The Scrolls of Icaria by Jamie
Book 2 – 'War of the Angels'
Part III - Baron of Rood
“I was worried this would happen.” Miro had his arm around Nic’s shoulder as they walked away from the hov. “I’m sorry Nic.” His voice rose to a shout above the rising roar as the aircraft began to power up.
Although he was stoically silent, Nic was visibly troubled. After Jamie’s magnificent performance, he’d remained to watch his pa’amore receive the well-deserved cheers and accolades of the crowd, and then looked on in dumbfounded shock as the Emperor made his announcement: Jamie and Hippolito, two princes of the Empire, had been personally chosen by the Imperial Council to mate. While he’d never met the boy, Nic had indirectly heard about the Prince of Hypernia from Jamie. It was a description far from flattering.
While watching the hov’s ascent, Nic remained quiet until it was high above his head and the roar of its engines had faded.
“Truly, I’m sorry, Nic.” Miro, his voice returned to its normal volume, sounded calm. It was an attempt to diffuse the tension he’d felt growing in his best friend from the moment Enrick had made the surprise pronouncement. “I guess this complicates things, but...”
“You’re right Miro, it does complicate things, but not in any way you might imagine.” Nic was abrupt, his voice decisive, cutting Miro off before his friend could finish. “This is going to wreak havoc with our plan.” His brow furrowed in obvious concern.
“Plan? You’re worried about an impossibly complex and probably unrealizable plan, conceived by a boy you seem to have fallen hopelessly in love with, and who’s just managed to cut out your heart?”
“Yes, the plan.” Nic’s face was a study in intensity as he shrugged off Miro’s comforting arm and turned to face his friend. Fire flashed in the young Gahdar’s eyes. His nostrils flared as his lips curled and he sucked in a quick, sharp breath. “Did you see his face... Jamie’s face? Did you really look at it, or were you just caught up in the words of the Emperor?”
Miro stepped back, shocked by the raw force and emotion in Nic’s words. He’d never seen his friend so agitated.
“Look Nic, I understand you’re upset. Who wouldn’t be when...?”
“No, Miro, you don’t understand. That’s not why I’m upset. Jamie didn’t know this was going to happen. You can be sure of that. The moment it was announced and they showed his face, did you see him smiling? Did you see him look happy or even slightly pleased? He was stunned - utterly bollixed. Probably even more than I was. He tried not to show it, but he looked like a pit had just opened up beneath him to swallow him. I know my own pa’amore well enough to realize that he’d never agree to such a thing... especially not when...”
“Wait.” Miro grabbed Nic’s upper arm, and tugged at his friend until they were both face to face. “You just said pa’amore.” Miro paused and blinked in surprise as he scanned Nic’s face. “In fact, you said my pa’amore.”
After hearing his own words Miro’s jaw dropped. “Nic! No, you’re not saying that... tell me it’s not true. Oh... stab me with my own sword. Of course! That’s it, isn’t it? The way you two have been acting... looking at each other... huddling so close when you talk. I should have figured it out. I just didn’t think either of you were that stupid! You’ve mated, haven’t you? Without consent or permission, without so much as a nod toward the rules, and without thinking about any of the consequences, you’ve gone off and mated with each other.”
“Yes,” Nic nodded. He stood firm and a gleam of conviction glinted in his eye. “We’ve mated. And you, more than anyone, don’t need to quote me the rules, Miro. Not when you’ve cavalierly disregarded them all your life. We did the right thing; I did the right thing. If you had felt the way I...”
“A moment’s pause,” Miro said, holding up a hand and grinning. “Remember Niklas, I have a mate. His name is Philippe. I know all about love. And I guess if that’s what it is, then that’s what it is. I just never thought my best friend, the calmest, most mature, methodical, and logical person I’ve ever known would completely throw all care and caution to the wind and...” Miro chuckled and then began to laugh. “Feather rot and quill fungus! I should have realized. Who wouldn’t fall for that boy? But surely you could have taken him to your bed without...”
“It’s not like that,” Nic sharp, stern reply caught Miro so off guard he took a step back from the boy who’d been such a close friend and confidante throughout his life that Miro considered him as much a brother as his very own twin.
Looking deeply into his friend’s eyes, Miro instantly stopped laughing. If ever there was a time to be serious, he could clearly see it was now. “Yes, of course, Niklas,” he replied, suddenly feeling sheepish. “We’ve known each other almost... forever? I know how you are. You’ve had your chance with many others, and I understand there’s more to you than a pretty face and a quick tumble. I’ve been trying to get you to give up your virginal purity for years; you and your sacred honor. You wouldn’t hear of it. But by the Emperor’s bloody beard, when you finally fell for someone couldn’t it have been more like a tree being felled in the forest? Did it have to be an asteroid striking the planet?”
Nic stood silently, his eyes fixed on Miro. The tense moment between them was broken when after a few seconds of silence a small smile came to his face. “I know. I didn’t give you any clues. I suppose it was fairly dramatic...”
“Dramatic?” The young gahdar struck a mock pose of deep thought just before his face split into a huge grin. “No, Niklas. I don’t think so. Coming to Imperialas to stage a rebellion under the guise of a Gahdar exhibition; starting a war that’s led by a general who just happens to be a bloody dancer at the Mondele Royale, and then after it’s begun somehow escaping into the future. Breaking into an impenetrable prison to rescue a pack of condemned prisoners; then... then going to the quarries of Tower Mount to... to... to do something I still don’t fully comprehend. Well, I think I’d call these things dramatic, no? What’s a small thing like the mating of two Icarian boys next to these? Except the fact that the boys are the very leaders of the rebellion, and one of them has just been personally chosen by the Emperor, the Emperor, mind you, to mate with a different Icarian boy. It’s such a minor point, no?” And at that Miro howled so loudly, his raucous laughter caused him to bend over until it looked as he might break in two. When he finally rose, there were tears of mirth in his eyes. “And I’m supposed to be the impulsive one,” he chortled when he was finally able to catch his breath.
“I’m sorry,” Nic replied soberly.
“Sorry? Sorry? For what? For stirring up the most excitement we’ve ever had? It trumps anything we’ve ever done at Rood. It’s going to be our finest hour.”
“Glad to see you’re still so enthusiastic.”
“My sword’s honed and ready.” Miro’s eyes twinkled. Then in an overly dramatic gesture, the boy made a show of reaching down to slide a thin, razor sharp dagger from the sheath strapped to his upper leg and casually toss it high in the air so that it tumbled end over end, its blade glinting in the sun. Upon reaching its apex it started back down, still spinning dangerously. Reaching out without even looking, Miro plucked it from the air, grinned, and took up a defensive stance. “Care to go a few rounds?”
Nic couldn’t suppress his own smile. “You’re impossible,” he punched the shoulder of his friend, causing Miro to snicker as he replaced the dagger. “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and you want to spar.”
Once more Miro put an arm around his friend. “Let’s go catch up with the others. I’m sure at least a few of them are causing some mischief of their own. We’re all going to need our Le’ir Bahr a’Ronei over the next few days, even if he is madly besotted with the most beautiful boy on the planet.”
The soft thrum of the engines and an occasional transmission squawk from the pilot’s com were the only sounds aboard the hov, Jamie and his friends being extremely busy staring out the windows or down into their own laps . The trip to Imperialas was as somber as a funeral cortège. Not one word passed between the four boys throughout the journey. In fact, little had been said once they’d left the stage at the Crystal Sphere. The triumphant giddiness the boys felt on stage had instantly been shattered as it was dashed against the rocky shoals of reality by the Emperor’s announcement regarding the pairing of the two princes.
Jamie and his friends from Trio Chrysalis had returned to their dressing room and removed their costumes and makeup in silence. Since there was no permanent bath in the complex, a makeshift shower had been constructed. Entering the space together, the boys quickly washed. The only conversation had been an occasional request to pass the soap or wash a back. Once the water was shut off they toweled down, returned to their dressing room, and dressed, all in unrelieved silence.
Rapidly escorted from the hall, the moment they stepped out onto the black granite pavement surrounding the forum of the Crystal Sphere, the boys were instantly greeted by shouts and cheers from a substantial crowd of well-wishers who’d gathered near their hov. Although Jeremy, Lucas and Yves waved and gave forced half-hearted smiles, Jamie, ashen faced and tense made no attempt to acknowledge his cheering fans. After the boys took their seats and strapped in, the hov gently lifted off. Jamie stared straight ahead. His unblinking gaze so focused and intense that had his eyes been lasers, he’d have burned a hole in the back of the pilot’s head.
“What’s Nic going to say?” Jamie whispered, finally breaking his silence, just as the hov dropped out of supersonic flight and began to make its final approach to Imperialas. “I’m scared to even guess what he’ll think of me.”
“You’re going to have to give him some credit,” Yves, sitting next to his friend, remarked. Placing a hand on Jamie’s shoulder he gave the prince a half-smile, while at the same time trying hard to mask his own concern. “If Niklas is the boy you say he is, give him a chance to react for good or bad. The worst thing you can do is mentally play out every scenario, probable or improbable. It won’t solve anything. You’re always telling us that an undisciplined mind serves up more unlikely scenarios than could ever realistically be possible. Don’t let your imagination run wild.”
“Yves is right.” Lucas finally broke his own self-imposed silence. “Jamie, you’ve done nothing but sing that boy’s praises. By the Emperor’s beard, you’ve mated! Niklas didn’t look at you as just a fling or a conquest. If that doesn’t count for something in his character, then you’ve already made the biggest mistake of your life.”
“Thank you for putting that so diplomatically,” Jamie sighed.
“You know what I mean,” Lucas countered. “You’re always telling us to be calm and cool, to think before acting. We’re just feeding you your own words.”
“You’re right,” Jamie replied. “But this makes an already complicated situation seem impossible.”
“And that’s why you have us,” Jeremy grinned. With a languid gesture, he extended a hand while bowing his head. “Trio Chrysalis, at your service. The impossible made possible.”
Sitting in his seat the move looked comical and Jamie couldn’t fight off a small smile. His three friends were amazing.
“I suppose the four of us have been through a few adventures together,” Jamie finally responded.
“And our grandest one is about to start,” Yves piped up. “So don’t be so glum. Look how far you’ve come, Jamie. I know it’s worrisome to look ahead. There are a lot of questions about our future, but look at what you’ve done so far.”
“I hope you’re right.”
“Of course we’re right. We’re the Terrible Trio,” Jeremy added, using Jamie’s own private nickname for the three boys.
“And speaking of adventures,” Lucas gasped, then pointing out the nearest porthole, let out a low whistle, “take a look!”
All four boys peered out the nearest window and stared in silence. They were approaching the great delta city of Imperialas.
“Is it a city or a jewel?” Lucas asked.
Imperialas, its millions of lights glittering in the night, loomed before them like a crown of diamonds. And although the hour was late, there was enough artificial light coming from the city itself to get a reasonable sense of the large metropolis.
“I don’t see any tall buildings,” Yves had his face almost against the hov’s window, “at least, not as tall as the ones in Küronas.”
“It’s a completely different plan,” Jamie replied, momentarily forgetting his worries as he began recalling his own research into the city. “Remember, it’s the summer residence of the Emperor and a playground for the nobility and those commoners rich enough to have summer homes, or villas. There’s also a thriving resort community along with its supporting infrastructure. It’s one of the most popular vacation spots in the Commonwealth... at least, it was before the interdict on travel to Altinestra.”
“And there’s also the large Kalorian settlements just outside the city that are involved in aqua and agriculture,” the pilot of the hov interjected adding his own commentary to Jamie’s description.
“I can’t see the river, or the start of the delta plain,” Jeremy said.
“It’s too dark.” Jamie was enraptured by the amazing view. The sight of the grand city was beginning to dampen his troublesome thoughts. “If it were light you’d be able to see it, but if you look closely it’s further ahead past that large cluster of lights that look like a giant crescent. That’s the commercial district, right on the river.”
“I see where you mean,” Lucas was straining against the straps of his seat harness. “But I can’t wait to get a good look at the city in daylight. Do you think they’ll let us take a hov flight?”
“They might let us do even more than that,” Jamie suddenly smiled.
“What do you mean?” Yves shot Jamie a puzzled frown.
“If I’m to be the pa’amore of the Prince of Hypernia, maybe that means I get a few perks,” Jamie was smiling even more widely now. “Maybe I can get the prohibition on Icarian flight lifted... at least for the four of us.”
“Do you think it’s possible?” Lucas asked. “That would be a dream.”
“Who knows what a little manipulation might get us?” Jamie replied.
Yves’ frown immediately flashed into a broad smile. Quite unexpectedly he thrust his hand out at his friend. Jamie, though puzzled at Yves’ reaction, took the boy’s hand. Then, much to Jamie’s surprise, they were shaking hands.
“Prince de Valèn, it’s so good to see you again,” Yves’ smile grew in intensity and his eyes twinkled. “For a while, there was this other boy on the flight. He was a bit of a wet blanket, and not much fun to be with. I’m so glad you could finally join us, and he could go away.”
Jeremy and Lucas giggled in response to Yves antics, and their reaction further buoyed Jamie’s spirits.
“You’ll get around this, with our help,” Yves continued. “Just like always. Remember, it’s all in how you look at things. When did we ever let you down?”
“You’re all correct, of course,” Jamie repied. “There are still too many things to do yet... and promises to keep. And you’re right. It is a matter of perspective. I thought my life was over when I was ripped from my home. I was convinced it was over on my first day at the école after I was attacked in the refectory. I knew it was over when I was tortured by Sprague, and I wished it was over the day Cristophe died.” Jamie paused, all three of his friends were silently staring at him. “And each time you three were there. I don’t just owe you my thanks. I don’t just owe you my life. I owe you my heart. But I think you all know that you’ve always had it.”
“As you have ours,” Yves smiled and patted Jamie on the shoulder.
Still looking out the window the boys were studying the approaching city when suddenly the hov veered sharply to the right. Thrown violently back in their seats, only their harnesses prevented them from being tossed about the cabin.
“What’s happening...?” Lucas’ voice was raised in incipient fear.
“I’m sorry for the sudden rough ride, boys,” the pilot called out as the hov finally leveled and returned to a smooth flight path. “There seems to be a discrepancy in our final approach plan.”
“How so?” Jamie asked.
“When we left Küronas, I was ordered to take you to the Archduke of Imperialas’ palace, but as we approached the city I was directed by city flight control to land at the imperial summer palace. Now I’m being directed to the central drop zone for all commercial air traffic coming into Imperialas. There seems to be some disagreement as to your final destination. For the past five minutes the city’s flight control center has done nothing but shout in my ear and order me in opposite directions.”
The four boys looked at each other. Jamie frowned. The trip had officially encountered its first difficulty. Moments later the hov was descending. It gently touched down and the whine of the engines spun down until there was silence. The hatch rose up and the four friends popped open the buckles of their harnesses. After getting up from their seats, they approached the open hatch, stooped and exited the portal of the hov.
Once they were standing on the large, polished stone paving blocks of the landing zone they looked about, a bit unsure of their present circumstances. Oddly, they were alone on the landing field: no one was there to greet them. Other than the pilot and co-pilot, there wasn’t a soul to be seen. Harsh, bright spotlights illuminated the area. Scattered around them sat an assortment of hovs, all powered down, dark and silent. Their craft appeared to be the only one currently in service. Through the glare of the harsh lamps illuminating the drop zone, Jamie looked up and saw two figures rapidly approaching. They appeared to be arguing, and he was fairly sure he recognized both voices. As they walked closer their bodies cast long shadows, blocking out the some of the glare of the sodium arc lights of the flight field, and it was then that Jamie realized he was watching Hippolito and Renaud walk toward him.
“The orders were direct and clear, Viper,” Hippolito snarled. “What about them did you find so difficult to understand? I know your brain is weak, but even you should be able to comprehend simple orders. They were to come directly to the archduke’s palace. Preparations have been progressing there for days! Suddenly, you appear out of thin air and start spinning some ridiculous tale.”
“Ridiculous, my prince? I think not. Whatever orders you’re talking about are irrelevant,” Renaud countered and while Jamie could tell the emperor’s private body guard was agitated, his voice and outward appearance was as calm as it was forceful. “I was told, on the Emperor’s direct orders, that they were to land at the imperial palace. Now I’ve been forced to come here and escort them there, all because you contacted imperial air control and attempted to override my directive.”
“Your directive? Oh, how highly you think of yourself, Renaud. It’s you who’s gone directly against the orders of the archduke, but then I wouldn’t expect an addled brain Viper to understand etiquette and protocol. You’re an unschooled, crude, and boorish oaf.” By now Hippolito was virtually screaming. His tirade continued for another minute as he heaped one insult after another on Renaud.
When the Prince of Hypernia’s histrionics ended, Jamie noticed the slightest glimmer of satisfaction in Renaud’s eyes. Drawing himself up to his full height, the tall, thin boy looked down at Hippolito; a cold smile that was almost imperceptible came momentarily to his face, but quickly vanished. Reaching into his cloak he removed a small device. Jamie recognized it as a com. In unbroken silence, Renaud began to touch the screen of the com. A few seconds passed. Renaud extended his hand along with the com to Hippolito, and once more smiled his chilling smile. He appeared to stare right through the young prince, and Jamie suspected if the eyes of the Emperor’s bodyguard could direct energy in the same manner Jamie could through his hands, Hippolito would have been vaporized by Renaud’s steely glare. His voice, however was soft with mock concern and patience.
“I was ordered by the Emperor himself to see that they were ensconced in the imperial palace,” Renaud calmly began, still holding out the com to Hippolito. “But, as you correctly point out, what would an uneducated, boorish Viper like me know of such things? Naturally, my small mind places the rank of the emperor slightly above that of the archduke of Imperialas, but I could be mistaken. To remedy my error and apologize for my ignorance, I’ve just keyed in the personal com code of the Emperor. Please, take the com, my prince. All you need do is use your palm to activate it and you’ll be speaking directly to the Emperor. You can discuss with him all my shortcomings and explain how your orders override his. I’m sure it will be a pleasant conversation, especially since when I left him, we’d only recently arrived from Küronas and he was preparing for bed after a long, fatiguing day. He’s probably asleep now, but since you’re on such good terms with his Imperial Highness, I’m sure he won’t mind you waking him.”
After speaking Renaud stood silently, while continuing to offer Hippolito the com. The standoff lasted over a minute, and for one brief second Jamie thought Hippolito might just have the stones to take Renaud up on his offer. But in the end the Prince of Hypernia, spitting out a sharp and insulting epithet against Renaud, broke eye contact with the emperor’s bodyguard. For a few seconds Hippolito was beside himself with anger. Suddenly he looked up to see Jamie and his friends standing just a few feet before him. In all his rage he’d forgotten the real reason he’d come. Jamie watched in amazement as instantly the boy’s demeanor completely changed. A patronizing smile grew on Hippolito’s face and he confidently approached Jamie.
“I’m sorry, my love,” he said softly to Jamie while resting a hand on the prince’s shoulder. “I was hoping we could spend some time together in preparation for our mating. I’m sure you’re disappointed, but I’ll see if we can get your accommodations changed. I was really looking forward to our time together. I can’t tell you how happy I am that we’re to be mated.” Leaning forward he gave Jamie a quick kiss on the lips. Reaching down he grabbed Jamie’s hand squeezing and then released it. Spinning on his heels he quickly strode away, completely ignoring both Renaud and the boys of Chrysalis. Jamie’s eyes followed Hippolito until the boy disappeared into the darkness. He couldn’t suppress the strong feeling of foreboding that was beginning to grow inside him.
“Thanks for the welcome,” Lucas called out as Hippolito stormed off.
As Hippolito left the drop zone Renaud motioned for the dancers to follow him. From out of the shadows three large men dressed in the livery of the imperial household appeared.
“They’ll collect your things, and see that everything is brought to the palace without delay.” Renaud told the boys. “You’ll all come with me.” And he pointed to a small domed transport hov with the imperial crest emblazoned on its fuselage.
The trip to the imperial palace was quick; less than five minutes. But the flight was even more exciting then their initial entry into the city. Sitting under the transparent dome, the boys got a closer look at the amazing city from a much lower height. And while Renaud remained silent, Jeremy, Yves and Lucas kept up a constant chatter as they flew over one spectacular sight after another.
Chirping like birds, the boys of Trio Chrysalis rattled on right up to the moment Renaud banked the hov and began to steer the craft sharply to the left. At that moment, confronted by the sight of the imperial palace looming directly before them, all four boys grew quiet and stared in wonder. Not only was the palace imposing and impressive, standing like a glowing beacon in the night, it also seemed that every light both inside and outside the enormous building was on; the effect was spectacular.
The main palace itself was made up of one large central building over five stories high and topped by a large golden dome and cupola that gleamed like the sun from the reflected light of a battery of spotlights focused on it. On either side of the main structure, a matching set of long wings and connecting galleries helped extend the length of the grand facade. Constructed of salmon diamond almand stone, it glittered in the artificial light of the lamps that illuminated its classical facade. Jutting from the rear of the main building were an array of large wings extended out behind the structure. Manicured formal gardens, sparkling fountains, and sheltered pavilions could be seen through out the open space surrounding the palace. A large number of promenades, walkways and paths crisscrossed the open space and a vast array of statues and monuments dotted the grounds.
“What’s that?” Jeremy voice was choked with surprise. The other boys craned their necks to look out the nearest window wondering what had gotten him so excited.
A brightly illuminated water feature, looking similar to one of the great canals of Küronas, could be seen just beyond the main central garden. As it stretched out before them it split into three, then five, and finally seven branches. Constructed as an integral part of the many gently sloping hillsides and terraces of the garden, it flowed leisurely through the landscape. Along both sides of each canal were tree and shrub lined promenades that also contained miniature gardens at measured intervals. The great water feature was defined by continuous fountains lining either side of its many promenades. Down the center of the long canal, a vast series of large sculptural pieces, each forming even grander fountains, continued as far as they could see. The entire waterway was ablaze with white and colored light that sparkled and reflected off the surface of the water and the continuous jets and sprays from all the fountains.
“The Grand Canal,” Jamie replied, while quickly consulting The Screen. “It’s not really a canal, but that’s its name. It’s the largest artificial water feature on the planet. It was modeled after a similar design on the home world, but constructed on a far grander scale. It’s said that an entire tributary of the river was diverted just to supply it with water.
Jamie, still consulting The Screen, was prepared to continue but he and his friends fell silent when the most incredible site of all loomed ahead of them. The enormous luminescent glass structure that lay further behind the formal rear lawn of the palace shimmered like the facets of an exquisitely cut diamond
“The Imperial Botanicum,” Jamie whispered. While he’d heard and read about the structure and seen his share of images, nothing prepared him for the reality of the grand complex of glass conservatories and greenhouses that held the renowned Imperial botanical collection. One large glass structure dominated the space, but it was connected by additional glass galleries that lead to many other structures; each one a work of art in glass and metal. It was said that it was hard to decide which was more breathtaking, the Botanicum itself or the fabulous horticultural treasures it housed.
“It goes on forever,” Jeremy exclaimed. “Do you see all the connecting, glass-covered walkways and paths? It looks like a giant maze made of glass.”
“In a way, it is,” Jamie replied, then pointing to the central structure of the horticultural complex, he added, “The main conservatory is where we’re going to perform.”
“Really?” Lucas laughed with glee. “I can’t wait.”
The hov began its descent, and soon the grand facade of the imperial summer palace replaced their view of the Botanicum.
“I thought the imperial palace at Küronas was the grandest thing I’d ever seen,” Yves tone was one of awe and amazement, “but this is even more spectacular.”
“And we get to stay here,” Jeremy proudly chimed in.
Seconds later the hov was sitting quietly on the front lawn of the palace and the boys were climbing out. Two men dressed in imperial livery appeared and began to usher them into the building. As they climbed the tall stairs leading up to the main entrance it was hard for the four friends to keep their mouths from gaping open. By the time they were standing in the grand foyer with its marble columns and sparkling chandeliers the quartet of dancers were speechless.
“These men will take you to your apartments,” Renaud said indicating to Jeremy, Yves and Lucas that they should follow the two footmen. “You will come with me,” he added turning to look down at Jamie.
Separating from Trio Chrysalis, Jamie traveled one way with Renaud while his friends went in the opposite direction. But just when he turned to watch them leave, Jamie couldn’t suppress a smile when Lucas stabbing his own chest silently mouthed, “we get our own apartment,” as he performed a graceful leap. Gripping his hand Yves began to pull Lucas down the hall as they raced to catch up to Jeremy.
Impatiently Renaud called out to Jamie, and the prince rushed to join the Emperor’s bodyguard. Walking together, they strode down one of the long mirror-clad galleries that came off the main building. After a number of turns and stairways, they approached a tall, gilded door. Renaud opened the door and bade Jamie enter ahead of him. After crossing the threshold he found himself in a small, but grandly appointed salon. A large chandelier high above his head bathed the room in a soft warm glow as its cut glass crystals twinkled with a rainbow of colors. Leaning against one of the gilded leather-clad panels covering the walls was Miro, his arms crossed and a smirk on his face. Jamie paused in surprise. Then his eyes caught a movement in one of the far corners of the room and seconds later he was dashing across the floor into the arms of Nic.
For almost a minute, Jamie clung tightly to Niklas as the boys hugged, and it was in the warmth of their embrace that he knew all was well between them. Finally, Jamie stepped back and looked up into Nic’s eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he began. “I don’t know what you know, but we have to talk about...”
“We don’t,” Nic once more took Jamie into his arms. “I watched your whole performance. Jamie, you were amazing... more than amazing. And I saw the Emperor’s announcement. I also saw your reaction, so I know you didn’t have anything to do with it. It just means we have to make some adjustments, maybe some very big adjustments, but we’re mated, and nothing can change that.”
“Do you really mean that, Niklas?” Jamie stepped out of their embrace and shot his pa’amore a look of trepidation.
“Of course I do, Jamie. We’re together... forever.” He bent down and whispered in Jamie’s ear, “Taer tá mé, aer tá tú.”
“Synne flona te•torré,” Jamie replied, gripping Nic’s hand with all his might. “But Nic, how did you get here? Into the palace, I mean?”
“You can thank Miro for that,” Nic pointed to the young gladiator still leaning against the dark leather paneled wall of the salon.
“I simply contacted Renaud and explained the situation.” Miro stepped away from the wall, still wearing a satisfied smirk. “Being a member of the imperial household carries some benefits.”
“The whole thing was a bluff?” Jamie suddenly spun around to face Renaud. “You weren’t ordered to bring me here. And you didn’t set your com to contact the Emperor. You bluffed. While you and Hippolito were going hammer and tong at each other, you were constructing a ruse. You were both eye to eye, and he was the one who blinked.”
“Indeed, you are correct, sa’Crêsmané,” Renaud replied his face showing its usual enigmatic mask of stoicism. “The com code I entered was for the palace laundry.”
“You all planned this together, no?” Jamie’s eyes sparkled in delight. He wasn’t sure what was making him happier, seeing Nic or knowing he was temporarily out of the clutches of Hippolito; probably both.
“The Gahdar Miro Gillot is the one who approached me. He then introduced me to The Baron. I have known Miro for some time, but this evening was my first meeting with The Baron,” Renaud replied respectfully. “Between us, we hatched the plan.”
Jamie turned back to Nic and hugged him once more. After wrapping his arms around his mate Jamie felt Nic kiss the top of his head.
“Now we can both sleep better tonight Jamie” he whispered softly in his pa’amore’s ear.
“Yes,” Jamie replied. “Although I wish it was with you. It’s still going to be difficult, and probably even more of a mess with the latest complications, but knowing that you realize I had nothing to do with the emperor’s decision, that we’re still together, and that our bond is strong, means everything to me.”
“And to me,” Nic replied, then added, “It’s very late, Jamie, and I think you should rejoin your friends. We’re bivouacked out past the cutting gardens on the east lawn. I’ll be in touch. You’re safe here. Renaud’s promised me he’ll watch over you.”
Jamie gave Nic a kiss and bid him goodnight, then following Renaud, he left the salon.
“I’ll take you directly to your apartment,” Renaud turned to Jamie and his eyes carefully studied the prince. “You’ll be staying with your friends. I thought it best if the four of you were together. There’s safety in numbers and it will also be easier to watch over you.”
“But what about the archduke... and Hippolito?” Jamie asked. A sudden fearful feeling began to clutch at his hearts.
“It will be taken care of,” Renaud replied. “There are many forces in play, and you’re not privy to all of them.”
“And you are?” Jamie suddenly stopped, and stood his ground while giving the Angel of Death a suspicious glare.
“No, I’m not,” Renaud’s, face was a mask of controlled calm. “This is all part of a tapestry far larger than any of us can imagine and we are all each weaving our own sections. Yours, it would appear, is the largest section, but it’s not the only one. I’m a Viper, and the Brotherhood has noticed that lately a few isolated events have appeared to suddenly be working in concert with each other. We ourselves aren’t sure what they are, or what it means, but we’re watching. I’ll inform you of what we learn.”
“Is it what I think it is, Renaud? Is the evacuation starting?”
“In all likelihood, but we’re not sure. Even with my access to the private life of the emperor, I’ve been kept at a distance when certain topics have been discussed. There have been times I’ve wished it was my hearing instead of my vision that was enhanced.”
Satisfied with Renaud’s explanation, Jamie resumed following the imperial bodyguard through the palace. After a rather long trek, they came to a tall double door. As he had done before, Renaud pulled on the lever and the large carved and gilded portal slowly opened. Jamie stepped through to discover his three friends acting as excited as a pack of children at a circus.
“You have to see this place,” Jeremy began to babble after grabbing Jamie’s arm. “Our beds are bigger than one of our entire rooms at the école, and the bath... we could invite half of the senior troupe to bathe with us!”
“And wouldn’t you just love that?” Yves droll expression made Jamie snicker.
“And they said we can have anything we wish to eat... any time we want it!” Lucas’ voice was tinged with both excitement and disbelief.
“We’re guests of the Emperor,” Jamie countered. “Imperial rules and customs are different from everyone else’s... even those of the general nobility.”
“I could get used to this,” Yves added. Jamie noticed that the boy’s sandals had been kicked off and lay on the opposite side of the room while Yves, his wings folded back and his head resting on a thick satin pillow, was stretched out on one of the two plush red silk damask covered divans that stood against opposite walls of the room.
“It’s late.” Jamie was sorry to put a damper on his friend’s enthusiasm, but it had to be done. “And we have a lot to do in the next few days.” Looking about the room he lowered his voice. “Remember, we’re here to perform for the Emperor; at least that’s our story. We have to practice and look busy. We also have other things to do and we have to be careful. Our chances are better here at the palace than they would have been at Savaron Loka’s estate, so for that we can be grateful. Renaud’s hinted that the evacuation might start very soon.”
“Really?” Yves head shot up from his pillow, and Jeremy and Lucas ceased their banter and eyed the prince.
“It would appear so. I had a suspicion that it might occur after the imperial birthday celebration. They’ve run out of options. Things are falling apart rapidly, and they can’t suppress the truth any longer. On one of the secure imperial channels I’ve learned that a whole town in the south has been affected. Ninety-eight percent of the population is dead. A security blockade was put in place and no one is allowed within miles of the place. All personal and commercial communication has ceased. The Empire’s excuse is some kind of industrial accident, but there’s no industry within hundreds of miles of the place. How long can they continue to contain incidents like that?”
“Not long,” Yves moved to a sitting position. The moment his bare feet touched the soft silk carpet he rose from the divan and his wings slowly unfolded.
“So we have to be prepared for anything. The next few days will probably be critical. And as a pleasant bonus, I suspect Hippolito will be causing his share of problems. We’re counting down the last days of the Empire, as we know it. Hearing Renaud a few minutes ago and thinking back on what both Stephen told me and what Castor’s recently confirmed, the leadership of this world will be leaving the planet soon. We’re running out of time. It’s now or never. So let’s get some rest and discuss our plans in the morning. Nic’s here, along with all the Gahdar of Castle Rood. Renaud’s watching over us, so at least there are some positive things breaking in our favor.”
After Jamie was finished speaking all four boys headed off to bed. Prepared for sleep Jamie, now in his sleep shorts, crawled into the large, soft bed that had been prepared for him. While he’d never spent a night with Nic, it hadn’t bothered him when he was at the école and Nic was at the Gahdar training center in Piropolis, but now, knowing that his pa’amore was so close at hand, he longed to feel Niklas strong arms wrapped around him. Sighing, he closed his eyes and soon was fast asleep.
The following morning Jamie was stirred by the warming rays of the rising sun. Slowly waking, he was puzzled to find himself enveloped in a cocoon of luxurious comfort most unlike his small, humble, and rock-hard student bed at the École Danse A quick glance around the room reminded him of his current location. As the fog of sleep evaporated, Jamie shifted his wings and sat up. Throwing his legs over the side of the thick plush mattress, he let his feet dangle as he rubbed his eyes.
Taking a moment to come awake, he recalled the previous night and his arrival at the imperial palace. Smiling, he remembered how Miro, Renaud, and Niklas had contrived to ensure his accommodation at the palace instead of Savaron Loka’s ducal residence. A warm breeze from an open window blew lightly against his skin, breaking his mood of introspection just as the sound of distant voices caught his attention.
As the morning sun warmed him, he listened to the voices while trying to make out what they were saying. Having little success, he climbed down from his bed, walked to the tall open window of his room, and looked out onto a beautiful lawn. The large expanse of grass that flowed away from the building like a living carpet, was boarded by a low lying hedge with a colorful rose garden at its center and it was then he discovered the source of the chatter. A trio of middle-aged Kalorian women were busily tending to the plants, and he looked on as two of the women dutifully tugged at any weeds growing up around the roses, while the third woman removed any dead or dying blossoms from the bright green foliage of the bushes. As they worked, the women talked and sometimes laughed in an unguarded moment, free from the eyes of an overseer or work foreman.
Seconds later a gentle tapping at the door to his bedchamber drew his attention away from the women. Turning from the window to face the door, he watched a young man in imperial livery enter his room. The boy was carrying a silver tray with a selection of breakfast pastries, cheeses, meats, bread and a small serving boat filled with a red jelly conserve. A blue and gold porcelain teapot along with a matching cup and saucer had been placed to the right of the food. To the left, a tall bud vase held a single salmon colored rosebud. Just as the young man was about to set the tray on a nearby table, Jamie stopped him.
“Can you tell me if my friends are awake?”
“Yes, your highness,” the boy replied. “They’ve also just been served their breakfast.”
“Then if it’s possible, can you take my food to where they are? I’d like to see them.”
“As you wish, my lord.” The boy who’d been lowering the tray, quickly lifted it, then turned and began to exit the room. “Please follow me.”
Jamie, still wearing only his sleep shorts, followed the young man. He was about to tell the boy that any honorific titles were unnecessary, but realized it would probably do no good. Ingrained conditioning from years of dealing with members of the imperial household along with status conscious visiting nobility would most likely do little to discourage the boy’s rigid training.
After leaving his room Jamie passed through a small sitting room just outside his bedchamber and entered the main salon all four boys shared.
“This place is unbelievable,” Jeremy grinned when he saw Jamie enter the room.
“And the food!” Lucas chirped, “it’s amazing. Jamie, you really have to try the pastries.”
“The best part was the bed.” Yves cooed. “It was like sleeping on a cloud.”
“Good morning to all of you, too.” Jamie tried to project a mask of annoyance over the lack of a proper greeting, but found it impossible to maintain in the face of his friends almost childish excitement.
“Oh, he’s a prince,” Jeremy called out, trying his best to sound blasé. “He’s used to this kind of treatment.”
“Yes of course,” Jamie rolled his eyes. “Living with all of you at the same school, on the same floor, and using the same bath, not to mention matching beds and the exact same food, I can understand how you’d think my treatment has been so much more preferential than your own.”
“So what do we do today?” Lucas asked munching on a sweet roll drizzled with a gooey chocolate and toffee topping.
“We can take a bit of a tour, and then visit the Gahdar camp,” Jamie replied, “but don’t forget, we’ll also have to practice.”
“We just went through three long weeks of practice,” Jeremy groaned.
“That was for the Emperor’s public birthday celebration,” Jamie replied pointedly. “We were so busy with that event, that we really haven’t had time to practice the routine we’re going to perform here. We don’t have to work too hard today, but there is something I’d like the three of you to try your hand at.”
“What’s that?” Yves shot his friend a curious look.
“The Battlecom.” Jamie smiled. “Miro told me they have one here just like they do at the imperial palace in Küronas.”
“That’s that holo... battle... fighting machine...thing.” Lucas gave a muffled reply as a spray of crumbs shot from his overly stuffed mouth. “You know, Jamie, you really do have to try these rolls, they’re beyond delicious.”
“Yes, it’s an advance reality holo projector,” Jamie added, trying to ignore Lucas’ overstuffed face. “Since you three are playing the part of the imperial troops, I thought the Battlecom would be perfect for your use when you practice. You might be able to incorporate some fighting moves into your part of the routine. I’m sure some of the Gahdar will be happy to give you some pointers.
“Gahdar,” Jeremy’s eyes lit up. “Sure, I’d love to practice with them.”
“Who wouldn’t?” Yves chimed in, and he began to grin.
Jamie shook his head and tried to appear scandalized by the pointed innuendos and double entendres that now peppered Jeremy, Lucas and Yves conversation, but he knew his friends could see right through him as evidenced by the peach pit Jeremy lobbed at him.
After some discussion it was decided that the boys would first
make a brief tour of some of the public areas of the palace. When finished
they’d visit the Gahdar encampment. While they were eating, a firm knock on the
door preceded the entrance of an impeccably dressed man who stepped into their
salon. The tall well-built gentleman moved into the room with a self-assured
confidence. The coal-black color of his neatly tailored suit along with his
lightly tanned skin was in stark contrast to his well-coiffed, silver-gray hair.
A dark red cravat perfectly matched the blood red rosebud pinned to his lapel.
When a soft creak issued from the man’s shoes, Jamie looked down, not surprised
to find that he could almost see his own reflection in the fine, well-polished
“Simon Hollenzer,” the man politely introduced himself, giving the four young men a nod of his head “I’m head of household for the palace.”
Hollenzer then gave a brief history of the palace along with a few of the more important rules of etiquette for those staying as guests at an imperial residence. “Although being both from nobility and a frequent performer at imperial venues, I’d expect Prince de Valèn to already know most of this,” he added. “You might do well to follow his example.” Hollenzer eyes shot a glance to Jamie’s three friends.
At Simon’s remark Lucas looked at Jamie and rolled his eyes. Jamie discretely shook his head causing Lucas to knit his eyebrows.
“Yes I do know most of them,” Jamie replied with a smile. They’d gotten into the palace by less than honest means. It would be the perfect base of operations. He didn’t want to run the risk getting kicked out, knowing only too well where they’d all end up moving to if that were the case. Fleeting thoughts of Hippolito’s eyes following his every move sent a chill racing up his spine.
During Hollenzer’s briefing, the head of household for the imperial summer palace had shown them an ingenious method for getting around the palace and its surrounding grounds. Approaching one of the paneled walls of the salon, Simon pointed out a small highly polished golden star inset into one of dark wood panels near the door. After lightly touching it, a holo image of the palace materialized. Next to the image a series of symbols and directional arrows appeared. The head of household began to touch them and the palace grew, shrank, rotated, and even revealed rooms, hallways, stairs and lifts when he zoomed deep into the image.
“You will find one of these directional stars in every room of the palace,” Simon told them. “They’ll assist you in finding your way. You also have the option of entering your destination. If you do, you’ll be given the most direct route to travel.”
“What are the colors?” Jamie asked, noting parts of the interior and exterior were overlaid with a series of transparent colors.
“Blue are the common areas, and any guest is allowed free use of them,” Hollenzer continued his explanation with barely a pause for the interruption. “Green are staff and work areas; they’re not restricted, but you must be careful when entering them. The kitchen, for example, is always quite busy and guests constantly barging in would disrupt the staff, and then, of course, there’s always danger of injury. That’s also true of the gardener’s maintenance areas. You can enter green areas, but you must inform someone of your intent. That can be done through the map itself; just highlight your route. Yellow areas are for members of the imperial family only. You are allowed into a yellow zone only with advance permission or by direct invitation from a member of the imperial family. Red areas are restricted. No access is allowed at any time.”
Following his briefing Simon had asked the boys about their plans for the morning. Jamie told them they’d explore some of the public areas of the palace and then visit the Gahdar camp. Later in the afternoon, he was quick to add, all four of them would begin practicing their routine for the emperor’s private birthday party.
Simon, using the holo, pointed out a few more features of the map and its directional program, along with showing them the quickest route to the gladiator encampment.
“Is there anything further you may require?” he asked after deactivating the image.
Jamie thanked Simon for his help and replied that for the moment there was nothing more that they needed. Stating that he had a busy schedule, Simon informed the boys that a pair of Kalorians had been assigned to their suite and any further requests should be directed to them. After Hollenzer left, Jamie approached the wall, touched the golden star and reactivated the plan. For a few seconds he stood silently staring at it.
“What are you looking for?” Yves asked when Jamie made no attempt to manipulate the symbols controlling the map.
“Nothing,” Jamie replied deactivating the image almost as quickly as he’d activated it. “We won’t need it any more. At least you won’t need it when you’re with me.”
“What are you talking about?” Jeremy frowned.
“I guess it’s time to tell you another secret,” Jamie turning a probing eye on his friends. He paused as a few silent seconds passed.
“Cross our hearts.” Lucas, shooting Jamie an impatient look, quickly made an X over each of his hearts.
“Sorry,” Jamie said. “It has nothing to do with that. It’s just that every time I tell you something, I drag you in a bit further... I... just...”
“The empire killed him, not you.” Yves reply was sharp and none of the other boys missed his meaning. “We know the danger, and the risks.”
“I know,” Jamie softly replied. So more in keeping with the drama of the moment then out of necessity, Jamie made a broad sweeping gesture of his arm, while the exact same image of the palace and it’s grounds reappeared, but not in the same location as the one Simon had first called up.
“How did you...”
“It belongs to me now,” Jamie replied blandly still projecting a serious and sober look. Then he explained The Screen, and although he kept his description short, his friends were nonetheless amazed. But what his explanation didn’t reveal was the extra information he also now possessed.
When he saw Simon Hollenzer activate the image, a quick scan of the database in his own head yielded nothing. It was then that he’d realized for security reasons the image was privately held and off limits to the outside world. After easily tapping into the internal net of the imperial palace he was able to secure the holographic plan; what’s more, he also grabbed a lot of other information, including things not shown on the public plan guests were allowed to access. Just as he’d suspected, there were many more layers of information in the restricted parts of the plan that were cloaked, including three levels of subbasements and a vast network of interconnecting tunnels that coursed throughout the palace grounds.
Once Jamie’s explanation was complete, the boys dressed in their usual school attire. After making a quick tour of the palace public rooms, they headed off to the Gahdar encampment. With the palace plan now stored in The Screen, Jamie was able to lead his friends directly to the gladiator base without a single misstep.
As Niklas had informed Jamie, the gladiator camp lay past the many long and colorful beds of cutting gardens that kept the tables, drawing rooms, and private suites of the palace supplied with a daily assortment of fresh flowers. Passing bed after bed of exotic plants and flowers, a bright riot of ever changing colors and strong rich scents captured their attention. More than once Jamie reached out to brush his hand over tall flower stalks covered with colorful blooms or a sweetly smelling bush.
At the end of the cutting gardens, they came to a stately, well-manicured privet hedge that served as a wall between the working and formal parts of the garden. An opening in the hedgerow put them on a path through a small grove of trees. Once through the trees, they found they were standing on the edge of the vast expanse of grass known as the East Lawn.
Jamie smiled, for stretching out before them were the brightly colored tents of the Gahdar encampment. Although sturdy and practical, the tent’s soft curves, decorative awnings, and bright colors lent them a aesthetically pleasing impression. A quick, informal count led Jamie to estimate over fifty tents. A few of the tents appeared large, but most were small and compact. Studying the scene, he quickly concluded the vast majority of the smaller tents were probably designed to hold no more then two; just right for a fighting duet. His guess was confirmed when they began their approach, and he spied a standard flying from the top of each of the small tents. Every standard was different, and each bore the symbol of the duet that resided in the tent below.
Larger tents had also been erected. One was obviously the mess tent and as they got closer, the boys could smell the aroma of cooked food wafting through the air. One large tent appeared to be a gathering tent, for meetings? The largest tent on the grounds housed two sparring rings the gladiator boys could use for informal practice. Another tent held an array of training equipment and Jamie could see that mats had been placed atop the grassy lawn.
Upon entering the camp every single Gahdar the four friends passed stopped what they were doing, looked up, or turned to stare at them. One very handsome boy who’d been honing his sword stopped and let his eyes follow the dancers as they walked through the camp. Once their backs were to him, the boy gave a long low whistle.
Jeremy looked back at the boy and grinned. “I guess they’re happy to see us, no?” he added after turning back to his friends. Lucas and Yves giggled along with him.
“No foolishness,” Jamie whispered.
“Easy for you to say,” Yves chuckled. “You already have your Gahdar. There are over a hundred left... if you don’t mind sharing.”
Preparing to scold the trio Jamie stopped when he saw Nic striding through the camp to meet him, by his side walked a boy dressed in sparring kit who Jamie immediately recognized as the Gahdar Julius du Kahann; one of Nic’s best friends. He, along with Miro and David, were the only other Gahdar Jamie had truely come to know from his visits to Piropolis, and while he loved Nic with all his heart, there was something about Julius that made Jamie warm to him the instant he’d met the young Gahdar. It had probably been the boy’s personality, for like Nic, Julius was kind, soft-spoken, intelligent and thoughtful. And just like his pa’amore, Julius was a well-tuned fighting machine; better, Jamie thought, than even the highly skilled and fiercely competitive Gillot twins. He glanced over at his friends, thinking about a match between this young man and one of them...with a wry smile, he dismissed the thought.
Quickly closing the distance between them, Jamie and Nic soon came face to face and were locked in a hug. A warm smile came to Jamie’s face as he pressed into the body of his mate. He could feel that even though they’d been mostly separated in the past few days, their bond had grown stronger and he knew, more than anything else, he really didn’t want to be away from his pa’amore.
“We need to talk,” Jamie spoke softly as they continued their embrace.
“Of course,” Nic replied, “I anticipated that.” Separating from Jamie, Nic looked down at his mate. “I have my own tent, so we can go there.”
Since they’d not formally met, Jamie introduced his friends to Nic and Julius. All three boys stared at both Gahdar, unable to wipe the smiles from their faces.
“I thought you might like a little tour of our compound,” Nic turned to Jamie’s friends. “Julius has volunteered to show you around. Some of the boys are practicing, and you might want to watch. In the meantime, Jamie and I will talk.”
Yves, Lucas and Jeremy all nodded eagerly, still smiling at the Gahdar who would be serving as their guide.
Jamie took Nic’s hand. Just as he was ready to lead Jamie away, Nic turned around and called out to his friend. “Keep an eye out for them, Jules,” he shouted as Julius began to lead the three dancers away. “And keep the wolves at bay,” he added. Julius simply nodded his head.
“You know, Nic, they’re not so delicate,” Jamie snickered to his mate as he watched his friends following Julius. “The Gahdar might need forewarning against Trio Chrysalis more than the Terrible Trio needs a warning about the Gahdar.”
Once they reached Nic’s tent, Jamie lowered himself onto the cot that took up half the space in the tent. Nic picked up a nearby campaign stool, placed it near Jamie and sat facing his mate. A sudden creak followed by a groaning moan of protest issuing from the flimsy cot had Jamie rebounding off the make-shift bed just seconds after his bottom touched the cot’s taunt canvas.
“You sleep on this?” he asked, staring warily at the cot.
“I spent many nights on the cold, hard ground, naked and shivering without so much as a thin blanket for cover when I was a small boy,” Nic replied. “Any of the boys at Compari would consider this a palace as fine as the one you and your friends are staying in at the moment,” he added, gesturing around the small tent.
“I guess.” Jamie gingerly lowered himself onto the cot. The accompanying pops and creaks from the field bed did little to improve his confidence. “ Honestly, do you think we can really do this, Nic?”
“We can try,” Nic sat back on his stool and took a deep breath. “And if it’s the best effort we can possibly make, then whether we succeed or fail, we have nothing to be ashamed of.”
“Except the blade of the Emperor’s high executioner.”
“The greater the task, the greater the rewards... and... the greater the penalties for failure. But you already know that, Jamie.”
“I understand Niklas. I also know you’ve saved me from Hippolito for the moment, but you know he’s going to come after me again. It’s only a matter of time, and I’d guess that time is at hand.”
“You’re right.” Nic lowered his head and stared at the floor of his tent. “We’ll all have to pay attention. Renaud promised me he’d watch out for you. David and Miro are also at the palace. They were going to camp with us, but I convinced them to stay close by you and your friends. Their eyes and ears will also be useful.”
“But on top of all that, there’s the execution of our plan. Can we really do it?”
“Let’s do a quick review, now that we’re here, we can gain a better understanding of our current situation.” Nic replied. “Master Sak’ki taught me that no plan is beyond further scrutiny or improvement. It will help us to refine our ideas, and possibly require us to change some things.”
Huddling together, Nic and Jaime went to work. An hour later, Jamie, although still questioning the wisdom of his plan, had gained further reassurance that Nic continued to have faith in the scheme. Even Jamie’s prediction about the eminent evacuation from the planet left Nic undisturbed. The Gahdar’s calm cool-headedness was a source of constant amazement to Jamie. With their heads close to together and speaking in low voices, they worked through each point of concern Jamie brought forth.
“What about the Prison of Pain?” Jamie, almost afraid to touch on the topic, let his voice drop to a whisper.
“I’ve been discussing it with Jules. We’ve been working on a plan. The information you’ve supplied us with has been invaluable. We still have things to work out, but you have nothing to worry about.”
“I think I do.” Jamie reached out and took the Gahdar’s hand in his own. “Unlike when you’re in the arena, a place that’s alien to me, I do know exactly what you’ll be facing at Stone Gate. Remember, I’ve been there.”
“I assure you we’ll do our best to get them out, but it’s not something you need to be involved in. You already have a lot to concern yourself with. Please, this is something I’d like to do for the Movement… and for you.”
Jamie gave Nic quick nod and a grim look, but kept his thoughts on the subject to himself.
The Gahdar’s eyes met Jamie’s. Moving to stand he froze when Jamie called his name, and he caught the serious look on his pa’amore’s face. Settling back onto his stool Nic sat stone still, waiting for the prince to speak.
“There’s something we’ve never talked about. Something we should… you see, Niklas… I mean…” Jamie stammered, clearly self-conscious. “I guess it’s always been implied… at least to me.”
“What is it?”
“I’ve told you about Loran and Alexander. I’ve also told you what I learned from my meetings with Stephen and from Hippolito’s long-winded boasts.”
“Yes, you’ve told me all of it,” Nic paused. It was then he sensed something larger and unspoken in Jamie’s statement. “What of it?”
“Alexander was to be the King of the Icarians… well, Avionnes. Loran was to assume the title of Wizard, whatever that actually means. I still don’t completely understand the title or the office. You know what I think about all that rubbish Loka’s created. But with the Council of Resistance gone and so many in Stone Gate, we’re all that’s left. We’re the leaders of this… what?”
“Rebellion, Jamie.” Nic’s voice became quiet, and hard as almand stone. “That’s what it is.”
“Then you’re the king, and I’m the wizard.”
“I know what you’re trying to say. It’s not something I understand either, but whatever it means, I’m certainly not comfortable being a king.”
“You’re my mate. At the very least, that makes you one by default. And whether you’re comfortable or not with the title, you are a king, Nic. I know you think of yourself as just a gladiator, but you’re so much more. It’s not just your fighting skills or your knowledge of history, philosophy, and so many other things, or even the fact that you know the entire Pentabulon by heart. The blood of Escalad Agramos flows through your veins. You’re a leader, a natural leader. I don’t think you could avoid being one if you tried. I’ve seen you with the Gahdar. They obey you. They respect you, Niklas, and they love you. No king could ask for more.”
Nic’s head was bent and his eyes focused on the floor. Jamie, still clutching his mate’s hand, could feel a storm of mental turmoil cloud the young warrior’s thoughts.
“I don’t know,” Nic finally replied.
“But I do,” Jamie squeezed Nic’s hand. “I need a king. Not just any king will do...it’s got to be Niklas von Agramon, son of the great Escalad. And while it’s obvious I need you now, you have to know that if by some crazy twist of luck we actually succeed, I’ll need you even more.”
“But you’re… look Jamie, you’re… you really are a de Valèn, a true de Valèn. A prince. A noble. A…”
“Without you Nic, I’m nothing. I know you don’t like it. I know it’s not something your asked for or aspired to, but it is what it is. I need a king. I need my king.” Jamie’s voice grew soft. He squeezed Nic’s hand causing the gladiator to look up at him. Their eyes met and locked, as each held the other in their gaze. “And more than anything else I need my pa’amore, my Niklas.”
“I said I was uncomfortable, and I certainly feel unworthy, but I never said no.” Nic reciprocated Jamie’s firm grip with a strong one of his own. “When we mated, I promised to be with you in this and everything you do for the rest of our lives. That will never change.”
“Then I guess there’s nothing more to add,” Jamie stood up, bent down and gave Nic a gentle kiss. “Except to say how much I love you.”
“And I you,” Nic replied after returning Jamie’s kiss. The touch of the boy’s soft lips never ceased to thrill the Gahdar.
Slowly Nic rose from his stool. It was then that the lines of doubt and worry vanished from his face as a smile took their place. “We should find Jules. I haven’t heard any screaming yet, but I know how my brother Gahdar are, especially when beautiful boys are nearby.”
Returning Nic’s smile Jamie chuckled, “Ok, we’ll find them. And when we do I’m sure it will be a sight.” Stepping out of Nic’s tent Jamie stopped and turned to his mate “Nic, can I ask you something?”
“The Gahdar are doing their exhibition for the Emperor three days after today, no?”
“That’s correct. It’s scheduled for late afternoon and it’s the one reason we’re training hard today so that then we can rest for at least one full day.”
“And our act is on the following evening,” Jamie continued. “Tomorrow night the emperor hosts a grand ball at the palace. Would you come with me? I’m sure Miro could get you invited.”
Nic paused and he gave Jamie a searching look. There was silence as the seconds slowly passed by.
“I don’t know. I’m a Gahdar, Jamie. I know nothing of balls or grand fetes. I know even less about nobility and court etiquette, especially imperial court etiquette. I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“Why not? You’ll be fine. You don’t have to do anything.”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, I do know about balls, grand fetes and nobility. I’ll protect you.”
The cloying smile Jamie flashed made the Gahdar laugh.
“Just come, Nic. I... well... Niklas... I miss you. Ever since we mated we’ve been together so little.” The pleading look Jamie offered his pa’amore caused Nic’s smile to broaden.
“I know, Jamie. I miss you too.”
“Then come... please, Nic...”
Standing as still as a stature, Nic found himself fixed in Jamie’s gaze.
“I can see I’m going to have to start a new set of training exercises,” the Gahdar began absent-mindedly.
“Exercises? What do you mean Nic? I was asking you about the ball.”
“Yes, exercises, Jamie. Exercises so that I can resist the influence of those eyes of yours. They make saying no to you so much more difficult.”
“Are you saying yes? That you’ll come?” Jamie began to smile.
“I’m saying yes,” Nic replied softly as he surrendered to the prince’s heart-warming smile.
“Thank you, Niklas,” Jamie quickly moved to stand en pointe and gave Nic a quick kiss on the cheek. You’ll have a good time, I promise. Now lets go and find everyone.”
Walking through the camp Nic and Jamie were surprised to find it deserted. Huddled in Nic’s tent they’d not taken much notice to any of the activities in the encampment.
“I thought they’d be in the sparring tent,” Nic gave Jamie a puzzled look.
Jamie simply shrugged.
“They went to the palace,” a voice replied.
Turning toward the voice, Jamie and Nic discovered a middle aged Kalorian had come up behind them. In his arms was a large basket of bread that Jamie assumed the man was delivering to the Gahdar mess tent.
“I saw them all entering the servant’s entrance of the palace as I was preparing to deliver this bread. I overheard the Gillot twins talking about the Battlecom in one of the sub-basements.”
“How do we get there?” Nic asked.
“Just go to the palace and someone will direct you.”
After thanking the Kalorian, Jamie and Nic left the Gahdar encampment. And although the prince had been accessing the plan of the imperial residence he now held in his head, once they reached the palace one of the cleaning staff volunteered to show them the way. Thinking it would be a good idea to accept the offer, Jamie immediately agreed. The fact that he could suddenly walk so confidently around the imperial palace might raise suspicions. After taking a lift and then passing through a series of corridors, they came to a wide hallway.
“It’s just down this passage,” the house servant said.
It was then that Jamie could hear the clanging of metal. At that same moment he became aware of the unmistakable thrum of a fully powered Battlecom, and knew the Gahdar were most likely putting on an exhibition for his friends.
The end of the passage opened into a large room with a high vaulted ceiling. Jamie stopped dead in his tracks and blinked in amazement. Not because the Battlecom was slightly smaller than the ones he was used to practicing in at Piropolis, nor because of the gaggle of cheering Gahdar boys gathered around the device. But because inside the battle ring stood his three friends, each wielding a sword as they fought a rather large Baerian slime dragon.
Jeremy, Lucas and Yves moved about with a speed and skill that was as amazing as it was graceful. That they were dancers would have been evident to anyone observing their skillful turns and spins. That they could prosecute the battle with such skill and precision astounded him. He remembered they’d begun life at Gold Glass as experiments in musculoskeletal articulation; a way of improving future Throne-dominated armies. But he’d never expected to see them put the theory to practice in such an overtly pointed way.
For a few moments he stood in awe and watched his friends perform a dance that was as beautiful as it was deadly. In the end the slime dragon had little chance against the three swiftly moving boys and before Jamie could fully comprehend what he was watching, the match was over, the creature vanquished and his friends were accepting the raucous accolades of the entire Gahdar cohort.
“Did you see them?” Tiberius shouted, a large grin on his face. “With some training they could be formidable.”
“They did it as a group,” Gray countered. “That’s what made the difference.”
“Maybe so, but so do we, as duets. And you know we do fight in doubles and even triples. It’s the same idea.”
“Did you see us, Jamie?” Lucas called out to his friend after removing his sparring helmet and ducking under the chain barrier that cordoned off and defined the fighting stage of the Battlecom. A tone of self-satisfaction and pride colored the tone of his question.
“I saw enough,” Jamie replied, still not quite ready to believe what his eyes had seen.
Seconds later his three friends were surrounding him, chattering away with adrenalin-charged excitement.
“You know, we need to practice our own routine,” Jamie reminded his friends when he was finally able to get a word in. “And Nic needs to talk to the Gahdar.”
Reluctantly Jamie was able to convince his friends to come with him. It was a move that brought a measure of disappointment to the mob of Gahdar who wanted them to stay. As they were leaving every one of the gladiator boys made it quite clear they’d be more than happy to offer the members of Trio Chrysalis some individual, one on one training if they wished. A scowling glance to his friends from Jamie, and an equally stern look from Nic to the Gahdar quickly ended any further discussion of the matter.
After a quick trip back to their suite in the palace to change into their racerbacks and tights, the boys took off for the central pavilion of the amazing Crystal Garden. Taking a route that took them to the structure via a series interconnecting glass walkways they passed through a number of greenhouses, both large and small that were filled with an abundance of botanical life. Plants of every type, water features, stone paths and small alcoves met and surprised them along the way. Larger structures, acting as aviaries, were a surprising delight as countless colorful birds darted overhead or nested in trees and bushes, while other, similar structures housed clouds of butterflies. Ponds, stocked with fish and amphibians crawling about in the undergrowth caught the boys eyes. In one of the larger structures housing tropical plants, a glowing pair of eyes peered at them from underneath the broad, sheltering leaves of a banana plant.
“Look, it’s Spinoza,” Jeremy laughed as he pointed at the small garga lizard that peered cautiously at them.
“Lucky for us, it isn’t,” Jamie smiled as he thought of his pet. “If it really was Spinoza, he’d be swooping down on us right now and squawking up a storm because we were ignoring him.”
According to the holo plan Jamie had consulted it should have taken them five minutes to reach their destination, but there were so many things to see they finally arrived at the central green house twenty minutes after they’d started.
Upon entering the large glass structure, a long, low whistle escaped Lucas’ lips. “Can you just believe it?” he asked his friends.
And while they stood staring at their surroundings, it almost seemed like a dream. The grand glass canopy of the central greenhouse soared above their heads. A vast structure, it could have held the entire dormitory of the école they lived in with room to spare. Since it was a bright cloudless day, the sun lit the large space in a sparkling glow. It was as if someone had taken a beautiful park and simply covered it with a glass dome. Tree lined paths, large beds of flowers, hedges, bushes, ponds, a flowing brook and numerous fountains could be seen throughout the pavilion. In the very center was large perfectly manicured lawn and at it’s far end a stage had been constructed.
“This is our venue and that’s our stage,” Jamie couldn’t contain his broad smile.
“Wicked,” Jeremy smirked.
“I know it’s tempting,” Jamie added, “and maybe we can take a tour after practice, but right now I think we best get started on our rehearsal.”
Reluctantly his friends agreed.
Three hours later all four boys were drenched with sweat, and although tired, they were grinning at each other.
“If we aren’t near perfect then give me a case of feather fungus,” Yves chortled to the agreement of his three friends.
“You already have one,” Lucas joked, unable to keep from laughing.
“But Yves is right, we’re near perfect,” Jamie agreed.
“That’s what it means to be experienced dancers,” Jeremy rolled his eyes. “I wish your friend Sprague could see how quickly we all took to the routine.”
Jamie shot his friends a sour expression. “There’s still a few moves we have to work on, but we’re close. Of course, it’s to my advantage that I’m dancing with the second best dancers in the entire school.”
The look he got from his friends was exactly the reaction he’d been aiming for.
“In your dreams, Prince de Valèn,” Jeremy barked, but the giggle that escaped his lips and the broad smile that framed his stunningly handsome face told Jamie the boy was ready to play along. “It’s Trio Chrysalis who has to lower our high standards so that we don’t make an upstart noble look bad,” Jeremy added.
“Do you know how much work it takes for us to cover for your two left feet?” Lucas chimed in.
“So you say.” Jamie sent his friend a look of mock irritation, “But my training under Sprague was some of the finest any dancer could ever dream of, something you three never experienced. That’s why you’re so weak and uncoordinated.”
“The only thing Sprague taught you to do was fly with that bloody boot,” Yves snickered.
“That may be,” Jamie laughed, “but you three would have cried like babies if you’d have had to wear that thing for one minute, let alone thirty.”
“So that’s why you dance like you have lead feet,” Lucas grinned. A second later he was shouting, “Top this!” as he sprang into the air. Instantly he was airborne and racing across the open expanse of the large glass structure. After watching a series of turns, flips and gyrations, Jamie took off after him. Jeremy and Yves launched themselves seconds later and for ten minutes the boys played a game of aerial tag, acting more like the little mice of the école than the premier dancers they were.
“Enough,” Jamie shouted through deep gasping breaths as he floated back to the soft green lawn. “I can’t move like all of you. Gold Glass didn’t make me some kind of freak of nature like they did the three of you.”
“You really wish you could move like us,” Jeremy laughed as he, Yves and Lucas joined Jamie on the ground.
“I guess we best be getting back to change,” Jamie panted.
“Do you think we can fly back?” Lucas asked. The freedom of flight always had a heady effect on any Avionne and all four of the boys were eager to continue.
“Why not?” Jamie shrugged. “If we break any rules they’ll be quick to tell us, but we can always say we didn’t know and that it won’t happen again.”
“I like your logic,” Jeremy grinned. “I’ve always believed it’s better to apologize than ask for permission.”
Passing through a door leading outside, the boys stood on one of the small expanses of grass that surrounded all the structure of the Crystal Garden. A moment later they were stroking their wings and then with gentle leaps, took off for the sky. Seconds later they were airborne looking down on the vast tract of land that made up the imperial palace. Beyond to the east of the Crystal Garden Jamie could see the Gahdar encampment. To the north the boys had a perfect view of the sprawling metropolis of Imperialas. To the south the river flowed toward the great delta plain and beyond lay the beginning of the vast Kalorian settlements. For a few minutes all four of the boys simply hovered or soared on the warm upper air currents. Then a shout from Yves focused their eyes on a sight below.
“Look there,” Yves said pointing toward a large tract of meadow-like land that lay to the west of the park that separated the imperial compound from the west end of the city.
All four boys flew westward looking down on the strange sight below. The large tract of land looked like a hunting preserve, but a section of it was set up for some type of activity the boys had never seen. Flying closer, Jamie began his decent, finally landing on an embankment that rose above the space. It was then he realized what he was looking at; at least until some rather strange things started to happen.
A group of men carrying bows were engaged in an archery contest. Large canisters of arrows were scattered about. There were the standard targets often found on an archery range, but also some that were more than a bit unusual. Spaced among the traditional targets were other structures, some made of wood, others fashioned from stone and still a few others that looked like large, flat metal plates.
The men were about ten in number and as he observed them, he recognized a few of the faces; nobles he’d seen at the opera house or in some of the venues he’d danced at or attended as a party guest. It was then he realized these would be some of the emperor’s retinue who would be attending the private show he and his friends would be putting on for Enrick.
As he stood silently watching the men shoot, his friends descended and stood behind him. One man took a shot at the standard target missing the center by a large margin. He was teased by some of the others who were laughing and drinking beer from flagons that rested on a nearby table.
“Would you like a lesson, Logan?” another man said chuckling. “Since you inherited your father duchy, I think you’ve grown soft.” Then taking an arrow, he nocked it in his bow, aimed for a target and let the arrow fly. But instead of aiming at the same target, he’d faced off against the one of the large stone boulders a distance away. The arrow arced gracefully in the air; when it came down, it embedded itself deeply into the rock.
“Did you see that?” Jeremy pointed and asked in shocked surprise.
He was about to add a second comment, when there was a sharp report and part of the boulder exploded. One large chunk of the rock flew through the air, along with a spray of rock chips and a cloud of dust.
“Yes, and did you see that?” Yves added, his jaw now slack in shock and amazement.
But seconds later another man drew an arrow and sent it flying into one of the large wooden structures, seconds after imbedding itself into the wood it burst in to flames. White-hot sparks flew from the arrow and in less then a minute the wooden structure was engulfed in flames.
A third man, still laughing at the duke’s poor shot sent an arrow into one of the thick metal plates. Jamie blinked when the arrow pierced the metal and went right through it as if it were made of tissue paper.
“What are those things?” Lucas whispered.
“I guess the easy answer is they’re arrows,” Jamie replied. “But clearly not like any arrow I’ve ever seen.”
“They’re wicked weapons,” Yves added, “But they seem to be using them to play a game.”
“The twisted amusement of the empire is something that...” Jamie began in disgust. He was about to continue when something caught his eye. Seconds later he turned to his friends and a look pure hatred flashed in his eyes. “We’re leaving now,” he almost shouted and took off. Shocked, his friends stroked their wings and followed.
Heading back to the palace, Jamie’s temper was reaching critical mass. As he’d been surveying the scene, his eyes came to rest on two tall stone pillars with large steel rings imbedded in them further in the distance on the target range. The pillars were poked marked and chipped and it didn’t take much imagination to envision someone, probably a Kalorian slave or a prisoner of the empire, tied to one of the posts for the amusement of the Emperor’s guests.
“I hate them all,” Jamie cursed under his breath as he flew ahead of Trio Chrysalis.
By the time he’d landed he’d forced himself to become a bit calmer. There wasn’t any need to upset his friends with a tirade, but the sight of the pillars was something he’d find hard to forget.
Once in the palace, the boys headed to their suite. Upon opening the door, Jamie’s mood improved when he saw Castor waiting for him. He’d known the Kalorian would be coming to Imperialas to act as his assistant, but in all the excitement of the past day he’d not thought much of it. No sooner had Jamie entered the room, then his own pet garga lizard leapt up from the bed into its distinctive lopsided and eccentric flight, and dove for his head, trumpeting with excitement all the while.
“I thought you’d like him with you,” Castor said with a tiny smile as Jamie ducked the aerial assault Spinoza’d launched at him.
By the time Spinoza was finally calmed and perched on his master’s shoulder, the boys were seated around the old Kalorian and Jamie was telling him the story of how they’d ended up at the imperial palace instead of Savaron Loka’s ducal estate.
Hearing the tale, Castor frowned. “It’s a dangerous game you’re playing, young master,”
“It’s done,” Jamie replied calmly. “There’s nothing to be said about it now. And I, for one, would rather be here than under the roof of Loka and his little pet, the Prince of Hypernia.”
And while the boys of Trio Chrysalis remained silent, all three of them nodded in agreement.
“So what news?” Jamie asked, in an attempt to change the topic.
“The assembly was held,” Castor replied, his voice dropping in tone. “And the whole of Kaloria participated; or least as many as could. I would estimate ninety-five percent or more.”
“And?” Jamie gave Castor a look that was a mix of eager anticipation and cold fear.
“They agreed. The greatest resources and treasures of the Second Empire have been entrusted to the Lord Protector.”
Although he tried to remain calm, a smile lit up Jamie’s face. “I can only say I’m relieved at the vote, and that I can’t thank you enough.”
“But Jamie,” Castor began, “Do you know what that means?”
“Of course,” he smiled, “I couldn’t be happier.” It was then his smile faded when he noticed Castor didn’t seem to share his joy.
“You’ll soon see,” Castor added. “But there’s more.” It was then the Kalorian began to go into detail regarding the plans that were now being put into place.
“All across the empire, they’re working for you,” Castor spoke solemnly. “To discuss everything would take too much time, and would be quite dangerous. But the promise of the Second Empire is that every Icarian that is part of the plan will be saved. There will be no exceptions. Every effort will be made. We pledge our blood, and our lives. But...” Castor paused and Jamie watched as the old man rose from his seat. Fixing a smoldering gaze on his former young charge he approached the prince. “We bind you to your promises. You will fulfill them or die trying. That was the message I was instructed to bring.”
“I will.” Gone from his eyes was the joyful twinkle he’d earlier shown Castor. “I’ll protect or die trying. I promise.”
“There are still things we must discuss,” Castor lips grew thin. “But for now you four should bathe and prepare for a quiet evening. Tonight the emperor dines in private with select members of the imperial court. I’ve learned you’re exempt, so you can have a quiet evening together. Tomorrow is the imperial ball, and while I can’t be completely sure, I’m virtually certain you’ve managed to get Niklas von Agramon included as one of the guests. Would that be a correct assumption?”
Jamie nodded his assent.
Later that evening after taking dinner with his friends, when Jamie returned from the bath to his bedchamber, he found Castor sitting on a stool and waiting for him.
“There’s something I must tell you.”
Jamie vigorously dried his hair. After tossing the damp towel on the floor, he began to slip into his sleep shorts. “What?”
“It’s been decided that the evacuation will occur two days after your performance for the Emperor.”
Jamie, having put his foot into one of the legs of his shorts, was balancing on one foot as he prepared to step into the second leg. Castor’s words stopped him as he whipped his head up to stare at the older man. Seconds later, with one leg in his shorts and a foot still tangled up, Jamie lost his balance and fell back into the bed.
“Ouch.” His wings had twisted slightly in the fall. “I thought it would be soon, but how can you be so sure? Even Renaud’s still uncertain.”
“Our intelligence is quite accurate.” Castor lips grew even thinner than usual. “Nothing is for certain, but I’d say the changes are over ninety-eight percent.”
“That’s only three days after tomorrow night’s grand fete.” Recovering, he continued pulling up his sleep shorts, but the look he gave Castor was full of concern.
“You know what that means.”
Jamie’s expression transformed from concern to worry as his forehead creased and his eyebrows furrowed. “Then tonight’s the night, no?”
“I’d have to agree. You can act as soon as your friends are asleep. With luck, you’ll be back before dawn. I’ve already alerted Renaud; I suggested he accompany you. And I’ve prepared a few things for you to take.”
“Yes,” Castor stood and walked to a nearby window. Staring out for a few seconds he turned to look at Jamie. “When you leave Ghröum, take Giovanni with you. When you’re finished, transport him to this location.” Castor paused. From one pocket, he withdrew a piece of paper. “Memorize these coordinates.”
The moment Jamie’s eyes scanned the paper Castor had handed him, he knew he was looking at a mirror gate transfer site. Recording it into The Screen, he balled up the paper and tossed it in the air. As it fell to the floor, it vaporized in a flash of blue light. A small wisp of smoke lingered for a few seconds before it, too, dissipated.
“Can you fetch Renaud for me? I think we should leave within the hour.”
Castor nodded. Seconds later the old Kalorian was gone, leaving Jamie to his thoughts.
An hour later, Jamie was standing next to Renaud in one of the areas not appearing on the interactive map visitors to the imperial palace could access. Jamie’s earlier acquisition had bypassed the security codes cloaking the entire plan, giving him access to all the hidden and restricted areas of the palace.
Before them stood a mirror gate; at their feet bulked two large rucksacks and a pouch, packed with items Castor had gathered together. Spinoza perched on Jamie’s shoulder, its tail wrapped around his neck, its forked tongue darting in and out of its mouth as it scanned the room. Its bright eyes glowed like small gems as they reflected the room’s soft light.
“The darrow root extract is in a blue vial,” Castor told Jamie. “Be careful with it, because it’s all we could get. With the eminent evacuation of the leadership and elite of the planet, it’s the most valuable commodity in existence. Even this tiny bit was almost impossible to find; more than half of the men on the mission paid for it with their lives.”
Jamie made no attempt to hide his look of shock and sadness. Seeing the boy’s distress, Castor reached out and reassuringly placed his hand on the prince’s shoulder.
“I’ve included a sleeping draught,” Castor’s eyes went from Jamie to Renaud. “Make sure it’s given to Charlie and he’s asleep before you seal him in. I’ve been told entering into cold sleep can be rather disconcerting to the conscious mind. The protocol is to make sure the subject is asleep. The draught will assure that. I’ve also packed some clothing he should wear.”
“I found that when I was looking through the sacks.” Jamie frowned. “It seems a bit formal and looks like a lot to wear. Do you think all that is necessary?”
“I don’t know much about cold sleep,” Castor replied. “But it will keep him warm. Call it catering to the whims of a foolish old man. Remember, I used to tuck him into bed. His battle flag can serve as a blanket. Yours can remain folded and placed at his feet.”
Just before he began preparing to activate the mirror gate, Jamie exchanged rings with Renaud. It would be the first time they used the signal Renaud had devised.
“You’ll go first,” Jamie reiterated the plan. “Then I’ll get Castor to chase Spinoza through. I have a feeling he’s not going to be too enthusiastic about the idea.”
Renaud stared into Jamie’s eyes for a moment, and then gave a single nod.
“And don’t forget about the Ghröum,” the prince added. “Remember, they’re friends, not foes.”
“From what you have told me, sa’Crêsmané, I think I’d be on the losing end of a contest with them.”
Jamie began to concentrate, but stopped when Castor’s hand came to rest on his shoulder. Looking up at the Kalorian, Jamie could see that the lines of age on the man’s face had been scoured deeper with lines of sadness and worry. There were tears in the man’s eyes.
“Tell him that I love him,” Castors voice was so soft it was barely audible. “Its been a long time since I saw him. The last time was… well, it was the day…” and then his flawed, scratchy voice trailed off into silence.
“I will Castor. I promise.”
It was the wee hours of the morning when Niklas von Agramon, feeling an unexpected touch on his back, bolted up from his bed, his dagger flashing into his hand. A second later he relaxed when he saw Castor standing over him.
“Come with me,” was all the old Kalorian said.
Making their way through the dark silence that cloaked the imperial gardens, they arrived at a side entrance to the palace. Nic was quick to notice the door had been propped open with a small stool, and he grinned wryly. It personified the rebellion: simple and common folk put to extraordinary uses. It looked like one he’d seen in Jamie’s suite when he’d gone to visit his pa’amore.
Staying close to Castor, Nic followed the Kalorian who moved far quicker then Nic would have suspected possible for someone of the man’s age. Entering the suite Jamie shared with his friends, Castor approached the tall door leading to Jamie’s private chambers. Ushering Nic forward he opened the door, directed the Gahdar through, and then closed the tall portal behind him.
Once in Jamie’s room, Nic paused. The sight he came upon pained his heart for there, sitting on the edge of the bed was his mate, looking very small and alone. At a respectful distance from the bed stood Renaud. The inscrutable gaze of the Angel of Death locked onto Nic, and even though he’d faced many an opponent in the arena, the Gahdar found himself suppressing a shudder.
But what captured Nic’s attention was the fact that Jamie looked like he’d been crying.
“They’ve just returned from Ajax,” Castor’s voice was barely a whisper.
“It was not easy for him…,” Renaud’s eyes met Nic’s. “…nor for his brother.”
Moving to the bed, Nic folded back his wings, lowered himself onto the edge of the mattress and sat down beside Jamie. Clearly in distress, his mate looked up at him. With tears in his eyes and wet streaks on his cheeks, Jamie’s deep and utter sorrow was apparent. Nic was surprised to see that someone so young and vibrant could look so drawn and haggard.
“I’m so sorry.” The back of Nic’s hand lightly brushed one of the boy’s wet cheeks.
“I… I didn’t think it would be so hard… I…” but then he stopped unable to continue.
A moment of silence passed between them. Jamie’s lower lip trembled, but when it looked as if his was about to speak again, Nic simply shook his head, put a finger up to the boy’s soft lips and whispered, “shhh,” and then drew the prince close to him.
Nestled in Nic’s arms, his head buried in the Gahdar’s chest, the stoic façade Jamie had barely been able to hold together crumbled and he started crying again. Remembering the first time the prince had come to see him, Nic held Jamie tenderly feeling again the soft warmth of the boy he lovingly cradled, though this time his loving embrace was a contrast to the first time he’d ever held Jamie.
Sitting silently with his mate, his thoughts were centered around the boy engulfed in his arms. There was a depth of character and strength of spirit in the young dancer, and he wondered if Jamie even realized it himself. As a warrior, Nic had faced opponents in the arena who hadn’t had half of the courage of Jamie de Valèn. As fiercely independent and supremely confident as Jamie often presented himself, Nic was learning how deeply his mate’s emotions ran, and just how fragile the boy could be.
For all of Jamie’s fiery temper and strong-willed personality, Nic had come to discover just how much the boy cared for others. Maintaining his strong hold on Jamie, Nic felt the prince’s soft hair against his own cheek and at that moment realized why he’d never had an interest in any other boy after he’d met a young, dreamy, blue-eyed angel boy on the training pitch at Compari.
Taking in a deep breath, he smelled the familiar scent of Jamie’s hair and smiled to himself. Chocolate and vanilla, it was smell he’d never again be able to associate with anything other than his mate. Jamie was his. He knew that now. In fact, he’d always been his, just as Nic was learning that he’d always belonged to Jamie; the strengthening bond between them proved as much. It had formed quickly and strong; far quicker than what he’d been taught was normal, and he’d wondered about that. Now he realized that it had started from that first day when Jamie’s eyes pinned him as Nic had shyly offered a small child’s ball to the young prince. Kissing the top of Jamie’s head as his crying slowly wound down, the Gahdar made a promise to himself that no matter what, he would be the one thing in the remarkable boy’s life that would never fail him.
“We’re bound to each other… forever,” the hushed words were softly spoken in Jamie’s ear. They carried with them an iron-willed conviction. “I’ll never let you fall. I’ll never stop loving you.”
Jamie pushed lightly away from his mate. Nic’s words were powerful, but since he didn’t have Jamie’s unique ability to enter the realm of human feelings and emotions, he couldn’t have understood the immense tidal wave of love and concern that washed over and engulfed his mate. Its force, though powerful, was like a cooling balm on a painful burn. For one brief second Jamie blinked while his tearful eyes met those of his pa’amore, and as sad as he was over what he’d been forced to do on Ajax, the tiniest of smiles briefly passed across the prince’s face. He just couldn’t help himself; Nic’s love was just so powerful.
While Nic had no true nor real understanding of what Jamie’s talents allowed him to feel, he’d come to learn what mating with the young imperial entailed. While he couldn’t read Jamie’s mind, Jamie could read his. It was a heady experience, and when the boy’s thoughts locked onto his it was a feeling he’d be hard-pressed to describe; it’s what made their time together so special. It was a connection that made the physical acts of their joining pale in comparison to what happened mentally in their lover’s bed. Jamie de Valèn’s love was like a drug, a drug that for all time would only ever effect him; a drug that he’d never seek an anecdote for.
What de Valèn and Agramon bind can never be broken. He purposefully beamed the thought to Jamie as the boy nestled back into his arms hoping that Jamie would receive it.
Looking across the room at Castor, Nic’s eyes met those of the Kalorian. “Thank you for bringing me here.”
Castor tipped his head toward Nic in an almost imperceptible nod. An instant later the Kalorian shot Renaud a look every bit as piercing as any the Angel of Death could produce, and they quietly exited Jamie’s bedchamber while the two boys retreated to their own world, together on Jamie’s bed.