“The Fangs of Oannos” by Christopher Ruocchio




“What do you know of our guests, mi sadji?” asked the High Prince of Jadd, seated in his float-chair to my right. “These men of Oannos?”

I looked up at the flight of starships descending—like a phalanx of birds black against the eggshell sky. “Only that they are a strange people. Stranger than you men of Jadd.”

My friend—my host, my patron, and my jailer—laughed softly in his way, so near to coughing. The High Prince was not a young man. His face, concealed in that moment behind the enameled cobalt mask of state, was like a dried olive, so withered was that noble brow, those hollow cheeks. It was said throughout the city and across the planet that Aldia du Otranto was nearly one thousand years old. Not that he was born a thousand years prior—that fact is true of many a sailor of the waterless ways between the stars—but that he had lived one thousand years. If that were so, he was the oldest man in the galaxy. The oldest man who was yet all-man, at least. For in Jadd they did not augment the flesh as among the Extrasolarians, who traded their blood and organs for metal and glass.

In Jadd, they wrote poetry in the blood, composed sonnets in the four-lettered language of God. The princes of that far realm live long lives, longer than the palatine lords of the Imperium. But a thousand years? I shuddered then—who am older now—and felt every second of my near six-hundred years. 

Why should time make itself most felt through pain?

Through pain, and . . . 

“Arman says they’re all wizards!” said the girl on the stand in front of me. “He says they do blood magic. Do they do blood magic, Uncle?”

The plates of the mask that covered Prince Aldia’s face arranged themselves into a smile, “Non, child. What they do is little different than what we do here—what we did when we made you for your Abba here.” He nodded at me. “Save that they do it less well. But they are a strange country, Lord Marlowe—you are right.”

“I have heard it said they pay tribute to the Lothrians,” I said. 

Aldia was silent. The mamluk clone soldiers gathered about his throne, his various attendants shifting where they stood. One of them, a man in a mask black as my clothes, looked at me. From his uniform—just as black—I knew him for one of the Yahmazi, the High Prince’s secret police. The white circle enameled on his mask’s forehead all but confirmed it: the Jaddian emblem of the full moon.

The plates about his mouth clicked as the man spoke. “We have heard that as well.”

“That they are coming here,” the High Prince’s quavering voice still managed to find enough force to interject, “means that they do not want war with us, even if they are under the Lothrian thumb. We shall hear them.”

The shock of the shuttles’ descent hit us then like far-off thunder, wrenching my attention from the old prince. The men of Oannos were making their final approach, their shuttles—I marked nine—descending, circling like crows over the Alcaz du Badr, the Palace of the Moon.

Below the receiving stand, the landing field stretched to receive them, a great sheet of printed black marble fenced by flowering hedges. The landing field lay in the very heart of the High Prince’s pleasure gardens, a short walk from the ringed palace itself. Sunlight glinted off the Tholo Orothano, the core of the palace, that great golden dome of a structure—a hundred stories tall.

“They’re coming in fast,” said Neema, my attendant, whispering in my ear. “Should we be alarmed, Domi?”

“The Jaddians don’t seem alarmed,” I said, remembering that Neema was Jaddian himself, a Nemrut School homunculus, the replica of man’s shape bred and trained to service. Cassandra was herself more than half-Jaddian, though she was my blood—the blood of the old Imperium—and the blood of her mother’s kin, who dwelt at the far edge of human space. But she had been raised on the Planet of Fire, and spoke the language of that far country as though it was her own. She was a native—though the other children would never fully accept her.

I was a guest.

An exile.

The Oannosene shuttles fell like arrows, like the bolts of some huge, orbiting ballista. At their present velocity, they would smash into the landing field, shatter into a million pieces, erupt in nuclear fire. Surely somewhere in the gardens, the Jaddian princes had secret gun emplacements, cannons whose gunners even then tracked the descent of this foreign delegation. Surely they would fire, if they believed the incoming ships were a threat.

But the shuttles were only falling. They were not under thrust, and had decelerated through serpentine coils across the roof of the sky, braking from the friction as they plunged down from the terrible Dark beyond.

“Abba,” little Cassandra said, “they’re going to crash!” Her hand seized on mine, and she drew closer to my side.

But our Jaddian hosts had us at a disadvantage. They had seen the ships of Oannos before, and knew their secret.

For in the next moment, the shuttles hinged open, and each ran out their black sails—their sails of woven nanocarbon and glass thread—ribbed, many-masted, cupping the air. One-by-one they deployed, one-by-one the drag those sails fast-generated arrested their falling, so that in a moment each of the great vessels—which before had fallen like hard rain—now floated light as dandelion seeds.

At some signal I did not see, a drum began to beat. Low, slow, the prelude to the Jaddian anthem.

Doom. Doom. Doom-boom.

As the shuttles finished their descent and the blue fire of repulsor matrices took on the role of lift, those sails—which had acted in lieu of parachute or retro-jet, which before had been stretched wide against the upper airs—turned upward, so that the masts stood over the landing shuttles like a thicket of black trees.

Doom. Doom. Doom-boom.

Great legs of jointed metal took the weight of the shuttles at last, buckled as landing peds met the printed marble of the landing field. Only then did I see that the sails were not black at all, but deep azure, and that each sail bore a device upon its face: a man with the head and tail of a fish—gold against the blue, his tail coiled about the round bezant that represented the Oannos system home sun. In either hand the fish-man grasped matching bezants—the suns of Anzar and Masiddica, whose worlds Oannos had conquered.

Doom. Doom. Doom-boom.

It reminded me of the icon of the Miudanar, the serpent-demon worshipped by the inhuman Cielcin, who crushed stars in his countless hands.

Thinking of Miudanar, and of Akterumu—where I had seen the eldritch god’s bones moldering on black sands—I shivered, despite the heat of the day.

Doom. Doom. Doom-boom.

The drumbeat gave way to the music of silver trumpets, of great brass horns and horns of ivory and banded gold. Horns of the elephant whose ancestors the men of Jadd had rescued from the dying Earth and carried out among the stars, and of the mammoth whose kind the Jaddians had made to live again by their art.

When the Jaddian band ceased, the Oannosene ships answered. Speakers in each of the shuttles piped the reedy music of cornemuse and ghaita out into the summery air. As the ramp of the foremost vessel was lowered, I picked out the note of the single-stringed imzhad, an instrument old as Earth herself, relic of that age when the Sahara was yet thick with blossom. As the music swelled, a lone figure emerged from the darkness of the shuttle’s airlock into the light of the noonday sun. His robes were of Oannosene azure, his head bald as an egg, his skin black as coal.

“Is that the prince?” Cassandra asked, tugging on my sleeve. She had known Jaddian princes all her life, but never before had she seen the lord of another realm—unless it was I, her father, and my presence was not an event to her.

I shook my head, waited for the man to speak.

Leastways I thought him a man, until he spoke—then I was not sure if the herald were a woman or an androgyn, so high and clear was its voice as it declaimed, “My lords and ladies, princes and princesses of the Houses of Jadd, High Prince of Jadd! May I present His Royal Highness, Izemrasen the Embraced, First Scion of the House of Barasegh, Crown Prince of the Most Splendid Dominion, the Kingdom of the Three Suns, Prince of Oannos, of Anzar, of Masiddica!”

The black ships of the Oannosene let loose a horn blast like the cry of a whale, low and mournful one second, high and keening the next. The music of it touched some cellular memory in me, of the sea rushing in to drown green valleys, of a city caught in its flood.

The memory passed as Izemrasen himself appeared.

Cassandra gasped.

The Prince of Oannos was not alone. Prince Izemrasen was proceeded by four quartets of Barasegh house troopers, armored blue and gold, their suits scaled like fishes’ mail, their lances keen, heads blazing with white fire. But they were not what had so shocked my daughter.

It was the lion.

Here surely was such a beast as the one Herakles had slain with his own hands! I had seen terranic lions many times in my life, in the menageries and preserves of many a great lord of men. There were lions in those very gardens, Jaddian lions with coats black as coal and manes like pale fire.

But this lion was something else, something more.

Its coat was purest gold, and golden too its curling mane. But it was not its splendid color that set the beast above its mortal kin—it was its size. The great beast was large as a horse, great enough that a man might sit astride it—as indeed one did. For this great beast wore a saddle, and upon that saddle sat a man greater and nobler than any I had seen save two only, his face beaming like the sun. His face was dark, as though he were carved from jet by the hand of some master sculptor. His eyes were yellow as a cat’s—as the bezants upon his standard—and his hair was gold as the hair of the lion upon which he rode. Of gold, too, was his armor; a suit of golden scale. His tunic and cloak were royal blue, so that with his scale he seemed the very icon of his people. Over all he wore the striped fur of some great beast, white and black.

“The man knows how to make an entrance,” I observed, pitching my voice so that only Aldia and those immediately about me could hear.

Just behind me, Neema murmured, “Not that you’d know anything about that, my lord.”

I glanced back at him with arched brows.

“That lion—it’s so big!” Cassandra looked up at me with eyes wide. She had but recently begun her training as a neophyte at the Fire School, and so wore the pure white uniform of that rank, so like the garments of the fire priests of Ahura Mazda who dwelt upon the mountain above the school itself. I had agonized over the decision to allow her to train—the Fire School would make her a warrior—a Swordmaster of Jadd. I had been a warrior, once. What had such a life brought me but pain? “Is it real, Abba?”

I shook my head—not to answer her, but to remind her to be silent.

I’d heard it said that Prince Izemrasen was a great hunter—so great a hunter that he had long ago ceased to hunt ordinary prey. The men of Oannos were blood magi, geneticists and natalists nigh as skilled as any in the Empire—nigh as skilled as any in Jadd. It was said the prince himself had taken to the art, and so designed creatures for his pleasure: monsters great and terrible against which he set his will and his thews.

“Is it?”

I fixed Cassandra with a stern gaze. She looked away, and recalling my own father, I softened, smiled my crooked smile. “He made it,” I said. “Now hush, girl.”

Izemrasen had reached the open space below the stands, and raised a gauntleted hand. “I greet you, Aldia, High Prince of Jadd, and thank you for your welcome! I have sailed many years to be here!”

Seeing his gauntlet, I wondered at one of the man’s titles. The Embraced. He had a golden serpent embossed on the vambrace that sheathed his arm. Intricately wrought, it circled his arm, its every scale picked out by the careful action of the goldsmith, so that the head rested on the back of Izemrasen’s hand. It seemed to me a strange token for a man whose family’s heraldry was a fish.

A personal badge?

“Be welcome, Prince of Oannos,” said Aldia. “We are pleased to welcome so great a lord of the Small Kingdoms to the Planet of Fire. I pray your father, the king, is well.”

“It is for my father’s sake I have come,” said Izemrasen, beaming as he swept his gaze over all the Jaddian high court. “His, and the sake of all my people . . . ” The Prince of Oannos fell silent then, his eyes settling on me for just a moment—for I was the only man not masked upon the stand. The great lion tossed its head, and Izemrasen scratched the beast behind one ear. “I bring his greetings, as well. On behalf of my father, King Azenzar III, I thank you for granting me this embassy.”

“The honor is ours,” said old Aldia, “may this be the start of a renewed friendship between our peoples.”

At the sound of Aldia’s voice—amplified by speakers on our platform to carry over the field and be heard by all the Oannosene embassy—the great lion roared. Many on the stand flinched, gasped, drew back. Behind me, Neema yelped, and Cassandra pressed close to my side. My own hand went to the hilt of the sword concealed in my coat pocket. I felt the contours of the winged lion’s head carved in the elephant ivory pommel. The simurgh. The blade had been a gift from Aldia himself, granted in the early days of my forced sojourn among his people.

“Ssusem, Muhuc!” said Izemrasen, pulling on the reins. “Ssusem! Hves!”

The lion quieted, and at a motion from the prince, sank to its belly. He snapped his fingers, dismounting, and four men approached—having exited the shuttle in the prince’s train—and led the beast away. I watched it go.

The king of the beasts—and the beast of kings.

The lion had been a symbol of royalty unto the uttermost antiquity. Gilgamesh had fought with lions when men were children, when a king must prove himself to his people by his mastery of animals. The Jaddian simurgh—part lion, part bird, part dog—had long been a symbol of the princes, and the symbol of the Persian kings they counted as their ancestors. Even in the Empire, the great lords who counted themselves protectors of the realm called themselves the Old Lions.

Had Izemrasen cast himself in that same mold?

Was there not a statue of Gilgamesh—taken out of Earth when she fell—trapping a lion with one arm, crushing a snake with the other?

“It is for this reason I have come!” the prince said, shaking me from my tangled thoughts. “My prince! My people—our worlds—lie on the edge of the Rasan Belt, as you know . . . a mere hundred or so light-years from the borders of the Commonwealth. The Nameless Ones—the Lothrians—have long threatened our worlds, our security. For centuries, we have paid them tribute—I do not deny it!” This naked honesty surprised even me, and many a painted houri of the Jaddian court gasped and hid her face behind her fan. “We have paid them tribute . . . as the cost of our survival. Now we in Oannos have heard rumors—doubtless you know them yourselves—that the Nameless Ones have given themselves to the xenobites! To the Cielcin, who are the enemies of all mankind! If that is so . . . ” Here Izemrasen shook his black and golden head, “If that is so, we can pay them tribute no longer. Ours is a proud nation, and strong after its fashion. But we are small. Three suns cannot stand against ten thousand, and the Commonwealth has many more. If they have truly gone over to the service of the enemy . . . Oannos cannot stand against them. Oannos cannot long stand at all.”

The golden prince gestured with his right hand as he spoke, thumb and first finger together—not pointing, but gesturing as though to gather his listeners in. The serpent on his gauntlet flashed in the sun as he spoke. I felt certain the man must be scholiast-trained, for his speech—heavily colored by the accents of his far realm though it was—was cast in the high rhetorical style of the Imperium. But then, the lords of such outer realms were so often schooled in the Imperium, just as their lords adopted the Imperial style to lend legitimacy to their reign. “The Splendid Dominion has need of a new patron. To wit, I have come to offer a gift: myself.”

That sent a shock through the Jaddian congregation, and for a moment, nothing moved but the wind and the sail-banners of the Oannosene ships moved by the wind.

“Yourself?” asked the High Prince Aldia.

“It is said the High Prince of Jadd has many children,” Izemrasen said. “That they have many children. That those children have many children. I offer myself as a son to you. Or a grandson. Or a grandson’s son. I will rule Oannos when my father, King Azenzar, has gone to Earth. With a princess of the Great House of Jadd to wife, your descendants will be Kings of Oannos, and Princes of Jadd beside. Through marriage, our two nations will be united.”

Aldia made to respond, but the Yahmazi man in the black mask spoke more quickly than his aging lord. “You seek our protection, is that it?”

“Your friendship, yes,” said Izemrasen.

“And what of Jadd?” said Prince Sennen Gorgora, black-haired, red-masked, one of the princes that sat in the Domagavani, the council of princes. “What does Jadd gain by your . . . friendship?”

Prince Izemrasen did not seem bothered by this line of questioning. He smiled, brushed his golden hair from his onyx face. “Why, Oannos,” he said, again sending a murmuration through the crowd. “The Kings of Oannos will be Kings in Oannos only. We would be princes of Jadd—your brothers. Bound by blood against the Nameless Ones and their inhuman masters.”

“You wish a seat on the Domagavani!” Gorgora was incredulous. “You? You are no Jaddian.”

Aldia raised a hand. “Enough, Prince Sennen,” he said, and focusing his attention on the golden prince, he continued, “but my royal cousin is correct. You are no Jaddian, Prince Izemrasen. You say you wish a seat on our council. That is an interesting proposition. Were you to do so, you realize your Dominion would be subject to our laws?”

“I do.”

“And to our . . . dictates?” the High Prince asked. The Domagavani was a congress of sorts, comprising the eighty-one great princes of Jadd—of whom Aldia was the chief. Each ruled his demesne after his fashion, some as absolute despots, others constitutionally, yet others with the aid of some elected parliament or other agency. But within the Domagavani, they were equals—save Aldia, who as High Prince retained some special privileges.

“I do.”

Another murmuration ran through the crowd.

With the stroke of a pen and a marriage contract, Oannos intended to make itself the eighty-second principality of Jadd. I understood the Jaddians’ disquiet perfectly. Oannos stood to gain far more from Jadd than Jadd stood to gain from Oannos. At a stroke, Izemrasen’s Most Splendid Dominion would transform itself from one obscure backwater among many to one of the most powerful and important states in the stars of the Upper Perseus. By securing a vote on the Domagavani, the King of Oannos—as King in Oannos, and Prince of Jadd—would secure with it a measure of power over states and princes far older and more powerful. 

And what would the Jaddians stand to gain?

A duty. An obligation.

I knew nothing of the strength of Oannos’s armies, the size of its fleets . . . but as Izemrasen himself had said, they controlled but three suns. The Lothrian Commonwealth commanded tens of thousands of star systems to galactic north and west. But for the Sollan Empire, they were the mightiest human polity in the galaxy. Jadd could stand against them, with their clone armies and vast fleets.

“This will merit some consideration,” Aldia said. “You make a generous offer, a compelling offer, my Prince of Oannos, but we have never before accepted an outsider into our ranks . . . you are not Jaddian . . . ”

“You are inferior!” said Sennen Gorgora. “Yours is a lesser race!”

Izemrasen’s winning smile did not falter, though I thought I saw the sunfire in his eyes grow dim. “Inferior?” he said, “If it is a question of breeding, my lords, I have brought my pedigree. We men of Oannos know our bloodcraft. I am not Jaddian, this is true, but my blood and my breeding are not so different from your own.”

This set another ripple through the Jaddians. Though the Jaddians were generous with their friends, that generosity was forever overshadowed by their sense—their quiet sense—that they were the greatest of Earth’s peoples. Theirs was a race and culture that could trace its threads to man’s Golden Age—when Earth was young and yet unspoiled—to Pasargadae and Persepolis, to Ecbatana, Susa, Ctesiphon . . . 

They were Parsis before they were Jaddians, and Persians before that, scions of a race of men old as human memory.

Sensing his moment, Izemrasen pressed. “I have brought gifts as well, animals I crafted with my own hands, as proof of our artistry.”

“You are not Jaddian!” said Sennen Gorgora once more. “Do you count Katanes the Great among your ancestors? Did your ancestors depart Earth aboard the Simurgh? Travel with the Last Peregrination? Do you even know who your people were?”

Nearly all who were not descendants of the Great Houses of the Empire or of Jadd could claim their inheritance with any certainty. The Mericanii and their machines had taken that from almost everyone—everyone whose ancestors had not already peregrinated from Earth before the Foundation War. Most people simply staked their claim, took ownership of a piece of the sacred past and be damned.

But the Jaddians knew better, and looked down upon those who did not.

“I had heard it said the men of Jadd were proud of their breeding,” said Izremrasen, “but inferior? My fathers have ruled Oannos for four thousand years. That is half the time since your fathers took Jadd from the Empire. We built Oannos with our own hands, our blood, our sweat—just as Katanes and his brothers—and their sons—built your dominion. And you say inferior? Is this how the men of Jadd treat those who would call them friend?” Here his eyes alighted on my face. “I see it is not so, and that the rumors are true . . . ” He advanced a step, one hand on the golden hilt of his unkindled sword. “You are Hadrian Marlowe.”

“I am what I am,” I said. There was no sense denying it.

“They say you tried to kill your Emperor.”

“They say a lot of things,” I said, subtly shifting to place myself between Cassandra and the prince. That he had singled me out of all the Jaddian court struck me as odd.

I did not know what to make of his behavior . . . or of him, for an instant later, Izemrasen’s shining smile returned, and he said, “I saw you once, when I was a boy. My father and I had sailed to Forum to treat with your Red Emperor. You were received in triumph! Paraded through the Eternal City as a conqueror. It was the first time I ever saw one of the Cielcin—the only time. I remember their horns, their pale faces, and the great one—the machine devil with the four arms—I remember it crucified on the bier behind you.”

Iubalu, I thought. The Cielcin chimeric general, part-machine, part inhuman flesh. 

I had bested the monster. I, and Udax, and Siran. But Udax and Siran were dead. They were all dead. Undone by violence or by Ever-Fleeting Time . . . every one of them—save Lorian, and he was gone beyond recall.

But for Cassandra—and Neema, I supposed—I was alone in all the universe.

“You were like a god to me,” said Izemrasen. “Hadrian Halfmortal . . . ”

“Peace, Prince of Oannos,” said Aldia, interjecting. A bout of coughing overtook him, prompting a serving girl in saffron and gold to hurry to his side. But the High Prince waved her down, and he said, “We are humbled, Prince Izemrasen, by your humility. Yours is a generous offer, one we shall consider seriously, and whose possibility we shall . . . interrogate while you sojourn with us here.” Having mastered himself again, the aged High Prince continued, “Though our peoples have had but little contact, we have heard tales of Prince Izemrasen of the House of Barasegh, his prowess as a magus and a hunter. We would be honored to take you as son . . . ” Here the High Prince turned to Sennen Gorgora, and to the other princes of the Domagavani there present—and there were always a handful of them on the holy planet. “If such a thing is even possible, of course . . . ”

Gorgora inclined his head in deference to the High Prince, who returned his attention to Izemrasen. Voice amplified, quavering, Aldia said, “Tonight we feast to welcome your coming! Be welcome to Jadd, our friend from afar.”


The High Prince’s palanquin rose smooth and silently from the landing field after the reception of the Oannosene embassy was concluded. I sat across from him, Cassandra beside me. Neema remained with the rest of the court, would journey through the gardens to the Alcaz on foot. Hot as the day was, with the red giant sun shining brightly, I was glad of the field-insulated cool of the palanquin.

By rights it should have been sweltering. There was a thurible hanging from the roof of the compartment, and its smoke filled the cabin with the scent of myrrh. The walls and doors were hung with curtains of samite—azure and saffron, white and gold.

“Are you well, Aldia?” I asked, leaning forward.

“It is only age, mi sadji,” the High Prince said. “My lungs, you know.”

“Perhaps the brazier . . . ” I reached for the thurible.

“No!” Aldia said, “No no. It pleases me. Do not worry yourself. I have perhaps worked too hard in preparation for the arrival of our guests. I will rest before the feast tonight.”

It was yet some hours until noon, the middle of that watch the Jaddians called Havan. 

“Did you see the lion, Uncle Aldia?” Cassandra asked, and without having to turn I knew her eyes were wide as moons. “It was huge!

Beneath his enameled azure mask, Aldia smiled. “I have seen smaller horses, child.”

“Abba, do you think the prince will let me see the lion? I’d like to see it again!”

“Perhaps, Anayan,” I said, and smiled at Aldia. The girl was totally insensitive to Aldia’s rank. The old man was perhaps the second most powerful man in the galaxy—unless one counted the Chairs of the Lothrian Grand Conclave, and they were thirty-four—but to her, he was simply Uncle Aldia.

“What is your impression of the man?” Aldia asked.

“My impression?” I echoed, surprised to be asked. “Did he not seem desperate to you?”

Aldia was nodding. “Desperate, yes . . . and trying to hide it. Not that it can be hidden. He offered to subordinate his realm to ours. What he proposed was no less than the dissolution of his kingdom as he knows it.”

Below us, the pleasure gardens of the palace of the moon slid by beneath us. From above, the flower beds and lily ponds and neat little hedges seemed like tiles in a mosaic, or pieces of a pattern on an intricately woven rug, a carpet of delights.

“You think he doesn’t know that?” I asked.

“I think he underestimates the degree of oversight we and the Domagavani would gain over his realm . . .  King in Oannos, indeed . . . ” Aldia said, and shook his head, “I think our new friend believes that he can gain our support for virtually nothing. He thinks he can gain a seat on the Domagavani—affect the course of Jadd herself—obtain protection from the Commonwealth, our support in war, and the hand of one of my granddaughters—or great-granddaughters, as is more likely—still call himself king . . . and give us . . . nothing?”

“I do not think he sees it as such,” I said.

“I’ve had enough of this thing,” the old prince said, and raised unsteady hands to his mask. The articulated plates that moved as his face moved locked into place at the press of some unseen button, and Aldia removed the thing completely. “That’s better.” He smiled at Cassandra, and massaged his face.

“I don’t know how you wear the damn things,” I said. On Jadd, the great lords were forever masked, the man forever abrogated by his station—at least in public. In acting as the High Prince of Jadd, Aldia was to set aside his own person, to become an organ of the state, of his people.

The man beneath the mask was ancient, skin like crumpled paper, cheeks sagging forehead seamed. But his eyes were keen, like chips of obsidian. They had not yet begun to dim—though for Aldia, as for all men, that final darkness was coming . . . 

 . . . would come soon.

“Ordinarily, they’re quite comfortable,” said the old man, coming out his thick, white beard with the knobby fingers of one hand. “But in this heat?”

I nodded, reflecting quietly upon my black, military-style tunic and trousers, my high boots and long coat. Sweat beaded my forehead, clung to my long, dark hair.

“He is not so clever as he thinks he is,” I said, thinking of the serpent wound about the prince’s arm, his personal token. “This Izemrasen.”

“Nor as wise,” Aldia said.

“Will the Domagavani allow a marriage?” I asked.

Aldia shook his head. “Prince Gorgora and the others have nothing to say about how I conduct marriage affairs . . . ” The prince turned, looked out through the filigreed lattice on the window at the Tholo Orothano, the golden dome of the palace. From the ground, it seemed a single piece of unalloyed gold, but from the air, the windows and promenades that ringed the upper levels were plainly visible. It was toward one such promenade we flew. So long as Cassandra and I were to remain guests in the palace, the Tholo was itself our home. “It may be to my house’s advantage to arrange such a union, but induction into the Domagavani? The formation of Oannos as a Jaddian state? Never. They will never allow it.”

“Why, Uncle?” Cassandra sat forward, her feet barely reaching the floor of the palanquin.

Aldia smiled, opened a hatch in the bench beside him, drew out a black cherry where it rested inside on a bowl of ice. He passed one to Cassandra, before taking one for himself. I refused with a raised hand. The fruits were too sweet for my taste.

“Because they are not Jaddian,” Aldia said.

Cassandra hung her head. How often had the same been said of her by the other students? By the children who at all other times called themselves her friends.

“I mean no harm by that, sweet girl,” Aldia said. “But they do not know our ways, our customs, our histories. They worship Babalon—Mother Earth, you would say—as in your Empire. They know nothing of Ahura Mazda, nothing of Atash . . . nor should they be made to. The God ordains that man should take all shapes, but that does not mean we should destroy ourselves by admitting outsiders to our midst.”

“But you plan to entertain his marriage request?” I asked.

“To entertain it, yes,” said High Prince Aldia. “Oannos might prove a useful ally among the Small Kingdoms when the Commonwealth attacks at last.”

“You think they will attack?” I asked.

Aldia smiled, and there was pain in that smile. “You and I both know it is only a matter of time before the hammer falls.”

Neither of us knew it was already falling, was aimed at all our world.




The feast to honor the arrival of the Oannosene prince began with the sunset prayers pronounced by the mobads who served the Eternal Fire. Night had fallen on Jadd, and her three moons—white and white and green—were shining in the darkening heavens. As was the custom in the Alcaz du Badr, we feasted out under the stars, in a grand pavilion pitched between the arms of lesser buildings that radiated from the great dome of the Tholo Orothano, amid the fountains and crystal pools that proceeded from the palace proper to the gardens.

The night was warm but not unpleasant, and even and anon a cool wind would blow—scented with orange blossom or rose—from jets concealed by false oriels in the white stone façade of the palace to left and right. Everywhere among the tables there were braziers burning, and liveried servants in white—so like their priests, I thought—were there grilling meat amid sweet-smelling smoke, made forever visible by their tall, white caps. These men carried platters and skewers like swords among the guests, pausing to tend each table with care, whilst amidst it all a full orchestra played, and women clad in flowing silks and golden bangles danced to the lustful pleasing of lute and flute and drum.

I was seated at the high table—not at Aldia’s left, for at so formal an occasion, such proximity would have been inappropriate, but at the extreme end, Cassandra beside me. Izemrasen and his coterie—the captain of the vessel that had brought him so many light-years to Jadd; a woman I took for a blood magus of Oannos, one of their porphyrogeneticists; and three high ministers from the court of King Azenzar—had displaced us. It was no slight, and no trouble, for the feasts of Jadd are not as in the Empire. Among my own people, a formal dinner is a structured, measured affair. Courses are brought one at a time, laid before guests, and progress through the natural order, from amuse bouche to petit fours. Salad followed soup, dessert followed dinner.

Not so in Jadd. Among the Jaddians, there were dozens of courses, each brought on platters or skewers by the cooks and the men that served them. Sweet might follow savory, and be followed by savory in turn, so that a course of roasted lamb might be succeeded by a dish of iced cream and candied pistachio, only to be followed by another course of grilled meat, or a salad bright with acid. Each guest was expected to take only a little, to taste each dish as it was presented—and little more.

Each dish was a work of art masterfully arranged. Each lived only for an instant, oft served already on its spoon—a single bite, like a dream—that melted away on eating, as on waking, leaving only a pleasant memory.

What all we ate I could not begin to tell you, Reader, at that, or any dinner at the High Prince’s court. There was simply too much.

Of the conversation, by contrast, there was too little. The Jaddians little spoke as they ate, by custom—to do otherwise to pay insult to the efforts of their servants. After the prayers of thanksgiving to the Lord of Wisdom that began the feast, there was little said until all was done, unless it was to one’s neighbors in hushed tones. Cassandra whispered to me, asking question after question—about the food, about the odalisques dancing on the dais in the heart of the pavilion, about Izemrasen and the men of Oannos.

“Do you really think he’s as strong as the Jaddian lords?”

“Do you think Uncle Aldia will let him marry one of his granddaughters?”

“Yes, but which granddaughter?”

“Or which great-granddaughter?”

“What if Prince Sennen says no?”

“Why does he have a snake on his arm if his kingdom’s symbol is a fish, Abba?”

“Abba, you said he was a hunter. What does he hunt?”

“Yes, but why, Abba?”


“Yes, Cassandra?” I asked, conscious of the eyes of the woman seated to my right, a companion of one of the princes of the Domagavani. The girl had behaved herself—not raising her voice—but she had spoken far more than the Jaddian courtiers were used to.

“May I be excused?”

I peered down at her, trying to gauge her desires. “Only if you come back.”

She nodded, and smoothing the front of her neophyte’s white uniform, slid her chair back upon the marble tile. I watched her go, twin braids bouncing as she went her way through the flock of servants forever in motion.

“What a darling girl,” said the woman at my right.

I looked at her, trying to gauge the woman’s intent. Jaddian women wore no masks like their men, and the gauzy veil that might cover nose and mouth was cast aside, baring her painted face. Such women are always masked, I find, and wield their words like knives. The compliment, I felt sure, was an insult in disguise.

“She is,” I said, and smiled my crooked smile.

“I understand her mother is dead,” the woman said.

Another insult, a reminder of all I’d lost. 

“Yes,” I said, voice at once brittle. I’d no desire to discuss such things. “Slain. Fighting the Cielcin.”

“Dreadful,” the woman said, and touched my arm with a hand intricately dyed with henna. The sight of it recalled my Valka’s saylash, the fractal intaglio tattooed upon her hand and arm. This woman’s nails were like talons, painted red as blood. “And you . . . alone?”

I was not, as it happened. Demetra visited me two or three times out of the week, assisted Neema with the upkeep of the manse on the island . . . assisted me.

I felt my eyes narrow, harden. “Madam,” I said, peering at her male companion. “Don’t.”

She laughed. “I mean only that the girl must want for feminine instruction.”

“My daughter wants for nothing,” I said. “She is a novice of the Fire School.”

“War is an ugly profession for women,” the woman said. “Violence will make a sapphite of her—if you are not careful.”

My smile turned to glass. “Violence makes corpses of those not acquainted with it,” I said. “Have a care how you speak to me.”

“I mean no offense!” the woman said, a shade loudly. “It is only that the girl is unacquainted with our ways. As it seems are you.”

“Shereen!” the woman’s male companion looked round, hissed at her in their native Jaddian, “Are you drunk? Do you know who that is? This is Hadrian Marlowe, the Red Emperor’s own magian! Show some respect!”

Was that terror in the prince’s eyes? My smile warmed. He should feel terror. It would be he who must answer for his woman’s insult, should I choose to take offense.

I did not choose.

He was a Prince of Jadd, and though I might have challenged him—for I was a lord in my own right—I would not so dishonor Aldia, nor did I want the trouble that might come of slaying so great a lord in single combat.

Even at my age, it would not have been a fair fight.

“I’ve done nothing, nothing, mia qal!” the woman, Shereen, turned and swatted her companion. “I was just giving Lord Marlowe here some advice!”

“I will keep what you have said under advisement,” I said, and knocked back my near-full glass of Verde from a plantation on the flowering moon, signaled a passing page for another.

For the rest of dinner, I answered her sporadic attempts at conversation in monosyllables. By the time the pilau was served at the end of all, she had gotten the message, and returned to the silence she had criticized Cassandra for breaking.

If she had intended to try and seduce me—as did not seem impossible, given her line of inquiry—she had failed.

The music died, and at once the sound of silver ringing on glass caught my attention. Turning with the others, I peered along the high table, found Izemrasen standing, his white tiger-skin cloak yet hung from his shoulders—but he had foregone his armor in favor of suits of Oannosene azure. Only his vambraces remained, the left housing his terminal, the right displaying the serpent badge—though I thought that surely here was a different gauntlet, for the serpent’s head was not on the back of his hand, but pointed back toward his elbow.

It was that hand which held the spoon, the left that held the glass by whose musical properties the prince had summoned silence.

“My lords and ladies,” he began, speaking slowly, setting down his spoon, “good people of Jadd. On behalf of my father, my people, Captain Mokrani here . . . I thank you for this reception . . . ” He smiled down on High Prince Aldia, and raising his glass, forged ahead, “It is . . . difficult to imagine a more generous host. To your prince! To Aldia the Long-Lived, Prince of the House du Otranto, High Prince of Jadd!”

All gathered drank then, to the health and largesse of their liege.

When the toast was finished, Izemrasen spoke. “It is difficult to meet such generosity in kind, but we have brought gifts for you, our hosts. Gifts from the genetic sorcerers of Oannos. Proof—I hope—that we are to be numbered your equals in the art of bloodwork.”

This was overly ambitious, and disquieted many of the Jaddians—greater and lesser—who heard it, for in Jadd the supremacy of Jaddian genetic wizardry was taken as plain fact. Even the palatine lords of the Imperium, who had invented nearly all the science of human eugenics, were reckoned second best to the men who designed and sequenced the genomes of the princes of Jadd. For this lord of the edge of the human universe would assert equality with the Jaddians was a grievous insult, though Izemrasen seemed not to notice.

The Prince of Oannos tapped the jeweled comm patch on the mastoid process behind his right ear, issued some subvocal command. Still holding his goblet, he stretched a hand toward the rear of the pavilion, along the central aisle to the orchestra on its dais, where—by arrangement—a coterie of Oannosene servants appeared, directing a series of float pallets upon which a number of tall objects stood, concealed beneath cloths of azure and gold.

“Across the galaxy,” Izremrasen began, his seeming permanent smile firmly in place, one ringed hand gesticulating in the best rhetorical fashion, “tales are told of the men of Jadd—how you defied the Sollan Empire of old, and carved a home for yourself here, among the far suns. Tales too are told of the beauty of your court. The men of Jadd have built a paradise in this life, it is said, greater than any on Earth of old. I see that the tales speak truly. I asked myself: How shall I honor my hosts? Your love of beauty, your legacy of war. Long and hard I sought for an answer.” He held a fist beside his ear, shook it, held the gaze of all the room with his golden eyes. Opening that fist, he said, “Then it came to me.”

He clapped his hands three times, and his servants removed the drapes that covered the pallets they had floated in from their ships deep in the palace gardens. Heads turned, human curiosity besting that innate Jaddian sense of superiority. I craned my own neck, leaning nearer the cursed woman at my right hand to better see.

Each of the pallets held a tall cage, each intricately wrought of golden wire twisted to evoke the waves of a sea in storm, a dozen cages in all. Within each, a flock of bright birds perched, startled by the sudden removal of the drapes. Of every hue and kind they were, red and blue, green and gold. Black. White. Yellow. Parrots and parrakeets, toucans and birds of paradise, and half a hundred other varietals besides so that I—who know but little of the flying things—was taken by sheer excess of it all. Not a one of them made a sound, though several flapped their bright wings in agitation.

“My birds!” said Izremrasen, gesturing with spread fingers, “for your paradise.”

That, evidently, was the sign that the cages should be opened, for they were, and as if they had rehearsed this a hundred times, the birds leaped into the air, much to the alarm and delight of the diners. Cassandra had not returned, and I found myself wishing that she were present. She would have laughed with delight. Looking down the table, I saw that Aldia was himself smiling, and felt myself—momentarily—at my ease.

The birds alighted upon the cords that ran between the poles that held up the roof of the pavilion, upon the centerpieces of the tables, upon the backs of chairs and the tops of the cages they had but lately escaped.

But that was not the end of it, for an instant later, one of the servants blew a whistle—its sound so high that it took the genetically augmented hearing of the high lords to hear.

Then one of the most remarkable things I had ever experience—in all my nearly six hundreds years of life—began.

The birds began to sing.

Not in the crude speech of birds, the trilling, chanting, squawking, croaking of ordinary beasts . . . but in human voices. Men and women alike gasped, and looked on in wonder, for here—truly—was a marvel, and not merely a marvel of genetic science, but one of training. Skill. Dedication to the craft. I confess myself amazed, and for a time forgot my place in time, forgot my spat with Shereen, forgot that I was in exile, and very far from home.

They sang in Jaddian, but I shall translate it for you—near as I can.

Here is what they sang:

Three moons there were o’er Jadd of old . . .

. . . three moons there shine there still

And there Katanes, proud and bold

Ruled over sea and hill.

His sword, like crystal, caught the sun

His will, a bar of steel

Thus round his high seat, one-by-one

The princes came to kneel . . .

I knew the song at once—every man and woman of Jadd knew it, and I had counted Jadd my home for nigh two centuries. It was Il Balantha du Dom Katanes, The Ballad of Prince Katanes, the tale of how he won for Jadd its independence, wresting it from the hands of my own people, the Sollan Empire of old. It was not quite the anthem of the Jaddian people, but it was nigh as good as, and beloved by every soul in the Principalities, from the meanest serf up to Aldia himself. Katanes was a hero, one of history’s great men . . . 

Long the birds sang, and told his story. How he had wrested the keys to the Jaddian genetic line from the Imperial viceroy, how he freed his brothers and sisters, and united the noble lines of the Jaddian genetic constellation behind him, and fought the Imperium to a standstill with the first mamluk clone armies in defiance of the Terran Chantry’s sacred laws.

The song concluded with Katanes wed to the daughter of the Sollan Emperor, fomenting a peace that had lasted ever since, that blossomed into a friendship between the Empire and Jadd that—while often distant—had lasted ever since, enduring long millennia.

Izemrasen’s meaning in selecting the song was plain. He intended to couch himself as a second Katanes, to cast the Commonwealth in the role of the Empire, and Jadd as his salvation. It was transparent as glass, but so artfully was it delivered that—though I felt certain even the densest courtier must have clocked the intended meaning at once—none seemed to mind.

The last words of Il Balantha lingered on the air and in my mind as the applause began, startling those birds closest to their human audience. When this, too, had faded, Aldia spoke. “Truly,” the High Prince said, “you honor us, Prince Izemrasen. Yours is a kingly gift, a wonder of the bloody art and science of genesis.”

Izemrasen—who had not sat at all during the lengthy performance—bowed deeply to his host. “If the Lord High Prince will permit me,” he said, “I have another gift. A personal gift. One prince—however humbler—to another.” Straightening, he gestured to his servants.

A moment later, a roar sounded from beyond the pavilion, transformed into a high and piercing cry. To my somewhat surprise, the Oannosene songbirds did not startle or flee—I would forget that in the moments that were to come—and instead confined their fright and irritation to the odd cry or flapping of jewel-feathered wings. Those diners seated nearest the entrance stood. Women gasped, men turned about and put themselves—some did at least—between their women and the source of that sound.

I stood myself, amazed at the sight of the creature—the creatures, there were two—that still more Oannosene serving men led into the pavilion on golden chains.

One had the head of a lion—not gold as the beast Muhuc that Izemrasen had ridden, but white—the other the head of a lupine dog. Both had bodies equal parts feline and canine, part lion, part dire wolf.

But they had wings, wings great as those of the teratornis. Greater.

And their tails! Their tails were neither the tails of lions or of dogs, but the great feathered fans of peafowl. The feathered tail of the dog-headed beast was white as its fur, but the lion-headed creature—the male, I realized—had feathers of viridian and celadon, cerulean and bright gold!

I thought at once of the beast whose image made up the pommel and hilt of my sword. That immortal bird-beast that was one of Jadd’s most ancient symbols—a symbol more ancient than Jadd, as ancient as Earth herself.

Part lion, part wolf, part peafowl.

“The simurgh!” said Izemrasen, “In the flesh!”

“The simurgh . . . ” Aldia said, leaning forward. “You made these creatures?”

“Yes,” said Izemrasen, still at Aldia’s right. “A breeding pair. The female of the species is the one with the wolf’s head, the lion is the male. There are more of the creatures back home. They require some special handling in vitro, a consequence of the chimerization, but they are as fine a specimen as we of Oannos have ever made. Syrtes! Lilu! Qqim!”

At the prince’s command, the chimeras sat, gold chains rattling in the hands of their minders.

“They are . . . beautiful,” said Aldia, and sparing a glance for Sennen Gorgora and the lesser princes seated along the length of the high table, he continued, “I see that we have underestimated the skill of your magi.”

“I made them with my own hand,” said Izemrasen.

“You made them yourself?” said Aldia.

Izemrasen bowed but shallowly. “A gift bought is worth less than a gift made,” said Izemrasen, “so say we in Oannos.”

“Impressive,” said Aldia. “Very impressive indeed.”

“Syrtes!” said Izemrasen, and the male simurgh perked up. “Nder!”

On command, the leonine beast roared, reared. Its claws were like knives of polished obsidian, its teeth like spears. Its roaring turned to piercing music, high and cold as the screech of any falcon. Then it opened its wings, spread its tail wide, feathers snapping in the smoky air.

It was too much for the lesser birds.

As it was meant to be.

Frightened by the roaring simurgh, the hundred or more birds that made up the Oannosene chorus took flight. Women shrieked, men ducked, and the musicians in the orchestra cradled their instruments. All at once the pavilion was filled with the beating of so many wings. Confusion. Chaos. Pandemonium. One woman yelled as a red and blue-tailed parrot collided with her, its claws tearing at her arms in her haste to be away.

Over it all, I could hear the whistle blast of the Oannosene beastmaster as he attempted desperately to recall the fleeing birds. Surely, I remember thinking, they must have clipped their wings. Surely the beasts could not go far.

Far enough.

The High Prince’s mamluk guards stood at the ready, hands ready on their lances. I was on my feet, and moved along the high table, the better to stand by Prince Aldia.

“Ho! Syrtes! Ho!” Izemrasen shouted, and vaulted over the high table—his fine cloak abandoned on his chair. Just as the simurgh had frightened the flock of singing birds, so the birds had frightened the two simurghs. The female—the dog-headed beast with plumage white as snow—hunkered down, snarling, while the male roared and snapped, beating the air with its mighty wings until the pavilion over our heads snapped like the sail of some seagoing vessel in some inconstant squall.

As I watched, Izemrasen himself seized the gilt chains that secured the male of the species, and in that instant—for a time—I was moved by his display. It took great personal courage to rush a beast of that size and terror, and one so . . . unnatural besides. Whatever his political wrangling, his seeming-bumbling lack of tact or understanding of the ways of the Jaddian court—he was no coward.

In that moment, I admired him.

He would make a fine king one day.

“Abba!” Cassandra had returned from her protracted visit to the lavatory, stood frozen on the borders of the great tent away to my left. “What’s happening?”

“Just stay there!” I said sternly, wheeling to face her. “Stay down!”

That turn—it would later transpire—probably saved my life.

One of the birds collided with me, claws scrabbling at my back, wings beating my shoulders, my arms. A claw snagged in the heavy samite of my court dress, and the bird went mad, wings beating as it tried to free itself. Its wings were green as emeralds, flecked with gold. It squawked as it tried to make its escape, claw caught in the tail of my coat. I seized the creature, tore it from me. I felt its foot break, and felt a twinge of pity as the bird cried out in pain. I’d not intended to do it hurt, though a dull fury was on me. I cast the creature down, but it did not stay there.

Eager to be off the ground, the bird rolled where it fell, let out another cry.

That was when I felt it.

The burning.

My hand—the hand that had seized the emerald bird by its taloned foot—was burning. Sparing it a glance, I saw no wound, no hurt upon the pale flesh—unless it was the calluses and the scars left by old violence.

I knew poison when I felt it, though I did not fully understand what was happening—what had happened.

But I knew to draw my sword.

The Phaian blade—its exotic nuclei forged in an array of particle accelerators thousands of years ago and tens of thousands of light-years away, its hilt reforged here on Jadd in the likeness of the very beasts that had triggered this panic—sprang into existence in an instant, sprouting as a flare from the surface of a sun. Blue-white its liquid metal blade shone, glowing with a light of its own. Before the mamluks could stop me for the crime of drawing blade so near the High Prince, I slashed the emerald songbird in two.

“Poison!” I shouted, drawing the eye of all about me not occupied by the simurgh. “Kill the birds!”

Sensing the tension in Aldia’s mamluk guard, I let my sword droop.

Aldia turned to look at me, eyes wide in his cobalt enameled mask. We both had the same thought, I sensed, in that same moment.

The bird had flown directly at the prince. Only the fact that I was standing as so near at hand had confused the creature.

It had been intended for him.

Aldia and I both were avid players of druaja, the mechanical labyrinth chess so beloved on Jadd. In druaja, as in the traditional chess whence it traced its lineage, it was sometimes necessary to sacrifice one’s queen to win the game.

Had Oannos intended to sacrifice its prince to mate another? A prince far greater still?

Though no word passed between us, I knew the old man and I each had thought the same thing.

Then a second bird flew at us, flew directly at the chair-bound prince.

Heedless of the mamluks, heedless of the nerve-fire in my fingers, I leaped up upon the high table, scattering glassware as I went, blade flashing—its edge programmed to the width of a molecule—and slashed the carmine beast in two.

“Don’t touch it!” I said, shouting at the man seated beneath me who sought to move the half of the bird that landed on his plate. He was lucky it had not landed in his lap.

I stayed where I was, burning hand clenched around the hilt of my sword, blade ready to cleave any other kite that came for the prince. Aldia’s mamluks—having communicated silently after their fashion, subvocalizing in their mirror-faced helms—set about killing the other birds. Izemrasen had by then calmed the male simurgh, the one called Syrtes. I spied a half dozen Swordmasters with blades drawn like mine, distributed about the pavilion.

Had any of the birds escaped?

They could not all have been envenomated, could they?

The woman I had seen attacked by one of the birds was sitting up, her fine coiffure in shreds, the veil of fine gold chain that had obscured her lovely features a tangle.

But she was not dead.

Not all then.

No third bird came for the High Prince.

“Izemrasen!” I called, and thrust my blade down at the prince.

The Serpent of Oannos, Lord of the Most Splendid Dominion, turned from his work helping to secure the simurgh. For an instant—a fleeting instant—I thought I glimpsed the face behind the face. Was that anger written there? Fear? Frustration?

“What is the meaning of this?” I demanded.

Then the hidden face was gone, lost beneath the mask his obvious scholiastic training had laid on him. Izemrasen shook his head. “I don’t know,” said he, and stroking the face of Syrtes, gave him over to his servitor. “This is not my doing.”

My eyes narrowed.

“Oh!” came a voice from over my shoulder. “It burns!”

Looking down, I saw the Lady Shereen standing up swiftly. She’d been crouched over the body of the green bird where I’d left it on the white tile. She shook her hand out, immediately put the fingers in her mouth.


“No!” I shouted.

At once her eyes went wide, filled with tears. Abandoning her male companion, she scurried from the pavilion, almost colliding with Cassandra in her haste to be away.

“Someone get her!” I said.

“Send for my physicians!” Aldia said, voice surprisingly strong.

Lady Shereen and any other victims—and myself—would need to be seen at once.

My hand was burning, burning, burning.

I looked down at it, feeling the sweat beading on my forehead. I held my sword the tighter. It was all I could do to keep that hand from touching any other part of me. I’d not been scratched—that was a small blessing. That meant the poison was not in my blood.

But the pain of it! Not since I had been a prisoner in the dungeons of the Cielcin Prophet-King had I known such pain. Looking down at the hand, I half-expected to find charcoal where flesh and bone had been, fancied I could smell the smoke burning meat.

“Hadrian . . . ” Aldia’s voice was kind. “You’re hurt.”

“It was him,” I said, and thrust the blade at Izemrasen. “He tried to kill you, Aldia.”

Izemrasen spread his hands, revealed his empty palms. Behind him, the two simurghs were being led away. About him, the Yahmazi, the Jaddian secret police—armored all in black and white—were closing in. “My prince, it was not me,” he said, “by Mother Earth, I swear it.”

“Commander Ruhani,” Aldia said, “Take Prince Izemrasen and his people into custody.”

Izemrasen stood straighter, but he did not object. He neither begged nor speechified, but tugged the hilt of his unkindled sword from his belt and cast it on the earth.

I did not leave the table until the Yahmazi put him in fetters and turned him away. Only then did I banish my own blade and leap down from the table.

“Abba! Are you all right?” Cassandra asked.

“Stay back!” I said, still clenching the hilt of my sword. “The birds were poisoned. Something on their skin. It’s on my hand, my coat.” It was possible the garment would have to be burned. “Don’t touch me now, there’s a good girl!”

“You were . . . poisoned?” the girl’s eyes were very wide.

“Not badly,” I said. “But I need to go with the wounded. Where’s Neema?”

“With the servants—”

“Go to him!” I said, voice ragged with pain.

“But I want to stay with you!”

I snarled. There was no time to argue. “Until we find Neema.”

It was better not to let Cassandra out of my sight, whatever my present state.

“Does it hurt?”

I chewed my tongue, looked down at her. She was safe. That was what mattered.

I smiled. She should see her father smiling, even then. She was scared, and small, and needed me solid.

Presently I nodded, and—still smiling—said, “Certainly it hurts.”

The wounded were being brought from the pavilion, chivvied by mamluk guards or by Yahmazi men. The medical team was already hurrying from the palace, and on the roof of the Alcaz above, great floodlamps had been engaged. Their radiance gave the whole scene a sense of unreality—or perhaps that was the poison leeching through my skin.

They had tried to kill the prince. Had nearly killed me.

It was the Lothrians, it had to be. The Commonwealth had pushed Oannos to try and cut the head off the Jaddian state. The Commonwealth . . . and the Cielcin whom they served.

The war had found me, even at the farthest edge of the galaxy.

Even in my exile.





An ancient poison, one known to the men of Earth. A neurotoxic steroidal alkaloid—that was what Aldia’s physicians called it. There were certain birds, I later learned, in whom the venom was naturally occurring—the consequence of said bird’s preference for insects rich in the toxin. But in those birds—most likely the terranic ifrit—the toxin was not lethally concentrated. The autopsies Aldia’s people performed over the course of the next several days revealed the poison in seven of the one hundred seventeen birds the Prince of Oannos had gifted the Jaddian people, and at concentrations more than a hundred times greater than in the terranic ifrit.

And of course, none of the seven birds was an ifrit at all.

Three were parrots, two were lorikeets, one a hoopoe, and the last a toucan—this last I found especially sinister, as the toucan was well known to be Prince Aldia’s favorite bird.

My own injuries were minor. The toxin worked by depolarizing the nerve and muscle fibers, permanently opening the sodium ion channels, which blocked the brain’s ability to send signals to the affected cells. The result was pain . . . and eventual paralysis. Had the bird that caught on the back of my coat caught on my lapels, had its wings beaten my head and face—had I inhaled the toxin that floated like dander on its wings—that pain and paralysis would have affected my lungs, not merely my hands.

That was the fate Izemrasen had chosen for Aldia.

Choking. Gasping.

If, of course, Izemrasen were truly guilty.

In a certain sense, the prince’s guilt did not matter. Whether it was the prince himself or merely one of his retinue, Jadd had its casus belli. If Aldia and the Domagavani wanted a war, they had only to declare it. Oannos and its twin subject systems might find themselves taken into the Jaddian fold after all. Not by marriage, but by conquest.

Looking back now, I almost wonder if that hadn’t been the intent.

I but briefly knew Prince Izemrasen, but I thought then and think now that he was at his core a decent man, one reared on princely mirrors, one desiring to be the champion and servant of his people. By forcing a doomed war with Jadd, a war he and his house must lose, he forced the Jaddians to occupy his worlds. Oannos, Anzar. Masiddica. The Jaddian armada would be there when and if the Lothrian hammer came, and though the House of Barasegh would be dead or neutered, the people of Oannos would have a new defender.

Alternately—if he was behind the attack, as seemed plain that night—it was possible he intended to set himself up as the hero. Manufacture an attack on the Jaddian prince, one so mad it was either genius or folly. Expose and present the true culprit—a scapegoat—and return to Oannos with a princess of the House du Otranto in train.

Or perhaps he was the scapegoat, a Trojan Horse employed by some other agency in his own court. Or by the Lothrians. If the rumors of the Most Splendid Dominion’s regular tribute to the Commonwealth were true . . . the Lothrians might have used the prince to hide their hand, a gilded glove to conceal the gray, sexless hand of the Nameless Ones.

All these scenarios and more played out in my mind as Aldia’s physicians bathed and scrubbed my hand in clean water. My torn and poisoned clothes they discarded. My sword and other effects they sterilized. There is no cure for batrachotoxins. Treatment in cases such as mine involved thorough cleaning and the administration of local anesthetic, which worked to antagonize the alkaloid. The more serious cases, such as that fool woman, Shereen, required more global treatment. Controlled dosages of other toxins acted to antagonize the homobatrachotoxin, each inhibiting each. Recovering would be slow.

All in all, some twenty people had been affected by the Izemrasen’s birds, thirteen had mild to moderate contact exposure—like myself. The rest were more serious.

Only one died before the dawn. A young man—the son of some provincial satrap.

I watched him die, stalking the palace ward like a phantom myself, my right hand bound in the black gauze of a corrective. The gel agent beneath the smart bandage worked to rejuvenate the damaged skin cells, but Aldia’s physician—an elderly woman with a face like a sunburnt olive—warned that I might experience numbness in the affected tissue for many weeks to come.

That, at least, proved correct.

I remember massaging my fingertips with my thumb, each in turn, feeling the hand as though it were someone else’s. It was not a new feeling. The third and final fingers were not the fingers I was born with. A Durantine doctor had presided over their regeneration whilst I convalesced on Nessus after my trials on Dharan-Tun and at Akterumu. The left hand I had lost entire. Its bones were false, a lattice of printed adamant, the flesh regenerated overtop. That, too, I had lost in battle, lost fighting the Cielcin.

My body was a tapestry of scars, old injuries faded or etched more deeply by time.

The nerve damage done by the Oannosene poison would prove among the least-lasting of the hurts I had suffered, though—like the worst of those hurts—it left no visible sign.


“Izemrasen,” said High Prince Aldia, seated on his throne beneath the very apex of the Tholo Orothano, “Prince of the House of Barasegh, Prince of Oannos . . . you are charged with the crime of would-be regicide, of the murder of Roderigo ban Abbas du Bal, of twenty-one other accounts of assault against members and quests of my court, and of committing an act of war against the Domagavani and the people of Jadd. How do you answer this?”

Izemrasen stood in the center of the floor, unfettered as was his right as a foreign dignitary, but under heavy guard. A dozen Swordmasters of the Fire School stood near at hand, each grasping the hilt of his unkindled sword, each shielded. Only a single Oannosene minister stood fast by his prince, robed in royal blue, with a tall, pill-shaped cap on his head. The fellow was dark-complected as his lord, with numerous heavy gold chains looped about his neck, draped over his shoulders, held in place by jeweled epaulets.

It was this man who spoke, raising his chin in gesture of defiance. “Innocent, Prince.”

These two words were like a pair of stones dropped into still water, the way they disturbed the Jaddian court.

The great chamber—the Court of the Three Moons—lay, as I said, beneath the apex of the Tholo Orothano. We were high in the great palace, so eighty stories from the ground. Still the roof of the great dome lay hundreds of feet above our heads, its center crowned by a mandala of colored crystal cut to evoke stained glass. That jeweled dome scattered light of every hue upon the minutely tiled pillars and arched galleries that rose all round on the levels above.

The Jaddian throne itself—wrought during their wars with the Sollan Empire in direct challenge to the Solar Throne—was fashioned in the shape of a crescent moon, its horns rising to either side of the high seat, almost meeting at the top, a great arc nearly ten cubits in diameter. The whole throne—the seat, and the crescent of its back—was cut from a single piece of pale crystal, a printed gem polished to a mirror’s shine. Seated at the bottom of that crescent, on a cutting in its precise center, sat old Aldia himself, his shriveled legs concealed with the robes of state.

“Innocent?” he said, cobalt mask moving in time with the flexion of his jaw. He cast his eyes up at the great Faravahar that hung above the crescent throne, that icon of Ahura Mazda, the Lord of Wisdom and of Truth. “Innocent?” he said again. “You are a fellow prince, my Lord of Oannos. I will permit you to unsay what you have said. The truth is your only defense. Lies ill become any man, much less one whom the God has set above other men.”

“The truth?” Izemrasen objected, taking a step forward. He had eschewed his finery that day, dressed in simple blacks, as a common soldier. Only the golden bezants at his throat and the golden chains of aiguilettes betrayed his royal station—bright as his hair, less bright than his glowing eyes. “The truth is that I was betrayed, O High Prince!”

His minister threw out an arm. “My lord, you must not.”

“Mustn’t I, Munatas?” the prince countered.

The tall-capped minister stepped before his lord. “My Prince of Jadd. These seven days—whilst we have been confined to our vessels on the landing field—we have worked tirelessly to get to the bottom of the . . . unfortunate situation at the welcome feast.”

“I’m sure you have,” Neema tutted, unheard by all but me.

“Unfortunately situation, sirrah?” Aldia said. “The birds in question were designed the way they were from birth. You expect me to believe that a bloodworker of your master’s caliber could fail to notice that seven of the birds he gifted to us could not be touched without pain? Without risk of death? Tell me: they did not make the journey here from Oannos awake. They were in cryonic storage, were they not? They would have had to be handled. Tended. Revived. This could not be done without knowledge of the danger they posed.”

Before Izemrasen could respond, the minister, Munatas, said, “My Prince of Jadd. The Prince Izemrasen was ignorant of these matters, by Mother Earth, I swear it. The birds were not his charge.”

“You mean to say it was one of your servants?” asked Sennen Gorgora, seated on a lesser throne below the high seat, alongside a dozen of his fellow junior princes of Jadd.

“One of the birdkeepers,” said Munatas, and as he spoke, I realized for the first time that his teeth were implants made all of gold. “We arrested all of them when we returned to our shuttle, sent word to our ship in orbit that they should do the same. These seven days we have worked to ascertain precisely what happened.”

“A boy is dead!” Aldia shouted, his gnarled and spotted hands tightening on the staff that symbolized his right to rule, twisting in his lap. “A boy is dead, minister. But for Lord Marlowe, I might myself be dead!”

One of the other members of the Domagavani present—a young man in a viridian mask—spoke up then, saying, “If you knew one of your servants was guilty, why did you not produce him sooner?”

“Because they needed all the time they could to get their stories right . . . ” I said, half-turning to speak to Neema, who could only shake his head.

“Because this is an internal matter!” said Munatas.

“An internal matter?” Gorgora objected. “Your delegation attacked the High Prince himself!”

“How we investigate our own people is our matter, my Prince of Gorgora,” said Minister Munatas. “It fell to us to determine what had happened, as it falls to us to bring that information to you now. This is the proper forum, is it not?”

This prompted a burbling from the panel of lesser princes seated below Aldia’s high seat. Objections and reprimands were thrown like so much rotting fruit, and the preponderance of the court—those gathered about the throne of the moon on its dais—shifted where they stood. The room was filled with low sound, like a rising tide.

Speaking over all, voice amplified by speakers hidden in the cornices that decorated the tops of the columns that encircled the round chamber, Aldia said, “Can you produce this character, then?”

“My lord High Prince, she is outside.”

Another wave of surprise and disquiet washed over the prince’s court, masked men and painted women alike whispering behind paper fans.

Theater, I remember thinking. It’s all theater.

It always was. I was no stranger to royal courts, to the game of dynasty and throne.

In the balance hung not merely the fate of relations between Oannos and Jadd, but the fate of the Oannosene people. An alliance with Jadd would pull their three worlds, their billion-some subjects, out of the path of the Commonwealth, out of the White Hand of the Cielcin, even if Jadd were committed to war in their defense. A failure of that alliance might spell doom for Oannos, condemn it to slip into the clutches of the enemy—perhaps forever. The Commonwealth sold its own people to the Cielcin, meat and slaves alike. The Nameless Ones would not hesitate to liquidate the entire Oannosene people to meet their obligations to their inhuman masters.

“Bring her!”

Munatas keyed his terminal, and a moment later, a quartet of still-armed Oannosene troopers entered, leading a slight, dark-haired woman between them. She was not dark-complected, like the prince or his minister, but pale, plain-featured. Whatever the wonders of Oannosene eugenics, they evidently did not extend to the servant class. Still, there was something about her. Something in the eyes. They were dead eyes, black eyes, tired and beaten. She looked like one who had endured great pain with little sleep.

It was a look I knew well, and wondered what torment her people had put her through in the days since the welcome feast. I found myself imagining a dark room, poorly and centrally lit. The largest of the Oannosene landing ships was surely large enough to have a brig.

Or had they caged with the animals the prince had brought?

So dejected was she, that I began to question Izemrasen’s guilt for the first time.

Hers was the aspect of the caged dog, ready to bite.

“This is the one?” asked Aldia, peering down that the woman from under his mask’s ridged brow.

“One of our birdkeepers,” said Munatas. “She was the one who secreted the birds in question among those intended as a gift for Your Celestial Grace.”

“Is that so?” asked Aldia, leaning forward. “What is your name, child?”

The woman looked up, shook her head.

“Isem-nnem?” Munatas asked her, translating.

The woman turned, looked at the dark minister. Turning her face from Munatas to Aldia, she said, “Isem-inu . . . Izlan, ageldun.”

“She says her name is Izlan, Prince,” said Munatas.

“Izlan . . . ” Aldia said. “Whom do you serve?”

Munatas translated. Izlan replied.

“She says, ‘only what is right.’”

I speak the Imperial Standard, Jaddian, Lothrian . . . I know the tongues of the Norman Freeholders, speak Tavrosi Nordei and Panthai well as any native of that far country—for I shared my life and bed with one of their clanswomen. I read English, Latin, and Greek, can speak Mandari and Nipponese more than passing well. I have smattering of the Irchtani language—though no human can fully speak the tongue of the birdmen of Judecca. And I of course know the black speech of the Cielcin.

But the tongue of Oannos was strange to me, and stranger still the experience of not understanding. I had to trust that Izemrasen and his minister were representing the woman honestly.

But Aldia did not.

“She said she acted alone,” said a woman in Yahmazi black at Aldia’s side. She was—I think—the only masked woman in the entire chamber. The woman of Jadd did not mask themselves as their men, except in the military or in police roles—where the women were rare.

Aldia wrung the scepter in his hands. “Do not twist words with me, minister,” he said, and gesturing two-fingered at the Faravahar of Ahura Mazda above his head, added, “I warn you again not to twist the truth in this place.”

Izemrasen spoke then, evidently no longer able to contain himself. “She is a servant of the Nameless Ones. A Lothrian spy!”

For a moment, my blood ran cold. The court about me held its breath, the thing they all knew and feared confirmed.

“Of course she is!” I said, too loudly, drawing glares from the courtiers to left and right.

Izemrasen looked at me, eyes wide and too bright in his dark face. Was that fear? The man’s fate—and that of his people—teetered on a razor’s edge. On monofilament. Maybe he was a dupe, after all. A puppet. The mechanism by which his secret—and perhaps unknown—Lothrian masters had attempted to decapitate the Jaddian state. The plan made more sense if he was ignorant. Why else would be come to Jadd himself? Surely—if he was the mastermind behind the assassination plot—he would have sent this Munatas with his poisoned gifts and hollow offer.

Sacrificed a pawn, not a prince . . . 

And yet . . . 

And yet he must have known. How could he not, master of beasts that he was?

He had seen me, and so I spoke. “You had to have known . . . ” I said.

“Had to have known?” Izemrasen looked at me. “Lord Marlowe, I did not know. Why would I have come? Risked my own life? My people’s future?”

“Because you are at the mercy of the Lothrians,” I said simply, shouldering my way out of the net of courtiers, heedless of Neema’s pained protestations at my back.

“Lord Marlowe! Enough!” said High Prince Aldia. “It is Aldia who rules on Jadd—and the princes of the Domagavani—not Hadrian Marlowe. Your Emperor indulged your theatrics to his ruin, but I shall not. Have a care.”

I did not move from my place. The fingers of my right hand still tingled from the bird’s poison, would be numb yet for weeks.

But my not retreating seemed not to bother the High Prince—though the nearest of the Swordmasters locked eyes with me. I could sense the man trying to get the measure of me. I had lived at the Fire School itself since before Cassandra was born, ever since the failure of the Jaddian research project at Islis Ulta—my participation in which had been the price of my exile, and the coin that bought my daughter’s life from the genetic looms.

“Whatever his manners . . . ” Here Aldia looked pointedly at me, and I sensed that I had served my old friend’s purpose. “I confess that I am sympathetic to Lord Marlowe’s point of view . . . are you in league with the Lothrian Grand Conclave?”

The Crown Prince turned from me to Aldia. He said nothing.

The elderly prince’s voice quavered, but the shadow of the young ruler remained in the fading man on the crystal chair.

“They’ve threatened you, have they not? Threatened you with conquest, the enslavement of your people? And in return you were to kill me? To throw Jadd into an electoral crisis that they might invade while we are at our weakest?”

“My prince, I swear to you, I’ve come to you in good cause.”

“You mean to say this woman acted alone?” Aldia asked, looking at the birdkeeper. “You had no knowledge that seven of the birds you brought from Oannos were, in fact, tools of assassination?”

Izemrasen stood straighter. “No, my prince.”

With Aldia, I turned my attention back to the woman called Izlan. She was sweating, shaking, staring at her boots. It was amazing, I reflected, what fear could do to the body.

“Woman,” said the High Prince, speaking his native Jaddian. When she did look up, he said, “Izlan.”

She looked at him, black eyes shining. Her right hand squeezed the left, crushed the fingers until I felt sure that she must break them.

“Are you a Lothrian servant?” Aldia asked. “Speak truly, and I will spare your life.”

Izlan’s eyes flickered to the Oannosene men standing close about her. Haltingly, she said something, a string of words in the Oannosene language I could not understand.

Tall-capped Munatas injected himself, saying, “The woman says she is.”

The Yahmazi translator at Aldia’s side said, “She said that she fights for a free people.”

That was too much. I had been to Padmurak, to Vedatharad itself, the gray capital of the Lothrian Commonwealth. No one had been free, not on that entire world. Not even their lords—who pretended they were not lords, just as they pretended not to have names—were free.

Aldia was nodding. “Good,” he said, and turned to the Yahmazi woman in her black uniform. “Take this woman into custody. We will speak to her separately. This is not the Forum.”

The Yahmazi woman tapped her terminal, transmitted subvocal orders to a number of prefects similarly garbed in long, black kaftans and black masks bearing the mark of the full moon on their brows.

“This woman is under my protection!” said Izemrasen, placing himself between Izlan and the Jaddian police.

“This woman—so you say—attempted to assassinate the high prince of Jadd!” shouted Sennen Gorgora.

“She is one of my people!” Izemrasen said.

“She must face justice!” shouted another member of the Domagavani.

“She will face my justice, Prince!” said Izemrasen. “I, too, am a prince—or have you forgotten. If one of my people has wronged this court—as indeed she has—then I have wronged you, though I did not do her deed. It falls to me to make justice.”


The word was lifted above Izemrasen’s own dark tenor. A single word, harsh and brittle as the song of crows.



It was the woman, Izlan, who had spoken it, voice shrill and cold.

I was a moment realizing that I had understood her, for it was not the language of Oannos, but that of the Commonwealth she spoke.

“Death!” she cried again. “Death to tyrants! Death to kings!”

She raised her hand, her left hand; pointed a finger at Aldia where he sat enthroned.

Then I froze, feet heavy as lead, pinned in place by the unreality of what happened next.

That hand—her hand—exploded.

I saw the fingers blown apart, the arm with it. Saw blood and strips of gore spatter the Swordmasters and the Oannosene guardsmen clustered about her. Izemrasen caught the spray full in his face, and briefly turned away.

For an instant, I caught the glimpse of metal where bone ought to have been, then the beam ignited, bright as sunfire in the smoky air of the dome. Someone—Lothrian or Oannosene I dared not guess—had implanted a gun the long bones of her arm. And that gun was pointed square at Aldia.

Only the throne’s shields saved the High Prince. Such beam weapons could chew through a shield in seconds, but Izlan did not have seconds.

An instant after she fired, Prince Izemrasen was on her, shouting, “No!”

He seized her arm, batting it aside such that the beam went wide. Had I not hurled myself to the ground, I would myself have fallen—and fallen in two pieces. Many of those behind me were not so lucky. Many by fashion wore personal shields, while others had ducked like myself. But Izemrasen had sown more death than life in his effort to save the princes shielded on the dais. The beam burned hot enough and bright enough that men and women were cloven clean in two, and the scent of sandalwood and Jaddian myrrh was overwhelmed by the stink of burning men.

I activated my own shield, regained my feet. Izemrasen had taken hold of the woman’s gun-arm, and as I crossed the floor hammered his dagger down into the mechanism to kill the beam.

If Izlan felt the knife, she gave no sign, but spat upon her master’s bloodsoaked face.

“Net bohari,” she said in Lothrian. “Net zari . . . ”

No gods. No kings.

She was dead before I reached her, another corpse among many.

“Master!” Neema scrambled after me. “Master Hadrian, are you hurt?”

I waved the man to silence. “I am all right, Neema,” I said, turning to look at him. He looked unhurt in his court best, the red kaftan trimmed with gold. “You’re unharmed?”

“Only my pride, Domi,” he said, “I confess I fell over the minute that . . . thing went off.”

“That may have been what saved you,” I said.

“Prince Izemrasen.” The voice of High Prince Aldia du Otranto filled the high hall. “You saved us.”

Izlan’s blood was yet on the prince’s golden dagger. I watched it drip.

The blade was broad as the man’s hand, a cinquedea whose broad face showed the gilt image of a tangled serpent devouring its own tail.

Foam ran from Izlan’s mouth, I saw. She had taken poison.

“Is this justice enough?” Izemrasen asked, spurning the woman’s corpse with his boot.

“Justice?” Aldia asked, eying the dead of his court. “Yes. But enough?” He shook his head. “Men are dead, Prince of Oannos.”

Izemrasen looked at the carnage his own intervention had caused. “I did what I could.”

“What you’ve done is not murder,” Aldia said, “and so is not an act of war . . . but there is grief here . . . and pain . . . ”

Among the dead were surely numbered planetary satraps, loyal servants of the princes of Jadd; their wives and sons, visiting dignitaries from the Empire, the Durantine Republic, other Small Kingdoms.

“But I no longer believe you set those birds to kill me,” the prince said.

Izemrasen visibly tensed. Had he expected some other pronouncement?

“I would have peace between our worlds,” Aldia said. “And perhaps . . . I shall have you for a son.”


That ought to have been the end of it. For the weeks that followed, it seemed it had been the end of it. I was not a party to the talks that happened between the Jaddians and the visiting prince—indeed, my little household and I had laid our plans to depart the Alcaz du Badr entirely and return to the Fire School. Cassandra had been away from her lessons long enough, and her Master Hydarnes would be eager to prevent her falling too far behind.

But something made me stay.

Izemrasen and the Oannosene were set to depart before long.

The foreign prince had twice left messages with Neema, expressing his desire to see me. I’d ignored them. There had been a time when I was perhaps the most infamous man in the galaxy. Perhaps I still was, even then.

There were always such messages, every time I journeyed to the High Prince’s court from my quiet exile on the Islis du Albukam. Men wishing to dine with me, to have me regale them with stories of the war; women wishing to give themselves to me, that they might say they—for a night—conquered he who had conquered so many chieftains of the Pale Cielcin. Businessmen came with opportunities I did not want, artists came seeking patronage I could not give.

In two hundred years of exile, I had refused them all—save one.

And Izemrasen was not the one.

Still, his interest interested me, and it was perhaps for that reason that I lingered at court, and Cassandra and Neema with me. I let the girl play in the palace pools, splashing, swimming with Aldia’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and the children of the lesser princes housed at that time in the court of the moon. I myself passed the time alone, reading in the palace library, writing the account of my life of which this account will later prove a part.

I was reading, poring over the histories and mythologies of Old Earth, for in Jadd they have a great many documents, twenty thousand years old and more. My fascination with Earth’s Golden Age has only sharpened in me as I have grown older, perhaps because I am now an antiquity myself. I had become obsessed with our oldest myths, with legends out of Persia, Assyria, Babylon, and Canaan. These the Jaddians—their heirs—possessed in abundance, and I took every hour I could spare in their study . . . engaged in projects of my own.

But the day of the Oannosene embassy’s departure came, and I was invited to stand in the High Prince’s retinue once again, and to bear witness to Izemrasen’s departure.

The day was warm, as it was ever warm in Jaharrad. Following the events of the welcome feast, the Oannosene ships all were moved from their bivouac in the royal gardens’ landing field to the starport in the city itself. This would have occurred under normal circumstances, but the attack had expedited that transfer, and Izemrasen and his people had spent the majority of their time on Jadd confined to a cothon sunk deep in the white stone of the starport landing field.

It was there we said our farewells.

The details of what had been determined between Aldia and Izemrasen and the lesser princes of Jadd were not known to me. I knew only that Izemrasen’s request that his Most Splendid Dominion be brought into the Jaddian fold had been denied, and that—despite this fact—he had been invited to return. For a wedding? Or only for renewed talks?

Close though we were, Aldia had said nothing of his plans to me. That was wise, for there were many ears in the high court, and many whispers.

I’d left Cassandra in Neema’s care, not wanting a repeat of the welcome feast. She had come close to real harm then, as close as she had ever come, and though weeks had passed, the memory of that moment still burned in me. Had she not excused herself, she would have been present when the birds attacked the high table. It might have been her lying dead in the palace medica, or dying. Three of the victims—Lady Shereen among them—were still receiving constant care.

Izemrasen and his party emerged through sliding, reinforced metal doors at the far end of the overlook. The chamber was wedge-shaped, with the convex arc of windows at my back overlooking the floor of the blast pit where the Oannosene shuttles stood clustered, their sails and masts stowed.

The Crown Prince of Oannos looked a shadow of the champion that had arrived. Gone was his great lion mount, gone his golden armor. Only the serpent vambrace remained, the snake’s head once again at rest above the back of his hand. The prince wore a suit of Oannos blue, gold buttons and braid shining in the stained glass lamps that hung from the sloping ceiling. Seeing him, I thought of Hamlet’s father’s ghost: resplendent in his first scene, fading in his last.

“Izemrasen,” said Aldia when the heralds had completed their task, “Prince of the House of Barasegh, it has been our honor to host you here on Jadd. While we wish matters had been different, we are grateful for your visit, and pray that you have a swift and uneventful journey home. May your visit here be but the first step to greater union and harmony between our states and peoples.”

Munatas close behind him, the Prince of Oannos approached Aldia, who stood bracketed by Swordmasters and mamluk clone slaves. The prince did not bow, for though he was a lesser lord, he was a prince still.

“I thank you, High Prince Aldia, for your hospitality,” he said, casting his gaze up and down the line. His eyes settled on me, and in them I saw a man thin and stretched, hollowed out by care. “We have heard stories of the splendor of your court, but the tales and holographs do little to capture the wonder of Jadd as it is. Would that we had met in the sun, not under the Lothrian shadow.”

Aldia inclined his head. “We are even in the shadow of the Commonwealth, as are you.”

Izemrasen’s eyes had not left my face. “And the shadow of the Empire.”

Aldia turned himself and glanced at me, eyes twinkling in his azure mask. “That as well.”

At last, Prince Izemrasen took his eyes from me. To Aldia, he said, “We will await your emissary back home. You have shown us wonders here. But on Oannos, in the Blue Palace, in Nem, we will show you wonders of our own.” He extended his hand, golden braid and chain aiguilettes tinkling, and lifted it in farewell. “Until our next meeting.”

“In the name of Ahura Mazda, giver of all good things, the generous, the loving—go in peace,” Aldia said, raising his own hand in token of farewell.

Then Izemrasen turned, moving right along Aldia’s line, toward the side door where the steps that ran down to the floor of the cothon lay. He stopped as he drew level with me, but it was a moment before he turned.

“Lord Marlowe.”

Was he shaking?

He turned, face me squarely. “It is a pity we had so little chance to talk. I would have liked to know you better.”

I said nothing.

“Tell me one thing, before I go,” the prince said. “Did you truly strike His Radiance, the Emperor?”

Of all the questions he might have asked . . . this?

He might have asked about Syriani Dorayaica, Prophet-King of the Cielcin, the Scourge of Earth itself. He might have asked about Kharn Sagara, and the lost world of Vorgossos, or about either of the Mericanii daimons I had encountered. He might have asked me about the war, about any of my seeming countless battles. About the Cielcin: their ways, their worlds, their gods.

He might have asked me about Death, and what lay beyond her onyx gates.

But this?

My estimation of the man sank by the moment. He had seemed at first a paragon of his people, their champion and exemplar. Later, he had struck by turns as a villain and a fool.

Fool had won out—or so it seemed.

“Why do you think I am here?” I said. “In exile?”

“It’s true then?” Izemrasen laughed—the short, desperate laugh of a man relieved. He looked round, as if expecting to find the others joining in. “You tried to kill the Emperor?”

I had not tried to kill him—though I’d heard as much said before.

I did not correct him.

Prince Izemrasen shook his head. “Even in far Oannos, we have heard tales of the Halfmortal. Meeting you . . . it is as though Herakles or Alexander or William himself stood before me . . . you care nothing for the laws that bind ordinary men. Even princes . . . ” Again he shook his head. “I wish our meeting had been different.”

“I wish Roderigo du Bal were still alive,” I said, naming the boy Izlan’s birds—Izemrasen’s birds—had killed the night of the welcome feast.

“I wish that as well,” Izemrasen said, eyes darting left and right. His was the aspect of a cornered beast. “The Lothrians . . . the war . . . it has all gone on so long. Will you not retake the field? Take up the fight again? For Jadd if not your Empire?”

I turned my face away. I would not be shamed by this man. Not then. Not ever.

“I am an old man,” I said, not looking back.

“I see,” Izemrasen said, faltering. “I see . . . may I shake your hand, lord?”

I looked at him. He had proffered his own. The light of the overhead lamps shimmered in the golden scales of the serpent wound round the prince’s arm. As I reached out with my own hand, I found myself transfixed by it. The way the scales glistened, each one so delicately carved—and by hand—no two alike . . . 

It looked almost . . . 


The viper lunged at me, leaped from Izemrasen’s hand and through the air between us.

Had I realized what it was a second later, I would have fallen. As it was, the serpent’s jaws snapped on air as it misjudged the distance between its perch and me. Its eyes were like rubies beneath horned lids, and the courtiers about my scattered. I heard Izemrasen curse, and saw a blade flower in his hand even as his honor guard fired on Aldia’s.

He was neither fool nor villain, I realized then, reaching for my own blade.

He was both.

My Phaian blade caught the prince’s shining brand. The strength of his arm—backed by his Oannosene eugenics—was incredible. Even in my prime, I could not have matched him. His golden eyes were flat as coins, as the bezants on his standard, and his teeth were bared.

The serpent had fallen to the ground, had moved off among the scarpering courtiers.

It had been a living thing the entire time, a serpent bred to resemble jewelry, a final weapon in disguise.

Not quite final . . . 

Izemrasen thrust at my eyes, and I parried him, thumbing my body shield as I pivoted, coming out from the line. Two courtiers lay dead, and the mamluks had closed ranks about Aldia. The air was full of fire, plasma shots, energy beams.

“You won’t . . . leave this place,” I said.

Then it was the golden prince who was silent, but I understood him plain.

He’d never intended to leave Jadd alive.

The past several weeks’ negotiating, the long meetings, the concessions, the compromises . . . had all been to lure the Jaddians into a false sense of security. When the plot with the birds failed, and Izlan’s secret weapon was defeated by the shield that guarded the throne of the moon, they’d had to try some other method.

This was their final chance, their last hope to slay the High Prince of Jadd for their inhuman and hardly human masters.

The pale blue blade fell toward me like the executioner’s White Sword, and I parried, staggering aside. My left knee ached—had been failing me for years, but though the bones rebelled, the thews remembered—remembered when they were young and strong. The shot of one Jaddian lance caught on Izemrasen’s own personal shield, and the energy curtain coruscated, refracting rainbow light. He’d overcommitted to the blow, and his blade notched the stone floor deeply, the highmatter blade parting marble as readily as butter.

Once, I might have let him recover, let him regain his footing, that he might face me and die like a man.

Once . . . 

I lunged, feinting high.

Strong as Izemrasen was, and swift, his nerves clouded him. He had been a knot of tension, of terror since he entered that stone chamber.

He had known it would be his tomb.

His only question was how many would share it with him.

From his perspective, the answer would be not enough.

He raised his sword to parry.

I dropped my blade, caught him in the thigh.

The near-white highmatter sliced bone and fiber without effort, without discrimination.

And Izemrasen fell, the Lion-Serpent of Oannos collapsed at my feet, his sword still in his hand.

I stomped on that hand with my good leg, felt the fingers and metacarpals break around the hilt of his own sword. Izemrasen’s blade remained live—still in contact with his hand. I leaned by weight upon his fingers, and he groaned.

I lay my own blade along his throat, a inch or so from his carotid.

“Yield!” I said, and said again, “Yield!”

He had to answer quickly. The wound I’d made in his leg had severed the femoral artery. He was bleeding out, making my threat to his carotid redundant.

But he gave no answer. Izemrasen clenched his jaw. Fearing another poison tooth, I knelt, slamming my knee into his ribs.

It was exactly what he wanted me to do.

He spat, and only the presence of my shoulder between his face and his saved my eyes.

I felt the acid in his saliva burning.


The man had given himself venom, a toxin little different from that which he had given his birds.

His venom had the desired effect. I staggered off him, his blood running from my hydrophobic coat like beads of quicksilver. The prince was dying, though whether it was by his wounds or of his own venom no man could say. I staggered back, abused knee complaining. About us, the battle was dying, too. There were four Swordsmasters of the Fire School in Aldia’s honor guard. The men of Oannos had never stood a chance.

And more were coming. The rear doors—the doors by which Izemrasen and his compatriots had entered—were opened, and more Jaddian troopers were streaming in.

“He’s taken poison!” I said, wheeling to look at Aldia, “My prince? Are you well?

Aldia’s eyes were wide. “The snake . . . ” he said, as the last of the Oannosene troopers fell or through down their weapons.

It was lying dead on the ground, trampled by the courtiers in their haste to escape.

“Dead,” I said, and pointed with my sword.

Aldia shook his head. “Why didn’t it attack me?”

I could only shake my head. He was right. Izemrasen had been close enough to strike the prince, and his float-chair’s shields would never have stopped something so slow moving as a leaping viper.

The Prince of Oannos could have killed the Prince of Jadd if he had wanted to.

Why had he struck at me first?

I looked to the dying prince. Three Jaddian soldiers had surrounded him.

It didn’t make sense.

“He saved you . . . ” I said. “In the Tholo.”

“He must have known that little stunt would fail . . . ” Aldia said. The prince kept one ringed and wrinkled hand on his withered breast.

“You think he only wanted to lure you here?” I asked. “Out of the palace?” The High Prince was certainly more exposed here than in the Alcaz. But it seemed almost too subtle. Too elaborate.

Aldia directed his chair toward me, prompting his mamluks and his Swordmasters to redistribute himself. Inclining his head to the foreign prince’s supine form, he said, “He must have been truly desperate.”

“You don’t know the Lothrians like I do,” I said, thinking back to my time as a prisoner in the Conclave’s dungeons. “Or the Cielcin.”

“My Lord High Prince!” said one of the soldiers kneeling by Izemrasen. “He’s dead!”

Aldia shut his eyes. “This may mean war with Oannos,” he said.

“They would not dare, sire!” said one of the Swordmasters near at hand.

“They may,” the old man said, “and make us swallow them by force.”

My sword was still burning in my hand, a cold, pale fire. I looked down at it, at the blade gleaming in my fist. I let it go, watched the blue-white liquid metal dissolve into mist.

It was a long time before I understood.

Aldia had never been the prince’s target.

I was.


Copyright © 2024 by Christopher Ruocchio

Christopher Ruocchio is the internationally award-winning author of the Sun Eater, a series blending elements of both science fiction and fantasy, as well as more than twenty works of short fiction. “The Fangs of Oannos” takes place before his upcoming novel, Disquiet Gods.