“Yes. Ok. 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 arm 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.
Almost as if he read my mind, his gaze sharpens for a moment, but I turn and begin down the corridor, towards where Rejir and CiCi were heading, pulling him with me briskly.
What was that, Tmonk-Tmonk? Admonishing myself for my proverbial butterflies, I keep my eyes straight forward. I haven’t really had much time for boys in my life. CiCi has done enough dating for both of us is kind of what I’ve always thought. CiCi. What is SHE going to say? About what? Not like I’m going to tell her that I might be getting a little crush. That didn’t feel little. It’s true... My stomach is still flip-flopping a bit, especially with his arm looped through mine, the warmth of his side as his arm presses my forearm in. What exactly do I think could even happen-
I’m roused from my mildly panicked reverie when Merryt pulls us to a stop and says, “Well, it looks like it wasn’t in the command bay-“ He points, and sure enough, about ten feet from us, CiCi and Rejir are emerging, and CiCi sees me and shakes her head with a grimace.
“No luck. I even went up on the command deck thing. Where else did you go?” Disappointment floods me, and a prickling of anxiety. I don’t want to go back into the cantina, even to find my necklace. As if he read my mind, Merryt says smoothly, “How about this-Rejir, you two go check the cantina. I’ll take the queen up to my apartment to look there.” CiCi’s eyebrows shoot so high they’re at risk of flying off of her face, and she stares daggers into me. I know what she’s thinking. Not helping matters, my face goes hot.
“I don’t think we should split up,” She says pointedly, but I ignore that. I have no intention of going back into the cantina.
“Look, it will be a lot quicker this way. See you in a few minutes!” My voice is overly cheery, I know, but I turn quickly away, positively dragging Merryt around with me.
“Actually it’s that way,” He points back over his shoulder, indicating past Rejir and CiCi.
“Oh,” I say, through gritted teeth.
He turns, and leads me in that direction once more. As we pass CiCi, both she and Rejir look mutinous. When we get to the elevator, Merryt swipes his hand beside the doors, which slide open to let us in. The doors swish shut and I realize we are still standing arm in arm, and I quickly slip my arm back out from his, and clasp my hands behind my back. The silence is oppressive. Racking my brain to make conversation, I look all around the anonymous and featureless elevator. There’s literally nothing in here, so I’m not struck with any conversational inspiration. Thankfully in moments, with a soft ding, the doors slide open. I spring out of the chamber and into the hallway, looking left and right to get my bearings.
“Are you alright?” He asks, and I feel my face getting warm again.
“I’m fine!” I insist shrilly, and he gives me an appraising look before nodding his head to the right and setting off in that direction.
We quietly scale the stairwell up to his apartment. I comb the floor with my eyes all the way there, in hopes of seeing my necklace, although I realize that in this empty hallway, it would be difficult to miss.
Same day: Back to when CiCi and Tmonk-Tmonk first arrive at the ship
Per the usual routine, Merryt is at his desk, pouring over reports on the digital display. The Taelons have been suspiciously quiet. No sign of the Malai, either. He sighs, his chin heavily resting on his hand as he idly scrolls through the rest of the things he’s supposed to read thoroughly. May as well draft a request for a new captain. It will be difficult to navigate the ship back to Merr or wherever with just the two of them, unless they have alternating 12 hour shifts. He’s starting to think they might be going back on time after all, and that he’ll cancel his extension.
A flashing yellow light jerks him from his boredom, and he sits bolt upright. The proximity detector. They’ve got it set to only go off when humanoids approach the ship or when speech is picked up, otherwise the thing would be going off nonstop in this place. Leaning forward, Merryt touches a slightly depressed area in the corner of his desk- “-BEREN IS HERE. COME OUT.” He quickly turns the volume down on the speaker as a strident female voice blares out at him, rattling his empty water glass against the flat surface.
So, the problematic little queen and her captain are here… He stands up, trying to ignore a thrill of interest as he picks up his coat from the back of the chair and shrugs into it.
“My lord,” Rejir’s voice comes over the speaker.
“Go ahead,” he responds, pulling his collar away from his throat to tuck the cravat in a bit.
“The girl and her friend are outside, and they want to know if you’ve seen a necklace. She supposedly lost it and thinks it might be on board.”
A strange feeling of letdown tries to push in on him. What did he think they were here for? Unbidden, the image of “the girl” flashes through his mind-the long, silvery hair, eyes that seem to shift colors with the light.
“My lord?” Rejir’s voice cuts through the image like a knife.
“Oh, uh, no. I haven’t seen it.” He does remember her wearing a necklace. A long metal chain with some sort of crystal hanging from the end. Iridescent, like her eyes in a way. He strides from the room, not taking time to consider anything, and heads down towards the ship’s exit.
When he arrives, he hears scuffling and speeds up. Not that he doesn’t trust Rejir, but after the Bryl incident-
He rounds the corner, and sees the hatch to the exterior stands open, and though he can’t see Rejir, he can see his shadow, arms apparently stretched out from side to side.
“Do you want your necklace back or not?” That’s the queen’s captain. CiCi. Merryt begins to walk more swiftly, but silently, then steps quickly into the doorway. The scene that meets his eyes is objectively comical. The blonde captain is red in the face, one of her pulled back bits of yellow hair slumping down behind her ear. Rejir is indeed standing with arms outstretched, as if to body block someone from running up the ramp.
He seems to hear the prince because he glances back, then turns halfway towards him, coming into a relaxed attention.
Tmonk-Tmonk Beren is grabbing her friend’s arm, pulling her back down the ramp. She’s wearing a pale moss colored dress, long hair in some sort of twisted rope that is slung around her shoulder and dangling carelessly over her arm as she takes hold of her friend, saying, “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-“
At that moment, she seems to notice Rejir looking up the ramp. Then her eyes meet his.
Clearing his throat, which has gone oddly dry, Merryt asks, ““What about the Prince?”
In the present:
He swipes his hand at the doorway, and the lights come up. I move past him, into the apartment. Again, I’m a bit taken aback by how oddly empty it is. The bed is unmade again, and not seeing my necklace anywhere obvious, I gingerly take the corner of a blanket and sort of shift the covers around a bit.
“I think I would notice if I was sleeping on a necklace with a big crystal on it,” He says lightly.
“You’d think so,” I say, moving towards the head of the bed. Maybe it fell down between the top of the bed and the wall? I try to wedge my hand down there but the angle isn’t quite right. I kneel on the bed and try again, then lower onto my stomach, slipping my arm down the narrow gap, fingertips barely brushing the floor. Nothing. I puff a lock of hair out of my face and glance back at Merryt. He’s resolutely looking at my face, and after a second I realize my dress is riding high up my thigh. With my free hand, I yank the hem down and then sweep my dangling hand in the crack of the bed one more time, before pushing myself up, and sit back on my heels. One more idea occurs to me, and I lean over onto my belly again, this time carefuly clutching my dress in one hand, as I dangle my head over the side of the bed and begin to scooch forward to look under the bed. My braid thumps to the floor beneath my head and I slide further, until the crown of my head is almost to the floor. Then, in the gloomy underbed shadows, I see a glint of something. I gasp, then push myself awkwardly back up onto the bed.
“I think I might see it!” I exclaim.
“Really?” He looks surprised.
Without another word, I slide off the bed to the floor, and peek under. Yes, there’s definitely something back there! Wriggling onto my stomach and using my hands to pull myself into the tight space, I go for it. YES! I clasp the object in the gloom, and as soon as I feel the familiar chain, I know I’ve found it at last. Back-peddling, I slither out from under the bed and sit up on the floor, and hold the necklace up in triumph, joy and relief flooding me as I loop the chain over my head and feel the heavy crystal thump home against my solar plexus. Standing, Merryt extends a hand to pull me to my feet. I overbalance forward a bit, and he catches my forearms in his hands, steadying me.
“Thanks!” I say, still smiling. He looks down at me, then releases my arms.
“It’s a good thing you came to look for it. I never really look under the bed,”
“I’m surprised it wasn’t dusty under there!” I say, looking down at my dress, which is still pristine despite crawling around on a smooth floor under a bed.
“The ship has a lot of air purification systems, because of being in space for long periods at a time. The air needs to be cleaned constantly to keep the environment healthy.”
That makes sense. I look down at my necklace again, and Merryt says, “That necklace must be pretty important to get you back out here.”
“It is, but you can thank CiCi for getting me here. I didn’t want to come,” I sit down on the edge of the bed. He sits down beside me, propping his hand behind him. His weight tilts me sideways and I fall against his side. “Oops, sorry,” I say, awkwardly laughing.
“I’m not complaining,” he says carelessly. My head is near his shoulder in this position, and I crane my neck slightly to glance at his face. He looks down at me, a laugh playing around the edges of his expression.
I push myself back upright quickly, suddenly aware of our proximity, heart hammering somewhere right behind my sternum.
“We should go let CiCi and Rejir know we found my necklace,” I say, busying myself with adjusting the chain around my neck.
We leave the apartment, Merryt pausing to pull the door closed behind us. As we start down the stairwell, he says, “So, you didn’t want to come? You wouldn’t have gotten your necklace back,”
“That wouldn’t have been great, for sure,” I say, biting my lip for a second, “But I wasn’t really looking forward to an awkward confrontation with you. I don’t generally go where my presence is unwelcome.”
He’s quiet for a minute or so as we emerge into the corridor and begin toward the elevator.
The doors slide open and we enter, and when it begins to move, he says, “Your presence wasn’t unwelcome.”
“Our last encounter left me with a different impression,” I say, trying to keep the coolness out of my voice, especially since we have already decided to move on from that.
The elevator comes to a stop, doors opening again. I move to exit, and he makes a motion as if to take hold of my arm, but then doesn’t, although the effect is the same, and I stop moving forward.
“We will be back with your friend, and Rejir, in a minute, so I don’t have much time to say all I would say. And neither of them want us to get very close, I don’t think. Probably for remarkably similar reasons.”
At that moment, I hear CiCi’s voice echoing down the corridor. Merryt glances in that way, then at me.
He speaks again, his voice low and quick, “I have had few equals, and even fewer superiors. I have known females… but not in this way-“
He gestures between us,
“Will you forgive my…inept…handling of a new situation?” He looks down the hall towards the approaching voices and now discernible footfalls, then back at me. There’s a blazing look in his eyes, and it seems to burn away all the misgivings and residual feelings of doubt in me, and I feel suspended in his gaze.
“Yes,” I say, feeling my voice coming from far away.
“Can we start again?” From that long distance, I feel him take both of my hands in his. His hands seem very strong, from the way his fingers grip mine, tight, steady, but not painful. The sensation brings me back to myself abruptly, and I say, “Yes,” again, then blink, breaking the spell of his eyes on mine. He seems suddenly shaken as if from a dream, and I sense him take a sharp breath in. I catch my breath as well, because it seems to have been suspended along with me. He releases my hands, and I reluctantly let them drop, right as CiCi rounds the corner, Rejir right behind her, looking chagrined and mildly amused in equal measure.
“Did you-“ She begins, and I turn towards her, lifting the crystal on the end of the chain, a big smile spreading on my face, then hers in response. She pumps a fist in the air, “YES!” She scampers the last 15 feet or so and throws her arms around me in a hug.
“You’re choking me!” I exclaim, extricating myself from her grip, still grinning.
Rejir walks up, looks at me, and then Merryt.
“Where was it?”
“In my apartment. Under the be-table,” Table? I glance at Merryt, wondering for a split second why he didn’t say where it really was. The appraising look on Rejir’s face catches me up to speed quickly, though. “Under the bed” does sound worse than it is.
“It must have fallen off when Merryt took me to get a glass of water,” I say lightly. Rejir’s eyebrows twitch alarmingly, and he says, “You will refer to him as Prince Merryt in front of me, if you don’t mind.” I recognized my mistake as soon as I said it, realizing that the familiarity of that address isn’t something that has necessarily been established as ok.
CiCi’s eyes are moving shrewdly between faces.
“Ack, I’m sorry,” I say, to the prince, not Rejir.
With a supremely unconcerned shrug, he says, “It doesn’t matter. Call me Merryt.”
Merryt’s eyes flick to his captain for only a nanosecond, but Rejir’s mouth closes with a snap, and redness creeps up from his collar.
Merryt looks back to me, then hold out his arm for me to take, “My queen,” His eyes are laughing, and I can tell he’s raking Rejir over the coals now.
I take his arm, slipping my hand through the loop and catching the crook of my elbow to his. He tightens his arm around mine for a moment conspiratorially.
“Would you ladies like some coffee before you go home?” He asks with exaggerated lordliness, then adds swiftly, “In the command bay,”
CiCi, who seems to be relaxing and going with the flow now, says, “I think we have time, right Queenie?”
“I don’t have anywhere to be,” I respond, in no hurry. The warmth of the heavy uniform coat sleeve and Merryt’s side is pleasant on my arm.
“Rejir, fix your face, you look like you ate a lemon,” Merryt says, then looks down at me as we begin walking, “Lemon. That’s not quite the word I mean but it’s the closest I can find. Do you have a sour fruit with a thick skin? Yellowish?”
“That’s a lemon,” I say, nodding and watching the side of Rejir’s face that I can see as he walks beside CiCi a few steps ahead of us. He has indeed wiped his face of the sour expression he had when Merryt suggested coffee.
“Ah okay, good. It doesn’t sound like a real word. It’s very different from how we say it.” Merryt says, seeming to have entirely disregarded Rejir now.
“How do you say it?” I ask, curious.
He spits out a word that sounds jagged, full of consonants. Something like, Vrrrkzt.
When we get into the command bay, Merryt brightens the lights with a casual swipe, and then offers CiCi and me a seat on some swiveling chairs at a long, low console near the base of the raised command dais.
Rejir stands stiff and awkward, leaning against the railing leading up the stairs. Merryt looks aroundm then says, “Damn. I knew we shouldn’t have disabled the dispenser in here,” I guess seeing our blank faces, he adds, “Most of the main areas of the ship have dispensers for drinks and food, but since we’re a small crew, we decided to disable most of them because the maintenance wasn’t worth it. But now I have to walk all the way to the cantina.” Moving towards the door, he says something to Rejir in Merr, then, “I’ll be right back.”
The door slides up, he steps out, and moments later it slides down again, disturbing the air pressure slightly so that I feel a breeze across my face. I look at Rejir, who thunks down to a seat on the steps, long legs stretching out in front of him. He stares at the ground between his boots as if something very interesting is happening there. I look around the room. When I was here before, the lights weren’t so bright, so I have a much better view now. The room is maybe thirty feet across, and round, with a tall ceiling, so that it is sort of like being in a cylinder. I look up, and see that the ceiling is domed, giving the space a bullet-like shape. The walls are lined with dark screens and a few areas of softly blinking lights. There are two curved desk-like consoles, the one CiCi and I sit at, and one across from us, on the other side of the aisle leading to the stairs of the dais.
CiCi is looking around with interest as well, and looks like she’s about to speak when a loud noise, a metallic ringing, issues from the console in front of us. I pull my hands back and away, looking wildly from CiCi to Rejir. Then a slightly distorted male voice, amplified and echoing in the cylindrical space, speaks from what must be a speaker. Rejir has scrambled to his feet and is leaning over the desk, listening avidly. When the talking pauses, he presses a finger to the smooth black glass top of the desk, and a pale yellow light pulses under his fingertip. Shooting at glance at me, he shakes his head emphatically, which I take to mean stay quiet, which I would have anyway. I look at CiCi and put a finger to my lips. She’s not looking at me though, she’s staring at where the voice came from, eyes narrowed. Rejir clears his throat and begins talking, his voice calm and clipped. I stand up, nervous, picking up on a sense of urgency in the voice coming over the speaker. It’s not Merryt, so it must be coming from a long way away-all the way from Merr? The crackling, overly loud voice responds, and Rejir’s eyes flick to me then when he sees me watching him, he points to me and then the door. What? I mouth, and he takes his finger off of the console for a split second and whispers, “Go get the prince. Go!” He flings his arm and pointed finger toward the door again, and then turns back to the console, finger down, and speaks rapidly. CiCi looks at me briefly, then goes back to watching Rejir, her whole body tense. I hurry to the door, hesitate, then imitate the swiping motion I’ve seen so many times now, and the door swooshes up.
To Be Continued...