"Acidalia-Planitia Cipher, are you willing to take this oath?"
"Do you solemnly promise and swear to govern the people of the empire of Eleutheria, and the dominions thereto belonging, with righteousness and mercy?"
"Will you, to the best of your ability, preserve, protect and defend the virtues upon which Eleutheria was built?"
"Will you, to the utmost of your power, further the pursuit of knowledge in this realm, protect the liberty of the peoples upon which you reign, and serve your subjects dutifully through peace and war, health and plague, life and death?"
"All this I swear to do. The things which I have here before promised, I will perform, and keep."
As Acidalia finished the vows, she felt her mother's eyes upon her, shining a strange and alien blue. The glow glinted off the platinum of the Imperial coronet, as bright as the sapphires that made up Neptune and the lapis lazuli of Earth's sky. She didn't look very enthusiastic about relinquishing the crown; who would? Nobody wanted to be the Imperatrix who put a bastard child on the throne.
Eleutheria always came to life at night; this evening, as they celebrated a new sovereign and a new era, was no different. Flashes of light fell from the sky in a stunning display of starbursts, casting an orange glow over the river's sparkling surface. Pinpoints of luminescence glowed in the sky, the lights of thousands of spacecraft celebrating their nation's newest monarch. Far beneath the palace, people sang the Imperial anthem in one massive chorus, interspersed with occasional interjections of "Vivat Imperatrix!"
"At least somebody is happy that I'm alive," Acidalia remarked.
Her brother laughed. "Eh, they probably want to kill you too. They just don't know it yet."
"Nice, T," she said, knowing he was right. The majority of Eleutheria's people loved Acidalia like they'd loved every other Imperatrix before her, from her ancestors to her mother, but those who didn't… well, they were the loudest voices, and they were heard the most. People were already calling for her death and it'd just been a few hours since she'd been crowned.
"I'm not joking, you know," he said. "Keep your eyes open. Do you know how much danger you're in already? You're standing out here on a balcony without even a guard to keep you safe—"
"I know you aren't a murderer, T," she replied.
"But what if I had been? What if I decided to shoot you dead right now and steal that crown off your head? It's not out of the question, you know. Sororicide." He looked pointedly at her. "I wouldn't do it, but—"
"—others might," she concluded, sighing. "I know that better than anyone."
"You're smart, but you're not invulnerable," T said, "and I worry about you. It's dangerous up here."
"As if you live more safely?" she asked. "You're going down to ground level later today. That's incredibly dangerous."
"Well, on ground level nobody is actively trying to kill me and me specifically," he sighed. "You should have listened to me ages ago and just run away to Mars and left this horror show behind before this turns into another War of the Roses."
"War of the Roses? There aren't enough noble houses for that anymore," she said. "Besides, what kind of leader would I be if I just up and abandoned my civilization? We've been on the edge of another civil war for years. Our father is irrelevant; people are ready to kill each other with every new law passed."
"Yes, but we certainly don't help," he sighed. "You should have been born male. Then she could just throw you in the army and tell people you don't exist like she does with me."
"Sometimes I wish I had been a boy. Then I couldn't be the dauphine." Acidalia traced the ornate carvings on the railing of the balcony, made of marble and glass. "But I've been in this position for two decades. I've been training to take the throne, and the capabilities it provides, since I was born. I can't just abandon it now; it would lead to a war of succession." "
No it wouldn't," T said. "Principissa Aleskynn."
"Aleskynn is not capable of any kind of leadership right now," Acidalia argued. "And she's only thirteen. She may be of high breeding, but people would still be angry that Alestra could stay regent for the next seven years. And you know our mother; she'd never want to give that up. She'd sooner kill Leski."
"She'd sooner kill you," T said. "I wouldn't be surprised if you went the same way as Avina, Harmonia, Celestia—"
"I'm not as naïve as Celestia or as stupid as Harmonia," Acidalia replied, "and I have a better cult of personality than Avina. My mother wouldn't kill me now. She knows the outrage it would cause, and she is nowhere near prepared to deal with another war, not while we're fighting this ridiculous war of attrition." She motioned towards the sky. "I have no idea why we're still trying with the Mira. Nobody's going to win. We need to start diplomatic talks immediately instead of just firing guns at each other, gaining no territory and no resources, because our ancestors insulted their ancestors centuries ago."
"I'm less worried about the aliens in the sky and more worried about the war down here." T glanced at the doorway skittishly. "Listen, Alestra may not kill you yet, but you know she's going to try. And even if she doesn't get to you first, one of her followers will. Just because she's smart and patient doesn't mean the rest of the Nova are."
"Listen, T," Acidalia said, "I understand what you're trying to do. You want me to be safe, and I want you to be safe, too. But you know that my safety is secondary to the safety of my people and my planet. That's the sacrifice you make when you become a monarch."
"You don't have to make that sacrifice," T said. "Leave with me."
"I can't do that." She looked down across the expanse of the city, the lights sparkling between buildings like a starscape. "I'm a servant of this state. If service means I have to die, then so be it."
"You sound like when they start indoctrinating the little boys who all think dying in battle is romantic. They act like it's some glamorous, honorable thing to die at the hands of the military machine that sends fifteen-year-olds into battle without the consent of anyone involved." He shook his head. "If there's anything the army has taught me, it's that sacrificing your life for this empire is worthless. A hundred million people can die and what will Alestra do but replace them with more soldiers? If you die, they'll just replace you with our little sister and continue on as normal, and the wars will happen anyway. It's not worth it, and we need you."
"Don't mention that," Acidalia warned. "Not here." She spared a glance at her surroundings, careful not to let anyone overhear. "I've been doing this for a very long time, T. I will be okay. I'm a good shot, I have the Imperial Guard, and everyone in our movement is looking out for me. If an assassination attempt happens—and I'm not saying it won't, it's a very real possibility—I will probably make it out alive. And if I don't, I'm a martyr. My postmortem impact will be just as large as that of my life—people will rally around me, and that'll be excellent for propaganda."
T sighed. "Listen, I just... I've seen enough people die. I don't need my big sister dead, too."
He suddenly looked very young, his dark face lit only by the occasional bursts of fireworks, big brown eyes shining in the sporadic showers of light. He and Acidalia lacked the Cipher eyes—bright blue irises flashing with gold and green, the symbol of the Imperial family for generations. There was nothing that screamed bastard more than plain brown eyes.
"We have this argument every time we meet," Acidalia said, "and I'm not dead yet." She knew how hollow her words sounded; there was a very real chance that she'd be dead on the morrow, poisoned or shot or stabbed by somebody seeking her throne.
"Yet being the key word here." T frowned. "All I'm saying is that you have to be careful. Don't underestimate what our family can do." Acidalia thought back to snapped ankles and burning pointe shoes, broken tiaras, shards of crystal and quartz on the floor of her bedroom, smashed computer screens and holographic projectors, bruises on her collarbone hidden with concealer. There was no denying that Alestra had a temper, and she'd do whatever it took to get the planet back under her control.
"I won't," Acidalia said.
"Promise me you'll be careful?"
"I swear." She smiled in an attempt to be reassuring. They stood there in the darkness, together but not speaking, until a harsh male voice rang out from behind them.
"Immune TB-2115, what the hell are you doing?"
"Nothing," T said, rolling his eyes. He was as high-ranking as his birth warranted—a full fledged, three star immune at seventeen—but even immunes had to listen to their superior officers.
"Really," Acidalia said, "it's of no bother."
"I beg your pardon, ma'am," he said, suddenly flustered. Acidalia had forgotten in the aftermath of the coronation that she was now the commander in chief (or perhaps co-commander in chief, alongside her mother) of the Eleutherian army, fractured as it was. Something was funny and a little surreal about watching these grizzled praetors, combat veterans, fall over themselves to obey her, a barely 20-year-old girl in a white dress and a crown.
"Pardon granted," she said, smiling slightly. He relaxed, not significantly, but enough for it to be noticeable.
"If you'll allow me to retrieve this young immune, he needs to be in place for the ceremony—"
"Of course." She nodded her head. "It was a pleasure speaking with you. I hope to discuss this matter with you again."
"Likewise." T held out a gloved hand, which Acidalia shook. He slipped a tiny, discrete data chip into her palm, affixed to a sheet of paper. As T left with his superior officer, Acidalia turned towards the balcony again and unfolded it.
Weekly updats was written on the label. Acidalia recognized the handwriting immediately as that of her friend Andromeda, fellow Revolutionary. She'd misspelled "updates." Making a mental note to check it later, and thanking God that her coronation dress had pockets, she slipped it into a slit cut into the ballgown's skirt.
She didn't even remember which ceremony was coming next. Another parade, another wardrobe change, another interview—she was starting to lose track. It was probably the flyover of the starcraft and aircraft belonging to the Eleutherian military. She slipped her high heels back on—they were absolutely massive, six inches tall, and she'd been trying to keep them off of her feet for as long as possible—and set out for the corridor. Evidently everyone had been so busy keeping track of the coronation that they'd forgotten to keep track of the Imperatrix herself, because the hallway was deserted.
She rejoined the procession outside under a grove of cherry trees. They were officially supposed to be a gift from Iaponia, but it was common knowledge that Alestra had simply taken them for her own, and nobody had been brave enough to argue the matter with her. Acidalia's ladies-in-waiting sat alongside those of her sister and her mother, creating a disorganized mess of babbling, twittering young women. As Acidalia approached, they arranged themselves into a complex pattern, organized according to a rank and order Acidalia didn't remember. She had a dozen or so ladies in waiting, but she couldn't recall any of their names. They came and went like the wind, and they were tried for treason and executed so often that she found it fruitless to even attempt getting closer to them. Not that any self-respecting lady of the court would want a relationship with the Martian half-breed anyway, Imperatrix or otherwise.
Acidalia was right at the front of the procession, flanked by her entourage and the Imperial Guard, a colorful mix of Magistratum and actual military officers. Two Aquilifers from two different legions bore eagles on each side, for ancient America and ancient Rome, while more Signiferi held spears and swords of various sizes. Acidalia had long forgotten their symbolism, if they even had any to begin with—her mother always liked to introduce more meaningless customs and traditions that existed only to increase the size of her ego. The endless drone of the cornicenes and their clarions combined with the bang! of falling fireworks began to give her a migraine, causing her pulse to beat audibly in her ears.
"I have a headache," Aleskynn complained, stepping up beside her. She technically wasn't supposed to be standing up here, being a principissa and one rank lower than the Imperatrix Ceasarina, but nobody seemed to care much. She was the daughter of Alestra Cipher and a specially-selected, genetically perfect soldier, while Acidalia was the product of her mother's affair with a Martian man—it wasn't difficult to see why the planet favored Aleskynn. She was fully Eleutherian, the spitting image of her mother in name and appearance, and the whole empire's darling, with her curly blonde locks and bright Cipher eyes.
"So do I," Acidalia muttered, though she doubted anyone could hear her. Still, she marched onwards, trying to catch a glimpse of her brother, hidden someplace among the other immunes.
"This is stupid. I want to go home," Aleskynn whined. "The planet doesn't want you, anyway. This should be my coronation."
"There's no law stating that one must be the child of a specific man to inherit the throne," Acidalia said mildly. "The code says only that one must be the eldest daughter of the former Imperatrix and be at least twenty years of age."
"I don't care if it's a law, it's a president."
"Whatever. This is dumb." She looked around at her ensemble for reenforcement. A gaggle of teenage girls offered up their mostly irrelevant opinions—"yeah, Aleskynn, this is so dumb!" "This is totally ridiculous!" "You're so pretty, Aleskynn!"—while Acidalia's own court ladies remained suspiciously silent.
Of all the women around her, Acidalia could only recognize a few. There was Cassiopeia Generalis, last of her name, the famously unhinged and violent Nova supporter who would probably sell Acidalia's soul to Satan for one credit. Next to Cassiopeia was Proregina Artemis Minora, back from the the Lunar Colonies for a week to pretend she cared about all this excessive celebration. On her wrist was a bracelet that Andromeda had given to her for her fourteenth birthday a decade ago; Artemis was also a member of the Revolution, but Alestra didn't need to know that. It made Acidalia feel slightly better that at least one other person here wanted to keep her alive, though that one person would be returning to the Moon come morning. Artemis snuck her a glance and smiled, pointing to the bracelet. Acidalia smiled back.
Then there were heaps of other women who all looked the same, with white-blonde hair and artificially bright eyes. They copied the trends Alestra set, making Acidalia's dark hair and warm skin stand out in the crowd even more. Despite the variety in their ages, they all looked twenty-something, and they'd probably look like that forever, thanks to the wonders of genetic modifications and cosmetic surgery—not that Acidalia hadn't been put through the same processes herself, before her mother realized that no amount of silicone could change the fact that she was Martian, and had declared it the same as putting lipstick on a pig.
In between the ladies of the court and the servants of the rich, she spotted a few notable outliers: the daughter of a member of the Imperial Guard, wearing the uniform of the position she'd one day inherit; the CEO of one of those mega corporations that practically worked as its own little government; some particularly important "journalist" who'd recently been granted the Imperial Medal of Freedom for a piece she'd written glorifying one of Alestra's latest bloody, violent attacks on an organization she suspected of being a rebellion. They were unique, certainly more so than the dozens of identical ladies-in-waiting, but they all deserved to be here, clearly. But next to Aleskynn sat another girl, a girl with soft gray hair and a dress with the tag still on it, and Acidalia felt the hair on the back of her neck rise.
Sororicide is not out of the question, she reminded herself, wondering who here could be a spy. But Aleskynn spoke to the girl like she was a friend, and Acidalia doubted somehow that Aleskynn would think of a plot this obvious. Strategy was never her sister's strong suit, so Acidalia breathed in deeply and tried to relax. She muttered a word of greeting to the stranger, who looked as if she'd just been personally blessed by God himself.
The crowds all blended into one another, fading into one mass under an inky black sky. On a planet of billions, the 1% was more numerous than Acidalia ever could have imagined, even though she'd spent her whole life around them. There were aristocrats—dozens of them, from the last of the Generalises to the daughters of the prolific house Dictatorum—in rows, all in white and gilded platinum. Then there were celebrities, famous actresses and musicians of caste Incentor, tirelessly working to keep up their stage personas. There were war heroes and police heroes, men and women in uniforms that looked the same save for the color scheme; Eleutheria had long since stopped pretending the military and the police force were any different. And finally, there were literati: intellectuals, researchers, scientists and writers, nurses and doctors, the people who kept society together, who kept humanity striving towards the future and made money for themselves in the process.
And then, scattered between the affluents, the "haves," were the "have nots." Harried Suffragia whose votes didn't matter any more than their voices, dead-eyed Cantatores who were only free on paper, pretty young women with futures as dim as the evening sky. They were hard to ignore, specks of black clothes in an ocean of white.
One of them, a girl whose thick, wavy curls and elegant features couldn't take the attention away from the emptiness in her eyes, helped Acidalia into a carriage. Afterwards, she looked at her hand like she'd just been touched by a god. To her, a simple touch from royalty might be the best, most memorable achievement of her life. Acidalia felt like having such an impact on somebody else should have felt nice, but it was too strange to really think about. What separated the Imperatrix from a Cantator but circumstances, anyway?
She touched the data chip in her pocket. She couldn't feel its engravings beneath her silken gloves, but it was there.
In front of her, the horses moved slowly, painfully. Alestra had wanted pegasi, so pegasi there were; horrific genetic abominations, horse DNA and bird DNA forcibly stitched together by somebody who hadn't done a very good job of it. The animals were miserable, but they looked good on camera, despite the fact that they were never supposed to exist. Alestra could bend the laws of nature if she so desired; she was only slightly less powerful than a deity.
Well, two could play at that game. Ciphers were Ciphers, regardless of whether they were perfectly bred super soldiers' daughters or half-bred Martian bastard children.
But that didn't matter yet. Acidalia hoped it never would.
She tried to turn her attention back to the procession and the fireworks, but her mind kept wandering back to her brother, back to the data chip in her pocket, back to the Revolution. Back to things that could get her killed. Occasionally she'd see a flash of blue and make eye contact with Alestra, which was somewhat akin to looking at the sun; the image burned itself into her retinas, glowing every time she closed her eyes. There was no escaping from her watchful, icy gaze, not even for Acidalia, her newly crowned co-ruler but her least favorite daughter. Her irises were the palest blue, white-hot, as dangerous as a strange star, and her pupils were a black hole from which nothing could emerge. Acidalia knew, logically, that she was as human as any other, but that was difficult to believe, watching her stand in the moonlight, looking as ethereal as she was terrifying.
Nobody saw Alestra's dark side like Acidalia did. They thought of her as a strict ruler but a good leader. She crushed dissent with an iron fist and killed with ease anyone who dared oppose her; of course everyone thought she was brilliant, they had no choice not to. But even with the threats and propaganda aside, the people knew that as tyrannical as Alestra was, she at least brought stability to a volatile empire. There could be no civil wars when every revolution was squashed down the second it emerged.
Well, every revolution except one.