Chapter Thirty Mekse – Cloud Giant of Serenity
They were approaching the airport when the comm started beeping.
“This is your call, captain,” Dhruv said. He reached over and laid his hand on his captain’s. “You have to answer it.”
Mannarius pulled his hand away. He glanced briefly back at Citlally, and then took the comm. “This is Captain Mannarius Klavernning III of the Lionstar,” he began. Citlally could not help but notice that he voice was different, as though it was shaking but he was holding it as steady as he could. “Requesting permission to land.”
There was long pause before the flight controller replied. “All are welcome here. Please accept our landing procedure file and proceed.”
“Acknowledged,” Mannarius replied, again barely keeping his voice steady. He went to work on his computer, and the ship began its final descent onto the land.
“Not much air traffic out here,” Citlally noted.
“It’s a quiet part of the planet,” Dhruv said. “Like you read, it’s a peaceful place.”
Endan and Citlally watched as the captain landed the Lionstar on a glowing landing pad near one of the taller buildings. It touched down gently, and the flight systems began to power down. The whirring faded away, and the ships grew quiet and still. Dhruv began to power down the ship, seeing that Mannarius had leaned back in his chair.
“Landing procedures complete, captain,” Dhruv said, his tone less official now, as though edged with worry for his captain. “We’re ready to disembark.”
“Good work,” Mannarius told him, getting out of his chair. He walked past Citlally, Endan and the nurse without meeting their eyes. “Let’s get our bags and head down. Get the atmospheric regulation started.”
Dhruv nodded to him and watched him leave the bridge. Then he called up to the Silver Lynx and let Jalingan know that they had the all-clear, then entered one more set of commands into his computer. There was a brief hissing, and then it was quiet again.
“Is Mannarius okay?” Citlally asked Dhruv as he stood up and stretched.
The co-pilot glanced around before answering. “Yeah,” he said. “He’ll be fine. It’s just that… Well, I’ll tell you later.”
“Okay then…” Citlally replied, even if his answer didn’t completely satisfy her.
“You’re going to start feeling the air in the ship change,” he told them as they left the bridge. “Just breathe normally, and you’ll get used to it.”
“It is almost like an air lock, right?” Endan asked him.
“Well… that’s not the best comparison,” Dhruv replied. “An air lock protects us from zero atmosphere. What I activated slowly lets in the outside atmosphere so that we aren’t shocked when the main door opens up.”
“I understand,” Citlally said. “The atmosphere here is a lot thicker.”
“Oh,” Endan said as they walked down the hall. “We just don’t want a lungful of it right away.”
Dhruv gave him a nod and stopped outside of the room that he shared with his captain. “It is the best air you will ever breathe. Now, get ready!” And with that, he disappeared into the room.
Before too long, everyone had their bags in hand and was ready to walk down the platform. When the bay door opened, the air thickened, and Citlally and the others breathed deeply of it. It wasn’t the uncomfortable pressure of humid air, but it was fresh and smelled of rain and earth. Citlally was the first one on the ground, dropping her bag at the edge of the platform and running out into the rain.
“It’s magnificent!” she cried as the rain darkened her clothing.
Endan followed suit, admiring the way that she smiled as she spun around.
“They’re like children, aren’t they?” Dhruv asked Mannarius as they watched the couple, hanging back, not yet ready to get wet.
Mannarius looked over at him, opened his mouth as though to speak, and then let out only a sigh.
Dhruv squeezed his hand. “It’s a wonderful thing you’ve done, captain… bringing them here even though –”
“Don’t say it,” Mannarius ordered him. He looked as though he wanted to say more, but stopped, as though speaking would break down all of the walls he’d put up.
Nurse Iratze stood beside them, her suitcase in one hand, a metal case in the other. She smiled as she watched the humans. “Nevertheless, it’s wonderful to see her this happy.”
“Funny how nature alone can do that for humans, isn’t it?” Dhruv asked her.
Above them, they heard the clamor of footsteps on the hull, and Jalingan climbed down from the ships. Citlally called over to him, and they went to talking. Meanwhile, an airport crew was walking over to the Lionstar, and Mannarius walked the rest of the way down the platform.
“Mannarius!” Citlally’s arms were around him as soon as he he took his last step off of the ship. “Isn’t it great to be on land again? We haven’t been on solid ground since… since –”
“Since Sardonia,” the captain finished for her.
They shared a sorrowful look, and then turned to the greeting crew.
“Welcome, welcome,” the group of Norameni greeted them. They held out their hands, palms open and up, as though reaching out to their new guests. “It’s so good to have you here on our planet.”
“Thank you,” Citlally was the first to say.
The others followed suit while she smiled at them all, trying not to look like she was staring. They were tall and lean, their skin pale, almost like cream. Citlally found that when they grasped her hands, they were very warm, and far smoother than any other alien’s skin was. Everything about them seemed so gentle and welcoming. She felt at home in their hands.
Then she looked into their eyes, wide and warm. They had two pairs of them, two large bright-colored eyes, and two smaller ones, above and a little more inwards than the larger eyes. Those ones were as dark as they were small, although they were not at all eerie to look at. They were beautiful, the way they looked at her, as though they saw all of her, as though they knew her already. And she wanted them to see her, wanted them to know her.
Their noses were long and wide and rounded, their mouths curved upwards as though they were always smiling. Citlally herself wasn’t sure how she might have described them, for they were not exactly cat-like – she knew that cats always seemed to be smiling, but in a wily away. It wasn’t like the Norameni were animals at all, but they were also vastly different from human. This species was so different, so beautiful, Citlally kept thinking. Just being around them made her feel better about the reason she’d come all that way.
All of them had long white hair, but each one had two streaks of color, one on either side of their head. In some, the streaks were blue, another rosy pink, and others still had varying shades of green. She wondered whether, when she met other members of the Norameni species, they would have other colors streaking their hair.
One of them wrapped her arm around Citlally’s shoulders and guided her towards the tall building. “Come, come, let us go inside,” she said. “We shall not take too long to check your papers and register your visit here.”
Endan walked at her side, having accepted the hand of the person beside him. He and the Norameni man smiled to each other, and he smiled to his wife.
“They truly are kind,” he told her. “I can feel it already.”
“I’m so glad that we made it,” she agreed.
They were right; it did not take long to get them registered for their arrival on the planet. It wasn’t the same endless slew of questions they got when they visited a space station. There was no paranoid checking and re-checking of documents, requests for multiple documents, and certainly not the DNA analysis that they’d been required to submit to that on Space Station Regulus II.
All the Norameni did was ask for everyone’s passport, so that they could enter the information from them into their computers. Afterwards, they handed them back, thanking them for their patience. The group was then shown towards the front doors, and asked if they would like guidance to find their way around the village.
“I know the way to the temple,” Mannarius told them. “Thank you for offering, though.”
Citlally looked up at the captain and blinked, amazed that he already knew where something was on the planet. She was about to open her mouth to say something when Dhruv gave her a serious look. She caught on quickly, and closed her mouth again.
Mannarius led them outside, the welcoming party waving them farewell from the airport. The roads outside were not at all busy, but they were also not empty. They were people – the Norameni, dressed flowing cloth of bright colors – coming and going along the street, most of them walking, a few of them on long carts pulled by sleek beasts of burden. Mannarius showed them along the main road, a wide thoroughfare made of smooth pavement stones, rock of varying shades of gray.
What Mannarius referred to as a temple laid at the far end of the road, at the top of a green hill. It was a wide building, made of white marble, the pale stone riddled with veins of blue and gold. It was not especially tall, except for a spire that came up from the middle.
It was still raining when they climbed the hill and approached the doors of the temple. Or rather the archways, for Citlally soon learned that they were not doors that could close on the temple. It was open, like an ancient Greek pavilion, letting in the sounds and smells of the rain. Citlally was almost disappointed to be going indoors so soon, when she had just gotten into the rain after so long. Still, the temple was too inviting to stay outside without good reason. There was the smell of incense, something that she loved when it came sacred spaces. She could hear a sort of singing as well, or at least something between singing and chanting.
As soon as some of the keepers of the temple saw Citlally and her friends, they hurried over to her, their hands outstretched, just like the other ones, their faces smiling, welcoming.
“It is so good of you to come,” they each said. “Welcome to our temple of peace. We are glad for all who come here.”
They looked at the nurse, and down at the metal case that she was carrying, and their eyes widened, as though they knew what was inside, as though it had happened before and they were familiar with it.
“We are grateful that you bring us your sorrows,” one of the Norameni said, “and we wish is to relieve you of them, to bring you peace.”
They brought Citlally and her friends further into the temple, showed them to an area with other keepers of the temple. They sat down together among cushions on the floor, a wide carpet under them that was was woven thickly with a soft material, more of the play on gold, blue, and white.
Another keeper of the temple walked over to them from across the room. Citlally saw her look down at Mannarius, a look of pity on her face. “Rare is it for anyone to come to us with their sorrows more than once.”
One of the Norameni beside her nodded. “Yes, usually one experiences great sadness only once in their lifetime.”
Mannarius looked up at her, and Citlally noticed how sad his face looked. “The loss is not mine,” he told them. He looked over at Citlally. “It’s hers, and I’m here only because I brought her here.”
“We are thankful that you have given her this transportation,” the Norameni replied. Then she noticed Jalingan, sitting all the way on other side, as far from Mannarius as he could get, and gave him a pitiful look, but said nothing.
“Peace be with you all,” she said before walking away.
Mannarius watched them go, then looked around at the others, cleared is throat, and excused himself from the gathering. He followed the temple keeper across the room, where he spoke to her in a hushed voice. They walked across the hall together, and disappeared into another room. After that, Citlally didn’t see him for a long time.
Several Norameni in the temple brought over trays of food and pitchers of crystal clear water. Citlally, Endan, Dhruv, and Nurse Iratze thankfully accepted all manner of foods. Jalingan, on the other hand, looked lost in thought, and didn’t eat any of the food. Citlally he was fascinated by the fruits that she was offered, and was actually quite hungry from such a long journey. She tried to encourage the half-lion to eat, but he only shook his head wearily and refused all of it. When she asked him why, he only shook his head and sighed.
Dhruv laid a hand on her shoulder. “Just let him be,” he told her. “It’s not yet time for you to know. Just be patient with him… like you always have been.”
Citlally agreed, and gave Jalingan a reassuring pat on the back, letting him know that she was there for him. He gave her a look that he’d never given her before, as though he appreciated her feelings, but felt undeserving of them. She gave him one last smile before turning to Endan and sharing a plate of warm food with him.
After they’d spent enough time eating and refreshing themselves, it was time for the difficult conversation. Several Norameni temple-keepers were sitting down with the group, all of them with an air of patience and kindness. One of them sat straighter and taller than the others, and Citlally realized that she had several jewels pinned to the golden streaks in her hair.
“I am the head priestess of this temple,” she said to the group. “I am Liileni. Please, may I know all of your names?”
Endan introduced himself first. “I am Endan Clarendon, from Earth. This is my wife, Citlally Winterhawk.”
“I felt that the two of you were bonded,” Liileni told him. “I could sense the love that the two of you share.”
“You’re empathic, right?” Citlally asked her. “I think I read a little bit about that, but the topic was hardly touched on.”
Liileni gave her a knowing smile. “I suppose it was never our purpose to discuss that aspect of ourselves. Our mission is that of serenity.”
“I understand,” Citlally nodded.
“My name Iratze Vuly, from Gliese.”
“You specialize in medicine, do you not?” Liileni asked her.
“I do,” Nurse Iratze agreed. “In fact, I’ve cared for Citlally ever since I met her.”
Liileni nodded. “I shall ask you more about that in a moment. I would like first to welcome back those we have met before.” She turned to Dhruv and Jalingan. “It does not seem to be an easy journey for you, coming back all this way. We all wish that we could say that it is good to see you again, but it is hard to say when we see how much it weighs on your hearts.”
“So you have been here before!” Citlally chimed in.
“I feels like it’s been a lifetime since then,” Dhruv told her. “Mannarius and I have traveled so far since the last time. I can’t explain all of it right now, but it’s true; all three of were here about five years ago.”
“No,” Jalingan told him, his voice dark and heavy. “It was four years, six months, and eight days… and that is by Leomian reckoning. I think it’s a little less than that in Earth time.” He gave a heavy sigh and looked back down.
Dhruv gave him a worried look. “So you’ve been keeping track.”
“Why wouldn’t I?” Jalingan replied. “Being back here… I can’t believe that I thought I could be around Mannarius again. I should have just let him be.”
“Your regret is still so strong,” Liileni told him.
Jalingan shrugged. “I can’t make amends for what happened. Some things just can’t be changed…” He looked over at the human couple, as though wanting to turn the focus back to them. “Like what happened to Citlally. I’m proud of her for having the strength of heart to come here and find peace.”
Liileni nodded and turned back to Citlally. “Are you ready to tell us the story that brought you here?”
“It is time,” Endan told her, taking her hand. “Where do we begin?”
“When we left home,” she told him. “We were supposed to on our honeymoon,” Citlally explained. “It was supposed to be the best time of our lives. We had no idea what the K’zzyrch were…”
Some of the temple-keepers gasped. Liileni soothed them and asked Citlally to go on.
“They attacked the space station where Endan and I were staying,” she said, hoping that her throat would not close around the words. “They separated us…”
Dhruv looked over at her when she fell silent, and reached over to squeeze her hand. He turned to Endan, whose eyes were red and glistening. “It is a difficult story to tell,” he explained to the Norameni.
“It so often is,” Liileni agreed, “when it comes to the K’zzyrch. It is a tale that must be told, though, if you are to find peace with it.”
“I cannot remember all of it,” Endan admitted. “They injected me with so much of their poison that I still don’t know everything that happened. I’ve tried to piece together what I can, but there are still so many holes.”
“I only received one injection,” Citlally told them, “but it was enough for them to be able to pull me away from him. They took me away, put me on a ship, and…”
“I went there,” Jalingan said, his voice cracking as though broken by a guilt that he had carried around ever since. They looked to him and listened. “I was a mercenary… the K’zzyrch believed that I was working for them, and they listened to me when I suggested where to send her. I thought that I was choosing somewhere that she would be safe, but I had no idea that I was making the wrong decision.”
“Nobody knew about the child,” Nurse Iratze reminded him.
“We’ve discussed that so many times,” Dhruv reminded him. “Everyone in this room knows that you would have chosen differently, had you known that she was pregnant.”
“I had no reason to think I was,” Citlally explained to the Norameni.
“Where did they take you, my dear?” Liileni asked her, her voice patient and kind.
“Sardonia,” she replied, wondering if they knew of it, of what happened there.
“A world of slaves and mines,” one of the temple-keepers noted.
Liileni nodded to her. “They use a certain potion there, I recall.”
“The lavishta potion,” Jalingan told her. “I wish more than anything that I hadn’t sent her there. They hit her, they cut her hair, they killed her baby. She was bleeding for days before I was able to get in contact with Mannarius and have him get her off the planet.”
“She very nearly bled to death,” Iratze told the Norameni. “It took us a lot of work to save her.
“We are grateful for your skill and effort,” Liileni said. “To preserve a life so near the brink is the kindest deed that you can do. What had happened to Endan all this time?”
They explained to her how Endan had been sold into slavery, moved from one market to another, injected with more k’zshyrk each time he fought back, until finally old Doctor Sendrick bought him. Despite his pretense of using him for his research, Endan was now free of any obligation to him, and had even gotten help with finding Citlally.
“So,” Liileni said once she’d heard the whole story, “Citlally met Jalingan, and Endan met Mannarius, and the cousins were able to bring everybody together once again.”
“I guess you could say that,” Jalingan said, though his voice seemed to be empty of hope or comfort.
“You may not agree right now, Jalingan,” Liileni told him, “but the very fact that he was willing to communicate with you for the purpose of helping this young woman means that he has made incredible progress over the past few years.”
“Did you know that he tried to kill me before we left Space Station Tanoora Prime?” Jalingan asked her. “Is that still progress?”
“You had yet to mention that,” Liileni replied, as clam as ever. She seemed to sense the half-lion’s despair, but was determined to maintain her serene nature. “What happened?”
Jalingan shook his head as he recalled what had happened in the astronomy center. “Mannarius was mad at me for helping Citlally with something else, and he brought up what had happened four years, six months, and eight days ago. I think all of his anger came rushing back, because he attacked me… he threw me onto the floor and kept yelling while he hit me.”
“It’s still an improvement over what he did the first time,” Dhruv said.
Jalingan looked over at him, unsure whether to agree or be upset, then back to Liileni. “That’s not the point, though. We’re all here for Citlally. She deserves to have peace, even if Mannarius and I can’t.”
“If that is your wish, then we shall focus on her needs,” Liileni conceded. She looked to the temple-keepers near her. “Please, show Citlally and Endan to a room where they will be comfortable. Jalingan is welcome to a room of his own, as well. Find out whether Mannarius has already been given a room, if you could, or else assign one that he and Dhruv can share.”
“Of course, beloved Liileni,” the others said and they stood up.
Liileni smiled to them, and turned to Iratze and Citlally with one last question. “Would it be all right for Nurse Iratze to stay with me and answer my questions? I do not wish to force you to relive any trauma that you do not wish to.”
Citlally thought for a moment, looking up at Endan. “I’m okay with it if you are…”
He nodded. “If Iratze doesn’t mind, then I support your decisions.”
“Okay,” she said, turning back to Liileni.
“I thank you, sweet human,” the Norameni priestess told her. “As for the ceremony, I would like to perform it tomorrow. Are you prepared for that?”
“Definitely,” Citlally replied with a happy nod. “The sooner the better. I know that Nurse Iratze has looked after it for so long, preserving it…” She drew in a long breath to steady herself. “I see no reason to wait any longer.”
Iratze took both of her hands and smiled at her. “You will feel so much better after the ceremony tomorrow. Everyone who has ever seen one of their ceremonies tells about how beautiful they are.”
“There will be a midnight vigil as well,” Liileni added. “You are not obligated to be there, but I know that there are some who wish to be there for the final cleansing.”
“I… I don’t know,” Citlally began, stumbling over the words.
“We can talk about it later,” Nurse Iratze reassured her. “Don’t worry about anything, please. I’m still taking care of you, after all. Now go, enjoy everything that the temple has to offer.”