62, Part 2

Exiting the cave, they encountered a ship
anchored off the coast, and rowboats on the beach.
Zoe retreated, but Marius Nikolai stopped her.
He knew them – pirate traders who visited Babylon Magus.
Zoe stayed hid, and Sakhana moved closer to investigate.

The ship and boats were festooned hover vehicles, eliciting cheers from the crowd when they joined the scene. The salty crew were popular in this rough neighborhood.

He overheard them speak of his home:
a city in ruins, but a people awakened and free.
They struggled to survive the harsh time,
but still they sang of that day as a good one.
They celebrated the fall as a victory,
and so Marius Nikolai knew that he could return home.

Sakhana showed himself to the nearby captain,
who recognized and moved to embrace him.
Sakhana asked after Zoe’s pursuers.
They had been here, the captain said,
and gone hence some time ago.
They had seen no one else.

Marius Nikolai brought word back to Zoe in the cave.
At once, she determined to see what became of her family.
Sakhana accompanied her to the top of the cliff.
Inside, the house was empty but for a message.

They had left in haste, their duty discharged:
to care for the changeling princess until
her identity should be discovered.
Zoe held the gem shard,
and knew what her pursuers were seeking.
Her kingdom was dead, not of this world,
so it was said by the dying man
who brought her as an infant to this cliffside.
He had given them her true name, Viridis Merida.
It was said that should she ever go to her old home,
it would be her doom. Zoe wept.
She knew she had seen it,
and that she could not go back there, nor stay.
Sakhana asked her to come with him
where he would rebuild his country.
Though grieving, she agreed to the journey.

Marius Nikolai and Viridis Merida
left with the trading vessel,
making many calls to port.
As they approached Old Babylon,
there was more rumor of what was lost
and gained in the fall of the city.
Some spoke of the Magus,
and how its last son was missing,
but Marius Nikolai kept his identity secret.

They arrived at the port of Babylon Magus
with an abundance of goods, carrying
timber, fiber, stone and food.
These he distributed among people,
still not revealing his identity.
Zoe went with him, healing and listening,
keeping the jewel concealed.
By its magic, she gained knowledge of ways to live
without the forces that corrupted the city
and brought its downfall. This she shared
with Sakhana and his people.
In time, they prospered.
The city as they knew it disappeared, brick by gear.

Boxes that looked like bricks and building debris were sent through the crowd, and opened to reveal gifts and treats. The well-dressed crowd between the Maray and the Diplomat’s District were appreciative.

As the old fortress was being cleared,
Marius Nikolai found a cellar door he hadn’t before seen,
blown askew on its hinges. A hallway led into the earth.
He journeyed in, bringing none but Viridis Merida,
who would not leave his side.

The hallway went to a bank of empty storerooms.
In the last of these, Sakhana found
a hidden trapdoor with a ladder going further down.
Here he entreated Zoe to turn back,
but she would not, so they went on together.
So absorbed were they in the mystery of this place,
they didn’t see the torch running low
until it began to gutter.

They were enveloped by darkness, and fear arose.
Sakhana banished the angry spirits that crowded his mind.
As they made to turn back in trepidation,
Viridis Merida saw a glow in her pocket.
She withdrew the gem, and it lit the hall.
So they continued.

Before long, the passageway ended.
They examined the dusty end, uncertain.
As Zoe held the gem to the wall,
a light answered forth, describing a door
with its hidden mechanism.

The door was represented by a mechanical gate with lights along its moving parts. Counterweights and pulleys opened it for the actors behind.

Marius Nikolai and Viridis Merida
entered a vast library chamber.
The walls bearing volumes were flanked by
massive statues that glowed as though living.
These took many forms, that Sakhana recognized
as his people’s ancient teachers of myth.
He bent a knee before them, and at the sight of this place.

Zoe held the jewel aloft, and
the library responded with its own illumination.
In wonder, they explored and examined the trove.
Many of the finest volumes were empty,
by myriad items of unknown but powerful magic.

62.2

A wall of books opened before Zoe
as she approached it holding the gem.
It revealed a stairway of masterful craft.
Upon the stone steps were carved tales of great heroes.
Sakhana asked Zoe if she would stay behind,
and again she refused.
So they took the long, winding stair.

Here they passed the great military obelisk as the actors climbed illusory stairs. The projectionists displayed carved story reliefs in the surrounding space.

When at last they reached light,
they found themselves atop Mt. Kairas.
Marius Nikolai had not known the place.
He found there a slender stone standing to chest height,
in the top of it a small window. The solstice sun set,
and the gem of Viridis Merida glowed again
with a piercing light that fell directly on the stone.
So she brought it close, placing it within the window.
The jewel pulsed, growing brighter each time.
Then with a deafening silence,
the light enveloped the entire city.

The parade arrived in the Royal Court. The bright display played off the walls of the city’s most fantastical architecture, setting a backdrop for the arrival of Her Vast Eminence, Queen Celeste. She was brought to the royal platform, where she boarded and below and in front of her second oldest granddaughter. They continued to the Verdant Plateau nearby. In the Pergola waited representatives from neighboring planets, and a Dragon.

All across the land could see it, near and far.
Within the encompassing veil of light shone visions,
sharp and clear, of a realm with more grace and triumph
than any they had seen.
Every detail of it etched into every looking eye.

Nor could any eye miss the man and woman
atop the mountain, revealed in majesty.
Though distant, their faces became known to all in that moment.
Marius Nikolai and Viridis Merida were recognized thus.
They stewarded the beginning of the next age of marvels,
and the new city that became Alisandre Capital.

So at Pyrean Midsummer we conjure forth our visions,
bright and clear as the light of Zoe’s gem,
great and certain enough to lay the foundation
for our futures in the spirit of new hope.

To Marius Nikolai!
To Viridis Merida!
To Alisandre!
And to the Great Pan-Galactic Imperium!

37

Soleil glazes over. Her emotions are beyond their extremes, deadening under the force of this litany of wrongs. Then, at last, a face she dreaded to see this way.

Her grandmother Celeste might know her better than any other, and Soleil holds her opinion highest. The Princess learned the world in hand with her grandmother since the dawn of time, and her wisdom helped Soleil build a shining future.

37

Now the girl sees that this future is built on bones, and worse. That her grandmother knew, even as she was building it, what it meant for her descendant. A castle of blood debt requiring death to enter, sin after sin against spirit.

Seeing this, Soleil feels that somehow, she’d known.

33

Outside the hospice room door, two guards were posted in dressed-down black and white smocks. One read a paper stating the business of the five Aquarii awaiting entry. He bowed to the smallish one at the front. Bright Wave bowed back. The bipedal, tentacle-crowned Aquari body is eloquent at displays of courtesy. He opened the door, and the guests entered.

They were greeted by Queen Celeste, and the King and Queen Ascendants. By their differing sizes, and patterns on their thoraxes, it appeared none of these Aquarii were of the same tribe. Unusual for such a tribal people.

Soleil’s bed was at the center of the room. Her parents and grandmother stood at the foot of the bed, while the five Aquarii arrayed themselves around her. Two more Imperial guards were posted inside the door.

All discussed what had been agreed on. “We are not intruding on her mind in the least, not gaining any sort of access. Merely interpreting surface expressions,” said Sharp Talon, the brown-and-gold. His two main tentacles were clasped before him.

33

“All of us are versed in human-spectrum expression,” said Dark Zephyr, the one mostly black with a few green accents, “so we should be able to translate what we feel from her into something you can understand.” All five of them carried a barely audible harmonizing undertone.

“But we have no guarantees,” said Bright Wave, “about anything. We can do this for, perhaps–” Her octopuslike eyes narrowed, the fine tentacles around her face waving in thought. “–an hour. With some resting time in between.”

“You three are most able to understand the meaning of the song. You are all human. We will do our best to act as appropriate media.”

“Will it interfere with your work to have a camera recording?” asked the King Ascendant Vario.

“No. But your senses will give you the complete picture as it will never occur again. Your Graces, please pay attention. At best, cameras will provide you with a reminder of the song as it transpired. They are not good with subtlety.”

The family nodded to each other before again nodding to their guests. “Yes, we understand. Thank you,” said Queen Celeste on the left. She nodded to the guards inside the door, who brought chairs to the foot of the bed. The three sat.

The Aquarii bowed. All their facial tendrils became busy with motion as they reached out to grasp each other’s left and right tentacles.

Instantly the air above Soleil turned luminous, as though sunlight were shining in from some forested place. A choirlike frequency emanated from the sides of the room. Columns of dark shadow appeared, and moved about as though marching in formation. Out of the choirlike humming, music began to rise.

True Aquari music is almost never like human instruments – instead, frequencies bend, sounding like one thing and then another, produced from the majority of their finer tentacles.

This song began with a sound like wind and travel, transforming into a rough beat. It permutated, volume rising and lowering. It put Celeste in mind of the musicians tuning before the opera, a week ago now.

A metallic melody began to weave itself over the picture, fierce and feral. Queen Ascendant Charlotte almost smiled. It sounded like her daughter when she was angry. Around the melody ran a cathedral echo of awe. The columns of shadow split and reformed, until suddenly they dwindled into the distance and vanished.

Layers of pearly haze drifted within the Aquari circle. This gave way, condensing into bright points of light. What does that spell out? thought Vario, King Ascendant, Soleil’s father. What picture do those dots draw? What constellation, in what voidy corner of the Pan-Galaxy? Where is her mind?

Then, a stillness with distinct presence. As though they had been spotted. The music stuttered to a stop and held its breath. The stillness seemed to smile as the corners of the room folded in. The Aquari humming resumed quietly, cautiously. Again the song clipped off as though muted. Something was wrong. The Aquari voices broke forcefully into a great, swooping finale in symphonic meter. Promptly they disentangled, and each sagged or sank to the floor.

Dark Zephyr spoke quickly, distractedly, her speech garbled as through a patchy radio signal. “Not like any Aquari we know. Not human, not dragon, and too alive to be a machine. Something or someone is interfacing with the Princess’ mind. Not resident, but more than just in contact.”

The brown-shelled Aquari Sharp Talon was on one knee. “Other than that, she is dreaming some orderly dream. We can’t say how much of her mind is affected, but she is mostly herself.”

“Can we locate or identify the intruder?” asked the Queen.

“In a short while, we can try again.” Bright Wave gestured soothingly. “No guarantee of learning anything new.”

“We understand. Whatever service you can render the Imperium will be rewarded,” replied King Ascendant Vario. “We can offer you quarters where you may rest until you are ready to return at the soonest opportunity.”

The five Aquarii rose from their weary positions while giving courtesy. “We accept,” they replied in a voice that projected from above their heads. The Queen nodded to a guard, who opened the door and led them out.

The remaining three stood looking at each other silently for many breaths. The King Ascendant bowed his head and said, “I am going to lay down for a spell.” He left without requiring assent.

The Queen and Queen Ascendant gazed down at the face of their scion.

31

Bright Wave’s tentacle lay on Princess Soleil’s forehead. Her suedelike skin was a pearly lavender, and the carapace below it was a brilliant blue with a gray sheen. Even for her immediate tribe, who shared a like carapace, her color and vibrational sensitivity were exceptional.

31

Her deep black eyes were half closed. She emitted a frostlike color radiance around her head. This shimmered out of sight, and a simplistic percussion came into hearing – like fingers tapping a simple drum line. This permutated until all her delicate hair and face tentacles had lifted. The hearts of those next to her beat a little faster in response.

Bright Wave opened her eyes wide once more. With her tentacle she smoothed back Soleil’s stray hairs. She turned to face both Councillor Arkuda and Her Vast Eminence Celeste, Magus the 24th.

“I humbly request the aid of three to five of our most insightful patternmakers. I know who to contact.” Bright Wave gestured urbanely through the tips of her tentacles. “Together, we would be able to sing you some perceptions. Her mind is well guarded; however, we need not intrude to interpret. Alone, I am insufficient. This task requires synergy.” Her voice was a conglomerate vibration from the tentacles waving around her head, like a human speaking from a generalized source.

“How soon can you bring in your company?” asked the Queen.

“In haste, we can be convened and prepared by tomorrow afternoon.”

“Then let it be so,” replied Queen Celeste with a nod. “Present their identities to the head of Royal Security when you have them.”

10

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

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

Section 10

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

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

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

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