This is an "aquatic science fiction romance" novella titled The Shell and the Star by Laurie A. Green that was offered in a serialized version as a free read on this blog in 2022.
This page contains the first six chapters followed by links to the remainder of the serialized story.
It's a complete book in the Inherited Stars Universe.
“You have a suitor.”
Jinn peered up into her father’s grey eyes as he floated into place before her. Is he joking? Since she’d come of age, five long calendars had passed without a bid. She’d given up hope of ever having a mate. Who would want me? “Who…who makes this request?”
“The Fourth Imperator of the Perling.”
Jinn gasped, reeling like the oxygen had just been sucked out the airlock. A Perling sovereign? An alien? “Father, no! I can’t—”
“You will answer his bid,” her father insisted, grabbing a handhold to anchor himself in Talstar’s microgravity.
“But why? Why would a Perling Imperator want my hand?”
“Not the leader himself, girl. He asks on behalf of his second son.”
Jinn dropped her gaze to her small fists clenched around the frame of her sleeprack. Her shoulder bumped the bulkhead when she pushed off to face him. “Why would even a second son want me?” Compared to the towering, graceful figure of her father, she felt ugly, unworthy—an outcast. If only she’d been born like him. Like all of her people. “Does he know I’m a—”
Jinn fought to hold back tears. “Not to him.”
“I’m having an eco-bubble readied for the next trade shuttle flight. You will leave tomorrow for the seas below.”
Her father’s determined eyes fixed on her, his expression permitting no argument. “Daughter, you’ve had no suitors on Talstar. You will honor the bid of this Perling.”
“But Father…I know nothing of their realm.”
“You will learn.” He turned his head away and pulled in a deep draw of recycled air before slowly releasing it. “You will learn…what I couldn’t teach you.”
Jinn bowed her head. Talstar was all she’d ever known. Why must she leave her refuge for the oceans of Veros to meet an alien sea-dweller who would only reject her on sight? At least here she had family, a mother who soothed and a father who sheltered. Here she knew contentment. Not the happiness she craved, no. But safety. Security. A safe place to hide from the disdain and pity of others.
“You grow quiet. I thought you would be eager to meet the one who has bid for your hand.”
“Not like this. Not a bid from a male I’ve never met, an alien suitor who knows nothing about me. Or my flaws.”
Her father reached out to take a handhold near the port-vu in her compartment and gazed down at the blue world below. “Always you assume the worst.”
“Experience has taught me well.”
“Jinn, our ties with the Perling grow weak. The populations of both domains are swelling and our trade pacts are strained as a result. We must reinforce our connection or neither race may survive. A blood tie with the son of the Fourth Imperator would renew and strengthen our alliance. Your sisters have all chosen Talstar mates.” He released the handhold, turning to face her. “You have no prospects here, and are my last hope for a beneficial match.”
A beneficial match? Is that really what he thought would happen? No male on Talstar was interested in her, why would the son of a noble water-dweller want anything to do with her? “I will only disappoint. At least tell him of me and allow him to withdraw his bid. Spare me the shame of outright rejection.”
Her father’s gaze finally returned to her face. “The bid agreement was struck with the Imperator himself, not his heir.”
“And what if the Imperator is offended that you send a mutant to his son?”
“He knows of your condition.”
Jinn sucked in her breath. “You said he did not!”
“I said his son did not.”
Jinn searched his eyes, refusing to let tears fall. Had the two leaders conspired to keep the truth from Imperator’s son? She could imagine the succession of expressions on the young man’s face when he first laid eyes on her. Shock. Dismay. Revulsion. “You and your friend conspire to hide the truth of what I am? Nothing good can ever come of that!”
“I think you underestimate yourself, Jinn. As you always have.” Her father pushed off the handhold and floated toward the door. “Essa will pack your necessities in a bubble for tomorrow’s flight. Until then, you should get your rest.”
Jinn couldn’t look at him. How could he do this? Hadn’t she faced enough shame and ridicule on Talstar? Now she’d be thrust into an alien realm where she was sure to face much harsher humiliation? “How long must I remain on Perling?”
“Until the two of you come to a decision about your future together.”
“Then it will be a very short trip.”
“Daughter.” Her father paused by the exit hatch. “For once I ask you to trust me. I always have your best interests at heart, though you often doubt me.”
He pulled himself into the corridor and sealed the hatch behind him, the hollow clank of the latch reverberating through her chamber.
Free-floating, Jinn covered her face with her hands and lost the battle to hold back her tears.
Jinn powered her bubble off the trade shuttle after it had descended through the Veros atmosphere, gone submarine and docked underwater at the trade transfer station. Her envirosphere followed its pre-programmed coordinates to take her to the Imperator’s estate. As the submersible navigated out of the enclosed transfer station, the frightening, captivating, resplendent vista unfolding ahead made her gasp aloud. She pushed braced against the cushion of her flight couch and tried to take in the wonder of the colors and shapes.
The daunting, blue world of Fourth City dwarfed her small, one-person sphere in an alien panorama. Colorful sea fans waved next to stark stands of bleached white coral. A few scant schools of yellow-striped fish darted among the rocks and flora. Bright red crabs scouted the sandy bottom. And all around her the enormity of the ocean pressed in, threatening to crush her little circle of life. She looked straight up—toward home—and could just see the shimmering plane of the surface, at least thirty foot-spans above her head.
Her bubble auto-navigated around the bulk of a dark, underwater mount, and set course for a massive structure shaped of smooth, pastel coated curves and domes. The Imperator’s Estate, no doubt, completely submerged and overlooking the expansive dominion of Fourth City. The Perling settlement filled the undersea horizon, fading to hazy greens in the distance.
Her envirosphere entered the portal of the stately home and swiveled its silent thrusters to hold position. Jinn stared through the clear barrier at the finery of the watery mansion’s vestibule. The smooth floors and convex walls looked to be formed of polished flow-coat, a product of the dimensional printers Talstar exported to Perling. But these structures were alive with rich aquas, blues and teals that were a total contrast to the familiar grays, blacks and off-whites of her orbiting home.
A party of six Perling staffers arrived to greet her, each with two arms and two legs that ended in colorful fins, the bright fabrics of their bodyveils moving gently in the soft current. Other than their aquatic adaptions, Jinn was surprised that the Perling didn’t look so very different from her own kind. One species floated in low gravity above the planet, the other swam beneath the surface of a warm sea, but both had the tall, lean, willowy forms that suited their environments.
So unlike the small, clumsy body that she’d been cursed with.
She expected looks of alarm and disgust from the Perling greeting party, but instead they smiled at her and traded glances. Did they find her appearance amusing? Jinn glanced down at her plain black leggings and simple white tunic with its row of gold-tone catches. Her clothing did nothing to hide her deformity. No wonder they grinned. Why had she even come here?
A mature female with dark, close-cropped hair broke rank to tread water before Jinn’s bubble, her light orange and cream body-veil undulating around her sleek form.
“Welcome, Jinn Amalla, to the Imperator’s estate. His Grace is eager to meet you. I am Morra, his estate manager.” The Perling spoke without opening her mouth, yet the speakers in Jinn’s enviro-unit translated the staffer’s words into Talstaric. Jinn cocked her head, spying a device under Morra’s chin that seemed to generate her voice. Perhaps by interpreting the movement of her throat and vocal chords? “Would you follow me, please?” Morra asked.
Jinn nodded and powered up her bubble, trailing along behind the staff member who glided through the spacious, curved halls that opened on both sides to massive, rounded chambers. All surfaces were bathed in soft, subdued colors. Above, silver ceilings rippled, casting light that shimmered and danced along the floor and walls.
No furniture? Jinn’s mouth skewed. Of course not. A species suspended by the buoyancy of water meant no need for seating modules.
Following Morra’s lead, Jinn navigated her bubble through a broad arch into a cavernous room beyond. She marveled at the organic contours, awash in soft hues of sand and aquamarine.
A large embossed mural of an aquatic fan-shell graced one wall--the emblem of the Perling species and the basis of their collective identity--The Shell. As much a symbol of their empire as—she glanced at the blue tattoo decorating her palm—the stylistic Star of her native people.
Jinn’s gaze swept the globular room, noticing an imposing male in a columned alcove scanning diagrams on a large wall screen. He looked up as Jinn and her escort approached and rotated his fins to turn her way, a slow smile spreading over his lips.
“Your Grace, our anticipated guest has arrived,” Morra announced.
“Excellent.” Blanking the screen, he swam out of the alcove to greet her.
She brought her bubble to neutral-hold, bowing her head in respect...as well as a little awe. The Imperator was a magnificent creature, easily as tall and imposing as her father.
“Jinn Amalla, fifth daughter of Commander Arc, you are most welcome to my home,” his words rumbled from her translator. “Your presence here pleases me greatly.” He seemed genuine in his welcome, but then, according to her father he’d known what to expect.
“Your Grace,” she responded with all the courage she could muster. “It’s an honor to be your guest. My father sends his highest regards.”
“I have missed my dear friend. Indeed, I have not had the company of a Talstar emissary in my estate for many longtides.” He rose to the ceiling and his head disappeared through the shiny surface. Jinn followed his movement, watching with her mouth agape. The malleable silver ceiling overhead wasn’t a surface at all. It appeared to be the bottom of a large air pocket incorporated into the room’s design. After filling his lungs, the Imperator re-submerged to regard her, still smiling.
They’re airbreathers? Jenn snapped her jaw shut, trying to hide her surprise. He might think her weak-minded. Her people were told so little about the Perling, it had never occurred to her that they couldn’t remain beneath the water without an air supply, just as she needed the enviro-bubble for the oxygen she required. So they weren’t truly a marine species as she’d always believed. Yet their kind certainly had important adaptations as aquatic mammals–fins, for one, and an efficient respiratory system that allowed them to hold their breaths for extended periods.
“Tell me of yourself, child,” the Imperator said, pulling her attention back from her musing.
“I—I have reached twenty-four seasons…as y-yet unbid,” Jinn stammered, then stopped when she remembered her father’s reproach for being so hard on herself.
“Much to my son’s gain.” Placing his fin beneath his chin, his deep blue body-veil gracefully enveloping his arm with the movement, the Imperator regarded her. “Yes, I think he will be most pleased to know you.”
“It is my fear he will not, Your Grace.”
“Ah, but that is because you don’t yet know Trey.” He pushed his fins forward, propelling himself toward the wall. “Something we will quickly remedy.” He stretched his arm to a panel and flicked a fin over it. Jinn heard a delicate chime sound through the water.
So it seemed she’d passed muster with the Imperator, at least. But was she prepared to face the scrutiny of a suitor?
A large form torpedoed into the room and splayed his fins, coming to an abrupt stop. He was a magnificent Perling male—a young giant, sleek and keen-eyed. Shoulder-length, black hair drifted in the gentle current, framing a handsome face. Very handsome, even by Talstar standards. His dark eyes locked on her figure and his face contorted with shock and scorn that Jinn knew—and feared—all too well.
“A throwback?” An explosion of bubbles emitted from the young male’s mouth. The sharp laughter simultaneously sounding from her translator shriveled Jenn’s battered heart.
Mortified, she opaqued the one-way shielding in her outer bubble to hide from the son’s scathing gaze, ashamed and wounded by his undisguised contempt.
So much for her suitor’s approval.
The Imperator grimaced and grasped one of his son’s forefins, addressing him in a tone of rebuke. “Have I not taught you better? Where are your manners? Introduce yourself to our guest, my son.”
“There is no need,” Jinn said through her teeth. They couldn’t see her inside the one-way shielding, but they could still hear her translator. She moved her hand to the controls, ready to reverse course and glide straight back to the transfer station and the shuttle that would soon depart again for Talstar.
“Please hear his very humble apology,” the Imperator said with a glower at his son.
“Apologies,” the young Perling said in a most unapologetic voice. He pulled his fin away from his father’s grasp and rose to snatch a breath of air from the ceiling before speaking again. “I am Tardem,” he announced, puffing out his chest in pride. He crossed a fin over his waist and jack-knifed his body into an exaggerated bow. “First son of the Imperator.”
First son? Jinn mouthed from within the safe screen of her pearlized bubble. Then he’s…
“My impetuous heir now having satisfied his infinite curiosity will remove himself from our presence.”
“You’ll suit Trey well,” Tardem said with a droll smile, then flailed his arms in a mighty butterfly stroke, and rolled to glide toward the exit. Shooting through the archway, he slapped his fin on the shoulder of another Perling who had just entered as he jetted past.
Jinn took in the new arrival and gasped.
The young male gazed at her opaqued sphere and pulled himself up inside the chamber with a wave of his fins to hold his position. He was a runt! A Perling, yes—but short-limbed and compact—a virtual mirror of her own disfigurement.
Jinn felt a stab of pain in her heart as sharp as any dagger.
Now I see.
The second son of the Imperator was a mutant among his people, just like she was. Had their two fathers agreed to marry off their freak offspring, finding them suitable for no one but each other?
Jinn’s face heated and she hugged herself tight within the obscurity of her bubble. How could she accept the bid of this man? Any children they produced might very well be doomed with the same mutation they both suffered. How could she afflict such heartache on an innocent child?
She wanted to power back to her shuttle and leave for home at once.
She wanted to shout obscenities.
But mostly, she wanted to cry.
“This is the son you have come to meet, Jinn Amalla.” Her translator interpreted the kindly voice of the Imperator. “The son who has bid for your hand. I think you will find his manners far superior to his older sibling. Perhaps I should leave the two of you to get acquainted. I’ll send Morra with refreshments.”
Jinn didn’t want to be alone with her suitor. What would they talk about? What did they have in common—other than the obvious? She watched the Imperator glide from the room, anxiety making her palms sweat. Still hiding within the safe obscurity of her sphere, her gaze darted back to his second son.
“Hello.” The young Perling swam closer to her bubble, peering at the whitened walls she’d hid herself behind. “I’m Trey.”
His words were unassuming, and the timbre of his voice came deep and confident through her translator. Despite his stunted limbs, he swam with an effortless grace, the muscles in his shoulders and thighs rippling with power as he maneuvered his fins. Like his brother, he wore no bodyveil, only a short red swimkilt that left his chest and appendages naked. Jinn had heard her giddy siblings gossip about how this was acceptable attire for young Perling males, but having full view of his bare, well-toned chest felt indecent.
“I’m Jinn,” she finally muttered.
“You’ve come to honor my bid,” Trey affirmed. “As you can now see, I’m not like others of my kind.” Trey’s voice was steady, neither apologizing nor defending his appearance. He seemed at home in his own skin in a way she had never had been in hers. She envied him this.
“I am not like others of my kind, either,” she admitted.
His eyebrows raised in surprise. Before he could ask more, Jinn cancelled the opaque and her bubble went clear.
Trey back-paddled and stared. He broke eye contact for only a moment to rise to the ceiling to take in air then descended to hover at eye level.
“Are you disappointed?” she asked in a tone of challenge, but secretly feared his reply.
“I am….enchanted,” he said, expelling a quiet hail of bubbles. “You are beyond beautiful.”
“I am not.” Jinn countered, averting her gaze. She swallowed around the lump of pain in her throat.
“Is this what you believe?” he asked softly, regarding her with eyes that were a startling shade of tropical blue. His short-cropped black hair waved in the gentle current. He used his fins to hold himself suspended at eye level, but she had yet to look him full in the face. “I see you very differently.”
“Perhaps you are vision-impaired,” Jinn countered, the hurt still bubbling inside at the trick their fathers had played on them. And maybe because she couldn’t help liking this confident young Perling…and she didn’t want to like him.
“It seems you don’t wish to be here at all,” Trey said in a quiet voice. “Why did you come to answer my bid?”
“Because my father insisted.”
He pursed his lips. “This is the only reason?”
“Then it seems I have little chance of winning your hand.”
Jinn dropped her eyes. “Perhaps it’s better I return to my home.”
“I didn’t say I wouldn’t try.” Trey smiled at her and when that same warmth reached his eyes, Jinn’s heart felt like a large buoy rising in her chest. Despite her doubts, his genuine interest soothed her misgivings.
She looked toward the door as the staff member—Morra?—swam in with two drink-bulbs of pale green liquid. Trey thanked her and took a globe in each hand, offering one to Jinn as the staffer retreated through the arch. Jinn nodded to the receptor in her bubble, and Trey placed the drink-ball inside when she opened the outer seal.
“What is it?” she asked, taking the bulb from the inner chamber once the water had been vacuumed out.
“Shinshey. The juice of a special sea fan we farm.” He waved a forefin toward his drink. “Please try it.”
She hesitated, staring into the swirling liquid. When she glanced back at Trey, he took a long sip from own his refreshment and nodded to her.
Jinn put the drink tube to her lips to take a cautious sip. The liquid slid over her tongue, sweet, cool and slightly spiced. “It’s delicious,” she murmured, concealing her delight in the treat. Fresh food and drink on Talstar were rare, their supplies often stale or bland from frozen storage.
“You don’t trade this marvelous juice with Talstar?”
“We can’t produce enough to trade. It’s too rare,” he explained.
“Ah,” Jinn acknowledged with a nod, wondering why Trey would waste such a rare and wonderful commodity on her, yet secretly delighted at his gesture.
Rays of brilliant light suddenly lanced down from the ceiling and her envirosphere shuddered as a bass rumble sounded from her translator. Thick curtains of bubbles rose from the floor around her. Jinn shrank back in terror. Was the structure collapsing around them? “What’s happening?” she cried.
Trey swam closer, placing a fin on her sphere and peering through the barrier into her eyes. “Don’t be frightened. You’re safe.” She instinctively eased nearer to his side of her bubble, pressing her hand to the spot his fin rested before self-consciously pulling it back when the disturbance ceased.
“What just happened?”
“A changing of the air. See the air vents?” He motioned with his free fin toward a series of slits in the floor of the room. “The old air has to be released to the surface so that fresh can be pumped in. Otherwise the oxygen would become too depleted to breath. It’s entirely safe…just noisy.”
“You mean you don’t use air scrubbers?” Jinn questioned, lifting her questioning gaze to Trey.
“Filters. To remove nitrogen and contaminants and keep the oxygen at optimum levels.”
He hovered vertically in the water, considering her words. “We have nothing like this on Perling.”
“Well, you should.” This made no sense. Why hadn’t Talstar provided such simple technology in their trade deals? Maybe a taste of the delightful Shinshey juice would give her people new inspiration to strike a deal.
She is extraordinary!
Trey’s first impression of Jinn Amalla was unfiltered delight.
His match. His counterpart. His doppelganger in the Talstar world. They were more akin to each other than either of them were to their own kind.
Now it suddenly made sense why his father had opted to extend his bid to the Talstar commander’s daughter, instead of that of his older sibling. It was expected in Perling society that a leader would see his successor and heir bonded first. But Tardem had no inclination to seek a mate and he certainly would never have agreed to such a match even without knowing Jinn Amalla’s secret. The two superiors’ trade-strengthening scheme would have all been for naught.
Tardem’s relief had been palpable when the unexpected announcement was made at a family gathering five short days ago, as most likely, was Trey’s shock.
Though it was an unorthodox strategy, to say the least, his father—and Jinn’s—had shown shrewdness in their plans.
Trey hadn’t expected the news that a bid would be extended on his behalf, though he was certainly of age. But learning his intended was the Perling commander’s daughter truly gave him pause. His first reservation was not for himself but for his garden. Would he be expected to abandon Veros and live on Talstar? His life would be burdened with new responsibilities and new priorities in a world far from his own. His garden would perish!
And even if she agreed to live on Veros, there may not be enough time to see to his projects. Unless he could convince his mate of the importance of what he was trying to accomplish.
But after his first words to his intended, Trey realized there was a very large barnacle in the pipework. Jinn Amalla really wasn’t like him at all. She was unaccepting of her differences, and even more than that, she seemed resentful of being offered up as mate bait. It was clear she wanted no part of this.
And no part of him.
Maybe it was for the best. But until she declined his formal bid and returned to her home, he had to at least extend the expected courtesies and make the appropriate gestures.
“May I offer you a tour of my father’s estate while we talk,” Trey suggested.
Jinn pondered his words. Should she? Now that she saw this travesty for what it was, wouldn’t it be better to reject the young Perling’s bid, return to her home and save them both the pain of an ill-fated match?
But then her gaze settled on Trey’s attentive, unassuming smile. The one that reached all the way to his intelligent, blue eyes. Despite his handicap, there was something about this alien male…
Well, she’d come all this way to the planet’s sea to meet him, it couldn’t hurt to stay for a short while longer, could it?
“I accept your invitation,” Jinn said, allowing herself to return a timid version of his smile.
“Excellent,” Trey said, a touch of surprise lighting his eyes. “There is much I’d like to show you.”
The Fourth Imperator’s estate was large and sprawling, his elegant manor surrounded by an expanse of manicured seafloor. Situated against the western shore of the bay, the sea bottom ended at the sharp rise of a rock wall that jutted from the sandy bottom. Jinn surveyed it all with widened eyes, trying to absorb the completely alien world in silent awe.
Fourth City itself spilled east and north across the wide, shallow bay, a full day’s swim across according to Trey. He told her the city was protected from the main ocean by a plasma eco-barrier at the narrow strait that served as entrance to the protected body of water. The eco-barrier had been a gift from Talstar long, long ago.
“It shields us from the sea predators,” Trey explained. “There are deep-dwelling creatures that hunt in the depths. When food is scarce, they sometimes come to the shallows.”
Jinn peered out into the watery expanse, imagining some aquatic monster taking shape out of the misty blue. “But we are safe here?”
Trey nodded, his dark hair drifting with the move of his head. “There’s been no breech of the barrier for many longtides.”
As she paused to admire a stand of long-dead, peach-tinted corral, Trey turned to face her. “Come with me. This way.”
“Where are we going?”
“I want to show you a very special place.”
He led the way through a narrow inlet in the sheer rock walls, just wide enough for her sphere to negotiate, to a pool beyond. The sheltered lagoon was probably a hundred foot-spans across and twenty deep. Inside, a variety of aquatic plants grew—a wonderland of huge sea fans, colorful sponges and towering kelp forests. Large numbers of fish schooled here, too. And an odd little five-legged scavenger he called a starfish.
“A creature shaped like my star,” Jinn exclaimed, showing her palm with its blue tattoo.
Trey smiled at her. “So it is.”
In spite of her reservations, she was growing to like him more already. “This place is so beautiful, like something out of my dreams.”
“It’s my favorite spot,” he said quietly. “My father named it Trey’s Garden, because I spend so much time here.”
“Why is that?”
“When I was young, I first came here to hide from Tardem. My brother was not kind to me when I was a child. Over time, he became more accepting of our differences, but I continue to spend much of my time here.”
Trey looked thoughtful, and seemed to choose his next words carefully. “Studying, mostly. And experimenting. This pool provides a unique environment. Come. Let me show you what I mean.”
She followed when he swam closer to the rocky sides of the pool. Trey pointed to a spot on the surface above, where the water roiled and bubbled furiously.
Alarmed, Jinn backed her bubble away. “What causing that?”
“It’s a waterfall,” he answered.
Jinn stared at the chaos above, still feeling a little frightened. The thrashing water looked violent and dangerous. “And what is a waterfall?”
“Rain water collects on the land and becomes a stream. The stream follows the downward slope—always seeking the lowest point—until it eventually reaches the sea. This is where one stream falls over the rocky cliff above.”
“So the water…runs? Like in the hydroponics farms on Talstar?”
“Yes, but this water isn’t pumped. It flows naturally.”
“From my home, we can see lines on the planet surface. My father said they are called rivers, but to us it’s mystifying. It seems the water behaves very strangely on land.”
“It’s actually how things work in the natural world. Water always runs to the sea. Like it does here.” Trey swept a fin toward a terrace of rocks that was close to the surface near the chaos he called a waterfall. “Because of the constant mixing of ocean and river, the water here is brackish.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means the water is a mixture of salty and fresh. It allows me to grow certain types of rare edible plants, like eelgrass and saltgrass.”
Astonished, Jinn looked over the raised beds. “You’re growing food here?”
“Just experimenting really, on a very small scale. I don’t produce enough here to call it farming, but the eelgrass produces buttons that are edible and the saltgrass can be ground into a paste used as a food base. I occasionally bring my little harvests home to add to our meals.”
“You…you mean you can eat these plants that grow in the wild? Without hydroponics? Not in a sterile environment? And this doesn’t make you sick?”
“Not at all. The plants are thoroughly washed before we prepare them, of course.”
“That’s…” Jinn stared at the watery landscape he called a garden. “That’s amazing.”
“It is my hope that someday, many longtides from now, we will be able to produce enough to share the bounty with Talstar.” Trey gave the roiling water he called a waterfall a sideways glance. “But I don’t spend all my time working. This place can also be a fun, too. Watch this.”
Trey turned and swam straight into the churning waters. Jinn gasped, fearing he’d be hurt in the turbulence. But after he disappeared into the frothy cloud, he tumbled back out in a series of slow somersaults before regaining control in the calmer currents.
Jinn stared at him in open-mouthed astonishment. “That does look fun.”
“Do you want to try it?”
Jinn harrumphed and rolled her eyes, reaching out to tap the inner surface of her envirosphere. “I think not. If my bubble were to hit the rocks…”
“I understand why you need to be cautious. All of this is outside your experience. Outside your comfort zone.” Trey swam back and hovered near her sphere, moving his footfins back and forth in a slow tempo that kept him vertical in the water. When she finally made eye contact, his smile eased away. “Jinn, if you—” Trey stopped, his gaze narrowing on a point beyond her bubble.
Jinn looked back over her shoulder to see a large form had trespassed into Trey’s Garden and was swimming toward them at a fast clip. She grabbed for her controls in alarm, until the shape took the form of someone she recognized—Trey’s brash older sibling, Tardem.
“Hey, Runt, I figured I’d find you here. We need a Middler for Boggy Ball,” Tardem’s voice emitted as a shout through her translator. “Come out to the courts.”
“I’m entertaining my guest,” Trey countered.
“Bring her along. You can play a game in her honor.” Tardem sneered. “And she can witness you getting crushed.”
“Crushed?” Jinn questioned, grappling with a flare of concern for Trey. “This sounds like a truly dangerous game.”
“He only means defeated,” Trey clarified, with a sly glance at his brother that was clearly a challenge. “Care to watch a game while you’re here, Jinn? Boggy Ball is our favorite sport.”
While you’re here?
So it seemed he didn’t expect her to stay. Well, had she changed her mind about that? Everything here was just so…fascinating. Still, it wasn’t like she’d given him any reason to think otherwise. Yet his words did….sting a bit.
No harm in prolonging her stay here a few more hours, she decided. At least it would appear to her father that she’d made an attempt. She could see Trey wanted to play this game. And besides, she was curious to see how he might fare against his taller, older and not nearly so likeable sibling. “Where are these courts?”
“In the waters near the strait,” Trey said. “I don’t think it would be far for your bubble to travel.”
On Talstar, Jinn loved to play Squarecourt in the half gravity rec-cubes. It was one of her few pleasures, and she was quite good at it. Much to the chagrin of her much taller opponents. How would games be played in this aquatic world? And what sort of athlete might Trey be?
Jinn gave a nod, smiling back at Trey for the first time. “I think I would like to see this game.”
Jinn maneuvered her bubble as Trey swam beside her, answering her many questions about the city, the structures, the fish, the vegetation, and the sea. He seemed pleased with her interest in his world of the Shell. Before long, they’d arrived at their destination.
When the Talstar males all stripped down to their skin, discarding their swimkilts in preparation for the game, Jinn blanched. There was a profound difference in attitude toward nudity in her more chaste Talstar society.
Her eyes went wide and the heat flared on her cheeks as the boys swam into the ring of buoys at the surface, their physical attributes on full display. She’d never seen a naked male, and couldn’t help but stare at Trey any more than she could control the flood of heat that surged to her cheeks at the sight of his solid, muscled, bare form.
Despite his mutant proportions, he had a masculine elegance and a quiet confidence that Jinn found rather…captivating. She’d known such flustery stirrings for other males, but most only tolerated her because she was the commander’s daughter and none had been engaging and attentive toward her.
Or ever naked in her presence.
The object of her fascination suddenly appeared beside her bubble looking concerned and completely unabashed about his state of undress. “Jinn, you looked distressed. Are you feeling all right? Is your envirosphere operating as it should?”
“Y-yes,” Jinn managed, her eyes drinking in all the planes, contours and—well, differences!—of his male body with reticent fascination. Her own unfamiliar and potent response plucked at her nerves and made her heartbeat quicken. What was this strange sensation? Was it the same mystery that her older sisters giggled and gossiped about? Her mother had schooled her about the dynamics of male/female relationships, but clearly she’d left a few important parts out. Jinn had never experienced such feelings before.
When Trey swam closer, she shifted to the back of her bubble.
“Jinn, what’s wrong?” he asked, concern coloring his tone.
“You’re…” She made a sweeping motion with her hand, grasping for words. “You’re unclothed.”
Trey glanced at his body before meeting her eyes, his lips quirking down at her puzzling statement. “My game attire makes you uncomfortable?”
“No,” she answered, struggling for breath. “Your lack of it.”
His brows arched in surprise. “I didn’t realize. Apologies.” He swam to the spot where he’d left his swimkilt on a branch of dead coral and slipped it back on, glancing her way with a respectful nod.
She gave him a shy answering nod of thanks, but soon wished she’d said nothing at all. His still-naked brother and companions were ruthless in their mockery, giving him looks of contempt. Trey weathered their abuse without complaint, but Jinn knew she’d brought this on him. Yet easing her discomfort seemed more important to him than his pride.
My feelings matter to him?
Her heart swelled with new appreciation as she watched him prep for the game. Other than her family, no one on Talstar had ever shown concern over her feelings before. She was a mutant. Who cared how she felt? Who cared if she was uncomfortable or embarrassed or fearful? She didn’t matter.
The players broke off their warm-up exercises and moved into formation at the surface, signaling the start of the game. Trey’s fellow competitors were all enormous, averaging at least ten-footspans in height and dwarfing her suitor’s six-plus footspan frame. Though Trey was easily half a hand width larger than she was, he seemed no match for these Perling youth with their superior reach and the impressive kick radius of their fins.
Jinn piloted her bubble to the surface, watching as Tardem and his five teammates formed a circle around Trey—apparently the lone Middler—and worked as a group to keep him from intercepting the small, multicolored ball they batted back and forth over his head using their fins.
Trey earned points when he managed to snag the ball and make a “plunge point” by putting it through a narrow arch that extended from a rock wall at the edge of their circle. The others did everything in their power to stop him from scoring, including punching, kicking, and elbowing. It seemed a brutal game. Jinn cringed every time they landed a blow but Trey withstood their pummeling and remained focused.
Jinn’s rapt attention to the game was only broken when she spied a large group of Perling spectators arrive, gathering in a tight group at the surface near the scoring arch. Most were young females who stared and pointed at her, talking and giggling among themselves.
Jinn’s face burned with shame. She stiffened when she saw one of the Perlings swimming her way. This female wore a bright teal bodyveil and her radiant flame-colored hair fanned out in the water behind her long, elegant body.
What did she want? Had she come to mock Jinn’s appearance? To challenge her presence at the Perling game?
The female paused to tread water a body-length away from Jinn’s bubble, her scarlet hair drifting in graceful tendrils with the current.
“Hello,” she said with a smile. “I’m Eldelza. You are the Talstar who’s come to answer Trey’s bid?”
“Yes,” Jinn fought for composure, knowing she must look like a hideous creature to one so flawlessly beautiful. “I’m Jinn.”
“Welcome, Jinn.” Eldelza moved to the right side of her bubble and turned to watch the game, her voice going softer. “You are fortunate. The Imperator’s son is so very handsome and athletic, is he not?”
A sharp pang of emotion—jealousy?—flared in Jinn’s belly, until she noted how the young woman had her adoring eyes fixed, not on Trey, but his brother, Tardem.
“Yes, he is,” Jinn agreed, then with a quick side-eye to Eldelza, she added, “They both are.”
Eldelza traded a grin of complicity with her.
So it seemed Eldelza fancied Trey’s cheeky older sibling, heavens help her. And she was friendly and welcoming--treating Jinn like a peer instead of a freak. Maybe she could come to like this Perling girl.
A shout emitted from the speakers in her bubble. Trey had managed to score his first point. Jinn cheered along with Eldelza, but his opponents’ abuse grew all the more rough.
“They can be hard on Trey,” Eldelza lamented. “But they are just jealous of his skills, I think.” She winked at Jinn and smiled again.
Jinn felt an immediate affinity with the Perling, and enjoyed several marks of talking with her about the finer points of Boggy Ball. At the end of the first round, Tardem swam over to talk to—and show off for—the clutch of Perling females and Eldelza’s friends urgently waved her to return. “My friends want me to rejoin them. Would you care to come, too?”
Eldelza was friendly, but Jinn doubted from their disdainful glances that the others would be so kind. She knew from experience the ruthlessness of peer groups. “Thank you for the invitation, but I think my bubble would only get in the way.”
A sad smile of understanding settled on Eldelza’s lips and she nodded. “Then I hope we’ll talk again very soon, Jinn of the Star.”
“I do too, Eldelza of the Shell.”
Jinn smiled as she watched Eldelza swim away. Maybe someday they might be friends.
Her offhand thought made her shift back in her couch. Friendships take time. Do I mean to stay?
Her attention shifted to Trey. She wasn’t at all sure what she was feeling, but it seemed her alien suitor had made an unexpected impression on her heart.
Maybe she’d linger a bit longer, after all.
In spite of the beating he took, the game went to Trey who scored two points, much to Tardem’s dismay.
Trey swam to Jinn’s side and surfaced next to her bubble, which was bobbing on the gentle waves. He tossed back his wet hair, ignoring his friends’ jeers and challenges to play another game.
“Did you enjoy it?”
“Yes. You played very well.” Jinn couldn’t help smiling back. “Congratulations on your win.”
“My sincere thanks.”
Trey had to have the most genuine and humble smile she’d ever known.
“Maybe you’d like to go for a swim with me now?” he suggested.
Jinn gawked at him, taken aback. “What? I can’t do that! I’d drown.”
“You only need your envirosphere when you’re underwater. You can breathe air at the surface…just like I can.”
Jinn clutched the armrests of her couch, terrified at the thought of being exposed and vulnerable in the open water. “I can’t swim. I don’t have fins like you do.”
“I’ll loan you mine.” Trey popped off a forefin and held it out to her.
She gave a loud gasp. “Your fins aren’t part of you?”
He shot her another of his trademark smiles “We only wear them so we can better travel through the water. Look.” He popped off his other handfin and both of those on his feet.
Jinn stared at his fingers and toes—identical to those of her Talstar people. “How can this be?” she muttered.
He cocked his head and gave her a quizzical look, as if surprised by her question. “We’re descended from the same ancestors, Jinn. There’s very little difference between our species.”
“But you live in the ocean and we live in the space!”
“We’ve both evolved to better suit our separate environments, but our differences are very minor.” He was watching her face, genuinely surprised by her reaction. “You didn’t know this?”
“I’ve never heard such a thing,” Jinn whispered. “Are you telling me tales?”
“It’s truth. We were one species once, though it was many thousands of longtides ago.” Trey looked away for a moment then met her gaze. “That’s why we can interbreed, Jinn.”
Jinn dropped her eyes, flustered at both his mention of breeding and the odd catch in his voice. Did Trey want to breed? With her? Did he crave her touch in the same surreptitious way she’d begun to crave to be touched? She felt the heat rise on her cheeks once again, along with an unfamiliar tightening low in her belly.
“Why don’t you give swimming a try?” Trey said in a quiet voice. “I think you might have fun.”
“I think I’d enjoy swimming about as much as you’d enjoy floating around on Talstar.”
His eyebrows arched. “Is that an invitation?”
Jinn folded her arms across her belly and gave him a coy look. “I don’t think you’d like Talstar. Much too dry.”
“I might surprise you.” His adorable smile melted her defenses. Would he really accept an invitation to her home?
Jinn sheepishly eyed his fake fins, nowhere near ready to offer such an outlandish invitation. Not yet.
“Another time, then,” Trey laughed good-naturedly, taking her reluctance in stride. He threaded his fins onto a loop on the side of his swimkilt before extending his hands to her. “Come swim with me, Jinn.”
“But how? If I open my bubble, it’ll fill with water and sink. And then I’ll surely drown!”
“Your bubble will float and I won’t let you drown.” He stretched out his arms, beckoning her into his world. “Trust me.”
Trust him? She barely knew him.
Yet…she wanted to trust him. And she definitely wanted to know him better.
“I can’t communicate with you outside my bubble. I’d need my translator.”
“You won’t. I’ve been speaking Talstaric all along. Your voice unit didn’t need to translate my words and I don’t need to translate yours. My father saw to it my brother and I learned your language.” He beckoned to her with both hands. “So come swimming.”
She gave her head a shake. “This is crazy.”
“Think of it as an adventure.”
Did she dare? Should she risk doing something no one on Talstar had ever done? Maybe if she conquered her fears and met this challenge, she could tell her sisters of her bravery. They might look on her with more favor. For once.
Jinn the Adventurer.
She glanced at the top seal of her bubble unit and then at her suitor. “You won’t let go of me?”
Trey’s eyes went soft. “Never.”
Bracing her hands on the controls above her head, Jinn held her breath and opened the seal. The hatch slid back and fresh air rushed in—warm and humid—but no water lapped over the rim.
He switched off the voice synthesizer at his throat. “You see. Your bubble won’t sink.”
Her heart did a little somersault at hearing him speak, his real voice unfiltered by the voice translator. And such a deep, resonant voice it was.
The bubble bobbed and floated. The breeze carried in a salty scent, exotic and organic compared to the scrubbed oxygen of Talstar.
Jenn hit the controls to raise her console couch up closer to the opening and with wobbling legs, she climbed up slowly to perch on the top of the seat, drawing deep breaths as she stared down at the gentle waves. Her increased respiration wasn’t merely nerves. Sitting in the cushioned comfort of her pilot’s couch took little effort, but trying to stand against the full gravity of the planet would be another thing altogether.
“Here,” Trey said, swimming close beside. “I’ll help you.”
He kicked his feet hard, rising up in the water. She slipped one foot out of her bubble onto the top curve of her sphere and he rose up to cup her waist. He had strong, but gentle hands. Lifting her clear of the bubble, he eased her into the warm surf beside him. She threw both arms around his neck, clinging to him in terror. The water lapped at her chin and she dreaded being sucked down beneath the waves. She felt helpless and vulnerable in Trey’s world.
“It’s all right,” he soothed; his voice warm and gentle at her ear. “I’ve got you. I won’t let anything happen to you.”
Jinn became achingly aware of his hard body pressed against hers—solid, steady…and safe. His muscular shoulders became her haven, his arms her life preservers.
She’d never thought she could put this much faith in a stranger, and an alien stranger at that. How had he coaxed her out of the safety of her bubble and into his arms? She was reluctant to think too hard about the answer to that question.
“Hold on to the side,” Trey said, edging her closer to her bubble. Once she had a grip on a handhold, he reached down into the water and she felt his hands on her ankle, then the pliable warmth as he slid something over each of her feet.
The supple material molded to her smaller feet, and she found alternating her legs in a slow back-and-forth motion made it easy to keep her head above water. Trey resurfaced and slipped his handfins over her palms, then showed her how to take her first experimental stroke.
It wasn’t so different from using limb action to move about in the zero gravity chambers on Talstar, there was just a lot more resistance against her movements. But…he was right. It was even a little fun. Jinn felt a surge of confidence.
She could do this. She could swim in his ocean!
Trey placed one hand beneath her belly, steadying her, guiding her. It took a moment to adjust to being touched in this way, especially by an alien who had made a bid for her hand. But the excitement of learning to swim soon eased her self-consciousness. It was a strange sort of freedom moving through the water close at his side and she had a growing awareness of how her skin tingled where his palm gently cradled her.
He steered her away from the Boggy Ball court where his brother and friends were playing another raucous game adapted to fewer participants. From the sidelines, the red-haired Eldelza watched them moving away, smiled and gave a parting wave.
“Would you like to swim underwater now?” Trey asked.
“You mean…beneath the surface?”
“Yes. It’s not difficult. You’ll just need to take a deep breath.”
“And you’ll hold onto me?”
His voice came in a low rumble. “Every moment.”
Jinn sucked in a lungful of air and let him guide her in a dive beneath the surface. A few strokes and she soon lost all fear. She loved the thrill of it—slipping through his watery world with no barrier around her, her long, pale hair streaming out in the liquid behind her.
All around, lacy sea fans of yellow and blue shifted gracefully in the current. A scattering of rounded, water-worn black boulders provided contrast to the plants. The pristine sands on the bottom stretched out into the distance where it took on a greener shade. She loved the wonder of this place, and she loved the feel of her suitor’s steadying hand, now light on her back.
Trey showed her how to dive to the bottom and collect colorful rocks and bleached shells before returning to the surface. It was difficult and disorienting as first, but Jinn was soon moving between surface and sandy bottom with more confidence, marveling at how well Trey could swim even without the use of his fins. And how long he could dive without returning to the surface to breathe.
For once she was glad of the tedious hours she spent every day in the gravity chambers on Talstar, fulfilling her required exercise regimen to build and maintain her muscles. The effort it took to lift weights and do resistance training in the half-G of the training area didn’t feel so very different from the drag created by liquid water.
Her companion guided her away from his raucous companions into a small, private cove where a table of rock rose to just below the surface offering a place for them to perch. Trey hopped up to sit on the shelf and helped her up beside him. The sun-warmed water lapped against her thighs and she stretched out her legs until her toes broke the surface.
“You already swim like a native,” Trey praised, slipping off one of her fins and taking her small hand in his larger one.
Jinn looked away, unsettled, but soon cast a shy look his way. Water beaded on his face and shoulders and Jinn felt those strange stirrings again—the unsettling urge to touch those magical droplets. To trace the hollows and rises of his chest beneath her fingertips.
“What are you thinking?” he asked in a quiet voice.
Jinn laughed quietly and nodded. Then, shyly, she met his eyes. “I didn’t expect to like you so much, Trey,” she confessed. “I was frightened by my father’s announcement that a Perling had bid for my hand. I thought you were an alien who would reject me on sight. I never dreamed we’d be so alike.”
His gaze locked on her face, his eyes an even more intense shade of blue. “Nor did I.” He leaned closer and, panicking, Jinn placed her hand to his chest.
“But I fear what a future together might bring,” she choked, the burn of unshed tears stinging her eyes.
His look of confusion made her heart ache. “Explain your fear.”
“You are The Shell, I am The Star.” She held up her hand to reveal the star tattooed on her palm. “Neither of us would be at home in the other’s realm, and if we mate, what of our children? They would be caught between two worlds. And what if they are like us?”
“Would that be such a terrible fate…to be like us?”
“I only meant that they wouldn’t be accepted by either realm.”
He looked down, his crestfallen eyes fixing on the shimmering surface of the ocean. “Have you already made your decision then, Jinn?”
“I am so…uncertain,” she admitted, heaving a sigh.
“What if I could show you a future you never imagined?” Trey whispered. “Would you stay then, Jinn? Even another day?”
The tides of emotion ran deep in his earnest gaze. It would be so easy to fall into them and be swept away…into his world, into his life. But there was still so much to consider. So much to fear.
“I’ll stay,” she said quietly. “Another day. Maybe two. I can’t stay any longer. My bubble must be recharged.”
“I’ll gladly take one more day.” Another of his smiles was all she needed to know she’d made the right choice. Unassuming and generous, it lifted her spirits. No male had ever shown her such regard, and being the center of his attentions was something she wanted to savor.
At least for the present.
“I never dreamed we’d be so alike.”
Her affirmation had given him new hope. New purpose.
As the Imperator’s son, he’d always accepted that pairing would be his duty and his requirement—and he’d honor his bondmate, even if love was never shared between them. When the time came, he’d feared he’d have to give up his secret hopes and visions. He’d be forced to abandon Trey’s Garden for a life of responsibilities, obligations and child-rearing with a Perling mate.
But from that first moment Jinn Amalla had revealed herself inside her envirosphere, he saw the possibilities of a very different future. One he never dared imagine…before that moment.
And as they’d spent time together, he realized his heart was becoming as engaged as his mind in this possible future.
He’d never met another like Jinn Amalla. Outwardly timid, and yet hiding a daring soul who found the courage to take chances. Kept uninformed and ignorant by the culture of her people, but open and bright and accepting of startling new knowledge. Appreciative and at times even fascinated with a world that must be so completely alien to her.
These were the qualities he saw in her, that he needed to see in her.
He’d never before desired a female this way, not that he had much knowledge of courtship or mating pursuits.
Oh, to be sure, he’d had close female friends. He and Eldelza had spent much time together with long talks about his brother, and his brother’s perplexing ways. With his older sibling, it was all about games and idle past times and foolish pleasures. Tardem offered only push-back on any suggestion he should begin to assume his responsibilities, and only silence when his father hinted that it was time he take a bondmate and begin to act with the dignity of a highborn heir who might one day rule Fourth City. Eldelza adored Tardem, but if Tardem cared for her in return, he never let on.
But in spite of his close ties to Eldelza, she’d never made Trey’s heart pound like it did when Jinn was near. And that was all for the good. Wasn’t it?
Perhaps if his courtship with Jinn blossomed into the love he craved so deeply, perhaps if she accepted his formal bid, the future would be theirs in ways no one, not even Jinn, realized.
Somehow he needed to share his dream with her. He need only bide his time until the right moment presented itself.
Once more encased in her bubble, Jinn glided along beside Trey as they made their way back to the family estate through the stark coral banks, muted flow-coat dwellings and colorful sea gardens of Fourth City.
Not far from the estate, a foreboding, circular black structure rose up on a sea mount, nearly touching the waves at its highest point.
“What is that place?” Jinn questioned.
“The Conclave of the Elders. Named for the council that are the keepers of the order, and hold tribunals for any who violate the Law of the Shell.”
“I thought your father was the law here.”
“He is the leader of our people, but the authority of the Elders can surpass even that of the Imperator when a law has been broken.”
“Like our magistrates, then?”
“I am not familiar with your word, but if they are the interpreters and keepers of your laws, I imagine so.”
When they reached the manor’s vestibule, Morra was waiting to greet them. “Welcome back, Jinn Amalla. His Grace wishes to invite you for dinner this evening at seven bells. What answer would you like me to convey?”
“Tell him I’d love to stay,” Jinn answered, getting a very pleased nod from Trey.
“Shall I show you to your guest quarters to refresh?” Morra suggested.
“I’ll be happy to show her there, Morra,” Trey volunteered.
Morra reacted to his offer with a discerning smile and a tip of her head. “As you wish, Master Trey. I’ll return to meal preparations then.”
Trey guided Jinn in her bubble through the labyrinth of corridors to her quarters, a large round room, the flow-coat walls a lovely shade of lavender.
“It’s very spacious,” Jinn said, taking in the width and breadth of her accommodations.
“Come topside,” Trey pointed, rising to the surface.
“There’s room. You’ll see.”
Jinn followed his lead, and surfaced her envirosphere to find a large, air-filled dome arching high above the water.
“Yours isn’t the first bubble that’s been here,” Trey told her. “These chambers were built with your father in mind. They were his quarters, back in the time he used to frequent Fourth City.”
“I have vague memories of his trips, though he never spoke much of his time on Veros.” Jinn drank in the lovely frescos of shells and sea creatures painted at the water line. And…was that a rendering of Talstar above, floating in a panorama of the starry skies?
Indeed, it was.
“This room was specially constructed so a sphere can be moored at the surface with the hatch open, and powered off to save the charge.”
The Imperator obviously thought much of her father to have built him such an opulent and accommodating home-away-from-home. Why then had he said nothing about it? And why had he stopped paying visits to Trey’s father’s estate so long ago?
“Do you remember when my father used to visit?” Jinn asked, still craning her neck to take in the elegant murals.
“I do.” Trey gave her a quick smile. “I was very young, of course, but completely fascinated with the commander. He was one of the first people of the Star I’d ever seen. I begged my father for a bubble of my very own.”
“Did you?” Jinn laughed. “Maybe you should borrow mine some time.”
Trey’s eyebrows arched at the prospect. “I would relish the chance.”
Jinn gave him a teasing grin. “Am I to think you only love me for my bubble?”
“Your bubble,” he said with a laugh, “is the least of your charms.”
Jinn didn’t know how to respond to his words. Was he being sincere? Merely playful? Thankfully, a muted tone sounded from the translator in Jinn’s sphere, which spared her the need for an awkward response.
“The call to dinner,” Trey explained. “I’m expected to dress. Give me a moment and I’ll return to escort you.”
Jinn glanced down at her informal attire. “Oh, but I’m—”
“You look beautiful.” Trey made a diving roll toward the submerged door. “Be right back,” the sphere’s translator emitted.
Her heart fluttered. He thought she was beautiful? Even in her plain traveling attire?
Jinn eyed the clothes storage chest beneath her pilot couch. Essa had packed one dress of delicate ivory silkskein. It was one of her favorites. If Trey was going to don formal dress for dinner, then so would she.
She skinnied out of her white top and pulled the dress over her head. She’d just peeled off her leggings and tucked them away in the chest, when she heard the soft knock at her waterdoor.
She submerged her bubble as Trey swam inside. The moment he saw her, his hands stilled. So did his feet. He gave a slow blink and uttered a quiet exclamation her translator said it had no interpretation for.
Because Trey was wearing a tailored bodyveil as dark and blue as the Deep. The garment’s classic lines molded to his muscled torso but flowed fuller along his limbs. A hands-width of silver and sky finery wrapped his neck and tucked into itself at his throat. He looked oh so elegant and dashing and just…just…
The alarm sounded on Jinn’s respiration monitor and she slapped her hand down to silence it. He looked so fetching she’d literally forgotten to breathe, but did the monitors really have to announce that to the entire manor?
“Is there a problem with your sphere?” he asked, concerned.
“Just a minor anomaly.” Jinn gave him a blushing smile and for a single moment in time the world around them faded and they connected through their barriers—Jinn seated in her enviro-bubble, Trey floating in his water world.
“We should…” he said.
But still they remained. A few more seconds, a few more moments, in this world between worlds that they alone shared.
The dinner chime sounded again and Trey gave an anxious glance over his shoulder, breaking the spell. “I’m afraid we’re late.”
moved closer and extended his arm, placing his handfin on her sphere. She
reached up to press her hand to his from the inside, and it met with the solid
surface. A sadness she didn’t truly understand took hold in her heart.
He moved closer and extended his arm, placing his handfin on her sphere. She reached up to press her hand to his from the inside, and it met with the solid surface. A sadness she didn’t truly understand took hold in her heart.
With a sharp, disapproving look from his father at their tardy arrival, Trey showed Jinn-in-her-bubble into the enormous dining hall. Tardem gave Jinn’s sphere a subtle eye-roll before he offered a brief greeting.
The greeting from the Imperator himself was much warmer, though a bit stiff and formal, as their traditions seemed to require.
“Dinner has been waiting,” Imperator Bantos remarked. “Let us dine.”
His father and Tardem ascended to the surface, leaving Jinn to stare after them. Trey made a motion that they should follow.
This was unexpected! The Perling family shared their meals in this grandiose dining hall—complete with a long, oval table fashioned of flow-coat—at the surface!
Trey answered her puzzled look as he escorted her to her place of honor at the head of the table explaining that although the Perling had developed a tolerance for ingesting small quantities of salt water, they avoided gulping down mouthfuls. Consuming a full course meal underwater wasn’t practical, even for a Perling.
Dining with the Imperator of Fourth City wasn’t a relaxing experience, but his first born’s sullen silence was even more off-putting. Jinn didn’t understand the young man’s antagonism toward her. Had Imperator Bantos punished Tardem for his rude behavior when they first met?
Or perhaps whatever was bothering Tardem had nothing to do with her at all, but the presence of an unfamiliar guest—especially an alien Talstarian—only further lowered his already glum mood.
She shifted her focus to her suitor, seated just to her left, and then to the Imperator, seated just to her right. Jinn appreciated His Grace’s gentle attempts to engage her in the conversation. He seemed a kind and thoughtful man, in spite of his great mantle of power. And Trey truly seemed to take after him, unlike his brooding older brother.
Fortunately, the meal proved a delightful distraction. Trey explained each item on the menu as Morra and the staff brought the covered dishes up from the waters and placed them on the table—sea lettuce soup, fresh shellfish—still bedded on half of its shell!—and poached water potatoes. And for dessert, a magnificent dish of crisp, buttery, sugar kelp globes.
Jinn had never had a meal so grand, not even one of her father’s lavish banquets. Oh, she’d sampled shellfish and water potatoes sent to Talstar before, but never this fresh or expertly prepared.
Perling cuisine made yet another marvelous discovery in a day that had been ripe with them.
After dinner, the Imperator offered Jinn her first taste of Perling tash. A cousin to Shinshey, as Trey explained it, tash was an adult beverage derived from the same variety of sea fan.
Jinn’s father had always forbade such fermented refreshments in his household, but Jinn had tasted Perling wine before. A few of her more daring peers sometimes absconded with a flask from an elder and shared the brew in secrecy. Yet this beverage didn’t make her pucker and blink with its bitterness. It was smooth and mellow and had a delightful way of warming her insides as it went down.
Soon, the tash seemed to smooth the rough edges off her nerves and chat with Trey and his father—if not his snarky first son—came easier. More relaxed. She drank her full goblet with relish and would have asked for a second if she’d thought it polite.
Jinn wasn’t yet sure if she could accept a life here with Trey, but—she glanced his way and was immediately rewarded by a gracious smile—she was so glad she’d agreed to stay another day.
Just as Jinn genuinely began to enjoy herself, the Imperator thanked her for her welcome company at his table and announced it was time to retire.
Jinn offered the appropriate thanks as her father had coached her. “Dinner was delectable, Your Grace. Thank you so much for allowing me to join you as your guest.”
The lines around the Imperator’s eyes and mouth softened. “You are most welcome, Jinn Amalla. I truly appreciated your company at our table. Please enjoy a restful night.”
“And you, Your Grace.”
“I’ll escort Jinn back to her quarters, Father,” Trey volunteered.
His father gave a slow nod of approval, looking very pleased with his second son.
As she and Trey made their way to the exit, the Imperator turned to his heir. “I will have a word with you, Tardem.”
While Jinn followed Trey’s lead through the halls, she remarked, “I don’t think Tardem likes me.”
“It’s not you,” Trey answered earnestly. “Your presence here to answer my bid has brought pressure on Tardem to seek a mate of his own. I don’t think he’s ready to do that. Or to admit such matters ever cross his mind.”
“I think I know a certain Perling female who would gladly accept his bid.”
Trey looked her way, one side of his mouth quirking up. “I think I do, too.”
“Does he have feelings for Eldelza?”
“Not that he’s willing to admit.”
Trey swam ahead and opened the water seal to her quarters. “I truly enjoyed spending this day with you, Jinn.” He gazed at her for a long, pensive moment before adding, “More than enjoyed.”
When his eyes found hers again, they conveyed deeper feelings behind those sentiments. That soulful gaze sent a tremor of expectation shooting up her spine and a tingling tendril of warm spreading deep within her core.
“Restful night, Jinn,” he said.
Jinn powered her bubble through the seal, and rotated the sphere to face him before he had a chance to close the seal. “Would you come in? For a moment.”
A flash of surprise lit his expression before he raised his chin, signaling regret. “It would not be seemly to enter your quarters when you are preparing for sleep.”
Jinn didn’t know if it was the tash or her heart that dared her to make such a bold invitation, but she wasn’t willing to let him go without expressing…what? If only she could find the words. Sharing her heartfelt thoughts had never come easy. So often she’d been laughed at, ridiculed for putting her feelings on display. “You have made a bid...” Jinn dropped her gaze to her clutched hands. “And there is something I need to ask you.” She raised her face. “In private?”
She backed her sphere far enough into her quarters to allow room for him to slip inside. Would his honor or his curiosity prevail?
His curiosity, it was.
He followed her in, his blue eyes going dove gray in the muted light. His dark bodyveil swirling slowly with the quiet movement of his arms.
“What do you want to ask?”
Jinn’s gaze dropped to his mouth when he formed those words. She stared at the perfect bow of his lips, now stained a delectable shade of red by the flute of tash that he’d sipped.
She couldn’t speak. Her throat worked hard just to swallow.
She gestured to the ceiling and took her sphere up. He followed a moment later, ascending from the waters exhaling a cloud of bubbles. Jinn opened the top hatch of her sphere and propped herself up on her pilot’s couch.
He smoothed back his raven hair and gave his head a shake to sling a stray lock from his eyes. He opened those blue-grey orbs and looked up at her in question.
Or was it expectation?
She wasn’t sure if it was the tash, or primal curiosity that inspired this streak of audacity, but she knew exactly what she ached for. What she needed right now.
The vision of his body, stripped bare before the game, came to mind and her fingers twitched. Her skin flushed with heat.
She’d only just met him today, and yet...
They’d shared a lot, but it hadn’t been enough.
The dim lights shown from below, silhouetting his body and casting a soft shimmer over the domed walls. “When we were talking in the cove today. When you leaned so near. Did you want to kiss me?”
There, she’d found the words. Little more than a breathless bleat, but spoken aloud, at least.
He snapped his mouth shut and the muscles flexed in his jaw. This wasn’t the soft acquiesce of a gentleman that she’d expected. Was he insulted by her question? Angered?
“Yes, I wanted to kiss you,” he admitted, his voice throaty and low.
“Do you still?”
Her heart gave a mighty kick. He did! How would it feel to have his lips mate with hers? How would he taste? How perfectly would their mouths meld together? “Would you please?” she asked.
In a single movement he whipped off his handfins and launched from the water. His fingers hooked over the hatch opening and he hauled himself high onto the curve of her sphere until barely a breadth separated them.
She reached for him, drawing his mouth to hers until she felt the heat and press of his lips. She cradled his head and drank him in as eagerly as she’d downed the last of her tash.
Never breaking contact, he levered his elbows into the hatch opening and thrusted his hands into her hair. Joined to him only by mouth and hands, she reveled in the wild sweetness of their connection and the deeper stirrings it incited.
Too soon—eons too soon—Trey unlevered his arms and after a final, tender sweep of his fingertips along her cheek, slid down the slope of her bubble and back into the water with a splash.
Jinn leaned over the side, reaching after him. “Trey?”
“I should go,” he rasped.
“Have I done something…?” Shameless? Brazen? Had the tash made her too forward? Had she overstepped a line? Or, worse yet, had he not enjoyed her kiss? “…wrong?”
She understood the acts of intimacy, the nature and mechanics of a kiss, but not how to properly initiate one. Or how to artfully receive one.
Or what to do when it ended.
“Your request was…unexpected.” He passed a palm slowly over the curve of her bubble, his fingers gently brushing the surface, as if he were stroking…her body? Jinn was sure he had no idea what desires his gesture roused deep inside her.
He must have caught her watching, because he stiffly withdrew, his hands going still at his sides. “It’s time I retire. Rest well.”
She had done something wrong. Had her kiss repulsed him? Offended him? Confused at his sudden aloofness, she blurted, “Would it be better if I leave?”
His long silence nearly brought tears to her eyes. She closed them tight and turned her head away, refusing to let them fall.
Then his voice came through her translator. Soft. But sure. “No Jinn, I don’t want you to leave. Not tonight. Not tomorrow.” He reached out again to just graze the surface of her sphere. “Not ever.”
He turned and swam out of her quarters, closing the water seal tight behind him. Leaving her alone and mystified by his hasty withdrawal.
The next morning it was Morra, not Jinn’s suitor, who arrived at her quarters to show her the way to the dining hall.
“Where’s Trey,” she questioned.
“His Grace and Master Tardem have already dined this morning. Master Trey left at dawn saying he had something to attend to and that he may join you later,” Morra said.
No one was waiting when she arrived at the dining hall. She thanked Morra and surfaced her sphere, feeling very small at the long expanse of table.
Jinn sat fidgeting with the airflow controls inside her bubble, feeling daunted and unsure. Maybe inviting Trey to kiss her hadn’t been such a good idea. Maybe it was an affront in his society for the female to make such an offer. Maybe—
Morra surfaced with a drinkbulb of Shinshey and a crab dumpling. “If Master Trey has not returned from his errand by the time you finish, I’ll serve your full breakfast.”
Trey sliced through the water, trying to make faster time.
He hadn’t meant to be so delayed by his run to Trey’s Garden earlier, but he’d neglected his care regimen yesterday while he entertained his guest and left his project untended.
Some of his growing things were delicate by nature, and were quick to sulk and shrivel without the proper attentions. And his fish—always ravenous—with him having sole and complete responsibility for their feeding.
They’d fared well, much to his relief, but he couldn’t afford another day’s desertion and he intended to give Jinn his total attention for the waning time she had left on her bubble’s charge.
He hated leaving Jinn to dine alone. Especially not after the complete and utter surprise of her request last night. Or the tantalizing promise of that kiss.
If he had reacted too aggressively in answering her invitation, she hadn’t let on. And his hasty retreat had been a regrettable but necessary leave-taking.
Jinn’s honor was his to keep. At least until she’d accepted or rejected his formal bid, should he choose to make one.
As if there was much question of that now.
Spying Trey enter the dining hall, Jinn caught her breath. He arrowed in beneath the water, clad only in a black and gold swimkilt. Did he have plans for another round of Boggy Ball this morning?
Trey surfaced at her side and took his place at the table. “Good morning.”
“Morning,” she mumbled self-consciously. How was he feeling about what happened between them last night?
“You dressed for breakfast.” He remarked, nodding to the simple white dress she wore. He seemed at ease, if slightly winded, and that helped soothe her concerns. Perhaps he’d already caught an early game this morning and that explained his absence.
“I thought this might work better for swimming.”
“Ah,” his eyebrows arched. “You’d like to go for another swim then. That’s good.” His smile warmed her heart and eased her tension.
Morra arrived with her covered dishes and served a light meal of pan fish and sea greens. Again, Jinn found the offerings scrumptious.
As they dined, Trey informed her, “Tardem has organized another Boggy Ball tournament this morning, if you’d care to watch.”
“You’re going to play?”
A slight smile lifted the corners of his mouth. “Not today.”
They left the manor shortly after breakfast and headed for the watercourts to catch the game.
“Smaller crowd this time,” Jinn commented, at the conclusion of the first match.
“Yes.” Trey paddled closer to her sphere. “Word didn’t get out that you’d be here.”
“I didn’t realize I was such a draw.”
“You’re the first of the Star in a very long time to be an honored guest of my father. So that makes you a bit of a celebrity.”
Jinn smiled at his words, but she certainly hadn’t felt like a celebrity at yesterday’s game. More of an oddity—like the specimens kept in bottles in the Talstar labs—to be ogled from afar by the curious.
Except for Trey. He never ogled her like she was strange.
Neither did Eldelza.
And perhaps not Trey’s father.
Well, three out of a million plus wasn’t so bad, was it?
“What’s so amusing?” Trey chided, paddling closer to her sphere.
Chagrined, she realized her translator had picked up her low chuckle and transmitted it to Trey.
“Just laughing at myself.”
He turned to place both hands on her sphere. “I like hearing you laugh. And seeing you more relaxed.”
It was truth. This morning she hadn’t even blinked at watching a group of naked, young Perling men play their dynamic game. “I guess I haven’t been doing much of either.”
“Until now,” he remarked, adding quietly. “That was some kiss.”
Jinn looked up at him, startled, and saw his impish grin. Her mouth eased into a smirk to match it. “It certainly sent you back-paddling.”
He raised his chin and gazed off toward the players. “I know my limits.”
“As one who has bid for my hand I was expecting that you might have been…bolder.”
He gave a casual shrug. “I had your honor to consider.”
Jinn lifted one eyebrow. “So you were thinking of my honor, were you?”
“Among other things.”
In the water court, the players began another game.
Jinn pulled in a deep breath and slowly exhaled. “You want to go for a swim?”
What happens next?
What happens next?
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