The Scrolls of Icaria by Jamie


Book 2 – 'War of the Angels'


Part III - Baron of Rood




Chapter 36


“Stephen, do you have any idea where we are?” Jamie, exasperated, called out to the large dark figure that loomed in the shadows only a few feet ahead of him.


A chunk of loose plaster – at least that’s what Jamie hoped it was – had just fallen inches away from him after one of his wings brushed against the ceiling of the cramped space that seemed to get smaller and tighter by the minute. He’d already seen the occasional dead rat and the dried, husk-like bodies of more than a few spiders and he knew from experience that one only found the dead where the living also dwelt. He shuddered at the thought. Some of those husks had been too big for comfort.


“Of course I do. I told you, I already did some exploring in these tunnels.” The antique dealer’s voice was infuriatingly casual and offhand.


“I think not as much as you should have,” Jamie countered, making no attempt to hide his growing frustration and impatience with the situation he’d entered into with the eccentric antiques expert.


Earlier, in the cellar of Stephen Perkinjius’ shop, as they’d prepared for their mission, the antiquities dealer had led Jamie to yet another of the many small rooms that comprised the basement of his shop. The dark, cramped room held a few large pieces of furniture, including a number of old battered chests and what looked like the pieces of a dismantled marble fireplace mantle.


Directing Jamie to one corner of the room, Perkinjius had began pushing at a massive mirrored armoire, but when it moved just a few inches after he struggled with it for long minutes, he requested Jamie’s help. Icarian strength being what it was, after a minute of pushing they managed to move the large closet a few feet – far enough to reveal a trapdoor in the floor.


“I’m always amazed that someone as delicate looking as you could be so strong,” the older man remarked with genuine amazement.


Jamie just frowned. While tempted to fling a barbed retort at the man, he was eager to get on with the task at hand so he held his tongue, though he did offer his companion a sarcastic bow.


“The service tunnels are further underground,” Perkinjius explained as he bent down and pulled on the trapdoor’s handle. “We dug a shaft straight down, then hollowed out a small room. From there we tunneled until we broke through into one of the older service corridors. Luckily it was one of the first tunnels created a few centuries back and had been abandoned for at least a hundred years, but even the abandoned ones are still connected to the underground service grid. If you follow them far enough, you’ll eventually come to an active area.”


After climbing through the trapdoor, their journey had begun.


“So how far do we still have to go?” Both worry and impatience colored the boy’s voice.


They’d been traveling the tunnels for over an hour and besides feeling claustrophobic, Jamie’s wings and back were beginning to ache as he was forced to fit into an endless maze of small, tight places. What really surprised him was that even given how low and narrow most of the tunnels were, Perkinjius hadn’t gotten stuck.


“Ten minutes, maximum,” Perkinjius called out with assured confidence; a feeling Jamie’d abandoned a good bit earlier.


As Jamie was crawling through the underground service grid of Küronas, in the city of Piropolis, Niklas Agramos was pacing the length of the quadrangle at the Gahdar barracks.


In the summer, the sun beating down full strength for hours on the outside wall of the barracks made Nic’s room stiflingly hot and uncomfortable. With his mind overflowing with a myriad of thoughts he’d left his quarters hoping for some fresh air, but the breathless, sticky heat in the courtyard offered little respite. The air was dead calm, offering no hope for relief, and the night sky was clear. Far away, occasional bright flashes low over the horizon hinted at the possibility that one of the sudden and violent, late night thunderstorms that often visited on Piropolis at this time of year might roll in during the night.


Jamie’s abrupt departure was troubling. Although the prince had assured Nic that nothing the Gahdar had said or done was the cause of his obvious distress, Nic continued to replay their final scene together over and over in his mind, searching for some explanation for the boy’s sudden, impulsive action.


The very first time Nic had seen Jamie de Valèn was for the briefest of encounters at Compari, but he still remembered it well. In fact, it was a memory he’d thought of often, right up to the time he’d seen an older Jamie on the stage of La Mondele Royale. It had been the single event that instantly ended his schoolboy crush on Androcles; and anyone else, now that he thought about it.


Standing on the practice field at Camp Compari, Nic had handed a Jamie a brightly colored ball the younger boy had dropped and that Nic had retrieved from his nest-mates, who’d turned it into an object for sport. As he’d approached Jamie with the ball, the smaller boy had fixed a curious and inquisitive look on Nic, as if he were looking right through the young Gahdar in training. But it was the memory of a strange, unexplainable feeling coming from the boy, coupled with the intense blue-eyed gaze Jamie’d leveled at him that Niklas had carried with him in the years to follow. It was that very same feeling and gaze that Prince de Valèn had given him the night he’d seen him perform at the opera house, and again when Jamie had come to him in his barracks room. Eyes like Jamie’s were dangerous. They could make a boy do things he’d never dreamt he’d be willing to do.


Jamie was amazing. He was so poised and almost scarily intelligent, and the blood of true nobility flowed through his veins. Nic often wondered if the young man actually grasped the effect he had on people. The prince was quick-witted and sharp tongued, and Nic couldn’t imagine what Jamie’d seen in him. Staring at the lightning flashes on the horizon, he imagined he was staring into the boy’s incredible blue eyes. He’d readily agreed to help Jamie even before being presented with a plan, but he was still unsure; not of his willingness to help in any way he could, of course. But surely there were others better suited to the task than a young gahdar living in Piropolis, a city so far from the mainstream life of the Empire.


“Do you plan on wearing a path through the stone?” The voice calling out from the shadows caught Nic off guard.


Without conscious thought, Nic’s highly tuned reflexes kicked in as he executed the lightning quick spin of a practiced Gahdar and found himself face to face with Julius de Kahann, the primi half of Gahdar Duet Storm, and second only to Miro, Nic’s closest friend.


“Sorry.” Julius gave his friend an apologetic look when he realized that he’d caught Nic off guard. “I didn’t mean to break into your thoughts. But the way you keep marching up and down the quadrangle they must be rather weighty ones, no?”


“No, not really, I...” Nic began offering a nonchalant explanation in an attempt to convey to his friend an image of collected calmness, but seconds into his response he paused, nodded, and leveled a knowing look at one of the few Gahdar who could claim to really know him. “Yes Jules, I guess they are,” he said.


Of Nic’s two best friends – Miro and Julius – the primi member of Storm was the polar opposite of the boisterous and gregarious Miro. In fact, Julius was probably closer to Nic in character and temperament than any other gahdar at Castle Rood. Like Nic, the boy was quiet and calm, thoughtful and cool-headed. From their early days at Compari, the three Gahdar in training had been inseparable friends. Nic provided the group’s leadership, and Miro added an infectious, devil-may-care attitude, but Julius brought an element of level-headed reason and careful planning to the trio’s adventures. And it was Julius’ character and personality that, years before, had convinced Nic to give Julius the greatest gift he could give in order to show Julius just how important he considered their bond of friendship.


The Gahdar of Castle Rood received the most minimal of training in things not associated with their skill and craft, but there were three exceptions. The first was the unauthorized education of Niklas von Agramon, who was secretly taught by both the Sh’ônfenn legionnaire Androcles, and the Ghröum Sak’ki. The remaining two were Miro and David Gillot. Chosen early on to be part of the Imperial household, it was decided that it would be quite improper to have a pair of uneducated and brutish Gahdar tearing about the palace, and so at the direction of Savaron Loka the twins were taken in hand and educated; though not to the same high standards as Niklas, and not without some protestation on their parts.


As his education had progressed, Nic began to share some of his new knowledge with Julius. Although he’d been ordered to keep silent on the topic, factors intervened that made that directive difficult to obey. The process had started innocently enough. Nic had never been allowed to keep the books or papers he studied from when he was with Androcles, so in order to reinforce what he’d learned, Niklas would recite some of his lessons to Julius, though he was always careful not to reveal where he’d acquired his knowledge.


Nic’s exercises not only honed his skills of recollection to the sharpness of a razor’s edge, but also made Julius more inquisitive. As their association continued, the natural intelligence bred into all Icarians began to bloom in Julius, and it was only a matter of time before both boys were secretly speaking Icarian and Kalorian together. From that point forward, Nic began sharing even more of his knowledge with his friend.


One day, when Miro overheard them talking in Nic’s room, he entered and surprised them by joining into their conversation; revealing the training he’d also been receiving in the palace. At that point the three boys pledged a vow of secrecy, but when they were together they shared their lessons. As a result Miro and Julius became educated to the same standard as their friend, Nic. Their secrecy had been a wise decision. Combat-trained, highly skilled, and incredibly intelligent, the three young boys had unwittingly developed into the kind of model those sitting in the Empire’s seats of power had come to fear most when they discussed the potential the Avionne race might rise to; a warrior class of incredibly skilled, strong and intelligent beings who, given their potential longevity, would be difficult to control.


At the same time Nic, no longer able or even willing to deceive his friends, told the boys how he’d come to his knowledge and in time, with Master Sakki’s permission, they occasionally accompanied Niklas to his private lessons with the amazing creature. Now with Julius directly questioning his actions, Niklas was again faced with a dilemma. How much could or should he reveal?


“What is it, Nic?” Jules voice dropped in volume and took on the inquisitive and thoughtful tone that had become one of his trademarks. It was a conversation style that the young Gahdar had perfected: an approach that encouraged and invited others to become more open and willing to discuss even their most private thoughts. “Is it that boy, the one you’ve been spending time with? The one they say is a prince?”


“Yes,” Nic answered quietly, “It is, Jules. And he really is a prince. It’s a rather long story. Maybe I should tell you about some of it. I’ve made promises to him, but there are some things I think we can talk about without me breaking my confidence to him.”


Without speaking Julius moved to one of the stone benches spaced around the quadrangle and sat down. Extending his hand he motioned for his friend to join him.


Nic took a seat, paused while he carefully began weighing what he could and couldn’t say, and then started to tell Julius what he felt he might be able to reveal about his last few weeks with Jamie de Valèn.


As he spoke he relayed to Julius some of the events that had occurred over the past two weeks. “I know it sounds strange,” Nic continued after responding to a series of questions posed by Julius, “but when he started to cry and I held him... it was... well, you know how the proper piece of a puzzle locks so easily yet so tightly into place when it’s the right one and that no amount of effort can ever make an odd piece fit the same way?”


His friend nodded thoughtfully.


“It was just like that, Jules. It felt like something became aligned and then locked in its proper place. It felt like he added something to me. And when he backed away and was no longer in my arms it was like some part of me... not him... had been taken away... a part that belonged to me... the part that was supposed to be exactly where he’d placed it. Even now talking to you, I feel like it’s missing... some special something that somehow made me feel complete. It almost hurts.”


“You’re in love,” Julius smiled at Nic. The words had come quickly and easily to his lips. And in his usual simple and direct manner he’d framed Nic’s situation with complete accuracy.


“That’s what Miro said the night we went to the opera...,” Nic began to reply, but then stopped and shook his head, “No, he told me not to fall in love. He said Jamie was a prince and had the eye of the Emperor. He warned me that I’d mean nothing to him, that he’d treat me as a fling, and that a mate had probably already been chosen for him.”


“Do you know that to be true?”


“I don’t know what I know, or what I’m supposed to know, Jules.”


“Then what do you feel?”


Nic rose and stepped away from the bench, and then turned to look down at his friend. “Do you remember when we were in Compari and had those classes about our puberty cycle?”


“Of course,” Julius chuckled. “I remember how we all laughed, and everyone had something rude to say. But I think we all acted that way because we were afraid to admit we were a bit scared.”


“You’re right. I know that maybe I wasn’t scared, but I certainly was worried.” Nic paused studying Julius for a reaction, but when none came he continued. “I wondered who I might find and if anyone really would even want to be my mate. I also remember they told us that when we did mate it would be like finding the other half that made the whole. Do you remember that, Jules?”


“Yes, I do. I think we all had the same feelings. I still do.”


“Well, that’s how he feels to me: like the half that makes the whole.” Nic looked out toward the horizon. The lightening flashes had grown brighter and he could hear the far off rumbling of thunder. “I look into those beautiful blue eyes and see so much. He’s been through a lot, Jules. And while he’s revealed some amazing and shocking things, I’m sure he’s not told me everything. There’s something in those eyes of his, they thrill me when he looks at me, but they also haunt me when I think about them and the pain they show. But that’s not all. He’s quite brilliant. Miro told me he suspected Jamie was smarter than he let on to others, and I can tell you it’s true. I never knew anyone smarter than Androcles and Master Sakki until I met Jamie. I can’t imagine what’s in his head, but it’s enough to fill a library or two.”


“So he’s the perfect boy, the perfect mate. The ideal pa’amore, no?” Julius first smiled, then chuckled, and finally gave Nic a wink.


“You know what I mean,” Nic said, responding to his friends remark by giving Julius a gentle punch in the arm. “He’s not perfect. No one is. For one thing he has a temper that you wouldn’t believe. It’s a terrible thing to behold and I know that I haven’t even seen the half of it. And for another, he lives in his own head a lot, so sometimes he forgets to explain what he’s doing and it seems very arbitrary.”


“I can’t tell you what to do, Niklas,” Julius said and put a hand on Nic’s shoulder. He could plainly sense his friend’s inner conflict. “But you know what’s in your heart and if it’s love, then what’s the worst that can happen? You don’t succeed? Maybe you lose him? That would be bad, but there’s also a chance that you won’t lose him, and that’s worth trying for. You’ll never know unless you try, no?”


“I suppose you’re right.”


“You know I’m right, Niklas. But tell me,” Julius lightly squeezed his friend’s shoulder, “how do you think he feels?”


Nic turned and studied Julius face. The boy’s question was simple and direct. Nic stood silently and pondered the words. Seconds later he turned to look down at Julius. The night air had finally begun to cool. A light breeze was beginning to blow, and the distant flashes of lightening were electrifying the night sky. A thunderous crash rumbled across the plain and as a jagged bold of lightening lit the heavens. Nic looked deeply into the eyes of his trusted friend.


“I think he loves me.” Nic spoke the words so softly it was as if he were afraid to let anyone hear him. “He can do things, Jules; things I can’t really explain to you. But he can do things and sometimes when he looks at me it’s as if he’s looking into my soul. I can’t even explain it to myself, but when he does that... I feel it... he loves me.”


Large heavy raindrops began to splatter on the hard clay of the quadrangle and the boys ran and took shelter under the barrack’s overhanging roof. A loud clap of thunder followed a hot white bolt of lightening stabbing the night sky and the heavens opened their floodgates as a sudden heavy torrent of rain tumbled from the sky. The wind, growing stronger, blew the rain across the open quadrangle in great watery sheets. Nic and Julius ducked into the nearest doorway and then each headed to the small rooms that served as their quarters at the training center.


“We’re here,” Stephen Perkinjius said as he stopped and leaned up against a wall.


“Finally,” Jamie impatiently sighed. “Now what?”


“The tunnel we’re in is on the outer perimeters of Stone Gate Prison. If we were to dig our way straight up we’d be standing outside the main wall. We have to find the tunnel that will take us to the garbage dump. At this time of night no one will be in the underground bays where the rubbish is collected.” Stephen gave Jamie a knowing look. “My sources tell me that from there it’s not too far to the cells where the members of the resistance are being held.”


“So how do we get there?”


“I think it’s this way,” Perkinjius pointed to a connecting tunnel a few feet ahead of them. “If we go down a hundred feet or so and take the very next intersecting tunnel, we should be there.”


“I wish you knew more than thought,” Jamie stage whispered, but when he looked up, the other man had already vanished down the tunnel to his left. Shaking his head, Jamie took off after the large man. But he was glad that negotiating the last few service tunnels had gotten easier since the corridors were higher, wider, a tad cleaner, and well lit.


Stephen stopped in front of a door recessed into the side of a tunnel they’d entered moments before.


“Here we are,” Perkinjius turned to face Jamie. “This door leads to the waste disposal bay. It also leads to the section of the prison where we need to go.”


“What about surveillance?” Jamie whispered after approaching Perkinjius.


“I’m hoping to have that disabled in a few moments.” Stephen’s reply was quick, but the look he was giving Jamie did little to ease the boy’s fears. “That’s one of the reasons I brought a friend,” he added shooting Jamie a knowing look.


“I can try.” Jamie raised an eyebrow. “But it would be a lot easier if I had some idea of where the central security station was.”


“But you can do it, no?” Perkinjius asked.


Jamie offered up no reply and Perkinjius realized the boy was deep in thought; a look of determined concentration etched on his face. Seconds later Jamie blinked, and turned to the man.


“Done,” he gave Stephen a self-satisfied smirk, “but for how long, I don’t know. I can’t tell if I’ve disabled or permanently damaged the system; I don’t even know if it’s the entire system or just what’s closest to us.


“Damaged or disabled, it doesn’t matter,” Perkinjius replied. “They’ll start working on it immediately. In the meantime, you can expect an increase in the number of guards actively patrolling.”


The large man pried open the door they’d been standing in front of, bent down to avoid hitting his head, and passed through. While he didn’t have to duck, Jamie was forced to fold back his wings as tightly as he could. Once through the doorway he discovered he was standing in a big open area with very high ceilings. Large lamps high up close to the roof bathed the room in a harsh and glaring white light. With gray concrete floor and white tiled walls, the space presented a distinctly functional and industrial look. A mixture of scents, chemical and antiseptic, along with the faint underlying odor of putrefaction filled Jamie’s nostrils. At one end of the room stood a row of large containers filled with rubbish and refuse.


“Just remember, we don’t have a lot of time. The longer we stay the higher the odds that we’ll encounter someone we’d rather not meet.” Stephen said, then quickly added, “We’ll use this tunnel,” as he pointed to a passageway build into the wall directly in front of them. “It will take us to exactly where we need to be.”


The tunnel was more of a long narrow passage that appeared to have been made specifically for the bins that were used to collect the waste. As he stepped into it, Jamie wrinkled his nose as the stench of decay became almost nauseating. The floor and parts of the walls were slick and sticky where some of the liquid waste had leaked from the bins on their journey to the large bay he and Perkinjius had just left behind.


Tucking back his wings, he felt his feather tips brush against the wall. “Ahhgghh,” he groaned. It was a reflexive sound he couldn’t suppress. “What deluded dream ever made you think we could do this?” Jamie hissed.


“There’s no one else, and many of those captured are too valuable to lose.” Perkinjius’ voice had a sound of forced patience, like someone explaining the same problem for the fiftieth time to a five year old. It set Jamie’s teeth on edge. At the end of the passage they emerged into another room, and although it too was built to handle the collected waste bins, it was quite a bit smaller than the larger waste disposal bay they’d left.


“This way,” Perkinjius called out.


Jamie followed Stephen as the man disappeared through a nearby doorway. Finally they were standing in a normal corridor, but he didn’t get much chance to appreciate it as Perkinjius approached yet another portal. Holding it open, he motioned for Jamie to enter.


“This little staircase leads to the lowest level of the prison. That’s where they’re being held.”


“Where does your intelligence come from?” Jamie asked as he warily peered down the dark passage.


“That’s not important at the moment.” Perkinjius sounded impatient and irritated. “If we get out of here with our skins intact, we can discuss it. But right now we have to get to the captive members of the resistance.”


The entrance to the stairwell Perkinjius had ushered him into looked new and clean, but as they began to descend, the walls took on a more unfinished look and accumulated layers of dust and dirt on the treads of the stairs indicated they hadn’t been used for sometime. At the bottom Jamie thought they’d reached a dead end; he began to realize they were in a place where old and new construction rather untidily joined, creating new space while rendering other areas – like the stairwell – obsolete.


“Here,” Perkinjius said, pointing to an access panel built into the wall. Prying it open, Jamie stuck his head into the darkness to discover a long, vertical shaft with a steel ladder anchored to one of its four sides. The shaft was unlit, and he could feel a cool dampness rush over his skin while a strong, musty odor attacked his nose.


It began to look very small the longer he looked at it, but before he could contemplate his descent for long, Perkinjius brushed past him and was squeezing his large frame through the opening to begin the long climb down the ladder. Once the man disappeared from sight, Jamie stuck his head into the shaft, but it was so dark he couldn’t see anything.


“If he can do it, so can I,” he told himself and an involuntary sigh escaped Jamie’s lips. Then, manfully folding back his wings, he climbed into the shaft.


Flexing his body while folding and bending his wings, Jamie was able to squeeze into the shaft, but it wasn’t an easy task. In the process he lost a few feathers and a spark of sharp pain meant he probably had one or two cuts on the outer elbows of his wings; those would need antibiotic cream, he thought, this tunnel is absolutely filthy. He began to climb downward and after a few minutes, the rungs of the ladder ended. Seeing light and realizing he was only a few feet from the ground, he jumped and was relieved when he landed with a thump on firm ground.


Squeezing through another access panel, he straightened up and stood next to Stephen Perkinjius in a dimly lit, dank smelling room. Unlike the more modern parts of the prison they’d traveled through, the area appeared to be an unfinished cellar. Dark red brick walls showing spots of mold and dampness, not the clean, tiled surfaces seen in the newer sections of the prison, formed the confines of the space. The floor was dry, dusty clay that was uneven and rutted.


“This way,” Perkinjius called out as he headed down a dark, narrow passage.


Jamie followed, wondering what manner of creatures he might encounter here; his suspicions were confirmed when a squeaking rat scurried across his feet moments later.


As they walked along the earlier dryness of the cellar gave way to damp, and Jamie found that he had to step carefully to avoid many small puddles formed by ice cold water dripping from the ceiling, but he couldn’t escape the occasional drop falling on his head or wings. After a few minutes of travel the passageway opened onto a larger space, but Perkinjius kept moving. Finally they reached another dead end, but then Stephen began to push on the crumbling stonewall in front of him. The mortar between the stones was so rotten that it easily gave way under his weight. Within minutes he’d knocked out a hole big enough for them to climb through. As he stood up in the new room, Jamie saw they were standing in a large, cave-like space.


Just as his eyes were adjusting to the gloom, the cold, harsh light of a portable hand torch lit the room and he realized Perkinjius had been carrying the device in one of his pockets. A gaping hole, roughly the size of a normal doorway, showed black in the opposite wall. Perkinjius shrouded the torch and walked over to cautiously stick his head through the hole. Then leading the way, he stepped over the jaggedly broken stones at the bottom of the opening and into the next room.


This room was larger and every bit as dark and dank as the previous one. As Jamie scanned the space he could see they’d entered a square-shaped common area. Two rows of long, deep cells stood along opposite ends of the room. Peering across the open space he could see a large and heavy looking rust-stained metal door built into the wall and supposed it to be the main entrance into the space. Looking to the cells in the room he could see that each of the two long rows contained six large individual cells. Standing inside the room for a few seconds he quickly became aware and then revolted by the pungent smell; far worse than that of the refuse station they’d come from. But it was the sight of those occupying the cells that caused Jamie to gasp at the tableau of horror that greeted him as his perceptions finally adjusted to the dim light.


But far worse was the tumult of raw emotion that assaulted his mind and augured unmercifully into him like a cold, icy spear thrust to his heart. The waves of pain and misery that flowed from the prisoners were like nothing he’d ever felt. He wanted to shut it out, but found he couldn’t as the sheer volume of feelings swamped his filters and barriers. Their physical suffering was always there, refusing to go away. But far worse was their terror and fear not for themselves, but for their families and their children. The collective morass of human degradation they’d all been subjected to pulled the very breath from his lungs like a plunge in a cold lake. These were men. These were lives. These were good people who had been crushed beyond recognition for the convenience of the Empire. Even the rats scurrying about the prison floor were more free and better treated than the poor suffering devils locked in the cells. It made him weak in the knees. It made him tragically sad, and furiously angry. And it fed the hatred he carried within him.


Each of the twelve cells in the room held between six and ten men. All of the men sat or lay quietly on the damp, earthen floor. Although they were dirty, unwashed, and painfully thin it was the obvious physical atrocities openly displayed on their bodies that shocked Jamie the most. A number of the men had bloody bandages wrapped around their heads and covering their eyes, others had wrappings covering one or both ears, and he quickly realized what the bandages meant. Jamie’s knowledge of the unbounded cruelty of the Empire, combined with his first hand observation of the torturer’s handiwork he’d seen Cristophe subjected to, left no doubt that eyes were gouged and ears cut away as a routine part of the torturer’s inquisition.


Fearful of taking a closer look yet unable to turn away, Jamie’s stomach turned when he saw that one man’s nose had been sliced off, leaving an empty crater in the middle of his face. Averting his gaze from the sickening sight he tried to look elsewhere but there was no relief; every time his eyes fell on any of the men he was confronted with the terrible price they’d paid for their dreams of freedom.


All of the prisoners were barefoot, and the entire lot wore the same type of ragged and filthy trousers, many stained with dried excrement that Jamie could only surmise came from their bodies losing control under the iron fisted torture they’d endured. Torn and bloody shirts did little to hide the stripes of the whip or the burns of the fiery hot iron. Strangely, each and every man also wore the same style of coat; a coarsely spun jacket, light gray in color and with three red stripes on each sleeve. Jamie realized after a moment that this must be the standard uniform all prisoners of Stone Gate were required to wear. Most of the occupants of the cells looked more dead than alive; only an occasional moan of pain or a weak and watery cough broke the silence.


As he continued to examine the occupants of the cells, he thought his eyes were deceiving him when he noticed that the trouser legs of some men lay flat on the ground while others of the prisoner’s jackets showed an empty sleeve. As Jamie stepped closer to the heavy barred doors that separated him from the suffering mass of tortured bodies, he realized that some of the men had been deprived of a foot or part of a leg while others had suffered having a hand or arm severed from their bodies. The horrendous sights of the raw brutality presented to him were so appalling he had to lean against the wall to keep from falling down.


“Who’s there?” a hoarse voice that Jamie thought he recognized called out.


“Perkinjius,” Stephen whispered. “We’re here to help you.”


“There’s no help for us,” the voice replied. “We...” a sudden hacking cough cut short the sentence.


Jamie peered through the gloom at the speaker and was shocked to realize that it was Jakobus. Like the other prisoners, the Kalorian housemaster of the École Danse was laying on the floor, his back propped up against the damp brick wall of his cell.


Jamie and Perkinjius moved toward to the cell where Jakobus lay. The closer they got, the more Jamie could see the effects of the punishment the Kalorian had taken. For a few brief seconds he squeezed his eyes shut, shuddering at the thought of looking at the broken body of the man. A wide, bloody bandage was wound around Jakobus’ head, covering his eyes. Jamie felt nauseated when he thought of what manner of disfigurement surely lay beneath the filthy dressing. Although the man’s feet and hands were intact, Jamie nearly vomited when he noticed that a large stain of dark, coagulated blood had pooled in the crotch of Jakobus’ pants and soaked into the dirt floor. Shocked and revolted at its implication, he forced his mind to flee from the thought. Once more the capacity of the human race to inflict its rabid cruelty on others came as no surprise to the boy. With a monumental effort, he steeled himself and opened his eyes. There must be a witness to this event, someone to remember. Someone had to see and know it, for the sake of the men in the cells.


“Leave this place,” Jakobus finally continued after his coughing fit abated. “We’re burned, blind, and maimed. Some of us aren’t even men any more,” Jakobus added just before a second series of spasmodic coughs wracked his body. When they ended, Jakobus spit out a large viscous blob of phlegm.


Jamie gagged at the sight of the yellowish green wad of mucus and he desperately forced himself to control the bile rising up from his own rebellious stomach.


“Its no use,” Jakobus rasped. “Where would we go? We’re all marked men.”


“We’re not here to debate the issue,” Perkinjius said forcefully. “We’re here to help.”


“Then leave us,” the pained weary voice of another prisoner called out. “There’s no point in rescuing the dead and damned.”


Jamie watched as Stephen Perkinjius’ face fell. The usually garrulous and genteel bon vivant was himself finding it hard to remain calm and dispassionate amidst the suffering that surrounded him.


“But...” Perkinjius abruptly stopped when he heard the harsh sound of metal scraping metal.


“Someone’s coming,” Jamie whispered. “We have...”


But before he could finish his sentence, the door in the nearby wall burst open and three men stepped into the room. Two of them wore the standard uniform of prison guards, while the third was dressed as a civilian. Perkinjius snapped off his light, but it was too late: he’d been spotted. Snatching out a ghoster, one of the men fired at Perkinjius, but for such a large man Perkinjius moved quickly and Jamie was surprised to see the antiquities dealer holding a ghoster of his own. Without a moment’s pause, Perkinjius fired the ghoster and the first man went down. Immediately the two other men fled from the room and the second guard slammed the door shut behind them. Jamie heard the door’s lock snap shut, and seconds later the loud whooping of a klaxon horn began to sound an ear-splitting alarm.


“We have to get out of here,” Jamie shouted.


For a split second Perkinjius stood as if unsure what to do.


“Listen to him,” the choking voice of Jakobus called out. “There’s no glory in rescuing the dead.

You never should have brought him here Stephen, not when so much depends on him.”


“Stephen,” Jamie called out anxiously.


Perkinjius looked at Jamie then back to the men in the cells. Moments later he was following Jamie as they began to retrace the steps that had brought them there.


“Is the surveillance system reactivated?” Perkinjius asked, and Jamie could sense the fear in his voice.


“I can’t tell,” Jamie called out in a panic. “At this depth and under all the rock, steel and concrete of this place I honestly can’t tell.”


Quickly entering the shaft they began to climb. This time Jamie had the lead.


“They were right,” Perkinjius muttered, just loud enough for Jamie to hear him. “I should never have risked bringing you here. If Castor had known...”


“You didn’t tell Castor that we were coming here?” Jamie asked as they continued to climb.


“I only told him I needed to meet with you,” Perkinjius replied.


“You know what he’s going to say when he finds out, don’t you?” Jamie called out. But he was met by silence, and the heavy sound of Stephen’s labored breathing as he hoisted his large frame upward on the ladder.


Once they’d managed to climb and exit the shaft, they traveled back up the stairwell they’d earlier descended and were back in the tunnels leading to the waste disposal bay and their escape. Traveling as quickly as they could, they finally arrived at the entrance of the large, brightly lit bay and paused.


“Do we dare cross it?” Jamie winced at the loud sound of the klaxon echoing off the walls of the space.


“Do we have any choice?” Perkinjius replied.


With those words spoken Jamie made a dash across the floor of the large bay to the doorway and the tunnels it lead to on the other side of the room, with Perkinjius pounding along right behind him. Opening the door, Jamie entered the tunnel. Seconds later he heard the distinctive whip-crack of ghosters being fired. Looking behind him, he didn’t see Stephen. Moving back to the door, he opened it a crack and peered out.  Tantalizingly close to the door, Stephen Perkinjius was crouched behind one of the large steel waste containers, pinned down by a barrage of rapid ghoster fire. As the crackling sound of ghosters echoed through the bay, the smell of ozone filled the air. White bolts of energy flew toward Stephen, but to his credit Jamie saw him discharging a few rounds of his own, one making contact with one of the guards.


Without looking at Jamie, he began to speak. “I told you to get out of here. They don’t know how we got in so you have time to make it to my shop. From there you can head back to the school.”


“What about you?” Jamie said.


“I’m making sure you get out of here safely.”


“Come with me,” Jamie called out. “We can both make it back.”


“No, we can’t. When we were discovered, you were in the shadows so they may not know you were with me. At least with the security monitors down I’m sure you can’t be identified. They might even think I came alone. If the security system remains disabled they won’t have any way of knowing, but it’s only a matter of time before they repair it.”




“No, get out of here,” Perkinjius said. “Now!”


“But look what they did to the others,” Jamie cried out. “They’ll...


“They’re not going to have the pleasure,” Perkinjius shouted back. “GO!”


While he was distracted by his conversation with Jamie, a ghoster bolt found its mark near the man’s shoulder, driving him backward and Stephen cried out in pain. A second bolt caught the large man in the side, bringing him to his knees.


“Go, damn you” Perkinjius growled in pain through gritted teeth.


As he shouted at Jamie, Perkinjius stood up, walked out from behind the large rubbish bin he’d sheltered behind, and began firing his ghoster in rapid succession, taking one threatening step toward his attackers before a blinding rain of white hot bolts struck around him. Smoke and sparks filled the air.


Jamie looked back to see a group of heavily armed prison guards beginning to rush toward Perkinjius. Conflicting emotions battled for his attention. A large part of him was terrified, knowing their lives were hanging in the balance. But as he watched the attack on Stephen, a spark of anger ignited in his chest that gusted into a bonfire of rage. Thoughts of the prisoners he’d just abandoned and the images of the horrible torture inflicted on them set his blood to boiling. Turning his thoughts to his hatred for humans and for  everything they did, his anger flared like a fireball and incinerated the veil of fear that had first taken hold of him.


“No, Stephen,” he said to himself as he kicked open the door of the tunnel. “I’m not going to stand by and watch you get slaughtered too.”


Stepping through the door, he crouched a little and raised his arms. With his hands open and palms forward as if he were about to push a heavy object, lines of crackling energy began to form at his finger tips before arcing between his hands where they met and formed a white, sparking sphere. The guards were taken off-guard by him, and hesitated a second before they turned their attention and their ghoster’s on him, but by then it was too late. Jamie hurled the bolt of energy he was controlling toward them, the anger that propelled it turning it into a raging arch of fire.


The effect was instantaneous. There was a blinding flash followed by a loud concussion. Seconds later the prison guards mounting the attack were engulfed in brilliant, white light. There were a few screams, but they lasted less than a second; suddenly and abruptly cut off as blood, bone and flesh disintegrated in a strange red-misted cloud that, as it cleared, revealed no sign of the men save for mangled body parts strewn across the refuse bay.


No other guards appeared and Jamie dashed to where Stephen Perkinjius lay quiet and unmoving on the floor near the refuse bin where he’d first taken cover.


“Stephen!” Jamie cried out as he knelt down beside the large man.


“Didn’t I tell you to get out of here?” Perkinjius groaned.


“Come on,” Jamie said. “No one’s coming for the moment. We can escape.”


“You can escape,” Perkinjius replied. “I’m finished.”


Finally looking critically at the antiquities dealer and his injuries, Jamie knew Stephen’s words to be true.


While the first blast to his shoulder would have been survivable, the gaping wound in Stephen’s side combined with the damage of subsequent ghoster hits was severe. The man was too big and Jamie knew he couldn’t drag Stephen to the tunnel, and then up and down all those ladders and stairs. Even if it were possible, Perkinjius was dying; a fact confirmed when Stephen began coughing up masses of froth heavily laced with blood. As the man choked on his own blood, Jamie lifted Stephen’s head slightly and placed it on his lap.


“You saved me,” Jamie said softly looking down at the dying man. “They would have come into the tunnel if it weren’t for you.”


“Yes,” Perkinjius coughed, “And you were too stupid to listen to me. You’d be half way home now, but you had to come back and fight. You’re the most stubborn person I’ve ever know.”


“No Stephen, you’re the most stubborn person I’ve ever known.”


“Listen to me,” Perkinjius coughed. “If you’re going to insist on crediting me with saving your life, then you owe me one very important thing.”




“You owe me your life, and I bind you to that debt. The only way you can repay it is to save the others. They deserve your greatest efforts.”


“What others? The prisoners?”


“All of them,” Perkinjius gasped choking on another mouthful of blood. “The Kalorians, the Icarians and all of those who have worked so hard for the cause.”


“I promise,” Jamie replied, his eyes locked onto the dying man.


“Oh... how I’m going... to miss...,” Perkinjius said gasping for air as he forced out the words.




“Butting heads with you. You’re... you’re one of the best foils... I’ve gone... up against. Your... such... a hard headed... intractable littl...”


Perkinjius simply stopped mid-sentence and Jamie realized the man was dead.


“I’ll miss you too, Stephen,” Jamie said softly. Grief as sharp as a knife thrust itself through his chest as he gently lay Perkinjius’ head back on the cold hard floor of the refuse bay. It was one more debt of blood owed by the Empire.


Closing his eyes for a few seconds, Jamie began to push away his feelings of sorrow. Knowing he was far from safe, he forced himself up onto his feet and ran back toward the tunnel. No other guards had shown up yet, but the klaxon continued to blare out it’s warning and he knew it would only be a matter of time before more would arrive. Accessing the security grid as he ducked through the tunnel entrance, he discovered it was still disabled, but an occasional burst of energy indicated it was being worked on. With a single thought he shorted out the circuit that controlled the klaxon and the alarm fell silent.


Jamie moved as quickly as possible down the maze of tunnels he and Stephen had first come through, accessing The Screen when he was unsure of the way and infinitely thankful he’d set its mapping function when they’d started. Finally making his way back to the vertical tunnel leading to Perkinjius’ shop, he climbed up the shaft and into the basement of the shop.


Breathing heavily, he paused. In his escape he hadn’t heard anyone follow him. Deciding not to wait any longer, he left the small room and headed down the hall toward the back stairs that would take him out of the building. After only a few steps he paused, dashed back into one of the small storage rooms, and emerged seconds later with the strange looking amulet he’d set aside earlier. A few rapid steps took him to the back door of the shop, and he eased out into the shadows and quietly closed the door behind him. A quick glance around showed him no one watching, so he quickly took to the air. Flying in the shadows, he ascended the hill of Cannon Mon Arts, making for the safety of the school.


An hour later Jamie was standing under one of the showers of the bath, letting the warm water flow over his body and wings. As he sponged off the accumulated grime, he was surprised at his feelings. Although traumatized by the death of Perkinjius, his overriding emotion was blistering, furious anger.


When he’d come in for an exhausted, stumbling landing at the same spot he’d taken off from he had to sit a few minutes to catch his breath before retreating to his room. There he was greeted by Castor who was clearly worried and anxious over Jamie’s long absence. Moments later Castor’s anxiety turned to furious anger after hearing Jamie’s narrative. What stirred him most of all was Jamie’s report that he had been seen by the attacking prison guards.


“They’re all dead,” Jamie replied softly when Castor shared his concern. “I killed them.” Then, as if to escape the reality of his own words he quickly added, “The security monitors were down and no one who can identify me is still breathing.”


Castor shuddered when he heard Jamie’s reply, but his shock melted into concern as he realized that the little boy whom he’d watched over and tended for so long would never be the same after what had happened this night. It was clear that the care-free innocence of Jamie’s childhood had withered under the harsh glare of cold, cynical reality.


“What was he thinking?” the Kalorian shouted, all his hours of worry transformed into rage. “Young master, if I’d have known the half of it, I’d never have permitted you to go.”


Jamie, sitting on the corner of his bed, had begun stripping off his clothes. As he prepared to bathe the dirt, slime, and stench from his body, he knew he couldn’t wash away the memory of what he’d experienced.


“I’m not sorry,” Jamie said abruptly.


Castor stopped his rant and gave the boy a wary look.


“I said, I’m not sorry,” Jamie replied. “I always knew this was serious,” he continued. “I first realized that when I was just a little boy and I found Father in his study with a hole blasted through his chest. Living as a slave here at school certainly didn’t do anything to change my opinion. And I was never surer of it after I saw what they did to Cristophe. But tonight, Castor... seeing those prisoners...” Jamie paused and his voice trailed off. “I can see that the Empire will stop at nothing to fulfill its goals. And even if half of what Hippolito’s told me in his crazy tale is true, then things are very bad indeed, and going to get worse.”


“I know, but...”


“No, Castor,” Jamie said, “Stephen was right. I wanted to act, and now’s my chance. In a matter of weeks after the Emperor’s birthday celebration, the elite of this planet will leave for Argon, taking the Icarians they choose with them. I can only assume that any that they don’t choose will be eliminated. None of us have seen any lists. Are the Gahdar of Rood important, or just an amusement? Are the Sh’ônfenn critical to the Empire, and so slated to be saved? And what about those in Expedition and Service? Will their lives be preserved or will they be considered expendable? After that the plague takes over and just to make sure everything is neat and tidy for them, they’ll release the second plague to wipe out the entire Kalorian race. If now’s not the time to act, then when? If not me, then who? This is the moment I’ve been preparing for. It’s one of the reasons Father created me.”


“I know, young master,” Castor said, the tone of his voice indicating he was resigned to the inevitable, “but that doesn’t make it any easier for me to accept. I hate to imagine you in some terrible danger.”


“It’s not something I look forward to myself,” Jamie said as he threw a towel over his shoulder and departed his room.


Returning from his bath, he entered to find Castor still in his room. Jamie gave his hair a final quick rub, and then tossed his damp towel on the floor. Picking up his sleep shorts from the bed, he slipped them on and then dropped back onto the corner of the mattress.


Casually he crossed both his legs underneath him and folded back his wings, thinking about the surreal quality of what he’d just experienced. With an almost shock, he realized it was time and he looked at the man who’d been his father’s former head of household and was now his coconspirator. At first hesitant to speak, he suddenly realized that his options and his allies were rapidly diminishing.


“Castor,” he began, “I have a plan.”


Without pause, Castor pulled out the stool from under Jamie’s desk and sat down; the stool creaked softly as it bore his weight. Facing the boy who’d been under his care for so long, Castor could see a change in Jamie. If the old man had been forced to speak what he saw, he would have said that the boy had come into focus, that there was a new intensity in his face and eyes.


Having emerged from his Icarian puberty cycle, Jamie was a beauty, looking far younger and innocent then his true commonwealth standard age of almost eighteen. But as he gazed at the boy, Castor could start to see the man that would grow and one day emerge from behind the permanent facade of beauty and youthful innocence as Jamie continued to mature.


Edmond Croal had performed magic. The scientist had given his son the greatest camouflage of all. In line with his philosophy of operating undercover in the bright light of day, Croal had created a package that would forever appear to be not at all what it truly was. Those not knowing the boy would always confuse the inner person with the outer package. It was a grave error, and one that the Kalorian guessed would probably prove many of his enemy’s undoing as Jamie’s future unfolded.


Sitting cross-legged on his bed, the cleanly scrubbed young man with his tousled blond hair looked more like a carefree schoolboy, until one closely stared into Jamie’s eyes. For Castor, Jamie’s eyes were a mirror into the prince’s soul, revealing the true nature of his inner turmoil. Jamie had seen pain, suffering and death; much more than one so young had any right to know. And now he’d just had the shocking experience of taking another’s life. According to Jamie’s account five prison guards had died at his hands. It was an act Castor knew would forever change the boy who he’d first met as a small, newly decanted five-year-old Icarian. Jamie leveled his beautiful blue eyes at Castor. Castor couldn’t stop the shiver that ran up his spine. It was like staring into the eyes of a hungry wolf. For a few seconds Castor simply returned Jamie’s gaze, then leaning a bit forward on his stool the Kalorian quietly spoke:


“Tell me, Jamie.”


“It first came to me when I was flying back from Piropolis after I’d just met Niklas, but it was just an idea and I wasn’t really sure about it. But later, the day Hippolito took me to the Tenth Hill Project – The Canon of the Angels – it started to come together during my dance practice.’


Castor sat quietly waiting for Jamie to continue.


“We can’t fight them, Castor,” Jamie began, “at least not now. Everything I’ve studied with Charlie convinces me of that. What I saw tonight confirms it. And given the impossibly short space of time we have, I think that there’s only one possible solution.”


“What’s that, young master?”


“We travel through time.”


Castor shot Jamie a look of surprise and confusion. Seeing the Kalorian’s reaction, Jamie shook his head.


“No Castor, I don’t mean it that way. I mean each race, Kalorian and Icarian, must assure its own survival and ability to defeat the Empire by looking to the future, each in their own way.”


“You’ll have to explain yourself,” Castor replied. “Even the scientists at Gold Glass haven’t devised a way to travel through time.”


“They don’t have to,” Jamie said as a smile came to his face. “We’re traveling through time right now. Everyone is. We’ll just use the process to our advantage. We’ll all become time travelers; Icarians will do it one way, and Kalorians another. In the end we’ll both arrive at the same spot... hopefully ahead of the Empire, if we do it right.”


“Now I think I’m even more confused,” Castor said.


“Listen, and you won’t be,” Jamie continued a devious smile coming to his face.


Throughout the rest of the night Jamie spoke and Castor listened, occasionally stopping the boy to ask a question or get clarification of a point. By the time the sun rose the next day, the Kalorian understood exactly what Jamie was proposing.


“Do you think we can do it?” Jamie asked hopefully.


“When you describe it the way you just did, I don’t see why not.” Castor replied. “At the very least, we’ll try.”


“But we only have a little time,” Jamie added, “and I have to present it to Alexander.”


“That would be wise,” Castor agreed. “In the meantime, I’ll make preparations on my end. The resistance may be damaged, or even be dying or dead. But the Second Empire still survives and is as strong as ever.”


“The Second Empire?” Now it was Jamie’s turn to appear puzzled.


“You know about the failed Second Slave Rebellion – the Foss Uprising.”


“Yes, of course,” Jamie replied. “What does that have to do... oh, wait, the Second Empire...” Jamie jumped off his bed and stood before Castor. “That’s what Karkal Foss called his movement: The Second Empire. The shadow empire of Altinestra... the Slave Empire of Kaloria. The empire that truly runs the planet. Without the Second Empire, he argued, there could be no first empire.”


“Exactly,” Castor said, beaming. “I wish Mobley could have heard you just now. He’d be so proud. Foss was keenly aware that we Kalorians run the planet. Under the eyes and control of our masters, we keep the mechanisms of this society functioning. It’s just that every time we’ve tried to break our yoke of oppression something has thwarted us. Even Foss couldn’t be the leader we needed. He was a good man, but an uneducated Kalorian field slave when he began his rebellion. Both we and the Icarians need something more. We all need... a Jacques de Valèn.” Castor paused to look up, shooting Jamie a cold, flinty gaze.


Jamie and Castor stood facing each other, their eyes locked.


“I remember something Father once said,” Jamie replied.




“I’d rather not say for now if that’s ok?”


Castor nodded. “Honor to your father,” he added with a smile, “Edmond Croal knew what we needed. And I stand ready to help you.”


“What can you do, Castor?” Jamie asked suddenly feeling both thrilled and fearful of the path before them.


“More than you can imagine,” Castor said. “What I didn’t learn from your father I picked up through the underground. We will each have our own tasks to perform, young master. First, talk to Alexander. Discover his thoughts, but I can’t think he’ll argue against it. If he agrees, then we move forward. Third, enlist that Gahdar of yours... that boy, Niklas.”


“But he’s not my...” Jamie stopped speaking, then his eyes met Castors. The hard, skeptical look in Castor’s eyes augured into him, speaking volumes.


“Deceive anyone else you wish,” Castor said evenly, “but don’t try and fool me. And please, Jamie – don’t try to fool yourself.”


Jamie simply nodded.


“Look at the time,” Castor added, his voice suddenly casual while he rose from the stool he’d been sitting on for hours. “Dawn’s just broken. You’d best get some sleep before the day begins for you. I’ll waken you in a few hours. But remember first you must go to the Crystal Sphere and practice. It’s critical you’re seen following your routine. In the meantime I have my own tasks to accomplish, and I’ll arrange for a hov to take you to Piropolis. Alexander should be there for training this afternoon. Let’s hope you can see him.”


Castor headed out the door and Jamie dropped back onto his bed. Shifting his wings and stretching out on the mattress he closed his eyes, but the combination of tension, excitement, fear, hope and anticipation swirling inside his head made sleep impossible. Climbing out of his bed he picked up the stool Castor had been sitting on and placed at his desk. Taking a seat, he activated The Screen and began refining his plan.




“All the data has been prepared according to your orders, noble leader.”


The red-and-black winged Sh’ônfenn standing before the large desk reached out to present a small, wafer- thin comp pad to his superior. As he took one step closer, the parquet floor beneath his feet gave a gentle creak of protest as he shifted his position.


“Thank you, Arlat,” the ühn•ki replied. As he leaned forward, the padded low-backed chair the ühn•ki used when working at his desk issued its own creaking groan, as if conversing with the floor. Reaching out, he plucked the device from his assistant’s hand. Running his fingers deftly over the surface of the pad he paused, studying the information streaming across the screen. After only a few seconds he set the comp pad on his desk and lightly drummed his long, delicate fingers on the highly polished desktop.


“It appears ready to be released, no?”


“It’s completely ready, noble leader,” Arlat replied. “How would you like to proceed?”


“The usual means Arlat. He’s comfortable accessing the secure channel we set up for him years ago, and we know he’s now consulting it on a daily basis. One of our stealth worms will do. He’ll never detect it.”


“Forgive me for asking ühn•ki, but are you sure?”


“No one can be completely sure of anything, Arlat, but even if he suspects something it will only appear as a small aberration in the data stream. Remember, it’s not scheduled to unravel until it undergoes a specific period of cold sleep dormancy. When it does activate, he’ll be asleep and it will attach itself seamlessly to the neurological enhancement device. Then when – or should I say, if –  he wakes up, he’ll never suspect it wasn’t part of the original design.”


“I’ll see to it immediately,” Arlat said, then quickly added, “unless you have anything more for me, noble leader?”


“I might.” the ühn•ki replied. “I’m expecting Darion at any minute. You can return to your desk, but please remain close by for the moment.”


“As you wish, ühn•ki.”


Just as Arlat was leaving the ühn•ki’s office Darion Trapp entered, brushing past the ühn•ki’s youthful Sh’ônfenn assistant.


Ühn•ki,” Darion began before even reaching his superior’s desk, but only after bowing deeply. “I’ve discovered something of grave importance that I feel you must know.”


“If you’re here to tell me about the security breach and attempted escape from Stone Gate, Darion, I’m well aware of it. I’ve already had a briefing during breakfast in my private quarters from the head of the prison’s security staff. I don’t know how someone like Stephen Perkinjius was able to get away with it, but we’ll find out soon enough. We’re still trying to find out if he had accomplices and who they were.”


“I’d like to discuss that with you ühn•ki, but there’s something that I feel is far more important and must receive your immediate attention and review.”


Gathering his robes about him, the ühn•ki rose from his seat and stepped around his desk. Walking to a corner of the room that served as a small sitting area, he took a seat on one of two low-backed chairs while motioning for Darion, the tat ühn•ki and his second in command, to take the other.


“What’s the problem?” he said showing Darion a look of concern as his second rose to take a seat across from him.


“Look at this.” Darion frowned, as he placed a thick file he’d been carrying on the small side-table next to him while at the same time handing the ühn•ki a comp pad. It was similar in size and function to the one Arlat had shown him.


“Yes?” the ühn•ki threw a brief questioning glance at his deputy while quickly reviewing the information the comp displayed. Although he knew from the information streaming across the screen what Darion’s concerns were, he decided to play the game through to its inevitable conclusion. Pausing in his examination of the data streaming from the comp, he turned to stare at his tat ühn•ki. “What seems to be the problem, Darion?” he asked.


“My, noble leader,” Darion said, leaning toward the ühn•ki so his fingers could tap on the screen of the comp pad his superior was holding. “You can see here, here, and here, that there are instances of strange and troubling irregularities. It would appear that materials and units have been diverted from Ajax Prime to Eagle’s Rock. I wouldn’t have noticed it if it weren’t for the work orders and time schedules.”


“But it could be simple error, no?” the ühn•ki asked.


“That’s true ühn•ki, and at first I thought the same thing.” Darion continued touching the screen and bringing up additional information. “But do you see how the man-hours on Ajax spike on these data sheets. At first I couldn’t find any justification for it. But when I looked at additional data from the Academy, there appears to be a direct correlation between the increase in the moon facility’s productivity and the materials sent to Eagles Rock. The data implies that someone has purposely buried this information in the total labor figures from the Ajax industrial complex. It’s too carefully crafted to be a simple mistake. Look here, ühn•ki, you can see it’s been cleverly done. It’s not easily detected. When you study it carefully, you can see that someone has gone to great effort to cover their tracks by ascribing the costs to Ajax Prime. I’m still investigating, but I wanted to bring it to your attention as soon as possible.”


“Who knows about this?” the ühn•ki calmly asked as a practiced mask of genuine concern spread across his face.


“Whoever’s behind these irregularities, of course. Other than that, there’s myself, and now you,” Darion said. “I’ve only made the connection about an hour ago. I wanted to bring it to your attention before proceeding any further.”


Although he’d chosen most of his staff, the ühn•ki had been commanded to accept Darion. The order had come from the Imperial Council itself – or so he’d been told. But he strongly suspected the heavy-handed tactics of Savaron Loka somehow had come into play. He’d always managed to work successfully with Darion by keeping him involved in any number of non-vital projects the Sh’ônfenn oversaw. It was a task that had grown more difficult with the advancing spread of the plague. The Icarian was simply too inquisitive, too thorough, and far too unbending in following protocol. Sadly, the time for resolution had come, it seemed.


“That was wise, Darion,” the ühn•ki said, giving his rigid and dogmatically strict tat ühn•ki a thoughtful smile. “I can always count on you to do things by the book.”


Darion returned the ühn•ki’s smile, the irony of the statement quite beyond his ability to perceive.


“Except for that one time during the raid on the scientist Edmond Croal’s estate in Isewier,” the ühn•ki added, as the faintest of frowns briefly clouded his face. “I remember giving you specific orders on how I wanted that mission to proceed. I must admit I wasn’t pleased when I learned that Archduke Loka had become involved.”


“I know, ühn•ki,” Darion stammered, his superior’s frown making him suddenly uncertain. “But when the archduke learned of it, there seemed to be no stopping him. I told him there was no need for Imperial Storm Troops, but he ordered all Sh’ônfenn activities to cease and instructed me that he would take over.”


“I’m aware of that Darion, and I can see your point. However, it’s how he found out that troubles me. I did tell you that I wanted to keep it internal to our own organization.”


“Yes, you did,” Darion admitted, and then added, “but I was just following standard procedure... just as I always do. I thought it must have been an oversight on your part, ühn•ki. Forgive my impertinence, but I know you would never want me to deviate from standard operating procedure.”


“No, of course not,” the ühn•ki said, his gentle smile once more returning. “Well, no matter. You’re correct, as usual. I did misspeak at the time. It was proper for you to proceed according to standard procedure. No harm done, Darion. I’ve always known that I can count you to follow all the rules with unwavering precision.”


“Of course, the rules must be followed, noble leader. After all, they were established for good reason, and no one is above them.” Darion smiled, happy to see his superior pleased. “Now ühn•ki, do you have any thoughts on these irregularities before I report them.”


“Yes, in fact I do,” the undisputed head of the Sh’ônfenn said, rising from his seat. “But first, let me speak to Arlat. He’s waiting for some orders from me. Would you please excuse me for a moment?”


Nodding his agreement, Darion watched as the ühn•ki prepared to leave the room, his red silk robes rustling slightly as he crossed the floor. Shutting the door of his office behind him, the ühn•ki approached the desk of his assistant.


“Arlat?” the leader of the Sh’ônfenn spoke softly. The young man looked up from his work, giving his superior an unblinking gaze. “We have a bit of a situation,” the ühn•ki continued while tilting his head toward the closed door of his office.


Arlat sat quietly keeping his eyes fixed on the ühn•ki, giving his superior his full and unwavering attention.


“It involves the tat ühn•ki. Perhaps you could help us reach a resolution?”


Although he’d only been attached to his superior for a short time, the young sh’ônfenn had been carefully chosen by the ühn•ki, as carefully as the ühn•ki had chosen every other assistant he’d ever employed. It was a minor point, but that small point meant that usually very little discourse was needed between them for the ühn•ki to clearly convey his meaning. Seconds later Arlat smoothly rose from his seat.


“Should I engage Paulus’ assistance?” Arlat asked, referring to Darion’s young sh’ônfenn assistant.


“As you wish,” the ühn•ki said as he moved to the door. “You know my expectations.”


“Perfectly, noble leader.” Arlat’s hand slid below his desktop. Seconds later, the ühn•ki saw the tiniest of neural disrupter ghosters resting in the young man’s hand. It looked more a child’s toy than a weapon, but was indisputably deadly at close range.


With a thoughtful nod he passed through the doorway, but then turned just as Arlat was preparing to enter the ühn•ki’s private office.


“If anyone wishes to know, I’ll be in my garden,” the ühn•ki said, and then as an afterthought added, “I’ll return in two hours.”


Once more Arlat nodded, assuring his superior that he clearly understood the ühn•ki’s meaning. Opening the door of the ühn•ki’s private office, Arlat slipped into the room.


Taking a lift to the ground floor of the Palace of Liberation, the ühn•ki slowly walked down the long marble-lined gallery of the building’s south wing. Large windows on his left flooded the gallery in the bright light of a warm summer’s morning, reflecting off the beige and rose-colored marble. Arriving at the end of the gallery, he stood for a moment before the door to his private apartment and the imperial storm trooper standing guard. Impeccably clad in his ceremonial dress uniform, the youthful storm trooper snapped to attention and opened the door for the ühn•ki.


After allowing the black-and-red winged angel to enter the apartment, the trooper closed the door and resumed his post. Inside, the ühn•ki walked slowly through the foyer and entered the main salon of his residence; a magnificently outfitted space befitting the head of the Empire’s secret police. A high, fresco-covered tray ceiling floated overhead. Rich furnishings, comfortable chairs, plush carpeting and an immense array of art pieces filled the space, but it was the books which dominated two of the tall, wide walls of the salon that truly defined the personality of the residence’s chief occupant.


Leaving the salon and entering his bedroom, the ühn•ki began to slowly remove his soft red silk robe, taking his time to carefully reach around and unhook the clasps that allowed the garment to fit around his wings. Toeing off his red and gold slippers, he bent down and set them neatly side by side under his bed; a beautiful, large, high, red canopy-clad piece of furniture. Stepping back, he allowed his robe to drop to the floor. Slowly stepping out of it, he reached down and held it up, and then to avoid wrinkles he carefully laid it out on the bed. He paused, as he always did, for a few seconds to look at the golden snakes intertwined on the robes opposing panels. It was clear that this was an oft repeated ritual, every movement practiced and automatic. Like the apartment’s main salon, the bedroom was decorated with an array of objects and treasures, but once more it was the large tall cases filled with books that dominated the room.


Barefoot and dressed only in the short red and black trimmed tunic he always wore under his formal robes, his thin, lithe body and delicate features were evident, being no longer disguised by his voluminous robe. The overall effect was that the great and much-feared ühn•ki of the sh’ônfenn suddenly appeared more like one of the younger Icarian students at the Canon Mon Arts. It was a surprising effect, and only a few of his most trusted inner circle were aware of it. And more than once, just for amusement, he’d been tempted to walk across the campus of the Mountain of the Arts, knowing he’d have no difficulty blending in perfectly with the boys of the various schools.


Passing through a tall pair of glass-paned doors set into an exterior wall near the left side of his bed, the ühn•ki made the transition from the opulent elegance of the interior of his residence to the simple elegance of the hidden private garden that stood just outside his bedchamber. Surveying the delicately scented garden, he was proud of the fact that he had personally designed the space. When construction of the Palace of Liberation had begun, he’d insisted on a garden as part of his own personal living space. He’d felt it fair concession and compensation for the vile work he’d been delegated.


Stepping onto a small white almand stone patio, he looked out across the garden. Five narrow paths set in an arching spiral pattern curved away from him like tendrils of a delicate vine. During his studies in the years closely following his decantation, he’d come across a recipe for a perfume that he’d discovered in an obscure tome of ancient home world text. It had been brewed for the queen of a powerful king and used at a time when frequent bathing had been a long and laborious practice and the ability to maintain personal hygiene a difficult task.


“In a bowl of soapstone pour three cups scalding water over the heads of ten rose flowers in full bloom that have been picked in the early dew of dawn. Pound well with pestle and steep overnight in a dark cupboard. At first sun add ten grains of musk, three whole peels of citron and half an ounce of sugar. Boil for four hours and strain.”


As a young boy living in the sterile environment of Gold Glass, the text had intrigued him so that when the day came for him to create his garden space, remembering the lines he’d read years before, the ühn•ki designed his garden, a perfume garden, with the recipe in mind.


Starting with low-lying plants, roots and even fungi used in perfume making, he’d arranged the plants along the spiral lines of the paths vertically according to size. As the swirling design of the paths swept towards the centre of the garden, larger plants and shrubs, all chosen for their scents, took over.


A water feature, more a broad stone trough imbedded in the ground than a formal fountain, intersected all of the paths; sending clear cold water bubbled through the garden. It not only was a pleasing sight for the eye, and a pleasant sound to ear, but more importantly served as a source of irrigation for the plants.


Iris, gentians, and violets along with many of the beautifully scented native plants of Altinestra grew in lush profusion. Generous groupings of fragrant bushes and herbs such as lavender, sage, thyme, fennel and sweet flag had also been placed throughout the garden. Even a few dwarf ornamental pines and cedars added their effect, and aroma, to the space. The result was a garden of constantly changing scents that was different from season to season, month to month, day to day and even hour to hour as the garden and its plants responded to the ever-changing conditions of light, temperature, moisture and wind. Plants grew, matured, and flowered while others withered away creating a continuous dance of sight and smell that was never twice the same.


Stepping off the patio, the ühn•ki ventured into the garden, absorbing its silent tranquility and intoxicating blend of aromas. Standing on one of the five garden paths, the ühn•ki paused to think. He regretted the death of any Icarian, including Darion’s, but time was running out and he had to act quickly. The last person he needed sniffing about the Palace of Liberation was the Archduke of Imperialas – it was unfortunate that one couldn’t suffer a most tragic accident, he reflected. At the thought, a strange smile came to his face.


“How ironic,” he thought. “As beings with the potential for lives of such great longevity, time has always been on our side – until now. At this moment of greatest exigency, it’s become our enemy as we rush into the future, trying to press too many things into such a small period of time. When his hand brushed against a fragrant Magrette bush its aroma filled the air and he inhaled its sweet, heavy scent. With a rueful smile he shook his head at the absurdity of it all.


Walking the path he’d chosen, he casually took in the sights of the garden until his eye caught an orange-breasted auw flitting among the trees and bushes. Finally the little bird came to rest in one of the small cedar trees. Its light orange breast indicated it was a female, and when he looked closer he could see that it had chosen the tree as a home for its nest. Seconds later its mate, a fat bright orange breasted male flew up onto the branch next to her and began to chirp loudly. “What are you both doing so far from home?” the ühn•ki said as he studied the tiny mating pair, for he knew most members of the species spent their summers a few hundred miles to the west in one of the Kalorian agricultural settlements. The thought caused him to make a note to initiate contact with the Kalorian slave who acted as the prince’s assistant. He smiled as the name of the Kalorian, Castor, rose in his mind.


Still studying the birds, a sad smile came to his face when he recalled that auw’s mated for life. “Take care of each other,” he said softly to the tiny, mating pair. “Life is very lonely without your mate.” Then he turned and walked away.


As with any perfume garden he’d also included an array of roses, all chosen for their unique scents. Placed in family groups to add the proper balance and color to the garden, they were a delight to behold. But at the tip of one of the spiral paths, a single rose bush stood alone. Long after the garden had been designed and planted, it’d found its place there, but unlike the rose bushes in the rest of the garden that had been planted and were cared for by his Kalorian gardener, this solitary bush had been planted by the ühn•ki himself.


Walking further along the garden path he approached the solitary rose bush. It had been set into a small circle of sparkling white almond stone. The plant’s bright green foliage was strong and healthy. Long, thorn-less stems each supported a large, beautiful salmon colored blossom; some in full bloom, others presenting the promise of the future in their tightly furled buds. Looking down at the bush, he remembered the day he planted it. In the hole he’d prepared for the rose bush he’d placed two rings. One had come from... well... that didn’t matter anymore. The other he’d wrenched in anguish from his own hand. When he’d dropped it into the hole, it had struck the other ring, making a softly gentle tink. Covering the rings with dirt, he then set the rose bush into the hole. When he was finished, he’d gently tamped the damp, cool earth around the bush and carefully watered it.


It was the only memorial he had. He knew if he ripped the bush from the ground and sifted through the rich black loam he’d find the rings, but it was a fruitless exercise. It couldn’t revive the dead. Reaching out, he couldn’t resist gently cupped one of the full blooming roses in his hand, yet he avoided the temptation to bend down and smell its scent; that part was still too painful. Caressing the bloom, Charles Roegier stood alone in his garden as hot, burning tears leaked from his closed eyes.