The fashion on Vega-Five involves beaded gloves, the patterns indicating the wearer’s family, affiliations and wealth but the beading itself making the gloves cumbersome and difficult to hold a wineglass with. On Cygnus-Three, or Eir as the settlers had begun to call it, haute couture requires yards and yards of stiffened lace, hand-built ruffs that scratch at the neck and wrists and speak of hours of labor with tiny threads and bobbins – machined lace is considered gauche.

So it was no great sacrifice, Belyn Morrow thought, adjusting her ribbon, to wear a transparent half-mask to the Planetary Governor’s ball on Loess. Even if Lunel himself would be wearing an ornate assembly of woven wire spirals, she herself could get by with a relatively plain version, only the beads at the junctures and a colorful coating on the wires a nod to her rank.

It was a fascination and a decadence, this copper-wire fashion. After dark the heavy richness of the electric atmosphere gave a glow and spark to the wire; made the wearer a column of static. One felt poised on the edge of potential, every small hair on end waiting for a touch to set off the crackle of hand-lightning.

At least, that’s what Morrow told herself as she paced the balcony. The whole world seemed heavy with potential tonight, the air itself a portent. From here, one could see past the city to the edge of the great basin, ringed and limned with the starport’s lights. Briefly, she wished herself there instead of here, at the Epiphany’s helm and going, oh, anywhere.

Instead she straightened her neckcloth one last time, checked her cuffs and braid and trousers and the shine on her boots, tapped the medals at her breast until the ribbons aligned themselves, and went into the gardens.

A luxury, a garden in the desert. But the fountains at compass points spumed water, the guests chattered, and a girl surely too young to be out this late splashed her hand in a basin, her Saguin companion holding to her collar to lean dangerously far out and point at a floating petal.

As if on cue – and it surely was a cue, Morrow scowled –  the lanterns dimmed and the house lights came up to illuminate the grand decks, the polished floors of native stone, the carved pillars. Lunel, then, and she ought to find the end of the receiving line. Instead she lingered, fidgeting with the edge of her mask and cursing diplomatic necessity.

“I don’t suppose you dance,” came a voice at her shoulder. Verril, she plucked the name from her briefing. Head of the Research Corps. Lecturer at University, in his spare time. She hadn’t expected him to be so young.

“Only if you lead,” the practiced lie came out of her mouth smoothly now. It wasn’t so bad. With a taller companion one could remember to follow, to walk backward, to not want Cimri’s waist under one’s palm, Cimri’s fingers at one’s hand and wrist. To not look at the stars and wonder which two her darkness lay between.

“I promise not to scuff your boots. That’s a thing, right? Scuffed boots?” And charming, Morrow mentally added. If one liked that sort of thing. Almost, she could forgive his wealth and easy manners.

“It is, demerits and scrubbing, tubers to be peeled.” She let him take her hand, bowed. The Governor would have to wait, and might forgive the slight if she were dancing with his staff. A moment to herself, as it were, before the mission. “But you are out of uniform, are you not?”

He laughed. “A dispensation for the evening. Besides, Research Greys don’t suit my skin.” His mask was steel-blue, red. Twists of wire made complex equations in the webbing between spirals, built molecular chains across his forehead and down his throat.

“I can’t imagine the climate suits your skin, either. At least, it’s drying mine and I thought I was immune after so much recycled air.” The first strains of music began: a quartet and not a stereograph, Morrow noted.

“Nothing about the place suits me, but the work is more important. Surely you feel the same?” He cocked his head, sandy hair falling into one eye.

“Of course. The mission, always.” Her careful, precise smile was as much a mask as what she wore on the rest of her face.