Star of wonder, p.7

Star of Wonder, page 7


Star of Wonder

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  * * * * *

  The darkness was warm and welcoming around her, filled with the scent of musk and pine and sweet, sharp spices. Somewhere nearby, a man’s voice was humming a melody to the accompaniment of strummed strings, and the hand holding hers in its grasp was clawed and callused and just her own size.

  “Let me tell you a little story,” said a woman’s deep, rich voice, throaty and full, speaking in a cadence so musical that her very words seemed a song. “Once upon a time there were people who looked a bit different from the usual run of human beings, but who were every bit human for all of that. And these people made their living by their music, traveling from world to world in their starship, singing their songs to bring good cheer. But one day, in the dark of space, their ship suffered an accident, and the only world they could reach in time for the repairs they needed was one which feared and outlawed music, even the simplest Christmas carol.”

  Is that what my name means? A song for Christmas? Carol smiled dreamily, feeling the hand around hers squeeze tight and pressing it in response. I never knew…

  “So they agreed that instead of trying to change the people’s minds about music, they would use the way they looked to their advantage, and pretend that they were nothing more than they appeared. Harmless, docile, not-quite-human creatures, with the one man on board who did look like a standard human passing as their caretaker. They would enliven the people’s holiday by letting them pay for the privilege of coming on board to gape their fill at the animals. Thus they would earn the money they needed for their repairs, and then they would go on their way.” A soft chuckle, as musical as the voice. “A simple enough plan, with no room for error. Or so they thought.”

  Even through the thinning cushion the drug provided around her thoughts, Carol groaned silently at her own foolishness, her momentary happiness dissipating like smoke, because wasn’t this the very reason Morian teachers warned their students about the perils of stories and music? I thought it was real, I got caught up in it, got angry and frightened and happy and sad about it, and all the time it was fake. They never needed my help at all. I got them in trouble for nothing, and myself, when if I’d just left well enough alone, minded my own business, everything would have been all right—

  “They never counted on two brave, clever, wise and foolish girls,” the woman went on, “both of them ignoring what they had heard and looking past the surface to see what lay beneath. One who recognized a kindred spirit where she’d been told no such thing could live.” A soft sound like a trill in the darkness. “And one who risked everything she had to try to help people to whom she owed nothing.” A larger hand closed gently around Carol’s and the one still holding hers. “So much bravery, whether or not it was needed, ought to be rewarded.”

  The last of the drug-fog cleared from Carol’s mind in a rush as the pieces flew together. Two girls—kindred spirits—a reward—

  She opened her eyes.

  Sundance sat on the edge of the wall-mounted bunk into which Carol had been tucked, grinning broadly, wearing a blouse and long skirt very like Carol’s own best clothes (though in a decidedly non-Morian shade of red) rather than the badly sewn furs in which she had masqueraded as the primitive cat-girl. Hers was the smaller hand locked around Carol’s, and the one cradling them both belonged to the beautiful Luran woman Carol had seen once or twice, dressed in a long gown of royal blue instead of a tunic of tanned pelts but still the one she had thought might be, must be, Sundance’s mother—

  “I am called Duskdance,” the woman said, smiling as she met Carol’s eyes. “My clan is Free Sky, my people are the Aelur. And you, Lady Carol, are well met and welcome aboard.”

  “Where am I?” Carol used her free hand to push herself upright in the bunk, staring around in wonder. The bedroom might be small, but the only shabbiness she could see in furnishings or fabrics came from use, not from age or neglect. Oddly enough, everything seemed to be either secured to the floor or designed to fold out from the wall—

  Wait, did she say welcome aboard? Aboard, like—

  “You’re on board the Wild Rover, the finest show-ship in the galaxy,” Sundance announced, her voice clear and proud. “En route to the planet Buonarroti, for a special Christmas Eve private performance!”

  “Private—what?” Carol felt her thoughts slipping out of her control like the boys who’d tried to run on the ice, at whom she and Sundance had laughed—yesterday, it was only yesterday, it feels like forever ago…

  “As strange as it may seem to you, my lady, there are a great many people in this galaxy who like music,” said a voice she knew, and Carol whipped around to see Mr. Xiao, lounging in a chair near the back of the room with an oddly curved and ornamented wooden box across his lap. The boy she had seen following Sundance was sprawled on the floor near his feet, doing something complicated with colored paper, but looked up to flash Carol a grin.

  “As my lovely wife mentioned,” Mr. Xiao went on, “the Free Sky clan can and does make its living, and quite a good living it is, traveling from world to world, singing for our suppers.” He stroked a hand across the strings Carol now saw were stretched along one side of the box and down the straight piece of wood which protruded from it, and a mellow chord hummed forth. “Now and again, we even catch the attention of someone rich enough or famous enough that we agree to perform for them and them alone. Such as the royal family of Buonarroti, who fit both categories admirably.”

  “It’s what Killdeer and Nightsinger were away arranging when we had the accident,” Sundance said as if this explained everything. “So Daddy was the only one on board who looked human-standard, and that’s why he was the guide when we pretended to be the zoo-ship.” She giggled. “It’s funny to listen to people talk about you like you can’t understand them!”

  Carol heard this only vaguely, most of her attention being devoted to the attempt to regain her mental balance. One thing was becoming clearer by the moment, and would need to be brought up as soon as she could form the words—

  “You took me with you,” she said, looking up at Mr. Xiao. “You—you kidnapped me!”

  “By the strictest definition of the word, yes, I did.” Mr. Xiao strummed another chord, a second and a third, yearning and melancholy. “Though if you really want to go back to Moria—”

  “No!” Carol and Sundance blurted in unison.

  “As I thought.” Mr. Xiao settled back in his chair, smiling to himself. “Then I suppose we’ll just have to make other arrangements. What do you think, my love, can the clan handle one more adopted daughter?”

  “Say, ‘can we handle one more’, and you will be closer to the mark.” Duskdance chuckled, tapping Carol and Sundance’s hands, still clasped together. “Persuading this pair to let go of one another, after everything else that has happened, is more than I feel capable of, and the household is scarcely overcrowded. And anything which will take a certain item off the top of a certain person’s Christmas list, year after year…” She laid her ears back and mock-glared at her daughter.

  “I told you and told you I wanted a sister,” Sundance retorted, glaring right back. “Not a stupid stinky brother, a sister.” She made a face at the boy on the floor, who returned it with interest. “And you kept saying, ‘Maybe next year, maybe next year,’ but next year didn’t ever come.” She grinned again. “So, now it did.”

  Carol looked down at the blankets still covering her lap, then up at the room around her, at the smiling faces of the people who impossibly, inexplicably wanted her, and to her horror her vision blurred with tears. A tiny discordant sproing and a confused moment of motion, and she found herself seated sideways in a lap, wrapped in strong, warm, familiar arms—

  “You carried me,” she said into Mr. Xiao’s shoulder, turning her head so that her words wouldn’t be muffled by the soft knit of his green sweater. “Back on Moria, after you used the patch to make me sleep. I thought you were going to leave me there, but you picked me up and brought me back here with you
and that was after I tried to get you in trouble, after you were going to be arrested for doing something you didn’t really do…” She swallowed against a hiccup and forced out one more word, the question her whole mind was humming with. “Why?”

  “Because you didn’t deserve to suffer for doing what was right, even if it wasn’t necessary this time.” Mr. Xiao shifted her weight slightly, settling her more comfortably against him. Her hand, she noted, was still being clutched by Sundance, who was cuddled up in her mother’s lap on the other end of the bunk. “I knew a girl once who had a hard time making a decision very like yours, and she was a lot older when she came to it. If she hadn’t decided the way she did, none of us would be here today, and it was a very near thing. A lot nearer than I think she chooses to remember.”

  “And how well do any of us recall the least pleasant parts of our lives?” Duskdance inquired. “Also, my young lady Carol, do remember that our business aboard the Wild Rover is music. I have been listening to you sing with Sundance, and to leave you on a world where such things are forbidden…” She clicked her tongue. “Shameful. A waste of talent, in a galaxy where the genuine article is sadly rare.”

  “You’re already good enough to sing in our shows, if you only do one or two songs so you don’t get tired,” Sundance said, squirming around to smile at Carol. “And we can start trying you on instruments as soon as Christmas is over, so we can find the right one for you. Won’t that be fun?”

  Carol nodded hard. Her throat, once again, felt too tight to speak, but where in the commissioner’s office that had been from fear and confusion, this was joy so overwhelming that she was astonished not to see her very skin shining from it. For all her mistakes, all her fumbling and misunderstanding, she was being rewarded beyond anything she could have dreamed.

  “Why…” she tried saying again, and winced at the croak in her voice, but gamely pushed onward. “Why do you keep calling me a lady?” she managed to get out, the words clearing a bit towards the end of the sentence. “I’m not.”

  “Every woman may be a lady in her behavior, if she so chooses,” Duskdance corrected gently, tapping Carol on the nose with a finger. “But if you wish us to bring you into our home as Sundance’s sister, then you will be a lady in title as well, for I am the queen of the wild Free Sky rovers, and my children, born or adopted, are princes and princesses all.” She cast a laughing glance across the room at the boy, still involved in what Carol could now see was a lengthy paper chain. “As little as our Stefan-Shadowcrest sometimes deserves his title.”

  “That’s what I’m forgetting!” Sundance burst out. “A name! You need a use-name, Carol, one like ours, so people don’t know who you are—who you were, I mean—but we have to come up with one before we get to Buonarroti, it would look a little strange if I didn’t know my own sister’s name!” She giggled at the thought, then produced an oddly shy smile. “I can tell you my true name now, the one that’s only for family and clan,” she said, lowering her eyes. “If you want to hear it.”

  “Please,” Carol said. “You know mine already, I never had any other one…” The idea of a name meant for the use of outsiders, a name that was hers but at one remove from the deepest parts of her heart, struck a chord within her stronger than she had imagined it might. To be renamed, she thought whimsically, would be almost like being reborn.

  “An-jing.” Sundance accented the syllables with care, as though a mistake would change the meaning significantly. “It’s from some of Daddy’s ancestors, it means ‘perfect peace’, after Mama, since that’s what her true name means.” Her mischievous smile crept back. “And I already know just the right use-name for you, coming from what your name means…”

  “We’ll discuss that in a moment,” Mr. Xiao cut in, shifting Carol in his arms again. “For right now, we should finish our own introductions. You heard my full name back on Moria, Carol—may God forgive my parents for it—but here at home, I usually go by Suncrest.” He smiled down at her. “Though from you, I think ‘Dad’ might be more appropriate, and ‘Mama’ for Siochana—that’s Duskdance.” A pause, long enough for a deep, slow breath. “If, of course, that’s what you want.”

  The final statement, though spoken lightly, bore undeniable undertones of weight and meaning, and Carol went still as she recognized them. Mr. Xiao might have taken her away from Moria without asking her permission, but that had been to keep her safe. He wasn’t automatically assuming that she would want to stay with his people, to join his family. She had to make that decision for herself, to say yes or no.

  And big decisions are always scary.

  But this kind of scary, I can do.

  “Yes,” she said, and pressed Sundance’s hand tightly, smiling up at Suncrest and Duskdance. “Yes, it’s what I want.”

  What I’ve always wanted. What I had with my own mom and dad, and what they’d still want me to have now, even though they’re gone. People to love me, and a big, bright, wonderful, glorious future, and music for Christmas and for always, with everything old put aside, even my name…

  “So tell me,” said the younger princess of the clan of the Free Sky, grinning at her sister and her parents. “Who am I going to be from now on?”
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