Fighting his fear, Barry Paul Hignett mumbled a goodbye to his mother and pushed the car door closed behind him. The clunk somehow seemed very final, like a subdued crack of doom. He was so very much on his own. The family car joined the queue of parental vehicles heading slowly north towards Domstrasse. It was the rush hour in the city of Strelzen on the first day of the new school year.

Barry sighed and shuffled to the door signposted STUVNJE, EINGANG and ENTRÉE, but not apparently ENTRANCE. Children of all ages streamed past him, the smaller ones funnelling through a side gate into a walled yard. Barry followed the flow of older students through the sets of swing doors into the main block of the International School.

He noticed several things about his new colleagues. The first was how well-heeled and well-dressed they all were, boys and girls alike. The second was that they were all bedecked with flowers. A group of laughing girls his own age passed him, giving him a sidelong glance. They wore chains and garlands of marigolds and sunflowers, imaginatively draped around themselves. At the very least, kids had posies and wreaths attached to their backpacks. Someone had failed to mention this colourful local custom to Barry, who had not so much as a bent daisy on his person. He felt like an idiot.

Through the doors, Barry found a long counter labelled REKEPNJE. Making the correct deduction, he looked about for someone to report to. The desk was empty. Seeing a grouping of chairs round a low table stacked with magazines and prospectuses in various languages, he sat.

He stared at the upper-school boys and girls who were walking past him on their way to destinations they were aware of, but he was not. He had expected a greater number of British or American kids, but most of those he saw looked distinctly European: more tanned and dressed to a different fashion than he was used to, their faces subtly un-British and expressions somehow more sophisticated. Few were speaking English into the handijs glued to their ears. He thought he recognised French, Czech and German as well as Rothenian.

It was as Barry glanced up from a school brochure he was perusing that his world lurched and rotated. He was aware that some of the passing kids had turned back to stare at the main doors, A number had stood still and were openly gawping. Barry followed their eyes. A boy had entered the building, a young man of a beauty far beyond anything reasonably to be expected of a human being.

He was about sixteen, Barry's age, and close to Barry's height. His hair was rich and dark, somehow falling across his face and brows in a way that echoed the harmony of the universe. His proportions were likewise perfect, his skin flawless and brown. His eyes seemed slightly too large, which allowed Barry to see they were blue, but of a depth not normally associated with that colour. On his hair was set a garland of red and pink roses feathered with ferns and starred with periwinkles, the like of which a prince of the Renaissance might have been proud to wear to a banquet or tournament. Barry was mesmerised, and he was not alone.

The boy seemed unaware of the impact he was making on the world around him. He was chatting amiably as he went by to a shorter companion, good looking in his way, but in relation to his friend no more than a candle glow compared to the blaze of a noonday sun. The pair walked on through the school foyer leaving a wake of stares and whispers behind them. Barry noticed the two spoke English, and almost wished he had the nerve to leap up and introduce himself. But the boy-god's beauty, as much as Barry's own shyness, forbade any approach.

Barry watched with longing as the boy's astonishing, denim-clad rear vanished through a door further down the hallway. Numerous girls were looking at the boy's butt with the same expression and for the same reason, for Barry Paul Hignett was gay, though he wished he wasn't.

It was then, as he turned back to the everyday world and the reality of a scary new school, that he saw he was being observed from the entrance by another boy, lithe and dark with very knowing eyes. Barry flushed bright red. So much for his big secret. He had apparently outted himself already.

* * *

'In a way, it was inevitable,' reflected Henry Atwood to his partner of the past sixteen years.

'You what?' grunted Brigadier General Edward Cornish of the Rothenian Army. He looked up from the papers he was perusing as Henry drove him across the city to his office at the ministry.

'The marriage. You know … him and her. Psycho-monsters must find each other attractive.'

'How do you work that out, little babe?'

'They can sit over the fire and a cup of hot cocoa late at night, cackling about the innocent people they've tortured and killed, and concocting diabolical plans the way other couples might reminisce over old school friends and discuss redecorating the lounge.'

Ed rolled his eyes, then smiled. He leaned over and kissed Henry. 'You're as nutty now as you ever were, babe. The things you think up! Still, you do have to wonder, not least at the way Rudi's getting into it. He can't stand the old bat, even if she is Harry's mum. Yet it's going to be in the cathedral, and he's talked the cardinal archbishop into presiding. Ellie was baptised into the Catholic Church, so the cardinal is willing to allow the pair a nuptial mass. Her previous marriage to Richard Peacher doesn't count, as it was a civil wedding the Church won't recognise.'

Henry nodded. 'His previous wife's dead, of course, though now I think of it, maybe he actually bumped off the late Mrs Robert Rassendyll. We know he's murdered once already. Jakob can't have been his first one.'

Ed pondered the idea and shrugged. 'It's her money he must find attractive, though she's in pretty good nick for a woman her age. She on the other hand must rather like the idea of being a countess, and Rudi's aunt, as well as his mother-in-law.'

'Yes,' Henry added. 'And I'll bet Rudi's promoting the marriage because he thinks it'll get the old cow out of his hair. Even if he refuses to believe our suspicions about his uncle, he may well think he's devious enough to outfox her.'

'Well if that's the case, you may be right, little babe, and Rudi may be wrong. I have a feeling that together those two are more dangerous than apart. And with what's coming up, Rudi may be delivering the pair a golden opportunity for mischief.'

'When can I go public with this?'

Ed shook his head. 'I told you strictly in confidence, and it stays confidential, though it may be the scoop of the century so far in Rothenia.'

'Do you know how painful it is for a journalist to sit on information like that?'

'Rather like having a pair of undies full of chilli powder?'

'Worse. Grrr. Still … thanks anyway. It allows me to make some plans.'

'Don't even dare hint to your bosses what's in the air. They'll find out soon enough.'

'Okay, Ed, count on me. Zipped. Honest!' Henry drew an X across his heart before switching subjects. 'Lance got off on good time this morning.'

Ed smiled. 'Who did he take in his car?'

'Daimey of course. You should have seen the two of them heading off into the traffic, grinning like maniacs. But Lance is a great driver. I have no worries, apart from how we're gonna pay the premium on his coverage. The insurance firms don't share our confidence in our angel-boy, unfortunately.'

'God, he's growing so fast. Wish he had some romantic interest, though.'

'Are you surprised? What spotty and uncertain queer teen would even dream of getting to first base with someone who looked like our Lance? It's not fair on him really.'

Ed quirked up his lips. 'Not like Daimey. Nate told me he goes through a box of condoms each month. He's got a string of girls, yet he keeps them all happy somehow. Nate has no idea how he does it … or where for that matter, as he's not allowed to sleep over with any girlfriend at their place. And I can't imagine the young ladies' parents hosting him either, even if Justy and Nate allowed it, which they wouldn't.'

Henry laughed. 'Lance isn't giving us that particular problem. But I half wish he did. Some nice, quiet, funny young man who'll put a smile on his face.'

'What about that Charpentier boy last year? Wasn't there something between them?'

'They hung around a week or three, and Luc came over to our place the once. But, so far as I know, that was that. And Lance wouldn't talk about it.'

'Even under the pressure of your insatiable curiosity, little babe? Still, I didn't like the kid: moody and withdrawn. I was glad when nothing came of it.'

'Me too. But you can't tell Lance that. No adolescent is gonna admit his parents have anything useful to contribute when it comes to his choice of Mister Right. All teenagers listen to are their hormones, which talk with a very loud voice.'

Henry pulled on to Exerciser Platz and stopped at the rear entrance of the Defence Ministry. Ed packed his case, kissed Henry again and headed past the sentry, who snapped a salute to the general's uniform, his face registering no consciousness whatsoever that the general in question had just kissed another man on the mouth.

* * *

Barry eventually found a school functionary who knew of his existence and could tell him where to report. He could have done without the stress involved. He was in Class 12B, the second of the school's three baccalaureate groups for sixteen-year-olds.

Barry had done well in his GCSEs before his father's transfer to Strelzen had ripped him from the comfortable Surrey academy where he had been expecting to complete his A Levels. He had been just about coping with his sexuality. Although he was as yet nowhere near coming out, he had linked up with two other gay teens, and had begun to talk about his urges and share stories. That was as far as he'd got before his home was packed up and shipped off to a new foreign-smelling place in the Sixth District, a house with shutters, a wood stove and cockroaches, which freaked out his mum.

He was worried, and had every right to be. So much depended for him on making friends, and he was beginning to realise that though the Strelzen International School taught through the medium of English, language within his peer group was a serious issue which would cause him problems.

His class had already dispersed from its home room by the time he got there. He looked at his schedule, then at the school plan. A succession of dingy corridors and stairs brought him to room 3-13. When he entered, drawing eyes both curious and indifferent, the class had already started. It was Maths, whose teacher motioned him to a vacant desk at the front without breaking into his opening discourse. Barry tried to settle quietly.

The teacher was an English guy, thank God. He was also young and fit, which was another plus. Having organised his group, he came over to Barry and checked his documentation.

'The name's Mr Hackness, Barry. Just arrived, have you?'

'Sir, yes.'

The man cracked a grin. 'No "sir" and "miss" in Rothenian schools, Barry. So what part of the UK are you from?'

Barry told him. Then they discussed what he had done at GCSE and how that related to what the Strelzen baccalaureate students were doing. Barry's confidence slowly grew. It appeared he was a little in advance of the group he had ended up in.

Mr Hackness was easy to talk to as well. Barry even thought Mr Hackness liked talking to him. Eventually the teacher turned his attention to the increasingly noisy class and effortlessly re-established his control. The lesson went well, and Barry was more secure at its end than at its beginning.

Unfortunately, the feeling soon dissipated. No one spoke to him as the class dispersed, and Barry's innate shyness got in the way of his daring to introduce himself to the continental sophisticates who jostled past him to their next classes.

Personal Development puzzled him, as did the heavy Germanic accent of the middle-aged female teacher. He had as much an idea of what it was all about at the end as he had at the beginning.

Students separated in social groups for break. There was a café area which was full by the time he got there. He used a handful of krone coins to get a packet of an unknown brand of crisps from a dispenser in the hall, then chomped through them, leaning against a wall as his peers walked past him. The crisps at least tasted like crisps should.

He jumped when a distinctly Northern-accented voice sounded in his ear. 'Wouldn't stand there, mate. People'll think yer hanging round the bogs looking for trade, know what I mean?'

A grinning lad, shorter and younger than Barry, had taken station next to him. The newcomer had dark curls, and was not at all bad looking. He seemed familiar for some reason, although Barry couldn't work out why.

'Yer English, right?'

'Er … yeah.'

'Yer sounds Lunnon.'

'Surrey, actually.'

'All the same to me, mate, though me dad's from Lunnon. You just started here?'

'Yeah. It's a bit … confusing.'

'I remembers me first day. Bin here since Year 4, I'm Year 11 now. Yer gets used to it, don't worry. Whass yer name?'

'Barry … Barry Hignett. Year 12.'

'Damien … Damien Macavoy. See yer round.' The cocky lad strolled off, and somehow Barry felt better. Even if the kid was younger than he was, he'd at least been noticed and talked to. Then he remembered where he'd seen Damien before. He'd been the companion of the boy-god in the foyer that morning. Damn! If he'd remembered, he might have found the nerve to ask Damien who his friend had been.

* * *

Tommy Entwhistle straightened his already tidy desk, then looked up with a smile as the door opened. He stood.

'Morning, ma'am.'

The queen of Rothenia came over and gave him a light kiss on the cheek, then took his arm and piloted him to the window.

'Is it today you're going down to the Osra Centre?'

'Yes ma'am. First, though, I have to go up to my flat and change. But I'll be off in half an hour to see the manager. Got to look as tastelessly dressed as I possibly can.'

'That can't be easy for you, Tommy.'

'No ma'am. I have to consciously model myself on Henry Atwood.'

The queen laughed. 'I'm sure he'd be complimented, if he ever found out. As soon as you're back, report to me, whatever time it is. Your last intelligence was disturbing to say the least.'

'Shall do.'

'And be careful.'

The queen disappeared in a cloud of subtle and extremely expensive fragrance, leaving Tommy at the window. He stared for a while out of his office, which had a western view through the treetops to Gartengasse and the Osraeum. He watched the city traffic crawl by without really seeing it. His easy, friendly smile left his face, to be replaced by a stern look of concentration he was unaware of.

Tommy Entwhistle had come to Strelzen four years earlier as a recent graduate and the lover of the celebrity prince, Fritz of Tarlenheim. There had been changes since. He had walked into a dream job at the palace, and that at least had worked out. He was now the trusted media aide of Harriet Peacher, queen of Rothenia, and a mainstay of her household. He was the proud owner of the queen's medal of the Humanitarian Order of St Lucascz, a decoration in her personal gift.

The relationship with Fritz had not been such a long-term success. Eighteen months after the catastrophic events of the Tarlenheim Palace Murder, they had agreed to split up. Fritz had gone on to have a succession of romances with either sex, but had not settled.

The break-up had been slow and amicable enough for the two men to remain friends, which was in any case very necessary. Fritz was a frequent visitor at the Residenz of Strelzen, and a close friend of both the king and queen.

Tommy had ceased to have romantic regrets concerning Fritz. He knew he at least had needed to move on. But, like most of his friends, he worried about Fritz's chaotic emotional life and failure to form a lasting relationship. As Fritz reached thirty, his way of life was beginning to leave its mark on him.

Tommy's stern look became quirky. Of course he had needed to move on, but where had he got to? There had been no one to compare with Fritz since. He sighed a little and slipped into his suit jacket. It was a Monday, so he wore male clothing. Friday was his tranny day at work.

Half an hour later, Tommy pulled his small Volkswagen out of the Reitschule yard, giving a smile and wave to the police on duty. A rather nice young officer cradling a machine gun grinned back from under his peaked cap and waved a gloved hand. Tommy had become a popular as well as distinctive figure at the Residenz.

He turned on to the inner ring road and made his slow way around the Nuevemesten, following the signs to the central station and airport. With the usual long delays at the snarl-up outside the station, it took him a full thirty minutes till he was parking in the shabby Sudmesten lane outside the Royal Osra Centre, a converted warehouse behind the König-Rudolfs-Bahnhof. As he locked his car while making sure nothing worth stealing was visible, he reflected that he could have walked there in the time it had taken to drive, less if he'd hopped a tram.

He buzzed the door intercom and answered the hiss of Rothenian that came out of the box on the wall. His command of the language was now near perfect, though it had been a struggle initially. The door clicked and he pushed inwards.

The Royal Osra Centre was a rehabilitation facility set up with Peacher Foundation funding to assist prisoners released into the community. It was part of the queen's strategy for promoting prison reform in Rothenia, a programme which Tommy was now heading on behalf of the foundation.

Inside, the centre was nicely fitted out. It was designed to avoid threatening large spaces and formal barriers. The centre manager was therefore sitting grinning in an armchair waiting for Tommy, not stationed behind a desk.

He came over to his visitor and hugged him hard. They kissed. 'How is my Tommy?'

'Hi, sweetheart. Got any coffee on?'

'Up in my apartment.' The young man winked.

'Let's get up there then.'

They chatted amiably as they climbed the stairs. They kissed again on reaching the apartment door, this time for longer and with more evident passion.

Tommy was not entirely sure how he had fallen into a sexual relationship with Bela Alexandrij, but somehow it became inevitable in the aftermath of the Fritz breakup. Bela did not disguise his devotion to the Englishman who had engineered his release from prison. He had offered it to Tommy without apparently expecting anything in return. It may have been that self-giving which had persuaded Tommy, after an evening in a dingy Third District bar, to go home with Bela instead of back to the Residenz. After that, they had become regular partners.

Bela seemed not to want more than what Tommy was offering: regular, good sex. It was apparently understood by them both that there should be no talk of love and relationships. They had not moved clothes and possessions into each other's homes, apart from a toothbrush Bela always kept for Tommy in his flat at the centre.

Were they simply fuck buddies? Tommy wasn't sure. Would such a man spend hours a day tutoring his bed partner in his language? Would he give that look of utter content as Tommy wrapped him in a post-coital hug? Would he go through painful surgery for Tommy, so as to remove the scarring of a brutal amateur tattoo on his cheek? Most impressively, Bela had given up smoking for Tommy.

On the other hand, they did not do holidays together, make domestic plans or talk of their future. Bela never asked about Tommy's family and did not sleep at the palace apartment.

After their coupling, Bela dozed. Tommy went up on his elbow to look down on the young Rothenian. Bela slept innocently on his back, his shapely cock still thick and draped across his lower belly. There was a half smile round his lips.

Despite the physical abuse he had experienced in prison, Bela retained deep reserves of affection and humour. The repair to his face had restored his boyish good looks. He had full cheeks and thick dark hair. His body was slim and his legs remarkably elegant. It had been one of the features which made him so desirable to the other inmates.

Bela rarely talked of his time in prison, and the grim struggle for existence which forced him to survive as a prostitute. Instead he dismissed it, saying it was as if it had happened to a different person. He never topped, however, seemingly no longer able to, surely a consequence of his prison experience. Sex for him was about receiving. Bela had grown distressed when Tommy once declared that he too would like to be fucked, and Tommy had never suggested it again.

Tommy took Bela round the waist and pushed against him. Bela turned on his side. Tommy quickly drifted off, snuggled against the Rothenian's smooth, warm back and soft buttocks.

A buzz from the bedside phone woke the two. The Rothenian grabbed the receiver. 'Prosim?'

Bela listened and signed off. He smiled across at his lover. 'Time to get dressed, my Tommy. I have a job. We have a man to talk about downstairs, and some pictures to look at.'

* * *

Lunch began as a trial for Barry. He joined the cafeteria queue and took a helping of some sort of goulash. A bottle of water and a carton of yoghurt completed the meal. The hall was full of the noise of chatting and laughing upper-school kids. Barry looked hopefully around for the English guy, Damien, but there was no sign of him. He found a place at the end of a long table next to a group of fashionably-dressed, flower-bedecked girls speaking Rothenian. He caught sideways glances but no encouragement to talk, even if he had known what it was they were saying.

As he picked at his meal, he was aware that he was no longer alone. A tray had been placed opposite him and a slim, dark boy slid in behind it, looking at Barry quirkily. Barry recognised him. He was the one who had caught his longing look at the morning's boy-god.

'New, yes?' The accent was unmistakably French.

'Er, yeah. I'm Barry.'

'From England, I think. I am Luc.' They shook hands. 'It is all very strange, n'est ce pas?'

'Yeah. It is. You're only the second person I've talked to.'

'It is not a very friendly school, is this. It was different once. Now it is very fashionable and you get what you say … cliques.'


'D'accord. The nobility, they send their children here. It is like your English Eton almost.'

'What's the attraction?' Barry had not caught much of the trappings of an elite academy about the International School.

'The English language training of course is important for aristocracy. But, well, it has a lot to do with that fellow there.' Luc indicated a doorway in which a group of boys had just appeared, including Damien Macavoy. Amongst them was the boy-god. Barry's heart pulsed hard.

'What him …?'

'The Atwood boy?' Luc gave Barry a sidelong and meaningful glance. 'Pretty, yes?'

Barry blushed and said nothing.

'No, it is the boy next to him. The curly-haired one.'


Luc looked surprised. 'You know him?'

'He talked to me at break.'

Luc gave a look of distaste. 'No doubt. He is Damien Macavoy.'

'It means nothing to me.'

'Ah well. Perhaps you should look in Teen Vogue some time. He is a Peacher heir. He already has a huge Wikipedia entry to his name.'

Peacher! That at least meant something to Barry. The wealth of the Peacher clan eclipsed that of any other of the world's mega-rich. So Damien was a Peacher. He hadn't been Barry's idea of what a teenage multi-billionaire would act like, just cheery and friendly. Barry sensed a story there.

'The fact that a Peacher boy is in the International School has persuaded all of Rothenia's socially ambitious families to send their children here. I hear Damien has his pick of ass, as many teenage countesses as he can screw. And I hear his appetite for it is near insatiable. He's made this place like a series of 90210.'

'So he's got a clique?'

'Oh yes. Mostly Anglos, as we call them. He maybe was recruiting you at break. Then there are the Aristos, obviously. A big gang, but not so wealthy perhaps.'

'How about you?'

'Moi? I keep out of it, though I have … friends.'

'Friends?' The French boy seemed to put an emphasis on the word.

Luc gave Barry a considering look. In a quiet voice he observed, 'T'es pédé, je pense. Est ce que c'est vrai?'

Barry's command of French was limited, but he got the message. 'Oui,' he replied, his face flaming red.

Luc smiled. 'Moi aussi. We queers live on the margin in this school as elsewhere. You are cute, by the way.'

Barry's blush deepened. He did not think of himself as attractive, and such an expression of sexual interest threw him. He had straight mousy hair, a slight case of acne on his left cheek and was hardly muscular. What he did not see, while others did, were his attractive shy smile and clear hazel eyes, as well as the delicious rear view down to his tight little butt.

Luc gave another of his small sexy smiles. Barry suddenly began to believe that Strelzen could work out. The blood left his blush and flooded his erecting dick. This French boy was really something.

Luc stood. 'Maybe we can meet up with the others. We hang out at King Henry on Saturdays.'

'King Henry?'

'Give me your handij number. I'll tell you how to get there.'