River's End chapter 14: Monsters Difficult to Tame
Alone was a key word there. No officials currently occupied this room, no one to tell me not to look at stuff.
Guilt twitched that I would leave Niiq alone in unknown passages, but I shook it off and knelt, scooping up my satchel and strapping it diagonally across my body, hand slipping under the flap to inventory the contents. A lot was missing—several of the tiny bottles of essential herbs and oils I had packed in case I needed to concoct something, my favorite feather pen, all currency except a small coin tucked into a bottom corner, one of my shoes—but my scarf and some sealed packets of food remained.
Pulling out one of these latter, I surveyed the papers surrounding me—new road proposals connecting Emerald and Amber cities, a petition to expand Tils’ library system to better suit the needs of the growing population, census and demographic studies to go along with that, a report on an investigation regarding tainted water sources in a Platinum city. Mildly boring.
I distractedly stuck a dried slice of baffble into my mouth, its crispy outer shell crackling, taffy-like center resisting. With the tangy flavor of home came a realization: this was where my message needed to be, here where official people read and researched, analyzed and formulated solutions.
Except my message was in the form of a datapin with no device to read it, and even then it was encrypted in top-secret Menyaze.
I scanned the room. Did they have a data reader? Yes, sitting dusty in a bookcase at the far end of the room, the bookcase that had partially flipped and folded to admit me to this space.
Munching on another slice of baffble, I rose and hurried to the reader, shaking sticky papers off my feet. As I hopped onto a suspended seat, momentum swinging me close to the shelving, hand a hairsbreadth from my prize, the wall flipped again, paddling me at the floor.
“Forest girl, hurry! We can’t be in here!” Niiq called from atop the level partition.
“I have a name,” I grumbled, halfway in the water, head bruised by the contorted bookcase, side concussed by the sharp edge of the pond.
“Well, you never said it. C’mon, this’s the king’s council chamber. If I’m caught in here snoopin’, Timqé’ll get in a lot of trouble.” As I slithered over the edge of the horizontal wall, she added, “And you shouldn’t take stuff!”
“This is my stuff. It was taken from me when I got here.”
“Oh, I guess that’s alright then. But hurry!”
Following her retreat into the hidden passage, I countered, “They shouldn’t treat you as they do. You’ll be queen someday. They should be training you, taking you into their confidence. Whether you’re Silver or not”
“It’sn’t because I’m Silver.” She stopped, stiff as if my words had turned her into a conspiratorial tree. “It’s because they think I’m a spy for the ~inonii.”
With that egregious confession, she dashed off down the dark corridor, silvery tail waving wildly with her waddling run. I trailed her, mind racing just as fast, dashing through the legend behind the stigma curse of Silvers.
It was connected to the famous love story of Jixon and Zaqhara. When they had returned to Tils, Jixon’s hometown, his childhood rival, Qen, became jealous and tried to persuade Zaqhara away from her husband. Failing in that, Qen stole Jixon’s journal and retraced his journey, finding the hazardous path to the floating islands where Opals like Zaqhara lived.
The Opal patriarch disapproved of him, forbidding his kin from associating with Qen and telling this Onyx foreigner to leave his lands. Angry, Qen poisoned their water source and kidnapped an Opal girl named Sharshin. Her kinsmen pursued, but as they were weakened by the poison, Qen easily killed them.
When Jixon, Zaqhara, and their first child later sojourned to visit her family, they discovered the rotting remains of the Opals. In his last moments, the Opal patriarch had carved a curse against Qen in the dirt.
All the children of the Onyx Qen were Silver. Jixon’s and Zaqhara’s youngest child was also Silver, but, fueled by envy of his Opal brother, started a rebellion that nearly wiped out the Onyx, adding another layer to the essence of the curse.
Silver is actually the result of Onyx and Opal genes manifesting together, not the curse of a long dead man, but the Druojojneerpsrii had no success convincing the Grenswa-nas of that. Grenswa-nas had little interest in DNA. Family was family; it needed no further explanation.
But nothing in any of the cursed tales I knew connected Silvers with ~inonii, who were no more lenient toward Silvers than the Silvers’ relatives. The Chrome treated Silvers worst of all.
Uncomfortable in my half-wet clothes, clingy fabric chafing my thigh, bare feet bruised from the army of stray pebbles loitering in these passages, I could not come up with tactful phrasing to ask why they would associate Niiq with ~inonii, and the pause stretched too long.
“They gave you a nice room, Forest Girl? Where’s it at? The Amethyst section? Sapphire? Today’s Blue-day, so the Sapphire rooms are closest to the Royal Tower. Maybe we can find a passageway leadin’ there?”
“Wait, the palace moves that much?” Each tribe had a dedicated portion of the complex, a tower and affiliated wing, but I hadn’t known they shuffled around one another daily.
“The palace’s is always movin’. Beautiful, isn’t it? So where’s your room?”
“I, uh, don’t have one. I kind of said some things in your defense at the table, and as soon as the queen finds me, I’ll probably get kicked off the island.”
Astonishment brightened Niiq’s already shining, mismatched eyes. “Really? Then you can be my guest. Oh, do you hear that?”
After a pause: “No.”
“It sounds like the mewlin’ a child makes when they’re lost and scared and hurt and need help.”
I still didn’t hear anything, but like my eyesight was much keener than hers, her ears were much more sensitive than mine.
“Maybe it’s another button. Help me look!” She ran her hands along the wall.
“Here,” I pointed to an intricate carving of a bird, wings depicted like lace.
Niiq’s fingers traced the lines. “I’m pretty sure it’s a tye, so this time…” She twittered like those tiny birds that had followed me out of the forest, and the wall dropped. In near silence, the wall behind us slid forward, pushing us into open air.
Lacking any penchant for flying, we both plummeted, two stories flashing by before we splashed down in a deep, algae-filled pond. Lungs already demanding another breath, I kicked, the surface so far away. Weeds tangled around my legs, insisting I stay.
Niiq laughed, her crystalline voice just as clear underwater as it was in the air. “That surprised me, but it’s fun! Let’s do it again!”
I shook my head, unable to reply vocally beyond grunts, curling up, hands tugging at the weeds to no avail.
“What’s that?” Niiq asked, squinting into the darkness past my shoulder.
Despite the tepid water, I froze, disruptions in the current revealing something large loomed behind me. Niiq screamed, arms wrapping around me, fast kicks towing me forward only a little, clingy weeds tying me in place. I glanced back over my shoulder, seeing nothing but teeth.
I screamed, too, bubbles gushing out of my mouth.
A dagger shot past my face, an instant later embedded in the middle of a me-sized tongue, and the aquatic creature recoiled, rumbling a hiss. The tongue flicked, attempting to dislodge the dagger as a second knife sliced through the weeds.
“Go! Both of you!” Hent ordered, shoving me away from the creature.
I didn’t have to be told twice, taking Niiq’s arm and dragging her with me.
“Wait! Hent!” she called.
The giant amphibian chased us, but Hent dashed in front of it, knife slashing at its nose, and the monster decided he was a more immediate problem. It snapped at him, but Hent was fast, sliding above the closed jaws.
A second of these creatures raced toward the disturbance, a ray of light piercing murky shadows and giving me a perfect view of the beast: snout like a broadsword lined with way more teeth than necessary, wide body with four stubby legs, a saw-like dorsal fin on its flat back, a long mermaid tail.
Someone gripped our hands, yanking Niiq and I onto a raft. “Where’s Prince Hent?!”
“Still down there battlin’ two kronlinds,” Niiq answered. The man dove in, immediately concealed by algae.
Kronlinds. My inner encyclopedia unhelpfully recalled that if large enough, a kronlind would eat a Grenswa-na whole, and when there was more than one of them, they would play tug-o-war over their prey.
I peered over the edge of the raft, unable to see anything. Inky blood clouded the water, and dread raced through my veins, heavy and frigid. Grenswa-na blood was colored by the same pigment as their scales; an Opal’s blood contained a variety of these tints, often resulting in the same inky obsidian that surrounded the raft.
Hent would not survive losing that much blood.
Our platform rocked, dancing on a parade of tiny bubbles, and then all fell still.
“You don’t think he…” Niiq stuttered, at my side peering into the opaque pond. “I mean, they couldn’t both be…”
The tears glistening in her unique eyes made me want to leap back in, pry apart the monster’s jaws, and drag Hent from its throat, no matter how impossible or stupid that would have been. I didn’t know what to say to her.
The raft tilted under the weight of something climbing aboard behind us, and we squealed. I nearly tumbled over the lifted edge, chest slamming against the slats, fingers clinging to the rounded boards.
As the platform leveled, I got a face full of water, but Niiq was on her feet, rushing to the other side of the craft.
“Hent, don’t you dare scare me like that! I could’ve exploded! You’re hurt?!”
If he isn’t, he’s going to be if he says anything else disparaging to Niiq, I thought, recalling her confession of how he had advised her to run away so they could pretend she didn’t exist. In my current situation, I shouldn’t have been threatening Grenswa’s prince, even if only in my own mind, but thoughts and opinions can be monsters difficult to tame.
I turned in time to see Niiq shove past the man who had pulled us onboard and wrap her arms around her brother-in-law’s waist. Neither of them acknowledged her.
“That’s the patriarch of the pond, the other’s one of our best studs, and now they’re fodder! The Stock Master’ll be furious.”
“They’d’ve eaten people. You’d’ve let them, Tzam?” Hent countered, eyebrows rising and evoking a wince.
“You’re really hurt!” Niiq confirmed, embrace abandoned to reach up toward a bandage coiled around Hent’s head, which I assumed he already had before diving in the water to save us. His scales and eyes were maroon, a color I took to mean he was both in pain and annoyed.
Hent leaned away, staring down Tzam, an Amethyst bordering middle aged, his pale hair and lavender eyes reminding me of Dollii. Dollii would have been kind and sweet even in this situation, going over and thanking them for the rescue, for being in the right place at the right time with this raft. But I didn’t feel like getting up. While the three Grenswa-nas present had already mostly dried, I was fully wet and fully miserable, my legs strangled and bruising.
Fists clenched, Tzam’s thoughts raced across his face, and even without Hent’s kaleidoscope colors, I saw when resolve set in. “This’s all her fault! How much’d improve if the fishes made her disappear?” He grabbed Niiq’s arm, yanking her to the edge, and both Hent and I were there.
Hent captured each of Tzam’s wrists while I looped my arms around the Amethyst’s middle and hauled him backward. Dragged along, Hent kept his footing, face to face with me, Tzam’s shoulder a fence between us. Fascination sparked in his eyes, a flash of turquoise before maroon returned.
“You came here with Niiq?”
“Yeah, what of it?”
“Nothin’.” He looked away.
The bandage was thickest over his left temple, a dark bruise shaded in around it. Despite a wash in the pond, its medicinal herbs were pugnacious enough to catch the attention of even my unobservant nose, and I recoiled, but no one noticed. Hent’s gaze had already returned to Tzam, sharpening, color deepening.
“Niiq is a princess of Grenswa. Try treatin’ her with at least half the amount of patronizin’ you show me.”
“Why half?” Niiq questioned.
“Because the full level of coddlin’s annoyin’, and you don’t want it.” He released Tzam’s arms with a shove, and I slid out of the path of the Amethyst’s reeling. “By the way, Niiq, didn’t your doctor tell you to stay in a reclined position for the baby’s sake?”
“Well, she doesn’t know anythin’. She also says that every day I’ve to eat two servin’s of chimts.” A bitter, slightly spicy vegetable.
Hent blinked. “You probably should.”
“I’ve been dumpin’ mine under the table for years, you know, and I’m perfectly fine.”
“Maybe that’s why you’re so short.” A slight grin from the prince.
Niiq’s face scrunched, fists curled. “Forest girl so incredibly tall, you don’t eat chimts, do you?”
Considering the acid in chimts was not compatible with my intestinal juices and would have quickly burned a hole in my colon, the answer to that was no, I didn’t eat chimts.
But instead I replied, “As I said before, I have a name.”
“But Forest Girl So Incredibly Tall is such an interestin’ title,” Hent inserted, gaze on me intense, still maroon, but swirled with blue and lavender amusement.
I was starting to see why he found his color changes vexing; so little time had passed since we met, and already I could read the mix of hues in his eyes and know his emotions.
“Why are we actually out here?”
“Fishin’ lessons,” Hent answered. “You?”
“We fell out of a secret passage,” Niiq replied, “um, somewhere up there.” She pointed at the flat wall bordering one side of the pond, but there was no evidence of an exit. The jeweled surface glistened, giving the illusion of being translucent in the evening light.
“We should cancel the rest of the lesson,” Tzam recommended. “Prince Hent should be in the infirmary.”
“Go inside if you want,” Hent dismissed, sitting feet tucked under him at the raft’s edge. From a small pouch, he pulled a juicy morsel of meat and tossed it into the water. After an initial plunk, it returned to the surface, bobbing there less than an arm’s length in front of him.
Niiq sat down alongside the prince, curiosity twitching her tail as the watched the bait. I plopped next to her, exhausted. How many Seallaii-na days had I been awake?
With a sigh, Tzam knelt on Hent’s other side. Everyone was still, quiet, and I had just about nodded off when a long, shimmering body came to investigate the floating meat.
Hent’s hand shot into the water, aim true, but the fish slid free of his grasp and into Tzam’s grip. He lifted it from the water, fingers speared through its side, and I gagged. The animal flopped and wriggled, suffocating, and I stared, wide-eyed, potent imagination supplying the sensation of fingers sliding out of holes in my own torso as Tzam dropped his victim in a dry bucket.
“Druojojneerpsrii do not kill anything,” Ambassador Lafdo had said, and that was true. Though I knew the concept, I was far from familiar with death.
“Don’t be disappointed,” Tzam placated, calling out Hent’s slide toward a peach color. “That one’s extra slippery.”
“That’s what you want to learn to do?!” I gasped.
“It’s a survival skill,” Hent defended.
“One you don’t really need, my prince,” Tzam cut in. “You’re already expertly skilled with your weapons.”
“What if I’m ever without my weapons?”
“You don’t need to be able to catch your own food. You’ll take away the honor it’s for others to give it to you.”
“What if I’m stuck somewhere alone and weaponless?”
“That won’t ever-”
“If you say somethin’ won’t ever happen, then it definitely’ll. That’s a law of the universe, like gravity.”
Actually, gravity is much more reliable than anything invoked by careless words, but this was Grenswa. Considering this planet’s odd rendering of that natural force (hence we stood on an island hovering among the clouds), they probably did view gravity as haphazard.
Hent threw in another piece of bait, concentration deep as Seallaii’s ocean, motionless as an untouched pond. I could have thought him a statue conjured by the most skilled sculptor, an expert in transforming planes and angles into fierceness and delicacy. Only his eyes belied the delusion, teeming with life in a way no statue’s could be.
I realized I shouldn’t stare at him with the same intensity he stared at the pond, and I turned away, nervously blurting, “How did you hurt your head?”
“I got in the way of a rock.”
I quirked a brow. “Was it a particularly animate rock?”
“The mob that threw it’s quite lively.”
“Shouldn’t you have guards to protect you from projectile-throwing mobs?” As the words escaped me, it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen nearly the level of security I expected here. Shouldn’t guards have escorted me away when the queen ordered I leave the table? So they apparently didn’t have a mighty horde of Myktas like those perpetually surrounding my family.
Hent glared at me. “Don’t give the over-coddlers any more ideas.”
“People love you, Hent,” Niiq asserted between us. “Why’d they throw rocks at you?”
“I’sn’t their intended target.”
“So a mob with poor aim; doubly dangerous.” That statement should not have been said with as much glee as she poured into it.
On Hent’s other side, Tzam shook his head. “There’s gonna be an investigation? It’s dubious how they could miss a Seallaii-na trespasser and hit our prince instead.”
My heart froze, a heavy gong in its place, the ringing in my ears sounding vaguely like Fredo’s name. Could he have survived? Was he looking for me?
Searching within myself, in the place where he should have been, I found nothing, darkness, a vacuum threatening to pull me in and never let go.
I retreated, scared but refusing to relinquish that smidgen of hope. “There was a Seallaii-na trespasser?”
“While my father and I’re in Tils, we encountered a mob that’d trapped a Seallaii-na merchant on the ground. They’d had him there for more than a day. I pushed through the crowd and escorted him back to his vessel.”
Shock splashed through me like a bucket of ice water dumped over my head. It really could have been Fredo, except which ship did he get returned to? “I thought you thought Seallaii-nas were monsters. Why would you save one?”
“He wasn’t a deliberate intruder; his bein’ on the ground’s an accident. He’d fallen off the roof of his transport, and he’s injured.”
A second bucket of frigid water tipped over my head. The man Hent saved was probably the one I knocked off the roof as our distraction. His predicament was mostly my fault.
And Hent had just earned some “good guy” points. He wasn’t as closed-minded and obstinate as he could have been, able to recognize the difference between a deliberate intruder with mal intent and someone caught in circumstances beyond their control.
How far did that understanding stretch? Would he have saved Fredo and I? We had stepped on their soil of our own volition, but we were not the ones who had come up with the idea. We were here under the banner of their Seallaii-na allies, here to help, to warn, to stave off calamity.
And instead they shot calamity at us.
“Seallaii-nas don’t heal very quickly,” I heard Hent say as if from a distance. I must have missed some of their conversation. “Because they’re so long lived, a lot of their processes seem to take longer- well, that’sn’t completely true. Sometimes they seem faster, too. Their days’re too short, so their whole concept of time is just wacky.”
“But I understand,” Niiq assuaged. “Timqé says they seem stronger, but they’re fragile at the same time. Oh, Forest Girl, you’re raised by Druojojneerpsrii. What’re they like?”
“Okay, my name is Rose.”
“Old news,” Hent said, gaze on me unfathomably deep again. Have I mentioned how tall Hent is for a Grenswa-na? We sat, but ever so slightly he looked down at me, gaze pinning me like a spear through the heart, eyes a deep teal, flecks of that watermelon green twisting the light.
His expression was rife with curiosity, voice imbued with zeal: “You view them as family? Those that raised you?”
“That depends on how you define family: Someone genetically close to you? Someone who has influenced and taught you, who provided the means for your survival? Someone for whom love would prompt you to do anything?”
Lavender confusion seeped over his scales, trickling into his eyes. “You love them? They hold your loyalty still? You’d do anythin’ they asked without question?”
“They taught me to question everything.”
“Then how do you rationalize what they’ve done?”
I froze, bewilderment balancing atop fear’s shoulders. “What do you mean?”
“They do stuff just to see what’ll happen.”
Like bringing Ambassador Lafdo to the Citadel to meet me, my subconscious added.
I defended, “The Druojojneerpsrii unlock the secrets of the universe and use them to help the worlds they visit.”
“How they unlock them’s where I’ve a problem.”
“What do you mean?”
The mantra of the Druojojneerpsrii was to learn everything, but I had never thought too deeply as to how they gathered their information. Neerpsrii had played the world like a game, killing those he deemed counterproductive, spurious, or weak. From what I knew of subsequent Eteriqs, they viewed the lives of others with even greater nonchalance.
Hent tilted his head as if he heard something, then snatched at the water, this time succeeding in catching his fish. Pride painted a smile as he held the wiggling creature high, then lobbed it in the bucket with the first.
Niiq and Tzam praised him, but I frowned, disgust and pity for the gaping victim twisting my gut.
“The Druojojneerpsrii have never hurt Grenswa, have they?” I pressed.
Reaching for another piece of bait, Hent stilled, curiosity flickering cerulean in his eyes. “You really don’t know?”
I shook my head.
“The Grenswa-nas they take, they study…well, one they removed his right hand to see if he could become proficient with his left. They cut off the tail of another to see how it’d affect his balance.”
“That’s horrible!” Niiq gasped, clutching her own silken tail protectively. “I mean, a tail isn’t only about helpin’ us get around.”
“It’s part of one’s self image,” I added. It would be like mutilating someone’s face and expecting them to still have confidence in their own beauty.
“Exactly. They don’t’ve tails, so maybe they don’t understand. It could be forgivable,” Hent reasoned, “the first time. But not the hundredth time.”
“They didn’t? Really.”
“You want to see the reports?” He raised an eyebrow, wincing as the movement tugged at the wound beneath his bandage. “No, you don’t. They’re awful.”
My eyes fell to the wooden slats of the raft, mind sprinting and torn. It was terrible, but I also wanted to see their results. Did anyone manage to switch handedness? How were the tailless affected? I felt that ignoring the findings negated the value of the sacrifices made.
But I also felt horrendous for thinking that way.
“I see why you called them monsters.”
“They took your tail, too, right, Rose? And made it so you can’t zap things?”
I looked up, no words on my tongue.
Really, how had I expected them not to notice my lack of tail when it was such a major player in their body language? Some ~inonii kept their tails covered as part of their modesty, but I didn’t really want these high-and-mighty Luejii to associate me with the ~inonii, especially not after what I had witnessed thus far of their strained relationship.
“I want to understand,” Hent pled, “how you can defend them, care for them, forgive them. They’re beautiful monsters. It’s said they incite love with no reason, shaking loyalty free from its natural place, and I don’t know. I’ve never experienced that, but I want to understand you.”
I felt as if I stared directly into a star, amazement dawning within me.
“Thank you,” I said, hands clasped in front of me, head bowed—an apologetic stance. “I very much want you to understand me.”
Determination set, a mortar made of diamond and steel. I had to fix his tainted view of us. I could not deny these shocking accounts, but I could show him not every Seallaii-na was as twisted and cruel as he believed.
To avoid the veil of bias, I would have to show him without him knowing what I was. He wanted to understand me, and I would make sure he did.
In the meantime, I still needed to deliver my message. I didn’t know when this supposed attack would occur, but every seclii trickling by was wasted time they could have used to prevent or prepare.
Yet how could I deliver my message without letting anyone know I was the messenger?
I had the datapin. I also knew a secret way into the king’s council chamber, where they had a reader. I could sneak in and leave it there, but they would need an interpreter.
Yes, I could sneak in, watch the message, and transcribe a translated report for them. They would take it seriously, right? Not think it was a prank and squander precious time trying to track down the prankster?
My mind whirred, wondering what details the message contained, what countermeasures the Grenswa-nas could take. Would it be prudent for me to suggest any of these in my notes?
I looked back at Hent, a third fish in his hand. Grenswa-nas were predators imbued with grace and wit. They deserved more respect and fear than I had possessed for them before coming here, but it was those same qualities that now assured me they could handle any crisis. The Druojojneerpsrii had lost their love, and I would reacquire it.
-continued in chapter 15: A Valiant Cause for a Queen-