Black moon, p.15
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       Black Moon, p.15

           Romina Russell
 
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  I’m about to follow her, but I decide to look in the mirror first. And when I do, I see someone else.

  The dress is out of this world; it looks like I’ve wrapped one of Helios’s rays around me. And yet that’s not what catches my eye.

  My features reflect the effects of the shift from my sedentary days on Elara to this new adventurous life of racing through the Zodiac. My cheekbones stick out more, my waist is more toned, and my hair hangs longer than it has in years. It’s hard to find the girl I was in the woman I’ve become. But still none of these details are what’s most striking.

  The thing I can’t get over as I look at my reflection . . . is how much I look like Mom.

  15

  I LEAVE THE ROOM, AND everyone is waiting for me at the foot of the spiral staircase. Everyone except Nishi.

  I focus on the floor as I climb down in my high heels, but as I’m descending the last ring of steps, I steal a peek at Mathias. The sight of him in his black tuxedo nearly makes me miss a step.

  Mathias sees me stumble, and when he steps forward to offer me his arm, I feel my cheeks heat up. The way he fills out a tuxedo makes me think the style must have been invented just for him.

  “You look like you could light up the universe,” he murmurs in his musical voice. His dark, wavy hair is combed back, leaving his indigo eyes front and center, and I’m reminded of how I felt the night he picked me up for my swearing-in ceremony, when it seemed like anything was still possible between us.

  “You look . . .” I trail off, failing to find a word as beautiful as he is. Then I realize the others have gone quiet and say loudly, “You all look great!”

  Stanton is wearing a disgruntled expression along with his navy-blue tux, and beside him Imogen is in a low-cut black levlan gown that makes her look like a sexy rock star. Pandora looks pretty in a turquoise gown that’s simpler than the others, though she seems the least comfortable by far. I would have thought as an Aquarian she’d be used to this kind of opulence, but it appears the Nightwing and Royal Clans follow very different rules.

  “Let’s hurry,” says Nishi, dashing over from the common room. “We’re late, and if anyone notices, it’s going to look bad for me and Imogen.”

  She takes my arm, and the six of us race through the sandstone halls of the palace, cutting through numerous drawing rooms, a couple of thought tunnels, and the star-high entrance hall with its stained glass windows, where some kind of scuffle is taking place by the main doors. A dozen valets in velvet top hats are blocking the commotion so I can’t see what’s causing it, but as I peek between the bodies, I think I spot a familiar face with a mane of brown hair. Yet before I can place him, we’ve turned the corner.

  At last we reach the marble wall that marks the easternmost end of the castle, and a pair of Elders approach us to check our identities. After we’ve all flashed our thumbprints, an Aquarian presses his handprint to the wall, and a slab of marble slides down, opening a doorway into the ball.

  We step onto the balcony of a grand staircase that descends into an enormous domed ballroom. The floor below is packed with couples dressed in formalwear, and a blanket of white, cottony smoke swirls along the ground, giving the impression that everyone is walking on clouds.

  My eyes dart all over the place, taking in the room’s grandeur. Intricate patterns in plated gold and silver are woven into the white marble walls, forming elaborate compositions that look like if you stared at them long enough, they might reveal a hidden design. There’s a full orchestra playing a lively waltz at the far end of the hall, and ornate silver and gold trays bearing tall-stemmed glasses with a clear, fizzy drink float on their own among the partygoers.

  The whole event feels enchanting but decadent, just like House Aquarius. The clothing is too busy, the lifestyle is too loud, the meals are too rich, the portions too large, the country too vast, and at times it’s all too much. And yet it’s also mythic and majestic and beguiling, and I can see how someone would never want to leave this place. It’s the kind of world where fairy tales might actually exist.

  And maybe even happily ever afters.

  Once we’ve regrouped on the cloudy ground, Stanton says, “Pisces is on the cusp of extinction, our people are being exiled, the Marad could attack any moment, and here we are, having a royal ball.”

  I don’t say it out loud to avoid agitating him further, but I can’t help agreeing. I wonder where all this money came from, since I’d gotten the impression the Party’s backers were young and idealistic people, not older wealthy types; this level of opulence feels almost in opposition to the Party’s philosophy of acceptance and open-mindedness.

  Still, it’s only natural that as different cultures come together, we’re going to clash. Traditions will rub us the wrong way, people will be misunderstood, arguments will arise—but we can’t jump to judgment, or we’ll never make any progress.

  “Stan, they couldn’t accept Aquarius’s support while dismissing its customs. This is how the royal palace throws parties, and the Tomorrow Party had to respect that.”

  “Hear, hear!” says a voice behind me, and I turn to see a smiling girl with a headful of braids reaching out to bump fists with me.

  “Ezra!” I say at the sight of the brazen and brilliant fifteen-year-old from Centaurion. She’s wearing a silver tulle gown revealing feet that are clad in clunky combat boots.

  As we trade the hand touch, she asks, “Have you come to join the Tomorrow Party?”

  Before I can answer, a mournful voice injects, “Or are you here in your capacity as Wandering Star?”

  I look up to see her friend, the philosophical Gyzer, smiling at me, and I feel a smile warming my face, too.

  “Or both?” asks Ezra.

  “Or neither?” asks Gyzer.

  “Helios, is that what I sound like?” asks Nishi, turning to me with a preoccupied brow.

  I look at the three sets of long-cut eyes staring at me, awaiting answers, and all I can manage is, “You Sagittarians are exhausting.”

  “Thank you!” says Ezra, as Nishi laughs.

  “You know you were supposed to bring a date from a different House, right?” asks Imogen, after Ezra and Gyzer have traded the hand touch with everyone.

  “Try telling him that.” Ezra rolls her eyes toward Gyzer.

  “What’s wrong with bringing someone from our own House?” he asks, and in the depths of his soulful eyes I spy a challenge. “I find it troubling that a Party founded on a foundation of choice would forbid us from bringing whoever we wanted.”

  “It wasn’t meant to be taken that way,” says Nishi defensively. “It’s about celebrating the spirit of the Party. It’s not like anyone’s going around enforcing it.”

  “That’s not the point,” says Gyzer. His lavender bowtie—the color of Sagittarius—pops against the dark gray of his tux and the coal-black of his skin. “Freedom shouldn’t move like an arrow, in a singular direction. It should flow like an ocean, swallowing the whole horizon.”

  “I like that,” I say, and noting Nishi’s frown I turn to Ezra. “What’s been going on since Taurus? I remember your invention traced part of the Marad’s transmission. So does that mean you’re working for Brynda now?”

  Ezra looks at Gyzer before answering. “Well, she wants us to finish our Acolyte studies first, but we’re done with that life. We can’t just go back to school after everything that’s happened.”

  “So what then?” asks Stan. “What will you do?”

  “That’s what we’re trying to figure out.” She looks like she might say more, but again she looks at Gyzer, and this time I notice his reaction—a slight shake of his head. And she stops talking.

  Just then another couple approaches our group, and I recognize more faces from Centaurion. “Numen!”

  The blond Libran flashes me a charming smile. “Lady Rho, it’s wonderful to see you.” She
bows before bumping fists with me, and I have to look away from her gray eyes to avoid seeing the painfully familiar golden star.

  “This is Qima,” she says, introducing me to an olive-skinned, mossy-eyed girl whom I remember from Twain’s crew.

  “Nice to see you again,” I say, trading the hand touch with the Virgo. “And I’m . . . I’m sorry about Twain. And Moira,” I add, thinking of the still-comatose Guardian.

  “And planet Tethys, too?” she asks, one brow arched. “Seems like our House has lost a lot since you came onto our soil.”

  “I—”

  “I’m not blaming you.” There’s no threat or sarcasm in her voice; she’s just stating facts. “I’m simply pointing out that our House has suffered as much as yours. So if you need help, you need to come to us.”

  “I will,” I say, if only to escape the intensity of her gaze.

  “Virgos have been cooped up on their constellation for so long, they’ve forgotten how to socialize,” says a sunny Numen. “I guess politeness isn’t a function on their Perfectionaries.”

  “What’s wrong with what I said?” asks Qima, who looks to be fighting back a grin, while the Libran laughs openly and melodically.

  As the others introduce themselves, and I watch my expanding group of friends, I feel like I’ve become part of a new family, one made up of more than just Cancrians. Diversity doesn’t weaken us—it binds us closer together. Numen and Qima come from opposite cultures, yet rather than being polarizing, their polar perspectives keep them in balance. This is what Black Moon will be like—a place where our inherited prejudices will fall away because we’ll have a chance to personally interact with people of every House.

  Skarlet Thorne is right: The only way to combat the Marad’s violence is to replace the soldiers’ hate with hope. And tonight it feels like Black Moon is hope made tangible.

  The festive orchestra starts to play their first slow number, and Gyzer and Ezra peel away to the dance floor. Mathias moves closer to me and murmurs, “Would you like to dance?”

  Confused, I dart a glance at Pandora, who’s hovering near Nishi and Imogen but isn’t participating in the group conversation. She looks miserable.

  “Sure,” I say, though I don’t sound it.

  He leads me to the dance floor near the orchestra, and I slink a gold-gloved arm around his neck as he takes my other hand in his. Mathias’s fingers brush along my lower back, and he says, “I liked everything about this new Party until this ball. It feels more like a celebration of the old ways than the new.”

  “Yeah,” I say, my mouth dry, “except we’re here with partners from different Houses. That would have never happened before.”

  He goes quiet, withdrawing into his mind, but not in an injured way. Rather than looking lost, his eyes are focused, like he’s been doing a lot of thinking. “What do you imagine would have happened,” he whispers, his musical voice wistful, “if I’d spoken to you my last day of university?”

  Picturing the scene and trying to envision a different outcome, at last I understand the true tragedy of Mathias and me.

  We’re a couple of Cancrian clichés: More than our hearts, we’ve always trusted our fears. Even if we couldn’t help falling for each other, it was the decisions we made after we fell that mattered.

  If either of us had dared to speak up any of those mornings in the solarium—if he hadn’t shut down my feelings on Equinox, if I hadn’t shut the airlock door on him on Firebird—today, we wouldn’t be these same people. The stars set us on the same path . . . but our choices diverted us.

  This whole time, I’ve been trying to find my way back to those mornings on Elara when life was so simple and my feelings were so clear. But when the opportunity presented itself—when Mathias opened his heart to me on our way to Aquarius—I didn’t take it.

  I may not like the thought of him being Pandora’s, but I haven’t claimed him for myself either.

  When I look into Mathias’s midnight eyes again, I feel the decision taking over every cell in my body, even though there’s a small piece of my heart that hasn’t given its consent yet. There’s a part of me that will always love Mathias—but I’ve been hiding behind the memory of what I once felt for him to avoid admitting that I’m not in love with him anymore.

  The truth is my heart already made the choice between Hysan and Mathias . . . my brain just didn’t want to hear it.

  “I didn’t mean to upset you,” murmurs Mathias, reeling me in a little closer. My feelings stick to my tongue, but they won’t become words yet. I don’t know how to say what needs to be said.

  On Vitulus, Miss Trii told me that sometimes the best way to love someone is to let them go. So I inhale deeply and say, “I-I don’t think these feelings are real anymore, Mathias.” My voice has never sounded less mine. “I think they’re memories.”

  He pulls away enough to look at me, and I see sadness swimming in his eyes, the same sadness I’m fighting down within myself.

  But in the depths of that sadness, I think there’s also freedom.

  We pull away before the song ends, and when we return to the others, Nishi comes over and links her elbow with mine. “Are you okay?” she asks softly, and there’s no point in answering because I feel a tear rolling down my cheek.

  She pulls me in for a hug, and I rest my face against her collarbone, content just to breathe for a moment. My heart feels fragile, like it’s recovering from a major operation, so I keep a good distance from my feelings and try focusing on my inhales and exhales.

  A few feet away Numen and Qima are filling Stan and Imogen in on news from their worlds, and Mathias and Pandora stand at opposite ends of the group, neither one looking at the other. An ornate golden tray of clear, fizzy drinks floats past, and Mathias takes one.

  It’s amazing how he can be so attuned to my emotions and yet so deaf to his own. How can he not realize his feelings for Pandora are more than friendly? I hate to admit it, but Cancrians can be so hard shelled sometimes.

  Nishi and I pull apart, and she squeezes my arm in encouragement as we rejoin the group. Eager not to cross gazes with Mathias or Pandora, I look up to the top of the grand staircase, where more couples are appearing on the upper balcony and descending into the ballroom. Among the new faces, I spot a stunning Ariean girl in a show-stopping red gown who looks familiar. As I squint at her warm, bronze-brown features, I recognize Skarlet.

  Excitement flutters in my belly. Of course she’d be invited; she’s exactly the kind of rising leader the Tomorrow Party would be interested in wooing. I take a few steps toward the stairs to position myself close enough to talk to her, and I notice a man’s arm circling her waist. Curious to check out her date, I pan my gaze up to see his face.

  And I shatter.

  16

  WHEN I SEE THE GOLDEN hair and lively green eyes, everything seems to just stop.

  The music.

  The Zodiac.

  My heart.

  Sporting an immaculate white tuxedo and his trademark centaur smile, Hysan descends the staircase with Skarlet on his arm, commanding the attention of what feels like the entire ballroom.

  “Breathe,” whispers Nishi, her hand gripping my shoulder. “I’m so sorry, Rho—the Party invited him, but he never responded, so I figured he wasn’t coming. I didn’t see a point in bringing him up to you for no reason.”

  My pulse is pounding so mightily that I’m scared my heart might be trying to break away from my body. If it keeps punching this hard, it’s going to crack open its cage.

  “What do you want to do?” asks Nishi in my ear. But I can’t think, can’t answer her, can’t turn away from him as he moves in my direction.

  “Rho, if you don’t want him to see you, maybe we should—”

  “Wandering Star!”

  I force myself to look away, and I see Blaze parting from his entourage to greet me, h
is date in tow. He’s donning a flashy, royal purple tuxedo, and as he comes closer, I notice the pair of pants is actually a floor-length skirt.

  “You look luminous,” he says, planting whiskery kisses on my cheeks. His breath smells sweet; he’s been drinking the fizzy Aquarian cocktail everyone’s enjoying. Then he spots Nishi and roars, “By the muses! Is that Nishiko Sai?”

  After kissing her smiling cheeks, he holds her hands in his. “You did a brilliant job organizing tonight.”

  Nishi jokingly curtsies. “Why thank you.”

  Blaze slides his arm around the waist of his date, a woman with short red locks. “This is my friend Geneva. Two years ago, at age nineteen, she became House Taurus’s youngest Promisary.”

  Geneva rolls her eyes but smiles. “You keep talking like this and everyone will think my best years are behind me.”

  Nishi and I shake hands with her, and my gaze strays to the faces beyond them as I search for Hysan again. He and Skarlet haven’t made it very far; they’re still near the foot of the staircase, and at least a dozen partygoers surround them. Laughter breaks out from their group, and I see other partiers ambling over to listen in.

  “Don’t you think, Rho?”

  I look at Nishi, whose eyebrows are nearly at her hairline. “I . . . sorry, what?”

  She links elbows with me and spins me to face Blaze. “I was complimenting Blaze on his style. What do you think?”

  “Yeah . . . I love the skirt,” I say, trying to smile. “How did you settle on this outfit?”

  “I requested a room with a Lady’s Lounge, and when I tried on all the gowns and tuxedos in the archiver’s database, I thought this number looked best.” He speaks like he’s never owned an inhibition in his life.

  Nishi and Geneva laugh, and in my periphery I notice a rippling in the crowd. Hysan and Skarlet are on the move again.

  My temperature seems to rise with Hysan’s every step, and beads of sweat tickle my skull. Whatever I’m feeling, I’ve never felt it before. It’s like my brain has signaled my organs to self-destruct, and I worry that at any moment I’ll spontaneously combust.

 
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