“I’ve been honorably discharged.,” a message from Lydia reads.
In the end, that was the only update I cared about. When I reconnected to the Lace, a cacophony of noise nearly drowned out the only meaningful notification I received while we were away. It’s a stream of consciousness—and more often than I would like, unconsciousness—that I struggle to justify browsing. The Lace is like an ablation cascade happening in real-time: a spectacle you can’t look away from for fear you might miss something important, like chunks of flotsam hurtling toward you at extreme velocity. Returning from regular, self-imposed solitude is an exercise in selective reading, a task that I’ve only marginally improved upon over the years.
It’s not how I want to keep in touch. But for a long time now I’ve convinced myself that the safest way to engage with other people is from afar, and to keep quiet unless you have something meaningful to say. Best not to draw too much attention to yourself when you’re already society’s castaway on a technicality.
Distance has kept me safe, at least.
I feel distraught for my sister. We both knew this was coming, but there’s no telling what my mother’s reaction will be. Neither of us have lived up to her high expectations; an unfair projection of her own failures. Lydia will have to face Mom’s propensity for anger and outburst. Or maybe my sister has wisened up and won’t face our parents in person about it. That would be for the best.
I hope she’s healing and feeling okay. That’s the only answer I return for now.
There’s another dispatch in my feed that’s not personal, but startling nonetheless. A piece of oncoming debris whereby the threat is uncertain.
The news lede reads:
“Assassination attempt made on Novani Ambassador Maialen Sinclair. Ambassador unharmed and demanding an expedited inquiry.”
“Novani Ambassador Maialen Sinclair was the target of a lone shooter hidden amongst a gathering crowd today, the 3rd ray of the 15th. Suspect Mars Hakon Thornson was shot and killed on-site by the Royal Constabulary after a burst of gunfire just outside the Ametrine Court, where Remembrance Day commemorations were scheduled to take place. Queen Avlynn the Third and Novani Governor Ambrose Smith were reportedly in no danger, meeting in closed conference deep inside the chateau whilst preparing for their planned joint Remembrance Day remarks. Those addresses have been postponed indefinitely. A release from Her Majesty’s Household is expected shortly.
“One unidentified bodyguard for Ambassador Sinclair is listed in serious but stable condition. Two onlooking bystanders were also injured by stray shots. Their wounds have been described as non-life threatening.”
I look at Tea from across the sparsely populated cabin of our ride, a windowless gunmetal VTOL belonging to the Royal Marine Corps. A handful of them chatter the next bulkhead over. The colonel, Shaw, and one of her subordinates sit more stoically in their seats, flanking us to either side, and have remained heretofore uninterested in engaging further with either of us, besides telling us what to do. Tea and I are both sitting anxiously like rats in a cage with several housecats as chaperones, waiting for us to be flown directly to the queen herself. That rare, unexpected summons from on high is much more unsettling after catching up on the news.
Tea plays with her braids and blows bubble gum while scrolling through her own slate. She looks unconcerned; bored, even. Surely she’s seen the same headline that I just have. But unless her own life is under imminent threat, nothing really seems to faze her; not even the strange disappearance of her homeworld from the sky. She has such a cynical intuition about the world around her that doesn’t perturb her at all, like she accepts that the world is and always will be fucked up. Maybe I’m just growing superstitious about her eerie ability to prognosticate, but I hate that she’s always being proven right about that. And while I share in her cynicism at some level, I hate that she’s nonchalant about it, acting like she’s seen it all before, when I know she clearly hasn’t.
“Have you heard anything from back home, Tea?” I inquire.
“Eh?” she vocalizes, as a pink bubble pops and withers back into her mouth.
“Your home? You know, the pretty tropical world orbiting the big white star that inexplicably disappeared from the night sky?”
The two officers wordlessly eye me. I try not to look back.
“I live here, Ash,” says Tea. “And ‘sides, I haven’t looked.”
“You know I don’t speak with my brothers.”
“Not really what I was getting at.”
“Then what were you getting at?”
“I don’t know,” I huff frustratedly; she can be so particular, too. That’s why she sits at Windsong’s sensors manager. “Just, you know, have you any clue what’s going on? The place you were born went missing and your ambassador just survived an assassination attempt.”
Out of the corner of my eye, the officers look at each other. They didn’t know?
“I’m keeping my mind off of it. As long as I’m with you and I have my residency status here, it’s not really my problem, is it? Let your internationally famous symposia of dorky-ass scientists figure it out. I’m getting Maridean entertainment news, so it’s not like a black hole is rampaging about out there.”
“The speed of light delay could be affecting—”
“I don’t care, Ash.”
“Okay,” I concede.
I watch Tea go back to scrolling endlessly through her slate, chewing fruity chicles with an intermittent pop. What a strange role reversal for us. I suppose Tea is consigned to the need to humor herself for the moment. But I can’t relax; not when I’m a reluctant passenger here, no longer at the helm of a ship I call my own. Not when I can’t float among the stars to dissolve my burdens. Not when the sky itself is acting strange. Not when my brain is fried by a startling invitation to be the first Rinn in centuries to confer with the Queen of Sibyl.
Awash in the agony of confusion and worry—and with an hour until we arrive in Tencair—I succumb again to the glow of my own slate.
We’re low on money, too. At least the ride back to the capital will be free.
“I’m a little surprised you’ve allowed us to keep our electronics,” I offer in an attempt to break the continuing silence between the four of us. But also, I keep that comment just above the level of engine hum permeating the cabin, because I’m unsure I should say anything at all.
Shaw’s lieutenant, a clean-shaven, bespeckled man sitting beside Tea, pipes up in an orderly tone. He could be an engineer or specialist of some sort, judging by his stripes, and the way he immediately moves to satiate my curiosity.
“Civilian and paramilitary devices communicate on different bands than ours, Interdictor. And all devices use quantum key distribution to eliminate many basic security concerns. We have no need to confiscate your slates at this time. You are merely a person of interest that we are tasked with escorting to Court.”
“You will be asked to surrender your weapons and devices and submit to a thorough screening upon entering the Upper Hall, you do understand,” Shaw adds.
I taper, “Of course…”
“Aww, look alive, Ash!” Tea joins in, “You’re about to meet your glorious leader, a goddess among mere mortals; the culmination of those centuries of history you’re always burying yourself in. Hell, the Queen even has a growing fandom in the Republic, did you know that? She’s so esoteric and mysterious! This is a really cool opportunity for us—for you.”
I place my forearms on my knees and exhale, recognizing that my head has overheated these past several hours. When I gather my composure, tilting my head up, I’m greeted by Tea’s pair of red hickory eyes. For the first time in this flight, they’ve fixated upon me rather than on her slate, like she is eagerly waiting for me to agree with her. I realize that I’m starving and could use a sticky bun just now, one made with those sweetened pecan nuts they import from Celadon.
I offer her a measured smirk to let her know I’m not entirely foregone.
“I know. I’m just worried. I don’t know what Queen Avlynn could possibly want from me. I can’t shake the knowledge that House Rinn and the Royal Twelve have never gotten along. I didn’t even vote for her, or anyone else during the last Accession Cycle, for that matter. I abstained.”
Tea looks like she has thrown a fatal exception.
“I’m sorry. I thought we were ruled by a monarch. What do you mean ‘vote for her’? You don’t elect royalty,” she bargains, setting aside her slate.
Teresa is adorable when she’s dumbfounded or awestruck by something that’s gotten her attention, but I’m too laden to let her know that.
“Ever since Rhiannon the Second and the end of hostilities with the Republic,” I recite from recent history, “the queen has been elected by the citizenry from a choice of heiresses among the Twelve Royal Houses once every ten revolutions. You’ve lived here for over four years, Tea. Didn’t you pick up any Sibylean civics?”
“I don’t care for politics. I’m not even a citizen, and you’ve not held any sort of election since I’ve been here. What does it matter?”
“You pay taxes.”
“A scam, if you ask me.”
“The government is our primary client.”
“A closed loop that makes the high tax burden all the more perplexing.”
“And as residents, you and Fletch receive entitlements like healthcare, housing, and continuing education.”
“Wow. You’re totally nailing me down with the timeworn bromides here, Ash,” she remarks with flat sarcasm. “Not to sound ungrateful; but you know, if I can’t influence it, what does it matter?”
I part my lips to say something about not knowing that she can’t make a difference, or perhaps the responsibility she has to learn a little about her adoptive home. But instead I realize it would register as an empty platitude in her head. To some extent, she’s right: she won’t become a citizen before the next Cycle, and the interval is much longer than a Maridean general election.
There’s not much air between her own fatalism and that ancient Sibylean phrase, detta laga sei. Things did work out, but only after we nearly warred to extinction.
Instead of jousting with her further, I study her silently, my face flushed with embarrassment in front of the two Royal Navy officers. She has the right to speak her mind of course, and I expect that around me, but I thought maybe she’d think twice about being so scathing under military escort, having once served in the Republican Fleet herself.
“Do not dwell on such frivolous anxieties of the past, Madam Rinn,” the colonel intones unexpectedly. I look up at her. Maybe I look up to her.
The colonel implores with her dark voice over the thrum of the engines, “For all Her Majesty’s due reverence, she is but one of many esteemed individuals who act in selfless and gracious service to Mother Moon. The jarlja made clear in the Avowals of Aveline that the Royal Estate would forever serve the Whole, and provide steady and reliable governance that saw to the needs of every person regardless of their station. That is the institution we pledge fealty to; not any one individual. Even so, you will find Her Majesty Avlynn approachable, I am sure. She is but a woman of honed talents, like you or I. My advice to you, as with all my charges, is to dignify her with a similar reverence you might show a beloved elder sister. You may find yourself more at ease.”
Those words, ‘a beloved sister,’ tear at my heartstrings.
“The what of the what now?” Tea bumbles.
Feeling rudely interrupted in my time of reflection, I parry, “Oh, so now you’re interested in politics?”
“No, but you Sibs are just speaking gibberish again. What’s an ‘Avowal’, and what’s it got to do with the Queen?”
“It’s the document that set up the monarchy nine hundred years ago. Sort of a pact between the jarlja, their noble blades, and the common folk.”
“Right, but isn’t Aveline the current queen? How can it be named after her if the monarchy started all those centuries ago?”
“Queen Avlynn is head of state, yes,” I respond plainly.
Tea frowns the way she does whenever she’s being teased, like it’s cruel and unfair that anyone would pester her the way she does everyone else. “You didn’t answer my question. How is Aveline the reigning Queen, and a place, and also a document written centuries ago?”
“Okay,” I stifle a chuckle. “I see what’s going on. This is common among those who learned Astrilish abroad.”
“Thanks for singling me out, Ash,” she grumbles.
“I’m just saying it happens. Culture influences language in ways they don’t always teach in a grammar book. That’s why I suggested you take some courses for expatriates at the university.”
“I get by just fine.”
“I know. But, there’s no better time to get this right than now, if you’re to meet the head of state, Tea.”
“Okay, so what’s wrong?”
“You’ve jumbled the vowels and added a syllable. Say it with me: Av-lynn.”
“No, keep the soft ‘i’.”
I nod. “That's right.”
“Damn, those are too close together,” she remarks. “Y’all need to get more creative names.”
The specialist pushes up his glasses and remarks, “Well, they are the same name.”
“Huh?” Tea expels frustratedly.
Before I can draw a full breath, Colonel Shaw recites from some internalized textbook she has indexed more thoroughly than I.
She lectures: “Queen Aveline, the First Queen of Sibyl, experienced several challenges to her rule, including from her own siblings, who believed she was brash in claiming the throne for herself, despite the popular support she held among other jarlja. They claimed that a diplomatic line of succession negotiated between ‘more houses than one can count upon their fingers’ would be untenable after so many years of war and retribution, and that Queen Aveline was doomed to fail. They tore the house banner in two, and Aveline’s blood dissenters became House Avlynn.”
“Bet no one found that confusing,” Tea quips. I shoot her a glance that I hope says, “If you were truly curious, you’d pay attention.”
“But thanks in no small part to her empathy and pragmatism, Queen Aveline was very successful,” Colonel Shaw continues unfazed. “Despite every hurdle that lay before her in realizing her dream of peace and prosperity through house diplomacy and equity, her consensus only grew. Instead of consolidating power with an iron fist as many before had tried to do, she practiced a firm and honorable handshake. She did not value retribution—as so many tribal leaders before her had—but mercy. Her honor was bound in her word, backed by ink and seal upon parchment.”
I find my place to join in, an opportunity to paraphrase some of my favorite literature of old. I resume the colonel’s story: “The mercenary houses Ginevra and Njal enforced a largely peaceful disarmament of the old patriarchal tribal leaders. They traveled the world over to reach every last house and proclaim the new order. And that far-and-wide expedition to implement the queen’s benevolence across the many settlements of Sibyl in particular is where her sisters thought she would fail. For sure, there remained some pockets of unreasonably violent and radical resistance…”
I trail, ruminating upon the worst regarded and most vilified days of my house.
I continue, “But the Sisters Avlynn had not counted on one thing: exhaustion. Men were tired of the endless tit-for-tat reprisals touched off by petty concerns such as the grazing patterns of livestock or the defense of one’s honor from hearsay. Back then, even pointing out a man’s inability to grow a full beard was an insult seen as worthy of vengeance by the sword.”
“Gross,” Tea cringes. “Men. Also, beards.”
“You don’t mind Fletcher or his beard,” I say.
“Yeah, Ash. I also don’t sleep with him.”
That makes me giggle.
Shaw concludes, “Avlynn was the last house of significant means to submit their arms to the throne. They did so on the condition that they be accepted back into the fold of nobility, and Queen Aveline accepted that entreaty, even with every means of putting them in their place. With no ability to have an heiress of her own, Queen Aveline, the First Queen of Sibyl, gave the siblings who once abandoned her the blessing to continue the family legacy under their new name.”
“You Sibs are bloody strange…” Tea complains, folding her arms.
“We wouldn’t be who we are if we didn’t have some stories to tell,” I say. “Those ‘centuries of history I’m always burying myself in’? They aren’t just fanciful tales with interesting characters, dramatic showdowns, and a few colorful embellishments here and there. They tell us who we are, and where we came from. They are instructive, with lessons we can make use of, even today.”
I think I see a look of conflict in Tea, but a far more piercing look of strange, authoritative encouragement on Shaw’s face catches my eye. I turn to her half-way, and she opines: “There is no revenge so sweet as forgiveness. Nor is there any history like the present. It is not my place to know why you have been summoned, Madam Rinn. But I do believe you have shown yourself worthy of it. You need not fear for the future when you have such strong insight into the past.”
“Have you been testing me with stories, Colonel?” I question with some irritation.
She shifts into a lopsided grin that she struggles to disable. “Officially? No. But I must admit, I was curious to see how a Rinn might proceed in reciting that tale. I think it is a great shame that your house remains collegeless, with thoughtful minds like yours representative among them.”
“Let me guess, you read my psychological profile or something.”
“I can neither confirm nor deny,” she responds, with a veiled look about her.
Tea absorbed all of this pretty well for someone ostensibly uninterested. But I notice her fidget while I speak with the colonel.
“Something wrong, Tea?” I ask.
“If and when I become a citizen, I can submit motions to be heard by the queen’s councilors at the Klatching? Before any election takes place?”
I pause, fearing where that line of questioning leads. I can read her concealed mischief from a light-year away. But, I humor her.
“Yes, Tea… that’s how it works.”
“So,” her smirk grows, “can I ask to establish House Shaaban and campaign to become your next queen?”
I pinch the bridge of my nose and exhale in exasperation. Even over the droning of the engines, I can hear Colonel Shaw doing something similar, as well.