Sunday the 26th
Lunar 4, Luka 16
Main Residence – The Palace at Lumena
Only a small group were permitted to head out to Arianrhod’s Lot, a massive garden on the palace grounds that contained the cenotaphs. Senators Marsh and Cheema and some of their aides led the way, along with Queen Luka, her two presiding admirals, her mother, her sister, Eddy, me, and of course, our security detail, and the two news media officials with special permission to be there. Everyone else waited back at the reception for the second phase of faffery. Neither option was particularly pleasing to me, but at least with this one I got a bit of fresh air…
The entrance was guarded by a massive statue of someone holding a trident and liths, each one bearing the symbol of the Gods. Someone up ahead unlocked the gate for us, where torches inside had already been lit to guide our way. Inside, amidst the greenery, were several different rock garden formations, many in the shape of a ship’s hull. Such formations were typical for cenotaphs or memorials on Lumeria, although I’d never seen any of quite this size or any so old and lush with moss. It put the tiny one my parents kept on their altar at home to shame.
Our group proceeded through the pathways walking in reverent silence. Given the visit was more ceremonial than anything, we did not stop to pay respects at any given monument, merely kept walking. Everyone else had their heads down, though I was admittedly curious. The farther we walked back into the garden, the newer the monuments became, with more visible stone and less vegetation. In the distance ahead, I saw what I expected to be the newest area — one where I might see a stone for the real Lucasta.
I nudged Eddy. “Can I have those flowers back?”
Eddy glared at me like I was insane for speaking, even in a whisper. She handed the bouquet of flowers Luka had given me back to me, and I held them gently in my arms. It might have been a silly gesture, but something in me felt that I should leave them there, perhaps as an apology — both for lying and masquerading as a dead girl, and for everything that I knew and had seen…
When we finally came upon the graves, the sheer amount of them struck me. There had been little clusters here and there in the park, but this one was particularly large. There was the former King and Queen, all three of their daughters, and some other names I didn’t even recognize. My eyes did fall upon Lucasta’s stone, still erected where it stood, but I looked back first to the former Queen.
Breaking formation with the rest of the party, I walked back toward her grave.
“Louie?” Eddy whispered, as she trotted after me. “L-Louie.”
The others stopped, too, though none of them pursued me. They simply waited where they were and watched as I approached the graves, lingering upon the former Queen’s. Unwrapping the bouquet, I plucked one rose for her, and another, and another, until I’d given everyone I could — except Lucasta — a flower of their own. When I was finished, I went back to my place. Eddy joined me, and the walk continued. She must not have been too angry at me, because as we walked, she embraced me from the side and then held my shoulder.
When we looped back to the palace, it was time for us to return to the party. Cameras flashed unabated when we left the safety of the hallowed ground that was Arianrhod’s Lot.
“That was lovely, dear,” Eddy said. “Unconventional, perhaps, but lovely.”
Most of the others went on ahead inside, though Senator Cheema stood there waiting for us along with our security crew.
Cheema bowed to me when I got close. “Your Highness,” she said. “How kind you are, to spare some flowers for the dead.”
“To what do we owe the pleasure, Senator Cheema?” Eddy asked.
“I was hoping to speak to Her Majesty for a moment, regarding her comments this evening,” Cheema said, nodding between the two of us. “If that’s alright with you, that is. If you’re up to it, The Minority Party would like to call an emergency senate hearing tomorrow morning to address what you said this evening.”
My eyes went wide. “R-really?”
Cheema nodded. “If that is to your liking, of course. We’ve been privately negotiating a training pathway for you to take on further duties at your discretion. It stands to reason that despite your age, you could begin preparing for additional duties now, if you feel ready, that is.”
Eddy frowned, breathing through her teeth. “Oh, Louie already has so much on her plate. I’m afraid–”
“A…training pathway?” I asked, interrupting her.
“It won’t be an overnight process, I’m afraid. Her Majesty–er, The Queen–has added some provisions she’d like you to meet as well, and the Senate Majority still need some convincing,” Cheema said, glancing away. “But if that all sounds agreeable to you, then we’ll talk more tomorrow.”
“Okay,” I said, with a nod. “Sure. I’ll be there.”
Cheema took a bow again before parting, both to me, and to Eddy.
Eddy waited for Cheema to go inside before leading me back in, too, but not the party. Instead the two of us ducked into a side room lined by security, one I hadn’t been into before. Eddy flipped the lights and closed the door behind me, her lip trembling.
“Can’t you just enjoy one thing at a time, Louie? Divine Lords…” she said, quite upset.
I glanced around myself. The room was filled with gifts and arrangements of flowers, most massive and grand, the kind you could fill a display with rather than a regular bouquet.
“Is there a problem?” I asked, flatly. “She’s the one that brought it up.”
Eddy scoffed. “Of course she did! She’s a trouble-maker, always has been. The whole minority party have always had it out for Her Majesty. The gall those offworlders have, really…”
“Offworlders?” I raised a brow.
Cheema was from Aryavarta, one of Lumeria’s neighboring planets and closest and oldest territories. She might not have been from Lumeria like Eddy and me, but I’d never heard someone call a person from our system an offworlder as an insult before, let alone a Senator…
Eddy cleared her throat. “My apologies, darling. You need to do whatever you feel is best…but if you must pursue this, I’d advise making worthier allies, ones a bit closer to home.”
She meant Ambins. Someone our race, not just from our system or from our planet. It finally clicked, that was what she meant by offworlder. The problem wasn’t the planet, it was that Senator Arundhati Cheema wasn’t like us and didn’t look like us, but it would’ve been too impolite for Eddy to say what she actually meant so she had to hide it in the hopes I shared the same feelings. I was so shocked I couldn’t speak.
Instead she took my silence as accepting her stance, and patted my shoulder. “You see?” Eddy said, and winked. “I’m glad I didn’t have to spell that one out for you.”
When I was finally about to say something, there was a knock at the door. A delivery man came through with another bouquet of flowers. He bowed awkwardly when he saw us, not expecting us to have been there. These flowers caught my eye, more so than the others. Unlike the other elaborate bouquets and arrangements, this one was simple, with no filler, and only three stalks of simple white bell-shaped flowers. They were the same kind that Legato kept on that table in his weird clock room, the same I’d seen in his memories.
Eddy eyed them closely. “What in the Worlds? Lily of the… how odd,” she said, pursing her lip. “W-who sent these?”
The delivery man shrugged. “These ones don’t have a tag, ma’am. And the card isn’t too helpful either.”
I yanked the little card off the plastic stem atop the flowers. It appeared blank until I unfolded it and found: THANKS, in small, black print.
Eddy yanked the bouquet and the card away from me, her lip trembling more than I would have expected. She must’ve realized who they were from, too.
“Are you…okay?” I asked.
“Go back to the party, dear,” Eddy said lowly. “I’ve got to run a security sweep.”
ψ ψ ψ
I returned to the party just in time for post-meal dancing, music, and fireworks. Eddy had made sure I knew the basics of ballroom dancing should I need to. At this phase of the evening, my main purpose was to mingle, wave, greet people, and thank them for coming. Some of them were already beginning to head out, and the crowds were beginning to thin. Plenty of tables were still filled, however, with older gentlemen engaged in deep conversations who seemed to have no desire to leave. Eddy and the security force were skulking around in the background, some of them going around to each table to distribute party favors and, no doubt, ask about any unsavory figures who might’ve snuck in.
I lost count after the first thirty or so people I exchanged pleasantries with, and I had a line, too. My legs were numb from standing there so long in those awful heels, and my throat felt dry. I’d been on autopilot ever since we came back to the party, sharing the same, rehearsed lines over and over — things like, ‘Our family greatly appreciates your hospitality and grace,’ and ‘May the suns shine on you and yours.’ All the while, in the back of my head I was still furious at myself for not saying something to Eddy when she made that awful comment, and the sight of those flowers… Here I was supposed to be changing people like Eddy, and instead I was just… letting the garbage slide. It was like that time back on the ship when I said something awful to Hart, but only this time, it was worse. It might not have come out of my mouth, but this time I knew better and I still didn’t do a damn thing.
I snapped out of it when I saw some familiar faces cut in line a few paces back. It was the Fisks again.
“Thank you all so much for being here. My family appreciates your hospitality and grace,” I said, perhaps a bit more genuine to them than to the others, and gave them a curtsey. Mrs. Fisk responded in kind, while Ian and his dad bowed.
“Of course, dear,” Mrs. Fisk said. “If you ever need anything, don’t be afraid to call. Really, dear.”
“And I’ll get to work on what we discussed,” said Mr. Fisk. “And then…Ian wanted to ask you something.”
Ian smirked. “It’s fine. We should really be going,” he said, before turning to his father. “She’s kind of busy. Maybe next time.”
“Is something wrong?” I asked, hoping deep down that he wasn’t going to ask what I thought he was.
Ian shrugged. “I figured I’d ask you to dance, is all.”
Annnd there it was. Gods fucking damn it.
With both of his parents looking quite hopeful, I felt bad saying no, even with the line of people waiting to speak to me. Worse, with his father’s position and what he’d offered to do for my parents…this was a ‘friend’ I couldn’t afford to lose.
“Of course,” I said, cheerfully, and extended my arm to him.
What I really would’ve liked to say was, ‘over my dead body,’ or ‘I’d rather rip off all my fins,’ but I figured the change of footing might be nice, since my feet were screaming at me for standing in the same spot. And, this would give me the chance to talk to him alone for a minute or so.
The two of us went out onto the floor, arm in arm. Although we were both wearing gloves that would’ve made touching hands not taboo given the circumstances, neither one of us seemed willing to take that step. When we did begin to dance, we did so with my arms around the back of his neck and his around my waist, still with an awkward amount of loose space between us. Neither of us would even look at each other’s faces, glancing away awkwardly.
“So, let me guess. You hate my guts still,” I said, flatly.
Ian snorted. “Petra, I literally never hated you. I just–”
“Don’t tell me you were actually secretly in love with me.”
“Hell no. You’re like my sister.”
“Oh really?” I rolled my eyes. “Funny. I’ve never tried to stab Portia.”
Ian pulled me closer, probably trying to make the whole thing look less awkward from the outside. “Yeah, yeah. It got out of hand. Look…I am sorry, okay? It was a jerk thing to do, but it’s not like you didn’t get me back pretty good too, right? It’s in the past.”
Typical Ian. He always gave the kind of apology that told me he wasn’t actually sorry, but that he wanted me to forgive him so he could feel better. In the past I might have called him on it, too, but I needed to keep the peace, so I swallowed my pride. Deep down, I did feel bad about his hand.
“I really am sorry, too,” I said, and we danced in silence for a few minutes, until someone tapped on my shoulder. It was some other guy about our age, hoping to cut in.
Sure enough when I looked back there was now a whole line of them. In the background, Eddy nodded as if to encourage me, bouncing with joy. Whatever security threat she was worried about must not have mattered as much as this kind of thing.
Ian bowed at us both politely. “Your Highness,” he said, and winked at me before strolling back to his parents. “Have a wonderful night.”
To be polite I waved, but inside I just felt deflated and overwhelmed. It was time for another round of fake pleasantries and greetings, except this time it was a bunch of creepy guys who got to touch me, too. Some of them were guys I knew from school, or the relative of someone I knew. Each time a dance ended my eyes found their way to Eddy, and each time, she seemed to tell me to continue with little care as to how I felt about it. The only good part was that each dance was short and to the point, and none of them were particularly uncouth, mostly just a bunch of sweaty, shaking guys in suits with way too much body spray saying things like, ‘I never thought I’d meet a real princess.’
Several shoulder taps later, when the blisters on my feet were starting to throb and each step was painful, I was just about to finally excuse myself when someone caught my eye. I blinked, thinking I was seeing something–someone–that wasn’t there, but my eyes didn’t seem to be tricking me.
It was Jane, only it wasn’t. She was dressed like a boy, and she looked the part enough that no one there could tell she didn’t fit in.
“May I have a dance, princess?” Jane said, reaching out her hand.
“W-wh…” I stammered, before nodding yes and taking her hand. “What are you–”
“James Cliff,” Jane said, and winked. “Just a simple tulip farmer from Flanders. My uncle and aunt were invited, but they sent me instead. Hope that’s okay.”
I nodded along, unable to peel my eyes off her. Either she was wearing a wig or she might’ve dyed her hair. She’d swapped her bantu knots out for much longer black dreadlocks, and was wearing pants and a tie with a button down, navy jacket, cuffed sleeves and a beret. She was dressed like a man by Lumerian standards, but perhaps a bit androgynous anywhere else. My heart was doing that pounding thing again, and I had to be extremely careful my mouth didn’t just fall open as it would’ve liked to. Stunning is not enough to describe how she looked — an absolute fucking knockout? Drop-dead gorgeous? Not just because she wore a man’s clothes, but such swanky, stylish ones. I only hoped she didn’t feel the way I did in dresses…
“James, was it?” I asked, trying to keep smiling, feigning like I was making small talk with a total stranger. “Do you mind if I ask… what you’re doing here?”
Jane furrowed a brow, a deep, chesty laugh escaping her. She leaned in close to my face and whispered something, something I could barely process. My heart pounded in my ears. “Play it cool, for fuck’s sake,” she said, her voice sounding more like her own again. “You don’t know me, and I don’t know you.”
“But a guy?” I asked, glancing her up and down. “Doesn’t that…bother you?”
“Smile at me. Don’t look so pissed,” Jane said, without looking back. “The others can see you. Smile. Like we’re chatting. They’re looking.”
I did as instructed, smiling big and wide. I even batted my eyelashes a few times for good measure, and my voice came out much more sweetly than I intended. My words, not so much: “How about you answer the fucking question, James?”
Jane ignored my question, taking a gracious bow forward, one that from a distance, would’ve looked like continued pleasantries. “You still got that mirror, right? I need to show you something. You have to sneak out tomorrow, around midnight shift change.”
“About time. You guys left me hanging for–”
“Uh, yeah. You try busting into this goth castle, Pietro. It’s no fucking joke. This is literally the fourteenth time I’ve tried to get to you in the past week – and don’t even get me started on Lacuna.”
“R-really?” I asked, feeling myself blush again. I bit my lip. “So you aren’t mad?”
Jane averted her eyes, awkwardly. “I figured you’d be mad at me, Pietro. First I lied and then…” she shook her head. “I shouldn’t have assumed.”
“…you know. You have the weight of the Worlds on your shoulders. You’re alone and your life is a mess. I should’ve known you needed a friend, not…” Jane paused, glancing away. She bit her bottom lip. “What I’m trying to say is, I’m sorry if I made anything awkward.”
“Uh… awkward is good,” I stammered. “I liked the awkward. I–”
Just when I was about to tell her that I thought I was the one who was supposed to be apologizing to her, someone else came and tapped my shoulder. The air between us shifted, knowing we both had to shelve this conversation for later. Jane took a gracious bow, offering whoever it was their turn. I curtsied to them both, wincing through my fake smile. Hers was the only dance I would’ve liked to be longer…
“Have a wonderful evening, Your Highness,” Jane said, and bowed to me once again before she took her leave. “May the suns shine on you forever.”