"Whoa," I remarked, in spite of myself. He was tall, over six foot, with black hair, and thick black beard, and blue eyes that were wide open in shock. He was dressed in rags with a chain around his neck. A slave. Like me. The thing that was standing next to him was immensely more hideous. It was at least twelve feet long and was slimy, reminding me of the slug thing from Star Wars, except infinitely more disgusting. There was no discernible face that I could see, but I figured it was somewhere on the end that was in the air.
Serber growled at the creature and the end of it opened. Razor sharp teeth lined a pink mouth and I realized that this thing was much more like a leech than a slug. It growled and roared back at Serber, then turned and slithered away like a snake, with Zathor and the others following. The other human and I walked behind them, me struggling to keep up and him walking confidently.
"Hi," I whispered. "My name is Grace."
The man looked at me nervously and kept walking. Either he didn't know English or he didn't want to talk, so I shut up. It was insane meeting another human out here, but people had gone missing all the time back on Earth. Undoubtedly, some had been stolen by aliens now that I thought about it. The leech slithered up the stairs towards the large plain building in front of us. It was more intricately built than the rest of them, but the outsides were devoid of patterns.
The inside of the building was nothing like I expected. The floors were made of something like woven silk threads and my foot sank into the floor slightly with every step. The halls were huge, cavernous even, with enormous skylights and very little furniture. Directly in front of us was a huge silken chair with an enormous bloated leech upon it. Slime oozed off it, where it was immediately asorbed into the floor. And that's when I noticed all the strands were the same yellow-green as the color of the slime on his body. And I almost puked.
"What is your human doing?" Serber asked. "Oh, she really is drooling now."
With some effort, I stood up straight and got a hold of myself. My eyes and nose were streaming, and I was a bit lightheaded, but otherwise I was fine. The others had already approached King Leech and engaged in more growling. I stayed back and chose to stand next to the other human. He had an innocent look to him though he seemed to be a few years older than me, and he seemed to be frightened to be in such proximity to the king.
"What's your name?" I tried again.
"Don't be silly, human." A smooth voice came from behind me. I turned and came face to face with something that was a cross between a lion and a deer. It had slim, graceful legs that ended in hooves and a mane around its golden head. I had to bite my tongue to keep from screaming as its mouth opened to speak again. "That human was taken as a newborn. He does not know your language."
"And you do?" I asked, struggling to get a hold of myself.
"I know all languages," It said lazily. And then it shifted. Now I was looking at another human, though eerily unhuman at the same time. It had chosen a male form, with blonde hair and green eyes. "I'm a chimera."
I tried to stop shaking. "And what is that?"
"A Changer." It smiled with its inhumanly human lips. "A Skinwalker."
"D…did you steal this human?" I asked, pointing to the man.
"Yes," It smiled. "I did. I like to collect things." He had a slight sibilance and a slow, snooty way of talking. His accent was, oddly enough, British.
"He's not an object!" I said fiercely, my temper overcoming my fear.
The Changer just kept smiling. "He would be dead now if I had not taken him. Settle down."
"No! He is a living thing, not something to stay in a collection!"
"HUMAN!" A deep voice bellowed. I turned to see Zathor glaring at me as he stomped towards us. He grabbed my arm painfully and stuck his huge head in my face. "I thought I told you not to talk to anyone!" He hissed.
"Relax, Narion," The Changer said. "We were just chitchatting."
"And what is your name, beast?" Zathor growled.
"You could not pronounce it if you tried," It laughed. "Just call me Symi."
The blue prince gritted his teeth, then turned back to me. "We are about to enter into a private room with the King and his daughter to discuss the de-betrothal. You. Need. To. Remain. Silent."
He stalked away, leaving myself, the man, and Symi to follow.
"Narion?" I asked Symi, under my breath.
The Changer laughed quietly. "You don't listen very well, do you?"
"I never even listened to my parents," Who are dead now. "I'm certainly not going to listen to him."
Symi shook his head with amusement. "You are something else. 'Narion' is the term used for someone who hails from the planet Naria. That's where Zathor and all his people come from."
"Oh," I said. "I never knew that."
"Odd how you can fight an entire war and never even really know the enemy, hmmmm?"
"You know about the war?"
"Oh human, the whole galaxy knows about the war."
"My name is Grace."
"I don't care."
The negotiations were short and probably sweet, but what do I know? There was a lot of growling and guttural noises and I mostly just stood in the corner trying not to throw up from all the slime. Soon we were on our way back to the speeder, Zathor looking considerably brighter while Serber's mood was impossible to discern. I was so happy about leaving that I just wanted to get back to the ship and back to my small cot. I was exhausted.
But Symi stopped us along the way, still in his human form. He and Zathor had a short, quiet exchange and then it was announced that the Changeling and his human would be accompanying us. Symi smiled and stepped into line beside me.
"Why?" I asked, but he wouldn't answer. So I tried a different question. "What is his name?"
Symi glanced back at the man, who was following behind us. "Him? He doesn't have one."
"Well what do you call him?"
"Mostly I just snap if I want his attention," He smiled, but I didn't return it. It wasn't funny. Symi sighed. "Fine. You can name him if you want."
"What was the name his parents gave him?"
"How would I know?"
"He should have the name his parents gave him."
Symi scrunched his face as he thought. "Oh gods, you are a tenacious little thing. I think it was something like…Melvin?"
"Melvin?" I asked incredulously. I couldn't saddle the man with that name, no matter that the Earth was destroyed and no names were deemed nerdy or ridiculous anymore.
"Yeah, I think it was Melvin Bard. But I could be wrong." Symi said. He shrugged. "That's the best you're going to get out of me."
"Fine. I'll call him Mel."
"Definitely not Melvin."
We were back on the ship and headed away from Ivosia. I was in the servants' quarters, sitting on my cot with Mel and trying to teach him different words, but he was mostly just disoriented and scared. I can't say that I blamed him. A few other people were milling about, but mostly people were still working.
"Grace." I said again, pointing to myself.
Mel concentrated, then pointed to me. "Gras." His voice was deep.
"Grace," I emphasized the a this time.
"Grace." He finally said.
And for the first time in a week, I smiled. "You did it!"
He smiled back and I raised my hand for a high five. He flinched as though I were going to hit him and when I didn't, he looked at me with fear in his wide blue eyes.
"No, no." I said gently, though I knew he wouldn't understand. I slowly reached for his hand and grasped it in mine. Then I raised it to my waiting hand and clapped them together. "High five."
He just looked at me in wonder. "Maybe we'll come back to that one."
The door burst open just then and the one girl I had grown close to on the ship came storming through. She was from Britain, had dyed blonde hair and large brown eyes with freckles. And she also had quite the temper on her. And that's saying something, coming from me. A string of curses was flowing from her mouth.
"Kristin, what's wrong?" I asked.
"They have me working in the stupid kitchens, that's what!" She said. "I have no idea what I'm doing and I just got yelled at all day and I smell disgusting and there's all this weird food and…who's that?"
"This is Mel. It's a really long story, but basically he was taken from Earth by an alien when he was a baby and he and his master are going to be traveling with us. I'm trying to teach him how to speak English."
Kristin sat down on the bed beside me, her eyes glued to his face. "He's cute, but what kind of name is Mel?"
"He is cute, but he reminds me of a baby. And his name when he was born was Melvin, so I didn't want to give him that name." I looked at him and pointed towards her. "Kristin."
"Kristin." He said it perfectly the first time.
"Yes!" I exclaimed, making him smile again. Then I pointed towards him. "Mel."
"Yes!" I raised my hand again and he hesitantly slapped it, but he was smiling.
"I can take over for a bit," Kristin said, still staring at Mel.
"Sure, if you want to." I said. "He only knows our names."
After a little shooing from me, Mel finally followed Kristin and I got to recline on the bed. It was hard and lumpy and no doubt the person who had lain on it before had had back problems. Our beds had just been taken from the planet before it was destroyed and it didn't matter whose it was. They were dead anyways. All I knew was that it was a twin bed on a wooden frame and it hurt my shoulder and my back. Sighing, I rolled over and dropped my hand over the side, which was how I usually slept. But this time, it brushed up against something kind of sharp. I felt for it and realized it was a corner of something small and thin. I pulled on it and when it wouldn't come loose, I stood and lifted my mattress up, grabbing at the small piece of paper, for that's what it was. There was some writing on the back, but I immediately flipped it over, knowing it was a picture. And what I saw made me so incredibly sad.
It was a picture of a small boy with red hair and freckles standing on a beach in between his two parents. His mother had red hair and his father had brown, and they were all wearing huge smiles, happy. I flipped over the picture and read the writing.
Me and Mommy and Daddy
My vision blurred and I realized that I had tears in my eyes. The boy couldn't have been older that seven and reminded me of my own brother, Sammy. He was around that age. And now they were all gone. Devin would never grow up, would never have children of his own, would never love another person, just like Sammy. And that was so horribly awful to think about. Don't worry Devin, you may be gone but I promise to remember you and your family. I slipped the photo in the pocket sewn on the inside of my shirt, next to my heart. I'll remember you just like I'll remember Sammy and Beth, and my parents, and the rest of my family, and even Munson. As long as I live, your memory will too.
I flopped back down on the bed and stated to drift off to sleep when the ship gave a violent lurch to the left and I flew off. Luckily all the furniture was bolted to the floor or else my landing on the wall would have really hurt. The ship straightened out and I sank to the floor, along with Kristin, Mel and the three others that were in the quarters. My head had cracked against the wall and my vision was swimming. A warm trickle ran down my shoulder and I knew distantly that it was blood. The last thing I saw before I blacked out was large blue eyes and black hair.
I was disoriented when I woke, thinking for a moment I was back at home. Then my memory came back and I spent a few moments trying not to cry. I had cried every day thus far, usually before I went to sleep, and I was so sick of it.
"Try not to get worked up, dearie." A deep, maternal voice said.
I looked over to my left and saw a female Narion sitting there. "Wha-" I tried to speak, but my mouth felt like I had cotton balls in there.
"Don't speak." She said. "You've had quite the fall and injured yourself. I gave you something for the pain, which is why you feel immensely odd right now."
"And we're here with you," Another voice said. I looked to my right and saw Kristin sitting there. "Mel was here, but that cute blonde guy came to get him. He didn't want to go, but he had to. I think he likes you." She leaned in close with the last sentence and if I could have laughed, I would have. Only she would be thinking about crushes in this situation. Or at all really. Our planet had just been destroyed, after all. I didn't have the heart to tell her that the cute blonde guy was a super weird alien.
"She needs to stay here overnight," The nurse said. "But she should be fine in the morning. At least I think she will. I don't really understand human physiology."
* * *
I was released in the morning and I mostly felt fine. I didn't even have a headache, which was awesome. Nurse Jurstrim told me to report back to her tonight just for a follow up, but I didn't think anything else would need to be done. I made my way to Zathor's offices immediately, hoping I wasn't too late for work. There was an electronic message on the board outside his office for me.
Human, meet me in the Atrium.
I figured that must mean me and so I made my way up there. I found him sitting on the same bench that he had gone to yesterday, wearing the same black uniform. He was silent as I approached, so I took up my designated spot behind him and waited. He looked as though he were thinking about something hard and I was not going to disturb him.
The flowers in the atrium were beautiful, with splashes of reds, blues, yellows, greens, purples everywhere. There were even some colors I had never seen before, but they were amazing all the same. Thick vines twisted along in a multitude of colors as well. It was pleasantly fragrant in the atrium, but not overpoweringly so. I could see why he liked to come here. It was quiet and peaceful and reminded me of the clearing in the forest I used to like to visit when I needed to clear my head.
"I heard you were hurt last night." Zathor said, his deep voice startling me in the quiet.
"I was, but I'm better now."
He turned to face me. "What happened?"
"I hit my head when the ship did that weird turn thing without any warning."
"I apologize, that was my fault. We were being fired upon."
Two things ran through my head. 1) Zathor just apologized to me; and 2) Someone or something had been shooting at us.
"By who?" I asked.
"The Ivosians." He sighed. "Apparently the king was upset that I didn't want to marry his daughter."
"I thought everything was alright when we left?"
"It was," He scratched his chiseled jawline and looked away. "He was trying to lull us into a false sense of security I guess."
"Well I hope you nailed that bastard."
His head cocked slightly. "I did not think you cared whether I lived or died."
"I don't." I said immediately. "And I don't care that much if I do either. But that's just a jerk move."
"Jerk…move?" He repeated, turning back to me.
"It means King Leech did something that wasn't honest or honorable."
"Well then, yes. It was a…jerk…move." He studied me. "We did eliminate the ships that were attacking, but now I face a bigger problem. War."
"With the Ivosians?" He nodded. "It's not like that would last long. They have, what? One city?"
He sighed. "It's not that simple. The Ivosians can burrow and tunnel and it would take years to find them all. And I have other things to do. But, they shot at the royal family. It cannot be taken lightly."
"Well, you're kind of even now, right?"
"How do you mean?"
"You broke off the engagement to his nasty daughter, which was a blow to his honor I'm sure. And if you continue on and don't engage him, yeah it'll be a blow to your honor but you'll be even and there won't be a need to fight them. But if you declare war, it'll take years to kill all the slugs and nobody wants to do that."
He gave me an appraising look. "You are fairly smart, for a human."
"Smarter than you apparently."
"No." He countered. "I had already made my decision when you arrived. I just wanted another take on the problem."
"And what's the decision?"
He stood and stretched, the definition of his muscles clearly visible through his outfit. "Well, we haven't turned around, have we?"
"I wouldn't know either way," I retorted.
He placed his hands on his hips and smiled suddenly, cocking an eyebrow. "King Leech?"
"Well…yeah. I mean, he looked like a giant bloodsucker for sure."
Zathor just shook his head. "You are an entertaining one, human."
"My name is Grace."
He just looked at me.
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