The Scrolls of Icaria by Jamie


Book 2 – 'War of the Angels'


Part III - Baron of Rood




Chapter 35


“Welcome back! It’s always good to see the most diligent student I’ve ever met.”


The loud, cheerful hail and wide smile that greeted Jamie from the central desk seemed out of place in the sacred silence of the library. Jamie waved, smiled, and slightly altered the trajectory of his course from a straight line to that of an arc – bringing him closer to the large kiosk at the far end of the entrance hall.


Looking up at the imposing central desk, Jamie felt as if he were staring at the bow of a great ship. The greeting had come from Artur the chief librarian, who was seated behind one of the desk’s many informatics screens and peering around said screen, still smiling, as Jamie approached.


As with most of Jamie’s trips to the library, his visit had begun with him bounding up the stairs of the main entrance, pushing open one of its heavy, bronze-clad glass doors, and then striding across the floor of the large foyer. Following the usual pattern of his visits, he immediately made a bee-line toward one of the tall pairs of doors on either side of the desk where, after passing through them, he’d head to the stairs and race up into the stacks to secure one of the small informatics alcoves where he could quietly sit and access the net without being seen or disturbed. But Artur’s greeting broke the pattern, so as Jamie approached the central desk he stopped.


“I’ve never had a student visit as many times as you have,” Artur offered, with his usual sunny smile.


Jamie knew from years of visiting the library that Artur loved his work. More importantly, he loved sharing the immense collection of knowledge gathered in the vast library in his charge. After Jamie’d established himself as a frequent visitor, Artur occasionally inquired if he could help the boy find anything. At first suspicious, Jamie, fearing detection, remained cool and aloof; over time, the librarian’s inevitably kind and courteous attitude had won the young dancer over. So even though a far greater array of information was available to Jamie whenever he plunged into the depths of the imperial net, he occasionally made a request for help – more to please Artur than out of actual need.


But his friendship with the librarian had proved valuable, especially when Artur allowed Jamie access to one of the private informatics stations in the Special Acquisitions Department – a restricted area of the library rarely frequented by visitors.


“As usual, I’m not here for anything special,” Jamie said, trying to sound nonchalant. “I just like to keep up on the news.”


“And follow the Gahdar scores,” Artur grinned.


“Yes, that too,” Jamie conceded as he continued his trek past the large desk.


“And maybe one Gahdar in particular,” Artur winked.


Jamie turned to walk away, tossing a casual wave over his shoulder and hoping that the librarian hadn’t seen the self-conscious blush beginning to stain his face.


Although he could use the network connection of any informatics station to tap directly into the net without activating the screen, a student staring off into space – or worse yet, staring at a blank wall – for hours at a time would at best appear completely bizarre, and at worst arouse strong suspicions. So every time he used a station, Jamie was always careful to activate its screen and set it to some data spot that a typical student might be interested in.


Since he’d always been keen to acquire information about the Gahdar of Castle Rood, he often placed Gahdar fight vids and statistics from the most recent gladiatorial match up on the glowing screen. It was during one such occurrence that Artur, passing through the Special Acquisitions Department to retrieve a work requested by a minor noble, got a glimpse of the screen. Not surprised to see the boy accessing the latest scores, Artur had approached Jamie and asked him about it. Unexpectedly pulled from his search for information Jamie was caught off guard, but quickly recovered. It was during this brief encounter with the librarian that Jamie had mentioned Niklas Agramos in particular and watched a mischievous smile bloom on Artur’s face.


After greeting the librarian, Jamie moved along. Relieved that he’d gotten past Artur without wasting too much time, Jamie pushed through one of the doors behind the kiosk, hurried to the stairs, and began climbing the staircase two steps at a time – all the while feeling the warmth that had been quick to rush to his cheeks finally begin to recede. Ascending the stairs, he shook his head, more than a bit annoyed at his reaction to the mere mention of Nic’s name.


Following his initial encounter with Niklas Agramos, he’d returned to Piropolis three additional times under the guise of training for his special command performance for the Emperor’s birthday. Each time he’d spent four hours with Niklas. For the first of those hours he’d watch Castle Rood’s premier Gahdar train in the Battlecom, a second hour was reserved for Jamie to use the amazing training machine, and two hours were always spent back in Nic’s room where, under the guise of a romantic liaison, Jamie continued to add to Nic’s ever expanding base of knowledge.


After reaching the Special Acquisitions floor, Jamie glanced about the room. As usual, the large space appeared empty. Stacks filled with some of the library’s more valuable holdings stretched out before him. Walking down one long aisle he passed a series of locked cabinets filled with items of even greater value. At the end of the passage he emerged into the brightest part of the room – an open space illuminated by a series of tall gothic-arched windows. The clear glass set into stone tracery allowed him a panoramic view of the park that surrounded the library.


He paused before the windows. Once he’d seen Artur unlock one of the many long low-lying cupboards that sat below them. Made of a dark, polished wood, they’d been designed with a series of long, shallow, narrow drawers. After Artur slid one of the drawers open, Jamie could see that it contained large, flat maps that appeared to be quite old.


Placing both hands on top of one of the cabinets he sighed and for a few moments stared out the tall bank of windows and across the green space they overlooked. The park, bathed in the bright light of midmorning, was peaceful and calm, and the rays of the sun flooding through the long expanse of windows fell upon him, but he didn’t notice the warmth. Nor did the peaceful scene help to calm the inner turmoil boiling inside him.


Over two weeks had passed since the tragic death of Cristophe and Jamie’s initial visit to the city of Piropolis in response. The students and teachers of the school were still in shock over what they’d witnessed during the occupation of the school by two platoons of Imperial shock troops. The Council of Resistance was in shambles, and unlikely to recover. Information had become impossible to acquire. Prisoners had been taken, and the ensuing rounds of torture assisted the imperials in ferreting out even more of the rebels. It was said that Imperial Stone Gate Prison was rapidly filling up. Even worse were the rumors of loud cries and shrieks issuing forth late at night from The Prison of Pain – the ominous and chilling sobriquet given to Stone Gate.


Jamie’s mood had been uniformly black. When he wasn’t busy with practice or preparations for the Emperor’s birthday celebration, his time alone was spent blaming himself for Cristophe’s death. Castor and his friends, while equally upset, tried to convince him that none of what happened was his fault, but Jamie remained intractable and nothing would dissuade him from his convictions. The broken image of the kind boy who’d become a mentor and older brother to Jamie played over and over in his mind, driving his moods in a pendulum swing between heartbroken grief and white-hot rage.


The only moments of emotional respite he had were when he was dancing and his mind could escape to a different plane as he pushed his body to its limits, and the time he spent with Niklas. Just being in the Gahdar’s presence had a calming effect on Jamie.


Three separate trips to Stephen Perkinjius’ shop did little to ease Jamie’s worries, since each time he’d found the antiquities shop closed and no sign of its owner in evidence. No one from the rebel forces had made any attempt to contact him, and he felt isolated – no, cut off.


The only member of the resistance he’d seen since the debacle was Prince Alexander, and that had been from afar. It was on one of the days he’d gone to Piropolis. Accompanying Nic to the Gahdar Training Center, Jamie saw that the future King of the Icarians was present. Alexander had just finished a session in the Battlecom, but Jamie only got a quick glimpse of Alexander’s back as the prince headed to the showers. Castor had also done his best to learn what he could, but the climate was dangerous and the Kalorian had been unsuccessful in ferreting out any information. What’s more, the Emperor’s birthday celebration was only a month away, which created its own set of distractions.


The day of his investiture as Lord Protector – the sa’Crêsmané of the movement – he’d been instructed by Alexander to be patient and await word, but with the Council of Resistance smashed and no contact from anyone, he feared the worst and chafed in his isolation. What’s more, his naturally impatient nature was acting like a caustic acid slowly eating away at him. What was needed was a plan. It was to have come from the council, but if the resistance truly was broken, should he pick up the dropped sword? While part of him wanted to act in some way, Alexander was still above him. So as frustrating as it seemed, he fought the urge for rash action and bided his time – one of the most difficult things he’d ever been forced to do.


Jamie shook his head and turned from the window, walking across the room to the informatics station. As he walked, he ran his hand across the map cupboard’s top, feeling the reassuring solidity of the well-worn, ancient wood. In a nearby alcove was a vault with thick double doors – it contained the most valuable treasures of the library. A smaller alcove a few feet to the right of the vault sheltered the informatics station Jamie usually used. He stood for a moment and just stared at the screen before he pulled out the small stool that always sat under the built-in table of the alcove. He was beginning to experiment with accessing the net by using The Screen alone, but he found that he still needed the power of an informatics station to sustain long, stable transmissions.


Once more, he heaved a deep sigh. Lately he’d been feeling as if his brain were ready to explode. The information from the screen and the net, coupled with everything he’d discovered – including the troubling truth he’d learned at The Monastery of Infinity – only served to make him increasingly unsure of the future. Now, on top of everything else, he was holding what he felt to be one of most important secrets he’d discovered. And in that knowledge he’d come to realize that it was a secret he must hold from the very person he knew deserved the truth.


‘Father, what have you made of me?’ It was a question he was forever asking himself.


Easing onto the seat of the stool, he winced at the slight feeling of soreness in his legs and back. Although he was in exceptional physical condition, the workout Niklas had taught him for the Battlecom had forced him to use his well-toned muscles in new and different ways. But the discomfort was minor and he smiled as he thought about his time with Niklas. Then, just as his mood began to lighten, a feeling of sadness washed over him as a flood of thoughts about the premier Gahdar of Castle Rood filled his mind and touched his heart.


Jamie’s feelings for Niklas von Agramon started from the first moment he’d seen a much younger Nic at the training camp at Compari. At the time of that first encounter, he’d been asked about choosing a special friend and, remembering what he’d felt after looking into Niklas’ eyes, he’d immediately picked the boy who’d handed him the ball he’d dropped onto the training field. Now that he was spending time with the Gahdar, those feelings only grew stronger.


For years he’d thought of the boy, even though he’d worked hard to conceal his feelings from others. After Niklas began to perform at Rood, he’d carefully followed the royal throne’s meteoric rise to premier gladiator. There were times that Jamie told himself that it was more a fascination, maybe even a crush. He’d certainly had a few of them throughout his puberty cycle at the École Danse, though all had been a thing of the moment, and went no further – which was odd in itself, Jamie realized as he thought about it. But now that he was face to face with the young Gahdar, and they’d begun to spend more time together there was one thing he could no longer deny – he was in love with Niklas Agramos. It was a fact that was impossible to escape, but he felt that the timing was terrible. Such feelings had no place in a rebellion. He’d already succeeded in dragging the gladiator into the roiling mess that threatened to envelop Jamie and everyone tied to him and he wondered, out of fairness, just how much he should expect from Nic.


Undeniably, there was something special about being with Niklas that made Jamie feel comfortable and relaxed, and the more time he spent with the gladiator, the more interesting and amazing the boy warrior turned out to be. In fact Jamie was so much at ease that during their first private meeting following his initial contact with Nic, he’d poured out the story of his life – offering up far more information than he’d planned on revealing. 


He told Nic about his childhood and early life in Isewier during the years when he’d lived in his father’s home at the tip of Dragon’s Cove. He related many of the stories and events that molded him into the man he’d become. Jamie also began to recount the many promises he’d made to his father. Finally, he’d related the details of his capture and life on the mountain of the arts, ending with the story of his recent success as one of the premier dancers of La Mondele Royale, and his secret association with the erstwhile rebel council.


What’s more, the gladiator offered up a few of his own surprises. At one point, frustrated in finding the right word for his narration, Jamie inadvertently allowed an Icarian phrase to slip into the conversation. When Niklas responded in kind Jamie was, for a few seconds, beyond words.


“What did you just say?” Jamie finally asked when he’d recovered enough from his shock to speak.


“ler’ forra dis t’alle,” Niklas repeated softly.


“ are you speaking in that language?”


“You mean Icarian? After I heard you use it, I assumed...”


“Wait,” an even more amazed Jamie interrupted, “you just said Icarian.”


It was then that Nic related the story of Androcles and his private lessons with the red and black winged angel, revealing his ability to not only fluently speak the secret tongue of the angels of Gold Glass, but also the banned language of the kalorian slaves.


“You were taught by a sh’ônfenn?” an incredulous Jamie sputtered.


“I don’t know what a sh’ônfenn is,” Nic replied. “I only knew Androcles as my teacher.”


Jamie shook his head in amazement.


During their second meeting, Jamie explained, and then demonstrated, some of his unique talents. Starting first with an explanation of some of his mental abilities, he gave Niklas a brief demonstration of his skill in manipulating electrical fields – slightly worried about Nic’s possible reaction all the while. But once more, the gladiator offered his own share of surprises. After intently watching Jamie’s display, Nic began to nod as a thoughtful look came to his face.


“The Pentabulon discusses this very possibility,” Nic said.


“You know of the Cinquante et une?” Jamie asked, nonplused that a Gahdar would even have knowledge of the fabled work let alone an understanding of its contents.


“Yes, I’ve studied it.”


In the conversation that followed, as Jamie quoted passages from the great work and Niklas interrupted to correct and complete the dancer’s sentences, the young Prince de Valèn discovered an even more astonishing fact.


“You didn’t just study it, Niklas,” an awe-struck Jamie gasped, listening to Nic’s lightning quick and firmly confident responses. “You know it by heart, don’t you? I can tell. You know all of the Fifty and One – by heart!


When Nic modestly admitted that he did in fact have the entire Pentabulon memorized, a silent Jamie simply stared until, finally regaining his voice, he asked, “Who are you, Niklas Agramos?”


“Just a gahdar, in the service of the Empire,” Niklas calmly replied, not knowing or even imagining any other explanation.


The more that Nic revealed, the more Jamie felt he’d have to open up and completely trust the gahdar. He paced back and forth in his room at the École Danse as he carefully weighed the risks in telling Nic about Charlie. It was a difficult decision and Jamie lost sleep the previous night as he pondered what to do. Yet once he was with Nic, the Gahdar’s quiet demeanor and calm presence immediately put Jamie at ease. And so it was that at the beginning of their third meeting, Jamie performed a light scan of Nic’s thoughts.


Remembering his disastrous breakdown at their first meeting when he’d entered the boy’s mind, he tried to remain calm. But although logic told him he could be dispassionate, his heart knew that the real reason for his fear was that he might find out what the gahdar really thought of him – a truth he wasn’t sure he could handle.


The scan had gone well and its results finally convinced Jamie to trust Niklas completely and advance to the next level, so he cautiously brought up the subject of Charlie and, more importantly, his solemn oath to protect his brother. When he finished after many long minutes, he saw that Nic had a thoughtful and solemn look on his face. The young gahdar was by nature a serious boy, but he had an inner warmth and strength of character that always shone through. Sitting on the edge of his bed, Niklas stared at the floor and simply nodded for a few minutes. Jamie could see that Nic was deep in thought, processing all the information that Jamie had given him.


“Of course,” Nic said, raising his head while his words filled the room with a force and conviction that surprised Jamie. Shooting Jamie an earnest and determined look, he continued, “Yes, of course. He’s your brother. There’s nothing more important. I’ll do everything I can to help you protect him.”


While Nic always seemed open to everything Jamie presented, he was surprised at the strength of the Gahdar’s reaction and the force behind his words. Not sure what to say, Jamie humbly thanked Nic, hoping that Nic would understand the sincerity of his gratitude.


“I was... well, I wasn’t sure I should tell you,” Jamie replied softly. “Only a small group knows, and even that’s a risk. Cristophe held it in secret to the very end... and took it to his death.” Jamie added, and then paused, closing his eyes and lowering his head.


“I understand, Jamie,” Nic said. Rising from his bed he took a step forward and rested one hand on the prince’s shoulder. When the younger boy looked up, Nic continued, “You were given a sacred trust and you’ve kept it. It’s one of the most honorable things I’ve ever heard. It’s one of the reasons that I...” Nic stopped, fumbling a little.


Jamie looked searchingly into the Gahdar’s eyes. “Yes?”


“’s one of the reasons I... admire you,” Nic stammered slightly in a tone that Jamie thought sounded as if the gladiator had wanted to say something different.


“I love Charlie, and I’d do anything to protect him,” Jamie said, trying not to grow too self-conscious with Nic’s hand gently resting on his shoulder. The boy’s light touch felt gentle and reassuring. It reminded Jamie of when the Gahdar had held him in his arms, which was something he almost dreamed would happen again.


Nic fell silent as he carefully studied the dancer. “You’re a remarkable man, Jamie,” he finally said.


Removing his hand from Jamie’s shoulder, Nic turned away, stepped across the floor and looked out the window of his room. It was a stark view that took in the hard red clay of the center’s quadrangle and the plain gray buildings that lined it.


With their contact broken, Jamie was surprised at how he suddenly missed it, wishing that Nic would once more reach out and touch him. Looking at the boy, he watched Nic lean against the window’s broad sill.


“I... we... the gahdar have no family,” Nic finally broke the silence. “When we’re young we join one of the many nests in the training camp, but its members are never permanent. Boys come and go. Some are injured, some die, some simply disappear – where to?...well... we never know. Our trainers look after us. We’re fed, clothed, and trained, but never loved.”


A long silence filled the room and Jamie felt a flush of embarrassment wash over him. Since coming to Piropolis to train, he’d told story after story about his loving childhood at Villa Mare Vista. Now he’d just finished sharing with the Gahdar the bond of love he had with his younger brother. He hadn’t really thought about Nic’s plight as an Icarian boy chosen to live the difficult life of a gladiator.


Nic, I’m sorry, I never ever thought... I’ve probably sounded like...”


“No,” Nic quickly interrupted, but his voice had a soft and gentle tone. “No Jamie, you have nothing to feel sorry for. That is as it should be. I can see you’re grateful for it, and that’s important. It’s just something I never had. You’ve been to the games, no?”


Jamie nodded. He’d already told Nic about his singular experience visiting Castle Rood as a guest of the Emperor.


“Then you’ve seen them; the families who come to watch. Fathers, with their sons, uncles and nephews, grandfathers and grandsons, whole generations from a single clan. I’ve stood on the sands of the arena and looked up at them. They’ve cheered me, thrown flowers and signets, but when the day is over I return here,” he stopped and looked around his small and austere room. “They go to their homes; they bask in the love of their families. I envy them.”


When he finished speaking Nic paused and a great clarity of understanding came flooding into Jamie’s mind.


“And that’s why things changed after you started to fight there,” Jamie replied, now seeing the obvious pattern that had always been right in front of him. “You turned them into a family... your family!”


“You understand,” Nic mused, giving Jamie the faintest glimmer of a smile. “I thought you might.”


At Nic’s pause, Jamie quickly related his experience at the games and the comments of Daron, the industrialist, who’d sat next to him.


“Daron told me things changed after you arrived at Rood. He didn’t know why, but he said it made the games better. Now it all makes sense.”


From the moment Jamie left the arena after the games had concluded, he hadn’t thought any more about the industrialist’s remarks. Even during his time spent at Piropolis, although the evidence had been right before his eyes, the simple fact hadn’t occurred to him. Both the deference, and respect the other gahdar showed toward Niklas von Agramon went far beyond their admiration of his skills and fighting ability. There was simply more to the boy then his amazing talent in the arena. It was clear he was not only a leader, but also that very special type of leader – one who leads not out of force, or by being at the top of the pecking order, but by gaining the respect, admiration, and deep love of those he leads. Clearly the mantle of honor hadn’t been seized, but freely bestowed on one who truly deserved it.


Jamie had been even more surprised when he’d heard Niklas referred to as Le’ir Bahr a’Ronei. The title was not one used lightly. Its use stretched back in time to the founding of the planet Armagh by the rebellious Gaelic minority who migrated from the planet Tymore. Used to designate a great clan chief, the title had evolved over time and had come to hold high and sacred connotations. To be considered Le’ir Bahr a’Ronei even to one other person – like a high master to a disciple – was an immense honor, but to be bound by such a title to every one of the strong and fearsome gladiator warriors of Rood surpassed belief.


In his brief time with the boys who comprised the Gahdar cohort, Jamie had begun to feel comfortable, even growing to enjoy the strange warrior-boys who fought at Castle Rood. Encountering them outside of their formal setting was much like his experiences at the École Danse when he and his fellow students were off stage. The boys in turn, although often boisterous, occasionally crude, and always examining him with appraising looks, treated him with kindness and respect. He knew some of that was due to Nic, but he still couldn’t help starting to like them as individuals. One boy in particular, Niklas’ friend Julius, seemed amazingly kind, poised and understanding.


“I hadn’t thought about it,” Jamie, roused from his thoughts, continued “But now I realize what I was seeing as you and the others practiced. You are a family. And it’s all because of you, Niklas. The boy who always wanted...”


Jamie paused and quite unexpectedly tears came to his eyes. For a few seconds he stared up at the ceiling, while inside his head a storm of emotions threatened to sweep him away.


“I have to go, Nic,” he said as he quickly turned toward the door.


“Is it something I said?” Nic looked puzzled, caught off guard by Jamie’s strong reaction. “I’m sorry if...”


“It’s nothing you did or said, Niklas,” Jamie sputtered, almost choking on his words. “I’ll be back in a few days. But I must go... now,” he quickly added as he raced toward the door.


“If it’s...” Nic was about to continue, but realized he was speaking to an empty room.


Jamie had already swept out the door and after running down the stairs dashed across the quadrangle. Arriving at a waiting hov he brushed one of his wings against the hatch while he scrambled to get in. Seconds later the hov was airborne and Nic was left standing in his room watching it fade into the bright sunlight as it rose high into the late afternoon sky.


Taking his seat on the stool of the informatics station Jamie’s mind replayed his hasty retreat from Nic’s presence. “He must think I’m an idiot.” Jamie thought as he prepared to activate the informatics screen – a halo like projection that floated a few feet in front of its user. Although much less powerful than The Screen that resided in his head, Jamie often wondered if his own special internal device had begun as a more sophisticated version of the standard informatics screen. There appeared to be few limits on what Gold Glass could produce, and when combined with Edmond Croal’s genius all things seemed possible.


The informatics screen popped open. Jamie moved to a data spot broadcasting the public planet-wide news net and turned down the volume to a soft whisper. It would be a good cover if someone like Artur passed by. Then using the network connection the informatics station provided, Jamie locked on to it as his thoughts rode the data stream and arrived at the secret address he’d created. Once he’d linked with the address, his arrival sent a covert signal to one of the planets many communications satellites, and within seconds Charlie appeared in his mind’s eye.


“You don’t have to read my mind to know what my first question is,” Jamie’s thoughts beamed to Charlie.


“He’s fine,” Charlie replied. “I could see that you were worried when you brought him because you had to leave so quickly, but he’s well.”


“How’s he adapting to our friends?”


Charlie giggled, “You know they take a little getting used to. Remember, we had the same issues. At least now when Ga’tann roars he realizes it’s laughter and not an expression of appetite, with him as the intended first course.”


“It is a bit disconcerting,” Jamie replied. “But as long as he’s adjusting, I’m pleased. Just remember, he has a task to accomplish, and he’ll need your help. If we’re ever to succeed I’ll need him as my master of ceremonies. He has to learn the protocol. I think it’s foolish, but given the crazy yarn Savaron Loka’s pet Icarian Hippolito has spun for me, and Stephen Perkinjius’ insistence on proper ritual, I guess I can’t avoid it. I’d rather have my feathers plucked out one at a time, but apparently there’s no getting around it.”


“Your friend Stephen is correct, Jamie,” Charlie admonished, “Leadership comes in many different forms.”


“Leave it to you to side with all of them,” Jamie replied in mock irritation. “Just help him, please. He already has such a beautiful voice. I caught him more than once singing as he did his chores. It’s an asset in impressing people.”


“You’ve been on the stage too much,” Charlie giggled.


“Not out of choice, but it has taught me a few things about the art of performance. Just mind what I say about Giovanni.”


“I will. I promise. You have nothing to worry about him Jamie, Giovanni will be fine,” Charlie repeated. After a brief pause he continued. “He’s very special, you know.”


“Of course Charlie, that’s why I brought him to Ghröum.” But then Jamie smiled when he realized what Charlie really meant. Their shared mental abilities left little hidden between the two brothers. “You like him, no?” Jamie added cautiously, careful not to push too hard since the feelings he was receiving from Charlie regarding Giovanni appeared much stronger than simple friendship.


“He’s so intelligent. He seems to have an interest in everything. His Icarian is perfect. And you never told me how well he speaks Kalorian. He’s very friendly and extremely kind. He can sometimes be so determined and serious, but most of all he’s sweet. He gave me a bouquet of flowers yesterday. He surprised me by going into the caves and picking a bunch of Sh’arhan flowers. You remember them, don’t you?”


“Mmm, yes, I remember them well.”


“And I guess I should thank you for my ears, Jam.”


“Oh, why?”


“That they’re slightly pointed is an utter fascination to him. He said they were my cutest feature.”


“It sounds like you’re...”


“I guess you’re right,” Charlie, knowing his brother could read his thoughts and feelings, quickly cut Jamie off before he could add any more. “It’s almost impossible to hold things back from each other, Jam.”


“I know, Charlie, that’s why I need to show you something.” The deadly serious tone of his mental voice caught Charlie by surprise, and Jamie had a fleeting mental picture of the boy straightening and leaning forward. And then Jamie released a thought from the deepest recesses of his mind, one that he’d worked hard to conceal.


For a few seconds there was silence.


“Who else knows this?” Charlie asked.


“Now that you do, I believe only the two of us, and I’d like it to remain that way. Do you understand?”


A second period of silence followed.


“Charlie?” Jamie beamed anxiously when his brother didn’t respond.


“Are you sure, Jamie? Shouldn’t we say something?”


“NO. Charlie I already feel terrible about this – maybe the worst I ever felt – but it’s too dangerous. You’re in the same position. We can’t risk...”


“I understand, but I think it will be easier for me than for you.”


“Just promise me, Charlie.”


“I promise, Jamie; I’ll keep your trust.”


Breathing a sigh of relief, Jamie continued his conversation, opening his thoughts about the current crisis and political situation. And as he laid bare his frustrations, worries and concerns, Charlie listened while offering consolation and his own suggestions. The brothers had been communicating for almost an hour when Jamie suggested they break the connection.


“We don’t want to arouse suspicion,” he added, just as he always did at the end of all their conversations.


“Ok, Jam,” Charlie’s thoughts beamed back.


“Oh, I do have one request,” Jamie added. “I know science isn’t your strongest point, but I’d like you to research something for me.”


“I will, but if it’s something complex I don’t know how much I’ll be able to help you.”


“No Charlie, this shouldn’t be too difficult. I’d do it myself, but it might take some time. With the imperial birthday celebration only weeks away, and subtracting the time I spend with Niklas, I feel like I barely have time to sleep these days.”


Charlie beamed his assent.


“I want you to find out everything you can on Cold Sleep Syndrome,” Jamie asked. “Anything will be of help. It’s a phenomenon that goes all the way back to the earliest cryo experiments and proved to be a problem on the generational ships. An antidote was discovered – that much I know – but I need to know more about it. Can you do that for me?”


“Yes. It doesn’t seem too complex,” Charlie replied.


“No, but it’s critical to something I’ve been thinking about. We just don’t have time now to discuss it. Its well past the time we should have ended this transmission.”


Charlie acquiesced, but seconds before he was about to break the connection, Jamie’s younger brother beamed out a quick thought.


“What about Niklas, Jamie?”


“He’s fine. You’ve already seen...”


“No Jamie, you know what I mean. Have you even...” there was a pause, “OH, JAMIE – you haven’t even told him how you feel? But why?”


“Now’s NOT the time for that,” Jamie quickly countered with an emotional ferocity that even shocked himself.


“Now’s more the time than ever before,” Charlie countered, “but I guess you have to do what you feel is right – even though I think it’s terribly wrong.”


“It’s my decision,” Jamie countered abruptly. “Now, we should say goodbye.”


Seconds later the connection was severed. Jamie shut off the informatics screen and was left staring at a blank wall and feeling the empty hole in his heart.


“You don’t understand, Charlie,” he said softly to himself. “I’m glad I brought you Giovanni and you’re both falling in love. At the very least, the dynasty continues. More importantly, you’re happy. But for me...”


Rising from the stool Jamie pushed it back under the table and prepared to leave the library.


The day he’d returned from seeing Niklas for the first time, he’d quickly gathered Giovanni up and taken him to Ghröum. The boy had been astounded at what he’d seen, even more so when Jamie told him he’d be leaving him in the care of the giant gray monsters, but when Charlie emerged from the shadows of a nearby alcove, Giovanni ceased his protests and simply stared at Jamie’s younger brother.


While slightly different in looks from Jamie, Charlie was nevertheless as beautiful as his older brother – just in a different way. Jamie knew for sure that at the very least the two boys would get along as friends, and at best, under the right circumstances, romance might bloom. That possibility, now confirmed by his recent conversation with Charlie, made Jamie smile. Neither Charlie, hidden away for so long, nor Giovanni, isolated during his years in Expedition and Service, had experienced anything close to a normal life. It was something both boys deserved, and Jamie was glad to offer them some happiness. For himself, the path he was on looked long and lonely, especially after what he’d just done.


When Jamie returned to his room an enthusiastic Spinoza greeted him. The little garga lizard promptly attacked him and after sitting on Jamie’s shoulder began to bite its master’s earlobe when Jamie didn’t immediately begin to scratch its head. Looking across the room he also noticed that the hole and cracks he’d inflicted on the wall a few weeks before had been repaired and now awaited a fresh coat of paint. He’d told Castor to just leave the wall as it was, but Castor replied that the strength of Jamie’s reaction to Cristophe’s death might arouse suspicions, so it was best to deal with the damage.


Walking over to the wall he laid his palm against the freshly dried and sanded plaster. Closing his eyes he tried to imagine Cristophe on the other side, but when tears came to his eyes he backed away, realizing that his emotions were still far softer than the hardening plaster he’d brushed his hand across.


Seconds later the door opened and Castor entered the room. Though he greeted Jamie warmly, it was clear there was something on his mind.


“You missed practice today,” he said.


“I was practicing at Piropolis,” Jamie replied.


“I know that’s what you’ve told them, and they might believe it for a while, but I suggest you show up tomorrow morning and give everything a proper run through. Now isn’t the time to arouse suspicions.”


Jamie nodded in agreement, but his frown told Castor he was anything but happy.


“We all know it perfectly by now,” Jamie said. “Over-practicing can be just as bad as under practicing.”


“That’s true, young master, but nevertheless you need to show your face.”


“I assume you haven’t learned anything more about the current situation?” Jamie added, in an attempt to change the subject.


“Nothing. All my contacts have dried up.”


Jamie walked over to the wall and prepared to pound it in frustration, but stopped when the fresh and drying plaster reminded him of the recently made repairs.


“Patience,” Castor counseled. “If anything, now’s the time for cool heads. Someone from the administrators’ office came by while you were gone. They’re still looking for Giovanni. They spoke to me and your three friends from Chrysalis.”


“What did you tell them?”


“The story we all agreed on. That we simply woke up one morning and his room was empty.”


“Is there a wide-spread search for him?” Jamie asked.


“I don’t know,” Castor laid the freshly laundered towels he was carrying on Jamie’s bed. “They questioned each one of us separately for a few minutes. I suspect they might return to talk to you, or at the very least call you into the head master’s office.”


“They can question me all they want. It will get them nowhere.”


“Just be careful.” Castor gave Jamie a concerned look, then pausing he patted the side of his robe as if feeling for something. “Oh yes, and this arrived for you when you were out,” he added.


After digging into one of his deep pockets, Castor pulled out what at first looked like a small piece of paper. A closer look revealed that it was an envelope. He offered it to Jamie. The bright blue envelope was the same gaudy color as an aroban’s egg. A shiny silver boarder circumscribed it’s edges, making the envelope’s unusual color even more pronounced. Jamie took the envelope, turned it over and frowned when he saw it bore the seal of the Archduke of Imperialas.


“What does he want with me?” Jamie sounded worried as he recalled his encounter with Renaud, and The Angel of Death’s warning.


Having no answer, Castor simply shrugged. 


Breaking the seal, Jamie tore the envelope open. He pulled out a slim card and discarded the envelope, letting it drop onto his bed. Spinoza, seeing the bright silver and blue colors, sprang from Jamie’s shoulder, landed on the bed and began to shred the envelope into small pieces.


Jamie silently read the card. When he was finished his expression was even more worried as he handed it back to Castor, who took a few seconds to study it.


“So you’re invited for a week’s stay at Savaron Loka’s estate in the Duchy of Imperialas after your performance at the Emperor’s birthday gala.”


“I don’t like the smell of it,” Jamie finally answered, sweeping Spinoza up and pulling a small piece of the envelope from its mouth while the garga lizard squawked in protest.


He’d previously told Castor of his visit from Renaud and the Angel of Death’s remarks regarding Loka’s suspicions.


“What do you think I should do?”


“For the moment, accept the invitation. Much can happen in a short time, and we’re at a crossroads, I think.” Castor crossed the room and picked up a towel Jamie’d thrown into a corner. “Now’s not the time to arouse any further suspicion.”


“But what if he already suspects?”


“You’re forewarned, and apparently you have an ally in the Emperor’s bodyguard. If you have the chance, you might get word to Renaud. For now, I suggest you go to one of the private studios and practice, even if it’s only for a short period. You’ve missed too much time already taking those trips to Piropolis. Try to keep a normal schedule as much as possible for the next few weeks, and let others see you following your usual routine. It will help allay suspicion.“


Since Jamie’d told Nic he wouldn’t be able to travel to Piropolis for a few days, Castor’s suggestion seemed like a good idea. Crossing the room, he opened one of the drawers of his dresser and grabbed a pair of tights and a racerback. After tossing them on the bed, he began to remove his tunic. A few minutes later, wearing his practice tunic and a pair of leg warmers, he was headed down the hall, a pair of dance slippers in his hand.


Once in the studio he removed his practice tunic, kicked off his sandals, put on his slippers, and ran through his standard warm-up and stretching regime. After he felt sufficiently limber, he slipped off his leg warmers and inserted a small chip into the informatics outlet built into the wall of the studio. Seconds later, a lively tune filled the room. Quickly seizing on the strong bass rhythm, Jamie took off across the floor in a series of quick spins and high leaps. As the music exploded, so did he: with a powerful stroke of his large, strong wings, he was airborne.


Dancing always seemed to clear his mind, and occasionally after a session an idea that had been rattling around in his head would slide forward and allow itself to be examined. Two hours later, although sweat-drenched and tired, he’d found a clarity he’d been lacking since Cristophe’s death. Whilst dancing, he’d replayed his recent conversation with Charlie, and the germ of a plan took shape in his mind. Its feasibility was at best unlikely, and even more unlikely was any chance for success, but he couldn’t get it out of his head. It would require a few more trips to the library and further discussion with the three people who would be the most help to him – Niklas von Agramon, Castor, and his own brother, Prince Charlie de Valèn. Once more reviewing the framework he’d constructed in his mind, he quickly activated the screen where he composed and filed away a list of topics he’d discuss with Charlie at their next session.


At last he was satisfied that he had at least something to grasp. While not completely confident in his tiny plan’s staying power, he felt better than he had in many a day. With his first smile in weeks, he went to a rack stacked high with fresh towels and grabbed one. Putting the soft fluffy towel to his face and daubing at the sweat, he inhaled the orange-like scent infused into it. It was then that he heard a sound and spun around to face the door. The towel slipped from his fingers and fell on the floor when he saw Prince Hippolito standing in the doorway. He stared at the boy lounging against the doorframe.


“I came by to see you,” Hippolito said, giving Jamie a coy smile. “The old Kalorian told me I’d find you here. I’d suggest you enforce a little more discipline with your slave, and remind him of his place. At first he was reluctant to tell me where you were – such impertinence from an old slave who should know better. I reminded him that he was lucky to find himself in the easy post he’d been given, and that someone his age wouldn’t last all that long in the fields and irrigation ditches of the southern settlements.”


“His name is Castor, and it’s not your place to tell him anything.” Jamie shot the Prince of Hypernia a cold, flat look.


“I came to see if you wanted to accompany me to view something really spectacular.” Hippolito ignored Jamie’s pointed remark and obvious irritation. “I think you’ll find it fascinating.”


“I have to bathe.”


“I can wait for you.” Hippolito’s smile grew even brighter, “Or, if you prefer, I can join you.”


Although shocked at Hippolito’s suggestion, Jamie found he was even more shocked that a part of him registered a thrill of excitement at the thought of the tall, handsome boy naked in his bath.


“I’ll bathe alone,” Jamie replied while he tried to calm the sudden rapid beating of his hearts.


“As you wish.” Hippolito continued to smile. “We’ll have plenty of time for that in the future.”


“Where do you want to take me?” Jamie’s voice took on a wary tone, and while he didn’t respond verbally to the Prince’s flirtation, his sidelong glance spoke volumes.


“Oh, it’s a surprise,” Hippolito said, “but I’m sure you’ll like it. At the very least, I know you’ll be amazed. And don’t worry, you’ll be completely safe, I promise,” he finished, giving Jamie a devilish wink.


After leading Hippolito to his floor, Jamie wasn’t even remotely keen on taking the Prince to his room so he deposited him in the lounge at the end of the hall. If Hippolito had any objections, he didn’t voice them.


Following a quick bath, Jamie rapidly dressed while conferring with Castor. When he’d finished, he bade Castor goodbye and left his room. Stepping out into the hallway, he was nearly run down by his friends from Trio Chrysalis who were just returning from practice.


“What’s he doing here?” Lucas whispered while shooting a withering glance toward the lounge, indicating that the boys had seen Hippolito waiting.


“He says he wants to take me somewhere.”


“Then be careful.” Yves’ brow creased as he frowned.


Jamie had recounted his earlier meetings with Hippolito to his friends, and all three boys’ impressions of the Prince of Hypernia weren’t very positive.


“Yes, be careful,” Jeremy added, giving Jamie a kiss on the cheek. Yves and Lucas did the same, and the boys parted, each going their own way.


When Jamie entered the lounge Hippolito, who’d been looking out the window, turned to face the dancer. A warm and charming smile came to his face as his eyes swept over Jamie.


“Jamie, you look absolutely stunning.” The grin on Hippolito’s face had grown so wide that he was showing his teeth. “Are you ready to go?”


“I suppose so.” Jamie frowned, and then cautiously added, “And where is it you’re taking me, again?”


“I said, it’s a surprise, Jamie.” Hippolito crossed the room and gave Jamie a quick peck on the cheek. “Don’t worry, I won’t bite... unless you want me to,” he raised a single eyebrow while speaking in the same coy tone he’d used earlier when he’d tried to invite himself into Jamie’s bath.


A bit surprised by the kiss, Jamie followed Hippolito out of the senior dormitory. Once outside, the boys crossed the quadrangle. After passing along one of the cloistered walkways of the school they turned a corner and Jamie came face to face with a small hov parked on the grassy lawn. The late afternoon sun cast a glare off the brightly polished silver metal of the scoop-winged hov. Carefully examining the strange hov-like craft, Jamie realized that it was a model he’d never seen.


“It’s mine.” There was a ring of pride in Hippolito’s voice. “A gift from the Archduke. It’s currently the only one of its kind – a prototype. The skin is a composite, not unlike the material you found for the stage you’ll be dancing on at the Emperor’s birthday celebration.”


Hippolito’s casual mention of Jamie’s recently patented alloy sent a chill up the dancer’s spine. Trying to remain calm, Jamie climbed into the hov ahead of Hippolito, who’d graciously invited him to enter first. Once both boys were seated and belted in, Hippolito took the controls and within seconds had the hov performing a stomach-churning ascent as it propelled itself skyward much faster than Jamie would have thought possible. After consulting the navigation comp, Hippolito made a few adjustments and the hov moved from vertical to horizontal flight so quickly the sudden extra g-force pushed Jamie firmly back into his seat. He shot Hippolito a questioning look.


“Yes, it’s a supersonic,” Hippolito turned toward Jamie, as if he knew what his passenger was thinking. “I told you it was experimental. Would you like a turn at the controls?”


“I can only handle a standard. I’m not rated to fly a superson...” Jamie stopped cold realizing his blunder. While he’d piloted a hov around Dragon’s Cove and had even flown one into the compound at Villa Mare Vista the day of his capture, no one at the school knew he could fly a standard hov – at least that’s what he assumed. His faux pas now revealed that ability to Hippolito. It was a stupid slip of the tongue, but for some reason Hippolito appeared to have a talent for getting Jamie to reveal things he preferred to keep hidden. Although trying to appear calm, Jamie’s anger at his own easy gullibility had him silently cursing himself.


Jamie’s revelation appeared not to stir any reaction from Hippolito who made no comment as he continued to fly the small hov.


“It’s configured almost the same as a standard, with a few modifications.” Hippolito quipped. Turning to look at Jamie he continued, “It’s more responsive because of its wing design and duel engines, but as long as you follow the instrumentation cues you shouldn’t have a problem.”


Jamie gave Hippolito a side-ways glance.


“Go on, Jamie, take the controls.”


Jamie leaned forward, reached out, and carefully took both the stick and steering control on the consul in front of him. But although he tried to relax, he found himself tightly gripping onto the controls. His closeness to the stunningly handsome boy mixed with his deep suspicions was creating an inner conflict he’d never experienced before. A second later, he watched as Hippolito flipped a small red switch.


“You have full command,” he smiled. “My controls are dead.”


“I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” Jamie said.


“I have no doubt that you’ll do just fine,” Hippolito grinned and reached over to place one of his graceful and slender hands on Jamie’s knee.


Jamie jumped when the soft warm skin of Hippolito’s hand made contact with his leg, and the hov did a quick veer to the right.


“Sorry,” Hippolito chuckled quickly withdrawing his hand. “You needn’t be so jumpy. I thought you dancers were used to physical contact.”


Jamie took a deep breath and gripped the controls even tighter. Being in such close proximity to the boy was disconcerting.


It had been years since he’d flown a hov and the small supersonic hybrid Hippolito had put him in control of appeared to be quite responsive to even the slightest touch.


“Where are we headed?” Jamie asked once again.


“You keep wanting to ruin the surprise,” Hippolito said. “You can consult the nav-comp, or you can simply fly by sight for the moment. It’s a beautifully clear day and the wind is calm. Look below. Do you see the river?”


Jamie looked down and studied their present location. They’d just left the imperial capital and far below them the River Prime flowed south toward Küronas where it would join the Secon and the Tierce just below the city before the combined currents of all three rivers would flow into the Arbol Sea.


“Head north and follow the Prime until we reach the first large city – that will be Triège. Once we’re there you’ll bank left and we’ll begin flying across the Overland Flats, but don’t worry I’ll make sure you’re on course. Now that we’re high enough you can engage the supersonics. We want to get there before sunset.”


Jamie gave Hippolito a puzzled look.


“Here. This yellow toggle,” Hippolito pointed to the switch. “Just flip it, and hang on.”


Cautiously Jamie extended his hand and after laying a finger on the switch flipped it. The effect was instantaneous and he was slammed back into his seat as the controls were jerked out of his hands. The hov pitched and yawed unnaturally. Reaching out to grab the controls he found the thrust of the hov was creating g-forces he couldn’t overcome and he felt a bolt of panic in his mind. Seconds later the craft, continuing its race toward Mach 1, was flying on a smooth and steady course, Hippolito having quickly resumed control of the hov.


“I warned you,” Hippolito chuckled, apparently unfazed by the incident.


Jamie gave the Prince a wary look. Remembering the stunt Hippolito had played on him the day he’d ridden with the boy in the park, Jamie suspected the Prince of Hypernia had planned for this to happen all along. And although Hippolito seemed to think he was impressing his passenger, everything the boy did only served to further deepen Jamie’s distrust. For the rest of the trip Jamie remained silent and refused to touch the controls of the hov, even though Hippolito repeatedly encouraged him to resume flying the craft.


Their speed quickly approached Mach 2 and it wasn’t long before they reached Triège which, along with its two sister cities Clarion and Celeste, formed the Overland Triad – a vast metropolitan plain on the continent. Banking the hov sharply to the left, Hippolito cut the craft’s speed by half, then by half again, and began to descend.


“We’re going to the exact midway point between all three cities,” Hippolito volunteered. “Right down there.”


By now the hov was low enough so that Jamie could see where Hippolito was pointing. Sitting up in his seat he peered out the window and saw they were approaching what looked like a great plateau. It lay dead ahead of their path and stretched so far out to the horizon that he couldn’t see its end point.


Since the Plain of Overland was naturally flat, the immense mound of earth that loomed before them could only have been created through terra-forming. In less than a minute they reached the plateau and began to fly over it. Hippolito continued forward, but then cut the thrusters. Engaging the craft’s hover engines, he allowed the little hov to skim along a few hundred feet above the landscape. As the small ship went from horizontal to vertical thrust, Jamie looking out his window, began to take in the ambiance of the place – which was that of a gigantic construction site.


Pieces of equipment both large and small littered the ground below them. Deactivated hov cranes lay across the scarred earth littering the landscape with their giant steel frames. Vast pits and deep holes pockmarked the terrain and almost everywhere he looked there were networks of trenches that crisscrossed the ground like some unsolvable maze. Great mountainous stockpiles of pipes, cables, stone, sand, and gravel were everywhere. So much appeared to be taking place that it was difficult for him to tell if the area was being constructed or deconstructed – maybe a bit of both.


Now fully in hover mode, the craft floated along and Jamie could see the landscape slowly morph before his eyes. Moving from the edge of the plateau to its interior, he soon noticed that the rough appearance of basic site preparation was starting to give way to foundations and partially constructed buildings. Flying still further, the buildings began to take on a more completed look and Hippolito was forced to begin carefully maneuvering the craft in order to avoid hitting anything. It was at the same time Jamie began to observe that the land between many of the structures was being prepared for large boulevards, and avenues, along with smaller roads and streets. Deep ditches filled with water made him wonder if a system of canals was being planned. Large open spaces hinted of places were parks and possibly lakes might be constructed


“Kái ke’ll, Jamie. Kái ke’ll, té’ày molt a cer’kenon imperium a canna”


Scarcely believing his ears. Jamie sat up, leaning as far forward as the straps that constrained him in his seat would allow, and stared at the Prince of Hypernia in wide-eyed wonder since Hippolito had just welcomed him... and in Icarian... to the tenth Imperial Hill of the Empire.


“I love it when you look at me with those amazing blue eyes,” Hippolito grinned.


“What do you mean the tenth Imperial Hill?” Jamie ignored Hippolito’s attempt at flattery.


“I had a feeling you understood the language,” Hippolito’s smirk immediately told Jamie that his secret had been discovered. “I was hoping the intelligence was true.”


Stung yet again, Jamie turned away from Hippolito to look out the window, hoping to hide his surprise at once more getting caught by the poised, glib-tongued boy.


“You needn’t fear anything on my part,” Hippolito said. “In the future all such prohibitions will be lifted. It was only ordered in the first place because of those bloody rebellious Kalorians. I say it’s better to know the tongue than try to learn it later, no? The Archduke insisted I learn it as soon as my education began. If you’re going to govern, you’ll certainly need command of it.”


It all seemed so amazing and surreal that Jamie remained quiet. Silently gazing out the window, he wasn’t quite sure what to say.


“Welcome home, Prince de Valèn,” and Hippolito, taking one of his hands off the controls, made a grand sweeping gesture to the view beyond the cockpit.




“I’ve already told you about the Archduke’s plan. This is its fruition – or at least it will be when it’s completed.”


“I don’t understand,” Suddenly acutely aware of his words, and now hyper-vigilant to prevent any further information slip from his lips, Jamie was determined to speak with the utmost caution.


“Kar Kana a’kar Ang’ieal,” Hippolito said proudly. “The Canon of The Angels – our future home. It’s from here, Jamie, that we’ll assist the Empire in ruling what we now call the Commonwealth – a commonwealth that will someday become an empire. And an empire that over time, I suspect, may encompass a large part of the galaxy.”


Jamie was silent. His shock was complete and he couldn’t begin to put his thoughts into words. He’d learned of some of Savaron Loka’s plans from the Council of Resistance, but what Hippolito was now showing him went far beyond his interpretation of the Council’s intelligence.


“But you were talking about the tenth imperial hill, and yes, Küronas has nine hills, but a tenth?”


“It’s just a construct – an identifier. Think of it as a code name, if you wish,” Hippolito said. “The term started because there had been talk of building it outside of Küronas, but it was ruled out – I’m not sure why. Tahkor was another possibility. It’s the oldest city on the planet, you know. It’s where the first colonists made planetfall, and it’s larger then Küronas. Tahkor would probably have become the capital of the empire, but the juncture of the three rivers, its proximity to the Arbol Sea, and the fact that it’s almost in the exact center of the continent ensured settlement there. So once Küronas was founded it was inevitable it would become the capital. The flat plain was the perfect blank canvas for the terraformers to practice their art.”


“But to build it here?” Jamie asked.


“Well, it’s the same reasoning that went into the construction of Küronas. The Overland Plain is another blank canvas. It’s rather good fortune that the Triad sister cities of Triège, Clarion and Celeste were founded here and each one of them prospered and spread out into the flats, but not too far. There was still plenty of space for growth, and with workers and equipment not far from the three cities, construction has progressed rapidly. I, for one, would have loved for us to take over Konassas. Have you ever seen it?”


“No, only pictures and vids,” Jamie replied.


“Someday you must see it in person.” Hippolito said, his eyes sparkling with excitement. “It was built by Enrick the Eight’s son and successor, Vincent the first, the one they call the Mad Emperor.”


“I know it’s built in the middle of a river,” Jamie said.


Hippolito began to laugh. “That’s one way of putting it. Vincent loved castles with moats and he dreamed up this crazy idea of building an entire city in the middle of a river and using the naturally flowing water as a gargantuan moat. Until this current project, it was the greatest engineering feat ever attempted by the Empire. First of all, the river had to be a very large one, so the River Klee was picked and a site was chosen where the river was the widest. In fact, the river was made even wider and deeper – more like a large lake at the spot the city was to be constructed. And the Klee had to be stopped, before the city could be constructed – an amazing accomplishment in itself. The engineers had do go down hundreds of feet to hit bedrock. The curtain walls alone that surround the entire city depleted all the stone from the nearest quarries. Locks were built into the river, a giant causeway was constructed along with the defenses for it, and then the city itself was constructed. It nearly bankrupted the Empire and led to Vincent’s rather premature departure.”


“Oh.” Jamie hadn’t been aware of that fact, and having his ignorance pointed out did nothing to improve his mood or endear the other prince to him.


“Yes. The House of Blackwell is good at keeping their dirty laundry hidden. No one really knows what happened to Vincent, but one day his son presented himself as Enrick the Ninth. The Empire recovered, and the result of Vincent’s folly was the construction of a city that has remained one of the great wonders of the Empire – if not the entire Commonwealth. Before the interdiction, many visitors from all over the Commonwealth came to see it. It would have made a spectacular home, but I think we can live with what the Empire’s creating for us here.”


“And what exactly is it that they are building for us?” Jamie craned his neck to stare out the window as they continued onward.


Jamie could see that the hov was headed directly towards one of the larger and more completed buildings, and for a second he thought Hippolito – who’d been breezily chatting away while pointing out the sights below – might run into it. But seconds before Jamie prepared to break into the Prince’s monologue with a caution, Hippolito banked sharply to the right sending the craft down a corridor of tall buildings before veering once more in order to direct the hov between two tall, pylon-like structures. Seconds later the procession of tall buildings ended abruptly, and the little flyer shot out over a vast, open plain. Jamie couldn’t control the gasp that escaped his lips.


Hippolito raised an eyebrow but didn’t speak; the pride on his face was evident and the glow from the early evening sun seemed to add a sparkle to his eyes as he turned and smiled at Jamie


“Impressive, no?”


It was a simple comment, but upon uttering it Hippolito became silent, choosing not to add anything further since the reality confronting them was simply beyond words. Instead, Hippolito stopped any further movement of the aircraft, engaged the autopilot, and allowed the vehicle to hang in a stationary position high above the ground. For a full minute, neither boy said a word. After soaking up the silence Hippolito turned his full attention to his passenger and, extending a hand toward the window, he introduced the panoramic view before them.


Always poised and in control, Hippolito’s countenance absolutely exuded confidence. “Imagine, if you will, a group of officials from the Empire, or a delegation of visitors – possibly an ambassador and his retinue – arriving at this point. Can you even imagine their reaction?”



Impressive wasn’t even close to what Jamie would have called the sight on display before him. In fact, pressed for a comment, he wouldn’t have been able to find any word or phrase that might describe what he was feeling. The large green space he stared into looked as if at encompassed well over a thousand acres.  Because it was so large, Jamie thought at first he was looking at a huge square, but then he imagined it might be a circle. Finally, scarcely believing his eyes, he realized it was some kind of dodecagon – a twelve-sided polygon created on a scale beyond imagination.


It was obvious that within the great polygon, the construction of future streets and even some grand avenues and boulevards was well underway. Evidence of a well-planned landscape that would include spacious parks, lawns, gardens, fountains and other water features was beginning to emerge. But what made it all appear so breathtakingly beautiful were the buildings contained within the perimeters of the space. Immediately reminded of the numbers on a clock, each of the twelve equidistant compass points contained a set of buildings, although to use such a term did little justice to the twelve structures.


At the outer edge of each of the twelve sectors was an immense complex nestled within a set of boundaries created by high, serpentine walls that undulated like the waves of the ocean. Within each city-like complex one large structure, climbing toward the sky, stood out above all the rest. Every one of the large and ornate edifices were architectural marvels and looked like palaces or castles. But there was more. Throughout each complex many other structures could be seen, both large and small, and it was obvious that all of the complexes would eventually have their own streets, squares, gardens and parks. And although the space within the dodecagon occupied by the twelve complexes appeared roughly equal, the design of the buildings within every complex, along with the layout of their overall plans and configurations, all appeared quite different.


The area between all twelve of the complexes was so vast that Jamie could only get an over all feel of the space by extrapolation based on the complex directly below them – the one positioned at six o’clock.


The two castle-like buildings within the complexes sitting at twelve and six o’clock stood out markedly in size and grandeur above the other ten and of the two, the building at the top of the polygon – in the twelve o’clock position – was the grandest of all.


“The largest one is the Wizard’s palace,” Hippolito began, as if he was reading Jamie’s mind. “The one directly below us at six o’clock is the second largest, and will become the king’s palace. You can see the grand boulevard that will run between them. Eventually a twelve-sided arch will sit in the middle of the space where all avenues will intersect and radiate from. To the right of the arch will be an area reserved for the seat of the Imperial council, while to the left there will be a series of buildings housing the seat of the Royal council. Connecting both will be a grand esplanade leading to the Joint Council House of the Avionne government.”


Jamie just stared.


“What you don’t see,” Hippolito continued, “Is the large network of service tunnels that will connect all the major structures, and the underground transportation system that’s already in place. But the most amazing thing of all,” Hippolito was now beaming, “is that there will no longer be any prohibitions against flight. Can you imagine? Finally, we’ll be able to use our anatomy to travel as we were meant to. Inside the boundaries of this hill, we’ll all be able to fly!”


“It’s all made of almand stone,” Jamie replied softly, his voice tinged with awe and Hippolito wondered if Jamie’d not heard his amazing remarks about flight.


“Yes, each a different type and color,” Hippolito said, seeming to grasp Jamie’s complete inability to process everything that was flooding into his senses. “As you can see the king’s place is white diamond almand, one of the rarest. The wizard’s palace... well... let’s move forward and you’ll see,” Hippolito said, and grinned in anticipation.


Disengaging the autopilot and taking the controls, Hippolito edged the craft forward. Far in the distance, opposite the king’s palace sat the wizard’s palace. It was so far away that it took some time for the hov to reach it and as they approached the complex, the palace slowly began to rise up from the horizon much in the way a mountain appears to rise from a plain.


“It’s salmon diamond stone,” Jamie whispered once they’d gotten close enough to the complex that he could properly view it.


“The rarest of all almand stone,” Hippolito beamed. “It shows the importance the Empire places in this project. Would you like me to land so that you can take a closer look?”


“Dare we?”


“Of course – the Archduke knew we were coming here. In fact, I asked his permission.”


Hippolito’s revelation immediately made Jamie tense and only served to increase his worry and concern, but he tried to appear calm and offered no reply.


By now the hov had made a soft landing. Cutting the engines, Hippolito popped the hatch. “Shall we?” He motioned for Jamie to exit.


Alighting from the hov, both boys began to walk toward the great wall defining the space of the complex. As they passed through a gaping hole in the wall, Hippolito indicated that the wide gap was being reserved for an equally large gate.


“I’ve seen the designs,” Hippolito said excitedly. “It’s pure sculpture in iron. The gate of each complex will have a different design. I still haven’t been able to decide which one is the most beautiful.”


Passing through the opening in the high serpentine wall, both boys continued straight on towards the palace.


“None of the structures are complete, so we’re not permitted to enter,” Hippolito said, “but at least you can get a idea of the layout. Each of these palaces and their complexes corresponds to one of the royal or imperial houses I’ve been telling you about. Each prince and their scribe will reside in their respective palace along with their mates, counselors, and others. Of course, there will be a constant coming and going of Avionnes between Angel’s Haven and other worlds.”


“Angel’s Haven?”


“That’s what it’s to be called. Or Ang’ieal B’aille, if you prefer. The Archduke chose it, but when he told me I immediately agreed.”


“He consults you?” Jamie raised an eyebrow, since he harbored a suspicion that the imperious Savaron Loka rarely consulted anyone.


“Maybe consult isn’t the right term.” Hippolito suddenly began to backtrack from his cock-sure response. “But he does talk to me about his plans. I think we’re the most fortunate beings in the universe,” Hippolito continued, projecting an air of giddy euphoria. “Think about it, Jamie. The Emperor will rule the empire – an empire of over five hundred worlds. Of course, that number will continue to grow as the Empire expands further and further throughout the galaxy. And we will govern it. We will be its overlords, its governors, and viceroys. We’ll administer the laws, maintain order, and oversee each planet’s imperial government.”


“But the last time I checked the history books, the Commonwealth was made up of a free association of planets, each with self-rule and a government based on democracy. When did that change?” Jamie asked, turning an unblinking gaze upon the Prince of Hypernia.


“It hasn’t yet, but it will change.” Hippolito gave Jamie a malevolent smile. “That much I can assure you. It’s a bit inconvenient that this plague business has delayed our plans. And sadly in the last few weeks’ construction has been halted, but given the empire’s contingency plans, in a hundred years everything will be resolved. And that will be nothing for those of us who will have been asleep. In fact the archduke has come to think of it as a stroke of luck. We’re an isolated, embargoed and restricted planet. Now with an incurable plague infecting us who’s going to come here to sniff around. When we emerge from suspension everything will pick up where it’s left off. It will take a bit more time, but who will bother us? Clearly no one will suspect any threat from a dead and dangerous planet.”


Jamie turned his back on Hippolito and walked away from the prince. The look on Hippolito’s face had sent a frisson up his spine. For a few seconds he avoided Hippolito’s gaze. The setting sun colored the sky a deep, blood red. The long dark shadows cast by the yet incomplete spires of the Wizard’s Palace were creeping towards him. Jamie looked up and studied the partially completed structure, but he wasn’t seeing it as he focused hard on trying to keep his emotions in check. He didn’t know if fear or rage dominated his feelings – possibly a merging of the two. Setting his mind on the surface to analyzing this problem settled some of the turmoil. Beneath the mental exercise he imagined vast conquering armies, whole planets burning and billions enslaved, all in the name of House Blackwell. But what was far worse were the uncountable atrocities he couldn’t bring himself to contemplate.


This is beyond madness, he thought, and it cannot be allowed to come to pass. It must be stopped.


“So we are to be the instruments of this... this... enslavement?” he spun around and leveled a cold, hard stare at Hippolito. “And what’s to keep us from rebelling?” The words formed within his thoughts spilled forth so quickly that he couldn’t stop them from being vocalized.


“Rebelling?” Hippolito’s eyes sparkled and he gave Jamie an amused, sidelong look, then throwing back his head he laughed. “Why would we want to rebel? We’re going to be the elite of the Empire. We’ll be the hand of the Emperor; we’ll have armies at our command, bureaucrats that will obey us, and plenty of slaves who will answer to our every whim. I, for one, don’t think that’s such a bad lot. And with our long lives, we stand to take a unique place in the history of the galaxy itself.”


“They’re all megalomaniacs,” Jamie whispered to himself.


“Come,” Hippolito said, beckoning Jamie to walk with him. “Let me give you a tour. After all, it’s going to be your home.”


“From what you’re telling me, it will be every Avionne’s home, no?”


“On planet, of course.” Hippolito reached out and gripped Jamie’s hand. “But I brought you to the Wizard’s Palace on purpose, because this will be the home of your clan. From here, you’ll rule in the Emperor’s name.”


“I’m not ruling anything.” Hippolito’s touch had begun to make Jamie more than a little uncomfortable...distinctly queasy, in fact. “You told me that Alexander and Loran are the chosen leaders.”


“That was true,” Hippolito’s grip on Jamie’s hand grew tighter and his voice took on a hushed, conspiratorial tone. “But things go badly at Gold Glass for Loran. I’m not at liberty to discuss it, but let’s just say that he’s not succeeding in the tasks set for him. They may need to fall back on the only other imperial ever created.”


Jamie took a step back when he saw the manic smile on Hippolito’s face. Pulling back his arm, he broke from Hippolito’s grasp.


“I’ve already told you that you’re to be your brother’s scribe.” Hippolito glanced down at his empty hand, and then back up into Jamie’s eyes. “Well, if the head of a household dies, can’t rule, or is otherwise unable to govern, the task passes to the scribe, who then becomes ruler. And as the wizard, your mate by default becomes king.”


“I don’t have a mate,” Jamie replied warily. Feeling pierced by Hippolito’s gaze, Jamie was growing more uncomfortable by the second with the direction the conversation was taking.


“Come Jamie, you’ve passed your puberty cycle. You’re almost eighteen commonwealth. It’s certainly time you chose a mate, no? And from the rumors I’ve heard, you’re no stranger to romance.”


Hippolito took a few steps toward Jamie and again that disturbing, manic smile marred the beauty of his face. Jamie responded by taking a few steps back. The Prince of Hypernia continued to advance, while Jamie countered by once more retreating until he backed up against the wall of one of the buildings of the complex. Belatedly he realized he’d backed into the intersection of two walls and was cornered. Hippolito’s smile broadened further and he pressed closer.


“Hippolito...” Jamie began, but before he got another word out, Hippolito leaned forward to mash his lips against Jamie’s own. Jamie turned his head, but Hippolito matched his movement. Reaching out, Hippolito slid one of his arms around Jamie’s waist. Jamie tried to push Hippolito away, but the Prince of Hypernia was unmovable. Jamie knew he was trapped unless he was to do something that would truly hurt the other boy.


“There’s nothing to fear, Jamie,” Hippolito said in what he clearly imagined was a seductive tone of voice while trying to draw Jamie closer to him. “Don’t you think it’s time to...?”


A sudden crunching sound – a foot stepping on gravel – abruptly stopped Hippolito’s advance.


“Prince de Valèn,” a strong, firm voice called out.


Hippolito spun around and both boys looked about. Hearing a second crunching footfall, Jamie and Hippolito turned in the direction of the sound, but could see nothing. It was only then that a tall, slender figure slowly emerged from the shadows of the entrance of a nearby building. As the figure passed into the fading sunlight, Jamie and Hippolito came face to face with a pair of piercing eyes.


“Renaud!” the shout from Hippolito carried both surprise and vexation. “By the Emperor’s beard, what are you doing here?”


“I’ve come for Prince de Valèn.” The Emperor’s bodyguard slowly folded his arms across his chest. “A problem’s arisen, and I was sent to bring him to the palace.”


“And just what problem would that be, Renaud? I don’t seem to remember an imperial directive making dancers of La Mondele Royale advisors to the court of the Emperor,” Hippolito snapped, his eyes flashing angrily at Renaud for interrupting his planned seduction.


Jamie, watching the exchange between the Prince of Hypernia and the Emperor’s bodyguard, suddenly got a revealing insight into the Prince’s true nature as the veneer of charm Hippolito always projected vanished to reveal a much darker personality, reinforcing the impression Jamie’d gotten of him from a simple scan he’d performed the first time he’d met the prince months before.


“I take my commands from the Emperor.” Renaud stepped forward, closing the distance between them. With assured self-confidence, he leveled an unblinking gaze at Hippolito. “I owe you no explanation.” Then he turned to Jamie; “But Prince de Valèn needs to know that one of the performers for the Empress’s private charity tea has suddenly taken ill. The Impresario’s office has ordered you to perform in his place. When the Impresario’s assistant contacted the École Danse, your kalorian attendant said that you were with Prince Hippolito. The event takes place in less than three hours. The Empress was insistent on your appearance at the tea, so I was immediately sent to fetch you. Now, if you’d be so kind, Prince Hippolito,” Renaud added curtly after turning back to the Prince of Hypernia, “I have my orders.”


Two minutes later Jamie was strapped into the seat of an imperial hov, sitting next to Renaud as the Emperor’s bodyguard prepared the craft for takeoff.


As the hov shot up from the ground, Jamie threw Renaud a sideways glance. After he’d entered the hov and belted in, Renaud had made every pretence of ignoring him. The hov rose and Renaud deftly handled the controls; seconds later he flipped a set of switches, consulted the nav comp and then simply stared out the window looking at the horizon straight ahead.


After a quick ascent, the hov skimmed along at a rapid pace and Renaud continued to check the nav comp while occasionally making his own visual sightings. To Jamie, it appeared as if Renaud was checking to see if Hippolito was following their craft. Taking the hov rapidly higher, he flew it into a large cloudbank and, after making a quick series of adjustments, held it there.


“Imperial air control is monitoring us, so our time is limited,” were Renaud’s only words before settling back into silence.


After a few minutes, Renaud piloted the hov out of the clouds and sent the craft into a rapid dive, and Jamie could see that they were returning to the plateau.


“There’s something I think you should see. It may be of interest.” Renaud decreased the speed and angle of the hov’s descent. Quickly reaching the edge of the plateau he flew toward the open plain as the sheer, cliff-like walls of the plateau began to tower over them dwarfing the small craft. Renaud halted the hov’s descent when they reached a large, shadowed opening in the side of the giant, terra-formed mound. The gaping hole appeared to be the mouth of an immense tunnel, or shaft. Renaud edged the hov closer to it and seconds later they were entering the dark, cavernous space.


“What is this place?” Jamie peered out his window, feeling an intense curiosity begin to race through him.


“The main service shaft that leads to the central power station for the whole of the Tenth Hill project,” Renaud calmly replied. “It’s my understanding, based on what I’ve overheard in the Emperor’s briefings, that it will be a separate generator plant, and isolated from the planetary power grid.”


Jamie frowned as he pondered Renaud’s words. “That doesn’t make any sense, Renaud. Why create a totally new and isolated network when the main grid is so accessible? The time, effort, and technology needed for such a project doesn’t justify it. That and the enormous expense required makes it totally illogical.”


“The Empire always has its reasons. Whether brutally straight forward or mysteriously convoluted, the empire carefully calculates everything it does.”


At Renaud’s remark, Jamie simply stared at The Angel of Death, unable to counter the truth of the boy’s statement.


Upon entering the tunnel, the hov’s running lights switched on and the interior of the shaft was illuminated. The shaft’s walls had the look of glass – as if the rock had been melted, fused and then solidified into a sheet of glistening ice.


“The latest terra-forming technology,” Renaud said flatly as if he could read the questions rapidly forming in Jamie’s mind.


Steering the craft ahead they continued for a minute until they emerged into a large excavated space defined by high walls and a ceiling that was domed. It looked large enough to hold the entire École Danse.  Seconds after flying into it Jamie could clearly see that the construction of a massive power generation station was well underway. Around the outside wall of the cavern, six large gaping holes opened into tunnels that lead away from the central cavern.


“We’ve not reached the place that I want to show you.” Renaud piloted the craft around the large cavern until he came to the entrance of one of the tunnels leading away from the main power station. 


After traveling for a short distance, they flew out into another large, cavernous space almost as large the cave that housed the power station. Like the first, it was circular with a domed ceiling, but unlike the power station the roof of the cavern wasn’t solid rock, for in the center of the dome Jamie could see a circular opening that he could only guess opened to the surface above. But what was most interesting was the massive piece of equipment that sat in the center of the domed room. In some way it reminded Jamie of one of the Battlecom’s at the Gahdar training center, and in other ways it appeared to be a gigantic generator similar to ones he’d seen in images of the power station that sat at the juncture of the three rivers and the Arbol Sea.


“What is it?” Jamie asked.


“I’m not sure,” Renaud said, finally breaking his silence, “but I know it’s important. Remember, I’m almost always with the Emperor during his waking hours. It’s only when he takes his afternoon tea in his private chambers, or at night when he sleeps that I’m not with him. Those are the times I perform the tasks he assigns me. But for the rest of the time, I accompany him to every function and meeting he attends. I’m always there, standing directly behind him. This device has been discussed many times, but no one has ever directly spoken of its function. But from the tone of the meetings, I know it’s important.”


“It works?”


“In some fashion. Tests have been run,” Renaud answered. “The reports have been successful. I know the Duke of Imperialas was quite pleased at the success of the tests.”


A little discomfited at the mention of Savaron Loka, Jamie silently stared at the mysterious device, his mind racing as he tried to make sense of what he was seeing.


“It reminds me of something,” he finally said, his tone a little distant as he focused on the behemoth on the floor of the cavern. “Can you fly around it? I’d like to get a better look.”


Renaud slowly flew the hov around the object while at the same time reminding Jamie they would soon have to leave. Jamie studied the device as closely as he could, placing as much data as possible into The Screen. Comparing the images he’d captured to other information he’d assimilated from the imperial net, he sat in a quiet trance.


“I think I have some idea what it might be.” Jamie’s eyes remained riveted on the device. “I’m not sure, but even if I’m half right, it’s still amazing. I’ll have to do some research, but I might be able to include it in my plans. Thank you for showing it to me. It offers a hope.”


“What do you think it is?”


“I’d rather not say,” Jamie leaned forward until his body tugged against the straps of his seat harness. “But can you tell me if in any of the Emperor’s presentations there was mention of an energy field? Or if the words reverse threshold were ever mentioned?


“Not that I recall, but there was something said about reverse passage.”


Jamie simply nodded while continuing to study the device


“We can delay no longer,” Renaud abruptly intruded into Jamie’s thoughts. Seconds later, the Emperor’s bodyguard began steering the craft to the opening of the tunnel. Exiting the same way they entered, Renaud flew the hov to a much higher altitude and engaged the supersonics. “This should make up the time we’ve lost,” he said, and Jamie watched as the airspeed indicator quickly advanced past Mach 2.


“There is no performance at the palace, is there?” Jamie’s face turned expressive as he gave Renaud a chary look. “The Empress would never have asked another dancer to perform at a function as dear to her as one of her charity teas. I would have been her first choice from the start. It was all a ruse, wasn’t it?’


Renaud stared straight ahead and remained silent.


“How did you know where I’d be? How did you know I’d be with Hippolito?”


“I’m a Viper,” Renaud replied. “The Brotherhood, with the assistance of the Sh’ônfenn, monitors many things within the Empire.”


“Thank you,” Jamie’s voice grew quiet. “Once more, I appear to be in your debt.”


“That is not so, sa’Crêsmané,” Renaud continued to stare intently out the hov’s windscreen. “My only request is that when the time comes, you release me from my prison.”


“The Emperor’s service?”


Renaud did not reply, but the Angel of Death’s white-knuckled grip on the hov’s controls and the aura of anguish Jamie felt emanating from Renaud was answer enough.


The final leg of the flight was silent, with both Renaud and Jamie lost in their individual thoughts. By the time they returned to Küronas, the sun had set and the city was ablaze with lights. Upon landing at the École, as Jamie prepared to exit the hov, he paused.


“Thank you for one other thing,” he added, looking at the tall, thin young man still at the hov’s controls.


Renaud returned Jamie’s look in silence.


“You called Castor my Kalorian assistant, not my slave.”


“But that is what he is, no?”


“There are those who wouldn’t agree.” And then Jamie climbed down and was gone.


As Jamie strode away from the hov, Renaud activated the engines and took off, the whine of the aircraft’s engine fading away into silence.


Back on his floor in the dormitory, Jamie was met by Castor. Entering his room and preparing to relate what had happened on his trip with Hippolito, Jamie stopped when Castor spoke first.


“Perkinjius wishes to see you.”


“Now?” Jamie was quite surprised at the request.




“How should I go?”


“It’s dark, and if you take a straight aerial route, avoiding the lighted areas of the city, you should get there quickly.”


“You’re telling me to fly?” Jamie stared wide-eyed at Castor, shocked by his suggestion.


“Yes, I believe it’s what they were designed for,” Castor said, his tone casual as he waved at Jamie’s wings. “The prohibition against flight in the city is one of the most illogical rulings I’ve ever heard. It’s like putting a fish in water and commanding it not to swim. But young master, I suggest you change. Wear something that will not be quite so conspicuous.”


“I know just the thing.” A look of sheer mischief bloomed on Jamie’s face. If his own keeper was going to suggest an adventure, who was he to argue? Racing to his dresser Jamie quickly pulled out a set of his long black tights and a black, long-sleeved racer back. “There,” he said aloud after he was dressed and looking at himself in the mirror. “That will help me blend into the night. Although for once I wish I could have my wings sprayed with that awful paint.”


“Just stay out of any direct light,” Castor commented as he walked into the room. He gave Jamie a quick, but thorough inspection. Then after a few seconds adjusting and tugging at Jamie’s clothes he declared his young charge’s appearance to be quite satisfactory.


As he followed Castor to the roof of the dormitory, Jamie had to resist the urge to cheer aloud. He’d waited a long time for this opportunity. When Castor opened the door onto the roof, Jamie kissed the old man on the cheek and then dashed toward the edge of the roof. The instant his feet touched the cornice he pushed off, soared heavenward, and rapidly vanished into the darkness.


Gliding down from the Canon Mon Arts, he flew the most direct route he could safely follow while trying to avoid any areas of bright light. Within minutes he landed on the street where Perkinjius’ shop was located and quietly crept up to the front of Stephen’s shop. Peering into one of the shop’s windows he could see that the building was as dark and lifeless as it had been the three previous times he’d visited. A second later he heard a sound.


“Around the back.”


Jamie looked about trying to find the source of the voice.


“Down here,” the voice softly called out through the darkness.


Looking down at one of the grate-covered windows of the cellar, he could barely make out the face of Stephen Perkinjius.


“Go around the back. The door’s open. Take the steps in the second storage room at the rear of the shop. They lead to the basement. I’ll meet you there.”


Jamie did as he was told. Once inside the building he went to the room Perkinjius had directed him to, and there he discovered a narrow flight of stairs. Stepping carefully in the dim light, he descended into the basement. Once he was in the quiet darkness of the shop’s cellar, Perkinjius emerged from a nearby room and waved him over. Jamie observed that the room Stephen had exited was similar to a number of others that opened into the common hallway where they stood.


“Come with me.” Perkinjius motioned with a nod of his head, and turning his back on Jamie began to lead the boy down the hall. After walking a few feet, Perkinjius ducked into a nearby doorway. Jamie followed and found himself standing in a dimly lit room. It was filled with the same eclectic collection of artifacts that Perkinjius had on exhibition in the shop above – just more of them and in greater disarray.


“Where have you been?” The tone of Jamie’s voice left little doubt of the boy’s annoyance. “I’ve been here three times and the shop’s always closed.”


“That’s not important,” Perkinjius replied, “At the moment things are in shambles, and intelligence is spotty at best, but what you must know is that we have learned events are moving far more rapidly than anyone could have imagined.”




“Key elements of the Empire are planning to abandon the planet.”


“What?” Jamie was caught completely off guard by Perkinjius’ remark. “But where will they go?”


“Argon.” Perkinjius began rummaging through a large chest. “The plague is advancing rapidly. Key industries are being affected. Larger areas of the planet are coming under quarantine. Apparently, the virus has mutated again. It’s projected to advance across the continent quite rapidly. At this point there are no plans in place for containment because they’d be useless, and shortly any hopes of concealment will completely vanish. After that it’s only a matter of time – a very short time – before the panic starts and spreads like wild fire across the continent. Society will collapse and chaos, not Enrick, will rule the empire.”


“How rapidly?” Jamie gave Stephen Perkinjius a worried look.


“We’ve heard two months at the maximum, but I think that estimate might be more hope than fact. It could be less than a month.”


“Less than a month! Is there a plan?”


“I think you already know the status of the council. With its successful suppression by the Empire, the movement is like a body without a head. The only hope we have is Alexander...” Perkinjius paused, directing at Jamie a piercing gaze that seemed a mixture of hope, fear and despair. “...and you, Jamie.”


“I’ve been thinking of something...” Jamie spoke softly, reluctant to present his ideas.


“Go on.” Perkinjius put a small object into his pocket and closed the chest.


“It’s a plan, but its complex and probably won’t succeed. You’ll think it mad. I was almost ready to abandon it, but something Renaud showed me tonight makes me think there’s the slimmest of chances. I’m certainly not convinced yet, and I know I have much more to discover.”


Perkinjius turned his full attention to Jamie. “Mad or sane, our options are limited and time is against us. You can embark on your journey of discovery, Prince de Valèn, but it’d best be a very short one. Pursue it, but pursue it quickly. Even if all we have to grasp at are straws, it’s far better than nothing at all. A man falling to his death will try to reach out to whatever he can. Most of the time it’s handfuls of air and he dies, but one in a million catches on to something and it’s enough to save his life. That’s the position we’re in now; clutching at the air and hoping we grab on to something that might save us.”


“Do you want to hear it?” Jamie suddenly felt reluctant, not quite sure he was ready to discuss something he himself was still so unsure of.


“No.” Perkinjius’ response was swift and flat.


Jamie hadn’t expected such an answer from the antiquities dealer and blinked in disbelief.


Standing up to his full height the large man took two firm steps toward Jamie and planted one of his bear-paw hands on Jamie’s shoulder. Jamie found himself leaning toward his right under its weight.


Looking down at the boy, a gleam came to Perkinjius’ eyes.


“I realize you don’t know this because we never told you, but many have followed your progress from the day you were conceived. Many have risked much to see you to the point you are at today... and yes... lives have been lost. I know you feel you’ve been abandoned for the past three years, but it’s not true – it was never true. We know what you’re made of. We know what you can do. We don’t think you can succeed, we know you can, Prince de Valèn. Now it’s time for you to know it, too. You have the ability to carry through with any plan you create. I believe that. You call yourself the son of Edmond Croal and I, for one, would not deny you the comfort of that conviction, but you are also the son of The Founder. You are every bit the man Jacques de Valèn was... and more! So we shan’t waste our time by discussing plans, my young prince. You must press forward with the plan you have, or change it to your liking. Whether it be mad or sane, you are a de Valèn. What The Founder bound could not be loosed.”


“I thought the saying was What de Valèn and Agramos forge cannot be broken.” Jamie felt Perkinjius withdraw his hand from his shoulder and he felt himself standing taller, unencumbered by the extra weight.


“That is true, but there is no Duke of Agramon.”


“What if there were?” Jamie carefully studied Stephen’s face.


“If that were true...” Perkinjius paused. Raising his head and looking heavenward, the man suddenly reminded Jamie of a supplicant in hopeful prayer. “If that were true, then nothing could stop you.”


“If it’s up to me, why did you summon me?” A puzzled look grew on the boy’s face.


“I have sore need of your... talents.” Perkinjius eyes bore into Jamie, and for a few seconds there was a heavy silence between them. The large man seemed to hesitate, reluctant to resume speaking. Finally he took a breath and continued. “If you’re willing, we’re going to Stone Gate Prison.” Perkinjius finally allowed the words to quickly tumble from his mouth as if vocalizing them rapidly would make their meaning less shocking.


“The Prison of Pain?” Jamie sputtered. “You want me to go with you to The Prison of Pain? Now I don’t think I’m the mad one, Stephen, because I know you are.”


“What’s left of the Council of Resistance and some of the remaining key members of the movement are there, and still alive. There’s a chance they might be able to help us. But first we must help them; they must be freed.”


“We’re going to The Prison of Pain to... what?... break them out?” Even as Jamie spoke his own ears could scarcely believe the words spilling forth from him.




“Yes? Yes? That’s it, Stephen... yes? And who’s going with us?”


“It’s you and me,” Perkinjius’ voice dropped to a whisper.


“Well, of course! Why not? An out-of-shape middle-aged man and an avionne dancer from the opera house: I’m sure we’ll make a formidable team. None would dare oppose us, no? And I expect we’ll casually stroll up to the front door, knock and politely ask for their release. Or perhaps when we arrive you’d like me to perform a little dance to charm the guards into agreement?” Jamie made no attempt to mask the cynical tone of sarcasm dripping from his voice.


Perkinjius, who’d been silent during Jamie’s outburst, rose up to his full height while giving the boy a withering glare of his own.


“Ah, the legendary de Valèn temper presents itself. Well Jamie, it won’t work on me. You forget, I know how much you’ve complained about your inactivity from the moment you were chosen by the council. You wanted to act from the very beginning. You’ve chafed under the constraints that have bound you. So I thought you, of all people, couldn’t wait. Now that you’re presented with action, do you shrink from service? At this very moment, who is there to turn to? If salvation for those poor devils in the Prison of Pain comes in the guise of an out of shape fat man and a dancer from the opera house, then I suppose that’s all we’ll ever be, which is indeed a great pity since we can be so much more. Put that temper to work and focus on the real enemy. You know what they did to Cristophe, and many others. Do we leave those who have risked everything to die at the hands of the Empire, when even one of them just might help us achieve victory?”


A flush of embarrassment washed over Jamie. Perkinjius was, of course, correct. All he’d done since accepting the title of Lord Protector was complain that he was being restrained. Now, presented with the opportunity to act, was he turning his back on the cause? Was he afraid? It was then that two images blossomed in his mind’s eye, both powerful and strong. One was Cristophe on his bed after his release from the hands of the torturers. The second was Niklas von Agramon and the surprised look on his face when Jamie had fled the Gahdar’s room that very morning.


“You’re right,” Jamie was still feeling a bit ashamed at his strong reaction. “It’s what I’ve wanted... even demanded... all along. I won’t be a coward. I’ll stand with you, Stephen.”


“There’s a fine line between a coward and a hero,” Perkinjius sent the boy a sharp, knowing look. “I don’t plan to be either, and neither should you.”


“All right then, it’s decided: I’ll do it. But my agreement now requires me to ask you something.” Jamie paused, focusing his full attention on Perkinjius. “Do you have a plan Stephen?”


“As a matter of fact, I do. Nearby there’s an access service tunnel that leads to the underground network underlying the whole city. Years ago, a few of my kalorian friends helped to create a connection between it and one of the lower storage rooms of the shop – it’s why I wasn’t here when you came looking for me. When they created the correspondence between here and the tunnel system, they also drew up a map. I was consulting it and following some of the tunnels to ascertain its accuracy – something that I can now confirm. It can take us directly to Stone Gate Prison. If you follow me, I’ll show you.”


“You plan for us to do this... what? now?”


“The sooner the better,” Perkinjius replied. “I say it’s now or never, before our courage wanes. I’m no braver than you are.”


“That’s the most logical thing I’ve heard you say since I’ve arrived,” Jamie shook his head in mock irritation. “At least I know you’re not completely insane.”


“Then let’s get started,” Perkinjius turned and strode out of the small storage room where they’d been standing.


Jamie began to follow, but just as he was about to exit the gleaming glint of a golden reflection caught his eye. Looking down at the top of a nearby table he could see that strewn across its surface was a collection of small objects piled together in a heap. His first thought was that someone had simply taken an over crammed drawer and dumped its contents onto the tabletop with intentions of sorting through it. Reaching over, he grabbed the object that had piqued his interest.


It was round, and looked like a large coin; it was strung on a thick golden chain. Tugging at the chain, Jamie lifted it from the tabletop and was surprised to find that it was heavier than he’d expected. There was no doubt that it was made of gold.


“What’s this?” Jamie held the object up for Stephen to see. Dangling from its chain the medallion twisted in the air, glittering even brighter in the light of the room.


Perkinjius turned to see what Jamie was holding.


“Nothing important,” the antiquities dealer curtly replied, making no attempt to mask his annoyance at being distracted by Jamie’s interest in the shiny bauble.


“No, what is it?” Jamie was insistent.


“A Fulcarien temple amulet,” Perkinjius gave an irritated sigh. Having gotten used to Jamie’s ways during their private sessions, he knew if he didn’t give the boy a satisfactory answer Jamie, like a persistent dog with a bone, simply wouldn’t let the issue rest. “In my opinion it’s a strange religion with many bizarre beliefs. The priests of the order use it as part of their ceremony. I’d call it foolishness.”


Stephen continued, trying to get through the explanation as quickly as possible. “It projects images, nothing more. It was part of a mixed lot of goods I received years ago. It’s not the kind of thing I normally sell, but in a mixed lot you take your chances, hoping the good outweighs the bad. Most of the lot was marketable, except for a few things. That amulet was one of the less desirable objects – I’ve been stuck with it for the last few years. Other than the internal mechanism, it’s all pure gold. I’ve often been tempted to have it melted down, at least then I’d get something for the raw gold extracted from it.”


“Can I have it?” Jamie thrust the object toward Stephen.


“I don’t care. Go ahead and take it.” Perkinjius appeared even more annoyed. “But since when were you in short supply of expensive jewelry? You get enough of it from your wealthy patrons and fans. I didn’t think you cared for it that much anyway. You certainly end up giving most of it away.”


“I don’t care about it that way,” Jamie barked, now intent on showing the antiquities dealer that he could match, if not surpass, the man’s annoyance. “I might be able to use it for something.”


“Then take it,” Perkinjius shot back, “And if your finished going shopping in my storeroom, let’s get moving.”


Jamie gently set the amulet back on the tabletop after marking its place amongst the other objects. Wearing only his tights and racerback he had no pockets and now wasn’t the time to put it around his neck. When... if... they returned in one piece he’d retrieve it.


For a few seconds he thought about Castor, who would kill him if he knew what Jamie was about to do. Then and image of Niklas came to mind. He too, would council Jamie against going. Well, they’re not the so-called Lord Protector,’ Jamie sighed softly.


“Fine. I’m ready to go.” He followed Stephen out of the room. “Although I’d rather have my wings treated with boiling sareptic oil.” he whispered under his breath just before he stepped into the tunnel, recalling the nasty and quite painful treatment for Infectious Quill Feather Rot.