Natural Perfection and Artificial Variation

 

Shika knew that there were no “real” seasons on Croatoan-at least not in the sense of real that a girl from Earth would use. The world of Croatoan had no sun to orbit and no axis to wobble on. The weather was always the same, never too hot and never too cold going back to the ancient War of the Crosswinds and the Nimbus Accords.

 

Aeons before the first Puritans arrived in Croatoan the two great houses of winds, the hot Swells and the cold Drafts battled for supremacy. It took hot air and cold air combined to raise the wings of birds and scatter the seeds of plants, but through cooperation between the great houses was necessary to get anything done on Croatoan question the great houses weren’t interested in cooperation. They were interested in rulership. Would Swells command Drafts or would Drafts command Swells? The question led to debate and the debate led to the War of the Crosswinds, a conflict that raged for a century and surface. Swells and Drafts clashed in violent storms and grappled in enormous tornadoes. But it was the surface that suffered as victors and vanquished alike were hurled to the ground.

 

Eventually it became painfully apparent to the great houses that their battles were in vain. Neither house could overcome the other. They had wanted to produce a singular orderly hierarchy but instead they produced destructive storm after destructive storm to the point multiverse travel books from the era refer to Croatoan as a world of violent winds. Filled with remorse for the destruction they had brought to the surface the great houses ceded their authority to the surface dwellers under the Nimbus Accords, articles that are still enforced to this day by the Croatoan Empire.

 

The Nimbus accords assured that peace reigned in the sky and on the surface. Because the surface dwellers lived within a small sliver of existence between the crust of the earth and the skin of the sky their demands were made in ignorance of the millennia of disputes and feuds that the great houses used to carve up the endless miles of sky with territorial borders. The surface dwellers cared only for their crops and their livelihood. And when they looked up at the sky they did not see the invisible winds and their invisible borders. They saw only unbroken blue sky, whole and unified.

 

And that is what the sky became under the rule of the surface dwellers, and that is what it has been ever since. The sky had always been cloudless, the temperature had always been mild, the winds had always been fair.

 

The Croatoan weather had always been perfect.

 

And it never stopped being perfect.

 

Croatoan’s constantly perfect weather deeply vexed the Puritan forefathers who remembered fondly the seasons of Earth. They could not forget the seasons. Even in a world of sleepy hills and dancing stars they could not forget the seasons. They could not forget the white snows of winter, the fire colored leaves of fall, the vivid blooms of spring, or the lazy showers of summer. Once peace was made with the native forefathers and the Croatoan Empire established and the formal Croatoan system of magic codified at More-Trial the new race of Croatoans went about introducing the seasons of their Earth to Croatoan.

 

During the reign of Emperor Makepeace Freegift More-Trial’s best thaumaturgists were charged with re-creating the seasons from the memories of the Puritan forefathers preserved in poem and song. Inventing the mechanics of the seasons was no challenge. It was time consuming to draw up schedules and maps and make sure the winds understood them, but it was no real challenge. Croatoan thaumaturgists are known for being excellent bureaucrats.  Nor was it a challenge to carry out the mechanics. In fact that was the easiest part of the entire task. The magical manipulation of hot and cold is so simple even a Croatoan youth too young to be trusted with his or her dreamstaff can be trusted to do it.

 

What was a challenge was getting the various living elements of Croatoan to go along with the seasons. Water had never been rain and the plants had never been rained on. The stars were horrified of the very idea of clouds obscuring their dances. Snowfall had to be demonstrated with illustrations. But the thaumaturgists were up for the challenge. They were known as the Imperial miracle workers, and in a world where even children can perform miracles with magic one does not get the reputation of miracle worker simply by being good at spells. One gets it by knowing that words were miracles all their own when unalloyed with magic powers. One gets it by mastering the arts of debate and diplomacy.

 

Winter proved to be the most difficult season to get all the different living elements to approve, and knowing this made Shika appreciate the idyllic winter landscape she saw from her hill transport all the more. In coming together to to create their own winter the Croatoans had created a beautiful, living symbol of their harmony with the living elements of their world. Although it was based on Earth’s winter season Croatoan winter had elements all its own born out of the compromises and innovations required to create it. When Empress Kijutsu was born on Christmas Day her subjects took it as a sign that she was destined for great things, for winter was the greatest of all Croatoan seasons. Above all other seasons it represented the fusion of Puritan memories and native magic that was uniquely Croatoan.

 

Try as she might Shika couldn’t help but compare the winter of Croatoan with its trees filled with ice trapped lights and floating rivers of color to the winter she knew back home in Japan where the sparse snowfall melted off hot metal buildings and the stars were barely visible behind street lights.

 

Shika started to feel uncomfortable and out of place again like a dustbunny on a beautiful oil painting. First the people of Croatoan made her feel inadequate and now the world itself.

 

Her thoughts started to grow in wild directions. If she felt this out of place just observing from a mobile hill than how out of place would she feel talking to Croatoans?

 

Would they comment on her accent? Would she say she wore her pointed Croatoan hat wrong? (Shika couldn’t help but continually fuss with it. She wasn’t sure if it should tilt this way or that way. And it made her wonder if she simply had a funnily shaped head) Would they tell her that she smelled like a city?

 

Shika threw her head back and looked to the stars. Maybe she could lose her thoughts in their dancing?

 

She hoped so.

 

The Stars in Winter

 

Shika leaned back against the mobile hill and began to lose herself in the slow dances of the stars. The silvery fireballs fluttered lightly on their blue stage circling, spinning, turning, and moving in all the indescribable ways that only stars can move. As they danced clouds heavy and dark with coming snow began to drift in front of them.The stars playfully ducked and darted behind the darkening clouds hiding just to suddenly reveal themselves like nimble dancers with ribbons and cloaks. As more stars fell in behind the clouds the sky dimmed purple. Then, when the sky was almost black and the subtle sparkle of the snowbanks was vividly pronounced by the deepening dark the stars teasingly revealed orange and red hues like dancers showing nimble limbs from behind veils.

 

This was a winter sunset in Croatoan, the stars dancing with the clouds. And even the Croatoans who had the privilege of seeing it day after day stopped decorating the trees and turned their heads skyward to watch.

 

And to think that when seasons were first proposed the stars were horrified by the idea of winter!

 

The stars were by far the most difficult of the groups the thaumaturgists had to convince to go along with winter. From the start they were against winter simply for it being a change. Stars are ardent traditionalists. Warm yellow stars are taught the steps to the great dances their cool red mothers invented when they were golden and blazing and young in a young universe.

 

In the time of the red mothers there were only stars in the universe. They were a universe of dancers without an audience, and they were very lonely. This changed when the Great Mother, first and most beautiful of all the stars, cooled herself to form the world of Croatoan. She cut off her golden hair, slowed her dance to a crawling orbit, and caked dirt on her radiant face. When the Great Mother was done cooling only a dull white core buried layers of rock remained as a reminder of her fire, only tiny sparks too beautiful to die hardened into gemstones remained as reminders of her color. The only reminders of her past beauty came in the form of leftover radiance too beautiful to die.

 

The world of Croatoan was her gift to her daughters purchased at a dear price. At last they had an audience to appreciate their dances.

 

And this world the Great Mother created, this gift to her beloved daughters, did not have nights or clouds or snow or anything to obstruct the view of ground to sky.

 

So when the thaumaturgists proposed the creation of a  period of time where there would not only be nights but long nights and not only clouds but thick banks black with moisture and not only snow but enough snow to cover the ground in a blanket of white fluff it was quite understandable that the stars’ first reaction was one of shock and disgust. The thaumaturgists had prepared for it. They sent only one thaumaturgist to explain the concept of winter-the one who drew the shortest stick.

 

It was also quite understandable that the stars would get a little emotional being a race that existed to express their feelings. The thaumaturgists took their hysterical promises to either destroy Croatoan by engulfing it in heat and light or destroy Croatoan by withdrawing all heat and light or destroy Croatoan by somehow doing both if they saw so much as a snowflake of winter with a pinch of salt.

 

“If you want a time of darkness and cold then we’ll give you a time of darkness and cold that WILL NEVER !” one angry young star was said to have shined these words right in the face of the Master Thaumatergist of the time Humility Barebones tanning his face and giving him the nickname Redbones.

 

After long, long talks (and the introduction of new idiom to the Croatoan lexicon: “to have a star’s argument” which means to react to a proposal with emotional outrage when one would actually agree if they just heard it all the way through ) the thaumaturgists successfully sold the idea of winter to the stars (they weren’t called the Imperial miracle makers for nothing!) by appealing to their sense of competition, for the stars of Croatoan are as competitive as they are vain and passionate.

 

There are many stars in the Field of Stars, and the sky around Croatoan is such a little thing compared to them. The skies of Croatoan are as vast as the skies from Shika’s universe, what the less poetically minded called “space”-vaster even, for they go on and on into infinity. But the skies around are limited. It is a stage with only so much room for the dancers. If the stars all shined their brightest at the same time the sky would be a single golden blaze without variation. For the sake of the dance the red mothers allowed only the best dancers to shine to their fullest. Their less graceful sisters had to be content with dimming to near darkness. Thus stars are always competing with one another. Dim stars compete to become bright stars and bright stars compete to avoid becoming dim stars. The thaumaturgists simply had to mention the importance of the Christmas star to the winter season to throw the golden apple into their midst.

 

A star brighter than any other star in the sky, a herald to  the birth of the King of All Creation and Savior of All Mankind-that was indeed a star. But mentioning the Christmas star only got the stars to listen to the thaumaturgists. They still had to explain to them how a star could become the Christmas star.

 

The thaumaturgists proposed that the stars consider winter a season long competition. Winter would have hours of clouds and hours of snowfall. These hours where the stars were obscured seen would be time for the stars to practice, to experiment and create new steps and new dances.The snow and clouds would grant the stars privacy not only from the surface but from their sisters. And at the end of the season on Christmas day (which had to be moved to February 14 on the modified Croatoan calendar, meaning Empress Kijutsu’s birthday was both Christmas and Valentine’s Day) the stars would show their new dances and be judged by their audience. And the one with the best dance would become the Christmas star and be permitted to shine brighter than all other stars in the sky for one hour. For one hour they would dance alone in the sky and all eyes star and Croatoan alik would be on them.

 

There was push back against the proposal, particularly from the red mothers and the brighter dancers. But there are always more dim stars than bright stars and they strongly supported the proposal. Many dim stars were constantly frustrated by their inability to conform to the steps of their red mothers and saw the Christmas star competition as a chance to prove they had worth, that it was only a lack of skill in learning the steps rather than a lack of innate skill that kept them from being as bright as their sisters.

 

Many of the brightest stars also put their support behind the proposal. They were confident in their positions in the traditional hierarchy and more than a little bored by centuries of success. They wanted to prove their superiority in a different way, and the idea of competing by hiding dance steps, by not being seen until Christmas day, sounded interesting, novel, and rather fun.

 

The elite stars supporting the proposal gradually caused the stars just under them in the hierarchy to support the proposal. The opinions of elite stars carried almost as much weight as the opinions of the red mothers.  Dimmer stars saw their brighter sisters not only as rivals but role models. The dimmer stars believed that the road to perfecting the dance and potentially rising in position laid in copying the brighter stars in all that they did. And more than a few dimmer stars welcomed the idea of the elites putting themselves in the vulnerable position of entering a new contest with new rules.

 

The thaumaturgists were making progress. They had captured the imagination of the young dancing stars with their proposal but still faced stiff resistance from the red mothers who all stars obeyed.

 

Their dance had always been a gift to the surface dwellers, just as their existence was a gift to the stars. And it was not right to pass judgement on a gift. The stars had seen firsthand what happened when one tried to judge a gift in the harsh lesson of the Cold One.

 

The Cold One

 

During the reign of Emperor Lament Freegift a rebellious star known only to history as the Cold One decided to pass judgement on the Croatoan surface dwellers. She judged them as ugly-painfully ugly. And she wanted to help them by making them as beautiful as the stars-even if they didn’t want to be.

 

She started to transform the surface dwellers against their will into beings like the stars. It did not bother her that they were frightened by their new bodies, that they tried to see with eyes and breathe with lungs that no longer existed. It did not bother her that they could no longer tell their children from their neighbors. All that mattered to her was that they were just as beautiful as herself.

 

Her sister stars quickly intervened and undid her magic.They stripped her of her name and it remains forgotten to this day. She was no longer even called a star. She was only the One, the cold, lonely One. Her sisters and mother smothered her radiance until she was a black spot indistinguishable from the black of the far sky. For it is only with the light of the stars that the sky of Croatoan appears blue, and none would come near her.

 

The Cold One was forbidden to dance, she was forbidden to shine, she was forbidden to be a star. She was cast out from the Field of Stars and became Croatoan’s invisible moon whose orbit influences spells dealing with loss and longing.

 

But that was not the end of the Cold One. Merciless though the stars are in their judgement the passing of years can breed mercy in any soul. And Empress Kijutsu would allow no stories to have sad endings in her realm.

 

After a year the very Croatoans she assaulted started to forgive her. Some visited her black surface to talk to the lonely once-a-star. Some even stayed and built the city-state Tace (future birthplace of Empress Kijutsu’s mother who took her name from the city-state) for the Cold One was a loyal land and kind to anyone that would stay with her.

 

The settlers of Tace returned her kindness. They were forbidden by her red mother from brightening her black surface, but they seeded her soil with gems and jewels from Croatoan. And the bright knockers followed the precious stones and brought caverns of light and warmth next to the heart of the Cold One.

 

After a decade the Cold One’s sister stars started to forgive her. They no longer ignored her. They no longer pretended that she was a black speck of nothingness. They talked to her. They accepted her apology. Some even danced for her, for she was so far away from the Field of Stars that their dances looked like flittering fireflies and she had forgotten what it was like to truly see her sisters dance. And although they like the settlers of Tace were forbidden by their red mothers from brightening her surface they did the next best thing. Combining sparks from their separate flames they brightened the space around the Cold One with a wreathe of fire. She would never again be without a presence in the sky, never again an ignored dot of darkness against a sea of darkness.

 

After a century her red mother started to forgive her under the urging of Empress Kijustsu as the teenaged Princess Alice Freegift.The Princess befriended the Cold One as she did all the beings of her world and pitied her for her long century of punishment. She wanted to restore the Cold One to her former splendor and could do so with but a wave of her dreamstaff. She urged her red mother to let her do so, but the proud giant refused. The Cold One had been punished by the stars, and while the decrees of stars can be reinterpreted they cannot be overturned. The Cold One would never again shine or dance like her sisters until the entire world was as cold and dark as she was. That was the decree, that was the destiny.

 

Princess Freegift could have forced the red mother to relent. As Princess of all Croatoan she certainly had to the authority to make that her decree and the power to enforce it. But Empress Kijutsu was always a kind and gentle soul. She hated to use force and always tried to find a nonviolent solution to conflicts. Though her mystic might was a force to be reckoned with she prefered to fight with words and ideas, and those were the weapons she brought against the red mother.

 

Princess Freegift argued that although the Cold One could not dance the dances of the stars she could dance the dances of winter-which were entirely different. She cited as precedent the argument Humility Barebones presented before the red mothers centuries ago to convince them to allow winter and Christmas.

 

Humility Barebones argued that surface dwellers wouldn’t actually be judging the dances of the stars during the Christmas competition. They wouldn’t judge the gift of the stars which was, of course, beyond critique. They would be judging the dances of winter. The dances of the stars came from the culture of the stars. Its steps were never concealed. The dances of winter came from the culture of Croatoans. Its steps were concealed until Christmas day. They were two different kinds of dance, and one kind did not have to be judged like the other.

 

Humility Barebones argued that if Croatoans could have many different kinds of dances with their own rules and circumstances (the Puritan rule against dancing was one of the first things to change when the Puritans started blending their culture with native’s) from slow dances meant for the ballrooms of palaces to fast dances meant for the taverns of villages then why not the stars who were known to be the greatest dancers in all creation?

 

It was this argument that convinced the red mothers to support the creation of winter and it was this argument restated by Princess Alice that convinced the red mother of the Cold One to allow her to compete in the Christmas dances though she was sure she would lose and lose handily being dull and black.

 

The Cold One was even more sure of her defeat than her red mother was, and Princess Alice found more difficulty in convincing the Cold One to compete than in convincing her red mother in letting her compete. But the Empress always had a winning personality and in time the Cold One trusted her enough to trust herself.

 

Princess Alice concealed the Cold One behind a barrier of invisibility and helped her relearn the grace she had almost totally forgotten after years of neglect. In guiding the furtive creature through barely-remembered basic steps Princess Alice become one of the few beings in all of creation to dance with a star.

 

Princess Alice kept it secret that she was aiding the Cold One. She knew that her subjects would vote for the Cold One on Christmas Day if they knew the once-a-star had her support. Princess Alice wanted the Cold One to have the dignity of competing fairly and honestly as a star would, win or lose. She did not help the Cold One with her magic. She didn’t enchant her with extra skill. She didn’t alter her appearance. She only used her powers to do one thing: brighten the thin ribbon of fire that encircled her so that when she danced the grace and skill that was hers and hers alone would be clearly seen by everyone on the surface and in the sky.

 

The Cold One’s dance was influenced by the “cloud dancing” of the youngest stars. During winter the older, more skillful stars hid behind the clouds and snow and practiced their dances for Christmas day while the younger stars, more interested in socializing with their sisters than earnestly competing, were content to playfully shine down on Croatoan regardless of cloud cover. Gradually, free of expectation and competition, they began to experiment and developed an entirely new kind of dance focused on using cloud cover to dim and hide themselves like human dancers with fans and scarfs. The beautiful “sunset” Shika enjoyed from atop her hill transport was but one of their dances and its informal, spontaneous nature meant that this kind of sunset might never be seen again.

 

The older stars considered cloud dancing to be low form of the art. After all there were no stakes to cloud dancing. But cloud dancing popular very with Croatoans. Perhaps there was something in their human blood that told them that the faint oranges and yellows of the star made sunset were just as beautiful as the gold and silver of older dancing stars. Shika certainly felt something powerful and calming rise in her being as she looked to the sunset. Whatever the reason Croatoans classify list cloud dancing among their canon of star dances even as the red mothers ignore it.

 

According to Enoch Faithful’s Guide to the Stars there are three types of dances stars perform: saltare astra, the traditional dance of the stars that occurs regularly in all seasons but winter, saltare hiems, the dance of winter which includes all the unique dances performed on Christmas day, and saltare nubibus, the dance of the clouds which the red mothers do not count as real dancing.

 

But if a  dance can only be danced one time by a single being and still be a dance then there was fourth in the canon-saltare unum frigus, the dance of the Cold One. For though her dance was inspired by saltare nubibus it was truly unlike anything the Croatoans or the stars had seen before.

 

On Christmas day the Cold One skillfully manipulated her ribbon of fire as she danced. She made it flash like a comet, crest like a wave, and soar like a bird. She made it move in ways even stars could not move. She was only a black spot against a black sky but she used this to her advantage. It allowed her to spin her ribbon in front of her and make it seem as if she were two, sometimes three small stars locked in a synchronized dance with each other.

 

And though in the decades to come her sister stars would try to imitate the saltare unum frigus none could ever measure up to the Cold One, for it was her dullness that made the dance brilliant.

 

And her dance won.

 

And for that Christmas day she was not the Cold One. She was the Christmas star.

 

And for one hour she shown with all the splendor of her past life as a star.

 

And for one hour she glowed.

 

And for one hour everyone saw her glow.

 

And though no one ever found out that Princess Freegift helped the Cold One everyone knew she felt deeply for the star. For she was seen weeping with joy on her balcony when the Cold One was made a star again for one  incredible hour.

 

To Live of Life in Balance

 

“Shika…Shika come on!” Nathanael poked his bony wing into Shika’s side. “Don’t tell me you’re sleeping! You can’t be napping during your lesson with the Empress! Night classes does not mean nap classes!”

 

“I’m not sleeping.” Shika growled. “I’m watching the stars.”

 

“Are you sure? I think I saw your eyelids droop a little.”

 

“Yes I’m sure.” Shika pushed the agathion away. “How can anyone sleep when something that beautiful is happening overhead?”

 

“Well you aren’t just anyone, you know.” Nathanael shrugged. “If anyone could fall asleep while watching the stars of Croatoan dance it would be you.”

 

“You know I’ve been looking forward to watching the stars dance.” Shika said. “I’ve been wanting to ever since I finished reading Dr. Dubnotal’s History of the Croatoan Empire.”

 

“Did you actually read the whole book this time or did you skip parts like when you said you read your physics book?”

 

Shika ignored the agation. When he started going after her flaws like this he was either hungry or found out she did something wrong…or he was worried about her, which he clearly was now.

 

Shika couldn’t blame the little agathion. She was worried to.

 

“You know it’s not just their beauty that fascinates me…although they ARE beautiful.” Shika continued. “What really fascinates me is their history, how the Croatoans influenced them and how they influenced the Croatoans back- Dr. Dubnotal talks about it in chapter ten “The Reign of Makepeace Freegift” by the way.” Shika added smugly. “The Croatoans introduced the idea of winter to the stars but the stars introduced ideas of their own to the Croatoans. When Humility Barebones watched the first snow with Emperor Makepeace Freegift he said to him “Sire, I have succeeded in creating a winter, but I fear I have failed in creating our winter.” And Emperor Makepeace Freegift turned to him and said “Perhaps. But you have succeeded in creating our winter.” To me that says everything about what makes Croatoan such a great world.”

 

“I know. I was there during the first snowfall.” the agation grumbled. “I was there when the Puritans first arrived carried by the Staff of Solomon. I’m older than you Shika. I’m older than your parents. I’m older than your house, your city, your country…”

 

“Yes yes yes I know how old you are.”

 

“But do you ever treat me like you should an elder? Nope. Do you think the Empress is going to let you get away with talking to her like she’s your age? She’ll send you packing!”

 

“But in all your years of great sage agathion-”

 

“Shika!”

 

“- Have you ever really thought how cool it is a world can have two cultures stand side-by-side and influence each other peacefully? I’m not sure you have Natty. Being from around here I’m not so sure you realize how incredible all this Croatoan history and culture really is. Take the tradition of the Christmas star. In the original Christianity of the Puritans the Christmas star was just a star-I mean just a star like an Earth star. It wasn’t alive I mean.”

 

“Well you DO know that some of the stars in your universe are alive. Like Solon the Living Nova.”

 

“Yes yes yes I know. You know what I mean though. The Christmas star was originally just a ball of cosmic fire. But when the Christmas star competitions started Croatoans began associating the star in the Bible with the living stars of Croatoan. Mary mother of Christ started to be seen as a star herself, and that’s why the star that wins the Christmas competition is sometimes called the Mary star or just the Mary. And Christ, the most important element of the Puritan faith, started to be thought of as part star, and in the tradition of the Astralist sect he’s thought of as all-star.”

 

“Hmmmm….so you even know about the Astralists. I see that you HAVE been studying.” Nathanael said. “For a change.”

 

“Well I don’t know if I would call it studying. It doesn’t feel like studying.” Shika said. “Reading up on Croatoan culture is just fun for me.”

 

“Ah. Well that explains it then.”

 

“And it’s not even the big important stuff like theology that’s been influenced by the stars. The stars influence little stuff like winter parties and balls. I don’t suppose you’ve gone to a lot of those. They don’t seem like something you’d be interested in…” Shika teased.

 

“Hmph!” The little agathion puffed out his speckled chest. “I’ll have you know that every year I get an invitation to the Imperial Masquerade at From-Above! Some people realize how wise an agathion of my age is-and show respect for that wisdom!”

 

“But how many of them have you actually been to?”

 

“Er…enough.”

 

“Well did you know that the reason winter balls tend to be masquerades is because the stars conceal themselves in winter? And that people hold dance competitions in honor of the Christmas star competition?”

 

“Yes, of course. I was actually at the Imperial Masquerade when the Empress competed in the dance competition under disguise.”

 

“Really? You were there for that?”

 

“Don’t act so surprised.”

 

“I remember that episode on Trials of Alice the Magical Girl! It happened when she was thirteen right? About a year after she came to Earth?”

 

“Yes. And I didn’t have to watch a dramatization. I saw the real thing happened.It was one of the more exciting Imperial Masquerades  I can remember, not only for the shocking reveal that the Princess was the winning dancer but for all the commotion her reflection caused. The Princess wanted to compete fairly and didn’t want anyone to suspect who she was, so she let her reflection out of the mirror to pretend to be her for the evening.”

 

“I remember.” Shika said. “I mean I remember the show. Her reflection turned out to be very, very mischievous. You know, I think that was one of favorite stories about the Empress I ever heard back when I was a child.”

 

“You still ARE a child Shika.”

 

“The reflection almost stole the Empress’s first kiss with the young Emperor Tobio Kijutsu.” Shika continued as a smile slowly grew on her face. “But her rival the Snow Empress Kasai ended up stopping the kiss thinking that the Empress was her reflection.”

 

“Ha! I remember that! She started turning the reflection’s dress to ice. Clear, transparent ice. That got the troublemaker to run off!”

 

“You know, the Empress has really lived an incredible life.” Shika sighed longingly. “She’s had a life of adventures and misadventures, secrets and surprises, coincidences and miracles…”

 

“Don’t act like the Empress has had some sort of cushy, painless life!” Nathanael fluttered angrily in front of her face.

 

“Oh I’m not not saying that and you know it.” Shika. “Everyone knows how she fought against the Nimbus Knights and Black Crystal. What I’m saying is that she’s made an incredible life for herself. She’s turned hardships into adventures and dangers into triumphs, and not just in her life but in the live of those around her. As a taiyo shojo from a long line of taiyo shojo every time I draw Amaterasu’s fire out of my soul and make it dance to my will I’m reminded how much I owe her. She’s an incredible person. And glad she wants to be my teacher.”

 

“You should be MORE than glad Shika.” Nathanael said. “The Empress is one of the most powerful beings in all creation. She created her own form of white magic, she shattered the unbreakable Black Crystal, she-”

 

“Yes yes yes, her accomplishments are vast and her power great.” Shika rolled her eyes. “I’ve heard you sing her praises a million times before, it must be your favorite song.”

 

“Don’t you speak so flippantly about the Empress! If you don’t show her the proper respect she’ll send you home!”

 

“Come on Nathanael. You know I respect the Empress. I just respect her for being a person, not for being a living font of magical power.”

 

“And that’s good. But you’re here to learn how to be a living magical font of power yourself. You need to respect her AND her power.”

 

“But it’s not her power I want her to teach me, not really Power isn’t something that interests me, you know that. I wouldn’t know what to do with the kind of power she has.”

 

“And therein lies the problem. No ambition.” Nathanael muttered under his breath.

 

Shika pretended not to have heard him. “What I want her to teach me is balance. I want to have the balance that lets her be Croatoan and Japanese, Empress and Mahou Fujinsama. She’s just like Croatoan itself. She’s several things that come together in a balanced whole.”

 

“You aren’t here to get a life lesson from the Empress. You have your parents for that. And me! You’re here to learn her White Way.”

 

“I think that learning her White Way will be part of learning her balance. She wouldn’t have brought balance to herself and others if she didn’t use her power as creatively as possible.”

 

“But what do you want to do with this balance? The Empress isn’t going to teach you how to organize your life, she’s going to teach you how to do things and she’s going to expect you do things. So what are you going to do?”

 

Without saying a word Shika smiled and fell back onto the hill.

 

“What are you doing?” Nathanael asked.

 

“This world…so colorful, so incredible, so…magical!” Shika threw her arms out wide. “This is what I want to do! This is what I want to do with my magic!”

 

“You want to do what exactly?” Nathanael stared hard at Shika with his large green cat-like eyes. “Make sense girl!”

 

“I want to do what the thaumaturgists did silly, what the Empress did! They introduced ideas-seasons to the stars and Croatoan magic to the taiyo shojo. It was like they planted new seeds in new soil. They didn’t know what would happen. They didn’t know that they would create new cultural traditions or create champions that would protect earth with their magical powers. They just…did good. And their good produced more good, like a plant producing more seeds…”

 

“Hmph.” Nathanael said. “It sounds to me like you think becoming a great witch is going to give you license to be lazy.”

 

“What?” Shika scrunched her face in agitation. “No! What are you talking about?”

 

“Typical Shika…you get phenomenal powers and skills and what do you want to do with it? You want to watch it. You want to sit back and let your magic work for you while you watch.”

 

“That’s not what I mean Nathanael. I mean I want to be like the thaumaturgists.  I mean I want to be like…like well, my mother and my grandmother. Sort of.”

 

Nathanael smirked and raised an eyebrow as if to say “really?””

 

“ I want to plant seeds and watch them grow. I want to set great things in motion. That is not being lazy!”

 

“Maybe not in the context of being a gardner. But you’re trying not to be a gardener remember? You’re trying to be a great witch.”

 

“Well duh. I’m trying to be like the Empress and thaumaturgists who-”

 

“Who were not gardners. They did not just set things in motion and then watch. They constantly struggled. They constantly pushed. That’s what you have to do. That’s what you have to do to accomplish anything truly great.”

 

Shika fell silent and turned away from the agathion. She was afraid that once again the agathion was right.

 

“You say that you want to be like the Empress and the thaumaturgists. But Shika, what they are is closer to warriors and explorers than gardeners.” There was a growing edge of softness to Nathanael’s voice. “You can’t have things both ways. You can’t be a gardener and a great witch. You can’t be like your mother Shika. You know that.”

 

And Shika was again silent, and again she was afraid that the agathion was right.

 

“She wouldn’t want you to be like her.” Nathanael said softly. “Not with the kind of promise you have.”

 

Shika signed and turned over on the soft grass. She focused her gaze on the snow covered plains reflecting the orange glow of the sunset and her thoughts followed. She started to think back on what she knew of the waters of Croatoan and the role they had in winter. And she hoped that she could think about enough things to submerge her growing anxiety.

 

Shika wanted Empress Kijutsu to teach her balance, to teach her the secret she used to be both Croatoan and Japanese, teacher and empress. Shika wanted to be a great witch, she wanted to use her powers to do the most good. But she also wanted to live a simple and uncomplicated life like the life mother and grandmother lived. She just wanted to create plants and watch them grow.

 

But now she was starting to realize that Nathanael, as usual, was right. And as usual he was right in the worst possible way. Balance did not necessarily mean having things both ways.

 

The Waters in Winter

 

After the great trouble Humility Barebones and his thaumaturgists had convincing the stars to support winter it was a huge relief to find that the waters of Croatoan were immediately favorable of the idea. They winter proposal was a new idea, and the waters supported new ideas as strongly as the stars rejected them.

 

Croatoan waters are naturally adventurous. They live their lives plunging to the dark depths of the oceans, skimming across the surfaces of starlight dappled seas, winding through continent spanning rivers, and losing themselves in quiet undiscovered lakes. In the language of water there is no word for “home”. Their scholars translate the human word into something like “a place where beings that feel fear become fearless like water”. Water poets are fascinated by the word “home” because normally they associate well-being with constant motion. “Home” is thus seen by water poets as a beautifully strange word that reconciles opposites. A common phrase in their poems is “to bring home” which means, depending on the context, to see something a different way, to bring order out of conflict, to create something new, or to do the seemingly impossible.

 

The adventurous waters loved what the thaumaturgists had planned for them to do in winter. First they would drift as vapor high into the sky (which they had never done before) to then cool and form clouds (which they had never been before), and then they would fall over distant lands (which they had never seen before) in the form of something the eldest Puritan exiles with century-old eyes and white beards that dragged like their robes spoke of with wistful nostalgia, something soft and white and capable of being sculpted into different shapes, something that faded almost as soon as it arrived and was all the more beautiful for it, something called snow.

 

The waters loved the idea of being snow. But of course they had to introduce a few changes. Croatoan snow couldn’t just be frozen water. That was too simple, too boring for water.

 

If you took some Croatoan snow in your hand, possibly a Croatoan snow ball (but be sure to ask first. If a water is in the form of a snowball odds are it’s trying to travel somewhere and would not appreciate being held up) then you would notice that it feels like any snow from Earth-but only at the very first touch. It will feel cool, but not to the point that it bites at your hand. Croatoan water is much too polite to ever bite. Your won’t even redden. And the snow will remain cool even if you squeezed it or put it next to open flame (which you really shouldn’t do-unless of course the snow asks you to. Then it’s okay) it will retain its solidity and shape. The only thing that can melt Croatoan snow is the Croatoan calendar. The first hour of spring is called The Grand Deluge for a reason. The waters all melt at once and sweep over the land as they journey back to their familiar rivers and seas. The Grand Deluge is a time for magnificent boat races where dragon boats race alongside dragons in the current of the rushing waters. The races have deep symbolic importance to the Croatoans. Freshly constructed boats sail to the future on the waves of a winter gone by and many are the customs and games that take place during the races from daring custom of dragon wrestling to the playful custom of mermaid fishing. But those are stories that must wait for another time. For it was mid December in the Croatoan that Shika traveled through and the Grand Deluge was far away.

 

When snow falls on Earth it blankets the ground in sheets and piles and hills of white powder. ButCroatoan water is much too creative to just mimic sheets and piles and hills. They also mimic the trees, the buildings, the plants, and even the people and the stars. For water the winter season is a time of adventure and change and that includes the adventure of changing into a completely new identity. If you happen to walk one wintry day through a Croatoan forest (with the permission of the trees of course) you might find a tree with a trunk like a still waterfall and branches like icicles. If you happen to walk one wintry day through the halls of From-Above you might see a beautiful courtier with skin whiter than the whitest marble and hair blue like a frosted stream.

 

On any wintry day you can find the snow mimicking the world around them and for this reason winter is sometimes called the season of mirrors. But savor the sight while you can for water is a roamer and while the forms of winter amuse them for a season the ocean is the only place where they can continually assume forms without limits. When winter ends and spring begins the waters are happy to resume their fluid shapes and flow back to the oceans to share stories of where the season took them and what they did (embellishment of stories is not only allowed but encouraged, which has lead to the creation of the Croatoan idiom “a watery story” which means “an exaggeration or lie”).

 

The Puritan forefathers remembered winter as a time of reflection and togetherness, a time of tradition, a time to bolt the windows against winds heavy with ice and gather around the fireplace with family and friends to read the ancient words of the Bible. It was a time to pool resources as a community and eat from reserves. It was not a time of risk, adventure, or frivolity.

 

And some orthodox Croatoans still stick to the old customs. They sit by the fireplace and read from the holy book of their choice, usually the Third Revised Croatoan Bible or the Astralist Hymnal. But every year more and more Croatoans give themselves over to more modern ways of celebrating winter. And part of this trend can be attributed to the adventurous ways waters celebrate winter and in particular how they interact with young Croatoans in the winter custom known as caroling.

 

Caroling is the usual preoccupation of young Croatoans in wintertime. And while the custom takes its name from the a custom which takes its name from the Earth custom of going outdoors to sing songs and collect treats from the neighborhood Crotoan caroling involves far more than its Earth counterpart. Croatoan caroling refers to a whole assortment of outdoor adventuring young Croatoans partake in during winter. Croatoan youths go caroling out in the snow (and with the snow) every year to be entertained by the waters’ creations. There would be mountains to climb (and slide down) and mirrored mazes to walk (and get lost in). There would be month long snowball wars with the waters acting as generals, soldiers, and ammunition. And there would be the jester mimics bringing gentle parody to Croatoan culture and politics.

 

Jester mimics weren’t water mimics in the shape of jesters (although Croatoan did have those) rather they were water mimics who copied the forms of members of the Imperial Court and Parliament for the amusement of common Croatoans. The mimics of Empress Kijutsu dancing around a small Tokyo Tower that Shika saw from her hill were a troupe of jester mimics. While their dance was done purely to celebrate the girlhood of the Empress and Croatoan’s historic ties to Japan other jester mimics are known to put a slight satirical bent to their performances. The waters of winter see a lot of Croatoan as they fly over in the form of clouds and when they snow done they sometimes feel the need to comment on what they have seen.

 

Being naturally daring (and knowing that they’ll return to the oceans in a few months) the waters feel little need to censor themselves. But it was rare for there to ever be a call for censorship in the first place. Croatoan is a world known for its unity. Save for the one-year rebellion of the Nimbus Knights the various races of the Empire have always gotten along. There were no political parties and no political strife in Croatoan, and thus Jester mimics never felt the need to sink to the bitterness Shika saw in the political satire she saw in newspapers back home in Japan.

 

When jester mimics satirized a subject they did so with gentleness. A thaumaturgist that hasn’t done much throughout the year might be depicted as sleeping in bed. A governor that has spent too long designing and redesigning a new tower for a city might be depicted as playing with blocks. Even the beloved Empress was parodied from time to time as a rebel against tradition.

 

She was sometimes depicted as a painter engrossed in creating an impressionistic depiction of the surroundings and this both represented her desire to depict things as she saw them, and not necessarily as they are, and her noted love of modern Earth art (which was something the Croatoan court could not stand the the Croatoan people could not understand). Shika remembered that one of her favorite episodes of Trials of Alice the Magical Girl titled Alice Paints a Magic Picture dramatized an episode in her life where she remodeled a wing of From-Above with William T Williams and Alvin Loving paintings. The Master Thaumaturgist of the day Justice Fear-God decided to display the court’s opinion on Alice’s tastes by subtly changing the colors of the paintings a little each day until she finally noticed-a week later. The court had a good laugh at Alice’s expense, but she had her revenge by painting From-Above’s windows and towers with a magic paint that appeared invisible up close but at a distance of 5,000 meters appeared as vivid, wild colors that made From-Above look like it came out of one of Alice’s beloved paintings. The stars were in on the joke and it the court only realized what Alice had done when a water mimic that saw the colors as a cloud ratted her out-a year later.

 

But regardless of how the Empress was satirized there was never any outrage over how she was depicted-with one notable exception in the 1970’s that Shika knew of from the episode The Princess if a Japanese Girl ?. When Princess Freegift began spending more time in Japan and less time in her homeland many feared that the Princess was “going native” and a jester mimic troupe decided to give voice to that fear one winter season.They depicted the Princess dressed in a Japanese high school uniform without her hat or dreastaff or knocker ring or any identifiable Croatoan effects walking through the familiar features of Croatoan like From-Above and More-Trial with the bewildered look of a tourist on her face.

 

The Princess thought it was funny. The Court, as usually, did not share her tastes.

 

The insinuation that Princess Alice had forgotten her roots and had become completely assimilated by Japanese culture infuriated the public. The jester mimics had gone too far. Even those that felt the charge held some weight rushed to defend their princess. The Princess was the Princess, and she was owed respect regardless of her faults.

 

Princess Freegift spoke in defense of the mimics, but this just caused the Court to snap at her saying that she wasn’t taking her image seriously. And the Princess found herself in the interesting position of defending the mimics who didn’t take her image seriously from a court who didn’t think she took her image seriously. Her solution was to encourage cultural exchange between Croatoan and Japan by buying a chunk of Tokyo real estate and weaving it across the quintessence wall with a chunk of Increase. If the people were so worried about Tokyo turning her Japanese then they were free to turn a little of bit of Tokyo Croatoan.

 

Crotokyo as it was called exists to this day just as a center of cultural exchange just as the Empress intended. Croatoans eat at sushi bars. Japanese pray at Croatoan churches. Clothing shops sell shoes with heels and shoes with brass buckles. Crotokyo is particularly known for its large population of mahou shojo. Shika’s grandmother grew up in Crotokyo. It had special schools where Croatoan magic was taught to mahou shojo by Croatoan thaumaturgists.The local pet shop was managed by the pets themselves who offered their services as familiars to mahou shojo in need of friendship and guidance. Several teams of mahou shojo based themselves out of Crotokyo including the Flower Soldiers and the Earthblood Knights (both of which invited Shika to join their ranks. Shika was honored, but she turned them down. She never liked being part of a group, she never was outgoing. And she hated the very idea of learning to fight).

 

Crotokyo not only helped the Princess’ subjects stop worrying about her forgetting her roots but helped unite Japan and Croatoan as historic allies. Princess Alice of course encountered obstacles in constructing Crotkoyo-the Princess rarely created anything that didn’t threaten to backfire on her in some way. Certain towers from Increase violated Japanese airspace laws that the Princess overlooked-it turned out that the laws measured “airspace” as distance from the ground instead of whether or not the air was physically over Japan, so the fact the air over Crotokyo was a dimensional blend made no difference to the law. And her ever-mischievous rival Empress Kasai purchased a tower under an assumed identity and converted it into a enormous ice tower that dwarfed the Tokyo Tower both to show off her magical might and to further Princess Freegift’s legal problems. But the Princess surmounted these obstacles, as she did with all obstacles, with creativity and magic. She made a deal with the Tokyo Metropolitan Bureau of Transportation. In exchange for exclusive transportation rights to and from the towers she was allowed to magically weave portions of the Tokyo subway system with the pinnacles of Crotokyo’s towers thereby creating a legal loophole. The top of the towers couldn’t be in the airspace if they were also underground.

 

The creation of Crotokyo was a learning experience. The Princess’ subjects learned that she could balance Croatoan culture with Japanese influences. The Bureau learned that they could advertise that “taking the Crotokyo line is faster than taking the elevator!”. Tokyo Metropolitan lawyers learned that the word games of legislation were no match for the word games of magic spells. And a young girl named Shika after hearing the story from her grandmother who saw the creation of Crotokyo firsthand that if one was clever enough and skilled enough one could come up with a way to have two seemingly mutually exclusive things at once. One could be a girl from Croatoan and a girl from Tokyo.

 

If one was skilled enough.

 

If one was clever enough.

 

But at the moment Shika didn’t feel skilled or clever. She felt anxious.

 

Ice Paramours

 

Jester mimicry satires are far from the only thing waters create during the winter season. They create landscapes of rolling hills and reaching trees that appear only once like enormous snowflakes and they’re perfect for spending an afternoon meandering through. They create mazes to delight young and old alike with shifting walls and funny faces that watch challengers and offer hints to those that can solve their riddles-or just make them laugh. In modern times they’ve also been known to form frozen lakes for Croatoans to ice skate on.

 

Before Princess Freegift introduced the idea of ice skating to Croatoan the waters had never really considered forming frozen lakes. They froze into solid shapes during winter as a way to try new forms. They saw no fun in simply being what they were during the rest of the seasons but frozen in place. And while having people step in them with blades wouldn’t have bothered them in the slightest they would have found it dreadfully boring to have to watch everyone skate from below.

 

When Princess Freegift first introduced the idea of ice skating to Croatoan it was met with disinterest. And the chilly reception disappointed the Princess. She had a wonderful experience learning how to ice skate from her crush Tobio Kijutsu and wanted to share that experience with her subjects. But she came up with a solution after Tobio took her to her first Shibuya dance club. Having grown up only knowing the slow traditional dances of her homeland Princess Alice was hesitant to try a more modern form of dance. But though the experience was less than ideal (her awkwardness on the dancefloor caused people to laugh at her, and Empress Kasai made things worse by by making the floor beneath her slick with ice so that she fell right on her face) it gave her the idea of making Croatoan ice skating like a modern dance hall with differently colored lights and sounds (all filtered through Croatoan sensibilities of course). This promised the waters that they would have an active part to play in ice skating and finally won them over.

 

A Croatoan “dancing pond” creates the kind of soft, haunting music Croatoans love to dance to by churning water through ice cylinders. Below the surface a dancing pond stains itself with magically luminescent dyes. By changing its currents a dancing pond can make the dyes move like ribbons underneath the ice and cause the colors to spin and blur in time to the tempo of the music. Sometimes a dancing pond trails its colors behind the feet of its skaters marking their trail just as their skates mark the ice. In this way skaters not only dance with the music but with the music.

 

When the music is in time with the lights and the lights are in time with the skaters the dancing pond offers an experience that seems quintessential Croatoan custom-quiet, reserved, and just a little bit eerie.

 

And most don’t know that it was inspired by a Tokyo disco the Princess fell flat on her face at.

 

And most don’t believe it when you tell them.

 

The waters do not limit themselves to landscapes and mazes and dancing ponds. They also take the forms of Croatoans-not the form of Croatoan celebrities as the jester mimics do but general Croatoan forms that allow them to assume an identity as a unique Croatoan. They become handsome snow-men with strong eyes that shine like icicles and shoulders as broad as snowbanks. They become beautiful snow-women with eyes as unique as snowflakes and grace as gentle as snow flurries. And these beautiful creatures engage in gentle courtships, melancholy crushes, emotional rivalries, and passionate liaisons with the sons and daughters of Croatoan. For as as strange as it may seem it has long been a tradition for teenage Croatoans seek out “ice paramours” to have brief winterlong courtships with. Almost every young Croatoan has had at least one ice paramours. Even Princess Freegift carried on a relationship for several winters with an ice paramour named White Jack (who would challenge her Earthling boyfriend Tobio Kijutsu to icicles at ten paces, but that is another story for another time).

 

The idea that a society as traditional as Croatoan’s would have a custom of young men and women seeking out flings with waters in the shape of humans seems at first confusing to many Croatoan scholars. But it must be remembered that young Croatoans have their future marriages arranged in their childhoods. Princess Alice Freegift was considered extremely maverick in choosing the Earth boy Tobio Kijutsu to wed over her arranged husband Enoch Barebones ( and it would not be her only -or most- controversial decision). As Croatoans were exposed to cultures beyond their world they learned about modern Earth ideas of dating and romance. They saw It Happened One Night and Roman Holiday and the young began to fight against the idea of arranged marriages.

 

The wise Croatoan elders knew that resisting the young was a wasted effort. What they condemned the young would embrace with open arms. So they tasked the thaumaturgists with creating some solution to the problem (for the thaumaturgists had proven themselves skilled in supplying odd solutions to odd problems with the success of the season proposals). The thaumaturgists came up with the idea of “ice paramours” as a way for Croatoan youth to live out their romantic desires in a kind of “practice courtship” that lasted only as long as the snow lasted and was all the more attractively exciting and romantic for its brevity. With ice paramours the youth were able to enjoy romance for the fleeting frivolity that it was-and learn to see all relationships founded on base emotion as such. They learned to separate indulgent romantic enjoyment from their responsibility that was their arranged marriage-to-be. They learned that, as the Croatoan saying goes “fun and games are for winter, duty and family are for life”.

 

With the promise that the relationship would dissolve with the coming of spring Croatoan youth were allowed to experiment and learn about love and found the ice paramours more than willing partners. The ice paramours were all very curious about romance and vastly outnumbered the latest generation of Croatoans. There were more than enough ice maids and ice men to go around.

 

The shyest and loneliest Croatoan would be sought by a comely ice paramour and be taught to approach love with courage. With the courtship lasting only a season they would learn not to squander their time with their partner but always work with them to create moments that would be meaningful and lasting memories. When spring brought a final end to their relationship  they would learn how to carry on in the absence of a significant other. And for their part the waters got to learn about the thrill of jealousy, the intimacy of reciprocated affection, the sobering sting of rejection, and all the complex feelings of human love.

 

It is understood by young Croatoans that the winter courtship of an ice paramour is not meant to last. A girl or boy that shows excessive emotion over the parting of his or her ice paramour is considered by his or her peers as childish as is a girl or boy that sees the same ice paramour for more than two or three seasons. It is understood that ice paramours are living embodiments of young love, not mature love. They are fickle and fleeting and thrive on the exciting newness of relationships. It is rare to find a water that wants to return the next winter in the same form to the same lover. It would be wrong to ask for the love of an ice paramour like one would ask for the love of another Croatoan, for they cannot give the kind of love that lasts til death. It is within their nature to be exciting and intimate and fun, but it is not within their nature to love a Croatoan like a Croatoan.

 

But there are exceptions. In a world like Croatoan how can there not be exceptions? Uncommon thought it is there are waters that hold on to their mimicked forms well after the calendar switches to spring. To give up a fluid existence for the limitations of the Croatoan form is something most waters would not do. But in every group there are always individuals of exceptional sensibilities. Most waters would balk at the idea of limitations, but some see willingly accepting the limitations of humanity as a natural extension of their innate desire for adventure. They see that within limitations there are possibilities for adventures that never would have occurred in the boundless expanse of the oceans. And they see within the limitations of matrimony a great adventure-perhaps the greatest adventure possible.

 

It is a secret fantasy of many Croatoan girls to charm a snow boy until he leaves the freedom of his watery form behind for her. But wives to these men of ice know that it was not love for them that drove their husbands to adopt a permanent form. It was love for love itself as humans know it in all its selfishness and selflessness. It was love of humanity itself that charmed the waters.

 

Although marriage between a Croatoan and a body of water is certainly an unusual sort of union they are allowed by both the Imperial Croatoan Church and the Astralist Reform Church. The people do not look down on these marriages so long as the two lovers are serious about their commitment-and the raising of their children. For Croatoans see children as the chief aim of marriage and do not even consider a couple truly married until a child is produced.

 

Some Croatoan/water couples adopt their child, usually a human child from Earth. The natural immortality of Croatoans coupled with their strong family values means parentless children are practically unheard of in Croatoan. Given the strong ties between Croatoan thaumaturgists and the mahou shojo of Japan orphaned mahou shojo are often adopted by Croatoan/water couples who raise the girl in Crotokyo so that she can be exposed to both Croatoan and Japanese culture. But more commonly couples have children of their own.

 

Visiting anthropologists to Croatoan often ask how a flesh and blood Croatoan makes a child with a chunk of sapient ice in the shape of a human and they are often given the answer: “with love and care”.

 

Shika wasn’t sure exactly how it all was supposed to work. She always felt horribly embarrassed whenever her thoughts drifted to the subject and she never got further than realizing that she didn’t really have the slightest clue.

 

But Shika was sure it had something to do with magic. Probably.

 

The children of Croatoans and ice paramours are called Nixians. Part water, part Croatoan, and all magic Nixians are known for their pale, flawless skin, a soft radiance that came from their Croatoan side, an ability to both project and transform into ice and water from their paramour side, and an adventurous nature that came from both.

 

Over the centuries enough Nixians have been born to form their own miniature Croatoan paradise: the city-state Nix Regno where sights like what Shika saw from her hill happen every day.

 

The Rival Empresses

 

Nix Regno is a city of ice towers as large as glaciers and as gracefully constructed as snowflakes with warm, living plants trellised and growing between sheets of ice. The three rivers that run through and encircle the city are called Glac, (which Shika knew was pronounced like “glass” after Nathanael’s incessant correction of her mispronunciations but still said it like “glak” to irritate the little loud-mouthed agathion) Joyous, and Holy. These three rivers are counted among the most beautiful things in all of Croatoan even rivaling the stars.

Glac, Joyous, and Holy are flowing rivers encased in ice that rise above the surface like walls.But they are not walls. Nix Regno has always been a loyal vassal to the Empire and has no enemies on Croatoan. Even during the one year rebellion of Nimbus Knights Nix Regno remained defiantly loyal. Nix Regno has no need for walls, and so their rivers are not walls. They are art.

 

Each river pays homage to the rivers, lakes,and oceans of Croatoan and contains both waters and life native to those waters from those locations. Holy holds the red waters and furtive mud diggers of rivers, Joyous holds the green waters and vivid flower blooms of lakes, and Glac holds the blue waters and playful mermaids of oceans. The three rivers overlap and stack on top of each other like a single knotted rope as they stretch for miles across the white covered city-state. Depending on where in Nix Regno one looks at the rivers one can see ocean mermaids looking up to compare their scales with those of their river sisters or river crawlers trying to snap at the eyes of lake dragons through the ice or other scenes only possible in the winding rainbow of life and color that is the three rivers.

 

The three rivers pay homage to the water half of Nixian heritage just as the great palace Snowfall erected in the center of Nix Regno pays homage to the Croatoan half by emulating the floating towers of From-Above with added architectural embellishment taken from palaces and castles around the empire. Nix Regno is a microcosm of Croatoan complete with a sky filled with mimic stars (who are never on good terms with the natural stars of Croatoan. The ice stars insist that the prismatic facets of their diamond shaped bodies make them the superiors of their “soft and shapeless” sisters of light and fire. The natural stars for their part think that the ice stars are little more than jealous knockers living under an enormous ice hill) and an Empress of ice to match the Croatoan Empress of magic. Mirroring the rivalry between ice stars and natural stars the Empress of ice started as bitter rival to Empress Kijutsu, but while the rivalry between the stars continues to this day the Empress of ice and Empress of magic are now the best of friends.

 

Originally the rivalry between the two empresses was simply political. Empress Kasai was fiercely proud of her people and felt that they were looked down upon by the people of Croatoan as shallow imitations. It was true that some did look down on Nixians and believed them devoid of creativity and spirit, but Empress Kasai took the opinions of the few as the law of the majority. Her belief that Croatoans held contempt for Nixians was reinforced by the jealousy she held toward Croatoan girls-and the shame she felt in feeling this jealousy.

 

Empress Kasai was jealous of the warmth of Croatoan girls, their softness, the color of their skin, and the vividness of their hair. And she projected these feelings on all Croatoans. She believed that if her people were ever to be respected then they must outdo the Croatoans. When Empress Kijutsu constructed a new palace in the border city of Has-Descendants Empress Kasai constructed an even larger and more opulent palace in Nix Regno. When Empress Kijutsu attended the birth of a new star and brought beautiful colors to adorn her young fire Empress Kasai crashed the celebration to deliver her gift of the prismatic colors of Nix Regno’s domed sky, colors similar to that of the aurora borealis of Shika’s homeworld.

 

And when the thirteen year old Empress Kijutsu visited Earth in the late 1960’s to re-establish ties between Earthlings and Croatoans after years of seperation Empress Kasai followed and established a second city-state named Borea in Antarctica thinking that the impressive act of instant city creation would impress and awe the Earthlings and in this way win their good graces faster than Empress Kijutsu’s more humble strategy of taking up residence in Tokyo and gradually introducing herself to humanity first around Japan and then around the world.

 

Empress Kasai was very wrong about winning the good graces of the Earthlings.

 

Borea caused the international community no end of geopolitical headaches just appearing out of the blue one day like it did. Empress Kijutsu had to work to keep the peace between an easily startled humanity and an easily angered Empress Kasai whose attempts to outcompete Empress Kijutsu for the attentions of humanity often vexed or frightened them. Empress Kijutsu would create a soft plesant snowfall as a Christmas present to Tokyo and Empress Kasai would counter by dropping a blizzard on the city that empres Kijutsu would struggle to dispel before the roads had to be closed. Empress Kijutsu would create a magically animated puppet theatre of historical Japanese figures to entertain the children of Tokyo and Empress Kasai would counter by creating her own troupe of performing puppets-based on the fearsome yokai of Japanese myth-and order them to haunt the stage and crowd out Empress Kijutsu’s performance. Empress Kijustsu would use her magic and wits to salvage her play by improvising off the yokai puppets’ presence to tell the children stories from Japanese folklore (much to their enjoyment, for they found the folklore much more entertaining than the history lesson).

 

The two Empresses would continue like this for two years until their rivalry reached its zenith on the emotionally charged battlefield of young love.

 

When Empress Kijutsu, then known as Empress Alice Freegift, fell in love with the son of Japan’s diplomat to Croatoan Keiji Kijutsu Empress Kasai tried to woo the boy. At first Empress Kasai only wanted to win Keiji’s attentions to prove herself better than Alice, but eventually her feelings for the Earth boy became genuine. Empress Kasai’s magical grandstanding evolved into a campaign of jealous romantic sabotage. Alice would find her dates with Keiji interrupted by blizzards. The cookies she would bake for Keiji would be filled with ice. When she had dinner with the boy her soup would always be cold. But Alice would always find a way to make the best of things and Keiji would love the girl all the more for her dauntless cheer and creativity. And all the love letters written with snowflakes and palaces make out of ice and humble, helpful snowman servants couldn’t compete with a warm heart. When Empress Kasai saw Alice and Keiji share their first kiss she knew she had lost and retreated alone to her palace to despair behind a blizzard while her people fretted over her well-being.

 

Alice would not stand to see a fellow ruler cry in her room while her people worried. Braving the magical blizzard she traveled to Empress Kasai’s castle and gave her a slap to the face and a stern talking to.

 

Throughout their rivalry Empress Alice had never used violence against Empress Kasai. Only for the sake of Empress Kasai’s own dignity and the dignity of her own people did Alice raise a hand against her.

 

The gesture melted Empress’ Kasai’s heart and made her respect Alice, and in time this respect grew to friendship. Even if Empress Alice had stolen her love from her it was hard for Empress Kasai to stay angry at someone so warm hearted.

 

And it was impossible for her to stay mad at someone that fought with all her with all her might to protect Keiji’s home from magical threats in the coming years. For although Empress Alice’s first years on Earth were peaceful years in which she established Crotokyo, found love, and aided the taiyo shojo later years would force to fight against magical enemies-the Black Covem, the Teacher of Fears, the Nimbus Knights, and others. And Empress Kasai would fight by Empress Kijutsu’s side many times in defense of Earth as one of her greatest allies, for though she was Empress Kijutsu’s first magical rival she was not her first magical enemy. Empress Kasai was cold, mean-spirited, and mischievous, but she was not evil. She had a cold heart, not an evil one. And only those with evil hearts could be enemies to Alice the Magical Girl.

 

Time and time again Alice the Magical Girl would have to stand up to those with evil hearts. Sometimes she fought alone with only her brave smile as companion. Sometimes she fought alongside teams such as the Tokyo Guardians (of which she was a founding member and the only constant member throughout its many generations), the Society of Protectors, or the Circled Square. Sometimes she fought alonside the knocker in her ring, a being too shy to have a name, and with the mighty Dreamstaff commonly called Solomon but who was known by many names, an intelligent cat-headed staff responsible for bringing Alice’s New England ancestors to Croatoan long ago.

 

Whenever she could Empress Kasai would fight alongside Empress Kijutsu. That her simple ice magic was often no match for the kinds of threats Magical Alice faced it made no difference to her. They were friends, and friends fought alongside each other. Through nightmares and illusions and monsters Empress Kasai would stand by Empress Kijutsu. And their friendship would come to be celebrated through the winter custom of Exchange Week where in the week before Christmas Empress Kijutsu and Empress Kasai would exchange rules to celebrate not only their friendship but the friendship of their domains.

 

On Croatoan Exchange Week was celebrated through the remembrance of the Empresses’ battles against enemies to the Empire and Nix Regno such as the Refraction Dancers, the Nimbus Knights, and the Choir of Wails. On Shika’s Earth these battles were primarily celebrated as Empress Kijutsu’s battles  (the animated tv show that dramatized these battles of episodes that Shika watched throughout her girlhood was called Trials of Alice the Magical Girl after all) while on Croatoan they were celebrated as being fought by both Empresses. It was a difference that would have infuriated a younger Empress Kasai. But the modern Empress of ice and snow didn’t mind in the least.

 

In Croatoan people would dress up as the monsters and villains Empress Alice fought against almost like it was a second Brimstone Night (the Croatoan adaptation of Halloween which was never celebrated in Croatoan until Empress Alice introduced the holiday one year. The Croatoans with their many, many cautionary stories about demons and monsters were more than happy to embrace a holiday where they got to runabout and terrorize people. Brimstone Night features an interesting variation on the familiar “trick-or-treat”: Croatoan adults dress up as monsters and demons and terrorize children reminding them to obey their parents and be good little boys and goods. If the children can say with a straight and calm face that they’ve been good the past year they receive candy and treats.) and a martial arts tournament was held in From-Above with both magical and non-magical divisions to celebrate how the combative portion of Empress Kijutsu’s White Way which she used to subdue off her enemies was developed with influences from Earth’s martial arts.

 

Exchange Week was celebrated in Shika’s Japan, although it was called magical girl week and was extended to celebrate the accomplishments and battles of all mahou shojo. A martial arts tournament was held for mahou shojo in Crotokyo, but Shika had never entered. She had never been the competitive type and fighting tournaments personally bored her. Every month some superpowered group somewhere in Japan was having one. What Shika did find interesting about magical girl week were the rerun marathons of Trials of Alice the Magical Girl that played on the memeplex, the open house party the Earthblood Knights had of their base at Tokyo Tower, the ceremonies held at the Ise Grand Shrine attended by Amaterasu herself (normally civilians had to ritually bathe and purify themselves like priests for three days before being allowed in the presence of the sun goddess, but because she shared her blood Shika was allowed to just walk up to her and give her respects), and the free tours of the Crotokyo Museum of Taiyo Shojo.

 

Shika loved looking at captured sets of Nimbus Knight desire armor like enormous beetle shells colored with the hues of gemstones, the exhausted remains of the Black Crystal once blacker than a starless sky now paler than glass, the corruptive tears of the Choir of Wails frozen into harmless sheets of ice that hung like dull stained glass windows, and other trophies that showed that creativity and friendship could surmount any magical adversary.

 

But Shika’s favorite exhibit at the museum was a live dance by the reformed Refraction Dancers. To see Alice the Magical Girl’s first enemies dance for people they once despised and now loved was more a credit to who Alice was and what she fought for than any trophy won by combat could ever be.

 

The Refraction Dancers

 

The first serious threats that Alice the Magical Girl would fight against were the renegade stars known as the Refraction Dancers.

 

The Refraction Dancers hated humanity and they hated the universe they had come from. They knew that humanity’s universe was filled with stars and planets that were not alive as they were but were instead inert balls of metal and gas.From the perspective of the Refraction Dancers humanity’s universe was one filled with corpses that floated and spun in eternal darkness. They couldn’t believe that any race that grew in such an environment could be peaceful. Anything born in a universe of death would bring death themselves. And they further justified their condemnation of humanity by pointing to their history. When the New England colonists were accidentally brought to Croatoan by the Staff of Solomon they started a brutal war against the natives until they made peace and assimilated. During the explosion of superhumans during the mid 20th century humanity fought a massive war that spilled over into different world and planes of reality. Several times did powerful and malevolent superhumans such as the Dream Sultan and Arron Arlman threaten not only their world but other worlds of the multiverse.

 

The Refraction Dancers took these events to mean that humanity was irredeemably corrupt and they sought to convince Princess Freegift to forsake Earth and its inhabitants and return permanently to Croatoan for her own sake-even if she didn’t want to.

 

Knowing that they could never convince the willful Princess with words the Refraction Dancers turned to force. Pooling their star-born powers in secret behind the clouds of the winter season (an act of treachery that got the Court to debate doing away with winter altogether) they created light a spell in the form of light called twisted light that when shined on a human seperated him or her from their dark, suppressed desires that formed into monsters called refractoids. The Refraction Dancers hoped that when confronted by these refractoids the Princess would be horrified by the inner darkness of her Earth friends and turn her back on them.

But the Princess did not abandon her friends. The Princess was brave and faced down the refractoids. She fought them, broke them back down into tame mental energy, and even placed the suppressed desires back into the person they were stolen from. For the Princess believed that no one had the right to remove thoughts from a person no matter what those thoughts were. She believed that negative thoughts were not things to be feared but things to be understood, and that once they were understood they could be directed towards positive ends.

 

She put these beliefs to the test against her very first refractoid (and very first enemy combatant), a monster born from the suppressed feelings of her boyfriend Tobio. The monster, which woudl come to be known as the Emperor Refractoid, took the form of Tobio with a crown and scepter. It called itself the Emperor of Croatoan and attacked Crotokyo terrorizing the people and demanding both the throne of Croatoan and Alice’s hand in marriage as his submissive bride.

 

The Emperor monster was born out of Tobio’s feelings of inadequacy toward his girlfriend and his frustrations toward how the Court’s treatment of his courtship of their Princess. Tobio didn’t feel worthy to date Alice. He felt that he could provide nothing of substance to a relationship with a girl who could do and create anything she wanted with just as wave of her dreamstaff. And the Court watched his courtship of the Princess like a family of hawks. They constantly criticized his lack of magical knowledge and powers. Sometimes he wished he could become Emperor just to tell them to shut up and be someone more powerful than Alice, and his refractoid was formed from that wish.

 

The Refraction Dancers hoped that by seeing the hidden desires of her boyfriend Alice would reject him. But their plan backfired. By bringing Tobio’s anxieties to the surface they allowed the prideful boy to share them with Alice and strengthen the bond they shared. And Alice encouraged him to put his anxieties to positive use. If he wanted the Court to respect him then he had to earn that respect-but he could earn that respect. He could learn Croatoan magic and learn it from a true maverick of the White Way. Alice could be his teacher. All he had to do was swallow his pride and accept that Alice was the capable and powerful one in the relationship and he would find a better sort of  pride as a magician equal to any Court thaumaturgist.

 

And Tobio did swallow his pride, and he did become a mighty thaumaturgist, and one day he did become the Emperor of Croatoan every bit the opposite of his Refractoid.

 

And he did get over people jokingly calling him the first mahou shojo as Alice’s first student.

 

Eventually.

 

Alice’s trial against the Refraction Dancers was the first time Princess Alice had to fight. It was with a heavy heart that she readied herself to enter combat after combat, for she prefered to solve her problems with creativity rather than force.

An adventurous tomboy at heart, she already possessed great skill in Croatoan dreamstaff dueling. But the threat of the Refractoids caused her to seek out any way she could to improve her combat skills. She learned that Earth had several systems of unarmed combat called martial arts that trained not only the body but the mind. Alice immediately sought out training. Obviously punches and kicks would be of little use against beings made out of mental energy and magic, but spatial awareness, calm under physical danger, and quick reflexes helped Alice get the most out of her magic spells. To this day she recommends that mahou shojo interested in learning how to defend themselves and their loved ones with their magic powers should first learn how to get the most out of their natural physical powers. As she says “Martial arts train the mind and the body, and the mind and body are the only constants across every spell. Improve them and you will improve every spell you cast.”.

 

Princess Alice was fortunate to have taken up residence in a country with a strong tradition of martial arts like Japan. She studied karate, judo, and jujitsu and the more she studied the better she got at fighting Refractoids. Tobio, being the son of a black belt as well as the son of a diplomat, was her first teacher. And the young man loved that there was a masculine skill he not only exceeded his girlfriend at but could use to help her.

 

Alice proved an apt pupil and quickly surpassed Tobio (much to his frustration) but fortunately Japan was a country filled with expert martial artists that could further her training from the ki masters of Raiju Mountain to the dream ninjas of Baku Forest.

 

Unfortunately it was the 1970’s and it was difficult to find someone willing to spar seriously with her. No one wanted to punch a pretty teenage girl in the face. But Empress Kasai was perfectly willing to be Alice’s sparring partner (and took more than a little pleasure in mopping the dojo floor with her old romantic rival) and though it would be many years before Alice codified her own fighting style as part of her White Way her fights against the Refractoids set the groundwork for the style’s development.

 

Shika wondered if she would be expected to learn how to fight.

 

She really, really didn’t want to learn. She hated the very idea of sparing, of hurting friends and having friends hurt her. And she was absolutely terrified of ever being in a real fight.

 

If she had to face down an enemy that wanted to hurt her she had no idea what she would do.

 

But she was already tasked with learning things far beyond the needs of a flower shop owner. She knew that learning how to throw a punch would be the least of her problems. She was tasked with learning what superheroines and magical defenders knew, what men and women who in times of crisis held together crumbling planes of reality with their willpower knew.

 

And she would be expected to act on this knowledge. In times of disasters, when monsters like the refractoids rise up, people without her powers and skills would look to her to protect them, to fight for them.

 

And the pressure of this expectation strained her spirits. Sometimes she would wake up in the middle of the night feeling exhausted and useless like she had just failed an algebra test but worse. And she would start crying and she wouldn’t know exactly why. Nathanael would snuggle up against her, more like a little winged pet than at any other time, and speak only gentle things to her. He would tell her that she was capable and brave and that her parents were proud. He would tell her that he was proud to be her agathion, mentor, and friend. And she would wipe her tears and smile and go back to bed, her emotions locked away for another night.

 

Alice wondered if she would be crying tonight after her lesson.

 

The Refraction Dancers continued to create refractoids out of the suppressed desires of Alice’s Earth friends hoping that one would force her to reject humanity. They created the deceptive Diplomat Refractoid who tried to legally destroy Crotokyo and sue Alice into oblivion from Tobio’s ambassador father, the insecure Tyrant Refractoid who tried to force everyone around her to worship her from Empress Kasai, the selfish Goddess Refractoid who tried to hoard all light and warmth from the world from the goddess Amaterasu, the jealous Witch Refractoid who wanted to force Alice to recognize her as the one true mahou shojo from Alice’s first student (second if Tobio is counted) the taiyo shojo Hotaru Hikari, and many, many others. Even the owner of her favorite sushi bar wasn’t spared having his suppressed desire to become the greatest sushi chef by undermining his competition ripped out of his soul and transformed into the Oni Chef Refractoid who sought to annihilate all sushi bars in Japan. But no matter the refractoid and no matter what ugly desire it revealed Alice and her friends would fight it, defeat it, and return the inner darkness to its rightful owner.

 

Eventually the Refraction Dancers realized that all they were doing was giving Alice and her Earth friends thrilling adventures to bond over. And when one of them learned that human couples formed strong bonds after encountering danger together they realized that they virtually played matchmaker with Alice and Tobio. And they knew that drastic steps had to be taken.

 

In desperation they combined their powers to create a refractoid from Alice herself. They hoped that in seeing her own inner darkness her Earth friends would hate her and force her back to Croatoan or that she would think that her soul had become corrupted by contact with her friends. Alice’s refractoid proved to be the strongest refractoid ever created, the Witch Refractoid. She was a dark hellish girl born from all the frustration Alice felt at living a divided life, at being both Croatoan and Japanese.

 

The Witch Refractoid wanted to forcibly merge Tokyo and From-Above. It didn’t want to blend them together as Alice did with Crotokyo. It wanted to smash them together and create something completely new from the ashes, something that had nothing in common with either Tokyo or From-Above. Crotokyo was Alice’s dream of uniting the two worlds she lived in through love. What the Witch Refractoid wanted was Alice’s nightmare of uniting those two worlds through hate.

 

Stunned at her own darkness and drained of a large chunk of her willpower by the separation Alice was helpless against her refractoid. But her friends rescued her just as she had rescued them from theirs. Empress Kasai, Tobio, and Hotaru joined together to defeat the Witch Refractoid and showed the Refraction Dancers that not only could Alice see the inner darkness of her Earth friends and accept them but they could see Alice’s inner darkness and accept her.

 

There was a moment at the end of the battle where the Refraction Dancers came close to victory. Seeing what horrible desires were inside her soul made the Princess consider not taking back her inner darkness. But her friends convinced her to. They overcame their own inner evil and had no doubt that she could as well.

 

When Alice reabsorbed her inner darkness the Refraction Dancers were truly beaten-not only because she had made peace with the darkness inside her just as she had made peace with the darkness inside her friends but because a certain cold and lonely star used to watching her sisters closely had detected their final spell and took advantage of their momentary lack of magical power to take them prisoner and turn them over to her close friend the Princess for judgement.

 

As punishment for their crimes Alice banished the Refraction Dancers to Earth to serve the Earthlings they violated with their magic. The Earthlings treated the rebel stars kindly and through their mercy the Refraction Dancers learned that they had sorely misjudged humanity. The Earthlings placed the Refraction dancers in orbit around the Earth and tasked them with helping the repair and maintenance of space stations such as Theta Station and Ultra Toto.

 

Now living in an entirely new sky the Refraction Dancers were shocked to learn that Earthlings at large were largely uninterested in watching stars of any sort let alone living dancing stars and saddened to learn that Earthlings light their own cities and often grow up without ever seeing a night sky naturally full of stars. They could not help but feel deep pity for the Earthlings they used to hate after learning that they ignorantly deprived themselves of celestial glory. They started to dance for humanity in the hopes of lifting their gaze skyward to greater things and to this day if you steal away from the electrically lit cities at night and find a spot where you can hear the sounds of the wind and insects you can look up toward Ultra Toto and see the Refraction Dancers spinning and tumbling through the night sky.

 

The Refraction Dancers became especially close to the inhabitants of the space stations they helped cared for. The people came to love watching their dances up close and would crowd the observation decks for a better look. The Refraction Dancers loved the attention. Back home in Croatoan they had to compete for the attentions of an entire world with an entire sky full of sisters. But in Earth’s universe they had an audience all to themselves that knew them by name.

 

After decades of faithful service and assistance during times of crisis like the Black Crystal War the Refraction Dancers were officially pardoned by the UN and allowed to return home to Croatoan. Few did though, for Earth had become their home.