At the yearly cotillion ball, in the palaces of cloud and thunder and seething plasma, astromancers were introduced to the Society of the Sky. One of these astromancers was a young woman who looked out the windows of her room and sighed mournfully every night. She was attentive enough to her studies, in which she studied spiral density waves and the chemical composition of gas giants. In the mornings (as determined by the celestial bells), she embroidered constellations on cloth-of-void, paying particular attention to her favorites in the shape of dipper or dragon, and the pale luminescent thread gleamed in her hands and over the sliver of her needle. In the afternoons she attended serious lectures on the proper forms of address for a magister of red giants, and practiced her handwriting with a dip pen and shining ink, and learned to fold handkerchiefs into the shapes of generation ships. In the evenings, she brewed tea fragrant with starblossoms and flavored it with the honey of distant worlds.
As the day of the ball approached, the astromancer’s teachers noticed that, for all her diligence, she continued to look out the windows and sigh. They asked her if she was nervous about her presentation to the Society of the Sky, and assured her that her work was of more than adequate standard; that she would find suitable partners aplenty at the ball. The young woman smiled inscrutably at them and said that no, she suffered no such loss of nerve, and that all she needed was some quiet time to compose herself.
During the nighttimes—and nighttimes in the cloud palaces were dark indeed—the young woman stayed up and worked on an outfit of her own devising. She knew her teachers would not approve, and yet she was compelled by the vision, or perhaps not-vision, that came to her with the clarity of a mirror in the dark. Her teachers had taught her well: by now she knew her tools so thoroughly that she could work with only the faintest of candle flames to guide her eyes, and her fingers wielded needle and thimble and scissors without drawing blood. And if she was listless during the day from lack of sleep, well, her teachers attributed this to her customary melancholy, and convinced themselves that, as with most young astromancers, her full entry into the Society of the Sky would prove the cure for her moods.
At last the morning of the ball dawned. The dance hall was bright with lanterns from which shone clear silvery light, and one by one the young astromancers entered with the decorum to which they had been trained. They wore dresses in flamboyant crimson, highlighted with beads of spinel and speckled amber; robes of shining blue trimmed with lace like quantum froth; earrings from which beads of lapis and snowflake obsidian spun orrery-fashion, and bracelets that chimed with pleasing dissonances. Each astromancer appeared in the bright colors of the finery they had made for themselves—all but one.
The melancholy astromancer, unlike all her peers, showed up in a suit of black that she had embroidered with black threads, so that she was the only one in the hall entire dressed in that color rather than the radiant colors of living stars. A strand of black pearls and onyx circled her throat, and her black hair was caught up in a net hung with polished chips of obsidian. She raised her chin at the stares and smiled, in her element at last; and if she was not the most popular of the season’s astromancers, still she did not lack for offers to dance, or suitors to bring her petits-fours and glasses of radiant liqueur.
For Andrew S. Prompt: cotillion, stars.