The sun was high, thin and clear, like a needle of light stabbing at the vain eyes of those who had offended the god of cold. The frost, which had seeped into the fragile bones of the forest’s carpet of skeletal leaves, crackled angrily beneath his mount’s hooves. The trees, upended by the season so that they seemed to be clawing at the sky, at last drew Prince Gaius’ blood, having placed a twig where his cheek would rush past it and be neatly opened. The warmth on his face felt comforting and painless and he desired to lick his lip to taste the iron. It was only the cut which reminded him of his speed.
Leaping over a dead log, he tensed for the final pounce, feeling all the life about him in the deserted winter forest—the cringing things that had fled from the chase, the creature itself in its agony of terror, his brother, riding in from the right, hoping perhaps to steal his glory, and above all some perplexed but predatory seabird a little offcourse. It was exhilarating, sensing these simple things, even with the city and the Palace on the edges of his mind and sight. Gaius had longed—ever since it had become impossible—to live in simple, bright emotions like primary colours. Clearly his feeling was strong enough to flow through the cybernetic interface upon the horse’s withers to impart an extra final jolt of speed.
For there he was. The stag-hound bared its teeth and lowered its horned head in its resistance. And Gaius remembered the hunting lance smooth in his left hand’s glove, resting easy and light against his thigh as it was meant to. The running was over now. And that sort of guilt, which we tell ourselves is a reflection of nobility of character, set in the second before the stroke. That was what the last few years of misfortune had given him, as they robbed him of clarity in return.
But a blur of black interposed, a centaur only belatedly recognized as Gaius’ older brother, Constantine. It had no hesitation and its lance shot out surely, binding the creature to both the ground and death in a single moment, leaving nothing but a sort of sighing growl behind.
“Most unsportsmanlike, brother, cheating me like that,” cried Gaius amiably.
“You hesitated,” replied Constantine, his pale face blushing from the cold, even his short, black, military locks disturbed by the chase. He said it with a quirk of his fine, slender lips somewhere between humour and concern. Manipulating his mount’s data-port with absent, practised grace, he threw an anti-grav net about the dead beast that it might follow them back.
Gaius used his spurs, mental and physical, more forcefully than was necessary, thus his brother took a minute to catch up. “The boy has been asking about his mother,” said Gaius honestly, in an apparent non sequitur, “ and I fear…”
“You fear that you sound awfully rough when you affirm that your wife died giving birth and there is nothing else to say,” supplied Constantine. Though he had only just turned 22 and his lips retained that soft, pink look only boys have, Constantine was wise. He occupied himself with collapsing his lance and returning it to the pocket in his saddle.
“He’ll be turning five soon, Connie, and I think he’s heard it enough. Moreover, I fear,” Gaius paused and scratched the stubble on his square chin, “ I fear that my son is already cleverer than me—he’s taken after her side, the Emeralds, with that deep, faraway look he gets in his eyes. I am a simpler creature.”
“But a good father,” affirmed Constantine, the unwed and childless paterfamilias, clapping his brother on the shoulder with a gauntleted hand.
Thus they fell into companionable silence with the forest as they rode, and smelt the tang of cold sea air from the close but unseen cliff, until they came to the eminence from which all was revealed. There was the Ocean, which girdled their oft-embattled island, wrapped in the mists like some plump widow in her miasma of perfume—there the village which, Gaius flattered himself, his House had turned into a city, spread unevenly over uneven land—and there the Palace glittered, gold and glass on its pinnacle. What one couldn’t see from here were all the new warships in the harbour. “ Dover in winter,” Gaius muttered. His eye was drawn to the square, grey, stone temple which his family had allowed to be built that they might get the support of the native population. It was an ugly thing, a functional box.
“But we’ve reserved this wood for ourselves and the chase,” said Constantine cheerily as they began to go down. At this point the brothers began to feel a telepathic call. Someone was rather insistent about talking to them. They reined up. “Mother,” said the elder, when he saw his parent’s face before his mental eye, rather surprised that she had not left them to their sport, “are you in receipt of some urgent fact about Lord Secretary Henley’s diplomatic mission? I wouldn’t have thought…”
Princess Penelope, an attractive and fashionable dowager, sat behind the desk in her office in the Palace, her black hair swept back cleanly from her unlined forehead into a braided bun which reminded one of a tiara, manicured fingertips arranged on her dark pink silk dress beneath her small breasts and the stark shawl collar she had swept across her clavicles. “No, no, it’s your son, Gaius—and my little daughter, your sister Dione—they’re missing.”
“How can that happen?” Gaius thundered, feeling the tidal wave of guilt rush over him. The Mainframe knew where the urchins had run to.
“Mother,” said Constantine, “we will find them.”
“As soon as I noticed they were gone, I sent your soldiers after them. I believe they’ve already searched half the city.” She swept the hand upon which she wore her Sapphire ring worriedly over her forehead, and sighed despondently. “Two five-year-olds loose in the world.”
“But this is our world, Mother, we made it,” Gaius replied through his clenched jaw, its strong muscles dictating his face’s shape, “and I think I know where they are.”
“Well, state’s speed, my sons,” said the Princess, kissing her fingers to them before her image disappeared, leaving nothing but the pale sky before their eyes.
Now the boys had reached the city’s streets, and all Constantine’s soldiers, whether on sentry duty or emerging from taverns, saluted the brothers, cheering them, calling out their names, kissing the “C” emblems on their own breasts and cuffs. It was the devotion of the army to the family which made any praetorian guard redundant. All of these men would die for the House of Ruby at Dover—but they had let the children slip through their fingers, and had failed to find them. Gaius saluted them curtly in reply and cantered loudly along the cobbles.
The temple was set at a crossroads between the Palace Boulevard and the road to the harbour. One of those awful ragged crowds, gathered around a brazier and a street preacher, covered the steps. They were thin and discontented, with the cropped hair—male and female—of the lay militant brotherhood. The Rubies had allowed this state-forsaken place to be built in order to foster popular support. None of these people saluted. The closest they got was a dark look. Then a soldier shoved one of the loiterers and the loiterer shoved back. This was how riots started.
Constantine raised a hand and the soldier walked off, bowing and glowering at once. Then Constantine used his hand to slap the preacher—“Stirring up the people against me will not go unpunished. Go, hide.” The thin, shorthaired man obeyed the instruction, and went running up the street. Constantine smiled.
But they were still not to be allowed to enter the temple. A woman blocked the brothers’ path when they dismounted. She wore a tight, black dress with black gloves and thick, black hair swept up in a chignon under one of those square hats to which a net veil was attached covering the upper half of her face. Her chin was small and sharp and she had delicate bones under exquisite skin. Her lips were large and red, her nose straight and pointed. She was beautiful. She was the Temple Guardian. “ You are the unhallowed. You shall not be allowed entrance.” She had a soft, clear voice like the announcer in an elevator. It was only the voice that didn’t remind Gaius of the loveliest, cruellest woman he knew. It ought to be higher and purer, like a bell.
“Then send my son, Prince Luke—and my sister Princess Dione, out,” declared Gaius.
“All people with pure hearts are free to enter the temple and take sanctuary in it.” Her red lips moved for a second into what might have been a smile.
“And we are not?” asked Constantine simply.
“You are spillers of blood,” replied the Guardian with equal concision.
“And they are not?” said Gaius, holding in sardonic laughter, and pointing to the remaining loiterers. “Children, and children alone, must fill your temples.”
“You have a weight of guilt in your soul, unbeliever,” the Guardian replied. She reached out and grabbed his wrist.
He actually wanted to kiss those red lips, as like as she was to that beautiful girl he had loved—but he knew she was a mirage, just like the girl he had loved. “But you can’t believe in anything. You aren’t human,” Gaius said. “That trick that you did, machine, it is nothing to a real human telepath, which is what I am.”
“You patricians are not human,” responded the Guardian, and again there was that smile. He reached out with his free hand and pulled away her veil. Where her eyes should have been was a single, oval, black lens, in which he could see his own pale face reflected.
“I’m still more human than you,” Gaius retorted. “I was begotten, my mother grew me in her womb and delivered me with pangs. I didn’t have a machine inserted into me when I was an embryo, which grew instead of a human brain.”
Her lips quirked again under her cyclopean eye. “ I am the Guardian of the Temple.”
“Well, then, Gaius,” said Constantine, “ our wayward children already know that we are here for them.”
They looked up. And waited. Elders began to appear in the foyer above, clad in the pale blue robes of their profession. Several hymns and discourses, all concerning the Goddess, mingled sonorously together. It was beautiful, the princes knew, from some faculty for objectivity. And in the midst of them were two small figures. They both wore garments which were loose and white, as though—
“Luke, Dione,” declared Constantine, “ you ran away in your nightclothes and left my mother and your maids. Why would you do such a thing?”
Small children when perplexed twist their brows in concentration so that they seem both mutinous and on the edge of an emotional collapse. Luke and Dione, as they stepped forward from the crowd of Elders, both wore this expression. But their faces, unformed as they were, were already very different. Luke followed his mother’s side—his hair was brown and wavy, framing features dominated by large, still eyes and a forceful nose. Dione looked more like Gaius, there was little of her delicate Sapphire mother in her—she was a stoutly healthful girl with strong, square features, her skin quite dark for one of her race and her black hair thick as cat’s fur. Luke stared his father and uncle down with severity, while Dione blushed and stared at the floor. “Answer me,” Constantine thundered. Gaius noticed that gawpers had begun to slink in the colonnades of the shops opposite. There were people who lived to see the dirty laundry of the island’s ruling family aired—even disobedient children gave them some joy. Such people thought of the princes’ lives as their property.
“Uncle, Your Majesty,” the man-child said haltingly, but not without an edge of mocking cleverness which might possibly have been wholly in his father’s imagination, “I came to hear the service.”
“To hear the service?” Gaius still could not believe it. “This is not for us. Come here…” Gaius wrested his own hand from the Guardian’s grasp, and stretched it out to the boy.
And down the steps the children walked. But halfway down Luke raised his eyes. “ There is one Goddess, Father, Queen of Heaven and Earth—and I have read the prophecy which tells us that you will one day confess that truth too.” Luke had been rather a slow reader for a patrician, having only mastered the art a few months ago. Maybe it was this prophetic idea which had motivated him to finally learn.
“You filled my nephew with your babblings, frightened my little sister,” said Constantine, with nothing but sheer horror. The Elders ought to be more frightened than the small girl when they saw a horrified prince.
The Sister who ran the temple apparently felt protected by her vow never to step beyond its threshold. “It is your fate, he said, to lead the world under the Goddess’ mantle—you ought to be—“
But she never finished her sentence because Gaius interjected. “You should not presume to tell your lord and sovereign how he ought to feel.”
“The little Prince,” the Sister continued, pursing thin lips in a plump face, “believes that his uncle Constantine is the bloodstained king of the Prophecy of Rebirth.”
“How does he even know about that?” asked Gaius. “Have you been communicating with him, brainwashing him?” Gaius had never thought himself a particularly good father but this definitely felt like a parental nadir. Had he really been so engrossed in war planning and diplomacy and his own pain that he had failed to notice?
“It came to him in a dream,” said Dione, speaking for the first time, her voice more breath than force. “Have you,” she addressed her two eldest brothers, mangling one of her hands in the other, “never seen the truth in dreams?”
A lightning bolt seemed to have snaked its way down Gaius’ spine. He remembered the night of his father’s death. In his sleep he had seen the girl he loved dancing with her brother, he had seen his mother crying tears which turned into Rubies and then his at-that-time very recently deceased wife crying on vengeance. It had been the truth, but it had not been of any use. He could still see, as he had then over the data-link, his father’s crumpled body outlined in silver shadows. “We’re leaving,” he said abruptly. Before the Guardian could stop him, he leapt from step to step until he reached the children, then taking each of them by the hand he turned his back and marched them back to the horses.
As they rode back to the Palace, the children riding before them on the steeds, Constantine tried to sermonise upon the importance of obedience and the fact of their House’s many enemies. Gaius tried to tell them that his brother was not the Messiah and the Rosan Goddess was entirely imaginary. But he knew that the world his son faced was filled with things his own simple soldier’s mind could never compass.
by Sophia Nugent-Siegal ©