This story is a sequel to Rings.
The bride looked exquisite, covered wrist to throat and scalp to ankle in white all aswirl with glittering beads and satin stitch. The color she'd put the bridesmaids in, robin's-egg blue, was possibly the only color of the rainbow that wouldn't flatter Shula. Celia wondered from the audience if that was why Amrika had chosen it, so as not to be outshone by her prettier sister. Shula was taking it with good enough grace, both the color and the fact that the wedding dress code, in deference to conservative ancestors, called for her to abide by modesty standards she typically held in contempt. Hidden was Shula's glorious singularity-black hair, most of her flawless dusky skin. She smiled, though, watching her unwittingly adoptive older sister mince down the aisle toward her fiancé.
Celia, from the third row on Amrika's side, looked at the smiling man in his perfectly fitted navy suit - was it technically a suit? It was an outfit on good terms with the idea of suits - and Celia wondered what he was like. Amrika joined him, and Celia wondered what she was like. Celia barely knew Amrika, and attended her wedding as Shula's don't-ask-don't-tell plus one, because she and Shula were themselves engaged to be married in a couple of years and presented to Shula's family as best friends. Once Celia had finished college they'd probably either stop talking to the Alis entirely or see what happened if Shula told them she was gay. Once Celia had her degree they'd have no reason to loiter on Earth.
A degree she would never use but clung to anyway. Her attendance was perfect.
Celia wondered what these people were like, how they were to each other. How they had decided to get married. How much they knew about each other. It was probably not like how it had been for Celia, who was proposed to on her eighteenth birthday with a magic ring that turned out to grant immortality and embroil her in an alien succession intrigue at the elbow of her space-princess changeling girlfriend. Probably the Alis knew the groom's family, or they met at the mosque, or they met online, or they'd been in a class together at school, and then -
Celia wasn't sure what came after "and then". She just knew it was probably not like her own engagement.
The ceremony dragged on and significant parts of it were in Arabic. Celia people-watched, mind wandering, scalp itching under the scarf she was wearing to be polite. There were two other bridesmaids besides Shula; Celia thought one of them, mid-teens and brown and plain, might be the groom's sister, and the other she understood to be an old friend of Amrika's. The friend wasn't Yemeni, she was some sort of East Asian, and she had a moon-round face peeking out of her turquoise scarf and looked deliriously happy. Probably Amrika's friend knew the groom and had a good reason to be happy. The groomsmen she didn't know at all; Amrika didn't have a brother to supply (and Shula's brothers all lived in space and had never met Shula's adoptive family). Probably friends of the groom. They were about his age, plausibly Muslim. Well, for all Celia knew the Asian friend was Muslim too. Celia might be the only non-Muslim in the whole building.
Did Shula count? She was an atheist, in terms of what she believed about the world, but she'd been brought up culturally Muslim, but that was only after being raised for twelve years by a part-alien father and human mother of Catholic sympathies. Celia hadn't thought to wonder before just now how you could be Catholic in space. Didn't you need a priest? Periodic updates from the Vatican? Maybe they had kidnapped a priest and Celia had just never happened to hear about it.
Shula had offered to bring her for visits to the plakti world a couple of times since they'd gone for their surprise engagement party. Celia hadn't wanted to go and Shula hadn't pushed back on that. Celia let Shula visit the dark flame-lit planet under its dead star without Celia along, and Celia would take that weekend and do homework, or sleep late and watch TV and dance to music Shula didn't like, or go into town for a coffee and a cinnamon bun all by herself.
Shula went about four times a year, and she'd started visiting her home planet the summer before twelfth grade, and now they were sophomores in college. So Celia had had ten weekends to herself. Otherwise her life was: school attended around Shula, the apartment she shared with Shula, nights in or nights out with Shula, dinners and parties and sex and talking about getting a dog with Shula.
Even at moments like this one, with Shula focused on her bridesmaid responsibilities and not even looking in Celia's direction, Celia was here because of Shula, and couldn't stop thinking about Shula.
Eventually the ceremony ended. Conservative relatives meant there was no dancing. Celia understood it to be a compromise that the men and women attendees were in the same room at all (how did heterosexuals get married under those conditions?). But there was a reception after the vows were exchanged, people Celia didn't know milling around asking her how she knew the couple. "I'm Amrika's sister's friend," she said over and over to cousins and co-workers and the imam. "I'm Celia, I'm Amrika's sister's friend."
She didn't know why Shula persisted in pretending to this family that she was their mildly observant Muslim daughter who lived with a "friend". Maybe she'd actually gotten attached to them in the time she spent re-maturing in their household. Maybe there was a rule. Shula was pretty careful about her planet's rules for how princesses were supposed to conduct themselves on Earth.
Celia drifted through the throng. She wound up near Amrika's friend the bridesmaid. "Hi," Celia said.
"Hi! I noticed you before, it's very mono-ethnic here except me and you, isn't it?" said the bridesmaid. "Is that weird for you?"
"Not all that weird," said Celia. "I'm Celia, Shula's friend."
"I'm Jenny. It's nice to meet you."
"Yeah, you too. How do you know Amrika?"
"School! We had a whole bunch of us all really tight, since middle school, but there was some major drama, twelfth grade, it was me and Amrika versus the other three... how do you know Shula?"
"Also school. Just us, we were always - best friends."
"Best friends or best friends, huh?"
"- excuse me?"
"I'm Episcopalian, you can say."
"I don't know what you're talking about," said Celia, skin tightening in a cold shiver all the way up her back because she didn't know why Shula was maintaining her cover with her Earth family but Shula was absolutely doing that and Celia had to back her up.
"You ping my gaydar really hard," Jenny said in a loud whisper.
"I really don't think this is the place." Was Jenny drunk? How did one get drunk at a Muslim wedding? There wasn't a drop to be had anywhere in a two block radius. Maybe she was just this kind of person. What kind of person did Amrika make friends with? Celia didn't know. She drew away from Jenny, looking for Shula. Shula wouldn't be angry with Celia about it if she witnessed all subsequent Jenny-originating unreasonableness and knew Celia had tried her best.
Jenny followed her. "Hey, where are you going?"
Celia couldn't see Shula anywhere, she wasn't tall enough to pick out and the crowd was too thick to spot another robin's-egg blue outfit and take a gamble on that being Shula instead of the groom's sister. "Bathroom," she said instead.
"Oh yeah, I need to touch up my eyes, I think I was crying a little, weddings, am I right?"
"Yeah," said Celia noncommittally, trying to lose her in a knot of electricians who worked for the Ali family business.
Jenny was undeterred. "How'd you convince Mr. and Mrs. Ali to let you be Shula's plus one?"
"I don't know, Shula handled that, I wasn't privy to the conversation." Maybe the bathroom would be single occupancy and she could wait Jenny out inside.
No such luck. Jenny followed her into the roomful of stalls and got to work on her eye makeup. Celia didn't actually have to pee. Was Jenny paying enough attention to be listening for that? Maybe she'd figure Celia just had to change a pad or something. This would be Celia's alibi if Jenny blundered even further into inappropriate questions territory and asked. Celia rummaged in her purse to make appropriate background sounds and willed her to go away.
Jenny did not go away. "Amrika knows, I think," she said.
Well, that stopped Celia cold with her hand between her driver's license and her bottle of Benadryl. "Pardon?" she squeaked.
"I think Amrika knows about you and Shula! She's never said, but it's sort of in how she talks about you? And she could've convinced her mom and dad to let you come to the wedding, so that'd explain it, right?"
"Um," Celia tried to say, since that was noncommittal, but nothing came out. "I don't think I understand, perhaps we could talk about something else, do you like hockey," she tried to say, but it didn't happen. She settled for letting herself out of the stall, ready to try another fleeing tactic.
The door swung open and Celia saw Shula's face framed in robin's-egg blue hijab and wished the Earth would open up under her feet.
"Celia, Jenny, hi," said Shula, all smiles, a dark edge in her voice, and Celia thought about how she could change her teeth to gleaming fangs. "Celia, I'm about ready to go home."
"I, okay," said Celia, clutching her purse. "Okay. Did you already say goodbye to, uh, your family?"
"No, I'll do that on the way out. I wanted to find you first," said Shula. And she couldn't hold out her hand for Celia to take, in front of Jenny, because Jenny only thought she knew something, and would be much more credible if she added I saw them holding hands -
Celia went along as though pulled anyway, sticking as close to Shula as she could without touching her while the wedding guests flowed around them. Shula bade goodbye to a grandmother, a great-aunt, a cousin, another cousin -
Amrika and her new husband were by the exit. Amrika caught Shula in a hug. "Going home already?"
"It's a few hours in the car to get back to school!" said Shula "I don't want to be here till too late. It was a gorgeous wedding, thank you for letting me be in it, Amrika."
"Of course, I wasn't gonna leave you out, baby sister," said Amrika. "I'd wanted longer to catch up with you - and Celia - though -"
"Well, maybe another time," Shula said.
"Celia, I don't think I have your phone number," said Amrika.
"Um - do I have a pen -" Celia rummaged in her purse, feeling Shula's presence behind her, tall and warm like a pillar of flame, watching the back of her neck. Celia found a golf pencil and a drugstore receipt (she checked the front of it, hurried; the most incriminating purchase was three bags of Hershey kisses, no lube or anything) and wrote her phone number on the back. "There - text first, I'm in class a lot -"
"Yeah, sure," said Amrika, "thanks! It was so good to see you both! Have a good drive!"
They weren't driving, of course. Shula's servants Lyne and Cait were going to assume Shula and Celia's forms and make the trip while Shula teleported them to their off-campus apartment; why drive for hours when you could have shapeshifting space aliens do it for you, still have all the stuff you kept in your car at the other end, and spend the time you saved at home with your fiancée?
Once they were out of the building Shula drew Celia behind the catering van in the parking lot. Celia closed her eyes; around her, the air pressure changed, the smells of asphalt and greenery on the wind were replaced with their apartment's hum of the air conditioning carrying scents from the fruit bowl piled high with pomegranates and peaches and a plakti fruit Celia was supposed to call "blue persimmons" to anyone who asked what they were. Shula's presence was constant through the shift, standing right by Celia's side, close and spicy-scented. She stepped in closer once they were in the privacy of their home.
"What were you doing with Jenny in the bathroom?" Shula asked in Celia's ear. Shula's fingers reached for Celia's hairline, pulled the scarf off and freed Celia's yellow hair to tumble in its braid down between her shoulderblades. There was a swushing noise that suggested Shula was taking her scarf off too.
Celia kept her eyes closed. "She followed me. I was trying to get rid of her."
"It didn't look like you tried very hard."
Deep breath. Fruit from space, fruit from Earth, gingery Shula-smell, the vanilla candle on the table, the last batch of roses Shula bought her every Sunday smelling red and cottony from the vase on the table - "I didn't want to make a scene. She was saying she knew about us, she said I pinged her gaydar."
"A girl comes up to you and says you ping her gaydar and two minutes later you and her are alone in the bathroom, Celia?"
"- I know that sounds bad, but. Nothing happened. I didn't even like her. She was obnoxious and - and intrusive and -"
"You should have come to me."
"I tried, I didn't see you."
"I saw you, and you're shorter than I am, so you must not have been looking very hard."
"Shula, nothing happened - but she thinks Amrika knows about you and me, she thinks -"
"So you're saying a girl who knows you're taken came up to you at a party and said you ping her gaydar - honestly, that isn't even a line, it's not even a bad line, and you - not two minutes later -"
"Nothing happened, I went straight into a stall, she was fixing her makeup she said, and then you came in."
"Don't interrupt me."
"I know you didn't have time to cheat on me, but that wasn't okay. Don't let it happen again." Shula leaned away from Celia, took a half-step back to sit at the breakfast bar. She picked up a pomegranate, hefted it idly. "Did you have a nice time, other than that part with Jenny?"
"It was okay," Celia said. "Pity there wasn't any dancing."
"Well, we couldn't have danced even if there had been, not you and me. We can dance now, if you like." She set down the pomegranate and slid off the barstool. She took Celia into her arms, and Celia swayed with her, leaning her head on Shula's shoulder. That hadn't been so bad. She needed to stop panicking every time Shula was annoyed, it wasn't reasonable to expect Shula to never be annoyed with her, not when they were going to be together for hundreds of years.
They danced. Shula's laptop was open on the kitchen table; she swayed Celia over to it and touched a couple keys to put on music. It was bright, chirpy stuff that was queued up, with lyrics in Japanese and mangled English, hilariously wrong for the pace of dance they were doing; Celia laughed first, then Shula, and they giggled through the first verse and a half of the song with their faces buried in each other's necks till Shula pulled Celia along into a spinning fast improvisation of steps. "I forgot I had this on yesterday," Shula said, "I picked it while I was cooking the chicken last night, I think you were out getting cream?"
"Mushrooms, we had cream but we forgot mushrooms," Celia said.
"Right, mushrooms. That was a good recipe."
"Is there any left?"
"Nah, I let Lyne have it." Lyne and Cait shared an apartment in the same building and Celia had never been in there, though Shula was frequently in and out talking to them about this and that. Perhaps they didn't cook. They could teleport back to the plakti world for food if necessary. Was it a status symbol to eat food your princess cooked?
Celia didn't ask. "Oh well, we can make it again."
"Any time you like, my love." Shula kissed Celia's neck as she dipped her with the last note of the song. Celia shivered. Shula did it again, maybe holding her up off the floor at this angle so easily with shapeshifting affecting her muscles, Celia wasn't sure how - there were teeth now, mm -
"I've been thinking," Shula said, "apropos of Amrika's wedding, what with our wedding being on the horizon, that we maybe need condoms."
"...Condoms?" said Celia, trying to figure out what Shula had actually said instead.
"Well, you don't want to get pregnant now, do you? And it seems like a bad idea all around to approach the attempt cold, as it were, in a couple years."
Celia was empty of responses. She hung where Shula held her, staring up into her fiancée's face blankly.
"I guess you could just go on birth control but I don't know about all that fucking with your hormones," Shula amended.
"I don't know that I - I mean, it's years off, our wedding -"
"Honestly, Celia, be practical, I've never used the parts before. I might shapeshift them wrong the first forty times and that leaves aside how effectively I'll be able to use them. You're looking at a hell of a honeymoon if we don't get some dry runs out of the way now, it's really important to have an heir on the way pretty quick after. My parents waited but no one was concerned they might not be able to. Once a month will probably do the trick."
"Um, you could, practice by yourself, and we could get a turkey baster when the time comes -"
"I am engaged to the beautiful love of my life. We have this whole apartment to ourselves. I am not going to sort through the Internet's pathetic selection of lesbian porn without any naked men participating so that I can then grow a dick and masturbate in the bathroom alone like a teenage boy. I'm not expecting it to be a particularly enjoyable experience or I would have tried it when I was thirteen. I need you there to help me out."
"Besides, the success rates for turkey basters aren't great, I hear." Shula kissed her neck again, and finally pulled her out of the dip onto her feet. "Doesn't sound like you want to wait and go to a Planned Parenthood for something more elaborate so condoms it is. It's my turn to go to the store since you got the mushrooms, I'll just get out of this silly dress and into street clothes and then I'll be back in fifteen minutes. Don't you change, I want to take you out of your dress myself."
"Okay," Celia said, and Shula kissed her on the mouth and spun away into their room to get out of the bridesmaid dress and come out in black jeans and a clingy red top, scoop-necked and short-sleeved. Much more flattering. The jeans did not have room for anything Shula didn't usually have, so that was presumably waiting till she came home again and took them off.
Celia, in the long blue sundress she'd made modest enough for the event with the addition of a sweater, sat by the fruit bowl staring at the blue persimmons from space. She waited.
Celia sporadically attended the campus LGBT club, and had since the start of sophomore year, largely based on whether they were ordering good takeout that week. This week was from the better Chinese place in rotation, so Celia put in an order to the group's email list for pork fried rice and fish with black bean sauce and showed up a few minutes late.
The nicest person in the club was Terrence, a gay guy a year ahead of Celia who'd introduced her to the club after meeting her in orchestra. He had his flute with him, under his chair, and he waved at her when she came in. "Hey there! We were just talking about you."
"I'm sorry I'm late."
"No big deal, we weren't talking about how late you are. How come Shula never comes to these things?"
"She's not much of a joiner," Celia said. "She's got her own stuff going on." She was in space. Celia didn't expect to ever have an opportunity or a good enough reason to try to tell anybody about the alien space princess thing - except her dad, who already knew. But just in case, she didn't tell anyone about the family history of psychosis either, unless they already knew about that. Like her mom, who knew before Shula's servants wiped her memory, or Uncle Joe, who'd avoided that fate but was well used to dealing with his brother David's delusions.
Some of which were actually magical divinatory knowledge, but that she couldn't exactly hope to explain unless someone had already bought the entire rest of the story. Or had their own magic. Earth magic, not alien magic - Celia didn't know what kinds Earth would have besides her dad's -
"Celia?" said Terrence.
"You spaced out there for a bit, I was trying to catch you up on what the conversation was - Bailey was saying she considers you and Shula a model for lesbian relationships in general, like you're her favorite couple -"
"Yeah," put in Bailey, the group organizer, a lesbian of the slight and butch sort who was frequently taken to be a teenage boy from a distance. "You spend a lot of time together and it's so sweet, I have seen the way she looks at you and I know you're not suffering lesbian bed death, the story of how she proposed was adorable, I don't know why there aren't more chicks like you two out there." Bailey scratched her buzzcutted head, took off her glasses to wipe them on her shirt. "I can't find a girl who's - oh," she interrupted herself at a knock on the door, "food's here." She went to collect it and came back with a boxful of cardboard foldup containers. "They forgot to write our names on them again, fend for yourselves, I don't remember what you all got."
"Touch my scallion pancake and die," said Sondra, pouncing on the food. Celia had to look to see if it was her or one of the boys speaking, since her voice was pretty deep, though she really should have guessed because the boys in the club were respectively gluten-intolerant, completely predictable in only ever ordering chow mein, and unlikely to issue facetious death threats.
Terrence found Celia's rice for her; the fish took longer to turn up, being easily mistaken under its sauce for someone else's chicken. "Are you feeling okay?" he asked her when he rescued the fish from Bailey.
"I didn't sleep very well last night," Celia said, which was true. It was hard to sleep right next to Shula after - practicing. She'd stared at the lights that showed faded through the curtains, awake, for what had felt like hours. She kept getting up to go to the bathroom, and kept finding herself awake even as dream-fragments added themselves in small batches to her memory. She'd dreamed about fish eggs and about black palaces in darkness and about fire and about sweet Shula in high school, back before Celia had known anything, before her mom had been kidnapped. Some other Celia in another universe could be living in Montana, resentful and wistful about her gorgeous perfect high school sweetheart taken from her by interstate distances. That Celia would have slept fine last night, most likely.
Celia had dreamed about the time she kind of tried to murder her fiancée, and in the dream she'd actually done it, and Shula had shriveled up then and there, screaming, and Celia had woken up for the fourth time, cold and stiff.
"I know where you can bum some sleeping pills off a guy," Terrence said. "Let me know if you keep having that problem, sleep is super important and exams are coming up."
"Month and a half isn't 'coming up'," said Sondra, from Terrence's other side. "Lighten up."
"Well, sleep is important anyway," said Terrence. "I never stay at a guy's place overnight, because I can't sleep in the same bed as another person even if they don't snore - did you notice any change when you started sharing a bed with Shula?"
Celia had first shared a bed - well, a bedlike floor surface - with Shula the night of their engagement party on the plakti world, and what she remembered of the night was mostly being held and petted in that way that blurred the line between cuddling and having sex, and falling asleep, and sneaking out to visit her dad to get divinatory proclamations from him.
Celia should call her dad soon. Maybe she'd leave the club early, sit by the pond, watch ducks, get him on the phone and see if he had anything to tell her. If he magically knew about last night's practice then she wouldn't need to tell him, and if he didn't then he could go on not knowing.
"I guess I wake up at night more," Celia said, "when she's there."
"You should look into getting separate beds," Terrence advised.
"Nooooo," put in Bailey with comically exaggerated horror from across the table. "They're perfect and need to fall asleep holding hands. Like beautiful lesbian otters floating in the sea making sure not to lose each other."
Terrence rolled his eyes. Bailey huffed at him and turned on the movie of the week; she had a prodigious queer film collection and dipped into it whenever they didn't have a project or a topic, which was most of the time.
The movie was long and boring and arty and in French. Celia whispered an excuse in Terrence's ear for him to pass on if Bailey complained. Then she took her leftovers, half the fish poured on top of half the rice to pull out for lunch tomorrow, and went out to the bench by the duck pond. There weren't any ducks out; the sun had set and they were presumably all sleeping. Celia put her food down next to her, pulled out her phone, sat there still for a few minutes, spacing out -
Her phone rang. David Lister, it said, that was her dad. He knew she'd been going to call. Sometimes she wavered, on whether she thought he really had a branch of Earth magic or just oddly compelling delusions, but moments like this tipped the balance. She jolted briefly at the noise in the dark and quiet, and then tapped the answer button and said, "Hi Dad."
"Hi, Celia. What's going on?"
"Just skipped out on a club meeting." Pause. "Went to Amrika's wedding yesterday."
If he'd forgotten who Amrika was - if indeed he'd never learned the name - either he deemed it unimportant or his magic filled him in with the necessary context. "That sounds nice. Did you have a good time?"
"There wasn't any dancing since they're too Muslim. She wanted my number, to catch up later since we didn't get to talk."
"She'll text you next week." Celia could have guessed the time frame, since Amrika was going on a honeymoon to Bolivia for nine days, though she wouldn't have been sure about receiving a text at all.
"Thanks. How's Uncle Joe?" asked Celia.
"He's working long hours. Saving up for the new Nintendo thing, I don't remember what's it's called," said David.
"You're doing okay without him checking in as much?"
"Yeah. On my meds and eating and everything," David said.
"Should I let you go? You sound tired." He always sounded tired, but there was always-tired and really-tired, and this was borderline.
"You can trust Rai," David said.
"She's a princess. Like Shula," said David.
"...Okay. I'll trust Rai, if it comes up," Celia said.
"You don't have to. But you can," clarified David.
"Okay. Thanks, Dad."
"Any time. I think that's all I have."
"It's okay. I know it's hard."
"I wish I could tell you more."
"You can call me sometimes even if you don't know anything you have to tell me," Celia offered. Her dad was the only person she could talk to who knew everything and wasn't Shula or Shula's servant or Shula's biological relatives. Celia's mom Maureen remembered nothing of significance; as far as she was concerned she'd moved a couple years ago to Montana for her new job, gotten deliriously ill, and recovered, all while Celia and Shula were adorably normal humans together and Celia lived on David's couch first, then obligatory freshman housing, then the apartment with Shula.
"I might do that," he said. "If you'll answer. I think I usually can know if you'll answer the phone. And if it's going to rain, I know that too."
"That's good, isn't it? If there's things you can consistently know?"
"I guess. I don't feel like it's a skill I'm getting better at, it just happens, enough that I expect it."
"Either way. Maybe there's more things like that you'll find."
"Should I keep taking my meds, Celia? Do you think I should?" David asked after a pause. He sounded wistful.
Celia blinked. "Uh. Yes. You should take them every day just like your doctor says."
"What if they're messing with the magic?"
"- I mean, they could be, but if you start mixing in delusions with stuff you actually know, nobody's going to be able to use any of it, even you," Celia said. "If you suddenly thought you knew three times as much stuff and half of it was just nonsense, I wouldn't be able to sort out which of it was real unless I already knew the answer, right? And you'd do weird things, and Uncle Joe would have to stop you, or put you in the hospital..."
"Yeah," he said heavily. "You're right. It's just... so..."
"Yeah." Celia sighed heavily. If there were some purer, stronger form of David's divination that would be accessible if not for antipsychotics it would be so tantalizingly useful. But that might not even be the case; they had no other people with the same power to compare against. If anyone else had manifested fledgeling Earth magic, as opposed to the kind Shula's home planet was old enough to universally bestow on its natives, then David's power had declined to notify him.
"It's not your fault." She paused. "Dad?"
"Do you think you'd know if - if I were going to - I'm almost the age you were, when -" He'd been in college. He'd dropped out, and Celia didn't know the details of what he'd claimed to see or what voices he'd heard except for the story about beating a sofa with a broom, but he never went back to school after that. Celia was pretty damn sure she'd been an accident. Her hyphenated surname was her mother being magnanimous, as was her growing up knowing her father; no one had been likely to offer custody of an infant to a man in a psychiatric hospital.
"I don't think I'd know," he said, voice heavy. "I might notice once it happened. I don't think I could see it coming."
"Okay." An automatic response. It wasn't really.
"If I notice it I can try to tell your mom and your uncle."
"Shula can just delete it if they make trouble." Celia shivered. "I guess I don't know if she'd still want me if I had a psychotic break. Maybe she wouldn't. I don't know what the rules are if your consort goes nuts, maybe she'd get to pick again or she'd have to let a sibling have a turn..."
"I don't know," murmured David.
"It's okay, Dad." They both fell silent. Celia watched the moonlight quivering on the surface of the pond. "I should get home."
"Okay. Bye. I love you," he said.
She hung up. She watched the water for a moment longer, then trudged to the car. She couldn't teleport, so when she went places alone, she used the car, and so far had not tried cheekily suggesting that a servant teleport to pick her up and another wear her face to drive the car around in case she needed something out of the glove compartment. She just sat in the driver's seat and turned it on and went to her apartment where Shula was waiting.
Shula was on the couch with a bowl of ice cream, watching something in Arabic that could have been a documentary or a sitcom for all Celia knew. "Welcome home!" Shula chirped. "Look on your pillow, I got you something."
Celia blinked and went to the bedroom. On her pillow was a little ring box; she opened it, and it was one of the thin gold bands with rubies in it that plakti magic could store things in. Shula could tell hers apart somehow; Celia only had two, one for Spanish and one for immortality, but both of them looked exactly like this one. She brought the box out into the living room. "What does it do?" she asked.
"Put it on!"
Celia smiled a little, and put it on her empty right index finger. The Arabic emanating from the TV snapped into sense. Someone was talking about buying shoes; she didn't have context, just the language. "Arabic!" she grinned.
"Yup! C'mere. I'll back up the movie for you."
Celia sat next to her and tucked herself under Shula's arm comfortably. Shula took her hand and inspected it, compared to the other - "I'll have to get you a fourth ring, so you can be symmetrical."
"That's a surprise," said Shula. "You'll see when I get it for you." She kissed Celia on the head and backed up the movie fifteen minutes. "I wasn't sure you were going to be home before I'd seen the whole thing, you're usually back earlier from gay club."
"The gay movie was long today. I didn't even stay for the whole thing."
"...She's fine? Have you even met her?"
"You've mentioned her."
"She's fine. So's Terrence, so's Sondra, so's the guy whose name I can't remember and the guy whose name I can't pronounce, so's -"
"I didn't ask about them."
"I'm not going to cheat on you, Shula."
"That's good." Shula kissed her head again.
"Bailey's too butch for me anyway. Looks like she's in a boy band and I can tell when she hits thirty she'll look like somebody's weird uncle. And she ships us really hard, so even if I went nuttier than Dad and decided to try it..." She tried to sound light, joking. Better for it all to be a silly idea, easily dismissed.
"All right." Shula rearranged the snuggle a little bit for better long-term sustainability, squeezed her, and returned her attention to the movie. It looked like a romantic comedy, although Celia wasn't sure she was parsing it right. The ring gave her the language, but not the cultural background to interpret all the tropes. She murmured questions where she had a clear enough confusion to formulate them and Shula answered low and soft. There were abundant complications, and eventually the boy and the girl wound up getting married, and Shula clinked her rings against the one on Celia's left ring finger that served as an engagement ring.
They went to bed after the movie and Celia draped herself over Shula's body, soaking up warmth. Shula was soft. They snuggled in the dark, just the streetlights and car headlights admitted by the curtains serving to give large objects borders against dissimilar backgrounds. Celia could just see Shula's hair against the white pillowcases, Shula's champagne colored nightdress against their blue bedspread, Shula's eyes in her face.
Shula kissed her, then kissed her again, and rolled them over to repeat herself from a new vantage point - then sat up and scooted over to reach into her nightstand drawer for candles. She pulled out three tealights, scattered them on top of the nightstand, and lit them with magic, each flaring to six-inch bright flames before calming to a more natural flicker apiece. Celia squinted, then blinked away the spots in her vision in time to see Shula in firelit color leaning over her again. Shula had such cheekbones and such hair and such eyelashes. Such a smile. Celia reached up to touch her face.
When the tealights burned themselves out, they left sleeping girls embracing in the dark.
Celia had classes the next day. Introduction to Genetics where she sat next to Sondra at nine in the morning, and Ecology with nobody she knew at eleven, and a quick lunch from the campus bistro which she usually took in company with Terrence before she went to lab hours, stats, and her literature seminar discussion. When she got home for dinner, Shula hadn't cooked anything. Celia was about to suggest that they order pizza when Shula said, "Visiting my folks tonight."
"- which folks?"
"Going to my planet," Shula clarified. "I think you should come. You're going to live there, you know, you should know the place, get comfortable with it. Learn to tell apart all your in-laws-to-be, I know for a fact you don't even remember most of their names."
"I remember Meer's name. - And Rai." That was who Rai was, she was suddenly ninety percent sure.
"Rai will be flattered, but only if you tell her that, Celia, you've been snubbing them all for literal years now. They think you don't like them. It makes my mother sad."
"Come with me tonight. I'm not staying very long, it'll be dinner and sitting around in the parlor with my parents and brothers and sisters. Except Meer, obviously. It'll be fine. Very tame. They'll call me 'Kess' and I'll correct them, and maybe they'll try to get you to play Flame Squares, which is a board game you physically cannot play but I can make your moves for you, and when we're tired we'll come back here for the night. Piece of cake. We can work up to going with them on weeklong camping trips."
"I'm trying to imagine camping on that planet, and..."
"Oh, you've only seen inside the palace. There's life on the planet, it's just that there's no sun so it all has to run on magically generated energy. It catches fire a lot. I mean the life does. We won't go out among it without appropriate preparations, fire extinguishers and asbestos socks and the works, I promise. Talk to Rai about biology all evening if you like."
"She does biology?" Celia asked.
"Mm-hm. You can tell her about Earth stuff and she can tell you about other stuff. You'll have a fine time. Come on, Celia, I don't avoid your family."
"I don't avoid your family, I went with you to Amrika's wedding."
"My biological family. If you had two families I wouldn't avoid either of them. Come with me." She held out her hand.
"...Dinner and I talk to Rai about biology the entire rest of the time?"
"And make a good faith effort learn the others' names, but yes."
"Deal," said Celia, and she held Shula's hand. The world changed around them, and they were surrounded by black stone and hot mineral-scented air.
Shula lit the wall sconces as they went. Celia had never closely inspected one; maybe they had fuel in them to keep hold of the fire independently of someone doing magic, the way Shula used tealights, or maybe whoever wanted the room to be light had to pay some attention to that all the time. It seemed like a harmless question: "Do you have to actively keep those lit or do they do it themselves?"
"There's oil running into them, and wicks that the servants replace now and then, sort of like the kind of lamp you can get genies out of," Shula said. "You can do it the other way but it'd be distracting and you'd keep winding up in the dark if you forgot about it."
"Makes sense." She followed Shula through the corridors and down the stairs, looking for her family. This wasn't Shula's estate, though the architecture was a lot alike; Celia noticed the difference when she saw the view out of one of the scarce windows. There were gardens, sort of, outside, growing under a combination of glass-bottomed paths of fire arcing over them and more conventional electric lamps. "There are lamps."
"Plants like white light," said Shula, "or something like that. Rai ran out of room to garden in her estate - they weren't built with gardening in mind, not a lot of grounds outside the buildings, we can handle if it local wildlife catches fire but that doesn't make it comfortable if it surprises us. But she gardens, so she expanded here, I'm told, while I was growing up over again."
"And the plants don't set each other on fire?" Celia asked, imagining ferns in incendiary combat, plants evolving to be toxic when burned to poison anything that toasted them -
"She has a sprinkler system, and the ones that are more likely to do that are planted off by themselves without close neighbors, I think? Ask her." And Shula pushed open a set of doors into a parlor, if you wanted to call a giant hall with a maze of seating options arrayed across its floor a "parlor". Through this room and taking a right turn they found the dining room. "Hello everyone!" Shula said, switching to the Spanish of her first childhood. Celia already had a ring for it. She processed without consciously trying the centuries-old dialect Shula's biological parents had spoken when they'd met back on Earth, evolved a little since then with the contributions of plakti learners and dozens of accumulated personal idioms isolated on this world. The ring didn't do all that much for modern Spanish, but it made it easier to learn, so Celia was taking it for her language requirement for the degree she'd never use because she was going to get married and be queen consort of this planet.
"Welcome home, Kess!" called Shula's father, King Juan Luis. Why he was calling Shula by the name she'd grown up with instead of the one she'd gotten accustomed to on Earth, and preferred, while he went by his Spanish name from his days as a South American conquistador's cuckoo, Celia did not know.
"It's Shula," said Shula. "Let's see... Tam, Pax, Dah, Rai... where are Zi and Nik?" The table was set for dinner, the empty chairs apparently for Celia and Shula themselves based on Shula pulling Celia into one and taking the other. Zi and Nik, whichever siblings those were, were apparently not only late but not expected to show up at all. Celia let a servant lean past her to ladle something mashed and something roasted and something glazed onto her plate. She thought she could identify oats and the smell of apricots, that was all.
"Zi is at the weeklong shape dance - he's in fourth place, last I heard, you should remember to congratulate when he comes back, especially if he pulls ahead - and Nik is spending some time with your grandmother since he and Pax have been fighting," replied the king.
Celia tried to keep the names straight. They were all so short. Why hadn't they named their kids Spanish things like Gabriela and Pablo? Was it necessary to honor plakti naming customs in the course of gradually replacing their population with reproductively capable part-plakti? She was going to mix them up. She was going to be calling them Tax and Pam by the end of the night.
Pax (it was Pax, Pax, wasn't that Latin for peace? a mnemonic of sorts) seemed to be the tall, long-faced girl lounging on a low-backed chair; she said, "Which is Mama's way of saying he's a terrible little sneak."
"I don't think he was setting out to upset you, darling," said Queen Elena.
"He read my diary," Pax explained to Shula. "And brought it up over breakfast with the whole family, the next day."
"He was trying to figure out whether you had a secret boyfriend you're not supposed to have," said another sibling, maybe Dah.
"I'm straight, though," said, apparently, Tam, "and I look good, I'd do fine, doesn't matter what Pax does."
Maybe-Dah said, "Pax still shouldn't have a boyfriend. It's irresponsible."
"I don't have a boyfriend!" cried Pax.
"That's not what Nik said!" hooted the brother Celia was tentatively designating Dah.
"He misinterpreted some things he shouldn't even have been reading -" Pax said defensively, but she was interrupted:
"He had enough to go on before that, he didn't want to embarrass you without knowing for sure -" Dah countered.
"Not in front of the guest," said a sister. Rai, Celia guessed. She was small - they'd all be adults, now, so that wasn't an age indicator, but it was her most distinguishing feature in the family. They were all chai-brown, all had black hair and dark eyes, all beautiful and gracile, their mother the least pretty with a purely human background and age starting to catch up with her despite the ring she shared with her husband. "You're making us look bad," Rai continued.
"Celia's not a guest, she'll be family soon enough," said Tam.
"She's a guest now," objected Rai.
She was seated across from Celia, which made it relatively easy to lean over to say, "Hello, it's nice to properly meet you - I barely spoke to you at the party and you never come out here -"
"I've been busy," said Celia weakly. She pushed around the something-mashed on her plate; she'd liked the other two things all right but whatever this was either tasted bad on its own merits or was simply never meant for mashing.
"Oh, I understand, it's just nice that you're here now."
"...Shula says you do biology. And, uh, gardening, and that the plants catch fire," Celia said.
"Oh, yes. The native plants here are hard to cultivate, you get a lot of burns that way if you don't know what you're doing. I wear gloves, but I've lost my eyebrows a couple of times," said Rai, as Pax and Dah continued bickering in the background and Shula made some sort of family in-joke commentary toward her mother. "And I can't wear anything I like in the garden here. I have another less flammable one on a colony planet."
"Colony planet?" asked Celia. Shula was being drawn into a conversation with Dah about an uncle of theirs, and his hang-gliding accident.
"Has Shula not told you about the colony planets?" asked Rai. "I guess she might have never been to one, so they might not have seemed important... We have some. Earth plants can't grow here without a lot of light it's hard to set up to get them, especially for big things like trees, but they're very popular. You can put a scallion under a lamp but it's not worth the trouble for almonds. And there are a lot of animals that don't like the lack of sun too. So we farm a lot of food on another planet, and some people live there. I have gardens here from when I was little, but most of my work is under a sun. It's so bright." She wrinkled her nose. "I wind up working at night. The plants can do without me for the daytime. And I have helpers for the animals."
"The plakti don't mind the sun?"
"They can shapeshift. I mean, I can too, but I'm scared about not being able to have kids, and changing my eyes shouldn't do that, but what if it did?"
"You're one of the younger ones, though," Celia could not for the life of her remember birth order except that apparently Tam was after the disgraced Meer and therefore after Shula, and Pax after Tam. "So you don't have to."
"Oh, I know, but I might want to," Rai said. "Some of the plakti are so sad that they can't, because they turned into things and forgot how to put themselves back how they were. I don't want that to happen to me. And I know there are pretty big tolerances, but I'm nervous around it. All I ever do is change my hair." Her hair was black now, matching everyone else's - Celia squinted at it - "It's normal now, but sometimes I'll do a color or make it stand up or something. It was pink last week."
"Oh," said Celia.
"Your hair is pretty," Rai told her earnestly.
"I don't think there's anyone in the whole family with natural blonde hair. All black and brown and I guess I don't know whether Grandfather's hair was naturally red or not."
"I could ask Father but he probably won't know if it was natural or if he just shifted it that way all the time. Grandfather's dead of course, or he'd be on the throne still. Anyway it didn't pass on... I'm probably boring you."
"Not at all," said Celia, distantly polite, imagining some black-haired grandchild of her own sitting at Rai's knee asking about Grandma Celia. She ate another mouthful of the roasted thing with the oats on it. It was a bizarre combination, whatever it was with whatever was in the sauce with the incongruous oats.
And Rai would say, "she was distant and unfriendly but yes, natural blonde hair, and if you abduct the right human your babies might have blonde hair too" -
"I'm curious about your gardens," Celia said abruptly, "can I see them?"
"Oh!" said Rai. "Sure - Mother, Father, can we be excused, Celia wants to see the gardens -"
Celia's instinct would have been to ask Shula, but of course Rai wouldn't do that. Their majesties gave their leave. Rai showed Celia out of the room and to a side entrance, with a switchback staircase clinging to the wall of the palace, down three flights till they let out onto the level ground among the planters and the lighting setup.
"Where does the electricity come from?" asked Celia.
"...Just because the planet doesn't look like Earth doesn't mean we don't have electricity. We don't use it for indoor lighting because most everyone can do fire, and Mother can ask servants," said Rai. "We use it for other things. There's a garbage incinerator somewhere, and the garbage is burned for electricity."
"Sorry," said Celia.
"You don't talk about our planet with Shula much, I guess?"
"Not really." Celia generally preferred to pretend to be an ordinary college student who in no way was in line for any thrones nor had access to any other celestial bodies.
"Anyway," said Rai, "here are some native plants - give them a bit of a berth so I'll have the reaction time if they flare up, but I don't think any of them are going to. It's not just people who can use magic, once a planet has it good and proper, see? And this planet has no sun, so all the life on it had to learn to generate energy with magic, and the way that works with most of our plants is that if one of them is feeling a little sickly, it'll catch. Then all its relatives nearby will be able to use the fire themselves, and it saves them from infection, and its genes do better. If they do this too easily, then they just all burn up, and if they don't do it enough, they all starve trying to hold off till another plant does it. And they have adaptations to draw the fire close to themselves but not catch from it, once another plant has sacrificed itself, so they can use it efficiently -" She tipped up a leaf shaped like an upended bowl. It was black, underneath. "This one can suck fire under its leaves and hold it there to catch the light and the warmth. It's called a catcherplant, there are lots of kinds of catcherplants. And since I want all my plants to survive, I feed them." She picked up what must be some kind of specialized gardening torch and held it under the leaf and ignited it.
"This all evolved naturally?" Celia boggled.
"Yes - it was a big disaster when the planet got magic, because things started using it and a lot of stuff burned and obviously there was the fertility crisis with the plakti shapeshifting too much, but things survived and adapted around it - like how Earth has those forests where they only grow new trees after a wildfire opens them up, only much, much more."
"Can plants shapeshift?"
"Some do. Other things than people can use magic, but they aren't smart about it, and you need to be a little smart to shapeshift into something other than mush. That's how our carnivorous plants work, though. They don't know how to move, they know how to seal up around things that they might eat. I have some over here!" She led Celia to a different plant, where black lumps of plant matter grew up out of the soil. "They're not that interesting looking when they haven't just been fed, but this one I can push a few days off schedule to show you -" There were bugs in a bin, and tweezers, in a compartment under the waist-level planter holding the plants. Rai tweezed one out. Celia didn't get a good look at it - the planters with Earth plants, or yet-more-alien plants that liked light, were lamplit, and there was the fire, but the overall effect of the black foliage and black sky was one of dimness and she found it hard to see how many legs the bug had, how many wings. Just an impression of something brown and squirming that Rai placed on the surface of the lump of plant.
The lump of plant - lunged, if that was what you wanted to call it, suddenly distending around the bug before it could jump or fly away.
"Wow," said Celia.
"Aren't they so cool? None of my family are really interested in this stuff. And there's the ones that -"
"Are there plants that teleport?"
"No - I mean, I guess it could happen, but if it did it'd probably die, even the sort of plant that doesn't need to be rooted to live does need specific conditions and it would be easy to wind up in space, or the ocean."
"You have an ocean?"
"Of course we have oceans."
"You should really see more of the place. You're going to be Queen. Our people will think you don't like them. You could appear at events, wave and smile..."
"I'm sorry." How many plakti were there? How many people was Celia managing to fail?
"And before you ask, there definitely aren't plants that make rings. That requires specific materials - it doesn't actually have to be rings, that's just traditional, but it does need to be gold and ruby. Other colors of corundum work but not as well, they lose fidelity on the things they're storing over time. And plants are not known for their ability to forge jewelry." Rai smiled. "It's okay. There's a lot to learn and you must have been pretty shocked, and I hear you're busy with school, too."
Celia nodded gratefully.
"You're learning now, that's what matters."
"Are there plants that erase memories?"
"That's another thing you have to be smart to do."
"Oh, I agree, that would be scary. There are animals that can take a minute or two, but not more than that, and I don't have any."
Celia nodded. "They seem like they'd be hard to keep."
"Oh, it can be done, you just need to be kind of obsessive about checklists or constantly on the defensive. And they're funny to watch if you keep them together because they'll do it to each other, to defuse conflicts. They'll just suddenly get confused and wander off, whichever one is slower on the draw than the other."
"It must have been - the biggest extinction ever, when magic happened here -"
"Oh, no," said Rai. "It was big, sure, but the biggest was after that. Things mostly recovered from the magic coming in, and then, after that, the sun collapsed."
"Oh." Celia briefly entertained the thought of the Earth's sun collapsing. She stopped doing that after a second.
"Yeah, that was much worse. It was good that magic happened first or nothing would have survived. As it was we avoided all starving - some plakti starved, just not all of them - long enough using free energy from magic to figure out how to get to other planets. I'm not sure how long the biomass would have lasted otherwise, fire magic still needs something to burn to work. Getting away from my field now though."
"That makes sense to me at least - so you have a farm planet and import food -"
"Right, and humans are fashionable - if you can call it that when it's been so long - so human food is too."
"What do plakti... look like?"
"What do you mean? You've seen some, our servants are all full plakti..."
"I mean if they aren't shapeshifted. Are there - fossils, of plakti from before magic happened - does anyone remember -"
"Nobody remembers - lots of people are that old, they just lost their memories at one time or another. There've been wars with memory erasure, sooner or later most people get wiped... There are fossils, though. They're in museums, you could go, or - you could get someone who's less shy about shapeshifting to show you. One of the servants, I can call Vihn over -"
"No, don't call anyone over. It's not important. Maybe I'll go to a museum with Shula sometime." Something had occurred to Celia.
Her magically informed father had told her that she could trust Rai. He was magically informed because Earth was on the verge of getting magic. Rai had just told her that it was an ecological catastrophe when a planet got magic, because not only did people suddenly have a slew of new powers, plants and animals could use those powers too.
Divination might not be very risky in the arsenal of a tree or a cabbage, not more than annoying if it happened to raccoons or roaches, not dangerous on a global scale if it happened to bears or bobcats, but the plakti had five kinds of magic. And Celia's dad had only one, but how long would that last? It wasn't happening all at once, or in any straightforwardly hereditary fashion or Celia would have something too. It could crop up at any place, at any time, for all she knew.
What sorts of things could magic even be? Plakti didn't have divination. Earth would have other, new, maybe dangerous things.
"Can I tell you something and - you can't tell anyone unless I agree it's okay to tell them? It's important."
"- yes, okay -"
"Earth is getting magic," blurted Celia. "And I - I haven't told Shula, because how I know is my dad, and I'm scared she'd take my memory and do something to him and then nobody would believe him, because he's got mental health stuff on top of the actual magic, and she might, she kidnapped my mom because my mom was going to move me to Montana and away from Shula, and she replaced her with one of the plakti servants, and my dad told me, and - and if there's more kinds, if it's going to happen more and more, then -"
Rai's eyes were wide. "That could be really bad," she whispered gravely.
"Yeah. And I don't know what to do."
"What is - what can your dad do, is it a sensing power or something -"
"He just knows stuff. He doesn't have a way to steer it to things he wants to know, it just happens to him, he knows stuff, and tells me about it. He - he told me -" Celia swallowed. "He told me I could trust you. I don't know."
"Shula wasn't supposed to take your mom - well, I don't actually know, I guess a strict reading of the rules -"
"The rules allow that?"
"I guess. She needed your consent to marry her free and clear, but manipulating people around you so there aren't obstacles to that isn't... obviously against the... the real issue here is Earth magic. That's a much bigger deal although I'm very sorry about your mom. Does your dad know what other kinds there are? Here, walk around with me so it looks like I'm showing you plants -" Celia followed Rai to another planter full of dark-needled shrubs bearing white fruit. "Does he know who else might have powers, or where else they might be found? It matters enormously what they are."
"Has this happened to more planets? That you've found?"
"We found one that was all in ruins," said Rai. "There were people on it, before, and they had writing and we've figured out bits and pieces, and we know what some of their magic was, but they all died of it."
"Fuck," Celia mouthed, though she didn't quite utter the word.
"It might be that the best thing to do is evacuate the planet, have people grow up there only in sealed bunkers so they can develop its powers and learn about them that way, until the ecology outside has settled down. It depends on what it is, because a sealed bunker wouldn't help that much if you get teleportation like us. And have more animals experimenting with it because you skip fire magic and fewer things burn to extinction. Fire magic was bad but survivable for the whole ecosystem; the dead planet we found had something with fusion reactions... the place isn't still hot, but the craters..."
"Is it always five kinds?"
"Don't have the sample size to know. We're only sure of four on the dead planet but we can't read everything and it's amazing they had time to get anything down, we can't expect it to be complete even insofar as it's legible." Rai showed her long-stalked root vegetables that smelled like vinegar and earth. Maybe these were the mashed thing.
"Dad doesn't know about the other kinds but I can ask him again. I don't know if he's got the - full mature form of the magic. It could be his illness interfering, it could be because it's new - you don't know about whether it comes in full strength, do you?"
"Don't know. Might vary between magic types, especially the ones you need to be smart to use. I don't know how long it takes to get fully rooted, either. It might be that it's hundreds of years, but it might also be that Earth's been incubating it for hundreds of years, and it might also be that it's only a decade. How long has he had this?"
"- I don't know. The first confirmed stuff was around my, uh, my and Shula's engagement party, but there could have been true things mixed in with delusions and nobody would have picked them out."
"You're sure they're sometimes delusions."
"...Well, anything's possible, but I do think so, the things are - different. They make him react differently."
"Drat. Okay, so - do ask him, if he knows where to find more magic. Maybe having more starting information can help him somehow, you can tell him everything I've told you," said Rai.
They moved on to ice-blue flowers on a vine with navy blue leaflets furring its length. They were lovely; Celia almost touched one before drawing her hand back in case that would inspire a small conflagration. "Thank you," Celia said.
"Of course," Rai said. "I'm trying to think if there's anything else I can tell you. I don't think I know anything more that's useful till you've consulted your dad. - I understand why you don't want to tell Shula, but is it okay if I sound out the rest of my family?"
"I don't know them," Celia said.
"I do," replied Rai.
"...My dad said I could trust you."
"But he didn't say anything about the rest of them?"
"Yeah. I don't know. I don't know if I'm supposed to let only you know the things, or if I'm supposed to trust you to decide who to tell."
"I don't know either. Do you like the flowers?" Rai asked abruptly.
"A souvenir. I have to prune them a lot. I can tie a bit of vine into a garland for you."
"- I like them."
Rai pinched off a length of vine, and stifled the gasp of fire that attempted to ignite at the damaged end, and knotted the tips and placed it on Celia's head. "Lovely," she said. "I'm so sorry about your mom. I don't know what to think about that. Shula'd been gone for eighteen years by then, and I was only six when she left. I'd like to say there must have been a mistake, but -" She shook her head, took long steps toward a pool of floating algae that burned with slow pilot lights in a dance of gently floating flame. "But in spite of being sisters I don't know her, not well enough to say that."
"Thank you," Celia said, touching a flower above her ear tentatively. "For - believing me. Um. I sort of - there's -"
Rai watched the lights float in the water. They smelled like nutmeg and salt. "Hm?"
"Do you know what got Meer locked up?"
"We were all told that he erased and conditioned you into swapping rings with him, so he'd have your and Shula's immortality ring."
"I... I don't think he did. I guess I wouldn't remember but I don't think I'm missing time. He said it would be impossible to get - my and Shula's children - into human society the way Shula got in, and that she had to fail, and he'd get a queen who knew things in advance because the rules aren't enforced, and he'd get her a ring of her own instead of sharing, and be the last king. And I - let him swap - but Shula'd swapped mine in my sleep, so he got caught."
"- why did you -"
Celia swallowed. "Is it safe to touch these if I avoid the parts that are on fire?"
Celia swished her hand through the water, brushed the edges of the plants. "I love her. But it was all too much when I found out about everything. I don't want to be - queen. I don't know if I can get used to the sky here. I don't want her to get me pregnant - the other day she -" Celia bit off the sentence; Rai didn't need to know that. "I love her but it's too much, and she wants all of it too much, and it makes her different from how she was. Or how I thought she was, back when everything was just about going to high school and being regular people there. She wants it too much."
Rai was silent, for a while. Leaning over the water planter and fiddling with the end of her braid. "Earth's changed a lot in the last few hundred years."
"Yeah, it has."
"Mother describes herself as having been very excited, about everything. I think Father had to be careful to present it to her without her thinking he was a demon or something, but he managed to thread that needle, and I assumed that part was easier in the modern day, less ambient belief in demons. It didn't occur to me that there'd be other major differences - I guess you had other things you wanted to do. Mother mostly perceived herself to not have very many other things she might be doing."
"I don't know if it's just that. Maybe if my life sucked otherwise I'd be all over being queen here, but..."
"It's not just that you don't know the planet very well, is it?"
"No. I'm sure I could get to like the planet. But I don't like how it was - offered. It wasn't even offered, it was just something that started happening to me."
"You don't have to marry Shula."
"Don't I, though? Wouldn't there be - fighting over the succession, Meer said -"
"Meer and Tam would have had a fight, yes, and Shula might have gotten into it too, might have bid for another try or something. Because by rights if she failed it would be Meer's turn, and he'd make a terrible king and Tam knows it, and Shula seems like she might be a fine queen but talking to you I'm not so sure. Pax and Dah and Nik and Zi and I wouldn't make trouble. With Meer out of the way - Shula and Tam might fight, but you could make it clear enough that she hadn't managed to win you over by the book that no one would back her against him. Well, not many people. She has some personally loyal servants, but only a handful. It would be a skirmish, not a war."
"And then Tam would, he'd go to Earth and turn into a baby and hide in some family and come back in a couple decades with a fiancée."
"That isn't necessarily any better, she might be scared and overwhelmed too, even if he didn't kidnap her mom."
Rai cupped a palmful of water with a burning gleam floating on the center of it, and held it close to her face. "It wouldn't be ideal."
"And the magic's coming in, and it might finish coming in very fast all of a sudden while Tam was pretending to be nine, or Tam's girlfriend might have divination magic like Dad does and know what he was before she was supposed to..."
"And he might die if it turns out the magic includes something planet-scouring. Yes."
"So I do have to marry her."
"No you don't," said Rai.
"But if Tam can't do it either, then -"
"Then something has to change, and you marrying Shula without wanting to isn't it. Father and Mother are not exactly at death's door right now, so we have a little time. The most important thing is figuring out Earth magic so we can prepare humans for that. The next most important thing is - I guess - finding a way to have a final monarch here. Not my parents, they're already getting old, and I don't think they want to live forever. Tam would be fine, or I suppose since succeeding to the eldest hasn't been working out this generation we could do something really wild and hold an election and maybe they'd prefer Pax or Aunt So or a full-blooded plakti -"
"You don't need me?" said Celia, cold relief flooding her like tap water flowing over a burn. "You don't need me to suck it up and -"
"We don't need you," Rai said. "It's okay. You don't have to marry her."
"She scares me," Celia whispered. "She could erase my memories and tell me anything and then I'd be like Mom. Mom thinks she was just sick, the whole time she was actually trapped in Shula's estate. I could wake up in the hospital with a bruise on my head and Shula telling me anything she wanted, if she ever knew I wasn't totally thrilled -"
"If I tell Father and Mother what you've told me, they can recall her from Earth and keep her away from you."
"I don't want her locked up like Meer, though. I still - sometimes she's so - I love her, but -"
"- I promised not to tell anyone until you said it was all right," said Rai, "but she could do that and you don't have a way to defend yourself; being safe against memory magic requires having it. Even if you found an excuse to have me around all the time I can't directly protect you, just be ready to - retaliate, if she moves first."
"Right," said Celia softly.
"She hasn't taken your memories yet, that you know of, but you wouldn't necessarily know."
"I don't think I'm missing any time. I haven't been deliriously sick for weeks on end either."
"That's a good sign. But you might not notice a couple minutes."
"She's usually fine, though, she's usually happy and sweet and... normal." And Celia loved her, and Shula loved Celia, and things were usually good.
"Okay. If something does happen to you I need to warn people about Earth magic without your say-so, though."
"I guess that makes sense."
"I'm sorry this all caught you up in it."
"We should schedule things," Celia said. "We should meet and talk space plants every week and she'll know you might notice if I were acting weird or skipped. We can actually talk about space plants, they're neat."
"I'd like that," said Rai. "When's good - I don't have any time-specific things, especially if I can work while we chat -"
"Uh, Friday? Do you have the same days of the week?"
"There's local timekeeping, but I track Earth time too, because soon we'll - the idea is that soon we'll be able to go, once the succession is sewn up, but - well, one way or another we'll be able to go one day, and there's some R&D people working on getting us Earth internet connections from here instead of loading page requests onto a box and teleporting them there and back every fifteen minutes."
"That sounds like a terrible job."
"It's not that bad, but I wouldn't want it. Some people like that kind of repetitive simple work and it pays pretty well, lots of plakti want to be on the Earth internet."
"Huh. - Do you think we should go back?"
"Nobody's waving from the window."
"I can't even see in the window from here," Celia said.
"I can. We're fine, if you want to wait till Shula's ready to go back."
"Thank you," Celia murmured.
"This way," said Rai, leading her to a rack of little black herbs in little clay pots. "Next time we can go to the other planet, it has a wider variety. This planet hasn't recovered completely from the extinction bottlenecks, we have a lot fewer species here than you do. Although they're speciating! I don't go tromping around in the wilderness myself, too dangerous when I'm not an expert at shapeshifting, but my friends and servants bring me things that look different, and take photos."
"Do you have cell phones?" wondered Celia.
"They're different, I'd have to get a new one to get on a plan if I moved to Earth, but yeah." Rai pulled hers out of her pocket. It didn't look science-fictional; the omission of plastic made it more fantasy-looking - the screen was glass, but the housing was red enamel and it had a lacy copper handle on the back that would have let her set the phone on a table and spin it like a lazy susan, or just hold it in her hand from any angle. It was like a magic mirror, but with a five inch square screen. She proceeded through a lot of pictures of plants interspersed with a few animals: bigger versions of the scoop-leafed plant, covered in parasitic vines and surrounded by tufts of dark weeds and heavy layers of what might be fungus. "Earth foliage is green, mostly, but here it's all gotten very dark to absorb more of the light, when there is any. On the farm planet most of the native flora is blue or purple."
"I bet it's pretty."
Rai found pictures of blue grass and purple shrubbery blanketing a collection of knolls, gray-barked trees with branches that chose alien angles to expose their puffs of indigo leaves to the orange light of the sun. The picture had an almost color-treated quality, like someone had gone in and altered a black and white photo with ink, although Celia assumed it was true to life - just taken under a different sun.
"We can go next time," Rai said. "You can see my bunnies."
"Bunnies! Earth rabbits, and alien animals I call bunnies. The farm planet doesn't have native people on it to name the creatures so we just call them anything we want."
"Does it have magic?"
"Nope. It's nice and simple there."
"I can't wait," Celia said.
Shula took her home later that evening, and they went out for ice cream to make up for the fact that dinner had neither included dessert nor inspired much appetite. Celia got a scoop each of triple chocolate and butter pecan. Shula got a weird limited edition flavor with oats and dates in it and had her cone dunked in rainbow sprinkles. They walked around town as they ate, holding hands, switching which side each walked on occasionally as their cone-holding hands got tired or cold. It was nice.
Shula was talking about how her mother - Inabah Ali, her Earth mother - wanted her to go to law school, and Shula was pretending that all she wanted to do was paint and travel rather than explaining the nature of the travel. "Really I'm painting some - I'm sorry about leaving out the paint water on the kitchen table, by the way, I didn't mean to, I'm glad you didn't drink it before you noticed - but I'm mostly spending hilarious amounts of time reading statecraft. Plakti statecraft, not that the human examples can't be instructive for a bit of a change of pace. I was educated in it when I was little back home, of course, but they had to stop when I was twelve. You can't get to a really high level of understanding when you're twelve. And I could do a little bit, at home, they didn't look at my stuff that closely, but I definitely couldn't have anything in a language they didn't know I knew. So I've been catching up since I've moved out and can have an unsupervised bookshelf. They just figured out file conversion from a plakti text format to PDF, did I tell you?"
"I don't think you did," Celia said.
"It took forever! It had to be PDF because there aren't any fonts in some of the languages plakti use, on human computers. PDF is technically an image format so it can just convert straight across, you can't select any text but it works. I had access to a preliminary version that would only convert things that do have font equivalents - plakti use Earth languages now and then - but that's just royal privilege, it's just now available for the general public in its final draft."
"Should I have a plakti language ring?" wondered Celia.
"Believe it or not they're more expensive. If someone makes a ring of a language they can't speak that language any more, see, so it's one thing for someone to invest some time learning an Earth language really well to make money, but it's another to lose the language they actually use most. I can get you one, though, of course. I'm glad you're taking more of an interest in the place now." Shula licked ice cream from her lips and kissed Celia on the cheek.
"- Rai is really cool," Celia volunteered. "The plants were interesting."
"That's really good, I'm glad you got along and that she has someone to talk to about her thing - it's not that I don't like plants, it's that I've always got more on my mind. Did you know that - well, of course you didn't, but, it turns out that opinion polling has been done in a provably misleading way on the plakti world for the last two hundred years and this was only just noticed by a statistician who looked into it. I've been making an exercise of going through all the precedents and changes based on those polls in that time and figuring out whether they would have stood under more accurate numbers, just to make it more real to myself. Do you do anything like that?"
"I like lab work. And field work," Celia said. "I used to think I wanted to be a vet, but I think now I wouldn't like that. People leaving lilies around in a houseful of cats, having to put down people's dogs."
"Just as well, you'll be a little too busy to hold down a veterinary practice after the wedding," said Shula. "You should have lots of time to hang out in Rai's gardens, though."
"I want to go see the ones she has on the other planet, sometime, the farm planet."
"That's a great idea," Shula grinned. Her ice cream was gone. Celia quickly finished hers and started biting the cone.
"What am I going to be busy doing?" Celia asked.
"Mostly ceremonial appearances but we'll need to take petitions, too, and you can do those for me when I'm too busy with legislature or judiciary."
"No separation of powers, huh."
"No. It's a monarchy. I'll have advisers and assistants, and there are regional and local governments, but once I'm queen my word is law. That's why I have to study so much."
"Are you one of your dad's advisers now?" Celia asked.
"Sort of. I sit in with him but I don't have a formal advisory title, just Crown Princess. He takes me seriously, though, and I learn a lot."
"Are you in the middle of a book now?"
"Thirty Case Studies. They were trying to avoid being dry but the authors can't help it, that's just how they write, so it's slow going. I'm taking a ton of notes and bringing them by my planet a chapter at a time to run them by some of the staff, especially Great-Aunt Sha, and Father."
"I don't think you've mentioned Sha before."
"Great-Aunt Sha is pretty great. She was going to be queen but her fiancé left her and she didn't want to try to find another one before her time was up, so she went home and her little brother my grandfather took over and Great-Aunt Sha just does advisory."
"She sounds cool," said Celia. She didn't kidnap her fiancé's mom. That was pretty cool.
"She is! Do you want to meet her?"
"Let me get used to Rai first," said Celia, chuckling weakly.
"All right. I really do appreciate you coming along that last visit."
"I'm glad I went," Celia said honestly.
"Good! So what have you been up to - school, of course, but -"
"School," echoed Celia. "Genetics is going on a field trip, Friday morning. One of those labs with all the genetically identical mice, they're studying cancer but I forget what kind."
"Eugh," said Shula, "giving mice cancer on purpose to watch it happen, that's kind of creepy."
"Well, it's better than people getting it," Celia replied. "Anyway I won't be personally giving any mice cancer, we're just going there to look around and talk to the scientists and I think Sondra's going to angle for an internship. We will not be harming any mice. They probably won't even have us picking them up."
"Apologize to a mouse for me anyway."
"I'd look ridiculous."
"All right, don't apologize to a mouse." Shula patted Celia on the shoulder. "Let them suffer alone."
"I will," snorted Celia.
The field trip on Friday required Celia to get up earlier than she normally did, and she got a ride with Sondra rather than drive to campus. There they boarded a bus and went out to the lab. Their professor knew someone there, and since Celia hadn't gotten into a fancy school with its own genetics lab they were visiting this one instead. It was a long drive. Celia couldn't quite nod off; she wound up half-dozing, jolted awake every few seconds by a pothole or turn juddering her head against the window. She dithered too long about asking Sondra if she'd lend her scarf as a pillow; they were in sight of the lab by the time she decided it would have been worthwhile forty-five minutes ago. It was probably too insubstantial a fabric to make much difference anyway.
They parked in a lot a couple of blocks away. And it was then that Celia noticed her and Shula's own car following, pulling in to a parking space beside them. Lyne, or possibly Cait using Lyne's favorite generic human face for some reason but that seemed less probable, was driving, and Rai was in the passenger seat.
Celia disembarked from the bus, and peeled off from the crowd to meet Rai as she exited the car: "What are you doing here?"
"You said Friday," blinked Rai.
"I meant Friday evening, I meant dinner on Friday, I have class during the day on weekdays - how did you even find me here?"
"I asked Shula, and her phone can find your phone, and we caught up with you and then she got out and went home, and we followed the bus the rest of the way. Is it a problem? Should I have Lyne take me back and wait?" asked Rai.
"I - uh - hang on," said Celia, and she trotted back to catch the teacher. "Hey, Dr. Daniels, my, uh -" Shula did not publicly have additional siblings besides Amrika, on Earth. No one was going to check whether Rai was or was not the sister Shula was understood to have, none of Celia's classmates were likely to even know Shula's ostensible sibling status, but - "- my friend," Celia continued after a too-long pause to fumble for the word, "got mixed up about our plans and followed me all the way here, can she come on the tour? She likes biology and she'll, uh, behave in the lab and stuff."
"I guess that shouldn't be a problem, we're not hitting maximum tour group size," frowned the professor. "Sure, why not."
"Thanks, Dr. Daniels," said Celia, and she went back to collect Rai. "Don't say anything weird," she urged as she led the alien back to the group. Shula had been re-raised on Earth, Shula knew how to behave on either planet, Rai had never been here before. "Maybe just mostly don't talk. And don't touch stuff inside if you're not invited to, okay?"
"Okay," said Rai. "I can pretend I only speak Spanish if that will help."
"No, just pretend you're shy -" They reached earshot of the tour group, and flowed inside with everyone else. The lab was white and clean, the air smelled like mice and rubbing alcohol. Celia wished she'd had a chance to ask Rai if she'd go by some Earth name. Someone on Earth was probably named Rai, but whoever that was would have been able to answer questions about the origin of the name. Celia was certainly overthinking this. More likely nobody cared who Rai was, and if they asked her name to be polite they wouldn't follow up with an inquiry into her ethnic background, and if they chose to be racist about it there was no need to come up with a plausible lie. Overthinking. She tried to focus on the tour.
The professor met up with his friend and they shook hands and the professor smiled at the class, all smug about what a cool and legitimate researcher of mouse cancers he was friends with, and introduced him as Dr. Strauss. They proceeded into the lab, where scientists were doing objectively horrifying things to mice and interns were performing mundane mouse maintenance.
The mice were all white, all in small groups in small cages stacked six high. Dr. Strauss chattily lectured about the way the mice were cloned, the way they were given cancer, and the trials the lab was running on various drugs to see if they made the mice better or worse or crazy or dead of side effects or more responsive to surgery. Sondra asked if it was hard to do surgery on mice. Another classmate asked how many mice died in this lab every day. Someone else wanted to know if the mice ever had non-clone babies and if they were weird inbred mutants. Sondra raised her hand again and wanted to know if you needed veterinary training to experiment on mice.
Celia glanced over at Rai, who was watching the lecture raptly. Celia wanted to ask her what she was thinking but it wasn't really the time. They moved on to a different section of the lab, where Dr. Strauss told them about their data collection procedures and all the tests they ran on the mice and the samples from the mice, and then the students were allowed to look at mouse samples through microscopes and watch the centrifuge spin and ask more questions about the dyes they used and the cancer progression in the control group and whether they were funded by any of the drug companies that were producing the chemicals they tested (Dr. Strauss rolled his eyes at that one).
Then, anyone who signed a waiver about mouse bites was allowed to hold a mouse, one of the young ones that didn't have cancer yet, and weigh their mice on the fancy scale and enter their data into the fancy database. Celia signed the waiver - Rai hung back, not being a student.
Celia chose a mouse that was busy eating, since with its mouth full it looked less likely than the unoccupied mice to decide biting her was a good idea, but then she realized she was going to have to take the pellet clutched in its paws away to get an accurate weight. She pinched the pellet between her fingers and pulled.
And pulled, and pulled.
The mouse let go. The pellet stayed right under its busy mouth. Celia held it up at eye level; it didn't have the pellet clenched in its teeth. The pellet was just hanging there, as though glued to its lip. But when she tugged again, the mouse's lip didn't stretch at all. The pellet just didn't move.
She spun on her heel - no one was watching her or her difficulty with the mouse's pellet, there was a line for the scale and she wasn't dawdling too much. She showed Rai the mouse, demonstrated the ineffective hauling. Rai's eyes went wide, but she didn't say anything.
Celia didn't want to put the magic mouse back and risk someone else trading theirs in for it. She held onto it, hoping it would be done eating by the time she got a weight. It was, and it had also peed on her hand. She set the creature on the scale, accepted directions to the handwash station, came back, recorded the mouse's mass, and recaged it.
"I can give you a ride," Rai said, after they'd finished the tour and their little hands-on activity.
"Yeah," said Celia, "sure," and she got in the back seat beside Rai, and Lyne, who'd been waiting with a magazine in the car, pulled out ahead of the bus and headed back toward campus.
Celia and Rai couldn't talk freely in front of Shula's servant. They exchanged meaningful looks and sat silently. Eventually Celia told Lyne to turn on the radio and tried to enjoy her favorite station (Lyne remembered it, of course) the rest of the way home.
Lyne dropped them off in the campus lot, since Celia had more classes yet to come, but her next one wasn't for a couple of hours. She led Rai to the park bench by the pond and plopped down, full of nervous tension. Rai sat next to her.
"Telekinesis," said Celia. "Or something like it, anyway. I guess it's not genetic. The mice are all clones and somebody would have noticed if lots of them were telekinetic."
"Clones," said Rai softly. "All of them were clones, they didn't have parents -"
"That wasn't really my main takeaway," said Celia, "now we know what another kind of Earth magic is and it could be bad if big enough stuff gets moved around."
"Oh - yes," said Rai. "Yes, of course, it's just..."
"What?" said Celia.
"We wouldn't need to worry about interbreeding or any of the complications that come with it," said Rai, "if you could clone plakti."
Celia spent some of her downtime looking up reports of paranormal effects on the Internet. She didn't find very much, and what she did find was too widely varied for more than half of it to be based in fact. Maybe Rai didn't know if planets always had exactly five kinds of magic, but if plakti had five and the one dead world had four confirmed that suggested Earth probably wasn't getting twenty. Then again, some plakti magic varieties were flexible enough to look like several kinds, especially if combined - but both Celia's dad and her mouse had displayed only one variety apiece - not that they'd observed the mouse enough to know if it could also create portals to alternate dimensions -
When she visited Rai on the farm planet, they pruned blue ferns that Rai and some plakti scientists were trying to convince to reproduce via cuttings. They weeded indigo vegetables, exotic cultivars of them (as opposed to all the normal cultivars of indigo vegetable), and scraped useful parasitic mushrooms off of purple-leafed trees. And Celia asked, "What does having magic feel like?"
"Gosh. That's a question," said Rai. "It - it feels - hm. What does having hair feel like?" Rai's hair was currently in a style she'd called "raspberry vanilla", mostly magenta with ombre down to white tips.
"Hair doesn't feel like much of anything," said Celia. "It doesn't have any nerves."
"Right. But you'd notice, probably right away, if you woke up and someone had shaved your head overnight," said Rai. "You'd probably even notice if someone took off two inches, because doing anything with your hair would be a little different, and it'd hit your arms in a different place. It fades into the background, and you can't feel your hair directly, but it brushes your neck and you think, oh, I could put it up in a ponytail, or you just go about your life not noticing that it isn't there, because it is. Having magic is like that."
"Does that mean my dad would have noticed," said Celia, "if he started having magic one day and wasn't born with it?"
"I don't know for sure," said Rai. "Maybe it's like letting your hair grow out - maybe he wasn't born with it but it grew in slowly."
"How hard do you really want to lean on the hair analogy?" wondered Celia.
"It's a good analogy," said Rai loftily. "Anyway, I was born with magic, and it didn't have to grow in -"
"Oh god, firebug babies," said Celia in sudden horror.
"Well, yes, but it takes a little practice to make something actually catch," said Rai, "and everyone around us can put out the fires, and heal with shapeshifting. It does mean it's not a good idea to leave babies born here unsupervised for long, though, things could get out of hand."
"Even if we - if we don't have to evacuate Earth, which we probably do," said Celia, "everything's going to change - babies with telekinesis and prophecy -"
"And whatever else," said Rai. "And the animals and plants. Yeah. It's going to be hard and complicated. I'm just glad we're already in contact and we can help Earth with this."
"...I have to let you tell people, don't I," said Celia. "It's too important."
"I mean," said Rai, "sooner or later, it won't matter if I've told anyone or not."
"Right," Celia said, staring out over a field of flowers. Their blue stems and leaves made their many-colored blossoms look like balloons against the sky. "A ficus starts telekinetically levitating its pot on reality television. An ant colony with divination terrorizes a town. Everybody and their cousin knows somebody with at least one kind of magic."
Celia gazed out at blue fields and the strange-colored sun. She picked up one of the alien bunnies and scratched it behind the eyes, which was apparently the favored scratching location for alien bunnies. "Okay," she said. "You can tell your family."
"Thank you," said Rai, taking Celia's hand and squeezing it. "We'll find a way to help. Is there a way I can contact your dad, if we think that will be a good idea?"
"I can give you his phone number. If you know how to use an Earth phone," said Celia.
"That will do," said Rai, dropping Celia's hand to rearrange some mulch in a planter.
Celia hung out in the alien garden for a few more hours, asking about the plants and helping brush the bunnies' fur. (The wads of loose fur that came off on the brushes were made into wool, Rai told her.) And then Rai gave her a teleport home.
Shula was out - clubbing, Celia expected, soaking up noise and dance, something she'd picked up as a hobby to thumb her nose at her (Earth) parents under the radar. Celia had gone a couple of times and hadn't liked the close, hot atmosphere or the unavoidable aura of imminent sexuality with strangers, so instead when Shula and Celia danced they did it at home, but Shula went out sometimes anyway.
If it had been Celia with the clubbing hobby probably Shula would have been upset about it, worried Celia would pick up a girl there. Celia thought about it and wasn't sure she'd care if Shula did, except for the part of her that was pretending she was a wronged Montana resident who hadn't seen her beloved Shula in years and was desperately jealous of the imaginary club girl.
Well, that aside.
Celia's phone noticed it had service and bleeped. Amrika had gotten around to texting her. Hey, Celia! Let's catch up soon! Are you free Sunday?
Celia was free Sunday but Shula wasn't, she had plans on the plakti world. Amrika hadn't asked about Shula, though. Presumably she and Shula had already worked out some mutually agreeable sisterly habit of keeping in touch. Amrika wanted to catch up with Celia because - Celia was Shula's best friend? Because she suspected Celia was not in fact Shula's "best friend"? For some reason.
Before answering the text, Celia decided to call her dad.
He answered on the first ring. "Hi, sweetheart."
"Hi dad. Uh, Amrika texted me like you said she would. And I've been talking to Rai a lot about things. Thanks for telling me I could trust her. Um, I gave her - Rai, not Amrika - your phone number, she might give you a call to talk to you about using your magic to find more magic. I met a mouse with telekinesis the other day and it was - it was kind of scary."
"It's okay, I can't expect you to warn me about everything."
"Mice can have telekinesis. That's... that's something," said David.
"Dad - plants can have telekinesis. I've been learning more about Shula's planet. It's not just weird because of not having a sun, it had a horrible catastrophe when everything could use their magic and nothing was adapted for it. So we're - we're going to have that, here. Your thing and the mouse's thing and whatever else there is."
"Oh," said David. "I'll talk to Rai. I don't know how much I can help."
"Maybe Rai knows a safe way to check if you can use it more if you go off your meds," said Celia reluctantly. "Or - or something."
"I think you should meet Amrika," David said abruptly.
"Do you know why?"
"Do you know if the magic is - good at 'should'? Does that mean I won't regret meeting her or what?"
"I don't know," apologized David. "It might be that. It might be that if you told me about it later I'd think it had been a good idea? Did that make sense?"
"Maybe," said Celia. "Okay. I don't see how it could go badly, anyway... I'll talk to her."
"Your uncle Joe's calling me," David said. Celia could hear Joe's voice faintly over the phone. "I should hang up."
"Okay. Bye Dad. I love you."
"Love you too, Celia."
The line went dead. Celia texted Amrika back. I think Shula's busy that day so I have it wide open.
Amrika got back to her fifteen minutes later. Celia used the time to pretend to tidy up the kitchen. Lyne and Cait handled all the real chores and Celia had nothing to do at a loose end. She'd just about finished deciding that she didn't need to throw out the leftover Thai food and should do some homework instead when Amrika texted back; she wanted to meet at Celia and Shula's place for lunch and was decorously deferential about how Celia didn't need to cook for her, she could grab something on the way, it was just noon was the best time.
Celia said noon would be fine and she could probably have something ready for lunch. (She could ask Lyne or Cait to fix something that would be good cold, that morning, maybe chicken salad and flatbread; they'd never wonder. It wasn't even illicit to have Amrika over, was it? Why didn't she want Shula to know, why wasn't she texting Shula about it right away?)
Amrika said that would be great.
Celia texted Lyne that she wanted chicken salad and flatbread that day, enough to have leftovers to bring to campus for lunch. Lyne replied that this would be done.
Celia didn't like having servants, most of the time - they were so omnipresent, they had to be to do their jobs, Lyne knew what chicken salad recipe she liked and that she preferred the relatively humane expensive chicken from the expensive butcher as long as everything was on Shula's royal dime, Lyne knew all these things and Celia didn't know anything about Lyne at all except that he belonged, more or less, to Shula.
Well. Sometimes it was convenient. She'd be able to give Amrika a nice lunch without cooking it herself.
She wondered if Shula had hated not having servants, when she was growing up the second time. Or did her various household staff, however part-time, count? The gardener, the maid. One of the servants had posed as a nanny, right? Celia forgot which one. Lyne and Cait weren't easy to distinguish even when they were using their typical unremarkable human forms - not that they looked alike, Cait generally pretended to be African-American man and Lyne was usually a white lady - but they served such identical roles, and when they did change things up it could be any which way. Did plakti even have gender? Celia suspected they didn't. But Shula was mostly human - Shula had a gender - Shula didn't like "practicing" either, it was a sacrifice both of them were making.
(Celia shuddered, just a little.)
She forced her thought elsewhere. Homework. She had homework to do so she could learn the material so she could pass the class so she could get the degree -
- she didn't have to marry Shula, Rai had said -
- maybe one day she'd even do something with the things she was learning.
She did her lab writeup.
On Sunday Amrika turned up at the apartment. There was flatbread keeping warm in the dying heat of the oven; there was cold chicken salad in the fridge. Celia served both and told Amrika what spices were in the recipe without admitting she hadn't made it herself.
"- so how's married life?" Celia asked blandly.
"I'm - it's wonderful," said Amrika, "Haidar is lovely, but I'm quite suddenly worried that there might be some kind of problem running in my family and we're talking about having kids - can I ask you something?"
"When's your earliest memory?" Amrika asked.
"Uh, I think I was four, I remember drawing on the wall in Sharpie," said Celia, "Mom was furious."
"I think I don't clearly remember anything before I was about seven," said Amrika, "and it's spotty after that, and Haidar thinks that isn't normal, but Shula says it's the same for her, and Mom said she can remember being five but mostly goes by pictures to remember me being five and maybe I was just a really unmemorable five year old - that sounds bad but she meant it as a joke -"
"Well -" said Celia, trying to breathe around the chill in her chest, "well, I -"
"Haidar wants to get me screened for God only knows what," said Amrika. "In case it'd pass on to children, or in case I have brain cancer or something, you see - I'm sorry, I'd meant for this to be a nice catch-up -"
"No, it's fine," said Celia. This wasn't fine. It was probably not against the rules. It was probably standard operating procedure. If Shula had to be a baby to cuckoo into an Earth family, she had to make Mrs. Ali think she was pregnant, and make everyone who would notice she hadn't been think so too. There was probably a solid month gone around Shula's Earth birthday to cover for the lack of postpartum recovery, the lack of a go-bag by the door ready for rushing to the hospital - maybe one of the servants had shredded the Ali's memories of before that too, to make time for prenatal appointments to have been tucked in. If Shula was a twelve year old mind in a one month old body, there would be slipups, behavior out of character for an infant, a toddler, a preschooler. She'd have had a Spanish accent while she was learning Arabic, at first - she'd have probably wanted to spare herself the indignity of diaper changes, that must have taken a shotgun to the first couple of years of memories - she'd -
"Thank you," Amrika sighed. "It's just been on my mind a lot."
"Do you have a better memory these days?" Celia asked, taking a bite of her wrap.
"Yes, much," agreed Amrika. "So I'm not too worried it's the brain cancer one, but still."
Celia's gut twisted. Amrika deserved to know. Celia's mouth wouldn't open. She chewed her over-chewed mouthful of chicken salad a little more to excuse her silence. It went on a little too long. Little sounds magnified themselves - cars outside, the refrigerator humming, the pretty analog clock Shula had gotten to decorate the bookshelf ticking. A crow cawed. There was a crackle of a lightbulb burning out overhead. Amrika and Celia both looked up. For a moment the bulb was dark, and then it glowed again. Celia shrugged and went back to her lunch, trying to think of something to say.
Amrika spoke first. Little stories about Bolivia. She showed Celia some of the best pictures - "No more than five, I promise not to spend all afternoon pretending you're more interested than you are -" and finally she patted Celia's hand and said she'd like to see more of her in the future. Not at all a mention of whether she was okay with the gay thing or not, but a gesture of goodwill, perhaps - don't ask, don't tell.
Amrika let herself out into the hallway and the lightbulb went instantly and silently dark.
Celia blinked, then climbed as fast as she could onto the table to reach up and touch the glass. It was cold.
"Amrika!" Celia caught up with her halfway down the stairs, her voice echoing off the walls.
"What is it?" asked Amrika, pausing. "Did I forget something?"
Celia should have thought this through, should have taken thirty extra seconds to figure out how to say something and caught Amrika in the parking lot instead. She gawked blankly at Amrika instead. Amrika looked up at the next flight of steps, waited patiently.
Finally, Celia said, "Did you know you have magic powers?"
"...I can't say that I do," said Amrika slowly.
"It's, it's light, there's a thing with light -"
"Is this an awkward missionary pitch? I'm a Muslim, Celia, I'm not in the market."
"No! No, it's - do me a favor?"
"Can you try to make, um, make the -" She didn't know exactly what Amrika's magic could do, that was the problem, if she picked a trick based on fixing electronic objects and the magic was actually about light or localized time travel that had given the lightbulb a new lease on life that just happened to end when Amrika left - "Can you come back and - the lightbulb, it - can you come back?"
"I know I - I know I sound -" Celia didn't add the word insane. "But can you come look at it, I don't know how to explain -"
Amrika hesitated a long, long time. Then she turned and came up the stairs again and followed Celia back to the apartment.
Celia had left the door ajar. She pushed her way in, pointed at the burned out lightbulb. "We both heard that make a burning-out sound, right?"
"It flickered back on a minute later."
"Amrika, you're an electrician, is that normal?"
"You get all kinds of crazy wiring jobs -"
"Is it normal."
"No, I wouldn't say it was normal."
"Can you try to make it light up again?"
"I don't have my toolbag -"
"No, I mean, I think - I think it actually burned out, when we heard the sound, and then it looked like it was on because you wanted it to be on, and then when you left it was dark again. I want you to give it a real, fair, good faith try, but that's all, if you really can't do it I'll stop asking."
"Celia, this is ridiculous."
"It's not. You think I wouldn't have dropped it same as you - figured I misheard the noise or there was a brownout or something - but I know what this is," said Celia firmly. "I can't show you, I don't have anything myself to show you, but you can show yourself."
Amrika took a deep breath and rolled her eyes and stared down the lightbulb. For a few seconds, nothing happened.
It glowed and Amrika screamed, so loud that Celia thought she'd have the neighbors running. Amrika shook her head and the bulb dimmed, then darkened.
"You did it," Celia said in a low voice.
"I was," Amrika said. "I was, I was waiting to actually try so you wouldn't know exactly when to pull whatever prank -"
Celia shut her eyes tightly. "I'm not sure where to start."
"From the - beginning?" offered Amrika weakly.
"- Shula's not your sister." As soon as she'd said it she wanted to take it back, that wasn't true, Shula treated her Earth family like her family. "I mean, she's your - she's adopted? But not conventionally adopted, there's - let me start over."
"Okay," mouthed Amrika, barely making a sound.
"There's aliens," Celia began again. "The aliens are called plakti. They live on a planet without a sun and they can - teleport and do fire magic and put - here," Celia interrupted herself, taking off her Spanish ring. Stupid, stupid, she had demonstrable magic encircling her fingers at all times and just forgot about it. She fumbled it onto Amrika's unresisting finger. "Buenas tardes. ¿Cómo está usted?" Celia said.
"Aah!" cried Amrika, wrestling the ring off.
"Sorry," said Celia, taking it back and putting it where it belonged on her hand. "I just - the aliens are magic. And they can erase memories. And there's some - some stupid reason, it will sound so dumb if I tried to explain it - why they have to put kids in human families - Shula wasn't a baby, she shapeshifted - they can shapeshift -"
"You're just making this up as you go along," said Amrika shrilly.
"No, no, I swear I'm not - there's only the five things, I think I've said all of - no, most of them now. Fire and shapeshifting and teleporting and the rings and the memory erasure. You were - you were talking about -"
"You're making this up!" said Amrika, but she was looking fearfully at Celia's rings. It was Celia's day to wear the immortality ring. It was several rings.
"I'm not," said Celia softly. "I'm not making it up. Shula's part alien but mostly human, and she has alien magic, and when she was twelve, she shapeshifted into a baby and one of her servants - she's royalty -"
"This is just a list of all the most outrageous, unbelievable things you could think of -"
"And," Celia said, ignoring her, "she grew up over again with your family, and whenever anything happened you couldn't explain to yourselves, she or her servant who posed as her nanny for a while -"
"Stop it -"
"- would erase your memory so you wouldn't remember that your mom hadn't been pregnant, or that you'd seen her doing something unbabylike, or -"
"I'm going crazy," Amrika said flatly. "That's what this is. I need to call Haidar and tell him I'm having some kind of breakdown just like he was worried about."
"And then she met me and it's alien royal tradition to marry an Earthling," Celia whispered, "but what she doesn't know is that our planet's getting its own magic, and people from here are starting to get it - not just people, but plants and animals too - and you have it - you saw."
"It was my imagination," said Amrika, "and you're crazy, too, not that it's surprising -"
"You saw," repeated Celia, louder, more strident. "You could do it again. You could show Haidar, it's not common knowledge now but it will be whenever a pigeon starts fucking with streetlights in some downtown or somebody's aloe plant starts glowing. You have magic light powers, and you're not the only one, and I know all this because Shula's a space princess who came to Earth to get -"
"I'd guessed you two were up to some - something," sputtered Amrika, "I wasn't going to say anything about it but I didn't realize she was telling you she could marry you - our parents will -"
"She's keeping up with your family more or less for some reason, I don't know why, but she's not going to let your parents tell her not to marry me," says Celia. "Because she wants to be queen."
"I - I can't -" Amrika murmured.
"Try doing stuff," said Celia. "Stuff with light. If it doesn't work you can write me off, sure, but if you never try it aren't you always going to wonder?"
Amrika hesitated, staring at her hands.
And then the burnt-out lightbulb glowed, and Amrika looked up as though watching a meteor streak towards her, and the glow descended silently from the bulb into Amrika's cupped hands, a sphere of gentle yellow light. It was pretty. There were a few tears on Amrika's cheeks, and it made them sparkle.
"Sorry," whispered Celia.
"If I thought this was your fault," replied Amrika at the same volume, "we'd have a problem."
Rai, communicating by text, invited Celia to the plakti world to talk to her family about "everything". Celia agreed to come talk about everything the next day.
Everything. There was too much everything. Her parents, Shula, her planet, Amrika who Rai didn't even know about yet. The succession; the looming ecological crisis that would sweep the earth as telekinetic cat prophets drove light-controlling songbirds to extinction or whatever else might be going to happen. There was so very much everything and Celia was drained, withdrawn, because after she'd sent that text Shula had decided it was time to practice and unpeeled a condom and - practiced.
Surely at some point a convenient chunk of everything would present itself as an excuse to break it off. Surely something would happen, and she'd have a good enough reason and conspicuous enough support that Shula wouldn't just not let her break up with her.
At any rate, she told Rai when to pick her up, and told Shula she was going to hang out with Rai. Shula approved. Rai fetched her. Celia shuffled her feet a little, then gratefully dropped into a chair when the Queen indicated one to her. This was all more important than how she happened to be feeling.
"Rai's been telling us what you told her," said Pax. "How long has Earth had magic?"
"I only know how long ago my dad remembers having it," said Celia, "and he can't be sure because - uh, because he has schizophrenia, and his magic is knowing stuff, but until he could verify any of it it's hard to be sure of the difference, he could have had it since he was my age but we don't know for sure that he had it any more than a couple of years back. The other ones were more recent."
"Other ones?" said Tam. "Rai mentioned a mouse."
"There was the mouse, yeah, with the telekinesis, and - uh, Shula's - Shula's sis- Amrika, do you know about her?"
"Yes," said Nik. "Host sister. She has magic?"
"She came over for lunch - Shula wasn't there - and a lightbulb burned out, but then it looked like it hadn't, but it was off again when she left - she has light control magic."
"So that's three," muttered Dah.
"The telekinesis could be very bad," said Pax. "The other two don't sound like as much of a catastrophe, and none of them are going to keep going independent of the originating organism the way fire can, but it's still bad, and there might be more on the horizon..."
"Yeah," said Celia.
"We have to reveal ourselves," said Nik.
"No we don't," said Tam. "We could pretend to be some other kind of aliens, have someone do the living spaceship trick and walk off looking like Star Trek -"
"You watch Star Trek?" asked Celia in bewilderment.
"Little bit," said Tam. "Not the point. We can pretend we're the civ from the dead planet, make like some of them evacuated -"
"We're not positive none of them did," Dah said, "we haven't gotten a clear enough picture from the ruins to be certain -"
"Or we can make up our own species and say it evacuated, we don't have to admit to anything about plakti civilization per se," said Tam. "And invite Earthlings to evacuate Earth."
"Doesn't that seem needlessly complicated?" asked Rai.
"No. We don't know what they're going to turn up with besides those three things, and if first open contact doesn't go well," said Tam, "then we might not want them to know what we're really like or where to really find us -"
It was a little surreal, listening to a young man who could have walked in his natural form down any street on Earth without getting a second glance, talking about humanity as "them". Celia said, "The divination, though."
"It'd catch that?"
"It caught Shula." It caught that Celia's mom was being held captive on another planet, impersonated by a plakti servant.
"She never said," said Pax.
"She doesn't know," said Celia, not looking at any of them. Studying the fire dancing in the brazier in the middle of the room.
There was silence.
Rai said, "I think I might know enough to get on with now you've corroborated that I'm not making this up, Celia - do you want to go home -"
"- Can you take me to my dad's place?" Celia asked. "Not home. I want to visit my dad."
"Sure," said Rai. "Where does he live?"
Celia gave the address, looking at her hands where they were clasped in her lap.
Rai took two steps toward her and they were there, inside her dad's apartment.
"My uncle could have been here," said Celia, blinking, unable to muster much alarm.
"Does it really matter, at this point?" asked Rai gently.
"I guess not," said Celia. What was one more difficult revelation, what with all the everything. "Dad?"
Her father was in the kitchen, making hot cocoa. "Saw you coming," he said, handing Celia a mug. Rai excused herself and disappeared.
Celia plopped on the couch and David sat beside her with his own mug. She leaned on him a little, blowing on the surface of the drink. She sipped.
"I should text Shula," she remarked eventually. "Get her or Lyne or Cait to pick me up and take me home before I have a class. Before she worries."
"I'm not going to stop you," said David in a low voice.
"Rai's telling her family about Earth getting magic. She's not mentioning much of my personal stuff with Shula." She blew on the cocoa again. "Maybe it'll all be better when Rai figures out how to clone plakti, and it's clear they can't keep doing the traditional monarchy forever..." It'd certainly eliminate any need to "practice". Maybe that was even why she was so paranoid about Celia cheating, maybe there was a rule that adultery invalidated the engagement -
"I don't know," said David. "I'm sorry."
"I love her," said Celia. Maybe if she didn't need Celia for the throne she'd come to the conclusion that Celia had really tried to kill her instead of rationalizing it away, and then Shula would dump her.
"I know you do," David said.
Outside the window there was a collective scream as something huge whooshed directly upward, past the apartment building and into the sky. Celia jumped, nearly spilled her cocoa, put it down, and ran to the window. Suspended a hundred feet above the road was a car, the driver still inside it but not conscious - maybe not alive, the way her head was lolling - and everyone on the ground level was pointing and shrieking -
"Dad," said Celia, "let's - let's show this to Uncle Joe and - text Rai that we want to evacuate sooner than later -"
"Evacuate?" he said.
"I don't know if that was a person who didn't know what they were doing or an animal or a dandelion," Celia said, throwing the curtains wide, "but it's just going to happen more and more - and there's this nice farm planet the plakti have colonized - Rai has critters there -"
"Right," said David. "Right. I'll get Joe, you tell your mother -"
Celia nodded. She texted Maureen. Seen the news lately? for an opener so she'd know where to start.
Celia fed all the chickens and watered all the cats and "bunnies" and unpacked a shipment of more cages and water bottles for more animal preservation efforts. Six sites across the farm planet for land animals so far, and six aquariums, and dozens of farms and gardens under construction, trying to hold all Earth's biodiversity and be ready to supply, redundant in case the screen failed and something got off Earth already bearing magic. They were expecting more animals today, and Celia would be transferring snakes and pouring water for them with gloved hands, antivenin in her pocket. There were plakti looking for more colonizable planets.
There were people on the ground on Earth collecting refugees, as people packed and made their peace with the exodus in a piecemeal torrent. The only really dangerous stuff was teekay, a precognitive invisible tiger could only do so much worse than a visible one - but the teekay was bad. Animals usually weren't uncontrollably destructive with it, an animal wouldn't understand a bullet in time to catch it out of the air if you had to shoot flying bears - but plants had simple feedback mechanisms and reached for the sun and brought up a little or a lot of earth with them -
Not to mention humans. Most people still had no magic at all, and being surprised with telekinesis when you didn't know your own strength could be bad. That dead woman in the car flung up in the sky had been thrown by a human, frightened of a collision that might or might not have happened otherwise but probably wouldn't have killed anybody. His case was in legal limbo; it was unclear if it was even legal to charge him and unlikely that it was cost-effective to hold him in prison.
Celia checked the quarantine section video feeds, when her feet needed a break from trotting up and down the aisles of cages and she was between tasks. The new frogs weren't showing any signs; she panned through hours at triple speed, watching for flies that juked suspiciously tongueward or jumps that didn't seem to obey the laws of physics. They were drawing the line at five days. Celia didn't know how Rai had picked the number, and in fact suspected it was random, but she'd move the frogs to their new home the next morning if there were still no tells of Earth magic stuck to them by then.
When she left the building, done for the day with work and ready to pick up dinner and go home, it sounded like construction. Somebody telekinetic was on the job, along with other contractors. Girders and pallets went flying this way and that; plakti teleported in new supplies now and then. She smelled sawdust and the workers hollered at each other in what she thought might be Portuguese.
Dinner was takeout from the food trucks scattered around the fledgeling town. Celia got hot dogs and fish and chips, and waited in the park until, five minutes later, Shula appeared.
Shula kissed her and took one of the hot dogs. "Earth style kitchen implements are going to be all installed in the estate kitchen by early next week, they say."
"Oh good," said Celia, "it's not that I don't like food trucks but none of them have my mom's tuna casserole recipe."
Celia's mom herself had not evacuated yet. Celia had not tried very hard to encourage her to.
"I'm not sure it's going to be easy to get tuna," warned Shula.
"Shouldn't dating a princess have privileges like that?"
"That'll work till there's no canned tuna left and nobody willing to try to fish Earth oceans because they'll get flattened by the tidal waves, but I can stockpile some now if you want me to."
"Yes please." Celia kissed her. The deadline to get married had softened so much with everything else in a hurricane of emergency, and with the plakti cloning project underway there was no reason to "practice" and so many distractions and opportunities in every direction, and that, Celia thought, would be good enough.