THE WISDOMFOLD PATH, Chapter One!

All right, folks, here it is: Chapter One of THE WISDOMFOLD PATH. Chapter Two will appear tomorrow, and the book itself launches two weeks from tomorrow, on November 10! It’s coming!!!

(And make sure to check out the cover art, if you haven’t already!)

Here we go! (Below the fold, of course.)

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

Even as winter settled over Starhollow and Chrodeliss – the last two cities on the planet Xonareth – and even though the cities were facing, within just a few years, the failure of the Cintronia crystals that were their only source of power, it was a time of celebration. Six months earlier, two princesses and their starpilot had arrived in a ship from the sky and ended Xonereth’s ten-thousand year exile from the Galaxy, and now preparations were underway to honor the older princess with a party for her seventeenth birthday.

Is this a good idea?” Princess Tariana Osono asked. “This planet has so many problems–”

Never you mind, my dear,” Lady – now Queen – Aafilia said. “Problems or no, Xonareth could do with a bit of festivity right now.”

But you don’t use our calendar,” Tariana said. “How do you know it’s my birthday?”

As soon as she asked it, Tariana realized that the question answered itself.

Of course I told her,” Lieutenant Penda Rasharri said when Tariana confronted her. “Does it bother you?”

Well…no,” Tariana replied, as she drew her shawl about her shoulders. The Star House Kourdovi mansion got so cold, now that it was winter. “It just seems a little extravagant, is all.”

Rasharri raised her eyebrow. “You’re a Princess of Gavinar, and now one of the Arrilori Saviors of Xonareth, and you’re worried about the extravagance of a simple birthday party?

Somehow I suspect it won’t be all that simple,” Tariana said as she glanced out the window. “And my birthday is tomorrow…so to put all this together….” She turned to Rasharri, her arms folded over her chest. “How long have you been planning this?

Why ever would that matter, my dear?”

Don’t do that,” Tariana said.

What?”

Smile sweetly and blink your eyes like that. It’s creepy when you do it.”

I’ll keep practicing.”

Tariana harumphed as she turned her attention back to the estate grounds outside their window. In the distance, at the estate boundary, the most visible of the changes in their lives since they had arrived here was now coming into view: a pair of Kingsguard, patrolling the perimeter. They would be checking in at one of the newly-built guard towers around the walls of the estate. Tariana thought back to the frantic week she and Margeth and Rasharri had spent when they had first arrived, fleeing those very Kingsguard. Now the Kingsguard were protecting them.

Lieutenant Rasharri chuckled. “Simple can be boring,” she said. “It’ll be fun. Don’t you worry. And it’ll be as much for them as it is for you, won’t it?” She reached out and touched Tariana’s shoulder. “And I understand that your mother not being here will make it…strange.”

Tariana smiled. Of course Rasharri understood. Rasharri understood everything. That was because she always took the time to think on what she knew. That was the lesson the Lieutenant – Penda, Tariana had to remind herself to think of her – had been pounding into her and her sister ever since they’d met, at the outset of that star voyage that they had never finished. They had set out from Gavinar for Salengarde Prime, Capital of the Imperium. Instead they had ended up in the wrong system, diverted by Tariana’s latent Stardancer powers, where they had been attacked by creatures of pure stellar matter called Plasmonids. Then they had fled randomly into hyperspace, into the Startrails…and they had come here. To Xonareth, on the other side of the Galaxy.

Where the adventures had really started.

And now, after everything that had happened and everything that was still happening, and all the uncertainty as to whether or not they would ever even be able to get home at all…Lieutenant Rasharri wanted to throw Tariana a birthday party.

So what’s going to happen at this party?” Tariana asked.

Rasharri waved a hand. “All the things that happen at parties for seventeen-year-old girls,” she said.

Tariana’s eyes narrowed. She’d heard this tone from Rasharri before, as well. “You have no idea what happens at parties for seventeen-year-old girls, do you?”

The Lieutenant scowled at her. “I’ve made a few guesses,” she said.

Guesses?”

My parents tried throwing me a party once. I didn’t show up.”

Tariana’s jaw dropped. Rasharri wasn’t the most socially adept person Tariana had ever met. But even so, how could she know so little about something normal like a birthday party?

What did you do instead?”

Rasharri shrugged. “I used my allowance and bought a ride on the train into Central Donnust. I went to an Arimondi restaurant for dumplings. Then I shopped a little. I bought a book, a wonderful little book of poetry. At least I liked the book…a teacher later told me the poems weren’t good, but I liked them. And I bought this.” She reached underneath her shirt collar and drew forth a chain, from which she wore a child’s ring. It was a simple little thing. Just a gold band with a small, turquoise stone. “It doesn’t fit my fingers anymore.”

You know they can make it bigger,” Tariana said.

I like it this way. Closer to my heart.” She put the chain back beneath her shirt. Tariana had seen that ring around her neck before, but never asked about it. She’d wondered what its story was. “When I got home, my parents were so angry. They grounded me and refused to give me my present until a week later.

What was that?”

A ride in a spaceship,” Rasharri said. “Father was a dockmaster at one of our spaceports, so he got a friend to give me a ride on his ship. Just up to the lowest of Khanadasha’s moons and back. About an hour, up and down. That was my first flight, Princess. I don’t think I ever looked at the ground again after that. Not with both eyes, anyway.” Rasharri’s hand moved to the spot where the ring hung, beneath her shirt. “My sister was really angry with me. She stayed home all day for my party, and then I wasn’t there. I think there was a boy she liked, or something…it was a long time ago. But at least she lived when Khandasha didn’t.”

Tariana nodded. Rasharri’s world, Khandasha, was gone, destroyed in an awful cataclysm. All Rasharri’s memories were of a world lost forever.

How old were you turning?”

Eleven.”

Tariana nodded. Eleven…that was how old Margeth was going to be, in just three more months. And speaking of her younger sister…. “Where is Margeth, anyway? They should have been back by now.

Lieutenant Rasharri cocked her eyebrow again. “She’s only been gone an hour,” she said. “Are you that worried about her?”

I’m not worried,” Tariana replied. “I just…didn’t think she’d be gone this long.”

I’m not sure it’s Margeth whose absence you feel has been too long,” Rasharri said.

Tariana scowled.

He offered to take you along,” Rasharri pointed out.

I didn’t want to. I don’t like the cold and the ice.”

Rasharri clicked her tongue. “Too bad,” she said. “And I had such high hopes for you two.”

Ohhhhh!” Tariana groaned and threw a pillow at the Lieutenant. Not very hard. “I suppose I could go down and watch, like I said I would. Now I have to put all that stuff on. It’s so cold here!

Space is colder,” Rasharri said.

Is that supposed to help?”

No.”

I’m going outside. Are you coming along?”

Oh no,” Rasharri said. “I wouldn’t dream of tagging along on this. Besides, I have a party to plan. I have to figure out what you kids do at parties…maybe I’ll ask Professator Jarel….” She grinned.

Tariana wrinkled her nose. “If you do, I’m not going to show up for my party, either!” If any being in the Galaxy could turn a birthday party into a dry and dull educational affair, it would be Professator Jarel. Even if he was still trapped, if that was even the right word, inside a comp-pad.

Along with all the invitees,” Rasharri replied. She rose, stretched, and looked about. “It’s probably time for me to return to my research. For having ten thousand years of it, Xonarethi history can be awfully boring for centuries at a time.” She started for the door, but stopped before exiting. “Princess, this might not be my place…but do you even remember why you’re mad at him?”

Tariana looked down at her lap. It was a natural response to the sensation of blood rushing to her cheeks. “He went away,” she said.

He had an amazing opportunity,” Rasharri pointed out. “And he wasn’t moving to Chrodeliss for life.”

He didn’t tell me until he was going,” Tariana said.

Rasharri nodded. “True,” she said. “But how much time do you want to waste being mad at him?” She gave a little wave as she left the room. Tariana, now alone, shook her head.

None,” she said, to no one in particular. She didn’t want to be mad at him. But she didn’t want him to know that, either.

Tariana got up a few minutes later and started what was, to her, the long process of putting on her winter gear. Bibbed, padded pants of blue that completely obscured her figure. A hat of matching blue that restrained her long, dark, curly hair. Boots that were warm, but heavy. A long scarf of deep scarlet, handmade by Mr. Quann, the strange, never-speaking servant. Once she had it all on, she stood in front of the mirror for several minutes, tweaking this fold of the scarf or that tilt of her hat. She did this out of ingrained habit, out of desire to look as good as she could for this meeting, and out of desire to put off this meeting.

He went away…and never even wrote….

Tariana’s eyes filled with tears, and she quickly wiped them away as her Osono pride kicked in. She would not let him see her tears. She would not let him see that she was upset. He would have to figure that out on his own.

She wiped her eyes one more time, and then she grabbed the item she’d almost forgotten: the translator pendant she had to wear around her neck in order to understand anything anyone said, although she was learning more and more of the language. Margeth had no such difficulty. She had turned out to be quite able to speak the Xonarethi language without ever having heard it before.

Finally judging herself ready, Tariana left their quarters, into the quiet of the main hallway. There was no one about, as usual. King Dennory and Queen Aafilia were in Chrodeliss, and Prince Joskin was receiving his lessons from Dr. Etaso today and would be attending the Academy tomorrow. There was absolutely no one about, and the only sound in the hall was her own footsteps, until she reached the main stair, where Mr. Quann stood, silently and serenely, bowing deeply when she approached.

Oh!” she said, startled. “I’m sorry…I didn’t see you there.”

As always, Mr. Quann said nothing at all. He just stood there, unmovable and implacable. He was always at their service, never speaking, only nodding, or bowing, or just smiling.

Ummm…goodbye,” Tariana said as she rushed past him and down the stairs. In truth, she found Mr. Quann unsettling. He was a fine servant, always anticipating needs and yet never being intrusive about it…but he was always there….

She walked out the back door of the mansion, onto the terrace that was now slippery with snow and ice, and drew in a sharp breath of frigid air. It never got this cold in Gavinar City, which was farther south on its planet and located in the midst of temperate wind patterns. Starhollow and Chrodeliss, on the other hand, apparently became very cold in winter, and she’d been told that the straits between Starhollow Isle and the mainland could, in unusually cold winters, become choked with ice. Tariana stepped toward the stairs to the lower level of the terrace.

Hello, Miss,” said the Kingsguard on duty. He was young, clean-shaven, and handsome in his military way, with his brilliant red hair trimmed very short and tucked beneath his cap.

Good afternoon, Corporal Brand,” Tariana said. She knew about half of the Kingsguard assigned to the estate and to their own personal security by name now. “I’m going down to the river.”

Please be careful,” Corporal Brand replied. “Dradenite protesters sometimes take to the river.”

Tariana nodded. There were still those loyal to King Draden, who refused King Dennory’s legitimacy. Some even disbelieved that Draden was still in his coma – the coma that Tariana had put him in, by tempting him to look openly upon hyperspace. Upon the Startrails.

Are you planning to fly today?” Brand asked.

I don’t think so.”

If you need anything–”

Thank you,” Tariana said. Fearing that she had been too abrupt, she smiled at him, and he nodded once and resumed his patrol.

She went down the stairs and onto the path that led into the lawns and gardens. These had all been meticulously cleared of snow, which made the walking easy and brisk. That was a good thing. If it had been any more difficult, Tariana might have been able to use that as an excuse to not walk down there.

As she came nearer the river, Tariana heard laughter and shouts of children at play. Margeth’s voice was one of them; the other belonged to Otona, his little sister. Margeth was alternately talking and singing, having recently become passionate about her music lessons. When Tariana arrived at the last set of stairs that led down to the river bank, she began muttering to herself: “I will not be happy to see him. I won’t be happy to look at him.” But when she looked out and saw him standing there, on the icy surface of the frozen river, her heart acted of its own accord, and she cursed it for its fluttering.

Margeth and Otona were there, laughing with glee as they skated haphazardly around the ice, in the backwater of the river that was created and protected by the estate’s small and rocky breakwater. The only difference now were more guard towers and more patrolling Kingsguard, and these were as discrete as the rest. Sitting on the pier, looking as regal and powerful as ever despite the cold, was Tassi, Prince Joskin’s giant six-legged lindiath who a deep psychological – or perhaps even psychic – bond with Margeth. ‘Tassi’ was short for a much longer name Tariana couldn’t keep straight, and the beast always reminded Tariana of some kind of odd cross between a bear and a cat…if such a beast would have six legs, four eyes, and a fearsome spiked tail. As for Margeth and Otona, they looked to Tariana more like sisters than she and Margeth did, with their slight builds and long, silvery blond hair. The only difference was that Margeth had slightly darker, olive skin that matched Tariana’s more than Otona’s.

And there, with the two girls, skating slowly back and forth was Gharanas of Star House Cheyendi, back home after four months of special schooling at the Academy in Chrodeliss. Special schooling he had never said he was going to take, until just two days before he left. And even as Tariana’s heart fluttered, she also felt a rush of anger.

So I’m both happy and angry to see him, she thought. Why can’t I just feel one thing at a time? That seemed to her a flaw in the Starmaker’s design of the human heart.

Gharanas’s hair was a bit longer now, and more unkempt. His beard and mustache had grown even thicker. No time for grooming, Tariana supposed. But then, maybe that was a good thing, because it meant that in four months away, he hadn’t found anyone new to groom for.

Stop thinking like that, she admonished herself. It wasn’t time for that. What was she thinking? It wasn’t like she had any kind of special claim over him.

He had come back from his four months in Chrodeliss just four days ago, but he hadn’t contacted Tariana to let her know he was back at all. That fell to Joskin, who got the news during a standard visit to Star House Cheyendi’s estate in order to deliver a message from his mother to theirs. And then he had showed up just an hour and a half earlier, inviting Margeth to come down to the river so he and Otona could teach her how to skate. Marg had said yes to this before Gharanas had even finished his sentence and run off to change into her winter clothes. And then, Tariana and Gharanas stood in the main room of their living area together, for what might have been the most excruciating ten minutes of her life, had Lieutenant Rasharri not come to her rescue.

So, Gharanas!” Rasharri had said, in a display of outward exuberance that was unusual for her. “How are your studies going?”

Very well,” Gharanas said. He had also become uncharacteristically talkative at that moment. “I’m learning a lot that I never knew before.”

That’s what school is for,” Tariana had said, before she’d been able to stop the words from coming out.

Among other things,” Rasharri had said. And so it had gone, with the Lieutenant engaging Gharanas in a lengthy discussion of science and engineering, the things he had gone to Chrodeliss to study so that he might work on building ships. He was now concentrating on the science of the Cintronia crystals, having shown a good deal of aptitude for their inner workings. The conversation went on long enough for Margeth and Otona to finish getting dressed, without ever seeming quite obviously an attempt by the Lieutenant to spare them both a bit of awkwardness. For her part, Tariana had feigned disinterest, thumbing through a book, but she had actually listened attentively, for at King Dennory’s behest, Xonareth was starting to build spaceships again. It was well within their technological ability; they just had never done so because they hadn’t been allowed to, not until Tariana, Margeth, and the Lieutenant had arrived to end the ten-thousand year Interdict placed upon the planet by the mysterious, and now long-forgotten, Arrilori Star Empire.

Now the Xonarethi were preparing to go to the stars again, and Gharanas had gone to school to study the engineering involved so that he might help.

That was fine, in itself. But Tariana had not supposed that he would suddenly leave without telling her, or go to Chrodeliss and never contact her the entire time he was there. And now he was here, teaching two girls to skate on the ice of this sheltered part of the river where, in warmer months, the boats of Star House Kourdovi stood at anchor.

My Lady!” Gharanas said as he skated over to the pier where Tariana stood. “I didn’t know you were coming down.”

My Lady?” Tariana echoed. “Is that what you’re calling me now?”

Gharanas opened his mouth and closed it. His thick hair and thick beard made him look older than he was, but the look of confusion in his eyes betrayed his age. He was only a year older than she was, more or less.

I’m sorry,” he said. “I just…it just came out.”

Tari!” Margeth called out. “Watch this!”

Tariana glanced to Margeth, who appeared to be taking to ice skating very easily. Her younger sister had grown almost an inch in just six months, and her hair – long, straight, and very blond – now trailed behind her in the air as she skated by in a long, graceful curve. “Why didn’t Mother ever let us try this!” Margeth called out.

We didn’t have a whole lot of ice on Gavinar, remember? Not where we lived.”

Margeth laughed as she tried to turn so that she was skating backwards, but she evidently hadn’t quite mastered that maneuver yet and she fell on her rump.

I told you that was hard to do!” Otona said, laughing.

Help me up,” Margeth said. “I’ll figure it out.”

The two friends laughed as they continued their practicing, and Tariana looked at Gharanas again.

You know you don’t have to call me ‘My Lady’,” she said. “But I suppose I should be happy that you call me anything at all, shouldn’t I?”

Please don’t do that,” Gharanas said.

Do what?”

You know,” he said. He rubbed his forehead, and she caught a glimpse of the scar there. She couldn’t see any new ones, which meant that he hadn’t had any more hunting accidents or mishaps while playing clatterball or abnormally violent games of Twymon.

I didn’t expect it,” he said. “The offer. It was so sudden, and–”

Oh, please,” Tariana said. “I’m not upset that you went. You know I’m not upset that you went. But you never even told me…you never said…you never wrote. Or used a radio or whatever you call the comm devices here.”

Gharanas looked away, out at the river. Then he nodded. “I could have,” he admitted. “I didn’t know what to say.”

Tariana wanted to slap him. “You say whatever was in your mind to say!” she burst out. “It didn’t have to be anything big or important. Just…something. Anything.”

And you wanted to hear it?” he said. “You wanted to hear what my classes were like, what it was like staring at Cintronia crystals all day? You wanted to hear about my metallurgy classes?” He put his hands on his hips. “You could have written me, too.”

I’m not the one who went away.”

No, I guess you aren’t.” He shrugged. “I’m sorry.”

Tariana nodded. She hadn’t expected to speak to him so angrily…but she wasn’t at all sure why she wouldn’t have expected that. She’d provoked it, after all.

Tari!” Margeth called out. “Why didn’t you want to try this?”

Oh Marg,” Tariana said. “I’m not good at that sort of thing, remember? You’re the graceful one.

And don’t you forget it!” Margeth stuck her tongue out at her sister and returned to skating. She built up some speed and tried a jump, which again failed miserably…but again, she jumped right back up and kept on going.

You’re pushing off wrong,” Otona said. “If you want to jump, you have to do it this way.” And she sped up and demonstrated a jump, which she executed with a single spin in the air. Margeth got right up and tried again, with the same result as before.

Ouch,” Margeth said.

Maybe you should wait to try jumping,” Gharanas said. “You’ve only been skating for an hour. You can get hurt if you don’t do it right.”

Well, there’s something you’re an expert at,” Tariana said. Again, the words came out before she could stop them, but she didn’t entirely regret them. Indeed, she took a bit of pleasure in the sour look Gharanas gave her. That sour look meant something. It meant that, whatever else was in his heart, he wasn’t indifferent. “I’m sorry,” she finally said, letting him off the hook. “I shouldn’t have taken that shot.”

Well, it was there to be taken,” Gharanas replied. “If my brother was here, he would have said worse.”

Tariana nodded. Onsuldan had been gone for even longer, having left for his own geology studies right after King Dennory had taken the throne. No one had heard from him at all, except for a regular letter to Lady Jamolo.

How long will you be back?” she asked.

Four days,” he said. “It’s very hard work. We’re learning by working.”

That sounds hard.”

It is,” he said. “But it’s the way I always learn best, so there’s that.”

Well,” she said. “There’s a party tomorrow night. I hope you’ll be there.”

I didn’t think I was invited.”

You didn’t tell me you were going to be back!”

He winced. They were back to that, again.

If you wish me to be there, then I will attend, My Lady.”

She shook her head. “Please stop with the ‘My lady’–”

It’s how one addresses a lady, isn’t it? Especially an Arrilori Princess? How else should I address you?”

We’ve talked about…oh, Gharanas! Why are you being such an ass!

He said nothing. Tariana felt her eyes filling with tears, so she turned away from him. She was not letting him see this. Instead she watched Margeth skate a few more minutes. At least there were no Dradenites on the river just now.

Tari, I don’t want to come in yet!” Margeth called. “I’m caught up on my lessons. I’m going to stay out here for a while.”

Tariana nodded. “Someone will come and tell you when it’s time to get ready for dinner,” she said.

You’re going inside?” Gharanas asked.

Is there a reason for me to stay out here?” she replied. “You don’t seem to want to talk to me. And you don’t even have the decency to tell me why.”

If she expected that to have any effect, she was disappointed. He just stood there and glowered.

You’re about the only person on this planet who knows me,” Tariana said. “Or I thought you were. I always have people around me, and I’m still lonely. It’s just like home! Only the names of the cities are different.” Now her tears were starting to flow, and she stopped caring. She turned to walk away. “There’s a party tomorrow. Your whole family is invited.” And with that, she walked away. She didn’t look back. She couldn’t. She didn’t know if she could bear to see if he was watching her, or if he had just gone back to his skating lesson.

Mother would have been proud of her, that much Tariana knew. She managed to keep her composure and walk with her head held high and erect, until she was out of view of anyone else; only then did she allow her posture to crack and a stifled sob to escape her throat. She didn’t go back to the house. Instead, she paced the twisting paths of the gardens and the hedge maze, and finally came to the small clearing, farthest away from the estate boundaries, to the place where her heart truly lived.

Nella. Her ship.

Tariana stopped for a second and stared at the silver craft, suddenly amazed anew at the very idea that it was her ship. For ten thousand years Nella had rested and waited, disguised beneath earth worked to look like a hill over which spilled a waterfall. For ten thousand years Nella had rested and waited as the Last Ship, left behind by the Arrilori for use in the event of an extreme emergency. Tariana had found her, had realized where she was, even though it had turned out that King Draden had known all along. But Tariana had felt the ship’s presence, felt her location – proving, once and for all, that whatever it may have meant, Tariana and Margeth were Arrilori.

Ashan? Nella asked, projecting the words directly into Tariana’s head and heart. It was how they communicated. ‘Ashan’ was the Arrilori word that ships used to refer to their…what? Captains? Owners? No…partners.

Hello, Nella,” Tariana said out loud. Even six months later she found it easier to simply speak out loud to her ship. “I’m coming on board.”

Will we be flying?

Ummm…no, actually,” Tariana said as she ascended the ramp. “No. Not today.”

Very well, Nella said. I hear distress in your voice, and I see the tears from your eyes. Something is amiss?

Something is very amiss,” Tariana said as she entered the cockpit and sat down in the pilot’s chair. Her chair.

Something is amiss,” she went on. “And everything’s fine.”

I don’t understand.

I don’t either,” Tariana said, and she shook her head. Talking like this may have worked with Rasharri, who was human and could pick up on things like Tariana’s expressions and her tone of voice, but Nella was a spaceship. Understanding was not always easy.

This sort of thing used to happen with my masters, Nella said. They would become very upset. Most of the time it was about something that another of them said. Is that what happened here?

Partly,” Tariana admitted. “The other part is…something he didn’t say.

I wish I had advice to offer you on this, Nella said. But I’m only a ship.

That’s the best thing you can be to me right now,” Tariana said as she put her arms on the pilot’s console and laid her head in them. The tears flowed freely now, and she let them come. Tears of anger toward the young man for whom her feelings were so confusingly strong; tears of sadness that apparently his feelings weren’t the same…or if they were, he had no idea how to show it. But there was a third reason for her tears, one which she hadn’t admitted yet to anyone, barely even to Margeth.

Mother,” Tariana whispered. “I need you right now….”

Mr. Quann served dinner as promptly as ever, and the Arrilori Visitors – as the three of them had come to be called by the Xonarethi – came down to the dining room to discover that both Lady Aafilia and Prince Joskin had returned. It was a pleasant surprise, and it helped Tariana to smile again, after a long afternoon. No one commented on how puffy her eyes looked, thank the Starshaper. Lieutenant Rasharri’s only observation had been to hand her a warm, damp washcloth when she had returned to their quarters with not much time at all to change for dinner. That, and to simply say, “I doubt very much if what he said or didn’t say is an accurate representation of what’s in his heart.”

Tariana had figured out that much, at least. It was the most maddening thing of all.

The dinner conversation, thankfully, turned to more practical matters.

They believe they have solved the lift problem,” Joskin announced. There was something more strong and regal in the way he held himself now. He sat up straighter and seemed more in ease, since his father had taken over for the incapacitated King Draden. He was still tall and thin, but he wore his sand-colored hair in a neater cut now, even though it was still too long for Queen Aafilia’s tastes. “There’s so little radiation when your ship lifts!” he went on. “They don’t want to build a fleet of ships and then have them irradiate everyone when they lift. But they think they’ve solved that one.”

I thought they would just use rockets,” Margeth said.

Rockets work, but they’re not efficient,” Joskin replied. “With rockets you lose so much energy…and if you launch rockets, the exhaust is so dense that you can’t put your spaceports near a city at all. Which means that we’d have to build an entire transportation network just to get from Chrodeliss to the spaceport. And where would that be? It’s all mountains around Chrodeliss, for two hundred korilii in every direction!”

Oh,” Margeth said. “I hadn’t thought of that.”

Joskin shrugged, obviously happy to have been seen as smart and informative. Tariana merely took another bite of her dinner, inwardly noting that Margeth knew very well about rockets and such. Professator Jarel’s instruction in science hadn’t been that deficient. Margeth might not be nearly as interested in spaceflight as Tariana was, but she was no slouch, either.

It’s all right,” Joskin said. “It’s an exciting time for Xonareth! So much adventure, so much possibility….”

Thank you, Joskin,” Lady Aafilia said, cutting him off. “But we don’t want our dinner discussion to be all about spaceships and building things. Tell them about your sketchings!”

Joskin blushed. He was quite a talented artist, but he didn’t like to show his sketches much. “They’re fine,” he mumbled.

Aafilia saw that she had embarrassed her son, so she changed the subject. “We have a celebration to plan for tomorrow night, don’t we, my dear?” She looked at Tariana.

I guess we do,” Tariana said as she blushed.

Good!” Lady Aafilia clapped her hands with excitement. “I’ve never been a part of something like this. It will be a party of special magnificence, let me tell you! There will be thousands there, from both cities. It will be an event to bring the cities even closer together.”

Tariana glanced at Lieutenant Rasharri. “Told you it wouldn’t be simple.”

Rasharri wiped her mouth with her napkin. “Did you, now?”

Margeth giggled.

Fear not, my dear,” Lady Aafilia said. “It will be a grand celebration, but it will also be a small one, for you and a small number of people. It will be a party-within-a-party, of sorts. Don’t worry! You won’t be on display for everyone.” She shrugged. “Just for a few hundred. The rest of the thousands will be happy just being there.”

Wonderful,” Tariana said, unconvinced.

Don’t worry!” Lady Aafilia said. “It will be a lovely evening, everything a celebration of a birthday should be.”

Is Gharanas attending?” Joskin asked. Tariana looked sharply at him; he was not returning her gaze, instead choosing to look down at his plate as though the question had been the most casual thing in the world. But his tone suggested that it wasn’t.

I don’t know,” Tariana said. She laid down her fork. “I think I’m done for tonight. I’m tired.” She looked at Margeth and Rasharri. “I’m sorry, I’ll see you both back upstairs.” She pushed her chair away from the table, got up, and left.

What an awful day, Tariana thought as she returned to her quarters. It was supposed to be a good day. It started off like one. Why didn’t it stay that way?

She sat down to read, but she couldn’t focus on the words, as her thoughts kept spinning wildly in so many directions. It all kept coming back to what she wanted…what she really wanted. And she just didn’t know. She was still thinking when Margeth and the Lieutenant returned. Rasharri excused herself for her nightly meditations, leaving the two sisters to sit up alone.

Tari, what’s bothering you?” Margeth asked, as bluntly as ever. “Is it Gharanas?”

Why is everybody talking about him?” Tariana said, exasperated. “Why is his name mentioned everywhere I go today!”

Because he was here,” Margeth said. “Duh! Why else would we be talking about him? He’s been gone for four months and now he’s back for a few days. Doesn’t that make you happy? You’re the one who likes him.”

You don’t like Gharanas?”

Margeth rolled her eyes. “Of course I like him. I just don’t like him the way you like him.

I do not like him…that way!

Really? Is that what you’re going to try telling me? I watch you, Tari. I see things. I know you like him.

But…but I….” Tariana bit her lip. “I’ve never…I’m almost seventeen and I have no idea how it works.” She rubbed her head as she thought back over the day. “I was really mean to him today.”

I could tell,” Margeth said. “He barely said anything at all after you left. I thought he was going to cry.”

Really?”

Margeth gave her a sour look. “You’re happy about that?

No,” Tariana quickly said. “Oh, how awful is that? I’m actually happy that someone else was sad. Oh, Marg! What is happening to me?” She threw herself face down on the couch. “I’m awful. I am truly awful. This isn’t what I wanted to be. Ever.”

I don’t understand why you’re mad at him,” Margeth said. “He came back.”

He went away.”

But he came back.”

And he’s going away again.”

But he’ll come back.”

Tariana sighed. “I don’t think you understand it.”

I said that.”

Marg–”

Tari,” Margeth said in an exaggerated, mocking tone. “Why are you punishing him so hard? He had an opportunity to go and do something!”

I’m not punishing him,” Tariana said. “But he went away and didn’t say anything. At all. He didn’t say anything before he left, he didn’t say anything after he left, and he didn’t even say anything today! He just showed up and said, ‘I’d like to teach Marg to skate.’ That’s it.”

Margeth shrugged. “So?”

So,” Tariana concluded, “how am I supposed to know how he feels, when he doesn’t say anything!”

Did you say anything?

Tariana opened her mouth and closed it. In truth…she hadn’t said anything. Not really.

Do you even know what you feel?” Margeth went on. “Maybe he doesn’t, either. Maybe you’re both being dumb.”

What?”

Dumb,” Margeth said again. “Oh, how angry I am but I won’t say anything and he won’t either and oh it hurts so much!” She lifted the back of her hand to her forehead in mock agony. “See? You’re both being dumb. Snap out of it!”

Tariana gazed at her sister for a long moment, and came once again to the realization – which she never said aloud, because it would go right to Margeth’s head – that her sister was, in many ways, smarter than she was. Margeth tended to see things and call them what they were. For all of Tariana’s wishes and dreams of rebellion against her Royal upbringing and all those traditions and the weight of all the pressure that went with them, the truth was that in times of stress Tariana always found herself retreating to the things that Mother had always taught her. Margeth was the adventurous one, the one who saw life as a game. After six months on Xonareth, it was Margeth who was adapting to this world more quickly, more readily. Margeth almost never talked about Gavinar anymore. None of which was to say that Margeth didn’t miss Mother or sometimes despair of having lost her home in a fiery attack on their ship that she had foreseen in her own dreams. But Margeth adapted to what life was, where Tariana tended to try to find patterns to match what had gone before.

If neither of us knows what we feel,” Tariana finally said, “then how do we talk about it?”

Margeth shrugged again. “I don’t know,” she said. “That’s not my problem!”

Tariana scowled and smacked her sister over the head – lightly – with a pillow. Margeth hit her back, and both of them began laughing. Laughter begat more hitting with pillows, until Lieutenant Rasharri emerged from her own bedroom.

You might keep it down,” the Lieutenant said. “The dead might waken to hear such raucousness.”

Oh stop,” Tariana said. “Are we really bothering you?”

Not in the least,” Rasharri said. “And the laughter is good to hear, after a day of sulking because you can’t figure out how to talk to a boy and the boy can’t figure out how to talk to you.”

I can talk to him about anything I want!” Tariana protested. “I just want him to talk to me, first.”

If we all waited for the other person to talk,” Rasharri said, “we’d never get anywhere in life, would we? Now, how about we take our minds off things with a game…I found a new one, and I think I understand the rules….” She walked to the table, retrieved a flat square box, and began setting up a game board that unfolded into an intricate, three-leveled playing surface. And then she started getting out the game pieces – all three dozen of them. Tariana and Margeth exchanged glances at Rasharri thumbed through the alarmingly thick rule book, which was, of course, printed in Xonarethi, a language with Lt. Rasharri didn’t entirely have the knack of reading yet.

Wasn’t there a simpler game you could have picked?” Margeth asked. Tariana giggled.

Hush, you,” Rasharri said. “Do you have someplace else to be right now? You, Miss Tariana? No? Then let me figure this out. All right…this piece is the Great Scepter.”

If it’s a scepter, then why does it look like a skull?”

Good question, but that’s what the picture says….”

And so it went.

Two hours later they all went to bed, after a long while during which they were able to carry out no more than five complete turns of the game, whatever it was called. Tariana lay awake, reading, while Margeth worked at a sketch on a pad of paper. A few months before, Margeth had taken up drawing as a hobby, to Tariana’s pleasure and surprise. It turned out that Margeth had a genuine skill for it. Just now she was sketching, from memory, the observatory tower of the Cloister of the Star Chanters, the monastic order devoted to chanting the names of all the stars in the sky over thousands of years. Between drawing and music, it was turning out that Margeth was quite the artist.

Marg?” Tariana asked, once both had set aside their night-time pursuits and turned off their lights.

What?”

You haven’t had any dreams lately, have you?”

Silence for a long moment….

I had one last night.”

Tariana swallowed. Margeth had as many dreams as anyone, but sometimes – once in a great while – she would have a dream that was more vivid than any other. And those dreams had a tendency, sometimes, to come true. “What was it?” she asked, and heard Margeth draw in a deep breath before answering.

We were in a place where we were happy,” Margeth said. “We were surrounded by people who loved us. Everyone was smiling. There was light.”

And then?”

Margeth’s voice trembled when she answered. “Then the light went away.”

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