For a long moment, no one spoke. Sir Loran simply looked patient and awaited orders. Outside, Aderyn could see ships moving in on the moon. Destroyers and her father’s Carrier had taken up a perimeter around the moon as if for bombardment. Finally, her mother sighed. “Very well Sir Loran, best bring us in.”
Aderyn found Zennir beautiful. Small seas brushed up against high-rising mountains. Those mountains swept down into lush, green valleys and plains dotted with Groundling settlements. She saw strange beasts that moved on four legs as they flew low across the landscape. The sky was red with the gas giant Querra looming overhead. Its rings cast rainbows of light down across the waters and shimmered through low hanging clouds. Aderyn had never seen anything like it.
The battlefield was a valley nestled between two of the small mountain peaks. For miles only cultivated farmland was to be seen. Churned soil replaced green grass and her mother wrinkled her nose at the sight. “Not very pretty,” her lady mother said and turned away again. Aderyn had wanted to tell her that planting season must be soon but feared what that knowledge would cost her. She hates that I know so much of the Groundling ways.
The yacht settled a few hundred yards from the battlefield and nestled itself between two large hills. The viewing stand was already filling up with ladies in their finery. A few lords who were too old, too young, or not involved in the war were there as well. She thought she saw the azure and jade of Nevan among them, but the distance made it hard.
Her mother rose and she followed her to the airlock, where they fitted ornate Ether-powered masks over their heads. Her mother’s lit up when she touched it, the impervaglass fixture glowing with deep white Ether. Aderyn’s did not turn on until she had fixed it to the battery on her hair lock. She almost wished she could rip it off and taste the heady smells of the planet, but it would never do. Groundling air was full of toxins and no noble lady would dare breath it in. The last time Aderyn had let herself, she’d been sick for a month.
As they walked across the short expanse of grass, Aderyn reveled in the soft, pliable feel of it beneath her shoes. Idly she wondered what it would feel like beneath her bare feet. Ian had taken her down to Hyperia’s beaches once and they had walked with sand and water caressing their toes. That experience had taken the breath from her. At just twelve, she had been in love with the planet and with the young boy who had shown it to her.
But Ian has no use for a Null. The thought made her mood sour as they approached the viewing stand’s ramp. She followed her mother up and into the airlock, where they removed their masks and breathed clean, treated air again.
Nearly a hundred noblemen and ladies gathered within. Serving bots hovered about, serving wine and finger foods. Aderyn took a passing roll and let it dissolve on her tongue. Her mother gave her a scornful look but Aderyn pretended not to see. One roll would not make her dresses snug. Nor two. Or three. What would it matter if it did anyway? It was her lack of a Spark that made her unattractive.
The viewing stand was simple as such things went. Vaguely rectangular it had a large amphitheater where the nobles would sit and watch the war. Behind that were tables and chairs and viewscreens where they could sit with one another and talk, serving droids bringing them food and drinks. To either side were private rooms and bathrooms. Aderyn eyed one of the private rooms, seeing it locked already. It made her flush to think what was going on within. “War gets one’s blood hot,” her brother Redrick had told her often enough.
They went first to the tables but did not sit. Her mother glared at her when she took a bite-sized sandwich and a glass of wine. Aderyn merely shrugged. If she was going to sit through this, she would do so on a full stomach.
“Must you eat so much?” her mother hissed, leading them towards the other end of the sitting area. “We are here to watch a war and you are here to impress Lord Rhyen’s son Duwen, should the boy show himself.” Her mother sniffed and glanced around. Aderyn kept her eyes downcast. “I swear, if you get sick? I’ll see you switched myself.”
And then a tall, flame-haired woman was there. Her mother visibly paled and dropped into a curtsy so grand that Aderyn stood stunned. Then she saw her, really saw her. Her body went rigid, her eyes unable to take themselves off the blue-white circlet of ether that encircled her head. She’d seen a likeness of her only once, an ether-image her father brought home once from Court.
“My Queen,” she gasped and all bet fell to her knees. Instantly she regretted even speaking to the woman. She was a Null-blood, a nothing and this woman was… she was the most powerful Blood in the galaxy aside from the King himself.
“Oh Lyana, do stand,” the Queen said, her voice sounding like it was on the edge of delightful laughter. Aderyn both loved and coveted it at once. It made her feel at ease, calm, despite her panic. Still, she kept her eyes on the floor.
“Your Majesty,” her mother said and Aderyn heard her skirts rustle as she stood. “This is an unexpected pleasure.”
“Please, the palace is secluded and boring, you know how much I hate that kind of thing. Is that your daughter?”
“Of course, my queen, I… er, yes. Your Majesty, this is Aderyn. Do stand up child.”
Aderyn stood on shaking knees, smoothing her skirts and doing her best not to meet the Queen’s eyes. She kept them turned down and away without avoiding looking at her entirely. Then she felt warm fingers on her chin, turning her head back and upward.
Their eyes met.
Green, she thought. Like mine. The Queen kept her hand on Aderyn’s chin for the length of that moment, the grip firm but gentle. There was something behind those eyes, beyond the kind smile on her pale pink lips. It was sadness.
“I’m sorry, Lyana,” the Queen whispered.
Her mother did not reply and the Queen released Aderyn’s chin. She stood, stunned and unable to think. What had just happened? Why did the Queen – the Queen! – speak to her mother like they knew one another? She’d never heard her mother say a word about the Queen in all her life.
“We should speak,” the Queen said and touched her mother on the arm. “Come.” Her mother did not give Aderyn a single glance as they walked through the crowd. Noblemen and women gave them wide birth, parting for them. Aderyn snatched a wine glass from a passing robo-server and downed it.