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The little black cube with the flickering light within wasn’t magic, but it may as well have been. Princess Guelida ian Aravene passed it back and forth in her hands, feeling its unnatural weight, as she listened to the bad news from the palace’s lead engineer.

“I’m not talking about the normal failure rates,” he said, slotting a cube identical to the one she held back into its place in the complicated circuit panel over their heads. “We’re ready for failures. We plan for failures. Believe me when I tell you, we have failure down to a science. I’ve personally overseen the last three hundred years of planning, shutting down the Hammer Wing room by room to free up the sparks for more critical parts of the palace.”

The mechanical alcove was a cramped, hot space full of wires and blinking lights and circuit boards. Guelida’s shoulder pressed into a nest of cables, each as thick as her wrist, and the sharp metal corner of a relay box jabbed into her hip. 

The engineer continued. “These new guidelines, the inspections, the reports her highness wants from us—they won’t change anything. You have to make her understand that. It isn’t that we’re not paying attention to our jobs.”

It wasn’t just the confined physical space making Guelida uncomfortable. This alcove was connected to the central rotunda. She was standing near one of the highest trafficked areas of the Aravene palace at one of the busiest times of the day. She couldn’t hear or see the people in the gardens or the floors above her head, but she could feel them. Their minds pressed in, the whispering echoes of their sendings that poked and prodded at her shields, forcing too much of her attention on keeping them out.

The engineer was oblivious to Guelida’s distraction. “Thirty years ago, there wouldn’t have been any problem with what the queen is asking. Re-slot some sparks, take a few non-critical areas dark for a few weeks—my five-year-old could have done it. But now…she has to understand. The whole system’s unstable and I can’t tell you what’s going to happen.”

Guelida maintained an expression of patient listening. The man was under a lot of stress. If he needed to get this off his chest, better he ranted to Guelida than to her mother. The queen could be irritable about anything she perceived as rebellion.

Never mind the engineers were working their asses off to get the palace ready for the arrival of the foreign prince. Never mind that queen Yinicof’s requests were nearer to unreasonable than not. Guelida felt for those who had to figure out the way to implement everything Yinicof wanted, but she didn’t dare give them permission to fail. Guelida had to report to her mother too.

“It’s the earthquakes,” the engineer was explaining. “It’s not just the sparks that crack during the quakes, but shorts happen throughout the palace systems, and we don’t know about them till they fry something. With time, we can use the broken sparks to test things circuit by circuit, but her highness wants us setting up parts of the castle we haven’t used since she took the crown. There’s no time to check everything before the Kardenel delegation gets here tomorrow, and no telling how many sparks we could lose once we turn everything on.”

All because Yinicof wanted to put on a show. “I can talk to her,” Guelida said, now that the engineer had run out of steam. “I can tell her none of the recent losses are due to carelessness, and I can probably get her to loosen up the new reporting guidelines. But she’s not going to change her mind about the production for Prince Bastyen.”

“Whatever you can manage, I’d appreciate it.”

Guelida handed him the spark she still held. Such a tiny thing—no larger than her palm—and this was one of the biggest. Sparks ranged in size from these full-sized cubes that powered buildings to the pinpoint jewels that ran mobile devices. Every system, every machine, every weapon, every defense was powered by sparks. Their entire civilization depended on them. The trouble was, no one alive knew how they worked, or how to make more.

And the sparks were running out.

Which was why the impression they gave to Prince Bastyen was so critical. Which was why Queen Yinicof was willing to risk so much to make Aravene look prosperous, strong, and in no way as desperate as they were for the peace treaty Bastyen was coming here to negotiate.

The engineer stowed the spark in the pouch hanging off his belt and gestured for Guelida to precede him out of the alcove. As they left, he pressed the panel that slid the door shut and locked it. It would only open again to the touch of his hand combined with his mental signature. Only a very few had access to the inner workings of the palace, and the punishment for even attempted sabotage was death.

They stepped out into the rotunda that was the heart of the Aravene palace. A half mile across, at its center it opened up and up and up all the way to the top of the central tower of the castle, three quarters of a mile above their heads. 

As a child, Guelida had loved it here. Bright, exotic bushes and flowering trees gathered from every corner of Kacia formed manicured paths along the floor, creating illusions of intimacy within its enormous space. Even on cloudy days, the rotunda was bright and cheerful, thanks to carefully designed mirrors and lenses in the arching windows that soared hundreds of feet above her head. Back when she’d believed there was no better fun than hours of hide-and-seek or soldiers-and-monsters with her siblings and their friends, the rotunda had been magical.

Only as she’d gotten older had she noticed the hairline cracks in the ancient floor. She’d realized the most beautiful bushes had been carefully placed to hide the doors that led to the palace’s atrophied limbs, those wings too decayed to support life anymore. She’d grown to understand all the light, the gaiety, the beauty was a facade, there to distract her and the rest of the Aravene citizens from the fact their way of life was dying and they’d long ago lost the ability to stop that from happening.

Guard Commander Zairr waited for her, leaning against the wall just outside the alcove. He seemed to be watching the rotunda, but Guelida recognized the unfocused look he wore as a sign his attention was elsewhere. “Zairr,” she said softly. 

He flinched, turned to face her. Tall and lean, with dark blonde hair and hard blue eyes. He wore the black uniform of a soldier of Aravene with the crimson trim that marked him one of the Red Guard. “Sorry,” he said. “Did you get what you needed?”

Guelida shook her head. She wasn’t sure what they needed actually existed in the world. Too bad she still had to report in.

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Barbara J Webb

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