The orb in her mouth, Dafenid plunged, her long, lithe limbs pushing the water aside, enabling her to go deeper, deeper, where the Pavlina could not follow. Dafenid imagined her still on the shore, searching for her ball, mystified as to where it could have disappeared.
Dafenid knew this orb was special, the strongest evidence of which was that it was still warm and glowing gold despite being halfway in her throat. It was also obvious due to how enchanting it had sounded as the Pavlina played.
Dafenid veered west, away from the most populated areas of the pond and into a secluded marshland. The water was cloudy, with feathery hornwort plants obscuring the darkened spot that was her destination. It always gave Dafenid a thrill when she pushed aside the hornwort and sidled up to her cache. Though they no longer glowed, her mound of orbs was still beautiful.
She spat out her latest acquisition, placing the gold orb among the others, making it the fourteenth of her collection. She was pleased with herself and her accomplishment, until Luin swam up behind her.
“You have to stop this. The orbs mean a lot to her. She’ll be upset when she can’t find this one.”
Luin’s webbed fingers reached for the golden orb, plucking it from among its multi-coloured sisters. He turned it around, let it go, then caught it again, feeling its weight in his webbed palm despite the water’s buoyant force.
“It’s amazing what she can do with these.” He glanced up at the mound of orbs behind Dafenid. “How can you bear to keep them here, silent?”
Dafenid snorted. Bubbles left her nostrils as she grabbed the orb from Luin and returned it to the top of the mound.
“She has so many,” she said. “She won’t miss this one just as she hasn’t missed the others. You leave them be. They are mine, now.”
Luin nodded, looking unsure, but Dafenid had made herself clear.
“She will get more. You will let me keep these orbs.”
“You can’t even play with them properly.”
“One day, I’ll learn.”
Dafenid, whose Amphibian name was more difficult for Bipeds to pronounce (midway between Hroac and Rchbt), disapproved of her people’s subordination to their dominant neighbours. Though it had long been granted independence, the Amphibian collective, known as the army, still behaved as if it owed its existence to the Bipeds, who only had the advantage of number, territory, and strength.
Dafenid remained a rarity as an Amphibian convinced of her species’ superiority. Younger, she had envied the Bipeds’ ability to grip with ease. Watching them play Orbit, the small vitreous orbs effortlessly landing and leaving their hands without so much as a slip, the Bipeds had seemed godlike to her. Later, when she came to appreciate her species’ attributes—their easy, strong swimming and diving, their ability to breathe both on land and in the water, their ordered, peaceful coexistence—she knew the Bipeds were nothing special. The Pavlina was nothing special.
Dafenid took pride in the fact that Amphibian children did not need gimmicky toys to play. When they were little, Dafenid, Luin, their brothers and sisters played hide and seek in the reeds, played target practice by catching dragonflies with their tongues and then letting them go. Even as tadpoles, they raced, nipping at each other’s tails in a rudimentary form of tag, and as froglets, played the obligatory leapfrog, allotting points to those who jumped highest and furthest.
Yet, somehow, the Pavlina playing Orbit trumped all of Dafenid and Luin’s play and they spent more and more time watching the Biped master its species’ latest trend.
The night Dafenid had stolen the golden orb, she and Luin had watched, mesmerized, as the Pavlina manipulated her orbs, fingers flickering through the air until the orbs’ velocity and resonance lifted them out of her hands, which began to wave and weave amongst the polycarbonate spheres. As the Pavlina’s concentration grew, the orbs picked up speed, dancing around her, with what was once a hum emanating from them growing into an eerie, intangible song. The gold orbsong was more beautiful than any they’d heard before.
Dafenid didn’t know how long she and Luin watched and listened, the rapturous melody silencing even the birds, but it was past dusk when the Pavlina slowed her cadence, allowing the orbs to hover and glow about her head before she caught them in her hands again. Once the sun had set, the orbs’ light shone brighter, compelling Dafenid to watch the Pavlina play her game as much as she observed Luin.
Where his gaze upon the young Biped had once been amused—like hers—he now sat hypnotized as she displayed her skill at Orbit. Luin’s large webbed fingers gripped the ground before him as his forelimbs supported most of his weight, edging unconsciously closer to the object of his affection.
Where Dafenid had merely felt a vague envy at the Pavlina’s ability to manipulate the orbs—her own webbed limbs could not manage the intricate movements required to make the orbs dance and sing—Luin saw in the Pavlina much more than an expert gamer. Luin wasn’t attracted to the Orbit gameplay; he was attracted to the player—an unthinkable taboo of which Dafenid made sure no one else was aware.
Dafenid cursed the enthralling orbs, with their glow and their song. She cursed the Pavlina’s ability to play the game, the effortlessness with which she plied the orbs’ course to her will. And, mostly, Dafenid cursed the evening she had first caught those aural tones on the wind.
They were young, then, she and Luin; even the Pavlina—who wouldn’t master Orbit for years yet—was just a slip of a Biped. Nothing to suggest the alluring raven-haired and bronze-skinned exotic temptress she would become.
That night, the breeze had been warm and most of the army was content to laze on the pond banks and on the artificial waterlilies the Pavlina’s family had provided when the pond had been designated protected territory.
It was barely noticeable at first. A wheezy, start-stop tune that was unlike any other sound or call they had heard around the pond before. Dafenid and Luin had agreed to investigate, intrigued by what was more than the wind whistling in the trees, but less than a linnet’s cheerful song.
They left the pond and leapt toward the sound, stopping at the edge of the wood. Behind the willows’ drooping branches, a young Biped was tossing coloured orbs in the air. As they fell, returning to her waiting hands, they made the sound Dafenid and Luin were listening for. After a few moments of observation, Luin declared he would go ask the Biped what she was doing, partly out of curiosity, partly to show off his self-taught ability to speak the Pavlina’s language.
“Don’t!” hissed Dafenid. “Let’s just watch from here. We’re far enough away that if she sees us, we can hop away.”
But Luin was too captivated to heed her. He cautiously crept closer until he was but a few metres from the Pavlina.
“What is that?” Luin asked in broken Bipedian. (They claimed to have more than one language, but it was all the same gibberish to Dafenid.)
The Pavlina started.
“Who are you?”
He forgot himself and used his Amphibian name. The Pavlina’s blank look reminded him of the Bipeds’ need for alternate designations.
“I’m called Luin. You?”
“You may address me as Pavlina.”
“Of course, Pavlina. I wouldn’t presume—”
“Well, you did.”
Dafenid bristled. She may not have understood most of the exchange, but she knew rudeness when she saw it. She called out to Luin, urging him to return to the pond. He ignored her croaks and inquired again, in his gravelly baritone, about the Pavlina’s game.
Dafenid struggled to understand the Pavlina’s speech, her voice like a bird’s, tinkling in the air.
“Well, dolls are fine enough, if you like styling long bluegreen or fuchsia feathers, but Orbit is the thing to play now. New colours come out all the time, and the best players have a wider variety of orbs to play. I have the best collection of everyone I know.”
She lifted her arms and began the dance again, the orbs slowly lifting away from her fingers into the air.
“The point of the game is to make the orbs float and sing as long as possible, as nicely as possible.”
“Amazing,” whispered Luin.
The Pavlina’s pace faltered and the orbs dipped in the air. She tried to control the game and keep them hovering, but the four balls thudded to the ground, one by one.
“See what you made me do?” She sighed. “Make sure you don’t bother me, next time.”
Irritated by the Pavlina’s dismissive tone toward her friend, Dafenid eyed a fallen ruby orb in the grass, and seized the opportunity. She flicked her sticky tongue out of her mouth and wrapped it around her glassy prey. Dafenid’s tongue then snapped back, concealing the toy in her mouth.
Luin chattered all the way back to the pond, oblivious to Dafenid’s inability to speak. It was several years and more than half a dozen stolen orbs before he discovered Dafenid’s thievery. He didn’t approve, but he didn’t denounce her, either. He saw, from the way her lungs contracted, that she was both ashamed and proud of her stealthy exploits.
Dafenid had learned to control and to hide her emotions—as most of her family did. Both beauty and curse, inherited from her distant Lenidae ancestors, her translucent skin enabled any observer to literally see through her, her organs exposed. Now, unless she exerted a considerable amount of energy or was particularly frightened or shocked, her breathing and her heartbeat remained steady, as far as anyone could tell.
But Luin knew the subtle differences to watch for. He had noticed that Dafenid’s skin turned a slight blue when she took the time to bask in midsummer sunshine. He knew the way her intestines tightened when she was displeased and, when this happened, he took care to distract her, to calm her down. He knew the difference between the speed of her heartbeat when she was surprised and when she was nervous—both of which were rare.
It was this attention to her every detail, this complete knowledge of her that had made Dafenid fall in love with Luin—an egotistical love that blossomed into a profound admiration and selfless love over the years.
Dafenid came to dream of a future with Luin. They had spoken of it once before, Luin wondering aloud if the army could be convinced that they were an ordained pair. Dafenid was thrilled at the thought, but in time, her feelings for Luin grew and what she hoped for was more than just an arranged pairing. To her, she and Luin were soulmates and their love would transcend their species’ arranged mating tradition.
The tradition dated tens of suncycles back. It was important to the army that pairings be fruitful. As Amphibians evolved to be sentient and self-aware, and grew, in the short span of a few centuries, to over fifty times their original size, their ability to reproduce depleted. Genetics, therefore, dictated with whom one spent one’s life, with the occasional exception allowed. Dafenid vowed to herself that she and Luin would be their generation’s exception.
Dafenid believed that it was merely a matter of time before she and Luin were ordained. They already knew one another so well, already did everything together—it was no large leap to imagine the rest of their lives together. She could picture them finally voicing their devotion, swimming away to a corner of the pond to mate, hovering by their newly laid eggs, basking in the joy of creating a family. She felt that she would be an attentive mother, watching over their egg mass until their tadpoles hatched, tending the little ones as they turned into froglets, then into grown Amphibians. Luin would protect them and care for them, as a loving father would.
Dafenid didn’t doubt her dream could come true. It was simply delayed while the Pavlina remained a distraction.
At first, Dafenid didn’t mind Luin going off to play with the Biped. She understood the allure, the exoticism. She did mind that his focus remained on land when he came home.
“She showed me how I could move the orbs with sufficient velocity, with my tongue, to produce the beginning of a melody. She then played her orbs to match mine. Can you imagine?”
Luin’s excitement was not contagious. Dafenid struggled to rein in her jealousy.
“She’s just using you to make herself feel more skilled, more important,” said Dafenid.
“We have to broaden our horizons, reach for better things, break down the barriers between our species,” insisted Luin.
“It’s a game!”
“It’s a meeting of souls.”
Dafenid swam away, confounded by Luin’s irrational attachment to the Biped. She refused to speak to him for several days, hoping that he would come to miss her as he seemed to miss the Pavlina when she left their play for a few days.
Nearly a quarter mooncycle after the thievery, there was a commotion on the shore. Dafenid, swimming laps and snacking on diving beetles, saw her fourth sister talking animatedly with someone just behind the tall reeds. Her sister nodded, then plunged, only to emerge a few seconds later right next to her, her skin an excited tinge of yellow.
“Have you seen Luin? The Pavlovo is looking for him.”
Dafenid’s skin rippled blue in shock. She calmed herself.
“The Pavlovo is here? Why would he want Luin?” She gasped. “This is the Pavlina’s fault!”
Dafenid’s sister nodded.
“She’s definitely involved. She’s here, too.”
Again, Dafenid’s skin rippled, this time less perceptibly.
“He’s at the far marshland. I’ll tell him.”
Dafenid plunged, a swirl of thoughts in her mind as she pumped her legs in a rush to get to the other end of the pond. Did the Pavlina finally deduce as to the whereabouts of her lost orbs, mistakenly believing Luin to have stolen them? Was the Pavlovo here to exact Bipedian justice in retaliation? Would he break the truce his family had upheld for generations? Over this?
Dafenid spotted Luin through the water, recognizing his speckled legs among those of his brothers’ and friends’. She swam up to him and brushed against his arm. She knew that when he turned around, he would notice her heartbeat and immediately know that something was amiss.
“Hrchoacbt! What is it?”
He took her aside and put a forelimb around her. She basked in his affection for a brief moment before sharing the news.
“It’s the Pavlovo. He’s here, looking for you.”
Luin was alarmed.
“The Pavlovo? Did something happen to the Pavlina?”
Dafenid shook his arm off her.
“Really? That’s your concern? Our powerful neighbour, on whose goodwill we rely, comes with a retinue to ask for you, by name, and you’re worried for her?”
She couldn’t hide her disgust. He saw her intestines throb and changed tactics.
“Thank you for letting me know he’s here. I’m sure it’s nothing,” he added, gently.
“Maybe you should hide…” she suggested.
“That won’t do any good. Where else would I be but in our pond? Let’s just go and find out what’s going on.”
Dafenid nodded and they swam back to the shore, Luin’s brothers and friends, who had overheard, following closely behind. Dafenid was reassured by their presence. If Luin were threatened, surely the army would protect him.
They emerged together a few meters from the shore and Luin asked them to stay back as he made his way up to the Pavlovo, who was surrounded by his retinue of Bipeds. Luin was nervous, but attempted to hide it; he had spotted the Pavlina a few paces behind her father and he did not want to appear weak in her presence.
“And so, you are the one we call Luin.”
The Pavlovo stated; he did not question. Luin nodded.
“I understand you have become friends, of sorts, with my daughter.”
Luin nodded again. Dafenid was breathing heavily, but she tried to keep her anxiety from showing through. She was frightened for Luin. What would she do if the Pavlovo tried to harm him?
“I also understand that she has insulted you most egregiously, by refusing to keep a promise she made.”
“Oh, Father,” the Pavlina sighed irritably, her usual birdsong voice sounding more like summer crickets. “Must you cause me this humiliation?”
The Pavlovo turned to face her.
“Your family has not raised its daughter to bypass a promise and to disrespect its neighbours. Did young Luin here return an item dear to you?”
Dafenid’s intestines seized in shock as she snapped her head to stare at Luin. I’m sorry! he mouthed at her. Dafenid realized that her beloved had ignored her wishes and brought the prized golden orb back to its owner.
“Yes, Father,” the Pavlina grudgingly answered.
“And did you or did you not promise him a reward for the deed?”
“Then I must insist that you uphold your end of the bargain. Please issue your invitation again, that Luin may accept it—if he so sees fit.”
The Pavlina clenched her fists and marched regally up to Luin, who tried to puff his body out in order to look as tall and imposing as possible.
The Pavlina took a breath. She unclenched her fists and broke into a dazzling smile that changed her entire face. Luin gazed up at her, slack-jawed, while Dafenid seethed. What was the point of all those teeth the Pavlina had? Surely the Bipeds could do with just a few for sustenance?
“Luin,” began the Pavlina, her tinkling voice higher than usual, yet perfectly audible despite the bristling reeds. No one else dared utter a sound.
“Luin, as previously agreed, please accept an invitation to my palace, where we will share our meals and my suite, to acknowledge the gallant act you performed when finding and returning my gold orb.”
Luin’s eyes blinked a few times before he was able to respond, the momentous occasion not lost on him.
“Thank you, Pavlina, I readily accept.”
The army broke in crashing applause, their webbed fingers enthusiastically slapping the water in support.
“Furthermore,” thundered the Pavlovo above the noise, “I extend the invitation to a full mooncycle, to make up for the promise that should not have been reneged.”
“Thank you, your Honour, I am most humbled,” said Luin.
And Dafenid knew. Luin would leave the pond, leave the army, leave her—and she would never see him again. If anyone had been looking at her, they would have seen her heart break.
“Splendid!” cried the Pavlovo. “Let us depart.”
Luin, as puffed up as he could be, hopped alongside the Pavlovo as he proceeded to his palace.
Turn around, just once! pleaded Dafenid to Luin’s receding silhouette. She stared in the direction of the procession long after they had disappeared from sight.
“He’ll be back soon,” soothed her sister. “He’ll have so many stories! Imagine: an Amphibian living at the palace!”
Dafenid nodded numbly, her skin feeling cold for the first time in her life. It was a disagreeable sensation that rivaled the disappointment and sadness she felt at being betrayed and bereft by the choices that Luin made.
She had but one ray of satisfaction left. At the bottom of the pond, thirteen orbs remained hers. The Pavlina may have her precious golden orb and the companionship of the sincerest Amphibian there was, but she was missing a sizeable amount of treasure.
Without a word to her sister, Dafenid plunged into the cool water. She pumped her powerful legs and reached the depths of her hiding place within seconds.
If Luin had returned to the pond, he would have found his first love behind the hornwort, atop a pile of extinguished orbs, which he could see both underneath and through her. Dafenid would bare her tongue and protect her mound, spreading her webbed limbs across it, as a mother guards her eggs.
She would be incapable of saying anything else, and he would have to swim away, mystified at the power of the orbsong, which enthralled all who encountered it, even in the depths of silence.