As she entered that fuzzy space, somewhere between sleep and consciousness, Eliana knew that something was wrong. The room was too dark, and the bed too firm. No morning breeze roused her with the scent of the roses that grew beneath her rooms, but the breath of someone else on her cheek.
Memory sliced through her as cleanly as the sword that had beheaded her father, and Eliana jerked upright in bed. It wasn't her own bed, the one she had left behind on Melanthia, the capital city. It was a cramped bunk on the Lilas, the starship carrying her away from Irisia, the only home she'd ever known and the place she'd sworn never to return.
Eliana flinched at the hoarse words. She'd startled her bedmate awake.
Their voices, or perhaps their movements, triggered an automated reaction from the ship: the lights came on, dim at first, then slowly brightening. Eliana pulled the sheet up to cover her breasts, suddenly modest.
"Oh God," Safra said again. Her voice was low, but carried no trace of sleep. "Your Majesty, I—"
"Don't call me that," Eliana said. She couldn't bear hearing those words again. "Please, Safra. Not now."
"Forgive me, Your—forgive me," Safra said, after a pause. "But how do you wish to be addressed?"
"I… don't know," Eliana said. She hadn't thought of this before. "Don't call me anything."
"Well," Safra said. "As you wish." With fluidity that was a marked contrast to the stiffness of her words, she slipped out from beneath the covers and began to dress.
Eliana, acutely aware of her own state of undress, tucked the covers firmly around herself and did not watch. She'd made such a mess of things.
"I'm no queen." She trailed a hand over the blanket, drab and utilitarian, so unlike the bedding in the room where she would never again sleep, on the world she would never again walk. "Not anymore."
She'd never had the chance to be. What would they call her, in the years to come? The One-Day Queen? Eliana, the first and the last? Maybe they would just erase her name from recorded history and she would pass into legend.
Yes. Now that she thought it, she was sure of it. Her sister would excise her from the memory of Irisia.
"If I may." Safra stood beside the bed, fully dressed. "There are those of us who will always think of you as the Irisia's rightful queen."
"That battle is lost," Eliana said.
Safra frowned at her, but said nothing.
There was nothing left to say. She'd made her case back at the palace, over and over in the days and weeks leading up to yesterday. Eliana's claim to the throne was legitimate. Her sister Aurelia couldn't argue with that, but their father had been ill for so long. She'd had time to plot her rise to power. Knowing that she had no claim to the throne, she'd led a revolution to abolish it entirely. It was time for Irisia to follow the lead of the other Allied Planets, and be ruled not by a sovereign but by a council of the people. A council Aurelia herself would head, of course, out of duty to her people.
Safra had prepared to fight. Safra had wanted to fight.
Eliana had surrendered instead, and for some reason, Safra remained at her side.
Eliana rubbed her forehead in shame. Her most loyal knight, now her only companion. She had offered comfort, and instead Eliana had taken terrible advantage. "Forgive me," she said. "I should never have…"
She had no words.
"No." Safra shook her head. Her hair was still loose; she ran her hands through it with none of the care she had rendered unto Eliana the night before. "You were… not yourself. I would never have—"
"I took advantage—"
"You were distressed, and I…" Safra cleared her throat, and bowed stiffly. "Forgive me, my queen."
"There's nothing to forgive." Eliana's throat was dry; she licked her lips to wet them, and for a moment imagined she could taste Safra still. "I'm not your queen, Safra. But I was, once, and that means that I…"
"You took no advantage," Safra said. "And, if I may say so, it was very… good."
"Neither did you." Heat blossomed in her chest and grew outwards, snaking its way up her neck. "And… it was, wasn't it?"
"Yes." Safra sat so close to the edge of the bed that Eliana thought she must not be sitting at all, but rather holding herself in the position. "Shall I leave you to get dressed?"
Eliana remembered what she wasn't wearing, and felt herself blush. "I—yes, I would like that," she said, flustered.
"I'm not much of a cook," Safra warned her. "But I'll see if I can figure out the synthesizer, if you would care for some breakfast."
"I would," Eliana said, hugging the blankets to her chest until Safra departed the small room. It was one of many small sleeping quarters aboard the ship. They'd chosen it last night for no other reason than it had been the first one they'd stumbled across but now, having slept in it, was it hers?
Having no energy to spare to that thought, Eliana rose and went to the even smaller bathroom. She showered quickly, and then dressed in clothes that were technically her own but unfamiliar. Aurelia had permitted her to pack before departing Irisia, but the dresses she normally wore wouldn't serve her well in a life in exile. She needed clothing like Safra wore, comfortable and practical. But to borrow Safra's clothes suggested an intimacy they didn't share, and Safra was shorter by a head and too stocky for her clothing to fit Eliana's taller, rounder body.
Sighing, she selected the first dress she touched. Wearing it did little to make her feel like herself, but it would have to do. Forcing herself to hold her head high, she went to face Safra.
"I haven't been pining away for you all these years," Safra said, as Eliana stirred sugar into her tea. "If that's not too blunt to say. That's not why I'm here."
"Why are you here?" Eliana couldn't help but ask. "You didn't have to come with me. If you wanted to, we could still—Aurelia might—"
"I don't want." Safra winced, and shoved half a piece of toast into her mouth, burnt and all. Swallowing, she said, "I'm sorry. There's nothing left for me there, even if your sister did let me return."
"You're right," Eliana said, feeling foolish. "She would never… we're too close, you and me."
Safra's lip twitched into something that was almost a smirk, before she smothered it.
"I haven't been pining away for you, either," Eliana said. "I never would've thought of you like that."
"I understand," Safra said. Her face was impassive.
"I never thought of anyone like that." Eliana bit her lip, remembering all the potential suitors her father had pushed her towards, princes and queens and dukes and ladies who had all left her cold. They'd all been pleasant enough, but none had made her feel anything. Just pick one, her father had said, frustrated with her inability to make this decision. Love, or at least, contentment, would follow with time. Maybe, if she had listened, and married Queen Arabelle of their sister planet Oceania, she would've had the resources to stand against Aurelia without plunging Irisia into civil war.
Who could say, now? And really, what did it matter?
"No one?" Safra seemed surprised. "Never?"
"I never saw the point," she said. "You knew my father. I would hardly have been allowed to take a lover."
"No," Safra agreed.
"God," Eliana said. She pushed her tea away and leaned forward, burying her face in her hands. "My father."
She heard Safra sigh.
When Aurelia rewrote the history of Irisia, she wouldn't have to villainize their father in death. He'd done that for himself well enough in life.
"Did I make the wrong choice?" She raised her head to look at Safra as she asked.
"We could have fought," Safra said. "We would have fought. Not to honor your father's memory, but for you."
"I know." Eliana thought perhaps she didn't have the stomach to be queen. "It wasn't because I didn't think you could."
She took Safra's silence as disagreement. It was an argument she didn't have the heart for. "I suppose it doesn't matter now."
What was she going to do, raise an army among the people of the outer core of Allied space?
"I suppose not," Safra said, in a tone that suggested Safra would raise an army for her and lead them in a vengeful horde right to the foot of Aurelia's throne, if only Eliana gave her say so.
"May I ask where we're going?"
"I told you," Eliana said, trailing an exploring finger down the length of Safra's forearm. "You don't have to ask if you can ask. Of course you can ask."
"You don't know where we're going."
Eliana sighed, pausing near a round patch of wrinkled skin near Safra's wrist. A blaster burn, still not fully healed. She circled it with her thumb, thinking.
"We're not lost," she said. "I haven't decided where we're going."
They lay skin to skin in darkness, curled up in the same cramped bunk they'd spent their first night aboard the ship. Eliana touched Safra's hand, then quickly drew her fingers back.
"We needed to just leave, before Aurelia changed her mind about letting us live," she said. "And then—I haven't had much time to think lately."
Safra's body vibrated against hers as she chuckled.
"Have I been distracting you?" she said, in a low voice that made Eliana's belly flutter with excitement.
It was a distraction that she so badly needed. When she was with Safra, there was no time to think about her sister's betrayal or the friends she would never speak to again. The smell of the rain coming to break the drought she would never see end. The orange and marzipan cakes her favorite chef in the palace would make for her each year on her birthday. When she was with Safra, it was only her and Safra, moving together in the darkness (and in the shower, and on the observation deck, and once against the wall in the ship's narrow galley), and her mind was blessedly grounded in her body and the unending delightful discoveries to be made within it.
It was in the moments like now, when they lay quietly together beneath the blankets, that her mind wandered and grief threatened to overwhelm her.
Where were they going? It was a fair question.
At first she'd thought she could seek asylum on Oceania. It was the nearest world, and Arabelle's family was her family's closet ally. But what if she sided with Aurelia? Or what if she didn't, and Aurelia sent an army or an assassin after her in retaliation? She'd surrendered her claim to her throne to spare lives.
The more she thought about it, the farther she thought she wanted to be from the Allied Planets and all the worlds she had ties with, whether they bore her good will or ill. But to truly move beyond their reach meant to leave all of the inner core worlds behind, and to venture beyond the Belt, the asteroid ring that separated the inner and outer worlds. Eliana had been afforded a very good education, and these were worlds she didn't trust herself to pinpoint accurately on a starchart. She knew as little about these worlds and their people and customs as she was sure they knew about hers. Would they even welcome her, an exiled queen of a world they hardly knew of?
Eliana wasn't sure if she was brave enough to take that risk yet. "Don't ask me where we're going," she whispered. "Please. Not yet."
Safra's hand covered hers, warm and gentle. "I won't," she said. "Just know, wherever you are, I will also be."
Diamond Station was the antithesis to life aboard the Lilas . It was hot and crowded and loud and Eliana had to pause at the mouth of the airlock to take it all in. Safra walked beside her silently, a hand on Eliana's elbow.
The crowd seemed to be moving towards the center of the station, away from the wall of windows to the outside. Somehow, it was more terrifying than seeing space from the ship itself.
"I'm all right," Eliana said. Despite her misgivings, she kept close to the windows where it seemed more acceptable to walk slowly. "I didn't realize it was so big."
"You said you'd been here before."
Eliana shrugged. "We weren't allowed off of Father's ship. It was a security risk."
"Really," Safra muttered, steering Eliana away from the crowds.
"There's a lift over there," she said, pointing ahead. "I think the shops are on the next level."
The need for food and supplies had made them dock, but really, they had just needed a change of pace from the silence and from the bland food. They could've stretched their supplies another two weeks, maybe three, but the synthesizer wasn't magic. It could only cook what they had on hand, and neither of them had thought to bring salt.
The second level was no less crowded than the docks but it felt less chaotic. Here, rather than the windows, storefronts lined the perimeter and in the center aisle were large clusters of lounge areas.
Safra looked around, dazed.
"Have you ever been here?"
She shook her head. "I never left Irisia," she admitted.
Eliana stared at her. "Never?"
"Not even to Oceania in the summer," she said.
Eliana couldn't fathom that. "But… you still came with me."
Someday, Eliana hoped, she would know Safra's true story.
"Then this is the first time for both of us," she said. "We have to try at least one restaurant while we're here, and I need some new clothes."
"What's wrong with your clothes?"
"And paint," Eliana went on. "I can't stand everything being gray all the time. At home, my room was—"
"Yellow," Safra said. "I remember."
"It's something to look for," Eliana said. "And…"
She bit her lip, glancing away. She should've broached her real reason for coming here sooner.
"Come here," she said, taking Safra by the edge of her sleeve. She led her towards a pair of empty chairs. "Please sit. I want to ask you something."
Safra gave her a wary look.
"I don't know what I would've done without you," Eliana said honestly. "I'm so glad you're with me."
Safra folded her arms. "I'm sure I don't want to go back to Irisia, if that's where you're going with this."
"What—no," Eliana said. "That's not it."
"Oh." Safra frowned. "Well, then, carry on."
"You asked me where we were going," she said. "I didn't know. I still don't, really, but… I think, to get to wherever we're going, we need someone. A real pilot."
The Lilas piloted itself just fine in empty space, and could take off and land on autopilot when they were docking at places like Diamond Station. Eliana wasn't sure they would always be making smooth landings, and neither she nor Safra had any real piloting skills.
"Is there a question?" Safra asked.
"I know it hasn't been long," Eliana said. "But I've… I'm used to how things are, right now. Bringing someone else onto the ship would change that."
"We would have to be more discreet, you mean," Safra said, with a faint smile.
"Yes," she said.
"You're right, though," Safra said. "Especially if you're thinking of going through the Belt."
"I don't know yet," Eliana said. "Maybe."
Yes, but she couldn't bring herself to say it out loud. Not yet.
"Was that it?"
"I only wanted to ask you first. I… don't know exactly where we find someone," she admitted. "But I'm sure there's a directory somewhere."
"We'll find it." Safra always sounded so confident. "Would you like to eat first?"
"Yes," Eliana said, her mouth watering at the thought of real food. It was hard to grow fruits and vegetables on a ship as small as the Lilas but on a station this size they had space aplenty for a greenhouse. "You should pick. We'll try it together."