There is proper Dim Sum and there is Americanized Dim Sum. Dim Sum, the descendent of Yum Cha, is a refreshing meal meant to relax and revitalize. Dim Sum as most people understand it is a grab and go lunch meal full of boisterous chatting and endless cups of tea. The Dim Sum the Queen Averna serves is the noisy kind, and while I love cha siu bao I don’t want to deal with all the revelry around me and instead climb up to the promenade.
Afternoon tea is served on a cart that wheels through discrete wrought iron tables meant for one or two. Each grouping is separated by either a tree or a particular flower patch (can’t call it a garden, too small) and as long as each diner keeps their voice down you can almost pretend you’re alone.
“Ma’am,” the trolley girl sighs and starts distributing small sandwiches, cakes, and a pot of jasmine tea at my nod. I suppose I’m quite a sight, still dripping from a quick shower to rid myself of the slime, but most people are in flowing, light clothes so my shirtdress of water-colored flowers is unremarkable. If only my mental state could be so easily rectified.
Why did we take on additional cargo? Why is the crew so worried about the schedule (other than the obvious)? Why can’t I get a handle on the Captain? Who was that mer-vampire last night… I start, having almost forgotten the enigma of Tor’scion. As a Mer, I cannot allow him to live. As an Envoy my job is to assure the safe passage of the ship. If I reveal Tor’scion to the Mer before we reach port everyone on this ship will die. The ship will be sunk and any post-humans aboard in violation of Mer treaty will be executed. Which basically means that every vampire will die, as there will be an assumption of species-complicity.
I don’t want him dead, the thought surprises me and I listen carefully for any additional murmur from my subconscious as I try to daintily eat a sandwich comprised of alfalfa and cream cheese. Nothing else leaps unbidden to my mind and I tear into a Caprese, olive oil dribbling down my chin as focaccia and basil war for dominance of my taste buds.
Well, I continue my silent monologue, if I don’t want him dead what DO I want? Again there is no surprise answer, and no amount of tiny, bite-sized sandwiches fill the hole that dread is carving in my stomach.
“You’re the Mer Envoy, aren’t you?” a heavy-set man and his equally plump wife waylay me as I start back through the Promenade, fully intent on returning to the Captain’s daytime quarters.
“Yes, I am,” I say, a fake smile on my face that they take to mean, let’s have a conversation.
“Can you tell us what the fuss was about this morning? Why have we stopped?”
“The Ship-Meister will inform the crew once he has settled on a course of action,” my attempts at diplomacy may well be undermined as I close my lips and realize I still have bits of alfalfa in them. A quick sweep of my tongue fails to dislodge them and I raise my hands to my mouth, “if you’ll excuse me,”
“Just one more thing?” the woman asks and her husband tries to shush her but she will have none of it. “If we wanted to beseech the Mer for aid, how would we go about doing so?” Her question catches me off guard. Most who try to gain favor with us do so at the Interspecies Congress; approaching a single member has an almost 0% chance of success.
“Congress is the usual forum,” I say, trying to side step these suddenly intense and frightening people, “I cannot speak on behalf of a single entity. My job is to ensure that the Queen Averna does no harm during her passage across the waves.”
“But no one would listen to me at the Congress!” the woman’s voice has become shrill, desperation destroying her composure and her husband has to hold her back by the shoulders or I think she would have pounced on me.
“Envoy,” a quiet voice—the tea trolley girl—says and as I turn I realize she’s in full Averna Regalia, not a frock as she was before. “The Captain requests your presence,” the woman is now sobbing quietly into her husband’s shoulder and I have a moment’s pity for them.
“Come find me during the evening dancing,” I say, “and I will hear you out. I make no promises, there may be nothing I can do for you. But I will listen.” The man nods, a tiny light flaring in his eyes and he leads his distraught wife away. Once they are out of earshot, I murmur to the girl,
“Does the Ship-Meister really want to see me?”
“Not in the slightest, Envoy. Captain Niran is quite irate you’ve demanded that the netting be hoisted aboard instead of cut so we can proceed.”
“Anything I need to address head-on?” I ask, the water singing through her is startlingly pure—she must take great care with her diet and exercise—and there is no hesitation as she answers,
“No. It is part of the Treaty. Anything the ship sees as a danger must be addressed by the ship and removed from the ocean,” a mischievous glint enters her eyes and her voice lowers further, “although some say that, since it was Mer who wrought the net it should be Mer that deal with it.”
“Mer may have positioned the net, but the fabrication of it is Terran. Anything nets we would create would be easily torn apart by the Averna.”
“…Which is the conclusion that the Officers came to, once the JAG was finished talking.” A sly smile, returned by her, crosses our faces; a pair of naughty children collaborating against adults (in this case, the Officers). “The did want restitution from the Mer.”
The dead can’t do anything, I think, but my smile doesn’t falter. “We’ll see,” I say, nodding to her and returning to my cabin to brush my teeth.
There is both much, and little, to do aboard a ship. If you’re into shows, shopping, or sunbathing then your day would be filled. For me, however, it is my job to continually assess the ship which includes climbing lots of ladders and generally annoying everyone actually performing a job. Even though I changed into the ship’s coveralls before diving into the Engineering spaces my long hair is a dead give away that I don’t belong. While all the Terran crew are polite, it is obvious that outsiders—passengers, I hear one man sneer after I’ve climbed out of his space—are not welcome. I am not some gawking looky-loo, but I understand there is a certain animosity between those who are at their leisure and those who work 12-hour shifts as long as the ship is at sea. Once the Vampires start awakening the tension grows and I excuse myself to dress for dinner.
Upon returning to my room I am greeted at my door by a lovely woman carrying an ornate carpet bag; instead of the usual “oriental” design her woven bag is emblazoned with hairstyling implements and tools. “Envoy,” she says, her smile lighting up her face. “Captain Niran has requested that I help you with your hair tonight, as the passengers must be informed as to the delays this day has incurred and thought it might be best to look your part. He is going to be in his full formal attire, and requests that you do so as well.”
“Of course I will be happy to oblige the Ship-Meister,” her eyes blank but her face doesn’t waver, “but I need a few moments on my own. Please find a seat where you can,” as I open the door two streaks of fur appear from the shadows and almost kill the woman as she tries to cross the threshold.
“Good gracious!” she says, picking her bag up off the floor, “are those cats?”
“My cats, yes,” I say, scooping up a yowling Whisker Princess and foot-scratching Tuxedo Katman. “You don’t have an allergy, I hope,”
“No,” she assures me, mincing carefully toward the only chair, careful not to step on Katman’s whipping tail. “I’m just used to people bringing their tiny dogs on voyages, not their cats.”
“Cats have quite a history of ship-board life, you know,” I say, gauging her interest as little to none I drop the subject and the kitten (on the bed), and move into the closet. If we are to provide a unified front (and I have no idea what the Captain will say) I should dress in Averna’s Finery. Instead of the blazer and the pressed slacks, I decide to wear a deep navy dress with a plunging v neckline that stops just before revealing my bellybutton, hugs my hips down to my knees and flares out again in a crimson spray of tulle and satin. Tulle hugs my arms to the wrists and the sleeves have been embroidered with sea dragons. The back is surprisingly modest, a simple square-cut that exposes all of my shoulders and nothing else. It’s difficult to move in—I basically lose all use of my legs above the knee—but that makes it more imposing, as I learned from Elondiata. Simple crimson flats keep my feet from the floor and I step back into the main room and let the woman work her hair-magic.
“You have such lovely hair,” she murmurs, chatting happily about the different styles she could do with my abundantly wavy hair and I tell her to use her best judgement. She squeezes in some delightful smelling conditioner and before I know it my hair is artfully piled atop my head in a dizzying array of different sized braids looped and woven across the top of my head. It is both symmetrical and random, but held in place so artfully that it weighs no more than a simple ballerina bun would. “Shall I do your makeup, as well?”
“No,” I smile to soften the blow, “I can’t wear the stuff. Besides, if it only half-melted when I come back out of the sea then I’d look like the Creature from the Black Lagoon when I reemerged, and I don’t want to frighten anyone.” Yet, whispers a little mischievous part of me and I hush it automatically.
It is hours yet before formal dinner, but instead of slipping my dress and stalking around the ship looking for a young (and probably not-yet awake) vampire, I spend a small amount of quiet with my cats while they feast upon the fancy food Caleb has left for them and reading some 20th century fiction. The Mer have nothing like it, our songs are past, present, and future, and it tickles me to see what qualified as “imaginative” once now a clear presence in Terran’s daily lives. For example, the fact that people have an electronic persona in addition to their real lives tickles me. It is much the same game I play being both Lesser ‘Solved and Niharika, Envoy to the Queen Averna. While my duplicity is completely my choice, so is other’s in portraying their avatars as an ideal (fanciful or frightening) version of themselves. Some would argue that an avatar is who you want to be, but I don’t think that it can be separated from who one actually is.
Such thoughts allow me to spend two hours zipped into a restrictive dress as I wait for the bells calling us to dinner.
“This way, Envoy,” the tea-trolley girl from lunch is still in her more formal attire and she leads me to the backstage of the main area of the dining hall. Tables have been moved on to the dance floor that will be removed during the evening stroll above decks, and covered with fine linens in deepest Navy to disguise their transient nature.
“Envoy,” Captain Niran nods and turns back to speaking in low tones with his Operations Officer.
“Ship Meister,” I reply in kind and he tenses, then continues speaking to the other vampire. I sigh, it’s not new—being dismissed—but it is not appropriate. “What are you going to tell the crew?”
“The truth,” OpsO replies,
“Which truth?” I fire back, “the truth that I slaughtered a group of Mer that were violating oceanic protocol, or the truth that we’re returning to shore overnight once the netting has been removed from the ocean and there will be a minor delay to our journey?”
“You WHAT?” the vampires almost shriek, and I am slightly mollified at their aghast expressions. The buzzing excitement from the dining room is not necessary to dampen the sound, the thick, velvety curtains catch all noises backstage and direct them away from the crowd.
“There was a group of…terrorists I guess you’d call them. By Law and Right I subjected them to Mer Authority and found them lacking. Then I summarily executed them.” Their eyes both pop into that unsettling swirling maelstrom that resembles whirlpools and I am satisfied that I’ll not have to ask for situational reports again any time soon.
“Your actions are too hasty, Envoy,” the OpsO hisses and I smile a deep, predatory glare.
“My actions are just. They told me their intent was to destroy this vessel and kill the inhabitants. There are no jails below, we have no rehabilitation facilities. These,” children whispers through my brain and my brow furrows reconciling my feelings from my thoughts, “undesirables were cast out from the Deep. They could have risen to the surface if they found the Abyss too daunting. I offered them every chance to change their minds. They chose to fight and I was stronger.” I glare at them, daring them to contradict me once more and they are both mercifully silent.
“Captain,” calls a small, frightened voice. Oops, I guess the tea-time girl heard me. Oh well. “All the guests have been seated and are awaiting you.”
“Thank you child,” he says, all fatherly reassurance as he places a cool hand on my shoulder and helps me step up the steep stairs to the stage, a picture of courtly elegance. We step into the blazing light and he smiles wide enough to encompass the whole room. “Welcome my friends!” he shouts and the crowd roars in approval, “We have had a most interesting day!...” he goes on to say that they were stopped by oceanic garbage (true) and that the hazard had been removed (also true) and that we were altering course overnight; but not to worry, we’d be well underway by the next morning and only half a day behind schedule pulling into port. I smile and nod appropriately and when he opens the floor for questions a sharp voice rings out,
“Was this a hostile action?” My eyes struggle to pierce past the stage lights, but to no avail. It’s only when the dark-haired girl moves forward do I recognize the unnamed girl with the feline eyes from my first meal aboard the Averna. There’s something about her now that I failed to recognize before; a razor-sharp edge to her reasoning and an aggressive, I-dare-you-to-lie attitude underlying her words.
“No,” Captain Niran begins,
“Yes,” I say and he halts. “It was not aggressive in that the perpetrators wanted to hurt you, but it was aggressive in that they meant to halt and detain the Queen Averna.”
“What can you tell us about these so-called perpetrators?” she’s moved to the left of the stage and while it would throw off some, I calmly track her movements and respond flatly,
“They have been dealt with in full accordance with Mer law.”
“So they were Mer,” a murmur runs through the crowd and I sigh. It’s like the twentieth century terrorist hunts: if you belonged to the same group as the offenders the populace was quick to want to control and monitor.
“They were,” I respond, voice dripping ice and daring her to ask further. “They will no longer impede our progress.”
“Can I speak with them?” she is audacious, I’ll give her that and I smile, an unpleasant grin that sends a gasp through the front row of passengers.
“No,” sighs out of me and I drop the smile, “we do not bring hostile parties on-board as that would pose a security risk to every person aboard this vessel. Suffice to say, they have been removed from consideration and will trouble us no further.”
“Any other questions?” the Captain interjects and while I feel her glaring at me and trying to figure out a way to get more information, the low-quality questions drown out her fervor and within ten minutes the murmuring among the passengers has resumed its forced joviality of strangers at sea. The second-in-command offers me an arm and helps me down the stairs to my seat and we enjoy a tense if tasty meal in complete silence.
Then comes the clearing and the dancing and the rotund couple from before seek me out amongst the retiring couches lining the walls of the ballroom.
“Envory,” blustery is the word my mind most closely associates with the man and frantic for his wife. “May we speak with you now?”
“Of course, Mr…”
“Todd. Todd Whittleston.”
“Mr. Whittleston. What would you have from me?”
“Our son,” Mrs. Whittleston sobs. “We want our son back.” Oh dear, it is an interspecies concern and I have no love of these politics.
“Your son is…?”
“Here, on the Queen Averna. He’s become a Vampire!” Mr. Whittleston lays a hand on his wife’s arm and she chokes her shriek down to a hoarse whisper.
“What?” his befuddlement is to be expected.
“When did he become a vampire? Has he killed anyone, human or otherwise? Why is he here on the Averna? What do you want me to do?” The woman gasps, a fish suddenly in air, but her husband answers what he can.
“He became a vampire two years ago. We only just learned he was on the Averna from a friend who took a trip. I don’t know if he’s killed anyone, but wouldn’t that be against the Accords?” I nod and he takes some comfort from that—comfort that is perhaps ill-advised, given just how many people die and no one knows about it. “We want you to return our son to us.”
“I am neither Redeemer or Reclaimer,” my matter-of-fact tone does nothing to soothe them, “I cannot force a Vampire to give up a body,” he opens his mouth and I hold up a hand to silence him, “plus, you have no way of knowing if your son is still in the body. If he chose to submit to the vampire he may be long gone, in which case he is no longer your son but something else wearing his skin.”
“How can you say such a thing!?!” Mrs. Whittleston wails and buries her face in her husband’s shoulder.
“It is true,” my simple statement elicits another cry and I sigh. “And there is nothing I can do.” I stand, making my way as quickly as I can manage to the exit leading above decks. I see the girl with the feline eyes angling to cut me off and I lean down, unzipping the side zipper of the skirt, baring my leg up to the hip and dash through ahead of her.
“Envoy, wait!” she calls after me but I refuse to stop. I have had too much politicking today and refuse to deal with more at this late hour.
“Here,” whispers a voice as I start up the last ladderwell and I pause. An arm snakes out of the darkness and sweeps me up as easily as I would sweep up my cats, tucking me into the shadows of the corridor and between two large bore pipes. The dark haired girl races up the last ladder and disappears into the open air, form briefly eclipsing the diamond-starred sky, before my rescuer steps back and gallantly offers me an arm.
I had hoped to meet him, and here he is; the vampire who is also Mer is walking along the corridor with my arm looped through his and leads us out to a small, private deck under the overhang of the flight deck.
“What are you?” I ask and he turns, ice blue eyes sparkling like stars around us, only dulled by the slight haze in distance—the approaching city we need to off-load the net—and he contemplates the smear without answering me.
“What are you?” he finally replies, a question in a question and I laugh. I am Mer, I am Solved. I am one who can shift at will into any form I please. I am a sunlight singer, I have plunged into the Abyss. I am a daughter and a friend and a cat-mom, and I have no idea what I will become next.
“I am the Envoy to the Queen Averna,”
“No, that’s what you do. What are you?” it sounds perceptive and I would be flattered, but I do not trust this vampire that doesn’t know he’s Mer and I cannot answer honestly.
“Would you like me to show you?” I ask, and he nods. I grab the lapels of his suit and bring all the strength of the ocean to bear, tipping us off the ship and into the sea before he can shout.
It happens again. The minute we hit the water I see the Vampire disappear and before me is one very confused Mer.
Where the hell am I? he shouts, tearing off the three-piece suit and flashing into a fine, strong Mer of the South Pacific. His scales glisten silvery aqua in the dark light and the jellyfish around us flutter in bioluminescent response to his flash. I change into my first form, gold-dusted purple scales dulled by the lack of light but I see the reaction in his eyes before he pushes away from me.
They call it the Western Pacific, I sing, adding the echo-locative ping that means I am no threat and willing to let myself be seen. What do you last remember?
Darkness, he says, I feel like I’ve been drowning for a long time. What season is this?
Just past Equinox, XX years after what the Terrans and Vampires call ‘The Unveiling.’
So it’s been a season…he starts musing while swimming away from me and I am so startled by this impoliteness that I have to work to catch up with him.
Wait! I sing has he pulls further away from the Averna. The ship’s almost to shore but we’re still out in the channel and he pauses in the murk before deliberately continuing to swim toward open ocean. I am Envoy to the Queen Averna and you will obey me! It sounds insipid the moment it comes out of my mouth and a haughty, masculine chuckle comes on the edge of his song.
We are Mer, we obey no one, pushed past breaking, I tug on the tide and lasso him. A flick of my fingers and he is pulled back, thrashing, to float in front of me.
I have Solved, I growl in my song, and I will not be dismissed. You WILL submit to me, or I will beach you and let the Beast take you forever.
Beast…Solved…what? He finally stops fighting the current and I contain him in a net of bubbles. What the hell is going on?
I don’t know, I reply honestly, cursing myself for my temper. Now my secret’s out…and he knows my job…it’s only a matter of time before he learns my name. My name is Niharika; child of FATHER, Pod Meister to Orcas, and MOTHER, Siren of the Caribe. I have Solved a part of the Great Mystery and am serving our people as Envoy to the Queen Averna. Who are you?
I’m…his mouth opens as if he has every intent to answer, but is stopped. The kind of full stop slamming into a rock will cause. I’m Mer, he whispers to himself and I don’t have to see his form to know it is true. I was on Walkabout, there were trees taller than the great kelp forests. Birds flew through the air and were untouchable and horses that ran so fast you couldn’t catch them and disappear after only a few moments… It doesn’t really narrow it down, it could have been anywhere outside the Habitats. It’s been less than a generation since the Unveiling, but the humans seem to have forgotten the time when they were masters of the known universe. At least, they thought they were. But he wasn’t in a city, which makes him more adventurous than most.
Well Mer, I say, hearing the Averna start to fire up the sonar and launch a ping!, to recall me to the ship. I shout an acknowledgement that the sonar crew knows to look for and within a minute the array is being powered down. Here’s the problem. He stares at me with liquid eyes—the kind that mean he’s crying uncontrollably, but not in a hysterical, out-of-control sobbing kind of way—and I feel a moment’s remorse that I have to tell him at all. You’ve been…hijacked, for want of a better phrase. The moment the sea stops kissing your skin, a Vampire will be driving you again. I don’t know how, and I don’t know why, but I’m guessing there’s no good purpose behind it. And here’s the real bitch…you’ve got to come back with me to the Averna and LET IT.
You’re Solved. This is a breach of all our Treaties, why in all the waters would you allow this to continue?!?
Because there’s a deeper Mystery here, and I need time to find out what it is. So WE, I emphasize the ‘we’ to try and reassure him that I will not let him be taken, WE need to get back to the ship so that I can stop them.
I don’t want to, his sulking makes me think of a small child and it’s all I can do to avoid an authoritative parenting tone before he relents, but if I have your word on the Mystery that you won’t let them take me, then I’ll come without complaint.
You’ll come either way, I manage NOT to say, but I nod and start towing him back to the ship.
Please let me swim, he says and I release the net with a flick of my fins. As we silently travel toward the ship he stops again and even though I am frustrated and confused and wildly upset by the whole situation I let him have a moment and he speaks before my patience runs out.
There are others.