Sunday, August 6, 2017

First Kisses and Saying Goodbye: "Moments at the End of the Pier" from Book Two of Melody and the Pier to Forever!


Moments at the End of the Pier

THEY WALKED along Seacoast Avenue. They tried walking side by side, and sometimes they could, but most times Ruing had to follow Yaeko. There were too many people on the sidewalk, and her wheelchair was already too wide for them, judging by their irritated stares. Ruing considered how tiring it must be to get continual irritated glances from passersby. He looked down on Yaeko's black hair, at her hands' quiet but constant back-and-forth motion to keep her chair moving. Without seeing her face, he could tell she didn't notice them. She probably hadn't for years now.
"You back there?" she called out.
"Of course," he answered quietly.
He could sense her smile.
"Wanna walk to the end of the Pier?" she asked.
"Yeah … I'd like that."
It was just before sunset. The sky had cleared over the course of the day, from bright and foggy to breezy and cool to, now, clear, warm, and calm. He had hurried through his duties—he had been assigned to the Estuary, a few hundred yards in from the very south end of Seacoast Avenue, to assist Saeire Insu regulars as they counted and logged all existing sea horses for the Cavalry. (Which was quite a sight, seeing them all there, over two thousand of them, fantastic rainbows of color and gleaming outlines and translucent movement within the shifting haze.) He returned home where, bombarded by many good-natured taunts from the three other midsilos sharing the house with him, he quickly showered and changed into his civvies. He was going to meet Yaeko at 7 p.m., at Ms. Finnegan's house. He had less than twenty minutes to get there. The taunts followed him out the door.
No one on the sidewalk but them now. He quickened his pace until he was alongside her. They walked without speaking.
This was their third date. But it was already clear to Ruing that Yaeko Mitsaki enjoyed being in her own skin. She enjoyed silence. She had quickly become comfortable in his presence, which had made him a fierce protector of it, that silence. He wondered what was going through her mind—new compositions, perhaps?
Compositions …
He had listened to her music after their first date. It had almost made him cancel their second one, so intimidated was he after turning off the CD player. His roommates had listened with him, too. They sat together in the living room, cocooned in the charged quiet following. Only the Pacific Ocean three blocks away spoke, and even it seemed muted in shared awe. But he had shown up for that date later with the Kumiyaay chaperones. And that awe, which he was sure was going to be a permanent barrier between them, was swallowed up by something greater: Yaeko's smile. It came from that place within her that loved solitude, that loved silence.
They walked another block before either said anything. It was he. "Are you nervous for the concert, Yaeko?"
She shook her head. "I've been practicing with the Saeire Insu Orchestra all this week. They're as talented as anybody I've ever played with. I just remember thinking I'd not know how to play with them because they'd all have Aquanian instruments and my violin wouldn't integrate well with them."
"It must've blown your mind that Aquanian instruments are for the most part just like Gaian ones."
"How's that possible?" she asked, looking up at him incredulously. "I mean, seriously, aside from that Zephyr instrument that looks like a cross between an oboe and a mandolin—"
"The roihcaror …"
"It's amazing! And that other one, the Galeni one, the flute—"
"The Galeni flute," said Ruing. He grinned.
Yaeko flushed. "I didn't know!"
"I think that's my favorite," he said, still grinning.
"I've never heard anything so clear. Its sound is almost piercing."
"They're nothing compared to your violin, Yaeko. Nothing."
Yaeko's blush, which had dimmed, glowed anew.
She looked up at him in gratitude briefly before focusing once more on the sidewalk. They were almost at Pier Park Plaza.
"It's just amazing that the rest of the instruments are … well, aside from minor differences, just like those here, on Earth," she continued. "The violins are violins, the trumpets are trumpets, the timpani and woodwinds … I mean, they're the same! They told me!"
"That doesn't depress you?" he asked.
She glanced up at him. "Why in the world would it depress me?"
"Well, you know …" he shrugged. "Aquanus is an entire universe away. You'd think humans here and humans there would've diverged in creative ways …"
"But they have!" protested Yaeko. "The instruments may be the same, but their music …" She shook her head in wonder. "Anyway, it isn't the instrument that matters, but the spirit of the one playing it."
And then she gave him that look again. He'd seen it only one other time, at the drive-in movie. It was instantly addictive. Her dark eyes became ten times darker and yet ten times brighter, all in the same quick, unforgettable moment. Its effect on his insides was exactly what he thought it must feel like jumping out of an airplane.
They were at the Plaza. The Pier stretched grandly before them. They made their way towards it.
"Are you going to the concert?" asked Yaeko after another stretch of easy silence.
Ruing chuckled. "I'll watch it, of course I will. It's being broadcast all over the Saeire Insu. But—" another chuckle—"there's no way I'll be in the Council of the Ten! Are you kidding? There was a lottery for the five thousand or so seats not taken by the Saeire Insu High Command and Kumiyaay and their families, and I got a ticket, but the odds were just too slim." He shrugged.
Yaeko nodded in understanding. "I heard you've applied for the Kumiyaay," she said.
That gave him pause.
How did she find out?
But he instantly knew the answer. Given the company she kept—hell, the Supreme Commander himself escorted her and Melody to the Castle every day!—it really was no surprise that she knew.
"Yeah …" he answered modestly.
He could tell that she was enjoying herself.
"Do you think you'll make it?" she asked brightly.
"It's a long shot," he admitted. "I mean, there are only thirty-six Kumiyaay, total!" He lifted his shoulders, dropped them. "Anyway, it's pointless to think about it. The training's been suspended until the war has been ... decided."
He'd done it: he'd mentioned what both of them would not since they met. He saw Yaeko recoil. Her light mood was instantly gone, as though she'd been struck by an angry backhand.
He rallied instantly. "But … once we've won, I'm sure the training will resume, and then—who knows?"
They walked onto the Pier.
The Eleysian Teardrop in the tower atop Fisherman's Choice was no longer there. Ruing had always thought its bright blue light was very reassuring, like a star that refused to sink below the waves after the sun had. Yaeko was staring up at the dark tower, too. The story about how it, the Teardrop, disappeared had circulated throughout the entire Saeire Insu after the king's announcement of the existence of the Apprentice, Melody Singleton. Yaeko's best friend.
The Apprentice. Ruing had been raised with stories about her coming and what it meant for them all. He had always imagined this young glowing godlike being wrapped in obeying ethereal light and with fearsome power sparkling out her fingertips, wiser than Augustus Rycheus, more ferocious than Malesherbes Quartermane.
When he first met Melody, on the Serig, he was astonished that she seemed, by all accounts, an ordinary teenaged girl. He thought she was very kind, somewhat shy, very intelligent but at the same time more than ready to hide her gifts so that she wouldn't intimidate or push anybody away. He remembered watching her help Yaeko up the stairs from the cannon room to the top deck, and feeling inspired by their friendship, by the love they shared. He remembered thinking that she was very pretty, too … but it was Yaeko that moment who completely won his heart. After very nervously touring them about the ship later, he couldn't get her out of his mind. She was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen.
Should he tell her that two of the midsilos with him that day on the Serig lived with him, and that both asked about Melody all the time? His roommates were in awe of his bravery and the fact that he just one day up and walked to Yaeko's (and then the Singleton's) home in search of her, to ask her out. Whenever they asked about Melody he chided them to "go and find out for yourselves!" But to this point neither of them had ginned up the courage.
Cowards! he thought. I'm not going to make it easier for them. They're on their own!
"What are you smirking about?" asked Yaeko.
He came back to the moment. "Smirking?" he said, looking at her. "I'm smirking? Nah. I'm smiling."
"You have a devilish look in your eyes," she said, refocusing on the wooden planks before her. "You still do. You're smirking."
He could tell her about those boys, and she would rush home to inform Melody. He knew that. And the first of them who got the courage to ask Melody out would find his path largely cleared. They were both good-looking guys, very honorable, very decent. But why should he help them? She may not like either one; and besides …
... And besides, there was a war to be fought, and everyone's lives were being turned upside down even as he walked alongside her best friend. In less than a week they'd all be crossing the Tangent to face an entrenched enemy who outnumbered them a hundred to one.
An enemy they had no choice but to defeat if two worlds were to survive much longer.
This would be his final date with Yaeko before that war started. There was no way it wouldn't be. His duties made seeing her after tonight impossible; and he was sure she was going to be equally busy preparing as well. The thought was maddening to him. It filled him with great frustration and anxiety.
This Pier … the Imperial Beach Pier … was in reality the Saeire Insu's Pier. Its wood, he knew, was the same wood that was used in the construction of the Saeire Insu war fleet. So, in a way, no matter where he went on Aquanus in a week, no matter how far away from this place and this time he may end up, he had a piece of the Pier with him at all times. He wished that Yaeko would touch it. Because that touch would then follow him to whatever warship he was going to be assigned to. He would merely need to reach out and touch some part of it to physically reconnect to this moment. To her smile. To her eyes.
That was the other source of his anxiety: not knowing what ship he was going to be assigned to and where on Aquanus it would be going. The only ones who had that information were the captains and high captains and above, and their orders were sealed almost until the very day the entire fleet crossed the Tangent back to Aquanus. For years he had known only training: constant, rigorous, uncompromising war training. War games. Training exercises. Battle tactics. Survival skills. First aid. All of it repeated over and over and over again. It wasn't until just this past week that it had all halted. The training was over. The manic preparation had begun. And in the midst of it he had …
… (he sighed deeply and silently, gazing down at the girl next to him) …
… he had fallen in love with Yaeko Mitsaki.
In the comfortable silence, as the end of the Pier drew nearer and nearer, he thought:
Brilliant timing, Chalcon. Really frickin' brilliant.
The crowds on the Pier had largely dissolved. There were still a few fishermen here, near the restaurant at the end, but even they seemed to have lost interest in staying. Many were pulling in lines and gathering belongings for the walk home. A few of Fisherman's Choice's patrons were sitting at the outside tables, but most were unoccupied. An employee slumped about with a bucket and wet rag, wiping them down.
Seagulls circled overhead. Ruing thought he could recognize several of them as Saeire Insu … but most were wild. Yaeko must have noticed him looking at them, because she said, "I've never asked. What are you, Ruing? Are you a seagull?"
It surprised him this was the first time they'd ever discussed Transforming.
"Guess," he said, looking once again at her.
She smiled. "Hmm ..." She gave him a playful sideways glance. "You want to be Kumiyaay, so I'm going to go with seagull."
"Not all Kumiyaay are seagulls," he replied. (He loved that look of surprise whenever he offered her new information!—a quick blink followed by wide eyes and partially open mouth, always smiling.) He added, "Across the Tangent is a small unit of albatross Kumiyaay."
"They're amazing," said Ruing. "They're … scary."
"So … you're an albatross?"
He shook his head. "You're way off."
"Tell me!" she begged.
They had rounded the restaurant and were now at the end of the Pier. There was no one else back here. He leaned back against the railing, grinning. Yaeko pulled up to his knees. He said, "I didn't know until just a year ago. But that's how it works sometimes. Sometimes you don't know until much later than your friends. I'm … a dolphin," he announced self-effacingly.
That endearing surprised look again. But this time Yaeko's mouth fell completely open.
She held that look, and he cursed the impending war, and these lighter-than-light moments that seemed determined to scatter themselves out of existence as rapidly as possible so that he and she would be parted, parted for … how long? Parted while he sailed off to fight and, let's be honest, he thought, to die.
A hundred to one.
Aside from watching her perform at the concert, he knew that it was entirely likely he'd never see this beautiful, enchanting, unforgettable girl ever again. He fought to keep the smile on his face.
"Were you, like, swimming one day and poof!?" she asked.
He laughed. He could hear the manufactured force in it. He hoped she didn't.
"Something like that, yeah," he said. "Finned Transforms usually don't find out until they're adults. Whale Transforms don't usually find out until they're in their thirties or even forties."
"Seriously," she exclaimed, "you were just swimming one day and 'Hey, I'm a dolphin! Look at me!'?"
Ruing, nodding, shrugged and laughed again. "It's a compulsion. It develops over time. About a year ago I was with my parents here, on the beach. We were spending a day, having a picnic. I was with some friends, too. We were body surfing. I was riding down this wave when this urge to go much faster overcame me. There was this weird moment—a disconnect—a bright light—and then …" He smiled reflectively. "… I was a dolphin. Just like that. It was an amazing moment. I'm sorry I can't describe it to you better."
"What does it feel like?" asked Yaeko breathlessly.
He was lost in her presence. Nothing else existed.
He pulled himself away from her hypnotic gaze so that he could think.
"It's like being a speedboat with living muscles," he answered. "Except you can go fast underwater. And it's really easy to go fast. A dolphin's tail is powered by these effortless collections of incredible muscles. And your lungs …" He took a deep breath of air. "It's like you can breathe …"
"… forever."
They had spoken together.
That addictive darker-but-lighter look again. He was helpless in its gravity. A long, silent, conspicuously charged moment passed, one that was anything but comfortable.
"Yaeko …"
She shook her head. Her smile vanished.
"No … Ruing … please … don't …"
He held up. He nodded reluctantly.
She reached down and put on the chair's brakes, then held out her hands for his. He grasped them.
"Lift me up," she said.
He came closer, bent and picked her up by her armpits. It was like he was an instant expert at it; he half expected to tumble or trip over her wheelchair. But Yaeko threw her arms around his neck to balance the weight shift, and now her cheek was pressed to his. She felt light as a feather; her perfume teased him. He turned and sat her on the flat edge of the railing, his hands moving down to her waist and gathering over the small of her back. Their cheeks were still pressed together.
"Don't let me go," she whispered.
No matter where he went. No matter the odds. Just ... touch the warship's hull.
"Never," he breathed, taking in a large, silent lungful of Yaeko-scented sea air, wishing he had dolphin lungs right now so that he wouldn't have to release it so soon.
She pulled back, or maybe it was he who did. It did not matter. They came back together a second later, not cheek to cheek, but lips to lips. Yaeko withdrew, that same surprised smile on her face, her mouth partially open, and Ruing very softly pressed his to hers before she closed it. She laced her hands through his hair, pulling his head in, and for a long moment their first kiss became passionate and insistent. When they parted, when Ruing took a needed breath, he filled himself again with her scent and exhaled helplessly: "I love you, Yaeko."
It wasn't a look of surprise she gave him this time, but one of ecstatic earnestness. She didn't wait for him to kiss her again; the one she gave him was twice as insistent and passionate as the first.
No matter where he went. No matter the odds.
No doubts.
The light of the day was slowly draining out of the western sky as Aedan Conor made his way up the Pier towards its end. He didn't see Yaeko or the midsilo Ruing Chalcon making their way north along Seacoast Avenue back towards her house; he hadn't really noticed anything at all save the satisfaction of finally getting some time alone, here, where for the balance of the day he'd imagined himself being.
Here. On his Pier. The Pier he and his countrymen had rebuilt. The Pier that stood as a symbol of proud defiance in the face of monstrous and intractable evil.
A Pier that in less than a week he knew he'd never see again.
There had been no dreams, no premonitions, no tiny voice in his spirit that had told him. It was a certainty that had presented itself to him with all the innocence of a new day, one that had come with his first conscious breath this morning. It was there with the glittering waves and the cool breeze as he looked out from his apartment's balcony, and it was there in his bursting itinerary. It had greeted him plainly, without fanfare, without fear, without decoration and without denial.
He thought he might feel something if he meditated on it a bit longer. But nothing rose within him to challenge it: no protests of blind terror, no begging for it to be otherwise, no anger at the ungraspable sense of its inevitability. He felt only a pressing desire to get on with his day, to prepare more for the return across the Tangent, to make himself useful and to, as best as he could, convince himself for the ten thousandth time that he wasn't leading his kingdom into a slaughter; that his plans—that the Saeire Insu's plans—were solid, were sound, and would maximize their chances for survival and, ultimately, victory.
Victory. Of course, there was no solid, unshakeable notion of that. Not even the faintest glimmer of one. The news that the Sankyan Wilderness had moved had thundered like a tsunami throughout the entire kingdom. Citizens had grasped the information as onto a life raft, proclaiming it a good sign, far too timely to be coincidental. Conor wasn't sure. He couldn't allow himself to be sure.
Victory. He considered Necrolius' overwhelmingly superior forces. The Emperor of Aquanus had been so confident of that superiority that not once in twenty-two years had the Saeire Insu on the Aquanian side of the Tangent been molested or challenged. Not once. Imperial sails had been spotted on occasion from King's Perch six hundred misons along the Great Pier, but always the warships would turn and sail away, never bothering to come closer to investigate.
Conor's navy had long been invisible, thanks to Antarctic Cottonwood. That certainly had to be a factor. Necrolius perhaps thought that no one was there, watching them. But that didn't answer the question as to why his navy never ventured closer than King's Perch, never ventured back to the sight of their greatest—and only—defeat, never returned to reclaim lost resources or treasures, of which plenty had been found.
Even so, he never once let his forces that side of the Tangent be on anything but full alert. Twenty-two years of that. Twenty-two years and dozens of lives lost, mostly to Edge storms and the occasional war training accident. It was harrowing, hazardous duty for those in the Saeire Insu whose turn it was to be part of the "Rotation." Many stories of their experiences followed, building themselves into a daunting and remorseless lexicon. Legends and myths had built on it, piling upon themselves like waves in a gale. "He's on Rotation," one would say to another, who'd inevitably answer that news with a look of deep concern. "I'm sure he's all right," would be the reassuring reply. Or: "You get through Rotation, this side is pure Junon gravy." Or: "Don't mess with him, he's seen ten tours on the Wild Side, he'll stomp your spine out your butthole!" Or: "King's Perch. Might as well call it King's Curse!"
There were hundreds more. But they all told the same story. And Conor had heard them all. Because it was he who, every twenty-four and a fraction of days, in broad daylight or inky night, in good weather or bad, would open the Tangent so that replacements could cross and those coming off the dreaded Rotation could return home. Always there was respect—for him, and among those Saeire Insu meeting where the wood of the Imperial Beach Pier and the silver-green of Ae Infinitus joined. There they would greet each other with handshakes and salutes, tired or trepidatious, with filthy jokes and smothering hugs, with new stories to add to the old ones. The legends and myths would swell a little more. The Tangent, all by itself, would close in forty-six minutes, ten and sixteen one hundredths seconds; so, while there was time, Conor would assist those shipping foodstuffs and the like across, or would welcome those coming back. He couldn't stand being king then … he wanted to share in the camaraderie and the jokes, to be held in less esteem than he was.
But he had no choice. His own people gave him no choice. The salutes for him were just as crisp by those returning as ever, perhaps even more so. And those heading over … they would look upon him as one would upon a statue or priceless work of art that they were never going to see again. And he knew it had to be that way, no matter how much he loathed it.
"A leash and a crown are one and the same," King Exeter told him shortly before his death. Aedan Conor had raced to the Edge of Aquanus twenty-two years ago mystified by what that aphorism meant. He knew now.
The Saeire Insu had been incredibly lucky. In all those Rotation shift changes, in all those openings of the Tangent, not once had Conor or the replacements been confronted with an Edge storm. Replacements had been trained from the off to expect one once the Tangent opened: for a black and sudden storm surge, hurricane-force winds, deadly lightning.
An Edge storm pouring through an open Tangent would likely kill many Gaians as well. To the degree he was able over all these years, he had, behind the scenes, seen to the safety of Imperial Beach's residents should such an event occur. But it never had. The closest occurrence was four years ago. The returning Saeire Insu reported that a retreating Edge storm had missed the opening by two days.
Always the Pier to Forever greeted him, fleeing away, away, away. In the great distance stood the Eastern Sister, piercing the heavens it shared with ringed Ammalinaeus, inviting him to stand in her shadow once more. Conor would look upon Ae Infinitus' grandeur those moments not as a monarch but as a boy. He couldn't help himself. His young soul had gazed upon its immensity with a yearning naivete that dared to challenge it, to walk it, to withstand its relentless forge of power and awe and indifferent might. There had been no self-glorifying for him, nothing in him save a soul thirst that wouldn't be quenched until the next mile had been walked. The next mile walked, the thirst would prove greater still. Another mile. Left and right the vast alien oceans receded, split by this fantastic construct, the panorama always the same: sunrises and sunsets, the gray, blue, or indigo whims of the waters, always mixing, always changing, yet always the same, clouds and birds, pain with each step, pain with each breath, pain with each prayer, prayers like the miles, like the panorama: different but all the same. The forge was relentless.
He loved Ae Infinitus with the same fervency as he did his own mother.
He took a moment to note the absence of the Eleysian Teardrop in the tower. He thought of Melody. How he loved her. How the Teardrop had just … disappeared that day as she stood under it, as though Eleysius himself had planned for it to happen and hadn't bothered to inform him about it.
No rock-solid certainties to help him there, either. No answers. No clues.
He strode around the building, arrived at Pier's end.
He drew himself up. Noticing the Kumiyaay above him, he said: —Leave me be.—
The gulls immediately dispersed into the pastel sky.
And her mother, he thought. Maggie.
"Maggie …" he whispered hopelessly.
It surprised him to feel a tear streak down his cheek, then another. Thoughtfully, he wiped them away. Looking at the moisture on his hand, and in a steady voice, he recited:

"If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven."

"That's really beautiful, Aedan."
Conor wheeled about.
A young woman stood behind him.
He studied her face. He knew her …
"Daphne—right? Ye Scurvy Dog...?"
She nodded. "That was really beautiful," she repeated. "Is it yours?"
He shook his head. "Rupert Brooke. A young poet who wrote about the First World War before he died fighting in it. It's good to see you again, Daphne."
"And you," she said, concern and puzzlement lining her face. "And you. War?"
"War," sighed Conor.
"You're thinking of war here—at the end of the Pier?"
"Yes," he said after a long moment.
"Seems an odd thing to think about on such a peaceful evening."
He didn't answer her. She didn't press him. He turned to look back over the water.
She came up alongside him.
"You weren't lying."
"About what?" he asked.
"There really is a Pier to Forever out there."
She pulled a white cocktail napkin out of her pants pocket. He recognized it immediately. It had his writing on it: a heart, one side of which was a drawing of an aecxis, one he had suffused with aecxes. The symbol glowed faintly in the gathering dark.
They both looked at it for a long time. He turned and gazed back out over the sea.
"Take me with you," she said, pocketing it. "You're going back, aren't you? You're going back to the Pier to Forever. Take me with you."
Her request surprised him.
He shook his head.
"War, Daphne," he answered gravely. "That's where I'm going. That's what's waiting for me there."
That seemed to rein in her enthusiasm a bit. Another long moment passed.
"You're joining one or starting one?"
"I'm going to finish one," he said.
"Can you win?"
He didn't answer her.
"I can help …" she offered quietly.
"That's out of the question."
She had asked like a child who was told she could not have another cookie.
"You have a life here."
"What life?" she argued. "What life is that, exactly? Working my fingers to the bone so I can barely make rent? Starving because I can only eat one, maybe two meals a day? No health insurance, no car, no future … parents who won't support me, who keep telling me to pull myself up by my own bootstraps, who think I'm loafing and partying all day? Living in a country that hates its own citizens, that plunders the poor to give to the rich … that kind of life? Is that the life you're talking about, Aedan? Because if it is, I want nothing more to do with it."
She grabbed his wrist with both her hands, still holding on to the napkin. He turned and stared at her.
"Don't you see? I'm already at war. A war I've had no choice in fighting from the time I was born! A war I can't win, that I'm not allowed to win. If I have to fight," she shrugged, "I might as well fight a war of my own choosing. Please …"
He studied her. She was being quite sincere. Her eyes held back nothing of the fatigue her words conveyed or the wonder in the heart that he'd gifted her that night in the bar.
"The war you speak of at least offers the possibility of a long life, of living a long time, of having a heartbeat and breathing privileges," he said. "That life offers no booming cannons or swords or archers or swarming dead-eyed soldiers—or worse. And believe me, Daphne, worse is out there, waiting. Much worse. The war I'm going to fight offers no one any kind of time at all. Each second will be a dear, dear blessing for all involved. Death will be everywhere. Is that what you want?"
"This isn't life," she answered immediately. She looked right, at the brightening orange lights of San Diego, then did the same left, at Tijuana, Mexico. She looked up at him. "This … this is slavery."
Conor sighed.
"You may be murdered, or devoured—" he noted the look of horrified surprise on her face, and nodded grimly—"or captured and imprisoned, to be made into the kind of slave that makes this kind look like a walk in the park. Is that what you want, Daphne? Is that what you really want? Because that's all I can truthfully offer you."
She recovered. She said (and he could hear the forced boldness in it): "Slavery is slavery."
"Can you leave everything you've ever cared about behind? Your parents, your friends, your twenty-first century way of life? Can you really do that? Forever? Because you very likely would never see Earth again."
He watched her carefully. She wasn't going to go quietly, this one …
Perhaps a minute passed in silence.
"Can I bring my cockatiel?" she asked.
Conor laughed. "A cockatiel?"
"She'd be in nobody's way, I promise."
"Do you know how to handle a sword? Shoot a bow and arrow? Load and fire a cannon, sail a warship?"
She shook her head.
"I have a fourth-degree black belt in judo," she offered.
"Do you now!" said Conor, surprised. She didn't look the type to him.
"It's helped to know it, tending bar and all," she said matter-of-factly.
"Have you ever had to use it?"
"More times than I care to remember. You get some very angry types in bars," she said. "And handsy types, too. Mostly guys. But I've had to deal harshly with a few women as well."
"I did a lot of it when I was a teenager. Does that count?"
"Can you follow orders?"
"Whose orders?"
"Mine," he said. "Which means all orders given by my subordinates as well."
She stared at him.
"You really are a king …"
His lips lifted coldly in acknowledgement. "You didn't answer my question."
Daphne straightened up as though being inspected. "Of course I can."
"Even if those orders are: 'Kill that human being over there'?"
That stopped her in her tracks. He was grateful that it did. If she'd answered "yes" immediately, or even mediately, he would have rejected her outright. He was fighting for her—which surprised and concerned him.
He waited.
"I don't know," she finally answered. "I honestly don't."
He nodded. It wasn't a nod that was offered affirmatively, only that he had heard her response.
"Some people, once they're introduced to that reality, the reality where the Pier to Forever is, they go crazy," he told her. "No one really knows why. There are theories … but theories aren't going to help you when you step into that world."
"When?" she asked hopefully.
"September eighth, at 8:45 in the morning, here. Best make it 8 so we can get you properly sorted. No suitcases, no toiletries, no cell-phone. No more than a single change of clothes in a backpack, and your bird. Does your bird have a name?"
"Jade," she said. It was obvious to Conor that she was trying to hold back her elation, and was soon going to fail. He didn't want to see it.
"You and your cockatiel Jade are under my command the moment you set foot on this Pier that day, Daphne. Do you understand me?"
She nodded, her eyes wide with excitement.
"Be sure to let your bird know."
"I will," she said. "I will."
"Would you mind if I asked to be left alone now, Daphne?"
"Sure … sure …" she said. She backed quickly away from his side.
"September eighth at 8," she said, continuing her retreat. "I will see you then … Sire."
She left him.
Conor stood at the end of the Pier alone.

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