Children of the Lonely Stars: Part Six
Subi woke up in the small bedroom she'd been led to upon her arrival – the washtub where she'd had her bath was still on the floor. She looked around the little chamber as she sat up. There were no windows, as there were at the Space Station, but then the Children had built in stone, and presumably hadn't had insulated thermal plastic to make windows without losing precious heat.
More problematic was the loss of her coat, sweater, skirt, and leggings. Instead, there was a long-sleeved red dress laid neatly over a stool. Presumably, her clothes had been taken to be washed, and Subi really was grateful, but the dress was a little... old-timey... for her standards.
Of course, Filion had people in armor wandering around, and what little had penetrated Subi's sleep-hazed eyes had seemed to look very much like the castles of the Three Kingdoms, with lots of tapestries and robes and that sort of finery. Hopping out of bed and looking in her duffel quickly showed that the industrious laundress had taken all the clothes in there, too. Granted, she had worn them all once, but jeans could stand more than one wearing.
There was a knock on her door. "Excuse me, miss, but Princess Arabel requests your presence as soon as you are prepared."
Abruptly, the dress didn't seem so bad. If they were going to meet the non-missing princess, formal was probably better. Subi called back, "Five minutes!"
She struggled into the dress and combed out her hair – there was a black shawl, which Subi put on as well once her hair was neat. She looked at her beanie and decided that it would clash, and left it behind in her bag, tucked in a side pocket so her laundering friend couldn't get at it. Finally, she took her Kreludan Nocturnes out of her bag and laid it on the table next to the bed. It was a little declaration that this was going to be her home for the next few days, at least.
She stepped out of the little bedroom into what looked to be the main room of a much nicer apartment than Subi had back at Virtupets. Paloma was already there in an iridescent teal dress, spinning in a circle and admiring herself. An Alien Aisha in a dark dress smiled indulgently as she did. Rin popped out of his room shortly after in a tunic and dark pants – he pulled at the clothes uncomfortably. Even now, he carried his violin slung over his shoulder. "Well, we look like we're headed to the Meridell Fair, so let's go."
The Aisha nodded. "I have orders to take you to the hall."
As they followed, Subi lost track of direction again – the Tower hadn't been made with the same ruthlessly regular design of the Space Station, and most certainly lacked the labels and little maps everywhere. Paloma reached up and took Subi's hand – Rin took the little Shoyru's other hand, and they walked on together.
Finally, the Aisha opened a set of doors and bowed, and they walked into the hall.
The room must have been in the center of the fortress, where the Tower itself rose up into the night – the massive ceiling showed that clearly. Tables and chairs filled most of the room, but at the far end was a stone platform, like a stage, draped in gold and silver cloth. On it were two thrones, one gold, one silver. They were both empty. Instead, a Faerie Grundo girl with black hair sat on the edge of the stage. Standing by her were the Halloween Kougra with the parti-colored hair that Subi had noticed last night and a massive Mutant Grundo swathed in a red cape.
The Kougra said, "You are in the presence of the Princess Arabel of the Children of the Lonely Stars."
Subi knew quite well what one was supposed to do when introduced to a princess – she curtseyed, grateful for her full skirt. She said, "I am Subi, Your Highness." Unless it was Majesty? Was it? She didn't know.
Rin continued, "I am Rin. This is my little sister, Paloma. I am responsible for her while we're in space."
The princess continued, "This is Madame Ruska of Almadris, foremost of the mages of the Tower." The Kougra inclined her head slightly. "And this is Councilor Migradar of Idrial." The muscular mutant nodded as well.
Madame Ruska said, "Soldiers are still seeking you."
Migradar snorted. "There are no soldiers. Soldiers of fortune, perhaps. Swords for hire. The dregs and riffraff of the shipping lanes, pirates and worse – those are what the Lady has taken for her own."
Madame Ruska shut her eyes, as though the reminder pained her.
Princess Arabel said formally, "I offer you the sanctuary of the Tower. Though I fear that is little enough, with my sister gone." Then she leaned forward. "Hildern said that you heard Almaril. We know she lives still – the enchantments she left are still strong. But we've heard nothing."
Paloma said softly, "I can just feel her. Not as much in here. It's all sparkly. But she was cold, and lonely, and worried, and looking for help."
Madame Ruska looked at Paloma intently. "Describe 'sparkly'."
Rin asked, putting a protective hand on Paloma's shoulder, "Why do you want to know?"
Madame Ruska sighed. "I wish to know how she perceives her power. Understanding a student's perception is one of the first keys to teaching."
Rin sputtered, "Teaching? Power? She just... she just picks up stuff! That's all it's ever been!"
Subi didn't want to point out the obvious – that he'd already accepted psychic powers, and that it wasn't that much of a leap in a place like this to consider other magic. Paloma just stood still, watching Madame Ruska with wide eyes. The tall Kougra said, frustrated, "Do you think that those warriors found you so quickly by chance? Or that Sir Hildern, worthy though he may be, just happened to be patrolling in that area? I felt your power, child, when you entered Filion's air, and sent Hildern out into that area. Diamal surely did the same."
Princess Arabel asked, "Is she strong, then?"
Madame Ruska said clinically, "As yet, she is untrained. In your maturity, child, with study, you could become my equal." Ruska spread her bats'-wings wide and reached out a hand, and a vision filled the dark upper reaches of the hall.
It was an image of Filion and its people – it flashed through underground gardens, the guards on the wall, and lingered on a Grundo in robes and a helmet climbing through gearwork. "The Children of the Lonely Stars can continue to live in Filion only through the help of magic. Mages are fewer than we once were, and can rely less on technology than we could in the days when we were more populous. The Spire and the Deeps, our two lesser holdings, have lost the use of their maintenance technology altogether. The travelling ships can do little to repair what we have lost the knowledge to maintain." As she said that, a smaller, twisted-looking tower appeared, and then a single heavy door in the side of a hill.
Madame Ruska continued, "I have trained many mages in my time. One of the most powerful is Diamal." The picture changed again – a pretty Stealthy Ixi with black hair and a colorful cape over her dress. "However, she was too proud. Too convinced of her strength. She has taken more power to her than she should have attempted. She has reached out to the dark things in the heart of space, and returned to declare war on Filion and style herself as the Lady of the Darkest Night. I believe that her mind has been affected in some manner. She was proud and ambitious, but her desire to dominate Filion seems to be borne more of madness than any other desire. And I am afraid that if she has her way, she will not succeed in ruling us – instead, she will destroy us all, whether she intended that or no."
Oh, great. This was just great.
Princess Arabel said, "Together, my sister and I are stronger than Diamal, and with Ruska's advice we would be capable of withstanding her. I believe that is why she took Almaril – Almaril is stronger alone than I am."
Migradar said, "Which brings us to the question. How did an untrained child hear Almaril's cry for help while none of our mages did? What have you been doing?"
Madame Ruska said icily, "Does it occur to you, Councilor, that I might have posed that same question myself?"
Migradar didn't back down – he reminded Subi a little of her boss back at the shuttleport. Instead, he growled, "Well, have you posed any answers?"
Princess Arabel warned, with an authority beyond her small size, "Migradar, enough." Migradar merely sighed, and Subi warmed to this strange trio. While they seemed formal and remote to Subi, they had clearly spent quite a lot of time together – it took a certain amount of comfort to be able to chide others in front of strangers, and to take that well. It was in subtler things, too, such as the way Migradar hovered over Arabel protectively, much in the way that Rin was hovering over Paloma.
Madame Ruska continued calmly, "I have considered two possibilities. The first would be a flaw in whatever spells Diamal is using to overpower Almaril's magic. Diamal would have known to prevent Almaril from reaching out to any of us, but might not have put the same precautions into keeping her from broadcasting into space. The other is the sheer strength of Paloma's nascent sensitive power, meeting the sheer strength of Almaril's gift for the same."
Princess Arabel objected, "But wouldn't I have been able to sense her if the child could?"
The tall, formidable Kougra's voice was surprisingly gentle as she responded, "Do you not think that Diamal has specifically blocked Almaril from contacting you? You know as well as I that the two of you acting as one would become the greatest possible threat to her."
Princess Arabel sighed. Madame Ruska continued, "First, we must feed our honored guests." Subi's stomach agreed heartily with that statement – it seemed that facing doom and disaster made her hungry. "Then I wish to see if Paloma and I working together can speak to Almaril." Rin opened his mouth, but before he could say something, Madame Ruska said, "It will be completely safe. I would not put any child in danger, but even less one with so much potential." Paloma looked down at her feet, but Subi still saw the pleased smile that she was trying to hide.
Then the doors at the entrance of the hall opened again. The Aisha servant called, "Sirs, ladies..."
Sir Hildern's voice called, "Wait! Wait for us!"
And then Strixa trotted merrily into the room. Her clothes were disheveled and dusty, but the colors were still as bright as her merry eyes. "Hey, folks! What did I miss?"
To be continued...