62, part 1

The floating stage platform shimmered behind a curving geometric field. Where they began in the transport arena, Princessa Mireille Magus took the speaker’s dais in the center, between her older sister and younger brother below.

The procession aisle was lined with people. The main group of platforms started forward. Performers from both sides of the path joined them to enact the Lay of Sakhana & Zoe, the capital’s traditional Pyrean play narrated by the Princessa.

Now we retell the tale,
as we do every Pyrean Midsummer.
The story of old Babylon Magus,
when this place was Babylon,
before it was Alisandre,
in the times of the Magus Emperors.

When walls, the ground, lights, the world,
breathed and grew at human whim,
miraculous machinery lost to ancient thought.
Before even the pergola on the plateau was raised,
when water reached to the walls of the city,
there was an only son, only child of the Magus.
His name was Marius Nikolai, also called Sakhana,
for he embodied the gentle warrior’s way,
young but already wise, formidable in reason.

The actor playing Marius Nikolai leaped to the main stage preceding the royal family. He bore a shock of blond hair, wearing black and grey leather armor blazoned with old crests. Aquari scene artists following to either side displayed a vast city fortress with lights, smoke and high stone walls.

Clever enough was he to discover the great evil
in old Babylon, in the walls themselves,
forces that held his dear land in secret thrall.
Cousins. Advisors. The Builders. His Father.
Old Babylon Magus was dying a slow death
at the hands of its keepers, bargains they’d made
with forces beyond their ken.

He would witness the end of it.
Clever Sakhana, he made sure of it.
He took action, performing rites for those
he hoped he would save, and wept
for the fall of this place, as he knew it must.

The actor’s stage morphed into a network of evolving paths along which he ran, defeating enemies who fell back in acrobatic tumbles to melt into the crowd.

By his engines, by his doing,
Babylon fell in one night.
His Father. Advisors. Cousins. The walls.
Many wonders and arts, now gone.
Sakhana cast himself from a keyhole parapet
to the waves far below,
his last desperate measure.

62.1

Old Babylon Magus had different creatures then,
and these saved the young man, bearing him far.
Sakhana only heard their ocean music.

He was carried on a billowing construct of dark blue and white silk, as operatic singers mimicked portisfish calls. When he returned to it, the stage platform was set as a seaside cove.

He awoke on a shore at the base of a cliff,
as a woman was climbing down.
He hailed her, and though hesitant,
she went to help the stranger.
This was Zoe, fleeing from capture.

62.1.2

Sakhana was sorely weak. Zoe gave him water,
and brought him up the long approach
to the entrance of a cave.
Within were rooms hewn from the rough stone cliff.
In one of these they hid,
and as he regained his health,
she told Marius Nikolai her tale.

Zoe lived her whole life by this cliff,
but was now pursued for reasons unknown.
She could defend herself with her bow in hand, and that was all.
Her pursuers were relentless –
they threatened her family to find her.

She was leaving to hide when she found Sakhana at the shore.

Trusting Zoe in turn,
Sakhana told her his tale of flight.
He recovered, and they ventured further into the cave.
They continued until they reached an iron gate;
beyond it lay sky.

Aquari projection made the sky around the stage seem brighter, sparkling and clear. Rays shone down on the evolving stage floor shaping a path. They were now in the midst of the University Quarter, surrounded by buildings of the old institutions.

Light fell over expanses of mosaic-tiled streets.
Sakhana saw before him a kingdom
more beautiful than Babylon.
Gardens, fountains, a palace in the distance,
bathed in sunny silence.
Zoe found the gate key nearby where it was hid,
and they walked to the palace,
eating fruit from the trees.

Inside were further splendors, all deserted.
A series of statues led them to a chamber below,
where a powerful light pulsed and glowed.

The light poured forth from an enormous jewel,
size of an eagle, crystalline and blue.
It rested on a pedestal in the center
of the great underground chamber.
Without a thought, they drew close to this
starry warmth, but as they touched it
the earth and the foundations began to shake.
Sakhana went to flee, but Zoe cried out
that they mustn’t abandon the jewel.
She toppled it from the pedestal,
but it was too heavy for her to lift.
So Sakhana carried it with her, though
they could hear the castle crumbling above them.
Through grave danger they emerged
to the mosaic-tiled streets.

The castle collapsed behind them in a cloud of dust.
From this cloud issued a furious roar;
a flaming beast with hooves, wings and talons
came charging with a voice like a host of warriors.

The costume of the beast was manipulated by athletic dancers, who moved to make the stride of its limbs. It trailed flames and smoke. As they passed through the hospitals, troops of singers from the Imperial Army joined to march alongside.

Sakhana made himself a match for the beast.
As bright as the beast burned,
it was no brighter than the flame in his heart.
As high as it flew, it never escaped his eye.
When it closed the distance, Marius Nikolai
leaped to meet it with bare hands of iron.

The male lead showed his ferocity in hand to hand martial display. Princess Soleil watched his leaps and twists, lifting her eyes to scan the crowds. They rested again on the female lead in her travel dress.

Zoe stood guard with her bow over the jewel
as Marius Nikolai and the beast wrestled
once, twice, thrice, and each time
his burns were healed with its light.
The next time the beast broke free,
it wheeled to face the girl, and dove.
She struck the beast with her arrows,
but they burned, and she threw herself out of its path.
With its talons, the beast seized the jewel.
As it flew away, Zoe loosed more arrows
until one struck the jewel,
breaking a piece of it free.

Sakhana found it where it fell, and offered it
back to Zoe. They knew the beast would return soon,
so they fled back across the deserted city
to the tunnel cave.

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.

34

The multi-tiered breakfast service was a series of concentric platters hovering over each other in a stack. On three sides of a square table sat Mireille, Cristobal, and Carlo, the younger Magus children, Princes and Princessa. The bottom plate had sardines, radishes, roasted peppers, and bread. Above that was cheese, jam, yogurt and toasted grains. The third plate held sausage and thin-sliced cured meat. The three of them were each pulling different platters toward them and sampling onto their plates, chatting.

“Maybe she was into something she shouldn’t have been, maybe she had secrets. We don’t even know who it could be.” Cristobal pulled down the sausage platter and helped himself to a sizable pile.

“Soleil’s too busy overachieving for deep dark secrets. That’s how I see it. Speaking of overachieving, how was your presentation the other day?” Mireille stuffed her mouth with a spoonful of yogurt and grains.

“It went alright. I’m not the greatest presenter, but the screen animators made up for it.” Cristobal ate piece after piece of sausage.

34

“You’re not great, but you’re not bad. You’re just young and you need more practice.”

“I like doing the research. The presentation part I can take it or leave it.”

“It doesn’t take much effort to improve on that. Something for your to-do list.”

Cristobal wrinkled his face. “Thanks, sister. I really have plenty to do, but at some point I will… I may as well. Carlo, what do you want?”

The younger brother, still small in his chair, was reaching across the table. “The cheese.” Cristobal brought the second plate down to Carlo, who picked up a white palm-sized wheel. “Thank you brother.”

Mireille bit into a radish. “Carlo, I heard you lost your temper at a student who was teaching you the other day.”

“Yes, but I only hit the table. I’m sorry and I said so.” He tore a morsel off the wheel and nibbled it.

“You’re given plenty of leniency because you’re still a child. What you did was forgivable. But you’re on camera now with your brother.”

“I know I know I know.” He stuck his fork in a radish before looking up at his sister with puppy eyes. “It’s fine, I won’t do that the next time I get frustrated.” Mireille kissed her hand and patted his cheek. He rolled his eyes and smiled.

“It’s Pyrean Midsummer soon,” said Cristobal, referring to the holiday on which Alisandre and four other far-flung planets shared the same solstice, once every seven years. “Soleil is supposed to lead the ceremonies.”

“That’s a long way from now, Cristobal.” Mireille was preparing to stand in, though she expected her sister to be awake by then. They ate without speaking for a minute.

A knock sounded. “Let’s get going,” said Cristobal to his younger brother. “Astrography today, with Lector Una Ixa in the projection dome,” this partially spoken to Mireille.

“That’ll be enjoyable. Carlo, you haven’t been yet, have you?”

“To the projection dome? No.”

“Well, you’re in for a treat. Just don’t get motion sickness.”

“I won’t,” he said sounding offended. “I don’t.”

“We’ll see.” His brown eyes glared into her grey-eyed smirk. “Go on, your brother’s leaving.” Carlo stuck his tongue out at her before following Cristobal out the door.

As it closed, Mireille slumped with her hands before her lips.

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.”

23

An audio newscast played quietly in the dim room. Mireille reclined in a chair next to the bed where her older sister lay still. Facedown on her lap was an open history textbook on the Phiroen Era of Magus expansion, when a group of imperial fleet officers staged a military revolt. The orb embedded at the top of the curved ceiling pulsed its light in theta rhythms.

Section 23

A knock on the door. Mireille rose, setting the book down. She opened the door a few inches, then all the way, letting the visitor in. “General Claymore. Draig.”

He stepped forward, his eyes on Soleil beneath the covers. He turned his head to nod back. “Princessa Mireille. How’s she doing?”

They kept their voices quiet, both watching the bed. “Her vitals are fine, but we still can’t wake her.”

“I don’t know what happened there. She looked tired, but that was all. She collapsed mid-sentence. I think she was conscious for a few moments more before she passed out entirely.” His brow furrowed. “This hasn’t ever happened before, right?”

Mireille shook her head. “No. No, she’s never just fallen like that. These ceremonies hardly phase her, I can’t explain it. I just hope she wakes up soon.”

After a moment, Draig cleared his throat. “Do you want someone to relieve you here?”

She smiled. “No, thank you. I’m catching up on my history, anyhow.” She gestured to the facedown book. “Get some rest. We may need your help later.”