'Whaaa …?'

'Sir? It's time. The Humvee's here from HQ.'

'Oh … thanks, Miroslaw.' Colonel Henry Atwood, part-time commander of the Sixteenth Infantry Battalion of the Rothenian National Guard, sat up on his cot, yawning and coming back into focus. He did not in general like afternoon naps - it took him ages to recover from them - but last night had been the pits.

'Better now, sir?'

'I'm getting there.'

His orderly handed over a briefcase and opened the tent flap. Henry went outside and blinked in the sunlight. The battalion summer camp was bustling that hot July afternoon. The two guards on duty at Henry's tent snapped to attention and saluted.

'Easy! You made me jump!' he ordered out of the corner of his mouth. His men grinned and relaxed.

Another officer was already in the back of the Humvee. Captain-Lieutenant Ottokar Willemin, his battalion adjutant, moved over so Henry could get in.

'Okay, Ottoczu?'

'Yes, sir. I've got the company reports. We're good to go.' In civilian life, Ottokar Willemin was a schoolteacher in a Gymnazium. Henry found him invaluable, both for his efficiency as an administrator and for the many acquaintances they had in common. Otto's uncle was an old business rival of Henry's friends.

The Humvee roared off down the forest track, bouncing over ruts and splashing through puddles as Henry hung on to the straps. Speech was an impossibility. Ten minutes later, the vehicle broke into a large clearing filled by what appeared to be a deserted and partly ruinous village, which in fact had never been inhabited. It had been built by Rothenian army engineers as part of the military training complex occupying much of the forest of Luchau. It was a convincing job nonetheless. The church even had the characteristic copper cupola on its tower, and all the proper internal fittings.

A brigadier's flag hung over the door of the facsimile starostnjia, a municipal office building, guarded by a party of tough-looking commandos. Two other Humvees were already parked up in the street outside.

Henry and Otto straightened their camouflage uniforms as they got out. 'Ready, Ottoczu?'

'Absolutely, sir.'

'I love your confidence.'

'If I can survive a class of thirty fifteen-year-olds on a Friday afternoon, General zu Brantesberh holds no fear for me, sir.'

'Then give him a detention from me if he steps out of line, Ottoczu.'

'No problem, sir. I may even rise to a spanking on his bare bottom.'

Stifling his sniggers, Henry entered brigade HQ in a more cheerful mood than he had expected. He liked soldiers, not surprising as his civil partner was one. His Edward was typical of the best of the breed: honest, open-minded, decisive, generous and courageous. A large proportion of their mutual friends were drawn from the Rothenian army-officer corps, men and women alike.

Ed was part of the problem here, however. For the first time in their joint military careers, Ed Cornish had leapfrogged Henry in rank. He was now one of the youngest brigadier generals in the Rothenian army's history. There were certain colleagues envious enough to suggest that Ed's close personal connection with the king had most to do with the promotion. And Marcus zu Brantesberh was one such.

Then there was Henry himself. Though he held the rank of full colonel, Henry was not a soldier by profession. His commission in the guards was honorary, so he could attend on his friend the king in uniform on state occasions. But because of Ed, and because he loved his adopted country, Henry had voluntarily undertaken reservist officer training. He was good enough at it to have justified his successive promotions which - it was true - did have a lot to do with the king's personal affection for him.

Others - especially Ed - would have said the promotions were justified for altogether different reasons, not least Henry's repeated heroism in areas of national defence other than military.

For three years now Henry had commanded the Sixteenth Battalion on its summer and weekend exercises, first as major and now as colonel. The efficiency and high morale of the reserve unit owed much to his good-humoured leadership and selection of capable subordinates. Henry had a lot of affection for his troops, city boys and girls from the Sudmesten district of the capital, and it was returned with interest. His reservists would have followed the slight figure of their colonel anywhere.

None of that cut any ice with General zu Brantesberh, for whom resentment was a way of life. Although he was from an old military family, his progress up the ranks had been very much retarded in Rothenia's Communist days. He had not used the aristocratic 'zu' in his name then. After the May Rising, he was rapidly promoted to field grade as one of those old noble families unjustly discriminated against by the Warsaw Pact generals. Having once achieved the one star of a brigadier on his rank tab, however, he would go no further in his career. He had proved to be out of sympathy with the new demands NATO made on the Rothenian army, and all too obviously did not have the level of competence and initiative that King Rudolf demanded of his senior officers.

Brantesberh for his part plainly regarded Henry as a royal crony playing soldier. Never mind the expansive spread of medal ribbons across Henry's chest, all of which had been very definitely earned. The stars of the orders of Henry the Lion and the Red Rose on Henry's dress uniform breast pocket had visibly caused Brantesberh's lip to curl. Most generals never received either honour.

As Henry and Otto entered the brigadier's HQ, they paused and saluted with the precision of clockwork soldiers. They had practised it. They both knew the old-school Germanic punctiliousness Brantesberh demanded of his subordinates, whom he would despise for not possessing it.

The general looked up coldly from his desk and motioned them to sit.

'Prosim, Henry!' The commander of the Royal Rothenian Foot Guards greeted his fellow field officer cheerily. Lieutenant Colonel his Excellency the Count Tomas Boromeo von Bernenstejne zu Orbeck was a man who flew above General zu Brantesberh's radar. When a soldier was descended from Rothenia's last field marshal and had the flaming red hair which betrayed an Elphberg royal lineage, he had nothing to fear from the disapproval of such a man as Brantesberh. Indeed, Tomas was high in the line of succession to the Rothenian throne.

Henry smiled. 'Good to see you, Tomasczu! You too, Jary!' Henry reached across to shake the hand of Lieutenant Colonel Jaromil Anders, in command of the other guard infantry regiment, the Guard Fusiliers, now that Ed Cornish had been promoted brigadier.

Ed had cuddled Henry when he had conveyed the news of the Sixteenth's summer's exercises. 'Yes, I know Brain-dead Brantesberh is an arse, sweetheart. But your lads have been given a real honour: summer camp with the two premier infantry regiments of the army! It's recognition of a high order. And you know how my Fusiliers look on your boys as their little brothers. They'll take care of you.'

The two guard colonels had been more than friendly, but the evidence of that friendship did nothing to reconcile Brantesberh to Henry's presence in his temporary brigade. He just looked frosty, and the officer at his side looked positively grim.

Major the Count Jakob-Emmanuel von Tarlenheim zu Olmusch-Verheltschjaen was just the brigade adjutant the general would have picked. He was as blue-blooded and hidebound an officer as the Rothenian army could offer, descendant of marshals, princes and generals, but unlike most such men Henry knew, all too conscious of where he came from.

The general shuffled his papers. 'I have Colonel von Bernenstejne's report on last night's exercise in which the reservists … er, participated. Colonel At-vood?'

Otto handed the portfolio of company reports to the brigade adjutant, who riffled through them as the general droned on about objectives, response times and possible areas of concern. The adjutant whispered in his ear at one point.

The general smiled slightly. 'You appear to have lost one of your companies last night, At-vood.'

Henry was momentarily confused. 'I beg your pardon?'

'D company commander reports loss of communication with your battalion HQ for an hour. No orders. Just at the time when the Fusiliers made a flanking action.'

'But they had their standing orders and followed them, sir. In fact, they were able to repulse the Fusilier company from the bridge where I'd stationed them.'

Colonel von Bernenstejne coughed. 'The reason they lost communication, general, was because the company communications sergeant had been ordered to cut the link as part of the exercise. The Sixteenth was following the rules of operation set out in Major Olmusch's initial briefing.'

'Is this true, Major?'

The adjutant shot a black look at Henry, before growling something inarticulate which sounded like agreement. Why in God's name is the man so hostile? Henry wondered to himself. It surely can't be homophobia? Not in a Tarlenheim!

The review carried on, with Henry struggling to concentrate. Finally the general shuffled his papers.

'Very well, gentlemen, I think that's it. Colonel von Bernenstejne, as senior field officer present, will take responsibility for tomorrow's concluding parade at the fortress of Luchau.'

Henry felt rather than saw his colleagues stiffen around him. Otto let out a smothered expletive in his ear.

'I'm sorry general, there must be a mistake,' Bernenstejne intervened after a pause. Brantesberh looked a question. 'I am not the senior field officer here.'

'But the Foot Guards take precedence over all other regiments apart from the Life Guards.'

'That is true, sir, but you forget that Colonel At-vood has a commission as full colonel of the Foot Guards, not as colonel of the National Guard. He outranks everyone present apart from yourself.'

The general scowled with distaste, and Major Olmusch jumped in. 'Then I imagine Colonel At-vood will be happy to waive his … precedence … in the circumstances.'

Henry's irritation boiled up and over his self-control. 'And what circumstances might they be, major?'

The major's complexion moved into the red. He had skated into dangerous ground. No military cherished its ceremonials and prerogatives more than that of Rothenia, where for centuries the army had been a central part of national life. Now, having slid on to the slope, Olmusch could not stop himself. 'It would hardly be appropriate that a municipal reserve battalion headed the parade, its colours taking precedence over those of the king's guards.'

An unaccustomed scowl now darkened Henry's face. He found he had become more Rothenian than he had realised, and his countrymen were extremely touchy about matters of honour. To call his battalion 'municipal' was itself an insult, as if his troops were conscripted refuse workers. Mastering his anger he coolly observed, 'The major is perhaps more aware than I of the king's thoughts on where honour lies in his army. But myself, I think the dedication and sacrifice of the young men and women of the Sixteenth Battalion, freely given for their country, entitles them to as honourable a place in the parade as any other unit, if the unfortunate precedence of their commander makes it necessary.'

There was a long silence. Noticing that Major Olmusch's face had shifted from red to white, Henry began to think he was about to be called out to a duel, for such things were not unknown amongst the aristocracy of Rothenia even in the twenty-first century. Just as well my granddad was a shopkeeper, he reflected. No one could imagine I had any lineage worth defending.

* * *

'Run me through it again.'

'Ooh … you're so masterful now you've got a star!'

'Should I remind you that neither of us is in uniform at the moment?'

'Nor in any other form of clothing. Cuddle me, general.'

'And not many men have ever said that. Can you imagine Eisenhower …?'

'… and Clark? I always had my suspicions. They were way too close. Don't sit back. That star I put on your butt with a marker might smear on the sheets.'

Laughing, Ed Cornish hugged his Henry hard. 'I love you, little babe … every day, more and more, and I so miss you when you're gone.'

'Do ya love me more than Gavin loves Max?'

'They're just kids. They know nothing. So, come on, tell me about you and Jakob Olmusch again.'

'What's his problem?'

'He's an arse?'

'No, I mean … is he a homophobe?'

'Not a wise thing to be in the Tarlenheim family, I'd say. His cousin Oskar is near the heart of anything that happens in Rothenian politics, and along with Oskar goes Peter Peacher, who more or less controls the European markets. Frankfurt shares plummet whenever he sneezes. Pissing that pair off would be like peeing into a force nine gale.

'Still, I suppose it's possible. But he's not an easy guy in any circumstance, so far as I can see. He does get on with some people of course.'

'Like Brantesberh.'

'Yes. Conservative, aristocratic and thick. But Jakob's not stupid by any means. I sometimes wonder if he's got a bit of a personality dysfunction - you know, like Asperger's. He just doesn't get it in conversations. People like Brantesberh may be easier for him cos they're so predictable. Jakob's fallen out with his elder brother, I've heard.'

'Oh yeah?'

'Karl Gustav, heir to the title of Olmusch-Verheltschjaen. Met him? No? He's a great guy, very matey with Oskar and the main branch of the Tarlenheims. Karl's something of a social star. He married a minor Danish royal, Princess Christiana, two years ago. There's a kid and another on the way. But he still gets in the celebs, partying with Fritz in St Moritz and Nice.'

'Is Fritzy back yet?'

'Think so. He put it off for months; you know how he loves London. But they finally dragged him back to his desk in Strelzen.'

'So, what do Fritzy and Oskar think about Jakob Olmusch?'

'They keep their opinions to themselves.'

Henry caught something in his lover's look. 'What? Come on.'

'Er … their sister, Helge.'

'What! You don't mean …?'

'Yup. Jakob and Helge are an item. And don't say it!'


'I could see a "Yuk!" forming in your head.'

Henry laughed and was snuggling into Ed's warmth when the slam of the street door caused him to jump.

Ed groaned. 'Oh, crap. He's early. Thought I'd have time to do you again, baby.'

From below came a shout: 'Dad! Dads! Either of ya!'

Hearing a pair of trainers pounding up the stairs, Ed grabbed his battledress trousers and struggled into them. Henry had barely pulled the sheets up to his chin when a grinning boy's face appeared at their open bedroom door.

'Oh, gross! You've not been …!' Lance Atwood jumped between them on to their bed. Henry got a hug and a kiss, and then Lance squealed as Ed grabbed him around the waist with one muscular arm. 'Lemme go!' Lance was carried out of their room upside down and squirming. Henry heard the two men in his life laughing uproariously as they disappeared downstairs. He paused to feel content.

Henry well knew why he was glad to be home, and it was not all about reunion with his lover and their son. After an eighteen-month sabbatical from his job in the media, he had needed an extra month to prepare for the Luchau exercises and the experience of being out and doing something worthwhile. It had proved that it was time for him to get back to work, and the only job he wanted to do was the one he had left behind him at Eastnet.

Lance was now settled in his school and family life. Despite the early problems, Henry, Ed and he had worked at being a family, and now Henry could not imagine life without their lively, happy-go-lucky son. His heart warmed to see what the boy had become.

Henry had known Lance would be a loving child, because he had been created out of the purest love in the Universe. What he had not expected was the boy's delight in human life, his laughter, his invincible fun and - most of all - his vulnerability. Just after they had moved to their new home, Henry had found the boy in tears, staring at a dead starling on the poolside. He had sat down and taken Lance in his arms to ask what was the trouble. The boy had pointed to the ragged remains of the bird, the sheen of its wings gone, flies already crawling over it.

'It's dead, Lance. I'll clear it away. Why're you crying?'

Lance had gazed up at the trees and pointed through his tears. 'But look, dad, how beautiful they all are! Starlings and sparrows, finches and blackbirds. So small and delicate and quick. Then … this!'

'It happens, Lance darling.'

'But it's so … sad. All that life and then … it ends.'

Henry gripped the boy's warm body hard. He kissed his salty, wet cheek. 'This is mortality, baby. This is what it is to be human. This is what we face and what we live with.'

'I know that. But I never realised … how sad it is. How can you live without despair?'

'I don't know, baby. You'll find your answer one day.'

Then for the first time, Lance had put his head close to his father's and told Henry how much he loved him, and it was Henry's turn for tears.

It was remarkable to Henry how quickly the boy had become part of their life. He could no longer imagine a world without Lance. Yet the emotional readjustment had not affected the passion he had for Ed Cornish; it was enhanced if anything. Another advantage was the sudden empathy he gained for his parents and the dynamics of his own family, which he was now able to appreciate from their point of view. Love, he finally realised, was not a limited commodity. It expanded to fill all the available space in his heart.

He got up and found some clean casuals. He bundled his camos into the laundry basket and put his peaked military cap back in its place in the closet. Since they had employed Mrs Willerby as housekeeper, Henry and Ed had become notably tidier in their habits. 'It's partly cos we have to give the kid an example,' Ed had mused. 'But it's also like living with your mum. Although she never says anything if you leave a pair of pants on the floor, you know perfectly well what she's thinking.'

It wasn't that Pauline Willerby was unpleasant, it was simply that she was a professional when it came to laundry, cleaning and the kitchen. Lance adored her almost as much as he did his grandma, Henry's mum. Mrs Willerby reciprocated, always willing to go beyond her contract where he was concerned.

Lance and Ed were at the breakfast bar. With Sky Sports was on the kitchen-wall TV, they were in animated discussion over the rugby test in Adelaide. Henry gave his quirky smile. That was one area where he could not follow the two men he loved. He made himself a coffee and placed drinks in front of the others, who barely slowed their flood of intense statistics about recent Australian performances long enough to thank him.

Henry scavenged in the pile of newsprint placed next to the kitchen door for recycling. He found the most recent number of the Ruritanischer Tagblatt and took it through to the back lounge, with its outlook on the pool. It was the usual sunny, summer afternoon in the Starel basin, with the scents of the garden filtering in through the French windows which opened on to the pool deck and patio.

He scanned the front page of what Rothenians called the 'Grand Old Paper', a journal which had begun publishing before the 1848 revolution, when Rudolf IV had been king and people still remembered the occupation of Strelzen by Napoleon's armies.

As usual, the government was in trouble and the Liberal coalition was coming apart at the seams. No change there. Unemployment figures, never that happy in Rothenia, were on the up as the economy continued to slide. He switched to the business pages to follow up the unemployment feature. Now what was this? His journalistic instincts twitched. A new venture launched by … Hendrik Willemin! The last Henry had heard, Willemin had left the country until the fuss over his involvement with a child-trafficking ring had died down. That had been two years ago. Now he was back, breaking what for him was new ground by launching a resort complex near Lake Maresku.

Henry pursed his lips in thought, then reached for his mobile and speed-dialled Will Vincent's number.