13

She was finally nearing the end of guest reception. Members of the family stood in different areas, having informal words with those leaving. On Soleil’s left, her younger sister Mireille was bowing to an Aquari Councillor. Brown-haired and still wearing baby fat at eighteen, she took more after their father, sharing his inclination to follow stories and gossip. Soleil understood politics, and Mireille understood politicians. They weren’t the closest of friends – Margeaux knew more of her heart – but they spoke often about matters of state.

Soleil could feel composure slipping, and knew she needed to get out. She put a hand on her sister’s shoulder, who leaned an ear to her. “I need to go for now,” she spoke quietly. “I’ll be back if I can.”

Mireille curved her lips in a smile, speaking back with equal warmth. “Be well, Soleil. I can take it from here.” Turning in a way that kept the shape of her skirts, Soleil went through the double doors behind them that led to the outer balcony. This open-air walk stretched around the outside curve of the Auditorium building, ending in Imperial offices and apartments. There was a dressing room there where she could take a moment.

The night air was cool. Soleil sighed, tilting her face to the sky. It was on this balcony that her mother had taught her the Alisandrian constellations. Though the Pan-Galactic Imperium spanned dozens of planets acquired over more than twenty generations, the royal seat had been on Alisandre since the beginning of expansion. It was this sky, her mother said, that had shaped the dynasty – no matter how many skies she would see over her lifetime, these stars would tell her she was home.

Her formal shoes clicked along the flagstone expanse. The balcony was mostly empty, but for a scattering of strolling pairs, who bowed as she passed. Rounding the final curve, she slowed her pace when she saw the figure leaning against the rail. Hearing an approach, he stood, and smiled.

The high-dress uniform in colors of black, red, gold and white struck a crisp outline to his caramel brown hair and weathered complexion. He made a bow, his eyes crinkling at hers. “An honor, Princess Soleil.”

She acknowledged him, her face opening into a weary smile. “General Draig Claymore.” Though the sight of her childhood friend cheered her, she was still dragging, and was sure that it must show. This was the first she’d seen of him since her return, and she was loathe to make the time short; but she had to admit she felt ready to collapse. “I’m glad you could attend.” Her head felt light and detached, her voice far away. “Please excuse me -”

Section 13

He rushed forward when he saw her drop.

Suddenly Soleil looked up, felt the pavers beneath her hands, and realized she was no longer standing. She was supported on Draig’s arm, and he was shouting to someone. Soleil began to laugh at herself, but when she opened her mouth it was only the jabber of flames, and everything was lost in the sunfire.

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12

I seek the fire, the blue-green fire
of Oloa the snake dancer –
healer of our tribe, deliverer of daughters,
savior of lives, shaman of visions.

Spirit speaker Oloa, one of us and not one of us,
with us and always apart, we find her
by her fire when traces of dusk have vanished.
We follow the moon moth to Oloa’s fire.

Soleil broke into a sweat. She kept her breathing calm, but why sweating? The music was intense, but this wasn’t a usual reaction. Her life had been generally free of present danger; feeling it now, she didn’t understand it. Soleil couldn’t move or squeeze her hands, holding her grandmother’s and cousin’s. Her body was unresponsive to command. Tendrils of panic arose in her thoughts.

Section 12

Something is wrong, nothing is cooking.
No song in her hut, no glamour of vines,
the beasts her friends all hide their faces
and make no sound.

An arrow! Our snake dancer
is no warrior, her weapons and power
are of another world, why does her
agate-tipped arrow wear blood?

Lysha begins calling the other warriors by name to join her. The music turns darker, urgency rising in tempo and timbre. Easing herself into a state of detachment, Soleil guessed she was having an adrenaline response with night terror paralysis. There was a distinct pulse in what felt like a physical place in her skull.

She would have spoken if she could, maybe to Margeaux, but she couldn’t manage even a quiet utterance. One by one, the other women singers were arriving in the piece. Together, they were discovering the scene of the crime. Finally, climbing a peak of terrific arpeggios, they screamed,

MURDER! She is slain. Fallen…

Soleil’s senses dimmed as though someone was squeezing her life in their fist. Her detached self understood that this wasn’t a mortal sensation – it had a distinctly neural quality, like the traces of iron in water. The animal core of her, however, was a rearing, frightened horse locked in and tied tight.

The dead shaman Oloa was carried out from backstage in the arms of Lysha and Neris. Soleil focused on her through pulses of blackness. It was a bright enough sight that it was something her mind could hold onto, even as it seemed somehow to be failing.

Traditionally, the shaman is a role of honor, the silent star of this piece. She emerges only this once in her full regalia, and she is already dead. This costume, not bound by any enduring or definite character, is often an homage to an ancestor or elder. On this stage, Oloa’s skin was black as night, her hair a voluminous dark fall including many strands of pulsating, soft rainbow light. This was bound in uncountable loose sections by loops glowing with the same light, as did the stripes down the sides of her fitted black bodysuit. Their dead shaman was a glowing, alien anachronism, lit up and supine as a martyr in neon; pitiful as a firefly’s last dance.

This assembly of glowing swoops and halos anchored Soleil’s vision. When she became certain that she could either cry out, or that her mind would cave to whatever was attacking it – the sensations fled, leaving the barest trace on her memory. As though she had eaten spicy food.

The four women onstage were now singing the memorial verse, setting the shaman onto a bier, covering her, and raising her up. Soleil’s mind was reflexively healing its trauma, covering its tracks, but she took note before it could erase them completely. Should mention this later, though to whom? Very unusual. The entire ensemble switched to percussion, beginning the battle verse.

We are a storm, the lightning suddenly
cleaving a tree in twain, the sudden fire
springing forth from its body, the fire that
takes the mountainside, the winds that
spread it and the driving rain that ends it.

Soleil rose to her feet with the rest of the front row. She was clapping. With bewildered sarcasm, she noted that her hands and feet were now working just fine. She smiled, and all the cameras looked at her.

11

The data on Karma’s display turned green all at once, and collapsed into a single flashing dot. Her computer and the safe emitted a small beep. As she reached toward them, a hovercar dropped into view, and the window wall by the bed exploded in shards.

Derringer hit the floor and looked up. Karma, crouching, reached up and grabbed both devices from the desktop. “I thought you weren’t followed,” she shouted as she took cover. From her jacket she withdrew a custom automatic pistol.

Derringer lunged over to the portal and slapped the frame, calling the elevator. A few bullets struck the frame and the wall nearby. “Did you ask yourself that question?” He got himself behind a corner in time to hear her fire three shots.

Sticking his head out to look, he saw both men down, one conscious. “I saw it as an eventuality,” said Karma, reholstering her piece. She sent him a wink before crossing the room and withdrawing a rocket launcher from under the bed. Firing from her shoulder, the rocket plumed a white smoke trail to where it collided with the hovercar outside.

Section 11

They felt the waves from the explosion as the flier fell from view. Karma dropped her weapon and headed for the elevator just as the frame illuminated and the door slipped open. Derringer launched himself after her and they were in together.

Through the elevator’s glass walls, he could see the wreckage thirty floors below amidst a growing crowd. The sound of sirens was approaching from a distance. Karma glanced over at him with her computer in hand. “Jacobs warned you, right? He should have.”

“When he hires me, it goes without saying.” A thin red beam stretched itself from her device to the middle of the elevator ceiling as she set another program in motion. “Who’s paying the bill for this? Cause it surely isn’t me.”

“Either my people, who booked the room, or their people, who blew it up. We’ll see!” The elevator detached itself from the building, but instead of going down its appointed route to the ground floor, they headed round to the other side of the building. Her computer chimed, the beam disappearing as she slipped it back into her jacket.

“Where is this going?” asked Derringer.

“Service entrance,” she replied. He relaxed, loosening his joints and smiling a little. This could be fun. He was empty-handed, only a minor disadvantage. When you need a weapon, there’s usually something at hand.

Karma turned to face him. “I can get us out. Stick with me till we’re clear, then you’re free as a bird.” Derringer nodded, though he intended to learn a little more about what he was just dodging bullets for.

The moment the door began to open, they squeezed through and took off down a hallway packed with cleaning carts, linen piles, open supply closet doors and people. Karma was nimble even in her boots, and Derringer enlarged her wake. One man attempted to get in their way, and Karma dodged past while Derringer lightly flipped him down.

Karma tapped a code into her computer. Ahead of them at the end of the hall, the door to the service elevator shaft slid open. “Going down?” Derringer yelled.

“Yes.”

“Is there a hook slider in there?”

She flashed him a look. “Yes.” Must have thought she was the only one here who’d ever planned an elevator escape. The sounds of confusion were rising behind them.

“I’ll take it, then, you hang onto me.”

After a pause, she nodded. “Okay. It’s on the right.” Derringer caught the edge of the opening, with his left hand finding the maintenance rappel device against the wall of the shaft. He hooked it up with the center of the cable, jamming the lever down to keep it steady. With one side, he hung onto the hook slider. Karma stepped into his other arm, hanging onto his shoulders and wrapping around his free leg. He could feel the pistol under her jacket against his side. He jammed the lever up, the door closing as they dropped out of sight.

10

The light grows dim through the trees,
the shadows dapple and rise.
Everyone inside, this is a huntress’ time.
When the sun sets, and the heat dies,
when the devils awake, but to their tragedy,
no greater devils than we!

Margeaux felt a strange hunger in her muscles and the music. Wriggling inside her skin, she saw herself crawling through growing darkness. The lyrics were sung in Old Indar, which meant Margeaux understood every fourth word, but she could hear it in the musicians, and Kamini’s voice. She had the urge to grin ferociously. The Queen was smiling, to her left. Soleil was expressionless.

Section 10

In my tender childhood, when first my mothers
and sisters took me into the night,
I was blind. All shadow and shade a mystery,
and now it is the other side of me.

Soleil was feeling emotions she couldn’t name, surprised at their strength. She felt a similar response from her cousin next to her. Atop that, like graffiti scratched into a mirror, was a feeling that she was overhearing someone talk about her. Like an unfamiliar voice saying something personal, right in her ear. Despite wanting to really hear the music, Soleil kept her focus ready, senses pricked. She didn’t anticipate danger, necessarily. If she had described this sensation to Arkuda, her teacher, he would have told her this was a precursor to contact with some ethereal beings. As it was, she had no knowledge, and no warning. She was in the dark.

No home so wild and subtle as the shadow forest.
Herald the night-singing small ones,
the dusk orchids and their lover moths.
Let the cool hours envelop us and our
bodies set to the stalk and chase.

With daggers, claws and darts,
All our limbs, the scents and our calls –
only then, when we are risking everything
committing our muscle, our breath, our life –
this thrill is the soul of us!

9

The private elevator door, the only way into and out of the suite, slid open. A slight figure of a woman in a grey wool suit stood at the desk, her fingers on its surface while her face was turned looking out the window. Immediately Derringer recognized something about her body that made him narrow his eyes. When she turned her face to greet him, he realized where he’d seen her.

Like him, she was much better dressed than before. Her eyes registered a shadow of surprise, and she quirked her lip. She studied him, poised, for a moment longer. “You have something for me,” she stated.

Section 9

“Yes I do. Delivered on foot, as requested.” Derringer continued to stare at the small capitol woman with red hair. Three days ago when she’d passed him in the Diplomat’s Quarter, she resembled a housewife on her errands. But she was in fact the contact for the other end of this delivery. He waited for her to say something. She could be drawing conclusions, just as he was.

She opened a soft briefcase sitting on the desk chair, withdrawing a computer the size of her hand. “Bring it here, lay it on the desk.” Derringer fished the mini safe from inside his breast pocket. He came close enough to leave it on the corner. His nerves were jangling. An alarm was going off, and he couldn’t pin it on this lady, or the situation. She looked a little on edge herself.

She aligned the devices and switched them on. A hemisphere of floating words and icons sprang into the air a foot tall above the desk, a tiny replica of the Iljen Monument. Jacobs said the data storage had program locks and tamper checks, and these had to green light at the other end in order to complete the delivery. She manipulated these elements into place, going through programs and items that Derringer couldn’t guess, never mind that he’d never seen a computer like that before.

“What do you have there? Is that hooked into the Monument?”

She glanced at him sidelong while she continued arranging data. “It can be. Just like that watch you’re wearing. It isn’t, right now.” She continued arranging and relating programs. “It’s its own system. Prototype model, not on the market yet. It has… its points and kinks, but I’d say the development is useful. I keep finding new things I can do with it.” She stopped herself. “How was your walk?”

“Good weather and nothing but strangers.”

“That’s good to hear.” She tapped a few things into place and straightened, turning to him and leaning against the chair. “This will be a few minutes.” She looked him in the eyes for a breath, sizing him up. “Would you like a drink?” She pointed toward a bottle of golden-brown spirit, two glasses next to it.

The brandy was a good label, he’d had it before on remarkable occasions. Derringer nodded and stood at ease. “Yes, thanks.” He watched her pour. Her nails were electroplated, with glowing phronium tips.

He took the glass when she held it out to him at arm’s length. She really was petite, disarmingly so, like a fairy woman. But she held an immense and dangerous electricity. He took a sip and licked his lips. This stuff was old-fashioned, but he liked it.

“I’m assuming deliveries aren’t your main line of work.”

“What makes you assume that?”

“You look like a man who does a great many things,” she said, pacing a half-circle around him with her drink in hand. “Usually alone. Though never without help.” Derringer didn’t bother to reply. She cracked a smile. “Sorry if I’m teasing you. It just… I know the type.” She looked bemused, sipping from her glass.

He rose to the bait. “You can call me Derringer.” He stuck out his hand. She stepped forward and took it with a ladylike grip.

“Karma,” she said with a smile.