The Scrolls of Icaria by Jamie
Book 2 – 'War of the Angels'
Part III - Baron of Rood
Huddled in a corner of the gleaming, marble-clad foyer of the main ballroom of the imperial palace, the boys of Trio Chrysalis wore smiles that sparkled as brightly as the large crystal chandeliers hanging high above their heads. Lucas, Jeremy and Yves excitedly took in the sights and sounds surrounding them, unable to look away from the steady stream of famous and notable guests queuing up to enter the grand gala.
While the three boys were premier performers of the Empire, their exposure to public life had been rather carefully limited; the three young men were best known for getting themselves into trouble. The Impresario’s office, mindful of their collective reputation, chose to maintain tight control on the boys, and Impresario Bollini’s directive limiting the functions that the young men were allowed to attend was rarely breached. With most of their performances limited to the stage of La Mondele Royale, Lucas, Yves, and Jeremy hadn’t had any opportunities to experience the rarefied atmosphere of the imperial court and its rituals. Captivated by the activity swirling around them, they could scarcely believe their luck as they gazed and stared at their fellow guests, many of whom they'd only seen on the vids or news feeds. But they were even more amazed at the behavior of the boy they’d come to think of as their best friend. It was as if he were a stranger and they were seeing him for the first time.
Poised and confident, Jamie de Valèn stood just a few feet in front of them, yet the gulf that separated him from his friends was clearly defined. With a warm smile on his face, Jamie’s blue eyes gleamed with just the proper mix of innocent curiosity, boyish mischief, and mysterious intrigue as he acknowledged a steady stream of nobles, influential commoners, and members of the imperial household who, as fans or admirers, paused to greet or speak to him.
“How does he do it?” Lucas nudged Jeremy while all three boys observed Jamie as he concluded a friendly encounter with the Duke and Duchess of Overland that left the couple laughing with delight.
“Magic.” Jeremy rolled his eyes. “He must enchant them.”
“What’s his last name?” Yves leveled an unblinking gaze at his two friends. “Or have you forgotten?”
“De Valèn.” Lucas unwittingly took the bait. “So? What of it?”
“Has a case of pinfeather mold suddenly infected your brain, Lucas? Even you can’t be that dense!” Yves raised a hand and extended a finger. “One, he’s a premier dancer at La Mondele Royale; two, he's drop dead gorgeous; three, he has a silver tongue that could charm water from a stone; four, his last name is de Valèn, so even if he were an untalented oaf and as ugly as a troll, that alone would get him notice, and finally...”
“I get your point,” Lucas frowned; the sharpness of his reply pointing up his vexation over what seemed a thoughtless comment. “You know I’m not an idiot.”
“Of course you're not. Sorry, it wasn’t meant as an insult.” Yves contrite expression tried to convey his regret over the ill-timed remark.
“This whole thing has all of us more than a little tense...” Jeremy offered, making an attempt to diffuse the sudden volatile encounter between his two friends. “...especially Jamie. And right now he needs our help and support."
“You're right,” Yves conceded.
“It’s alright,” and a grin came to Lucas' face. “Anyway, we’ve been standing here long enough; aren’t they serving any food at this party? I’m hungry.”
“So am I,” Yves nodded, taking notice that Jamie had begun talking to a distinguished older man with a mane of long hair that was as white as snow. “Let's go see what we can find.”
“Yes, of course,” Jamie smiled, nodding in agreement as Oscar Beckett, director of a large manufacturing plant on Argon, continued his story. It was one Jamie’d heard a few times before, so as Beckett droned on Jamie’s eyes wandered about the room. Just then a smile came to his face. “I’m so sorry, Oscar,” Jamie reached out and gently placed his hand on the shoulder of the industrialist, “but I must excuse myself. One of the Emperor’s aides appears to be summoning me. I’ll catch up with you later.”
Rapidly rushing away before the man could respond, Jamie took a deep breath. A feeling of relief swept over him as he distanced himself from the industrialist. Sidestepping one waiter balancing a tray of tall, champagne-filled flutes and a second carrying a double-handled platter laden with an artfully arranged variety of canapés, he wove his way through the crowd.
Just as he was about to skirt a third waiter, Jamie felt a hand touch his arm and swung to face whomever had accosted him with hardly a pause.
“Prince de Valèn,” a friendly voice called out to him, its tone was pleasant and warm.
Turning in the direction of the greeting, Jamie found himself eye to eye with a magnificently dressed Icarian. Prince de Valèn’s eyes quickly scanned upward, moving from the young man’s face to the top of Icarian boy’s head where his gaze fell upon a thin, golden diadem perched above the boy’s brow. A few seconds of silence passed between them until Jamie finally remembered where he’d seen the boy before. Recalling the moment, his mind raced back to his investiture ceremony in one of the subbasements of the opera house when he stood before the Council of Resistance and swore his oath. The boy standing before him was one of the Icarians who’d been sitting at the tables in the room, observing the ceremony.
“Ivan of Karn,” the young man began his introduction by leaning into Jamie and giving the prince a light kiss of greeting on each of the dancer’s cheeks. “Prince Designate of the Royal House of Science and Education,” he added softly.
“Yes, of course,” Jamie stammered, unsure of what to say. “What are you… I mean what brings you…?”
“We were all invited by Savaron Loka to attend your performance,” Ivan replied. Smiling, he turned to his right where a second impeccably dressed Icarian stood. “My scribe, Lord Thomas, Earl of Black Sands.” Leaning into Jamie, Thomas also gave Jamie a double kiss of greeting.
“I hoped I’d see you,” Prince Ivan continued. Turning to Thomas, his eyes locked with those of his scribe for a few brief seconds. Then glancing back at Jamie, Ivan’s voice dropped to a whisper. “We suspect that there’s more to it than a standard invitation to an imperial celebration,” he added. “In fact, it’s the first time all the princes and scribes have been together in one place at the same time. I could be wrong, but given the present climate, anything’s possible. Just keep your eyes and ears open, Prince de Valèn. Those of us on the side of the resistance are all doing the same. Something’s afoot, and I’d wager a case of feather blight that the other shoe is getting ready to drop.”
“What do you mean…?” but before Jamie could continue, a voice calling from a few feet away stopped him.
“Ivan, over here,” a man Jamie recognized as a minor noble was calling out to Prince Ivan. “There’s someone I want you to meet.”
“Just heed my words.” Ivan's eyebrows shot up, but he held his broad smile as he began to make his way toward the nobleman.
Pausing to watch the prince and his scribe recede into the crowd, Jamie frowned at the idea of having yet another thing to be concerned about. Although he was surrounded by a few hundred people, Jamie suddenly felt quite alone. Though the infectious energy, lively music, and party atmosphere of the ball swirled around him, he felt fatigued. The previous night had been difficult, and he’d been grateful Castor had summoned Nic.
Finally drifting into sleep after being cradled by Nic, he’d still had a restless night as the recesses of his mind bled anxiety, like blood from an open wound, into his dreams. In the morning, though still tired, he’d been comforted to find Nic still sharing his bed.
Always early to rise, Jamie shifted his wings and began to sit up, but not before giving Nic a soft kiss on the sleeping boy’s lips. It was enough to stir Niklas, who opened his eyes and turned to see Jamie sitting next to him. The prince sat cross-legged on the bed; his wings dapped over the edge of the mattress. The breathtaking sight of the naked boy was always a new wonder, a new discovery to the Gahdar.
“Your memories are secure.”
Nic shrugged off the fog that enveloped him and moved to sit up. As he’d begun to emerge from sleep, he remembered the night before, and realized he was still with Jamie. Smiling at seeing his pa’amore, he’d planned on reaching out and pulling the beautiful boy to him. Rebellion or not, there was no reason why they couldn’t begin their day by first making love. But Jamie’s strange statement stopped him.
“You know all the steps I’ve taken to improve our chances of remembering after we emerge from cold sleep?”
By now Nic was also sitting cross-legged, facing Jamie. Like his pa’amore, Nic’s wings hung over the opposite side of the bed. Brushing aside the final cobwebs of sleep, Nic’s mind went back to everything Jamie had told him about the precautions he’d taken to improve his chances of remembering, in the event the prince might emerge from suspension with a case of Cold Sleep Memory Loss Syndrome.
“The book, the amulet, switching bracelets with your brother, giving Charlie’s bracelet to Damien…,” Nic rattled off the list as if it was something he’d set to memory; he supposed he had.
“Charlie suggested something else.” Jamie interrupted Nic’s litany of facts. “He said he could make a copy of my memories and keep them safe.” Jamie paused. Raising a hand, he tapped the side of his head with one of his slender fingers. “He told me he could absorb them.”
“Your memories? How could he do that?”
“My memories, thoughts, everything. We had so little time, so he didn’t really explain it to me. After he was done he told me that since I’ve scanned your mind, your memories are safe too.”
“But I’ve never met your brother.”
“He said it didn’t matter. He told me that somehow it’s like making a copy of a file. When I scan something it becomes a part of me, even if I’m not actively trying to store it. He also said that because you and I are mated, our bond has created a link far and above what even I could normally do. He apparently has the ability to do the same with Giovanni, since they’re mated now.”
“That’s unbelievable. You mean he’s able to store both of our memories, separately?”
“I told you he was remarkable.” Jamie didn't even try to hide his pride in his little brother as he reached out, took Nic’s foot in his hand and squeezed it. Then he gently kneaded his thumb into the bare, warm skin of the sole. “Remember, I told you our father made a few modifications when he created Charlie. We’re almost identical, but there are differences.”
“Like his ears?” Nic grinned. Jamie smiled back when he realized Nic still found that part of the story of Charlie’s creation strangely amusing.
“I was six years old, Nic.” Jamie feigned a mild case of annoyance. “I’d remembered Mobley’s lessons on the Ghröum, and they fascinated me. Who would have thought that Father would have actually given him pointed ears? And anyway, they’re his cutest feature.”
“I still find it amazing.”
By now fully awake, Nic reached out and gently stroked Jamie’s bare thigh. Even in a serious conversation, he felt drawn to feel the soft warm skin of his mate. Was that him, or part of the mating bond? He suspected it was both. Slowly, his fingers traced the strange tattoo that, over time, had emerged on his mate’s thigh. Bizarre, exotic and quite beautiful, he’d known Jamie long enough to have observed the large, dark, nondescript smudge eventually morph into the amazing tattoo.
“You still don’t know its purpose, do you?”
The scene Jamie was playing in his mind was interrupted by a waiter carrying a large silver tray of canapés who placed it under Jamie’s nose, rousing the prince from his thoughts. Politely declining, he was reminded of his original intent, and moved past the waiter, skillfully weaving his way through the crowd until finally arriving at his destination. Pushing away the troubling thoughts that his encounter with Prince Ivan had aroused, a smile came to his face when he found himself standing before the most handsome boy at the ball: his own pa’amore, Niklas von Agramon.
“Nice clothes; don't look like yours. Where'd you get 'em?” Jamie, standing only inches from Nic, feigned a casual disinterest as he eyed the sophisticated clothes his mate wore. Every part of him wanted to greet Niklas with a kiss, and he longed to reach out and hold his pa’amore’s hand. Knowing the risks, Jamie forced himself to move back and assume a casual pose as he talked to the premier gladiator of the Empire.
Nic smiled at his mate, and just as casually replied, "Oh, just found 'em laying around...there was this box of rags that the servants were using for cleaning, and these were in there."
“You can thank me for those clothes,” Miro flashed Jamie a cheeky grin as he hitched a thumb in Nic’s direction. “The only clothing he’s ever worn is battle dress and sparring kits.”
“Don’t exaggerate, Miro. I do wear other clothing, as Jamie well knows.”
“Yes, and it’s the standard garb they require everyone living at the training center in Piropolis to wear when they’re out of uniform,” Miro grimaced and rolled his eyes. “The cloth is so rough and course, I’m amazed it doesn’t rub all your skin off.”
“It is a little plain,” Jamie cautiously gave Nic the tiniest of smiles, hoping not to sound too critical of his pa’amore’s dress. “But I know that’s all they allow you to wear,” he quickly added.
“Since David and I are lucky enough to be attached to the imperial household, we get a complete wardrobe of custom tailored clothes,” Miro interjected into the ensuing silence between the recently mated couple. “So since we’re both the same size as Nic, we kitted him out some proper clothing.”
“Proper indeed,” Jamie smiled as his eyes roamed the length and breadth of Nic’s magnificently clad body. “You look every bit the star you are.”
“Star? I don’t think so.” Nic shot Jamie a doubtful look.
“When some of the guests, especially those that are fans of the games, get wind of your presence, I’m sure they’ll be eager to meet and speak with you. Just take it in stride.” Moving even closer to his mate Jamie went up on his toes and as he did, positioned his mouth near Nic’s ear. “Remember, a good part of this plan is about deception and misdirection. You may well have over a hundred Gahdar with you, but that’s all we have. There’s no great army ready to fight with us, but there are plenty who will fight against us.”
Jamie took a step back and the two boys' eyes locked.
“I understand,” Nic nodded, “but I still wish I was back in my tent at the Gahdar encampment. This kind of thing isn’t for me.”
“Just enjoy yourself,” Miro elbowed his friend. “You’d think we’d drug you to the Prison of Pain for a torture session. It’s a party. Spread your wings a bit and act like your having a little fun. You might even start to enjoy yourself.”
“I know you’re a bit uncomfortable.” Jamie gave Nic a loving smile, “And I know you came only because I asked you. It means a lot to me, Niklas. I’m glad you’re here.” Dropping his casual smile, the serious look Jamie gave Nic seemed to say it all, but he continued as his voice fell to a whisper. “I’m afraid, Nic. It’s a complicated plan, and right now I can think of a lot of things that could go wrong. But with you here, I have hope.”
“We’ll do our best,” Nic looked down at his mate, as he gave Jamie a tight, restrained smile. “Together.”
“I have to go.” Jamie’s eyes darted about the ballroom “We can’t let anyone suspect, but maybe later you might be persuaded to dance with me?”
Nic nodded, although the sudden anxious look that appeared on his face said it all. “You know that I don’t know the first thing about...”
“He can take on a demi-toon at Rood, but he’s terrified to take a few steps at a ball.” The sound of Miro’s laughter grabbed the attention of some nearby party guests.
Just before stepping away, Jamie reached out and took Nic’s hand. “It was nice to meet you, Niklas von Agramon,” Jamie’s voice was loud and strong for the benefit of anyone who might be listening, “Although, I don’t think I’ll ever really understand the games. They’re a bit too complex and convoluted for me. But I wish you luck and continued success.”
Nic remained stoic and silent at Jamie’s public display, giving him a slight nod. And while his words had implied one thing, the warm touch of the prince’s hand and the gentle squeeze he’d given Nic was sign enough of his feelings. As their touch broke, Jamie’s delicate fingers lingered for a second as they brushed against Nic’s hand; his final act of solidarity and love for the boy he adored.
Turning away from Nic, Jamie had managed only two steps when a hand reached around his upper arm and gently tugged at him. Turning to see who’d touched him, Jamie found that he was face to face with Hippolito Corcorian, Prince of Hypernia. Although expected, the boy’s sudden appearance still surprised Jamie. Moving to take a step back, he was prevented from moving when Hippolito’s grip on Jamie’s upper arm tightened, and he felt himself being pulled closer.
“As always, you look stunning,” Hippolito lowered his head and gave Jamie a quick kiss, allowing his lips to linger long enough so that any guests standing nearby might notice his intimacy with the young prince.
Because both Nic and Miro were still standing only a few feet away, Jamie blushed with fierce embarrassment. Feeling the warm flush on his face, Jamie’s eyes met Nic’s. Seconds later, the Gahdar’s disapproving look fell on the arrogant young prince.
“Did someone forget to lock your cage?” Miro scowled and Jamie could see that Miro’s eyes were quickly drawing down into thin slits.
A smile came to the Prince of Hypernia’s face - a smile, Jamie noted, that never reached Hippolito’s eyes. “Ah Miro, I see you’re still devoid of common manners, but I suppose that’s to be expected from one the clowns of Rood."
Before Jamie could blink, Miro took two quick steps and was planted just inches away from Hippolito. As the two boys' eyes met, Jamie observed that Miro’s hand was hovering ominously near his dagger. Caught off guard, Hippolito tried to step back but was blocked by a small group of nobles standing behind him. The men, engaged in a lively conversation, were unaware of the tense drama unfolding only inches away from them.
“Maybe you should learn to curb your tongue, Hippolito. It’s a lesson I’d enjoy teaching you. Or maybe you can crawl back under the...” Miro stopped when a firm hand gripped his shoulder, causing him to break contact with the handle of his blade. Tilting his head slightly, he saw Nic standing by his side. Seconds later, Nic’s eyes met those of his friend; he shook his head in an attempt to stop Miro from acting upon his escalating anger.
“Is it possible?” Hippolito’s glance slid from Miro to Nic as his voice rose in pitch. Pausing in order to create the most dramatic effect, his eyes scanned Nic from head to toe. “Am I truly gazing upon the legendary Baron of Rood?”
Nic, making no move, silently stared at Hippolito. Blithely unaware of the depth of threat in Nic's still gaze, the prince blathered on. “I must say that I’ve never seen you perform, Niklas von Agramon, but I have heard that you cut quite a figure at the red castle. I think the same could also be said for your appearance outside the arena.” Turning back to Miro, Hippolito’s smile widened. “Apparently he has more common sense than you, Miro. You’d be wise to follow your friend’s lead.”
“Don’t push your good fortune.” The look on Miro’s face reminded Jamie of a wild plains dog ready to attack.
“Fortune has nothing to do with it.” Hippolito’s hand took a firmer grip on Jamie’s arm. Giving both Miro and Nic a self-satisfied smirk, he dipped his head in a condescending nod. “Come, my love, there are a few people I’d like you to meet.” And with that, he began to shepherd Jamie away from the two Gahdar.
As Hippolito led him away, Jamie turned back to the two gladiators with a look of resigned helplessness on his face. While Miro continued to flash a gaze of pure hatred, Jamie blanched when his eyes rested on Niklas; although the premier Gahdar of Rood appeared calm, both of Nic’s strong hands were balled up into tight, white-knuckled fists. In the Gahdar camps, such an insult would have been followed by a challenge and blood. Averting his eyes, Jamie shuddered when he thought of what his pa’amore might do to the pompous Prince of Hypernia if Nic were to act on his anger.
As Hippolito led Jamie away, the orchestra came to the end of the piece they’d been playing. After a brief moment of applause, Philippe announced a special guest, and Damien stepped onto the stage. After introducing the pieces the singer would be performing, Philippe returned to the podium, gave the downbeat and once more launched the orchestra into song. Damien’s appearance served as an interlude during the festivities while the crowd waited for the emperor, so as the young man sang, some of the guests who’d been milling about paused to listen, others refreshed their drinks, partook of the hors ‘d oeuvres being passed by the waiters, or just milled about, quietly talking.
For the next thirty minutes, while Damien sang his set, the young ward of Savaron Loka led Jamie about the ballroom occasionally stopping to introduce his future mate to whoever’s attention he could catch.
In those moments, the Prince of Hypernia would grasp Jamie’s hand, or give the dancer a quick peck on the cheek. While Jamie could easily sense a rising tide of carnal lust in the boy, which, oddly enough, seemed to be sourced more in the attention Hippolito was getting than in the presence of the boy he was with. Throughout all of Hippolito’s introduction, not once could Jamie detect the slightest glimmer of kindness or warmth coming from the prince at his side. After a time, as the two princes continued their rounds, Jamie began to feel more like a cleverly acquired possession on conspicuous display than a real, live person to be cared for and loved. Most important of all was the difference he felt between the shallow and superficial posturing of Hippolito and the deep, genuine love that always flowed from Nic. The stark contrast served as a constant reminder that the decision he’d made to mate with Niklas von Agramon years ago on the field at Compari had been the right one.
Leading Jamie through the ballroom, Hippolito continued to try and impresses the Emperor’s guests by introducing the dancer to everyone he encountered, but the result was always the same. Either Jamie already knew those he was being introduced to, or they were avid fans and thrilled to meet him. In either case their attention was always drawn to Jamie, while Hippolito found himself and his role as Jamie’s future pa’amore marginalized. Pushed to the sidelines, the glib-tongued Prince of Hypernia tried to mask his growing feelings of jealousy; nevertheless, as time wore on he found it more and more difficult to hide an air of annoyance.
“You’re certainly well-known.” Hippolito attempted to toss off the remark with blasé nonchalance, but the cold look flashing in his eyes told Jamie otherwise. Although he still clutched Jamie’s hand while nodding to the various party guests they met, Hippolito’s smile had begun to take on the look of a jealous sneer. It was then that Jamie began to detect a dark and chilly mood emanating from the young man at his side.
“It’s not my first imperial event.” And although he was mindful of Hippolito’s mood, Jamie’s brisk, clipped tone was mixed with just enough irritation and sarcasm that the meaning behind the dancer’s words were impossible for Hippolito to ignore.
But just as Hippolito was ready to offer a sharp retort of his own, a smooth, velvet toned-voice halted him.
“Congratulations on your mating with my protégé, Prince de Valèn.”
Turning toward the voice Jamie found himself skewered by the hooded gaze of Savaron Loka. The unexpected meeting sent a chill racing down Jamie’s spine. Not sure what to do, he simply stared at Loka while remaining silent.
“Hmm... as always I seem to instill silence in you,” the Archduke of Imperialas eyes narrowed as he studied the boy standing before him. “I wish you’d be a bit more talkative. It would be nice to get to know you... better.” But while Loka’s voice said one thing, his cold, dark eyes conveyed so much more.
“I’ve never had the impression you were interested in talking about dancing,” Jamie wasn’t sure how to respond, but he knew he couldn’t remain completely tongue-tied under the critical examination of the archduke.
“I’m not.” Loka’s expression darkened even further. To Jamie it appeared as if a black cloud had suddenly passed overhead, casting a sinister shadow across the archduke’s face. “In fact, I’m completely bored by it. But there are many other topics I’d like to discuss at length with you, Prince de Valèn. One of which is how you managed the engineering coupe in creating that spectacular stage you so gracefully danced upon a few days ago. Although...” Loka paused. Bending forward he looked directly into Jamie’s eyes, “to me, an even more fascinating topic is your life with Edmond Croal. I’ve come to question whether I have the complete and true story of your years in Isewier.” The inflection in the archduke’s voice left no doubt as to the man’s meaning. “But, we'll have time to puzzle that out. You will, of course, be with Hippolito for some time given Gold Glass' prediction regarding the Avionne lifespan."
A second chill coursed through Jamie, making him shudder. Taking a breath, he tried to remain calm while his mind raced to find an answer. Luckily, he didn’t have to reply, for a sudden fanfare from the orchestra silenced the noisy ballroom crowd. Moments later, Emperor Enrick the Thirty-first and Empress Helene swept into the room. At the conclusion of the fanfare, the crowd applauded while the Emperor and Empress acknowledged those gathered for the grand fete. As the imperial couple continued their advance into the room, the orchestra struck up a graceful waltz.
By tradition, the Emperor and Empress were expected to initiate the festivities with a dance and so, once the music began, the ruler of the empire and his consort entered into a slow, graceful waltz around the ballroom. As they danced, the crowd of nobles and dignitaries that had surrounded them cleared a path on the dance floor. After a minute alone they were joined by other couples as the music increased in volume and speed.
Having bowed to tradition, the Emperor broke off the dance and moved to a corner of the ballroom occupied by his usual retinue. The Empress joined her ladies-in-waiting in an opposite corner, and Savaron Loka, turning his back on Jamie and Hippolito strode across the ballroom floor to join Enrick.
Breathing a deep sigh, Jamie’s feeling of relief was cut short when Hippolito took him by the hand and began leading him onto the dance floor. Moving to the center of the room Hippolito made a point of making sure he and Jamie were in the center of the dancers on the dance floor. Well-practiced in the art of social dancing, Hippolito moved with ease, but for all of the Prince of Hypernia’s skill, Jamie felt stiff and uncomfortable in the arms of the vain and pompous prince. At the conclusion of the waltz, Jamie backed off the dance floor, and although Hippolito was surprised by Jamie’s reaction, he quickly moved to embrace the hand of a young noblewoman and continued dancing as the orchestra played song after song.
Jamie was glad that he’d managed to separate himself from Hippolito, who seemed to be enjoying the attention. Still flustered over his encounter with Savaron Loka and cursing himself for allowing the man to unnerve him, Jamie made his way about the room, occasionally marking Nic’s position. After a few songs had been played Jamie was roused from his pensive mood when his friends from Trio Chrysalis materialized out of the crowd and gathered around him.
“I think it’s time we teach them a few things about dancing.” Jeremy’s eyes twinkled and a wicked smirk bloomed on his face.
Jamie’s eyes went from Jeremy to Lucas before finally resting on Yves. All three boys were giving him the same mischievous look.
“I think I’ll have a word with Philippe.” Lucas grinned at Jamie.
“Do you think that’s a good...” But before Jamie could continue. Lucas turned from his friends and made a dash toward the corner of the ballroom where the imperial Avionne orchestra was sitting.
“Didn’t you say the purpose of our performance was to create a diversion from what’s really supposed to happen?” An inquisitive expression had come to Yves face.
“Then we should carry it all the way.” And Jamie watched as both boys kicked off the soft leather shoes they were wearing. Standing in their stocking feet, Jeremy and Yves flexed their toes and stretched their legs.
It was then that the music of the waltz died away. A muted trumpet blared, followed by a heavy drumbeat. The music was instantly recognizable to Jamie as a tune he’d once used to choreograph a dance for his three friends.
“Don’t you think Lucas' request is a good one?” Jeremy’s face was aglow with excitement; he looked like an excited ten year old getting ready to go on his First Flight.
“Come on, Jamie!” Yves called out as he and Jeremy bounded onto the dance floor. Seconds later Lucas, also in his stocking feet, rushed onto the floor from the other side of the room and joined them. Within seconds, all three boys were dancing with wild abandon. The space around them quickly cleared as the perimeter of the dance floor filled with spectators looking on as the boys of Trio Chrysalis took total command of the floor. In the midst of their synchronized movement, Yves gestured to Jamie who, with a smile on his face, slipped off his own shoes and joined them. Soon all four boys were bobbing their heads and shaking their hips while moving with synchronized precision to the beat of the music. Gyrating and spinning with lightning speed, the feathers of their wings fluttered as the boys' quick movements turned their feet into a blur before the eyes of their onlookers.
For ten minutes the boys danced, immersed in the beat of the music and accompanied by the occasional rhythmic clapping of their audience. When the last note ended they were rewarded with spontaneous applause. With a chorus of enthusiastic calls for an encore rising from the crowd, Lucas caught Philippe’s eye and winked. The avionne conductor grinned, did a spin on the spot that sent the tails of his jacket fluttering and hit the downbeat perfectly; the orchestra, focused and attentive, followed his lead into another upbeat song.
“Now’s your chance,” Jeremy whispered to Jamie as he prepared to join Lucas and Yves. And as his three friends spun and danced, Jamie used their diversion to ease himself as unobtrusively as possible off of the dance floor.
Sliding through the mob surrounding Trio Chrysalis, Jamie’s eyes darted about searching the crowd until his gaze met those of Nic. Walking toward the orchestra, Jamie stopped when he encountered Damien. Pausing before the singer, Jamie leaned in close and spoke directly into Damien's ear for a few minutes. Then looking away, Jamie raised an eyebrow as he tipped his head first in Nic’s direction and then toward one of the large double doors of the ballroom. Damien nodded his head and smiled his understanding.
Smiling and giving Damien a kiss on the cheek, Jamie bade the singer goodbye. As Jamie headed toward the exit, Damien worked his way through the crowd until he stood next to Nic, who was surrounded by a small crowd of his own fans. Seconds later Jamie slipped out of the ballroom and stood quietly on the opposite side of the door. The music, now muffled, was still loud and strong and Jamie could well imagine his friends dancing wildly to its beat. A moment later it abruptly grew louder when the door opened and Nic stepped through.
“The singer told me you’d be waiting here for me,” Nic smiled in relief when he saw that Damien had not misled him.
“This way,” Jamie said taking Nic’s hand. Following the palace map he’d uploaded into The Screen, he led the way down a series of broad corridors and narrow hallways. Passing through exquisitely decorated rooms, and chambers filled with rare and beautiful treasures, Jamie finally stopped when he came to an arched opening that lead into a vaulted chamber fashioned from carved and polished almand stone. Crossing the space, they passed through a second arched opening in the opposite wall. Once through the arch both boys stood just inside a glass-enclosed walkway lined with an abundance of potted ferns.
“The Garden of Glass,” Jamie smiled as he tucked his mate's hand under his arm.
Traveling through a series of smaller greenhouses and down a number of glass-enclosed corridors they arrived at the central greenhouse.
“The main Botanicum,” Jamie made a sweeping gesture with his free hand. “It’s where we’ll be dancing,” he added pointing to a large open-air stage in the center of the building
“It’s amazing, Jamie.” Nic stood looking about the incredible glass building surrounding him.
Soft, muted lighting created a warm inviting glow within the giant glass structure. The two boys stood on a broad almand stone path that was lined with a wide flower border. Jamie, stepping even closer, released Nic’s hand and wrapped his arms around his pa’amore.
“I think I promised you a dance,” Jamie murmured as he prepared to snuggle against Nic. “We’re alone, so you don’t have to feel self-conscious.” Stepping back, Jamie looked up at Nic and smiled, then taking the Gahdar’s hand, he lead Nic onto a moss-covered circle surrounded by a series of curved stone benches.
“You're only wearing socks.” Nic pointed out, smiling. “And you’ve already gotten them wet and muddy. Surely dancing can't be done without the proper equipment?"
“Easy to fix,” Jamie reached down first peeling off one sock then the other. The spongy cool moss felt good against his bare feet as his toes sunk into the soft carpet-like lichen covering the ground where they were standing. "You won't get out of this so easily, you know. I am prepared for any eventuality."
Once more he leaned into Nic, and gently wrapping his arms around the gladiator, Jamie began to slowly sway, drawing Niklas into a slow dance. Still feeling a bit awkward despite their isolation, Nic began to cautiously move rhythmically to Jamie’s prompts. And even though Jamie’s movements were slow, deliberate and quite simple, Nic could sense the poise and grace of the young dancer he was holding in his arms. It was then he felt Jamie clutch him even tighter. With his head on Nic’s shoulder and his mouth close to the Gahdar’s ear, Jamie give out a low soft sigh, and Nic thought he detected a change in the mood of his pa’amore.
“What’s the matter?”
“I’m thinking about Charlie,” Jamie replied softly.
While Nic had held his emotionally spent mate the whole night after Jamie’s emotional trip with his brother from Ghröum to Ajax, and he’d received a detailed report of the mission from Renaud, Nic could still scarcely imagine how difficult it must have been for his mate. The Angel of Death had relayed to the Gahdar everything that had happened: the brothers tender farewells, the things Jamie had left with Charlie including his pet garga lizard, and the precautions and safeguards they’d made against someone entering the Hall of Heroes.
Niklas knew how deeply Jamie loved. He was fortunate to be on the receiving end of the amazing boy’s affection, but he also understood it would have been impossible to fathom the depth of the prince’s love for his brother. Nic knew how much he’d longed for a family himself. He’d give anything to have a brother like Charlie. It was one reason he’d turned his comrades-in-arms into his surrogate brothers. And although curious as to the details, he’d come to understand Jamie well enough to know that pushing the boy would not have been a wise thing to do. And so it was that while Jamie had mentioned some of the details, the two young men had not yet spoken of it in great depth.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” Jamie gave up another sigh, and his hold on Nic tightened. “You should have seen he and Giovanni saying their goodbyes. It was heartbreaking. I don't ever want to do that with you, Nic.”
It was then that Niklas von Agramon knew the real reason for the sudden change in Jamie’s mood. Nic abruptly stopped dancing; reaching up, he gently but firmly pulled Jamie’s arms from around his neck. Stepping back while tightly gripping the prince’s hands, he looked into Jamie’s eyes. Even in the soft muted light of the garden, he could see them sparkle and he knew they were filled with unshed tears.
“I love you, Prince de Valèn,” Nic gave Jamie a tender look and then one of Nic’s hands rose to cup Jamie’s face, giving his mate’s cheek a gentle caress. "I’m with you, now and forever. No matter what, whether our success is a spectacular triumph or our failure is a horrific defeat, we’re together.” Nic swallowed. His life as a Gahdar had ill prepared him for close emotional attachments, but like his own pa’amore, he was desperate for them. As an explorer in an alien land, he knew he was walking through uncharted and unknown territory, yet his love for the boy standing before him felt like a sure guide.
“You lost your father, and in order to protect your brother you sacrificed the life you loved.” Nic took a breath while his mind raced to find exactly the right words. “You’ve seen friends die, and you’ve had to end the lives of others. I, too, know how that part feels. And now... well, although I’ve never had a real brother, I know how I feel about my Gahdar brothers. I love and care about them all. I’ve lost friends in the training camps and I know the pain of loss. But no matter what, Jamie, you’re not going to lose me. I love you with all my heart and I’m with you to the end. I can’t know the future, but I do know my heart and while I can never promise success or victory, I can promise you my love... always and forever. That will never change. Do you understand? Never.”
Jamie, who’d been quietly looking up at Nic as the Gahdar spoke, slowly nodded his head. Then closing the short distance between them his arms were again wrapped around Nic, but instead of placing his head on Nic’s shoulder, his lips were pressed against the lips of his mate. The kiss that followed, one given in pure love rather than raw passion, was strong and lasted for some time. When it was over Jamie continued to cling to Nic.
“Lets finish that dance.” Nic whispered softly into Jamie’s ear, and once more the boys moved slowly to a silent song only they could hear.
While Jamie and Nic danced in silence, a pair of eyes drawn to narrow slits looked on. Hiding in the shadows Hippolito stood stiffly, his arms tightly folded across his chest, a scowl frozen on his face. He’d lost track of Jamie and after making inquiries had been told of both the dancer’s and the Gahdar’s exit from the ballroom. A hunch had brought him to the Garden of Glass. That his instincts had been correct gave him no pleasure. Turning away from the scene before him, Hippolito quietly exited the large glass greenhouse with a plan already beginning to hatch in his mind.
The next morning Jamie awoke to the sound of laughter. Tossing back the soft blanket he’d been curled up under, he crawled out from under the warm covers of his bed. Still not quite awake, he shook the cobwebs of sleep from his brain. Clad in only his sleep shorts, but curious to discover the source of the loud mirth, he didn’t bother to dress any further as he strode from his bedchamber. Once in the main salon of the apartment, he found Jeremy, Yves, and Lucas tucking into breakfast while they joked, chattered and laughed like a pack of giddy first year students.
Catching sight of Jamie and the puzzled look he was giving them did little to dampen the three boys mood; if anything it spurred them on to even more laughter.
“No wonder you’ve never told us much about your little invitations,” Yves chuckled. “You’ve wanted to keep all the fun to yourself. But I guess we’ll forgive you.”
“What are you talking about?” A scowl began to form on Jamie’s face at Yves suggestion.
After spending some time with Nic in the Garden of Glass, the two boys had separated. In order to avoid suspicion, Nic and Jamie each went their own way. But by the time Jamie returned to the ball he found himself disinterested and bored. Wearied by the monotonous predictability of the fete and the familiar insincerity of the party’s guests, he returned to the apartment he shared with his friends and went to bed.
“What are we talking about?” Yves blinked in shocked surprise at Jamie’s naively simplistic question. “The ball, the fete, the people, the dancing...”
“The food,” Lucas interrupted Yves.
“Not to mention all those handsome Icarian princes,” Jeremy chimed in. “You never told us a whole retinue of them would be there, along with those other ones. What were they called now...?”
“Scribes,” Lucas called out.
“I didn’t know any of them would be there. I was surprised as you were. But I don’t know what you're so excited about. It was a typical imperial affair,” Jamie answered defensively. “I find them long, tiring, usually boring and often rather stupid. I don’t get much excitement watching a pack of ambitious nobles, nouveau riche, and greedy industrial bourgeoisie trying to curry imperial favor as they overeat and get drunk.”
“Easy for you to say, Prince de Valèn. You’re their little darling.” Jeremy gave a snorting laugh.
“You mean their little slave,” Jamie’s temper flared, his blue eyes flashed in anger, and suddenly his friends grew quiet. “They don’t parade you about like their little pet. Or would you prefer to see them put a gold ring in my nose and lead me around like a piece of prized livestock?”
“Jamie... we didn’t... ah... we didn’t mean... it was just a joke... we’d never...”
Jeremy’s and Lucas faces fell and Yves smile instantly evaporated.
“I’m sorry.” Jamie could see in his friend’s shocked expressions his overreaction to their good-natured teasing.
Slowly he lowered himself onto a nearby stool. He sighed as his shoulders sagged. “It’s all happening so fast. I thought we’d have more time.”
“Tell us,” Yves approached his friend and placed his hand on Jamie’s shoulder. “Is there a problem with your plan?”
“There are probably a hundred problems with my plan, and most of them I don’t even know about yet. I’ve built a house of cards and the slightest ill-timed movement is going to bring it tumbling down."
“Can we help?" Lucas moved across the room to join Yves. Soon Jeremy did the same. All three boys stood encircling Jamie each giving him looks of concern.
After a moment of silence, Jamie began to tell his friends about the accelerated timetable for planetary evacuation by those selected to escape the planet and the late night trip to Ajax that it had necessitated.
“And Giovanni?” Jeremy was quick to ask what all three boys had been thinking.
“He’s safe. I took him to one of the settlements. Arrangements have been made for him... and for all Icarians except for those aligned with the Empire.”
“Yes, like Hippolito, and those princes and scribes who are not members of the resistance.”
It was then that Lucas, tilting his wings, scrunched down in front of Jamie. A look of understanding lit up his face. Reflexively, he took one of Jamie’s hands. “They’re doing everything possible to help us, aren’t they... the Kalorians? They owe us nothing, yet they’re risking all to help us. Why?”
Jamie simply nodded. Silence followed and he tried to swallow the lump that had grown large and thick in his throat; an attempt that was unsuccessful. “Because of me,” he finally answered. “They’re counting on me to fulfill my promises...” There was a long pause as Jamie’s eyes studied each of his three friends. “...or die trying.”
“You have Nic,” Lucas said.
“And the Gahdar,” Yves added.
“And us,” Jeremy bent down and gave Jamie a light kiss on the cheek. Then reaching out he clasped the hand Lucas was using to clutch Jamie’s hand. Yves added his own hand. “Together to the end.” Jeremy added. “We know what we have to do. We won’t let you down.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Jamie finally replied. “I know you won’t let me down, even if all three of you terrors die in the process.”
“Don’t waste any time worrying about us,” Jeremy stood up and looked down on his friend. “We have your back. Do what you must.”
“And there have to be others out there? Didn’t you say Renaud told you that you were only part of a much bigger picture?”
“Well, last night as we were leaving, we met two Icarians. They reminded us of Nic and the rest of the Gahdar, but they were soldiers. They said they were training with the imperial palace guards. They were Royal Thrones. They were like Nic and...
“...and they were very handsome,” Jeremy smirked. “One was named Matthew. He seemed a bit moody, but the other boy, Lancelot, was quite nice. Who knows, maybe they’re also on our side?”
“Or not,” Jamie frowned.
“So does that mean you’re calling it off?”
“Of course not.”
“Then it's wings out and step off the edge. We give it our all.”
After an abbreviated breakfast Jamie decided to visit the
“I want some private time to practice my sword play for our routine,” Jamie told his friends. “Then I’ll stop by and see Nic."
Trio Chrysalis decided they’d do a warm-up and practice session in the Garden of Glass, and then wait for Jamie, who would join them for a brief practice session followed by a full run-through of their routine.
Reminding his friends that he’d booked a corpus harpist for the performance, he asked them to be on the lookout for the young Kalorian harpist the Impresario’s Office had secured for him.
By the time Jamie was climbing into the ring of the Battlecom his head was filled with all of the things he knew that had to be accomplished in just a short period of time. The accelerated evacuation from the planet was threatening to turn his complex plan into an impossible one.
Dressed in just a battle tunic devoid of any protection, Jamie began to set the controls of the Com. The routine he’d set for himself was simple, the level of physical injury at its lowest setting. His goal was simply to practice a few theatrical combat maneuvers in order to enhance his already polished dance routine. He’d even chosen the same wooden prop sword he’d be using for his performance.
A sudden movement in his peripheral vision stopped him from setting the final adjustments. Looking up from the Com’s controls, Jamie saw Hippolito, dressed in full sparring kit, enter the room.
“I thought I’d join you,” Hippolito strode across the room and Jamie noticed that in each hand the boy was holding a training sword.
“I’m only doing a quick run-through,” Jamie looked warily at both swords.
“That’s fine,” Hippolito smiled broadly. “I saw you’d booked some com time. Don’t you think it would be better to practice with someone real instead of some holo-projection?”
“I'm just going to use this prop-sword,” Jamie held up the wooden sword. “I’m not planning anything strenuous.”
“I understand, but as your future pa’amore I think it’s important we show an interest in each other’s endeavors. I want to help. In fact, Jamie, I insist.”
Without waiting for a reply, Hippolito climbed up the Battlecom, entered the ring and motioned for Jamie to join him. “Leave it.” Hippolito’s tone was commanding as he pointed at the prop sword Jamie still clutched in one hand.
A strange feeling of dread began to fill the prince as he climbed into the ring. While he couldn’t be completely sure of Hippolito’s true mood, he could sense waves of strong emotion emanating from the Prince of Hypernia.
“Take it,” Hippolito tossed one of the swords he’d been carrying in Jamie’s direction. He did it so quickly and with such force that Jamie had to dodge out of the way to avoid being hit with it. “Pick it up,” Hippolito added in a flat emotionless monotone after the sword, giving off a loud ring, hit and bounced off the mat of the Com.
Cautiously picking up the sword, Jamie stood facing Hippolito, not sure what to do. Without warning Hippolito gave a blood curdling shout and attacked. Unprepared for the boy’s assault, Jamie was driven back. Trying to recover as quickly as he could, he found himself weakly deflecting Hippolito’s forceful advance. Luckily the boy’s moves and actions weren’t based on skill or finesse but a mixture of pure anger and blatant aggression. It was the only thing that saved Jamie from injury in the first moments of their match.
Continuing to retreat, Jamie kept trying to fend off the attacks, an action that quickly became more and more difficult. The clang of metal striking metal echoed through the cavernous room. A second later Hippolito, after performing a lightning quick parry, executed a thrust that turned into a slash. Unprepared for the move, Jamie cried out in pain and dropped his sword. Clutching his upper arm, he could feel the warm flow of blood.
With his sword raised, Hippolito took a step forward. Jamie stumbled back in retreat, but he found himself pressed against the chain barrier that enclosed the ring of the Battlecom. Continuing his advance, Hippolito positioned his sword so that its point hovered dangerously close to Jamie’s throat.
“If you’re half as brilliant as I hear you’re rumored to be,” Hippolito glowered, “I’ll only have to say this once. And if you’re as perceptive as you are smart, I think you’ll understand. So listen very carefully.”
Jamie stood frozen as the tip of Hippolito’s sword gently pressed against his neck. The boy’s eyes flashed with an angry fire at the dancer. The gash to Jamie’s arm stung and as he gripped it, he could still feel the warm flow of blood coming from the open wound.
“By the Emperor’s command, we will be mated.” Hippolito now pressed the blade of his sword tightly against Jamie’s neck. “In the eyes of the Empire, we will become a pair. There’s no other option. I want that to be perfectly clear. What you do for your own private pleasure and amusement is up to you. You can play with anyone you wish, including those idiotic clods that fight at Rood. As far as I care, you can have a different one in your bed every night. Be assured that I, too, will do as I please. But as my mate you’ll play by my rules. I want that understood. You’ll give me what I ask, when I ask it. When I tell you to jump, you’ll perform that clever little flying arabesque of yours and hang air until I give permission for you to land. Is there anything about this that you don’t comprehend? Say so now, because I’m not going to repeat it.”
Jamie remained silent. The blade against his neck felt icy cold and wickedly sharp.
“You really don’t have to love me, Jamie. In fact, you don’t even have to like me, but you do have to obey me.”
“Or what? Or you’ll kill me?”
The laugh that came from the Prince of Hypernia was not what Jamie had expected. Stepping back Hippolito withdrew his sword.
“Kill you? Never!” Hippolito smirked then looked down at the thin trail of blood trickling down Jamie’s arm. “That little love tap I just gave you was only to get your attention. I’ve done a lot of research on you. Apparently you have a large group of admirers among the slaves. So much so that I dare say one can’t find a Kalorian on the whole of the Mountain of the Arts who won’t sing your praises. You don’t seem to care how dirty you get your hands or how much you degrade yourself in front of them. I’ve heard about you carrying water and dragging dirty laundry about. You’ve actually made friends with the kitchen and garden staff... even speak their filthy slave language. And in the eyes of that idiot half-wit who’s the son of the head seamstress at the opera house, you’re no less than a god. Apparently there’s no limit to how low you’ll stoop. But that’s your affair. What’s interesting to me is that you too care about them. You appear to care about them a great deal.”
“Why does that concern you?” Although still frightened, Jamie was beginning to feel a spark of anger.
“It’s nothing at all to me,” Hippolito said airily, waving his sword about dangerously close to Jamie’s face, “except I’ve learned that when people care about something, it tends to cloud their thinking. The less one cares, the better. It’s something you don’t seem to have learned. I had a small puppy that the archduke gave me when I became his ward. You might even say that I cared about it for a time. But I was playing with it one day and it bit me. I tried to ignore it, but it bit me again. If I had cared, I’d have had to put up with its bites, maybe even tried to train it, but its behavior only made me mad, so I didn’t feel bad about tossing it off the roof of the archduke’s palace. Puppy’s don’t seem to fly as well as we do.”
“What are you talking about?”
“For all your intelligence, I think you’re far too stupid to care about what happens to you, but for some twisted reason you seem to care about your little pets. So, I’ve made some arrangements that I think will ensure your cooperation."
“Now what’s the name of that old slave of yours who you always seems to be doting over?” Hippolito assumed an air of forgetfulness.
“Right, right... that’s his name. You'll have to excuse me, but they all look the same to me.” Hippolito shrugged. “I think I should let you know that if you go looking for him, you won’t find him.”
“What did you do with him?” The anger growing inside Jamie was rapidly pushing aside his fear.
“I had him taken to the Prison of Pain.” The smile that came to Hippolito’s face was pure evil, and suddenly his eyes were sharp as a laser beam.
Jamie’s eyes widened, and a flood of warmth rushed down his arms as his fingertips tingled.
“You don’t need to worry,” Hippolito smirked. “He’s perfectly safe. I can even promise you that not one hair on his gray head will be harmed, so long as you cooperate. After we’re formally mated and we’ve shared sufficient time together, if you catch my meaning, he’ll be released to you no worse for the wear. But if something happens to me or if you disobey me or try anything stupid, the guards at Stone Gate have their orders. I assure you they’ll follow them quite well. I don’t think an old man like that would last very long... do you?”
Giving Jamie a self-satisfied grin he turned, tossed his sword onto the floor of the Battlecom’s ring and began to stride out of the hall. Halfway across the room, he paused and turned to face his future mate.
“How rude of me,” Hippolito’s smirk grew even more pronounced. “I forgot to tell you. That boy Damien...you know, the singer? Well, last night after the ball ended he was caught snooping around Castle Rood. Tell me, what would a singer be doing at the red castle? Maybe he has something to with that antiquities shop in Küronas, the one owned by the fat man who died in a break out attempt at Stone Gate? It seems one of your little Kalorian pets offered up some information during his questioning. After that, the singer was placed under surveillance. It’s a topic I’d love to discuss with you over a romantic dinner, Jamie, but I don’t have time at the moment. I’m helping his Excellency the Duke of Imperialas with some arrangements.”
“What happened to Damian?” Jamie’s hearts were beating wildly in his chest.
“He’s also in Stone Gate, but unfortunately he’s not being treated as nicely as your friend Castor. The last time I heard Archduke Loka discussing it, Damien had an appointment with the high inquisitor. A pity, that. Such a talent wasted on some stupid revolt.”
Jamie stood still as a statue, unable to speak.
“And don’t think I’ve overlooked your close friendship with Trio Chrysalis.” Hippolito called out from across the room. “Dancers often become injured, no? Don’t you think it would be tragic if a series of accidents put an end to their amazing careers? Such accidents might even prove fatal. I’m sure you’d do anything to avoid any harm coming to them.” Having reached the door, Hippolito opened it and exited the room, leaving Jamie still standing in the Battlecom’s ring, clutching the blood-oozing wound on his arm.
Back in his apartment at in the Imperial Palace, Jamie sat quietly as a dressing was applied to his wound. No sooner had he entered the suite then one of the Kalorian cleaning staff had noticed blood running down his arm and although he protested, nothing Jamie said could stop the frightened woman from summoning assistance.
“The ointment I applied will take care of any infection,” the medical attendant told Jamie as he wound a soft dressing around the boy’s upper arm. “But more importantly, it has a regenerative effect on the damaged tissue. I’m sure it will almost be healed over by the time you’re ready for bed tonight, but there will be a scar. But don’t worry about it, in a few weeks even that can be taken care of with a three-day regimen of dermal cream.”
“I won’t be around for it,” Jamie sighed under his breath.
“What did you say, Prince de Valèn?” The attendant, in the process of cleaning up had only caught a part of Jamie’s words.
“It’s not important,” he replied, gingerly touching the newly applied dressing.
Gathering up the remaining supplies into his bag, the attendant headed for the door, but as he prepared to leave he was sent reeling when three Gahdar dressed in sparring kit burst into the room. Nic and Miro quickly crossed the threshold, while Julius, offering a quick apology, gripped the arm of the medical attendant until the man was steady on his feet.
“What happened?” Nic’s grave expression left no doubt as to his feelings.
Still seated, Jamie looked up at his mate before studying Miro and finally Julius who, after allowing the attendant to exit the room, was now closing the door.
For a few seconds Jamie remained silent, not sure what to say. Telling Nic the truth about Hippolito’s attack along with his threats and capture and imprisonment of Castor might send his pa’amore into a rage that could spell disaster for their plan. Yet, even the most minor of deceptions could also have a disastrous effect on his union with Niklas.
It was then, as he stared into Nic’s eyes, that an unusual feeling came over him. That there was a connection between the two boys couldn’t be denied by either of them. Jamie felt it whenever he was in Nic’s presence; he felt its absence even more when he was separated from his mate.
The phenomenon of Icarian bonding had been discovered soon after the first mating pairs joined. Yet within the scientific community of Gold Glass, it remained a mystery. More interested in the genetics involved in creating a new race and the many mutations ordered by the imperial government, only a small, under-funded team was tasked with studying the Icarian bond, and little had been learned regarding the process. The single and definitive fact that had been learned was that an Icarian mating bond was for life and that breaking that bond, an act known as disunion, caused catastrophic physical and mental effects on any surviving member of the bond.
Carefully studying his mate, Jamie tried to think of what he could say to prevent Nic from reacting in a way that would endanger Castor. Knowing he couldn’t remain silent, he considered deception, but a strange feeling was growing inside him that he couldn’t overcome. The strength of character of the Royal Throne geno-type had been an unexpected surprise. It was so strong that an order severely restricting the number of Royal Thrones created had been issued - a consequence of the empire’s worries over what an army of such creatures could mean for the stability and iron-fisted rule of the empire.
But while little had been discovered about Icarian bonding and the various personality traits of each of the geno-types, nothing had ever been learned about the traits of the rarest of strains, the Imperial Seraphim. With only two officially ever created, it was impossible to make assumptions based on nonexistent research.
“It was Hippolito,” Jamie paused, studying Niklas for a reaction, but his mate’s face remained an unreadable mask. Slowly and carefully Jamie explained what had happened. Even though he’d thought about glossing over the morning’s events, he found that the bond connecting him to Nic wouldn’t let him do it. His narrative ended with the report of the capture of Damien, the seizing of Castor, and Hippolito’s threats against both the old Kalorian and his friends of Trio Chrysalis.
Nic listened in silence. Years of warrior training stirred his blood, urging him to immediate action. The direct attack on his mate was not only a threat to Jamie, but also a dangerous assault on the bond both boys had entered. A part of him was ready to act, but what came as surprise to the Gahdar was a calming sense of analytical and dispassionate logic. It was a feeling he’d never experienced before; an Imperial Seraphic gift from the bond?
“Please, Nic,” Jamie began to plead after he was done, “I know you want to kill him, but he has Castor and if anything were to happen to him...” Jamie’s voice dropped.
“Yes, I do want to kill him...several times, if that were possible.” Nic was frowning, but he put his hand gently against his Jamie’s cheek. “But I also know any rash action can only bring with it dire consequences. My personal feelings have to come second to the plan.”
Nic’s response made Jamie breathe a sigh of relief. Preparing to ask Nic his opinion, Jamie’s thoughts were interrupted when the door burst open and Renaud strode into the room. Moving quickly the Angel of Death didn’t stop until he was standing before Nic and Jamie. Jamie blinked when the tall young man dropped to one knee and lowered his head.
“I have failed you, Sa’Crêsmané,” Renaud’s voice dropped to a whisper. “I have broken my solemn promise to you.”
Jamie was shocked at Renaud’s action. There was a moment of silence as he gathered his thoughts, and then he began to list the other boy's accomplishments: “You warned me about Loka. You saved me from Hippolito at Overland Flats. You made sure we were housed safely here in the palace, and I couldn’t have succeeded on Ajax without you. You’re anything but a failure.”
“But Sa’Crêsmané, I...”
“We were all caught off guard.” Nic placed a hand on Renaud’s shoulder. “It only shows how careful we need to be. Jamie can't be allowed to go about alone any longer.”
“Speak for yourselves,” Miro glowered. “I’ve always been wary of that little snake. He makes the ühn•ki of the sh’ônfenn appear virtuous. It means that we have to be more vigilant than ever. This isn’t the arena.”
“Well said.” Nic nodded his head in agreement.
“Every Gahdar will be on alert,” Julius interjected. “I’ll personally spread the word.”
“Tomorrow afternoon is our exhibition,” Miro added. “Over a hundred pairs of eyes will be watching.”
“Along with yours,” Nic reached out to the still kneeling Renaud.
Taking Nic’s arm, Renaud stood. “I do not deserve your understanding, let alone your forgiveness.”
“You more than deserve it,” Nic countered.
“Now, more than ever, we have to stand together.” It was Julius who spoke. “Remember, Master Sakki always told us that the only shame in making mistakes lies in not learning from them.”
After standing, Renaud’s gaze focused on Jamie.
“I’m going to meet Jeremy, Yves, and Lucas.” Jamie rose from his stool. “We still have to practice, and I’m already late. As soon as they see this,” his hand touched the newly applied dressing, “I’ll have to tell them what happened.”
“We must also prepare,” Nic added. "Will you escort Jamie to his practice?" He was looking at Renaud, who nodded his understanding.
Giving Jamie a small kiss he turned began to head toward the door with Julius and Miro close behind.
“And you can be sure we’ll give them something to remember us by,” Miro shot Jamie the wickedest grin he’d ever seen on Miro’s handsome face.
Once Nic and his friends departed, Jamie rose from the stool he’d been sitting on and stared briefly at the dressing on his arm. The pain of the wound had subsided, thanks to the ointment the medical attendant had applied. Looking up he noticed that Renaud had remained behind and was staring out one of the room’s tall windows. He wondered why the boy wasn’t at his usual post, two steps behind the emperor, guarding the supreme ruler of the planet.
“I’m truly sorry, Sa’Crêsmané.” Renaud turned his intense gaze on Jamie.
“Don’t talk nonsense,” Jamie ordered, “and besides it’s over now anyway. It’s already in the music of the past.”
Knowing that he must soon join his friends at practice, Jamie crossed the room and entered his bedchamber. Renaud, continuing the conversation, followed him.
Surprised that Renaud still hadn’t excused himself, Jamie began to prepare for his practice session. “There’s nothing to be sorry about. Even Nic admitted we were caught off guard,” Jamie added as he began to take off the sparring tunic he’d been wearing. After removing it, he tossed it on the bed, but not before examining the noticeable bloodstain on one of its sleeves.
“While that may be true, the Baron and his friends are Gahdar, and I mean no disrespect, but...” Renaud paused, and remained quiet for a long beat while Jamie continued to get undressed.
Jamie was just stepping out of his small clothes when he finally noticed the unusually long pause. Turning to face the Viper, he placed a hand on his now naked hip and cocked an eyebrow as he scanned Renaud with a razor-sharp, blue-eyed gaze of his own. “But?”
“But they’re not trained as I am. They’re warriors, and while they’re the greatest fighters in the empire, they’re not Vipers. I should have known, and I should have been more aware. I was given enough warning.”
“How so?” Jamie went to the chest of draws in the room and began rummaging through it.
“My eyes never left you at the fete. Although I was with the Emperor, I knew of your whereabouts at all times.”
From one of the drawers Jamie withdrew a dance belt, a pair of tights and a racerback. “Even when I went to the garden?” The expression on his face hung somewhere between a curious look and a frown.
“Yes. When you left the ballroom, I observed the Baron also departing. I had a hunch as to your destination. Later when I saw you both in the Garden of Glass, my suspicions were confirmed.”
“You were there? In the garden?”
“At the same time you were leaving the ballroom, the Emperor decided to retire. Because he usually finds events like formal balls quite boring, he never stays too late. While it’s a public duty he must attend to, he generally prefers solitude or the company of close friends. It’s why he and the Archduke are often together. I accompanied him to his chambers as I always do, and left him when he entered his apartment. My duties for the day concluded, I went to the garden and discovered my feelings were correct when I found you with the Baron. I also discovered Prince Hippolito lurking in the shadows.”
Having slipped into his dance belt, Jamie already had one foot in his tights and was beginning to pull them up his leg. Renaud’s revelation stopped him cold. “Hippolito was there?”
Jamie registered a surprised look. Glancing at the bandage around his upper arm he let go of his tights, reached up and let his fingers lightly rub against the soft covering of the dressing. “Did he see you?”
“No. But that’s when I failed you, for I saw the look in his eyes. It was warning enough. When you and the Baron left the garden, so did he. I retired to my room, but I should have checked on you, or alerted someone to keep you under observation. For this I am deeply sorry, and deserve your scorn.”
“Don’t be silly. I’ve come to learn how Hippolito can be, but I never would have suspected him of attacking me the way he did.” Jamie resumed dressing as he put his other foot into the leg of his tights and began to pull them up his slender body.
“But you’re not a Viper. All the signs were there. I chose... well, I ignored them.”
“So you didn't do all you might have. It’s still not your fault. You didn't suggest to Hippolito that he come after me with a sword.” Jamie rotated his hips and bent his knees as he adjusted his tights, then he reached for the razorback lying on top of his bed.
“There are no buts, Renaud. I won't let you assume blame for something that wasn't your fault.” Jamie, after slipping into his racerback, approached Renaud then turned his back on the tall angel boy. “Could you fasten it?”
The words caught slightly in Jamie’s throat, it was a task Castor would have done had he been there.
After Renaud gave his assistance, Jamie turned and looked the Angel of Death squarely in the eyes, something that still made him slightly ill at ease. Looking away, he went back to his bed and retrieved a pair of leg warmers he’d tossed there earlier, and began tugging them onto each leg. “We strive for perfection, but can never achieve it. If I waited until I could perform every dance with absolute perfection, I’d never dance. There’s always a mistake waiting to be made. We know about Hippolito and we always have, but now that he’s played his hand, we understand him even better. We know where the cobra lairs; it’s up to us to avoid sticking a hand into its mouth.”
Renaud nodded, his solemn expression never changing. He watched intently as Jamie went back to the large armoire in his room and took out one of his school tunics and a pair of sandals. Giving the sandals a light toss onto the floor, he slipped his bare feet into them. Then he pulled the tunic over his head. “What worries me the most is Castor. And there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Renaud stood transfixed as Jamie, now fully dressed, carefully bunched up his tunic and began tying it with the red sash of a master performer. Although he was dressed in the standard practice attire of the École Danse, he still cut a striking figure of grace and beauty, causing Renaud to muse that even in beggar’s rags the boy would probably appear regal.
While Renaud had informed Jamie of his observations during the Prince’s rendezvous with the Baron, he’d refrained from telling Jamie that after both boys and Hippolito had left the garden, he’d remained. Having watched Jamie drape his arms around Nic’s neck, lay his head on the Gahdar’s shoulder and slowly dance with the gladiator, Renaud was unable to shake the image from his mind. Standing in the quiet darkness of the garden, he’d imagined himself standing in Niklas von Agramon’s place, wondering what it had felt like. A sudden movement caught his eye. Jamie had just scooted past him, his wing brushing one of Renaud’s. It returned him to the present.
“The Vipers have contacts within Stone Gate,” Renaud volunteered. “Although he’s confined there, Castor’s not formally under arrest and there’s no reason to put him in one of their cells. I’ll see that he is placed in a secure, but comfortable room. And I’ll see to it that he’s not harmed.”
“Thank you. I'd take it as a kindness.” the gratified look that came to the prince’s face was reward enough for Renaud. “Now I have to go and practice with the trio and pretend like everything is ok.”
“Wait.” The sudden commanding tone coloring Renaud’s voice caused Jamie to freeze. A puzzled frown grew on the prince’s face when he looked up at the emperor’s bodyguard. It was then a wave of understanding washed over the young dancer.
“I can understand the apology, and I’m more than grateful for your concern about Castor, but why are you really here?” Although he tried to dampen the accusatory tone in his voice, Jamie was sure he hadn’t succeeded, for suddenly the hairs on the back of his neck were beginning to stand up and that was never a good omen.
“There are two things you must know: both are of the utmost importance.”
Now facing Renaud head-on, Jamie stood as still as a statue waiting for the Angel of Death to speak.
“Viper intelligence has just learned that the formal evacuation of the planet takes place the morning after your performance for the Emperor.”
“That soon?” Jamie tried to swallow but his mouth had suddenly begun to turn dry and he found he couldn’t.
Renaud gave a single nod and continued, “That’s why all of the Icarian Princes have been assembled here. At eight hundred hours, designated mirror gates across the continent will be activated. Those selected will transport to facilities prepared on Argon.”
“That we do not know.”
“And the plague?”
“It’s begun to spread... rapidly. In the next few days it will be as if a mighty dam has burst, flooding the entire continent. The pockets where they’ve fought to contain it have finally been breached. There’s no stopping it. In two weeks, it will have traveled across the continent like a raging storm; a month after that, the planet as we know it will be gone. Not many will survive.”
“Yes, and those who do...” Jamie stopped, unwilling to continue.
“The leadership of the Empire is bringing all their resources to bear to present a picture of normality, but the illusion hangs by a thinnest of threads. That’s why this event has been allowed to continue and both the Gahdar and your performances will be broadcast throughout the continent. They are doing everything possible to keep the population duped and uninformed up until the last minute.”
A shocked expression burst on Jamie’s face as the implication of Renaud’s words registered in his brain. “But that means we have to act... immediately! Everyone must be informed... and prepared. If they plan to leave the morning after our performance, we must initiate our plan now. I have to tell Nic.”
“He’s already being informed.”
“As I have told you, Sa’Crêsmané, you are only part of a much larger tapestry. A member of the vipers, in exchange for the safe passage of his family to Argon, has joined the action. At this very moment, he should be briefing the Baron.”
“But why didn’t you tell us earlier, when we were all together?”
“We couldn’t risk a meeting here in the palace. It was decided to inform you each separately.”
“By whom?” Jamie asked accusingly, his temper beginning to flare.
“You will have the opportunity to discuss it further with the Baron.”
“Well, there isn’t much time, and the chances of all of this quickly unraveling seem to be growing by the minute. We have to inform the Kalorian’s, we have to release the prisoners, we have to...”
“All of this has been put in motion.”
“But... the plan?”
“The plan - your plan - is being followed, Sa’Crêsmané; on that you have my solemn promise. You must now have the faith and courage to allow it to go forward. We are all standing on the highest parapet, and there is no other escape. To our backs is certain death,” Renaud’s eyes continued to fix a steady unblinking gaze upon Jamie. The tall boy’s face was almost passive as if he were completely at peace. “Now we must stroke our wings and take the wind, accepting what fate has in store for us."
“But if it doesn’t work?”
“If it is a good plan and the wind is with us, we will soar. If not, we will tumble to our deaths and a great many others will die as well. There is no other option.”
“Is that all you can say?”
“I think it’s a good plan.”
“I’m glad that you think so,” Jamie’s word’s dripped with sarcasm. “You have no idea how relieved that makes me feel.”
"It is a good and solid plan, hatched from the mind of a true genius, and a bold strategy drawn from the soul of a great general, Sa’Crêsmané. Your efforts have been self-less, your cause noble and your ideals admirable.”
“Do you think flattery will secure you a berth in the ark?” Jamie scowled. “I’ve already made my promise to you, and I plan to keep it.”
“That’s not my aim.” Instead of flashing anger or appearing insulted by Jamie’s sharp comment, Renaud’s face remained unreadable. “I’ve suffered under the yoke of this empire, as many have, and although it has been a different form of suffering, it has been painful nonetheless. I’ve seen what this Empire has become. I’ve seen the evil it has done, in ways that few others have.” For the first time in Jamie’s memory Renaud’s gaze broke contact with Jamie as the imperial bodyguard’s eyes dropped to the floor. “I have been an instrument of that evil. What I now do, I do, not for any special favors. Even now you can choose to leave me behind, and I will accept the sentence fate presents to me. My reward will be to know that I aided in the destruction of this vile house.”
Jamie stood silently examining the tall slender boy who continued to stare down at the floor. “I’m sorry. I believe you. I think I know how you feel. We Icarians have all been instruments of the empire, and the time has come for it to end.”
“Then we take the wind, and our chances.” the tone of Jamie’s voice was flat, but it rang with strong determination. “The plan begins now, yes?”
“It does,” Renaud replied. Then raising his head he allowed his eyes to once more lock on to Jamie. “I told you that there were two things of grave importance, and I have only told you one of them. I must now tell you the second.”
“Yes?” Jamie met and matched the intensity of Renaud’s gaze no longer feeling intimidated by it.
After a long pause Renaud took a deep breath. “It is one of the reasons you are here, and have never been removed to Savaron Loka’s palace.” The tension that Jamie could feel emanating from the boy made the air crackle as if lightening were about to strike. Once more he felt the hairs on the back of his neck begin to rise.
“And?” Jamie stood frozen like a statue, anticipating Renaud’s pronouncement with growing anxiety.
“I think you should sit before I tell you,” Renaud said as his voice suddenly became soft and strangely subdued.