56

The three of them stood near the precipice on the facing side of Mt. Kairas, jutting over the valley cradling Alisandre Capital. The sun set ahead of them, glowing hues of emerald green and vermilion. “It’s going to be a fine Midsummer,” intoned Queen Ascendant Charlotte. An echo of birds reached their ears. Soleil studied her father and mother.

“Yes,” the King Ascendant Grant Vario replied. “Soleil, we’ll arrange your appearance as needed, though the rest of us will do the talking. We have two weeks to prepare.” They looked at her for a long moment.

56

She acknowledged them in posture, keeping her gaze fixed on the city below. Most of it was visible from this ledge, though it filled the entire mountain plateau. A stream of ships arrived and left from the transport arena in the distance. The tallest buildings of the inner courts reflected the light, giving off Aquari auras in response. Closer to them, the markets, labs, and hospitals. She looked back at the Pan-Galactic Imperium’s leaders to be, in casual finery.

Not a word had the Princess uttered since awakening. Pressure and entreaties had been borne on her in various ways, but she remained locked within. They worked around it. Her presence was a minimal requirement, while the remaining problem hinted at more amiss.

Queen Ascendant Charlotte drew close to her husband. Their hands met, and they looked into each other’s faces. “I’m pleased we were able to meet for supper,” said Charlotte, including her daughter in her gaze. She let go of Vario and joined Soleil, laying a hand on her back. “We go now to Aquari Home with the rest of their Councillors, excepting Frayed Edge who will remain at court. Their grove fires have died down to a smolder. Now that they can assess the damage, we’ll discuss the extent they can continue supporting the Transnet.”

Soleil nodded to her father, who inclined his head. “Arkuda and I will see you when you return.” A pause as he turned his lips in a smile. With a slight pressure from the Queen Ascendant’s hand, the two women left down the staircase, leaving Vario to take in the sunset.

They boarded their shuttle flier. “Before we go to Aquari Home, where we will encounter grave matters, I want us to visit the observatory.” Charlotte clasped her hands and said nothing more except to redirect the flier to the northern end of the Royal Court. Soleil caught a glimpse of the newly dedicated hospital before the medical neighborhood disappeared behind them, replaced by a wealthy neighborhood. As though with the vision of a rock eagle, she could now pick out false facades, poison evident around them. As it also was around her mother. Soleil puzzled at what she could say to untangle Charlotte from it, but there was no evident way, if that would even be her mother’s wish. The Princess’ heart was heavy in the face of certain threat from her own family – to herself, the capital, and the Imperium, results of cumulative decisions that could no longer be borne.

They arrived at the observatory, which was clear but for guarded entrances. In the great inner chamber, visual was set to a complete three-dimensional of the entire Imperium, slightly distorted to include galactic relation. Forty-nine highlighted galaxies filled the space above and around them, with human home planet Alisandre near enough to touch.

The Queen Ascendant highlighted the Expansion 6 and Aquari Home federets. “Two areas in the Pan-Galaxy experiencing major upheaval.” She superimposed the lines, connections, and gate arches of the Imperial Transnet System. “These arches,” she highlighted half in orange, “use charged and focus-narrowed zerite for greater stability. A recent archway improvement – people barely notice their travel, which costs less than it used to in time and power.”

“Zerite is a fairly new material, which we discovered on Genesee in my great-grandmother’s time.” She picked out the Expansion 6 galaxies and stretched them to full view. Rotating Genesee to rest at eye level, she expanded the planet’s image to globe size, overlaying its current disaster map. Charlotte nodded to Soleil. “Genesee is still our only source, and we’ve halted production in the face of planetwide eruptions.” She tapped the view out again to include the entire Pan-Galactic Imperium, with Transnet system. “Which means that we may soon have to cut down the use of these major gateways.”

She turned to regard her daughter, who watched silently. “Do you still remember the sky from the great balcony?” Soleil looked up at the expanse of stars comprising the Imperium. She stepped forward, raising a hand to rotate the view, looking over her shoulder to Alisandre’s placement. She touched a sequence of stars in different sectors and brought Alisandre back to center, shading out the rest of the sky. Three familiar constellations shined in front of them: the Crown, the Wanderer, and the Bear.

They looked on them for a moment before the Queen Ascendant cleared her throat. “Out here, beyond the Bear,” she said as she adjusted the view, “is where we’re going next. Aquari Home. Their Symbias Groves have been decimated by great fires across their home planets. I don’t know exactly how this affects them, but I know that it does so greatly. Their dignitaries have been called home, and the furor is immense. It’s all we can do to insist that the Sendsingers enabling the Transnet continue their work.” She dimmed the galaxies till only the Transnet connections remained, glowing in the space above them.

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.

26

As though the four of them were at lunch around the table, the Princess’ mother, sister, and cousin sat around her bed. They discussed recent alliance changes in the Council, trade shifts, and diplomatic appointments. Queen Ascendant Charlotte seemed unwilling to touch on the subject of her daughter’s comatose condition; the most she could do was include Soleil in state affairs as she normally did. She sat upright in spotless white and gold robes, looking much as she did at the head of Council.

Section 26

In contrast, Mireille sat upright in pajamas, her hair undone, though she looked pleased to be talking with her mother. Her last visit had been four days ago already, the night Soleil had fallen ill. The Queen Ascendant had been required on emergency matters in the Expansion 6 Federet. She brought them news, and more than that, the presence of her monumental stiff upper lip.

Margeaux had brought a favorite dress obi of Soleil’s; it was draped across the bed so she would see it when she woke. Soleil’s long black hair lay neatly plaited down her chest.

“… About fifteen percent of the refugees are choosing to relocate to underpopulated worlds in the Archipelago Federet. There are plenty of agricultural and industrial opportunities there.” Charlotte pursed her lips. “While the rest remain in orbit for now.”

“What about Zerite production?” Mireille looked to her mother. “Genesee is still our sole source, correct?”

“Correct. Production has halted completely. The Aquarii sendsingers will have to make do with the Zerite that’s already in the market. There’s plenty there. But the fact of a finite quantity will raise the price of Inter-Fed travel.” Charlotte patted and stroked Soleil’s limp hand. “Zerite isn’t strictly necessary to enable the TransNet, but without it the sendsingers would be taxed to their limits. It’s a good thing we don’t need much, and it’s one of the longest-lasting on the phronium spectrum.” As soon as he finished her sentence, a patterned knock sounded at the door.

“It’s time for me to go.” The Queen Ascendant rose, and the two younger ladies stood with her. She smoothed a hand over Soleil’s forehead before leaning in to give it a kiss. “My strong daughter.” She gave warm farewells to the other two girls before making her exit.

Mireille crossed her arms over her chest and looked over at Margeaux, who seemed a bit overwhelmed. Her lips twisted into a wry smile. “Mother’s milk, Cousin. Mother’s milk.”

Margeaux gave her head a shake as if to clear it. She curtseyed to her cousin. “I must be going as well, Mireille. May the light of the Pan-Galactic suns shine on you both.”

4

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

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

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

Section 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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