The Scrolls of Icaria by Jamie
Book 2 – 'War of the Angels'
Part I - The Golden Orb
We arrived back at the Amber Palace to find it ablaze with light. David met us in the entrance hall. While we were climbing the steps to the palace, I’d caught a glimpse him through the open doors, anxiously pacing back and forth – his hand straying from his sword to one of his daggers and back again. As soon as he caught sight of us stepping into the foyer, he rushed up to Nic, giving him a look of obvious relief.
“By my wings,” he said, “bloody well time you’ve finally gotten here. I can’t begin to tell you everything that’s…
He abruptly paused, frowning when his gaze came to rest on me. For a few seconds he stood silent, and I could see his eyes panning over me as he gave me a careful examination. His relieved expression quickly changed to a look of both surprise and puzzlement.
“Are you alright?” he asked, taking a step back from me. “You’re wings are glowing, and there’s something different about you.”
“I’m fine,” I replied. “It will all be explained in our meeting.”
“Well, it’s good you’re finally here,” David said with obvious relief. “It’s been a long day – a very long day. It was bad enough when Charles told them about Wrenstatten, but when they found out they couldn’t attend the council session or even send a representative….” His voice trailed off.
“Are they assembled?” Nic asked.
“Oh yes, they’ve been in there ever since Charles left the Amber Palace to catch you before you entered the council,” David said, rolling his eyes and pointing to the large double doors guarded by an Imperial Legionnaire. “At least when Charles was here it was a bit more orderly, but he left and told me to keep things under control – I’m no bloody diplomat,” he added with a growl “They’ve been arguing, debating, and bickering back and forth since he left. I finally found Cody and told him to take charge. I tell you, I’d rather spend a full day in the arena fighting a fully armed ‘toon of Thrones than dealing with that lot.” Once more he rolled his eyes in obvious frustration as he nodded toward the door of the grand salon.
“You did well,” Nic said, putting his hand on David’s shoulder. Then turning to me and pointing at the door, he added, “Shall we enter the lion’s den?”
I didn’t speak, but simply nodded my head in agreement. In the grand salon, we found the leadership of Icaria in turmoil. The salon – though designed to hold large groups of people – suddenly seemed too small for the noisy crowd it currently contained. The princes and scribes were all talking at once as they gestured and shouted, each vying for attention. In one corner of the room I could see Charles’ scribe, Lord Oliver, engaged in a discussion with Prince Stefan, head of The Royal House of Craftsmen. Discussion might not have been the right word, since Stefan appeared to be doing most of the talking while gesturing and poking a finger at the quiet and reserved Oliver, who – the more closely I studied the scene – appeared to be backed into the corner by the animated and boisterous Stefan.
On the opposite side of the room, I noticed Prince Ivan and his scribe, Thomas, huddled together on a low-backed bench, quietly talking. They, among all the princes and scribes assembled, were the most restrained and composed. Since their resurrection, I’d probably spent the most time with Ivan, out of all the princes and scribes of Icaria. I’d found him to be thoughtful, calm, and logical – traits that made him perfect for his position as head of the Royal House of Science and Education. The instant his eyes met mine, he touched Thomas on the shoulder and whispered into his ear. Thomas immediately stopped talking, then glanced in my direction. Ivan slowly stood, then stretched and looked about the room, giving me a wry smile and a shrug of his shoulders.
The moment the rest of the princes caught sight of us, the noise level grew to a dull roar as many of them began shouting questions at us. Nic called for order, but to no avail; I could feel anger rapidly bubble up inside him, threatening to break through the calm exterior he usually projected. With a flick of my wrist, I hurled a harmless lightning ball toward the ceiling, where it flashed and exploded with a loud report; the room quickly became quiet.
“We’ve come to tell you what’s happened,” Nic said – a touch of anger still evident in his voice as it bounced off the walls of the large, expansive room. “But in order for us to do that, we need your attention. I know you’re eager for knowledge, and we will tell you all that we know”
“With respect to Your Highness, and Your Grace,” Prince Zaratanins, head of the Royal House of Government, said, rising to his full stature as he began to address the room, “since we’ve come here, there is little we know. After our stasis ended, you conferred with us and brought us back here, but then came the attack to the north by Loran. You, His Grace, and a third of the Imperial Legion left. We, on the other hand, remained here, uninformed and quite ignorant of events – important events that not only affect you, but us as well.”
There was a murmur of assent throughout the room and I could see many of the princes and scribes nodding in agreement.
“We brought you here so that you could be protected, and so that we could confer with you,” Nic said, addressing everyone present. “It has never been our intention to keep you ignorant of important events and information. Icaria needs all of you – His Grace and I need you. We’ve returned from the council meeting to inform you of its proceedings. We also want to tell you about what we encountered in our expedition to Günter Platz. It’s not our intention to keep secrets from you, but events have unfolded rapidly. If you will all come to order and listen, we’ll inform you.”
“But we were excluded from the Council of Kingdoms,” a voice called out, and I recognized the speaker as the Earl of Trége, Lord Antoine. At seventeen Antoine, scribe of the Royal House of Expedition and Service, was the youngest of all the scribes. He was sitting next to his prince, Boran of Celeste, who was himself only nineteen and the youngest of all the princes.
“That was because King Wilum had us brought to the map room within minutes after we’d arrived in Konassas,” Nic said. “We’re prepared to tell you everything that happened – some of which His Highness, King Wilum, never anticipated. The meeting was ended quickly by... well... the actions of His Grace. It will be reconvened tomorrow morning. I insisted that you all be present. We can’t do this on our own, and we don’t intend to. We need your help and support; that’s why we’re here now, and that’s why we want you to stand with us tomorrow.”
A murmur went through the room, but was quickly stilled by another voice.
“Very well, Your Highness,” Prince Ivan said, standing and looking about the room; at twenty three, the tall, handsome and aristocratic prince was the oldest of the peers, and from what I’d learned in the brief time since the princes and scribes had been resurrected, one of the most respected. “I think we should all listen to what you have to tell us. I can understand the confusion and the urgency, especially in light of the attack on Günter Platz and the fall of Wrenstatten. I don’t think any of us are rebelling against you, but we do need to be kept informed – after all, we comprise the government of Icaria.”
After Prince Ivan’s words more murmurs of agreement could be heard throughout the room, but for the most part the general mood appeared to have changed from open rebellion to cautious acceptance.
“Why are the Wizard’s wings glowing?” Lord Oliver asked.
And at his words, all eyes landed on me. Although the glow was beginning to fade, it was still noticeable. Suddenly the room once again erupted in an uproar as more questions were thrown at us. Nic pulled one of his daggers and rapped it sharply against a large glass vase, causing it to ring in an attempt to get everyone’s attention.
“Your questions will be addressed when you become quiet,” he shouted, anger edging his voice for a second time since we’d entered the salon.
When the room was finally quiet, Charles, at Nic’s request, stepped forward and gave a brief synopsis of the council meeting, adding his observations as to the tone and tenor of the session as well as stating the facts of what was said and done. When he came to the part concerning the surprise appearance of the Golden Orb and my absorption of its essence, all eyes again came to rest on me. Quickly concluding with an account of my actions following its absorption, he added that the council would reconvene in the morning, and reconfirmed what King Niklas had told them earlier: that at Nic’s insistence, they would all be included in the morning session. After he finished, the room once again descended into chaos as the princes and scribes, totally ignoring formality and protocol, shouted questions. Clearly, an accounting of the events at Günter Platz would have to wait.
Shouting one final time, Nic quickly brought the rowdy proceedings to an end, telling them that Charles had thoroughly covered the proceedings of the council with honesty and accuracy. He reminded them that at the moment there was nothing further to debate, and since the hour was late, it would be best if they all got a good night’s sleep. As we prepared to exit the salon, a few more questions were hurled at me regarding my absorption of the Golden Orb. I listened, but reminded them that since the absorption had just occurred, I was only just starting to understand the powers it conferred upon me. Telling them that I needed some time to learn more and that I would keep them informed appeared to mollify them.
Finally Nic declared the meeting over, stressing that he expected everyone to be prepared to attend the council session, and that we would meet them in the grand salon in the morning. Taking my hand in his, he started for the door, explaining that the king and the wizard needed to confer in private. Leaving the grand salon, I could hear them resuming their debate as we climbed the grand staircase in company with Charles, Lance, and Cody.
“Do you think they’ll be up all night?” I asked Charles.
“Hard to say,” Charles replied. “All the news in the last day-and-a-half has been bad. They’ve been agitated, worried, frustrated, and upset. We can only hope that fatigue will win out over anxiety.”
“I don’t care what they do,” Nic said in a tone of voice tinged with frustration, “as long as they’re all ready by morning.”
“The council meeting tomorrow will be critical,” Charles said. “Depending on what’s said and done, and how much they feel like they’re part of the process.”
“I’m trying to include them as much as possible,” Nic said, “but they have to realize that at the moment we’re all in danger, and we need more cooperation and less conflict.”
“When have you ever known aristocrats to cooperate?” I added. “Unless you can show them personal benefit.”
“The personal benefit is staying alive,” Nic said flatly.
“Unless they decide to throw in their lot with Loran,” Charles said, frowning. “Remember, part of the reason that we have them is only because we got to them first at the academy. We’re the ones who resurrected them. They’ve given us their loyalty – for the moment – but if the winds shift…” he stopped, and gave Nic a frown.
“I know, I know,” Nic said exasperated, “Why can’t being a king be easier? You’d think that they’d obey a few simple orders – especially ones that are for their own benefit and protection. They wouldn’t have acted this way under the emperor.”
“No, they wouldn’t have,” I commented, “but the empire is gone, and so is the emperor.”
“And would either of you like to revive those days?” Charles said with a knowing look.
Answering his question with silence, we proceeded down the hall. Reaching the door of Charles’ apartment, he bade us good night and entered his quarters – but not before reminding us that he’d be stopping by to escort us in the morning. Lance and Cody were the next to say good night. Finally Nic and I reached our door, and crossed into the main salon that made up the public, ceremonial rooms of our quarters. Neither of us paused, but went straight to the bedroom, where Nic began to wearily remove his armor and sword. Strolling into the bathing chamber, Nic called out to me that he wouldn’t be long, but felt the need to wash the dust of the journey from his body. Nodding and grunting an almost inaudible agreement, I kicked off my sandals and tugged at my wrinkled, travel stained clothes until I was wearing only my soft undergarments.
“When will it all end?” I thought to myself, folding my wings slightly as I wearily dropped down on the corner of the bed. Quietly sitting there, I felt an unexpected wave of exhaustion wash over me. Reflexively rubbing my eyes, I suddenly realized just how tired I was after a grueling twenty four hours in the saddle, followed by a tumultuous meeting with the kings, the absorption of an orb, and the midnight meeting with the unruly assembly of princes and scribes. I found that the euphoric energy granted by the new orb had waned, only to be replaced by a tiredness that went to my very bones.
Reluctantly forcing myself up, I pulled off my small clothes and entered the bath. The cool marble of the floor felt good against my feet as I trudged toward the large pool of water. Nic had already finished soaping and was rinsing under the spray of the fountain by the time I waded into the water. Dunking my head, I came up shaking water from my hair and wings. We finished quickly, not taking time to linger as we sometimes did. We had important things to discuss, and Nic was eager to get to them.
Climbing from the bath, we each took a towel and dried off, then padded back into our bedchamber. Choosing to remain naked, Nic continued into the small sitting room off the bedchamber, and I heard the scraping of chair legs on the floor as he pulled a small love seat away from the wall. It was our favorite piece of furniture, a love seat of peculiar but ingenious design – two padded seats facing in opposite directions, with a serpentine back that curved low behind each seat and rose to a padded armrest between them. The design was such that it allowed us to sit with our wings out of the way and face each other. I could even – as I often did – bring my feet up onto Nic’s lap where he would gently rub them. It was perfect for two people to sit in conversation. It was also perfect for kissing – an interesting fact that a profusely blushing Andrew had pointed out to me the instant he’d first caught sight of it, and which I’d laughingly confirmed. Now putting his feet up on a nearby stool, Nic motioned for me to join him. I walked slowly over and sat beside him. He took my hand into his, raised it to his lips, and placed a kiss in the middle of my palm.
“So Jamie,” Nic said, looking deeply into my eyes, “what do you have to tell me?”
I looked up at him, and felt the kindness and warmth that always flowed from him to me. Remaining silent and staring into his eyes for a few brief seconds, I wasn’t sure how he’d react to what I was about to tell him. The truth was, I still wasn’t sure how to react myself, since what I was about to reveal had been shown to me only a few hours earlier – immediately after my absorption of the Orb of the Lion. But before I started I leaned forward and put my arms around him, rested my head on his chest and hugged him tightly. It felt good just to hold him, and as he put his arms around me I could feel his warm, soft lips brush my forehead.
“Why couldn’t it be like this all the time?” I thought to myself. “Why are we always running from something, or fighting someone, or struggling to reach some goal? Why couldn’t we just be like this forever, Nic and me? No King, no Wizard – just two boys who love each other and always want to be together.” But even as those thoughts came to my mind, I knew why it had to be the way it was. At least I knew more now I’d known just a few hours earlier, before I’d absorbed the Golden Orb. Pulling away, I looked up at him.
“Nic, when I told King Wilum that Loran has ceased all of his attacks, I was right. I can feel it, and I know I’m right. I also feel that my brother was somehow responsible for seeing that I came into possession of the Golden Orb.”
“I want to believe you, Jamie,” Nic said, giving my hand a squeeze, “but it’s hard to believe that he would simply relinquish an orb to you. Also, if you’re right about the cessation of his attacks, then what about Wilum’s question about them simply resuming in a few days, or even hours?”
“I don’t think they will,” I said. “In fact, I’m almost sure they won’t.”
“What makes you so confident?” Nic asked, continuing to question me. “I know from experience that when you’re this sure about something, you’re usually right, but at this point I just can’t see it.”
“I’ll tell you why, Nic. In all the battles they’ve fought so far, Loran hasn’t found me. The truth is, I’m really the one thing he’s desperately looking for. At the moment, I’m his number one concern – more important than any battle he might fight. And on top of that, by making sure that I absorbed the Orb of the Lion, Loran is virtually assured that he will get what he wants.”
“Of course Loran wants you, or at least the orbs that you’ve assimilated, and I can understand some personal animosity on his part,” Nic said, “but why is it important that he finds you before he continues his attack on the kingdoms? He could easily defeat the kingdoms, and then begin his march to Icaria, and eventually Küronas. You seem so sure that he wanted you to have the Orb of the Lion, but isn’t it important for each of you to absorb as many essences as you can? And, of course, you remember when he sent that sphere into your meeting with High Council of Konassas? Doesn’t he know your whereabouts just as you know his?”
“Not really, Nic. At first I thought he could sense me and always lock onto my location, since I can do that with him, but I was wrong. And after what just happened to me in the map room, I’ve gained even greater insight. The Orb of the Lion is called the Key Orb because of its ability to unlock the other orbs, most specifically the charm that’s locked inside the essence of each orb.”
“Yes Jamie, I know that, but you’ve gained the ability to use some of the charm from the orbs you already have without it, even though it wasn’t supposed to happen that way.”
“Yes, that’s true. But in addition to enabling charm, the Key Orb also opens up further knowledge in the mind of the wizard; actually, since it’s the last orb to be assimilated, it’s meant to complete the transformation process of the candidate into the true wizard of Icaria.”
“This is nothing new, Jamie; you told me all of this months ago.”
“Of course, but what I was telling you came from the knowledge of the Key Orb that I acquired from the screen, before I actually absorbed the essence of the orb itself. But now, with its essence in me, it’s different – very different. I have more information now than I’ve ever been able to gain from the screen or the amulet. There’s still a great deal I don’t know, but The Key Orb has greatly expanded my knowledge; it filled in some of the empty areas of my mind and revealed new things. There’s still more I need to know, but the information I’ve gained is immense.”
“But it hasn’t helped your own personal memory – has it?” he asked, placing a hand on my back and gently rubbing the spot between my wings. “You’ve always said that the knowledge you gain after assimilating an orb is more in the nature of acquiring facts and information.”
“Yes, you’re right. This absorption – just like the others – hasn’t helped my memory. Just like the amulet and the other orbs, it only gives impersonal facts uncolored by opinion or commentary. I’ve had no revelation of my own personal memories – although over time, I’ve remembered more on my own.” Pausing, I cast my eyes down toward the floor for a few seconds. After taking a few deep breaths I looked back up and locked my gaze onto his. “Nic, I know what I’m about to tell you will upset you, but you have to know. I didn’t know any of this until I absorbed the essence of The Orb of The Lion, but it’s too late to go back now and undo what’s happened, so we just have to accept what I’m about to tell you, and carry on. It will also explain why I think Loran wanted me to absorb the Golden Orb.”
Nic frowned, and gave me a look of concern. I placed a hand on his thigh and gently brushed my fingers against his warm, smooth skin. I tried to give him a small smile, but with the burden of what I’d learn pressing heavily upon me, I found I couldn’t.
“As I’ve just said,” I began hesitantly, “Loran can’t lock on to me as I first thought. That power comes from the Orb of the Bat – one of the orbs I’ve absorbed. I can discover his location if I choose, but he can’t learn mine. The sphere he sent to the council chambers here in Konassas was facilitated by a contact I’d made with him.”
“You contacted Loran?” Nic said, giving me a look of startled disbelief.
“Yes, but not on purpose.” I quickly said. “When we first came to Konassas, I was afraid. I remembered how he surprised us at the abbey, and then later how he appeared before us when we discovered Matthew and Lancelot, and I expected to see him lurking around every corner. My worries and fears turned to thoughts – thoughts that flowed to him. I didn’t do it on purpose, of course; in fact, at first I wasn’t even aware that I was doing it, but that’s what allowed him to find me. Since my training with Brotus, I’ve learned to control my fears. I do still fear my brother, Nic, I won’t lie to you, but I’ve learned to act a bit more logically when it comes to him. But that’s not as important as what I must tell you now,” I said. “Loran sent me the orb of the Lion because he didn’t want to absorb it. Instead, he wanted me to, so that his hand could be strengthened.”
I could see a look of doubt forming on Nic’s face, for although I knew he was trying hard to understand what I was telling him, it just didn’t seem logical. I paused for a few seconds, allowing my words to sink in. Shifting my position away from him I stood and faced him. He remained seated but never took his eyes off me. Stepping back, I looked intently at him and went on.
“Because the Orb of the Lion was to be the last orb absorbed by the wizard, and is the most important of all the orbs, Lon Nol wove a trap into it to discourage its absorption too early in the ritual of metamorphosis. Since it was meant to be absorbed last, it was constructed in such a way to assure that it would only be absorbed in its proper sequence. When Lon Nol created it, he placed something called a germinus in it.”
“A germinus? What’s that?” Nic asked.
“Its a dire consequence that would befall an unworthy or unapproved candidate, or someone who attempted to gain unlawful control of the orbs and absorb their essences.”
“So, what’s the dire consequence?” Nic asked, giving me a look of concern.
“Death,” I answered quietly.
“What?” Nic shouted, sitting upright on his couch. “Jamie, what are you talking about? Are you in any danger from this latest absorption?”
“Not only am I in danger, Nic, but I now have a sword hanging by a hair over my head.”
“Explain,” he said, alarm growing in his voice.
“The process of creating a wizard was supposed to be orderly and controlled – that was the reason for the elaborate ritual and ceremony surrounding it,” I said. “Initially, Loran was to be the Wizard. At some point, he would have been named the official candidate; Alexander was his consort and king. Unfortunately, Alexander died, and because of the circumstances surrounding Icarian mating, disunion occurred and Loran’s candidacy was withdrawn. As the only other Imperial Seraphim, I was chosen to be the wizard. But long before that, I somehow was made to pick a mate – that’s something I still don’t quite understand. Nothing I’ve come across makes any provision for such a thing – in fact, it’s highly unusual. But for some unknown reason, as a child I chose you to be my consort. Why that happened, or how Hippolito entered the picture later is a mystery – I do have a few theories, but they’re not relevant at this point.”
“Yes, Jamie, I know most of this,” Nic said, sounding even more concerned as an undercurrent of frustration colored his voice. “What I’m interested in is learning more about this germinus and your possible death.”
“I’m coming to that,” I said. “But please, Nic, let me continue in a logical fashion. While I don’t remember much, I do remember my promise, and now I remember why I made it. And…” I said, running my fingers along the asp bracelet, “now I remember why this is so important.”
The look on Nic’s face was one of intense concentration, and I could tell that he was hanging on my every word. By now he’d shifted his position on the love seat and was leaning forward, a study in absolute focus. I stepped forward and sat on the floor next to his feet, my head next to his knee.
“Before the plague became too widespread, Alexander died in a supposed accident in the Battlecom. Hippolito was there, although I’m sure anything he says regarding the incident is a lie. But after the King’s death, Loran suffered disunion and I was thrust into the office of wizard elect. The plan would have been for me to undergo the induction ceremony in Küronas and emerge from it as the wizard. Of course, we know that never happened. We know what really happened – well, at least some of it, up to and immediately after our flight from Küronas. But after we arrived at Piropolis, my memory ends. So does yours. Somehow the orbs became scattered, we ended up in coffins, and the entire government and ruling class of Icaria – along with a few chosen others – ended up scattered all over the entire continent. I’m just starting to realize why, Nic, but I can’t say for sure yet, so don’t press me. It’s still locked somewhere deep inside my mind; whether it will eventually emerge or not, I can’t say. The Orb of the Lion has given me more facts but not my true memories, and I don’t have the luxury of waiting for more to be revealed over time – that’s something I’ll have to do on my own, and now I know how to do it.”
“Are you saying you know how to recover your memories?” Nic asked.
“Yes, I think so,” I said, “and possibly yours too, if I can do what I think needs to be done.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ll tell you presently. What’s important is that you have to realize that I was never supposed to absorb the essences of the orbs as I’ve been absorbing them. Remember how the orb of the snake almost killed me? That’s because it was supposed to be absorbed later, after some of the milder essences had been assimilated as a buffer, giving me the strength to absorb the stronger and more powerful orbs. All of that was built into the initiation ceremony – a ceremony that neither Loran nor I have followed, but that’s in the past, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. At this point I’ve absorbed five orbs, all out of their proper sequence. Likewise, Loran wasn’t supposed to absorb any of the orbs after he was removed from consideration as a candidate for the wizardry, but by now he’s absorbed six of them.”
“I understand Jamie, but you still haven’t explained the sword hanging over your head, or the fact that you might die,” he replied anxiously, “…and the fact that you might able to revive your long lost memories – and mine.”
“I’m getting to that,” I said, pausing to once more gently trace my finger along his thigh. “Because all of the orbs’ essences were to be absorbed in a prescribed sequence and order as part of an elaborate ceremony involving the Council of Houses and the princes and scribes, and using an approved and sanctioned candidate, the greatest danger the creator of the orbs faced was a rogue candidate acquiring some or all of the orbs and attempting to have their essences meld with him. If he succeeded, he could be a great threat to all of Icarian society – and the more I think about it, possibly the empire itself. The truth is, Nikki, I am that rogue candidate. I was never meant to be the wizard – you know that as well as I do. When I chose you as my mate, things were much different. The reason we’re here today is because of what happened at Mondele Royale; it’s why Hippolito hates me so much. And mark me well, Niklas – he, not Loran, is our worst enemy. I know it in my heart.
“But I’m straying far from my explanation,” I said. “As a prohibition and safeguard against a rogue candidate, the Orb of the Lion was meant to be the last absorbed essence, and not only the last essence absorbed, but also absorbed in a certain way. If the specific criteria Lon Nol laid down were not observed, it would start a process that would end in the death of the rogue candidate.”
“After I absorbed the golden orb and its essence joined with my body, a chemical – the germinus – was released, that entered every cell of my body. The chemical is a poison that will activate within sixty-two days, and kill me. The only way to prevent the poison from activating is to absorb all of the twelve orbs in their correct sequence. If that doesn’t occur by the end of the sixty two day cycle, I will be dead.”
Nic just sat there, staring at me. At first it appeared as if he couldn’t talk, but after a minute, he cleared his throat and slowly began to speak.
“So, what you’re telling me is that if you don’t absorb all of the orbs in the next sixty two days, you’ll die?”
“Yes, Nic. As far as the Orb of the Lion is concerned, because I did not have the other eleven orbs when it was assimilated, I am a rogue candidate – which is, in fact, true. It would have happened to Loran if he’d assimilated it instead of me, but he knew about the germinus, since he was trained by Lon Nol. Somehow the orb came into his possession, and he knew what would happen if he absorbed it. He sent it to me, and now I’ve absorbed it, and it’s too late to go back.”
The silence that filled the room was as thick as a dense fog. Nic sat quietly for a few seconds, then he reached out and took my hand. From the look on his face I could see that he wasn’t sure what more he could say to me, but I knew that there was still more I had to tell him.
“Now I come to the real reason why all the attacks by Loran’s forces have stopped. Loran has accomplished his mission. He’s terrorized everyone. The remaining kings are fearful of what he will do and want to end the alliance. At this point, he doesn’t need to continue his reign of terror – for the moment, the terror is present in everyone’s hearts. Loran was the candidate of the old empire. He saw first hand how it was ruled, and how it was controlled. He was privy to the intrigues of the imperial court. He saw how the emperor and the Privy Council ruled… and so did I, but my reaction was different than his.”
I paused and looked down at the asp bracelet, and my mind went to Cristophe. “Yes, my reaction was quite different. Not what any of you expected,” I thought. “Not at all what you expected.”
Looking back up at Nic, I continued. “Loran’s initial plan was quick conquest and domination. My appearance, and the fact that I’ve absorbed some of the orbs, has forced him to change his plans. Loran wants to find me, because he knows that now I also have to find him. He may not know where I am, but he does know that I’ve absorbed the golden orb – we each know when the other has assimilated an orb. He knows that if he can’t kill me, he can at least be present for my death, and when the essences leave my body, he will be there to absorb them and become the wizard. He also knows that the only hope I have of living is to kill him and absorb the essences he’s already assimilated.”
I released Nic’s hand and rising, paced across the floor of the sitting room. Turning back to study him, I continued. “Loran has absorbed six essences, and I’ve absorbed five,” I said. “But even though I now have the germinus inside of me, and my days are numbered, I have to obtain the final orb to balance the equation and then meet Loran within the circle of Ondra; it’s the only real hope that I have. He’s older, stronger, more experienced, and a better fighter than me – we both already know that. Therefore, if I walk into the circle with five orbs and he with seven, my strength will be even less and his greater, and my plan will be in jeopardy.
“Not only that, but without all twelve orbs neither of us can really survive. Even if Loran kills me and absorbs the essences I have assimilated before either of us have assimilated the final orb, he will still be short one orb – the Orb of the Unicorn. But then he will also have the essence of the Orb of the Lion inside him – something he’s cleverly avoided thus far – and he, like me, will only have sixty-two days to find and assimilate the Orb of the Unicorn. Believe me, Nic, when I say that his chances of doing that are not very good. And on top of that, all of the orbs would have to be released from his body and reabsorbed in their proper sequence, and that can only occur under one of two very special conditions – one of which is blocked to him. Otherwise, the only other way for him to release the essences that now reside in his body is through his own death – a fate I’m sure he wouldn’t want to endure.”
“But if the only way he can remove the orbs from his own body is through his death, what advantage is it to kill you and risk the danger of the germinus in the Orb of the Lion killing him?” Nic asked.
“Because, as I told you, it is possible, under one of two very special circumstance, for him to remove the orbs he has – and mine as well – without dying in the process. When the combined total of orbs absorbed by two candidates equals twelve, and one of the candidates, with his own hands, kills the other, then upon the death of the rogue wizard the essences will not only leave the impostor’s body, but also the body of the true candidate. The victor will then have only one hour to begin the process of assimilating the orbs in their proper sequence, and he will become the true wizard of Icaria.”
“And if he doesn’t begin assimilation within one hour?” Nic said, looking intently at me.
“He will also die,” I said. “The essences will once again encapsulate themselves within the orbs, and a new candidate will have to be found. So you see Nic, it’s to his advantage to gain the final orb and kill me, so he can reabsorb the essences in their proper order.”
“But that leaves one more problem: no one knows where the final orb is.”
“I do,” I quietly said, and I saw a look of surprise come to Nic’s face. “But only I can get it.”
“And why is that, Jamie?”
I paused for a few seconds, once more looking down at the asp bracelet wrapped around my arm. I touched its enameled skin, and traced its jeweled eyes with a finger. Then, I gently took Nic’s hand in mine.
“I’ll explain it to you, Nic, but first I have to tell you something, something that no one else knows, not you, or Charles, or Andrew. I think at one time you may have known, but it’s no longer part of your memory. It’s come to me slowly, gradually over time. It was finally pushed to the surface by the golden orb. And now it’s very important that you do know, in case I fail and either die from the germinus or at the hands of Loran. If that happens, you must promise me, with all your heart, that you will fulfill a sacred promise – the most important promise of all that I made. Will you do that, love? Will you do whatever you must to fight the madness of disunion, and do what I now ask?”
“Of course, Jamie,” he said quietly.
Then he sat as still as a statue while I held his hand and quietly began my story. Every so often he would shake his head in disbelief, or stand up and walk over to look out the window onto the forum below. At those points, I would always stop and hold him with all my might, and he would kiss me and hug me back. And when he was once more become calm, I would continue to unravel my tale to the only person I knew I could completely trust. Hours later, we were still awake and facing the dawn of a new day as my story concluded. We’d moved into the formal salon during the telling of the tale – it offered more room for pacing, which we each had found ourselves doing at different times. In the light of early morning, Nic’s face was shadowed and ashen, but I knew it wasn’t from lack of sleep. After a few quiet minutes, he turned to me and began to speak, but a sudden, sharp rapping on the door of our apartment quickly silenced him.
“Enter,” Nic called out, and the door opened to reveal Charles.
“In less than two hours, we must return to the map room,” he said.
“Just give us a few minutes to prepare,” Nic said. He waited until the door closed, and then turned back to me.
“I can scarcely believe everything you’ve told me Jamie, but I don’t doubt you,” he said as he looked down at me. “So let’s prepare ourselves and meet with the Council of Kingdoms one last time. I don’t know how much of what we tell them they’ll believe, but we can try and convince them.”
“Just remember, Nic,” I said. “We tell them only as much as we think they need to know, for now. Our goal is to gain their support, or at least not incite any more hostility from them – especially Wilum. But I think the demonstration they’re going to get will go a long way toward convincing them of our sincerity and abilities,” I added, giving him a serious and determined look.
“You mean your abilities, love,” he said, giving me a kiss. “But I agree, Jamie.”
“And what of my plan to save Taldor Valoren?” I asked. “What is your opinion of that?”
“If he’ll agree, Jamie. From what you’ve told me it might work, but you, more than anyone else, know it’s a lot to ask.”
“I know, Nic,” I said quietly looking down at the floor and suddenly feeling a great heaviness in my chest, as if both my hearts had turned to lead.
“But I’ll leave that up to you and him,” Nic concluded. “The day is moving on; let’s get ready.”
Nic began heading for the bedroom, but turned and retraced his steps to give me one final, long, loving hug. Breaking our embrace, he strode away to the bedroom, leaving me alone in the salon. I walked to the door leading into the hallway and opened it. Immediately, the two Imperial legionnaires guarding the door jumped to stiff attention. Stepping into the hall in order to stand before them, I accepted their salutes and quietly addressed them.
“Find Brotus and bring him to me as quickly as you can,” I ordered.
Immediately the legionnaire on my right bowed, left his post, and strode away down the corridor. The second Imperial paused while I passed back into the apartment, and then stepped over squarely in front of the door. A last glance back before I closed the door behind me showed me his back, ramrod straight, and his sword hand gripping the hilt of his weapon. His vigilance was a comfort as I headed into the bedchamber, where I gathered clean clothes and quickly dressed alongside Nic. By the time we emerged from our bedchamber, Brotus was standing in the salon of our apartment, waiting for me. Although he was fully dressed, he appeared to have just awoken and I could see a puzzled look clouding his face, but before addressing him, I turned to Nic.
“Would you please go on ahead and make sure the princes and scribes are ready? You’re better with them than I am anyway,” I said, smiling at my mate. He gave me a knowing look but chose to remain quiet, simply nodding in my direction as he left our apartment. Turning back to Brotus, I paused, faltering for a moment as I tried to choose my words.
“What’s on your mind, sparrow?” he said gruffly. “The legionnaire that woke me told me you wanted to see me as soon as possible. He wouldn’t leave my side until I was out of bed, dressed, and following him here.”
Without the smile I usually reserved for him, I motioned for him to sit.
“I don’t like that look, Jamie,” he said. “What kind of trouble are you in?”
“None,” I said quietly, looking down at the floor.
“And I’m the King of Xannameir,” Brotus groused as his eyes bore into me. “You didn’t call me here for tea and cakes.”
Raising my head, I looked at him but quickly dropped my eyes. In a halting and quiet voice, I began to tell him most of what I’d told Nic, sometimes speaking so softly that I wasn’t sure if he could hear me. But he must have, since the old soldier sat quietly, listening in silence. As I spoke, tears came to my eyes and I began to cry, but Brotus continued to sit, stiff and unemotional – absorbing everything I revealed to him. When I was finished, he took a deep breath, rose from his chair, and approached me. Pulling me up by the hand, he stood looking down at my tear-streaked face.
“I only ask, Brotus,” I said, staring up intently at him. “But I think it’s the only way.”
“That it is, sparrow, and I accept,” he replied. “I never knew why I survived,” he said quietly, more to himself than me, “but now I think I have the answer.”
“They’ll be there to help,” I said, still choking on my tears.
“There or not there, it won’t matter, Jamie. I won’t fail, of that you can be sure.”
“I wish you’d said no,” I sputtered.
“Then why did you ask, sparrow?” he said, and a smile came to his face. Reaching into the leather vest he usually wore, he pulled out two papers. The first had a large, heavy wax seal on it.
“I’ve been waiting to show you these. I guess now’s the time,” he said, still smiling at me.
Carefully I opened the first parchment, running my finger under the seal. Unfolding it, I read the words written on it with surprise.
To all acknowledged,
Lieutenant Brotus von Dross is hereby officially
decommissioned as an officer of the Army of Xannameir.
His faithful service is acknowledged. His impeccable
record is commended. He has served king and country without fail.
We wish him success, and a hearty hail and farewell.
Signed and sealed in the city of Konassas, the province
of Mar, the Kingdom of Kalas.
On this the 8th day of the Month of Lars, 2562 years
after the fall of the City of Light.
Marcus Andris Zakaria,
Eighteenth Duke of Lionsgate,
Lord Protector of the Seal of Kalas,
and Lord High Commander of the First
Army of the Xannameir.
“As you can see,” he said, “I’m under no man’s command.”
“But…” I began.
“I voiced my intentions to Zakaria, and he agreed,” Brotus said, and without another word, he handed me the second paper.
Taking it, I immediately noticed that the seal fixing it was even larger and heavier than the first.
“From the King,” I whispered, but Brotus remained silent, waiting for me to open the parchment. I carefully unfolded the paper to read the words written on it. It only took me seconds to scan its contents, for in his usual fashion, King Wilum’s words were brief and to the point.
Be it known that
Brotus von Dross,
By his request, is no longer a citizen of the Kingdom
Signed and sealed in the city of Tahkor, Province of Garron,
Kingdom of Xannameir
On this the 10th day of the Month of Lars, 2562 years
after the fall of the City of Light
Wilum Joakan Zakaria,
King of Xannameir
“When the General gave me the first paper, I asked if he thought the king would grant my request. He left the room for a few minutes and when he returned, he had that in his hand,” Brotus said pointing to the second parchment I held. “As you can see, little boy, I’m currently without king, country, or commission,” he said.
“Not for long,” I said, but as I tried to continue to speak, I found myself choking on my words.
Brotus would have none of it. Putting both of his large hands on my shoulders, he drew himself up to his full height. Standing straight and tall, he stared intently down at me.
“We do this right, Your Grace, or we don’t do it at all.”
Startled from my melancholy by his formal use of my title, I blinked away my tears. “You’re right, Brotus,” I said, looking down at the floor and nodding my head in agreement. Turning my back on him, I walked across the room, stopping when I reached the stand holding the Staff of Alexander. Grasping it in my hand, I returned to stand before him.
“Kneel,” I said, struggling to contain my emotions.
Brotus grunted as he slowly lowered his large frame to the floor. When he was finally on his knees and we were eye to eye, I closed my eyes for a few seconds and took a deep breath. Lifting the silver staff, I rested it gently on his right shoulder, paused, took a second deep breath, and in a wavering voice, began.
“We, James, first Wizard of Icaria, grant Brotus von Dross citizenship to the Kingdom of Icaria, and place him under its laws, statutes, King, and Wizard, granting to him all the rights and protections such citizenship implies. I further commission you, Brotus von Dross, a General with senior status in the army of Icaria.”
Before rising, Brotus took my outstretched hand. Taking it gently in his, he kissed it. “Your Grace,” he said quietly. “I accept the honor of both citizenship and commission. My life is at your command, to save or dispose of as you will.”
Fresh tears streaked my cheeks as I looked down at the old soldier. I swallowed hard. “Arise, General von Dross.”
Slowly, Brotus climbed to his feet. When he was once again looking down at me, I went to him and hugged him with all my might, burying my head in his chest and with formality broken, I cried, my tears wetting the leather of his vest.
“You’re the Lord Protector, Jamie,” he said, using the private designation long ago conferred to me. “It’s the most important title you have. Now dry your eyes, and no more crying. You’re only doing what you promised you’d do. I’m so very proud of you, Sparrow. Accept my thanks…” Breaking our embrace, he reached out and gently placed his hand under my chin. Raising my face to meet his eyes, he smiled. “…and my love.”
Seeing a movement to my right, I turned to see Niklas standing silently in the door. “How long...?” I began.
“Long enough,” he replied, interrupting me. In three long strides, he crossed to Brotus and shook his hand. “Accept my deepest thanks… General…” he said with a smile, then looking at me, added “…for everything.” And he gave the old man a hug of his own.
Just then, Charles came hurrying in to our apartment with Master Sandro and Jaysune on his heels. “It’s time,” was all he said.
Jaysune eyed Nic’s attire and gave him a smile and an approving nod. Then he turned to me and began fussing with the way my tunic lay across my shoulders. “Why do you always insist on just throwing your clothing on without even one thought to your appearance, Your Grace?” he said under his breath, sighing every so often in exasperation. “What do you think mirrors were created for?”
I said nothing, having learned that allowing him a few seconds to fuss usually saved me a long lecture about rulers making a proper appearance. I knew he was finished when after one final adjustment, in a long practiced gesture familiar to me ever since I’d first known him, he reached his hand up to my forehead to brush aside the shock of hair that often hung precariously over my right eye. Sighing once more, he reluctantly pronounced me ready, although from his tone of voice I got the impression that if he’d the time, he’d have preferred to drag me back into the bedroom, strip me naked, and completely redress me. Just as I turned away, Master Sandro handed me the golden diadem and Jaysune draped the beautiful cloak of Hippolito over my shoulders. Reaching up to clasp it, I could see Nic suppressing a smile as he pointed to his forehead, indicating that, once more, I’d put the diadem on crooked. Frowning, I reached up and readjusted it.
Leaving our apartment with Brotus and Charles, we went to the grand salon of the Amber Palace where everyone had gathered, only to find it once again in turmoil. Dressed in their beautiful tunics and elaborate ceremonial robes and wearing golden diadems on their heads, the princes continued to talk and debate. The noise only grew louder when, upon seeing Nic and I, they buried us under a barrage of questions and requests to take sides in various debates, or to listen to statements some of the princes had prepared.
Just as had happened the previous night, Nic’s face quickly clouded and I could see his anger flaring, but before he could speak, I brought the butt of Alexander’s staff crashing down hard on the floor of the salon. Since I was standing in a spot not covered by the thick woven carpets, it made a loud and hollow thud that caused everyone to stop and look at me.
“You are the leaders of Icaria,” I said forcefully, and the air vibrated when my voice took on the strange, sonorous tenor of The Great Shout as I spoke in the polished tongue of the Icarian nobility. “…and I would expect you to act as such. Soon we will be standing before the rulers and leaders of this land, in the Council of Kingdoms. What will we choose to show them? A pack of brawling and unruly boys who can’t come to an agreement on even the simplest of matters, let alone the responsibility for ruling a kingdom – an empire? His Royal Highness and I have stood before them twice, representing this government and ourselves – hopefully with dignity and honor. I know what King Wilum of Xannameir would say if he were standing here to witness the sight that has greeted King Niklas and I these past two days whenever we’ve entered this room – he would turn on his heel and dismiss you all, with nary a word spoken.
“How we act today will leave a lasting impression on all who see us. What we do today may affect the lives of thousands in the fullness of time. If you are leaders and rulers, then I command you to act as such; otherwise, you can all wait here and the King and I will go alone, and give you a report later – if we deem it necessary. So remember your positions, and think about your actions.”
There was complete silence throughout the room, broken only when Charles cleared his throat and looked to Nic. Stepping in front of me, his face fixed with a stern and serious look, Nic addressed the princes and scribes of the noble houses. Silently, they listened to his commands. After he finished, Charles, dressed in his official robes of the Legion of Red and Black, added a few words, then turned to me. Since I’d already forcefully stated my opinion and position, I remained silent. Seeing that no one had anything else to add, Charles gave the word and everyone began to line up for the procession from the Amber Palace to the building that contained the great map. But just as we began to sort ourselves out, Prince Andrew arrived, panting and winded.
“I thought it only proper, as your scribe, to accompany you,” he said, pausing between words to catch his breath, “and I also have something for you.”
“And how does your father feel about that?” Charles asked, raising an eyebrow.
“My father understands duties and obligations,” Andrew said. “I told him that as the Scribe of The Imperial House of the High Seraphim, it is my duty to perform one of the offices I’ve accepted. He may not completely understand or agree, but he does understand honor. When I put it to him that way, he could hardly refuse, since he’s lectured me my whole life about honoring my obligations and responsibilities.”
“Very well,” Charles said, “Then take your place in front of Jamie.”
“Wait,” I said, holding him back for a moment. “What is it you said that you have for me?”
“Oh yes, that,” Andrew said, halting beside me. I watched as he pushed back his cloak and reached down to grasp a large, red leather pouch that was slung by a strap over his shoulder. It was slightly larger than the pouches I’d seen couriers and messengers carrying, and it was stuffed so full that it bulged at the seams. “I’ve brought this for you,” he said, lifting the strap over his head and placing the pouch on the floor. Bending down, he put his fingers on the clasp, which was fashioned in the head of a dragon. He pressed the dragon’s nose and two fangs that were locked onto the clasp drew back into the dragon’s mouth, allowing the pouch to be opened. Andrew, now kneeling on the floor and crouched over the pouch, pulled back its thick leather flap. Reaching into the pouch, he gently tugged, and slowly withdrew a compact bundle that had been meticulously wrapped in red silk. Placing the bundle on the floor, I watched wordlessly as his hands folded back the silk covering. I could see that what had been so carefully wrapped was something made of cloth. He continued folding back the red silk, but before he’d completely exposed it, I realized what it was.
Standing up while gripping the cloth in his hands, he held out his arms and released it. It unfurled like the unfolding of the petals of a flower and there were gasps through out the room as the cloak of the Lord Protector Regent was fully revealed. Since Andrew was tall, once he had the cloak completely unrolled, its hem remained a few inches above the floor, and he held it there for a few seconds as everyone stared silently at it.
“What? But how? I thought you said it was one of the national treasures of Xannameir,” I stammered, remembering that it had been locked up and kept under guard in the treasure vaults of Tahkor.
“The last time I was in Tahkor, I went to the treasure vault that held it. I simply walked up to the curator and told him that the rightful owner had come forth, and I was returning it.”
“It couldn’t have been that easy – could it?” I asked.
“Well, I did have to put my hand on my sword and look as if I was ready to use it. That made the curator a bit more agreeable,” he said, giving me a mischievous smile. “He even folded it, wrapped it in silk and put in the pouch. I might be the son of a king, but father is strict on never allowing us take advantage of that – he abhors use of power and authority just to get your own way. But this time I used whatever influence and pressure I could. Truth is, Jamie, I didn’t steal it. It’s really yours, after all.”
“Yes, it is,” I said, still looking at the magnificent cloak. Reaching up, I unclasped Hippolito’s cloak and handed it to Master Sandro.
Andrew approached me and I turned around. Carefully he draped the cloak over my shoulders, making sure it fit correctly around my wings. I reached up, took the clasps in my hands and fastened them together. After adjusting the cape I looked up and saw all of the princes and scribes looking intently at me.
“It is indeed magnificent,” Prince Ivan said.
“It’s of the highest quality, something one would only expect the Emperor to wear,” Prince Stefan said, approaching me and delicately fingering the edge of the cloak as he carefully examined it. “I daresay, even in the imperial workshops, this garment would have taken at least five years to create. Look at the couched gold threads. See how tiny silk stitches hold each one and how the color of the silk creates a shaded gold effect. And here in this repeating pattern,” he continued gently touching one of the side panels, “the gold threads have been stitched and couched one at a time over a cotton thread padding and are so evenly spaced that it’s hard to believe that the embroider could have had the skill needed to accomplish it.”
“And you can see how every jewel and seed pearl has been selected by hand to match perfectly,” Lord Jason, Stefan’s scribe, said, moving closer in order to get a better look at the cloak.
“The design is so intricate that it could only have been worked on in the light of the full sun.” Stefan said. “It was actually decreed that work such as this could be only be done in the embroidery shops during periods of full sunlight. It was forbidden to work on such a project by candle light, or even on a cloudy day – the work was far too detailed and demanding.”
I listened quietly to their remarks, knowing that as prince and scribe of The Royal House of Craftsmen, they, above all others, knew the level of skill needed to fashion such a garment. After a few more seconds of examination, Charles impatiently cleared his throat.
“Very well,” he said, “Now that that’s done, we’d best be on our way.”
Following protocol, and under Charles and Cody’s direction, everyone was properly positioned according to their rank and office – Nic and I were the last in line. But just when it seemed that everyone was ready to leave, Giovanni approached me. Calm and confident, he looked at me and bowed. “I’m ready, Your Grace,” he said. “I only await your command.”
Looking down at him, I paused and smiled. “My only command, Giovanni, is that you do this as if you were standing with me in the Great Hall of Agramon before the throne of the Emperor himself, with the Council Royale in attendance. We are Icarians, and we will behave as such,” I added – my voice rising for all in the room to hear.
“As you command, my Protector,” he said quietly, rising to his full height.
Cody, who’d been holding Giovanni’s cloak draped over his arm, held it out, presenting it to him. Reaching out and taking it, Giovanni’s face took on a look of serious determination as he unfurled the cloak. With the smallest of smiles and a slight flourish, he first made sure he fit snugly around his wings, then he drew it around his shoulders and shrugged it into place. After closing the clasp and making his final adjustments, he approached me, bowed deeply, and held out his hands to me.
“Your Grace,” he said quietly, “If I may?”
“Of course,” I replied.
Still smiling at him, I hefted the Staff of Alexander in my hands, feeling its weight and exquisite balance, and then reached out and gently placed it in Giovanni’s hands. Looking down at the staff, he paused, and I could see his eyes studying it. After a few seconds he looked back up at me, smiling sweetly. “As in the Great Hall of Agramon, Protector,” he said, grasping the staff firmly in both hands. Once more I smiled at him and nodded. And so, with Giovanni in the lead and followed by an amazing entourage of Icarians and friends, from Brotus, Philippe, David, Barsetba and Lüdowik to the scribes and princes of the noble houses, we left the Amber Palace and processed across the forum to the building that held the great map.
Marching across the broad expanse of forum, I kept going over what I was planning to say. Nic and I agreed it best that I do the explaining to the Council of Kingdoms, since Nic thought that I’d done a thorough and concise job when I’d explained it to him. I was so lost in thought that when I finally looked up, we’d already crossed the forum and were walking up the steps of the building that housed the great map, its low, dome-shaped roof glinting in the early morning sun.
We entered the building, and moved unfalteringly to the large circular room. Upon entering the map room, I could see that this would be a rather formal meeting. Compared to the small number of people who’d been in attendance at the previous two meetings, the present group of humans awaiting us was large in size. Giovanni slowly descended the middle set of stairs, gripping the Staff of Alexander in both hands and raising it high above his head. The giant map that served as the great table still glowed from the after affects of my encounter with the golden orb – its new configuration a silent testimony to the power of the newly acquired essence I’d absorbed and wielded the previous evening. Above the map, the celestial clock whirled and hummed, propelled by the energy I’d infused into it.
At the bottom of the stairs, Giovanni paused and looked about. Confident and poised, he strode onto the main floor of the room. Still holding the staff above his head, he turned toward those standing around the table, looking nobler than even the princes and their scribes. I watched as his eyes took in the assembly before him, then he took a measured breath and began to chant. His sweet, treble voice filled with room, and all eyes were riveted upon him.
At first, according to protocol, he introduced the non-Icarians: Barsetba and Lüdowik, then the non-royals and those without portfolio like Philippe and David, along with the handful of other non-royal Icarians we’d resurrected at Eagles Rock. Then he introduced Brotus by his new title as a General of Icaria – I couldn’t help noticing General Zakaria nodding his head in agreement when he heard Giovanni’s words. At the conclusion of Brotus’ introduction, Giovanni stood even taller, pulling his small frame up as if he was trying to make the top of his head touch the ceiling high above him, and with poise and confidence began chanting the litany of the houses as, one by one, the princes and their scribed descended the steps resplendent in their official garb and carrying their symbols of office. Watching the scene unfold before me, it was obvious that every human in the room was amazed and impressed at the retinue of royalty parading before them.
Finally, when the last of the princes were seated, Giovanni presented Niklas, King of Icaria. Nic descended the stairs with confidence and ease, taking his place around the great table, now crowded and full. As Nic moved to his seat, everyone stood in silence and then sat when he seated himself. There was a pause for a few seconds, and then, just as he’d been taught, with the skill of a field marshal commanding an army, Giovanni gracefully twisted the Staff of Alexander in his hands. End over end, it spun rapidly in his hands until the ends were nothing but a silver blur. Then with a flick of his arms, it arched high in the air only to be snatched back into his hands and driven down toward the floor. Slamming its butt end on the stone floor, Giovanni’s face took on the look of proud satisfaction as a loud, silvery clang rang throughout the room. Turning to those assembled, the little angel sang the soaring melody that opened the presentation ritual for the Wizard. As he sang, I began my descent, ending just as he finished the last sentence. Gracefully he knelt, bowed his head, and with both hands raised, presented me with the polished silver staff.
Bending down to take the staff from his outstretched arms, I whispered in his ear, “It’s the best you’ve ever done.” Looking up at me, a broad smile of pride came to his face.
During my descent, every Icarian at the table stood and faced me, and although it first appeared Wilum and some of the others had no intention of standing, the instant the King and leaders of Icaria rose, the humans reluctantly followed. Once at my seat, I remained standing.
“Please be seated,” I said to those assembled. All took their seats save Nic, who remained standing at my side. As we’d agreed, he was the first to speak.
“Your Royal Highnesses of the Kingdoms and Lords of the Realms, Princes and Scribes of Icaria, Ministers, Generals, and Distinguished Guests, both His Grace James, Wizard of Icaria, and I, Niklas, its king, have agreed that due to the events of yesterday – including the absorption of the Golden Orb by the Wizard, and the knowledge it has imparted – His Grace James will now address this assembly.” With that said, Nic immediately sat and looked up at me.
At first Wilum raised his eyebrows, indicating his surprise that I was the one chosen to speak, but recovered quickly; his face became relaxed and he gazed impassively on as I spoke to the assembly. I took my time, carefully giving an explanation of what had occurred upon my absorption of the golden orb – The Orb of the Lion – and the deadline now facing me.
Occasionally I was interrupted by questions, mostly from Wilum, but also from King Juston, and Lord Ottavia. At one point, even General Zakaria asked me a question. But just as Nic and I’d agreed, I told the group what I thought was necessary but did not go into the most serious issue I’d discussed with Nic in private. When I was finished, Wilum arose and took a few steps toward me, looking me directly in the eye.
“Who are you to command any of us?” Wilum asked.
“I command no one, Your Highness,” I said. “I have related the facts of my absorption of the Golden Orb to you and this assembly, and its consequences. I have also presented the plan King Niklas and I have formulated. If anyone has a better plan, or wishes to contribute additional facts or information, they are welcome. But it is imperative that you and everyone else in this room understand the grave threat that now faces this land. It is real, and it is coming. Ignoring it would be folly. Dismissing it would be foolhardy, and ending the alliance could mean the end of us all.
“While you may have other options, or think you have,” I continued, “I, personally, have only two choices, Your Highness – to do what I can to defeat my brother and retrieve the orbs he holds, or do nothing and die in sixty one days. I have already lost one day in asking for a recess of this assembly – I plan to lose no more. If the threat of the loss of my own life is not convincing enough for you, than I fear there is nothing more I can say or do that will convince you. But I will not allow the time I have left slip from my fingers without a fight.”
For a few seconds, not a word was spoken – the silence in the room was palpable. I stood unmoving, watching the flickering candlelight that came from the wall sconces lining the room. Finally, when a quiet voice broke the silence, I was surprised to note the speaker. “He’s our only hope, Father,” Andrew said, “he, King Niklas, and the rest of the Icarians.”
“Andrew’s right,” Nic said, rising to his feet. “No army – neither ours nor Loran’s – can ultimately win. We can kill each other and destroy the land beyond repair, but the winning of this contest lies with the only two Imperial Seraphim that have the ability to absorb and control the power of the orbs. The ultimate battle will be for the Seraphic throne of the Wizard of Icaria. Only one of them can rule, and only one of them can be the final vessel for the orbs. The battle will not be over until either Jamie or Loran are victorious, and nothing we do will change that.”
“But you can help,” I said, turning to King Wilum. “We don’t come to you arrogantly, ordering you to do anything, but we do ask – even implore – your help. It’s true that even united it will be difficult, but if we are divided, Loran will surely launch a reign of terror. You can all see that already. His army will...”
“…make Kartannus the Great’s sack of Rundstat look like a summer picnic,” Brotus interrupted. Suddenly realizing what he’d done, he took on a look of shock as his face turned red. “Beggin’ your pardon for speaking out, Your Highness, but I saw with my own eyes what butchery was done at Günter Platz,” he said. “And I’m with them now – no disrespect. Nor to you, General,’ he added as the crimson color continued to bloom on his face. Looking across the room I could see David smiling broadly, and although I tried to give him a reproving frown, I found myself struggling not to smile at Brotus’ blunt, outspoken style.
“Then what must we do?” Juston said. “Wilum, with great respect to you and everyone else, what I have just seen in this room, both yesterday and today, is of mythic proportions. These boys – these Icarians – speak the truth. I know it. I’ve never seen a display such as I’ve witnessed. Any talk of tricks, magic, or mages pales in comparison to what this boy can do,” he said pointing at me.
The moment Juston pointed to me, Wilum, who’d been listening to the king, turned and leveled a cold and hard stare at me – his blue gray eyes piercing me like an arrow.
“Father,” Andrew began, touching his father’s arm, and in an almost pleading voice said, “please, listen to them. I can tell you that this is why Gude and the Holy Office fear them. They speak the truth. They are our one hope, not just to defeat these killer angels as you call them, but also to restore this land – to finally bring it peace and happiness.”
Still staring at me, Wilum’s flinty eyes bore into my own, but determined not to be intimidated, I stared back, unblinking and unflinching.
“What must we do?” he finally said, giving me a frown.
Turning toward Nic, I nodded to the King of Icaria, who stepped up to the map. Then, following our plan and armed with the knowledge I’d imparted to him the previous night, he began to outline our strategy.
“Our forces are limited,” he began, “both human and Icarian. We need to defend and protect the most strategic areas, but we must also lure Loran into a fight – at a time and place of our choosing, not his. He needs the remaining orbs, and Jamie has all of them, save one.”
“In other words, we give him what he wants most of all,” I said.
“Meaning?” Wilum asked.
“Meaning, we leave a small force of Imperials here at Konassas to guard the city and its population, along with the princes and scribes, and take the remaining legionnaires and choose a site to make a stand.” Nic said. When Jamie has retrieved the final orb, he will join us and Loran will follow.”
“But he’s overrun Wrenstatten. What makes you think he’ll leave such a well fortified city and venture onto an unknown battleground?” Lord Ottavia asked.
“He’ll come,” I said. “I guarantee it.”
“But what of this last orb that you say you need?” Wilum asked. “What’s to prevent Loran from finding it and absorbing its essence?”
“I’m the only one who knows where it is, and I’ll be retrieving it,” I answered.
At those words, the princes and scribes all stirred and I could hear an undertone of comments coming from around the table.
“But first,” I continued, “there are a number of important things that must be taken care of. The first of which…”
“…is to kick the bloody hell out those bone-headed thrones of Loran’s!” a voice called from the darkness of the upper balcony.
Everyone turned toward the sound of the voice, and a smile came to my face when the figure of Miro strode from the darkness of one of the balconies into the light of the torches. Hearing a small shout, I turned just in time to see Philippe, beaming a warm and happy smile, go bounding up the steps and give his long absent mate a huge hug and a soft kiss. With his arm wrapped abound Philippe’s waist, Miro looked down upon us, and paused for what I could only assume was dramatic effect. As he flashed one of his trademark wicked grins, I could see his talent as a performer shining through, and eagerly awaited what I knew would be a carefully orchestrated entrance.