"You know," Athena said, "I never would have pegged us as the type who'd be good at politics." She fidgeted with the sleeve of her white dress, which didn't look like something she would ever willingly wear. Acidalia had suggested it and Carina had forced Athena into it; she didn't seem particularly happy about the garment, and it was bound to end up in a crumpled ball of fabric on the floor by the end of the meeting.
"Well, we are astrophysicists," Carina said, trying to hide the fact that her voice was shaking. She was also dressed in a gown that seemed to expensive for someone of her stature, and she felt just as awkward in it as she probably looked. It was a gorgeous dress that most likely cost more than her rent, but that didn't make her feel any more comfortable in it—it was so clearly made for Acidalia that it felt like every seam and piece of fabric was in the wrong place. The skirt was too long, the waist was too small, and the chest and hips were too large. Carina felt like a knockoff Imperatrix, like an off-brand version of Acidalia that one might find in the bargain bin of a big box store. Her very un-Imperial short, straight hair didn't help matters—no matter how much she wrestled with it, it seemed to settle back into strict bob, and it was too light for Acidalia's black bobby pins to blend in. She was a stranger in a world she never thought she'd have a place in—all of this was Aleskynn's territory much more than it was Carina's.
Then again, Athena looked even worse, so maybe Carina was just overreacting. At least she hadn't managed to destroy the sleeves of her dress.
"Stop playing with that, you're ruining it," she said. "Look, now there are loose threads."
"Well, if they didn't want me to ruin it, they should have made it sturdier." Athena pulled on another thread, which created a rippling, cinched effect from the top of the sleeve to the bottom. "This thing is probably more expensive than the Hope Diamond, but it feels like it's made of paper."
"I mean, it's made for noblewomen, isn't it? They don't do a whole lot of heavy lifting, or any work at all." Carina couldn't even remember the last time she'd seen Aleskynn do much of anything, really. Mostly she just sat around and complained, neither of which were the types of activities that would strain clothing.
"Noblewomen or not, if I can't kick someone's ass in all my finery, that finery isn't worth the price," Athena retorted, frowning down at the glitter that fell from her bodice every time she moved.
Behind them, someone laughed in a way that was instantly recognizable as the stilted chortle of a rich lady—a rehearsed sound somewhere in-between the o~hohoho of an anime ojou and the polite chuckle a parent might do when their child presented them with a crayon drawing. Carina turned around to see Acidalia, leaning against a bulkhead and looking amused. "I quite agree," she said, smiling slightly. "If you can't fight in a dress, why wear the dress at all?"
"Then why are you wearing that?" Athena asked, and, for once, Carina had to agree that she was right. Acidalia's outfit was the epitome of impracticality—it was a cross between a Greco-Roman toga and a very large ballgown, which had been dipped in enough glitter that it could probably blind anyone who looked at it too hard. She was absolutely dripping with jewelry and regalia, which looked like it would hinder more than help her, and she was about five inches taller than she'd been before, meaning she must have been wearing even higher, fancier heels. From the way her skirts swept against the floorboards, Carina could tell she was wearing a crinoline, and several more skirts on top of that. Plus, her waist was cinched so tight that there was no explanation for it other than a very tight corset, which didn't seem comfortable at all.
"Ballgowns are actually easier to fight in than you might expect," Acidalia said. "There's plenty of room for footwork under the skirt, and crinolines are very flexible, or it'd look like you're walking around with a cage under your dress. And at a certain point, the bigger the skirt, the better—it protects your legs from scratches and hits, and sometimes even laser fire. I have multiple armored skirts."
"But wouldn't you trip on the hem?"
"Not if you're graceful about it. It's usually fine, as long as you don't try to run backwards."
Athena looked curious. "Hmmm. I'm going to have to test that."
"Don't. You'll get a concussion," Carina warned.
"So? I've had two concussions and my brain is fi-iiineee." She slurred the last word for comedic effect, but nobody laughed (though Acidalia did look mildly amused.) "But what about the rest of it? High heels, corsets? Do you just break the heels off?"
"You can't make flats by breaking the heels off of stilettos," Acidalia said, "but you can always kick them off. And the corsets are usually fine, too. If they're laced up so you can breathe—which mine always are; Terra's atmosphere makes it difficult enough for humans to breathe when their lungs aren't being compressed, and I don't need to suffocate in the middle of a speech—they aren't that restrictive. I suppose it would be a problem if someone got you down onto the ground, because they do make it harder—though not impossible—to get up from that position. The worst part about dresses is usually the sleeves."
"Then I guess it's good that I completely destroyed mine," Athena said, completely unashamed. Carina cringed.
Acidalia shook her head. "Not that type of sleeve. It's the off-shoulder sleeves that are aggravating, because they make it impossible to raise your your arms fully, and if you rip them off, the bodice will slide down your front."
"At least flashing the enemy might distract them," Athena remarked, and Acidalia laughed the same way a little girl would laugh after hearing something scandalous at a slumber party. How weird was that? Carina thought. This woman had admitted to smashing someone's skull in—smashing multiple people's skulls in—and the thought of anything remotely sexual was somehow stranger than that to her. Most people Carina knew had had sexual interactions with other people, but she didn't know too many perpetrators of homicide.
But was Acidalia really a perpetrator of homicide? That made her sound like a criminal, and she was most definitely not a criminal—at least, not in the traditional sense. Most of her killings could probably be written off as justifiable self-defense; she didn't seem like the type to take some sort of sadistic pleasure in stabbing people to death. Then again, you never really knew anyone, did you? Acidalia didn't seem like the type of person who would willingly hang out with Andromeda, either.
Carina didn't know how she felt about Andromeda. She seemed smart enough, and certainly powerful—her presence was just as imposing as Acidalia's, if not more so. But there was a roughness, an edge to her, that gave Carina pause. The way she'd spoken about T's death was so unnecessarily rude and dehumanizing, and the brash way she'd acted about dropping nuclear bombs on people who hadn't even committed a crime was incredibly concerning. Even though they had only met once and never spoken, Carina got the feeling that Andromeda was the sort of person who thrived on violence—she didn't exactly seem like a peace-seeker. But maybe peace-seeking wasn't what warriors were supposed to do, anyway.
The journey to the landing site was only a few hours—it would have been much shorter if they weren't actively trying to avoid detection—but thirty minutes in, Carina already felt like she was suffocating. The Revelation was just as huge as it had been on the way to Mars, but with this many angry, scared people packed inside, it felt so much smaller. Only Acidalia seemed calm, but even then it was difficult to tell if she was really as unaffected as she seemed; she was always so stoic that her emotions were completely unreadable.
As they flew over the starscrapers of Appalachia City, barely far away enough to avoid being seen from the ground, a wave of nausea hit Carina like a hovertrain. She swallowed hard, pushing it down into her chest where it seemed to curl up into a tight little ball of festering worry. For some strange reason, she almost wanted to tell Acidalia about it—Acidalia would know what to do. Acidalia knew everything. But Acidalia was busy studying some very official-looking books in the corner, the kind with gilded edges and embossed covers and paper made from real trees, and even if she wasn't in a position where interrupting her felt unwise, she was still the Imperatrix Ceasarina. She was not the type of person Carina, or anyone, could really befriend.
Meanwhile, as Acidalia calmly flipped pages and wrote notes in the margins of elaborate books, the others argued and paced and stewed in a sea of barely-concealed, furious anxiety. Across the ship, David Seren and his daughter were engrossed in a screaming match, both insulting each other in Martian Anglicus Carina couldn't even understand conversationally, while Athena looked on, entertained. Andromeda paced, dragging her one metal leg on the white floor with the strength of an ox, leaving scratches in the marble and looking angry—angry at the circumstances? Angry at herself? The expression on her face didn't make Carina particularly eager to find out. Then there was Ace—poor Ace, who had lost a brother just as much as the Imperatrix had—who had disappeared with Lyra into a closet and slammed the door shut, barricading anyone from entering. Athena had cracked a joke about the implications, but Carina knew what they were doing in there—crying, mostly. Crying harder than Acidalia ever had or would, or slowly driving themselves mad with regret for what they'd lost.
Look at us, Carina thought. We sure make one hell of a team. A dethroned empress with the world's worst mother, a Praetor with anger issues, two clueless Martians, two inexperienced Scientias, a Cantator who had stumbled into importance by accident, and a traumatized, depressed super-soldier whose only friend in the world had just died. They could barely even exist on the same starship together; how were they supposed to serve as a delegation? She understood why she and Athena were here—politicians or not, they were astrophysicists, and they had an innate knowledge of both the stars and the organisms that made their homes among them. The presence of the Martians and the Praetor could be justified, too, because they specialized in this type of thing—it wasn't out of the question for appointed bureaucrats and wartime leaders to meet with foreign ambassadors. But there was no reason to drag Lyra and Ace into this, especially not when they were so clearly upset. Did they even want to be here? Carina wondered. Some people chased danger like their lives depended on it, but most weren't willing to throw themselves headfirst into war for the sake of an adrenaline high. And now that T was dead, they couldn't have been thinking rationally—they hadn't been given any time to even process what had happened.
Nobody's in a good mental state right now, Carina realized. She was terrified, and Athena probably was, too; she was just better at hiding it. The Serens had just effectively lost their home and all their "social points," whatever those were. Acidalia and Ace and Lyra were all mourning, even if they didn't show it. Andromeda was likely the most emotionally stable person on the whole Revelation, and she was a complete war hawk. How would they ever talk to the Mira? Acidalia would say something eloquent and political, then Andromeda would follow that up with something crass, and maybe the others would pop into the conversation to offer snippets of expertise, but half of them would be crying the whole time, and Cressida would still be on her phone, and David would stare awkwardly like a politician who didn't know how to be a politician. And then the Mira would look at them and think really? This is who they sent? and that would be that and they'd be dead, and the war would be lost before it had even begun, and—
"You alright?" Athena asked, appearing behind Carina and making her jump about six feet.
"No," she said truthfully, "I'm not. I'm scared to death, Athena."
"About the nightmare aliens from outer space that have been at war with us for hundreds of years?! How are you not worried about this?" Her hands were shaky, her palms clammy, her voice higher than it normally was. She felt like she was breathing in helium, replacing all of the air in her lungs with squeaky-voiced nerves.
"We're not dead yet," Athena shrugged. "Besides, do you really think their ships are that scary looking?"
"Well, I wouldn't know; I've never seen one before." When they were younger, before they were able to do calculus and telemetry, she and Athena had been responsible for tracking Miran starships, but that job mostly involved pressing the tab key on a computer when the numbers on the spreadsheet changed a little too much. It was the most primitive form of tracking—they were just looking at stars and the things that obscured them, and if their light dipped too low when it wasn't supposed to, the Scientias would mark it for review. It was boring work that never paid off; nearly every foreign body was a planet or a satellite or something else of that nature, and all the other changes in the light were sent off to more experienced people before Athena or Carina got to understand what it was.
"Well," Athena said, "don't look now, but I think there's one behind us."
"Look." Athena gripped her shoulders and spun her around, sending a cascade of sequins and glitter careening towards the floor and leaving a puddle of pure sparkle. How did Acidalia live like this? Carina thought briefly, before turning to the window. She couldn't see anything other than a blinding white glow and the rays of light that reflected off the Appalachia City starscrapers.
"What am I supposed to be looking at?"
"Watch." Athena fixed her steel-gray eyes on some invisible object before them, and Carina tried to do the same.
"I don't see—" she began, but then she did see, and something in her voice died. She stared up at the ship, a luminescent wall of blue that seemed more like a hovering water droplet than a spacecraft, and tried her hardest to conceptualize the fact that it was real. Fading in and out of her vision like a ghost, the ship didn't appear very corporeal, but that was just the cloaking—underneath all that, it was as grounded in reality as the Revelation itself, despite its strangeness.
"It's not what I expected," Athena admitted, looking at the flickering wall of watery cerulean. "But I guess they're aliens, so…?"
"Yeah," Carina said. "Aliens." But, shockingly enough, she wasn't as afraid as she thought she'd be; the ship looked more like a children's toy than a military craft, and she couldn't see any weapons anywhere. They were probably hidden—the Mira were anything but harmless, if they were strong enough to battle Eleutherians for hundreds of years—but they weren't visible, and that was enough to reassure Carina that she probably wouldn't be killed just for standing here. If they really meant business, they would have shown up in something more clearly dangerous… right?
Acidalia looked up from the watercolored pages of one of her ancient books. "I suppose it's time, then," she said, with a deliberately final-sounding sort of calmness. In a massive movement of skirts and fabric, she stood, somehow elegantly staggering under the weight of her own swirling petticoats.
"Already?" Carina just barely squeaked out. "I guess it makes sense, but—"
"Scared?" Athena laughed. "Relax. They're just, like, mermaids on crack or something."
"Well, those 'mermaids on crack' managed to match us in war for centuries, so, yes, I'm a little nervous," Carina snapped, flushing. Mermaids on crack was a hell of a way to describe a dangerous enemy, even if they were sparkly and blue.
Acidalia looked at her sympathetically. "You don't have to do this if you don't want to," she said, clearly trying her hardest to be gentle and nice.
Carina bit her lip. She didn't want to do this—this place was not her territory. She had no business being here to begin with, and she knew she'd never be able to add anything valuable to the conversation—at least, nothing as valuable as Acidalia would add. But she was also a relatively normal-looking girl who could maybe pass as a rich girl to an uninformed observer, and it'd be simple to masquerade as a noblewoman or a lady-in-waiting as long as she kept her mouth shut and didn't say anything stupid. The alien ambassadors would doubtlessly be suspicious if Acidalia arrived without an entourage, and that would be bad—the Revolution couldn't afford to make their leader seem illegitimate in the eyes of the enemy, even if she was a technically illegitimate royal. With a Martian companion, two soldiers, and a battery of ladies-in-in-waiting, Acidalia looked like an empress. Without all of that, she'd look like a fleeing princess ousted from her empire. And sure, Athena and Cressida and Lyra could probably make Acidalia look more legit, but would they really? Athena couldn't even give a research presentation without cursing, and there was no way Cressida could get through a boring political meeting without checking something on her metadit.
"I'm coming," Carina decided, trying not to look too afraid. If she was one of the first Eleutherians to peacefully speak to the Mira, she'd make history. And if she died… well, she hoped it was quick.