Undercurrents at a party…
At first Laura stood to the side with Joseph, taking in the scene before her, it was not like any other party she’d ever seen. The Hall was thronging with people, who were not actually people of course, and their otherness was highlighted by their dress. All wore the similar plain clothes that she’d seen on every Mer she’d met so far – trousers and tops in dull grey shades that draped like smooth silk over their slim bodies. One or two were smaller than the rest, with softer features, like Cara, but only a few. She nudged Joseph who leaned in close to hear her.
“Is it me, or are there hardly any women here?” she asked.
“No you’re right, there aren’t very many.”
“Why? Are they not allowed out or something?”
“Of course not, nothing like that.”
“What then?” Laura scanned the room again, but there really was only a handful.
“In this community there are just very few women. Many die soon after having their children, for some reason less girls are born, and then those that are-“ Joseph stopped talking as Cara ran past, laughing with Edgar.
“So they’re dying out?” Laura was aghast, “but what are they going to do about it?”
“Nothing. They simply accept that this is how it is, and that is why they are now so few.”
Joseph knew how odd this must sound to Laura, and wondered if he should have mentioned it before, but it had never really occurred to him to do so, this was just their normality. As he looked down at her, in her ruined yellow dress at this peculiar party, he realised that this was just one more strange thing she’d have to accept, in what was becoming an increasingly long list.
Laura processed this new information by putting it in her mental storage box of “too weird to deal with now.” The box was getting quite full. She turned her attention back to the party, and despite everything, began to enjoy herself. The next time they came into view she waved at Cara and Edgar. They spotted her and quickly pulled her away from Joseph and into the midst of the crowd. There was more music. Not Sirens this time, but some of the Mer were playing old wooden instruments that she couldn’t identify, and nor did she recognise the tunes which reminded her of sea shanties. Cara left her tapping her feet to the rhythm and went to fetch a plate of food from the long table that stood against the far wall.
“Thank you,” Laura said when Cara returned, and looked down at the plate to see what she’d been given. There were salted anchovies, jellied eels, whelks and other small items that she couldn’t even begin to identify, all decorated with a garnish of crisps. There was so much salt that Laura’s mouth went dry at the sight of it, and as for the mystery items, well she wasn’t going to think about exactly what they might be.
Not wanting to appear ungrateful she picked delicately at her plate, managing to separate out one or two crisps to eat. Edgar and Cara had disappeared back into the midst of what Laura guessed to be the younger set, larking about in the middle of the hall. She also noticed gathered around the edges of the room in small groups were some others she didn’t recognise, perhaps these strangers were the visitors Joseph had mentioned. They seemed much more reserved, choosing to watch rather than join in.
After finishing the crisps Laura wondered what to do with her plate. She couldn’t bring herself to eat any of the other salty offerings, but nor did she want to be rude. She scanned the hall, looking for Joseph to help her out. As she did so it started to dawn on her that aside from the few youngsters mucking about, the general atmosphere was far from festive. The groups of Mer standing around the hall were not idly socialising as she’d assumed, they were deep in serious discussion, huddled in clusters and casting suspicious glances around the gathering.
Finally she spotted Joseph who was with the Margrave and a small group that included some of the strangers. From where she stood she couldn’t hear what was being said, but she could see the hostility. Joseph was frowning, and as she looked on he was subtly manoeuvring himself into a position between the Margrave and the rest.
He’s really worried, he’s trying to protect him – Laura’s heart began to race and without thinking twice she marched over to disrupt whatever it was that was going on.
“Hello,” she beamed at the Margrave, handing her plate to a startled Joseph, “what a lovely party, thank you so much for asking me.”
She turned to the others who glared at her, clearly taken aback by her appearance and furious at the interruption, “I’m Laura, pleased to meet you.”
After a few seconds of stunned silence one of them collected himself enough to bow slightly and mutter a greeting. The Margrave took her by the hand and smiled – she could sense his relief.
“Laura these are guests to our Gathering. They have come from the sea and have not visited us for many years.”
“How nice,” Laura said brightly, but she was starting to feel the strain. It was clearly not a friendly visit.
The one who had bowed stepped forward, and Joseph reacted with a corresponding move. When he spoke his voice was low and heavily accented, and he addressed the Margrave, ignoring her completely.
“We must continue to talk. We have come a long way and things must be resolved.”
This did not sound good to Laura. The Margrave was holding her hand more tightly now, he was leaning on her as he responded.
“You have come far Leon, and today is our Gathering. Please enjoy our hospitality and we will talk more in time.”
The entire hall had fallen silent. All eyes were on the Margrave, waiting to see what his next move would be. He knew he must show no weakness, and keeping hold of Laura’s hand he turned to the musicians who were watching too, with their instruments in their hands.
“Play please, nothing too fast, Laura and I are going to dance.”
And so Laura found herself dancing sedately with the elderly leader of a hidden people in a desperate bid to reassure them that all was well.