QUISTA (Book One: Danay)
by Aviva BelíHarold
Copyright © 2016 by Aviva BelíHarold
Coming of Age
"Oh, hey, I got this for you," Kit said holding out a small satchel.
It was the day of the Popling Festival. We sat on the dock waiting for the event to start. Kit had her feet in the water and was making ripples as she swished them back and forth.
"Whatís that for?" I asked as a hot breeze caught a rogue strand of my hair and blew it across my face. I pulled it back, trying to tuck it behind my ear. I wished my hair would grow past my chin like KitísÖ like everyone elseís.
"Itís for your birthday, silly," Kit frowned at me as she dropped the satchel in my hand. "Donít tell me you forgot todayís your birthday?"
"Yeah, I forgot." I lied. I stuffed her gift in my pocket and turned to stare out over the water towards the Deeps.
A flock of hooroop soared overhead, casting shadows across the rippling water.
Kit sighed, "Did you really forget?"
I wish I had. "No, not really."
Her tone became compassionate, "I understand."
I was sure she didnít. "Thanks," I said.
I continued to stare out at the water, watching small currents pull and drag so the surface danced with yellow, gold and orange hues from the three suns above.
"You know itís not fair!" KitíUna kicked at the surface of the water.
I leaned back to avoid the splashes.
"Of all the stupid things Emperor Zigel has done."
"Hush," I said gently putting my hand on her shoulder. "You shouldnít speak like that."
She pulled away from me glaring, "You donít like him either. You canít even think about him without making a face ó see!"
I shook my head trying to lose my expression. "Still, you know the penalty for saying anything bad about him. Even on our planet you need to be careful."
"Oh, stop worrying. All I was going to say is it isnít fair that every planet has to keep time according to his planetís Royal Years. Itís impossible to keep track of anything."
I looked around to be sure no one else could hear us.
"Come on Danay, you have to agree with me. Itís crazy making! Last Turn your birthday fell in the rainy season, this Turn mine will." She threw her hands up. "Itís as if he did it on purpose just to make us miserable! Why else would he pass such a ridiculous law?"
"It wasnít his law," I said, surprising myself. Then even more surprising I went on, "That law was necessary when there was open trade between the planets."
She stared at me, "Whose side are you on?"
"Not his," I said with a scowl. Then I bowed my head feeling guilty. I checked again, everyone else was at least fifty paces away. They were all on the safe docks waiting for the dayís events to start.
"Someone should tell the Emperor to change the law then. I mean itís been over seventeen Turns since travel was banned between the planets. No travel ó no trading ó no communication ó no reason to keep the same time cycle. No reason to mess up our birthdays. Especially this one," her eyes narrowed on me. "How could you forget your Coming of Age birthday?"
I knew she hadnít understood.
"Youíve been talking about it for over five Seasons. Just last Turn you couldnít wait for today. WhatÖ" she bit her lip before she finished asking her question.
I pressed my own lips together and turned away. She knew full well what had changed. She stayed quiet but I didnít turn back. Instead I studied the soaring flocks of hooroop. Such strange sleek creatures they were. They easily soared through the air, but if their underfur got even a little wet they drowned. Still, somehow, they thrived here.
"Kit! Kit!" PalíHon called. I looked at the safe dock where he was. He was frantically waving his arms making the rolls of fat on them rippled like the ocean after a rock was thrown in. Catching my eye, he deliberate pointed a fat finger at Kit then at the railing of the safe dock. It was slowly being raised to provide a barrier of protection for the onlookers.
"I think PalíHon wants you to go sit with him." I said. He was one of the more popular boys in our school, and she was lucky he kept trying to show her interest.
She rolled her eyes. "Canít you see Iím ignoring him?"
"Itís okay if you want to watch with him." I often wondered why she stayed with me when all the other kids would be happy to have her join them.
Kit frowned. "Unlike you, I have not reached my fifteenth Royal Year. It would be improper to accept his invitationÖ or anyone elseís."
I nodded. She and I both knew that PalíHon wasnít the only admirer she had. He was just bolder than the others. I suspected that might change the closer the Seasons got to her fifteenth Royal Year.
"Your birthday isnít that far off. Itís less than a full Turn away. No one would say anything." Iíd seen girls flirt with potential suitors long before their fifteenth birthday. "Besides, you have so many to choose from it might be a plan to start weeding them out."
"You never did that," she said.
As if we were the same. Kit could have been the most popular girl in Tem, if she didnít spend so much time with me.
"You forget," I tried to keep my tone light, "I donít have any suitors."
"He left." Just saying it made my heart ache.
"No Kit. He left." I squeezed my eyes shut as I thought about the only boy Iíd ever liked. Phillip. He was an off-worlder, like my father. Phillip had come to our village, Tem, in the middle of last Turn. But he never showed any interest in me, and he left halfway through the last Season. "I donít want to talk about him."
Kit looked like she was about to argue.
"No! I donít even want to think about him," I snapped.
Now she looked like Iíd slapped her.
"Iím sorry." I thought about the gift Iíd stuffed into my pocket. I didnít deserve it. I should try and give it backÖ but I knew she wouldnít let me.
"More people would like you if they just got to know you," Kit said.
She actually believed that. "Kit, please, weíve been over this before."
"Yeah," her voice got louder, "and I think we need to go over it again. Youíre the best person Iíve ever met. Just because you happen to be a little skinnyó"
"A little? Huh. Thatís the understatement of the Turn."
"ólooks arenít everything."
"That isnít the only thing they donít like about me."
Kit shook her head.
"Kit, open your eyes. Itís not just that Iím way too skinny, Iím also too tall. Iím taller than everyone in Tem by at least three finger widths! Then thereís my hair, and my eyesÖ and my skin ó they are all the wrong color. Not to mention, I donít have enough webbing on my hands and I donít have any on my feet. And we arenít even talking about the biggest problemÖ IímÖ IÖ I get sick if I stay wet too long."
"I donít see the problem," she said.
"You donít?" She had to be kidding. "Um, havenít noticed that the whole planet is covered in water!"
"Yeah? So? Youíve lived here all your life, it hasnít killed you yet. You visit me all the time. You could make it work with a boy if you wanted to."
That really stung. "Kit, believe me. I want to. If anyoneó" my voice caught, "óanyone showed the slightest interest in me I would do everything I could to make it work. But Iíve got nothing to offer the boys here and they all know it."
"You do to," she huffed, "and if they canít see it ó then ó then theyíre all a bunch of dakka." She crossed her arms and glared over at the villagers who were squished together on the safe dock.
I wanted to laugh; Iíd never heard Kit call anyone a bunch of hoorup droppings before. "What did I do to deserve such a good friend?"
"You donít get it." She switched her gaze to me. "You donít see how amazing you are."
I felt my smile disappear. "No, I donít."
I could see she wanted to say more, thankfully she didnít.
Turning away I wondered, yet again, what was my purpose? At my age, girls were supposed to be thinking about dating, mating, and learning a skill for their future. There was no chance of me doing that ó so what was I supposed to do?
When I was younger, I used to wish my fatherís relatives would find me and take me away from UmaíThree ó thinking any planet would have been better than this one. I stopped wishing for that when I realized that Iíd have to leave my NaníDah. She was a true UmaíThreeite ó as hard as it was for me, a half breed, to live on this planet ó it would be impossible for her to live anywhere else. Now UmaíThree was my home. Besides, I couldnít leave even if I still wanted to, all unofficial space travel was banned. Banned by Emperor Zigel when I was just a baby.
I felt my face scrunch up, like Iíd eaten something sour. Of all the things I didnít understand, banning space travel was the worst.
"Donít worry. Thereís plenty of time for the right boy to find you." Kit patted my back, "And the longer he takes, the longer I get you all to myself."
I leaned over until my shoulder bumped hers. "Thanks Kit." I didnít bother reminding her that by the end of this Turn she would be going away for her studies.
I stared out at the Deeps again trying not to let my mood slip any lower. Slowly I remembered why today was special. Not because it was my birthday. But, because it was the Popling Festival.
My breath caught. I felt the energy mounting. It made my heart flutter and my skin prickle.
The burbís were coming.
I may not have fit in with the people, and the constant waters might have dampened my mood, but when it was time for the Popling Festival ó I knew this was where I was meant to be.
"You know, I was thinkingÖ" Kit stopped and pulled her feet out of the water as a great white shark swam by.
I reached out and dipped my arm into the warm water, all the way up to my elbow. I ran my fingers along the great whiteís flank. Its hide was rough but strangely soothing.
When I could no longer touch the shark, it made a quick circle to swim by again. This time it pressed itself against me. "You are a beauty," I whispered. "Kit, isnít she beautiful?"
"Yeah, sure. Beautiful."
Great whites were the kings of the Deeps. They were nearly twice as long as a regular shark and over double the weight. Great whites could take on a mammoth stingray and win. This one was particularly stunning, more silver than white, with smoothly rounded fins ó a sure sign that she was female.
Kit didnít put her feet back into the water until the great white was several paces away. She sighed as if she had been holding her breath the whole time.
"Here," she offered me the sleeve of her wetískn before I even started looking for a place to dry my hands.
I happily wiped my fingers on it feeling the material absorbing the moisture to circulate it closer to Kitís body. Everyone on UmaíThree wore wetískns. Nothing else made sense. A wetískn makes it easier to move through water and it wicks in moisture, keeping the wearer damp at all times. I also wore a wetískn, only mine was inside out. As an off-worlder the reversed wetískn kept me dry ó and made it even more obvious that I didnít belong here.
"You know you really shouldnít do that."
"What?" I pulled my hands away. "You offered it to me."
"Not that." She rolled her eyes. "The shark, you shouldnít touch it."
I knew I shouldnít. I looked over at the docks where everyone was gathered. They were watching me. I touched sharks when no one else would. I didnít go behind the protective barriers when everyone else did. I wasnít helping my reputation. I shrugged, "Itís not like I can lose any more points. Iím pretty much at the bottom of the chart."
"What about the shark. It could bite off your arm before you could even blink."
"I guess she could," I watched the shark, she was twenty paces out. "She wouldnít though. She likes it when I rub her."
"How do you know that?"
"Easy, I still have my arm." I laughed. It was funny because I knew sheíd never bite me.
Kit wrinkled her nose. She was also watching the shark ó warily ó ready to get out of harmís way if it turned towards us again.
"Relax, Kit, I wonít let anything bad happen to you."
Her worry lines disappeared, "Thatís true. Nothing bad ever happens to me when Iím with you. Itís like youíre my good luck charm." Her gaze became unfocussed. "You know, my dad told me Iíd like you, even before you moved to Tem. And he promised me that if I gave you a chance I wouldnít be sorry for being your friend."
As much as I loved Mr.íUna, I always hated hearing this story. It was hard to know that my one and only friend had been told to be my friend. It pointed a spotlight on the fact that even KitíUna wouldnít have liked me if her father hadnít told her to. But I listened, because ever since Mr.íUna had died; Kit liked to talk about himÖ and I liked to listen because I missed him too.
"You know my dad single handedly got your apartment ready for you before you moved here."
Mine was the only apartment in Tem that didnít have the customary three finger widths of water lining the floor.
"I kinda helped him, as much as any three-Royal-Year-old can be helpful." She laughed. "I didnít know what to expect. I mean Iíd seen an off-worlder once when I was in the city. But Iíd never really met one," she glanced at me, "or the daughter of one."
"Anyways, my father was so excited. He spent every minute he could working on your place. And when he wasnít working on it he was talking about it with my mom. He acted like your coming here would be this huge blessingÖ I guess it has been. Your NaníDahís been a great help." She frowned then shook her head as if trying to get her thoughts straight, "Anyways, he wanted to make everything just right for you."
She scratched her head. "It was like good wasnít good enough. It had to be perfect ó only better than perfect."
I thought about Mr.íUna. The first time we were introduced, he bowed so low he almost did a belly flop. He had always been nice to me, treating me likeÖ like I was one of his children. Whenever he came home from the silt mines, heíd have something for me the same way he brought back things for Kit and her brother.
When he died, I cried for days. To this day I sometimes still cry.
Kit blinked as if remembering sheíd been talking.
I hadnít realized sheíd stopped.
"Did I tell you what he told me the last time before he went off to the mines?"
I shook my head. It hadnít been a Royal Year yet, heíd been alive for my last birthday.
"He told me that I should protect you."
"Protect me from what?"
She shrugged, "Iím not sure." Her eyes were unfocussed again, "But boy do I wish I could figure it out."
"You think I need to be protected?"
She quickly focused on me, "No." She shook her head, "No, you never seem to need protection. If anything you protect me. Youíve saved my life at least twice this Turn alone." She smiled.
I rolled my eyes. "Donít over exaggerate."
"Have you forgotten two Seasonsí back when those sharks entered the village? They attacked five people before they were caught. You heard them coming and scared them away."
"And what about the stinging jelly hatchlings?" she cut me off. "Those things could have killed me. But you wouldnít let me leave your house. It was like you just knew something bad was about to happen. And what about all the flood waves youíve protected us ó protected me ó from? I would have been swept out into the Deeps."
"Enough already," I held up my hand. I was prepared to hit her if she tried to mention the miílex Iíd stopped her from stepping on. "What I did wasnít that spectacular. I heard the sharks because they were splashing too much. I felt the stinging jellies, when their electric charge made the hairs on my arms tingle. And the flood waves are easy to anticipate if you know what to watch for."
"You heard. You felt. You saw. You." Kit was looking at me the way she sometimes did. As if to sayÖ I donít know, something like: I was different. I hated that look. "Danay Qwan, youíve been my good luck charm ever since day one."
I shook my head feeling exasperated.
"You have. Do you think I could sit here, on the open docks, if you werenít with me? No. I would be there, with them." She pointed back at the safe dock.
She was right; anyone from the village whoíd come to watch was gathered there. And anyone else who wasnít there would be locked in their homes.
The people on the dock moved away from the railings as the great white slowly passed in front of the crowd.
I scowled, "Idiots. It wonít hurt them. Itís this kind of blind fear that causes the senseless killing of these magnificent creatures."
"Not everyone loves sharks." Kit patted my knee, "Youíve gotta cut them some slack. Itís hard not to be afraid of something that big with so many rows of teeth. I mean, what does it need all those teeth for? If it really wanted to it could swallow a person whole."
"Sharks arenít interested in humans. Arenít you supposed to be a future marine biologist? You should know that they donít attack people unless theyíre ill."
"How are we supposed to know if a great white is sick?"
"They splash too much and froth at the nostrils. Itís easy to see."
"For you," she said softly.
"They come here every Turn and they havenít once tried to attack anybody. They are just as much a part of the Festival as the hooroop, the stinging jellies, the burbs and the poplings."
"Not everyone can trust nature the way you do, Danay. Not everyone is as charmed."
"Iím not charmed," I grumbled.
"Whatever you want to call it. Lucky, observant, intuitive ó whatever. Like I said, you are my good luck charm."
I rolled my eyes and gave up.
A hoorup cried and my gaze was drawn back to the Deeps.
"You can feel it, right? Itís almost time forÖ" I heard the smile in her voice.
"Itís close." My heart fluttered in my chest. "Very close." My breath caught as I glimpsed the dotted horizon. My lips curled into a smile of their own. I was about to laugh, but I held it in. No one else had seen them yet.