Ariahl led the exploratory team back to home base the next day.
As they walked single file up the incline from the river to the jungle, Toyus brought up the rear. He kept looking over his shoulder. It was like a frigid wind rifled his fur and made it stand on end. The sensation of being watched had intensified during the night. Sometimes, he listened so intensely, he thought he heard footfalls behind him, but when he looked, he saw nothing and no one. By the time they made it to the beach where the rest of their people were congregated, he felt like he was jumping out of his skin.
Some of their people ran to them when they cleared the jungle, peppering them with questions. The children ran in circles around them, shouting and laughing. Toyus picked up more than one child and threw him or her into the air. The act always seemed to surprise and elate the children. As he played with the children, Ariahl spoke to the adults.
The rest of the exploratory team stood at Toyus’ back.
Ariahl finished talking with the adults and made her way to the team once more. “You can all go and see your families now. Toyus and I will speak to the Council.”
Toyus set a child down and rifled his hair. The cherub took off after his friends.
“You still feel like you are being stalked?” Ariahl asked softly.
“Good word–stalked. And yes. But I think it’s us. We were being stalked, not just me.”
The other Sentinels were gathered at the shuttle.
Ariahl turned to Toyus. “Let me speak with them a moment. I’ll meet you at the Council fire.”
As he made his way to the Council fire, Toyus gazed at the pounding surf. The skies over the horizon were dark with the promise of a storm. The air was cool and tangy with the scent of the sea. The Council was waiting for him.
Missus Setina took a step forward and clasped her hands before her. “You are back, Toyus. What did you see?”
Toyus stopped before them. “Please sit.”
They sat down and he knelt before them. “We found an abandoned city near a river. At the back of the city there are overgrown orchards. The orchard has to be cleared off, the wooden walls should be rebuilt, but otherwise I think it would suit us. The homes are stone. All we have to do is clean them out. The most important thing is the river. From here, the river is several hours away. From there, it is mere feet. The City is on a rise of land, if you are wondering what would happen if the river overflowed.”
Mister Yusten shifted. “But why was the city abandoned?”
“We might be able to find out once there.”
Missus Alita sighed. “What are you asking us, Toyus?”
“I think we should move our people to the abandoned city, Missus. It would take a long time to build a village here and fresh water would always be a challenge. We have a ready-made village in the interior.”
“But the jungle might be dangerous,” Mister Somar protested.
Toyus inclined his head. “Yes. It might be, but whatever can get us there, can get us here. The beach is no protection.”
Mister Omir shifted. “What do the Sentinels say?”
“You should head inland,” Sentinel Mariel replied as she walked up. The rest of the Sentinels were at her back.
The Council arose as one.
Mariel smiled at them. “Toyus is correct. You can’t hide here. Anything dangerous will find you here. At least in the abandoned city, you have a wall to protect you.”
Missus Setina indicated the fire. “Please, all of you, sit.”
The Sentinels sat and then the Council sat. Toyus knelt on the soft white sand next to Sentinel Sol.
Sentinel Derik leaned forward and rested his forearms on his knees. “Look. What are the positive things about moving inland?”
“Access to fresh water,” Toyus said. “Better protection. Ready-made homes. An orchard.”
Derik nodded. “And the negative things?”
Mister Omir punctured the air with a finger. “What if it is not abandoned?”
Sentinel Ariahl shook her head. “It’s abandoned. Believe me. It had the look of being abandoned.”
Missus Alita arranged her skirts around her. “But why was it abandoned?”
Sentinel Ariahl frowned. “We can’t know that. All we can know is that it is a sturdy city in need of inhabitants.”
“We should speak to the people,” Mister Somar offered.
Mariel shook her head. “They voted you in because they trusted you to make good choices. You are bound to make mistakes, but you can’t be intimidated by the thought of making a mistake.”
Mister Somar stiffened and dropped his gaze.
Missus Setina sighed. “We will vote. There are thirteen, counting the Sentinels. That means there will be a tie breaker. Shall me? Mister Yusten.”
“I say no.”
“I vote yes. Now, that’s a tie. What do the Sentinels collectively vote?”
Derik shook his head. “We vote yes.”
Missus Setina sat up straighter. “Then we’ll transport our people into the City tomorrow, and we will clean up the site for our use.”
“I would like to go on record as a protester,” Mister Yusten growled.
“So noted,” Missus Setina replied. She rose. “I will speak to the people. Toyus? Accompany me, please.”
They walked a few feet and she asked, quietly. “This is a good idea? Please tell me this is a good idea.”
He nodded. “It will work well, Missus. You’ll see.”
She sighed. “I hope so.”
That night, Toyus lay on his pallet under the large fronds of two trees while the sky disgorged rain upon the beach. He could see the smoke rising up from the pits were the people’s fires were doused by the rain. The smell of smoke threaded through the fresh scent of rain and the briny sea. The ocean was a vast churning darkness, but he could hear its ire as it pounded the beach. Only when lightning crackled across the skies could he see. Even his superior vision meant nothing in this absolute inkiness.
Toyus sat up. “Here, Ereali!”
The young man ran towards Toyus’ voice, nearly colliding with him.
“Lost track of time,” he told Toyus.
“Sit, Ereali. You’re soaking wet!”
“I’m taking off this tunic!”
Toyus heard the rustle of clothes behind removed and then Ereali was sitting down next to Toyus.
“Where’d you go?” Toyus asked him.
“I don’t always want to be underfoot around you, Toyus.”
Toyus slid his arm around Ereali’s shoulders. His fur was damp and smelled musky. “You are not. We agreed we were going to be friends. Was I wrong?”
Ereali shifted. “I’ve never had a friend. I don’t know how to behave.”
“You’re doing fine.”
They sat in silence and watched the light show across, under and over the clouds. Sometimes Toyus could feel Ereali gazing his way. They could hardly hold a conversation in the roar of thunder and crackle of lightning, so Toyus left him alone.
The storm passed after several hours. It left behind fronds and leaves and small tree limbs littering the beach. The moon came out afterward. Her light made the inky sea look oily and sluggish.
The waves still rushed the shore but not as ferociously as it had before. Some ragged clouds sailed past and the dark sky was peppered with stars.
“I have something to tell you, Toyus.”
Toyus turned to his friend. His silver and blue down looked bright under the moon’s cold light. His eyes looked silver.
“Go on then, Ereali.”
The young man swallowed audibly. “I….I–uh…”
Toyus cocked his head. “You can tell me anything, Ereali. I won’t judge you.”
Ereali looked at him then ducked his head. “Never mind.”
“No! None of this never mind.” He put his hand on Ereali’s shoulder. “Tell me. I’m intrigued.”
“Do you know why I ended up in the underground city?” Ereali asked.
“I told my parents when I was twelve that I am atoliy,” he said quiety. “My father threw me out of the house and told me to fend for myself.”
Toyus swallowed. He tried to imagine what it would be like to be a twelve-year-old surviving among criminals and other unsavory types.
“I’m sorry that happened to you,” Toyus told him.
Ereali shrugged and dropped his gaze. “I never told another soul, save you.”
“I am honored, Ereali. Honored that you confided in me. It makes no difference to me that you are atoliy.”
“But you’re not.”
Toyus dropped his hand. He cocked his head. “I’ve never thought of it. I’ve never been drawn to relationships or love. I suppose, had none of this happened, I would have married a girl mother picked out for me.”
Ereali considered him closely. “That is remarkable. And you’ve never wondered?”
“I just assumed I was domeinsji.” He shrugged. “But I really don’t think about sex. I suppose I love people, but it never goes past that.”
Ereali sighed. “Shame.”
Toyus chuckled. “There was one of the Sentinels I became overly attached to. I suppose you can say I developed an infatuation, but that is long gone.”
Ereali turned to face him. “Which Sentinel?”
“Don’t repeat this.”
“You wound me!”
“Alright. It was Sol.”
Ereali considered this. “He looks like a R’Nonayan. He’s beautiful. You have excellent taste.”
Ereali seemed to deflate.
“Ereali,” Toyus murmured. “He’s an acquaintance. You’re my friend. See the difference?
“Yes,” in a small voice.
“Look. Most people you come across won’t be atoliy. You have to get used to disappointment, my friend.”
“But you’ll choose a wife, eventually?”
“Probably not. You’ll live in my household and we will go from there.”
Ereali nodded. “I would like that.”
Ereali rolled out his pallet and accompanying sheets and they lay down side by side. Toyus lay with his hands beneath his head, studying the moon and the stars. Beside him, Erealil’s breathing evened out and slowed. He turned his head to watch the other sleep. He had long lashes and a beatiful downy fur of blue and silver. His mane was blue, and his features were attractive: He had high cheekbones and full lips. It would be a lie not to find Ereali attractive. Yet why did I lie? He shook his head at his own stupidity.
He heard a footfall close to them just then and he smoothly came up on a knee, reaching for his dagger.
“I wouldn’t if I were you,” cautioned a sibilant voice.
A shadow detached itself from behind the trunk of a tree and walked onto the sand. In his hand was a weapon of some sort. It was triangular in shape, smooth and black, with blinking lights. The Sha’jeen’s hand was inside the back of it. The creature’s fur and mane seemed silver in the moon’s light. His eyes flashed every time he looked around. His mane was matted and limp with oil. The robes he wore were worn and torn and smelled strongly of the creature’s musk.
“Like it?” the Sha’jeen asked, holding the weapon in the air. “I stole it from their shuttle. Took me a while to figure it out. Stand. Up.”
Toyus stood up slowly.
The Sha’jeen made a motion that Toyus should precede him into the jungle. Toyus did as he asked. He tried not to walk to fast or too slow.
“Stop here. Turn around.”
“What do you call yourselves?” the Sha’jeen asked.
The Sha’jeen cocked his head. “Really? Clever.”
“What do you want?”
“I want a new people, a new home,” the other replied. “Sha’jeen do not do well alone. I already feel the fraying of my sanity.”
“This is how you want to join our village? With a weapon?”
The Sha’jeen waved his weapon around. “You will listen. I will harm no one, but I must be sure.”
“Why are you not in the Sha’jeen village? Wait. That’s millions of miles away!”
“I came down river for months.”
“That doesn’t answer my question.”
The Sha’jeen lowered his gun. “I murdered someone.”
Toyus’ hairs stood on end. “But–“
“I won’t murder anyone here. I no longer believe in that god. I believe in Ietenna!”
“Her name is Atana.”
The Sha’jeen cocked his head. “A-ta-na?”
“That is correct. There is a Sha’jeen already here. oun Nilja.”
The Sha’jeen hissed. “The little pukra.”
“I don’t know what that means, but he is a part of this community.”
“I am oun Ei’dhar. I was a member of the Council of Sha’j before my unbelievably stupid mistake.”
Toyus rubbed his face with both hands. “oun Ei’dhar. We will go to the Council and I will plead for you. But if you kill anyone here, I will kill you myself.”
oun Ei’dhar slid the weapon into the folds of his robes.
“I give you my word, I will kill no one,” he said somberly.
“Then return that weapon to the Sentinels,” Toyus challenged.
“Not until I am accepted into this colony.” He indicated behind him. “Let’s return now and you will speak to your leaders.”
The night was old but still far from over. Toyus balked at waking everyone.
“They will know something is wrong if I wake them this early,” he told the Sha’jeen.
oun Ei’dhar considered this, ears flicking at every sound, eyes sharp. “Very well. We shall wait until it is morning.”
“Thank you,” Toyus murmured.
oun Ei’dhar bowed. “No, thank you–what is your name?”
“No appellation? How strange. Can you give birth?”
“Pity. You are interesting-looking. I will call you aun Toyus.”
They walked in silence, Toyus in front, oun Ei’dhar behind him holding the weapon in the open once more. They made it as far as Toyus’ pallet and managed not to alert the periphery guards. oun Ei’dhar melted back into the jungle, but Toyus could feel him watching. There was a cold intelligence behind oun Ei’dhar’s polite mien. There was calculation in his eyes. Toyus sat down on his pallet and looked over at Ereali. The youth was deeply asleep. Toyus kept vigil over him.
When morning came, it was cool and fresh after the previous night’s storm. Soft light touched the horizon and people began to stir. A child cried and was quickly hushed. Today they would be heading inland in groups, so people were gathering their belongings and making a queue near the shuttle. People walked in groups or singly. They spoke in quiet voices.
Toyus saw that the Council firepit was crackling with a new fire. He rose and made his way there. As he walked, he considered which of the Councilors he could trust with this. His mind went directly to Missus Setina, the most levelheaded of them all.
“Ah! Toyus!” Mister Somar hailed. “Welcome! Join us for some breakfast.”
“Thank you,” he said. “Missus Setina. May I speak with you about a personal matter.”
Her eyebrows arched but she nodded and followed him away from the firepit.
“Last night,” he told her without preamble. “A Sha’jeen pulled a weapon he stole from the shuttle and took me into the jungle. He wants to be part of our village.”
“What are you not telling me?”
Toyus sighed. “He committed murder, which I think is why he has been exiled from the Sha’jeen village.”
She sucked a breath and released it. “Oh dear. Well, we can hear what he has to say on the matter, and we can decide as a Council whether he can remain. There is already another Sha’jeen here. Perhaps we can ask his opinion.”
“I will fetch oun Nilja,” Toyus told her.
He ran towards the shuttle. He found oun Nilja playing with some children. One of the tikes was straddling oun Nilja’s back and oun Nilja was acting like beast of burden. The child clung to the Sha’jeen’s robes and shrieked with glee.
“oun Nilja,” Toyus greeted him.
oun Nilja rose carefully so the child could dismount. “Ye, aun Toyus?”
“I need to speak to you over at the Council fire.”
He bowed, eyes bright with curiosity.
The Councilors had been apprised of the situation if one were to go by their varying expressions. Mister Yusten’s scowl was offputting. It clung to his grim face, aging the 30-something man at least a decade.
“Thank you for fetching oun Nilja, Toyus,” Missus Setina murmured. The morning light gave her black fur a silver sheen.
“No problem, ma’am,” he replied and took a step back.
Missus Setina turned to oun Nilja. “You are a godsend, oun Nilja. You are always polite and pleasant and joyous. The children love you and the people trust you. I would have your opinion on a certain matter.”
oun Nilja bowed.
Missus Setina turned to Toyus. “Tell him.”
Toyus told oun Nilja everything that had happened involving oun Ei’dhar. He told the Sha’jeen oun Ei’dhar was armed and possibly dangerous and had killed already once already.
oun Nilja’s tail puffed.
“I don’t know oun Ei’dhar very well,” oun Nilja replied. “He came from another ark. He is very conservative, unlike me. But that is all I know about him. I know he was part of the ruling council on this planet. I don’t know why he would murder anyone.”
“It was in self-defense.”
They stiffened and turned. oun Ei’dhar stood there, the weapon nowhere to be seen. He made himself appear small, his ears swiveling at every sound. He did not stare anyone in the eye.
“Please tell us what happened,” Missus Setina urged. “Please come to our firepit.”
oun Nilja shared a look with Toyus. Toyus could not read it, but he paid particularly close attention to oun Ei’dhar as he told his story.
oun Ei’dhar wrung his hands as he talked. “He attacked me – oun Tamos attacked me in the jungle. Followed me and attacked me with a knife. I cut my hand when I took his knife from him. See?”
He held his hand, palm out, up. Indeed, a long, jagged cut sliced diagonally across the palm.
oun Nilja stepped forward. “Why did he attack you?”
Some emotion flickered in oun Ei’dhar’s eyes, too swift to decipher. “Because the High Priest asked me – me – to care for the kits; to teach them. oun Tamos wanted that role. The kits are the future.”
oun Nilja frowned. “oun Tamos is a braggart, but -“
“You dare question me, pukra!” oun Ei’dhar screeched.
Missus Setina stepped forward. “Enough! If you cannot contain your emotions while we question you, how are we to arrive at the truth?”
oun Ei’dhar bowed. “Ye. You are correct. Apologies, oun Nilja.”
oun Nilja, ears flat and back, looked away.
Missus Setina turned to oun Nilja. “Is jealousy enough in your species to end in murder?”
“Ye, I suppose,” oun NIlja replied quietly.
“Well,” she said. “What are your thoughts?”
“I don’t believe him,” oun Nilja stated flatly. “oun Tamos was not that clever, to come up with a murder plan. Truly, he didn’t have much initiative.”
“But you can’t know for sure the story is true or false?” Missus Setina asked.
oun Nilja inclined his head.
Toyus looked at Missus Setina. “Better to keep him here, where we can see him than leave him out there where he can create mischief against us.”
Missus Setina straightened to her full height. “Then I will vote for welcoming him.”
It was no surprise that Mister Yusten was the most resistant to the idea of welcoming oun Ei’dhar.
“I oppose this!” he stated.
“It’s better to keep him within reach,” Missus Setina murmured. “That way we can keep tabs on him.”
“A viper is no less dangerous if we keep it in sight.”
Mister Somar shook his head. “But you can tell when it is about to strike. I vote yes.”
The rest of the Council voted to welcome oun Ei’dhar.
Once the vote had been tallied over Mister Yusten’s vehement protests, Missus Setina motioned for oun Ei’dhar to approach.
“oun Ei’dhar,” she said with a smile. “Welcome to City Amala.”