Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Chapter One

Meeting the Viiduns

Kahm Derian, Captain of the Kemeniroc, crossed his quarters headed for a small kitchenette.  He was looking to retrieve a bar of chocolate from the cooler.  Compared to most authority figures, the captain was young in years, yet he came across as an intimidating character due to his height and broad shoulders and intense features like a square jaw that often set itself rigidly in place.  His dark, penetrating stare matched the color of his hair and the seriousness of his usual mood.  On this occasion, however, his face appeared to be one big smile.  He was happy to have finally found success at rousing the young woman who for four straight days had been stuck in a deep sleep aboard his starship.  
Derian was relieved, to put it mildly.  At last they had Sha Eena back with them—their young queen and healer.  Not only had she returned to consciousness, but they had physically rescued her from the clutches of Kahm Gemdorin—a scrupulous enemy who happened to be the captain’s vile older brother.  After abducting Eena, Gemdorin had wielded his charm with the intent of seducing her, an act he could turn on and off at will.  Failing at this game, Gemdorin had cruelly gone the opposite direction, forcing her to toil as a mining slave on Hrenngen, nearly starving her in the process.  After enduring harsh treatment at his hands, including a brutal beating by his ghastly allies, the Ghengats, it was understandable why she had slipped into a self-induced coma, fearful of reawakening to such torturous treatment. 
But that was all behind them now.  She was safe now. 
Kahm Derian called out on a personal communications device, or PCD, to inform the ship’s doctor that her patient was finally awake.  She showed up immediately, rapping on the door to his quarters before he had a chance to deliver the chocolate bar.  As soon as he answered the knock, Jinatta demanded to know exactly what the captain had done to her.
Derian grinned, meeting a pair of stern blue eyes.  His hand rose automatically, revealing the dark treat.  “I promised her chocolate.” 
“That’s it?  She woke up for chocolate?”  There was strong skepticism in the question.  Jinatta’s eyebrow climbed, disappearing behind curly, blonde bangs.
“More or less,” Derian said, fighting the urge to laugh at the doctor’s bewilderment.
In the back room they found Ian, the young queen’s protector and best friend, kneeling at Eena’s bedside.  The two were engaged in quiet conversation, both grateful to be reunited.  Turning to rise when the doctor approached, Ian stepped out of the way. 
Derian handed over the promised treat right off.
“Thank you.”  Eena’s hazel eyes gleamed.  Dark chocolate was her favorite indulgence.  She brushed a strand of hair behind her ear—straight lengths of red brown—and then proceeded to peel open the wrapper.
The doctor took a seat on the edge of the bed, muttering an objection.  “That’s hardly a decent bite of food after four days of fasting.”
“A promise is a promise,” Derian said, gesturing innocently.  “My hands are bound by my word.”  It mattered little because Eena wasn’t about to relinquish her prize regardless.
The doctor produced a medical scanning device and held it just inches from her patient’s upper body.  She watched the display take a variety of vital readings.  “So, how are you feeling today?” 
The young queen took a bite of chocolate, avoiding the question.
“How is your back?”
Eena inched up her shoulders and then let them fall.
“May I take a peek?”  The doctor stood up with the intent of examining her patient.   
“My back is fine,” Eena mumbled, frowning at the woman.
“Just a peek, alright?”  
Jinatta didn’t wait for permission, but reached to undo the medical gown.  Eena stiffened and leaned away as if she would refuse, but Derian’s reproving look was enough to cause her to yield to the doctor’s wishes.  Opening the gown exposed perfectly smooth, flawless skin.  There was no sign of trauma, not even the slightest scar to hint at the abuse she had suffered from the Ghengats.  
“Remarkable,” Jinatta breathed.  “Your necklace must be working again.” 
The doctor was speaking of an enchanted heirloom worn by every queen of Harrowbeth.  A unique symbiotic relationship existed between the necklace and the reigning queen.  It attached itself permanently to its host, using her energy while in return granting the wearer healing abilities and other powers. 
“I told you, I’m fine,” Eena insisted, throwing back her shoulders.
Jinatta refastened the gown.  “Sha Eena, do you have any idea how nasty your wounds were when you arrived here?  They were so badly infected I had to reopen and clean the cuts, then work them over with a regenerator.  It wasn’t an easy process.  Why didn’t the necklace heal you before now?” 
Every eye rested on the young queen, all curious.  The question stirred up tender emotions paired with fresh, awful memories.  Her stomach churned at the vivid images in her head.  Eena set the chocolate bar aside, her appetite no longer tempted. 
Derian could sense her reluctance to discuss the matter.  “Jinatta, maybe this could wait…” he began, but the doctor disregarded his input and pressed harder.
“The necklace is supposed to cure your ailments and injuries, yet you came back with ghastly lesions.  Did Gemdorin find a way to hinder its powers?”
“No,” Eena mumbled.  Avoiding eye contact, she confessed, “It wasn’t Gemdorin, it was me.  I kept the necklace from healing my back.”
“What?  Why?”  The shock in Jinatta’s voice was mimicked on the face of every listener.
Eena hugged herself, closing up like a scared child.  She could recall the beating clearly—the pain tearing through her body as Gemdorin and the Ghengats punished her with so many lashings.  She cringed, imagining the stings as if they were a fresh occurrence.  Tears spilled before her fingers could erase them.  With a lowered head she spoke to her knees, unable to meet anyone’s gaze for an unwarranted sense of shame. 
“When their whips cut into my back the necklace healed me right away.  So Gemdorin…....he told the Ghengats to whip me again.  I realized that if my wounds continued to heal they would beat me over and over.  I just wanted the pain to end.  I made the necklace stop; it was all I could think to do.  They quit the lashings when my back remained raw.” 
Eena covered her face, wanting to hide.  She felt disgraced and humiliated.  It was excruciating for Ian to stand aside and watch.  He longed to gather her up in his arms and comfort her as he would in their shared dreams, but in mixed company he didn’t dare. 
Jinatta patted the girl’s foot sympathetically while Derian shifted uncomfortably in place.  It was Leisha who cut through the tension, entering just in time to observe the dismal scene.  She went to Eena’s side at once, placing an arm around her. 
The wiry engineer administered a gentle hug, pressing her short, raven curls against a damp cheek.  “Hey, it’s alright.  You’re here with us now.  You’re safe now.”
“I know, I know.”  Eena wiped at her pitiful tears.  She met Leisha’s kind gaze before shifting her focus onto Derian.  “Did you tell everyone I was awake?”
“No, no.  Just Jinatta.”
“I told Leisha,” the doctor admitted.  “She was anxious to see you too.”
Leisha confessed, “I may have mentioned something to Marguay and Jerin also.”
The young queen’s face wilted, wordlessly pleading for no more visitors.  Kahm Derian acted on her unspoken request. 
“That’s it.  Everyone out.”
All eyes looked up with disbelief.  He couldn’t possibly mean...
“I mean all of you!” he asserted loudly.  “Everyone leave—now!  Give her some privacy and a little time to recuperate.”
Reluctantly, they emptied the room, voicing a few kind words on the way out.  Leisha met Marguay and Jerin coming off the elevator—two of Derian’s finest officers.  She explained that the captain had put an end to visiting hours.  The crew returned to their duties, including Ian who took position out in the corridor, back on the job as protector.
The captain, now alone with his wide-awake queen, found a seat on the mattress’ edge.  He picked up the discarded chocolate bar and eyed its single bite mark.  His hand fell open as he offered the treat.  Eena declined.
“I’ll save it for you then,” he said.  He went to brush loose strands of hair away from her face, but when her eyes squinted at his wrist, his hand recoiled.
“Why don’t you go on and clean up.  I’ll find a suitable change of clothing for you.  Take as long as you like.”
She didn’t want to go just yet.  Guilt continued to burden her heart, made worse by the remembrance of her nightmarish stay on Hrenngen.
“Derian, I’m not the only one who has been tormented by those Ghengats.  I have friends on Hrenngen still trapped there enduring horrible treatment.”
“Eena, I know,” he sighed with sympathy, “but we haven’t the resources to help them at the moment.  There’s no practical way for us to take on a fleet of cloaked Ghengat vessels having only one cloaked ship at our disposal.”
“Perhaps not, but…..I can’t bear to just leave them there.  You have no idea how they’re suffering.”  She begged for him to reassess the possibility of somehow offering assistance.  “Derian, please.  Those are our people.  They need me.  They need us.”
“No,” he curtly disagreed.  His forehead tightened, recollecting a grim day from his past.  “Those people abandoned Harrowbeth.  From the very beginning they chose to follow Gemdorin.  They made their decision long ago, and as far as I’m concerned, they dug their own graves.”  His words seemed unnecessarily callous.  Eena reacted defensively to them. 
“That’s not true.”  She thought of the kind hearts she had come to know on the Mahgshreem and on Hrenngen.  “Most of the original deserters are dead.  Few of the people I met are much older than you or me.  They were children back then, with no choice but to follow their parents.  I doubt many of them even remember what Harrowbeth looks like.”
“Eena, regardless, the Kemeniroc is headed to Moccobatra.  Our priority is to get you home.  That’s what matters more than anything else.  To turn around would be suicide for all of us….especially you.”
“But they need help,” she insisted.
“We can’t afford to give it.  End of discussion.”
She stared at him, disturbed by the way he snuffed out any further dialogue on what she considered a crucial matter.  Provoking an argument didn’t seem like it would do any good.  In her mind, however, so long as she continued to breathe, this was not the end of it.
“I’ll go clean up now,” she mumbled, slipping off the edge of the bed.

Eena took her time in the shower, melting under a waterfall of hot, ionic liquid.  It felt wonderful.  She concentrated on relaxing every muscle in her body as the fluid heat worked its massaging magic.  Afterward, she pulled a soft-bristled brush through her hair while drying off in front of a wall of heating elements.  Her fingers combed through the strands, and she sniffed at the silky ends, breathing in a fragrance similar to earthly lilacs. 
Peering out into the bedroom, she spotted a fresh gown and a pouch of cosmetics left by Derian.  “Another dress,” she groaned.  “Why am I not surprised?” 
It was a mystery to her how Leisha could get away with a wardrobe of pant outfits while she seemed forbidden.  Longing for a pair of tattered jeans, Eena slipped on the dress anyway, thankful at least that it wasn’t as elaborate as the gowns Gemdorin had insisted she wear.  This was a full-length cotton dress, pale rose in color, with short, ruffled sleeves.  Overall, it wasn’t much more than a long summer dress. 
Eena dabbed color on her cheeks and eyelids before assessing her holographic image—a photonic, three-dimensional likeness used by Harrowbethians in place of reflective surfaces.  Auburn highlights glimmered on her hologram’s hair.  Eena smiled, pleased with the pretty double staring back at her.
She spotted Derian the moment she stepped out of the bedroom.  He was seated comfortably in one of his shabby chairs, thumbing through a beat up, leather-bound book.  Yaka, his loyal beastly pet, snored lazily at his feet.  The animal was a colorful fur ball with a humped back, tapered horns, and dark eyes as big as saucers.  When the captain looked up, he was unable to hide his initial reaction of awe at the young queen’s attractiveness.
“What do you think?” she asked, spinning around for a full view.
“I uh…I think you clean up very nicely,” he admitted. 
“Thanks,” she blushed, “for everything.”
Derian nodded once in response. 
She took a seat on the couch across from him and focused on the book in his hands. “What is that you’re reading?”
“Oh, it’s a bit of Viidun folklore.  The book includes a few unusual encounters with dragons.  Your experience the other day, facing that dragon on Hrenngen, it raised some questions for me.  I hadn’t paid much attention to such stories before, never imagining dragons to be any more real than grembloines or meerlots.  If I hadn’t seen that creature with my own eyes….”   He trailed off for a second, caught up in the staggering memory.  “Well, I would never have believed it if you had simply told me.”  He pointed to the book in his lap.  “There are numerous references to dragons in here, but I’m not sure how to determine what’s real from and what’s fantasy.”
“What have you learned so far?”  She was genuinely curious.
“Not much,” he admitted.  “They breathe fire.  People fear them.  They seem bent on killing those with whom they come into contact.  I don’t know.  It says here that ‘....dragons are known for their extensive life spans.  Some speculate their species are part of the immortal realm.’”  Derian looked up quizzically from his reading.  “Immortal, fire-breathing guardians.  Can you imagine that?”
“No,” Eena chuckled.  “If dragons were immortal, how would all those knights in shining armor slay the beasts to rescue their princesses?”
It was apparent from Derian’s perplexed expression that he didn’t understand her remark, which made Eena laugh even more.
“Haven’t you ever heard of dragon-slaying fairytales?” she asked.  “The silver knights that fight for the hand of a princess locked away in a high tower?”
“Apparently not,” he admitted.  “That must be something you picked up from your time on Earth.”
The captain closed his book and placed it on the antique chest that doubled as a table.  He sat back, tilting his head as he concentrated on the grinning Sha.
“Tell me, why didn’t you let me know you were awake earlier?  Why let me ramble on the way I did?”
Eena’s face flushed with a mix of guilt and embarrassment.  The captain had told such interesting stories about Harrowbeth, including mysteries from her past.  Her intention had been for him to never know she had been awake and listening.  She had meant to feign rousing from sleep eventually, not counting on Ian giving her away.
Her shoulder inched close to her ear as she admitted, “I didn’t want you to stop talking.  You spoke of Harrowbeth and my mother.  I thought it might silence your stories if you knew I was awake.”
“Hmm, I see.  I believe you now know more about me than most, my mouth running off like it did.”  His brown eyes scrunched, earnest in their stare.  “I would prefer to keep those private insights between us.”
“Of course,” she agreed, feeling strangely privileged.  It struck her that he wasn’t nearly as intimidating as usual.  His stiff air and commanding conduct were missing.  Perhaps due to the personal information he had unintentionally shared with her.  She wasn’t sure, but she liked this milder side of him.
Derian ventured a related question.  “I am curious, though.  What exactly was it that made you choose to wake up?”
She shrugged.  “I guess….well, I figured if you, the captain of this great ship, can admit to feeling inadequate and afraid at times, then maybe it’s not so bad that I feel the same way.”
He smiled warmly.  “I understand.”
Eena leaned toward him on the edge of her seat.  “Derian, would you please tell me more about my mother?”
“What do you want to know?”
She sighed wistfully.  “Everything.  What was she like?  How did she spend her time?  What were her favorite foods, her favorite plants, her favorite other things?  What did you do with her as a boy?” 
“Okay, okay,” Derian laughed.  He rubbed his nose and leaned forward, resting both elbows on his knees.  His focus drifted to a place in the past. 
“Your mother was an exquisite woman, Eena.  She was beautiful.  It’s haunting how much you look like her, only she was older than you when I knew her.  I was six when my own mother died.  I spent most of the next five years as Sha Tashi’s shadow.  She felt sorry for me, I know, but I never sensed pity from her.  Just kindness—genuine concern and love.  She treated me like a son.”  A smile stretched the captain’s lips as he paused to remember before continuing.
“Of course there was my father, Vaughndorin.  He spent most of his time with my brother, Gemdorin, so he didn’t seem to mind my frequent absences.  Later on I realized he was most likely using me as a spy.  He would ask a million questions about your parents when I was with him.  I was young and honest.  I didn’t know better.”  Derian’s brow furrowed at a darker memory before he thrust it aside.
“Anyway, about your mother.  She taught me a great deal in those rewarding five years.  I often accompanied her on walks through the villages and nearby fields.  At times we would hike on trails into the forest.  She always touched the plants as we passed by.  That’s all it took to keep them alive and thriving.  We often stopped to examine her favorites—a huge begonsta tree with orange, webbed leaves, a cluster of schwen bushes that bloomed tiny indigo petals, and the pahna trees.  She loved the fruit from the pahna trees.  It was our ritual to rest in their shade and share a sweet snack.”
Eena imagined a sunny afternoon with her mother and a young Derian out hiking a forested trail, admiring nature.  “It must have been heavenly,” she guessed.
“Any time in your mother’s company was heavenly,” he agreed.  “She was my guardian angel.” 
Eena noticed how his eyes glossed over, missing those bygone days.  Not wanting him to be disheartened, she tried shifting his attention.  “Did my mother like to have fun?  Did she ever laugh?”
Derian smiled as his memories instantly altered. 
“Oh, did she!” he exclaimed assuredly.  “Your mother would tell me the most ridiculous stories.  I know now that most of them were fictional, but back then I believed every word the lady spoke.  I recall one day after a long, captivating tale about how a meerlot would grant your wish if you were to catch one, we set off in search of a live meerlot.”
“And did you find one?” Eena asked excitedly.
Derian chuckled with amusement.  “No, no, they don’t exist, Eena.  But as a young boy I didn’t realize that.  Your mother would shout, ‘There goes one, over there!’ and I’d take off in whatever direction she was pointing.  Then she would whisper in my ear, ‘I heard him just behind that bush,’ and ever so carefully I would tiptoe, hoping to pounce upon the creature and make my one wish.  She laughed herself silly.  As naïve as I was, I didn’t figure out for some time that she was entertaining herself at my gullible expense.” 
Eena couldn’t help but giggle at the mental image, picturing the whole adventure with perfect clarity.  The captain joined right in with her, laughing at himself. 
Curiously, Eena asked, “What would a young Derian have wished for if you had caught a meerlot?”
“That’s easy.  I would have wished to be Sha Tashi and Shen Laynn’s real son.  Forever.”
Eena felt sorry for the little boy who had once possessed more of her mother’s time and attention than fate had allowed her to have.  The captain was being so vulnerably honest.  It was astonishing how he willingly shared his feelings with her.  Such a stark contrast from the unapproachable, surly captain she had first seen in him. 
Derian continued verbalizing his thoughts.  “Your mother had a way of making me feel special, like I was the most important thing in her life right then and there.  She honestly cared for people.  And as a young boy, I ate up all the attention she was willing to give me.  That is until you came along.”
“Me?”  Eena was surprised.
“Yes, you.  Two years later you were born.  The birth of a Sha is a major event in Harrowbeth, but your mother found a way to make sure I didn’t feel overlooked.”
Eena grinned.  “You were jealous of me?” 
“Perhaps a little,” Derian admitted.
She laughed.  “Jealous of a baby sister.”
Derian reacted abruptly, too stern for their casual conversation.  “No!  No, you are not my sister.” 
Taken aback, Eena stammered, “I…I didn’t mean that I was literally…”
“I am not your brother, Eena.”  His sudden sharp demeanor hit her like a slap in the face, and she reacted resentfully. 
“Okay, fine, I know that.  I just meant it was like we were…  Oh, for crying out loud, is this another one of your stupid laws?  No adoptions in Harrowbeth!  How do you expect me to know all these ridiculous rules?  A person can’t choose her own boyfriend or her own occupation or her own wardrobe or be someone’s adopted sibling!  Maybe it would be easier if you just told me what I can do! ”
“Eena!” Derian snapped.  The rise in his tone was harsh. 
Her eyes widened, glued on him as he scolded her for her rude outburst. 
“There is no need to disrespect the ways of Harrowbeth.  Your parents gave their very lives defending the traditions you now ridicule, and your insolence demeans their sacrifice!”
Visibly hurt, she uttered an apology.  “I’m sorry.  I just don’t understand it, that’s all.” 
For a long moment they stared silently at one another, her gaze resentful, and his likewise bitter.  She had offended him but not intentionally. 
Derian looked away first.  In a milder voice, he asked, “Does this have something to do with our tradition of being promised?”  He was aware that his brother, Gemdorin, had mentioned this Harrowbethian custom to her.  She had been shocked to hear of it, although not every detail had been explained.
“It’s more than that, but…..well, yes.  I don’t understand how you can support the unhappy practice of arranged marriages.”
“Why do you assume there’s no happiness?”
“Because you’re forcing individuals to marry without love.”
“Love?”  Derian’s face begged more of an explanation.
“Yes, love,” she repeated.  “You know.”  When he failed to comment, she tried to explain.  “That insatiable desire to be with someone.  That pleasant, intoxicated feeling you get whenever he’s nearby.” 
The captain continued to watch her, silent.  Eena tried to better describe the sentiment, sharing feelings that were personal, wondering if he honestly didn’t understand. 
“Love is a powerful emotion.  It’s those tantalizing shivers that shoot through both of you when you touch, even briefly.  It’s what steals your breath away when he smiles and makes perfect eye contact, and you’d swear he was seeing your very soul, discovering how your heart beats only for him.  Love is the thing that drives you mad and impatient, waiting for the end of another.…or, uh…”  Eena fumbled with her words, hoping the subtle correction would go unnoticed.  “I mean, the start of another day so you can see him again.  You know……love!”  She peered directly into the captain’s eyes, questioning him.  “Do you not know what love is?”
Derian sighed, a somewhat dismayed sound.  “Yes, Eena, I do know what love is, but not the same one you speak of.  My definition is much, much different.”
“How so?”
“What you speak of I don’t refer to as love at all, but rather infatuation or an intense fixation perhaps.  But not true love.  Those emotions are strong, yes, but they are momentary and passing.” 
“Then what is true love?” she asked audaciously.
Derian leaned forward, his focus powerfully fixed on her.  His voice turned delicate and compelling as he spoke. 
“Love is so much more than an emotion.  True love, Eena, is something that develops over time.  It’s not the initial infatuation nor the shivers and butterflies that take your breath away when you’re first attracted to someone.  Those things are nice, but they are barely the beginning of what could become true love.  The emotions you speak of are temporary and unreliable, elicited when two people come together.  The power I speak of grows ever stronger over time until it is steadfast, even in separation.  Then, reunited, it solidifies unshakably.”
She shook her head.  “I don’t quite follow.” 
The captain inched closer, fixing her with the sincerest of gazes.  His hands cupped as if he were holding his very heart in them.  “True love is a developed and intense appreciation for someone.  It’s that perfect awareness you’re finally whole when she’s with you, and that hollow incompleteness you suffer when she’s gone.  True love takes time.  It’s an earned comfort that tells you she’ll be right there beside you no matter what you do, not necessarily happy with your every action, but faithful to you just the same.  Love is knowing someone so deeply, understanding her so completely, you can finish her thoughts without hesitation, confident in reading her face, her body, even her slightest gesture means something to you.  Love is years of devotion, sacrifice, commitment, loyalty, trust, faith, and friendship all wrapped up as one.  True love does more than cause your heart to flutter.  It upholds your heart when the infatuation no longer makes it flutter.”
“Wow.”  Overawed by his profound assertion, she could only breathe the one word.  His idea of love was inviting.  Unable to look away, she asked him, “And you think this is the kind of love you have in Harrowbeth?”
“I’ve witnessed far more of it in our society than on Earth, where it seems a great number of marriages end in separation once the initial ardor wears off.  Eena, had you been raised in Harrowbeth, you would have grown up alongside the boy to whom you were promised.  As a pair you would have grown close, developing a strong friendship through shared experiences.  From childhood, the two of you would have known you were meant to be together forever, as families ought to be.  This knowledge would act as a comfort to you.  A treasure.”  Derian paused, staring, pleading without words for her to try and understand.
“But what if, even after all that, you failed to fall in love with the person your parents promised you to?  What if you fell in love with another?  Would you deny your heart for a commitment that you never chose to make?”
“You mean what if you were to become attracted to someone else?” he corrected.  “Then, Eena, you should let it go.”  For a second it felt as if he had peered into her heart and was instructing her to abandon her feelings for Ian. 
Unwilling to accept his counsel, she asked, “Just like that?  You just….let it go?  Even if it breaks your heart irreparably?”
“They’re called emotions, Eena, and they’re not irreparable.  You will get over it.”
She rolled her eyes, certain he was wrong.
“Eena, you can fall in love with anyone given the opportunity.”
“I doubt that,” she groaned skeptically.
Derian rose from his chair and moved over to the couch, taking a seat close beside her. 
“Answer this.  Does a mother get to choose the baby born to her?”
“Well, no.”
“Yet one of the strongest loves I’ve ever witnessed is the love a mother has for her child.”
“That’s not the same thing at all…”
The captain held up his hand.  “Hold on, hold on.  It is very similar.  When a baby is born, he’s basically a stranger to his parents.  But despite this, his mother’s love for him grows deep.  And why?  Because of the enormous amount of time and energy and care devoted to his welfare.  Usually, a mother gets to know her child better than anyone, often better than he knows himself.  And through it all she sacrifices a substantial portion of herself, giving more than receiving.  This is why her love is so great, even though she had no choice regarding the child born to her.”
“But the love between a man and a woman is different.  It’s mature and intimate.”
“Eena, if you were to find a decent man and spend a substantial amount of time with him, eventually you would come to know him very personally.  As time progressed and together you engaged in positive interactions, you would develop stronger, deeper feelings.  And finally, if you were to sacrifice even a portion of yourself for the relationship, you would naturally fall in love with him.  I guarantee it.”
Her head shook doubtfully.  “I don’t know.”
“Test my theory,” he challenged.  “See if I’m not right.”
“With whom?”  She blurted out the question without thinking.  As they sat there facing one another, the moment turned quickly uncomfortable.  Eena dropped her gaze.
Derian sighed dismally.  “I fear that as well-intentioned as the council may have been, their decision to leave you on Earth for so long has done more harm than good.  They should have kept you in Harrowbeth under my protection.”
“Maybe you should’ve left me alone on Earth,” she mumbled, refusing to look at him.  The remark went ignored.
“For the record,” he added, “adoptions do take place in Harrowbeth all the time.  But I was never adopted by your parents.  I still had a father.”
“Oh.  Right.”
“You, however, were adopted.”
This took Eena by complete surprise.  “What?”  Her brow crinkled as she raised her eyes to him.
“When your parents died, Ian’s family adopted you.  They were the logical choice, being the protectors of the Shas.  The council had no problem with it.”
“You mean legally adopted?” she asked incredulously.  Eena remembered Jinatta saying something about her being adopted into Ian’s family but had assumed she meant cared for, not actually adopted.
“I guess that makes you and Ian brother and sister.”  The corner of Derian’s lips twitched as if the idea somehow amused him.
Eena wondered if Ian had considered this when telling her they could never be together.  Her feelings hadn’t mattered to him.  First his promise to Angelle and now this?  What more could be wedged between their hearts? 
“He’s not my blood brother,” Eena muttered.
“No, he’s not,” Derian admitted.  The conversation silenced when the captain’s PCD sounded, transmitting Jerin’s muted voice.
“Sir, the Viiduns are requesting to speak with you.”
Derian tapped his communicator.  “I’ll be right there, Jerin.”  He turned to Eena, contemplating whether to continue their discussion.  There was more he wanted to tell her.  More to explain.
“I’d better go,” he decided.  “We’ll talk again later.”  At the front door he turned back around.  “On second thought, why don’t you come along?  You might enjoy meeting the Viiduns.”
Eena rose from the sofa, eager to follow.  The idea of meeting the men whom Ian had described as “big, bulky, mean warriors with serious attitude” excited her.  She wondered if the image already formed in her head would be anything close to Viidun reality. 
Outside of Derian’s quarters, she was surprised to find Ian standing guard in the corridor.  She waved at him in passing, hustling to match the captain’s driven steps.  Ian kept on her heels all the way to the bridge, taking position near the entrance.  His dutiful conduct as her protector would take some getting used to, so foreign to his relaxed, often teasing manner in their shared dreams. 
“Put him on screen,” the captain ordered as soon as he stepped onto the bridge.  Jerin did so, catching Eena’s notice in the process.  She smiled as he offered a subtle bow.
The blackness covering a majority of the forward screen became animated, presenting a close-up image of Shanks—a magnificent picture of brawn.  The towering Viidun overwhelmed the room.  He was seated in his captain’s chair, impatient for Derian to greet him.  The man’s powerful, violet stare landed on Eena immediately, and she realized her imagination hadn’t quite done his character justice.  
“Derian!” Shanks bellowed in a deep, gruff voice.  “What have we here?”  The giant scanned the young lady from head to toe. 
“Shanks, this is Sha Eena, Queen of Harrowbeth.”  Derian glanced to his side, a twinkle in his eye.  “Eena, this is Shanks, Captain of the Triac 38 and Rapador’s Commander of Defense.  He leads their deep-space defense battalion.” 
It was evident by the look on her face she was impressed.  “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” she said politely.
“And it shall be a far greater pleasure when we meet in person,” he proudly stated.  “Derian, what in the blazes is that beautiful woman doing with the likes of you?  I thought you said she was under some sorta spell.  Are you blind to the difference between a sleepin’ doll and a wide-eyed beauty?  I was rarin’ to personally lure your princess back to consciousness!  What’s my irresistible charm good for now, eh?”
Eena blushed and bit her lip so as not to laugh.  She found Shank’s brazen bluntness humorous.
Derian groaned, “I told you there was no sleeping spell.”
Shanks brushed the captain off with a wave of his hand.  “Get your stories straight, man!  First she’s missin’, then she’s found.  Next she’s cursed by an unwakeable sleep, and now she’s standin’ before me wide-eyed as a crezian beast and as temptin’ as the goddess Ishtura.”  The Viidun smiled seductively and winked at the young queen. 
“Knock it off, Shanks,” Derian grumbled.  
Eena had to cover her mouth to keep from laughing, thoroughly entertained by their exchange.  Drawing in a deep breath she managed to subdue any giggles.
“Well, I did have one helluva plan for rousin’ your slumberin’ princess, but it ain’t worth a pile of grubbs now, is it!” the Viidun ranted, clearly put off. 
Derian responded with practiced diplomacy.  “I am truly grateful for your concern, Shanks.  When you arrive I’ll be sure to have a suitable feast ready and waiting as a small token of my appreciation.  All you can eat.”
The Viidun captain appeared appeased.  “We’ll be at your doorstep in two hours.  I’ll bring my strings.  Heth and Efren are dyin’ to dance, so rest up those pretty feet of yours!”  The last comment was directed at Eena.  She cast a look of concern at Derian which he pretended not to notice.
“And what about your brother, Agus?  Will he be entertaining us with his pipes?”
“Agg,” Shanks rasped, wrinkling his nose.  “I didn’t tell you?  He ain’t with us no more.”  A heavy fist slammed on the arm of the Viidun’s chair as he growled, “The idiot went off and got himself killed!” 
“What?” Derian and Eena replied in unison, both horrified by the news.
“You heard me!” Shanks bellowed.  “The crazy fool should’ve known when to duck.  He died in a bloody challenge with some brainless Deramptium!  A downright disgraceful way to die!  I’m ashamed to say he was my brother!”
“That’s a little harsh, isn’t it?” Eena muttered, mostly speaking to Derian.
“What was that?” the Viidun demanded.
Derian whispered a hush to Eena.  Addressing Shanks, he expressed their condolences.  “We are truly sorry for your loss.  Your brother will be sorely missed.  On the other hand, we look forward to welcoming you and your crew aboard the Kemeniroc.”  Derian held up his right hand, extending his thumb and two adjoining fingers.  “Strength, truth, and honor, friend,” he said, ending their conversation.
“Strength, truth, and honor,” Shanks repeated. 
The screen went black. 
The captain turned to Eena who was still in shock.
“You have to understand,” he explained, “the Viiduns are a fiercely competitive people with proud, warring ways.  Their culture doesn’t call for much sympathy, especially when it appears one of their own has failed to live up to expectations.”
Eena was still disturbed by the lack of compassion.  “But that was his brother.” 
“I know.  I can hardly believe it myself.  Shanks and Agus were very close.  They traveled everywhere together.  All I can figure is it’s easier for Shanks to express his anger than his anguish.”
“After all that, I’m not sure I want to meet him in person.  He scares me,” she admitted.
Derian laughed.  “He scares everyone.  That’s why you want to keep him as an ally and not make him an enemy.”
The two left the bridge with Ian trailing.  Eena wanted to walk beside her best friend so she slowed her steps, waiting for him to catch up.  Instead, he eased his pace as well, remaining just behind her.  When she turned to speak to him, Derian called. 
“Eena, hurry up.”  She rushed to her captain’s side and entered the elevator as he held the doors.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“To prepare for guests.”
Detecting her lack of enthusiasm he suggested, “You can return to my quarters and rest if you’d prefer.”
But the young queen had another idea.  “Actually, I was wondering if I could go see Sarii and her boys.  It’s been so long since I last talked to them on the Mahgshreem.”
He nodded as if he understood.  “I’m sure I can arrange a visit for tomorrow morning.”
Eena tried not to look disappointed by his offer.  “Okay, but….is there some reason I can’t go now?  I have nothing important to do now.”
“But I do.”
“Well, Ian could go with me.”
The captain responded with a frown.  “Eena, Sarii’s boys are staying with one of our families, and Sarii is with Rhoen. 
“In the brig?”  Her question held a strong note of disapproval.
“Yes.  But before you protest, she chose to remain there.”
“How long are you planning to keep them locked up, Derian?”
“Until we arrive in Harrowbeth where Rhoen can be tried for his crimes.”
The elevator reached its stop and the captain stepped off.  He turned to Eena, who remained inside.  “Rhoen is a traitor,” he firmly declared.
“He was desperate!” she protested.
Defensively, Derian justified the incarceration.  “For six years that coward acted as a spy for Gemdorin.  For six years he betrayed us!”
“And apparently he never did a very good job of it because Gemdorin still hasn’t destroyed you.”
Derian pressed a hand against the elevator frame to keep it from closing while he struggled to check his growing irritation.  “Eena, I’m sure the last five days on Hrenngen must be fresh in your mind.  The lashing you took?  The exhaustion from working the mines?  The lack of food and water?  Jinatta told me you were severely dehydrated.  And whatever else you endured at Gemdorin’s hands, which I’m sure I don’t care to know about…..all of those things you can thank Rhoen for.  He betrayed his queen and will be tried for crimes against Harrowbeth.  He is a traitor, Eena.”
“And he is a hero.”
“What?”  Derian’s hand gripped tighter at the doorframe.  He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. 
Eena argued her claim.  “Rhoen assisted in my escape from that secret military facility back on Earth.  He’s the one who tackled Dr. Braxton when the creep was shooting at me.  I could’ve been killed then if not for him.  It was Rhoen who kept me safely within the force field.  He rescued me!  You all have him to thank for my presence here in the first place!”
“So he saved you from Earth only to turn around and hand you over to Gemdorin?”
“Sarii and her boys might’ve been murdered if he hadn’t!  What an awful choice to have to make!  What would you have done if your spouse’s life had been at stake?”
Derian froze, his features hardened.
Eena continued her defense.  “And to top it off, he went and turned himself in, hoping to help retrieve me.  That should count for something because he certainly didn’t have to come forward.  In fact, he was an idiot for doing so knowing how terribly you would treat him!”
“What good did it do him?  He tried to do the right thing and you don’t even care!”
“It’s six years too late!” Derian exclaimed.
“And if it had been two years or even two months, you would have treated him the same way!  He was desperate to keep his family alive; I won’t blame him for that.”
“Even after what happened to you?”
“Yes.  It was my life in exchange for preserving three others.”
“No, no, that’s where you’re wrong, Eena.  Gemdorin had the fate of many lives in his hands.  If you had been killed, the entire population of Moccobatra would have been affected.  Rhoen knew that!  And he knew there was a huge possibility Gemdorin would kill you, especially since all the other girls were murdered!  Have you considered Rhoen’s part in their deaths?”
“You can’t seriously believe Rhoen had anything to do with the deaths of those girls.  Those murders were all your brother’s doing!”
“Made possible because Rhoen was leaking out intelligence!”
“Rhoen did not harm those girls!”
“He was an accomplice!”
You don’t know that!  I seriously doubt Rhoen had any idea your creep-of-a-brother intended to…” 
“Ah-hem!”  Ian cleared his throat loud enough to attract attention.  He was standing in the rear of the elevator, glancing uneasily between the two.  Their voices had systematically risen throughout their exchange.  Ian was attempting to squelch the increasing blaze before it got completely out of hand. 
Both arguers paused, a little embarrassed by their lack of restraint in someone else’s presence.  So engrossed in their heated debate, Ian had simply blended into the wall.  Eena sighed audibly, concluding this was another losing argument anyway. 
“Can I please see my friends,” she asked in a much calmer voice.
“Tomorrow morning,” Derian replied civilly.  “I’ll arrange it.  Ian can accompany you if you’d rather I not.”
“Fine.  I’m going back to the room now.”
The captain flickered a glance at Ian.  “Stay with her.”
Derian removed his halting grip and let the elevator close.  He returned Eena’s unwavering stare until the doors completely separated them from each other’s view.  Then he marched off to prepare for Viidun guests, both fists clenched at his sides.
Eena was fuming by the time she reached the captain’s quarters.  She didn’t wait for Ian to scan his handprint for access, instead using the necklace’s power and a single touch to shove the wooden barrier open.  The action was so violent it smacked the door against the inside wall.  Ian was stunned by her uncharacteristic forcefulness.
“Eena?  Was that really necessary?”
She turned to apologize but was caught off guard by Yaka eagerly bounding toward her with a friendly “welcome back.” 
“Nrahk!” she hollered, stopping the poor creature in his tracks.  Instinctively, her steps retreated to avoid him.  Ian strode over to rub at the animal’s ears, softening the obvious rejection. 
“It’s okay, boy.  She’s not mad at us.” 
Eena felt a sharp pang of remorse for her behavior.  “I’m sorry.  It’s just.…ugh!  Derian is so aggravating!”
Ian and Yaka both listened while Harrowbeth’s queen paced the floor in front of them, venting her frustrations.
“I didn’t reunite Sarii and her husband so Derian could tear their family apart again!  Do you realize that for six agonizing years those two have been forcibly separated?  And for most of that time Sarii wasn’t even sure if Rhoen was alive!  Not to mention poor Willum who, until just recently, had never even met his father!”
Ian dared to interject a reminder.  “Derian did have a little bit to do with getting them back together.”
“Only because I refused to leave Gemdorin’s ship without taking them along,” she argued, stopping momentarily to wag a finger. 
Ian shrugged a shoulder, his tall form slouched as normal.
Eena continued pacing.  “Hasn’t the man any compassion at all?  He condemns Rhoen, but clearly the situation didn’t allow for much choice.  You know Gemdorin would’ve killed Sarii and her boys had Rhoen not followed orders.  After what I saw on Hrenngen, I’m sure of it!”
Ian nodded and then asked his own question.  “Did you know, Eena, that Rhoen was under orders to report to Gemdorin every two weeks?”
“No,” she admitted, “I wasn’t aware of that.”
“And if he failed to do so, Gemdorin threatened to kill a member of his family.”
The young queen brought a hand to her heart.  “How awful.”
“Yes, it is.  Well, the day you were taken from the Kemeniroc, Rhoen turned himself in.  How long ago was that?  Do you remember?”
Eena thought back.  She had spent quite a long time on the Mahgshreem.  “I’m not sure exactly.  Maybe four weeks?  Five weeks?”
“That’s about right.  And yet Gemdorin never harmed Sarii or her boys.  Do you know why?”
“What’s your point, Ian?”  She sensed he had one developing.
“My point, Eena, is that Derian’s compassion kept Rhoen’s family alive.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Two weeks after Rhoen turned himself in, Derian allowed him to report to Gemdorin from the brig.  He didn’t have to give Rhoen that opportunity.  He chose to.  Derian doesn’t want to see their family destroyed any more than you or I, but there are laws, Eena.  Derian is responsible for the safety of everyone on this ship, which means he’s duty-bound to command with wisdom and caution.  He can’t make decisions solely on emotion.  Rhoen has broken a significant law—treason against his nation and his queen.  Ironically, the very queen bent on saving him.  But the law requires him to stand trial and be judged for his actions.”
“But what alternative did Rhoen have?” Eena begged.
“He could’ve put his trust in Derian from the beginning.”
Eena didn’t know what to say.  She surrendered, still sympathizing with the poor man’s plight.  Approaching Ian, she laid her head on his chest, seeking comfort as she had many times in her dreams.  His hand fell on her hair, a familiar reflex.  It felt significantly more poignant in reality. 
“It’s not fair,” she whispered.
“It’s not,” Ian agreed.  He hesitated putting his arms around her, as much as he desired to.  Derian’s words kept echoing in his ears.  “You’re getting too close to her.  What about your promise to Angelle?” 
Ian let his eyelids fall.  With a heavy sigh he gave in, wrapping Eena up tightly in his hold.  It felt too perfect being with her.  Derian was right, though, he had gotten closer to this compassionate, gentle woman than he had planned to.  But when had he crossed the line between friends and something more? 
“You’re a trying woman,” Ian muttered.
Eena pushed away from him, offended.  “Whose side are you on anyway?”
“No,” Ian disputed, barely stopping himself from pulling her back to him, “that’s not what I meant.”
She turned around and threw herself down on the end of Derian’s black sofa in a pouting act of discontentment.
“Eena, even though you may not realize it, I’m on your side.  I’m always on your side.”
She looked up and returned his weak smile.
With that, her protector turned to leave.  “You ought to try and get some rest.  With the Viiduns coming, it’s going to be a very long night.  I’ll be right outside if you need me.”
Ian left the room, gently closing the door behind him.  He took a seat just feet from the entry, slumping forward on a chair he had acquired for himself.  There, he concentrated on putting distance between his heart and this addictive woman in Derian’s quarters.  He knew what he wanted…..what they wanted.  But it could never happen.  It just wasn’t in the stars.
Eena laid her head on the sofa’s arm and stared at the oversized, canine-like creature who was sitting across from her, obviously longing for attention.  She spoke to him.
“You’d be wise to keep your distance.  I don’t like dogs you know.  I realize that technically you’re not a dog, but……close enough.”
Yaka whimpered and placed his chin on his front paws.  For a second, Eena wondered if he could understand her words.
She asked him, “How am I supposed to help my friends, huh?  How am I supposed to keep Rhoen’s family together?  How am I supposed to help Kira and Millian, Jase, Angelle, and all the others held captive on Hrenngen?”  She groaned in frustration. 
Yaka lifted his head and scooted forward a few steps.  Then he stopped, dropping his chin on his paws again.
“Derian doesn’t have the resources to fight the cloaked ships of the Ghengats.  I understand that, I really do, but still……I can’t just abandon my friends!”
Yaka inched a little closer.
“Even if he did have the resources, I’m not sure he would attempt to rescue them anyway.  He believes ‘they dug their own graves.’”  She mockingly copied the captain’s deep voice.  “But that’s not true!  It was their fathers who chose to follow Gemdorin.  I’d be willing to bet they had no idea how horrible the man really is.  He’s awfully persuasive.  Believe me, I know.” 
Her absorbed listener dared to creep even closer, stopping right below the couch.
Eena dropped her eyes on the animal.  “Don’t think I don’t see what you’re doing.  I’m watching you, and you’d better stay on that floor.  Nrahk, understand?  Stay!”
She snuggled into the sofa’s corner, more dispirited than tired.  She was not looking forward to spending an entire evening with the colossal Viiduns, but, like most things in her life now, there didn’t seem to be much choice in the matter.  Her eyes fell closed as she worked to shove aside her worries.  Sleep settled in soon enough and revisited her with the same, old nightmare. 

She was five again, her long hair fixed in a braid, secured with a string of pink ribbon.  Her youthful eyes darted about, wide with fear.  Eena realized she was watching her past once more, standing outside the images.  She wasn’t scared by what she saw.  She knew exactly how things would transpire. 
Everything would be okay. 
Ian’s younger image appeared, and she watched him take hold of the girl’s hand.  Her hand.  Together they ran through the trees, hurrying as fast as they could.  Eventually, the little girl begged for a moment’s rest.  The boy backtracked to look for something while she sat on the forest floor, surrounded by trees that seemed to close in on every side.  Crooked branches hung low, reaching, moved by the wind until they hovered over the child healer.  The girl looked up, questioning if it was only an illusion.  There was a noise, a repeated puff, as living roots broke through the soil, slithering like snakes toward her.  She cried out for her mother, frightened by what was happening. 
Watching from the outside, Eena cringed with feelings of compassion, but she felt no fear.  “Don’t worry,” she whispered.  “The trees know who you are.  They’ll help you, I promise.” 
Slithering ropes coiled around the little girl’s arms and legs, finding the boy as well.  Then both children were lifted up and set high in the tree branches.  Once safely hidden, the roots released their hold and disappeared beneath the black soil. 
“You’ll be safe from Gemdorin now.  He’ll never find you,” Eena told herself. 
This was the first time she had watched this recurring nightmare without panic or worry.  After years of being disturbed by these images, she finally understood them.  It was a memory.
What happened next, however, struck the young queen with great alarm.  The verdant forest began to deteriorate, every inch of greenery withering away rapidly.  Years of neglect and disease took over in less than a moment’s time as the vegetation shriveled and browned.  Eena stood by, a helpless witness of the devastation.  Worse still, she could hear the trees agonizing, accusing her of betrayal and abandonment.  “Come to us!” they called.  “Eena, come to us!”
“No, no, this can’t be real.”  She stepped backwards, away from the nightmare, but ran into something solid.  Eena whirled around to find a dragon towering overhead.  Quickly, she searched his eyes for distinguishing features—a green and yellow gem reflected around either pupil. 
“It’s you,” she sighed with relief.  “Thank goodness.”  He was the only dragon who had never proven a threat to her, acting instead as her protector from two fiercer dragons.
The creature focused on the withered forest abroad.  Eena followed his gaze, turning back to the sad sight.
“What’s happening here?” she asked.  But the dragon failed to respond. 
Beneath her feet the ground shook, jarring with consecutive thuds.  Eena pressed herself closer to her guardian’s chest, aware of two younger dragons that had fallen from the sky, hitting the ground hard.  The likeness of a blue gem gleamed in the eye of the creature to her left.  To her right, another dragon glared through the semblance of a brilliant red gem.  He was the only one to speak.  His words came telepathically, the same manner in which he had communicated with her before.
(You are not one of us) he snarled, (and he won’t protect you forever.)  The dragon was speaking of her protective beast.
Eena took one step forward, attempting a show of bravery.  “Go away and leave me alone!” she shouted.
(I told you I’d be watching,) the dragon hissed.  (We’re all watching you.  You’ve lost my gem, a treasure your small mind can’t begin to understand.  One you should not have exhumed.  It will be your downfall.) 
She shuddered at his words.  “Why are you doing this?  Why do you continue to bother me?” 
He shoved his face in hers, a swift movement that sent her cowering. (Because you’ve taken what was mine!) 
Both hostile dragons raised up, rearing their heads before letting loose with the shrillest cries.  Eena covered her ears, wincing at the sound.  Then four wings snapped open, stretching above the desiccated woods to catch a lifting breeze.  The ornery dragons rose and vanished behind a cover of clouds. 
“I hate them,” she fumed. 
The kinder creature behind her brought his head down when she turned to face him.  Her hand moved carefully, falling on his snout without objection.  He stood motionless beneath her touch.  She examined the lucent gems in his eyes, the one brilliant green and the other yellow. 
“Why is everything so hard to understand?” she asked.  “Why are they watching me?” 
There was no reply, as usual.
She continued talking to him anyway.  “I’m sure you understand me, and if he can speak to my mind, I’m willing to bet you can too.”
Still no answer.  Her dragon stood frozen like a giant medieval statue.  Only his pupils moved, observing her. 
Eena inclined her head.  “Why won’t you talk to me?”
The beast pulled his nose out from under her hand and moved away.  Eena watched him march across a trail of black soil to the withered forest where he stretched his neck over the trees.  The dragon breathed a shower of smoke from its nostrils that fell on a shrunken stump, shrouding it in white vapors.  The stump reacted, turning a rich umber color.  It changed in fast motion, reaching skyward, growing by leaps and bounds.  Frail twigs pushed out and expanded, forming heavy branches.  The root system rumbled beneath the ground, swelling like a muddy sponge.  Within moments a healthy, fully-crowned tree stood well above the young queen. 
Eena was amazed.  And puzzled.
“You healed the tree.”  She looked up at her dragon, mystified.  “But that’s what I do; I heal the plants.  Who are you?” 
Again, no answer.  The beast spread his wings to catch a roaming breeze that moved him gently into the air where he disappeared like the others.
“Why do you haunt me?” she asked, certain he could hear.

“Eena.  Eena, wake up.” 
The words were repeated before she realized it was Derian speaking.  Opening her eyes, she focused in on his smiling face.  He was snickering. 
Her brow creased, not making sense of his apparent amusement.  Then something shifted beneath her head.  With exceptionally quick reflexes, she shot up and off the sofa.  There was Yaka, lying flat, positioned right where her head had been.  Somehow he had managed to become her living pillow. 
“Ooohhh!” she shrieked.  “Get down!”  Yaka slunk to the floor and scurried over to his master’s side.  Derian, meanwhile, had succumbed to outright laughter, thoroughly amused by the show. 
“How on earth?” she grumbled.
“I was wondering the same thing,” Derian chuckled.  “You know he just wants to be friends.”
Eena glanced uncomfortably from the captain to his loyal beast, lost for words. 
Derian helped her out.  “You’d better go get ready.  The Viiduns will be here very soon, and they don’t like to be kept waiting.” 
She nodded and rounded the couch, disappearing into the back room to freshen up.  Meeting the Viiduns in person was going to make for an interesting night to say the least.

Copyright 2009 Richelle E. Goodrich




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