Ausanne's birthday proved to be a huge affair. Maicee woke up to the clattering of wheels on cobblestones and the shouting of voices. Looking from his chamber window, he could see that preparations must have been going on all night. Stalls had sprung up around the castle, selling everything from souvenirs to mead. Already cooks were spitting huge joints of meat and damping down fires to begin the cooking process. The spacious marketplace had been turned into a carnival for young and old alike, with games of chance and lucky dips and all kinds of mysterious tents. Maicee reminded himself to stay away from the fortune tellers. The last thing he needed right now was a prediction that would worry him on the journey to come.
He breathed in the early morning air, tinged with the scent of smoke and the salt of the sea. He thought about going out now but decided against it. He had work to do first. Ordering breakfast to be brought to his chamber, he began the series of slow exercises that Kabi had recommended for early mornings. After the events that had taken place on the Orion, he was more determined than ever to get this unarmed combat thing right, and there'd be no festivities for him until he'd run each and every one of his practice drills perfectly.
For everyone else, though, the princess's birthday was a holiday. People had travelled from far and wide to get a glimpse of their future ruler, and the palace was determined not to disappoint them. Servants hurried back and forth, harried and sweating, trying to provide for the needs of the thousands of subjects who had made their way to the country's capital. The royal kitchen provided sumptuous tables of food, laid out to entice anyone who visited the normally private gardens of the princess. After lunch, the princess herself spent hours rolling slowly through the gardens in an open-topped carriage with gold-rimmed wheels, greeting those who had come to give her birthday wishes.
It was a long and exhausting day for everyone, but as the second sun began to sink, the palace musicians began to tune their instruments. The festival was far from over; there was still the costume ball to come. A particularly loud trumpet jarred Maicee out of sleep. Dammit. He'd lain down for a brief nap after pouring all his energies into his exercises and had only now woken. He barely had time to throw his costume on, doubting Kabi's choice but silently thanking him that at least he didn't need to bother tying his hair back into a queue. Flying down the stairs, he made it to the ballroom just in time to see the princess strike a large golden gong, marking the beginning of the party. He was still panting from his flight down the stairs, and it took him a moment to realise that all eyes in the room were on him.
“You look beautiful,” said a mischievous voice.
He felt himself blushing furiously as the occupants of the ballroom erupted into excited chatter, and he inwardly cursed his uncle.
“Thank you,” he said, turning to see Ausanne, who was robed in the ancient traditional costume of Romeo. “Er ... you look very dashing too,” he said, surprised at her choice of costume.
Ausanne grinned at him. “Let me guess,” she said, arching an eyebrow. “Kabi choose your costume for you.”
Maicee nodded. “You too?”
“He said it would keep those irritating boys away from me, but now I think that my uncle may have been playing a small joke on us, don't you think?”
Maicee looked down at the long dress he wore, the classic deep rose and red that signified his role as Juliet. “Yes,” he said slowly. “I think he may well have been.”
Dammit. He was going to kill Kabi when he got his hands on him. This was more than a joke—this was dangerous.
“May I have this dance?” said a male voice.
Still blushing, Maicee turned and saw the King bowing solemnly in his direction. Dammit again!
“I, er, well, I don't dance very well, um, sir,” he managed to stutter.
“Not at all,” scoffed Ausanne. “She dances very well.”
Maicee felt the princess push him lightly towards the King, and feeling that he had no choice, he gave a small curtsey and accepted the King's hand. As soon as he touched the hand of his father, he felt happiness well up inside him. He almost had to bite back tears of joy as the King led him to the dance floor.
“You look like my wife did when she was your age,” the King bent and whispered into Maicee's ear as they swayed together in the middle of the floor.
Maicee swallowed hard. He wanted so much to call the man Father that it was difficult to control himself. The only thing that stopped him was the vow he'd made to Kabi.
“She bore me two daughters,” continued the King. “The elder one was lost because of my weakness. I was, and am, so terribly sorry for not being able to protect her.”
His eyes were sharp, and suddenly Maicee had the feeling that something was being shared here. Something strange—it was almost as though they were communicating telepathically, that they were both on the same wavelength, dancing around the same subject.
“I am sure,” responded Maicee, “that were your daughter here, she would be pleased to hear that she has such a loving father.” He spoke carefully, enunciating the words slowly.
The King stopped dancing as the music slowed and looked deep into Maicee's eyes before smiling and nodding. “I certainly hope so,” he said quietly. “And I thank you for this dance. It was most enjoyable.”
And then he was gone, and Maicee was left with that weird feeling, almost as if each understood but neither could speak. Then Ausanne's hand pulled at his sleeve.
“Come on,” she said.
She led him to a quiet corner.
“Did he discern that you are a man?” she asked, excited at the trick she had pulled on her father.
Maicee shook his head, still puzzled by what had passed between himself and the King.
Ausanne rolled her eyes. “He must be getting senile. I was sure he'd be able to tell.”
He was about to chide her for teasing her father when they were interrupted by a dashing young man.
“Good evening, my princess,” he said, bowing deeply. “You must introduce me to your lovely friend.”
The princess rolled her eyes again. “She's my Juliet,” she said, emphasising the word ‘my’ a bit too strongly for Maicee's tastes.
She pulled Maicee away from the superficial smiles of the man, hooking her arm into his and tugging him towards the quiet of a secluded balcony.
“That was Count Qurami,” she said. “Ignore him; he's an irritating little insect.”
In the quiet of the darkness, the party nothing more than a hum behind them, Maicee felt awkward. I shouldn't be here like this with Ausanne, he thought. It wasn't fair. Wasn't fair to either of them.
He cleared his throat. “Happy birthday, Princess,” he said, wondering how he was going to escape the balcony.
“Thank you.” Ausanne smiled.
And before he could move, she'd put her arms around him and was hugging him. And when she drew back, she didn't let go but stared up at him with wide eyes, a half-smile on her lips as her face drew closer and closer.
“Princess, the King demands your presence,” said a voice. “It is time to cut the cake.”
Ausanne cursed silently. “I shall attend him,” she called back. “Some other time?” She smiled ruefully at Maicee, then turned to leave the balcony.
But by the time she had cut the cake, made a speech, listened to the people sing to congratulate her, and done all the other ceremonial things that she was supposed to do, there was no sign of Maicee at all. He'd simply disappeared. Ausanne retired, disappointed with the way her evening had turned out.
The late afternoon sun was dancing, golden and orange, on the small waves of the harbour. On the deck of the Freedom, General Tongku was making a final round of inspection, carefully preparing the five-man team he'd assembled for their presentation to the King. The rest of the crew stood idly around the ship's decks, enjoying the warmth of the sun and revelling in the last few moments of calm and relaxation that they'd be likely to have in the near future.
Benho had managed to tear himself away from Sa-li, who was gossiping with her crew mates, and he earnestly whispered something to Lucia. The captain was nodding continuously, as though to reassure the man, a mask of irritation beginning to form as Benho just went on talking. Benho was saved from the captain’s impending wrath by a shouted order from the General. The men on deck came to attention as the King slowly boarded the ship.
He seems sad, Maicee thought. Preoccupied. Though he guessed that being a ruler brought enough troubles of its own, without having to deal with emergencies such as the data disk Kabi had brought to Britannia.
“All is ready, Your Majesty,” barked Tongku, saluting.
The King nodded and surveyed the short line of men in front of him. They were young, though not so young as to be inexperienced, and all looked serious, eyes forward, hands and arms straining to maintain their salutes.
“Stand down,” the King said.
The men relaxed, lowering their arms, and Maicee thought he heard more than one sigh of relief.
“You have been briefed,” the King said, looking once more up and down the row of men. “I have no need to tell you what it is that you are doing here. But this is an important mission. I would like, therefore, to remind you that the fate of Archeonis lies on your shoulders.” He paused, letting the weight of his words sink in. “Bring us good tidings when we meet again,” he added quietly.
Maicee watched as the King nodded once more, then turned away from his troops to find Kabi.
“I see the captain and her crew will be joining you,” he said to his brother-in-law. “Anyone else?”
“Only Maicee, Your Majesty,” said Kabi with a shrug.
The King sighed. “I suppose it is for the best.”
Kabi beckoned to Maicee, who approached the King.
“I hope you have enjoyed your stay here, Doctor,” the King said politely. “We hope to see you again, should time permit.”
“Thank you, sire,” said Maicee. “Um ...” He didn't know if it was protocol for him to question the King, but it wasn't like he had much choice. He needed to know. “I, er, don't see Princess Ausanne.” He could feel himself blushing.
The King smiled. “She does not like goodbyes. Separation has always been hard for her.”
Maicee nodded, not sure if he was disappointed or relieved that he wasn't going to have to see the princess again before they left.
“Oh, that reminds me.” The King patted his robe, finally digging into a pocket and retrieving a small voice recorder. “She did ask me to give you this.”
He accepted the recorder and bowed. “Many thanks.”
The King smiled. “It is I who should be thanking you,” he said, though Maicee wasn't exactly sure why. “Godspeed.”
And then he was gone, striding down the deck to discuss last-minute arrangements with the General.
Maicee looked at the small recorder in his hands, tossing it from one hand to the other thoughtfully. Looking around the deck, he could see that most of the crew were busy making final preparations to leave, and he decided that he had time to see what the princess had to say. Slipping away, he scrambled up a small ladder that spat him out through a hatch close to the medical bay. Once he was sure that Falorni was not lurking in any of the cupboards, he settled himself down on one of the beds and pressed the button on the recorder.
“Hello ... hello ... testing,” said the princess's voice, a little crackly but immediately identifiable.
“It is working fine, you know,” came another voice, squeaky and high this time.
“I know, Niku, I know,” said the princess in irritation.
There was a pause, and Maicee guessed that the princess was trying to gather her thoughts before speaking. Sure enough, a second or so later, her voice came back.
“Hi, Maicee. You, er, must have been disappointed that I didn't come to the harbour. But in order to make it up to you, I have arranged that two hours after launch, you shall receive a surprise gift from me.”
Maicee's brow furrowed as he wondered what the princess could have sent him. The recording paused again, a couple more seconds of silence, before Niku's tiny voice came back.
“That's all?” asked the furry creature. “That's all you have to say? I would have thought that you had more to tell him.”
Maicee heard the princess sigh and say: “I do, but I don't know how to say it.”
Niku's chirruping laugh came through the speaker. “Why don't you just say I lov—”
And the recording abruptly ended.
Maicee sank back on the bed with a groan. This was what he'd been afraid of. Actually, if he was being honest, this was what he’d already known was happening but wasn't sure how to stop. Now, though, there was nothing for it. Should he see the princess again, he was going to have to have a very uncomfortable conversation with her. At least, he thought, I’m not likely to see Ausanne for the foreseeable future. That was some small condolence.
The last hatches on the Freedom slammed shut with loud, metallic clangs. Dusk had fallen over the harbour, the soft glow of the second sun glinting off the tips of the waves. Maicee felt the deck under his feet vibrate for a moment as the powerful engines of the ship dragged themselves to life, revving before settling down into their normal quiet hum. The Freedom's navigation officer shone a single green beam of light towards the harbour master's watchtower. A returning green light flashed three times.
“Anchors away,” said Lucia's cool, calm voice over the ship's speaker system, alerting everyone on board that the vessel was about to launch.
There was a quick jerk as the Freedom's engines thrust her away from the harbour wall, then very slowly the battle cruiser began to edge out into the centre of the harbour's waters and then towards the large gap in the harbour wall where the dark, deep sea began.
Major Ulsa'hi, the leader of the five-man team put together by the General, stood with Kabi and Lucia, a map unrolled on the crates in front of them, discussing strategy. Maicee did his best to contribute, or at least look interested, but found himself growing rapidly bored. He was disturbed by Ausanne's voice recording.
He paced around the deck of the ship, trying to burn off the nervous energy he was filled with, as Ausanne's two-hour deadline rapidly ticked down. The Freedom had crossed the threshold of the harbour and was now in open sea, and the ship rocked slightly, the movement soothing.
Exactly two hours after launch, Maicee's com beeped. He pressed the icon to answer without thinking, and a tiny voice whispered out of the speaker.
“Hello, can you hear me?”
His face flushed, and he quickly put his face closer to his wrist to avoid the conversation’s being overheard. “Yes, Ausanne, I hear you.”
And then suddenly it dawned on him. There was no way for Ausanne to contact him on the short-wave wrist com. No way at all. Unless ...
He turned back towards the bridge and saw her, her white robe billowing in the breeze, the fabric clinging in all the right places. Almost tripping, he hurried towards her, his first thought to get her hidden where no one else could see her.
“Surprise!” she said as he got closer.
“How did you get on board?” he asked, trying to figure out where he could hide the woman so that she wouldn't be caught. It was a stupid question—she'd obviously smuggled herself here. She was a stowaway, and the punishment for stowaways was not pleasant. Not pleasant at all. He groaned as he imagined Lucia trying to keel-haul the princess, dropping her over one side of the ship on a rope and pulling until Her Royal Highness had gone under the vessel and appeared on the other side.
“Did anyone see you?” he hissed.
“I haven't met anyone yet.” The princess shrugged, smiling inwardly as she guessed exactly what Maicee was thinking. Then she took pity on him and decided to put him out of his misery. “It doesn't matter, though. Lucia has agreed to let me come along.”
“She did what?!” Maicee cried in alarm, his voice ringing around the open deck. “She did what?” he repeated, more quietly. “Doesn't she know that this is going to be dangerous?” He couldn't believe that the captain would be so irresponsible. Or that he was going to be stuck on a ship with Ausanne for the next few weeks. Then he thought of salvation. “Kabi should know about this,” he told the princess, defiantly. “He'll send you back ashore immediately.”
“I wouldn't be so sure about that,” Ausanne said with a grin.
“Welcome aboard,” said Kabi from behind Maicee. He'd heard the commotion and guessed what had happened. He hadn't thought it fair to surprise Maicee, but the princess had insisted. “Don't just stand there like sheep; come onto the bridge.”
Maicee stood, his mouth agape. Kabi had known about this? Once more, he made a vow to kill his irritating uncle. Or at least give him a good beating, as soon as his unarmed combat skills were good enough, that was. Ausanne shot Maicee a triumphant look as she skipped over to hug Kabi.
The Freedom sailed on. She left the seas of Britannia far behind, entering international waters. They travelled for days without encountering any sign of another ship. On and on they sailed, the sea stretching out, endless and blue, in front of them. The weather was fair, the winds good, and the sun hot. They entered the Lawless Sea three days after leaving the harbour of Britannia's capital, and Maicee felt a quiver of apprehension. But not for nothing was Lucia the most-feared pirate captain on Archeonis. Seeing the distinctive profile of the Freedom, most ships gave them a wide berth. No one, it seemed, was looking for trouble.
The one young, inexperienced captain who did attempt to engage them soon found himself abandoned on a life raft with half his crew, his ship settling in the soft sand at the bottom of the blue abyss.
Maicee busied himself with training. He was more determined than ever to master the combat skills that he was now sure he needed. And not just for defence. He was also still determined to give Kabi a reason not to try to trick him again. Kabi had cut his unarmed combat training down to just half a day.
“You've improved,” he said, nodding in satisfaction. “You must have been practising.”
Maicee grinned, happy at the compliment and even happier at the thought of having a few spare hours a day in which to relax. But Kabi soon burst that bubble. From that moment, whilst his mornings were still filled with unarmed combat training, his afternoons were spent practising armed combat. Archery, bolt blasting, swordplay. Both Kabi and Lucia trained him incessantly. Though he was adept at most armed exercises, certainly preferring them to unarmed practice, he was particularly fond of swordplay. So much so that he chose himself an elegant rapier from the Freedom's weapon cabinet.
“Excellent,” Kabi told him one afternoon.
Maicee had managed to stay undefeated for a full half-hour of sword combat with his uncle.
Kabi bowed at his student and bade him to come to the railing of the deck. Leaning on the salt-hardened wood, he looked at the young man and smiled. It was time.
“You have proven yourself to be adequately versed in close-combat fighting,” he began. “And now we shall go on to learn of the GOD power.”
Maicee wrinkled his nose. “Huh?”
“And maybe we shall improve your vocabulary as well,” said Kabi, dryly.
“Sorry,” said Maicee. “I mean, I don't understand. What's the GOD power?”
“That is what we shall learn about next.”
Maicee sighed. He hated it when Kabi spoke in riddles. But looking up, he saw that the older man's eyes were dancing and understood that he was being teased. So he stayed silent, refusing to rise to the bait.
“Fine,” said Kabi after a few moments. “The GOD power is what you used when you disarmed the bomb on board the Freedom. It utilises your psychic force to manipulate the molecules in your surroundings. And the first thing that you shall learn is that GOD stands for Gene of Destruction. As with any gene, this was passed down to you, in this case by your mother, giving you your powers.”
Maicee bit his lip and stared down into the depths of the sea. He was torn. His entire medical education told him that none of what Kabi said could be true, that none of what Kabi did could be possible. And yet he'd witnessed it with his own eyes. No, more—he'd personally exhibited the same strange powers when disarming Lean's bomb.
Kabi saw the look on Maicee's face and decided that maybe he should go with a more scientific approach.
“Look, from your understanding of genetics, humans have forty-six chromosomes, two of which are sex chromosomes. Correct?”
Maicee nodded, more comfortable in these familiar surroundings.
“Centuries ago,” went on Kabi. “a group of scientists designed and then artificially created a gene that, in very basic terms, allows humans to wield super powers, for want of a better phrase. They termed this gene GOD and incorporated it into the twenty-first chromosome during the fertilisation process. When equipped with this gene, the holder can produce psychic forces that manipulate his or her surroundings by changing molecular structure. And in some cases may even produce nuclear forces.”
The young man considered this. Couched in his own kind of language, what Kabi was saying did actually make sense. If he accepted that gene modification was possible, which it obviously was, then he supposed he could accept what he was being told.
“Sit down,” Kabi said, pulling two wooden crates closer. “Let me explain a little further.”
Maicee did as he was told, curious now as to what was to come.
“Your mother and I, along with eleven others, were the creations of Project GOD,” Kabi began. “The goal of this project was to create super-humans, or as the project code-named them, Archangels. We were created in test tubes, where our genetic code was altered to contain the Gene of Destruction. More than that, though, each of us was given a pair of the genes, not just one. This not only allowed us to possess what you would call super-human powers, but it also imbued us with a form of immortality. Once our powers are fully activated, we enjoy eternal youth, more or less, though the gene cannot, of course, prevent death by injury or in battle.”
Again, Maicee considered what he was being told. Yes, it sounded unbelievable; but then, so did many things when he first heard them. He decided to leave his scepticism behind for a moment.
“Is that why Magi Lords have magical powers?” he asked curiously.
“Yes and no,” said Kabi. “Magi Lords are the offspring of Archangels, just as you are. That means that they carry only half the required pair of genes. A Magi Lord has some power, but he will age, though far more slowly than the normal person, and his powers are limited.”
“I'm the same as a Magi Lord, then?” Maicee asked, crossing his legs on top of the crate he was sitting on.
“Not exactly,” said Kabi. “I have done some testing, and it seems that you are somewhat of a mutation. You seem to have inherited both copies of the relevant gene from your mother—an error in the fertilisation process, as I'm sure you're aware, that is perfectly possible.”
“Because of that, it seems that you have more of the potential of an Archangel than of a Magi Lord. Though as yet, I'm not exactly certain how far the comparison goes, how strong your powers will be.”
This was just sinking in when soft footsteps sounded on the deck.
“Princess,” said Kabi, getting up and giving her a half-hearted bow. “I shall leave you two alone.” He leaned closer to Maicee. “We shall discuss more of this later,” he said.
He left, and Ausanne, giving Maicee a grin, hopped up onto the crate beside him. “Fun training?” she asked.
“Mmmm. I could use a little rest, though,” said Maicee, hoping she would take the hint.
He'd been avoiding her, not wanting to have to speak with her in the way he knew he must. But now he'd been cornered. His heart was thudding, and he knew that he had to say what he had to say, but still, it was hard.
Ausanne gave him another smile and shuffled a little closer, her arm warm against his. It’s now or never, he thought.
He gave a short cough, then said: “Princess Ausanne ... there, well, there is something that I must tell you.”
“And what is that?” asked Ausanne, her eyebrow arched provocatively, her face edging closer to Maicee's.
“I ... you ...” he stuttered. Then he took a breath. Just spit it out, he scolded himself. “I mean, we cannot be lovers. I, I do love you, just, well, more as a brother-sister relationship, if you see what I mean.”
He let his voice trail off, hoping against hope that she wasn't going to be too angry. But hoping was futile. The princess jumped down from the crate.
“Do I look like I'm in love with you?” she demanded.
Maicee knew better than to answer that question.
“As you may be aware, I am a princess, one of royal blood, the future ruler of my country. I have no say in my marriage; that will be decided by my father. And when I do marry, it will be to a man of noble blood,” she said haughtily. “Not to a ... a ... pirate like you.”
She gave him a brisk incline of her head, then stalked off back towards the inside of the ship. But Maicee had seen the emotion in her eyes. He knew that he'd humiliated her, that he'd hurt her dreadfully. He sighed. But what could he do? Maybe the long voyage would be enough to calm her feelings a little. Maybe one day she would forgive him.
“No, no,” said Kabi, irritated. “Don't force your mind. Let it travel slowly.”
Maicee gritted his teeth and tried again.
They were sitting in a quiet corner of the deck, cross-legged as though meditating. Focus, Kabi had told him, was the key to channelling his psychic energy. The only thing he needed to do was to shut out all outside noises and thoughts from his head. That, however, was easier said than done. The harder Maicee tried not to think about Ausanne, the more he thought about her and how hurt she must be feeling. It was like saying ‘Don't think of apples’ and then expecting him not to think about apples. He sighed.
“Again,” said Kabi.
Okay, this time he had it. He took a deep breath and concentrated on letting his thoughts slip out of his mind. To his surprise, it began to work. Images, ideas, words started to slip away from him, and he felt the place of focus tantalisingly close. His mind now was feeling light, free, and empty of troubles and worries. His eyes were closed, but he began to see the flickering outline of his surroundings in varying hues of colour. He reached out towards the place of focus, drawn to it.
“You are a fast learner,” commented Kabi.
Through his closed eyelids, Maicee saw Kabi place a glass of water on the deck between them.
“This is the next stage,” he said quietly. “Find that place of focus, feel the power, then let that power flow down, through you, and into the water inside this glass. Just let things move naturally. Do what feels right.”
Obediently, Maicee manipulated his mind to do as he'd been asked. And slowly, ice crystals began to form on the surface of the water. And then the water completely solidified, expanding outwards until the glass container smashed, causing Maicee to lose his concentration and open his eyes.
“As I expected,” said Kabi, looking at the shards on the deck. “Your natural power lies in ice.” He smiled at Maicee. “Your mother's power was water; my speciality is earth.” He nodded as though satisfied that his guess had been correct. “That will be all for today, I think,” he said, standing up.
Maicee sat, exhausted, on the deck. He felt so drained, it was all he could do to keep his eyes open.
“Don't forget to clean that glass up,” Kabi shouted over his shoulder.
Maicee groaned and began to move.
And so, for the next few days, Kabi trained Maicee in focussing his psychic force. And Ausanne avoided Maicee like the plague. It was, Maicee feared, going to be a very, very long voyage.