“Why shouldn’t I meet with him?” I demand, as we go up the sidewalk to my front door.
“Um, I don’t know, Tmonk-Tmonk. Maybe because he and his asshole captains tried to take us captive and then spit at us?”
“It was only that one guy-Bryl something- who spit. And you saw how Merryt handled it!”
“Merryt! You call him by his first name now? Like a friend? Do you think someone like him could be your friend?”
I stop, hand on the doorknob.
“I didn’t say he was my friend. I just meant-“
CiCi pushes past me, opening the door and going inside. I can see even from behind that her ears are red.
“Why are you so upset?”
She rounds on me, “Why am I so upset? Are you serious? You don’t know anything about the Vogwen. You just don’t know.”
Wait. She knows something I don’t. It strikes me suddenly with how obvious it is.
“What does that mean? Do you know about them already?” I ask, keeping my voice carefully calm.
At that moment, her normally bright and open face undergoes a transformation, and becomes closed, guarded, and too late, assumes a guileless expression.
“No, no…I just meant that you’re…so trusting. We don’t know anything about them. We don’t even know if they’re whatever they said they are, what-vogwen? All we know is that they tried to attack us, or grab us or something. And that just doesn’t seem very safe or trustworthy to me.” She moves swiftly into my little kitchen and begins clattering around.
“Do you have any coffee? My nerves are shot,”
“I don’t know if that will help but yes, check the cabinet by the sink. I can make you a tonic, it would probably help more.”
I haven’t let this go, but I’m a bit stunned. CiCi has never, at least to my knowledge, been dishonest, but I know she’s lying right now.
Passing the kitchen, I go to the little room behind it that serves as a workroom, and pull down a dried sprig of lavender from my herb rack, to make that tonic.
We don’t discuss it any more, though CiCi is jittery and distracted for the rest of the afternoon into evening. When she goes to leave, she pauses in the doorway, and for a moment I’m sure she’s about to try to elicit a promise from me not to meet with the Vogwen prince. Something in my face must stop her, because she shakes her head slightly and then heads off across the grass towards her house after a quiet goodbye.
Of course, I wake up much earlier than I usually do the following morning. My sleep was restless last night. CiCi’s strained face seemed to peer at me around corners in every dream. I finally give up on the idea that I can go back to sleep restfully around 5 am and it’s a good thing I do because apparently the Vogwen idea of morning is very literal. I’ve barely gotten finished dressing and am putting toast onto a napkin when a curt rapping sound comes from the front door. I jump, almost drop the toast, and glance around wildly. I had planned on making myself look a bit more presentable today. I’ve never met with royalty, but I have this vague idea that my village deserves to be represented by a…well, queenly queen. I’ve been in this position for four years and it took two or three just to get used to being referred to as such.
I catch sight of myself in the glass window in the top half of the back door. My long hair is slumping in a fallen bun at the back of my neck, and loose strands hang free all around. I yank the string tying it out and give my head a hard flip to release the bun.
The knock comes again. I sigh. Well, there’s nothing to be done. At least I put on a nice dress. It’s a sea foam colored sundress that I made a few months ago, and haven’t had the opportunity to wear yet because it’s a bit dressier than the others I have.
“Just a minute!” I call, abandoning my toast and hurrying towards the front room. The picture frame with its busted glass is still behind the door. I’ll have to remember to clean that up later.
I reach the door and put my eye to the peep hole. Standing on my front stoop is the dark haired prince. He’s looking around casually, but appears to hear my hand on the doorknob because he straightens perceptibly and faces expectantly forward.
“Good morning,” I say, pulling the door open, then standing aside and gesturing him in. I decide it would be a bit rude to point out just how ‘morning’ it truly is.
He enters, eyes looking around for a moment, then at me. I shut the door.
“Good morning.” His tone is a bit stiff. I don’t really know what to say next, so I turn and go to the couch and sit down, perched lightly on the edge of the seat, nervous. He just stands, watching me.
“Would you…like to sit down? Or like something to drink?” I offer, popping up immediately, and hurrying towards the kitchen.
“That would be fine,” He says, still sounding formal. I hear him follow behind me into the kitchen. The remains of the tonic I made for CiCi are spread out on the small counter area. I begin to quickly clear away the mortar and pestle, and carefully brush the remains of dried lavender and rosemary into my palm from the surface.
“I didn’t expect you so soon,” I say by way of explanation, feeling this doesn’t sound too impolite. I brush my hands lightly together over the sink. I glance over my shoulder and see that he’s looking at the mortar and pestle, which I set on a shelf to the side.
“You’re a witch?” He asks, and I burst out laughing. A witch? Seeing that he isn’t joking, I cover my smile with my hand until I can respond with a straight face,
“A witch? Oh, no. I don’t do magic or anything. I’m a priestess though. I make herbal tonics and extracts and things to heal people, or help them with things.,” I stop there because much of what I do is considered a secret, and hard to understand for people who haven’t been trained.
“I also make tea, if you would like some,” I take down a wooden canister and begin scooping out the loose leaves.
He nods, still looking at the mortar and pestle, and waits quietly and patiently while I make tea.
Once back in the front room, I again perch on the couch. He sits down in the chair across from me. This entire time he has seemed to be gathering his thoughts, and after he takes a perfunctory sip, sets the cup down on the table in front of him.
“I’d like to apologize again for yesterday. Not just Bryl, though his behavior was the worst of it.”
I wave a hand to dismiss it. I’m curious as to what he has to say, and don’t feel like the behavior of his companions reflects upon him, really.
“It is true, what I said, about why we are here. The Earth is one of the newest to gain extraorbital travel, and to have joined into commerce with other worlds within this galaxy. The Merr need to assess if we will make official contact this early-“
“The Merr? What about the Vogwen?”
The corner of his mouth turns up in a slight smile, and he says,
“The Merr are Vogwen.”
“Are the Merr a type of Vogwen or is that the name of your military?” He is again wearing his dusty teal colored jacket over a charcoal grey uniform of some kind.
He sees me looking at his coat, and nods, then says,
“You’re right in more ways than one. The Merr are a type of Vogwen and we are the military, in a way. The Merr Vogwen, as we are known, inhabit the planet Merr. There are two branches of Vogwen. Well, two official branches-the Merr, of course, and the Vogwen who inhabit a planet called Karista. It is far away from Merr, in distance and in custom.” He pauses for a moment, seeming to be thinking,
“Anyway, the Merr military is the pillar of our society,”
“The Merr society,” I interject, distinguishing between the Merr and the far away Karistans.
“It sounds a bit as if CiCi was right and you’re appraising our world to see if you can take over,” I say it quickly, face feeling a bit hot. But it needs to be said up front because I’m not going to sit here and be charmed into telling him information about Earth that he can use to…invade or something.
He laughs and sits back, setting the tea mug back down on the coffee table.
“What?” I ask, bewildered. I don’t see how what I said was funny, but it doesn’t seem to be a mean laugh.
“Your friend- CiCi did you say?- seems to know a lot more about the Merr than you,”
This time yesterday I would have defended her against his tone, or been perplexed by that statement, but after her behavior last evening, I feel like he may be right.
I don’t know what to say, and he spares me from trying to come up with something, because he continues,
“She speaks Merr, or at least understands it. Which begs the question, where did you and she come from?”
“We were born here!” I stop, realizing that I don’t actually know where I was born and CiCi never explicitly told me where she was from, and she’s only lived in the village since we were about 13. My dawning doubts must be written on my face because Merryt steeples his fingers and points them toward me with a knowing look.
I continue, “Well, I’ve at least been here since I was a baby. My mother-well, I was adopted-anyway she found me almost drowned in the river. I was maybe a year and a half old.”
“Your adopter is human?”
“Was. She died about five years ago.”
“And she was the queen before you?” A look of comprehension is beginning to form in his eyes.
“No. She was the High Priestess. We didn’t have a queen, until-“ I stop, not sure I feel like telling this story to a near stranger. I square my shoulders and say,
“I don’t think a minor village queen interests you very much.”
“Oh, but she does,” His unwavering gaze is intense for a moment. I look away towards the window as if I saw movement, then pick up my mug, and when I look back, he’s doing the same.
“Anyway, you were raised among the Earthen, in this village. So what’s the story behind your friend? It’s very interesting how two Vogwen females just happen to appear in the same village, when the Vogwen and the Earth aren’t in official contact.”
I shrug, genuinely unsure of what to say. And it occurs to me that if CiCi didn’t tell me why or how she’s here, maybe I shouldn’t talk too much about it to this prince.
“I guess it’s just a convenient coincidence. I’ve never met anyone else like us. I don’t think she and I are related. We don’t really look anything alike. Her ears are even different.”
He smiles another knowing smile.
“I noticed that too. Very interesting, how your ears stand out to the side, but hers are straight up and back.” I notice that his ears stand up and back like CiCi’s. I try to think if his captains’ were the same. I think they were.
“Typically, a Vogwen child is taught from infancy to hold their ears upright. It’s just good posture. Which makes me think your friend CiCi was raised among her own kind. Our own kind. Whereas, one can look at you and see that you weren’t,”
I can’t tell if that’s insulting or just a statement. His tone and general air of being are of casual confidence, maybe even mild arrogance.
“Which makes me wonder, where is her father?”
That’s an oddly specific way to ask about her family. And I don’t actually know anything about her family, father or otherwise.
“I think she’s an orphan,” I say, noncommittally. CiCi once mentioned that she didn’t have any family left and had been on her own for a while even by the time she came to Santa Veta at thirteen. I remember when she wandered into town, a bit ragged looking, and very nervous and hungry. She stayed with me for a couple of months, and we were best friends from the start. Eventually, a small house became available just down the street from me, so we set her up there, and she’s lived there ever since.
I realize he’s looking at me still, and I say,
“So...you said you’re the prince. Meaning you’ll be a king someday?”
He sits up, and says,
“Emperor. All of Merr is an empire,”
“So were you named after the planet? Merryt?”
He stands up abruptly and says, “Would you like to walk with me, and we can talk? This environment is very different from Merr. So many trees. And I’ve been on my ship for a long time, so fresh air would be welcome.”
Surprised at the sudden suggestion, but relieved and ready to move around and shake off some nervous energy, I agree. “But you may get hot in that,” I gesture towards his coat, because it looks thick, maybe wool.
“Is this place warm to you?” He asks, looking genuinely curious as we go through the front door, and I pull it closed behind me.
Now it’s my turn to laugh, “It’s a rainforest!”
He looks at me blankly, then glances around wryly, and says, “Maybe there’s a translation error. I thought you said this is a rain forest? Forest, yes, I see,” He nods at the trees as we walk down the sidewalk, towards the edge of the village. “But, there is no rain?”
I smile to myself, enjoying suddenly the realization that I’m truly talking with an alien being.
“It’s not a translation error. You’re right, it’s called a rainforest. It’s not raining right now, and it’s the dry season. But I imagine if you stay around for more than a few days, you’ll see plenty of rain.”
He nods, and as we get to the end of the village, I say, “Would you like to walk in the forest or stay in the village? The river isn’t high right now, so the trails are very passable. It’s a bit cooler under the canopy, as well,” I remember that he asked if this place seems warm to me.
“I think I would like to see the forest for now,” He says, and so I lead the way towards the main trail that leads eventually down to the bank of the river, where we can walk for a long time unimpeded at this time of year, and maybe see a lot of wildlife.
The coolness of the shade drapes over my shoulders immediately, and I take a deep breath, inhaling the green smells of moss and undergrowth.
“Is Merr very warm?”
His eyes are bright and sharp as he looks all around, apparently taking in everything around us as we walk. He nods,
“Merr is a savage world. During most of the year, it is extremely hot, but when the planet’s orbit moves away from the suns, we have a very deep winter. The cities are in domes, raised off of the surface, because of the hot gases. The air is breathable, and in some places the surface is inhabited but those places are in desert regions, where the ground is solid. The gravity is a bit higher there than here, too. I felt like I was jumping on every step the first couple of days when we arrived.”
Suns? I ask what he means by that.
He glances up towards the canopy, as if towards the sun, though the sky is mostly blocked from here.
“You have just one sun in this solar system, but Merr is in a binary star system.”
“So you see two suns in the sky?” I’m fascinated by the thought. I’ve always loved the stars and space.
“During most of the year, yes. During our winter times, the smaller of the two recedes and is eclipsed for some time.”
“Wow, I wish I could see that,” I say wistfully. I can see it in my mind, two bright suns glowing down on a hot, dry alien landscape. I muse on this for a minute or two as we walk in comfortable silence. The path is really nice to walk on right now, because the ground isn’t as saturated as it usually is when it’s been raining.
We walk quietly for a few minutes, then Merr breaks the silence,
"You were asking about my name, if I am named after the planet,"
"Oh, yes. Were you?"
He seems to think for a minute. I stop to look at some small flowers growing on a vine.
"Merryt is a title."
"So it's not your actual name?" I straighten, and look at him.
He rubs his temple for a second, then says, "It is. It's such a well known thing to me that it's a bit hard to explain, when I think about it." We start walking again.
"I'll start at the beginning-the Merr, and the planet, are named after the first Merryt, one of the original voyagers who landed and colonized the planet, centuries ago. When a son is born to the emperor, and determined to be the heir, he is given the name Merryt. No one else on the planet is named Merryt or any variant of the name."
"So it's both-a title and a name." I say, and another question immediately occurs to me.
"You say when the son is determined to be the heir. But isn't it just the firstborn son?"
He looks at me, perplexed. "Why would it be the first born?"
"Well, on earth, in a lot of cultures, the first born son is usually the heir."
He looks intrigued, "Is that so? Very interesting. No, on Merr it isn't necessarily the first born. Although it often is. It depends upon many factors."
"Like what?" This is fascinating, but when I ask that, he seems to become a bit reticent.
"The mother, seer advice...many things," He trails off vaguely, and walks a bit more quickly. I drop it.
There is a nice breeze coming up the path from the river, and bits of sunlight occasionally filter down to dapple the ground around us. I point out some birds, and different plants to Merryt as we walk, and he seems interested but preoccupied all the same. When we get to the bank of the river, which is relatively quiet this time of year, I move to the edge and point upriver, “My mom, Veta, found me about…a mile, maybe? Up that way. When I was a baby,”
He comes over and stands shoulder to shoulder with me, looking in the direction I’m pointing. The wool of his coat feels warm and a bit scratchy against the bare skin of my upper arm, which makes me very aware of how close he’s standing to me. He turns his head and looks down at me, as if suddenly also aware of proximity, and then moves swiftly back towards the trail, away from the bank. He turns and looks at me for a long moment, then says,
“You’re not wearing any shoes,”
I blink and look down. He’s right. I find myself feeling a little embarrassed, despite the fact that I only wear shoes occasionally when I come out into the woods. I move more quickly and quietly without them, and I love the feeling of the earth beneath my feet. But somehow, right now, I’m struck with how quaint and odd I must look.
I try to laugh it off, brazen it out.
“Queens must always wear shoes on Merr, I suppose?”
I don’t know what response I expected but it’s not the expression that crosses his face in that instant. His eyes widen temporarily, and then his face tightens, and something like hardness comes into the line of his jaw. When he speaks, it’s with a stiffness that hasn’t been present the entire day.
“There are no queens on Merr.” As if I’ve said something unutterably silly.
Floundering in the sudden change of tone, I try to find where I’ve committed a faux pas.
He looks at me, and I get the sense of being x-rayed. I return the gaze, unwavering. I can feel something under the surface here, some conflict or contradiction occurring.
“If I needed any more proof that you truly grew up among the Earthen it’s this,” He says finally.
“I’m sorry but I do not understand what I’ve said-do girls not exist on Merr?” I laugh nervously, hoping to have been so hyperbolic as to break this indecipherable tension.
He barks out a laugh but doesn’t say anything. He begins walking back up the path, away from the river.
“Thank you for the tour, and for answering my questions,” His tone is very formal, and it’s jarring compared to the friendliness of the past couple of hours we spent walking the trails together.
I walk quickly to catch up, coming abreast with him and keeping pace, trying to get a feel for what has happened.
“Did I say something? HEY!” I grab at his arm, to try and stop his swift forward motion. My fingers close just below the elbow where his sleeves is rolled back. An almost electric jolt travels up my arm as I touch the skin, as if there’s a barrier around him, and he pulls his arm back and away. His face is closed to me, his whole demeanor is closed.
I stop, shrinking back, suddenly as nervous as I felt yesterday when his companions grabbed CiCi and me.
He stops, turning to look at me, and we face each other in silence. His eyes are the only part of his face that seem incongruous with the stony demeanor. They seem to pierce me, taking me in nervously, as if I’m a hot, white light that burns to look too long at.
“I’m going to take my leave now. I don’t think the Merr will find Earth of much interest,”
“What does that mean?” I demand. “Because of me? I’m not a representative of an entire planet of people. Most dignitaries..” I laugh miserably, “…wear shoes, and have grand homes, and all the things one would expect. But,” The thought recurs, “Maybe it’s better for a militaristic culture like yours to find us uninteresting. Oh well. It was certainly something meeting you and your men. I trust you know how to get back to your ship. Goodbye.”
I turn and walk quickly off, feeling my hair swing over my shoulder, face hot, and strangely forlorn. What a confusing experience. I don’t hear any sounds of movement, either away or in pursuit, but I don’t look back, regardless.
To Be Continued...