The Scrolls of Icaria by Jamie
Book 2 – 'War of the Angels'
Part III - Baron of Rood
Boisterous shouts, catcalls and whistles, mixed with the bell and clang of swords and an occasional grunt of effort, filled the air. In the main sparring hall of the Central Gahdar Training Center in Piropolis, a fierce battle was being waged.
The presence of three full-size Battlecoms in the hall, along with the modules, power source, and peripherals needed to run the gargantuan machines necessitated the room’s immense size. Uniform rows of small skylights on the roof, in combination with sets of tall windows where the walls and ceiling met over two hundred feet above the floor, provided bright and abundant lighting for the vast interior of the building.
Two of the Battlecoms, powered down to save energy, sat quiet and unused; the third, surrounded by a mob of screaming and shouting Avionne boys, rumbled with a low thrum that reverberated through the building.
The object of the commotion around this third machine was a boy committing mayhem on a squad of attackers inside the chained-off area of the Battlecom’s fighting ring. Standing against three fearsome warriors, Niklas Agramos moved about the ring with absolute focus and deadly economy of motion. As one attack flowed into the next, his poise, balance, footwork, and speed all combined to make it look as though the combat he engaged in was predestined, that each sequence of maneuvers must inevitably flow from the one before, and was therefore simple. But to the boys watching – well aware of the skill, strength, strategy and concentration involved in such a fight – there was nothing easy or simple about what the boy gladiator was doing.
Although he was fighting for his life against three, the odds had been much worse at the commencement of the battle, as evidenced by the corpses of four thrones who’d been struck down earlier. Their lifeless bodies scattered across the floor of the ring created new obstacles to maneuver around.
Leaning on the outer rails of the Com, a non-avionne boy of sixteen stood amid the circle of shouting gahdar. Like the avionne boys surrounding him, he too was wildly cheering. Sometimes jumping, clapping or punching his fist into the air when Niklas made a score or a spectacular move it was clear that the young man was an avid fan of the legendary Baron of Rood. On the floor below, only a few feet from the young man standing above them, a small squad of Imperial Viper’s stood vigil – standard procedure when a member of the imperial family ventured out into the world, away from the tight security of their palace.
Nic’s opponents – all large, but viper-fast thrones – were complex, holo-generated images who were, at that moment, every bit as real and deadly as their flesh and blood counterparts – even more so since the Battlecom was able to make them larger, faster and much more deadly than the real thrones Niklas the gahdar fought in the arena. And although it looked like a game, the safety parameters were turned off – a lethal blow from any of them would kill the boy just the same as if he’d been fighting real opponents at Castle Rood. Attacking head-on with a single-minded determination, Nic dispatched another of the great, hulking monsters to the wild cheers of his supporters.
Left with two final opponents the young man took to the air; then, just as a diving eagle bares its talons in an attack on its prey, his sword hammered down on the weapon of the throne on the left, and a loud, bright clang echoed through the hall as the sword flew from the throne’s hand. In nearly the same instant, on the upswing, the boy lopped off the creature’s head. While the throne’s body hesitated before falling to the ground, the young man used both feet to push off its chest in order to gain some air; somersaulting back to the ground in a curving arc he came down behind his final opponent and buried his sword up to the quillons in the throne’s back
“Did you see that?” Saturn, the loud, brash primi half of Duet Doom, in a universal move young men use when posturing for each other, nudged the Heir Apparent to the Imperial throne hard in the ribs, oblivious to the narrow eyed glares of the viper squad, who stood ready and willing to send a ghoster bolt into his back.
“It was amazing,” the boy shouted as a wide grin erupted on his face. Clearly he was enjoying his association with the warrior boys, pretending he was one of them.
“We call it The Baron’s Revenge!” Foxx, Saturn’s secundi, yelled over the cheers and shouts of his brother gahdar. “You’ll never see that one in the arena. Because he doesn’t kill them, he only uses it here in the Com. It’s special… something only we get to see. I’m sure he did it because you were here to watch.”
The boy’s grin grew brighter, then turning back to the ring he cheered all the louder.
Moments later, with all opponents vanquished, the program ended and the dispatched thrones vanished as the boy dipped his wings slightly and floated to the floor of the ring amid cheers of “Bravo Niklas!” “Amazing match!” and “Once more, the Baron rules the ring!”
Stepping over the Battlecom’s chains of demarcation, a sweating and panting Niklas Agramos gave his friends a self-conscious, shy smile. As he placed his sword on a nearby stand, one of the boys threw him a towel that he used to wipe his face, neck and arms.
“What a dance!” Gray shouted. “All that was missing was a little music.”
“And maybe a little of that toe action those boys at the opera house did,” Cato grinned.
Ever since they’d gone to the performance at the Mondele Royale, the gahdar had taken to comparing themselves to the dancers they’d seen at the opera house – surprising even themselves by how much they’d enjoyed and even admired the artists’ performances.
Sweating profusely, Nic continued to daub himself with the towel. After wiping down his arms for the second time, he looked up to see the boy standing before him. Staring at Nic with an almost ridiculously euphoric smile plastered across his face, his eyes sparkled and he appeared almost breathless.
“Amazing! Incredible! I never saw anything like it,’ the boy gushed like a young schoolgirl with a starry-eyed crush. “You are… by far… the most incredible fighter in the world… in the quadrant… no, in the galaxy!’ In his eyes Nic could see the glow of hero worship.
“Thank you, your highness,” Nic’s tone was soft and subdued. “I try my best.”
“Your worst is better than everyone else’s best,’ Crown Prince Victor continued. “When father asked me what I wanted for my birthday, this is what I requested. Tomorrow will be the official party, but Gahdar Niklas, this was absolutely the best. I’ll never forget it.”
“I’m glad it pleased your highness,” Niklas, attempting to give the boy a diplomatic smile, could feel himself forcing it.
“That move? You know, the revenge one? You did that for me, didn’t you? Because I was here, no?” Victor Blackwell was giving the gahdar a hopeful look.
Pausing to blot more sweat from his forehead, Nic used the moment to stall. The moves he used in the arena or the Com were used for one, and only one, purpose: to keep him alive. One didn’t choreograph arena fights if they were genuine. Yes, he had seen human contests where the outcome was pre-determined and so everything had been planned. But from his earliest memories Avionne gahdar, even those in training, were thrown into the deep end and forced to survive using their wits and skill. No one had ever thrown him a lifeline. But the grinning boy before him wouldn’t understand that. While only three years older than the spoiled and pampered Victor Blackwell, Niklas Agramos, officially titled von Agramon and unofficially The Baron of Rood, had lived a much different life.
Finished mopping up the sweat, he looked at the boy and even though he preferred not to, he bared his teeth in a faux smile and gave a small nod of his head.
“I knew it!” The crown prince almost jumped out of his skin with excitement. “I knew you did it for me! But, I wish you’d use it in the arena.”
“Not all battles need end in death,” Nic quietly replied. It was a request he’d heard countless times.
“I guess,” Victor looked despondent, ‘And I suppose you need to keep your unblemished record of perfect victory with zero kills.’
Niklas remained quiet. He hated killing, but once more his actions were misunderstood. He would kill a hundred thrones if it were the only way to survive a match. Happily his skill had kept him from it, but once again the boy’s thoughtless questions and ridiculous hero worship pointed to the fact that he was an object, a property of the Empire, not a person with a mind, a soul, or his own ideas and opinions.
“Your highness?” A tall man glided up next to the excited boy’s shoulder. “We must return to Küronas. You must hold to your schedule.”
The boy frowned and rolled his eyes, clearly unhappy at being forced to leave.
“I’ll be in the box for the next match,’ he called as he walked away.
As the squad of Vipers prepared to leave, one tall, muscular man gave Nic a nod. Hard faced and cold-eyed, the man looked squarely into Nic’s face. “As always, Baron, superbly done. Good fortune to you.”
Nic nodded back and gave the man a small smile. After all of the cheering, worship and gushing praise from Victor Blackwell, the quiet acknowledgement of his true skill from the Viper had been high praise. Like Nic, the man looked danger and death unflinchingly in the face every day, and both of them knew the score. As the man turned away, Nic stared at the crown prince’s back as the Vipers gathered around him and led him from the cavernous training center.
“Ok boys, its time to get back to work.” A loud voice calling out to the young avionne warriors echoed through the training center. A chorus of good natured protests broke out when they saw it was one of their trainers, but the gahdar started toward their exercise stations “You’re not going to get any better standing around and watching our best fighter perform,” the trainer growled, trying to sound as if he were scolding a pack of naughty children. “I want everyone doing their warm-up exercises, and when you’re finished you’ll start your practice rounds.”
“Where are Miro and David?” Agrippa shouted, sounding annoyed. “Aren’t they supposed to be practicing today?”
“They get lazier every day,” Gerom called out. “All that luxury at the palace has spoiled them.”
“You’re not here to worry about Miro and David.” The trainer sounded annoyed. “We’ve been over this ground before. They’re not going to be fighting your battles. You know the routine. Now get started, and concentrate on improving yourselves.”
It was such a routine scene in his life that Nic found the growling trainer and the catcalls of the boys comforting. He walked to a nearby towel station, pitched his sweat soaked towel into a hamper and retrieved a fresh one from the shelves. Giving himself another rubdown he threw this towel over one shoulder. When he turned away from the rack, he found himself face to face with one of his trainers.
“We received a message from Miro while you were putting on your exhibition, Niklas,” the trainer said. “The brothers are bringing you a visitor. You can go to your quarters and clean up.”
“Who?” Nic asked.
“I don’t know,” the trainer replied. “Miro didn’t say.”
“What about practice?” Nic asked.
“I think you’ve shown us enough for today,” the trainer’s voiced dropped and a sheepish look came to his face. “You did good today, and Victor Blackwell was pleased. Thank you. If no one else appreciates it, I do. And I watched you speaking to him afterward – very diplomatic of you. Thanks again.”
“Didn’t have much choice,” Nic said, and shrugged his shoulders.
The trainer reached out and gave Nic’s upper arm a hard squeeze, and then he smiled. “If you feel like it you can do your exercise schedule in the gymnasium or maybe take some laps in the pool, after your guest leaves. You know, you don’t have to fight a battle every day. Save a little for the arena.”
Nodding his understanding, Nic mopped his face one more time, looped the towel around his neck and headed for his quarters.
It was still mid-morning when Nic left the training center. The day was sunny and bright. The afternoon heat was still a few hours away, and a light breeze against Nic’s warm sweaty skin helped to cool him down from his strenuous Battlecom session. The park was calm and peaceful this time of day and Nic found it pleasant to traverse it quietly and alone. Solitude was rare in the life of a gahdar, and the boy clung to any that came his way.
Although puzzled as to who his visitor might be and the nature of the visit, Nic didn’t dwell on it. He’d learned some time ago from Master Sakki that he should concentrate on things he had power over, and not spend his time worrying about things he couldn’t change. Using one of the mind clearing exercises Sakki had taught him, he continued on his way. He would find out soon enough who was coming to see him, and until then idle speculation was a waste of time. Instead, Nic concentrated on enjoying the walk back to the Gahdar barracks beyond the edge of the park.
The gahdar compound was situated in the furthest outlying suburb of Piropolis – a sector of the city once devoted to industrial manufacturing. After all heavy industry was moved off-planet to Argon, the area became populated with small technical companies engaged in the design and development of products centered around the many discoveries and innovations flowing from the planet’s talented scientific community. As a result of its entrepreneurial success, both on- and off-planet, the city had grown in wealth and stature, and the majority of its population – mostly skilled technical workers – enjoyed a comfortable and rising standard of living. The inhabitants of Piropolis were the kind of solid, hardworking citizens the Altinestran empire relied on for support, strength, stability, and economic growth – all things now placed in jeopardy by both the plague and the long-standing embargo and planetary interdiction imposed by the Commonwealth.
The northeastern route that Nic took through the park had him facing the sun for most of his journey, and the warmth of its rays combined with the morning’s soft breeze had an invigorating effect on him. The broad, graveled path he chose to take to his quarters was deserted, and although the city was often full of activity, he didn’t encounter a single person along the way. As he strode through one of the gates at the eastern boundary of the park, he could see sunlight reflecting brightly off the red tile roofs of the compound that was his world. He turned a corner and walked into the central square of the barracks and living quarters complex that served as his home. The design of the complex was spartan at best, but the boys who lived there had never known anything different, and it served as a refuge of calm from their often violent world of battles, matches, and tournaments.
Nic entered the barracks and went to his room; a small-unadorned cell with utilitarian fittings and the plainest of furnishings. Quickly stripping, he headed back out the door and down to the common bath at the end of the hall. Like everything else in the barracks, the bath was plain and functional. A large marble pool of warm circulating water sat in the middle of the room. Against one end of the room a battery of nozzles protruded from the tiled wall and a series of intermittent drains set into the marble floor demarcated a common shower area. Apart from the individual rooms each gahdar was given when they graduated to the main training facility in Piropolis, privacy was considered a rare luxury.
After decantation at the age of five, boys beginning their early training at the pre-gahdar camps in Compari and DeLauro lived in open barracks, where they trained, ate, bathed, played, and slept together in groups of twenty called nests. A rigorous program tasked at toughening the pre-gahdar nestlings controlled every aspect of the boy’s lives and extended from the youngest to the oldest. Total obedience was demanded with little slack and few concessions granted to those chosen for the program. Advancement was difficult, and failure – even death – always imminent.
From the earliest moment of their first day at the pre-gahdar camps discipline was strict, and the young nestlings quickly learned that total obedience was more than a suggestion. In the first three months after their decantation, the little five year olds were given simple but demanding tasks to assess their potential stamina and future fitness. Everything the boys encountered was meant to toughen them or encourage them to fight for survival.
Contests were held to see who could succeed at any number of harsh, draconian tasks. Boys had to quickly climb and then hang for extended periods from thick, abrasive ropes with a weight tied to their waist or ankles. Stripped naked, the little nestlings were submerged in icy water up to their necks and watched for signs of weakness. Racing against each other while carrying a heavy sack of stones, the boys were made to climb a steep incline. Even organized fights were held between boys, with the victor receiving an extra chunk of bread as a supplement to their meager diet.
Their training never stopped, and every opportunity was taken to teach the nestlings the art of survival. At meal times, a large common bowl of food was placed in front of the boys on a plain unadorned table. Using just their hands, the boys had to feed themselves while jostling for a place at the table; grabbing what they could amidst a mob of hungry nestlings. Boys who ate the most grew and became stronger, those who were less successful went hungry, grew weak, and sometimes disappeared. Even bedtime was a fight for survival since five thin blankets were allotted between twenty naked little boys. And although the victors were less cold then their unlucky nesting mates, the difference was only slight. By these methods, survival of only the fittest was assured.
Upon entering the bath Nic stepped unhurriedly down the steps of the pool and sat on one of the stone ledges built into its sides. Sliding between two of the jets that churned and aerated the steaming hot water, he submerged himself up to his chin and enjoyed the relaxing massage the swirling currents provided. His Battlecom session had been strenuous, but it was nothing out of the ordinary and his muscles – while a bit fatigued – weren’t too stiff or sore. Of course it had taken years for him to get to that level, but from the time he was a very small boy he’d known no other existence than the training program of the camps, so with nothing to provide a contrast, the life he knew and lived seemed quite normal to him.
From his earliest memories he’d handled some type of weapon. When still a young child only a few weeks out from decantation, his first toy had been a small, hand-carved stick – it’s weight, length and balance crafted specifically for him. With it, he was taught to perform a series of routines and exercises that over time grew more complex and difficult. Eventually the stick gave way to a carved wooden sword, and after a time the wooden sword was abandoned in favor of a blunt metal training sword that he practiced with until he was deemed skilled enough to use a true weapon that could maim and kill. As he progressed, even the real swords changed in weight, length, and variety until he’d become proficient with short, medium, and long bladed weapons of various types and styles. His rigorous training was structured to make him comfortable wielding everything from short sparring swords to heavy, double-edged claymores that were almost as tall as he was.
As he matured, his sword skills weren’t the only abilities honed to perfection. An array of knives, spears, lances, nets, whips, maces, bows, arrows, and virtually any other type of weapon ever used for hand to hand combat in the long history of the commonwealth was introduced into his training regime, as it was for all the other boys. As their training progressed, frequent and increasingly complex tests of skill were introduced to evaluate proficiency and provide data for a profile of each boy’s strengths and weaknesses.
Nic’s weapons’ training was interspersed with tasks of physical strength and endurance. Long, forced marches, most at a full run with a heavy pack, demanding exercise regimes, and periods of food or sleep deprivation pushed him to his breaking point. His trainers showed no compassion or sympathy, knowing that such were fatal to their charges. Any boy who came in last was required to repeat the task. Those who rarely or never succeeded in winning frequently vanished – a fact that Niklas took notice of early on.
Nic slipped off the underwater ledge and swam to the opposite corner of the pool where a short metal pole protruded from the surrounding floor. Attached to the pole was a small waterproof box. With one finger, he touched a few spots on the box’s flat, seamless panel. In response, the speed and sound of the water pumps increased. Soon the pool resembled a boiling cauldron as the jets churned the water into a roiling, steamy froth. Moving to the center of the pool, Nic lay on his back and let his floating body be buffeted by the warm, bubbling water. Although it made his wings waterlogged he enjoyed the pummeling feel of the water against his sore muscles. Closing his eyes he let his mind wander.
Starting with his earliest days at Compari, his life was dominated by order, routine, and highly structured discipline. Even the youngest of the boys in the camps endured forays into the surrounding countryside on marches that, over time, lengthened in difficulty and duration. The older boys occasionally spent cold nights bivouacked in the surrounding forests, sleeping naked on the forest floor with nothing but a thin blanket with which to keep warm. At the first sounds of reveille, more than one tired and exhausted boy attempting to cling to sleep was jarred awake by an ice-cold bucket of water. After the nestlings first year was complete, food became more plentiful and nutritious, but remained simple, unpretentious fare. And while cooperation between nestlings wasn’t discouraged, in the end each boy was expected to fend for himself.
The culling process was severe and as the boys advanced in their training, nestmates changed frequently. Nestlings who failed or couldn’t meet the grade always simply vanished without warning or farewell. It wasn’t uncommon for the boys at the training camps to return to their barracks and find someone new occupying the berth of a boy suddenly gone. No explanations were offered and boys quickly learned not to ask about the fate of those who’d been removed from the program.
Nothing resembling family life was maintained. Trainers organized the daily training sessions. Barracks masters supervised the boys in their barracks, and a large group of Kalorians was responsible for meals and laundry along with grounds and facilities maintenance. Life centered on a training regime that was entirely physical in nature and no attempt was made to provide even the most rudimentary of education in the arts or letters.
Easing back to his feet, Nic stood up, waded to the steps of the pool and got out. Dripping water and leaving a trail of wet footprints in his wake, he walked to the showers. As soon as he set foot in the shower area, a number of the nozzles closest to him activated, dousing him with a torrent of warm water. Grabbing a nearby bar of soap Nic began to wash his body, occasionally stopping to stand directly under one of the nozzles and letting the spray drench him from head to toe while the soothing warm water cascaded over his wings and body.
When he turned ten years old commonwealth standard, Nic and a small group of other nestlings chosen for their superior skills were selected to participate in private one-on-one sessions with specially chosen trainers. The private sessions took place in assigned bays – a larger than normal room where he’d practice and demonstrate the exercises and routines his private trainer presented to him. Working long hours at a time, each boy was expected to show real improvement according to fixed goals dictated by their training schedule.
Nic excelled in private training. Eager to please his trainer, the boy showed a hunger for even the smallest scrap of encouragement or nod of approval. Like a starving man he devoured any praise – no matter how weak or insincere it might be. Unlike many of his nest mates, who’d long abandoned any hope of love or compassion, there remained a warmth and tenderness to the boy. And although he could be as strong as steel and fight like a tiger, his tendency to show occasional care and concern for others, especially his nestmates, sometimes worried his trainers. More than once the boy had given up a ration of bread to a younger, weaker nestmate. Although almost always the winner of one of the sleeping blankets, it was common for the Nic to place it over the body of a shivering comrade while he braved the chill of the cold night air.
“You’ll never win a fight being sympathetic to your opponent,” a trainer once shouted at him. “Offer an opening, show a split-second of weakness, and you’ll be dancing on the end of his sword.”
Nic had nodded his agreement, but in every sparring match that he dominated, there was always a moment when he’d ease up on the weaker boy. Although often castigated by his trainers, he found that he could still win without completely breaking and subjugating his opponents.
A few months after the private training sessions began, Nic entered his assigned training bay one day to find another winged boy standing near a table and two chairs. The bays were usually empty save for some floor mats and whatever weapons the boy’s trainer would decide he should practice with for the day, and Nic was surprised that the three pieces of furniture had been brought into the room.
The boy in the bay was older then Nic as evidenced by his full set of wings. Nic’s wings, still short and mostly white, would begin to grow and develop the distinctive feather pattern of a Royal Throne once he’d begun his Icarian puberty – at least two years in the future. The fully matured wings of the boy he encountered in the bay were a beautiful snowy white with distinctive red and black markings. It was a combination Nic had never seen and he was intrigued.
“Niklas,” the boy said, offering Nic a pleasant smile, “please, have a seat.”
Nic, used to obeying orders, immediately approached the table, pulled out one of the chairs and sat. The other boy settled into the second chair opposite the young gahdar-in-training and then just looked at him for a moment.
There were a few books, a stack of paper and some writing implements sitting on the tabletop. Placing a hand on the nearby stack of books, the boy took one and handed it to Nic. He chose a similar book for himself.
“My name is Androcles,” the boy said, still smiling at Nic. “I’m here to teach you.”
Nic, who’d been taught to only speak when given permission by a superior, sat quietly waiting for Androcles to continue.
“You have permission to speak, Niklas,” Androcles said.
But since Nic had nothing to say he remained quiet, silently studying the boy sitting opposite. And although he appeared calm, Nic studied the other boy with a suspicious and wary gaze.
“From now on, you’ll first take lessons with me every day during your private training sessions. When we are finished, you’ll work with your trainer,” Androcles said. “Will that be ok with you?”
Nic, who’d never before been asked his opinion on anything, gave Androcles a puzzled look, but nodded his agreement, punctuated by a soft, “yes.”
“Good, I’m glad,” Androcles said. “Before we get started,” the boy continued, “there’s one important rule you must obey concerning these lessons, Niklas.”
Nic remained quiet, carefully studying the older boy. Often given complex orders as a test to see if he was really listening, Nic had learned to focus all his attention on his superiors when they spoke. This boy looked and acted like a superior.
“You must not tell anyone about these lessons. I think you know how important your training is, no? And how important it is that you obey your orders? So now I am ordering you to keep what happens in this room between us, and not to tell anyone. This includes your trainers, but especially applies to your nest mates. When you arrive in this bay you will immediately sit here at this table and we will begin to work together. You will have time to study here during our sessions, and you will have the opportunity to do any work I require of you. But you will not be allowed to take any of the books out of this room. That is a direct order. Do you understand?”
Once more Nic answered Androcles with a soft and respectful yes.
“Good,” Androcles said, and his smile broadened. “I think you’ll enjoy this.”
And in fact, Nic did. Although a bit worried and slightly intimidated at first, Niklas quickly warmed to Androcles, who was a kind and patient teacher. Used to being shouted at, ordered about, or spoken to harshly, Nic found Androcles to be the opposite of his other trainers and his barracks master. Never screaming or punishing Niklas for making a mistake, Androcles calmly explained, reviewed and revisited over and over until Nic understood. Androcles was always quick to offer praise and encouragement, and he never scolded Nic when he made an error, instead helping Nic find the correct answer and upon his doing so, offered the boy genuine praise. Nic, used to the harsh world of the camps, responded to Androcles’ kindness like a starving man at a banquet, doing everything his teacher asked of him – and more.
When they first started, Nic was confused by much of what Androcles was attempting to teach him, but the boy had told him at the very beginning of their sessions it would be that way.
“You’re quite intelligent, Niklas,” Androcles told Nic after their second lesson. “You may not think so, since you’ve only exercised your body and not your mind, but when you start exercising mentally in the same way you exercise physically, you’ll be surprised at the results.”
True to Androcles words, Nic slowly began to understand his lessons and within a short period of time he was easily grasping what the older boy taught him. His first lessons centered on reading, writing, and basic mathematics, but over time, the scope of his lessons expanded. Nic quickly absorbed his lessons and was surprised to discover an ability to grasp new concepts. Androcles told him that some of this was because he was an Avionne for whom such progress was normal, taking time to explain to Niklas some of the physical and mental differences between humans, Kalorians and avionnes. But he did not forget to state quite clearly that part of this was the result of Nic’s own quite nimble mind.
In time, Androcles taught Nic two additional languages – one he presented to Nic as the Kalorians language, the other a tongue he referred to as Icarian. Eventually Nic became fluent in both tongues, but as he progressed, Androcles made Nic swear never to speak them outside of their lessons.
Nic’s lessons continued for three and a half years, and his progress was impressive. And while he’d promised Androcles never to tell his other nestmates of his lessons, as he grew older, two of Nic’s friends – Miro and Julius – accidentally discovered their friend’s secret. But at Nic’s request, they both swore a vow of silence, which they never broke.
At the end of each session with Androcles Nic would excuse himself, leave the bay, and go to another bay where he and his private trainer would practice the art of combat. Over time, the boy became as amazingly fit in mind as in body.
Then one day, at the end of a lesson as Nic closed his books and prepared to leave the bay, Androcles stopped him. “I understand you’re being transferred to the gahdar barracks at Piropolis in a few weeks, Niklas. It’s true, no?” he asked.
Nic nodded his assent.
“Then this will be our last session,” Androcles stated. “Your progress has been amazing. But now you’ll be going to a new city, and a new place where you’ll continue your gahdar training. I also have been given a new assignment as well, so this will be goodbye.”
Nic was shocked at Androcles words. He’d come to admire his tutor; in fact, shortly after he’d begun his puberty cycle he’d had an intense – if brief – crush on his teacher that, oddly, came to an end shortly after he encountered a beautiful young angel boy who came to witness one of his group training sessions.
“But shouldn’t we continue? There is so much more for me to learn,” Nic questioned, and this act alone was evidence of his progress, drawing a smile from his teacher.
“I’m afraid that won’t be possible,” Androcles said. Walking with Nic to the door of the bay, the older boy added, “You’ve come a long way, Niklas. You’ve vaulted every obstacle to learning that you’ve encountered, for which I am very proud of you. In time more will be asked of you, but for now go to Piropolis and concentrate on your gahdar training. It’s vitally important. I’ve been told you’re the best nestling that’s ever gone through pre-training. In the time that we have spent together, I’ve come to know you a little, and I am confident that you will always continue to do your best.”
Nic nodded obediently. He felt strange and sad. Once they reached the door Nic turned and in an impulsive move grabbed his teacher. Wrapping his arms around the taller boy’s waist Niklas hugged him tightly. Androcles returned the boy’s hug and they remained locked together for over a minute. It was the first real hug Niklas had ever given or received. It made him feel so good; he didn’t want it to end. But it did all too quickly, as Androcles released his hold on Nic and stepped away; Nic was surprised at how empty he suddenly felt.
Androcles opened the door of the bay, gave Nic a light kiss on the cheek and bade him farewell.
“Will I see you again?” Nic asked a little forlornly as Androcles began to close the door of the training bay.
“I rather doubt it,” Androcles said with a warm smile that Nic noted was at odds with the sadness in his teacher’s eyes.
The weeks following his last lesson with Androcles were busy for Nic as he ended his tenure at Compari and transferred to Piropolis. Making the transition easier was the fact that his best friend Miro Gillot and Miro’s brother David transferred at the same time, and when he arrived at the gahdar barracks of the training center he encountered many of the same older boys he’d known or trained with at Compari. Welcomed by his old friends, he also quickly formed new attachments to the boys who’d come from the second pre-gahdar camp at DeLauro.
The showers shut off when Nic backed away and left the shower area. He pulled a towel from a nearby rack and began drying himself, first briskly toweling his hair and then moving to the rest of his body. Tossing the wet towel into a nearby bin, he grabbed a fresh one and rubbed his hair again. Whipping this towel over one shoulder, he left the baths and returned to his room.
Jamie’s flight from Küronas to Piropolis was quiet, and although the distance was great, the hov – a supersonic model – got them there quickly. Assuming that a gahdar wouldn’t normally be trained to fly, he was initially surprised to see Miro, and not an imperial pilot, at the hov’s controls – a supersonic, no less. While Jamie could fly standard hovs, he’d never been trained to fly a supersonic. It was one of many things he’d planned on accomplishing before his capture intervened and dramatically changed the course of his life.
Shortly after taking off from the École, Miro tried to engage the dancer in conversation, but the boy remained cool and aloof. After Miro’s failure to get Jamie talking, David turned in his seat and began peppering their passenger with questions about being a dancer. Jamie simply stared straight ahead, his face an unreadable mask, and ignored David. Turning back to the controls, Miro’s eyes briefly met those of his brother. David shrugged his shoulders, and shook his head.
“I heard he was a little prima donna,” David said in a loud stage whisper, but if Jamie heard him, he offered no reaction.
“I think he only has one thing on his mind.” Miro winked, then raised an eyebrow at his brother. “He has a wicked reputation – at least, that’s what they imply on the entertainment vids.”
After leaving the airspace of Küronas, Miro set a course due north which took them directly over Gold Glass Flats, and then re-set it for due west. Once they reached Triège, a city that along with her sisters Clarion and Celeste made up the tirade cities defining the northern boundary of the Overland Flats, Miro banked to the right and once more headed north while he simultaneously increased the hov’s altitude in order to safely cross the Poniçessian mountain range.
While the scenery below was breathtaking, and Jamie occasionally glanced out the window to check on their location, his thoughts, hijacked by his emotions, were racing. Although he tried to clear his head, Jamie was filled with hatred knowing he could never erase the sight of Cristophe’s broken and tortured body from his mind. But because it fueled the anger inside him he didn’t try to repress it. Once more, humans had shown him how cruel they could be. Now more than ever convinced they were truly an evil race, Jamie was determined to somehow make them pay for their crimes. The Council of Resistance had been infiltrated and broken. They’d said they were working on a plan that included him, but after such a devastating setback he was convinced it would be aborted. And while Cristophe had been the only Icarian captured, it was questionable as to what actions the future princes and scribes – or even Prince Alexander – would, could, or even might be willing to, undertake.
Jamie, on the other hand, felt no obligation to hold back. His father had once made a quiet remark in Jamie’s presence regarding his son’s potential power. Looking out the window of his private office, Edmond Croal had spoken the words to himself. Jamie doubted his father had intended for him to hear them, but he had. Now he wondered if it were true. Thinking back to that moment, Jamie reflected on his happy life at the villa – a life that had been stolen from him, a life he could never get back. Years before, he’d promised his father he would fulfill his destiny. Now the Empire had pushed him to the brink, and his impulsive nature wouldn’t allow him to sit back and wait – not any more. After his discovery at the Monastery of Infinity he’d known that he would have to act, revolution or no. Just weeks before, he’d pledged his oaths to the council and taken the title Lord Protector.
“Well, if that’s what I am, then that’s what I’ll do,” Jamie whispered under his breath. “Protect them.” David, hearing sounds from behind him, looked over his shoulder in Jamie’s directions, but when the boy continued to ignore him, David went back to staring out the cockpit window.
Jamie, nearly eighteen commonwealth standard, was well aware that he was now almost two years older than Enrick Blackwell when, at sixteen, he’d founded an empire; almost the same age as Edmond Croal when his brilliant father had created the first Icarian. He was impatient and disappointed with his own progress: he had thus far done nothing of note in his life except dance – but that was about to change.
A noticeable decrease in the hov’s airspeed combined with a slight bank to the right roused Jamie from his thoughts and he glanced out the window nearest his seat. Below him, the Poniçessian foothills were beginning to flatten out. Less than a hundred miles ahead, on the Plain of Harren, lay Piropolis. As they began their approach Jamie could see that while less grand and more compact than Küronas, the city still appeared to be quite lovely. Though its buildings weren’t as tall or breathtaking as those of the capitol, from his vantage point in the hov Jamie could begin to see Piropolis’ broad intersecting boulevards, ample green space, and a grid-like plan that presented a neat and orderly appearance.
After passing over the center of the city, the hov, now at a slow cruising speed, flew on in a northeasterly direction across the city’s suburbs, and Jamie watched the compact density of buildings concentrated in the city’s center began to spread out as more green space appeared in the suburban flats.
“What’s he like?” Jamie’s voice, whisper soft, was barely audible.
“He speaks!” Miro said, turning briefly to give Jamie an appraising eye and a tentative grin.
“What did you say?” David, unencumbered with the task of flying, swiveled in his seat as much as his harness would allow and looked directly at Jamie.
“What’s he like? The Gahdar Niklas, I mean.”
“An amazing warrior, and a great friend,” Miro said.
“I think he might mean something else,” David’s eyes gleamed and a coy smile came to his face. “He has his admirers,” the young Gahdar added, “and it seems you’re one of them.”
Catching David’s drift and the implication it held, Jamie wasn’t sure whether to be complemented or insulted. Instead he became suddenly silent while turning his blue-eyed gaze into a frigid glare. Blinking in surprise, the Gahdar held up his hands as if fending off an attack.
“I’m not the one who diverted a hov just to visit a gladiator boy in Piropolis,” he said defensively. “By my wings, what’s with this one?” he lowered his voice while he rolled his eyes at his twin.
“Just leave it be,” Miro replied in a hushed, though slightly annoyed tone, “We’re almost there.”
The hov continued to slow down and the image presented to Jamie as he stared out the window began to match a familiar one he’d often studied and now carried in the screen that resided in his brain – The Gahdar Training Compound. By now the hov had stopped all forward motion and was beginning its decent onto a flat, grassy area inside the compound. After skillfully landing the craft, Miro cut the engines, powered down the controls and turned to face Jamie.
“Here we are,” he quipped, and with a gleam in his eye added, “as you commanded, your Highness.”
“Thank you,” Jamie replied, completely ignoring Miro’s sarcasm. “Can you take me to see Niklas Agramos?”
“As you wish, my prince.” Miro glanced at David while raising his eyebrows. “Can I ask what your interest is?” he continued.
“It’s a private matter,” Jamie replied coolly.
“I can just imagine,” Miro whispered in his brother’s ear as he got up from his seat and brushed past David.
Opening the hatch, Miro exited the hov. Turning back, he offered a hand to Jamie, who climbed down without so much as glancing at it. David jumped down and joined them as Miro led Jamie toward a large building along one side of the compound; just before they arrived at the building, David tapped Miro on the shoulder.
“I’m heading to the training center,” he said. “We’re already late.”
“Sure,” Miro said, then dropping his voice added, “I’ll take His Majesty to see Niklas. If my guess is right most of their meeting will be occurring between the sheets.”
“I thought so,” David added with a leering grin. “By my wings, it’s always the same! Niklas the bold... Niklas the brave... the Baron of Rood. Now he gets to taste the sweetest morsel of them all – what bloody good luck!”
The twins separated, with David making a ninety degree turn while Miro pointing toward a building on their left and gestured for Jamie to continue following him. At first Jamie could see some similarities between the gahdar barracks and his dormitory at the École, but the minute they entered the building he quickly changed his opinion. Cold and barren, the interior was as plain and utilitarian as anything he’d ever seen. Even the main Kalorians slave quarters located on the Canon Mon Arts was brighter and more cheerful. Miro led him down a series of halls and up a flight of stairs, stopping when they came to a room with its door ajar.
“This is Niklas’ room,” Miro said, glancing about. Noting Nic’s discarded training attire in a pile on the floor he added, “it looks like he’s here... probably cleaning up in the bath. I’ll wait with you until he returns.”
Standing near the door, Jamie assessed the space around him. While his room in the junior dormitory had been sparse, Niklas Agramos’ looked like it belonged to an ascetic.
Catching Jamie appraising the room, Miro offered a half smile. “No luxury here, Prince de Valèn. If you weren’t so hot to see him and could have waited, we would have arranged something a bit more comfortable. You didn’t have to come all the way here. I’d have been happy to invite Nic to the palace for... uhm... tea,” he chuckled.
Jamie stood quietly, not really hearing Miro’s pointed remarks. He was so focused on what he was feeling now that the comments were just a peripheral buzz. It was clear the boy had a hunch as to why Jamie wanted to visit Niklas Agramos privately, in his room, and if that’s what Miro and his brother wanted to think, then so much the better. Maybe they, like the dancers at the school, would act as unwitting agents and spread the rumor. Miro and Jamie waited only a few minutes before they both noticed the sound of footsteps padding up the hall; someone was approaching Nic’s room.
Jamie tense and full of anticipation stepped back away from the door and moved to the side of the room.
When Nic arrived back at his room, he paused and looked at the door, wondering if he’d really left it open that far?
“No,” he thought, “Miro must be in there.” It was a relief because he was feeling a bit curious about his visitor, mind-clearing exercise or not. Stepping into the room his suspicions were confirmed when he saw his best friend waiting for him. Beaming a smile, he nodded at Miro then walked on over to his bed, drying his hair with the towel as he did.
“So who’s the visitor I heard you were bringing?” Nic asked, still toweling away. When Miro didn’t answer he paused and slowly lowered the towel. Looking over at his friend, he could see that Miro wasn’t looking at him at all, but at someone else standing a bit further over near the corner...
For one second Nic’s face registered shock since standing before him was the one person he would have never guessed. “Oh! Sorry, didn’t see you.” He blurted trying to recover from his shock.
“He’s kind of quiet and easy to miss,” Miro put in dryly as he arched an eyebrow. Nic sent him a ‘not amused’ look before turning back to look at his guest but Miro, ignoring his quelling glance, continued to rattle on. It was just as well, really, because Nic by then had recognized the boy in the corner and was in no state of mind to talk anyway.
“Well, how convenient,” Miro said looking from Jamie to Nic before his eyes traveled up and down Nic’s naked body. “All prepared, are we?” he added, grinning mischievously.
“You can leave us alone now,” Jamie, standing stiff backed and looking stone-faced, finally broke his silence. His tone of voice was clearly dismissive.
“Right then, I guess I can Your Highness,” Miro hitched an eyebrow as he looked from Nic to Jamie. Preparing to leave the room he pulled on the door handle, but then before completely closing the door Miro’s head popped back into the room. Glancing at Jamie, he smiled as if purposely prolonging his departure. “I have to go to practice, but when you’re done with your little meeting you can always go downstairs and see the barracks master; he’ll make sure that a hov takes you back to Küronas.” Then, giving a quick wink to Nic, he finished his exit and pulled the door closed behind him. Even so, Jamie could clearly hear through the door the sound of Miro whistling a tune as he walked away down the hall.
After Miro’s merry tune faded into the distance, Jamie turned to face Nic. Nic, not sure what to do, simply stood and stared at Jamie. Up close, Nic could see that the Mondele’s premier dancer was every bit as beautiful as he’d remembered him being during the boy’s performance at the opera house. In fact, the prince appeared even more handsome today regaled as he was in his finest attire. While he wasn’t an expert in nobility and their ways, Niklas had fought under their gaze as they cheered him on in the arena. He’d received his share of accolades and signets from every noble house of the empire. Often, standing at attention before members of the noble houses, he’d listened as they praised his abilities. He knew how they looked, spoke, stood and gestured and there was no doubt in Niklas Agramos’ mind, given the aura the prince projected, that the boy standing before him had the bluest of blood coursing through his veins.
The atmosphere was surreal: a naked gladiator, a robed and bejeweled prince facing off in a tiny plain barracks room. Nic might have even laughed if he weren’t so surprised. With the eyes of a practiced warrior he studied every inch of the beautiful boy.
For a full minute no words passed between the two young men. It was almost a shock when Jamie took a deep breath and started. “I need your help...” he began, and Nic leaned forward a little his voice was so quiet. Nic, still staring intently at Jamie, remained silent.
“I don’t know if you can... or will. I can only hope. I know that I don’t have any right to ask.”
“I don’t know either,” Nic replied softly, still not sure what was being asked of him. “Tell me what you desire, and maybe I can...”
As soon as the words left his lips, Nic regretted them. They had a suggestive tone – certainly not what he’d intended; like Miro, Niklas had first thought Jamie might have a romantic rendezvous in mind, but his opinion had quickly changed when he was alone with the other boy. As he took more time to assess the demeanor, stance, and body language of the young prince standing before him, he began to see that this was a more unusual call. The noble facade Jamie presented suddenly seemed to grow a bit thin as the boy floundered for words.
During his years of training as a Gahdar Nic had learned that properly sizing up both his opponents and the often rapidly changing circumstances he faced in the arena was critical to any fight. His lessons well learned, Master Sakki had then taught him to extrapolate those feelings to non-combative environments, insisting that it would improve his understanding of those around him. Now, weighing all the factors currently before him, it was quickly becoming clear that Jamie really had come to Nic for help.
There was something about Jamie’s stance and the way he looked at Nic – a vulnerability that was beyond what a jaded adventurer could muster. For a few brief seconds the boy’s demeanor changed, and suddenly he looked so fragile standing isolated and alone. Moments before, while he could have imagined the blue-eyed beauty standing before him might have been looking for a pleasurable liaison, the look in Jamie’s eyes seemed strained – pained, even. With the ease of practice, Nic’s eyes fell to the boy’s hands. One was slightly swollen and bloody, the skin over the knuckles broken. The injury looked recent and fresh. Beginning to gather his thoughts for an apology, Nic stopped when he observed that Jamie offered no indication that he’d taken any offense at the Gahdar’s words.
“Please, Prince de Valèn,” Nic said in an attempt to recover the moment and show polite and genuine interest. “Please, Prince Jamie,” he paused, suddenly concerned that he might be sounding a bit too familiar. He knew his place and how to keep respectful distance with royalty. “I’ll listen. Just tell me how you’d like me to help you.”
Jamie took another deep breath and began to speak. Slowly, he attempted to state his case. Standing firm and resolute as if nailed to the floor he occasionally paused to gather his thoughts, not realizing that he had unconsciously assumed the defiant stance that had impressed Renaud days before. Determined not to become emotional he chose the words with care as he tried to explain, feeling it imperative that he approach the gahdar from a position of strength. Nic, caught up in both Jamie’s story and the boy’s intense blue-eyed gaze, slowly eased himself down onto the edge of his bed and listened.
Seeing a spark of genuine interest bloom on the gladiator’s face, Jamie paused and did a quick scan of the boy sitting before him. It was something he hadn’t planned on – far too afraid of the consequences. But worry, concern, and rising anxiety weakened his resolve. Seconds into the scan he knew he’d made a monumental mistake. Although Niklas appeared unaware of Jamie’s gentle probing, the instant Jamie entered the Gahdar’s mind he experienced the same emotions he’d felt years before when, as two young boys, they’d faced each other on the training field of Compari.
The honest sincerity and purity of heart Niklas Agramos possessed coupled with a real desire to help and the young warrior’s very personal struggle of living as a Gahdar in a world of pain and violence was more than Jamie could bear. Emotionally fragile after the traumatic death of Cristophe Jamie paused, took a breath, and paused again until he was finally able to speak. Faltering, words began to catch in his throat. The more he tried to speak the more he choked while his voice grew softer and his pauses came further and further apart.
Seeing Jamie’s mounting distress, Niklas’ face took on an expression of concern. Watching the boy, his own heart grew heavy as he watched Jamie’s private struggle within himself. When their eyes met it was the final straw for Jamie, who averted his face as tears began to pour down his cheeks before he broke down completely, deep sobs racking his hunched shoulders. No longer strong enough to hold back the pain of Cristophe’s death, a deluge of sorrow overwhelmed him. Gasping for air, the more he tried to resist the flood of grief, the more he found it impossible to stop.
Tears weren’t anything unusual for Nic. Growing up in the training camps, boys often lost fights, got hurt, and even died. Crying was never discouraged, but the nature of his tears and those of his fellow nestlings, coupled with the expectation that they would recover their composure quickly and move on, was completely unlike what Niklas was now witnessing. The boy’s sorrow rose from a deep, painful place so raw and extreme it wouldn’t have surprised Nic to see the boy’s tears turn into rivulets of blood.
For a moment or two, he just sat and watched Jamie cry while a confusing set of emotions fought for his attention. The young Gahdar’s heart was drawn to the sorrowful boy, yet he also felt helpless, unsure of what he could say or do to improve or calm the situation.
“It was horrible,” Jamie’s quavering voice, halting and failing, finally broke the silence between his sobbing gasps. “He was so beautiful, and those animals took everything from him.” Through his sobs he spat out the final words; his sorrow and hate crashed down around him like a great wave.
As he continued to cry, Jamie wavered on his feet. Niklas, seeing the boy falter, jumped up from his bed. Quickly crossing the floor to where Jamie stood, Nic hovered helplessly over the young man, unsure of what to do as he continued to watch the prince sob. Unused to such an intensely emotional display, and feeling completely out of his element, Nic gingerly put a hand on Jamie’s shoulder. Instead of resisting Nic’s touch or being comforted by it, Jamie sobbed even harder. Feeling strange and self-conscious Nic reached out, wrapping his arms awkwardly around Jamie in a hug that was both stiff and wooden.
Unused to either giving or receiving physical comfort, Nic wasn’t sure what else to do. He was, himself, naked and vulnerable, and he felt clumsy and awkward – even a bit scared and foolish. Part of him wanted to step back from the emotionally charged situation, but even as he felt the impulse he rejected it. Instead, he steeled his emotions and gathering his strength, held onto the grief-stricken boy.
But Jamie who, along with his brother Charlie, had known love from his earliest days – a love that continued with Cristophe and his friends of Trio Chrysalis even under the difficult conditions of the École – felt Nic’s embrace as a soothing balm against the searing pain of his grief. Even through the deep emotional fog of his despair and loss, this embrace felt strangely right.
Seconds after Nic’s arms encircled the crying boy. Jamie instinctively curled deeper into Nic’s arms. He could do no less. The warmth of Nic’s skin and the firm strength of the gladiator’s arms invited Jamie into their embrace. Wrapping his own arms around Nic’s waist, Jamie leaned against the young Gahdar, placed his head on Nic’s chest and continued to cry.
A few seconds after he felt the boy’s soft warm body snuggle against his skin, Nic became aware of a sense of wetness as Jamie’s tears began to run down the skin of his chest. Bending over the smaller boy, Nic’s cheek rested on the crown of Jamie’s head. In the dream-like reality of the moment he was surprised to smell a sweet scent. The boy’s soft hair smelled of almonds and chocolate. It was bizarre, but Nic couldn’t suppress a sad smile.
Standing quietly and cradling the crying boy, Nic’s own body started to relax as he breathed a little deeper, and instinctively he began to hold Jamie more tenderly. For quite some time they just stood with arms wrapped around each other as Jamie cried. Eventually Jamie’s sobs slowed, turning into deep gasps that slowly began to abate. Then it was over. Jamie stopped and stood clutching on to Nic in silence, offering up only the regular rhythm of his gentle breathing.
Although he’d ceased crying Jamie continued to hold on to Nic with a tenacious ferocity. Nic could feel Jamie’s steady breaths blow lightly across his chest. After a few moments of silence, Nic raised one hand and lightly stroked Jamie’s hair, marveling at the exquisitely smooth feel of it.
“If you can, please tell me why you need my help, Jamie,” Nic said warily. He’d called Jamie by name, something he’d never have done with a royal but for some reason now it felt right. “Please Jamie, tell me. I’ll listen.’ Nic softly repeated into Jamie’s ear almost afraid his request would send Jamie into another round of tears, but also almost hoping it would so he could hold him longer. “I promise I’ll listen,” he said tenderly, and then for some unknown reason he continued, “I even promise I’ll help.”
But Jamie didn’t cry. Instead he began to speak – slowly and hesitantly, with the occasional hiccup breaking his narrative he began to relate his story and as he went on, Jamie’s confidence gradually returned and his words came with greater ease. As if to encourage the boy, Nic continued to hold Jamie while occasionally stroking the boy’s hair. Bent over the prince, Nic also nuzzled into the still shaking boy to calm and comfort him. While he’d never done such a thing, it seemed as if some unconscious force Nic couldn’t control was guiding him.
Although drained from his emotional outburst, Jamie felt safe and comforted in Nic’s arms. Feeling Nic’s warm breath against his neck and the firm strength of Nic’s arms, Jamie continued from the place where he’d come undone. It took time, but eventually Jamie came to the end of his narrative. For a few seconds he was met with silence. The pause once more fueled the tension Jamie’d fought so hard to repress. Suddenly fearful of Nic’s reaction, he released his hold around Nic’s waist and stepped back to look at the gahdar. As they separated Nic also stepped back, and was surprised to find he was just as drained as Jamie. Niklas sat back down on his bed. Looking up at Jamie, he was puzzled to see a worried look clouding the boy’s face.
Jamie’s gaze left Nic and dropped to the floor. “Will you really help me?” he asked so softly that Nic could barely hear him.
Jamie’s eyes were red and his face tear-stained. Nic took the towel he’d discarded and gently touching the the prince’s face wiped his tears away.
“Yes,” Nic replied calmly withdrawing the towel and tossing it back on the bed. “I’ll help you.”
“You believe me?” Jamie asked, now finding himself amazed at the Gahdar’s quick agreement.
“Is there any reason I shouldn’t?” Niklas asked, showing his own surprise at Jamie’s question. The boy had asked for help, and he’d offered it. Was there something he’d overlooked?
“No, but...” Jamie tried to speak, but suddenly felt tired, weak and alone. It was just too much effort to talk any more.
“Master Sakki said, ‘To always demand the proof of truth in every declaration is the sign of an insincere heart,’” Niklas replied. “Tell me what you wish me to do, and I’ll try to carry out your request.”
It wasn’t the response Jamie’d expected. At best he’d anticipated having to launch into a defense of his actions while trying to convince Niklas to join him. At worst he’d believed he’d leave Piropolis a failure. Unexpectedly presented with Niklas’ complete and total acceptance, he was unprepared for what came next. Now that he had an ally, he felt embarrassed to reveal that he didn’t have a plan. But Niklas, seeing the boy’s exhausted confusion and sensing his dilemma, gave Jamie a shy smile.
“You’ve done a lot for today.” Tentatively he reached out to once more touch the boy’s soft blond hair in the hopes that what had just happened wasn’t a dream. “I don’t know anyone else who would have had the courage to do what you’ve done. I have a feeling that what’s needed will be difficult and dangerous, no?”
Jamie quietly nodded his agreement.
“Then it will require careful planning.”
Once more Jamie, staring into Nic’s eyes, simply nodded. There was a pause and a calming silence passed between them until Jamie, realizing he hadn’t spoken for some time, blinked and broke their gaze.
“I think I should return home.” Jamie began – his mind finally starting to catch up with the swiftness of the events. “I’ll go back to the school and work on a plan.”
“We could do it together.” Niklas suggested.
“You’ve already come here once. Can you return?”
“Yes... uhm... I think so,” Jamie said as his thoughts began to coalesce. “Yes,” Jamie repeated more firmly, his red-rimmed eyes beginning to brighten as the spark of an idea began to form in his head.
Jamie’s noble stance returned and while far from seeming imperious, as a glimmer of conviction rose up in the boy his back stiffened and he raised his head in a gesture of iron determination.
The effect on the young gahdar was electrifying. He felt an ingathering of energy, and some of the drained feeling he’d noticed melted away.
“I’m working on a new dance for the Emperor’s birthday celebration, and you have that... it’s some type of holographic projector... I’ve seen pictures... it’s...
“It’s called a Battlecom,” Nic replied.
“The Battlecom. Of course!” Jamie said. “I could come and practice. I’ll tell them I need to improve my strength, and it’s really true. The act really is strenuous, and with the new stage I really need...” Jamie paused, suddenly jolted by a thought; as it bloomed in his mind, a crimson blush of embarrassment also began to bloom on his face. He looked down for a moment and then bashfully up at Nic. “Ah... Niklas...” Jamie began using the gahdar’s name for the first time.
A strange feeling – almost a thrill – ran through Nic when Jamie used his name. It was an unexpected pleasure.
“Niklas,” Jamie began a second time. “When I came here... I... you see... I... well... I gave the impression that I was coming for... back at the school they think.... Well, you saw how Miro acted.”
Finally understanding Jamie’s meaning, Nic rose from his bed. “I know,” he began. “They think you came here to...” and Nic’s own face began to grow red when he realized how difficult it was to say the words, words that everyone in these rough barracks said every day. But it wasn’t like that, was it? And for the first time since he’d first seen the other boy, he became acutely aware of his nudity, and tried to reach inconspicuously for the towel he’d tossed on his bed. Discreetly picking it up, he began to wrap it around his waist. Overly conscious of his actions, Nic searched Jamie’s face for a reaction, but there was no sign that Jamie’d either noticed or cared.
“I’m sorry,” Jamie continued, still caught up in the rumor of deception he’d purposely spun. “I didn’t think it through properly. I’m very sorry, Niklas. Sometimes my actions race far ahead of my thoughts. I hope I didn’t...”
“It’s ok,” Nic replied, and some of the warmth on his face began to fade once the towel was modestly covering him. “Actually, it wasn’t a bad idea. It could even be a good cover. You don’t have to abandon the ruse.”
“Do you think so? You’re not angry?” Jamie asked, quite surprised at the Gahdar’s reaction.
“No, I understand. It all happened quickly for you – too quickly, no?”
Jamie nodded, genuinely grateful that the boy understood.
“But you’re right. You should return home. I can arrange some time for you in the training center. I’ll even show you how the Com works... ah... if that’s alright with you?”
“Yes,” Jamie replied, and although he was still sad and quite exhausted from his emotional release, the tiniest of smiles came to his face. “But I should go.” he said, preparing again to leave. Then pausing, he caught Niklas’ eye and as an afterthought added, “Can I come back tomorrow? I have a morning practice, but my afternoon and early evening are free.”
“I think so,” Nic said. “I can let you know through Miro. He and David always return to the palace after their practice sessions. I’ll see that he contacts you and I’ll meet you tomorrow at the hov drop if you’re allowed to return. I’ll show you around the training center, introduce you to the Battlecom, and maybe we can start to plan,” Nic said.
“Ok,” Jamie said, “but it will be better if I return to the École now. Miro said I could request a ride?”
“Just go downstairs. The Barracks Master’s office is at the entrance immediately as you come in the door, on the left. Tell him what you need and he’ll see to it. There are always hovs available. I’m sure you won’t have a very long wait.”
The small smile on Jamie’s face faded. With a sober and serious look, he approached the gahdar.
“Thank you, Niklas,” he said softly. “I didn’t know where else to go.”
Nic looked at Jamie. In his years of fighting and training, he’d assessed many an opponent, especially when they were on the brink of defeat. Only a few minutes before Jamie had seemed to be failing, but now his demeanor was different. There was a strength in the boy that surprised him. One of the few times he’d been defeated as a nestling was after he’d thoroughly trounced the younger boy who’d been his opponent. The boy had been all but defeated; all Nic had to do was deliver the final blow. But then one last surge of strength welled up in the boy’s face and he’d glared at Nic with steely determination and in that second Nic tasted his first defeat. The look he’d seen that day was the same look Jamie de Valèn was now flashing him.
Impulsively Jamie took Nic’s hand in his and squeezed it. And then before Nic could react, Jamie, in a graceful, dance-like move pushed up on his toes, and leaned into the gladiator. With a tilt his head, Jamie quickly kissed Nic on the cheek. Making a graceful turn that looked more like a soft pirouette, the dancer’s back was to Nic, and then Prince de Valèn strode out of the room and down the hall before Nic could even blink in startled surprise.
For a moment Nic just stood, listening to the boy’s fading footsteps. Tugging off his towel he threw it on the pile of dirty clothes next to his bed and walked to his small closet. Picking out a few items from the modest assortment available to him, a smile grew across his face when he thought about the elegant outfit Jamie had worn – most of the high nobility he encountered at the games weren’t as richly attired. The boy had been careful to present himself well, Nic surmised, and he’d succeeded.
After slipping on his small clothes he began pulling on a pair of soft woolen pants, but stopped when he heard the approaching whine of a hov. Going to his window he looked out and caught a glimpse of the small craft completing its descent. After making a soft landing its engines powered down to quarter speed, but continued to whir. Seconds later the cabin hatch opened and Nic watched as Jamie walked across the grassy plot toward the hov. Nic, keenly trained in the observation of movement, studied the poised stride of the boy and well-remembered that same confident gait the night he’d seen Jamie cross the stage at the grand opera house. No one, seeing him now, would ever have guessed at the storm he had just weathered.
As Jamie approached the hov, the inset jewels and golden embroidery of his beautiful cloak glittered as it caught the light breeze and billowed gracefully behind him. “Even his clothes dance,” Nic thought, watching Jamie enter the hov. Nic remained at the window until the hov made its vertical ascent and then quickly shot away, carrying the young prince back to the Canon Mon Arts.