There were too many eyes.
Iridescent orbs as white as the sun, irises reflecting the hues of sea and soil and leafy foliage, even optical reincarnations of violet and amber sunsets past pressed upon me, crushing me beneath their scrutinizing weight. I felt them scraping my flesh away to strip me of my rightful defenses and render me vulnerable and exposed. If I had wondered before about the evolution of trust between the citizens of Dhal’at and myself, the answer was clear to me now: three months after my coronation into the Elderhood, I was still a pariah and possibly a murderer. There was no justice, even for the reprieved.
Despite the discomfort I felt amidst the civilians, the day was one of joyous celebration. I, along with much of Ka-lik’et and a few others who called greener kingdoms home, were gathered outside the city’s towering walls to witness the wedding of my twin brother and his human beloved. It was to be the first marriage between A’li-uud and human in Dhal’at (though, other mixed-race nuptials had taken place in other Albaterran kingdoms), and many were eager to spectate the event. Even the sky above was rejoicing the union. The sun was brilliant and pearly as it smiled rays upon the sentients below; the expanse around its glow was flawless in its turquoise blanket; the fluttering strokes of lavender clouds floated idly toward the horizon as if they were reluctant to miss the joining to come. Yet, though the weather was lovely and the occasion marvelous, I was eager for the din of voices to quiet with the onset of slumber. Perhaps, then, I would be free from the barrage of critical gazes.
“This is quite a showing,” my mother commented, putting her fingertips on my forearm. She was looking around with interest, pausing to incline her head to those she recognized. “I never imagined Zuran had so many friends.”
“Most are not friends, Mother.” I followed her stare to a group of A’li-uud warriors about my age. They appeared to be whispering amongst each other and throwing intermittent glances in my direction. I had, sadly, grown accustomed to such behavior from the civilians of Dhal’at, but I still was unable to reconcile such suspicious treatment from those who pledged to serve their kingdom and its leader. Only three months prior, I was one of their numbers, and I would never have displayed such insolence toward Elder Kharid. Then again, Elder Kharid had not been accused of murdering his predecessor, as I had. “Most are here either to see an A’li-uud wed a human or to see me.”
Mother frowned. She was a sweet, compassionate female and unable of comprehending anyone’s view of me being less than admirable. Perhaps it was the bias of motherhood, or perhaps it was her eternal optimism, but she felt I had well-earned my status as Elder and ought to be treated accordingly. “Well, I do not believe this is the place to demonstrate political displeasure,” she said stoutly. “I think you should send those away who are not here to celebrate Zuran’s good fortune.”
“Come now, Oraaka,” Father interjected, laying a hand on her forearm just as she had on mine. “Sending whisperers away would only draw more attention to Venan and his new authority, not less. Mind you, he is not only your son anymore, but your Elder as well. He is under no obligation to pay your musings any mind.”
She cast a disapproving glance in Father’s direction but yielded to his assertions as she harrumphed, “I am merely saying today is dedicated to something other than the recent bout of disquiet plaguing our city.”
I agreed with her, but I had no time to express such as a petite human bounced up to us. She was brimming with energy, rocking back and forth on the balls of her feet, a wide smile on her mouth and red rims around her eyes. I knew humans were prone to something called crying when they were emotional, and oftentimes the skin around their eyes grew scarlet and puffy, but there were no tear tracks on this female’s small face. I imagined she was simply on the verge of crying, rather than experiencing the aftermath.
“You’re Zuran’s family, right?” she asked. Her gaze fixed on me. “I mean, you look just like him. It’s kind of creepy, actually, like you’re a clone.”
Father started to respond for me, as Elders were not often addressed so boldly, but I answered before he had a chance. “Zuran is my twin brother,” I clarified. “This is our mother and father.”
Others may have taken offense to her audacious words, particularly the quip about my being a clone, but she could not be blamed. Zuran and I were identical to the last detail, from our long curtains of spectral-white hair to our slanted, alabaster eyes. Our skin was a matching shade of royal blue that darkened to navy in the places most exposed to the sun, and we were each tall enough to tower over this tiny human.
“So, you’re the Elder?” she pressed eagerly, knitting her fingers together before her midsection.
“Yes.” Again, I felt the swell of stares on me and squared my shoulders to buck the allegorical burden.
This lively human and I had actually seen each other before. She had been present when I attempted to rescue Elder Kharid from attack by a rogue Novai. That incident had ended in tragedy when my sword pierced straight through the Novai into my Elder’s chest, and the Wise One perished on that very spot within minutes. It was that day, that moment that had led to the darkest months of my life, and it was why I now faced a tepid backlash from the Dhal’atian people. I still had nightmares about the incident; I could still feel the sword breaking through the Novai’s front and sliding through Kharid’s sternum. The ghost would never stop haunting me.
“Well, it’s awesome to meet you,” the human gushed. “I don’t want to tell you what to do or anything, but the wedding’s about to start, and family is supposed to sit in the front rows. Phoebe doesn’t have family here, obviously, so I’m the next best thing. I’m Edie. Phoebe and I are nurses together in the colony. I’ve kind of been helping her put together this whole thing. You could say I’m the maid of honor, but I guess A’li-uud don’t usually have people standing up with the bride and groom, so I’ll just be sitting across the aisle from you.”
She took a breath after her rambling, and I stared at her. Generally, I was not much for lengthy conversation, but even the most talkative of A’li-uud did not often speak as quickly or extensively as she did. I was grateful when a second human approached and drew her attention from me.
“Edie,” the newcomer said, “they’re starting.”
I found my stare shifting from the perky Edie to her companion. She was taller than the self-deemed “maid of honor,” though she was still notably shorter than me. Her eyes were dark, her wavy hair darker, and her figure was as curvaceous as an ocean swell. A lilt in her voice suggested sweetness to my ears, but the rise of her chin hinted a measure of dignity in place of the innocence so prevalent amongst the sweetest-voiced. She was captivating.
“Shoot,” Edie expelled, grabbing her skirts to keep the hem from kissing the sand beneath us. She looked back at me, glancing briefly at Mother and Father, and advised, “We should sit.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “It was a pleasure meeting you. I am sure we will speak again.”
“Oh, yeah, there’s the whole reception afterward,” she said brightly. Then, she scurried to the first row of neatly-organized chairs, her friend following gracefully behind. I led Mother and Father to our own seats just in time for the first notes of music to flow across the open desert.
I still felt eyes on me, prodding the back of my head and searing into my temple, but there was one pair burning into me I relished. In my peripheral vision, I saw the pretty dark-haired human watching me from her seat beside Edie and, though the afternoon was relatively warm, I shivered.
The only wedding I’d ever been to was my cousin’s when she married her high school sweetheart. I’d stood beside her as a bridesmaid and smiled while she took her vows, and I’d stood beside her as a shoulder to cry on and held her left hand while she signed her divorce papers with her right twenty months later. My parents were never married, and I was an only child, so weddings just weren’t part of my lifestyle growing up. There was a general idea of what to expect at a wedding, though: bouquets, elegant white gowns, speeches, throwback oldies music.
This wedding wasn’t anything like that.
There were chairs divided into two blocks separated by an aisle, as usual, and a gorgeously-decorated altar at the head of the site, but that seemed to be the extent of the normal expectations. Everywhere I looked, bright blue skin shone beneath a milky-white sun. The altar was adorned with silky fabrics flipping in the breeze and vividly-colored flowers unlike any I’d ever seen before. Whatever instruments provided the music now flowing through the air were foreign to my senses, and the sounds they gave off were so mystical and ethereal I felt them rather than heard them. A tangy smell of cactus-like plants kept wafting across my nose rather than the sensual scent of roses or regal aroma of lilies as one would ordinarily smell at a formal event like this. To cap it off, we were sitting in the middle of a never-ending desert with golden dunes in front of us and peachy clay walls behind.
Edie was my date to this function; or, rather, I was hers. She was seeing a Corporal in the Ka-lik’et human colony where we lived, but he was on-duty for the ceremony and unable to attend until later in the reception, so she’d asked me to accompany her. I’d been a little leery at first, mainly because I didn’t know the bride or groom and felt like I’d be an intruder, but I’d ended up agreeing when she’d begged me in her energetic Edie way. As it turned out, I wasn’t the only other stranger in attendance—Edie told me Phoebe and her A’li-uud mate weren’t even sure who half the guests were—and there was a handsome upside to accompanying my friend.
The A’li-uud across the aisle was the most attractive I’d ever seen, and I’d been an Albaterran colonist for over a year. I’d only gotten a brief glimpse of the groom, but, from what I could tell, the two were carbon copies of each other—slanted opaline eyes, frosty waist-length hair, rich sapphire skin and cheekbones sharp enough to slice a diamond in two. But there was a noticeable difference between them, something I picked up on right away. The quick glance of the betrothed A’li-uud revealed an evident rascal of an alien in his smirking mouth and narrowed gaze. Looking at the other, the one mere feet from me, was like looking through a mosaic glass to see the brooding, reserved man on the opposite side. He was mysterious and hidden, his personality not lain out to bare before all but tucked safely away in his depths. And he was powerful. I could feel it radiating from him every time I so much as looked in his direction.
“You like what you see?”
Edie’s voice pulled my attention from the A’li-uud, and I flushed. Luckily, the sun was so bright and hot I was already pink with heat all over. “He’s good-looking,” I admitted quietly. I wasn’t shy to say so, at least not to her.
“He’s an Elder,” she said, grinning at me knowingly.
I whipped my gaze back to him with surprise. He wasn’t wearing the intricately-embroidered robes common of Elder wardrobes, instead donning just the boots and jodhpur-style pants of Dhal’atian warriors and leaving his torso naked. If she hadn’t told me, I wouldn’t have expected it. I knew the last Elder of the kingdom had died, of course, but the new Elder hadn’t been in public often enough for me to see him during the hours I wasn’t holed up in the colony salon.
“Are you sure?” I whispered. “He’s not wearing the fancy robes.”
She nodded soberly. “I’m sure. I even asked.” I felt her elbow nudge me in the ribs. “You should ask him to dance tonight.”
“Yeah, right,” I retorted sarcastically. “The Elder and the hairdresser. That sounds like a match made in Heaven.”
“Maybe not Heaven, but it could be a match made on Albaterra,” she replied with a chuckle. She motioned to the altar in front of us. “See? It’s common here. Besides, I bet he’d be right up your alley.”
Edie and I didn’t actually know each other as well as her words suggested. We became friends only a few months ago when Phoebe, the bride, left the colony and took up with her A’li-uud boyfriend. Edie started coming into the salon out of boredom, looking to change up her hairstyle more often than Katy Perry, and, when we realized we clicked, she latched onto me like a leech and never let go. I didn’t mind. I liked Edie’s vivacious spirit, especially because I could only take so much of the other hair stylists before I started feeling like I was losing my mind. They were a little too superficial for my taste. Edie was superficial too, but her heart was so kind it was an easy flaw to overlook.
There was movement behind us, and we turned in our chairs. At the base of the aisle was an A’li-uud with broad shoulders, rippling muscles and smooth, flowing hair, and on his arm was a pretty blonde smiling so brightly she matched the sun with her glow. She wore a ground-sweeping gown of emerald silk rather than the traditional white dress, but I preferred it. Surrounded by the unusual alien atmosphere, it seemed fitting, and it brought out the pale azure tint of her eyes. The music billowed out everywhere, wrapping us in melodic notes, and bumps rose on my skin from the sheer touching weight of its emotion.
Step by step, the couple strode up the aisle toward the altar, toward us. The rest of the guests twisted in time with their progression, but I remained turned to the back. Someone was behind the seats, lingering near one of the poles supporting the nearby reception tent. More focused scrutiny showed the lingerer was a female, her skin as blue as the groom and his doppelganger Elder. Her face was beautiful, angled and pointed and as regal as a queen, but her mouth was twisted in certain rage.
I pressed my knuckles into Edie’s thigh, trying to get her attention without interrupting the ceremony, but she shifted a few inches out of reach. The perplexing female suddenly met my eyes. I froze, caught, before remembering it wasn’t me who was encroaching on the wedding.
She raised a single finger to her lips, her eyes boring into me fiercely, and then disappeared behind the tent in the blink of an eye.