For those following this aquatic science fiction romance story each Monday, welcome back!
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Last time, we left Jinn as she was joined in exile by Eldelza, who is now Trey's intended. Neither Trey nor Eldelza want this match, but fate, law and circumstance have created a terrible dilemma, not only for Jinn, Trey and Eldelza, but for Trey's older brother, Tardem, as well.
Eldelza stayed with Jinn until a thin crescent of the sun crept just over the horizon, flooding the waters of Fourth City with dawn. Then, together, they returned to the Imperator’s estate to join the somber school of Shell swimmers who made their way to the Conclave of the Elders.
The Imperator and twelve of his sentinels led the way, followed by Trey and Tardem, with a handful of spectators trailing behind. Eldelza guided Jinn to bring up the tail of the last group, and draw what little moral support they could from each other.
The duel would be held in the auditorium. Eldelza had explained the shallow waters there were necessary for combat, so the contestants could take air during the fight.
Jinn set her gaze on Trey at the moment he looked back, searching for her in the procession, and a glib frown molded his mouth in a way that made Jinn’s heart sink to the sands below her. The school continued into the Conclave, past the stern-faced guardians with upraised spears who lined the entrance.
Inside the structure named for them, the Conclave of Elders had assembled behind their podiums, and the audience took positions at the back of the amphitheater, leaving the center open for the combatants.
The Prime Elder looked out over the faces of the spectators. “We have come this day…” he began.
Jinn barely registered the balance of his ceremonial citation. She watched Trey as he waited, head bent and eyes cast down. Tardem, beside him, no longer seemed the brash, emboldened Perling she’d met that first day on Veros. If Remorseful had a face, he wore it.
“And now,” the Prime Elder concluded, “the Imperator of Fourth City will officiate over the Challenge.”
Jinn’s breath caught. Their father was expected to preside over his sons’ duel to the death?
When Trey and Tardem were told to face each other to acknowledge the terms of combat, Eldelza went still in the water. In her bubble beside her, Jinn pressed a fist tight to her stomach.
She watched in horror as Tardem was handed his Barclay spear.
Trey’s brother took the lethal weapon reluctantly, shifting it between his handfins. He regarded the gleaming, barbed head with a slow exhale of bubbles as he cast off the fin on his weapon hand.
Their father indicated the surface, and both combatants rose to fill their lungs with air before the battle began. Most of the witnesses did the same.
When Eldelza rose, Jinn powered her bubble to the surface with her, opening the seal and raising her couch to slip over the rim into the water. Then she fitted the breather over her face. Jinn would not be viewed as an outsider today—an alien encapsulated in a piece of her own world—but one who had lived in theirs.
Her actions gathered attention. The Imperator’s eyes widened for a brief moment, as did many of the elders and spectators. Trey’s eyes sparked with surprise, and then dimmed in sorrow. Was he thinking of what could have been?
Jinn’s heart sank even lower.
“Begin,” the Imperator instructed, though without her envirosphere translator, Jinn had to rely on her scant knowledge of Perling facial movement to interpret his word.
Panic took hold. She wanted to swim between Trey and Tardem, wave her arms and kick her feet and shout at them that this was senseless and barbaric and there was no honor in fighting this battle. She wanted to pummel her fists against the Prime Elder’s chest and tell him he was being stubborn and unreasonable. She wanted to pull Trey into her arms and shield him from the gleaming blade of his brother’s spear.
But those actions would gain her nothing. She would only be expelled by the guards and robbed of the final moments of Trey’s life. So instead, she gazed at Trey helplessly, answering his woeful look of farewell with one of her own.
Thanks for following Jinn and Trey's journey with me as we approach its conclusion. There's still more surprises in store....but only three more parts to go!
Hope to see you back next Monday for Part 32.
Have a great week!