I had an experience today I am not likely soon to forget. Pincoy was my guide, and he plucked me from the Healing Center first thing in the morning and led me down through a warren of different combs in the capital. It is much bigger than the outer colony, and much hotter and brighter too. There are two volcanoes here, one “north” and one “west” (though, again, I randomly picked the largest of the two as my designation for ‘north’ since there is no telling left from right down here), and the algae glows both bluer (like the jelly wall) and brighter here. Between the exposed bits of the volcano and the blue water, the overall atmospheric effect is a purple haze.
I miss Jimmy Hendrix.
We walked for only a few moments, passing in and among decorative fountains and small reflecting pools–extravagant features of the capital that had never manifested in the outer colony–when we arrived at a the first low-level dwelling I had seen. It was picturesque, a kind of cottage-comb with a river running around and beneath it, only as deep as the height of a small child. The outside of the comb was ornamented with elegant designs and clusters of coral. It was quaint. We were surrounded by dozens of mammalian pups, little seafoxes that hobbled up to me and rubbed their over-sized tusks on my shins.
I reached down to pet the members of this menagerie, but Pincoy waved me off. He looked at me queerly, blank-faced and squid-eyed, then led me around back and through the door. Five men were arrayed there, four of whom I could clearly see.
The Consort introduced them one at a time. “David, this is Dagan,” he said, pointing to a proud-looking hunter. “He is from Deasura, where we do most of our mining and collect materials.” Dagan bowed slightly, his thumb and forefinger together, but he never broke eye contact. He was sizing me up. Next Pincoy led me to a priest, one of the gillies, tall for a Zebulani. “This is Enki,” he said. “He comes from a powerful family in Kothar Khasis. I believe you know his sister. After Enki left, she assumed his responsibilities.”
“Iara?” I asked. At the mention of her name, Enki’s face opened up.
“df?” he asked, directing his attention to Pincoy.
“He wants to know how she is doing,” Pincoy translated.
“Your sister is amazing. I miss her,” I said, happy to at least be near the brother of a familiar face.
Next came a bored-looking specimen, a man whose eyes seemed to have dimmed. “This is Derketo from Qetesh,” Pincoy said and moved directly past him. I’m not sure Derkato even noticed. I noticed, however, that Pincoy seemed increasingly hurried. He wasn’t acting like himself. His demeanor was slipping, like he was in danger of depleting his dignity or something. “And Hadad, a farmer from Kolumnai,” he said, pointing to a heavy-set man who smiled at me and clasped my hand vigorously.
I said hello and greeted each of them in turn, but uneasiness shadowed me. I craned my neck to see the fifth man standing at the back of the room away from the others. He was standing in front of someone. He shifted his weight and looked over at me, and I recognized him from the games. It was Lithe. I smiled, remembering my admiration, but faltered when a pale shoulder peeked out from behind him. Blond hair, burnished somewhat by the dark, caught me off guard.
It was Liz.
“Hello, David,” she said. My gut opened. I felt my throat constrict. I forgot to breathe.
She didn’t appear surprised at all.
Elisabeth looked pale and drawn. Her hair was cut at uneven lengths and clumped together across her shoulders. Her eyes had taken on some of that Zebulani glow, but there was more of a yellow tinge to it than there should have been. When I ran to her, though, she turned away and Lithe stepped between us. He wasn’t violent. Not yet. But he made it clear I wasn’t going to get any closer. He was protecting Liz from me. Like she was his.
I fumbled. The next few moments are a blur, but the Consort was saying something about gifts and marriage. “Lithe is her husband,” Pincoy began, “and the other four are consorts. They are not consorts like I am to Heqet. Only close friends.”
“What are you saying?” I couldn’t have heard him correctly. Husband?
“The child belongs only to her, of course,” he continued, hurriedly. “You have no dowry, so you cannot belong to Elisabeth. Heqet ‘adopted’ her. That’s your word, I think.” My mind was spinning. None of this made any sense. It was happening too quickly, and I wasn’t sure whether I should still be rejoicing because Liz was alive or filing for underwater divorce. I felt like I was in a custody battle.
Lithe was becoming more hostile. He took two fingers and pushed them into my sternum. I’m not sure if he was trying to start something or just move me out of his house, but I didn’t like it. Hadad was smiling nervously with Enki off to the side. I felt myself shuffled out at the insistence of Dagan, and before I knew it, I was back outside with the pets.
Pincoy refused to look me in the eye. I didn’t know what to say. The seafoxes came close, but I shooed them away. They whimpered, and so did Pincoy. I wanted to beg him for help, or for an explanation. I wanted to scream. Instead, I stood there dumbfounded with my hands clamped onto the sides of my legs, afraid that if I let go I’d place them around Pincoy’s neck and strangle him.
Elisabeth appeared at the door. I thought maybe she was sneaking out, but then she looked behind her. She motioned back through the doorway, insistent, and then scurried over to me and escorted me to one of the fountains in the yard. There was something in her arms. A bundle of cloth.
“Don’t be angry with me,” she said. “My husband will be upset.”
“Husband?” I snarled.
“Let’s not do this, David,” Liz sounded annoyed. I had a hard time believing she had as much on her mind as I did. Had she known all along I was here? “It’s Mother’s Day. Did you know?” What? “I suppose you have less reason now to remember than ever.”
“Just wait, David.” Liz had her “business face” on. There was something she had to do, and if I knew Liz at all, I knew that we couldn’t talk about anything else until the business at hand was resolved. “I have to give you something. It’s the reason I know what day it is.” She passed me the bundle of cloth. It was moving. Unwrapping it, I took a minute to realize what I was looking at.
I didn’t know what to do. I’m no mathematician, but she had been gone a year, and this baby could not have been more than six weeks old. It was thin and quiet with skin translucent as that of the Zebulani.
He had gills.
Placing the child in my hands, she laid her finger across my lips and said, “I give you this child as your own. For as long as you protect him, he protects you. Look after him. He is your son.”
I had a million questions, but she was already halfway back inside. I looked up to find the Consort gone, the pets asleep, and the baby crying.