The pinging ring intruded again and I frowned. “A side effect of cannibalism is that the consciousness of the person being consumed is not necessarily destroyed and you could find yourself ‘infected’ with thoughts and feelings not your own,” Sebastian said suddenly, picking back up the thread of conversation that was lost in the scuffle we had before I took him to my bed. I turned slightly and he was staring at the ceiling, suddenly tense. “If the person being eaten is particularly powerful, or just exceedingly strong of will, they can take over the consumer completely.
It is a dangerous thing. We did a dangerous thing to you.”
My sex began to harden. “Well, it seems that I am definitely me, at least in terms of primal urges.”
“And abilities,” Sebastian said. “If Dr. Hael could do what you did in your gymnasium, we never could have held him.” Sebastian rolled over, disentangling himself briefly, coming to rest on my stomach. “Have you ever moved that fast before?”
“Paulos taught me how to channel prana to augment my speed,” I replied. Vivid memories of Paulos’ lessons rose while we talked. “He taught me how to move faster, to run faster and react quicker. What happened last night was a whole other scale. This was something else. Something the angel did to me.”
“Celestial,” Sebastian corrected. “‘Angel’ lulls you into a false sense of security regarding what they are really capable of.”
“It was something Octo somehow did to me,” I reiterated, voice falling to a whisper.
Sebastian snorted. “Octo?”
“Well, he has an octopus head and tentacles where his nose and the rest of his face should have been,” I replied.
“I have not met that Celestial,” Sebastian mused. “My negotiation was carried out through Sivar, which brings me back to my point. Do not call Celestials ‘angels.’ It ascribes motivations they do not have.
I frowned. “I mean they are God’s servants though.”
“They do not have a human definition of God,” Sebastian said in reflection. “Despite our forms, despite the forms they choose to take, God is not human and neither are they. We always strive to forget that, wanting to paint ourselves in the objects of divinity. We operate in willful blindness and naiveté until it is too late.”
“It was Pepin who had me put in storage, while I was sleeping off what Octo did to me,” I replied.
“Yes,” he said. “Some of the Elect… or as some call themselves, The Ascended… do not trust the Celestials. They remember that the demons descended from their ranks and hold it against them.”
“So you were assigned to make sure Pepin did not ‘lose me?’” I replied.
“No….” he replied.
The chimes sounded again.
Sebastian sighed. “They are probably getting worried. I need to go.”
“Your fellow Legionnaires calling?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied. “They are probably concerned. You have a certain reputation.”
“I’ve been in a coma. How can I have a reputation? I wasn’t in a coma, I’ve been in isolation, training.”
“You definitely have a reputation,” he smiled. “Well earned. If you become a courtesan, you could be very comfortable. “
He was stabbing my afterglow. “Courtesans should be pretty, well-read, and witty. I’m none of those things.”
“Time spent with a courtesan should be distraction from the banalities of life,” Sebastian explained. “Not just sex.”
“Then that rules me out,” I chortled. “I’m just odd, with a devil dick. That degree of ‘interesting’ only goes so far.”
“You can be very passive,” Sebastian said. “You listen; you’re patient and forgiving with everyone but yourself. With training, I think you would be a good courtesan, even one who can serve tertiary bodyguard duty, if you insist on being professionally martial instead of treating it as a personal activity as you do now.”
I felt I should say something, but I really did not have a proper vector for my outrage. “I had hoped to… I don’t know… continue with the Rangers or…”
“You know you can’t go back to the Rangers,” Sebastian explained turning over onto his belly. “Their secret hierarchy is tied up in issuing the execution order Paulos was tasked to complete unto death. The Legion has frozen you out. High scores or no; massive raw ability or no; ranger or no, they will not take you into their regular ranks.”
“Great,” the gutted feeling running through me was old. The old pain of not being in the place where I thought I should be, I thought I could be. Failure. The real question was, would I be a dick about it? No.
“For so-called divine callings, there is a lot of petty human interference.” Sebastian did not reply, so I let it drop. “That leaves plenty of leisure time for me, then,” I replied. “Maybe I’ll take a few correspondence courses, or even find a university to hide in.”
“There is going to be a party at Sivar’s tonight, celebrating the return of the Atlantean Brigade. You probably have an invitation.” Sebastian slowly left the bed. “Check your messages. If you have one, you should go. It will be a nice distraction.”
“If Paulos is there, it will be a humiliation sandwich with a side dish of murder,” I said following him, pausing to let my feet luxuriate in the rug. “No; no parties. I’m going to the surface for a bit. “
I opened the closet. My usual dirt-side suits occupied the left side, but on the right were vaguely early 21st century styled suits, casual shirts, slacks, trousers, and on the floor under them, soft shoes, dress boots, dress shoes, casual loafers, even sandals. They were all soft fabrics; the dress suits were black, but the casual clothes were leaf-worked greens and earth tones, not my preferred colors.
“It was not coincidence then?” I asked finally. “They let me out when Paulos’ group came back.”
“Yes,” Sebastian said. He was mostly dressed now.
“Thanks for telling me Sebastian,” I replied. “I mean it.”
“I held back the information,” he said. “I…”
I crossed to him. He let me touch him and I gave him a reassuring smile.
“You are scared,” he whispered. “I can feel it.”
“Then let me change how I am feeling,” I said and I took in the view of him: tousled hair, short knee breeches on with no socks or boots, shirt unfastened. Sebastian was handsome in his disheveled, pensive state. I did not remember if I found him actually handsome, or if it was his current emotional façade. What in the hell does that say about me if it is the latter? Still, the memory of the hours we spent together became a warm balm in my mind. “There all better.”
He pulled on his boots, not bothering with socks. “Dammit. I want to stay. I…”
“We should go on a non-date,” I interrupted. “No stress, just hanging out. “
Shit! Do over! I need a do over!
“I don’t think we should pursue a romantic relationship,” he said with miserable formality. “If you do decide to follow the path set out before you… it would not work.”
Surprisingly, I managed to make the next statement not sound surprised, or particularly frightened, just a matter of fact. “What path laid out before me, Sebastian?”
He changed the subject. His social armor came on in force. “Fucking is the only marketable skill you have, at least in civilized society.” Sebastian stood straight, imperious. “You are uneducated, blacklisted from any martial position, and have the carefully engineered reputation of a lothario and lay-about. There is no college you could attend, no classes you could take that would change this perception of you, at least not in the next 25 years.
“Even if you went to school, you would only benefit yourself and give yourself something more to talk with about to your clients. You have been put in a gilded cage, Lord Vycta, and there is no way out of it. Fucking is your calling.” He gathered up his clothes and literally flew out of the room.
I accelerated after him, but I did not try and stop him. “Sebastian. I’m not a lost cause. I’m not this.”
“Perception is reality. There is nothing to be ashamed of,” he said, winding through a side hall where we passed a kitchen, a library, and a sitting room, before the hall widened into a small foyer. “I will see you at the ball tonight.”
“Ball?” I paused, frowning. “You said ‘party.’”
Sebastian exited, slamming the door behind him. A chime, the clashingly loud version of the discreet tinkle in my bedroom, echoed through the walls, followed by a gentle knock. The increasingly ubiquitous suit of shadow slid along my skin, and I opened the door from the other side of the chamber. Horace and a small group of people, some of whom I recognized from Sivar’s household, stood at the doorway.
I blinked for a moment and Horace smiled. “I take it you just learned about the festivities for the returning Atlantean Brigade?”
“Come in please,” I said. “And yes, I just learned about it. I thought I should decline. It is good to see familiar faces though. Unfortunately, the house is unfamiliar. My hospitality may be a little wanting. “
“We appointed your abode,” Horace replied. “We know our way around. Now we must get you ready for the ball.”
“We would have had more time if he hadn’t been schtuping that inquisitor,” an unfamiliar male servant mumbled.
An incredulous frown crossed my face. “Um… how much time do we have?”
“Six hours,” Horace said jauntily.
The aggrieved servant turned out to be my protocol coach. Six hours was not enough for what he wanted to teach me.
Tailors and assistants buzzed around me with needles and thread, putting the finishing touches on a severe tux that had more in common with a narrow lapelled business suit than a formal wear. Meanwhile, the tutor, who told me his name was Chord Heavenson, bombarded me with proper greetings and forms of address.
“You are not part of the household anymore,” Horace informed me. “But as an affiliate of Her Excellency, under her care for a number of years, you must make a good showing.”
“I was kept unconscious until nearly the last minute.” Disbelief tainted and distorted my words. “What kind of affiliate is treated like that?”
“Pepin has been stalling hard, even going as far as to call you an Atlantean plant, which was amusing since you have no idea who or what the Atlanteans are.” Horace chuckled. “Once the mission was over and the men recovered, you were ordered released, and a celebration was ordered.”
“Why do I have to come?” I asked.
“Not a single Legionnaire was lost,” he replied. “There was a bumper crop of panacea for the Atlantean Front Command to draw from and no one succumbed to wounds or to the Atlantean infection. The other processors and you were central to that success. You should have the positive recognition.”
I could have just left the Principality, but at this moment I felt keenly isolated, and burning so large a bridge seemed very stupid at this point in my afterlife, so I submitted to the drills and attention, plus a bath in sweet, acrid herbs of which, I was informed, Sivar was very fond. According to the professional administering the bath, Sivar used the mix in the cleansing baths in her temples when she was alive and had continued to do so in death. The servant did not how long ago that was.
“Who else is on the guest list?” I asked during the haze of preparation.
“Prelates or at least plenipotentiary representatives of all of the principalities who sent troops to the operation,” Horace replied. “Plus there will be the usual gaggle of hangers on.”
“Which Principality sent Paulos?” I asked.
“This one,” Horace responded, sounding a bit surprised at the question.
“That means Dion and Sivar sent the only actual combat ready group there,” I replied. “If not for their foresight, there would be no victory.”
“How do you know that?” Chord asked.
“Just keep drilling him on his ‘Your Highneses’ and ‘Majesties,’” Horace interrupted. “That is why you are here: to tutor Lord Vycta.”
“Yes, Ser Horatio,” Chord said to Horace.
“Horace Horatio?” I started laughing. “Horace Horatio?”
Embarrassed, Horace snapped, “Shut up.”
“Manners, Ser Horatio,” Chord chided.
The event seemed increasingly less like a party and more of a skirmish with an unknown enemy.
I ignored the jibe and asked, “Do I need to be debriefed privately?”
“I think you have already been debriefed,” Horace added lasciviously.
I let that pass too. “A lot of things have been dumped on me, but I have not been told what is my role at this event is supposed to be, and what is known and what is not.”
“You are Sivar’s ex-boyfriend,” he replied bluntly. “You have been invited to be an object of distant scorn and pity while your former mistress celebrates a great social, military, and political victory. You are authorized to defend yourself with maximum prejudice if challenged or assaulted. “
I turned to the tailor. “I think we need to revisit the fit of the tuxedo. It may be fine for standing around but if I have to put my fist through someone, I’d rather that the jacket not tear on the first punch.”
“We do not have time for that,” Horace interrupted.
“I can be at Sivar’s in five minutes,” I interrupted. “I have time.”
“You will be arriving by carriage,” he replied.
“What by what?” I snapped. “How in the hell is that supposed to work?”
“Not all of us can hop out into the vacuum willy-nilly, like yourself, and return immediately composed and ready for a party.” Horace sniffed, raising his nose slightly. “You and I will arrive in a civilized fashion at a civilized hour, and that means ‘ground’ transportation.”
I screamed, not loud or with particular feeling, “Fuck it! Just do whatever so I can get this over with!”
Chord was livid. “Is that the attitude to take with an invitation to one of the greatest events in the history of this young Principality? What kind of ungrateful…”
My hand snapped out. I was certain there was a “pop” as the edge of my fingertips brushed the sound barrier and I seized the front of Chord’s jacket. “As we demonstrated a scant few minutes ago, you are woefully under-informed as to the nature of my relationships with Her Excellency. Do your job and if you undermine me, I will surf you down to the planet’s surface.”
“Oh, Vycta,” Horace sighed, rolling his eyes.
“Now where were we?” I asked, releasing Chord.
“Demon,” Chord whispered.
“I was put into a coma by an ang… celestial, and put in the care of Primates and the Legion,” I replied. “Demon is the last thing I am.”
“Go to the kitchen, Chord,” Horace ordered. “You are useless to us now… and do not attempt to contact Pepin. I will know. ” Horace jerked his chin, and two servants manifested blades of prana and followed Chord out.
After Chord left, Horace addressed me with a berating tone that left me feeling as if he just took me by an ear. “You need to be more circumspect. Chord is a gift from Pepin to make sure you conduct yourself well. The only thing you really have to remember is that in Sivar’s house, you can choose to kill anyone who presents you with a viable threat. Remember that.”
A lump swelled in my stomach. “Horace, what’s happening?”
“I cannot say,” he replied. “Hopefully the Inquisitor told you enough.”
The carriage ride was uncomfortable and long. The first ticks of anxiety-born claustrophobia were licking the backs of my eyes, making the not-small ground vehicle seem like a coffin. Only two of us were in the passenger area of the vehicle, a bulbous cross between a sedan and small van: me in my tux, Horace resplendent in his armor.
I kept my attention on the windows, watching the other traffic move by. I had run the roads of the CNAP as part of my training with Sifu and I was consistently infused with wonder at the thought of roads, highways even, on a space station. An upside to driving weas the ceiling panels over the roads that showed a continuous view of the outside of the station.
“Why is your armor, so… silvery?” I asked.
He smiled. “I’m in the honor guard of a Prelate. It is a privilege of the position.”
“How did you wind up guarding the Harem?” I asked.
“More like guarding her from them,” he replied. “There are more spies and political plants in those halls than in the primary Court. Most of them are ‘gifts’ to Her Excellency. They are beautiful and skilled and almost wholly duplicitous.”
“Isn’t that dangerous?”
“They have no chance in hell of killing her.” Horace continued. “They are there to influence her, and the servants and court.”
“Oh.” I added with dawning realization. “Oh hell.”
“Yes, she played you against them and their sender’s interests,” Horace replied. “She portrayed you as the advocate for the continued support the Atlantean brigade received, including the Panacea donation, which she claimed you paid for. She established the covert economic support trails and footprints while you trained with Princess Ann-Mei. When she ‘kicked you out’ she overtly took over the funding the additional support of the mission.”
“So… this will be…”
Horace was eyeing me directly now. “This will be resolution. Sivar does not want you to die, but if you conduct yourself inadvisably, you will.”
“Shut up, be pretty,” I replied.
“Exactly,” he adjusted in his seat. “Did Inquisitor Augustine tell you about the Entertainer’s Guild?” Horace read the look on my face and he sighed. “I guess not. Look, you need to be nominally employed on the CNAP. You’ve been blacklisted by the Legion and any other respectable terrestrial guild, except for the Slaver’s Guild, because of your demonic nature. The Entertainer’s Guild specializes in the exotic, and is a little more accepting. Given your reputation, and the Prelate’s and Inquisitor Augustine’s experience, they’ve agreed to accept you.”
“And what am I supposed to do in this Entertainer’s Guild?”
“Fuck,” he replied. “And chat, and be good company, and contribute entertaining minor drama and excitement. Basically, you will be a courtesan, or as the Romans say, ‘cicisbeo.’”
“I have money,” I replied. “I’m a damned Ranger. Why do I need this hanging over my head?”
“You need a support structure,” he replied. “No one is an island. This is what we can arrange with our current resources.”
I swallowed the shame. I needed more information, and hysterics and recrimination would not help. “Thank you,” I said automatically.
Horace shrugged. “Thank Sivar. I think it sounds dreadful, but you aren’t being sold into slavery or indentured servitude. You can develop your… ah… clientele, as much or as little as you wish, but membership will be more useful to you if you have a significant, or at least exclusive, customer base.”
A peculiar stretching feeling had been working its way along the edges of my psyche since the latest bit of horror was delivered after I woke up. The sensation turned and started working its way inward.
“It could always be worse,” I replied, voice dull.
“They may ask you to perform tonight,” he said finally.
The stretching sensation increased to a burning tautness and broke. “What?”
“Perform,” he replied. “The Entertainer’s Guild Guildmaster will be there. As a junior member, you will be asked to do a demonstration of your talents.”
“I have no talents!” I snapped. “I should run while I have the chance,” I replied.
“The earth below is a dangerous place,” he replied. “Outside of the wastelands, the world is plastic and can change drastically in response to something in the lands of the living. And that is not counting the exotic vegetation and animals.”
“I know,” I replied. “I actually completed the Ranger training.”
“Oh,” he replied. “I thought you may have been a pity case because of your relationship with Paulos.”
“It’s probably the popular notion,” I replied.
“Like so many things,” he replied.
We eventually arrived in the central hub and a few minute later joined the parade of vehicles waiting to disgorge passengers onto the golden carpet leading into the cathedral-like entrance of the eastern gate of Sivar’s compound. Horace stuck close to me while I got out of the car to a flood of lights and reporters.
Horace went first, clearing a path through the gaggle and I followed in his wake, ignoring the flood of questions, lewd shouts, and other attempts to gain attention. Once inside, I joined another line of gaily dressed and coiffed people and their retinues. I was very peculiar with my single guard. Neither of us talked, scanning the surroundings in a relaxed mutual silence while our neighbors craned to look at each other, gauging their finery by others and talking nervously.
We reached the head of the line, an unfamiliar set of massive, gilded doors. Horace stepped aside briefly to speak to the herald who announced each guest.
Horace turned to me. “This is where we part for a bit. Thank you for not making this too terrible an experience.”
“Can you at least ask him not to announce me?” I pleaded.
The door opened.
The cathedral turned ballroom was hundreds of feet tall, the vaulted ceilings held up by white marble columns etched with ornate a variety of sculpted reliefs: beautiful faces, praying saints, and creatures of myth. The floor was an aquatic-hued blue marble tile, interspersed with an artfully wild clash of divine imagery from multiple mythical pantheons.
Horace ushered me forward. When I was well past the door, he boomed, “Announcing Lord Yrek Vycta!”
My head snapped back. “Bastard!” The door was already closed. My attention whipped back to the front. I realized I had such a great view of the floor because it was empty.
Finely dressed guests had been packed around the edge of the room creating a hundred-or-so foot radius space that was occupied by Paulos, wearing nothing but a small kilt of bleached white linen. A low humming chatter arose from the occupants, tickling my ears with its hushed gibberish.
“You do not have to beat him,” Octo’s voice slid into my mind. “Just kill him.”
While I was busy being speechless, he spoke. “I am Paulos of Athens, son of Deno and Apollonia, hero of the Battle of Persus, member of the Legion of Heaven. I Challenge you to single combat until one of us is dead.”
“Why?” It was not quite a whisper but it carried through the open chamber.
“I am not here to chat.” Paulos’ voice was firm but pregnant with pain. “Yes or No!”
“Go away, Paulos. Enjoy your victory. Leave this stupid order behind. Hell, if it wasn’t for me and the others like me, you would not have a victory.”
The low hum of chatter stopped suddenly. Armored Legionnaires in strange, unadorned copper breastplates stepped out of the crowd, glowing with prana. When they reached the edge of the circle, they joined hands and their energies sheeted together into a sphere, sealing us off from the chamber. More ephemeral shields covered us, and I felt shadow and the other planes blocked from immediate egress. Paulos grinned. “Thank you, cadets.” He faced me fully. “I do not think you can escape this battle, little monster.”
“I loved you,” I said bluntly. “I feel stupid because of it, because I still want to love you. Why are you forcing this… why now?”
“Those who hold my vow and made these orders are holding someone important to me hostage,” he said. “Someone has to die tonight. I would rather it be you.”
“I thought I was important to you,” I replied.
“You are impure,” he said. “This skin you wear, this sheen; it is a lie. I saw through it when you were in the pit before you escaped me the first time. I care for you but… some things cannot be helped.”
I almost passed out. It would have been a short confrontation if I had. I did not waver, though. It is pathetic when that counts as a triumph. “You shallow motherfucker. You could have told me!”
“I thought you knew,” Paulos said with what seemed to be genuine regret. “Now stop wasting time. I trained you. I can kill you.”
“What will you do, Little Demon Cock?” Octo asked. “Let go of your shock. Focus.”
I sought Emptiness, losing sadness, losing shock. It all fell away until there was nothing but focus. The stretching sensation was back. My skin hummed; the world slowed. I stilled, inside and out.
“Stop talking and start fighting,” one of the Legion cadets yelled. I marked his location.
“Demon,” another cadet bayed.
“Enough, Cadets,” another shouted. “Let them get this horrible business over with.”
Paulos’ sword began to glow with prana. “Yrek…” He paused.
Hair thin tendrils of my shadow, ends mirror-bright with divine blade, descended from the floor-flat soles of my feet, knifing unhindered, silent, undetected, through the thick spell-warded marble of the ballroom floor towards Paulos.
Did he sense what I was doing? I kept my face angry. I stood, defensive, waiting, ready.
He found his words. “I loved you, even though you were… changed. But I love someone else more; more importantly, I love them now.”
Paulos started forward, stopped, and then screamed as silvery wires lanced up, piercing him along the entire length of his body. My tools split, forming new branches, calving rapidly, piercing laterally; a horrific rage-born macro facsimile of a multi-pore nematocyst. His first instinct was to teleport, which did not work because of the bans his own allies had put into place.
The jail you meant for me will be the one you die in. I felt like Celie from Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” declaring her freedom from her demonic husband.
Will burned through me, taking the world to a complete halt, and I released my accumulated rage into a titanic construct of purplish black pranic shadow: a chthonic mating of a Chinese dragon, a lamprey eel, and a wood chipper. The form entombed me in its base, and I brought the maw, filled with its tunnel of short, furiously spinning counter-rotating two dimensional pranic blades down onto Paulos’ head, rendering him into chunky slurry.
In the first few objective seconds of the battle, Paulos was dead. The crowd only saw Paulos get pierced and scream. The black creatue appeared and swallowed Paulos, who never emerged.
Subjectively, the battle lasted minutes. I was patient, continually grinding Paulos down. Despite being turned into soup, he wasn’t dead. Periodically, his matter would blaze with prana, thickening and swelling as he attempted to regenerate. It was an impressively tenacious bid to stay alive. However, I took it as a deeply personal insult. In that long moment, I took Paulos’ valiant effort to not die as an attempt to make me look stupid, weak, and ineffectual. I took it as an inference that I had wasted all that time, money, humanity, and sanity to be ready to kill him, and he had the nerve to not die like he was supposed to. I kept grinding and chewing and cutting until he finally stopped. When he was completely, refined, his matter was piped down the construct’s undulating torso into my mouth. Afterward, I cleaned my teeth. I would not face the crowd with a gore-stained smile.
I stepped out of the still-active construct when I was done, completely unmussed. The shadow construct coiled behind me, blood stained silver maw panning about. I gave it the dramatic intention of looking for more victims. I looked expectantly at the Legionnaires.
“Hrm… give them a chance to not be stupid,” Octo mused.
“This,” I announced in loud voice that was either effective or stupid, “was a private matter forced by nameless provocateurs, certain of their piety. If there was ever a case of potential auto-theology, it lies with the humans who think they are more holy than the Angels who declared long ago that I was no demon. Do not waste your lives. Paulos had no choice.”
The pause thickened and then thinned. Their breaking resolve was palpable.
“Cadets,” the voice who called them into focus sounded. “Break the formation. It’s not our fight.”
I shed the last reins on my pranic perceptions. I could sense all of the Legionnaires and their shield. I watched the structure fail. They didn’t even bother to disassemble it. They just stopped supporting the structure and ran back into the crowd.
“Well done, Vycta,” Octo said. “You’re improving.” (by Hank T Cannon)