art by Seth Alan Bareiss
Heart of Joy
by Kate O'Connor
"How's your ankle, Luci?" Feon Sen, High Chancellor of Carinae, leaned against the wall, watching intently as she braided her dark hair. Luscinia considered the question carefully, studying his reflection in the mirror. He was a man of many words, but his meaning was clearest in the surgically smoothed lines around his eyes and the rhythm his fingers absentmindedly tapped out on his arm. He was asking if she was up to the task he had for her tonight.
"Better, thank you." She stood and danced a few quick steps to prove it. She was ready. The prism-glass walls sent the light they had collected from Carina's dim sun scattering around the room in teardrops of scarlet and gold and sapphire. It was hard not to blame the cold and the hard crystal floors for the aches in her joints. Hot sun and soft ground were worlds away, but Feon was always ready with a good reason for her to stay whenever she mentioned returning to her home planet.
She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. Even after more than a year in his company, Luscinia still found how young he looked and how old his expressions were disconcerting. She hadn't asked him about whatever medical miracles or cosmetic alterations he'd had done over the long decades he had been in control of the three hundred and forty-seven inhabited worlds of the nebula. It was how things were on Carina Prime, especially for those in the public eye. She hated the scrutiny that came with being his lover. More than one helpful soul had mentioned a few of the currently fashionable options for elongating her legs or slimming her curvy body. The idea turned her stomach.
"So you'll be able to dance for the Alshain Ambassador and his assorted cronies this evening? He's been after me almost without ceasing since they arrived." Feon's carefree grin made her stomach flutter for entirely different reasons. "You're still the talk of the nebula. Half the city shows up to parties without footwear because you dance barefoot. Not to mention how everyone goes on about what each dance means. It doesn't help that you keep changing them."
"I'd get bored if the routines were always the same. You wouldn't use the same words in every speech you gave, would you?" Luscinia smiled back, taking note of the slight crease at the corner of his mouth. "And stop worrying. I'll settle your diplomats for you." There was so much more to say that never seemed to make it past her lips... or his. He was far more eloquent than she, except when it came to speaking with her. Alshain was dangerous, more so because of the allies the ambassador was gathering. Feon was old and wily, but she saw him plagued with the worry that he was slowing down, that he would miss something vital. They didn't talk about that.
"I know you will." He touched her newly braided hair lightly and she caught his intense expression in the mirror. It warmed her. Too many people thought he could have done better than a backwater dancer, even if she was the artistic sensation of the year. Feon kissed her hair and headed for the door. He stopped with his hand on the doorframe. "Make it a good one tonight. The Ambassador says he has a gift for me. I hate it when the slimy bastard gets smug." He lingered a minute, body swaying between feelings and words.
"It will be all right." She repeated firmly, saving him the need to give voice to his fears.
There were people everywhere, shining as brilliantly as the light from the prism-glass. Luscinia kicked off her good shoes, letting their audacious clatter bring people's attention to her. She walked slowly to a clear space by two of the high, arched windows.
At home, light-years away on Ymir, people asked for a dance they wanted to see, or a selection was planned for the thrice-yearly dance festivals. Here they waited skeptically for her to drag them out of their laconic disdain.
She needed something flashy. Subtleties never played well with the tourist set, and she doubted a crowd of highbrow government officials would understand, either. She looked out the windows. Carina's wan blue sun was scarcely visible behind the constant veil of the aurora--so different from Ymir's warm yellow light. She turned back around to find the High Chancellor watching her intently.
Luscinia sank into the first position of "Heart of Joy." She had altered the routine's original form for Feon. There was nothing subtle about it, and if she managed it properly, it would remind Alshain's Ambassador of the powerful man he was facing.
She paused, took a breath, then her body was moving and, as usual, she all but forgot the people watching. Her muscles responded with effortless grace. The swish of her clothing and the thump of her bare feet on the hard floor blended into a music of their own. She caught a glimpse of Feon leaning forward in his chair, trying to catch her eye. She let him for a moment before flicking her gaze away again. It was a game they'd been playing since the first time she had danced for him.
She moved faster, covering ground in a series of sweeping acrobatics. Her hands cut sinuous, powerful patterns in the air, illustrating an old folktale she had known since before she could walk, about a conquering Emperor of millennia ago. Feon would ask what it meant when they were alone. She would tell him the story again, trying to find words for what her body said, and the next time she danced, he would ask again. Her words never seemed sufficient for him.
The dance was powerful, but tonight she added a gentle turn, letting the softness peek out behind the more powerful movements. Very few were allowed to see his kindness, the way he laughed when it wasn't just the proper thing to do, the shape of his body when he told her he loved her. She finished the routine with a flourish and stood with her arms raised, stone still but for her heaving chest. The crowd exploded into applause. Their eyes met again. Feon smiled, looking pleased and mystified at the same time. It was enough to let her know that she had done her job well. The Ambassador of Alshain would have a difficult time outdoing Feon tonight.
"It is nowhere near as amazing as your own lovely dancer, of course." The ambassador was practically glowing with enthusiasm as he nodded towards the spot where Luscinia sat by Feon's side. It had taken several days for him to make his move. "But I think it will provide you with entertainment when human limbs grow tired."
Luscinia frowned at his choice of words. Given Feon's feelings about him, she figured he was being spiteful on purpose. When she had first arrived, it had taken less than five minutes at Carina Station for her to see that she would never be considered a beauty in this corner of the nebula. The women that looked down at her from advertisements and paraded across shop windows were willowy, pointed things. Luscinia was short and solid; her muscled, curving body was in no danger of being labeled delicate. None of that seemed to bother Feon.
"Show us." Feon's tone revealed nothing beyond vague interest. She marveled at how easily he could hide the contempt that had been in his voice when he had spoken about the man in private. The feeling was entirely mutual as far as she could tell, but outdoing each other with ridiculous gifts was part of their diplomatic game. Several of the other party guests drifted closer to watch the exchange. Luscinia kept her sigh to herself. Feon had said more than once that gossip made politics go round.