TO THE STARS
REIGN OF DIAMONDS
Even a princess going to her death must appear worthy of her title.
And so, as the ship streamed against the cold velvet of space, my mother laced me into a new gown. It was the blue of a frozen sea, and something about how soft its many layers felt against my fingertips made me want to beg Mamá not to make me do this.
“Remember the fate you carry today,” she said, tightening the bodice. “The livelihood of nuestro planeta and everyone on it depends on your victory.”
“So does my life,” I said, failing to keep the bitterness from my voice.
She cut a glance at me. She always hated when I was sarcastic.
“This is how disputes have been settled for centuries. Accept it with grace.” She adjusted the blue stones of my necklace. “This is greater than you, or me, or your father.” She looked into my eyes, the same chilled brown as mine. “Whoever controls La Ruta controls everything. We cannot cede it to the Masielas.”
I could have recited her impending speech by memory. The route between our planets provided a vital shortcut away from one of the most dangerous asteroid fields in the galaxy, one that had broken into pieces more ships than it had let through. Many an astronave would—and did—pay dearly for an easement to use La Ruta, sparing them the danger of that asteroid field or the costly amount of fuel needed to go around it.
I glanced out the window of the astronave, looking to the ice crystals on the glass for some comfort. We were so close to landing, and the red-tinted surface of the moon below looked so forbidding and cold. Not cold like our home, not with endless life in the oceans beneath the ice crust. But like a place so dust-dry that nothing survives.
This was precisely the reason that the ambassadors, the ones from our planet and the ones from the Masiela family, had agreed on it. Only a place given neither to ice nor fire would be a fair battleground.
My mother gave the laces one last pull, so vehemently that the blue layers of my skirt, some as deep as the sky, some as pale as the crust of saltwater ice on our home, ruffled.
I thought of my rival, my enemy, how soon Ignacia de Masiela would sweep out of her own family’s ship to face me. The brown of her eyes would be as hot as the brown of mine was cold. Imagining her left my ribs and lungs tighter than the worst Mamá could do with the corset.
The ship rumbled to a landing. Just before los embajadores came for me, Mamá neatened the dark curls around my shoulders.
“Shouldn’t I wear it up?” I asked. “The better to fight?”
My mother gave me the kind of fond smile I only got when I showed perfect posture or the most delicate curtsey.
“When you win”—she drew a few curls to the front of my shoulder—“I want you looking every inch a future queen.”
* * *
Papá warned me what the moon would be like. I was, of course, ready for the cold. It’s so cold at home that frost collects on my parents’ thrones. But if he hadn’t told me, I wouldn’t have been prepared for the air—so thin I had to draw each breath hard. Riosar was a moon so dry that the only plants that survived could condense water out of the air, their sword-sharp leaves a little like the agave I’d only seen rendered in books. My throat felt tight, and my skin parched almost instantly.
The ambassadors escorted Ignacia and me to the agreed-upon place, a rocky plain between the two landing sites. She emerged from the dull landscape, a sweep of dark hair and a fire-bright skirt. Her hands looked both delicate and strong, like the sea stars that survive in our freezing oceans. She wore a simple fire opal, raw and hanging just beneath her collarbone.
The ring of jewels around my neck felt suddenly gaudy and showy like I had something to prove, and she knew it.
I tried to keep my face impassive, the demeanor of a princess. But the embajadores must have seen my fear. One gave me a look of barely-veiled pity—the other, an encouraging nod.
“Buena suerte, princesa,” the ambassadors said as they left me.
Ignacia de Masiela and I watched our respective families’ astronaves starting up again, rumbling the ground beneath our feet. They propelled away from the surface, and we watched.
The ship carrying away my mother, painted in blues that matched my dress, trailed a stream of ice like a comet’s tail.
Ignacia’s eyes followed her own family’s ship, gleaming red and orange against the dark sky, powered along by a column of fire.
There was something a little heartbreaking at that moment, the two of us staring like that. Like we were not princesses but children who watched our parents leave us—like Ignacia was now my playmate on this barren planet.
It made me newly sad that I would have to kill her.
Neither of us moved. The ruffled edges of Ignacia’s underskirt were as light as fire so that even the thin air stirred them.
We regarded each other. She lifted her chin, not as though looking down at me, but as though appraising me. She had an odd look, as though sizing up an opponent when the truth was she knew me already. We had been around each other enough since we were children—from our families attending the same balls in all corners of the galaxy to the many failed attempts at treaties—that the sight of me was nothing unfamiliar. She knew my weak places already. She knew my strongest sinews and softest points. She knew where I was sharp and where my body yielded.
But she did not know what brutal will I brought to this fight. That was the one surprise I could still have for Ignacia de Masiela.
As the debris from the launches cleared, we saw it for the first time, the prize one of us would claim. La astronave that would go to the victor. The ship stood against the rocky landscape, gleaming pale gold, its fins adorned with what looked like pressure-made diamantes.
Only the victor would board it. The other would be left dead in the red-tinted dust, her body preserved in the cold, dry air for millennia.
The ambassadors had decided that our battle would not begin until we saw the signal overhead. They would be watching to ensure we obeyed, along with every spectator who’d come from all corners of our star system.
As we waited, I did a deep curtsey, the gesture I was told would befit either a gracious winner or a brave loser. Ignacia must have been told the same. She gathered her dress and gave her curtsey.
I shivered at the sight of her hands clutching the fabric. Those palms had been on my waist, tight against the bodice of my dress. Those fingers had brushed pieces of hair away from my face. I had rubbed those hands between mine to warm them; even in heavy layers, she was always shivering when her family visited our planet, and always too stoic to admit she was cold.
I shrugged away each memory as fast as it came to me. The feeling of pulling her body against mine to warm her. My family visiting her luminous planet, and her taking me to her room, helping me out of my dress when I overheated.
No one watching knew any of that. They didn’t know about her drawing me around corners to kiss me, me tying strings of delicate blue stones around her ankles because that was the only jewelry of mine she could wear without anyone seeing.
Those watching were busy considering their wagers. It was little wonder that most spectators hovering in the sky had put their faith—and, for the betting men, their money—on Ignacia. Ignacia, after all, came from a planet of fire, and I from one covered in a shell of frozen seawater. And she, far better than I, fit their image of a queen. She stood tall, branch-thin, where I was short and curved. I was a deeper brown while she was pale, with a nose as long and elegant as an icicle. Her hair flowed down straight as falling water, while mine moved in currents like oceans beneath the ice.
I may have been half a head shorter than Ignacia de Masiela. My chest may have been pounding from the thin air, but I kept my princesa’s posture—straight as the espada plants. I stood upright even in the face of the dress they’d put Ignacia in, reds and ambers and golds that reminded me she could vaporize me.
If I didn’t align my will with the ice in my blood, she could burn me up by pulling fire down from the sky.
What no one watching expected, what I didn’t expect, when the burst of flare light in the sky signaled the start of our battle, was for Ignacia to run.
The moment the signal painted the air, Ignacia de Masiela fled from me. Light layers of her dress trailed behind her, so much like a flame, I wondered if she had a train of fire.
Then she vanished into the crags of the landscape.
To pursue her as ruthlessly as I knew I would have to: there was one last memory I had to shrug away, the one that would weaken me if I did not cast it onto the fine dust of this moon.
The last time I’d seen Ignacia, she told me she would never touch me again.
I let this last memory fall from my fingers and felt my heart become a fist of ice as hard and cold and perfect as my home.
* * *
I followed Ignacia de Masiela deeper into the rock hills. And I did it while giving everyone their show.
I tracked the steps of Ignacia’s finely sewn boots in the soft dust, and I drew down frozen rain from the uppermost layers of the atmosphere. I followed the places her wide skirt had disturbed the dewed blades of the espada plants, and I spun a storm of whirling ice through the sky.
Without my hands to warm her, a princess accustomed to fire wouldn’t last long.
As I rounded every crag and boulder, I tensed, expecting to be ambushed by a column of flame.
But I did not cower.
“Ignacia.” I called out to her through the thin air so loudly it pinched my lungs. “Ignacia de Masiela, show yourself!”
I hoped to find her shivering behind a field of rocks, shielding herself against my storms.
I was half-disappointed and half-insulted when I found her perched on the edge of a low crag, the red flames of her skirt fluffed around her. She was drawing constellations in the now-damp earth.
“Que espectáculo,” she said, dry as the air. It was the first indication that she sensed me at the edge of the rock ring. “You’re giving them quite the performance. They’ll all be pleased.”
Rage rose in me. Did I inspire no fear in her at all? Was she really so calm that she could just sit here and draw?
The only thing that stayed my anger was the shiver that went through her shoulders, her skin paler from the cold.
As though sensing the anger vibrating my heart, Ignacia de Masiela looked up. The hard, perfect black of her eyes pinned me where I stood.
The sheets of frozen rain settled behind me. The ice-sharp wind fell at my back.
Copyright © 2022 by Zoraida Córdova