After avoiding an arranged marriage, thwarting a coup, and inadvertently kick-starting a revolution, Rory Thorne has renounced her title and embraced an unglamorous life as a privateer on the edge of human space.
Her new life is interrupted when Rory and her crewformer royal bodyguards, Thorsdottir and Zhang, and co-conspirator Jaedencounter an abandoned ship registered under a false name, seemingly fallen victim to attack. As they investigate, they find evidence of vicious technology and arithmancy, alien and far beyond known capabilities.
The only answer to all the destruction is the mysterious, and unexpected, cargo: a rose plant. One that reveals themself to be sentientand designed as a massive biological weapon. Rose seeks to escape their intended fate, but before Rory and her friends can get Rose off the derelict ship, the alien attackers return.
Rory and her friends must act fastand wiselyto save themselves, and Rose, and maybe the multiverse, too, from a war humanity cannot win.
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Ivar Valenko, former crown prince of the Free Worlds of Tadesh, now in permanent exile-asylum on Lanscot, was herding sheep for Grytt when the fairy appeared.
She looked like a small woman, short as a mirri, but of course without the distinctive, limbless spherical environmental suit mirri used when interacting with oxygen-based atmospheres, and without any daughter-buds, so really, there was nothing mirri-like about the fairy at all, except that human women did not, in Ivar's experience, come in that particular size. Here we must note that Ivar was unfamiliar with children of any age, his single experience having been limited to a visit with the Princess of Thorne, when she had shown him a pondful of fish and thus, quite inadvertently, saved him from an assassin's bomb.
But Ivar knew, somehow, and with firm conviction, that this was not a child. He was reasonably certain, as he drew a bit closer, that she was also not a woman, or at least not entirely human. He knew, in a sort of distant, textbook way, that there were no such things as partial humans, but he did not hold to those views with any conviction. He had almost as little experience with women as he did with children, having spent much of his post-adolescence in cryostasis, captive and laboratory experiment of Vernor Moss, former Regent of the Free Worlds of Tadesh. He had, because of Moss's machinations, skipped past much of the maturation process in which one learns, or is taught, what is and is not possible. This fluidity of perception made him especially receptive to new experiences, but also exceptionally ill-suited to most forms of social interaction. Grytt and Messer Rupert were the exceptions, in Messer Rupert's case because he had experience as a tutor and general molder-of-youthful-spirits (he had done rather well with Rory); and in Grytt's because she did not have especially high expectations of people in general.
Grytt did, however, expect Ivar to mind her sheep, which meant keeping them safe. Although Ivar knew (in that same, distant textbookish way) that it was really the dogs, Bobby and Edmund, who were responsible for sheep-safety, he also knew that sheep were not stupid. If there was something dangerous, they could usually tell; it was just what to do about it that sometimes confused them. Ivar shared some sympathy with that.
And so, when he saw the fairy, he looked at them, first: the sheep, and then the dogs. The sheep did not seem to notice the woman at all, which suggested that she was, in fact, real. (Sheep tended to ignore people unless there was food involved). Bobby and Edmund cocked their fluffy black-and-white ears at her, and Bobby even sniffed in her general direction, but no hackles came up, and no growling ensued, so Ivar decided it might be all right to approach.
So he did.
The fairy woman was sitting on a flat rock, the largest and flattest on a slopeful of rocks, almost at the pinnacle of the hill. It happened to be Ivar's favorite sitting-stone as well. He was not sure how to feel about finding someone else on it. (The wonder that there was anyone out here at all had already passed out of his awareness). She was dressed impractically for following sheep around the hills, and entirely in green, which set her at vibrant odds with the late summer grasses. She wore some kind of dress with a close-fitting bodice that dissolved into a skirt made of strips and panels of cloth overlapping like scales or feathers. Even from her position on the rock, sitting with her legs dangling, the skirt moved restlessly around her legs, as if it had a mind of its own. The hose she wore were also green and embroidered with tiny gold butterflies. Her feet were bare, and possessed of longish, shapely toes that seemed to have an extra joint.
The woman, he realized, was entirely green. Hair, which she wore long and intricately bound up in silver and gold threads. Eyes (except for the white part, and the pupil). And her skin, which was really the telling feature. The color could be paint-he had thought it must be, knowing as he did that human people did not come in green-but now he was certain that green was her natural shade.
She smiled, green lips breaking over teeth small and white as pearls, only sharper.
"Ivar Valenko," she said.
His patronymic was not exactly secret, but it also wasn't meant for, as Messer Rupert put it, general consumption. Ivar was supposed to be dead, and probably would have been, except for Rory; and if it became widely known that he wasn't, Dame Maggie might say he couldn't remain on the farm with Grytt and Rupert anymore. Ivar knew what exile meant (textbook knowing, again). He ranked it just above extended time in cryostasis for desirability.
So he was not at all pleased that this green woman sitting on his favorite rock knew his name.
Messer Rupert had said hello was the preferred manner in which to greet people one did not know. The green woman had already violated that protocol. Ivar borrowed his manners from Grytt, who usually snorted when Messer Rupert pronounced on etiquette, skipped the greeting, and went straight to the thing he most wanted to know.
"What do you want?"
The green woman's green eyebrows climbed. Her smile remained, if a little stiffer now, sharp as her teeth. "Most people ask what I am, first."
Ivar shrugged. He had learned if he didn't say anything for long enough that two things happened: one, he could not get into trouble for saying the wrong thing; and two, people tended to lose patience and say whatever it was they'd intended in the first place.
"You certainly didn't get a Naming, did you?" the green woman muttered. Her smile had turned into a husk of itself. "Charm is the first thing we hand out at those. Well. Not the first thing I hand out. I usually get stuck with great strength or physical prowess or whatever best fits the father's expectations."
That confirmed it. This was a fairy. Ivar forgot to be suspicious, or rather, he set his suspicions aside. Rory had told him about the fairies that had attended her Naming, and the gifts they'd handed out. He had thought, at the time, she'd been teasing him, even though Messer Rupert and Grytt had, when pressed, confirmed the account. ("There were unknown xenos present," Messer Rupert had said; and Grytt had made one of her faces, which was as good as a verbal confirmation.)
Ivar had been vaguely jealous at the time. His father, and later Moss, had been relentlessly dismissive of anything which did not conform to his worldview, including fairies, imagination, and cats.
He eyed the fairy. "What did you give Rory for her Naming?"
"I gave her the ability to play the harp, which I understand she subverted to good cause." The fairy smiled, this time without teeth or humor. "If I'm called for a prince, I give things like incredible strength and physical resilience, but there's not much call for brawny princesses. Bet someone's regretting that now."
"She's not a princess anymore."
"She's still Rory Thorne," the green fairy said, enigmatically. "To answer your first question: I want you to deliver a message for me."
Cold sweat prickled on Ivar's skin. He hated talking to people with very few exceptions, and four of those exceptions had left Lanscot almost two years ago. "You should talk to Messer Rupert or Grytt."
The fairy snorted. She sounded a bit like a sheep when she did it. "That's who I want you to tell. Rupert's the one who most needs to hear this, but he's also the one most likely to get fixated on what I am and where I came from and how I got here. Not my first choice. And Grytt, well, no. There's too much metal on her now. If Two or Five had come-but of course not, no, Send Three, she travels best," the fairy muttered. "But you can tell her what I say, too. She's sensible."
The fairy paused.
Ivar supposed this was the place he was meant to ask tell them what and continue the conversation. He said nothing.
The green woman grimaced. Her teeth were definitely pointed. Ivar revised his opinion about them looking like pearls. They were yellower. More like bone.
That was not comforting.
Then the fairy began to speak, and that was even less comforting. Ivar listened without interrupting. And when the green woman was finished, he ran down the hill to find Rupert and Grytt.
ÒI can stay, if you want.Ó Grytt stood by the door, balancing on her mecha foot while she tugged her boot over the other. The polysteel toes flexed like claws, scoring tiny gouges in the tile.
"No," Rupert said, and then, regretting the terseness of the syllable, "Thank you. I will be fine. I can handle Samur."
"Huh." Grytt shifted her weight, one side to the other. The mecha limb had its own special boot, more for tidiness than for necessity. The mecha joints were hexed against moisture and cold and heat, but not as much against mud. Grytt's boots were an appalling, deliberately bright yellow, in contrast to her practical, drab coveralls. Her mecha hand winked from the frayed grey cuffs.
She frowned at him. "I'll be right outside."
Rupert nodded. Then he turned back to the quantum-hex viewing ball. It looked like a plain, polished glass globe at the moment, sitting on a base of plain iron which was etched all over with hexes. He had already fed it the appropriate coordinates. He made eye contact with his distorted reflection, composed his features, leaned forward, and whispered his personal code.
Quantum-hexes are as close to instantaneous communication as the laws of the multiverse permit. Still, it felt like minutes before a tiny white light appeared in the viewing ball's center, which meant there was contact on the other end. He supposed the delay was a matter of routing. There had been a time his code would have gone immediately to Samur's office. Since those days were long over, he expected that he would have to spend some time arguing with minor functionaries, or perhaps her personal secretary, or maybe whoever it was had replaced him as Vizier of the Thorne Consortium.
It was even possible the Regent-Consort would refuse his call altogether, at which point he would have to try plan B, which involved formal requests and triplicate paperwork and very possibly a bribe, if the clerk's assistant in the communications office was still amenable to such persuasion.
The viewing ball's glow shifted from white to live-coal red. A three-dimensional projection began assembling itself inside the viewing ball, pixels drawing together like cosmic dust, swirling into the face and features of Samur, Regent-Consort of the Thorne Consortium. There were lines around Samur's mouth now that had nothing to do with smiling or laughter, and the Kreshti fern on her desk had dark-edged leaves, as if it had been scorched. The last time he had called her, that fern had been out of frame. He wished it was this time, as well, and resolved not to look at it.
"Ah," Rupert said. They had not parted on genial terms. He was no longer certain of his permissions with her name, and chose to err on the side of formality. "Regent-Consort. Thank you for taking my call."
Samur (for that is who she was in his head, and if he allowed himself to consider it, his heart) tilted her head to one side. "Rupert," she said, in the same tone she might have said, I appear to have developed gout. That was, he knew, not a signal that they were on first-name terms again. He had renounced his titles when he had chosen to stay on Lanscot. She had nothing else to call him. "What is it you want?"
The fern flared a nervous yellow, at odds with the frozen blue of her tone. She was worried about something, probably Rory, and too proudly furious with him to ask.
So of course, Rupert answered that question first. "Rory is fine, as far as I am aware. I'm not calling about her. Is this communication secure?" He knew as well-and probably better than-Samur how simple it was to weave a few surveillance hexes into a quantum-communication viewing ball. He had, at one time, made sure of Thorne's arithmantic security.
"It is on my end." She permitted an eyebrow to float up her forehead. "What is this about, then?"
"I wanted to ask . . ." Rupert trailed off. He had grown unaccustomed to the circumlocutions of diplomacy with only Grytt and Ivar for company. "Regent-Consort, have you heard of a xeno-people called the vakari? Or a political entity called the Protectorate?"
Rupert had cause then to be glad of the fern. Samur was not out of diplomatic practice. Her face might well have been a mask, for all the expression she showed. The fern darkened to a bloody orange with white striations. She glanced down at it and made a move to nudge it out of the projection. Then she paused, withdrew her hand, and grimaced.
"If I asked how you came to know those names, would you tell me?"
Ah, yes. Answer a question with a question. Rupert found his own face assuming that porcelain blank of the professional advisor, ambassador, and handler of prickly personalities.
"Of course, Regent-Consort. Ivar told me."
"Ivar?" Samur blinked. Her mask cracked. "Prince Ivar? I thought he was dead."
Rupert composed his face into a noncommittal smile. "He is not. And today, he encountered an unusual personage in the south pasture, and it was from this personage he learned these names."
"Pasture," Samur said under her breath. She leaned forward, crowding the fern most of the way out of the projection. It remained a twinkling, kaleidoscopic testament to ire and amusement in garishly equal measure. "What sort of unusual personage?"
Samur stared at him. Her mouth opened, then closed, then reopened. Rupert could sympathize; his own had done something similar, when he'd first heard that word.
"The green one," he added. "Number three. You recall her? Small, perfectly proportioned, entirely green."
"With pointy little teeth, yes. I never understood why she gave out harp-playing." Samur shook her head carefully. Her earrings, elaborate confections of gold wire and holographic pearls, shimmered like rain. "Are you certain? That the fairy was real, I mean. Wasn't-isn't-Ivar . . . a bit damaged?"
Rupert reflected on the wisdom of saying, Isn't everyone? and discarded the idea. They had almost, almost, achieved something like their old rapport, and he did not want to jeopardize that with ill-timed sarcasm. He cast a glance toward the yard through the still-open door. Grytt was talking to Ivar, two upright islands in a small sea of woolly backs and muttered bleats. The two-and-a-bit years on Lanscot had been good to Ivar, as they had been good for Grytt and for Rupert himself.