Thanks to my beta Elkica!
Tension hung in the air the way funeral bells reverberate long after the last clapper-strike. Though it had been a generation since the two peoples engaged in active combat, fears and prejudice ran deep in both races.
The leader of the rae`lir contingency stood and inclined his head towards the humans seated at the half-moon table that stood opposite its twin where the faintly blue-skinned rae`lirs sat. "I suppose we should do more than stare at each other." He spoke in the trade-tongue, spoken by almost all merchants and delegates of the neighboring star-systems. "Our King and High Houses express our deepest welcome. Your presence honors us as we take these first steps of peace and trade with our friends from Gartu." The words were warm, but the tone was anything but.
"Friends; that'll be the day," one of the humans scoffed under his breath in Gartian, though the tone carried the full meaning to all in attendance.
The neighboring human's answer was likewise hushed, though not enough to conceal his words. "Friendships are not required for business. The shrewd can secure what they need even from old enemies."
The rae`lirs ignored the discourteous murmurings in the human tongue, even those who understood it. Rae`lirs did not rise against every challenge, just as humans did not forthright state every challenge.
The human lead-negotiator stood and returned the gesture of respect, but like the rae`lir, the motion was forced and insincere. "We are honored by your generous welcome. Gartu's Parliament sends our richest regards. We hope you accept these gifts as a token of Gartu's good will and dedication to our mutual advancement."
One of the seated rae`lir leaned close to his neighbor and muttered his observations in El'ink: "Regards and good will… humans certainly know how to spin tales."
"We expected no better."
The humans likewise ignored the veiled barbs. After all, the meeting was about trade, commerce, and self-advancement. Each people stood to gain from these dealings and to lose if they failed: the rae`lirs needed Gartu's energy stones and the humans needed El's medicinal resources.
Facades of friendship and lying smiles covered a multitude of sins.
Some tens of years later…
The gentle hum of the stern vacuum-propulsion engine filled the small, travel compartment where a young boy sat while his elderly caretaker kept busy organizing and re-organizing their travel bags and supplies. Ny's fingers tightened on his trouser-leg when he noticed his hands were shaking. His jaw locked and his gaze followed the dim lines in the floor and walls that illuminated in emergencies and led towards the door and subsequent escape pods or warn that voyagers should remain in whatever given air-locked section they were in.
"Young Master Nylear, please tell me what troubles you."
Ny looked up, startled by the sudden request and the fact Jun turned from her incessant organizing to look upon him fully. His stomach curled tighter, and he shook his head. "I am not troubled." It was of course a lie, but Father had told him not to whine or shame the family any further.
Jun's frown softened, and she approached to sit beside him on the long, uncomfortable bench that collapsed into a wall-compartment when not in use. She slid her wrinkled hand over his shoulders to pull him into a half-hug—the deepest Ny ever received. "You can tell me, young master… Haven't you always been able to trust me?"
Ny shrank into himself. Indeed, he couldn't number the times he'd run to Jun when no one else would listened to his troubles or triumphs. She always petted his head whenever he felt lonely or sad, laughed with him when he finally mastered the intricate family form—a complex half-dance, half martial display—and cried for him when he whispered that father was sending him worlds away.
"Jun…" frowning, Ny caught himself. His father's words echoed back to him: 'I will no longer tolerate your pathetic weakness,' the man had growled, glaring at Ny, who cowered on the floor while blood trickling from the corner of his mouth. 'You'll go to El. Maybe the rae`lirs can toughen up a gutless brat like you. If I ever hear of you wallowing in failure, I will never permit you back into this house.'
It hadn't even taken a week for Ny's father to use his influence as an energy stone trader to arrange for his young son to apprentice at a temple on El.
Ny shook his head. "I am okay… I am going to be fine."
He finally looked at her. Ny forced himself to smile through the fear and to hide the cowardly pain behind a mask of excitement. "It's an adventure, Jun! I'll write home and tell you everything. You won't have to worry about me anymore."
The woman shook a graying head and wiped away tears gathered at the corners of her faded-brown eyes. "My young master is such a good boy," she whispered as she overstepped the bounds of rank and drew Ny into a full hug. "You're such a good boy. Your dear mother, peace for her soul, would say just the same. Don't believe anything else, child."
Was Jun trying to make him cry? Thoughts of Ny's gentle mother always twisted his heart. When his mother had died five years ago giving birth to Ny's younger sister, he hadn't really understood the implications. However, even as a child of five, he understood Mother gave her life to grant Nylaneh hers. In the subsequent five years, he treasured his precocious little sister as his mother's last gift. He frowned, recalling the way Nyla sobbed and hung on him before his departure.
Ny held his breath to dam up the tears. He wouldn't show weakness. Not now. Not ever again. He'd behave himself so well Father would find no fault. Then, Father would welcome him home and say he was proud Ny was his son.
Ny squeezed Jun, trying to convey how grateful he was for her unconditional regard. "When do we arrive?"
The old woman sniffed, released Ny, and stood to turned away. "Forgive me, young master." Her voice shook while she smoothed her flawless hair as if she feared her inappropriate emotions had ruffled her outward appearance. "I believe we should arrive at the space port within three hours. I will confirm with one of the crewmembers."
Ny shook his head. "That is not necessary, Jun. I… I'm going to the viewing deck."
"Very good, young master. I will fetch you just before arrival if you have not returned."
Ny's fingertips trail along the cool metal walls of the intrastellar passenger-ship where he and Jun had been passengers for the past week. As he walked, he stole glances at the other passengers. Most were human like him, so the non-human passengers really captured his attention.
Cat-like Arthrians from the dark planet of Kars tended to slink from view as soon as he saw one. For protection, a taclara covered their light-sensitive eyes and wrapped around the top of their heads and under their long muzzles; sheaths likewise covered their claws, each easily as long as Father's entire hand.
Ny froze when he turned a corner, coming face-to-face with a rust-colored Arthrian wearing a black taclara and matching claw-sheaths. A low rumble emanated from its chest. A hundred rumors flashed through Ny's mind, and his mouth dried at the thought of those nature daggers and teeth slicing through him. "E-excuse me," he murmured in the trade tongue as he lowered his eyes and stepped back.
The Arthrian snorted, the puff of warm air against Ny's face sending chills down his spine. Thickly accented words formed the Arthrian's reply: "You stink of fear, little one. What excuse could be made for that?"
Ny's eyes widened, but he did not dare to raise them. "None," he murmured.
There was a long, quite growl from a black Arthrian standing further down the hallway. The red Arthrian turned away from Ny.
Ny peeked up just in time to see the two Arthrians disappearing down a hall that led towards the fitness deck. He breathed out slowly in something like relief and convinced his unsteady legs to continue onwards.
Walking much more quickly, and glancing over his shoulder every so often, Ny soon finished the long walk to the viewing deck. His encounter with the Arthrian did not help with his apprehension and nervousness about joining a rae`lir temple. He wanted to comfort himself by remembering rae`lirs were the most human in appearance of all the races Father could have chosen. Still, rae`lirs weren't human, and it frightened him. What if they could sense his weakness as easily as the Arthrians could smell it?
When the door raised, Ny slipped inside the wide room, thankfully void of other passengers. He scooted to the back corner and huddled on the low bench, which ran along the glass walls. This bench, softened by thick blue cushions, was much more comfortable than the one in his and Jun's cabin. Wrapping his arms around his knees, Ny took in the dark expanse visible through the sloping walls and domed ceiling. If he'd felt a little more confident, he might have run past the long rows of benches to the front of the room, towards the bow, and crawled into the tapered space where the floor and the transparent walls met in a narrow angle.
Ny chewed on the inside of his mouth, trying to imagine what his time on El would be like. He'd seen any number of rae`lirs, but never met one, even from among Father's business contacts. Rae`lirs did not seem to like traveling and they preferred business occur on El or intrastellar spaceports. Father never took Ny on his trips, so all the boy had were stories and rumors. Rae`lir society sounded more structured and stricter than Gartian, with heavy penalties for those who overstepped bounds. Ny had tried to research what rae`lir temples were like, but had come up mostly empty-handed. However, he discovered that, surprisingly, temples permitted very little technology, though the rae`lirs were as advanced as the humans, perhaps even more so. Ny's anxiety built up a murky image of a place where technology was banned, where the living was rigid, and companions were severe and stoic.
"Why a temple?" he whispered to himself. Father didn't believe in or even condone any of the many human sects, and had all but beaten Ny when he attempted to learn about them. 'Damn foolish waste of a rational mind!' he'd roared. 'No son of mine will surrender to such weak-minded idiocy!'
Ny would never have imagined Father would have allowed Ny anywhere near 'fool-headed religious fanatics', as Father referred to anyone of any belief. Still, a strange excitement twisted in Ny's chest. Ny had always been curious about what made someone believe in something that could neither be seen nor touched. He wasn't sure he could ever believe, but… he wondered. Maybe studying at a temple would give him opportunity to make his own judgments without Father looming over him. As long as Ny gained the rae`lirs' strength of mind and body, Father surely would concede Ny exploring their beliefs as well. He—
The door raised, ripping through Ny's musings and demanding his gaze. A rae`lir walk into the room and pressed the side panel to allow the door to close again. Ny swallowed against a dry throat. His body tried to shiver, but his determination denied it. Show no weakness, he reminded.
The rae`lir was tall—taller even than Father—and shining, slate-grey hair hung over broad shoulders. As he walked toward the center of the viewing area, his gait marked him a born-warrior. Instead of a shirt, trousers, and closed shoes common among humans, he wore a knee-length, pale-yellow robe and sandals that laced to his knee. A wide, green belt held the smooth robe closed with a knot over his right hip.
Ny held his breath, his eyes trailing over the faintly-blue sheen of the rae`lir's skin; it reminded him of how Nyla's skin looked when she dug out their mother's veils and then wrapped one of the translucent, blue cloths around herself. Ny wondered if he could slip out without being noticed.
The stranger leaned over the back of one of the viewing lounges in the middle of the room. When he spoke, his voice sounded like thunder rolling over Gartu's Sothern Coasts' plains lands. "Ja`le, you must wake."
Ny startled when a second rae`lir bolted upright. This second rae`lir gasped slightly before running fingers through unruly hair, identical in color to the first's. He turned his face upwards, a soft smile spreading over silver lips and illuminating his eyes. Ny's jaw dropped in surprise; never had he encountered eyes as piercing, pale blue as those — in any race, much less rae`lir. Ny had never even heard of a rae`lir with any color other than ebony.
Ny's brow furrowed; both these rae`lirs seemed familiar, but he couldn't place them. Perhaps they were merchants he'd seen with Father? They were well-dressed enough for Father to trade with. Still, Ny didn't sense the trade-air clinging about them—not the second one at least. Maybe Ny had just seen them around the ship but never taken true notice of them before, and so they seemed familiar but weren't really beyond passing glances.
While Ny mused, the second rae`lir ran his hand from the first rae`lir's wrist up to his elbow. "You said you were going to join me, Ren." In Ny's ear, his voice sounded like gentle spring rains falling over the Western Vale where Ny's family made their ancestral home.
"And here I am. We have to prepare, or Tra`le and Janor are going to have a fit."
"Aww, Ren, they're going to anyway. They get cranky when we sneak away."
"That's because you leave your work unfinished."
"But Ren, I so much rather spend time with you."
The first rae`lir, Ren, pushed away the second, who'd practically crawled up to cling at Ren's chest. "Ja`le, I can't help that, and if you shirk you duties again, I'll stop agreeing to these little trips."
With a huff, the second rae`lir, Ja`le, stood and began to adjust his robe while smoothing his hair. "I completed everything this time, you know."
While he fixed his appearance, Ren further adjust the upper portion of Ja`le's robe. "You're helpless."
Ja`le just laughed in what sounded like agreement.
Ny watched them start towards the door. His heart pounded in his throat; he hoped they didn't see him. After all, it always angered Father when he discovered Ny present when he hadn't realized. How much worse would intimidating strangers react? Ny tried to shrink into the cushion when Ja`le looked right at him, tugging Ren to stop as well.
Ren indeed glanced over, but his expression was detached. "It's a human child. Let's go."
"No, look…" As Ja`le approached Ny, a bright smile tilted his lips. He crouched near Ny, pressing his elbows into his knees and then his chin into his palms. "His eyes are absolutely beautiful."
Show no weakness…show no weakness… Ny chanted to keep from outright trembling. The rae`lir couldn't be talking about Ny's eyes, could he? Sure they were odd, but they weren't remarkable—simply an entity to summon teasing. Had Ny misunderstood? He'd thought he commanded a decent grasp on El'ink. Did he perhaps not understand as well as he believed? After all, between the two of them, this rae`lir had far more interesting eyes.
"Ja`le, you're being rude."
"I am not." Ja`le kept his attention on Ny while his smile brightened. He laid his hand on Ny's knee. "Do you speak El'ink, child? You do, don't you? Won't you let me see your face?"
Ny slowly lowered his legs and blinked as he stretched his neck in obedience.
"You're scaring him, Ja`le. Leave him alone."
Those blue eyes sparkled in a slight pout. "I just want to see his eyes. I'm not scaring you, am I child?"
"N—no," Ny barely forced out, though he managed to keep his voice steady despite the false start.
"My name is Ja`le Takl. This cranky fellow is Garen Takl. He's much nicer than he seems."
Ny lifted his eyes to the first rae`lir, then, he shifted his attention back to the second. Were they brothers, or perhaps cousins? They seemed so different from each other, and Ja`le was diametric to Ny's picture of rae`lirs—though Garen fit the mold much better. "Nylear Cathan… I go by Ny."
Ja`le smiled. "How long are you visiting El for, Ny?"
Ny forced a smile and shook his head. "I am to apprentice at the High Northern Water Temple."
"Really?" Ja`le's mouth twisted in an excited, half-open grin. "I'll have to visit you."
Ny raised an eyebrow as he struggled to remember the most appropriate way to address someone older or in a position of respect in El'ink. Show no weakness… "That would be nice, Master Takl." He beamed though he wanted to cower from that sharp, blue stare. "I will look forward to it."
"What a sweet, clever child!" Ja`le gripped both of Ny's hands. "Beautiful eyes and darling, too! Oh Ren, he'd be just perfect. Can we keep him?" He twisted to stare up at the other rae`lir as if he truly hoped for consent.
Ren frowned. "Now you're just being silly. Didn't you hear him say he's going to apprentice? You can't go around whisking up random human children. They have families, too."
"Oh well, sorry then, Ny." Ja`le sighed, offering an almost sad smile, as if he pitied Ny that Ren had denied his request. He tousled Ny's long, black hair. "We'll have to settle for visits, then."
Ny closed his mouth and grinned. "It seems so."
"Ja`le, we really must go."
"It was nice to meet you." Ja`le beamed as he stood, letting Ny's hand slip from his. "Good luck at the temple."
Ny smiled. "Thank you. It was nice to meet you, and you also Master Takl." He looked up at Ren, smile firmly in place.
Ren nodded. "I don't think it'll be long before Ja`le drags me to the temple, so should I say 'see you soon', boy?"
Ny smiled and lowered his head in a respectful nod—mostly to suppress the shiver summoned by the fierce, direct gaze from the very tall rae`lir.