The Grand Convocation Chamber was the largest enclosure in Dahlia. The massive room was designed with a four-tiered pyramidal structure as its centerpiece, each tier joined by stairwells that led up to the next level. Fluted columns supported each level of the pyramid, and through the columns on each level was a large alcove that could fit many more people. The floor of the top tier was apparently made of glass and revealed a field of stars and inky darkness. The entire chamber seemed to be carved from hard stone, and projected an ancient weight made all the more ominous with the eternal night sky of the void on the dome overhead.
It was all an illusion, of course. Kara had known that for many years, a casual secret her father Lune had told her as a child. The floors and columns were made of a hardened plastic, lightweight and tough, that only aped the appearance of stone. The dome and the glass floor were high-definition screens that streamed high quality video feeds from the exterior of the ship. When Kara had asked why it had been made so, her father had shrugged and replied, "Orakio's whim."
Kara sighed and tried not to fidget. Lune sat on the imposing throne that had been carved from a single piece of black onyx. The throne was streaked with striations of brown and white that danced all over its surface. The random patterns fooled the eye into seeing abstract images where none existed. The throne had been ancient at the time of the Devastation War, an artifact whose origins began on long-lost Palma, the homeworld of the people of Alisa III. After her initial research into the ship's archives failed to produce the answer of how and why the thing had made it onto the ship, Kara asked her father, who had shaken his head and replied, "Laya brought it aboard during a salvage operation."
Everything always seemed to come back to Laya and Orakio. The urge to fidget was overwhelming, so instead she studied her father, mother, and aunt from the corner of her eye. Lune Kay Eshyr was a giant of a man, with a height and physical strength unrivaled by anyone else on Dahlia, or the Alisa III for that matter. Instead of his usual tan jumpsuit, her father wore a tunic and trousers of slate grey. The tunic exposed his strongly-muscled chest, testament to years of hard combat and obvious evidence he had not allowed himself to go to seed. His lime green hair concealed any gray hairs, while around his neck, he wore a collar set with a large blue cabochon. He wore black gloves, the kind used to protect against cutting your hands when your slicer returned to you. A warrior, first and foremost, as befitted the ancient Laya's champion.
Aunt Alair wore a green robe over her blue tunic and trousers, but otherwise was dressed in a feminine version of her father's warrior garb. The material, however, was finely cut and stitched, and her silver headband, necklace, and belt were decorated with blue cabochons as well. In contrast, Princess Thea Ra Mira was obviously royalty. Her mother wore a sky blue tunic with matching stockings. Her boots were the same red as the fine stitches and hemline of her tunic, while her cape was snow white, held at her shoulder by a silver pad. A large red gemstone perched on top of her mother's cleavage would be, while a fine double chain of red pearls woven into her hair could have doubled for a crown.
"What is taking them?" Lune muttered. Kara glanced at her father. Her mother had not told the moon princess who their guests were, so she was content to wait, but her father was obviously not pleased that their guests were taking their time in arriving. That was puzzling, since most people did take some time to recover from the wonders of Dahlia. Life on Alisa III was completely different from life here, so unless the visitors had come before, they usually took some time to arrive.
The gentle sound of steps against stone brought Kara's eyes forward. On the opposite side from the throne, two stairwells stood, one at each corner. They were the only way to arrive at the top tier, and it had become part of the reception ceremony for all guests to arrive from the left stairwell. She directed her eyes there, waiting patiently for the first hint of their guests to show.
Within seconds, Kara was gaping. The proud young face that seemed to rise from midair was beautiful, with elegant features fit for a classic beauty and lips that even when set to sternness, as they were now, could not conceal their fullness. Long hair of dark gold reached to her hips, where a golden belt with Laya's symbol was on prominent display and kept her deep red overcoat from becoming loose. Her overcoat was open from the waist down, and revealed divided skirts of a muter maroon color. She wore a black sash with Orakio's sunburst wrapped around her waist and over her shoulder, while her forehead bore the tikal, the ruby of the Laya.
It was her eyes that caught Kara. She knew of only three people in the whole world with otherworldly indigo eyes like the pair that regarded her. "Gwyn," she whispered in surprise.
Behind her coeval, a fiery redhead with a dancer's frame appeared, blue eyes peaceful as they regarded their surroundings, her youthful face framed with her crimson tresses, her leotard and boots the same color as her mop of hair. At her side, a large, bulky man with wild black hair and covered in what appeared to be heavy plate armor appeared, easily dwarfing everyone present except Lune. Mieu and Wren, the android bodyguards of the King of Landen. No one else appeared from the left stairwell.
Surprisingly, Kara felt stabbing disappointment. Just because Gwyn Sa Riik, Princess of Landen, had come to Dahlia, did not mean that—
"Young whelp," her father growled. "You've not changed a bit, have you?"
Kara was startled at her father's statement. She turned her head to look at Lune, but froze when she saw him.
He was a little bit above average height, a little taller than she was. His hair, the same dark gold as his sister's, was short, cut in the typical style of an Orakian knight. He wore a tunic and trousers of unrelieved black, the material fit for a prince. His cape, boots, and gauntlets were white, and he too bore the tikal on his forehead.
He was devastatingly handsome. No, handsome just wasn't strong enough. His jaw was strong, his physical beauty distinctly masculine. And his eyes. An otherworld, a bottomless nightscape of indigo, mystery, pride—
"If you keep staring so hard, he might actually notice for once," a feminine voice wryly whispered in her ear.
The moon princess just managed to avoid yelping. She had to bite her tongue and dig her nails into her palm, but she managed. Gwyn was smiling at her, a familiar grin full of mischief. Kara's cheeks burned.
"Well?" Lune demanded.
Prince Adan regarded Lune on his throne. "I simply wished to arrive at the same time as my twin."
"He's being pretty humble," Gwyn murmured.
Kara stared at Gwyn in blank amazement. "His humility is more arrogance than most kings can manage on their thrones, with their armies at their backs," she whispered back. Gwyn's smile was...knowing.
Lune shook his head. "What do you want?"
Princess Thea glared at Lune in disapproval. Prince Adan, however, did not seem upset. "We come bearing greetings from King Nial Sa Riik and Queen Laya of Landen for Lune Kay Eshyr of Dahlia. We come seeking answers for the mysterious tremor that shook Alisa III."
Kara felt the blood drain from her face. Her father and Aunt Alair exchanged looks. Mother frowned. They had all hoped that no one on Alisa III had noticed what had happened, that they would have time to figure out what had happened, and to come up with a way to approach it. Foolish hope.
Their reactions had not escaped the twins' eyes. "I see you do know what happened," Prince Adan said, his tone an unspoken command.
Her father glared at Prince Adan, but his heart was not in it. He sighed glumly before he gestured at her. "Kara, replay the record."
The moon princess jumped, startled at being addressed. Prince Adan's eyes went to her, and she felt the lure of those otherworldly eyes as they met hers. Kara felt her cheeks burn as she looked away and hurriedly walked over to the recessed alcove that concealed the screen control terminal. As she called up the record and instructed the computer to replay it on the floor display, she desperately hoped Prince Adan did not think her a scatterbrain.
The floor display changed as Kara rejoined Gwyn. The Alisa III appeared, its massive domes turning the last kingdoms of Palma into massive nivali, glass spheres that enclosed miniaturized scenes and landscapes. Then, in the void beyond their ship, another seven domes edged into the video. Another worldship.
Sudden flashes of energy shot out from the unknown worldship. The space between the two ships was filled with a field of light as vibrant as a fireworks display. Suddenly, an explosion filled the screens even as the video feed shook violently. When it cleared, the unknown worldship was nowhere in sight.
Silence reigned for a moment. Prince Adan looked up from the floor display and stared at Lune before his eyebrow rose in an unspoken question. And so?
"We do not know who it was nor why they fired," Lune said. "We are not certain if the other worldship was destroyed, but we do know that neither Dahlia nor Aerone fired back. So far as we know, the orders came from Techna."
"Techna?" Prince Adan asked.
Aunt Alair answered. "Techna was the fortress where the ship's engines were. Much as Laya held the pilot controls, Orakio held the engines. There are backup systems for all the ship's functions in Techna, from climatrol to navigation to everything else."
"There's something else as well," her father said reluctantly. "The blast knocked us off course. We're headed for a black hole."
"What's a black hole?" Gwyn asked curiously.
"A black hole is a cosmic phenomenon that covers a region of space," Kara explained. "Nothing can escape from it, not even light. It's a deformity in the universe that can only be detected by its effects on spacetime."
Kara was suddenly aware that everyone was staring at her, including Prince Adan. The fire burning in her cheeks made her silently curse her fair complexion. Would she ever be able to have those eyes on her without blushing?
"Why is it called 'black?'" Gwyn asked slowly, those otherworldly eyes full of secrets.
"Black holes are like bottomless pits. They absorb everything so that nothing escapes," Kara replied hurriedly. "They're black because not even light escapes it, and since no light escapes, we can't see it. The darkness is the point of no return, the event horizon."
The twins exchanged an unreadable look. Those otherworldly eyes seemed to conduct a full conversation within heartbeats, weighing, debating, and concluding when others would still be formulating thoughts. Kara felt a stab of envy towards Gwyn, that she could know Prince Adan so well. It wasn't fair, it just wasn't fai—
"Thank you...my moon princess," Prince Adan said, his eyes suddenly staring into hers. "That was very enlightening." He smiled at her. Kara's breath caught. Men should not have smiles like that. They should not.
When her prince looked back towards her father, Gwyn whispered, "If you don't remember to breathe soon, you're going to turn blue instead of pink."
Kara shot Gwyn an indignant look that bounced off that insouciant grin. She was about to snarl something pithy, but stopped when she saw the tight exhaustion and fear around Gwyn's eyes, the strain at the edges of her full mouth. Before she could think of what to say, Gwyn spoke.
"Are you wondering if he ever figured out what you meant when you called him 'my prince?' He has nary a clue. He's not a bad brother, really, he's actually pretty smart, but some things, he's just utterly clueless about."
Her mouth was hanging open. It snapped close even as Kara faced forward. "Really?"
Gwyn nodded absentmindedly. "Yes. I doubt he'd realize a woman liked him if she sat in his lap, shoved his face in her breasts, and told him so." From the corner of her eyes, Gwyn looked at her. "Do you still like him?"
Kara startled herself with her reply. "Yes. I want to be his moon princess."
"He won't give up Landen for you."
"I wouldn't want him to."
"I may not want you to be my sister-in-law," Gwyn warned. "He may not even like you."
The moon princess felt her mouth tighten. "I'm still going to try."
"By all means. You won't be the first."
She couldn't help herself; she glared at Gwyn. "Then help!"
Before Gwyn could retort, they both heard Lune speak. "I am sending Kara to accompany your group. Her head may be full of books, but she may have knowledge that will come in handy. She will have my slicer. I think you'll need it."
Her prince looked surprised. Before he could speak, Aunt Alair added, "A long time ago, your father rescued me. I'm sure you can protect my niece."
When those otherworldly eyes turned to look at her, Kara curtsied even as she felt her cheeks burn. "Father wants me to accompany your party. It is my duty to find out what happened."
And I will be your moon princess!