's been a real struggle for the parents to support him there. He's got two jobs to keep him solvent.'
Gus shut down and thought.
Danny was used to this by then, and so had ceased being creeped out by the vacant look that shuttered Gus's eyes. 'You in deep thought, baby?'
Gus came back into focus and gave that shy little smile which tended to make Danny go weak at the knees. Whatever his vagueness and intellectuality, at the age of seventeen Gus Underwood was a seriously handsome lad, with the promise of becoming a devastatingly attractive man as he matured.
Danny, on the other hand was, as he would always say, nothing special. Gus simply laughed at that, kissing Danny and calling him 'Squirrel-cheeks'. It was true that Danny had a rather pouchy and pointed face. But he also had a lovely grin that frequently lit it up, along with clear and expressive hazel eyes in which Gus often lost himself.
Now Gus stared earnestly into them. 'I have had a thought, Danny. We're not being imaginative. We're forgetting that the world is bigger than the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We've not investigated universities in the Republic of Ireland, the United States or continental Europe.'
'But they sound even more expensive!'
'American universities award full-fee scholarships to foreign students, and the eastern European universities are very good value. I was thinking particularly about ...'
Danny's eyes widened. '... Rothenia!'
'That's either a uniquely brilliant idea or intellectually suicidal.'
'The Rodolfer Universitšt is a fifteenth-century foundation, with a famous library and many distinguished faculty. Of all the eastern European universities, those of Strelzen and Prague are the ones fastest regaining world reputations, and the Rodolfer is receiving important investment from local industry, especially PeacherCorp.'
'You think Pete Peacher will sponsor me if I choose Rothenia? He certainly owes me.'
'He very well might - or at the very least get you a cleaning job in the PeacherCorp offices. For myself, the Philosophy department in Strelzen is one of the leading centres in the world for post-Foucaultian structuralism, an idea I'd very much like to pursue.'
'But wait a mo, super-brain! What about the language?'
'Not a huge problem. In your case, I believe language is more or less irrelevant to the study of mathematics, whereas I'm sure I can pick up Rothenian fairly rapidly. It has similarities to German, which I already speak.'
From anyone else, such a remark might have seemed arrogant. Danny, however, knew that his Gus was stating a simple fact. He would read a few books in his spare time, find Rothenian broadcasts on the Internet and be reasonably fluent in a month or two.
So the boys had filled in and submitted the UCAS forms, making it clear to their families that their serious applications were going to Strelzen. The cost issue swung the decision as far as Danny's parents were concerned. In Gus's case, Sir Philip and Lady Underwood had learned by then that their son was his own man, so they didn't complain. Besides, they were devout Catholics and there had been many Underwood family connections with Catholic Rothenia over the past century.
It looked as though the two were on their way.
* * *
Nathan Underwood looked across the table speechless.
'Doan look at me like that!' objected his lover, Justin.
'A year! You can't be serious! Six or eight weeks, I can cope with that, but a year ...!'
'Well obviously I'm gonna have to take the kid, inn' I?'
'That's not what I meant and you know it.'
Justin Peacher-White came as near to looking guilty and conscience-stricken as his face would allow.
Nathan swore and stood up. 'You're pushing the envelope this time, you know that?'
'Please, Nate. Listen. There's ways round this.'
'You've already said yes, haven't you.'
'Well ... look, iss important, innit. Terry said iss a way round the problem of me being outta the field for so long.' Justin tried to look like a martyr. 'I'm still in pain from the wound in me shoulder.'
'I didn't see any twinge last night when I fucked you upright, with you hanging on to the lintel of the bedroom door.'
Justin grinned. 'That was a good one ... we had to celebrate with the kid doin' an overnighter at Aaron's house.'
'Don't change the subject. This is about you abandoning Haddesley to go abroad for twelve whole months, taking our kid with you. The kid for whom, incidentally, I assume most of the responsibility of parenting.'
Justin hesitated, then looked up through his lashes. 'You could come along.'
'And what about the garden centre?'
'Nate, you done wonders wiv it. It makes a massive profit for Uncle Phil. It more or less runs isself. Come wiv me, babe. What can you do here you ain't done already?'
Nathan gave Justin a hostile glare. 'I love this job, you know that.'
Justin could on occasion be patient and persuasive when there was a lot at stake. 'But iss as unchanging as the seasons, my gardening babe. You dun nuffin' else for five years now. You always said you wanna do annuver training course. You wuz goin' to uni at one time. But you never did, babe, and I feel I'm responsible for that. Maybe now's your chance. This could be an opportunity for both of us. Me working for Uncle Pete in Strelzen and you getting your degree.'
Nathan went quiet, while Justin sat gazing earnestly at his partner. Eventually Nathan gave a little twist to his mouth. 'Strelzen's got a university, hasn't it?'
* * *
'You goin' abroad to foreign next year, Daimie?'
'Yuh.' Damien Macavoy scowled, which he did very convincingly. 'Dad gotta job out there, an' I gotta go too.'
'S crap.' Aaron was sympathetic, and also, if truth be told, annoyed that one of the only three boys in their year at Castringham primary school was leaving.
'Yuh. I doan wanna. I told 'im it was bad for me education, an' ee juss laughed. Said it would widen me horizons ... whassa horizon?'
'Dunno ... but it needs stretching, 'cording to your dad. Where is it you going?'
'Oh, you been there, haven't you?'
'Yuh. Iss sorta like Germany, a bit. An' people talk funny. We got family there, Uncle Pete and Auntie Harry, she's the queen.'
Aaron nodded. He was well aware of Damien's connections with the glamorous world of the media. The year before, their class had sat spellbound watching the televised wedding of the king and queen of Rothenia, at which Damien had been a very pretty page of honour. He had also earned the eternal gratitude of the boys in his year group by bringing in the magnificent miniature uniform he had worn in the cathedral and letting them dress up in it, his teacher having first carefully put away the rather sharp little sword that went with it.
Damien had then started a mania for duels amongst the boys in the school, which had called for yet another parental visit from Nathan to suppress, after a perpetual string of complaints about nosebleeds and damaged fingers.
The two boys wandered moodily across the damp playground, only momentarily distracted by the need to squash several snails which had inadvisably taken advantage of the wet weather for an outing across the tarmac.
Then a party of girls descended on Aaron and Damien with the obvious and horrific intention of kissing them. With the girls screaming in their wake, they ran as if their lives depended on it. They took refuge behind the skirts of the dinner supervisor, who shooed all of them away. The girl-gang promptly found an easier target and tore off in pursuit of a small Year 1 boy with unfortunately cute curls.
'I woan miss this!' pronounced Damien sincerely.
* * *
Her Most Pious and Steadfast Majesty, Harriet, by the grace of God, Queen of Rothenia, was pissed at the world in general.
To begin with, she was pregnant and her ankles had swollen horribly. She was at the end of the second trimester, so at least she had stopped puking into the toilet bowl first thing in the morning. Sleep, on the other hand, was now a major problem, his royal foetusship, the crown-prince-to-be, having suddenly become hyperactive inside her. Her back was in agony.
'Why couldn't I have been a lesbian?' she complained audibly, thumping her snoring husband mercilessly in the shoulder. 'Half my family are gay. Why did it miss me out?'
'Urrr ... whassat?' groaned the king, turning and subsiding again without waking.
Harriet struggled up. It was only four in the morning, yet she was appallingly hungry. She had developed an inexplicable passion for Bath Oliver biscuits piled high with cottage cheese. Should she bother the night staff? Damn them anyway, everybody must suffer.
She rolled off the bed and on to her feet, flexing her back with a wince, and shuffled to the lounge, where she picked up the phone and made her order. The young male voice on the other end was offensively cheerful and bright.
A dutiful footman tapped on the private apartment's door within fifteen minutes. He was brisk and neat in his Elphberg-green tailcoat, white gloves and tie. He laid his silver tray on a coffee table, bowed and asked if there was anything else. Mastering her worst impulses, Harry smiled and sent him on his way.
As she munched, she picked up the table diary kept for her by her chief of staff. She scanned the day's engagements, hoping for even one chance to cancel. But none of it was avoidable except for coffee with her mother at eleven. Unfortunately, mom had flown in from Nice for the week, and though relations between the two women were not particularly warm, Harry was a victim to her sense of what family should mean.
She tuned in her digital radio to the BBC World Service and put her feet up, taking care that her ankles were above the horizontal. She had heard it helped to keep the swelling down. The future crown prince rotated inside her and lashed out. 'Quit that, junior, or I'll get your dad to call you Wenceslas!' she snarled maternally.
* * *
Brother Prema bowed his head. It was time to make japam. He murmured the endless and recurring prayers, firmly keeping his eyes closed as he swayed with the rhythm of the responses. He kept his eyes closed because Brother Vedayah was immediately in front of him, and if he opened them, he'd see the smooth brown skin of the other's shoulders and back moving with the ripple of muscle. He would fix on the soles and small toes of Vedayah's feet, and he would get an erection.
Brother Prema had no problem with the fact that he was homosexual. His problem was that he was living in a house in close quarters with six other young men, all of them, like Vedayah and Prema himself, rather beautiful. The constant semi-nakedness did not help, nor did the way the delicacy of their features and smoothness of their skin was enhanced by the removal of their visible body hair.
Discipline was the monks' way, and eventually he schooled his incorrigible mind into a proper level of meditation as he addressed the Mighty Ones. At that point, Prema felt safe enough to open his eyes and look on the faces of their images: the Buddha, Krishna and Christ, all arranged on the reredos of the altar in a strange ecumenical trinity.
At last the bell rang behind the altar and the six monks rose gracefully. Prema knew that Vedayah had been a Davis Cup tennis player only two years before. Like Prema, he had encountered a young monk at an airport lounge, and before the flight was called had felt another sort of call: to conversion. As the plane queue stared, Vedayah had actually stripped naked and put on his evangelist's spare robe. Without a backward glance he had then followed the other man to the monastery, which at that time had been situated in the suburbs of Bangkok.
It had taken a few visits to the old monastery until Prema - in those days called Malcolm Scammell - left his back-packing friends and joined the order as a novice. That had been eighteen months ago.
The only Thai now with them was their Father Abbot, Vindahayah. The other six monks were westerners. When the Lady Benefactor had offered the money for a meditation centre and monastery in the west, the Grand Abbot had gratefully provided a colony to go out from Thailand to set it up. She had particularly asked for attractive young western monks, who would, she said, find it easier to make recruits amongst the native population. Again, his eminence the Grand Abbot had agreed.
So Prema, Vedayah and the others had left the Bangkok house and taken the plane to Strelzen, where a minibus had picked them up at the airport and whisked them out deep into the Rothenian countryside to a converted farmhouse and chapel that gave them a remote refuge for their spirituality. They had occasional visitors and held organised retreats, which seemed to be getting more fashionable as the months went by.
Prema had path-clearing duty, so he picked up his rake from the porch and made his way out into the sunlight. It being a warm August day, he put on his straw hat to protect his shaven head. He worked down to the small lake in a bit of a daydream until brought back to himself by a flash of crimson through the trees ahead of him.
He instantly realised what it was. Carefully putting down his rake and creeping through the bushes, he was in time to see Vedayah poised naked and glorious before diving into the lake.
Prema watched enraptured as his colleague cut through the sparkling ripples to emerge on the other side. Vedayah planed the water off his head, then turned round to grin right at Prema. 'Come across, Malcolm, the water's great.'
Prema blushed as he stood.
'Drop your robe, asshole,' Vedayah laughed.
Prema stripped and plunged in. The water was cool and a little soupy but very refreshing. Vedayah pulled him out as he reached the other side. Before Prema knew it, his mouth was invaded by the thrashing of another man's tongue and he was being pressed down on to the grass. They rolled around, their groins meshing and thrusting.
All at once, Malcolm was on his stomach, a searing pain shooting up his spine as Vedayah engaged with his hole. Swearing and scrabbling at the ground under Vedayah's weight, he gritted his teeth but accepted the invasion of his anus. Eventually he relaxed as the thrusting became rhythmical and easier.
'Christ, I need this!' Vedayah grunted as he thrust.
'Krishna! Fuck me! Fuck me!' Malcolm groaned.
Vedayah let off suppressed yells as he came, then slumped on Malcolm's sweaty back. He gave a long and low laugh in Malcolm's ear. 'God I so needed that. Give me a breather and I'll do you again.'
Malcolm sighed. 'You can do it all afternoon if you like, Vedayah.'
'I'm Chris, call me Chris when we're fucking, okay?'
'Fine by me. How did you know ...'
'... you were gay? God, you can't keep your eyes off me.'
'Are you gay?'
'A bit. At least enough to fancy your pretty butt, that's for sure. I don't go under, though, so remember that, I only top if you want it.'
'Not a problem, Chris. That's the way I like it.' Chris was already erect once more and the explorative jabbing between his small buttocks told Malcolm they were about to get under way again. 'Why did you make your move today, though?'
Chris grunted in his ear, 'The Lady Benefactor's here tomorrow. I'll be damned if I fuck the old bitch again this time, so I'll confess to the abbot today that I had it on with you.'
'What!!!' Malcolm squirmed out from under him.
'Hey! Problem? It means you won't have to sub for me. It'll go to Dravadam instead. She likes him ... well, you've seen the size he packs.'
Malcolm looked down at the lazy grin on Chris's face. 'You're a bastard.'
'Better than that, I'm a fucking bastard. Now get your tail down here.'
'Why did I listen to you?'
'Cos ya love my dick. S'okay, the rule doesn't forbid sex between males.'
'You don't have to tell me that, but it doesn't say we can do it either, and it certainly forbids sex with females.'
'Yeah, well, the abbot's a bit stuck on that one, cos the Grand Abbot told him to accommodate the Lady Benefactor in every possible way.'
'Bet he didn't mean it in that sense.'
'Are ya gonna come down here or do I have to come and get ya?'
Malcolm shook his head at the sunny grin on Chris's face. 'Only if you promise to do it twice more before we go back.'
'It's a deal, Mal.'