On the first day of the Foreign Planets Academy, the members of the youngest class milled around in tiny, species-segregated clusters. The adults flanking the room did nothing to challenge this. They were from a variety of private security forces, each with a princess or a high-ranking diplomat's child to keep safe from harm; making sure the moppet got the appropriate cross-cultural experience was not in their job description.
When the Venusian attendants showed up, their five-year-old charge took one look at the room and decided this would not do. And clearly, as Princess of Venus, it was her job to be the ambassador of love.
She marched straight up to one of the gaggles of foreign kids: not the green ones, they were kind of scary, but ones in the same shades of pink and brown found in the Silver Kingdom and its closest relatives. They all wore the Foreign Planets uniform, black skirts or trousers with a star pattern in the fabric and white shirts with silver crescent-moon patches stitched on the sleeves. The Princess chose a likely-looking boy, handsome in a button-nosed way with long silvery hair, and dipped into a perky bow. "Hi! I'm Cloacina, Princess of Venus, and I'm going to be your friend. What's your name?"
The boy blinked slate-grey eyes at her, then opened his mouth and snarled.
Cloacina let out a terrified wail and fled for the safety of the other Silver Kingdom children. The Venusian guard in one corner of the room tensed; the foreign knight across from her put his hand on the hilt of his sword.
And in the middle of it all, the baffled boy from Mau wailed in broken Silver, "What? Is my name!"
"I want it like the Princess," ordered Luna, sitting up straight and holding out the hairbrush.
On the low stone playground wall behind her, her companion sat down and dutifully took the brush. "Which Princess?"
For Luna, there was only ever one Princess. Even Bastet of Mau came in second to the baby heir of the shining castle on the Moon. One day, Luna was going to work in that castle; with enough hard work, and just a bit of luck, maybe she would even attend Serenity herself.
Artemis was so much less focused. His language studies were only so-so; his grasp of history and politics, a mess. When choosing a Silver name, he had picked the first one off the list of patriotic suggestions, without even making sure it was a boy's name first. If his mother hadn't been the Mau ambassador to the Silver Kingdom, he probably never would have set foot out of his own solar system.
"I mean I want buns," said Luna. "And make them nice and tight."
"Are you sure you don't want braids?" asked Artemis. "I know how to do braids."
"I'm not going to look like a peasant!" wailed Luna, loudly enough that the Makaiju ambassador's budling gave her a weird look from atop the jungle gym. "I need a proper hairdo so they don't take one look at me and send me back to Mau and make me farm rocks for the rest of my life!"
"Okay, okay!" cried her friend. "You don't hafta cry about it! I'll give you buns."
He worked without a word of complaint for the whole rest of recess.
When the teacher called them in, he hung back, shamefaced, as Luna went straight for the nearest mirror to see two lopsided lumps of hair marking the crown of her head. "Sorry they're so icky," mumbled Artemis.
He looked so glum that, instead of being angry, Luna gave him an impulsive hug. "I'm gonna tell everyone heart-shaped buns are the new trend."
Everyone loved the Crown Princess of Venus. Most of the young men of the court, and quite a few of the young women, flocked to her side whenever she entered the room. Here, on a heavily guarded trip to the local ice rink, they lined up to be her skating partner.
Cloacina sulked alone at a table far from the ice. She hated it when her big sister visited.
She nearly fell off her bench when Artemis of Mau sat down across from her. "You want a slushie?"
"A slushie," repeated the boy, pointing to the refreshment stand. "I can get you one. What flavor?"
"Why are you even talking to me?"
Artemis blinked. "Um, because you look lonely? And because if I say I was sent on behalf of the Princess of Venus, they won't make me pay."
That was a surprisingly good reason. Cloacina sent him off for a heartfruit slushie; he came back with one for each of them, plus a plate of sugar dumplings, and listened with what seemed like real interest as she complained about how, if Verticordia had been the one born Sailor Venus, no one would pay attention to the planet's younger Princess at all.
"I bet they would," said Artemis, when she was occupied with a mouthful of dumpling. "I bet your friends would. How come they're not with you now?"
"They're busy," said Cloacina. It was an understatement. Arverna, the prodigy (naturally; the kingdom of Mercury had been founded as a scientific outpost, and even now attracted only the brightest), had already taken a magitech apprenticeship, learning the skills she would need to build a handheld computer into a sympathetic weapon. Lucetia, the clumsy (it wasn't her fault; she had been born to Jovian gravity, and still sometimes didn't know her own strength on the Moon), was out on the rink with a special tutor, using the skating to hone her balance and control. Thinesa, the cool and aloof (at least, unless you knew her well enough to have been the target of her Martian temper), was on duty with the toddler Serenity, where Cloacina wouldn't have joined her for love or money. Maybe when their princess was old enough to have a real conversation.
"Well, I'd still pay attention," declared Artemis. "Your sister's so perfect, it's kind of scary. You seem more like a normal person. You know, with flaws an' stuff."
Cloacina dumped his slushie over his head.
The people of Mau matured more quickly than humans, and died younger. The princesses Luna had started school with were still three years from graduation when she and Artemis and a bottle of ambrosia snuck off to Mare Nectaris to drown their worries about what they were going to do with their lives after tomorrow.
A full earth hung low in the sky.
"You ever miss grass?" asked Artemis, eyes on the swirl of far-off clouds on the Golden Kingdom's planet. He wore a simple white tunic with a high neck, unadorned except for a gold hoop in one ear. "I do. My parents' home on Mau is mostly sand, and even there, you get clumps of stiff grass. Not here."
"Sure, I miss grass," said Luna, leaning against the other side of the pickup speeder's bed. Cool metal, slightly dusty, still more comfortable than the cold rock it had driven over to get here. Even her thick wool sweater couldn't soften that up. "Not enough to leave the Moon."
"Still planning to work with the princess?"
"If she ever grows up." Luna stole the bottle from him and took another pull. "That was mean, I know, it's just...gods, she's still such a kid, you know? Even her bodyguards, they're a couple years older and they're still classes behind us by now. And the Queen's the picture of health. Who's to say I'll still be alive when the Princess finally gets the throne?"
"Hey, don't talk like that," ordered Artemis. "Besides, you decided to work with Serenity II right when she was born, so it's not like you could've had a reason. How do you know it'll be better than working with Serenity I?"
"I just do, okay? What are you doing, anyway? You haven't said. Is it anywhere there's grass?"
"Nah." Artemis made a face. "Swamps."
"Venus?" said Luna, frowning. "What's on Venus? Diplomacy internship? Aikido studies?"
"No...." He mumbled something too low to hear.
"Speak up. You're slurring."
"Epic," said Artemis. "Love. Poetry."
Luna giggled so hard she fell over. Her necklace, a traditional Mau-style bell, jingled as it fell with her.
Artemis grabbed the bottle back. "And this is why I mumble."
"No, no, 's sweet, really!" insisted Luna. "I...remember the first day of school? When you barely knew any Silver, and went and scared one of the locals with hissing? And now you wanna study th' highest form of the language. Who woulda thought."
"Been studying it for a while," said Artemis, twitching his nose in irritation. "What, you don't believe me? You want me to recite something? I'll do it. Right now."
"You do that."
"I will! You want it in Silver or Mau?"
"Better make it Silver," said Luna, giggling again.
Artemis took a too-deep breath and began—
O Venus, beauty of the skies,
To whom a thousand temples rise,
Gaily false in gentle smiles,
Full of love-perplexing wiles;
O goddess, from my heart remove
The wasting cares and pains of love.
It was as if he became a completely different person during the recitation. His pitch became a sonorous tenor; his tipsy slur and even his accent vanished completely. He even captured a bit of the curious Venusian lilt that was so hard for native Mau speakers to reproduce.
Luna found herself entranced.
Artemis leaned forward, elbows propped on his knees—
If ever thou hast kindly heard
A song in soft distress preferred,
Propitious to my tuneful vow,
O gentle goddess, hear me now.
Descend, thou bright immortal guest,
In all thy radiant charms confessed.
And then he kept going. For four more stanzas. With enough unfamiliar poetic conventions that Luna lost the thread; maybe she should have asked for the Mau version after all. Still, the rhythm and the lyricism were so eloquent that she didn't have to understand every word to lose herself in them.
Luna's eyes were half-closed as she sat up. Artemis paused politely, then launched into the final stanza, in a voice that had started to go hoarse and husky but never lost the Venusian accent.
Celestial visitant, once more
Thy needful presence I implore.
In pity come, and ease my grief,
Bring my distempered soul relief...
One of them bent forward, then the other.
"Favour thy suppliant's hidden fires," purred Artemis, "and give me all my heart desires."
Looking back on it later, Luna couldn't have sworn who kissed who. All she knew was that he tasted like ambrosia, and was handsome, and sweet, and always made her laugh...
...and was moving to Venus tomorrow.
When Artemis tried to embrace her, Luna pulled away and ditched the body she'd been wearing full-time for years. Her companion stared in confusion through his curtain of disheveled pale hair.
"It's your last night in the Moon's gravity," said Luna, shrugging as best she could in this body like a four-footed shadow. "You should make the most of it, right?"
Moments later, a snow-white twin stood lightly at her side. "Race you to the edge of the crater."
"Princess, please. I have a translation to work on...."
"It can wait," declared Cloacina, dragging Artemis down the halls of Magellan Castle. "The author's been dead for, what, a thousand years?"
"Four hundred and twenty-three."
"Close enough! The point is, she isn't going to care if it takes a couple more days one way or the other for the fine folk of Mau to hear her."
Truth be told, Cloacina was bored. She was back on Venus for a brief visit which didn't seem to have much of a point: her mother was offworld on business, her big sister was busy learning to handle affairs of state, and aside from an endless parade of society balls there was nothing she was required to do. At least on the Moon she had a purpose. Not to mention, friends.
When she found out that her schoolmate was having a stay in her own castle, on a special dispensation to study the royal library, she couldn't resist.
"It's not a translation into Mau," said Artemis helplessly, as she led him by the shirttail to her favorite exercise room. "It's a...an adaptation, really, into Golden. It's almost the same language, but they've diverged enough in the past century that comprehension requires extensive footnotes...."
"What, all this fuss and it's only for footnotes? You'll have plenty of time. And if you don't, I'll make a royal decree to extend your stay here for as long as you need. But if you say another word about that now, I'll transform, and then you'll be fighting Sailor Venus instead of just plain old Princess Venus, Mark II. You'll probably evaporate in the first round."
"Wh-who said anything about fighting?"
Cloacina threw open the door and let out a sigh of satisfaction at the empty mats. "Buddy, if you spend this long on Venus without getting a taste of our martial arts, you are throwing away a golden opportunity."
The Green Walkways were among the palace's greatest treasures: a massive pool of blue water broken up by a maze of marble walkways, each of them edged by narrow strips of turf. Beautifully carved stone columns rose up from the water; most visitors ignored them, the better to enjoy one of the few places green grass and flowers could be supported on the Moon.
Twelve-year-old Princess Serenity loved the Walkways. Luna loved the way she was guaranteed to meet with the Princess if she took her work out there.
"Does your home planet have thunder?" asked Serenity one afternoon, sitting in the grass with her bare feet dangling in the water.
"Let me guess. Today was the unit on weather?"
"It's amazing," sighed the Princess, leaning back to take in her own artificially calm sky. "All the different kinds! I don't get how they know how to coordinate to make plants grow, but I guess it works on Earth."
"Most planets have developed those ecosystems over billions of years," said Luna. She tucked her skirts closer under her folded legs, the better not to waste precious dirt by getting it on them. "The Silver Kingdom has only had about a thousand, and it's all artificial. Even the Eternity Main System isn't powerful enough to do all the calculations necessary. If you want to know about thunder, Lucetia must be the expert."
"The supreme expert. Eh? Eh?" Serenity giggled at her own joke. She had seen her bodyguards at practice long enough to know all their moves by heart; she had even made up a few of her own, until her mother had scolded her for mistreating her crown, not to mention breaking that lamp she threw it at. "I don't want to know about supreme thunder, though! Even normal thunder sounds scary."
"It can get scary on Mau," admitted Luna. "Sometimes my country has thunder-sandstorms. The clouds of sand stretch all the way down to the ground, and the lightning can go straight through them to—"
"I don't want to hear it!" Serenity's twintails whipped back and forth as she shook her head. Her buns were so tightly packed that they stayed neat ovals throughout (Luna, for her part, had gotten used to keeping hers heart-shaped). "I'm only visiting Earth when it's sunny out!"
Luna wondered if the Princess was really set to visit Earth, or if it was one of her newer flights of fancy. She'd been fascinated by plants lately, and the blue planet had the best in the system...and all of them subject to the Golden Kingdom's travel restrictions. It wasn't a planet that catered well to foreigners, even scheduled visits from diplomats, to say nothing of wandering teenage princesses.
Serenity pulled her legs out of the water and walked barefoot down the marble path. She didn't motion for Luna to follow, so Luna took the opportunity to check her palmtop, to make sure nothing catastrophic had happened in the past half hour.
The Silver Kingdom appeared to be catastrophe-free. She did, however, have a message waiting:
You know how things are tense with the Golden Kingdom right now? (Stupid question; when aren't they?) And it doesn't help that they keep having communication problems: divided by a common language, as they used to say of Kinmokusei and Hihiragisei back in the day.
Well, the Queen thinks it's due to their interpreters being too mechanical, and is looking for people familiar with the subtleties of the language. And apparently my work has been turning heads in the right places.
To make a long story short...see you soon! >^_^<
Cloacina, or rather, Sailor Venus, heard the news less than an hour before it hit the press. One of the twins from Coronis called Sailor Mars out of their practice session moments before an attendant told Venus she had a call from Verticordia, who explained the situation as briefly as possible, then asked if her sister wanted her to fly in for a visit.
"Don't," said Venus, standing straight and tall. She was the leader of the Sailor Soldiers, the latest incarnation of an eternal warrior of love and beauty; she could take any blow with grace. "You're going to be the de facto queen from now on, right? You need to think about the public, not me. Come out in front of it, be the face they can trust. And make sure your interviews are in good light, so they can see you've got Dad's eyes."
The moment the call was closed, her transformation fell off like water. She couldn't bear going back to the team, not yet.
When she found Artemis' new suite, his boxes were still half-packed.
Artemis himself was folding trousers when she entered. "Princess! So good to see you! Sorry, this place is a mess, I just got here, haven't even met up with my supervisor yet...."
Cloacina shoved him up against the wall and kissed him for all he was worth.
It was charming, the way he squirmed. And he'd grown up handsome, with a lean, strong body and silky white hair down to his waist. He could have been a younger version of the Golden Kingdom's lead general, except that no Golden soldier would have accepted the crescent moon that now graced his forehead, marking him as one of Serenity's court. Not to mention, he had a great voice...when he was reciting poetry, anyway. When he was babbling, like now, not so much. "P-Princess! What brought this on? I mean, you're very beautiful, and it's not like I don't want to—not that it's something I think about!—but you never—that is—why?"
"Because my mother is sleeping with King Ares," said Cloacina. "Oh, don't worry," she snapped, when Artemis squeaked like a kitten being hugged by an overenthusiastic toddler. "The press has it. In a couple of hours, the whole system's going to know."
"Okay, so it's a very stressful situation," stammered Artemis, squeaking again as the princess' foot caressed the back of his leg. The folds of her dress fell away like flower petals opening to reveal her slender thigh. "Are you sure this is a healthy c-coping strategy? Wouldn't you rather talk to your friends?"
"What could they say? Thinesia's going to be busy with her own breakdown. And King Zeus has been doing this for years—Lucetia's not Hera's daughter, though that's still mostly secret, thank the gods, so if you spread it around I'll break your arms—she ought to tell me to suck it up, and rightfully so. At least Zeus manages to keep it in his trousers when he's with other nobles! When she's getting it on with the most scandalous person possible except maybe Serenity herself—and here I am, supposed champion of love and beauty, who hasn't even gone steady with anyone yet, much less—but that ends now. Get your pants off."
"Princess, please!" wailed Artemis. "You're not thinking straight—you'll regret it tomorrow—I'll regret it tomorrow—you can't just use me like this!"
Cloacina stopped kissing his neck to look him straight in the eye. Pinned by her gaze, he stopped wriggling, blue-grey eyes wide in a flushed face.
"Tell me you don't want me," she ordered, hands clenching tighter around fistfuls of his tunic to keep them from trembling.
Artemis swallowed. "I...kind of have an almost-maybe-girlfriend. Who will be a definitely-not-girlfriend if I answer that."
For the second time in ten minutes, all the wind went out of Cloacina's sails. "Luna," she said, unwrapping herself from the poor man. It was so obvious, and she hadn't even checked. Some strategist she was shaping up to be.
"How did you—?"
"Champion. Of. Love." The princess sank onto a corner of the still-bare mattress, next to a heap of folded blankets and a box labeled in scratchy Mau script she couldn't read. "I'm so sorry, Artemis. I'm an idiot. I...."
Artemis shoved the blankets onto the floor and took a seat beside her.
After several minutes of silence, broken only by the occasional sniffle from the princess, he said, "You want to go get slushies or something?"
Cloacina choked back a laugh. "I'd like that."
Luna meant to have a quiet sit-down with Artemis. To hash out once and for all what feelings they really had for each other, or at least to do some proper making out without the specter of thirty-eight to two-hundred-sixty million kilometers hanging over their heads.
But a planet in a nearby system was devastated by a Xenian flower, and Luna was put second in command of the refugee resettlement program, keeping her on Jupiter's moons more often than not for the better part of a year.
And the Golden Kingdom threatened to cut off trade entirely if the Silver Kingdom didn't rewrite its travel requirements from the ground up, throwing the recently promoted Artemis headlong into his first diplomatic crisis.
And a series of devastating volcanic eruptions back on Mau made both of them work overtime, looking for whatever extra money they could send to help keep their relatives afloat.
And then there was the war.
The Sailor Soldiers called down thunder and fire, freezing hail and blinding light.
Their attackers shrugged off every blow.
Even Mercury's magitech computer couldn't find a weakness in the dark energy shielding them, much less in the monstrous shadow that had taken over their sky. Venus ordered them to fall back, to concentrate on protecting the palace as its pillars crumbled around them.
In perfect synchronicity with the others she aimed her full power at the monstrous shadow in the sky, and watched it fizzle with barely a spark.
The corpse of Princess Serenity was tossed through the air like a silk-clad rag doll.
Weak and shaky even in her small body, Luna barely noticed the white shadow of Artemis at her side.
In the chaos only the two of them had managed to find the Queen, for all the good it would do. The flashes of rainbow-hued power in the sky beyond were growing fewer; Luna couldn't mark the last time she had seen Venusian gold. And none of it had stayed their enemy, who now laughed atop the ruins that had been the heart of the silver castle.
Luna remembered begging. Not Beryl—the witch-queen was possessed, far beyond reason—but Serenity, the Silver Queen of a murdered kingdom, gathering power for a last desperate suicide attack. And she remembered the silence, the unnatural stillness in its wake, with the demons torn to pieces and every soul laid to rest.
With her last breaths Serenity swept them all up in a veil of rosy light.
Artemis stepped daintily over the Crescent Wand where it had clattered, depleted and empty, onto the stone. "The climate systems won't fail for a while yet," he said, rubbing his cheek against Luna's. "You'd have time to get offworld. Find a working ship and set a course for Mau."
"I'm not a coward, Artemis!" cried Luna through her tears. "You run if you want to. My Queen gave me one last order, and I'm obeying it!"
"I don't want to run! What I'm saying is, I'll accept the charge for both of us! I'll do your duty as well as mine. You can leave with a clear conscience. You can go home."
Luna shook her head and cast her gaze across the toppled pillars. "My home is wherever she is."
The body the princess had left behind lay sprawled across the marble, graceless and gangly, one cold hand reaching for the fallen Prince Endymion. A handful of fallen rose petals scattered between them were the brightest thing left to be seen.
"I know what you mean," said Artemis quietly. For him, too, there was now only one Princess. Unable to see her from this vantage point, he bowed his head.
It was Luna's turn to comfort, nuzzling her companion's side. "We should say...something. Before we go."
She almost laughed. "You'd know better than me."
The final epitaph of the Moon Kingdom was not delivered in Silver. It didn't rhyme in Mau. It didn't even scan. It was nothing more and nothing less than a mournful cat-yowl, rending the tomb-still night—
The moon has set, and the Pleiades; it is midnight, the time is going by, and I sleep alone.
He wakes up, and remembers almost nothing. The capsule, nearly eaten through by rust, all but disintegrates as he climbs out. No help there.
There's a girl he's supposed to find. A kingdom of incandescent heat. A handful of baubles in his possession, pretty trinkets by their appearance, humming untold power to themselves in a language he doesn't remember. An enemy. A mission. A pair of sad ruby-toned eyes that haunt his dreams.
He spends his time patrolling the city, whiskers attuned to the subtle flows of energy, ears open to drink in the new local language. The Queen's last gift: he picks it up fast. The old one is lost to him except for fragments, mostly useless scraps of romanticism that come back at the tail end of the night when he's trying to get some sleep:
Planets, that around the beauteous moon
Attendant wait, cast into shade
Their ineffectual lustre, soon
As she, in full-orbed majesty arrayed,
Her silver radiance pours
Upon this world of ours.
It's the past. Whole epics of it. He can't waste time worrying how much of that was lost.
He's got a future to save.