5x Rerun: Fire Within (1), 14-18

– 14 –

Four of spades. Jack of diamonds. Two men leaned back in identical office chairs, their feet propped up on either end of the institutional metal desk. They took turns tossing cards face up into a hat on the floor between them. The room was small, not much more than a basement supply closet, but it had ambient ceiling light, and the wall com was working fine. The sounds of a traveler string duo piped in, just loud enough to hear.

Three of spades. Six of diamonds. “Think you’re gonna miss the official headquarters?” This from the slender, pale blond wearing sunglasses. He wasn’t tall, nor short, but he did look like he would bruise if you poked him. The sunglasses were mirrored, his eyes not visible.

“Come on.” Ace of diamonds. This man was tall, with a bald head of deep brown skin, solid but not heavy. “Business was terrible. Nobody wanted to hire the guys working out of the old supply closet, no matter how nice they made it in the remodel. No, I won’t be looking back.” Everything that wasn’t furniture or part of the walls was gathered in three boxes, including a pile of com relay displays.

Five of hearts. “Easy for you to say. We’re not moving the office into your apartment.”

Ten of spades. “I can’t afford an apartment.”

Nine of hearts. “You just stay in mine and don’t pay rent.”

Queen of clubs. “I could, but we’re saving up for another office, remember. That’s my savings account,” said the dark man, pointing to his chest.

Ten of clubs. “You mean your ex-wife’s.”

Seven of spades. “I earned that settlement. I didn’t cheat.”

Two of clubs. “You sure did. And you never do.”

Seven of clubs. “Oh what, did you like that one?”

Two of spades. “I like all of ’em, you’re a bastard and I can’t stand the sight of you.”

Ace of clubs. “Can’t stand the sight of myself sometimes, it makes me wonder when I’m gonna get flunked.”

“DeWalt, the sad thing is I think you’re passing with flying colors.”

The radio string music was sliced in half by a screech, and the volume rose as the channels seemed to tune themselves. Both men looked at the wall console.

“I’m on your line, idiots. Did you turn off your ringer?”

They looked at each other. The dark one, DeWalt, made a face. “Sounds like Derringer.”

“I didn’t turn it off,” said wavy blond hair. “Anyway, Derringer. Why are you talking this way. What’s going on.” He threw the three of hearts into the felt brim hat.

“Listen Dremel,” the voice warped, white noise cutting in and out, “I’ve got a pretty big deal in the room here with me, and we need you to show up.” A few strange warbles came through, none of which made sense.

The slender blond leaned back in his chair and put his hands behind his head. “Last day on this line, bud. You’re lucky you found us here.”

“No, I’m not,” the incoming voice whistled, “you have absolutely no where else to be. Sending the address.” The five working com relays in the box lit up, showing a new message stored.

Dremel sat up, taking his shoes off the desk. “Is that you doing that? Have you learned some new tricks? I didn’t think it possible.”

“Not me. The people I’m working with -” He was cut off by a twenty second drum solo. With a couple sonic slashes, the system reconnected to a pop channel that made both men wince.

“Okay then.” The pale blond Dremel stood, smoothing back his hair with one hand, while adjusting his tie with the other. He bent down and picked up the hat, emptying the cards out onto the floor.

Section 14

– 15 –

The oncoming sunrise and still-visible moonset balanced each other on opposing edges of the horizon. The grassy slope on one side of the little airlot was just beginning to brighten. Two old friends crossed it towards each other.

Walking part of the way, the wiry, medium-height man crossed his arms, smiling. He angled his chin toward the healthy, muscled blonde throwing her arms open. “Gretz Manoukian, what brings you to Southerpart?” She gave him a tight squeeze and a pat on the back, which he endured with a stoic grin.

“Eyyy, same as you. Unloading government stock.” They stood a few feet apart, facing the changing sky. The breeze smelled of evaporating moisture, and color rose softly.

“How long you staying down here on Genoe?”

“Hey, until I feel restless. I’m paid. You?”

“Yup, I saw the credits hit the account, but I’ll keep moving on. Treat you to breakfast roast? Heard they’re grilling wild runner hens out behind the saloon.”

He turned to face her with a stretchy grin. “If that’s so, you just made my day.” They crossed the airlot together.

Wendel Harper called out as they approached the grillmaster. “Jay, it’s you doing these birds? Is that gunpowder again for the seasoning?”

“Yep. It’s been all head shots lately, but sometimes you miss the taste of scattershot in the body.” He set down his grill poker and caught Wendel in a hug. He and Gretz shared a nod.

“I’ll have one and he’ll have one. Gunpowder’s got all the vitamins and minerals we need.” Jay set to finishing two nearly done birds.

Gretz leaned against the wall. “What’s the news in Southerpart?”

“Well, you know about the livestock failure. They think it’s some rare pollen spread happening planetwide. None of the Aquarii wanted to hang around. Maybe they figured they’d be susceptible.” Jay watched the food cook. “Decent business for those of us who can hunt the planet birds and buzzers. Wouldn’t call it easy living, though.”

“Well anyway,” said Wendel, running a hand over her short hair, “these flocks have got a new fancy-tech innoculant. The bio-imm team sounded pretty confident, so let’s hope they know what they’re doing.”

“Yep. Glad you could bring ’em.” Jay picked up two sticks and offered one in each hand to both of them. “Least I can do is make you breakfast. Gratis.” He hissed a drawn-out S through his teeth. An old man and woman rounded the corner arm in arm, clearly following their noses. Jay smiled and turned the other birds on the grill. Wendel and Gretz raised their food in salute and turned to go.

The two sat on the grassy slope, each biting at the small elongated runnerbird on its skewer. Between them, an open infosheet lay on the grass. This paperweight cloth received Wendel Harper’s subscriptions daily, and bundled or crumpled nice and tight in any pocket she happened to stuff it into. She rustled it flat with a hand, and set it to the daily issue that covered the inhabited planets in the Leuko Galaxy.

“Genesee is coping with major geothermal disruptions. Elections this year for the Genoene Council.” She read headlines aloud when they struck her interest. Gretz Manoukian stared into the sky and ate his breakfast. “Princess Soleil is back from her Alisandrian tour. The hunt for Raev Sturlusson continues.” The sun had fully risen, shining directly into their eyes. She shook it by its corner and the sheet went blank. “I think that’s enough news for now.”

Section 15

– 16 –

Derringer peered down the sight of the assault rifle into the corner of the room. He butted the stock against his chest to feel the hard spring in it. After working a few of the actions and feeling them click smoothly, he lay the rifle down on the large wooden desktop next to the lady’s pistol. He looked over at the man holding the shotgun.

It was a short-barreled type, with a carved stock in wood. The man holding it was tall, and wore a stern face behind dark spectacles. His short black hair was decidedly unruly. He checked to make sure the chambers were empty before leaning it over to Derringer’s scrutiny.

Derringer turned to inspect, one hand on the desk. The condition of it was unnaturally new for its design; some parts must have been re-machined. “Col, that thing belongs in a museum.”

“That’d be a shame, considering it still does what it was made to do, as well as it’s ever done it.” Col withdrew the shotgun possessively and set it back in its case. He clicked the snap shut and elevated it back to its former place on a high shelf. “One of my daddy’s daddies back down the line was a gunsmith. We keep it in working order.”

“Yeah, and did your great-great-grandpap sell to all sides?”

“Actually, yeah.”

A hallway door opened and shut, footsteps approached. Karma entered the study, going straight to the cabinet to pull out three glasses and a carafe of golden whisky.

Derringer squinted at her. “Did you just change?” She was now wearing a black turtleneck sweater instead of her suit jacket.

“Perceptive of you. Yes, I did.” She poured them each a drink. Derringer looked from her, to where she came from, to Col, and just blinked. When she offered a glass, he took it with a nod.

She handed the other to Col. “That attempt to steal this data was so… rent-a-wreck. I’m slightly insulted by whoever thought it would be that easy.” Col smirked, taking a sip while Karma gestured with her glass. “Who would be so amateur, yet able to risk so much and walk away with nothing?”

Col polished his sunglasses, inspecting them in the light from the window before putting them back on. “Fortuity?”

“No, Irons wouldn’t dream of sending in that sort of skeleton crew. That isn’t her style. If it were her, we would’ve needed the safety net. As it was, your guys never got involved, did they?” Karma tilted her head at Col.

He shook his head. “Didn’t have to. What you saw was it. You took out the thugs and the hover. Hotel and emergency cleaned it up. We just watched.” A smirk curved at the corners of his face.

Derringer finished the last of the whisky, setting the glass down with a loud clack. “You had guys on this?” He pointed at Col.

“I know, when does Col hire anybody.” He shrugged again. “Right timing, good pay for easy service.”

“You’re welcome,” Karma shot in his direction.

“You are also welcome,” deadpanned Col. He finished his glass and left it on the desk next to Derringer’s.

Karma swirled her last sip and drank it down. “When do you think those two will be here?” This she aimed towards Derringer.

“Chad and Fred? Ten, twenty minutes. They pick up easy, and I’m sure they were impressed with your dj skills. But I warned you, they’re only sort of competent.”

“That’s perfectly alright,” she murmured, staring into nothing. She flashed Derringer a self-consciously charming smile and kept her mouth shut. He picked up her gun and handed it to her, holding it by the barrel. She reached toward it, eyebrows raised, and grabbed it. “Are you done looking at that?” It went back in her side holster with a pat.

“One of a kind, isn’t it?”

“That’s right.”

“What do you think of those?” Col asked, pointing at the assault rifle on the desk.

Derringer eyed the rifle from end to end. “The mechanics are smooth, but it feels light. Even flimsy… where are they from?”

“Don’t let the weight fool you. The recoil is like a feather in the wind. I have two shipments and no regrets. Made on Geris.”

“Geris… the crude ore planet?” Col nodded.

Karma was rearranging the vase of flowers on the windowsill. There was still sunlight in the day, and it lit her hair in a flaming halo. Black knee-high boots elevated her a tiny bit above her tiny stature. Derringer wasn’t fooled. “Cobra lilies,” she said, “that’s what this bouquet is missing. Col, where did you get these.” Derringer’s eyebrows lifted at the imperative in her tone.

“The Array. I was shopping there the other day.” Col’s face was inscrutable.

“Well, this florist is okay, but…” Her voice drifted off, one hand on her chin, one on her hip, still facing the vase. Her gaze was aimed out the window. “Cobra lilies.”

“I know where to find those,” Col said from where he stood.

Karma faced them, a closed smile from ear to ear. From behind her the sound of doors opening and shutting. Derringer nodded to the other two and headed to the entrance. “I know that van.”

Section 16

– 17 –

A small cohort of kids filed in through the door to the viewstudy, a teacher shepherding from their midst. The room was empty of seating; instead, bright cushions and stuffed animals formed an inviting pile in the center of the floor. The curved window wall was set to transparency, with the view of Capital City as backdrop.

Three remote cameras lifted off a high shelf and began hovering around the room like lazy winged mice. Everyone made themselves comfortable, the teacher on a large cushion at the back of the group. When all eight children had settled, she smiled directly at the camera blinking red.

“Good morning, Rocketeers! We’re so glad you could join us here at the Pan-Galactic Imperial Court on Alisandre.” She radiated eager warmth, her curling golden hair seemingly reflecting it. “Today, Prince Cristobal is going to tell us about the ten federets of the Pan-Galaxy.” The body of another camera turned red as it transmitted a close-up of a young boy of about twelve. He looked like his oldest sister, dark-haired and pale, though his eyes were grey like his father’s. Quiet and self-possessed, he nodded at the camera. “Sir Prince, thank you for sharing. The floor is yours.”

He smiled briefly, rising from where he sat at the edge of the group. He was tall for his age, and the black-with-gold garb that he wore made him look taller. From his pocket he withdrew a data chip, which he inserted into a console by the side of the window wall. The center panel turned a flat white, and he stood in front of it, notecards in hand.

“The Pan-Galactic Imperium is divided into ten parts, or federets.” Behind him, a red circle drew itself against the white backdrop. Lines crisscrossed it to divide the pie into ten pieces, which separated to array themselves around the Prince’s silhouette. “The Imperial planet of Alisandre is separate from these, to better serve as a neutral governing body. This means each federet is equally important.” A red dot appeared above the ten dispersed shapes, encircled by a line of gold.

He was reserved, if not shy; but his voice stayed steady and his diction clear. “Each federet is a common sense group of planets and galaxies. Some were formed when they became part of the Imperium. Others have been regrouped depending on population and transport accessibility.” The diagrams rearranged themselves around him, illustrating the changes he spoke of, each shape taking on its own new color.

As the Prince described each federet, the teacher shifted her gaze from him to the city view on either side of the screen. He’d been her pupil for almost six years now, and he always lit up when the topic came to worlds outside the court, especially the distant edges of the Imperium. His usual reservations would melt away. Even now, he became more animated as he sprinkled the cut-and-dry presentation with some favorite gems.

His oldest sister would rule, but as the first boy and third child of the family, his destiny was very much in his hands. For now, he could only repeat the canonical histories as they were taught to him. As his teacher, she could feel his yearning for original knowledge from outside his sheltered world. She had a feeling he would find it, soon enough.

Section 17

– 18 –

“So you want us to figure out who it was went after you at the handoff.” Chad Dremel, wearing both hat and sunglasses, spoke from the loveseat in the front room of Col’s safe house. “Why? It’s not our uh, expertise. You’d know better than we would.”

“That’s just it. I thought I knew all the players who would be after this research, but that attack and the way it was done doesn’t make sense for any of them. Because you know nothing about this scenario, you might be able to figure out something I couldn’t.” Karma Ilacqua leaned against the table. “Besides, their attempt failed, and I don’t have time to go chasing down every Jack and Jill who tries to trip me in the hallway.” Her eyes gleamed. “But I’m curious.”

Dremel turned his head to DeWalt sitting next to him. They read each other’s faces for a few seconds. DeWalt tilted his black pate and looked over at the business woman. “We’ll need an office.”

Smirking, she glanced at the detective before looking back at them. “I’ve got an office you can use.”

Section 18

5x Rerun: (1) Fire Within, 10-13 + 2nd Sequence

– 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.

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!

Section 10

– 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.

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.

Section 11

– 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.

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.

Section 12

– 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 -”

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.

Section 13

– 2ND SEQUENCE –

Second Sequence

5x Rerun: (1) Fire Within, 5-9

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.”

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.”

Section 5

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.

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.

Section 6

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.

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.

Section 7

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.

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.

Section 8

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.

“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.

Section 9

5xRerun: Fire Within (1) 1st Sequence, 1-4

– 1ST SEQUENCE –

First Sequence mandala

– 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.

Section 1

– 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.

Section 2

– 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.”

Section 3

– 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.”

Section 4