“Stop pulling!” Z’ólt’ár demanded, yanking away from her.
“If you would behave according to your station, I would not have to do this. Do you want the Luminous One to think you a common guttersnipe?”
No, oh no. He wanted to show the guiding spirit of Spectra that he was a true son of House nâl Afés’trin. Gritting his teeth, Z’ólt’ár allowed his mother to seemingly yank his hair out by the roots as she combed and braided the gold tresses.
Presentation Day. Always on or near the eighth birthday of all children of the Imperial House, when they would be shown to the Luminous One. The rewards were many for a child graced by Its approval. Z’ólt’ár counted himself lucky to not have to share this day with anyone. He would have the Spirit’s undivided attention.
Mother had already chosen the jewels that would grace his braids. House nâl Afés’trin was the longest-ruling dynasty of Spectra, and a dozen children could not put a dent in the history represented by the trove.
She fumbled a bit, and he bit on a comment. His mother was pure Spectran, and noble, which meant a slew of genetic conditions made her life miserable. Her hands simply did not work right.
He was fortunate to be healthy, he knew. Perhaps the Luminous One would give him a special blessing.
No. No grim thoughts. Presentation Day was his day.
***** ***** *****
At last. His mother stood him before the full-length mirror. “The next Emperor,” she said, smoothing a non-existent crease in his robes. “You will be a handsome one.”
Did she have to coo over him that way?
Still, he did have the nâl Afés’trin ‘look’, long and lean, with gold hair. Already people talked of matching him with the daughters of one House or another.
“Where’s Father?” he asked.
“I don’t know. But don’t worry. He would never dare miss your Presentation Day. If the Luminous One didn’t punish him, I would.”
As if he’d been waiting for her words, his father pushed open the door and strode in, leading a little girl.
Z’ólt’ár hissed in his breath.
The girl wore Presentation Day robes, and someone had braided jewels into her hair. She looked so much like him that she could be his twin, except for her common alien eyes. White, with circular blue irises and black pupils.
The Emperor put a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Do not be afraid, Mala. This is your brother, Z’ólt’ár.”
His father had dared bring some servant’s bastard to his day? Why?
“Z’ólt’ár, come here.”
Fists clenched, the boy obeyed.
“This is Mala, your sister.”
The girl’s eyes were wide, but not with fear. “He has your eyes, Father.” Envy filled her words.
And you have your mother’s. He kept the thought to himself. His father would punish him.
“I’ve seen you,” she said.
Was she trying to make friends with him?
He looked up at his father, whose expression was almost unreadable for the Imperial mask and thin line of his mouth. “Father?”
“I do this for the good of the House, my son. In time, you will understand.”
I don’t want to understand. I want her out of here. How dare she so much as look at the royal accoutrements? What was his father thinking?
“Father, he doesn’t like me.” A statement of fact. The servant’s child did not tremble or cling. Instead, she seemed ready to fight. How unlike a servant.
“He never knew of you,” the Emperor said. “Give him a chance to get to know you.”
The Luminous One will burn you into a cinder. Only that thought kept him from striking Mala.
“It’s time,” the Empress said.
***** ***** *****
No vehicles for the walk to the House of the Luminous One. Their ancestors had walked, when the people of Spectra first put stone on stone and built the very first cities a million years before.
The honor guard flanked them, wearing armor of an ostensibly antique pattern, but made from modern materials, and carrying firearms. Not for the first time, Z’ólt’ár wondered why they had feline motifs on their helmets when the Luminous One looked so much like a bird.
The great doors of the House of the Luminous One opened without machinery or servants, or any other visible mechanism. The guards stood outside as the family entered the House.
Z’ólt’ár bit on a gasp. Beside him, Mala’s eyes widened.
A flaming nimbus surrounded the true face of the Luminous One. No artist had ever done justice to the glory of Spectra’s god. They saw why.
The royal couple dropped to one knee, heads bowed. “Luminous One, I Present my children to You,” their father said.
That mighty head turned its yellow, cat-slitted eyes (the true eyes of Spectra) on them. “Both of you: step forward.” Its voice was oddly gentle, yet high-pitched with an edge like the sound of a cutter on glass.
Trembling, suddenly possessed of the urge to seize Mala’s hand, Z’ólt’ár obeyed. As if she had rehearsed, Mala did likewise.
He felt his mind laid open, every thought bared to the scrutiny of the divine Being before them. The Luminous One riffled through his mind as easily as the wind riffled through long grass.
After an eternity, the terrible scrutiny ended. The Luminous One let go his mind.
“Both of you are children of House nâl Afés’trin,” It Proclaimed. “Mala is your full sister in My eyes.”
He did not dare protest. The Luminous One was omniscient. Its decisions were never wrong. “Thank you, O Luminous Spirit.” Beside him, almost at the same time, Mala echoed the words.
“You may go.”
Both children knelt and bowed, then accompanied their parents back to the palace.
***** ***** *****
Their father summoned them after they had changed clothes. Z’ólt’ár glared at Mala. She had stolen his special day, and now she was going to live in the palace. He hated her.
“You both did well,” the Emperor told them. “Both of you were everything I knew you to be. Give me your hands.”
What was this? He obeyed.
His father joined their hands. “You are the two parts of an alloy. Individually, you are strong. Together, you surpass all others.”
“I don’t understand,” Mala said.
“I chose you of all your siblings because you had the qualities for membership in this House: intelligence, courage, strength, and drive. I was certain that the Luminous One would approve of you.”
“What if --- the Luminous One had disapproved?” She kept her voice and expression neutral.
“I would have failed to provide our House with another worthy member.”
“What about Mother?” Z’ólt’ár demanded.
“The Empress knew of my designs. You know that she cannot have any more children.”
“So you went to lower beings?” Creatures one step above the beasts of the fields?
“I chose carefully. Mala is your sister. She is your ally. You heard the Luminous One.”
He glowered at the half-breed he had to call ‘Sister.’ He could not kill or harm her, now. He could not let her come to harm, if he could help it. The Luminous One would know.
“You shall restore the glory of Spectra and our House. The galaxy shall belong to the True Race.”