As the hologram dancer swooped and turned, Tara faced a terrible choice
The space cruiser locked onto its docking co-ordinates and came smoothly to rest in the hub of the transit station several miles above Xerxes Two, the designated “leisure planet”.
Tara Gilcariad – Lady Gilcariad, to give her the title her husband’s lineage bestowed on her – sighed with pleasure.
“Six weeks,” she said to her maid-in-waiting, “in the open air – forests, moors, hills and valleys. We shall walk on solid earth and swim in natural water. Oh, Paery, won’t it be paradise?”
“There’ll be bugs, spiders, snakes,” Paery grumbled. “Maybe even infections. Honestly, my lady, I think your husband’s choice of recreation is most peculiar.”
“Oh, Paery, don’t be like that! I bet you’ll enjoy this trip as much as the Count and I will.” Tara hugged the older woman briefly.
She turned as she heard her husband ordering his servants to remove her baggage to the transporter deck. It was just a short flight down to Xerxes’ capital city.
“And it’s called Tara too!” Tara’s narrow shoulders wriggled with sheer delight.
She skipped over to take her husband’s arm. “Oh, thank you, Julius – this is such a treat.”
Julius Gilcariad smiled down at her. He was a senior diplomat, tall, proud, still considered extremely handsome, silver-haired and very dignified.
Tara was thirty years his junior and an eternal source of pleasure and comfort to him. His government superiors had not at first considered her suitable material as his wife, but her natural wit and intelligence had won over her critics.
As a pair they had successfully eased some very awkward moments on several major and delicate diplomatic occasions.
He studied her as she turned away with their staff and luggage.
His eyes followed her lithe and graceful figure with its glorious raven hair drawn up into a chignon at the nape of her neck.
Far below, the planet’s pleasures awaited them. And there was one particular art gallery he knew well, famous throughout the universe, which held the most wonderful and yet sometimes terrible treasures.
It’s beautiful!” Tara Gilcariad gazed at the three dimensional hologram in one of the art gallery’s display alcoves.
She reached up to touch it, enchanted by the movement of the lacewing-fragile ballerina swooping into graceful bows, arms and hands describing arcs and circles. “Exquisite.”
“It cannot be touched.” The owner of the gallery laid a lightly restraining hand onto her outstretched forearm.
Tara was shocked. “Do you know who I am?”
The Xerxian gallery owner inclined his head, as graceful a movement in its way as the dancing ballerina above them.
His voice was as soft as a cat’s purr, but also as dangerous as a serpent’s hiss.
“I know who you once were, Countess, and I know what you now are. But still I say to you – you cannot touch the image.”
He smiled, and his deep cobalt-blue eyes were kindly as he met her gaze.
Tara noted the complete lack of white around the irises. It was like looking into the eyes of a large reptile.
Despite the insult of his physical contact – now politely withdrawn – she was intrigued by his words.
“Tell me who I once was, Merchant.”
She raised her chin. She was certain that nobody on this holiday-destination planet of green forests and purple mountains could know the truth of her birth. She’d taken care never to mention her memories of the Transit Camp where she’d been dumped as a refugee orphan of the Traken wars, long years before. And from which Julius Gilcariad had redeemed her.
“You were once this ballerina, Countess.”
Tara paled to near-whiteness. A distant, almost forgotten memory of ballet stirred in her mind. She took a step backwards and glanced up at the revolving three-dimensional dancer.
“What do you mean, Merchant?”
“Now you are a Countess, wife of ,the diplomat Julius Gilcariad, one day to be the mother of a son who will become governor of this planet many years hence.”
Tara’s mouth opened but no sound came out. Could these Xerxians foretell the future?
Before she could gather her breath to ask, the merchant went on.
“But once –” he said softly, indicating with his reptilian hand towards the dancer, “you were she.”
“Explain yourself, Merchant.”
Tara looked around. Paery and their bodyguard had not been permitted to enter this particular area of the gallery, which was reserved for private viewings only, and waited for her on a nearby landing, out of earshot.
She swallowed, and listened to the quickening beat of her heart.
“Once you were a professional dancer. You danced and leaped and swirled to the music of great composers from Earth.”
A long pause followed.
“Tchaikovsky.” At last Tara whispered the name through suddenly dry lips. She frowned, trying to remember, but it was like trying to grasp a dream just as awakening comes.
She turned back to the display alcove where the ballerina leapt gracefully across an unknown abyss and landed in mid-air, turned swiftly round and around, her head apparently never moving.
Tara smiled. She remembered that technique. Her head flicked slightly in sympathy.
“How do you know?” Her voice was a whisper, just as the memory was a whisper, a fragile broken dream.
More memories began to seep back into her consciousness, clearing, taking shape.
She licked her lips. Her fingers trembled as she raised her hand to the gold locket on a chain around her neck, which Julius had given her on their first anniversary.
“Because you are right. I have danced to Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Prokofiev. How could I ever have forgotten?”
As her voice strengthened, so did the memories.
“It was my whole life. I was a dancer, just as you say. With a ballet company from Earth. We toured the Quadrant. I did dance Aurora. And Juliet. And Odette.”
“You did,” said the old merchant. His eyes were shining like dark sapphires and in them, the holographic ballerina swept down into a curtsey and was still.
Tara watched the twin reflections. When she turned again to the alcove, the white lace ballerina was frozen in the curtsey.
“Will she dance again?” She sounded like a child who has been shown magic and wishes to be once more bewitched by it.
“I – can’t.”
“Your body and mind could remember, with the proper help. And the whole of you could enchant the worlds among the stars again. Your princes await.”
What kind of temptation was this? What was he offering her?
Tara sat down abruptly on a hard white seat and stared blindly at the merchant.
“What happened to me?”
“Your touring space vessel was captured by Time pirates,” he said softly. “And many of your people fought bravely and died trying to repel them. But in the end the pirates won control of your ship.
“Then they fell out among themselves about what to do with the living cargo. They disengaged all of your memories, reset your minds with false ones and scattered you throughout many time zones in past and future, to hide their tracks.”
“Heinrich,” whispered Tara suddenly. A tall, blond man blinked into her mind.
The lead dancer, always the prince to her princess. She had loved him, in that other life. Where was he now?
Tara raised her arms in a classical ballet movement. She turned her head gracefully as though to look up at some tall, leading man.
“I believe I could dance,” she said in wonder. She stood up, her slim, lithe body encased in the rich silk gown bought at vast expense by her husband at one of the exclusive shopping malls.
She kicked off her high heels and in bare feet stepped lightly across the wooden floor.
She turned, swayed downwards into a curtsey, mimicking the holographic ballerina, and then rose again, up onto tiptoe and turned slowly around twice. She lifted her hands and offered them into the old merchant’s.
“You have come back to yourself, Fion de la Mare,” he murmured.
“I’m Tara, Countess Gilcariad.”
“Although you are both, you must choose which life to lead. But your choice must be made here, before you leave this gallery. For once back in the embrace of your Count, it would be better not to remember a former love.”
Tara could see two sets of memories running side by side.
One of them ended abruptly with a curtain coming down over a great performance of her ballet company. The other started just as abruptly in the refugee camp from which the Count had rescued her.
She frowned. Had he implanted that memory there, to make himself her leading man, her hero and champion? Had he played her false?
“The pirates, my Lady, not your husband, wiped your memories,” the merchant reminded her softly. Tara wondered if he had read her mind.
“Who are you?” she said suddenly, withdrawing her hands from his leather ones. “How did you know who I was?”
The name Fion de la Mare was so intimately familiar to her that she knew it was her true one. But she liked Tara and she loved this life…
“I was in my younger years an officer in an interstellar military search and rescue force,” said the merchant. “I happen also to be a great admirer and connoisseur of human ballet performances.
“When I heard of the disappearance of the starship that was bringing your company to my home planet Xerxes, I persuaded my colleagues to search for you.”
“And you found us.”
“Our efforts found some of you. Not all, sadly. The Time pirates had moved too swiftly through the millennia, getting rid of the evidence.”
Tara understood. “But those of us you did find can’t recognise each other.
“And we are scattered anyway, to all corners of the Universe and to the wildernesses of different times. We can never be a dance company again.”
The tall, blond, beautiful Heinrich, her one-time prince and lover, came into her mind again. A searing regret ran through her heart.
“Did you find him?” Her voice was a whisper again. She knew she didn’t have to say whom she meant.
“What if we did, Countess – what would you do if you could have him at your side again?”
Tara covered her eyes with her hands. More memories returned, not all of them welcome. Heinrich had been beautiful, the best dancer she’d ever starred with, but…
“I’m married to Julius,” she said flatly. She narrowed her eyes and regarded the Xerxian through lowered lids. “So did you
“Yes, we did. Would you like to meet him again?”
Tara’s heart thumped in her chest and her dry lips felt as though they were cracking. Oh, God…
Tears formed in her eyes and fell, sparkling crystals on the green silk of her gown.
“I couldn’t hurt him,” she said, shaking her head. “I couldn’t do that to him.”
“Hurt whom?” The Xerxian was a little too sharp with his question, as though the answer meant a great deal.
Tara looked at him, puzzled.
“I know people find it strange, my being with my husband,” she said. “He rescued me, a chance in a million, from that refugee camp. I loved him then for that and I love him now.
“I love him, Merchant. To me, the thirty years that lie between our ages is as nothing, especially since we should both live well into our hundreds.
“And you have hinted that I will bear him his longed-for son.
“All of my life ahead is in his gift – and the child for him is in mine! I could not deprive him of the life we married to live. No matter if Heinrich were to stand before me now.”
The Xerxian nodded slowly. He could sense that what she said was true. He did have mind-reading powers to that extent at least.
“We shall turn this image off,” he said gently. “Would you like me to arrange that your memories fade with it?”
“Before someone else does?” She raised her chin again to stare at him.
“Your husband does have that power. But he would never use it.”
“How do you know?”
“Why are you here today? Julius Gilcariad sent you, did he not? He sent you alone onto this landing of the gallery.
“He loves you and he would never keep you a prisoner, even in a gilded cage. He wanted to give you a choice.”
“I choose Julius,” whispered Tara. “Kind, gentle, honourable, beloved. Always and forever.” She wiped away the wetness from her eyes.
“So be it.” The old merchant rose, his kindly, leathery features alive with pleasure. “And I am glad, Countess.”
He flicked a switch on a strap on his wrist. The beautiful hologram vanished.
“I’ll keep the memories, though, thank you,” said Tara sharply. “That way, Julius will know for sure that I chose him.”
“Very well.” The merchant offered his hand and Tara took it, rose from the wall-bench and followed him back past many other lovely artefacts in other alcoves, to the double doors of the gallery.
He released her hand and gently sorted through several small wooden drawers in a floor to ceiling display cabinet. He withdrew a small glass cube, set at an angle on one corner, balanced on an ebony stand. Within it, still now, was etched a three-dimensional image of the ballerina.
“There will be no charge, Countess,” the merchant said, wrapping it in lacy paper and placing it into Tara’s hands.
As she took it, Tara felt a sudden twinge of nausea flood through her. The merchant noted it and smiled again.
“That will prove to be a blessing,” he said softly, as he ushered her out and back into the company of Paery and the bodyguard.
There would be no need to tell her that Heinrich was killed during the capture of the ship. Why spoil her memories? She had made her choice honestly, and chosen her husband above her former lover. And soon they would be blessed with a child.
“Live long, Countess, and prosper,” he said softly, his words carrying softly on Xerxes’ gentle breeze.