Harry F. Rey © 2018
All Rights Reserved
A trembling fear crept over Osvai as he wandered through crystal corridors, his destination no place for the heir to the Empire of a Million Suns. High-heeled shoes clicked against the glass floor while floating robes of crimson silk swished around his legs. Thankfully, the floor wasn’t translucent, but the walls were, and outside shone the brilliant view of a bright Jiwani day, the shimmering towers of the Crystal City set against the deep-green forested hills of Alsatan in the distance. The hills were oddly misshapen: lumps of raw clay dried out and taken over by vegetation. The ones in the distance appeared as ridges etched in shadow in the ocean-blue sky.
It would not be the end of the imperium if someone spotted Osvai here on his own. But questions would be asked. Serious ones. Most likely from his uncle Viscamon. Trips to the baths were affairs of state, not jaunts for pleasure.
He may only be nineteen, but Osvai knew, with a frail father entering his one hundred and fiftieth year and a ruthless uncle on the prowl, danger lurked around any wrong turn. Hence the pink silk scarf covering his smooth black hair and wrapped tightly around his face, so anyone he passed would only see dark-brown eyes set against sunset-colored skin.
Dressed like this, he’d pass for any other highborn Kyleri noble taking a pleasurable midafternoon stroll around the artisanal boutiques and raw fish delicatessens of the Crystal City. The jewel of the planet Jiwani, heart of the ancient and powerful Kyleri Empire. Alsata itself a shimmering city with towers of pure crystal and diamond that could blind a ship’s captain long before she even approached orbit. At certain points in the summer season, the sun reflecting off the Crystal City fired beams of light deep into space. A constant reminder to the souls existing in the orbital stations and surrounding moons of an imperium with the power of a star itself.
The Royal Baths of Alsata were carved into the very crust of Jiwani, far below the Crystal City. The flow of natural volcanic water channeled into a thousand different pools throughout the cavernous labyrinth frequented daily by Kyleri nobles. The Emperor’s Pool in the center by far the largest, surrounded by multiple viewing galleries carved into the rock above for courtiers to see and be seen.
Osvai instantly recalled his trips there with his father and the rest of the imperial court; the smell of the sulfurous rock and the incredible smoothness of his skin after every visit. He used to sit, bored to infinity, splashing at the warm water’s edge as thousands of naked men milled around, conducting their business in steam baths and hot springs as military men swam never-ending laps to show off their physical prowess. Meanwhile, the inner circle of Emperor Kantori would lounge upon silken beds on the raised royal dais next to the Emperor’s Pool, their bodies slathered with oil and their muscles massaged by young servants as they traded gossip and intrigue from across the Million Suns of the Empire.
Osvai had spent many long hours as a child simply staring at those servants’ bodies, watching sweat drip down chiseled chests as thick arms worked through the fat of the imperial court. The customs and etiquette of the Royal Baths were the last fragment to a measure of supposed equality in the Kyleri system of government. Affairs of the empire conducted in hundred-degree heat amid clouds of steam and hot bubbling water came without the trappings of office. Instant judgment by a snobbish courtier based on the quality of one’s silks or the value of jewels around one’s neck was suspended. While a man must be of certain pedigree to attend the baths, indeed even to live on Jiwani, in nakedness, all men at least appeared equal.
Osvai had become so wrapped up in his thoughts he hadn’t noticed he’d nearly arrived at the elevator which would take him straight down into the bowels of the planet. A door of clouded glass opened and a gaggle of laughing men emerged wrapped in soft silks and crystal heels. Their faces colored pink from the baths and their bright skin looking fresh, peeled and scraped in preparation for the upcoming Feast of the Thirteenth Star. For a split second, Osvai wondered why they didn’t gasp in awe at his presence and bow down to the floor, as is custom upon seeing a member of the imperium, but he quickly remembered his attempt at disguise and moved aside as the men passed by him without another look. Although who could even recognize him outside of royal garb and accompanying heavy makeup was anyone’s guess.
Osvai took long, deep breaths, trying to calm his fluttering stomach; but the hot air against the silk only made him warmer. No one would ever imagine these ancient baths, which held such exalted status in the imperial court, had such a dark and dirty secret hidden within. He still wasn’t completely sure the hidden gallery was real, having pieced together its existence from the whispered snippets of hushed chatter overheard from palace servants and pleasure slaves. To think all this had been going on right under the nose of his father’s moral crusade terrified him. The elevator descending hundreds of meters into the darkness underground caused him to tremble as a rock trapped in a stream, leaving nothing but a trickling fear rushing through his ears.
The elevator doors opened into the heat of the underground. Hundreds of robed men floated around the grand entranceway to the baths, the ceiling supported by columns of carved rock. The soft light of mini-pulsars beamed down as the sound of trickling water from inside the rock mingled with the din of polite conversation of a self-serving elite. Banners of crimson hung all around them, displaying the golden thirteen-pointed star, the sigil of the Kyleri Empire.
Being alone among a flock of groups, Osvai felt rather exposed. One came to the baths as part of a social group, or with those with whom one wished to do business. So Osvai walked with haste past huddles of men, from the young and ambitious to the aging and powerful. His robes fluttered behind him and diamond heels clipped the polished rock floor. But instead of going straight toward the wide archway of the main entrance, he veered to the right. Behind a column of intricately carved rock, displaying ancient scenes from the Kyleri past, the promised service entrance emerged. A group of half a dozen older men who appeared to be royal courtiers stood near the narrow opening in the rock wall, idly chatting. Osvai’s heart almost stopped when he recognized one of their faces. He would have to walk past them to get inside. They’d wonder where he was going. He would simply die if any one of them pointed out he was going the wrong way.
Osvai kept his head down and brought the silk scarf lower over his forehead. He kept walking; there was no other choice. Out of the corner of his eye, he thought one glanced at him strangely, but before long he’d made it around the rocky corner, now shielded from any penetrating gaze. Suddenly alone, he should’ve felt relief, but only more nerves came from worrying about what further obstacles might lie ahead.
Eventually, the narrow corridor cut into the rock ended at a bolted door of heavy wood. “Poor man’s entrance” had been scrawled across the top of the doorway. Osvai recoiled for a moment at the words. The conversations he’d eavesdropped on were right. Any self-respecting Jiwani noble would run to the end of the empire before going anywhere near a poor man’s entrance. Unless of course, one knew what lay behind.
Osvai’s heart pounded far louder than the light tap he gave the door. A growing part of him worried this was all a terrible mistake. He’d let his base desires run away with him. He’d snuck out of the imperial palace for this. To be caught now was nowhere near suffering the indignity of being seen out of royal dress or walking unescorted among the people. Those behaviors could, albeit with difficulty, be explained as youthful exploration. No, this was disobedience on a whole new level.
The shame it would bring to the very heart of the imperium. The legacy of his father left in tatters by the crudest actions imaginable of his only remaining son. Actions that went against everything Emperor Kantori had dedicated his life to. The scandal would envelop the court; even the empire itself. Fornication among men with the imperial heir in the sanctity of the royal baths. It would only confirm the subtle assertions Viscamon whispered around court that Osvai was unfit to inherit the largest and most powerful empire in the galaxy.
The light tapping had worked. The door opened. Osvai swallowed hard, not listening to the pounding in his ears, and stepped into the darkness. The door closed behind him. Now there was no turning back.
“Which side are you after?” A gruff voice said. An old man wearing nothing but a loincloth and a utility belt covered in keys and tools emerged from the darkness, illuminated by a candle in his bony hand. It seemed to be the entrance to maintenance, not the pathway to debauchery.
“Which side?” The maintenance man held up the candle and peered into Osvai’s eyes. “If you’re after the top side you’re in the wrong place. Their entrance is from inside the baths. This is bottom only, you understand?”
Osvai swallowed, his breath hot against the scarf again. Heat radiated from the rocks cramped around him. His heart felt close to bursting out of his chest. Sweat pricked all over his body. He had to breathe. Hoping the darkness would add extra cover, he pulled off the scarf, took in a deep breath, and nodded.
“You know the rules here?”
Osvai nodded again and bit down on his bottom lip, his face now exposed in the candlelight flickering in the hot shadow of danger. He didn’t know the rules but didn’t care to either. He knew what he might get here, and that was enough. Talking would lead to thinking, and thinking would cause him to run for his life. Right now, Osvai only wanted to feel the forbidden touch of men, countless hundreds of men the hidden gallery promised. The keys jingled on the man’s belt as he apparently finished his investigation, turned away, and began to walk down the cave, holding the candle high and beckoning Osvai to follow.