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“Hooray!” I cried, dancing across the fields after Frieda. “Hooray for Fire-Lily Day!”

“Yay!” my classmate agreed, maintaining an easy lead as she dashed through the endless rows of blossoms. We were in a special program together at school, and Mrs. Bozeman assigned us to work together all the time. Our projects were always the best, and everyone knew it. But that didn’t matter on Fire Lily Day—not much of anything did, except for running and playing and eating too much. The fire-lily was the Lordly Symbol of the House of Marcus, mostly because it grew like a weed on so much of his Lordship’s primary planet. All year long everyone had to let them grow and grow and grow—it was a crime to pick one, except out of a garden or farmer’s field. But this one day a year, all Lord Marcus’s serfs, yeomanry and slaves could pick all they liked. Frieda was carrying a whole armful of the things, yet was still outrunning me. That was mostly because she was bigger than me; according to our teacher we bucks always got our growth-spurts later.

Despite her advantages in size I finally managed to close the distance a little, and was right on the verge of tackling her when my phone rang. I cursed aloud, then remembered my duties and answered the miserable thing. It was like wearing a permanent leash sometimes—life was so much easier back when I was still just an ordinary kid. “Hello?”

“David!” my father’s voice declared. “Thank heavens! I was afraid you wouldn’t answer.” At first there was near-silence, as Dad huffed and puffed into the phone. He was a certified interstellar ship’s engineer, the only non-human ever so rated as far as we knew. Engineers don’t tend to get much physical exercise, and clearly he’d just been running. “I need you to come to the spacefield, son. Right now, no stopping along the way. Do you hear me?”

My brow furrowed and my ears drooped; it was Fire Lily Day, and there was my good friend Frieda waiting for me with an armful of delicious blossoms, just dying to be caught so we could share them. No one worked on Fire Lily Day, not even Dad. “Uh…”

“Please, son!” he hissed. “Don’t ask questions. Just run here now, as fast as you can.”

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