A Black Beetle in a Field of Dandelions
It starts with a fall.
Doesn't it always start with a fall?
It starts with a bang.
The legends say that it was the magi themselves who had strained towards the stars with such yearning in their hearts that one couldn’t help but reach back. And thus she fell, snatched from orbit, collapsing into a collision of heat and fire that cracked, like lightning, a crater through the soil and hollowed out a womb in which the Solarites grew. They emerged stained with the palette of the summer, with skin as brown as fawn and hair as bright as sunlight—their bodies glistening with the fragments of constellations, like a dappling of light across the sea.
Oh, how the magi worshipped them. They built up towers in their name to hoist them up to their celestial counterparts, enskying them in riches and repute. They brought them gold and gems, they brought them honey and wine, in exchange for just a speckle of their crystal dust—the amaranthum they brought down on their journey which would go on to form the lifeblood that pumps through the veins of their homes, their factories, their farms, from the jungles of Thalistan to the mountain peaks of Odaka.
Now the Solarites dwell in their ivy-strangled palace by the sea. Sky above them, ocean below them. They claim dominion over both, they claim crystal bright constellations and the undiscovered depths that lie beneath. They claim all the liminal spaces that mortals couldn’t dream of touching but still dared to hope that they could.
Today their gilded gates are opened, a celebration converging within their hallowed grounds, for it is the Day of Enlightenment—a cause for much feast and finery. A millennium has passed since that fateful event when the first of the stars that would later become Solarites had fallen to the earth.
The lemon grove is warm and honey-soaked in late evening sun as partygoers dance in swishing skirts of silks and chiffon. The grounds are bedecked with enchanted white chocolate canaries that flit from table to table to escape the delighted squeals of hunting children. Citrus trees trickle with silvered strings of starlight whilst a sprite ensemble generate intoxicating melodies for the masses beneath a jasmine-covered canopy.
The hostess, Laila Rose, is in the centre of this madness as though she belongs nowhere else. She dances barefoot to the strum of oud and Soleterean guitar, the naked sun ringing her in a pure strain of incandescence, like a spotlight that bolsters her presence to all who see her. As with all of the Solarites she is garnished in a frock of white lace. The material recedes down her back to display her golden-brown skin which in the summer heat has enriched to an even warmer hue. The immodesty of the garment exposes the faint trace of star-flecks across her skin that, when she moves, begin to glimmer across the highest peaks.
Though she had not been among the illustrious stars known as The First Who Fell, she is a descendant of one and this distinguished honour is marked by the constellation of a rose that glimmers faintly against her exposed back and shoulder blades. Her dynasty marque.
As Crown Princess of the Five Realms of Vysteria, her mother has instilled her with the value of cultivating an experience of enchantment in every guest that should attend her parties. So that is what she sets out to do, greeting and charming and kissing as she goes, allowing herself to delight in having seen her vision finally come to completion after months of redistributing the mania of her mind into purposeful planning.
There are too many faces both old and new all eager for her and she, in turn, is more than happy to quench their thirst before her throat aches to quench her own. Her attention diverts to the myriad sky lanterns laden with baskets of food and drink. She plucks a glass of nectar fizzling with fairy floss and devours it, the sweet fluid soothing her parched throat.
It is then she sees Aurora, her foremost lady-in-waiting, collected in conversation with a few other ladies who laugh as though everyone can hear them.
“Pleasant evening, ladies, I hope?” Laila asks, beckoning for compliments as she crosses one ankle over the other, pivoting a full rotation to encompass the festivities that surround them in an affectedly coquettish manner before resting her chin against her shoulder. “Well, what do you think?”
“You’ve certainly outdone yourself this time, Laila, I am most impressed,” exclaims Aurora, whose approval she most desires.
“Ah yes, the event has been bewitching so far,” Astrid agrees and soon she is immersed in the limpid bell-like chimes of her ladies in the sweet, musical lilt of Soltongue.
Laila feels a warmth rise to her cheeks as she releases a high, silvery timbre of a laugh. “Oh stop,” she insists with a flick of her wrist as though to dismiss their glowing commentary. Though she is ever hungry for praise no matter the source, it nourishes her better than mother’s milk. “But truly, I am glad you are having fun.”
“Just so long as you are too,” Aurora replies, her chin nudging in her direction. “Try not to exhaust yourself ensuring everyone else’s enjoyment at the expense of your own. We all understand what pressure you have been under, it’s okay to let go.”
“Dangerous words to utter in my presence,” Laila says, tucking a springy ringlet behind her ear which had freed itself from its intricately braided coiffure, studded with diamond-encrusted stars that rival her celestial counterparts.
They trade the warmth of a smile while others begin to perk up with flowery words of idle chatter and appetising gossip. Laila allows herself to try and bathe in the reflected glow of their vivacity in the hopes that she might siphon some for herself. For these precious girls, these starlets, are as much treasures to her as any gown or jewel. And oh, what is it to be a light without the shadows that cling so stubbornly to one’s heels as they do her own.
Yet a malaise forms in her, for it had been a while since she’d been at the helm of a pageant quite this grand. It had been fifteen years since the Great War which claimed the life of her last Lightshield and personal mentor, Eidan, after which she had taken an unexpected withdrawal from polite society to travel to other regions of the continent and dedicate herself to rehabilitating the damage.
A hand touches her shoulder and she turns around, startled, only to be soothed by the familiar inflection of her name in the tender nuance of affection.
“Laila,” Leander says, holding two flutes of nectar in hand, one of which he hands to her.
“Thank you,” she says, not realising that her current glass had run dry before she reaches over to replace it. She needn’t speak to him to convey her needs for their empathic connection made plain any emotion she happened to feel. Her moods filtered through him like a prism, he could sense every kaleidoscopic shift. One of the many enhancements he’d undertaken by swearing himself before the royal seal as her protector as his father had done before him.
He smiles back at her. “I heard the word dangerous and thought it pertinent to come and investigate.”
Aurora’s chin dips in false repentance at the comment, her lashes sweeping low like a canopy over her violet eyes. “Yes, you arrived just in time to keep us from persuading our princess into getting in a little trouble, dutiful bodyguard that you are.”
“At your service,” he replies, tipping an invisible hat, “so dutiful I even took the liberty of sampling some of the delicacies from the kitchen on your behalf. Poison is an elusive killer, one can never be too careful.”
Laila sighs. “I’m certain you did.”
“Fortunately, I was able to conclude the only immediate danger to your person happens to be a patissier who loves her buttercream.”
“Well thank the stars I have you keeping my best interests close to the chest,” she replies, with an amused roll of her eyes for he knew as well as she that poison cannot harm her. Her fingers lift the stem of the gold-rimmed flute to poise it delicately between the sensuous curve of her lips only to meet a brief halt when Aurora speaks.
“Speaking of danger…” she murmurs as the crowds open up to deliver unto Laila a new visitor, an unexpected visitor.
Darius Calantis, the rex of Mortos, stands imposingly tall above the guests, lean musculature tightly concealed in a suit of all black. He moves like a black beetle through a field of dandelions, his velvet tailcoat trailing behind him. It is encrusted with globules of rubies like speckles of fresh blood with slit cuffs that reveal the trimming of lace from his shirt beneath.
She had sent him an invite, of course. She had sent him many things over the last decade they hadn’t seen each other. But she never anticipated that tonight of all nights, he might respond.
The sight of him twinges some nervous reflex in her stomach, though whether it be one of dread or excitement she can’t yet decipher. Rather, it is the same way one might feel looking at the long plummet over the edge of a bluff. (Ah but you’d never jump, would you?)
“Might I steal you for a dance, Your Radiance?” he asks, without presumption or demand likely because he knows he’d been away too long to have either but the desire is palpable all the same. And there is no language she knows better than desire, for it is the mother tongue of wishes. As a star, she’d been nourished on them, all the dreams of those who are earthbound with their mouths aimed heavenward. So hopeful and heartfelt, so eager to reach for something higher than themselves as though by doing so their feet would catch a foothold on the ladder of social mobility. She is the physical incarnation of every I wish woven into one being.
“You may,” she grants and takes his hand. For although she ought to know better, she still cannot help but reach for whatever is dark and deadly. And he is something deadly, as lethal as the black exhaust fumes of a coal fire. As an Occassi he is a creature bred to kill, formidably armed with an arsenal of black magic. She can feel the malignant essence of it spidering across the exposed small of her back like spindly insect legs.
Even his face is gaunt like a spectre’s, yes, see how lovingly the shadows cling to the hollows of his cheeks. You could pierce yourself on the edges of him, across the contours of his jagged cheekbones, so much like blades softened beneath stretched elastic skin.
He slides his hand around her supple back and guides her to him, shackling her to the gated bars of his ribcage. She isn’t prepared for that, being so close to him. He is so much the same as she last saw him, last smelled him that she has to angle herself not to become distracted by the sharp, clean musk of his cologne and the memories it stirs.
Her glass topples slightly and splashes with a lively fizzle until she dissipates it into the air and rests her palm atop his shoulder.
“I didn’t expect to see you tonight, Darius Rex,” she says, their bodies mimicking the sensual flirtation between saxophone, bass and guitar. “It’s been all but impossible to persuade you past the gates of Mortos.”
“And miss your party?” he expresses in feigned astonishment and twirls her so that her back is to him. “Perish the thought.” He draws her back into facing him. “One thousand years of Solarite dominance, now that’s something to mark down in the history books. Not quite the two thousand of my genealogy but well… who’s keeping track?”
She finds it hard to resist the urge to relax into his embrace as their hips collide with hypnotic synchronicity. “I believe that’s meant to be you,” she informs him, “you are or at least were the Mortesian consultant.”
Before you left. She wants to add sharply though she knows better than to start a scene with him in the middle of the garden. She knows that if she uncorked the tempestuous rage that is burgeoning in her breast, she will never again be able to corral it under her control. He is just a king, after all, a foreign king to a foreign land once known to her only as the relation of a past lover. There is no reason to read too much in the way his hand rests with a lover's knowledge against the small of her back or the way her cheek presses against his shoulder wistfully as they dance just as provocatively as the couples that surround them. Soleterean dances appear practically erotic to those who didn’t know better.
“You always knew I had to go back, Laila.”
It is the first time he uses her name and the effect is immediate. She shields her face from him by pressing it even further into his coat.
“I know,” she lies, longing to say more but is too aware of the eyes that follow them.
“Truth be told I was already in the area, hoping that the holiday cheer would have your mother in an amiable mood,” he says, so close that his breath steams in her ear and yet his chest is immovable as a boulder, like no life is capable of pumping in him.
At this, she chortles knowing that the one thing her mother refused to be is amiable. “And why is that?”
“I had some news for her,” he says, “I was hoping she might consider it valuable enough to renegotiate the terms of Mortesian reparations.”
She looks at him as though he were being seen for the very first time—as though he’d been solidified into being by virtue of her acknowledgement. “Such as?”
“Dominus is alive.”
Her body recoils with such a fierceness that she can already sense Leander approaching, alerted by her sudden elevated pulse rate. She warns him off with a reassuring nod and turns her attention back to Darius.
“What?” she asks breathlessly and then moistens her lips with a wet glide of her tongue before she manages to ask. “What do you mean alive?”
He cocks his head westward to indicate her mother’s presence.
“Not here,” he says and dips them both so that she is practically laying upon him in mid-air. “Your mother wanted me to keep this conversation private.” He presses his lips to her temple and she feels the silken texture of his voice glide down her spine. “Meet me in the usual place.”
He melts into the crowd before she can respond.
She casts a cursory glance around the festivities and gradually allows herself to melt into the smog of perfume and sweat to make her escape.