"Mom," said Celia. "I'm gay."
Maureen blinked at her daughter. It was a very classic picture: mother sat on the sofa. Daughter stood across the coffee table from her looking nervous and determined. "I'm - I will always love you," Maureen said, "and, and I accept this as part of who you - I don't really know what to say here, but I'm fine with it, Celia."
"I wasn't finished," Celia said. "I'm gay and I have a girlfriend and I love her and you can't move me to Montana, I won't leave her, you can't -"
"Celia," Maureen interrupted. "I didn't know that when I took the job, and even if I had, it wouldn't get me my old one back. I didn't know when I closed the deal on the house -"
"I won't leave her! I'll move in with Dad!"
"Your father can barely take care of himself, let alone you."
"He has an apartment. I'll help uncle Joe check up on him and sleep on the couch. I'm seventeen, Mom, I can feed myself and make sure Dad doesn't skip his meds -"
"Celia," sighed Maureen again. "You and - I'm guessing it's Shula, is it Shula?"
Celia nodded, jaw tight. "I love her."
"You'll be able to talk on the phone and -"
"That's not enough!"
"- and then you'll go off to college and I'm not going to object if it's the same one -"
"She isn't going to go to college right away, she's going to take a year off and travel, you're not even paying attention -"
"- but we are moving to Montana, I have sole custody for a very good reason, and while I am sorry to be taking you away from your girlfriend, I already knew you and Shula were close and it doesn't outweigh -"
Celia drowned her out with a shriek. "You're impossible! What am I, furniture? It's easier to unbolt me from the wall than even consider my feelings? I'm going out with Shula, don't wait up." She stormed out; Maureen didn't try to prevent her.
Shula was waiting in her car at the curb. "Did it work?" she asked through the open window.
Celia got into the passenger seat, slumping aggressively. "No. I really thought it would. She's fine about the lesbian thing, but it didn't help and - I thought it would help."
Shula put a hand on her shoulder. "I thought so too. You don't think that with a little more time she'd come around...?"
"No." Celia shook her head. "Maybe if I'd told her months ago before she told me we were moving. Like that's reasonable." She hugged Shula's arm. "Where are we going?"
"Dinner. You'll see," said Shula. "Put your seatbelt on."
Celia did. "You're not going to dump me over the long dista-"
"Oh no sweetie of course not," exclaimed Shula, pulling into the street. "I was never going to dump you. Did it sound like that?"
"It sounded pretty dire when you were telling me I'd better come out in case that helped."
"I'd come out if it would help get us moved to Montana with you, but my parents would be harder nuts to crack than yours."
"And you've got a sister, she has a fiancé, it'd be just the same for her -"
"Amrika could move out if she had to, she could get a different job if Dad moved the company, she's nineteen. It's not like you where you can't stay behind. She wouldn't let you move in with your dad?"
"She has full custody for a very good reason," said Celia in mocking imitation. "Honestly, he's never hurt anybody."
"I would be worried, a little," Shula admitted, "but you could just sleep over at my place whenever you wanted if it got dicey, as long as my parents didn't know what was going on, and they're good at not knowing what's going on."
"Well, she's not going to let me. I don't want to talk about this anymore. What's for dinner?"
"You'll see," said Shula.
Dinner was Italian. Fancy Italian. Celia wasn't sure how Shula got the money to take her to such nice places when her parents thought they were just friends - sure, the Alis were rich, but didn't Shula have to account for her allowance's disappearance? - but the food was delicious and the waiters were too well-trained to remark on their holding hands across the table. Candlelight flickered in the little rubies set in the stacks of yellow-gold rings Shula always had around her middle fingers, and in her dark, dark eyes.
They didn't drive anywhere right away after they'd finished their tiramisu, just sat in the back of Shula's car, cuddled together like they might fall asleep, Celia breathing the hot ginger smell of Shula's shoulder and Shula with her fingers tangled in dishwater-blonde waves of Celia's hair.
"I guess we could probably do this at my house, now," Celia mumbled.
"But only for as long as your mother wanted to let us," Shula said. "I don't believe it's any of her business how long I want to hold you."
Celia giggled. "You're so warm. I could doze off."
"So doze off," Shula purred.
And Celia closed her eyes and nuzzled her girlfriend and did exactly that.
Carefully, without disturbing Celia's position, Shula lifted one hand to her mouth and twisted the ring close to her knuckle around until the ruby was palm-side.
Abandoning her faintly accented English in favor of, not her parents' Arabic, but another language entirely, she murmured into the ring.
"I need you to come down. In the next twenty minutes if you can, in the next two days if you can't."
"Yes Princess. I'll be down in ten. Alone?"
"Alone. Have someone trustworthy standing by at your station, you'll be here for a while."
"Report in when you arrive. Buzz first, don't talk, in case I'm accompanied."
"And bring a sleeper. ...Two. And an English ring, American standard, the best one you can get, delay arrival if you have to for that."
"Yes Princess," Lyne said again, and the conversation was over. Carefully, gently, Shula turned the ring back around, and stroked Celia's hair, and breathed slow, deep breaths to calm herself.
"It'll be okay, sweetie," she murmured.
When Celia woke, she was in the passenger seat, wearing her seatbelt, in her driveway.
Shula was standing on the doorstep, talking to Maureen. Celia rubbed her eyes and let herself out of the car.
"Hi sweetie," Shula said. "I hope you don't mind that I thought I'd give talking to your mom a try."
"Um, that's fine," Celia blinked. "Hi Mom."
"Hello, Celia," Maureen said. "I'm sorry about earlier. Look, I'll investigate some alternative arrangements, all right? And keep you up to date on what I find. There might be a way for me to work remotely for the first few months, sublet the house, something like that. If it can't last until you've finished high school or at least turned eighteen, then I'll reconsider letting you live with your father, as long as your uncle Joe thinks it would be all right."
Celia stared. "Uh. Okay. Um, that would be great." She looked wide-eyed at Shula - what could Shula have possibly said? She was persuasive, but convincing someone else's mom to reverse apparently firm plans was a bit beyond winning in debate club. "Really great. Thanks Mom." She found Shula's hand with hers and squeezed. "Thanks, Shula."
"Hey, I'm not letting you disappear without a fight," Shula said, kissing Celia's temple.
Celia giggled and hugged her. And then Shula kissed her goodnight while Maureen slipped into the house. Shula left. Celia, in a burst of filial gratitude, did math homework she'd postponed all weekend, and went to bed.
Maureen woke up in the dark.
The air smelled faintly sulfurous, she was on some kind of cross between a down comforter and a beanbag, she couldn't remember anything after Celia had gone to dinner with Shula, and there was no light at all.
She squinted, she squinted harder, and finally she gave up on her eyes and started feeling around on the beanbag-thing. It was comfortable enough, but she didn't have one of these at home. Where was she? In all places within immediate reach there was only more beanbag-thing, more darkness. She crawled in a random direction: beanbag, beanbag, beanbag - wall. Stone, flat but not polished? That roughened kind of glass? She wasn't sure. She patted herself down for the lighter she sometimes had in her pocket, but on inspection these weren't her clothes. They didn't quite fit. T-shirt, jeans, socks, no shoes. The underwear might have been hers, she couldn't be sure without looking.
She coughed into her hand. This wasn't getting her anywhere - what, was she expecting a lightswitch, when she'd obviously been drugged or something - "H-hello?"
"Hello, Ms. Lister," said a voice from somewhere to Maureen's left. It sounded British. "Do you need something?"
What a bizarre question. Did she need something. "I - light? And -"
Before she could name another thing she needed, lights came up - sconce flames, blindingly orange, in slanting rows on each wall. She flung her hands over her eyes and tried to peek in little increments. "And - and where am I, what's going on?"
"You are the guest of the First Princess ya Fahai," said the voice. Maureen squinted between her fingers. There was a dark shape; she couldn't focus well enough in the firelight to make out whether she was dealing with a CIA agent or a little green man.
"The Princess's reasons have not been disclosed to me," said the figure.
"What does the - the princess - even have to do with me?" wondered Maureen, bewildered. She could open her eyes most of the way, now. The shape was definitely humanoid, probably male, wearing black floaty robes that were only slightly darker than his skin and close-cropped hair. "I've never heard of any princess."
"The Princess is courting your daughter."
"...Shula kidnapped me?"
"The Princess did not personally lay a hand on you," said the persony-sort-of-thing. There were some people who naturally produced that much melanin, but they still tended to have whites in their eyes: he did not.
"Had me kidnapped. Shula? Where am I?"
"In her private estate."
"Well, I - don't want to be in her private estate. Who are you, why did she kidnap me -"
"The Princess did not personally -"
"- why did she have me kidnapped, and since when is Shula a princess?"
"The Princess was born a princess," said the black-eyed... person. "Naturally. And I am Cait."
Which was apparently a boy's name for black-eyed persons. If this was a boy. "And why. Why did she have me kidnapped." It would make perfect sense for the answer to be because I'm dreaming but it didn't feel like a dream.
"The Princess's reasons have not been disclosed to me."
"Is this about the move to Montana? Why does a - a princess care if I move to - Oh my God is Celia all right -"
"Your daughter's safety is absolutely guaranteed, Ms. Lister."
"Right now that's not very reassuring!"
The black-eyed thing - Cait - was impassive.
"I want to go home."
"I need to go home, take me home."
"You are the guest of the Princess."
"This is not how you treat a guest!"
"If you require something that I can provide, of course I will bring it to you," said Cait the black-eyed thing.
"Who's watching my daughter? Shula can't watch my daughter, Shula's barely older than she is -"
"You have been replaced for what is likely a temporary period," Cait said.
"Replaced," agreed Cait serenely.
"Another of the Princess's servants has assumed your shape. You may communicate with her if you wish to make it easier for her to avoid alarming your daughter. The Princess has suggested that her ability to coach your replacement may be incomplete."
"If I wish to - excuse me?"
"It is possible that your daughter will notice any failure of your replacement to mimic you," explained Cait. "You may speak to your replacement while your daughter is not present in order to prevent her from being dismayed."
"I will do no such thing!"
The lights went out.
Maureen woke up in the dark. The air smelled faintly sulfurous, she was on some kind of cross between a down comforter and a beanbag, she couldn't remember anything after Celia had gone to dinner with Shula, and there was no light at all.
"It's weird, though," Celia told Shula at lunch on Monday, picking at her baked beans. "What did you even say to her?"
"I don't remember. I'm sure it was very sappy but I can't recite it," laughed Shula.
"It must have really been something."
"I was really motivated!" Shula giggled.
"Maybe I should have tried talking to her longer last night instead of stomping out of the house?" Celia mused. "...You didn't offer her money, did you, please say you -"
Shula shook her head. "Not a penny. Besides, I didn't have a chance to ask my parents about it. They don't give me enough spending money to justify that. I think she just really had a change of heart."
"It's pretty amazing. You're pretty amazing." By longstanding agreement they didn't kiss at school, just knocked their shoes together when it was on their minds. Celia bumped her sneaker into Shula's boot and Shula smiled at her.
"Come over after school today," Shula suggested.
"Today? Right after Mom's big three-sixty?"
"One-eighty? It'd seem like I was ditching her."
"Really? I mean, she approves of, you know, us," said Shula. "I don't think she'd mind. Call her and ask if you want." A little kick to the side of Celia's shoe.
Celia blushed. "Okay, I'll call her. Your folks won't mind?"
"Okay," Celia repeated.
When European history let out at the end of the day Celia dialed home and asked, and Maureen said that of course she could see Shula whenever she liked, and by the way, uncle Joe said this would be a fine day to visit her dad if she wanted to get dinner with him and she wasn't expected home until bedtime.
Okay. That was nice.
Maybe she's just overcompensating for not knowing what to do with a gay kid?
Celia called her uncle Joe, who suggested that they could get Chinese food, and since the day was already going so well Celia threw in, "Can I bring my girlfriend?"
"You want to bring a friend?" asked Uncle Joe.
Ugh. "My giiiiirlfriend."
"Has your dad met this friend before?"
"A couple of times, yeah," sighed Celia. If he was going to be willfully obtuse about it then yelling I'M A LESBIAN into her cellphone wouldn't improve the situation.
"Then sure, bring your friend, if he knows her. Chinese for everybody."
"Garlic eggplant here I come." Celia hung up. Probably too much to hope for that everyone would react as well as her mom had. Maybe her dad would do better? Of course, maybe her dad would have another psychotic episode, that was always possible. Yeah, that would be fun. Celia, what happened before your dad started thwacking the couch with the broom? Well, Uncle Joe, I told him I was gay.
Celia found Shula in the art room, where the teacher would often let her stay late to put in extra time on her paintings - the art teacher swooned over Shula's paintings, all shades of dark and flame, swooping strange architecture against starless night. Celia had a triptych of them in her room - The Estate, The Crown, The Palace. "Shula, my mom said I can go home with you. And Uncle Joe says you can come to dinner with us and my dad."
"Great!" said Shula, and she put a thin eyelash-shape of yellow on a torch in the foreground of her current canvas, then cleaned her brush. "I can put this down here. We can raid Amrika's nail polish collection, she got some of the cool magnetic stuff."
"She won't mind?"
"Nah." Shula had her hair tied back to keep it out of her paint; she untied the ponytail and shook out a sheet of midnight. "She's never gotten on my case about it. Later!" she added to the art teacher, who waved at her as she went with Celia out of the room.
Shula drove them to the Ali household, which was an imposing manor on a lawnmower-gridded tract of green, just far enough into the suburbs to allow that much square footage and a fountain. They didn't have servants except in the modern sense of employing a gardening service and cleaning ladies, but every time Celia walked in the front door she sort of expected a butler to take her backpack and offer her a glass of water. Mr. Ali was home, in the parlor on his phone, pacing, shouting at an employee in Arabic; Dr. Ali was not in evidence; Amrika's keys were not on the hook, so presumably she was elsewhere too. Shula didn't hold Celia's hand while they walked past her dad, but made up for this lack once they'd gone up the stairs and around the corner to Shula's room.
They painted their nails with Amrika's cool magnetic nail polish - Shula in all gold, Celia alternating pink and blue. They locked the door and sat in the window seat and kissed as though Celia really was going to be spirited away any day. They unlocked the door and played chess (Shula won). They did some of their homework, Celia with her head in Shula's lap ("should we lock the door?" "nah, he won't think anything of it"). And then they got back in the car and went to Celia's dad's apartment.
David lived alone, but in the same building and just down the hall from his brother Joe. The place was usually kept to acceptable levels of cleanliness, if profound levels of disorganization; they stepped over shoes on the way into the kitchen and found Joe clearing empty envelopes and old napkins off the table to make way for takeout.
"Hi, Dad," Celia said, plopping into the chair next to her father. "You remember Shula."
"Yes," David agreed.
"Uh, when Mom called earlier did you talk to her or just uncle Joe?"
"I haven't talked to Maureen," blinked David.
"Yes you did, Dave," said Joe, putting down plates and forks. "You were on with her for fifteen, twenty minutes before you handed her over."
"That wasn't Maureen," said David.
Joe hesitated in distributing containers of rice. "Dave..."
David shook his head. "I'm fine. I'm fine."
"You talked to Maureen for about fifteen minutes, after lunch," Joe said. "And then you gave me the phone, and I said the girls here could come over for dinner. Remember?"
"I'm fine," snapped David, and he took a container of eggdrop soup.
Joe looked apologetically at Celia, then at Shula.
"What do you mean, it wasn't her?" Shula asked.
"Never mind," muttered David.
"Did, um, did she tell you anything interesting," said Celia. "Or surprising?"
David frowned at her. "Like what?"
Shula tapped her toes to Celia's twice.
Once was a kiss. Twice was remember we don't literally kiss, here. In school; under the noses of Shula's very assimilated but still quite Muslim parents; in front of Celia's dad, apparently.
"Nothing," said Celia.
They ate Chinese food, subdued. Joe kept looking nervously at his brother, who was staring resolutely at his dinner. Shula was frowning thoughtfully at David too. Celia flicked her eyes from girlfriend to father to uncle, unsure what to do. Sometimes visits with her dad went great. Sometimes this happened. Sometimes Joe could judge when it was a good day and sometimes he couldn't.
They opened fortune cookies. Celia's said You will explore new places.
And Shula took her home.
It was pitch dark.
Cait walked through the introduction pattern with Ms. Lister again. This was the second time she'd asked for a meal after asking for light, but apart from a brief back and forth about whether Cait would have poisoned the food, it didn't seem to change anything about the trajectory of her questions or her answers when he gave her bread and meat and vegetables early in the conversation. It changed nothing if he traded rings with another estate-keeper and spoke in another accent. It changed nothing if he appeared in a female shape instead, or if he moved his class marker from the color of his eyes (which she once remarked upon) to somewhere less conspicuous. He didn't have many degrees of freedom; the Princess still hadn't told him exactly what she was up to, so he couldn't make up particularly sophisticated stories justifying the need to help Lyne impersonate Ms. Lister.
Ms. Lister declined, again.
Cait wiped her, again.
Ms. Lister fell asleep after a few moments' groggy blinking. It was a reasonable hour for that in the time zone she'd come from. Cait twisted the ring on his thumb, all the way around and then halfway back.
There was a delay, and:
"Princess," Cait said, "Ms. Lister is still unrepsonsive. Without more information about the situation or leeway on her treatment, I do not believe I can extract her cooperation in a timely manner."
"I'll work around it. You can stop wiping her and just keep her comfortable. If she'll help later that's still useful, let me know. Is there anything else?"
Cait waited deferentially for five minutes of dead silence on her end and then turned his ring back to its original position. He watched Maureen sleep in the darkness. She'd derived, several times, in bits and pieces that she'd spoken aloud, that the Princess must have kidnapped her because of her desire to move to "Montana", but Cait was not as well informed of Earthly politics as Lyne. Perhaps Montana was dangerous and the Princess feared for her consort's safety. Perhaps the Princess's consort did not wish to go to Montana and Ms. Lister had been planning to abduct her.
It would have needed to be a fairly serious problem for the Princess to be unable to address it with sufficient selective memory deletion, on her own recognizance. She needed to be limited and discreet with her use of her resources. Even having Lyne away and Cait holding down the Estate was a risk.
The Princess's little brothers and sisters might notice that she was struggling.
Celia packed her things.
Just the important stuff.
Dad's apartment was small.
One box of clothes, one box of books, all her school stuff in her backpack. Pillow, quilt, vine-print bag of toiletries, box marked "Misc." for her laptop and last-gen Nintendo and two stuffed animals and winter coat and odds-and-ends. Everything else that hadn't gone into the discard bin was going into a storage unit until Celia had her own place to spread out into. Shula was helping; so was uncle Joe. Maureen was on the phone in another room, voice low, talking to the school authorities or the realtor or her new boss or something.
"Your dad will like having you around more, really," Joe told her. "But you've got to be patient with him. You're old enough to be responsible about that, now."
Celia nodded. This was her idea, wasn't it? Sleep on Dad's couch, make sure he took his pills, do his errands occasionally so uncle Joe could pick up more hours at work, stay in town, stay with Shula. Packing felt weird anyway. She taped "Misc." shut. Shula nudged their shoes together and picked the box up to go stuff it in the back of Maureen's station wagon.
Once everything was loaded up, Shula, who had to be at dinner with her parents and sister and sister's fiancé, went home; Joe drove Celia to the apartment and they hauled everything up. Celia got to unpacking. It took a couple hours. She shelved her books in the box; she put her clothes in the front closet where her dad had cleared away a couple of shelves.
Her phone buzzed in her purse. Shula had texted: remember you can sleep over basically whenever you want!
Celia looked around the apartment and went to take inventory of the kitchen. Uncle Joe was in there, cleaning the microwave.
"If you ever need to come over to my place for a night -" he began.
"- then I'll go to Shula's instead, because you have cats, uncle Joe," Celia said. "I'd sneeze myself to death."
"I could shut them up in my room overnight, they usually sleep there anyway."
"They've been all over the apartment, it won't help. But thanks," said Celia.
"Do you want to run out to the grocery store?" Joe asked, as Celia peered into the fridge.
"That'd be good." Dad had storebought potato salad and half a premade lasagna and ketchup and a box of questionable strawberries. Wilting lettuce, soy sauce. Sliced cheese, deli turkey, pickles. "Uh, Mom said she gave you some money - or sent Dad the money, I wasn't totally clear - to cover expenses."
"Yep. Don't worry about it, get whatever you'll eat. Maybe go easy on the caviar."
"Should we wake up Dad and see if he wants to come?"
Joe shook his head. "Let him nap. Generally. Let him nap."
Joe took her shopping. She put everything away. Joe left for work. Celia dug into her backpack and found some homework to do.
This is weird, she thought, mechanically conjugating Spanish verbs. Why did she let me...?
She's not okay about the gay thing at all, is she. She's not kicking me out though. Technically. I asked.
She's barely talked to me since.
Better not tell Dad. I have nowhere else to live.
She's not okay about the gay thing at all, is she. She's not kicking me out though. Technically. I asked.
She's barely talked to me since.
Better not tell Dad. I have nowhere else to live.
David woke up slowly. It was hard to tell from the inside when exactly he woke up. Everything was foggy. His head hurt. The clock said a quarter after five in the afternoon. The sticky note on the clock said in his own handwriting Celia moving in today.
Right. He sat up, rubbed his eyes, tried to control the shaking in his hands to no avail.
He looked at the wall. He ran through a sort of checklist in his head. He never believed anything that he didn't think was true, but if he believed anything that would get him in trouble if he were in a hospital, he could sometimes tell which things those were. And sometimes he could tell Joe about it. And then his psychiatrist could give him more antipsychotics and he could sleep more and shake more and let his brain erode into gray soup, but Celia had moved in, so better to be that little bit more careful.
His name was David and his daughter Celia had just moved in. Safe.
It was April. Celia's birthday was in August. She'd be eighteen. Safe.
Celia had moved in because she didn't want to go to Montana with his ex. Safe.
He hadn't talked to Maureen. About Celia moving in, or anything, not for weeks. ...Questionable. Joe disagreed. But that was David thinking something had not happened, rather than thinking that something had. Joe had never had a psychotic break in his life but he didn't necessarily have a perfect recall. Probably safe.
Celia's friend Shula was an alien with mystical powers who -
That didn't make any sense. Shula had a human family. Aliens with mystical powers would only embed themselves into human families to seek mates. Celia didn't fit the profile, so an alien wouldn't waste any time on her. David didn't have any idea why he'd thought that in the first place; it didn't hold together.
...Talking about aliens with mystical powers would probably get him in trouble in a hospital. But he didn't really believe it, because it didn't make sense in terms of Shula's motive. And he could dismiss the belief by thinking about it and realizing it didn't hold together, it wasn't a sticky delusion. Having identified the flaw in its logical coherence, he wasn't motivated to do anything about it, let alone endanger his kid. Probably just fine.
Joe would be at work at this hour. He was a security guard. Safe.
David tried to smooth his hair, gave up, put his slippers on and went out of his bedroom. Celia was in the kitchen, he could hear her. He ducked into the bathroom and came out again just as she said, "Hi Dad. Do you want some tuna?"
He smiled at her tiredly. "Love some. Thanks."
She gave him a bowlful of tuna with hardboiled eggs and pasta twists in it, and he ate it and it was good. He could do this.
Maureen was getting sort of crazily accustomed to the place.
Cait was always around; if he slept, he did it whenever she did. Sometimes he spoke into the rings on his fingers, always in a language she couldn't understand. Sometimes he would leave her alone in a room, but he'd appear at her elbow if she tried to leave; if he was going to be busy for a long enough time she was locked into whatever room she was in at the moment. After she'd been there for several days his accent suddenly went from Scottish to Southern.
It was always night. The building was warm, there were hot drafts blowing through the vents (too small to cartoonishly crawl through), it was always lit with the fire sconces. There weren't lightswitches; she had to ask Cait, every time, although he was pretty quick to anticipate her if she got up and moved.
She'd tried to make a run for it once. The lights had all gone out as soon as she'd bolted, and she'd crashed into a wall; when she'd found the door, it wouldn't open; and then Cait had come up behind her and asked if she was quite finished.
She'd attacked him, then, finding him by his voice, and he'd just sort of stood there, immobile, while she beat her fists against his chest. He was like concrete. Her hands ached. She stopped.
"I do apologize for the necessity," he'd said.
"Then let me go home."
So she continued to live in the windowless firelit - place. Estate. She mostly stayed in the one room, with the cushy beanbag-esque thing taking up most of the floor; Cait would bring her food there, plain but recognizable and edible. There was an ensuite bathroom with bizarre plumbing but not so bizarre that she was forced to ask for help figuring it out. If she asked for a book or a newspaper there would be a delay but eventually she'd get it. She started asking in batches. He wouldn't bring her her own clothes, but he'd get her others, so she had changes of outfit available.
Much of the time she couldn't force herself to read. Too worried about Celia, about the carefully balanced elements of her life collapsing - what would the realtor think, her boss, what was the date, was she already supposed to be starting? It was always night; Cait didn't seem to know how to operate a calendar. Maybe it was already May. Maybe Celia had finished school, given up on her mother reappearing, gone to a foster home...? Or her father's. David meant well, Maureen supposed, but...
"So Shula's a princess," Maureen said to Cait one - night. Always night.
"Yes," said Cait.
"But her parents - I've met her parents, once or twice. Inabah's a doctor, I think Ahamad owns an electrician business, something like that."
Cait was silent.
"And they're from Yemen. I think Yemen's got a president. If it technically has kings and queens and princesses too, left over or something, they're not the kind with spooky magic servants who kidnap people for them."
Cait, eyes ink-black from corner to corner, regarded her neutrally.
"When Celia was - five or six she'd get angry at me and tell me that her real mother was a fairy queen who was going to come get her sooner or later. She was wrong, I would know. Shula..."
Cait's head tilted, just a fraction.
"...was absolutely right. And she knows it. And she can call her goons to kidnap me and hold me for God knows how long if I get in her way. What does she want with my daughter?"
"You know that I am not at liberty to answer all of your questions," Cait said.
"I've gotten that impression. How were Inabah and Ahmad convinced, is she a changeling, do you have the real Shula shut up somewhere in another wing...?"
"Apart from the Princess's servants, such as myself, you are the only person on the Estate."
"Is the real Shula dead?"
"The royal family does not condone biological murder."
"What the hell is biological murder?"
"Killing a person's physical body."
"As opposed to what other kind of murder?"
This one Cait didn't answer.
Maureen flopped backwards into the beanbag thing. It was really cozy. "Are Shula's real parents, what, paying the Alis to raise her?"
"Turn the lights out, I'm going to sleep," growled Maureen. The fact that he was keeping her prisoner was mildly less grating when he'd respond to even the most brusque orders (within the scope of his other instructions) with smooth obedience. No Zimbardo prison guard was Cait. The sconces went out. The door opened and closed again, leaving Maureen alone.
She stared into the darkness and rolled over and wondered where she was.
Celia settled into a pattern. She looked after her dad with uncle Joe's help; she kept up all right in school; she hung out with Shula and slept over a couple times a week. Shula turned eighteen in May. School let out. They spent most of every day together; Shula bought her ice cream, and took her to movies and the water park and - one weekend, with her sister Amrika along but unobservant - to the beach. Shula tutted over her sunburns more than was really warranted so that Celia would let her put sunscreen on her. (Shula didn't burn. She wasn't that dark, but apparently it was enough. Celia put sunscreen on her anyway. "Anyone can get cancer, Shula.")
Celia called her mother once a week. The conversations were brief. Celia asked polite questions about how Montana was, but Maureen tended to steer the conversation back to how Celia was doing, so Celia told her about the creepy feeling of seaweed on her leg, the weird flavors of gelato Shula had dared her to try, how rude that one guy in the line for the water slide was. She tried to strike a balance between conspicuously not bringing up Shula and talking about her constantly despite her suspicion that her mother was not, really, comfortable. She couldn't tell if she was managing.
The summer wore on. Celia looked at colleges, thought about veterinary medicine or maybe dentistry or something, wrote scholarship essays. Shula didn't.
Celia's birthday rolled around. Shula decided to throw her a party, no ifs ands or buts - though Celia was given the choice of a big party, at Shula's house, with school friends, where they would have to be in the closet, or a little celebration picnic, just the two of them, out in the woods.
Celia wanted the picnic. It wasn't like her dad would want to come to a big crowded party, and her mom was out of state. Everybody else could send her a card.
So Shula picked her up, the day Celia turned eighteen, and drove her out to the trail, and they hiked to the picnic spot and set up cake and sparkling grape juice.
The sky was bright and full of puffy, white clouds. Celia shut her eyes and inhaled wind and pine. She licked frosting off her lip.
When she opened her eyes again Shula was beside her, down on one knee.
"Celia," said Shula. She scooped Celia's hand up in her own. "Celia Rhiannon Lister-Altman. Will -"
"Oh my god," breathed Celia.
"- you marry me?" finished Shula, looking up at her hopefully.
"Oh my God, Shula," said Celia. She was proposing with one of those gold-and-ruby rings she always wore. "Shula, we can't."
"Not here, obviously we'd have to go somewhere else. Please. I love you, you have no idea, I love you, I love you -"
"Please. Let me put this on you and pretend it's a symbol of our friendship or something to anyone who asks and I don't expect to walk you down any aisles anytime soon, but -"
"Shula, I can't, we're eighteen."
"My parents were eighteen," Shula said.
"I'm going to go to college, what if -?"
"That's supposed to make me stop wanting to marry you?" asked Shula, smiling a little.
"We haven't even finished high school. There's a year left. I can't be engaged in high school."
Shula pursed her lips. "You're positive?"
"I'm really sorry - and I want, I want to stay together, honest, but it's just too -"
Shula took a deep breath.
And got up and sat down across from Celia on the other side of the picnic table, just like she had been before, and put the ring back on her own hand -
- and took three minutes of memory.
Stress evaporated from Celia instantly. She smiled. She reached for her fork, took another bite of cake.
"Sorry, what were you saying?" Celia asked.
"I think," Shula said, "we should put all the food away so we can snuggle on the picnic blanket without ants stealing our dessert. Yeah?"
Celia giggled. "Yeah." She snuck another bite of cake and then put its lid back on and put it back in the basket and flopped quite happily onto her girlfriend.
Okay. Time to try something different. Snuggles. Hair-petting.
"What if I didn't take a gap year?" Shula asked.
"And we went to the same school."
"That'd be nice," Celia yawned. "Heh, maybe we could room together."
"Living in sin," commented Shula.
"Thought you were a secret atheist."
"Yeah, I am, it's just an expression."
"Sure. Living in sin, getting degrees in whatever. It'd be great."
"What if I don't want to live in sin?"
"Are you kidding? You're the one who keeps griping about all the places with beds being too supervised to sin in."
"No, silly," Shula kissed her, "I mean what if I wanna marry you."
"What, you want to elope to, what's the nearest state that has it legal? Before we even go to college?"
"I might wanna get engaged," Shula murmured.
"Or," Shula said, "you know what -"
She took the ring off her finger.
"Call it a promise ring," said Shula.
"Awww," said Celia. "It breaks up the set though, all your matching rings."
"No it doesn't. Unless you're planning to quit holding my hand." Shula elbowed her.
"Ha. Okay, fine." Celia presented her hand.
Shula slipped it onto her ring finger. "Mine," she said, kissing that knuckle and then Celia's forehead. "Promise."
"Promise," agreed Celia, giggling, and she tugged Shula closer for a kiss on the lips.
Shula kissed her, and, behind Celia's back, brought her hands together to twist a different ring around, three hundred sixty degrees. While Celia's eyes were still closed -
- the Earth dissolved around them.
"Ms. Lister," said Cait.
"Your daughter has arrived. You may see her -"
"- just like that I can - what happened - is she all right? -"
"- on a number of conditions."
"The Princess requires that everything go smoothly for a certain critical period of time. You may see your daughter if you do not alarm her, nor allude to your having been here for the last several months. If you do either of those things she will not remember the experience, but you will not see her again soon."
"I knew, I knew I was missing time -"
"Very little of it. You have not been wiped since the first several days of your time here."
"I knew something was up. Is Celia okay?"
"She is unharmed."
"Biologically," snarled Maureen.
"She is biologically unharmed," conceded Cait.
"Fuck you all alien things!"
"I cannot bring you to your daughter in this temperament."
"I'll bet you can't." Maureen breathed deep, once, twice, counted to ten. Twenty, thirty. "What am I supposed to tell her if I can't tell her you've been keeping me here?"
"You may - not immediately, but at the appointed time in some hours - describe yourself as voluntarily present to attend her engagement party. If you would prefer not to attend her engagement party you are of course free to miss it."
"Her engagement p- what the hell is going on with this place?"
"I believe you will find your access to information much less restricted if you comply with the Princess's requirements."
Maureen's teeth ground together.
"You have time to consider your reply."
"I do not know exactly. I am required elsewhere, but will return when your answer is called for."
And Cait left the room and locked her in.
It actually took Celia half a minute to notice.
Shula was distracting, and they were all alone, and the promise ring thing was sweet, and Shula was kissing her -
So Celia didn't notice right away that they were no longer under the sun, on a picnic blanket.
But eventually she came up for air, and the air tasted strange, so she opened her eyes, and the light wasn't sunny and the sky wasn't blue.
"Shula?" mouthed Celia.
"It's okay," Shula said. "It's okay, you're fine, I won't let anything hurt you. It's okay, sweetie."
"What - happened? Where are we?" asked Celia, not liking how high and pathetic her voice sounded. I'm cracking up, I'm cracking up just like Dad -
"It's okay. Sweetie, sweetie." Shula hugged her and Celia leaned on her, hard, because Shula was the only familiar thing in this starless firelit midnight. Shula was calm and Celia wanted to copy her.
"Where are we?" asked Celia again, softly.
"It's complicated. Will you let me start at the beginning?" Shula was raking her fingers through Celia's hair, snugging Celia's head tight to her shoulder. "It'll make more sense that way."
"I don't understand."
"I know. I'm sorry. I'll start from the beginning, Celia, okay?" Fingernails on scalp. The air smelled like eggs and campfire and dry mineral dust but Shula smelled like ginger, just like always, it was just Shula, her Shula.
"My mom and dad aren't my biological parents," Shula said. "They think they are - they're exactly who you always thought, so is Amrika - but I'm from here. This is a different planet."
"How are we breathing?" asked Celia, and then she felt like an idiot and pushed her face harder into Shula's shoulder.
"There's plenty of oxygen," soothed Shula. "It's completely safe. My natural mother's from Earth originally, and she's lived here for hundreds of years."
Celia hiccuped, trying not to freak out worse than she already had. "H-hundreds?"
"Yeah. People live a long time, here." Shula kissed the top of Celia's head. "I'm so glad I can finally tell you - I couldn't before but now I can. ...I'm mostly human, to be clear. My mother's all human, my paternal grandfather was all human, so on like that. How are you doing...? I can slow down."
"I'm... Keep going." Shula's hand was still carding through Celia's hair and Celia concentrated as hard as she could on that, not on the sudden teleportation, not on her girlfriend claiming to be from another planet, not the people being hundreds of years old thing.
"Okay. I'm... actually older than you. Please don't be creeped. I don't think I feel older than eighteen, if that makes sense, because I've never been treated as older than eighteen in my life. But I'm actually more like, uh, thirty. I lived here for about twelve years -"
"Yeah, I'm translating, it's fewer local years. I lived here for about twelve years, and was about as mature as you'd expect a twelve-year-old to be, and then I de-aged and went to live with Mom and Dad, the ones you've met."
"But - why?"
Shula took a deep breath. Celia mimicked her. Deep breaths were supposed to be calming.
"Well," said Shula, "...you know, I practiced, I rehearsed explaining this, and it's still really hard. Can you be patient with me even if it sounds strange?"
"I - yeah." It was still Shula.
"Okay. I'm gonna sort of - zoom in from the big picture. When a planet has life on it for long enough it starts accumulating magic. We don't know exactly how long this takes - our history doesn't stretch that far back and we haven't found that many planets that have any magic sticking to them."
"The native intelligent species on this planet - I'm not sure you could pronounce it. I should have translated it to English ahead of time. I'm making a total hash of this, I'm sorry."
"It's, um, it's all right."
"Call them plakti, it's close enough. So, plakti developed on a planet that already had magic stuck to it. An old planet. With an old star. The star's a black hole now, by the way, it's not night, it's just always like this. It's safe, we just orbit it normally."
"Does - does Earth have magic?"
"If it does, it's not much."
"Okay. Plakti, old planet, dead star."
"When the plakti first evolved the star was still alive, but yeah. Growing up on this planet gives particular kinds of magic - the important one for this story is shapeshifting. It turns out that if you are really dumb about how you use shapeshifting, you can forget how to get back to your normal shape, and then you can't have kids."
"I know, I know, I didn't want to spring this on you or do it so soon, but there's - there's stuff, I'll get there."
Celia nodded numbly.
"There are no pure plakti left who can have kids. There are hundreds of millions of plakti, but no new ones. They noticed this was going on just in time to find one who hadn't done any shapeshifting, a few thousand years ago. But there was only one of him."
"Was - he your great-grandfather - or something?"
"Yes. They found another planet, Earth, with people on it, and he very very carefully shapeshifted to look like a human, and he placed himself in a human family and grew up there and married a human and took her back here and they had kids. And I'm glossing over a few years of history lessons but it wound up that he got made king of the plakti."
"Are you saying you're an alien princess."
"Yeah. I am," said Shula.
Celia sat up, away from Shula, slowly. She looked around. There were no visible stars in the sky, no moon. They were on some kind of stone platform, on a cushy plush rectangle, surrounded by torches; more fires dotted the landscape below, it looked like they were on top of a hill or a tower.
"Is this your castle?"
"This is my estate. I don't get the proper castle yet. Mother and Father are still alive."
It would be rude to ask how long they were going to live, probably. "So you had to go live with your mom and dad, and grow up all over again on Earth, and... find... me."
"Yes." Shula had a hopeful look on her face, thrown into soft shadow by the flickering torches. "Exactly."
"We're... we're both girls. We can't have kids."
"I spent long enough here first to have plakti magic, and I'm mostly human, which lets me cheat a little on the combining shapeshifting and having kids thing - probably - if it doesn't work there's a kind of a problem but we can figure something out. I can't claim it'd be the most pleasant thing ever, but it'd probably work."
"You'd turn into a guy."
"For maybe thirty seconds, below the waist, yeah. I really didn't want to spring this on you but if I fucked up any of the," she waved a hand, "traditions and protocols, before I managed to get you here, with a ring on your finger -"
"When you said you wanted to get married -"
"I meant it."
"When you said promise ring -"
"I was kind of reaching, there."
"...if you fucked up a tradition or protocol then...?"
"Then," said Shula, "my little brothers and sisters start a civil war."
David sat bolt upright.
Celia was gone.
...Safe, or not safe? If he went and told Joe that Celia was missing -
Well, that would depend on whether they found her. If it turned out she was at the movies or the pool or the mall - for that matter, if it turned out that she was playing video games on the couch right beyond that door - then, no, not safe, because it would be false and more significant than whether or not he'd talked to Maureen in the past several months (he had not).
If Celia was missing -
- then how did David know it?
He'd been asleep. He hadn't seen her disappear.
And Joe hadn't seen him sleeping. If Joe thought -
David got up and paced.
He opened his door: no Celia on the couch, no Celia in the kitchen, no Celia occupying the bathroom. She was, at least, not home.
Note on the table: Gone on a picnic with Shula. Home for dinner.
That gave him a time frame. He could wait until it was reasonably dinnertime, then go tell Joe - not that Celia was gone, necessarily, but that she had said she'd be home for dinner, and was not.
...He decided to call her first, just in case. Picked her out from the contact list with shaky hands.
Voicemail. Joe would think she'd just let it run out of battery. David knew better and couldn't say how and if he tried to explain in a hospital to a psychiatrist then -
He tried calling Shula. He didn't know what he'd say to her, but he knew she wouldn't answer, anyway -
Voicemail. He let the phone fall from his fingers.
He sat at the kitchen table and stared at the microwave clock, waiting for dinner.
"I need," said Shula, "one more thing from you, and then everything will be calmed down and I will make it all up to you."
"Wh-what do you need?"
"I need to have an engagement party, I need you to be at it, I need you to swear up and down to everyone there that we are going to get married and have babies and you couldn't be happier," said Shula. "...Saying we're going to have exactly one baby is also fine, it doesn't have to be lots, I have seven siblings not counting Amrika but that's because it took a while for the Catholicism to wear off Mother."
"The Catholicism -"
"She was a convert in the era of conquistadors. Mariche native Venezuelan. Got religion, lots of it, married Father back on Earth and got whisked off to be queen of the plakti. I'm being glib, though, the Catholics didn't have that prominent of an opinion on birth control back when there wasn't any. She just likes kids."
"And they left you with Muslims?" blinked Celia.
"The less shapeshifting I had to do to look like Mom and Dad, the better, and the comfier my second childhood, the better, so they left me with rich brown people I kind of resembled in a First World country who were being decent parents to a first daughter. This was before 9/11, they didn't know I'd have that kind of trouble. But we're getting off the subject - the party - please say you'll be at the party. I have to show you to Mother and Father and the other heirs - presumptive? They may or may not be technically presumptive under the English meaning. Anyway, the less presumptive they feel after meeting you, the better."
"I don't know how to act around - kings and queens and princes and princesses -"
"Sweetie." Shula wrapped her arms around her and squeezed her. "I've been a princess all along and you impress the hell out of me. We'll put you in a pretty dress - no heels, promise - and you don't have to step away from me for even a moment the entire time. Just smile and lean on me and wear the ring. It's so important. Not just to me."
"Why would they start a war...?"
"Usual monarchy reasons. They want the big chair. They were hoping I'd go to Earth and strike out. I had a deadline. If I didn't come back with everything sewn up by then, next eldest - my brother Meer - got a shot."
"You're... thirty, right?"
"...Yes? Please don't dwell on that, I'm not some -"
"It's not that, it's just. Your real parents are hundreds of years old, aren't they? Why did they wait so long to have children? You're the oldest."
"They needed rings for us," Shula said, taking Celia's hand and tapping the ruby. "They got mine fairly early on, but they wanted to have us close enough together that I'd meet all my little siblings before I went off to Earth, so they waited. The ones I'm wearing aren't as scarce. What you've got on now is an immortality ring."
"Plakti," said Shula, "don't age."
"They live forever? That's why there are still some after they messed up with shapeshifting...?"
"Yes. But they can still die in accidents - or sometimes they just get suicidal. But this is much less frequent than human accidents - because shapeshifting can make a person really tough - and less frequent than human suicides - because we've got better ways of dealing with that, too. A small handful of plakti die over the course of entire human generations."
"What does that have to do with the rings, aren't the rings magic...?"
"The rings are magic, but unlike some magic they need a source. We only get new rings when a plakti decides to take their immortality and sell it."
Celia just stared, completely lost.
"They don't die right away, if they do that. They have a good few hundred years left, and it means that if they get themselves killed in some disastrous accident - falling into the black hole, say - then their immortality doesn't go to waste. The plakti know that they can't just coast forever, not without any new plakti and even very slow attrition. That's what the royal family is for. We're new people."
"If your parents are immortal then why do they need heirs?" wondered Celia.
"They're sharing a ring," Shula said. "They've got a while longer - long enough for every last one of my siblings to run out their own deadline trying to bring back a new king or queen, if it comes down to it, you're not going to be queen next month. Nobody's allowed to be in charge forever, and royalty avoids the obvious shapeshifting-buster dangers more than an average plakti. So instead of having four kids and giving each one an extra ring for a future spouse there's eight kids and I'm sharing mine with you. It'll more than halve your aging rate - you don't ramp up to full speed right away when you take it off. We can swap it back and forth."
Celia looked at the ring. "You're giving up immortality?"
"In the long run everyone's going to. The plakti are slowly replacing themselves with collateral descendants of the royal family, see? Instead of getting picked off a few at a time slightly slower and just as inevitably and the entire planet eventually being empty. I'm taking centuries of being queen - and not starting a war - and getting to have you - over maybe surviving the war and dying alone with an empty title, somewhat later, having never been to Earth. And I'm giving half of it to you."
"Never been to - is it hard to travel, am I ever going to see -"
"Oh no sweetie we can go back," soothed Shula, stroking her hair again. "Travel's easy. But if I hadn't been making a full-fledged go at the crown they wouldn't want me hanging around humans in case I changed my mind. We can visit whenever we want, but, say, my little brother Meer can't go until I'm solidly on the throne."
"You have no idea how good it feels to have all this crap off my chest," Shula exhaled. "I love you so much and I could barely tell you anything."
"It... sounds hard."
"But let's go get you dolled up for our party. You'll be gorgeous. I know what you like, I have a few options prepped in your size. Come on."
Shula tugged on her hand.
Celia followed helplessly down a flight of stairs lit by flames dancing in grooves in the walls.
It was five forty-five. It wasn't really dinnertime yet. David only had one opportunity to sound genuinely like he was worried because Celia wasn't back within the described time of her note rather than madly fretting for other reasons. Six-thirty at least. Seven would be better.
There was a knock at the door.
David opened it, and it was the person who'd been pretending to be Maureen.
"Hello, David," it said.
He just looked at it.
"Celia's having a party," it said. "I think she'd like it if you were there."
"I can bring you. Are you up to it?"
Celia was there and this was not Maureen but Maureen was also there and everyone thought he was insane and they were right but he didn't think he was insane just... this... once...
"Yeah," he said.
He probably couldn't do anything but Celia was there -
The dresses were lovely. Celia was having a hard time picking. It didn't help that she kept wondering if she should be doing something other than selecting a pretty princess dress for her impromptu engagement party. Panicking? Fainting? Pinching herself? Checking herself into a mental hospital and stammering her way through a family history, because there were probably loads of psychiatrists familiar with the most recent diagnostic and statistical manual on another freaking planet. Even Dad never thought he was literally on another planet.
Shula was flitting around behind her, occasionally issuing instructions to someone just outside the door who Celia hadn't gotten a good look at, occasionally commenting - nervously? Rapidly, anyway - on the wardrobe or other incidentals. "Normally we'd have servants helping but you haven't met them and I want you to be comfortable. The shoes that go with this one are not the friendliest - no heels, but no real arch support either. It depends if you want to dance, whether that matters, I guess. Do you want to dance?"
"I don't know how -"
"It would be the kind of slow-dancing that's just swaying back and forth at most but we can skip it. Oh, here - thank you, Cait - here, Celia, put this on, any finger, this is a ring with the most common plakti language in it, so you don't have to try to learn it the long way around. There might also be Spanish and some other local languages spoken but it should be mostly this one. We can get you more rings but it might be hard to find a Spanish one quickly."
Celia let Shula put the ring on her right ring finger. Shula switched languages. Celia understood her absolutely seamlessly. It was bewildering, everything was bewildering.
"The neckline on that one won't do with the bra you've got on, if you pick it I've got a different one to go with, this sort of thing is why I wanted to measure you myself when you were looking at dresses for your cousin's wedding, remember - you'll probably want one of the ones from here anyway, you've been on a budget -"
Eventually Celia picked the sleeveless cornflower-blue thing with the tiers of petal skirt. She let Shula flutter around her putting her in ridiculously nice underthings - they'd changed in front of each other before, going swimming, in gym class.
It didn't occur to her to wonder until after Shula was zipping up the back of the dress and kissing her neck to wonder whether the ridiculous niceness of the underthings was supposed to be relevant, later. It was an engagement party, not a wedding, but - Shula probably had waited until Celia was eighteen for some reason. Was she expecting...?
Probably not. Probably it was just part of the princessly upscaleness of the entire ensemble. The dress went with ankle boots in the same color. Celia put those on herself; Shula was shucking her own clothes and pulling a dress of her own from the depths of the wardrobe, screamingly scarlet lace and backless.
"Pearls or diamonds?" Shula asked, smirking, snapping Celia out of staring dry-mouthed at the way Shula's hair spilled between her shoulderblades and flame-red tatting.
"Uh?" If Celia wanted to make the niceness of anybody's underthings relevant, later, Shula would probably be amenable, they'd talked in embarrassed fits and starts and surreptitiously swapped pointers to library books because high school health class told them nothing. Amenable might be an understatement and this was Shula's own palace-estate-thing so there was no supervision that couldn't be shooed, probably -
"Your earrings won't match your dress," Shula explained. "I have pearls and diamonds in that color, which do you prefer? You could maybe pull off turquoise but it's not a perfect match, I'd want to add a scarf... amethyst for contrast?"
"...Pearls. The rings don't match either, though."
"Gold and ruby are sort of culturally neutral. Like wearing glasses on Earth, you know? But there's time to change dresses if you only just wondered about that?"
"Oh. No, it's fine. Pearls."
On went pearls. Earrings, a hair ornament she didn't have a word for, and one strand of teardrops around the neck. Shula herself went with gemless gold - lots of it. She looked like some kind of fire goddess and Celia wanted to kiss her. So she did.
Panicking and fainting and worrying she was having her first psychotic break could wait.
David went very docilely with the thing that looked like Maureen. He called it "Maureen", and got in the car with it, and let it drive him to a parking garage in a random part of town, and pretended not to notice that it was doing magic when the lights flickered off in the elevator and they traveled to another planet.
They thought he was crazy, and he was, in fact, absolutely, also, crazy, but he'd taken his meds and he was trying his absolute hardest to separate fiction from fact from fortune-telling, because they had his kid.
David followed the thing out of the little room that was pretending to be the elevator on the other end. He didn't remark on the fire-based lighting or the smell of the air. He followed the thing and let it loan him a suit. He put on the suit. He followed the thing some more.
"You may have noticed it's not an ordinary party," said the thing.
They thought he was crazier than he was. "Huh?" he blinked. Let the thing think he walked around thinking that everywhere looked like a Hell-themed amusement park every day of his life. Or let it think he thought this was a hotel ballroom, whatever.
"...Never mind. Just remember that this is very important to Celia, all right? Be happy for her."
He nodded. He attempted to paste on a smile. Oh, this was fantastic time for an icepick of a headache.
The thing that looked like Maureen led him into a huge hall.
David started looking for his daughter.
Fire danced in bowls of colored glass marbles and burned in ropes that reached from arch to arch under the high ceiling. Fire twisted in alcoves along every wall and smoldered under glass panels in the floor. It was sun-bright, windowless, artfully designed, warm.
There were people. They were not human. While Shula was brushing out Celia's hair she'd remarked that it was very fashionable for non-royal plakti to look mostly human, but gauche verging on illegal for them to complete the illusion without strict orders to go undercover. Many of them just had completely black eyes and could otherwise have passed for ordinary in any city on Earth, but Celia saw green skin, fox tails, bat wings, antlers, elf ears.
There were also some who bore no marks at all.
Celia and Shula paused at the top of the stairs, and Shula pointed out her brothers and sisters. "Not that I expect you to remember all their names today." They would be easy to forget, too, all monosyllables, introduced rapid-fire. And their mother and father: "King Juan Luis, Queen Elena. Fall back on 'your majesty' if you forget." And aunts and uncles with one or two or three or more "greats", who had never gone to Earth and so had kept their rings; these she did not trouble to name.
"You don't have to talk much if you're nervous," Shula reminded her, "you don't have to go away from me, it'll be all right." And they descended the stairs.
"Will they be expecting me to be a girl," Celia murmured. It wasn't quite a question.
"Mother and Father know. My personal servants know. Everyone else might be surprised. I can do the talking."
"I hope you don't mind but I invited your parents. They should be around here somewhere."
"...What? They're here? They can't - they don't -" What they couldn't or didn't Celia wasn't sure.
"It's your engagement party and they're your parents, I knew you wouldn't want them to miss it. If your dad reacts badly to your being gay you'll be completely safe here, we'll protect you - and besides, you have somewhere else besides his place to go, now, what's mine is yours," soothed Shula.
That didn't stop Celia's heart from trying to escape her ribcage when they set foot on the floor of the hall and one of the siblings glided up to them.
"Hello again, Kess!" he said to Shula. The ring didn't translate "kess" for Celia; she couldn't tell why. "This is... irregular."
"It's Shula," said Shula with a smile full of teeth.
"Is that her name?"
"Mine. I spent long enough earning it. She," and Shula put a protective arm over Celia's shoulders, "is Celia. My fiancée. Celia, this one is my brother Meer. Oldest after me."
"...Hi," squeaked Celia. She was talking to a prince. She'd been talking to a princess every day for a rather long time, but that was Shula, she knew Shula, and she did not know Shula's little brother Meer.
"Hello," said Meer, and he collected Celia's hand to go for the knuckle-kiss, but when Celia flinched Shula practically hissed and he transitioned into a handshake. "Are you quite all right?" he asked.
Celia was not quite all right but if she didn't act quite all right she'd start a war and disappoint Shula and "I'm fine."
"Is that so?" Meer wondered.
"She said she's fine, Meer," said Shula. "How have you been? I've had only intermittent reports through Lyne."
"Oh, it's been as always."
"Lyne?" asked Celia.
"One of my servants. She looked out for me in the early years when I was on Earth, posed as the nanny for me and Amrika and relayed messages as necessary until I could get away with wearing all my rings all the time," Shula said, stroking Celia's arm.
"But not very frequent messages," murmured Meer. "We hadn't, for example, heard of your affection for sterile relationships."
"Do you think I can't figure it out, or do you hope I can't?" asked Shula. "Eighteen years on Earth didn't unteach me to change shape." She bared her teeth at him and for just a moment they were sharp, gleaming fangs.
"Wishful thinking. You'll introduce delay, perhaps irrecoverable amounts of it - and cause unrest -"
"No one's going to find that their most urgent task is fomenting unrest about my engagement's gamete quota unless someone tells them so, Meer," said Shula.
"You might be surprised. You've been away."
"I trust Lyne's reports."
"Lyne's focus has always been on you, not on the broader situation."
"Perhaps I should talk to Mother and Father, who Lyne has also been known to focus on now and again," said Shula with a smile made of ice. "Excuse us."
Celia was ushered along by the arm over her shoulders; she looked back at Meer, who had procured a glass of something from somewhere and lifted it in a sort of toast. Celia shuddered and faced front as Shula drew her towards the king and queen.
They weren't wearing crowns, just rich elaborate outfits and perfectly human shapes. They looked like they might be sixty, but not older; the king appeared classically Spanish, his bride nut-brown with vaguely unplaceable features that made sense for someone who'd been born hundreds of years ago to a tribe since gone extinct. Celia could see the resemblance to her girlfriend. Fiancée. Shula hadn't told her to bow or curtsey and the arm over her shoulder wasn't cuing her to do so now, so Celia just smiled tentatively.
"You must be Celia," said the king.
"Yes your majesty."
"And K- excuse me, Shula - Shula convinced you to marry her without attempting to tempt you with the princess bit, the magic, the chance to explore another planet...?"
I'd so much rather Shula didn't come with those things Celia didn't say. She smiled a little wider, hoped she didn't look manic, and held up the hand with the immortality ring. This must have been the right thing to do because Shula kissed her temple, squeezed her shoulder.
"Mm-hm. And the part about heirs...?"
What an intrusive question. Celia hadn't even begun to really think about raising magic alien royalty on a starless planet and then cuckooing them to somebody else's family until they brought home somebody just like her. "Shula said she could figure that part out!" she said, too high, too strained.
"So you're not, ah, exclusively partial to girls?"
Oh god Celia didn't want this man for a father-in-law she'd been expecting Shula to come out to predictably upset Muslims and cut them off good riddance not a damned royal space conquistador - "Ah, well -"
"It's a small price to pay," Shula said. "But Father, Mother, it's so good to see you both in person again, it's been too long." She let Celia go long enough to hug each of her parents.
"I see my dad," Celia breathed.
"Oh - okay, go say hi," said Shula. "Come right back after, I don't want you getting lost, sweetie."
Celia nodded automatically and made for her dad as quickly as her dress and the crowd permitted.
David turned out to be standing near Maureen, who collected Celia into a hug. "Celia! Oh, you must be so excited," she said.
Celia hugged back without thinking about it. "I'm - it's a lot to take in - did somebody tell you -?"
"I've been filled in. I was skeptical, but, well." Maureen gestured around them.
"Are you doing okay, Dad?" Celia asked David, who hadn't spoken.
He opened his mouth, closed it, repeated, swallowed. "I'm fine," he eventually said. "You never mentioned you were..."
Celia set her jaw. Not even traveling to another planet would make her life less perpetually about - "Well, I am."
"I wish you'd said," said David, looking with vague distress at the various nonhuman people milling around and availing themselves of hors d'oeuvres.
"Well. Now you know."
"...I need to lie down," David said abruptly. "Celia, you, you probably know the place, obviously Maureen just got here and," he ran his hand through his thinning hair, took a deep breath, "but you can probably show me somewhere I can lie down, awful headache -"
"Oh - sure - we passed some empty rooms on our way," blinked Celia. "Uh, what's hers is mine, I'm sure you can -"
"I," began Maureen.
"Hm?" said Celia.
"This way, Dad, up the stairs."
Shula caught her eye but Celia gestured with mild daughterly exasperation at her dad, he of the perpetual headache, and Shula nodded. Down the corridor they went. Celia found a room with no people and some furniture that looked comfy enough and led David in.
He didn't lie down. He shut the door behind them.
"Celia," he said. "How much do you know?"
She was squinting at him, confused. "Know?"
"You know there are aliens, you were just in a roomful of them -"
"I - yeah, Shula's caught me up on, on basically everything -"
"She's been in kind of a hurry, if she forgot some -"
"That wasn't Maureen."
There was a silence. He could feel the skepticism radiating off her, not in the way he just knew things but in the way that he knew his child.
"What?" Celia finally asked.
"It hasn't been Maureen for months. Joe didn't believe me. I didn't know how to tell you, I didn't know how I knew, it's not Maureen, it's one of the things."
"I know - stuff. It's not like the, the things I think I know, it's not the psychosis, I can tell them apart. At least I can now." He was tripping over his tongue, talking with his hands; he started to pace. "I could tell it wasn't her. Not her on the phone, not since a little before you moved in with me. I could tell your friend was an alien but I thought I was wrong because an alien would only have a family to pretend to be human long enough to find a mate and I didn't know and you could have told me -"
"Dad, you're -"
"I'm not - I am crazy. I'm not trying to say I'm all there - but I knew it wasn't Maureen, I knew why Shula was on Earth even if I dismissed it, you've seen now. The CIA isn't after me but I was abducted by aliens and so were you. Celia, listen to me."
"She wants to marry me," Celia breathed. "And - and if I don't then her little brothers and sisters - they'll start a war -"
"Celia," murmured David. "Kiddo. Do you want to marry her?"
"I. I, um."
"If she staked her planet's peace on marrying you - if she really did that, if she's not lying - Celia, that isn't your fault."
"I don't want to start a war."
"She took your mom. She took your mom and replaced her with an alien and didn't tell you. I don't know how I know things -"
"Earth's starting to get magic," murmured Celia.
"Shula told me," Celia said rapidly, starting to pace, "told me that after a planet has life long enough -"
"She's going to wonder what's keeping you any minute," said David. "I'll see if I can - know anything useful - see if I can direct it - find me later, make sure it's me."
Celia swallowed and hugged him and then swirled out of the room and left him behind. She pressed herself to the wall of the hallway, breathing hard.
She took my mom.
He's literally, textbook, psychotic, and he's the only evidence I have. It's Shula, for crying out loud, she wouldn't -
Mom was going to take me away to Montana where I would have been very hard to propose to and I bet Shula had all kinds of rules for how she had to handle her own foster family but none about mine.
I saw Mom. I've been talking to her.
SHAPESHIFTING ALIENS. Some of whom are Shula's servants. She -
MAGIC SPACE WAR.
He's literally, textbook, psychotic, and he's the only evidence I have. It's Shula, for crying out loud, she wouldn't -
Mom was going to take me away to Montana where I would have been very hard to propose to and I bet Shula had all kinds of rules for how she had to handle her own foster family but none about mine.
I saw Mom. I've been talking to her.
SHAPESHIFTING ALIENS. Some of whom are Shula's servants. She -
MAGIC SPACE WAR.
Celia scrunched her eyes shut and inhaled deeply. It smelled like fire. Extraterrestrial minerals and foreign perfumes and fire.
She walked step by shaky step back to the party, steadying herself on the wall.
She thought she caught a glimpse of Shula standing near Maureen - if it was Maureen - when she turned the corner, but then there was a flurry of movement between them and Celia; when she caught sight of Shula again she was near one of the other princesses, unless Celia had misremembered whether the dramatic hat with the feathers was a sister or a cousin or what. Celia trotted down the stairs to her girlfriend. Fiancée. Girlfriend. Kidnapper. Fiancée. ...She trotted down the stairs towards Shula.
"Is your dad all right?" Shula asked.
"He just needed to lie down. I put him in an empty room. I can do that, right?"
"Of course you can. This is my sister Rai, second-youngest -"
Celia let Shula shuffle her around from small-talk to small-talk. Celia did not remember any of the siblings' names except for Meer, who'd made an impression; no one else traded barbs with Shula like that. Celia didn't try to talk to Maureen again and Maureen didn't try to talk to her. Which was its own kind of evidence.
The party went on, and on. There were no clocks; Celia had been relieved of her phone when she'd changed into the dress. She ate little snacks that indistinguishably-shaped servants offered on trays. She danced with Shula. She mixed up royalty and dubiously-noble offshoots. She stammered through a compliment on someone's curling antelope horns. She peeled off from Shula a couple of times to wade through the crowd herself, for clarity, for quelling distance between herself and Shula's backless dress (why did it have to be a backless dress) but came to no conclusions, always drifted back to Shula's side.
The crowd thinned out, slowly; then the king and queen left, and the population of the ballroom dropped dramatically. "I can send someone to bring your dad home," Shula said.
"Can - can he stay overnight? Or what passes for overnight. I don't think changing planets agreed with him and he could use a little longer."
"All right," shrugged Shula. "Your uncle won't freak out?"
"Dad goes out by himself sometimes and he's had a good few weeks. He can tell uncle Joe that he was staying with one of his friends. He has friends."
"If you say so," said Shula. "It's not like I don't have room. Your mom's going back, though, do you want to say goodbye?"
Celia swallowed. "We can always visit later, right?"
"I bet she's tired. It's later in Montana."
"Sure. Straight home with her, then. Cait, take care of that, please," Shula said to a passing servant.
Shula turned back to Celia. "One of my brothers is staying for a while too. Meer. I don't really have a good excuse to get rid of him, but if he bothers you or anything any servant will back you up, all right? They all know who you are now."
"Are you okay?" Shula asked her, pursing her lips in concern.
"I'm just a - a little overwhelmed."
"The party's over," soothed Shula, petting Celia's hair. "You can change back into your regular clothes if you want. Or another set, I have some normal things around. Pajamas, if you're sleepy. Oh, and Cait found you a ring for Spanish, so you won't be left out of royal family conversations if we lapse into it. It's with your clothes."
"I - yeah." Celia wanted her phone back, if only to be able to check the time. "Yes please."
"Can you find your own way? I need to arrange some things with some servants. I've been gone such a long time."
"I think I remember how to get there."
"Good. I've left the firelight going in all the hallways in the house since you can't operate it yourself. Just holler if you need any of it turned on or off." And then she pulled Celia into a snug embrace. "You did beautifully. I know it's all a bit much but you're doing great. Just hang in there, all right, sweetie? I love you so much."
"Love you," Celia echoed, because she did, she did -
Shula kissed her. She dipped her, right there in the middle of the deserted ballroom, and kissed Celia till she was breathless and melting and why did the dress have to be backless -
"I'll come find you when I'm free," Shula purred, voice full of promises.
Celia was practically hypnotized until Shula straightened her up again and pressed another kiss to her forehead and swept out of the room.
Celia stood in place.
And then she climbed the stairs and wound her way through the halls until she'd found the wardrobe again.
She came out of the room in a set of pajamas which she'd found in the wardrobe. Her phone was in her pocket, the Spanish ring had joined the one for immortality and the one for plakti language, she had her own shoes on again because walking on these stone floors barefoot sounded uncomfortable. And there was Meer, waiting for her. Celia stopped cold when she saw him. "Um."
"Hello again," Meer said. "Is it just me or do you seem less than comfortable?"
"Were you lurking out here the entire time I was changing?"
"Please," snorted Meer. "Don't ascribe me such motives. If I want to be around naked women I have better ways to do it."
"W-would Shula want you to be talking to me?" asked Celia, trying to sound more indignant than mousy, quite sure she was failing.
"No," said Meer, "probably not."
"Well. This. Is her estate," said Celia.
"The question is do you want me to be talking to you, and that depends very significantly on whether you want to be here. In my dear sister's estate," said Meer.
Celia couldn't think of anything intelligent to say, so she just stared at him coldly. He looked like some kind of Disney prince. One who was about to have a character arc that wiped the smirk off his face. Or turn out to be a bad guy all along.
"Did Shula tell you that you have to be here?" he inquired. "Did she spin nasty stories about how warlike her family is? Am I the villain of the piece? She's never liked me."
Celia didn't like him either. "She - wants an orderly succession."
"Celia," said Meer in a low voice. "If that was what she most wanted, she would have found a boyfriend."
"She - she's a lesbian."
"That wouldn't stop her if her priority was getting married and popping out heirs in a perfectly regular manner without letting me - or our other siblings - get within arm's reach of the throne. Would it? Marriages of convenience are known on Earth, I believe."
"She wants to marry me."
"I don't doubt that for an instant. She wants very badly to marry you, and she's gambling everything on her ability to pull it off. Including the orderliness of the succession. Which she could easily secure even without having had to locate a boyfriend by yielding with as much grace as she could muster to me. Now, I confess my experience with humans is limited to immediate family members very far from your own culture. But however fond you were of Shula last week, you do not seem to me to be entirely at your ease here."
"It's a lot to get used to," Celia said softly.
"You don't look enraptured and curious, you look like you want to crawl in a hole and forget this ever happened," said Meer.
"And, what, you want to offer your shoulder to cry on?" Celia snapped, suddenly angry. He'd noticed and this was what he was doing about it? Loitering while she changed clothes and asking her pointed questions about how comfortable she was. That was sure to improve things.
"I'd rather not," said Meer. "I'd rather just solve the problem. The political situation is neither as stable nor as unstable as Shula may have led you to believe. The population might be able to cope with you, if she can get you pregnant. How quickly do you want her to feel obliged to try?"
"Not soon, I'll wager, and every year that goes by is more time for our parents to spend getting older a little at a time. And more time for Earth to become less like what we've grown up expecting. It was a trick indeed to slip Shula into a family. How much harder is it eighteen years along? If I tried and failed to find a queen, two more decades might make it near impossible for Tam to give it a try, at least in any remotely pleasant part of the world. We can only do so much to computer records and cameras."
"Shula found me, though. You - you don't have to try." You don't have to do this to some other girl.
"I do if her little shapeshifting idea doesn't work. Or if you're sterile. I do if, for whatever reason, you don't want to be here. If you don't want to be queen."
"What makes you think you'd be able to find somebody who wanted to be here? What, are you psychic?" Shit. Don't say that again.
Meer snorted. "Here's another question for you. Why didn't you have any inkling before you got here? Why was this a surprise?"
"...Shula said there were rules. Protocols. That she had to observe. She wasn't supposed to tell me, it would be against the - the rules."
"That's absolutely correct. Would you care to guess how those are enforced?"
Was someone listening in - No. Shula had never acted like she was being watched. Shula had made reports which contained whatever she felt like putting in them, she'd had a servant-nanny only as a child - she was not bugged while she was kissing Celia in her bedroom or knocking their shoes together under the cafeteria table.
"They're not enforced," said Meer. "Does that allay your concerns?"
"What do you want?" asked Celia.
"An orderly succession," Meer said. "One more, and then over for good. I will go, I will find a queen who will be less..." He gestured at Celia vaguely in lieu of a description. "And we will each have our own rings."
"Nobody's allowed to be king forever."
"The current model cannot sustain itself," hissed Meer. "Imagine! Imagine trying to insert your children into an Earth that has had another five or six hundred years to advance! To imagine life on other planets - and learn to keep more careful documentation of the life on its own! To perhaps develop magic, which it may begin doing at any time!"
Meer just took it as an excuse to go on, though: "I remember Mother sobbing for weeks when her little Kess was turned into someone else's baby on the eve of her adulthood. I can't say I look forward to putting her through similar again, but at least on my plan this would be the last time. Is that what you want, even generously assuming it will continue to work? For your children? And grandchildren? Shula could have ended it, but she has walked the knife edge of tradition just enough to get you exactly where she wants you. I am the only realistic ally you have in getting you where you would be much better off. Home."
She took your mom.
Meer hadn't said anything about that, but this was two sources now - Meer had no reason to love Celia. David had no reason to hate Shula. Did that add up to trustworthiness?
Her dad was crazy and Shula's brother wanted to be king -
"What do you want?" Celia asked again.
"Your ring," Meer said. "I'll give you a dummy to replace it. When Shula takes it back for her own turn she'll notice the difference and then she'll have to admit defeat - she can't have you visibly aging at human rate in front of people, even if she can cover for herself in the short term with shapeshifting."
"She'd know it was you. She knows you hate her."
"And if she confronts me about it she'll have to admit that you gave it to me, and she will be out of the running for taking an unwilling Earthling regardless. I run a certain risk here if you change your mind and then blatantly lie, of course. I know very little about your personal integrity, having only what my sister gave me to work with." He gave her an assessing look, seeming to settle on it'll do. Celia wanted to slap him.
"I love her," Celia breathed. "I don't want her to die."
"She will be looking for you any moment," Meer said, clenching his fists. Rings glinted around his fingers. "Make a decision."
"I need to think."
Footsteps. "Celia?" called Shula's voice.
Meer, scowling, disappeared down the hallway without another word.
Celia tripped on her way around the corner to meet Shula. Shula caught her. "Are you all right, sweetie?"
"I'm fine." I'm not fine. I'm not fine. I'm not fine. "I want to sleep. I'm exhausted."
"Okay," said Shula, stroking her fingers through Celia's hair. "Okay. Let's get you somewhere cozy and put you to bed. It's been such a long day."
Maureen woke up in her own bed.
This was the Montana house. She didn't remember -
"You've been very sick for months and let Celia live with her father. Celia will be fine," said a voice in her ear. "But now you're better and you're going to go in to work..."
Maureen blinked as the voice went on murmuring. That would explain -
Maureen woke up in her own bed. This was the Montana house. She didn't -
"You've been very sick. But now -"
Maureen woke -
Maureen woke up in her own bed, in her own home. She felt a lot better. God, the entire summer was a fog. A blank, really. Didn't help that she'd had that nasty insurance fumble with the new job, but now she was all right. She called the new boss. Well, new. She'd technically had the position for months now. But she hadn't gone in. They were very understanding, glad that she'd finally be in.
The house was disorganized, or rather organized badly. She'd want to rearrange everything. Maybe she'd been on drugs when she'd unpacked. Painkillers or drowsy cold pills or something. Whatever. She found something business-casual, she got in the car, she drove to the office with GPS assistance.
She called Celia during her lunch hour.
Voicemail. She left a brief message and went back to what she was doing. Celia would be fine. She felt very confident that Celia would be fine. She was eighteen now, wasn't she? And she'd eloped with her girlfriend, who was going to take good care of her. Maureen stayed late; she had a lot of work to catch up on.
David's head hurt. He was so tired. He'd swallowed the emergency day's worth of meds out of his wallet, dry, and they were a lump in his throat even after an hour's sleep. "Wuh."
"Dad, wake up. I don't know if I'll be able to keep them from bringing you home after everybody's up in the - nonmorning. Dad."
He rubbed his eye and looked blearily at Celia. "What - d'you need?"
"Did you think of anything else to tell me?"
"No," he apologized wretchedly. "Don't, don't know how to steer."
"Can you tell me if I can trust Shula's brother Meer?"
"Shula has brothers and sisters. One of them is named Meer. He had a - he had an idea but I don't know -"
David wrenched his attention into line. Shula had brothers and sisters, that fit. Meer. Meer was -
"Didn't lie to you," he said. Pulled from nowhere. Knew.
"He didn't," agreed David. "All true. But I don't know if he - wants good things? For you?"
"I don't know either. But it - it helps. Anything else?"
David thought -
"Maureen's home again."
Celia exhaled. "Oh good. She's safe?"
"I don't know," said David. "She's - she's biologically safe, that's what I have."
"...Okay. Is there anything else?"
Think. Think. Any shred of anything could be the difference -
His head felt like it was going to burst open. His eyelids were so heavy.
"I don't have anything else," he whispered. "I'm sorry."
"It's okay," Celia said softly back. "Go back to sleep. Love you, Dad."
"Love you too," he croaked, and he fell back onto the soft thing he was sleeping on.
Celia slipped out of the room.
Before David fell back asleep he knew she was going to slide under a blanket beside Shula. He knew no details, but that one was chilling enough. He shivered, just a little, in spite of the warmth of the room.
In the morning an alien thing came to bring him home and he did not know if he had done enough. He couldn't steer. He didn't know.
Shula's favorite servants, black-eyed, one shaped like a man and one like a woman, served breakfast in the morning. Celia thanked them hoarsely and ate. It was oatmeal and Canadian bacon and fruit salad, fairly well-calculated comfort food for Celia's tastes. Celia allowed herself to be comforted as best she could. She wondered what plakti ate when they were alone. What would grow on a starless planet?
Shula and Meer were happy enough with the human food and the servants weren't eating with them - they'd left altogether after setting down the plates and asking if Shula needed anything else. Shula and her brother talked about family that she had not had a chance to fully catch up with at the party; they were almost cordial compared to their previous meeting. Celia was mostly quiet, but she leaned in to Shula's hand when Shula touched her shoulder or petted her hair.
It felt good and she loved her and why couldn't that be it, why couldn't they be shopping for new notebooks and pencils for senior year and kicking each other's shoes in the aisles? Getting brunch and wishing Islam would liberalize faster. Applying to colleges. Celia wondered if any of her schools would let her take classes by correspondence from another planet.
Shula kissed her, tasting like cinnamon, and got up, probably to go to the bathroom or something, leaving Celia and Meer alone.
Meer cast a furtive look at the door. Celia shivered.
"You will not get another chance," Meer said under his breath.
Didn't lie to you.
Had Shula lied, technically, had she ever -
Celia yanked the ring off her left hand and slapped it into his waiting palm and took the identical one he gave her and put it on the same finger. Then she took a huge spoonful of oatmeal in the hopes that the not-quite-chewing demanded by the substance would cover her facial expression. The ring had disappeared by some sleight of hand. Or real magic. Celia was suddenly aware that she'd never gotten a complete list of what-all growing up on the starless planet would allow. She only suspected that the fire was part of the package.
Shula returned a leisurely few minutes later and reassumed her seat at the head of the table (Celia at her right, Meer at her left). The rest of breakfast elapsed. The servants came back to clear away the plates. Shula started talking about how she wanted Celia to see all the best parts of the starless planet, there were museums and shows and architectural marvels -
"Oh, sweetie," said Shula. "Can I have a turn with the ring? Once a day is the best schedule for switching."
She was going to take it right now? Celia had thought it might be weeks, months even, she could have had time to come up with a story - Meer hadn't warned her -
Celia offered Shula her hand.
Shula took the ring. "It doesn't matter which finger you have these on," she remarked, "if it ever bothers you not to have an engagement ring you can use one that we aren't swapping back and forth all the time."
Shula put the ring on.
Meer was making an obviously heroic effort not to vibrate out of his chair. He'd said Shula would notice. How long would it take? Was he going to stay at her estate until she did?
Shula poured herself a glass of the water that was still on the table. It had cucumber slices in it. She sipped.
Was she not going to notice? Meer couldn't very well announce to everyone that he'd -
That Celia had -
Celia poured herself some water too and gulped it.
"Meer," said Shula.
"...Mm?" he replied.
"I know we've never really gotten along, but this takes it too far."
Shula's eyes snapped up from her glass to her brother's face. "I don't know what's worse. That you wanted me to die, or that you thought I'd roll over and do it just like that."
Meer dropped the pretense. "I'd like to see you try to get it back now. I have it secreted away in layers of -"
"I don't care if you flung it into the black hole," said Shula sweetly. "Spanish rings are cheap. Someone will happily learn the language and package up everything they've acquired into a new one for Celia if she'd care to pick it up."
"Spanish rings -"
"I'm not stupid, Meer. Why would you still be here? Why would you loiter at my estate? Brotherly affection? I swapped the rings around on her fingers in her sleep. Celia's still wearing it. Touch her and I'll blank you."
"Wouldn't I?" snapped Shula. "You just tried to kill us both! Slowly, sure, but don't pretend you had plans to spend the first two immortalities you managed to buy on me and her once you were king. You tried to murder me, and worse, you would have gotten Celia too. Celia can't even shapeshift and you were going to make her grow old inside of a century!"
"They'll never believe -"
"You didn't even notice that Lyne isn't wearing the other end of my chat ring anymore. I gave it to Mother and told her I was concerned," said Shula. "Mother's been listening to this entire conversation. Perhaps she has Father with her, too. Or any of our little brothers and sisters who'll be fascinated to know what you think of the ties that bind."
"Get out of that chair and I will destroy you," Shula hissed.
"Shula," whispered Celia.
"This is not the time," Shula said in a voice that brooked no argument. "We will talk later. So what's your move, Meer?"
Meer sat very still. Shula waited.
"I surrender," Meer said softly.
"Lyne. Cait. Escort my brother to our parents to see what they'll make of him," Shula said. Her servants drifted into the room on cue. Lyne turned his chair around; then each one took one of his elbows and marched him away.
"Shula," Celia tried to say. Nothing came out.
Slowly, Shula turned in her chair towards her. She adjusted a ring on her finger.
"I don't know what he told you," Shula said. "I'm hoping that he just conditioned you with a few layers of memory wipes and assertions. I'm not sure when he would have had time. But I'm hoping, as awful as it would be for that to have happened in my own home. Because Celia, I don't know what I'd do if you, you of all people, were intentionally colluding with Meer to get me killed. I don't have the words. It wasn't like that, was it, Celia?"
Celia's blood was ice and she didn't seem to be able to blink, to look away from that hurt, uncertain look in Shula's eyes. I tried to kill her. Shula no I didn't mean. Oh God I literally tried to kill her. Oh God I'm horrible.
"Are you missing any time, sweetie?" Shula asked softly. "It hadn't come up before but plakti magic can erase memories, if you're close enough, and if you're not using the same magic defensively - which you can't. I wouldn't have let him near you, not ever, you're safe with me."
"I," said Celia.
"You must be so confused. It can do that if it's handled badly and I wouldn't expect him to be a virtuoso... I'm so sorry I wasn't there to fend him off. You look dizzy. Do you want to go lie down?"
"Yes," said Celia fervently, "please."
And they went back to bed, and snuggled up together on top of the covers, and Celia tried to breathe.
She'd never forgive me she shouldn't forgive me oh God oh God she can't even dump me she's staked everything on me she's stuck with me forever
"Oh sweetie," sighed Shula. "You're shaking."
"Sorry. Sorry I just. I don't know."
"We can put off the grand tour of the planet, if you like."
"All right. Do let me know when you feel ready. There are so many things I want to show you. Nobody I'd rather show them to. My Celia."
She can erase memories too. Tell her to back up a day, two, forget all about -
No, then she'd know. She'd know I did it on purpose. She can't even dump me.
I just have to make it up to her on my own that's all what does she need a queen okay I can do that if I have to -
No, then she'd know. She'd know I did it on purpose. She can't even dump me.
I just have to make it up to her on my own that's all what does she need a queen okay I can do that if I have to -
The alien thing didn't bother erasing David's memory.
What was he going to do, tell someone?
He told Joe he'd been over at a friend's. Joe didn't check.
And then David sat at his kitchen table with a bowl of cereal and tried to steer.
"Mother and Father have shut Meer up somewhere quite inaccessible. You don't have to worry about him any more," Shula said, at dinner.
"I gave a ballpark estimate of the wedding date in five years. It's a long engagement but royal weddings take such a long time to plan and I thought you might like the option to go to college first. You can, you know. We can move in together easy as pie now we're both legally eighteen - I have loads of money even apart from Mom and Dad if they blow their tops, there's been plakti on Earth collecting local currency for ages. You won't have to sleep on your dad's couch."
"That sounds great. Thank you."
"You can ask Lyne and Cait for whatever you like for dinner, I'm going to be at Mother and Father's. Although you could come with me, if you're feeling up to it?"
"Of course I'll come with you."
Shula smiled. She leaned over the table for a kiss. Celia kissed her back, of course, of course. "I love you," Shula murmured.
"I love you too," Celia said.
"Do you want to wear white?" asked Shula.
"I don't know, are you planning to marry a virgin?" Celia asked.
Shula laughed. "It hasn't really meant that even on Earth for years. But to answer your question - it wouldn't be my first choice."
"Yes to white," says Celia. "Yes to whatever you want, I'm sure you've been thinking about the wedding longer than I have."
"You've got that right," laughed Shula. "C'mere." And she kissed her again.
Celia kissed her back.