La Nouvelle Cendrillon
by A. J. Grace-Smith
part 1 of 2
Duty cannot be avoided; vengeance is best achieved through snap of splintered bone careful planning — the father can be manipulated to serve the Emperor’s bidding after all teeth white in the bright dark the Imperial Prerogative must be preserved. Another Princess-in-waiting, might she be the one blood spurting against tongue lap the iron smell who’d fit the shoe? She must — the other is in her family’s care collateral damage is regrettable but inevitable taste the death.
The mother has been contained — the daughter remains the focus eyes sightless to the dark — the next heir must be engendered; he must breed soon — she must be the one! — black hair matted throat a bloody ruin feeding — no evidence yet of her birthright manifesting... So sick of searching, so long, oh so long... now.
After weeks of cruising at sub-light speed — a necessity in the congested Deiochos Systems — the Messenger-ship Fata was ready to stretch her wings. Her sleek hull absorbed light across the spectrum, silver-black skin emitting a dull violet sheen as she compensated for energy overload by dispersal. Messenger ships were notoriously skittish if kept reined in for too long, and this one burned with the need to expand her FTL singularity and really fly.
Only three more parsecs to the jump gate, then full speed to Enitharmon System... even in cryosleep the Emissary smiled. An adept at matter manipulation, he was currently operating on three levels of consciousness, and his ship’s enthusiasm amused him. Biolights glinted off partially exposed white teeth, and his long fingers flexed against the indigo thermal blanket. So close! So close to all that was needed now.
Morning light brought no relief to the Winter Palace’s habitual gloom. Pallid sunlight — all that FarFetch Station’s filter domes could manufacture — limped through the tall windows of the East Wing, but ingress was denied to the silver-gilt cheer of Enitharmon’s blue dwarf primary, currently in aphelion ascension to the systems’s gas giant.
The black and white marble floor seemed slick with sweat, and the swagged silk of the vast gold curtains hung like luxurious winding sheets, waiting to bind the bodies of newly mourned infantas. The air was heavy with Tyrellian beeswax, and secrets.
The bone-clicking tap tap tap of implacable footsteps broke the cold silence. Sharp heels striking smartly, echoing down the length of the East Wing.
Lillia in her bedchamber heard the sound, and heeded its warning. There was still time.
Extending her awareness beyond the Palace, beyond FarFetch, beyond Enitharmon, following a trace signal, a pulse of bloodlight calling her... there! Two hundred and seventy-three parsecs out, she found it. Such a pretty ship, so sleek in the void. How fast could it really go?
The insistent tap tap tap ceased. Lillia Shifted back into her customary shape and place, quickly checking for residual echoes of her other selves in the room. No one must know, yet. Good. The door opened; Nanny Arthur sailed into the pale, high room, staccato heels silenced by the carpet’s deep pile.
Nell Arthur eyed the girl carefully, looking beyond the model of submission Lillia presented. The minute disturbances in the air, the strange accretion of disparate odours that told those few with additional perception what magic had been worked, and by whom, informed her that Lillia had not been putting her spare time to frivolous use this morning. So. Smoke, and roses, the clear cold tang of ozone, and the ferrous base note of blood: the girl was progressing.
They exchanged the ritual morning greeting. Nell’s eyes narrowed. There was no insolence in Lillia’s tone, her soft voice was carefully sweet, the cadence measured. Yet this morning there was something altered in her manner, never mind her pose of practised innocence, those knowing grey eyes veiled behind lowered lashes... And now she noticed how the balance was altered, the base scent of blood deeper than before. So.
“You will visit your mother this morning.”
“Papa has permitted this?” Lillia was quick to conceal her confusion.
Nell hesitated. Was her instinct right? Gently then, she pushed her inner perception to its limit. There. A subtle distortion in the light around the girl told her all she needed to know. So. It was time.
“Come along, girl. We mustn’t keep your mother waiting.” We don’t have time.
They passed through the maze of marbled halls, Nanny Arthur’s ramrod figure in its iron grey dress gliding over the vast chessboard floors, and always the tap tap tap of of hard high heels. Lillia’s soft shoes made no sound above a whisper, her dark hair streaming behind her as she strove to match the pace her governess set.
They came to the doors to the Hall of Stopped Time, and Nanny Arthur waved her hand before the silver panel set above the baroquely curved handles. With a minute beep as the circuitry recognised the security codes embedded within her bony forefinger, the doors swung silently inwards.
The Hall of Stopped Time was bathed in golden light, as no other part of FarFetch could be. A mixture of trapped magic and natural light filtering through the honey-coloured glass roof. The air chimed faintly with the strains of long-lost piano music, melancholic in a minor key. The glass-tiled floor was polished to a mirror sheen, and gilt framed mirrors covered the walls. There were no windows here.
Directly beneath the domed roof lay the heart of the Winter Palace, kept under glass on a marble plinth. It had been Lillia’s favourite treat when she was younger to be allowed to gaze upon the treasure within. Even now she still felt the faint flutter of anticipatory delight.
Nanny Arthur slowed her pace, pausing by the largest of the crookedly hung mirrors. Lillia tried to still her trembling hands as she reached out to the huge bell jar, warmed from within by ancient magic. And then she couldn’t help it: she pressed her nose against the glass, her breath misting in large half-moons. Ah well, let Nanny Arthur think her still a silly little girl, it did not matter.
The little glass shoe glowed in the Hall’s gilding light, the cushion it rested on as brightly white now as the day it had been placed there, more than nine thousand Terran years ago. Lillia knew, beyond doubt, beyond destruction, that it would fit her perfectly. Soon enough would come the time to dance all down into ruin around her. Soon.
Nell hid her smile. Whatever the girl must become, whether she chose Blood or Light, she would always retain a love of the beauty of Light Magic, part of her mother’s — and of Nell’s — heritage.
“That’s enough, Lillia. We must not keep your mother waiting.” And you have your Choice before you.
Out through the south door, below the clock that gave the Hall its name. Ornate bronze footings held the moonfaced dial in its cracked glass case, concealing ancient circuitry unaccountably stasis-locked. The twisted golden hands had long since stopped at a minute past midnight. But now, the long minute hand slowly, slowly, began to move. At two minutes past twelve, a deep tick resounded through the hall. The Winter Palace shifted, subtly, golden grains of dust raining from the dim ceilings to the polished floors beneath.
Alone in his library, Lillia’s father shuddered as a surge of essential energy was forcibly withdrawn from his core. Too soon! Gasping, he concentrated on holding his form together, reaching for the nearest available life force to sustain him. Four flours below, three technical menials died, their hearts stopped in perfect synchronicity.
Two parsecs from the jump point, the Fata’s FTL drive silently engaged, the singularity at its heart simultaneously expanding and contracting to swallow the everything and nothing that lay between here/now and FarFetch Station. While the Fata exulted, the Emissary could only snarl as control was wrested from his grasp. This outrage would be compensated in blood.
Lillia resisted the answering snarl that would have twisted her pretty lips in a sneer. Soon. Now, anxious in the shadow of silken canopies, she waited for the Lady Alba to waken. Too long had her mother been bound in the darkness of an unnatural sleep. Too long had it been since her mother last held her. She must waken now, before it was too late. Lillia was ready now, and her father would pay for what he had done.
At last Nell beckoned the girl forwards; there was time yet. Gold curtains swung shut around mother and daughter. Nell closed the doors behind her, a grey sentinel in the black and white hall, and the golden dust drifted down.
Pacing, pacing, Philip’s footsteps echoed round him and the soft dust drifted down. How had this come to pass? All these years he’d kept the girl’s mother quiescent, and for what? To be circumvented at the last minute... he could ill afford to lose so much power so quickly.
Pivoting on his heel, he left the Hall of Stopped Time, brushing dust from his shoulders, while around him servants and other menials hurried to finish the preparations for his daughter’s birthday ball.
The old steward waited in Philip’s study. It pleased Philip that his uncertain temper was a byword amongst his servants. Settling into his great wing-backed chair, his once muscular frame corrupted by stolen power and time into brutish turgidity, he closed his grey eyes.
The steward was to the point. The preparations for for the ball were almost complete. The guests had almost all arrived, and were securely quartered in the South Wing.
“And the other matter?”
The steward swallowed. “My lord, the Lady Alba’s time has indeed most regrettably ended. I have made arrangements for the necessary funerary rites of her kind. May I offer my condolences for your grievous loss?”
Philip frowned, his fingers drumming in impatient counterpoint to that damned clock’s omnipresent tick. “Send me the sensor data review from her bedchamber. And return to your duties. That is all.”
Tap tap tap Philip’s fingers danced on red leather while he tried to reason a way out of his dilemma. Somehow he must distance himself from Alba’s premature ending, or risk losing everything... Lillia must not be informed... if the Emperor should learn of this, and before the girl took up her birthright — if she even could, now... disastrous.
Today of all days, how had Alba circumvented his control? How had she escaped him? Thumping his fist on the chair arm, Philip inadvertently triggered the commlink. The view screen hummed into life-sized light. And there he was, the Supreme Ruler of the Spiral Systems Empire, in all his state of might and glory, being tended in unorthodox manner by a pair of matched Haudthian bed-slaves. The customary Imperial hood had fallen aside, revealing his monstrous face in a rictus of paroxysmal pleasure.
And then his eyes opened, straight into Philip’s, and Philip felt himself falling inexorably into the screen, into the cold yellow ice of his Emperor’s eyes.
“Ahh, Philip. So you find the time at last to make your pledge of eternal allegiance? How very accommodating of you. I trust that you have the matter of your wife’s death under control.”
Philip clutched at the chair arms, barely able to hold himself back from the screen’s energy field. “Oh, my Imperial Master—”
His scream, as the Emperor reached out from the screen, was quickly cut off. Taloned fingers gripped his throat, cutting into his windpipe.
“Look to your daughter before you pledge to me. Her power is greater than you think. Contain it. Take it, as you could not take her mother’s. Then will you be strong enough to be valuable, and the Emissary will have a fitting mate.”
“The Emiss... how?”
“How does any pack leader dominate his bitches? Take her, you spineless cur, or risk my indifference.”
The pressure around his throat was gone. Philip slumped before the blank screen, his sweat slowly cooling.
* * *
Copyright © 2012 by A. J. Grace-Smith