Piri Meets Jex

Piri Viridis looked at himself in the mirror and frowned.

"It's hopeless," he told his reflection as he tried once more to smooth down his hair with his hands. His multicoloured mop of hair was habitually out of place, with random tufts poking out in every direction. It was a constant source of frustration for him because it seemed that no matter how many styling products he used on it in the morning, it always reverted to its original unruliness by noon. He sighed and lowered his hands. "There's no way to fix this."

With the exception of his hair, Piri usually approved of what he saw in the mirror; blue eyes, a mouth accustomed to smiling, elegantly-shaped ears. His sister Tavi often told him that he was handsome, and he liked to believe that. His was an athlete's body, tall and muscular with strong shoulders and a trim waist. He kept himself in shape with all kinds of sports and exercises, although swimming was the activity he liked best.

How did it look, he wondered, when his long green body glided through the water? It wasn't the sort of question he could ask anyone without embarrassing himself, but still he was curious to know. Maybe he was vain for thinking like that. People could probably sense his vanity.

Oh well, he thought. There are worse things people could be sensing from me than self-admiration.

With one last swipe at his hair, Piri turned away from the mirror. He couldn't spend any more time on a futile effort. His rest period wasn't all that long and he wanted to spend it outside, not messing around with his disobedient curls. Now, where had he put his bag?

He looked around the room that he shared with two of his classmates. To make it more habitable and home-like, they'd covered the walls with posters and pictures of things they liked. Nika had his pictures of an all-blue dance group from Northern Continent, Piri had his sports posters and, however questionable they might have been, Taro's pictures were of girls posing provocatively in trees or on the beach. All three friends liked to follow the adventures of Jina Domi, the Experiencer from Southern Continent, so a huge picture of her dominated part of one wall. Aside from the decorations, they had a big mirror, a tall shelf that they shared, and chairs and little desks with a computer workstation and a Cube dock for each of them. There were some hooks on the wall for hanging things, and of course they had their blankets and sleeping cushions.

The room was really too tiny for three young men, but the administrators of the Training Centre for Space Exploration apparently felt that providing students with such cramped quarters would help prepare them for time spent on a starship. On a ship, they would have even less area to move around in.

Three or four students to a room was the general rule at the training centre. There were approximately two hundred students in the building where Piri lived and about two hundred more in the other residence building. He knew that at the university here in Edmi City, students had bigger rooms and did not have to share with two or three classmates if they didn't want to. Sometimes he thought it might be nice to have a room all to himself, but mostly he didn't mind sharing with Taro and Nika, even though Taro was disorganized and Nika snored.

To maximize their available living space, Piri and his friends had piled all their sleeping cushions in one corner of the room. They slept together in this haphazard nest and, although they never talked about it, each of them knew that the others felt comforted by the nearness.

Piri finally spotted his bag half hidden under a towel that Taro had dropped on his way back from the public bath. He sighed. It seemed as if he were constantly picking up Taro's wet towels, and wondered if Taro would ever learn to pick them up on his own. Piri hung the towel on a peg on the wall. Taro could certainly take it to the laundry service himself.

Piri checked his bag and decided that it wasn't too damp to use. He didn't want to empty his school bag to carry around town with him, but if his smaller personal bag had been too wet from its intimate encounter with Taro's towel, that's what he would've done. He took his Cube and his room key out of his school bag and stuffed them into the smaller one. Swinging the strap of his bag over his shoulder, he deemed himself ready and left his room.

It was a hot day; almost too hot for Piri's comfort. Despite being born and raised in this part of Central Continent, he never seemed to have gotten used to the heat. Piri guessed that here, in the northernmost part of Central Continent where he lived, was probably the hottest place on the planet. He envied the people who lived at the equator. They didn't really have rainy and dry seasons there, and the temperature didn't change much from day to day. He thought he might like to move to one of the equatorial cities some day, or maybe he'd like to try one of the cities of Northern Continent. He could live among the blue people and maybe he'd even see snow.

The idea of snow amused him for a minute or two as he left the grounds of the training centre and headed down the street. The scent of flowers and freshly trimmed grass filled the air, and the sky was completely free of clouds. The street was busy. A few people waved to him and he waved back.

He had no particular destination in mind. He just wanted to get away from the training centre and go for a long walk outside. School was fine and the grounds of the training centre were pleasant enough, but Piri enjoyed walking and he loved to explore. Even though he'd lived all his life in Edmi City, he found that he was able to see and experience something new every time he went out for a walk by himself.

He'd only been walking for a few minutes when he spotted the street vendors, and was glad he'd chosen to go toward the inner city instead of in the direction of the forest zone. The vendors often congregated in this particular place. There were only about seven or eight vendors here, but Piri knew there were other parts of the city where more vendors gathered. Once a month, the vendors from Edmi and all over Central Continent would gather in Azhu City for a huge open-air market. Going to the Azhu market was one of Piri's favourite things to do. He loved to look at the items they had for sale in their carts and stalls, taste the different foods, and revel in the general party atmosphere that always seemed to accompany market day. It would soon be time for the next market day in Azhu. Piri wondered if he could convince Taro to go with him. Taro was from Azhu City, and he would know all the best entertainment venues. Perhaps they could stay the night.

Piri wandered over to the vendors and perused their offerings. A pretty blue girl with shells in her hair was selling handmade jewelry. He saw a bracelet that his sister might like and tried to remind himself to tell her about it when he next spoke to her. The woman at the next stall had exquisitely decorated bags. Piri admired a bag made of soft cloth with an intricately stitched design of his namesake, the little red and yellow piri bird, hovering to drink the nectar from a pale purple flower. When he asked the woman how much it cost, he was surprised to realize how disappointed he was that he couldn't justify the expense. He moved on quickly so the woman wouldn't sense his disappointment.

At the end of the row of vendors was a man with a refrigerated cart who was selling frozen fruit on sticks. Piri could, he reasoned, justify that expense. He bought a stick with an assortment of fruit on it. The small frozen pieces of fruit were sweet and cool on his lips and tongue, and he savoured them as he left the vendors and continued on his way.

Soon it would the hottest part of the dry season and he would have a month-long holiday from the training centre. Many of his classmates would return to their families during the holiday, but Piri had no desire to do that. His fathers and mother lived on the outskirts of Edmi, close to the edge of the recreational forest zone. His two younger brothers, his elder sister and her partners lived there as well, along with their children. Piri loved his sister and her child, but he could not tolerate his sister's female partner and her squalling brat. The insufferable woman hadn't even weaned the baby, and already her belly was heavy with a second one, a fact with which she unceasingly taunted Piri's sister.

The last time he'd visited his family's home – at his mother's insistence – he'd been forced to put up with Xana's constant chatter and boasting about the coming child, about how she knew it was another boy and about how she just knew he was gifted. Piri didn't care that she could feel his disgust as he watched her lying in the grass and stroking her enormous belly. He didn't much care if she felt his immense annoyance at her comments toward his sister, either.

"Isn't it wonderful, Piri?" Xana had said. "I'm giving Toa a second son already. We'll probably have five or six children before we're too old. Do you suppose Tavi will ever manage to have any more?"

"Of course she will," Piri had said. He'd reached for his sister's hand. "Tavi will have lots of children and they'll all be beautiful and gifted."

"Maybe they'll be so gifted that they'll become Emri," Xana had said.

That was the point at which Piri had lost his temper. "Xana, that's a horrible thing to say! How would you feel if your children were taken by the Emri? Maybe the men in robes will come and take away your baby boy in the middle of the night. How would that be for you?"

"Piri, be calm," his sister had said. "You know she only says those things to upset you."

"That's not the point," Piri had replied, "No one should say things like that. Losing a child to the Emri is a terrible thing."

"I know." Tavi had squeezed his hand reassuringly, and he could feel her love and affection for him. "But, Xana isn't being serious. Surely you can tell that. And you," she'd said, turning toward her partner, "shouldn't torment Piri like that. It's mean."

Xana had snorted disdainfully. "Does Piri need you to defend him now? He's a high and lofty starship pilot, but he still needs his older sister to hold his hand and protect him."

"That's not how it is!" Piri had exclaimed. "You don't–"

"Piri, please…" his sister had begun, but it was too late for her to finish whatever sentence had been ready to leave her mouth.

Tavi and Piri's mother, as stately and commanding as the Planetary Leader herself, strode out the back door and into the yard. Liyala Siv had surveyed her children and announced, "I could feel you disagreeing. What's going on?"

"Piri started it," Xana had said immediately, and her sincerity was so credible that Piri's mind reeled at how completely and convincingly she could lie. He didn't know anyone else who could fabricate emotions the way Xana could.

"Is this true?" Piri's mother had demanded.

"No," Piri had said, "She–"

Xana had interrupted him with, "You know he doesn't like me, Liyala. He was trying to upset me on purpose because he knows it's bad for me and the child. He wants me to suffer." And then, to Piri's great astonishment, she'd begun to cry. "He was talking about the Emri coming to take away my babies in the night."

And that's when Piri had received yet another lecture from his mother, the latest in a long succession of harangues, many of which had been wholly undeserved in Piri's opinion. He'd stood there and listened, trying hard to generate a feeling of contriteness. He was pretty sure he hadn't succeeded. When Liyala finally dismissed him, he was only too glad to get away.

His escape route had taken him through the house and out the front door. He'd hoped for a clean exit, but he hadn't counted on his soul father, Jemi, being out in the front yard tending his little garden of herbs. Jemi was a Builder by profession, but his favourite occupation seemed to be his plants. Piri was positive that Jemi could coax anything to grow. He'd managed to grow a ro flower in a pot indoors once, in spite of the fact that all the experts at the university said ro could never flourish without being touched directly by the sun and rain and pure air.

Without really intending to, Piri had stopped to watch as Jemi plucked weeds from among the herbs. Jemi was a big, broad-shouldered man who was not much concerned with appearance or, for that matter, grooming beyond what was necessary for good hygiene. Jemi's hair was variegated with several different shades of purple and it was shaggy and uneven, chopped to shoulder-length with a knife by Jemi's own hand. The tips of his slightly-too-large ears poked out of it like the first green leaves of a new plant at the start of rainy season.

Piri was always amazed how gentle Jemi could be. Just looking at him, gentleness might not have been the first thing anyone would expect, but Piri knew those huge, calloused hands were capable of the most loving touch, and those brawny arms could hold a child as carefully and tenderly as any mother could do.

"I can feel you there, Piri," Jemi had said, pulling Piri out of his reverie. "Just because I've got my back to you, it doesn't mean I don't know someone's there, and who it is."

"I was just watching."

"I know." Jemi had abandoned the herbs momentarily and turned around so that he was still kneeling on the grass but facing Piri instead of the garden. He'd held out his hand and said, "Come here to me."

Obediently, Piri crossed the grass and knelt next to his soul father. "Liyala is mad at me again."

Jemi had smiled, looking amused. "What did you do this time?"

"Nothing! It was all Xana's fault. She got me in trouble."

"Why don't you tell me what happened?"

Piri hadn't needed a lot of encouragement. He'd told Jemi all about his conversation with Xana and how she could somehow lie with impunity. Jemi hadn't seemed surprised. Piri supposed Jemi knew all about Xana's unusual talent already.

When Piri had finished his tale of woe, Jemi had drawn him into a hug. Piri thought it was probably wrong to have a favourite among his parents, but he couldn't help loving Jemi the most. Big, quiet Jemi with his kind eyes and understanding heart had always been Piri's refuge as a child, the parent he'd run to when he was hurt or frightened or sad, or when he just wanted to be cuddled.

"Piri ni anoa," Jemi had whispered into his hair – 'my little love' – even though Piri was fully grown and almost as tall as Jemi himself. He loved that his soul father still called him that sometimes when they were alone. Jemi had held him and rubbed his back as if Piri were still a small boy in need of comfort. "Piri, you mustn't let her anger you like this. She only does it because she can get away with it, you know."

"How can I not be angry?" Piri had said. "She says she loves Tavi, but if she loves her, how could she torment her like that? I don't think Xana loves Tavi at all."

""How do you know Xana doesn't love Tavi?" Jemi said. "You don't know what happens when you're not here."

"No," Piri conceded, "But–"

"There's no 'but'. Xana only does these things to bait you."

"So, it's me that Xana doesn't like?"

"Perhaps," Jemi had said. "Does it matter?"

"I want my sister's partners to like me."

"I love you. Anjo and Liyala and your brothers and sister love you."

"I know."

"Do you love yourself?"

"Yes," Piri had said.

"So, all the important people love you," Jemi had said. "Do you need the love of anyone else to be happy?"

Piri could feel that Jemi hadn't really expected an answer. What he expected was for Piri to think about it, and Piri had done so. In hindsight, he conceded that Jemi was right. His family did love him, and he didn't need the love of anyone else to be happy. The problem was, Xana knew a thousand ways to make him unhappy, and he wasn't sure how he could enjoy spending time with his siblings and parents with her around.

He and Jemi had sat together for a little while longer, but at last Piri decided he had better go back to school. Jemi had kissed him goodbye and promised to come and visit him soon. Piri was looking forward to that. When Jemi came to visit, he stayed with Piri, Taro and Nika in their room. Piri's friends loved Jemi, and always said that he was a lot of fun to have around, probably because he behaved just like they did when Liyala wasn't watching him. He'd even managed to sneak them some hazha root once, which had earned him Taro's enduring admiration.

Thinking about that now made Piri smile. Until that particular visit, he'd never seen his soul father high on hazha root before, and the effect had been quite funny. Of course, Jemi swore them all to secrecy and made them promise that they'd never tell anyone, especially Liyala, about it. Piri kept his promise and, as far as he knew, so had Nika and Taro.

Piri wished that he could spend his upcoming holiday with Jemi. He thought it would be fun to travel with his soul father to places they'd never been before. It was just too bad that Jemi didn't get the same holiday. He would be allowed a vacation from his work, but it wouldn't be at the same time as Piri's school holiday.

Piri decided that he definitely would not be going home for the holiday. As nice as it would be to see Tavi and Jemi every day, he could not bear the thought of a month in Xana Bel's company.

Taro wasn't going to his family's home either, and he had proposed a camping trip to Northern Continent. Piri thought that a month spent in a tent by the sea sounded perfect. He liked the idea of having nothing better to do than to eat and sleep, play in the forest, read, swim in the sea and flirt with blue girls and boys. Taro maintained that blue girls were better at lovemaking than green girls. Piri didn't know if that was true, but he thought he might like to find out. He wondered if blue boys were better at lovemaking than green boys. Perhaps he should try to find out about that, too. Taro would die of envy if Piri enticed a blue boy and a blue girl into his tent. The thought made Piri grin.

Oh, and wouldn't his mother be outraged if he fell in love with a blue person! Imagining his mother's reaction almost made Piri laugh out loud. Maybe for a practical joke he should ask one of his friends at school to pretend to be his lover. He could bring his blue friend home and introduce him or her to his family, and then feel his mother's absolute horror. Of course, he didn't have the advantage of being able to lie like Xana, so he and his friend would have to practice their charade until they could lie without giving themselves away. If Piri's mother sensed that he was lying, even as a joke, she would be very angry, and that, Piri decided, would be an outcome he wouldn't enjoy.

While he was lost in thought, he hadn't really been paying attention to where he was going. When he looked around to figure out where he was, he saw that he'd wandered almost to the gates of the Emri compound. Well, maybe that was an exaggeration, he conceded. He was across the street from the compound with its tall fence of black-painted metal bars, and he wasn't exactly sure where the gate was. He'd been down this street plenty of times, but he didn't stop on any of those occasions. Usually, he hurried past the Emri compound without doing more than glancing sideways.

He knew people who thought it was bad luck to see one of the Emri, and he knew others who would never walk down one of the streets that bordered the Emri's fenced home. Piri had never been scared to walk past the compound or glance at the Emri, but he did have a healthy respect for their awesome mental powers. The Emri were telepaths, which was part of the reason they lived separately from everybody else. In primary school, Piri and his classmates learned that a long time ago, when people first knew of the Emri's powers, the government sent them away to live in villages of their own so they wouldn't be a danger to anyone. Over time, the Emri all reached the conclusion that it wasn't fair for them to be exiled, and then Emri all over the planet started to petition the planetary government to let them leave their isolated little villages and come to live in the cities. Piri couldn't remember all the history lessons he'd been taught, but he remembered that there'd been some kind of agreement between the Emri and the City Authority of some cities that allowed the Emri to establish compounds within city limits. There were six cities on the planet that allowed the Emri now. Two of them were here in Central Continent and, of course, Edmi City was one of those.

Piri gazed across the street at the place of mystery. Between the bars of the tall fence he could see a wonderful garden. They had ro flowers, hundreds of them, the pale purple blossoms bowing gracefully on their long stems. Piri was sure he'd never seen so many ro flowers all in the same place before. Jemi would probably love to see this. He'd be interested to find out there was another gardener in Edmi whose skills with ro flowers were equal to – or quite possibly surpassed – his own.

As Piri was pondering that idea and trying to imagine what Jemi would say if he saw all those flowers, he suddenly caught sight of the gardener. He was a small, lithe boy, and Piri might not have noticed him at all if he hadn't stood up to stretch.

And what a glorious, luxurious stretch it was. The boy placed his hands on his hips and bent backward from the waist, tilting his head back and exposing the smooth skin of his throat. He was wearing a robe, as all the Emri did, but Piri could imagine the body underneath it. When he was done with his backwards lean, the boy stretched up on his toes, arms raised and fingers pointed toward the sky.

Piri couldn't help staring at him. His skin was an exquisite pale green and his hair, long and shining and perfectly straight, was the palest shade of purple shot through with strands of silver-white. To Piri, he looked like a living, breathing version of the flowers he tended. He was so beautiful and delicate that the sight of him nearly took Piri's breath away.

I should be afraid, Piri told himself. I should run away right now.

But, he didn't run. He continued to stand there, watching the Emri boy among the flowers, and all the while the boy was probably reading his mind, mining his thoughts for things too private for words. Yes, he should be absolutely consumed with fear; however, the shiver that ran along Piri's spine wasn't one of terror, but of exhilaration. He had the crazy thought that he wanted to talk to this breathtakingly lovely boy.

Before he could think better of it, he hurried across the street. He stepped up close to the fence and waited to see if the boy would notice him or not. He wasn't really surprised when the boy, finished with his elaborate stretching routine, turned in his direction. What did surprise Piri, though, was that when the boy began to move, he was limping. Perhaps his slender body wasn't as supple as that stretch seemed to imply.

The boy made his way slowly, but unhesitatingly, to the fence. When he stopped, he and Piri were less than a forearm's length apart. For several seconds, Piri had to make a conscious effort to breathe.

They peered at each other for a while. Nothing happened. Piri tried to decide whether the boy was reading his mind or not, but eventually concluded that he probably wasn't. Piri thought he should be able to feel something like that.

"I'm Piri Viridis," Piri said at last.

The boy touched one of his ears and shook his head, and Piri realized he must be deaf. Many of the Emri were deaf, Piri knew. He sometimes saw them communicating in Common Sign with fruit vendors on the street. They all seemed to understand when others spoke aloud to them, though, and he wondered if they could read lips. Perhaps that was one of the things they learned inside their compound.

"Can you understand me?" Piri asked.

For a long time, the boy didn't respond and Piri began to think he couldn't read his lips after all. Then, something unexpected happened. Piri was startled when the boy replied, the words clear and perfectly-formed in Piri's mind as if the boy had actually spoken them. "Yes, I can. Can you understand me?"

"Yes," Piri said.

"I am called Jex Azmi. I'm very pleased to meet you, Piri Viridis."

"You…know my name."

"You told me."

"I can hear you in my head. How are you doing that?"

"Telepathy. It is the Emri gift, or perhaps it is our curse. It depends on who you ask."

"Which do you say it is?"

"I do not know. Sometimes gift and sometimes curse. Today, I think it is a gift."

"Really?"

Jex smiled. "Is it not a gift to be able to meet a friend?"

"Yes, I think it is," Piri said. "Can anyone learn how to do that? Talk with their thoughts, I mean."

"We call it mind speech, and only the Emri can do it. You could not do it with someone not of the Emri."

"Oh."

"Really, I should not be doing this."

"Why?"

"It is forbidden to share this with outsiders. It is a secret of the Emri."

"I won't tell anyone," Piri said. "If it's a secret, is that why you use Common Sign when you go out? So regular people won't know?"

"Yes," Jex said. "But, only the Elders go out. I have never been outside these walls."

"Never in your whole life?"

"When I was a baby, I suppose, before I came here. I do not remember."

"How old are you?"

"I am twenty-seven."

So, not a boy then. He's the same age as me, Piri realized, and was astounded when he heard Jex laughing – distinctly laughing – in his mind.

"No, not a boy. I am older than I look," Jex said.

Piri stammered. "Did I just…?"

"Use mind speech? I am sure you did not mean to but, yes, you did."

"Can I do it again?"

"Of course. Do not speak. Just think the words you want to say, and I can hear you with my mind."

"That's amazing."

"See?" Jex said. "It is easy."

"Maybe for you. I have to concentrate."

"It will become easier with time. I have been doing this all my life. For me, it is the only way."

"You can't speak?" Piri asked, returning to his own spoken voice.

"I can, but I prefer not to. The Elders say I sound like a kafi bird."

Piri laughed. "I'm sure your voice isn't that bad. I've never heard of anyone who sounds as harsh as a kafi bird," he said, and then daringly added, "Besides, nobody as beautiful as you could have an ugly voice."

Jex blushed all the way to the perfect points of his ears, and Piri could feel both his embarrassment and his pleasure at the compliment. "No one has ever said that to me before."

"That you're beautiful?"

"Yes."

"I'll say it again, if you want."

"Perhaps you should not. If the Elders were to overhear…"

"I wouldn't want to get you in trouble."

"Thank you. Discipline here is…strict. Sometimes, I wish…" His words trailed off and Piri sensed a sudden jolt of fear from him.

"What is it?" Piri asked, concerned. "What's wrong?"

"I am sorry. One of the Elders is coming. I cannot be seen here with you like this. I must return to my work."

"Okay, but…can I see you again?"

"Tomorrow, I will be working in the garden at this time of day. Can you come then?"

"Yes. It's my rest period. I'm free to do what I want with the time."

"Then, please come," Jex said.

"I will," Piri promised. "Jex?"

"Yes."

"May I touch you?"

"It is not allowed, but…" Piri felt Jex's momentary indecision disappear in a bright flare of defiance. Jex pushed his hand between the metal bars of the fence, reaching out as far as he could toward Piri.

Piri touched his fingertips to Jex's, hesitantly at first, but then he pressed his entire palm against the other man's. Piri's own hands seemed gigantic in comparison to those of his new friend. He said, "Is this really not allowed?"

"We could both be in trouble."

"I think it's worth the risk," Piri said. "Do you?"

"If I did not think so, would I have let you touch me? But, I really must go."

"Okay," Piri said. He lowered his hand. "Tomorrow?"

"Tomorrow," Jex agreed. "Now, go before the Elder sees you. Please."

Jex's fear of the Elder was so immediate and real in Piri's mind that he was compelled to do as Jex asked. He trotted across the street to the place where he'd been standing when first noticed Jex. He paused there for one last look, but all he saw was the ro garden. Jex had disappeared again, his pale hair camouflaging him among the blooms.

From inside his bag, Piri's Cube beeped, alerting him that his rest period was over. He'd have to run to make it back to school on time for the afternoon courses. Running in the heat didn't appeal to him, but he did it anyway.

It was only when he was seated in the back row of the lecture hall – where he'd arrived with only seconds to spare him from being late for his class in quantum physics – that the full impact of what he'd done that day really hit him. He was sure he'd broken at least a dozen cultural rules and maybe even a few actual laws by talking to Jex Azmi. And he'd touched him…and promised to see him again tomorrow. What had he been thinking? There was no way he could possibly go back there. His parents would be furious if they ever found out. Falling in love with a blue person would absolutely pale in comparison to this. And what if the Emri found out?

Piri's heart hammered against his ribs and his breathing sped up to an unhealthy tempo. He knew he was broadcasting his anxiety to everybody around him, but there was nothing he could do to calm himself. He was terrified of what he'd done, yet he wanted to do it all over again.

He remembered the sensation of Jex's small, cool palm against his and the soft, sweet voice in his mind. He pictured Jex's silky hair and perfect green skin and his wide violet eyes fringed with long, pale lashes. Most of all, he remembered the spark of determination he'd felt from Jex when he'd reached through the bars to touch him. Jex thought it was worth the risk.

In that moment, Piri's mind was made up.

He would go back tomorrow, no matter what the consequences might be, and he would keep going back as long as Jex wanted him to. He didn't know where this adventure was going to lead, but he knew he had to find out.