Sunday, May 23, 2010

Wine and Company

shake and swirl, originally uploaded by Jenn Platt.
This picture has nothing to do with anything.

I was walking up Third Avenue, on a mission to buy buttons, and I came across a parade. A sequin covered, but apparently un-themed parade that had these folks with the scorpions on their chests proceeded by what looked like a martial arts troupe doing synchronized forms.

I couldn't resist posting it because of the guy behind the girls. I've never seen someone so happy to blow his whistle.

On to the story.

It's a little romp for an alien character of mine. I never describe him directly, but I'll give you a hint. He's got three legs, three eyes, three tentacles and an attitude. Sort of like the charming offspring of a squid and a spider.

"I don't know whether the wine or company is worse," I exhaled, inadvertently clicking for emphasis.

Leah shot me a sharp look when Senator Greene, one of the last still at the table, looked up expectantly. He thought I was talking to him and she wasn’t about to correct the impression. “Ambassador Xen(anquar) was just wondering about the vintage of the wine.”

I always admired her ability to think of these things so quickly.

The Senator’s face split into a smile, showing his white on white teeth. His bald head dipped slightly at being addressed and the light gleamed too bright highlights on it. “A Spatlese Riesling, I believe that’s a ’93, a very good year.”

He was going to prattle on about wine with his head winking at me in the light, making my facing eyes hurt, with that ridiculous smile on his face. Smiling when he should have known better than to think I’d like a sweet white wine. I rose from my eating platform. After six days and this last endless meal I wasn’t in the mood to humor anyone. I towered over Greene and liked the way he had to bend his head back to keep my eyes in sight. “Tell him that I need to take the air to aid my digestion and then get me out of here,” I told Leah. I was going to pay for it later but I was tired and my leg was still sore from the crash. I did my best not to twist it while she addressed Greene. I wasn’t paying much attention; she could have told him that I was heading into the garden to eat the rosebushes. I did see the Senator rise and bow, his smile still hovering, the only angular thing in his face. I dipped slightly, not too low for someone like him, and followed Leah away from the table.

“You know Xen, if you weren’t still recovering I would have told him exactly what you said,” she told me, gesturing for emphasis. I was still somewhat surprised at how well she could imitate the click of a beak with her mouth. Most humans had to use their fingers to make the sharp sound, snapping, they called it.

We had stopped just outside the large French doors that lead to the garden. I twisted my leg back and forth until it popped, ignoring the look on Leah’s face. I lifted on all of my legs in relief. “You would not. You like making appropriate comments out of what I really say.” I stretched my tentacles out to their fullest extent and then relaxed them with a sigh. Too long at that table. Humans had to be the most food-obsessed species in the universe. And still they had a hard time aging food properly. Everything was too tough. They didn’t let the meat green and cooked everything until it was burnt and flavorless.

She nudged my leg with her shoulder. Her arms were folded and her face serious, “Not tonight I don’t. I’m beginning to regret telling you you have a good sense of humor. You know that I’m not the only one here tonight that speaks (shll)Oak.”

I looked down at her, giving her two of my eyes. “And I know your English. Did you hear the host telling the ambassador from the European Union that entertaining a Quo was easy,” I dropped my tone though I could hardly imitate his range, “all you have to do is stock a lot of wine and keep octopus off the menu.” I found my tentacles rolling in and relaxed them. If I was going to get angry with every ignorant human I wouldn’t last long at this post. “Given the circumstances I feel I was perfectly cordial.”

She shook her head, her hands dropping to her sides and curling in anger, mouth turned down. “That jackass. I didn’t hear that. I’m sorry.”

I waved away her concern casually. I shouldn’t have told her. “Why be sorry? He’s not your family, not your brother. You have no control over his idiocy.” I looked out over the garden, it was illuminated by the lights from the house and from tiny lights someone had put in the bushes. “Is there a wide path?”

She turned her head, looking around with the extreme articulation of her neck. “Over there, it should be wide enough. Are you sure you want to walk?”

She had been the first one at the hospital after the crash. They had let her in to translate for the doctor who didn’t know (shll)Oak very well. Thank the ancestors hid did know his anatomy.

I hadn’t told her that it had been good to see a friendly face, someone who was interested in more than the political ramifications of my landing system malfunctioning in Earth atmosphere. “I was eating too long. I should stretch out or I’ll be stumbling through the ceremony tomorrow.”

“I thought I saw your leg shake during dessert but you said you were fine.” She led us off to the side, down a surprisingly wide path bordered in some sort of vine that clung to tall lattices. Strangely for omnivores they seemed to restrict most of their aesthetic value to plant life. I always wanted a garden like this to be populated by decorative wildlife as well.

I had to blink rapidly against the pollen in the air when we reached the rose bushes but I could see well enough. Leah’s shoulders were high and her hands in her pockets again. She was worried and maybe still angry. “I was not about to let Riley think that I couldn’t sit through a dinner, he’s one of the Union’s greatest detractors.” My tentacles curled in then out grasping for something softer to say. “I wouldn’t have made it through the football match yesterday if you hadn’t reminded the President of the time.”

Her shoulders straightened and though I couldn’t see her face I knew she was pleased. “The President was so appalled that she’d forgotten about your prayer time it was almost funny. She pulled me aside before we got on transport and made me promise to apologize to you again, twice.”

I didn’t really have much time for my Ancestors but leave it to Leah to know the perfect excuse that would make me look traditional and not weak. My leg had been so uncomfortable that I had been about to excuse myself, diplomacy be damned, but then Leah was there to save me. She was a good aide and it would be hard to leave her when I went home. “She did seem very uncomfortable. I thought she would-” A flicker of white caught my eye and I stopped. “Leah, who is that?” I exhaled softly as though I might frighten the figure away.

She stopped a few steps down the path and looked back at me. “Who?”

I gestured down a path to the side. I rotated awkwardly in place to give another eye to the view. I felt my leg shake again.

She came back and looked down the flower lined path where I was pointing. “Oh, that’s-”

“Ambassador Miranda Franklin.” I puffed out feeling as though my breath was restricted.

Leah stepped slightly ahead of me so that I could see her back as she stared harder down the path. “That’s her all right.” Leah turned to look up at me, something curious in her expression.

“You will introduce us.” I lifted on my legs to see better, rotating awkwardly so I could view the Ambassador with each eye. The Ambassador who was in a white coat against the temperature, her back to us.

“I can do that,” Leah said, still giving me a strange look. Then she shrugged and led the way down the path.

The Ambassador didn’t seem to hear us though I felt like my legs made an impossibly loud clack as each point landed on the stone path. She was standing against a railing on the edge of a circle that opened up in the path. In the center there were low flowerbeds with some sort of pink and yellow blooms and a stone basin. Out beyond the railing was the pond where the lights from the bushes reflected in the ripples.

Leah walked across the circle, through the tiny paths that divided the flowerbeds. “Excuse me, Dr. Franklin?” There was no hesitancy in her voice, just a low tone meant to keep from startling the older woman.

When she turned I felt the air leave me. She was taller than I remembered, standing straight against the railing, her coat open to show the light gray suit she wore under it. Her eyes focused briefly on Leah and then fixed on me. I found myself sinking slightly on my legs. She turned back to Leah and extended her hand. “Miss Corbin. I don’t believe we met tonight.”

Her voice was a high register that seemed strange coming from a human, but pleasant nonetheless.

Leah shook her hand in the casual yet formal human way. “No, we haven’t. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” She released the Ambassador’s hand and angled slightly so that her shoulder was pointing in my direction. “I’d like to introduce Ambassador Xen(anquar).” She waved the last of my name with her customary efficiency but it felt clumsy, almost vulgar in the presence of this legend.

Ambassador Franklin’s eyes didn’t waver from Leah’s, properly not acknowledging me now that a formal introduction had been requested. “Please do.”

Leah turned to me and her eyebrows went up to see me still standing on the far side of the circle. She waited, not saying anything.

I willed my leg to stop shaking and went forward, giving two of my eyes to the women, seeing the house looming over us in the third. I stopped feet from them, low on my legs, tentacles curled slightly.

“Dr. Franklin, this is Ambassador Xen(anquar), Proto-Brother to the late Ambassador Grn(lax), and to Lrn(z)or who is being schooled,” Leah said clearly.

“It is an honor to meet you, Ambassador,” I clicked, dipping lower on my legs, lower than I should have, so low that my mouth almost touched the stones. When I rose it was not to my full height, adding sincerity to my greeting.

The Ambassador bowed as low, bending her knees, a charming gesture. Her eyes were on me, waiting for Leah.

“Ambassador Xen(anquar), this is Dr. Deborah Franklin, former Ambassador to Quo(flln) and member of the Board of Interplanetary Trade,” she said, finally releasing the Ambassador to speak.

“It is my honor. I once worked with your brother. It’s good to see that the blood of diplomacy runs through the family,” she said in her high voice, her gestures much more fluid and practiced than Leah’s.

I turned awkwardly, my leg shaking from my low position, wanting to give her each eye. For a moment I wanted her to be like one of the clumsy humans that tried to shake my tentacle like a hand. I thought that her skin would be warm. “You give me too much credit, Ambassador. My brother paved the path I walk.”

She made a brief gesture, asking me to stop turning. “We know each other’s Families, save the formalities for the politicians. Call me Miranda, my days as an Ambassador are pretty far behind me.”

I felt embarrassed that she clearly knew about my weak leg and had probably dropped formality to help me. But then I was too relieved and shaky at the idea of calling her by only her first name to care. “I saw you speak on Colonization Day when I was still in school. Before that I told my Mother I wanted to be a doctor,” I said, watching her features closely. There was something that a flat screen couldn’t bring you about a face. Some things that you could only see with all of your eyes. I had always admired her sharp features, but saw that they were more angular that I could have guessed. Sharp chin, long thin nose, high, defined cheekbones and a thin line of a mouth. Only her eyes were wrong, too far back, half hidden under her thin brows and hooded, almost sinister.

Her smile was thin and cutting too, all of her white angular teeth showing. “Aren’t you the charmer? Just like your brother.”

I noticed Leah walking back down the path with the eye I couldn’t give the Ambassador. She was subtle too, for a human she had an uncanny sense of timing and privacy. Now that we had dropped formality I didn’t need an aide. “I had no idea that you were here tonight, I would have asked for the introduction sooner.” I felt like I was apologizing and was a little ashamed of myself.

She smiled again and waved her arm fluidly for emphasis. “It’s nothing. I should have asked myself. I was only trying to avoid Prime Minister Riley.”

I clicked in amusement. “If only I could. He’s a charming host until he thinks no one can hear him.”

She laughed, snapping her fingers absently with the same laughing tone. “I don’t doubt that. I’m not sure I want to know what he said when he thinks no one can hear him. Are you staying long after the ceremony?”

I curled my tentacles in a shrug. I liked that she followed her train of thought rather than searching for awkward segues. “It all depends on how fast the construction goes. Human contractors are no better or worse than ours. It could be a year before the facility is finished.”

“I think you’re giving them too much credit, Ambassador. But you might get out of here sooner; the President is very interested in seeing this go smoothly. That could put the fear in them.”

I blinked the film from my eyes and dipped apologetically. “Please, use my first name.” I didn’t let my tentacles curl in embarrassment though I was sure she knew.

She snapped in agreement her smile widening. “Do you think you’ll miss it, when you do go home?” Her eyes made a quick sweep of our surroundings indicating that she meant the whole place, the whole planet.

I blinked again, finding the pollen hard to clear. “I won’t miss the food.”

Her laugh was lower than her voice but still pleasant. “Oh, that is what I missed the most. You can’t imagine the look on my face the first time I was confronted with Gnor(op)?”

I closed my eyes briefly at the thought of a meal like that. Brn(la) aged outdoors until it had been colonized and the (pla)grn had begun to reproduce just under the muscle, the larvae making the surface look mottled. I had been on Earth long enough to know how most humans reacted at even hearing it described. “Maybe it was a look like I had at my first helping of sushi. It was so fresh I thought it would wiggle right off the plate.”

She shook her head, still amused. “Because Gnor(op) doesn’t wiggle?”

“Miranda,” I hesitated over her name, “I was beginning to respect you. Don’t you know that (pla)grn parasites are what gives it it’s crunch?”

She blinked at me though I was sure the pollen shouldn’t affect her eyes. Then she laughed so hard she was bending at the waist and holding her stomach. When she straightened her eyes were wet and she wiped them with her hand. “Has anyone told you you have a wicked sense of humor?”  


  1. I really enjoyed this! Here's some of why:

    I like the relationship between Leah and Ambassador Xen(anquar). I like the Ambassador's impression of cooking and human food.

    This made me laugh:
    "she could have told him that I was heading into the garden to eat the rosebushes"

    Love the religion + politics + diplomacy bit -- seems very real.

    Customs, proper introductions. Love.

    The ending is very nice. Shared humor. Made me smile.

  2. Thanks! Once upon a time Xen was going to have his own book. He was going to fall head over heels for a human girl but without ever realizing it because his species doesn't interact like that. He would choose to remain on Earth at the expense of his position as ambassador. Things did not end well. I think I stopped before I got very far because I like him too much.

  3. Aw! That sounds so sweet and sad. Very romantic, though. And I'm glad this story came out of it.

    I can relate to liking characters too much. Sometimes I have to take a moment to talk myself into doing what I know I gotta do for the story. 'Cause it's gonna hurt. It's getting easier, though. I am almost certain that says something about me.

    Anyway! Great story. It's still on my mind!

  4. Character cruelty is an important part of being an writer. That's what I tell my conscience anyway.

    There's another story set in the same world, but from a human character's POV if you're interested. It's called The Ghost.


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