Update: please see my last post for a sample of music my eldest son wrote to accompany this story.
I posted this a few days ago, in the hope of a review or two. Many looked, but no comments so far. I think that may be because I was not clear that I wanted your feedback.
Or, you all thought it was total cliche poop and you are too kind to say so. That's okay, if that's the case, I need to know!
Anyway, thanks for reading.
Chanté Beth Coogan stood upon the balcony overlooking the Imperial City, the sounds of the ball swarming around her, stinging her with its cheerful noise. She gazed down at the darkened valley. Little pinpoints of light sparkled here and there, teasing her with their warmth. Her heart ached for the comfort and familiarity of home. The lights of the city spaceport drew her gaze across the narrow valley. A shuttle escaped from its berthing, running lights blinking red and white along its length. Swiftly, it gained speed and altitude, on its way to a rendezvous with a freighter or perhaps a cruise ship orbiting the Imperial planet. I’ll be on a shuttle like that one in a few days, she thought, but it was small comfort at the moment. Seconds later, the roar of the shuttle’s plasma drives shook the night as its exhaust burned bright in the darkness. It disappeared into the distance, blending into the starlit sky.
Someone stepped onto the balcony behind her. It was a heavy step, jack-boots landing solidly on the stone. She felt naked without her sword. Mother had warned her that assassins were always a concern and not to be taken lightly; no royal family was completely safe, though the threat was considered slight in the Imperial City.
A faint, cool breeze whispered along her skin. She shivered as she cocked her head slightly to place the intruder in the corner of her vision. He was in Imperial uniform, smart and proper; crisp and clean. A shadow fell across his face, making it difficult to determine if she knew him. Deciding he was no threat, she turned her attention back to stargazing, hoping he would go away.
The man stepped up beside her and looked out over the city. Abruptly, he broke the silence. “This is your first visit to Eigenburg,” he said. His voice rumbled, reminding her of the shuttle that had taken off moments ago. It was a powerful voice, but gentle. How did he know? she wondered. She refused to look his way, but answered him. “Yes. But somehow the city seems familiar to me. It makes me homesick.”
“Homesick?” he said, but not unkindly. “Is that why you have hidden yourself away on this balcony? A pretty lass like yourself could have the company of any man she chose. Dance with me, Lady Chanté, and I will help you forget about home for a while.”
She whirled around, facing him, her dark eyes blazing. “Well, aren’t you a smooth one!” she said, wondering how he knew her and angry at his intrusion into her misery. “And so confident! Tell me something. How do you know me? And who are you? We have never met before.” She eyed him suspiciously.
His pulse quickened upon seeing her face to face. She reminded him of the willows in the Imperial garden, tall and strong and maybe a little sad in spite of her tartness. Her long, thick hair, black as deep space, was like a shadow upon her head. Dark brown eyes sparkled with a hint of tears in the dim light of the balcony. She really is homesick he thought. He liked her, in spite of her ill manners. “I have known your brothers for years. They have been here many times with your father. When I found out that you had come on this trip, I wanted to meet you. You’re actually much prettier than your brothers claimed.”
Chanté laughed as she relaxed a little. “Oh, I am sure they gave me warts or moles or some other blemish to get even for something we have all since forgotten. And who are you? Some plebe my brothers met in a local tavern?”
He chuckled softly. What an ill mannered girl! he thought. “Nicholas Jovanavich, at your service,” he said with a slight bow, watching for her reaction.
Chanté stepped back, astonished, and bowed respectfully. The Emperor’s son! Silently, she scolded herself for her rudeness. How did I not recognize him? Mother will have a fit if she finds out I have been so uncivil! “My apologies, Majesty. I did not recognize you.” The miracle was in the sincerity of her apology.
“Don’t worry, Lady Coogan, I won’t have you flogged for your insolence. Your brothers did say you could be… how did they say it…” he searched for the right word. “Spirited, I think it was. I would much rather spend time with a woman of spirit than some of these airheads that swoon if I should look their way.”
Chanté began to feel at ease. Some of those “airheads” are my friends, no doubt. And some of them are indeed “swoony” at the thought of catching the heir’s eye. Her training schedule had afforded little time to give men much thought, much less the Emperor’s son. Well, he does seem likable, in spite of his arrogance, she thought. “Why,” she asked, deciding to change the subject, “are you in uniform? Or is that the official Imperial attire?”
“I graduated from the Academy today. I have earned the right to wear it,” he said, with barely audible arrogance. “I will ask Father for my commission tomorrow before the banquet, so I thought I’d get him used to the idea.” He glanced away, toward the spaceport, a deep longing in his eyes. “I doubt it will help much, though.”
Chanté looked puzzled. “Why should you have to ask? Do the Emperor’s sons attend Academy just for the fun of it?”
Nicholas turned his gaze toward Chanté, suddenly becoming serious. “My mother and brother died in a horrible event a few years back when their shuttle’s plasma drives lost containment. It was a freak accident.”
She nodded. “I remember hearing about that. I am sorry.”
“Well, since then, Father has been terrified of space travel. He is even more afraid for me. He thinks there will be war soon. If I die, he has no heir.” He shook his head. “I can’t stand the thought of being trapped here on the Imperial planet for the rest of my life, signing papers, stroking the nobility, and avoiding all risk, simply because Father thinks some dreadful thing may happen to me. That would be worse than death.” He turned again to her and looked her in the eyes, chuckling. “And you are homesick? I would give anything to go somewhere. Anywhere.”
Chanté looked astonished. “You have never been off this planet?”
Nicholas shook his head. “If I get my commission, though, and there is a war, I’ll get off this planet one way or another.”
“Why does your father think there will be war? War with who?”
“You don’t know? The Tlingali have crossed into the Buffer Zone.”
“The Tlingali? We have been at peace with them for as long as anyone can remember. My family has been trading with them for generations.”
“It doesn’t matter. They have warships in the Buffer Zone. If they don’t leave the Zone, my father will be forced to respond. If it comes to that, it’ll be bloody.”
“So that’s why the Senate has convened on such short notice. And why Father brought us all with him.”
“And all us girls thought this ball was to find you a bride.” A slight grin scampered across her face.
Nicholas snorted. “Well, nothing would please Father more. You know, tie me down and keep me at home. I’ll have none of it until I’m ready.” Boldly, Nicholas took her hand. “In the meantime, I’ll keep my father guessing, along with all the girls. So, what about that dance?”
“I’ll dance with you, but under one condition,” she said firmly.
“Alright, name it,” he said a little too quickly. There was a faint mental alarm going off in his head.
“Entertain me and keep me pleasantly diverted from self pity the rest of my stay.”
He smiled. “Well, I expected something more difficult, Lady Coogan.” He looked into her eyes, his soul plucked from him like a prize. He shook himself mentally, alarms clanging in his head like a bad weather alert. He wondered now what he may be getting himself into. Maybe it was a mistake to find her, he told himself. I don’t need any entanglements. But the thought of getting entangled with this beauty with the large, round brown eyes that drew him like a magnet, intrigued him all the more.
The next waltz was just beginning, an opus by Vivaldi, vibrant and energetic. The orchestra threw themselves into the piece with passion. Nicholas was finding it difficult to breathe. “The dance is starting. Come,” he said, recovering his wits and offering her his arm. Heart still thumping loud in his ears, he led her through the portal from the balcony onto the mezzanine above the immense ballroom. The floor was an off-white and rose marble with a huge dragon inlaid in the floor with many different jewels and semi-precious stones, giving it a three dimensional appearance.
Chanté stopped to admire it. She hadn’t noticed it before. From above, it seemed to take on a life of its own. A faint unease touched her mind. The scar, the terrible mark burned into the palm of her left hand, was a mirror image of the one on the dance floor. Her scar began to throb painfully with her heartbeat, and the dragon on the floor appeared to grow a little with each pulse. It seemed that the image was whispering something that she could not quite hear, beckoning her to join some ancient struggle she knew nothing about. Nicholas saw the confusion on her face. “Is something wrong?” He watched the blood drain from her face. “You look pale. Are you ill?”
As the dragon became smudged by the hundreds of feet dancing over it, her mind cleared. The throbbing in her palm eased, and her heartbeat steadied. She shook her head. “No, I am fine. The dragon. It’s beautiful. Why is it there?”
“The legends say it is the Shenzhou Dragon. That it was their sign. Some say that in ancient times there was a dragon that would come from the mountains and choose the heir to the throne. But that’s a lot of ancient hogwash, you know. No one has ever seen a dragon, that I know of. Or the Shenzhou, for that matter.”
Chanté shivered. “Don’t you think the Shenzhou existed?”
“I think so, but a lot of the things that are said about them are really hard to believe. Some of the older history books have a brief mention of their war with the Tlingali and their defeat at the battle of Ellendale but not much else. Then they simply vanish. Most of what you hear is a bunch of rubbish, I think.”
Chanté looked doubtful. “How can a whole people just vanish?”
Nicholas shrugged. “Disease? Mass suicide? Maybe they went renegade. Who knows? I do know that my family took the throne and established the Buffer Zone treaty with the Tlingali, right after the battle of Ellendale. But enough of history lessons and legends for a while. Let’s join the dance,” he pleaded. Still shaken, she finally allowed Nicholas to lead her onto the dance floor, wishing desperately to forget about homesickness and strange visions for a time.