“Go get the prince. Go!” Reji flings his arm and point 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.
Satisfying. Glancing left and right, orienting myself, I try to remember which way to go to the cantina. Just as I’m about to decide it was toward the right, I hear footsteps, and Merryt comes around the corner, frowning in concentration as he carries multiple cups. He glances up and sees me, and I move quickly toward him, “Um, Rejir sent me to come get you-“ “What’s wrong?” He asks, speeding up. I reach him and take two of the cups from his hands to make it easier on him, and fall into step beside him, “I'm not sure-a transmission came through, I don’t know what it said but he told me to go get you.”
“They didn’t hear you did they?”
“What? The people calling or whatever? No, no…”
His tense expression softens marginally, “Good, that would complicate things-“ Distractedly, he hands me the other two cups to free his hand to swipe open the door. I grip to them tenuously, following him quickly. “Ouch!” I say, as hot liquid splashes from one as they jostle together. Merryt grimaces, takes the cups back, then says, “What is it?” to Rejir. The black haired captain looks pointedly at me but Merryt cuts across him before he even opens his mouth, “Never mind, move.” He shunts Rejir aside, puts the cups down, sliding them thoughtlessly aside, then glides his hand across the console. Fingers playing lightly over the surface, lights begin glowing in the wake of his touch. He turns to me, hand hovering just over the place Rejir depressed to speak, and says, “It is of the utmost importance that they not hear female voices in this room.” I nod, and glance at CiCi who is sitting at the edge of her seat, face oddly still, as if she’s carefully remaining expressionless. She gives a curt nod, and Merryt turns to the console and drops his finger. The yellow glow flares to outline it, and almost seems to glow through the fingernail. He speaks and his tone is so changed from the one I’ve become accustomed to from him that I blink in surprise. He’s speaking in the clipped, brusque Merr tongue, but with a very sharp, almost aggressively authoritative tone. The voice responds, deferential but intense. Upon hearing them, Merryt straightens suddenly from propping on an elbow on the console. He barks a single word and it doesn’t take a language implant to understand that he was saying, “WHAT?!”
I look at CiCi and see with surprise that her face has blanched. With my eyes, I try to catch her attention. She looks at me but it’s more like looking through me, her lips parted very slightly. The Merr Vogwen on the other side of the transmission speaks again, and suddenly, Merryt looks up at me wildly, then at Rejir. He removes his hand from the console and says hurriedly, “You have to go. Now. They want to talk face to face, and they could turn on the sensors any moment. Come on.” He turns to Rejir, “Tell them you’re setting up equipment or something, I’ll get them out,”
Rejir looks strained and moves forward quickly, hands already on the console in practiced movement, leaning close to where I assume a microphone is embedded, saying something to the remote Vogwen. CiCi jumps up and hurries to the door, swiping her hand to lift the door with a casual ease that even in the flurry of excitement, I notice. Merryt , no motion wasted, is at my side, then touches the back of my arm for a fleeting moment, and I hasten forward as well. Once in the corridor, he strides ahead, boots striking the floor in a rapid tattoo. He overtakes CiCi and slips past her, “This way, it’s quicker,” He turns down a side hallway, and then begins to descend a narrow staircase. It’s dark in this passage and I hear his voice come back over his shoulder, “When they connect to the ship for visual, there’s a bioscan that happens automatically, for security, and to connect to our implants so that the transmission can be aimed and come through clearly. It would be hard to explain why there were two non-crew members in the command bay. Especially females. Vogwen females, even worse.” He stops abruptly. I run into the back of CiCi who runs into him in turn. “Sorry,” He says distractedly, then the door opens onto sunlight. “This is the maintenance hatch. You’ll have to hop down, there’s no ramp. It’s only a few feet.” He extends a hand to CiCi who says, “I’m fine,” but not rudely, and I see her drop out of sight, and a second later hear her feet crunching in the dirt and leaves beneath. “Hurry,” He says, and I move quickly to the threshold. He takes my hand to steady me, pulling me toward the opening. As I’m about to hop down to the ground waiting about four feet below the lip of the opening, he says, “I’ll see you very soon. Tomorrow. I’ll come to you. Now go,” Then he makes a strange movement, stepping forward and for a second I think he’s about to push me, then he seems to jerk himself backward releasing my hand. I hop to the ground and look up at him.
“Tomorrow,” he says again, then steps back. The hatch slides shut. I turn and see CiCi has moved out from beneath the shadow of the ship. I quickly move away from the ship, and say, “I wonder what’s going on,”
She looks pensive.
We start walking.
“You’re going to see him tomorrow?” She says this as she clambers over a mossy log, looking over her shoulder at me, face hard to read.
“Yes.” I throw my leg over the log, then slide across it, coming to stand on the other side.
I level my eyes to hers, “Are you going to tell me what they said?”
I sense that she’s about to protest, so I add, “I’m not dumb. I could tell you understood them.”
Her shoulders seem to draw in protectively and she lets out a long sigh. Her huge blue eyes seem glassy and over-wide, and I want to reach out, to hug her or take her hand or something, but I’m not sure if I should, so I fiddle with my necklace nervously.
“Can we walk and talk?” She asks, and her voice is low and quiet, very unlike her usual tone.
“Yeah. Of course,” I respond, and fall into step beside her.
“Let’s take the long way. There’s a lot to say,” She says after a moment.
We walk in silence for a fair amount of time, winding through the undergrowth, sun dappling down between the shady swathes of greenery.
I’m working hard not to start questioning her, knowing she’ll start talking when she’s ready. I follow her lead, which takes us on the path that goes right alongside the river. The waters are relatively calm, and she slows, just looking across the wide expanse.
Eyes moving along the opposite bank, as if seeing something interesting over there, she says, “I understand Merr Vogwen because I am Merr Vogwen,” I don’t bother to say that I already knew that, that Merryt had told us as much. I know I need to let her tell me in her own time and way.
“I know how they are. Especially the Merryt lineage. I…” She trails off, and wraps her arms around herself, gripping her upper arms. I see the flesh turning white under her fingers from squeezing.
She turns her head to look at me, and her eyes are like shards of pure blue glass, and I’m dazzled by their gleam, then she blinks, hard, and a minuscule tear clings to her lower lashes of her left eye, but doesn’t fall.
Her voice is completely still and calm, only defied by that one tear, “I don’t want to go into it, but I’m very familiar with the imperials. No,” Her eyes rake my face and her mouth twists into a joyless half-smile, “Not your prince. He’s too young.”
My mind is racing, trying to put together the fragments she’s giving me.
“What are you saying?” I find it hard to speak, my throat feels dry. I need to know but I suddenly don't know if I want to. The things Merryt told me, about Vogwen females, and CiCi’s incendiary reaction to anything to do with the Merr…My mind feels like it’s made up of screaming, rusty gears, struggling to turn quickly and move the thoughts into something that I can process.
Her face is as still as if it were carved from marble, “Where do you think I was before I came here?”
“I-I don’t know. I mean, I didn’t before…I’m just-“ I stammer my way into silence and let it sink in, casting my mind back.
I was sitting outside, on the front stoop. It was late afternoon. I remember seeing something moving at the edge of the village, which was smaller back then. Seeing something pink gleam in the golden late afternoon light. I got to my feet, setting aside the beads and thread I had been idly playing around with.
“Hello?” I called. After a few seconds, I started forward-then another flash of pink, and the rustling of underbrush. Then, the bushes parted, and a girl stumbled out, wearing the least appropriate outfit for walking around in the rainforest that I had ever seen. She had what looked to be a shimmery pink silk scarf tied like a halter top around her upper body, and a sheer, rose colored skirt over small shorts or a bathing suit bottom. The skirt was tattered from thorny vines, and I could see scratches all over her legs, bare stomach, and arms, as well as bug bites. Her long golden hair was matted and full of leaves. She turned to face me, stumbling out onto the sidewalk, and I saw she was about my age, 12ish or maybe a year or two older. Her round face was pale, with two startling blue eyes and outlandishly long blonde lashes. She yanked her skirt out of the bushes, glanced around, and said, “Can you help me? I’m lost and I’m so hungry!”
Veta was starting to be sick then, but was still up and around, and she of course took CiCi in, no questions asked. I had had questions, but CiCi had said she couldn’t remember where she was before, that she woke up in the forest and wandered around for days. I’m sure Veta must have looked for her parents. At 12, I didn’t question much, because CiCi and I became best friends from the first, and I didn’t want her to go anywhere.
“Did you come from a ship?” I ask, drawing myself back to the here and now, stomach churning. I sink to the ground, sitting in the grass and looking up at her. She sits down beside me, and dangles her legs over the bank, towards the water.
“I didn’t lie when I said I didn’t really remember where I came from. I’m not 100% sure how I got into the woods. But yeah. I was on a ship. A big one, not a small thing like the young hot shots get," A vague wave back towards the clearing we just left.
"-an imperial vessel. I don’t know what it was doing around here. Maybe it had something to do with how YOU got here.”
“But I was here since I was a baby,” I say, but CiCi shakes her head,
“Yeah but you had to get here somehow. Or your mother did. But who knows, really? Except maybe him.” She nods her head back in the direction of Merryt’s ship again.
“So you were…what?” I’m afraid to ask or vocalize what I’m asking. She seems to sense that, and sighs.
“You KNOW that female Merr Vogwen are kept as property. Slaves, whether they like to use the term or not. I got lucky because I have imperial blood, so I spent a lot of my childhood in the palace harem, where the age rules are followed more or less.”
Age rules. A cold prickle runs down my spine and to the end of my tail.
“Imperial blood?” I look at her, and she meets my gaze evenly.
“Yeah,” She kicks her feet, toes skipping on the water a bit, and sending droplets flying into the air to sparkle in the sun as they fall.
I search her face, looking for any features similar to the prince’s but where he’s angular, she’s soft. His skin has an olive tone to it, and hers is pink and almost always a bit flushed, with the gentlest dusting of freckles where bone is closest to the surface; bridge of nose, cheeks, shoulders, throat.
His hair is dark, almost black, and hers is somewhere between daffodil and sunshine.
She must see my eyes moving over her with more focus than usual, because she says, “I take after my mother. And I don’t know who my father is, or was.”
“Where is your mother now?”
She shrugs. “Probably still in the palace harem. That’s where she was the last time I saw her,” She seems unconcerned.
I’m overwhelmed by these revelations, and I’m not really sure what to do with the information.
“So what, is Merryt like, your cousin or something?”
“Something like that, I guess. The Merryt line has hundreds of cousins and nieces and nephews. And we live so long, it’s easy to lose track of generations…” She trails off.
“Live so long?”
She looks at me in surprise, and then says, “I forget you don’t know anything,”
Pouting a bit, I say, “I think saying I don’t know anything is a bit excessive,”
She rolls her eyes. “You know what I mean,”
I don’t respond, waiting for her to continue.
After a second she says, “The Vogwen live wayyyyyy longer than humans. Well, when they aren’t killed in battle or something. That happens a lot with the Merr but not as often as it should,”
I look at her quickly, and she smirks.
“Kidding, sort of!” She stretches, and yawns.
“Anyway, all of this is ancient history. I live here now!”
It still feels like there are a lot of unanswered questions, and seeing my expression she says, “I’m sure he will tell you a lot about the Vogwen, and the Merr specifically. I’d rather put the past behind me and focus on the future.”
She grins, and says, “Like my next date with Flafrin!” She flops back onto the mossy ground and lifts her feet into the air, flexing her toes towards her face, “I painted my toenails orange, do you like them??”
Late, same evening:
As I’m getting ready for bed, I glance out of my small bathroom window, which looks across the street toward the dark forest, in the direction of the Merr ship. I stand there, looking, leaning my forearms on the narrow sill, gazing past my reflection in the humid glass. A thrill of nervousness creeps up my ribs. I wonder what Merryt will tell me tomorrow. Eyes unfocused now, unseeing, I think back to that moment earlier today when I looped my arm through his, and he smiled down at me. Just as if it’s happening all over again, my stomach seems to be all fluttering wings. I don’t know what to think. CiCi’s forbidding face looms up in my mind’s eye, and I know there’s no arguing with the very real problems of the Merr and their practices. But he isn’t like them. You don’t know that, Tmonk-Tmonk. CiCi’s voice. Could it be possible that I like him because I know I shouldn’t? My eyes focus suddenly, and I look into my reflection, see my head tilted slightly to the right. I don’t think so. I think I like him because...I look through myself again, and think of his dark head bowed over my hand, and the way his face varies wildly between expertly inscrutable and flashes of intense expression. Then I blink, moving away from the window. I remember suddenly that strange forward movement he made, just as I was about to jump down to the ground from the maintenance hatch- with a jolt I realize that maybe he was about to kiss me, but then decided against it!
I turn to my small, round mirror above the sink, and see that my cheeks are red and realize I’ve brought my fingers up to my lips. No. Surely not. My heart, now doing more than just fluttering, is hammering. Jerkily, I pick up my brush and start furiously running it through my hair, the crackle of static mirroring the prickly, nervous feeling in my body. Dropping the brush, I leave the bathroom, flicking the light switch down just a little harder than necessary. I’m pulling a drawer open to look for pajamas when I hear the doorbell ring. A sizzle of electricity goes down my spine all the way to the tip of my tail, which whips back and forth a couple of times, thumping the dresser as I turn toward the sound. Maybe it’s CiCi. No, she wouldn’t ring the doorbell, she would just come in. Maybe she lost her key? No, she wouldn’t just ring the doorbell once. You know who it is, I tell myself. But why would he be here now?
Feeling as if my thoughts conjured him up, I duck my head into my small bathroom and glance in the mirror at myself nervously. I don’t know what I’m looking to see, so I barely even register my reflection before my feet are carrying me towards the door.
Before I open the door, I stand on my toes to peek through the peep hole. In the orangey light of my porch sconce, I see the prince, in his ever present uniform, looking off to the right as he waits, and from the side it’s hard to read his expression, though his gaze seems sharp, tight. Turning the deadbolt and thumb lock on the knob simultaneously, I see his head swivel to the front like a hawk’s at the sound. I pull the door open, stepping over into the doorway, a greeting dying on my lips as he looks over my shoulder and past me and says in a low, tense voice, “May I come in?”
Wordlessly, I move aside, allowing him to slip past me. The scent of night air trails in with him, and then I close the door behind him, leaning back against it and waiting. He turns to face me, standing in the middle of my small living room looking as alien as he truly is, all angles and strangeness among the familiar, worn in softness of my home.
“What is it? Is this about the call or whatever you got earlier?” I ask, unknowable nervousness stealing over me.
“Yes. It could have waited until tomorrow, but I needed to get out of the ship for a while.”
“Do you want to sit down?”
I go to the couch and sit down, then lean over and yank the short chain on the standing lamp beside it, illuminating the shadowy living room. Merryt’s face is thrown into sharp relief, and I see he looks a little ragged around the edges, something about his eyes. I feel a pang of something like concern for him. Then he’s sidestepping the coffee table, dropping lightly down to sit on the other end of the couch.
He turns in his seat to look at me, and seems to just take me in for a moment. I feel suddenly self conscious, as if I’m being x-rayed. But then his eyes seem not to see me, the focus softening and becoming distant.
That far away look unnerves me even more than his unexpected appearance at my door.
“What is it? Merryt?” I don’t know if it’s the very slight edge of shrillness that has crept into my voice, or the sound of his name, but his eyes snap back into the here and now, and lock to mine for just a split second, then he glances around the room restlessly.
“Did I tell you about the Taelons?”
“I don’t think so, what is it?” My mind quickly turns over the strange word. Maybe it’s the name of the ship?
“The Taelons are the eternal enemy of the Vogwen." A pause that stretches out almost to the point of discomfort.
"They hunt us, have hunted us since before we were what we are now. Not just the Merr. Any Vogwen.”
“What-“ I go to ask again what these Taelons are, then stop, seeing he is continuing.
“It would take a long time to explain them, to tell you of all the history,”
“I have time,” I say quietly, feeling that inexpressible longing to know more about the Vogwen, everything about them that I can find out, and sensing the cold depths of the past behind Merryt’s words.
Once again, his eyes are on mine, boring into me, and I feel him make a decision. He nods very, very slightly, more to himself than me.
He leans back into the couch, the sharp line of his shoulders releasing a marginal bit of tension.
“A lot of this is shrouded in myth, mingling with history and memory. Even though Vogwen are long-lived, none of us still live who remember the early times. A few of the very old learned these stories at the knees of their great grandparents who saw it with their own eyes when they were very young, or got it from their great grandparents. I guess the only one who knows the truest truth would be Lies.”
Another pause, but this time he seems to be thinking of how best to answer.
“The one who presides over the dead as they make passage from Riu to Tua.” He frowns, then says, “Riu being this living realm;” He gestures around us,
“-the universe we exist in. Tua being the universe of the dead, reached by passing through the Void and shedding mortal flesh.”
“And this...Lies is a real person, a Vogwen?” Thinking maybe this is their name for God or something.
He shrugs, “It’s hard to say what Lies is now, real or myth. It is known that they did truly exist once, the first of the true Vogwen to die, after centuries of traversing Riu and communing with Ohnga…-the Consciousness of the Universe,” he answers before I can ask.
“Centuries?” I ask, incredulous. It sounds like the Greek or Egyptian myths of gods and goddesses, transcending time and mortal life.
He shrugs, “I told you, the Vogwen are long-lived.” I remember CiCi saying that the Vogwen live a long time, unless they are killed. But centuries?
“How old are you?” I ask abruptly and with some urgency, realizing that if the Vogwen live for centuries, that there’s just no telling.
He seems to see the sudden alarm in my face and laughs, breaking up even more of the tension in the lines of his body.
“I’m about 19 by your years. Our years are much longer than yours, because we have two suns to travel around. But we are near the same age. Fledglings in the life of a Vogwen.” He stretches his arms over his head, then says, “How many of your years do you have?”
I smile at the funny phrasing, and say, “Just over 16. Even more of a ‘fledgling’ than you.”
He smiles vaguely, then grows serious again. He shifts restlessly on the couch.
“Anyway, what I mean to say is that nothing so concrete as “history” is known or remembered about how all of this began. And-“ He sighs suddenly, a sound of frustration and runs his hands through his hair.
“I don’t know where to even start, because you don’t know anything-“
“I wish people would stop saying that!” I exclaim, “CiCi said the same thing. Why don’t you just tell me, so I do know something!”
I pull my legs up under me, curling up a bit more onto the couch and looking at him earnestly.
“Just start at the beginning.”
He sighs again, but quietly, not an outburst of frustration this time.
“Ok. I’ll do my best.”
To Be Continued...