Rum, Nuria, and Shuri follow Gates through the emerald carpeted hall with alabaster walls. They awe at the splendor of the terrace in the center of the club. The grass is precisely cut and cement pathways connect open massage tents, seating areas with long patio chairs, and refreshment tables. Three other halls extend from the terrace to other buildings. Gates stops their march and calls for the woman refilling the refreshments.
“Gevie! A favor, please,” Gates states. “Take Mistress Nuria to the spa area, would you. I am guiding Master Reddic’s other guests to the dining hall.”
“Of course, sir,” Gevie says. “Mistress Nuria, this way, please.”
“Later boys,” Nuria says with a wink. She follows Gevie down the hall to the right.
Rum watches them leave- catching a glimpse of Gevie’s necklace- and can’t shake a sense of dread. Not one day into the trip and their group is already in four different places. He figures Stark and Reddic are capable of defending themselves, but now with his sister out of sight as he follows Gates through another alabaster hall, his dread swells.
Nuria will be fine. Nuria will be fine. Nuria will be fine…
A pair of curved staircases wrap around an alabaster elephant statue. Rum’s party ascends the one to the right. He reaches out and brushes the nearest tusk. He turns and raises an eyebrow when Shuri snaps a photo.
“For scale,” Shuri replies.
The dining hall comes into view across a short landing. There are four levels of seating that shrink in size in descending order, like a punch bowl. The bottom-most level holds only sixteen tables. The highest level has half of its tables beside large floor-to-ceiling windows. Barring entry into the dining hall is a lane divider only one section of it open. Adjacent to that opening is a podium attended by a man dressed in a similar navy suit to Gates.
“Hello, Mr. Gates,” the man says. He stands with his arms crossed behind his back. “And who have we here?”
“These two are guests with Master Reddic,” Gates says. “Gordon, make sure they are well taken care of. Nothing but alcohol is off-limits to them.”
“Enjoy your meal, gentlemen.” Gates excuses himself with a bow.
“So,” Gordon says, “how am I to address you, young men?”
“Masters Rum and Shuri,” Rum says, pointing to each of them in turn.
Gordon chuckles beneath his breath. “But of course. Did you have a seating preference?”
“Down at the bottom,” Rum says at the same time Shuri says, “We’ll take the view.” The boys lock eyes. “I’m older,” Rum argues as Shuri points out, “I stood up to volunteer for this trip first.”
“I reached the stage first.”
“Only because you were closer to the aisle.”
“Tameri put me in charge.”
“She did–” Shuri cancels his protest there. Rum is aware that it’s no secret he and Tameri have spent a greater amount of time together in comparison to the other sophman Ohaida. He sees the moment Shuri rationalizes that’d she’d trust Rum over him. Shuri crosses his arms and brushes the sides of his camera.
Shuri hefts the camera. “We can take souvenir pics. Doesn’t make much sense to take this trip and not create memories to show others. Who knows? Maybe next time they’ll convince Pan to come.”
Rum envisions a scene of him, Rum, Pan, and Shuri all sharing a meal at one of the tables at the bottom of the dining hall. The saffron feeling bubbles in his soul. “You heard Master Shuri. We’ll take the view.”
“After me, young masters.” Gordon leads down a flight of stairs to the first landing then hooks left, taking them all the way to the window-side tables. He seats them at one of the tables overlooking the nearby everglade teeming with heart trees (their roots mostly submerged).
“Your server will be Gwen. She’ll be by shortly with glasses of lemon water and a basket of ciabatta bread rolls.”
“Thank you,” the boys say.
Gordon bows and leaves, but the glint from the sunlight off his necklace catches Rum’s attention. It has the same silver “D” charm at the end as Gevie’s had.
“Have you noticed that–”
“Everyone that works here has a name that starts with G,” Shuri replies prematurely.
“No, well, there’s that too, I guess. But I meant those necklaces Gevie and Gordon were wearing.”
“Oh? The Drijad charm?”
“Yeah, most followers in the Church of Drijad wear that charm. I imagine every employee here has one based on the elephant statue we saw.”
“Church? Elephant? How are those connected?”
“You’ve heard people say things like “By Drijad” or “Thank Drijad” before, right?” Those sayings originated in the Church of Drijad but spread like wildfire. Not everyone who invokes his name that way is a follower. Nuria is a prime example.”
“Yeah. I think she overheard it at one of the concerts we went to.”
“Oh? Didn’t realize you were into music, too.”
“I’m not. At least, not like Nuria is. I enjoy dancing to music on occasion. Anyway, tell me more about the elephant connection.”
“Well, Drijad is a legendary figure, looked on as a God by his followers. However, the myths and legends surrounding him are so vast and scattered that nobody knows which are true. The only two I’ve heard in their entirety are one, he’s an elephant Vanusi, and two, he’s Ibri. That’s probably why an environment like this has so many Church of Drijad members. Reddic said this culture celebrated Ibri and now we know why.”
Rum thinks back to how Reddic contrasted Springspell and Jupiter City. “Is there no Church of Drijad society in JC?”
Shuri shakes his head. “Jupiter Mall is famous and I’ve never seen a single Drijad charm on anyone after all of our Piranha BBQ nights. Besides, JC has its own legends. Ask Stark next time you think about it.”
With that, Shuri turns away and snaps pictures of the everglade. His right arm wobbles before he steadies it by placing his elbow on the table. Rum narrows his eyes.
He has been staying out all night lately. Maybe he’s just tired.
After dispelling the concern, Rum goes poking through the menu and learns the reason behind Gordon’s earlier chuckle. “Master Rum” is a specialty wine they sell. Had Pan been here, alcoholic jokes would’ve rained down relentlessly. He hopes Shuri doesn’t spot the item in the menu and make the jokes in Pan’s stead. Like Rummy, it wouldn’t feel right coming out of someone else’s mouth.
Gwen- a fair-skinned young lady with short red hair- arrives with their lemon water and ciabatta bread rolls. Rum and Shuri quickly delve into a contest over who can eat the most. Rum dominates the contest, devouring each of his in two bites. Shuri loses his appetite, his roll bouncing onto the floor after he drops it in disgust. He goes to pick it up and ends up taking selfies against the windows, using the everglade as a backdrop. Rum joins him and they hold their rolls in front of their faces for the final selfie, taking six prior.
“Are those going in your album, or scrapbook, or whatever?” Rum asks.
“One or two, yeah.” Shuri pauses a moment. “I’ll even let you pick one of them.”
Rum leans over as Shuri cycles through them. He makes his choice the instant he sees it. “That one. The one with the rolls on top of our heads.”
“Which one are you picking?”
“The last one we took. I like the rolls covering our smiles. Don’t ask me why but I do.”
“Are you boys ready to order yet?” a voice calls from the other side of the table.
“You look at the menu yet?” Shuri asks as he rises.
“Yeah, but I didn’t see anything that I–” Rum freezes when he stands, face to face with an officer that tried to kill him and Pan. He’ll never forget her dark eyes, short-cut brunette hair, or the lift her lip makes when she scowls. “–…like.”
Nuria dumps her folded clothes into a basket and places that basket on a shelf. She wraps her towel around her body before removing her underwear, now relating to Stark’s discomfort with communal bathing. The older ladies have no such insecurities, forcing Nuria to tunnel vision her toes as she marches toward the private, scented baths. She makes a mistake when a corner distracts her. The steam rising in the communal bath barely preserves the ladies’ modesty. Nuria blocks her peripheral vision with her hands from then onward.
The phoenix finds her coconut-scented bath inside a room with beige walls, steam filling the air. She stares intensely at the bath, waiting for Liamria to emerge with her witch cackle at full volume. She shakes her head a moment later.
She wouldn’t be able to withstand the heat as liquid, anyway. She’s not here, Nuria.
Nuria crosses the floor slick with scented water, the aroma bringing a smile to her face. She tosses the towel aside and sinks into the bath eagerly, the displacement sending water onto the floor. The turbulent surface current drags her braid out in front of her. The knots Tyra made come undone due to the assault of the heat and bubbles.
I wish Tyra was here. It’d be nice not to be the only girl.
Her thoughts aren’t to slight Reddic, Rum, Shuri, or Fanger, but with her and Stark still at odds, she feels unable to share all the things bothering her. She hates how every time she sees water, Liamria- a harbinger of death- is the first thing that comes to her mind. Having grown up in a desert, water to her used to mean life itself. Letting Liamria replace that meaning irritates her greatly. She lowers her lips below the water and blows bubbles.
If Stark and I were talking, I could ask her how she learned to deal with it.
The phoenix lifts her head and huffs.
Why can’t she be nice to Reddic? Why can’t she trust him? Trust me? We used to have each other’s backs!
Then again, what have I done to really earn her unconditional loyalty? Yeah, I came to her defense during the trial, but Tyra did the heavy lifting. If I can prove that Reddic’s trustworthy instead of just claiming it, then I should get through to her!
Nuria rises out of the bath and wraps the towel around her she climbs out. She takes a step forward to race to find Stark, slipping on a floor now slick with ice. As she traces her fingers along the ice, a dreadfully cold wind blows through the room as she has a horrifying realization. She shivers as she turns toward the source of the chill.
A woman hides in the steam with the aid of white clothing, her shirt topped with a high collar. The lady’s wavy brunette hair, green eyes, and almond skin come back to Nuria in a flash. Their last encounter ended with Nuria screaming in her face before needing saving.
But back then I was only so strong!
Nuria rises and smirks.