42

The sky was turning pale with the first light of dawn. The General and Princessa were reading by lamplight in a corner. A ghostly light shone over Princess Soleil’s face, reflecting off the wall and displays around her head.

A display brightened before making the urgent chime they knew as the change of state alert. Mireille Magus dropped her book to her lap and looked over at General Claymore. In a moment she was by her sister’s bed reading the display. To Draig, Soleil looked no different, except for perhaps a change around her eyes.

“She’s in regular REM sleep.” Mireille searched his face. “She might wake up.” General Claymore was on his feet instantly, quietly. Still reading the display, Mireille spoke just above a whisper. “I will contact my family. Please inform the Doctor, Arkuda, Bright Wave, and the medical staff. In that order. Thank you, General.” He stepped closer to see Soleil breathing easily before striking a salute and exiting.

People arrived shortly. Aided by the dragon and Aquari, the doctor advised that the Princess would likely be awake within the day. Queen Celeste would wait.

It was two deep breaths before Soleil realized she was conscious in her waking mind, in the world again. The room was quiet. No pain, other than heaviness in her limbs.

Trying to clear her throat, she managed to make a noisy breath. Swallowing was easy. She adjusted to the dim light. It was a deep relief to be looking out through her eyes again. Someone familiar sat to her left. Her grandmother, the Queen.

42

“Don’t speak, Soleil.” The Queen placed two fingers on her granddaughter’s lips before holding her face between her hands.

A surge of panic woke Soleil more fully. Did the Queen know what had been revealed to her? She welcomed the presence, but her mind recoiled with mistrust. Ugly things she’d learned in her sleep came rushing back. Paranoia took the helm before giving over to cool analysis, as she’d learned to do. Still, she could only bring herself to meet her grandmother’s eyes for so long.

The Queen hummed a long, entrancing tune. It brought her comfort, yet when Soleil realized she was being lulled, she fought back. She felt warmth at her temples, and was reminded of the seven symbols she tucked away. They would remind her, and they were safe. She would not forget.

41

It dawns on Soleil that the mass of all she doesn’t know eclipses the little she does, even on a personal level.

She feels relief, and proximity to danger. Maintaining this-ness becomes a priority, a good portion of her energy going to that task. The quiet core exists like the eye of a storm as she undergoes further transformations.

People tribal and proud, barbaric and warlike, elegant and organized with unique senses of sophistication.

A chaotic court of creatures made mostly of spirit. Constantly changing shape, essence, and intention, while possessed of a complex integrity.

After these, a human with a particular signature – at once dark and ethereal, naturally powerful. A remarkable grin. Soleil is again reminded of the Huntresses’ Aria, the shaman’s dirge.

She meets them all part way, the world and themselves appearing to her as it does to them. She returns to the pupil in the eye. A dark, hot space where she sinks into her own breath.

41

The field of vision opens, revealing an array of objects, symbols. They are monadic, bearing layers of personal connection and universal meaning that unfold at a glance.

She approaches them intuitively, selecting one at a time. Below is a box for them. The chosen objects go in one at a time, synergizing into a loaded construct. When the seventh and final object goes in, a brief superstructural flash sears itself against the surrounding space. She closes the box and collapses it between her hands as she brings them together.

The undersides of her hands glow gold. Bringing her fingertips to her temples, she feels the glow diffuse around her head like the soothing touch of sunlight. Finally, she is able to close her eyes.

39

And then, respite; an eminence of quietude overtakes.

Her energy collects itself, piece by piece, certain that she isn’t put together the same.

The fire surrounds, remaining. She breathes for an indefinite while. Soon she feels a current of expectation underlying the calm, and reaches out halfway to meet it.

She feels herself transforming. Gently, so as not to alarm. The transformation is a means of understanding.

She opens into the fire. Combustion becomes a means of existence, the world exploding in consumptive and radiant energy signatures connecting corners of the universe. As she grasps the torrential motions that form this structure, she feels herself approached by the people who live here. Their contact to her is like flame rushing up against a glass window. An invisible pane mutes the force into a warm touch, fingertips against fingertips.

The contact is cordially scrutinizing; unimpressed. She is in their house because they brought her here. This is their self communication. She is reminded of the Huntress’ Aria, again feels herself hearing it for the first time. She nods, acknowledging the initial contact. An emissary furls forward from the fire, and she looks it in the eyes. A wave of recognition putting her to mind of her dragon teacher, though she’d never seen dragons like this before. The tendrils of fire fold back on themselves, the emissary receding, and she returns to the familiar shape of humanity.

Another change commences, now unspooling into connected strands of idea. This form feels closer to her own. The strands of idea like connected pieces of knowledge about herself, a braid of lightning awareness.

The connection sucks her through into a room of sorts, completely herself and surrounded by people. They turn to her, strongly curious. She is stunned; they’re human. She skims her mental file of human peoples of the Imperium, and these are not any of those. Their likenesses flow via portals fueled by constant babble. An unheard language in laughs and whispers, from irrelevance to secret truths. All faces are unclear, and there are more voices than could possibly come from those around her. They are convivial, and critical.

39

One steps forward and lifts a staff, the top of it a shifting, spinning polyhedron. Looking into it, she is pulled again through those thought channels into the between.

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.