The first time you try for Prospit, you are seven years old and you make yourself an astronaut helmet first.
You’ve explored everything there is to see on Derse, sneaky like a ninja, sneaky like your bro must have been. There isn’t really much to see. Purple, purple, purple, and the girl in the other tower. But she never wakes up, no matter how much you talk and jump on her bed and smoosh her face into weird shapes.
Even when you think she has to be awake, she’s not. The newspaper explains it one time for you. Sleepwalking.
The newspaper also tells you about Prospit.
They’re heretics there, bad guys and hypocrites. You decide to go there, take down their whole system. The Dersites would like that. The moon will stop feeling like eyes in shadows, and you’ll come out and the people with their hard shells and skittering feet will see how cool you are, and you won’t be alone.
Your first attempt fails when you hit the Veil. The rocks are flying everywhere, some the size of your head, some the size of Derse’s moon, and you panic and throw your arms over your face and think, noplacelikehome—
Back in your apartment, you curl around Cal and he wraps his noodley arm around you, reminds you how proud he is of you.
You try again in a week. There’s no one to tell you it’s okay to be scared but you. And you don’t. You don’t wear the helmet, but you tuck it under your arm in case you need it.
Three. Two. One. Lifdoff.
You go faster this time. You pretend you’re a street-tough maverick with nothing to lose, and if, even at this age, you’re not really sure what the deal with that movie is, it makes you feel better. You played with the bunny in the other girl’s room once. That made you feel better, too, even if you didn’t have your own.
You resolve to get one, someday.
In the meantime you blast through space like a stealth missile, a silenced gun. You are small and the Medium is dark and even when the Veil rises before you again, you are exhilarated. You spin around the asteroids and realize that you are invincible and you are fast.
You come through the inside of the band of rocks and hesitate. There’s almost nothing out here. It’s a waiting empty, like a shell. But in the distance, if you lower your shades a little, you can see a blue glow.
You keep going.
Skaia is bright, and you’re glad you’re wearing your sunglasses because otherwise you would have missed the shining satellite below it. Prospit is brilliant in colors you’ve never really seen, a gold richer than the nine o’clock sun on the ocean. You float among the buildings, and even as a stranger, feel none of the dark watchfulness of Derse.
You keep out of the Prospitians’ sight anyway. They’re wary of your shadow. And you came here to scout them out for war.
You’re not sure when it occurs to you to see if they have towers on their moon, too, but the second you think it, you’re there. You move stealthily, a smudge against all this radiance.
The girl sleeps peacefully in her cozy palace. She’s dark-haired and rosy-cheeked: Snow White outside her book. Another human girl. One more than you’d thought existed.
You think about kissing her, just to see if she’d wake up and talk to you.
Instead you poke her cheek. She giggles and snuggles deeper into the covers.
She’s so happy. It weirds you out, and you suddenly feel awful, like a foreign antibody in the planet’s lifestream. You want out and Prospit does, too.
You flit out the room in a controlled panic, but then see the other tower.
Where there’s a princess, there’s a prince, right?
You don’t enter his tower, you just crouch on the windowsill. He looks like the girl, dark-haired and ruddy, so foreign to your inverse blacklit moon. He smiles in his sleep and twitches his hands like a dog. Bow wow. Pow pow. You’re not sure what he’s doing. You lean in for a closer look.
Someone clears her throat, demure and polite.
You jump but the queen just inclines her head, crinkles her eyes in a mouthless smile. She beckons to you before you can flee.
She’s seen you and you still feel no threat from this place, just the unease of a surprise guest who doesn't know the right language.
You jump back to Earth, anyway, and only realize the next night that you left your helmet on Prospit’s moon.
The next time you rocket straight to Prospit, only stopping to make sure your princess is tucked in safe and sound. You almost kiss her, remembering your thought about Snow White, but Cal says it’s a bad idea.
You don’t bring Cal because you’re afraid of leaving him on Prospit and never getting him back. Then you’d really be alone. Better to face your battle by yourself. You’re a street-tough maverick with nothing to lose.
You bring your brother’s second-best sword instead.
When you reach Prospit, though, it’s just as you left it; no standing armies, no sentries on the rooftops, no sign that an enemy spy had slipped their radar at all. Your disappointment tingles, jangles against your relief.
You make a beeline for the royal palace. You are going to find out just how HIGH the White Queen has to BE.
Not high at all, you find out. She’s down on hands and knees, skirts hiked up, still elegant somehow in the curve of her neck and shoulders as she weeds a hydroponic hanging garden.
A mother will do what is best for her children, she tells you, and smiles that crinkly-eyed smile again.
“I came here to kill you,” you say. You wonder how to put an edge in your voice. Real hard-boiled heroes can do it.
Instead she hands you a pumpkin and asks if you like books.
Prospit’s king keeps a magnificent library. You think you’ve seen the same arching hall on Derse, but it’s full of weapons, full of armor and spiked gates.
The White Queen drifts through her husband’s books like a curling wave, delicate foam and rhythm. She trails one hand along the shelves. She asks you if you like adventure stories.
“I guess,” you say, shrugging. You haven’t sheathed your sword, but then you forgot to bring the scabbard.
She starts to slide a slim volume off the shelf, then changes her mind and takes a massive tome instead, almost as big as Part One of Complacency of the Learned. You accept it impassively—your eyes are only wide behind your shades, where no one can see—and bear up under its weight, even if it’s awkward to support with your sword hand.
The White Queen asks you to tell her if you like that one when you finish it. If you do, she says, and leans down to cup your cheek in a gesture that startles you—if you do, she’ll find another one like it.
You don’t know what to say. This is the most you’ve ever spoken to another person. Maybe you've run out of words. “Why?” you finally ask.
Somehow she manages to make her smile wry only using her eyes. She couldn’t get your helmet back from the other prince, she confesses. He really seems to like it.
“A pretend helmet’s not like a book,” you say.
She knows. But if it’s a book, you’ll have to come back to return it, and then the two of you can talk about it over tea. Or hot chocolate?
You realize that her prince and princess are sleeping, just like yours.
“Okay,” you tell her, and she ruffles your hair, and you find you don’t even mind the golden brightness when your shades go a little askew.