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!

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.

Section 8

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.

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.

Section 6

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.

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.”

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.”

Section 2

“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.