Book 1 Chapter VIII: An Awkward Conversation

So rides my soul upon the sea
That drinks the howling ships,
Though in black jest it bows and nods
Under the moons with silver rods,
I know it is roaring at the gods,
Waiting the last eclipse.
G. K. Chesterton, The Ballad of the White Horse

Irímé drummed his fingers against the edge of the balcony. Never before had he found it so difficult to focus on a opera, especially one that was new to him. Normally he would have been mentally critiquing every aspect of the music, singing, and plot – making allowances of course for how even tíarna operas[1] generally had very flimsy plots. Today he hardly even noticed that the lead actor struggled with the high notes, or that one of the valrin[2] players in the orchestra lagged a beat behind everyone else. Such things would usually have grated on his nerves. But today...

Today music was the last thing on his mind. The reason for that was sitting right beside him but far enough away for propriety's sake.

Certain members of his family had the idea that Irímé was an idiot. He had much the same opinion about them and so he never tried to correct them. He could tell when something wasn't quite right. And he knew something was a great deal more than not quite right here.

Nothing interesting had happened on that little planet – whatever its name was – since it was used as a military base during the War of Jijuhr[3]. Very few people even remembered it existed. If asked where the zombie apocalypse was likely to start, no one would include it anywhere on the list.

Suddenly it was in all the headlines. Abihira had been there at the time of the Incident. She had looked very shaken when the subject was discussed. Those three facts had to be connected.

Irímé glanced suspiciously over at his fiancée. To all outward appearances she was absorbed by the opera. The light from the stage glinted off the sapphires in her black hair and caught in the silver embroidery on her cobalt mirvomon[4]. (If for a minute he imagined her in wedding blue[5], that was no one's business but his own. And if the thought filled him with a confusion mass of conflicting emotions, he had no one to blame but himself.)

Objectively he knew he was considered attractive. Goodness knew everyone from relatives to complete strangers had commented on it enough over the years. Beauty and physical appearance had never mattered as much to him as it did to other men. But he'd never been able to decide if Abihira was pretty or not. As he looked at her now he thought he'd finally settled it to his satisfaction. She wasn't pretty as such, but in certain lights she looked like she was.

And that is entirely beside the point! he reproved himself, annoyed at how his thoughts had wandered off. The question is: what did she do on that planet?

He had no doubt she was involved somehow. The painful memory of some of her more outrageous past pranks still haunted him.

In the background an aria reached a crescendo. Abihira's parents were in the next box and unlikely to overhear anything he said. In keeping with custom her ladies-in-waiting sat in the seats closest to the door, where they could be chaperones while still giving the betrothed couple privacy to talk. It was likely the only chance they would get to have a serious conversation for quite some time.

Under normal circumstances Irímé viewed music with the same seriousness most people reserved for matters of life and death. Heaven help anyone stupid enough to talk to him in the middle of an opera. These were not normal circumstances. Even before the incident of the walking dead he had important things to tell Abihira. Well, one important thing. Now he had two, and it was time to get the inevitable awkwardness over and done with.

On the stage the chorus sang a – very loud – warning to the heroes. The ghost was about to appear. Abihira leant forward so she could get a better view. Irímé took a deep breath. It was now or never.

"Abihira, there's something we have to talk about."

It took her a minute to tear her attention away from the stage and realise what he'd said. "Hmm? What? Oh!" She stared at him, surprised. "You too?"

Irímé clung to his courage before it could desert him. "It's something very important–"

"Wait," Abihira interrupted. She sat back in her chair and fixed her gaze on a point somewhere over his shoulder. She grabbed fistfuls of her mirvomon; a sure sign for those who knew her that she was nervous. "I have something very important to tell you too."

She's going to admit to whatever she did, was Irímé's only thought. The astonishment drove everything else out of his mind. All that worry about how to confront her, and she owned up at once!

"It may have an effect on our marriage," she continued.

Good grief, Irímé thought, thoroughly alarmed. Perhaps this was something more serious than a prank gone wrong. Just what has she done?

"You see, I." Abihira stopped and took a deep breath. Irímé waited on tenterhooks for whatever she would say next. "I can't love you."

A sneaking suspicion crept into Irímé's mind that this had nothing to do with the walking dead. He could hardly stop her now and explain there'd been a misunderstanding. Besides, this sounded just as important as what he had in mind. Even he was surprised at how steady his voice was when he spoke. "Is there someone you prefer?"

Abihira stared at him as if he'd announced his intention to move to Kudgadchisen[6]. "Of course not! That's the whole point. I don't like anyone. I mean, obviously there are people I like. But I don't like anyone in that way."

Irímé had always known he wasn't quite like most other men. Now it was confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt. Very few men would have reacted to a proclamation like that with a silent sigh of relief and a thought of, Thank the gods.

"So you see," Abihira continued, "I can't be a... a normal wife. I like you as a friend, but I don't think I can ever see you as anything else."

"That's one of the things I was going to tell you," Irímé began without even thinking beforehand of what he meant to say. "I'm the same. Maybe not quite the same, because I think I could learn to love you in time[7]. But I don't want... I don't..." He stopped, trying to find the words to describe something that was an inherent part of him but that he'd never tried to explain aloud. "I'm happy if we're just friends and not anything else."

In the poor lighting it was difficult to tell what Abihira's expression was. He got the distinct impression it was profound relief.

"Since we're making rather embarrassing confessions anyway, I might as well tell you I kissed Mirio once. It was to win a bet, it was frankly almost disgusting, and I never want to do kiss anyone again."

It took Irímé a minute to remember who Mirio was. "You kissed your brother?"

Luckily the orchestra was making such a noise that it drowned out his raised voice. All the same, they both looked around guiltily to make sure no one had overheard.

"Foster brother," she corrected. "We're not actually related. And it was only a few years after I arrived in Seroyawa. I'd barely even spoken to Mirio then. Kiriyuki said she'd let me try orakunuru[8] if I kissed a stranger. I didn't want to kiss an actual stranger, so I stretched the definition a bit. Mirio got the shock of his life when I walked up to him and kissed him. He nearly threw me out the window. I think most of the court ladies wanted to murder me after that. And Kiriyuki said Mirio didn't count as a stranger, so it was all for nothing in the end."

Irímé tried to picture the scene. His imagination wasn't up to the task.

"Anyway," Abihira continued, as if she'd been talking about nothing more shocking than meeting a friend for tea, "there's... something else I have to tell you about."

Please don't tell me you kissed one of your real brothers, was Irímé's first thought.

Abihira glanced up at her ladies-in-waiting and lowered her voice even more. "Necromancy."

For millennia people whispered about the seas around Seroyawa. Don't venture too far out, they warned. Don't stay out too long. Be very wary of anything you see. If a sea serpent approaches, it's already too late. They will sink your boats and drag you down to the depths.

Honestly, Kiriyuki found the rumours hilarious. What self-respecting sea serpent went around sinking boats? It wasn't good for trade. Why would anyone want to drag people to the bottom of the sea? What good were drowned immortals to beings that were immortal themselves? (And were not cannibals, despite what certain ignorant or spiteful people claimed.)

It was a pity none of those gossips were here now. They might change their minds if they saw the Prince Royal, a sea serpent immortal descended in the direct line from Ryuuhibiki herself, standing at the water's edge with the disgruntled expression of a cat that had just got its feet wet.

All right, Mirio had an excuse. After all he was only half-Seroyawan. His sea serpent form wasn't as large as the rest of his family's, turning into it didn't come as naturally to him as to them, and he couldn't stay underwater for as long or dive as deep. But that was still no reason to be so reluctant to approach shallow water!

Like all good older siblings, Kiriyuki considered it her sworn duty to do something about this. In her sea serpent form she flicked her tail and sent a great wave crashing down on his head.

Don't be such a baby, she said telepathically as Mirio cursed in three different languages and tried to wring the water out of his hair and clothes. Anyone would think you were scared of water.

Mirio's response was decidedly rude and would have scandalised their father if he heard it. Kiriyuki laughed, a sound like the wind wailing through a narrow bay, and flicked another wave at him. He jumped out of the way in time, and it splashed harmlessly on the beach.

"Get out of here," he snapped. "I just want you to know this is a terrible plan and I will not make any excuses for you. You can face Father's wrath on your own."

Helpful as always, little brother, Kiriyuki snorted. Any messages you want me to pass on to Abi?

"Yes. Tell her she's a blithering idiot and she's going to get herself killed. Now go before someone sees you."

Kiriyuki turned and swam out to the deeper water. As soon as it was deep enough she dived beneath the surface. Each swish of her tail carried her further and further away from the shore, and closer and closer to Saoridhlém.

Chapter Footnotes:

[1] tíarna operas = There are two main sorts of opera in Saoridhlém. Tíarna (meaning "snow" in Saoridhin) operas are usually based on legends, folk tales, or historical events, and often deal feature supernatural creatures. (The Five Ghost Stories are a popular source of inspiration; all of them have at least a hundred different operas based on them.) Lótur (meaning "moon") operas have more modern settings and are often based on the current best-selling novels. The two sorts of opera have very different styles of music, acting, and costumes. (It's similar to the difference between classical and contemporary ballet.)

[2] valrin = A sort of double flute.

[3] War of Jijuhr = One of the first wars to be waged after the invention of space travel, between empires based on different planets. It happened more than sixty thousand years before Abihira and Irímé were born; long enough ago that some people still remember it, but it's just an entry in the history books to the majority.

[4] mirvomon = A long outer robe worn by both men and women, usually brightly-coloured.

[5] wedding blue = Traditionally azure blue is worn by both the bride and groom at Saoridhian weddings.

[6] Kudgadchisen = A distant planet inhabited by giant blood-sucking insects.

[7] In case anyone's confused, Abihira is aro-ace (aromantic asexual) while Irímé is demisexual.

[8] orakunuru = The Seroyawan equivalent of champagne.