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.
Later that evening
“So why do you think he got so weird when I mentioned queens?” I ask CiCi from my position sprawled on the rug in her living room. The soft grey plush has red and yellow triangles all over it, and I trace them with my fingers absently. She doesn’t respond right away, and finally I look up. She’s sitting on the couch, feet stretched out onto the edge of the coffee table. She’s painting her toenails bright, glittery yellow. She’s bent forward, tiny nail brush in hand, appearing to scrutinize her toes.
She looks up, appearing a bit startled,
“Huh? Oh, beats me,” She says, vaguely, cocking her head to the side as she sits up, still looking down at her toes. She wiggles them and smiles, then looks at me.
“How should I know?”
Her tone is just a bit too casual, or am I only thinking that because I let some random experience plant ideas in my head about her? I sigh.
“I don’t know. It was just really strange. One minute it was like we were…well, kind of becoming friends, maybe? And then-“
“You can’t be friends with someone like that.” Flat voice.
It’s not like her to be possessive, and this thought must show on my face, because in her normal voice, she exclaims,
“Oh, not like I’m trying to stop you. I just meant that it’s not possible, you know, to be friends with someone like the Merr,”
I reach back and try to remember if he actually mentioned the Merr in front of her, aside from saying his name, Merryt of Merr. I don’t think he did.
I look at her acutely.
Taking a steadying breath, trying to keep my voice light, I ask, “And how would you know that? And, for that matter, how did you know what they were saying when they talked among themselves yesterday?”
For an instant, she looks stricken, then recovers, shrugging.
“I didn’t know what they said, not really. I just made a lucky guess. Good bluff, huh?”
She’s lying, I think. I don’t know why or quite how, but she’s hiding something, and it feels big. But what can I do? Push her? Something under the surface seems somehow pained and fearful. I’m going to let it go. I have to. If she wanted to tell me, she would. And probably will someday when it feels safe to her.
She must sense me backing off, because she says, “I just think you’re too trusting. I don’t think he was interested in friendship. At best, he was researching Earth for mining our resources, or something. But I think he was sampling the local flavor.”
“What?” I sit up, propping on my elbows to look at her.
“Come on, Tmonk-Tmonk. Don’t be naïve.”
I’m embarrassed at her implication. I don’t think that’s what was going on. I lapse into silence, thinking of the couple of hours spent just walking and talking about the rainforest. He didn’t talk almost at all about himself. But he also didn’t seem like he had any motives, just a sort of amused interest. But maybe I am naïve?
Oh well, what does it matter? In another week or two, it will just be a weird blip on the radar of the receding past.
Well, that turned out not to be true at all.
Three days later
The event is starting to lose its sting. I’m thankful for that. I’ve spent the past couple of days feeling increasingly embarrassed, but today I haven’t had much time to think about it. One of the couples in Santa Veta had their baby very early this morning, and wanted me to come to the hospital where they had her, in Santarem, to visit. I brought the traditional sachet of sage and lavender, with a cinnamon stick and a piece of amethyst, to welcome the new life and draw good energy. This afternoon, I’m putting the finishing touches on a dress I’ve been working on for a few weeks. It’s an iridescent green fabric, my favorite color, and silk. I got the fabric for a great price in Rio a few months ago when I went there for the first time, and am excited to finish it.
After trimming bits of thread, and pressing the hem, I put the dress on for one last fitting before calling it complete. Just as I’m smoothing the fabric down over my thighs, there’s a short rap on my front door. I look up, towards the front of the house, setting down the scissors I had ready for the inevitable missed thread bit. For a moment, I don’t move. It’s can't be CiCi, she went down to Santarem to see the baby and do some shopping. I can’t think who else it might be…except that’s not quite true. A thrill of nervousness washes down my back. After a moment of hesitation, I walk quickly out of my spare bedroom, where I keep my sewing things, towards the front of the house, and the door.
Taking a deep breath, I grab the knob and swing the door open. Standing on my front step, hand raised to knock again, is the Merr prince. He’s wearing a dark charcoal grey, fitted coat, different from the dusky teal one from before, though still reminiscent of a uniform. Our eyes meet, and he lowers his hand, and adjusts the corner of his collar for a moment.
“Hello,” I say, trying to sound really casual, but slightly aloof as well.
His gaze lingers on me, intense, for a moment, and I meet it steadily. His face becomes a bit veiled.
“May I come in?”
“I don’t think so,” I respond, coolly.
His eyebrows flick upward, and I say,
“Are you surprised? You were pretty abrupt last time we interacted, and anyway, I barely know you. I don’t see why I should let you into my home. If you have something to say, please just say it.”
I sense him make a decision, almost as if he nodded to himself.
“Fine. There are some things you need to understand about us- the Merr. Damn. I had pictured saying this while sitting down.”
What? I want to laugh in spite of myself, because he is in earnest.
“Fine. Come in. I wouldn’t want to ruin your speech.” I step back, pulling the door open wider. When I move, I notice the fabric of my dress shimmering in the golden sunlight. He steps past me, into the house, and I turn, standing momentarily in the doorway, watching him move towards the front room where we sat and talked and had tea just a few days ago. He glances back at me, as if to see if I’m following, then stops and stands in my long shadow, just looking at me as the sun shines over my shoulders. I move to shut the door and he seems to shake himself, then goes on into the front room.
He stands in front of the couch, and when I sit down, he does too. I cross my ankles, folding my hands in my lap, and look at him, waiting. He appears to think for a moment, and takes a deep breath.
“There are no queens on Merr. No empresses.” He looks at his gloved hands, turning them over absently. “Females…women, girls-they are property. Nothing more.”
I don’t know what I expected but it wasn’t this. A heat seems to be gathering around my throat, along my jaw, creeping up into my cheeks.
“I…don’t really know what to say to that.” I manage.
He looks troubled, narrowing his eyes and looking off into the distance for a second.
“You’re a bit of a paradox.” He finally says. “At least for me.”
“What do you mean?” I realize I’m plucking at the hem of my new dress and stop myself, folding my hands in my lap, fingers tightly locked together. I don’t know what he’s doing here, or why he's telling me this about the Merr. Paradox?
He takes a deep breath and seems to decide to plunge ahead.
“I look at you and I see something I’ve never seen before. A girl, a Merr Vogwen female, living in her own home, regarded as a queen.”
“What makes you say I’m Merr Vogwen? I’ll give you Vogwen. I can’t argue with that, having seen you and your men. Didn’t you say there were two branches of Vogwen?”
“Two official branches, yes. But I can tell you’re Merr for a couple of reasons. Your surname, Beren, to begin with.”
This piques my curiosity.
“You recognize my last name? Is it a common name?”
“There was a Beren who served on my father’s imperial vessel when he was still crown prince, and the Beren lineage is long known as a highborn family. So no. Not common at all.”
I’m enthralled now, in spite of myself.
“What happened to the Beren who served with your father?”
“I don’t know if I had even been born yet. Or I might have been an infant. I just know that the Berens still serve the empire loyally.”
Could that have been my father? Or an uncle? A brother even?
“Another reason I know you are Merr is your tonce.”
“My what?” I shake my head at the word I don't recognize.
“Tonce. Your tail ornament.”
I look over at my tail, which is curled close my right thigh. The flat gold band that has encircled it since the day Veta found me gleams. I used to wear it pushed up close to the base of my spine to keep it from falling off, and I still carry my tail uptilted slightly even though now the tonce, I guess, fits comfortably towards the end, with no risk of sliding.
I pick my tail up in hand, inspecting the ornament closely, really looking, though not for the first time, at the strange symbols right below my name in Portuguese, Tmonk-Tmonk Beren.
“What does it say?” I ask, knowing that it must be in the Merr Vogwen letters.
“Your name, just like it says in Earthen. Your mother must have had it made on Earth. Or had your name added in human letters when she got here with you. But the other part is Vogwen lettering, in the Imperial style. It’s called Altemble.”
I run my finger over the engraved letters, feeling the smooth indentions.
“So, you see why it’s difficult for me to adjust to you as you are,” He says, abruptly.
“What?” I look up and catch his eyes. They bore into mine, and for a second, I feel a deep sense of conflict baking off of him. His gaze is so intense that I feel my face get hot, and I look back down at my tonce.
He sighs. “The way my two men, Bryl and Rejir, behaved toward you and your friend-“
“-Was natural for us. And not being raised in understanding the importance of diplomacy, they didn’t think to adjust their ways from the norm.”
“The norm for the Merr,” I say, not accusing, just turning it over in my mind and trying to relate. It’s pretty close to impossible.
I look at him, trying to decipher what it is he’s trying to convey.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t really know why you’re here. I don’t mean to be rude, but the last time we spoke, you basically went from friendly to weird in half a second, and declared Earth to be uninteresting to you,”
“To the Merr. I said Earth wouldn’t be interesting to the Merr. It’s very interesting to me.”
He pauses, then adds, “And I don’t want Earth to be interesting to my people. You don’t either. You were right to say that it’s better for a militaristic culture not to find you interesting.”
His tone is chilling, his face is grave.
I sit there, silent. I am really at a loss here. He seems sincere, and sincerely torn.
“When I make my report to my father, I will tell him that there are a few descendants of stranded Merr women on the planet, integrated with the culture, and thus of no concern, and that the culture and planetary resources are of little value to us as it stands right now. I will suggest we hold off on making official contact with the Earthen space ambassadors until we have had a few years to observe and see what direction your technology and society are moving.”
“So we should expect to be left alone for a while, and then the Merr will come back? I feel like that might just delay things, not prevent whatever consequences you think could come of Merr becoming ‘interested’ in Earth.”
He smiles sardonically, “You’re right. That’s why I am going to make this my station for a while, to observe and report back. My authority on the matter will be unquestioned.”
I see a gaping hole in this idea.
“If that’s the case, then why not just tell your father Earth is a huge waste of time, and be done with it? And why do you care?”
His smile becomes a humorous smirk.
“Remember, I said I find Earth very interesting.”
Again that almost blazing look, veiled with cocky indifference. He sits back, stretching his arms above his head for a moment, then crossing them on his chest.
“Will you agree to be the ambassador for Earth? It will be unprecedented, a Merr girl living on Earth as a queen, mentoring me in your ways?”
His tone is light and mocking without meanness, but his eyes are very serious. Deep pools of dark gold and black. He leans forward and gracefully takes my right hand in both of his, in a courtly gesture.
I blink in the face of his intensity, and his face suddenly colors slightly and he releases my hands and laughs.
“Of course you could always tell me to go to hell.”
“I could, yes,” I say, smiling, “But I won’t do that. But I will agree to, what? Mentor you? But I want you to mentor me too,”
He sits up, looking cautious.
“I mean it. I don’t know anything about what I am, and I expect you to tell me everything you can about the Merr, about the Vogwen, even-especially, the bad parts. If you agree to that, then I’ll agree to play ambassador to the Prince.” I try to smile, to sound light. I don’t know if I succeeded. Merryt appears to think for a second, face clouding. Then he nods very minutely and says, “I accept your terms.”
I hold out my hand, to shake on it, and he looks down at it for a moment, then takes it in his, and missing my point, raises it to his lips, kissing the back! A tingle runs up my arm, and I feel my face going red, but I don’t pull my hand away.
He releases it after another moment and I laugh nervously,
“I was trying to shake your hand but okay,”
“Shake my hand?” He waves his hand in the air questioningly.
I burst out laughing at that endearing gesture, and I say, “Ok, lesson one. Usually when two adults meet or agree upon something, they do this-“ I hold my right hand out, and grasp his, and demonstrate a hand shake.
“It can be a greeting, or like I said, a way to agree upon something. It’s something professionals do, and that men commonly do to greet one another.” His grip is firm, and I try to explain why that’s good, and am suddenly struck with the absurdity of the conversation, and I start giggling.
His brow darkens, “Is this a joke?”
I try to stifle my snickering, “No. It really isn’t. I’m sorry-“ I take a breath and calm my face.
“It just struck me as funny to teach someone about shaking hands, because as soon as I started explaining it, I realized how strange it is. What do the Merr do to greet each other?”
We spend the late afternoon trading stories of common customs back and forth.
(Apparently the Merr greet one another by touching the backs of their dominant hand together briefly.)
Around five or so in the afternoon, I start to notice the change of light as evening approaches. The time has flown by, with Merryt gradually becoming more visibly at ease. He’s a strangely alert person, noticing every movement outside the window, and curious about the various sounds of village life. (“Oh, that sounds like CiCi is practicing the accordion, she must have gotten back from Santarem early!”)
When I realize nightfall is coming, I say,
“I can’t believe it’s already almost six!”
“Six?” Blank expression.
“The time…it’s six o’clock.”
His face clears and he says, “Oh, you don’t use a full-hours system?”
“A what?” This is how much of our conversation has gone all day; one of us saying something in passing and realizing it makes little to no sense to the other.
“Earth has 24 hour days, but you don’t commonly count the hours from one to 24? Or does your clock start at midday? When the sun is at zenith?”
“Usually, only the military and a few other things count on a 24 hour clock.” I explain how the 12 hour clock works, and Merryt laughs,
“That seems arbitrarily complicated.”
I think for a second, then agree. “It is. But I think that can be said for a lot of things, at least in the earthlings that I know of.”
He looks at me again for a long moment then stands, picking up his coat, which he had taken off and laid over the back of the couch. As he shrugs into it and adjusts his white cravat away from his throat, he says, “I’ve used your entire afternoon. I’ll leave before I overstay my welcome, but I would like to invite you to tour my ship at some point if you would care to.”
I feel a smile light up my face, and childlike excitement fills me. I express my interest enthusiastically, trying not to sound overeager. I’m not sure if I succeeded but he looks pleased, and as I walk him to the front door, he looks around with renewed interest but doesn’t ask any more questions.
He steps onto my front walk from the stoop, then turns back, pausing and regarding me.
“Yes?” I ask after a moment, thinking he’s wanting to ask me something.
After another moment, he shakes his head and says, “Nothing. I was reminded of something. When can I see you again?”
My heart does a little flip, a strange thing, but I ignore it, and the warmth in my cheeks, because obviously he doesn’t realize that that turn of phrase is used romantically here. And I don’t really know him, so there’s no reason to- I realize he’s waiting for me to answer.
“I’m sorry, I was trying to think of what I have happening this week. I-um-well, I was going to say I could text you but you don’t exactly have a phone, I guess.” I laugh self-consciously, realizing that this prattle is unintelligible to him.
He seems not to notice, and just waits expectantly for me to actually answer his question.
“It’s hard to predict when I’ll be needed throughout the week, as a healer…but I think the only things I have to do is personal rituals unless something comes up.”
“Then you could tour the ship tomorrow.” He says.
“Are you asking me or telling me?” I say lightly, leaning on the door frame and looking at him openly, wondering if he realizes how imperious he sounded.
He looks at me questioningly, then seems to register what I said, and a bright, surprising and endearing smile breaks through the serious demeanor,
“Oh, I suppose I’m asking!”
“Good, because queens don’t take orders from princes,” I quip, then inwardly cringe. Nice one, Tmonk-Tmonk, because he responded so well to that kind of humor last time…
He surprises me by laughing, and exclaims,
“My queen, please accept my most prostrate apologies, on behalf of all of Merr,” There’s a manic gleam in his eye as he sweeps into a bow, swinging one arm out to the side as if to throw aside a cape.
At that moment, CiCi rounds the corner of her house from the back, heading towards my house, and, seeing Merryt, freezes, staring.
Merryt straightens, apparently having heard her footsteps, and turns, laughter fading but not entirely abandoning his shrewd face.
He looks at me and in an unconcerned tone, says, “So, tomorrow?”
To Be Continued....