A century has passed since Owen Deathstalker sacrificed himself for humanity, and a Golden Age of peace began between the many species of the galaxy.It was a Golden Age, dammit. People tend to forget that, in the wake of all that happened. They forget from how high a point they fell, or were pushed. Or jumped. But for over a hundred years the Empire had known peace and prosperity, unbridled growth and progress, and justice for all. A golden Empire; the very best parts of Humanity writ large across the stars. It was a time of unprecedented breakthroughs and advances made all the more glorious because its wondrous spoils were shared so freely with those who were not human. The Empire now embraced clones, espers, aliens, and even those who had once been the official Enemies of Humanity: the AIs of Shub. For almost two hundred years these disparate elements had labored together to forge a new Empire from the ruins of the old, to produce a whole far greater than the sum of its parts. Triumph followed triumph, marvels and miracles were the order of the day, every day, and no one could see any reason why it shouldn’t continue forever.
But Owen's descendant, Lewis Deathstalker, has his work cut out for him as the king's new Champion and protector-for the Golden Age of peace is about to be brought into ruin...
Sparkling cities on shining worlds, a civilization born of hope and honor, and dreams come true.
It wasn’t a perfect age. There are always some who cannot, or will not, embrace the oldest dream of Humanity, to live in peace with itself. Even standing in the brightest sun, some parts of Humanity see only the dark shadow they cast. Who’d rather live in Hell than see their enemies enjoy Heaven with them.
It was a Golden Age, then, for all its occasional faults, which makes it all the more sad that no one seemed to appreciate it till it was gone, torn apart and cast down by the arrival of the Terror, and the wounded pride of one terrible man.
It was Christmas Eve on the planet called Logres, once known as Golgotha, now the center of the greatest Empire ever known. Logres; a bright and glorious world, whose cities were famous throughout the Empire for their sights and wonders, their heroes and celebrities, their innovations and achievements. The finest minds and hearts and souls came to Logres, to be a part of the great advance of Empire: the warriors and scientists, the poets and philosophers, the daring and the divas. To kneel before the Golden Thrones, and ask how best they might serve the greatest adventure of all.
And in the most noble and exalted of all these cities, the ancient Parade of the Endless, full of marvels and wonders and the pride of Empire, it was a time of hope and renewal and great Celebration; for this Christmas Eve would see the crowning of a new King.
Douglas Campbell, Paragon and wielder of the King’s Justice, entered the Imperial Court from the back, slipping between the heavy black velvet curtains as quietly as possible, hoping not to be noticed. He leaned against the middle of the three Thrones, carelessly elegant in his Paragon’s armor, and sighed quietly. He had hoped for a little peace and quiet, a moment or two of reflection, but it was not to be. It was a good six hours before the Ceremony was due to begin, but already a small army of people were bustling back and forth across the vast floor of the Court, shouting unheard orders and complaints at each other as they hurried on their urgent errands, determined that everything should be absolutely perfect for the Coronation.
It was going to be a day to remember, a Ceremony viewed across all the Empire, and no one intended to be found wanting in the crunch. Still, they all seemed very sure of what they were doing. Douglas could only envy them their certainty.
He stood quietly beside the King’s Throne (huge and ornate and reputedly hideously uncomfortable to sit on), looking about him. The Imperial Court was just as vast and impressive as he remembered it, still as steeped in history and pageantry and significance, which was probably why he’d avoided it so assiduously for more than twenty years. He didn’t like to be reminded that he was not only a Paragon, but also a Prince, the only son of King William. A Prince soon to be made King, much against his will.
It wasn’t fair.
Only forty years old, and already the days of his freedom were over. He’d always known this day would have to come eventually; but though he had to admit he had a natural gift for authority, he’d always had a quiet dread of responsibility. He hated the thought of other people’s lives and happiness depending on his word and decision. He wasn’t up to it. He knew that, deep down. Even after twenty years as a Paragon, meting out the King’s Justice . . . He’d been happy as a Paragon, out in the field, away from the Court; fighting the good fight. Because even the greenest fields and the most contented flocks can still be threatened by wolves.
Douglas liked the certainties of his old job: good guys versus bad guys, blade to blade, testing your strength on the anvil of your faith of what was right; straightforward conflicts with no moral, philosophical, or legal ambiguities. Paragons were only ever unleashed on the vilest, most irredeemable villains. Once he was made King, and Speaker to Parliament, he’d be trapped in the altogether trickier arena of politics, with its ever-shifting ground and deals born of compromise. And he, the poor bastard on the golden Throne, would be expected to be the rock of certainty for everyone else.
Douglas looked at the Throne, soon to be his, and wondered if he was afraid. He was never afraid when he was doing his job, out in the city, cutting down those who threatened the peace. But to be King, a living example to the whole Empire . . . As King, he’d be rich, famous, and powerful, and he didn’t want any of it. All he wanted was what he couldn’t have, to be just a man, as other men. To be free, to be what he made of himself.
Douglas Campbell, son of William and Niamh, grandson of Robert and Constance, was tall, broad-shouldered, roughly handsome, with an easy smile and steady eyes. Eyes the deep blue of a summer sky and a mouth that was firm even when it was smiling. And a long thick mane of golden hair, brushed straight back from his high forehead and held in place with a silver band. Even now, standing quietly, unnoticed, he was a fighting man and he looked it, completely at peace in his Paragon’s armor and purple cloak. Sword on one hip and gun on the other; and both of them had known hard use in their time. Douglas took satisfaction from being a warrior, trained and true, but to his credit he tried hard not to take joy from the killing that came with the job. You only killed a man when you knew for sure he was beyond saving; and that was a terrible decision to have to make.
It usually helped you to decide if he was trying to kill you at the time, but still . . .
Douglas looked down at his armor. There was a mark on his breastplate from where a swordpoint had come too close that afternoon. He rubbed at the mark with his hand, and polished it with a handful of his cloak. He was going to find it hard to give up his practical uniform for the official robes of state he’d have to wear as King. At least he wouldn’t have to wear the Crown all the time. Cut from a single huge diamond, it was a heavy bloody thing, and a pain to wear for any length of time, according to his father. Unless he was being metaphorical again. In fact, Douglas acknowledged with yet another sigh, he should have changed into his robes by now, ready for the final rehearsal. But still he put it off, because once he put aside his armor his old life was over, the change in him final, and forever.
Maybe he was afraid of . . . growing up.
He smiled at that, despite himself. There were probably billions of people all across the Empire, dreaming of all the things they would do if they were King, and here he was dragging his feet. There were times when he seriously thought the whole damned universe ran on irony. He heard footsteps approaching behind him and looked around guiltily. He knew who it was, who it had to be. The black velvet curtains opened abruptly, and there was King William, frowning at his only son and heir. Douglas straightened up and did his best to look regal and dignified, knowing even as he did so that he wasn’t fooling anyone. King William advanced remorselessly on his son, who stood his ground and tried a pleasant smile, just on the off chance it might make a difference, for once. The King came to a halt before his son, looked him up and down, took in that he still hadn’t changed into his robes, and glared at him. Douglas hung on to his smile. He just knew there was another speech coming.
“Two hundred years ago,” King William said heavily, “your grandparents, the blessed Robert and Constance, became the first constitutional monarchs of the Empire. Replacing the depraved and deposed Empress Lionstone, damnation to her memory. For two hundred years, first they and then your mother and I served as Humanity’s first family, the people’s voice and conscience among the powers that be. Very soon now, it will be your turn. And you can’t even be bothered to dress properly for the occasion. Tell me I haven’t made a terrible mistake in stepping down in your favor, boy.”
“I’ll get changed in a minute, Father,” Douglas said steadily. “There’s still time yet.”
“There’s never enough time! First lesson you learn as King. The faster you deal with things, the more things they find for you to do. It’s a hard job and a never-ending one, but that’s how you know it’s important. How you know that what you’re doing matters.”
“You don’t have to step down, Father,” Douglas said carefully. “You still have years of service in you.”
“Don’t flatter me, boy. I’m a hundred and fifty years old, and some days I feel every damned minute of it. I might have another twenty years in me, or I might not. Either way, I plan on enjoying what years are left to me in peaceful retirement. I’ve earned that much.” His face softened, just a little, and he put a hand on Douglas’s armored shoulder. “I held on as long as I could, for your sake, but it’s time for me to go, Douglas. Well past time.”
He paused, his eyes suddenly far away. Douglas knew his father was thinking of his other son, James. His first son, trained from boyhood to be King, admired and adored by all. Everyone said he’d make a great King, the brightest and best of his line. Everything was set for him to take the Throne on his twenty-first birthday. Only he died, in a stupid traffic accident; that clever, charismatic brain smeared all over the front of a speeding vehicle that came out of nowhere. The other driver’s fault. He was drunk. When he sobered up, later, and discovered what he’d done, he wept like a child and killed himself. Too late to do anyone any good.
The King and Queen had only had the one son. Current medical technology, with widely available tissue cloning and regeneration, meant everyone had a good chance of living till a hundred and fifty. Some even made it to two hundred. As a result, population levels had been rising all over the Empire, filling up the civilized worlds at dizzying speed. Small families, of one or at most two children, were encouraged by everything short of actual legislation, and the King and Queen did their bit by example.
Which was all well and good, until the Empire’s only Prince lay dying in a gutter, and the regeneration machine couldn’t get there in time.
Everything stopped for James’s funeral. Everyone mourned the loss of the best King they’d never have. They made a saint out of him, or the man he might have become, and even to this day a flame still burned over his grave. But still, the Empire needed a Prince, and so Douglas came along, very late in his mother and father’s life. The Prince who wasn’t perfect. These days people stayed in their physical prime right up till the end of their lives; but even so, Douglas knew his parents for only an unusually short time before the first inevitable signs of deterioration began. It was hard for him to remember a time when they hadn’t seemed old.
And James was such a hard act to follow.
His mother, the Queen Niamh, died very suddenly. For no obvious reason, the life just went out of her, and in a few months she went from an aged but still vital woman to a wrinkled face in a hospital bed that Douglas barely recognized. She died while they were still trying to work out what it was that was killing her. Douglas could have told them. She was old, and felt old. It was her time, and she’d always been far too polite to outstay her welcome. King William hadn’t seemed really old until his wife died; but when she left it seemed to Douglas that she took the best of her husband with her, leaving behind a broken old man looking forward to his own death.
Though he still had enough spark in him to run his son ragged. William might be about to retire and devote what remained of his life to pottering about in the historical archives—following in the footsteps of his hero, the legendary Owen Deathstalker—but before he stepped down, William was determined to make Douglas every inch the King that William had always wanted him to be.
“I’m sorry I can’t be the King that James would have been,” Douglas said, almost cruelly. “I’m sorry I can’t be the son to you that he was.”
“I’ve never said that,” said William.
“You didn’t have to.”
The King launched into another speech, but Douglas wasn’t listening. He looked at his father and wished they could have been closer. Wished they’d had something in common. But the ghost of James had always been there, and Douglas could never compete with that. So all that was left was for Douglas to do his best to be his own man, even if that man wasn’t what his father had wanted or intended.
King William was still slender and elegant for all his years, but the grace had gone out of him with Niamh’s death. His short, neatly trimmed hair was as much white as gray, and getting decidedly patchy. His face was heavily lined and shrunken, and his official robes flapped loosely about him now. He moved slowly and carefully, as though he’d become fragile, and perhaps he had, at that. His mind was still sharp, though his speeches tended to flounder and get lost in their own arguments if they went on too long. Like this one. Douglas listened with half an ear and looked out over the Court again, still trying to get his head around the idea that as from tomorrow it would all be his.
It should have been James’s. He would have known what to do with it.
The wide-open space of the great hall was bounded by towering walls made from warm and glowing woods from a hundred worlds across the Empire, culminating in an arched ceiling of interlocking beams that was practically a work of art. Even the colorful mosaics of the great open floor were constructed from thousands upon thousands of tiny wooden plaques, waxed and buffed and sheened till they seemed to glow with their own inner light. This new Court, built right in the heart of the Parade of the Endless, had been designed and constructed as a deliberate contrast to the inhumanly cold metal and marble Court of the deposed Lionstone, long abandoned now in its bunker deep in the earth. This was to be a more human Court, for more human monarchs, reflecting the warmth and openheartedness of King Robert and Queen Constance, of blessed memory.
Douglas looked over at their huge idealized images, shining from the stained-glass windows at the far end of the hall. He tried to feel or find some connection between them and him, but it was hard. They were both dead and gone long before even James was born. Douglas’s gaze wandered over the images in the other stained-glass windows, the icons of Empire, blazing fiercely as the late afternoon light fell through the glass in bright shimmering shafts. They seemed more like saints and angels than heroes of the old Empire. All long gone now, but everyone knew their names. Owen Deathstalker. Hazel d’Ark. Jack Random. Ruby Journey. Douglas could feel his chest tighten as he said the old names of glory to himself. He felt as though he should kneel to them, just for being in their presence. What did being a King mean, in comparison to who they were, and what they did? And yet; they were real men and women, once. Before they were transformed from heroes into legends, what human imperfections they might have had wiped away, and their rough edges smoothed over, their humanity forgotten so that they might be worshiped the more easily.
Douglas felt guilty at such a thought, but unlike many he was in a position to know some of the truth. Very early in their reign, King Robert and Queen Constance allowed themselves to be persuaded by Parliament to sign a decree destroying all the actual footage of Humanity’s saviors in action. Not one scrap, not one contemporary record, remained of what the blessed heroes actually did during the Rebellion. Not one interview survived, not one holo image. Every last news report or eyewitness account had been carried out of the archives and museums and news stations and wiped clean or burned. It was hard work, constructing a Golden Age. Humanity needed legends to inspire them, perfect men and women they could worship and revere. Facts would only have gotten in the way.
And the greatest legend of all had arisen around Owen Deathstalker, the Lord of Virimonde, who gave up wealth and power and prestige to fight Lionstone’s evil. The good man who saw Humanity’s plight, and could not look away. The greatest warrior of his time, who somehow single-handedly saved Humanity from extinction at the hands of the Recreated out in the dark, dark spaces of the Rim. And never returned home, to receive the thanks and blessings of a grateful Empire. No one knew what had become of Owen Deathstalker. He passed easily out of history and into legend, and though not a year went by without some sighting of him, quietly doing good, healing the sick or performing some minor miracle, most preferred to believe he was sleeping somewhere, resting and preserving his strength for the day he would be called back to be a hero and a savior again, in the hour of the Empire’s greatest need. There were statues and shrines to him all across the Empire, and even after all these years, people still laid fresh flowers at those sites every day. Beside the two great golden Thrones of the Court, of King and Queen, there was a third Throne, simple and unadorned and set slightly apart, waiting there for Owen should he ever return.
There were other idealized figures portrayed in the Court’s stained-glass windows. Stevie Blue, of course, the esper martyr and saint, wrapped in bright blue flames of her own making. Who lived so briefly but blazed so very brightly. (No such portrait for Diana Vertue, of course. Even the official myth-making process hadn’t been able to smooth the rough edges off Psycho Jenny. She’d been dead almost a hundred years now, and the powers that be were still scared she might someday make a comeback.) But the greatest icon of them all, represented again and again in windows all across the Court, venerated and adored, was the only real Saint of the Empire; the Blessed St. Beatrice. More respected, more important, and more loved than any poor damned hero.
Douglas liked to think Owen would have approved.
He sighed quietly, hardly listening to his father at all now, lost in his own thoughts. He was intelligent and cynical enough to know the political reasons and imperatives behind the creation of such legends, but still . . . these had been real men and women once, and they had overthrown an Empire. His breath caught in his throat as he thought of what it must have been like, to fight such a clear and obvious evil in the company of such people in the great Rebellion. Everything and everyone seemed so much . . . smaller now. Part of him ached to know what it must have been like, to have fought in a war when giants walked the worlds . . .
Douglas was proud to have been a Paragon, to have fought the good fight and protected the people. But for all the good he’d done, the lives he’d saved and the things he’d accomplished, no one would ever set his image in stained glass after he was gone or set aside a Throne for his return. He was a Paragon, and he’d done his job. That should be enough.
To be King was actually a step down, as far as he was concerned. This vast and glorious Court was only there for show, for Ceremonial matters, and the kind of empty pageantry the people still loved. Power lay with Parliament, as of course it should. The King had a place there, but only as Speaker, to preside over debates and provide an impartial voice, to help Parliament reach its decisions. As it should be, of course. The Members of Parliament represented the worlds of Empire, one Seat to a planet; they were the Voice of Humanity, and expressed its will. Mostly. But never again would any one man or woman be allowed dominion over Humanity. Not after Lionstone.
Good fun in Green's best gory style. (Locus)
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