Back | Next


The Emperor of the Eubian Concord ruled the largest empire ever known to the human race, over two trillion people across more than a thousand worlds and habitats. It was a thriving, teeming civilization of beautiful complexity, and if it was also the greatest work of despotism inall history, its ruling caste had managed to raise their denial of that truth also to heights greater than ever before known.


Lost in such thoughts, the emperor stood in a high room of his palace and stared out a floor-to-ceiling window at the nighttime city below. The sparkle of its lights created a visual sonata that soothed his vision, if not his heart. At the age of twenty-six, Jaibriol the Third had weathered nine years of his own rule. Somehow, despite the assassination attempts, betrayals, and gilt-edged cruelty of his life, he survived.

Tonight the emperor grieved.

He mourned the loss of his innocence and his joy in life. His title was a prison as confining as the invisible bonds that held the billions of slaves he owned and wished he could free.

Most of all, he mourned his family. Ten years ago tonight, his parents had died in a spectacular explosion recorded and broadcast a million times across settled space. In the final battle of the Radiance War between his people and the Skolian Imperialate, the ship carrying his parents had detonated. He had seen that recording again and again, until it was seared into his mind.

Jaibriol's father had descended from a long line of emperors, every one of them dedicated to the destruction of the Imperialate. On that day, the Skolian Imperator had captured his father. Rather than see him imprisoned, his own people had destroyed the Imperator's ship. So had come the death of Jaibriol's father, the Emperor of Eube.

And so had come the death of Jaibriol's mother—the Imperator of Skolia.

How two interstellar potentates ended up in the midst of a battle, Jaibriol would never know. Perhaps they had been fleeing into exile, seeking a place where the hatred between their peoples couldn't destroy them. Whatever the truth, they had taken it to their graves. Now both were ten years dead, and Jaibriol sat on the Carnelian Throne. His mother had ruled the empire of his enemies. He carried the secret of his heritage like a bomb ready to detonate within him.

He kept his bedroom darkened as he gazed at the city below, Qoxire, the capital of his empire. He could no longer see the lights that glistened on the lofty towers, nor could he see beyond the city to the thundering waves that crashed on a shoreline of dazzling black sand. The scene's luster blurred into luminous washes of color, for tonight the emperor wept.

A door hissed across the room. He tensed, knowing it could be only one person. His bodyguards would stop anyone else. Unless they were dead and this was an assassination attempt. He felt more sorrow at the thought of their possible deaths than of his own. He continued to gaze out the window. If an assassin had come upon him tonight, perhaps he should let the killer free him from the agony of his so- called glorious reign.

Footsteps whispered on the deep-piled rug. Someone stopped behind him, and he heard breathing.

"If you have a knife," Jaibriol said. "I would suggest placing it between my third and fourth ribs."

A woman spoke in a dusky voice. "I never carry knives. They're too obvious."

Jaibriol turned around. The woman stood at nearly his height, her leanly muscled body taut with coiled energy. Glittering black hair brushed her shoulders, and her upward-tilted eyes were as red as gems. Her high cheekbones underscored her aquiline beauty, giving her the profile that graced several Eubian coins. Her black jumpsuit resembled a uniform, except that it fit snugly, accenting her sultry, pantherlike sensuality. She could have passed for thirty-five, but Jaibriol knew the truth. His wife was more than a century in age.

"You don't need a knife," he said. "You cut to the bone without it."

Her lips curved upward. "I thank you for the compliment."

"What would you consider an insult?" he asked dryly. "If I called you sweet and accommodating?"

She raised her sculpted eyebrow at him. "For what possible reason would you say such a thing?"

Perhaps because just once, he thought, I would like a wife who showed even one of those traits. She didn't catch his thought; she had no telepathic ability. Although she wasn't an empath, either, she was far more attuned to his moods than he would have thought possible for a member of the Highton Aristo caste. Of course, he was supposedly Highton as well. He had the shimmering black hair, red eyes, and alabaster skin. No one had any idea he possessed the forbidden abilities of a psion.

"I was curious to see your reaction," he said. It was even true.

"No games, Jai. Not tonight." She sounded tired. Or more accurately, she let her fatigue show. Although she presented a perfect, cool exterior to the world, he knew her too well to be fooled.

"Why not tonight?" he asked. It was refreshing to ask a straight question. In normal discourse, Hightons never did. Direct speech was an insult, for Aristos used it only with their slaves. Except, of course, between lovers. He had long ago decided not to dwell on the implications, that they used the same form of speech with lovers and slaves.

His wife, Tarquine, walked away, across the dimly lit room. "It's the mercantile Lines," she said, sounding distracted.

Well, hell. If Tarquine decided some group posed a threat, she could do a great deal of damage. As Finance Minister, she wielded far too much influence over the economics of the Eubian empire; her reach could affect even the other two civilizations that shared the stars with them, the Skolian Imperialate and the Allied Worlds of Earth.

"Merchants in general?" he asked. "Or one in particular?"

She turned to him. "The Line of Janq."

"They're the ones who own so many export corporations in Ivory Sector, aren't they?" As Diamond Aristos, they dealt with Jaibriol less than his Highton Aristo advisors.

"If this consortium they are putting together succeeds," Tarquine said, "they will own all of them."

Jaibriol frowned. That would give one Aristo Line a lock on nearly one quarter of the empire's most lucrative export institutions. "Can you get me a report on what you know?"

"A report." She watched him, her eyes dark in the dim light. "So you can prepare for a meeting with them that will allow us to negotiate this situation in a reasonable manner."

His jaw ached, and he realized he was clenching his teeth. He forced himself to relax. "That's right."

She came back over to him. "Of course, Jai. I will provide you with a report."

He hated it when she agreed that easily; it almost always meant trouble. She unsettled him as much today as when he had met her, perhaps even more now that he knew her better. Nine years ago, his joint commanders of Eubian Space Command, or ESComm, had conspired to kill him and nearly succeeded twice, including on his wedding day, though no proof existed. In the end, they had both died by assassination. Three civilizations believed they had arranged each other's deaths. How could it be otherwise? No one could touch those two warlords who led the massive, relentless military machine of the Eubian empire.

Except Tarquine.

She would never acknowledge it, but Jaibriol knew. She had arranged the death of the admiral through the explosion of his ship, making it look as if the other commander killed him. The retaliation of the admiral's kin had been fast; before Jaibriol knew even one of his commanders had died, both were gone.

"Tarquine," he warned. "Keep out of it."

"I am the Finance Minister," she said mildly. "I cannot 'keep out of it.'"

"You know what I mean."

"You worry too much," she murmured.

"When you say 'don't worry,' I get hives."

She laid her finger on his cheek. "It will be fine."

He folded his hand around her fingers and moved them away. He was no longer the naïve youth who had married her out of desperation, because he was safer with her as his empress than as his enemy. He was still young compared to his advisors, hardly more than a boy by Highton standards, but he had learned a great deal over the past ten years. And if it meant he had lost his innocence, it also meant he kept his life.

Jaibriol had never lost his dream—to make peace between his people and the Skolians. He would never have the chance to know his family, the Ruby Dynasty who ruled Skolia. Their Imperator, Kelric Valdoria, would never know he was the uncle of Eube's emperor. That secret would remain locked within Jaibriol. But perhaps they could meet at the peace table. It was the only way he knew to honor his mother and father, who had dreamed of ending the hostilities between their two peoples.

He didn't want his parents to have died in vain.


The night mourned with silence, as if it were a sonata with no music left to play. More than ever, tonight Kelric Skolia—Imperator of the Skolian Imperialate—felt his age. The years weighed on him.

He sat on the bed, in the dim light, and watched his wife sleep. White hair curled around her face. Her skin was smooth, with only a few wrinkles, but it had a translucent quality. Her torso barely rose and fell with her shallow breaths. The crook of her nose, broken decades ago, shadowed her cheek. She had never wanted it fixed, though he could have given her anything, anything at all, any riches or wealth or lands or gifts.

Anything except her life.

"Jeejon," he said. A tear formed in his eye, and he wiped it away with the heel of his hand.

She seemed small under the blankets, wasted away. He had searched out every remedy medical science could provide, but it was too late. By the time he had met Jeejon, nine years ago, her body had nearly finished its span of life. She had been born a Eubian slave. They designed her to last sixty years, and she had been fifty-seven when his path crossed hers. His age. But he had benefited his entire life from treatments to delay his aging, even nanomed species passed to him by his mother in the womb. Jeejon had received nothing; her owners considered her a machine with no more rights than a robot. Kelric had managed to extend her three years to nine, but now, at sixty-six, her body had given out.

A rustle came from the doorway. He looked around to see Najo, one of his bodyguards, a man in the stark black uniform of a Jagernaut, with a heavy Jumbler in a holster on his hip.

"I'm sorry to disturb you, sir," Najo said. "But you have a page on your console."

Kelric nodded. Nothing could stop the Imperialate in its vibrant life, nine hundred worlds and habitats, a trillion people spread across the stars. It slowed for nothing, not even him, its Imperator.

He rose to his feet, watching Jeejon, hoping for a sign she would awaken. Nothing happened except the whisper of her breath.

Kelric went with Najo. His other bodyguards were in the hall outside: Axer, a burly Jagernaut Tertiary whose shaved head was tattooed with linked circles; and Strava, tall and stoic, a Jagernaut Secondary, her hair cut short. They had accompanied him here to his stone mansion above a valley of green slopes and whispering trees. He lived in the Orbiter space station, which had perfect weather every day. The big, airy spaces of his home accommodated his large size, as did the lower gravity, two-thirds the human standard. He didn't need bodyguards in this house; the entire habitat protected him. Najo and the others had come with him today as a buffer, to shield his privacy in these last days with Jeejon. His moments with her seemed faded by antiqued sunlight, as if they were aged gold.

His officers had to be able to reach him, however. As Imperator, he commanded all four branches of Imperial Space Command, or ISC: the Pharaoh's Army, the Imperial Fleet, the Jagernaut Forces, and the Advance Services Corps. He didn't rule the Skolian Imperialate; that job went to a contentious, vociferous Assembly of elected representatives and to his aunt, the Ruby Pharaoh. But Kelric had the loyalty of ISC.

He crossed his living room, limping slightly from an old injury that even biomech technology had never fully healed. The large space of polished grey stone soothed him. This mansion had belonged to his half-brother, Kurj, a previous Imperator. Kurj had been a huge man, tall and massively built, and Kelric looked a great deal like him. The house was all open spaces and stone, with no adornment except gold desert silhouettes that glowed on the walls at waist height. Kelric had thought of adding color to the grey stone, but with Jeejon here, the place had always seemed warm.

When he reached the console by the far wall, he found glyphs floating above its horizontal screen. The message was from his aunt, Dehya Selei. The Ruby Pharaoh. She descended from the dynasty that had ruled the Ruby Empire thousands of years ago. As a scholarly mathematician, she was far different from those ancient warrior queens; Dehya wielded a vast and uncharted power in the shadowy mesh of communications that wove the Imperialate together.

Her message glowed in gold:

Kelric, we've a diplomatic glitch with the Allied Worlds of Earth. It isn't urgent, but as soon as you have a chance, I'd like to brief you.—Dehya.


He rested his palm on the screen, and the holos faded above his skin. She could have paged his gauntlet, but it would have been an intrusion. Thank you, he thought to her, for understanding he needed this time with Jeejon before his voracious duties devoured his attention.

As a member of the Ruby Dynasty, Kelric had inherited his title as Imperator after the death of his sister, the previous Imperator. He commanded one of the largest militaries in human history—yet all his power, all his titles and lineage and wealth meant nothing, for they couldn't stop his wife from dying.


Kelric's bedroom was huge and spare, all polished stone and high ceilings. Breezes wafted in through windows with no panes. The bed stood in the middle of the stone floor; walking to it, he felt as if he were crossing a desert. The room echoed, and Jeejon hadn't stirred.

With a sigh, Kelric lay beside his wife.

"Kelric?" Her voice was wispy.

He pushed up on his elbow to look at her. She watched him with pale blue eyes, worn and tired, wrinkles at their corners.

His voice caught. "My greetings of the morning."

"Is it . . . morning?"

"I think so." He hadn't been paying attention.

Her mouth curved in the ghost of a smile. "Come here . . ."

He hesitated, wanting to hold her but afraid. He was so large, with more strength than he knew what to do with, and she had become so fragile.

"I don't break that easily," she said.

Kelric drew down the covers. She was wearing that white sleep gown he loved. He pushed off his boots, then lay on his back and pulled her into his arms. She settled against his side, resting her head on his shoulder. They stayed that way, and he listened to her breathing. Each inhale was a gift, for it meant she lived that much longer.

"I remember the first time I saw you," she said.

"At that mining outpost."

"Yes." She sighed. "You were so incredibly beautiful."

He snorted. "I was so incredibly sick."

"That too."

The memories were scars in his mind. He had been one among millions of refugees caught in the aftermath of the Radiance War that devastated both the Imperialate and Eubian empire. Alone and unprotected, he had feared to reveal his identity lest he risk assassination. Not that anyone would have believed him. He had been dying, stranded on a mining asteroid, his body in the last stages of collapse. Jeejon was processing people through the port. A former Trader slave, she had escaped to freedom during the war. If she hadn't taken him in, he would have died, alone and in misery.

He laid his head against hers. "You saved my life." If only he could do the same for her.

She was silent for a while. Then she said, "You were kind."

Although he laughed, his voice shook. "I made you a Ruby consort. That's more cruel than kind." One reason he lived here, instead of on the capital world of the Imperialate, was so she wouldn't have to deal with the elegantly cutthroat world of the Imperial court.

"It has been a treasure." Her voice was barely audible. "I was born a slave. I die a queen."

His pulse stuttered. "You won't die."

"It was a great act of gratitude, to marry me because I saved your life."

"That's not why I married you." He wasn't telling the full truth, but he had grown to love her.

She breathed out, her body slight against his. "When we met, you were wearing gold guards on your wrists."

Kelric tensed. "I took them off."

"They were marriage guards."

Had she known all these years? "Jeejon—"

"Shhhh," she whispered. "I never knew why you left her."


"You never went back to her. Even though you love her."

"You're my wife. I don't want to talk about someone else. Not now." Not when they had so little time left.

She pressed her lips against his chest. "No one knows what happened to you during the war, do they? It isn't just me . . . you never told anyone about those eighteen years you vanished."

"It doesn't matter." Moisture gathered in his eyes.

Her voice was low. "Such a tremendous gift you have given me, waiting while it took me nine years to die."

"Jeejon, stop."

"Someday . . . you must finish that chapter of your life you left behind for me."

He cradled her in his arms. "You can't die."

"I love you, Kelric."

"And I, you." His voice broke. "Always."

"Good-bye," she whispered.

"Don't—" Kelric froze. Her breathing had stopped. Somewhere an alarm went off, distant, discreet, horrifying.

"No." He pulled her close, his arms shaking, and laid his cheek against her head. "Jeejon, no."

She didn't answer.

Kelric held his wife, and his tears soaked into her hair.

Back | Next