Chapter 33 THE PERFECT MAN
Xerza found Maximilian floating face down in her aquarium—a massive salt-water tank filled with beautiful creatures of the sea—twenty or so meters from the beach. Xerza loved the sea, the sounds, the smells, the feeling of swimming through warm waters. Or she had been—until one of the Aaron clones had drowned himself. After that, the aquarium had felt rather more like a mausoleum.
This incarnation wasn’t moving. Not one bit. Damnation. Xerza wasted no time. The cloak of shadows, she dismissed mid-stride, a moment later, she was sailing through the air—an impossible ten-meter leap, made possible by the preternatural powers she lurking inside her mind. Xerza hit the surface of the aquarium with the elegance of a diving bird. Lean muscles, aided by psychokinetic power, propelled her through the water, fast as a ray-shark rushing its prey.
Xerza broke the surface less than a meter from Maximilian’s floating body. She looked straight into a pair of hazel eyes, Maximilian’s eyes, very much alive, wise now beyond his years. He remembers. The thought sent jitters through her body. This is the most delicate time. I must guide him—or lose him.
“You conniving bitch!” he shouted at her, moving closer, his body poised for attack. They are always angry at the beginning. Xerza knew this from experience: of the ones that had come before Maximilian, one had drowned himself, another had attacked her, and had to be put down. She desperately needed for this one to be all right. “Couldn’t you just have told me?” his voice was heavy with accusation.
Xerza trod water, her face calm, despite the storm of emotions raging inside. “It doesn’t work like that, Maximilian.” He didn’t look like he believed her. “How much do you remember?” she hastened to add. That question always calms them down, makes them think.
“A lot,” he replied resentfully. “Enough to know that I’ve lived before. Many times. But it’s all jumbled together. There is so much!” his voice became frantic again.
Xerza inched closer to him, chanced a touch his cheek with her hand. He stiffened but didn’t recoil. That’s a good sign. He grabbed her hand with his own, pinning her flesh against his skin. It felt unbelievably good to be touched again, after so many years without. “But I remember you very clearly,” Maximilian said. “You’re always there, aren’t you?” he seemed less agitated now, less angst-ridden. Keep him talking, keep him touching; I’ve never lost one that wanted to talk and cuddle.
“I am,” she admitted. “I’m the one who keeps calling you back,” she added equal parts regret and hope to her voice. “It is selfish, I know. But I cannot make it without you,” she said, her voice laden with hurt and longing both. Playing this part isn’t hard at all. It’s the bloody truth.
Maximilian continued to tread the water as he regarded Xerza. I want to trust you, but I can’t. You’ve been playing me all this time. How can I ever trust you again?
“I remember Vern—Vernissimon de Veridia de Archangelos. I knew him, back at the beginning. He wasn’t a madman then. He was part of the team. What happened? Why do you have him stashed downstairs? Why the fuck did you have me interrogate him?”
Xerza looked at him calmly. “You know the answer to that one.”
“No, I don’t,” he looked right back at her. “Tell me.”
It looked as if she might object, but the look he gave her must have changed her mind. “He was on the team. But something happened. It’s not important what, but he’s not entirely himself anymore. Whatever he was: he’s a different person now, and a dangerous one at that. He is also, unfortunately, the only one who can awaken your past-lives memories. That’s why I keep him downstairs. That’s why I don’t feed him to the fire.”
“And exactly what is it he does to me?” Maximilian asked warily. What is it that you’re not telling me?
“He manipulates you,” Xerza said flatly.
“What do you mean ‘manipulate’?” Maximilian replied, “I’m a servant of the Dragon Order. I don’t let myself be manipulated.”
He wasn’t angry anymore; he was sulking. Xerza wanted to kiss him, so cute was he, but she controlled herself. “He plays your mind like a fiddle, Maxi. He has you dancing to his tune. He always does. Hell, if he had tits, you’d be drinking milk from his teats.”
Maximilian reflexively glanced down at Xerza’s perky boobs, half-submerged, only inches from his own skin. Centuries-old—and they still look perfect.
“He’s as smart as they come. His mind is more powerful than either of ours,” Xerza said.
Damnation. She’s not playing me this time; she’s telling the truth.
When Maxi didn’t protest, Xerza continued. “He sets you up, hooks you in, weaves his little webs. And when he had done his thing, he pushes you a little, and everything falls into place. That’s what happened tonight. And you know it. You’ve been through it before.”
“Yes. Yes, I have,” Maximilian said.
He sounds almost like himself now. A little shell-shocked maybe, but definitely himself. Perhaps he can be saved, but to what end? Those that awaken quickly fade quickly. It happened too fast—it’s never been this fast before. It should take years.
“I...it’s a lot to take in, that’s all.” Maxi took a deep breath. “I remember some things, many things. It’s all jumbled together. But some memories stand out. I think they are from my first life. I know Vern is there. Even way back then, he’s old, but not ancient like he is now. There is a huge woman with blonde hair and a cocky fighter jock. Jarra. Shiloh. They were also on the team. And a little dark-haired grease monkey. Venus. I had a crush on her. A few others as well, but I don’t see them as clearly.”
“Are you sure? Isn’t there one other you remember?” Xerza inquired.
“Yes, there is one other,” Maximilian admitted. “Haides. The Red Right Hand. I don’t quite know what to make of him.”
“Yes, his name was Haides. You also worked together. Although Haides wasn’t much of a team player,” she said.
“And what happened to him? Does he also get resurrected periodically—or do you keep him on ice somewhere in the basement?”
Xerza felt a shiver run down her spine. “Keep Haides locked up? I couldn’t, even if I wanted to. There was never a man more dangerous than him.”
“From what I can remember, that’s the truth,” Maximilian said. “He’s one slippery bugger.”
Time to take this to the conclusion, Xerza decided. She used her telekinetic powers to make sure their naked bodies were ever so gently pushed into contact. Her breasts pressed against his chest, his leg became intertwined between her thighs. There was a last vestige of resistance, so she nudged certain areas of his brain ever so slightly. Nothing unnatural, nothing forced. Just speeding things up a bit.
Maximilian suddenly became acutely aware of their proximity and state of undress. Damn, she’s hot. This is what I wanted, wasn’t it? Might as well make the most out of it.
He grabbed her, none too gently. Xerza didn’t mind terribly. His hands were all over the place. Unfocused, but still lovely. His mouth was a little overeager, but that was to be expected. She had taught him manners before; it would come back to him.
They did not sink to a watery grave, no thanks to Maximilian’s swimming skills: he seemed to have forgotten they were treading water. Instead of spoiling the moment, Xerza let him kiss and grope to his heart’s content while she levitated them onto one of the small tropical islands dotting the aquarium. She couldn’t wait to have firm ground at her back, couldn’t wait for him to have his way with her.
After their first, frantic tryst, they had done it again, a little more gently, a little more slowly. Now the lovers lay next to each other in the golden sand, resting, gazing into the holographic sky overhead.
Xerza turned over on her side and looked at Maximilian. “I hope you realize that this doesn’t change our relationship in the least,” she said.
Maximilian, still on his back, picked up a small pebble and tossed it into the water. “You mean: except that I’ll be making you come, again and again, screaming my name?” he asked rhetorically.
“No, I meant I’m still the mistress, and you’re still the servant. But I’ll hold you to that promise,” she made a brief pause and waited until he looked at her. “Now, get down there and show me what you remember.”
“How much do you recall?” Xerza asked. She was lying on top of Maxi, head snuggled under his chin, in that little nook by his neck. It was her favorite spot. Always had been.
“I don’t know,” Maxi replied, sniffing the fragrance of her midnight hair. “There is you, of course. Always you. And me. A lot of this,” he said, running his fingers through her hair and down her back. “There is more, but as I said, it’s all very chaotic, disjointed.”
“It will begin to make more sense after a while,” Xerza assured him. “A lot of it will just fade away from conscious memory, but you’ll still remember and be able to associate with those memories.”
“Now you sound like Vern, so very technical and precise,” he accused her.
“Guilty,” Xerza laughed. “It was he that taught me these things.”
“Figures,” Maxi said. “Naughty girl.” He reached down and gave her butt a playful smack.
“Ouch,” Xerza said and lifted her rear a bit, inviting him to hit her again.
His hand halted in mid-air. “Some stuff from way back, I remember quite clearly. From before we ever met.” The hand slid down and grabbed some fine, white sand instead of Xerza’s ass. “I remember a world, old and corrupt. Amalfi. My home, I think. There was an orphanage—an evil place. I was destined for a life of crime, but instead, I chose differently. There was an academy. Law enforcement. A life fighting crime instead of committing it.”
“That would be Aaron, your first life,” Xerza added, pushing herself very gently against his muscled thigh. It felt quite nice. “Whose life story oddly enough isn’t too far from your own.”
“Yeah, that was confusing at first,” Maxi admitted. “I thought I was going mad until I realized there were two lives, but similar. Was that your doing?”
“No,” Xerza said. “Well, yes, maybe a little. I had you cloned, then delivered to an orphanage, but after that, it was hands-on. And it was supposed to be a place that would see you adopted away into a proper family.”
“Then came betrayal,” Maxi said, more softly now.
“That’s how we met for the first time. You were going down, hard, on some severe charges,” Xerza replied.
“I remember,” Maxi said sourly. “One of my ‘friends’ turned me in. It was claimed I was an illegally geneered metahuman.” He made his hand into a fist, hurled the sand into the air, watched it settle like a glittering veil down Xerza’s back, buttocks, and long legs.
“Transhuman genetics are illegal across the Successor Kingdoms, have been since Dominion times thanks to the Conclave, you know that.”
“I don’t like the ‘trans’ term. It implies better. Different isn’t better. ‘Meta’ is more abstract, vaguer. Vague is good.”
“Semantics. Trans or meta. It’s still illegal. And for a good reason. There was a lot of trouble in the Dominion before it was banned.”
“And am I a transmetathingy?” Maxi asked into the air.
“We’re not entirely sure, Maxi,” she kept trying to move against him without being too obvious about it. It was beginning to feel really, really good. “What we do know is that your DNA is perfect. You’re all that a human can be; without becoming something not quite human. So we’re sure you’ve been tampered with—no child could suddenly evolve into you out of nothing. Does that make you a meta or not? I don’t know.”
“So, basically, I’m a clone of the perfect human being?” Maxi said and began laughing. Hard.
“Yes, you are,” Xerza said. She gave up pretending not to be stimulating herself and began grinding against his firmly muscled body in earnest.
“Then I’m a demi-god,” Maxi declared. He rolled over, pinning Xerza against the sand.
“Oh come, my handsome deity,” Xerza declared in her most dramatic voice, “make love to this poor, mortal woman. Take her to that place where only the gods may thread!”
“I will,” he said and kissed her fiercely. After that, they had no more breath for talking.
“Tell me more about Vern,” Maxi said after they were done making love again.
“Vern was on the team.”
“My personal investigation team. Back when I was a Prefect serving Quaestor Tancred. I could draw on many operatives, but you were my alphas, my prime team. After he disappeared and I was promoted, I kept you on, all of you.”
“I remember being fond of the old man.”
“We all were. Even Haides liked him. He was one of the few people who could match him word for word,” Xerza said.
“Ah, yes, Haides. I remember a little of him now.”
“What do you remember?”
“I remember hating him...and loving him,” Maxi said.
“Maxi!” Xerza blurted, pretending to be outraged.
“No, not in that fashion. As a brother. The brother I never had.”
“I was kidding. Haides actually treated you worse than the others.”
Maxi managed a shrug, even lying down with Xerza on top. “I didn’t mind. We were enough alike that I knew how he felt. I was the brother who didn’t betray him. I was also a bit afraid of him,” Maxi added.
“You all were.”
“But not you?”
“Me?” Xerza said, just a tad too fast. “Why would I...ouch,” she gasped as Maxi pinched her nipple. “Don’t do that! It’s demeaning!” she snapped, suddenly angry.
“Well, it’s demeaning when you treat me like an idiot. Like for like.”
Xerza deflated. “Sorry. I’m just used to being on top...ordering people around...wielding the authority of the Assembly.”
“Yes, there were times he made me afraid,” Xerza admitted. “Not at first, but later, yes.”
“I thought so,” Maxi said. “Now back to Vern. You changed the subject.”
“I did not,” Xerza countered.
“You did too,” he said and cupped her breast, keeping her nipple between forefinger and thumb.
“You wouldn’t dare...” she said.
“I would,” he laughed and pinched ever so slightly.
“Mercy!” she cried.
“The truth now, lady!” he commanded in a deep voice.
“Vern was already on the team because I needed someone with his skill set, and he was...available. Later I recruited Haides, you, and the others. My old master, Quaestor Tancred, had ordered me to gather together a team of particular talent. So I did.”
“I was on the team? With Haides, Vern, Shiloh, Jarra, and Venus? Anyone else I should remember?”
“Yes, you were on the team. Now shut up and let me talk,” she said and reached down between Maxi’s legs, “or I’ll make you pay for your insolence.”
Maxi smiled and kissed the top of her head. “Your will, mistress.”
“I was only a Prefect back then, of course—a favored servant, but still only a servant. I did what I was told. Followed orders and strived to do my best. Hoping to make Tancred notice what I good girl I was.
“Vern was our scholar, our savant. He took care of intelligence, mission briefs, that sort of thing. You were on the team because of your investigative and combat skills—and your perfect abs. Haides was there on account of being a cold, murderous git. Venus got pulled in to fill the need for a technomancer. We also had an ace pilot, Shiloh. Jarra took care of our security needs and provided additional muscle. There were a few others over the years, but as I said, you were my prime agents.” She fell silent.
“And?” Maxi prodded. “Now is a good time to come clean. I can’t take any more trickery right now.”
“Sorry. I guess you could count in Haides’s brother Jan—Janus—as well. He was in charge of our ship.”
“We had a ship? A starship?”
“Yes, the sprint trader Virginis Amalfi—the Maiden of Amalfi. She was something.”
“And the final one? Or did you think I didn’t remember?”
Xerza didn’t answer right away. “Sorry. Again. Old habits die hard. So you remember Elizaveta?”
“Haides’s girlfriend, Lizzie? How could I ever forget her after what happened? Right, you weren’t there...”
Xerza didn’t take the bait. “People who came and went, but you eight made up the core of the team.”
“So how did Vern end up in the basement?”
“The short story is that he delved too deeply. His mind, ever inquisitive, took in more and more information about things man was not meant to know. In the end, the Shadow touched his mind. I banished the taint, but the experience...he wasn’t himself after that. It broke his spirit, shattered his well-ordered mind.”
“I sense there is more to it than that,” Maxi said.
“There is. I’ll explain it to you as we go, but I’d rather we take it slow for now.” She began moving her hand, ever so slowly. “It’ll be better that way. I promise.”
Maxi swallowed. “What happened to the others? Anyone else but me and Vern cheat death?”
“They are all long dead. Elizaveta longer than the others.” She moved her hand a little faster.
“What was he like?” Maxi managed despite the distraction.
“Vern? Or Haides?”
“No, Tancred, the guy we worked for back then.”
“Oh, Tancred,” Xerza said, her voice thick with emotions.
“Did you love him?” Maxi asked suddenly.
“Yes. But not this way,” she said softly into Maxi’s ear. “I loved him like a father.”
“Ah,” was all Maxi could say.
“I was also quite afraid of him. And in awe. That was his way: love and fear and awe, all mixed together.”
“You speak in the past tense. What happened to Tancred?”
“He disappeared. That’s the official story. Actually, he died at the hands of his enemies. Everyone does, except the gods. Well, sometimes they do too.”
“How?” Maxi replied, his interest piqued.
“Kaminsky killed him. Or maybe it was Haides. We never talked about the nitty-gritty.”
“Kaminsky? Asset Sigma Draconis?” he turned over on the side, unceremoniously depositing Xerza into the white sands beside him. She lost her hold on him in the process. “Why?”
“He had to go,” Xerza replied and wormed her way back into Maxi’s embrace. “It was Samael, reaching out from the grave. Tancred was seduced by the promise of eternal life and limitless power. He was no longer acting on behalf of the Dragon, but acting only for his own benefit. To turn away from the Dragon...he had to die so that he might be judged. The Assembly would never have approved—Tancred was very influential—so we did what had to be done.”
“I was part of this, wasn’t I? The team...we were all in on it, weren’t we?” It wasn’t really a question.
“Yes. You were there, Maxi, the whole time. Always watching Haides’s back. You were there the day Lord Questor Tancred, my master, who had saved me from a fate worse than death, was murdered on my orders. I might as well have put the gun to Tancred’s head and pulled the trigger. But he would have seen me coming from miles away. Haides you never see until it’s too late. Kaminsky, you might see, but there is no way you can stop him. The invisible killer and the unstoppable juggernaut. The perfect pair of assassins.”
“Right,” Maxi said. “So you killed the man you loved as a father. How did that make you feel?”
“It made me feel good,” she said and made a grab for him.
“Good?” he demanded and pushed her hands away.
“Yes. For all that I loved Tancred, I was his pawn. We were all his pawns. Or maybe I was his queen. But I was still a piece to be cast aside if need be. If we hadn’t stopped him, we would all have been sacrificed along the way.”
“So the lowly pawn, me, get the lovely queen, you. I guess that’s something.” Maxi laughed a bit at that.
“His death freed me. The killing transformed me from Xerza, the Pawn, to Xerza, the Player.”
“So, this is a game to you?”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“It’s what you said.”
She rolled onto her back, crossed her arms under her breast, and looked into the holographic sky overhead. Only the night stars were out. She was even more beautiful now, bathed in starlight, shrouded in twilight. Her body that of a silver goddess, her breasts twin moons.
“Yes, I admit it,” she finally said. “By the time Tancred died, I was glad to see him go. I had long since realized that he was a player of games, and I was no longer happy to be one of his pieces. That he had betrayed the Dragon was less important to me—but Kaminsky cared a great deal about that.”
“Don’t sulk, lady. You deserved it,” Maxi said and reached out to grab her. She tried holding back, but he carefully, but unrelentingly pried loose an arm and took her hand in his.
She turned her head and looked at her handsome lover. “Look, Maxi. Something bad is coming. Another Shadow War. Perhaps even Ragnarök. I don’t know exactly what. But dark times are upon us, the very stars are dying. It’s going to be rough. Worse than ever before.”
“The Dragon Order has stood tall through many calamities.”
“It has, but if you knew what I know...the Order is not what you think it is. It is weak. And worse: it’s fractured, leaderless. The members of the Assembly are concerned only with their own little political games. Tancred was just the worst of a bad lot. He’s long gone, but others have risen to take up his legacy.”
“But not you,” Maxi said.
She didn’t reply. Their fingers were intertwined now. It made her old heart skip a beat, and her stomach got that butterfly feeling she hadn’t felt for ages. So weak. I’m so very weak for you.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” he said. When Xerza started to protest, he squeezed her hand and hushed her. She almost began crying, so touching was the gesture.
“I’m not stupid. I know you have your own agendas. Being a player and all. But let me cling to my illusions. I work better then.”
“I love you,” she blurted and then started giggling. It felt unbelievably good.
“I’ll think about it,” he replied, and they both burst out laughing.
When they were done laughing, they just lay there for a while, holding hands. “What about Marcus Aurelian?” Maxi finally said. “The golden boy. I remember him from this life.”
“He’s out there, searching for a weapon,” Xerza confided. “To help us in the next war, for Ragnarök—if that’s what’s coming.”
“What kind of weapon?”
“A secret weapon.”
“That’s not helpful.”
“I don’t like being interrogated.”
“It’s what I do, it’s what I am. Prefect Maximilian Eccard, interrogation specialist, at your service.”
“I liked your roguish side better...”
He rolled on top of her again, grabbed her hands, and pinned them playfully against the warm sand. “Answer the question, prisoner!”
“It’s a code word: ‘the Maiden.’ It’s a chimera, a cyborg. She’s made to look like the perfect woman.”
“Like you,” he joked, but his voice was suddenly cold.
“That was cute.” Xerza smiled up at him. “But she’s a brunette.”
“Not funny,” Maxi joked. “The only ‘Maiden’ I know of is the Maiden of Amalfi. Please tell me it’s not the same. Please?”
“Do you remember that part too?”
“Only too well.” He shuddered. “Tell me we’re not going to use her to rip open the Veil. Because that would be really, really stupid, and if you try, I’ll kill you myself. I’ll cry doing it, but I will.”
Xerza closed her eyes. “We are not breaching the Veil. Definitely not. She belonged to Quaestor Samael. He hid all his research inside her pretty shell. All kinds of dark and forbidden knowledge. Enough to destroy us all—or save us from the Shadow.”
“You mentioned the Samael guy already. I think I know the name.”
“He’s rightly infamous. He was into a lot of different shit. And I don’t mean gynoid sex. He researched all kinds of strange lore. Forbidden powers of the mind, the summoning and control of nethersprites, alien artifacts. Everything.”
“And weapons?” Maxi asked.
“Weapons,” Xerza confirmed, “and immortality.”
“Immortality isn’t a weapon, not unless it makes you invulnerable and omnipotent as well.”
“Yes, and no. We’re talking Apotheosis,” Xerza said.
“Ascension to godhood?”
“Indeed. That’s why they shut him down. It was too much, even for the Assembly. So they sent Tancred after him. Gave him extraordinary powers, even for a Lord Quaestor. He was authorized to do almost anything to bring down Samael. And so he did.”
“So your master, Tancred, hunted down and killed his peer, Quaestor Samael. Then later, we killed him, and you got promoted to Quaestor. Kind of poetic.”
He started kissing her face, then her neck, before lingering over her lips, just out of reach. She tried kissing him back, but he held her down. “You secrets for a kiss,” he said.
“Kaminsky,” she sighed. “It wasn’t Tancred that killed Samael, it was Kaminsky. The Quaestor didn’t like direct action. Didn’t have it in him. He always acted through intermediaries. Kaminsky was Tancred’s favorite pet killer.”
Maxi stopped kissing and looked down at her. “Really? Kaminsky again? So he was Tancred’s favorite killer, up until he turned against his master and killed him?”
“Yes,” she said. “Now I want my kiss.”
He came closer until their foreheads touched. “And now he’s your pet killer. Not sure I like the sound of that. If he tries to touch you, I’ll kill him. I swear.”
He kissed her then, for the longest time. Her blood caught fire again, and her body ached for his.
“Maxi...” she moaned into his lips.
“...it’s not him I’m worried about. It’s you. It is you who will be the death of me...”
After that, they had no more breath for words.