The Scrolls of Icaria by Jamie


Book 2 – 'War of the Angels'


Part III - Baron of Rood




Chapter 34


After Jamie’s hov was gone, Nic finished dressing and sat on the edge of his bed. His mind was swimming in the face of everything Jamie had told him. Nic's assurance to Jamie that he believed him had been sincere, but it was still an amazing story. After a few minutes he shook his head and decided to go for a walk. While he could have returned to the training center and performed his standard workout or gone to the pool for some exercise, he’d lost any motivation for such activity. He had some thinking to do, and he knew where he needed to go.


Before exiting the room he opened his closet door and looked into the small mirror that hung on the front of it. Using his fingers to quickly comb his hair, he kept replaying bits and pieces of what had just happened. Prince Jamie de Valèn wasn’t what everyone thought he was, he mused to himself. An instant later he stopped playing with his hair and looked hard and long at his own reflection. ‘But then, you're not either,’ he said to the boy staring out of the mirror.


Leaving the barracks, he took off for the park. When he arrived at its entrance he moved quickly, heading west through the calm and peaceful greensward. It was past mid-day, the sun was high in the sky, and he was glad for the shade provided by the trees that lined the path. His life was already active and regimented, but after his encounter with Jamie de Valèn he was sure it was about to become a great deal more complex. Performing one of Master Sak’ki’s mind clearing exercises, he continued on his way.


After he’d transferred to the Gahdar Center in Piropolis he assumed his life would continue as it had, and for the most part it was quite similar to what he’d grown up with at Compari. Training sessions were longer and more involved. He was tasked a more rigorous fitness program. He learned new techniques, the use of even more strange and unusual weapons, and he learned to use the Battlecom. The disciplinary regime for new Gahdar accepted into the program appeared even stricter than it was at Compari – as if to emphasize to all the new recruits that movement from the pre-training camps to Piropolis would by no means ensure an easier life.


During his first month at the center, he’d adapted to the daily routine without difficulty. Always good natured and flexible, Niklas Agramos was every trainer's dream: skilled and talented without being arrogant or over-confident, obedient but not so docile so that he never questioned authority. Serious of purpose while calm and easy-going, the boy was quick to grasp, eager to learn, and a perfectionist in the execution of his tasks.


At Compari, Nic had exhibited an ability to get along well with others – both his superiors and the nestlings he lived with. While life in the pre-training camps was not without its episodes of jealousy, the occasional fight, or blatant disobedience among the young boys, it was not something Niklas von Agramon was known for. At Camp Compari, since Nic was often the one to help break up a fight rather than start one, or assist other boys as a sparring partner when they needed one, he made friends fast. In a culture where fighting was paramount, the skill, tactics, acumen, and wisdom Niklas von Agramon displayed while mastering the art and science of deadly hand-to-hand combat as practiced at Castle Rood was highly prized. And because of that skill, he garnered great respect and admiration from trainers and nest-mates alike.


The same pattern held at Piropolis. While the boys who’d trained with Niklas at Camp Compari continued to like and admire him, he quickly gained the same friendship and respect from those who’d transferred from Camp DeLauro.


One regret the young man had in leaving Compari was in having to cut his ties with Androcles. He’d learned much from the Avionne who’d been his teacher. And while he'd worked hard to keep his promise to Androcles, giving no one any indication of the intellectual skills he’d acquired, the experience had changed him. He’d nibbled at the edges of the banquet of knowledge, enjoying its sweet taste along with the satisfaction of true understanding that such knowledge brings, and it made him hunger for more. In Piropolis Nic was sure that such opportunity was now in the past, a thought that chafed him.


Walking very quickly – almost at the pace of a forced march– Nic arrived at the far side of the park. He mopped the sweat beginning to form on his brow with the sleeve of his shirt, thinking wryly that he’d most likely end up back in the bath when he returned to his barracks. How many other people sweat out their clothes when they go on a walk to think? he thought with gentle self-mockery.


Upon arriving at the western-most boundary of the park, he walked out through a tall gate that opened onto the cobbled pavement of a street bordering the green space. Heading down the sidewalk, he turned right at the first intersection he came to, and a few yards later he ducked down a small side street. Nic walked rapidly along the narrow street until it ended at a small, picturesque square surrounded by rows of low-lying buildings that housed the offices of some of the many technical firms headquartered in the city.


As he’d expected, the streets and sidewalks around the square were deserted. Those working in the offices surrounding the square generally preferred the controlled, artificial atmosphere of their buildings to the humidity and heat of the city. The only time the square and its surrounding streets were busy was early morning and late afternoon when those working in the offices would arrive or leave for the day. On evenings, nights, and nonworking days, the area was always empty and devoid of activity.


Crossing the street and entering the square, he advanced to its center – a small plot of well-trimmed grass and hedges interspersed with a few tall shade trees. At each corner of the green space were sets of stairs leading below ground to the city’s underground transportation system. Taking one of the stairways he went down, but when he arrived at the bottom, instead of turning left toward the station’s transport platform he went right, heading down a broad corridor. Mid-way down the corridor he stopped in front of a red door with the words ACCESS RESTRICTED painted in bright yellow. A flat glass plate and a pad to input an electronic combination located to the left of the door indicated its status as an imperial security portal. By placing his hand on the plate his palm print was instantly read. After a soft chime rang, Nic withdrew his hand and entered a numeric combination on the keypad. A second chime rang, and the door slid open. As the door opened, Nic smiled. He always did at that moment, because every time he passed through the portal he recalled the very first time he’d done so.


He’d been at the school for five weeks when he was asked to report to his barracks master’s office. He did as he was told, but when he arrived at the office, instead of finding his barracks master, a stranger was waiting for him. The man greeted Nic, but made no effort to introduce himself.


Asking the boy to take a seat, he held out a thin glass box and told Nic to place his hand on it. After Nic complied, the man gave him a long series of numbers to memorize. Although puzzled, after the strenuous mental exercises Androcles had put him through. The task was easily accomplished. The man told Nic he’d been chosen for a test and that his obedience to every part of the test was important if he was to remain at the center in Piropolis as a Gahdar-in-training. Worried about his fate, Niklas listened intently to what the man said, and then when the man finished his instructions, he had Niklas repeat them back – twice.


Later that day, after leaving the school and following the directions the man had given him, Nic eventually stood in front of the red door in the quiet corridor he’d been directed to that was located, as he’d been told it would be, in the underground transport station near the training center. Using both the palm scan and access code he’d been given, he watched as the door slid open and he found himself staring down a long, dimly lit tunnel. Since his orders were to continue, he walked onward, into the tunnel. The moment he did so, the door slid shut behind him. He wanted to try re-opening the door, but his orders were clear: he walked down the tunnel until it opened on to a large, cavernous area carved out of the surrounding bedrock. It, too, was dimly lit and looked like it might have been excavated during the same period of time the transport station had been constructed. Climbing down a metal ladder built into the wall, Nic descended into the large room. Once his feet touched the ground he turned and began to explore. He’d been ordered to come alone and not to bring anything with him and although he’d obeyed, Nic wished he had some type of torch or lamp to light his way.


No sooner had he entered the room than he heard a loud roar. Spinning in the direction of the noise, he was confronted with a great beast the likes of which he’d never seen nor could ever have imagined. The beast drew closer, roaring again. Unarmed, Nic assumed a defensive crouch; as he did, he noticed a short piece of discarded pipe lying on the ground a few feet from where he stood. It was the approximate length of a broad sword and appeared to be the only thing remotely resembling a weapon in the otherwise barren room.


Folding back his wings as tightly as he could, he performed a quick dive and roll, grabbed the pipe, and was back on his feet resuming his defensive stance. As he executed the maneuver, his mind was racing. The man had told him this was a test. Was the mechanism of a Battlecom hidden in the cavern? Did he have to defeat the monster? Could the test end in his death? And even if he didn’t die, would he be expelled from the ranks of the Gahdar if he made any critical mistakes?


The beast took a few more steps, and gave a third earsplitting roar. Nic tried to sidle back and away but his wings were already only inches from the wall. At that moment a strange screeching sound split the air – a sound so loud that he felt like putting his hands over his ears. But while the noise was painful, Nic continued to grip the pipe with both hands – just as he would have a broad sword – and waited for the attack he knew was imminent.


A second, even louder screech filled the cavern, echoing off its rock walls. A few loud beeps and the distinct hiss of static followed.


“I’m not here to harm you,” a strange sounding voice said.


Nic was puzzled. The voice was similar to many of the machine voices he often heard lifts, hovs, and even informatics stations produce in an attempt at recreating human speech. The Battlecom he fought on had the same feature.


“Lay down your weapon,” the voice continued. “While I may frighten you, I have no intention of harming you in any way.”


Staring at the beast, Nic realized that the voice appeared to be coming from a small pendant hanging from a thin chain around the creature’s neck. Nonetheless, still unsure of the situation and unwilling to risk his safety, he held his position.


“I assure you, you won’t be going anywhere until we’ve spoken,” the voice from the pendant said, and this time Nic was sure of its source.


Then the beast stopped, stood to his full height and raised his massive hands as if in surrender.


“If you wish, I will remain here on this spot. I give you my word, in accordance with the code of the Gahdar, that I will not move or make any attempt to approach you. If it makes you feel safer, you can move further away from me. You can even keep your weapon nearby if you choose. After we speak, you may leave this place. You are not bound here, nor are you anyone’s prisoner. I offer you no deception.”


Nic stood up from his crouching position and eyed the creature, but made no attempt to move away.


“I have faith that Androcles was right in his assessment of your character,” the machine-like voice issuing from the pendant offered. “I present no offense or defense. You have the word of one warrior to another.”


Nic paused and took a deep breath. “Then I extend you the same,” he replied, and with a last glance down at the pipe in his hand, he tossed it aside. It clattered and clanged as it bounced across the cavern floor. “Not that it would have done me any good,” Nic thought as he got a closer look at the true size of the beast.


The beast gave another roar and Nic instantly thought he’d made a foolish mistake, but then realized the creature still remained planted to the spot where he’d promised to remain.


“Well done, Niklas von Agramon,” the voice from the pendant said. “There are few who would have acted so. I see you follow the warrior’s code. Not every battle is fought or won with weapons.”


“Are we at war?” Nic asked.


“No,” the beast’s pendant replied.


“You speak the name of my former teacher,” Nic said, still warily eying the creature. “How do you know him?”


“As a friend; a title that I hope you too will be willing to bear.” Pausing, the creature lowered its head and seemed to study Nic. “May I approach?” it finally asked, “Or do you still prefer me at a distance?”


“Approach,” Nic responded. Part of him wanted to resume his defensive stance but he fought the urge, being intrigued that this hulking monster knew of his teacher and had addressed him by his name.


The beast took a few steps and stood before the young Gahdar-in-training. Then, ever so slowly, the beast circled the boy in a methodical manner, the way one carefully examines an object of interest. Nic remained quiet and still, not sure if he were a statue in a museum being admired or tasty meal ready to be consumed.


“My dear Escalad,” the creature’s pendent said in a quieter tone, “It’s as if they simply put wings on you. But then, I think you would have deserved them.” Finally moving to face Nic the creature stood motionless. Bending down it bared its teeth, made the fiercest of faces, and gave an ear-splitting roar. Nic almost jumped out of his skin, but true to his word he stood firm. “You are the progeny of a great man. He was, above all, the truest of friends. It is a joyous sight to see his son.”


Nic remained silent, unsure of the creatures words or their meaning. But as he listened to the beast he was also making his own observations regarding the creature before him.


“My name is Sak’ki,” the creature continued. “Androcles proposed that I become your teacher.”


“How do you know him?” Nic asked.


“All in time, Niklas,” Sak’ki replied.


“Why should I choose you for my teacher?”


At Nic’s question the great creature reared back, bellowed out a great roar, and as hard as it was for Nic to believe the grimace on his face grew even fiercer. “Young one,” Sak’ki said, giving another roar. “It’s not up to you to choose me, but for me to choose you.”


Suddenly Nic realized that each time the creature roared and grimaced he was laughing... at him. And at that moment Nic, although confused and unsure of what was happening, knew he was in no danger from the strange being.


Nic remained with Sak’ki for over an hour. During that time, the creature who referred to his species as Ghröum, took Niklas through the subterranean world that was his home – an amazing lair filled with books, art, strange machines and a large room that looked similar to one of the training bays he’d practiced in at Compari.


He explained to Nic that while his physical make-up prevented human-type speech, as Nic knew it, the Ghröum was able to communicate through the translation pendant he wore.


“It’s complex, but let us just say that I send my thoughts to it and it translates them into words you understand,” Sak’ki told him.


Nic occasionally asked Sak’ki a question, but most of the time the Ghröum would reply by telling the boy that his answers would come in the future.


Finally the Ghröum told Nic that it was time for him to leave, and Sak’ki walked him back to the entrance to the cavern. Then Sak’ki gave a short grunt and bared his teeth, “So, young Niklas, do you choose me as your teacher?”


“I’m sorry,” Nic replied, embarrassed and self-conscious over his faux pas. “But I would like to learn from you, if you would agree to teach me?” Nic added earnestly since his hunger for knowledge was as keen as ever.


“Consider the arrangement sealed,” Sak’ki said, roaring with what Nic could only guess was delight.


After assuring the Ghröum that he would remain silent about their encounter – making the same promise he’d made to Androcles – Nic climbed up the ladder and left Sak’ki’s underground chambers. In the weeks that followed, Nic often visited Sak’ki – or Master Sak’ki as Nic began to call him, addressing the Ghröum with the same respectful title he used with his private coaches at the training center.


As he’d done countless times before, as soon as the door slid shut behind him Nic walked to the end the tunnel and crawled down the ladder into the cavern. The space was the same as always, yet very different – Master Sak’ki was gone. Six months ago, Nic made what had become his usual routine and familiar trek from the training center to the cavern only to find that Sak’ki was absent. In every precious visit to the Ghröum’s subterranean home, Sak’ki had been waiting for him, but not then and not any other time he returned. As he walked through the cavern, peering down its side tunnels and alcoves for a trace of movement, the only sound was the echo of his footsteps as he walked across cold stone floor. Master Sak’ki remained absent.


Over the two years he’d visited the Ghröum, Sak'ki had taught him many things – the least of which had been fighting. While it was true they’d had many training sessions in the large bay to the right of the main cavern, it had been the sparring of the mind as Master Sak’ki often called their intellectual discourse that Nic loved and looked forward to.


Passing the large sparring bay, he paused and peered in. A wistful smile crossed his face.  It had been only two days after his first encounter with the Ghröum that he’d returned. Eager to practice and learn from the mighty creature, he’d immediately gone to the bay, and strode up a large rack of weapons against one wall. Grabbing a sparring helmet he turned, ready to ask Sak’ki what weapon he should choose, but stopped when the Ghröum gave a low growl.


“We won’t be practicing here today,” Sak'ki said through the small pendant around his neck. “We have other exercises to do.”


At first not sure of the Ghröum’s intentions, Nic began to understand when Sak’ki took him to another section within the underground lair – a large alcove filled with books. The Ghröum had told Niklas that he was taking the place of Androcles, and since he’d never engaged in physical combat with his Icarian teacher it was logical that Sak’ki planned on following the same plan. But after Nic took the seat Master Sak’ki directed him to, the Ghröum made a strange request.


“I would like you to write a poem,” Sak’ki directed.


Nic was puzzled. He’d studied poetry with Androcles. In fact, he’d studied a great deal of Commonwealth literature, history, art and philosophy, but Androcles had never asked him to write poetry.


“What kind of poem?” Nic asked. He was prepared to comply, for even though the request seemed unusual, he’d learned from his trainers and Androcles that teachers rarely ask their pupils to do things on a whim.


“Whatever kind you’d like,” Sak’ki replied. “Are there any poems you’ve studied that you’ve liked? Are there any poets you have admired?”


The fact was, Nic had enjoyed almost everything he’d studied with Androcles, but the Ghröum’s question was serious and demanded a serious response.


“Many, Master Sak’ki,” Nic said, addressing The Ghröum with the honorific title of a trainer for the first time.


“Is there one in particular?”


“I like the great epic poems the best,” Nic replied. “Like the one called The Iliad that I studied with Androcles.”


“A good choice for a warrior king,” Sak’ki said, after a quick roar of Ghröum laughter. “We don’t have time for such an epic today,” Sak’ki continued, "but something in the Homeric style, I think, if you understand my meaning. Take your time, and think before you write.”


Nic did understand, and after doing some of the hardest thinking he’d ever engaged in, he put pen to paper and began. After two hours of sweating more then he usually did in the Battlecom, he handed Sak’ki one sheet of paper, and anxiously waited as the Ghröum examined it.


“Ah, four stanzas... each a quatrain,” Sak’ki said glancing at Nic’s poem. Lapsing into silence he continued to study the young gahdar’s poetic effort. “Except for a few mistakes, you’ve come close to achieving true hendecasyllables. It’s almost a sonnet,” he continued as he handed the paper back to Nic he added. “An honorable first start, Niklas. We’ll continue to expand this; I think from the way you’ve written it, I’d recommend you write it as a caudate, but we'll have much time for that.”


Over time, Nic did in fact write a caudate sonnet, along with many other types. He also had long discussions with his teacher about many interesting and amazing subjects, and he began to formulate ideas of his own – something Master Sak’ki insisted was critically important.


“You can learn many things,” the Ghröum told him one day, “but until you add the essence of yourself, as a potter does to the clay he molds with his hands or an artist does with the paint he places on the canvas before him, you only recite back what you’ve learned. Your original thoughts and ideas are what others will judge you by, and why they will remember you. A simple comp can store a library, but it can’t form that knowledge into anything completely new."


His head full of memories, as he strolled past the large cave that served as the sparring room Nic paused to look inside, but didn’t enter. Master Sak’ki had taught him amazing things in that room, and while his natural talents and abilities had gotten him far at Compari and even secured him an early transfer to the center at Piropolis, his sessions with Sak’ki elevated him to a different level.


While Nic possessed the raw talent needed to become a great gahdar, the Ghröum pushed him to new heights. Using exercises and techniques completely new to Nic, Sak’ki honed the young fighter’s skills with impressive precision. After only a few months with Master Sak’ki, Nic’s trainers at the center were amazed at how quick his instincts and ability to react had become. Of course, everyone involved in training Niklas was quick to take credit, but Nic, while remaining silent as he’d been directed, knew the truth.


It was in fact Nic’s superior skill, honed by Master Sak’ki’s rigorous physical training that won Niklas a slot on the fighting schedule at Rood when he was a full year younger than any of the previous gladiator boys who’d been chosen to fight in the grand arena. One day during a training session, Nic noticed a well-dressed man standing near the front of his training bay. The distinguished gentlemen stood silently watching the boy practice with his human trainer. At the end of his session, Nic’s trainer sent him off to the baths, but as Nic was preparing to leave, the man called out to him and waved him over.


“You’ll be starting at Rood next week,” the man told Nic.


Although it was every gladiator’s dream to fight at the red castle Nic was surprised; he'd assumed he would still train a full year before being chosen. The man offered no explanations but went on to tell Nic that the next day, instead of going to practice, he was to report to the barracks master’s office.


“Someone will be waiting for you,” the man said. “You’ll be taking a hov to Rood for your orientation.”


The following day at Castle Rood he was given a brief tour and orientation. Later that same morning, he was introduced to a duet of experienced gladiators. The duet, named Panther, was tasked to train with him that week at the castle in order to prepare him for his debut. Nic was pleased that he knew the Primi half of Duet Panther, Sebastian Quey, from his days at Compari.


Midway through his training week at Rood, the same well-dressed gentleman who’d told him he’d be starting at Rood reappeared at the castle. Sitting in one of the lower seats of the arena, the man clutched a thick stack of papers that he occasionally consulted as he watched the boys practice. During a break, he called the young gahdar over. Looking up from his papers, he gave Nic an appraising examination.


“Well done,” the man smiled. “How goes it?”


Nic told him everything was fine and that he was looking forward to his first match.


“Any questions?” the man queried.


“Just one,” Nic replied. Finally, he could ask something that had been on his mind the moment he’d found out he’d be starting at Rood. “Who will be my partner?”


“Your partner?”


“Yes, who will I be fighting with?”


“No one, Niklas. It’s been decided you will fight alone.”


“But my duet? What will be the name of my duet and will I be primi or secundi?” he asked, still not completely understanding the man’s initial reply.


“You won’t be joining a duet, Niklas.” The man looked down at the papers in his hand and began to thumb through them, suddenly appearing distracted.




“As I said Niklas, you are to fight alone. It’s quite an honor. Already you have been chosen to represent a noble house. The Duke of Aradan will be your sponsor, but like most of the boys you’ll continue to live in the barracks at Piropolis. Your friends Miro and David Gillot are an exception, because they fight for the Emperor.”  


By the end of the week Nic was ready, and when the time came to fight he performed admirably. More than a few members of the crowd at Rood watching the young man’s debut were surprised that he only managed to wound, not kill, any of his opponents, but they chalked it up to his inexperience. In subsequent matches Nic repeated the feat, putting himself at greater risk by trying his best not to kill any of the thrones sent against him, and the promoters were quick to pick up on a new angle – one more way to whet the interest of the crowd. Soon they were advertising that their new solo gahdar had won every match without a kill even as they speculated as to how long the boy’s unblemished record would stand. It was an instant drawing card and fans crowded the arena to see Nic’s performances. The amazing and creative means the boy used to accomplish his victories without resorting to the death of his foes kept the fans spellbound. Six months after his début it was standing room only when Niklas Agramos fought a match.


Shortly after passing his eight-month performance mark, Niklas stunned the crowd by killing a wild tusk boar with his bare hands. Those who had seen it added so much embellishment and hyperbole to the act, those who hadn’t attended the games that day forever regretted their decision and the boy’s status skyrocketed as his deeds took on the status of legend. The Emperor personally bestowed on him the honorific von Agramon, recalling the legend of another great warrior, Escalad Agramos, the first and only Duke of Agramon.


It was around this time that the games themselves began to change. Duets started to show more finesse and skill. Teams of gladiators appeared to cooperate with each other more than compete. Primi and secundi began to act as true teams, working together to assure victory. It was a surprising turn of events, but because it was a boost for the games no one questioned the reason behind it.


Turning away from the sparring cave, Nic walked across the back of the larger cavern that served as Master Sak’ki’s home and entered a smaller alcove that had come to be his favorite place. While Master Sak’ki had no formal name for the alcove, Nic came to think of it as the library, and it was there that Nic’s real training occurred. Even now, as he glanced around the room, Nic was amazed at the large number of books the Ghröum possessed. Even more amazing was that Sak’ki’s collection spanned the history of the Commonwealth and encompassed everything from its art and music to its philosophy and politics.


Looking from shelf to shelf, Nic recognized many of his favorites, but his eyes stopped when they came to rest on one tall bookcase. Each one of the large thick volumes the case held was bound in dark blue leather and even to one not familiar with the collection, they would appear to be a set. A large gold numeral, the only marking the covers possessed, was embossed on the spine of each book further confirming that they were one work: The Pentabulon of Vries, the famous Cinquante et Un – the fifty and one.


The actual, though less than modest title, of the grand opus was A Heuristic Analysis and Presentation of the Unified Phenomenological Model of All Things, but since it was divided into five major sections it quickly came to be known as The Pentabulon. Although it was the only work of the philosopher Conrad Vries, it had taken a lifetime to create. Beginning at the age of twenty, Vries labored over his magnum opus for over ninety years. And while the bulk of The Pentabulon was written over a sixty-year period, Vries continued to expand and refine it until his death at the age of one hundred sixteen.


Released one year after his death, within a month of its publication every religious body, sect, and cult throughout the commonwealth quickly condemned him as a heretic, and since Vries wasn’t alive to experience their wrath, public burnings of The Pentabulon by religious institutions were held in lieu of tying the heretical philosopher to the stake and lighting the bonfire. The act eventually came to take on a familiar ritual as one by one each the fifty-one volumes would be tossed into a raging fire followed by gestures, prayers, cheers, oaths, and curses.  Politicians labeled Vries' expression of his ideas as dangerous diatribes threatening the social fabric of society. His fellow philosophers called Vries misguided and naive. Governments dismissed the work as childish ramblings and completely insignificant, while accusing Vries of being mentally unhinged – although for over one hundred years, The Pentabulon was officially banned and suppressed on most worlds and existed only in contraband form.


Nic walked over to the bookcase and reached out to one of the shelves that was shoulder height and ran his fingers along the backs the books resting on it – volumes XI to XVIII. Then reaching up to the shelf above, he placed a finger on the top edge of the spine of one of the books and slowly slid it out – volume IX. Carrying the heavy tome to the desk he usually sat at for his lessons, he placed it on the desktop and a soft thud echoed through the alcove. Sitting on the stool he always used during his lessons with Master Sak’ki, he slowly paged through the volume he’d selected. Although he knew the entire Pentabulon by heart, he still enjoyed turning the pages and reading Vries actual words. While Nic sat before the book he thought – mostly about Jamie de Valèn and what the prince had told him. But he also thought about Master Sak'ki, wondering where his teacher had gone and, more importantly, what advice and direction the ancient and sage Ghröum would have offered him.


Paging through volume nine he stopped when he found the page he wanted. Jamie’s story and his words echoed in Nic’s head. Looking down at the page, his eyes scanned across the title: ESSAY ON THE INTRINSIC FREEDOM OF MAN.


“I wish you were here, Master Sak’ki,” Niklas thought as he slowly read the words on the page, words that he was already intimately familiar with, thanks to his teacher, Master Sak'ki.


Jamie’s hov flight back to Küronas was very nearly as quiet as his flight to Piropolis had been. Since the pilot already knew Jamie’s destination and quickly realized that the boy wasn’t interested in conversation, he allowed Jamie his peace. Jamie, still drained after his cathartic meeting with Niklas Agramos, was grateful for a few moments of contemplation and reflection. But although he tried to clear his head, it was futile; his mind refused to stop replaying over and over the events of the past few hours. Finally acquiescing to his thoughts, he made an attempt at making the trip productive by trying to begin to formulate even the tiniest kernel of a plan. By the time the hov landed, while he knew he had much to reflect upon and ponder, he’d come to a few facts that he could begin to base a plan upon.


Leaving the hov and strolling back to his room, he noticed some of the students looking at, and often pointing at, him. One or two gave him knowing smiles, as if they were in on some great secret. One boy even winked and, after offering up a knowing smirk, asked if Jamie’d had an exciting afternoon. Jamie ignored the stares and comments, glad to see that his plan of misdirection had worked. Once he was back in his dormitory, he went to the floor where he and his friends lived. Striding past his own room, he kept going until he reached Lucas’ small room. As he’d suspected he might, he found all three of his friends and Giovanni huddled there. Lucas' eyes were the reddest, but it was obvious that his other three friends had also been crying.


The moment he appeared in the doorway, all four boys looked up. For a few seconds they just looked at him, and while they’d all known each other for over two years, there was something about Jamie’s appearance that seemed different.


“Your Grace, My Lord Protector,” Giovanni said softly. And for the first time, even though he’d said it in front of Lucas, Jeremy and Yves, Jamie didn’t correct him.


“They took him away,” Lucas said forlornly, and Jamie, knowing that Lucas was referring to Cristophe, could see that his friend had tears in his eyes.


“We heard a rumor about you,” Jeremy said sharply, “I don’t know how...”


Jamie raised his hand to quiet his friend and instead of ignoring or protesting his actions, Jeremy became silent.


“Don’t believe everything you hear,” Jamie began. “If you’re my friends and really know me, you know how I feel.”


“We do, Jamie,” Yves cut in. “Sorry, it’s just that...” but once more Jamie raised his hand.


“Do any of you know about Jacques de Valèn, and The Day of Steel and Fire?”


The four boys simply looked at him, with blank expressions.


“I’m telling you that from this moment, we begin our days of steel and fire. Maybe not in the same way The Founder started his, but mark what I say: it begins now.”




“First,” Jamie began, holding up one finger – the one with the emperor’s ring. “They will all pay for this, and they will pay dearly.”


His friends stared at him in mute surprise at the intensity of the anger that flashed in his eyes.


“I swear to you on the wings of Cristophe...” Jamie paused and took a deep steadying breath, for although his friends knew nothing of what had killed the master prefect, the image of the wingless boy would forever be burned onto Jamie’s soul as if it had been placed there by a white hot brand. “I swear to you that they will rue the day they created us. And while I can’t bring Cristophe back, I will at least make that promise to all of you.” Once more he paused as he fought to control the anger boiling inside him.


“Second,” Jamie went on, and now he focused his attention entirely on Giovanni. “You’re coming with me. Pack what you can. It can’t be much, but then I know you don’t have that much. You must be protected, and I know just the place where I can take you, so go now,” he commanded.


Giovanni blinked in surprise, but answered with a staccato “Yes, Your Grace,” and almost flew out of the room.


“I’ll be there in ten minutes to fetch you,” Jamie shouted out as he heard Giovanni dash up the hallway. “Tris,” Jamie continued, using the Icarian word for the number three and once more holding up his hand this time in order to present three fingers to his friends; as he did so, all the rings on his hand sparkled and glittered. “I need your help,” he said still addressing Lucas, Jeremy and Yves in Icarian; the boys could little ignore the look of grim determination now on Jamie’s face. “Will you stand with me?”


“Don’t ask foolish questions,” Jeremy said, replying in the same forbidden language. “We’re Icarians.”


“We’re Icarians,” Lucas and Yves echoed, nodding their assent.


“I knew you would,” Jamie said, “it’s just that...”


Now, just has Jamie had done, Yves held up his hand for silence.


“You’ve never lied to us, Jamie,” Yves began, and Jamie watched as Jeremy and Lucas nodded in agreement. “You told us we were slaves, just like the Kalorians. It was hard to believe, but over time we learned you were right. They’ve killed Cristophe,” the words caught in Yves throat, but he continued. “They killed the kindest person we’ve ever known. If they can do that to him, what can they do to us or anyone who disobeys them? We’re just a troupe of dancers, but Trio Chrysalis will dance on their graves if you ask us to,” Yves said turning to Lucas and Jeremy who once more nodded their assent.


“It will be dangerous,” Jamie began.


“Yes, of course it is, and therefore you want to have all the fun,” Jeremy said and for the first time since Cristophe had been captured, although his eyes were red and his face tear-stained, Jeremy smiled. “That’s not going to happen. We get to play too!”


Jamie nodded, and then approaching the boys gave each one a kiss. “Thank you,” he replied, “I’ll talk to you later about some of my plans, but right now I need to fetch Giovanni.”


“Are you going where I think you're going?” Yves asked.


“Yes,” Jamie said. “Can you cover for me?”


“Only if you tell us later about your Gahdar... that boy... Niklas?” he said, and finally a smile also came to Yves face.


“I will,” Jamie replied, and then he turned and stepped out of the room.