Silence hovered in anticipation over the racers. The Moth Moon caressed the fairy-light-spangled podium with her gentle smile. The Paper Moon peered over the lavender horizon, knowing better than to risk rising on the night of sharp-edged falling stars.
A barrel-chested capybara stepped forward from the petitioner’s line. “Cinrak The Dapper, Captain o’ the most excellent IRATE ship the Impolite Fortune, an’ I ride in The Grand Chase of the Falling Stars fer the Queen’s Hand.”
A most satisfying gasp from the crowd of petitioners, court adjuncts, fairies waltzing the breeze, and rodent rabble.
“A capybara as the rat queen’s consort?”
“There’s a reason they say the sea-farer’s union puts the ‘IRATE’ into pirate!”
“Not since the First Ride...”
Cinrak adjusted her purple bow tie, swinging her broad snout from side to side, trying to hold her grin in check. The court was all a-bluster? Good.
The Rat Queen Orvillia pressed her with her coal-dark eyes. The jewel at the centre of the Queen’s crown throbbed, an ache against the festive mood.
This was the bargain they’d discussed, of a sort. Cinrak had promised to petition for the jewellery of Orvillia’s well-adorned right hand, putting the orphanage of Cinrak’s upbringing in the black and IRATE ships bound to pleasure cruises rather than duty for some years to come. But promises were flexible, even to the head of the Independent Rodent’s Aquatic Trade Entente.
“Petition—” Orvillia’s whiskers twitched. “—accepted.”
A crackle-hiss, like lightning along a sword drawn from its scabbard. Cinrak turned her snout up. The stars were close; she could smell their light, fresh as a storm before it hit the sea.
With their attention caught by the busy sky, no one noticed a new petitioner step up until her sweet, high voice pierced the night.
“Loquolchi, Lead Soprano of the Theatre Rat-oyal, and I Ride for the Queen’s Hand.”
Another gasp. A few onlookers took knees.
“You blewdy diva,” Cinrak grumbled. “Trust you to upstage everythin’.”
Taking her place in line, the marmot graced her pirate lover with a toothy smile. “Can’t let you have all the fun, Cinny.”
“Petition accepted.” Orvillia’s smooth politician voice shimmered with amusement and fondess.
“We had a deal,” Cinrak hissed to Loquolchi as Orvillia swept forward and began reciting the rules of The Ride. “I’m doin’ this for both o’ us, Loqui.”
Loquolchi looked off into the darkness like she was steadying herself to deliver a beloved aria. “I love Orvillia, too. Besides, a little competition is fun.”
There was no stopping the porcupine-headed diva once she set her course. Cinrak straightened the hem of her tailored suit jacket and eyed Loquolchi’s riding garb: a batwing dress straight out of the Rat-oyal costume department, all white froof and flop. Surely a tripping hazard.
Another crack-hiss. Cinrak, accustomed to listening for tiny changes of wind in the rigging, swung her blunt nose up. There. Way high, a tiny pinprick of a star against the bruised velvet sky
Ah! thought Cinrak. To be only the second rodent in history to capture and ride a falling star! Fame, riches, and the rat court would be there for Cinrak the Dapper’s asking.
But tonight, like every other Aestivus equinox, she had watched the stars fall, dance, sizzle, break to rainbow sparks, and climb again, something strange pulled at her heart, tweaking her storm senses.
Cinrak was running before Orvillia had finished her recitation of the Grand Chase’s thousand-year history or Loquolchi could pinch her for luck.
A thunder of paws mixed with the thunder of the falling stars hitting air. Breath huffed. Leather and rope slapped against gloves.
Angling away from the cut of the Silver Moon’s smile, Cinrak dug deep into the secret Alice pocket sewn into her jacket. If anyone had been so brazen as to attempt to loot the locked trunk under her billet aboard the Impolite Fortune, they would have been surprised by the paw that emerged as if from thin air to grab a red, silky rope. That is, if they hadn’t already been surprised to death by the poison kraken-spirit Cinrak had given a home inside the padlock.
Cinrak had scoured the myths and stuck to the letter of the rules; reins were allowed only if they were soft natural materials that wouldn’t harm the stars. Mer-hair, made from night brushed a thousand times over into silken tresses, was supposed to soothe the star enough to allow it a passenger. Legend said like spoke to like.
“Illegal buckles!” shouted the magpie referee keeping pace, and another racer, a beaver in a gaudy gold robe, fell away.
Though Cinrak had a good head start, her stubby legs couldn’t hold the lead for long. The stars were crackling in earnest.
“I see Spurs!” screeched the referee. Another participant, this time a squirrel, went down in a flurry of tail.
“Metal harness!” The referee was relishing his job, and a mole rat fell out of the race, muttering darkly about bad luck and nasty nasty magpies.
The Moth Moon did its best to get out of the way of the rodent runners powering uphill. Decent sized stars had started to dip low.
There was no use wasting her breath in cajoling and promises. Cinrak tightened her fist on the first loop in her pocket. Still natural material, still legal.
The bottom of the Moth Moon popped free of the hilltop with a satisfied sigh just as Cinrak chose her mark. The biggest and brightest tended to be too tumultuous and broke up into baby stars, the perfect ride to satisfy the ego of those only seeking to impress the queen. Those in the know, the race old-timers, went for a middling-sized star, the ones at the back of the pack, the more circumspect and less like to burn out.
Cinrak drew the plaited rope free. At the sight of mer-hair appearing as if from nowhere, a racing gopher beside Cinrak stumbled in surprise and yelled for a judgment.
“No foul!” squawked the magpie dodging sparks from the air-skittering stars.
A huff of breath on Cinrak’s left, a delicious sound: Loquolchi.
A loud and familiar sound: FWUMPH.
With arms spread wide and a sail made of bright Moon Moth silk draped between, Loquolchi swooped overhead in a casually theatric pose like she was born for the sky and took the lead.
“Clever girl!” Cinrak shouted and waved. How had Loqui bribed enough silk out of the recalcitrant insects to catch the beams at perigee?
Cinrak then cursed as Loquolchi beat haste towards the best-looking star. The star pulled back from the rush towards the impossible—the moment of balance between equal light and equal night—to admire the scintillating wings.
A mistake. Loquolchi swung up and over the spiky perch and settled between the star’s largest limbs.
With the silky rope tightening in anticipation on its own accord in her paw, Cinrak had to concede First Catch. It meant little if a rider couldn’t get the star over the finish line with no harm done to its ephemeral existence. Loquolchi knew the skills of hot air but only what came from within, not without.
In the thousand years of the race’s existence, only one star had suffered a rider to the end and crossed the finish line. That star now shone from Orvillia’s crown, a warning to its descendants.
Alerted by the fizzing sparks and bucking cracks, other stars dipped to assist their sibling. The pants, growls, and shouts from the rest of the petitioners fell away. Cinrak’s attention hove fully to the glimmering prizes pricking the Aestivus sky and dodging the playful Moth Moon. More light meant a longer dance with the shy moths who dotted their cocoons across her craters.
The red rope formed a lasso and sprang out before Cinrak had instructed her muscles and eight fingers. She barely had time to lay grip upon the knotted end when the rope pulled taut, having found its mark upon a blue-ish elder star.
Such was the way of mermaid’s hair, made to unerringly find and caress the stars.
Despite hard-worked shoulders, Cinrak had never fought a storm such as she fought with this star. Though the star was of the lumbering type, its orneriness almost wrenched her arms from their sockets. With very little breath left she dashed to keep up, her six toes tripping through then lifting above bramble bushes as the star pulled indignantly away from the excited rabble.
Surely lost! Cinrak kicked at the air, hands slipping further along the mer-hair rope. “To the bottom of the sea wit’ ye!” she yelled into the rushing wind and the star’s crackle-delight.
Hand over hand, like climbing to the nest in a hurricane, Cinrak fought her way up the rope wriggling with a mer’s brushed-in mirth. A lucky break: the star dipped to avoid an onrush of over-excited young stars breaking like fireworks against each other.
Cinrak got a leg over.
The mer-hair rope wrapped neatly around a flashing limb as the star bucked and swayed.
Mer-hair held firm but not brutal.
“It’s not like that,” Periwinkle had whistled as Cinrak laboriously plaited the rope: a gruelling harvest; months of supplication to mer needs, picking abandoned strands from sea-weeded rocks and bone combs. “The myths about our hair are such a farce! Never let the fearful tell your legend, Sssinrak-Dapper.”
Stripped of her captain’s title and fancy coat, Cinrak had risked her life, loves, IRATE union career, and ship to parlay with the mer-people. Then suffering through salty fur, eating more fish than she cared to entertain, insults, chilblains, and drudgery in the effort to hook herself a star and a heart.
Tonight she would find out if it was had all been worth it.
The star whipped upwards, pushing tears from Cinrak’s squinted eyes and a scream from her lungs. Wind tore at her best suit, threatening to turn it to tatters. Despite having ridden into countless storms, excitement and fear tossed her about as much as her mount. She clung on for her life as the star tore across the sky, causing even the Moth Moon to hastily back-pedal at their passing.
The star roared—Cinrak thought she could almost hear words in the mess, whipping around its youngers, going up-see-daisy over another rider: Loquolchi, moth wings a-streaming and marmot-melisma shaking sparks from frantically flashing arms.
The will to win struggled hard against Cinrak’s will to love. Loqui be deservin’ better’n this. She deservin’ Orvillia too. But to be a new light in the crown...Oh, Stars!
Unusually, four riders now held tenacious grips, the rest a furry ball of limbs and curses on the hillside. A chinchilla courtier screeched as it rode a tight spiral, followed by a spring-hare from a family who sent a race petitioner every year. Neither looked as if they’d keep their mounts for long, the way the young stars bucked.
Loquolchi, however, held fast. Wrapped securely, the silk wings applied double duty, soothing the star as well as helping her keep her seat. She marmot-shrilled somewhere between a frightened scream and perfect high melisma.
And she was pulling ahead.
Cinrak, calling upon all the practise she’d done with the narwhals, bent low and kissed the mer-hair rope. How would it respond this high up? It was a being of the sea, not the air, pulling stars down with mer song to meet with their sibling celestials in the deep, not to tame them. She didn’t want to force supplication. The stars had travelled too far, shone upon too much, for such brute force.
“Fly, darling star, fly!” Cinrak yelled. She didn’t kick at the star’s sides like others would a beast mount. Stars were too precious for that.
The star leapt ahead like a dolphin racing the Impolite Fortune‘s bow. Cinrak almost tumbled off the back, only holding her perch by the sheer force of her thick thighs and quickly looped sailor’s knot.
Hills spun by, their grass dark as blood in the violet night. Tree heads whipped as they watched the riders pass. They shook their limbs in consternation and delight, depending on their ancientnicity.
Cinrak grabbed the lead. Then, with a warble, Loquolchi sung her star forward.
The chinchilla and spring-hare couldn’t compete. A crash, too fast to see in the strobing starlight, a flail of rodent and star limbs, and then a tumble. The two young stars shot off to rejoin their siblings.
The race looked lost. Cinrak didn’t have the promises of beauty and immortality Loquolchi sung to her star. It seemed erratic though, hitching and hurrying. The marmot’s voice was strong but couldn’t hold out forever in the thinner air.
“What can I give ye, when ye have all the sky at yer disposal?” Cinrak whispered frantically.
The front-most arm of the star flashed the brightest yet. Pointing perhaps? At the finish line. And at the finish line...
A tickle travelled from the mer-hair rope up her arm to the base of her thick neck. The strange songs the mer-people had sung for her about the slow swing of stars over millennia started to make sense! Yes! That’s it! The stars were precious, but also...alive.
Cinrak moved her lips from the mer-hair and buried a single promise into the stark limbs of the star: “I will set yer siblin’ free.”
The star bucked like a lover and surged ahead, weaving like a dolphin but always coming back dead-on to the target: the flickering crown upon Orvillia’s head.
Another thrust of moth-wing in her vision. Loquolchi came neck and neck, shrilling through her drawn-back teeth, her star-mount flashing sparks in time to her song.
One final high note from Loquolchi, and...
There was nothing between them as they sailed over the finish line.
Thighs and biceps trembling, Cinrak’s dismount was more fall than finesse. Loquolchi managed to maintain some of her diva flow as the star let her go but only thanks to the products of a moth’s bottom. Obligatory cheers and a hish-hush of surprise rippled through whiskers and cupped hands. Not just the second winner in the history of the Great Chase, but a dead heat!
Cinrak grimaced into her now-mutilated bow tie. So many things warred within her pirate soul: love and annoyance for her marmot beau, pride and surliness at the shared win, a tenderness for her star.
Strangely, the two mounts bobbed in place, as if waiting.
Orvillia stepped forward, her crown lighting the way. Cinrak’s gaze and canny thoughts moved quickly from queen to waiting star to the light kept captive inside the headpiece by generations of rat queens.
Orvillia paused for effect, then with a flourish of a wicked knife cut off her right hand and offered the prize to Cinrak.
The crowd gasped.
“As petitioned, as promised,” Orvillia said without a trace of pain in her voice. “Will you marry me?”
Cinrak trembled as she bent low over the bejewelled prize. She kissed the hand and the stump. “My majesty. But nay. I love ye, but the sea is my mistress.”
The crowd tittered, and fairy hairdos flashed green and blue in surprise. Relief bent Orvillia’s grin into a jaunty angle.
“As for you...”
Orvillia turned to Loquolchi, who perfected her best sweeping bow, the moth dress aflutter. The queen examined her left paw, the one always devoid of ostentation. She looked between the capybara and marmot, her gaze dipping for a moment from midnight shrewd to a new-moon ocean delight.
Another flick of the knife, and she presented her left paw to Loquolchi. “Will you marry me?”
Loquolchi pulled upright and brought the freshly severed prize to her heart. “By the stars, no! I love you, but the stage always comes first!”
Orvillia breathed a sigh of relief. “That’s settled then. Marriage is such a ridiculous institution—all silly glances and restrictions on who to take to bed. Those tokens will get you into my court any time. Use them at your will, my loves.”
Orvillia planted a kiss on each of their cheeks, one-two, one-two. Blushes flourished. Tense glances offered reconciliation, then Cinrak and Loquolchi buried kisses in each other’s furry faces.
Healer fairies dive-bombed, but Orvillia shooed them away. “They’ll both grow back anyway.” She spat on the stumps. Already the flesh pimpled as it worked on the fresh hands Orvillia would lay upon her queendom.
The crowd roared. Two consorts to the queen? And unmarried? Outrageous! Romantic!
Cinrak’s grin almost broke her face in two.
“One more thing, m...my love.” Cinrak said.
The queen cast an eyebrow as sharp as her knife.
Cinrak, with her rapier-honed reflexes giving the queen no time to react, Cinrak snatched the crown from Orvillia’s brow. The crowd fell into chaos, guards having to be elbowed back by Orvillia.
A swift twist of metal softened by the internal star’s breath, and Cinrak snapped the crown in two.
The star flowed out of its thousand-year prison.
A thrum gripped the hearts of every rodent present. The two star-mounts danced around their freed sibling, bearing it carefully back to its cradle of the long, deep sky. Orvillia held her left stump up in an apologetic farewell, while Loquolchi fiddled with the two pieces of the crown trying to fit them back together.
Cinrak put her arms round her two best girls. “Now ain’t that a sight,” she breathed.
Moon moths danced after the retreating stars, the Paper Moon dared another squizz, and the crowd sighed in sheer delight.