The Scrolls of Icaria by Jamie


Book 2 – 'War of the Angels'


Part I - The Golden Orb


Chapter 9



“That’s enough for today,” David said to no one in particular as the Ardentin forest loomed ahead of us. “We’ve been on these horses for hours and I don’t think I can sit another minute,” he added in a weary voice that mirrored all of our feelings.


“Yes,” Andrew moaned in agreement, “My back’s so stiff, I think it would hurt less to just fall out of the saddle than to dismount. It’s been a long day – and a boring one.”


Charles nodded with a groan, “ I agree. It’s time we stopped.”


Renaud, sitting tall and unmoving in his saddle, remained quiet – as he’d done all day – giving me the impression that, if required, he could continue riding for hours. Turning to Juston Tark, I paused when our eyes locked and then gave the Xannameirian captain a slight nod.


“Alright boys, we’ll stop for the day. It will be getting dark soon anyway,” Tark said. “Let’s set camp here and have something to eat. We should get a good night’s sleep, because tomorrow we’ll enter the forest and I fear we won’t make the swift progress we’ve made today – especially on horseback. Once we enter the forest, it’s going to be slow going. I think we’ll encounter difficulty if we try following any given trail or path. This particular section of the Ardentin is extremely dense and often avoided, but it seems we have no choice, given the route His Grace wishes to follow,” he added, giving me a steady and unblinking look.


I returned his look with a cold stare of my own, but prudently held my tongue. As the oldest and most experienced of our group – in addition to being a senior Xannameirian officer and Marcus Zakaria’s son – Tark had easily assumed the role of leader. Not that any of us were opposed, or even envied him the position: on the contrary, because he was a seasoned soldier who was familiar with the lay of the land, we were most grateful to have him in our company. And although he’d initially protested his assignment – loudly voicing his preference to wield a sword next to Nic, Lance, and his father instead of babysitting what he probably thought of as a group of green recruits – once General Zakaria made it clear that this would be his posting he, like the professional soldier he was, quietly accepted it without complaint and carried out his orders flawlessly.


“You’re right, Captain. I have to agree,” Andrew said as he nudged the dapple he was riding closer to Tark’s stallion, Titan. “I think that after we enter the forest, it probably will be slower going. But we did cover a lot of ground today, although I, for one, am weary of staring at nothing but the desolation of the plains.”


Andrew’s comment was correct. With only the briefest of rests – to eat a bit of bread and cheese during the noonday meal – it had taken a full day’s journey to cross the Plain of Harren, and the flat, open, and wind-swept plain had offered little by way of interest. After hours of staring across the flatlands toward the horizon, I’d found myself bleary-eyed, looking at nothing and seeing nothing. I sat astride Arax as if I were in a trance.  By the time late afternoon flowed into early evening and I could finally see the tall trees of the Ardentin forest looming ahead, I was bone tired and saddle weary. Since daylight was rapidly fading, I knew it was time to rest both the horses and ourselves.


“Of course, Your Highness,” Tark said without emotion, “it’s been a long day.”


I was always surprised to hear Andrew address Tark by his rank of Captain, and Tark address Andrew as ‘Your Highness’ since they were, in fact, cousins, but for all Andrew’s warmth and naturally outgoing friendliness it seemed that he could never break through the wall of formality Tark always erected whenever he was in the presence of the royal family. I’d witnessed the stiff stance, stony face, and clipped responses countless times before. It was a posture Tark automatically adopted every time he was within twenty feet of one of the Zakarias, and I’d come to think it an unconscious response that even he was probably unaware of, and might strenuously deny if confronted with the observation.


“Just remember,” I called out to my companions as we started to dismount, “We’re up at dawn and on our way.”


I knew that it would be at least three additional day’s journey until we reached our destination, and like Tark, I was concerned that the thick forest would slow us down at a time we could least afford it. Further, I was ever conscious that come tomorrow’s sunrise, I’d have fifty-eight days left until the germinus I’d acquired with the Orb of the Lion would consume and kill me. It was something I tried not to think about since there was still much to accomplish, but try as I might, it was always in the back of my head – a thought lying just beneath the surface of my consciousness, ready to emerge whenever my mind wasn’t occupied with other things.


“He’s right,” Tark said as he began to unsaddle Titan.  “Early to bed and early to rise. The forest is dense here and we’ll often be picking our way through it. As we head south it might get a little easier, since there might be a few more patches of open space – although I’m not counting on it. Once we enter the forest, we won’t be doing any fast riding like we did today.”


“Exactly,” I said, concurring. “Nic and I spent more time than I’d like to remember tramping through the Ardentin. Other than Captain Tark, I’m the only one of you who’s spent a lot of time here, so you’d best heed what he says,” I added, looking pointedly at David.


“What a slave driver,” David grunted as he lifted his saddle from the large gray he’d named Star. “You’ve been spending too much time with Brotus,” he added, placing the saddle on the ground. But as soon as the words left his lips his eyes caught mine and quickly cast downward as an apologetic look came to his face for reminding me of Brotus and his mission.


“It’s all right, David,” I said, “he’s been on my mind anyway. You can’t feel bad every time you say something that might be upsetting. I have a feeling many upsetting things will happen in the next days. Let’s just hope there’s at least some sweetness mixed with the bitter. Especially with what I’m about to do,” I added under my breath.


I’d been rather circumspect every time my companions inquired as to our final destination. Purposely being vague, all I’d reveal was the fact that our mission was to arrive at a certain spot in the Ardentin forest. Since Nic and I’d already been there during our initial wanderings with our companions, I was certain of the route. The additional insight I’d received from the Orb of the Lion reconfirmed that knowledge.


Ending the day’s journey, we quickly set up camp and settled in for the evening. David and Tark saw that the horses were curried and picketed, munching contentedly in their nosebags. Charles and Andrew worked on gathering wood and starting a fire, and I took a few minutes to talk to Renaud who, from the moment I’d seen him mounted on his horse in the forum until now, hadn’t said so much as one word to anyone the entire day.


In all fairness to the Icarian who served as my personal bodyguard, the fact was I really hadn’t talked that much to him either after calling him out in the map room during the concluding moments of the Council of Kingdoms. From the time the council was adjourned, he’d been at my side – silent and vigilant. He remained nearby during my final meetings and as I made my preparations for our departure – always quiet and unobtrusive, always nearby, but not too close, remaining in the background, usually out of my direct line of sight. He never hovered over me or walked on my heels, but was always within a few feet, ready to protect me or intervene the instant trouble might appear – in truth, he was the perfect bodyguard.


Because of our early morning departure, Nic and I had gone to bed early the previous night and I’d left Renaud in the hallway outside our apartment. When we left our quarters the next morning on our way to the forum, he was standing in the same spot he’d been in when I closed the door the previous evening. I wondered if he’d slept at all.


If my faltering memory served me at all, the angel warrior who served as my personal bodyguard and protector was a boy of few words. But if it was true that actions spoke louder than words, then Renaud, through his actions, spoke loud and clear. His light brown eyes always appeared to take in everything around him. When he looked at something he really examined it, almost as if he were looking at it from the inside out – taking it apart and reassembling it with his eyes. When he looked at you, it was like he was carefully weighing and measuring every last inch of you.


Looking into his eyes, one couldn’t help but feel that he was staring into the deepest recesses of your mind – examining every hidden thought, every dark, unspoken secret. Quite tall and very thin, he moved  gracefully when he walked – much more gracefully than his height would have suggested. Even the movements of his arms and hands were fluid and graceful. In one scrap of memory I could recall seeing him run, taking long, graceful strides as he moved with lightning swiftness.


Shaking all these thoughts from my head, I pulled the thin book that was my guide to the Screen from the inner pocket of my cloak. My initial plan upon making camp was to bring up the Screen and, using my newly acquired knowledge from the Orb of the Lion, review my plans and see what new things I might learn. But when I found myself standing silently and watching Renaud create a place for us to sit by rolling some fallen logs near the circle of rocks that would soon contain the campfire, I tried to revive some long forgotten memories from my past. Struggling to journey into the murky fog of my spotty memory, I could recall no long talks or conversations between he and I.


What little I did remember, though, was of my first encounter with him – quite a memorable one, and probably best left unmentioned – that led to him assume his role as my protector. I smiled at that memory, but it quickly faded as other, darker ones, surfaced to take its place. Still staring at him, I could see that he was intent on his task, but I knew him well enough realize that he was more than aware of my presence. Even with my poor memory, I remembered that sneaking up unnoticed on Renaud was something one simply couldn’t do. He had an aura of hyper-vigilance that was ever present, and never waned. I walked over to him and stopped when I was but a few feet from him. Still concentrating on his task, he made no move to acknowledge my presence.


“It’s been a long time,” I said quietly. “I’m happy that you survived.”


At my words, Renaud immediately ceased his task, stood up to his full height and looked down at me. His piercing eyes quickly scanned me, and only stopped when they met mine. He continued to stare at me, unmoving and silent.


“I am surprised that you left the abbey after you awakened, though,” I continued. “Knowing you, Renaud, I would have expected that you wouldn’t have let me out of your sight.”


“I never did, sa’Crêsmané,” he said quietly. “After I was awakened and learned of the situation, I wanted to see how things would unfold. Only a fool leaps into the sky without learning the direction of the breeze.”


“Of course,” I said, smiling to myself. After two and a half millennia, I could see that he hadn’t changed a bit.


“But you were ever shadowed within my span, and your enemies ever within the arc of my dive,” he added in our native tongue, quoting a well-known Icarian phrase.


“Yes, of that I’m quite sure,” I said, still carefully studying him.


I was about to continue when Charles and Andrew approached, each carrying wood and kindling for the fire. Renaud stared into my eyes for a few seconds longer, then went back to his task.


A fire was quickly started, and soon its glow illuminated the camp. We sat around it, quietly eating. Our meal consisted of dried, smoked sausages, course bread and aged cheese – simple fare, courtesy of Master Arnod’s pantry. Everyone ate hungrily, and there was little conversation. The day’s ride had been long and hard, and it was clear that everyone was tired.


The evening sky was clear as the stars began to come out. Looking out toward the horizon, I could see a pale glow where Argon and Ajax prepared for their nightly journey across the black vault of the heavens. The twin moons – now waxing – were almost half moons. In a few more days they would be full and bright, and I was glad that their light would help illuminate the nights once we were deep in the Ardentin.


The heat of the day had begun to depart as a light breeze brought in cooler air. The nearby forest – forming a dark outline against the starry sky – was quiet and still, save for the occasional hoot of an owl and the chirping of the grass frogs.


We finished eating and everyone remained sitting around the fire, saying not so much as a word. Although we were all weary, it appeared that everyone was too tired to stand up and go off to sleep. Spying a few large, flat rocks about twenty feet from the campfire, I tried to shrug off the fatigue that wanted to wrap itself around me and slowly stood, beginning to make my way to them. My intention was to sit apart from the group in order to have some quiet time to study The Screen, before going to bed. But I’d gotten only a few feet away from the campfire when David’s voice suddenly broke the peaceful silence of the night.


“So what’s it like being the Angel of Death?” David asked, his voice taking on a tone of excitement. “And personal bodyguard to the emperor himself!”


I immediately spun around to find that he was looking intently at Renaud, giving the boy one of his wicked smiles.


“DAVID!” I shouted, shooting him an angry look. I raised my hand and a few hot, white sparks shot from my fingertips, “I should burn your hide. I told you, that subject is closed. If you remember, I told everyone during the Council session, that Renaud…”


“I was just asking,” David shot back. “You don’t have to get angry.”


“Well, you could have a little more consideration of other’s feelings – something I’m sure Andrew could teach you,” I snapped back, glaring coldly at him.


Andrew looked up at me, and then at David, but kept quiet.


“I don’t understand what the fuss is about,” David countered angrily, his tone of voice revealing that I’d scored with my last remark. “It’s not like everyone doesn’t know about the Angel of Death. If you remember,” he added sarcasticly, “I was a member of the Imperial Household – a privilege you weren’t given, Your Grace.”


At the conclusion of David’s last statement, Andrew reached out his hand to the gladiator and gently placed it on his shoulder, but continued to remain silent as David looked up into my eyes, returning my glare with a cold, icy one of his own.


“It is fine, sa’Crêsmané, Renaud said, turning to look at me while interrupting my conversation with David – a conversation that was rapidly escalating into a fight. “After all, it is what I was,” he added, and I could hear a tone of resignation creeping into his voice.


“Nevertheless,” I said, “that is in the past.”


“But all the stories…” David said, suddenly pretending to be innocently oblivious, and purposefully ignoring both my outburst and the steady and level, smoldering glare I was still directing at him.    “…are they true? It was said that you were one of the trump cards the emperor held over the nobility. All men feared being paid a visit by the emperor’s private assassin. Even mothers scared disobedient children with threats that the Angel of Death would visit them while they slept in their beds if they continued their naughty ways.” 


For a few seconds there was silence, broken only by the gentle rustling of the trees in the forest. “It is no great honor to be known as a killer of men,” Renaud finally said, staring intently into the fire.


“Forgive both my ignorance and my boldness,” Juston Tark said in a voice uncharacteristically soft and quiet for the usually outspoken Xannameirian Captain. “And forgive me, Your Grace, for intruding on what appears to be a private Icarian matter, but just what is David talking about?”


“I have to admit, Jamie,” Andrew added, giving me a guarded, if not timid, look. “I’m curious too.”


Looking across the fire, I could see Charles lips pursed tightly while he gave me one of his disapproving looks.


“See what you’ve started?” I shouted, rounding angrily on David. “I should burn your hide this very instant. How could you be so thoughtless? All of that was a long time ago. It’s in the past, and should remain there.”


“It’s alright, sa’Crêsmané,” Renaud repeated, turning his head so that our eyes met. “I’m a prisoner of my history. It is something I think about every day. If I could change it I would, but alas, it is the music of the past and cannot be altered.”


“You owe no one an explanation,” I said, still flushed with anger. “It is of the past; we must concentrate on the future, and the tasks we have at hand.”


“But…” David began.


“But nothing!” I shouted back at him. “The topic is closed for discussion.”


“What is it you wish to know, Gahdar David?” Renaud said, completely ignoring my outburst and calmly turning to David.


“Renaud,” I angrily countered, “I told them the topic is closed. You don’t owe them, or anyone else, any explanation.”


“Maybe not,” he said, “but I will give them what they ask. If I don’t, their questions will remain. Their minds will spin their own tales. Tales like Gahdar David has probably heard – tales that are fanciful and far from the real truth. I wish to tell them. It is part of my…” he paused for a few seconds and looked deeply into my eyes, as if he were staring right through me. “…it is part of my… reparation,” he added softly, and I could see a sad weariness touch his eyes, as if this were a thing he’d already done before, and would probably have to do again.


By now, Charles – who’d been quiet – was up on his feet. “Renaud, you really don’t have to do this,” he said. “It’s a remnant of the old empire – an empire that died and has since rotted in its grave, so that even its dust has blown away on the four winds.”


“You are Red and Black,” Renaud said, turning to face Charles. “You are sh’ônfenn. If anyone should understand, it is you. I did the bidding of the sh’ônfenn, and you are their leader. You are ühn•ki’sh’onfenn, no? If it is true that the empire is dust, then it is also true that the grip of the sh’ônfenn has been broken and I am free to do as I wish.”


“Of course you are free to do as you wish, Renaud” Charles said, appearing a bit flustered. “It’s just that…”


“Then I will tell it,” Renaud said, “And do not worry. I will not divulge the secrets of the sh’ônfenn. That is their…” he paused, and nodded toward Charles. “...that is your story to tell, ühn•ki’sh’onfenn, not mine.”


Renaud turned back to David. I sat down next to the boy oft called the Angel of Death and quietly waited for him to continue. Charles took his seat, across the fire from us, although he appeared reluctant to do so. Once more there was silence. The fire crackled and sent occasional sparks into the dark night sky that quickly winked out soon after they flew upward.


“I was conceived and born in Gold Glass Flats,” Renaud began, and a calm – almost relaxed – look came to his face. “I’ve been told that early on in my cortical training, it was discovered that I had certain… talents.”


“You mean fighting? Like Miro and me? Like all of the gladiators?”


“No, Gahdar David. My talents were mental in nature. It was discovered I had a natural talent for logic. I also excelled at problem solving, and at reasoning my way through complex and complicated situations. I was also in the top percentile for height and physical strength among Icarians. But it was not those things that sealed my fate,” he continued, and a strange smile came to his face. “It was my eyes.”


“Your eyes?” David said. “They look normal to me.”


“David,” I said, frowning to show that I was still slightly angry with him. “You wanted to hear Renaud’s story. He’s never going to get through it if you keep interrupting him.”


David gave me one of his trademark shrugs, irritating me even more, but Renaud – ignoring our exchange – continued.


“At the time of my conception, an experimental program regarding visual enhancement was being conducted. From what little I discovered later about the program, it seems that since some of what we are comes from the structure of birds, it was postulated that perhaps the visual advantages that some birds enjoy could be developed in Icarians. But after much time and effort, the program exhibited a high failure rate and was abandoned. It seems that instead of exhibiting improved vision, most of the subjects were born blind and were terminated.”


“You mean killed?” Andrew said, sounding shocked and surprised. “Killed for being born blind?”


“Yes,” Renaud said, with a resigned tone of voice. “Such was the empire – beauty, perfection, intelligence, grace, poise…


“Oh my,” I said interrupting Renaud myself, as a kernel of a thought burst into my consciousness and blossomed, “That why…” I stopped and put my hand over my mouth, suddenly finding it difficult to say the words. Renaud looked at me sadly and nodded.


“That’s why you’ve never seen an Icarian that looks anything less than perfect,” Renaud said, as if reading my mind.


He was right, of course. Every Icarian I’d encountered was physically beautiful. Although height, shape, hair, eyes, and facial features were all distinct and individual – just as in humans – unlike humans, I’d never seen an Icarian that didn’t look perfect… except…. Looking across the campfire, I saw Charles shift uncomfortably on the log where he was sitting. He had a strange look on his face, and suddenly my thoughts turned to Jonathan – an angel born blind – The Oracle of Icaria, and Charles’ little brother. I made a mental note that, given the opportunity, I’d have to ask Charles about this.


“You were telling us about your eyes,” Juston Tark prompted. Looking at the Xannameirian Captain as he spoke, I knew by the expression on his face and the tone of his voice that he’d become deeply enmeshed in Renaud’s story.


“Yes, my eyes,” Renaud said, and I detected a harsh tone to his voice, “the attribute that sealed my fate.”


Now it was my turn to shift uncomfortably. I knew about Renaud’s visual talents – they’d almost been responsible for my death. Wrapping my arms around my knees and drawing my legs closer to me, I remained silent.


“While the experiments in visual enhancement were judged a failure, not every subject was born blind. A few test cases developed some mild visual improvement. But only one subject met and exceeded the scientists’ goals.”


“You?” Andrew said.


“Yes,” Renaud answered, “My vision is not only perfect, but much more acute and precise than any human’s – or any Icarian’s – that I know of. It’s been compared to that of an eagle. I can see clearly at great distance, but that’s not all: I can also see perfectly in the dark.”


“Like an owl?” Juston asked.


“I suppose; I don’t know how an owl sees in the dark. I only know that as long as there even the smallest amount of light from the moon or stars, I can see perfectly at night.”


“I can see where such a talent would be quite beneficial for a… well, an…” Tark abruptly stopped when he found himself awkwardly stumbling over his words.


“Yes, a great talent for an assassin,” Renaud said without emotion. “After my final decantation and cortical assessment, I was sent to the Imperial Palace.”


“But you would have been quite young then,” David said. “We went to the boys’ training camp at Compari after we were decanted, and remained there for a few years. It was the pre-gladiatorial training camp near Piropolis where we were kept – living and learning a bit about fighting, but it was more play than combat. After four years, we were sorted out. Those judged to have superior talent – and they were few – were sent to the Gadhar Acadame, the rest were conscripted into the army or the Royal House of Expedition and Service. But we weren’t sent to the Acadame until we were older.”


“That may be true, but I was one of a kind. After my abilities were discovered, the scientists at Gold Glass sent information regarding me to Savaron Loka and I was taken to the Imperial Compound at Küronas, where I lived and was secretly trained.”


At the mention of the name Savaron Loka, I frowned. Loka, The Grand Archduke of Trége and Prime Councilor to the emperor had been the man who’d represented the imperial court at Damian’s Grand Enchères and had submitted the ‘golden lot’ that had brought Damian – and also Philippe – into the emperor’s household staff.


I’d also come across Loka’s name a few more times during my studies with The Screen. In fact, it was Savaron Loka who’d headed the council that oversaw the noble houses of Icaria. But there was something more about the Arch Duke of Trége that bothered me, something I couldn’t remember – something buried deep inside me that I could just vaguely sense but couldn’t touch. I knew it involved Loka because every time I thought of his name, the hair on the back of my neck rose and I felt a pang of – what? Anger? Hatred? – well up inside of me. But I let the feeling pass and turned my attention back to Renaud as he continued. 


“In any case, I was taken to Küronas and there became a member of the imperial household. As my training progressed, I was formally inducted into the imperial branch of the army and eventually bore the rank of Imperial Captain. Officially, I was part of the household protectorate – one of the so-called ‘Army of Justice,’” Renaud said in a relaxed tone of voice. “But that was a deception. In truth, I was part of a secret retinue known as the Vipers of the Black Dagger – a small, but highly trained band of assassins who did the bidding of the Emperor and the Council.


“But even that is not completely accurate, for my membership in the Brotherhood – as it was called – was mostly in name only. For while my initial training was with the Vipers and I learned the rudiments of ‘The Craft’ from them, in due time I had little contact with them. While the Vipers executed the commands of the Emperor and Imperial Council, I answered strictly to the Emperor himself. Trusting no one – not the Imperial Council, the Brotherhood, or even his own family – the Emperor chose me as the weapon he wielded to impose his will.


“I suspect that my ‘special abilities’ had something to do with it, but there’s more to the story than that. Growing up in the imperial compound, it didn’t take much observation to see the political intrigue that went on at court. Even as a young boy, my life among the royal family and the large entourage of nobles and sycophants that attached itself to the emperor exposed me to the constant intrigue, plots, and alliances that never ceased to swirl about inside the imperial court.  They, along with the political maneuverings of the Imperial High Command and those of the senior officials within the bureaucracy, provided me with an insight few could even imagine. While I wasn’t privy to anything of importance, I was intelligent enough to begin to see how the game was played from observing the alliances that were fashioned, broken, and refashioned as the dance of politics and power played itself out. But my real entrée into the world of the empire came when I was fifteen, and I uncovered a plot to overthrow the emperor.”


At his words, David sat bolt upright as if I had struck him with one of my lightening balls. “A coup?” he gasped. “Against the emperor? And you were only fifteen? By my wings, when I was fifteen I was only in my second year at the Acadame. I hadn’t even entered the arena yet. You are amazing to have foiled a coup – at fifteen!”


“Don’t be too impressed. It all happened quite by accident, involving chance and luck rather than intelligence or skill,” Renaud said, pausing to glance around the campfire.


“It all started when I was practicing with my trainer one hot afternoon in the private exercise grounds used by the Vipers. As my session wore on, the heat became so intense that my trainer terminated the practice session early. After telling me that it wasn’t healthy to continue, he sent me to cool off in the underground baths of the imperial compound. Because my session concluded far earlier than usual, when I entered the baths, I found that I was alone.


“Casually making my way to one of the large changing rooms reserved for the imperial palace guard, I was glad to feel the cool, damp air against my sweaty skin. Since the baths were below ground, the changing rooms – although slightly damp – maintained the steady, constant temperature that is characteristic of most subterranean chambers.


“After stripping, I took a towel and headed off for a refreshingly cold spray from the showers before jumping into the steamy hot water of the baths. But just before I exited the changing room, I heard what I took to be a heated conversation coming from the far corner of the room. At first I thought it might be one of the Vipers, or another trainer and student who’d also ended their session early; it wasn’t uncommon to find another student or even one of the Vipers there. So I headed over in the direction of the conversation with the thought that they might wish join me for a relaxing soak, a cool drink, and some quiet conversation while a servant scrubbed our backs – a luxury that living in the imperial household afforded us.


“As I drew closer, the voices got louder. It was then I realized that they weren’t coming from the main room, but from one of the private changing suites that lined the perimeter of the common room instead. Still walking toward the sound, I located the room it was coming from and continued toward it. The door to the suite was open, and soon I was close enough to almost make out what was being said. Interested in hearing what the conversation was about, I continued forward a bit further until I caught a glimpse of who was in the room, and quickly froze.


“Inside the private changing suite I could see the Duke of Annadon – Benitus Hokka – sitting on a bench and removing his armor. On another bench sat Akam Curr, one of the generals from the High Command, who was also in the act of stripping. In front of them stood a third man who was already naked – his armor and clothing already in a pile on the floor. The naked man had his back to me, but he was most animated as he talked and gestured to the two men seated before him. I stopped my advance, preparing to turn back and go to the baths. Men of such status and rank wouldn’t wish to be disturbed by a mere student, but just as I was about to leave, I heard something caused me to halt my retreat.


“‘But after we kill him,’ a voice said, ‘how many of the officers in the imperial army will follow us?’ Immediately, I recognized the speaker as the duke. Slipping behind one of the large columns in the changing room, I tightly folded my wings and pressed up against the cool, damp brick of its surface, wishing for a moment that I could change colors to more closely blend into it. Since the column I’d chosen to hide behind had probably blocked my approach from their eyes, I was fairly certain I hadn’t been seen, so I remained in hiding and strained to listen to their conversation.


“After a few minutes, I realized that the man doing most of the talking was Adamus Hokka, who was the duke’s younger brother, and the topic of their conversation was the assassination of the Emperor, followed by a coup designed to put the duke on the imperial throne. All three men continued their conversation until the duke and General Curr had finally stripped, then all three of them left the room and went on their way to the private officer’s spa that, luckily for me, was in the opposite direction from where I was hiding. After their voices faded away, I hurried back to my changing area and sat for a few minutes, thinking about what I’d just heard.


“While I could barely believe that I was witness to the planning of a plot involving the assassination of the emperor and a coupe to seize the throne, I was quite unsure of what to do with the incredible information I’d acquired. My first instinct was to immediately tell someone – possibly my trainer or a superior officer, but I quickly abandoned that plan. I realized that if the Duke had already enlisted Curr – one of the senior generals in the High Command – in his plot, then who else might be involved? Simply reporting what I’d just overheard to any superior officer might, at the very least, get me thrown in one of dark holes the empire used as prisons never to see the light of day again, although the more I thought on it, the more I suspected it entirely likely that the information I’d gained might just as easily lead to my throat being slit on the very spot where I stood.


“I was dazed, shocked, and most of all, scared. After a cold, sobering shower, I avoided the soaking pools of the baths. I quickly dressed and returned to my barracks – my thoughts a fog of confusion. For the rest of the day and throughout a sleepless night, I struggled with what I’d discovered. The next day, just before dawn, I finally came to a decision. Skipping early mess, I repaired to the palace gardens.


“Nestled in a quiet spot near the inner gardens of the imperial palace was the emperor’s own, private garden. Surrounded by a high wall, it was completely separate from the private, formal gardens enjoyed by the imperial family and favored nobility of court. In fact, it opened directly off of the emperor’s own bedchamber. I’d learned from listening to the normal banter among the servants in the palace that the emperor often took a late breakfast on the terrace of the garden, so I went there, flew over the wall, and hid behind one of the large, vine-covered pergolas that stood in each corner of the garden.


“Out of sight, I waited while the cool of the early morning slowly transformed into a warm and sunny day. By midmorning I’d been hiding for almost four hours, but just as I was ready to give up and vault back over the wall, the emperor emerged from a doorway and walked out onto the balcony adjacent to his bedchamber. Descending the steps that led from the balcony to the garden, the emperor stepped into the sunlight and strolled about the enclosed court that was his private garden. After a few minutes of admiring the brightly colored flowers surrounding him, he sat at a small table and was almost immediately served a light breakfast by a pair of servants. As he ate, additional imperial household servants ministered to his needs. Eventually, a minister of the court and a junior military officer appeared and began to engage him in conversation. After finishing his breakfast, he concluded his business with the two men and dismissed them, along with the servants, with a wave of his hand. Once he was alone again, he sat quietly looking out over the garden while sipping his tea.


“When I was convinced that he was completely alone, I emerged from my hiding place and slowly approached him – my hearts pounding in my chest. Halfway to where he was sitting, I saw him look up and stare at me. I was surprised that even after he became aware of my presence, he continued to sit at the table – a relaxed and peaceful look on his face. He didn’t jump up, try to flee, or even call out to his guards. After giving me a quick but thorough examination, he quietly resumed sipping his tea. Terrified under his gaze, I immediately dropped to my knees, stretched out my arms to show that I was unarmed, and bowed my head so low that both my forehead and the elbows of my wings touched the ground.


“A minute of silence passed as I continued to stare at the ground – my head resting on the soft, moist dirt of the garden. I heard his chair push back, and the soft padding sound of footsteps. ‘Most curious,’ he said, his voice breaking the peaceful silence of the garden. “Exactly how do you do that?’”


“In shock, and thinking he wanted to know how I’d entered his private garden, I haltingly began to give an explanation – still bowed so low I was talking at the ground, and not him.


“‘No,’ he said, stopping me. “Not that. How is it that a boy as tall as you can bend himself into such a position?’ he asked me in an amused tone of voice that I could only interpret as interested curiosity.


“‘I’m a student of The Vipers, my Emperor,” I said, my voice shaking with a slight tremor, “Ah… we are trained to be… ah… flexible.”


“After the words spilled from my mouth I felt a fool for giving him such a stupid answer, and expected him to finally call his guards, but the emperor strode across the terrace and stood before me, and I found myself staring the tips of his beautifully brocaded red and gold slippers.


“Then he asked me how I’d gotten into the garden, and I told him. He asked why I was there, and I also told him that – all the while watching his right slipper tap noiselessly in front of my nose. After I finished my explanation, the emperor continued to stand as before, but I noticed that the tapping of his foot had stopped. After a few minutes of silence, he moved away from me and ordered me to my feet. I arose, only to find myself looking down at him, and I suddenly realized that I was at least a foot taller than he.


“‘You’re taller than I would have guessed,’ he said. ‘It must have taken quite a bit of training to make yourself that small.”


At first I didn’t answer, since I didn’t think it was a question, but jumped when he asked, “Did it?”


“‘No, my Emperor. Yes, my Emperor. I mean no, it didn’t, but it did…’ and once more I made a fool of myself as my brain and tongue refused to coordinate with each other long enough to allow me the dignity of a proper answer in the Imperial Presence.


“But he seemed not to give notice to the nonsense that flowed off my tongue, and I realized his mind was firmly on other things. He suddenly called out “TOMAS!” in a crisp, loud shout, and the junior officer whom I’d seen him talking with earlier was suddenly standing before him, almost if he’d magically popped out of thin air. 


“Within less than a minute, the emperor relayed a number of very specific orders he wanted  – no demanded – be immediately executed. Some of them he spelled out to Tomas in great detail, using quite graphic and gruesome descriptions peppered with an assortment of vulgarities crude enough to have made even one of the Gahdar blush,” Renaud said, turning toward David and giving the gladiator a fixed, emotionless stare. “When the emperor was finished, Tomas disappeared as quickly as he’d appeared, and I stood dazed and amazed by the exchange I’d just witnessed. I tried to hide any surprise, but quickly realized that tactic had failed when he turned back to me and said, ‘You seem surprised at my exchange with Tomas?” while giving me a cold smile that never touched his eyes.


“No, my Emperor. I would not be…. You are the King of the Sun… it would not be… your knowledge and ability…”


“‘I am long used to plots, intrigues, assassination attempts, and coups,’ he said, quickly ending my babbling. ‘And you can be sure, my boy, that I know precisely how to deal with them – quickly, effectively, and mercilessly. There’s no need to nurse an infected hand when amputation is clearly indicated. One simply brings down the knife and severs it – the pain’s short-lived. It ends soon enough.”


“He paused and leveled a long, cold stare at me. I twitched uncomfortably under his gaze. He moved closer and began to examine me carefully – first head on, then circling around me at least three times – studying me in a way no one had ever done before.


“‘You said you are training to be a Viper?’ he asked.


“‘Yes, My Emperor.’


“‘Are you the one with the eyes that Savaron’s told me about?’


“‘If you mean my vision, My Emperor, then yes. It’s enhanced.’


“EGONN!” he suddenly shouted, causing me to jump.


“I watched as a second man appeared before him. The man took one look at the emperor, and then me. A strange, sickly look came over his face but quickly vanished as he snapped to stiff attention. Leaving my side, the emperor slowly walked toward him. As he’d done with me, the emperor circled the man three times – his face an unreadable mask as he carefully studied the man. After completing his third circuit, he faced the man and paused.


“‘Egonn,’ he said. ‘How is it that this very tall, winged young man was able to get into the Emperor’s private garden without the Emperor’s personal protector being aware of it?’ I jumped when he said the word ‘without,’ because when he did, although he’d suddenly raised his voice to almost a shout, it had such a cold and emotionless tone behind it that it jabbed at the pit of my stomach like the blade of a sharp, icy dagger.


“The man – Egonn – remained stiffly at attention, not moving or speaking. From the way the emperor had asked him the question, it appeared that he truly wasn’t looking for an answer from him. 


“‘As you can see Egonn, he’s certainly not invisible.’ Turning back to me, he asked, ‘Young man, can you perform magic?’


“‘No, my Emperor,’ I replied, puzzled by his question.


“‘Can you change your shape?”’


“‘No, My Emperor.’


“‘You see, Egonn, no spells, no magic. Just a boy – a very tall boy – but a boy, nonetheless.”


“Egonn continued to stand silently, but I could see beads of sweat beginning to form on his forehead. Turning back to me the emperor motioned me to come closer. I moved toward him, but he wasn’t satisfied until I was standing directly in front of Egonn. As with the emperor, I discovered that I was a good foot taller than the man.


““Egonn,’ the emperor said, putting his mouth close to the man’s ear, ‘do you see him now?’ Pausing, he backed up and continued in a louder tone of voice. ‘Do you know that he’s been with me for at least thirty minutes? How much damage can one man inflict on another in thirty minutes?’


“Remaining stiff and silent, Egonn looked straight ahead.


‘Do you have a knife, young… what is your name?’ the Emperor asked in a peevish tone of voice.


“Renaud,” I replied in almost a whisper. ‘No, My Emperor, I am unarmed. I would not have approached the Imperial Presence armed.’


“‘Do you hear that, Egonn?’ the Emperor said, looking at the man. ‘He’s unarmed. Remedy that immediately.’


“Egonn said nothing, but slowly withdrew a large, very sharp knife hidden under his tunic and held it out to me, while avoiding my gaze. I stood unmoving, watching the beads of sweat on Egonn forehead begin to run down his face. Still I did not move, until the emperor spoke.


“‘Take it, Renaud.’


“Reaching out and grasping the handle of the dagger, I did as I was commanded.


“‘Tell me, Renaud,’ the emperor said, pivoting in my direction. ‘Have you learned any of the deadly insertions yet?’


“‘Yes, my Emperor.’


“‘Do you know the one to the heart?’


“‘Yes, my Emperor.’


“‘The one to the groin?’


“‘Yes, my Emperor.’


“‘The one to the lungs?’


“‘Yes, my Emperor.’


“‘Then I’d like to see if you’ve been paying attention in class. Take the knife, and demonstrate the insertion to the lungs – on Egonn.’


“Without hesitation, I gripped the knife and gently lay it on the proper spot. ‘This is the point of insertion,’ I quietly said, looking to the emperor.


“‘No, boy. I didn’t ask you to show me, I told you to demonstrate it on Egonn.’


“Confused, I gave him a puzzled look.


“Exasperated by my misunderstanding, he shouted, ‘Use the fucking thing. Plunge it into the spot as you were taught.’


“I could feel my eyes grow wide as saucers. I looked down at Egonn, but his eyes avoided mine as he continued to stand stiff and unmoving.”


‘NOW!’ the Emperor screamed.


“Startled and shocked, I pushed the knife into Egonn’s chest without thinking, as quickly as one of the cooks in the kitchen would have stabbed a melon. Egonn took the knife still standing, silent and unmoving.


“‘Finish it,’ the emperor ordered forcefully.


“Still gripping the handle, I suppressed a gag as I quickly performed the quick sharp side to side twist I’d been taught. Egonn moaned, but made no other sound. Still standing, he opened his mouth and blood gouted from it, staining his teeth and pouring down the front of his tunic. Then he gave a loud, harsh cough, and I felt the warm, bloody mist spattering my face. Egonn’s second cough sprayed across my tunic as he bent forward. His third cough sprayed my legs and feet as he fell to his knees. One final cough, and he was lying dead on the ground.


“‘You are no longer one of The Vipers,’ the emperor said, coolly gazing up into my eyes. ‘You are in training to be my personal protector.’


‘‘Tomas!’ he shouted, and the young officer once more appeared at his side. ‘Take charge of this boy, and see that this mess is cleaned up.’ Turning on his heel, the emperor soundlessly strode back into his bedchamber.


“Within a day of my reporting the plot to the emperor, arrests were made. The Duke of Annadon, his brother, and General Curr – along with a number of other minor nobles, military officers, and ministers – were arrested, publicly tortured, and executed – half in the palazzo in front of the Summer Palace outside of Küronas, and the other, lower ranking half, at Rood for the amusement of the crowd. 


“From that day on, I never again associated with the Vipers. My training was conducted by many different teachers – each one a master highly skilled in his, or sometimes her – craft. At the end of one year, my training –though difficult and demanding – was complete. I was sixteen, and by his own command Prime Protector to the Emperor. Clearly remembering Egonn’s punishment – with the exception of special missions I was ordered on by the emperor himself – I never strayed far from his side. I even stayed in his bedchamber whenever…” His face grew red and he turned to look at me.


“I was treated well, and rewarded for my loyalty in reporting the coup,” he continued, quickly looking away from me and changing the direction of his tale. “The fact that I’d acquired that knowledge more out of luck than skill didn’t seem to concern his Imperial Highness, and from that day forward he trusted me.  Officially, I served in the imperial protectorate but I was, in fact, the emperor’s private assassin and did his bidding. No one save the emperor was supposed to know this, but as you know, at the imperial court the walls had ears, and it wasn’t long before I began to be called The Angel of Death behind my back.”


I looked closely at Renaud as he spoke the words, but he said them flatly, his voice cold and devoid of emotion.


“What about your training, Renaud? Did you train the same way that we did?” David asked.


“No, the Gahdar were trained to fight in the arena. I, of course, learned armed combat and am quite proficient, but my training went beyond that.”


“But I was always told that our training was the best in the empire,” David countered defensively, giving Renaud a frown.


“And it was,” Renaud said. “No one fights like the Gahdar. You are all masters of your craft. I spent much time in the royal box, standing behind the Imperial Throne and watching the Gahdar fight. I was even trained privately by Gahdar Master Sakki.”


“Sakki!” David sputtered, almost falling off his log. “ Master Sakki was in charge of the Gahdar Acadame. He trained no one… except one very special student.”


“Yes, The Baron,” Renaud said. “But he also trained me in private sessions at the imperial palace, although in truth my education went far beyond swords and blades. My training was more… specialized,” he said quietly, sitting back as he bowed his head.


“But if Gahdar training is the best in the empire, how could yours be better?” Andrew said.


“Not better,” Renaud corrected. “Different.”


Renaud paused for a few seconds and he seemed to be contemplating what he would say next. The ribbon tying back his hair had become loose, and he tugged at it until he was in his hand. Pulling back his hair, he carefully retied it, then turning back to David, he continued.


“Do you know how to kill a man when he’s in a crowd, surrounded by others, without being seen? Or how to take the life of someone in a room surrounded by twenty strong and loyal guards? Can you snuff out the life of a man when he’s sitting in the arena in the midst of his friends, all of them cheering for their favorite Gahdar, and make it look like an accident? Can you kill an entire family by making it appear their villa caught fire, or that they succumbed to a quick spreading disease? Do you know how to approach a man and after casually bumping into him, insert and withdraw a thin needle into his heart without him even noticing, so that he drops dead two hours later in what looks to be a failure of the heart? Can you kill one hundred, two hundred or even three hundred people as quickly as you can blink? Can you murder a child and make it look like it accidentally drowned in its bath?”


“Enough!” I shouted, standing up. “That is enough talk of killing. You all wanted answers, and you’ve gotten your story from him. Now it’s time for bed; we ride in the morning.” And although my outburst earned me startled looks of surprise from my companions, I ignored them, angrily stomping off to retrieve my bedroll.


No sound save the occasional sputtering spark or pop of green wood issued from around the campfire, and in a short time the others began preparing for bed.


As I was making my final preparations for sleep, I looked up to see Andrew placing his bedroll on the other side of the fire – opposite where David was sleeping. Puzzled, I quietly called him over to me.


“I thought you’d be sleeping with David,” I said, a tone of concern creeping into my voice. “I hope you two aren’t having an argument? I hope it’s not because I got mad at him?” I added, so softly I wasn’t sure he’d heard me.


I couldn’t help but worry that my earlier disagreement with David over Renaud might have caused some friction between them. And I was beginning to feel guilty that I’d put him in a difficult position in having to choose between his loyalty and friendship to me over David’s love.


“No, it’s not that,” Andrew said quietly as he knelt down next to me – his face suddenly beginning to redden. “It’s just that… well… I know you miss Nic and… well, I didn’t want you to think… you know what I mean,” he sputtered, sounding more exasperated with each and every word he tried to get out. “I just didn’t want to rub your nose in it, Jamie,” he finally blurted out, suddenly looking even more embarrassed at his choice of words.


“I understand,” I said giving him a small smile. “I really do, and I appreciate the thought. Of course, Andrew, I do miss Nic, but that doesn’t mean you and David should avoid any contact just because I might see it. I’ve learned a few things since my awakening,” I continued. “One of them is that you can’t spend too much time with those you love. When you’re apart from them, you suddenly realize only too well how short that time has been.”


Andrew looked at me, but remained silent. Taking one of his hands in mine, I went on. “Look at how quickly Luc was taken from us,” I said, suddenly feeling a lump form in my throat. Trying hard to swallow it away, I continued, “I’d do anything to have him back for even one day, Andrew. I’d give a year of my life to have him back for one week. And Cody, look how close we came to losing him… and Brotus,” I softly said once more feeling the lump reappear. “Andrew, you fell in love with a Gahdar… a gladiator… someone who kisses danger on the lips every day of their lives. You’ve given your heart to a boy who dances with death and spits in its face – as have I. Enjoy every second you have with him. I hope it’s forever – a lifetime. But if you truly love him, don’t spend your time away from him when you don’t have to. If you do, you might find yourself regretting every second you could have been together, but instead chose to remain apart.” I squeezed his hand and let it go. “Go and sleep with him,” I said. “Don’t worry about me. I may miss my gladiator, but I don’t mind if you go to yours.”


For a few seconds Andrew remained quiet, looking thoughtfully into my eyes, but finally he nodded in agreement and while I may have imagined the slightly relieved look on his face, the thoughts he projected gave him – and his heart – away.


“You know, I get mad at him too,” Andrew finally said softly as he looked back into my eyes.




“I know how he can be, Jamie: exasperating, arrogant, and always thinking he’s invincible. Like he, all by himself, could stare down Kartannus and all his armies. But I love him. Some times I don’t know why, but I do.”


“I know. Somehow, love always seems to fly in the face of logic. Once I’ve puzzled out all its intricacies, I’ll let you in on the secrets,” I said, suddenly finding myself smiling at him. “But I think you might have a long wait.”


Smiling shyly back at me, he stood up and I watched as he went to his bedroll, gathered it up and made his way toward David. I continued my own preparations in silence, thinking of what I’d told Andrew – hoping that I might learn from the advice I’d so freely given my friend.


Shortly after I lay down, Renaud came to me. As he approached, I could see a worried look etched on his face. Kneeling beside me, he bowed his head. “Forgive me, sa’Crêsmané. I did not mean to upset you earlier. Gahdar David only asked. I did not consider his questions rude, as I fear you may have. I chose to tell him and the others, and I told the tale honestly – I hope.”


Looking up at him, I pulled back my blanket and sat up. With my wings folded out broadly, just touching the ground, I wrapped my arms around my knees. Even though he was kneeling, from my seated position I still found myself looking up into his face


“They were curious, and you chose to tell them,” I said. “I can’t fault you for that. But it wasn’t your story that had me upset… well, maybe a little. It’s more the memories: the empire, the violence, the intrigue… and…” I paused to swallow the lump that was growing in my throat. “…my family.”


Reaching out, Renaud’s fingertips barely touched the asp bracelet wound around my arm.


“The wind journeys to the sun. Is that what this is all about, sa’Crêsmané?”


“Yes,” I said, looking down at my feet. “I see you do remember.”


“Yes, I remember well. I remember that one of your commands to me was to remind you, should you lose your memory,” he said. “But when I saw the bracelet after my resurrection at the Academy of Eagles Rock, I assumed…”


“You assumed correctly,” I said.


“The singer?”


“Yes. Damian sacrificed his life for it.”


“I am so sorry, sa’Crêsmané. He was most pure of heart.”


“That he was, Renaud – as was Cristophe. Unfortunately, I’m not like either of them. They should have been the ones chosen, not me.”


“I think that it is not for us to decide. But I do feel that you were the right choice, sa’Crêsmané: what you are doing now proves that.” He paused, and with a guarded hesitation, lightly grasped my hand. “You know only too well my… uhm… my preferences, mh’ondab. So forgive my boldness, since what I now say would surely cause my death if you were like the emperor… but…” Once more he paused, and stared intently at me. “If it weren’t for the Baron…”


“I know,” I said, quickly stopping him. “But it is not so – he is my destiny. The half that makes the whole.”


“Of course, sa’Crêsmané. I have seen it, and I know this to be true.”


And then, just as he’d done only minutes before, he pulled the ribbon from his hair – this time shaking his head vigorously, as the loose strands tossed about his face. Throwing his head back so that the thick fall of his hair once again rested against his back, he looked down at the purple ribbon in his hands and smiled a sad smile. Running his fingers through his hair, he pulled it back into the ponytail he always wore and retied it with the ribbon. I leaned up and gave him a light kiss on the cheek.


“Time for bed, Renaud,” I said quietly. “Tomorrow we enter the forest, and the wind draws closer to the sun.”