AMONGST THE STARS, chapter two

Did you read Chapter One? If not, you’d better!

(Come to that, did you read STARDANCER and THE WISDOMFOLD PATH? Because if not, well, come on, folks!)

Chapter Two below the fold!

Princess Tariana Osono

After the third time Margeth commented that it seemed like an awful lot of fuss, Tariana stopped arguing and started agreeing. Tariana was much more attuned to the standards of pomp and ceremony expected of royalty and people who were seen almost as royalty—like visitors from the stars after ten thousand years of not being allowed any—but even she had her limits, and serving as little more than a ceremonial backdrop for yet another gathering of the Xoanrethi Parliament was pushing them.

They stood in a reception room in the Parliament Building overlooking Chrodeliss’s Great Central Square, a huge rectangular plaza of concrete dotted with small trees and sculptures, located just southeast of the city’s central core. The Parliament Building, consisting of two curving towers rising above the central rotunda where the Parliament actually gathered, stood at the northern end of the plaza, with a tiered presentation deck with enough seating for six hundred dignitaries overlooking the Central Square itself. The room they were in was just inside the presentation deck, so they could look out the windows and down on the people below. The Square was Chrodeliss’s great public gathering place, and today there were hundreds of people there. This was the tenth gathering of the Xonarethi Parliament since King Dennory had established it after his ascension to the throne, when Tariana had…dealt with King Draden. Before that, the Parliament had been called something like “the Great Council of the Thirteen Cities of the Planet Xonareth”, and everyone was grateful when Dennory simply decided it would be the “Xonarethi Parliament”, especially after the resettlement of the eleven abandoned cities began.

While there were hundreds of people in the Square below in honor of the Parliament’s coming to order, tomorrow there would be thousands, gathered to watch the Unveiling of the newest addition to the Central Square’s collection of statues and sculptures. Of course, the new addition was neither statue nor sculpture, but that hardly mattered as no one could figure out a more suitable place for it. The ceremonies throughout this entire five-day Parliament gathering would be broadcast to all the Thirteen Cities and their outlying towns, culminating in the grandeur of Blackday in Chrodeliss. The ships of the Xonarethi fleet had been busy, ferrying dignitaries and others from the other eleven cities to Chrodeliss. It seemed a bit odd to Tariana to use those beautiful ships mostly for ferrying diplomats and military officers around the planet, but when she said that one day, Lieutenant Rasharri replied, “What are ships used for back home, do you think?”

The people in the Square all cheered when Tariana, Margeth, and Rasharri appeared briefly on the outside veranda, before disappearing inside to mingle with all the other dignitaries. After a brief minute of waving to the crowd, they turned and proceeded to the reception area just outside the rotunda where the Parliament itself would gather. Here they awaited the arrival of the Royal Family.

Nicely done,” Tariana said to Rasharri when they sat down inside the pavilion after accepting glasses of whynarii from a server. “Really, Marg, hasn’t the Lieutenant come a long way?”

She really has!” Margeth agreed, her eyes gleaming with amusement. “Your wave isn’t nearly as stiff as it used to be.”

Quiet, you,” Rasharri said. “Let’s see how good I am after five days of this nonsense.”

It’s not like we’re doing this for all five days,” Tariana pointed out. “We have tonight and the Unveiling tomorrow, and then we’re mostly offstage until the fifth day, for Blackday and the Commission of the Cities.”

And thank the Starshaper for that,” Rasharri said. “This much practice in such a short period, though? Insanity. Pure insanity.”

Margeth and Tariana both laughed. The Lieutenant’s ongoing struggles with the gestures and mannerisms of royalty were a constant source of amusement. “I’m not royalty,” Rasharri had groused, but Tariana had replied, “Ah, but on Xonareth, you are.” It still gave Tariana pleasure to remember how Rasharri had managed nothing at all in reply to that.

They resumed looking out the windows over the square below. Five days, Tariana thought. Five days of ceremony and pomp and dignitaries talking in dignified ways….

Why do they call it the Great Central Square?” Margeth suddenly asked. “It’s not in the center of anything. Look at the map, it’s not central at all. It’s off to the right and down a little.”

The term is ‘Southeast’,” Rasharri said.

It’s still not Central,” Margeth countered.

Tariana shrugged, but as she didn’t have a convincing answer, she didn’t try to come up with an unconvincing one, either.

Springtime in Chrodeliss was surprisingly more temperate than the same season in Starhollow, which wasn’t all that far away. Where Starhollow’s spring was a cold and damp affair that seemed to take forever in ending, in Chrodeliss things were warmer and dryer and more pleasant. Many of the seasonal trees and bushes were already coming back to life, and there were birds on the wing as well. When Tariana had tried to figure out why spring in Chrodeliss was so much better, Professator Jarel—their onetime cybertutor, now ensconced in the body of the planet’s former Observer—had launched into a long discourse on the factors involved, such as latitude, elevation, and the possible presence of coastal ocean currents that brought with them a moderating effect on the local climate, which would then…Tariana got bored just thinking about it, actually.

For this event, Tariana had chosen to wear a dress of deep blue, with a gold wrap around her neck and about her shoulders; around her neck she still wore the Arrilori translator pendant the thieving scholar Billestiforr had given her, along with the wooden pendant Gharanas had given her, which he had carved shortly before they had arrived on this planet. She had had her thick, brown hair trimmed for this day, and she had taken some pleasure that morning in the way Gharanas had stared at her for a full ten seconds before saying anything. Of course, he tended to stare at her all the time, but it still made her happy when it wasn’t when she was wearing a flightsuit.

Margeth, on the other hand, had refused to have her hair trimmed in any way, since she had dedicated herself to letting her hair grow as long as possible. Her blond locks now hung all the way to her lower back, with no added curls—she liked her hair straight. She had chosen an outfit of green and pink, smartly tailored to bring out the “clashiness of the colors” (Margeth’s words) as much as possible. She was enjoying quite the phase of bold and mismatched colors, which she made to sound like some kind of rebellion but which Tariana suspected was really Margeth’s own kind of tribute to Mother.

Lieutenant Rasharri wore a blouse of deep blue with black pants, under a long jacket of the same blue as her blouse. Her hair had grown as well, and it had been to her pleasure just a few weeks after their arrival that their hosts had managed to find a stylist who was able to figure out how to maintain her tight twists, which had never been seen on Xonareth before their arrival. Around her neck she wore her translator pendant and the small white stone from Khandasha. She didn’t wear that pendant often, and it was only sheer luck that she had been wearing it the day of the fateful attack on the Royal Yacht, the event which had brought them all together in the beginning. Along with her favorite head-wrapping, made of shimmering silver and blue fabric, the rock was her only tangible reminder of her world.

Goodness, Princess,” Rasharri said to Margeth. “Have you no eye for color?”

I like to stand out,” Margeth said.

You have accomplished your mission,” Rasharri said. That got the reaction she expected: Margeth stuck her tongue out at her, which made Tariana laugh. “I, of course, don’t have to rely on color in my clothes to stand out,” Rasharri went on. “My own skin does that for me, doesn’t it?”

Not a lot of genetic variation on this planet,” Tariana observed. “The Professator and I were talking about—”

Yawn,” Margeth said. “Can we not talk about lessons and things right now?”

She’s probably right,” Rasharri said to Tariana.

I know,” Tariana replied. “After all, we’d hate to make the ceremony even more boring.”

They turned their attention back to the Central Square below. In the middle of the plaza, toward the northern end, stood the newest addition to the Central Square’s sculpture park, which was concealed beneath a huge tarpaulin and was ringed by a dozen Kingsguard, all standing at attention.

That thing is going to clash terribly with the rest of the square, when they unveil it tomorrow,” Tariana observed. “They really should have put it someplace else, if they had to put it someplace at all.”

Of course they had to put it someplace,” Lieutenant Rasharri said. “I never thought for a second they wouldn’t.”

But here?” Tariana said. “Why not design a new spot for it, so it won’t look like…a big ugly thing dumped in the middle of the Square?”

For them, it might not be ugly,” Rasharri pointed out. “And reverence tends to beat out aesthetics in situations like this, anyway.”

Hmmm,” Tariana replied. Another dedication, another monument. This one probably was unique and special among them all, but it was harder and harder to generate any real enthusiasm for any of this. At least that unveiling would take place after the conclusion of all these Parliament discussions and debates.

There came the sound of ringing bells from the reception area’s main entrance. A performer in concert attire stood there, ringing a series of hanging chimes with a mallet; when she was finished, a Kingsguard officer stepped forward on the steps. “My Lords and Ladies!” the officer announced. “Please welcome the Royal Family of Xonareth!”

Tariana, Margeth, and Rasharri rose with the other dignitaries in the room and applauded as King Dennory, Queen Aafilia (who never went by that title, choosing “Lady” instead), and Prince Joskin entered to the further ringing of those bells. Tariana heard Margeth grunt.

I hate those bells,” Margeth said. “Loud and clangy. Not pretty at all.”

Shhhh,” Tariana replied.

As always, the Royal Family came in quickly, preferring to dispense with the ceremony and “magisterial nonsense”, as Joskin often called it, as soon as possible. Dennory was as gaunt as ever, with his light gray and burgundy royal uniform looking almost draped on his thin frame. His gray hair was newly clipped almost to the point of baldness, and he looked tired, as he always did. He was holding Aafilia’s hand, and she was as regal as ever with her shimmering light blue gown, belted at the waist with a black sash, and a necklace around her neck with two pendants, one silver and one blue, to represent Xonareth’s two moons. Her white hair hung down even lower than Margeth’s, and Tariana wondered if Marg had taken Lady Aafilia as her inspiration in growing her own hair out. Joskin was now taller than either of his parents, and like his father he was very thin, but his hair was blond, somewhere in between his father’s gray and his mother’s white. When they had first met him, he had worn his hair shoulder-length, but now he had trimmed it quite neatly, and he was beginning to grow a gentle beard and mustache that complemented his hazel eyes. He wore a uniform somewhat similar to his father’s, and he smiled when he saw the two Princesses.

Yes, yes,” King Dennory said when he had decided he’d had quite enough smiling and waving. “Enough of all that. No need for such formality in here. We are among friends!”

Light laughter rippled through the room.

Formality isn’t always a bad thing, my dear,” Aafilia said.

All things to their time and place, my dear,” Dennory said, waving a hand. “Chancellor? How long do we have?”

Five minutes, Your Majesty. The delegates are being seated now.” This came from Chancellor Vorrimos, King Dennory’s highest advisor. He had held the same position for King Draden, but Draden was still incapacitated after Tariana had made him look upon the Startrails with his own eyes, sending his mind into permanent chaos. Vorrimos was garbed in his standard suit of shimmering gray over a shirt so white it gleamed, the pin on his breast with two interlocking ovals, and as ever, his fine gray hair was slicked back to reveal a severe widow’s peak.

Does he own any other clothes?” Margeth whispered to Tariana.

Shhh,” Tariana hissed back. Margeth had never liked Vorrimos much, but Tariana had come to understand him, if not exactly like him. Vorrimos was a man who executed his assigned duties with absolute precision and competence, whether he agreed with them or not. He was unmarried and had no family. His entire life was dedication and duty. Tariana could understand that, on some level.

It’s good to see you again!” Prince Joskin said as he joined the Arrilori Visitors. He held a plate in his hand with three kroth puffs on it. He bit into one, chewed it thoughtfully, and nodded. “Mmmm,” he said. “Well done, these.” In the last six months, Joskin had added cooking to his growing list of hobbies, which now included hunting, sketching, and studying the other planets of the Xonareth system.

You’ve been away for weeks!” Tariana said. “Has it been that busy?”

I can’t believe how busy it’s been,” Joskin said. “I’ve been to all thirteen cities in the last three weeks. Lots of time in rooms like this, eating food from buffet tables. Never thought I’d say this, but I could go a month or two without flying in one of the ships. I can’t wait to be home.”

When will that be?” Margeth asked.

Hopefully after Blackday and this Parliament ends,” Joskin replied. “Are you ready for the Unveiling tomorrow?”

Do we have a choice?” Margeth said. Tariana laughed.

Well, we couldn’t just leave it up there, could we?” Joskin said. “Bad enough people are getting hurt trying to make pilgrimages up there to see it. This will be safer.”

Listen to you!” Tariana said. “Talking like you’re a King or something.”

Joskin blushed as he smiled.

Don’t make fun, Tari!” Margeth said. “I like that he sounds like this.”

I’m not making fun, Marg,” Tariana said. “Really, I’m not. I’m actually impressed.”

Well, thank you,” Joskin said, looking like he wanted the moment to both end and last a little while longer. He drew a breath and looked around the room. “Is Gharanas here? I could use a good game of clatterball soon.”

His family sent their regrets,” Tariana said. “They couldn’t make this ceremony, but they’ll be at the Unveiling tomorrow. Lady Jamolo has some kind of commitment she couldn’t break.”

Plus, Gharanas has to finish his repair work,” Lieutenant Rasharri said, offering a mischievous smile as she said it.

Oh no,” Joskin said as he looked at Tariana. “What did you do?”

Nothing!” Tariana said. “Well, I did something, but it was her fault.” She pointed at Rasharri, who laughed.

It actually was,” Rasharri said. “A little, anyway. Just a little.” She held up two fingers, close together.

Of course it was,” Joskin said. “Well, here we are. You all look beautiful, by the way.”

Oh, this little thing?” Margeth said, looking down at her outfit. “It’s just something I had in the back of my closet.”

Joskin laughed. “Naturally! Why else would you wear it?” He glanced around at the dignitaries. “I’m glad you did, though. This room could use some color. Did you ever see so much gray in one place?”

Tariana agreed. Lots and lots of gray. She’d spent many an hour, all her life, in rooms like this with people like these: older men and women, all looking suitably stuffy and full of themselves and…gray, just like Joskin had observed. There were delegates from all thirteen Cities, and Tariana recognized some from the Starhollow council. At least the delegates from Star House Crassa weren’t there. Tariana had little desire to run into Gharanas’s old girlfriend, Jorja.

Joskin walked to the window and looked out over the crowds. “They’re already starting to fill the square,” he said. “I’ll bet some of these don’t even go home tonight. Oh! Oh, look!” He pointed, and Tariana moved to his side to follow his gaze. “Look, down there! Dradenite protestors!”

Tariana wrinkled her nose. She had seen the Dradenites down there, protesting as they always did: by waving the flag of Star House Isrotheld while endlessly singing a song the Xonarethi called the “Hymn to the King”, over and over and over and over and over again. It was an odd kind of protest, and Tariana had difficulty understanding the point.

You shouldn’t have saved that bunch of them at your birthday party,” Margeth said, recalling the incident when Dradenites had been caught powerless on their boats in the middle of the freezing river. With Nella’s help, Tariana had rescued them.

I had to save them, and you know it,” Tariana said.

Whatever,” Margeth said. “Why do they bother? It’s been so long. They still don’t accept us, after everything that’s happened?”

Who knows,” Joskin replied. “It’s not as if there hasn’t been enough proof yet. You and your sister and the Lieutenant have done so many things already. I can’t imagine why anyone would still deny who you are.”

I’ve been reading some history of revolutions on Benedus Six,” Tariana said. “That’s a planet in…well, that’s not important. But maybe they’re not denying us so much as your father. There are always loyalists.”

A keen insight,” Lieutenant Rasharri said. “The Professator would be proud.”

Now it was Tariana’s turn to wrinkle her nose. She had mostly completed her studies with Professator Jarel, but that didn’t mean that he had relinquished his responsibility for her education entirely, just yet.

Well, enough of all that,” Joskin said. “Is there anything new from Starhollow? It feels like months since I had any time to myself in my own home!”

Tariana, Margeth, and Rasharri all looked at one another.

That exciting, huh?” Joskin said.

Well,” Rasharri said, “in truth, our lives really have become deadly dull, dreary and boring. Another few months of this and everyone will forget we were ever here.”

They’d better not!” Margeth protested, and they all laughed.

Ahhh, true laughter,” said Lady Aafilia, who had just come into earshot. “Such a pleasure to hear real, true laughter for once. I’m tired of diplomatic laughter. You know the kind.” She gave a demonstration of the exact kind of polite, false laughter that Tariana knew so well.

I’m afraid we do,” Tariana said.

I’m just now getting used to it,” Lieutenant Rasharri said. “Before now, I had to make the diplomatic laughter!”

I doubt you were any good at it,” Margeth said.

Marg!” Tariana protested.

Oh, come on, Tari! Do you really think that the Lieutenant would be any good at making diplomatic laughter?”

You mean, like this?” Rasharri said, and she gave her attempt at diplomatic laughter.

That was…actually pretty good,” Margeth said.

Rasharri raised an eyebrow in satisfaction. “See?”

Mother!” Joskin said. “You left Father with the Bariens?”

He likes the Bariens, dear.” Lady Aafilia replied. “Or at least he pretends to like them. Who can tell? Your father is quite good at all this, you know.”

They all looked across the room to King Dennory, who was standing across the room, almost cornered by one of the dignitaries, a huge bear of a man who kept leaning forward in an attempt to use body language to keep the King on edge. Dennory, for his part, was having none of it, holding his ground and smiling in a way that seemed both warm and off-putting at the same time.

Who are the Bariens?” Margeth asked.

Star House Barien,” Lady Aafilia replied. “One of Xonareth’s oldest families.”

And they’re all really good at diplomatic laughter,” Joskin said. “I wonder what they want today?”

Lady Aafilia made a dismissing gesture. “Whatever Lord Barien’s complaint today might be, I assure you that it is not terribly important.” She leaned forward and looked out the window at the crowd below. “Ooooh, Dradenites! So nice of them to bring their own version of cheer to what was otherwise a perfectly dull diplomatic event.”

Tariana tried to smile at that, but she just didn’t find the notion all that amusing of a faction here devoted to denying her and Margeth and Lieutenant Rasharri, to the point of denying everything they had done and positing odd notions of conspiracy, by which Dennory and Aafilia had taken advantage of some very old legends to seize power from the rightful King. It was all very odd, but even though the Dradenites were a tiny minority, they were not going to disappear any time soon. “People will believe anything they wish to believe,” Lieutenant Rasharri had said once. How true that was.

The bell-ringers sounded their chimes again, signaling that it was time for the Parliament to begin. King Dennory casually disengaged from Lord Barien and came over to rejoin his wife and son with the Arrilori Visitors.

Well done, my love,” Aafilia said to him.

I get a lot of practice,” Dennory said. “Lord Barien is certainly persistent, I’ll say that for him.”

What did he want?” Joskin asked.

I promise you, son, I have absolutely no idea.” He chuckled, and then he held out his arm for Lady Aafilia. The bells sounded again. “Shall we?”

We shall,” Aafilia said. “Are you ready?”

I am, my dear,” Dennory said. Then he lowered his voice: “You worry too much.”

Tariana suspected that she wasn’t supposed to have heard that, but she had.

They followed the Royal Family through another portal and through a short corridor. As they emerged on the other side, an announcing voice came over the loudspeaker: “All rise for King Dennory and Queen Aafilia!” This was followed by loud applause as they came into the Great Parliament Chamber of Xonareth.

This was a wide, circular room that had been built to house the meetings of a governmental body a thousand members strong. The seating in the room was divided into thirteen sections, one each for each of the Thirteen Cities, and now—for the first time in centuries—each section was actually occupied. The Great Parliament Chamber was actually full, with nearly three thousand people within.

I’ve never seen so many people in here,” Joskin said. “Amazing!”

The Thirteen Cities are all doing well,” Lady Aafilia said. “Now, at long last, there is actually a reason for a planetary Parliament.”

All rise,” the announcing voice intoned again, “for the entry of the Arrilori visitors!”

The applause and cheering went on as Tariana, Margeth, and Lieutenant Rasharri entered. Tariana glanced around the great Assembly Hall chamber, which they had only been in once before. The lighting was kept relatively dark, with several lights focusing on the rostrum at the center of the chamber. The rostrum stood atop a platform and was accessed by a walkway from the seats, and the amazing thing was that the walkway actually rode on a great ring, so that any delegate wishing to take the rostrum to address the Parliament only needed to wait for the ring to rotate so the walkway lined up with their section. It was an ingenious design, Tariana thought.

The applause continued as King Dennory waved to each delegation. Chancellor Vorrimos strode down to the rostrum, picked up a small mallet, and rang a brass bell that hung there. He rang it three times, and silence settled over the room.

I call this Parliament to order,” Vorrimos said. “We hear now from His Highness, Dennory of Star House Isrotheld, King of Xonareth.”

Vorrimos smiled and led the applause as Dennory kissed his wife and then walked down the walkway and across to the rostrum. The lights on him brightened, and he raised his hands for silence. After a few more seconds of applause, the silence finally settled, and King Dennory spoke at last.

Greetings, citizens of Xonareth and delegates from the Thirteen Cities! Welcome, delegates from Starhollow!” He turned to the Starhollow delegation, which then erupted in applause all its own. A set of bright lights shone down on the Starhollow delegation from above, and a projector put the Starhollow sigil on the wall behind them.

Welcome, delegates from Chrodeliss!”

This brought the same result, and in this manner King Dennory welcomed the delegates from each of the other eleven cities, giving each a chance to respond with raucous cheering: “Lerrobel! Omimoa! Rinsharage! Treezo! Tolandis! Mallash! Atanandia! Yelsen! Dallingar! Rynarion! Cuenadir!”

At the mention of Omimoa, Tariana looked that delegation over, in hopes that their old friend Corporal Brand had made the journey. But he wasn’t among the delegates, so he likely hadn’t joined them.

Welcome to you all,” King Dennory said again. “I thank you for coming, even though all of you have so much work to do. In Omimoa, there was the task of reclaiming the city from the sands of the beaches that surround it, and rebuilding the barriers that protect the harbor there from the relentless waves of the ocean. The city of Lerrobel found its streets taken over by the very plains that surround it, and packs of poloneth infesting nearly every building. And Rynarion? The difficulties faced there were the hardest. In four hundred years, the very river itself that flows through the city shifted its course, and flooded the entire city dozens of times. Were it within our power to move the Great Cintronia Crystal of that city, we might well have considered it. And yet, today, Rynarion stands. It is home to thirty thousand souls, and it is growing. All our old cities are growing. We are reclaiming our world, now that we are free to do so, thanks to our Arrilori visitors.”

Here he turned and bowed to Tariana, Margeth, and Lieutenant Rasharri, who all responded in kind with bows of their own.

The work now is ours,” King Dennory said, again addressing the delegates. “All of the work is now ours, from rebuilding our civilization to taking it to where it needs to go. We all know where that is, my friends. There are some who say that we should wait, that we should attend to the matter of our own world first, but surely we can do more than one thing at once! Surely we can follow many dreams! The largest dreams of all will take years, decades, perhaps even centuries to achieve, so why not begin now? I say to you now, my friends: it is time for us to return to the sky and to the stars!”

Applause then, but not quite from all the people watching. Tariana looked around and saw that some people—more than a few—didn’t know what to make of what the King had just said. The King himself looked to his family, and he exchanged nods with Queen Aafilia. Then he spoke again:

Friends, it is time to return to the stars. We have the beginnings of a fleet of ships, the vessels left behind by the Arrilori. But they will not be enough. We will learn from those ships, and they will serve us even as we serve them. But those sixty-one ships are not enough. Therefore I say: Let us build more!”

A murmuring swept through the audience, and Tariana felt a tingle in her own spine. They’ve been building toward this moment for so long, she thought.

I suspect that you are all now wondering: Where can such a project possibly start? I have had our best scientists and engineers working on this very problem, and they have completed a detailed plan that I will submit to you all for approval. I will not use my power as King to impose this upon our world, because it will be an enormous undertaking and will require much of all of us. But I would not bring this forward to you all if I did not believe, with all my being, that we can do it.”

Tariana leaned forward, before she even realized she was doing it. She looked at Rasharri, whose own eyes were wide, and when she glanced at Margeth, she saw that the King had her undivided attention as well. None of them had expected something like this. Tonight was supposed to be a night of ceremony and the kind of happy but ultimately meaningless talk that usually dominated the start of multi-day diplomatic festivals like this. None had expected Dennory to actually put forth something new.

Then Dennory lifted his hands, and a light shone above them: the emission from a hologram projector, which created the planet Xonareth above their heads, in an image a dozen feet in diameter.

Behold our world, as the Arrilori Visitors have once again allowed us to see it!” Dennory said. “Behold our tiny, fragile, beautiful home…and our two moons, Darnon and Sairnon. For so long our heavenward gaze has gone no farther than here, or it has gone all the way out, out to the stars…but we have taken our own neighborhood for granted. It is here, though, that we will find the key to going to the stars!”

The image shifted, with Xonareth shrinking and a new, even brighter, hologram forming: the Xonareth sun itself, with Xonareth shrinking to the size of a tiny but extremely bright dot, in its distant orbit. Then two other dots appeared, one within Xonareth’s orbit and one without, and farthest out was a small globe the size of a fist: the system’s most distant planet, a gas giant which the Xonarethi called Moesther. Tariana knew that there were also asteroids and comets and every other object you might expect to find in a standard single-star system.

Behold our entire system,” Dennory said. “All four of our worlds, all of which have things to offer us as we move to the stars. Right now, I call your attention to just one object.” On cue, another bright dot, this one gleaming red, appeared in the space between Xonareth and its next planet. The sped-up motions of the worlds showed off this new object’s orbit: it was highly eccentric, swinging from inside the orbit of the innermost planet at its nearest approach to the sun, to beyond Moesther’s orbit at its farthest.

Ohhhh,” Tariana heard Lieutenant Rasharri whisper. “That’s what he was getting at!”

What?” Tariana whispered.

The King has been talking to me a lot about how things get done in the Imperium,” Rasharri whispered back. “I didn’t realize he was going to act on all that so quickly.”

This,” Dennory said, “is the planetoid Heendal. It is almost certainly a leftover remnant of this system’s formation, five or six billion years ago…and it turns out, our analysis shows that it is made of many of the same ores that comprise our own world. That planetoid will become the first source of raw materials for our new ships!”

More murmuring.

The King went on: “I have had the Royal Astronomers calculate Heendal’s orbit and speed, and I have had them perform numerous calculations. This coming winter will bring Heendal on its closest approach to Xonareth for the next ten years. I propose to dispatch the Arrilori ships before it arrives, and use their tow-cables to slow Heendal down.”

Is he crazy?” Margeth whispered.

Tariana shook her head as she glanced again at the Lieutenant, who was smiling openly now.

People of Xonareth,” King Dennory said, “this is what I propose.” He gestured to the holographic star system, and the sun faded away and the image zoomed on Xonareth again. As it zoomed, the dot representing Heendall noticeably shifted its orbital path, swinging onto a new course that clearly brought it on a path for Xonareth itself. Then it slowed, slowed, and slowed some more as it approached the planet and began circling it. “I propose,” Dennory said, “to capture Heendal, put it in Xonareth’s orbit, and mine it for the metals to build our ships!”

Is he crazy?” Margeth asked. “Because that sounded crazy.”

They were back in the reception room. Darkness was settling outside, over the Central Square and, off to the left, the city itself, whose lights were now gleaming with the brightness that outshone every thing in the sky. Tariana had often found it odd that a people who so venerated the stars had built a city where they could never see them, except for during the darkness of Blacknight.

He wasn’t crazy,” Tariana said. “That’s how they build ships in a lot of places in the Imperium. Space-based ship construction is very real!”

But they have so many problems here!” Margeth said. “The cities aren’t even full yet, and he wants to build more ships! Where is he even gonna send them?”

Well….” Tariana let the word die on her lips. The truth was, Margeth had a point. Was it the right time for such a thing? Xonareth had changed so dramatically in just two years, and now King Dennory was proposing to change things even more, even faster.

She looked around the room. Where the reception before the Parliament had been a place of hushed and genial conversation, now the room was more crowded and the tone of the conversations was more potent, more dramatic, more insistent. Everyone was talking about King Dennory’s plan to build new ships, and from what Tariana could see, most were enthralled at the very possibility, even if there were still many specifics that needed discussing, not the least of which were the issues Margeth had just mentioned. There was a distinct buzz in the air that Tariana could almost feel as well as hear. She imagined that many of these same conversations were going on in the various lodging houses and hotels where the remaining dignitaries, the ones high-ranking enough to be in Chrodeliss but not quite high-ranking enough to attend this reception with the Royal Family and the Arrilori visitors, were staying.

I wonder where the Lieutenant went,” Tariana said.

She probably spotted a tray of kroth puffs,” Margeth said.

I believe that’s exactly where I saw her,” said another voice, a man’s. They turned to greet the new arrival, who smiled. “Good evening, Miss,” he said. “And you too, My Lady,” he added, looking at Margeth.

Brand!” Tariana exclaimed. “Sergeant—no!” She saw the rank insignia on Brand’s jacket. “Lieutenant?”

Brand smiled. “I got promoted again,” he said, and he spread his hands. “I’m good at my job, I suppose.”

I’m glad you’re here,” Tariana said. “I didn’t think you were supposed to be here.” She offered her hand. Brand took it, bowed respectfully, and released it. He looked older now, a year and a half after they had met and when he had very nearly died deep inside the Isle of Idai, saved only by Professator Jarel’s quick thinking and fast application of an Arrilori stasis collar. But even though Brand looked older, he still looked young, still handsome in his military way, with his flaming red hair—maybe just a bit longer than the last time they had seen him—tucked up into a dress cap.

I wasn’t,” Brand said as he assumed a perfectly military stance for addressing a woman of higher station than himself. “Several of the officers who were supposed to be here got sick. There’s quite the outbreak of waterflu going on right now.”

Yuck,” Margeth said. “Waterflu is really gross.”

Yes, it is,” Brand said. “Luckily there haven’t been any deaths, but Omimoa is not a pleasant place to be, right now. Still, even if it was the healthiest place on Xonareth, I was glad to get away for a few days.” He looked around. “It’s nice to be someplace where I don’t have to work quite so hard, for a bit.”

I know the feeling,” Tariana said. Margeth snorted at that, and Tariana glared down at her. “Stop that, you.”

He’s helping rebuild a city, Tari,” Margeth said. “I don’t think you know the feeling.”

That’s not what I meant!”

It’s all right, Miss,” Brand said. “I knew what you meant.”

What you meant about what?” someone else put in. It was Prince Joskin, who had finally managed to separate himself from all the various Royal hangers-on and other general annoyances. He, also, was holding a plate of kroth pastry and a glass of whynarii.

Your Highness!” Brand said, and he snapped immediately to attention.

Stop that,” Joskin said. “In fact, I order you to not do that ever again when it’s just me.”

I don’t think I can do that, Your Highness,” Brand said, but he resumed his “at ease” position.

Well, give it a shot.” Joskin looked at Tariana. “What you meant about what?” he asked again.

Nothing,” Tariana said. “I was trying to be supportive, but someone decided to be annoying.” She looked down at Margeth, who shrugged.

Good evening, Your Highness,” Lord Vorrimos said as he walked by on one of his periodic circuits through the room. “My Ladies. Lieutenant Brand.” He nodded to them only once, indicating the group as a whole, before walking away again, his hands clasped behind his back.

He is actually everywhere, isn’t he?” Margeth said.

Well,” Joskin said, “he actually…well…yes, I think he actually is everywhere.”

Kind of like my Captain,” Brand said.

Or our Professator,” Tariana said.

Margeth sighed. “I wish Otona was here.”

Anything to get you away from your boring sister!” Tariana said, and she stuck her tongue out at Margeth, who stuck out her own tongue in return. Aren’t we the articulate pair, Tariana thought.

Joskin looked around. “I think there are some girls from Star House Duko here,” he said. “I could introduce you.”

No thank you,” Margeth said. “I’ve met them. They’re dummies.”

Marg!” Tariana said.

They are,” Margeth said. “I met them in a music class. All they talk about is that one band, the Cross Functionals.”

Brand blinked. “The Cross what?”

You haven’t heard of them?” Margeth asked. “You’re lucky.”

We’re a bit busy for the latest music trends,” Brand said.

Are they that bad?” Joskin asked. “I didn’t think they were that bad.”

Tariana looked at Margeth, expecting to see her younger sister rolling her eyes. She wasn’t disappointed.

They’re awful,” Margeth said.

I like that one song of theirs,” Tariana said.

Oh, of course you’d like that song,” Margeth said, then she looked at Joskin and Brand. “Guess what that song is about! The one song she liked. Guess!”

The stars?” Joskin offered. Brand had suddenly taken interest in the ceiling, and Tariana shook her head.

I like that song,” she said again.

Well…” Brand cleared this throat. “I was impressed by your father’s speech,” he said to Joskin.

Thank you, Tariana mentally sent to Brand, as if he was Nella and could hear her gratitude for changing the subject. Of course he wasn’t and he couldn’t, but it still helped.

So was I,” Joskin said. “I wish he’d have said something to me beforehand about it, though. I asked him what he was going to say, but he just smiled and walked away. I think he wanted it to be a surprise to me, too.” He shook his head and took a bite from one of his kroth puffs. “I really don’t know what I think. People keep asking me what I think, and all I say is, my father has my full support. Seems to me I should have more to say than that.”

People always expect royalty to have Important Thoughts on everything,” Margeth said. “I hated that. Half the time I didn’t understand what they were even talking about.”

Even when I understand, I don’t often have an opinion,” Joskin said. “I mean, I think we need to go to the stars, now that we can. I’m just surprised that Father thinks we have to go now.” He put the rest of the kroth puff into his mouth. “These really aren’t very good. They overcooked the kroth and underseasoned the pastry.”

I thought they were good,” Brand muttered.

I’ll have to compare notes later with the Lieutenant, Tariana thought. I wonder if she’ll think the pastries unsatisfactory. She looked around. I wonder where she went?

Hmmm! Where might things go from here? Tune in next week for the third (and final) teaser chapter prior to the book’s release!

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