Monday the 27th
Lunar 4, Luka 16
The Palace at Lumena – Cloudburst
There was one silver lining that came with my new guardsmen: Eddy kept her word. She told them she needed to give them their official ‘lay of the land’ and talk security, and that I needed some time and space to reflect upon the gravity of the Senate’s decision today. I did need space, not about any of this princess shit, just my recent run in with my not-aunt and, of course, Portia and Duncan.
They just… left. No note. No word. Nothing.
Sure they were pissed at me — maybe hated me — but to just go and leave like that…? We were family, damn it. I was naive enough to believe that somehow I could keep us together, that I could just fix everything I broke. Maybe Eddy was right. It wasn’t like I’d been very attentive lately, or come through on any of my promises to them…
It still hurt.
From what I overheard before Eddy dragged the admirals away, things here were only going to get worse around here. The Queen must’ve known I was sneaking out. Apparently from now on, one of the admirals literally needed to be with me at all times, unless I was in the toilet or shower. I wouldn’t even be able to sleep on my own without one of them standing there watching me in my bed. Not that I wasn’t sleeping like shit before, but that right there was the final nail in my sleep coffin. My world after tonight would make everything up until now look like freedom.
Tonight also happened to be the night that Jane asked me to meet her. I had to seize this opportunity, even if I felt like shit.
When the time came, I laid out my shower things and a pair of nightclothes, then locked the bathroom door to set the scene. The toilet and shower were my safe havens, after all, even if the admirals came to check on me. I turned on all the faucets, put on some music, and then retrieved the mirror from my secret hiding place. The others made it look so damn easy, but all I saw was my reflection: my puffy, reddened eyes, and my skin flaring up from all the tears. It seemed no different from an ordinary mirror. Then, I gave it a few good smacks, until my hand fell through it and the rest of me followed…
ψ ψ ψ
Unexpected frigid air was my first indication that I’d been successful. Someone wearing thick gloves grabbed me by the arm, steadying me. My head was spinning still, but the cold roused me quicker than usual, biting through my summer dress and tights. The lighting was dim; wherever I was, was lit only by flickering gas lamps and torchlights and reeked of…plastic? A tent?
“Good timing,” Jane whispered, patting a bit of dirt off my shoulder. “Here. Put this on.”
Hearing her voice was such a relief.
“What?” I asked.
Jane slapped her hand over my mouth. I took whatever she handed me; a big, thick coat, lined with various furs. “Quiet,” Jane whispered again. “Night shift is sleeping.”
The cramped space was filled with cardboard boxes, duffle bags, coats, and other supplies. Just on the other side of a mesh curtain were some familiar faces, curled up in sleeping sacks. Cove was sprawled out in a star shape and drooling, halfway spilling into Mwenze’s space beside him. Mwenze was snoring on his side, pushed up against a row of backpacks and boxes. A few more spaces were still undisturbed, as if some others were out exploring. Based on all the sketchbooks laying around, my guess was Jack and Hart.
“Wait, is this Lacuna?” I asked, my eyes bugging wide with realization. I didn’t know I was leaving the planet.
Jane nodded. “How long can you stay?”
“As long as you think nobody would be willing to bang down the door because I’m showering too long in the middle of the night.”
“Then we better get going,” Jane said, and motioned for me to follow her. “Keep your hood up in case anyone sees us and grab those boots. Gloves are in your pockets.”
Zipping the tent entrance closed behind me, I shivered. No wonder we needed the coats – Lacuna was freezing. It might’ve been spring back home, but this had to be the dead of winter. The landscape was covered with huge swaths of shiny white and crystalline ice as far as I could see, and even in the dark it blew around and glittered. I’d never seen such a thing outside of books or television. We got snow and cold on Lumeria, but not like this — I could see my own breath before when I talked, little swirls of life in the sky.
“What is this place?” I asked, another puff of visible air escaping me. “Where are all the people?”
There didn’t seem to be much in the way of civilization even beneath the snow, let alone trees or nature. The landscape was barren, apart from what appeared to be craters and massive mountains in the distance.
“This is Vaasa, or what’s left of it. Not many folks are left around here—especially since the Corps moved in,” Jane said, taking a turn off the path. “Careful. There’s a ledge over here – don’t fall.”
Down below in what appeared to be a deep cavern, there was a factory of sorts, it’s smokestacks raising steam even deep at night. A small fleet of Lumerian cruisers was parked outside of it.
Jane glanced at her watch, then handed me some binoculars. “Watch the cargo coming off that ship.”
First it was just a couple of Corpsmen, most in blue—the same ones we saw on Carthage–but some were purple, with simpler versions of the uniform that Vepar, the older of my two new guards, wore. My stomach lurched. People. The cargo was people again, a line of prisoners bound, each wearing thick coats and hiding their faces.
“More people. Gross,” I muttered.
“Not just any people. What do they have in common?”
Some of them were men, some were women. Some were old, or young, and there was an Ambin, a Golin, an Arya… they didn’t seem to have anything in common to me, until a gust of wind blew back their coat hoods, exposing their heads. They all had pink hair like Jane.
“See? They’re not trafficking people,” Jane said, her eyes fixed on the scene below. “They’re trafficking weapons.”
I almost dropped the binoculars. “Weapons? Y-you mean… the tree thing?”
“You’ve seen what one of us can do, Pietro. That many could be catastrophic.”
“What do you think they’re doing?”
“That’s what we’re going to find out… well, not us,” Jane muttered. “The boss is pulling me out of here the second I tell him. And you—”
“That’s right!” I interrupted her, realizing. “Gods, Jane! What if they’re after you, too?”
“I can take care of myself, thanks. What I’m worried about is what that dear old Queen of ours is up to. Have you heard anything?”
I was the last person they would tell, but maybe I could do some digging. “I guess I can ask Vepar.”
“Admiral Vepar?” Jane fluttered her eyelashes, acting fake impressed. “Uh, yeah, he’d be one to ask. Since when do you know him?!”
“The Queen has him babysitting me now — him and the green one.”
“Malphas? So, getting to you just got that much harder. Damn…”
On the bright side, it sounded like we could use my misfortune to our advantage. “I doubt they’re gonna be a problem, Jane. Vepar’s ancient, and the other one is just in his own World…”
Jane crossed her arms. “Careful. It could be an act, Pietro.”
“How about you be careful? Apparently you’re the one in danger!” I cried, pointing back at the facility down in the crater. “Promise me you’re actually going to stay out of this?”
Jane winked, smiling at me. “Yeah, yeah. You have no room bitching about danger, Your Highness.”
I giggled, melting a bit inside. That smile always got me. It distracted me enough that I forgot what I was going to say next, and even though I wanted more assurance from Jane that she wasn’t going to pull any stunts, why waste such precious time arguing?
“Gods. There’s so much else I want to tell you,” I said, hugging myself to stay warm. “I missed you.”
“Same here.” Jane reached out to console me, though her touch was muted through all the layers of coats and clothes.
We spent the walk back catching up, holding hands through our warm, fluffy gloves. We seemed to take a longer path back, snaking through a footpath that led between some other tents that must’ve contained locals, each one fighting to keep warm by lamplight alone. There was nothing but the crunch of the snow between our boots echoed out in the silent, snowy darkness.
We had a lot to catch up on.
Things on the ship were bleak. Crew numbers were at an all-time low but need across the galaxy was higher than ever, which was why Jane and the others had set up a tent here while Legato and some of the others were tending to another issue. The Corps were up to no good, using the cover of news about Lucasta to get away with cockier moves than ever before. People were getting scared; even long-time contacts on planets and satellites were folding. No one on the ship seemed to realize the connection between me and Lucasta. The rest of the crew just figured ‘Pietro’ quit and went home, which was fine with me. On the bright side, my favorite mouser kitten, Moose, was doing well. She’d taken up sleeping on my pillow in my old room, which Jane had made sure was left undisturbed for me, just in case I ever came back.
And then there was everything on my end: days and days of boring lockdown, Fisk being at the party, and his dad agreeing to help my parents, Senator Cheema’s offer, and this training pathway. When I got to the part about my brother and sister, my voice cracked. Jane turned to face me, worry in her eyes.
“They left this morning,” I whispered, stopping along the side of the path. I couldn’t walk and keep my shit together at the same time.
“I’m so sorry,” Jane said, pulling me into a hug. “They’re with family, right?”
“Yeah. And I know it’s best, but…” I paused, snorting back a bunch of snot that tried to escape my nose. “It sucks. It just… sucks.”
“It does, but think of it this way: soon enough, this will all be over, one way or another,” Jane said, taking my hand again. “Your parents will be free, and everyone will be together at last. And, hey, at least you know your brother and sister are safe until then… from the Queen, and even Quail and Kippers.”
My face fell, remembering. “Oh Gods that was the worst–”
“I know!” Jane interrupted. “I was pissed when they told me–pissed. Like, what? Since when do we go around drugging school girls? Not on my watch.”
I couldn’t help but smile a bit, feeling affirmed. Damn, it felt good to be on the same page with somebody. Somehow Jane always knew the right thing to say, and as usual, she was right. Portia and Duncan were safe now. That was something to celebrate, not mourn.
“Could you check in on them?” I asked. “If it’s not too–”
“I sure can. And I won’t take anybody else with me, either,” she said, before her smile faded. “It’s the least I can do, considering…”
“I’m okay. Really. I’m–”
“Drowning. You’re drowning, Pietro.”
“I can tell,” Jane said, flatly. “I’m literally watching you and your life crash and burn in real time–and didn’t we say we weren’t lying to each other?”
She got me there, didn’t she? I’d forgotten what it was like to be able to be honest, even though it was my idea in the first place. There was so much I blamed myself for, so many little reasons that deep down, some part of me felt I had to suffer as penance for all the damage I caused.
“I could use a little help,” I admitted. “But I know you can’t–”
“Done. I’ll figure something out,” Jane said, giving me her signature wink again. “James Cliff had no problem getting in and out of that ball…and I did not learn all that hoity-toity rich ass vanilla Ambin dance shit as a one time thing.”
“You weren’t half bad,” I said, biting the inside of my cheek. “You looked great in that suit. Didn’t it bother you to dress that way?”
“Eh, I can rock a masc or stud look now and then for a job, when I have to. The real shame was dancing with you when you looked so miserable. We should’ve traded.”
My heart fluttered in my chest, a warmth reaching through me even in the icy cold. Imagining our roles flipped, Jane being a gorgeous princess, and me as some simple, handsome gentleman, sweeping her off her feet? That was more like it, a dance I wouldn’t dread… one I couldn’t help but smile just thinking about.
Our walk was over soon after, even with the extended route, but I was feeling better than I had in ages. Jane motioned for me to wait outside the tent and went back inside the tent to get the mirror. When she emerged again, she looked troubled, forlorn.
“It might take me a little longer to figure things out with the admirals, so I don’t know when the next time I’ll see you is,” Jane murmured. “Sorry. I know that’s not much to offer.”
Taking off the coat to return it to her, I chuckled. “Hope is a pretty big deal, Jane.”
“Yeah?” Jane smiled, pressing in something on the mirror before she handed it and my shoes to me, so I could keep it with me. “Then I guess you should feel pretty damn good about yourself, Pietro, seeing as that’s what you are for millions of people. Hope.”
A few minutes beforehand I wouldn’t have believed it, but the way Jane spoke, I felt like I could do anything, like the suns really would rise again one day and everything would mend. I just had to hold on — keep breathing — one foot in front of the other. I could do this. I could keep it together.
“Hey. There’s one thing you can offer me,” I said, my fins rising as goosebumps dotted my arms, both from the cold and nerves. “Another dance, when we’re both dressed right. Any kind of dance you want.”
Jane’s lips curled, her face wrinkling in a cheeky, devious way. “Yeah? Deal,” she said, and chucked the mirror at me.