THE WISDOMFOLD PATH, Chapter Two!

Annnnd, here it is! The second of the two sample chapters I’ll be posting from THE WISDOMFOLD PATH. (You did check out Chapter One, didn’t you? Hmmmm? Well, if not, this would be a darn good time to do that!)

The book goes LIVE just two weeks from today, folks!

Chapter two, below the fold.

CHAPTER TWO

The next day, Tariana tried very hard to forget about Margeth’s dream. (”It was very dark,” Marg had said. “It was raining. You were crying. Someone was hurt. Someone you cared about.”) Luckily this was not difficult, as the day was consumed by the preparations for the party that was to take place that very evening. As soon as she woke up, she realized that there were all manner of additional people around the estate, people she had never seen before, save one: an awful, fussy little man named Mr. Krodgins. This man was the social planner for the Xonareth Royal Family. He had not had a great deal of work to do under King Draden, especially as Draden’s obsessions with the stars and the Arrilori had become more and more prevalent, but now that Dennory was on the throne and restoring some semblance of the ceremonial aspects of royalty, Krodgins was in his element.

He was an astonishingly short and astonishingly fat man who even in the cold of winter seemed to sweat constantly. His hair was thin and greasy, and he didn’t have enough of it to cover the always-red skin of his head, and he had a thin mustache to match atop his fat lips which were always set in a frown. His clothes, however, were impeccable. That much he had in his favor.

He was unpleasant and always there – and yet, Krodgins was well known in Starhollow and Chrodeliss for the fantastic entertainments that he organized, so Tariana bit her tongue – repeatedly, and not always figuratively – as he whistled and buzzed about his business. If nothing else, she knew, when the party was over, Krodgins would go back to doing whatever it was that he normally did. But in the meantime, every time she turned around, there he was, usually prattling on and on in his high-pitched, wheezing voice.

Tut tut, everyone! Tut tut! We must be ready, we must be prepared! Remember, the key to any successful celebration of anything at all lies in the preparations! Through good preparation we can be assured that at all times, everything that shall be transpiring shall be exactly what we want to be transpiring at that exact moment! In this way, we can shape the emotional experience for each and every guest, no matter how many there may be, no matter how large the venue in which our celebration is to be held! Everything shall be handled with meticulous care and nothing shall be left to chance! This is our time to show the world what we are capable of, not just in the more grave matters of statecraft, but in the more esoteric matters of festivals, faires, and cotillions of all sorts!”

That was the way he talked. Every sentence was a long and repetitious exclamation. Five minutes in Krodgins’s presence gave Tariana a headache. One hour in his presence made her want to strangle someone.

Perhaps we might cut your hair short?”

No, I like it long.”

Or….

That mole of yours–”

No!

Or….

Tut tut, my dear Arrilori Princess! You are the guest of honor, and therefore, your dress must be–”

It’s fine!” Tariana almost shouted. “It fits. I tried it on yesterday, after the final alterations, and again this morning! There’s no way my body has changed shape in so short a time that I would need to try the thing on again!”

Margeth, who was listening with keen interest while pretending not to listen, stifled a giggle. Tariana shot her a scowl.

My dear,” Krodgins protested, “The concern is not that your body has somehow changed shape – although I have known young women not much older than you who have suffered great gains in–”

That’s enough, I think,” Lieutenant Rasharri finally interrupted. “Mr. Krodgins, I suggest that you go someplace else to continue your work. Princess Tariana will be ready, I assure you.” She smiled that smile of hers, the one that looked pleasant until you looked into her eyes and realized that it wasn’t.

Well,” Krodgins said with a frown, “I believe I can honestly say that I have rarely encountered a guest of honor at one of my celebrations who was less cooperative in the arrangement of the logistics. But if that’s the way you want it–”

He muttered all the way out, even as Rasharri closed the door behind him.

He means well,” Rasharri said. “And he is good at what he does.”

He is unbelievably annoying,” Tariana said, rubbing her temples. “And it’s funny how he just happened to have my measurements!”

Isn’t it?” Rasharri grinned. “Getting your measurements was quite a clandestine mission, let me tell you.”

He reminds me of Connos,” Margeth said, referring to their family’s chief porter back home.

Connos wasn’t that bad,” Tariana said.

He was to me,” Margeth replied. “You should have seen the way he treated me after I snuck out of the Palace.”

I still can’t believe you did that!”

Well,” Rasharri said. “I’m sure it will be a fine party. Especially the fireworks! He didn’t want to include them, but I insisted.”

Fireworks?” Tariana beamed. “I love fireworks!”

I know,” Rasharri said.

You do? How? We’ve never talked about—oh.” She saw the knowing glances that Rasharri and Margeth exchanged. “Oh, so that’s the way it is, huh?”

Oh, don’t be mad,” Margeth said. “It’s your party.”

Fine,” Tariana said. “But when it comes time for your turn, Marg, I’ll–”

She was interrupted by the door chime. Joskin entered and was halfway into a courtly bow when Tassi bounded through behind him, nearly knocking him over.

Aghhh! She’s right here, you beast!” Joskin said. “You don’t always have to knock me over!” He stood back up, smoothed out his jacket and pants, and picked up the flat parcel he’d been carrying. For her part, Tassi completely ignored him, preferring to present her enormous chin to Margeth for scratching.

That happens every time you come up here,” Rasharri said. “Why don’t you just let Tassi come in first?”

Because…oh, never mind that!” Joskin tried to regain his dignity, which made Tariana chuckle even more. Joskin was fifteen now, and desperately wanted to look older and more mature than he really was, so that people would stop seeing him as younger and less mature than he really was. It was quite the tightrope that he walked. “I know that this should wait for the celebration, but…well, I wanted to give this to you in person.” He handed the parcel to Tariana. It was a flat package, wrapped in satiny cloth and tied with a ribbon.

Oh!” Tariana said. “Thank you so much. You didn’t have to get me anything.”

Well…I made it.” His voice was a strange part-blurt, part-mumble.

You did?” Tariana raised her eyebrow as she undid the ribbon. “I’ll bet I know what it is, then. You’re always sketching in that pad of yours! You have real talent, you know.” It was true: since their arrival and the adventures following, they had learned many things about this family, one of which was Joskin’s love of sketching and painting. He always carried a small pad of sketch paper with him, no matter where he went. Once Tariana had glanced through some of his schoolbooks, and found highly ornate doodles in the margins, likely from times when he’d been bored. She’d recognized that particular impulse quite well.

Tariana pulled away the satin and looked at the picture. “Oh my,” she said. “This is beautiful.” She held it up for Margeth to see. In charcoal and colored pencil, Joskin had sketched Nella, flying amongst the stars. “It is really beautiful.”

Joskin grinned. “You think so? Really?”

I do! I’ve never been able to draw, and this…you’ve really captured Nella. This is what I think of when I fly her…thank you so much. You’ve been a wonderful friend to us both.” She leaned forward and hugged him.

I’m glad you like it,” he said as he stepped back and tried to reassert his formal air. “And, uh, there’s a visitor downstairs for you.” He sounded less happy now.

Tariana’s heart quickened at the thought that it might be Gharanas, but then she realized it couldn’t be him. Joskin was jealous of Gharanas, but he wasn’t distasteful toward him. Which meant, Tariana realized, that there was only one person this could be.

Well, let’s go, ladies,” Rasharri said. “Let’s hear what he has to say and see him on his way.”

Who?” Margeth asked. “Who is it? You always act like you’re two steps ahead of me.”

In this case I wish I wasn’t,” Tariana said. She had little desire to see this particular person, either.

You’ll want to put your coats on,” Joskin said. “Mother won’t let him in the house.”

Tariana glanced at Margeth. “Figure it out yet?”

Margeth wrinkled her nose. “Yeah, I figured it out yet.”

Exactly,” Rasharri said. “Let’s go.”

Waiting downstairs, shivering on the front steps of the house under the ever-watchful eye of Mr. Quann, was Billestiforr. That was the only way he was known; no one seemed to know whether ‘Billestiforr’ was his first name or his last. His enormous shock of hair was as unruly as ever, but it appeared that he had made some attempt at coloring it at some point, with the result that it was an odd shade of yellow, and not one that ever occurred naturally in human hair. He had also attempted to grow a beard, possibly in an attempt to appear wise, but the beard was patchy and wispy. He huddled inside an enormous coat of dark green velvet, and he had has hands tucked into his sleeves.

Oh, here you are, my ladies!” Billestiforr beamed when he saw Tariana, Margeth, and Rasharri. “I could have done with some tea, but your ever-talkative manservant would rather smile at me.” Meanwhile Tassi made a sound that was part growl and part belch.

What brings you here, Billestiforr?” Rasharri asked. “No one’s heard anything from you since you proposed that outlandish theory of yours.”

Harsh words,” Billestiforr said. “But I’ve been laughed out of many a room only to be proven right later.”

Rasharri laughed. “This world faces a serious crisis in the next few years, and you were proposing some nonsense about the shape of the planet.”

Hardly nonsense,” Billestiforr said. “And you still owe me a great deal, as I reckon the debts.”

You sold us to King Draden!” Tariana exclaimed.

And I provided young Joskin here with means of escape! And I knew that Vorrimos would never go as far as Draden wanted, anyway. You do me a disservice.”

Oh, shut up,” Rasharri said.

Why are we out here?” Margeth asked. “It’s cold!”

Ah!” Billestiforr said. “That it is, and I can see that I am not about to be invited inside or, failing that, even offered that tea. I shall therefore be brief, or as brief as I may be. I know that tonight there is a party being given in your honor…a birthdate celebration, is it not? I’d be interested to hear how you’ve managed to coordinate your calendar with ours. Did you account for the length of the Xonarethi day? Because one thing you have to–”

Get on with it,” Rasharri growled.

Oh, all right,” Billestiforr said. “I’m never allowed to finish talking…but anyhow, I had to come, as I was not invited to your celebration.”

Really,” Tariana said. Margeth giggled.

Be that as it may,” Billestiforr went on, waving his hand dismissively, “I did not want the event to pass by unmarked. So, I hope that you will accept this gift.”

He reached into the labyrinthine folds of his great coat and fumbled about a bit, before finally pulling out a small box of polished black wood, about eight inches long, three wide, and two deep. On one side, which Tariana took to be the top, was an engraving: two dodecahedrons, side by side, drawn in outline so that all twelve faces could be seen. A single face on each dodecahedron was shaded in slightly, a different face on each.

A mere trifle,” he said as he handed it to Tariana.

What is it?”

Another item of Arrilori origin,” Billestiforr said. “That much I know.”

Stole it from the Archive collection, did you?”

Billestiforr spread his hands. “One might say that I am returning it to its rightful owner.”

Fine, but what is it?” Tariana rotated the box around in her hands. There was no lid, nor was there a key or a hole to insert a key if there was a key in the first place.

I have no idea,” Billestiforr said. “Honestly, I do not know. Which is why I am giving it to you!” He grinned.

That doesn’t make sense,” Tariana said.

It makes all the sense in the world!” Billestiforr said. “It is an Arrilori artifact. Perhaps it is activated under certain circumstances. Perhaps it must be taken into space to work, or just onto that ship of yours. Perhaps it will respond to your mental command, much in the way the pendants I gave you do. There are many perhapses here, My Lady. I only ask that when you figure out what this is and what it does, that you allow me the pleasure of knowing what those answers are!

Tariana looked at him, and then back at the box. As she tipped it back and forth, she could feel its weight shift slightly, which meant that it actually was a box, and not just a solid block of wood. But she couldn’t begin to tell what was inside.

Thank you,” Tariana said. “This was…very kind of you. I think.”

Oh, it was,” Billestiforr said. “It was quite kind indeed. I hope that it brings you pleasure…or, failing that, some other use.”

He stood there another moment or two, rubbing his hands together and looking from person to person as if expecting the moment to continue.

Did it open?” he asked.

Tariana blinked. “Was it supposed to?”

Well,” Billestiforr said. “I had rather hoped…ah…hmmm.” He rubbed his hands together again and shifted his weight from one foot to the other and back again. “You’re sure it didn’t open?”

Tariana gave him a smile as she held the box up for him to see. It had not opened.

Hmmmmm.” More hand-rubbing, and more shifting from one foot to the other. No one said anything, and finally Joskin cleared his throat.

Yes,” Billestiforr said, looking a little crestfallen. “Yes. Well. I suppose I am done here…well. Thank you. And to you, my dear, the best of wishes for your birthdate celebration!” He turned and started his long walk back to the main gates. Before he even reached the bottom of the stairs, Corporal Brand was at his side and escorting him away. Tariana hadn’t even seen the corporal waiting behind the statue and the balustrade at the foot of the stairs.

Can we go inside now?” Margeth asked.

Quite,” Rasharri said. “I wonder what that is….”

Who knows?” Tariana said as she looked at the strange little box again. “Why would he give me something if he didn’t know what it was?”

Because he didn’t know what it was,” Margeth said. “I think he just found it, didn’t know what it was, and figured that you might be able to make it do something. Or me. Or the Lieutenant.”

That’s probably right,” Rasharri said. “He was conducting an experiment, nothing more.”

Well,” Tariana said, “it is a lovely box.

And with that, they went back inside, where they were almost immediately accosted by Krodgins again. In his hands he held an atomizing bottle, which he used to spray some sort of awful smelling mist in Tariana’s face.

Ohhhh!” she said. It smelled of an unholy blend of ship fuel and milkmold. “What is that?!

It is a new scent blend,” Krodgins replied. “I was thinking you might wear it tonight. It combines the pheromones of three of our most treasured flowers, with scent additives and aromas mixed in a special blend that I developed. What do you think?”

Tariana winced as involuntary tears filled her eyes. “It’s too strong,” she said. “Oh my….” She could not get the smell out of her nose.

Give me that,” Rasharri said as she took the bottle from Krodgins and took a whiff herself. “Oh! Oh no. No, no, this won’t do. She’s certainly not wearing that.

Krodgins was crestfallen. “Why not?”

Have you smelled it?” Rasharri asked. “It’s quite pungent.”

It stings the nostrils,” Tariana put in.

Oh nonsense,” Kordgins said. “Nonsense! Curse you and your alien noses! I tested this mixture a dozen times. Let me show you!” He squirted a dose directly into his nose, and then he began to cough and sputter and sob fat tears from his instantly-red eyes. “Oh my!” he finally said. “Oh my. I think I need to rework my formula. Something went wrong here.”

I’ll say,” Rasharri said. “Come on, Tariana. You too, Margeth. We have a party to get ready for!”

Rasharri steered the two princesses away from Krodgins, who was wiping his nose with a handkerchief and appeared to be trying to stop a possible nosebleed.

The remaining hours went by in a busy flash, and then, as sundown approached, the entire group – Tariana, Margeth, Rasharri, Lady Aafilia, Joskin, and Mr. Quann – boarded a skimmer and flew to the Council Island. Apparently the rule against flying skimmers to the Island did not apply in the winter, when the river was choked with ice. There were already thousands of people on the island already, and as they caught sight of the skimmer bearing the Star House Kourdovi crest, cheers went up for the passenger they knew was on board. Mr. Quann brought the skimmer about the island, going all the way around its perimeter, so that the people on the footpaths around its edge might see the Arrilori passengers.

Wave, ladies,” Rasharri said.

We already are!” Margeth said. And they were. This was one part of the entire thing of being Arrilori on this planet that Tariana and Margeth were ready for. They were well-acquainted with the way a member of royalty waved to the gathered throngs.

So much for the little celebration, huh?” Tariana nudged Rasharri in the shoulder.

Rasharri shrugged. “Maybe we’ll do it small next year.”

Sure we will,” Tariana said. “Next year you’ll have it in the great square of Chrodeliss.” Next year…next year. Will we still be here next year?

It looks like snow later,” Margeth said, pointing at the clouds mustering in the mountains to the north.

It is supposed to snow tonight,” Lady Aafilia said. “But the party will be well over by then. Don’t worry! And look, look there!” She pointed. “I was hoping he’d be able to tear himself away from his duties!”

Who?” Tariana said, trying to crane her neck to see what Aafilia was pointing to. Joskin, however, saw it first.

Father!

On the main pier stood one of the royal skimmers of the King, bearing the colors of the Xonareth royal family.

The King came?” Tariana asked.

He wouldn’t have missed it,” Aafilia said.

So much for the little celebration, Tariana thought. Again.

Look there!” Margeth said. She pointed to a small boat, anchored in the water beyond the line set by the Kingsguard. The people on board – several dozen – were flying the flag of King Draden.

Dradenites,” Joskin said with disgust.

Pay them no mind,” Aafilia said. “Mr. Quann!”

Mr. Quann landed their skimmer beside the king’s, where everyone disembarked. Almost immediately a squad of Kingsguard, in full dress uniform, appeared before them and snapped to attention. Meanwhile crowds gathered nearby, held at bay at a respectable distance to either side by rope lines and by more Kingsguard. As Tariana disembarked the skimmer, everyone began to cheer. She waved again, and then pulled her cloak tighter around her shoulders. “Did it have to be an outdoor party? In winter?

You’ll be warm enough,” Lady Aafilia said. “Those lanterns will provide enough heat, believe me.” She gestured to the series of globe-shaped lanterns that hung from poles in the ground, each one about twenty feet from the next. “We install them on the island in winter and take them down in spring. “Garish things, really, but without them, we wouldn’t be able to use the Council Island at all for six months of each year, and that simply makes no sense. Now where is—ah!” She turned toward a new arrival. “My Lord Vorrimos. How nice of you to be here.”

It is my pleasure, Your Highness,” Vorrimos said as he bowed. When he rose again, he nodded to the three Arrilori visitors, and focused his attention on Tariana. “And my greetings to you, My Ladies. I bid you peace and joy on your birthdate, Princess Tariana. I hope you find this celebration tasteful.” He smiled, and as was always the case, his smile was less than warm. Tariana had come to believe that that was simply the way his face was, but beside her, Margeth stiffened. She had never warmed much to Vorrimos, saying that he looked like a skeleton with the skin on. As thin as he was and as chiseled as his face looked, Tariana couldn’t help partially agreeing. “If you will allow me to escort you to the amphitheater? The King awaits!”

They followed him down the path into the woods, to the great amphitheater where the Council usually gathered, but where tonight the party was to begin with a proclamation by King Dennory. There were thousands more on the island, but these constituted the closest guests, although Tariana couldn’t have named more than a few dozen of them. Again, the thought that this was all very out-of-hand went through her mind.

The King’s proclamation was mercifully brief. As he finished speaking, the sun finally dropped beyond the mountain horizon, and darkness fell quickly on Starhollow. The light from the heat-globes intensified, casting golden light and welcome warmth over the entire island, in the amphitheater and along all the paths and in all the open spaces. Tariana was surprised at how warm it was beneath those globes. And as the sky turned dark, the music started, the fireworks began, and the revelry started in earnest.

Now what?” Tariana asked Lieutenant Rasharri as the cheering subsided and as the people began finding their way to entertainment.

Whatever!” Rasharri replied. “It’s your party!” She took Tariana aside. “The Xonarethi used to host great festivals to celebrate their planet’s winter and summer solstices. They don’t anymore, but your birthday is so close to it that it was easy enough to use that as a reason for these people to return to a tradition they had let go. And why not? They have a lot to think about. Why not give them a night where they can set aside such concerns?

Tariana smiled. It all seemed such a good idea, and she supposed it was. The Xonarethi really did seem to take themselves awfully seriously, didn’t they? “So really…what now?”

Again, whatever!” Rasharri said. “Go and see what there is to do! I, for one, am going to look for some food. I’m told that they are roasting kroth down at the beach.”

Ah,” Tariana said. Lieutenant Rasharri had taken an almost obsessive liking to the crustaceans of Starhollow’s three rivers. As the Lieutenant wandered off – under the escort of two Kingsguard – Tariana turned to Margeth. “Well, Marg, should we just walk around and see what there is to see?”

I suppose,” said Margeth. “It’ll give me some ideas for when my birthday rolls around.

Before they had taken three steps, four Kingsguard fell in beside them. “I’m sorry, Miss,” said Corporal Brand. “Lord Vorrimos’s orders. We’re to escort you where you go. Don’t worry, we won’t prevent you from interacting or doing any of the things you wish to do. Within reason. And if something goes amiss, two of us will be enough.”

Tariana laughed to hear the young officer’s bravado. Beside her, Margeth snorted. “It took a lot more than two of them before,” she said.

Marg!”

Sorry.”

If Corporal Brand or the other men – no, two men, one woman – heard that, they gave no sign. In this way, with their escort armed and at the ready, Tariana and Margeth began to circulate around the Council Island and survey the party.

It was less a party than a large festival, with something going on nearly everywhere. Music came from all directions. Some of it was provided by elegant and courtly musicians playing fine instruments that were old and beautiful; more came from raucous collections of youth playing their instruments loudly and singing lyrics that were incomprehensible even through the translator pendant; and there were even some roaming vocalists who just wandered the grounds of the island, singing whatever they could. Chief among these was an enormous man with thick black hair, beard, and mustache, whose shimmering tenor voice could be heard from hundreds of feet away as he wandered the isle, belting out a series of songs as loudly as he could.

So much music!” Margeth said. “I can’t tell what to listen to!”

There were also games everywhere, some of which Tariana did not know and only found herself observing and taking cues from others as to when to laugh or applaud. Tariana and Margeth walked from game to game, and each time they arrived they were both offered a place of honor either at the table or on the game field or, in one very odd game, a spot atop a six-inch-wide wooden pole that rose above a mud pit. Laughing, Tariana declined a place at each game; especially at the muddy one.

The Arrilori Princesses!” one woman bellowed. She was very tall and very large, with hair that improbably hung down to her hips. In her hand she held an ornate glass bottle. She approached them in her own rather wobbling fashion. “Drink with me, my friends!” She tried to press the bottle at Tariana, but the Kingsguard guards stopped her. “It’s just Whynarii, friends!”

Whynarii?” Tariana’s interest was piqued. She had taken quite readily to the clear, clean-tasting drink that was somehow between a wine and a liquor, after having first tasted it in the mountains above Starhollow, shortly after they had landed. When Gharanas had handed her the flask.

We don’t know if it’s poisoned,” Corporal Brand said.

She’s drinking it,” Tariana pointed out.

Exactly,” Brand replied.

Tariana waved a hand of dismissal and reached out to accept the bottle. “Thank you,” she said.

Thank you, My Lady!” The woman seemed suddenly on the verge of tears. “You honor me by just accepting the bottle from my hand. It shall have an honored place in the treasures of my Star House!”

At least let me inspect it,” Corporal Brand said. Tariana sighed, looked at the woman as she shrugged, and handed him the bottle, and stood there wobbling while he looked it over. He sniffed the contents several times, and then he poured a tiny amount into his hand and drank it. He winced, but said, “It’s fine. I don’t think it’ll kill you, anyway. But the taste–”

What’s wrong with it?”

Tariana gave Brand a sideways kick in the shin. “He just doesn’t care for Whynarii,” she said. “Do you, Corporal?”

Uhhh…no,” Brand said.

Tariana took the bottle back from him, smiled at the woman, and raised the bottle toward her lips.

Can I try it?” Margeth asked.

Not today,” Tariana replied. “You know you’re not old enough.”

On what planet?” Margeth protested. “This one? Do they even have any rules about that?

Tariana shrugged as she took a sip. As the liquor crossed her tongue, she immediately remembered something Mother had taught her:

A time will come when you need to pretend that you like something that tastes, in fact, like the rotting souls of the damned. When that happens, you will need to maintain your composure and respond with smiling kindness, because to do otherwise would be to tell the person that their efforts to please you have failed utterly. And that would be a graceless thing to do.”

So Tariana swallowed and smiled slowly as she passed the bottle back to the woman, who beamed. The Whynarii she had had before was always a wonderful drink, both cooling and warming at the same time, always giving her a golden sensation that spread through her limbs all the way to her fingers and toes. This drink bore no resemblance to anything she’d had before. For one thing, this stuff burned.

Oh, thank you,” the woman said, taking back the bottle. “Thank you, thank you, thank you! A thousand blessings upon you! May the stars shine upon your walk until the end of your days! Thank you! I can’t believe I own a bottle that was touched by the Arrilori! Oh, thank you!” She bowed about a dozen times as Tariana and Margeth nodded and resumed their walk down the path.

I can’t believe you won’t let me try Whynarii,” Margeth said.

Believe me, Marg, this time it was for your own protection.” She coughed.

Corporal Brand snorted, and again she kicked him in the shin.

Ow!” he said, and she smiled sweetly.

We sent her away happy,” Tariana said.

That we did, miss,” Corporal Brand agreed as he stopped to rub his suddenly sore leg.

As they walked along the paths of the Council Island, Tariana and Margeth acquired a group of youngsters who followed them around wherever they went. These were mostly girls, and were mostly Margeth’s age and younger, but Tariana eventually noticed another group of girls, closer to her own age, who didn’t seem to be following, exactly, but who nevertheless managed to turn up at each place she stopped. Being near the Arrilori visitors was its own status symbol, it appeared.

I think we have fans,” Tariana said.

We should talk to some of them,” Margeth replied. “It would be fun!”

Mother would never go for it,” Tariana said, laughing.

That would make it twice as fun!”

So Margeth turned suddenly and approached the group of girls (and, it turned out, more than a few boys) who had gathered behind them. “Hello!” she called out. “I’m sorry if we seemed rude! We shouldn’t be ignoring you like that.”

The apology had what Tariana thought was almost certainly Margeth’s desired effect: the kids began falling over themselves to deny that Margeth need apologize for anything at all. “No really!” they said. “It’s fine! We’re sorry to follow! We just wanted to see you! What’s it like out there! Is it true that the Arrilori Empire isn’t there anymore?”

It’s all right!” Margeth said. “Really! Tari, come meet them! They’re friends!”

Hello,” Tariana said, stepping forward. “It’s good to meet you all.”

The group of kids all stared at both of them with the same kind of reverence that Tariana had seen in the eyes of kids back home, back on Gavinar. Royalty there, and royalty here. Of a sort, anyway.

What should we do?” Margeth asked. “You all live here, what’s going on here?”

There’s a game of Twymon going on down that path!” one of the girls offered. The rest nodded assent. It seemed that Twymon was a popular choice.

Oh, let’s go watch, Tari!” Margeth clapped her hands. “Joskin always says we should see the really good players in action. Come on!”

Tariana laughed as Margeth grabbed her hand and started walking – almost running – down the path.

Careful, My ladies!” Corporal Brand called out. “Careful! Twymon can be a dangerous game, let us go first!”

Dangerous?” Tariana said as she came to a stop while the corporal went on ahead to check things out. “We played it before. How dangerous can it be?”

She and Margeth both found out, quickly. Dashing down the path, they came to the court where a dozen young men and women were playing Twymon, the strange game in which each player controlled at least one colored globe which whirled around in the game space, which was created by the bodies of the players themselves. Tariana and Margeth had indeed played this game a few times, first shown to them by Joskin and his mother when they had first landed here. Tariana had little feel for it, but Margeth seemed to actually have a bit of talent. These players, though, were far better than that. Each of them controlled not one globe, but three, which made the space between them a constant buzzing blur of flashing color as they sent their globes after one another. What was more, each player stood atop a hoversled that moved back and forth along a constantly-shifting circular path. They were forbidden to step off the hoversleds; if they did, they were disqualified. That rule hadn’t come up in their backyard games! The players rode their hoversleds and directed the actions of their glimmering globes, and all the while the large crowd of spectators made the requisite oohs and ahhs after each near miss or brazen escape or outright capture.

It quickly became very clear that there was, in fact, a hint of danger in the game played this way. These players were intensely competitive and intensely skilled. What was more, several impromptu alliances had formed, with two different sets of players aligning with each other to go after the others. Two other players, though, were apparently attempting to go it alone, and it was obvious which ones, as they were playing a very defensive style, with one of these barely bothering to engage at all, keeping his globes – which gleamed bright yellow – slowly circling above the entire lot. The alliances became clear, and so too, equally quickly, did the weakest player in the bunch, a young man not a lot older than Margeth who was doing everything he could just to keep his three blue globes from being picked off one by one. In the time it took Tariana and Margeth to figure out the state of this particular game, he was eliminated from play.

Thank you,” the boy shouted to the others, and they all responded with a cheer of some sort. Then he stepped back, out of his circle. “I call a shift!” he yelled. “Five to the right!”

Ohhhhh,” Tariana said as she watched the shift transpire. This was a game rule that Joskin had told them about, but which they hadn’t tried yet: when a player is eliminated, his last act upon the game is to call out a position shift. In this case, each player had to move five spaces to his or her right. They actually had to jump from one hoversled to the next. For the best players, the act of moving while still controlling their globes was just a part of the game. For the lesser ones, though, it was a huge challenge. And for the very best player – who turned out to be the one with the yellow globes, not engaging at all – it was the ideal time to strike. And strike he did, lashing his yellow globes into the fray all at once, picking off two others, one purple and one green, before returning above the game as he took up his stance in his new circle.

Cheers went up from the crowd watching.

Is this a tournament game?” Tariana asked.

No,” Corporal Brand answered. “This is nowhere near as intense as the tournaments can get.”

Why haven’t we seen one of those yet?” Margeth asked. “It must be amazing!”

Tickets to the tournament games are impossible to get,” Corporal Brand replied.

Not for–” Margeth began, but Tariana stopped her with a quick punch in the shoulder, and Margeth bit her lip. She’d been about to point out that they, as the Arrilori Visitors, could attend whatever event they wished. Usually they were very careful to not take advantage of their status, or to point out that they could, but once in a while, they slipped.

This particular game went on for another twenty minutes, as the other players attacked and were attacked, eliminated others and were eliminated. The two alliances both fell apart, one and then the other, as the dynamics of the game kept changing. Finally it all boiled down to two players – the boy with the yellow globes and a young woman directing turquoise ones – and it appeared for a time that they were evenly matched, but then the woman’s attacks seemingly caught the young man unawares, and in two flashes, he was down to a single yellow globe to her three. Meanwhile, the hoversleds began moving faster and faster in their rotation around the center.

It’s almost over,” Margeth said.

I’m not so sure about that,” Tariana said. She saw something in the young man’s eye, and in the way he stood, unmoving, with his hands clasped behind his back and his feet spread wide. His hair was cut as close as it could be without him actually being bald, and he was slightly overweight. None of that mattered, though, to his skill at Twymon, even as his opponent directed her three globes at his.

To this point, his moves had all been graceful and determined by a very clear style of motion. Now, however, he completely changed his tactics. He began making very sharp turns back and forth, even bringing his globe to a complete stop before reversing direction entirely. Just a few seconds of this had the desired effect: the woman had to break conversation, in order to try and understand what he was doing. In that moment her three turquoise globes stopped moving as one, which was all the opening he needed. Somehow she didn’t see the attack coming, and in one brutally simple and fast sequence of moves, he absorbed two of her globes before they could so much as make any kind of evasive motion. And now, down to just single globes, one yellow and one turquoise, the outcome of this match was no longer in any doubt whatsoever. The young woman made a valiant effort to stave off defeat as long as she could, but somehow the young man was able to force her into a smaller and smaller area, backing her into a corner that didn’t exist. And then he ended the game. More cheers went up, and the other players came forth to congratulate him as the globes all separated back out into their original numbers and returned to their owners’ hands.

I don’t like him,” Margeth said. “He looks mean.”

Tariana nodded. He did look fairly unpleasant. Arrogant, in fact. As he departed the ring, the girl who’d been the last player standing bowed. He didn’t so much as look at her as he walked away with his friends.

Classy as always,” Corporal Brand said.

Did you see the way he was looking at the others?” Margeth said. “Like he did them a favor by playing against them.”

He’s never been a good winner,” said Corporal Brand. “But he’s very good!”

Who is he?” Tariana asked.

His name is Binro, from Star House Rothven.”

Rothven,” Tariana echoed. “Isn’t that your Star House?

Corporal Brand nodded. “Distant cousin. We don’t invite him to dinner very often.”

Tariana and Margeth both laughed, and Brand smiled.

We’re starting another game in five minutes!” an official called out. “Clear the area, and any players who want to participate, come forward!”

What now?” Margeth asked. “Are we staying to watch another game, or what?”

Tariana shrugged. “What do you want to do?

There’s dancing back that way,” Margeth replied.

You know I’m not a good dancer!” Tariana laughed.

Who said you had to be good?”

And in that way Margeth won that particular debate, and they headed off down another path toward another clearing. Ahead of them they could see light of shifting color through the trees, and they could hear music and feel the beat of its rhythm. In this clearing was a ring-shaped pond with four bridges leading to an island in the pond’s center. At the center of the island stood a wooden stage, and on that stage was a band which performed loud, fast-paced music. Their music was accompanied by a shimmering lightshow which strobed and pulsed in time with the rhythm.

Margeth was fascinated by the music, but Tariana’s attention was on the youths all around. They were so involved with the music, dancing and singing and holding hands and – Tariana tried not to stare at the number of couples scattered about, kissing – being together. This is what it is to be my age, Tariana thought.

You should be careful here,” Corporal Brand said. “There are a lot of people around!”

Don’t worry,” Tariana replied. “I’m sure we’ll be fine—oohhh!

Suddenly she was splashed with water, which was thrown into the air by two teenage boys who had broken into a fight and ended up falling in the moat. Tariana ducked back as Corporal Brand and one of the Kingsguard guards moved in and broke up the fight, dragging the two ruffians out of the water. Both were glaring at each other, and one – the angrier, apparently – tried making another attack at the other, but he couldn’t break free from Brand’s grasp.

Stop it!” Brand shouted. “Stop it now! Calm down! STOP!

The fracas started to capture the attention of the teenagers on the dance island, and gradually they all turned to see what was going on. Even the band stopped playing after about a minute of watching their audience slowly swing the other way. Tariana stepped back, and she felt her cheeks turning red already. Luckily, it was fairly dark.

Lights!” Brand barked. “Now!”

So much for that. The light fixtures for the band’s illumination show switched to full illumination, bathing the entire dance area with harsh white light.

How dare you fight in the presence of the Arrilori!” Brand shook the one kid by his collar, and then he glared at the other as if to do the same thing to him, but with his eyes.

Corporal!” Tariana protested. “They didn’t even know I was here.”

It doesn’t matter! They know what this event is, and they know where they are!” He shook the kid again. “You are on the Council Island, and you are attending on the Arrilori Visitors! This is how you behave?

She’s not even your girlfriend anymore,” said the other boy. “You need to get past it!”

Shut up!” Brand snarled. “When I need your input I’ll ask for it.”

Whatever,” the other boy said.

Now Tariana recovered her wits and her dignity somewhat, and stepped forward. “Corporal,” she said, laying a hand on his shoulder. “I think the fact that everyone is watching is embarrassment enough.” She looked at the boy in the Corporal’s grasp. His cheeks were still red, but not so much now from anger at the other boy. “You’re fighting over a girl?” she asked.

He looked down at the ground and said nothing.

I’m just a person,” Tariana said. “You’re fighting over a girl?”

Yeah,” the boy said. “He was kissing her.

I’m not sure I understand,” Tariana said. “If a girl you liked was kissing someone else…why are you mad at him, and not her?

The boy’s expression turned comical as he tried to think, and apparently failed. He looked at Tariana as if she had addressed him in some unknown language.

Go home and calm down,” she said. “It’s bad enough all of these people got to watch you do this, right?” She pointed to all the kids on the dancing island. The boy winced, and lowered his eyes again. “Corporal?”

Corporal Brand nodded and released the boy. “Take them home,” he said to the other Kingsguard.

Yes sir,” the Kingsguard replied, and then escorted the two ruffians away.

And don’t lose a friend over this!” Tariana called after them.

That’s it?” Margeth asked.

They’ll be humiliated at school,” Tariana said. “Believe me, it’ll be worse than anything Corporal Brand might have done to them.”

Don’t be so sure about that,” Brand grumbled. “Now what?”

Well,” Margeth said, “I was enjoying that music.” She called over to the island. “Excuse me! Could you start playing again?”

People turned and looked at the bandmembers, who then looked at each other and shrugged. The percussion player began pounding a beat again, and the music finally resumed. Tariana smiled at Brand. “You see? Now I’d like to see what a dance is like.”

All right,” Brand replied, and he and the other Kingsguard remaining escorted Tariana and Margeth across the bridge and onto the dance island, where aside from the band playing, nothing was returning to normal. All the kids there were still standing in place, staring at the two Arrilori Visitors. The band segued into a ballad, but still no one returned to dancing.

We’re not…bug-eyed aliens or anything,” Tariana said.

Maybe if you dance, they’ll dance too,” Margeth offered.

I’m not going to dance by myself!” Tariana said. “That would look stupid!”

Corporal Brand cleared his throat. “May I be of assistance, miss?” He offered his hand to Tariana, and her eyes widened.

You can dance?”

Not really,” Brand said. “But it’s a slow one, so I can fake it. I think.” He shrugged. “How hard can it be?”

Tariana smiled, and even as she felt a thousand pairs of eyes on her, she took his hand and began to dance with her Kingsguard protector, or at least attempt to dance with him, as she had little idea of how to do it, herself. It suddenly occurred to her how strange it was that Mother had never included this in her list of Skills Every Princess And Eventual Queen Must Know. It seemed to Tariana that dances at formal cotillions was a regular feature of royal life, but maybe that was just something she’d got from the storybooks.

Their dancing was awkward and uncomfortable and the Corporal stepped on Tariana’s toes as much as she stepped on his. But it had the desired effect, as the youths all gradually returned to dancing themselves. Wherever they danced, Tariana discovered that others were smiling at them and giving them – giving her – thumbs up. Soon the song ended, and the band switched to a higher-tempo song. At that point a thought occurred to Tariana, and she giggled.

What is it?” Brand asked.

Oh, nothing,” Tariana thought. “Just…I’m a Stardancer, but I can’t dance.”

He gave her a quizzical look, and she just shook her head. “It’s nothing.” She glanced at the band and the kids who were taking to the faster song. “Maybe we shouldn’t press our luck on this,” Tariana said.

Oh, I entirely agree,” Corporal Brand replied. “It was my pleasure, miss.”

I hope so!” Tariana said with a laugh. “Where’s Margeth – oh, there she is!”

Margeth was dancing away with Otona, whom she had somehow found in the midst of this entire crowd. Otona grinned and waved at Tariana, who waved back. “Otona’s here?” she said. “I wonder if–” She began to look around, although she didn’t really expect to see him standing right there.

Can I help you look for someone?” Corporal Brand asked.

No,” Tariana replied. “No, I…no.”

He nodded and stepped back to allow Tariana to start walking through the crowd of dancers. It didn’t take long to circulate through the entire dancing island – it wasn’t quite as big as it had looked from the other side of the moat – but Gharanas wasn’t here. He could be anywhere on the Council Island, and wherever she went she would find hundreds of strangers. She could walk and walk and walk and never find anyone she knew.

But of course, she did.

I don’t think he’s here,” Jorja said.

She had cut her hair short and colored it black, so it took Tariana a second to recognize her. Jorja had once been a girlfriend of Gharanas’s. She was the youngest daughter of Star House Crassa. Her mother, Lady Troyelle, was on the Starhollow Council and had a history with Lady Aafilia which had, as far as they could tell, not always been entirely pleasant.

Tariana blinked. “I’m sorry?”

He isn’t here.” Jorja looked around at her three friends who were with her. Tariana had seen these girls before, but she knew none of them by name. “You all remember Lady Tariana of Star House Arrilori, don’t you?”

We do,” said one of them.

Oh yes!” said another.

How nice to see you again, My Lady.”

I’m sorry,” Tariana said. “I’m not sure what you meant before.”

Gharanas,” Jorja said. “You’re looking for him, aren’t you? I don’t think he’s here.”

How do you know that?”

Because he told me he probably wasn’t coming tonight.”

This was one moment when Tariana was glad for all of Mother’s teachings on royal decorum. It was a very useful skill, being able to maintain her composure when she felt like she had been kicked in her stomach.

Oh,” Tariana said.

His mother and my mother had business this morning,” Jorja said. “He came over a little after his mother did, because he wanted to say goodbye before he left.”

He went back to Chrodeliss?” Tariana asked. Every ounce of her energy was now devoted to keeping the fact that her heart was sinking like a rock dropped into a pond from showing on her face.

He said he was,” Jorja replied. “He’s not much of a liar, so I believe him.”

Oh.” Tariana bit her lip. She wasn’t going to be able to keep this up much longer. “Thank you, I guess.” She smiled. “I hope you’re enjoying yourselves.”

Jorja shrugged and looked at her friends. “I liked my birthdate party better,” she said. “That was last month.”

I didn’t know,” Tariana said. Dignity…dignity….

I just wanted a small party with a few friends,” Jorja said. “But this is nice, if you like this sort of thing. I’m sure you’re used to it.”

Well,” Tariana said. “I hope you had a good time, but I think I should be moving on. Enjoy yourselves and thank you for coming.” She managed a smile. “I like your hair, by the way.”

It was our pleasure!” Jorja said. “And thank you for noticing my hair.” Tariana thought she heard one of Jorja’s friends snigger, but she wasn’t sure. It might have been the music. Tariana thought that Jorja and her friends would leave, but then Jorja stepped forward and laid a hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry, your…highness? What do we call you, anyway?

What is it?” Tariana asked.

You do know why Gharanas didn’t come, don’t you?”

Tariana stared at Jorja for a long moment. Why was she saying this? Why did she care?

Oh, you really don’t understand it, do you.” Jorja shook her head. “You were a Princess where you came from, so all this must be new to you. I should have been able to tell by your dancing.” She leaned in closer, so Tariana alone could hear. “Gharanas didn’t come because he’s who he is, and you’re who you are. Think about that.”

And then Jorja turned and walked away, rejoined by her friends. Tariana’s thoughts moved in what felt like a dozen different directions: sadness because Gharanas had not come. Anger, because he had not come and he’d said goodbye to Jorja and not to her. And confusion at Jorja’s words, which both made no sense and all the sense in the world.

Your hair looks ghastly,” Tariana muttered.

Miss?” It was Corporal Brand. “Did you still want to go somewhere else?”

Yes,” Tariana said. “Someplace quiet.” I need to cry, and I don’t want to be seen doing it.

Very well.” He motioned to the other Kingsguard, who came over and helped him escort Tariana toward one of the bridges across the moat. Margeth was still dancing with Otona, and had now made the acquaintance of a few others. Tariana stopped to look at her and wondered if she should bring her along. She’s having fun, she thought. No sense ruining that just because I’m not.

Tariana was halfway across the bridge when all the lights went out.

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