Black moon, p.14
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       Black Moon, p.14

           Romina Russell
 
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  Back in his office, Blaze showed us breathtaking designs for a major city that will one day be home to people from every House. He also spoke of having cultural centers throughout the city where people can go learn about each other’s race through interactive workshops and exhibits. There will be a dozen temples where anyone who chooses can continue to celebrate her home world’s traditions. Black Moon will have a democratic government: Residents will elect their own representatives, and anyone will be eligible to run for office. It will be a place where House affiliation won’t matter, where everyone will have a home.

  Even Stanton couldn’t find anything objectionable. Once Blaze was finished speaking, my brother sat in the same bewildered silence as the rest of us.

  “This is incredible, Nish,” I finally say, a tear falling into my hair. She rolls onto her side to face me, propping her head up on her elbow.

  “I told you, Rho! We’re not just talking anymore . . . we’re doing. We’re changing the—”

  Her whole face goes white, and she leaps to her feet, like she’s been stung by a water-fly.

  I know what she was going to say because I was thinking it, too. We’re changing the norm by breaking it. Just like Deke wanted.

  She marches toward the door. “I need to check on something—”

  “Nish, wait—let’s talk—”

  I reach for her hand, but she swats me away. When she swings around to face me, her cinnamon skin is pale and her face is unrecognizably twisted.

  “Don’t,” she warns.

  “But—”

  “I don’t dwell in the past, Rho.” I flinch at the hardness in her voice.

  “I know,” I say, “but you also can’t keep running from it. If you want to move forward, you need to face what’s happened and make your peace with it—”

  “The same way you did with your Mom?” she asks, her voice almost icy. “Same way you’re doing with Hysan?”

  My mouth is suddenly parched. “So because I’ve mishandled the painful parts of my past, you’re going to do the same with yours?”

  “I’m not the one mishandling anything,” she snarls. “I’m the one putting aside her personal problems to do what needs doing. But be honest with yourself—did you truly come to Aquarius to be part of this Party, or are you here to find your mom?”

  I swallow down the awful feelings rising up my throat. “I came to make sure you were okay, Nish.”

  Her austere expression cracks, and she closes her eyes and inhales slowly, like she’s Centering herself. When she looks at me again, she seems tired and sad.

  “I don’t want to fight,” she says, letting me take her hand. “I found something to believe in here, something he would have wanted to be part of. Right now I just need to focus on that. This is how I honor him.”

  • • •

  After my almost-fight with Nishi, I decide to leave the room for some alone time before we have to start getting ready for the ball. From Black Moon to Nightwing to Pisces, today has been exhausting on every level. And yet, of everything that’s happened, I still can’t shake the sound of the seer’s raspy voice.

  She Saw my death, too.

  I head down through the trapdoor to consult the Ephemeris, and just as she did on Vitulus, Pandora beats me to the stars.

  “We really need to stop meeting this way.”

  She flicks her gaze over to me when I speak, but she doesn’t look surprised. “On Aquarius, when two people’s paths are constantly tangling, we say they’re soul-bound—which means the same stars must be pulling our strings.”

  “I like that.”

  We meet in the middle of the room, like a couple of stars being drawn to the holographic Helios. “My parents couldn’t believe I was invited to the royal palace,” she says, a note of pride in her voice. “Usually only our senior Elders are welcome.”

  “Why is the palace so hard to access?”

  “To protect the royal family. If the bloodline ends, so does our connection to the stars.” The spectral map dapples the dark sandstone walls with light, and the shadows on Pandora’s face remind me of how she looked when we discovered her in the Marad torture chamber.

  “How was coming home?” I ask, for a moment almost envying her for having a home and a family and a planet to return to.

  Her eyes grow cloudy. “I thought . . . I thought I’d never make it back. And in some ways, I haven’t.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “It was good to see my family, especially my sister. Only now I feel . . .”

  She trails off, her airy voice dissipating into nothingness, and when she doesn’t pick up her own thread again, I goad her gently. “Now you feel . . . ?”

  “Like I’ve outgrown my life,” she says, her amethyst eyes glowing as bright as the orbs of light surrounding us. “Like this isn’t me anymore.”

  Her voice dips so low that I’m not sure if the words are for my ears or just for her own. “At a certain point the torture room where you found us began to feel more familiar than my own home.”

  The admission is so darkly personal that I’m taken aback by her easy trust, especially when it’s hard to know where we stand with each other. Can we be both friends and rivals?

  Before I can ask what she means, she asks me, “Do you think light can erase even the worst kind of darkness?” I start to nod yes, but I stop as she begins a new question. “Or do you think sometimes the dark can weigh so heavily on your skin that it seeps into your pores and becomes part of you?”

  “I’m not sure what you—”

  “After going so long without sunlight, I don’t think I can return to an ordinary life. I can’t stay here, on Primitus, pretending I don’t know what lurks in the darkness. I need to be part of this fight . . . because this war is the only home I have left.”

  I nod, finally understanding her. “Sounds like we’re soul-bound after all.”

  • • •

  An hour before the ball begins, Nishi and I are cozying up on the Lady’s Lounge couch while she tries dozens of dresses on my hologram.

  My doppelganger is caught in a whirlwind of gaudy gowns with corset-like torsos and full-formed skirts, in all kinds of colorful fabrics—embroidered taffeta accented with lace, sheer chiffon woven with pearls, brocade trimmed with silver, silky charmeuse studded with stones, crinkly crepe lined with fur, and more. Nishi’s planning to wear a pale pink taffeta number, and when she modeled it for me on her hologram, she looked like a princess that belongs in this palace.

  Nishi is tall, so she can pull off these elaborate Aquarian skirts way better than I can. My hologram just keeps getting swallowed by the fabrics.

  “None of these is going to work,” she snaps. The nice thing about having such an honest best friend is that I don’t have to worry about her lying to make me feel better. “But don’t worry,” she adds quickly. “We’ll find something.”

  There’s a knock on our door, and we open it to find a couple of Aquarian lady’s maids. One of them is holding a large garment bag.

  “Good evening. We’re here to help you get ready for the ball,” says the older of the two. She has the orange eyes of a sunny afternoon. “We also bring a message for the Wandering Star from”—she seems to debate her words a moment—“a rather unpleasant woman who insisted we deliver this dress to you and seemed to imply we would be inciting a political incident between our Houses if we failed her.”

  “Oh. I’m . . . sorry?”

  Nishi hears the laugh I’m biting back and mouths, “Who?”

  “A thousand galactic gold coins says it’s Sirna,” I say as I accept the bag from the Aquarian. I carefully lay it out on the bed, and Nish impatiently reaches down and unzips it. She gasps at the soft, golden glow that beams out.

  The dress is made of the most stunning material I’ve ever seen; it looks like millions of strands
of liquid gold were woven together to create it. The structured bodice has a heart-shaped neckline held in place by a column of small diamonds that button down the back, and the skirt unfolds into a gown that’s far less puffy than all the others I’ve just seen. There’s no additional adornment or accent; the dress is simply a sea of gold without interruption, and it comes with a pair of matching, arm-length golden gloves.

  “Helios,” breathes Nishi. “It’s stellar, Rho.”

  The color makes me think of Hysan’s golden Knight suit, and before I can punch them back, memories of him spill out of my subconscious and spread through my body.

  My heart hurts the moment I allow my feelings for him to surface. I don’t know what I miss more—his touch or his words. I’ve been trying so hard to move forward by going backward—taking back the passage of time, taking back my feelings for Hysan, taking back my years of silence with Mathias. But however hard I try, I can’t seem to make Time move in that direction.

  The dress’s fine fabric feels as light as air, and as I run my fingers through it, a hand-written note topples out from the skirt’s folds.

  If the stars had called on me to lead when I was sixteen, I don’t know how I would have fared. But I doubt I would have shown half your bravery or heart. Stay safe out there, Rho.

  Your friend, Sirna

  My gaze lingers on the last line . . . your friend. But is Sirna my friend, even after everything she said to me, even after betraying me to the Plenum? I twine my fingers through the gold chain around my neck with its single rose-colored nar-clam pearl—another gift from Sirna—while Nishi bathes and the lady’s maids set up stations in the Lounge. Whether or not Sirna and I are friends, she does have a habit of swooping in and saving me when I need her to. I guess I owe her too much to hold a grudge.

  I decide to leave the necklace on—it matches the dress, after all—and following a soak in the luxurious tub, I pull on my plush aqua robe and sit beside Nishi at the vanity. The younger lady’s maid is already styling Nishi’s black locks into an elaborately braided bun that makes her look like she’s wearing a crown.

  “The regal look suits you,” I say, and Nishi winks at me in the mirror.

  The woman with the sunny eyes brushes out my blond hair and sprays the strands until my curls grow wavy and glossy, then she starts pinning my locks into an asymmetrical up-do that makes me look slightly lopsided. When she leans over me to apply makeup, she blocks my view of the mirror, and to avoid staring at her chest, I close my eyes while she works, bringing Nishi’s commentary into focus.

  “No, not that dark,” she tells the lady’s maid styling her. “Let’s use a thin line of black eyeliner along my lashes and add just the tiniest dash of shine on the lids, but—no, not that color for the lipstick; I don’t want to clash with the pale tone of the dress . . . .”

  I start to tune her out, and my mind wanders to where Lola and Leyla might be. The last time we spoke was a month ago when I Waved Leyla to check in; she and Lola were accompanying Agatha on her visit to our Taurian camp, located on Vitulus’s Flank Section.

  Poor Agatha must be so overwhelmed with the situation on our settlements, especially now that she also has to deal with what’s happening on Pisces. Maybe there’s something I can do to help. I could call Sirna tomorrow to thank her for the dress and see if she can pass Agatha a message from me.

  I hear Nishi getting to her feet. “Rho, I need to check in with Blaze and Imogen to make sure everything is on track, and I’ll come back to get dressed with you.”

  I can’t answer because my lips are being painted. Once the lady’s maid steps back from my face, I open my eyes and see my reflection.

  I glue my tongue to the roof of my mouth until I’m sure I have my emotions under control. Then I manage to say, “Thank you so much.”

  When I’m left alone in the Lounge, I study myself in the mirror. Now I understand why Nishi was so vocal earlier. My face is a disaster. I look like a fancy ghost: My skin has been painted a pale, powdery white, and my eyes are outlined in gold with glittering eye shadow. My gaze travels up to the cockeyed mess of hair on my head, and I know there’s no way I can leave the room like this.

  I start pulling out pins. There are hundreds, and by the time I’m done, my curls fall freely over my face. Then I go into the bathroom and wash the makeup off in the sink.

  I return to the vanity and stare dejectedly at my reflection, then crack open my Wave and call Leyla. Rather than reaching out traditionally—which would send my hologram to her—I send a reverse request; if she accepts, her hologram will be transmitted here.

  A few minutes later, Leyla’s demure figure manifests in the air before me; like always, her red hair is pulled tightly away from her sapphire eyes.

  “Wandering Star, it’s an honor to hear from you,” she says, bowing and sounding slightly out of breath.

  “You, too, Leyla. If you’re busy, we can talk another time,” I send back, realizing how selfish I’m being. I don’t know where she is, so I have no idea what time it is for her. “I don’t mean to take you away from sleep or Holy Mother or any other obligations.”

  When her transmission reactivates, she’s shaking her head at my concerns. “We’re on Leo, and it’s the middle of the afternoon.” Her gaze pans across my surroundings, and she asks, “How may I be of service?”

  “Well . . . I’m on Aquarius, about to attend a royal ball, and I was wondering if you had a moment to help me get ready?”

  Leyla flashes her rare smile. “I would have been hurt if you didn’t ask.”

  After I show her the dress, she makes me hold up various tins and tubes on the table, and then she starts instructing me. “The gold of the gown is flashy enough, so you should go with a more natural look, and maybe a little pop on your lips. Show me that foundation again.”

  Once she’s picked out what I’m going to use, she directs me as I apply each item. While I work, she fills me in on what’s happening with our refugee camps. “We’re leaving our settlement on Hydragyr,” she tells me, her face somber. “There are too many displaced Geminin, and it isn’t right to ask them to split their resources with us when they need them just as much.”

  I lower my powder brush and stare at her. “Where will we go?”

  After a transmission delay, she says, “We are negotiating with the Sagittarian government to create a permanent settlement along the coastline of planet Gryphon. Or at least, we were, until Pisces became everyone’s primary concern.”

  “Have you heard any theories about what this epidemic could be?”

  “No, but Lola found out that Stridents managed to isolate the agent in the blood of the infected, so now they can test conscious Piscenes to see who will develop the symptoms. They also synthesized a type of antiviral that protects visiting Zodai from becoming infected.”

  Again I’m reminded of how important House Scorpio is to the Zodiac. Their Innovation is what we’re going to need to survive this war—and, just as significantly, to rebuild the Zodiac.

  “Let me look at you,” says Leyla, pulling me out of my reverie. “You can lose the headband now so we can figure out your hair.”

  My curls tumble loose, and while I wait for Leyla’s hologram to reactivate, I stare at my reflection in the mirror. My sun-kissed skin glows, and there’s a light dusting of gold bronzer along my cheekbones. Brown liner tops my eyelids, softened with a shimmer of creamy eye shadow. The beachy curls and understated makeup remind me of the natural look of the Cancrians back home.

  I watch Leyla’s eyes stray to the line of lipsticks on the vanity. “How do you feel about bold lips?”

  “What are you thinking?” I ask, following her gaze.

  “Red.”

  Unlike the glossy red shade Imogen uses on her lips, Leyla picks out a matte shade that makes me think of rose petals. “Leave your hair down,” she says, and I hear echoes of home in h
er voice, too. “You look more like you that way.”

  “Thanks, Leyla. I couldn’t have done this without you.”

  “Yes, you could have. But you wouldn’t look this good.”

  I laugh, and then we end our call right as Nishi walks into the Lounge.

  “Called it!” she says the moment she sees me. “I saw your makeup as I was leaving, and I was sure by the time I came back you’d have washed it off. You did a good job on your own.”

  “I had help,” I admit, following her out to the main room where our dresses are laid out on the bed.

  The lady’s maids are here waiting to help us into our gowns, and when the woman with the orange eyes sees that I’ve undone all her hard work, her brow dips with disapproval. I didn’t think about the fact that I’d be seeing her again, and I feel my cheeks flushing with embarrassment.

  “I’m sorry,” I murmur as she holds the dress up for me. “I just didn’t feel like myself. . . .”

  She doesn’t speak as she works, and it takes a lot of pulling and tugging to button every last diamond lining the bodice’s back. I notice her eyes straying to the scars on my arm, and when she tries to remove the small black glove from my left hand to replace it with the long golden one, I pull my arm back.

  “I can put the gloves on. Thank you for your help.” She nods and leaves the room.

  I turn away from Nishi and her lady’s maid as I strip off the black glove so they won’t see the Scorp weapon that hides beneath it. Then I slide my arms into the long golden gloves.

  Once it’s just the two of us in the room, Nishi and I turn to each other. She looks like the belle of the ball with her coronet of black hair, soft pastel makeup, and pink taffeta gown.

  “Let’s have fun tonight,” she says, squeezing my hand. “No dark thoughts.”

  I nod. “It’s a plan.”

  We duck into the Lady’s Lounge to check ourselves out in the mirror, and almost immediately the flint Tracker on Nishi’s wrist starts singing with alerts. “I need to head downstairs,” she says, rushing out after a fleeting glance at her reflection. “Meet you there!”

 
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