In his seventeenth year of life, Jai gained an empire and lost everything he valued.
Stately buildings faced a plaza tiled in white and gray stone. Clouds hung low in the sky, their drizzle saturating the air. Evening had come, a time when the heat of the sixty-two-hour day on the world Delos cooled enough to make the temperature tolerable for its human colonists.
Two young men walked across the plaza, coming from the embassy of the Allied Worlds of Earth. One wore simple clothes, a sweater and trousers. The other had on elegant garb with a severe cut, the cloth as black as shadows. Even in the misty air, his black hair glittered.
On the other side of the plaza, the embassy of the Eubian Concord stood in grandeur, large and solid, with many columns. Six men descended its stairs. Four were strongly built and moved like machines, their uniforms black and their eyes the color of rust. They were guarding the other two men. The larger of the two, taller even than the looming guards, had a shock of glittering white hair and a commanding presence. His patrician features and red eyes identified him as a Highton Aristo, a member of the most powerful, the wealthiest, and possibly the most hated ruling caste ever known to humanity.
The other man had his wrists locked behind his back in slave restraints. The prisoner moved stiffly, his chin thrust out but his eyes glazed. A gust stirred his wine-red hair around his handsome face. A diamond collar circled his neck and diamond guards glinted on his wrists and ankles. His white shirt, costly and impractical, was tucked into his dark pants. He walked barefoot.
The groups approached each other.
The two youths from the Allied Embassy stopped in the center of the plaza. The one in black clothes was tall, with broad shoulders and an athletic build. His features very much resembled those of the Highton man with the glittering white hair and were subtly echoed in the faces of the four guards.
The prisoner bore no resemblance to him…
At least not at first glance.
* * *
Jai Rockworth waited with his friend, Mik Fresnel, as the group of Eubians crossed the plaza to them. A deep-seated fear within Jai urged him to run, but he forced himself to remain still. He now wished he had brought more people. Had he been naive, assuming the Eubians would treat this exchange with honor? Given the number of armed guards in their group, he would have little recourse if they decided to take him without relinquishing their prisoner. But it was too late for second thoughts. If he didn’t go through with this now, he might never find the courage to try again.
He recognized the white-haired man in the center of the Eubian group: Corbal Xir. Jai had seen him on countless news broadcasts. As a cousin of the late emperor, Xir stood close to the Carnelian Throne of Eube. The emperor, Jaibriol the Second, had died without a known heir, and many expected Xir to claim the title. The ruby color of Corbal Xir’s eyes disturbed Jai—for it exactly matched his own. During the last two years, Jai had hidden his with brown lenses. Xir showed no such compunction about revealing his Aristo genetics.
Jai felt as if a band were constricting around his chest. He had no idea how to deal with a man like Xir. The Eubian group halted a few paces in front of him. The man in slave restraints stood with a numb expression, watching Jai with no hint of recognition. But Jai knew his face. Eldrin Valdoria. Prince Eldrin.
If I could free you from your pain by taking it into myself, Jai thought, I would. Nothing he could do would change what his uncle had already suffered, but he could see to it that Eldrin endured no more. He tried not to think that it would take so little, so terrifyingly little, for him to end up exactly like his uncle.
Xir spoke to Jai in the language of the Highton Aristos, his voice a rumble of authority. “I propose a simultaneous exchange. You and Prince Eldrin walk forward at the same time.”
“Very well,” Jai answered in flawless Highton. But when he turned to Mik, he switched to English. “Thank you for coming.” He wanted to say so much more, but he couldn’t take the risk.
Mik glanced uneasily at the Eubians. When he gave Jai a questioning look, Jai shook his head, fearing Mik would ask for an explanation Jai could never provide. But Mik just offered his hand. Jai shook it with a gratitude he didn’t dare show, and also with sorrow, knowing he was saying good-bye to his friend forever.
“I’m not sure what you’re doing,” Mik said quietly. “But I will remember what you said.”
Jai wished he could say more: Never forget. No matter what you hear of me from this day on, remember the Jai you knew. But Mik couldn’t hear his thoughts, and Jai could say nothing in front of the Eubians. He nodded to Mik, his throat tight. Then he composed his face into a mask of Highton arrogance and faced Corbal Xir. Jai had barricaded his telepath’s mind, turning it into a mental fortress, and so he received nothing from the Eubians, no sense of their emotions or thoughts.
Prince Eldrin was staring at him—and suddenly Jai felt his uncle’s mind. Recognition went through him like a jolt of electricity: Eldrin was also a telepath. Even having known it ahead of time, Jai was still startled by the strength of his uncle’s mind. Either Jai was more attuned to him than to the Aristos, who had no ability as psions, or else his uncle’s mental barriers had slipped. Whatever the reason, the impact of Eldrin’s emotions staggered Jai. He knew the other man’s confusion and anguish as if it were his own. Another realization hit him: until this moment, Eldrin had known nothing about the exchange. The shock of realizing his captors intended to trade him had caused Eldrin’s barriers to slip.
When Jai spoke to Eldrin, he made himself show a calm he didn’t come close to feeling. “Shall we begin?”
“Yes.” The prince’s voice rasped with laryngitis so severe he had trouble speaking.
The raw sound of his uncle’s voice shook Jai. He feared to learn what had injured Eldrin’s vocal cords. Screams left scars that could haunt a man.
He and Eldrin walked forward. When they reached each other, Jai wanted to stop, to ask Eldrin the questions surging within him, to offer reassurance, to beg forgiveness for the life Jai was embarking on. But he could do nothing, show no hint of his roiling emotions. They passed in silence, Eldrin going to the Allieds and Jai to the Eubians.
Jai stopped when he reached Corbal Xir. The older man nodded in acknowledgment, though of what, Jai didn’t know. A chill went through him at the soulless intensity of Xir’s gaze. Jai returned his nod, then turned to see Eldrin reach Mik. As the prince halted, he looked back. For an instant he and Jai stared at each other. In that moment, even the mist seemed to wait. Would Eldrin ask why? Would he curse his captors?
The moment passed, and Jai no longer felt his uncle’s emotions. Eldrin’s mental barriers had come up again. Jai didn’t think his uncle even realized they had slipped.
The Eubians closed around Jai in a tight formation and swept him away, headed for their embassy. Jai set his shoulders and faced his future, though dread haunted him.
So it was that Jai Rockworth—also known as Jaibriol the Third—claimed his place as emperor of Eube, the largest empire in the history of humanity.
Copyright © 2003 by Catherine Asaro