– 1ST SEQUENCE –
– 1 –
In the cold hour before dawn, the shipping dock workers were wiping their noses and shouting, filling the blackness with sound and business. Derringer stood in a nearby alley, one hand with a smoke, the other cradling his forehead. Everything was still too loud, though he’d recovered somewhat from a couple hours ago when his client’s case had come to call. He broke up the fight by giving the intruder a solid one to the head with a coffee mug, which was worth the rest of his fee. It was just as well.
Another ship arrived a block over. Derringer held his coat over his face, shutting his eyes against the dust billowing past him. The ship dropped a few feet onto its landing gear, the hull hitting the ground with a loud scrape. Their suspension was shot.
He finished his smoke and turned away from the dock, on a meandering path through the warehouses. A few had their lights on, but most were shut down. Derringer knew what went on behind some of those doors; the sheer volume of things he knew kept him moving. Being a decent private investigator means that eventually, people learn his face. He did his best to keep his image out of pictures and papers, but in some cases it just can’t be helped. He knew when it was time to leave a city – or a planet. He was never the only one watching.
It was his first time back on Alisandre in four years, and he was free, for now. Time to take a look around, see what had become of the place. The buildings of Alisandre Capital spiraled and curved, thrust and shone against a clear sky.
The morning brightened as Derringer turned toward his rented flat. He could see the Aquarii were busy here with their art. Colors shifted and swirled on the walls, blues and greys echoing the streets’ calm. The colors and shapes echoed the outermost level of thought, so if you had anything to hide, you’d better be good at hiding it in this neighborhood. Derringer had long ago learned how to manipulate that, like the diplomats and councillors.
Ahead of him a door opened, a small red-haired woman hurrying out of it carrying a basket. The doorway swirled purple and black around her, tendrils of color following as she hummed the tune of an old-time march. She had the look of a Capital woman, eyes forever creased in a facsimile of good intentions, lips shut tight holding back her words. As she passed him, the wall swirled magenta. Oh ho, thought Derringer. She thinks I’m handsome.
– 2 –
“How are you feeling today, Your Eminence?”
“All things considered, not bad.” The old woman smiled over her glasses from behind the desk. “How are you today, Dr. Basa?”
“I am well, Your Eminence. Thank you for asking.”
“Glad to hear it. Let’s get on with this then, I’m ready to bleed.” Her smile showed a trace of irony as she rose and walked out from behind her desk, past her bodyguards to the pair of chairs near the door. Her heeled shoes set her some inches above the doctor, for she was tall, and her grey coif only increased her stature. The legs showing beneath the yellow knee-length suit skirt were still shapely, though she walked slowly; a floor-length russet cape whispered trailing behind her, the velvet shimmering. Placing a hand on the chair arm, she sat gracefully, though not without tension. She gestured to the chair facing her, holding the doctor’s gaze with dark brown eyes.
Dr. Basa sat, placing his kit on the floor. The acting leader of the Pan-Galactic Imperium, 24th in the Magus dynasty, pulled her collar to one side. With a large metal stylus, the doctor pricked her at the crook of her neck; the inside of her right elbow; and at her left ankle. The two kept their silence during the sample analysis. The Queen turned her head to the window view: a bright, warm day with vehicles of council and court weaving about the imperial grounds. Beyond that, the towers and neighborhoods of Alisandre Capital, themselves dispersing into the contours of the mountain’s slopes.
The device beeped. The doctor read the results silently, taking the time to read them again. “It’s… much as expected, Your Eminence. The tests show your condition continues to worsen.” They shared a moment of consolation. “How is your appetite?”
“Well, you know I can’t eat like I used to. But I still can, so there is that.”
“Have you felt any shortness of breath?”
“My limbs are weak. I can’t do much, and I need a lot of rest. But it’s just how things are – nothing seems to have changed from yesterday or the day before.”
“No, you wouldn’t necessarily feel it so dramatically.”
From the chair where she waited in the hallway, Soleil could hear the ruffled murmur of question and answer. Though she couldn’t make out the words, her grandmother’s tone was bemused, if impatient with the familiar protocol. Soleil hummed a tune under her breath, a village cooking fire song.
The voices grew intelligible as they drew closer to the door. “Thank you, Dr. Basa. Give my warm regards to your wife and children.”
“I will, Your Eminence. As always, it is my greatest honor to serve you and the Pan-Galactic Imperium.” Soleil stood as the door opened. “Madam Princess, good to see you.”
“Doctor, thank you for all you do for us. Be well.” They bowed, and as he left, the guards opened the door for Soleil to enter. She walked in and dropped her most formal curtsey, head bowed though smiling. “Your Eminence.”
Celeste, Magus the 24th, walked to her granddaughter and put a gentle hand under her chin. “Soleil. Rise. And give me a hug.” The girl rose, and ignoring their formal dress, they gave each other a long squeeze. “That’s more like it,” said the old woman through closed eyes.
Letting go, the Queen looked to her guards. “Leave us. But,” she said as the four filed to the door, “please send someone with refreshments. Hot tea.”
“Yes, Your Eminence.” The last in line nodded and closed the door behind him.
“Let’s sit by the window.” The two women, one old and grand, one young and fresh, walked over to the two armchairs bathed in sunlight. They sat, both arranging their finery. Celeste gazed over at her granddaughter. “Time in the countryside has done you good. Rosy cheeks, new dress, hairstyle – I love it.”
“You like the dress?” Soleil beamed, smoothing her hands over the weave bearing Inka leaves and scenes of rolling hills. “The textiles of Darye are truly impressive. This dress was made by Sujen, one of the great tailors there, during the week I stayed. It was an honor.” Soleil smiled as she gazed into the distance.
“Mm. Yes.” A pensive look crossed the face of the old Queen.
“And you, grandmaria… well?” Soleil asked pointedly, using the old family nickname. “I did worry.” She studied the elder woman, looking for any shake in her limbs, pallor to her skin.
The Queen nodded. “I am well, thank you Soleil. As well as ever I am. Certainly not as well as you. But my body is still strong, even if I need more rest than I used to. Anyone my age can say the same, I’m very fortunate to be doing as well as I am. The doctor does his tests, and they show better or worse… still, after six years of better or worse, what they say means very little to me. All I have to say is this old tower isn’t toppling any time soon.” She winked.
A knock sounded on the door. “Refreshments, for your Graces.”
“Yes, enter,” spoke Celeste. Through the door came a woman pushing a wheeled cart bearing a tea service and covered platter. The Queen gestured to the space between herself and her granddaughter. “Set it here, thank you.”
The woman pushed the cart there and uncovered the platter, revealing an assortment of light food. She filled their cups, setting everything in its place till it was arranged to her satisfaction. She bowed and left.
Soleil leaned over to inspect the offerings. Her eyes landed on small bowls filled with a mass of noodle-like shiny green tendrils. “Is this seaweed?”
Celeste took her cup of tea between her hands, inhaling the rising steam. “Yes it is dear, from Foshan.”
“Oooh.” Soleil picked a bowl and a pair of chopsticks from the cart and took a nibble. “Mmmm.” She swallowed and sighed.
“What can you tell me about Foshan?”
These pop quizzes were a tradition, and Soleil was ready. “The majority of its surface is covered by oceans, with a scattering of small, isolated islands. It was the eighth planet to join the Imperium, during the reign of Arnelle, Magus the 6th. Acquisition was peaceful, as it was inhabited only by a small number of Dragons, who had brought the planet to our attention. Today, Foshan’s islands support small human and Aquariid populations. It’s one of the four planets whose solstice falls on Pyrean Midsummer.” She brought another bite of seaweed to her mouth and chewed.
Celeste nodded, smiling. “Name some exports.”
“These include cordage, nets, fluid chemicals used in the production of fuel, and,” she gestured with her chopsticks, “seaweed.”
“Very good.” Celeste sipped her tea. They watched a group of vehicles navigate to the council administration, small pods arcing in formation along an invisible airway. “You visited all the Skandarian villages by land, I hear?”
The girl nodded. “We traveled in carts pulled by oxen. A first for me, and somewhat less comfortable than a flier. Though there is a charm to it. It’s how nearly all the villagers travel, if not by foot.”
“How were the roads?”
Soleil’s eyebrows twitched up at the question. “Roads… were more like cart trails.” A small laugh escaped. “Occasionally they were paved, but then you would almost wish they weren’t. I don’t think they have any way to maintain pavement – the dirt road sections were actually somewhat smoother. It was long hours traveling, grandmaria. Except when local riders would accompany us. They have loud voices, and good stories. They like to sing.”
“Well, I’m glad they kept you entertained.” Picking chopsticks from the cart, the Queen took a dumpling off its plate. “Tell me what you saw in the towns.”
“We made a loop, Arkahn to Starhn to Darius to Darye. There aren’t a lot of people left in Arkahn and Starhn, at least it seemed that way to me. Maybe everyone was in the hills with their flocks? What I saw was rather desolate. In Darius the fiber harvests have been poor, and they say the past two years have brought unhappy weather. They can’t produce much, and families there have been on meager rations. But spirits are still high, and they asked but didn’t beg for food assistance. Darye is prosperous with the textile trade – it’s actually a fairly sizable town, which makes me think maybe that’s where the young people of Arkahn and Starhn have gone.” They continued their talk until the sun began to set.
– 3 –
There were five major market districts in Capital city. There was the Array, a boulevard lined with trees and shops where people would walk with their tiny pets – scalebirds, suede-skinned decapeds, anything small, exotic and expensive. At Green Hills, people could get common goods, anything they desired, at decent price and quality.
Another of these markets was Division, and it was here Derringer found himself wearing his formals. Division was a selective market on Sundays. It wasn’t at all like bustling Saturdays, or the chaos of street-wide freight Tuesdays. Today, Division was practically deserted. There would be the occasional solitary person outside a closed establishment. As a general rule, they were well-dressed, with refined but understated tailoring, and you never could quite meet their eyes unless they were looking for you.
Derringer carried a medium leather satchel at his side, half full of lumpy objects. He stopped at a gated facade and rang the buzzer. At the obnoxious sound, Derringer opened the gate, heading up the front steps, and in.
The ground level of the house was a pastiche of rare and aged objects, some of them ancient. Though the place felt crowded, there was a sense that this multitude of objects had been arranged so the eye would rest on each in turn.
The detective walked up a narrow flight of stairs, toward a noise that grew louder the closer he approached. It was rhythmic, though not consistent – short outbursts of unrelated beats, each expressing a capsule of thought, a staccato statement.
Through the near left door of the narrow hallway, a lean man with wild hair was juggling five or six balls of different color and size. Occasionally he would send them flying toward glowing color patches on the walls, which would change and move when hit. It was that sound, the percussion of orb against house, that was making that unpredictable music.
Derringer watched as some rearrangements were made, having no real idea what they signified. The different orbs, he knew, were Jacobs’ own modified phronium housings, so there must be some elemental interaction with the color and spacing. One by one the balls slowly came to rest in the orchestrator’s arms. He then chucked them rapid-fire into a bag hanging in the corner. While the last one was in the air, he turned and grinned.
“D my man,” he said, throwing open his arms. He stripped off his perspiration-soaked undershirt and threw it at the wall, revealing a collection of mandala tattoos spread across his chest. “If you’re here it means you’ve found me some precious metals.” He walked over and clapped a hand on Derringer’s shoulder.
Derringer lifted the bag in his right hand. “Also brought you some essential vitamins and minerals.”
He brought his other hand to Derringer’s other shoulder and squeezed them both. “And this is why, we are friends to the end.” He led the detective back down the stairs and down another hallway. The house went a lot deeper than it looked from the front. “Got a minute? I’m going to freshen up. Meet you in the red room.” He disappeared into a bathroom, the door slamming shut.
Derringer strolled on down, ducking through a doorway on the right with a sheet pinned over it. The room was small, containing little but for a folding table and a set of chairs. On the table were scattered some small scientific instruments, and above that dominating the room was a lamp the size of a double sink hanging from the ceiling. It emitted a visible red-violet wavelength, and was the only source of light in the room.
He pulled up two chairs and sat. Humming softly, he reached into his bag and began arranging the objects on the table. There were five metal balls, all of them smaller than a fist. Through the small window in the top of each came a soft glow, its unique shade visible under the lamplight. Derringer respectfully passed his hand behind them, seeing the colors light up his palm. In the magenta light, his own skin looked bruised.
The sound of boots approached down the hall. The sheet flicked aside to reveal mathematician-coder Casper Jacobs, looking ready to party all night. Black pants covered in silver studs, black mesh tank top, leather gloves and boots. On his head sat a black Peter Pan hat sporting a pheasant feather. He beheld the objects on the table and rushed toward them, hands ready to worship.
Derringer reached into his bag and pulled out one more, bigger object. Aloft he held a softball-sized black lump with lumps on it. “Aquariid charcoal truffle.”
Casper Jacobs whirled to face him with a howl of delight. He released a sigh of desire as his hands closed around the lump. He brought it to eye level, turning it this way and that. “This specimen,” he said, “is a paragon of its type. This should be on display. And thanks to you, you gorgeous gumshoe, it’s mine.” He set it down with infinite care on the table and left the room.
He returned almost immediately with a red silk cloth, which he wrapped around the truffle, using the ends to tie the parcel to his belt. He leaned forward in his chair and looked Derringer in the eye. “Your timing is good.”
– 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.
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.”