Seeing my expression maybe, CiCi says, “Do you want to risk them packing it in and heading back into space? You’ll really regret it if you don’t at least check for your necklace there. I’ll be with you the whole time. Come on! Put your shoes on!”
Five minutes later, we are out the door and leaving the edge of the village, passing under the canopy of the trees. We walk in silence for several minutes. My heart is still pressing up towards my throat, and the longer we walk, the tighter it seems to wedge itself there. I’m just going to ask if they have seen my necklace. We may just see Rejir anyway. Merryt may not be around or might be busy. He probably won’t even bother to come out, honestly. Why would he?
“And so I was thinking maybe you’d like to meet him? And we could do a double date!” I realize CiCi has been chattering for a couple of minutes now, and I snap out of my reverie abruptly.
“What?” Double date? What have I missed?
She looks at me quizzically, then bends swiftly and picks up a thick branch that has fallen across the path and tosses it into the underbrush.
“Were you even listening to anything I said?”
“Sorry, no, I was lost in thought, I guess,” I say apologetically, reaching instinctively for my necklace, a nervous habit. My hand passes through thin air, clasping on nothing.
Clicking her tongue in mock annoyance, she says, “I was saying, Flafrin has a few single friends, but he said he has one in mind that you might like. I was asking if you’d want to come visit the Mango Village with me sometime soon, meet his friend, and maybe go on a double date?”
“Um, blind dates aren’t really something I’m interested in…” I say, ducking under a low hanging vine. We’re almost to the clearing, and my heart is hammering steadily now, making it feel difficult to even speak.
“Ugh, do you want to be single forever?” She says, but laughingly.
I shrug, and say through a desert-dry throat, “I’m not really worried about my relationship status.” The trail ends, opening out into the clearing. The black ship looms and rises up in front of us. No one appears to be outside, and the ramp isn’t down. Hmm. Should I just walk up and…knock on the side? That doesn’t seem right.
“HEY!” CiCi bellows, and I jump almost out of my skin. I whip around and stare at her, feeling like my eyes must be a mile wide in surprise.
“What are you-“ I begin. She makes a repressive motion with her hand, and moves closer to the ship, near where the ramp would be if it were down. There’s a spot on the mossy ground rubbed clear, showing the dark loam underneath from where it rests. Standing there, she looks up at the ship, and taking a deep breath, shouts,
“I KNOW YOU CAN HEAR ME. QUEEN TMONK-TMONK BEREN IS HERE. COME OUT.”
I feel my face getting hot, and I want nothing more than to run into the woods and not look back. I don’t have a chance to make that decision, however, because a voice issues from a small panel in the side of the ship, a speaker, I guess. It speaks in Merr Vogwen, just a couple of words, and CiCi steps back, and looks at me, triumphant. A moment later, with a quiet whoosh, the ramp unfolds, sliding down to the ground. I move cautiously towards CiCi, and see the entryway slide up to open. Rejir appears in the doorway, and looks down at CiCi, then me.
“What do you want?” He says, flatly but without rancor.
“You speak Portuguese?” I blurt out, so surprised that for a moment I forget why we are even here.
He looks at me and appears to be calculating if he should answer me, then with a minuscule shrug, he says, “I do now.”
…that’s a weird way to answer my question, but his tone forecloses further inquiry.
“Oh…um,” I look at CiCi, who looks back at me, and I realize she expects me to take the reins.
I clear my throat, “When I was here last…I-uh-“ I stop, gathering myself up.
“When I was here last, I believe I lost something inside your ship somewhere. A necklace. Have you seen anything like that? It’s on a long brass chain, and has a cluster of crystals…” I trail off, realizing that it’s unlikely there are very many necklaces on board this ship for them to get mine mixed up with.
Rejir’s face is impassive. “I haven’t seen anything like that, I’m sorry,” he says. Though pretty good, his accent over the Portuguese is quite strong, and gives him a harsh tone, so I can’t tell how to read him overall. He turns away.
“Oh…well, would you ask your Prince if he has seen it? It’s…an heirloom.” I decide that’s is the best way to convey how important this is to him. He considers this for a moment, and then says, “I think he would have mentioned it to me, but yes, I will ask.” Giving a very stiff, jerking forward motion with his head, he recedes back inside.
Relieved that it doesn’t seem like I will have to actually see Merryt, I sigh. As the anxiety of possible confrontation recedes, I realize oddly that I’m also a bit disappointed. What even, Tmonk-Tmonk?
CiCi walks over to me and says, “Hopefully he actually goes and asks him-“
I notice a flicker of motion, and glance over her shoulder. Rejir is back. CiCi turns around expectantly.
“Sorry, no, he hasn’t seen it,” He says.
Even though I hadn’t been optimistic, I feel strangely flattened.
“Oh, okay. Well, thank you for-“ I begin, then CiCi cuts across me, “You won’t mind of course, if we come in and take a quick look around for it, though.” She’s grabbing my arm and pulling me towards the ramp. Helpless, I allow myself to be led for a second, unsure of what to do.
Rejir’s eyebrows knit slightly, and he says, “I told you-“
“And we heard you, but that necklace came from her mother, not that that means anything to you,” CiCi’s tone is light, but her grip on my wrist is ironclad now. Rejir moves to block the entrance as CiCi, and thus I, breast the ramp.
“We are coming in to check for the necklace.” CiCi says calmly, but very firmly.
“No,” He says, just as firmly.
CiCi lets go of my wrist, and then shrugs. “Ok, fine.” She moves as if to turn and I step back to let her pass. Suddenly, she dips down and ducks past Rejir into the dim ship interior. His look of shock is so comical, and my own feelings of tension break. I burst out laughing. The captain is quick though, and recovers swiftly, dipping back, then darting forward, arms out. He encircles her waist and scoops her off of her feet. She writhes and struggles, arms pinioned to her sides, feet kicking fruitlessly in the air.
“Let me go! Get off of me! Tmonk-Tmonk, WHY ARE YOU LAUGHING?”
I’m almost doubled over, one hand over my face, looking through my fingers at how ridiculous she looks. One of her shoes flies off, and then the other. They bounce down the ramp right past me. Rejir marches stolidly down the ramp, past me, and deposits her firmly on the ground. She stumbles forward and then whirls around, but he’s ready for her, arms spread wide to block her running past him again.
“Tmonk-Tmonk, what the hell?” She yells, face beet red, one pigtail pulled almost all the way out from her flailing.
“Clearly, we aren’t going to get past this elite guard,” I say, straightening, wiping my eyes, still smiling. I start back down the ramp. Rejir eyes me sideways, not quite taking his attention from CiCi.
CiCi looks at me mutinously.
“Do you want your necklace back or not?”
I take her arm gently, “I don’t think we’re going to be able to bum rush our way onto this ship. I think it’s clear that the Prince-“ I break off, seeing Rejir turning and straightening quickly into a relaxed but definite attention.
Merryt is in the entryway at the top of the ramp, looking down and surveying the scene.
“What about the Prince?” He says, tone light, face inscrutable.
I was going to say, it’s clear the Prince gave Rejir orders not to let us onboard, but the words die on my lips. The unexpected appearance of Merryt has had a bizarre effect on me. My heart doesn’t so much race as it does fly, and again, it’s pressed against my throat, and I feel like I can barely take a breath, much less answer. The memory of his sudden coldness the last time I saw him makes me abruptly and acutely embarrassed to be here. Oh God, why did we come? I feel at once small and childish. Trying not to show this weird mix of emotions, I gaze blithely up and say, “I was saying that clearly the Prince doesn’t want to be bothered right now.”
He leans in the doorway, face still impossible to read, “I’m not bothered.”
CiCi brushes herself off, and says, “We need to come aboard to look for something.”
“A necklace. I heard.”
CiCi and he stare each other down. Then he shrugs.
“Go ahead then,” He turns and steps back into the ship, making a ‘come on in’ gesture with his arm. My eyes fly to Rejir, who is in the middle of rolling his eyes, but then notices me looking and seems to fix his gaze on the top of the trees as if something very interesting caught his attention up there. CiCi shoots me a grin, then ducks past Rejir, bumping him playfully with her hip,
“Oh, excuuuuse me!” She laughs, and prances up the ramp. I follow her, and feel Rejir’s feet clumping up the metal incline behind us a moment later.
As I cross the threshold, the warm, dry breeze of canned air puffs my hair back from my face and shoulders. Merryt is standing just inside, fully in the shadows of the corridor. His eyes meet mine, and I quickly look away. CiCi is looking around. Rejir brings up the rear, and when he gets inside, he swipes his hand just inside the doorway, and the portal closes. We are momentarily enveloped in velvety darkness. Then, with a rustle of coat fabric, I hear Rejir move his arm, and the lights slowly come on, though not extremely bright. CiCi starts off down the corridor, turning her head quickly, as if trying to see in every direction all at once. Rejir starts after her. Merryt doesn’t move, still standing with his back to the edge of the closed doorway. In the dim, I can’t tell for sure, but I have the distinct impression of Merryt’s gaze piercing me. I move to follow CiCi and Rejir, and have a strong sense that Merryt is going to reach out to stop me, but I pass unimpeded. I can’t help but listen for his footsteps behind me as I trail after them, but nothing reaches my ears. I quicken my pace to catch up with Rejir, and fall into step beside him.
“So how do you speak Portuguese now?” I ask, conversationally.
He glances at me, seems to hesitate for a moment, then apparently decides to respond, “Lingual update,” He says shortly.
When he says update, all I can think is update like an app.
“What does that mean?” I ask.
Again, the brief hesitance then decision to speak,
“We have a cortical implant that allows us to acquire known languages or analyze new ones for integration and use,”
“How does that work?” I ask, intrigued.
“I don’t really know.” Not rude, but not inviting further discussion.
“It’s a self-replicating microscopic filament that attaches to the neurons and sends electrical impulses to the speech centers of the brain,” Merryt speaks from my other side, and I jump very slightly. His approach was soundless. He seems to see my surprise despite my attempt to veil it, and a shadow of a smirk plays at the corner of his mouth.
“We can update it wirelessly when we need to add a language. That’s how Rejir knows your Portuguese now.”
I try to laugh, a bad attempt, and say, “I just thought he was a language prodigy,”
CiCi turns and looks over her shoulder, apparently uninterested in our conversation, “Queenie, where should we look first?”
I look around, then at Rejir then Merryt, “The first place we went was wherever you control the ship,”
“The command bay,” Rejir supplements, and motions us to keep walking as he moves to take the lead.
Merryt’s hand closes gently around my elbow, pulling me to a stop. Rejir and CiCi continue walking and within a few moments disappear around the curved bend of the corridor. Their footsteps begin to recede. I continue to look after them, feeling unsure of what to say or do. After a long moment, when I can’t avoid it anymore, I look questioningly up at Merryt. He doesn’t speak, but appears to be trying to gather his thoughts.
Suddenly exasperated, I say, “Look, I don’t know what you’re expecting, but you’ve ended two meetings with me rudely and abruptly. I get that that’s normal treatment of girls where you’re from but I’m not interested in a friendship like that,” I try to pull away, expecting resistance, but he releases my arm like it suddenly grew hot to the touch. This results in an overcompensation on my part, swinging my arm away dramatically.
He sighs and says, “The last time I saw you, I..” He stops, jaw clenching for a second. “I was...rude. For the second time. It would be difficult to explain the position I’m in,”
“I see,” I say coolly, obviously not seeing at all, and just wanting this moment to end.
He drops his arms to his sides with an exhale of exasperation and looks at the ceiling for a few moments.
“Do you want me to apologize?” He looks at me, eyes searching my face with scrutiny.
Thrown off balance, not knowing what I want, I say, “I-um, will it make any difference? From what I can tell, you’ll just do the same thing again when you feel like it.”
“I won’t.” The words are said very quietly, but the intensity behind them is unnerving.
I don’t respond. I don’t know how to.
He looks at me very quickly, then at his hands, palms up in front of him, then closes them into fists, then shoves his hands into his pockets.
“You have no reason to trust me, I know,” He says with a shrug. “But maybe over time, you’ll come to understand how things are...for me.” His face falls into a neutral expression, in front of watchful eyes.
A strange mixture of emotions is whirling inside me, with the overwhelming desire to believe him drowning out the sense of cautious skepticism and justifiable annoyance.
“Okay,” I say simply, after a long moment.
A twitch of the eyebrow on an otherwise purposefully expressionless face, “….Okay?”
“Yes. Okay. We can be friends again.” I smile, and it’s so easy to do. The cautionary voice in the back of my head throws a tantrum and leaves.
Looking mildly nonplussed, he says, “…fair enough, I guess.”
Before I consider what I’m doing, I slip my hand between his arm and side, catching my elbow in the crook of his, and in an exaggeratedly formal voice, I say, “Lead the way, my prince.” I look up at him and smile at the deepening bemusement on his face.
Then he smiles and my heart flutters.
To Be Continued...