Across a Star-Swept Sea, Chapter Two

(I’ll be posting new chapters of my book until its release date Tuesday. To read chapter one, click here. I’m off to Capclave and to meet George R. R. Martin!)


CHAPTER TWOstarsweptavatar

The royal court of Albion was often likened to a riotous garden, but it buzzed with more than bees and was filled with colors never found in nature. Bougainvillea hedges encircled the public court and hibiscus topiaries lined the aisles, but no flowers could compete with the whirlwind of gowns; cloaks; leis; and most of all, the towering hairstyles of the island’s most fashionable aristocrats. Their chatter drowned out the sounds of the sea beyond, the constant hum of flutternotes zipping to and fro among the courtiers, and even the delicate tinkle of the famous Albian water organ.

One particularly crowded corner was currently occupied by Lady Persis Blake and her retinue of admirers. This evening she wore a simple, bright yellow sarong fastened about her neck with a length of crocheted gold links, and a matching gold wristlock—the leather fingerless glove that covered the palmport on her left hand. The elegant fall of her gown could only be achieved using the finest of Galatean silk, a difficult product to come by since the revolution began, but you could count on Persis Blake to have the inside scoop on where to get the best fabrics. Its hue matched exactly the yellow tones in her hair, which had been twisted, braided, and otherwise arranged so that its upswept yellow-and-white strands resembled the frangipani flower on the Blake family crest. Her beauty stood out, even among the kaleidoscope throng of the court.

In the six months since Princess Isla had ascended the throne as regent and brought along her old school chum as her chief lady-in-waiting, Persis had become one of the court’s most glittering and popular members. Hardly anyone remembered a time when a party or a boating trip or luau was complete without the addition of Albion’s loveliest, silliest socialite.

Even better, almost no one at court had been at school with Persis before she’d dropped out—no one who could paint a very different picture of the girl who was gaining quite the reputation for being nothing more than stylish, sweet, and above all stupid.

Along with her gown and her jewelry, today Persis wore a look of sheer boredom as the conversation took a turn in the direction of the revolution. The casual observer would guess it was because such an ornamental creature would find politics a tedious topic.

The truth was, no one here had a clue what Galatea was really like these days.

“The southerners’ civil war will spread to our shores,” said one young courtier with obvious aspirations to the Royal Council. “And when it does, we must quell any reg uprising before we find ourselves in the same predicament as the Galateans.”

“Surely not,” Persis said. “It’s hard enough finding silk merchants in Galatea who remain open these days. I’ll simply die if the Albian shops close down, too.”

“How like a woman.” The courtier chuckled indulgently. “Lady Blake, if there’s a revolution against the aristos in Albion, what you wear is going to be the last of your concerns.”

“Never!” Persis replied. “I have a reputation to uphold. We mustn’t let a silly thing like war make us forget our duties.”

There was another ripple of laughter among the young men sitting near her.

“I’m serious!” she added, forming her mouth into a pink pout. “Even with my responsibility to Princess Isla and her royal wardrobe, my dear papa hardly ever lets me sail down to visit the shops in Halahou anymore. He says he fears for my safety, but you’d think he’d spare just a smidge of concern for my clothes as well. If any of you fine gentlemen know the identity of the Wild Poppy, won’t you please ask him to rescue us some dressmakers on his next trip to Galatea? It’s getting old that all he’s been rescuing lately are other aristos. Honestly, they aren’t useful for anything but competition.”

“If I knew the identity of the Poppy,” said one of the courtiers, “I’d be the most popular man on both islands. In Albion all the ladies would adore me”—several ladies tittered for proof—“and in Galatea, I’d be Citizen Aldred’s very best friend. The Poppy is Galatea’s most wanted.”

“Then my proposal would solve everyone’s problems,” Persis argued. “Citizen Aldred probably wouldn’t mind so much the loss of a tailor or two, and I would get that meticulous Galatean attention to sartorial detail that I’ve been missing. Everyone wins!”

“Except the aristos,” mumbled another of the courtiers, but no one listened to him. After all, talk of prisoners was deemed ever so dull by the Albian courtiers, and thinking about Galatean aristos they all knew who might even now be imprisoned did terrible things to one’s mood.

Just once, Persis wished she could steer the conversation in this direction instead of away from it. Would things change if more aristos started questioning the Council’s hands-off position regarding the war? Would it be worth it to try, even if it endangered her carefully wrought disguise?

She looked up to see Tero Finch gesturing to her from the edge of the circle. As a freshly cooled member of the Royal College of Gengineers, Tero’s clothes weren’t quite as stylish as the aristos surrounding him, but his height, broad shoulders, and perfectly dyed metallic bronze hair still had several of the young ladies turning his way. “Persis,” he called, “the princess can see us now.”

With a trilling laugh that grated even on her own ears, Persis sprang to her feet. “I must leave you, lovelies. Please make sure to have some good gossip when I return.”

She met Tero, and together they ascended the wide marble steps to the terrace.

“Where’s my sister?” Tero asked under his breath. “You didn’t get Andrine arrested, did you?”

“Probably in Scintillans Village by now, safe and sound and doing her homework,” Persis reassured him as they entered the throne room of the princess regent of Albion. Tero was convinced Persis and Andrine were risking their lives with every trip to Galatea. That he was right hadn’t dissuaded them yet.

The sunset filtered through bamboo blinds drawn over the colonnade that formed the outer wall of the room. Vases three meters high were stuffed with drooping palm fronds strung with orchid leis, and the scent of the royal flower hung heavily in the room. Princess Isla sat in the middle of the floor, heedless of the giant white cushions strewn nearby. Her wide-legged white pants were gathered in bunches in her lap, and her white cape lay forgotten on one of the chaises behind her. For a moment, Persis could imagine they were children again, playing with puzzles or building pillow volcanoes on the floor.

Isla held her left hand out to the toddler who sat before her, a bright-eyed boy who squealed with delight at the tiny golden threads leaping around on Isla’s fingertips.

“It works!” Tero cried, dropping to his knees at the princess’s side.

“Another new app?” Persis asked as she gathered the trailing ends of her yellow sarong and sat down, too. Tero seemed to spend half his time at his new job in the Royal College of Gengineers, developing new palmport apps for Isla.

And the other half secretly working for the League of the Wild Poppy.

So now it was jumping threads. The week before it had been an app that would allow Isla to control the playlist on the water organ in the courtyard. And before that, Tero had cooked up some code that combined optic identification with a visual skin, which if you ran the app made Councilman Shift look like an armadingo. Anything to make Isla laugh, or even forget for a moment that she wasn’t just their schoolmate anymore. She wasn’t just Persis’s best friend. One little accident, and she’d found herself an orphan, a mother, and a ruler of a country on the brink of war.

“What kind of supplements does it take to run it?” Persis asked, as if none of that mattered, and they could talk as they used to.

“Intense ones,” Isla said with a sigh, “but it’s a real flare with the king.” She shrugged, and the figures crumbled into shimmering dust around the gold disk inset in the center of her palm. The baby squawked in protest, but Isla grabbed him and turned him upside down until he started laughing again.

“The King of Albion,” Tero added with mock haughtiness, “has exquisite taste for a child who only recently began walking.” He smiled at Isla and bowed his head. “I’m glad you liked it, your Highness.”

Your Highness. When had Tero gotten so formal? There’d been no bows ten years ago when he was crashing their slumber parties and chucking cuttle jellies at their heads.

But a lot had changed since then.

Isla watched Tero leave, then patted the king on his diapered bottom. “All right, Albie. Go play while your sister talks to Auntie Persis.”

The infant King of Albion obeyed, toddling into the waiting arms of his nurse.

“Princess,” said Persis gaily, keeping careful watch of the toddler and his keeper, “I’ve just come back from Galatea and I’ve brought you some . . . lovely silks.”

“More of the usual?” asked Isla, lying back against the cushions and flicking a few locks of her silver hair behind her shoulders. Unlike Persis’s hair, Isla’s color was natural. Everyone knew the hair of Albian royals went white in their teens—it was such a genetic signature of the dynasty that even if Isla still had the dark Polynesian hair of their youth, she would have had the color removed. It was hard enough gaining recognition as the island’s rightful ruler.

Persis giggled. Loudly. “Are you telling me you’re bored by my efforts to bring you the best Galatea has to offer?”

“Not at all,” Isla replied, darting another glance at the king’s nursemaid, “but I find myself more curious about another Albian smuggling Galatean goods to my shore. I’ve heard rumors the Wild Poppy has just concluded another raid today.”

“I’ve heard the gossip, too,” replied Persis, taking care that her tone was every bit as gossipy. “Apparently, he rescued Lord Lacan and all his family.”

“Even the children?”

Persis nodded.

Isla could not contain her smile. She immediately sobered, however. “But that’s only six. I heard the Poppy made off with ten refugees.”

“Goodness, Princess!” Persis exclaimed. “You can’t expect me to know anything about that!”

“Persis . . .” Isla could look very royal indeed, when she chose.

“A few regs who ran afoul of revolutionary principles . . .” Persis confessed, “most likely.”

Most likely,” Isla repeated, pursing her lips, “knowing what a soft sell the Wild Poppy is. I wonder whatever he thinks I’ll do with all the reg refugees he crowds onto my shores.”

Persis gave her friend a hopeful smile. “He probably thinks you’ll do right by them, given what a benevolent despot you are.” She’d been teasing Isla with the title for years, ever since they’d learned it in ancient history classes. But school was out now, for both of them. Isla was the de facto ruler of the island, and Persis—well, Persis had other activities to keep her occupied.

“And give my Council members yet another reason to suspect I know his identity?” Isla asked. Albie’s nursemaids were maintaining a respectful distance, but you never could tell.

“Surely they don’t think that?” said Persis, looking skeptical. “I thought everyone in Albion knows you care for nothing but competing with me for being the prettiest dressed woman on the island. You’re regent in name only, and you intend to let the Council decide the direction of the country until the king comes of age.”

Isla stared at Persis, a warning blazing in her dark eyes. Persis stared at Isla, a twinkle in her amber ones.

“Fine,” said the princess at last, giving her friend an indulgent smile.

Inwardly, Persis breathed a sigh of relief. Isla might be the most regular-friendly ruler Albion had ever known, but she felt no particular obligation to the regs from Galatea, especially since it had been their revolution that had torn the country asunder.

Yet Persis couldn’t help but pity the poor regs she’d rescued while on the Lacan mission. They’d been trying to lead simple lives, untouched by the perverted aims of the revolution, and had been Reduced merely for standing in support of the innocent Lacans.

This war was a travesty. If only she could save them all.

If only Albion would. But Persis knew Isla’s hands were tied. And while her friend focused on the needs of her nation, Persis did what she could to provide the assistance both girls wished the country would.

“What do you think the Council would say to the Wild Poppy, if it had the chance?” she asked the princess.

“‘Stop bringing us poor people?’” Isla suggested.

Persis snorted with derision. “Even the Galatean aristos are poor when they get here. They’ve been stripped of their estates and all their worldly possessions.”

“If not their brains.”

Persis rolled her eyes. “Thankfully, that wears off.” Detoxing from the Reduction drug wasn’t a pleasant process, but it was better than the alternative.

And until the Galateans stopped punishing their regs along with their aristos, the Wild Poppy would be an equal-opportunity rescuer. Persis was a Blake, and an aristo, too, but her mother was a reg. And, more important, suffering was suffering. No one should have their mental capabilities stolen from them. Ever.

The nursemaids herded King Albie off for his nap. Isla watched them until they’d left the room. “With any luck, this revolution will wear off, too, and the Galateans flooding our shores will regain their fortunes and find a way to pay us back for our kindness.” Isla shook her head. “I was not supposed to rule, let alone do so in such interesting times.”

Persis placed her hand on her friend’s shoulder. There were whispers in court that Isla’s father might have prevented the revolution. He could have counseled Queen Gala at the start of the strife. There were still claims that the revolutionaries had played a part in the boating accident that had claimed the old King Albie, his wife, and his eldest son’s life a little more than six months ago.

Persis didn’t believe that, but she could put stock in the theories that Citizen Aldred and his army acted when they did six months back because they knew that Albion, still reeling from the loss of its king and grown heir, could hardly step in to help when the Galateans deposed, and then Reduced, their own queen.

Queen Gala had been the first victim of this monstrous new “Reduction drug” the revolutionaries were calling pinks. Two weeks into her sentence, she’d been found dead in her prison cell. Another accident, the revolutionaries had claimed.

Then they’d fed the queen’s corpse to her own guard beasts, the pod of mini-orcas she’d kept in her private cove near Halahou. After that night, Persis had been sure her own country would speak up against the revolution’s tactics, sure that Isla’s righteous fury over the death of her neighboring monarch would translate into action against her killers. But six months later, the Albian Royal Council was still dithering and, worse, preventing the princess regent from doing anything at all.

Some said they wished to avoid war at all costs. Others feared the revolution might spread to their shores. But the loudest voices of all were the ones that were using the strife as an opportunity to advance their own causes—especially the cause of making the princess look weak.

Now Isla stood and shook out her pants, which fell in creamy wrinkles to her feet. The white was strategic, too. Against the lush colors of the courtyard and the garish dress of the other courtiers, Isla stood out. Cool. Unapproachable. Unmistakable. Persis grabbed Isla’s cape off the floor, but her friend made a face as she took it. “I hate this thing.”

“Trappings of power.” Persis said, helping her friend with the clasp. And Isla could use all the trappings she could muster, too. The Albian laws against female inheritance not only kept Isla from becoming the true queen but also made even her temporary regency suspect in the eyes of most of her people.

When the king was still alive, the Albian Royal Council had been held up as a model government compared to the Galatean queen’s absolute power. In Albion, the monarch was subject to checks and balances by the Council. But now Persis and Isla saw the truth they hadn’t learned in school—the Council could also hamstring the ruler and blame lack of action on her.

Their only recourse was the Wild Poppy—and they could never let anyone know.

“Ah, well. Kings of old wore feathered cloaks and giant metal crowns every day. It’s a wonder they could walk.” Isla sighed. “Fifteen years before my brother can take over.”

“And how many before you do?” said Persis, then immediately regretted it. Isla got enough doubt from the Council and the populace. She didn’t need it from her best friend.

Isla’s face turned grim. “Galatea is Reducing its citizens at the rate of dozens per day. The country is being torn apart by a war. With that on the horizon, how do you think it would be viewed if I condemned the Council for their inaction?”

“I understand that, but—”

“But what, Persis?” Isla’s commanding voice was tinged with an edge of frustration. “I don’t want a war in Albion. If that means playing nice with the Council until the dust settles from my father’s death, so be it.”

The Council argued that intervening in Galatea might cause a commoner uprising on their shores. But Albian aristos were none too happy to see the court do nothing while Galatean aristos were tortured and Reduced. Isla knew it. The dangers of an aristocratic coup would hurt her, not Council members. And Persis was sure the Council leaders—mostly aristos—knew that.

“And if the Council leads us into civil war?”

“Then I’ll count on the Wild Poppy to save us.” And with that, Isla brushed aside the bamboo blinds and the two girls exited into the courtyard. Even the silly girl Persis pretended to be could read her friend’s intent. The conversation was over. And perhaps that was for the best. It wasn’t as if they could change anything. All Isla had was Persis, and all Persis had was the Poppy.

Outside in the courtyard, water trickled melodically through an artificial creek and down a series of musical locks. The water organ had been designed during the reign of Isla’s grandfather by a natural-born reg and was one of the prides of the Albian royal family. Their early support of natural-born regs as well as quick adoption of the Helo Cure were two facts the Council liked spread far and wide in order to keep the population in support of the monarchy. The state-run sanitarium for those with Dementia of Acquired Regularity—or Darkening, as most laymen called it—should have been a third, but no one liked being reminded of the shadow that lay over the cure.

Not even the Darkened.

All around the courtyard, hibiscus bloomed and palm fronds waved above the heads of the courtiers, who wandered in groups, gossiping about the Wild Poppy’s latest exploits or which aristo had been found with another’s wife. Here and there you heard the buzz of flutternotes winging from person to person, carrying messages or promises or even just sensations. It was a waste of energy, but all the rage nonetheless. Persis was partly responsible for that. She supposed it couldn’t be helped.

All anyone wanted to talk about was the Wild Poppy. Every aristo in Albion who wasn’t claiming to be his secret lover had broadcasted a desire to become so, should the Poppy be interested. Sometimes, Persis had the wicked temptation to play a trick or two. What would they do if they did get a wild poppy–shaped flutter, telling them to, say, meet him at dawn in the gazebo on the north promontory, wearing nothing but a lei of poppies and a smile? But she wouldn’t risk it. She had real work to do.

Which reminded her. The situation with the young soldier earlier today had been far too close for comfort. Her hand drifted up to touch the towering pile of yellow and white braids, curls, and twists that was the envy of every girl at court. Persis loved her hair. She loved the way it framed her face when she studied her reflection, the way it set off the deep golden tone of her skin. She loved how each twist and knot reminded her of the hours her mother had spent with her on the stone lanai of Scintillans, teaching her how to braid.

Her mother had once been the reigning beauty of Albion, and her thick, full hair was one genetic legacy in which Persis could take pride. But if she had to sacrifice it for the Wild Poppy, for the mission, she would. After all, the days of braiding her hair with her mother on the lanai were long gone.

A flutternote buzzed about her face, shaped like a flying fish. Andrine. Persis stripped off the wristlock protecting her palmport. The flower sank seamlessly into the disk in her hand, and the message whispered across her consciousness.

Cargo safely transported to clinic. All still unconscious.

She closed her eyes briefly, focusing to compose her reply. She coded its shape as a poppy, rather than her default, the Blake family’s frangipani.

Keep the soldier asleep until further notice.

“Persis?” Isla asked, eyeing the spun-sugar flutternote assembling itself on Persis’s palmport. “Is everything all right?”

And indeed, it was rare for Persis to conduct the Wild Poppy’s business in public.

As the flutternote was whisked away on a breeze from the sea, Persis forced a smile. “Nothing I can’t handle.”

The soldier Persis had captured during the Lacan raid had been an unexpected complication. Until now, Persis hadn’t taken anyone from Galatea except revolutionary prisoners, and she wasn’t quite prepared to deal with a prisoner of her own.

“I’ve been considering some improvements to my . . . workout clothing,” she said meaningfully. “Conventional methods aren’t quite sufficient for our needs lately. I’m thinking of trying something a bit more . . . radical for my mission tomorrow.”

Isla regarded her for a long moment. “Genetemps are dangerous.”

“So is getting caught by the Galateans.”

The princess shook her head. “I don’t like it, Persis.”

“You don’t have to. Genetemps can be found fairly easily on the street in Galatea these days.”

“As the horror stories that make their way across the strait prove daily,” Isla replied. “How many deaths has back-alley gengineering caused since the revolutionaries stopped policing it?”

“Not as many as the revolutionaries’ own drugs.” Persis refastened the wristlock over her palm. Besides, the risk posed by a genetemp was less dangerous than wrestling a gun off a Galatean soldier, as she’d had to do earlier today. And if Tero had enough free time to be making palmport apps for the amusement of Isla and Albie, he could whip up a few genetemps for her.

“What if you get sick?” Isla asked. “How ever will I explain it to your parents?”

Persis bit her lip. How would Isla react if Persis revealed that a genetemps accident might be the least of the Blake family health concerns? “You’ll tell them it was in the line of duty. That should be sufficient for Torin Blake.” And her mother, if it happened to be a day she remembered she had a daughter.

“And to the court? To the Council?”

“Easy.” She shrugged, pushing thoughts of her mother from her mind. “Everyone knows Persis Blake is foolish enough to try anything.”


a Rafflecopter giveaway

Posted in giveaways, star-swept

Comments are closed.