If I’d harbored any illusions about the crew’s feelings about having me on board, they were shattered like fragile historic Earth glass the minute I stepped into the eating area. The casual, friendly conversation I’d heard from the hallway stalled to an awkward, even hostile silence. All thoughts of using only modern jargon dropped out of my head under the impact of their stares, and I tried not to wince at the mix of expressions. Looking from Gri’s unreadable expression to the suspicious faces of the strangers to the captain’s outright hostility, I found myself not even wanting to ask about the different races around the table. Although, really, what could it hurt?
Ahead of me, Kith turned and gave me another long stare. The Teg, however, alighted on the back of a chair and gestured towards me as if oblivious to the silence.
“This is deathwalker,” he announced formally. He raised a hand and paused, waiting until everyone’s eyes shifted from me to him. “He is Kaihmi.”
The instant change in the quality of the silence was amazing. And while it didn’t override the suspicion or hostility completely, the entire crew was now looking me over as if maybe I wasn’t quite what they expected.
Well, most of them. Ignoring the captain’s glare, I started to form the same gesture of respect I’d used for Kith (it worked that time). But the captain straightened abruptly and slapped a hand on the table.
“Kaihmi? No.” The captain’s sharp hiss dismissed that idea with a sneer. “He iss from Ialu.”
My eyes narrowed, and the tightening of my muscles halted the salute midway through as my hand fisted instead.
“He says Kaihmi,” the Teg said with an audible shrug. His completely unruffled attitude had my arms dropping as I turned and stared, baffled.
“-He acts Kaihmi.”
What exactly did that mean?
“What doesss that mean?”
I frowned. That was unsettling. I tilted my head away with a grimace of distaste and found myself meeting Gri’s too interested gaze. Nervously, I jerked back and smoothed my expression as the Teg explained, and the captain argued back. It went on so casually that I wondered sourly if the captain always greeted new people with insults.
That thought slowly faded as the question became how many times the conversation would go around in circles before one of them gave up. The third time through, I snuck an incredulous glance further down the table. None of them looked surprised. On the plus side, not one of them was paying attention to me.
Next to the captain, a young, black-haired women had half-turned and was leaning back in her chair, obviously enjoying the impasse. She wasn’t still though. No, she reacted to each comment and expression, turning her head back and forth like an eager sports fan watching a match. Her energy was so palpably bubbly that her light cinnamon skin seemed to glow with energy, and I found myself smiling as I turned to the next spot at the table.
Frowning, I cocked my head. There was someone there. I could see that much. But with the way she was turned, the young woman was blocking almost my entire view of the person next to her. It was hard to tell because she was sitting (slouching, really), but she didn’t look particularly tall. How short was the person next to her?
Closing my eyes, I tried to picture the faces around the table when I first entered. I had a vague impression of a bald head and big, dark eyes. Could be humanoid, but at that height… probably not. Not completely.
Some of the thrill of meeting people from different races was coming back. A step or two to the side, and I could be learning about a culture I’d never even heard of.
“Anyone can make hand gessturess!” The explosion jerked my attention back to the captain as she burst to her feet and glared down at the Teg. The Teg cocked his head and calmly looked up at her, utterly unconcerned by the violence of the action and just as obviously determined to win the argument.
I looked quietly from one to the other. After careful consideration, I decided not to move and remind them of my presence. This trip would take weeks, so I’d have plenty of chances to talk to the crew. There was no need to rush.
No need to rush interaction, anyway. On the other hand, if I wanted to gawk, I’d better hurry – I was pretty sure I only had a few minutes, tops, before they noticed me again. Moving only my eyes, I quickly went back to checking out the crew. One peek at the figure sitting next to the Teg had me cursing my plan to be still. From behind, all I could see was a small, slender build with sallow skin and a long mane of vibrantly red hair. Not enough to tell gender or race, at least none that I knew. I had never seen such a mix on a ship before!
Vibrating like a robot waiting for a command’s sign off, I turned to the next in line and immediately had to raise my head. There was no way anyone else at the table was blocking my view of him. He was tall and more than twice as wide as the crewman next to him. And from the fall of his shirt, it was all muscle. I had a feeling that he could break me in half with one hand – maybe one finger. By accident.
Fascinated, I lost track of the ongoing argument and eagerly absorbed every detail I could. His face was broad and wide yet somehow rounded with deep-set eyes and a long, smooth face, culminating in a broad mouth and two angled nostril slits. They flared slightly, and I felt a trickle of unease. With the angle of the eyes…
My heart sank, and I felt heat creep up the back of my neck. Meeting the dark eye nearest me, I smiled apologetically.
“Then, we test him.”
That got my attention.
“Again?” I blurted. Everyone swung toward me, and I winced back. The Teg wasn’t blinking again. Smooth, Seph. Really smooth.
“I will open call.” The Teg jumped off the chair as soon as he finished and glided over the heads of his crewmates down the length of the table to the wall beyond. The length of the flight was longer than I expected. Standing as tall as I could, I peered over the others and could kind of see what could be a seating area. With the lights off over there, it all blended together with the dark wall.
The Teg reached the wall and tapped one well-worn section. The wall lit, casting the seating area in a harsh silhouette. Was that someone’s legs?
My eyes widened. Ahu?
“Call initiating.” The mechanical voice echoed in the space. “Ahulani located.”
Ahulani. I winced and immediately tried to straighten my shirt and hair. I’d freshened up after meeting the Teg, but there was no way I was up to Aunt Apikalia’s standards. My hand brushed my travel kit, and I felt a surge of relief. I’d tell her I was on my way to clean up when I got called away. Then, I frowned, remembering that Kith and the Light One had seen me heading the other direction. I might be able to convince those two that I was lost. Maybe even one of the distant cousins.
“Tag any crew member. Kaihmi matter.”
My shoulders slumped. That was bound to get them curious enough to grab one of the officers. I surreptitiously eyed the room. My best hope was to find a dim corner to hide in.
“Lightss to full.” The captain grabbed me roughly by the arm and pulled me over to the seating area as the lights slammed on full force. Blinking and blinded, I felt the sound pressure change before I saw the screen switch.
“Mor, hello! And Captain Nat, you honor me.”
The voice was friendly, confident, and all-too-familiar. As my vision cleared, it only confirmed what I already knew – I was never going to live this down. Although, happily, she wasn’t looking at me yet.
“Captain Keh,” the Teg smiled warmly as he spoke, “it is we honored. It was not the captain I expected.”
Keh was apparently more used to translating than I was. She didn’t even blink.
“Your message made me curious. You said it was a Kaihmi matter?” She was still looking away from me – deliberately, I’m sure. That gave me a moment to adjust to the fact that she obviously knew more about my shipmates than I did.
“Yesss,” the captain pulled me forward. The sharp edge of claws digging into my arm warned me not to resist. Ignoring the sickening give of my skin, I pulled my arm firmly free and formed the gesture of respect for a captain.
“It is the first chance I have had to make it for you.” I said gravely in my native tongue. “I tried to tag you when I heard about your graduation.” The change was subtle, but if you knew her, you could see the smile in her dark, almond eyes.
“Mother ordered the ship to refuse your calls. She still hasn’t forgiven you for leaving. She definitely won’t if she sees you dressed like that.” She smirked, and I swallowed a frown. Seeing it, her smirk faded, and she slowly and solemnly formed the gesture for a trade master. “We heard you passed your tests, Deathwalker Sephtis.”
“Keh…” My throat closed, cutting off the words. Coughing to clear it, I formed a series of gestures rarely seen outside a Kaihmi home. Her smile spread like sunlight as she returned them. It faded as she directed her attention back to the captain, but some of the glow remained.
“My apologies for the interruption, Nat,” she said politely. “You had a question for me?”
Mouth ajar, the captain gaped at the two of us with the most delightful expression of consternation. The Teg, on the other hand, was smirking. I think it was that smirk that made the captain scowl and hold her ground.
“You know thisss persson?” she hissed. I kept my eyes on the screen, not wanting to meet hers when she realized how obvious the answer was.
“Deathwalker Sephtis is my cousin,” Keh answered simply. Despite the emphasis on my title, her tone was casual and effectively brushed aside the awkwardness of the question. Some of the tension in the room eased. My eyes widened in admiration, and I made a mental note to remember that tactic for later.
“I thought the sseekerss did not have deathwalkerss.” The captain’s tone seemed more mellow, but it still had an edge. Would she admit she was wrong or struggle to prove herself right out of pride?
“Not very many. Seph,” Keh paused, and the gleam in her eyes warned me that something interesting was coming, “is the finest deathwalker ever born to the Kaihmi.”
That made my lips twitch. Manfully, I pressed them together and managed to restrain myself to a blink. It wasn’t a lie. The question was why she saw the need to emphasize my worth to the family.
“The finesst…” the word hissed off into silence. The captain slanted a disbelieving glance in my direction. Before she could say any more, Gri strode up easily beside her.
“It iss generouss of you to ssend ssuch an important crewmember sso far,” he said with a smooth, friendly smile (which was impressive considering all his sharp, pointy teeth). “We did not know the Kaihmi travel alone.”
I raised my eyebrows. If the captain was a straight jump, Gri was a disreputable floatcab’s route – by the time you got to your destination, you weren’t sure what it was anymore. I wanted to snicker at the quick flicker of derisive amusement in Keh’s eyes. I guessed he didn’t know how much Kaihmi loved to ignore indirect questions.
“Seekers must seek,” Keh responded simply, “and Seph can take care of himself.” I almost snorted. Tell that to Aunt Apikalia. Then, Keh’s gaze drifted down and to the side. Her eyes and voice chilled. “Of course, I trust that won’t be necessary aboard your ship, Captain Nathaira.”
The underlying threat hit the crew in a wave, and suddenly, all eyes were on the blood slowly staining my sleeve. Damn it, Keh. I saw the captain’s mouth open and rushed to speak first.
“An accident,” I tried out Keh’s casual tone but stared at the screen and willed her to understand. “Mostly my fault and too small to worry about.” Drop it, Keh. The last thing I needed was some strange doctor inspecting my arms.
The quality of the silence shifted, but there were still too many people looking at me. Except Keh. She was focused on the captain. Nathaira, I repeated it to myself silently.
“Hhe will be asss sssafe asss I can make hhim,” the captain said through her teeth. I gritted mine and hoped Keh knew what she was doing. Gri shifted forward, but the Teg moved ahead of him so smoothly that the motion was barely noticeable.
“We are thanking for assistance, Captain Keh,” the Light One said warmly – and extra respectfully. Keh smiled slightly.
“For you, Mor, any time.” She shifted her gaze and inclined her head slightly with the Kaihmi gesture of respectful farewell to an equal. “Captain Nat.” Her hands and body language adjusted slightly as those clever eyes pinned me in place, and she smiled once more.
“You will be safe with them,” she said, reverting to our tongue smoothly. “See that they are safe with you, especially Nat.”
Her tone didn’t change a hair, and for an instant, I froze, staring at the screen as adrenaline grabbed me. Of course Keh remembered. I swallowed and sternly forced myself to breathe.
“Absolutely.” I didn’t stutter, but I probably sounded a bit strangled. I thought about trying again then quickly dismissed the idea. Instead, I wordlessly matched her gesture and watched the screen go blank. Despite the surprises toward the end, I felt a tug of bereavement as she disappeared.