October 10, 2015
The Heart Is a Universe
On the remote planet of Pax Cara lies the greatest secret of the universe. Once every generation, the inhabitants must offer up an exceptional young person—the Chosen One—who sacrifices his or her own life for the sake of that secret, and the planet itself.
But Vitalis, the current Chosen One, is desperate to break free of the yoke of destiny. An unexpected invitation to an aristocratic courtship summit seems to be the perfect opportunity for her escape. As soon as she arrives, however, she receives a proposal of marriage from the most eligible prince in existence.
Eleian of Terra Illustrata can have any woman he wants. Why has he set his sight on Vitalis, who, unless she manages to flee, will die in sixteen standard days? Is it as simple as he declares, “To know you as I’ve always wanted to, but never had the chance?”
Or is he hiding an ulterior motive, one that could put her plans, her life, and her heart in jeopardy?
And can Vitalis truly say no to the man she has secretly loved all her life?
The Story about the Story
Back when life first left the ocean and crawled on land—circa 2008, that is—Sherry decided, for no apparent reason, to organize an anthology of romantic novellas.
Her proposed anthology was to have been called the One Beginning anthology, after its conceit, which was that all the authors in the anthology began with the same 3-paragraph opening.
Here’s part of the email she wrote to Meredith Duran, Bettie Sharpe, and her critique partner Janine Ballard:
Herewith the proposed beginning for our tales of love and woe and wonderment.
They met at the ball.
He was the beau of the ball, if there was such a thing: the undisputed Adonis, the one who shook hearts as easily and carelessly as a spring storm savaged the darling buds of May.
She was not a darling bud of May. She thought of herself as one of those trees that grew on sheer cliff faces, a stubborn, lonely thing, not beautiful but splendid, because her entire existence hung on the edge of a precipice.
Is it workable for everybody? Meeting at a ball is trite as heck but since we are writing across time and space and subgenres, I thought a more generic beginning would work better.
Let me know if you have any specific difficulties and I’ll revise accordingly—esp. if your heroine’s existence doesn’t hang on the edge of a precipice!
Sherry intended her story to be space opera, Meredith’s would deal with a woman suffering from memory loss, Bettie’s would be steam punk with zeppelins, and Janine’s a story-within-a-story, i.e., a contemporary romance in which the heroine is writing about this ball as a part of an epic fantasy.
Don’t you want to read that anthology? Sherry still does! Alas, Janine was the only person to actually finish her story, the rest of the authors got pulled away by life, work, and other pursuits.
Sherry would pull out the story from time to time and work on it some more. The story intrigued her greatly, but she didn’t really know where it was headed and so her progress was very slow indeed.
The impetus arrived with one email from Judith Utz at Open Ink Press. Judith wanted something that Sherry didn’t normally write for the Sight Unseen anthology. This practically never happens in publishing. Publishers—and readers, too—want an author to write more or less the same thing as what they’ve come to expect. Authors usually have to push to expand their own boundaries.
At the time, Sherry had written about 8,000 words in the novella. (It would end up being more than 30k-words long.) She was so delighted to have a deadline she didn’t hesitate at all in saying yes.
Happily, the story turned out to be exactly the one Sherry wanted to tell.
The story began long ago, before the birth of the universe.
Before the births and deaths of many older, greater universes.
This is not, however, a narrative of the births and deaths of universes—though it might be that too. In the main it is about a man and a woman, their lives and circumstances.
They met at a ball, an opulent affair held on a luxury liner. He was making his way to her and she was pretending that she hadn’t noticed, when his every move was eagerly followed by the entire gathering.
The beau of the ball, if there was such a thing, the one who shook hearts as easily as a spring storm laid waste to the tender blossoms of May.
She was not a tender blossom. She thought of herself as one of those twisted trees that grew on sheer cliff faces, a stubborn, lonely thing, not beautiful but splendid, because her entire existence hung on the edge of a precipice.
Or rather, she had thought so, when she had believed wholeheartedly in her destiny as the Chosen One.
Her existence on the edge had since become an exercise in desperation: each and every moment she felt as if she clung to a fraying rope, swamp beasts gathering in the ravine below, devouring one another while they waited for her to fall.
Her panic did not show. She had long ago learned to keep her face smooth and her stance relaxed—no tight jaw or white knuckles to betray the inner tension. And her choice of attire further contributed to the image of the young heroine of Pax Cara: she was the only woman at the ball not in a fantastic concoction of silk and film, but in her dress uniform, a crisp, slim, short black tunic over equally crisp, slim black trousers, the enameled thornrose of her office pinned prominently above her breast.
As she’d intended, the guests were agog at the sight of her. Yes, she played it well indeed, the role of the simple, serene martyr, giving up her life and all its brilliant promises to save her people from annihilation.
Once, she’d basked in such attention. Now she broiled in it. This had been the part of the Task she’d loved the most—that was, before she’d come to hate the Task itself. She still got shivers, even at this late stage, from the way some people looked at her, in sincere, head-shaking admiration.
And then there were others who watched her because she was the freak, a dead woman walking.
Sixteen days—before she marched to her doom.
“May I have this dance?”
She turned around slowly. There were exactly nineteen mobilecams bobbing in the air about her. Several represented media outlets from her home planet of Pax Cara, the rest bore logos of the interstellar communication conglomerates that were on hand to cover the glamorous goings-on at ConsortCon, the short-name for the once-every-three-standard-year courtship summit hosted by the thirty-seven princely houses of the Sector.
The event had once been exclusively aristocratic. Now the proceedings had become somewhat more democratic. Princes and princesses still predominated—they were guaranteed attendance by virtue of birth—but a smattering of plebeians had secured invitations by dint of their achievement.
Or fame, as in her case.
The mobilecams had been trained on her as she gazed up at the dance sphere, her expression the tranquil wistfulness she’d long ago perfected for such occasions. She knew what the voiceover would say, above heroic music played at a muted volume: What is going through the mind of this young woman, knowing that the fate of her people rests on her shoulders, that her life will end before it has fully begun, yet her name will live on forever?
The man who had asked for the next dance had just as many mobilecams hovering around him. Eleian of Terra Illustrata, the most beloved prince in living memory, and the one person she resolutely did not want to meet.
The heir of a non-ruling house, he’d come of age during a time of great instability for his thirty-system principality. A long civil war that had begun before he was born had produced a dictator who held power by brutal oppression. After the dictator’s death, chaos had threatened to reign once again.
With almost unbearable courage—for his life could have been forfeit at any point—the young prince had stepped in and stood up to those who sought power solely for their own gain. Against all odds, he had guided his people back to their nearly forgotten tradition of representative government.
“Your Highness,” she said with a searing admiration. And envy. And a resentment that almost choked her.
His had been true valor, whereas hers was but the appearance of it.
And he had survived.
“My lady.” He inclined his head.
She was a commoner. But here the media had taken to calling her a prince of her people, and styled her accordingly.
The mobilecams swarmed close, eager to capture her reaction. What would they see? She had not practiced for this, for dealing with the one man whose very existence reminded her of the fraud she was—and the traitor she planned to be.
“Will you honor me with this dance?” he repeated his request.
“The honor will be mine,” she said.
Mobilecams were not allowed inside the dance sphere. At least there would not be a record of the excruciating minutes she would spend in his company.
The dance sphere, fifty meters across, shimmered above them. From the outside it looked as if it were made of water, a giant, perfectly round drop, grey and pearlescent. Long pale shapes undulated inside, weightless dancers soaring and swooping.
She placed her hand on his arm. The mobilecams parted and they walked together toward the center of the ballroom, where couples from the previous dance were dropping out of the sphere in pairs, messily festooned—some fairly mummified—in ribbon streamers. Dancers and ribbon streamers both appeared shockingly vibrant, after the elegant but anemic shadows they had cast upon the surface of dance sphere.
A few dancers wobbled as they landed. One stumbled back a step. She observed the more successful exits. Future traitor or not, she was here as a representative of her people and she was not going to fall on her face.
A young male attendant with an awed gaze held out a tray of folded ribbon streamers toward her. She chose a brilliant red streamer and presented it to Eleian of Terra Illustrata. Light hues conveyed interest. Deep hues, respect—the deeper the shade, the greater the respect.
In return he presented her with a white ribbon. Instantly, the hum of conversation hushed. The mobilecams all but blocked out the light overhead as they jostled to get a better shot.
Like gravitational waves expanding outward from the collision of massive singularities, shock ripped through her. Of course she’d expected a light-colored streamer from him—a man did not ask a woman to dance to express his respect. And white, on its own, was but another light color of no greater significance.
Except he was wearing white. When a man—or a woman for that matter—presented a streamer the same color as his attire, it constituted a proposal of marriage.
She tamped down her dismay and did her best not to gape at the prince, who looked at her calmly, as if he hadn’t done anything completely demented.
The attendant cleared his throat, reminding her that she had yet to respond. She lifted her right arm a fraction of a centimeter and caught herself: the right arm was the only polite response to a show of interest, but in this it would signal her acceptance of his proposal. Instead she extended her left wrist for the attendant to tie the ribbon streamer, to indicate that she would give the proposal every consideration.
For this particular dance, the attendant informed them, another royal scion had yielded the place of honor: she and Eleian of Terra Illustrata would ascend into the dance sphere at the head of the line. They stepped onto a small platform and faced each other. The stranger who wished to marry her studied her openly, with a curiosity that felt benign, but was no less penetrating for its apparent kindness.
He was not, strictly speaking, the most gorgeous man she’d ever met. But he had extraordinarily appealing features, the kind that would make one turn to him first in a crowd of strangers, whether to seek help for a broken landglider or a broken nation.
A burden-carrier. The rare breed who said yes to impossible tasks and succeeded somehow; the mythical hero who in more primitive times would have inspired humble petitioners to journey for months—years—to lay their troubles at his blessed feet.
She’d once wanted to be that. Sometimes she still did.
Her half of the platform rose first. There was an odd ticklish feeling on her face as she moved into the dance sphere. She closed her eyes instinctively.
From the outside, the gravity-free interior of the sphere had looked watery, like an early morning sky that promised rain. But when she opened her eyes again, she was bathed in light that was the plush gold of sunset on an oxygen-rich world.
A dodecahedron frame built of translucent struts provided anchors inside the enclosed space. She pushed off the nearest strut and sailed upward.
Half way across the sphere she turned around and let out the still-folded ribbon streamer she held in her hand. It jetted in her wake, a long white contrail. She would look very stark, she thought, a woman in black and white, receding and unsmiling.
His loose-fitting tunic billowed about him, all tension and drama. The color of it, a dense, relentless white, metamorphosed into a hue that was warm and luminous in the golden saturation of the dance sphere.
He let fly the red streamer—and not simply set one end free, as she had done, but impelled it forward in a great spiral that framed him as he glided toward her.
She had several choices in how to proceed: she could lead him on a merry chase around the dance sphere; she could reverse direction on a nearby strut and meet him half way; or, since his velocity was greater, she could continue on her current trajectory and let him catch up.
She chose the last. A few seconds later, he was by her side. As he was about to sail past her, his right arm reached across her midsection. Forward momentum converted to angular velocity. They spun gently to the opening notes of a slow helix, revolving around each other, a wide red-and-white coil of ribbon streamers about them.
She put her hands on his shoulders and looked into his eyes. He had lovely eyes, intelligent and empathetic. But she did not miss the determination beneath all that courtly sweetness: he was a man who achieved what he wanted. Peace, democracy, and now, her?
But she failed to see what he could gain by marrying her. She had no pedigree, wealth, or connections—none that would matter to him, in any case. And though she was the most honored person on Pax Cara, compared to Terra Illustrata, Pax Cara was but an insignificant backwater settlement.
They changed directions every time they came up against the frame of the dance sphere, and changed holds every time they changed directions. Occasionally she glimpsed the ballroom floor above her, the milling crowd of guests like stalactites; but she trained in a gyroscope regularly, so neither her head nor her stomach rebelled.
“My name is Eleian,” he said, as if she didn’t already know.
“Vitalis,” she replied.
“It’s a beautiful name.”
There were other dancers inside the sphere now, dozens of them. Ribbons fluttered in their paths, bands of agate and tourmaline. They caressed her face, cool and swift as undersea creatures—or what she imagined undersea creatures must be like, since the oceans of Pax Cara were off-limits to the inhabitants of the planet.
“Why do you wish to marry me, Eleian of Terra Illustrata?” she said, without further preamble.
“Because you are brave and I admire courage,” said one of the most courageous men of her generation.
She didn’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed that he of all people did not see her for who she truly was. She almost wished he’d said he admired her looks instead; she was a pretty enough woman. As shallow a virtue as beauty was, it was honest to a degree, unlike her courage, or the lack thereof.
“Do you have some sort of fetish?” She was no stranger to emotional fetishes, either her own or those of her admirers. “I’m sorry to ask such a question, but we’re speaking of the rest of my life here.”
All sixteen days of it. She laughed, a short, dry cackle at her own morbidity.
He shook his head. “The death you face holds no appeal for me—sexual or otherwise. I’ve come too close to death too many times; I’ve had enough.”
She believed him. There were those who sought the excitement of living on the edge. But as far as she knew, after the tumultuous years of Terra Illustrata’s power transition, he’d led a hermit’s life, away from the glare of the limelight, and performed no further feats of conspicuous heroism.
“Then why?” Why would anyone want to marry a woman whose only value was in her imminent death?
“The Quiet Girl,” he said.
The Quiet Girl was a documentary film about her, shot ten years ago, when she’d been seventeen. It had been produced as a summer project by a pair of student filmmakers and submitted to a Sector-wide vis-media festival on a lark. To the surprise of everyone involved, the film had been selected for inclusion at the festival; to their further shock, it had won the grand prize.
The film’s subsequent dissemination had garnered Vitalis a degree of interstellar fame previously unheard of on Pax Cara. She’d turned down each and every one of the invitations to go off-world that poured in. Modesty, or at least the appearance of it, was an important part of her persona.
But she had enjoyed it, the fame, and the adulation that had come with it.
“What about The Quiet Girl?” She hoped he didn’t hear the tremor in her voice.
“I saw it when I was nineteen—and struggling with the course of my life. I had my own remote refuge. Our princely hold of Mundi Luminare was at peace. I did not need to involve myself in distant political turmoil. Moreover, I was afraid: I’d had little dealing with the darker side of life.
“I was inclined toward cowardice until I watched your story. Your determination and wisdom shamed me. And you faced certain death, whereas I faced only the possibility of bodily harm.”
Stop, she wanted to say. Stop. That girl no longer exists.
But she listened with a stark hunger.
“And whenever I thought my courage might fail me, I would watch it again. I can recite word for word what you said near the end of the film: ‘I’d have liked to live a thousand years. And yet I can’t say I regret being chosen for the Task. I live more incandescently because of it. And I’m not afraid to die when I have lived so.’”
She had put on The Quiet Girl within the past year, hoping to find a renewal of courage in her unquestioning bravery of old. But all she had felt, as she’d watched herself give that little speech, had been a numb despair.
He brought them into a closer spin. “It would be a privilege if you would accept my suit and allow me to share your days.”
Her days. All sixteen of them, unless she managed her escape.
The summit took place on a palace-class Intergalactica liner moored approximately half an astronomical unit from Terra Antiqua, the primary moon of which hosted the largest transit nexus this half of the Sector. And while getting into the summit was difficult, getting out was less complicated. The liner was equipped with hoppers, in case princely staff needed to run errands planet-side, as the liner itself could hardly be expected to house engagement mementos that would appeal to every taste.
One of those hoppers could drop her off on Terra Antiqua’s lesser moon, where she’d purchase a dozen new identities and a new face at the black market. After that, she could go far away, out of the Sector, out of this arm of the galaxy altogether, to places where people had never heard of Pax Cara—where she would never learn what happened to it because of her desertion.
Practical, executable plans. They did not include room for a husband, let alone one who expected to watch reverently as she marched to her doom.
“I’m deeply honored by your proposal, Your Highness,” she said. “Especially as I have admired you from afar for many years. But I’m not looking for a worshipper.”
“I do not recall saying that I planned to worship you, my lady,” he said. “But I am willing, when we are alone and unclothed.”
Something in her thudded: an unexpected careening of desire.
In her late teens, she’d been a hedonist who’d overdosed on all the pleasures of the senses with the abandon of, well, someone about to die. Her lovers had been many and varied—fucking incandescently, as it were.
Then a strange restlessness had taken over her, followed by an insidious belief that the Pax Cara Event was not her true purpose in life. That there was something else she must do, a task of such mind-boggling significance that her soul would be ripped apart if she did not set out on it.
Yet she had no idea what it was, this monumental mission.
Of course it had been only her mind playing games with her, but the mind made its own reality. She tried to reject the notion of this other purpose as a dangerous self-indulgence, as cowardice in camouflage. But like a parasite, it refused to go away.
Slowly she began to doubt everything about her destiny as the Chosen One: when all the pretty words had been stripped away, what was it except crude human sacrifice? Then doubt had metastasized into fear and anger.
In the early days of her crisis, she’d fucked more, not less. But the mellow, happy feelings produced by a solid orgasm had vanished. After a while she’d lost all ability to concentrate during lovemaking. If anything, her inner turmoil became starker and more suffocating when she went through the motions of coupling out of politeness—she could scarcely order her lover(s) to leave when she’d been the one who orchestrated the encounters in the first place, in the hope that sex would lighten her heart and lift her mind out of the dark bog that had begun to swallow it whole.
It had been years since she had last lain with anyone.
“I’ve never pictured you as a lover of women, Your Highness,” she said.
He was a saint. And saints didn’t copulate, did they?
“Nothing to it,” he said. “It isn’t all that difficult.”
She chuckled, another unexpected reaction. She hadn’t found anything funny in a very long time. “I’m afraid I’ll need a greater assurance of your proficiency, sir.”
“And how may I grant you this greater assurance, my lady?”
“A personal demonstration would be the most straightforward means, Your Highness,” she said, mimicking his mock-serious tone.
He smiled. She had never seen him smile, not in person, not in all the pictures of him available on the subnets. For a moment she was lost in the power of it, the sheer aura of nobility he radiated. Then his lashes lowered, his smile turned inward and secretive, and she wanted him with a force her increasingly apathetic body could barely stand.
No, she didn’t want him, only his saintliness. She wanted to ruin it, to ravish him until his equanimity, his dignity, and his courage all lay in tatters.
Or maybe just his virginity. He had no more slept with a woman than she had with a fish.
“You are aware, are you not, my lady, that there is a strict no-fraternization policy in place for the duration of the summit?” he said, still smiling.
“And you seem very glad of it, since it will excuse you from any personal demonstration.” She pushed away from him—and let him pull her back until she was encircled by his arms, their eyes locked. “Truly, I expected more candid answers from one so universally esteemed as you, sir. You’ve never made love to a woman, have you?”
“No,” he admitted, his gaze steady.
Steady and all-seeing, a part of her thought, for no reason she could name.
“What about men? Or the rock gazelles that must abound near your mountain fastness?”
“Why not?” she said. “I’ve seen pictures of rock gazelles and they are both beautiful and lissome.”
“I prefer solitude, much as I may pine after the noble gazelles.”
“You prefer solitude to such an extent that you have never undertaken the most fundamental human deed. Why give it up for me?”
“To know you as I’ve always wanted to, but never had the chance.”
She hadn’t heard words as perfect in a long time. And he spoke with the lyrical beauty of stars falling. Mere syllables acquired such depth and luster, as if they were long-buried gemstones at last faceted and set in gold.
“No,” she said. Now they were facing the same direction, their arms around each other. She hadn’t noticed it earlier, but he was a good bit thinner than she’d supposed. The slenderness of his waist, the angularity of his hipbone—he must be of a naturally very slim build. “But do know that I would have loved to make love to you.”
Their eyes met again. His pupils dilated. His breaths became irregular. So he was capable of feeling desire—desire for her, at least.
Her vanity was much gratified, but a new doubt skittered across the surface of her mind. Dilated pupils or not, his gaze remained clear and empathetic. Where did that empathy come from? And what was it for? If he truly believed her as brave and selfless as he’d proclaimed her to be, then shouldn’t he be regarding her in awe, rather than human understanding?
“Would you give me a chance if you could have your cake and eat it too?” he asked softly.
“Didn’t you just remind me of the no-fraternization policy?” Her tone was more arch than she intended.
“There is a way around it, a sanctioned connubial assay—a trial marriage from which you could walk away the morning after.”
She snorted. “If there is such a thing, why haven’t I heard of it before?”
“The last one granted was over two hundred standard years ago.”
“And you plan to accomplish the improbable and obtain one for us?”
“I already have. It needs only your accord to become effective.”
She laughed out of pure astonishment. Then realization hit her. “Did you arrange for me to come here?”
The invitation had been entirely unexpected. Who would want a marriage that lasted half a standard month? But she had not looked too deeply into the matter: her entire escape plan had crystalized the moment she’d scanned the invitation.
“I can’t say I arranged for it, but when asked, I did say you are the only one I would consider marrying.”
Had he been anyone else, she’d have deemed his action a close relative of stalking. But he was Saint Eleian of Terra Illustrata, whose true motive she still did not understand. “What’s in it for you?”
“The ultimate prize: a life lived incandescently.”
She scoffed. “You will have to do much better than that. You’ve lived your life more incandescently than anyone else I can think of.”
“Fine, then. I am the most admired man of my generation. There are only four women in this Sector who are worthy of my hand. One is old enough to be my grandmother. Two are married. So that leaves you.”
That made more sense, but still nowhere near enough. Before she could ask her next question, however, the slow helix came to an end.
“The two of us will lead the exit,” he reminded her, linking their hands together.
“Which style of exit should we perform?”
There were as many varieties of exits as there were dances. Some elegant, some athletic, some spectacularly suicidal.
“This is my first time in a dance sphere,” he said. “So, the simplest.”
They leveraged off each other and pushed apart. She found purchase on the dodecahedron frame and collected the long white ribbon that came in after her.
A bevy of princesses joined her—she felt like a raven in a flock of macaws. At the opposite pole of the dance sphere, the princes’ dress uniforms were no less resplendent. Eleian stood out in his celestial white, a seraph among gaudy mortals.
Then he launched himself from the frame and dove toward her. Around her the princesses sighed, a collective release of breaths. Vitalis had always been drawn toward men who exuded sexual charisma. He did not radiate any such, but the sight of him mesmerized her all the same.
She remembered the subcast she’d once seen of him, standing alone and unarmed before the steps of parliament. He’d evinced such valor and resolve that the mercenaries who had come to storm the place, with air and artillery support, had not dared to open fire. Because to harm him would have incited the wrath of an otherwise cowed populace, who loved his courage and goodness with the desperate hope of the perennially downtrodden.
How many mortal women had the chance to lie with an angel?
Briefly she was ashamed of the lewd direction of her thoughts—very briefly. Virgins, after all, were meant to be deflowered.
She leaped up and joined him midair. Together they calibrated their trajectory until they centered their exit at the aperture.
She landed lightly on her feet. He struggled with his balance. But she held firmly onto his arm and he wobbled only once.
The light outside the dance sphere felt dim and misty. The entire ballroom appeared muted, like a holovision tuned to only half the usual saturation of color. For a moment his complexion, otherwise a lovely bronze, seemed wan and grey, the kind produced by extreme ill health.
She did not have a chance to examine him more closely; they had to vacate the landing platform to make room for couples exiting after them. Attendants had formed an avenue beyond the carpeted ramp that led off the landing platform. They walked arm-in-arm down the avenue, as if on a royal promenade, until all the couples in the dance sphere had exited and lined up similarly.
The partners turned to face each other. Now his color looked more normal—her eyes must have adjusted to the light. They joined hands in the traditional end-of-dance salute.
“If tomorrow morning you do not wish to remain married to me, you leave. What do you have to lose?”
What did she have to lose? Time, for one. There was a nine-hour gap between the end of the ball and the beginning of the next day’s festivities. Her escape would be noticed that much sooner if she waited until morning.
“Will you give me an answer, Vitalis?”
She could not look away from the straightforward esteem in his eyes.
When she’d lost faith in her destiny, she’d also lost the ability to draw purpose and courage from the faith others placed in her. Their respect and admiration, filtered through the void where her convictions once lived, had become something she both feared and scorned, stinging her conscience like the tentacles of a poisonous jellyfish.
But for some reason, his gaze provoked a different reaction—almost as if she could pretend to be the old Vitalis again. Not that she’d ever stopped putting on an act for the benefit of others, but that this time, she might believe it.
She must not be distracted from her goal. He was an unnecessary complication. The situation was fraught enough without something as ridiculous as a trial marriage.
It was time to give her final refusal and walk away.
“Where is this license of yours?” she heard herself ask.
Copyright © 2015 by Sherry Thomas. All rights reserved.