But what I remembered most about my first meeting with Orakio was that it was the only time I ever saw him smiling. The war broke out only days later, and all of Orakio's family, save his twin brother, were lost during the initial assaults. The Alisa III, in the course of a single day, was thrown into complete chaos. And it didn't take long before young, simple Orakio, through one quirk of fate after another, found himself at the forefront of the conflict.
The mantle of leadership had never fit comfortably on Orakio's shoulders. It was clear even a year after the eruption of the war, when I came again to visit him at his headquarters in Lashute. How his life had changed! On Palm he had lived in a plain house. On the surface of Alisa III he had lived in a cramped apartment over his repair shop. But the Orakio who lived in the floating city lived like a king. His quarters were opulent, and expansive. Massive Room followed luxurious room. Fine paintings hung on the gold-colored walls and rich carpets covered the floors. The furnishings were gold, silver, or even laconia. But if I knew Orakio -- and I did know him, as well as I knew myself -- I knew at once that none of the gaudiness would go appreciated by him. In fact, he probably despised it.
When I entered Orakio's personal living chamber, he was sitting on the end of the room directly opposite the door I had entered through. He was at his desk, with his back to me. His face was in his hands. Before I spoke I took a moment to examine the home of Orakio. The golden cathedralic ceiling began more than five meters over my head and was dotted with skylights. Plush chairs and couches and even a small bed were scattered around. Far off to my left was a fine counter and a set of hanging cabinets, and beyond them was a humble but smart-looking kitchen. In front of Orakio was a gigantic window that looked like it could open out onto an exterior patio. Satisfied in my knowledge of how Orakio had moved so far up in the world so terribly quickly, I finally cleared my throat and addressed him.
"Orakio," I said.
After a few seconds he looked up at the ceiling, and then he stood and faced me. When I'd met Orakio before his skin had been fair. Like a child's. But now his face and hands were tan and coarse. He'd been made into a man of leather by the searing heat of distant subtropical worldlets and the false but humorless sun of Aridia, far, far from his flying palace.
But his face wasn't all that had changed. The simple attire the young Orakio had favored had been replaced by dark armor and a black cape made of satin. It wafted and wrapped around him like the hands of a cold woman. He couldn't seem to escape it.
He nodded at me. He was frowning. "Good day to you. It's been a while." Orakio motioned for me to sit down on a fine sofa that lay between the door and the desk, in a section of the room which was set a few steps lower than the rest. Orakio took his seat in what looked like a small throne opposite the sofa. He was obviously very uncomfortable in his iron chair. He sat hunched forward, with his elbows on his knees and his head slumped between his shoulders.
"So," he said. "What brings you back here?"
I shrugged. "I wanted to see how you were doing. And your brother, as well."
Orakio nodded. "It was so nice of the Witch to cut all our lines of communication, wasn't it?"
I didn't say anything.
Orakio sighed. "My brother is still sick. It's been, what, six months now?"
"Still bedridden?" I asked.
"Yes. He just lies there, sweating, and coughing up that tar. Every morning I expect word that he's died. But somehow he just keeps hanging on." Orakio reached down to the table that was between he and I. He picked up a shot glass and downed its brackish contents in a single swash.
"Since when do you drink?" I asked.
"Since now," he said. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve and set the glass back down on the table.
I tried to relax on the sofa as best I could, but I found it hard to rest easy in Orakio's presence. The man practically oozed discomfort, anxiety. And increasingly, paranoia. The war had taken its toll on everyone, but none had faired worse than Orakio.
"You're looking well," he said.
I nodded. "Thank you." I looked him over. "What's with this rather antiquated armor you've been wearing? It looks like something from a thousand years ago..."
"Oh, this," he said, handling the cape. "You've heard about the 'mythology' that's sprung up recently, I'm sure."
"You mean about you being..."
Orakio sighed, closed his eyes, and shook his head. "A god. Yeah. That one. Well, I just sort of...found this armor lying around one day. By the lake, below us. I can't imagine who could have abandoned it out there in the wilderness, or why, but I decided to take it. And it fit. The way I figure it, if I am going to be a god, I should at least try to look the part, right?"
I flinched. "That's really an awful thing to say."
Some clouds passed by the floating city and blocked out the light of our artificial sun. Orakio looked towards the window and watched the clouds drift by.
"I know," he said. "And you know that I've tried to...explain to the people how crazy these ideas are. But they don't seem to listen. It's like everything's gone crazy. And everybody! If only I knew where these stupid ideas were coming from! Maybe then I could stem this pseudo-religion that's overtaken the dome. Maybe the people were so choked for a higher purpose on Palm that they're desperate for any spiritual connection now. I don't know. I just don't know anything."
I shifted. "There is another reason for my visit. Although now that I've seen you, I--"
Orakio, staring at the floor, waved off my concern. "Just, whatever. What is it you need?"
"I didn't come here to ask a favor," I said, standing up. "I came to give you a present."
He ran a brown hand through his blue-black hair. Had his hair gotten darker, too? I wasn't sure. "Oh really?" he asked. "A present, for me? I hope it's a nuclear bomb. Or at least a positron unit."
I frowned and walked back over to the doorway, where I had set a small package down on a glass table. "No, it's nothing like that," I said as I walked. "I'm really not sure if this is appropriate or not..."
Orakio laughed. "Etiquette is part of the old world. All that's dead now. It's dead in Algo, and it's even dead on our 'escape' ship. Or is it our prison ship...? Just give me the whatever-it-is and quit worrying about my feelings."
I walked back over to Orakio and set the package I'd brought down in his lap. It was a rectangular box, over a meter long and less than a fourth as wide, wrapped in brown paper. Orakio looked at the package for a minute, scratched his head, and then began to unwrap it. I sat back down on the couch and waited to see his reaction.
When he saw what was inside, he shook his head. "Where did you get this?" he asked. "I've never seen anything like it."
"Then you approve?" I asked, smiling.
"I most certainly do..." Wide-eyed, Orakio lifted the black sword out of the box and held it up over his head. He stood, and swung the weapon a few times. Then he walked over to the window beyond the desk, pushed a button that made the glass slide away, and stepped out onto the small balcony beyond. I stood up and followed after him.
I found him swinging the sword back and forth, letting the artificial sunlight fall over the length of its blade as the terrible winds at that altitude made his hair and cloak run riot. The entire sword was completely black, even the handle, and the blade was as reflective as the finest mirror. But it was also completely unadorned. It was a plain sword in the truest sense of the word. But its unheard of coloring made it more beautiful to Orakio's increasingly dark tastes than any weapon of gold and laconia could ever be.
"It's amazing," he whispered. "It's so light. It's almost like it swings itself. And yet I can feel its power."
I nodded. "The sword cannot quite cut laconia. But I assure you that no other substance can challenge it. It even cleaves diamond."
"It's so beautiful. Tell me, where did you find this?"
I shrugged, and smiled. "I have my sources."
"Why did you hesitate to give such a splendid gift to me?"
"I don't know. I was afraid it might add to your...mystique. What with the black armor and all..."
It was Orakio's turn to shrug. "I don't care if it does! Let the people build cathedrals in my honor! I don't care about anything as long as I have this sword."
I put my hand on his shoulder. "Now, Orakio, let us not get carried away."
He shook his head. "No, you don't understand. I've never... I've never felt like this before! It's like..."
"Like you're complete?"
Orakio laughed, and nodded. "Yes! Yes, like that! By Palm, it does sound cliché, doesn't it? But it's the truth. It's like the sword is just an extension of my..."
"I was going to say my will, but I suppose 'arm' will do." He continued to slash the air with his new toy.
"You cannot allow yourself to be too distracted," I said. "There is still a war to be won."
Orakio grinned wickedly. "Indeed there is. How I'd love to slit the Witch's throat with this..."
I took a deep breath and looked Orakio over again. His degeneration was more extreme than I had even guessed. I had never heard him speak so, not even in his most trying moments.
He laughed. "You're right, of course. If the fanatics thought me a god before, what will they think of me now? Me, with my black hair and strange black armor and this even stranger black sword that I treat like a lover. But you know, I do live in a paradise in the clouds. Maybe I am a god after all."
I sighed and stepped back inside. "You've changed, Orakio."
Orakio followed me inside, still swinging his sword and admiring its luster. "You're right. The funny thing is, I know I have. I'm not the same boy who studied robots and can-openers back on Palm." He set the sword down on the kitchen counter and ran his hands over it. He looked practically manic.
I stepped up behind him and asked, "Then who are you?"
"I don't know," he said. "I haven't felt like myself for a long time now. The old me would never have taken an interest in this dark armor. The old, superstitious me would probably have run from it, thinking it an omen of retribution from Mother Brain, or some even more ancient god." Orakio laughed. "Or maybe it's the armor that's changed me, eh?"
"Now really, Orakio," I said. "That is superstitious."
He nodded. Not taking his eyes off of the sword he said, "You're right. ... I think I would like to be alone right now. But you're welcome to stay in Terminus. I can even get you a room here in the city if you would like."
I shook my head and walked towards the door. Poor Orakio. Of course, I had set out from our first meeting to betray him. I had made it my mission to destroy him. And Laya. And Lune. And all of the others. For over a year I had toiled, and finally I saw my plans coming to their completion. All of my gambles had paid off. Orakio's natural insecurity, Laya's bitterness over her infertility and the long-standing conflicts with her father, and Lune's unrequited love for his commander. Of course, the final key to my plans had been Lassic's old wares. I had passed through the black veil and delivered them to Alisa III from my master's dimension. Lassic's crown had been given to Laya and the armor had found its way practically onto Orakio's doorstep. And the fools, blinded by their anger and confusion, had accepted the beautiful trinkets without a second thought. If I ever learned anything from the Palmans it was that a well-placed word can go a long way in a time of crisis.
And the sword was the final touch. Poor Orakio. He had no idea that the weapon I had given him was alive. It wasn't a manmade weapon at all, but a Desrona, one of the demonic swords long ago created by me for the defense of my forces on Dezoris. And now, my most powerful Desrona was in Orakio's arms. And he refused to release it. I knew as I watched him that only death would pry the sword from his grip. And never would the fool suspect that his death would come from his greatest treasure.
"I will see you later," I said to him as I left.
"Very well," he shouted after me. "And thanks!" Orakio fondled the sword again. "Yes indeed, thank you. Thank you very much, Seth. My dear friend, Seth..."
Poor Orakio. As I stepped through the doorway I glanced back at him over my shoulder. He was my enemy, and my puppet. I had planned his death from the very beginning. And yet, his blind trust in me left me speechless. Only Orakio, only Orakio, had ever called me his friend.
As I looked at that pitiful man for what I thought would be the final time, I realized, with a start, just how badly I was going to miss him.