Gemma exchanged her vows with Venero in the palace of Incendium. When they had pledged to each other before the royal family, Kraw brought the great chalice filled with the purple brew for HeartKeepers and Venero drank half, then Gemma drained the cup. Her heart was filled to bursting with joy and the knowledge that Venero’s child had already been conceived. They made the long-overdue alliance between the planets of Incendium and Regalia with their vows, and she couldn’t wait to see the future they would build.
It wasn’t an elaborate wedding with a long list of dignitaries in attendance. Gemma wasn’t wearing a magnificent dress, just one of her favorites, and there weren’t a dozen attendants in the procession. Her sisters were present, except for Drakina who had gone to Terra with Troy after Gemma’s wedding to Urbanus, and Anguissa who was seldom home. Her parents were present, of course, as well as the royal retinue. Kraw beamed at her, as if he were her second father.
Venero’s crown had to be secured in Regalia, but they had conceded one day to this celebration. Gemma’s father, King Ouros of Incendium, had agreed to provide the troops she requested for the mission to Regalia and insisted upon leaving a sizable portion of them in service there until one year after Venero controlled the throne. Gemma was pleased that her old friend, Farquon, would command the assigned troops and report directly to Gemma and Venero.
Ouros’ concession had been hard won. He had protested Gemma’s departure for Regalia, fearing for her welfare. She hadn’t told him that she’d conceived Venero’s child already, but her father could probably smell the change in her scent. It had been her mother, Queen Ignita, who had argued for Gemma’s choice, reminding her husband that a bride must make her future by her husband’s side.
Gemma and Venero would depart for Regalia with an army the following morning.
Gemma turned from the chalice to accept congratulations, Venero’s hand in hers, and found that a small table was being placed before them. Thalina placed a dark blue box upon the table with such care that Gemma guessed its contents.
“You made another one?” she asked, and Thalina nodded, her pride clear. “And you’re giving it to us?”
Thalina nodded, her eyes dancing. “I hope you like it.”
“I don’t understand,” Venero murmured but Gemma smiled at him.
“Thalina has learned to make automatons.”
His eyes widened in surprise. “Really? That’s impressive.”
“And you haven’t even seen this one yet,” Flammara said.
“Touch the button,” Thalina instructed, and Gemma did, pushing the large gold circle on the side closest to her. It looked like a seal, embossed with the insignia of Incendium, but actually was a button. It clicked when she pressed it and she stood back, waiting and watching.
Music began to tinkle. The box spun, then parted at the seams and fell open, revealing its deep orange interior. Nestled inside was a large egg with an iridescent surface, much like the natal egg of a dragon shifter but smaller. This egg was about half the size that Gravitas’ egg had been. The patterns on its surface appeared to move, but Gemma looked closer. The surface of the egg had at least three layers, each a different color, the top two punctured in different patterns. The lower two spun in opposite directions, giving the illusion of the changing surface of a natal egg.
Her family caught their breath as one and gathered near to watch. Thalina was clearly brimming with anticipation.
“Wait for it,” Flammara said, who must have seen the automaton before.
“Do I have to do anything else?” Gemma asked.
Thalina shook her head. “Let it do what it does.”
“And prepare to be amazed,” Flammara said.
A crack revealed itself in the surface of the egg, looking as if it started at the summit and spreading downward. Gemma knew the break had to have been designed into the egg’s surface, but the illusion was remarkable. Parts of the egg’s surface slid down inside the rest of the shell, dropping with irregular timing in an almost perfect echo of Gravitas’ hatching.
“I wish Drakina could see this,” Gemma whispered, entranced.
“She will, the next time she comes home,” Thalina said. “It won’t change.”
“Part of the beauty of an automaton,” Venero said quietly. “It’s constant and predictable.”
A large piece of shell dropped inside and there was a croak, like the cry of a young dragon. As the rest of the shell dropped to make a kind of nest, wings rose from the interior. They were pale green and leathery, shaped exactly like those of infant dragons. Gemma smiled at the attention to detail—the nail at the tip of the wing was pale and looked soft, as it would on a newborn.
The wings moved slowly at first, then spread outward, as if with dawning confidence. The dragon sheltered inside the wings was revealed, its back studded with gems that caught the light and a line of iridescent feathers down its back. It was green and black and blue, marvelous in its detail. The head of the mechanical dragon lifted and it tipped its head back to make a second, louder cry. Gemma smiled at the red lining of its mouth and the tiny pearls placed like baby teeth.
Its wings beat harder and it rose out of the egg, appearing to stretch for the sky. Its tail coiled beneath its haunches, probably hiding a metal support. The music turned triumphant as a spiral of flame erupted from the dragon’s mouth. Gemma realized the flame was a spinning tube of orange glass, artfully shaped. The dragon gave its last final victorious cry before lowering itself into the shell again and sheltering itself beneath its wings. The shell reassembled itself and the box folded up and spun once. The music fell silent when the gift looked as it had upon presentation.
“Well done!” King Ouros cried, leading the applause. He crossed the floor to give Thalina a kiss on the cheek. “You have learned much from Thantos the clockmaker.” He shook hands with the beaming older gentleman from the village. Gemma had wondered why he was there. “Thank you, Thantos, for indulging the fascination of my daughter.”
“The princess long ago exceeded my skills, your highness. She is a most apt student and might be a master clockmaker herself.”
“If she desired a trade, that could be hers,” Ouros agreed mildly, and Gemma knew he was thinking that Thalina’s future role would be greater than that of a tradesperson.
“I can have a skill without undertaking a trade,” Thalina said, a new defiance in her tone. She’d always been the quiet one, but it seemed that triumph had given her new confidence. “And sooner or later, Father, Incendium must embrace reality.”
Gemma winced, because she knew her father disliked being challenged before others.
“Scintillon’s Law is irrevocable,” Ouros said, his tone a little more stern. “And you know it, Thalina.”
“It is also twelve hundred years old,” Thalina countered. “I would hate for Incendium to become backward and primitive because of a refusal to update our policies.”
Their father inhaled and his eyes glittered. “That will never happen, even without androids. Incendium remains in the upper echelons of successful empires.”
“For how long?” Thalina challenged.
Father and daughter glared at each other and Gemma cleared her throat.
“Scintillon’s Law,” she said lightly, turning to Venero. “I assume you know of it?”
“The edict of the first King of Incendium that outlaws androids on any of the planets in the Fiero-Four system, including Incendium and Regalia.” Her new husband nodded. “It’s well-documented and included on the curriculum of legal courses about androids and cyborgs in the law schools of Advocia.”
“So, we’re already known to be backward and superstitious by the rest of the galaxy,” Thalina said.
“You don’t know that superstition was behind Scintillon’s choice,” Ignita said softly, obviously trying to make peace.
“It can’t have been based on experience,” Thalina argued. “Not twelve hundred years ago. Making laws based on assumptions and prejudices is backward.”
Ouros was remarkably silent about this. In fact, he fired a quelling glance at his wife, one that intrigued Gemma.
“Perhaps not in this case, Thalina,” Venero acknowledged. Gemma smiled, knowing he was going to sound like a lawyer. “In terms of statutes, Scintillon’s Law has the beauty of simplicity. In outlawing androids, Scintillon ended all discussion of their rights and legal status in Incendium society before such conversation could even begin. They have no status except as illegal entrants, which makes them subject to export or decommission immediately upon identification of their nature.” He nodded. “There are societies who find that simplicity enviable and even a mark of foresight.”
“Because…?” Ouros invited.
“Because androids have been developed in those twelve hundred years which emulate sentience, and perhaps even possess it,” Venero said. “That complicates the distinction between androids and biological organisms in those societies, particularly if the two aren’t readily distinguishable.”
“They’d have to be caught first,” Thalina said.
“Exactly,” Venero agreed.
“You mean androids like Arista,” Gemma said and her husband nodded.
“Exactly. And where is the line between cyborgs and androids, as well as cyborgs and humans?” Venero mused, sounding even more like a lawyer. “Is the distinction in the original impulse? In the source of the mind governing the organism? In which system is ascendant? Is it in the percentage of the corpus that is biological versus mechanical? How are such questions to be reliably answered in a timely fashion? The questions are complicated, with ramifications that provoke more than a little envy for Incendium’s law code.”
Thalina rolled her eyes.
King Ouros beamed at this endorsement of his legacy. “And so there should be. We have built an advanced society without such creatures in our midst, are one of the greatest trading empires of the galaxy and one with a standard of living for our citizens in the top percentile. There is much reason for pride in this.”
The family began to murmur to each other, and Gemma gave Thalina a kiss. “Thank you so much. It’s just wonderful and will have pride of place in our home.”
Thalina smiled. “I knew you’d like it.”
“You must have been working on it for years,” Gemma said.”
“I was, but it’s a perfect wedding gift, I think.”
“It’s incredible. You are skilled,” Venero said and Gemma watched her sister blush.
“But I want to do more…” Thalina began.
“Don’t put yourself on the wrong side of Scintillon’s Law,” Gemma advised, seeing exactly where her sister’s thoughts were headed.
“There’s no legal cause or precedent for appeal,” Venero reminded her.
Thalina’s lips set. “I can’t believe you didn’t know about Arista,” she said to Gemma. “Couldn’t you smell that she wasn’t human?”
“No. I never guessed,” Gemma admitted. “Only Venero knew.”
“How?” Thalina asked.
“Because she didn’t dream,” Venero supplied. “If I hadn’t tried to send her a dream, and had the ability to do so in the first place, I wouldn’t have known, either.”
“And neither of us guessed about Felice,” Gemma said.
“Neither did I,” Thalina sighed, her gaze fixed on the automaton. “It’s amazing that they were so advanced. I wish I’d taken a closer look at your pet when I had the chance.” Gemma saw the yearning in her sister’s eyes. “I’d love to see an android again,” she said softly. “I wouldn’t miss a second chance.”
“You’d just want to take it apart,” Gemma teased.
“I’d want to know whether I could tell its nature,” Thalina said, then smiled. “And then I’d want to take it apart.” She turned to Ouros and raised her voice. “Will you send me to Cumae, Father? I could train as a Warrior Maiden, the way Gemma did.”
“No,” Ouros said flatly. “Such a course would be dangerous.”
“It wasn’t for Gemma!”
“You and Gemma have very different natures,” their father said. “Gemma was always skilled at fighting and alert to her circumstance at all times. I knew that she would defend herself well on Cumae, regardless of what happened. You, however, can lose yourself in an intellectual puzzle, showing such focus that everything else in your vicinity becomes irrelevant to you. The same keen attention to detail that allowed you to create this marvel could be perilous to your survival.” His brows rose. “And that means, my dear Thalina, that you will remain where I can ensure your protection, until the Carrier of your Seed is revealed. I hope that he proves himself worthy of becoming your HeartKeeper, but if not, you will remain beneath my care.”
Thalina frowned, but had no chance to argue.
Their father managed the situation as he often did. He turned and raised his hands to the others, changing the subject in his royal way. “Let us applaud the cleverness of Thalina in creating this automaton and her generosity in giving it to Gemma and Venero as a wedding gift.” The family clapped heartily. “Let us thank Thantos for his tutelage and his indulgence of a royal curiosity.” The applause grew louder. Ouros turned to gesture at the automaton. “And let us watch this dragon hatch once again, before we descend to the great hall to dine and celebrate the marriage of Gemma and Venero!”
The family hooted and cheered, gathering closer as Gemma pushed the gold button one more time. Her thoughts were spinning, because she understood Thalina’s frustration. Maybe she could convince Venero to take a trip outside their system and take Thalina along. Their father might allow Thalina to travel under her sister’s protection, and Thalina could satisfy some of her curiosity.
It wasn’t the right moment to make such a suggestion, but Gemma would watch and wait for it. She wanted all of her sisters to be as happy as she was, and once she was securely established as Queen of Regalia, she might be able to help to make that happen.
“First things first,” Venero whispered, so obviously guessing her thoughts that Gemma smiled at him.
“Don’t cheat,” she advised.
He held his fingertips to his heart. “And provoke a dragon queen? I’m not that foolish.” He caught her close and whispered in her ear. “But I don’t need to peek into your thoughts. I know you because I love you. Let’s secure our future, then see what we can do.” He lifted one brow. “I just might have to go to Advocia for advice.”
“I do love you,” Gemma said with heat. The newly married pair kissed just as the automaton finished its sequence, much to the delight of the family surrounding them.