Thursday, July 26, 2018

Book Six in the Harrowbethian Saga

Compassion only plagues those with hearts, 
much like a field of thorns only troubles those who bleed.”
~ Naradite

Chapter One

Do not read the following chapters if you have yet to read the first five books in the Harrowbethian Saga. These beginning chapters to book VI will spoil the series if you haven't read the start of Eena's adventures.  
Continue at your own risk.  

Don't say you weren't warned.

Baby Blue

Evening fell—dark and miserable.
With the lights off, Eena wrapped herself in a pink bedspread, part of the layout of pink quarters Derian had once arranged for her as a surprise. The soft covers offered some degree of comfort, but not enough to ease her sorrows. She had never thought about losing Ian, not that she had honestly lost him. The emotions, however, were as grievous to bear as if he were gone. It hurt just as deeply.
Since parting ways outside the garden, she had heard no word from him. Her troubled mind insisted on replaying over and over how cold his touch had felt against her neck. Not temperature wise but in manner of intent, as though the act of reclaiming his pendant amounted to a form of death sentence. It felt just as horrid. Just as final. For some irrational reason, it had never occurred to her that he might take back the pendant. It was her birthday present after all.
But of course he had to. It would be awkward and utterly absurd to allow her to keep it. The very idea was inappropriate. The pendant wasn’t really hers. It belonged to Angelle.
She never should have expected to hold onto it any more than she could expect to retain Ian’s affections. How spoiled a notion to think she could selfishly guard his affections as if they were something to lock inside a treasure chest and bring out when needed. And yet it had pacified her subconscious to entertain the idea of having an arm around Derian and a hand on Ian. She loved both men; there was no denying the truth. Her love for each had developed in two unique, dissimilar ways.
Loving Ian was like being cuddled in a soft, warm blanket. It was comforting and effortless. Bearing her soul to Ian was as simple as a passing thought. Sharing her feelings, her wishes, her fears, hopes, and dreams—this was the essence of their relationship, a love founded on the securest, most trusting friendship she had ever known. It was precious and perfectly desirable.
Loving Derian was a completely different experience. The emotions were almost contrary in every sense. Not gentle, but intense. Not calm and comfortable, but passionate and frequently demanding. Not easy, but often frustratingly complicated.
And yet Derian’s affections were an addiction, a craving she longed to satisfy, a hunger demanding to be fed. It was as if traces of liquid metal pumped through her beating heart and he was her magnet—a powerful pull impossible to resist. He was not the man to whom she could bear her soul or share every thought and dream. No. To speak to the captain meant treading lightly where the likelihood of a potential argument existed. As much as she knew beyond any shadow of a doubt that he loved her, his passion was as intense in their conflicts as in their feelings for one another.
The greatest moving factor—what drew Eena to Derian more than anything—was knowing he had loved her from the very beginning. From the day she was born he had accepted it as his destiny to cherish and care for the girl who responded most favorably to his delicate strokes against her pale, little cheeks. He had learned then how to succor her. And even years after enduring a lengthy separation, his magic fingers retained the same succoring touch.
He had loved her first. And now she loved him in return.
Knowing the depth of her feelings for Derian, she could not understand why her heart ached so miserably for Ian.
Exhausted by emotion, the young queen closed her eyes and willed herself to sleep.

The cornstalks in her dreams reached taller than her father. Every plant was deeply green, covered with floppy, sinuous leaves. A long waiting period remained before the stalks would brown and dry enough for feeder corn. On the horizon, a sunset bathed the entire stretch of farmland in a pinkish radiance. Even the clouds reflected hues of rose and burgundy. The sight was pretty.
Eena sat alone beneath her favorite weeping willow, having expected the solace. She didn’t lean against the tree but hugged both knees to her chest, tight enough to slouch over them. A gentle wind warmed her skin, smelling of harvested mint. Crickets chirped a symphony of nature’s violins, supported by a rhythm section made up of croaking tree frogs.
Her hope was to quietly sit out the night and let her mind wander where it pleased, and for a few hours that hope was realized. The solitude ended when a ghostly form materialized within arm’s reach. Eena hustled to her feet. Her heart skipped a beat as she gawked at the apparition.
“Derian? Derian, you’re back!”
The translucent features of her late captain were remarkably flawless, making him more handsome than he had appeared in life. Eena yearned to throw her arms around him; however, she understood that as an apparition he possessed no physical form. Swallowing back the urge to reach for his hand, she teared up and smiled.
The captain smiled in return. He seemed happy to see her too, yet his face bore signs of strain. “How long has it been?” His brow communicated concern with the amount of time that had passed since his last appearance.
“Not long,” she assured him. “Only three days.”
Derian’s features showed a hint of relief but then immediately grew tight again. “I don’t know how I’m going to escape this place. It takes every ounce of energy I possess just to show myself to you. This is more exhausting then you can imagine.”
“Don’t worry, Derian, I’ll get you out of there. And Angelle too.”
His ghostly eyes grew wide with shock. “You know about Angelle?”
“I do. Pallador told me. Ian knows too.”
A frown formed on the captain’s lips. “I didn’t mention her before because I feared it would further upset you…and Ian.” He seemed to consider something, flickering a glance at Eena’s neck before looking her in the eye again. “Is that why you no longer wear his pendant?”
She nodded in answer to the question, feeling glad for the first time that Ian had reclaimed his “promise” token. It bothered her when the captain deepened his frown. Anticipating the reason for his disappointment, she delved into an explanation.
“The only reason I accepted Ian’s pendant was because I thought you were dead. Your body was lifeless. I couldn’t heal you.” Her expression emphasized the pain of those memories. “There was a black, wretched funeral…”
Derian cut in, fear affecting his voice. “My body. Is it…?”
“It’s fine. Don’t worry, Derian, your body is perfectly fine. I restored it to good health, along with Angelle’s. Jinatta is watching over the both of you. All I need to do now is free your spirits and reunite the two.”
Eena pinned a reassuring smile on her face until the captain’s brow furrowed, creating a disgruntled look that more often than not was a precursor to a disagreement. When he spoke up next, it was clear that he had not lost his imposing voice of authority.
“You will not come after us, I forbid it. The gem is no longer in Harrowbeth. I overheard Anesidora and Ishtura murmuring about how Pallador keeps it in his possession now.”
“Yes, I’m aware of that, Derian.”
“Then you know it’s impossible for you to reach me.”
She shook her head, refusing his assumption. “No, no, it’s not impossible…”
“It is,” he insisted, “because your place is on Moccobatra. No government on the planet would agree to you leaving home a second time. Not after what happened to our world the last time you left.”
“Then how do you think you’re going to…”
“No, Eena, that’s final!”
Her jaw stiffened, and she mirrored the stubborn resolve in his face. Ian was right—the man was irritating.
“And how do you intend to stop me?” She taunted him with a touch of insolence in a perked eyebrow.
“Don’t you dare defy me on this, Eena.” Derian wagged his finger at her while growling his words. “Your life is of far greater value than mine. You will not risk it coming after me. Our world and every living creature on it needs you.”
“I need you!” she declared in an emotional outburst. “I can’t just sit around and hope that someone else will feel enough compassion to do something!”
Taking a step closer, Derian reached out to touch the woman who clearly loved him, forgetting that his hand was incapable of physical contact. As soon as he realized he could not feel the softness of her skin, he let his arm drop. “You’ve spoken to Pallador. Now that he’s aware of the situation, let him handle it.”
Eena couldn’t hide her discouragement. It was an automatic reaction to Derian’s words.
The captain’s face wilted when he read her expression. “Pallador’s not going to do anything.”
“He will,” Eena insisted, forcing a show of optimism. “I’ll convince him to.”
“No. You must stay home.”
“It’s too late for that anyway. I already left.”
The apparition flickered out of focus like it would vanish completely. Eena panicked and reached out, wanting to grab hold. When the captain’s form refocused, his features were angrier than before. Eena took a wary step backwards.
“How? Who the criminy would be foolish enough to allow you to leave?” The gears in his mind were spinning, racing for an answer. “Not Edgar,” the captain growled.
Eena made a sour face at the suggestion.
Derian squinted, and his tight eyes turned as black as tar. “Shanks!” He spit out the name like vinegar. “That selfish son of a…”
Eena cut him off, flashing a reprimanding frown. “Shanks cares about you, Derian. Yes, he happens to be accompanying me,” she admitted, “but he isn’t the only person determined to come to your rescue. There are a lot of people who care a great deal about you.”
As the captain’s understanding sparked, Eena tried to excuse the unanimous decision of his crew.
“If the tide were reversed for any one of us, you would do exactly the same thing. You wouldn’t hesitate to come after us.”
“I would never risk the life of our Sha! Not after finally securing your safety on Moccobatran soil for the first time in ages! Who is piloting the ship? Shanks? Jerin? Marguay? Don’t tell me it’s Rhoen turned traitor again!”
“Stop it!” she gasped. “Rhoen is as loyal to you as Jerin, Marguay, and all your men.”
“Then what the hell are they doing? I didn’t spend my entire life protecting you, sacrificing to bring you home, so that my asinine men could turn around and throw away everything I worked for on some impossible rescue mission!”
“You’re their captain, Derian! They want to repay you for the countless times you saved their lives.”
“If I’m still their captain, then you pass along this order—” He shook his finger at her as she glared at him. “You tell them to turn that clunky Viidun ship around right now and take you home!” A new thought seemed to hit him like a thump on the head. “Oh, for heaven’s sake, please tell me you are on the Triac.”
Eena tried to keep a blank face but failed.
“For crying out loud, Eena! Tell me you didn’t heist the Kemeniroc! Tell me you didn’t steal my ship! Was this another one of your impetuous ideas?”
Her mouth dropped open, hurt and offended.
“Go home!” the captain growled. “Go home now! Take everyone with you and apologize to the council for your momentary lapse of sanity!”
Eena narrowed her eyes, not only because of the mounting anger but to ward off a rise of tears. “The only lapse of sanity I ever had was thinking that you and I actually belong together!”
Derian’s fury suddenly subsided. “Don’t. Don’t say that. You know we do.”
In strained silence they stared at one another until his ghostly image flickered out of focus again.
“No, wait! Don’t go!” Eena reached out, hesitant to step forward. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry for what I said.”
His eyes turned towards the sky with a look of agitation that Eena recognized as conclusive to an apparition’s visit.
“No, not yet!” she cried.
When he vanished, the words that lingered behind were disturbing.
“Go back, Eena. Take my ship home!”
For only a moment she stood alone and cried into her hands. As if on cue, two inviting arms turned her around and wrapped her up like a cozy blanket. Her best friend was there for her, exactly as he had said he would be. He didn’t breathe a word, even though a good, gloating “I told you so” was more than warranted.

The room was dark when morning came. In truth, it was impossible to tell if it was morning or evening or somewhere in between the two. No sunrise or sunset existed to color the windows out in space, just anomalies passing by at outrages speeds in an endless pit of blackness. Whatever the time of day, Eena was awake.
(It’s afternoon in Harrowbeth, if that helps.) Ian’s voice sounded loud and clear in her head. Not the slightest tinge of melancholy or bitterness affected it.
(Does that mean it’s afternoon on the ship too?) she asked.
(Yes, Queenie, it does.)
She sat up in bed, realizing she had fallen asleep in her Mishmorat clothing. She wondered if there was a fresh change available for her.
(Check the closet,) Ian suggested.
After hopping out of bed, Eena slapped her palm against a light switch. The resulting brightness made her eyes scrunch. Behind a narrow closet door, the young queen found a minimal selection of colorful gowns hanging side by side. The sight made her groan. For some reason she had dared to hope the fashion on their cruise would consist of casual attire. What was so improper about a nice pair of pants?
Ian’s chuckle tickled the back of her mind, sounding markedly pleasant. It was good to hear.
(You hungry?)
(Yes, I suppose,) she said, debating whether or not to change her clothes. She sniffed under her arm without being repelled. It wasn’t like she had worked out in Niki’s borrowed clothes.
(Come have breakfast with me,) Ian invited.
(Where are you?)
(In your front room.)
Her face lit up. (Be right there.) Turning away from the gowns, she decided to wear the same comfortable outfit for one more day.
Eena found her best friend seated at her small dining table. The only thing on the tabletop was a big, fancy bowl filled with a variety of fruits. Ian held a half-eaten ongrea in one hand, the pit showing where he had taken a bite out of the flesh. A crooked smile rounded his cheek as he held up the peachy produce.
“Still my favorite,” he announced aloud.
Eena was happy to hear it, on many levels. She took a seat across from him after he kicked out a chair with the toe of his shoe. He was still grinning.
“You’re beyond chivalrous,” she teased, her words dripping with sarcasm.
“It’s my nature,” he winked.
His cheerful mood, though comforting, struck her as odd. It was almost too cheerful for the stressful night they had shared. She caught Ian biting his lip for a split-second, his eyes glancing downward. His gaze quickly flickered up again, and the crooked grin returned to its proper place.
“Okay, I give up. What’s got you so perky?”
Ian shrugged and took another bite of ongrea.
“Come on, talk to me,” she implored.
He wiped away a trail of juice that dribbled down his chin before he offered an enticing lead. (I know something you don’t know. Something you would really, really love to know.)
She stared at him for the longest time, half expecting him to give up the secret.
(Okay,) she finally sighed, (are you planning to make me guess?)
(Sounds like a good game to me,) he impishly agreed.
(Sounds like a headache to me,) she groaned. Eena reached into the bowl on the table and dug for a round, purplish pahna. (It’s not fair that I can never read what’s on your mind, but you always know what’s on mine.)
Again, he shrugged and took a bite out of the juicy ongrea.
Exhaling resignedly, she blew the bangs off her forehead. The act made it obvious that her hair was ratted, so she used her fingers to try and comb it out.
(You look like hell, you know.) Ian grinned wide with the insult. (What did you do, lose a wrestling match with your pillow last night?)
(No, thank you very much.) Her hands pressed flat against her long hair, trying to smooth it down. (I was wrestling with my covers. It was a rough night, if you must know.)
Ian’s next words came out with a completely different timbre: sympathetic and sincere. (I know, Eena. I was there.)
(Thanks for that by the way,) she uttered. She really meant it. They shared a silent moment of mutual understanding before Ian made another wisecrack.
(That reminds me. About Derian—I told you so.) Ian laughed at the killer glare he received and then ducked the hurled pahna Eena wasted on a shot at his head. Of course he would have seen that coming.
(You could have caught it,) she griped.
(If I liked pahna fruit, I might have,) he replied, still chuckling.
She rose from the table and headed away from her tormentor.
(Where are you going, Queenie?)
(You tell me, mind reader.) She couldn’t help but smirk when a groan of disgust sounded at her back.
(Do you have to picture it?) he complained.
(Hey, nature calls,) she chirped. (Stay out of my head if you don’t like it.)
(It’s kind of difficult when that’s the only way you ever talk to me anymore.)
She disappeared behind the bedroom door and reappeared twenty minutes later dressed in the same comfortable attire but looking well-groomed and smelling flower fresh. Ian complimented her when he twisted his head to look. He had moved to the couch.
“Thank you.” After rounding the couch, the young queen sat her hip on the cushy armrest. Her thoughts went back to the impromptu party in the commissary the night before. “I assume no Mishmorats or Viiduns are missing. Do you know if any real mischief took place last night after we left?”
“None you need to worry about,” Ian told her. She could see he was hiding something by the twinkle in his eye.
“What happened?” she asked, certain he had a story to tell.
“Let’s just say there may be an influx of soldiers visiting your garden.”
Her eyes scrunched, unable to guess what he was talking about. “Okay, and why?”
Ian’s shoulders jostled with a snicker. “Efren showed off your garden to Kira last night. She discovered the warm pond. You know how your sisters have a fondness for swimming in their underclothes.”
“Oh great,” Eena groaned.
“But don’t worry about it too much, Queenie, there is a deterrent.” Ian let go a laugh he couldn’t quite stifle.
“What deterrent?” she asked, grinning at his amusement.
“Shanks likes to swim too.”
“Actually, he prefers skinny dipping.”
“Ew! Ew, Ian, like I need that image in my head!”
(Now you know how I feel on a regular basis,) he said, cracking up.
After a moment of grossing out, Eena all but begged Ian, “Please, can we change the subject.”
“Sure. What do you want to talk about?”
She remembered what he mentioned earlier at the table. “Are you ready to fill me in on the secret of yours?”
Her curiosity merely earned her a wily grin. “Nah, you’ll find out soon enough. I’ll give you a hint, though: you might want to get a birthday gift soon. Something in blue might be nice. Maybe azure blue or royal blue or perhaps…baby blue.”
“A birthday gift? In blue?” She gasped, suddenly worried. “Oh no, is it your birthday? Did I miss your birthday?” Genuinely upset, she realized she had no real clue when his birthday was.
“No, not mine. You’ve got a couple months yet.”
Making a mental note, Eena guessed again. “Is it Jerin’s birthday?” If the crew was planning a party, she would need to be prepared.
“No, and that’s the last question I’m answering about the matter. You’ll have to figure this one out for yourself.”
Eena considered the many possibilities, assuming she could safely narrow it down to the people on the ship whom she knew well.
(That’s not necessarily the case,) Ian warned her. His eyebrow shot high and then relaxed.
Another thought crossed her mind. She didn’t say anything; it wasn’t necessary.
(No, it’s not Derian’s birthday either. His is after mine.)
That was a relief. She would hate for the captain to miss his own birthday party.
“Anyway,” Ian sighed, shoving himself up from the sofa, “I’ve got things to do.”
“You do?” Eena rose to her feet, her face a picture of genuine surprise. She had assumed he meant to spend the day with her. “But…but who’s going to act as my protector?”
Ian turned on his way out, long enough to comment. “Good question. Technically, that is Father’s job now. Jorban publicly declared him your official protector, so legally I’m off the hook.” Ian shrugged his shoulders and turned up his palms in a helpless manner.
“But Unan isn’t here to watch over me,” she reminded him.
That didn’t stop Ian from walking out. “I suppose I’ll have to call Father on that the next time I see him.”
Eena watched the door close as she stood in the middle of the floor, shocked to be left completely alone. It was something that seldom happened. She wondered if her best friend had decided he was not ready to spend time with her, even though he had succeeded at acting like his old, goofy self. Maybe they were both crazy to think their relationship could slip back into “just friends” overnight. Maybe time apart was more vital than either wanted to admit.
Uncertain what to do with herself, Eena turned around slowly in a full circle, noticing how her quarters looked exactly as they had on her journey to Moccobatra. The walls were adorned with the same moving pictures—a crioness soaring above leafy begonsta branches, fireworks lighting a Disneyland castle, and a blooming image of Harrowbeth’s grand tree in the city square. The same olive chairs and gold sofa sat clustered on one side of the room while a lightwood dining table was pushed up against the wall on the other end. Derian had arranged it all for her, a kindhearted gesture after she had lost a wager with him on a mallawum game. Her spirit wilted when she thought of his recent harsh behavior.
Sighing loud and long, she decided against spending the day in her quarters. There were plenty of other places to go. Productive things to do. Then she remembered one of those things—paying Jinatta, the ship’s doctor, a proper “welcome back” visit.
With renewed optimism, she set out for the medical bay.
The corridor was empty when Eena stepped off the elevator. She followed a red, linear border down a white hallway, walking only a few feet to where doors to the medical bay were located. A small box on the outside wall required a scan of her palm before she was allowed access to enter. Eena loved how the security system worked on the ship, recognizing each person’s unique handprints. She especially loved having authorization to roam about. That hadn’t always been the case.
Inside the medical bay, a row of beds lined both sides of the room, each one covered with a clean, white sheet tucked tight at the corners. No monitors were running, and not one piece of medical equipment was sitting out. A person might have presumed the bay was unoccupied except for the sound of muted voices carrying from behind a dividing wall at the far back. Eena headed down the central aisle towards a rear office, the place where she had first encountered the Kemeniroc’s talented doctor. Neither had been keen on the other right off; however, time had managed to transform their relationship. But not before the two had butted heads over more than one misunderstanding.
The conversation taking place in the back became more coherent as Eena drew near. Naturally, she listened in, interpreting it as typical patient-doctor dialogue.
“I feel good most of the time, other than a little nausea and tiredness.”
“That’s to be expected. Are you getting enough sleep?”
Eena recognized the doctor’s conscientious questioning. It was Jinatta.
“Oh yes. Except for the evening before last when we pulled an all-nighter to prep the ship. I’ll admit I found it more difficult than usual. I fell asleep at my console a couple of times. Marguay had to wake me.”
The patient’s softer tone Eena knew well. It belonged to Leisha. Apparently, the poor woman had come down sick. Crud. Eena blamed herself for pushing everyone to leave Harrowbeth so quickly.
Jinatta spoke again, offering medical advice. “Find time to rest. You need to take care of yourself, hun. Don’t do as much as you normally would. Make allowances for your condition, regardless of whether Marguay likes it or not.”
Condition? How serious was Leisha’s illness?
There was a light chuckle before the patient admitted, “It’s not Marguay who pushes me. I do that to myself.”
“Not anymore,” the doctor scolded. “You’ve got to think of your health.”
Eena was growing more concerned with each comment. If Leisha was sick and Jinatta could not cure her condition, why had they not called on their Sha for help?
Eena rapped her knuckles on the edge of the wall to make her presence known.
“Hello? Is it okay for me to come back there?”
She heard her name gasped with surprise. “Uh…yes, yes, come on back.”
As soon as she rounded the corner, her eyes locked onto a dark-haired, tomboyish woman who flashed a white, friendly smile. She was seated on one of two flat beds, clad in a silky examining gown. Eena noted Leisha’s warm coloring and glowing features—certainly, signs of good health.
Jinatta also offered a pleasant smile, her blonde curls pulled back in a ponytail.
Before anyone could say a word, Eena questioned the patient. “Are you okay? Are you sick? How bad is it?” Concern took her right to Leisha’s bedside.
“I’m fine, Sha Eena.” A hand-wave gestured there was nothing to worry about, but Eena determined to check for herself. When the dragon’s soul shimmered softly, Jinatta jumped in, voicing a strong objection.
“No, stop!” She moved in front of her patient, deterring any physical contact.
Eena was confused by the doctor’s odd behavior. Why prevent a simple healing touch if their friend was ill? She stepped sideward and attempted to reach, but the patient too seemed determined to avoid her.
“Sha Eena, I’m fine. I don’t need your help.”
Preferring to find out for herself, Eena managed to maneuver close enough to snatch Leisha’s wrist. It required only a touch. Her mind traveled through every bodily system in a matter of seconds searching for abnormalities, infections, irregularities, foreign objects…
Her eyes grew wide with wonder as she focused on the medical analysis. It was a foreign object. A curious one.
Leisha sighed resentfully, knowing it was too late, and allowed the young healer to keep hold of her wrist. Wanting a closer look, Eena concentrated; she had never come across anything as intriguing before. Her fascination changed by degrees, transitioning from curiosity to amazement to delight as she sensed the presence of a developing life-form.
“You’re pregnant,” Eena breathed. “Oh my gosh.”
That’s when Leisha ripped her wrist free. “Yes, I am pregnant, and I would appreciate it if you would keep this personal news a secret.”
Both doctor and patient were wearing identical frowns. Jinatta folded her arms across her chest, her posture conveying irritation.
“Why a secret?” Eena asked, puzzled by their conduct. “Doesn’t Marguay know?”
“No!” the two blurted out.
Eena stepped back, more baffled.
“Look,” Leisha started, exhaling her frustration, “I don’t want him to know until we’re done with the mission. Otherwise, he’ll be too concerned about my ‘condition’ to be of any worth to Jerin and the crew.”
“Yes, seriously!”
“Okay, okay, I won’t tell.” Eena couldn’t help but be intrigued by the tiny life-form growing inside her friend. It was a miraculous thing. “Would you mind if I feel him again? Please?”
“Him?” Leisha voiced the word with surprise.
“Uh…well, uh…” Eena faltered, fearing she had divulged too much information.
“It’s okay, you can tell me,” Leisha said. “I want to know.”
The young queen grinned wide and nodded excitedly. “Yes, it’s a boy. You’re going to have a son.”
Pressing a palm against the new mother’s tummy, Eena closed her eyes and let the dragon’s soul kindle. Her mind sensed the fetus, picturing a disproportionately large head and little appendages still developing. She identified a rapid heartbeat pumping vital blood and nutrients throughout the body. She felt breathing-like movements and uncontrolled twitches that Leisha could not yet perceive. She was aware of the massive reproduction of cells taking place, forming intricate, detailed anatomy. Here was a life-form. A young boy. He was healthy. So was his mom. It was remarkable.
Eena opened her eyes. “Congratulations,” she breathed. “I’m so happy for you. There’s actually a living baby in there!”
Leisha blushed as if she would burst with pride. “Thanks,” she managed to say. “It is pretty incredible.”
“Why is it impossible for you to keep your meddlesome hands off my patients?” Jinatta feigned annoyance, wagging her head while smiling at the same time. Then her arms opened wide with hug expectations. Eena thought the woman looked like an approaching Viidun on a much smaller scale. The two embraced and shared a tight, friendly squeeze.
“Welcome home, Jinatta. I missed you.”
“Thank you. It’s good to be back.”
“How are things?” Eena asked. “Any big news?”
Jinatta tilted her head. Her ponytail swayed to one side. “You mean bigger than the fact that our captain has returned from the dead? No, I don’t think I can top that.”
Eena corrected the doctor. “Derian hasn’t actually returned yet, but he will, and so will Angelle.”
“The fact that those two are alive at all is a miracle. I swear, that man cheats death on every battlefront!”
“He’s got Viidun luck, I guess.”
Jinatta chuckled at the truth. “I agree with your assessment.”
“So…” Eena steered the subject back to what she was wondering about. “How are you and Agus? Are you still enamored with the beast?”
Jinatta clasped her hands beneath her chin and fluttered her lashes like a schoolgirl high on her first crush. “I’ve got a fatal case of lovesickness, Eena, and I don’t care to be healed.”
“You look as hopeless as Kira.”
“Oh, I am,” Jinatta sighed dreamily.
Careful with how she posed her next question, Eena eluded to it rather than asking directly. “When you were on Rapador, did you learn anything about their culture and customs?”
“Oh, plenty!” Jinatta nodded.
Leisha, who was still seated on the exam table, interjected with what she had already been told. “Those Viiduns have tough traditions. Death challenges. Fierce rites of passage. A serious intolerance for failure. And some stringent matrimony customs.”
“Matrimony customs?” Eena was concerned with one in particular.
Jinatta interjected before her friend could get carried away. “It’s not so bad if you look at their culture from a warrior’s perspective. They’re rough, aggressive, intense people. They don’t view pain and hardship the same way we do.”
“Doesn’t that concern you?” Eena asked.
Jinatta smiled with her answer. “Agus understands that I’m not as strong or forceful as he is. He makes allowances for me, and he tells me over and over that he’s willing to compromise when it comes to our cultural differences.”
Eena sighed a sound of relief. “That’s good to hear. I was worried he might try to brand you or something like Efren did to Kira.”
“Huhhhh,” Jinatta hummed, biting down on her lower lip. Leisha did the same. Their lack of a stunned reaction—the way they cast furtive glances at one another—added up to one obvious conclusion.
Eena stared wide-eyed at the doctor, hoping her assumption was wrong. “Please tell me you didn’t.”
Jinatta’s shoulder inched up guiltily as she admitted, “Well, actually…I might have.”
“Jinatta! How could you? You let Agus sear your flesh with a permanent brand? What in the world were you thinking?”
“That I love him and want to be with him for the rest of my life?”
Eena’s voice squeaked, rising an octave. “Are you crazy?”
Jinatta and Leisha exchanged uncertain glances before they both patted at the air attempting to be calming.
“Don’t you think you’re overreacting a little bit?”
“No!” Eena shrieked.
“Hey, hey, it’s not as bad as you’re making it out to be,” Jinatta said, keeping her voice down to alleviate the tension. “Besides, I sort of cheated anyway.”
“You…cheated?” The troubled queen waited for an explanation.
“Yes,” Jinatta confessed. “I used a local anesthetic to numb my shoulder before the ritual. I didn’t feel a thing.”
“Oh.” A smart idea. One a doctor would think of.
Leisha explained what Jinatta had already told her. “The whole point was to let Agus know how devoted she is to him. This ritual is a big deal on their world. It translates into complete and utter commitment to each other.”
“Complete commitment?” Eena repeated. “And what if that moment of euphoria passes and you decide that you don’t want to marry a Viidun after all? Then what?”
“That’s not going to happen,” Jinatta assured her.
“But what if it does? What if something occurs that neither of you anticipated and the result is you can’t marry him like you wanted to? What then?”
No one voiced an immediate answer. Jinatta shared another curious look with Leisha before confronting the young queen with her own question.
“Is this about your concern for me or concern for yourself?”
“What are you talking about?” Eena wrapped her arms around her stomach. The defensive body language did not go unnoticed.
“I could be wrong, but I think it isn’t the Viidun branding ritual that has you upset. I know for a fact that you’ve personally been through worse. And I doubt my commitment to Agus truly bothers you since you were the one who encouraged our relationship in the first place.”
“I didn’t know he planned to scar you irreversibly for life,” Eena griped bitingly.
Jinatta raised a discerning finger. “That’s what it is, right there. The idea that this Viidun form of a promise is irreversible. It’s not like a pendant you can remove and give back. And that terrifies you.”
“Terrifies me,” Eena scoffed. “Why would it?”
“Because you’re not certain you could do the same. And I don’t mean endure the pain of seared skin, I mean commit whole-heartedly without reservation to one man.”
“I can so,” Eena snapped. Her arms squeezed tighter around her torso.
Jinatta shook her head, slow and sympathetic. “No, you can’t, because you’re in love with two men. And unfortunately, your heart is unwilling to give up either one.”
Her nose burned before she felt the sting in her eyes. Tears were fast to form. She could not argue with the truth.
Leisha and Jinatta came to her aide, pulling her into the back office where all three sat down and discussed the troubles of a heavy heart. For the longest time only one voice could be heard, desperate to tell the story of how a young woman had come to love two wonderful but very different men. Her friends listened, never letting their attention waver from what was important. Eena cried over sensitive emotions: guilt, sorrow, regret, and most of all the unpredictability of love. It felt good to get it out, to have female friends to cast a portion of her burdens upon. When the tears dried up for the most part, Leisha and Jinatta offered kind words of advice, never passing judgment.
Jinatta made it clear that first and foremost she and Leisha cared deeply for their queen and considered her a close friend. Leisha gave constant reassurances that they understood what she was going through. Both vowed their support, offering a listening ear and a caring shoulder to cry on at any time.
Eena ended out spending the remainder of the day with her newest confidants, eventually transitioning from emotionally intense issues to lighter topics of conversation. They found stories to laugh about, memories to sigh over, and a few bits of gossip that made them gasp. The subject of babies became a considerable time-consumer, and the three dissected boy names for a long while, eventually agreeing on five favorites: Ayden, Gilead, Kinnian, Jairmee, and Eena’s personal preference, Jarone.
By the time she left the medical bay for her own quarters, the young queen was smiling over the tremendous relief of a lightened emotional load. She was also certain she had figured out Ian’s “baby blue” secret.  

Copyright 2018 Richelle E. Goodrich

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Chapter Two


Ian showed up beneath the willow tree that evening. He sat near his queen, leaving half-an-arm’s gap between them. It felt awkward after months of sharing a close and cuddling intimacy. Eena was content to at least have him in her dreams, though they talked very little. For the majority of the night, both stared blankly at a perpetual sunset, contemplating private thoughts.
Eena spent most of her time stewing over what she wanted to say to the governing body once they reached Laradine. Having a familiarity with the immortal tendency to demonstrate shortness of patience, her goal was to communicate in the fastest, most effective way possible a list of reasons why it was imperative that Derian and Angelle be released immediately. This meant memorizing another speech, much like the speech she had delivered to the Harrowbethian Council upon her return to Moccobatra.
She hoped to convince Pallador and his associates that by refusing these particular mortals their freedom, they were essentially interfering in the progression and development of the Moccobatran homeworld. Considering Kahm Derian’s high-ranking calling, his noteworthy accomplishments, his global responsibilities as well as a host of great expectations assigned to him, Eena believed she could make a strong and convincing case for his immediate release. The way she painted his character, she was starting to wonder why the captain didn’t have a thicker head than he did.
A few times during the night, Ian flickered a curious glance at her, wondering about her unreadable thoughts. It was impossible for the young protector to hear the things running through his queen’s mind when he was technically asleep. Eena found a degree of comfort in this. Most likely, her braggart speech about Derian’s irreplaceable role in their world would annoy Ian anyway.
When morning came, Ian was the first to disappear. His parting words lingered after his dream-image vanished.
“Hope your day is pleasant, Eena.”
“Yours too,” she replied, sighing at how it sounded like she would be spending another day deprived of his company. Who would have thought she would miss the hovering presence of a protector’s constant shadow?

Eena’s heart deflated to a greater extent when she woke up and discovered her front room empty. No Ian. She had half hoped he would make the effort to at least show up for breakfast.
Turning back to the dark bedroom, her disappointment deepened when she realized a change of attire was necessary. Despite the fact that Mishmorat clothing was significantly more comfortable than any fancy gown, it would be hard to justify three days in the same outfit when a fresh wardrobe hung in the closet. Where were her Mishmorat sisters when she really needed help?
After a quick bath and a little primping, Eena slipped into a full skirt that included several layers of underskirts. The dress was a pastel shade of pink. It was fast becoming her signature color. While double-checking her hologram reflection, her eyes were drawn to the dragon’s soul attached to her neck, devoid of a promise pendant hampering its view. She made a quick decision to remedy the picture. Though part of her wished to feel Derian’s warm touch fumbling to refasten the clasp, the greater part of her wanted the emblem of their commitment in its proper place again. A smile of contentment thinned her lips when the gold pendant hung once more from her neck. This time, it would remain where it belonged.
Eena ignored the bowl of fruit still centered on her dining room table and headed out the front door, determined to seek company for breakfast in the public commissary—the one reserved for Jerin’s men. The sound of chatter grew loud as she neared the place. Inside the commissary, three-quarters of available seating was taken up by uniformed Harrowbethian soldiers, many surrounded by family members. People were enjoying a quick morning meal, showing a hustle in their step as if adhering to a tight schedule. Eena stopped in the doorway to scan the room for familiar faces. She found it comforting that most were recognizable.
Upon sight of the young queen, heads turned her way and dropped forward, demonstrating devotion with a bow. A chorus of voices murmured her name. This respectful gesture was becoming easier for her to handle, unlike the first time she had experienced a crowd of Harrowbethian citizens respond in the same manner. Eena recalled anxiety so severe that it nearly paralyzed her until a confident child named Willum had stepped forward from the crowd to extend her a personal greeting. He was an imaginative and lively child who quickly became her favorite little friend.
Keeping to the perimeter of the room, she swept her gaze over the crowd in search of Willum, knowing he would be with his parents. Her thoughts returned to the trying events that had occurred after meeting the boy and his family. Those challenges changed her very nature from a cautious, inhibited school girl to a woman worthy of the royal title—Queen of Harrowbeth. Had she remained the shy and tentative creature she had been on Earth, she never would have endured the trials forced upon her. Therefore, a braver woman had blossomed out of necessity. It was a transformation set in motion the day she stepped foot on Derian’s starship, the Kemeniroc.
“Sha Eena! Hey, hey, Sha Eena!”
Her face lit up with recognition before she turned in the direction of his voice. As soon as her searching eyes spied Willum, she headed toward the six-year-old. His big brown eyes twinkled with friendly enthusiasm as she approached.
“Hi!” he greeted, giving her a big hip-hug. She leaned over to hug him back.
“Willum, it’s so good to see you again. You look well.” Catching sight of his older brother, a more timid boy, she waved him over.
“Hello, Xander. How wonderful to see you.”
The young man uttered a greeting and bowed respectfully at the same time. Meanwhile, Willum pushed away from Eena’s legs to look up and make an excited announcement.
“Mom and Dad said you have to come sit with us…so come on.” He grabbed hold of her hand and gave it a solid tug before Xander stopped him, correcting his younger brother with chiding criticism.
“That’s not what Mom and Dad said, Will. You’re so rude. They told you to ask if she wants to come sit with us.” He glanced up with apologetic eyes and quietly said, “You don’t have to if you don’t want to.”
Eena didn’t hesitate to accept the invitation, careful not to laugh when she saw Willum crinkle his nose and pucker his lips at his brother’s back.
“It would be an honor to have breakfast with your family.”
Blushing, Xander gestured for her to follow him.
The trio scooted down an aisle of occupied seats, exchanging pleasant greetings with nearly everyone in their path. Eena spotted her good friends midway along the aisle. Sarii, wearing a blue sun dress, was seated next to her uniformed husband, Rhoen. He rose to his feet as his queen approached and gave the appropriate head bow.
“Sha Eena, it’s a pleasure to see you.”
“Thank you, Rhoen. It’s good to see you too. How have you all been?”
“The whole family is quite well, thanks to you.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” Eena smiled.
“I can hardly imagine how you must be feeling,” Sarii cut in, “after finding out Kahm Derian is alive!” She motioned across the table to an empty chair. Her husband was quick to pull out a seat for their royal guest. Before the conversation took off, he sent Xander and Willum to fetch her a plate of breakfast. Eena could hear the boys bickering down the aisle over who was going to carry the tray.
Kneading her fingers like a worried mother, Sarii asked again, “How are you handling all this?”
Eena bit her lip, unsure where to start. “Well, I’ll admit the news shook me up at first, but I’m dealing with it better now.”
Sympathy put a slant in Sarii’s brow line. “And poor Ian, the dear, how is he?”
Eena gripped at her promise pendant unconsciously. She wished Ian were present to speak for himself. He didn’t bother to respond in her head, so she offered a suitable reply. “I know this is difficult for him too, but he seems to be coping.”
Eena caught a subtle anxious exchange between Sarii and her husband. Rhoen asked the next question.
“How did you come to find out that the captain and Angelle were still alive? Was it the immortal, Pallador, who told you? Jerin says we’re headed to confront him.”
Eena purposefully kept her answer vague. “Pallador was the one who verified the rumor was true. He’s the person I hope to convince to help us.”
“Oh, I hope he does,” Sarii said. She reached across the table and squeezed Eena’s fingers. “I can’t imagine him turning you down, what with two precious lives on the line.”
“I can’t imagine,” Eena repeated in a murmur. She didn’t care to explain that he had already done so.
Rhoen’s subsequent comment pulled her eyes back to him. “I am grateful to have the opportunity to be of service to you, Sha Eena. And to Kahm Derian. I owe you both a lifetime of debt. Whatever you stand in need of, please don’t hesitate to ask.”
“Thank you, Rhoen.” Eena smiled wide, mainly because she had a good view of Willum and Xander in the background, fussing over the same tray of food. It was gripped by four possessive hands. When one boy seemed to hog the majority of the load, the other tugged the plate towards himself and vice versa. Eena held her breath, wondering if the stack of fruit and hot biscuits would make it to her before finding a home on the floor.
Luckily, breakfast arrived safely.
“Why thank you, gentlemen,” she crooned. “It looks delicious. Cajja fruit—my favorite!”
“You can thank Ramsis for that,” Rhoen informed her. “Our newest recruit stocked the kitchen with plenty of bins from his family’s orchard.” Rhoen turned to his sons to tell them both they had done a fine job. The boys soaked up the praise before making a sour face at one another.
“Can I go play with Cragun now?” Xander asked his parents. “He’s done eating. We passed him on the way.”
“Me too,” Willum added, unwilling to be left out.
Rhoen glanced at Sarii for her sign of consent before giving permission. “Go on you two but behave yourselves.” They looked to their mother, expecting an assenting nod, and then hustled on their way
“Bye, Sha Eena!”
“Bye, and thanks for breakfast!”
“You’re welcome!”
Rhoen rose from his seat and gathered up his empty plate and utensils. “I apologize, but it’s time for me to go too. I’m scheduled to oversee flight drills this morning. It was nice to see you, Sha Eena.” He dipped his empty plate towards her as he added, “And don’t you worry. We will get Kahm Derian back, one way or another. Even if it comes down to a show of force.”
“Oh, no, no,” she fretted, “it can’t come to that. Jerin isn’t planning a physical confrontation, is he?”
Rhoen froze for a moment, like he feared his words had been ill-chosen. “Well, it’s routine to consider all our options. We plan for every outcome, prepare for every possibility.”
“There’s no possibility of defeating immortals in a physical battle,” Eena said emphatically.
Rhoen arched his eyebrows and smirked the tiniest bit. “Well, uh.…you did.”
Technically what he said was true, but she had been in an immortal state when she battled Anesidora in Wanyaka Cave. That was something she never explained to Sarii and Rhoen, and she didn’t care to. Pressing her mouth into a disagreeable line, she uttered, “It would be extremely difficult to convince the immortal governing body to help us if we challenged them.”
“I agree,” Rhoen nodded. “I’m sure it won’t come to that. Now, if you will please excuse me.” After a quick bow, he pecked his wife on the cheek, dumped his tray, and headed for the exit. A host of men in uniform followed him out.
“The whole crew must flight drills this morning,” Eena guessed aloud.
Sarii nodded to the affirmative. “Even the Mishmorat men were invited to join in. Rhoen and Jerin agreed it would be beneficial to have them trained flying our battleships, in the off chance their assistance is needed.” Eena drew in a worried breath, but Sarii reminded her, “There are more things out in space to be wary of than immortals. It’s best to prepare for anything.”
“Do you mind if I join you? I’ve no one else to sit with.”
Eena was drawn to the soft voice speaking over them, and when she looked up, a sweet smile formed on a face hauntingly reminiscent of the lost Angelle. Only the eye color differed—blue instead of green.
Sarii greeted the girl first. She pulled out the chair her husband had left behind.
“Good morning, Nischeen. Yes, please do sit with us.”
“Thank you, I appreciate it.” The young lady scooped up her full skirt with one hand before sliding into the empty seat. She set a tray of food on the table. Nischeen concentrated on Sarii when she spoke. Eena guessed the two had come to know each other through Jerin and Rhoen.
“I haven’t seen Jerin all morning. He was supposed to meet me here for breakfast, but he hasn’t shown.” Nischeen’s voice was soft with just a hint of whininess that made her sound as delicate as she appeared. “I know I should be more understanding. He’s a busy man, being captain of the ship and all.” Her eyes flickered at Eena for a split-second with a glint of apology, as if she regretted saying something insensitive.
“Jerin is a fine captain,” Eena told the young lady with a reassuring smile. “He’s very responsible and conscientious of his crew. I think he is a lot like Derian in that way.”
Nischeen gave a rapid nod, and then the two fell silent. Eena yearned to shift the conversation to the topic of Angelle. She wanted to ask Nischeen how Jerin had broken the news to her that her sister was still alive. Had learning about the bizarre circumstances of Angelle’s captivity caused joy and hopefulness or anger and resentment? Who did she blame? What did she expect would happen once they reached the immortal home world of Laradine? Eena wondered about all of it but feared asking outright personal questions. It seemed rude and intrusive, so she continued the conversation on an easy note.
“How do you like the ship, Nischeen? I was surprised when Jerin told me you were aboard.”
“I like it. It’s big. I’ve enjoyed seeing more of the inside.”
“Jerin said you brought Yaka with you.”
“Yes, I did.”
“Where is he now? In your quarters?”
The assumption seemed to surprise Nischeen. “No, actually, Yaka is staying with Jerin in the captain’s quarters.”
“In the captain’s quarters?” Eena repeated. She instantly regretted the disapproving tone her voice had taken, but it shocked her that Jerin would violate Derian’s personal space knowing their goal was to rescue the captain and bring him home.
Nischeen’s face tangled up, and she quickly made excuses for Jerin. “It was the room most familiar to Yaka, so Jerin thought it would be okay if they both stayed there for the time being.”
“Right, right…of course.”
As Nischeen fidgeted in her seat, Eena attempted to wave off any concerns. How ridiculous to feel possessive of Derian’s things. The captain would certainly be grateful to Jerin for watching over his beloved pet. Not missing a beat, Sarii thoughtfully diverted the conversation elsewhere.
“So, Nischeen, is Jerin being good to you? Is he making your stay here comfortable?”
“Oh yes, he’s a real gentleman. He tries to sneak away to come see me when he can. I even have one of those little devices like the other crewmen so he can call on me any time.” She pulled an oval communicator from her pocket and displayed it in the palm of her hand. It was a U-PCD. Her pale cheeks flushed as she admitted, “Jerin checks up on me constantly to make sure I’m alright. His attentiveness has been comforting.”
Nischeen flashed a glance at her queen that was easy to interpret as resentful to some degree. Eena quit beating around the bush and hit on the painful topic she was certain weighed heavily on the girl’s heart.
“You know what happened to Angelle.”
Nischeen frowned at the mention of her sister. Her eyes dropped to the table. “I do.”
“Jerin told you.”
“Yes, he did.”
“I’m sorry, Nischeen. I’m sorry for what happened to your sister. And I’m truly sorry if any of it was my fault.”
The young lady shook her head almost imperceptibly and refused to look up. “It wasn’t your fault.”
“Even so, I feel responsible.”
Again, Nischeen wagged her head. “I’m sure it wasn’t your fault.”
“I plan to get her back, you know. I will do everything in my power, but there is no way I can promise you…”
Nischeen raised a halting hand and her blue eyes flashed up, glazed with moisture. She forced a smile. “I know you will do what you can. I thank you now for whatever actions you take to rescue my sister.”
An awkward moment transpired where neither seemed sure of what to say next. At length, Nischeen voiced an additional thank you.
“I appreciate you encouraging Jerin to call on me. It’s been a good thing.”
“I’m glad to hear it.”
Sarii finally cut in. “That’s enough talking. You two better eat or we’ll all be sitting in this same spot when lunch is served!”
They dug into their fruit and biscuits, commenting on how sweetly ripe the cajja was. Before Eena had finished one biscuit, her head was buzzing with a warning from Ian.
(Hey, Queenie. I’m afraid Jerin needs you on the bridge. He just called me.)
(Why? What’s wrong?)
(Jorban finally figured out that you’re on the ship. I have to say, it took the old man longer than I thought it would.)
(Oh crud. Okay, I’m on my way.)
(I’ll meet you at the front doors.) It was shocking when her heart stuttered at the mere thought of seeing Ian. She forced her mind to dwell on something else.

Ian was standing outside the bridge when Eena arrived, his back propped against the wall. The moment their eyes met, he skewed the grin on his lips. His expression, along with the leisurely pose, reminded Eena of the first time she had seen him on Earth, leaning against the gold brick wall at Royal City High School. He had flickered repeated glances at her that day, watching her size him up. Then as now, his shoulders slouched by a few degrees.
(I don’t slouch.)
(You do a little.)
Eena caught his gaze as it dropped to the pendant dangling from her neck. The gold pendant. Self-consciously, she took it in her hand.
(It’s okay, Queenie. I’m fine with it.) Whether his words were true or not, she appreciated his selfless understanding.
Using a flat foot to push himself away from the wall, Ian moved on to the matter at hand. (You ready for this?)
(As ready as I’m ever going to be.)
Grinning with humor, he gave her a warning. (Jorban is not happy. I’ve been listening to him lay into Jerin pretty hard.)
(What has Jerin said?)
(Not much. Just that his loyalty lies with his queen.)
Eena nodded. It was right for the blame to be hers. She wanted it that way.
Drawing in a deep breath, she entered the bridge with Ian at her back. The first set of eyes she met belonged to Jerin. He looked tense. His gaze stayed with her for only a moment and then darted back to the animated image of Minister Jorban delivering what sounded like a reprimanding lecture. Eena approached the screen, positioning herself in front of Jerin. Ian kept a pace behind her the whole time.
“Sha Eena, thank goodness!” the old man exclaimed. His eyelids slid closed for a brief time. When they popped open, his look of relief turned to exasperation. He dived right in with a question—one he seemed impatient to have answered.
“What in the name of all that is sane and sensible are you doing? Stowing away on the Kemeniroc in outright defiance of the council’s wishes? Why?”
Eena opened her mouth to voice a reply but the minister kept talking, tossing out another exasperated query followed closely by another and another.
“What could you possibly be thinking? Do you not understand how irreplaceable you are to Moccobatra? Do you not grasp how imperative it is to have our healer on Moccobatran soil? Have you any idea what kind of uproar your actions will cause if the rest of the world finds out you’re missing yet again? Do you even comprehend the amount of distress you’ve caused us?”
Ill at ease, Eena flashed a rearward glance at her best friend. Only then did Jorban notice the young man whom he had chosen to endorse as Shen of Harrowbeth. The minister’s brow creased angrily as he prepared to admonish the traitor.
“How dare you of all people support such reckless behavior!” Jorban growled. “How dare you permit our precious Sha to leave Moccobatra! What were you thinking, Ian?”
“Ian?” Another old voice repeated the name. Ian stepped up to the screen as his father’s face appeared on the viewscreen beside Minister Jorban. Parental shock turned to relief before hardening in a look of fury. “This is outrageous! Son, have you lost your mind?”
Ian held up his hands and gestured for the old men to cease with any further accusatory comments. “Hey, hey, you have it all wrong. I know what it looks like but I’m innocent. I’ve done nothing but try to convince your queen to abandon this crazy plan of hers. I’m a hostage here, not an accomplice.”
All eyes zeroed in on Eena for confirmation. “It’s true,” she admitted. “Ian was locked in the brig when we left Harrowbeth. He’s been against this voyage since I suggested it.”
“You threw my son in the brig?”
“Well…I couldn’t let him turn me in.”
(Not that I would have,) Ian whispered in her mind.
“So this was all your idea?” Unan asked. He seemed unwilling to believe it.
“Yes,” Eena said boldly. She didn’t care if it was entirely the truth. Her hope was to protect the crew as much as possible by taking the blame.
Unan narrowed his gaze and stared with hard, doubting eyes at his son. Ian responded by pointing a firm finger at their queen, suggesting in a look that this was typical behavior for her. Unan pursed his lips.
Meanwhile, Minister Jorban cast his attention onto the captain of the ship. “Jerin, I order you to turn the Kemeniroc around and return to Harrowbeth this very minute!”
Before the captain could open his mouth, Eena barked out her own orders. “Ignore that, Jerin. As Queen of Harrowbeth, I demand that you keep this ship on its present course.”
She turned a stern eye back to the screen. Both Unan and Jorban furrowed their wrinkled foreheads. With his focus glued on her, Jorban again addressed the captain.
“Jerin, I’m warning you; if you refuse to obey the direction of your council, your actions will be deemed treasonous.”
“Treason against whom?” Eena demanded to know.
“Against Harrowbeth,” Jorban decreed.
Eena took a step towards the giant screen, tapping a finger against the tip of her necklace. “As reigning Sha, I am the one who represents Harrowbeth. Therefore, I refuse any charges of treason against this man.”
The face Jorban made at her tenacity came across as nearly ferocious. The old man’s nostrils flared, and he retorted, fuming, “The council overrides you!”
Unsure of how to respond, Eena stubbornly locked her jaw.
In the background, Jerin piped up to declare once and for all his position. “From the dawn of our civilization, the Sha and Shen of Harrowbeth have possessed an inherent right of authority that cannot be denied. My loyalty and the loyalties of all aboard this ship are to them. If Sha Eena wishes to return to Moccobatra, I shall accommodate her without question. If, however, she desires to seek the release of Kahm Derian, then I shall stand by her side and do whatever is within my power to make it so.”
A wave of goose bumps spread across Eena’s arms as she experienced a new level of respect for the man. Jerin gave his queen a deep bow and afterwards remained silent.
The next to speak was Unan who nudged a little closer to the screen. He kept his voice calm and gentle, as if he were reciting a nursery rhyme designed to lull his adopted daughter into an agreeable mood.
“Eena, sweetheart, I understand how desperate you feel. These recent revelations have been overwhelming for you—for us all. Your impetuousness is easily justified. I know you have good intentions but…sweetheart, this isn’t the best course of action for anyone.” Pausing, Unan shot an uneasy look at Jorban who gave a nod of encouragement. “The council is deeply concerned for you and for Derian; you must believe that. Everyone is working on a way to solve the problem, beginning by actively pursuing negotiations with Pallador…”
“Has anyone spoken to Pallador yet?” Eena interrupted.
Jorban cleared his throat uneasily, hesitating with an answer. “Not as yet, but we do have a dialogue going through King Wennergren. He has agreed to act as our mediator, and he seems quite hopeful…”
Eena interrupted again. “The old King always seems hopeful. That’s his nature.”
Jorban pursed his lips before continuing. “We have barely begun our efforts and have yet to exhaust every approach.” His snow-white eyebrows climbed high as he had another thought. “If you were to return to Harrowbeth, you could try your hand at sending a persuasive invitation to Pallador.”
“Minister, I have already spoken to Pallador. The people I need to address are the other members of the immortal governing body; however, they refused to come see me.” Eena voiced her next words strongly. “The immortals consider themselves superior beings and are too engaged in their own affairs to waste time with mortals. They believe our problems are of small consequence compared to their own.”
“I’m sure a way exists to entice them to listen,” Jorban argued.
“I’m sure a way exists as well,” Eena agreed, “and it requires taking our case to them. To Laradine.”
Jorban sighed in a grumble. “Not you, Sha Eena. King Wennergren has informed me that the immortal home world, this Laradine, lies on the outermost edge of our galaxy. The distance is too great. We need you here.”
“You don’t understand, Jorban. They won’t give my request any consideration unless I go and show them how serious I am!”
Jorban rubbed at his tired eyes. Exhaustion seemed to tug like gravity at his aged features. With a resigned sigh, he offered a compromise. “If you come home, I’ll allow Jerin and his men to travel to Laradine. They can deliver your message and communicate our determination as a people to recover our lost souls.”
Eena shook her head. “No, I have to be the one to address them.”
“Sweetheart, you don’t have to do everything yourself,” Unan implored. “It’s okay to give others an opportunity to assist and support you.”
“You’re right,” she agreed, “but this is something I have to do myself. It’s like that story you used to read to me about Imorih setting off on her own journey. She had strong opposition too, but she went anyway because she knew she had to go.”
“Dear, that’s just a story. This is reality.”
“No, it’s not just a story. That book is filled with wise advice. It tells us that we should listen to ourselves. It teaches us to be aware of our own conscience. It demonstrates how important it is to become master of your own destiny. You and Master Ravelly both agreed that this should be the case for everyone.”
Unan recalled the conversation with the Grotten dignitary where he had made an identical statement and they had mutually supported it.
Eena brought her hands to her heart as she attempted to make the old protector understand. “I am doing exactly what you said all people should do—I am finally standing up and listening to my own voice. I’m taking charge of my life, becoming master of my own destiny. Please, Father, understand that I have to do this.”
Unan stared at her, speechless.
Without pausing, Eena went on to voice another reason for him to support her mission. “Isn’t it true that you and Gaila have been hoping and praying for things to work out so that our family might retain what you consider a proper standing in Harrowbethian history? If Derian and Angelle…” She stopped herself to make a correction. “I mean…when Derian and Angelle return to us, Ian and I can marry our promised ones, Father. Things will be as they should be.”
The old man repeated her words, a grin twitching at the corners of his lips. “Things will be as they should be.”
With a groan of exasperation, Minister Jorban turned to his last hope. “Ian, you seem to be the only one here with an ounce of good judgment. Given the regrettable circumstances, you are hereby reinstated as Sha Eena’s official protector. You will do your best to return her home safely. Convince the crew if you can’t talk any sense into these two.” The minister pointed at Eena and Jerin directly.
Ian signed a discouraging note before agreeing to do his best. “Given that I’m a bit outnumbered here, councilor, I’m not sure I can pull off a mutiny.”
“Well, try!” The old man snapped.
Eena was tired of the pointless debate. “Goodbye, minister. I’m sorry we don’t see eye to eye on this matter. You can thank me and then punish me after I return with your Shen.”
As she turned to motion for Jerin to cut off the transmission, she heard Jorban’s last desperate remark. “I shall punish the whole lot of you if…”
Things fell abruptly silent. Eena swiveled on her feet until she was facing her reinstated protector. She gave him a tentative grin.
(Ah heck,) he grumbled in her mind. (I was just getting used to my freedom. Now I’m stuck with the grueling job of babysitting the old bossy queenie again.)
Eena’s grin spread thinner at his teasing. (I’m not old.) On a more serious note she asked, (What sort of punishment does Jorban have in mind?)
(I don’t know,) Ian said, reminding her of his limitations. (He’s too far away for me to read his thoughts. I can only sense your thoughts at great distances, no one else’s.)
Eena grumbled disappointedly. (How inconvenient.) She had hoped for some foresight as to what to expect from the council on her eventual return.
“Sha Eena?”
Jerin’s cautious interruption snapped her out of her thoughts. He wore a troubled expression when she looked at him.
“Did the conversation upset you?” he guessed.
“No, no, I was just thinking about the situation.” Out of concern for him, she asked the same question. “Jerin, if you feel that you’ve made a mistake, if you’ve had a change of heart now that...”
“I have not,” he asserted firmly.
She smiled her gratitude. “But if that was the case, I would go back to Harrowbeth for you.”
“And abandon Derian?”
“I didn’t say I would stay in Harrowbeth,” she retorted devilishly.
Ian kept at his queen’s side as she left the bridge. Their footsteps fell at a slow amble, their attention caught up in a telepathic conversation.
(Did you see Father’s face?) Ian asked.
(When he thought you had betrayed Harrowbeth? Or when he realized it was I who betrayed Harrowbeth?)
Eena flashed a look of confusion at Ian.
(Didn’t you see his face go blank with shock?)
She still wasn’t following. (When?)
(At the end of your conversation. When you were comparing yourself to Imorih.)
His hint failed to light up her memory, so Ian spelled it out for her.
(You called him Father.)
(I did?)
She was unaware that she had addressed Unan affectionately. (Well…I was adopted, you know, so technically he is my father.)
Ian gave her an overexaggerated ‘duh’ look. (How many times have I said that? I was the one who told you to call him Father when I first brought you to the house.)
She feigned surprise. (You told me that?)
(Brat,) Ian grumbled.
Eena grinned big, showing her white teeth.
It was quiet while the mind reader concentrated on his queen’s thoughts. He commented on a warm notion.
(It felt good, didn’t it?)
(Calling him Father.)
(Yes,) she admitted. A warm flush reddened her cheeks. (I might keep saying it if Unan…I mean if Father ever forgives me for what I’m doing.)
(He’ll forgive you. I don’t have to read the old man’s mind to know that.) Ian bumped her with his elbow as he teased her. (You’re his only spoiled-rotten brat of a daughter.) When Eena took a slug at the jester, he dodged her swing.
(Annoying big brother,) she teased.
(Bossy little sister,) he kidded.
They both scrunched their noses after the exchange. (I can see what you were saying before,) Ian admitted. (That would sound sooooo wrong if we were married.)
(Told you so.)
(Pain in the neck.)
(Insufferable dictator.)
Eena stopped dead in her tracks at Ian’s last remark. She repeated it with the same incredulity in her words as evidenced on her face. (Insufferable dictator? That was just mean.)
She could hear Ian chuckling as he walked on ahead. (Okay then, how about demanding tyrant?)
(Ugh! You, you.……mean person!)
Eena didn’t know what was worse: Ian’s insults or the way his laughter filled the corridor like he had heard the funniest punch line in the universe.
(Troll,) she grumbled under her breath.

Copyright 2018 Richelle E. Goodrich