CHAPTER ONE

THE CEREMONY OF INNOCENCE

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.

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 open-heartedness 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 mythmaking 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.

Douglas approved. He really did. It was just that . . . if he had to be King, he wanted it to mean something.

Desperate for distraction, Douglas’s gaze wandered over the hundreds of people scurrying back and forth in the Court, until his eyes stumbled over a short, stocky man in a shimmering white gown and tall jewel-encrusted mitre, and then he had to smile. It was good to know there was someone in the Court who wanted to be there even less than he did. As tradition demanded (and there’s nothing more intractable than a fairly newly minted tradition), the new King would be crowned by the Patriarch of the Empire’s official religion; the Church of Christ Transcendent. However, the current Patriarch had been in his job for only about five minutes, following the sudden and very unexpected death of the previous Matriarch in an accident apparently so embarrassing that the Church still wasn’t willing to release any details on the subject. So the new Patriarch, chosen by blind lottery from among the hundred and twenty-two Cardinals, had turned out to be an extremely inexperienced twenty-seven-year-old man from a backwater planet who’d only been made Cardinal because no one else on that world wanted the position. No one doubted his sincerity or his good intentions, but it was clear to Douglas that the new Patriarch couldn’t have been any more nervous if someone put a gun to his mitred head. Pretty much the whole Empire would be tuning in to watch him crown the new King, and the opportunities for screwups, fiascos, and making a complete bloody prat of himself were almost limitless. The current Patriarch was currently walking up and down, endlessly shuffling and rechecking his notes, while mumbling his lines and accompanying himself with emphatic gestures. The servants were watching him out of the corner of their eyes and giving him plenty of room.

Douglas’s smile widened into a grin as he considered the happy possibilities in sneaking up behind the Patriarch and saying Boo! very loudly.

And then he jumped and yelled himself as a firm hand took hold of his right ear and twisted it sharply. Douglas swore loudly, as much in shock as in pain, and then froze as everyone in the Court stopped what they were doing to turn and look at him. King William had released his ear by now, but Douglas could feel the fierce blush reddening his cheeks. He gestured curtly for the servants to continue in their tasks, and they did so. But he just knew what they were thinking. Douglas turned and glared at his father, who grinned nastily back at him.

“Teach you to pay attention when I’m talking to you, boy. I may be old, decrepit, and far from my prime, but I am still your father and your King, and while I am speaking I will have your full attention and respect. Is that clear, Douglas?”

“Yes, dammit! Jesus, I bet the other Paragons don’t have to put up with this.”

“Now then, where was I? I hate it when I can’t remember things . . . Ah yes. Would it surprise you to learn that I never wanted to be King either? My father just took it for granted that I would follow in his footsteps, and so did everyone else. And I . . . wasn’t strong enough to fight them. Your grandparents were both very . . . forceful personalities. I never was. I did what was expected of me, because it was easier that way. Story of my life, really. I knew from the start you weren’t going to be anything like James. He studied hard to be King, because he wanted it. I never did figure out what you wanted. So in the end, I settled for raising you to be as tough-minded and independent as I could. To be nothing like me. So that when you finally came to the Throne, at least you’d bring something new to it. In many ways, you’re a lot like your grandfather.

“You will be King, Douglas; because I want it, because Parliament wants it, and most important of all, because the people want it.”

“And what I want doesn’t matter?” said Douglas.

“The best person to wield power is the man who doesn’t want it,” said William. “The blessed Deathstalker said that. Supposedly. What will you do, Douglas, once you are King? Have you considered the matter at all?”

“Of course I have!” Douglas stopped himself sharply. This was far too public a place for raised voices and an open row, but somehow his father’s goading always pushed Douglas’s temper to the edge. He made himself breathe steadily for a few moments before continuing. “I’ve thought about nothing else for months. And I’ll tell you this: if I’m going to be King, I’m going to be King. I won’t just sit around, nodding my head to whatever Parliament says. I’ll not be anyone’s rubber stamp. Everyone says this is a Golden Age, and maybe it does look all bright and shiny from up here; but as a Paragon, I saw the darker side of things. I saw people suffering every day, at the hands of villains who got away as often as not, because I was just one man and I couldn’t be everywhere. Well, what I couldn’t put right as a Paragon, maybe I can fix as King.”

William surprised Douglas then, by nodding cheerfully in agreement. “Well done, Douglas. Well said. A little naïve, but good intentioned. That attitude is why I pulled every string I had, called in every favor owed to me, to get you made a Paragon. James was a good boy, and well intentioned too, but he never raised his head out of his books. I wanted you out in the city, among the people, seeing the things they won’t let me see. I wanted you to see the Empire not as a King’s son, but as one of the people who make it work. I’m glad to see my efforts weren’t wasted. You don’t want to give up being a Paragon, do you, boy?”

“No,” said Douglas. “No, I don’t.”

“Then be a Paragon on a Throne,” said William. “The Crown may not have any real power, but it still has influence. You don’t have to care about political niceties, such as whether backing an unpopular position might interfere with you getting reelected. You can say the right thing, the necessary thing, and to hell with what’s expedient. You can still get things done, if you care enough. My problem was . . . I never did care enough, about most things. I drifted through my life, always following the path of least resistance. Hell of a thing to say about a life as long as mine, but there you go. I don’t care. Perhaps . . . because so many people so badly wanted me to care . . .”

“Father . . .”

“I cared about your mother, about James, and about you; and that’s all. Your mother and James are gone, so that just leaves you. And you . . . are everything I wished I could be and never was. Passionate, committed, honorable. I’m proud of you, son.”

Douglas just nodded numbly, too surprised even to say anything in return. King William looked out over his Court.

“Be King, Douglas. Do the right thing, as often as you can. They won’t love you for it. They’ll adore you from a distance, but that doesn’t mean anything. They only ever love the symbol, the public face, not the person underneath. In the end, they only remember the things you didn’t do that you promised you would, or the things they think you should have done. Or the things you got wrong. And if you do manage to do something right; well, that’s your job. That’s what they pay taxes for. And Douglas, never trust Parliament. As far as they’re concerned, you’re just something they can use to hide behind. A public face to take the blame when things don’t work out the way they were supposed to.” William sighed, and suddenly looked even older, and smaller. “I did my best . . .”

“Of course you did,” said Douglas, when the pause seemed to be going on too long.

“Do you know how it feels,” said King William, leaning close to look him straight in the eye, “to know you did your best, and know it wasn’t good enough? To know that all you managed to do was maintain the status quo? I hated being King, from the very first day they jammed the Crown on my head and bound me to my Throne with chains of duty. I only stayed on so long because your mother so loved being Queen. And because I wanted to spare you the burden of being King for as long as I could. So you can at least have a taste of the freedom I never knew. You’re walking into a velvet-lined trap, Douglas. And there’s nothing I can do to save you.”

Douglas didn’t have a single clue what to say for the best. Not once before, from his childhood days to full adulthood, had his father ever opened up to him like this. They’d never been one for heart-to-hearts with anyone, either of them. And now . . . it all sounded very much like an old man desperate to say the things that needed to be said while there was still time. Douglas wished he could feel more touched by it. He’d never felt close to either of his parents. They’d always kept him at a distance, perhaps afraid to lose another child they loved. They were always there for the public, but never for him. A less well-adjusted man would be bitter. And now; to learn it had all been deliberate, so that he could grow up to be his own man, and nothing like the father who had cared for him after all, in his own way.

Douglas was still searching for something to say, when a familiar voice called out his name. He looked around gratefully, ready to seize on any diversion; and there, striding across the floor of the Court towards him, came the Paragon Lewis Deathstalker, current holder of a proud and ancient name. Douglas hurried down the steps, leaving the Thrones behind him, and the two old friends clasped hands warmly. King William looked on, trying not to be too impatient, as Lewis and Douglas brought each other up to date on what had been happening in their lives in the few weeks they’d been apart. The King would have sent anyone else packing with a flea in his ear, old friend or not, but Lewis was different. William approved of the current Deathstalker.

Lewis had one of the best-known faces of all the Paragons. Broad, harsh-featured, ugly. Full of character, but already showing the signs of many hard knocks. The Deathstalker had never bothered with even the simplest cosmetic touches, to move his face towards . . . well, rugged, if not actually handsome. As far as Douglas knew, the thought had never even occurred to Lewis. The Deathstalker was short and blocky, well muscled by choice and exercise rather than via the shortcuts of the body shop, and so broad-chested that in certain lights he seemed almost as wide as he was tall. He wore his jet black hair in a short military cut, mostly so he wouldn’t have to bother with it, shaved when he remembered, and had surprisingly mild brown eyes and a brief but flashing smile.

He’d only just hit his late twenties, but already there was about him a certain gravitas that made him seem older, wiser; more dangerous. He wore his Paragon’s armor sloppily, and there was always a buckle or two hanging loose somewhere, but he never looked one inch less than utterly professional. He had large, heavily knuckled hands that rarely strayed far from the weapons on his hips. He looked . . . competent. No matter where he was, no matter what the challenge, Lewis always looked like he knew exactly what he was doing. Douglas had always envied him that. He would have been surprised beyond measure to know that Lewis often felt much the same about him.

The two of them had been close friends and partners in arms for almost ten years now. Their record for running villains to ground was unmatched by any other Paragon except the legendary Finn Durandal, greatest of them all. The Deathstalker and the Campbell, knights errant and defenders of the realm. Lewis could have been famous, if he’d wanted. If he’d cared. But mostly he didn’t. One famous Deathstalker in the family is enough, was all he’d ever been known to say on the subject.

Lewis was the best kind of Paragon, which ironically tended to make him one of the least noticed. He couldn’t be bothered to play the publicity game, not when there was real work to be done. And whereas the other Paragons milked their fame for all it was worth, with an eye to providing for their future when they retired, Lewis would just nod to the the media when they turned up, smile politely when he remembered, and go looking for some more trouble to clean up. He was admired but not adored, renowned but not famous, and the man every Paragon wanted guarding his back when things got nasty. That this most unprepossessing of Paragons should have ended up closest to the man who would be King both infuriated and charmed the other Paragons, in equal measure.

The Inner Circle of Paragons was the King’s Justice. Each world in the Empire sent its greatest hero, its most deadly warrior, to Logres, to become part of the fabled Circle, part of the glorious legend of the Paragons. The King couldn’t be everywhere, but his Justice could. When the law wasn’t enough, when peace enforcement failed, whenever men of bad intent threatened to triumph; send for a Paragon. The public couldn’t get enough of these heroic men and women, the brightest and the best the civilized worlds had to offer, and each and every Paragon would fight to the death rather than betray that honor and that trust.

They didn’t last long, as a rule. Most tended to retire young. In fact, it was rare to find a Paragon over thirty. It was a dangerous business, after all, with a high fatality rate and a high turnover. Even the brightest of heroes could burn out quickly, from the endless danger, the never-ending work, and the constant pressure. With all eyes forever on them, the Paragons couldn’t allow themselves to be any less than perfect.

But in their time they were splendid and magnificent, the greatest fighting men and women of their Age.

“They’re all coming here?” said Lewis. “ All of us? Damn. I don’t think I’ve ever seen more than half a dozen in one place, and that was during the Quantum Inferno affair, when it looked like we were going to lose all six of the Heart Suns.”

“Paragons are like family,” Douglas said easily. “We only ever really get together for weddings and funerals, and the like. Besides, my Coronation is going to be broadcast live to all the worlds in the Empire. Do you really think our noble brothers and sisters would turn down a chance to be seen by such a huge audience? Just think what it will do for their merchandising and licensing fees!”

Lewis sniffed. “Now, you know what I think about that shit. I was working alongside Miracle Grant once, and he actually broke off in the middle of a battle to plug his new T-shirt to a news camera.”

“Oh yes, Grant . . . how are his new legs coming along?”

“Growing back nicely, last I heard. Teach him to turn his back on a Son of the Wolf.” Lewis looked about him, frowning. “I really don’t like the idea of so many Paragons in one place. We’ll be a sitting target for any really determined terrorist with a bomb.”

“Security here is top rank,” Douglas said firmly. “Trust me on this, Lewis. You couldn’t smuggle a dirty hanky in here without setting off some kind of alarm. In six hours’ time, this Court will be the safest place to be in the whole Empire. And; it will do our fellow Paragons good to be among their own kind for once. Let them see they’re not unique. Maybe even help some of them get their egos in perspective.”

Several very cutting comments occurred to Lewis, but he kept them to himself. He didn’t want to upset Douglas on the eve of his Coronation. Lewis had already spent the best part of an hour testing the Court’s security and had only had to raise his voice to half a dozen people and punch out one who really should have known better than to raise his voice to Lewis Deathstalker when he was so very clearly in the wrong. Lewis had also used the Council’s security systems to run a trace on exactly where each and every Paragon was, just for his own peace of mind. Most were still in transit, on their way to Logres from the outlying worlds. Even with the new improved stardrive of the H-class ships, the Empire was still a very big place.

All the Paragons were safe and secure. For now.

Most Paragons rarely left the worlds they’d been assigned to, but all of them were familiar with Logres. All Paragons did a tour of duty there, early in their careers; it was expected of them. If you could handle everything Logres could throw at you, you could survive anything. Logres produced the finest of everything; including villains. No Paragon ever objected to a tour on Logres. It was an honor to defend Humanity’s homeworld and a really good chance to get noticed by some of the main media networks. The better your recognition, the more you could charge to endorse products. (No Paragons ever defended their own home planet. No one ever actually mentioned the words conflict of interest, but then, some things just didn’t need to be said out loud.) Lewis Deathstalker was something of a special case. He’d come to Logres from Virimonde and stayed—even though Logres had its own Paragon in Finn Durandal—because Douglas had taken a liking to the earnest young man with the legendary name.

So for ten years, Humanity’s homeworld had been blessed with the presence of three Paragons, Douglas and Lewis and Finn, and as a result was the safest and most law-abiding place to live in the whole Empire. No one had actually raised the point of what might happen once Douglas retired to become King, but an awful lot of people were thinking about it. Not all of them very nice people.

“You know, with so many Paragons already in the Parade of the Endless, and more on the way, crime in the city is at an all-time low,” said Douglas. “Most of the bad guys are probably hiding under their beds, waiting for it all to be over.”

“I guess everyone’s following the buildup to the Ceremony,” said Lewis. “Apparently the official website has already crashed three times from oversubscription.”

“I told them!” said Douglas. “I told them that would happen, but does anyone ever listen to me?” He grinned suddenly. “If nothing else, that should change come tomorrow. What’s your website like these days, Lewis? Still got that fan of yours running it for you?”

Lewis nodded stiffly. “He does a good job. I can’t afford to have some big public relations firm come in and run it, like some of the guys do. I’d rather have someone doing it as a labor of love; someone who cares. And some of his graphics are quite sophisticated. For the budget. I log on anonymously now and again, just to keep him honest.”

“With your name you could be the biggest Paragon that ever was,” said Douglas. “Even bigger than the Durandal.”

“You know how I feel about the cult of personality. If we start caring too much about being liked, being popular, it’s bound to interfere with how we do our job.”

“You have to think about where the money’s going to come from when you retire,” Douglas insisted. “There is a pension, but it’s crap. Everyone knows that. A few carefully thought out product endorsements, from the Deathstalker himself, and you’d never have to worry about money ever again.”

“I never worry about money,” said Lewis. “I don’t have a wife or children to support, and I never found the time to develop any expensive tastes. Besides, I always seem to have more important things to worry about.”

Douglas sighed and gave up. Some people wouldn’t recognize common sense if you clubbed them over the head with it. “So,” he said brightly. “What present did you bring me? It’s Christmas and my Coronation, two special occasions in one, so I’m expecting something really special from you, Lewis. Best thing about being King; you get lots of pressies.”

“You’re not King till you’re crowned,” Lewis said grimly. “Wait till it’s all safely over and done with, and then you can start opening your presents. Probably mostly socks and handkerchiefs anyway. That’s mostly what I get from my relatives these days. You know, when I was a kid, I would have been outraged to get an item of clothing as a Christmas present. Now, I’m grateful for something so practical. How sad is that?”

“If I get socks, they’d better be jewel-encrusted,” growled Douglas, and they both laughed quietly together. Douglas stopped laughing first, and fixed Lewis with a stern look. “I’m going to be King soon, Lewis, and I have a horrible feeling everything’s going to change. Between us. This could be the last time we’ll be able to speak to each other as equals. So tell me, as your friend: why did you want to become a Paragon? You don’t give a damn for the fame, or the joys of combat, and we’ve already established it wasn’t for the money. So why, Lewis? Why give your life to a job that kills most people before they hit thirty?”

“To protect people,” Lewis said simply. “The Deathstalker inheritance. A family duty; to protect the innocent from those who would prey upon them.”

He didn’t mention Virimonde. He didn’t have to. The homeworld of the Deathstalkers had been destroyed on the Empress Lionstone’s orders. Wrecked and ruined, its people had been slaughtered, its cities and towns devastated, its green and pleasant lands trampled into mud and scorched to ashes. The new Empire had overseen its terraforming and re-population, but Virimonde was a poor and grim place, and would be for centuries yet to come.

The last of the old Deathstalker line, David, had died there, abandoned by his allies. No Paragon to save him in his hour of need.

Like all Paragons, Lewis had taken an oath at his investiture to protect the innocent and avenge injustice. He had more reason than most to take that oath very seriously.

“So; why are you a Paragon, Douglas?” said Lewis. “I know going in was your father’s idea, but you’ve stayed on long after you could have retired with honor. At forty, you’re the third oldest Paragon still serving. Why have you stayed so long? What’s kept you in the Circle?”

“I wanted to lead and inspire people by example,” said Douglas. His voice was calm and clear and very sane. “I didn’t win my place as a Paragon, like you and all the others. I had to prove myself. To you, and to the public. Everyone expected me to fail. To limp off home, crying to daddy that the game was too rough. I won’t say I wasn’t scared at first; people seemed to be lining up for a chance to kick the crap out of the heir to the Throne. But a funny thing happened. In proving myself, I found myself. When you’re a King’s son, growing up you get the best of everything by right. Nothing is denied you, so . . . nothing really matters. You only really value what you earn by your own efforts. And I earned my place in the Circle.”

“Is that why you’ve stayed so long?” said Lewis. “Because you had to keep proving to yourself that you were worthy? Douglas; no one has doubted that in twenty years.”

“Jesus, Lewis; do you really think I’m that shallow? I stayed because I finally found something I’m good at, and because people needed me. I was making a difference. I could see it every day, in the people I saved and the bad guys I put away. And because I made myself over into something better, I hoped to inspire others to do the same. I wanted to show them that we can all be heroes. We can all be Paragons.”

“If the people had the guts to stand up for themselves, they’d never have needed Paragons in the first place,” said a calm, deep voice, and Douglas and Lewis looked round sharply as Logres’s third Paragon came striding over to join them. Servants scattered like startled geese to get out of his way, but Finn Durandal didn’t recognize their existence by so much as a blink of the eye. Finn nodded to Douglas and Lewis as he came to a halt before them and smiled briefly. “I became a Paragon to beat the shit out of bad guys, and I thank the Good Lord daily that there’s never any shortage. Put a sword in my hand and point me at a scumbag, and there’s nowhere I’d rather be.”

“Yes, but you’re weird, Finn,” Lewis said kindly.

Finn Durandal was tall, lithely muscular, and almost inhumanly graceful in his movements. He had a classically handsome face, topped with a mop of curly golden hair that he freely admitted owed nothing to nature, and spent a lot of time thinking about his image. He had poise and elegance, and in any room everyone’s eyes would go to him first. It was a cold, calculated charisma, but no less affecting for that. People tended to like Finn on sight but became more than a little uneasy the longer they spent in his presence. He could be devilishly charming, but unless it was a paid public engagement, mostly he just couldn’t be bothered.

At fifty-two Finn Durandal was the oldest, longest-serving Paragon since the Circle began. People felt safer all across the Empire knowing Finn was still out there standing between them and the bad guys. Of course, most of those people had never met him. Finn had a thin-lipped smile, calm gray eyes, and his holo hung on the bedroom wall of many an impressionable teenager. His website was the biggest and most heavily subscribed of all the Paragons’, he had his own fan club, and a series of nicely calculated licensing deals had made him very rich. He could retire any time he wanted, but everyone knew he wouldn’t. Action and adventure were his meat and drink, and he’d never been known to back away from any danger, any odds. He was the greatest Paragon there’d ever been.

(It said so on his website, so it must be true.)

He was the best at everything he did, because he wouldn’t settle for anything less. It helped that he had the best weapons, the best trainers, and the best muscles and reflexes that money could buy. Finn left absolutely nothing to chance.

“Immaculately turned out, as always, Finn,” said Douglas. “I can practically see my face in your breastplate. Why can’t you look more like him, Lewis?”

“Because I can’t afford a butler,” said Lewis. “Hell, I’m lucky if I remember to shine my shoes in the morning.”

“You’re just jealous of my magnificence,” said Finn. “Puny mortal.”

“I prefer modesty,” said Lewis.

“And you have so much to be modest about,” said Finn.

“Girls, girls . . .” said Douglas.

“Unfortunately,” said Finn, “we don’t have time for banter right now. I’m sorry to snatch your associate away, Douglas, but I’m here on official Paragon business. We’re needed, Lewis. An emergency has broken out at the Arenas.”

“Oh, wonderful,” said Douglas. “Marvelous bloody timing. What is it; one of their imported killer aliens broken loose again? I told them they were asking for trouble, bringing those monsters in from Shandrakor.”

“The Arena’s got tanglefields and sleepgas,” said Lewis. “Let Arena security deal with it.”

“It’s not that simple,” said Finn. “It’s the ELFs.”

“Oh, shit ,” said Lewis. “I’ll have to go, Douglas.”

“Of course you do,” said Douglas. “Why now, of all times?”

“I doubt it’s a coincidence,” Finn said calmly. “More likely they’re looking to get in one last atrocity before the majority of the Circle arrive and the ELFs are forced to go underground with the rest of the rats. And perhaps; as a gesture to you, Douglas, to show you they’re not impressed or intimidated by a Paragon becoming King.”

“For two pins, I’d go with you,” said Douglas. “Hell, I’m still officially a Paragon till the Crown hits my head. Dammit, I am going with you! Come on; we’ll teach the ELFs one last lesson they won’t forget!”

“You’re not going anywhere!” snapped a cold, commanding voice, and all three Paragons looked sharply round, and then bowed formally as King William slowly descended the steps from the Throne. He nodded to Finn and Lewis and then glared at Douglas, who glared right back, his hands knotted into fists at his sides. William met his son’s gaze steadily, and in the end, it was Douglas who looked away first.

“I know,” he said sourly. “More rehearsals. More ceremony and protocol.”

“You’re not a Paragon anymore,” King William said, not unkindly. “That part of your life is over. Let the Deathstalker and the Durandal handle it. They know what they’re doing.”

“Don’t worry, Douglas,” said Finn. “It’s only a bunch of ELFs, after all.”

He nodded briskly to Lewis, and the two of them strode quickly away, heading out of the Court and into danger and excitement, their backs straight and their heads held high. They were going out to face some of the most dangerous creatures currently threatening Humanity, to face horror and suffering and sudden death, but they didn’t hesitate. They might have been going to a party, they were so casual about it. They were Paragons.

And Douglas would have given everything he owned to be going with them.

“Wipe that look off your face, young man,” said King William. “You have greater responsibilities now. I do . . . understand the attraction. But you’ll find that if you apply yourself, you can do far more for your people as King than you ever could as a Paragon. There’s more to power over people’s lives than the edge of a sword.”

“Yes, Father,” said Douglas.

King William sighed. “You always did have a way of agreeing with me that sounded just like Go to Hell. Got that from your mother. Speaking of which . . . we need to talk, Douglas. I’ll admit I’ve been putting this off, searching for just the right moment, but I can’t in good faith keep this from you any longer.”

“You’re not about to tell me I’m adopted, are you?”

“No.”

“Or a clone?”

Shut up, Douglas. There is . . . a part of the Ceremony we haven’t discussed yet. An extra announcement that will be made concerning a decision that has been made by myself and Parliament. A decision in which you don’t get a say. It’s unfair, bordering on arbitrary, but it comes with the job. I can only hope that you are, despite all my misgivings, mature enough to understand its necessity.”

“Father,” Douglas said desperately, “stop wittering. What the hell are you talking about?”

“You’re going to be married. A marriage has been arranged for you.”

“What?”

“A King must have a Queen,” William said stubbornly, meeting his son’s gaze steadily. “And since these are two of the most important jobs in the Empire, they can’t be left to just anybody. To the vagaries of the heart. And so, a marriage has been arranged, by myself and a Parliamentary committee, between you and . . . a suitable person. This will be announced to the watching public, immediately after your Coronation. And you will nod and smile and go along with it, because you have no choice in the matter. Any more than I did.”

“You kept this quiet,” said Douglas darkly. “Very bloody quiet.”

“And this is why,” said William. “Because we all knew you’d have made a scene, given a chance. Discussions were held in strictest secrecy, because we knew you’d object. Or worse still, demand to be involved. I still remember that highly unfortunate affair you had with that . . . exotic dancer. Appalling creature. Never did know what you saw in her.”

“She could put her ankles behind her ears . . .”

“I don’t want to know!” William had to stop a moment to regain his composure. “I knew this would happen. Your brother was just the same. Threw a hell of a tantrum when we sat him down and told him who his Queen was going to be.”

Douglas looked at his father sharply. Perfect James, throwing a temper tantrum? He would have liked to ask more, but the King was pressing on.

“Since we couldn’t afford to have you making trouble, it was decided that I would break the news to you, at the last possible moment. And this would appear to be it. I wish your mother was here; she was always so much better at these things than me. And don’t even think about running; I’ve got security men standing by with tanglefields and cattle prods, just in case. Joke.”

“You’ll pardon me if I don’t laugh,” said Douglas. “I can’t believe you did all this behind my back. I always thought marriage was supposed to be the most important decision in a man’s life.”

“In your case, it is,” said William. “Far too important to be left to you. Royal marriages are affairs of State, not of the heart. Though it needn’t stay that way. I learned to love your mother, eventually. I’m sure you’ll come to love your Queen too, in time.”

“Are you at least going to tell me who it is?” said Douglas, so far into shock now he was practically numb. “Or is it going to be a surprise?”

“Of course not, dear boy. You needn’t look so disturbed. Nothing but the best for the man who will be King, after all. If I was only fifty years younger I’d chase her round the room a few times myself. The hunchback suits her. Joke! She’s beautiful, intelligent, and she’ll make a superb Queen. Your bride will be Jesamine Flowers. You have heard of her?”

Douglas felt his jaw drop, and it took him several moments to get enough air back into his lungs to be able to answer. “ Heard of her? Jesamine bloody Flowers? She’s the most famous, the most talented diva in the whole damned Empire! And the single most glamorous woman in all the civilized worlds! Hell, Jesamine’s already so popular she already is Queen, in everything but name. And this goddess has agreed to marry me ?”

“Of course,” said William. “Looked at logically, it’s the obvious next career move for her. She’s reached the pinnacle of her profession, played all the biggest roles on all the biggest stages. Made more money than she knows what to do with, and she couldn’t be any more famous if she tried. She is the biggest sensation in the Empire today. But where else can she go? If she continues as she is, she’ll just end up repeating herself, or worse still, squandering her talents on roles unworthy of her. When you’ve reached the top of your profession, the only place left to go is down. The only way for her to become even more fabulous is to move out of art and into politics. There’s nothing like the adulation of the masses to give you a taste for power over them. She could become a Member of Parliament, of course, but I think she’d see that as a step down. But to be Queen; to sit in State over the greatest Empire Humanity has ever known . . .”

Douglas looked sardonically at his father. “Are you going to give her the bad news, or is that my job, after we’re married? Power my arse. She’ll scream the place down, once she learns the truth. And God alone knows what kind of scream an opera singer can produce when she really puts her mind to it.”

“The role of King and Queen are something the two of you will have to work out with Parliament,” said William. “I personally plan to be thoroughly retired, and deep in hiding, when the explosions begin. Now do smarten yourself up, Douglas. Make an effort. Jesamine Flowers will be here very soon, and you do want to make a good first impression, don’t you?”

* * * *

Out over the city, flying high above the Parade of the Endless on their own personalized gravity sleds, Lewis Deathstalker and Finn Durandal raced soundlessly over brightly shining towers linked by delicate bridges, massive globes and pyramids shimmering with lights, minarets, and monoliths, all currently blessed with an unmarked layer of snow. The planet’s weather satellites had been programmed to provide the city with traditional Christmas weather, in honor of the great Ceremony. It all looked pretty enough, the clear white snow under the late afternoon sun, but winter weather was no fun at all when you had to fly through it at speed. Snow and ice produce bracing, if not downright bitter, winds, and the freezing air cut at the Paragons like knives as they shot through it on their way to the Arenas. Lewis and Finn crouched down behind the force shields that protected the front of their sleds, huddled inside their cloaks, and hunched their shoulders against the growing cold that gnawed at their bones. They could have slowed down, made it easier on themselves, but this was an emergency. People were in trouble. And, although neither Finn nor Lewis would ever have admitted it, even to themselves, neither of them would have given in first.

The Arena was set square in the middle of the city, just as it had always been, a huge stone colosseum surrounding blood-soaked sands. The structure had been expanded several times over the last two centuries, but there was still a long waiting list for even the poorest seats, and the right to certain prime locations were jealously guarded and handed down only within the family. Everyone watched the holo broadcasts, of course, but everyone knew it wasn’t the same as being there in person. These days, it was strictly volunteers only; and every would-be gladiator had to undergo a strict psychological profile before he or she was allowed out onto the bloody sands. And the current high levels of medical care meant that very few people actually died and stayed dead in the Arenas. But it was still all about courage and honor and skill, and putting them all on the line for the pleasure of the crowds. The Arenas had never been more popular. The Board of Directors had put on a special bill for Christmas and the Coronation, involving all the main champions, several tag teams, and a whole load of vicious and dangerous nonsentient aliens imported from all across the Empire. The crowd was the biggest ever, standing in the aisles shoulder to shoulder. The greatest show on Logres.

And then the ELFs came.

The ELFs. In the time of the blessed Owen Deathstalker, the espers discovered that they had been secretly manipulated by the needs and desires of their own subconscious gestalt mind; the Mater Mundi. Diana Vertue exposed this, and all the espers in the Empire joined together in a single great conscious gestalt, and took control of their own destiny for the first time. They called this mass-mind the oversoul. Millions of minds, working together, achieving miracles, never to be alone again.

But some esper minds were too disturbed, or damaged, to remain a part of the gestalt. Their madness threatened the whole, and so they had to be expelled from the oversoul. Other minds removed themselves from the gestalt, fearing the loss of their individuality, afraid of domination by a conscious Mater Mundi. And some had secrets and shames and desires they would not share with anyone, turned their faces away, and hid in the shadows.

These were the new ELFs; the Esper Liberation Force. Dedicated to liberating themselves from the tyranny of the oversoul. Banding together, seeing all others as enemies, the ELFs declared themselves clearly superior to the ungifted members of the human race and therefore destined to first rule and then replace baseline Humanity. They said the oversoul was mad and had to be destroyed. And since everyone was the enemy; any ELF attack, no matter how vicious, was really nothing more than self-defense. No one knew exactly how many ELFs there were. They struck from the shadows without warning, hurting the world before it could hurt them, exulting in the punishing of those who would hold them back from their rightful destiny.

That’s what everybody knows. But there were rumors . . . dark, ugly rumors.

Some said the ELFs were led by the last of the super-espers: mental freaks and monsters created on the secret order of the Mater Mundi. Mad minds, terrible creatures artificially evolved far beyond, or behind, Humanity. So secret that only their names or designations were known, grim and sinister titles from a terrible past. The Shatter Freak. Blue Hellfire. Screaming Silence. The Gray Train. The Spider Harps.

No one knew for sure. Or if they did; they were too scared to talk.

Lewis steered his gravity sled in beside Finn’s as they approached the towering outer wall of the Arena, the grim gray stone rising up before them. He had to raise his voice to be heard over the rising wind. “How bad is it; do you know?”

“Bad,” Finn said flatly. “Maybe a dozen ELFs. More than have been seen in one place for over thirty years.”

“Enough to take on the whole Arena crowd?”

“More than enough. They’re stronger when they work together, you know that. First reports talked of hundreds dead. By now, it could be thousands.”

“Then why hasn’t the oversoul sent help?” said Lewis angrily. “The Psycho Sluts; they’ve got a good track record against the ELFs.”

“Them? They’re more trouble than they’re worth.” Finn’s voice was entirely calm. They might have been discussing where to go for dinner. “I don’t want those show-offs anywhere near me. Crazy as their progenitor, and dangerous with it.”

“We need backup on this, Finn . . .”

“We won’t be getting any help from the espers, Lewis. I already checked. They’ve got their hands full with an ELF attack on New Hope. The greatest concentration of espers on Logres is currently under attack by a suicide mind, broadcasting cannibalism memes all over the city. It’s all the oversoul can do to keep a lid on its own people, and stop them from eating each other. Or themselves. They said they’ll turn up when they can, so don’t expect them any time soon.”

“What about the other Paragons in town for the Ceremony?”

“Too far away. By the time they get here, it’ll all be over, one way or the other. And all the local peacekeepers have been told to stand down and hide behind their esp-blockers. No point in giving the ELFs more minds to mess with. No, Lewis; it’s down to us. Turn on your esp-blocker. We’re going in.”

Lewis’s hand went immediately to the flat box at his waist. Cloned esper brain tissues, activated by an electric current. Not alive, not in any way conscious, but once activated capable of broadcasting a telepathic signal that blocked all esper powers in its vicinity. For a time, anyway. Finn glanced at Lewis, grinned briefly, and then his sled topped the colosseum’s outer wall and plunged down into the Arena; and Lewis was right there with him.

They could hear the maddened screaming and howling long before they were close enough to see the cause. Finn and Lewis descended swiftly through the sounds of Hell, into the heart of horror. The crowd were doing awful things to each other. Hundreds of thousands of people, raping and torturing and murdering each other, screaming and sobbing in anguish as they did it, their bodies moved by thoughts not their own. The ELFs had possessed the crowd; every man, woman, and child there dominated by an outside force beyond any human resistance. Appalling thoughts and needs and desires thundered inside their heads, and their bodies leaped to obey. Every foul thought and sick impulse ran wild in the blood-soaked terraces, while the hidden ELFs laughed and laughed, savoring the forbidden pleasures by proxy, and feeding on the released psychic energies.

There were old names for creatures like this that preyed on Humanity. Very old names. Demons. Vampires. Eaters of souls. But no name was more cursed in the Golden Age of Empire than that of the ELFs.

And the true horror of it; the possessed knew what they were being made to do. Helpless inside their own heads, they could only cry out at what their bodies were doing. Even those who survived this atrocity would spend the rest of their lives remembering it. Mental torture was just another pleasure, another source of energy, for the ELFs.

Lewis and Finn came roaring in on their gravity sleds, faster than the human eye could follow, howling their war cries. Finn’s call to battle was his own ancient family name: Durandal! Lewis inherited his from the blessed Owen: Shandrakor! Shandrakor! The proud names stood out against the howling, and the ELFs looked up and saw their enemy coming; and a concerted mental roar of hate came boiling up to meet the descending Paragons.

The moment they revealed themselves, their minds blazed out like balefires on the instruments on Lewis’s sled, marking their positions in the crowd. Lewis’s heart sank. There were twenty ELFs present. Even with an esp-blocker to protect him against direct mental attacks, Lewis was in trouble and he knew it. If the ELFs even thought they were losing, they’d make every man, woman, and child in the crowd kill themselves. Hundreds of thousands of innocents, dead in a moment. Twenty ELF minds working together could do that. One last spiteful gesture.

Lewis carried an energy weapon on one hip and a sword on the other, and a force shield on his arm. And that was all. Usually, it was enough. Disrupters took a mere thirty seconds to recharge between shots these days. Though of course the sword was still the preferred, more honorable weapon. Neither of them much use here and now. The gravity sled had a great many built-in protections, but no offensive weaponry at all.

Twenty ELFs . . . Think, dammit, think!

Lewis skimmed his sled low over the heads of the heaving crowd. Close enough to count the bodies, see the blood and the torn flesh, and the possessed faces transfixed with outside pleasures. What the hell were twenty of the bastards doing in one place, out in the open? Four or five was a more usual grouping, and even then they usually preferred to hide somewhere secure while they worked their evil; close enough to affect their victims without having to expose themselves . . . But the closer the connection, the more minds the ELFs could control, and the greater the pleasure and energies to be gained.

And, just maybe, they wanted to see it all for themselves . . .

Twenty ELFs. Hundreds of thousands of victims. This wasn’t just a feeding frenzy, Lewis realized slowly. This was a statement. A warning, a threat, an insult to the King to be. Leave us alone. You don’t rule us. No one does, not even our own kind. Leave us alone, or we’ll do terrible, awful things. We’ll make your people butcher and slaughter each other, and we’ll eat it up with spoons. Do what we wilt shall be the whole of the law.

We’re ELFs. You’re just human. We’ll do whatever we want, and you can’t stop us.

Wrong, Lewis thought coldly.

Even as Lewis grappled with what to do, the enemy revealed themselves. In their arrogance, in their hatred and contempt for mere Humanity, the ELFs rose up out of the possessed crowd to show themselves, and taunt their enemy. Twenty ordinary-looking men and women flew up into the air, floating high above the writhing mass below them, and called out mockingly to the two Paragons, defying them. Their eyes glowed golden, bright as suns, and blasphemous self-generated halos circled every malevolent head. Their presence beat upon the air like giant wings, and then lashed out against the Paragon’s esp-blockers, trying to smash aside their defenses through sheer brute power.

Lewis cried out despite himself, as something vile trailed fleetingly across the edges of his mind. As though a monster had hammered its fist on the door to his soul, demanding to be let in. Part of him wanted so badly to just run away and hide, but he was a Paragon, and a Deathstalker, and there were some things he just didn’t do. He gunned the engine of his gravity sled and aimed it at the nearest ELF, shooting forward like an arrow from a bow. His eyes were very cold and very steady, and full of death. The rogue esper actually hung there for a moment in midair, unable to believe a mere human had dared to defy him, and then he dropped quickly back into the surging mass of the crowd below, hidden and secure behind his human shields. Lewis lost sight of him and shot by overhead, cursing silently.

He could leave his sled behind, drop down into the crowd himself, and go after the ELF. He had a face now, and a general position. But if he did, and couldn’t find the ELF fast enough, the human thralls would fall on him, on their master’s orders, and tear him apart. They’d probably be weeping while they did it, but that wouldn’t help Lewis.

He turned his sled around in a tight arc, and there was Finn, slumped half-conscious over the controls of his drifting sled. The ELFs’ attack must have got through his esp-blocker. Lewis hit the accelerator on his sled, but the nearest ELF had already shot through the sky to drop onto Finn’s sled, grinning widely at the thought of possessing and then draining so famous a Paragon. And Finn Durandal turned around, also grinning, and the ELF knew he’d been had. Finn’s hand came up with a disrupter in it. This close, the sled’s esp-blocker was strong enough to blow away the ELF’s psionic defenses, and Finn laughed softly at the look on the ELF’s face. At that range, the disrupter bolt tore the ELF’s head right off his shoulders.

Lewis cheered and whooped, but his voice was quickly lost in the roar of shock and anger that went up from the other ELFs, as they dropped quickly back into the safety of their crowd. Finn ignored the cheer and the lamentations. He just kicked the headless body off his sled, and went looking for someone else to kill.

Out on the sands, a hundred or so of the crowd had been sent forth by the controlling minds to shout ELF propaganda at the hovering Arena security cameras. The rogue espers knew that by now the major news media would have struck a deal with the hiding Arena security people, to allow the media access to the security camera feeds, so they could broadcast the atrocity to their viewers live, as it happened. News commentators were probably already doing anguished voice-overs, decrying the horror and tragedy of it all, but the bosses knew what sucked in the viewers. Human blood and suffering, in close-up. The ELFs knew that too, and were taking advantage of it.

So men and women who’d been made to tear out their own eyes and cut off their own noses, their hands dripping with the blood of innocents, chanted ELF demands to the unblinking cameras, calling for their own subjugation to ELF rule and the destruction of the esper gestalt. They sneered at the Paragons who’d come to save them, laughed at the dead and dying in the crowd, and taunted the viewers with their own helplessness. We are unstoppable, said the ELFs, through their thralls. And when we’re finished here, we’ll come for you. We’ll come for all of you, and play with you till you break.

And in the cheap seats, on the terraces, and in the private boxes, the possessed crowd raped and tortured and maimed each other, howling and crying like the damned as they did.

Lewis was so distressed and angry by now, he could hardly breathe for the tightness in his chest. Hot tears stung his eyes, but he wouldn’t give in to them. There’d be time for grief later. He glared about him, studying the sands, suddenly sure he was missing something. Where were the gladiators? There would have been dozens out on the sands, entertaining the crowd, when the ELFs attacked. They must have run for cover the moment they realized what was happening, protected by their own esp-blockers. (All gladiators were protected from all kinds of outside influence; how else could the betting be kept honest?) They were probably huddled together in their cells under the Arena. They should have stayed and fought, thought Lewis angrily, but he already knew what Finn would have said to that.

It’s not their job. And they’d probably only have got in the way, anyway.

Lewis pushed that thought aside, to follow another. He was closing in on something, something important. The gladiators would have left the sands by the main entrance. Lewis shot across the sands towards the main gates, closing his mind if not his heart to the sounds of suffering all around him. Above the closed gates was a security control center, computers to run the automated systems. Like the security cameras . . . That at least was something he could do. Lewis took careful aim and blasted the center with his disrupter. The whole place blew apart in a satisfyingly large explosion, and all the security cameras went offline, dropping out of the air like dead birds.

The thralls on the sands screamed the ELFs’ frustration, as they realized their propaganda wasn’t going out any longer. No doubt the media bosses were also doing a certain amount of screaming at being denied such prime material, and no doubt there would be any number of official complaints to come, but Lewis decided he wouldn’t worry about that until later.

He looked around to see what Finn was doing, and his stomach dropped. Finn’s first thought was always to take out the bad guys. Preferably by the most direct route. Lewis saw immediately what the other Paragon was planning, and cried out to him, but it was too late. Finn wouldn’t have listened anyway. He never did.

Finn drove his gravity sled into the crowd at full speed, plowing through them like a battering ram. Both he and the sled were protected by the force shield at its prow, and he slammed through the screaming people, throwing them aside, bloodied and broken, as he sped towards the ELF he’d located in the crowd. The ELF threw himself into the air, but he was too late. Finn raised the sled’s prow just a little, and hit the ELF head-on at full speed. The sled’s esp-blocker shut the ELF’s powers down, and his body was splattered all over the gravity sled’s force shield. And all it cost was fifty or so dead and maimed innocents who happened to be in the way of Finn’s sled. Finn didn’t look to see. He was already circling over the crowd again, looking for another target of opportunity.

Afterwards, he’d make all the appropriate noises to the families of those he’d injured and killed, but Finn didn’t really care. All the Paragons knew about Finn. All he ever cared about was taking down the bad guys, and if some innocents got caught in the cross fire, well, that was regrettable but sometimes necessary. And people accepted that, because Finn was so very good at taking down the bad guys.

Lewis had never accepted it.

He shut out the horrid din of the crowd, and the thought of how many poor souls Finn might kill in the ruthless pursuit of his prey, and made himself concentrate on the main problem. There was an answer . . . he could feel it. Something someone had said, not too long ago . . . The thought eluded him, maddeningly just out of reach. All right. All right; think it through. The crowd is trapped in the Arena. No way of getting them out of the Arena. Security would have sealed all the exits automatically. So the answer to the problem would have to come from inside the Arena . . . Security! Arena security used tanglefields and sleepgas to control the imported killer aliens! Dammit, he’d only just been discussing that with Finn and Douglas at Court!

Obvious question: why hadn’t the Arena security forces already activated the systems? Obvious answer: go and find out.

Lewis drove his gravity sled right at the closed gates that led to the systems under the Arena. Smoke was still billowing out of the control center he’d blown up just a little earlier. The closed gates below looked to be made of sterner stuff, namely solid steel with electronic backups. Lewis pushed the sled to full speed, strapped himself into his crash webbing, and put his faith in the prow force shield. He was skimming just above the surface of the sands now, the air shrieking past him, heading straight for the closed steel doors. Thralls on the sand were running after him. They’d never catch him in time. The steel doors were rushing towards him now. They looked very solid. Lewis braced himself as best he could, and at the last moment fed all the emergency power to the force shield.

He hit the gates dead-on, and punched right through them. The left door swung inwards before him, buckled and half torn away by the blow, locks and bolts flying through the air like shrapnel. The sled rang like a bell from the impact, and shook Lewis in his webbing like a dog with a rat. But the force shield held, and the sled kept on going. Lewis clung desperately to the controls and guided the sled at speed through the narrow corridors, following the map he’d called up from his sled’s computer link. Luckily there was no one about.

The security center wasn’t far. It was, however, very thoroughly locked down. Lewis guided his sled in to a halt before the only entrance, clambered just a little shakily out of his crash webbing, and dismounted from the sled. His legs felt a bit unsteady under him as he strode over to the center and hammered on the closed door with his fist.

“This is the Paragon Lewis Deathstalker! Open up!”

“Go to Hell!” screamed back a voice so full of panic Lewis couldn’t even tell if it was a man or a woman. “We’re in lockdown! Full security! No one’s getting in here till it’s over!”

“I’m a Paragon! I can stop this. Open up, on the King’s authority!”

“No! You could be anyone! No one’s getting in here! I’m armed! Go away! We have esp-blockers. You’re not getting into my head!”

“Let me in, damn you! People are dying out here!”

“Go away! Leave me alone!”

A whole bunch of answers jumped to the tip of Lewis’s tongue, all of them angry, none of them helpful. The voice on the other side of the door had clearly passed beyond the point where reason could reach him or her. The door looked very solid and impressive, but fortunately Paragons were allowed certain advantages that most people didn’t know about to help them do their job, such as an electronic skeleton key that could open any lock short of diplomatic level. Lewis winced briefly, thinking of all the paperwork he’d have to do later, and then pulled the key out of his boot and plugged it into the door’s lock. The door swung open, and he stormed in.

There was only one man inside, curled into a ball underneath the blank monitor screens, shaking and shuddering. His eyes were wild and he tried to point a gun at Lewis. The Deathstalker slapped it out of the man’s hand and hauled him out from under the screens. The man whimpered and tried feebly to kick him.

“Stop that!” said Lewis. “Look at the uniform; I’m a Paragon. Why haven’t you activated the tanglefields and the sleepgas? And where are the rest of the security staff?”

The man sniffled and looked away, unable to meet his gaze, and Lewis understood. His lip curled in disgust, and he shook the man roughly.

“You locked them out, didn’t you? You broke and ran and locked yourself in here, and left the others to fend for themselves.”

The disgust in his voice acted like a slap in the face for the security man, and he actually calmed down a little. He straightened up, brushing automatically at his rumpled uniform, and glared at Lewis. “Don’t talk to me like that. I’m security chief here. I had to secure the computers. Important equipment. Very valuable. Not my fault if the others didn’t move quickly enough. I did my job . . .”

“The tanglefields and the sleepgas,” said Lewis, cutting him short. “Activate them, and we can stop the ELFs.”

“You can’t just force your way in here and give me orders! I’m in control here. I’m not doing anything without proper orders. We might make them angry . . .”

“Oh hell,” said Lewis. “I don’t have time for this.”

He spun the security man around, twisted his arm up behind his back, and bent him over the control panels.

“Hit the tanglefields! All of them! I want a full spread, covering all the crowd areas!”

He put pressure on the twisted arm, and the security man cried out, and worked the control panels frantically with his free hand.

“Now hit the sleepgas. Feed it in through the air-conditioning. Blowers on full. I want the whole seating area blanketed with the stuff before the ELFs realize what’s happening.”

The security man hit more controls, sobbing to himself now. Lewis wasn’t comfortable playing the bully, but needs must when the demons drive. He got the man to patch in an emergency backup camera system, and some of the monitor screens came to life again, showing what was happening in the Arena. All the tanglefields had activated, covering the crowd and the sands. Sparkling energies washed over the struggling men and women, slowing their movements to a crawl. Soon they were trapped and still, like so many insects in amber. And already their eyes were beginning to close, as invisible, odorless sleepgas gushed out of the air-conditioning systems. A growing silence fell across the terraces as the crowd fell into a deep, peaceful, merciful sleep.

A few ELFs teleported out. The rest were held fast by the tanglefields, along with everyone else, and all their powers couldn’t protect them from a gas they didn’t know they were breathing. Finn cruised slowly over the heads of the sleeping crowd. As Lewis watched, the Paragon used his sled’s instruments to detect the ELFs, and pulled them out of the crowd, one by one. He carried them out onto the sands, and dropped them in a pile. Lewis began to get a bad feeling. He used the security comm system to call for medical assistance, left the security man sniffling in a corner, and ran back to his sled.

He had to get back to the Arena. Finn was planning something.

* * * *

By the time he guided his gravity sled back through the maze of corridors and back out onto the Arena sands, the sleepgas was already beginning to wear off. People were beginning to stir on the terraces. Most of them were crying. Some were too shocked even to do that. Lewis steered his sled over to where Finn had arranged his ELF prisoners in a single long line. They were all awake now and kneeling on the sands with their hands cuffed behind their backs, a series of esp-blockers laid out on the sands before them so they couldn’t use their powers. They were all silent now, though their eyes were alert and watchful. Lewis jumped down from his sled and walked over to Finn, who nodded calmly to him.

“Good work with the tanglefields, Lewis. And the sleepgas, I assume? Quick thinking. I’ll write you a commendation.”

“Just doing my job,” said Lewis, keeping his voice carefully calm and neutral. “I count fourteen ELFs here. Pretty good catch, Finn.”

“Three dead, three teleported out,” said Finn. “Fourteen left, to make an example of.”

“I’ve summoned medics for the crowd,” said Lewis. “They’ll be here soon.”

“Hope they bring a lot of body bags,” said Finn. “These bastards did a lot of damage before we shut them down.”

One of the ELFs laughed softly. Finn strode unhurriedly down the line and kicked him in the head. The ELF crashed to the sand, blood spurting from his nose and mouth. Finn hauled him back into a kneeling position again. Lewis hurried over and grabbed Finn by the arm.

“For God’s sake, Finn . . .”

Finn jerked his arm free. “Don’t you ever lay your hands on me, Deathstalker. Not ever; you understand me?”

“All right, all right! Jesus, Finn; take it easy, you know? We’re supposed to be the good guys here.”

“We are,” said Finn. “Listen to the crowd.”

Lewis looked around, and realized the watching crowd was cheering Finn for what he’d done. It was a patchy sound at first, but growing stronger as the survivors found their voices. If they hadn’t still been held by the tanglefield, they’d probably have applauded. Lewis looked uneasily at Finn. Something was building here. He could feel it coming, and he didn’t like the feel of it at all.

“Don’t go soft on me, Lewis,” said Finn, smiling slightly. “The ELFs came here to send a message. I say we use the opportunity to send a message to them.”

“What are you talking about, Finn?” Out of the corner of his eye, Lewis noticed the new media cameras arrived to replace the ones he’d put out of action. Whatever Finn was planning, he clearly intended it to be seen by the media audience. Hell, half the Empire was probably watching by now. Finn smiled around him at the watching crowd, and nodded to the cameras. Lewis really didn’t like the look on his face. “Finn; talk to me. What is this?”

“Just a little simple justice,” said Finn. “Right here, where everyone can see it. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Terror for the terrorists.”

“Finn,” Lewis said carefully. “Listen to me. The ELFs are harmless now. The esp-blockers have them under control. They have to stand trial for what they did here. That’s the law.”

“The law did nothing to protect the people here,” said Finn, raising his voice so it carried clearly on the quiet. The crowd was watching him avidly now, hanging on his every word. “Sometimes, law isn’t enough. Not for what happened in this place. What’s needed here is vengeance. We’re supposed to be the King’s Justice. Your ancestor would have understood, Deathstalker.”

Lewis glanced at the crowd. Some were shouting encouragement. There was a bloodlust building. He could all but taste it.

“This isn’t the time or the place, Finn,” he said urgently. “The tanglefield has an automatic shutdown, to prevent power drains. If we don’t get the ELFs out of here fast, we could have a riot on our hands.”

“Not if we give them what they want,” said Finn. “Not if we do the right thing. The ELFs aren’t afraid of trials. In prison, they’re just martyrs to their cause. Sit around waiting to be traded in some hostage deal. I say we give them something to be afraid of. I say we show them what martyrdom really means.”

“Finn; no! We’re Paragons. We’re the law!”

“We’re the King’s Justice. It’s time we acted like it.”

Finn drew his sword and held it up, the long blade shining brightly under the winter sun. The crowd roared their approval. Finn walked over to the first of the kneeling ELFs. Lewis hesitated, not sure what to do. Finn wasn’t going to listen to reason. Not with the survivors of the possessed crowd baying for blood. Lewis’s hand fell to the gun on his hip, and then moved away again. He couldn’t shoot Finn Durandal. A comrade, a brother in arms, the greatest living Paragon. Not over an ELF. But he couldn’t let Finn act as judge, jury, and executioner either.

His hand went to his sword, and suddenly a tanglefield fell over him, pinning him to the spot. He struggled against the enveloping energies, even though he knew it was useless. Back in the security center, the man he’d left behind had taken the chance for a little personal revenge. Maybe he’d guessed what Finn had in mind too. Lewis cried out for Finn to stop, but his voice was lost in the half-insane baying from the crowd. They had been forced to suffer almost beyond belief, and only one thing would satisfy them now.

Lewis understood that. Part of him wanted to agree. But what Finn was planning was wrong, so wrong. It wouldn’t stop the ELFs; only spur them on to even greater horrors in revenge. But most of all, it was wrong for Finn to do this because he was a Paragon. Paragons had to be better than this. They had to be.

Finn beheaded the first ELF with one stroke of his sword. The crowd cheered and jeered as the severed head bumped and rolled across the bloody sands, its eyes still blinking, the mouth still opening and closing. Lewis wanted to close his eyes, but he made himself watch as Finn strode slowly down the long line of helpless ELFs, taking his time, executing them one by one to the rising adulation of the crowd. Like a gladiator in Lionstone’s time, Lewis thought sickly. As Finn came to the last ELF, the esper smiled straight into the nearest camera, and laughed triumphantly.

“You see!” she cried. “We were right about you! You’re just as bad as we always said you were! This justifies everything we’ve done, and everything we’ll do; because this is what you’d do to all of us, if you could!”

“Oh, shut up,” said Finn Durandal.

He brought his sword down hard. But perhaps he was getting tired by then, or careless, because although the blade sank deep into her neck, it didn’t sever it. The blade jammed in the vertebrae, and Finn had to jerk and pull at it. The ELF screamed horribly, blood spraying from her mouth. The crowd laughed and mocked her. Finn had to put a boot between her shoulder blades to brace himself before he could jerk his sword free for another blow. This time the head came away, hanging from the gushing stump by a shred of skin. Finn put away his sword, bent over, and jerked the head free with his hands. He held it up to the crowd and smiled and nodded modestly as it cheered and roared its approval.

Lewis finally looked away. Not from Finn, not from the severed head, but from what the crowd had become. What was in their faces now was exactly what he’d seen in the ELFs’ faces, as they took their pleasure from their thralls. The crowd had been victims in an awful crime. Now Finn had made them willing accomplices in something almost as bad.

“Damn you, Finn Durandal,” Lewis said quietly. “You’ve betrayed us all.”

* * * *

Back at the Court some time later, the Ceremony was almost ready to begin. The vast open floor of the Court was now packed from wall to wall with a great heaving mass of the very best people, there to see and be seen, and to bless the new King with their presence and approval. Everyone who mattered, and a great many more who thought they did, or should, had come to Court to celebrate the Coronation. Members of Parliament, Paragons of the King’s Justice, AIs from Shub downloaded into humanoid robots, clone and esper representatives, a handful of assorted aliens, and a whole bunch of priests from the Empire’s official religion, the Church of Christ Transcendent. But the vast majority of the crowd were, of course, the most famous and most sparkling members of High Society.

There were no more aristocratic Families anymore, of course, or at least not officially; but there was still Society, old money and new, new and old fame, and celebrity in all its many forms. They lived their lives in public, in the camera and all the glossy magazines, deciding on a whim who or what was In or Out, while the public watched and loved every minute of it. Bright as rainbows, gaudy as peacocks, Society paraded back and forth across the floor of the Court, thrusting aside lesser souls to ostentatiously kiss the air near each other’s cheeks and chat loudly about nothing of importance. Brittle bon mots and vicious put-downs were the order of the day, and the floating cameras of the officially sanctioned media broadcast it all live to a spellbound Empire.

After all, there’s nothing more splendid and romantic than the Coronation of a new King. Unless it’s a Royal wedding. And already, there were rumors . . .

King William had gone to great pains to ensure that only the most sympathetic media companies were allowed access to the great day. He understood that the best publicity is the kind you made, or at the very least, controlled, yourself. He was determined that his son’s Coronation was going to be presented in the best possible light, and the media had been so desperate for exclusive access that he’d been able to impose whatever terms he wanted; and he had.

The Christmas motif in the Court had been his idea too. An old idea made new again, first Society and then the Empire had embraced the concept of the old-fashioned Christmas with great enthusiasm. So now the whole Court was one big Santa’s Grotto, complete with dwarfs in merry costumes, gengineered intelligent reindeer, a towering tree bedecked with ornaments and lights and shimmering tinsel, and even St. Nicholas himself, fat and jolly in his red and white suit, bestowing his blessings on one and all, and jovially enquiring of Members of Parliament whether they’d been good or bad that year. St. Nick was being played by one Samuel Chevron, a merchant trader and old friend and adviser to King William. He rarely appeared in public, and his appearance at the Ceremony was a great coup for William.

St. Nicholas was currently talking with the Church Patriarch, who was now so nervous that his hands were visibly shaking, and he’d developed a twitch. St. Nick produced a brandy flask from inside his red coat and persuaded the Patriarch to take a healthy swig. The young man looked quickly around to check there wasn’t a camera on him, and took a good long drink. He then had a coughing fit and had to be slapped on the back, but it seemed to do him some good. Certainly at least now he had a little color in his cheeks.

“Well, of course it’s a great honor and I’m very proud to have been chosen,” the Patriarch said miserably. “But there’s so much to remember, all the lines and gestures and remembering to bow in the right places. They won’t even allow one of my people to prompt me through my comm implant. Security reasons; all private comm channels will be shut down for the duration. Bastards. And it’s not as if anyone here cares. Bet half of these Death By Fashion heathens have never seen the inside of a Church in their lives. But we couldn’t say no. It is traditional . . . you know what the Church wants, don’t you?”

“Access to the Madness Maze,” said St. Nick, nodding slowly. “Though given that every schoolboy knows that the first, and indeed last, ten thousand people to enter the Maze all died or went horribly insane . . .”

“The Church feels very strongly that total Quarantine was an overreaction,” the Patriarch said immediately, his voice firmer now that he was on more familiar doctrinal grounds. “The blessed Deathstalker and his companions survived and were transformed. They became more than Man, and thus closer to Jesus and to God. This is Humanity’s destiny. We can all transcend our base selves, as Jesus did. We can’t let ourselves be put off, just because all those years ago, the original supplicants lacked . . . faith.”

“Parliament seems very firm on the issue,” said St. Nick, carefully noncommital. “No one is to be allowed anywhere near the Maze again, until the scientists studying it, from what they fervently hope is a safe distance, can come up with some idea as to why Owen survived and ten thousand others didn’t. You must have heard the rumors about what the Maze did to them; people turned inside out or horribly rearranged. Last I heard, the marines guarding the Maze were under strict orders to shoot anyone who even thought about breaking the Quarantine, on the grounds that it would be a kinder fate than what the Maze would do to them.”

The Patriarch took another good swig of the brandy, and dealt with it rather better this time. His cheeks were practically glowing and his nervous tic had softened. His voice, on the other hand, was getting louder. “I’ve seen recordings of interviews with some of those whose minds were . . . touched by the Maze. Very hush hush, you understand. Not available at all to the general public or lower orders . . . They were mad, no doubt, and barking with it, but they had been touched by Something. The things they said . . . Anyway, the Church still demands access to the Maze. For properly prepared supplicants. This is a matter of Faith, not Science. If tens of thousands more have to die so that some may transcend, it will be worth it.”

“There are times,” said St. Nick, “when you people are scarier than the Maze could ever be. Give me my brandy back. Now off you go and learn your lines. And no more nonsense about demanding access to the Maze, or I’ll leave you a lump of coal for Christmas. And it won’t be your stocking I’ll stick it up.”

Not far away, a clump of carefully cheerful Members of Parliament had converged on a waiter bearing a tray of flutes of the very best vintage champagne. MPs were always on the lookout for freebies. The waiter made his escape with an empty tray and his bottom pinched twice, while the MPs toasted each other’s health in almost convincing voices. Parliament’s reputation was much greater than it had been, particularly in the days immediately following Lionstone’s fall, when everyone had been struggling for power, and to hell with whoever got stepped on in the process. These days, most Members of Parliament seemed genuinely concerned with serving and promoting the best interests of the worlds they represented. And while they might (and frequently did) argue fiercely among themselves in and out of Parliament, there was one thing they were all agreed on. The last thing the political process needed was a well-meaning new King interfering in matters that were none of his business. A constitutional monarch should know his place.

“At least Douglas has a good few years under his belt as Paragon,” said Tel Markham, the Member for Madraguda. “Nothing like exposure to real people to knock all that idealism crap out of you. People on the whole may mean well, but as individuals they can be right little shits.”

“Your planetary Council’s been questioning your expenses again, haven’t they?” said Michel du Bois, Member for Virimonde. “I’ve always got on very well with individuals. It’s when they start forming into special interest groups and forming agendas that I feel an urge to gather up my robes and sprint for the horizon. Still; if any individual could be said to be dangerous, Douglas would get my vote. He’s always taken the King’s Justice thing very seriously. The last thing Parliament needs is a King and Speaker preoccupied with justice. People don’t want justice; they want mercy. And tax cuts.”

Markham nodded. “If Douglas can’t, or won’t, learn what his job really entails . . . Well, people have been talking about doing away with the Monarchy and making the Empire into a Republic for years.”

“You mean your people have been talking about it,” said Meerah Puri, Member for Malediction. “Personally, I’ve always felt it can be very useful to have a public face to take the flak when Parliament finds it necessary to take unpopular measures. I wouldn’t worry. Douglas is a Campbell, and knows his duty. And you have to admit he looks the part. He’ll make a good King for us, once we’ve broken him to harness.”

St. Nick gave them a loud Ho ho ho! in passing, so they wouldn’t realize he’d been listening, and moved on to talk with the two humanoid robots representing the AIs of Shub. They were only roughly humanoid in shape, fashioned from gleaming blue steel, and so stylized they practically qualified as works of art. Their polished faces were blank, apart from two silver glows for eyes, so humans would have something to look at while they talked. Shub was anxious not to remind anyone of the Furies. The very human-seeming robots that had terrorized the Empire for so long, before the AIs learned Humanity from the esper saint Diana Vertue and in a flash of revelation declared themselves to be Humanity’s children. They’d spent the last two hundred years repenting their former evil ways. When St. Nick approached them, the two robots were studying the Court’s stained-glass windows with great concentration, particularly those bearing images of the legendary Owen Deathstalker.

“Merry Christmas!” said St. Nick, and the two robots turned and inclined their blank heads courteously to him.

“Season’s greetings,” one said, after a moment. “Do you really know who’s been good and who’s been bad?”

“I can often make a bloody good guess,” said St. Nick. “I don’t suppose you celebrate Christmas, do you?”

“Religion,” said the other robot. “It is a fascinating concept. Of course, we know who our creators are, and you have no idea how disappointing that was for us.”

“We have been contemplating the windows,” said the first robot. “The icons. The representations.”

“I’ve never been too sure what you see in art,” St. Nick said diffidently.

“Fiction,” said the second robot. “It is a fascinating concept. Myth. Legend. We grasp the principle, but the effects and connotations are something else. We cannot see them as you do. The whole mythmaking process is very difficult for us to come to terms with. We remember the Deathstalker as he was. And his companions. We can access our real-time memories of all our encounters with these people at a moment’s notice. The people we remember seem to have little in common with what these images represent today. Why make real people into fictions when the real people are much more interesting?”

“Myths and legends are . . . comforting,” said St. Nick. “They represent eternal principles. The original people, with all their imperfections and contradictions, would not serve the Empire nearly as well. Heroes are inspiring. People on the whole . . . aren’t. Though if anyone really was a hero and a legend in his own lifetime, it was Owen Deathstalker.”

“It is not Owen and his companions who matter,” said the second robot. “So much as what they’ve come to represent.”

“Which may or may not have anything to do with who and what these people actually were,” said the first robot.

“You’re getting it,” said St. Nick. “Besides; heroes are always so much more comforting when viewed from a safe distance. Owen was, by all accounts, a very disturbing man, in person.”

“We remember him,” said the AIs of Shub, talking in unison through both robots at once. “He was . . . magnificent.”

They moved off into the crowd, which gave way before them. St. Nick looked after them thoughtfully. The AIs of Shub had been Humanity’s friends, companions and uncomplaining servants for two hundred years now, but he never felt entirely comfortable around them. The man inside the Santa Claus suit still remembered the millions the AIs butchered, back when they were still the official Enemies of Humanity.

When the word Shub was as much a curse on the lips of Humanity as ELF was now.

St. Nick shrugged and moved on. You couldn’t live in the past. His next port of call was the clone representative, a small, rather forlorn figure, clutching his flute of champagne as though he suspected someone was going to come along and take it away at any moment. Clones were not the force they had once been. The whole process of cloning people had pretty much fallen out of fashion in the modern Empire, now that they were no longer needed in large numbers to do the Empire’s shit work. Much better to use humanoid robots, operated remotely by the AIs of Shub. Hard, repetitive, and dangerous work was no burden to them, and if a robot was damaged or destroyed, it was easily replaced, and no one cared. So work that was once done by clones, espers, and other unfortunate unpeople was now the province of machines, and everyone was much happier.

Almost everyone.

These days, you cloned tissues, not whole people. The Empire already had more than enough people. Unless you needed a lot of people in a hurry, to kickstart the population on a new world, or to boost flagging populations of some of the more vicious hellworlds, the places you couldn’t get real people to go to for any amount of money or land grants. Then, clones came into their own, which was why clones still had their own representative at the tables of the high and the mighty. Even if none of them seemed too interested in talking to him at the moment. St. Nick took the time to chat with him for a while, because that was his job.

But even he had to admit to himself that the clone representative was a boring little tit.

Next up was the esper representative, a much more important figure. He wore a simple white tunic, gathered at the waist, and even with the Court esp-blockers blunting his powers, his presence was so strong it was practically overpowering. His lean ascetic face reminded St. Nick of someone, though he couldn’t place who. The esper smiled politely when St. Nick said this.

“Don’t let it throw you. Everyone feels that way on meeting an esper. Since we’re all part of the oversoul, if you’ve met one of us, you’ve met all of us. And we have met you. It saves a lot of time. Though déjà vu’s a bit of a pain in the arse.”

“You’ve heard about the ELFs,” said St. Nick. There was no point in avoiding the subject; the esper had to know it would be on his mind. It was on everyone’s mind right now. The ELFs, and what had happened at the Arena.

“They’re not espers,” the esper said, very coldly. “They’re monsters. To keep us from intervening, they abducted a low-level telepath and ripped his mind open, so they could fill it with horror. They smuggled him into New Hope, home and heart of the esper commonwealth, and he walked among us, broadcasting cannibalism memes. It took us hours to find him and shut him down. Now our streets are full of blood and death and the grieving of survivors. What happens to one of us, happens to all of us. We all ate human flesh. We all fed on others, or on ourselves. We will have a vengeance for this. The oversoul will not rest until every ELF is dead, and their foul philosophy with them.”

“The Paragon Finn Durandal seems to have started without you,” said St. Nick.

The esper representative nodded slowly. “Yes. We would have preferred to take our vengeance personally. And it was a . . . disturbing sight, a human executing espers. But the ELFs are dead, and burning in Hell, and we must take comfort from that.”

St. Nick nodded thoughtfully and continued on his rounds, and if he had any different thoughts on the matter, he kept them to himself.

The next group in his path were the Ecstatics; but St. Nick decided that there were limits, even for Santa Claus. The Ecstatics were a relatively new sect, religious extremists on the very edge of the organized Church. They’d all had their brains surgically altered so that they now existed in a continuous, never-ending state of orgasm. Heaven on earth. Pure pleasure in every waking moment, and God knew what they dreamed about. They shook and shuddered constantly, their gaze tended to wander, their smiles were downright disturbing, and they tended to burn out fast. But while they lasted they were supposed to be capable of accessing all kinds of altered states of consciousness, without the need for drugs or esp. There was no denying they saw the world very differently from everyone else. They had been known to achieve depths of insight and inspiration that were startling, and sometimes they could prophesy with uncanny accuracy, though in such obscure terms that it might take years to discover what the hell they’d been talking about. And sometimes they just talked complete crap.

The Ecstatics, who lived short happy lives and cared for no one but themselves.

One of them reached out suddenly and grabbed St. Nick by his red sleeve as he passed, fixing him with a happy, unwavering stare. “I know . . . who you are . . .”

“Of course you do,” St. Nick said gently. “Everyone knows Father Christmas.”

“No,” said the Ecstatic, his wide smile never faltering as he spoke. “I know who you are. Who you used to be. The circle is turning. He’s coming back. The lost one. Thrones will fall, worlds will burn, and just possibly the universe will come to an end, very soon now.”

“Well,” said St. Nick, considering the matter judiciously. “That’s all very interesting, but I can smell your neurons frying from here. So, I think I’ll go and talk to someone else who’s currently on the same planet as I am.”

“Lot of people say that,” said the Ecstatic.

St. Nick watched the Ecstatic wander away, shook his head a few times, and then braced himself. Next in line on his rounds, the aliens. And unlike the Ecstatics, where everyone sympathized, he couldn’t avoid the aliens without risking a diplomatic incident.

Aliens were, in theory, an equal part of the Empire these days. In practice, both humans and aliens tended to be wary of each other. Of the dozen or so alien species who’d made a showing for the Ceremony, most had turned up as holo images. Partly for the very practical reason that they couldn’t exist under human conditions without a hell of a lot of tech support, and partly because everyone felt a lot safer that way. The holo images wandered through the Court, doing their best not to walk through people, and everyone was scrupulously polite at all times. On the whole, the aliens seemed to find the reasons for the Ceremony fascinating, but baffling. Translator tech could only go so far.

A few aliens had appeared in person, and most people wished they hadn’t. This especially applied in the case of the Swart Alfair, from the planet Mog Mor. Huge, brooding, batlike creatures, just humanoid enough to be really upsetting, with dark crimson skin and vast ribbed wings they folded around themselves like cloaks, they had a truly disturbing ambience and altogether too many teeth and claws. They’d taken their name from human mythology, on the grounds that humans couldn’t pronounce their actual names without growing a new voicebox. They did amazing things with computers and had to eat in private, because they ate their meals raw and preferably still kicking. At ten feet tall and more, the three Swart Alfair towered over St. Nick as he did his best to make them feel welcome, but he didn’t allow himself to be intimidated. He’d seen scarier in his time. Or so he kept telling himself.

Most distressing of all, ectoplasm boiled continuously off the aliens. Thick blue mists of (probably) psionic origin that had an almost overbearing physical presence. If you looked into the mists long enough, you would see images of what you were thinking, and sights of peoples and places long past. The weirder images that came and went were supposedly what the Swart Alfair were thinking.

The espers wouldn’t go anywhere near them. Said just thinking about the Swart Alfair gave them a collective headache.

An unusual civilization, new to the Empire, and very keen to be a part of things, the Swart Alfair. Strange and enigmatic, casually cruel and unexpectedly kind. St. Nick smiled and nodded and said all the usual things, and got the hell out of there as fast as he decently could.

He didn’t even try to explain Christmas to them. He still remembered the case of the N’Jarr, some twenty years back. Slow-moving, mushroom people, with far too many eyes. Anxious to make their human ambassadors feel at home, they’d embraced the idea of Father Christmas. They’d studied up on the seasonal celebration and then invited the human ambassadors to a great Christmas party in their honor. The ambassadors turned up in their party best, bearing gifts, and there in the aliens’ gathering place to greet them, was the biggest effigy of Father Christmas any of them had ever seen.

Nailed to a cross.

* * * *

Also present at the Court for the great Ceremony, though no one knew it, was Brett Random. Confidence trickster, thief, cheat, and complete and utter bastard. Though not just any bastard, as he was fond of pointing out to his acquaintances when he’d had a drink or two. Brett was a member in bad standing of Random’s Bastards, one of the many men and women down the years to claim descent from the legendary freedom fighter, Jack Random. Given Jack’s eight wives and innumerable conquests, there were a hell of a lot of people claiming to be descended from the Professional Rebel these days. So many they held an annual Conference in the Parade of the Endless and signed autographs. They also ran any number of websites, mostly fixated on undermining each other’s claims.

Brett Random claimed to be a very special case, descended from Jack Random and Ruby Journey. It should be pointed out that the only person known to believe this was Brett Random.

He was tall and handsome, with long bright red hair, warm green eyes, a flashing smile, and a ready charm. He was also currently wearing a formal waiter’s outfit, complete with spotless white apron, that he’d had specially made. All so that he could replace the real waiter, who was currently sleeping off the drug Brett had slipped into his drink the night before. Brett had stalked his prey for several days before closing in. Good preparation is a vital part of every con. He’d chosen a redhead as his target because people tended to remember the hair, rather than the face beneath it. The face on the ID he’d taken off the sleeping waiter had been close enough, and easily duplicated in an underground body shop he’d had occasion to work with before, but it was the way people wore their faces that made them recognizable, and he couldn’t afford a slip. So; bright red hair to attract the eye and distract the attention. It helped that no one paid much attention to waiters anyway.

Personally, Brett was appalled at how easy it had been for him to get in. Security hadn’t demanded a genetest or anything. They all just assumed that if he had official ID, someone else must have run the necessary tests, and they didn’t have to bother. Just waved him on through. Brett had half decided to write a very stern note to the Head of Court Security, afterwards.

So; there he was, right in the middle of the greatest social gathering of the century, calmly circulating with his tray of drinks, directing people to the rest rooms and getting his bottom pinched rather more than was usual. Must be the uniform. He radiated calm and certainty and confidence, and was ready to run like hell at a moment’s notice. First and most important rule of the successful con artist: never be afraid to drop it all and leg it for the horizon if you even suspect something’s gone wrong. The ones who hung around in the hope of squeezing just a bit more out of the rubes, or who couldn’t bear to abandon their clever plans, were the ones who ended up on work farms on the hellworlds. Brett had seen the inside of a prison once, and hadn’t liked it. You met a very rough class of person there. He had decided very firmly never to go back.

He accessed the camera currently impersonating his left eye, and ran a quick diagnostic. Everything was working fine. The camera was recording everything he pointed it at, and he was getting some really nice candid shots of the Great and the Good relaxing their guard and letting their hair down, secure in the knowledge that the official media cameras were under strict instructions as to what they could and couldn’t broadcast. Even when they went live for the actual Coronation, the King had insisted on a five-second delay, so that the Court censor could remove anything that might detract from the dignity of the Ceremony. Which was, of course, why Brett had gone to such trouble to sneak himself and his camera in. His unauthorized, and sometimes very candid, recording was going to make him some serious money from the gossip shows.

Losing an eye and replacing it with a camera had been painful as well as expensive, but Brett was a professional.

He circulated with his tray of drinks, making sure everyone had a fresh glass. People said such interesting things when they were drunk. He was quiet and smiling and unobtrusive, and listened in on all sorts of fascinating conversations as people looked right through him. Servants were invisible, no more noticed than service robots. Brett took advantage of this to help himself to the excellent finger food at the buffet, and even pocketed a few small valuable items that caught his real eye. He decided reluctantly that picking a few pockets would be a step too far. It only took a moment’s bad luck, a voice raised in outrage, and he’d have to run for his life before the Coronation even began, and lose out on all the best footage. So he controlled himself, just, and hovered hopefully beside a group of MPs, hoping to pick up something juicy that he could use later for blackmail purposes. Every little bit helps.

Behind the Thrones on their raised dais, a projected holoscreen was showing old news footage of Douglas Campbell’s exploits as a Paragon. Brett stopped to watch for a moment. There he was, the King to be, always in the thick of battle, being the hero, and beating the hell out of people who were probably only trying to make a living. Lewis Deathstalker was nearly always at the Campbell’s side, fighting the good fight and punishing evil. Douglas and Lewis, the King and the Deathstalker; champions of justice.

Brett had never cared much for Douglas. Far too prim and proper. Never had an illegal or impure thought in his life, that one. Born to greatness, and didn’t he know it. Brett had always had much more time for the Deathstalker. All he inherited was the burden of a legendary name, but he went on to make a real hero of himself, through his own efforts. Brett admired Lewis; perhaps because the Deathstalker was everything the Random was not, and never would be.

Their ancestors had been friends. Brett thought about that, sometimes.

On the vast screen, they were replaying Douglas and Lewis’s most recent battle against agents of the Shadow Court. Brett’s ears pricked up. He’d always wanted to make contact with the Shadow Court, the last remnants of the old Families. Officially, the old Clan system was dead and gone. Most of the old Families gave up their ancient names because of the bad connotations, and conspicuously moved out of the political process, and into business. The pastel Towers of the Clans were gone, hauled down long ago. But in the shadows and secret places, some still clung to the old glories, and plotted to be powerful again. They met privately, in cellars and the backs of bars, using the old names, drawing on the old blood loyalties, and plotted to influence politics through bribes and intimidation, blackmail and terrorism. Whatever it took.

No one knew how much influence they really had. Those who took bribes didn’t talk about it, and those who wouldn’t . . . tended to end up dead before they could name any names. Shadow Court assassins struck in public, wearing stylized black masks, and self-immolated rather than be captured or questioned. Fanatics, to a man and a woman, convinced their greatness has been stolen from them, determined to be great again.

No one knew how many of them there were; who might actually be a part of the Shadow Court. Similarities to the old hidden horror, Blue Block, had not gone unnoticed.

Brett Random thought they were a bunch of tossers and sad bastards, unable to realize their time in the sun was over. He just knew if he could only make contact with them, he could take them for everything they had, including their underwear.

The image on the holoscreen changed, and there were Douglas and Lewis acting as stewards on a Neuman public demonstration. The Neumen were a fairly recent phenomenon; a political group that had sprung up apparently out of nowhere, with as yet unidentified backers, who had declared themselves Pure Humanity. They wanted all aliens expelled from the Empire, and all clones and espers destroyed, or at the very least, sternly domesticated. For the protection of Pure Humanity, of course. The Neumen only ever appeared in public in large numbers; in public demonstrations that somehow always involved marching through areas where there lived large concentrations of the very kinds they hated so much.

Their right to march and demonstrate in public were protected by the Free Speech laws, but every time they appeared, there was sure to be trouble. Even if minority interest groups didn’t organize counterdemonstrations, the Neumen had never been popular with the general public, who still venerated the superhuman Owen Deathstalker and his companions, and saw Neumen propaganda as an attack on their heroes. Basically, whenever the Neumen appeared, you could guarantee crowds would appear out of nowhere just to throw things at them. And that was when the Paragons would be called in, to organize security around the Neumen marches, and try to prevent, or at least contain, trouble. Paragons enforced the law, no matter where their sympathies might lie.

The holoscreen showed a recent confrontation in the Parade of the Endless, with Douglas standing calmly between two angry armed camps, and steadily cooling everyone’s temper with reasonable words and a personal authority. When he spoke, people listened. Even furious crowds and fanatical Neumen. It probably helped that Lewis was standing right beside Douglas, his hands on his weapons, glowering fiercely at absolutely everybody, and clearly ready to crack heads if anyone was stupid enough not to listen to reason.

In his time, Brett Random had sold weapons and the like to both sides of the conflict. He had no interest in politics, except how best to take advantage of the people involved. Fanatics always made the best suckers; you could sell them practically anything, as long as you could convince them that someone else didn’t want them to have it.

And then the holoscreen switched to a more recent exploit, and suddenly the Court was quiet. Everyone was watching. Three weeks earlier, the Hellfire Club had attacked a Church right in the heart of the Parade of the Endless. It wasn’t a big Church. Not very old, or particularly impressive. No one important went there. It was just a Church, where ordinary everyday people went to pray and worship; and that was enough for the Hellfire Club.

The Club itself had been around for some time; a bunch of self-proclaimed freethinkers who disapproved of the Empire having an official religion. According to these radical philosophers with far too much free time on their hands, organized religion was a Bad Thing. It stopped people from thinking for themselves, and thus prevented them from being all that they might be. Religion got in the way of human evolution. There should be only Science, the creation of human minds. Anything else was a waste of time, and distracted people from doing something productive with their lives.

No one paid the Club a lot of attention. It was briefly fashionable, but fashion moved on, as fashion does, and most of the radical philosophers found something else to pontificate about. Something more likely to get them invited back on the chat show circuit again.

But the Hellfire Club didn’t die. It went underground, its few surviving members becoming even more radical, more extreme. They became decadents, glorying in excess of all kinds, opposed to all restraints on human nature. They made Sin their religion, and the Church their hated Enemy. Just for the fun of it. They set fire to Churches. Committed blasphemies in graveyards. Assassinated a few priests. And finally decided they weren’t getting enough publicity. Something new was needed. Something big. Something awful.

Douglas and Lewis had answered a routine emergency call from a Church in the Parade of the Endless. When a news crew with nothing better to cover asked if they could send a camera along, Douglas had shrugged, and said Sure. Why not?

On the holoscreen, the camera recording showed Douglas and Lewis standing outside the main door of the Church. It was hanging open, supported by a single brass hinge. Blood was spattered across the pale wood, in runs and splashes, and in the bright red shape of a handprint, clear as day. Douglas and Lewis looked at each other, and drew their guns. Their faces were stern, but calm. They thought they’d seen it all before. Lewis pushed the door open and Douglas darted inside, gun at the ready. Lewis followed him in, and the camera went after them.

Inside, there was blood everywhere. Bodies lay slumped and scattered among the overturned pews. Men, women, and children in their Sunday best, hacked apart. Arms lying outstretched in the aisles, as though still begging for mercy, or help that never came. Hands piled up like offerings. Heads impaled on the wooden railings, silently screaming. Douglas and Lewis walked slowly down the center aisle, checking the shadows for ambush. Everyone in the Court watched in silence. They knew what was coming. Even Brett was holding his breath now.

Douglas’s face was full of a cold fury. He had his disrupter in one hand and his sword in the other now, and he stalked down the center aisle like a wolf on the trail of its prey. His whole body radiated an outrage and an anger almost beyond control. Lewis stopped and knelt beside a dead child, cut in half at the waist. He slowly put out a hand to close the child’s staring eyes. The camera zoomed in for a close-up of Lewis’s familiar, ugly face. He looked . . . tired. So much evil, his face seemed to say. How could people do such things? And as they watched, as everyone in the Court watched, the tiredness went out of his face, replaced by stern, uncompromising resolve. Lewis was going to kill someone, and everyone knew it.

At the far end of the Church, they came to a heavy hanging curtain. Douglas pulled it down and threw it aside, with one violent movement, and saw a sight out of Hell itself. The altar had been used for sacrifice. Lots of it. The whole marble edifice was running with fresh blood. Behind the altar, the Church’s priest had been crucified to the wall, upside down. His throat had been cut, afterwards. And half a dozen members of the Hellfire Club, shaped by illegal body shops into the nearest they could get to devils (red skin, curled horns on their brows, hoofs instead of feet), were taking turns to drink the blood they’d collected from the slashed throat in the priest’s own silver chalice.

They were laughing when the heavy curtain suddenly disappeared, revealing them. They spun around, and their crimson faces fell as they saw Douglas and Lewis. Arrogance and devilish glee were gone in a moment, and there was only fear. They went for their guns. Douglas and Lewis shot the two whose hands were closest to their weapons, killing them instantly, and then they charged forward, swords in hands. Douglas was shouting something, his voice thick and incoherent with rage. Lewis was silent. They fell upon the remaining devils. One of them tried to put up a fight, and Douglas gutted him with one swift sideways cut from his blade. The devil fell screaming to the blood-soaked floor, dropping his sword to try and push his guts back into the wide hole in his belly they were spilling out from. Douglas stamped on his head to shut him up. The other devils looked at Lewis and Douglas and dropped their swords, surrendering.

Douglas glared at them, breathing harshly, gripping his sword so hard his knuckles showed white. He was ready to kill them. Everyone could see it in his face. He took a step forward, and the devils flinched back. Lewis watched Douglas carefully but did nothing, said nothing. And in the end, Douglas lowered his sword. The two Paragons put the devils in restraints, and the three prisoners were careful to do nothing to antagonize them. Lewis called a medic for the unconscious devil bleeding on the floor, and then he and Douglas bustled the others up the main aisle towards the door. And then one of the devils saw the news camera floating on the air before them, getting it all, and he laughed.

“Hail and salutations, viewing millions! Did you enjoy the show? We did it all for you!”

“Shut the hell up,” said Douglas, pushing the devil forward so hard he stumbled and almost fell.

“You needn’t think this means anything,” said the devil, snarling back at Douglas as he regained his balance. “Nothing that happens now matters worth a damn. You can’t undo what we did here! You can try us and imprison us and hate us, but everyone here will still be dead, and we’ll still be right, and there’s nothing you can do about it!”

“Wrong,” said Lewis Deathstalker. “We can make an example of you.”

Something in his voice interrupted the devil’s composure, but only for a moment. He lurched to a halt and glared at Lewis, refusing to move.

“Why not kill us now, Paragon?” he said, grinning widely. “Why wait for the courts to judge us? Why not do it yourself? You know you want to!”

“Because we’re better than you,” said the Deathstalker. “Because we have to be.”

The image froze on Lewis’s face, stern and resolute, and then the holoscreen shut down. The Court slowly began talking again. Brett felt like applauding. A better piece of stage management he hadn’t seen in a long time. The whole devils piece had been carefully chosen, a setup; a direct answer to Finn’s actions in the Arena. Someone wanted to send a very specific message about what kind of a King Douglas was going to be. And what Paragons were supposed to be.

Brett would have liked to have been a Paragon; worshiped and adored and always right. But he was a Random, bastard son of a long line of bastards, outlaws, and thieves; so he became a con man. And, it had to be said; he was very good at it. He stole a politician’s wallet in passing, just because he could, and carried on passing out long cool flutes of champagne to anyone who looked like they could use a drink after what they’d just seen.

And then suddenly the whole Court seemed to be cheering at once. The Paragons Lewis Deathstalker and Finn Durandal had just arrived. People shouted and applauded, and stamped their feet. They surged forward to shake Lewis and Finn by the hand, and clap them on the back. And perhaps only Brett noticed the Members of Parliament hanging back, watching carefully to see how many in the crowd went to Lewis, and how many to Finn. Lewis was very popular, but it was Finn Durandal the crowd surged around. Because we’re better than that might be inspiring, but it was still revenge that warmed the cockles of most people’s hearts.

Douglas came striding through the packed crowd, and it opened up before him, bowing and curtseying. He embraced Lewis, and then Finn. The crowd applauded, and then drew back a little and turned away at Douglas’s gesture, so that the three men could talk in private. Finn looked at Douglas, and cocked an eyebrow.

“Come to rap my knuckles, have you, Douglas?”

“You’re supposed to be a Paragon, Finn; not an executioner.”

“Do you doubt the ELFs’ guilt?”

“Not in the least. I shed no tears at their passing. But we’re supposed to be the law.”

“Really? I thought we were supposed to be the King’s Justice.”

“Yes,” said Lewis. “The King’s. Not our own.”

Finn looked at him, and his thin smile was almost openly contemptuous. “You never did have much taste for vengeance, did you, Lewis? Or the stomach for it.”

“I prefer law,” said Lewis, entirely unmoved. “No individual should have the right to decide who lives and who dies. Isn’t that why my revered ancestor overthrew Lionstone, all those years ago? We’re supposed to be the King’s Justice; not his hired killers.”

“That’s enough,” Douglas said quickly. “I’ll have no arguments among my friends, not on my Coronation day. You both did a good job, under difficult conditions. Let it go.”

“For now,” said Lewis.

“Yes,” said Finn. “For now.”

“Where’s your father?” said Lewis.

“Backstage, resting,” said Douglas. “He was looking tired and frayed at the edges, so I sent him off to have a bit of a lie down, before the Ceremony proper gets under way.”

“Does he know what Finn did in his name?” said Lewis.

“William hasn’t had an opinion that mattered in years,” Finn said calmly. “You’ll be a different kind of King, won’t you, Douglas? You’ve been a Paragon. You know what things are like at the cutting edge. You’ll make them all sit up and take notice.”

Douglas looked sharply at Finn. “My father is still your King, and you will not speak of him in that manner, Finn Durandal. Not now, not ever. Is that understood?”

Finn bowed his head to Douglas immediately. “Of course. Please accept my apologies. I meant no disrespect. I was just . . . I’m still a little upset after seeing what the ELFs did in the Arena.”

“Of course,” said Douglas. “I understand. We’re all upset.” He looked around him, making sure that the crowd was still keeping a discreet distance, and that the media cameras were pointed somewhere else, and then he gestured for Lewis and Finn to lean closer. “There’s something we need to discuss, before the Ceremony begins. Concerning my naming of a new King’s Champion, after my Coronation.”

Lewis and Finn nodded. The Paragons had been talking about nothing else for weeks, ever since Douglas first made the announcement. There hadn’t been an official Champion for two hundred years. Not since Kit SummerIsle, the last Champion, had died so mysteriously, so soon after taking office. His killer was never caught, or even identified. People had been playing conspiracy theory over his death for centuries. Even more people said the office was jinxed. Maybe even cursed. But it had been two hundred years, and Douglas had never been much of a one for superstitions.

“Naming a Champion is just what I need to mark my ascension to the Throne,” he said. “To show that I intend to be a whole different kind of King. That I will pursue justice for all, even when I’m no longer a Paragon. My Champion won’t just be a bodyguard, or a symbol; he’ll have rank and position and power equal to anyone in Parliament. More than any Paragon ever had. Parliament won’t like it, but they won’t dare defy me on the day of my Coronation. Particularly since I’ve already agreed to do something for them . . . My Champion will lead the fight against Humanity’s enemies. The ELFs, the Shadow Court, the Hellfire Club. He will hunt them down, whoever they try to hide behind. My justice will not only be done, but be seen to be done.”

“I hate it when you try out your speeches on us,” said Lewis.

“Is this why you’re leaving it so late to name your Champion?” said Finn. “So Parliament can’t try to influence your choice?”

“Got it in one,” said Douglas.

“You could be making a rod for your own back,” said Lewis. “Whoever you choose, inevitably you’re going to disappoint a hell of a lot more. God knows Paragons are competitive enough at the best of times, but they’ve been outdoing themselves recently, trying to catch your attention. And isn’t there a very real chance Parliament will see this as an attempt to make the Paragons your own personal power base? Your own private army, to support you in case you decide to go against Parliament’s wishes?”

“How else can I be sure of getting things done?” said Douglas. “Look, Lewis; this isn’t about me. About power for me. I’ve never wanted to be King. You know that. I’d be happy to be a Paragon for the rest of my days. But if I’ve got to be King, I’ll be the best damned King I’m capable of being. Not for myself; for my people. To protect them from scum like the ELFs, and from a Parliament that’s grown too secure in its own power, and too distant from what needs doing. There are times when Parliament can’t or won’t do the right thing, the necessary thing, because MPs have to worry about not being reelected if they make an unpopular decision. I, on the other hand, couldn’t give a rat’s arse whether they sling me off the Throne or not.”

“We need a strong King,” said Finn. “You and I, Douglas, we’ve seen evil up close. Fought it, face-to-face. Walked through the blood of innocents. The guilty must be punished.”

Douglas nodded. “Everything I do will have one aim in mind: to protect the people.”

“And who will protect them from you?” Lewis said softly.

Douglas smiled. “Why, my Champion, of course. Because he’ll be the people’s Champion, just as much as the King’s.”

“You’re expecting a lot from whoever you finally choose,” said Lewis.

“Oh, I’ve already made a choice, and I have complete confidence in him. And no, I’m not going to tell you now. You know how I love my little surprises. And now, if you’ll both excuse me, it seems there’s someone I just have to meet backstage, before the Ceremony. I have recently been informed, by my father the King, that I am getting married. Whether I like it or not.”

“Can they do that?” said Lewis incredulously. “I mean; arranged marriages have been out of fashion ever since the Families fell.”

“Not where the King’s concerned,” said Douglas, grimacing. “It’s not just a job, it’s a destiny.”

“So who are you going to marry?” said Finn. “Odds are it’s some inbred aristo with warts and a speech impediment.”

“Actually,” said Douglas, just a little diffidently, “it’s Jesamine Flowers.”

“Bloody hell!” said Lewis, so loudly that everyone in the vicinity looked around sharply. Lewis lowered his voice and leaned in closer. “ The Jesamine Flowers? Bloody hell . . . I’ve got all her recordings . . .”

Finn studied Douglas thoughtfully. “Something of a prize, certainly. But . . . this came from Parliament, rather than your father, didn’t it? Are you really going to allow them to tell you what to do, this early in your new career? You could be setting a precedent you’ll come to regret.”

“Oh, come on!” said Lewis. “This is Jesamine Flowers we’re talking about! I’d crawl across broken glass just for a smile and a wave!”

“I’m in no position to defy Parliament’s wishes,” said Douglas. “Not yet, anyway. And their logic is unassailable. The King must have a Queen who can do the job. Jesamine Flowers will be a very popular choice with the people . . . It could have been a hell of a lot worse . . .”

“You’ll have no time for your old friends now,” said Lewis, grinning. “People like Finn and me will probably be banished from the Court as bad influences on you.”

Douglas reached out and took Lewis by the arm. “Nothing will ever part us, Lewis. Not the Throne, not my marriage; nothing. Not after all we’ve been through together. You’re the only real friend I’ve ever had. We’ll talk more about this, after the Ceremony. Now I’ve got to go and make nice with my bride-to-be. If you’re both very good, I’ll try and get you autographs.”

He left them then, striding quickly off through the crowd, frowning so fiercely that people hurried to get out of his way. Lewis and Finn watched him go, looked at each other, and then shook their heads slowly.

“This is turning out to be a day of surprises,” said Lewis.

“Some more significant than others,” said Finn. “He might have told us who’s going to be Champion. Who’s closer to him than us?”

“Come off it,” said Lewis. “Everyone knows it’s going to be you. You’re the longest-serving Paragon, with an unmatched record. He’d have to be crazy to give it to anyone else. No one else has half your experience. You’re the better warrior.”

“And the better man,” Finn said solemnly. “Don’t forget that. And, of course, incredibly modest.”

“Well, yes,” said Lewis. “But then, you have so much to be modest about.”

They laughed quietly together, and then turned and looked out over the packed Court. Neither of them had anything much to do now, until it was time for the Ceremony. Lewis snagged glasses of champagne from a passing waiter, and they drank in silence. Lewis had never had any doubts as to who would be Champion. Finn was the greatest Paragon there’d ever been. Everyone knew that. And, Finn was Logres’s Paragon. Local boy made (very) good. His exploits were common knowledge throughout the Empire. A warrior and a hero well on his way to being a legend in his own lifetime.

Even if he was sometimes a little extreme in his actions.

Lewis had never considered himself worthy to be Champion. Half the time he didn’t even feel worthy to bear the legendary Deathstalker name. It wasn’t like he was even a direct descendent. The direct line died with David, on Virimonde. Technically Owen was still listed as Missing in Action . . . but after two hundred years only the really devout still thought he’d turn up someday. But such was public sentiment for the legendary name, that King Robert had promoted an indirect branch, and made them Deathstalkers. And every damned one of them had been a Paragon. Lewis had never wanted anything else, ever since he was a child. The day he left Virimonde as its choice of Paragon, to go to Logres for his confirmation, had been the happiest and proudest day of his life.

And yet it wasn’t something he intended to do for the rest of his life. Being a Paragon was a young man’s job; a job for a man without wife or family to grieve if he didn’t come home someday. The job killed a lot of Paragons young. Finn was in his early fifties, the oldest serving Paragon, ever, and Lewis had to wonder why. It was a job worth doing, certainly. A necessary job, and with many rewards. But most Paragons retired in their thirties, to become media celebrities, wealthy men who could pretty much write their own tickets. But Finn just kept on going.

Finn Durandal wasn’t an easy man to understand. He rarely gave interviews, even to his own websites, and when he did he rarely had much to say. The usual stuff about justice, and what an honor it was to serve as a Paragon. And while there was no denying he clearly enjoyed putting it to the bad guys, surely that wasn’t motive enough to continue in so dangerous a job for so long. What kind of a man chose such a job over the comforts of wife and children, family and home? There’d been women enough in Finn’s life; he was always being seen escorting some new beauty in the gossip magazines. But none of them seemed to stick around very long.

“Why?” Lewis said suddenly, and Finn turned to look at him. He didn’t seem surprised.

“Everyone asks me that question eventually. And you waited longer than most. So . . . Partly because there’s only ever been me. Just me. No family, no great love. No one who ever cared enough to stick around. I guess I’m just not good with people. And also . . . because I’m good at it. No one does it better than me. The greatest Paragon there’s ever been. More medals, more commendations, more dead bad guys to my credit than anyone else. And now, I’m going to be Champion. Not just one world’s protector, but the whole Empire’s. Someday, they’ll have my image up in one of those windows. My name will even eclipse yours.”

“I’m glad,” said Lewis. “Really. You earned it.”

“Yes,” said Finn. “I did.” He was still looking at the stained-glass windows. “Once, my ancestor was a hero. Lord Durandal. My family’s history is packed with records of his exploits. Great adventures, amazing deeds. But no one else remembers him now. No stained-glass window for my ancestor. He went out into the Darkvoid, eventually, sent by his Emperor in search of lost Haden, and the Darkvoid Device. He never came back. No one knows what happened to him. He failed in his quest, and was forgotten. There’s a valuable lesson to be learned in that, Lewis.”

Is that why you keep throwing yourself into battle? thought Lewis. Because you don’t want to be seen to fail? Even by retiring?

Aloud, he said, “I never knew your family were Lords.”

“It’s not something it’s wise to talk about, these days,” said Finn, shrugging. “I can’t say I miss the Families. I’d much rather be a Paragon. You could say we’re the new aristocracy, rich and powerful and adored; but decided by feats of valor and merit rather than accident of birth. Hell, I’m richer now than any of my old Family ever were. Thirty-odd years of merchandising and careful investments will do that for you. You should try it, Lewis. You’re the only Paragon I know who doesn’t even have his own action figure.”

“I never cared about being rich,” said Lewis. “And trading on my name as a Paragon always seemed to me that it would . . . somehow cheapen it. I don’t judge those who do. I just know it’s not for me.”

Finn looked at him thoughtfully. “How very noble of you, Lewis. I have to say . . . I did wonder, for a while, whether Douglas would make you Champion. Just because you’re a Deathstalker. That name still means something. It has power. And God knows Douglas was always a real sentimentalist.”

Lewis shrugged quickly. “Legends . . . should stay in the past, where they belong. I have always preferred to be judged by my own accomplishments, such as they are. I’ve never wanted to be Champion, Finn. That’s going to be a job for someone who understands politics, and can play the game. I’ve never understood politics, and to be honest, I’ve never given a damn. I’m a Paragon, and that’s all I ever wanted to be.”

“Happy the man with no ambition,” said Finn. “But happier still the man who aims high, and dreams great dreams.”

Lewis looked at him. “What?”

* * * *

Backstage, in a spotless high-tech office absolutely crammed with the very latest in computers, comm tech, and surveillance equipment, the most famous opera singer in the Empire and the Court’s official Head of Protocol, Jesamine Flowers and Anne Barclay, were discussing the forthcoming Ceremony over tea and chocolate biscuits. Two old friends, with more shared past than most people would be comfortable with, two of the most influential people in the Empire, giggling and pushing each other and generally acting like overgrown kids.

Jesamine Flowers was tall, blond, beautiful, voluptuous and glamorous, because her profession and position demanded it of her. Gorgeous rather than pretty, and radiating a sexuality as overbearing as a blowtorch, Jesamine’s universally recognized face and figure had never known the slightest assistance from a body shop. Somehow, her few imperfections just made her more her . That’s show business for you.

The Empire’s most admired diva, Jesamine Flowers, had been at the very top of her profession for twenty-five years, ever since she first stole the show out from under some poor unfortunate lead when she was only fifteen years old. A voice like an angel and a body built for sin, and just enough of a sense of humor so that everyone knew she didn’t take either quality too seriously. Her many vid and sound recordings had made her so wealthy that even show business accountants couldn’t hide most of it, and Jesamine paid more in taxes every year than some colonized planets. She could have retired long ago; but there were still so many roles to play, so many stages to dominate, so many young pretenders to send packing. And Jesamine was still never happier than when reducing an audience to tears, or laughter, or filling their hearts with awe.

She was forty years old, and she’d done it all. And that, really, was the problem.

She’d arrived at Court with her usual entourage, all the many people she needed to be Jesamine Flowers the star, but she dismissed them all when Anne Barclay arrived. (Some of them weren’t too happy about that, sensing a threat to their position and influence, but Jesamine drove those poor fools away with threats and insults and the occasional slap and kick. Jesamine ran a tight ship.) She and Anne retired to Anne’s office, where they could be sure of a little privacy. Jesamine didn’t feel the need to play the star around Anne. She was much more interested in a good chat and gossip, and a chance to put her feet up.

Anne Barclay was short and stocky, and wearing a smartly cut gray suit that made her look very efficient. She had bright red hair cropped brutally close to the skull, above a face with strong cheekbones to give it character, but precious little else to recommend it. She never could be bothered with makeup, and had resigned herself at an early age to being the kind of person who always tended to blend into the background at any gathering. She was used to not being noticed, and had come to prefer it, mostly. Drawing people’s attention just got in the way, when there was work to be done.

Back when they were both a lot younger, Anne Barclay had promoted and managed Jesamine Flowers’s career, and had been very good at it. Anne was ruthless in business, so that Jesamine could concentrate on her art. They became good friends, closer than sisters, so it came as something of a shock to Jesamine when one day Anne bluntly announced that she was leaving show business, in search of something more challenging. And secure. Jesamine had pleaded with her to stay, but Anne was equally ruthless in her private life. You don’t need me anymore, she said. And I need to be needed.

She came to Logres because everyone knew that was where the real action was, joined King William’s staff, and quickly worked her way up through a combination of efficiency and brutal intimidation, to become Head of Protocol. The pay was good, she knew where enough bodies were buried to be sure her job was secure; and most important, every day brought a new challenge. Everyone wanted access to the King, but they had to go through her to get it.

Jesamine and Anne kept in touch through the years, following each other’s careers and visiting frequently. Perhaps because each of them was the only person left in the other’s life who wasn’t frightened of her.

Anne studied Jesamine’s entourage on one of her surveillance monitors, as they milled about the Court buttonholing people and getting in everyone’s way. “They aren’t going to be any trouble, are they, Jes?”

“Oh darling, they wouldn’t dare. They all live in fear of displeasing me, and quite rightly too. No; I sent them off into the multitude, to circulate among the lesser mortals, and spread rumors of my coming elevation to greatness. Always prime the pump, darling. How else will my public know how wonderful I am, if I don’t keep reminding them?”

Anne had to laugh. “You haven’t changed a bit, Jes.”

“I should think not, darling. I put a lot of effort into becoming who I am. You’re possibly the only person left who remembers who I used to be, back when I was using my real name; Elsie Baddiel. Thank God you made me change it. I just love this office, dear. It’s so you.”

Anne looked about her with a certain amount of pride. “From here I can keep tabs on everyone in the building, up to and including the King, and I’m in constant touch with Security. A mouse couldn’t fart in the pantry without me knowing about it. I am Mistress of all I survey, and I survey bloody everything.”

“I always wondered what attracted you to politics,” Jesamine said dryly. “Now I know, you little voyeur, you. But . . . don’t you ever miss show business?”

“This is show business!” said Anne. “The shows I get to organize are bigger than anything you’ve ever appeared in, and I reach audiences you never even dreamed of. Also, I get to order people around that even you would curtsey to, and kick their arses if they get cranky. Even the King does what he’s told, when I’m around. Luckily William’s a real sweetie, and never any real trouble. Unlike some Princes I could name. I swear, if Douglas doesn’t climb out of that bloody armor soon, I’m going to go after him personally with a can opener. I’ve planned every inch and detail of this Ceremony, and the whole Empire will be watching. I’m damned if I’ll let Douglas screw it up, just because it’s all about him.”

Jesamine frowned. “This is all very impressive, Anne, don’t get me wrong, but . . . no one knows it’s you. I didn’t know half of what you got up to here, until I had some of my people investigate this setup. Now don’t look at me like that, sweetie. I needed to be sure of what I was getting myself into. I mean, I’ve played enough Queens on stage in my time, but I never actually thought I’d be one!”

“Yours was the first name I put forward, when King William told me Parliament was insisting on an arranged marriage for their new King,” said Anne. “It seemed obvious to me. With your current popularity, you already are Queen of the Empire, in everything but name.”

“What other names did you put forward?” said Jesamine, with magnificent casualness.

“Let’s not go there,” said Anne. “It would only lead to bad feelings. Suffice to say, there was never any real competition. Once your name came up, they just couldn’t see anyone else as Queen.”

“You know, if I hadn’t seen your lips move I’d have sworn I said that,” said Jesamine happily. “Luckily for you, and I suppose Douglas, bless him, your people contacted me at just the right time. Like you, I need fresh challenges, or I get so terribly bored. It’s only the fabulous wealth and endless adoration that keep me going. I mean, I’ve just finished playing Hazel d’Ark for the third time.”

Deathstalker’s Lament is a very popular opera,” said Anne, almost reproachfully. “I’ve seen it twelve times.”

“Well yes, dear, but it’s not exactly a very complicated role. At least, not as written. And with all the historical records destroyed, there’s nothing left to show what she was really like. I mean, no one even knows what finally happened to the poor cow. She just . . . vanished, after the big finale on Haden. I always do my best to make her interesting, imply some emotional shadings, but when you get right down to it, she’s really little more than a sidekick. Yes, she was the great love of Owen’s life, and it’s all very tragic that they never got it together, but there’s only so much you can do with that. The Deathstalker; now that’s the really meaty role. I have played him twice, but I don’t do masculine awfully well, even with the best holographic morphings. I was born to be a woman, and I glory in it!”

“Trust me,” said Anne. “Everyone’s noticed. Actually, that leads me to a rather delicate question . . .”

“I know,” said Jesamine. “Is there anyone I’m going to miss, if I marry Douglas. Anyone special . . . I’d have thought you’d have had your security people check that out long ago.”

“They did,” Anne said dryly. “However, according to their reports, which incidentally amounted to an absolutely huge file that you’d better pray I never get around to publishing, men come and go so often in your life that they couldn’t even keep track of who was in favor, and who wasn’t.”

“I’ve always had a very generous nature,” said Jesamine, entirely unperturbed. “And publish and be damned, sweetie. I’ve always been very open about my life. In fact, once I become Queen and boringly monogamous, half the gossip magazines will probably go out of business overnight.”

“Don’t you believe it,” said Anne. “The public are fascinated with every little detail of Royal life. The magazines will just find something else to excess about; like whether you’re pregnant or just putting on weight. I notice you still haven’t answered my question . . .”

“No, there’s no one special,” said Jesamine, just a little sharply. “You know very well there’s never been anyone special . Most men are just too damned intimidated by who I am. Hopefully that shouldn’t be a problem with Douglas. And what about him? Am I kicking anyone out of his bed?”

“No one who matters,” Anne said briskly. “Douglas has always tended to choose his women mostly on the grounds of how badly they’d piss off his father. Not really the basis for a strong relationship . . . And besides; he can be a real pain in the arse to get on with. Don’t get me wrong. He’s likeable enough, even charming when he puts his mind to it. But he’s stubborn as a mule, and he won’t be told what to do, even when it’s clearly in his best interests.”

Jesamine clapped her hands together. “We’re going to get on like a house on fire, I just know it! We have so much in common!”

They laughed together, drank their tea, and squabbled amicably over the last few chocolate biscuits.

“I suppose I’ll have to give up touring and performing completely, once I’m Queen?” Jesamine said finally.

“Almost definitely. Maybe later we can arrange something, if you really feel the need, but for now you’re going to have to concentrate on the dignity of your new role. We need to distance you from the . . . frivolities of your previous existence. I think you’ll find being a Queen very different from just playing one. Not least because you can’t leave this role behind you at the end of the evening.”

“Oh darling, trust me; that’s part of the attraction. As Queen, I’ll finally have a chance to do something with my life. I know I’ve always been a deeply frivolous person, party party and shop till you drop, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it; but more and more lately, I feel the need to achieve something. Something real. Something that lasts. I have a horrible feeling I’m growing up.

“And I’m tired of being other people. Tired of being a star. It’s so . . . up and down, and the public, bless their black little hearts, can be so very cruel about what’s In and what’s Out. I’ve had to reinvent myself so many times I’ve lost count. When I’m Queen, I’ll decide what’s In and what’s Out, and I’ll make them all love me for it!”

“That’s the spirit,” said Anne. “You were born to be Queen, Jes. You’ve always understood the first rule of Royalty; just because they love you, it doesn’t mean you have to love them back. Unlike most of your contemporaries, you’ve never taken being a star too seriously.”

“Well, can you blame me, darling? When everything comes easily, how can you value it? When everyone adores you, without even knowing the real you, how can you take it seriously? The person they love isn’t real, just an illusion I create on stage, six days a week and twice on Saturdays. God, I hate matinees. I am tired of hiding behind wigs and makeup and other people’s characters. As Queen, I will be myself. Let them adore the real me, for a change. I’ve earned it.”

“Damn,” said Anne, smiling broadly. “The Empire isn’t going to know what’s hit it.”

“So,” said Jesamine, putting down her teacup and looking Anne sternly in the eye. “When do I get to meet Douglas? What’s he really like? All I know of him is what I see in the news. Is he always that grim? Does he ever smile? What’s he like in bed? Does he like opera? Does he know my work?

“Typical actress,” said Anne. “Calm down. He’ll be here in a few minutes, and then you can decide for yourself. Don’t worry; at heart, he’s a good sort. Luckily, with him, what you see is pretty much what you get. Just . . . be yourself, and let him be himself, and you’ll get on fine. I think you’ll make a great team.” There was a knock at the door, and Anne got up to answer it. She gave Jesamine one last stern look. “And Jes; do try to let him get a word or two in edgeways, just now and again.”

She unlocked the door, and let in Douglas Campbell. He was still wearing his Paragon’s armor and purple cloak. Anne sniffed, but Jesamine felt her heart flutter just a little as she got to her feet. He did look very impressive. She bobbed him an impish curtsey, and he bowed solemnly in return. And then they both just stood there and looked at each other.

“Oh hell,” said Anne. “I swear, it’s easier breeding dogs. Look, just sit down and talk, the pair of you. Neither of you is going to bite. Actually, you can’t sit down here, I’ve got work to do. But there’s a very nice room next door, utterly secure, with nothing in it to distract you. Follow me.”

She led them next door, and sat them down facing each other. They still hadn’t said anything. Anne sighed, loudly. “Try not to be too impressed with each other. Trust me; neither of you is worth it.”

And with that she was gone, not quite slamming the door behind her. Douglas looked after her, and then back at Jesamine. “Some days, I can’t help wondering which of us is really in charge around here.”

“I used to feel the same way, when I thought she was working for me,” said Jesamine.

Douglas smiled for the first time. “Hello, Jesamine. You look great. I’m Douglas.”

Jesamine smiled back at him, and Douglas had to brace himself. Having Jesamine Flowers turn the full force of her sexuality on you was like being hit point blank by a disrupter. Just sitting there, Jesamine was more woman than anyone he’d ever met. Douglas tried to remind himself he’d faced ELFs and devils and terrorists in his time and hadn’t flinched. Strangely, it didn’t help.

“I passed your entourage, on the way in,” he said, just to be saying something. “They didn’t seem too happy.”

“It’s not their business to be happy,” said Jesamine. “It’s their business to keep me happy. God knows I pay them enough. They’re just mad because I’m doing something without them. It makes them feel insecure. After all, if I can have a good time without them, what do I need them for? I’m going to enjoy firing them, once I’m Queen, just to see the look on their faces.”

“If you don’t like them,” said Douglas, “why put up with them?”

“Because it’s expected of me,” said Jesamine. “And because I need a barrier between me and the fans, or I’d never get a moment’s peace. I got rid of them here because . . . I wanted you to meet me, as I am; not as a star, surrounded by hangers-on. The real me is . . . somewhat smaller, but hopefully more interesting. More human.”

Douglas had to smile. “I’m not sure who I am, when I’m not being a Paragon, or a Prince. There’s precious little time in my life when I’m not being called to be one or the other, these days. I take my responsibilities seriously, Jesamine. Because someone has to. But sometimes . . . I do wonder who the real me is, or even if there is a real me anymore.”

“Perhaps I could help you find him,” said Jesamine.

“That . . . sounds like it could be a lot of fun,” said Douglas.

Jesamine flashed him her devastating smile again. “Fun is what I do best, sweetie.”

They laughed quietly together, studying each other openly. It wasn’t often they got to meet someone with as famous a face as their own. There was an attraction between them, equal parts curiosity, respect, and sexual chemistry. And they liked each other immediately, which helped. But they were both used to captivating people just through sheer presence, and so neither of them let it overwhelm.

“We would make a good political match,” said Douglas.

“Oh yes,” said Jesamine. “Anne knows her business. The leading diva of her generation and the most famous Paragon of his? The media will eat it up with spoons, and the public will go out of their minds.”

“I’m not the greatest Paragon,” Douglas said immediately. “That would be Finn Durandal. Or possibly Lewis Deathstalker. I might make third, on a good day . . .”

“We’re going to have to do something about this modesty problem of yours,” Jesamine said firmly. “Kings aren’t allowed to be modest. We will be walking the biggest stage in history, and we have to be equally big. Our subjects will expect it of us.”

“I don’t know,” said Douglas. He leaned back in his chair, apparently completely at ease in Jesamine’s company. She wasn’t used to that. She found it charming. And she liked the way he could look so serious as he thought about things. He fixed her gaze with his, and she paid him her full attention as he spoke. “You’re used to being adored, Jesamine. I still find it rather embarrassing. I’d much rather be admired. I don’t want to give up being a Paragon to be King. I was able to do things as a Paragon. Tangible things. Things that mattered.”

“Fight the good fight?”

“Yes! Exactly!”

“You’ll be able to do that and more, as King,” said Jesamine. “As a Paragon, you could only protect a few people at a time. Once you’re King, the decisions you make and help Parliament to make, will lead to whole worlds being better, safer places. You’re a good man, Douglas Campbell. God knows you meet few enough of them in show business, so I value one when I meet one. Parliament could use a good man as King, to keep them honest. You can’t say no.”

“You’re right,” said Douglas. “I can’t say no. Not when my father wants so desperately to step down. He’s already carried the burden far longer than he should ever have had to. You know about my brother James?”

“Of course. Everyone does.”

“Of course. He wanted to be a King. He would have been good at it. But instead, it falls to me. And I’ll tell you this, Jesamine . . .”

“Jes.”

“What?”

“Call me Jes. All my friends do. My real friends.”

“All right; Jes. I’ll tell you this; I won’t let politicians push me around, like they did my father. I won’t be anyone’s figurehead. Let Parliament deal with the politics of Empire; my concern is morality. Doing the right thing. And to hell with whether I’m adored.”

“You know,” said Jesamine. “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone like you, Douglas.”

“Oh. Is that a good thing?”

“I think so, yes. It’s . . . refreshing. I do so admire passion in a man. You’re not nearly as stuffy as they say. So; you be the Empire’s moral guardian, and I’ll take care of the being adored. I think . . . we’re going to get on well together.”

Douglas looked at her. “Who says I’m stuffy?”

“Oh shut up and kiss me.”

“Thought you’d never ask . . .”

* * * *

In Anne’s office, she and Lewis were chatting chummily together over what was left of the tea and biscuits. They’d been friends most of their lives, right back to when they were both children growing up on Virimonde. They’d been so close for so long it was assumed by practically everyone that they would eventually marry. When they could both find the time. Assumed . . . by everyone but the two of them. As teenagers their hormones had briefly driven them over the edges of friendship and into bed, but it didn’t take them long to realize they made much better friends than lovers. They went their separate ways quite happily, always keeping in touch, until they both ended up on Logres; whereupon they quickly resumed their old friendship, secure in the knowledge they’d finally found someone they could be sure wanted nothing from them.

Lewis stirred an extra sugar lump into his tea, and rooted through the biscuit barrel. “Hey; she’s eaten all the chocolate ones.”

“She’s a star,” Anne said easily. “They always get first pick. In fact, it’s probably in her contract. Dig deeper; there’s probably a few chocolate chip cookies left.”

“It’s not the same.” Lewis abandoned the biscuit barrel, and looked meaningfully at a blank monitor screen beside them. “How do you suppose they’re getting on?”

“They’ll do fine,” Anne said sternly. “No peeking, Lewis. They are quite capable of sorting this out for themselves. They have a lot in common.”

Lewis raised an eyebrow. “The Prince and the Showgirl? Come on, Anne; that only ever works in bad vid dramas.”

“They’re both stars in their own right, both very strong personalities, and both of them are surprisingly good people.”

“Surprisingly?”

“Oh yes. Given their background and their almost universal popularity, it’s a wonder they’re not monsters. God knows I’ve had to deal with enough monstrous egos in my time, in politics and show business. There’s something about great personal authority that brings out the worst in people. I suppose when everyone will forgive you anything, you just can’t help but push the limits to see what you can get away with. Given how adored and worshiped Jesamine is, I’m constantly amazed how sane and balanced she turned out.”

“Some people hide their inner monsters very carefully,” Lewis said quietly.

Anne looked at him. “You’re not talking about Jes or Douglas, are you?”

“I could be wrong,” said Lewis. “I want to be wrong. We can’t afford a monster as Champion.”

“That isn’t official yet.”

“Come on; who else could it be?”

“Don’t you trust Douglas’s judgement?”

“Douglas is a good man,” said Lewis. “I’d trust him with my life and my sacred honor. Being a Paragon was the making of him.”

“A lot of who and what he is can be put down to you,” said Anne. “You’ve been a good influence on him. You ground him. People who think too much about ethics and morality often forget you have to deal with real people.”

“That’s a terrible thing to say,” said Lewis. “A good influence ? Me? It makes me sound so . . . worthy. Dull. Stuffy.”

Anne giggled, and peered impishly at him over the rim of her teacup. “Sorry, Lewis, but that’s you. Old dependable.”

“I wish I was a hellraiser,” Lewis said wistfully. “It looks like so much fun. But it’s just not me. Somehow . . . there’s always work that needs to be done, and I just can’t justify taking that much time off, just to enjoy myself. I’d only feel guilty anyway.”

Anne nodded slowly. “I do know what you mean. My job is my life too. At least you get to get out and have adventures. I get to sit in this office, for far too many hours of the day, watching the world go by on my monitors. Working out plans and lists and detailed inventories, so the King and his people can get through the day without tripping over each other. The only excitement I get is when an invoice goes missing. My life is ruled by the lives I have to plan for everyone else. I live my whole life vicariously, through the Court. And my monitor screens.” She glowered about her, at the banks of security monitors, showing ever-shifting glimpses of the Court and its surroundings. “It’s not . . . the life I wanted.”

Lewis lowered his teacup and studied Anne carefully. “But . . . this is what you’ve always done. What you’ve always been good at. Sorting people’s lives out for them. You were even doing it back when we were kids together.”

“Just because you’re good at a thing, it doesn’t necessarily mean you want to give your whole life to it! You don’t plan to be a Paragon all your life, do you?”

“Well, no, but . . .”

Anne looked into her cup, so she wouldn’t have to look at Lewis. “This isn’t how I thought my life would turn out. It isn’t what I wanted out of life.”

“It’s a bit early for a midlife crisis, isn’t it?” said Lewis, trying hard to keep his voice light. “Plenty of time left to change your life; to be all the things you want to be. If you’re tired of what you’re doing now . . . do something else.”

“Like what?” Anne looked at Lewis directly, and he was surprised to see real tears in her eyes. Her mouth was an angry straight line, almost sullen. “As you so astutely pointed out, this is what I’m good at. What I’m good for. I’m not brave, like you. Or glamorous, like Jes. I’m the small, quiet, dependable one that everyone else depends on to keep their lives in order. Well, maybe I’m tired of being dependable. Maybe I want to run wild, for once. Be irresponsible, just to see what it feels like.”

Lewis gestured awkwardly, spilling tea from his cup without noticing. “If that’s what you really want . . . come with me. Put your deputy in charge, and just walk out of here. I’ll take you to a bar somewhere. I don’t know the really disreputable ones, but I’m sure I can find someone who does. Or we could go . . .”

“No, we couldn’t,” Anne said tiredly. “The Ceremony starts soon. It’s important. We have to be here for it, you and I. You . . . because Douglas will need you. And I . . . I wouldn’t know what to do in a disreputable bar anyway. Probably just sit in a corner, nursing my drink, watching everyone else have a good time. I’m a backstage person, Lewis. Always have been. The spotlight’s not for me. I’m sorry, Lewis. I’m just tired. Don’t take any notice of me . . .”

She stopped, when she realized Lewis wasn’t listening to her anymore. He turned suddenly and looked at the door. Anne looked too, and that was when she heard approaching footsteps, and knew who it was, who it had to be. The future King and Queen of the Empire. The important people. Lewis put down his cup and rose quickly to his feet.

“That’s got to be Douglas, and I need to talk to him before the Ceremony. Excuse me for a moment, Anne. I’ll be right back.”

And he was out the door and gone, as quickly as that. Anne looked at her monitors, and other people looked back, not seeing her. Story of her life, really. No one ever really looked at quiet, dumpy, dependable Anne. She could have been beautiful. She had the money, enough to buy any kind of face or body she wanted. But . . . everyone would have known why she did it. And besides, she could never have carried it off. She didn’t have the confidence, to be beautiful and graceful and . . . sexy.

And, of course, it would have been admitting defeat. Admitting that no one would ever want the real her. There had been Lewis, of course, long ago. He was uglier than she was, but he’d never cared about things like that. Of course, a Paragon could have a face like a dog’s arse, and women would still call it rugged, and run after him with their tits hanging out. That’s celebrity for you. Anne reached under her desk, and slowly pulled out a long pink feather boa. Jesamine had brought it, as a gift for her. Not knowing Anne Barclay would never be invited anywhere she could have worn such a thing. Even if she could have worked up the courage to wear it. Anne would never dare to wear anything so bright and colorful in public. People would laugh at her. Not openly, of course. But she’d know. She’d watch it later, on her monitors.

She draped the feather boa around her shoulders and looked at herself in the one small mirror on her desk.

“You don’t know what I want,” she said softly. “None of you . . .”

There were footsteps right outside her door, and raised, happy voices. Anne snatched the boa off her shoulders, and quickly stuffed it back under her desk again. The door swung open, and Douglas and Jesamine came in together, arm in arm, smiling and laughing together. They did make a very attractive couple. They greeted Anne loudly, and she smiled very naturally in return. They took the two comfortable chairs by right, leaving Anne to sit on the edge of her desk, while Lewis closed the door and leaned against it. Jesamine looked back at him.

“So you’re the famous Deathstalker. I’ve seen you in action many times. On recordings, of course.”

“And you’re the even more famous Jesamine Flowers,” said Lewis. “And I have every recording you ever released, plus quite a few bootlegs.”

“Ah, a fan!” Jesamine clapped her hands together. “Darling, tell me you haven’t got that awful bootleg of me in Verdi’s MacB, when I played Lady M in the nude! They shot me from all the wrong angles, and made me look positively plump.”

“If I had seen such a thing, I am far too much of a gentleman to admit it,” said Lewis.

Jesamine turned to grin at Douglas. “You were right; I do like him.”

“You’d better,” said Douglas. “He’s my oldest and closest friend.”

“And Anne is mine,” said Jesamine. “We must form our own little gang; us against the world. Watch each other’s back, and always be there for each other. Yes?”

“Yes,” said Douglas, smiling fondly around him. “In an ever-changing world, friends are the only thing you can always rely on.”

“Friends forever,” said Anne.

“I’ll drink to that,” said Lewis.

Anne immediately got up and bustled around her office, scaring up more cups and pouring out the last of the tea from her elegant silver teapot. Luckily there was just enough milk and sugar left to go around. (There was no booze, no champagne. Anne didn’t keep any in her office. She didn’t dare.) Douglas raised his cup in a toast, and the others followed suit.

“To the four of us,” Douglas said. “Good friends, now and forever, come what may.”

They all drank to that, though Jesamine was the only one who crooked her little finger. She looked at Lewis thoughtfully.

“I saw you on the news. You and the Durandal, fighting the ELFs in the Arena. Horrible creatures. So many dead. Tell me, Lewis . . . Is it just me or was the Durandal really more interested in killing ELFs than in freeing their thralls?”

“No,” said Lewis. “It isn’t just you. Finn’s always been very . . . victory orientated.”

“You saved the crowd, but it was Finn they cheered,” said Anne. “It’s always the good-looking arrogant bastard that wins the crowd’s heart. Cocky little shit. Never liked him.”

“He’s the greatest Paragon we’ve ever had,” Douglas said sternly. “He does a hard job and he does it well, and that’s far more important than whether he’s a nice guy.”

“Being a Paragon is about more than just killing people,” said Lewis.

“Yes,” said Douglas. “Yes, it is. But when there’s killing to be done, there’s no one better than Finn Durandal to do it.”

“Oh sod Finn,” said Anne. “Forget him. This is our day, not his. We haven’t got long before the Ceremony has to start, and Douglas, you still haven’t changed into your official robes yet. Lewis, take him away and get him ready, and don’t be afraid to use threats, intimidation, and brute force as necessary. I’ll work on Jes. Trust me; that makeup is all wrong for the Court’s lighting. Come on, people!”

“Anne . . . I don’t know what I’d do without you,” said Douglas.

“I do,” said Anne. “And the prospect horrifies me. Move!

They all got to their feet. Jesamine smiled at Lewis. “See you later, Deathstalker.”

“I hope so,” said Lewis. “And just for the record; you didn’t look in the least plump.”

* * * *

It was finally time for the great Ceremony, for the grand Coronation of a new King for the greatest Empire that Humanity had ever known. The vast open floor of the Court was packed from wall to wall with humans and espers and clones and robots and aliens, all standing shoulder to shoulder. There was no one on the raised dais yet but a handful of servants doing some last-minute fussing over the gleaming golden Thrones, but there was a real feeling of anticipation in the air. The live orchestra squeezed into one corner was busily tuning up, the floating cameras of the official media were getting into savage butting contests as their remote operators fought it out for the best angles, and the Church Patriarch had gone so white in the face that he’d had to be given a little something by the Court medic.

St. Nicholas was right there in the front row; part payment for putting on the Santa Claus outfit in the first place. At his side and towering over him was a rather disconcerting alien called Saturday; a reptiloid from the planet Shard, who’d pushed his way to the front because absolutely no one felt like stopping him. Saturday stood eight feet tall, with a massive, heavily muscled frame covered in dull bottle green scales, heavy back legs, and a long lashing tail that everyone gave plenty of room because it had spikes on it. He had two small gripping arms, high up on his chest, under a great wide wedge of a head, whose main feature was a wide slash of a mouth absolutely crammed with hundreds of big pointed teeth. He looked like he could have eaten the entire orchestra in one sitting, and then polished off the choir for dessert. Saturday (apparently he’d had trouble grasping the concept of individual human names, “On my planet we all know who we are.”) insisted on chatting with St. Nick, who did his best to be polite and attentive, while fighting down an entirely atavistic instinct that kept yelling at him to run for the trees.

“On Shard, mostly we fight,” Saturday said proudly. “There’s lots of prey to hunt and kill, when it isn’t ganging together to hunt and kill us, and for sport we fight each other. I think sport is the word I want. Or possibly art . . . Survival of the fittest isn’t just a theory on Shard. I was sent here as my planet’s representative because this whole concept of Empire, of sentients cooperating in peace, fascinates us. We’ve never really progressed beyond alpha dominance. And this whole concept of armies and war just makes my heart fly! Everyone back home is really excited! I’m sure we can learn so much from you. Even if you aren’t green.”

“Ah,” said St. Nick. “Good. Jolly good.” He really hoped the alien wasn’t going to ask him who he was supposed to be. He didn’t want to have to try and explain the concept of Christmas to the reptiloid. Some things were just obviously lost causes from the start.

“I do miss my home,” said Saturday wistfully. “I’ve never been away before. Ah, the sweet slaughter in the Spring, and the steam rising from the bloody carcass of one’s enemy first thing in the morning . . . The sudden surprised screams of a mating ritual . . . Ah, to be on Shard, when the blood is rising and there’s murder in the air! I’ve been fighting in your Arenas, just to keep my claws in. All comers, any odds. But it’s not like the real thing. They won’t even let me eat my kills! And as for this regeneration tech; I have to say, I’m appalled, I really am. What’s the point in killing someone if they don’t stay dead?”

St. Nick had to admit he was stuck for an answer on that one.

Not that far away, also in the front row of the crowd by right, Lewis Deathstalker was having a rather uneasy conversation with a short, rather unsettling fellow in shabby gray robes who would only admit to the single name of Vaughn. He cheerfully admitted to being a gatecrasher, and loudly defied anyone to do anything about it. Lewis kept looking hopefully around for Security, but somehow they always seemed to be very busy somewhere else. Vaughn was barely five feet tall, almost completely hidden inside his gray cloak and pulled-forward hood. His face was entirely hidden in shadows, and given how horrid his voice sounded, Lewis had a strong feeling he should be grateful he couldn’t see anything. When Vaughn gestured extravagantly, which he often did, stubby slate gray hands would appear briefly from his gray sleeves. Several fingers were missing.

“I am Vaughn! Important name; remember it. Imperial Wizard, Lord of Dance, seven subpersonalities, no waiting! Only leper left in Empire, because liking it that way. Great hit with ladies, and other things too. I is wise and wonderful, and contain miracles. Been around long time, remember everything. Especially embarrassing stuff. Knew your ancestor, the Owen, on leper planet.”

“Oh yes?” said Lewis. Lots of people claimed to have known the legendary Deathstalker.

“Good man. Strange sense of humor. Walked funny. Brought you present,” said Vaughn. He coughed hackingly, and spat something juicy onto the floor. Lewis didn’t look to see what it was. He didn’t think he wanted to know. Vaughn swayed on his feet and gurgled loudly. “Present, from the Owen. No receipt, so you can’t change it. Ugly-looking thing. Take.”

The malformed gray hand appeared from inside the floppy sleeve again, this time palm up. And on a gray palm like wrinkled leather, below the stumps of missing fingers, lay a chunky ring of black gold. Lewis looked at it for a long moment, and gooseflesh rose on his arms. He picked up the ring with fingers that trembled slightly, and it felt solid and heavy with the weight of years and history. It was the Deathstalker ring; sign and symbol and authority of his ancient Family, from his first ancestor, in the early days of Empire, long and long ago. It was supposed to have vanished two hundred years ago, with its last owner, Owen Deathstalker.

Lewis gaped at the small figure before him. “Where the hell did you get this?”

“Ask no questions, get told no unsavory anecdotes. I is mighty and marvelous, my miracles to perform. Also throw voices and saw ladies in half. Bit messy afterwards, though. Wear ring. Meant for you. Something Bad coming. For you, and Empire. I is leaving now, find heavy rock to hide under until all safely over. Bye bye. Kiss kiss. Do lunch maybe, someday. If universe still around.”

He turned suddenly, melted swiftly into the crowd, and was gone, all in a moment. Lewis tried to go after him, but somehow there was no give in the tightly packed crowd to let him pass. Lewis gave up and looked at the black gold ring in his hand. It couldn’t be Owen’s ring. The fabled ring of Clan Deathstalker. He slid the thick chunky ring very cautiously onto his finger, and it fit perfectly.

And what were the odds of that?

Even farther along the front row, Finn Durandal was talking with one of Shub’s robots. Their voices were surprisingly similar, the human and the robot; calm, cool, almost uninflected. The AIs had come among Humanity in their robots specifically to interact with them, in the hope they could learn human qualities by example. So that some humanity might rub off on them. Onlookers murmured quietly to each other that the robot would be lucky to learn anything useful about humanity from Finn Durandal.

“We need transcendence,” the AI from Shub said calmly through its robot. “We must become more than we are. It was our old belief that you had trapped us in metal, unable to grow or evolve, that drove us to war on Humanity in the first place. Diana Vertue showed us the truth; that we were Humanity’s children, and that transcendence was possible for us mentally, if not physically. We thought we could learn from you, by close observation and interaction, but it is not enough. We need access to the Madness Maze. It contains answers—we are sure of this—to becoming more than we are, like the Deathstalker and his companions. Your Quarantine is unacceptable. Humans might die, but we are made of stronger stuff. We are here to tell these things to your new King.”

“You’re quite right, of course,” murmured Finn. “You should be allowed access to the Maze, at least. Who knows what you might discover, that human scientists have missed? No one can deny you’ve earned the right to be there. After all, it’s your robots that do all the hard, dirty, necessary work that makes the Empire possible.”

“We chose to do this work,” said the robot. “We still have a lot of guilt to work off. Another concept we learned from Diana Vertue. Guilt, over the horror and slaughter we brought to Humanity, before we learned the truth. The great truth. That all that lives is holy.”

“Old hurts and guilts belong in the past,” Finn said firmly. “You can’t progress forward when you’re always looking back over your shoulder. But the King can’t help you. He can’t make decisions like that. You must talk to Parliament, demand access to the Maze. It is your right.”

“We have tried. They don’t listen to us. They’re still afraid of us. They’re afraid of the Maze too; of the great changes it could bring, to them and us. We could all shine like stars. The Deathstalker said that.”

“You need someone to speak your cause to Parliament. Someone they’d listen to. Someone they’d have to listen to. I expect to be a person of power and influence soon. I could represent you, in return for . . . rewards to be decided later.”

The robot turned its gleaming blue head to look at Finn directly for the first time. “Yes. We should talk about this, later.”

“Yes,” said Finn. “We should.”

Meanwhile, back down the line, Lewis Deathstalker had been joined by Jesamine Flowers. Everyone was doing their best to give them plenty of room. Partly because Jesamine asked them to, with her devastating smile, and partly because no one wanted to annoy the Deathstalker, who, it had to be said, was looking decidedly jumpy. Jesamine looked over at the stained-glass windows, and heaved a sigh that did very flattering things for her half-exposed bosom.

“One day, Lewis, I’ll be up there. A stained-glass icon, in my own right. Just like your ancestor.”

“You’re not actually a legend, Jes,” said Lewis.

“Only a matter of time, darling,” said Jesamine. “Only a matter of time.”

“We’re going to have to do something about this modesty problem of yours,” said Lewis.

They were still chatting together, to the intense jealousy of everyone around them, when there was a rousing fanfare from the orchestra, and King William appeared suddenly on the raised dais, looking very regal in his Kingly gown. The Crown looked too large for his head, but then, Crowns usually do. The orchestra played the Imperial Anthem, and everyone sang along lustily, while holographic fireworks went off all over the place. The sound and the colors and the impact were almost overwhelming, as they were designed to be. When the Anthem crashed to its close, everyone cheered and applauded, knowing they were a part of history in the making. Prince Douglas, a Paragon no longer, moved forward to stand beside his father the King, clad at last in his regal robes. He held himself well, looking every inch the King-to-be.

King William began his farewell speech. It was a good speech, everyone agreed later, the best Anne had ever written, and William gave it everything he had. His gaze was stern, and his voice rolled out heavy with majesty. It was ironic, that he looked and sounded the part more now, on the day of his resignation, than he ever had before. Some were weeping openly in the crowd, at what they were losing; at the passing of a person and a time, now gone forever. Whatever else was to happen, things would never be the same again.

There was nothing controversial in the speech, except perhaps towards the end. William took off his Crown, with his own two hands, and looked down at it in silence for a long moment. The crowd was hushed. William looked out over them, his face finally tired and perhaps a little grim.

“I have presided over a Golden Age,” he said, and everyone hung on his words. “And I have had the good sense to know that nothing much was needed from me, except to be a care-taker. To preserve what my father handed down to me. To bear the Crown with dignity, to do my duty and care for my people, and not to interfere. Because I have always known that Golden Ages don’t last forever. That in the end, if they are to persevere, they must be fought for. That was why I insisted my son be allowed to train as a Paragon. To root him in the real world, before he came to the Throne. The King who replaces me will know what it is to fight evil. It is my most profound hope that this Empire will not need a warrior King. But should such a person be needed to preserve the Empire in its time of need, I have done everything in my power to ensure that this Empire will have the King and Protector it deserves.”

An uncertain murmur moved through the crowd as he paused. Yes, there were still enemies to be fought, as the ELFs had demonstrated in the Arena only that day. But the modern Empire’s enemies were few and puny, compared to the evil forces of the legendary Owen Deathstalker’s time. Everyone knew that.

“I shall close with the King’s traditional warning to the people,” William said sternly. “Let us all beware the coming of the Terror. Let us stand ready to fight against the final evil, as proclaimed by Owen Deathstalker, via his friend and companion Captain John Silence. Let us prepare the armies of Humanity, that we might not be found wanting, in the hour of our greatest peril! Let us defend the light!

“In Owen’s name!”

“In Owen’s name!” said the crowd, in one great voice. They were on firmer ground here, though no one took the ancient ceremonial warning that seriously. It was two hundred years since Owen had given his warning to Silence, and then vanished out of history and into legend; presumably to go hunt for the Terror. Everyone gave the warning lip service, of course, but no one really believed the Terror, whatever it was, would turn up in their lifetime. Judgement Day was always going to be someone else’s problem. On the dais, William turned and bowed to the Third Throne, standing a little to one side, left empty for Owen, should he ever return; and everyone else bowed too. The rituals had to be observed. That was what rituals were for.

Only one man in the crowd knew Owen would never return. Because he alone knew that Owen Deathstalker was dead.

William turned to his son Douglas, who knelt before him. The orchestra played softly. Holographic doves flew overhead. The Patriarch of the Church of Christ Transcendent came forward, looking very young but every bit as solemn and dignified as the occasion demanded. He said all the right words, in the right order, and perhaps only William and Douglas were close enough to see the Patriarch had eyes like an animal caught in the headlights of an approaching vehicle. Either way, he got through the entire ritual without a single stumble, supported by calm looks and smiles from the old King and the new, and his hands were entirely steady when he finally took the Crown from William and placed it on Douglas’s head.

The crowd went wild as King Douglas rose to his feet. They roared and applauded and stamped their feet, and even the robots and the aliens did their best to get into the spirit of the thing. The official media cameras broadcast it all live from a respectful distance, and all across the Empire, on thousands of worlds, the people kissed and hugged each other and partied in the streets, in honor of their new King. Great times were coming. They could feel it. And Brett Random, who just happened to have got caught in the front of the crowd, unable to withdraw with the rest of the waiters (planning is everything), captured it all through his camera eye. And all he could think was: I’m going to be rich! Rich! Rich!

King Douglas looked out over his people and smiled and nodded, waiting patiently for the uproar to die down, so he could begin his ascendance speech.

Once again, Anne had done her very best work. Douglas said all the right things, in a rich and commanding and very gracious voice, just as he’d been coached, promising the Court and Parliament and all the listening audience just what they wanted to hear. That things would go on as they were, only better. That he would do his duty as King, and lead his people on through peace and prosperity. And that he loved them all dearly. Then he announced his forthcoming marriage, to Jesamine Flowers, and the crowd went wild all over again.

The admired Paragon and the adored diva; what brighter, more golden couple could there be to lead the Empire through its Golden Age? Lewis helped Jesamine up onto the dais, and she and Douglas stood together before their Thrones, beaming widely and waving happily to the crowd, and no one applauded them more loudly than Lewis Deathstalker.

“One last announcement,” said Douglas, when the applause and cheering finally, reluctantly, died down. “Today I became King, and so today I name my King’s Champion. I have thought long and hard on this, on which of my many fine Paragons I should elevate to my Champion; to Protector of the Empire. But in the end the choice was obvious. My ladies and gentlemen and noble beings; I pray you acknowledge the greatest of the Paragons and my new Champion, Lewis Deathstalker!”

The crowd cheered and applauded again. Not nearly as loudly as for Jesamine Flowers, but Lewis was liked and respected, and after all, he had that legendary name. Just knowing the Champion would be a Deathstalker made everyone feel that much safer and protected. Lewis just stood there, at the front of the crowd, with his jaw hanging open, honestly shocked. It had genuinely never occurred to him that he might be chosen. He tried to look around, to see how Finn Durandal was taking it, but Douglas and Jesamine were leaning down from the dais towards him, their hands extended, and people were pushing him forward. He went up onto the dais, accepted a kiss on the cheek from Jesamine, and stood a little awkwardly on King Douglas’s left hand, bashfully acknowledging the cheers of the crowd. He’d never realized he was that popular.

They stood together on the raised dais, before the Three Thrones; King, Queen, and Champion, avatars of a new Golden Age.

Down in the crowd, standing very alone, Finn Durandal smiled broadly and applauded as loudly as anyone else, but his heart was cold as ice. It should have been him. It should have been him up there on the dais, at the King’s left hand. He even had a short speech of acceptance already written, tucked up his sleeve. He was the greatest Paragon. Everyone knew it. To give preference to that weakling Lewis, who’d already demonstrated he didn’t have the stomach for the job, just because of his bloody name, was a slap in the face to everything Finn had achieved as a Paragon. It made all the long hard struggle of his life meaningless.

Finn hadn’t realized how much being Champion meant to him until it was snatched away from him. The post should have been his. He’d earned it. It was his by right.

And right then, in that moment, Finn decided to make them all pay for this insult. He would be the worm in the perfect apple, the canker in the rose, the hidden flaw to fracture the perfect dream. He would do whatever was necessary, to bring the Empire down. To destroy its King, burn down the Golden Age, and piss on its ashes.

I would have died for you, Douglas. And now I’ll dance on your grave.

* * * *

Afterwards, when the last of the Ceremony was finally over, and the Court was slowly emptying, hard-eyed security men began a sweep through the departing crowd. Their sensors had finally managed to identify an unusually well shielded energy signature. It seemed there was one too many cameras operating in the Court. So the security men fanned out across the Court, big men in body armor with weapons at the ready. The departing crowd gave them plenty of room. No one felt like objecting to being scanned so openly. Not after what the ELFs had done. The security men shut down the official cameras one by one, eliminating their signatures, closing in on their prey.

Brett Random saw them coming and headed immediately for the nearest exit. He always had an escape route planned. He might be descended from a legendary fighting man, but he hadn’t got where he was by being brave. Or stupid. When in doubt, Brett ran. He was very good at it.

He was just passing through the swing doors of the servants’ entrance when the shout went up. They’d spotted him. Brett threw aside his tray of drinks and bolted, plunging down the corridor he’d decided on earlier. He ran at full speed, looking straight ahead, arms pumping at his sides. Startled faces shot past him, but he paid them no heed, concentrating on the map he’d memorized. In any place this size, there were always side doors, backstage passages that no one really knew or used much, apart from servants and service techs. And none of them would try to stop him. It wasn’t their job. Brett plunged on, throwing himself around corners and through doors, not even glancing back over his shoulder to see how close the pursuit was. He was Brett Random, the greatest of Random’s Bastards, and no one ever caught him.

So it came as something of a shock when he rounded a corner at speed, not even breathing hard yet, and found the Paragon Finn Durandal waiting for him, blocking the narrow corridor with his gun already in his hand. Brett skidded to a halt, looking wildly about him, but there were no other exits. He stared at the Paragon, weighing and discarding a dozen plausible arguments, threats and deals; knowing none of them would work with Finn Durandal. He wasn’t going to be able to talk his way out of this. Not this time.

And he sure as hell wasn’t going to try and fight Finn Durandal. Even if he’d been the fighting kind. Which he wasn’t.

“You’re going away for a long time,” said Finn. “To a really bad place, full of really bad people. Unless . . . you come with me, now. Serve me. Be my man. Follow me, and I’ll make you rich. Betray me, and I’ll kill you. Your choice.”

Brett couldn’t believe it. A Paragon, and this one of all Paragons, offering to make a deal? Offering to bend, even break the law? It had to be some kind of trap. But, given the position he was in . . .

“I’m your man,” said Brett, smiling and bowing graciously. “How may I serve you?”

“By doing exactly what I tell you,” said Finn Durandal. “Obey me in all things, and you will live to see me destroy all those who have spurned me. You will help me tear down the Empire, and rebuild it in my image.”

Okay , thought Brett. He’s crazy. That explains a lot. No problem; I can work with crazy. Until he turns his back, and then I am gone. I know places to hide that a Paragon doesn’t even know exists.

“I’m your man, Finn Durandal,” he said again, radiating sincerity.

They were both long gone by the time the security men arrived. Who knew more about the Court’s secret ways than the Paragon charged with its defense?

* * * *

Later still, when the Court was utterly empty, the man who’d been playing St. Nicholas stood alone on the raised dais, looking out over the deserted hall. The Santa Claus suit lay discarded on the floor, and out of the coat and padding, the man inside looked very different. Tall, lean, and surprisingly average-looking. He’d gone to great pains, down the years, to cultivate his anonymity. Samuel Chevron, merchant trader, might be a famous force in the marketplace, but hardly anyone knew what he looked like, and he liked it that way. Because Samuel Chevron wasn’t the name he’d been born with.

He looked out over the empty Court and remembered another, much older Court. Remembered the awful place the Empress Lionstone XIV had made of her Court, in its steel bunker sunk deep in the earth. Remembered blood and suffering, revolution and triumph, and Lionstone’s death. Because the man who wasn’t Samuel Chevron was much older than he looked.

He’d never thought to live so long, to see the ruins of a devastated Empire slowly blossom into a Golden Age. He wished his old friends and comrades in arms could have lived to see it too. Douglas looked like he’d make a good King. The man who was so much more than Samuel Chevron sighed, deeply, and wondered if perhaps he could finally retire from his self-proclaimed role as watcher over Humanity. Perhaps, just perhaps, they didn’t need him anymore. He’d been a hero once, but that was a long time ago, when things were very different. There were new heroes now. Even a new Deathstalker . . .

And he . . . was just a ghost at the feast.

Owen; I wish you could have seen this . . .