The Scrolls of Icaria by Jamie
Book 2 – 'War of the Angels'
Part II - Prince of Mondele Royale
In the weeks following the Solstice Fête, life at Villa Mare Vista began to change. To the casual observer, the daily routine at the Villa might have appeared as it had always been – calm and peaceful. But below the surface, in the hidden labs and workstations, activity progressed at an escalating pace. Edwin Croal, always focused on - if not obsessed with - his research, drove his staff with an ever-greater intensity. But it was not only research that engaged his staff: in the lower levels of the lab, a program involving the systematic destruction of records and data was also under way. If the empire was determined to find out what he was up to, the scientist was just as determined to thwart their efforts.
The intensity in the labs was reflected in Croal’s actions with his sons. While Charlie continued to study with Mobley, the pace of the information and knowledge he received increased dramatically. Jamie was spending more time with his father and, just as he’d done with Charlie, Edwin Croal increased the pace and intensity of Jamie’s instruction and training. Jamie, eager to please his father, attacked each task and problem as best he could, although his headaches at the end of each day continued to grow in both intensity and duration.
Early one morning two months after the Solstice Fête, as Jamie lay in his bed half awake and waiting for Castor to enter his room, set the breakfast tray on the table, and change the windows from opaque to clear, he listened to the subsonic hum of the net – too low in frequency to be heard by ears alone – echo in his mind. Entranced by the sound and pitch of the net’s vibrations ebbing and flowing in his brain, his thoughts turned to the villa he and his brother called home. In the past few months, as his strange powers had begun to blossom, the house and those inhabiting it had come to resemble a complex organism to him – moving in tune with the ever-present force of the net.
The net, though mostly invisible and usually taken for granted, supplied the power, energy, and – Jamie would argue – life itself to Villa Mar Vista. Although most of the structure of the great house lay below ground and consisted of labs and the infrastructure that maintained them, the grand and palatial villa visible above ground was a breathtaking triumph of both engineering and architecture. The coastline of Isewier in this area consisted of sandy beaches interspersed with great outcroppings of rock – some forming small, cliff-like hills similar to the taller Cliffs of Isewier a few miles away, where Jamie and Charlie often explored and played. On one such low-rising hillock of reddish pink rock sat Villa Mare Vista, looking every bit like a great ship prepared to set sail from Dragon’s Cove Inlet.
Part of the villa was built in a classical style taken from one of the Commonwealth’s many golden historical eras, but the design also consisted of elements intended to capture the spirit of the sea, sky, beaches and cliffs of the peninsula. While its overall height was over four stories, some parts of the villa clung low to the rock it was built on, while other sections soared into the sky and jutted out over the beach. Seen from afar, it gave the illusion of being more low lying and compact than it really was. Up close, its great size and sprawling presence was more readily apparent. The side of the villa facing the sea was all glass, and of a composition that could be made as clear as crystal or as opaque as a stone wall. The interior of the villa was open and airy, with light pouring into it through many skylights and windows. Large areas of open space connected by skywalks conveyed the feeling of being outdoors. The many indoor gardens, pools, and waterfalls helped add to the illusion.
In the quiet of the morning, lying in his bed, Jamie sensed the presence of the house and those in it surrounding him, and felt secure. He couldn’t have explained it to anyone who might have asked him to describe his feelings, but ever since his father had started his lessons he was much more aware of the small world around him – and how special it was.
He was also well aware that he was changing in ways he couldn’t explain. He was reminded of the time his ability to read thoughts had first surfaced, and how he’d struggled on his own to master the power he’d been given. Whatever was happening now seemed to be occurring in the same way. That, plus the strange things his father asked him to do, worried him. It wasn’t natural to create sparks from your fingertips or to make an object like a coin or small stone materialize in your hand by just thinking about it. He’d cautiously questioned his father in the most circumspect of ways, knowing that the usually evasive Edwin Croal would at best be reserved in his answers, and at worst completely ignore the questions, as he usually did. It was at that juncture that his thoughts were interrupted as he heard Castor open the door to his room and begin the standard morning ritual. Once completely awake and out of bed, he stripped and headed to his bath.
Entering the bath, a room covered from floor to ceiling with tiny blue and gold mosaic tiles, Jamie padded, barefoot, to the large pool occupying the center of the room. Reaching into a small basket on a table near the pool, he took an orange scented soap in one hand and a soft sea sponge in the other, then walked slowly down the steps leading into the warm bubbling water. By the time his feet touched the bottom of the tiled pool, the water was up to his waist. On the opposite side of the pool a large, roughcut slab of native rock jutted out over the water. Near the edge of the rock, where it overhung the pool, a bronze statue had been placed. The bronze was of a winged boy, kneeling – his hand out stretched, as if reaching to touch the water. In his other hand he held the neck of a pitcher that was balanced in the crook of his arm. The bronze had been fashioned to make it seem as if the boy, who’d just filled the pitcher, had caught an unexpected glimpse of his own reflection in the water and had become so engrossed in staring at it that he’d tipped his pitcher, allowing the water he’d just filled it with to begin pouring out. The face of the bronze had been delicately sculpted to capture the boy's look of innocent wonder at the appearance of his own face; from the pitcher cascaded a swift spray of warm water.
Jamie waded across to the statue and stood under the refreshing spray, allowing the warm water to flow over his head, and began to wash. When he was finished, he moved to the center of the pool where two large marble blocks sat submerged. The first one had been placed at the suggestion of Jamie since the underwater ledge-like seat that encircled the pool, meant for bathers to sit on, was impossible to use for someone with wings. The second block had been added at the time of Charlie’s appearance. Lowering himself onto the block, he sat submerged almost up to his chin and tilted his head back so that he was looking up at the large, leaded glass dome set into the ceiling above him as foaming water, powered by tiny air jets built into the pool, gently cleansed his wings.
As he sat enjoying the warmth of the bath, he began to think of all he’d learned and accomplished in the past few weeks. He also pondered the information his father had given him. He’d come to accept some amazing and incredible things – things he could still barely comprehend. But the facts he’d been able to dig up in his independent research bore out the troubling assertions, no matter how crazy they still sounded to him.
He was a prince, and so was his brother. He was of House de Valèn – the first de Valèn in over five hundred years – and since he was older than Charlie, its rightful leader. Edwin Croal was his father, but he’d really emerged from the bones – actually, the remains of some pulp from inside the teeth - of a seven hundred year old skeleton. Even he had to laugh when he thought about it. That genetic material, plus a little harvested from other select donors, had been manipulated by his father to create both himself and Charlie. He had an older brother named Loran. And he had a task to perform. His father hadn’t revealed it to him, but he knew it involved at least two things. The first was to protect his brother at all costs. The second to serve as a sacrifice – for that’s the only way he could think of it. When the forces of the empire came and rained fire upon them he, James de Valèn, a boy of fourteen according to the Commonwealth Standard, would step into the breach – he still involuntarily shuddered every time the thought crossed his mind.
As he’d conducted his research, he’d made a point to learn as much as he could about Jacques de Valèn – his biological father whose DNA had reached across seven hundred years and quite a few Altinestran eras to create him. The memory of The Founder, as he’d come to be called, was treated with the reverence due a god even by an empire that had systematically subverted and destroyed every one of his ideals. But what ideals they were! Jamie was amazed at all he’d learned; in fact, he’d recently finished reading the so-called First Manifesto and was so inspired by it, he’d continued his study of the writings of The Founder – his other father.
He’d also been equally amazed when he discovered the name Escalad Agramos. In all his research he’d come across that name only one other time, when he’d learned that it was the family name of the boy he’d seen at the Gahdar training camp at Compari. The strangest thing of all was that in all of the Imperial and ancient Republican records there were only two individuals in the entire history of the planet with the name Agramos – Escalad and Niklas – and he couldn’t help but wonder if there was a connection.
Quite in contrast to the dearth of information available on the life of Jacques de Valèn, the only fact Jamie was able to glean in all his research on Agramos was that he’d been a general during the time of de Valèn. That, and one cryptic quote stating that 'whatever de Valèn and Agramos bound could not be broken,' was all the information Jamie could find regarding the mysterious Escalad Agramos. He’d even tried to access a genetic marker from the Agramos line and save it for the boy Niklas, but not one other person in the Empire - past or present - had it. What had been just as interesting was that all the information he’d gleaned on Niklas von Agramos had come from the mysterious private net he’d accidentally stumbled upon in his research. Though it was isolated and cut off from all other sources, he’d accessed it a few times after he’d discovered it, but one day was surprised to find it had suddenly disappeared without a trace, never to reemerge.
Opening his eyes, he realized he’d been day dreaming again; he quickly waded out of the pool, grabbed one of the large fluffy towels by the door, and dashed out of the room and down the skywalk - dripping all the way and hoping Castor wouldn’t be in his bedroom when he got there. He rightly feared he’d get his wings clipped for once more flouting the rules of the house by getting water on one of the beautiful, hand woven – and quite expensive – runners lining the skywalks.
As usual, when Jamie returned from his bath, Charlie was already eating his breakfast. Looking around, he breathed a sigh of relief when he saw Castor was absent from the room. Kissing his brother on the cheek, Jamie plopped down on the chair opposite and attacked a sweet cake. As soon as Spinoza saw its master, the garga lizard hurled itself off the bed, wobbled through the air and landed on Jamie’s head. As usual, the lizard overshot its landing spot and almost toppled off Jamie’s head. Akkking loudly and trying to keep its balance, it grabbed and held on to two hanks of blond hair until Jamie reached up, gently lifted the lizard and placed it on the table. After a few more cries of protest, Spinoza finally quieted when Jamie scratched behind the lizard’s ears and began to feed it some Griel fish from a small bowl Castor had included on the breakfast tray.
“Do you want to go to the cliffs today?” Charlie asked Jamie casually.
“Yes, we can do that,” Jamie answered just as casually when he noticed Castor had entered the room and was picking up his sleep shorts and the wet towel he'd dropped on the floor.
'The cliffs' had become a coded phrase for them. In the weeks since they’d been to Vera Domann and discovered the Ghröum, they’d spent their free afternoons at the cliffs – at least that’s what they told their father and Castor, never mentioning that once their hov landed, they'd rush into the cave sheltering the mirror gate and take it to Vera Domann, where they would visit the Ghröum.
“You won’t be going anywhere if you don’t get dressed and report to your father,” Castor said throwing some small clothes and a tunic in Jamie’s direction. And you, young master,” he added, glancing over at Charlie, “had best put on a pair of sandals and go see Mobley. He’s cued up and ready for you.”
Giving each other a quick goodbye, both boys went their separate ways with the promise that when they were finished in the early afternoon, they’d go to the cliffs to explore. Charlie took the skywalk and stairs to the lower level where Mobley was waiting for him, and Jamie took the nearby lift to Croal’s private study
In the weeks following the Solstice Fête, Edwin Croal’s sense of dread had continued to increase. The fact that Jamie’d cracked the central net on Ajax Prime was just one of his worries, for although the boy had covered his tracks well, Croal knew well enough the abilities of the spy subroutines and hidden defenses the programmers of Ajax Prime had built into the central net. And even though he’d been amazed at Jamie’s abilities, the defenses of the net – endlessly modified and upgraded – made it almost impossible to keep ahead of the technical improvements constantly being made to strengthen it against the efforts of Commonwealth spies.
The Kalorian guests at the Solstice Fête also troubled Croal, for while he trusted the Kalorians of Fallon’s and Jard’s Settlements, he knew that even an innocent slip of the tongue could doom everything he’d worked for. He was particularly worried about the corpus harpist who’d come to know Jamie and accompany him the night he danced the Redak. The harpist was a slave belonging to House Carrone, currently under the leadership of Joss Vel Grott, Duke of Drexos and, rumor had it, the Emperor’s favorite nephew.
“… and it’s much worse than we thought,” a voice said, shaking him from his private thoughts.
Croal turned to address the speaker, but stopped. Staring at the scientist from across the room that served as his private office and inner sanctum, the Icarian sitting on the stool facing him shot Croal a puzzled look when he noticed the scientist was giving him a blank and vacant stare. Strikingly handsome, self-confident and poised, the red-robed Icarian carefully put down the teacup he’d been drinking from and looked intently at Croal. And while he appeared to be a boy of sixteen or seventeen Altinestra Standard (AS), Edwin Croal knew differently.
The planet Altra orbited its sun in a fourteen month year made up of 12 thirty day and 2 thirty-one day months, so given the Icarian’s present appearance the boy would have been about twenty in twelve-month Commonwealth Standard (CS) years, but Croal knew that any appearance of aging had stopped once his winged guest had passed through puberty, thanks to the genetics of the Icarian species and the work of the scientists at Gold Glass Flats. And although Croal’s eyes told him one thing, he knew that the boy facing him was a man of thirty-two. His own sons Jamie and Charlie, while twelve and ten AS, were fourteen and twelve according the Commonwealth Standard. At twelve Altinestra Standard, Jamie had just started puberty. In three Altinestran years he’d be seventeen and a half by Commonwealth standards, and just completing the Icarian puberty cycle. At that time, his physical age would slow to a snail's crawl. Croal, staring intently at the youthful Icarian facing him, wondered if his own sons would appear as young. Given his modifications to the boys' genetic structures, Croal thought they’d probably appear even younger.
“Did you hear me?” the Icarian asked Croal, a tinge of irritation coloring his tone of voice as he leaned forward on his stool while trying to determine if the scientist actually heard him.
“Yes, I heard you,” Croal replied sharply. “Is it really true?”
“Yes,” the Icarian said, “it’s much worse than we expected. The Empire is trying to keep it under wraps, and for the moment there’ve only been a few isolated outbreaks that have been containable, but no one’s found a cure and it looks as though it can mutate rapidly.”
“And the figures I’ve seen – is the projected death rate really as high as Ajax Prime is claiming?”
“Some think those figures are greatly underestimated,” the Icarian said calmly, picking his teacup up and taking a sip of the honey-sweetened, hot tea he’d requested.
“And it’s really true that those who survive…?”
“Yes, there’s no doubt that the virus was created to alter brain structure, memory and intelligence,” the Icarian said, interrupting Croal. “If this attack is successful, the inhabitants of the planet will return to a more primitive life. The latest studies indicate that, given time and normal evolution, humans will once again make progress, but it will take centuries.”
“Centuries?” Croal asked.
“Centuries,” the Icarian replied without emotion.
“And the exogates?”
“There’s been no change,” the Icarian said, “but then, we wouldn’t have expected any – especially after the virus appeared.”
“And what have you learned of the Monastery?” Croal asked.
“Nothing. It remains as is always has. Over a thousand years of research and it’s still the same,” the Icarian said, putting down his teacup, rising from his stool and walking toward a large globe of the planet sitting on a stand next to Croal’s desk. The globe was a large blue ball showing a single continent labeled Marisle Major.
“I can give you Mobley for a while; he could tap directly…”
“No, it’s too risky, and besides, you have a tool much stronger than Mobley,” the Icarian said, batting his hand against the globe, causing it to spin. For a few seconds the globe became a blurred ball of blue as it spun so rapidly that the continent of Marisle Major blended in with the great azure colored sea of the mostly aquatic planet. Quickly reaching out and placing his hand on the spinning globe, he brought it abruptly to a stop. When it did, the large continent was now hidden on the opposite side of the globe. What was visible was a tiny land mass almost lost in the vast sea surrounding it.
“Well, he’s not ready yet, and you already know that,” Croal angrily replied.
“He’ll have to ready at some point,” the Icarian said calmly.
“Someday, but someday is not today,” Croal said angrily.
“Someday may be sooner rather than later,” the Icarian said sharply. “And you, Dr. Croal, may have no say in the matter at all.”
Their conversation was interrupted by a soft knock on the door. Outside, in the hall, Jamie had been standing for quite some time listening – or trying to listen, since he could only catch every so many words of the conversation coming from the other side.
As the door slowly opened, Jamie looked up to see his father staring down at him. Edwin Croal slipped into the hall and quickly closed the door behind him. Jamie tried to look in the room, but the door opened and closed so quickly it was impossible for him to see who was with his father.
I’m in a private meeting," Edwin Croal told him, his voice almost a whisper.
“Please come back in an hour. In the meantime, go see how Charlie’s doing."
“He’s with Mobley,” Jamie replied. “He’s…”
“Just go and check on him,” Croal said firmly as he turned back toward the room, but before he opened the door he called out to Jamie, who’d already started to walk away down the hall. Jamie turned around and walked back to his father.
“Yes, Father?” Jamie said, looking up at Croal
“Give me your hand, please,” Croal requested.
Giving his father a puzzled look, Jamie reached out and Croal took his son’s hand. From his jacket pocket he withdrew a thin metal cylinder. The cylinder was hollow, and had a small lighted display that curved halfway around it. A few tiny lights imbedded in the cylinder blinked as he held it in his open palm. Taking Jamie’s hand, he slid one of the boy’s fingers into the cylinder and pressed a black button on the side. Jamie felt a small jab of pain and jumped, quickly pulling his finger out of the cylinder and scowling at his father. When he looked at the tip of his finger, there was a small pinprick and a tiny amount of blood. Replacing the cylinder in his pocket, Croal turned back to the door.
“Now run along, Jamie,” Croal said. “Come back in an hour.”
Jamie rubbed his finger, still frowning, but made no comment as he walked away down the hall and went to find Charlie, who was getting a history lesson from Mobley.
Reentering his office, Croal noticed the Icarian was still standing beside the globe.
“So that was one of the little princes?” the Icarian asked, and without awaiting an answer continued, “Quite a beauty, from what I could see. I hope he’s as tough as he is pretty.”
Croal choose to ignore the comment and moved closer to the winged figure. As he approached, the Icarian placed a slender finger on the small continent named Marisle Minor. The tiny continent – more like a large island – was on the opposite side of the globe from Marisle Major. Looking to Croal, the Icarian frowned. “If the humans of this planet hadn’t already sealed their fate with the extermination of the Ghröum, what they’ve been doing on Marisle Minor has surely settled the matter.”
“And the Commonwealth knows about it?” Croal asked.
“Of course! There’ve been Commonwealth agents on this planet for centuries. Need I point out something that everyone already knows?” the Icarian said, now sounding irritated. “The Empire has arrogantly chosen to ignore the threat, but it’s too late now, and you’ve drug innocent Kalorians and Icarians into this mess with you.”
“But it’s true that there’s limited resistance to the plague among the Kalorians, and Icarians are completely immune,” Croal said.
“Yes, that’s true,” the Icarian answered bitterly. Moving behind Croal’s desk to one of the windows of the study, the winged man stood and peered out. He remained quiet for a few seconds, watching the waves lap up into the beach of Dragon’s Cove Inlet; turning back toward Croal, his eyes flashed anger. “And because of it, both races have suffered. They’ve performed countless experiments on an army of Kalorian slaves they’ve conscripted. In fact, the primary experimental facility outside of Küronas has come to be called the Prison of Pain."
“I know,” Croal said bowing his head.
“They also tried their experiments on a few Icarian test subjects – tanked fetuses that had yet to progress through maturation – but our genetics are apparently too incompatible with humans. I guess we should thank you for that, Dr. Croal. The prime research team feels their best chance is with the Kalorians. From what I’ve heard, the experiments have been completely unethical and totally criminal – a violation of every Commonwealth law pertaining to the subject."
“If Tarot Gelson is in charge, I have no doubt they are quite thorough in their scope and nightmarishly horrible in their execution,” Croal said soberly.
Placing both hands on Croal’s desk, the youthful looking Icarian leaned across it and stared coldly at the scientist. As he flexed his wings in anger, the black and red highlights on their field of snowy white caught Croal’s eye. The thin, delicate physique, youthful face and arrogant pose made Croal think of a young boy ready to throw a frivolous tantrum, but he’d learned only too well that with Avionnes, appearances were usually quite deceiving. There’d recently been some reports on one of the secret imperial neural nets that a young Avionne who’d been made the private body guard of the Emperor – a tall, thin, wisp of a boy, beguilingly naive and handsome in the pure innocence of youth – could kill with such skill and practice he made the Emperor’s own secret cadre, the Vipers, look like amateurs. Rumor had it he’d been nicknamed The Angel of Death, and Croal shuddered to think of some of the missions he would undertake for the Emperor.
“…and we must continue to plan,” the other man said, interrupting Croal’s thoughts. “If we are to inherit this mess you’ve created, we must be ready for the real enemy that we’ve discovered. But before that can be addressed we have the Empire, a plague, and a well-intentioned Commonwealth bent on crushing a dictatorship with maniacal plans for galactic expansion. Jonas and Alexander were making concrete plans and respectable progress – with your knowledge and help.”
“And you’re still willing to move forward even though…”
“What’s happened has happened!” the Icarian shouted, looking Edwin Croal in the eye. “And besides, what choice do we have? You and Gold Glass gave us longevity. What are we to do, Dr Croal? Are we to sit around and watch this world become unhinged and allow the Commonwealth to advance its so-called good intentions by eradicating a problem it rightly views as a deadly cancer on itself, while the true enemy could blot it into oblivion at any given moment, as it might swat a fly buzzing around its head? Jonas has already given the greatest measure, and disunion has occurred because of it.” The Icarian stopped, and Croal gave an involuntary shudder when he saw both the tears and the anger in the Icarian’s eyes.
“I am truly sorry,” he said.
“That’s not important at this point,” the Icarian spat, shrugging off Croal’s genuine concern. “You, better than anyone, know the conflict disunion creates. But there’s more strength in Jonas' mate than anyone would have thought, and we feel he’ll carry out his mission to the end. We can only ask that you do the same.”
“Of that you have no fear; my own children are involved in this web of evil and deceit,” he said sadly.
“Yes, another wonderful human trait: passing on your problems to your children. How convenient – and heartless. Well, Dr. Croal, we Icarians and the Kalorians are all your children as well. We will deal with what comes; we have no choice, do we? And in our dealing with it, the benefit to humanity is that they will continue to exist.”
“I know, and I’m sorry,” Croal said, giving an honest expression to his true feelings.
“I, too, am sorry,” the Icarian said. “I'm sorry that humans have not chosen to view us as equals, and sorry to be a slave. I just hope that you can carry through with your promises.”
“I will carry through,” Croal said firmly. “That is, if you carry through with your promises,” he added. “Remember, while quite a few of you know about Jamie, only two outside of this compound and the settlements of Fallon and Jard know about Charlie’s existence, and one of them is now dead.”
“And the other is me,” the Icarian said, shooting Croal an intense stare while crossing his arms. “Jonas never even disclosed it to his mate, and you know how intertwined their lives were. My knowledge of the second prince came completely by accident, but fear not - a bargain is a bargain. I promised Jonas, whom I certainly respected and revered more than I have any human, and I will keep my word – even to the death.”
“I can only hope,” Croal said, turning an emotionless face to the Icarian. “Remember, not all humans think of you as slaves; it’s the Empire that’s enslaved you. Under Commonwealth standards…”
“Don’t speak to me of Commonwealth standards,” the Icarian barked. “They’re allowing the systematic destruction of an entire world without regard to those living on it. I was there the day the delegation went to the Imperial palace, asking – no, pleading - for our freedom. And you know the results of that. But I can assure you Dr. Croal that we will never crawl to the Emperor again on our bellies like worms! We have found a different way to break our yoke and that of our brother Kalorians.”
“Yes,” Croal said, “I know. I also know that there will be much damage to be repaired when – and if – this disaster is overcome,”
“Yes, and it’s quite ironic that if our effort succeeds, it will be your slaves who right the wrongs and save humanity,” the Icarian snapped.
“But we’ve helped as much as possible,” Croal said, trying to ignore the Icarian’s justified outbursts. “Things are progressing well, and we’ve managed to make great progress,” Croal added, suddenly sounding optimistic. “We have the technology necessary to do what must be done, and our secret station on Argon is preparing the necessary units. Work has also progressed well at the Imperial Academy at Eagle’s Rock. It’s amazing to think how much we’ve been able to do right under the Empire’s collective noses.”
“Don’t congratulate yourself too soon, Dr. Croal,” the Icarian said. “Self-praise carries a foul stench with it. First, remember that all of the difficult and dangerous work is being done by our brother Kalorians. It disgusts us that we must ask this of them. We owe them more than a blood debt – I hope your two little princes understand that. Also, don’t underestimate the Empire, even in this time of crisis. I’ve long since ceased to be amazed at the ability of the Empire to ferret out even the most deeply buried secrets."
“What of Loran?” Croal said, suddenly changing the subject.
“He’s been practicing, and they’ve been trying to get him ready for the transfer, but it hasn’t gone as well as expected. There was even talk about asking you back on the project, since you did the original genetics but Farrell, your former assistant, vetoed that. His ego is too large to allow his former mentor and teacher to help clean up his mistakes.”
“Its all for the best anyway,” Croal said, “I certainly wouldn’t be of any help at this point."
“And we foresee difficulty when union with his consort comes,” the Icarian continued.
“Alexander?” Croal asked, surprised. “But…”
“The problem is not with Alexander,” the Icarian said, cutting Croal off. “The problem lies with Loran. What ever did you do to him at Gold Glass?”
“Nothing,” Croal said, his face taking on a sad expression “And that’s the problem: no one did anything. Lab rats are treated better than he was.”
“Well, it’s of concern to all of us, even that treacherous snake, Loka,” the Icarian answered.
“The Prince of Imperialas?” Croal asked, surprised at the mention of Savaron Loka’s name. “What of the Archduke? What are his plans?”
“It’s hard to say. He still has his ideas and dreams regarding we Icarians, especially if Loran’s transfer works as he hopes; because he’s so close to the Emperor he’s been able to get the assistance and resources he’s needed. They say that whatever he asks for, both Gold Glass and Ajax Prime deliver swiftly and without question. But for all Loka’s grand designs, in the end we’re just slaves. We’re treated a little better and pampered more, but we’re just as much under the yolk of slavery as our brother Kalorians. Our restraints are made of gold and velvet, and instead of the master’s whip we’re sometimes denied some of our luxuries, but a prison built of golden bars is just as much a prison as one constructed from iron bars. And their so-called Grand Enchères are nothing more than slave auctions dressed up in pomp and ceremony to make them look pretty. Anyone with a brain can see that it’s only their fancy exterior that separates them from the more crass Kalorian slave auctions in Küronas and Imperialas. And if the great Prince of Imperialas ever gets even the slightest scrap of knowledge about either of your two little princes...”
“I know,” Croal agreed glumly, “but I’ve taken every precaution I can and I’ve started to work intensively with Jamie. He, above all else, is the best protection for his brother. I know it sounds strange to say that about a twelve year-old boy, but he’s strong. Sometimes I can’t believe what he capable of, and he’s just started puberty.”
“And when his puberty cycle is ended and he’s fifteen, what will he be like then?”
“I don’t completely know,” Croal said.
“And if the Emperor could have an army like him?”
“It won’t happen,” Croal said. “What was used in their creation is no longer available. Even if the process is followed exactly, the results cannot be duplicated. I was lucky to have enough to create two,” he said, wincing inside at how cold his words sounded, even to him. “Loran is as close as they can get and if they’re having trouble with the transfer, it’s proof to me that they’ll never truly succeed.”
“And the youngest?” the Icarian asked.
“He will also be strong, but in a different way,” Croal replied.
“And do either of them know what they are, and why they were created?”
“No, I haven’t gotten to that yet,” Croal said quietly.
“Maybe you should?” the Icarian said, raising an eyebrow.
“In time,” Croal replied.
“Yes, always 'in time,' Dr. Croal,” The Icarian said harshly, “But it's a commodity of which we seem to have precious little. You do know, of course, that I was against this project from the beginning?”
“Yes,” Croal said evenly. “You’ve been more than vocal in your criticism.”
“I don’t believe in pinning the hopes of a whole race – no, two races – on your two little boys,” the Icarian said.
“It wasn’t originally my idea,” Croal said. “If you recall, it was Jonas who first proposed this. He came to me. He initiated the sequence of events that led to this. He held their genetic profiles in his very hands.”
“And now Jonas is dead,” the Icarian said flatly.
“Yes, he is,” Croal said, shaking his head. “But the plan continues.”
“Indeed, it does,” the Icarian said, “for what else are we to do? But tell me, Dr. Croal,” the Icarian continued as a stony look came over his face. ”Do your sons know they’re slaves of the empire? Do they know that while they live in this beautiful palace and run free along the beaches of Isewier, they are just as much slaves as the rest of us?”
Without speaking, Croal turned an expressionless face to the Icarian and when their eyes met he looked away under the Icarian’s burning stare.
“Yes, just as I thought,” the Icarian continued, his question answered. “Still, that fact remains, doesn’t it?” he said sharply, then added: “But they truly are of House de Valèn, and princes – princes in slavery – but princes nonetheless, and they will serve their function.”
At the Icarian’s words, Croal gave him a cold stare. “I’ve never wanted to believe the rumors of how cold-hearted the sh’ônfenn are, but I can see they aren’t exaggerated.”
“Cold hearted? You make is sound as if we were given a choice. The sh’ônfenn have done the bidding of the empire since our formation, and we’ve been cleaning their dirty linen longer than I choose to remember,” the Icarian said angrily. “And some of us have risked everything in doing your bidding, Dr. Croal. Just remember, I didn’t ask to be made sh’ônfenn, but slaves are rarely asked their opinions.”
“I understand,” Croal said, bowing his head as his shoulders sagged. “You have to believe me, if I’d known…”
“Yes, if we all had only known, Jonas would still be alive and I wouldn’t be sitting in his place on the Shadow Council. But, it’s the music of the past. I have a sacred promise to fulfill, as does our leader, and I will succeed or die trying to make it so. What is harder to accept is how some of our own have chosen to stand with the empire, even in the face of its cruelty. But promises of palaces, titles and power under Savaron Loka’s plan have been alluring – especially to those without intellect or talent. It’s why the sh’ônfenn are as determined as they are – willing to enforce the unjust laws of the empire against their own race. But apparently some would rather live as a slave in a palace prison, than free in a humble dwelling,” the Icarian said.
Croal, having nothing to add, simply nodded his head in agreement.
“But enough talk,” the Icarians said. “I came to see if progress was being made, and I have my answer. Now it’s time for me to leave.” And without so much as a farewell to Edwin Croal, the Icarian went to the door, opened it, and disappeared down the hallway.
As the door clicked shut behind his visitor, Edwin Croal’s shoulders sagged. Walking to a window facing the courtyard, he looked out beyond the gate and saw the Icarian’s jump hov. Feeling as if he’d just done battle with a strong and able opponent, he sighed heavily. The Icarian was a member of the dreaded sh’ônfenn, known as the Hidden Talon. Their symbol – the all-seeing eye – was an icon that struck fear in humans, Kalorians and Icarians alike. Far worse than a division of imperial shock troops, or the Emperor’s secret assassins - The Vipers - the sh’ônfenn served as the spies, double agents, secret police, torturers and enforcers of the empire, and made sure the Emperor’s decrees, whims, desires and wishes were enforced without question. As handsome and youthful as they were deadly, the sh’ônfenn were the jackals the empire set nipping at the heels of all its subjects, regardless of their race, status, genetic pedigree, wealth, or power.
Following his father’s orders, Jamie had gone to see what Charlie was studying with Mobley, and after an hour had passed, he returned to Croal’s office. Walking down the skywalk, he noticed a small hov parked outside the courtyard. It was then he caught sight of a winged figure entering the hov. The figure had his back to Jamie, and he entered the hov so quickly that couldn’t see his face. Not only that, the long red robe he was wearing covered all of his body. He did notice one thing, although he thought his eyes were playing tricks on him. When the Icarian entered the hov, the sunlight glinting off his wings revealed strange markings of red and black.
As the tiny craft lifted off, Jamie, standing on the skywalk, watched it ascend into the sky. So too did Edwin Croal from his study. From two different locations in the villa, both Croal and his son stood watching the craft until it flew out of sight. What would have surprised both of them, had they been able to continue to follow the hov’s progress, was how it suddenly vanished from existence – blown from the sky by the ghosting cannon of an imperial battle hov one hour after its departure from Villa Mare Vista.
Near the center of Küronas, bordering the Imperial Square of the Grand Dukes of Celeste and opposite the solemn gray, granite Hall of Agricultural Standards, sat the Palace of Liberation - a grand, six-story structure of gleaming white marble designed in the highly formal, if somewhat stiff, Late Imperial Classical Style. One hundred slender, black marble columns made their way around the four sides of the building – thirty on the east and west facades, twenty on the north and south. Bright red marble capitals carved in an extravagant Corinthian style topped each polished marble column – their acanthus leaves highlighted in brilliant gold leaf. A great, all-seeing eye of gold- plated bronze rested atop the low-rising dome that crowned the structure. To complete the affect of formal pomp and iron-willed authority, a pair of giant flags featuring two golden snakes intertwined on a field of red flew from tall flag poles topping the north and south wings of the palace.
The symbolism, while blatantly obvious, was completely unnecessary for every citizen of the empire knew that the Palace of Liberation was the home of the Legion of Red and Black – the dreaded and feared sh’ônfenn, the all-seeing eye of the Emperor and the true hand that wielded the imperial sword. There was a saying in the empire so often quoted it had turned into a cliché: “Fear not the sh’ônfenn before you, but the three behind your back.”
A fountain of unusual design was by far the central visual attraction in the Square of the Grand Dukes of Celeste. Beginning under the portico of the Palace of Liberation and ending in the center of the square, it featured as its centerpiece a golden, three bladed sword known as a triax – another symbolic icon sacred to the sh’ônfenn. Its three blades symbolized the motto of the Legion of Red and Black – Truth, Obedience, and Freedom. The ten foot high triax, standing upright with its guard and handle pointing to the sky, gave the appearance that it had been thrust into the marble floor of the portico by a giant.
Surrounding the triax was a massive, shallow bowl filled with water that boiled and churned, overflowing its contents into a wide channel cut down the center of the steps that led up to the palace. The water in the channel, cascading down the stairs like a waterfall, continued into the square where it flowed into a large pool. The bowl, channel and pool, all lined with small, bright red mosaic tiles, gave the effect - when the sun shone on the square - that a river of blood, with its head waters originating at the gash made in the floor by the triax, flowed from the gates of the palace entrance, down the steps and into the pool. Opponents, enemies, and victims of the sh’ônfenn claimed that if the contents of the pool really had been the blood of the countless dead exterminated at the hands of the sh’ônfenn, its volume would have been so great as to overflow the pool and flood the entire city.
Early in the day, an imperial courier entered the square, passing the fountain as he dashed up the stairs to the entrance of the palace. After going through the gate of the portico and entering through the main doors of the palace, he was directed to deliver his pouch to the sixth floor of the north wing. Having done so, he left the building as quickly as he’d entered – no one who wasn’t sh’ônfenn ever wanted to stay in the Palace of Liberation any longer than absolutely required.
In an office on the sixth floor of the north wing a solitary, winged figure in a formal red robe with pairs of intertwined golden snakes running up its side panels sat at his desk and once more studied the communiqué he’d been handed only an hour before. With the extravagantly embroidered, heavy damask drapes framing the row of windows behind him tied back, the sun shone warmly into his office, reflecting off the many gold, brass and bronze embellishments that graced the carved columns, ornate domed ceiling, and moldings that made up the architectural elements in the room. The large crystal chandelier hanging in the center of the room caught some of the sun's rays, splashing a sparkling rainbow of colored light across the complex geometric pattern of the polished parquet floor. Two large mirrors, one on either side of a door set into the wall on the opposite side of a room, picked up some of the sun's bright rays as well, reflecting them back into the room.
Smiling as he reread the paper in his hand, Darion Trapp carefully slid the document into the thin, red leather portfolio that lay flat and open on his desk. Closing the cover, he fastened the portfolio’s clasp securely. Getting up from his desk, he tucked the portfolio under his arm, left his office and entered the small reception room just outside his door. Alerted by the sound of Darion's heels on the parquet flooring, the young angel sitting at the desk in the room stood and bowed.
“Do you require my assistance, tat ühn•ki?” the younger Icarian said, using Darion’s formal title as viceroy and second in command of the Legion of Red and Black.
“No, Paulus,” the tat ühn•ki replied. “I’ll be with the ühn•ki; there are matters I must discuss with him. See that I’m not disturbed.”
Nodding, Paulus walked around his desk, opened the door for his superior, and bowed slightly. Turning away from his assistant, the tat ühn•ki passed through the open door and entered the long gallery connecting the northern and southern wings of the palace. Pausing for a few seconds, he withdrew the portfolio from under his arm and was tempted to once more read the document he’d placed there, but instead turned to the right and began walking briskly down the gallery toward the south wing of the palace, and toward the office of his one superior.
Since the gallery was on the top floor, its ceiling was composed of a series of alternating frescos and leaded glass skylights. The windows on the eastern wall let in a generous amount of sunlight. The décor of the gallery made it look like it was part of a museum: paintings of battle scenes, decorative ceramics, portraits, and a great collection of antique swords, daggers and shields hung on the walls. Busts on pedestals, along with bronze and marble statues, lined both sides of the gallery. As Darion walked toward the south wing the firm, patterned, polished parquet under his feet made a soft creaking sound with every step he took – a sound he particularly enjoyed.
Although he had a strong feeling of satisfaction with what he was about to do as he passed down the gallery, when Darion smiled to himself, it was not this satisfaction that prompted the smile, but his musing on how completely unnecessary the trip was. The communiqué that he’d received could easily have been sent through the net. After reading it he could have forwarded it, along with a second document he’d been requested to prepare, to the ühn•ki in an instant without ever leaving his office. Likewise, the ühn•ki could have quickly reviewed both documents and approved the second with nothing more than a positive retinal scan. Yet the ühn•ki had long ago stated his wishes, and they were to be obeyed. And if the ühn•ki preferred to conduct his life as he were living in some past century, so be it. He’d worked for the head of the Legion of Red and Black for quite some time, and had come to respect the ühn•ki’s exceptional skill and ability. He still never ceased to be amazed at his leader’s carefully crafted plans and programs, and he felt honored to be the second in command of an order that had such an efficient and intelligent leader.
By the time he’d reached the door to the entrance of the suite of offices in the southern wing a bank of clouds had briefly covered the sun, causing the great gallery behind him to darken. Turning to look back in the direction he’d come, he could see dark shadows falling across the statues and paintings lining the gallery. A shiver went down his back that caused his red and black marked wings to shudder so slightly that only someone standing next to him would have noted his reaction. Turning back to the door, he opened it and entered the room – a mirror copy of the northern suite whence he’d just come. Just as his assistant Paulus had quickly risen upon his entrance, the ühn•ki’s assistant, Arlat, also arose from his desk.
“Good afternoon, tat ühn•ki,” the ühn•ki’s latest assistant said, offering a slight bow. “May I be of assistance?”
“I’m here to speak to him,” he said, nodding toward the door and smiling at the attractive boy who, while appearing not a day over sixteen was in fact eight years older, and had been specially chosen for his position. While his own assistant, Paulus, had been with him for a number of years, the ühn•ki rotated assistants through his office on a regular basis – choosing younger, promising operatives and giving them the honor of working in the central office for the ühn•ki himself. It gave them a better understanding of the inner workings of the organization and infused them with a loyalty to the legion that was admirable. But the truly brilliant part of the whole exercise, that which Darion found so clever, was that when they’d completed their stint most had formed a strong bond with the ühn•ki, so that in addition to their loyalty to the legion they had a personal connection and much fiercer loyalty to the ühn•ki himself. It was just one more thing Darion could point to in admiration regarding the political and bureaucratic acumen of his superior.
"I’ll announce you, tat ühn•ki,” the assistant said, rousing Darion from his thoughts and starting past the tat ühn•ki to a second, larger door opposite his desk.
“No need, Arlat,” he said, raising a hand. “I’ve been walking into that office since before you were decanted,” he added with the self-satisfied smile of one long comfortable with occupying a position of unquestioned power and authority.
“Of course, tat ühn•ki,” Arlat said, his face blushing at the reminder of his youth by his superior.
Smiling at the still blushing boy, he went to the door, opened it, and passed through. Only he, as tat ühn•ki, could take such liberties. Anyone else would have been swiftly killed by Arlat - the slight and slender boy serving the ühn•ki both as his bodyguard and his secretary.
The office Darion entered was the twin of his own, except that its design, appointments, and furniture were far more grand and rich than those of his own quite palatial suite. The décor of the room and its trappings – much more eclectic than he might have preferred – clearly stated the tastes of its occupant. That a scholar occupied it was clear from the many shelves along two of the walls, lined with at least a few thousand books. The beautiful Rocco style desk, its surface inlaid with exotic woods, ivory and gold and piled neatly with papers and open books, reflected the fact that the person using it clearly enjoyed sitting there engaged in both research and writing. Nearby sat a comfortable chair constructed to accommodate someone with wings. Around it were stacks of books, piled to various heights.
Surprised at how dim the room was on such a sunny day, Darion noticed that the drapes were drawn on all of them except for one, which had a single panel pulled back to let a small amount of natural sunlight into the room. Next to the window, looking out in to the square, the winged figure of the ühn•ki standing in the only rays of sun allowed into the room moved slightly when the door opened and he could see the light glint off the red and black markings on his superior's snowy white wings. Although his leader looked like a youthfully handsome boy of seventeen, he knew differently; as he’d just finished teasing Arlat about his age, the same could be said about him in relationship to the figure standing before him, since the boy who occupied this office had been using it before he himself was decanted - or even conceived.
“ühn•ki,” the visitor said softly. “I have a communiqué for you, along with the document you requested I prepare.”
Not moving or even acknowledging his second in command, the figure continued to stand quietly, looking out the window.
“ühn•ki?” the Icarian once again called and then stood silently waiting, knowing better than to interrupt again. He hadn’t spent much time with the ühn•ki in the last month, and in the past few days had become a bit concerned about his leader’s sudden isolation.
It was then that Darion noticed the slender boy had his right hand wrapped around the wrist of his left arm, and it appeared to the tat ühn•ki that the ühn•ki’s fingernails were digging fiercely into his own wrist. When he looked more closely and saw blood trickling down the ühn•ki’s hand, he realized it was more than just appearance.
“ühn•ki!” he said, suddenly concerned as he rushed over to his leader and took the ühn•ki’s bloodied wrist and hand in his own. “Are you injured? Do you need help?”
“No, Darion,” the ühn•ki replied softly as he looked into his visitor’s eyes, seemingly indifferent to the blood dripping from his fingertips, leaving it to splatter on the floor in tiny droplets. Removing his hand from Darion’s, he studied the tat ühn•ki’s face and asked in a quite disconcerting and detached manner, “Why are you here?”
“I’ve important news,” Darion replied, hastily pulling the portfolio from under his arm, snapping open the clasp and opening up the folder. Although his eyes were still drawn to the ühn•ki’s bloody hand, he pulled out the communiqué and handed it to him. Without reading it, the boy walked over to his desk and placed it there.
“You are sure about this?” the ühn•ki asked his second in command, talking as if he already knew the contents of the document – a mannerism that had ceased to surprise Darion, since the ühn•ki often knew of things in advance of others.
“Absolutely, ühn•ki. There’s no doubt. The hov was virtually vaporized, along with its passenger.”
“And what have you learned?” the ühn•ki said softly.
“Nothing yet,” Darion answered uncomfortably.
“Then let's see if we can discover the reason and the perpetrator,” the ühn•ki said. And although his superior still seemed distracted, the underlying tone left no mistake that the softly worded suggestion was, in fact, an iron-fisted order delivered in a velvet glove – "for now.”
“As you command,” Darion answered.
“Very well, Darion,” the ühn•ki replied, still speaking softly and in a far off tone of voice. “And the document?”
“It’s here, ühn•ki,” Darion said, pulling a second piece of paper from the portfolio and handing it to the ühn•ki. “I’ve prepared it exactly as you ordered.” The pure white linen paper with the crest of the Legion of Red and Black Darion pulled from the folder was engrossed in a beautiful script using dragon’s blood ink – so called because of its red color. It was not the real blood of a dragon, but the extract of a plant made into an ink using a carefully guarded formula. And, just like most such documents prepared by the sh’ônfenn, the beauty of its style, and the effort made to make it attractive in appearance was in direct opposition to the ugly and painful intentions it conveyed.
Taking it, the boy quietly read it to himself and placed it on top of the communiqué he’d just received; pulling out the desk chair he sat down slowly, as if severely fatigued. Opening a drawer, the ühn•ki removed a beautiful ivory pen – an ancient artifact from an earlier Commonwealth era, given to the ühn•ki personally by the Emperor as a gift. Slowly pulling the cap off the pen, the ühn•ki once more read the document he was about to sign. Placing pen to paper, the ühn•ki stopped and Darion was surprised to see his leader's hand shake slightly, but the tremor lasted for only a second. Carefully, the ühn•ki signed his name in the delicate, elaborate cursive fashion that marked his distinctive style of writing – also copied from an earlier era. Returning the cap to the pen and placing it back in the desk drawer, his eyes scanned the document for a third time before he picked it up and handed it back to Darion.
“This will end the matter,” he said, as Darion took back the document. “And remember, these orders are to be carried out exactly as they're outlined,” the ühn•ki added. And looking deep into Darion’s eyes, he added, “Not so much as a tiny deviation. Do you understand?”
“Of course. It will be as you have ordered,” Darion said, then quickly added, “Is there anything else, ühn•ki?”
“No,” the ühn•ki replied. “I would like some time alone.” And Darion watched as the ühn•ki closed his eyes and put his hand to the bridge of his nose, pinching it high up near his forehead as someone does when they have a headache.
“Are you ill, ühn•ki?” Darion asked. “Do you require the physician?”
“No, Darion,” the ühn•ki said softly, taking his hand from his head and looking up at his second in command. “Just some time alone, please.”
Nodding and giving a small bow, Darion turned and left the room. Quickly passing through the second office he whisked past Arlat, but Darion didn’t pause until he was back in the gallery. Still clutching the recently signed paper, he held it up to his eyes. Although he’d been its author and knew what it said by heart, he solemnly reread what it ordered him to do, knowing that his very first action when he returned to his office would be to formally contact the Prince of Imperialas Savaron Loka, while Paulus, following Darion’s orders, would call up a 'toon of Imperial shock troops and immediately dispatch them to the tip of Isewier and Villa Mare Vista, the home of the retired Gold Glass scientist Edwin Croal. Looking down at the bottom of the paper, he saw a bloody fingerprint and a few smudges of the ühn•ki’s blood next to his leader’s neatly signed signature:
When his eyes could no longer follow the hov, Jamie continued down the skywalk, took the lift, and approached his father’s study. When he knocked on the door, Croal was waiting for him. Jamie knew better than to ask his father about his visitor, so he sat down and began practicing the exercises laid out for him.
After a bit, Jamie stopped and looked up at Croal. “Father?” he asked softly.
“What?” Croal said, not bothering to look up from the book he’d been rapidly paging through.
“Why did you do that to me?”
“Do what, Jamie?”
“Take my blood.”
At his son’s question, Croal closed the book he was reading and fixed Jamie with a long and steady gaze.
“I wanted to see how much progress the virus has made,” Croal said softly, without any emotion shading his voice.
“Virus?” Jamie asked.
“Don’t be concerned,” Croal said. “It’s very complex, but the reason you can do what you can is because of the neuroreceptors I designed for you before you were even conceived. Your older brother, Loran, has the same neuroreceptors, but not in the exact configuration of yours. In either case, both of your enhanced neuroreceptors need a special neurotransmitter to allow them to function as they were intended. A colleague of mine at Gold Glass developed the neurotransmitter, created a way to encapsulate it, and finally, he designed a delivery system for it. Your older brother Loran is to receive it that way. But you’re different, Jamie; you don’t need to receive it the same way they’ve planned for Loran. It’s been part of your system from the time you were decanted. One of my spies smuggled the virus out of Gold Glass, and you were inoculated with it. I did it personally, on your decanting day.”
“What do you mean, Father?” Jamie asked, puzzled.
“It’s how you can use the gates without a card. It’s how you can create those sparks that jump from your fingertips. Someday, Jamie, you’ll be able to create much more than sparks, and you’ll do a lot more than make small pebbles and coins appear in your hand out of nowhere. It might appear to be magic, but it’s all grounded in physics and based on the research of one of my old teachers.”
“But why, Father? Why would you infect me with a virus?”
“It’s not like you think, son. I call it a virus, but the neurotransmitter that circulates through your system was placed in a virus so it could be taken into the human body. The neurotransmitter occupies a special place in all the neuroreceptors of your body.”
“How?” Jamie asked, suddenly putting aside his fears and becoming inquisitive as his scientific tendencies took over.
“You don’t have normal neuroreceptors, like humans or even other Icarians,” Croal said, beginning his explanation. “Every neuroreceptor in your body has a special area where a certain type of cell congregates and forms a void. We call it a docking station. As the virus replicates, your immune system attacks it – in fact, you’ve actually been immunized against the virus itself. After the virus is attacked by your immune system, its protein coat is lyced – split open – and the neurotransmitter is released. It migrates to the docking station in your neuroreceptors and gives you the abilities you have. The virus replicates quickly and your immune system, although it keeps it in check, isn’t able to completely eliminate it – it’s really not meant to. There’s a delicate balance between the virus and your immune system. In a sense, they work together. Your abilities will grow over time, and you’ll see many changes as you get older. It will all be explained in time, but for now just do your exercises. That’s the most important thing. You body is changing, Jamie. You’re just entering puberty, and the changes will accelerate. Just as puberty changes normal humans, Kalorian and Icarians, you will experience those same changes - along with some changes other Icarians don’t experience."
“Charlie is different again. He’s as different from you as you are different from Loran. All three of you are unique.”
“You improved on the model as time when on?” Jamie said, sounding excited and pleased with his deduction.
“Uhm… it sounds so cold when you put it that way son, but in effect yes, I did,” Croal answered.
“I understand Father, really I do,” Jamie said, his voice continuing to rise with excitement. “It doesn’t sound cold at all. It’s completely logical and quite scientific,” he added, smiling.
“Ah, my little scientist,” Croal said, sighing. “How I wish we could have worked together. Who knows what you would have discovered with me helping you?”
“But we can still work together, Father… as I get older.”
“We’ve already had this discussion, my beautiful son. You know the truth,” Croal said, a note of sadness now coloring his tone.
“Enough of talk that leads us nowhere, Jamie,” Croal said firmly. “You have exercises to perform. I want you to continue with them.”
“Yes Father, but one more thing, please?” Jamie pleaded.
“Yes, go on,” Croal said.
“What about Loran? You’ve told me about him, but I still have so many questions,” Jamie said, his face taking on a hopeful look.
“I’ve told you what I can… what I know, Jamie,” Croal said. “It’s been years since I was at Gold Glass. I have no idea what they’ve done to him. Just remember, you are stronger than him. If ever you come face to face with him you might not think so, but remember what I’m telling you now: You are stronger than him. I made sure of that.”
“But you make it sound like we’re meant to be enemies… as if we’ll argue and fight,” Jamie said, puzzled.
“You might,” Croal replied. “You have to be prepared for every contingency. I’ve told you that countless times – now, back to your exercises.”
Jamie simply nodded, and although he remained puzzled over his father’s comments and explanations, he could sense that he’d gone as far as he could and should consider it a victory that he was able to get as much out of his father as he had. So, giving a soft sigh of resignation, he began to practice the exercises Croal had taught him.
Hearing his son’s sigh, Croal once more looked up from his book. “Your blood tells a lot about you, Jamie. It’s the same with Charlie. That tiny sample I took today could tell anyone with the right instruments so much about you. For example, it would confirm your bloodline. It would establish without a doubt that you are a de Valèn, and not only a de Valèn, but also a direct descendent of the Founder. It would also hint at some of your abilities. It’s one of the reasons I make you practice your exercises. You know what we’ve discussed if something happens?”
Jamie, giving his father a worried look, simply nodded.
“It will be up to you to make them think that they're seeing one thing, when in reality you really are something completely different. Cortical examination is quite thorough. You’ve seen how it works when we’ve practiced with the unit.”
Again, Jamie gave a silent nod.
It was mid afternoon when Jamie went to his room and laid on his bed – his head pounding. It seemed his headaches were getting worse with the passing of each day. Lying on his bed, he closed his eyes and fell asleep. After an hour, Charlie roused him from his sleep.
“Jam,” Charlie said, shaking his brother, “there’s still time to go to the cliffs.”
“I don’t know,” Jamie said. “I still have a headache. They’re getting worse, and they last longer. Why don’t we go tomorrow?”
“I guess,” Charlie said, sounding dejected. “It’s just…”
“Alright,” Jamie said, taking in the sad look in Charlie’s eyes. “I guess we can go. Maybe my head isn’t hurting as badly as I first thought, now that I’m more awake.” A smile blossomed on Charlie’s face. “But we can’t stay too long today,” Jamie continued. “It’s already late in the afternoon, and Castor will be angry if we’re not home on time for dinner.”
Soon the boys, wearing their jumpsuits, were aboard the small hov and lifting off from the villa. In the weeks after the Solstice Fête, they’d made many trips to the cliffs – at least that’s what they'd told Castor. And technically, that is what they did. Of course, they never mentioned that after they got to the cliffs and their hov landed, they continued their journey all the way to Vera Domann. To their knowledge, no one suspected where they really went when they left on their trips to the cliffs, and they’d vowed to the Ghröum and each other it would stay that way.
In the weeks since they’d first been to Vera Domann and were discovered by Ga’tann, they’d learned much about the Ghröum. Some of the things they learned were amazing and almost unbelievable, but the Ghröum appeared truthful and showed genuine affection to the boys – a fact quite obvious to Jamie and Charlie from the feelings they received from the Ghröum whenever they were in their presence. Charlie seemed to take to the Ghröum in a special way, and they to him. And while they were kind to Jamie, they appeared to treat him differently, a fact that he came to notice. Jamie even mentioned it to Charlie, but his brother insisted that Jamie must be wrong.
Arriving at the cliffs, the hov landed. Both boys got out of the hov as quickly as they could, dashed to the cave of the mirror gate, and turned on their glow torches. Within minutes, they passed through the gate and were in the city of Vera Domann. The Ghröum had warned them to remain in Vera Domann for as little time as possible, so as usual they hurried through the abandoned city as quickly as they could and passed through the second gate that led to the underground city. Gliding down into the city, just as they’d done the first time they’d been taken there by Ga’tann, they rushed to the place where the Ghröum resided. As always, the gentle but ferocious looking creatures greeted them warmly.
“Welcome, Garon a’ Kalasia. Welcome, Garon a’ Solais.” Gh’dhat’s thoughts reached them just before they came to the door of the building where the Ghröum lived. They’d gotten used to the fact that the Ghröum could sense them coming even when they were a distance away. Am’am insisted it was a talent they could teach the boys. After Jamie and Charlie had shown the Ghröum the asp bracelets they’d gotten each other for their birthday, the Ghröum began referring to them by their Kalorian names, which the Ghröum treated as iconical concepts. The image they projected of Charlie was always of a smiling boy with the warm sun at his back. Their image of Jamie was of a winged boy in the midst of, but not touched by, a great storm.
Stepping through the door, Jamie and Charlie greeted the Ghröum, who’d clearly been waiting for them. Charlie gave each one of them a hug, and although Jamie’d witnessed the ritual more than a few times before and had become used to their ways, he still couldn’t help but shudder when he saw his little brother picked up and hugged by the large creatures as they growled loudly and their faces took on a murderous look. As usual, after greeting Charlie warmly, each Ghröum approached Jamie and either gently touched his shoulder or gave him a slight bow.
“Ga’tann,” Charlie asked, once their greetings were over, “Aren’t you happy to see Jamie, too?” Since Jamie had mentioned the difference in treatment each of them received, Charlie had become more observant of how the Ghröum acted around each of them. At first, he thought Jamie was wrong, but each time they were with the Ghröum he’d begun to notice slight differences
“We are always pleased to see both of you,” Ga’tann replied.
“Jamie told me you treat him differently. I thought he was wrong, but maybe he’s right.”
“He is correct,” Ta’vrun answered.
“But why?” Charlie said surprised.
“He is Garda’jir, and deserves the respect of a Garda’jir,” Ta’vrun said.
“A what?” Jamie said, spinning around to face Ta’vrun. He’d been focusing on Charlie’s conversation with Ga’tann, but had been surprised by Ta’vrun’s direct and open admission that he was being treated differently than Charlie.
“We have not yet told you of the overlords,” Ta’vrun replied, turning to Jamie. “Nor of the Garda’jir, whose task it was to defend us. But, we all agree that you, Garon a’ Kalasia, are Garda’jir – a Defender.”
“What do you mean?” Jamie said.
“There will be time for that,” Am’am said, approaching Jamie. “Over time, we will tell you more of our history. You already know some if it.”
“Yes, how the humans, the ones you call the destroyers, attacked you,” Jamie said.
“Yes, but that too requires more explanation and there will be time for that too,” Am’am said, putting his hand on Jamie’s shoulder. “Now, let me show you how to calm the pain you feel in your head.” And with that, Am’am quickly taught Jamie an exercise that completely cured him of his headache.
“If it comes again, just do what I showed you,” Am’am said, giving Jamie a gruesome sneer that Jamie’d come to recognize as a grin.
While Jamie had been conversing with Am’am, Ga’tann had been showing Charlie some mental exercises as well.
“It’s that easy?” Charlie’s voice almost squeaked in surprise. “You just think of a wall and you can cause a block?”
The low growl Ga’tann made indicated his assent.
“Jam, you have to see this!” Charlie said. “Ga’tann just showed me how I can perform a block.”
“A block?” Jamie asked. “What kind of block?”
“A way to block your thoughts, from stopping someone else from knowing them,” Charlie replied.
“How does it work?” Jamie asked, now curious as he thought about the exercises his father was having him perform.
Ga’tann was about to show Jamie the technique when Charlie, excited over having learned a new skill, took over.
“A wall, Jam,” he cried in boyish delight. “It’s so easy. You create a wall… uhm… I guess what I mean is…”
“You think of a wall,” Ga’tann interrupted. “You visualize a wall in your mind. It is only a concept of the reality that then occurs, but it prevents your thoughts from being intercepted and interpreted.”
“Look into my mind,” Charlie said, still excited. “Try to read my thoughts.”
Jumping into Charlie’s mind, Jamie gave an angry shout and staggered back a few steps. Putting his hand to his head, he scowled at Charlie. It felt as if he’d slammed head first into a wall.
“That hurt,” he said, still scowling at his brother.
“I’m sorry, Jamie,” Charlie said, giving his brother a look of concern. “I didn’t think you were going to do it that fast. I was going to tell you to try, but to go slowly. The same thing happened when I tried to read Ga’tann’s thoughts.”
Still rubbing his head, he remembered the trick Am’am had taught him and in seconds his headache was gone. “Can you show me?” he asked Ga’tann eagerly.
The Ghröum nodded his head and proceeded to show Jamie how to perform the task. After a bit more practice, Jamie turned to Charlie.
“Charlie,” Jamie said. “It’s time to leave. We came a little later than usual, and Castor’s going to get suspicious if we don’t return soon. Remember, he thinks we’re at the cliffs.”
“I know,” Charlie said, sounding disappointed.
“We’ll be back tomorrow,” Jamie said.
Shaking his head in resignation, Charlie rose and walked toward the door with Jamie.
After saying goodbye to the Ghröum, the boys retraced their steps and soon were back at the cliffs, climbing into their hov. Taking off, they began the trip home. Turning to Charlie, Jamie noticed that his brother had a smile on his face.
“Did you have a good time?” Jamie asked already knowing the answer.
“Yes,” Charlie said, “They’re so kind, and I can’t believe how much they’ve helped me with my Talent.”
“You’ve made great progress, that’s for sure,” Jamie said, smiling back at his brother. “They’ve taught you more in a few weeks than I think I’d have been able to teach you in two years.”
“But they’ve also taught you,” Charlie said.
Jamie nodded in agreement. Charlie’s point was well taken, for while the Ghröum taught Charlie, Jamie had observed the sessions and had also learned quite a few surprising things about his own abilities. And although his Talent was slightly different than Charlie’s, he’d gained strength and abilities he’d never realized he had. The skill he’d just acquired from Ga’tann was proof enough of his indebtedness to the Ghröum.
“Yes,” Jamie answered, "they’ve helped me too. But I think I’m most grateful to Am’am for showing me how to get rid of my headaches,” he added, smiling.
They fell silent for a few minutes, the cockpit filled with the low whispering of the engine as the hov flew them back to the villa. Cresting a hill, they could see the compound at a distance. It was then that they realized something was very different about their home. Jamie was the first to notice it: a number of hovs – some quite large – were parked haphazardly about the compound. As they got closer, Charlie pointed out that some of the hovs had the markings of the Imperial Army.
At the mention of the Imperial Army, a cold rush of fear raced up Jamie’s spine. In an instant he reached for the controls and tried to turn the hov around, but cursed when he realized that the preprogramming of the hov was working against him. Once he’d set the hov’s destination point as the villa, it was there – and only there – that the hov would take them.
“We have to turn this hov around,” Jamie said, still fighting with the controls. Then he stopped as a thought came to him.
“Charlie,” he shouted to his brother, “we can make it turn around with our minds. Help me. Concentrate on the hov’s guidance system – that’s where its brain is.”
Giving Jamie a fearful look, Charlie nodded as his face took on a focused and determined look. Jamie turned away from his brother and likewise began to concentrate. In an instant their minds were joined and they focused all their energy on the hov. Jamie could feel Charlie’s presence, as he knew Charlie could feel his. Amazed at his younger brother’s increased power and ability, even from a short amount of training among the Ghröum, Jamie did something that surprised him. He disengaged from Charlie slightly and, following some inner instinct deep inside of him, he directed his abilities in front of Charlie's, acting as a shield for his brothers thoughts.
As Jamie led the way into the hov’s simple brain, Charlie’s powers – no longer involved in the direct attack – began to grow behind the shield Jamie’d created. Just as a mighty river trapped behind a dam builds to an immense lake, so did Charlie’s powers grow until, in his mind's vision, Jamie felt as if he were staring directly into the sun. And at that moment, Jamie cut his powers and like the rupturing of a dam, Charlie's waves of pure thought hit the memory of the craft. Shuddering, the craft began to veer from its preprogrammed course and turned back to the cliffs from where it had come. The exercise had only taken seconds, but when the boys came out of their focused state they felt as if they’d been gone for hours. Although they were both excited at what they’d been able to accomplish, the fear they were both feeling was great.
When the hov landed back at the cliffs, the boys headed for the cave and the mirror. Within minutes they were back in Vera Domann. They pelted through the dead city as though chased by some ferocious enemy, and ducked through the gate leading to the Ghröum. They were surprised when they walked through the mirror in the cave that led to the underground city and found all of the Ghröum waiting for them.
“We knew there was danger,” Ga’tann said. “We felt it through our connection with you after you left. We are glad you escaped.”
“Escaped?” Charlie said, shuddering. “Escaped from what?”
“The Empire,” Jamie said quietly.
Jamie quickly told the Ghröum what they’d discovered as they’d returned home and how they’d diverted the hov back to the cliffs. When he was finished the Ghröum nodded in agreement but remained silent.
“I must to ask you to take care of Charlie,” Jamie said to the silent creatures. “I have to go back, but Charlie must be kept safe.”
“No,” Charlie cried as soon as the works left Jamie’s mouth. “If you’re going back, so am I.”
“No, you're not!” Jamie shouted. “I have to go back, and you need to stay here, where it’s safe.”
“Why do you have to go back?” Charlie said, now openly crying. “What’s happening?”
As scared as he was, Jamie's heart began to break when he saw his brother sobbing and begging to go back to the villa with him. Beginning to shed tears of his own, he went to his brother and put his arms around the sobbing boy. He could feel Charlie’s fear as he shook in his arms. Holding him close and stroking Charlie’s hair was all he could do for a few minutes, since he too was crying, but then unwrapping himself from his brother, he stood back. Wiping his own tears away, he looked at his brother.
“Father told me this might happen, that the Empire might discover what he’s done,” he said, putting his hand on his brother’s shoulder. “He’s prepared me for it. But I must return, and I must return alone to make it work. They have to find me, so that they don’t find you.”
“But they’ll kill you, Jamie,” Charlie sobbed, barely getting the words out. “And I’ll be alone.”
“No, they won’t kill me,” Jamie said, suddenly finding an unusual strength. “You won’t be alone, I promise you,” he continued, putting his hand under Charlie’s chin and raising his brother's head until their eyes met. “They won’t kill me. I’m too important to them – and you’re even more important. That’s why I have to go back and you have to stay here, Charlie. Father explained it to me. But they have to find me so I can protect you. They can’t find you. They can’t know about you – ever!”
“I don’t understand. They have to find you so they won’t find me? I don’t understand, Jamie,” Charlie said plaintively as his body shook from his sobs.
“Charlie, listen to me,” Jamie said, putting his hands on his brother’s shoulders. “Listen to me here,” he continued, tapping the side of his head.
Wiping the tears from his face and trying to clear his eyes, Charlie looked into his brother's eyes, and then into his mind. For a few moments their minds joined, and Jamie tried to explain as much as he could to his brother. When they were finished, Charlie, red eyed and shaking, gave his brother a strong hug.
“I promised Father and I have to do it, but I’ll be back, Charlie,” Jamie said. “I promise that, too. I will be back. I don’t know how yet, or when, but I’ll be back. You won’t be alone. You’re my brother, and I won’t ever abandon or leave you alone. You need to believe that, because it’s the truth. Please listen to Ga’tann, and to Am’am, and all the Ghröum. They love you and they’ll protect you – you already know that.”
Charlie nodded silently and began to cry again.
Preparing to go back to the hov, Jamie turned to the Ghröum. “Watch him for me, please. I’ll come back.”
“We know you will, Garon a’ Kalasia: you are Garda’jir. You are a Defender, and must do what you must,” Ga’tann replied in Jamie’s mind and he put his massive and heavy hand on Jamie’s shoulders. “We will take care of Garon a’ Solais. He will be safe. We promise you. You have put in our care the most precious treasure you have – your brother, and his love for you. We will protect him to our very deaths, if it comes to that.”
Jamie watched as all the Ghröum nodded and gathered about his brother, seeming to take a protective stance around the little Icarian. He gave Charlie another strong, fierce hug. “I’ll be back, Charlie,” he fiercely whispered in his brother’s ear. “I promise.”
And with that, he turned and dashed away from all of them, hoping none of them – especially Charlie - would see the tears he was once more shedding. Hurrying back through the gates, he returned to the cliffs and the hov parked there. Entering the hov, Jamie took the pilot’s seat and closed the hatch. The computer’s memory had been destroyed by Charlie's attack, so he would have to pilot it back to the villa, but he knew he could do it. Then, sitting quietly in the hov, he cried a bit more. After a few minutes had passed, he found he had no more tears to shed, so he wiped their remains from his face as best as he could, and reached for the hov’s controls. In his mind he focused his thoughts on his other father – the one from who's genetics he was composed. Remembering a few key phrases from the writings of The Founder, Jamie swallowed hard, wiped the final tears from his eye, put on a determined face and started up the hov. With a silent shudder, the hov lifted off and Jamie piloted a course for Villa Mare Vista.