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Star of Wonder

 

Star of Wonder

 

Christmas in the greater galaxy:

Holidays with Anne, Special Edition

 

Anne B. Walsh

 

Shakespir Edition

 

Copyright 2016 Anne B. Walsh

 

Cover picture: Mirfak by Egres73 – own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30248438

 

Please note: All stories in this collection have been previously published as part of the “Holidays with Anne” series. As such, this unitary edition is being made available to readers for free.

 

 

 

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite e-book retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

Table of Contents

 

Title Page

Dedication

Foreword

Glorious Song of Old

Enough

The Tenth Lady

Sun and Moon and Stars of Light

Also by Anne B. Walsh

 

 

Dedication

 

For my brother Dominic.

One of the bravest people I know.

 

 

Foreword

 

Raise your hand if you hate it when authors re-release old writing in new editions, seemingly without rhyme or reason, just to make more money.

Pretty much everybody’s hand is up, am I right? Which is why this e-book, Star of Wonder , is the very first collection of my original writing that I am publishing 100% permanently FREE. (You’re welcome.)

The four stories in this volume, “Glorious Song of Old”, “Enough”, “The Tenth Lady”, and “Sun and Moon and Stars of Light”, have all been previously published in my holiday collections, each in a different year. In order of appearance: Sing We Now of Christmas (2012), In the Bleak Midwinter (2013), Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day (2014), and Masters in This Hall (2015).

Who, me? Know a lot of Christmas carols? No idea what you’re talking about.

In any case, these four stories are much more closely linked than that. They all come from the same universe, “the greater galaxy” as it’s known to the characters, or “Killdeer-verse” as some of my readers call it, after my 2013 soft science fiction novel. The Christmas stories mentioned above are sequels to Killdeer, and to one another, in the order of their writing, so technically this book does contain spoilers if you’re minded to care about such things. Fair warning.

Why put out a collection like this now? Well, it struck me as I was finishing up this year’s holiday collection, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, that anyone who happened across it might find the greater-galaxy tale contained within rather difficult to follow without the backstory. But was it really fair to expect new readers to go out and buy four different holiday collections, some of which (let’s be honest) have certain other less-than-fantastic pieces in them, just to brush up on what happened before?

So, here they are, together for the first time! (I’ve always wanted to say that.) The four earliest Killdeer-verse Christmas stories, all yours! Please enjoy, whether you’ve read them many times before or this is your first visit to the greater galaxy, and as always, O readers, happy holidays!

Anne B. Walsh

 

Glorious Song of Old

 

“Settle down, now,” Albina, Queen Mother of the planet of Buonarroti, told her seven-year-old granddaughters over the applause from the rest of the royal family. “It’s rude to the musicians to make noise all through the beautiful music they bring us for Christmas!”

Si, Nonna,” the little girls said in unison, Elena settling into her red plush seat and tucking a strand of ash blonde hair back into its braided crown while Gabriela leaned forward to watch the singers filing off the stage, her glossy brunette curls threatening to fall out of their elaborate knot high on her head.

“Just look at what’s coming next!” Albina’s finger, gnarled with age, pointed at a line on the program she held open on her lap. “Such a special treat—a song by the twin princesses!”

Gabriela gasped, and Elena’s soft hazel eyes went very wide. “Twin princesses?” she repeated. “I thought we were the only twin princesses!”

“We can’t be, silly,” said Gabriela, regaining her composure in the face of this entirely foolish remark by her sister. “There are hundreds of planets in the galaxy, and thousands of countries on the planets, and I don’t know how many of them are mon…” She trailed off, giving her grandmother an imploring look from deep brown eyes. “Have kings and queens?” she ventured.

“Monarchies,” Albina supplied, smiling.

“Monarchies,” Gabriela recited carefully. “Grazie, Nonna.” She peered back at the stage, onto which had just emerged two dark-haired figures gowned in flowing white, a few years older than herself and her sister but still shy of their young womanhood. “Are those the princesses?”

“Yes, the princesses Sundance and Starsong.” Albina’s voice made music of the two names. “Watch and see what they do, now, how they draw all the eyes to themselves before they even begin. Someday you will have to speak to many people, and you will need to know these things.”

Fascinated, Elena and Gabriela leaned forward to watch as one princess seated herself at the side of the stage with her harp in her lap, as the other stepped forward into the cool white spotlight which gave the impression that the moon was shining through the ceiling of the royal theater. A brief, flowing introduction by the harp, intricately plucked by slender fingers, and the standing princess began to sing, her voice trembling slightly but true and pure as her sister’s playing.

“It came upon the midnight clear,

“That glorious song of old…”

  • * * * *

“As you can see,” the guide intoned, sweeping a hand towards the manicured greenery beyond the safety shield, “this species of anthrofelinoid spends its time mainly in sleep, social grooming, and play. The upright posture, rather than being a step forward as is most often seen in evolutionary progression, is thought to be a genetic dead-end within this particular subspecies, slated to die out within the next few dozen generations at most. And now if you’ll follow me, we’ll take a look inside a typical dwelling…”

Carol hung back, edging as close as the shield would allow to the small group of creatures the guide had been describing. Her older cousin Layna and her friends were all busy tagging after the guide himself, tripads in their hands, but instead of following along in the interactive program the exhibit-ship offered, no doubt they were texting back and forth gushy words like “sleepy chocolate eyes” and “hair kissed by the sun” and “skin like coffee with cream”. The guide’s good looks, unusual in both type and quality for Moria and accentuated rather than marred by the slight limp with which he walked, were the reason the Layn Gang (Carol’s own coinage, kept carefully inside her head but liberating nonetheless) had taken this tour every afternoon since their Christmas semi-vacation began, three days ago on the eighteenth of December, and were planning two more, which was all the longer the ship would be in orbit around their world.

It’s all the longer anyone spends here, once they find out what kind of a place this is. Eleven years of experience in living on Moria, and six and a half in her aunt and uncle’s household, kept Carol from venting her snarl of frustration, but enough of a muffled growl escaped her that one of the children, cubs, kittens, whatever they were called looked up from its concentration on the small hole it was digging. Golden-brown, slit-pupiled eyes regarded her curiously through the shimmer of the safety shield, and pointed ears covered with a coat of soft tan fuzz pricked forward, then back, barely disturbing the fall of thick dark hair through which they poked. One clawed hand reached up to scratch under the top of the cobbled-together furs which covered a no-less-furry torso from shoulder to knee.

In all other respects, Carol estimated, she and the young female “anthrofelinoid” on the other side of the shield could have been one another’s twins.

“I wish I was you,” she breathed, her own unclawed hands locked around the railing that edged the shielded walkthrough of the creatures’ shipborne habitat (she knew they had a proper species name, but it never quite settled into her ears as the guide slurred past it at the start of every tour). “We’re both locked up, but nobody keeps telling you that you ought to be grateful for it all the time. Nobody keeps saying you should be happy that you’re in a prison and you’re going to be there forever and ever. Maybe it does mean that you have a bed and food and clothes and nobody hitting you, but maybe there are other ways of getting hurt than hitting.” She looked away for a moment, not wanting even a cat-girl to see her eyes well up. “And maybe some of them hurt more. Especially at this time of year.”

“This time of year” was a misnomer on the mining world of Moria, which had no tilt to the axis on which it rotated and therefore no seasons (or rather, only one season, hot and dry and thoroughly unpleasant, with plains and mountains alike devoid of life and skies endlessly choked with dust). Nonetheless, like most settled worlds, Moria followed the calendar which had come to the stars with humankind, and its people dutifully festooned their underground towns with bits of artificial greenery, sprayed with artificial scent, and strings of twinkling lights every December. Their children had a few half-days’ freedom from school around the twenty-fifth of the month and a full day off on Christmas itself, and some families even saved pennies and dimes out of their wages or allowances to buy one another gifts for the holiday.

Or that’s what they do if they like each other, anyway. Carol looked up, measuring the distance to the ceiling hidden behind an illusion of endless blue sky, then out, to the compartment walls she knew were there, cloaked in the appearance of rolling grassy hills. But even if my aunt and uncle liked me, they couldn’t buy me the only things I want. Things like room to breathe and run, and nights filled with fresh air and stars. Things like sunrises and sunsets, rivers and trees, chances to dance in the rain or play in the snow, and people to share all of that with, people who would love it as much as I would…

The cat-girl tilted her head to one side, her eyes exploring Carol’s face, then chirruped once, softly, sliding the sound upwards at the end as though asking a question.

“I don’t know.” Carol leaned against the railing, letting her eyes go unfocused. If she did it just right, she could imagine that the safety shield wasn’t there at all, that the hills and sky really did go on to forever, that in just a moment she would dart forward past this silly little barrier to join her friend. Together, hand in hand, they would race into the distance, laughing with the simple joy of speed and health and youth, matching their paces and refusing to stop until they were ready. Or perhaps they would run only far enough to find the homes that lay hidden beyond those hills, the places where warmth and happiness and cheer all waited, given as freely as gifts always ought to be at Christmas time…

“I don’t know,” she repeated, pulling herself unwillingly out of the illusion. “But I’ll try and come back tomorrow, all right? Tomorrow, and the day after that.”

And then the day after that, you’ll be gone, and I’ll never see you again. The thought tasted sour in her mouth, but she swallowed it down nonetheless. You didn’t live to be eleven years old on Moria without learning to swallow lots of things you didn’t like.

The cat-girl chirruped again, brightly, and one furred hand rose as if she were waving goodbye. Which, of course, Carol knew, she wasn’t. No matter how human these creatures looked, they weren’t. The guide, the one Layna and her friends spent all their time mooning over, said so clearly every day.

And if Carol was going to be there when that same guide returned his tour group to the shuttle which would carry them back to the planet where their parents, guardians, and other responsible adults were waiting, she was going to have to run.

Spinning on her heel, she dashed off, crossing her fingers that she hadn’t been missed. Wandering off by herself was on her aunt and uncle’s long, very long, list of “ways Carol Fuhrman is just like her no-good fools of parents”, and she wasn’t exactly panting with eagerness to sit through that lecture again.

My parents weren’t no-good, and they weren’t fools. They were just a little…unsettled. And very unlucky.

But being unsettled, on staid, down-to-earth, no-nonsense Moria, was tantamount to blasphemy and heresy combined, and being unlucky was seen as a clear sign that you hadn’t been respectful enough of the proprieties. It had taken all of ten minutes for the I-told-you-so’s to start after her father had crashed the small sealed flyer he’d bought used and lovingly refurbished. It had only been intended for one rider, but he had recalculated everything for two, so that he and his wife, Carol’s mother, could take an occasional outing by themselves, rather than waiting for their scheduled turn with the shared flyer of the cave-neighborhood where they lived.

And because they couldn’t wait, because they wanted to be just that little bit different, that tiny bit free, they died. And I went to live with Uncle Frank and Aunt Taisha, and with Layna, and I’ve been hearing about what a burden I am to them ever since…

There were days, many of them, when Carol wanted to cry, when she wanted to beat her fists against the invisible bars of her cage and scream until someone came to let her out. But she knew it would do her no good. The only way out of the prison called Moria was the way her parents had taken.

Or no, there’s one other way. You have to learn something that people want in the greater galaxy. To study some specialty that has applications beyond mining and processing ore. But no one around here believes any of that is important. Especially not…

Even her mind’s voice dropped to a hush before thinking the word, the single most offensive word on Moria.

Music.

She knew what music was rather as she knew about stories, or rain and snow, though water falling out of the sky was only impossible on Moria, not forbidden the way music was, or carefully regulated like stories. Things that manipulated a human being’s emotional state without any true reason, teachers told kids in school, were dangerous to experience, even under what seemed like controlled conditions. Humans had only so much ability to feel things, and wasting it on recreation was practically a crime, to say nothing of how badly it could affect the other real people in the world around you if you were busy thinking about fake people.

And as for music, what right does noise without any connection to reality have to take up space in a person’s head? You should be concentrating on your work, on the things you need to see and hear and notice and do, not on some arbitrary collection of sounds, no matter how good they make you feel. Carol’s imagined perfect-Morian voice spat the words in a crisp diction which reminded her of the teacher she had suffered under the year before, the teacher who had obviously spent the entire year before that listening to Layna whine about her useless, anti-social cousin. Only animals spend their lives in an endless, senseless quest to “feel good”. Human beings, proper human beings, must make a conscious decision to live so as to benefit others around them, to work together for everyone’s good, and to that end, they must shun the selfish pursuit of so-called happiness.

Nonetheless, despite the official ban, a few recordings of music slipped onto Moria every year, passed around among kids (and for all Carol knew, adults too) in total secrecy. Carol herself had only ever heard snatches of two of these hidden songs, both in the few seconds between a new arrival from the Layn Gang slipping through Layna’s bedroom door and said door being slammed shut, but they were enough. She knew, deep in her blood and bone, that music was what she wanted from life.

And it’s something I knew before. Before my parents died, when they were still making plans for us, plans for a life somewhere that wasn’t Moria. Daddy could have done it, too. He was a good enough mechanic that any starship, any company would have been happy to have him. And Mommy could have cooked, or cleaned… A tiny, secret smile flitted across Carol’s face. Or maybe sung for her supper. She used to sing to me all the time. Songs from her past, from her family’s past, from long and long ago, and some of them were even special for this time of year…

She slowed to a walk, hearing the noise of the guide and his group ahead of her. It wasn’t too late after all. She could even spend one more moment here in the privacy of the ship, enjoying the quiet and the priceless luxury of a few moments when she wasn’t being watched, remembering her mother’s favorite Christmas song.

Under her breath, she hummed.

It came upon the midnight clear,

That glorious song of old,

From angels bending near the earth

To touch their harps of gold…

The last line seemed to echo oddly from the bulkhead beside her, and Carol spun, panicked, frantically looking for the person who had caught her singing

Golden eyes blinked at her from beyond the safety shield. Her cat-friend flicked her ears twice and emitted a soft trill, which Carol thought sounded rather like a laugh, but a friendly one, not the nasty sort like Layna’s. You looked a little silly, the other girl seemed to be saying, but I want you to share the enjoyment with me…

“I suppose I did,” Carol said aloud. “Look silly, I mean. But…” She frowned, stepping closer to the cat-girl. “Was that you? Singing, I mean?” With a glance towards the direction where she could still hear voices, she leaned as close to the shield as she thought she could get without receiving a warning shock and hummed the first line of her mother’s song.

After flicking glances over her shoulders in both directions, the cat-girl hummed back a rising run of notes, descending by one at the last moment.

“It was you,” Carol breathed. “But how did you—” A sudden rise in the noise level shot her upright. “I’ll come back!” she whispered urgently, and bolted as fast as she could in the direction of the voices.

“—must be lost somewhere, because she’s not here, and I’m not going to get in trouble for it if she’s been eaten by one of your animals!” her cousin’s voice rose over the background hubbub, making Carol wince. She’d been missed after all.

But it doesn’t matter now, it doesn’t matter, I don’t care how many extra chores Aunt Taisha finds for me or how much Uncle Frank grumbles about not being able to get Layna the new tripad she wants because of having to provide for me or how much they all watch me to be sure I don’t do something as stupid or crazy as my parents did—I know something no one else knows, I know a secret, and for once it’s even a real secret instead of one I made up for myself, inside my own head—

“Here I am,” she called, slowing to a walk as she rounded the last corner. “Here I am, I’m sorry for lagging, I was just looking at one of the…” For lack of the word, she waved her hand at the safety shield, behind which an adult female anthrofelinoid and a male juvenile, both bearing a definite resemblance to her newly-made friend, were observing the ten or so Morians in the tour group with as much curiosity as the Morians were observing them.

“Lurans,” the guide said smoothly, inclining his platinum-blond head to her, “and that’s quite all right. You see, Miss, your cousin is perfectly well,” he added to Layna. “There’s no possible way in which she could have become lost, or been put in danger, here aboard the Rover. The path is shielded on all sides and entirely self-contained, so that neither you nor the Lurans can make contact at any time.”

Except we can. Carol fell in at the back of the group, sliding her arm deftly out of reach as Layna reached back with her fingers primed for a vicious pinch. It isn’t physical contact, but it’s contact all the same, and it was real, I didn’t dream it or make it up the way I do my stories and my bits of music, it’s really, truly real…

But as the tour started back towards the ship’s airlock, where they would board the shuttle which would return them to Moria’s single spaceport, from there to make their way to the planetary capital of Refinery (in the Layn Gang and Carol’s case) or whichever other of Moria’s cave-cities held their homes, Carol began to worry.

Was it real, though? Or did I make it up, dream it with my eyes open, just because I want so badly for there to be someone, anyone, who understands how I feel about music? Someone who knows what it’s like to feel those sounds, to have them drum inside your head while you’re trying to sleep and pound so loud you can hardly hear the teacher at school and shake you almost to bits because you don’t have any way to get them out of your head?

She glanced to one side as they passed through the doorway which led out of the Lurans’ habitat. Was there a pair of pointed, golden-furred ears lurking deep in the shadows, or was she imagining it?

Then she saw a shape further back in the habitat, a very particular shape, and stopped for an instant to stare.

“Carol!” Layna shouted from the far side of the compartment which housed the elevators leading to the airlock. “Come on, or you’ll get left behind!”

“I’m coming!” Carol hurried across the compartment as two of the elevators pinged at once. Layna, as was her usual practice, shoved her way onto the first one as soon as the doors were open, her gang shouldering their way in behind her. Carol hung back, loath to let go of even a few moments of her day which might conceivably be free of her cousin’s surveillance, and heaved a small, guilty sigh of relief when the doors closed on a full load. As long as they ended up at the same destination, not even Layna could blame her for traveling in a different elevator.

Though that doesn’t mean she won’t try.

“Quite a charming girl, your cousin.”

Carol jumped, looking up at the guide, whose eyes were crinkled at the corners even more than usual as he smiled at her. “Are these her natural manners,” he asked, pressing his arm against the elevator door to hold it open for Carol and the few remaining tourists, “or is she on better behavior than usual for visiting our fair ship?”

“I don’t think she has a better behavior,” said Carol, surprising herself with the bitterness of her tone, though her words were only true. “Sir…”

She nearly bit her tongue on the question. It was stupid and pointless, the guide wouldn’t want to waste his time satisfying the curiosity of a little girl like her, and the answer was self-evident anyway.

But he talked to me first…

“Was that a Christmas tree inside the habitat?” she blurted out before she could change her mind.

“Yes, it was.” The guide’s smile broadened. “Did you like it? The Lurans certainly do, and they have their own ideas about the ways the decorations should be arranged, let me tell you. I’ve had to break up more than one squabble over those strings of popcorn!”

Carol laughed, feeling some of the weight of worry lift from her. Her imagination hadn’t completely run away with her. The world still made sense. Of course a kind man like this one would want his charges, the creatures he exhibited to the settled worlds of the galaxy to make his living, to have all the comforts they could, especially at a festive season like this one.

But that doesn’t explain the music.

“…know that the tree means they get presents after a certain number of days, and they are not patient creatures,” the guide was saying as Carol’s attention returned to the outside world. “It’s very much like having a shipful of boisterous children, although of course they don’t know how to say ‘What did you bring me? What did you bring me?’“ His imitation of a small child bouncing impatiently up and down, tugging at its parents’ clothing, was as funny as it was accurate, and the other inhabitants of the elevator laughed as the downward motion slowed and stopped.

Lingering as the rest of the group disembarked, Carol tried to think of how to broach the subject. “Excuse me,” she said diffidently.

“Yes?” The guide turned to her politely, one eyebrow raised.

“I wasn’t lagging back on purpose,” Carol said in a rush, “it’s just that I was looking at one of the Lurans, a girl, about as old as I am, she actually even looks a bit like me—”

She looked up at the guide’s face once more, and her eyes widened in shock as the slant of his eyes, the set of his cheekbones, rang bells of recognition in her mind.

And she also looks like you.

But how—

“Sundance,” the guide breathed, going to one knee and beckoning her closer. “Her name is Sundance. What else did you see? Or—” His eyes searched her face. “Was it something that you heard?”

Carol swallowed hard and shook her head. “I’m sorry,” she said as politely as she could manage for the tremors which had seized her. “I was mistaken. It was nothing. Please, excuse me?”

Ducking around the guide, she bolted for the shuttle, her thoughts in a tangled furor.

There were a limited number of reasons why her cat-friend might look like the man who was supposedly the guardian of her race. None of the ones that Carol could think of were good.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t a good one, she tried to remind herself, dropping into a seat beside Layna and fastening her safety belt. Just that I can’t think of it.

But maybe I was wrong before. Maybe Sundance and I are in exactly the same kind of prison.

The difference is, I might be able to do something about hers…

  • * * * *

Duskdance, queen of the Free Sky clan, was rather less than pleased with her daughter and heir.

“Just what did you think you were doing?” she demanded, stalking back and forth across the main room of the tidy home she and her husband shared with their two children. “Your orders were perfectly clear—stay back, stay silent, make no contact, show no interest—”

“But Mama, you didn’t see her,” Sundance protested, her claws flexing in and out of the stuffed fur she was holding between her hands. “She had the saddest eyes, just the same color as mine, and she looked at me. She looked at me first, and then she talked to me, and she sang! Well, hummed,” she added in the interest of truthfulness. “But she knows music, Mama, I’m sure she does, and a person who knows music here—”

“Is none of our concern, and well you know it.” Duskdance sighed, crossing the room to kneel in front of her daughter. “I know you would rescue every baby bird and rabbit if you could, my love,” she said gently, stroking Sundance’s tangled hair, the same luxurious mahogany as her own. “But we have our own troubles, and we must not let ourselves get distracted.” She cast a glance of loathing towards the far corner of the room. “I know how little you must like what we have to do. I like it no better. But the true needs of the clan come before our personal comfort.”

“Such is the law,” Sundance murmured, thinking of the days when she had been not much older than her brother was now, perched beside her father Suncrest in his litter and learning her clan lore with the other children of Free Sky as their people roved through the wide plains of their home world, herding the ill-tempered, three-horned beasts called trison to the best pastures for the season.

“Such it is,” Duskdance agreed. “And if that is the law which all our clanmembers must obey, as it is, how much more must a queen obey it—or a princess?” She stroked the tip of her daughter’s ear with the back of one soft-furred finger, then cupped Sundance’s face with her hand. “You will not speak to this girl again, do you understand me?”

“Yes, Mama,” said Sundance on the end of a sigh. “I understand.”

“Good.” Duskdance got briskly to her feet. “Now, your father will be home soon. He will have news of the wider world he will want to share with us, and then he will want his dinner, as will we all.” She paused, looking down at Sundance. “Your kind heart does you credit, my treasure,” she said softly. “But a queen must also have a strong mind and an iron nerve, the first to know when kindness is appropriate and the second to suffer the pain of withholding that kindness.” She bent to kiss the top of her daughter’s head. “For the good of the clan, little one. Always for the good of the clan.”

Sundance made a small noise which could have been agreement and waited until her mother had left the room, then buried her face in the stuffed fur and snarled, sinking her claws into it more deeply than ever.

The good of the clan, the good of the clan, that’s all Mama ever thinks about. What about the good of me, or the good of that girl who talked to me? Maybe she’s not Free Sky, maybe she’s not even Aelur, but why should that matter—especially to Mama? She growled under her breath at her mother’s blatant hypocrisy. But no, it’s “for the good of the clan” that we have to ignore her and pretend we can’t understand her, “for the good of the clan” that I can’t give her the gift I know she wants more than anything, what usually we would be the very first to give her, especially right now—I wish Nightsinger and Killdeer were here, they’d understand, they’d help me, but no, I’m stuck with Mama and Daddy, and Mama already made me promise—

A small, clawed finger poked Sundance in the shoulder at this inopportune juncture. She snapped upright and hissed viciously at the poker, her own claws freeing themselves from the stuffed fur in her lap with little popping sounds to spring out in full threat-display.

Shadowcrest, six years old to her eleven, looked back at her calmly, the short and bristly black hair from which he took his use-name not even ruffled. Sundance sighed, telling her pelt to settle down to its place, her claws to return to their sheaths, her ears to stop their violent twitching. “What,” she said with all the patience she had available for dealing with small brothers, which wasn’t much, “do you want?”

From behind his back, Shadowcrest produced the child-sized harp their mother was teaching him to play and ceremoniously handed it to her.

“What’s this for?” Sundance asked, turning the harp in her hands. It had been hers, once, a gift from both parents seven Christmases ago. Though it was little, its voice was wonderfully sweet, for it was the instrument on which the daughters of her mother’s family had been learning their first songs for at least two hundred years, and she knew enough to treat it as the priceless heirloom it was.

“Mama said you shouldn’t talk to that girl.” Shadowcrest plucked a chord on the harp, then looked up at her, the slanted brown eyes he’d inherited from their father somehow innocent and wicked at the same time. “But playing isn’t the same as talking.”

Sundance sat very still as her brother’s simple words unfolded a world of possibilities before her.

  • * * * *

Carol lurked at the back of the tour group, avoiding the guide’s eyes with all the practice in staying out of the way that living in her aunt and uncle’s hyper-watchful household had given her. She had looked up the crew roster for the ship called the Rover on the planetary net the night before, but as all four listed members had used only their first initials and last names, she was none the wiser as to which of them might be the guide.

Or if all of them are even real. He could have made up names so that everybody thinks he has a crew and nobody knows he’s running the Rover on his own, which would mean nobody knows that he kidnapped the Lurans except the Lurans themselves, and they probably don’t speak Vershal so they wouldn’t have any way to tell us what he did to them…

“Right this way, please, and everybody stay together,” the guide’s voice rang out over the babble of conversations. “The Luran species of anthrofelinoid was discovered about twenty years ago by then-graduate student of cultural science M.K. Xiao. However, for personal reasons, Xiao’s findings were not published for several years after his discovery, meaning that Dr. Anton Kolesar, whose first article on the subject appeared in Cultures of the Galaxy Quarterly some thirteen years back, often receives the credit for…”

If she had been a Luran herself, Carol thought as the group disappeared around the first bend of the corridor, her ears would have pricked up at those sentences. Kolesar and Xiao had been two of the four surnames which appeared on the Rover’s roster, though she didn’t think either of the first names sounded right for the initials she’d seen.

Is he one of them? And if he is, which one? Or did he just pick the names because they’re related to the Lurans and he wants people to think he knows what he’s talking about?

The questions were unanswerable without a lot more information than she currently had.

But I know where I can find out at least a little bit.

Placing her feet carefully so that her shoes wouldn’t thump against the decking, Carol rounded the corner and stepped through the hatch into the safety-shielded walkthrough of the Lurans’ habitat.

Then she stopped and stared.

Gone were the green hills, the trickling brooks, the endless blue sky above. The guide’s fancy today appeared to lean towards the words of another ancient song Carol’s mother had once sung to her.

Because back on the mother world, in the part of it the song came from, there was only one right color for Christmas to be…

Some of the younger Lurans, males, Carol thought, from the breadth of their shoulders and the lack of curvature under their furs, were wrestling in the white stuff which covered the ground. For one astonished second she thought they were breathing smoke, like the dragons she had once seen in a picture of her father’s, but then she remembered that the white stuff, the snow, was crystallized water, and as such required a certain temperature to exist.

And that temperature is so much colder than a person’s body that their breath comes out as steam! Fascinated, she leaned towards the shield. What would that be like, to be cold all over? To see your own breath, and maybe have to blow it onto your hands to keep them warm? One of the Lurans did just that as she watched, huffing into his cupped palms, then tucking his hands under his arms, dancing from foot to foot in the snow. There was even another song about how cold it was at Christmastime, and how different that was from the warmth and the happiness that Christmas ought to mean inside our hearts…

Emboldened by her knowledge that the tour group was at least three turns ahead of her, bolstered by her desire to communicate in some way with the Lurans, but most of all because she wanted to, Carol began very softly to sing.

“In the bleak midwinter,

“Frosty wind made moan,

“Earth stood hard as iron,

“Water like a stone…”

The Luran boys had stopped their playful scuffling at her first note and were standing in a row, watching her, all but the smallest, who had bolted off into the shelter of a group of evergreen trees. Carol gulped down her nerves and kept singing, trying her best to remember the tune from those days so long past.

“Snow had fallen snow on snow,

“Snow on snow,

“In the bleak midwinter

“Long time ago…”

The missing boy came trotting back just as she finished the verse, a taller Luran behind him, her arms wrapped around a strangely-shaped object, her ears poking up from either side of a furred cap tied down over her long dark hair, her golden-brown eyes lighting up as they fixed on Carol—

“Sundance,” Carol breathed, and the Luran girl beamed and pressed a hand against her chest, accepting the name. An absent gesture over her shoulder scattered the boys, sending them loping off in search of more interesting things to do. Then one slender, fur-backed, claw-tipped finger (though the claws were sheathed at the moment, Carol noted, and the furless palms meant the hands would be as dexterous as her own) pointed imperiously through the shield at her, a clear demand.

“Carol,” she identified herself, pressing a hand to her chest in imitation of the Luran girl. “My name is Carol.”

Sundance’s ears twitched back and forth, and she made the soft trilling sound Carol had associated the day before with laughter. Sitting down in the snow, she settled the oddly asymmetrical frame of wood between her knees, with the long strings running from edge to edge vertically—

And began, as Carol’s heart leapt into her throat, to pluck music from the innocuous-seeming strings, music that was not at all like the sound of a human voice. Somehow it seemed purer than a sung tone or word, though surely it was more limited, and in any case it was soul-stirringly beautiful. It would have been banned in an instant from Moria as exactly the sort of “arbitrary sound” her elders feared, and it was exactly what Carol had been wanting her entire life.

“What is it?” she whispered, sinking down to the deck before she fell.

Stilling the strings with the flat of one hand, Sundance frowned. Then her face cleared, and she held up a single finger. Follow me, she seemed to be saying, and pay close attention.

“I’m listening.” Carol leaned forward, so as not to miss a note.

The finger, moving swiftly but without haste, began to pluck a single, unornamented line of music from the strings. Carol smiled and picked up the words to her mother’s favorite song, murmuring them in time with the notes, wondering what it would sound like if she were to sing along with this new music of picked strings—

Sundance rapped her hand against the upper wood of her frame, drawing Carol’s eyes back to her. Sternly, she pointed to the strings, picked out a portion of the musical phrase again, then pointed to Carol.

To touch their harps of gold,” Carol sang back softly. “Is that what you—oh!” She broke off with a little gasp as Sundance, with a smile so bright it seemed to reflect off the artificial clouds above, rippled a chord up the strings of her—

Her harp. That’s what it’s called!

“I always wondered what a harp looked like,” she said, tracing the graceful curve of the upper frame in the air with her finger. “It’s an…an instrument, isn’t it?”

A firm nod, and Sundance began to play again, this time adding ornamentation under and around the simple melody. Carol listened breathlessly, half-raising her own hands to the same position, wondering what the strings would feel like against her fingertips.

They would have to be pulled awfully tight, I think, to make the sound so clear…

“Doesn’t it hurt?” she asked when the song was over. “Plucking the strings, I mean. Aren’t your fingers sore?”

Sundance smiled and shook her head, extending her hand as close to the shield as she dared, palm up. Carol leaned in for a closer look. “Oh, I see it,” she said after a moment, pointing. “Where your skin is a little rougher, a little thicker—is that because you’ve been playing for so long that it just got that way naturally?”

Another smile and a melodic strum of strings confirmed that Carol had hit on the right answer.

“So if I tried to learn to play, it probably would hurt, at least for a while.” Carol examined her own hands, trying to imagine what it would be like to have had music in her life for so long that her body had actually changed on account of it.

It would be…magical, she decided at last. The true kind of magic, the kind my parents were looking for out of life.

Guilt struck her as she looked through the safety shield at the other girl, who had her head bent over her harp once more, tightening one of the pegs which held the strings in place.

Sundance might not ever know that kind of magic, not even with music. Not if this is all she ever has, being locked inside a ship and taken around the galaxy to show off to people. I at least have a chance for it, once I’m grown up, if I can learn something that would take me away from Moria, something I could do or be that people would want off-world. She doesn’t. She never will.

Not unless I try to help her. Not unless I tell someone…

She glanced back at Sundance, who was watching her curiously, hands flat against the harpstrings.

But tell them what? That I know the Lurans are human because only humans make music? They’d want to know how I knew what music was like, and then…

A shudder ran through her. As unwelcoming as her aunt and uncle’s house was, the Morian reformatories were worse. Everyone knew someone who had been sent away to a reformatory, but Carol had never met anyone who knew someone who had come back.

It’s where you go when they’ve decided you can’t be bent anymore. That the only option is to break you, and try to rebuild you into something they like better from the pieces.

And high on the list of crimes which could get a child, or even an adult, sent off for a reformatory term on Moria was “recidivist musical activity”.

Which means you do it over and over again, you don’t stop. Carol smiled encouragingly at Sundance, who was looking worriedly at her through the shield. That’s a pretty good definition of me. Now that I’ve heard music, real music, not just little bits and snatches I remember from my mother or catch through Layna’s bedroom door, I don’t ever want to stop. I want to go on, and on, and on.

But the Rover will only be here for one more day.

“Will you play me something else?” she asked quietly, and Sundance beamed and began a new song, somehow sad and happy at the same time. Carol recognized it after a moment and joined her voice to it when the beginning came around again.

“What child is this, who, laid to rest,

“On Mary’s lap is sleeping?

“Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,

“While shepherds watch are keeping?”

Sundance added a wordless, crooning harmony under the refrain, her eyes alight with the same joy Carol could feel throbbing through her whole body.

“This, this is Christ the King,

“Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;

“Haste, haste to bring him laud,

“The Babe, the Son of Mary!”

The Rover only being here for one more day means that it will be here for one more day, Carol reminded herself. I don’t have to make any big decisions right this very second.

Right this very second is for music.

She glanced around. And maybe for finding somewhere to share it that isn’t quite so exposed. If the tour comes back, I’m sitting right out in the open, I couldn’t exactly claim that I didn’t know what was going on…

“Do you know somewhere they won’t see us?” she asked. “Somewhere we can both be, but no one else can come?”

Sundance nodded smugly, scooped her harp up into her arms, and clambered to her feet, beckoning Carol to follow. They set off together, the shield still between them but somehow less important than it had ever been.

  • * * * *

I knew it, I knew it, I knew it! Sundance caroled inside her own head, dancing in circles in the snow, not even minding as she usually did when the people on the other side of the safety shield pointed her out to each other, jabbering away about how cute she was and how they could almost think she was a person if they squinted just right. I knew it, I knew it, she’s perfect! Just perfect! Mama and Daddy would think so too, if they got a chance to hear her like I have…

Of the three traditional walks of Aelur life, that of the rovers, which Free Sky had once followed, left its people with the most time for pursuits like music. The hunters needed to embrace silence, become one with it, as they stalked their prey, and the farmers worked so hard while the sun was in the sky that they often had no strength left for practice once it went down.

Though often doesn’t mean always. Nightsinger was born into a farming clan, but when he plays his dulcimer, it’s so beautiful that it makes you want to cry. And the hunters aren’t silent all the time, just when they’re hunting…

Still, walking behind trison from sunrise to sunset left the hands, the mind, and the voice all free, and the beasts often responded well to being coaxed along their path with song. So it was that the roving clans were known among the Aelur for two things: the excellence of their trison herds’ bloodlines, to the point where the best bulls commanded stud fees almost as princely as the payment for a child-contract between clan queens, and the precision and polish of their singers and musicians.

Which is the fancy way of saying we’re the best. And with Mama a queen and Daddy a bard, I’m the best of the best. Sundance cartwheeled three times, flopping down onto her back at the end of it. Or I will be, once I’m all the way grown up. But even if I’m not grown up yet, I’ve been around music my whole life, and I know the difference between a bad voice and a good one, between someone who likes music a little bit and someone who lives for it…

And Carol, despite the unpracticed qualities in her singing, definitely fell into the latter category both times.

Only what am I supposed to do about it? Sundance stared up at the “clouds” with a scowl, shifting the furs she wore as the snow, melted by the warmth of her body, threatened to soak through her pelt. Shadowcrest can say “playing isn’t talking” all he likes, and for him it would work, he’s still a little boy. But Mama’s not going to believe that from me. I’m old enough to know what she really meant when she told me not to talk to Carol, and now I disobeyed, and that could mean I get in a lot of trouble.

Or it could mean we do, the whole clan of us.

The thought of how big and bad that trouble could get, especially for her father if anyone found out what he was doing, threatened to put a permanent damper on Sundance’s mood. She countered it by thinking of the expression of awestruck joy she’d seen on Carol’s face when she had begun to play the little harp, and how much brighter that joy would surely be if and when Carol got the chance to learn to play it herself.

It needs to be when, Sundance declared firmly to herself. And it’s going to be when. Anything else wouldn’t be fair.

But no daughter of the Aelur, and especially not a princess of Free Sky, could see eleven Christmases and hear all the fireside stories that accompanied them without realizing that sometimes life simply wasn’t fair.

Tomorrow. Sundance jumped to her feet in a shower of snow. I’ll talk to Mama about it tomorrow, and she’ll see if there’s anything Daddy can do to help Carol without getting caught. Or maybe I’ll ask Killdeer—

She grimaced. Or I would, if she was here. She and Nightsinger pick the worst times to go away!

Though to be truthful, Sundance knew, her father’s sister and her mother’s cousin hadn’t exactly chosen to be separated from the clan at this precise moment, any more than the rest of the clan had desired the situation in which they now found themselves. It had been chosen for them, or rather dumped on top of them, by the demon still known to the vast majority of the galaxy as Murphy.

But that’s just more about the whole “life not being fair” thing, and I don’t want to think about that now. I want to think about…about…

About the way Carol had laughed when some of her agemates within the clan had ventured out onto one of the frozen streams, she decided. Her friend had pressed herself against the far wall of the secluded alcove off the main path of the walkway Sundance had found for her, gasping for air in between fits of giggles, arms clenched across her belly and tears flowing freely from her eyes, as though she had never in her life seen anything so funny as the passel of skidding, slithering boys.

Maybe she hasn’t. Maybe there isn’t much to laugh about on Moria. Sundance nodded to herself. A world that doesn’t like music probably wouldn’t like laughter very much either.

Her thoughts making her solemn, she padded over to the decorated tree near the rear of the viewable area and stood looking up at it, pursing her lips so as to blow visible plumes of steam into the cold air.

I gave Carol music for Christmas, and I reminded her how to laugh. That’s not nothing.

It isn’t what I want to do for her—I want to grab her hand and pull her through that shield to the side of it where she belongs, here with us, with the people who know what’s real and what’s important—but it might be all I can do.

Sundance sighed deeply. It may not be nothing, but it still doesn’t feel like enough…

She supposed this was what her mother had meant by having an iron nerve and a strong mind. A queen had to be able to understand that as powerful as she was, she couldn’t solve every problem in the galaxy, and she also had to figure out which ones she could solve, so that she and her people didn’t waste their time beating their heads against stone walls.

Or safety shields.

Very softly, so as not to reach the people on the walkway behind her, she hummed, and made the words running through her mind a prayer, for Carol, for herself, for the entire Free Sky clan.

Peace on the earth, good will to men,

From heaven’s all-gracious King…

  • * * * *

“Now, little girl, what’s all this about?” asked the commissioner for the city of Refinery, regarding Carol across his desk with what he probably thought was an expression of fatherly benevolence on his face. Carol thought it made him look like he was sucking on a sour candy, but she knew better than to say so. What she had to tell him would be hard enough to get out without starting off by making herself sound even younger than she was.

She had barely slept the night before, or paid attention in school that morning, for thinking about her problem. Should she spend one last afternoon with Sundance, sharing music and laughter through a glowing shield, and then let the Rover fly away from Moria forever without doing anything to help her friend’s people? Or should she go to the authorities, tell what she knew, and accept her punishment for engaging in music as the price of making sure the Lurans went free?

Her answer had come to her unexpectedly at lunch, as she tapped the rhythm of yet another song she and Sundance had shared against the table, counting on Layna’s loud and giggly conversation with her gang to cover the noise.

He came down to earth from heaven,

Who is God and Lord of all,

And his shelter was a stable,

And his cradle was a stall…

She had always known that Christmas had started as the celebration of a very special birthday, but paying attention to the words of her mother’s songs had taught her a lot more about the person who was being celebrated. While she didn’t understand everything about it—she thought there were probably pieces of the story she was missing, pieces that either hadn’t been put into the songs or just weren’t in the songs she knew—she knew the difference between heaven and a smelly, dirty stable.

And the baby who was born on Christmas gave up the one for the other. Because people needed him to save them.

Just like the Lurans need somebody to save them now.

So, after five minutes of frantic scrambling, four policemen she’d dodged on the streets, three flights of stairs she’d climbed to the commissioner’s mansion, two secretaries she’d used her uncle’s name and position as head of their neighborhood’s wellness committee to bluff her way past, and one deep breath to try to calm her nerves, here she was.

“Come on, now, let’s have it.” The commissioner tapped the ends of his fingers together. “It must be important, to bring you rushing in here on the night before the night before Christmas!” He chuckled at his own wit. “Let me hear it and see if anything needs to be done about it right now, and then we can all go home for our half-day.”

“Yes, sir,” Carol whispered, thinking of her aunt and uncle’s house, so long hated but at the moment looking like a haven of refuge—

Stop that. Think about Sundance and her family. The regal Luran woman she had seen inside the “typical dwelling” on the day she’d met Sundance, the little boy who seemed to follow her friend everywhere, floated through her mind. How they can’t even call their homes their own because people can come peeking in at them any time they please. You’re going to put a stop to it. That’s what matters now.

Clasping her hands in front of her, she looked up at the commissioner. “Yes, sir,” she repeated in a stronger voice. “It started when I went with my cousin and her friends on the tour of the exhibit-ship that’s in orbit here, the Rover…”

“The Rover, eh? Let me see here.” The commissioner tapped a few codes into the keyboard on his desk. “Yes, here we are, the Rover. Owner, K.D. Kolesar, crew, L.N. Doyle, S.D. Rioghan, M.S. Xiao. Purpose of visit to Moria, emergency repairs and refueling. Function of ship, traveling cultural science exhibit, to wit, village and population of quasi-human anthrofelinoid species known as Lurans…”

“But that’s just it, sir,” Carol broke in, her heart quailing as the commissioner frowned at her but the thought of Sundance’s soft, subdued smile as she arranged herself carefully shy of the safety shield’s shock zone giving her strength to continue. “The Lurans. They aren’t quasi-human at all. They are human. Whoever the man is on board with them, whichever of those names on the crew list he is, he’s done this to them, he took them from their homes and locked them up on the ship because they look a little different from regular human beings and they don’t speak Vershal, so he thought no one would ever realize that they really were human, and he could make a lot of money showing them to people…”

“Whoa now, slow down there, little girl!” The commissioner chuckled, holding up a hand. “That’s quite a story. How do you know these…Lurans are human, if they can’t even tell you so?”

Carol gulped. This was the true point of no return. I might still be able to get out of this, if I say it was just a joke to see if I could make him believe me, a prank for a story to tell to my friends—

But Sundance was her friend, and Sundance needed her now.

“Music, sir,” she said very softly. “They make music.”

The commissioner, who had been leaning back in his chair, sat bolt upright. “Now how would a young girl like you—oh, no, I understand.” He chuckled again, but Carol could hear the brittle undertones in the laugh. “You’ve heard them making some sort of silly noises, like animals will—that doesn’t mean it’s music, I can’t imagine you’d really know anything about that—”

“I know the song,” Carol whispered, the words chilling her blood as she spoke them, but she had made up her mind and she wasn’t going to change it now. “My mother sang it to me, a long time ago. Before she died.”

“I see.” The commissioner flipped a switch on his desk and spoke, the small device clipped over one of his ears beginning to blink blue. “Norma, send the staff home. Go on home yourself, for that matter.” He glanced at Carol meaningfully. “But buzz the police station for me, would you? Let them know they should probably be expecting a call from me within the next hour or so. And see if you can locate…” He tapped at his keyboard again. “K.D. Kolesar anywhere, on planet or off. Shoot that information over to my terminal, and then get going. Early Christmas present.” He paused, listening to the tiny speaker. “You’re welcome, and you too.”

Flipping the switch again, he exhaled a long breath, then looked down at Carol. “You realize the gravity of what you’re saying, young lady,” he said, his tone less jovial, more judicial. “No matter what this Kolesar, or whoever he turns out to be, has or hasn’t done, you’re admitting to illicit knowledge of music. Even using it to stop a crime, assuming a crime actually has been committed here, doesn’t mean we can overlook it. You’re in for some very serious penalties.”

“I understand, sir.” Carol squeezed her hands so tightly together that she was surprised her knuckles weren’t cracking. “But what’s happening to the Lurans isn’t right, and I had to stop it if I could. No matter what that meant for me.”

“Good for you. Courage of your convictions.” The commissioner shook his head sadly. “Shame to see such a bright young lady caught by such a vicious addiction…ah well, you’ve come looking for help, that’s the important thing, and we’ll just have to hope the reformatory can clean you up before it’s too late. Now, then.” He tapped a few more keys, set his chair straight upright, and poised his hands over the keyboard. “Pull up a chair, and tell me everything.”

Just as Carol was describing Sundance’s harp (and wishing the commissioner wouldn’t keep flinching every time she said the word “music” or something related to it), his earpiece flashed blue again. He held up a finger, halting Carol, and pressed a button on his desktop. “Go ahead,” he said aloud.

“I found Kolesar for you, sir,” said the tinny voice of the commissioner’s secretary. “Inbound now. We’ve also got a Mr. Xiao, Mikala Xiao, out here asking about an expedited departure permit for the Rover?”

“Flash me a picture, would you, Norma?” the commissioner requested, and a moment later turned his screen around so that Carol could see it. She stared at the face of the man she’d known as the guide, then looked up at the commissioner and nodded.

“Send him in,” the commissioner said, spinning his screen back to normal. “And then get yourself home. Leave the door unlocked and the lights on, Kolesar can find his own way in when he gets here.”

“But sir—” the secretary began.

“Ah-ah!” The commissioner actually wagged his finger at the screen, though Carol knew the secretary couldn’t see him. “No buts, Norma. Home, and tell that husband of yours Merry Christmas from me.”

“Thank you, sir.” The secretary cut the connection with a click.

“Now you wait back there, Carol,” the commissioner told her, motioning her to the far corner of the office. “Stay nice and quiet, and let me do the talking. We’ll get to the bottom of this, never you fear.”

Carol slid off her chair and went to the designated corner dutifully. Her throat was too tight to speak even if she’d wanted to.

I did it. Well, not yet, but it’s started. Mr. Xiao will have to tell the truth about what he did to Sundance and her people, and then he’ll have to pay for it, and the Lurans will all go home again.

Why don’t I feel happier about that?

The door of the commissioner’s office slid open. Mr. Xiao stepped inside, his gait as usual a little halting on one leg, and inclined his upper body in a polite bow. “I’m told you wanted to see me, sir?” he asked. “I’m not quite sure why, since all I need is our departure permit moved forward twelve hours—your very fine workers have completed our repairs a little ahead of schedule, and our two detached crew members are back on board, so we can leave as soon as you’ll allow it.”

“Yes, as soon as I allow it.” The commissioner laid one hand flat against his desk. “Have a seat, Mr. Xiao. We’ll discuss that.”

Mr. Xiao hesitated for an instant, then bowed once more and seated himself in the chair Carol had been using. As he did, his eyes went to the back corner of the room, and Carol knew he had seen her, though he made no outward sign.

I ought to hate him. I ought to be angry and spiteful, and glad that he’s going to get what he deserves. Instead I’m just… I don’t know what I am. She edged herself further back into the corner. Why does everything have to be so complicated?

With a humming hiss, the safety shields built into the armrests of Mr. Xiao’s chair activated, pinning his arms down, holding him in place. He jerked a little in surprise, but his voice, when he spoke again, was calm and collected. “An interesting way you have of opening discussions on your planet, I see.”

“When we have reason to believe a crime’s been committed, we don’t fool around.” The commissioner maneuvered a few items on his desk screen, bringing up a picture of what looked to Carol like a crystal ball, swirling with green mist. “That chair’s set up to feed my screen biodata, by the way, so don’t waste my time with lies. Now, let’s begin. State your full name.”

“Mikala Kenneth Xiao.” A tiny bubble of red burst through the green and was gone. “Legally, that’s correct,” Mr. Xiao added at the commissioner’s raised eyebrow. “Or should I give you my wife’s little pet names for me as well?”

The commissioner snorted. “I think we can dispense with that. Your purpose in coming to Moria?”

“My ship suffered an accident which needed immediate repair. Yours was the closest world capable of performing it.” The green rippled but remained uncontaminated by red.

“And your ship’s usual function?”

“Entertainment,” Mr. Xiao said smoothly, the green mist untroubled. “The great disease of civilization is boredom. The Rover carries a cure from planet to planet, as partial and temporary as it may be.”

With a slight “Hmph,” the commissioner dismissed this. “You told young Carol Fuhrman here that one of the creatures on your ship was named Sundance. How do you know that?”

“Because I named her, as was my right and duty.” Green, steady and bright.

“Your right and duty? How so?”

A spike of red, sudden, shocking, but fading quickly to green again. “I won’t answer that.”

“I see.” The commissioner made a note. “And could this Sundance, to the best of your knowledge, have exposed little Carol to…” He wrinkled his nose, as though the very term were distasteful to him. “Music?”

“That…should not have been possible,” Mr. Xiao said slowly, green mist roiling like the surface of the sea but showing only the faintest hints of red imaginable. “Did it happen?”

“I’m asking the questions here,” the commissioner snapped. “Answer yes or no. Could it have happened?”

Mr. Xiao glanced once at Carol, his narrowed eyes unreadable, then returned his gaze to the commissioner. “It could,” he said, as the green darkened towards a muddy brown. “And if Miss Fuhrman says so, I am sure it did.”

You did know, then. Carol clenched her teeth against a spate of tears, only now realizing how much she had wanted to believe this was all some terrible mistake, that everything could end happily with no one being punished for it except herself. You knew they were human, you knew it all along, and you didn’t care, you went ahead and did what you wanted to do anyway—

“But understand this,” Mr. Xiao went on without prompting, the brown now churning furiously within its boundaries on the commissioner’s screen. “I have never, in my life, harmed another human being without reason. Nor have I deprived anyone of life, liberty, or property unless they most thoroughly deserved it. Those who live aboard the Rover are well taken care of, they have no reason to complain, and they will not so long as I am there. And in the case of Sundance…” A wash of green poured across the brown, obliterating it without a trace. “I love her with all my heart and soul. I would sooner die than I would harm her.” Another glance at Carol. “Or any child like her.”

“Very poetic,” the commissioner remarked dryly. “Not terribly helpful to your case, but prettily said.”

Mr. Xiao lifted his chin, smiling faintly. “As you seem determined to convict me without trial, I thought I might help you along,” he said. “Surely if you outlaw music, poetry cannot be far behind.”

“It’s restricted, but not against the law. Not yet.” The commissioner rose. “But I do think we have enough to proceed on here. You’ll be detained pending an independent examination of your ship and these, what’re they called, Lurans of yours, and if they’re found to be human, of course you’ll be charged with kidnapping and unlawful restraint—though even if they’re not, we still have corruption of minors as a viable charge, not to mention aiding and abetting the performance of music in a public venue—”

The door swished open, cutting the commissioner off in mid-sentence and bringing both his and Mr. Xiao’s heads around. A woman and a man, both dressed in off-world attire, stepped into the office.

Carol blinked as the biodata screen erupted, kaleidoscoping patterns of green-red-green blurring faster than her eye could follow. Clearly Mr. Xiao knew this woman, with her rich brown hair clipped close to her head just under her earlobes, and this man with his brooding good looks, his black curls cut almost as short as the woman’s, his surprising golden eyes scarcely different from the color of his skin—equally as clearly they meant something startling to him, something unsettling, as though he had not expected them to be here—

“I’m K.D. Kolesar,” the woman announced in a clear, carrying voice. “Owner of the Rover. My colleague here is Doyle.” She hooked a thumb towards the dark man. “I believe you were looking for me?”

“We certainly were, er, Miss Kolesar.” The commissioner seemed thrown by the idea of a woman owning a starship, but recovered quickly. “I’m afraid one of your crewmen has gotten himself into some rather serious trouble.”

“So I see.” Miss Kolesar cast an unfriendly look at Mr. Xiao, sitting quietly in his suspect’s chair with Mr. Doyle now standing behind him. “May I be informed of the charges?”

“Of course, of course.” The commissioner swiveled his screen towards her, pointing. “They’re all right here, if you’d care to have a look…”

Carol leaned back against the wall, relief making her knees wobble. It’s going to be all right now. She must have been away for a while and just didn’t know what Mr. Xiao was doing with her ship. But now she’s come back, she’ll make everything all right, and Sundance and her family will get to go home for Christmas…

“Stars above us, he’s a one-man crime wave.” Miss Kolesar shook her head sadly. “If I’d only known what a desperate character he was, I’m sure I never would have signed him aboard. Thank you, Commissioner, for being sure I was informed of this deplorable state of affairs,” she glowered at Mr. Xiao, who returned her look blandly, “as soon as possible.” She held out her hand to the commissioner.

“Not at all, Miss Kolesar, not at all.” The commissioner closed his hand around hers and pumped it vigorously. “We know our duties here on Moria, our duties to one another and to the law, and we take them…” He paused for a yawn. “Please, excuse me. We take them very sherious—very serioush—very sherioushly.” He blinked in confusion. “Whass thish—whass wrong w’me—”

“Nothing’s wrong, Commissioner,” Miss Kolesar said smoothly, withdrawing her hand from the fat man’s. Nestled in her palm, Carol saw with dawning incredulity, was the business side of a sleeper patch, the sort doctors and medics used on belligerent patients or recalcitrant children. “You’re just a bit overtired, and no wonder, with all this crime-fighting.” Stripping off the patch and tossing it into the wastebasket in the corner, she caught the commissioner by the shoulders as he started to slump and eased him down into his chair. “Why don’t you have a nice long rest.”

“Rest,” the commissioner mumbled as Miss Kolesar set his chair to recline. “Yesh, rest—all’f you, under ‘rest…”

“I’m sure we would be, if we stuck around,” said Mr. Doyle, speaking for the first time. His voice, the single working corner of Carol’s mind noted, matched his looks, deep and smooth like a nibble of the chocolate her aunt kept hidden in the back of the cold box. “Sadly for you, that’s not an option we’re interested in exploring.” He popped open a panel on the side of Mr. Xiao’s chair, peered at it for a moment, and yanked two or three cords free. A loud snap and a shower of sparks resulted, and the safety shields holding Mr. Xiao in place flickered and died.

“So how is my very law-abiding big brother suddenly a criminal?” inquired Miss Kolesar, coming back around the desk as Mr. Xiao stood up, rubbing one of his wrists. “Though if that last specification really is a crime around here, I have a guess—”

“You’d be right, and we don’t have time just yet,” Mr. Xiao interrupted. “Nights, call D.D. Tell her to get the engines warm, we’re leaving. Now.” His eyes fell on Carol. “Or rather, after I finish one piece of business.”

“Piece of business?” asked Mr. Doyle, pulling out a tripad and tapping a code into it without looking, as his own gaze was fixed on Mr. Xiao. “Suncrest, correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t this the kid who was trying to—”

Mr. Xiao—Suncrest? Carol found an instant to wonder—flicked a single finger, cutting off the flow of words from the other man, and advanced on Carol, reaching into his pocket as he came. She knew she ought to run, ought to scream, ought to do something, but she was frozen in place by the impossible swiftness of the reversal.

They’re all in it together, all three of them, they all know what’s going on, they must’ve done it together in the first place—now they’re going to put me to sleep like they did the commissioner, and I’ll still be sent to the reformatory but they’ll get away with the Rover, Sundance and her people will never be free, all of this was for nothing—

“I’m not going to hurt you, Carol,” Mr. Xiao said quietly, stopping in front of her and showing her the patch he held in his hand, one like Miss Kolesar had used on the commissioner, but smaller, for her smaller size, Carol guessed. “But I can’t let you give us away. Too many people’s lives depend on it.” He paused, looking thoughtful. “Unless…”

Greatly daring, Carol reached out her own hand to touch one of Mr. Xiao’s fingers, and her nerve endings confirmed what her eyes had thought they’d seen. There was a toughened patch of skin on one of Mr. Xiao’s fingertips, and on the next one, and the next.

Right where I saw the very same thing on Sundance. Sundance, who looks like Mr. Xiao, like Suncrest. And he said he loved her, that he’d rather die than hurt her, and he wasn’t lying. I thought, when I first met him, that he was kind, and now he says he doesn’t want to hurt me.

I know it must all mean something, but what?

“Let me tell you a little story,” Mr. Xiao went on, still in that same quiet tone. “Once upon a time there was a girl, and that girl looked at what she’d been told were animals and saw people there instead.”

Miss Kolesar’s head came up, her eyes alert, as though she had heard the first notes of a song she knew well. Mr. Doyle leaned against the corner of the commissioner’s desk, tucking his tripad away again, listening with his entire body.

“Now I know that girl must have been a little bit afraid to tell someone what she knew.” Mr. Xiao pinched his fingers together, showing the amount of afraid he meant, though it would have been more accurate for the pounding of Carol’s heart if he had spread his arms as wide as they would go. “Especially because she couldn’t explain how she knew it without giving away a big secret of her own, one that could get her in a lot of trouble. So…” He looked directly into her eyes. “Why did she?”

“Because…” Carol flattened her hands against the wall behind her, trying to stop them from shaking. “Because people shouldn’t be locked up in a prison forever and ever, even if it means they’ll be taken care of.” She flung the words into his face, daring him to tell her she was wrong. “People shouldn’t be watched every minute of the day and night so they can’t even breathe without somebody else knowing. And people shouldn’t be called animals and told they aren’t worth anything.” The knowledge that all this and more was surely in store for her, now that she’d admitted to the unforgivable crime of knowing music, edged her words with anger as harsh and biting as a Morian sandstorm. “Not ever. And especially not at Christmastime.”

“Reminds me of somebody else I used to know,” Mr. Doyle murmured to Miss Kolesar, who stuck out her tongue at him. “That’s good enough for me,” he said more loudly. “Do what you’re thinking of, and let’s get gone.”

“Seconded.” Miss Kolesar shot the snoring commissioner a disdainful glance. “Let’s give a certain person what she deserves for Christmas, and get out of here before my holiday spirit’s ruined for good.”

“Agreed, and done.” With one swift motion, Mr. Xiao pressed his hand against Carol’s, the patch cool and smooth against her skin. “Don’t be afraid,” he murmured, leaning over her, his words swimming in her ears as the drug began to work on her. “You’re safe now, and there’ll be good news when you wake up…”

Carol wanted to snarl and swipe at him, wanted to ask him what safety and what goodness there could ever be for her now, now that trying to do the right thing had ruined her life forever, but her voice wouldn’t respond and her limbs were heavy, her eyelids sinking shut. She thought she felt strong arms around her, lifting her up and holding her close, thought she saw Miss Kolesar smile at her and felt the pressure of a slender hand squeezing her fingers, thought she heard Mr. Doyle laughing softly and sensed a brush of fur against her cheek…

  • * * * *

The darkness was warm and welcoming around her, filled with the scent of musk and pine and sweet, sharp spices. Somewhere nearby, a man’s voice was humming a melody to the accompaniment of strummed strings, and the hand holding hers in its grasp was clawed and callused and just her own size.

“Let me tell you a little story,” said a woman’s deep, rich voice, throaty and full, speaking in a cadence so musical that her very words seemed a song. “Once upon a time there were people who looked a bit different from the usual run of human beings, but who were every bit human for all of that. And these people made their living by their music, traveling from world to world in their starship, singing their songs to bring good cheer. But one day, in the dark of space, their ship suffered an accident, and the only world they could reach in time for the repairs they needed was one which feared and outlawed music, even the simplest Christmas carol.”

Is that what my name means? A song for Christmas? Carol smiled dreamily, feeling the hand around hers squeeze tight and pressing it in response. I never knew…

“So they agreed that instead of trying to change the people’s minds about music, they would use the way they looked to their advantage, and pretend that they were nothing more than they appeared. Harmless, docile, not-quite-human creatures, with the one man on board who did look like a standard human passing as their caretaker. They would enliven the people’s holiday by letting them pay for the privilege of coming on board to gape their fill at the animals. Thus they would earn the money they needed for their repairs, and then they would go on their way.” A soft chuckle, as musical as the voice. “A simple enough plan, with no room for error. Or so they thought.”

Even through the thinning cushion the drug provided around her thoughts, Carol groaned silently at her own foolishness, her momentary happiness dissipating like smoke, because wasn’t this the very reason Morian teachers warned their students about the perils of stories and music? I thought it was real, I got caught up in it, got angry and frightened and happy and sad about it, and all the time it was fake. They never needed my help at all. I got them in trouble for nothing, and myself, when if I’d just left well enough alone, minded my own business, everything would have been all right—

“They never counted on two brave, clever, wise and foolish girls,” the woman went on, “both of them ignoring what they had heard and looking past the surface to see what lay beneath. One who recognized a kindred spirit where she’d been told no such thing could live.” A soft sound like a trill in the darkness. “And one who risked everything she had to try to help people to whom she owed nothing.” A larger hand closed gently around Carol’s and the one still holding hers. “So much bravery, whether or not it was needed, ought to be rewarded.”

The last of the drug-fog cleared from Carol’s mind in a rush as the pieces flew together. Two girls—kindred spirits—a reward—

She opened her eyes.

Sundance sat on the edge of the wall-mounted bunk into which Carol had been tucked, grinning broadly, wearing a blouse and long skirt very like Carol’s own best clothes (though in a decidedly non-Morian shade of red) rather than the badly sewn furs in which she had masqueraded as the primitive cat-girl. Hers was the smaller hand locked around Carol’s, and the one cradling them both belonged to the beautiful Luran woman Carol had seen once or twice, dressed in a long gown of royal blue instead of a tunic of tanned pelts but still the one she had thought might be, must be, Sundance’s mother—

“I am called Duskdance,” the woman said, smiling as she met Carol’s eyes. “My clan is Free Sky, my people are the Aelur. And you, Lady Carol, are well met and welcome aboard.”

“Where am I?” Carol used her free hand to push herself upright in the bunk, staring around in wonder. The bedroom might be small, but the only shabbiness she could see in furnishings or fabrics came from use, not from age or neglect. Oddly enough, everything seemed to be either secured to the floor or designed to fold out from the wall—

Wait, did she say welcome aboard? Aboard, like—

“You’re on board the Wild Rover, the finest show-ship in the galaxy,” Sundance announced, her voice clear and proud. “En route to the planet Buonarroti, for a special Christmas Eve private performance!”

“Private—what?” Carol felt her thoughts slipping out of her control like the boys who’d tried to run on the ice, at whom she and Sundance had laughed—yesterday, it was only yesterday, it feels like forever ago…

“As strange as it may seem to you, my lady, there are a great many people in this galaxy who like music,” said a voice she knew, and Carol whipped around to see Mr. Xiao, lounging in a chair near the back of the room with an oddly curved and ornamented wooden box across his lap. The boy she had seen following Sundance was sprawled on the floor near his feet, doing something complicated with colored paper, but looked up to flash Carol a grin.

“As my lovely wife mentioned,” Mr. Xiao went on, “the Free Sky clan can and does make its living, and quite a good living it is, traveling from world to world, singing for our suppers.” He stroked a hand across the strings Carol now saw were stretched along one side of the box and down the straight piece of wood which protruded from it, and a mellow chord hummed forth. “Now and again, we even catch the attention of someone rich enough or famous enough that we agree to perform for them and them alone. Such as the royal family of Buonarroti, who fit both categories admirably.”

“It’s what Killdeer and Nightsinger were away arranging when we had the accident,” Sundance said as if this explained everything. “So Daddy was the only one on board who looked human-standard, and that’s why he was the guide when we pretended to be the zoo-ship.” She giggled. “It’s funny to listen to people talk about you like you can’t understand them!”

Carol heard this only vaguely, most of her attention being devoted to the attempt to regain her mental balance. One thing was becoming clearer by the moment, and would need to be brought up as soon as she could form the words—

“You took me with you,” she said, looking up at Mr. Xiao. “You—you kidnapped me!”

“By the strictest definition of the word, yes, I did.” Mr. Xiao strummed another chord, a second and a third, yearning and melancholy. “Though if you really want to go back to Moria—”

“No!” Carol and Sundance blurted in unison.

“As I thought.” Mr. Xiao settled back in his chair, smiling to himself. “Then I suppose we’ll just have to make other arrangements. What do you think, my love, can the clan handle one more adopted daughter?”

“Say, ‘can we handle one more’, and you will be closer to the mark.” Duskdance chuckled, tapping Carol and Sundance’s hands, still clasped together. “Persuading this pair to let go of one another, after everything else that has happened, is more than I feel capable of, and the household is scarcely overcrowded. And anything which will take a certain item off the top of a certain person’s Christmas list, year after year…” She laid her ears back and mock-glared at her daughter.

“I told you and told you I wanted a sister,” Sundance retorted, glaring right back. “Not a stupid stinky brother, a sister.” She made a face at the boy on the floor, who returned it with interest. “And you kept saying, ‘Maybe next year, maybe next year,’ but next year didn’t ever come.” She grinned again. “So, now it did.”

Carol looked down at the blankets still covering her lap, then up at the room around her, at the smiling faces of the people who impossibly, inexplicably wanted her, and to her horror her vision blurred with tears. A tiny discordant sproing and a confused moment of motion, and she found herself seated sideways in a lap, wrapped in strong, warm, familiar arms—

“You carried me,” she said into Mr. Xiao’s shoulder, turning her head so that her words wouldn’t be muffled by the soft knit of his green sweater. “Back on Moria, after you used the patch to make me sleep. I thought you were going to leave me there, but you picked me up and brought me back here with you…and that was after I tried to get you in trouble, after you were going to be arrested for doing something you didn’t really do…” She swallowed against a hiccup and forced out one more word, the question her whole mind was humming with. “Why?

“Because you didn’t deserve to suffer for doing what was right, even if it wasn’t necessary this time.” Mr. Xiao shifted her weight slightly, settling her more comfortably against him. Her hand, she noted, was still being clutched by Sundance, who was cuddled up in her mother’s lap on the other end of the bunk. “I knew a girl once who had a hard time making a decision very like yours, and she was a lot older when she came to it. If she hadn’t decided the way she did, none of us would be here today, and it was a very near thing. A lot nearer than I think she chooses to remember.”

“And how well do any of us recall the least pleasant parts of our lives?” Duskdance inquired. “Also, my young lady Carol, do remember that our business aboard the Wild Rover is music. I have been listening to you sing with Sundance, and to leave you on a world where such things are forbidden…” She clicked her tongue. “Shameful. A waste of talent, in a galaxy where the genuine article is sadly rare.”

“You’re already good enough to sing in our shows, if you only do one or two songs so you don’t get tired,” Sundance said, squirming around to smile at Carol. “And we can start trying you on instruments as soon as Christmas is over, so we can find the right one for you. Won’t that be fun?”

Carol nodded hard. Her throat, once again, felt too tight to speak, but where in the commissioner’s office that had been from fear and confusion, this was joy so overwhelming that she was astonished not to see her very skin shining from it. For all her mistakes, all her fumbling and misunderstanding, she was being rewarded beyond anything she could have dreamed.

“Why…” she tried saying again, and winced at the croak in her voice, but gamely pushed onward. “Why do you keep calling me a lady?” she managed to get out, the words clearing a bit towards the end of the sentence. “I’m not.”

“Every woman may be a lady in her behavior, if she so chooses,” Duskdance corrected gently, tapping Carol on the nose with a finger. “But if you wish us to bring you into our home as Sundance’s sister, then you will be a lady in title as well, for I am the queen of the wild Free Sky rovers, and my children, born or adopted, are princes and princesses all.” She cast a laughing glance across the room at the boy, still involved in what Carol could now see was a lengthy paper chain. “As little as our Stefan-Shadowcrest sometimes deserves his title.”

“That’s what I’m forgetting!” Sundance burst out. “A name! You need a use-name, Carol, one like ours, so people don’t know who you are—who you were, I mean—but we have to come up with one before we get to Buonarroti, it would look a little strange if I didn’t know my own sister’s name!” She giggled at the thought, then produced an oddly shy smile. “I can tell you my true name now, the one that’s only for family and clan,” she said, lowering her eyes. “If you want to hear it.”

“Please,” Carol said. “You know mine already, I never had any other one…” The idea of a name meant for the use of outsiders, a name that was hers but at one remove from the deepest parts of her heart, struck a chord within her stronger than she had imagined it might. To be renamed, she thought whimsically, would be almost like being reborn.

“An-jing.” Sundance accented the syllables with care, as though a mistake would change the meaning significantly. “It’s from some of Daddy’s ancestors, it means ‘perfect peace’, after Mama, since that’s what her true name means.” Her mischievous smile crept back. “And I already know just the right use-name for you, coming from what your name means…”

“We’ll discuss that in a moment,” Mr. Xiao cut in, shifting Carol in his arms again. “For right now, we should finish our own introductions. You heard my full name back on Moria, Carol—may God forgive my parents for it—but here at home, I usually go by Suncrest.” He smiled down at her. “Though from you, I think ‘Dad’ might be more appropriate, and ‘Mama’ for Siochana—that’s Duskdance.” A pause, long enough for a deep, slow breath. “If, of course, that’s what you want.”

The final statement, though spoken lightly, bore undeniable undertones of weight and meaning, and Carol went still as she recognized them. Mr. Xiao might have taken her away from Moria without asking her permission, but that had been to keep her safe. He wasn’t automatically assuming that she would want to stay with his people, to join his family. She had to make that decision for herself, to say yes or no.

And big decisions are always scary.

But this kind of scary, I can do.

“Yes,” she said, and pressed Sundance’s hand tightly, smiling up at Suncrest and Duskdance. “Yes, it’s what I want.”

What I’ve always wanted. What I had with my own mom and dad, and what they’d still want me to have now, even though they’re gone. People to love me, and a big, bright, wonderful, glorious future, and music for Christmas and for always, with everything old put aside, even my name…

“So tell me,” said the younger princess of the clan of the Free Sky, grinning at her sister and her parents. “Who am I going to be from now on?”

  • * * * *

Nonna,” Elena whispered, pointing. “Look, the singing princess, Starsong, she has round ears! Her sister, Sundance, has the pointed ears like the other Aelur do—why, Nonna?”

“Ah, that is because their papa was not born an Aelur, but their mama was, and so one sister looks like the mama and one like the papa.” Albina tugged gently at one of Elena’s braids, then ran her fingers along the lock of Gabriela’s hair which had escaped its confinement. “And we would know nothing of that, hmm? Now zitto, hush, and listen!”

Obediently, the girls fell silent for the final lines of the song.

“…the world in solemn stillness lay

“To hear the angels sing.”

  • * * * *

This story is dedicated, with love, in memory of my Italian grandmother. Buon Natale, Nonna. Ti amo.

 

 

Enough

 

“How much is enough?”

The question, asked in a warm, full woman’s voice, filled the darkened room, hushed the rustles of shifting bodies and whispering children. Starsong felt her sister’s hand tighten around hers, and nudged Sundance sharply when claws began to prickle against her skin. She didn’t want to open her presents in the morning with bleeding fingers.

“How much is enough?” repeated their mother, Duskdance, into the deep, soft silence. “How should we know when we may stop seeking out more things, asking for more possessions, piling up more treasures? Which gifts should we most ardently seek to earn, which should we accept only in moderation, and which should we turn away from altogether?”

Light flared in front of Duskdance, as her mate Suncrest, kneeling beside her, struck a match and lit the brazier which stood prepared. The faces of the Free Sky clan of the human strain known as the Aelur sprang out of the darkness, the slit pupils of their eyes narrowing against the glare, their pointed ears tilting forward to catch their queen’s ritual words.

“Let us learn,” Duskdance intoned, helping her husband to his feet, “from the wisdom of the past.” Dropping gracefully to her own knees, she blew gently on the flames, sending them leaping and dancing across the wood. “Let us receive three gifts from the Three Kings of ancient times, and three more from the Six Sisters of our own tradition, and use them in our day to answer the question:

“How much is enough?”

  • * * * *

“Tell us again, Starsong!” pleaded little Winterfur, latching onto the older girl with both hands and staring pleadingly up at her with eyes as blue as the simulated sky above them. “Tell us again about how it’s different living here on the Wild Rover than it was where you grew up!”

“I tell you that story at least once a week!” Starsong laughed, working Winterfur’s white fingers loose from her tanned arm. “Haven’t you heard it enough yet?”

“No!” chorused Winterfur and her usual crew, Starsong’s younger brother Shadowcrest and the rest of the clan’s children between their ages of seven (Shadowcrest) and four (Winterfur). “Again, please, again!” “We like that story!” “Especially the part where—”

“All right, all right!” Starsong held up her hands for quiet. “But you’ll have to settle for the short version. I’m due on the bridge pretty soon for my lesson. So show me how you listen, everyone.”

Five seconds later, she had a seated, attentive audience, with six pairs of slit-pupiled eyes turned raptly upon her. “Very good,” she said, sitting down herself on a handy rock. “Now, then. Once upon a time, there was a girl named Carol Fuhrman, who lived with her aunt and uncle and cousin on a mining planet called Moria, where people hated music and had laws against it. But one Christmastime when Carol was eleven, a starship came to Moria, a starship called the Rover, which said it was a ship full of quasi-humans, animals that look a lot like human beings but really aren’t, with a man named Mr. Xiao as their caretaker…”

The tale of Carol Fuhrman, who had exposed her own illegal love of music to try to help the entirely human (if rather feline in appearance) inhabitants of the Rover, was an easy one for Starsong to tell, if occasionally hard for her to believe. Her life had changed so dramatically with that single decision, and in such a different way than the one she’d expected, that moments of shivering delight and disbelief still overtook her from time to time as she walked the corridors of the Wild Rover, lay in her bunk beside Sundance at night, or learned her new family’s business in the simulation of open space and air made possible by the ship’s enormous, sealed-off cargo bay.

I thought I was going to get sent to one of the Morian reformatories. To get punished over and over, until they made the music stop inside me, one way or another. And instead I got a family, a real family, the kind I hadn’t had since my parents died—a father and a mother who love me just as much as my born ones did, and an aunt and an uncle who only gripe about how much trouble I am to tease me, and a twin sister and a little brother, even if he is an awful pest sometimes—

“And best of all,” she continued aloud, “Carol found music aboard the Wild Rover. Music like she’d never dreamed there could be, music for every hour of the day and every season of the year. Music that sang along with the music she’d heard inside her own mind and heart, every day of her entire life, and shared itself with the people who came aboard to watch and listen. So she agreed to stay on board the ship, and be part of her new family, and she took a name like the people all around her, the Aelur, a name that meant the new person she was. One part of that name said where she lived now, and one part described what filled up her heart every day that she looked around at her new home. And all of it meant her, and that name was—”

“Starsong!” the little ones chorused with her, and bounced and wiggled in their places, cheering for the happy ending of the story.

“But what about the people back on Moria?” asked Winterfur doubtfully when she could next be heard. “Wouldn’t they be angry because somebody took Carol away from them?”

“They didn’t want her,” said Shadowcrest with certainty. “They were going to send her away to a re—to a reforma—” He scowled, then brightened. “To a bad place. Where they wouldn’t have to be ‘bothered’ with her anymore.”

“No!” Winterfur scooted rapidly across the grass and latched onto Starsong’s leg with one arm and both her own legs. “My Starsong! Nobody gets to send her to a bad place!” Baring her teeth and the claws on her free hand, she hissed ferociously, making the other children shrink back.

“My brave protector.” Starsong bent down and hugged the littler girl, her dark hair tumbling around Winterfur’s silver-blonde locks, then tapped the clutching hand. “But you have to let go now, or I’ll be late and Killdeer will scold me.”

Winterfur released her at once. “Run as you please,” she said politely, stretching upwards to kiss Starsong on the cheek.

“Keep the key,” Starsong answered, squeezing Winterfur with one arm and opening her other one to accept hugs from the rest of the children, including her brother. The requirements of Aelur farewells thus fulfilled, she loped easily towards a particularly lush grove of trees. Sliding between trunks, she stopped in front of the thickest one of all, used her left hand to scoop up a bird’s nest from a forking branch which extended past her, and laid her right palm against the square of smooth ceramic thus revealed.

With a musical ping and a near-silent swoosh of air, the halves of the tree trunk parted, revealing a standard shipside corridor beyond.

Starsong set the bird’s nest back atop the palm plate and stepped through the door, feeling as always a slight sense of relief. The Free Sky clan had adjusted surprisingly well to modern life in the greater galaxy—indeed, Sundance and her agemates had grown up in full knowledge of both sides of their life, and could set a snare for a rabbit as readily as they could research a computer’s database—but her own childhood as Carol, in the underground corridors and cave-cities of Moria, hadn’t prepared her for the reality of open spaces, even simulated ones such as the cargo bay. At the same time that she loved it, it unsettled her on a level too deep for rational thinking.

But most of the time when I’m there, I’m not looking up, or out, unless I want to be. I’m looking at, either at the people I love or at the music I love almost as much. Or at some of the handicrafts that an Aelur woman ought to know, even if she is going to live most of her life in the greater galaxy. She smiled to herself, breaking into a trot in order to arrive at her lesson on time. We’re so far past the days when women had to know how to work with thread, just so their families would have any clothing at all, that now we can make money doing those things, because there are people who will pay a lot to have things that are really and truly handmade!

And once a young woman was past her earliest training in such crafts, she could set her fingers to doing them while her eyes and her mind were somewhere else altogether. Starsong wasn’t quite there with spinning or sewing yet, and weaving required a loom, but knitting and its cousin crochet had come to her as easily as if she’d been born with needles or hook in her hands.

Maybe I was, or sort of. I was too little when my born parents died to really remember what my mother did with her free time, other than music. She might have known some threadwork. Or my father might, if he needed something to relax him. Who knows?

Coming up to the doors which led onto the bridge, she laid her hand against another palm plate, sensing more than hearing the hum of the scanner. A differently-toned chime announced her presence to the person on the other side of the doors, and they opened with a louder swoosh than the doors from the cargo bay (which had been specially calibrated to introduce as little extraneous sound into the transplanted natural world the Aelur maintained there as possible).

“Right on time, I see,” said Starsong’s aunt Killdeer, the owner of the Wild Rover, looking around with a warm smile. “Good girl. How’d you get away from the raging horde?”

“I had to peel one of them off me, but they were really very good today.” Starsong went to one of the small cubbies which had been installed in an unobtrusive corner of the bridge shortly after the ship had become Killdeer’s and plucked her workbag out of the one labeled with a five-pointed star and a musical note. The bag was mostly plain canvas so far, as she and Sundance were taking their time designing the embroidery for its outside. Among the Aelur, a woman’s workbag and her clothing, like a man’s tool chest and the walls of his home, served as a silent testament to her abilities.

“Someday you’ll have to teach me how you do that.” Killdeer sighed, raking back her brown hair and clipping it into place with an old-fashioned metal barrette. “It’s not just because Nightsinger and I are always here, there, and everywhere, arranging the Rover’s performance schedule, that we’ve held off having children for so long, you know. I’m still not sure what kind of mother I’d make, and I’d rather be auntie to the rest of the clan forever than bring children into this world without knowing I could do a decent job of it.”

Starsong sneaked a glance at her aunt’s carved pendant of womanstone, lying in its usual place against the pale-gold skin of her chest which her folded-back coverall exposed. It was starting to shade out of violet into red in some places.

Which means her body is about to give her its every-month reminder that she is a woman, and can have children, even if she isn’t.

She wasn’t looking forward to that process on her own behalf, though thankfully her mother had given her and Sundance a far clearer explanation of what would go on when it did begin, and all topics related to that area of life, than Carol’s Aunt Taisha had ever managed to do for her unwanted niece. Still, it wasn’t the sort of thing one could avoid, and modern medicine could help ease the pain even as modern hygienic products dealt with the mess.

I only wish there were some way to handle the way it plays around with your moods—well, there is, but Aelur don’t believe in using those drugs unless someone’s so badly hurt inside their mind that they can’t be helped any other way, or they’re dangerous to themselves or to other people. And I am Aelur now, even if I wasn’t born one. Neither was Killdeer, or my own father, and nobody would ever say they don’t belong.

So she would practice the mood-balancing exercises her parents and the other elders of the clan taught her, and work on keeping her temper as hundreds of years of her mothers and grandmothers (spiritual, if not physical) had done before her, by thinking about joyful things.

Like Christmas. Sitting down in the designated learner’s chair, Starsong pulled her bright copper hook out of the ball of red yarn and looped it around her fingers, going to work on a patch which would be sewn with a lot of others like itself into a blanket, folded up neatly, and wrapped in colorful paper to be set under a certain tree with her little brother’s name written on it. My first Christmas with my new family—well, second, but the first one I was so dazed by having a family again that I hardly noticed anything else going on around me.

This time, I get to see it all.

But that’s more than a month away still. Right now, I need to concentrate on my lesson.

“What am I learning today?” she asked, her fingers darting in, out, and around in their work without supervision from eyes or mind.

“Today, we’re going over scanners.” Killdeer ran her own fingers expertly across the touch-sensitive panels before her, bringing up a bewildering array of gauges, screens, and graphs. “Here’s the settings for all ship’s systems—pick out the ones that have to do with scanners, and tell me what and where they scan.”

Starsong quelled her first feeling of panic, reminding herself that she had to learn to think clearly even when she felt overwhelmed. Starting in the top left corner, she worked her way along, identifying each display and either eliminating it as not a scanning system or tagging it for further study. Finally she used her chin to point out her six choices.

“Outside visual scanners, for when we get close to a star or planet in normal space and want to see it,” she said, indicating a field of solid gray. “Outside radio pulse scanners, for finding solid things farther out than we can see. And outside shift wall scanners, for getting information faster than the radio pulse, though they won’t tell us about anything smaller than a ship. And then over here are the inside vid cameras, for security when we have audiences aboard the Rover or when we want to film a vid and the audi-recorders to go with, and then the climate scanners to make sure we have air and heat everywhere we should.”

“Very good.” Killdeer nodded. “And why are all the outside scanners disabled right now?”

“Because we’re in the middle of a skip, and there’s nothing to see in shiftspace…” Starsong’s eye was caught by a blinking light on another display. “Except we’re not in the middle of a skip anymore,” she said, tying off the last loop of her current patch and reaching into her bag for her scissors. “We’re about to come out of one, for our three-hour skim along the interface. That’ll send our ship’s profile rippling back through shiftspace and attract any message probes anyone’s sent us, so we can pick them up and read our mail, and get the latest news.”

“Excellent!” Killdeer applauded softly. “It won’t be long before you’re ready to stand a watch by yourself. With plenty of help nearby, of course,” she added swiftly as Starsong felt her eyes widen. “But yes, you’re getting better that quickly. Does it surprise you?”

“It does and it doesn’t.” Starsong slid the completed patch back into her bag, tucking her hook into the ball of yarn once more. “It does because I never really liked computers back on Moria, but this isn’t Moria.” She laughed, winding a few twists of the bold red yarn around her finger, comparing it to the rusty shade of her skirt and the mellow gold of her blouse. “This really isn’t Moria. And because it isn’t, I want to learn everything, as fast as I can. Because the Rover is my home, now, and taking care of my home is the same as taking care of my family.”

“And with an attitude like that, is it any wonder Suncrest grabbed you up the moment he had the chance?” Killdeer slid an arm around her niece for a hug. “You were wasted there, love, as wasted as I ever was cooped up here. This old ship wasn’t any kind of a home for me, not until I got the help I needed to finish growing up and claim my rights—but you know that story, and here we go—”

The crossing between shiftspace and normal, as always, brought a moment of blurring to Starsong’s eyes, a feeling in her ears as though the floor had suddenly bucked or bounced beneath her, but then it was over. She knew that she was lucky, that some people reacted much worse to the beginnings and ends of the skips which were the method by which modern starships traveled faster than the speed of light, that even some of her own adoptive clan were unwilling to leave their homeworld because of those feelings, but she still didn’t like it much.

But if it’s a choice between feeling that way twice a day during one of our travel days, once for ending yesterday’s skip and once for beginning today’s, or going back to Moria and being trapped there again—I’d have that feeling twice an hour if it meant I’d stay free, out here among the stars, with my family and my music and my life. And I am staying free, because no one on Moria has any idea what our ship is really called or what it does, so they can’t find us, and I never have to go back there—

“Let’s see here,” Killdeer murmured as her fingers, furless as Starsong’s own, flashed across the panels. “Three commercial news service probes, yes, those are ours—two queries about possible performances, route those to Nightsinger—a bunch of ad-blast probes, send those to the funny box, you and your friends can check them out for entertainment value—and what’s this?”

“What’s what?” Starsong looked around, struck by the sudden, brittle note in her aunt’s voice. “Is something wrong?”

“Not wrong, exactly. Just…odd.” Killdeer frowned, tapping three times on one of the displays Starsong had picked out earlier, zooming in her outside cameras on the catchbasin into which the message probes had been drawn by the ship’s attractor. “Look there, right behind the probe from Intergalactic News Central—do you see it? That’s not a proper probe at all.”

Starsong turned her head back and forth, trying to get the half-seen item to come into better focus. She’d studied something with this shape recently, in another of her shipside lessons—

“Collector!” she blurted out. “It’s a solar collector, the kind ships throw out to gather power from stars!”

“So it is.” Killdeer relaxed. “Not a design I’ve seen in use before, which accounts for my not recognizing it, but that’s what it is. Someone wasn’t careful about policing theirs up when they started their skip out of here, it seems.” She swirled her finger against the pad, and a robotic hand moved out from the side of the catchbasin and picked up the solar collector, turning it back and forth to expose its various surfaces to the camera. “That’s an awfully old design, isn’t it? Almost antique by now. What ship is it from, I wonder?”

As if in answer, a series of letters engraved along the collector’s side came into the camera’s line of sight at that very moment.

Starsong distinctly felt her throat squeeze shut as her past reached out for her once again.

Balrog,” she whispered. “It’s Morian.”

  • * * * *

“The first gift of the Kings is gold.” Suncrest opened his hands, revealing to the firelight a pile of glittering ornaments, necklaces, rings, and bracelets heaped atop one another. “Gold, mined from the earth, given by a king to the King of Kings. Gold, to symbolize wealth, and the power that comes from having much wealth.”

“But the first gift of the Sisters is home.” Duskdance cradled in her own hands a small model of a tent, the sort the rovers of Free Sky put up to shelter themselves every night as they followed their herds along the migration paths, or erected and tore down in one of the pageants they had crafted to show the people of the greater galaxy the lives they once had lived. “For what good is gold, if it cannot buy what is most needed? And what could be more needed than a home, a place of rest and safety?”

“And yet a home is only a place of pain, if want and ignorance live there,” Suncrest countered. “Walls and a roof can keep off rain and snow, but they can also hold in anger and misery. With gold, we can buy food and clothing, blankets and cushions, learning and help.”

“With the work of our hands, we can also obtain everything you have named.” Duskdance flicked her ears loftily. “And with the work of our hearts, we can find happiness, which gold can never buy.” Her mien softened. “And yet…”

“And yet, gold is not evil.” Suncrest lifted his handful of metal as Duskdance removed the top of her tent, revealing it to be a cleverly worked box. “If it is put to use in the service of the home, and the ones who live there…” He poured the adornments carefully into the box, all except for one necklace, which he caught on a fingertip. “It is a very great good.”

“As all things can be good, properly used.” Duskdance placed the lid back on her box and set it aside, then leaned forward to allow Suncrest to place the necklace about her neck. “So both gifts work together to teach us this lesson,” she said to her attentive clan. “That when your gold buys you a home and its furnishings, when it puts food in your mouth and clothing on your back, when you can help your children set their feet upon their life-paths and even spare a little for some things which are only beautiful…” She laid her fingertips against her necklace. “When you have all that you need, and some of what you want—that, in the goods of the body, is enough.”

  • * * * *

“What is a Morian ship doing all the way out here?” Nightsinger asked, his feet tucked up under him in his chair. “I thought they never left their own little sphere of space, either because they’re afraid of the big bad galaxy or because it would cost too much!”

“They are afraid.” Carol—she couldn’t think of herself as Starsong just now, not with the terror that seeing the Balrog’s name had wakened in her—huddled in her own chair, shivering. Even a full year spent aboard the Wild Rover wasn’t enough to override the deepest reactions her early life had taught her, the churning in her gut and the shortening of her breath when she thought about the Morian authorities.

They’ll want me back, her mind babbled. It doesn’t matter that my aunt and uncle never liked me, that I know all kinds of music now, that they were only ever going to send me away to the reformatory in the first place—they’ll want me back, to prove that no one escapes Morian justice, no matter how far they run or how they try to hide…

“They’re afraid of all sorts of things,” she continued aloud. “Of hearing music, of learning stories, really, of knowing too much about anything that has to do with how the rest of the galaxy lives. They think it will distract them from their work, and a distracted worker gets her fellow workers killed…”

Primitive, by the standards of the greater galaxy, the Aelur might originally have been, but Carol couldn’t help but be grateful for their custom that it was the height of rudeness for listeners to stare at a speaker while she was talking. Killdeer had a tripad in her hands and was working it urgently with fingers and voice, Nightsinger was twisting and coiling a bit of wire between his hands, Suncrest was standing in one corner of the room and gazing at the wall screens which displayed an image of the starfield outside the ship, and Duskdance had her own workbag out and was busily stitching at what Carol recognized as one of her own show blouses, bright and cheerful with embroidery.

Am I ever going to wear it again? she wondered with a shiver. Will I ever take another bow with Sundance, and listen to everyone cheer for us, and lift up little Winterfur to sit on my shoulders and sing the goodbye song to our audience? Or will the law say I have to go back to Moria, because that’s where I was born?

“Work may be the excuse, but I’d bet you a full audience’s take that’s not the only reason.” Suncrest spoke without turning around. “Music and stories open people’s minds, make them think beyond their boundaries. But the Morians don’t want to lose their workforce, and with it their income, so they discourage or outlaw anything that could help to spark dreams in people about getting away from their incredibly dreary little planet—or am I wrong?” He glanced back at Carol.

Carol shook her head. “You’re not wrong,” she confirmed. “Morians do tell stories, but they’re all about how Reliable Jack got a good position and a big salary right out of school because he was never late and always did a little more than what was expected of him, or how Clever Jill won the biggest Christmas bonus in her office because she had studied all the steps of their process and found the places where they were inefficient so she could improve them…”

Nightsinger made a gagging noise. Killdeer reached over without looking to swat her mate on the back of the head. “Behave yourself,” she said, setting her tripad down on the table. “All right, here’s the latest news we have on board—I sent a probe off inquiring for anything more recent, but it won’t catch up with us until tomorrow. You were reported missing when it happened, Starsong, love, but the alert was blue-flagged.”

“Blue-flagged?” Duskdance looked up from her work. “I have heard of red flags, but blue?”

“That’s the First Responders’ code for an alert that looks like it was put out just for form, or possibly for spite.” Suncrest turned back to face the room. “Custody battles are a big cause of blue flags, where both parents would be acceptable as caretakers for their children but one gets so frustrated with the process that they claim the other one is a kidnapper. It’s too big a galaxy for the Responders to follow up on every single thing like that, a blue flag means they’re kicking it back to the local authorities—but hang on.” He craned his neck to peer at Killdeer’s tripad. “Are you sure that’s a blue flag, K.D., or is it green? Because a green flag on an alert means something entirely different…”

Killdeer swiped her fingers across the screen a few times and blinked in surprise. “How did you know that?” she demanded, holding up the tripad so that everyone could see Carol’s face, solemn in the last school picture she’d had taken before the Rover had come to Moria, the edges of the standard background clearly outlined in a vivid shade of green. “It was blue to start with, but they swapped it over to green after a month or two.”

“So what’s a green flag mean?” Nightsinger asked.

“Officially, it’s just a flourish on blue. ‘Give local authorities assistance with investigation’ rather than ‘Take no action, refer to locals.’ But unofficially…” Suncrest came to take a seat at the table, his lips beginning to twitch into a semblance of his usual easy smile. “Unofficially, it means the Responders have done their homework. They’ve looked into Moria, and they’ve looked into us, and they’re giving us the benefit of the doubt. A green flag means whichever Responder answers this alert, they’re going to look a lot more closely into it than they usually would a missing-child case. And once they’ve taken into account the cultural peculiarities of Moria, and Starsong’s undoubted talents in another direction…”

“Not to mention what she wants from life, her hopes and dreams for her future. And the transformation she has undergone over the past year.” Duskdance turned her warm smile towards Carol. “It has not always been easy for you, I know, my love,” she said. “But I hope that you, like I, have never had any true reason to regret the choice we made so quickly at this time last year.”

Shaking her head hard, Carol felt Starsong begin to creep back out of the place within her heart where she’d run to hide. “It’s been scary sometimes, and a lot of times it’s hurt,” said both parts of her together. “But little hurts and healings are the only way to get strong.” She regarded her fingers, callused both from her crochet hook and the strings of the harp and guitar she practiced every day, her left palm scarred by the unexpected jump of a knife with which she’d been peeling a potato and her right by a small burn from a heated stone she’d been trying to use to brew tea in the Aelur style. “And my body might always have been comfortable on Moria, but my heart was miserable.”

“Even misery can be comfortable, though.” Killdeer never took her eyes away from what she was doing on her tripad now. “If it’s all you’ve known for a long time, all you’ve been taught to expect, then hope and happiness can burn like fire.” Now she looked up, her eyes meeting her niece’s squarely. “And for some people, that’s too much. They’d rather stay with what they know, even if what they know is horrible, than endure the pain of change to get what’s better in the end.”

Carol took a deep breath in, and Starsong let it out. “Not me,” she said. “Only dead things don’t change, and I want to live.”

“In that case, let’s start making plans.” Nightsinger brought his palms together in a soft clap. “Suncrest, would you run that bit about the green flag past us again? If you’re saying what I think you’re saying, we may already have the perfect way to handle this one…”

  • * * * *

“The second gift of the Kings is frankincense.” Suncrest’s cupped palms held several lumps of a brownish-white substance, irregular in shape but none bigger than his two fingertips put together. “Frankincense, carved from a tree, given by a priest to the Holy Child of Bethlehem. Frankincense, which rises up to the Creator of the Universe and carries with it the thoughts and prayers of all humankind.”

“But the second gift of the Sisters is fire.” Duskdance extended her own hands as though she would embrace the brazier, burning merrily before her. “Fire which brings warmth and life, fire which drives away the chill of winter.” She cast a teasing look towards Suncrest. “Fire without which your frankincense will never be pleasing to the Almighty, for how can it lift our thoughts to the heavens if it is not burned? The resin itself has an aroma, true enough, but only by burning can it be shared as widely as such blessings should always be shared.”

“Should I throw away this gift, then?” Suncrest objected. “Cast it into the flames, as if I do not care for it? If I do that, it will be consumed, and I will never have it again.” He paused, looking meditatively at the frankincense. “But that is its proper use, is it not? To be consumed and changed by the fire, and to teach us to likewise change our minds. To burn away what is not good about ourselves, even if that burning hurts, and let what is good drift outward to make the world a better place.”

Carefully, he chose a lump of resin and dropped it into the brazier, choosing a spot to one side where the coals glowed red. A moment later, a dark, smoky scent, invoking the deep silences of the forest where it had been born, rolled forth to surround the clan of Free Sky.

“Will you add more?” Duskdance asked after a few breaths.

“No, not now.” Suncrest slid the rest of the frankincense into the pouch at his waist. “It would only make us sick with too great a scent at once, and perhaps even choke off the fire with the excess of smoke. I will wait and use the rest at another time.”

Duskdance smiled. “As we must with our own gifts, for if we do not strike a balance between our own needs and those of others, we will either give too much and wear ourselves thin to no purpose, or give too little and grow selfish, hoarding up what we have and allowing it to rot before it can be used.” She knelt once more, breathing the aroma of the incense with satisfaction. “So both gifts work together to teach us that when we have given properly of what we have and used it well and wisely, when we have allowed our lives to transform us from what we were into what we ought to be, when the world is the better for us and we for the world—that, in the matters of the spirit, is enough.”

  • * * * *

When the Balrog, out of Moria, finally overhauled the self-registered ship Wild Rover near the edge of the Louisville solar system, a no-nonsense woman’s voice gave the Balrog’s shuttle its docking instructions over the normal space com, and its owner met the Morian delegation and the representative of the First Responders at the shuttle bay doors with a scowl. “What exactly is the meaning of this?” she demanded, hands on her coverall-clad hips. “We have a schedule to meet, audiences expecting us, and if this foolishness makes us late—”

“A missing child is hardly foolishness, madam,” said the Responder calmly. “May I have your name?”

“Deirdre Rioghan, crewmember in good standing of the Wild Rover.” The woman so named swept her thick, dark hair back from her bronze face with impatient hands. “And you are?”

“First Responder Imogene Silver, Ms. Rioghan. Pleased to meet you.” Responder Silver, whose eyes and hair, matching her name, contrasted strikingly with her dark brown skin, bowed slightly from the waist. “And the gentlemen here are Commissioner Robert Cleine and Mr. Frank Ghavouri, both of Moria—”

“I’ve never seen you before,” interrupted Cleine, a pale and portly man who could have appeared jolly if he were not so clearly ill-at-ease, pointing at Deirdre. “There was a name like yours on that roster, but you I never saw. Kolesar, Doyle, Xiao, those are the people we want—”

“Especially Xiao. Mikala Xiao.” Ghavouri, olive-skinned and balding, painfully thin, and unable to stand still, was glancing around the neatly-appointed reception area as though expecting the man he’d named to materialize out of the bulkheads. “He’s the one responsible for corrupting my poor little niece Carol, for exposing her to…to…”

“Music?” Deirdre suggested tartly, making both Morians recoil at the word. “You will have a difficult time searching this ship if you cannot even deal with the concept, gentlemen. It is, after all, our business.”

“Yes, about that business.” Silver’s face was quite calm, but a hint of humor had crept into her tone. “Can you possibly reconcile the records, Ms. Rioghan, while we’re here? Your ship seems to have registered improperly at Moria, and to have declared its purpose falsely…”

Deirdre sighed. “Ms. Silver, this ship costs money,” she said. “Money to run, money to repair. Money to feed and clothe those who live aboard her. We needed money when we stopped at Moria, but we make our money by the playing and singing of music, and the laws of Moria expressly prohibit that. So we allowed them to come and look at our people, who happen to have a different appearance than most of the greater galaxy, and we told them a few little stories about us which are not strictly true. Who is harmed by that? And we never claimed any name that is not ours. We only…simplified it.”

“That seems fair enough.” Silver nodded. “I’ll add the notation to the file when I get back to the office. Now, in the matter of Carol Fuhrman?”

“No child by that name is aboard this ship.” Deirdre made her statement a flat negative. “I will not say she was never here, for she was. When we were docked at Moria, she visited often, and traded laughter with my daughter An-jing. But.” Her amber eyes met Silver’s gray ones and held them. “Since the day we left Morian orbit, Carol Fuhrman has not been aboard the Wild Rover, and to that I will swear if necessary.”

“I don’t think it will be.” Silver glanced back towards the Morians. “But if you would permit us, just as a formality, to walk through the ship? Check to be sure you haven’t, shall we say, overlooked anyone?”

“You suspect your niece has stowed away, and we are hiding her from you?” Deirdre bowed gracefully to Ghavouri, including Cleine in the gesture with a wave of her hand. “I would never have you think that of us. Come.” She started towards the elevators on the other side of the room. “Explore our home. Go where you wish. Only do be aware.” Her smile returned, with a wicked twist to it, as she pressed the button to summon the car. “Some of us may be practicing our trade.”

“Disgusting,” muttered Ghavouri as the bell pinged. “Just disgusting.”

“Now, Frank. Different planets, different mores.” Cleine stepped inside the elevator car behind the other Morian. “Though I can’t blame you,” he added in what was obviously supposed to be a tone too low for the two women to hear.

Deirdre, facing the front of the car as the doors closed, curled her lip.

“Remind me, Mr. Ghavouri,” said Silver after the car had been ascending for a moment or two. “How did Carol come to live with you and your family again?”

“Her fool of a father got himself and his wife killed—she was my half-sister, a good bit younger, I didn’t know her much—by crashing a flyer he thought he’d recalibrated to take two people instead of one.” The answer came without any particular passion. Clearly the words had been long established within the speaker’s mind as unalterable truth. “It’s part of the reason we watched Carol so closely, trying to keep her from following in her parents’ footsteps—to be honest with you, Ms. Silver, if Carol weren’t still so young, we might not have pursued this at all. She was never anything but trouble to us, and there’s only so much outside influence can do when they’re born already marked for it that way.”

“I see.” Silver pursed her lips. “You have a daughter of your own, I believe? Close to Carol’s age?”

“My Layna.” Now Ghavouri sounded doting. “She’s our little angel.”

“And how did she feel about Carol? Was she, perhaps, glad to have a playmate of her own age so nearby?”

“Ms. Silver, if I told you half the things that Carol put my darling through, you’d say I was lying to you.” Stern righteousness had replaced the Daddy’s-little-girl coo in Ghavouri’s tones. “Everything from copying homework off her tripad, to stealing clothing out of her closet, to saying, when my wife caught her brazenly humming a song, that she’d heard Layna doing it first! Now I ask you, is that—”

The elevator pinged again, and opened onto a scene of chaos.

Children swarmed the corridor, the colors of their furry faces and hands managing somehow to harmonize rather than clashing with the rainbow-mix of coveralls they wore and the multicolored litter of paper and plastic being attached to bulkheads and doorframes. Cheerful shouts filled the air, some in Vershal, the rest in a language which made Deirdre sigh. “I have told them and told them,” she said, leading her little party off the elevator. “Aelur is to be spoken within the cargo bay, Vershal on the rest of the ship. But then, we are getting ready for a holiday, a few of the rules can be relaxed—”

A two-part shriek of “Ma!” interrupted her, and what appeared to be a red-and-green whirlwind bolted up, babbling nonstop in the Aelur tongue, four tan-furred ears, poking up through two heads of dark hair, quivering with indignation. Deirdre listened for three seconds, then cut off both halves of the whirlwind with a sharp handclap. “Todane!” she commanded. “Enough. We have guests.”

The whirlwind, thus calmed, proved to be a pair of girls about twelve years of age, both of whom turned slant-set, inquisitive, slit-pupiled brown eyes on the visitors. Ghavouri shuddered and looked quickly in another direction, while Cleine frowned a little, as though trying to track down an elusive memory. Only Silver returned the girls’ regard as fully as they gave it, and all three of them smiled when they were finished.

“These mannerless ones are my daughters.” Deirdre draped her arms around the girls’ shoulders. “An-jing, in red, and Séarlait, in green. What do we say, my ladies?”

Ishea uscait anthoras?” murmured the green-clad girl with a little bow, as her sister in the red coverall sketched a curtsey, accompanied by, “Welcome aboard, sirs and ma’am.”

“Very good.” Deirdre kissed both girls’ cheeks. “Now, go and tell your brother that he is to give you the roll of sticky back immediately if he does not want me to get involved.”

The girls nodded eagerly and raced back into the fray, both shouting for ‘Stefan’ before they had gone three steps.

“I apologize for the mess,” said Deirdre, returning her attention to Silver and the Morians. “If you will follow me, our living quarters are down this hallway, and then the performance area is beyond that—the ship’s functional areas are still further along, if you wish to inspect those as well, though I or another crewmember will need to be present, to satisfy our regulations—”

“Er, Ms. Rioghan.” Cleine held up a hand, keeping a weather eye on Ghavouri, who had turned away and was leaning against a nearby bulkhead, muttering to himself as though he were trying to keep from bolting in the face of terror. “I think we may have gone far enough. What I mean to say is, it’s always been a bit of a long shot, thinking little Carol could be here—you wouldn’t be lying to the authorities, after all, and there are considerations—”

“What he’s a little too nice to say,” Ghavouri interrupted, swinging around, “is that I’d rather see my niece dead at my feet than have her come back into my household after this! If she has been with you, you animals all this time, then she is dead—dead to all common decency, dead to any sense of propriety, and dead to me! Don’t bother giving us the runaround and skirting whatever little spot you’ve got her tucked away in. I wouldn’t stay on this ship another minute if you paid me!” He slammed his hand against the elevator button and darted into one of the cars when the doors opened, stabbing furiously at the panel until they closed behind him again.

“Ah.” Cleine fidgeted, looking even more uncomfortable than before. “I do apologize for that. But he does have a point—Moria’s an orderly place, everyone knows what’s expected, we get on with our work and we don’t make waves, and little Carol was something of a disruptive element, if you will…”

“Marching to the beat of her own drummer, perhaps?” Silver suggested with a small smile.

“If you like.” Cleine flinched as first one, then more, voices rose above the general clamor, proclaiming what their true loves had given them to celebrate the season. “But still, we must fulfill the law, mustn’t we?” From the holster at his hip, he removed a hand-sized tripad. “Ms. Rioghan, if I could just check your daughters’ handprints against young Carol’s files from our database? To be absolutely sure, you know. The resemblance is rather striking.”

Deirdre sighed deeply. “If you insist,” she said, and whistled a three-note pattern, bringing the two girls back out of the crowd with a rush. A few quick sentences in Aelur from mother to daughters, and An-jing stepped forward, her ears twitching in time with the half-heard song from the other end of the corridor.

Silver glanced over as a narrow-eyed Aelur man with a swathe of platinum blond hair also detached himself from the swirl of children, taking a few slightly halting steps in Deirdre’s direction but holding off from a full approach. Cleine’s attention was all on the fur-backed hand resting on his tripad’s screen, and on the humming of the machine itself, which mulled over the lines and whorls on An-jing’s palm and fingertips for several seconds before spitting back a strident beep and a bright red “No Match”.

“Well, then.” Cleine tapped swiftly at the tripad again, then held it out towards Séarlait. “One down, one to go.”

Obediently, Séarlait laid her hand against the same spot her sister’s had occupied a moment before, making Cleine frown. “Excuse me, young lady, but your fingers…”

“We’re only half-Aelur by blood, sir,” said An-jing from her place beside her mother, indicating Deirdre’s round pupils and the sleek fall of her hair, unbroken by eartips. “No one can be sure which signs will manifest and which ones won’t, even in twins.”

“I—see.” Cleine touched the spot on the tripad’s screen that began the scan and compare. As the tripad hummed to itself, he looked more closely at Séarlait, who kept her eyes downcast. “I do see. Frank didn’t—well, that’s not much of a surprise, he never was one to look beyond the obvious, but—”

The tripad beeped again, in the same tone it had used before.

Cleine looked down, his eyes widening.

The letters on the screen, outlined in a red even brighter than An-jing’s coverall, unmistakably read “No Match”.

“And I think that’s just about enough of that,” said the Aelur man who’d been standing silent witness, coming the last few steps to join his wife and daughters. “I’d say it’s nice to see you again, Commissioner, but I doubt you’d believe me.”

“Xiao!” Cleine took an involuntary step back. “But you were—you weren’t—”

“I don’t believe it’s a crime in this galaxy to change one’s appearance from time to time.” Suncrest raised an inquiring eyebrow towards Silver, who shook her head, a tiny smile playing about her lips. “Especially when one’s livelihood depends on it to some extent. I’d like to think we do our jobs well enough to bring in audiences without our…unusual appearance, but I won’t deny the appeal of the exotic nets us a few filled seats at every stop that we wouldn’t otherwise have. Along with giving us a backup plan for such places as Moria, of course.”

“Of course,” Cleine echoed weakly. “So then all those Lurans, or whatever they’re called—”

“Aelur.” Suncrest flicked a finger across the tip of one of his pointed ears. “A strain of humanity distinguished from the standard by a few cat-like features, eyes, ears, pelt, and the like, but in full possession of all mental properties peculiar to the human race. We were playing a bit of a game with you, Commissioner, for which I do apologize, but as my lady stated, we were in need of the money.”

“And you—they—” Cleine seemed a bit lost for words, and took two or three deep breaths before trying again. “In the matter of, well, breeding—”

“You may recall I told you, last year, that I had named one of the occupants of this ship Sundance, as was my right and duty.” Suncrest kissed a fingertip and tapped it to the nose of An-jing, who giggled. “Who could have a better right and duty to name his little girl than a father? Both DNA scans and in vivo experiments have concluded, Commissioner, that the Aelur are perfectly interfertile with most of the human strains which exist in the greater galaxy today.”

“As you can see for yourself,” said Deirdre briskly, nudging her twins towards their father. “And as your own tripad has just confirmed, neither of our daughters matches the handprint you have on record for Carol Fuhrman, and therefore Moria has no claim on any person aboard the Wild Rover. Is this enough to satisfy the law, Ms. Silver?”

“Quite enough, Ms. Rioghan.” Silver looked over at Cleine. “Commissioner, your determination to find this young lady and ensure she hadn’t been harmed is a commendable one. But I think we’ll have to conclude this is something of a dead end. Unless you wish to pursue the matter further?” she added in a tone containing all the warmth and welcome of hard vacuum.

“Not at all.” Cleine shook his head. “So sorry to have bothered you.” From the corner of his eye, he cast another look at Séarlait, who peered around the fall of her hair at him with a shy smile. “Best wishes in this festive time, and all of that, of course—coming, Ms. Silver?”

“Actually, Commissioner, I think it would be most convenient for everyone if I finished my business on the Wild Rover, and went with them to their next port of call.” Silver pursed her lips thoughtfully. “Triflume, isn’t it, from here, Ms. Rioghan?”

“It is.” Deirdre inclined her head. “And you would be a most welcome guest.”

“So if you could have a wally collect my things from my cabin and deliver them,” Silver finished towards Cleine, “then you and Mr. Ghavouri can be on your way without any further delay. It’s a long way back to Moria, and I’m sure you’ll want to be there in time for Christmas.”

“If we could, yes.” Cleine nodded. “Thank you, Ms. Silver, and I do apologize for taking up your time.”

“Not at all. This is some of the work I enjoy best.” Silver bowed, as did Dierdre and Suncrest.

“Well, then.” Cleine returned the courtesy a bit jerkily. “Best wishes—oh, I’ve said that already, haven’t I?”

“One can never have enough good wishes,” Deirdre assured him coolly.

With a rather uncertain nod, Commissioner Cleine glanced one last time at the twins before hurrying into the other elevator and allowing the doors to close behind him.

Deirdre let out her breath in a long sigh and looked over at Silver, whose smile had broadened. “I’ve seen your show before,” the First Responder said. “Followed your career, as a troupe. I won’t say there’s never been trouble surrounding this ship, but very seldom have your folk been the ones starting it.”

“No, we merely finish it.” Deirdre chuckled. “Your thoughts?”

“My most prevalent one involves the level of risk you’re willing to accept in your daughter’s name.” Silver folded her arms across her chest. “Lady Duskdance.”

“A calculated risk.” The queen of Free Sky masked her eyes momentarily with her hands. “If our Starsong’s relations never saw how ill-suited she was to their life, we thought it likely that they never truly saw her. And the records, of course, we knew would not match.”

“Of course.” Silver glanced up at the two other adults who had emerged from the crowd. “Since the day she joined your ship’s company, I daresay they have not so matched.”

Killdeer returned the Responder’s look levelly. “I could hardly hack a database when I wasn’t in planetary orbit,” she said. “That kind of work requires a short-distance link, real-time stuff. You could prosecute me for it, I suppose, but I only touched a single set of records, and you’ll never prove it anyway.”

“And it kept Duskdance from having to tell an outright lie,” Nightsinger added. “Carol Fuhrman, for all intents and purposes, hasn’t existed since we left Moria a year ago.”

“Excellent.” Silver sighed. “We may yet have to do something about Moria. But that’s for another day. For now…” She looked firmly at the girl in the green coverall. “Miss Xiao, I assume?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Starsong smiled. “Carol Séarlait Xiao. Starsong, for onstage and everyday.”

“Very well, then. Starsong.” Silver chuckled deep in her throat, observing the way the two girls were holding onto one another’s hands. “I don’t think I have to ask where you would prefer to live. The case of Carol Fuhrman will be permanently dead-filed, as requested by her guardian of record. And perhaps, in our time in shiftspace, en route to your next destination…” She allowed her eyes to sweep down the corridor again. “We could discuss something of a partnership.”

“Because we go places Responders may not come more than once in ten years or so?” hazarded Nightsinger.

“Because we’ve already got the skills we’ll need to ensure we don’t get found out,” was Killdeer’s contribution.

“And people talk so much more freely in front of entertainers than they do in front of Responders,” murmured Suncrest.

“Precisely.” Silver bowed to all three. “You’re already in the business of brightening lives. It’s not too far a stretch to saving them.”

“We have never thought so.” Duskdance bent to kiss Starsong’s head, between the pointed Aelur ears the med unit had bestowed upon her during her latest visit, before doing the opposite service for her mother. “Shall I take you to the guest quarters by another way, or will you brave the madhouse which is our children?”

Silver laughed. “Eighteen nieces and nephews,” she said simply. “Bring on the little ones.”

Starsong and Sundance looked at each other with identical grins. “Oh, Winterfur!” they caroled together.

  • * * * *

“The final gift of the Kings is myrrh.” This lump of resin, held carefully in Suncrest’s hand, was more yellow than the first, and had a waxy appearance. “Myrrh, which comes from a living tree, but which is used to anoint the dead. Myrrh, the gift of a wise man, who knew that even the baby born in the manger must someday die.”

“But the final gift of the Sisters is milk.” Duskdance drew a hand delicately across her bosom. “The same milk which would give that child, and every child ever born, nourishment and life. These gifts, more than any others, seem contradictory—and yet they are not.” She accepted her husband’s hand to help her to her feet. “All that lives will die. Yet still, we rejoice, we celebrate, for today, we live. We love. We laugh, and learn, and leave behind rich stories, for those who will go on living when we ourselves have died.”

“Our days are numbered, every one of us.” Suncrest drew the myrrh gently across Duskdance’s wrist, awakening its dark, smoky scent. “We hope the number will be large, yet even the largest number dwindles at last to nothing. What will be left of us when we are gone? What will we leave behind in this world, if tomorrow we die? Will those who knew us best breathe silent sighs of relief, or weep tears of bitter sorrow? The answer lies in our own hands, and our own hearts, to decide.”

“When we live every day that we are given in this world to its fullest extent,” Duskdance proclaimed, lifting her free hand as Suncrest did the same. “When always we remember that we could be remembered, just as we are at the moment. When we devote ourselves to openingdoors for others, rather than slamming them shut—to freeing prisoners, saving the condemned, restoring sight to the blind—to giving others life, so that at our deaths we may survive in their memories.” Her voice rang out over the silent clan. “That, in how we ought to live our lives, is enough.”

Full quiet reigned for three slow breaths. Then, softly, the princess Starsong began to sing.

Veni, veni, Emmanuel,

Captivum solve Israel…

 

 

The Tenth Lady

 

In the center of the forest clearing, ten white-garbed young women danced. Two by two, they spun and posed, ducked and wove, four pairs cavorting around the perimeter of an invisible circle but careful never to intrude upon the space of the final, perfectly matched set. Hands locked together, dark hair streaming out behind them, the twin princesses Sundance and Starsong of the Free Sky clan whirled one another about in a laughing, eye-blurring rotation, attended by their clanmates in this dance for a joyful day.

Moving counter to the dancers, ten young men of Free Sky kept time with rattling sticks and stone-filled gourds or plucked chords and melodies from gut-stringed instruments, all the while leaping into the air at random, in their own expression of the dancers’ joy. Like most of their clanfolk, the dancers and musicians belonged to the human strain known as the Aelur, modified long ago with strands of feline DNA, so that furred and pointed ears poked up through manes of hair, and here and there soft-pelted faces and hands bore subtle patterns of stripes or spots. Still, as the unseen watchers of the dance could avow, the reputation the Aelur bore as some of the greater galaxy’s finest entertainers was fully deserved, and only accented by their occasionally unusual appearance.

The music rose to a crescendo as the dancers moved ever faster in their orbits. Then, with a shout from twenty throats, it ceased.

“Whew!” Sundance laughed, catching the towel one of the other girls tossed her and blotting sweat out of the short golden fur which covered her face and neck, then finger-combing some of the worst tangles from her mahogany-brown hair. “That was perfect! If we do it just like that for the celebration, it will be the best gift anyone could possibly bring to the baby in the manger, and we’ll win for sure!”

“I thought it wasn’t about winning,” Starsong objected, dabbing at her own face, which gleamed in the afternoon sunlight as her sister’s did not. “It’s supposed to be about making the baby happy, isn’t it? Bringing our very best to him, because he’s the very best that ever came to us?”

“Well, yes, of course.” Sundance shrugged. “But winning wouldn’t hurt us any.”

“Free Sky forever!” shouted one of the boys, and others joined in, the girls trilling a high call of gladness and anticipated victory atop the shouts. With a laugh, Starsong pulled her sister into a hug, and they held one another for a long moment before separating, smiling into one another’s long, narrow brown eyes.

“We should go,” said Sundance when the ruckus had died down. “It’s a long way to walk, and we have to be there before the sun has fully set or they won’t let us into the performing grounds. We can clean up when we get there—everyone have your gear?” A chorus of affirmatives answered her, from everyone except Starsong, who was peering doubtfully into the forest behind them. “Star? What about you?”

“Me? What? Oh, my dress. Yes, I have it, it’s over there, and everything else I need, too.” Starsong nodded towards a thicket, on which was draped a lovely gown of deep, rich green, an embroidered bag lying on the grass nearby. “Go ahead without me, I’ll catch up.”

“If you’re sure.” Sundance turned ceremoniously to her left. “Free Sky,” she commanded, very much in the style of her mother, Duskdance, who bore the title of queen to her clan by right of birth, personality, and because no one with two working brain cells would choose to get in her way. “We go!”

One of the boys began to rattle his sticks together again, setting a brisk walking pace. Another added a syncopated beat to the mix, prompting a few of the girls to caper in time as they scooped their own gowns and bags into their arms. Starsong watched them out of sight, then turned back to the way she’d been looking before, pushing into the forest from the clearing where she and her friends had been practicing their dance. “Is someone there?” she called doubtfully.

“Starsong?” The voice was that of a younger girl, startled but glad. “Is that you?”

“Winterfur!” Starsong hurried forward to embrace the child, who had been standing doubtfully at the base of a narrow-trunked fruit tree, staring upwards. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s my bird.” Winterfur sniffled, pointing at a branch of the tree well out of her reach, on which a flurry of feathers was momentarily visible as wings fluttered. “The one I found as just a little chick out in the field because her mother was dead, and Mama said I could bring her home and raise her, and I did. But now she got out of the house, and she flew all the way out here, and she’s up in the tree and I can’t get her down!”

“Don’t cry, sweetheart.” Starsong used a bit of her dress’s hem to blot Winterfur’s creamy white face. “I’ll get her for you. Everything’s going to be fine. Even me, if I hurry,” she added quietly to herself, pacing around the tree to size up her botanical opponent. “Sundance and the others won’t be too far ahead, I should still be able to catch up with them…”

Catching hold of the tree’s lowest branch, she used it to lever herself up against the trunk, then clambered into the higher branches, approaching the half-tamed bird warily, her movements clearly visible through the leafless limbs. After a few moments of coaxing, to which the bird seemed disinclined to respond, Starsong brightened and reached into the small pouch at her waist, extracting a fragment of bread. Crumbling it between her fingers, she sprinkled the crumbs along the branch, leaving a sizable pile in her palm, and waited.

The bird hopped forward, turning first one eye, then the other, on the crumbs before beginning to peck at them. Starsong quivered with impatience, but held herself as still as a statue. One wrong move here could mean spooking the bird further back along the branch, or even into a different tree altogether.

At last the little bundle of brown feathers and nerves placed first one sharp-clawed foot, then the other, onto Starsong’s fingertips, and leaned forward to help herself to a few of the crumbs piled before her. Starsong brought her other hand swiftly around for the catch, waking a cheer from Winterfur, on the ground below. The descent from the fruit tree, though complicated by the need to hold the fluttering, cheeping bird safely, was accomplished more quickly than the ascent had been, and the princess of Free Sky handed her young friend her pet with a sigh of relief.

“There,” she said, bending to kiss Winterfur between her ears. “Now, I have to run. We’re celebrating the baby in the manger tonight, you know.”

“Yes, I know.” Winterfur stroked her bird’s feathers dotingly. “Thank you for helping me, Starsong!”

After hurrying back to the clearing to collect her belongings, Starsong set out on her way, coming after a few minutes to the semi-permanent encampment her clan had erected for the winter. The hides which comprised their usual tents had been laced around square wooden frames instead of their usual bent sticks, and some families had even chosen to build themselves stronger shelters from the winter winds out of stone or wood or both.

Outside one of these, a pair of adult Aelur were standing, scowling in opposite directions.

“Oh, dear,” Starsong murmured when she saw this, and hesitated visibly before trotting over to them. “Is the door open, aunt?” she said with careful Aelur formality to the woman, who acknowledged her with a frosty nod. “Could I be of assistance?”

“Well, I wasn’t going to say anything.” The woman, her rich brown hair cut to curve neatly under her earlobes, cast a furious look over her shoulder at the man. “But since you’re here, you may tell your uncle Nightsinger that he’s a bone-headed, thick-fingered, clumsy oaf of a dog who hasn’t got enough brains to remember what he’s told from one day to the next!”

Starsong stepped back a pace from the flow of invective, but then shrugged, sighed, and loped around to face the man. “Aunt Killdeer says you’re being stupid again,” she reported.

“You may tell your aunt Killdeer,” said Nightsinger, tidying his mussed mop of black hair without lowering his golden eyes from the horizon, “that she’s a picky-minded, finicking, modernistic technology addict who has no right to comment on my brains, since she can’t even remember what she has and hasn’t told her husband.”

Starsong returned to Killdeer’s side of the line. “Uncle Nightsinger says you’re being stupid too,” she informed the older woman.

“I most certainly am not.” Killdeer hissed between her teeth. “I told him three weeks ago that we’d need to alter our course to account for a private performance on the world of Buonarroti, that the twin princesses Elena and Gabriela had specially requested us to perform for the royal family’s Christmas!”

“She says she told you about this,” Starsong called out to her uncle, moving to a neutral position between the two. “Did she?”

“She did not.” Nightsinger growled under his breath. “Nor did she put it into the log of the Wild Rover, which is the proper procedure for an alteration in the planned course of the ship! Though Buonarroti isn’t too far off our usual course for this time of year,” he added more thoughtfully. “And we’ve performed privately for the royals there before, and may again.” Snapping back into his foul mood, he glowered. “But still.”

“He says you never adjusted the log,” Starsong told her aunt. “Did you?”

“I…” Killdeer’s eyes widened. “Oh. Oh, my stars. No, I never did. I was just going to when he came onto the bridge. And I’m almost certain I told him about the message,” she shot over her shoulder, but with less venom than before, “but then we started doing something else and I never got it into the log officially.”

“Oh, so it’s still my fault,” Nightsinger grumbled, but he was starting to smile. “Blame everything on me, just like always.”

“Well.” Killdeer covered her mouth, but couldn’t quite disguise her satisfied expression. “You are fairly distracting.” Brushing back her hair with one furless hand, she turned to look at her husband. “I’m sorry I forgot to log the course change.”

“I’m sorry I distracted you from logging the course change.” Nightsinger twitched one of his tall, mobile ears. “Which isn’t to say I minded what we got up to, you know…”

“Keep the key, Aunt Killdeer, Uncle Nightsinger!” Starsong called hastily, and dashed back towards the path while the two adults disappeared into their house, the hide flap falling across the doorway behind them. “Grown-ups,” she grumbled as she picked up her pace. “They’re worse than babies! You can usually calm babies down just by talking to them, or maybe by doing something else…”

Smiling as she thought about the baby in the manger for whom she planned to dance tonight, Starsong sang herself along her way with one of the simplest lullabies for him she knew.

“Still, still, still,

“The night is cold and chill.

“The mother’s loving arms enfolding,

“Warm and safe the child holding,

“Still, still, still,

“Though the night is cold and chill!”

As she reached the end of the verse, she was just entering the village of Fire Valley, the farming clan with which Free Sky was allied. All the homes here were built of sturdy, weather-shedding materials, as suited abodes which would be used year-round and did not need to be moved to follow herds of herbivorous, bad-tempered, three-horned trison. Starsong threaded her way deftly between houses, then stopped in dismay. Ahead of her, three bright-feathered chickens were pecking at the ground.

“Leafleaper’s hens,” she murmured aloud. “She must not have closed the pen properly, and they got out. She’s raising them so she has something special to trade at the next clan gathering, special enough that she can get the proper colors of cloth and thread to make her wedding gown as beautiful as she wants it to be…”

With a sigh, Starsong set her own gown and bag aside and started chasing chickens, making little rushes this way and that, twitching her skirts in order to herd the gabbling, indignant hens in the direction she wanted. At last, two chickens had been safely returned to their pen, and the third was scratching at the ground just outside the door. Starsong narrowed her eyes, then leapt forward with a yell, and the squawking chicken fled into the dubious safety of her sisters’ company.

“And stay in!” Starsong snapped the pen’s door securely shut, pressed a hand to her heart for composure, and gathered up her things once more, casting an anxious glance into the sky, where the angle of the sunlight proclaimed it still afternoon, but moving swiftly towards evening. Her unseen watchers following without effort, she made it out of the village and onto the tree-lined path once more, hurrying towards her distant goal.

Houses and tents had vanished into the forested distance before Starsong was hailed again, this time by a woman who resembled Nightsinger, her green eyes wide with worry and her ears lying flat against her black-haired head. “Starsong, thank goodness. I thought no one would ever come this way. It’s the babies, my little ones, Finch and Sparrow, Robin and Thrush—”

“Don’t tell me.” Starsong sighed, stopping and setting her burdens down. “Robin figured out how to unlatch the door again.”

“That child is a marvel, or would be if she weren’t driving me mad.” Heartbud, junior healer to the conjoined clans of Fire Valley and Free Sky, raked her hands distractedly through her hair. “Prancer’s gone to the celebration to join the drummers who’ll play for the ending, so he couldn’t watch them, and I was grinding herbs for a potion so I didn’t hear anything. They were asleep the last time I checked on them, but that was so early this afternoon that they could be almost anywhere by now, and you know they think it’s funny to hide from me!”

“I’ll help you find them,” Starsong promised, though with another worried look upwards at the angle and color of the swiftly fading sunlight. “Finch and Sparrow are only two, they won’t have gone very far. And Robin and Thrush may be four, but Thrush, especially, wouldn’t leave his little brother and sister behind. Though searching for them could still take hours, especially if they’re thinking of it as a game,” she murmured, too quietly for her aunt to hear her, but loudly enough to carry to her audience. “I wonder if there’s a way to speed this up?”

An instant later, her eyes lit, and she strode to the center of the path and began to sing.

“He is born, the holy Child,

“Play the oboe and bagpipe merrily!”

Heartbud gave a breathy little laugh, as though reproaching herself for not thinking of this sooner, and added a harmony line to the light dancing carol.

“He is born, the holy Child,

“Sing we all of the Savior mild!”

Rustling began to sound from the bushes nearby, as though something large, or a number of smaller somethings, were hurrying through the branches. The woman and the girl sang on.

“Through long ages of the past,

“Prophets long have foretold his coming…”

Tiny, piping voices began to join in the song, as a foursome of toddling Aelur, two distinctly larger than the others, burst out of the bushes at their mother’s side.

“Through long ages of the past,

“Now the time has come at last!”

Starsong turned to her small cousins as though astonished to see them, and held out her hands, inviting them wordlessly to join her in a ring-dance. The littler two, Finch and Sparrow, ran to her without hesitation, their older siblings Robin and Thrush showing only a moment of uncertainty before being overwhelmed by their desire to join in the game. Heartbud caught her older son and daughter’s hands in her own, completing the circle, and the sixfold group began to skip to their right, still singing.

“He is born, the holy Child,

“Play the oboe and bagpipe merrily,

“He is born, the holy Child,

“Sing we all of the Savior mild!”

Heartbud released Thrush and Robin’s hands in order to scoop up Finch and Sparrow, one under each arm, then beckoned the older pair to follow at her heels. They glanced at one another, then shrugged and did so, accepting that their mother had won this round of the eternal game.

“Oh, how lovely, oh, how pure,

“Is this perfect child of heaven,

“Oh, how lovely, oh, how pure,

“Gracious gift to humankind…”

Starsong let the carol trail off as Heartbud vanished around the bend in the path, her children safely corralled once again. “I love my family,” she repeated dutifully, picking up her gown and bag yet again. “I love my clan. I wouldn’t want to exchange them for anything in the world.” She sighed deeply. “But if I run into any more delays…”

Without looking where she was going, she swung back onto the path, and collided full-length with a swiftly moving obstacle, both of them knocked backwards by the impact.

The adult male Aelur, his head topped with a sleek swath of platinum blond, grunted as he landed hard on the dirt path, then blinked with surprise at what had felled him. “Starsong? Aren’t you supposed to be at the celebration?”

“Daddy!” Starsong scrambled to her feet to hug her father, Suncrest. “Yes, I am, but everything keeps getting in the way. Like you!” She pretended to glare at him, but couldn’t maintain the façade for long. “What are you doing out here? I didn’t think there was anything this way except the performance grounds.”

“Nothing except a convenient place to hide things from your mother.” Suncrest smiled, displaying a long, slender chain of gold with broad, hammered rings skillfully twisted onto it. “I was going to give her one of her gifts tonight, to celebrate not only the holiday but the anniversary of our wedding, and the family we’ve made together—” He broke off, looking down in dismay. “Except that I seem to have misplaced a part of it. Quite a substantial part, actually. Ear hoops, two bracelets, and a ring.”

“I probably knocked them out of your hand when we smacked together.” Starsong sighed deeply. “Nothing’s going right for me today.”

“Don’t despair, love.” Suncrest tucked the chain into his own waist pouch and got to his feet, his left leg moving a trifle stiffly, legacy of a long-ago injury. “You never can tell what’s really going right and wrong with things until a long time afterwards. Can you give me a hand looking for them, or do you have to go on ahead?”

Starsong teetered on her toes, clearly torn, but another look at her father’s leg, which he was rubbing with a wince, decided her. “I can look for them,” she said, dropping to her hands and knees. “And here’s one already! One of the bracelets, I think.” Handing a wrist-sized ring of gold up to Suncrest, she continued her search. “Do they have a pattern on them?” she asked as she patted her hands along the ground, trusting to her fingers to find what her eyes, in the dying and tree-shaded light, might not.

“Yes, they do.” Suncrest seated himself on a handy tree stump nearby. “Harps, like you and your sister and your mother all play so beautifully.” He lifted his hands to strum an arpeggio on an invisible instrument in his lap. “Harps on gold, is what I told the crafter when I ordered them. Rather like your special song, the first thing you ever performed onstage with your sister.” He smiled, glancing down at his daughter, then out towards the silent watchers. “In front of another pair of twin princesses, no less.”

“That’s harps of gold,” said Starsong absently, scooping up the ear hoops and threading them onto her finger. “But I suppose it’s close enough.” Discovering the ring a second later, she added it to her collection, then pounced on the second bracelet triumphantly. “There!” Scrambling to her feet, she poured the collection into her father’s cupped hands. “Now I really do have to run!”

“Dance well, love!” Suncrest called after her as Starsong raced away along the path, bursting out of the forest after a few moments and adjusting her pace to compensate for the low, grassy hills through which she now ran. The sun was just now touching the distant horizon, and Starsong sighed in relief to see it.

“I’ll make it in time,” she murmured to herself. “I may not be as fresh as I like, but dancing always livens me up again. And besides, so long as nothing else slows me down, I’ll have a chance to rest before we have to go on…”

A solitary farmhouse behind a hedge came into view even as she spoke the words, with a small figure waving its arms in distress at the gate.

“Why can’t I learn to keep my mouth shut?” Starsong grumbled, but slowed and stopped, as road-manners called for. “Is the door open?” she said to the Aelur girl of her own age who had flagged her down. “Do you need help?”

“The door is open, and yes, please. If you can. You look like you’re in a hurry, and probably with something much more important than me.” The girl fidgeted with the hem of her linen apron, its unbleached fabric close to the color of her facial fur, the mid-brown thread with which it was embroidered a match for her hair and the pelt of her ears and hands. “It’s just that my mother’s not feeling well today, and I promised her I’d cook her a dish of eggs, because it’s all she can eat when she feels this way. Except the only birds that are laying just now are our geese, and…”

“Geese are mean,” Starsong finished when the girl faltered. “I know. I have to gather eggs from them at home sometimes too. They do bite pretty hard.” Restraining herself from looking up at the sun again, she smiled. “Would you like me to get the eggs for you?”

“Would you? Really? Thank you, thank you so much!” The girl unlatched the gate hastily, beckoning Starsong through. “I’m sorry to be so cowardly,” she said, leading the way to the barnyard, where soft honks and gabbles were audible through the sides of a plank-built pen. “I’ve tried and tried not to be, but geese are big, and they’re noisy, and when they spread their wings wide they just look so terrible!”

“Well, what are you good at?” Starsong accepted a basket from the girl, opened the door to the pen, and stepped in. “Can you hunt, or sing and play,” she continued from inside, her voice rising over the hissing of the geese, “or spin and weave and sew, or use a tripad or a computer?”

“Oh, yes, I can do all of that. But none of it is very useful, here on the farm. Except the threadwork, but Mama can handle that for the three of us, her and me and Daddy, so long as she’s well.” The girl sighed deeply. “I wish there were something I could do other than just cooking for her and singing to her. She likes the old lullabies best, the ones she used to sing to me…”

Half-closing her eyes, she began to croon a sad, minor-toned melody in a rich and husky alto.

“Lullay, thou little tiny child,

“Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

“Lullay, thou little tiny child,

“Bye, bye, lully, lullay.”

Starsong stepped back out of the pen, looking rather more ruffled than she’d gone in, but with her basket now filled with large, gleaming eggs. Softly, she added a line of sweet soprano harmony to the girl’s song.

“O sisters too, how may we do,

“For to preserve this day

“This poor youngling for whom we sing,

“Bye, bye, lully, lullay?”

“I think,” said Starsong carefully into the moment of silence before another verse could begin, “that you should go to the town of Fire Valley, and ask to speak to Lady Duskdance.”

“The queen of Free Sky?” The girl covered her mouth in shock. “The leader of the ones who fly among the stars? Oh, I couldn’t, she’d never speak to me! I’m nobody, just a poor farm girl, Rainsong, I’m called, because my voice makes people weep…”

“Weep for joy, maybe.” Starsong started to reach out her hand, then recollected with a start why she was there and extended the eggs instead. “Rainsong, I promise you, so long as you have your parents’ blessing, Lady Duskdance will listen to you. She might even find you a place aboard the Wild Rover, the next time it sails for the stars.”

“How do you know?” Rainsong whispered, accepting the basket of eggs. “How can you know that?”

“Because I’m Lady Starsong, princess of Free Sky.” Starsong nodded firmly at Rainsong’s gasp. “That’s right. Lady Duskdance is my mother. And she’s done something like this before, with a lot more risk involved in it.” Her lips twitched, as though the story behind these simple words amused her vastly. “As soon as your mother is well again, Rainsong, go to Fire Valley. I promise you, you won’t regret it.” She glanced up at the sun again, and stifled a curse behind her hand. The distant, glowing orb was starting to sink into obscurity behind the hills. “Now, if you’ll pardon me? Keep the key.”

“Run as you please!” Rainsong called after her, completing the Aelur farewell, as Starsong took to her heels again. “And thank you so much, for everything!”

Out of sight of Rainsong’s farmhouse, Starsong slowed to a walk, sighing and shading her eyes from the red-gold light of sunset. “So I won’t get to the celebration before the sun goes down,” she said with a grimace. “I might still be able to talk my way onto the performance grounds, so I’m not going to give up yet. And how could I have done anything else?” She looked over her shoulder at the people she’d left in her wake. “They needed my help.”

Ahead of her, the path rose up to a bridge across a broad, slow-flowing river. Starsong peered first at one side of the bridge, then the other, and groaned under her breath as she saw an arm rise out of the water, beckoning to her. “How did I know?” she asked her invisible audience, and trotted to the edge of the river. “Is someone there?” she called.

“Oh, thank goodness!” A young woman paddled into view, the white fur on her face and ears standing up in soaked spikes, several other Aelur with similar coloration dimly visible behind her in the fading light. “Could you help us? We decided to go in swimming, but then the wind came up and blew our towels away! It’s much too cold to get out and go searching for them, we’d be sure to get sick…”

“Which way did they go?” Starsong asked, sounding more amused than resigned. “Straight up to the stars, or down to the center of the earth?”

“No, I think it was that way.” The arm waved in the direction of a thicket of bushes a goodly distance from the riverbank. “There are seven of us, but if you can get one or two, we can find the rest ourselves. You look like you’re in a hurry to get somewhere.”

“I’m already late.” Starsong bounded over to the thicket, and came up with the first towel in her hand. “A few more minutes won’t make any difference. And you’re right, it is too cold to run around with wet fur. Perfect weather for dancing, though.”

“Oh, are you going to the celebration?” The young woman who’d been speaking peered at Starsong with interest. “But I thought it started at sundown.”

“It does, but my group isn’t on until later. So I might still be all right.” Starsong draped a second and third towel over her arm. “Did anyone from your clan go this year?”

“My cousin and her husband,” another voice called out. “They play the bird-whistle together.”

“A boy I know from a hunting clan said he was going to do balancing tricks on a pole,” a third voice chimed in. “I wish we could have gone, but Mama doesn’t like me to be away from home so late…”

“Four, five, six,” Starsong muttered to herself, laying three more towels across her arm, as the girls in the river chattered among themselves about mothers, their varying levels of permissiveness, and what types of persuasion they might be able to use for future events of this sort. “Almost there, come on, come on—ah-ha!” She snatched the final towel from the branch on which it had snagged and bolted back to the river’s edge. “Seven!” she announced, tossing the towels to the first young woman who’d spoken. “Good luck with your mothers!”

“Good luck with your performance!” the young woman called after her as Starsong pounded across the bridge. “Thank you so much for stopping to help!”

“Stopping to help.” Starsong shook her head as she lengthened her stride to cope with the rise of the hill beyond the river. “That seems to be all I’m doing today! What’s next, a plague of locusts? An invading army? Or maybe—”

She topped the hill and halted, staring down in dismay. Blocking the path nearly as far as she could see in the last few rays of the setting sun was a herd of shaggy brown animals, grumbling together and swinging their three-horned heads back and forth, warning off a small crowd of smock-clad young women carrying three-legged stools and wooden buckets over their arms.

“Cows.” Starsong sighed. “Why did it have to be cows?”

One of the young women turned her head and flicked her ears in greeting, her eyes a striking golden-orange in her dark-pelted face. “I’m so sorry about this,” she said, hurrying towards Starsong. “We’re blocking your way, I’m sure, and we’ll try to keep them under control while you get around them, but they’re in a terrible mood this evening.”

“Is something the matter?” Starsong glanced up at the sky, where a few faint stars were beginning to show in the east. “My clan’s trison calm down when it comes time for milking.”

“Usually ours do too, but that’s because we have music for them, to guide them back to their paddock and settle them for the night. But tonight, all our musicians went to the celebration, to help with the song for the ending, and we just aren’t having any luck without them.” The young woman winced as one of her friends skipped hastily backwards, away from a bad-tempered bellow and accompanying swipe of horns. “We need to get them milked, they’ll only go on getting more miserable until we do, but that’s difficult when we can’t so much as get near them!”

Starsong laid her bag and gown aside on a patch of grass beside the path, after checking it carefully for dung first. “Would singing to them help?” she offered. “I know a song our trison like a great deal, and if you all join in, it might be enough.”

“Oh, if you would?” The young woman laughed in relief. “We all sing, of course, in the choruses with everyone else, but none of us are soloists, and we didn’t quite know how to start!”

“Starting is what I do best.” Starsong moved a little to one side, settled her feet into place, and lifted her voice over the noisy, restless trison and their attendants.

“Infant holy, infant lowly,

“For His bed a cattle stall.

“Oxen lowing, little knowing

“Christ the Babe is Lord of all.”

Snorting and blowing, the trison began to grumble themselves into quiet, and the young women with their buckets and stools hurried into the midst of the herd, each setting up beside her own favored cow as they joined their voices to Starsong’s.

“Swift are winging, angels singing,

“Nowells ringing, tidings bringing…”

Surrendering to the joy of her music, Starsong lifted her arms as though proclaiming her news to the world for the first time.

“Christ the Babe is Lord of all!”

Softly, below, the milkers echoed her in rhythm with their work.

“Christ the Babe is Lord of all!”

Overhead, the stars showed themselves more clearly with every passing moment, one particularly bright one starting to gleam in the direction towards which Starsong had been traveling. Fixing her eyes on it, she continued to sing.

“Flocks were sleeping, shepherds keeping

“Vigil till the morning new;

“Saw the glory, heard the story,

“Tidings of a Gospel true.”

Below, the dark young woman and one of her friends gently nudged the trison out of Starsong’s way, while their other companions, three on each side of the path, got on with their chores. Starsong picked up her gown and bag one more time and paced forward in time with her singing, so as not to startle the beasts.

“Thus rejoicing, free from sorrow,

“Praises voicing, greet the morrow…”

Stepping out of the far side of the herd, she turned back to wave her goodbye to the milkers.

“Christ the Babe was born for you!”

The response came back to her like a soft, harmonic echo, farewell and thanks in one.

“Christ the Babe was born for you!”

Smiling, Starsong hurried along her way once more, until a distant sound stopped her short in dismay. “Oh, no,” she breathed. “The pipers and the drummers—and they only play when the performance is over! I’ve missed it!”

And so, as she came at last to the place of celebration, it seemed. The rough-built risers for the spectators, the sturdy stage for the performers with its outer framework of a stable, both stood deserted in the darkness, and only the faintest of lights shone on the manger which stood at the stage’s center, as befit the resting place of the one the celebration was meant to honor.

“I’m sorry.” Starsong sank to her knees beside the stage, bowing her head before the figure of the baby in the manger, her voice quivering with the tears she couldn’t repress. “I’m so sorry. I’ve ruined everything. Sundance and the others must have had to dance without me, and now I’m here too late and all alone. I don’t even have a gift for you, and that’s not right, it’s your birthday, I should never have come here without bringing one—”

“But you have brought a gift, child.”

Starsong gasped and shrank back as a glowing figure appeared on the other side of the stable, a dark-haired woman with Aelur features but a suggestion of wings at her back, dressed in brilliant, shining white.

“Do not be afraid, Starsong,” the other commanded, and Starsong pressed a hand against her heart, though she still trembled. “You and your offering have both found favor in His eyes.”

“Offering?” Starsong shook her head, bewildered. “What offering? I don’t have anything to offer! What’s worse, I ruined the gift we wanted to give by not being here to dance, I broke my promise and let everybody down, and all because I kept stopping on the way—”

“Stopping to help others,” interrupted the white-robed one. “To offer them loving, humble service when they needed it most. To make the lives of your family, your friends, even strangers easier and better by the work of your hands and feet and voice. Nine ladies of Free Sky danced for the Child tonight, Starsong, and He was glad of that gift as of the others. But you, the tenth lady, you have brought Him the greatest gift of all, and the one He loves most to receive. For ‘whatever you did for one of these least brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’.”

“So.” Starsong pressed her fingers to her lips. “When I brought Winterfur back her bird, when I sang the little ones home for Heartbud, when I helped Rainsong find her dream…”

“All of that was also done for Him,” the white-robed one confirmed. “And with it, and you, He is well pleased.”

“Thank you.” Starsong bowed her head once more. “Thank you so much!”

When she looked up, she was alone, except for the image of the Christ Child. Again she knelt in reverence, then rose and stepped onto the stage, turning to face the audience who had been watching her journey all along. In the distance, bells began to ring, as overhead the star she had followed to this place shone more brightly. Out of the darkness, other figures appeared, figures garbed in the same brilliant white as the one to whom she had been speaking, but with the faces of her sister and the other young women of Free Sky.

As the dancers glided into motion around her, spreading out to surround the stable with a living prayer of joy, Starsong raised her arms in invocation and lifted her voice one final time.

“Angels from the realms of glory,

“Wing your flight o’er all the earth;

“Ye who sang creation’s story,

“Now proclaim Messiah’s birth:

“Come and worship, come and worship,

“Worship Christ, the newborn King!”

Stepping down from her place, Starsong joined the angels’ dance, as Rainsong the farm girl in her apron and the herders of the trison in their simple smocks filed into place onstage. Rainsong took the frontmost position to sing the words, her voice soft at first but gaining confidence with every phrase, while the other girls hummed quietly behind her.

“Shepherds, in the fields abiding,

“Watching o’er your flocks by night,

“God with us is now residing,

“Yonder shines the infant light:

“Come and worship, come and worship,

“Worship Christ, the newborn King!”

Falling back in their turn, the young women knelt beside the manger to adore, as Killdeer, Nightsinger, and Suncrest entered, dressed now in colorful robes and carrying small chests in their arms. They bowed low before the Child, laying down their gifts, before facing the audience to sing in a rich triple harmony of soprano, baritone, and tenor.

“Sages, leave your contemplations,

“Brighter visions gleam afar;

“Seek the great Desire of Nations,

“Ye have seen His natal star:

“Come and worship, come and worship,

“Worship Christ, the newborn King!”

Now the humming of pipes and the beating of drums filled the air, as from every direction musicians converged on the little stable. Thrush and Robin walked alongside their father Prancer, “helping” him to play his shoulder-hung drum, while beside them Winterfur helped Heartbud herd along Finch and Sparrow. The girls who had been swimming in the river added themselves to the throng already kneeling beside the manger, as did the young men who had leapt for joy as they played the music for Free Sky’s dancers, and the angel who had spoken to Starsong stepped forth into the light, her features more than a little reminiscent of that young lady.

Duskdance, queen of the clan of Free Sky, smiled at her twin daughters as they emerged from the dance of the angels to stand one on either side of her. Together, they lifted their hands, directing their clanfolk in the final verse of their hymn.

“All creation join in praising

“God, the Father, Spirit, Son,

“Evermore your voices raising

“To th’eternal Three in One!

“Come and worship, come and worship,

“Worship Christ, the newborn King!”

Princesses Elena and Gabriela, of the royal family of the world of Buonarroti, were the first ones on their feet and cheering as the lights came back up aboard the show-ship Wild Rover, to allow the Aelur performers of Free Sky and Fire Valley to take their well-deserved bows. This year’s Christmas play, they would tell anyone who asked them for the next several weeks, had been the best one yet.

They could hardly wait to see what next year would bring.

  • * * * *

The songs quoted in this story are traditional Christmas carols, and are listed in order of appearance by title and country of origin:

Still, Still, Still”, Austria

He Is Born”, France

The Coventry Carol”, England

Infant Holy, Infant Lowly”, Poland

Angels from the Realms of Glory”, England

 

 

 

Sun and Moon and Stars of Light

 

Once upon a time, 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. Time and again her mind wandered away from the business of the kingdom, to hide within her dream life.

For in the dreams of the Princess, she was not a Princess at all, but an ordinary young woman with a home of her very own. Where the Princess was required to sit in dignified silence to listen to petitioners who prolonged their time in the royal presence by repeating their points five times over, the young woman of the dreams could whistle with the birds in the trees or raise her own voice in song whenever she pleased. The Princess spent hours every day fighting back yawns during meetings of her father’s council, as interminable as they were incomprehensible, but the young woman of the dreams had a task to fill her every hour, tasks which belonged solely to her, and which challenged both her mind and body without overwhelming either.

Most of all, the Princess’s evenings were filled with formal welcomes to foreign lords, until her knees ached with curtseying and her voice trembled with fatigue, but the young woman of the dreams watched eagerly for the lord of her own home each night, and greeted him at the door with an embrace and a kiss. His hands might be rough from work, but his eyes were filled with laughter, and the young woman loved nothing better than to laugh with him, for the joy they shared brought new strength to both of them when it seemed all strength was gone. The Princess often woke weeping from these dreams, and reaching out for a hand which melted beneath her fingers, even as she grasped it tight.

Once the Princess tried to tell her mother about the dreams, but was sharply scolded for her foolishness. “How dare you lower yourself to be dependent upon some common working man, even in a dream?” the Queen demanded. “A Princess stands alone, sufficient unto herself! She must never ask for help, no, nor accept it either, for needing help is a sign of weakness, and weakness is not to be tolerated! Shame upon you, my daughter!”

The Princess went away abashed, and later approached her father to try to tell him about the dreams instead, but he only laughed and chucked her under the chin. “I think you must be moonstruck, my dear, to weave such pretty fantasies for yourself,” said the King. “Domestic bliss and true love and domestic bliss are well enough in fairy tales, but they wouldn’t last long in the full light of day. Why not turn your mind to something a bit more real?”

But still the Princess dreamed, and grew thin and pale with longing for the life she could not have and the man who did not exist. Her stomach roiled, her muscles cramped, her sight dimmed and misted over with pain, forcing her to neglect both her duties and her pleasures in search of ease for her suffering. At last, early in the final month of the year, gazing out her window at the stables of the Ice Dragons who pulled her father’s chariot, the Princess made up her mind.

“If I am moonstruck,” she said, “I must have done something to offend the Lady Moon. I will leave my home tonight and travel to her Palace of the Night, and ask her why she afflicts me so, and if I can somehow make amends. Perhaps I shall never be truly happy in this life, but there is no need for me to be as miserable as I am.”

And so the Princess garbed herself for a journey and set out, carrying only a small pack of provisions and wearing sturdy shoes upon her feet. She traveled a weary while, by day and by night, over hill and through vale, and often she longed to turn back, but every time she thought better of it and set her face forward once more, until at last she came to the black-walled Palace of the Night and entered in.

“What can I do for the Princess of Winter?” asked the Lady Moon where she stood in her palace hall. Her features and figure were those of a queenly woman, and her skin as dark as a new-moon’s night, but her softly curling hair, her bright and steady eyes, and the flowing gown she wore were as silver as the moon in all its fullness. “What brings you here in your worn-out shoes, with your eyes so tired and heavy?”

The Princess gathered her courage and spoke. “O Lady Moon,” she said, “please tell me in what way I have offended you, for my dreams trouble me greatly, and my father says I am moonstruck. If I have done you wrong, it was without my intent, and I will do whatever lies within my power to make it right.”

“Moonstruck, does he say?” The Moon pursed her lips together, her eyes narrowing in thought. “I would be loath to call any man a liar, least of all a King, but you have not offended me in the least, lovely Princess, and therefore I have sent no dreams to trouble you. Come, sit by my fire, and tell me more about these dreams, for it may be that some enemy to us both has cast this sorrow upon you, and seen to it that I am blamed.”

Gladly the Princess sat down by the fire, for her journey had been long and cold, and stretched out her feet in their tattered shoes to the flames. The Lady Moon brewed tea with her own hands, and toasted bread and cheese together, while the Princess spoke of the dreams which left her longing so for a creation of fantasy that she could find no joy in her waking life. At length her tale was done, and she accepted the meal her hostess offered with thanks and began to eat and drink, while the Moon gazed into the flames in thought.

When the tea had been drunk to the dregs, when only crumbs remained of the toasted bread and cheese, the Lady Moon spoke again. “These dreams are none of my making, Princess,” she said. “So I have said before, and so I say again. But I will say also that I know of no other than myself who can maze a mind to make it desire so deeply something which is not real.” She steepled her fingers together and gazed calmly into the Princess’s startled eyes. “More than this I cannot say, by the laws which govern us all. But a bed for the night I can give you, and new shoes and provisions when you waken, and then I shall put you on your way to the Palace of the Morning, for Lord Sun and his daughter see much that is hidden from me…”

  • * * * *

First Responder Imogene Silver sat back in her chair and regarded the black-haired young woman sitting on the other side of her desk. “And what can I do for you, Miss Prince?”

“It’s Mrs. Evans.” The young woman looked away for an instant, then back, her pale green eyes meeting Silver’s grey ones with an odd mingling of confusion, defiance, and fear. “I know it won’t say that in any of your databases, in any information you can find, but that’s who I am. Amanda Evans. And that’s my problem. My husband is missing. Only everyone around me is telling me he’s not missing, he’s dead, and he was never my husband at all, so either I’m losing my mind or there’s some kind of conspiracy against me. And I know how that sounds, believe me, and I wouldn’t be here asking for help if there was anything else besides praying I could do, but there’s not. I’ve tried.”

“Here.” Silver scooped up the box of tissues which sat within easy reach on her desk and tossed them lightly across to the younger woman. “It’s my job to keep an open mind, and this isn’t the strangest story I’ve heard. That would be the one about the pink robes that weren’t really pink, the three cinnamon lozenges, and…well, never mind. When was the last time you had anything to eat?”

“Eat?” Amanda blinked, as though the word were strange to her. “This morning, I suppose. I’m not sure.”

Silver sighed, and opened a message window on her workstation to the assistant shared by all the Responders in the office serving the World-Approximating Station Curie Alpha Mu, asking her to run down the corridor to the food court and get something for her current case to eat. Something simple, she added after another look at Amanda, whose fair skin had a distinctly grey undertone against the soft yellow of her shipside coverall. And grab me a coffee while you’re at it, would you? I may be here a while.

“Now,” she said, folding her own deep brown hands in her lap. “Give me the whole picture, as much of it as you’re comfortable sharing. Where do you come from, who’s this husband of yours, and how did you happen to meet?”

“We didn’t happen to meet.” Amanda pleated a tissue between her fingers, staring down at it as though she saw her past in its intricate folds. “We grew up together. I’m from Liverpool, you know, the shipping planet? That’s what I grew up learning about, shipping and trading, and so did Dai. That’s his name, Dai Evans—well, Dafydd really, but no one ever called him that, not even his mother, not unless she was really angry with him. I’m sorry, I’m babbling.”

“Not at all.” Silver shook her head. “You’re giving me a better idea of your situation. So you and Mr. Evans, Dai, you were childhood friends. Were your parents acquainted as well? Was there any opposition to the idea of a romantic connection between you?”

“Not from our parents. But my parents died, before I was quite eighteen, and my grandparents, on the Prince side—”

“Any relation to the Princes of Princes Shipping?” Silver interrupted.

“That’s them.” Amanda offered a thin, wan smile. “My father was the younger son, and my grandparents, my grandmother Julia especially, didn’t agree with the way he wanted to live his life. But because he was the younger son, they let him go his own way. So he married my mother and went to live in the country, and I grew up there. Only then they died, and so did my uncle, and suddenly I was my grandparents’ ward and the only heir to Princes, and everything changed so fast it made my head spin.”

“So I would imagine.” Silver tapped a new command into her workstation, calling up everything Curie Alpha Mu’s central computer had on the planet of Liverpool, especially its customs regarding young and unmarried women, and the firm of Princes Shipping, which ferried cargo throughout much of this section of the greater galaxy. “What your own parents had considered suitable for you, your grandparents likely wouldn’t, especially with such a vast change in your social status. I’m not defending them,” she added mildly as Amanda sat up straighter in her chair, her shoulders squaring with indignation. “Just stating facts. Your social status did change, didn’t it?”

“It did, of course it did, but I’ve never cared about that sort of thing, and I don’t see why my grandmother does—” Amanda jumped as the office door chimed, signaling someone on its other side.

“It’s a heavy question, why people do what they do.” Silver pressed the button to open the door, revealing Sharon, the assistant, on the other side with a well-loaded tray in her hands. “We’ll probably both be better for discussing it after we’ve had a little refreshment. Thank you,” she said to Sharon as a large, steaming cup was delivered to her desk, before Sharon handed the rest of the tray to Amanda with a smile and slipped back out of the room. “And before you start telling me you’re not hungry or you can’t possibly eat anything, just try a bite or two of that sugar toast. Festive-looking, isn’t it?”

“Just a bit. And very suitable to the season.” Amanda laughed weakly, holding up the slice of bread, which had been decorated with broad diagonal stripes in alternating green and red. “It feels so wrong, though. How can my sitting here eating Christmasy sugar toast and telling you the story of my life help you find out what’s going on?”

“You’d be surprised.” Silver skimmed the information now filling her screen, letting her eyes pick out the most important points. “So, by your homeworld’s law, you were your grandparents’ ward until you were twenty-one, unless you married before that time with their permission. And while your marrying without their permission isn’t quite forbidden, neither is it sanctioned. A bit of a gray area, isn’t it?”

“To say the least.” Amanda washed down a bite of the sugar toast with a sip of tea from the blue-and-silver-snowflake patterned mug sitting on the corner of her tray. “And they had very strong ideas on who they did and did not want me to marry. Dai wasn’t nearly important enough for them. His family wasn’t rich or powerful, and all he wanted to be was a pilot, maybe an entrepreneur in a small way once he’d saved enough money to start.”

“What sort of entrepreneur?” Silver inquired, opening a new query window on her workstation.

“Oh, shipping, of course.” Amanda gestured with the half-eaten piece of sugar toast. “Did you think a Liverpudlian would do anything else? But Dai had a new twist on it. He thought, as big as the greater galaxy is, there could be room for several smaller shipping services along with the larger ones, especially for the less-populated worlds where the lines like Princes may only run ships once or twice a year, because it wouldn’t pay their expenses to go any more often. A small company, with only one ship, or maybe two, could charge a reasonable amount for shipping items to customers on those smaller worlds and still make a profit out of it, because of their lower overhead.”

“That makes sense.” Silver keyed in several search terms and set her computer to work before returning her attention to Amanda. “And I’d imagine, raised in a shipping family as you were, you would have been a considerable help to him in that endeavor. He probably couldn’t have done it without you, or not for very long.”

“That’s true.” Amanda crumbled a bit of toast between her fingers. “It’s what I was raised to understand, housekeeping and bookkeeping. They’re very much alike, you know. Making sure everything stays tidy, and the numbers line up the way that they should. It’s all I ever wanted, and I wanted it with Dai.”

“But your grandparents objected.” Silver pitched the sentence midway between a statement and a question. “What did they do about it? Just forbid you to see him any longer, or something else?”

“Much worse than that.” Amanda’s eyes fired in pure rage. “They spread lies about him. Vicious lies, the sort that have just the littlest thread of truth running through them, so that you can’t completely deny them, you have to try to explain things. But no one wants things explained, they want a simple answer, and if you can’t give them a simple answer, especially on Liverpool, they don’t want you working for them. Dai couldn’t find work anywhere, except aboard the Yankee Clipper line of starships, and if you know anything about them…”

“I know enough.” Silver added a few more terms to her search in progress. “Passenger shipping, where your grandparents’ business is mainly cargo. Quite an excellent company to do business with, if you happen to be a paying customer. Though I’ve heard that if they have to pay you instead, many of their captains feel the need to make sure they get their full money’s worth out of their workers.”

“They treat their passengers like gold and their crew like garbage,” said Amanda bluntly. “The head of the line, Captain Adam Burgess, he’s the worst of them all, and he sets the policies for the entire company. And that is the man my grandparents wanted me to marry. The man they told me I would marry, no matter what I had to say about it. They want to merge the companies, and Captain Burgess would only agree to that if they could give him something equally valuable in return. Something like me.”

“I see,” said Silver neutrally. “Did you have any way to tell your Dai about this?”

“No, we hadn’t had any communication in three years, not since he’d gone away. So since there wasn’t really anything I could do, I stopped objecting, and things went along their merry way until the night of the formal dinner where my betrothal was going to be announced.” Amanda twisted her hands, one inside the other. “And that’s where things get strange. Because I know what I think happened that night back in June, what I remember, what I’m almost certain is true, and what’s been true every day from then until right now in December. But my memories of that time keep getting hazier every day, and everything else I can find out says I’m wrong, and I don’t like either of the things that could mean.”

Silver nodded. “Start with what you remember,” she said. “We’ll look at the evidence later.”

“All right.” Amanda drew a deep breath. “I remember getting a vid call from Captain Burgess’s shuttle, the Daniel Boone, off his flagship, the Davy Crockett. Only it wasn’t Captain Burgess calling. It was his personal pilot, and his personal pilot was Dai. He’d earned that position in just three years, and saved enough from it to buy his own ship, and he’d come back for me like he promised. I packed up my things and slipped out the servants’ entrance, and met him at Saint Nicholas’s Church, and we were married and skipped out aboard his ship that same night. We’ve spent the last six months advertising Evans Shipping, no consignment too small. And we were happy,” she finished with a note of defiance in her voice. “We were.”

“I believe you.” Silver sipped her coffee. “And the official story, what I’d find out if I looked you up in the database?”

Amanda’s fingers tightened around her mug of tea. “The official story is that I had a ‘prolonged episode of altered consciousness’,” she quoted, her tone viciously precise. “That by an unhappy chance, the news that Dafydd Evans had been killed in a shuttle crash two months earlier reached me on the same night on which I was already overexcited by the arrival of my intended husband, and that it was too much for me. That I closed myself off from reality and acted out my fantasy of Dai coming back for me, to the point where I stowed away aboard a freighter bound offworld, believing I was going out to meet him. That my grandparents have been looking frantically for me ever since, and finally found me here on Curie Alpha Mu.”

“And, of course, having found you, they want only to take you home and help you get well, so that you can marry Captain Burgess and put this whole unhappy situation behind you.” Silver tapped her fingertips together at Amanda’s jerky nod. “You understand, of course, if you truly are of unsound mind, it’s my duty to restore you to your legal guardians. Also, you admit yourself that all the hard evidence you can find supports the story your grandparents have told you, and First Responders, by the nature of our work, can’t do anything unsupported by official data.”

“I understand.” Amanda looked away. “Thank you for listening to me, anyway. And for not laughing at me. I’ll just—”

“On a personal note,” Silver went on as though Amanda hadn’t spoken, “I think you might benefit from a conversation with a young friend of mine. She and her family happen to be on station at the moment, and they’ve had some experience with situations like yours. May I see your tripad?”

Warily, Amanda drew the palm-sized item from a pocket of her coverall, flipped back its cover, and murmured her passphrase into its microphone before handing it over. Silver pulled up the contacts list and entered a new name and code, then returned the tripad to its owner. “An-jing Xiao,” she said, indicating the name she’d input. “She’s quite friendly, a bit younger than you are, but I think you’ll get along. Let her know I sent you, and that you need to speak with her father.”

“I’ll do that.” Amanda tucked her tripad away and got to her feet. “Thank you, Responder Silver.”

“Not at all.” Silver also rose, and held out her hand to shake Amanda’s. “And Mrs. Evans?”

Amanda stiffened and looked up into Silver’s eyes, her own holding a sudden wild surmise.

Silver smiled very slightly. “Good luck,” she said softly, and squeezed Amanda’s hand before letting it go.

  • * * * *

So the Princess journeyed another weary while, by day and by night, over hill and through vale. She longed often to turn her face towards home and rest, but she yearned still more to know what the Moon had meant by her cryptic words, and thus she came at last to the shining Palace of the Morning. There the Sun’s dark-haired daughter, the Peaceful One, was dancing in the courtyard in her graceful gown of green, though she broke off her dance to make the Princess welcome. Together the two girls entered the Palace, where the Lord Sun awaited them in the shape of a slender man, not over-tall, and robed in the blue of the sky. His hair shone bright, a corona about his warm brown face, and his eyes glowed like slim candlewicks, alight with the fire’s kiss.

“The Lady Moon has sent word of your quest, O Princess of Winter,” he said as his daughter led the Princess to a chair and began to unlace the worn-out traveling shoes upon her feet. “I do not myself have the answer you seek, as she did not have it, for whatever caused your dreams happened far from the light of moon or sun. But I do have the means to summon those who may perhaps know more.”

He gestured, and the windows of the Palace opened wide. Then there sounded a mighty whirring of wings, and the Princess gasped in wonder as birds of every size and color flew into the palace’s hall and circled the Lord Sun, singing with all their might. His daughter only laughed, and ran to fetch perches for her father’s latest guests.

Once the birds had settled into their places, the Sun began to ask them if they knew anything of the dreams of the Winter Princess. But one by one they answered him, “No, Lord, not I.” Raven and dove, owl and sparrow, robin and hawk and finch, each spoke up in its turn, “No, Lord, not I,” and the Princess’s fingers tightened around the mug of tea which the Sun’s daughter had brought.

“Don’t be frightened,” the Peaceful One whispered, clasping the Princess’s hand. “Wait until Papa has finished. You never know who may have seen something…”

  • * * * *

Amanda swallowed hard, entered the final digit of the code Responder Silver had given her, and pressed the button to send the request for a short-distance vid connection, sometimes called a shove link. Her tripad buzzed twice, then lit up with the gold-toned face of a girl in her mid-teens, a ready smile crinkling the corners of slant-set brown eyes. “An-jing Xiao speaking,” she said, regarding Amanda curiously. “Can I help you?”

“Yes, I—” Amanda had to swallow again, and clenched her sweating hands out of sight to keep them from trembling so hard that it would become visible. “Responder Silver asked me to get in touch with you. My name is—”

“Oh, you must be Amanda!” An-jing beamed at Amanda’s hesitant nod. “Yes, she told me you might be shoving me sometime today. I think we may be able to help you, but it’s always better to do business in person, don’t you think?” One finger rubbed her earlobe, half hidden in her long dark hair, then tapped beside her right eye. “Do you know where the Kappa Level food court is?”

“Yes.” Amanda nodded again, simultaneously cheered and disturbed by the intimation that someone might be watching and listening. Part of her, she realized, had wanted to take the easy road, to agree with everything her grandparents were saying, to give up her unequal battle and go meekly home and marry Captain Burgess. Fighting against what the world expected was difficult and disheartening, and until today she’d had no reason to believe her memories and desires had any relation to reality.

But now I know I’m not the only one who thinks this might be true, and in some ways that’s even harder than thinking I am.

“Excellent. Meet me there, at the tea shop, in about ten minutes.” An-jing tossed her a little salute. “See you then. Run as you please.”

“See you then,” Amanda managed to say before the shove link shut down, frowning in thought as the other girl’s final phrase struck a distant chord of memory.

There’s some group of people somewhere in the greater galaxy who say that, it’s like goodbye in their language, only I can’t think of who they are…

Pushing the distraction aside, Amanda went into the head to breathe deeply for a few moments, so as to calm her racing heart, then washed her face and combed out her hair into a more pleasing arrangement. It would take her most of the ten minutes An-jing had specified to get to Kappa Level, and she didn’t intend to show up for a business appointment looking shabby.

“Where are you going, darling?” her grandmother asked as Amanda came into the brightly decorated main room of the quarters the Princes were renting in the short-term residency section of Curie Alpha Mu Station. “I’d hoped we could have lunch together, to take your mind off things.”

“That does sound nice, but I’ve been feeling a little restless today.” Amanda plastered her vaguest smile across her face. “I thought I’d go out again and walk around a bit more, look at all the Christmas decorations I didn’t see this morning. They were so pretty on the upper levels, and I want to see if the lower levels can match them. I’ll make sure to get something to eat, and I’ll shove you if I’m going to be late for dinner. Goodbye, Grandmother.”

She tapped the pocket where her tripad resided, and hurried out into the corridor before her grandmother had time to say more than, “But, Amanda dear—”

The whoosh of the closing door cut off anything further that Julia Prince had to say, and Amanda sighed in relief. Tucking her hands into her pockets, she set off at a brisk saunter. Either running or dawdling would make her conspicuous, and the last thing she needed was more reason to attract attention.

Arriving on Kappa Level nine and a half minutes later, after a pleasant browse through several levels’ worth of decorations in the public areas of the station, Amanda located the tea shop and strolled towards it. An-jing, dressed in a festive green coverall with a red scarf around her waist, half-rose from a table near the corridor at her approach, indicating the two cups of tea already steaming on the table.

“Oh, thank you.” Amanda seated herself across from the younger girl. “You didn’t have to do that.”

“I know. That’s why I did it.” An-jing nodded briskly. “Now, we can talk here if you like, but if you’re willing to trust me, I think we might have better luck taking this back to my family’s ship. My father knows a great many people who know a great many things, or can find them out.”

“And if anyone was listening in on our shove link, they’ll only be able to trail us to this point.” Amanda glanced around at the mostly deserted food court area. “Do you really think someone was tapping in?”

“Someone has the capability to alter an awful lot of official databases, if what you remember is true,” An-jing pointed out. “Or they have the money to hire people who can, and that’s just as bad.”

“Yes, it is.” Amanda patted her palms dry on the legs of her coverall, then picked up her tea. “Can I ask you what’s probably a terrible question?”

“Go ahead.” An-jing disentangled the end of her scarf from the seat of her chair. “If it’s too terrible, I just won’t answer.”

“All right.” Amanda blew on the tea and took a sip of it, to give herself a moment to think. “Why are you helping me?” she asked when her mouth was clear again. “It can’t just be because Responder Silver asked you to.”

“It’s not.” An-jing rubbed the material of her scarf between finger and thumb. “Call it a family tradition, if you like. Helping people who need help, not because it will get us anything in return, but because it’s the right thing to do.” She smiled, sweeping her free hand towards the decorations of evergreen and lights hung all around them. “Then it’s what the season calls for, too, isn’t it? Everyone in all the worlds who has good will, who wants good things to come to everybody, deserves peace in their hearts and in their lives.” Her smile broadened. “And I know a thing or two about peace. Now come on, follow me, and we’ll see what my father can find out about your troubles.”

  • * * * *

Even as the Peaceful One was speaking, the Sun held out his hand to a small brown bird who huddled half-hidden near the foot of one of the perches. “You, my pretty Plover,” he said, making her duck her head shyly at being so openly addressed. “You run hither and yon to keep your eggs and babies safe, and you must see many things as you do so. What do you know of the Princess of Winter and her dreams?”

“I know that they are not dreams, Lord,” the Plover chirped, raising her head so that the two black stripes on her throat could be clearly seen. “The Princess is remembering not foolish fantasies but hidden truth. For she and the young man who tended her father’s Ice Dragons loved for many years to laugh together, until love of sharing laughter turned to pure and simple love. They stole away from the Palace and were married in the town, and there they lived in happiness. But the Winter King and Queen would not abide that, for they had plans to give their daughter in marriage for their own benefit, and so the Queen crafted a cruel spell to lock away the Princess’s memories of her love, and stole her back to the Palace in the dark of a moonless night.”

The Princess let out a little cry, for with the Plover’s words a stab of pain had shot through her mind. The Sun’s daughter started, but did not move from her side, only reaching into the pouch that hung from her belt and drawing out a pinch of white powder, finer than any sugar. “It will ease your hurts for now,” she murmured, sprinkling it into the Princess’s tea, “and by and by we will visit my friends and see what they can do for you.”

“Thank you,” the Princess breathed, but did not take her eyes from the Lord Sun and the birds. The Plover, frightened at having spoken so much, had hidden her head under her wing, and the Sun had raised his eyes to the rest of the birds.

“Who else has seen the Princess and her beloved husband?” he demanded. “Who can tell me what became of him, and how she may win him back to her side again?”

“I can tell you that, Lord Sun,” said a sturdy Blackbird, fluffing out all his feathers, then smoothing them down. “For while the Queen of Winter carried home her truant daughter, the King remained behind to properly punish the man who had stolen what was his.” The feathers fluffed out again. “So the King saw it, and never thought that surely his daughter had some voice in what became of her as well. He is a foolish man. But that is neither here nor there.” The Blackbird preened his wing briefly. “The Queen’s spell was cruel, but so too was the King’s. He cast his daughter’s husband into a magical sleep, imprisoned him inside a tomb of ice, and hid it beyond the farthest star, and there lies the beloved of the Winter Princess even now…”

  • * * * *

“This,” said K.D. Kolesar, tapping her finger against the obituary for one Dafydd Ankur Isha Evans, shuttle pilot for the Yankee Clipper starship line, “is a forgery.”

The opinion so bluntly stated stole Amanda’s breath as thoroughly as though she’d been punched in the gut, her heart pounding wildly to match it. An-jing caught her hand and guided her backwards to one of the seats which folded out of the silvery wall of the ship’s cabin. “Well, that’s that,” she said with satisfaction. “Aunt K.D. doesn’t say things like that unless she’s sure.”

“Be very sure, little sister,” warned Kenneth Xiao, An-jing’s father, leaning against the opposite wall of the cabin. “These are deep waters to be swimming if we’re not entirely certain of our footing.”

“Mixing metaphors much, brother mine?” K.D. grinned at Kenneth’s eye roll and tapped a complicated command into her keyboard, bringing up dense lines of text which filled her screen. “Come have a look at the origination time if you’re not sure. It’s months too late to be true. And there’s been a decent attempt made to replicate a standard news header code, but it’s not quite good enough…”

Amanda shut her eyes, letting the technological talk pass by her ears without entering in. The alternating waves of relief and terror washing over her were too overwhelming to be ignored any longer. It’s true, exulted one part of her. I’m not mad. Dai did come back for me, we were married, I truly did get what I wanted, Grandmother and Grandfather couldn’t stop me—

Oh really? asked another part of her, sharply. What do you think they’ve done now? Just because you know it’s a lie, doesn’t mean anyone else will. And how do you think you’re going to find him, wherever they’ve sent him, whatever they’ve done with him? Without him, alive or dead, it’s only one person’s word against another that the records were altered or they weren’t…

“…need to find him,” Kenneth was saying as Amanda opened her eyes again. “That’s the only way we’re going to make this stick, whether legally or practically.” He thrust his fingers impatiently through his white-blond hair, shoving it back from his face, then glanced towards the far corner of the room, where another man was peering intently into a screen, muttering commands into a microphone. “Anything from your end, Lo?” he inquired.

“As a matter of fact, I think I might have something here.” Lonan Doyle swiped his fingers across a touchpad, and Amanda jumped as the painting on the wall across from her, a landscape showing a small settlement of thatch-roofed houses among tall and ancient trees, disappeared in favor of a star map. “How big was your ship again, Mrs. Evans? Standard tau-class small cargo vessel, I think you said?”

“Yes, that’s right.” Amanda watched as a dotted yellow line formed on the map, indicating a trajectory outbound from the orbit of Curie Alpha Mu to the far side of the outermost planet of the Camembert solar system (no one was quite sure by now if system or station had been named first). “Is that—”

“Something about the mass of a tau-class vessel traveled this route less than a week ago, according to our onboard sensors.” Lonan glanced over at K.D. “And I’d be willing to bet money that if you wiggled your clever way into the official traffic logs from the station, they wouldn’t say a thing about that transit.”

K.D. shook her head. “We’ve been married for how many years now and you still can’t learn I don’t take sucker bets? But he’s right,” she said to Amanda. “No permission requested for that outbound route, no official log of any ship leaving the station at that time. If your Dai is anywhere, that’s where he is.”

Lonan glanced back at his screen and made a small, unhappy noise in his throat. “Except for one problem,” he said reluctantly. “We got a good scan on that ship, and there’s no record of a human heat signature onboard. So if he is there, either he’s in cold sleep, or he’s dead…”

  • * * * *

The Princess’s mug shattered on the stone flags below her as she leapt to her feet and fled the hall with all her speed. Her mind churned in turmoil, and she knew not where she had run, until she looked up through tear-filled eyes to see tall bushes and trees all about her, bright colors and whimsical shapes, and she knew herself to be in the gardens of the Palace of the Morning.

Under one of the trees the Princess cast herself down and let her tears have full rein, tears half of triumph, half of despair. Her dreams stood proved, by the words of the Blackbird and the Plover, no misty moonbeam fantasies but solid sunlit truth. Still, she had worn through not only her shoes but her strength to reach the two Palaces of Night and Morning. A third journey, this one to the stars themselves, seemed as far beyond her reach as drawing truth out of those same dreams.

At length a shadow fell across her, and she started up in confusion. “Peace!” said the woman who stood beside her, holding up her hands to show them empty. “I mean you no harm.”

“Who are you?” the Princess faltered, rising to her feet to stare in awe. And indeed the woman who had entered the garden was worth staring at. Her face was as beautiful as the statue of a goddess cast in bronze, though few goddesses ever smiled so kindly, and a long fall of silken hair of the darkest brown imaginable tumbled across the broad shoulders bared by her elegant gown of midnight blue.

“I am the Lady Darkness,” the woman made answer, “the wife of the Lord Sun. And you are the Winter Princess, who has come to seek our help with your troubling dreams.”

The Princess frowned a little at this, hearing in the back of her mind her mother’s angry words. “I have come to seek knowledge, not help,” she corrected, though inwardly she quaked at her daring. “A Princess must fight her own battles and walk her own paths, or she is no proper Princess at all.”

“And does that mean she can never have help in fighting those battles or walking those paths?” The Darkness laughed softly at the reluctant nod the Princess gave. “Ah, my dear, I know what you are thinking, I have been where you are, for I too was a Princess in my time, the Princess of the Sky, as now are my twin daughters. But tell me this. Is it sensible, is it reasonable, is it wise to be angry because you must sustain yourself with food and drink, or because you must lie down every night to sleep, or because you must clothe yourself warmly against the cold?”

“No!” The Princess laughed in her turn. “That would be silly! A body cannot help what it needs to live.”

“And yet, for all these things, you need the help of others, or they could never be.” The Lady Darkness smiled again, most gently, and reached out to take the Princess’s hands in hers. “You need the help of those who coax your food from the earth and the skies and the seas, and who prepare the food for your plate and the drink for your cup every day. You need the help of those who built the house and the bed on which you sleep, and who guard you safe from harm while you wander in your dreams. And you need the help of those who spun the thread and wove the cloth and cut and sewed the clothing which you wear. We all need help from one another, every day, every hour, so is it not just a little foolish to say that a Princess must never need help?”

“But my mother—” The Princess went very still, then closed her mouth tightly, as newly acquired knowledge fitted together in her mind all too well with the memory of her mother’s sharp scolding.

“Your mother had, perhaps, her own reason for not wishing you to seek help with this trouble,” the Lady Darkness finished quietly. “Yes?”

“Yes.” The Princess swallowed against the mingled anger and fear which burned bitterly at the back of her mouth, then looked up into the face of the Lady Darkness. “Please, my lady,” she said, forming each word with care. “Will you help me? My life and my love have been taken from me, and I have neither the strength nor the knowledge to regain them on my own…”

  • * * * *

Amanda sat up shakily, accepting the handkerchief held out to her. “I’m so sorry,” she said, hating the way her voice wobbled, as she dabbed the soft cloth first under one eye, then the other. “What you must think of me—”

“I think you are a woman who has been very strong for a long time, under difficult conditions,” said An-jing’s mother Deirdre, sitting next to her on the ground, “and you thought your need to be strong alone had ended. It is hard to have that need suddenly restored, especially when it also means the loss of one you have loved. And in your case…” Her eyes went hard and cold as flint. “I have never been able to understand those who abuse the trust of the ones they should most cherish. It is one of the few things in this greater galaxy which is not an improvement over the ways of my childhood.”

“Your childhood?” Amanda blinked at the older woman, feeling decidedly stupid. “You can’t be that old. Or did you come from a planet that didn’t have a lot of improvements?”

“Ah, do you not know our story, mine and my Kenneth’s, and his sister’s and my cousin’s as well?” Deirdre laughed, her voice rich and full. “We will have to tell it to you at some point. But that is a tale for another time, indeed. For now, yes, a planet without many improvements is certainly one way to look at it. And that is one of the reasons why we maintain this area onboard our ship.” Her hand circled around them, indicating the seemingly endless expanse of forest and grassland in which they sat. “It makes those of us who grew up planetside feel more at home, it allows us to train our children in certain necessary skills, and it is part of how we earn our living. And it is in that third capacity in which I think it may be of some service to you.”

“Service to me?” Amanda shook her head, swallowing against the thickness in her throat which always came after a bout of tears, and feeling her heart begin to speed up yet again with worry. “You’ve already been so kind. I can’t let you do any more, especially if it could get you in trouble.”

“My dear, you have not let us do anything. Helping others, especially when their problems are as complicated as yours, is one of our great missions in life. And I must tell you that if trouble does not seek out my family and my clan every few weeks, I begin to suspect that they are falling ill.” Deirdre laid a finger against Amanda’s lips as she began to speak again. “No, not another word. Or if you must speak, tell me this. Do you have any plan for finding the ship where your beloved has been imprisoned, or for bringing yourself to it, or even for convincing the authorities that he is not dead but alive, and that you are not mad but sane?”

“No, I don’t.” Amanda closed her fist around a clump of grass. “But that doesn’t mean I have to like taking help from people. I’ve never liked it. Not unless I get to choose the people, not unless I already know them and trust them, and I don’t know you. I have no reason to trust you. How do you know you’re not lying to me instead? How do I know this isn’t all part of some even bigger game, a way to make sure I really will go mad? How—” She clapped her hands over her mouth, appalled at the words she had just heard herself saying. “I beg your pardon,” she said, her voice wobbling more than before. “I don’t know what’s come over me.”

“I may have an idea.” Deirdre’s voice had turned decidedly dark. “Although I do not like it. Do you notice that you become more and more agitated the longer you stay away from your grandparents? And did you not say your grandmother seemed uneasy about the fact that you left their quarters without eating lunch?”

Amanda started to answer, but a wave of dizziness swept over her, and her eyes dropped closed. From a distance she heard a curse in another language, felt strong arms sweep around her. “Stefan!” Dierdre called out. “An-jing! Taran sho!

  • * * * *

“I will help you, Princess, and gladly.” The Lady Darkness drew the Princess close and kissed her. “And not only I, but all those who love me as well. Shadow!” she called out. “Come here! I need you.”

The Princess covered a gasp with her hand as a boy of twelve stepped out from behind a tree, where she was sure there had been no one a moment before. He was dressed all in black, and his face held a strong look of the Lady Darkness, though a hint of the Lord Sun lurked about his narrow eyes, which danced with mischief. “I am here, my mother,” he made reply, bowing low to the Lady Darkness.

“Less foolishness, more work,” the Lady commanded, swatting her son on the back of his dark-haired head. “Go to the Palace of the Winter King and find out what they say of the absence of the Princess, and if they are suspicious that she might be seeking help for her troubles, confuse their sight to keep them from finding her here. You know best how such a thing can be done.”

“I hear and obey, O my Queen!” The boy Shadow leapt into the air, clicked his heels together, and was gone.

The Lady Darkness sighed, shaking her head. “You must forgive my son,” she said to the Princess. “He is very young, and thinks that he is funny. Now I shall find my husband to hear again with him the tales of the Birds who saw these spells cast, for only by knowing what was done to you and to your beloved can we know how to undo it. But you shall go with my daughter—ah, there you are,” she added to the Peaceful One, who had just appeared at the doorway to the garden. “Take the Winter Princess to your friends, and help them to find out the help she needs and give it to her, so that she will be strong enough to bear what will come next.”

“Yes, Mama.” The Peaceful One kissed her mother on the cheek. “I will come to find you when we are finished.”

“Who are your friends?” the Princess asked the other girl curiously as they made their way deeper into the gardens. “And what help can they give me?”

“Healing and peace, like my name,” said the Sun’s daughter, laying her fingers briefly on the Princess’s forehead. “Healing and peace for both your body and your mind, for your mother’s spell was cruel not only in its effects but also in its working.”

“What do you mean?” The Princess frowned, trying to understand. “How can a spell be cruel?”

“To tear away memories from a mind, as was done to you…” The Peaceful One pursed her lips as she thought of which words to use. “It is as though she had torn away a piece of your flesh,” she said at last, “and left the wound open and bleeding. How could your body have the peace and rest it needs to heal itself if you had such a wound as that, untended, unhelped? But this wound is in your mind, it cannot be seen, and so you thought it was not real.” Slim, dark eyes looked deep into the Princess’s. “Yes?”

“Yes,” the Princess admitted, breathing deep to hold back her tears. “But one tends a wound of the body with bandages and salves. How can one tend a wound of the mind?”

“Ah!” The Sun’s daughter held up a finger, then lowered it to indicate a garden bed. “That is where my friends, and my knowledge, can help. For I speak the language of the Flowers, and some of them produce a magical nectar which can help to calm a wounded mind.” The Peaceful One smiled, and all around her Flowers of purple and gold and blue lifted their blossom-faces to smile as well. “I will tell them of your troubles, and lead you among them that they may learn of the spell upon you. From that they will learn which of them can help you best, and then they will give you the nectar which will bring you peace long enough to begin the healing of those wounds of your mind. Is that something you wish?”

The Princess licked her lips, trembling in fear, but at last she was able to whisper, “Yes.” Then the Sun’s daughter spoke a few words in a language the Princess did not know, but which the Flowers seemed to understand, and led the Princess into the bed of Flowers. They brushed their blossoms against her as though taking her scent, and the Princess breathed of their scent as well and felt her mind drift away from its troubles. At last, two of the Flowers leaned forward, and the Peaceful One held out her hands to them, receiving from each a few drops of clear liquid. She rose to her feet and offered her cupped hands to the Princess, and the Princess lowered her head and drank of the potion, finding it sweet and good.

“There,” said the Peaceful One with satisfaction, bending to kiss the top of the Princess’s head. “Now your wounds are tended, and now you can heal and grow strong. And when you are strong, you can go out questing once again, to find the Land of Flowers…”

  • * * * *

Amanda drifted in and out of dreams, or she thought they were dreams. Surely they must be, for nowhere in the greater galaxy did there exist women with pointed ears and claw-like fingernails, furred faces and slit-pupiled eyes, who spoke together in a language which rose and fell nothing like the sharp, clear cadences of the Vershal she had grown up speaking. Had she, she wondered, slipped somehow into fairyland?

A sweet drink was held to her lips once, and she started to swallow, then stopped, remembering that eating or drinking in fairyland meant that one was bound there for a hundred years. The voices murmured together, and then An-jing spoke near her ear. “This will help you, if you let it. But you have to drink.”

Of course I’m not in fairyland. An-jing’s just as human as I am, and she wouldn’t lie to me. Obediently, Amanda opened her mouth and swallowed the potion, and felt a deep darkness rise up and wash over her, a cool, cleansing tide of sleep. She must, she realized with the last vestiges of consciousness, have been sleeping very poorly indeed since her grandparents had arrived.

Then there was nothing but the knowledge of rest, of finding at last a place to lay her burden down for a while, with the voices still murmuring in that unknown language in the background, though from time to time a word caught her ear that she knew. Her own name was one, and that of her beloved another, and then, making her smile even in her dreams, the word “California”.

The California. Dai’s ship. Dai’s ship and mine.

Our home…

  • * * * *

“The Land of Flowers?” The Princess smiled sleepily as the Sun’s daughter helped her to rise, and guided her towards the Palace of the Morning. “It sounds like a beautiful place. But why should I go there?”

“Because the Blackbird said that your father had hidden your love away beyond the farthest star, and that is where the Land of Flowers lies.” The Peaceful One laughed softly. “I think he was very foolish, for why would he send a man he wished to punish to such a beautiful place, where two people could be so very happy together? But then,” she added in a more sober tone. “When you are alone in a place where you have been happy with someone else, that is quite a terrible punishment. And even though he sleeps, surely his dreams are lonely, for you are not there with him.”

“But I will be.” The Princess raised her eyes to the sky, where one red Star glowed ever brighter, as the Sun’s daughter led her within the Palace. “I will be.”

“So you will,” the Peaceful One assured the Princess, helping her to lie down on the bed in the room given over to her. Then the Sun’s daughter ran back outside to greet the Star, who was just stepping down from the sky into the garden of the Palace of the Morning, and who looked very like the Peaceful One herself, though she was gowned in red instead of green.

“What can you tell me, sister?” the Peaceful One asked breathlessly. “Is he there, where the words of the Plover and the Blackbird placed him?”

“He is there, of course,” the Star assured her twin, her eyes twinkling bright with happiness, very like their father the Sun’s. “When did you ever know our dear Birds to be wrong? And I have seen it for myself as well. In a frozen tomb in the heart of the Land of Flowers lies the beloved of the Winter Princess, and his sleep is fretful and unhappy, for even in his dreams he searches endlessly for his lost love. But she is no longer lost, for we have found her, and with her help we shall divine the incantations which will set him free, and then we will be able to break all the evil spells cast by the Winter King and Queen, and give the lovers the Land of Flowers to be their own kingdom forever…”

  • * * * *

Amanda’s eyes snapped open. She lay on a bunk in a standard shipside cabin, with An-jing sitting beside her, absorbed in her tripad—or was it An-jing? Amanda frowned. An-jing had been wearing a green coverall, and this girl’s was red, so unless she’d been asleep for long enough that An-jing had changed clothes—

“Oh, you’re awake!” The girl lowered her tripad, smiling. “I’m so glad. I’m Séarlait, An-jing’s sister. Sorry to keep changing family members on you, but there are a lot of us, and we all do different things well, so we’ve been switching off who’s staying with you. I hope you’re feeling better.”

“I—am. Much better.” Amanda levered herself up in the bunk, blinking in surprise. The fuzzy feeling in her head, the racing heart and sweating palms which had been afflicting her for the last week, all had vanished while she had been sleeping. More than that, her memories of the past six months, her memories of herself and Dai, of their married life, were clear and sharp once again. She could recall the wave of his black hair and the rich tone of his laughter, the exact shade of coral pink she had chosen (over his half-joking objections) as the accent color for their shipside cabin, even the sound like a sigh that the inside door of the California’s main lock made when it closed. “What—”

“You were being drugged,” said Séarlait, her brown eyes cold and angry. “Someone had been slipping a drug into your food, your drinks, everything. When you missed a dose, the one you would have had in your lunch today, your system overreacted to the sudden dropoff and you became ill. Fortunately, we have cousins who are healers, Heartsease and her daughter Heartbud, and they were able to find out what kind of drug had been used on you and counteract it.”

“Thank them for me, please.” Amanda swung her legs off the bunk and let her toes touch the floor. “I don’t suppose you know if anything else has been done while I was sleeping?”

“Actually, quite a lot.” Séarlait turned her tripad around, revealing not the novel or movie Amanda had been expecting but a chat window, with several names she recognized attached to members of the multiway conversation. “My brother Stefan checked on your grandparents, and they don’t seem concerned about you yet. Certainly they don’t know how much you’ve found out about what they’re up to. And I was able to run a tracking exercise on the sensor data we had from the flyby of your ship…”

“The California,” Amanda interjected. “That’s her name.”

“The California. Excellent.” Séarlait’s fingers flew across her tripad’s keyboard. “You wouldn’t happen to know where she’s registered?”

“Out of Dover.” Amanda grinned, and Séarlait chuckled under her breath. Most worlds required that a person wishing to register a ship on their rolls should either live there or have their primary business address there, but on the planet of Dover, absentee owners were permitted so long as they had a registered agent in residence on the planet’s surface. It had been estimated that sixty-five percent of Dover’s adult population listed their primary profession as registered agent, and the only reason the proportion was not higher was that the planet still grew some of its own food.

“Well, I was able to follow the trajectory of the California, out of Dover, until she disappeared beyond that furthest planet, and with that I was able to get a sensor reading on her where she is now.” Séarlait smiled gently. “There were power readings consistent with a single cold sleep tank, up and running. He’s alive.”

Amanda distinctly felt a knot in the pit of her stomach release. “Thank you,” she breathed. “Thank you so much.”

“You’re welcome. But even though we know where he is, and that he is alive, you may want to think about a few things before we decide on what to do next.” Séarlait looked grave. “I’ve had some experience with this sort of thing. Even people who don’t want you around can get angry if you suddenly disappear, and your grandparents do want you. Granted, they only want you because they can get some advantage out of you, but that’s still a reason why they want you.”

Amanda sighed, her good mood deflating like a popped balloon. “You think even if we’re able to rescue Dai, even if he and I get away this time, they might try coming after us again.”

“My family does, and so do I.” Séarlait tapped a finger on her tripad. “But there might be a way to keep that from happening, and you’d even get a chance at a bit of poetic justice while you’re at it. The only thing is, you have to be very brave. Brave enough to go back to your grandparents, brave enough to pretend nothing happened, until you hear from us again. Can you do that?”

“Will it save my Dai, and bring me home to the California in time for Christmas?” Amanda countered.

“Yes.” Séarlait’s eyes were steady on hers. “If you follow the directions we give you, it will.”

“Then yes.” Amanda nodded. “I can do that. As long as you’ve got some way to keep me safe from whatever drugs they’re using,” she added, a brief shiver running through her. “I’m not magical.”

“We’ll see the healers before you leave,” Séarlait promised. “For the rest of it…” She grinned again. “Tell me, where do your grandparents stand on things like showing appreciation for local culture?”

  • * * * *

So it was that the Winter Princess returned to her father’s palace, for, as the Star told her when she awakened, her final quest could only succeed if she went back to where she had started. She brought with her a supply of the nectar of the Flowers, to ensure that her mind’s healing would continue, but nothing else except herself and the knowledge she had gained. Her father and mother welcomed her anxiously, but she told them nothing except that she had gone to seek the answers to her troubling dreams, and that she was now satisfied with what she had discovered.

The Princess waited patiently through days and nights, comporting herself always as she had before her fabulous journey, though this grew harder with every hour that passed. At last, one night, as she gazed out her window, she heard a voice speak to her as the moon rose, great and silver in the sky.

“It is time, Princess,” spoke the voice of the Lady Moon. “Are you ready?”

“As ready as I will ever be,” said the Princess, and a broad stream of silver light shone full upon the sill of her bedroom window. Drawing a deep breath, she stepped out onto the path of light and began to walk.

The moonbeam grew steeper and ever steeper, until she was climbing with hands and feet, as though on a mountainside. Whispers beset her from all sides, but when she turned to look, no one was there.

Some of the voices were friendly, that of the Lord Sun, the Lady Darkness, the Peaceful One and her brother the Shadow. “Do not give up now,” they murmured to her. “Keep climbing. The one you seek, the life you wish, both are very near.”

But others were scornful and hateful, the voices of her mother, her father, her own doubts and fears. “What makes you think you deserve a happy ending?” they demanded. “What makes you think you can accomplish this task? You are nothing, less than nothing, and by your own choice, for you make yourself less when you surrender your life to another’s keeping…”

“That would only be true,” said the Princess sternly, “if there were no love. For love turns surrender from slavery to freedom.” And she set her face and climbed onwards and upwards, following the shining Star which beckoned the way, accompanied on either side by the Plover and the Blackbird who had brought the news of the place where her beloved lay imprisoned. She could see it now ahead of her, the Land of Flowers indeed, a great field of blossoms in the middle of the starry night, but all the flowers lay blighted and withered by an icy frost which had fallen upon them.

“Oh, the poor things!” cried the Princess. “I wish I could heal them.”

“You can,” chirped the Plover, fluttering nearer with strong beats of her wings. “You and only you. We cannot enter the Land of Flowers without your help.”

“But what must I do?” The Princess laid her hand upon the edge of the flowered plain, then snatched it back with a little gasp. “I cannot touch it. It is too cold.”

“This ice was laid down by your father, as a final barrier between you and your beloved,” said the Blackbird where he flew on the Princess’s other side. “But what your hands cannot do, perhaps your voice can. What words would you use to proclaim your right to enter here, where love is waiting for you?”

Softly, the Princess began to sing the hymn to which she had walked down the aisle to meet her beloved at the altar on her wedding day, a hymn which rejoiced over the loveliness of the universe and cried out in joy to the God who had made such wonders. The Plover and the Blackbird provided harmony from either side, the Star added a descant line from overhead, and as they sang, the frost began to melt away and the flowers to spring upright. Dimly, in the far distance, the Princess could see a great block of ice like a monument or a tomb, shivering the snow from its sides and preparing to crack—

With a start, the Princess opened her eyes. She lay in her own bed, in her own room at the Winter Palace, with a single star shining dimly through her window. Tears filled her eyes, and she covered her face to weep. “It was a dream,” she whispered bitterly, “only a dream…”

“Do not yet despair, Princess of Winter,” called the sweet voice of the Star from above. “Instead trust your friends one last time. Do your parents commonly hold festivities for the Christmas season which has now come upon us?”

“They do, of course they do, but why would you ask me such a thing?” Angrily the Princess dashed away her tears. “What heart can I have for festivals and balls when my love has been taken from me, and my final journey to reach his side was no more than a dream?”

“Trust your friends,” repeated the Star. “Remember how you have been helped until now. And look for us again when you least expect us, for there we shall surely be.”

With that, for a time, the Princess had to be content, though now and again she indulged herself in a few words of grumbling about those with magical powers who thought they were so everlastingly wise. As she had told the Star, there were festivals aplenty at this season to occupy her, and none more eagerly awaited or largely attended than the masquerade ball held every year on the Eve of Christmas Day. All who lived in the Kingdom of Winter were invited, for on this one day out of the year no distinctions were made. So long as they wore a mask, anyone and everyone would be admitted to the Winter Palace for the ball.

Although the Queen urged all sorts of elaborate garb upon her daughter, the Princess found she had little heart for fanciful dress this year, and so she modeled her gown for the ball after that which she had seen the Lady Darkness wear, though she chose a cloth of deep gray to suit her own coloring. With it she paired a mask as dark as her hair, which she wore loose and flowing down her back, and a small tiara of shining stones, and with that her mother had to be content.

Once, during her fittings, the Princess thought she saw an odd shadow fall across the shoulders of her gray gown, and a distant laugh seemed to chime in her ears. But no other sign came from those she had met on her travels, and the day of the masquerade dawned clear and bright, with never a cloud to cover the sky as it moved on towards nightfall…

  • * * * *

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 forward to it? We try to make it fun for everyone. There’s even audience participation during some of it. Do you dance, by the way? We might recruit you for one of the scenes if you do, there’s a big masquerade ball with this very easy pattern dance, and I think you might enjoy it.”

“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 Curie Alpha Mu Station and entering a starship moored there.

“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 briefest of glances at her grandparents, who smiled gracious approval, she did so. The girls spun her in place in the aisle, dusted imaginary specks off her gown, and ceremoniously fitted her with a simple half-mask of black, then proceeded on their way towards the stage with her in their midst.

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?

  • * * * *

Alone at the center of the hall, with all eyes on them, the Winter Princess and the Ice Dragon began to dance the Waltz of the Flowers. At the second statement of the main theme, a second couple joined them in their dance, then a third and a fourth, until the floor was filled with flashing feet and spinning skirts, a kaleidoscope of color to match the timeless music, with the Dragon’s silver and the Princess’s gray weaving a brilliant pattern in and out among the other dancers.

The reprise began, with the woodwinds’ sweet arcs of elaboration rising and falling above the strings and brass, and in time with these the Dragon led the Princess up the broad steps near the back of the palace hall, until they were dancing by themselves on the small square landing which looked out over the courtyard of the Palace of Winter. As they finished a spin, he held up his hand to halt her in place, then leaned out the window, beckoning. From the sky descended a broad path made of moonbeams, and onto this stepped the Ice Dragon and the Winter Princess, hand in hand. Slowly they ascended, and the Princess marveled, for the path which had been so steep and difficult to climb alone yielded easily to her feet with her beloved beside her.

Below, the music grew impassioned and threatening, and the Princess looked back in sudden fear. The King and Queen of Winter had noticed their daughter’s absence, and had rushed to the window, shaking their fists and threatening terrible reprisals if she did not return at once. She shivered, and held tightly to her beloved. “I will not go back to them, back to what they want for me,” she whispered under the sound of the music. “I would rather die.”

“I would rather you live, and live with me,” her beloved made answer. “And there is a way. If your heart and mind are agreed, if I and the life we have made together are what you truly want, then take the crown from your head and throw it away, for if you are no longer a Princess they will have no more control over you.”

Without hesitation, the Princess snatched the tiara from her hair, held it high so that all could see what it was, and flung it into the air from where she stood on the moonbeam path. It flashed in the light as it tumbled, then vanished at the top of its arc, and from the place where it had disappeared, in time with the flowing lines of violins and violas, stars began to fall. One after another, they struck the bottom of the moonbeam, driving back the King and Queen, and severing the path’s connection with the earth.

“There is only the way upwards now,” said the Ice Dragon, turning to face his lady, a Princess no more. “Are you afraid?”

She smiled. “Not when I am with you,” she said, and together they walked on as the music soared, as the Land of Flowers descended from the sky to meet them. Below, in the palace hall, the Queen of Winter raged back and forth across the floor in powerless fury, as the King tried vainly to calm her down and the other dancers danced on unheeding, though some, wiser than the rest, cast laughing looks upward. There, the Ice Dragon and she who had been the Winter Princess entered into the Land of Flowers, to begin their happily ever after with an embrace amid the orchestra’s great final shout of triumph.

  • * * * *

“Quickly,” a voice hissed in Amanda’s ear as the lights went out, and the arm around her waist drew her away to one side, guiding her down a steep and spiraling ramp, pausing for a moment to pull her against the wall as a pair of people bolted past them towards the sound of wild applause. Her companion pulled the mask from his face and tossed it to one of the pair, who caught it on the fly, and then he and Amanda were moving again, sprinting down the ramp and through the dimly-lit corridor into which it led. As they approached the door at the corridor’s end, her companion raised his left hand, and the door slid open just as they reached it, hissing shut again behind them with a sound like a sigh.

“Well,” said her companion, turning to her. “That was—”

He got no further, mainly because Amanda had flung herself into his arms and was kissing him as passionately as he was kissing her back. “Dai,” she whispered against his lips when they both surfaced. “Oh, dear God, Dai, I thought they’d killed you!”

“Not quite, love. Though not for lack of trying.” Dai Evans cradled his wife against him, one of his hands exploring upwards through her hair to cradle the back of her head. “They wanted us separated, yes, and permanently, since they wanted you free to marry again, but it seems they weren’t ready to order a murder in so many words. But they ended up outwitting themselves.”

“What do you mean?” Amanda’s chest ached from the deepness of the breaths she was drawing in, breaths filled with the scents of home, her own floral shampoo mingled with Dai’s light balsam, the lemon of the cleaning supplies she stocked for their little wally robots, and the cooking spices from the galley. “What happened?”

“You happened, cariad.” Dai drew her out of the main cabin, which was set up in an impersonal reception style to double as the business area of Evans Shipping, and down the short corridor into their personal quarters, decorated in deep blue and rich gold with hints of Amanda’s favored coral. “Going to look for help, and finding…I’m not sure what to call them. Other than experts in mayhem, and I’m happier to have them on my side than against me. Not only did they find the California before she was slated to leave the system, but they got you to open the secondary lock for them rather than trying to break in through the main.”

“So my voice code did work.” Amanda laughed shakily, sinking down onto the enormous softsack chair in the corner of their sleeping cabin. “I wasn’t sure if it had. Someone tried to tap the transmission just then and they had to cut it off or risk being found out. But what did that have to do with anything?”

Dai’s face darkened as he seated himself beside her, and Amanda scowled at him. “I can’t possibly think any worse of my grandparents than I already do,” she snapped. “Get that ‘protecting the little woman’ expression off your face and tell me.”

“And here I was worried about what this might have done to you.” Dai managed a light laugh, but Amanda could see the strain behind his eyes. “They, or whoever they hired to do the work, came up with something—if I’d seen it in a vid, I would have called it evil. Clever, but evil. You know they’d placed me in cold sleep, to be sure I couldn’t take the ship back, or try to contact you.”

Amanda nodded, laying her hand gently over Dai’s, to allow him to choose how much contact between them he wanted.

“They’d interfaced the controls of the cold sleep tank with the main lock and hidden the command structure, so no one would be able to find it unless they were looking for it specifically.” Dai’s fingers tightened around Amanda’s, his grip stopping just short of painful. “If anyone had tried to open the main lock, either by hacking into it or with one of the master keys the First Responders use, the tank would have shut down. And they’d left a note on one of the computers claiming that since my wife had left me, I didn’t want to live any longer, so I’d put myself into cold sleep with an unreliable tank and set the California to skip randomly across the greater galaxy until either the tank failed or the ship flew into a star…”

A snarl of purest rage ripped from Amanda’s lips, and Dai laughed more truly. “Now there’s my lady,” he said, granting her a seated bow. “And what did you think of the way our new friends snatched you out from under your grandparents’ aristocratic noses?”

“I think it was…magical.” Amanda tightened her own grip on her husband’s hand. “I was thinking all the time in the pattern dance that if I only were the Winter Princess, I’d have nothing to be afraid of, because I knew exactly how her story ought to end. Her love would be there, at the masquerade, and she’d know him the instant he touched her hand. They’d dance together, and he’d carry her off, and they’d all live happily ever after. And then it truly did end that way!”

“Except that not quite everyone is going to live happily ever after.” Dai leaned back on the softsack, twisting and rotating his shoulders. “There’s always the Wicked Grandparents, after all. Would you care to see what’s happened to them?”

“Yes, I would.” Amanda shook her head, as though surfacing from underwater. “How could I forget about them? They’re going to suspect what must have happened here, you know they will, and waking up without you is the sort of thing I only want to do once in my lifetime, thank you very much!”

“O ye of little faith.” Dai placed a kiss on Amanda’s lips with his fingers. “Watch and learn. Computer,” he said in the general direction of the ceiling, and was answered with a soft ‘ready’ chime. “Play vid feed seven on bedroom screen C. And well done to you, by the by, love, for following unexpected instructions,” he added as the screen set into the wall at the proper height for viewers on the softsack activated. “I knew you didn’t freeze when strange things happened to you, but I didn’t know you’d throw your tiara with quite so much vigor. The stagehand almost couldn’t catch it in time.”

“For just those few moments, I was the Princess.” Amanda shut her eyes to recall the heady feeling of certainty, of treading a path long foretold which would lead her to the place she desired most to be. “I’d been on that journey, to the Moon and the Sun and the Stars, and rescued the man I love from a terrible fate, and now he’d come to rescue me in return. I wasn’t about to let some silly little symbol of power, power I never wanted in the first place, mind you, get in the way of my happy ending.”

“I wish I could say I felt worthy of that strong a love.” Dai slid his arm around her shoulders, drawing her closer to his side. “But all I can truthfully say is that I will strive to be worthy of it, all the days and nights of my life.”

“And I of yours.” Amanda laid the side of her face briefly against his hair, then turned her attention to the screen, which was showing a wobbly view of her grandmother’s indignant face from slightly below eye level. “So what might this be?”

“It might be that Deirdre, Lady Duskdance, agreed to wear a camera button on her dress tonight, to make sure we wouldn’t miss the last chapter of our own story. Or should that be the last act of our own play?” Dai shrugged the shoulder against which Amanda was not leaning. “Either way, when I found out what they were going to do, I knew I wanted to see it, and you would too.”

About to ask for clarification, Amanda closed her mouth as an audio feed cut in to join the vid, Julia Prince’s shrillest tones ringing throughout the cabin. “—to know where my granddaughter is at once!”

“Your granddaughter, ma’am?” Deirdre inquired, in a tone of polite sympathy.

“Yes, my granddaughter! Amanda Prince!” Julia jabbed a finger towards the seat Amanda had been occupying for most of the show. “She came to your show with me and my husband tonight, she was sitting here, and then she went up on the stage to dance with your band of ragtag misfits and now she’s disappeared! I want her found and returned to me at once! She is not well, and if she does herself a mischief while she is out of our custody, I will see to it that neither you nor any other member of this troupe of traveling clowns ever work again!”

The view from the camera tilted slightly, and Amanda caught sight of the upper edge of a tripad, suggesting that Deirdre was looking something up. “Ma’am, I am terribly sorry,” said Deirdre’s cool voice as she straightened, “but we have no record of anyone by the name of Amanda Prince coming onboard the Wild Rover tonight. Are you quite sure that your granddaughter was with you?”

“What?” Amanda said in confusion over her grandparents’ indignant gabbling. “How is that possible? My ticket was scanned at the entrance, it should have checked me in just like it did everyone else!”

“It did check you in, love.” Dai chuckled, the sound vibrating pleasantly through Amanda’s bones. “Under your legal name. Which is, in case you’ve forgotten, Amanda Evans.”

Amanda made a sound halfway between a groan and a laugh. “Of course. Of course. How could I forget? That’s how this all started! But I don’t know that this is going to work,” she added, worry overtaking her. “There were so many people there, someone has to have noticed I was sitting next to Grandmother and Grandfather, and they’ll probably speak up when they realize who Grandfather is…”

“I wouldn’t count on it.” Dai kept his eyes on the screen, where Deirdre seemed to have decided to wait until the Princes shouted themselves out. “Your grandfather’s very impressed with his own importance, and back on Liverpool he’s got reason to be, since there he’s a big frog in a fairly small pond. But I’ve been out in the greater galaxy a bit, and there are plenty of important people out here. Including one or two who are on our side in all this.” He made a soft sound of satisfaction. “Here comes one now.”

“Who—oh, it’s Responder Silver!” Amanda craned her neck to see the woman on the left side of the screen. “She was so kind to me, and the way she told me, without telling me right out, that she believed what I was saying about you, about me, about us…am I babbling? I think I’m babbling. I don’t want to be babbling.”

“You’ve just had a bit of a shocking experience, cariad.” Dai turned his head and kissed her on the cheek. “And I’ve been missing the sound of your voice. Babble all you want. Though maybe after this is done?” A wave of his hand indicated the screen, where the Princes were finally starting to wind down from their separate tirades. “I want to see it come out.”

“So do I.” Amanda closed her lips and basked silently in all the tiny details around her that whispered home, from the silky fur of the softsack to the rough calluses where Dai’s hand was wrapped around her fingers, from the soft humming of the California’s systems at standby to the warmth of her love’s body where it fit so perfectly against hers.

How could I ever have thought he was a dream?

“If I may step in, Mr. Prince, Mrs. Prince?” said Silver politely on the screen, slipping into the conversation during the single moment when both Princes had paused for breath at the same time. “I may be able to clear a few things up. You’re looking for your granddaughter, I think you said?”

“Yes, and you know perfectly well she was with us tonight.” George Prince pointed an accusatory finger. “She was there when you came by our quarters to drop off the tickets, you spoke to her yourself!”

“Did I?” Silver frowned, tapping a finger against her chin as though searching her memory. “But then I speak to so many people in the course of the day. It’s difficult to remember. And I’m afraid I can’t bring to mind any particular occasion when I had speech with Miss Amanda.”

Amanda had to stifle a fit of giggles in the side of the softsack. “Oh, very clever,” she gasped when she had enough breath. “She never talked to Miss Amanda, because I haven’t been a Miss for months!”

“And as for the person sitting next to you, who left her seat to go up on stage and dance—may I introduce my niece Amelia?” Silver gestured to a slender young woman beside her, who curtsied to the astounded Princes. “She’s a fine dancer, and has been hoping to get into one of these productions for a while, even just as an audience participant.”

“Except it wasn’t, was it?” Amanda eyed the slim figure, the gray gown, the fair skin and flowing dark hair. “She was the one dancing the Princess onstage, right up until the end.”

“And the one who took the bows for you, with her young man as her Ice Dragon, in my mask.” Dai nodded. “We were also able to isolate the function in the station’s computers that was sending you back inaccurate information any time you tried to look me up, or Evans Shipping or the California, or anything else related to us. It was just a little misinformation loop, entirely a local product, since it would have cost more than even your grandparents would be willing to pay to alter all the databases in all the greater galaxy. But now, since we had it, we thought it would be a shame not to put it to use…”

“Amanda Prince was never on Curie Alpha Mu Station at all, was she?” Amanda began to grin. “And that’s what Grandmother and Grandfather will find if they try to look me up.”

“Precisely. And since the California is docked with the Wild Rover and not with the station proper, we don’t have to declare ourselves unless we cross into station space. Which, I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of any pressing business there.” Dai slashed his fingers in an X in the air, turning off the vid screen on a view of Julia Prince’s incredulous mouthings and George Prince’s red-faced threats. “And I can think of a number of things I would rather be doing right here.”

“Oh, so can I,” breathed Amanda, turning to her beloved husband and sliding her arms around him. “So can I…”

  • * * * *

“I think that went rather well,” said Imogene Silver, watching George and Julia Prince walk sullenly out of the Wild Rover’s performance space, casting seething looks over their shoulders. “A beautiful job by your crew, as usual. How in the world did you put together a show of that scale in the amount of time we had?”

“At the risk of sounding conceited, we are professionals.” Deirdre chuckled. “Though I should admit we had most of the scenery in storage already, and the costumes were quite easy to make. As well, with our Nightsinger acting as narrator, no one had to learn any lines, and the blocking all flowed naturally from the progression of the story. How goes your side of the project?”

“Oh, we had that done hours ago.” Silver waved a dismissive hand. “Your Killdeer is a natural-born hacker, as you well know. She’d have been able to clear out those records all on her own if I hadn’t been around, and toss in that little misinformation loop to boot. My command codes just got her into the station computers with less effort.” She snickered. “I believe I overheard her complaining that it was too easy, in fact. Mind if I throw a scare into her the next time our paths cross?”

“If you had not volunteered, I would have asked you to do so.” Deirdre sighed. “There are times I feel that I have far more children than merely the three who are mine under the law.”

“But that ought to be a blessing, this time of year.” Silver smiled sweetly, watching the Palace of Winter fold in on itself like an empty tent. “Isn’t one of the best parts of Christmas watching the happy little faces of all the children gathered round the fire?”

Deirdre favored her friend with a decidedly old-fashioned look. “It is sometimes a wonder to me,” she said pointedly, “that no one has yet murdered you.”

“I dodge too fast.” Silver bowed. “A Merry Christmas to you, Lady Darkness.”

“And a Happy New Year to you, Lady Moon.” Deirdre returned the courtesy. “The Lord Sun wishes you the same, as do the Birds, the Peaceful One, the Star, and our little Shadow.”

 

 

Also by Anne B. Walsh

 

The saga continues…

Find out what Starsong and her family are planning for Christmas this year in “Carol of the Bells”, a brand-new short story set in the greater galaxy! “Carol of the Bells” will be published as part of I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, Anne B. Walsh’s fifth annual holiday collection, set to be released at all major e-book retailers on November 29, 2016. Reserve your copy today!

 

Go back to where it all began…

Elspeth only meant to search her starship’s computer for some new songs. Instead she found a new race of people called the Aelur, people who needed her help. Can she learn from them how to balance the future and the past, and fly free among the stars without forgetting the lessons she learned from a little bird called Killdeer? Now available at all major e-book retailers.

 

Or journey to another time and place altogether…

How did Alfred de Maine, the cruel Lord Farnton, meet his death on the backroads of 1780’s Ireland? Eleanor, his pretty countess, knows the truth, but she also knows the value of a secret. Can patience, love, and Eleanor’s long-hidden magic of moving win her the life she truly wants? Or is she doomed to live and die A Widow in Waiting? Now available at all major e-book retailers.

 

Please feel free to visit Anne’s Facebook page, facebook.com/annebwalsh.page, for further updates about her writing (including her 2016 National Novel Writing Month Project) as well as silly pet photos and other such enjoyable items.


Star of Wonder

Welcome to the greater galaxy! Meet the starfaring folk known as the Aelur. They love music, laughter, Christmastime, and playing tricks. Will you join in their "Glorious Song of Old", or will you say that you have had "Enough"? Perhaps you are waiting for "The Tenth Lady" to arrive and complete the dance? Or perhaps you want the Aelur starship, the Wild Rover, to whisk you away so that you may see the "Sun and Moon and Stars of Light" for yourself? Wherever you choose to begin, be sure to bring your singing voice, your dancing shoes, and your imagination! Please note: All stories in this collection have been previously published as part of the “Holidays with Anne” series. As such, this unitary edition is being made available to readers for free.

  • ISBN: 9781370647620
  • Author: Anne B. Walsh
  • Published: 2016-11-04 00:50:11
  • Words: 52269
Star of Wonder Star of Wonder