Online Exclusive: “Gilded” by Nicholas P. Oakley

When they came for the ikidium in Joi Veru’s skin, they were armed with knives and blasters.

The rebellion against the rule of the Chakojj Dynasty had swept the moon of Kol in less than a week. The fervor of the people had taken everyone by surprise. Just a clutch of Dynasty forces backed up by a few battle-weary battalions of Realm peacekeepers had been stationed on Kol, and they were no match for Kol’s dispossessed masses. Now the mob was at the gates of the Palace, their eyes dulled and the stocks of their blasters scored with countless notches.

The Keeper woke Joi Veru and the other calarentii before dawn. They all saw the worry in his face. He’d been their Keeper for nearly seven years; his hands gentle as he bathed their precious, inflamed skin, his ears always open and his mouth always sealed whenever they spoke to him of their squabbles, their fears, their sins, their dreams. He, alone among the palace’s clouds of dignitaries, did not look upon them with lust in his eyes or greed on his mind. He treated Joi Veru and the other calarentii almost as people, as if his old, tired eyes had come to pity them.

Even now, in the midst of a crisis never before seen on Kol, the palace guards awaited them just beyond the gates that marked their entire world. Joi Veru been carried into the calarentii cloister as an infant, torn from his mother before even tasting her milk, and he hadn’t left it since. Their cloister was directly below the grand Chakojj court, and whenever they were required, the calarentii were carried up the staircases in baskets, where they would sit, naked, cross-legged, and serve their purpose. For embedded in their skin, in every visible pore on their gleaming, hairless bodies, the calarentii carried part of the Chakojj Dynasty’s vast wealth, and the Dynasty liked to display it at almost every opportunity.

And now the mob had come to take that wealth back.

“What is happening, Keeper?” Joi Veru asked when he saw the guards. Their hands seemed to tremble on their rifles, their eyes, for once, not interested in the specks of ikidium dotting his skin.

“We are going to safety. The revolutionaries are at the palace gates.”

Joi Veru asked, “Why do we not just fly away from here?”

“They have taken our atom-smashers. They have brought down five shuttles before they even broke the atmosphere. It seems we are trapped.”

“Then where will we go?”

“I do not yet know,” said the Keeper. “Sergeant, where are you taking us?” he asked the tallest and least nervous of the guards.

The Sergeant’s reply was muffled behind his visor, and the Keeper appeared to think better of asking again. Joi Veru and the other calarentii followed the Keeper and the Sergeant in silence, their fear at the booms they could hear beyond the palace walls greater than their curiosity at being outside the cloister for the first time in their young lives. The murky, winding corridors did little to dispel the nervous tension, and Joi Veru saw the lines on the Keeper’s face deepen.

“What is it, Keeper?” he whispered.

“We are…” The Keeper looked at the Sergeant, then back at Joi Veru. “It is nothing,” he said, attempting a smile. “Stay close, Joi.”

They stumbled through the dark corridors, and soon Joi Veru could feel his legs beginning to cramp. Their cloister was small, and the calarentii exercised little. The ikidium hurt less when there was a little flesh on their bones, so none of them were particularly lean. The thin shorts were chafing against his damp skin painfully, and Joi Veru could hear the labored breathing and gasps of discomfort from the other calarentii around him. He grit his teeth and clenched his fists, determined not to be the first to fall behind. At sixteen, he was the oldest, and he took the responsibility of his years seriously.

Eventually the corridors opened out into a wide, ornate courtyard. Joi Veru squinted against the light. Emerging from the corridors, which had only echoed with the angry cries of the mob, Joi Veru found himself almost swept off his feet by their shouts. They sounded close, and the Keeper moved in front of his calarentii instinctively. But, except for a couple of tall men dressed in the robes of the Dynasty, the courtyard was empty.

For now, the mob was still on the other side of the palace walls.

The Sergeant strode off towards the two waiting nobles. They spoke briefly, before the Sergeant turned and beckoned for the Keeper to join them. Joi Veru was still recovering from the shock, and didn’t see the opening exchanges between the nobles and the Keeper. His attention was quickly drawn, though, when the Keeper’s voice sounded out.

“I will not allow it!” the Keeper yelled. Even from a distance, Joi Veru could see the old man’s face wrinkled with anger. The guards around the calarentii stiffened, as if they were bracing for what was about to happen.

Joi Veru saw one of the nobles flick his hand dismissively in the Keeper’s face, as if waving away a fly. Then the Sergeant took out his sidearm and shot the Keeper between the eyes, the snap crack of plasma boring its way through the old man’s skull.

“Throw them outside,” one of the nobles called over, before the Keeper’s body had even hit the floor. Joi Veru felt nothing after that, even as the firm grip of the guard fastened around his arm and he was dragged towards the palace gates and the screaming mob beyond.

When Joi Veru recovered, he found himself outside of the palace, crumpled on the muddy floor. He gasped. It was the first time he’d ever tasted real, unfiltered Kol air, and it was unpleasantly thin.

Then he noticed the crowd around him.

Joi Veru looked back at the palace, his home for sixteen years. It was even grander from the outside. But the gates were closed to him now, and there was no escape to be found there. The calarentii had been abandoned.

The bodies pressed in around the fallen boys. Joi Veru and the other calarentii froze as if on one of their court pedestals. The crowd’s curiosity quickly overcame their awe, and the hands reached out. Joi Veru winced at their rough caresses. The fingers began to press harder, then pinch, and squeeze.

Joi Veru heard one of the other calarentii squeal. The young, pained cry made them children again, however many billions of ashaks worth of ikidium there was embedded in their skin. The mob paused. Joi Veru wasn’t sure how long it would last. The lust in their eyes was terrifying.

“Enough,” came a voice, that made everyone jump. “Let them through.” At once, Joi Veru felt the hands snap away, and slowly the almost-feverish mob pressing in all around him thinned, to reveal a tall Kol native, dressed in mismatched battle gear. The man was staring down the few that would or could not release their prizes. Joi Veru saw the man’s hand drop to his belt, and the bulky revolver displayed prominently on his hip was enough to propel that last stragglers to a safe distance.

“Can you walk?” the tall man asked.

Joi Veru struggled to get up. He could already feel the shards of ikidium beginning to swell and itch where the hands had pinched. Between the shock and the pain and the thin Kol air, it took him every last bit of strength to clamber to his feet.

“You will not harm us,” said Joi Veru to the tall Kol. The absurdity of his statement struck him the moment it left his lips, but he stared down the man as best he could. “We are calarentii,” he added, with all the pride he could muster.

The Kol chuckled humorlessly. “You are calarentii without a court, without a Keeper, without a pedestal or a Palace or a Dynasty, boy.” The Kol’s voice boomed, and Joi Veru could hear every word even over the rumbling explosions and the staccato of gunfire in the near-distance. “They have abandoned you. Mistaken us for bandits, for people who can be bought with pretty boys and the wealth of Emperors in their skin.”

“Your men pinch like they were bandits,” Joi Veru said through gritted teeth.

“We have been fighting for over a week, and none of us has slept for days. We have never seen quite so much ikidium before, either. But we are liberators, calarentii. You have nothing to fear from us.”

Joi Veru glanced around. The city stretching out behind the Kol was burning in a thousand places, huge plumes of smoke filling the thin atmosphere, starscrapers crumbling and hollowed out. The Kol’s mismatched breastplate was scorched with blaster marks, and the throng of people around him were just as battle-scarred as he was.

“You liberate with death.” Joi Veru muttered, but the Kol heard him.

“We liberate the only way we can. The Dynasty’s time is over. It is our time, now,” he said, gesturing to the people around him. “And, calarentii, they know it. They try to save their own skins by giving us yours. But it is not your skin we are after, boy, however much it glitters. That is their mistake. It is their skins we want, and it is their skins we shall have soon enough.”

Joi Veru asked, “You will not kill us?”

“No,” the Kol replied. “We will take out the ikidium, if you allow us. Unless you prefer to keep it, let it poison you. You may die the honorable calarentii death if that is what you choose. If you let us help you, well… We’re not butchers.” The man raised his arm and unbuckled his armor plate, revealing bare skin patterned with ink. “We can remove it without too much damage,” he explained. “Certainly not how they would do it,” he spat towards the palace.

Joi Veru faltered for a moment before saying, “And then? What is a calarentii without his ikidium?”

The Kol replied without hesitation. “What is a calarentii without a Palace or a Dynasty? You can fight alongside us, against the Dynasty that kept you and your brothers as gilded slaves, and subjugate this moon and this entire system to their tyranny. You ask what you can be without your ikidium? Well, I’ll tell you, boy. You can be free.”

Joi Veru was already sick with ikidium poisoning. No calarentii lived past their eighteenth birthday. He had seen countless times the final few years of his fellow calarentii brothers as the wasting sickness took hold. There was nothing the Keeper could do for them then, however many baths or treatments they had.

A sonic boom overhead interrupted the grisly memory. Everyone looked up. It was a Dynasty shuttle, trying desperately to escape Kol’s atmosphere before the atom-smashers got a fix on its ion trail. The tall Kol looked, too, and he and Joi Veru watched the shuttle disintegrate, then heard the report and echo of the distant battery.

Then the Kol looked down, directly into Joi Veru’s eyes. Nobody but the Keeper and the other calarentii had ever looked at him like that; seen anything of him but his dotted flesh. Seen anything more in him than a calarentii.

Joi Veru took a deep breath. He knew he was about to speak for all of the calarentii, and he knew there was only one thing he could say.

“We will fight with you,” he said. “As free men. As Kols.”

The tall man smiled broadly, and the crowd of revolutionaries erupted with a roar louder and longer than Joi Veru could ever have imagined possible, if he himself wasn’t roaring alongside them with every last iota of strength he possessed.

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