By late afternoon on Test Day, the wide streets were still mostly empty. Whistling breezes echoed in the middle of civilization, usually unheard outside the groves.
Everyone had stayed home that day—work stopped, play stopped, drinking stopped—to make sure that the Test could be administered free of distraction. The only people out in the dimming red light now were the truly stressed and the happily aimless, flitting to their new destinations on their own time.
Rhiannon fell into the flitting category. She approached the park, still dazed from the morning’s happy outcome. She closed her eyes to better bask in the sunlight bathing her face. Its happy warmth reminded her of times with her mother.
A tear cooled her cheek at the thought. Rhiannon took pride that it was only one.
Up ahead, three figures sat beneath the tree she’d marked as Gwyn’s. She waved an arm over her head, and the large motion filled her with extra adrenaline. She jogged the rest of the way. Twigs crunched beneath her polished boots as she closed with them.
She couldn’t wait to tell Gwyn all about making Queen and Commander. The administrator had said something about not telling anyone that enough pre-Testing made actual Testing irrelevant. So, fine, she could skip that part. But the part about getting out of Perceivership and into Queen training? She was bursting to share that with her best friend, her only friend since Mam died.
Her smile faded as she recognised Victor in the little coterie. While Rhiannon had got what she wanted on the Test, Gwyn hadn’t got everything. Gwyn would be forced away from Victor.
Victor pounced upon her the moment she drew close enough. ‘You want Gwyn to be happy, right?’
Oh, this can’t be good. Of course she wanted Gwyn to be happy. No one meant more to her than Gwyn. Gwyn, who had become Rhiannon’s sun and water during the hard years after her mother’s death. Gwyn, who had offered unconditional friendship when Rhiannon had forgotten how to interact with other children. Gwyn, who had never given up during Rhiannon’s awkward phase.
Yes, Rhiannon wanted Gwyn to be happy. But she wasn’t sure that Victor wanted Rhiannon to be happy.
Well, on one score, she and Victor agreed: Gwyn came first.
She ignored the question. ‘Hello, Victor.’ She passed him to hug her best friend. She extended a hand to the third party member— a runner-thin, flamboyant dresser. ‘Hi, I’m Rhiannon.’
The boy had reddish blonde hair, a mischievous grin, and an exceedingly thin nose surrounded by an outdoor-person’s freckles. He scrambled to his feet and took that hand, bending over it like a Shakespearean actor. ‘Gavin. It’s an honour to meet you.’ He looked up at her through playful eyelashes, still bent over her hand. ‘My lady.’
What a ham! But a delightful ham. Not that she could do anything about it for another few decades. Queenship’s downside: no relationships that might damage your Hive’s dynamic.
Someday, though. Someday, she’d meet someone she truly loved, and her Hive would allow her to pursue that someone.
In her peripheral vision, graceful Gwyn stumbled forward to get her attention.
‘We, well Victor wanted me to ask… That is, he thinks we could…’ Gwyn gave up, and Rhiannon wished she could protect the other girl from whatever had upset her so.
‘What Gwyn’s trying to say.’ Victor stepped forward to speak for Gwyn. That annoyed Rhiannon. Sure, the girl was wobbling into her explanations, but that was no reason to cut her off. Ugh. Then again, Rhiannon had been known to take over in high-anxiety situations, so maybe it wasn’t so bad. ‘She’s trying to ask you to join us.’
‘Join our Hive. As our Queen.’
She blanked her face into the unamused non-expression. That made as close to no sense as made no difference. You couldn’t ask a Queen to join a Hive. That was backwards. If you were lucky, maybe she asked you. Otherwise, you begged to join her. But the other way around?
The Shakespearean ham in the overwhelmingly voluminous clothes tried to salvage the conversation. Clearly he at least understood what her tightening eyebrows meant.
‘We were talking about starting an Explorer Hive,’ he explained deferentially, ‘and Victor said we couldn’t do it with any Queen but you.’
I’ll just bet. No other Queen would accept him and Gwyn. On the one ash branch, it sounded ideal. A ready-made Hive that needed her to step in. But on the other branch… ‘I haven’t been trained.’ Bran’s blood! I earned that training. Even the laughable nervousness counselling.
She needed that training too. She’d be the first to admit that she had no idea how to be charismatic, which was one half of a Queen’s job. And she couldn’t even identify the other half!
Not to mention that she wanted the Commander classes. She wanted to learn personnel organization, which was made much of in military films. She wanted to be with people. To be a part of the world, not locked away and buried under soulless data.
Gavin shrugged slender shoulders, displaying impressive muscles in the process. ‘I’m sure you can read all about it. And we’d be there to help you with the exercises in any textbooks you bring.’
It was true that she could study on her own. She’d never needed to physically attend a class before, and those first Queens had found their own ways. But still. ‘I got into New Cardiff, you know. A degree from there, the potential Devotees I’d connect with… I hate to lose those. Can’t this plan wait a few years? I’ll still happily take you.’
Victor buried his head in his hands, a good copy of her own favourite posture for communicating frustration. She found it hard to take seriously.
Gavin pointed skyward, his many sleeves inching up towards his head. ‘Ah, but in a few years there won’t be a ship at the spaceport ripe for the picking.’
The sun and the terrible metaphor momentarily blinded her. ‘Come again?’
Gavin explained. He explained about the ship, Ceridwen’s Cauldron, with its beautiful, alliterative name. He explained that this was the perfect opportunity to provide for the skill-crossed lovers and to get practical experience. He explained that this chance might not come again for decades. He explained his general dissatisfaction with the Devotion system, but that he’d been struck by her sensibility and was happy to join her Hive if she’d have him.
He didn’t explain that their whole ridiculous plan hinged on her.
But she understood it anyway. Without her, Gwyn couldn’t go with Victor. Without her, Victor would grow into a man who considered today’s foibles a youthful dalliance. Without her, Gavin… Well, she wasn’t sure about Gavin yet.
The point was, without her, their plan crumbled. With her, her own plans crumbled. She’d never be able to come back. If she left, she forfeited her place at New Cardiff. She’d be labelled an unreliable Queen. The Senedd might try to rehabilitate a damaged Queen, with Queens in such demand, but it wasn’t the way she’d bet.
Gwyn pushed past the boys, her white-blonde hair shimmering in the early-evening sunlight. She stooped to equalise their heights and tangled her long, garden-rough fingers with Rhiannon’s.
‘Please.’ Gwyn whispered it first, then repeated it more loudly. ‘Please, Rhi. Don’t send me away.’
Away from Victor or away from Rhiannon? It didn’t matter. She couldn’t deny the quiet plea. ‘Anything for you, love. You know you can count on me.’
That was the end of that. No use dwelling on what she couldn’t change.
Fingers still grasping Gwyn’s chapped skin, she addressed Gavin, who seemed the most knowledgeable in these matters. ‘What will we need?’
‘Six crew, including the Queen-captain, and an application form,’ he answered promptly. ‘I have one right here.’
She bit back a laugh at his preparedness. Perhaps Victor and Gwyn had only just concocted this scheme, but the new guy had seen the light long ago. ‘Since you’re so keen,’ she said, tilting her head to keep the words from seeming too serious, ‘you can fill out all the essays.’
She could always revise whatever he wrote. Plus, it wasn’t like she had plans for the ship yet. Reading his compositions would give her more information about his style and intentions. Maybe she’d get lucky and he’d be a terrible writer.
He raised a hand to his ear without actually tucking any hair behind it. His cheeks puffed into circles. ‘I’m honoured that you trust me with such a task.’
She refused to feel guilty over hoping for unsalvageable essays. Either they’d get the ship, thanks to his solid work. Or their application would be rejected and it wouldn’t be Rhiannon’s fault.
That part delegated, she still needed to find two more crew for her faux-Hive. She wouldn’t let Victor get them for her. He already had more control over this scheme than she did, no matter who bore which title. No, she had an idea for their merry band’s next member. She probably shouldn’t involve him, but she was sure that Luciano would follow her anywhere.
Even if he shouldn’t.
She’d destroy him, she knew. She’d pull him away from his well-planned future, the future he’d moved to Dyfed to pursue. But that wouldn’t stop her.
She’d destroy him for Gwyn.