‘The Exile Gate’
Chapter 6: Princess Abayomi
by Duo Radon
It was an unwelcome sense of déjà vu that haunted Wikus as he stepped into the Western Capitol's bustling spaceport again. He'd completely lost his taste for adventure, but it was he that had opened Pandora's Box and he knew he had to help. He just wished the plan didn't hinge on such an awkward and tenuous arrangement.
Yeen sidled up to him, putting a comforting hand on his shoulder. The worker's attitude toward all of this was annoyingly optimistic; it almost seemed like the prospect was slightly amusing to him. "How are you feeling?" he clicked.
"Oh, peachy," Wikus frowned.
"Everything will be fine."
"No, it really won't. There is....zero chance this is going to work, man."
"Satu seems certain it will. He is very wise..."
"Yeah, well, she doesn't know much about human nature. This is one area where I do know more than you guys, Chris."
"None of this is your responsibility; all anyone is asking is that you try. Even if it fails, you did your best."
"Except that 'the fate of our people hangs in the balance'..."
"Don't concern yourself with that. Listen," Yeen murred, pulling the disgruntled human close, "how about, when this is over and we get home, we don't go back to work right away. I'll take you to the Yotoori shore, we can eat at that grill you like. I'll get you whatever you want, the whole sample tray...you can eat yourself into a coma. How would that be?"
".....Alright. I guess...."
"That's the spirit. We'd better hurry up...."
General Tarzier was nearly out of view as he marched into the crowded street, obviously making his way to the Palace with or without them. The pair sprinted after their guardian, Wikus persisting until he'd placed himself in the soldier's path. Tarzier stopped short with a huff.
"Please, wait, Sir," Wikus interjected humbly. "I don't want to be a bother-"
"It's too late for that, Earth man."
"Yeah...yeah. It's just that I haven't had a bath in a week, and one of those days I spent in a prison..."
"Spit it out."
"The Princess isn't going to want to....do...anything with me unless I can bathe first."
Tarzier eyed the man, then lifted his head and scanned the surroundings. "This way," he ordered plainly, and took a left down a side street with human and drone in tow.
The soldier led them to a tent structure that spanned an entire block, fronted by colorful tapestries imprinted with aquatic scenes. Tarzier ducked beneath them, Wikus and Yeen following suit, and the trio was eagerly greeted by a uniformed Majhatughan with a data port. The proprietor swapped dialogue with the General in the native tongue, repeatedly bowing and gesturing. Wikus suspected they wouldn't have seen such an abundance of humility if not accompanied by the formidable warrior.
Eventually the Majhatughan beckoned them to follow, leading them through a maze of stretched curtains and low walls. It was a few degrees cooler under the big tent, which wasn't saying much considering the continent's usual climate. But it seemed the configuration was designed to encourage the flow of air and it wasn't an entirely unpleasant place to be.
Their guide stopped in a bath house quadrant, a huge square partition filled with shower stalls. They came in clusters of four, joined at the center, each with a metal ring at the top that supported beautifully decorated animal-hide curtains. The perimeter of the area was left open for drying and dressing; intricately carved benches ran along the entire border.
"Here....number 64, this is for you. Please enjoy your stay!" the manager offered in polite Haltherian, then bowed and hurried back to his post.
Nearby, in a break in the bench border, there sat a slab of translucent yellow material with a knife stuck in it, like a gargantuan hunk of butter. Tarzier lopped off a chunk of the stuff and dropped it in Wikus's hands. It was slightly gelatinous and gave off a faint nutmeg-like aroma. "Here," the General said, "get going. We won't spend all day here."
"Yessir, thank you!" Wikus nodded and took his soap into the stall, pulling the curtain shut behind him.
The set-up was sweet and simple; even without knowledge of poleepkwan mechanics, a person would have no trouble working the bath. In the center, a round ceramic basin had been sunk into the floor, surrounded by painted tiles. The tub had a drain in the center which emptied into a subterraneous filter. The filter then piped the cleansed water up to the showerhead, making a complete cycle, just like the spa tubs on the Fiordraa. The only other fixture inside the stall was a silver tray atop a pole, on which Wikus placed his chunk of soap.
Eagerly, the human removed his clothes and set them to the side, then stood in the tub. With only one button on the shower pipe, the operation was fool-proof. It lit as he pushed it and immediately the basin filled with clear, tepid water up to his thighs. Another push started the cycling and he sighed blissfully as the water poured over him. Wikus was quick to remember the General's order and he hastened to wash his grubby clothing first, scrubbing them heartily with the soap then wringing them out and flopping them over the top of the curtain frame.
By the time Wikus had finished washing and rinsing his body, Maj's arid climate had nearly evaporated every drop of moisture from his clothing. Feeling much better, he collected his things and left the stall to assemble himself in the communal dressing space.
"Are you approachable now?" Tarzier inquired.
"Yes, thank you, that's a whole lot better....shoot, I wish I'd brought my brush," Wikus muttered, combing through his damp hair with his fingers. "Hey, where's Yeen?"
"Spending our money," the soldier sighed.
Wikus glanced up at him curiously, but before he could ask for an exposition, the drone in question trotted towards them with a few colorful, shining artifacts in his hands. "Here," Yeen grinned, "these might help your confidence problem."
The first item was a long, shimmering scarf in various shades of brilliant green. Wikus drew it through his hands, marveling at its silky feel and iridescent coloration. "Wow!" he beamed, "Thanks, man! It's great..." With particular care, he wrapped it around his waist twice and knotted it at his hip.
"And these, I think they go on your arms. At least, that's what I'm seeing people do with them..." and Yeen handed over two bands of lustrous gold, serpentined into arm cuffs. They were delicately engraved with the most painstaking patterns Wikus had ever seen. "Now, don't get attached to them," the worker added, "we'll have to sell them back before we leave."
"That's okay, I really appreciate this," Wikus smiled at his partner. He slipped them on and they sat snugly around the tops of his forearms, looking quite regal. "What do you think?" he inquired, presenting himself for consideration.
"I'd do you," Yeen grinned impishly, prompting a loud snort from his Sugati and a wearied eye-roll from the General.
"This has all been delightful. Can we move along now?" Tarzier growled.
"Yes, sir, I'm ready," Wikus sighed.
Entering the Palace through the main gate was an entirely different experience from Wikus's previous visit. It was an environment designed to impress guests of many species, with high-ceilinged halls and ornate columns, peppered with colorful flags and carving work. Poleepkwan soldiers accompanied Tarzier and Yeen to an ostentatious visitor's wing while another pair escorted Wikus to the quarters of Princess Abayomi. Not surprisingly, Majhatughan officials were few and far between today. Wikus knew they were allowing this meeting begrudgingly.
When he arrived at the same white-framed door he'd discovered several days prior, the senior armed guard addressed him with an attitude of kinship that probably had little to do with the crystal hanging around his neck. "We will remain outside this door for the entirety of your stay. If you need help, please don't hesitate to hail us."
"Thank you very much," Wikus replied with a bow, and the pair of warriors took up a sentinel stance on either side of the doorway.
Straightening his posture and mustering his confidence, Wikus pushed the door open and strolled inside. The room was just as he'd left it....fragrant, softly lit and peaceful. The occupant awaiting him was less inviting, however. Abayomi stood stiffly beside her desk, fixing the other human with a scrutinizing stare. She was clothed in a dark, velvety, floor-length dress that fitted close to the contours of her body until it flared out at her wrists and around her feet. It was trimmed in glittering gold, but lacked the flamboyant vitality of her green garments. It seemed, to Wikus, more the sort of thing a mourner might wear.
"Hello, Your Highness...thank you for seeing me," Wikus began as politely as he knew how.
"I know why it is you're here," Abayomi countered coldly.
"Of course. And what we do with our Gate is no one's concern but our own."
"Oh! No, Princess, you misunderstand.....I came to see you! That was the only reason I'd ever come."
"Well, I was actually in Keehar the same day you were three years ago...I guess, you didn't have your hologram on...there....eh, but I tried to catch up with you and got lost. I only wanted to talk, I never expected to see another human off-world. I would have explained all this last time, but I didn't get the....well, you were there...."
"Who are you?" Abayomi pried, her eyes narrowing. "What business do you have with the poleepkwa?"
"I'm a little surprised you don't know me....I have a.....a sort of, reputation, on Earth..." Wikus fumbled, fiddling his hands uncomfortably.
"I don't visit that wretched place," she snorted derisively.
"I see. Well, ah, maybe I should tell you my story first, eh? It's quite a tale...do you mind if I sit?" He managed a timid smile and pointed at the wide, plush bed.
Abayomi responded with a very faint nod of the head and Wikus took it as a green light. He sat on the edge of the lounge and ran a hand over the cushioning. "Ooh! That's very nice.....okay, so, let me see...."
The estranged Earthling began his epic with a tone of nervousness, but it faded as he recalled the events and people that composed the fibers of his life. He told the Princess about his parents, his wife, his career, and the bizarre turn of events that connected him to the poleepkwa. He detailed the lessens he'd learned, the trials he'd suffered, and the family that cared for him now. Abayomi's demeanor appeared to shift as well while she listened. Her stony expression softened, in particular at the point where her guest recalled his agonizing separation with Tania. By the end of the narrative she'd come to sit beside him on the bed, though she was careful to keep some distance between them.
"So...that's pretty much it. And now I'm here," Wikus swallowed, his mouth dry from speaking. "I really didn't mean to turn this all into such a...you know, an issue..."
"I know," Abayomi replied softly, "and I didn't mean to send you through, but..."
"How could you have known? Neither of us could have known...." Wikus turned his attention away from her lovely deep brown eyes, fingering the end of his scarf and trying his hardest to think of a way to steer the conversation back to the Gate without making it obvious. "Anyway, that's how I got here....what about you?"
"Hm," she said thoughtfully, folding her hands in her lap, "I was adopted."
"You don't say," Wikus grinned, utterly thrilled when he finally coaxed a slight smile from her as well.
"Yes, I do say. I was abandoned by my real parents on Earth. When my father, Posacam, lost his infant daughter to illness, he was heartbroken. Our guards brought me back for him and they raised me as their own. That's all I really know of it."
"Wow, that's rather sad...I'm sorry..."
"I'm not. I love my family, they are far kinder and more generous than anyone I could have had back there."
Wikus ignored her second inexplicable denouncement of their homeworld and pressed forward. "When you were a baby...that must mean the Gate's been in use for a few years...."
Abayomi turned away, looking at nothing in particular. "I'm sorry," Wikus offered, fearing he'd just undone the progress they'd made. She didn't answer, but neither did she move from her seat beside him. "It's just....you spoke of your family so kindly, yet you just seem....forlorn....to me. Is there more to it than that?"
The woman continued to stare off into oblivion. "Even a Royal cannot save everyone. You wouldn't understand."
"Is that why you were on Keehar? Trying to save someone?"
".....I was running away."
"From what?" Wikus worried, furrowing his brow.
Abayomi finally met his inquisitive green eyes, but her gaze quickly dropped to the glowing violet flame against his chest. "This is very beautiful," she mused, reaching over to take the crystal between her thumb and forefinger.
Wikus found it difficult to let go of the unsettling fork their conversation had taken, but it was obvious the Princess wasn't going to advance any further at the moment. "Um....thank you..."
"The poleepkwa must think very highly of you, to grant you this."
"I suppose they do. To be honest, I don't feel like I deserve it..."
"No, you do," she smiled, "if what you speak is true. You are very courageous."
"I, eh.....well...thank you, Your Highness," Wikus blushed, returning her smile.
"Your poleepkwa....do they take good care of you?"
"Absolutely! They give me everything I could ever need."
"You have physical relations with them?"
"Oh...man," Wikus chuckled, feeling his face flush again, "I....yeah, we do."
"Even though you are of a different species?"
"Well....I don't know if that kind of thing is customary, but...it started when I still had my poleepkwan body. See, it was two years after Chris left and things were truly starting to fall apart. And then, on top of it, that was when I first saw Tania with....you know, another man. I just.....really needed someone. I was so lonely. I waffled on it for a long time, but eventually I figured, 'what the hell.' You remember my friend, Brutus? He's the one who taught me all about...that. It's not at all the same for them as it is for humans....you know, they don't have to worry about pregnancy and all that, so for them it's like...a hug...no big deal. I didn't think I'd like it, it was so surreal at first, but it turned out to be really nice."
"And they still accept you as a partner, even now?"
"Yep. Nothing really changed much."
"I envy you," Abayomi said pensively.
"Why? You're not allowed to have sex with the Majhatughans? Oh my, that was probably a very inappropriate question to ask a princess, I'm sorry..."
"No, I am not," she answered matter-of-factly. "And I'm not permitted through the Gate to fraternize with the Earthlings."
"Oh. So you've.....never before..."
"No. Who would there be for me?"
"What about me?" Wikus winced after he spoke. He was certain this was not the way to approach such a sensitive subject, but it was out there now, he couldn't take it back. Fortunately, the direct approach seemed to be working.
Abayomi moved closer to the anxious man until her hip brushed against his. "You would do that? You would consent to be my 'wife'?"
Wikus stifled a laugh that he immediately had to clarify. "Oh, no, Your Highness, I would! It's just....you said 'wife'...it's 'husband.'"
"Husband. The male half of the couple is called a 'husband'."
"I see..." Abayomi whispered, studying Wikus's face and drawing her slender fingers through his hair. Alien or not, Wikus was beginning to believe Commander Satu knew a little more about human behavior than he'd thought....