The Feast of Moons
GORDON stopped stock still, shaken by an inward quaking. He stood on a wide dais at the side of a circular hall that was of cathedral loftiness and splendor.
The vast, round room of black marble held rows of tables which themselves glowed with intrinsic light. They bore a bewildering array of glass and metal dishes, and along them sat some hundreds of brilliantly-dressed men and women.
But not all these banqueters were human! Though humans were dominant, just as they were throughout the galaxy, there were also representatives of the Empire's aboriginal races. Despite their conventional garb, those he could see clearly looked grotesquely alien to Gordon--a frog-like, scaly green man with bulging eyes, a beaked, owl-faced winged individual, two black spidery figures with too many arms and legs.
John Gordon's dazed eyes lifted, and for a moment he thought this whole vast room was open to the sky. High overhead curved the black vault of the night heavens, gemmed with thousands of blazing stars and constellations. Into that sky, two golden moons and one of pale silver hue were climbing toward conjunction.
It took a moment for Gordon to realize that that sky was an artificial planetarium-ceiling, so perfect was the imitation. Then he became aware that the eyes of all these folk had turned upon him. On the dais, there was a table with a score of brilliant people, Jhal Arn's tall figure had risen and was beckoning impatiently to him.
Jhal Arn's first words shocked him back to realization of how badly his caution and self-control had slipped.
"What's the matter, Zarth? You look as though you'd never seen the Hall of Stars before."
"Nerves, I guess," Gordon answered huskily. "I think I need another drink."
Jhal Arn burst into laughter. "So you've been fortifying yourself for tonight? Come, Zarth, it isn't that bad."
Gordon numbly slid into the seat to which Jhal Arn had led him, one separated by two empty chairs from the places where Jhal sat with his lovely wife and little son.
He found grizzled Commander Corbulo on his other side. Across the table sat a thin, nervous-eyed and aging man whom he soon learned was Orth Bodmer, Chief Councilor of the Empire.
Corbulo, a stern figure in his plain uniform, bowed to Gordon as did the other people along this raised table.
"You're looking pale and downcast, Zarth," rumbled the grizzled space admiral. "That's what you get, skulking in laboratories on Earth. Space is the place for a young man like you,"
"I begin to think you're right," muttered Gordon. "I wish to Heaven I was there now."
Corbulo grunted. "So that's it? Tonight's announcement, eh? Well, it's necessary. The help of the Fomalhaut Kingdom will be vital to us if Shorr Kan attacks."
What the devil were they talking about, John Gordon wondered bitterly? The names "Murn" and "Lianna" that Jhal Arn had mentioned this reference to the Fomalhaut star-kingdom again, what did they portend?
Gordon found a servant bending obsequiously over his shoulder, and told the man, "Saqua, first."
The brown liquor spun his brain a little, this time. He was aware, as he drank another goblet, that Corbulo was looking at him in stern disapproval, and that Jhal Arn was grinning.
The brilliant scene before him, the shining tables, the splendid human and unhuman throng, and the wonderful sky-ceiling of stars and climbing moons, held Gordon fascinated. So this was the Feast of Moons?
Music that rippled in long, haunting harmonies of muted strings and woodwinds was background to the gay, buzzing chatter along the glittering tables. Then the music stopped and horns flared a loud silver challenge.
All rose to their feet. Seeing Jhal Arn rising, Gordon hastily followed his example.
"His highness, Arn Abbas, sovereign of the Mid-Galactic Empire, Suzerain of the Lesser Kingdoms, Governor of the stars and worlds of the Marches of Outer Space.
"Her highness, the Princess Lianna, ruler of the Kingdom of Fomalhaut."
The clear, loud announcements gave John Gordon a shock of astonishment even before the giant, regal figure of Arn Abbas strode onto the dais, with a woman upon his arm.
So "Lianna" was a woman, a princess, ruler of the little western star-kingdom of Fomalhaut? But what had she to do with him?
Am Abbas, magnificent in a blue-black cloak upon which blazed the glorious jewels of the royal comet emblem, stopped and turned his bleak eyes angrily on Gordon.
"Zarth, are you forgetting protocol?" he snapped. "Come here."
Gordon stumbled forward. He got only a swift impression of the woman beside the emperor.
She was tall, though she did not look so beside Arn Abbas' giant height. As tall as himself, her slim, rounded figure perfectly outlined by her long, shimmering white gown, she held her ash golden head proudly high.
Pride, beauty, consciousness of authority--these were what Gordon read in the chiseled white face, the faintly scornful red mouth, the cool, clear gray eyes that rested gravely on him.
Am Abbas took Gordon's hand in one of his, and Lianna's in the other. The towering sovereign raised his voice.
"Nobles and captains of the Empire and our allied star-kingdoms, I announce to you the coming marriage of my second son, Zarth Arn, and the Princess Lianna of Fomalhaut."
Marriage? Marriage to this proudly beautiful star-kingdom princess? Gordon felt as though hit by a thunderbolt.
So that was what Jhal Arn and Corbulo had been referring to? But good God, he couldn't go through with this. He wasn't Zarth Arn--
"Take her hand, you fool!" snarled the emperor. "Have you lost your wits?"
Numbly, John Gordon managed to grasp the woman's slim, ring-laden fingers.
Arn Abbas, satisfied, stalked forward to take his seat at the table. Gordon remained frozen.
Lianna gave him a sweet, set smile, but her voice was impatient as she said in an undertone, "Conduct me to our place, so that the others can sit down."
Gordon became aware that the whole host in the Hall of Stars remained standing, looking at himself and the woman.
He stumbled forward with her, clumsily handed her into her chair, and sat down beside her. There was the rustle of the hosts re-seating themselves, and the rippling music sounded forth again.
Lianna was looking at him with fine brows arched a little, her eyes clouded by impatience and resentment.
"Your attitude toward me will create gossip. You look positively appalled."
Gordon nerved himself. He had to keep up his imposture for the time being. Zarth Arn was apparently being used as a political paw, was being shoved into this marriage and had agreed to it.
He had to play the real Zarth's part, for now. He'd find some way of getting back to Earth to exchange places with the real Zarth Arn, before the marriage.
He drained his saqua goblet again, and leaned toward Lianna with a sudden recklessness.
She expected him to be an ardent fianc�, to be Zarth Arn. All right, blast it, he would be. It was no fault of his if there was deception in it. He hadn't asked to play this role!
"Lianna, they're so busy admiring you that they don't even look at me," he told her.
Lianna's clear eyes became puzzled in expression. "I never saw you like this before Zarth."
Gordon laughed. "Why, then, there's a new Zarth Arn-Zarth Arn is a different man, now."
Truth enough in that assertion, as only he knew. But the woman looked more perplexed, her fine brows drawing together in a little frown.
The feast went on, in a glow of warmth and color and buzzing voices. And the saqua Gordon had drunk swept away his last trace of apprehension and nervousness.
Adventure? He'd wanted it and he'd gotten it, adventure such as no man of his time had ever dreamed. If death itself were the end of all this, would he not still be gainer? Wasn't it worth risking life to sit here in the Hall of Stars at Throon, with the lords of the great star-kingdoms and a princess of far-off suns at his side?
Others beside himself had drunk deeply. The handsome, flushed young man who sat beyond Corbulo and whom Gordon had learned obliquely was Sath Shamar, ruler of the allied Kingdom of Polaris, crashed his goblet down to punctuate a declaration.
"Let them come, the sooner the better!" he was exclaiming to Corbulo. "It's time Shorr Kan was taught a lesson."
Commander Corbulo looked at him sourly. "That's true, highness. Just how many first-line battleships will Polaris contribute to our fleet, if it comes to teaching him that lesson?"
Sath Shamar looked a little dashed. "Only a few hundred, I fear. But they'll make up for it in fighting ability."
Arn Abbas had been listening, for the emperor's rumbling voice sounded from his throne-like seat on Gordon's right.
"The men of Polaris will prove their fidelity to the Empire, no fear," declared Arn Abbas. "Aye, and those of Fomalhaut Kingdom, and of Cygnus and Lyra and our other allies."
Sath Shamar flushedly added, "Let the Hercules Barons but do their part and we've nothing to fear from the Cloud."
Gordon saw all eyes turn to two men further along the table. One was a cold-eyed oldster, the other a tall, rangy man of thirty. Both wore on their cloaks the flaring sun-cluster emblem of Hercules Cluster.
The oldster answered. "The Confederacy of the Barons will fulfill all its pledges. But we have made no formal pledge in this matter."
Arn Abbas' massive face darkened a little at that cool declaration. But Orth Bodmer, the thin-faced chief Councilor, spoke quickly and soothingly to the cold-eyed Baron.
"All men know the proud independence of the great Barons, Zu Rizal. And all know you'd never acquiesce in an evil tyranny's victory."
Arn Abbas, a few moments later, leaned to speak frowningly to Gordon.
"Shorr Kan has been tampering with the Barons. I'm going to find out tonight from Zu Rizal just where they stand."
Finally Arn Abbas arose, and the feasters all rose with him. The whole company began to stream out of the Hall of Stars into the adjoining halls.
Courtiers and nobles made way for Gordon and Lianna, as they went through the throng. The woman smiled and spoke to many, her perfect composure bespeaking a long training in the regal manner.
Gordon nodded carelessly in answer to the congratulations and greetings.
He knew he was probably making many blunders, but he didn't care by now. For the first time since leaving Earth, he felt perfectly carefree as that warm glow inside him deepened.
That saqua was a cursed good drink! Too bad he couldn't take some of it back with him to his own time. But nothing material could go across time. That was a shame?
He found himself with Lianna on the threshold of a great hall whose fairylike green illumination came from the flaming comets that crept across its ceiling "sky." Hundreds were dancing here to dreamy, waltz-like music from an unseen source.
Gordon was astounded by the dreamlike, floating movements of the immeasurably graceful dance. The dancers seemed to hover half-suspended in the air each step. Then he realized that the room was conditioned somehow by anti-gravity apparatus to reduce their weight.
Lianna looked up at him doubtfully, as he himself realized crestfallenly that he couldn't perform a step of these floating dances.
"Let's not dance," Lianna said, to his relief. "You're such a poor dancer as I remember it, that I'd rather go out in the gardens."
Of course--the retiring, studious real Zarth Arn would be that. Well, so much the better.
"I greatly prefer the gardens," Gordon laughed. "For believe it or not, I'm an even poorer dancer than I was before."
Lianna looked up at him perplexedly as they strolled down a lofty silver corridor. "You drank a great deal at the Feast. I never saw you touch saqua before."
Gordon shrugged. "The fact is that I never drank it before tonight."
He uttered a low exclamation when they emerged into the gardens. He had not expected such a scene of unreal beauty as this.
These were gardens of glowing light, of luminous color. Trees and shrubs bore masses of blossoms that glowed burning red, cool green, turquoise blue, and every shade between. The soft breeze that brought heavy perfume from them shook them gaily like a forest of shining flame-flowers, transcendently lovely.
Later, Gordon was to learn that these luminous flowers were cultivated on several highly radioactive worlds of the star Achernar, and were brought here and planted in beds of similarly radioactive soil. But now, suddenly coming on them, they were stunning.
Behind him, the massive terraces of the gigantic oblong palace shouldered the stars. Glowing lights flung boldly in step on climbing step against the sky. And the three clustered moons above poured down their mingled radiance to add a final unreal touch.
"Beautiful, beyond words," Gordon murmured, enthralled by the scene.
Lianna nodded. "Of all your world of Throon, I love these gardens the best. But there are wild, unpeopled worlds far in our Fomalhaut Kingdom that are even more lovely."
Her eyes kindled and for the first time he saw emotion conquer the regal composure of her lovely little face.
"Lonely, unpeopled worlds that are like planets of living color, drenched by the wonderful auroras of strange suns. I shall take you to see them when we visit Fomalhaut, Zarth."
She was looking up at him, her ash gold hair shining like a crown in the soft light.
She expected him to make love to her, Gordon thought. He was--or at least, she thought he was--her fianc� the man she had chosen to marry. He'd have to keep up his imposture, even now.
Gordon put his arm around her and bent to her lips. Lianna's slim body was pliant and warm inside the shimmering white gown, and her half-parted lips were dizzyingly sweet.
"I'm a cursed liar!" Gordon thought, dismayed. "I'm kissing her because I want to, not to keep up my role."
He abruptly stepped back. Lianna looked up at him with sheer amazement on her face.
"Zarth, what made you do that?"
Gordon tried to laugh, though that thrillingly sweet contact still seemed trembling through his nerves.
"Is it so remarkable for me to kiss you?" he countered.
"Of course it is--you never did before!" Lianna said. "You know as well as I that our marriage is purely a political pretense."
Truth crashed into Gordon's mind like a blast of icy cold, sweeping the fumes of saqua from his brain.
He had made an abysmal slip in his imposture! He should have guessed that Lianna didn't want to marry Zarth Arn any more than he wanted to marry her--that it was purely a political marriage and they but two pawns in the great game of galactic diplomacy.
He had to cover up this blunder as best he could, and quickly. The woman was looking up at him with that expression of utter mystification still on her face.
"I can't understand you doing this when you and I made agreement to be mere friends."
Gordon desperately voiced the only explanation possible, one perilously close to the truth.
"Lianna, you're so beautiful. I couldn't help it. Is it so strange I should fall in love with you, despite our agreement?"
Lianna's face hardened and her voice had scorn in it. "You in love with me? You forget that I know all about Murn."
"Murn?" The name rang vaguely familiar in Gordon's ears. Jhal Arn had mentioned "Murn."
Once more, Gordon felt himself baffled by his ignorance of vital facts. He was cold sober now, and badly worried.
"I-I guess maybe I just had too much saqua at the Feast, after all," he muttered.
Lianna's amazement and anger had faded, and she seemed to be studying him with a curiously intent interest.
He felt relief when they were interrupted by a gay throng streaming out into the gardens. In the hours that followed, the presence of others made Gordon's role a little easier to play.
He was conscious of Lianna's gray eyes often resting on him, with that wondering look. When the gathering broke up and he accompanied her to the door of her apartments, Gordon was uneasily aware of her curious, speculative gaze as he bade her goodnight.
He mopped his brow as he went on the gliding motowalk to his own chambers. What a night! He had had about as much as one man could bear.
Gordon found his rooms softly lit, but the blue servant was not in evidence. He tiredly opened the door of his bedroom. There was a quick rush of little bare feet. He froze at sight of the woman running toward him, one he had never seen before.
She seemed of almost childish youthfulness, with her dark hair falling to her bare shoulders and her soft, beautiful little face and dark-blue eyes shining with gladness. A child? It was no child's rounded figure that gleamed whitely through the filmy robe she wore.
Gordon stood, stupefied by this final staggering surprise in an evening of surprises, as the woman ran and threw soft bare arms around his neck.
"Zarth Arn!" she said. "At last you've come. I've been waiting so long.