Star of Wonder,
* * * * *
The next morning at breakfast, Amanda was working her way through a short stack of pancakes (having swallowed the pill provided to her by Séarlait’s healer cousins in the privacy of her own room) when the admittance chime sounded for the main door.
“What in the stars?” said her grandfather, looking up from his tripad, where he was scrolling through the day’s business news. “Who could that be? Tell them we don’t want any.”
“Now, George. We must be polite.” Her grandmother pushed back from the table and went to the door. “Yes?” she said in her most dauntingly civil tone as it whooshed open.
“Mrs. Prince?” inquired the dark woman standing in the corridor. “I’m First Responder Imogene Silver. Welcome to Curie Alpha Mu. I’m terribly sorry I haven’t been by to say hello before this, but it’s been a busy time of year.”
“Of course.” Amanda’s grandmother contrived to give the impression of looking down her nose at Silver, though the other woman was nearly fifteen centimeters taller. “What can I do for you, Responder Silver? Is something the matter?”
“Not at all.” Silver drew her tripad from the pocket of her gold coverall. “I was hoping you and your husband and—granddaughter, yes?—would be my guests at a performance being put on by some friends of mine in a few days’ time. They’re professional musicians and actors, quite famous in their own line of work, and their Christmas shows are generally the highlight of their year. This year’s show is a dramatization of a winter-themed fairytale, a story of love and courage and so forth. Really quite beautiful, and as a friend of the troupe, I have a few tickets to do with as I please. So if that sounds like something you’d be interested in?”
“Oh, Grandmother, please may we go?” Amanda blurted out before her grandmother could refuse. “It sounds just lovely!”
“Yes, Julia, let’s.” Her grandfather set his tripad aside. “It seems the sort of thing we’ve been looking for. To take a certain person’s mind off other things, if you understand me.”
“Excellent, then we’ll count that as settled.” Silver swiped her fingers a few times across her tripad’s screen. “I can pass the tickets to you right now, if you like.”
“Well, no time like the present, I suppose.” George Prince picked up his own tripad again and opened the receiving screen, then tapped it against Silver’s, allowing the two devices to talk to one another and transfer the electronic ticket. Julia went next, and Amanda last of all, pressing her free hand against the leg of her coverall to keep from betraying her nerves.
“There you are,” said Silver with a nod, and Amanda looked down at her screen. The file transfer icon at the bottom had a small ‘2’ in its upper right hand corner. “I look forward to seeing you there, these productions are always more fun when you can share them with someone who hasn’t attended before…”
Amanda laid her finger against the icon while Silver continued to make small talk with her grandparents. The two files swam upwards onto her screen, the first labeled “ticket”, the second entitled “read me”. After saving the first to short-term memory, she touched the second gingerly.
Two lines of black text sprang into view on a white background.
Be ready at midnight tonight. Your help is vital.
“I will be,” Amanda whispered as the text dissolved into nothingness. “I will be.”
The day passed slowly, enlivened only by Julia Prince’s insistence that she and Amanda go dress shopping in the afternoon. “Even in such a place as this, there’s no excuse for looking shabby,” she said in her most carrying tone as they entered one of the boutiques on Gamma Level. “Now what do you think would suit you best for a Christmas dress, Amanda dear? Something in gold, or perhaps a warm red?”
“Gray,” said Amanda firmly, turning her eyes away from a crest of black hair lurking behind one of the racks of dresses. “Dark gray. We’re going to see the show, Grandmother, not to be seen.”
“Nonsense, my dear, everyone goes to such things to be seen.” Julia looked her granddaughter up and down. “Still, with some jewelry to add sparkle, I suppose it would work. Assuming we can find anything which can be fitted to you on such short notice in this backwater.”
Amanda sent an apologetic look to the shop attendants and stepped up onto the fitting platform.
Less than an hour later, she was standing in front of a simple gown of soft gray cloth with a slender bodice and a full, gently pleated skirt, while her grandmother took her turn on the fitting platform, the attendants adjusting the projected image of various gowns available for sale as Julia directed them. A tiny rustle off to one side caught her attention, and she turned just in time to see Stefan Xiao, An-jing and Séarlait’s younger brother, poke his head around a corner and snap two pictures with his tripad. He winked at her, then vanished out the front of the shop so quickly Amanda could almost believe she’d imagined his being there at all.
How strange. Why would they need a picture of my dress?
Setting the question aside as unanswerable, Amanda turned her attention back to her grandmother, who was now haranguing one of the attendants for refusing to brighten the color of her current gown any further. “I like the softer blue, Grandmother,” she said in her most diplomatic tone. “It will set off your sapphire set all the better if it’s an echo rather than an exact match.”
A few hours later, dresses decided upon, grandmother and granddaughter returned to their rented quarters, where Amanda, pleading a headache, ate dinner by herself in her room before lying down for as much of a nap as her excitement would allow her to take. Long before midnight, she was up and pacing the floor, until barely ten minutes before the hour her tripad buzzed. “Yes?” she said breathlessly, tapping her finger against the accept key.
“Séarlait here,” said the cheerful voice of the younger girl, though the screen stayed dark. “We’re working this link voice-only, it’s safer than a shove. Less data to tap. Hold for our onsite team, please.”
A few clicks and buzzes sounded, then a woman’s voice spoke, flattened and distorted by passing through two sets of speakers but still recognizable as K.D.’s. “Amanda, we’re going to need your help with this. How are the outer locks set up on the California? Is there something physical they require to respond, a key card or transmitter, or is it a biometric, a handprint or eye scanner?”
“The main locks work on a transmitter, but I don’t know what happened to it.” Amanda looked down at her hands, barren of jewelry, and felt a sullen surge of anger in the pit of her stomach. “I had it embedded in my wedding ring, and you can imagine they didn’t let me keep that.”
“No, I wouldn’t think so.” K.D. chuckled. “I might be able to interface with the computer and persuade it to open anyway, but I’m a little leery of that. We’ve dealt with people this possessive and this ruthless before, and sometimes they leave some nasty surprises behind for anyone who tries to undo what they’ve done.”
“What about your secondary lock, your backup?” Lonan’s voice chimed in. “How do you have that one keyed?”
“That one’s for emergencies, so it’s…” Amanda stopped, her breath catching in her chest as memory flooded over her. “It’s a voice code,” she whispered. “A challenge, then an answer, and the answer keyed to Dai’s voice and mine. Can you get a link to the receiver?”
“One moment.” Keys rattled furiously. “Got it. Here comes the challenge. ‘Processional, two, three.’ Ready for answer in three, two, one, go.”
The thought of her wedding night, and the old organist she’d known all her life who had come to the church still in his nightshirt to play for her, tried to close Amanda’s throat, but she swallowed once and enunciated the proper words clearly. “Hill and vale, and tree and flower—”
A sharp buzz made her gasp, and her tripad lit up with Séarlait’s face. The younger girl tugged at her ear, her eyes sharp with warning, then smiled broadly. “So, I understand you’ll be coming to see our show! Are you looking f
“Yes, I dance.” Amanda fought to keep her tone easy and normal, as though she had only been having a pleasant conversation with an acquaintance. “And that would be fun, first to be watching a show and then suddenly to be in it. Almost like magic, or being transported into another world.”
“Fantastic. I’ll put you down for that, then.” Séarlait winked once. “Sleep well, and run as you please.”
The tripad’s screen blacked out, and Amanda closed her eyes against her tears. “We were so close,” she breathed. “So close. Oh, Dai—”
Pressing her lips resolutely together before she could begin to whine, she instead picked up her tripad and opened a search screen. This attempt might not have succeeded, but she suspected that her new friends didn’t give up easily, and they would need her strong and capable when they tried again, not worn out and witless from lack of sleep. Looking up the farewell phrase Séarlait had used, the same as An-jing’s the day before, would, she hoped, be sufficiently distracting that she could fall asleep when she was done.
And I might even learn some of that story Deirdre was talking about.
Though that precise story proved elusive, reading about the intriguing customs of the subset of humanity known as the Aelur teased Amanda’s mind back into calm. She had little trouble associating the call-names listed in the wiki entry with the people she had met—Suncrest for Kenneth with his thick crop of platinum hair, Duskdance for Dierdre with her dark and flowing grace, Sundance for cheerful An-jing and Starsong for her quieter sister—and coaxed herself into sleep by considering possibilities for the name she would choose if she, too, were Aelur.
Maybe Darkmoon, because of my hair? Or Surefoot, because I do enjoy dancing. Or possibly Warmhands, because of how much I like to cook and bake when I get the chance…
Her dreams featured a moonlit dance across a floor of pots and pans, which was a distinct improvement over the nightmares of loss and loneliness she’d been suffering lately, and Amanda found herself more able to meet her grandparents’ eyes the next day and engage them in light conversation than she would have believed possible. Listening to her grandfather hold forth about his business plans, agreeing politely with her grandmother’s decisions about parties and receptions when the family should get back to Liverpool, took on the qualities of camouflage, of ensuring her grandparents should think that nothing had changed about her at all.
The dresses arrived from the boutique after dinner, and Amanda and her grandmother spent a pleasant hour or two deciding on the jewelry to wear with them, of which Amanda later (obedient to the tiny note on old-fashioned paper she’d found pinned underneath her dress’s collar) snapped pictures and sent them to An-jing’s contact code. Another session of reading about Avyla, the Aelur homeworld, gave her a night filled with dreams of open plains, reed-filled marshes, and forests which stretched as far as the eye could see, and she awakened on the day of the performance well-rested but edgy with anticipation.
A message from An-jing and Séarlait, sent to the main screen of the Princes’ quarters rather than to Amanda’s personal tripad, helped defray her nerves, though not in the way Amanda had been expecting.
“Good shift, theatergoers!” An-jing beamed out of the screen. Her dark hair was pulled back in a simple tail, and she was dressed in a ruffled shirt, tail coat, and knee breeches with stockings. “We hope you’re looking forward to our performance tonight!”
“We might just choose you to be part of our dance in the last act,” added Séarlait, who was wearing a long gown of soft lilac with lines that looked intriguingly familiar to Amanda. “And if we do, we thought you should have a chance to see how the steps go beforehand.”
“I’m the gentleman, so I stand in the inner circle.” An-jing positioned herself in front of her sister. “Ladies on the outside, right hand to right hand, and away we go. Just a simple walk, pivoting on our palms.”
“Eight counts, eight steps, should bring you back to where you started.” Séarlait matched action to word, as did An-jing. “Half turn, raise your left hand, and do it again. Eight steps the other way this time.”
“Back where you started a second time, and now take both your partner’s hands.” An-jing smiled, squeezing Séarlait’s fingers. “Step in, step out, let go and bow or curtsy.”
“Step in, step out, and twirl to your left to find a new partner.” Séarlait’s skirts whirled about her ankles. “And that’s all there is to it! Enjoy the performance, and we’ll see you there!”
“A new dance, hmm?” said Amanda’s grandfather when the screen went dark. “We’ll have to get some video of that, Julia. Something to take home with us. Maybe introduce it at Amanda’s betrothal party, once everything’s settled between us and Burgess.”
“I hope they pick me for the masquerade tonight, then.” Amanda pushed back from the table and got up, striking a pose as though she already wore her soft gray gown and the sparkling jewelry which complemented it so well. “If I’m going to be the first person on Liverpool to perform this dance, I ought to know what I’m doing, don’t you think?”
Both the elder Princes laughed, and Amanda smiled faintly, turning away from them to raise her right hand into place and walk in a circle around it with slow, steady steps. Dance practice would give her something normal to do, which she badly needed to keep her mind off the transmission which had been so abruptly interrupted the night before last and the fact that no further direct communication had been attempted.
But the performance is tonight, and that has to have something to do with me, something to do with all of this. Maybe the next thing they need from me, the next message they need to send me, will be somewhere within the story they tell. I’ll have to keep my eyes open for it.
I only hope they’re not trying to tell me that they didn’t find Dai after all, or that he’s dead, and I should be getting ready for a new partner of my own…
While the cycle of fear, worry, anticipation, and hope could not have been said to be a pleasant one, it did make the time pass quickly. Almost before Amanda knew it, she was activating the camo-chips in her dancing shoes which allowed them to match any color (in this case, the gray of her new dress), tucking her tripad into the hidden pocket inside the fullness of her skirt’s right hip, and brushing out her hair in preparation for the little tiara she and her grandmother had chosen. Once its matching necklace and earrings were in place, she surveyed herself in the head’s full-length mirror. “Not too shabby,” she said aloud, doing a slow turn to observe how the skirt swirled. “I ought to fit right in at the fairy tale masquerade.”
Closing her eyes, she began to walk in place the steps of the dance, allowing her mind to conjure up her perfect partner. Dressed in silver-gray to set off the red tones in his warm brown skin, the tender gleam she loved to see in his gold-flecked hazel eyes, Dafydd Evans matched his lady step for step, until she twirled a bit too enthusiastically and brought herself up against the wall of the head with a grunt.
“Enough,” she said out loud, regaining her balance and opening her eyes to be sure her imaginings hadn’t disarrayed her hair (they hadn’t). “I need to get going. Whatever happens, happens, and it’s my job to be ready for it.”
Arranging her face in her best enjoying-an-evening-out smile, she walked out to the main room, where her grandparents were waiting. After the obligatory noises of delight over the way she looked, George offered his arm to his wife, and Amanda fell in dutifully behind the couple. Following the directions on Julia’s tripad, they walked to the nearest bank of elevators and descended to Kappa Level, where they followed the same path along which An-jing had led Amanda a few days earlier, winding up in one of the yellow-painted docking zones which indicated that they were leaving Cu
“Welcome to the Wild Rover, sir and ma’ams,” said the young woman standing outside the broad-walled lock, bobbing a curtsey, and Amanda had to remind herself sharply that gawking was rude. Reading in the wiki that the ancestors of the present-day Aelur had been given some of the physical traits of cats by a rogue geneticist was all very well, but she realized now she hadn’t understood fully what that meant.
Though I suppose I saw some of the Aelur who haven’t changed their appearance while I was having that drug reaction. I just thought I’d dreamed them up. Pointed ears, furry hands and faces, eyes with slit pupils instead of round…
The young woman who was now checking in George Prince’s ticket from his tripad with her handheld scanner had all of the above, though only the brown-furred ears, which rose sharply through her long hair (likewise brown), would have been apparent from even a few steps further away. Amanda found herself forced to admire the aplomb of her grandparents, who were behaving as though nothing were unusual about the young woman at all.
Or maybe they just think it’s makeup for the show. I’m sure that’s what I would think, if I hadn’t read about the Aelur already.
“And you, ma’am,” said the young woman, and Amanda came back to herself with a little start and removed her tripad from its hidden pocket, pulling up the ticket on its screen. The handheld scanner beeped, and Amanda’s tripad hummed in reply, confirming that an electronic program for the evening’s show had been downloaded in exchange for the ticket. “Take either elevator up to the performance level, then follow the signs to the left main doors. Enjoy the show.”
Following her grandparents into the small and crowded lobby decorated with evergreens and lights, Amanda entertained herself observing the various theatergoers’ ideas of appropriate dress for an evening out, ranging from standard coveralls, though generally embellished with holiday festive colors or patterns, to suits like her grandfather’s or gowns like her own and her grandmother’s, cut in styles from the severely simple to the floridly elaborate. This informal survey held her interest through the elevator ride up to the performance level, the walk down the shipside corridor, and even the first few steps through the left main doors. Then her attention was drawn in another direction altogether.
Rising to either side of her, and behind her when she turned to look, was a broad sweep of standard spectator seats, such as she had seen at sports stadiums and theaters all her life. Directly in front of her, in the forested area she had visited three days before, fairyland seemed to have come to life. A great palace hall, decorated with sculptures of ice and streamers of snow, sat amid the now-wintry landscape as though it had always been there.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please take your seats,” a smooth, deep voice spoke over the awestruck chattering of the crowd. “Tonight’s performance of The Winter Princess will begin in fifteen minutes. Thank you.”
“The Winter Princess?” Amanda’s grandmother frowned, looking over the palace hall as though she were searching for flaws in a newly delivered piece of artwork. “Odd. I’m not familiar with that story.”
“Likely it’s one of theirs.” Her grandfather checked the number on his ticket, then waved the two women towards one of the aisles. “These little isolated cultures put together all sorts of bits and pieces into whatever they please. All the more reason to make sure we expand trade as far as we can, to keep this sort of thing from deviating so far that we stop being able to understand one another…”
Bringing up the rear, Amanda looked down at her tripad’s screen. The program cover looked back at her, with the title of the show superimposed over the silhouette of a snowflake, highlighted in silver and gold. She brushed her finger across the screen, turning the page, and got a screenful of paired roles and names, some she recognized, some she didn’t. The next page displayed a list of scenes, and the places in which they were to happen in the world of the story. The Palace of Winter, currently on display, was only one of three in which the Princess’s tale would play out.
I still don’t know what any of this has to do with me and Dai, but even if it’s nothing, at least I’ll have a couple of hours where I don’t have to worry about it. Amanda smiled to herself. And who knows? Maybe this whole story was written just for me, it’s a magic spell in disguise, and it’s going to reunite the lovers and spirit them away to safety right in front of everyone…
The thought of her relatives’ faces, should such a thing happen to them, kept Amanda amused until the lights in the grand auditorium darkened over the seats, simultaneously brightening over the hall of the Winter Palace, and the crowd noise quieted to an anticipatory hush. Soft music began to play, lightly dancing strings and woodwinds, like the first flurries of snow drifting down from the thick gray clouds of winter.
“Once upon a time,” recited the same deep voice quietly, the words interweaving with the music as though they had been written to complement each other, “in a faraway land, there lived the King and Queen of Winter and their beloved daughter, the Winter Princess. Although she had everything her heart should have desired, still the Princess was troubled, for at night her sleep was disturbed by her dreams, nor did they allow her any peace during the day…”
Amanda sat up straight in her seat as the Princess entered the scene, posing for a moment at the top of the Palace’s stairs before descending them to droop disconsolately onto a seat below one of the windows. The slender figure in its long gray gown, with its careless tumble of dark hair surmounted by a small and sparkling tiara, could easily have been her own.
And a Princess with dreams, dreams she likes better than her real life? I don’t want to assume too much, too soon, but maybe, just maybe…
Before three minutes had passed, Amanda was sure of her conclusion. Eagerly she leaned forward to watch the Princess’s adventures, hiding laughter behind her hand as she matched them, point for point, with her own. She felt again the painful stab through her chest, mingled hope and despair, when her beloved’s existence was confirmed even as his whereabouts were revealed to be far beyond her reach, and held her breath as the Princess followed the moonbeam path towards the Land of Flowers, only to let it go in a little moan of dismay when a tumbling rush of light revealed that it had all been a dream.
And that’s as far as my story has gone, either. I know where he is, but not how to free him, or even if it can be done. Swallowing against tears, Amanda turned her head away from the stage. Maybe the Princess will get her happy ending somehow, but I don’t see how I will.
When she looked back, the Palace of Winter was being decked with greenery and ribbons, turning it from an area so sterile and monochromatic that it could almost have been a shipside compartment to a warm, cheerful hall fit for the most joyous celebration. She stared blankly for a second, then remembered the narrator’s words about the masquerade ball held each year on Christmas Eve, and the dance she’d been practicing most of the day. Off to one side, the Princess finished her pantomimed argument with her mother, and fitted a mask of black cloth across the top half of her face.
“The gates of the Palace were flung wide on the night of Christmas Eve, and young and old, rich and poor, natives and strangers, were welcomed inside for the masquerade,” intoned the narrator, and from every direction, both onstage and through the audience, came laughing dancers in gala attire, some of them stopping beside seats to catch hold of a person’s hands and draw them into the festive crowd, as music struck up on stage and a small dancing circle formed. “Some came quickly, others slowly, but all who could come, did, for the season of Christmas was the most joyous time in the Kingdom of Winter, and no one wished to be left out.”
A hand touched Amanda’s shoulder, and she turned to see who was there. A group of young women in multicolored gowns and masks, some plain, others shaped like fanciful creatures (and one or two, she strongly suspected, whose faces required no masking to look unusual), beckoned for her to join them, and after the brie
The lively dance being played drew to a close as the audience members began to arrive, and Amanda followed the insistent tugging on her hands to take her place in a new, larger dancing circle. A few people, she suspected, had brought masks with them from home, for among the plain strips of cloth covering eyes and noses she saw the sculptured features of woodland animals, the rays of a sun or the points of a crescent moon, and even, on one tall young man dressed in a silver tunic and trousers, the full-face mask of an ice-white dragon. Her eyes lingered on him until a fanfare of trumpets announced the beginning of the dance.
The orchestra began to play a new melody, hauntingly familiar, and Amanda hissed once between her teeth as she raised her right hand to touch palms with her partner, a broad-shouldered boy in green with a mask she thought might be meant to depict a tree spirit.
Of all the songs in the world, why this one?
But it was too late for such questions now, for the dance had begun. Numbly Amanda’s mind fitted words to the hymn tune as she paced her stately way around the invisible pivot of her own hand and her partner’s.
For the beauty of the earth,
For the glory of the skies,
For the love which from our birth
Over and around us lies,
Lord of all, to Thee we raise
This our hymn of grateful praise!
A spin to the left, a swirl of skirts, and Amanda faced her next partner, but her eyes were drawn once again to the young man in the mask of the Ice Dragon. He was dancing almost directly across the circle from her, and the girl in blue with whom he was partnered was gazing up at him in awe. Amanda couldn’t blame her. The young man’s steps were firm and graceful, his turns crisp, his bows elegant. She didn’t think he was a member of the Wild Rover’s company, but this was surely not his first time in a pattern dance.
And if I really were the Winter Princess, I know just what would happen next. We would dance our merry way around the circle, one partner after another, all the while pretending he and I were never going to meet, but truly counting down the people to go through until we did, three more, two more, one more, and then…
Amanda lifted her head and met the gold-flecked eyes behind the Ice Dragon’s mask, and her hands and feet chilled even as her face flushed. In a daze, she lifted her right hand to meet her partner’s, and did not protest when his warm brown fingers curled around hers, holding her in place, though that was no part of the dance. The music had changed, she was vaguely aware, drifting away from the foursquare time-marking of the pattern dance into an instrumental fantasia she almost recognized as something else, and the other dancers were drawing back respectfully from the two of them, choosing partners for themselves or stepping aside in little clusters to watch.
“My Princess,” murmured the voice she had been praying to hear, and the Ice Dragon bowed low over her hand without relinquishing it. “Will you dance with me?”
“I will,” Amanda breathed with an answering curtsey, and stepped into an embrace as familiar to her as her own name, her hand resting on her partner’s shoulder and his lightly clasping her waist. The harpist seated at the center of the small orchestra finished an intricate set of runs up and down the octaves, and the strings began once more to mark time, though now they were playing in three. Amanda exhaled a shaky laugh as she recognized the music, and rose onto the balls of her feet in readiness.
What could be more perfect?