The Scrolls of Icaria by Jamie

 

Book 2 – 'War of the Angels'

 

Part II - Prince of Mondele Royale

 

Chapter 28

 

“Remember, young master,” Castor announced the moment Jamie returned from his afternoon practice session, “though you have a free evening tonight, you’re scheduled for a special appearance tomorrow at the Duchess of Ramton’s tea.”

 

“Yes, I know,” Jamie replied, using the towel he’d draped around his neck to wipe the sweat from his face.

 

“And in the evening,” Castor continued, “you’re expected to do a short routine in the lobby of the opera house. A producer from the Impresario’s office will be there, along with a vid crew. They’ll be recording a holo that will be used to promote your appearance at the annual planet-fall gala.”

 

“I know that, too. I think I remember reading it on a schedule somewhere,” Jamie replied dryly, glancing pointedly at the schedule displayed on the wall above his desk before dropping the towel on the floor. Jamie pulled off his dance slippers, then hitched his thumbs under the waistband of his black tights and began to peel them from his sweaty body. When he’d gotten them as far as his knees, he plopped down on the bed and began to strip them off – first one leg, then the other.

 

Castor’s greeting annoyed him, and the boy had a perturbed look on his face as he dropped his sweat-soaked tights next to the towel. Castor still referred to his former charge as young master, a title that made Jamie even more uncomfortable than prince. He’d told Castor the custom wasn’t necessary since he was only a student at the school, but the protocol-minded Kalorian replied that old habits die hard, and so Castor continued the reference.

 

“In any case,” Castor constantly pointed out, “we don’t want to raise suspicions.”

 

Jamie had reluctantly agreed. Castor’s argument made sense, but as he’d gotten older and acquired a deeper understanding of slavery in the empire, he’d developed a visceral loathing of the practice.

 

“For the tea, I think you should wear the silver trimmed blue cloak and the small, gold, signet ring with the petite blue diamond,” Castor continued, either ignoring or not noticing the frown that had formed on Jamie’s face.

 

“The one Count Sarkori gave me?” Jamie asked.

 

“Yes. You recently received both as gifts, so you should be seen wearing them at a few public events.”

 

“Fine, Castor,” Jamie replied as his moment of irritation passed. Giving Castor a coy smile, he added, “Just remind me tomorrow. Oh, and I did notice that the gold wrist band has disappeared.”

 

“Yes, it’s been seen by quite a few people, but most importantly by its presenter, the Duke of Axan,” Castor replied while picking up Jamie’s sweaty towel and dance clothes as fast as the boy discarded them. “Oh yes, I nearly forgot: a present arrived this morning while you were at practice,” Castor added, pointing to a small box on the nearby dresser. “Do you want to open it now?”

 

“No, Castor, you take care of it,” Jamie said, standing up to remove his dance belt. “It used to be fun, but it’s always the same thing: a ring, a bracelet, a chain, or some other useless bauble that does me no good. And anyway, I always count on you to keep track of them,” Jamie said.

 

                “I do.”

 

                “If we get caught...”

 

                “We won’t,” Castor replied. “Living for years under the same roof with your father taught me many tricks in the art of subterfuge.”

 

                After being assigned to Jamie as the boy’s personal servant, Castor had been granted much greater freedom at the school – a freedom he exercised with caution. Castor’s many years with Edwin Croal had introduced the Kalorian to a number of figures aligned with both the Kalorian resistance and the Icarian fight for independence. His escape from the villa, along with his time of hiding in the settlements and eventual journey through the underground resistance network to be with his former charge at the École, put him in touch with many more. That knowledge was largely responsible for Jamie’s further education, bringing to the boy’s attention the seeds of dissension and rebellion from which had sprung the deep and tenacious roots of the resistance.

 

To most of the Empire, the resistance movement had proved an utter failure and vanished after the last rebellion had been so brutally crushed, but the truth was that it had never really gone away. After going underground, the movement began to rebuild and grow over time. Learning from their mistakes, its leaders decided on a different approach. The power and resources of the Empire were far too vast for a small band of rebels to overcome through traditional warfare, so it was decided to lay low, remain hidden, and rebuild until significant strength could be gathered for a less overt, but more successful operation.

 

                And the tactic had proved to be prudent, primarily because of three crucial events that remarkably coalesced in the Kalorian’s favor. The first event was the viral infestation that had been unwittingly introduced to the planet through the hubris of the scientific community of Gold Glass. The second lay in the creation of the Avionne race, and the third was that the creator of the Avionnes, Edmond Croal – arguably the most brilliant scientist in the history of the planet – vehemently opposed both the plight of the long oppressed Kalorians, and the velvet slavery of the Avionne race he’d been so instrumental in creating. 

 

Although initially slow growing, no cure had yet been found for the virus. Travel through the gates had all but ceased in a vain attempt to stop its spread. Gold Glass worked ceaselessly to find a cure – enlisting through imperial decrees and fiats the vast scientific research and manufacturing facilities on Ajax Prime to do its bidding. But as long as the Commonwealth interdiction of the planet remained in place, the prospects for Altinestra remained bleak. 

 

The creation of the Avionne race had been a remarkable feat, but it was ultimately that experiment – coupled with the continued slavery of the Kalorians and the brutal extermination of the Ghröum – that proved to be the final deciding factor in the Commonwealth’s move to isolate the planet.

 

But it had been Edmond Croal who’d tipped the balance in favor of both of the races the laboratories of Gold Glass had brought forth. Horrified at the Ghröum cleansing and disgusted by the use of slaves in an era when advances in technology and codes of planetary conduct made such practices unbelievably cruel and barbaric, it was ultimately the fate of the Avionnes that finally galvanized the eminent scientist’s resolve.

 

Having created them through the genius of his mind and the skill of his hands, Croal came to regard all the Avionnes as his children. Even if the program had not succeeded, the resulting scientific breakthroughs and innovations Edmond Croal was directly responsible for would still have more than made up for any failure, since the research it fostered initiated the birth and rise of an amazing array of new technologies.

 

But far from a failure, the program was an incredible success –greater than ever anticipated – spawning a vast revolution in genetic engineering and spin-off technologies that evolved into a thriving industrial complex capable of greatly benefiting the Commonwealth – the same Commonwealth that now wanted nothing to do with what it considered a rogue planet and a serious threat.

 

As breakthrough after breakthrough in creating the Avionne race developed, the Imperial powers made more and more demands on Croal and the team of scientists he’d brought together at Gold Glass. The first products of his work were amazing beings, displaying intelligence and sensitivity along with strength and the promise of longevity. But the Empire was not satisfied. Could Croal create warriors with special skills? Could he engineer beings to display an ever-growing list of features that might prove useful in war, or of some other benefit to the Empire, and tip the balance of power in its favor? And what could his discoveries eventually do for the human race – give it god-like abilities, and more importantly, immortality?

 

So as the scope of the Avionne program expanded, an uneasy Croal – a scientist with a rare gift for being able to read and anticipate the future – began to grow concerned as to where events might be headed. His worst fears were confirmed when the Viral Eradication team began to ask him to create a pool of Avionne specimens they could use strictly for their research program. Aware of the large numbers of Kalorians who had been co-opted and eventually sacrificed to the program, Croal began to probe cautiously for threads – thin as they might be – that would lead him to the resistance. Over time, he’d succeeded. In the process he managed to retire to Isewier at the southern tip of the continent and begin his own secret program of experimentation and research. But his absence hadn’t stopped Croal’s former colleagues, students and assistants at Gold Glass from continuing his work. The program had been a success; such a success that Savaron Loka, Archduke of Imperialas and second most powerful figure in the Empire was placed in charge, and in the years that followed it grew and flourished with dramatic – some would say troubling – results.

 

Opposed to the slavery of the Kalorian race from the time he was a young man, Edmond Croal would not sit back and watch his children suffer the same fate. At his villa and secret research facility in Isewier Croal brought together both Avionne and Kalorian, setting into motion events that nurtured the resistance, infused it with purpose and direction, and gave it its two greatest gifts – his remarkable Avionne sons.

 

The Avionnes of the resistance (now self-proclaimed Icarians) brought remarkable intelligence and insight to the movement and Croal was amazed at how quickly, in collaboration with the Kalorians, they formed a secret shadow government, even creating and then learning with remarkable speed their own language. The Kalorians brought to the struggle years of resistance, a willingness to fight, and an invaluable knowledge of the machinery and technology that both ran and kept the empire functional. Croal’s sons would become the lightning rods of change – the tipping point that would eventually shift the balance of power and possibly allow reunification with the Commonwealth. Croal put everything in place, and then – careful scientist that he was – he left the experiment to itself, and stepped back to watch the results.

 

                Jamie finished stripping, picked up a fresh towel, threw it over his shoulder, and headed for the bath that he and his friends shared. Castor placed the boy’s sweat soaked clothing on a nearby chair and then picked up the small box resting on the dresser. It’s shape and size gave him a good indication of its contents. Unwrapping it, his guess was confirmed when he opened the lid to reveal a twisted gold band set with sparkling rubies. 

 

The Emperor’s ring that Jamie always wore was only the first of many gifts and favors bestowed on him by an aristocracy eager to have La Mondele’s premiere dancer perform for their guests. Elegant jewelry, beautiful and expensive clothing, and other lavish gifts made their way to Jamie’s room – often delivered by a Kalorian bound to the noble benefactor’s household. And although no specific requests were ever made to Jamie, since such matters were handled through the school and the Impresario’s office, the Kalorian who presented the gift was always careful to mention who it was from along with the wish that the gift would inspire Jamie to new and spectacular dances; the underlying message being that those moves would hopefully be performed for the first time at an event the gifter was hosting – an event Jamie most probably had just been booked for.

 

                Castor assumed the important task of keeping track of every gift given, how often and where it had been worn, along with who’d seen Jamie wear it. Soon after he started receiving them, Jamie realized that such lavish gifts could be used to fund the future rebellion – a fact he’d learned from one of the many lessons Charlie had taught him since their renewed contact. That Charlie’s idea and suggestion hadn’t even come from a real event, but an ancient novel from the vast literature of the great Commonwealth, spoke volumes to Jamie about his brother’s knowledge, and creative intellect.

 

                After a specific period of time the beautiful jewelry and other precious gifts would simply disappear – after, of course, the source of the gift received a glowing personal thank you from Jamie, and after the gift’s presenter had seen the boy appear in public, on a vid – or even more exciting – perform a dance wearing, or showing off, the gift.

 

Diamonds, rubies and other precious stones were plucked from rings, pins, cloaks, capes and costumes. Gold and silver – including the gold and silver thread from some of the many capes Jamie had been given – was melted down. At Charlie’s suggestion, Jamie became even more creative. Once, when the Duke of Tassondale gave Jamie a beautiful and quite valuable porcelain vase, the boy created a dance in which he played a grief-stricken lover mourning the death of his mate, whose ashes had been placed in the vase. The dance had been amazing, and caused a sensation. When the Duke of Tassondale saw that his gift had been used in the vid, even more lavish presents followed – all of which eventually made their way into the hands of the resistance.

 

Jamie had never met anyone in the movement – something Castor counseled was still far too risky.  But Jamie did his part. And while he wasn’t the strongest or most influential member of the resistance, Jamie was by far its prettiest and most talented weapon – a fact he came to understand and appreciate. So while he didn't foment rebellion directly, he felt useful, and that feeling relieved some of the frustration he'd previously experienced.

 

                When Jamie returned from the bath, he took one look at the outfit Castor had placed on his bed and then ignored it. Digging into his closet, he pulled out the simple beige tunic and plain sandals that were standard dress for all of the dancers of the academy.

 

In addition to the numerous gifts he’d received, many of Jamie’s special performance bookings also often stipulated that he dress a certain way or in a specific costume. The outfits and apparel that came to fill the young dancer’s closet eventually grew so large that rows of closets down the hall from his room now bulged with clothing.

 

Both his smaller size and the fact that his performances calendar was quite full, kept two pairs of Kalorian seamstresses constantly busy sewing and tailoring outfits specially designed for him. Most of the time Jamie didn’t mind, but the wealth of real history and mythical legends from the great commonwealth were so vast that occasionally he was asked to appear as a character or in a costume that he’d never agree to had he been given the choice.

 

                While the smart military uniform designed to feature him as a miniature field marshal for the Imperial Army's national military day pageant made him look irresistibly cute, the hot, heavy, and skin chafing battle armor he’d donned for a program commemorating a mythical battle from an old commonwealth legend made dancing nigh impossible. And the skimpy outfit and goat-like leggings he’d been forced to wear, after having been requested to appear as a young satyr from some ancient commonwealth myth, still provoked undying howls of laughter from Jeremy, Yves and Lucas whenever they felt in the mood to taunt their best friend.

 

                “You didn’t like my choice?” Castor asked when he saw Jamie reject his sartorial suggestion.

 

                “I just want to look like everyone else,” Jamie said, after slipping the tunic over his head. And in fact he did, up to the point when he reached into his closet, removed and then tied around his waist the bright red and gold trimmed sash indicating that he was a master performer. Castor smiled at the dichotomy.

 

“How’s the spot?” Castor asked.

 

“No change,” Jamie replied hitching up the edge of his tunic to show Castor the dark spot on his upper thigh.

 

First noticing it in the bath after his premier performance for the emperor, Jamie assumed it was a bit of make-up – possibly a different type then the water-based preparations he was used to wearing, but over time the spot remained and what was more troubling was the fact that it seemed to have grown larger and darker.

 

Jamie had shown it to Castor, but the old kalorian had no explanation. Instead he told Jamie they’d monitor it. While not completely familiar with Edmond Croal’s scientific studies, he suspected that what was happening could possibly be traced back to the work of his former master. Not wishing to alarm Jamie, he promised the boy that if it started to cause pain or other problems they’d have to report it, but since it seemed to be benign, simple observation would be the best course of action.

 

                Jamie sat on a nearby stool and began to slip into his sandals. As he did, he watched Castor put the recent gift into the top drawer of the dresser. When Castor had been head of household at the villa, his contact with Jamie was limited. Although he often brought the boys their breakfasts – more as a way to keep an eye on them – Castor’s responsibilities were extensive and far reaching, giving Jamie little time to get to know him on a deeper level. That changed when Castor was assigned to Jamie as his personal assistant. Peppering Castor with questions had become a way for Jamie to get to know the Kalorian a bit better, while also gaining a greater understanding of the realities of the resistance movement and the revolution it hoped to wage. It also allowed Jamie a glimpse into the mysterious life of his oft-distant father. 

 

                Finished dressing, Jamie informed Castor that he’d be going to the library. It was still the best way for him to access the net, and after his reunion with Charlie, an expedient way to communicate with his brother. As he left the school and headed to the library Jamie couldn’t help but think of how much his life had changed in the past six months. Invited to parties and public events, he was sought out and in great demand by the rich and powerful of the empire. His contact with the upper nobility and their private lives taught him a great deal of the politics and inner workings of the Empire.

 

                Voracious for knowledge, Jamie often had to remind himself not to appear too eager, no matter how great his desire for information. At Charlie’s advice, Jamie was always careful to project his carefully structured persona whenever he appeared in public – that of a young Avionne dancer who’d been lucky enough to have the winning combination of both stunning good looks and incredible talent, but nothing more. Always keeping his eyes and ears open, Jamie let his dancing speak for him; never giving the impression that anything else really mattered to him.

 

Eventually he developed the standard reputation entertainers often acquire – talented and amusing, but not very intelligent. His public persona as a boy who liked fun and excitement was further enhanced by the many galas and parties he attended, the rumors that often circulated about who he may be connected with romantically, and the cute, playful, fun-loving boy image the impresario’s office created and kept alive in order to make him even more appealing to a public facing a period of increasing crisis.

 

                Jamie quickly learned how to use charm and flattery when it might get him something he desired. Discovering the power of alcohol to both loosen peoples tongues, and give them little reason to fear someone who’d themselves been over imbibing, he was always ready to offer one of his rich patrons yet another glass of wine while he himself became expert in pretending to sip a drink until he could safely discard it unseen into a nearby vase or planter, and then immediately ask for another. Over the course of an evening he would act a bit more amused then usual, giving those around him the impression that he’d had a little more to drink than he should have. This act was often highly successful, and Jamie was constantly amazed at what people were willing to say in his presence if they thought he wouldn’t remember.

 

                At seventeen years of age commonwealth standard, Jamie de Valèn – a true Avionne prince of the blood, the only known member of the ancient and most noble House de Valèn, as well as the imperially proclaimed Prince of La Mondele Royale and its premiere soloist – found himself riding the crest of a wave of fame and notoriety. But as he traveled among the literati, glitterati, and aristocracy of the Empire, his knowledge and understanding of his true mission grew heavier upon him.

 

                The feeling that he was a slave was never far from his mind, for while he enjoyed premier status, he had to perform when and where he was told. He attended parties and functions that were pre-approved and no matter where he went, there was always a handler in charge of him, who not only assisted him, but also kept a close eye on his activities. So no matter where he journeyed, how late the hour, or how far across the Empire his itinerary might take him, at the end of every day he was always back in his small room in the senior dormitory.

 

                His visit to the library followed its usual pattern and after making contact with Charlie, Jamie and his brother resumed the thread of the conversation they’d started a week before. Since Jamie had warned Charlie that too much time together might lead to discovery, after an hour passed Jamie reminded his brother of the time, and said goodbye. Seconds later Charlie broke the connection. Remaining at his station awhile longer, Jamie did some further research until he noticed the time, quickly exited the net, and hurried from the library so he wouldn’t be late for supper.

 

                After supper, Jamie and his friends from Trio Chrysalis headed to their floor in the senior dormitory. It was during the hour directly after dinner that the four friends – along with Cristophe and Giovanni – secretly practiced their language lessons in both Icarian and Kalorian. The boys' rooms were on a separate floor of the senior dormitory – a floor that they also shared with Cristophe, who had a suite, along with Castor and Giovanni, who both resided in smaller servant rooms at the end of the hall. Further down the hallway from their quarters, a sunny and comfortably furnished room served as a lounge. Because its door could be locked, it was also the perfect place for them to meet. After Castor was assigned to Jamie, his services were further enlisted as a teacher of Kalorian. Jamie, ever the expert in languages, tutored them in the Icarian tongue. Giovanni joined the boys immediately after his posting to Cristophe. The young boy, intelligent and quite friendly, quickly became less of a servant and more of a younger brother to the five older boys. So when the master prefect suggested that Giovanni participate, he was immediately accepted into the circle. The most amazing thing was that Giovanni – like Jamie – also displayed a real talent for languages, and in a short time had caught and surpassed everyone except Jamie and Castor.

 

                As was usually the case, when they arrived at the lounge Castor was waiting for them, but instead of meeting them in the room as he usually did, the Kalorian was standing in its doorway holding an envelope in one hand as he lightly tapped it against the palm of his other hand. Once the boys were within arm’s reach Castor held out the envelope to Jamie.

 

                “This arrived while you were at supper,” Castor said.

 

                After accepting the envelope from Castor, Jamie looked at it more closely. A thin red and gold boarder defined the rich, hand-made vellum of the envelope. Turning it over, Jamie’s eyes immediately came to rest on the gold embossed coat-of-arms displayed prominently on the front of the envelope.

 

                “The Emperor’s personal crest,” Jeremy said in a reverent whisper.

 

                As soon as he spoke Lucas and Yves crowded closer to get a better look.

 

                “Open it,” Yves said, his voice nearly a squeak of excitement.

 

                “I will if you don’t crowd me,” Jamie said slightly annoyed.

 

                “Is something wrong?” a voice called out. The boys stopped and turned to discover that it was Cristophe who’d spoken. Sitting at the end of the hall, he’d come from his room to join them in their language lesson and witnessed Castor hand Jamie the envelope. Giovanni, who’d been assisting Cristophe, stood beside the Master Prefect.

 

                “Jamie’s received an envelope...” Yves began

 

                “...from the Emperor,” Lucas quickly added, interrupting Yves.

 

                “What does it say?” Cristophe asked.

 

                “I’ll be able to tell you once they let me open it,” Jamie replied raising an eyebrow at his three friends who were pressed so closely to him Jamie could feel the warmth of Jeremy’s breath against his ear.

 

                “Then open it,” Lucas said, leaping into the air and executing a graceful petit allégro.

 

                Realizing his sarcastic tone of voice was falling on ears turned deaf with excitement, Jamie shook his head, stuck a finger into the sealed fold of the envelope, and began to tear it open. Seconds later he held in his hand a card. It too was striped with a red and gold border and embossed with the Emperor’s personal seal. The boldly black handwritten script stood out from the snowy white background of the card. He began to read, but stopped when Lucas plucked the card from his hand.

 

                “It was addressed to me,” Jamie said, glaring at Lucas – which might have been more successful if he hadn't also been trying to suppress a grin at seeing his friends so excited.

 

                Still oblivious to Jamie’s annoyance, Lucas did a second petit allégro and then began to read the hand inscribed calligraphy on the card.

 

                “It says you’re invited to a party at the Imperial Palace,” Lucas said.

 

                “When?” Jeremy asked, craning over Lucas shoulder.

 

                “Tomorrow!” Lucas chirped.

 

                “What’s the occasion?” Yves asked, pushing Jeremy aside to get a better look.

 

                But before Lucas could reply, the card was plucked neatly from his hand.

 

                “Excuse me, but who’s it addressed to? Oh look, it says James De Valen on the front, so I guess it's for me, no?” Jamie said, glaring at his friends even as he bore down hard on the grin that kept wanting to break out on his pursed lips.

 

                “We’re just excited for you,” Lucas said, now being the one to raise an eyebrow.

 

                The next evening found Jamie standing alone on the portico of the opera house. Accompanied by Castor, Jamie’d come to La Mondele a few hours earlier to record a promotional vid for his upcoming performance at the annual planet-fall gala, and since he had access to his own private dressing room and costumer assistant, Castor suggested he change at the opera house for the party. After his performance for the vid was completed Jamie retired to his dressing room, and when he emerged he was attired for the event.

 

The theme of the party centered around one of the many historical eras of the great commonwealth and Jamie’s invitation strongly suggested all guests dress in a manner Castor referred to as Post-colonial Gaelic – a style originating on the colonial world Armagh and briefly a commonwealth-wide rage following Armagh’s official planetary acceptance into the Alliance of Worlds. Wearing a loosely laced, white, blousy silk shirt and a skirt-like bottom that Castor called a kilt, complete with woolen socks that ended just below his knee, and black leather shoes with small buckles, Jamie looked adorable – at least that’s what the producer of the vid told him when he emerged from his dressing room.

 

Not feeling very adorable, Jamie fidgeted as he waited for the hov. The Kalorian costumer who’d assisted Jamie as he dressed had been quite impressed by the work of the creator of the costume and excitedly told him that the folded knife pleats of the worsted wool fabric that formed the kilt had been pleated to the sett – folded so that the pattern carefully repeated all around the kilt making it to look much the same from both front and back. Jamie was completely disinterested in the costumer's banter, especially after he slipped the kilt on and quickly realized how itchy the fabric was against his upper legs and bottom. By the time the hov landed at the opera house Jamie found that it was hard to keep from scratching. Since the trip from La Mondele to the Imperial Palace was only from one hill of the city to another, a small four seat craft had been sent for him. In the time it took for the short flight he adjusted a bit more to the kilt, but was already looking forward to getting out of it when the party was over and he was back in his room.

 

From the air, the palace at night glittered like a jewel. Stepping out of the small craft after it landed in the inner courtyard, Jamie became aware of music wafting out of the palace and floating on the warm evening breeze. Seconds later, he was greeted by a Kalorian dressed in livery who politely requested his invitation. He fumbled for a moment in the leather bag tied at his waist that was included with the costume, pulled out the requested invitation and handed it to the Kalorian who, after examining it, escorted Jamie to the main entrance of the palace. The facade of the structure was bathed in light. Passing between a pair of amazingly large and spectacular fountains Jamie followed the servant up the steps that led to the main door, both huge and heavy bronze leaves of which stood open.

 

Jamie entered the grand foyer of the palace and the music grew louder. The crystals of the large chandeliers high above his head twinkled like stars as he joined the line of guests waiting to be announced as they entered the ballroom. When it was nearly his turn to walk through the ballroom door, Jamie spotted a member of the staff from the Impresario’s office standing against the wall. He’d come to the event unaccompanied – or so he’d thought – but when the man glanced over at him and their eyes met, Jamie knew he’d be supervised.

 

The palace was grandly ostentatious and the decor flamboyant, having drawn influences from many eras and architectural styles of the Commonwealth. Jamie’d performed in the palace before, so its decadent opulence wasn’t new to him. He’d come to study and learn; he quickly scanned the ballroom, looking either for any familiar faces or people he might be interested in meeting.

 

Upon entering the ballroom Jamie paused at the top landing of the grand staircase. Taking in the view, he could see that all the men were dressed in a style similar to his own, although most of the older men’s shirts were buttoned instead of tied. They also wore woolen jackets that matched their kilts and he took note of pouch-like purses hanging from their kilts, similar to his own. The women were wearing robe-like gowns that although similarly styled, varied as to color and type of fabric.

 

The crowd of people was rather large, and although it was Jamie’s first visit to the Palace as a guest instead of a performer, he’d long since become comfortable attending gala events. Against one wall sat an orchestra composed all of Avionnes, the musicians seated on a tiered dais. Taking a closer look, Jamie recognized the Avionne conducting the musicians as none other than Cristophe and Damian’s friend, Philippe. At the far end of the ballroom he caught a glimpse of the Emperor, surrounded by a retinue of nobles. A few feet from His Imperial Majesty stood the cold-eyed Avionne boy that Jamie’d first seen the night of his debut at La Mondele. After a few performances for the Imperial Court, Jamie learned that the boy’s name was Renaud. Later, back at the École, he’d found out from his friends that the Emperor’s bodyguard was none other than the infamous Angel of Death – both bodyguard and trained assassin – and a member of the Vipers, the Emperor’s own network of spies and secret police.

 

As always, the young bodyguard’s stance of hyper-vigilance was amazing and Jamie couldn’t fathom how anyone could constantly function as a coiled spring or hair trigger weapon, ready to unwind and explode at a second’s notice. Then, just as he'd noticed before, as soon as he began to descend the sweeping staircase to the ballroom floor, Renaud’s eyes immediately went to him, and the cold gaze of the young man pierced him like an arrow. He’d experienced Renaud’s razor sharp examination before, and always found it unnerving. The Emperor’s personal protector and assassin had eyes that bored into a person like an auger. Looking away from Renaud, he tried to ignore the bodyguard’s gaze as he concentrated on the crowd.

 

Hovering for a moment at the edge of the crowd, he was presented with a crystal flute filled with champagne. As he began to weave his way through the crush of people, Jamie was occasionally greeted by one of the guests. Often it was a member of the nobility, but occasionally someone from the wealthy bourgeois or a prestigious member of the scientific community would toss him a greeting or offer their compliments on one of his latest performances. Jamie would always pleasantly return their greeting, and with a smile thank them for their kind words. If he could sense anything interesting he’d usually attempt to ask a few innocent questions as to their health, their current work, or if he thought he could get away with it, his smile would suddenly turn to a wickedly conspiratorial grin and he’d see if he could trade in a bit of gossip. It never ceased to amaze him that as long as he didn’t probe too deeply how much information people were willing to voluntarily divulge when they were relaxed and having a good time.

 

After a few brief encounters with a number of his usual fans, Jamie continued to work his way through the room until he bumped unceremoniously into someone. Spilling some of his champagne on the marble floor, he turned to apologize and suddenly found himself face to face with another winged boy who, by the style of his dress was not a servant or performer, but also a guest. The boy was handsome and athletic.

 

“Miro,” the boy said, smiling and extending his hand.

 

Jamie took the boy’s hand and introduced himself.

 

“Oh, the little dancer,” Miro said. “Philippe’s talked about you. Nice to meet you, but I’m not surprised to see you here,” he said, leaning closer and giving Jamie a wink. “They say you like the party life.”

 

“It can be fun,” Jamie said slightly surprised that his self-cultivated reputation as a fun loving entertainer was gaining such casual acceptance. “Are there any more Icar... ah, Avionne guests here?” Jamie asked hopefully changing the direction of the subject. Although he found it amusing to fool the human population, there was something inside him that made him feel guilty about deceiving a fellow Icarian.

 

“Just my brother,” Miro said.

 

“Were you invited?”

 

“Uhm... invited... well, you could say that we have a standing invitation,” Miro said. “You see, David and I are part of the imperial household.”

 

Miro’s remark caused Jamie to glance down at the boy’s hand. On the fourth finger of his right hand he saw a ring – identical to the one he’d noticed on Damian’s hand. On the ring finger of Miro’s left hand there was a beautiful golden ring in the form of a lizard – its eyes set with two sparkling rubies.

 

He was about to ask Miro a question when a second winged boy approached. With a grin on his face he playfully poked Miro in the ribs.

 

“Great party,” he said and began an animated conversation with Miro, until his eyes casually landed on Jamie and he paused. “Hello,” he drawled, turning his full attention to Jamie while flashing him a cheeky smile. As boy’s eyes scanned Jamie from head to toe, his smile grew even brighter. To Jamie the boy’s grin was quickly turning into a leer. After a long and careful examination the boy turned back to Miro with a mischievous smirk on his face. He winked and raised an eyebrow. “You’d better not let Philippe catch you nibbling on this little treat,” he said chuckling, “or you’ll be sleeping back in the barracks at Rood.”

 

Miro grinned back while putting his arm around the boy and pulling him closer to his chest. Just as their wings touched Miro chuckled. “My brother David,” he said.

 

“You’re...”

 

“Yes, twins,” David cut in so quickly Jamie could tell it was something they must have responded to hundreds if not thousands of times.

 

“The two best Gahdar of Castle Rood,” David continued.

 

“You’re gladiators?” Jamie asked.

 

“The best,” David said smiling broadly as turned all of his charm on to the beautiful boy he’d just met, “Although I’m a bit better than him,” he added hitching a thumb toward his twin.

 

In all the time since he’d left his home in Isewier, he’d never met a gahdar in person. He’d never even been to Castle Rood to see a tournament. But with his access to the net he’d faithfully kept up on the many events at Rood, and his phenomenal memory and love of numbers made him an expert on gahdar statistics. Suddenly seeing the boys in a new light he noticed that David was wearing the same two rings as his brother. From his research into the Gahdar culture of Rood he knew that teams of Gahdar were bound to the noble houses. A bell went off in Jamie’s head.

 

“Then you would be Miro and David Gillot of Duet Lizard, so far 372.6 and 373.2 points individually for the season and 507.1 as a team – factoring in the handicap, of course.”

 

“Yes,” David said smiling as his chest puffed out at Jamie’s recognition. “I told you I was better than him.”

 

“Until the next match,” Miro said punching his brother in the arm, “And besides, I’m primi, little brother. You're my secundi.”

 

“A mere technicality,” David said returning Miro’s punch, “You were decanted, what? Two seconds before me?”

 

“Still makes me primi.” Miro laughed, knowing he was getting under his brother’s skin.

 

“Do you know Niklas Von Agramon?” Jamie quickly followed up, surprised to hear the rising tenor of excitement in his own voice. “And isn’t he the top Gahdar – 402.7 points for this season, I believe.”

 

At the mention of Niklas von Agramon’s name the smile on David’s face faded and his expanded chest quickly deflated.

 

“It’s always the same,” David replied shaking his head dejectedly, “They always ask about Niklas. Niklas the Bold... Niklas the Great... The Baron of Rood...”

 

                “But he is the best, no?” Jamie asked innocently.

 

                “Yes,” Miro said smiling, “He’s the best, and in more ways than just a fighter. He’s my best friend.”

 

                Hearing this, Jamie’s ears perked-up at the Gahdar’s words, and his focus centered on Miro.

 

You're his best friend?”

 

                “Yes,” Miro said smiling, “since training camp at Compari.”

 

                “Is it really true that he killed a wild tusk boar with his bare hands?” Jamie asked amazed at his luck in actually meeting the best friend of Niklas von Agramon.

 

                “Killed a wild tusk bore with his bare hands... won five Battle Royale’s in a row... defeated a demi-toon of Thrones single handedly... Niklas... Niklas... Niklas...” David interrupted. Then, mumbling to himself, he wandered off. Only a lightning fast glance back and a fox-like grin at Jamie hinted that this was all self-mockery.

 

                “Sorry,” Miro said chuckling, “You have to forgive him. He thought he had a chance with you. After Philippe and I got together he’s keen to get a mate of his own. He can present himself a little...”

 

“...forcefully? Dare I say, obnoxiously?” Jamie interrupted, smiling.

 

“Yes, that’s one way to put it.” Miro said. “He’s really nice and a great brother... the best. You know, if you’re ever interested...”

 

“I’ll let you know,” Jamie said dryly, and then his tone brightened as he asked, “But could you tell me more about Niklas?”

 

“Sure,” Miro said, half-suppressing another chuckle. It was always the same: as soon as they found out Miro was a Gahdar, everyone wanted to know about the Baron of Rood. Had the young warrior who was the only solo fighting gahdar in the history of Rood been proud, or arrogant Miro may have felt differently, but the kind, friendly, calm, and always humble boy Miro first met at Compari was too nice not to like, and too skilled not to admire.

 

For a few minutes Jamie talked to Miro about Niklas, although from Miro’s point of view the boy seemed to be tenaciously digging for information about his friend. Their conversation was interrupted when a hand came to rest on Miro’s shoulder. Jamie looked up, paused and his eyes widened, and then both boys bowed deeply to the Emperor. Surrounded by his usual privy council, the Emperor was dressed in the same costume the other older men at the party were wearing – except for the golden sash draped across his chest and the Order of Enrick the First around his neck.

 

Behind the Emperor, his Avionne bodyguard stood tall and silent, and Jamie tried unsuccessfully to suppress a shudder – Renaud, the Angel of Death. When Renaud’s eyes slowly scanned Jamie, Jamie felt as if he were being mentally undressed. And while the bodyguard's piercing regard made Jamie uneasy, he couldn’t seem to take his eyes off of Renaud. Although he was quite tall, easily towering over most of the guests and even the emperor himself, Renaud looked nothing like how Jamie thought an imperial bodyguard, assassin, and Viper should look. The copper colored highlights of the boy’s wings were striking. His long, black hair was loose and flowed in a straight fall down his back, ending at a mid-point between his shoulder blades. His almost skinny frame didn’t square with the toned, muscular build of most of the human bodyguards for the nobility that Jamie usually encountered when performing at one of their private events.

 

“So have our favorite dancer from La Mondele, and the primi half of our Gahdar team become friends?”

 

“We’re getting acquainted, my Emperor,” Miro said respectfully.

 

“I’m pleased to hear it,” the Emperor said, giving Miro a smile; a smile, Jamie noted, that never reached the man’s eyes.

 

“And can we expect to see a Duet Lizard win in the next tournament?”

 

“Of course, my Emperor,” Miro said confidently. “David and I have been practicing. We’ve recently started a new training program.”

 

“Excellent,” the emperor replied. “With that in mind, I’ll be placing a substantial wager against Baron Lastermon.”

 

“Have you ever seen my duet fight?” the Emperor said, surprising Jamie by suddenly turning to him and giving the young dancer the same antiseptic smile he’d bestowed on Miro.

 

“No, my Emperor,” Jamie replied respectfully. “I’ve never been to Rood to see a match.”

 

“Never been to Rood?” the emperor said sounding surprised. “Then you’ll join us in our box at the next tournament a week from now,” and as he spoke Jamie watched a young man standing near Renaud produce a small comp pad from the pouch hanging from his kilt and with fingers flying, began to input information into it. Jamie recognized the man as the Emperor’s appointment secretary. He’d once seen him coming from the Impresario’s office. As if his casual conversation were enough to spark action, the Emperor suddenly dropped the subject in the confident and assured manner of men of power who understand when a mere mention of something they desire is enough to prompt swift and immediate action from their staff, and he went on to another topic.

 

Being a regular performer at court and imperial sponsored events, Jamie’d seen the emperor in many public venues, and could sense his impromptu audience with the leader of the empire was rapidly drawing to a close. The pause in the emperor’s speech, a sideways glance made toward someone across the room and, a slight step back from both Miro and Jamie, told Jamie his brief encounter with the great man was rapidly coming to an end, but just before their connection was broken, a light appeared to dawn in the emperor’s eyes and he focused one last moment of attention on Jamie.

 

“The anniversary of my birth comes in four months,” he said, taking a half step toward Jamie. “And you might be able to create a special performance for the celebration, no?”

 

Although it sounded like a request, Jamie knew a command when he heard it.

 

“Yes, my Emperor,” Jamie said immediately. “I would be honored to present a special performance for your birthday.”

 

Satisfied with Jamie’s response, the Emperor turned his back on the two Avionne boys without any reply or further acknowledgement, and began to walk away. And although they were now being ignored by His Imperial Highness the conversation had sparked enough curious interest from nearby partygoers that although the emperor failed to even notice, both boys carefully complied with court etiquette by bowing deeply to the emperor’s quickly vanishing back as he strode away from them.

 

After the Emperor was gone, Jamie turned to Miro with the intention of parting company with the gahdar. Although he wanted to learn more about the Gahdar Niklas, he was keen not to arouse suspicion with the primi half of Duet Lizard, so excusing himself from Miro’s presence seemed a prudent idea. But just as he was beginning to bid Miro goodbye he was stopped when a hand came to rest on his shoulder.

 

“Prince de Valèn,” a voice said, “I heard you were invited; it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

 

As Jamie turned toward the voice, he looked over at the pale slender hand resting on his shoulder. The hand was withdrawn, and as Jamie came face to face with its owner he was surprised to see who was greeting him. Miro had told Jamie that – aside from Jamie – he and David were the only other Avionnes at the party; an incorrect statement, Jamie realized as his eyes fell on the Avionne boy standing before him. Taller than Jamie, the slim and almost perfectly proportioned boy was dressed in the same costume as he and Miro, yet to Jamie the young man looked quite comfortable and more attractive in it.

 

In fact, the boy was strikingly handsome – a look that bordered on beauty. Dark hair against pale, smooth blemish-free skin, an attractive face, full red lips forming a charming smile and gray eyes that cast a curious, possibly mischievous gaze: all formed to create a striking first impression. Looking closely at the boy, Jamie noticed two differences. While he, Miro, and David were dressed like most of the other young men at the party, this boy wore a jacket similar to the older men. He also wore a chain around his neck, much like the Emperor and some of the other high nobility in attendance.

 

“What rock did you crawl out from under?” Miro said with a sneer.

 

Surprised by Miro’s remark, Jamie glanced toward the gahdar to see Miro’ eyes narrowed to slits and a scowl on his face as he appraised the young man with obvious suspicion. Fearing the worst, Jamie took a step back in anticipation of a strong reaction from the boy, but there was none.

 

“Yes, it’s nice to see you too, Miro,” the boy said, his smile growing wider. “I see they’ve let you out of your cage for a while.”

 

                “I wouldn’t talk about cages,” Miro countered. “The one you're in looks rather comfortable. I see he’s let you out for a while. Does he want his little puppy snooping around? Are you looking for something to take back to him?”

 

                The boy continued to smile. Miro’s sudden abrupt and rude comments did nothing to fluster or unsettle the young Avionne. To Jamie the boy appeared to grow even more confident and self-assured under Miro’s withering gaze.

 

                “Miro, I know you’re a Gahdar, but surely even the Gahdar have some manners?” the boy asked, striking an amusing tone of voice. “You haven’t properly introduced me to the prince.”

 

                Miro said nothing and continued to glare.

 

                “I’m Prince Hippolito,” the young man said leaning closer to Jamie while extending one of his long fingered slender hands more in the style of someone expecting it to be kissed rather than clasped and shaken.

 

                “I’m Jamie,” he replied taking Hippolito’s hand, feeling a sudden jolt of surprise at how seductive the boy’s soft warm touch was as he delicately grasped Jamie’s hand and held it for a few seconds longer than expected.

 

                “Come Jamie, you're a prince,” Hippolito said. “You should always introduce yourself as such.”

 

                “Like you? And just how did you get that title, Hippolito?” Miro asked.

 

                Ignoring Miro’s remark Hippolito put his hand on Jamie’s shoulder and slid it to a spot between Jamie’s shoulder blades in an attempt to lead him away from the gahdar when they were approached by another man. Although the man moved close to Hippolito’s ear and began to speak softly Jamie could still understand him.

 

                “He wants to talk to you,” the man said and walked away.

 

                Removing his hand from Jamie Hippolito stepped back and gave the dancer a warm and charming smile. “I’m sorry, there’s something I must do, but I know we’ll meet again.” Then as quickly as he’d approached a few minutes earlier, he vanished into the crowd.

 

                “You’d better hope that’s not true.” Miro said.

 

                “What?”

 

                “That he wants to see you again.”

 

                “Why?” Jamie said now puzzled. He’d thought Hippolito was rather charming. In fact the boy’s handsome looks and seductive charm had sparked a surprisingly unexpected flutter of excitement in Jamie.

 

                “He’s the little lap dog of the Archduke of Imperialas,” Miro said.

 

                “Savaron Loka?” Jamie asked surprised at the news.

 

                “Yes. They say he’s the archduke’s second set of eyes and ears.”

 

                Jamie glanced around the room trying to catch another glimpse of Hippolito, but the boy was gone. Standing silent for a few seconds he finally excused himself from Miro and began to walk into the crowd, surprised to realize he still found himself thinking about the handsome and charming Prince Hippolito.

 

After a few circuits of the ballroom where he danced with a few of the female guests who were fans from the nobility, Jamie was beginning to get bored. His kilt had started to itch again. His buckle-clad shoes were a little too small and were beginning to pinch his feet. Noticing a nearby door, Jamie approached it and cracked it open. Seeing that it was a small sitting room he entered and closed the door behind him. Mercifully the sound of the music and conversation muffled. Sitting down on a nearby chair he toed off his shoes and began to rub his feet.

 

Being a dancer, a blister or sore spot on one or both of his feet was something he could ill afford. Reaching up above his calf he pushed down and then pulled off one of his thick woolen socks. Examining his foot, he could see no marks. After doing the same with the stocking on his left foot, he saw the start of a small red mark near his little toe. Bringing his foot to his lap he rubbed it a bit, then sat back in the chair and let his bare feet rest on the soothingly cool marble floor. Feeling a bit tired after a busy day he closed his eyes and rested his head against the soft velvet back of the chair. Seconds later, a voice calling his name startled him.

 

Opening his eyes and sitting up, he looked around the empty room. Once again the voice called out to him, and Jamie finally understood it was coming from an open doorway in the sitting room. Getting up from his seat, he walked across the floor and stood in the doorway staring into the next room. Jamie immediately recognized the large, soft and pudgy man seated on a plush overstuffed couch as the Duke of Turbonet. A few weeks before, he’d danced at a party the duke hosted in commemoration of his 35th year of investiture.

 

At the party, the man had taken intense interest in Jamie, going so far as to insist that the boy use the duke’s own private bedchamber to change. Once Jamie was naked and preparing to slip on his dance belt, the duke had unexpectedly breezed into the room with the excuse that he’d forgotten a favorite ring he was fond of wearing. The leering grin and careful examination the duke gave Jamie as he stood naked made his skin crawl. Lingering far longer than Jamie thought necessary to retrieve and put on a ring, the man finally left, but after Jamie’s performance the duke had made it a point to approach Jamie and congratulate him on a magnificent dance routine. The duke’s hand landed first on Jamie’s shoulder, but soon it migrated around his wings to his lower back, and then continued south until it finally rested on Jamie’s bottom. As the duke's hand began to knead one of the globes of his ass, Jamie quickly broke the connection and moved away. And for the rest of the party, he played a game of hide and seek with the old man.

 

“Sore feet, little prince?” the duke said.

 

“A little,” Jamie said preparing to exit the room.

 

“Why don’t you come over here and I’ll rub them for you?” the duke said, smiling.

 

“They feel better,” Jamie said. “I should return to the party.”

 

“It’s just another lackluster Imperial ball. I’m sure no one’s missing you,” the duke said, still smiling. “Now why don’t you come over here and I’ll take care of those feet. As you can see I’m sitting on a divan. You can sit on it and comfortably drape your wings over the edge and put your feet in my lap.”

 

“My feet are just fine now,” Jamie replied. He was starting to back out of the room, but then he backed up against something... no, more like someone. Turning, Jamie saw a large man, arms crossed and frowning staring down at him.

 

“Allow me to introduce Stefos,” the Duke said. “He’s my personal assistant and bodyguard.”

 

Looking for a way around Stefos or another exit from the room, Jamie quickly developed a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach when he realized there was none.

 

“Stefos, please bring our little prince over here. I’ve promised him a foot massage.”

 

Balling up a handful of cloth on the back of Jamie’s shirt, Stefos towed Jamie toward the couch where the Duke was sitting, a genial smile on his face. Once Jamie and the duke’s bodyguard were away from the door, Jamie, trying to break the man’s grip, pulled away. As the laces of his shirt came undone and the fabric began to rip, Jamie made a break for the door. But the duke’s bodyguard was too fast for him, and Stefos cut Jamie off just as he was about to escape through the doorway. Grabbing Jamie by both shoulders, Stefos quickly shepherded him to the couch. Although most Icarians were stronger than humans, Stefos was very large and very strong and Jamie’s squirming only succeeded in tearing his shirt even further. By the time he was forced onto the couch, Stefos was holding Jamie’s shirt and the boy was bare-chested.

 

“What a beautiful boy,” the duke said his eyes gleaming as he took in the sight of a now half naked Jamie sitting next to him and wearing only a short kilt. “Here let me rub your feet,” the duke said, giving Jamie a hungry leer. “I know they’re sore. I saw how you were rubbing them.”

 

Before he could move, Stefos stepped around to Jamie’s back and put both his hands on Jamie’s bare shoulders. Reaching down and taking the boy's right foot, the duke pulled Jamie’s leg to his lap and began to massage his toes and the ball of Jamie’s foot with his right hand while tightly gripping Jamie’s ankle with his left. Held down by Stefos and restrained by the Duke, Jamie felt like an animal in a trap. As the Duke continued to rub his foot, Jamie looked desperately around the room. The opposite wall held four floor-to-ceiling windows – two of them stood ajar, allowing the sweet smelling night breeze from the garden to scent the room. Jamie tried to move but quickly found that Stefos had gotten an even tighter hold on him.

 

An icy hand of fear squeezed Jamie's heart and a bolt of panic raced through him. Seconds later he found himself sensing the Duke’s thoughts, and a graphic view of the old man’s intentions unleashed a flood of terror and fury that boiled up inside of Jamie.

 

Jamie’s reaction was fierce, and his thoughts arced out like hot sparks from an overheated generator. Seconds later, the Duke cried out in pain as Jamie’s fear and anger stabbed into the old man’s mind like a white-hot poker. Shocked, the Duke released his grip on Jamie and grasped his head, once more crying out in pain.

 

Stefos, surprised by his master’s shouts and fearing the worst, released his grip on Jamie as he turned to aid the duke. With the man's grip off of his shoulders, Jamie jumped off the couch and ran across the room. Realizing what was happening, Stefos hesitated and then pursued the boy. Jamie raced for the closest of the open windows. Once there, he pushed on the narrowly open window, but it wouldn't budge – it must work on a crank system, he realized. He knew he was nearly out of time, so he started to crawl through the narrow opening as quickly as possible, trying to squeeze his wings through without getting stuck. He was almost out of the window when Stefos gripped the hem of his kilt and held on.

 

Hanging three quarters of the way out the window, Jamie mustered every ounce of his strength and pushed hard, popping himself through the window and leaving Stefos holding his kilt. Jamie hit the ground in a forward roll, leaped to his feet and headed for a clump of tall river-grass bushes. Stefos looking at the empty kilt and suddenly realizing what had happened, angrily threw it on to the floor, cranked the window open wider, and squeezed his way through.

 

Crouching behind the thick shrubbery, Jamie tried to keep quiet but Stefos had seen the boy duck behind the stand of bushes. Angrily marching across the garden, he strode up to the tall grass, parted it and looked down at the naked boy. He started to reach down to grab Jamie, when suddenly a puzzled look appeared on his face. He stood up, but as he did Jamie heard a soft whoosh followed by what sounded like a slap. Stefos' body shuddered and he tried to turn around but before he could, he began to sway and then, pitching forward like a tree felled by the skillful ax of an experienced woodsman, Stefos fell full length on the grass and remained motionless.

 

Jamie’s eyes grew wide when he saw the slim, silver handle of a dagger sticking out of Stefos' back. But what terrified him even more was the neat, perfectly round hole burned into the dead bodyguard’s back – a mark that could only be made by a ghoster. Even more frightened, he turned and dashed further into the darkest part of garden, tripping over bushes and stumbling over rocks. Diving behind a row of hedges he crouched low, trying to keep as still as possible as he held his breath. He’d only been hiding behind the hedges for a few seconds when a voice called out to him.

 

“There’s no need to hide any more. You can come out. You’re not in any danger. No one will harm you.”

 

Jamie didn’t move.

 

“I can clearly see you,” the voice called out.

 

That was impossible and Jamie knew it; it was so dark in the corner of the garden he’d hidden in that he could barely see his own hand in front of his face.

 

“You can either come out, or I can come in,” the voice continued, now sounding as if it were coming from right above him. “I know you’re afraid, but I won't harm you.”

 

Still Jamie remained silent. Seconds later the hedges he was hiding behind parted. Jamie looked up and found himself staring into the face of Renaud. The eyes of the emperor’s bodyguard were gleaming in the moonlight. Reaching out Renaud extended his hand to Jamie. For a few seconds Jamie just stared at it, but Renaud said nothing.  Cautiously and with trepidation Jamie gingerly reached out, took the hand of the Angel of Death, and allowed himself to be pulled to his feet. Renaud’s warm hand with its long delicate fingers was surprisingly soft. Once Jamie was on the garden path Renaud released his hand and simply stood looking down at the boy.

 

Being naked at school was common practice in the baths, dressing rooms and around his friends and it never bothered Jamie, yet he felt shy and self-conscious standing in the imperial garden before the Avionne who was rumored to be the emperor’s private assassin.

 

“Are you going to do that to me?” Jamie asked, first looking up at the other boy and then across the garden to where the body of Stefos lay.

 

As a response to Jamie’s question, Renaud’s cold piercing stare was replaced with a slightly puzzled look.

 

“Do what?”

 

“Kill me, like you did him?” Jamie said turning to look at the body of Stefos lying in the garden a few feet away.

 

“No. Why would I kill you?” Renaud said.

 

“Because it’s what you do,” Jamie said flatly. Although he was still afraid, his emotions weren’t as raw as they’d been in the presence of Stefos and the duke.

 

“I protect the Emperor,” Renaud said without emotion, “and the property of the Emperor.”

 

“Is that what I am? The Emperor’s property?” Jamie asked, his voice nearly rising to a shout.

 

“We’re all the Emperor’s property,” Renaud replied calmly.

 

“We’re slaves,” Jamie spat as anger rapidly replaced both his earlier fear of Stefos and his embarrassment of standing naked before the Angel of Death. “Tell me, how many of us have you killed?”

 

Looking even more puzzled, Renaud asked, “Us?”

 

“Avionnes,” Jamie asked, glaring at Renaud. “How many Avionnes have you killed?”

 

“None,” Renaud said.

 

“But you would if he told you to, wouldn’t you?” Jamie asked taking a step forward and Renaud was surprised when he found himself suddenly taking a step back. Despite having just escaped a perilous situation the boy, naked and defenseless, had a surprisingly forceful presence – something Renaud hadn’t at all expected.

 

He’d just saved the boy’s life, something he'd thought would earn him deep thanks and gratitude, yet the boy – a true prince – was acting more like a wild desert cat. Barely pausing for breath, the boy standing before him continued to lash out angrily.

 

“It’s wrong,” Jamie continued, and part of him watched helplessly aghast as the adrenalin surge from the last few minutes of terror and fury drove him to say these reckless and revealing things. “We deserve to be free. You deserve to be free, or do you enjoy killing people?”

 

Renaud didn’t answer.

 

“Well, do you?” Jamie demanded angrily.

 

Renaud remained silent. He just stood listening as Jamie continued to rant. Still surprised at the boy’s reaction, Renaud listened calmly, but said nothing, appearing to patiently be waiting until Jamie had nothing further to say. Still flushed with anger Jamie stood, hands on his hips, glaring at Renaud. For a few seconds Renaud stared back.

 

“Wait here,” Renaud finally said, then quickly departed the garden. A few minutes later, he returned with a simple tunic. It was large but when he handed it to the boy. Jamie immediately took it and slipped into it.

 

“There’s a hov waiting for you. I requested one be dispatched to take you home,” Renaud said walking toward a break in a nearby hedgerow. Looking back at Jamie, he added, “Come with me, please.”

 

Instead of returning to the palace, Renaud escorted Jamie from the garden by a different route. After passing through a narrow gate in a high wall, Jamie found himself standing at the head of a long, expansive lawn. A small hov was waiting for him. Renaud walked him to the hov and Jamie started up the short ramp.

 

Jamie stopped and turned around to stare at Renaud. “What about the Duke?” Jamie asked.

 

“He won’t be bothering you anymore,” Renaud said. And something in the way he replied told Jamie that in the near future there might possibly be the investiture of a new Duke of Turbonet. He nodded, and stared for a few seconds at the tall, slender boy standing at the bottom of the boarding ramp and then Jamie whispered in a voice so soft he could barely hear himself, “Thank you.”

 

Turning back to the hov, Jamie completed his climb up the ramp and disappeared. A few seconds later, Renaud watched through one of the hov’s windows as the boy took a seat directly behind the pilot. Stepping away from the craft as the engines powered up, Renaud continued to observe as the hov lifted off. His eyes followed the craft for a long time until, even with the aid of his acute vision, it finally disappeared into the night sky and he was left staring at the stars. For a few minutes he stood alone in the garden, thinking. The boy had asked him if he enjoyed killing people. Did he? He’d certainly ended many lives in the short time he’d been with the Emperor.

 

“No,” Renaud said softly, “there’s nothing to like about it.”

 

Walking back to the palace, Renaud noted the contrast between the solitude of the garden at night and the blazing light and merry music coming from the palace. And although he knew he should return to the Emperor’s side as quickly as possible, his trip back to the palace was slow and deliberate as he lingered for a few moments in the peace and quiet of the garden.

 

A week after his appearance at the palace party, Jamie found himself sitting in the imperial box at Castle Rood with some of the most senior and powerful members of the nobility along with an eclectic mix of bourgeoisie, intellectuals, artists, scientists and politicians. Upon arriving by hov he’d been greeted and hustled along into the structure that housed the great arena. Initially he was told that he would also be attending a race at the hippodrome, but a mechanical problem with the hov sent to pick him up set back his arrival time and the races were just ending when his hov landed at the red castle. Taken to the imperial box in the arena he saw that it was empty. In fact he soon noticed that most of the seats in the arena were vacant.

 

The man who’d met Jamie’s hov and had escorted him to the Red Castle directed Jamie to one of the seats in the imperial box. And after just a few minutes wait, both the box and arena started to fill when the races in the hippodrome ended and crowds of people began to file in.

 

As more guests arrived and took their seats in the imperial box he began to notice that all of them were male. Some he recognized from La Mondele and parties he’d attended. Others he’d seen or met at special private venues where he’d been requested to perform. More than a few of the guests greeted and acknowledged him. Always gracious, he smiled and thanked them for their support and their kind words of praise.

 

Just as the Imperial Box began to fill, so did the arena seating. Once more Jamie noted that while he could spot an occasional woman or girl, at least ninety-five percent of the crowd were male – ranging from old to young. In many cases he could tell that he was looking at fathers with their sons, or whole families with grandfathers, fathers, uncles, sons, brothers and cousins. Groups of friends, packs of students – from private academies and universities – along with young men from some of the trade unions were also represented.

 

Once the arena and the imperial box were filled, a single trumpet sounded and everyone rose up from their seats. Without flourish or pomp the Emperor, accompanied by Savaron Loka and two other nobles, entered the box. Jamie was quick to note the Empress’s absence from the event. With minimal fuss, the Emperor and his small retinue settled in. Less than a minute later Jamie saw the Emperor look down into the arena and nod. The instant he did, a man with a heavy wooden mallet struck a large bronze bell three times, sending deep, sonorous vibrations through the air.

 

Seconds after the deep voiced tolling of the bell faded into silence, two large gates opened on either side of the arena, and from tunnels leading deep underneath the castle to the arena floor, an army of winged angels emerged. Large and strong, the warriors were armed with swords, spears, maces and any number of crude instruments of ancient warfare. From the differences in the two groups dress, it became obvious they were opposing forces. As soon as they were assembled on the arena floor, they charged each other with abandon. The battle that ensued left Jamie both in shock and speechless. For months, with Charlie’s help, he’d been studying the art of war, but it had been cold and detached. Now, before his eyes, the sheer force and brutality of the real thing played out on the sand below.

 

The man sitting next to him in the imperial box, an industrialist controlling a sector of the manufacturing facilities on Ajax, noticed Jamie’s reaction. Turning to the boy, he smiled and put a hand on Jamie’s arm.

 

“Your first time?” he said, noticing the boy’s pale color while giving Jamie a knowing grin.

 

“Yes,” Jamie said, surprised at how dry his mouth had suddenly become.

 

“It takes a little getting used to, especially if you’ve haven’t been brought up with it, like those boys down there,” he said, pointing to a group of very young boys – probably from one of the junior primary imperial academies. They were wildly jumping up and down, screaming and cheering as the Avionne warriors hacked and carved each other up. As time went on the warrior’s ranks rapidly diminished.

 

“This is just the warm up,” the man continued. “There’ll be five matches between opposing teams – all thrones. They're stupid as mules, but incredible fighters. At the end of the five matches the victors get to face down the gahdar – but not before the animal acts.”

 

Jamie watched the macabre dance of battle unfold before his eyes, suddenly realizing that the strategic knowledge of war he’d been trying to absorb was a pale, anemic, academic discourse compared to the horrific reality he was witnessing in person. More than once he found himself averting his eyes or turning his head. The man beside him, like the rest of the crowd, cheered and shouted. Glancing occasionally at Jamie the man seemed to take delight in the uncomfortable, often sickly – expression on the boy’s face.

 

But shocking as the battles were, and the more upset he became over the carnage, an overriding thought began to galvanize within him as a new realization and paradigm took hold in his mind and began to burrow its way deep into his psyche. These were Avionnes fighting Avionnes. Maybe they were as stupid as the man had said, but they were his race, born and bred to slaughter each other for the amusement and entertainment of the empire. By the end of the fifth match he felt sick and found the bloodshed hard to watch, but he also felt something else – anger. From deep inside, the anger he’d felt over the death of his father, the scattering of his friends and family and his years as a slave in the service of the empire went from a smoldering ember to the spark of a flame – a flame that would not be easily extinguished.

 

At the end of the final battle there was an intermission – time to clean up the carnage and reset for the animal acts, the man explained. During the lull, the Emperor took the opportunity to get up from his seat and talk to some of those who’d been invited into the imperial box. A few minutes into the intermission, Jamie looked up to see the emperor approaching.

 

“Taking care of the Prince of La Mondele, Daron?” the Emperor asked the man who’d been sitting next to Jamie.

 

“Yes, my Emperor,” the man said, giving Enrick a respectful bow, “but I fear it’s not what he expected.”

 

“A virgin to the games,” the Emperor replied. “Too much time dancing in the theater, no appreciation of the realities of the world?”

 

Daron just smiled and then, turning to Jamie, Daron gave the boy the kind of indulgent look one often gives to someone with a weak stomach. Jamie remained silent, but the flame that had sparked his anger during the match flared in the pit of his stomach.

 

“We think you prefer the culture and luxury of the Mountain of the Arts,” the Emperor commented, turning to Jamie.

 

“Most probably,” Jamie said quietly, repressing his anger and revulsion at the blood sports these humans practiced. In over two years of living on the Mountain of the Arts, he’d not led the Spartan life of those fighting in the arena, but he certainly hadn’t been living in luxury either and he resented the Emperor's implication that having been ripped from his home and family in Isewier, his life at the École was somehow a great honor.

 

“And have you been preparing something for the anniversary of my birth?” Enrick asked, abruptly changing the topic

 

“Yes, my Emperor,” Jamie replied, bowing to the undisputed head of the Empire. “There is something I’ve thought about presenting for some time. It would be different... I’d say quite different from what has been performed in the past, but it would require some additional planning and preparation.”

 

Curious, the Emperor took a step forward. “And what would that be?”

 

“I think it will require two things, if I may humbly ask your indulgence, my Emperor.”

 

“Go on,” the Emperor said.

 

“The performance would need to take place in the Crystal Hall where the acrobats and gymnasts perform, and I would need some help with... well, I suppose... some technology and engineering? With help, I may be able to create a completely new and original routine.”

 

“It sounds intriguing,” the Emperor replied.

 

Jamie knew that the empire always valued ever more extravagant and spectacular displays.

 

“We will see that the Hall of Crystals is the site of the celebration, and you will be allowed to assemble a team of technical advisors and engineers.”

 

As the Emperor spoke, his private assistant rapidly input the information into his comp. A moment later, the deep voice of the large bronze arena bell once more smote the air. The Emperor returned to his seat, and the crowd cheered. Daron had referred to the second round of activities as the animal acts; giving Jamie the impression that what would follow was akin to a circus performance. But as the animal acts progressed, Jamie found nothing amusing or circus-like in them. They began with a number of condemned prisoners being torn apart by a variety of wild beasts. Daron explained that the animals had been starved and beaten into a bloodthirsty rage. Then Jamie sat stunned as he watched while the beasts attacked the corralled and helpless men and women. Even more shocking was how their terrified screams were drowned out by the wild shouts of the crowd. The final segment of the animal act was a pair of gahdar with bows, spears, tridents and nets fighting a mélange of wild beasts.

 

The third round of fighting began after a second intermission that ended with the sound of the gong. Round three featured Gahdar duets fighting the throne victors of the first tournament. In each case, the duets fought between two to six powerful, well-armed thrones – Daron explained that the number varied according to the handicap of each Duet. In every case, no matter what the odds, the smaller primi and secundi of each duet fought like machines and easily dispatched the larger, and forbidding looking thrones. During the Gahdar matches that the crowd showed their support for the various duets, and it soon became clear that each duet had their ranks of loyal fans. When a duet named Wolf took to the arena floor, there were howls and wolf calls from their supporters. When the match was over and the two fighters – Francesco and Tanguy – stood victorious over the bodies of the six thrones they’d defeated, they were wildly cheered and showered with petals and buds pulled from the various pockets of Duet Wolf fans clustered around the arena. As the matches continued, Jamie began to realize that throughout the contests the Gahdar duets never fought each other. By the fourth match, he asked Daron.

 

“Each Gahdar duet is pledged to a noble house,” Daron said, “The expense of Gahdar training, their equipment, and their care are all handled by the house they represent. When they fight, wagers are placed – some quite large. Fortunes have been made and lost in the castle’s arena. You wouldn’t put all that time and effort – not to mention money – into training a duet just to have them killed during their first match. Gahdar train, live and fight together, but they never fight each other. They have a code; they’re like brothers – brothers in arms. They’ve always been like that, but it changed when the Baron began fighting here.”

 

“Do you mean Niklas?” Jamie asked, his curiosity peaked at the mention of Niklas Agramon’s fighting sobriquet.

 

“Yes. It’s said he’s organized them into some type of family. I don’t pretend to understand it. But I just know that after he started fighting here, the gahdar began to act differently. They train harder, they fight smarter and they help each other.”

 

“How?”

 

“You’ll see; the next match is a double.”

 

Not sure what that meant, Jamie watched as two separate duets named Razor and Panther took to the arena floor. The instant they appeared, their supporters cheered, whistled and stamped their feet. After the four boys were in place, twelve thrones appeared – the boos and shouts raining down on the thrones were loud. Daron told Jamie that boys who made up Razor were named Sasha and Cray, while the primi and secundi of Panther were called Sebastian and Sixtus.

 

“Now watch them fight,” Daron whispered quietly.

 

When the signal was given the thrones attacked and the two Gahdar duets joined them in battle. Jamie was still more than troubled to see Icarian fighting Icarian just for the sake of blood sport, yet the skill of the Gahdar was amazing. As a performer he began to feel like he was watching a well-choreographed dance and he thought of the strong, athletic moves of his friends from Trio Chrysalis. The carnage was still revolting, but he could understand how these contests could become addictive.

 

When the match was over Daron bent his head toward Jamie. “Did you see how they fought together, helping each other?’ When Jamie nodded Daron continued, “There are points for first blood, first kill, number of kills, most creative kill and such. In the past, each Gahdar fought for himself; even the primi and secundi of the duets rarely worked together. After the Baron arrived, they began to fight in harmony and to assist each other. Duets began to fight more like teams and even multiple duets fought in unison. It’s greatly improved the games.”

 

The carnage of the match was cleared and after a short pause a single Gahdar duet entered the arena. The instant they cleared the dark tunnel and advanced into the sunlight there were shouts and cheers.  When Jamie caught sight of the pair he immediately noticed three things. The first was that the boys wore no armor or obvious protection, but were simply dressed in what looked like loose white pajamas. The second was that they were barefoot, and the third most amazing thing of all was that while their wings were fully matured, they looked like children no more than twelve or thirteen commonwealth standard.. As they began their walk to the center of the ring shouts of SPIDER, SPIDER, SPIDER, filled the air and Jamie noticed the duet’s supporters held up their hands and moved their fingers mimicking the long-legged steps of a spider. Many of the younger boys in the arena seemed to be the most enthusiastic supporters of the duet.

 

“I think you’ll enjoy this,” Daron said giving Jamie a wink.

 

“But they’re so young. Their only children.”

 

A loud sputtering guffaw spewed from Daron. It turned into a belly laugh that ended in a wheezing cough. When Daron finally caught his breath he grinned, “those children are twenty-four years old commonwealth standard. “Rumor has it that they were some type of experiment out of Gold Glass. Tongreun, the noble house they fight for, requested they be trained in a different way from the other duets. As I said, I think you’ll enjoy the match.”

 

The only weapons Duet Spider appeared to carry were swords, and even they seemed odd. Unlike the large double-edged broadswords, and shorter attack swords of the other duets, the primi and secundi of Duet Spider each held a single slender slightly curved sword. The blades of both swords were highly polished; their every movement catching the sun’s rays as the boys advanced to the center of the arena.

 

“The blond on the right is called Yann,” Daron pointed out to Jamie. “The brown haired boy is Yvan.”

 

Once Yann and Yvan were in position, eight very large thrones appeared. The battle-clad thrones were armed to the teeth and looked like giants next to the two small boys of Spider. Jamie was amazed to see that once the thrones were in place the boys of Duet Spider stared up at the large creatures towering over them and then beamed the eight thrones two of the cutest and sweetest smiles he’d ever seen.

 

“Do they even take this seriously?” Jamie remarked.

 

“You’ll see soon enough, Prince de Valèn,” Daron said with a chuckle.

 

After bowing to the emperor, the boys from Spider thrust their swords into the sand of the arena, bowed to each other, and took what Jamie could only assume were defensive stances before the eight massive thrones.

 

They’ll be slaughtered, Jamie thought as he stared down at the two small unarmed boys.

 

But within seconds after the signal was given and the thrones attacked, Jamie’s opinion instantly changed. With blinding speed both boys spun, jumped and delivered kicks to the faces of the first two thrones that attacked. In the blink of an eye the thrones, who’d fallen backward, were once more set upon when each boy, using one of their small fists as weapons drove them directly into the faces of the large creatures. Cartridge split, bone cracked, and a gush of blood flew into the air. Instantly the put-upon thrones dropped to the ground as dead flies swatted out of the air.

 

Another pair of thrones met their end when both boys jumped onto the large creatures backs, wrapped their hands around the giant angel’s heads and with a quick jerk, snapped their opponent’s necks. As the thrones went down the boys jumped from the now dead bodies, then quickly grabbing their swords and carved up the remaining four thrones so quickly that the match was over scarcely two minutes after it started.

 

Duet Spider quickly took their bows, collected their signets, and departed the arena to the wild cheers of their supporters.

 

Jamie sat in awe, both shocked and amazed at what he’d just witnessed.

 

After the performance of Spider, Two doubles were fought followed by a triple. When the triple concluded and the three Gahdar duets left the field Jamie began to hear the stomping of feet as various sectors of the arena began to chant. At first he couldn’t make out what they were chanting, but after a bit he began to pick out one word – LIZARD, LIZARD, LIZARD over and over again. Seconds later the arena exploded in shouts, cheers, applause, and whistles as Miro and David Gillot of Duet Lizard entered the arena.

 

Playing to the crowd, the instant they entered the arena the twins began to strut and posture for their fans. Many of the other duets Jamie had seen fight simply entered the arena, took their places, and once in place began to fight. A few acknowledged the crowd, waved, bowed or smiled, but Miro and David had what could only be called true stage presence. Months as a headline performer at La Mondele had taught Jamie that his audience didn’t simply come to see him dance, but to perform – there was a great difference. A skillful practitioner who was technically correct in every way was no match for a warm, personable entertainer who might occasionally be less than perfect, and Duet Lizard exuded charm, personality and an arrogant confidence that was infectious.

 

Pacing confidently around the parameter of the arena, Miro had his short sword drawn and both arms extended, egging on the crowd. David, his short sword also in hand, parried the air with a series of fancy maneuvers. When both boys were at opposite ends of the arena they turned and faced each other, then with all their might ran toward each other, crossing the floor of the arena in bounding strides. When they finally met, their swords clashed and they began a fierce duel. The crowd went wild as the boys went at it with each other and soon the clanging of swords rang out like hammer blows on an anvil. Abruptly stopping their duel, the brothers disengaged and bowed to the assembled masse of spectators. After a minute of playing to the crowd the boys sparred a second time, to more cheers from the crowd.

 

After the second impromptu sparring match was over the crowd began to chant: AIR, AIR, AIR, AIR. Miro, with one hand on his hip, put on a puzzled look as if he were surprised and didn’t understand. The more confusion Miro displayed, the more the crowd screamed: AIR, AIR, AIR. Acting as if he suddenly understood, he pointed his index finger up toward the sky and shrugged. The crowd applauded and shouted. He looked at David and shook his head no, and the crowed screamed even louder: AIR, AIR, AIR. The stones of Rood were vibrating from the noise and Jamie began to think the entire arena would crumble to the ground.

 

Again Miro pointed up toward the sky and the crowd stamped their feet. For a few seconds it looked like hordes of wild fans were about to jump from their seats and spill onto the floor of the arena. The twins had whipped them into such a frenzy Jamie was starting to believe that anything could happen. Again Miro looked at David and shook his head: no. But seconds later, without warning, both boys stroked their wings and leapt into the air, engaging in a spectacular display of swordplay twenty feet above the floor of the arena. Disengaging, both boys floated back to the floor of the arena and a torrent of flowers rained on them.

 

Still egging on the crowd, the boys strutted and postured until it seemed to Jamie that if both brother’s ego’s could have been defined by some physical space neither of them separately would be able to fit into the vast arena of Castle Rood as a solo performer, let alone as a duet. After one final duel on the ground, the brothers separated and walked toward the Imperial box. Standing before the Emperor, they went down on one knee and saluted. The Emperor, who’d been enjoying the antics of his personal Duet, was smiling.

 

Miro and David stood. When they did, the Emperor reached down toward his feet, picked something up and threw it. Jamie watched as two pieces of ribbon-like lengths cloth fluttered from the box to the arena floor below. Each boy grabbed one. Miro approached David and tied the ribbon around his brother’s upper arm, David did the same for Miro. Once more the boys went to one knee and saluted the Emperor. When they stood, one of the gates to the arena floor opened and twelve massive thrones, armed to the teeth, jogged onto the arena floor. At this point the other duets had taken their stance and prepared to fight, but not Lizard. As the Thrones entered the arena, the boys taunted them. Miro made a fist and, looking at the Thrones, pounded the breastplate of his armor while thrusting his sword in their direction. The crowd adored it.

 

Finally the boys took their places, but before donning their helmets Miro strutting around the circle now defined by the massive thrones.

 

Les Gemeaux of Duet Lizard invite all who wish to challenge us to step forward, defend their honor, and meet their doom,” Miro said, then raising his sword high above his head he shouted, “for we are death…”

 

“...at the point of a sword!” David chimed in as he sent his sword in a quick and violent downward slash.

 

Sure that the brother’s words were strictly for the spectators and not the silent thrones they were about to battle quickly became evident to Jamie when seconds after the boys’ declaration, the arena crowd exploded with shouts, cheers, and thunderous applause.

 

Once helmeted, Miro and David standing side by side raised their swords and lightly tapped them against each other. A second later the signal was given and the battle began. Miro was the first to draw blood, a fact that he enjoyed so much that instead of continuing the attack on the Throne he’d bloodied, he pranced over to his brother David, who was engaged in a battle with two Thrones at the same time. Pounding on his chest and bragging, he shouted, “First blood!” David gave Miro a theatrically angry glare, then dispatched both of his opponents before Miro’s eyes.

 

“First kill, and two kills!” he shouted at his brother, now being the one to pound his chest.

 

The battle continued this way, with Miro and David fighting and posturing to each other. Occasionally they’d both leap to the air leaving the battle on the ground behind them to engage each other in an impromptu sparring match before descending and once more dispatching a throne or two. And although he was still revolted by the carnage, Jamie marveled at the amazing skill of the twins. Eventually all the thrones were dead and the victorious brothers stood side by side in the center of the arena. The boys turned to each other and grinned and then, gripping each other’s hands, they raised their arms in a victory salute to the crowd, and bowed. The crowd roared and more flowers fell from the stands. Finally Miro and David approached the Imperial box and bowed to the Emperor. A second time the Emperor reached down, but this time he picked up two small batons and tossed them to the boys. David and Miro each caught one and raised them above their head.

 

“A baton of victory. Given for exceptional performance,” Daron explained to Jamie. 

 

Both boys bowed deeply before the royal box as they arose in unison they cried out,” “We – les Gemeaux of Duet Lizard – salute the bravery of those who have died today. We honor them, and thank you for once more allowing us to defend our honor.”

 

The emperor smiled and nodded, the crowd cheered. Looking satisfied and pleased Miro and David took their leave and the applause of the crowd died away.

 

For most of Duet Lizard’s match the crowd had been on their feet, including the spectators in the royal box and Jamie had been forced to stand on his seat in order to see the action. Sitting back in his seat at the conclusion of the match Jamie shook his head. In his two years at La Mondele Royale he’d never seen such a theatrical performance.

 

Emperor smile broadly as he accepted the congratulations of those around him on the superb performance of his duet. After a few minutes the intermission ended and once more the large bronze bell began to ring, but unlike previously when it was sounded, the man hammering the bell didn’t stop after three strikes but continued to hit it over and over again. And unlike the other matches where the more the bell rang, the more the crowd cheered, as the bell continued to toll the crowd became increasingly quieter. When the final vibrations of the last strike finally faded from the arena the crowd was completely silent.

 

“Castle Rood features the greatest Gahdar in the history of the games,” a disembodied voice said that echoed throughout the arena. Startled, Jamie jumped at the unexpected announcement. “We present for your extreme enjoyment the only Gahdar ever to fight outside a duet: Niklas von Agramon, the Baron of Rood.’

 

Instead of the cheering that Jamie’d expected, a strong and steady chant began to spread through the crowd: BAR-RON, BAR-RON, BAR-RON, BAR-RON. Soon the people in the crowd began rhythmically clapping their hands and stomping their feet in time with the chant: BAR-RON, BAR-RON, BAR-RON, BAR-RON. And then, as if a great switch had been thrown, the rhythmic structure of the chanting collapsed losing all its form as a mighty roar rose from the crowd when a solitary, helmeted figure carrying a large broad sword in one hand and a small short sword in his other hand emerged from the tunnel leading onto the arena floor.

 

The first thing Jamie observed was that Niklas von Agramon was dressed in light battle armor – so light he doubted its ability to adequately protect the warrior it clad. The second was that its design was the plainest and simplest of all the armor he’d seen that day. The battle regalia of Miro and David had been blatantly ostentatious and indicative of a duet from the imperial house, in fact, most of the other duets were also outfitted magnificently by their patrons. But Niklas Agramon couldn’t have been dressed any more simply.  Deliberately, the boy strode to the center of the arena. Shortly after he’d emerged from the tunnel, two additional men appeared, who followed the Gahdar from a distance. One of the men carried a compliment of spears; the other, a trident, a bow, and quiver of arrows.

 

Once he was in the center of the ring Niklas drove the large broadsword into the dirt of the arena floor, gripped his short sword, and stood silently still. The two men following him stopped at a distance behind him. The one carrying the spears deliberately drove each one into the ground behind the boy. The second draped the bow and quiver of arrows over one of the spears that had a hook attached to its haft and then with a strong thrust drove the trident into the ground. Finished, both men left the floor of the arena. In the meantime the young warrior remained silent and unmoving, the cage-like face guard of his helmet obscuring most of the boy’s face.

 

While none of the Gahdar were as large and muscular as the thrones they fought, anyone could see that they were strong and toned. The figure that now stood before the crowd looked athletic, but thin – more a runner than a warrior – and Jamie was reminded of the trim athletic bodies of the boys who formed the gymnastics troupe. As the crowd continued to cheer a phalanx of very large thrones appeared at the edge of the tunnel and began to march into the arena. From their fresh appearance Jamie could tell that the thrones who now appeared on the floor of the arena weren’t any of the ones that had been in the first battle.

 

When he commented on his observation to Daron, the man agreed. “You’re very observant,” he said. “They’re fresh, and well rested. They haven’t yet fought in any of the day’s matches.”

 

As they’d emerged from the tunnel Jamie began to count, two, four, six, eight, ten, twelve, fourteen! The thrones took positions around Niklas in the form of a circle. The bell ran out three more times and the crowd stopped cheering, quickly taking their seats. A few seconds passed and just when Jamie expected the match to start a noise coming from the other tunnel drew his attention. The gates cranked opened and two tigers, a leopard, and three lions ran into the arena.

 

“Just to make it more interesting,” Daron said leaning toward Jamie and whispering into the boy’s ear. He went on to explain that just as in the earlier animal acts, the animals had been starved and beaten into a frenzy so that they were properly prepared to taste flesh – human or Avionne.

 

Throughout all the preparations the young Gahdar standing in the center of the arena remained motionless. If Miro and David exuded stage presence, Niklas Agramon showed none at all, but as Jamie felt the tension in the arena grow while he watched both Niklas and the crowd, he realized that the boy’s total lack of posturing created the greatest presence of anyone he’d seen perform in the arena that day.

 

“I notice he didn’t acknowledge the emperor,” Jamie whispered to Daron.

 

“He doesn’t need to,” Daron replied. “After that incident with the wild boar, the Emperor’s placed him on a different level. He’ll take his accolades after the contest.”

 

If he’s still alive, Jamie thought.

 

One final time the hammer was brought down upon the bronze bell... one... two... three... strikes and the thrones surrounding Niklas began their attack. As they advanced Niklas picked out the nearest throne gripped his sword and took a single step forward looking as if he were ready to engage in combat, but having seen many practices and performances of the acrobats in the academy, Jamie could tell by the way the boy had taken the step and his present stance that Niklas was going to leap into the air, although when he did leap it was a completely unexpected back flip. Instead of facing down his initial opponent, as expected, the young gladiator was staring at the back of one of the thrones who’d been steadily advancing towards him. A quick slice of his sword against the back legs of the throne immediately brought the large angel down and took him out of the fight. Then with another leap, Niklas once again was face to face with his original attacker – who was now thoroughly thrown off balance after being dodged and then confronted in a rapid series of moves. A quick series of parries and thrusts and Niklas' sword found its mark, tearing at the side of the throne who, although not dispatched, went down and was effectively taken out of the match.

 

A few seconds after the second throne was taken out, there was a shout and a scream when one of the tigers came upon an unsuspecting throne and began to maul the large Avionne. Driving the blade of his short sword into the ground Niklas turned and grabbed the bow that was hanging from one of the spears. Quickly pulling an arrow from it’s quiver he nocked it and fired at the lion. Two more arrows killed the beast, which collapsed to lay across the injured, but still living throne. With his bow still in hand Niklas continued to nock and fire arrows, one... two... three... four. Searching out the animals in the arena, he was able to quickly dispatch the second tiger, the panther and one of the lions who’d been mauling a second throne. Then, for good measure, he nocked a final arrow and drew his bow. The projectile flew through the air and lodged deep in the upper shoulder of a throne. Jamie was amazed the shot had been so accurate that it entered precisely near the socket where the shoulder and upper arm came together. Like many dancers Jamie’s career had not been without the occasional injury. Time spend in physical therapy had taught him a few things about the human body. Now watching Niklas action he realized the arrow had lodged near one of the main nerves of the upper arm and shoulder suddenly making it impossible for the thrown to grip and use his sword.

 

The match continued with Niklas Agramon besting one throne after another. At one point the boy drew the heavy long broad sword from the ground and welding it first over his head before swinging it before him, he sliced through the upper thighs of three approaching thrones. The cuts were very deep, and suddenly the large Avionnes found they couldn’t stand.

 

By the time the tenth throne was dispatched with a spear thrust that pinned him to the wall of the arena, Jamie’s mathematical mind noticed a pattern.

 

                “He hasn’t killed one of them,” Jamie said turning to Daron. “They’ve been effectively eliminated from the match. but he hasn’t actually killed one of them.”

 

                “So you’ve noticed,” Daron smiled. “That’s why he’s the greatest Gahdar in the history of the arena. He’s never killed another Avionne, he fights to disable, but not to kill. It takes tremendous skill to be able to do that, and not get killed yourself. His record so far is unblemished.”

 

                “Then that would explain...” Jamie paused.

 

                “Explain what?” Daron asked.

 

                “Sorry, nothing,” Jamie said pretending to take renewed interest in the match.

 

                From the moment he’d entered the arena Jamie could feel the raw emotions of violence all around him. The crowd exuded it, those in the imperial box displayed it, but it was strongest from the warrior’s themselves. As they fought, the Gahdar gave off waves of emotion that had disturbed Jamie more than the obvious carnage and bloodshed he’d witnessed – all but the boy now fighting on the roiled sands below. Concentrating, Jamie tried to reach out to Niklas' mind but then stopped, worried that contact might distract the boy and place him in danger. Choosing restraint, Jamie patiently continued to watch the match.

 

                One by one, the final four thrones were defeated but not killed. The remaining lions had begun to attack one of the fallen thrones, but Niklas dashed to the injured warrior and quickly dispatched the animals. The crowd went wild. NIK-LAS, NIK-LAS, NIK-LAS, NIK-LAS. They were on their feet, stomping and clapping, cheering and shouting all at the same time. A torrent of flowers and signets fell from the sky.

 

                Thrusting his sword into the ground, the boy reached up, pulled off his helmet, and stood quietly in the center of the arena. No grin or smile appeared on his face, yet he also didn’t appear angry or morose. Calm and cool, he neither postured to nor rejected the adulation of the crowd and as a fellow performer Jamie immediately understood. Finally reaching out to Niklas mind he gently probed. Silent and stoic the Gahdar suddenly experienced a strange feeling and frowned. Quickly his eyes scanned the arena, but in seconds the feeling passed and he deliberately walked to the imperial box.

 

                Jamie, finished his scan and although the crowd and those in the imperial box continued to stand and cheer, he slowly sat down in his seat as a pleasant, almost loving, smile appeared on his face.

 

                “Amazing, wasn’t it?” Daron said looking down at the smiling boy, “I can see your coming to like the games.”

 

                Jamie didn’t respond. If Daron wanted to think that, so be it. The feeling was still there. Jamie’d felt it. Sitting in his seat he took a deep breath and revisited it. In the years since Jamie’d first encountered the young gahdar in training, Niklas' purity could still be felt. Now mixed with other emotions, it was still there. Jamie’s smile grew broader, he couldn’t help it, for now he knew why Niklas von Agramon never made the easy kill in all his years in the arena, choosing instead to use his skill to disable his opponents.

 

He doesn’t kill Jamie thought, because he hates it.

 

                When the spectacle at Rood was over, Jamie returned to the École and over supper his friends bombarded him with questions, eager to hear every detail of his day. Later that evening as he was preparing for bed Castor also asked Jamie about his trip to the red castle. Jamie politely gave Castor the highlights, but when he was finished he sat on a nearby stool preparing to remove his sandals. A few feet away, Castor was hanging some of Jamie’s clothing in the closet. Looking up at Castor a thought occurred to Jamie. Although he’d lived with Castor for the first twelve years of his life, the head of household for Villa Mare Vista, Castor had been more of an authority figure for Jamie and Charlie, and there was much about the Kalorian Jamie knew nothing of.

 

                “Castor, you knew Father for a very long time, didn’t you?”

 

                “Yes, since he was a little boy,” Castor replied. “I myself was a young boy of thirteen when I came to Tower Hall, your father’s family home. He was a child of three.

 

                “What made him so different from the others?”

 

                “What others?”

 

                “The other scientists,” Jamie said. “The more I’ve learned about the scientists of our world the more I see them as cold and distant. They strive to create new technologies, but they don’t seem to think about the consequences – like the plague. Father was a bit distant too, but I know he cared – at least more than the others.”

 

                “Your father came from one of the lesser noble families of Tower Mount,” Castor said turning toward the boy and giving Jamie his full attention. “His older brother Thomas was groomed to take the family title and land. In some of the noble families a situation like that often causes conflict, but it was never an issue with your father. It just wasn’t something that held Edmond's interest. Edmond and Thomas were very close. They were only one year apart in age. In some ways, your relationship with Charlie always reminded me of the one between Thomas and Edmond. Thomas was carefree, athletic, and outgoing – a real extravert. Edmond was bookish, quiet and introverted, but they got along well. Thomas had a real love and concern for his younger brother, and Edmond idolized Thomas. I often think that’s one of the reasons your father had both you and Charlie. It’s the model he grew up with. It’s the one he knew best.

 

Edmond’s genius emerged early. By the time he was four years old, it was clear that he was a prodigy. The Empire has always valued its scientists; in many ways, they are the true nobility of the planet. The scientific community of Altinestra has always formed its own social class – you know from your studies that they were, after all, the founders of the planet.”

 

                Jamie nodded, “Mobley taught us about the great generational ships that set out across the galaxy. And everyone on Altinestra knows the story of how the Titan and the Victory finally made planet fall here.”

 

                “Correct, young master,” Castor said. Crossing the room he sat down on the edge of Jamie’s bed. “After your father’s genius was discovered it was cultivated and observed. Since one of the imperial scientific academies was near Tower Mount, he was sent there to study. His family home was nearby and since he was so young it was decided that he would study at the academy, but continue to live at the family home. His parents were kind and loving.  Thomas and Edmond were their only two children and they lavished them with attention and a great deal of love.”

 

                “You said you were thirteen when you came to Tower Hall. Where were you from?”

 

                “Originally one of the smaller settlements outside of Imperialas. I never knew my father; he was killed in an industrial accident one month before I was born. When I was eight, my mother became ill. It was quite sudden and unexpected, and within three week's time she was dead. I was too young to know what the cause was. I’ve often wondered if it was a form of the plague. After that I was sold.

 

My new master was a licensed slave trader. Most of the slaves he purchased were immediately sold for a profit. A few, whom he thought had potential, he kept for a while, investing time and money in them for additional training. Some, like me, he even educated.  When he first bought me, he had me appraised. I wasn’t stupid, so I was given a rudimentary education – basic reading, mathematics, along with some other training – it was thought I might make either a good overseer or head of household one day, and so when I was thirteen I was sold to your father’s parents. The initial plan was that I would join the Croal household at Tower Hall and apprentice under Cassius, an ancient Kalorian who was head of household there. Being head of household requires many skills and much knowledge, so the apprenticeship would take years. Eventually, when Cassius was too old for his duties I’d be expected to fill his position.”

 

                “But that didn’t happen, did it?” Jamie asked. He was familiar with enough of the history of Edmond Croal and Castor to know the Kalorian never became head of household for Tower Hall.

 

“No, young master,” Croal replied, “That didn’t happen. Although I began my apprenticeship under Cassius, after a few years when your father began to attend the academy, I was put in charge of him – much like your father put me in charge of you and Charlie. I made sure he was cared for. I accompanied him to and from the academy – remember, although he was a genius he was still quite young and great intelligence doesn’t automatically confer great maturity, does it?” Castor asked raising an eyebrow as he gave Jamie one of his appraising looks.

 

“Just because I burned his eyebrows off doesn’t mean...”

 

“Did I say anything about that?” Castor interjected as a smile grew on his face. “I was simply making the point that intelligence and wisdom are two separate things.”

 

“Yes, but you were thinking it,” Jamie said. Shifting his position, Jamie looked at Castor and began to grin. “He never forgave me for that did he? I told him I was sorry.” Jamie giggled as he recalled the incident.

 

“I wonder why?” Castor replied. “Maybe it was because your apology was followed by the very same giggle you just made.”

 

Jamie chuckled. “You and father made me apologize and I really was sorry, but he looked so funny and ridiculous without any eyebrows, I couldn’t help it.”

 

“Well it was often that way with your father,” Castor said.

 

“Father was like me?” Jamie asked.

 

“No not really,” Castor replied. “Your father was quiet and calm, but he still needed care and guidance. If you’re like anyone from the Croal household it would be Thomas. He was bold and adventuresome. That boy could get into trouble sitting on a stool and reading a book. Things just happened when he was around.”

 

“Like me?” Jamie asked.

 

“Precisely.”

 

“You were telling me that Father was sent to the academy when he was young. What happened then?”

 

Shifting from the edge of the bed to a more comfortable spot, Castor continued. “He began his studies and in a short time quickly surpassed all of the other students. After a few years, he surpassed most of the faculty. By the time he was fourteen – just a bit younger than you are now – it was decided he would be assigned to Gold Glass. In fact, he was given his own laboratory and a small staff.”

 

                “I’m seventeen commonwealth standard,” Jamie said, “At fourteen Father would have been sixteen commonwealth. Isn’t that really young to have private lab space at Gold Glass?”

 

                “Of course it is, but your father’s talent and genius were truly amazing. He was groomed for greatness, and great things were expected of him. It was in his first year at Gold Glass that he revolutionized the study of genetics. And at the end of that year, he'd advanced the work begun with the creation of the Kalorian race to the point where... well... I’m looking at the product,” Castor said softly as he smiled at Jamie.

 

                “Really? Father would have been only close to eighteen commonwealth! That’s less than a year older than me.”

 

                “The first Icarian was created when he was seventeen and a half commonwealth,” Castor replied.

 

                Jamie smiled, noting that Castor had used the word Icarian and not Avionne, but then a frown quickly came to his face and he hung his head. “And what am I doing at seventeen? Creating a new dance for the Emperor’s birthday celebration.”

 

                Castor rose from the bed and walked over to the boy, putting a hand on Jamie’s shoulder. “Your time is coming, young master,” Castor said softly, but with conviction. “As great as the task was that your father set out to accomplish, the journey you embark on is even greater. Patience is not your strong suit I’m afraid, but for now it is essential.”

 

                At first Jamie remained silent then looking up at Castor he asked, “What happened after Father went to Gold Glass and he created the first Icarian? And who was the first Icarian?”

 

                “It’s getting late,” Castor said, “and you have practice and rehearsal tomorrow. I’ll tell you more, just not tonight. It’s time for bed.”

 

                Sighing Jamie got up from the stool. Moving to the bed he began to undress. By the time he pulled his sleep shorts on Castor had cleaned up the room, gathered Jamie’s dirty clothing, and was headed for the door.

 

                “Castor? Jamie asked, as the Kalorian was about to turn off the lights. “You said I was like Father’s brother Thomas. And science, math and numbers come so easy to me – just like they did for Father. Do you think that when he made me he put some of that in? I know Charlie and I come mostly from the founder and we’re really not Croals, but de Valèns.”

 

                “You father was a genetic genius,” Castor said, looking at the beautiful body of the maturing boy stretched out on the bed as he recalled the much younger one he'd woken every morning at Villa Mare Vista. “It’s true you’re mostly of the founder, but there were other contributions. Your father told me he put some of himself into you and I guess that’s where your genius comes from. Thomas? Well I honestly don’t know... maybe. But I do remember that once there was a young woman; your father told me she was a pre-cognate. She had the most beautiful eyes I’d ever...”

 

                Castor’s paused and was silent. When the pause continued Jamie lifted his head from his pillow and looked across the room to the old Kalorian. “What?” he asked.

 

                “Beautiful blue eyes just like yours, Jamie,” Castor replied. Then he switched off the light and left the room.

 

                Jamie heard the door snap shut. Making a fist he knocked gently three times on the wall beside his bed. Three soft taps answered his and Jamie smiled to himself. For a while he lay on his bed in the night-filled room and remained awake. A star-like pattern – moonlight streaming through the windows – danced across his ceiling, and for some time before nodding off to sleep he stared at it with the eyes that his father had given him.