Music rushed through the white noise of conversations, overwhelming anyone who attempted to continue. It was flighty, frivolous music played on string instruments and something that made a light, hollow sound I had never heard before. Everyone instinctively turned towards the grand, white staircase.
A young woman floated across the veranda. Delicately graceful, she descended the stairs. Her perfectly symmetrical shoulder ridges curved towards one another to transform her into a walking heart in a flowing, pale pink robe.
Audible sighs of admiration drifted through the crowd, and Dicha Ortorgan was announced to the congregation.
She was older than the paz equivalent of fifteen years. She looked more like an eighteen-year-old to me, perfectly womanly, with the ideal waif-like body type of a paz, her greatest curves, the exposed ridges above her organza robe’s neckline. Her base red robes of Ortorgan House were nearly hidden by pink, and were draped in delicate, clear crystals of the same variety that bedazzled the drink table. Her forehead was covered by an ornate, draping tiara of crystals and gold.
Of course, I thought, watching her float down the stairs as a charming voice bespoke of her accomplishments. Her forehead was covered so no one could treat her like a child anymore. Her forearms were left bare, but framed with embellished fabric to emphasize their availability for an adult greeting. My theory was confirmed when Dicha approached her mother and father, who waited for her on the lush lawn at the bottom of the staircase. She extended her hands to each of them, and they lovingly grasped her forearms in formal greeting, though I noted that Canto looked rather tempted to draw her in for one final hug and touch of the forehead of childhood. But he refrained, and instead presented her to the crowd, who applauded, full of smiles.
“Now, it is time for my lovely Dicha to request a partner for her first dance,” said Canto, beaming at the guests. “She assures me she has given this as much thought as the occasion calls for, and I could not be more pleased with her choice.” He swept his hand in a gesture for Dicha to step forward and announce the person of her choosing.
Dicha flowed a few feet. She smiled blithely at several in the crowd, who perked up, expecting to be chosen, perhaps. I suspected in the case of the wealthy and prominent Ortorgan House, being chosen was as great an honor as it was for Dicha to enjoy a dance with a person she respected over all others.
After a perfectly timed moment of innocent suspense, Dicha spoke in a sweet songbird voice, one which certainly lived up to her father’s nickname.
“I choose Inquieto Reúnen for my first dance.”
I saved Inquieto’s glass from falling. He looked down at me gratefully, but seemed more troubled after our eye contact. He cleared his throat and walked towards the stairs. Prístina and Aliado joined me in watching his stiff progress through the fascinated crowd; many guests glanced back at me as well—his one claim to fame which could be the only possible reason Dicha Ortorgan would choose him for this illustrious moment in her life.
I bristled a little at the knowledge that Inquieto was feeding off of my presence in his life, even if he didn’t intend it. I watched him through narrowed eyes as he reached Dicha and listened to his soft murmur, thanking her for choosing him.
I took a large breath as the music swelled and let it out through gritted teeth when Inquieto offered her his hand. Her round eyes sparkled in the late afternoon sunlight, a demure smile on her perfect, petal lips. The dance was simple; I wondered if it was kept purposefully tasteful for this fancy occasion or if all paz dances were as aloof as their couples were in public. Still, I watched as his raised palm matched hers, and they circled one another in a steady beat. She looked as delicate as a blooming flower, he a deep bruise, the kind that flourishes after a beating worth taking to strengthen oneself for a future fight.
I wondered briefly if the strength of his hard hands would leave a bruise on my soft skin, my mind involuntary wandering to imaginings from the dream I had suffered a few nights’ past. My suffering only continued now, as I saw their lips move in light conversation, while their arms interlocked to draw their bodies closer. But that was as close as the dance got, and I was reminded that it was meant to be performed by platonic partners. I had forgotten because of the look of attraction in Dicha’s eyes.
The music softened, and the dance ended with a final, lingering hold on one another’s forearms. Inquieto’s chest rose in a deep breath, and he quickly slipped his arm from her grasp as smoothly as he could manage in front of the watching guests. Dicha looked disappointed, but the guests all applauded as if they hadn’t noticed the exchange. Knowing the paz, I doubted they had.
Inquieto thanked her again and attempted to return to the audience, which was breaking up into conversations now that the formal moment was over. Dicha, however, spurted after him, and he was forced to pause and allow her to accompany him to the destination she clearly wanted to share—me.
“Oh, she is precious, Inquieto,” Dicha declared, without a word to me. Her eyes swept me up and down. I stood in silence, feeling stupid clutching two cups of pink juice, which could only detract from my desire to be acknowledged as an intelligent adult. Luckily, Prístina had the wherewithal to take them from me and pass them to Aliado; who knows what he did with them. He didn’t return after.
“Dicha, may I introduce—” Inquieto began.
“Yes, of course I know her name,” Dicha chirped, though she still failed to use her supposed knowledge. “You are so brave to have rescued her from the Curio Museum, Inquieto. That Justo Muestran is so irresponsible, my father has no kind words for him. I’m not sure how he got invited, but—”
“Justo is here?” Inquieto said abruptly, his eyes jerking across the crowd to locate him.
“Well, yes, but I’m sure he only wants to make amends. The Low Council finished their investigation, and he is perfectly clear of any blame for all the confusion with...” she looked at me, but didn’t bother to specify. “And to see me, of course,” she added, obviously trying to remind Inquieto of her presence now that he was so utterly unfocused on her.
“It was nice meeting you,” I snarled as I caught sight of Justo. Dicha blinked twice at my dismissal and looked up at Inquieto for an explanation, but he, too, was eyeing Justo like he was a snake amidst the party-goers.
“Inqui—” Dicha’s question was interrupted by an older woman, who bore a familial resemblance, requesting her attention. Resigning herself to the necessity that she interact with her countless other guests, Dicha left Inquieto’s side without another glance at me.
“Inquieto,” I said, a low warning of my impending emotional state.
“Yes, Carmen,” he said shortly, his tone an echo of my own. He subtly took my hand and threaded me through the clusters of guests, some who didn’t notice, others who tried to follow in fascination, and still others who drew back as if I were contagious.
But we didn’t make it far.
“There she is,” said the high-pitched, sneering voice of the head curator of the Curio Life Museum. “Out and among the masses.” He laughed. “Though all you did was move from one spectacle to another, isn’t that right, Carmen? The Curio Museum to the curio sports arena,” he spread his arms wide, “to the curio garden party.” He laughed again, a cold, short breath of air.
“At least I’m interesting enough to get an audience,” I said. “I hear the Low Council doesn’t even find you worth its time anymore.”
“The lluthian misses you,” he countered, ignoring my statement entirely. “The poor creature is pining, is it not Inquieto? Or perhaps that’s simply you projecting your own emotions onto your subjects again.”
I could hear Inquieto’s teeth grating against one another as he stood stiff, trembling slightly, channeling as much of his anger as he could into my hand within his fist.
“Hm, perhaps we should have done with it and send both creatures packing to Northwaar,” Justo continued. “Tell me, Inquieto, what is your expert opinion? Or would you like to go with them?”
“Is that a threat?” I asked.
Justo looked genuinely confused by my accusation of potential violence before he smoothly replied, “A suggestion. Your owner clearly prefers the company of curios to paz. I’ll see you at the museum, Inquieto. Do try not to take any more of your work home with you.” His lip curled in a nasty smile before he turned away and slipped back into the crowd.
I looked down at my hand and discovered the answer to my earlier question—a deep purple bruise was blooming around the edges of Inquieto’s thumb.
“I’m sorry,” he managed, though his apology did not apply to my hand; his relinquishing grip was absent-minded.
“It’s alright,” I said, inwardly cringing in pain as I attempted to flex my fingers, but still too angry to bother with it for long.
“No,” Inquieto argued simply; the tension in his neck and body seemed to prevent him from saying more.
Then he saw my hand.
His reaction was strange, delayed, as if he had never seen such a thing before and couldn’t fathom the cause. Then his lips parted, and he looked into my eyes, horrified.
“It’s fine,” I said, startled by his reaction. “It doesn’t hurt much.” I snagged a glance at our surroundings; no one had yet noticed our interaction, and I lowered my hand so no one would.
“Doesn’t hurt?” Inquieto murmured, disbelieving, still caught up in utter dismay. He looked down at his own hand as if it had betrayed him.
“Inquieto, come on,” I said firmly. “Let’s go somewhere, get some space.”
He gave a distracted nod, and I looked around for an easy retreat. The sparkling stone path, which led to waiting taxis, was blocked by at least one hundred people, and with me at his side, there was no chance that the party guests would not notice Inquieto’s markedly distressed state. I scanned the rest of the garden, full of another two, perhaps three hundred paz, but the clusters were more dispersed, and clumps of flowers and a couple of small fountains provided cover.
Deciding that offering Inquieto my hand would only make matters worse, I placed it instead on the fabric behind his shoulder and coaxed him to walk with me. I glanced around for Prístina or Aliado as I navigated the shrubbery. I recalled the moment of tension before the dinner at Inquieto’s house, when his whole family had tried to placate him, uneasy.
Were they used to him suffering emotional breakdowns? Did they know how to handle this? Whether they did or not, I couldn’t find them, and Inquieto was starting to shake. I led him towards the only open exit I could find—the lake.
A narrow strip of walkway stretched along its bank on either side of the Ortorgan property, and I arbitrarily chose right. I glanced again at the gathering to make sure no one noticed our flight and kept walking until the stone beneath our feet abruptly ended. We were now stepping on the natural grass and dirt of someone else’s less lavish, but no doubt just as expensive, lakeside property. I was glad the sun was beginning to set, the first touches of orange bleeding into the sky. With dimmed paz eyes, and the distance of the houses from the lake edge, maybe no one would notice the unlikely pair passing by their homes.
“Carmen,” Inquieto said when we were several houses down and nearing a wide, low bridge that arched overhead with the zooming swish of hovering taxis.
“Come on,” I ordered, pushing him a little farther until we reached the shadows beneath the bridge. There, I sat him down on a broken hunk of stone from some construction past and crouched before him.
“Alright, it’s just you and me,” I said. “You don’t have to worry about anyone else. Now tell me what’s wrong.”
“You’re hurt,” he said. “I...hurt you.” He nearly choked on the words.
“What?” I asked. I knew he felt bad for holding my hand too tight, but I had figured there was much deeper cause for his breakdown. “Inquieto, it doesn’t hurt.”
I held up my hand; a fresh bruise flushed its surface in the soft hollow between thumb and forefinger, but the tightness of movement had loosened, and there was hardly any pain to notice anymore.
“See?” I said. “It’s not bad at all. And you didn’t mean to; you were angry. We both were. Justo—” I broke off, not having words to chastise the curator properly, and not sure that this was the time.
“That’s no excuse!” Inquieto said. “I didn’t keep control and I hurt you!”
“Inquieto,” I put my hands on his face to force him to pay attention, to wade through his horror, “you kept control. You held onto me so you could keep control, and I’m glad you did. I don’t mind. I can help you.”
“No, Carmen, that’s—inane. That’s not how it’s supposed to work at all. I’m supposed to be able to control my emotions. Everyone else does,” he finished pitiably.
“Inquieto,” I said firmly, though I felt like a puddle inside, “look.” I lowered my unbruised hand from his cheek. “Feel me. Touch my hand!” I snapped when he recoiled. His hand twitched as if he wanted to, and perhaps more impatient than I should have been, I grabbed it and squeezed his fingers.
“You feel how soft I am?” I demanded. “How tough and smooth your skin is compared to mine? Answer me, if you held a paz hand that tight, would it bruise?”
He stared at our hands. He very carefully squeezed my fingertip a fraction. It squished with light resilience. I took his warm hand firmly in mine.
“You did not lose control, Inquieto,” I said, pressing my words into him. “You didn’t know it would hurt. It was a complete accident.”
Slowly, the invisible weight on his shoulders lifted, but worry did not leave his eyes.
“I should get you a bandage,” he said, looking again at the bruise. “I am so sorry, Carmen,” he then whispered.
“I don’t need a bandage,” I responded.
“It will heal faster,” he said, reminding me that an orange, rubbery paz bandage did more than simply protect a wound from infection.
Still, I shook my head. “Not yet.” I twisted my head to look out over the lake. I slipped my hand from his and stood. The sun stretched orange and red across the sky, the opalescent moon was rising, and the water of the lake was crystal clear. The mental refreshment it promised looked too inviting to ignore.
“Let’s go swimming,” I said.
I laughed at his expression, so bewildered after overcoming a draining emotional swing.
I drew my spring green sash up over my head and tossed it to the ground. Then, a little begrudgingly, began fumbling for the silver clasp at my side that held my black summer robe closed. Any qualms about nudity I had were erased by the knowledge that my body did nothing to faze Inquieto.
“Carmen, what are you doing?” Inquieto asked, more alert now as he watched my impromptu removal of clothing. “You can’t just—”
“Are you coming?” I asked, turning around to hide the sudden nervousness that flooded my face at the thought that he actually would.
“No,” he blustered; I heard gravel crunch beneath his feet as he stood. Before he could stop me, I plunged into the water. It was warm, almost too warm. But I felt remarkably buoyant and swam lightly out until I was deep enough to tread water.
“Don’t you ever go swimming?” I asked, grinning at him.
“No,” he said. “When I was a child, once or twice, but not here. And not—Carmen, it’s just not—”
“Jesus, Inquieto, get in the water,” I said, humorously weary of his protestations.
He straightened his clothing and adopted a very dignified look. “You shouldn’t even be in the water. Someone will see you.”
“What else is new?” I countered, but gave up on trying to persuade him. I ducked my head under the water and shut him and the world out for a silent moment of soft, watery pressure.
I opened my eyes briefly. The water was just as clear as it appeared from above, only growing murky as it deepened behind me in the darkening twilight. Just like the pond in the neighborhood garden, there were no fish, or even algae, in sight. I wondered how that was possible, but soon dismissed the half-thought as I watched my dark hair swirl about my face in a peaceful halo.
When my tightening lungs urged me upwards, I heard Inquieto calling me with equal urgency.
“Carmen, you—” He shook his head and laughed as I splashed water in his direction, though of course he was too high and dry for it to do any harm.
“You’re ridiculous,” he uttered, finally joining in my good humor.
“Isn’t this a better party than that stuffy garden?” I asked, glad the sweetly rank scents of flowers and fruit were out of my nostrils.
He smiled. “Much,” he said, and then lifted his eyes from mine to watch the stunning city skyline.
I ran my eyes over his body, highlighted red in the light of the descending sun, tall and broad-shouldered, with the lanky, lean muscles of a twenty-six-year-old. I took a breath and submerged myself in the lake again.
After swimming in freeing ease for a while longer, I finally resigned myself to approach the shore. I felt his eyes on me as I swam the last few strokes out of deeper water and found my feet. I kept my head bowed as my body emerged into the cool night air, more self-conscious than I had been upon entry. At least the light was dimmer; maybe he couldn’t see much of me.
I reached my green sash and picked it up off the ground. I wiped my face with it, and then ran it over my skin to dry. I caught his gaze as I rubbed the cloth over my thighs and up my torso. He wasn’t ignoring my body as if it didn’t exist—as if it was a sight so untitillating, it was easily overlooked.
I glanced down at myself, the sash frozen in my hand. The ample curves of my breasts and hips were exposed to the light that shone beneath the bridge, my entire body smooth and hairless, droplets still lingering in beads or running down my skin.
“Um...” I began tentatively, not knowing how I was going to begin my sentence, let alone finish it. But a sharp ping of noise made me jump and jerked Inquieto’s attention to the blinking ring on his finger. He looked overwhelmingly glad for the distraction.
I hastily covered my body with the sash and took advantage of his swift immersion in his notebook to replace it with my black robe. I was clipping the silver clasp back into place when he spoke.
“We have to go home,” he said, all humor gone.
“What is it?” I asked, disturbed by his tone and the hard frown on his face.
“Your citizenship test,” he replied. “They’ve decided it is to be given three days from now.”
“Three days?!” I exclaimed. “But I’ve barely had time to—”
“And,” Inquieto cut me off, “Descanso Salvan will assess you.” He looked up at me, clearly trying to hide his anxiety. “The expert on foreign intelligent species. He’ll decide if you can be given that designation.”
I clutched my green sash to me like a security blanket, ignoring the pain in my hand that throbbed deep beneath the bruise.