The Scrolls of Icaria by Jamie


Book 2 – 'War of the Angels'


Part III - Baron of Rood



Chapter 39


The loud bang! echoing through the cavernous space of the Crystal Sphere sounded like the sharp bark of a small-bore cannon. The explosion, strong enough to riffle the backdrop of the stage set, threw everyone into a fearful silence, save one young woman - an assistant costumer - who screamed, and then flushed with embarrassment as she realized what she’d done.


“It’s alright, everyone,” the stage manager of the Crystal Sphere shouted. “It was only a lamp bulb. No one’s been hurt, and we’ll have it fixed in a minute. Please everyone, get back to work. We're on a tight schedule.”


The lump of fear that had caught in the throats of many rapidly dissolved and once more the crowd began to breathe. The brief moment of silence ended and everyone resumed their activities. The incident, while minor, underscored the cloud of stress most of the workers labored under as they carried out their tasks. Many long days of toil were behind them as they entered the final, feverish stages of their preparations. In a few hours, the moment they’d all worked so hard for would arrive. For many, it would be the highlight of their careers.


Throughout the Hall of the Crystal Sphere, a chaotic atmosphere of pandemonium ebbed and flowed, while those preparing for the Imperial Birthday Celebration frantically worked to complete their tasks. A palpable sense of tension filled the air, sometimes so thick it seemed it might be sliced with a knife. In the center of it all, the stage manager of the complex, wielding a small communication comp in one hand and clipboard in the other, was trying valiantly to bring a sense of order and organization to the churning chaos that surrounded him, with varying degrees of success. He dashed about, constantly talking into his communication comp as he ordered, counseled, demanded, pleaded, begged, and threatened his army of workers, or fielded requests and arbitrated problems arising between the scores of personalities and departments tasked with preparing for the evening’s event.


“When is his hov scheduled to arrive?” the stage manager barked into his comp.


“It just landed at the École,” the reply came back. “They should be boarding in a few minutes.”


In his dormitory room at the École Danse, Jamie had just finished tying the red and gold sash of a master performer around his waist. Hearing a soft knock, he turned just in time to see his door open.


“The hov’s arrived.” Castor poked his head around the door into Jamie’s room. “It’s waiting for you just beyond the quad.” He returned Jamie's quick smile of thanks with a nod.


Quickly slipping into his sandals, Jamie scooped up a pair of dance slippers from his bed, gave Spinoza an affectionate scratch on the head, and walked to the door of his room. Pausing for a moment as a sudden idea bloomed, Jamie tossed his slippers back onto the bed, and walked to his closet. After staring at the exquisite clothing it contained for a long moment, he took out a stunning cloak he’d recently been presented with; a gift from the Empress, for services rendered to her and the Empire. Draping it over his shoulders he fixed the clasp, gave himself a quick inspection in the mirror, retrieved his slippers, and headed out of his room.


In the corridor, Jamie looked up the hall and saw Lucas, Jeremy and Yves emerging from their rooms. Dressed exactly like Jamie, and sporting legwarmers, the boys had tied the ribbon-laces of their slippers together and secured them to a side-tie on their tunics. Jamie smiled. It was an easy bet that he'd be seeing that new method all over the École within days.


“Ready?” Jamie asked.


“Yes!” Yves responded. Then, as he walked closer, he noticed the rich, bejeweled cape Jamie was wearing and added, “I can see you’re dressed to impress."


“All part of the act.” Jamie gave his friends a small, impromptu bow.


Rising from his bow, Jamie stood and waited for his three friends to reach him. When they did, he traded a quick kiss with each of them. Then, Jamie leading the way, they left the dormitory.


“All packed?” Jamie asked as they strolled out toward the quadrangle. There was no hurrying him now.


“I think so,” Jeremy replied.


“Brilliant idea, by the by,” Lucas ginned, “Getting us invited with you to Imperialas, I mean.”


“It was easier than I thought.” Jamie gave a coy smile. “All I had to do was mention to the Impresario that while the Emperor’s public birthday celebration was for the entire Empire, I’d like to present my own special gift to our beloved ruler. And when I suggested a private encore performance of the Redak staged at the Emperor’s summer palace, this time with Trio Chrysalis playing the part of the imperial troops to my Karkal Foss, Bollini couldn’t hide his excitement. I’m quite sure when he proposed it, he never let on that it was my idea, being more than happy to take all the credit for himself. It’s no different than the stage I designed. But in the end, what difference does it make? The only thing that counts is that I got the results I wanted."


“Jamie, I don’t know how you manage to pull these things off,” Yves chuckled.


Jamie stopped his advance down the hall and turned to face his friends. “Uhm... well, maybe I learned a few things from those devious boys of Trio Chrysalis,” he said with a grin. “I seem to recall that during my first weeks at the school, some dancers got themselves out of trouble by bribing one of the grounds keepers with tickets to the opera house.”


“Oh, my! Can you believe it? Scandalous!” Lucas replied in mock outrage and disgust.


Jeremy and Yves grinned and Jamie could no longer suppress the laugh he’d been holding in. But standing with his friends, Jamie’s smile suddenly vanished. His face took on a serious and thoughtful expression, and he shot the boys of the trio a look of absolute intensity.


“I want to thank you for everything during these last three weeks,” he began.


“You don’t...” Jeremy began, only to stop when Jamie raised his hand.


“Yes, I do. I turned to you for help, and you never refused me. Along with Castor and Nic, you three have worked tirelessly for me. You’ve done more than I ever had any right or even the courage to ask. All the extra planning and practices, your time spent with the juniors, your ideas to help make all this work, even while you were in the midst of perfecting your own act, well... I can’t begin to put a value on it. But most of all, I want to thank you for three years of friendship through some of the worst times of my life. I love you all so much.”


“Well, first of all,” Jeremy said, “You helped us put our own act together, so we must also thank you. Second, we finally got to find out what you were up to, and I don’t mean just what you have planned for tonight. Third, you’ve also taught us a lot. Fourth, we couldn’t have asked for a more amazing friend than you, Jamie, and finally...”


“...we all know who we’re really doing it for,” Lucas cut in, giving Jamie a sad and sober look.


There was a silent pause as each boy, lost in his own thoughts, stood quietly for a few seconds reflecting on their private memories. Considering the extreme schedules the four of them had been keeping for the last many weeks, that moment of stillness and silence was, in its way, a great tribute to the boy on all of their minds. In the weeks following Cristophe’s death, the halls of the École Danse that had always echoed with the whirring sound of servos and motors from the boy’s chair, had been painfully quiet. His room had been stripped and the door locked. Gone, and with deep regrets, was the smiling face and warm gentle voice that had greeted them every day.


Executing a quick spin, Jamie broke the mood and continued down the hall, his friends following on his heels. They had a job to do, and they knew who it was for. Walking purposely through the quad, they approached the recently landed hov. Climbing aboard they quickly took their seats and strapped in. While they’d made the trip to the grand opera house many times on foot, and the distance to the Crystal Sphere was only a bit further, the Impresario’s office had nevertheless requested the hov and decked it out with banners emblazoned with the symbol of the École. When it landed at The Hall of the Crystal Sphere, banners streaming in the light summer breeze, the triumphant entrance of Jamie and his three friends on their way to prepare for the evening's performance would be captured by the vid crew Impresario Bollini had hired. Meant to add to the hyperbole of the event, clips recording the action would later be spliced into the many vids created to recap the day and Jamie’s special performance.


Each year the anniversary of the Emperor’s birth constituted the single most important news story of the day, but this year's celebration was even more special since it was a commemoration of Enrick’s fiftieth year of life, along with the silver anniversary of his ascension to the sun throne. People woke up to find every one of the news, telecommunications, and net feeds devoting large blocks of space to the noble ruler of the glorious Empire.


Stories of Enrick’s childhood and early life, along with clips of his marriage, coronation, and the birth of his children played over and over. Commentators discussed his remarkable achievements, while panels of scholars, scientists, and academics debated the accomplishments of the great man’s life along with the grand and noble deeds of House Blackwell. As the news feeds progressed throughout the day, not one reference to the mysterious plague and its consequences was made; only the glorious history of the Empire, and its current leader, were discussed.


The capstone of the day’s coverage would be the spectacular birthday gala, vidcast live from the Hall of the Crystal Sphere. A five-hour program had been planned, bringing together only the finest performers of the Empire. The highlight of the celebration would be a stunning performance by Trio Chrysalis followed by the final act – what the Impresario’s office was billing as a once in a lifetime presentation by the Emperor’s favorite performer, Prince Jamie de Valèn.


In an attempt to heighten interest in the event and distract the people, vids of the young prince had been broadcast for weeks leading up to the event. Excerpts of Jamie’s most memorable dances, and clips of his private life including scenes of him both practicing and socializing, were shown again and again. Each segment would always end with one of three scenes: Jamie executing an extended flying arabesque, being draped in the fabulous sun cloak, or performing his signature move – the Valèn Vortex.


First presented the night Jamie performed the Redalta for the Gahdar of Castle Rood, the Vortex was an amazing spin almost beyond description. With his wings tightly wrapped around his body while spinning mid-air at a speed so dazzlingly fast, Jamie would appear as no more than a blur. But it was the precision of the breathtaking stop that made the move so incredibly difficult – and memorable. Ending the spin by rapidly thrusting his arms and wings outward with such jarring abruptness it should have snapped the boy’s neck, the move was always astounding no matter how many times one viewed it. In the tradition of naming a special move after its creator, the Impresario’s office was quick to coin the name Valèn Vortex, a term Jamie hated even more than the bright red lip paint he was required to wear, or his degrading, stupid title: Prince of La Mondele Royale. 


The hov began its ascent and the boys sat back in their seats.


“Is it really his birthday?” Yves asked, still surprised at the almost unbelievable coincidence.


“Yes,” Jamie’s voice rose over the whine of the hov. For some reason, if he chose, Jamie could divine the date of decantation, hence the official birth date, of any Icarian he met and scanned. He wasn’t sure why, but since the ability had arisen around the same time as his ability to tap into the net, he guessed it might have something to do with the large data base in his head, now enhanced by the cataloging ability of The Screen, that might account for the phenomenon. Jamie was unable to perform the same feat on humans unless he could link directly to the planetary database.


Like all inhabitants of the planet, he knew the facts surrounding the Emperor’s birthday and the history of the imperial birthday celebration. In the manner of some monarchs of past eras, Enrick’s real birth date and the day it was celebrated were two distinct events. The third day of the month of Soli wasn’t Enrick’s true birthday, but since the actual date of the imperial birth was in the winter months and His Imperial Presence preferred the summer, the official date of the Emperor’s birth had been moved; a minor and unimportant point. But it genuinely was the anniversary of the day of Cristophe’s decantation.


Long before Cristophe’s death, Jamie had known that fact when he learned the date of the emperor’s birthday celebration, and he’d planned his act around that fact to honor his friend and brother-in-spirit, both as a way to show his love for Cristophe, and to thank the master prefect for everything he'd done for Jamie. After Cristophe’s demise he’d mentioned it to his three friends, and they, too, became driven by the knowledge that this would be their tribute to the boy all four of them felt was truly the greatest dancer in the history of La Mondele Royale.


The hov powered up and spun on its central axis as it rose into the sky. Jamie looked out the window and waved at Castor; the Kalorian sketched a salute in return. Turning back to his friends, Jamie looked at them and smiled. After reaching its cruising height, the hov began to move forward. Its pace would be slow and its route circuitous; a chance to give the aerial vid crews plenty of time to film Jamie’s approach to the Crystal Sphere while continuing to build a sense of anticipation for those viewing the live media and net broadcasts. Since security protocol demanded that the emperor arrive at the Crystal Sphere in a shroud of secrecy, Jamie’s entrance was the next best thing. Those in authority at the school, in an attempt to capitalize on Jamie’s popularity, had chosen to showcase their best dancer in a way that would maximize the boy’s exposure.


At the very moment Jamie’s hov was skimming through the late afternoon sky over Küronas, a military transport hov was preparing to lift off from one of the large practice fields on the eastern edge of the Gahdar training center. As the engines began to hum, a strange, small smile came to Niklas Agramos’ face.


The day following Alexander’s death, Jamie and Nic had met in Nic’s room at the Gahdar Training Complex in Piropolis.  Both boys, now provisionally mated, had decided to move forward with Jamie’s plan, but Nic had a suggestion.


“Would you trust me with something?” Niklas had quietly asked, giving Jamie a searching look as he’d reached out to take the prince’s hand.


“I’d trust you with my life, Niklas,” Jamie replied soberly, “If I didn’t, we wouldn’t have...”


“No. It’s not exactly about you and me,” Nic interrupted. “I’d like to tell the Gahdar,” he blurted out, “They’re my family. I want them to know. They can help us. We need them.”


“But there are over a hundred of them.” Jamie tried unsuccessfully to repress the gasp that nevertheless escaped, while his face mirrored the worried tone of his voice.


“And that’s exactly why we need them,” Nic calmly stated.


It wasn’t just the fact that Nic’s request had been completely unexpected. More importantly, Jamie’s first fear was that if too many knew of the plan, its chances of being successful might be put in jeopardy. But as Nic presented his argument along with the detailed reasoning behind it, Jamie had agreed; more out of his trust in Nic than his confidence in the unruly, unpredictable, and usually bellicose group of boys he’d started to become acquainted with at the training center. But in the end, he was convinced of the wisdom of Nic’s decision when he attended what he’d thought was an impromptu meeting of the boys, a meeting he later realized Niklas had carefully orchestrated.


After a typical practice session, the Gahdar always adjourned to the spa area that was on the first sub level of the training center. Equipped with large bathing pools and hydro-baths in addition to showers and steam rooms, there the boys would wash, soak, and relax. Upon completing their ablutions, they’d proceed to a large changing room to towel off and dress before going back to their barracks.


The first time Jamie’d entered the baths, he was surprised at how much he was reminded of his own experiences at the École Danse. Like the boys of the junior and senior troops, the act of bathing was a casual, communal experience. The general horseplay, shouting and posturing were exactly the same as he’d experienced firsthand at his own school. And he took note that it was also a time when the boys were left alone, without trainers or coaches.


Walking into the changing room, Nic announced that he needed to talk to the gladiators. A few of the boys had finished dressing, some only half so, while others, still toweling off, were naked. Appearing unconcerned with their level of preparation, Jamie was amazed at how quickly they all stopped whatever they were doing and moved to huddle around Nic, who was standing in one of the dressing alcoves; many of the boys took benches, some stood, still others, tucking back their wings, leaned against the wall. In moments, every Gahdar was present. Even more surprising was how sober and quiet the unruly boys had unexpectedly become.


Knowing his time was limited, Nic was clear and concise in his explanation and Jamie was amazed at how the boy who was now his pa’amore calmly and logically presented his case. Like a well-practiced advocate arguing in a courtroom, Nic laid out the situation far better than Jamie knew he himself could ever have done had Nic asked him to speak. And as Nic pressed forward, the young prince’s appreciation for the razor sharp intellect of the boy he’d chosen as his mate grew at least three fold. When Niklas finished, there was silence. Finally Julius, who had been standing next to his friend, put a hand on Nic’s shoulder.


“I’m with you, Le’ir Bahr a’Ronei, in this and all your endeavors,” he spoke with firm conviction but in a voice as soft and calm as a gentle breeze on a hot summer’s afternoon.


Miro, with only a small towel draped around his neck, his magnificent body looking as if it had been chiseled from the finest marble, moved to stand next to Nic. “As am I,” he added.


“And I,” David chimed in, half dressed and leaning up against a nearby wall with his arms across his bare chest.


Then one by one, without fanfare or posturing, each Gahdar pledged with sober resolution his support to the boy who was their leader.


“Then it's decided and agreed,” Nic said as his eyes scanned the room and his brother Gahdar.


“Hail, Niklas!” the boys answered in unison as all of them, including Miro and Julius, dropped to one knee.


“Thank you,” Nic replied, adding a quick “Carry on,” before walking away, allowing all of the Gahdar cohort to return to their previous preparations.


“Nic?” Jamie called out as he hastened to catch up with his mate.


Nic turned to look at Jamie.


“They agreed, but they didn’t question you – not even once! What’s more, they didn’t ask any of the particulars of the plan.”


“That’s because they understand that they’ll learn about the details when the time is right for them to receive that information. They also expect that when that time comes, the plan to be executed will have been carefully constructed, examined, discussed, deconstructed, and re-examined until it’s as close to perfect as possible. The only reason Gahdar seem to handle the unexpected and surprises in the arena is that there are few of them. Everything we do has a purpose and a plan. We always work hard in considering unexpected events and creating contingency plans. Then, when everyone else is surprised, we’re not.”


Jamie looked at Nic in amazement. He was beginning to understand why the Empire had mixed feelings about the gladiators of Castle Rood. As entertainment, they were interesting and exciting. As intelligent, battled trained warriors, they were to be feared.



“And they trust you enough to know it will be a good plan?” he finally asked.


“We’re a family,” Nic responded quietly.


“Of course,” Jamie simply nodded, “And they believe so much in you they can’t imagine you not succeeding, or ever leading them to failure,” the thought raced through Jamie’s mind as he shot Nic an intense look.


Remembering his lessons with Mobley, Jamie recalled what he’d learned about Escalad Agramos and the charismatic effect the great general had on most people, especially the troops he commanded.


“It is as if they simply put wings on him,” Jamie said in a whisper so quiet Nic didn't hear the boy’s remark.


“What did you say?” Nic asked. When he turned back to his pa’amore, he realized he was being speared by the piercing stare of Jamie’s blue-eyed gaze.


“That I love you, Niklas,” Jamie replied breaking the intensity of the mood as he reached out and tightly gripped Nic’s hand.


“And I you, Jamie,” Nic smiled at the young prince standing next to him.


It was the same smile Nic wore now as he recalled the moment. A series of strong vibrations shook him back to the present. He did a quick scan of the open bay of the hov. Before him, on a series of long, low benches bolted to the walls of the inner bulkhead and dimly lit, sat the entire Gahdar cohort of Castle Rood. At the front of the bay, behind the pilot seats he, Miro, Julius and David sat strapped into four jump seats. Earlier Nic and Julius had been conversing, while Miro and David had remained silent. But it wasn’t long until the twins got into their own discussion.


“A real war,” Miro finally spoke in a conspiratorial whisper. His white teeth glinted like the fangs of a hungry wolf while his face split into the broadest grin he could manage.


“Finally,” David added, laughing along with his brother, “No more artificial fights contrived for an audience. We get to battle in a real war, and actually make a difference. How many do you think we’ll get to kill?”


“Hard to say, little brother,” Miro’s laughter filled the bay of the hov, “but I can promise you that my tally will be far higher than yours.”


“All these years and still so misguided.” David’s eyes rolled in mock disbelief. “When the bodies are counted, I’ll clearly be the victor.”


“It’s not a matter of how many we can kill,” Nic frowned. “What will matter is how many we can save.”


“Where’s your sense of adventure?” David directed a cavalier chortle at Nic.


“And where’s your common sense?” Julius glowered at the twins. “Nic’s right, it’s about saving and protecting, not seeing who has the highest body count.”


“You’re only saying that because you know I’m going to beat you,” David chuckled, acting as if he hadn’t heard a single word Julius had said.


“They’re incorrigible,” Julius replied shaking his head at the twins before turning and looking to Nic.


The loud whine of the transport's engines rose to an ear splitting level ending all conversation as the giant craft began its ponderous ascent. Its destination was programmed and set: Imperialas.


In line with Nic and Jamie’s plan, Miro had advanced a proposal to the Emperor; since Miro and David were part of the imperial court, it was not uncommon for the twins to occasionally encounter the Emperor. On such occasions Enrick, a keen fan of the gladiator games, would always have a few remarks or questions for his personal Gahdar team. It was on one such occasion that Miro mentioned off-handedly that as part of the private imperial birthday celebration  in Imperialas, the Gahdar of Castle Rood might put on a private exhibition for the court; much like the encore performance Prince de Valèn was planning with Trio Chrysalis during his visit to the imperial summer residence. Delighted with the idea, Enrick ordered the event to proceed and tasked Miro and David with organizing it.


After Jamie’s hov was aloft, Castor stood for a few seconds and watched its ascent. When the hov shifted from vertical to horizontal flight, the Kalorian turned away and strode across the quad of the École at a brisk pace. His trek took him to the same central library on the Mountain of the Arts that Jamie often frequented. Entering the building, he approached the main desk and quickly caught the eye of the man standing behind it.


“You must be Jamie’s assistant, welcome.” Artur sounded a warm greeting, smiling widely.


“That is so,” Castor countered, returning Artur’s smile, though his was notably smaller and cooler.


“Jamie told me to expect you. It was kind of him to think of you, although I’m surprised you’ll be watching his performance on the net rather than in person. I would have thought you’d be accompanying him to the Crystal Sphere tonight.”


“That’s not possible,” Castor replied casually. “The prince and Trio Chrysalis are leaving for Imperialas immediately following their performance, and I need to finalize their arrangements. In fact, before their performance begins I’ll be using the net to take care of some final details. It’s the main reason I’m not back at the school simply watching the birthday gala on one of the vid screens: I need an interactive station.”


“Of course,” Artur still held onto his pleasant smile as he spoke to the older Kalorian. “In fact, I’ll take you directly to the informatics station the prince always uses when he’s here. He asked if it was possible, and I told him there wouldn’t be any problem honoring his request.” Artur escorted Castor to the Special Acquisitions Department, and after pointing out Jamie’s usual informatics station, prepared to leave.


“If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask,” Artur commented as Castor pulled out a stool to sit down. “You know, he’s a very nice boy,” Artur continued, “I remember when he first registered at the main desk to use the library. That was long before he was famous, of course.”


Although Castor nodded politely while he activated the display on the informatics station he remained silent, and Artur soon left. Entering a password and series of commands Jamie had given him, Castor tapped into the planetary information net and rapidly logged onto a secret channel Jamie had created a few days before. No sooner had Castor gained access to the channel than others, all in secure locations, began to log on to the system. All across the continent, the Kalorian elders of the so-called Second Empire signed on, and although Jamie had created the channel, it was Castor who was responsible for what was now happening.


Using the contacts he’d made over the years, Edmond Croal’s faithful major domo had set a series of events into motion that spread like wild fire throughout the Kalorian community. This evening, as the human population of the Empire watched the imperial gala birthday celebration, the Second Empire would hold an unprecedented council involving all the settlements on the continent. Moreover, the decision reached would require a unanimous vote of every elder of the Kalorian community, a vote cast only after consulting each of the communities they led. Its results would also be relayed planet wide, and to the Kalorian communities off planet on the moons of Argon and Ajax.


Castor sat patiently as each settlement elder logged on. After a few moments of testing the system, all users logged off and Castor dimmed the display screen. Having confirmed that the system worked, there would be no activity until the broadcast of the Emperor’s birthday celebration commenced. Castor rose from the stool he’d been sitting at and walked over to the large windows that overlooked the park. Folding his arms he stood surveying the serene green space that stretched out before him. His eyes caught a glittering reflection off in the distance. Craning his neck, Castor could see a portion of the top of the Crystal Sphere’s dome where it rose above the treetops of the park. The sun, reflecting off of the prism-like windows of the Sphere, created a magical, sparkling effect. Turning his back on the window, Castor began to scan the books and documents filling the shelves of the Special Acquisitions Department. Picking up a book that caught his eye, he began to peruse it. It would be some time before Jamie's performance when he'd again be able to access the net, and a bit of leisure time was not to be wasted.


Looking out the window of the hov, Jamie watched as the opera house came into view. The craft took only seconds to pass over it, but instead of continuing on to the Crystal Sphere it turned back and began to circle the structure.


“The vid crew wants a few clips of the hov over the opera house.” The pilot commented to his co-pilot. “They’ll tell us when we can break pattern.”


In the small palace that served as Savaron Loka’s Küronas residence, Prince Hippolito paced the length of his room like a tiger in a cage – a very agitated tiger. His beautifully tailored and regal attire for the evening, having been neatly placed on his bed an hour earlier by his Kalorian slave, lay ready for him to don, but the Prince of Hypernia ignored it. He’d bathed an hour before, but he was still wearing only a pair of silk shorts. The soft thudding of his bare feet as he paced back and forth across the parquet floor created a steady rhythmic sound that was so measured and precise it could have served as a metronome.


Although he’d been looking forward to the evening, Hippolito was angry at the news he’d received from his patron two hours before. What he couldn’t understand was why, not only the dancing troupe of Trio Chrysalis, but also the entire Gahdar cohort of Castle Rood was journeying to Imperialas after the evening’s celebration. He’d heard the official line from the Archduke, but Loka’s explanation only fueled his suspicions. He’d anticipated time alone with Jamie to press his suit. It was the reason he’d gotten the archduke to invite the dancer to Imperialas in the first place. Hippolito had worked hard to ensure success and he didn’t like the sudden possibility of having Jamie’s friends and a cohort of bone-headed Gahdar getting in the way.


“No one is going to ruin this for me,” he growled as he approached his bed.


Reaching out, he began to pick up one piece of clothing at a time and slip into it. When he was finished, he walked into his shoes, and then draped a magnificent cape, hanging on a nearby rack, over his shoulders. While he adjusted the cape, he walked over to his dressing table. There, setting in a velvet-lined wooden box, lay a beautiful diadem. It was a gift from the Archduke to mark Hippolito’s ascension to the title of Prince of Hypernia and Head of the Imperial House of History and Philosophy. The diadem was a lovely piece similar to the crowns chosen for the other princes of the future royal and imperial houses; a circlet woven from three bands of different colored gold to look like a golden braid. His crown, though, was slightly different: affixed to the diadem were six dark green gems, the loden green of House Loka, equally spaced around the band.


Walking to the mirror, Hippolito set the diadem on his head; his smile was pure self-satisfaction when he saw that its golden color perfectly complimented the locks of his black hair. Returning to the dressing table, he picked up a golden chain and draped it over his shoulders. It was similar to a larger and heavier chain of office Savaron Loka wore, and marked the boy’s attachment to his patron. Stepping back in front of the mirror, he gave himself one final examination.


“No, no one’s going to ruin this night for me,” Hippolito repeated softly as a sneering smile came to his face. “And woe to those who try.”


After a leisurely flight; far too leisurely for Jamie and his friends, the hov approached the Hall of the Crystal Sphere.


“Look at that!” Lucas exclaimed, pointing downward as he stared out the window.


“What?” Jeremy said, sounding a bit annoyed.


“My wings, look at all the flower stands!”


Jamie, Yves and Jeremy peered out their windows, looking down onto the Crystal Sphere. Usually on the night of a performance at the opera house, flower vendors would set up stands outside La Mondele. There they would begin selling bouquets and individual flowers, so that those attending the performance would have something to bestow on their favorite artists. While it wasn’t unusual to see quite a few stands in front of the opera house, there appeared to be mobs of them completely encircling the night's venue.


“The flowers tonight are free,” the co-pilot of the hov called out, after hearing Lucas' comment. “They’ve been making announcements throughout the day. The impresario’s office at your school paid for all of them. They want to ensure that the fans of every performer will be able to suitably honor them tonight.”


“Flowers,” Jamie almost spat out the word, quietly enough that only his friends sitting next to him could hear. “Typically human, giving us flowers instead of our freedom.”


“Paid for with the money we made for them,” Yves added, a frown coming to his face.


The hov made a gentle banking maneuver and landed softly on the large almand stone pavement in front of The Hall of the Crystal Sphere. Seconds after the hov’s hatch popped, Jamie and his friends emerged and were immediately surrounded by vid crews. Although there was some shouting and jostling, a member of the impresario’s office was there to greet the boys and escort them into the hall while ordering the vid crews to remain at a reasonable distance from the boys. A few vid crew members called out Jamie’s name, hoping to get him to turn in their direction so they could capture the young dancer at a better angle. Understanding the game, Jamie turned. His blue eyes flashed and a soft smile came to his face. To complete the picture he gave a cute, shy wave before turning to follow his friends.


“There, that should please them,” Jamie muttered under his breath.


“You do that so well,” Yves smirked, glancing back over his shoulder at him. “They’ve completely ignored us.”


“Yes, they used to always want to see us,” Jeremy quipped as he let out a chuckle, “but you’re their idol now. The three of us are quite jealous, you know.”


“Oh, I know how jealous you all are,” Jamie replied in mock annoyance. “You’re all so jealous you’re more than happy to let me carry the load.”


“Sorry,” Lucas’ voice took on an apologetic tone. “It’s just nice to not always be bothered by them. It’s too bad it has to come at your expense.”


“I’ll live,” Jamie rejoined, picking up the pace and striding ahead of his friends.


Once inside the hall, the boys entered a lift that dropped them two levels below the ground floor. Leaving the lift, they strolled into an expansive room that had been outfitted as a temporary practice studio. The room was large enough to hold all the dancers who would be performing, and seconds after opening the door, Jamie and his friends were caught up in the noise and chaos surrounding them.


In one part of the room, members of the senior troupe were practicing their act, dancing to musical accompaniment provided by a senior student from the music academy seated at a nearby piano.


A group of over twenty boys from the junior troupe were off in a corner, sitting quietly on the floor. While they hadn’t originally been scheduled to perform, the last minute changes Jamie had made to his program soon after the death of Cristophe included them, although it was Jeremy, Yves and Lucas who’d taken the lead in the younger boys' training.


The senior boys Jamie had selected to dance with him were also present. Dressed in their black tights, racerbacks and leg warmers, they’d assembled at the opposite end of the studio, and were just finishing up their stretching and pre-practice warm-up.


Jamie removed his cloak then he and his three friends quickly untied their sashes and shucked their tunics. Kicking off their sandals onto a pile near the entrance of the room they began to slip on their dancing shoes as one by one they tipped up their wings, flopped down on the floor, and began the task of lacing up their slippers.


“Better keep the leg warmers on, at least until after we stretch properly and warm up,” Yves suggested.


Jamie voiced his agreement. “After you do your own warm up and practice,” he reminded his friends, “I want you to gather the juniors together and have them do a few run-throughs,” then as an afterthought, he added, “I’ll practice with my group. The other seniors are on their own; we have nothing to do with their act.”


After a quick but thorough warm-up, Jamie peeled off his leg warmers and made his way over to the boys who would accompany him in his act. Yves, Jeremy and Lucas threaded through the crowd to the younger boys of the junior troupe. Soon the noise level in the room grew in intensity as more music, accompanied by shouted counting and the soft thud of dancing feet pounding on the large Marley mat covering the floor, echoed throughout the room.


The dancers' practice went on for more than two hours, with Jamie and his friends occasionally conferring. Finally, when he decided everyone in his act was ready, Jamie called an end to the practice session.


“Rest, and then get something to eat,” Jamie called out to all the dancers. “But make sure it’s light,” he quickly added. “You have just about two hours before you need to be in costume and make-up. Use the free time to relax. I’ll meet all of you three hours from now." No sooner had he spoken then all of the boys, including those of the senior troupe, begin a rush toward the door. “And no horseplay,” Jamie shouted out, his voice bouncing off the walls of the large room. “It won’t do us any good if someone gets hurt and can’t perform. We need everyone at one hundred percent.”


Some of the boys voiced their agreement, but most continued toward the door as if they hadn’t heard him.


“Dancers,” Lucas groused in mock disgust, “pretty boys, but not much else.”


Jamie, Yves and Jeremy all laughed at Lucas' rendition of a well-worn jab many of the other art students on the Mountain often hurled at the boys of the École Danse.


“If they only knew how smart some of us really were,” Lucas giggled, raising his eyebrows and giving Jamie a knowing look.


As Jamie and his friends were leaving the practice studio, in the imperial palace, Enrick the Thirty-First was concluding a brief cabinet meeting.


“We can continue this in Imperialas,” the Emperor stated, carefully closing the large leather portfolio sitting before him. His assistant swooped in to pick it up. Enrick pushed back his seat and stood as he visually scanned all those who’d been sitting around the conference table with him. “I wish to prepare for this evenings fete,” he smiled. “I assume all of you will be there?”


The small clutch of ministers, advisors and nobles all nodded and voiced their assent.


“Wonderful,” the Emperor’s smile grew. “I’ll see you then.”


Heading toward the door, Enrick called back over his shoulder, “Savaron, attend me.”


“Yes, my Emperor.” The Archduke of Imperialas rushed to catch up with Enrick.


As Loka approached the Emperor, the piercing look Renaud gave the archduke was more intense than usual.


“How are the preparations coming, Savaron?” The Emperor's gaze roved across the stern countenance of his principle advisor.


“Every deadline has been met, my Emperor.” The archduke of Imperialas' cold, hard stare met that of his ruler. “There’s little left to do, save executing your final command.”


“I’m pleased to hear it.” Enrick's thin-lipped, emotionless smile gave the man’s face a strange, waxy look. “Then we’re ready to begin?”


“As planned and as scheduled, my Emperor. We’ll evacuate to Argon the morning after your private birthday fete in Imperialas. In the meantime, we’ll strive to keep all appearances as normal as possible. Those who are to join us have been on standby for the past month. As we’ve discussed, the order will come at the last possible minute to allay any suspicions.”


“Excellent.” The emperor leaned closer to Loka’s ear. “I’ll be bloody well glad when this farce is over. It cost a fortune to maintain, and the Imperial accounts are lower than I’d prefer. I’m even looking forward to our extended sleep. I'm thinking that when we emerge, it might be a good time to restructure things. A lot of the nobility will be gone; we can appoint whomever we wish without any danger of internecine war or byzantine plots. And we’ll have the perfect excuse, since we’ll need to reconstruct.”


“Surely, my Emperor,”


“It will be difficult for a while, but at least we’ll be free of those bloody, dissatisfied Kalorians. We’ll certainly miss their labor, but once we get on our feet we can get Gold Glass to engineer a new species, only this time, a bit more docile.”


“Agreed.” The archduke raised an eyebrow. “Maybe we can make the next batch sterile to prevent their breeding like rabbits.”


The emperor barked out a deep, understanding laugh. “Remember Savaron, our goal remains unchanged. Although we’re not sure what we’ll find on Altinestra when we emerge, we’ll have a formidable army at our command; even, dare I say, an invincible one? And I intend to use them. Given all our careful preparations, it should be possible.”


“I can assure you that it will be quite possible, my Emperor.”


“Don’t think I’ve forgotten your hand in this, my dear friend.” The Emperor’s smile never reached his eyes. “With the exogates blocked by the Commonwealth, your back-up plan grows more attractive every day. I look forward to seeing the look on their faces once we unleash the power we’ve been hiding. I dare say it’s been tempting. I don’t like sitting on my hands while the bloody Commonwealth makes us look like eunuchs. It will be a vengeful treat to wield the knife that emasculates them.”


“Indeed, my Emperor. Indeed, it will.” The narrowing of the archduke’s eyes combined with the stiffening of Loka’s back and the pronounced jut of the man’s chin was clear enough expression of his inner feelings.


The soft, whirring sound of an electric motor faded into silence and Jamie gestured to his friends. After the lift dropped them off at the ground floor of the hall the boys proceeded to their dressing room. While it was normal practice for Jamie and his friends to have separate dressing rooms, He’d requested that Trio Chrysalis be allowed to change with him, a request easily granted. When the boys entered their joint, larger than normal dressing room, they discovered a bountiful table generously piled with food.


“I’m starving.” Lucas rushed at the table.


“And this is new?” Yves quipped, following at a more leisurely pace.


“Just don’t overeat,” Jeremy warned. "We don’t need you sinking like a stone because your belly is so full.”


“It’s all light and nutritious.” Lucas rolled his eyes. “And it’s not like this is my first time onstage. All of you can eat what you want and I’ll eat what I want. I know my limit.”


Jeremy and Yves looked at each other and began to laugh.


“I’m glad you think so,” Yves chuckled. “We’ve never seen it yet.”


Ignoring his detractors, Lucas grabbed a plate and began to pile it high with food. Following in his wake, Jeremy and Yves did the same. Jamie sat on a nearby stool.


“Not joining us?” Lucas asked.


“I’m really not hungry.” Jamie’s expression was flat and unreadable.


“Thinking about your pa’amore,” Jeremy smirked.


Jamie simply looked at him.


“Oh yes,” Yves chortled, rolling his eyes, “and once more Jeremy Fouquet proves to the world how impossible it is for him to keep his mouth shut and his thoughts to himself. What’s the matter with you, Jeremy? You know you aren’t supposed to say anything, no? Maybe you’d like to make an announcement on the net?”


Realizing his error, Jeremy ducked his head. “Sorry,” he quickly apologized. “I know I often speak without thinking. Really, I am sorry, Jamie. It won’t happen again.”


“Until the next time,” Lucas grunted.


“As if you never make a mistake,” Jeremy retorted, his tone barbed.


“Listen...” Lucas stood up to face Jeremy.


“Enough,” Jamie’s voice rose slightly. “It’s ok. We’re all a little on edge... nerves.”


Nodding their agreement, the three boys ate in silence. Jamie played absentmindedly with his sash, rolling and unrolling it over and over again.


After eating, the boys engaged in a little small talk, but for the most part remained lost in their own thoughts, until a knock on the door refocused them and their costumers and make-up artists entered the room. Jamie’s outfit was simple: a one-piece set of tights with iridescent sequins to match the iridescence of his wings, but the outfits of Trio Chrysalis were a riot of colors.


For their act, the boys had chosen to play off their name and appear as butterflies. Once in costume, make-up artists – one pair for each boy – began working on transforming the trio’s wings into the beautiful and quite distinctive appendages of the lark-spur butterfly, one of the most colorful on the planet.


Jamie’s make up was simple and his wings untouched so he watched the transformation of his friends in fascination. Unlike the goopy muck sprayed on his wings as a junior, the delicate colors and light paint complimented rather than masked the exquisite wings of his friends.


When all the preparations were complete, the costume and make-up crews exited and the boys were left alone and undisturbed. All premier acts were handled with kid gloves just prior to performance time, and Jamie and his friends were no exception. Everyone involved in the entertainment sector of the empire knew how important it is for an artist to mentally prepare for the task at hand, and how anything that might intrude, distract or upset must be avoided at all possible cost.


After fifteen minutes of silence Jamie, dipped his pinky into the small, open jar of red lip paint sitting before him, and then leaning over the makeup table he was sitting at, he looked closely at his image and lightly daubed the red color to his lips. After expertly blotting his lips with a tissue, he used it to wipe the excess color off his finger. With a brisk sweep of his hand Jamie brushed the ever-cascading shock of hair from his eyes. As he did, a reflection of the three rings he was wearing on his right hand caught his eye. One by one, he removed them; the last being the one given to him by the Emperor. After setting them neatly in a row on the make-up table, he picked up his discarded tunic, fished in one of its pockets and pulled out the ring he’d taken from the hand of Cristophe. Slipping it on, he looked down at the small asp circling his finger, its ruby eyes sparkling in the bright lights of the makeup mirrors. Satisfied and prepared, Jamie stood and turned to his friends, stretching his hands out to them.


“Tonight, we honor the greatest dancer in the history of La Mondele Royale,” he said softly.


Yves, the first to stand, clasped one of Jamie’s hands firmly. “For Cristophe” he said.


“Cristophe,” Jeremy added, rising up and taking one of Yves' hands.


“Cristophe,” Lucas whispered as he joined hands with Jeremy and Jamie.


For a few seconds all four boys looked at each other. Finally, Jamie spoke again: “Time to go,” he said. His back suddenly took on the stiff and straight posture of a soldier going into battle. “We have a war to fight, and the first volley gets fired tonight.” Breaking their grip, Jamie spun around and headed towards the dressing room door.


While the boys were occupied with costuming and make-up, the Emperor and his court arrived at the Hall of the Crystal Sphere via one of the transport gates from the Imperial Palace. In reality, they were some of the only gates in all of the Empire still in operation. As each member of the court and royal family stepped out of the gate, they were immediately greeted and whisked away to a secure area of the hall where a grand buffet awaited them. It was only after first eating and socializing that they would finally make their way to the large arena where the performance would take place.


Glancing over at the enormous buffet with its endless variety of food and requisite ice sculptures, Hippolito sniffed. He wasn’t all that hungry. Sipping a glass of champagne, the only sign that he’d been waiting more than a little impatiently was the tapping of the toe of one exquisitely leather clad foot.


Since Savaron Loka had to attend a cabinet meeting and personally accompany the Emperor, Hippolito had remained behind at the Archduke’s residence. Later, he’d flown his own private hov to the Hall of the Crystal Sphere, where he'd had to park a lot further from the arena than he'd wished. And lovely as they were, the shoes he was wearing were not made for walking much distance. Annoyed and bored, he was about to start pacing when the Emperor and his court were announced. The room became quiet when the holder of the Sun Throne entered. Enrick strode into the room, occasionally pausing to nod or greet some of those assembled. As the Emperor walked toward Hippolito the newly named prince assumed a regal stance, a broad and quite disingenuous smile blooming on his face.


Enrick continued to approach and Hippolito smiled even more broadly as he executed a deep, ceremonial bow. Seconds passed, but nothing happened. Snapping his head up, his face registered a look of surprise and chagrin when he realized that the Emperor had brushed past him without even the slightest acknowledgement. Rising from his bow, he found himself looking at the Emperor’s backside, as well as those of the imperial entourage. Only Renaud, walking a few paces behind Enrick, turned to give the boy the coldest of stares – a look that forced the usually cool and calm prince to shudder.


Upon leaving their dressing room, Jamie and his friends were hustled down a series of hallways until they came to a spot where two very large men stood guard in front of opposite doors. Upon seeing them, one of the men opened the door he was guarding. The boys entered and Jamie realized that the space had been turned into a large green room; one of the largest he’d ever seen. A number of the evening’s solo performers were there, along with their entourages and assistants. Quickly scanning the room, Jamie noticed one absence in particular.


“Where’s Damien?” he inquired of a woman carrying a communicator and clip-board.


“In the other room, across the hall,” she replied before she hurried away in response to urgent noises coming from her com unit.


Walking back out of the green room, Jamie and his friends crossed the hall and approached the second door; the man guarding it swung it open for them. Inside, Jamie noticed that it was not as luxuriously appointed as the other green room, and that it was quite a lot noisier. The younger boys of the junior troupe were there en masse and talking loudly. The senior boys, a bit further from the door, were joking, posturing and even flirting with each other, and his own troupe were all sitting on the floor, involved in a boisterous game of charades. In addition to the dancers other supporting players were there, including the choir who were warming up their vocal chords, performing a series of voice exercises. The sensory overload was almost more than he could bear. No sooner had he entered the space then Damien walked up, smiling gently.


“They told me you were here,” Jamie said, speaking loudly.


“I wanted to be with the choir.”


“I understand. I prefer to be with my troupe, too,” he nodded, turning toward the boys he’d be performing with just as Anthony leapt up from the floor cheering and clapping his hands after having guessed the correct answer to Tyler’s charade.


Moving closer to Damien, Jamie lowered his voice. “Can I have a word?”


“Surely,” Damian smiled, and led Jamie to an unoccupied corner of the room.


“This place is bedlam,” Lucas laughed.


“And the mice only make it worse,” Jeremy chuckled as one of the little boys from the junior troupe, who was being chased by another miniature dancer, bumped into him. “I wish Jamie hadn't decided to include them.”


“You know why,” Yves replied. “The audience is going to get the shock of their lives tonight.”


“It’s going to be wicked,” Lucas added, a large grin breaking across his face.


“Wicked or not, we’re supposed to be in charge of them,” Yves said. “We’d better gather them up. I know Jamie wants to talk to everyone.”


As he spoke, Yves looked over to where Jamie was involved in a rather animated conversation with Damian. As the school’s premier dancer spoke to its premier singer, Yves noticed that Jamie kept pointing to his arm, the one he always wore the intricate and ornate asp bracelet on. The absence of the beautiful bracelet on the boy’s arm was unusual. From the moment he’d begun wearing it months before, Jamie’s attachment to it had surprised Yves. Although not particularly enthralled with the many gifts of jewelry he received, Jamie nevertheless almost always wore the bracelet, even during a performance. It was something he appeared genuinely attached to and quite fond of. That it was now absent seemed rather odd.


“I know you have a few things to say.” Damian’s conversation with Jamie was beginning to wind down. “I’ll quiet down the choir for a bit, so you can speak. In any case, we’ll continue to talk after we reach Imperialas.”


Jamie nodded his agreement, thanked Damian for his time, and walked to the front of the room. Once there, he turned around just in time to hear the choir become silent and see that the little boys of the junior troupe had been rounded up into a small pack.


“Your attention, please,” Jamie began as he clapped his hands together loudly in order to bring the rest of the room to silence. It took a few moments but the room finally grew silent. “First, thank you for all your hard work. I know it hasn’t been easy, especially with the last minute changes I introduced. But I also know that each of you will perform to the very best of your ability and perhaps even a bit beyond. Tonight is a special night, and I’m glad we’re all in it together. Thank you.”


As those in the room began to turn away from Jamie and resume their conversations, he called out once more.


“I still need to speak to the juniors and my own troupe, so please come forward.”


Yves, Jeremy and Lucas shepherded the boys from the junior troupe toward the front of the room. Some of the older juniors remembered Jamie from his days in the troupe, and had witnessed his amazing debut and spectacular rise to fame. But most of the younger and newer members stood wide-eyed and in awe of the boy who was now the premier dancer of the Empire.


“Look at them staring at him,” Jeremy grinned. “It’s like they’re looking upon a god.”


“Shhhh,” Yves hushed his friend.


For a few seconds Jamie’s eyes scanned the boys in the junior troupe. While the juniors were a breeding ground for new talent, the troupe had always been relegated to second fiddle, never allowed to step out and shine. And under the iron fist of Sprague, their oppression had been harsh and cruel. A smile came to Jamie’s lips. “That’s going to change tonight," he thought with considerable satisfaction.


“You’ve all impressed me very much,” Jamie began. “We gave you a difficult task and you did it well. I’m terribly proud of you. And I’m very proud that I was once a junior just like all of you are now. I know I didn’t work much with you on your routine, but you did everything Trio Chrysalis taught you, and more. I want to especially thank them, and all of you, for everything you’ve done. Are you ready?”


The boys of the junior troupe nodded solemnly. Jamie smiled at them. “Good. Remember to listen carefully to the music. You’ll be cued in when to join us. If you happen to make a mistake, just keep going. No one’s going to punish you. I know you’ll all do great.”


After Jamie was finished, the boys of the junior troupe moved to the back of the room. Jamie, now concentrating on the boys who would be dancing with him, approached the group. In costume and make-up, they all stood quietly with their eyes focused on Jamie.


“Every one of you has worked harder than I had any right to ask,” Jamie began. “You never complained, you never backed down, and you practiced until you got it right. Even when I made some big changes in the last three weeks, you accepted it, and you excelled. You’re all very professional and talented. I’m proud to be dancing with the best of the best.”


At Jamie’s words, smiles came to the dancer’s faces and many of the boys stood a little taller.


“Now,” Jamie’s face took on a hard and serious look, a look that the boys of his troupe had seen many times before. They, in turn, zeroed in on what he was about to say. “Remember everything we practiced. Make sure you know where you’re stepping before you make a move. Keep at least five dance steps in your mind ahead of your feet. You know I personally don’t care if you make a minor mistake, but given what we’re doing tonight, even a small error could mean death.”


Many of the boys nodded. Each dancer had a sober look on his face.


“The first part of the act is unchanged. It’s after the coda when the fourth movement begins that I’m most concerned about. Timing is critical. Just like I told the juniors, listen to the music, count, count, count, and keep counting.”


“Precisely two minutes after the juniors appear,” Jamie continued, though now looking directly at Marcus and Trevor, I want to see you two on either side of me. That means both of you are going to have to execute your grand jeté at exactly the same time and since it’s à la seconde, Trevor, you’ll be coming from the right side and Marcus’ll be coming from the left. You’re not going to be landing on a stage, but in the air, so you won’t have any marks to follow. Just remember how I showed you to fix the spot in your minds. And don’t forget to hit your fullest split at the apex of the jump. Because we have wings we don’t have to push our weight as far forward as human dancers do, so you’ll naturally be able to glide instead of having to create the illusion humans must strive for, but that doesn’t mean you still don’t have to aim for absolute perfection.”


And although both boys had heard the same remarks from Jamie time and again, a single nod of the head conveyed their understanding.


“After the three of us are lined up,” Jamie returned to addressing all the boys, “the fouetté together is critical: it sets the stage for everything else. But first we all do our series of changement de pieds that get us synchronized as a group. When the fouetté en tournant series comes, they won’t know what hit them. It’s the last thing anyone would expect us to do at that height and under the conditions we’ll be dancing. If it doesn’t rip the roof off the Sphere, nothing will.”


“If not, I can think of something else that will for sure,” Lucas whispered to Yves and Jeremy, and all three boys began to grin.


“Are we all ready?”


Nods and affirmative replies came in response.


“Good,” Jamie said. Turning to Yves, Jeremy and Lucas he added “Let's go,” as he headed toward the door. Moving quickly, the three boys caught up with their friend and all four boys began to exit the room, but as he started to turn the door handle, Jamie stopped and spun around. “Merde!” he called out to the boys in the room. It was the ballet form of good luck.


In the grand salon, a series of chimes rang. “Ahh, good, it’s time,” Enrick said. He’d been getting bored with the endless small talk, the overt posturing of his advisors and the simpering deference of his nobles. Walking toward the door, he joined the Empress and together they made their way to the imperial box that had been specially constructed for the evening’s singular performance.


Since the performance was in the arena and there wasn’t a proper stage, Jamie and his friends couldn’t stand in the wings and watch as they usually did during performances at the opera house. Instead they stood before a large vid screen that had been set-up in the green room.


As the vid cameras panned the arena they could see that the orchestra was now in place. Philippe, standing at the conductor’s podium was giving his final instructions to the Avionne musicians who made up the imperial orchestra. To Philippe’s right stood two tall glowing tubes. Corpus harps, and Jamie could see his two nearly naked Kalorian friends quietly standing inside. Behind the orchestra, the choir had begun to come on stage and were taking their seats. They would remain there, quiet until it was their turn to perform.


The vid cameras then panned the noisy crowd of clapping and cheering people who were being entertained by performers presenting a series of diversionary acts to keep them amused as the lighting, sound and stage crews conducted their final tests and adjustments. As Jamie watched he could see that virtually every one of the audience was holding at least one flower if not bunches of bouquets. Turning away, he shook his head.


But then only seconds later, he did a quick pirouette when he heard the blare of trumpets and the loud and distinctive rush of sound that comes only from a vast crowd of people moving from sitting to standing on a mass scale. Staring at the screen he could see that Enrick and his court were entering the imperial box.


The box, placed high above the general fixed row seats in the arena, was enclosed in Alagrex, a bomb and shatter proof glass. Highly prized and extremely valuable, it was one of the special materials created by the industrial/scientific complex of Altinestra; before the Commonwealth’s series of embargos, it had helped contribute to the economic success of the planet. That it was being used to ensure the safety of the Emperor came as no surprise. Jamie, more than most, knew that the current political climate of both the Commonwealth and the Empire had recently pushed security concerns to paramount levels.


The trumpets continued to blare as first the imperial fanfare, then the overture and march were played. When it was finished, everyone remained standing and the arena became quiet. A single trumpet sounded, and the orchestra launched into the anthem of the Empire. The Emperor stood ramrod straight and remained silent. Everyone else, including the Empress, sang along as they accompanied the orchestra. When the anthem was concluded Enrick raised his silver baton and the crowd roared. Seconds later the emperor took his seat, followed by the court and then the audience. The main event was about to begin.


The first person on stage was Edgar Houtte, one of the most popular and premier presenters for the Imperial News Network and host of the evening’s festivities. Houtte would keep the program running smoothly, providing short introductions to the acts, along with brief commentaries and the light, self-deprecating humor that had made him famous.


After making the initial introductions, Houtte announced the first act of the evening: Jona van Griek, a dashing young man who’d quickly become one of the most popular human singers of the empire, and it was rumored, a favorite of the empress. He, along with his accompanying group, put on an exciting and entertaining performance of popular song and dance. Other human performers, singers, dancers and musicians, each took their turn. There was even a comedian who, it was claimed, had been selected by the Emperor himself. And while his comments were funny, Jamie noted that nothing even slightly satirical about the Emperor, or the Empire, was on the list of the comic’s humorous topics.


Performance followed performance as, one by one, the acts began to whittle down to the Avionne performers. Just before they commenced, an intermission was called. Thirty minutes later, the arena had refilled and the air was electric with anticipation.


Houtte once more appeared on the stage in his role as master of ceremonies, and the Emperor’s birthday gala continued. Two Avionne boys, gifted pianists from the École Music, sat down at matching grand pianos and played a lighting fast rondo and capriccio that had the audience clapping and shouting for more. A string quartet played a beautiful pastoral, and then wild applause roared like a tidal wave through the arena when Houtte introduced the next act by announcing the name of Damian Chaumont. Everyone, it seemed, knew who he was and loved his performances.


Seconds later the orchestra tore into a Kalorian folk tune with dizzying speed while behind the stage set a voice as clear as a bell echoed through the arena. At first Jamie couldn’t tell if the cheering of the vast crowd or the crystal clear voice of the lone singer would triumph, but the instant Damian parted the curtain and moved center stage his voice rose an octave and no amount of cheers or applause could overpower the crystal clarity of the boy’s incredibly beautiful voice.


Back in the central library on the Mountain of the Arts, Castor was monitoring the evening’s performance. As soon as Damian took the stage he knew that for at least the next hour and a half most of the empire would be watching as the Avionne boys presented their acts. Seconds after Damian began to sing, Castor’s fingers began dancing across the informatics screen as, one by one, data points across the Empire merged into the covert super channel Jamie had created. After a few minutes he was looking at the result: an electronic council meeting of Kaloria, the Second Empire.


A face appeared on his screen. It was Orran Deber, the senior-most elder of Delta; a vast settlement located near the head of the river delta at Imperialas.


“I will act as chief spokesman, relaying and disseminating all information,” Orran began. “I also control a kill switch. We have someone monitoring the net, and at the first sign of infiltration all transmission will immediately cease. Let us hope we can come to a resolution before that happens.”


Castor watched in silence as the electronic debate began. And although he knew, given the topic of the debate, that the tension was oppressively crushing, it wasn’t until he became conscious of the salty taste of blood in his mouth that he realized he’d inadvertently bitten his own tongue.


Striding back and forth across the stage with a broad smile on his face, Damian continued to sing. His lively songs were so full of such joy and happiness that anyone hearing them could do no less then smile along with the singer; though more than a few cried. Jamie continued to monitor Damian’s performance and as he watched, he began to see that each piece Damian presented was crafted with such incredible virtuosity Jamie doubted anyone else could have successfully sung them.


It was as if the boy had created a grand and glorious carnival of song and everyone there had become part of the heady ride. Recalling Cristophe’s description of Damian’s Grand Escalades, the day the singer had performed at Eagles Rock, Jamie could see why he’d instantly been snapped up by the Emperor, as a slave, the dark thought unexpectedly intruded on his enjoyment of Damian’s performance.


When Damian was done, he was virtually pelted with flowers as the crowd cheered themselves hoarse. Even the Emperor rose from his seat, and the entire arena gave the boy a long and warm standing ovation. After Damian left the stage, Edgar Houtte returned, making a few witty comments while the audience sorted themselves. With a performer's practiced timing, when he judged the mood ready, Houtte announced the next act: the senior troupe from the École Danse.


The audience applauded as the senior boys from the school of dance took the stage. The act was quite good, although Jamie knew it would have been better had he not plucked some of the schools best dancers to form his own troupe. Still the performance was spectacular and received the proper applause and recognition it deserved.


“We’re next,” Jeremy grinned, purposely brushing one of his wings against one of Jamie’s.


The boys left the green room and Jamie followed. In the hallway they kissed goodbye, wishing each other luck and parted. As Trio Chrysalis went off to the stage, Jamie, now alone, decided to return to his troupe.


The large room, once full of performers, was now empty save for the juniors and the boys of Jamie’s troupe. A vid screen had also been placed in the room and Jamie walked over to it.


“Are Jeremy, Yves and Lucas next?” Adrian, one of the boys from Jamie’s troupe asked.


“Yes,” Jamie’s eyes were locked onto the screen.


No sooner had Jamie spoken when he heard Edgar Houtte begin his introduction of Trio Chrysalis. Seconds later a burst of music, erupting from the orchestra, ripped through the arena like an exploding stun grenade, and so did three boys who suddenly swooped out of nowhere onto the stage.


To simply call the young men dancers, or even acrobatic dancers didn't begin to do them justice, given the incredible musculature, flexibility, and articulation Gold Glass had endowed them with. As they danced, they twisted and turned in ways bodies weren’t supposed to be able to move. And when they took to the air, the effect was indescribable. As the dance progressed the boys, not content to remain on the stage or even the air above the stage, began to use the vast air space of the entire arena as their performance area.


Jamie stood watching his friends with a grin he couldn’t suppress. When Jamie’d told them of his plans to honor Cristophe, the boys began to describe what they, as Trio Chrysalis, would like to present. Tapping into the same knowledge of mathematics, physics and aerodynamics he’d used for his own act, Jamie had helped his friends craft a truly unforgettable performance; a performance that at that very moment was bringing down the house.


“They’re incredible,” a voice coming from behind Jamie said. "I will, quite simply, never be able to do some of the things that they do. For me, and for most of the rest of us, it has to be enough to be able to do the things we can do as well as those three do the things they can do."


Turning a bit, Jamie discovered that Trevor was standing directly behind him, gazing pensively at the performance on the screen.


“Yet, as amazing as they are, our act is even more amazing,” he added, still staring up at the screen.


“It’s not about who’s better, Trevor,” Jamie said, as he turned further to look at the boy straight on.


“I know,” Trevor replied as he watched Yves, Jeremy and Lucas execute one spectacular move after another. “You taught me that. But still, it’s true, isn’t it? What we’re about to do, no one has ever done before."


“Yes,” Jamie replied softly.


A few minutes into Trio Chrysalis' act the door of the green room opened and an assistant to the stage manager entered. “It’s time to go,” he called out.


Jamie shouted out to the juniors, who scurried forward to crowd around him while the boys from his own troupe stood slightly further away. As everyone exited the room, Jamie noticed one small, tow-headed boy, possibly the newest and youngest member of the junior troupe, standing before one of the tall mirrors of the green room.


“I’m not a girl,” he hissed in disgust. “I hate this lip paint.” Jamie watched as the boy leaned into the mirror to get a better look at his lips.


“I hate it too,” Jamie said as he walked up behind the young boy.


The boy jumped, and as he looked up into the mirror. The young dancer’s eyes met Jamie’s. Quickly he turned when he realized who was standing behind him. "My lord..." he began, but Jamie, holding up a finger to silence him, walked over to a nearby table, retrieved a tissue, and returned to stand in front of him. Jamie folded the tissue in half. “Do this,” he said, then put the tissue near his mouth and pretended to blot his lips with it. Accepting the tissue from his idol, the young dancer mimicked Jamie. “The make-up artists always put it on a little thick,” Jamie added. “If you learn to do this, it won’t look as bad. Now, let's go, hmm?”


Leaving the room, they walked together through the halls and corridors of the Crystal Sphere until they finally arrived at the tunnel that led to the floor of the arena.


While all the other acts had immediately gone onto the main stage, Jamie and his dancers would start their performance on the floor of the arena directly in front of the main stage. Leading his group down the tunnel they stopped at the entrance and waited. Jamie silently stood near the tunnel’s entrance, at the point where it spilled out onto the arena floor.


“Look at all of them,” a youthful sounding voice said in soft-spoken awe. Jamie felt someone pressing close behind him. Glancing down, he saw it was the same small boy from the junior troupe who’d complained about his lip paint. The little dancer was peering around Jamie and out into the arena. The boy's eyes scanned the mammoth crowd, his mouth agape. “Are they all here for us?” he finally squeaked.


“Yes,” Jamie smiled, “and that’s why we have to present the very best act we can.”


“I’m a little scared.” The words slipped out so quickly the boy couldn’t take them back. Quickly becoming red-faced, he felt embarrassed by his sudden disclosure of fear. 


“You’re new, no?” Jamie asked.


“Yes, my lord,” the boy answered respectfully. “I was chosen a few months after you left the junior troupe.”


“So you took my place?”


“Yes, I guess I did.”


“What’s your name?” Jamie looked down and smiled warmly at the boy. The young dancer had been chosen to fill the hole Jamie’d left in the chorus of the junior troupe, and a pleasant feeling came over him when he realized the little boy probably never had to deal with Sprague.


“Thomas, my lord. Thomas du Roche.”


Jamie tipped his wings slightly and crouched down so he was face to face with the small, wide-eyed junior. “Can I tell you a secret, Thomas?” The boy simply nodded. “I’m a little scared, too.”


“You, my lord... scared?”


“Yes. I’m always a little scared before each performance. It’s normal, you know. And you don’t have to call me lord. I’m a student, just like you.”


“But you’re a real prince, and...”


“I’m a dancer,” Jamie grinned, interrupting the little boy. “And tonight, I’m going to try and dance the best dance I’ve ever danced in all my life. Will you help me do that, Thomas?”


“I will,” the young boy replied solemnly.


“Tell you what, Thomas,” Jamie continued, now beaming the young dancer his warmest smile. “If you get really scared, just look at me, ok? And don’t forget to count.” he added.


“Ok,” Thomas agreed. A shy smile came to his face. “When I was really little, I remember that sometimes you came and read stories to us on activity night, when all the dancers went off to the opera house. I always liked you.”


Jamie nodded, remembering his first months at the École, before he was a member of the junior troupe; to relieve the boredom, he’d filled his day five and six evenings by participating in activities to entertain the littlest Icarians at the school. Rising up from his crouching posture, he patted Thomas gently on the head. The boy smiled back at him. An unruly shock of hair fell over the boy's eyes. Frowning, Thomas reached to brush it away. “Stupid hair, it’s always in my eyes,” he growled.


“Leave it,” Jamie grinned as his eyes peered through the blond fringe of hair falling across his own forehead. “It’s your cutest feature. Now, go join your troupe,” he added giving Thomas a gentle pat on his bottom as the boy took off to join the other juniors. His eyes followed the youngest dancer as he returned to his troupe.


“War,” the word whispered in Jamie’s head. Looking over at Thomas, now standing with his friends in the junior troupe, Jamie shuddered. They were going to war, all of them. Maybe not a conventional war, but a war nonetheless, and wars killed people... lots of people. Between that and the plague, how many would survive? How many wouldn’t? When it was all over, would Thomas and the other mice, standing there in innocent anticipation of their moment on stage, still be alive? And what about the Empire’s threat to eliminate the Kalorian race; a genocidal act he had no doubt the Emperor and his henchmen wouldn’t hesitate to implement. It was an equation too painful for him to try and solve. For one brief second the only emotion boiling up in him was the urge to call a halt to it, but it quickly passed. Honor and duty-bound, he’d continue as he’d promised... so many promises ago.


“Oh Nic,” Jamie sighed to himself, wrapping his arms around his body trying to pretend that they were those of his pa’amore. The first bonds of mating had already begun to stir and even Jamie was surprised by their strong tug on him. “I so wish you were here tonight.”


Sharp chords of dissonance and the crashing of a cymbal snatched Jamie from his reverie. Raising his head, Jamie could see his friends still dancing wildly in the air. Listening to the music, he knew their act would soon be ending. Less than a minute later Philippe, slashing his baton forcefully through the air, brought the orchestra to an abrupt stop. Trio Chrysalis' performance was over and Yves, Lucas and Jeremy were back on the stage receiving the adulation and acclaim of the crowd. Flowers rained down from every quarter. The boys' standing ovation was long and loud. Ten full minutes went by as Jeremy, Lucas, and Yves, hands clasped, flashing smiles, and clutching handfuls of bouquets, waved and bowed to the crowd.


When the cheering died down and Edgar Houtte was finally able to speak, he announced a brief intermission to allow preparations for the grand finale. As if they needed to be reminded, Houtte also told the crowd who would be performing.


Some people departed their seats, others got up and milled about, while most simply stood in front of their seats or sat talking to those around them. In the imperial box there was some activity, and Jamie could see a few of the Emperor’s guests and courtiers standing and stretching their legs, but he didn’t pay them much attention. Instead, he began to narrow his focus to the task at hand.


Given the signal to enter the arena, Jamie and his troupe walked from the tunnel onto the arena floor while the boys of the junior troupe remained behind. Some of the people still in the arena lightly applauded or cheered, others watched with intense interest. As the boys began to take their places, Damian and three other singers walked onto the main stage and took seats near Philippe’s podium. They would lend their voices to the choir as principle soloists.


The twenty-one handsome, winged young men of Jamie’s troupe quickly assumed their assigned positions. Soon all of the boys were standing on a fine-meshed, thick metal grate in front of the main stage that had been built into the arena floor. Moving with swift precision they formed three rows, seven dancers each. As they did, all of them took care to line up with their fellow troupe members surrounding them. Occasionally the boys looked down at their feet, checking the spot on which they stood; slight movements could be seen as they made their last minute adjustments.


Jamie, appearing relaxed and at ease, stood before them. His eyes scanned his troupe to make sure all was correct. When he was satisfied his head tipped back as his gaze went from his troupe to the stage and the space above. His eyes finally rested on the platform fifty feet above the main stage. All evening it had loomed overhead, as still and silent as a ghost. He was sure the audience had wondered what it was for. Soon they would know.


Tilting his head further up he could barely see three dark figures hiding under the supporting beams of the arena. Instinctively he gave a thumbs up. His action was answered by a whistle and he smiled. Taking a deep breath he studied his troupe and inspected his dancers one final time.


“Remember to...” 


“COUNT!” the boys shouted in unison as smiles came to their faces.


“Ok,” he grinned, “I guess you got the message.”


Turning his back on the troupe he assumed his own spot, checking and then double-checking his position. Satisfied, he became still and stood quietly in first position.


Directly in front of him, a group of technicians seated at control panels were concentrating deeply on the glowing displays before them. Occasionally they spoke softly with each other or conferred with a man wearing a sonic ear transmitter who, when not pacing behind them, kept looking over their shoulders at the settings on their panels. Their fingers glided back and forth over their controls and they looked like musicians finely tuning a great and powerful instrument.


“Everything’s ready, Prince de Valèn,” the man with the sonic called out.


Jamie nodded, and a low vibrating thrum beneath his feet began to grow in intensity and strength. There was a sharp hiss and a small jet of air brushed past his wings. Jamie, looking straight ahead, took a second deep breath, scrunched up his toes inside his slippers, and waited impatiently.


In the library, Castor sat quietly watching the live feed from the arena. Earlier, during the opening Avionne acts, the plan had been proposed and presented to the Kalorian nation. Questions had been asked and fielded by the elders. As Trio Chrysalis act was concluding, Castor, remembering the upcoming brief intermission, proposed a shutdown of the system to avoid detection. He then pointed out that it would be a good time for each settlement to confer privately before resuming the debate. Orran Deber concurred.


Chimes rang throughout the Hall of the Crystal Sphere and the arena began to refill with people. Behind him, Jamie could hear Philippe giving last minute instructions to the orchestra. Turning his head to the left, he caught a glimpse of Gordan and Egric standing quietly at ease in their corpus harps. The movement of Jamie’s head caught Gordan‘s attention. For a brief second their eyes met and each smiled at the other. Gordan gave Jamie a quick thumbs up and his harp, in response to his movement, emitted a harsh screech. Jamie turned away, but couldn’t hold in his laughter. And although Jamie’s movement had been slight it was enough to make him recheck his position. Looking down through the grate, he could see lights beginning to flash; the thrum he’d first heard was gone, but in its place a strong and steady vibration began to course through the soles of his feet.


At the same moment that Jamie was waiting, in the amazing delta city of Imperialas, the gladiators rose from their benches and began to gather their personal effects while a ground crew rushed to unload their equipment. As the boys shuffled off the hov, Nic turned to thank the pilot and co-pilot of the ship and was surprised to see a small vid screen on the control panel. It was tuned to the Emperor’s birthday celebration.


“You’re watching it?” Nic asked a bit surprised.


Yes,” the pilot replied, “We knew we’d miss most of it since we were in flight. We’re not authorized to access the channel when we’re in the air, but we hoped we could at least catch the final act. It’s Jamie de Valèn’s act. You might not know of him. I wouldn’t suspect Gahdar aren’t terribly interested in dancers.”


“I’ve heard of him,” Nic said, smiling to himself, then casually added, “Do you mind if I watch? It might be interesting.”


“Surely,” the co-pilot’s response was warm and friendly. “We have a layover. We have to wait until we get refueled and the mechanics check our avionics and mechanical systems. We also have some freight to transport, and that always seems to drag on forever, so there should be more then enough time for us to see the whole thing.”


“Uhm... excuse me... ahh... Gahdar Niklas” the pilot began and Nic was surprised when the confident and self-assured officer who’d shuttled them to Imperialas unexpectedly turned timid and began to stammer.


“Yes?” Nic gave the man a questioning look.


“Well... you see...” as the pilot’s tongue continued to trip over his words, Nic noticed that the man was reaching down and tugging at a sheaf of papers stuffed in the side pocket of his seat. As the pilot pulled the papers out Niklas immediately understood, for among them was an image of him standing in the arena of Castle Rood. It had been captured just after he’d finished a match and, sword still in hand, Niklas was accepting the cheers of the crowd. “My son is a huge fan of yours... I am, too,” the man added quickly. “He’d do just about anything to have the autograph of The Baron of Rood... that is... ah... if you wouldn’t mind, please?”


“I’d...” Nic stopped when he caught the co-pilot eyes flashing daggers, giving the transport’s pilot a look that could kill.


“Oh... sorry...,” a light of understanding seemed to come on in the pilot's eyes and his face became quite red.  “I’m very sorry... Gahdar Niklas... I didn’t... ah... mean to offend...”


Nic grinned when he understood the pilot’s discomfort. It was widely known that Gahdar were fighting machines, educated in little else; literacy not being one of their strong points.


“It will be my pleasure,” Nic said. “I know how to write my name,” he chuckled, “my only request is that you allow me to stay and watch the vidcast.”


“Easily granted,” the pilot smiled graciously, handing Nic the picture and a pen.


Nic quickly signed his autograph. “There,” he returned the pilot’s smile as he handed back the signed picture. But when he also reached out to return the pilot’s pen, a strange look came to the man’s face.


“Ah,” the pilot coughed. “Would it be too much to ask you to sign another?” he cautiously asked, “For me?”


Without answering, Nic nodded, then took the second picture from the man, and quickly signed it. When he was finished, he handed it and the pen back to the pilot. Turning to face the vid screen he put one hand on the back of the pilots seat, the other on the back of the co-pilots seat and stood watching in anticipation. While Nic waited for Jamie’s performance to begin, a hand came to rest on his shoulder. Nic looked to his right and saw Miro standing next to him.


“Aren’t you coming?” he began, but stopped when he saw what Nic and the two pilots were watching on the vid screen. “I should have known,” he winked at his friend.


“I’ll tell the others to proceed to the bivouac area, and we’ll join them when the show’s over?”


“You’re interested in Jamie’s act?” Nic shot his friend a dubious look.


“A little,” Miro chuckled. Leaning close to Nic’s ear he added “But I’m more interested in watching your reaction. That’s a performance I’d pay to see, even if I had to steal the gold fillings from the Emperor’s teeth while he was snoring to pay for it.”



Nic gave his friend a quick punch in the arm, but it’s only effect was to cause Miro to howl with laughter.


“Apparently my dagger hit a tender spot, no?” he joked as he exited the hov to give the rest of the Gahdar their orders.


Standing on the conductor’s podium, Philippe looked down at the score laid out before him, and smiled, recalling Jamie’s request that the orchestra play the piece. The body of music that had evolved and accompanied humanity throughout its history was vast. The superior technology of historical preservation and cataloging available to the commonwealth was unprecedented. But with a history so expansive, stretching back in time for millennia, many works, even once famous and well know compositions, along with the knowledge of their composers, had been forgotten or, worse yet, lost.


One work had followed the advancement of humans no matter where they went or what they did, its genius unprecedented and its spirit undimmed. Like a beacon shining through a dark night The Grande Ninth, as it had come to be called, still stirred hearts and emotions whenever it was heard. That was the reason it still lived on, and the reason Jamie had chosen it.


Originally, the prince had decided to use the symphony’s second movement, the scherzo in D minor. Its spirit inspired him. Its propulsive rhythms spoke to his creative energy. Written in triple time, its fast paced themes, sustained throughout the majority of the movement, were perfect for the dance he envisioned. A study Jamie conducted of the work had revealed the composer breaking with the tradition of a slow second movement. Instead, he presented a unique and revolutionary concept; a second movement that was both fast and energetic, heart stirring and powerful. What better choice could he make, Jamie reckoned, as a way to fire a shot across the bow of the ship of state, giving the Empire veiled notice of his own revolution?


After Cristophe’s death, Jamie had decided to continue forward with his choice of music and choreography, but to underscore his message, he also added the symphony’s fourth and final movement. Over time, it had become the unofficial anthem of the Commonwealth and its meaning to the audience would leave no doubt as to his feelings.


The crowd was now seated. Although his back was to the orchestra, Jamie realized that their tuning had ceased and the musicians were now silent. A few members of the choir coughed. Edgar Houtte, who’d been conferring with the director of the vid crew, noticed the silence and ended his conversation. The house lights of the arena went down and the lights of the stage grew brighter. High above Jamie’s head, the unused second stage, tossing aside its mantle of darkness, came to life and began to glow. The audience, acting exactly as Jamie’d hoped they would, looked up and were mesmerized by the sight.


Seconds later Edgar Houtte strode across the stage and began to announce the final act of the evening. A roar rose from the crowd. Jamie could imagine Philippe standing behind him, baton in hand beginning the count. Once more Jamie scrunched his toes inside his slippers. Taking a deep breath Jamie closed his eyes and then everything around him was gone. In his mind he saw his hand knock gently three times on the wall of his bedroom and then, in the peace and serenity of his mind, three gentle taps sounded in reply. He opened his eyes, and looked up at the crowd. He was ready.


The music suddenly seemed to launch itself. Philippe’s baton knifed through the air, calling forth the first and second bars from the orchestra. Then a great explosion hammered through the Crystal Sphere at the beginning of the third bar just as Philippe stabbed the air and the percussive pounding of the timpani entered the work. Some of the crowd, unprepared for what they were witnessing, shrieked, others gasped when, like grape shot fired from a cannon, the boys standing on the arena floor were hurled head over heels into the air.


Victims of a violent explosion, they tumbled helplessly in random and unfocused trajectories while the force propelling them drove them high above the arena. After its opening bars Philippe, boldly wielding his baton, drove both the orchestra and the scherzo forward. Under the young avionne conductor’s command, the triple-timed movement began racing to its first crescendo. As it did, the boys' random tumbling continued. The dancers' twisting bodies, remaining locked into their skyward trajectory, shot past the higher second stage as they headed toward the thick glass triangles of the Crystal Sphere’s dome. To most of the crowd they looked like lifeless rag dolls carelessly tossed about by an uncaring child. As he tumbled through the air Jamie began to smile. The giant air cannon he’d designed had worked perfectly. Listening to the music rising up from the orchestra he began counting. He hoped the other boys were too.


Once more the audience gasped and the faint of heart looked away sure that the hapless dancers, caught in some freak explosion, were about to die before their eyes as their bodies would slam forcefully against the roof of the dome. Unfazed at what seemed to have just happened, Philippe relentlessly pushed the orchestra forward. The first crescendo had almost risen to its maximum force when suddenly the dancers massed into a cohesive unit and like stones falling from the sky, the boys dropped toward the stage where they coalesced and focused into the original order they’d appeared in on the arena floor. More shouts of surprise came from the crowd when they realized that the dancers weren’t standing on the stage floor itself, but were hovering fifteen feet above it, standing on an invisible cushion of air.


Seconds later, recovering from its shock the crowd roared approval, but before they could completely comprehend what they’d seen, the crescendo had reached its full height and the music, now at its maximum intensity, careened forward like an out of control juggernaut. It was then, just at the moment Jamie knew he'd wrung every emotion from the audience, that he reached for more and the giant stage high above the arena floor exploded in light, water, air and smoke.


“Did you see that?” the pilot exclaimed to his co-pilot while jumping from his seat and slapping him on the shoulder. “Did you see it!” he added a second time pointing at the vid screen and turning to look at Nic and Miro.


The man had a huge smile on his face. So did Nic. Miro appeared highly amused.


“That boy certainly knows how to bring the house down!” the co-pilot began. “I remember going to the opera house a few months ago and...”


“Shhhh,” the pilot immediately hushed his second in command, then leaned forward peering intently at the small screen on the consol of his hov. Nic looking over his shoulder could do nothing but grin.


“If that smile of yours gets any wider Niklas, your teeth will fall out,” Miro teased his friend. Nic turned toward Miro trying to look annoyed, but the pride and love he was feeling for Jamie made that impossible.


High in the air, floating above the second stage, Jamie and his troupe were dancing like demons. From beneath the floor of the stage colorful billows of smoke, great jets of water, and strong bursts of air kept erupting. Years before, on an evening trip to the center of Küronas, Jamie had stood in one of the grand squares of the city and watched the water and light display from one of the great dancing fountains of the city. It was from that experience that he’d drawn the inspiration for his act.


The steady strength of the scherzo seemed to infuse itself into the bodies of the dancers. Some of the boys danced on clouds of air as great jets of water, colored by the intense lights of the stage, rushed by them. Others danced on the cascading tops of the water itself while hissing clouds of colored smoke swirled around them. Little by little, the spray from the water made the boys and Jamie wet. Soon, they appeared like joyful children playing with carefree abandon and joyful exuberance in a fountain on a hot summer’s day; the exact effect Jamie’d had in mind. All the while the crowd, from the moment they’d seen the boys shot into the sky, roared and screamed its nonstop acclaim and approval.


The instant that Jamie and his troupe blasted into the air above the arena, the covert channel the prince had established and hidden within the electronic folds of the net came to life. Off-line, the question had been put to each Kalorian settlement and community. From fields and factories, to mansions and palaces, in cities, in the country, and off planet, as many as possible had been informed of the choices. Now the final decisions would be made. Castor expanded the size of his screen as, one by one, windows opened to reveal the faces of the Kalorian elders from across the planet. Every one of them appeared serious and grim faced.


“We shall begin the debate.” The flat tone of Orran Deber’s voice broadcast without emotion from his vid projection, but a slight twitch in the muscles at the outside edge of his right eye and the haunted look he projected hinted to Castor at the senior elder’s true emotions.


In the Hall of the Crystal Sphere, the second movement was rapidly approaching its end. All was going according to plan. The final minutes of the scherzo had all of the boys dancing on top of water jets shooting up from the stage. Like fallen leaves riding the cascading rapids of a sparkling brook, the dancers twisted and turned again and again.


The force of the music softened. With less than half a minute left in the movement, the final trumpet fanfare blared as the special effects decreased and the boys floated down onto the floor of the stage. The movement approached its last seconds of life, and the boys moved with an inner fury. Water dripped and splashed from their bodies as they scampered about the stage. Then the brass rushed in at the very end of the piece, just as each boy pounded a final foot into the floor of the stage and raised a fist in defiance and victory. The first half of the act was over.


Sitting next to Savaron Loka, Prince Hippolito marveled at what he’d just seen. Dripping wet and breathing rapidly Jamie, a clenched fist high above his head and beaming a smile of utter defiance, looked as tempting as a freshly opened box of chocolates. Turning toward his patron, Hippolito was surprised to see a scowl on the archduke’s face.


Throughout the performance, the crowd had never ceased their roars of approval, but when they heard the music stop, their cheering increased in intensity. The boys stood frozen for a scant few seconds, water dripping from their hair, wings, and bodies. Below them Philippe, not pausing for a second, wielded his baton like a whip. As he snapped his arm first down and up, the fourth movement instantly began.


The first agitated strains of the movement opened as the orchestra, picking up and discarding bits of music, appeared to be searching for a core theme. Mimicking the music’s general confusion, the boys standing on the stage, gyrated and twisted like a disorganized mob. Perhaps as slaves locked in their oppression?


Within the cyber space of the net, a similar tone of discord and confusion had captured the debate of the kalorian elders. Castor, following Jamie’s act in a small window at the bottom of his screen, listened to the dissonance of the Kalorian discourse blend with that of the orchestra.


In Jamie’s mind the count continued.


Like a frightened child cautiously peering around a corner, the orchestra gingerly took up the first seven notes of the main theme.


“There will be order in this assembly,” declared Orran Deber.


But success was not to be achieved. Abruptly abandoning the theme, the orchestra continued its search. The dancers resumed their undisciplined movements and Castor decreased the volume of the main feed as voices of protest from many of the Kalorian elders grew to form a sharp counterpoint within the debate.


Again the theme appeared. The dancers reached out in hope. The intensity of the Kalorian debate ebbed. But it wasn’t to be. Philippe, slicing his baton back and forth, forced the orchestra to once again break off the theme. In despair the dancers sank to the floor while, amidst the rising cacophony of protests and shouts, the voice of Orran Deber was drowned out.


Leading his orchestra with practiced mastery, Philippe finally called forth the theme. Beginning softly in the basses, it appeared subdued like the first small bud of spring, a promise to come... a promise of the future. Mirroring the hopeful theme, the dancers lifted their heads and with determined resolve, began to glide along with its soft, delicate call as the strings, joining the basses, added to the strength and intensity the song.


Orran Deber, his voice rising, shouted at the assembly, and was finally able to regain control of the debate. “Please, my brothers,” he half pleaded, half threatened. “Let us speak as men, not slaves.” His words, like the theme now rising from the Avionne orchestra, rapidly refocused them. Aflame with the singular purpose of their mission and armed with their honor, a proper discussion began.


As the theme of the piece grew in strength and intensity, the movements of the dance gradually assumed a more concrete structure.


Across the net, the Kalorian debate began to adopt its own form of order and purpose.


Finally the woodwinds burst forth, adding strength and vigor to the heart-swelling hymn as the stage once more exploded in an incredible maelstrom of light, water, air, smoke and now fire while the dancers leapt and turned with joyful abandon. The promise of freedom had become a call to arms.


Jamie’s carefully conceived choreography was flawless, and the boys of his troupe danced with a singular fury unique to the purest forms of masculine dance. Spectacular leaps, and incredible turns powered by raw Icarian strength, but made possible by the technique learned from years of practice, combined with the singular talent that each of the young men in his troupe possessed created an unfolding tableau of movement, grace, power, and skill that only the finest male dancers can bring to their craft.


The dancers danced, the Kalorians debated, Nic, standing over the hov’s small vid screen, smiled with pride, and the audience was transfixed. Well into the fourth movement, the baritone rose from his seat. First introduced by orchestral chords of dissonance, he began the ode in his rich and resonant voice. At the conclusion of his first three lines the chorus echoed his declaration of joy. The baritone launched into the main hymn, and the chorus joined him as Damian’s crystaline tenor, along with the contralto and soprano, rose to join and strengthen the anthem.


The dancer’s movements were deliberate and defiant. Although caught up in his performance, Jamie managed a quick look into the imperial box. His eyes were drawn to where the Archduke of Imperialas was sitting, his arms tightly folded, a scowl painted across his face.


On the net, the Kalorian elders continued their debate. Arguments, counter arguments, proposals, and questions were lobbed back and forth. Castor, carefully monitoring the scene, was reminded of a deadly game of tennis played with a ghoster grenade in place of a ball. Adding to the ever-increasing mood of tension and anticipation was the fact that their time was limited.


The soloists sang on. The choir rejoined them. And the dancers, flames shooting out around them, perched on jets of water as they stretched out to grasp the twinkling stars shining through the glass dome of the sphere high above their heads.


As the soloists and choir were ending their first section, the boys drifted back to the stage floor. Jamie looked down. Far below him, standing on the floor of the arena, the junior troupe had taken their position. While the singers were concluding their section, a strong, steady force of air began to flow from the air cannon. Unlike the first blast that had thrown Jamie and his troupe headlong into the sky, this time the air acted as a lift, gently carrying the younger boys upward.


Still caught up in the performance of the soloists and choir, the audience at first failed to notice what was happening. Seconds later there were shouts as the boys of the junior troupe, their wings extended and standing as still as statues, floated effortlessly toward the dome. An instant later they were in place. Jamie nodded his approval; so far they’d been perfect.


Although he knew he shouldn’t look, Jamie’s eyes went to his old position: third line, first spot on the right. There stood Thomas; a serious and slightly fearful look on his face. Hair cascaded over his eyes, and knowing he shouldn’t move, Thomas stuck out his lower lip and tried to blow it away. Jamie couldn’t help but laugh since he’d often done the very same thing. A second later, Jamie’s eyes caught those of Thomas. Smiling with warmth and affection, Jamie gave the youngest junior a wink. Thomas blushed, but as he did, a smile came to his face. Turning back to his troupe Thomas suddenly looked eager to begin as his back arched and he stretched out his wings with pride.


When planning the dance, Jamie knew that the orchestral interlude, a jaunty military march, was the perfect place to highlight the skills of the juniors. As he and the seniors moved slowly and discretely in time with the music, the little juniors out in front jumped, turned, leapt and pranced about on a cushion of air. Watching them Jamie thanked his friends from Trio Chrysalis for the amazing work they’d accomplished with the littlest dancers of the école.


As the juniors danced, the tenor’s voice, that of Damian, filled the air.


Happy, like thy Sun which flies

Through the splendid Heavens,

Wander, Brothers, on your road

Joyful, like a hero going to victory.


Soon the choir and the other principle soloists joined him. The little boys danced like master performers and the audience, used to seeing the juniors execute the same repetitive movements over and over again, sat in shocked surprise at their sudden, new found skill; Jamie’s last and utter triumph over Sprague.


Damian and the choir punctuated the final bars of their section with vigor and force, just as Trevor and Marcus each performing a stunning synchronized grand jeté, leapt off the stage and landed en pointe onto thin air. The crowd gasped. Since both boys weren’t using their wings they’d expected them to plummet to the ground, but the invisible cushion of air Jamie had created gave them ample support.


An orchestral interlude followed and Jamie spun out to meet them. The three boys lined up, as the interlude continued, and they, along with both troupes, began their changement de pieds just as they’d practiced. Using the move as a means to become resynchronized, all of them counted to sixteen. While the juniors in front did a series of batterie movements, Jamie, Marcus, and Trevor preformed a spin, and at the same moment the nineteen boys behind them began to rise up on individual pillars of water. After a second count of sixteen, the senior boys all began a fouetté en tournant series.


With one foot flat and in plié, each boy extended his working leg into fourth position then whipped it around to the side until it was pulled in to touch behind the supporting knee creating the impetus to spin. As they executed their revolutions each dancer, rose onto pointe spinning in fixed place. The effect was unbelievable. With invisible billows of air supporting them, it looked like each boy was dancing directly on top of a pillar of water.  Once started, the fouetté en tournant series continued as the boys revolved round and round on the flowing columns of water like spinning tops.


In his dance theory class with Master Trousseau, Jamie had learned of the famous thirty-two continuous fouettés in the coda of the Black Swan Pas de Deux from the famous Lake of the Swans. It had been created as a bravura performance designed to express the strength and triumph of the character. Using that knowledge Jamie had placed it in the act to serve as a two edged sword. Alerted in the program the crowd, under the encouragement of Edgar Houtte, began to count. One... two... three... four... five... until it reached fifty – one for each year of the emperor’s life The crowd's roars grew in strength, adding their approval to both the dancers and the sentiment behind the actions.


The nobles in attendance, recognizing the symbolism, couldn’t help but admire Jamie’s clever use of his craft as a means of political flattery: the boy certainly knew how to be politick. The fouetté en tournant approached its end and the smile on the prince’s face intensified. Let them think what they will, he smirked, for his real meaning pointed to the irresistible strength and inevitable triumph of the Icarian race; a warning to his enemies.


The dance continued, the orchestra began to swell, and choir rejoined the joyful song just as Lucas, Yves and Jeremy swooped down from their hiding place in the rafters. Delightfully surprised, the crowd went wild as Jamie, his troupe, the juniors, and now Trio Chrysalis moved with wild abandon. They’d arrived at the very heart of the anthem honoring the great Commonwealth of Planets. And while even the Emperor and his court joined the audience in their applause, Savaron Loka sat in stony silence.


Castor, watching the amazing dance race toward its conclusion, was jarred back to reality at the words of Orran Deber.


“It is then decided and agreed,” the grim faced elder pronounced, “The greatest resources and treasures of the Second Empire, the Nation of Kaloria, we entrust to The Protector.”


The debate ended. Knowing the less time spent on the net the better, Deber immediately hit the kill switch and all transmission ended.


Castor sat staring at a dark screen. Only a small window, containing the feed from the arena remained. Thinking about what had just concluded and the final decision of the council Castor pondered its consequences. As the true meaning of what had occurred took hold of him, Castor switched off the channel beaming Jamie’s performance. Then in the quiet stillness of the library the old Kalorian, feeling the full weight of the implications of the vote come crashing down on him, bowed his head and wept.


Unaware of the Kalorian decision, Jamie danced on as Philippe guided the movement toward its final conclusion.


The orchestra and choir careened along; so did the dancers. The music paused. The finale was at hand. At that moment, in a single instant, all of the stage's special effects shut down. It happened so quickly the crowd was shocked into silence. But then a murmur of sound began to rumble through the Crystal Sphere. People were pointing, some shouting, a few jumped to their feet, and most couldn’t believe their eyes.


The boys of Jamie’s troupe who’d been dancing on water were left hanging mid air, locked into perfect flying arabesques. Jeremy, Lucas and Yves joined them as did Trevor and Marcus from their places on either side of Jamie. Applause from the crowd grew, but it wasn’t until every one of the little juniors performed the same perfect flying arabesque that the Hall of the Crystal Sphere shook with wild applause and vast, collective shouts of approval.


Having flown high above the other dancers, Jamie looked down and smiled. 'Happy Birthday, Cristophe,' the thought flashed through his mind, and then he began his amazing spin. With Philippe’s final cutting slash the music ended, Jamie snapped out from his spin and was greeted with a roar, as all the dancers remained frozen in position.


Breathing deeply, he peered down at the entire troupe below still holding their flying arabesques. Looking down at the arena floor, he beamed a triumphant smile; a smile that grew even more radiant when he saw the look of horror on Impresario Bollini’s face. The man appeared ready to pass out and Jamie chuckled as he watched Bollini’s assistant help steady the Impresario on his feet.


While the flying arabesque would always be a virtuoso dance move, Jamie had just devalued it right before Bollini’s eyes. No longer its sole living practitioner, he’d proven it could be taught to others and from that day forward, it could never again be used by the impresario’s office as a means of inflating their revenues.


Endless applause, shouts, whistles and the stamping of feet filled the arena. Jamie and all the dancers slowly floated to the ground as, one by one, they alighted on the primary stage. Flowers pelted down on them like the driving rain of a torrential deluge. Approaching the juniors where they stood gazing about themselves in confusion, Jamie pushed them to the front of the stage.


“Bow,” he whispered.


The younger boys bowed. Never before had the junior troupe received such acclamation. Next to step forward were the boys of Jamie’s private troupe. With smiles of pride the boys bowed, not once, but five times as the crowd kept calling for more. Since they’d been Jamie’s partners, Trevor and Marcus were next to receive the crowd’s accolades.


“Go on, take a piece of some of this for yourselves. You more than deserve it,” Jamie directed the two boys.


With broad smiles they walked to the front of the stage. As he passed Jamie, Trevor momentarily grabbed Jamie’s hand and squeezed it.


“Thank you, your Highness,” Trevor said, giving Jamie a slight bow.


“No, thank you, my friend,” Jamie replied, returning Trevor’s squeeze. “We’re all brothers.”


Then Trevor and Marcus clasped hands and began taking their bows. But just as they’d done with the seniors, the crowd demanded more.


Turning to his three friends, Jamie couldn’t contain his laughter. “Well?” he joked between his giggles, “I certainly don’t have to tell you three what to do, do I?”


“Definitely not!” a laughing Jeremy shouted over the crowd’s roar.


Seconds later, the three boys were running toward the front of the stage where, with powerful leaps and quick strokes of their wings they launched themselves from the edge of the stage and soared out over the audience. Executing perfectly synchronized somersaults, they floated back onto the stage where they reached down and began scooping up large bouquets in both hands. Raising them above their heads they bowed and bowed again. For five minutes Jamie’s friends received the accolades of the crowd until Yves, dropping his bouquets onto the stage floor, began clapping his hands calling out Jamie’s name. Lucas and Jeremy quickly followed suit, as did the rest of the dancers. The chant was picked up by the crowd and soon the entire arena shouted Jamie’s name.


Walking slowly to the edge of the stage, Jamie stood and looked about the crowd. Seconds later, a movement behind him caught his eye and he turned to see the stage manager holding the beautiful sun cloak. Jamie smiled when he looked at its lower border where, though only a few characters could be seen, he knew it carried his name and the title of Lord Protector spelled out in the Icarian language. Under the direction of Stephen Perkinjius, Barbetta, the Mondele’s principal seamstress and Larrus' mother, had made the alteration. The memory sparked a brief stab of sharp pain that carried with it a sense of deep sadness in Jamie’s heart as he recalled the antiquities dealer’s last moments of life.


Since it had become tradition for one of the juniors to bestow the cape on Jamie after each performance, he motioned for Yves to pick Thomas. A few seconds later, the stage manager was handing the heavy golden cape out to the wide-eyed junior. After accepting it, Thomas stood with his feet anchored to the stage, not sure what to do, but Yves approached the boy and whispered in his ear, prompting him. Jamie stood tall and then executed his signature bow, holding it long to allow Thomas time to drape the magnificent cape over Jamie’s shoulders. Fixing the clasp, Jamie stood. Noticing Thomas beginning to walk back to the juniors, Jamie reached out and put his hand on the younger boy’s shoulders, pulling him close so Thomas could stand next to him. Wrapping an arm around the young dancer he drew the boy to him, then raising an arm he began to wave to the crowd.


“Wave,” Jamie said smiling down at Thomas while giving him a nudge.


The smaller boy raised an arm and began waving.


“A little practice for when you become a soloist, Thomas,” Jamie smiled down at the young junior.


Thomas’ eyes almost popped out of his head, but he kept waving, and a smile came to his face.


Standing over the vid screen of the hov’s control panel Nic couldn’t wipe the smile off his face fueled by the fact that the pilot and co-pilot wouldn’t stop talking about the act they’d just seen.


“What can you say after something like that?” the co-pilot said, glancing up at Nic.


“Bravo,” the young Gahdar replied with pride. “Bravo, my prince.”


“By the blade of my dagger,” Miro whispered into Nic’s ear, “if he could fight, he’d be the most entertaining Gahdar in the arena. I don’t know if David and I could compete.”


“But you’d certainly try,” Nic, caught up in the euphoria of the moment, laughed loudly. For even though Jamie had told him what to expect, the performance he’d just witnessed given by the beautiful boy who was now his pa’amore was beyond anything he could ever have imagined.


A loud, continuous chime began ringing throughout the arena and little by little the crowd began to cease their applause. With the arena now quiet, Edgar Houtte strode onto the stage.


“After a performance like that, what can one say,” he started, “but...” the crowd began to roar, drowning him out. Quickly the chimesng incessantly until the arena was again quiet. “...but... but...” Houtte tried to continue over an occasional shout or whistle. “...but tonight is really a celebration for our beloved emperor.”


Reminded of the purpose of the performance the crowd applauded and cheered. As they did, the emperor rose from his throne-like seat. Everyone else followed. Taking the adulation of the crowd for a few minutes, Enrick finally raised both arms to silence the crowd. A microphone had been placed near the emperor and he stepped up to it. Behind him Renaud stood silently and even though there was a great amount of distance between them, Jamie could almost feel the eyes of the Angel of Death upon him.


“Today, we have once more witnessed the greatness of the Altinestran Empire,” he began. “Is there nothing we can’t do?”


The crowd cheered.


Jeremy, standing behind Jamie, whispered in his friend’s ear, “Just like humans to take all the credit.”


“For some time we have witnessed Prince de Valèn’s amazing performances, though none like the one tonight.” And although the crowd once more applauded, clearly knowing Enrick wished to continue, it was politely short, “Therefore tonight, in recognition of Prince de Valèn’s accomplishments and for services rendered to the Empire, we have a joyous announcement to make.”


Looking up at the imperial box, Jamie watched as Savaron Loka stood. Next to him was Hippolito. The smile on Jamie’s face faded.


“This evening I wish to introduce you to Hippolito Corcorian, recently chosen by us as Prince of Hypernia." At the Emperor’s gesture Hippolito began to move closer but suddenly stopped, frozen to the spot by Renaud’s steely gaze. “This Avionne prince is the ward and young protégé of the Archduke of Imperials,” the Emperor continued.


Although it had taken a few minutes, Castor had finally composed himself. Rising from his seat he felt drained, but he knew there was more to be done. After leaving the Special Acquisitions Department, he walked to the main staircase and descended to the ground floor. Careful not to portray any overt emotion, he passed though one of the large doors separating the main library from the foyer. Approaching the main desk, he could see that Artur was watching the conclusion of the Emperor's celebration. Seeing movement in his periphery, Artur turned and noticed the Kalorian approaching.


“You must be so proud to be his assistant,” Artur gushed the instant he saw Castor. “After tonight’s performance, and now...” Artur paused, almost overcome with elation, and then blurted out: “...and now that he’s to be mated with the Archduke of Imperialas’ very own Avionne ward... well... its simply beyond words!”


For a few seconds Castor stood staring blankly at the chief librarian, realizing belatedly that after hearing Artur’s pronouncement, he was, in fact, beyond words.