The Scrolls of Icaria by Jamie


Book 2 – 'War of the Angels'


Part III - Baron of Rood


Chapter 42



“It’s like we’re climbing a mountain!” Lucas shouted. “How much higher do we have to go?”



“Only a bit further.” Jamie glanced back as he continued his climb.



“You know, we could have flown.” Jeremy paused to look back and grimace at his three friends, who were walking single file behind him.



“That would have gotten us into a lot of trouble,” Yves sarcastically shot back.



“This is something new?” Jeremy retorted.



Although it was late afternoon when Jamie and his friends began ascending the narrow steps of the amphitheatre, the sun shining high above their heads would continue to cast its light for many hours. It was high summer, with the longest day of the Altinestran year only a few weeks away.



The public amphitheater of Imperialas, built into a crater-like bowl at the junction of two abutting hills, had been chosen as the site for the Gahdar exhibition. Like the finely wrought object it was, its shape and proportion were a perfect balance between form and function, serving as an excellent example of Imperial Altinestran design. Constructed from white and black almand stone, it was one of the many architectural gems of the grand delta city.



As Jamie advanced up the steep stairs on his way to one of the reserve boxes, the prince caught the eye of almost everyone close enough to see him. Having chosen a gold-trimmed, short silk tunic, his goal had been to keep cool under the hot summer sun, but his appearance was turning heads and halting conversations as he passed by. Cinched with a golden cord sash, the tunic’s short hem fluttered lightly in the warm afternoon breeze, allowing anyone sitting close enough to catch a glimpse of the prince’s white, silk, small clothes. The wide V-neck of his tunic provided a perfect frame for the braided gold chain he’d chosen to wear. Attached to the chain, a small exquisitely crafted honeybee fashioned from white and yellow gold lay against the pale skin of his chest; its eyes were two small, sparkling diamonds shone in the bright sunshine. As one of the central totems of the official de Valèn crest, Jamie wore the honeybee as a quiet testament to his genetic ancestry. Because of the heat of the day, the bee pendant along with two rings, the one given to him by the Emperor and the ruby-eyed snake formerly belonging to Cristophe, were the only pieces of jewelry Jamie had chosen to wear. Still, they were enough to elicit more than a few envious stares.



What was even more surprising to some was the elaborate tattoo that occasionally peeked below the hem of the prince’s short tunic, at the top of one thigh. More than a few eyes tried to get a better glimpse of the strange totem as Jamie climbed the stairs.



Adding to the exotic tableau was the sight of the three gracefully poised young men of Trio Chrysalis who accompanied the prince. In front of Jamie a dashing, raven-haired boy, his brown eyes alight with fiery mischief, led the way. Behind the prince came a blond beauty with an infectious, heart-warming smile. Bringing up the rear, a striking red head with clear porcelain skin let his sparkling green eyes scan the large crowd of assembled spectators. The three boys were dressed in identical silk tunics, of different colors. Like a small group of exotic butterflies fluttering in the bright summer sun, the four winged young men inching their way up the steps of the arena garnered a fair share of interest and attention from the surrounding crowd.



“Our seats are just over there,” Jamie pointed to a reserved box half-filled with people. As he was speaking a bell began to ring. “Just keep moving. Do you hear that bell? It means the games are going to begin any minute now.”



“I’m moving as fast as I can,” Jeremy groused, interpreting Jamie’s statement as a critique. “These steps are steep; if I go any faster, I’m going to fall and take all of you with me.”



In a large cavernous room under the amphitheater, the Gahdar of Castle Rood were preparing for their exhibition. Since Imperialas had its own human gladiator games, the Avionne Gahdar had been assigned use of the local fighter’s facilities. Earlier, in a large room equipped for exercise and sparring, the boys had practiced the same warm-up exercises they always engaged in just before a match at Rood. Now, back in the high vaulted changing room, the young men were in various stages of dress and undress as they removed their sparring kit and began the ritual of donning full battle dress.



As they dressed, it was clear that each duet’s gear was slightly different from the others, depending on the house they fought for and any particular fighting specialties they engaged in. In one corner, Yvan and Yann had just emerged from the showers and were slipping on their immaculate white pajamas. Wearing only a woven cotton top and bottom that tied with a simple sash while remaining barefoot, the two boys were always the first to be ready.



All of the other gladiators' battle dress was rich and elaborate and in some cases, due to the type of fighting they practiced, contained special elements. So while Duet Spider was always the first to be dressed, Duet Lion was almost always the last. Since they were the principle duet involved in the animal acts, Hercules and his secundi Mars not only had to wear special protection in addition to their standard battle dress, but also the amount and type of special weapons they wore or carried took time to incorporate into their costumes.



Stepping up to one of the showers Nic, began to wash. Seconds later, Miro and Julius each took a nozzle and stood flanking their friend.



“Ready?” Julius had started to soap his lean muscular body.



“Aren’t we always?” Miro chuckled.



Continuing their climb, Jamie and his friends finally arrived at their box. Taking care to avoid hitting anyone with their wings, they carefully squeezed their way toward their seats.



“So you’ve become a fan of the games?”



Jamie had just gotten comfortable. Turning toward the voice coming from the row behind him, he found himself face to face with Daron, the industrialist he’d sat next to at Castle Rood.



“Oh, it's you! You follow me to the games each time I go, don't you?" Jamie remarked in a mock suspicious tones while he smiled. "No, not really,” he added. “We’re doing a command performance as part of the Emperor’s birthday celebration two days from now, and since we’re staying in the palace, we were invited to the exhibition."



“It’s good to see you. We’ll make a fan out of you yet.” A broad smile came to Daron’s face. Leaning forward he spoke close to Jamie’s ear. “Last month I was appointed to the Imperial Industrial Council. A few days after that, I received an invitation to this event and your special performance tomorrow evening. Other than vids, I’ve never seen you dance in person. It’s something I’m looking forward to.”



After giving Daron a nod and a friendly smile, Jamie turned back to his friends who, brimming with anticipation, scanned the crowded amphitheater.



“Look at all the people!” Jeremy’s voice was full of excitement.



“Look at the performance area.” Yves looked puzzled as he pointed to the floor of the arena.



Normally holding an elevated stage, complete with lighting arrays, equipment and an assortment of sets, the large open area had been transformed into a stark sand-and-sawdust covered arena. A short elliptical wall ran around the outer perimeter of the amphitheater floor, separating it from the seated audience. Along the wall at various intervals stood metal stands holding a wide array of weapons. At one of the narrow ends of the ellipse a large cage-like structure had been built; at the opposite end a gate, allowing entrance into the arena, had been constructed.



Jamie studied the layout. “I think...,” he began, but a blaring fanfare of trumpets cut him off mid-sentence.



A stirring among the crush of people caught the boys' attention and then, like a wave, the crowd began to rise. The emperor was making his entrance. It was difficult to see through the crowd, but after searching, they caught a ripple of movement. At its center was Enrick. Renaud, two steps behind, scanned the crowd with a ferocious intensity. Accompanied by his usual entourage the emperor, occasionally waving his gold and silver baton, slowly proceeded to one of the lower boxes that had been chosen for the supreme ruler of the planet. The imperial party quickly took their seats and got comfortable. Moments later, the low-throated resonance of the bell once more filled the amphitheater. The crowd quieted, the anthem of the empire was played, and the games were called to order.



As the crowd began to sit back down, distant drums began to beat out a steady cadence. Shouted orders, muffled by distance, could be heard, followed by the rhythmic thudding of marching feet. The drums grew louder, the gates to the arena swung open and into the amphitheater trooped a small squad of imperial troops.



Leading the troops were four officers astride matching black stallions. The horses, with their manes and tails carefully braided, were groomed to perfection and outfitted in the finest tack and saddle Jamie had ever seen.  The troops following the officers were attired in their best ceremonial dress. A line of drummers brought up the rear, their loud, brash rhythm increasing until the air fairly vibrated with their sound.



No sooner had the drummers entered the arena then a great cheer erupted from the crowd. Jamie and his friends craned their necks while moving back and forth on their feet trying to get a better view. Seconds later they were rewarded when an army of Gahdar marched into the arena. Leading the young warriors strode Niklas von Agramon attired in his finest battle dress, rumored to have been a personal gift bestowed on the gladiator by the emperor. Immediately behind Nic came Miro and David, the emperor’s own duet. Grinning, waving and posturing as they entered, the resplendently clad Duet Lizard made a point of living up to their reputation by engaging in a brief duel while never breaking the cadence of the march, no doubt to amuse both the crowd and their imperial patron. After a quick glance from Nic the boys desisted and continued marching behind their leader. Following Miro and David came the remaining Gahdar. Forming five rows of twenty boys each, they marched in perfect precision. With armor, swords, shields, helmets and an assortment of wicked looking battle kit glinting in the sun, the young men looked like the devil’s own army.



The Gahdar continued their march until they reached the center of the arena and halted. The officers on horseback made a circle, exiting the gate they’d entered. The honor guard of troops and drummers took positions at measured intervals around the wall and stood at parade rest. Standing before the royal box the Gahdar remained at attention. Enrick rose from his seat and held his hand high up in the air. Nic drew his sword and the army of boys behind him quickly followed suit. Then, raising their weapons, the boys saluted the emperor, dropped to one knee and bowed their heads. Nodding acknowledgement of the Gahdar’s salute, Enrick rapidly dropped his hand to formally begin the spectacle. A roar rose from the crowd, the Gahdar scattered to fixed positions and the games began.



“This is so exciting!” Lucas, bouncing in his seat, reached out and gripped Jamie’s hand. “I can’t wait to see them fight.”



Jamie, holding on to Lucas' soft warm hand and knowing what to expect, remained silent.



Looking down at the imperial box, he caught a brief glimpse of Renaud. The Angel of Death was standing stiffly behind the emperor, looking out into the arena. Jamie shuddered when he thought of his last conversation with the imperial bodyguard. Not daring to tell Niklas of Renaud’s revelation, he’d fought the pull of the Icarian mating bond with all his might when he’d been in Nic’s presence. Had his mate discovered his deception, Jamie had no doubt that instead of performing for the emperor, the empire’s premiere gladiator would even now be climbing into the imperial box to personally slice open the throat of the head of House Blackwell.



The absolute strength of the Icarian bond could have disastrous effects when severed or breached. For a few terrifying seconds Jamie wondered if Enrick, or maybe Loka, had discovered his Intention to Mate with Niklas or maybe even the fact that the boys had secretly mated. As much as he wished he could have confided in Nic, he knew that the matter was something he alone would have to deal with. Almost as quickly as the thought had entered his mind, he was able to push it aside. If his plan worked it wouldn’t matter anyway, and if it didn’t, they’d all be dead. The moment they’d all been waiting for was now only one day away.



“A sa lav a deah,” Jamie whispered softly under his breath.



“Why are you wishing yourself calm skies?” Lucas asked when his ears picked up the Icarian Jamie had uttered. Like many phrases in the Icarian language the expression was tied to flight. A’llora, tarv’on, the Icarian greeting of hello or good day, translated into commonwealth standard literally meant ‘may you have good air or wind.’ Sa lav a deah was the Icarian equivalent of good luck.



The ringing of the bell followed by the announcement of the first match shook him out of his fretful trance and he looked on as three Gahdar duets followed by sixteen fearsome looking thrones entered the arena.



“That’s Artimus and Aaron, Duet Asp,” Jeremy pointed with enthusiasm at one of the fighting teams, “They helped us set up the Battlecom the day we visited them.”



“There’s Duet Falcon,” Yves began gesturing toward the second team. “I think they’re names are Cicero and Augustus, but I don’t know the other two.”



“Cato and West,” Jamie turned and met the eager anticipation in his friends faces. “They form Duet Ghost.”



The bell tolled to signal the start of the first match which was usually considered a warm up round for the fighters and the crowds. Weapons flashed, swords clanged and within a few minutes after it began, the fight was over. Surrounded by the bodies of sixteen slain thrones, the three duets took their bows as the crowd cheered its approval.



During the height of the fighting Jamie sat quietly, intent on watching the Duets performance. At Castle Rood he’d viewed the games as a spectator, now his thoughts were focused on the future and the army that he and Nic would have to lead. Without even trying, his concentration narrowed as he grew oblivious to everything around him except for the struggle that played out on the arena floor below. It was only after it was over that he felt the vice-like grip of Lucas' hand. Tugging to extricate himself, he stopped when he saw the reactions of his friends. Ashen-faced, the boys of Trio Chrysalis displayed varying expressions of shock and horror.



“They... killed them,” Jeremy’s strained voice barely rose above a whisper.



“No, it’s worse than that,” Yves croaked as he watched the blood soaked, dismembered bodies of the thrones drug from the arena. “They slaughtered them.”



Lucas, still clutching Jamie’s hand, remained silent, but to Jamie the horrified look in his eyes spoke volumes.



“Welcome to the world of the Gahdar,” Jamie’s steady gaze met those of his friends. “Welcome to the world of the slave.”



Jamie’s words were greeted with silence as his friends sat numbly and stared blankly ahead.



More matches followed. The carnage continued as the body count mounted. When the pajama clad little boys of Duet Spider, clutching their gleaming, curved swords quickly dispatched ten hulking thrones the crowd went wild, and Jamie watched as his friends' faces seemed to turn a pale shade of green. Looking as if they were ready to expel the lunch they’d eaten earlier in the day Lucas, Yves and Jeremy sat stiff and still, appearing more like wax figures than the flesh and blood boys they were.



Jamie felt an unexpected breeze. Coming up the delta from the coast, it carried the faint smell of the distant sea. Its scent was fresh and invigorating and when Jamie finally noticed some movement from his friends, he could see that it had helped to revive them.



“I don’t think...” Jeremy tried to speak, but found he couldn’t continue.



“You don’t have to stay,” Jamie sent his friends a sympathetic look of compassion; his voice tinged with a tone of understanding. “I know it’s horrible and shocking. It will only get worse.”



Jeremy and Yves stood up from their seats, preparing to leave. Lucas, still seated, once more took Jamie’s hand.



“Aren’t you coming?” Yves gave Lucas a puzzled frown.



“No.” Lucas, still pale faced and trembling, gripped Jamie’s hand even tighter. The prince’s words had suddenly cut into him like a knife and a look of understanding dawned on his face. It was a gesture not unnoticed by his two dance partners. “I’m staying with Jamie.” he replied softly. “Nic’s going to be fighting.”



Jeremy and Yves first looked at each other, before turning to Lucas and Jamie. Suddenly grasping the full meaning of Lucas' words, the realization dawned on them that while the boy they called their friend could only sit and watch, Nic, Jamie’s Nic, would be facing a similar and deadly trial. So, although heart-sick over what they’d so far witnessed, both boys resumed their seats. Jamie stared silently at his three friends, amazed at their courage and deeply grateful for the solidarity of these three boys who, years before, had so kindly befriended him.



Moments later the animal acts began as the specially trained, animal fighting Duet Lion entered the arena and began killing a variety of beaten, starved and half mad wild animals.



“Do these people really think this is sport?” Lucas hissed angrily as he watched a wild plains cat being dismembered. Jamie was about to speak, but stopped when the approving roar of the crowd appeared to have answered Lucas' question.



After the carnage from the animal acts was disposed of and more sand and sawdust sprinkled over the worst of the blood darkened sand, the tolling of the bell stirred the friends from their thoughts and they looked on as Duet Lizard, accompanied by wild shouts of acclaim from the crowd, entered the arena. No sooner did the smiling twins acknowledge the emperor and the crowd than what looked like an army of thrones entered the arena. The cheers of the crowd died out, replaced by gasps and expressions of shocked surprise



“A demi-toon.” Immediately Jamie’s friends picked up the shocked surprise in their friend's voice.



“What’s that?” Yves' questioning eyes met Jamie’s.



“A Toon is fifty, a demi is one half of that, a full twenty-five.”



“Twenty-five against two!” Jeremy gasped and quickly averted his eyes beginning to feel sorry he’d agreed to remain.



Without pause or hesitation, the thrones advanced rapidly. Miro and David jogged to meet them. In seconds the duet went blade to blade with their opponents, and Jamie watched in macabre fascination as the dance of death played out before his eyes. Unlike previous encounters, the twins were all business. Not once did they pause in their work. Gone were their glib expressions, their playful swordsmanship, and their posturing to the crowd. Like two rabid jackals from the jaws of hell, the two boys fought as if they were an unstoppable juggernaut of death. Their cold, icy expressions mirrored the efficiency with which they slaughtered their opponents. Even the crowd ceased cheering as Throne after Throne perished under the sharp flashing steel of the two brothers. It was like watching a skilled and experienced butcher efficiently carving a carcass of beef. A shudder raced up Jamie’s spine as he finally understood the nature of the army his pa’amore had placed in his hands.



Seconds after their contest was over, the boys calmly jogged back to the imperial box, where they bowed to the emperor. Throwing down two small, carved batons, Enrick stood and with a face-splitting grin, applauded his personal duet. The crowd rose from their seats and added their acclaim to that of their ruler, creating a deafening roar of shouting and applause. Returning to their playful mood, the grinning twins engaged in an impromptu sword fight, to the delight of their patron.



After Duet Lizard’s match an intermission was called, and the boys rose from their seats to stretch.



“I never want to do this again,” a grim faced Jeremy told his friends.



“You may never have the chance to do it again.” Upon seeing Jamie’s knowing look, his three friends nodded.



The intermission was brief, and the crowd quickly retook their seats. The bell rang out, but instead of Nic appearing alone, as Jamie’d expected him, the gladiator entered the arena followed by all fifty-one of the duets.



“Oh my word, is it really possible?” Daron's question and excited tone caused Jamie to turn. The look he saw on the industrialist's face was a combination of heady excitement and joyful bliss as the industrialist watched the warrior boys enter the arena.



Catching Jamie’s eye Daron started to speak, but stopped when an announcement was broadcast throughout the arena:



“To honor our glorious emperor on the occasion of the fiftieth year of his birth, the Gahdar of Castle Rood will fight a Battle Royale.”



At the end of the announcement, the crowd roared and cheered. Jamie watched the look on Daron’s face turn beatific. “A Battle Royale. That wasn’t on the program,” he gleefully cried, “and we’re all so lucky to witness it.”



Jamie frowned, and a strong feeling of anger welled up inside him. He knew full well what a Battle Royale entailed. Why hadn’t Nic told him that one was planned? Suddenly he didn’t feel so bad about hiding his own secret from his mate.



“What’s a Battle Royale?” At Jeremy’s question Jamie turned to see three inquisitive faces staring back at him.



“Only the most dangerous, terrifying, and exciting performance the Gahdar can enter into!” Daron preempted Jamie’s reply. “Every Gahdar joined together, an army if you will, battling for their lives.”



Thinking they’d already seen the worst with Miro and David’s performance the faces of Jamie’s three friends fell. Daron and those around him on the other hand were like children turned loose in a candy shop. Laughing, joking and pounding each other on the back, the rich industrialists taking up most of the box looked like pampered and excited little boys vicariously experiencing danger at the expense of others.



The expectant crowd took their seats and watched with eager anticipation as all of the Gahdar gathered at one end of the arena. Once in place they stood quietly, awaiting their fate. Their wait was short, for soon the sound of pounding feet could be heard, and the ground began to rumble when into the arena jogged an army of Thrones. Their numbers were vast and Jamie was surprised they could all fit into the confined space of the arena, but when many of them took to the air, Jamie had a good idea what was about to occur.



“At least three prime-Toons.” Jamie had begun counting soon after the thrones entered the arena. Seeing the questioning look on his friends' faces, he elaborated. “A Toon is fifty, a demi is half of that, and a prime is a double Toon, or one hundred thrones. I can’t count them all, but there has to be over three hundred of them.”



The Thrones quickly got into position. They looked invincible. Turning toward the Gahdar, Jamie witnessed a curious thing. All the gladiators were grouped together and each was down on one knee, save Niklas who stood tall in front of them. As Jamie watched, it was clear that Nic was leading the boy warriors in some type of chant. Although he couldn’t hear what they were saying, Jamie could see the grim and determined looks on their faces. Even Miro and David, joining the others in the mantra, had put their antics aside and were as serious as Jamie’d ever seen the twins. When the young men were finished they arose one pair at a time, first speaking to each other and then, one by one they approached Nic. Gripping both Nic’s arms, each boy kissed the Baron of Rood on each cheek, and Niklas reciprocated. It was quite an unusual sight, but even during their overt display of devotion, every boy remained stoically calm and stone-faced.



The normally raucous crowd had fallen unusually quiet, exhibiting great patience throughout the ritual. This was obviously something they’d encountered before.



“What are they doing?” Jeremy was giving Jamie an inquisitive frown.



“I don’t know,” Jamie shrugged.



“I think something bad is going to happen,” and Lucas once more reached out and tightly clutched Jamie’s hand.



When the ceremony was complete the gladiators massed behind Nic who, while obviously taking the measure of the situation, simply stood and calmly surveyed his opponents. By now, the silence of the arena was broken only by the occasional gust of wind blowing through the great amphitheater. After a few minutes of concentration, Nic turned and said a few words to the Gahdar. Seconds later the boys were scrambling. At first the gladiators appeared to bunch together, but then they began to move into formation. David and Miro, Julius and his secundi Jannus from Duet Storm, along with Gray and Nicoli, the primi and secundi of Duet Viper and the pajama clad Yvan and Yann of Duet Spider joined Nic. Jamie remembered that Nic had told him those four duets were by far the best of the best, an assessment that he confirmed when he accessed The Screen to do a quick review of the latest scores from Rood. Nic gave a shout and the boys who had been lining up in rows behind him began to stroke their wings.



Jamie looked on as a curious thing began to happen. First, all of the gladiators except the small group Nic had called to himself removed whatever footwear they were wearing. Then taking to the air in the same row formation they’d made on the ground, the Gahdar beat their wings furiously as they began to hover. The strength required for such a strenuous move was impressive, but what occurred next was even more so, for the rows began to stack themselves one on top of the other and the crowd, unable to contain themselves or maintain their silence, burst into cheers. Most surprising of all was that each row of boys dangled their feet above the boy below them. Eventually every gladiator, save those on the bottom row, had their feet firmly secured into the underarms of the boy directly below them. They looked like interlocking pieces of a puzzle. Though more amazing was the fact that the hands of each boy now free were holding swords, a sword and dagger, or a sword and spear in each hand.



“The Gates of Hell!” Daron's shouts sounded like those of a giddy schoolboy. “Look, they’ve formed The Gates of Hell.”



Jamie turned to stare at the older man. A vein pulsed in his forehead and he was flushed bright red. It looked like Daron was almost ready to explode.



“This is unbelievable!” Daron could scarcely speak, forcing out the words as he addressed his friends.



“What’s happening?” Jamie’s emotions were a mixture of curiosity, surprise and fear. He’d never heard Nic discuss such a thing.



“It’s a formation called the Gates of Hell,” a corpulent, balding man who appeared older, and much calmer,  than Daron offered. “It's a tactic created by The Baron himself. They say they practiced it for a year before they got it right. It was presented a few months ago at Rood, but since then it's not been repeated. Those who missed it are still kicking themselves for not being there.”



To Jamie the formation of Gahdar looked more like a flexible fence than an impenetrable wall. It had lots of give due to the flexibility and superior articulation of upper bodies and the legs of the gladiators forming the structure. Although he knew he’d be seeing the expected carnage, his inquisitive mind couldn’t help wondering just how the tactic would work. He didn’t have to wait for long: the amphitheater bell boomed out three deep sonorous rings and the match was on.



Immediately the army of Thrones roared and ran to the attack. Nic and the four Duets took to the air and met the first wave, but while they fought hard, killing or disabling more than a few, Jamie quickly began to see that the tactics they used were more like a pack of wild plains dogs chivvying a herd of sheep than a straight up attack. Using the collective, hive mentality of the Thrones, Nic and the four Duets were able to bunch them up and begin driving them against the Gates of Hell formation. Jamie looked on as the first group of Thrones met the wall of Gahdar. It was like watching chunks of meat being fed into a grinder.



Gahdar were bred to be ambidextrous, and rigorously trained as such. Long hours of practice and countless drills assured equal skill no matter which arm wielded a weapon. As the Thrones attacked, some of the boys fought with two swords, others with sword and dagger, while a few simply tossed their swords back and forth between their hands. The carnage that followed was beyond description, and Jamie’s only thought was how aptly named The Gates of Hell truly was: like demons unleashed from the netherworld, the Gahdar fought with a white-hot ferocity that might have surpassed a battle legion from the darkest pits of hell.



The more they fought, the uglier it got. Rivers of blood, dismembered bodies, the dead and the dying littered the arena floor until it appeared the sand and sawdust could no longer absorb the precious red liquid. Half way through the contest Jamie, now slumped in his seat put his hands over his face.



The battle took time. Even the Gahdar couldn’t quickly dispatch over three prime-Toons. However, the contest, no Jamie thought, it's not a contest, it's an event, moved along steadily and eventually the foe was vanquished. The crowd roared and roared approval. The wall of warrior boys disassembled, then joined Nic and the four Duets on the floor of the arena, spacing themselves between piles of Throne bodies.



The arena crowd, along with the emperor and his entourage, were on their feet shouting and applauding. Then, when the announcement was made that Niklas von Agramon, the Baron of Rood, had maintained his perfect no-kill record while still taking down twenty-seven thrones, the applause grew even louder. Finally the cheers subsided and the emperor bestowed his praise on the boys. Nic received a baton, Miro and David received a second baton and signets from the crowd rained down on the army of Gahdar. The Gahdar left the arena, the emperor and his party headed for an exit and the crowd began to disperse. The event was over.



Still bent over in his seat, Jamie looked up when he felt a hand on his shoulder.



“Are you alright, Prince de Valèn?”  Jamie looked up into the face of Daron.



“Yes,” was all he could say.



Glancing about, he quickly saw that his three friends were gone. The box had already cleared and most of the arena was empty. Daron excused himself, leaving Jamie in his seat staring blankly down at the arena floor. Already teams of workers were beginning to remove the bodies. Sitting quietly he watched the disposal crews deal with the army of dead Thrones. He was so numb that he was beyond feeling as he observed the corpses of the slaughtered being stacked in carts like cordwood. Finally, save for a group of workers slowly climbing through the rows of seats sweeping and cleaning up a mountain of debris left by the crowd, no one was left in the amphitheater. Rising from his seat, Jamie scanned the arena one final time. He was weary and depressed. He felt as if he’d spent the entire afternoon staring into the eyes of death. His steps were slow and labored as he walked from the arena.



For months, he’d studied the art of war. With the help of Charlie, he’d analyzed and dissected battle after battle throughout the history of the Commonwealth. Now, seeing its effects, he finally understood. It had nothing to do with art; it all came down to who was willing and able to be the better butcher. He began to shiver and tears came to his eyes, for in that moment he knew that in order to win his war, he would have to be that better butcher. Disgusted with himself he left the arena, stumbling along with a dull numbness blunting his senses.



Once outside the arena, he dismissed the small hov that had been waiting for him and began the long walk back to the palace. The late afternoon breezes that had earlier begun to roll in off the delta plain were growing in strength. As he walked along, he marveled at the beauty of the city, an almost surreal contrast to the carnage he’d only just witnessed.



A strong, warm gust of air wafted over him, causing his feathers to flutter. Pausing, he looked around, then tilted his head back to look up into the sky. Without caring if anyone saw him, he stroked his wings and headed for the sky. Lost in thought, he soared high and began to ride the thermal currents. Looking down at the vast sprawling metropolis, he wondered what it would look like in a hundred years. He wondered if he, himself, would survive to see it again.



After a time he ceased his endless soaring and let the wind sweep him away, toward the palace. Passing over the large, imposing structure, he touched down at the edge of the cutting garden and walked into the Gahdar camp. The boys had just returned from bathing and relaxing in the warrior’s spa, and most of them were sitting or standing about in casual groups.



Passing through the camp, Jamie occasionally received a shout or wave from one of the young men and although not feeling very sociable, he returned their greetings. He was amazed that after such a performance they could react with such casual nonchalance. Arriving at Nic’s tent, he paused at its entrance when he saw that Miro and Julius were already inside. His caution was unnecessary, for the moment he stood before the small campaign tent, the shadow he cast caused all three boys to look up.



“Jamie?” Nic rose from where he’d been sitting, concern written large on his face.



Nic’s firm yet soft-sounding voice carried a note of hesitation, and it was clear that Nic could sense Jamie’s mood. Wearing a loose and simple tunic with a plain rope cinch, the Gahdar appeared relaxed and at ease. It struck Jamie as almost unbelievable that only hours before his mate had been in a battle for his life. After a few seconds of staring into Jamie’s eyes and appraising the mood of his pa’amore, Nic remained still, waiting for Jamie. Both boys remained silent. To an outsider, they might have appeared to just be staring at each other, but that was far from true.



Their bond was growing. They could both feel it. The fact that Jamie was able to touch his pa’amore’s mind made it even stronger. Without breaking eye contact, the prince slowly walked toward his mate. At such close range, the bond felt almost like electricity arcing between them. Once he was face to face with Niklas, Jamie reached out. Nic took the boy in his arms and held him while Jamie hugged Niklas von Agramon with ferocious intensity, far tighter than he’d ever done before.



“It’s ok,” Nic whispered as he returned Jamie’s hug and gently stroked the boy’s soft blond hair.



No Nic, Jamie thought. It will never be ok.



“Maybe we should leave,” Julius suggested, beginning to rise from the stool he was sitting on.



No.” Jamie released his hold on Nic and turned to face Julius. “I came to see if all of you are ready for tomorrow.”



“Oh, we’re ready,” Miro grinned. “I just finished sharpening my favorite sword.” Jamie noticed a short sword and whetstone laying on Nic’s cot.



“Back in the changing room, while we were washing up, one of the Kalorian attendants pulled me aside,” Nic offered. “He had some information for me.”



“Oh?” Jamie cocked his head and focused his attention on his mate.



“As you know, tomorrow we'll break camp. It will take most of the morning. We’ll eat one final meal in the mess tent and then, once everything’s secure, we’ll be taken to the military drop zone outside the city. By then I think it will be late afternoon. The same hov that brought us will be there to return us to Piropolis. The Kalorian told me there’d be a standard Kalorian crew there, loading the freight. He told me what to expect. We’re scheduled to lift off a short time before you and your friends begin your performance. Once we’re in the air, the plan begins.”



“I can’t believe I’ve never asked any of you this…” Jamie looked from Nic to Miro and Julius, “but do you all know how to use ghosters?”



At Jamie’s question, the pained look Miro shot the prince was answer enough. Then, as if to underscore his reaction to Jamie’s question, Miro silently pointed to a fly crawling on the blanket of Nic’s field cot. He gave the field bed a slight kick, and the fly took off, headed for the opening of the tent. The second it reached the open flap there was a soft crack and Jamie saw a micro flash evaporate the tiny insect. Turning in the direction of the shot, Jamie was surprised to see Miro holding a tiny ghoster.



“A personal gift from the emperor.” The droll look on Miro’s face left nothing more to be said, as the primi half of Duet Lizard lifted the edge of his short tunic and slid the weapon into a small pouch close to his hip.” “Just because we don’t fight with them in the arena doesn’t mean we don’t know how to use them.”



“Sorry,” Jamie softly replied.



Ignoring the exchange Nic continued, “When our mission to Stone Gate is finished we meet at Angel’s Fall."



“I’ll be there,” Jamie replied, “just make sure you wait for me.”



“I thought you were going to be waiting for us?” Julius' brow creased.



“I will. I’m just saying that in case I’m late; don’t think I won’t make it. No matter what, I need to be there to open the gate.”



Recovered from the veiled insult Jamie had unintentionally thrown at him, Miro’s smile grew bright. “Now that’s a sight I can’t wait to see. A little boy like you…”



“I’ll take care of my part.” Jamie, placing a hand on his hip leaned forward and glared at Miro. “Just make sure you take care of yours.”



The grin left Miro’s face. “Just don’t forget I’m coming back for Philippe.”



“Of course,” Nic replied.



“I have to get back to the palace,” Jamie added. “Trio Chrysalis and I are doing our dress rehearsal and then we’re having a quiet supper in our quarters, well, as quiet as anything is with those three. We all have to appear to be acting as normally as possible. We can’t arouse any suspicions now. At this stage, it would mean our doom.”



All three of the Gahdar voiced their agreement.



Preparing to leave Nic’s tent Jamie noticed a short piece of ribbon laying on the tiny table next to his cot. Picking it up, he noticed there was a small, circular, flat piece of metal attached to it.



“A signet,” Nic replied anticipating his question. “Thrown down from the crowd.”



“I didn’t think you kept them.”



“I don’t. Somehow it must have slipped into my armor when it was thrown. It fell on the floor when I was undressing. When we left the spa, I picked it up and put it in my pocket.”



“Can I have it?”



“It has no value, Jamie,” Nic shrugged, “but if you want it, take it.”



Tugging at the signet, Jamie pulled the piece of metal from the ribbon, returned the ribbon to the table and pocketed the small disk.



Stepping outside the tent, both boys paused. For a few seconds they looked at each other in silence.



“This is the last time we'll see each other until…”



“Yes,” Jamie stopped Nic from saying any more.



Taking Jamie in his arms, Nic kissed the dancer with a force and vigor Jamie had never yet experienced. After a few moments their lips parted.



Backing away from Nic, Jamie raised their still entwined hands to his face and laid the back of his mate's hand against his cheek, then turned his face and kissed the back of Nic's hand. With a last tremulous smile, Jamie pulled away his hand.



“Good luck…” Nic began, but then stopped when he saw Jamie’s eyebrows drop and a frown came to his pa’amore’s face. “Sorry,’ his voice dropped to a whisper, when he remembered Jamie’s long lecture on how superstitious dancers were, and how wishing a dancer actual good luck was more a curse than a wish of good fortune.



Merde,” Nic replied softly, and he smiled a little as he saw Jamie's face relax.



Merde,” Jamie nodded, and his lips twitched up into the tiniest of smiles.



Then turning on his heel he strode from the camp, not once looking back. Nic stood before the entrance of his tent and watched his mate walk away. With his arms crossed he continued to watch Jamie until the prince vanished from sight.



“Smile.” Nic felt a hand slap his back and turned to see Miro grinning at him. “This is going to be great.”



Shaking his head, Nic ducked into his tent and Miro, surprised by his friend's reaction, looked completely nonplussed as its flap dropped shut.