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?”
I glance at CiCi who is still just staring, eyes ticking between Merryt and me.
“I don’t know about tomorrow.” I look again at CiCi then back at Merryt. He nods, as if to say he understands my hesitation, then turns and walks down the sidewalk, calling over his shoulder, “You’re welcome to stop by the ship any time, so why don’t you just come when it’s a good time? I have reports to compile, but no work of any urgency.”
“Ok…” I say, uncertainly, and watch as CiCi sets her eyes on me and starts walking quickly in this direction again. As she and Merryt come abreast then pass, he nods his head at her. She stares stonily ahead, and brushes past me into my house with a scoffing noise.
“Goodbye. I’ll see you…” I say, feeling oddly off kilter at the abrupt appearance and apparent ferocity of CiCi.
“We’ll see,” The prince says, and then he’s off, crossing the street, walking with purpose but looking around with mild interest as he goes.
I turn and go inside, shutting the door. I’m nervous about how to deal with CiCi. Her face was a thundercloud when she passed me and went inside. She and I have never argued, and she has always been light hearted, flexible, and cheerful.
Grimly, I go into the front room, and see she has flopped onto the couch and is staring moodily up at the ceiling. Without preface, she says,
“Why was he here? Not like I really need to ask.”
“What? He was here to-no stop, let me talk.” She’s thrust herself upright and fixed her reddening, angry face on me, mouth open to speak.
I continue, a little louder, “He came here to apologize for being an ass before, and then he told me a little bit about the Merr, and I told him some stuff about Earth-I mean not all of Earth obviously but-“
“I guess he told you all about the Merr? Or-whatever they’re called?” She catches herself, still covering something up, but I don’t pursue it.
“No, not really. But I expect he will. Because yes, I plan to keep talking to him. I LIKE him!”
“You like him?!” Her whole demeanor is bordering on rage now. This is starting to freak me out. What is happening? She says it like I’m trying to marry this guy.
I start getting mad.
“I know what you’re trying to imply, CiCi.” I fix her with a cold glare.
“I’m not implying anything. I don’t have to.” She retorts.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
She points at me, and for a second I’m confused. It must show in my face because she rolls her eyes and says, “Tmonk-Tmonk, you’ve been working on that dress for weeks. It’s the nicest one you have, probably, and it looks amazing. So tell me how you just so happen to have your prettiest dress on, but I’m supposed to believe you’re not interested in him? Like, as a GUY?”
What. I look down at myself, at the delicate, iridescent green dress I worked so hard to perfect.
“I-no. I wasn’t trying to-“ Her look of sarcastic skepticism further inflames me.
“I literally just finished this dress and was doing the last fitting to be sure when he showed up at my door. I have barely even had a chance to look in the mirror and see if it needs any more adjustments.”
Her skepticism seems to lose steam. Grabbing onto this toehold in reason, I say, “I swear, CiCi. I had pretty much decided I would never seem him again, and honestly, I didn’t have an issue with that. He was an asshole when I saw him the other day. But I guess he felt bad, because he came by earlier today and apologized. Sincerely!” I add, as her brow furrows.
“He told me that the Merr…I didn’t really understand what he meant and we haven’t talked about it in much more detail...but he said that Merr women, girls are property or something. It was kind of hard to tell what that really meant. He seemed like he was having a hard time adjusting to, you know, Merr Vogwen girls being on their own, the way we are. I’m going to make him tell me more about it, because I can’t really wrap my head around-“
She sighs, and lays back on the couch again, face strangely colorless except for livid patches of scarlet blotching her cheeks, mouth in a tight line.
She takes a long time to respond, then takes a deep breath, exhaling, “I just have a bad feeling that you’re getting into something you shouldn’t.”
“I think you’re overreacting.”
Another long silence. I see her jaw clenching, and the red patches in her check have spread towards her ears and throat.
The conversation drops. Her energy on the subject seems completely burnt out, so I don’t try to bring it back up. We talk about the new baby in town, and make plans for painting the healing center walls with a mural. The “healing center” is really just a small house at the end of the main street, where people meet me when they need help with ailments, or want to talk, or get their cards read. The walls are a bland white right now, and CiCi and I want to paint it with bright colors and patterns to make the energy a little more positive and vibrant in there. At some point I realize that I’m ravenous, so I ask her if she wants to stay for dinner. She agrees and we spend a pleasant if not slightly awkward evening together. When she leaves at the end of the night, it feels like we have come to a silent agreement to just let this one go for now.
It turns out to have been a good decision not to agree to the ship tour the following day. There’s a rash of strange accidents and small catastrophes that breaks out, occupying my time for almost the rest of the week. After three and a half days, I’ve burned sage in every house in town, and laid down countless salt barriers. By midday Friday, I feel relatively certain that I won’t be getting any more phone calls about couches spontaneously combusting or drink pitchers developing unexplainable holes in the bottom and spewing liquid in every direction. I’ve had enough minor hauntings for one week. I’m lying on my own mercifully non-combusted couch, half napping, when I snap awake, realizing it’s been several days since Merryt and I met and talked, and that he must think I’ve blown off his invitation. Crap. I don’t know what I should do. Would it be weird to just go out there now? I wish there was some way to contact him. I guess I should try to go out there and tell him what happened, because I can’t just sit around and assume he’ll stop by and see what happened. I doubt princes are used to being stood up. I get up, stretching, then consider myself in the mirror at the end of my hallway. I’m wearing a blue grey tunic style top with black shorts under it, because it’s just slightly too short to conveniently act as a dress. It’s probably the only casual clothing I have that isn’t singed or covered in soot at the moment. My impulse is to change into something a little nicer, but this isn’t a date. It’s just a tour of his ship. I don’t want it to seem like I’m trying to impress him, or like I’m reading anything into this, right? I tug at the hem of my top and shift from foot to foot, undecided. Well, I can at least drag a brush through my hair, I guess.
Thank goodness I have a good sense of direction, because otherwise I really would be out of luck. The ship is a bit further away than I'd remembered, but I recognize that I’m getting near to the clearing, and I pause, listening. I pick up on a metallic banging, and feel the vibration of metal striking metal reverberating under my feet. Taking a steadying breath, I plunge through the underbrush and into the clearing, and find myself for the second time looking at the immense black, metallic vessel, arching up and away from the ground, scraping the trees reaching to fill in the space above the clearing on all sides. The banging sound is coming from around the back. Reaching into my bag, I close my fingers around my knife handle, and leave my hand inside my bag. As I turn the corner of the ship, I see the blond captain, Bryl, is closing several small compartments in the side of the ship, one after the other, resulting in the loud bangs. Catching sight of my movement, he whips around, and says something loudly in the Merr tongue, and draws something from his waist. It looks like a smooth, featureless black gun of strange sort, and I freeze, releasing my knife and pulling my hand from my purse and raising my palms outward in front of me. He smiles coldly, training the barrel of the gun lazily towards my face. I stare fixedly into his eyes, which seem overly wide, not at the gun, and say, knowing even as I do that he doesn’t understand Portuguese, “Please, I’m here at Merryt’s request-Prince Merryt!” I correct myself quickly, even though its meaningless to him. At the sound of Merryt’s name, though, Bryl falters for a moment, so I say again, slowly, trying to be clear, “Merryt. I’m here to see Merryt!” From behind me, a spate of words I don’t understand call towards us. I don’t dare turn, but Bryl sneers, then lowers his weapon very slightly, laughing. He snaps a response to the speaker, and then from around my left side, the dark haired captain approaches. Rejir, I think. He walks straight towards his compatriot and grabs the end of the gun and wrenches the barrel down towards the ground, apparently arguing with him. I back up a bit. Then Rejir steps in front of me and barks something, and I see him reach toward his own hip. Not wanting to be near a shootout, I dart back and away, against the ship as they continued to argue heatedly. The edge of the forest is close, and I’m contemplating running for the bushes when Bryl storms off and away. Rejir turns quickly toward me, looking troubled. “Come,” He says, reaching for my arm, gently taking my elbow. Without another word, he guides me back the other direction around the ship, then presses his hand to the featureless black side for a moment. Silently, a doorway materializes, and a small step drops to the ground at our feet, leading inside. “Thank you,” I say as he holds my arm steady to step up. He looks blank, and I realize he must only know a few words of Portuguese. I step into surprisingly warm, dry shadows, and I move aside, waiting for my eyes to adjust, as Rejir enters the ship. Soft light suddenly illuminates what turns out to be a corridor, and I see he has his hand on the wall, and a glowing panel appears there. Removing his hand, he swipes a finger across it, and the doorway becomes opaque again. His body language is easy, so I don’t find it ominous. He looks at me, and then makes a gesture, I think to say come on, and starts walking. The floor feels metallic beneath my sandaled feet but sound is muffled, as if it’s much softer. The corridor is largely featureless, with small rectangular panels periodically appearing as we walk past, and fading again. Motion sensors? A few times we stop, and another doorway appears, and I soon lose my sense of where we may be in this labyrinthine place despite my best effort. If only everything wasn’t so constantly similar; austere dark metal, with no decorative elements whatsoever. At last, we pass into not another corridor, but a large, open room with a ceiling rising high above, and what appears to be a massive picture window looking out into the clearing. Raised up on a platform is some sort of glowing console with a guard rail around it, and a small set of stairs. The room is very dark except for the light from outside, but everything looks oddly crisp through the glass, and as we approach, I realize it looks more like a huge high definition screen than actual clear glass. As we approach the raised dais, I notice that there are small desk areas with flat screens in their surfaces, light glowing and pulsing, in a half moon around and below the dais. “Sit, wait,” Rejir says, speaking suddenly, causing me to jump. He motions at a sparse looking chair in front of a nearby desk. I sit down gingerly, trying not to touch anything on the desk despite overwhelming curiosity. Rejir turns and leaves me sitting here in the vaguely humming dimness. His footsteps recede and I look around, trying to get a sense of the space. I hear an outburst of voices just outside of the room, just before the doorway disappears, cutting it off abruptly. Bryl again, I think. Several long minutes pass. I really want to get up and walk around. My legs are crossed so tightly that my left foot is starting to fall asleep. I uncross them, shaking my feet a bit and wincing at the tingle. As I’m doing so, I feel the whisper of air pressure change that seems to accompany the opening of the doorways. The silhouetted form steps into the low light, then turns, presses a hand against another concealed wall panel and the lights glow brighter. It’s Merryt. He turns towards me, a hint of a smile on his face, “Did you keep me waiting long enough, Madame Vogwen?” He walks up the aisle, and he has his jacket slung over one shoulder, white uniform shirt sleeves rolled up to the elbows, the usual I’ve come to recognize. He tosses the jacket over the back of the chair beside me, and I stand up.
“I didn’t mean to. We had a demonic event, or something, and it sucked the last few days down the drain. I’ve been putting out couch fires more than I’d like to discuss,” I say, laughing. He laughs but seems unsure of what I’m talking about, and I realize once again that I’ve said something utterly incomprehensible. I swing my arms awkwardly at my sides, realize I’m doing it, and clasp my hands in front of me, and look around.
I sense him looking at me, and nervously, I walk towards the raise platform.
“Is this where someone pilots the ship?” I ask, putting a hand on the rail beside the steps.
“It is. Although pilot isn’t the word we use. Command is what we say. It comes to the same though.”
I start up the steps, and he makes a sudden move, then stops.
“Oh-is it ok if I go up?” I realize I might be being unconsciously gauche. His expression is hard to read, but after a barely perceptible pause he motions me on. I climb up the ten or so steps, and stand in front of the bank of screens, dark except for a few gently pulsing lights. I look up at the expansive view of the outside. “Is this a window, or a screen?” I ask, turning to look over my shoulder at him as he tops the steps and joins me at my side. “It can be both. The front surface can become transparent from the interior, for physical viewing, but the entire ships’ surface can project to this virtual screen. We usually leave it on the view screen mode so we can view the readouts and alerts. See? Motion sensors, proximity detectors, environmental data-“ He touches the desk surface, and a display appears on the large screen, semi transparent, in script like that on my tonce- “Altemble?” I ask, and, looking please, he nods. He draws my attention down to the console screen again and says, “Put your hand here,” he guides my hand to the screen, which is vaguely warm. A glowing light traces around the contour of my whole hand and fingers. There’s a soft dinging sound from a screen to the left and he reaches across me and presses his forefinger to what looks like a small concave area. It lights up at his touch, and the dinging stops.
“Now the ship recognizes your hand print.” Straightening, he quickly taps his fingers on the screen in front of him, as if typing, and a soft voice says, “Kelai, Tmonk-Tmonk Beren,”
Startled and pleased, I smile, “Most voice software doesn’t know how to say my name. They usually say Tuh-Monk Tuh-Monk.”
“Earthen folk don’t use silent letters in names often?”
“No, I don’t think so. I’ve never met anyone else with a name like mine.”
“The silent letter names aren’t used as often as they were centuries ago; they’re usually used by specific families when they are, but everyone is familiar with them.”
“Wow,” It feels nice to know that my name isn’t necessarily an oddity the way it is in my daily life.
“You can look around the exterior, if you like. Touch the top right corner-“ I do. The vast view screen image becomes soft, unfocused.
“Ok, good, now move your hand around as if you were turning a viewfinder-here,” He takes my hand again to guide the motion. I look up at the screen and a feeling of slight vertigo overtakes me as I see the view changing smoothly. I see the clearing all around, and it’s like I’m walking around, looking through a camera. Merryt takes his hand away and the skin seems to burn on the back of mine where his was a moment ago.
As I turn the view towards the right, suddenly Bryl comes into view, stalking across the clearing, kicking up a small cloud of dust at his feet.
“He wasn’t happy to see me at all,” I remark, with a nervous laugh.
“No, he wasn’t. It’s becoming a problem,”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I guess I don’t really understand. Maybe because we haven’t really talked about the thing you told me about Merr females...” I trail off, still changing the view around to look at the surrounding forest, uncanny in its clarity and nearness despite my sense of us being deep inside this vessel. I become very aware of his shoulder, which is close behind mine, as he stands by my side. This command space is really only meant to be spacious for one by necessity, I imagine, of the commander needing to have every control within easy hands’ reach.
He doesn’t say anything, just puts his hand on the back of mine and says, “If you flatten your hand like this and spread your fingers a bit wider-yes, like that-it changes over to the true view.”
The image again goes soft in focus, then the glow of imaging disappears and the scene seems to have receded some. I realize that this is because we are now seeing the space in front of the ship through plain glass, with no digital enhancement or zooming in. He takes his hand away again, and lets out a long breath, almost inaudibly, then turns, his hip grazing mine slightly, “Excuse me,” as he goes back down the steps. At the bottom, he stands, waiting.
“Are you ready for your tour? I can’t promise that it will be very interesting. Though an incredible vessel of powerful technological prowess, it’s very plain. We can talk as we walk, if you like.”
I think he means about the female thing. I feel a bit nervous about the subject, as he seems reluctant to discuss it, or maybe confused about how to do so. I come down, and as I approach the bottom, he holds out a hand as if to offer to steady me. Such courtly gestures. It doesn’t make any sense.
As we leave the big command space, he swipes his hand along the inner edge of the doorway, and the lights dim again behind us.
“This ship is so big. I thought we were much further from the edge than we are. I’m surprised the front of that room is at the front of the ship.”
He glances at me in surprise, then says, “This is really a very small ship. It can be crewed by up to a dozen, but is easily manned by three, as it is now. It’s just a jump fighter.” Seeing my blank face he explains, “It’s meant for short, direct journeys in interstellar space, and is lightweight and agile to serve the double purpose of battling if necessary.”
“Is that a common purpose?”
The wry smile I’m learning is his most common casual expression flits across his face as we walk,
“The Merr are always prepared to do battle. Our space military is the most powerful in this quadrant. I’m a trained strategic fighter.”
“Are you at war?”
He appears to consider this for a moment, then says, “In a manner of speaking, the Vogwen have been at war for their entire existence. The Merr are just always prepared for what comes next.”
That was cryptic.
To Be Continued...