CROWN OF STARS , Solace of Manticore Book 2
Part 2: Fox Hunt, Chapter 2
Previously: Fox Hunt, Chapter 1
Gilly was practically skipping as they funneled out of the Manticoran apartments in the diplomatic section of Kronorberg and joined the general throng of other luminaries and their bodyguards. Kronorberg was a vast high security area, but diplomatic bodyguards were still allowed to carry stunners, as long as they were approved by Palace Security… and Palace Security was everywhere… as Gilly was more than happy to point out.
“Oooh! She’s cute!” the young woman said, “I like the bunny ears.”
Solace had to sigh. Jewel was… weird. They didn’t have a ‘Police Force’. They had Public Safety, of which Palace Security was but a part. Public Safety did not wear uniforms that made them look like Police Officers. They wore outfits that made them look like they belonged in a theme park. The girl Gilly was currently looking at was wearing a white and purple and neon blue jacket that left her belly exposed, a matching miniskirt, and a pink ascot at her neck. Over her face was a pink visor and yes, she had white bunny ears on her head, ears that swayed as she helped direct the guests of honor past the massive civilian crowd waiting outside the Cathedral of the Jewelian holy trinity; Wisdom, Justice, and Liberty.
The triple goddesses stood above and to either side of the grand cathedral’s massive doors, the wood brought at enormous expense from Old Earth in two massive slabs cut from a giant redwood felled by a storm. Solace, despite her jew’s aversion to graven images of deities, had to admire the three classical statues. Supposedly, Dame Justice was based on an ancient nordic winter goddess, Lady Liberty was based on an east asian goddess of rain, and Divine Wisdom was based on an mesopotamian goddess of knowledge, but if it was true, no one living seemed to know exactly which goddesses those were, exactly. From what Loyal had said, the religion had a lot in common with the faiths collectively known as Secular Humanism, mixed with elements of Ecstatic or Mystery Cults… which Solace took to mean that Loyal would launch into an endless lecture if she admitted that she hadn’t the faintest idea what he was talking about… and if she admitted that she didn’t care either, he’d give her that Rabbinical Glare and she’d lose an entire afternoon.
Still, for all that the outside looked almost Catholic, the inside had the warm wooden simplicity of a synagogue and Solace found herself relaxing in the scent of polished wood and the quiet murmur of the crowd as they took their seats, each guided to their pews by immaculately groomed ushers.
“Uncle Loyal,” Gilly whispered, “they have all those carvings on the outside, why is the inside so…”
“Austere?” Loyal suggested. Gilly frowned, a clear sign that she disagreed with the choice of word.
“Restrained,” Solace corrected. The place wasn’t spartan. It had a simple refined beauty about it, but it wasn’t just a lack of ornamentation, but rather the conscious shaping of a space to have a feel of sanctity without a need for symbols of faith.
“Yeah. That,” Gilly agreed.
“No idea,” Loyal said. “You’d have to ask someone. Maybe one of the princesses can tell you later, at the reception?” Whatever Gilly might have said was preempted by the blare of trumpets and a uniformed herald called, “Pray, be upstanding for her royal highness, Elspeth Catherine Iduna’s Daughter.”
As one, the gathered nobility of the Kingdom, as well as nearly two thousand visiting dignitaries and leading members of the civilian, military, and philanthropic communities rose, as the doors they’d entered through opened once more to admit the future monarch’s siblings. First came Beatrice and Ariel, the twins, one redheaded and one with silver hair that was almost blue it was so fine… though that could have been the lighting. Each carried a pillow, Ariel with the scepter of state, Beatrice with the orb and they both wore gowns that made them look like pixies… or angels… which was the one with feathers? Solace couldn’t remember.
~Sheesh!~ Gilly sent. ~Pixies have bug wings, Angels have bird wings. And those are butterfly wings… so clearly fairies.~
~I thought pixies were fairies,~ Solace groused. What did it matter, they were all imaginary.
~Not everything that lives in a tree is a squirrel,” Gilly teased, making Solace roll her eyes. The younger girl meant that ‘All Pixies are Fairies, but not all Fairies are Pixies.’ but she’d explained it almost exactly like Minerva would have, which both annoyed the older Smythe and amused her.
Following the twin fourteen year olds, both of whom looked nine thanks to Prolong, came Prince Felix, only a year older than his younger sisters, but looking closer to twelve, and with dark brown hair like his mother had had. He wore a smart military uniform, as befitted a Midshipman, though he was technically a Colonel or equivalent… the Jewelians used a single unified rank system, none of which was Captain unless you actually commanded a unit… The size of said unit being utterly unimportant… but Prince Felix’s rank was completely honorary, since, like the rest of his siblings, he hadn’t left the palace in nearly a decade by all accounts.
He seemed very focused as well. While the younger princesses had been carefree and had passed like a summer breeze the prince moved with studied grace, carrying his own pillow upon which rested the darling little diadem that would be the new queen’s crown.
Behind him came the heir apparent, Princess Marianna, as redheaded as King Agnarr had been, and wearing a lovely green gown that looked like something out of ancient lore. Something about being the ‘Spring Maiden’ or something. Loyal had rambled on about it, but Solace (as was her wont) had tuned him out. This princess did not bring a part of the regalia with her, but rather escorted the high priest, a gentle looking older man who seemed particularly thrilled by the whole event… and Solace realized that, with the Palace closed for three years, this gorgeous cathedral had only had palace servants in attendance for all its services. How odd that must have been.
As the priest and royal family took their places on the dias, a choir began to sing and all eyes turned to the open door as Elspeth, next Queen of the Jewelian Realm, by grace of the Goddesses, entered. She was gorgeous, resplendent in a severe gown of deep blue, with elbow length gloves and a cloak of regal purple trailing behind her. All eyes were, of course fixed on her… but none more so than those of the three Smythes.
~She can’t be…?~ Gilly thought, feeling a kind of panic swelling up in her.
Solace placed a calming hand on the shoulder Barnabie wasn’t occupying, and sent soothing waves of restraint that she herself was struggling to feel to the younger girl. ~She’s not one of us.~
~She looks…~ Gilly swallowed, almost whimpering.
~I know what she looks like… but her face is wrong, features too fine… and the white hair doesn’t breed true… it’s part of the process they use on us, according to the doctors on Beowulf…~
~But… She’s actively blocking me!~ Gilly commented, then yelped as Solace gave her the mental equivalent of a flick to the forehead.
~Don’t try your mindtricks on the queen. Look. Maybe… I don’t know… Maybe there’s a genie or two in the Jewelian family line. There certainly is in the Wintons… But we’re not going to pry. Right?~
~Bet one of her ancestors bought one of our sisters,~ Gilly humphed, half glowering at the queen who, having allowed the priest to place the crown upon her head, was now facing the crowd once more.
The priest, speaking in Court Scandinavian, a language that had once been known as Old Norse, said “Sem hon heldr inum helgum eignum ok krýnd í þessum helga stað ek té fram fyrir yðr, Elsepth Aren, Dronning af Jewel!” . The ear buds they wore faithfully translated that as ‘As she holds the holy properties, and is crowned in this holy place, I present to you, Elsepth Aren, Queen of Jewel.
~She looks absolutely terrified,~ Solace commented, then realized that the Queen was staring right at her. ~Hi?~ she thought, and felt Gilly send the exact same thought at the exact same moment.
Elspeth, already pale, flinched as if struck and, with undue haste, returned scepter and orb to the priest and practically fled the dais.
Solace and Gilly looked at one another and thought to each other, ~Was it something we thought?~
Loyal wrapped his arms around his sister and niece, “Yeah… I would have rushed out of here too… I hear the reception is supposed to be incredible… Was it me, or does the queen look like she could be your sister?”
The reception was absolutely amazing, the food incredible, and the entire thing felt like a costume ball from another century to Gilly. It felt like a period drama, with ambassadors and barons and princesses all dancing in a fairy tale castle. In fact, the only thing marring the event was the fact that the queen and princess Marianna hadn’t shown up, even an hour into the festivities in their honor.
The former Regent, Sophia Bellweather, and the Grand Duke and Duchess were holding everyone’s attention as best they could, but (for an empath) it was obvious that something was wrong. Solace could feel it of course, but she was busy fiddling with her personal computer and barely paying attention to the pageantry. Gilly could feel worry baking off the older woman as well, and even Loyal had noticed how Solace was compulsively smoothing her outfit.
“Sandy? Mom?” Gilly whispered, tugging on Solace’s sleeve. “W.. what’s going on?”
Looking up from her wrist display, Solace frowned, then motioned Gilly and Loyal closer as they huddled near the chocolate buffet, Gillian hugging the BB to keep him from rampaging through the treats. “These are the King, Duke and their sisters slash wives… and wow… in the wrong context, that could be a weird thing to say…” She projected images of the four royals on the white wall in front of them. “And these are their parents, King Carl, Queen-Mother Patrice, Grand Duchess Usula and Grand Duke Magnus… and this is Magnus’s father, King Christian the Bastard… No record exists of the identity of Magnus’s mother. But here’s a picture of all young women on the palace staff from Christian’s reign… what do you see?”
Loyal squinted at the images, then shuddered. Gilly didn’t respond visibly, but Barnabie gave a soft treecat hiss. The seventh image, labeled ‘Carlotta’, was unmistakable, despite the green contacts and mousie brown hair treatment… That was a C-76a, pre-treatment.
“It can’t be,” Loyal said.
“It gets worse,” Solace said. “I hadn’t bothered to do it before… hadn’t thought about it… but I have the Audubon Ballroom’s complete database of all known Manpower lines. We have a lot of holes, of course. But the Ballroom has recorded the physical features of every rescued slave they’ve ever come across. Beowulf has a copy of this, of course.” She brought up a set of three pictures labeled ‘C-64a’. They were three very similar women, the differences almost certainly the result of different batch numbers and age. She moved them to surround the image of Queen-Mother Patrice, mother of the former King and the current Grand Duchess. “It’s hard to see… but this is what Patrice looked like as a child… I checked the records. She was adopted by the Wolcotts… she was rescued by the Havenites from a Jessyk Combine slave ship.”
Loyal blinked, “You think that the Queen of Jewel is descended from two different C-Series?”
Solace nodded. “I think that’s very much the case… and I think the Regent and their Aunt at the very least know that the Queen has… some kind of mental gift. I think the Ducal Princess has similar gifts.”
Gilly blinked, then understood. The Regent, when she wasn’t busy being Regent, ran an institute for studying the potential for pushing humanity past its evolutionary limits. “Okay… accepting that all that’s true… what do we do about it?” she asked.
“Nothing,” Loyal said.
Solace considered, then nodded, shutting down the images. “Agreed. The affairs of the Kingdom of Jewel are not ours.”
“But… we could have a sister… what happened to Carlotta? Does the record say?”
“No,” Loyal said before Solace could answer. “She’s probably long dead. Duke Magnus died of old age at 104 T-Years and that was forty-one years ago. If Carlotta was still alive, she’d be nearly a hundred and seventy.”
“I still say we should look,” Gilly said. “She might have other kids… we owe it to ourselves to find out.”
“Agreed. But not today. I doubt Duke Frederic knows much about his grandmother, and this certainly wouldn’t be the time and place to… something’s happening.”
While they’d been talking, a quiet hush had fallen over the crowd and a herald stepped up to the throne dais and announced “Ladies and Gentlemen, The Queen.”
Elspeth had traded her long gloves for shorter ones and had taken off the long cloak. She had also traded her confused, almost fearful countinance for a calmer one. “Thank you all for coming, and please, enjoy yourselves. Jewel very much appreciates all your assistance over the last difficult period and we look forward to a… where is my sister?” she asked, having scanned the crowd and realized that, while the younger princesses were stuffing themselves on enough chocolate cake that if they weren’t genies, they were going to face weight problems later in life, the older princess was still missing.
As Sophia indicated that she’d send people to look for Princess Marianna, Loyal pushed Solace forward and hissed, “Ask the queen to dance.”
“What? Why? She’s probably straight.”
“Maybe. Maybe not, but it’s an excuse to talk. Go on.”
He pushed her again and she sighed. He was probably right. Her reputation would make the request seem normal. “Very well.” Approaching the queen, Solace bowed the correct amount for a visiting head of state (retired) to a reigning monarch. “Your Majesty, in the name of the Andermani People and my Cousin, congratulations on your assumption. Your realm is as lovely as its name implies.”
Elspeth blinked, looking slightly annoyed, but nodded. “Ah. Yes, The Grand Duchess of Weasels… I’m sorry. I don’t dance.”
Solace chuckled. “Is that what I’m known as here? Is it because of the Weissen terminus or because of my ‘cats?”
The queen smiled a little nervously. “A little of one, a little of the other. But it’s not a public thing. It’s what my sister Ariel calls you. She very much wants a Treecat of her own. Your kingdom is lucky to have such a good relationship with your indigenous sophonts.”
Solace tilted her head, then ahhed. Sapphire was home to one of the dozen non-human sophont races that humanity had discovered, but the semi-aquatic Sjora barely tolerated humanity and had been known, in the early days of colonization, to drown humans that came too near their pools. Unlike Medusans and Treecats… or indeed any of the others, Sjora were able to operate underwater as well as on land, and their young were entirely aquatic, living in small ponds. A very uneasy peace had finally been worked out when the early settlers finally realized that the fur-covered snakes were being protected and the Sjora finally realized that the humans hadn’t meant any harm… well, except those who had wanted to harvest Sjora furr.
Still, Sjora tended to live in places that humanity found inhospitably cold, and seldom came down to the lower elevations. Since 80% of Sapphire’s landmass was covered in mountains, with the human population clustered almost exclusively around the coastlines of the planet’s ninety-one microcontinents, the largest of which was less than half the size of Old Earth’s Australia, the Sjora and Human populations had only really met at resource extraction and exploration venues.
“Did you invite an Sjora to your Coronation?” Solace asked.
“Oh… umm… I wasn’t in charge of the invitations. Madame Bellweather and Grandmother handled those details,” Elspeth said, blushing slightly. “I’ve never met a Sjora.”
Solace blinked at that… the Queen was lying. “I think, perhaps, that we should dance after all, your Majesty,” Solace said, using her best command voice.
Unfortunately, whatever the young monarch had been about to say was cut off as Princess Marianna chose that moment to return… and she was holding hands with the young Yohan Anderz, thirteenth prince of Manderlay; the tiny, extremely classist, and isolationist nation that held the far terminus of the fourth arm of the Jewel Junction. Eschewing all formality, Marianna dragged Yohan up in front of her sister and said, “Elsa! I mean Queen. Me again. May I present Prince Hans… Yohan, of Manderlay.”
Yohan, dressed in a white Manderlayian Admiral’s uniform that he in no way was old enough to have earned, placed a white-gloved hand over his heart and gave Elspeth a head-bow. “Your Majesty.”
Solace blinked, realizing that she was getting some very odd vibes from the duo. Marianna’s mindglow was fierce, vibrant, a bonfire in fact and it was clear that if she ever travelled to Sphinx she’d have Treecats lining up to bond with her. Yohan’s… no less powerful, was dark, a swirling, narcissistic and grasping thing that physically repulsed Solace. She’d known far too many Manticorans like that… most notably the Youngs and the Janviers… but their mindglows were far weaker than this Yohan boy’s.
Marianna clung to his arm and, bubbling with enthusiasm, said “We would like…” she giggled and Yohan took over, “Uh, Your blessing…” then both finished “Of our marriage.”
In that moment, Elspeth’s rigid control cracked and Solace could feel the young queen’s emotions for the first time. They were shocked, confused, fearful… and furious. “Marriage?! I’m sorry, I’m confused.”
“Well, we haven’t worked out all the details ourselves,” the princess said, “We’ll need a few days to plan the ceremony.”
Solace, feeling very much like this was absolutely not the time and place for this kind of thing, reached out to brush the girl’s mind. Did she always act this… impulsive? Her mental probe brushed against something… alien. Something… off? In the princess’s mindglow. It was a kind of darkness, an artificial block… no… two of them… two different agencies had somehow acted on the girl’s consciousness. One felt… old, ingrained. The other more recent… much more recent.
Marianna was still talking, her mouth running at a million meters an hour, conscious thoughts flickering from one thing to another as if she was… was… drunk? No slurring, no overly wide pupils… was this mania innate, or a function of… She glanced at Yohan and saw how focused his eyes were on the princess. He was smiling, but it was an act… he was pushing her… not as much as Solace was capable of… and she couldn’t tell if he was aware he was doing it, but he definitely was exerting some kind of… “Of course, we’ll have soup, roast, and ice cream… and then…” Marianna gasped for air, then leaped to another topic as her thoughts derailed from the menu.
“Just wait!” Elspeth said, “Slow down. No soup! No roast! No one is getting married!”
“Wait, what?” the princess asked, confused.
“May I talk to you, please? Alone?” The elder sister asked, struggling, and slowly failing, to keep her calm exterior. The cracks in her control were growing larger.
“No! Whatever you have to say, you can say to both of us!” Marianna insisted, clutching Yohan’s hand as if afraid to break the connection.
Elspeth… Elsa apparently, to those who were on familiar terms with her, stiffened her spine in an excellent impression of regal hauteur and said, “Fine. You can’t may a man you just met.” That… was a good point. The Palace had been sealed for three years. They would have had to have met in the time between the Palace opening and the reception… a matter of less than eight hours.
“You can if it’s true love,” Marianna insisted, and now Yohan’s gaze was fixed on the queen and his smile was gone. In fact, his entire face has lost all emotional effect and Solace could feel the push, this time directed at the queen. She very much doubted Elsa even registered it, so irked was she.
“Anna, what do you know of true love?”
“More than you!” snapped the heir. “All you know is how to shut people out!”
Solace had to admire the Prince’s skill. He was definitely aware of the pushing, and had clearly practiced it, because although he wasn’t nearly as strong as Solace herself or Gilly, he was subtle. Either he was intuitive to the point of brilliance, or he had very accurate psyche profiles on the two, because he was, without saying a word, getting them to trigger each other… but why? Why not try to de-escalate this? There was an element Solace was missing.
Elsa sucked in a breath at her sister’s barb, looking actually hurt, and Solace could feel a twitch of emotion from long ago… some hidden sorrow struggling up from the depths of the Queen’s psyche. “You asked for my blessing,” Elsa said, and Solace cursed the fact that all she could get were emotions and hints of something else… “But my answer is no.”
Damn! Why couldn’t she read minds… or was that actually impossible? She’d read an article on the way the human mind stored memories and thoughts, and it essentially said that everyone’s mind used a different, unique, encoding algorithm. That even if a machine was made that could record thoughts, it wouldn’t be able to play them back in any way that made any sense except to the original thinker. Maybe that was a good thing? Solace wasn’t certain… but right now, it was deeply frustrating. She felt like she had a front row seat to… to dynastic history in the making… as everyone seemed to have forgotten that she was standing there in her ridiculous dress… and thankfully, the conversation was quiet enough that no one else in the vast presence hall had noticed… or maybe they were just polite enough not to eavesdrop? Society functions confused and irritated Solace. Why couldn’t this be like a nightclub rave where thinking was verboten?
“Now… I think you should all… all go,” Elsa said, turning and walking away, then raised her voice and announced, “The party is over. Everyone should go… and… and close the gates!”
Anna, not willing to take no for an answer… or maybe sensing that she’d pushed her sister too far, ran after Elsa and grabbed at her arm, accidentally pulling off the glove on that hand.
“G… give me my glove!” the queen insisted, looking absolutely panicked.
Anna refused, clutching the glove to her chest as everyone looked on, interested, confused, or just drawn to spectacle. “Elsa, Please!” Anna insisted, speaking in the modern Jewelian Scandian. “I can’t live like this anymore!” Live like what? Locked in the Palace? It couldn’t just be that, could it?
“Then Leave,” Elsa said, coldly, then turned away, clutching herself like she’d been physically wounded.
“What did I ever do to you? What!?” Anna demanded, voice full of the rich hurt of abandonment, of a confused child who doesn’t know why she has been excluded, or even what she has been excluded from, but knows very well that it is so.
“Enough, Anna,” the Queen said, not turning back.
“No. Why? Why do you shut me out? Why do you shut the world out? What are you so afraid of?!”
The queen’s back stiffened at that last accusation, her resolve crumbling, and she spun, lashing out with her hand… and from that hand sprung up a wave of ice, a semi-circular wall of spikes that isolated her from the rest of the room.
Solace gasped. “Cryokinesis?” That… that wasn’t… that was physical control over matter… Just what in the hell had the Gothel institute been up to? And was there really that much water in the atmosphere? “Well… this just got a whole lot… weirder,” she commented as Gilly joined her. The entire room watched as the Queen ran out into the night, plowing through the commoner’s having their own festival to celebrate Coronation Day in the grand plaza outside the Palace.
“We should probably follow her,” Gilly said… “Before she hurts someone.”
“She’s running across the fjord,” Solace commented, eyes wide as the water froze beneath the queen’s feet. “Yes… or worse, herself.”
Next: Crown of Stars – Part 2, Chapter 3
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