The Scrolls of Icaria by Jamie


Book 2 – 'War of the Angels'


Part II - Prince of Mondele Royale



Chapter 31


Looking confused and tired, a middle-aged man wearing the livery of Imperialas and tightly clutching an envelope stepped out of the gate of a small park near the campus of the École Danse and stopped. He looked both ways - first left, and then right - and didn’t recognize anything. He sighed, walked to a nearby bench and sat down. For a few seconds he wasn’t sure what to do and sat with his head bowed and cupped in his hands. His head came up fast, though, when he heard the light laughter of two avionne boys walking on a nearby path, and he jumped up to call out to the pair. The boys paused and waited as the man rushed to catch up with them. Slightly out of breath, he asked where he might find the Hall of the Crystal Sphere. Casually pointing the man in the proper direction, they continued on their way. With a wave of thanks, the man hurried off, following the directions he’d been given.


It was his first time on the Mountain of the Arts, and he’d already gotten lost twice. Hoping the boys’ directions were correct, he walked a bit further and then turned left onto a broad, graveled path that cut through a wooded glade. As directed, he followed the shadowed meanderings of a small stream, and skirted the placid pond it flowed into. Grimacing a little, he guessed that there was a shorter and easier way to get where he needed to go - he hadn’t missed the mischievous glance between the boys. Still, if only he could get there, he wouldn’t begrudge them their fun.


Going a bit further, he noticed a break in the trees up ahead. Feeling slightly more confident, he picked up his pace along the path. The end of the glen opened onto a grassy acre that stretched out before him. A grand circle of carefully pruned sycamore trees bordered the massive lawn, and defined the stage for the central attraction: in the center of the neatly mown lawn sat a squat but massive building that looked like a low-walled stadium covered with an immense glass dome. Realizing he’d arrived at the Crystal Sphere, the man breathed a sigh of relief and started the trek across the expanse of grass.


One of the newer buildings on the Mountain of the Arts, the Crystal Sphere’s elliptical dome looked from afar like a large, cut-glass bowl turned upside down. On a clear, cloudless day when the sun touched the building, its rays were refracted in many angles by the large triangular pieces of glass that made up the dome. The illusion was that of a building constructed from thousands of prisms. A paving of polished, black granite slabs led to the structure, and the man stepped onto it. Walking up the broad, shrub-lined avenue, the click of his heels on the granite blocks floated away, to be lost among the sycamores.


At the entrance of the Crystal Sphere, he walked up a low, wide set of steps that formed a small plaza in front of the building; a large Romanesque arch led into the sphere. Hurrying across the plaza he walked through the arch, and entered an enormous, curving hall that formed an enclosed outer ring around the entire building. Doors leading to both the general seating and private boxes were set into the inner wall at regular intervals; instead of using one of them, he hesitated a moment and then took a stairway a few feet to his right. He clattered down some stone steps and shoved open the metal door at the bottom, which opened onto a wide, well-lit tunnel - access to a whole series of rooms and chambers that most spectators for events at the Crystal Sphere never saw.


Striding down the long corridor he noticed that it began to angle upward, a fact confirmed by the increasing strain on his already tired calf muscles. As the tunnel curved upward, he could see that it opened directly into the central arena of the Crystal Sphere, and once he reached the tunnel’s terminus he found himself looking outward across the floor of the arena. Emerging from the tunnel, he looked out into an atmosphere of organized chaos; his senses were bombarded with the sights, sounds, and smells of at least three to four dozen workers in the process of constructing a large, raised platform in the center of the arena.


Clearly, from its appearance and construction, it was to be a stage, but he was amazed at the engineering complexity of the structure. There were lines of tangled wires, along with pipes and tubes of various sizes lying scattered on the ground everywhere he looked. Eight men under the structure were installing one of many large hydraulic pistons that were attached to the underside of the stage. A small crew to the right of the stage, using a small boom, was positioning a series of thin metal girders that appeared to be some type of scaffolding. Another group of technicians, climbing over parts of the completed scaffold, were beginning to attach lights and other devices to the structure. A pit had been dug into the floor of the arena, directly in front of the stage and a crew of workers were making adjustments to some large pieces of machinery that had been placed into it.


“Heads-up, sir,” a worker carrying a bundle of long angular metal rods called out, and the man quickly sidestepped out of the workman’s way.


A sudden crackle startled him and he turned just in time to see a fountain of sparks erupt as a welder wearing a mask began brazing a tubular piece of steel. Seconds later, the acrid smell of the arc welder filled his nostrils as a blue tinted cloud floated in his direction. Trying to back away from it, he tripped over a thick coil of rope snaking along the ground. A technician standing close by reached out and steadied the man before he fell. Thanking the technician, the man asked him a question. In reply, the worker pointed up at the stage. There, in the midst of the maelstrom, he caught sight of an avionne boy who was conversing with a well-dressed man. They were both hunched over a small table, examining an unrolled sheaf of plans.


The man immediately recognized the avionne, for although he’d never been to a live performance of the so-called Prince of the Mondele, he’d seen Jamie de Valčn in more than a few vids. In real life, the boy appeared smaller then he did on the vids, but he was even more handsome in person. Pointing at the stack of plans, Jamie was explaining something. The well-dressed man standing next to the prince nodded his head in agreement as the prince continued to speak. A few seconds later, the man turned from Jamie and began to direct the actions of two men where they were bolting metal plates to the floor of the stage.


Jamie turned away, and the man with the envelope, seizing the opportunity, began waving his arms. The action caught Jamie’s eye and with a quick leap and stroke of his wings he was in the air. Floating down from the stage he landed near the man, who walked up and began speaking to Jamie. After a brief exchange he handed Jamie the envelope. His mission accomplished, the man turned without waiting for a response and departed the arena. Jamie poked a finger into the sealed fold of the envelope and tore it open. Discovering a card nestled inside, he extracted it and began to read. Still staring at the card, a worried expression came to his face. Looking up to the stage, he called out to the man holding the plans.


“I have to return to the school,” Jamie shouted over the din of the construction.


The man on the stage nodded in acknowledgement. “I’ll remain until they finish with the first set of pipes. I want to make sure they’re installed properly.”


“Remember, the air and water tubes have to be placed precisely according to the plans,” Jamie called back. “Some water won’t hurt. In fact I expect it. But too much will soak our feathers and weigh down our wings, so it’s critical everything is properly controlled.”


“I’m expecting everything to be in place in about eight days,” the man shouted back as the high-pitched whine of a cutting saw filled the air. Then walking to the edge of the stage and looking down on Jamie he continued, “We’ll run some tests. I can let you know when we begin so that you can observe them. If you wish, you can even give it a try.”


“Ok,” Jamie replied, “That’s a good idea. I’m sure some adjustments will be needed, and I’d like to work with you on them.”


“That’s certainly possible. I’ll let you know as soon as we’re ready,” the man responded.


After nodded his agreement and giving a thumbs-up, Jamie shouted his thanks to the man and then, turning his back on the stage and its workers, he left the arena. Outside, he took the most direct route he could back to the École Danse.


“His name’s Hippolito. Do you know anything about him?” Jamie asked Castor while quickly ducking out of the way of one of Spinoza’s raptor-like dives. As usual, upon entering his room, he became the focus of Spinoza’s attention and the small lizard immediately made a beeline for Jamie’s head.


The moment he’d returned from the Crystal Sphere, he’d handed Castor the envelope and its contents – an invitation from one Prince Hippolito requesting Jamie’s presence for afternoon tea at the palace of Savaron Loka.


“No, young master, I don’t know him” Castor said, then added “but I believe you have the advantage on me. It’s true you’ve already made his acquaintance, no?”


“Yes, but it was only for a minute. It was at that party where...”


Jamie paused while Spinoza, making another pass, swooped down on Jamie, and landed on the boy’s shoulder. Secretly Jamie was grateful for the interruption, still finding it difficult to talk about the Emperor’s party where he’d been attacked by the Duke of Turbonet and the duke’s bodyguard.


“Please, you needn’t mention it, young master,” Castor said softly. “I know it remains a most unsettling experience for you.”


After Jamie returned from the emperor’s party in a plain toga at least one size too large, he tearfully confided to Castor what had happened. Castor did his best to calm and comfort Jamie while reassuring him that nothing that occurred had been his fault, although Jamie continued to harbor the feeling that he’d somehow invited the Duke’s advances. The one lasting consequence of the assault was that Jamie’s feelings of hatred for humans had only grown stronger, and he was more convinced than ever that they were an evil race.


“I think it’s obvious that since he used the stationery of the Duke of Imperialas, he’s somehow attached to Savaron Loka’s household,” Castor continued. “But other than that, I don’t have any answers for you.”


“I did a quick search on the standard planetary data bases,” Jamie began. “And I already know of his association with Loka. I learned that from the Gahdar Miro at the party. That’s what has me worried,” Jamie frowned as he plucked Spinoza off his shoulder. Placing the garga lizard in the crook of his arm Spinoza began to protest with a sharp akkk until Jamie began scratching behind its ear.


“I suggest you go. At the least it will calm your fears,” Castor said. “And you might be surprised at what you learn. I really don’t think you have anything to be concerned about. The invitation may have been on the duke’s stationary, but it wasn’t directly from him, and from what you’ve told me, his lordship seems to have completely lost interest in you as anything other than a dancer.”


“That’s what I thought, Castor, only now I’m not so convinced,” Jamie said. “But even if you’re right and Savaron Loka has nothing to do with it, why would this Prince Hippolito want to meet me?”


“I understand your concern young master, but you’ll only know after you go. I really don’t think you’re in any danger.”


“But it reads more like a command than an invitation,” Jamie said. “First of all, there’s no RSVP. It informs me that I’m to be there two hours from now. It apparently assumes I’d be available and doesn’t seem to take into account any other scheduled obligations I may have.”


“But you are free, no?” Castor asked.


“Yes, although I do have my first appointment later this afternoon with Stephen Perkinjius, but that’s not my point. I...”


“...I suggest you just prepare yourself and go,” Castor interjected, damping Jamie’s protest as he handed his young charge a clean towel. “Then you’ll find out for yourself what it’s all about. And as you’ve just reminded me, you do have an appointment later in the day with Perkinjius, so you already have an excuse to cut the meeting short if you choose.”


“I suppose,” Jamie sighed placing Spinoza on his bed, and then began to undress. Seconds after he’d stripped, he called Castor over. “Take a look at this, Castor. What do you think it is?” he said, pointing at his upper leg.


Castor bent down and carefully studied the affected area on Jamie’s thigh. As if disbelieving what he saw, the Kalorian reached out and touched the design in an attempt to verify it was real and not a figment of his imagination.


“It looks like a tattoo,” Castor said, examining the strange design – a circle holding a set of calligraphic knots that was divided into twelve equal sections like wedges of a pie. In each section the stylized image of a different animal could be seen. “But I have no idea...”


“I’m strongly convinced it has something to do with The Screen, or at least the fact that I’ve completed my puberty cycle,” Jamie replied, “but its meaning completely eludes me.”


“A gift from your father?” Castor asked.


“Yes, but as usual a mysterious one. He wouldn’t have risked supplying me with an explanation, so it’s up to me to figure it out. But I guess I don’t have time for that now, do I?”


“I’m afraid not, young master.”


While Jamie and Castor examined the mysterious totem indelibly etched on his body, Spinoza studied its master with its head cocked to the side as if ready to offer its own explanation. Seconds later, it trumpeted a squawk of discontent at being abandoned when a naked Jamie, carrying a large fluffy towel, bolted out of the room.


Jamie rushed through his preparations, bathing and dressing quickly. At Castor’s suggestion, he’d forgone the usual École student attire suggested for functions outside the school and instead wore a smartly tailored military-style trousers, tunic and jacket. It had once been part of a costume he’d worn months before for a private performance at the military academy.


Jamie remained completely disinterested in fashion, but since all his costumes were custom-made, Castor insisted the boy keep some of them for parties, official functions, and his many public appearances. The outfit he now wore gave him the sharp look of a spit-polished young cadet. A short, shoulder-length red and gold cape, along with a pair of black, high-gloss, snug fitting calfskin boots completed the picture, and when Castor stepped back after fussing with Jamie’s hair, he looked approvingly at the boy.


“You look a proper little general,” Castor said, with just enough playful jest to cause Jamie to roll his eyes.


Quickly ducking out of his room to avoid further grooming by Castor, Jamie caught a glimpse of Giovanni. The boy was exiting Cristophe’s room with a load of bed linens tucked under his arm. Sliding unseen into a nearby alcove, Jamie stopped and stared at the boy; it was something he’d found himself doing ever since Giovanni transferred to the senior dormitory and began assisting Cristophe. The young Royal Throne intrigued Jamie. After closing the door to Cristophe’s room, Giovanni, intent on his work, quickly headed up the hall and took no notice of Jamie.


A quick smile came to Jamie’s face when he heard Giovanni softly begin to sing to himself as he headed down the hall. It was an unconscious habit of the boy. The young man’s voice was soft, melodic and quite beautiful. While too shy and self-conscious to sing in front of others, when Giovanni was alone or thought he was,  his pure sweet voice seemed a softer, and less practiced version of Damian’s. And Jamie always felt lucky when he’d catch a bit of Giovanni’s impromptu songs.


Giovanni always insisted that he had no special talents or abilities, which was the principle reason he’d been assigned to Expedition and Service; although Jamie knew Giovanni was telling the truth as he knew it, he still found the boy’s explanation hard to believe. Jamie was well aware that Avionnes weren’t created on a whim – the process was far too complex and expensive. Although it was true that some of the wealthier more prominent noble houses were able to pay E & S the enormous sums necessary to create, train and supply them with a household Avionne, the practice was extremely rare. It would have been like using an expensive luxury hov to haul quarried almand stone from Tower Mount.


Deficient Avionnes, including those with the slightest anomalies, weren’t relegated to E & S as if it were a repository for those who didn’t make the grade. Errors in the germination and maturation process were quickly stopped with the immediate termination of the embryo. It was one of the reasons Avionnes appeared so perfect. Yet despite Giovanni’s claims that he was quite ordinary, there was an undefined nagging in the back of Jamie’s mind that just wouldn’t go away.


The feeling had become so strong that one day, reminiscent of an incident between Jamie and his father years before, Jamie, during a well-planned encounter with Giovanni, grabbed the boy’s hand, took one of Giovanni’s fingers and quickly placed it in a small blood analyzer he’d pirated from the École’s medical clinic. Although surprised at his friend’s action, Giovanni held Jamie in such high regard that he quickly accepted Jamie’s explanation that because of Cristophe’s physical condition precautions had to be taken to protect the master prefect from possible exposure to potentially life-threatening infections. Later in his room Jamie hid the blood sample, determined to find a way to analyze it.


Without a word, Jamie’s eyes followed Giovanni as he walked down the hall, watching silently until the boy turned a corner and was gone. Lingering a few seconds longer he listened as the melodic sound of Giovanni’s voice faded away.


“Young master,” Castor had stepped into the hall and was now standing beside him. Jamie jumped in surprise. “The hov is waiting. You’d best be leaving now.”


Jarred from his thoughts, Jamie looked at Castor and gave the Kalorian a mysterious smile and a nod of agreement. With Castor at his side Jamie turned and took off down the hall.


The official residence of Savaron Loka was in the great delta city of Imperialas – the site of his duchy. But when he was attending Court as one of Erick’s principle advisors, Loka had a smaller, though no less elegant, palace on one of the nearby hills. Since time was short, Castor had summoned a small hov while Jamie was still in his bath. Once Jamie was dressed and ready to go, Castor quickly checked on the status of the hov. Finding it ready, he hurried Jamie out of the dormitory and to the central drop point directly outside the school; the same spot Jamie’d arrived at the first time he’d come to the dance academy.


Castor smiled at the handsome young man standing before him. “Perfect,” he said as he gave Jamie one final inspection. Preparing to enter the hov Jamie paused when Castor’s sudden, staccato command of “young master,” stopped him. Turning to face Castor, Jamie saw the Kalorian standing with his hand outstretched. In the palm of Castor’s hand sat the Emperor’s ring. Giving Castor a knowing smile Jamie reached out and took the ring, slid it onto his finger, then turned and entered the hov.


It was a scant ten-minute ride from the Mountain of the Arts to the canon where Savaron Loka’s palace was located. Upon landing, Jamie was met by the same man who’d presented him with the invitation at the Crystal Sphere. Still looking a bit flustered from his first encounter with the young Avionne, the man quickly directed Jamie to follow him up a tree-lined promenade to the archduke’s residence.


As the main building came into view, Jamie could see that although small in terms of palaces, it affected a quiet, understated elegance, and as Jamie passed through the front entrance he could see that no expense had been spared in its construction or decoration.


Other than giving Jamie a curt greeting upon the boy’s arrival, the man remained silent. Inside the palace, Jamie was ushered into a receiving room just off the main foyer. Knowing that a typical chair wouldn’t suit a winged avionne, the man offered the boy a soft, velvet-covered stool, its height the same as that of a normal chair.  Once Jamie was seated, the man scurried from the room, but not before sliding the room’s tall pocket doors shut as he exited. With the departure of the man, Jamie found himself sitting alone in one of the stately drawing rooms of the palace of Savaron Loka, the Grand Duke of Imperialas.


Jamie sat quietly on the stool and tried to remain still. In the back of his mind he could hear Castor admonish, “back straight, eyes ahead, and please young master, don’t fidget.”


Sunlight, falling through the tinted and leaded glass panels in the windows skirted the rooms silken damask drapes; Colored stripes fell across the parquet floor. The room was decorated with dark wooden furniture and elegant statues. Cases filled with porcelain of all types, had been placed about the room, and the walls were covered with beautiful paintings. While he’d performed at and visited a few of the noble residences in Küronas, Jamie immediately noticed that Loka’s was by far the most elegant he’d ever seen, even as it conveyed a clear sense of restraint and simple good taste. Although tempted to get up and examine his surroundings, he remained seated.


Less than two minutes after his guide had departed, the pocket doors of the room slid open. In the open doorway stood an avionne, and it was quite obvious that the young man appearing before him was not a household servant. Jamie was surprised to see the boy wearing a white silk shirt partially unbuttoned, light tan jodhpurs and polished black boots; informal riding attire. He easily recognized the avionne as the young man he’d met at the Emperor’s party.


Walking into the room, Hippolito’s wings caught both the sunlight and Jamie’s immediate interest. The distractions at the party during his brief conversation with Hippolito hadn’t allowed him a thorough examination of the boy’s wings. There were many different hues, tones and color combinations an avionne could have, but a series of standard patterns separated the race into specific classes such as Thrones, Royal Thrones, Seraphim, Principalities and Powers, along with a wide variety of others. After years of living in Küronas, Jamie had learned that some classes of avionnes – such as Cherubim and Principalities – were more common, while others like Royal Thrones and his own class of Imperial, were much rarer. Looking at the young man’s wings, Jamie couldn’t easily place him in any one of the standard Avionne categories.


While Hippolito’s wings were largely white, the edges of each feather had bluish-green highlights that bordered on teal with markings in the standard pattern of a Principality. But unlike typical Principality markings, closer examination revealed that where the white and teal color met, there appeared to be the thinnest line of iridescence at the point of the color blend; A feature that to some extent mimicked his own Imperial markings. The boy drew closer and Jamie became even more intrigued when he noticed that each one of the boy’s feathers was tipped in a tiny bit of gold ; One of the principle traits of a Royal Throne.


After passing through the door and striding across the room, the boy stopped directly in front of Jamie. Neglecting to offer any type of greeting or introduction, the first words from the young man were, “Do you ride?” As he spoke, he brandished a short riding crop and gave Jamie a smile.


“Yes, I do,” Jamie said.


“Excellent,” Hippolito replied, his smile growing wider to reveal a set of perfectly even, pearl-white teeth. “I’m surprised though,” the boy continued, “I wouldn’t think dancers from the academy would have much time to learn how to ride.”


“I learned before I came to the school,” Jamie replied continuing to give the young man an appraising eye.


In line with Avionne standards, Hippolito was strikingly handsome; But perhaps even more so than usual. Since there was no such thing as an ugly or even plain looking Avionne, Jamie and his friends had adopted the same simple one to five scale that was used by all of the students at the academy when rating each other’s looks. The boy standing before him certainly would have been a solid five; Possibly one of those who would have been assigned a rare plus five.


Jamie watched Hippolito return Jamie’s appraisal with a quick assessment of his own; An action Jamie fully expected. It was another common avionne character trait; Beauty examining beauty. As Hippolito calmly inspected Jamie, his bluish-gray eyes flashed a mischievous sparkle, giving the young Avionne boy an air that was charmingly roguish. For a second time Hippolito smiled at Jamie and flashed his teeth.


“I know we met briefly at the Emperor’s ball, but please forgive my rudeness,” he began in a tone that was clearly unapologetic. “Hippolito, of Hypernia...” he continued extending a slender hand. Jamie extended his own hand and the boy gripped it with a surprising firmness Jamie hadn’t expected, “... designated imperial prince and presumptive head of the Imperial House of History and Philosophy,” Hippolito added. And it was only when he finished his lengthy introduction that he deigned to release Jamie’s hand.


Other than his name, the extended introduction and title Hippolito had given him meant nothing to Jamie; although curious, he made no comment.


“Jamie de Valčn,” Jamie returned quietly, and while he hadn’t sought or relished the invitation, as a post-script to his introduction he quickly added, “...ah... thank you for inviting me.”


“My pleasure,” Hippolito said, grinning at Jamie while he continued his overt inspection of the dancer. “Since you’re dressed appropriately, I propose we go for a short ride. There’s a private bridle path that goes from the archduke’s residence to the public park on this canon. It’s one of the reasons Archduke Loka keeps a small stable here. We can talk and get to know each other while we ride.”


Still not informed of the reason for the initial invitation to the archduke’s residence, and feeling slightly ill at ease, Jamie remained silent, just nodding his assent. Part of his mind couldn’t help but replay Miro’s sharp comments to Hippolito during their encounter at the Emperor’s party.


“Excellent,” Hippolito said. “Follow me, and we’ll get a proper horse saddled and ready for you.”


Leading Jamie out of the drawing room and down a wide hall whose walls were covered with framed paintings, they passed into a tall foyer and walked through a door that opened onto a lovely, formal garden. At the end of one of the garden paths they turned left, passed through a break in a long hedgerow and arrived at a small stable that was home to five horses.


“Imperator is the archduke’s horse,” Hippolito said, pointing to a tall brown stallion in the most distant stall. Walking along the row of stall doors, he stopped in front of a horse occupying the stall next to Loka’s mount. It was a powerful looking bay stallion with a wicked look in its eyes. “This is Vulcan, my horse,” Hippolito said reaching up and stroking the horse’s muzzle. “You may choose any of the other three,” he added.


Maybe it was Hippolito’s tone of voice, or possibly his smug expression that gave Jamie the impression that the boy was throwing down some type of challenge. Choosing to ignore it, Jamie concentrated on the three remaining horses, carefully studying them as they stood in their stalls.


The horse in the stall furthest from the Duke’s was a dappled gray gelding that appeared half asleep and not very energetic. Jamie immediately rejected it. The horse next to Hippolito’s was another stallion that appeared to be younger then Hippolito’s mount. Jamie paused in front of it and because it loomed above him, he got up on his toes. Reaching for the horse’s muzzle he gently pulled the stallion’s head down and eased back its gums while examining its teeth. Satisfied he was correct, Jamie released his grip on the animal. The horse pulled back and shook its head slightly as if to protest the inspection.


“He’s younger than yours,” Jamie said innocently, and was secretly pleased when he noticed Hippolito frowning.


“You know enough to look?” Hippolito asked, sounding surprised.


“Yes,” Jamie replied.


He wasn’t about to go into detail regarding just how much he’d learned about horses from Jokum, his friend, riding instructor and the stable master at Villa Mare Vista. Instead Jamie moved to the final horse, a roan mare not quite as tall or impressive as the other horses in the stable, but with solid lines. Jamie looked up at the animal. It stared down passively at him. It seemed to be a good height and just the right size for him to control.


“I’ve seen mounts chosen for all types of reasons,” Jokum once told him after he and Charlie had finished their riding lesson for the day and were grooming their horses. “Some want a powerful looking horse, or one that they think will make them look majestic while sitting on its back. Often the match is a bad one, and the rider looks foolishly out of place and finds he’s unable to handle his choice. You boys are both small, and while you don’t need to ride ponies, you should choose a horse that’s a bit smaller and lower to the ground. You’ll be able to handle it better, even if it turns out to be a little more spirited. In the end, you’ll appear the experienced horse master, and you never know when that might come in handy.”


“I’ll take this one,” Jamie said, giving the mare a gentle pat on the nose.


“I feel obliged to warn you that Lady Ann is the most temperamental of the lot,” Hippolito said, giving Jamie a knowing look. “The Duke named her after an old lover who he said grew stranger the longer they were together. Lady Ann’s tossed more than a few of the Dukes riding partners on their asses,” he chuckled. “I suggest you might do better with Spar,” he pointed to the lethargic dappled gray.


“I want to take her,” Jamie repeated quietly, “if that’s ok?”


“Your choice,” Hippolito said, sounding miffed that his suggestion had been brushed aside so quickly. “I’d think a dancer would what to be more careful. You’ll only have yourself to blame when you sit out the next performance season nursing a broken leg,” he added in a tone of voice Jamie suspected was meant to frighten him from choosing the animal.


“No, I’ll ride her,” Jamie said insistently, quickly adding, “Don’t worry, I won’t hold you to blame if she throws me.”


Seeing that his guest’s mind was made up, Hippolito walked out of the stable and motioned for Jamie to follow him.


“Antonio,” Hippolito gave a sharp, staccato shout.


Seconds later a Kalorian appeared and Hippolito directed him to prepare the horses. The two boys stood quietly outside the stable and no words passed between them as they waited for their horses. Finally Antonio emerged from the shadows of the barn, leading both horses by their reins.


Without hesitation, Hippolito mounted his horse. Jamie took his time as he slowly approached Lady Ann, knowing even the most docile horse can be skittish with an unfamiliar rider. As he got closer, he noticed the horse’s ears twitching. Reaching out, he gently patted, then stroked, its left flank. At the same time, he touched the horse’s mind, projecting an air of reassuring calm. Sensing the animal starting to relax, he slowly mounted. Lady Ann took a few steps to the side and shook her head as if to protest, but by then Jamie, now saddled and gripping the horse’s reins, was in firm control.


Although Hippolito said nothing, Jamie gave him a sideways glance, and noticed the boy trying to suppress a look of surprise. Catching Jamie’s eyes, Hippolito made a quick recovery, nodded, and commented. “Well done. I thought she’d refuse to let you mount.”


Jamie, concentrating on his horse, didn’t reply and Hippolito’s brow wrinkled with a look of annoyance. Without a second’s hesitation Hippolito tightly gripped his horse’s reins, and dug his heels into Vulcan’s flanks while reaching behind to give to the animal a sharp swat across its rear with his riding crop, and the horse tore off down the tree-lined path with Hippolito firmly in control. Jamie frowned, unimpressed at the boy’s flashy display. He’d been taught that the relationship between horse and rider was a balance of control, confidence and reassuring gentleness. “Any idiot can beat a horse,” Jokum had once told him, “but it doesn’t mean the horse will obey. Every horse is different. A real horseman gets to know his animal and works with, not against it.”


Giving Lady Ann a gentle nudge with his heels, he trotted down the path taken by Hippolito. Soon he had his horse up to a steady gallop, setting a pace that quickly closed the gap with Hippolito. Ahead, the boy had stopped and waited while Jamie approached. Once Jamie caught up with his host, he reigned in Lady Ann. Neck reining Vulcan, Hippolito maneuvered his mount until he was beside Jamie.


“You ride well,” Hippolito said. When Jamie didn’t immediately reply, he quickly added, “It was meant as a compliment.”


“Thank you,” Jamie replied not exactly sure of his feelings towards the boy.


“Of course, it’s easy when you’re in control,” Hippolito said, giving Jamie a mischievous wink. Then, lightning fast, he brought his riding crop down hard on the rump of Jamie’s horse. Lady Ann gave a loud whinny of protest, reared up on her hind legs, and then tore off in a wild gallop. Jamie, struggling to stay in the saddle, heard Hippolito’s laughter fade behind him as his horse raced on, carrying him further down the path.


It took a great deal of effort, but mustering both his Icarian strength and his skill as an experienced horseman, Jamie eventually regained control of the animal, finally bringing her to a shuddering stop while he leaned forward and crooned comfort into her ear. And while his heart was racing from the incident, it was his temper that was at its boiling point. His eyes flashed as he turned to look up the path he’d just traversed. Hippolito, looking cool and smug, slowly cantered his mount toward him. Quickly catching up to Jamie, Hippolito’s laughter echoed through the woods.


“You’re amazing,” Hippolito said, continuing to chuckle. “I was sure she’d throw you, but you really do know how to ride, just about as well as you know how to dance.”


Jamie scowled at Hippolito. “Why would you do such a stupid thing?” he angrily shouted.


“No reason to get upset,” Hippolito replied calmly, “I was just...”


“...trying to get me killed,: Jamie barked. “A proper rider shows respect for the animal he rides, and courtesy to those he rides with.”


“Just a little amusement,” Hippolito said, then putting a hand to his chest while giving Jamie a look of shocked surprise, added, “I didn’t think you’d get upset over it. And if you were thrown, I’d have expected you to use your wings and land unhurt.”


While Hippolito pointed to one of the reasons experienced Avionne riders rarely got injured, it did little to extinguish Jamie’s anger.


“I’m sorry I caught you off guard, but you’re an extremely skilled rider. I knew you wouldn’t be injured,” Hippolito continued injecting a tone of concern.


Hippolito’s quickly crafted explanation left Jamie unconvinced, since the boy sounded neither sincerely sorry for his stupid prank, nor genuinely complimentary of Jamie’s riding skills. 


“We seem to have gotten off to a bad start, and it’s truly my fault” Hippolito said displaying a broad smile. “If you’ll accept my apology, can we start afresh?” he added with a wink, and a tilt of the head that once more framed his charming good looks.


Jamie sighed. Although he’d muddied the waters with his stupid trick, Hippolito was charming, and quite good-looking. Deciding not to judge the boy too quickly, Jamie reluctantly nodded in agreement. “I’d like that,” he said, quickly adding, “as long as you don’t try any more tricks on me.”


“No tricks,” Hippolito said giving Jamie a solemn look as he put a hand to his heart. “I’d really like to get to know you better. Is that alright with you?”


“Yes,” Jamie replied.


“Good,” Hippolito smiled, “let’s ride a bit further to the park. There’s something I want to show you.”


The boys trotted their horses slowly toward the park while they engaged in some light conversation. Jamie was caught off guard when Hippolito appeared genuinely interested in him asking numerous questions regarding both Jamie’s life at the school and his dancing career. Jamie, intrigued at the boy’s sudden warmth, began to relax and answered Hippolito’s queries without hesitation.


Once they were in the park Hippolito, still continuing the conversation, led the way until they came to a small structure near a large rose arbor. “A tea house,” Hippolito said, smiling. “Let’s go in.”


Upon dismounting and tying up their horses, the boys entered the teahouse and Jamie discovered two soft cushioned stools along with a round marble topped table set for tea. The table offered a wide variety of small cakes, quick breads, finger sandwiches and petit fours. A plate of assorted cookies and beautiful chocolates was placed near a red and gold teapot.


“I had this prepared for us,” Hippolito said, while directing Jamie to one of the stools. After taking their seats, Hippolito poured the tea and offered Jamie his choice of treats. Although he was not very hungry, Jamie nevertheless took one of the petite chocolate cakes. Hippolito picked up a small plate and began to place a variety of items onto it, as he did he eyed Jamie.


“So how do you feel about giving up your dancing career?” he asked casually just before he took a bite out of a triangularly shaped tea sandwich.


“What do you mean?” Jamie replied, trying to sound nonchalant. Although future circumstances would undoubtedly end his dancing, that fact was known only by a limited group of people, namely his brother, Castor and members of the Council of Resistance.


“When the Avionne government is established and Loran becomes wizard, he’ll be heading the Imperial house. As his brother and the only other imperial in the Empire, you’ll be his scribe.”


“I don’t know anything about that,” Jamie replied truthfully, for although he’d been given a quick primer of the empire’s future plans for its Avionne population, he wasn’t privy to all the details.


In fact, Jamie’s deficiency in that area was acknowledged when Stephen Perkinjius had suggested that Jamie begin meeting with him outside the council sessions. Perkinjius felt strongly that additional briefings were in order to help Jamie acquire more background regarding what the council had learned of Savaron Loka’s plans. But since their very first meeting was to occur later in the day, Jamie continued to remain mostly unaware of the empire’s intentions.


“You must have at least been told a few things?” Hippolito asked.


“No,” Jamie replied coolly, attempting to mask his growing interest in the direction and topic of Hippolito’s conversation.


“I’m quite surprised,” Hippolito said. “It’s still considered confidential, but I’d think that you, of all people, would be privy to some of it. Most of the princes and scribes have already been chosen. We’ve even met with each other and entered into a few discussions under the supervision of the Emperor’s privy council, of course. I did notice it unusual that you weren’t included. I even asked Loran when he attended one of our meetings, but he gave me a strange look and walked away.”


“I really don’t have any idea,” Jamie said slightly stretching the truth, for while he wasn’t aware of all the particulars, he at least knew a bit of the archduke’s plans. Now, sitting with Hippolito, Jamie saw his chance to learn more, and to learn it from a different point of view. “You did talk to Loran, though?”


“I tried,” Hippolito said before popping a small chocolate into his mouth. After pausing a few seconds to savor its sweetness, he continued. “Your brother’s a strange one. It’s obvious he loves Alexander, but outside of that it’s not very clear what he does or doesn’t like. He’s cold. Some might call him rude, but I think he’s more shy than anything else. The archduke told me Loran’s lived his entire life at Gold Glass. I can’t imagine living in that sterile place with no one but a bunch of self-absorbed scientists for friends.”


As they sipped their tea, Hippolito began to tell Jamie about some of the plans for the establishment of a separate Avionne government. While part of Hippolito’s initial explanation covered information Jamie already knew, Hippolito, in an attempt to impress Jamie with his knowledge, began to delve deeper into the topic. Soon he was revealing detailed and critical information regarding the structure and function of the new government.


Jamie sat and maintained what he hoped was an interested silence, hoping to learn as much as he could. As he talked, Hippolito spun a tale of imperial and royal houses headed by princes and scribes; each responsible for different aspects of the new Avionne state. The more he talked, the more Jamie could see that Loka’s plans appeared to have progressed much further than he’d realized.


In his host’s explanation, Jamie was amazed to see a strange blend of elements. While Hippolito described a politically sophisticated governmental structure run by carefully crafted bureaucratic efficiency and empowered with limited self-rule, it was wrapped in a cloak of mysticism, and secrecy. Talk of orbs, secret rituals and ceremonies, along with totems, symbols and even sacred colors; while sounding strange and quite bizarre to Jamie, it also held a bit of intrigue and fascination. But as Hippolito’s description continued, Jamie felt a chill run down his spine when a thought came to him.


Although Hippolito made no mention of it, parts of his description, when added to what he’d been told by the Council of Resistance, resembled in part an organization already in place within the empire, that of the Sh’ônfenn. And suddenly the intent of the empire became clear to him.


Perkinjius had spoken of the desire of the Imperial House of Blackwell to someday supplant the Commonwealth and rule a galactic empire from Altinestra. If the current Altinestran Empire could create a loyal corps of strong, intelligent leaders who could direct a shadow government of officials, and bureaucrats scattered throughout the current commonwealth under the control of the empire, what could be the next logical step? Jamie shuddered to think of the possibilities.


“Are you alright?” Hippolito asked, seeing the sudden change in Jamie’s demeanor.


“Ah... yes,” Jamie replied. “But I have to go now. I’m sorry Hippolito, but I do have another engagement I’m supposed to attend. Your invitation came at the last minute, and I already had some other commitments.”


“But I was hoping to...”


“I’m very sorry,” Jamie said, not so sure how sorry he truly was. “I keep a strict schedule. With lessons, practice, exercise, choreography work, and now my preparations for the emperor’s birthday celebration, I have very little free time. I really must go.”


“Then we must get together again,” Hippolito smiled.


“Maybe,” Jamie said. “A lot depends on my schedule. I...”


“I’ve seen you dance,” Hippolito interrupted. “I’ve never seen anything like it. You’re marvelous, you know.”


“I try my best,” Jamie said surprised to suddenly feel his cheeks becoming warm in an unexpected blush. “It’s hard work. It doesn’t come easily.”


“But everyone says you were born with a gift, that it’s a part of you, like a fish naturally swims or a bird can’t help but fly.”


“I must go,” Jamie repeated more insistently, whilst rising from his seat. “I really must return to the school.”


Leaving the teahouse, the boys returned to their horses, mounted and began the ride back to the Duke’s residence. Jamie urged his horse into the lead while Hippolito followed and so no words passed between them during the ride back.


Immediately after returning to the stable, Jamie dismounted. Instead of returning to the house, he hurried through the gardens, back to the waiting hov. Hippolito, left behind, rushed to catch up with his guest, but his efforts were unsuccessful. His pursuit stopped when he saw Jamie had already reached the steps of the hov.


“Goodbye,” Hippolito shouted as the hov’s engines began to power up.


Just before entering the hov, Jamie turned, paused and gave Hippolito a small wave, then ducked into the hatch of the hov as its engines began to whine.


Hippolito stood and watched the craft ascend, waved a second time and continued to look to the sky until the craft vanished from his sight. Smiling to himself, he slowly walked back to the archduke’s palace.


From the porthole next to his seat Jamie watched first Hippolito and then the archduke’s residence grew smaller as his craft rose ever higher. After a few seconds of assent he could feel the aft engine kick in. The hov veered to the right and headed for the center of the city, where Stephen Perkinjius lived. In an attempt to clear his head, he tried to sort out everything Hippolito had told him. It was a lot to consider. Now he was headed to yet another encounter, potentially offering even more information. Softly sighing to himself, he hoped his brain could absorb all of it.


In the weeks after his discovery of the existence of the secret Council of Resistance, Jamie had returned to them for further instruction, learning in more detail about the secret organization and the resistance movement it represented. The clandestine sessions were kept secret mostly because they remained unscheduled and could be called at a moment’s notice. Jamie was always alerted, regarding the meetings and their location, by either Castor or Cristophe.


From Jamie’s very first encounter with the resistance, the master prefect not only continued to accompany him, but also, by direct invitation of the council, began to participate in council meetings, even when Jamie wasn’t present. Cristophe enjoyed the activity, and Jamie could tell as time passed that the master prefect was taking the goals and mission of the council quite seriously. But although Jamie had absorbed much in the short period of time he’d been involved with the council, an impatient Stephen Perkinjius wanted him to learn even more.


“We’re giving him the structure and history of the organization,” Perkinjius groaned aloud interrupting discussion during one of the meetings. “But he needs to know more of the ‘why’ so he can appreciate what our goals are.”


“I think I already know that,” Jamie said sounding annoyed.


“You think you do,” Perkinjius replied, “and if you were a true student of history you’d already have a good grasp of what’s expected of you.”


“What do you know of how much I know?” Jamie’s eyes flashed in anger. “Instead of assuming things, maybe asking would be a bit more polite, no?


Every meeting was the same and nearly always ended with Jamie scowling at the large man seated at the head table, who towered over him. Finally, at the conclusion of a recent meeting, it was decided Jamie would visit Perkinjius at his home for some private background sessions. And while Perkinjius readily agreed, Jamie, foreseeing disaster, was less than enthusiastic.


The central drop zone where Jamie’s hov landed was in the heart of Küronas. Typically, the central arrival station was bustling with activity. Ever since gate travel had been restricted, hov traffic had steadily increased. Alighting from the hov, Jamie consulted a small card he pulled from his pocket; Scrawled on it was Perkinjius’s address along with a few barely legible directions. Leaving the central station, Jamie looked first at the card and then his surroundings. Pausing to get his bearings, he belatedly realized that this was the first time he’d ever been in the city completely on his own. He’d often come into town on organized trips, school outings or with his friends and usually left most of the details, like directions to others. In fact, he never remembered ever consulting a map of the city. Unsure of his way, he paused for a few seconds and tried to get his bearings before taking off.


Seeing that he was near one of the city’s main boulevards, he headed towards it. As he walked further, he could see a few people taking notice of him. The sight of an Avionne in the center of Küronas wasn’t entirely uncommon, but one attired in the formal dress blues of a military cadet was certainly out of the ordinary. Regretting not bringing along his standard school field dress to change into, Jamie carried on trying in vain to find the streets that corresponded to Perkinjius’s directions.


After a few minutes of frustrated searching he still hadn’t found his way. Hearing the sound of a nearby clock chime the hour, he feared he was going to be late. Just then he remembered the marvelous interactive device in his head. With its vast store of technical and scientific knowledge and information Jamie never thought that something as simple as a map would be part of the Screen’s program, yet when he searched, one immediately popped up. The three dimensional view it gave was so accurate that he was able to rotate and overlay it onto the actual city scene before him. Seconds later he was smiling when he realized that not only would the map give him the information he needed, it offered active and immediate global positioning and soon he was on his way to Perkinjius home following the directions the screen streamed into his brain. Following the map in his head while remaining aware of his actual position in the real world took a little skill. Twice he tripped over a curb and once he bumped into a woman with her arms full of bags, but the more he practiced the better he got.


After twenty minutes of walking, he came to the street where Perkinjius lived and was surprised to see that the neighborhood was much more commercial and far less grand then he’d expected. Knowing how Perkinjius loved the good life, he’d expected the man to reside in a posh home in an equally posh neighborhood. Walking down the street, he paused to once again read the card he held in his hand. After passing a few buildings, he came to a stop in front of a narrow, three-story building with the same number that was on the card. For a few seconds he simply stared, surprised at what he’d discovered.


Questioning the accuracy of the address, he consulted one of the many databases of the screen. Although it too supplied confirmation that the location was indeed correct, he simply stood on the sidewalk eying-up the building, and the ground floor shop it contained.


The sign painted on the large storefront window was something Jamie hadt expected. And although it was clear enough, he stood looking at it for over a full minute.


Off-World Acquisitions, LTD

Imports of Exceptional Quality


Uncommon treasures of the Commonwealth for discerning tastes


Stephen Perkinjius, proprietor


Jamie never thought about Perkinjius having an occupation, let alone a business. The man could always be seen at the best parties, usually with a wine glass in one hand as he loudly cavorted with the party’s host and its most notable guests. Perkinjius was a fount of trivia, scandal, amusing stories, and risqué jokes. He dressed well, was a connoisseur of the best food and wine, and for a large man carried himself with a practiced grace and dignity some of the less skilled dancers at the École might learn from. The man seemed to make his way through life in luxury and style. Jamie had assumed that he might be the minor son of a wealthy noble, or the heir to one of the many technological or agricultural fortunes made on the planet.


Just before entering the shop a thought came to him. For all of Perkinjius’ aristocratic and often dandyish public posturing, the meetings of the secret committee he chaired were run with extreme efficiency. The man always had an opinion that was usually well thought out and his knowledge of politics and history was quite impressive. Jamie began to wonder if maybe he wasn’t the only one pretending to be something he wasn’t. Could Perkinjius be playing the same game? It was a thought that hadn’t occurred to him until now. Stepping up to the door of Perkinjius’s shop, Jamie pushed it open and walked in.


A bright tinkling sound echoed through the shop as an ancient bell, dark with ages of patina, began to ring the second Jamie opened the door.


“I’ll be with you in a minute,” the voice of Perkinjius bellowed from a back room in the rear of the shop.


“It’s Jamie,” he called out.


“Well, I’ll still be with you in a minute,” the voice called back, then added, “Would you like some tea?”


“No,” Jamie replied, and thinking of his encounter with Hippolito added under his breath, “I’ve already had plenty of tea for today.”


As he waited for Perkinjius, Jamie’s eyes scanned his surroundings. The shop consisted of one large open room divided into distinct areas by the various objects and furnishings that filled it. Narrow paths cut through the jumble. A few areas, like one that held neatly arranged books in orderly rows of shelves, appeared planned and organized. Other parts of the room looked as if one object had been piled, one on top of another until the danger of collapse prevented any further arrangement.


“How does he even manage to maneuver around here?” Jamie remarked to himself while surveying the tightly packed and cramped space of the shop.


Tucking back his wings while picking his way through some of the detritus, he could see Perkinjius stocked items from all over the commonwealth. A tall statue in one corner looked like the work of the great Iraddian sculptor Rasma. Jamie wondered if it might be a copy since an original work would have cost an emperor’s ransom. He noted a large number of ancient objects that might have come from the home world;  A remarkable thing since such pieces were extremely rare. Perkinjius’ vast collection appeared to take in the history and culture from at least a hundred worlds spanning countless periods and eras.


As he walked toward a strange metallic object shaped like a small tree, a bright sparkling reflection caught his eye. He paused, turned toward it, and when his eyes rested on the object causing the glittering sparkle, he blinked in disbelief. On his right, resting on a small table and protected by a glass dome, was one of the singing diamonds of Sarra. There were only three in existence; each owned by one of the governments that made up the vast commonwealth system and treasured as a symbol of the wealth and power of their planetary rulers within the commonwealth system.


“I know you’re the curious type,” Perkinjius’s voice boomed from the back room of his shop. As if he could read Jamie’s mind. “Just be careful what you touch.”


“I’m fine,” Jamie replied in a distracted tone; His eyes remained glued on the beautiful stone.


A part of him wanted to lift the dome and pick it up, another urged caution, since even a reproduction would be quite costly. After a brief internal struggle, he put both his hands around the dome and lifted it from the small stand it sat upon. Placing the dome on a nearby table, he bent over and carefully examined the sparkling stone. Since the shop was silent he was sure he could hear a faint high-pitched sound coming from the diamond. He’d almost summoned up the courage to reach out and touch it, when he stopped and froze.


“It’s quite genuine,” the loud voice of Stephen Perkinjius called out, cutting through the silence of the shop, and a second later he emerged from the shop’s backroom.


“But there are only three,” Jamie said.


“That’s what everyone thinks,” Perkinjius said giving Jamie a sly smile, “But there really are five. Darlanus and Episus each have one in their national treasuries; Symbols of their wealth and influence as the two richest and most powerful trading worlds in the Commonwealth. The home world has the third, and I have the other two.”


“You have two... of these?” Jamie sputtered, almost choking on his words.


“Yes. I had three at one time, but I gifted the third to the home world years ago. I thought it only fitting they have one to display. It’s part of a permanent exhibit in one of their more famous museums.”


“And the rest of this is all real?” Jamie asked gesturing about the room.


“If, my young prince, you’re asking me if all of these objects are genuine, then the answer is yes,” Perkinjius replied coolly. “I don’t deal in copies, reproductions, fakes, or forgeries.”


“Then the value of what’s in this room could buy an entire planet,” Jamie said.


“Possibly three,” Perkinjius quickly added, as a smug look came to his face and a twinkle appeared in his eye.


“And you just have it sitting about, all piled together?”


“There’s even more in the basement,” Perkinjius smirked, secretly pleased that he’d managed to surprise Jamie.


“But aren’t you worried about thieves?”


“No,” Perkinjius replied coolly. “Everything’s quite secure and safe here.”


Looking about the well-worn shop, Jamie had his doubts.


“And besides, ever since the interdict on gate and interplanetary travel was enacted, business has been bad. I can’t import or export anything. And since the troubles began, my rich or noble customers on the Altinestra have been rather conservative regarding any expenditure of their wealth. So without them or any outside visitors from other worlds, sales are few and far between. But then we’re not here to discuss the current state of my business dealings or lack thereof . . . are we?” Perkinjius added.


“Hello,” a voice called out. Unaware of anyone else in Perkinjius’s shop Jamie, turned just in time to see the singer, Damian Charbon, emerge from the back room of the shop.


“Hello, Damian,” Jamie said, surprised to see him.


“I invited him,” Perkinjius said, when he caught Jamie’s reaction. “Damian’s quite keen on history and politics, and he’s a lot more patient than I am. I know we’ve not always agreed, although I like you a lot more than you may suspect, my dear prince. Nevertheless, I thought the warm personality and calm spirit of our mutual friend Damian might prove just the thing to keep things civil.”


Although he couldn’t help it, at the conclusion of Perkinjius statement a smile came to Jamie’s face. It was true that it seemed every encounter he had with Perkinjius always had some friction in it. It wasn’t that he didn’t like Perkinjius, or that Perkinjius disliked him; Enough scans of Perkinjius even when they were arguing at their maximum proved to Jamie the man actually respected and genuinely admired him, but there was something about both of their personalities that, when bottled up in the same room, usually created its own brand of pyrotechnics.


Damian Charbon was different. Although trained solely as a singer, the boy was still an avionne and thus quite intelligent and knowledgeable on many subjects. The boy was also reserved, calm, very friendly and always accommodating. In his dealings with the council, the one member that he’d come to truly have genuine affection for was Damian. He simply had a personality and nature that made it impossible to not like him.


“I hope you don’t mind,” Damian said taking Jamie’s hand, as he leaned forward giving Jamie a kiss on the cheek.


“Not at all,” Jamie said, returning Damian’s kiss with one of his own, along with a warm smile for the singer. “We need someone to pull the daggers from our hands when we’re ready to go around with each other,” he added, giving Perkinjius a look that left no doubt as to who he was talking about.


“Then we’ll begin,” Perkinjius said, ignoring Jamie’s slightly barbed remarks. “But first let me fetch the tea. It should be brewed by now. Maybe you won’t have a cup, but Damian and I will partake, along with a few sweet cakes,” he added with a sly grin.


Perkinjius bustled into his shop’s back room. Damian began to walk to one corner of the shop, beckoning Jamie to follow him. Soon he came to a small area that was less cluttered than the rest of the shop.


“I suggest we sit here,” Damian said, motioning toward an exquisitely carved crystal and gold vase that sat on a delicate pedestal table with a top featuring a beautiful marquetry inlay. It, along with four slender, harp-backed chairs, sat on a small hand-woven oval rug. At each place at the table, was an ancient cup, saucer and silver teaspoon, all older than any of the colonized planets in the commonwealth. Jamie knew this because he had once seen a crazed and chipped one exactly like them on display in the library on the Mountain of the Arts indicating it was a rare treasure from the home world dating back long before space flight. The set on the table, preserved in remarkably excellent condition, looked as if they’d just been produced at the factory. It all looked very expensive and very breakable.


No sooner had the boys taken their seats then Perkinjius appeared with a teapot that matched the style of the teacups and a plate piled precariously high with sweet cakes. Moving one of the reed thin harp-backed chairs aside he pulled up a large sturdy chair to hold his substantial frame.


Carefully he poured tea into the cup set before Damian. He hovered the teapot over the cup nearest Jamie, but when Jamie shook his head no, he moved to his own cup and carefully poured hot tea into it. Setting down the teapot he added cream and sugar to his tea. Damian did the same, but just before Perkinjius put the cup to his lips he paused and lowered it from his face.


“There’s someone I want you to meet,” he said a bit conspiratorially, and a twinkle came to his eye as he quickly added, “but I feel you won’t need an introduction.” Then, after taking a quick sip of tea, he called out, “Please join us.”


Both puzzled and suspicious, Jamie sat forward in his chair. Within seconds a whirring and clicking sound emerged from the back of the shop. It quickly grew louder. When Jamie finally caught a glimpse, he jumped up from his chair, almost causing it to crash to the floor.


“Mobley!” he shouted. “Mobley, how... when... where...?”


“I am pleased to see you, young master,” the small rolling comp’s flat metallic voice replied.


Jamie looked down at the little comp and he began to smile. “I’m pleased to see you too, Mobley, but how did you get here?”


“I left with the others on the day of the attack. Castor took me with him to the settlements. A few months ago, he brought me here. He told me I would see you again. He was correct.”


“Since Mobley was your old teacher, we thought it might be helpful if we used him to continue your lessons,” Perkinjius said. “But there’s also another reason,” he added, leaning closer to Jamie. “We think your father may have left some critical information within Mobley, information meant for you. Mobley has no knowledge of this and we haven’t discovered anything, but you might.”


Jamie sat back in his seat and thought about Perkinjius’ speculation. It certainly was possible that his father might have used Mobley as a secure repository. It was most certainly an avenue that could be explored.


“Mobley, did father give you a message for me?” Jamie asked. “Did he give you any information that he thought I should have?”


“No, young master.” Mobley said. “I have no record of any information.”


“That doesn’t mean he didn’t plant any in the comp,” Jamie said. “Father would be careful to hide his tracks. And he certainly could have programmed Mobley not to have any record of the event. I’d like to have a chance to find out.”


“And you will,” Perkinjius said. “But not today. Mobley will remain here in my shop, and you’ll be free to work and interact with him. You can even take the comp apart piece by piece, if you think it will do any good. Mobley was your father’s property and as his son and heir, Mobley belongs to you. But I suggest for today we do a little review. You came here to expand your knowledge. Time is precious, so I suggest we use it wisely. Now resume your seat and we’ll get started.”


“I’d like to have a little time with Mobley,” Jamie said.


“And you will,” Perkinjius said firmly. “Now, however, is not the time. At the moment, your education is paramount. The council needs you, and the more you know the better armed you’ll be. When you understand how we arrived at where we are today, maybe you’ll have a better appreciation of what we’re attempting here.”


“I do have an appreciation,” Jamie replied his voice growing louder. “Do you think I don’t know our past? Do you think I agree with slavery? Stephen, I didn’t come here for a history lesson. I thought your intentions were to end the present situation. The sooner that’s done the better, no?”


“And I didn’t invite you here so I could be lectured on my behavior and my intentions,” Perkinjius countered. “You’re here so we can help you.”


“No one helped me in the three years since I was captured, kidnapped and brought here,” Jamie barked. “Suddenly I’m useful to you and your Council of Resistance, but keep in mind that I’m not in anyone’s pocket. I’ve had to survive on my own. No one raised a finger to help me when I was taken from my home, after my father was killed, and my family scattered. No one wiped my nose for me or cared when I came to the École and was punished, or bullied. I do have a small group of friends, good friends, loyal friends and I trust them more than anyone else,” Jamie said, now glaring at Perkinjius. “So if you think...”


“Maybe we should pause for few moments to cool down a bit.” Damien said gently, offering a worried smile.


“It’s ok, Damian,” Jamie said. “I’m sorry. We can begin. It’s just that I’m tired of people telling me what I should do now that I’m suddenly deemed valuable to them.”


“Then I suggest we start,” Perkinjius said, appearing to have taken Jamie’s outburst in stride. “Please sit down Prince Jamie and we can start. And just so that we don’t bore you and present you with things you’ve already learned, you might begin by telling us what you already know.”


“I know a lot,” Jamie said curtly, and looking down at Mobley, added, “I had a good teacher. Mobley may not think I was always paying attention, but I did learn a great deal. I’ve also learned more in the time I’ve been at the school.”


“Then enlighten us,” Perkinjius said, readjusting his position in the wing back chair as it creaked in protest under his weight.


Jamie nodded confidently; if they wanted proof of his understanding, he’d show them.  Leaning back, he felt the harp-back of the chair push slightly into the cleft where his wings met. It wasn’t an uncomfortable feeling. Jamie wasn’t sure if Edmond Croal had imparted any of his own genetics upon him or his brother Charlie, but it was times like this that he felt the answer was yes. Remembering his father leaning back in his chair and delivering one of his famous lectures after dinner or on a long hov flight sent a brief twinge of sadness through him. Quickly recovering, he repressed a smile and in the best Edmond Croal tradition he paused looked around the table and took a deep breath.  If Lukas, Yves and Jeremy had been present they would have taken one look at Jamie’s face and sighed, or found an excuse to suddenly be elsewhere. He was about to start one of his own famous lectures, but those at the table had requested it and he would fulfill their wish.


“Two centuries after the home world took its first steps off-planet, it had developed the technology to initiate the expansion of its sphere of influence,” Jamie began in a voice, full of confidence. “By then, hundreds of probes and many expeditions had shown that no other sentient life existed in their region of the galaxy. So, with no direct competition, humanity had the opportunity to do what most organisms do best when they find themselves in such an enviable position. They grow, thrive, expand, and dominate. Humans were no exception. The home world eventually began a slow expansion across their region of known space. The results took time, but were positive. And although the home world was known for a history of cultural and political conflict between nations and spheres of influence, it had moved forward in learning how to cooperate in many endeavors.


“But even a hundred years after establishing their first colonies and developing advanced forms of space travel, some of the old ethnic, cultural and geopolitical differences still kept the home world divided into various geopolitical groups. There was far less conflict than there had been centuries before.


“Technology, through the dissemination of information, had merged human languages into one dominant, global language, although some of the classical languages and regional dialects remained. Unrestricted movement lead to intermarriage as racial and ethnic differences either faded or didn’t matter in ways they had in the past. Early genetic engineering was able to extend life by an additional decade or two. Humanity was on the verge of a golden age. By this time, known space around the home world had been explored and mapped and vigorous colonization had begun. World colonies were established and eventually became self-sufficient. Throughout their expansion, humanity continued to enjoy its preeminent position, meeting no resistance as it pushed outward into the galaxy.”


Jamie paused and looked from Stephen Perkinjius to Damian; both were quietly listening and didn’t give the impression they were bored. He looked down at Mobley and grinned. Although the little comp sat quietly, there was something about its changing array of flashing lights that somehow made Jamie think it was pleased with the knowledge he was displaying. A proud teacher taking delight in the recitation of his student.


“It was then the decision was made to expand the sphere of influence of the human universe even further, far further than anyone had previously imagined. Decades were consumed, building a great fleet of generational ships that would ply the galaxy in search of new, habitable worlds. It was a time before the gates, before interstellar or advanced core technology drives. The dream of near light or faster than light travel remained elusive. The mathematical formulas for spatial warping technology, although studied for centuries, still couldn’t be cracked. So the armada of generational ships, although swift, would still move at a glacial pace compared to what would follow only a century later.”


Jamie shifted slightly in his chair. It was strange, but telling this story was akin to performing before an audience. Something that he’d at first been uncomfortable with, but now did with ease every time he stepped onto the stage of the opera house. Stage presence, he’d come to realize, wasn’t only just when one appeared on an actual stage. You could carry it with you and practice it when needed; It was a revelation he often used.


Taking a breath, Jamie continued. “The resources needed to construct the fleet was another factor in eventually cementing the final unity between the separate continents of the home world. Initially, members of the grand consortium that engineered the plan exhibited their share of self-interest, but eventually that would fall aside and the home world would emerge united, as it remains today. But in those early days of the plan, there was still enough self-interest to influence the makeup of the fleet, along with the crews that manned them and the future colonists that were chosen to inhabit them.


“Two such ships were the Titan and the Victory, both from one of the older continents of the planet. The largest population on the Titan was technical in vocation, recruited from a cross section of the scientific communities of the continent. The Victory’s population focused on education and scholarship, along with philosophers, writers, and other practitioners of the fine arts. Since the journeys of the generational ships would be long, probably over centuries, it was made clear to those embarking on the great voyages to the stars that they would never return to the home world. And always, to ensure greater chances of success and for reasons of safety, the generational ships were sent forth in pairs.


“It seemed the Titan and Victory would be a perfect pair, both the sciences and humanities united in a grand quest for new worlds to discover, and conquer. And so they set out together, crossing the void of space. The colonists would be cryo-suspended, but such technology was still crude and its long-term success had never been tested. Stacked like wine bottles in a rack, the colonists would sleep while a crew would man, and maintain the vessels. All of the necessary equipment for colonization was also brought, filling the cargo hold of each ship with whatever it was deemed necessary to colonize, live, and survive on a new world.”


“It seems you know your early history,” Perkinjius said, “but there’s a lot more to how we arrived where we are today. Those generational ships were like planets themselves. They were self-sufficient and self-sustaining, for once they ventured into the unknown, they had nothing but their own resources to fall back on. When the ships left the home world no one had any idea what would happen, if they’d succeed or even survive.”


“Are you telling this story, or am I?” Jamie leaned across the table, frowning at Perkinjius.


“Of course,” Perkinjius said, smiling and holding up his hands in a placating stance of surrender. “I just got caught up in your well-told narration.”


Showing his annoyance at Perkinjius patronizing compliment, Jamie continued. “A century passed, then two. And over the long march of time interest in the great ships and their grand experiment began to fade. Technology and science moved forward at increasing speed. The early colonies grew strong and began to dominate the planets they’d colonized. More time passed and a federation developed that would someday become the commonwealth. As for the great ships, they continued to ply the galaxy like silent leviathans of the sea, searching for safe harbor. And while we don’t know what occurred on all the ships, we do know what happened with the Titan and the Victory.”


“Because they are the beginning of our history,” Damian said.


“Correct,” Perkinjius concurred.


The pause allowed Jamie to shift his position and get the blood flowing back to his wings. When Perkinjius and Damian finished their conversation, he continued. “Although there was no communication with the home world, there was constant contact and transport between the two crews of the ships. As time wore on, the lofty goals and ideals of the mission began to fade in the day-to-day operations of the ships, and human nature being what it is, changes began to occur. No longer content with the original plans hatched on the home world, conversations between the crews of the Titan and the Victory began to center on matters of control and power.


“It was the crews who had to live out their lives on the ships. They worked, mated, bred, grew old and died. They were the ones who got injured and even killed when something went awry. They were the ones who had to train their children to do their tasks in order to keep the ships running smoothly, and manned by a competent crew. While the colonists slept, those of the crew were making the ultimate sacrifice. And since the crew was responsible for running the ships, keeping order, and establishing the rules, they began to think of themselves as its rulers. Meetings were held between the crews of the Titan and the Victory and it was decided that should planet fall someday occur, they would continue to be the ones in charge. Moreover they began to think of themselves as special, a nobility of sorts. After all, they were the ones risking their lives. They were the ones growing old and dying; Surely their heirs should inherit an advantage.”


“It strange how humanity can be so lofty, yet at the same time so base,” Damian said.


“We are both angels and demons,” Perkinjius added, then seeing Jamie raise an eyebrow he made a self-deprecating apology and motioned for him to continue.


“Into their third century the two ships lumbered along until one day, out of nowhere, another ship appeared,” Jamie said “The ship was from the home world, tasked with mapping that sector of space. During the time they’d been traveling, many changes had occurred. The home world, now completely united, had joined with its colony planets into an ever-expanding commonwealth. New technologies had made faster than light travel possible. Space itself could be shaped, allowing a ship to slice through it and travel great distances instantaneously. New maps of the galaxy were being created and updated at a rapid pace. One of the goals of the new exploration was to search for, find, and assist the old generational ships in finding homes, so they could eventually make planetfall. Over time a number of the ships had been found, but the fates of the Titan and the Victory had remained unknown. The ship that found them informed them that a planet had recently been discovered at the edge of the commonwealth’s expansion. It was called Altinestra. If they wished, they could be taken there. The captains and crews of both ships met and agreed to this plan; warping the space around them, the amazing ship herded them through space as easily as a sheepdog corrals its flock. They arrived at Altinestra in good order, and after a year in orbit around the planet making their preparations for settlement, they finally made planetfall on the plain between the three convergent rivers at what is now Küronas.


“The ship that delivered them to Altinestra left the Titan and Victory shortly after the ships went into orbit. The crew manning the new ship was small compared to that of the two generational ships. They informed the crews of the Titan and the Victory that they would return to the home world and report their success, and that in time the home world would check on them, but for the moment they would be allowed to establish themselves without outside interference. Because of the great time/space distances; Even with improved space travel it had been discovered that world colonies were best left to develop on their own without outside pressure or influence. At first, all things went well. The colonists emerged from their sleep and began to build a new world. A republican form of government was established and life, although initially harsh, quickly improved. The scientific community that populated the Titan comprised an amazing array of creative minds with a wide range of talents. Using not only the technology at hand, but also quickly developing new tools and inventions, the new civilization began to thrive. In time, some of the greatest technological discoveries and inventions of the Commonwealth would come from Altinestra.


“But life wasn’t perfect. Many of the feelings of discontent sown among the crews of the ships during their long voyage began to emerge. Upon making planetfall, the crew followed procedure and did a planetary survey. Then, before reviving the colonists, they divided up the land between them to become the landholders of the planet. Initially this was not a problem; upon being confronted with a fait accompli, the colonists could do nothing but agree and in the early years there was enough work to keep everyone busy. All land was leased, and rent paid to the new landed class in the form of taxes. Although the old crew were the landholders, the republican form of government ran reasonably well, until Jod Morren and the more prominent members of the landowners class formed an association and began increasing taxes. A rebellion followed, armed camps emerged, and in the ensuing conflict the first republic came to an end. Fearing the worst, all land was confiscated and a Council for Public Safety was established. A more communal system of economics was put in place, and the old land owners, while keeping some of their land, had to forfeit much of it to the state.


“Decades passed and the Council of Public Safety eventually grew into a new republic. The Second Republic lasted almost fifty years until the so-called ‘War of the Nobles’. The great landed families of Altinestra that had descended from the original crews of the Titan and Victory had lived in resentment for years, brooding over how they’d been stripped of their land and influence by the Committee for Public Safety. Still maintaining their network through marriage and alliances, they bided their time while secretly amassing military strength. The following war, unexpected, swift, and fought against a largely unarmed populace, was over in a matter of weeks, leaving in its wake the shattering of the Second Republic. The old landed families quickly regained their wealth. Those in the cities and towns found themselves powerless. The entire system was about to collapse when onto the scene strode one of the most remarkable men in the history of the planet, Jacques de Valčn, known as The Founder.


“De Valčn was from one of the minor landed families, descended from a lesser crew member who’d received a small parcel of land in the north of the continent. The only thing de Valčn really seemed to excel at was politics, at least that’s the only thing he ever claimed interest in. As a young boy, he’d watched the increasing instability of the Second Republic, and as a young man he’d seen it collapse. What amazed him most of all was the fact that throughout the long, often contentious political battles between crew and colonist, landowner and tenant, the scientific and cultural communities of the planet continued to reach ever greater creative and intellectual heights. New discoveries and inventions not only made life better, but began to catch the interest of the commonwealth.


“Jacques de Valčn dreamed of a stable system that would allow the planet to know no bounds. He could envision a planet not at the outskirts of the commonwealth, but at its center as it supplied the great expanding commonwealth with improved technology. He foresaw the day when, just as home world had done, Altinestra’s influence would expand across its sector of the galaxy. As he grew older his ideas coalesced into a plan, and it was then, through an accidental meeting, that he encountered Escalad Agramos, a young captain in the militia of one of the larger landholders.


“It’s said Agramos was first intrigued, then charmed, and finally enraptured by de Valčn and his vision. Taking his place by his idol’s side, Agramos became de Valčn’s general, his strong right arm. Agramos’ strength of will and his military acumen, along with the vision he shared with de Valčn, made them an amazing pair. Eventually it was said that whatever de Valčn and Agramos fashioned could not be broken. It was also said that Agramos had fallen in love with de Valčn, but his was a love unrequited. De Valčn was married when he was quite young to a beautiful woman whom he adored, and remained strongly in love with her until the day he died. When de Valčn and Agramos were done, Altinestra was united and a third republic, the Golden Republic, was formed.


“Although he came from the landed class, de Valčn knew that to form lasting peace a strong state, representing all interests, was necessary and the only way to do that was through compromise. A parliamentary system was established with a titular head of state that would answer to the landowners and represent their interests while an intraplanetary, elected senate would represent the interests of everyone else. The deal wasn’t an easy one to forge, but after it took shape it worked well. Taking his place as founder of the new republic, de Valčn spent the rest of his life in service to the state he’d created with the help of Agramos.


“For his part, Agramos, given the title of Duke of Agramon, spend his life in service to de Valčn. Together, they were unstoppable. At one point de Valčn was offered the title of King, which he immediately refused. Truly dedicated to the principles of the republic and its goals he reluctantly took the title of duke and became First Prince of the planet, but it was a title he was uncomfortable with and never used, preferring instead the sobriquet of First Citizen.


“Agramos became the Duke of Agramon, but as a military leader he felt uncomfortable ruling a fiefdom. He refused any reward of land, choosing instead to live out his life in Küronas and remaining near de Valčn. Jacques de Valčn lived a very long life and was able to steer the third republic toward a glorious future. Shortly before his death, he was able to see substantial trade agreements fashioned and enacted as the amazing technology of the planet was spread throughout the commonwealth. De Valčn died peacefully in his bed, his wife having predeceased him years before. Since The Founder had never had children, Agramos, the closest person to de Valčn, remained by his side until The Founder breathed his last.


“Within a year, the great duke and general was also dead; Of a broken heart, it was rumored.  After his demise, a series of legends rose up about him. The tower in the great square was named for him, and when the four gates of the square were constructed, one of those was also named after him. Out of respect, no one ever took his title of Duke of Agramon. And since he had no lands to fight over, no troubles ensued. Stories began and quickly grew into legends about the day when a successor to the great Escalade Agramos would emerge. It was said that when that happened, all manner of things would occur. The tower would finally open; the secrets of the monastery of infinity stand revealed; Altinestra would take its rightful place as the center of the commonwealth. But time progressed and nothing ever happened. The stories and legends continued to flourish, but that’s all they ever were: simply stories.”


“There are whole books filled with such tales,” Perkinjius added. “I have a few ancient ones in my collection. They’re all for sale, if you know of any buyers.” He grinned, unphased by Jamie’s sudden scowl at having once more been interrupted.


“A century passed and members of de Valčn’s distant family tried to claim his fame and greatness and for a while they did, but none were up to the strength and character of The Founder,” Jamie continued looking directly at Perkinjius, “and his line was officially closed three centuries after his death at the Council of Tričge, by the Emperor who actually claimed that the House of Blackwell possessed a blood tie to House de Valčn. In truth, that claim has never been substantiated. The Third Republic flourished for some time, but old sores have a way of breaking open. Eventually a series five great wars, the wars of succession were fought, completely crushing the Third Republic into the dust of history. The fifth and final war, the War of the Madman, ended when Enrick Blackwell, a boy of just sixteen, was able to amass an army to defeat all other contenders to the then throne of the Kingdom of Altinestra. Blackwell became the first Emperor and established the dynasty that still rules the planet. After that came the first and second slave rebellions, and...


“...and that should be enough for today.” Perkinjius said flatly in an attempt to remain cool and detached.


Jamie tried hard not to smile, but he couldn’t help it. The tone of Perkinjius voice too easily gave away the man’s emotions. Jamie didn’t even need to scan him. It was obvious that Stephen had been impressed with Jamie’s knowledge, in fact, he’d been enthralled by Jamie’s narration. Suppressing the urge to jab Perkinjius with one of his sharply barbed retorts, Jamie remained silent, gratefully thanking Charlie for the intense historical lessons he’d been cramming into Jamie’s brain over the past few months.


Damian on the other hand made no attempt to conceal his feelings. “Amazing, Jamie. Simply amazing,” Damian said as a look of admiration and awe spread across his face.


“Thank you,” Jamie said. He didn’t have to say any more. It would have been easy to be smug. It would have been easy to have been foolish and try to impress Stephen Perkinjius even further with his mention of what the Ghröum called The War of the Destroyers which mandated the fourth and final censure from the Confederated Worlds, leading to The Interdiction of Isolation and the complete shutdown of the exogates, but that would have raised Perkinjius’ suspicions and led to questions Jamie would rather not have to answer. So, too, would any mention of his newly acquired knowledge of war and military tactics with which, with Charlie’s help, he’d been so keenly working to master.


In his narration he’d tried to tell the story as a passively as possible, without interjecting his own emotions, emotions that more and more were filled with hatred toward the human race. It had taken great effort, but he felt he’d succeeded.


“I think I’ll have that cup of tea,” Jamie simply replied softly. “My throat could use some soothing. Then I must return to the school,” he added. “I have a short practice scheduled this afternoon before dinner.”


That night, back in his room, Jamie lay on his bed staring up at the ceiling. His head was filled with more thoughts than he felt it could hold as he reviewed the day he’d just concluded. Feeling restless he got up from his bed. Crossing his room, he opened the door and stepped out into the darkened hall of the dormitory. Light coming from under Cristophe’s door told him the master prefect was still awake. After knocking lightly and hearing a soft “Come in,” he opened the door.


Cristophe was in his bed. With his wings carefully folded back he was propped up with some pillows, a small book in his hand. As soon as he saw Jamie, a sunny smile came to his face.


“Everything ok?”


“I guess,” Jamie sighed. “Just a lot on my mind.”


“Talk about it?” Closing his book and setting it beside him on the bed, Cristophe’s eyes searched Jamie’s


“Uhm... well... most of it you already know.” Jamie folded his wings, tucked them to one side, and carefully slid onto Cristophe’s bed.


“Sometimes it just helps to discuss things.” Cristophe clasped Jamie’s hand. “I’m sure I won’t have many answers, but I can listen.”


“I’ve put you in enough danger already,” Jamie frowned.


“Jamie, I’m not being forced to do anything I don’t agree with.”


“Maybe not, but still...”


“There are no buts or maybes. I’m with you to the end.”


Jamie sat quietly on the edge of Cristophe’s bed, feeling the warm hand of the master prefect in his.


“I love you, Cristophe.”


“I love you too, Jamie.”


“I loved my father. I love Castor, and Charlie, and the trio of terror, but with you...”


“I know,” Cristophe smiled. “It’s a bit different, isn’t it?”


“Why couldn’t you be my older brother, instead of Loran?”


“I feel like I am.”


“Why me?” Jamie gave Cristophe a searching look. “Of all the boys in the school... I mean, there’s Jeremy, Lucas, and Yves, the other juniors, even the other seniors... who was I compared to them?”


Cristophe sat quietly searching Jamie’s eyes, and a knowing look appeared on his face. “Because for fourteen nights in a row I heard a young boy, the newest student to the school cry himself to sleep, and I couldn’t understand why. But I did know he needed love... and a friend.”


“And I got so much more than that.” Jamie made no effort to staunch the tears that rolled down his cheeks.


Tugging on Jamie’s hand, Cristophe pulled the young prince closer and Jamie lay his head on Cristophe’s chest. Giving the top of Jamie’s head a kiss, the master prefect gently stroked the boy’s hair while Jamie told him about his day, going into great detail about his experience with Hippolito. Cristophe listened without comment, sensing Jamie’s need to talk.  Feeling more at peace then he had for weeks, Jamie let Cristophe hold him for a long time. Finally he sat up, kissed Cristophe on the cheek and slid off the boy’s bed.


“Thank you,” he whispered.


Cristophe smiled, but didn’t reply. Instead he made a fist and lightly rapped three times against the common wall he and Jamie shared. Returning Cristophe’s smile, Jamie reached across the bed, and did the same thing. Then turning out the light on the table next to the boy’s bed, he left Cristophe’s room.