With some regret Hippolito Corcorian cantered his stallion into the stableyard and reined to a halt in front of the paddock. It had been a beautiful morning, and he really did enjoy riding. Still, he reflected, it is a fact that certain necessities must come before pleasure, and in one smooth motion he swung his leg over and hopped down from the saddle.
“Antonio,” he called out, and a young Kalorian stablehand appeared and took the reins that Hippolito handed him. Sparing barely a glance for him, Hippolito turned away from the young man, strode out of the stableyard and walked swiftly down a wet, rather muddy path that cut through one of the lower terraced gardens of the estate. After running up a series of stairways, he arrived at the rear of the small palace that Archduke Savaron Loka called his winter home.
Entering the palace, Hippolito immediately headed to his suite – a comfortable set of rooms on the third floor of the villa. In his sitting room, he pulled a boot jack from the closet. Setting the Y-shaped device on the floor, Hippolito slipped the heel of his boot into the mouth of the jack, and then stood on the back end of the jack with his other foot as he pulled his foot free of the confining boot. After repeating the process with the second boot, he unbuttoned his suede leather riding vest, dropped it on the floor and sat on a nearby stool in his shirtsleeves.
Rotating his ankles while wiggling his toes, he enjoyed the relief of being released from the confines of the tight footwear. Looking down at the castoff boots, he noticed that they were caked with mud. Glancing at the discarded boot jack he could see that it too was smeared with mud, and flecks of dirt peppered the floor on the spot where he’d used it. When his eyes retraced his route, he noted an evenly spaced trail of muddy footprints across the parquet marking his path into the room. Shrugging to himself, he bent down and began to peel off his socks, knowing that his Kalorian attendant would clean up the mess – why else would one bother with servants?
After removing his socks, he tossed them aside and stood. Striding toward his bedroom, the slight coolness of the polished wooden floor felt good against his bare feet. In his room, he unbuttoned his shirt. It was damp with sweat and he quickly discarded it. He unbuckled his belt but didn't bother pulling it out of his pants, as there were people who attended to those sorts of things. As he stripped off his riding britches, he paused as he caught sight of his reflection in one of the mirrors decorating the room: bent over, with his pants around his knees and just his small clothes covering his nakedness. It was a sight that many in the Empire would give a great deal to see, he thought with honest self-appraisal. Yet it would only be appreciated by a very few, for his favors must be saved for the most important encounters, as his patron had told him many times. No pearls before swine, and no favors before their time. Approaching the mirror, he examined his own image in its polished surface with a dispassionate and objective eye.
His tall, slender body had the perfect amount of definition without being overly muscular. Hours of riding, fencing and dancing all contributed to his healthy physical appearance. The unusual coloration of his beautiful wings was singular and unique among Avionnes. That point, along with the fact that Gold Glass had designed him to be strikingly handsome only confirmed his opinion: he was the most attractive Avionne he knew. Women always ogled him. Men often threw him envious looks, or outright ogled him as well. There was only one Avionne he could think of who cut a more striking appearance – Jamie de Valèn. While that fact intrigued him, he couldn’t quite suppress niggling feelings of envy and jealousy. Hippolito didn’t relish second place, but when one combined the talent of the de Valèn boy with his looks and intelligence, Hippolito sometimes felt he ran a distinct third or fourth in the overall ranking of beauty, brains and talent. He pushed these dark thoughts aside and reflected on other things, for lately he’d begun to speculate what kind of progeny a union of their genetic traits might produce, his and those of the young de Valèn boy.
Stripping off his remaining undergarments, Hippolito headed for the private bath in his chambers.
And although he enjoyed soaking in the warm, gently steaming water for a few minutes, he didn’t linger. He was to accompany his patron to a costume ball at the Imperial Palace and Hippolito knew from experience that the Archduke, always keen on punctuality, wouldn’t appreciate waiting for him if he dallied. Climbing out of the bath Hippolito took a quick shower, then toweled off and returned to his room, where his servant had laid out his undergarments on the bed. Neatly arranged on a nearby dressing table was his costume for the ball.
He plan was to attend the ball dressed as a cavalier from an ancient epoch on the home world. After pulling on his small clothes, Hippolito approached his dressing table and picked up the first item – a white silk shirt with wrists finished in wide, lace cuffs – and began to dress. The colors of the velvet and satin costume were a riot of burgundy, sapphire-blue, crimson, purple, brown, and black. As he slipped into each piece of clothing he was pleased at how the soft folds of every element naturally fell into place; he left the few wrinkles that formed, remembering from his research that the proper dress of the period he’d chosen strove for a style that might be referred to as studied negligence – to look as though one spent no time at all on one's appearance, when in actuality it took a great deal of preparation to look so artlessly unkempt.
After donning breeches and boot hose with white, lace-bordered tops, he picked up the costume's next element which was a pleated rabat – a broad, soft collar of fine white linen edged with lace, to be worn outside his jacket – and began to put it on. Once the rabat was in place he crossed the room and retrieved a richly embroidered jacket from a nearby clothes stand, slipped it on, and pulling out the ends of the rabat he made sure its broad, white band lay flat against the outside of his jacket.
Before he turned to cross the room and recheck his appearance in the mirror, Hippolito lifted a soft, wide-brimmed hat from where it hung on one of the pegs of the clothes stand. It was decorated with a jeweled, broach-like medallion at the fore and an extravagant plume of feathers sprouted from its wide band. Standing before the mirror he scrutinized his image and, after a through and critical examination, approved the appearance of the boy staring back at him. A pair of black leather, thick-heeled shoes that sported engraved, silver buckles were arranged next to the clothes stand, and carefully he slid a hose-clad foot into each shoe smiling when he experienced the extra inch of height they gave him. He was just about to try on the hat when a flash of movement caught his eye. In the mirror’s reflection, he saw the Archduke standing in the doorway.
“Aren’t we the peacock?” Savaron Loka mused, and Hippolito was sure he caught a twinkle in his master's eye.
Hippolito’s eyes rose to seek out those of the Archduke reflected in the mirror, and then he turned around. “You don’t approve?” Hippolito’s brow creased as his lips began to pout.
“I do approve. Completely.”
The pout was immediately replaced by a smile. “I did a lot of research to put this costume together.”
“And my Kalorian seamstress almost went blind working the embroidery,” the Archduke’s eyes scanned the boy with a critical gaze. Approaching the prince Loka took hold of Hippolito’s arm; lifting it closer to his face, the Archduke examined the jacket’s sleeve. “Are those really hummingbirds and honey bees?”
“The honey bee is on the imperial coat of arms,” Hippolito replied, giving the Archduke a cheeky grin. “They’re a symbol of industriousness. And since the hummingbird is a favorite of the Empress, I thought...”
“You don’t have to educate me on the totems and habits of the Imperial Court, little boy. I cut my teeth on palace intrigue, and the capricious whims of House Blackwell long before any of your kind were ever thought of – let alone decanted.” The archduke released his ward's arm and stepped back.
“Of course.” Hippolito bowed gracefully, then giving Savaron Loka a coy smile he added, “Everything I know I’ve learned from my master.”
“And I don’t need your breezy flattery.” Loka frowned. “Save it for the Emperor’s party guests. I’ll be interested to hear what you’re able to learn.”
“I’ll keep you fully informed – don’t I always?”
“That you do, Prince Hippolito. It’s what has gotten you this far.”
Hippolito, while remaining silent, gave a slight nod of acknowledgement.
“I’ll meet you downstairs in fifteen minutes,” Loka said as he headed toward the door. “It will take far less time for me to get into my costume than it took for you to get into yours,” and then he was gone. Seconds later he was back, standing squarely in Hippolito’s doorway.
“You haven’t told me much about your new little friend. What have you learned?”
“The dancer?” Hippolito asked.
“Don’t play coy with me. You say that as if he’s nothing more than a current amusement. He’s a prince, and more of an aristocrat than the entirety of the Blackwell clan combined. Unlike Loran, he’s a true de Valèn – the genetic profile proved that. I don’t know how Croal was able to pull it off, but he just about recreated The Founder with a ninety-six percent genetic match. That honeybee you’re so keen to sport on that pretty little jacket comes from House de Valèn – House Blackwell added it to their crest to show their continuation of the de Valèn line, which is a complete and utter fiction. And that dancer, as you call him, is slated to become the scribe of his brother’s house, and heir apparent. If things don’t work out with Loran and Alexander he’ll be on the seraphic throne while his mate, by default, becomes king. What part of that is new information to you?”
The smile on Hippolito’s face vanished.
“Now, what have you learned from him so far?” Loka repeated his earlier question.
“Nothing of interest.” The boy’s eyes cast downward, and a defensive tone crept into Hippolito’s voice.
“Then dig deeper. His first cortical scan showed nothing, and it was done at Gold Glass with the latest equipment; nothing save a spy tampering with the machine could have caused a false result. But after I received his complete genetic profile I had him retested five more times under a variety of conditions and found nothing. I was forced to accept those findings until I learned what he’s planned for the Emperor’s birthday celebration.
Loka took one step into the Hippolito’s room; his eyes rivited on Hippolito as he pointed a finger at his ward. “He found a completely new material, recognized it for the breakthrough it was and put it to good use, not to mention generating eight other marketable patents. I personally went to the Crystal Sphere with a team of engineers and examined the stage. None of them had ever seen anything like it. One of them told me that had the idea been presented to him in theory he wouldn’t have been able to stop laughing since it was so patiently ridiculous. I can assure you that he wasn’t laughing when he examined the structure. I smell a rat, and I plan to discuss it with the Emperor tomorrow during his daily briefing.”
Hippolito looked up and began to speak, but stopped when he realized that the Archduke was gone. Still feeling the tension in the air he turned back to the mirror and tried on the hat he’d been holding. Placing it on his head, he adjusted it and then continued to fuss with his costume in an attempt to clear his head – it didn’t work.
He knew he’d have to dig deeper and see what he could discover. He’d risen very far and wasn’t about to risk losing everything he’d worked so hard to achieve. Looking back at his reflection in the mirror, he examined the face and body that his creator – Artemus Corcorian at Gold Glass – had given him. It was also from Corcorian that he’s received his name – one of the privileges allowed any research scientist who brought an Avionne embryo to full term. He knew the story by heart. Loka had revealed it to him after he’d been working in the Duke’s household for a time.
Gold Glass had been experimenting with Avionne genetics for so long that there wasn’t anything they wouldn’t try – even things that might be considered curious whims. Avionne embryos were created to test strength, coordination, endurance, and enhanced senses, in various combinations and using countless variables. Most products of such experiments weren’t viable. If they didn’t perish on their own, they were immediately destroyed, but occasionally one with promise would emerge. Hippolito began life within the most inauspicious and least important area of Avionne research one could imagine – the search for beauty and eternal youth.
The potential for long life-spans among Avionnes had intrigued the empire – particularly the Emperor – for some time. If there were only a way for the scientists of the empire to do the same for humans it would be the greatest scientific discovery in the history of humanity – and would instantly generate vast control and power for the empire. But while Avionne longevity was being studied, investigation of a distant branch of the same field was ordered. What good was long life if one couldn’t retain their youthful appearance? So a study was undertaken to create and then sustain beauty, using the raw material of Avionne embryos.
A standard defining the parameters of beauty was created and approved. Embryos were grown to see how close to that defined standard of ecstatic perfection one could get, and if that perfection could be maintained and sustained over the lengthy span of an Avionne's life. Countless experiments were performed. Embryos were created and destroyed, but only one emerged that was deemed valuable enough to save for future study – the embryo that was allowed to mature into the boy that became Hippolito.
As he grew in his maturation tank, Hippolito was studied. That study continued after he was decanted, but after living at Gold Glass for a few years, it was decided that it would be best if he were allowed to partake of the everyday world to see what effects the ravages of time and the environment would have on him. So at the age of eight, Hippolito left Gold Glass. Numerous cortical scans had revealed that the boy was of average intelligence, with no exceptional talents or skills. He was, as many of the scientists attached to the project oft repeated in front of the young Avionne, just a pretty face. Without any remarkable abilities it was decided that he should be sent to Expedition and Service and trained as a house servant. He could still be observed, but at least he would perform some useful task.
Avionnes who didn’t exhibit any particular talents or who, like Hippolito, weren’t specifically created with any special skills went to Expedition and Service. Eventually, after training, they found their way into the Imperial household or the households of the upper nobility. More status symbols than servants, they were pretty pets whom their masters could showcase, thereby improving the social standing of their noble houses. Although young, Hippolito began his training in basic tasks – a broader mastery of skills would follow as he matured in the household where he was assigned. A number of noble houses were considered, including the Imperial residence itself, but since the Duke of Imperialas had recently been put in charge of the Avionne project, Hippolito was sent to Küronas to live and work in the winter home of Savaron Loka.
Dressed in the duke’s livery, the young boy was often given the task of helping the serving staff clear plates and silverware during dinners and banquets held by the duke, after which he’d assist in their cleaning and storage. In reality he was a bit younger than most Avionnes who graduated from the training school operated by Expedition and Service, but it was thought that an early entry into the Archduke’s household would start him on a path that would eventually take him all the way to major domo of Savaron Loka’s household, which it might have had not a curious event occurred that would radically change the course of the boy’s fate.
Since household servants were often ignored – fading into the background of an event like the furniture in a room – guests at private gatherings often spoke openly about issues and topics that, at best, might be considered sensitive. Discussions regarding finances, power, relationships, and sexual liaisons were often carried on under the noses of the household staff. Acts of indiscretion and dubious propriety were generally a part of aristocratic life, and servants were expected to conveniently ignore, overlook, and most importantly never mention or discuss them outside the walls of the estates of their toil.
By the time he was ten, Hippolito had been a part of the Duke’s household for two years and had progressed through his initial training without incident. On his tenth decant day, it was judged he was experienced enough to begin directly serving guests at Loka’s banquets and private dinners. Acting as wine bearer and cup filler he moved among the archduke’s dinner guests pouring beverages, replacing glasses and keeping anyone who wished, well-supplied with wine. If there was one commodity Savaron Loka’s household had an ample supply of, it was wine. A connoisseur of the beverage from the time he was a young man, Loka’s wine cellars at both his winter and summer palaces were said to rival the holdings of the Emperor himself; guests at his events could always count on experiencing some of the finest wines produced across the continent along with an amazing array from throughout the Commonwealth.
Because large quantities of wine were usually consumed at celebrations hosted by the archduke, and one of the side-effects of its consumption was often a loosened tongue, Hippolito heard many things said that were far from discreet and most likely wouldn’t have been mentioned had the speaker been a bit more sober.
At one such event, as he’d been refreshing champagne glasses, he’d overheard two of the guests talking about the archduke. The conversation was interesting and Hippolito lingered near the two men as they laughed and joked. As their talk continued one man moved closer to the ear of the other and softly offered up a few phrases in confidence, not noticing the young Avionne serving boy standing behind them.
The next morning Hippolito was instructed to take a tray to his master’s bedroom. As he stepped into the archduke’s bedchamber, he carefully checked that Loka was still asleep. Following his instructions he placed the tray on a nearby table, drew back the drapes, and opened the window since he knew his master enjoyed the fresh smell of a new day.
Once an ample amount of light began flooding into the room, Savaron Loka stirred. Turning his head he saw Hippolito tying back one of the drapery panels. Sitting up, Loka asked the boy to pour him a coffee and bring it to him. Hippolito quickly filled a coffee cup and, carefully balancing it on a saucer, carried it across the room to his master. The older man threw back the covers and swung his legs over the side of the bed even as he reached for the cup and saucer and took it from the boy.
“Will you be needing anything else, master?” Hippolito asked.
“No,” Loka replied still groggy from just awakening. “You may leave me.”
Without a word Hippolito returned to the one final unopened window in the archduke’s bedchamber, tied back the last set of drapes, and cracked open the window. Finished with his task, he headed to the door. But just as he was ready to leave, the Archduke called out to him. “Boy, come here and pay attention to what I tell you.”
Hippolito crossed the room and stood before the archduke.
“Do you know my personal secretary, Carrena?”
Nodding the boy replied softly, “Yes, your Excellency,”
“Good. Then go find her. Tell her that I plan to go to Gold Glass Flats and I want a hov ready and waiting for me in one hour. Then tell her to arrange a gate connection for me from there to Ajax Prime. I have a meeting with Josef Troon at Zennex. If she needs more information tell her to come here and I’ll supply her with any further details. Do you understand?”
“Repeat it back to me,” Loka commanded.
Hippolito did so, repeating word for word everything the archduke had said.
Pleased and impressed with the boy’s sense of recall, the archduke sent him on his way. When he reached the door Hippolito remembered something, and so hoping to appear efficient and please his master he turned around and addressed Loka. “Will you also be needing your money belt, master?”
“Will you be needing your money belt?” Hippolito repeated.
“Money belt? What are you talking about? I don’t have a money belt. And why would you ask such a thing?”
“Because last night at the party, one of the men said that every time you visited the Zennex Corporation on Ajax Prime you left with your money belt so stuffed you could hardly clasp it around your waist,” Hippolito replied innocently.
“What are you talking about?” Loka asked, frowning as he set down his coffee cup and saucer on a nearby bedside table.
Hippolito quickly told his master about the two men at the party and what he’d overheard.
The Archduke was intrigued both by the boy’s detailed description and his amazing recollection of the event. After Hippolito finished his account, Loka arose from his bed. Striding to the bedroom door, he ordered Hippolito to follow him. Further down the hall outside the archduke’s bedchamber, they came to a door leading to Loka’s private study and office. The archduke opened the door and waved the boy into the room. Immediately going to his desk, Loka sat and called Hippolito over to him. Seconds later, Loka was intently studying a data file that he’d begun to stream across his informatics screen.
“This is a list of the guests at last night's party,” Loka said as he studied the information on the screen.
After a few seconds he called up six names and the images of six men appeared on the screen.
“Were any of these men the ones you overheard talking last night?”
Hippolito took a step closer to the screen.
A moment later he was pointing at the screen. “That man and this man,” Hippolito said choosing two of the projected images.
“You’re sure, boy?”
Savaron Loka executed a few commands and four of the images disappeared from the screen while the two that Hippolito had chosen grew larger as a file of biographical information appeared under the image of each man.
Easing back in his chair, Loka studied the screen. After a few minutes he turned and began to study Hippolito as the focus of his examination went from the informatics screen to the boy standing to his right. Hippolito stood quietly under the critical gaze of his master. Pursing his lips, then exhaling forcefully Loka sat up in his chair and leaned forward.
Opening one of the desk drawers he took out a sheet of paper. Picking up a pen the archduke began to write. After a few minutes of writing, he set down his pen and picked up the sheet of paper. After silently reading it to himself, he folded it in half and then in quarters.
“Do you still remember that message I told you to deliver?” Loka asked once he’d finished folding the paper.
“Good,” Loka said, handing Hippolito the folded piece of paper. “After you relay my message to
Carenna, give this to her. Then follow her instructions.”
Hippolito nodded a second time.
“Now off with you.”
That small incident had been a serendipitous moment in the life of the boy, for less than an hour after relaying the archduke’s message and note to Savaron Loka’s secretary, Hippolito found himself strapped into a seat in the archduke’s hov for a trip to Gold Glass flats. Once they’d reached Gold Glass Hippolito, under the orders and direction of the archduke, underwent a rapidly administered series of tests. When they were finished he was taken to a small room and told to wait. After what seemed like a long time to the boy, Savaron Loka, accompanied by another man, entered the room.
“This is Jossen Raie,” the archduke said nodding in the direction of the man. “He has a few more tests he wants to conduct. When he’s finished, you’ll return to my residence.” Then without further explanation Loka turned on his heels and left the room.
Hippolito underwent the aforementioned tests and returned to the archduke’s palace, but from that day on his life changed.
Given a lovely suite on the third floor of the palace, Hippolito went from household servant to a spy-in-training. Following a plan devised by the archduke Hippolito began his studies, and a group of teachers and tutors was assembled to work with the boy.
Hippolito was given countless exercises to strengthen his memory. Lessons in speech, poise, deportment and court etiquette were added. Physical training, classes in art and culture, along with the gentlemanly skills of dancing, riding, and fencing followed. By the time he was sixteen years old by the commonwealth standard, he not only was accompanying his master to fetes, balls and numerous social outings, but also attending functions on his own. Handsome, charming and well spoken, most people who found themselves in the boy’s company were instantly put at ease. As the eyes and ears of his master, Hippolito not only relayed all he saw and heard, but also took an active part in surveillance and covert operations.
Attuned to the objectives of the Archduke, Hippolito was always observant at gatherings when one or two people would adjourn to a separate room or office in order to conduct a private conversation. More often than not he’d find a way to eavesdrop or learn what was said. Not content to simply gather information in passing, he often visited private offices and scanned whatever documents he could find. His memory for facts was phenomenal and once he’d heard a conversation, scanned a document, or read a private letter it was well remembered. Later the information he’d gleaned would be relayed word for word to Savaron Loka.
Hippolito frowned, then reached up and removed the flouncy hat as he critically examined himself one final time. For a few seconds he simply stared as in his mind he tried to imagine what he would look like with a crown on his head. Two things needed to occur for that to happen: Loran would have to fail, and he would have to become the mate of the young Prince de Valèn.
“I don’t think either will be hard to manage,” he said, grinning at the boy in the mirror. Turning his back on his reflection, he headed out of his bedroom just in time to hear the impatient call of Savaron Loka, who was waiting in the foyer of the palace for him.