Wielded with a surgeon's precision, the knife struck the pale blue cormer’s egg sitting upright in the small, white, china cup. With a sharp crack, the top of the egg was sheared away and removed with a quick flick of the Emperor’s wrist. Once the interior of the egg was exposed, Enrick the Thirty-first, Imperial Lord of Altinestra, set the knife on a nearby plate and picked up a small, silver spoon. Scooping the warm, soft, yellow-and-white interior he picked up a nearby piece of buttered toast. He wiped a dollop of egg on the toast and took a bite, chewed stoically and then repeated the action again and again, until nothing but an empty shell remained.
Renaud began his day as he usually did: waiting patiently outside the Emperor’s well-guarded suite. Mornings at the palace always followed the same routine; at the exact same time every day, the Emperor emerged from his private apartment and Renaud accompanied him to either the sunlit breakfast room or the terrace just beyond the breakfast room that overlooked the Emperor’s private garden. There he would quietly stand his post while the Imperial breakfast ran its course.
The first meal of the day was usually a time of solitude for the absolute ruler of Altinestra, although exceptions were made and Enrick received the occasional briefing – if the subject was deemed important enough, or the personage offering the briefing had sufficient influence to gain an audience. One such meeting had occurred the previous day when the Archduke of Imperialas, Savaron Loka, appeared before Enrick while he ate his breakfast.
Used to speaking freely in front of Renaud, Loka had only taken a few minutes of the Emperor’s time to address Enrick, but his words were troubling. Now, one day later, Loka’s message continued to run through Renaud’s mind.
Taking a sip of coffee, Enrick sat back in his seat. Renaud remained silent where he stood at his assigned position – slightly behind and to the right of Enrick’s chair – a place he’d occupied ever since becoming the Emperor’s personal bodyguard.
“A different look for you,” the Emperor said, turning slightly to look up at the tall, thin boy.
Renaud’s eyes met the Emperor’s gaze and then lowered slightly; true to form, the boy’s thoughts and feelings lay hidden behind the cool, incurious mask he presented to the world. He remained silent, waiting for his master to clarify.
“Your hair, boy,” the Emperor snapped impatiently, after waiting a couple moments. “That fancy purple ribbon tying it up. A gift from one of your lady friends?” The boy had always worn his long hair loose, and the ribbon tying it back made a notable difference in Renaud’s appearance, sufficient to catch Enrick’s attention.
Renaud, staring at the Emperor's chin to avoid the appearance of insolence, flatly replied, “Yes, my Emperor.”
“It suits you,” Enrick said.
“Thank you, my Emperor.”
Enrick prided himself on knowing the personalities, traits, and quirks of those closest to him, and he was well aware that his personal bodyguard was what in the Icarian tongue was referred to as a’dobren – a member of a small group of Icarians who had an attraction to females. Though he would never have admitted it, he had also been trying to make his bodyguard break his calm demeanor almost since the day he'd allowed Renaud into his inner circle. He was, thus far, unsuccessful. Enrick turned back to the remains of his breakfast, once more ignoring the boy standing only inches away from him.
As he stood silently observing Enrick, Renaud recalled the events of the past twenty-four hours beginning from the time when he’d last stood guard at the Emperor’s breakfast table during Savaron Loka’s briefing. After the Archduke left the imperial presence, Enrick’s day had progressed according to schedule, even allowing Renaud two hours of training time while Enrick, safe and secure in his private suite, conducted a series of meetings.
But what no one knew was that instead of participating in his usual training session, Renaud took a clandestine journey to the great opera house sitting atop the Canon Mons Arts. As a member of the Vipers, the emperor’s private network of assassins and spies, as well as Enrick’s personal protector, the so-called Angel of Death had access to most of the secrets of the empire – even those Enrick would have preferred Renaud wasn’t aware of. So it was quite simple for the Emperor’s bodyguard to gain access to the rehearsal schedule of the performers of La Mondele Royale, and he knew the exact times Prince de Valèn would be practicing for the week’s upcoming performance.
Piloting a private hov to the opera house, Renaud landed in a secluded area of the park surrounding La Mondele. Taking care to remain in the shadows of the small forest behind the opera house, he stealthily made his way to a deserted corner at the rear of the large structure. There he gained access to the complex through one of the service doors inputting the correct sequence of numbers into the lock.
Upon entering the opera house he snapped into a defensive stance, shocked as he unexpectedly came face to face with the young prince; after a tense moment, Renaud relaxed when he realized he was staring at an old holo vid poster promoting one of Jamie’s past performances. It was stacked against a pile of rubbish and someone had forgotten to deactivate it. For a few seconds Renaud stood and watched as the life-sized image of the boy in the poster executed a dizzying aerial spin and then, flinging out his arms in an exuberant gesture of triumph, came to an abrupt halt and floated gracefully in the air. Renaud had seen Jamie perform the exact same move one evening weeks before as he’d stood in the Imperial box, watching over Enrick. Turning away from the poster, Renaud walked away into the darkness of the nether world of the opera house, carefully making his way to Jamie’s private dressing room. There he settled down in a shadowed corner and waited.
After thirty minutes Renaud was becoming concerned that his information was wrong and he’d missed the boy, but a quick scan of the room revealed Jamie’s school tunic with its red sash hanging on a nearby hook. A moment later he heard some noise in the hallway and ducked behind the door of the room’s only closet.
The door opened and Jamie de Valèn entered, alone. Jamie’s practice had been a dress rehearsal session in preparation for his performance the following evening, and he was dressed in a short silk tunic tied with a golden cord. Dark purple ribbons made up the hem of the tunic and the boy’s dancing slippers were the same golden color as his sash. Clutching a towel, Renaud watched as the dancer mopped his brow, then tossed the towel he’d been using onto the floor. Dropping onto a stool placed before a lighted make-up table, Jamie bent over and began to tug at the laces of his dancing slippers. As he did, Renaud saw a few drops of sweat drip from the boy’s forehead and hit the floor.
Reaching for the nearby towel he’d just discarded, Jamie swiped it up off the floor, mopped his brow for a second time and once more tossed the towel aside. “All the money to build this place, and they never thought to install showers...” he grumbled to himself. Bending over, he slipped a finger into the side of his slipper and popped it off and repeated the action on his second slipper.
Barefoot, Jamie stood and untied the corded sash. A silent voyeur, Renaud watched as Jamie prepared to undress. Though his attraction was to females, there could be no doubt that the boy was a beauty, and Renaud found him highly attractive. After laying the golden cord on his dressing table, Jamie began to reach back to undo the eyelets of his tunic, but he glanced up at the mirror and froze. While Jamie was untying his sash, Renaud had stepped out from behind the closet door and even though Jamie’s back was to him, the instant the emperor’s bodyguard revealed himself, Renaud’s reflection appeared in the make-up mirror.
Even caught completely off-guard, Jamie whipped around and faced the intruder. “One step closer and I start screaming!”
Renaud’s right hand shot up, laying a finger across his lips while also raising his left hand palm out, ordering Jamie to remain silent.
“My time is short,” he whispered. “I've come to warn you.”
“Warn...?” Jamie, caught off guard at Renaud’s sudden appearance, declared loudly. Startled at the tone of his own voice, he lowered his volume to a whisper. “Warn me of what?”
“Your preparations for the Emperor’s birthday celebration have not gone unnoticed.”
Although he could feign ignorance regarding the exact meaning of Renaud’s statement, Jamie knew that Renaud was not talking about his dance routine.
“The stage?” Jamie asked.
“That, and more,” Renaud said, and then began to tell Jamie about Savaron Loka’s briefing with the Emperor.
“I’m an idiot,” Jamie said after Renaud had finished. His face pale, he sagged down onto his stool. “I was so excited to create something that was really my own – like Father. I was blind. How could I have been so stupid? Over two years of pretending...” but then he stopped when he realized what he was saying, and saying right in front of the Emperor’s own assassin.
“What’s said between us remains with me,” Renaud replied as if he could read Jamie’s mind. “I offer no deception. It‘s why I came to warn you.”
“Thank you,” Jamie said. Still feeling uneasy under the intense gaze of the boy towering over him. “Is there anything else I should know?”
“Yes,” Renaud nodded and the gleam in his eyes grew even brighter. “I am here to...” he paused, quickly glanced away and then resumed eye contact with Jamie. “I am here to help you.”
“Help me? Help me with what?”
“I am privy to many sources; sources that only a few can access,” Renaud began as he crossed his arms. “You have hidden your work well. I’m sure I’m only seeing a small part of it, but if it’s as vast as I think it is...”
“You give me far too much credit,” Jamie replied, and while he tried to appear calm, he was glad the Emperor’s bodyguard had approached him after one of his practices; at least the sweat of his workout might mask the sweat of his fear at being discovered.
“I told you, I’m here to help. It is not my desire to pull away the veil; I might even be able to pull it more closely about you.”
“Why?” Jamie said, standing arms akimbo and shooting Renaud a skeptical look.
Renaud paused a moment, noting the boy’s almost defiant stance. It was the same posture and attitude he’d assumed in the imperial garden after being rescued from the rampaging bodyguard. His viper training had sharpened his awareness, and although he could sense Jamie’s fear, the boy still defiantly stood up to him. It was the stance of a leader – it was why he was drawn to the boy.
“Because I hate it,” Renaud said, his voice weary.
“You asked me if I enjoyed killing. Well, I don’t – I hate it. The deeds I’ve performed on the orders of the Emperor sicken me. Yet I’ve seen no way out until now.”
“So, what do you propose?” Jamie asked, as he began to understand the meaning of Renaud’s words.
“The same arrangement I have with the Emperor. I will be your eyes and ears. I will carry out your orders. I will be your sword and your shield. I will be your protector.”
“But isn’t your allegiance to the Emperor?”
“I am Icarian,” Renaud said, speaking the forbidden tongue.
“You know the language?” an amazed Jamie asked in Icarian.
“I am a Viper. I not only speak human, but also Kalorian and my own language – Icarian.”
“You use the term Icarian instead of avionne.”
“But that is what we are, no? I told you my sources were far flung.”
“Apparently so,” Jamie said, and paused to think a moment. “So then what am I to do with you?” Jamie continued, giving the boy a sharp appraisal.
“Whatever you wish, only do not waste my talents,” the stern-faced boy replied. “I’ve been sorely used by the Emperor. From what I’ve learned, I know my yoke under you would be far different.”
“But not without danger.”
“Of course not. Danger is always present, but the rewards of freedom do not come without risk.”
Jamie stood staring at Renaud as he weighed his options.
“Very well, I accept. Now what?” Jamie asked.
“Continue with your plans. I will return to my post. Do not seek me out – that would be too dangerous. I will make my presence known in time, but for now know that you are safe. I will be watching.”
The thought of Renaud’s eagle-like eyes constantly boring into him created an image in Jamie’s mind that sent chills racing up his spine.
The tall boy took a step toward Jamie and dropped to one knee. “I pledge you my oath, sa’Crêsmané, that I shall bend all my abilities and talents to keeping your enemies from your person, even should it demand my life,” he said and bowed his head before the young prince, with his long hair falling around his face.
Although he wasn’t sure why, Jamie reflexively tugged at one of the purple satin ribbons woven into the hem of his costume until it finally came loose. Gathering up Renaud’s hair, he tied it back with the ribbon. When he was finished, Renaud looked up into Jamie’s face.
“Your will, sa’Crêsmané,” he said, and rose from the floor. Before Jamie could reply, Renaud turned on his heel and stepped back out into the hall, closing the door softly behind him.
“My will,” Jamie said softly to himself, dropping onto the stool and looking at his image in the make-up mirror. “If I only I knew what that was.”.