Thursday, July 26, 2018

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

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