8

The last few attendees were ushered to their seats in the Auditorium Salon. It was a small, fully-fitted theater with royal accoutrements. A 16-piece orchestra sat at the foot of the velvet-curtained stage. Princess Soleil sat midway to the left in the front row, with her cousin Margeaux on one side and her grandmother the Queen on the other. The musicians continued tuning while people settled in their seats.

Section 8

Margeaux leaned towards her cousin. “Did you get enough to eat?”

“Only just,” Soleil spoke in a stage whisper. “Did you try the teriyaki fish thing?”

“That was pretty good. But I liked the game hen.”

A hush descended through the room. The lights dimmed, and the curtains opened to reveal the performer at center stage. She wore primitive but graceful lizard buckskin dress armor, her hair a bushy black mane over copper skin.

The Huntresses’ Aria begins with a soloist who plays Lysha, amazon of ancient Iza. She sings of her tribe and the night hunt. When a terrible murder is discovered, the song turns into a bloodthirsty battle cry. Soleil knew the piece, part of the larger Erris of Rahm. It was one of her favorites. She turned her head to smile at her grandmother. Queen Celeste returned it warmly before pinning her eyes on the stage.

Mara Kamini joked that she had performed for half the Pan-Galaxy, and the other half didn’t like opera. When she was invited to perform at an Imperial event, she cancelled other scheduled shows, pouring herself into the Huntresses’ Aria. She took pains in finding the other singers, for the piece was notorious for falling apart in the transition from solo to chorale. Three months later, she found herself twenty-five feet from the attention of Her Vast Eminence and the royal family. She could not remember how to begin. The Queen and the Princess shared a smile, and the court began to focus on her. Kamini felt a wave of helplessness and desperation rise larger than she could overcome. She met eyes with the Queen, opened her mouth, and let it out.

7

The front gate of Jacobs’ house buzzed for a few long seconds, and Derringer eased out of the doorway into the morning light. His feet fell onto the pavement and turned him north, toward the residential blocks past the market streets. The business day had already begun, with transport cars and service rigs filling the aerial roadways. There were a few clouds in the sky, but it was going to be another gorgeous day.

Section 7

Despite his preference, he stuck to the main walkways. Gentlemen who look as sharp as he did are always headed somewhere in a hurry. Jacobs had a tailor fit him into a new suit last night, just the thing to wear under high-profile security in the financial district.

It was part of the deal that his cargo not get aboard any vehicles or vessels on the way. No taxis. The simplest systems contain the fewest errors. It was a fine day for a walk anyhow, and he took his time through the mostly empty neighborhoods.

The facades got fancier as he came into the money part of town. The buildings doubled and tripled in height, and now he shared the walkways with steady streams of office goers. Derringer cut through a multi-level car park. Shunning the elevator, he took two flights of stairs up to the next street.

Iljen Square. He stopped in front of an azure-tinted window to check the time on his borrowed wristwatch. The square was the size of a city block, and the Monument seemed to fill it all, a great calculating dome of information rising from its center. They’d unveiled it four years ago, and it was a huge deal, big breakthrough accomplishment for Aquariid-human engineering. Derringer had only seen it once before. The weather was still friendly, and he was running early. He sat himself on a nearby bench to take it in.

It was like a great fountain, but instead of water, in the air hung a three-dimensional constellation of information. Within its visual hemispheres spun layers of data. There were projections for every planet of the Pan-Galaxy, with tickertape lines threading everywhere between, showing shipping and trade data, stocks, politics, even jokes.  This was all changing position according to a logic that Derringer could see but not understand. He just let his mind wander from one tidbit to the next. A little girl, parents in tow, screamed amusement as she passed her hand through a seemingly solid planet. His watch beeped at him. Monument Synchronize? He tapped its corner. No, thank you. But it was time to go.

“The other end of this delivery is at the Massey-Sonnes Hotel at Iljen Square, in a suite accessible only by private elevator. You’re the guest of Ms. Karma Ilacqua, tell the front desk she’s expecting you. They’ll send you up. She’s the only one supposed to be there, as much for their good as ours. She’s gonna plug it in, read and verify the data, and when she says thank you, you go. That’s all that needs to happen.” With that, Casper Jacobs had shut the metal case with the data key in it and slipped it into Derringer’s breast pocket.

There was a lot that could go wrong. The contingencies were so numerous that they couldn’t be planned. No wonder Jacobs had saved this gig for him.

They stopped in front of reflective metal portals. The bellhop, a young guy who looked like a card shark, faced them as he spoke. “You’re going to Ambassador’s Suite 7. Ms. Ilacqua has not informed us that you require guest access, so once you leave the suite you cannot return without authorization.” Derringer flicked his eyes over to the bellhop, who wasn’t looking at him, and nodded.

His reflection gleamed back at him, framed in one of the portal doorways. At a little taller than average, he stood sturdy, on a well-used frame. His face was friendly, no-nonsense, with a full mustache and curling brown hair. In this suit, he looked like he’d stepped off his own stellar yacht.

The frame he was gazing into lit up, and the panel slid open with a slight vacuum suck. At the bellhop’s gesture, Derringer stepped inside. “Enjoy your time at the Massey-Sonnes Hotel, sir. Let us know if we can be of any assistance.” He looked over his shoulder, meeting the bellhop’s eyes. The ovoid elevator opening slid shut, and the chamber detached out from the building with a barely noticeable vibration. As it lifted out and up, Derringer turned to the glass walls to watch the square disappear below.

6

From her place at the table of honor, Soleil could see nearly everyone attending, both extended family and intimate court. Many of these found reasons to stop by during dinner to exchange oblique words of opinion. There were warm reunions as well, enough to add genuine pleasure to the evening. As these weren’t official court visits, no weighty matters were brought to her plate, so to speak. Those went to the Queen. People came to the Princess to talk about the future, show loyalty, and express hopes.

Section 6

She ate enough between courtesies so that she wasn’t hungry, though they had taken the game hen away from her untouched. She’d watched it go regretfully. But while dinner was over and the plates were still being cleared, she had a moment to breathe.

Soleil looked from face to face, gauging what moods had changed since the beginning of the night. She met eyes with Arkuda, the Dragon Councillor. He wore his courtly form, slightly larger than the size of a man, sunrise-golden scales gleaming on his torso and head. Soleil nodded to him, showing a trace of a smile. He lifted his scale-clad hand in greeting before continuing his conversation with the Orconian natural resources director seated next to him. She would see her teacher and friend again in a few days to resume their study.

She wouldn’t presume about Dragon friendship, but Arkuda had been her steady mentor for over ten years, and probably knew more of her mind than anyone besides her grandmother. As the sole ambassador of his people to the court, and special advisor in a great many matters, that he chose to have her as a student was a blessing not lost on her.

Maybe it was all the time recently spent in tiny hill villages, but there was a strange current running through the room. It felt like someone she couldn’t see was trying to find her.

5

“Was just thinking about you the other day, D.” Jacobs leaned over the phronium, examining each through a multi-lens in his hand. “Business has been picking up. All different kinds.” He went from capsule to capsule, his head bobbing like a poult pecking rocks. Finally he straightened up and directed a satisfied gaze toward Derringer. “I could put you to work if you’ve got the time.”

Section 5

For a moment the only sound came from Derringer’s index finger tapping the tabletop. He was smirking as he drew in a breath. “Little or big?”

“I’ve got both. What do you want?”

“I’ve had action lately… but I’ll take something on, so long as it doesn’t send me to the shipping docks.”

“Easy breezy, D. I’ve got just the thing for a man of your talents.”

4

Soleil sat while two women made a production of her long, black hair. She could see her reflection in a mirror surrounded by soft, tiny lightbulbs. She wore a champagne silk dressing gown with woven patterns of her family’s crest.

They manipulated her hair in architectural folds and rolls, affixing it with precious ornaments. The centerpiece of their creations was a large metal hairpiece bearing a charged ruby, emanating a low glow.

She withstood the assault first of her hairdressers, her costumers, then her makeup artists, and her jewelers. Before long, she stood at the same mirror, in full regalia, alone. She stood still, conserving her energy.

Section 4

The doorknob on the second door in the room clicked, the one leading from the antechamber where visitors could wait. In came a girl with bright red hair, shorter than the Princess, but with the same build and alabaster skin showing their link as cousins. “Margeaux,” said Soleil, turning on her heels, “you’re here. Thank goodness. I can’t do these press dinners without you.”

“I don’t know why that would be. It’s not me they come to see.” She carefully placed her hands on Soleil’s arms where the sleeves wouldn’t wrinkle and gave them a squeeze. “It’s good to have you around after your countryside tour.” Margeaux held onto her cousin, scrutinizing her. “I’m a little surprised you’re dressed in capital colors.”

Soleil turned her head to see herself in the mirror. The black, white, red and gold stood out in brazen geometry. “Well, strength and solidarity of the royal family, you know. I’ve been gone, now I’m back; and instead of seeing a princess errant in provincial clothes, they see the scion of Magus.” She tilted up the corner of her lip. “More or less.”

“Oh, I’d say it’s a sufficient glamour. As always.” Margeaux assumed a grave and official air as she faced the Princess and gave a deep courtesy, the first of what would be many. Soleil returned the gesture with her most elaborate bow. All her baubles and folds of material stayed properly pinned, and the girls smiled.

The cameras began recording when the great doors opened into Troyen’s Reception Hall. Magus Princess Soleil entered at the head of a retinue, all dressed in the colors of the royal seat at Alisandre Capital. In her left hand she carried an eagle statue, and in her right was an orb of stone, as dark as deep space with flashes of aurora green and blue.

She stopped before her two parents, King and Queen Ascendant. The retinue broke into a new formation, that let each person in the party witness the royal reception with their own eyes.

A calculated dancelike flourish, Princess Soleil executed the body language that described deepest respect, and offered the two objects before her. Her mother picked up the globe of stone, and her father the eagle.

Margeaux was not anywhere near the front of the retinue, but from her distance she could still see everything. The hall must have been chosen for its size to accommodate the formal arrangement. Large, but nowhere as large as the minor amphitheater. Her mind wandered during the series of gestures to the Queen Regent, who stood imposing in a long gown of red atop her dais.

Throughout Margeaux’s whole life, Celeste, Magus the 24th had been leader of the Pan-Galactic Imperium. She could remember when the Queen’s hair was still part black. The Queen’s composure had always inspired awe in her young grand-neice once removed. The more so since Margeaux had seen her at other times, when she was altogether more human and personal. She had somehow kept that part of her safe from the vagaries of her office. Margeaux wondered how Soleil would take to ruling, how much it would change her.

Now the Queen was bowing to her family, which meant the ritual was nearly complete. As she faced the court, Margeaux went down to one knee along with the rest. The orchestra picked up and everyone rose, filing towards the banquet hall.

“Soleil’s really growing up, isn’t she.” Margeaux turned toward her twin brother’s voice on her right. “In all these ceremonies, she keeps getting better and better. She’s going to be an icon. Practically is already.”

Margeaux quirked an eyebrow and looked at him sidelong. “You and your cousin crush. I feel weird even thinking about it.”

“I can admire our Princess in her glorious flower.”

“Gerard, don’t say that. Don’t ever say that again.” She walked with sharp poise in step with her brother. “I’m going to be eating soon, so please no more about our dear Soleil.”