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Heart of Joy

Kate O'Connor is a sometime pilot, archaeology field technician on off days, and occasional dog groomer. Her work has appeared in several publications including Penumbra eMag and Pressure Suite: Digital Science Fiction Anthology 3. Her website can be found at kateoconnor3/wordpress.com. This is her second story for Daily Science Fiction.

"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.
With a flourish, the Ambassador gestured and the doors opened. A delicate young woman stood framed in the doorway, the multihued light of the prism-glass sparkling in her ice-colored hair. Enormous emerald eyes filled her doll-like face.
"Come forward," the Ambassador called and she floated into the room, graceful and fragile as a swan. He took her tiny shoulder with a proprietary hand and shifted her to face Feon.
Luscinia watched her lover's face as the High Chancellor looked the newcomer over closely. The young woman was lovely in the most fashionable way, delicate and exotic and almost too perfect to look at. Luscinia smiled. It wasn't the first time someone had tried to sway Feon with a pretty face, but she would have expected the Ambassador to be more refined than that.
"This is the most advanced automaton ever manufactured on Alshai." The Ambassador waited for the sudden frantic conversation to die down, his eyes dancing. "It has been made for you, my Lord Chancellor, and in honor of Lady Luscinia." He smiled proudly. "It has been programmed with all of the Ymiri dances... though I have no doubt it will be a poor imitation of the real thing."
"It dances?" Feon looked intrigued and Luscinia had to admit that she was as well. "Let's see."
"Dance." The Ambassador commanded and the automaton did.
Its performance was as flawless as its form. After a few moments, Luscinia recognized "Heart of Joy." Each element was precise and perfect. It was beautiful to watch, made all the more lovely by the automaton's tall, slender lines, but it meant nothing. It was barely an echo of the emotion that had gone into making that dance right for Feon. Luscinia glanced over at Feon. He watched with open, captivated amazement.
"Honestly, Feon, she's a treasure. You should bring her to the art exhibition next week. She'll fit right in." The gallery director gushed enthusiastically.
"I suppose I could." Feon was nodding in agreement.
Luscinia shifted marginally closer to them, not wanting to interrupt, but curious. Very few of Feon's usual associates had much use for her when she wasn't performing. Picking a plain-looking dancer from an outer-system agricultural planet as a companion was considered one of the more eccentric things Feon had done in a life of unconventional choices. It was odd that anyone would specifically ask for her to be included.
"You could bring her as your date. See how long it takes everyone to notice."
Feon laughed, his elegant face bright with amusement. "The automaton can't speak. All it would take would be one person trying to talk to it, but all right. We'll try it."
Luscinia waited until the director was gone before she moved up beside her lover. "I guess that means a night off for me." She'd meant it to sound casual, but the tension that appeared around his mouth was indicator enough that she hadn't kept the edge of hurt out of her voice.
Feon looked down at her, a bare shake of his head sending his shaggy hair into his eyes and warning her that this wasn't the time or place for a serious discussion. "Just a publicity stunt, Luci. It's not like you enjoy Carinian art, anyway." He waved a hand dismissively; an uncharacteristic gesture towards her. "It will give the gossips something to talk about. They want their drama, as always."
"Yeah. Okay." She agreed quickly, not having the first idea how to explain the whirl of emotion twisting her stomach. It was stupid to have hoped that people were beginning to accept their relationship. She knew he had to play the political games that kept his far-flung government running, but this would be the first time he had chosen politics over her. In the past he had turned their relationship to his political advantage. Instead, he was showing off the machine that faked her steps.
Luscinia stretched her tired limbs in the dim twilight of Feon's room. She hadn't bothered to turn on the lights. The glow from the city and the fading sparkle from the prism-glass suited her fragile mood. The party had lost what little appeal it had had after her talk with Feon. Not that leaving early was unusual for her. Feon was much better at the long hours than she. The automaton had still been dancing when she slipped out the door.
She hadn't been able to catch Feon's eye before leaving. He had been watching his new toy perform, happily receiving compliments on Alshain's wonderful gift. Luscinia frowned at the twinge in her ankle. Perhaps it would be good to have a substitute dancer--a dancer that pleased those who weren't interested in understanding that a fall or a delay imbued meaning as much as a perfect performance. She hadn't seen much of the planet outside of its performance venues since Feon had brought her here.
She smiled at the memory. He had been told once too often that Ymir boasted the best dancers in the nebula and had wanted to see for himself. He worked so hard to judge things on their own merits, a rare trait in a man of his station. He had told her afterwards that he had been expecting to be disappointed. She had been scared half to death at the idea of dancing for the most powerful man in the galaxy. It could have ended badly. Instead, he had been enthralled. When he asked her to stay, she had barely been able to believe it. She thought she had misinterpreted his subtle body cues until he had kissed her several months later, hesitant and questioning. She had not expected that from someone like him.
The soft swish of the door opening brought her abruptly back to the present. Feon stood just inside the bedroom, his fair hair gleaming in the half-light. He opened his mouth to say something, but Luscinia held up a hand, asking for silence. The quiet allowed her to communicate far better than if they muddied it with words. When he didn't speak, she let her hands drift down, shaping the first movement of a dance. He smiled and sank down onto the bed, watching her every bit as avidly as he had the automaton.
She danced slowly, letting her feelings guide her movement rather than sticking to any one routine. He was so good at saying what he meant. Dancing was the only time she felt anywhere near as eloquent. This time she poured her confusion and inadequacy into her movements, trying to explain the knot tangled up in her head.
When she finished, he stood and wrapped his arms around her. "I'm sorry." He whispered softly into her hair. "I wasn't thinking. It isn't fair that I show up anywhere with something or someone that might make it look like I was trying to replace you. Forgive me?"
Luscinia breathed in the familiar smell of him, relief flooding through her. She settled her arms around his waist and nodded. She should have known he would make it right.
The automaton's twenty-seventh performance was turning out to be as successful as its first. It could dance far longer than even the most trained human body and repeat the same movements endlessly without ever losing its precision. Luscinia was bored and annoyed to see her own dances being performed like a circus sideshow, but Feon had asked her to come. They had seen so little of each other with his current schedule that she had agreed.
She shifted uncomfortably in her chair as the automaton launched into an immaculate interpretation of "Farmer's Three Rats." She snorted softly. "Three Rats" was a silly story. The performance could have used an error or two to illustrate that. She had danced it with mistakes originally. The Alshain programmers had obviously edited them out when they encoded the automaton, not understanding how clumsy a person looked trying to chasing three rats at once. She sighed as the crowd applauded loudly. The automaton was certainly turning into a far better ambassador for Ymiri dance than she had ever been.
"Problem?" Feon's fingers tapped out his annoyance.
"It's supposed to be a farce." Luscinia shrugged, leaning away from the balcony rail as the automaton began yet another familiar routine.
"It was beautiful." His voice was clipped. He stared fixedly at the performance, body language making it clear as a Ymiri day that he wanted her to be quiet.
"Yeah." She folded her arms, fighting back the urge to pull his face around so he was looking at her. "It wasn't supposed to be."
"Jealousy doesn't suit you."
Luscinia stared at him in shock. She had heard him speak dismissively to people before, but rarely and only when someone was being exceptionally stupid. She closed her mouth and turned away from him, rolling her shoulders to release the emotional pain that stiffened them. From someone else she might have taken it as meaningless, but Feon always chose his words carefully. Worse was how he turned away, his body locked in a regal, political pose, as though she weren't there at all.
The silence between them lasted through the rest of the performance and the trip home. It wasn't the usual silence that was a small dance of gestures and looks between them. Feon didn't so much as blink when Luscinia turned down the hallway to her own seldom-used room instead of following him to his. She fumbled for the light when she entered, not remembering immediately which side the switch was on.
Chewing her lip angrily, she stripped off her glittering dress and jewelry--all gifts from Feon--and stomped to the shower. A good scrub and cry later, freshly dressed in some of the old clothes she had brought with her from Ymir, she was scolding herself for overreacting. She paced the length of the room once before stepping determinedly out into the hallway. She would go and apologize and try to explain what she had meant. She was a little jealous, but she knew he wasn't trying to replace her. It was the dance that had upset her. He was tired and working too hard. They would figure it out.
The hallway was quiet and her handprint opened his door. She smiled. At least he hadn't wanted to lock her out. She moved quietly to the door of the bedroom, not wanting to wake him if he was already asleep. He rarely got more than a few hours of rest. Movement in the room brought her to a stop. It took her a minute to grasp what she was seeing.
Feon was sitting on his side of the bed, attention fixed on the figure in the open space in front of the tall windows. At first, Luscinia felt numb as she watched the beautiful automaton dancing in the dim light. Her stomach twisted and pained breath escaped her lips. Feon looked over at her, eyes chilly and unsurprised.
Luscinia turned away, feet taking her back the way she had come. The soft, whispering sound of the automaton's feet echoed after her.
The automaton followed Feon wordlessly around the party. His guests were lingering near him, casting hopeful looks in its direction. "Who would like a dance?" He didn't raise his voice, but the people heard and cheered noisily.
Luscinia didn't bother to look up. He hadn't asked her to dance in longer than she cared to think about. They hadn't spoken other than to exchange an emotionless greeting or two since he had brought the automaton to his room.
"I have a special treat for you!" Luscinia wanted to roll her eyes. It seemed he wasn't done showing off. "We will have a duet of sorts. It has been far too long since we've seen Luscinia perform. Tonight, she will be dancing with the automaton." The cheers grew louder.
Luscinia felt her face grow hot. Her fists clenched at her sides. How could he? After weeks of not speaking to her, of barely acknowledging her presence, he expected her to dance at a moment's notice? Their eyes met. His expression was hopeful, falling into blank formality as he took in the look on her face.
Luscinia stared at him for long enough that people were starting to murmur. Then she nodded once and turned her back. She removed her shoes and went to stand beside the automaton. Feon sank back into his chair like the old man he was. The piece of her that wasn't furious with him wanted to run over and apologize, to make sure he was all right, but her feet stayed rooted to the ground.
The automaton began the dance and Luscinia hurried to follow. It was the dance she had made for Feon. For the first few minutes, it was easy. Luscinia let herself deviate slightly from the standard routine, pausing half a second longer than the automaton, hoping to capture how Feon's pauses around her had become strained. The machine continued on, unhesitating. Luscinia caught up again, matching her partner's steps as best she could given the height difference. Her movements felt strained, muscles warning her that she hadn't had a chance to warm up.
The automaton delivered another perfect leap, landing much more lightly than Luscinia could ever hope for, carrying none of the weight that Feon's leaps of judgment and emotion had to them. Another flush of anger flooded her and she gave up any pretense of following along. She broke the routine as she usually did--an added hand gesture to show his dismissal, a quick step when it should have been slow, as that was how he moved away from her these days. All the things that caught Feon as he was now, rather than the lighthearted assurance that had characterized the beginning of their relationship.
The dance finished without mishap. The crowd clapped half-heartedly. The lack of synergy between human and automaton was impossible to miss. Feon was already turning to his associates, exclaiming over the machine. Luscinia bowed with a touch of mockery in her movement, retrieved her shoes and left the room. Maybe he had missed the changes in the dance. Whatever it was, she didn't want to see Feon again. He could have his pretty, perfect toy.
"What are you doing?"
"Packing." Luscinia answered calmly, looking into Feon's tight face.
"You're not leaving." He folded his arms across his chest.
Luscinia flicked her head in denial. It was past time to go home. She had been on Carina far too long if he thought he could order her around like she was his pet machine.
"Is this about the automaton?" Feon asked in an annoyingly knowing tone.
"You had me dance with it." She didn't bother to deny it. The fact that he thought he could tell her what to do, make her dance without bothering to ask if she was up for it, expect her to be grateful for what little attention he chose to grant her... it was enough to make it clear he didn't care beyond what she could do for him.
He shrugged. "That didn't go as well as I expected, but that's no reason to run off in a huff. I'm sure you could adjust to it with practice."
Luscinia stared at him in disbelief, her body stunned to stillness. "Adjust?"
"Yes, well, its style has become quite popular. People know its routines." His sharp eyes cut into her. "Its steps are clear enough that they can follow them. Learn them. You're too unpredictable."
Luscinia glared as he confirmed the fear that she had been hiding. "If you're wondering what I'm going to do next, Feon, all you ever had to do was ask... or pay attention." He used to be so good at noticing the slightest change in her mood.
"Compromise is important if you want to be a part of the wider world." He sounded like he was talking to a child--or one of his fellow politicians.
"I don't belong here. I never have." She spoke firmly. She'd been trying to leave for too long and she had let him persuade her too often. "You don't need me here, anymore. You've barely spoken to me in months. You've even found a dancer who isn't a political embarrassment." She had watched him draw away since the arrival of the automaton. She thought she understood; it gave him everything he had wanted from her without human complications and frailties.
"I never needed you." His voice was cold. She watched his face change as his public mask slid into place and turned his pale eyes glacial. "What use could I possibly have for one more needy parasite? Go then."
"I've done everything you ever asked of me except for turning into a perfectly predictable machine." Luscinia tried to push down the fury boiling in her gut, but she could feel it in her hands as she shoved the last garment into her bag. It didn't really matter what he thought. He believed the automaton could mimic her dancing. She was going home. "Goodbye, Feon." She picked up the small bag packed with the things she had come with and walked resolutely towards the door.
"Don't bother trying to come back." He said matter-of-factly. For a brief moment, she desperately missed the warmth that used to enter his voice whenever he spoke to her, the way he had always turned towards her when she entered the room.
"Don't worry." She kept walking. All of that was gone now. "I won't."
Luscinia lay in the honey-scented grass behind the dance studio, relaxing after a long day of practice. The warm amber-green light of Ymiri spring sank into her bones. Even after eleven months gone, it seemed her time on Carina hadn't been a total loss. The next festival was three weeks away and they were expecting the largest crowd of tourists yet.
Out of habit, she blinked on the newsfeed, watching as it scrolled in front of her eyes. High Chancellor Near Death...She blinked it to a stop, staring at the headline. It couldn't be true. She read a few lines further, then bolted for her house. Phrases like "untreatable illness" and "doctors mystified" ate holes in her heart. It was a long trip to Carina. She had to believe she would make it in time.
Feon lay on the bed, his wide-open eyes fixed unseeing on the ceiling. Luscinia's hand went to her chest, pressing at her breastbone to ease the sudden ache there. His face was so gaunt and pale that she was afraid for a moment that she had come too late.
"He wakes up sometimes," his nurse said quietly. "But less and less often. He made us shut down the life support two days ago. It won't be long now. They're already holding a vote to choose his replacement."
Luscinia nodded numbly. Her feet felt rooted to the floor. Feon never stayed still. It was unnatural.
"I'll leave you then." The man touched her shoulder briefly and retreated, pulling the door shut behind him. Her breathing echoed thunderously in the absence of Feon's usual constant conversation.
After an endless time, Luscinia forced herself to move. Her feet drifted forwards, carrying her to his bedside. His slender, chalk-white hands were folded across his chest. She placed her own on top of his, throat tightening at the bird-like fragility of his bones.
"Luci?" Feon's weak voice startled her.
She swallowed hard, squeezing his frail hand as firmly as she dared. "You know I hate it when you call me that."
"You came." He tried to smile, but it fell quickly into a pained grimace.
"Of course I did." She started to say more, but his eyes were far away.
"Will you dance for me?"
"What about your automaton? I thought you liked it better anyway." She knew she should let it go. He was dying. Now wasn't the time to heap old hurts on him.
"It's broken now. Worn out. I had them replace some of the parts, but it wasn't the same." He gestured weakly, a wry smile quirking his pain-thinned lips. "How delightfully ironic." The ache in his eyes was almost too much for her to bear.
"It was just a machine, Feon. They could have made you another one." She didn't know what to say. Around him, words still ran away from her.
"It wouldn't have mattered. I know everything it could do by heart. It couldn't show me anything new." He turned her hand over in his. "It's too quiet. How could I spend a lifetime in the middle of everything, and now it's quiet?"
"I'm here." Her eyes were stinging. "You're not alone."
"Stop being sentimental," he snapped.
"Far better if I'd been programmed to avoid that, I suppose." She pulled her hand out of his grasp and folded her arms. The silence that descended was broken only by his labored breathing.
"What is it you want from me?" He looked at her accusingly. "I never did figure that out. There was a time when I would have given you anything."
It was hard not to get angry all over again. Luscinia opened her mouth to snap at him and shut it again. How could he not know? Then she shook her head and got to her feet. The accusation in his eyes turned to hurt. Her heart was thumping as hard as it had when they'd first met. "Why don't I show you?"
She moved back from the bed and lifted her arms in the air. His expression shifted, growing hopeful and vulnerable. His body shifted by agonizing millimeters towards her. Instead of closing her eyes, Luscinia stared into his beloved face and began to dance.
She watched as the light left his eyes, her body continuing the familiar pattern of "Heart of Joy," dropping lower, hands outstretched as the beginnings of grief shifted the form of the dance. Luscinia ended beside the bed, breath coming hard and tears clogging her throat.
Feon's blank eyes stared through her, a gentle smile fixed on his beautiful face.
"That's it." She whispered, her tears dripping onto his face as she kissed his still lips. "I just wanted you to see me."
The End
This story was first published on Friday, April 12th, 2013

Author Comments

I love re-imagining old fairy tales from a science fiction perspective. The jumping-off point for "Heart of Joy" was Hans Christian Andersen's The Nightingale.

- Kate O'Connor
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