A Short Story For “The Holly Jolly Blog Hop”

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It’s been so much fun participating in “The Holly Jolly Blog Hop” where writers across genres get together to share flash fiction with the prompt “the wrong gift.” In my case, the flash fiction turned into a short story. But I hope you’ll enjoy it.

A Night to Remember

Raynor, the human captain of the Andromeda, is a despicable specimen of his race. Just because he’s the captain and owner of this ship, he thinks he owns every person aboard it as well. He thinks he’s king. Well, I have news for Ray—he’s one lousy king. Not that it matters to him what I think. I have said it to his face a hundred times already, and all I ever get from him is “Like it or not, it’s my ship and I make the rules.”

Stupid, arrogant monkey!

Sometimes he goes even farther. “I can let you down at the closest space port if you’d like, Roohinah Doli,” he adds the ‘roohinah,’ a formal address for a queen, just to irk me. “And I’m sure you can find another ship that suits your tender sensibilities. All you have to do is ask.” He knows he negotiated, or should I say coerced, the last of my Lieres into buying a seat on his Andromeda, so like it or not I have to stick with him until I get to my destination, Komatso. If I ever make it that far.

At the moment he’s looking at me all funny, his right eyebrow higher up on his forehead than the left, lips curled like he’s watching a circus. I’ve been explaining my plans for Risallia night to him and all he does is stare at me—up and down and all over again. Like I’m a piece of Halfnolium he’s about to bid on. A nice and crunchy fire lights up inside my head and I imagine Ray on a stake in the middle of it. That visual helps me stand there and keep explaining while he watches, this odd bemused expression stuck on his face. From time to time he shakes his head, making strands of his dark gold hair fall over his slate-gray eyes.

“It’s a festival to celebrate life, love, family, friends,” I say for the tenth time. My jaws want to clench but I don’t let it. Instead I breathe in and out; hoping it keeps my annoyance from showing. “We light up a room, put up a Risallia tree, exchange gifts, have a meal together.”

Ray holds up an impatient hand. “I know what Risallia is.”

I deduced as much. Anyone who has traveled close to Soros knows what Risallia is. The tree of Risallia—a gray-barked intelligent flora native to Soros—is a symbol of resilience in these parts, the only living thing that survives out in the open through scorching summers and endless winters. Risallia night is a celebration of love, of life, and of the spirit to survive.

“Then why are you making me explain it to you a hundred times? And why are you acting like celebrating it will turn your ship upside down? Risallia night is fun.”

“It’s a total waste of time,” he retorts, brushing the locks off his forehead. “You might’ve nothing better to do than party, but my crew has a ship to run.”

Crossing my arms I meet his frown with a glare. “Seriously? A waste of time? You have to be joking. It’ll boost morale. People need to be happy when floating across this endless dark,” I persist. “Right now, everyone on the ship is bored and tired and sick of your ‘we don’t have time for distractions’ routine. Even your crew is close to losing it. You may not care about passengers like me but don’t you care about the people who help you fly this ship?”

His jaws tighten and his lips thin into lines, making me wonder if I might’ve poked him a bit much. But I want to have Risallia so bad that I’m ready to push him to the edge of the universe if need be.

“I care plenty,” he replies gruffly. “But if I kept throwing senseless parties to show I care, I wouldn’t get to where I am.” The words bristle like they’re supposed to. He’s somewhat right. Not yet thirty, he’s probably one of the youngest owners of a passenger ferry. Most captains I’d seen before Ray were the grizzled kind.

Can’t give up simply because he’s won a round, I remind myself.

“It’s just the one time,” I counter, adding a smidgeon of plea in the end. “Risallia doesn’t come around every day.” Yes, I’m pretty hell-bent on making this happen. A month or two ago, I would’ve stomped away the moment I was refused anything, but not anymore. Things have changed around me, and I’ve changed with it.

Space is a strange place to be. No matter how far you go or how long you travel, it never seems to end. I had never traveled in deep space the way I’m doing now. It’s funny how I craved for adventure when I was tethered in comfort on Soros. That’s my home planet, the orange space rock I was born and raised. It’s the fifth planet in a single-star little system named Toomani, which is no more than a speck in the galaxy of Gwalor. On Soros I was a princess, a prime princess too, which means I was born of the consort major of the crowned Queen Vars. I had quite a few siblings ahead of me in line for the throne and I knew I had no hope of inheriting the crown but my position was enviable nonetheless. I had every luxury in the galaxy that my mother Queen Vars’s exchequer could afford. Clothes, jewels, entertainment, you name it, I had it.

But boy was I bored. I wanted out. I wanted to see the whole of Gwalor and even beyond. So when my mother’s chief advisor, Vazeer Ortenzo, offered to arrange a trip for me to the capital of the galaxy if I could get my mother’s royal seal on the travel document, the impulsive and adventurous twenty year old in me won over my practical and grounded side. I didn’t know the Vazeer had planned to forge the seal and use it to transfer power over the hinterland territories. Ortenzo got caught and I got implicated. My mother would have pardoned me but her council, backed by some lesser consorts, wanted a sentence if not my head. At that point I decided to run. Not forever, but just until I had found Ortenzo and made him clear my name. Ortenzo was last seen taking a shuttle out of Toomani to Gwalor’s capital—the floating city of Komatso. I decided to follow his tracks.

Before I ran, I grabbed whatever I could find in my quarters that would fetch a good price in the market and earn me Lieres to finance my getaway. I couldn’t grab me enough to buy a seat on a better ship. The Andromeda was a third grade passenger ferry, with wire-strung cots in its priciest private suites. No wonder. Its captain was Raynor the tight-fisted.

“It is what it is,” he had said irritably when I had complained about the Andromeda’s dank interiors. “Take it or leave it.”

“I’ll take it,” I had said too quickly. Showing my urgency was a mistake, I had realized immediately, as his right brow had crinkled and shot up. Then he negotiated down to the last Liere I had.

The journey from Soros to Komatso can be done in five days on a first grade passenger ferry and even faster on a military grade ship. But the Andromeda was neither of those. Besides, there were other passengers who were promised drop offs before me, and if there is one good thing about Raynor it has to be this: he is a man of his word. So, here I am, languishing in a ship that looks worse than the slave quarters in my mother’s palace while it makes its trip at snail’s pace across the galaxy.

At this rate there’s little chance of my catching up with Ortenzo at the capital anytime soon, so I figure, why not spruce up the Andromeda some? A splash of color here, a bit of scrubbing there, some music in the morning—little things that would go a long way in making the journey cheerful. I started with my room and now I’m slowly trickling outward into the common areas.

Ray doesn’t like any of it, obviously. He dislikes anything that’s more than a necessity. He calls them ‘needless distractions.’ Ha! I say.

Celebrating Risallia night is the next big thing on my agenda. And I’m not in this on my own either. I’ve got backers, some of them passengers and a few of the crew. The staunchest supporter for Risallia night is the Andromeda’s Chief Engineer and Ray’s best chum, Teo. There’s reason for Teo’s keenness. He’s kind of sweet on me and we have between us what you could call a little romance. I have indulged him quite a bit knowing our closeness riles Raynor. I noticed Ray’s nose scrunch when he saw Teo kiss me the other day. It was a harmless little kiss, nothing too deep. Yet Ray frowned. I guess in Ray’s book it’s another distraction the Andromeda could do without. Anyway, who cares? Staring into the dark outside day after day, hopping between dreary planets, I’m tired. I need some cheer. I need a beau. And right now, I need my Risallia.

“So?” I ask. “Can we have a party? It’s just a couple of free hours for the crew.”

Ray sighs and fixes a resigned gaze on me. Then shaking his head, he says, “You’re such a pest.” I’d be right if I took that as an offense but I let it slide. Anything for Risallia.

“You’re almost as stubborn as me,” he says and smiles. It’s one of those rakish lopsided grins of his that always makes me draw a breath. Always. And makes me want to hate him even more because I find my insides melting like a block of ice in the midsummer’s sun.

“It’s a ‘yes’ then?” I ask again, eager to get out of here and away from him. Thankfully he waves me off. “All right, do what you want. But after the two hours the ship better be back to normal. I don’t want my crew or my passengers running around drunk and crazy.”

“I promise,” I say, flashing an obligatory smile at him. I’m out of his office in the next second and running to set up the party. I only have a day to prepare.

*****

Finally! It’s Risallia night. The main hall of the Andromeda has been decked with garlands, gold and red. Little lamps dot the hall and glints of light from them make the room magical. At the center of the room is the tree, not a real tree obviously but one I fashioned out of sticks, tape, glue, and shiny white paper. Our tree—far from perfect—is the best one I’ve seen. Over it, Teo and his assistants have hung special lights, and they are spinning giddily and flashing a million colors all around the hall. It’s hard to imagine this is the same old drab ship I’ve spent over a month in. Passengers and crew are milling around, drinks in hand, laughing and talking. Just a couple of hours ago, they were mostly cooped up in their cabins or busy running chores with not a moment to stop and smile. Now, they’re all friends. Isn’t that the magic of Risallia?

Teo always has the perfect timing. How did he know I was craving for a drink? He hands me a glass tumbler full of sparkling Asmo and plants a kiss on my cheek. “Cheers,” he whispers. “A joyous Risallia to you, Doli.”

My heart flits. This has been worth the wrangling. Linking my arm through Teo’s, I rest my head on his shoulder. This Risallia will truly be joyous when Teo opens my gift for him.

“If we’d spend half the energy we’ve spent on setting this up, we could’ve squeezed in a run to Momor,” a tight, annoyed voice mutters behind us and with great effort, I stifle a sigh. Our exalted captain has arrived, and as expected, he’s brought with him endless cheer.

*****

“The captain has to pick first,” Teo suggests cheerily when it’s time for the gift exchange. The gesture is not unexpected but I can’t help feel a tad livid. Raynor deserves nothing, no gifts, not even a seat near the Risallia tree. He should have stayed in his cabin like he wanted to.

All right, maybe that’s a tad harsh. But he certainly does not deserve to pick the first gift.

“No, you should,” Raynor says in a tone I’ve never heard him use. It’s apologetic, and you could even call it a bit bashful. “It’s your party. I haven’t done anything. I didn’t even want it.”

His eyes meet mine before he hastily looks away. Wait! Is he sorry for the hard time he’s given me? Or did he catch me scowling when Teo invited him to get the presents first?

“Oh come on, Ray,” Teo says, thumping Raynor’s shoulder. “You’re our captain. You have to make sure we stick to rules. That’s your job. You shouldn’t feel bad about what you do. Now open one of your gifts.”

That’s the problem with Teo, always the nice guy. Why not pick your own first? No, gotta be nice to his buddy.

They walk over to the pile of packages at the feet of the Risallia tree, Teo’s arm slung over his chum’s shoulder. What a mismatched pair. Teo, forever cheerful and the most generous soul I’ve met in a while and Ray, always cynical and calculating.

“Pick a gift from the pile. Any with your name on it,” Teo says. “Shouldn’t be hard to find one. You probably got the most gifts. No one would leave the captain off their list.”

I had thought of leaving Ray off my list. He’s been an arrogant wretch since the day I got on his ship and people like him don’t deserve Risallia gifts. But in the end the spirit of Risallia got the better of me and I got him a lumpy second-hand hat from my next-cabin neighbor, the wool merchant from Melas Six. Now seeing the way Teo is coddling Ray, I’m glad I did.

“That’s a nice little package, Ray,” Teo exclaims. “Who’s it from?”

“Let’s see. Says here . . .  Doli.”

Damn! Not mine first. That hat’s no more than a joke. My insides twitch—not in guilt but embarrassment. A big gulp of the Asmo helps in putting on a brave face but the regret refuses to go away. Probably should’ve gotten him a decent present. Too late now.

“Wozzah,” I shrivel once more when I hear Teo’s voice. Ray must’ve opened the gift. “I didn’t . . . know . . .” Teo stutters. He turns to find me, his gaze quizzical or maybe a little accusing?

Oh come on, Teo, the hat’s not that ugly. You didn’t expect me gift him a jeweled name tag, did you? Ray’s lucky I gave him anything at all.

Next to him Raynor looks amused. Well, at least he’s taken the joke spiritedly.

“I didn’t know you were so enamored with me,” Ray says, eyes narrowed as they scan my face.

Wait! What? Enamored? Raynor was the last person in the galaxy I’d be enamored with. Where did he get that idea?

I look from Teo’s face to Ray’s and back again. Teo’s eyes darken and droop but Ray is clearly having the time of his life. What in the stars is going on? My stomach is in knots until I look at the package in Ray’s hands. Then the knot vanishes along with my insides.

No!

The package in Ray’s hands—a rectangular box wrapped in purple paper—isn’t meant for him. That was for Teo. Inside it was a Somarvian signet ring, one of the few treasures I hadn’t pawned off to buy myself a berth on the Andromeda.

This can’t be happening.

A Somarvian like mine is a talisman, believed to hold the essence of the person for whom it has been crafted. Mine was granted a day after I was born, when the two moons of Soros had aligned with the Constellation of Allendras. It had been one magical night, not in a hundred years had the moons lined up so perfectly, so my mother had told me later. “You’re special,” she’d whisper into my ears.

So much for special! A doofus is more like it. No, make that a Royal doofus. I must be the first in the history of my dynasty to mess up a Giving like this.

A Somarvian can only be given away once, and not just to anyone, but to someone you truly care about. I wanted Teo to know that ours was more than a fling; I wanted him to know how much he meant to me. So I’d wrapped my Somarvian in layers of sparkly tissue, secured it in that box and placed it closest to the Risallia tree to make the Giving even more special. And now . . .

My fingers are chunks of ice, my a heart a war drum.

Raynor’s still looking at me but his smile doesn’t seem as amused any more. Behind him, around the Risallia tree, people swarm, laughing and chattering, to get their own gifts. Face dark and taut, Teo turns away slowly. So do I.

I want to be alone. I want to curl up in my bed. But my feet are frozen and mother’s voice ringing in my ears. “Remember, Doli,” she says in that honeyed voice I miss so much, “A Somarvian is forever. It ties souls for eternity. Once given, it can never be taken back. So handle it like you handle yourself. With lots of care.”

I’ve failed her. And myself. I’ve frittered away my soul and my most precious inheritance. Now I’m truly lost.

Twenty limp steps and I’m finally at the doorway. But there’s still a long way to go. A cold, gray corridor stretches endlessly ahead of me.

“Leaving your own party? So soon?” a voice behind me teases. I don’t need to turn around to see who it is. Raynor keeps up the mindless banter, “Almost seems like you’re running away.”

Running away? I’ve run away from plenty—my home, my life, a secure future. All I’ve done lately is run away.

No! I’m not going to do it anymore. My fists curl into balls and by the time I turn around to look into those mocking gray eyes, my insides have steeled.

I know a gift given at Risallia is never taken back, and a Somarvian bequeathed is bequeathed forever. But that’s going to change right here, right now. I can’t let my Somarvian fall into undeserving hands. I won’t.

The corners of his eyes crinkle a little when I snatch the box with the Somarvian out of his hands and his lips curl into a smile again. As if he was expecting me to do just this. I force my words out. “This was not meant for you. So I’m taking it back. Forget this ever happened.”

“I sure will, Roohinah Doli,” he says, but his smirk makes me doubt his words. “But will you?”

Some questions, like this one, don’t deserve answers. So I simply glower at him and turn away. Ray’s stare continues to burn into my back as walk through the crowd around the Risallia tree. I need to find Teo and make it right by him. I have to make this Risallia as joyous as it was meant to be.

*****

Did you like it? Does it interest you enough to want a novel made out of it? Do let me know in the comments!

And don’t forget to check out the other stories at The Holly Jolly Blog Hop.

S.G. Basu is an aspiring potentate of a galaxy or two. She plots and plans with wondrous machines, cybernetic robots, time travelers and telekinetic adventurers, some of whom escape into the pages of her books. Once upon a previous life on planet Earth, S.G. Basu trained to be an engineer, and her interest in science and her love of engineering shows up time and again in her books.

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Posted in blog tours, Fun with words

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