Rembrandt is looking down at the head of the man currently piecing his femur back together, fingers itching for a blunt object, when the man in question says, seemingly without a care in the world:
“What’s your favorite flower?”
The question is so asinine that it takes a moment for Rembrandt to parse it. Camellia, the man currently operating on him, takes the opportunity to continue speaking.
“I personally don’t care, but everyone else told me to ask.”
Rembrandt sneers. His favorite fucking flower. Who gave a shit? When he first landed on this planet a week ago, he thought the villagers’ pacifism was a bit naive but ultimately harmless and charming, and now he was having a hard time believing they actually cared about pacifism at all. And who could blame him? Pacifism was a commitment to non-violence— although one of said villagers crushed his leg, so that as obviously going fucking swell—not a complete scrambling of priorities that led to making small talk about flowers while performing fucking surgery.
For fuck’s sake.
His messenger bird—his only means of contacting the rest of his fleet—was shot with an arrow, his leg was obliterated, he probably wouldn’t be able to move on his own for a while, and he could wear heels anymore. That alone had to be the worst part. Not only did he work his ass off to get to the point where he could wear whatever he wanted, he also desperately needed the height, even more so given that everyone he had seen in the village so far was minimum 6’5”.
On top of that, he wasn’t looking forward to wandering barefoot in the untamed jungle for the next few weeks. Who knows what fucking parasites and bacteria were lurking here, waiting to compromise his immune system?
But, no, no, no. His favorite flower was obviously far more important.
“...Anything but sunflowers,” Rembrandt finally says.
Camellia hums in response, then gives him a shit-eating grin. “How about tulips?”
“I’m going to snap your fucking neck. Or am I not allowed to say that here?”
“Say whatever the fuck you want; I’m not your dad.”
Rembrandt snorts, eyes doing a quick sweep of the abandoned hut currently serving as their operating room. He hated everyone here ever since he found out their “innocent native” act was bullshit, but he hated Camellia the least.
He couldn’t really put his finger on why if he was being honest. The only other villager he had interacted with was Lotus, the guy who broke his leg with the scabbard of his own sword, and, while Lotus was intelligent and well-spoken, threatening to snap his neck didn’t quite hit the same and Rembrandt liked being able to say that kind of thing without having to worry about stepping on anyone’s toes.
“I’m surprised you’re actually able to perform surgery,” Rembrandt says, watching him work.
Camellia shrugs. “Like it’s hard? We do have medical research here, you know.”
“I meant that you aren’t freaking out over the blood like your friend.”
Rembrandt didn’t think he could ever forget the terrified look on Lotus’s face when he saw what he had done, the way he dropped the scabbard with limp fingers and, shortly after, the way he dropped to his knees and vomited on the beach’s pristine white sand.
Camellia rolls his eyes and looks over his handiwork one last time. It wasn’t perfect, but the bone was pieced together and everything else was taken care of enough that Camellia could start suturing up his thigh. Given the circumstances, it wasn’t any different from any battlefield operation. Rembrandt could’ve done about as well himself.
“The blood’s not the problem,” Camellia says, wrinkling his nose. “It’s the way our brains have been primed to react to violence, although mine is constantly working on overdrive to begin with. Anyway, do you want anesthesia?”
Rembrandt furrows his eyebrows.
“It’s not like this is the worst thing that’s happened to me, just the most inconvenient.” Rembrandt remembers the time he contracted guinea worm. “The second worst.”
Camellia glances up at him.
“You...do realize this isn’t the only operation you’re getting today, right?”
Rembrandt stares at Camellia as he finishes suturing up his thigh and starts wrapping it in heavy bandages. He really wants nothing more than to smash this man’s head on the edge of the table, but all he can manage is a flat:
“Are you fucking kidding me right now.”
Camellia stands up, towering over Rembrandt more than usual as he sets his tray of tools on the table by Rembrandt’s hand. He considers the placement for a moment, then moves them away.
“I know you’re smarter than this, Rembrandt. Do you really think you can go anywhere in this condition, and do you think we’ll let you now that you know about this place? You’ll be here for a few weeks at least, and you’re certainly not going to be armed during that time.” He pats Rembrandt’s head. “A good little off-planet soldier like you probably has more than a few cybernetic modifications, right?”
Rembrandt’s grip tightens on the table as he clenches his jaw.
“What do you expect me to do then?” he asks through gritted teeth.
“I mean, the solution is pretty obvious to me. One, tell me what I’m going to be taking out of your body, and, two, figure out a way to assimilate into our culture.”
With that, Camellia crosses to the other side of the hut, carefully making his way around all the junk scattered around the room. Once his back is turned, Rembrandt takes a deep breath. He just needs to focus on one thing at a time. He can always get his implants put back in once he finds a way off this planet.
“Do you want the fucking metal plate in my head too?” he shouts just as Camellia reaches the far side of the room.
Camellia snorts. “Only the modifications that are specifically meant for combat use.”
Rembrandt starts to sigh, then realizes he can’t be bothered.
“Lower back, shoulders and neck, and left forearm.”
“Thank you very much.” With that, Camellia hefts a few sturdy pieces of wood onto his shoulders and wraps some rope around his forearm, then carefully makes his way back across the room.
“Can I have my sword back at least?”
Camellia snorts. “That was the first thing we smelted. I can see about getting you the scabbard though.”
Fucking hell. As if that wasn’t what caused the most damage.
“Hold these,” Camellia says once he returns, aligning the pieces of wood with Rembrandt’s leg before adding the third and wrapping the rope around it. “So. Tell me about your messenger bird.”
Rembrandt sighs. He’d been trying not to look at it this whole time, at the glints of metal poking through its mangled corpse. It took him years to get an officer position, to finally be independent enough within the army to receive messages rather than be the one running them up and down the base.
“Well, you certainly shot it,” Rembrandt says, looking over the finished splint with a sneer.
Camellia gathers his tools and circles around to Rembrandt’s back, lifting his shirt to assess the cybernetics beneath. “Yes, yes, but can it be used as a weapon?”
“...Just go ahead and scrap it.”
The next day, Camellia has enough foresight to bring Rembrandt a set of crutches. He hangs around until Rembrandt can go from lying in bed to standing with crutches three times in a row without incident, and then promptly leaves.
Rembrandt couldn’t care less. He wasn’t planning on going out and showing his face to the people he very nearly sold out to his home country for profit, but, in the next room over, the guy who broke his leg was pacing, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.
Well, someone was being a little dramatic about this whole situation.
Camellia, or maybe even Mr. Lotus Steal-Your-Sword himself, left out some clothes for him, a sweater someone had pinched from his quarters back on his ship and a loincloth with a swirling purple pattern. Obviously, pants were out of the question given the bandages and splint, and this loincloth in particular was trimmed both for his height and so that Rembrandt wouldn’t get it tangled in his splint.
Rembrandt wasn’t sure whether to be angry that they were treating him with kid gloves or to admire their commitment to their “innocent native” aesthetic.
It’s not like he can afford to be choosy anyway, so even though everything feels sore and raw and painful, Rembrandt manages to get dressed and hobble his way out of the house, stopping to take a break just outside the door.
Rembrandt really hated the way the domestic quarter of the village was set up. It wasn’t a sparse grouping of mud huts in scruffy excuse for a clearing somewhere in the forest like one would expect from a village, but several white-painted houses with thatch roofs, resting on the surface of the shallows, supported by beams hidden beneath the surface of the waves and connected by a network of docks and piers.
It certainly added to the villagers’ plastic, friendly guise, but now all Rembrandt could imagine was someone pushing him off one of the paths and holding him under the water until he stopped moving.
He leaves as fast as he can, relaxing slightly once he steps onto the sand, and even more when he makes it to the path that leads deeper into the forest. There’s a fork in the road; to Rembrandt’s right was the beach where he first landed, and to the left, running parallel to the shoreline, was the path to the market.
Rembrandt had no intention of reliving his trauma, not to mention that particular beach was one of Lotus’s favorite haunts.
So he turns toward the market.
The path is broad and flat, giving him all the room he needs to move without inconveniencing others, as if there was anyone else there other than him. Rembrandt didn’t realize how late in the day it was, but it seems like everyone who has somewhere to be is there already.
Rembrandt didn’t notice the path when he was led down it the first time, but now that he’s forced to move so slowly he doesn’t have much of a choice. He’d originally assumed the path was flat because many people had used it over the years, but the path was much smoother than it should be if that were the case. In fact, it felt more like someone had deliberately planned out the path ahead of time and then paved it in preparation.
The sides of the path were lined with foliage, blooming and bountiful. When Rembrandt first came through, he assumed it was all just natural, but looking closely now, he can see that it’s very obviously arranged. In the front, closest to him are low bushes, all trimmed to an even height, sporting bright green unmarred leaves and colorful extravagant flowers. Some of them Rembrandt can recognize, but the rest are completely foreign, most likely breeds unique to the planet. Even more amazing, the blooms next to him are a somber shade of blue, but further ahead they’re a bright cheerful yellow, and in between they gradate so slowly that the transition seems natural, even though it’s most likely been micromanaged constantly since planting.
Behind the bushes are the trees, their uppermost branches tall enough to tangle with each other above the path, forming a “natural” avenue, the shadows of their leaves forming dappled, lacy patterns on the path while still making the whole area feel just as sunny as the beach.
Rembrandt shuddered. It was as meticulous as a botanical garden, and he couldn’t believe he hadn’t noticed all these things before. It was like reading a book for the second time and being struck by all the obvious foreshadowing. How could he have believed these people were anything resembling simple-minded?
Rembrandt glances down at his leg with a frown as he stops to take another break. The trees’ lowest branches were close enough for even him to reach, but they would’ve been even better if they had any fruit on them, especially since he didn’t have any money. Of course, just as the thought crosses his mind, he notices a fruit bobbing just over his head, a perfectly round, yellowish fruit with tiny black spots. How fortunate.
Before he can take a bite, he notices something out of the corner of his eye: the only other person he’s seen on his walk so far, a young boy running a stick across the path in front of him, knocking any lingering debris out of sight into the bushes.
Finally, the boy stops in front of Rembrandt and looks him over, expression blank.
They stand there, staring at each other for a while. A cold sweat breaks out on the back on Rembrandt’s neck. He wasn’t what anyone would call “good” with kids, but he still felt like maybe he should say something? Maybe a quick good morning? It’s not like the boy was old enough to hate him for what he was going to do or even understand it really, so there was probably no harm.
Before Rembrandt can even really start to consider possibly saying hello, the boy reaches up and plucks the fruit from his hand, not that Rembrandt was holding it very tightly to begin with, then carefully bends down and sets it gently on the ground at Rembrandt’s feet, far out of his reach now that he was wearing a splint.
Rembrandt’s fingers, still wrapped around the shadow of the fruit, twitch slightly. The boy looks at him again, then uses his stick to push the fruit into the bushes before walking away.
Rembrandt bites his tongue. He was already on thin ice with these people, the last thing he needed to do was snap at such a petty little whelp. No doubt they’d take the brat’s side anyway.
The marketplace, much like the domestic quarter and every other part of the village, was another attempt to beat the onlooker over the head with another display of soft power.
Rembrandt had been here before, in the week when he first touched down here. The market was one big diaphanous tent, filled with several smaller stands for vendors selling their wares. The very top of the tent was an open hole, so that various food smells could flow out the top.
It certainly was pleasant to look at, but ruining the view was a big black ship—Rembrandt’s ship—leaning precariously against the trees at the end of a long trail of deep tracks coming from the other end of the beach. The villagers, as sparse as they were, must have worked all night to move it, but Rembrandt can’t see any signs of fatigue on any of the people milling around.
Rembrandt’s heart drops into his stomach as he looks at the ship. Camellia had mentioned that Rembrandt wasn’t “allowed” to leave the planet, but Rembrandt never actually considered that they might actually find ways to prevent him from doing this, especially by dragging the ship on land. It was one of his planet’s best kept military secrets: their ships worked in water and in space, but touchdowns and takeoffs from land were functionally impossible for them. Rembrandt knew now that these villagers were smart, but how did they figure it out so quickly?
Rembrandt glances around at the villagers in the marketplace. They had to be the worst part of this. His ship was out of commission for the time being, but none of the villagers seemed particularly smug about this. If anything, they were acting like none of this was happening at all. Some of them were even smiling, albeit politely, at Rembrandt and offering him shy waves.
He was never going to figure these people out. He couldn’t even look at his ship without it feeling physically painful, so instead he just shuts his eyes and takes a deep breath to regain his composure.
The smell of cooking food hits him almost immediately. He doesn’t know what dishes he’s smelling exactly—for the week prior he was surviving on old rations from his ship—but he can already tell that the food here is different from back home. All the flavors seem louder, spicier, sweeter, more bitter. The acrid, faintly fruity smell of alcohol wafts toward him, and, after a few more sniffs, a distinct lack of grilling meat smells. The villagers being vegetarians didn’t surprise him, but it certainly wasn’t something his palette was used to.
Rembrandt opens his eyes. The source of the pleasant aroma is the largest stand in the market, the one closest to his ship. He can see several villagers already milling around, talking and eating their fill. Fuck. If things didn’t feel so tense right now, Rembrandt would just love to waltz over and join them, but, despite their smiles, he was sure that wasn’t a line that anyone was ready to cross with him yet.
With another heavy sigh, Rembrandt turns away from the restaurant and his ship. In front of him is a cluster of stands, all belonging to one vendor it seems, and standing in front of them is Camellia. It can’t not be him; he’s the only one in the village tall enough to lean his arm on the sign and use it as a headrest while he literally talks down to the vendor.
It’s not like Rembrandt has anything better to do, so he hobbles over, approaching in the middle of a conversation.
“—eat our stock again? You sure are starting late today.”
Camellia laughs, a touch nervously, as Rembrandt silently comes up alongside him. “Your stock is safe. Lotus is still, er, coping, so I figured now’s as good a time as any to show everyone my Lotus impression.”
The vendor snorts. She glances at Rembrandt, then grabs one of the fruits on display as well as a small plastic knife. Rembrandt watches her with narrowed eyes as she starts to peel the fruit.
Camellia sucks in a break and mimes holding an imaginary clipboard and pen.
“How have sales been?” he says in a nasally over-enunciated voice. “Have there been any sustained issues with the sales of fruits and vege-table that require municipal assistance?”
The vendor looks away, shoulders shaking as she tries not to laugh and cut herself with the knife. Rembrandt looks at her, then back at Camellia.
“What? Was it that good?” Camellia says with a smirk, as if he doesn’t already know. He lightly nudges Rembrandt with his elbow. “Anyway, what’s up, man? Wanted to hit up the bar?”
Rembrandt gives him the dirtiest look in his arsenal. “I. Don’t. Have. Any. Money,” he says through gritted teeth.
Camellia shrugs. “Neither do I and I hit up the bar all the time.”
“Hush,” the vendor says, and then to Rembrandt: “here.”
Camellia actually shuts up, and the vendor sets a small plate of cut and peeled fruit on the counter in front of Rembrandt. He stares at the plate like he’s not entirely sure it’s there and the other two stare at him, their smiles growing more and more uncomfortable the longer he hesitates.
Finally, Rembrandt, after shooting one last glare at the vendor, reaches for one of the bright green chunks.
Camellia’s hand is faster, and he nearly snags a piece before the vendor bats him away, silently threatening him with the handle of the plastic knife. Rembrandt ignores them as he takes a bite. It snaps cleanly, leaving behind a refreshing moisture and a curiously-appealing sour taste.
Rembrandt swallows, then waits a moment. He doesn’t feel ill, and Camellia is still desperately trying to grab a piece like it’ll grant him immortality, so Rembrandt sees no harm in taking another.
On his fifth piece, the back flap of the tent opens and the boy from the path shuffles in. Rembrandt keeps his face carefully neutral, but the boy notices him immediately, dropping his stick and pressing himself into the vendor’s side.
“Hey, hey,” the vendor says, petting his head. “What’s gotten into you?”
“I don’t want to be like him!”
Rembrandt cringes. Camellia cringes. The vendor cringes, but her eyes settle on Camellia, silently pleading. Camellia sighs and finger-combs his hair out of his face.
“Kid, it’s not as easy as that,” he says, as if he’s had this conversation a million times before.
Rembrandt can’t look away from the boy, can’t tear his eyes away from his angry gaze as his heart hammers in his chest. On one hand, he feels vindicated that someone in this town finally hates him for what he did, but that doesn’t make this confrontation easy.
“But he hurts people!”
The vendor and Camellia blink, as if they just checked in to the right conversation. Rembrandt desperately wants to slap them both. What the fuck else could this kid possibly be referring to? Either way, the vendor looks embarrassed while Camellia goes back to looking smug as always.
“Alright, kid. Let’s go for a walk.”
After a little bit of prompting, the boy comes around to the other side of the stall. Camellia easily scoops him up into his arms, and takes him deeper into the market.
Rembrandt finally lets out a breath he didn’t know he was holding. The vendor chuckles nervously.
Wrong. But when she said that, something finally clicked for Rembrandt.
He had noticed that boy looked vaguely like the vendor, but his behavior on the path and just now were a lot like Camellia’s, or, at least, as much as they could be for an 8-year-old. That and the way, Camellia interacted with the vendor. It wasn’t exactly lovey-dovey, but Camellia didn’t really seem like he would be that sort of husband and the vendor seemed charmed by him anyway.
Rembrandt starts to say something, but that’s the moment when Camellia decides to return with the boy. He gives Rembrandt one last glare, then takes one of the fruits on display for himself and hides behind the impenetrable fortress of the stall.
“Thanks for the food,” Camellia says, snatching up the last piece of fruit and draping a heavy arm around Rembrandt’s shoulders. “Hey, man, you like tulips, right?”
Before Rembrandt gets a chance to reply, Camellia sweeps him away.
“What did you say to that boy?” Rembrandt says once they’re far enough away from the stand.
“Nothing you need to worry about.”
“Well, you were talking about me, so, yeah, I think I need to fucking worry about it.”
“Oh, you just assume I was talking about you?” Camellia asks with a snort. “We had lives before you showed up, you know.”
Rembrandt bites his lip, unsure of whether he can or even should rebut that statement. He knew Camellia was trying to worm his way out of this conversation, but that didn’t mean what he said was wrong. Despite their hospitality, Rembrandt was still an outsider here, and that didn’t give him the right to tie into family matters.
They come to another stand, one that sells what looks like candied fruit and other sweets. Camellia grabs a couple of skewers and hands them off to Rembrandt to try. One of them is a skewer of the fruit he sampled before, sprinkled with sugar and little beads like tapioca, and the other is a few chunks of candied grass, stuck along the skewer in a big clump with extra syrup on top.
Both of them taste amazing, and Rembrandt’s delight must be obvious because Camellia hands him another before turning to the vendor.
Rembrandt only barely remembers their conversation. It ran the same as the one with Camellia’s wife—an update on Lotus, asking whether municipal assistance was necessary, and even a very drawn-out argument about subsidies.
“What exactly does Lotus do here?” Rembrandt asks once they start to move on to the next stand.
Camellia shrugs and takes a piece of candied grass for himself.
“Whatever needs to be done. He’s the man in charge.”
“Yes, I get that—” And Rembrandt did in a general sense. It was obvious that Lotus held some sway over the town— “—but what is his title?”
Camellia makes a face.
“Do you know what titles of peerage are?” Rembrandt ventures.
Camellia offers him a patient smile. “Yes, I know how titles work. It’s just that no one cares.”
Rembrandt sighs. Of course no one did. It was a fucking miracle this place could function at all, much less with municipalities and subsidy programs.
“Or it’s not that no one cares,” Camellia says after a moment of thought. “It’s more like everyone already knows what they can do and where their niche is. Lotus’s only real claim to his position is that his ancestors had it.”
“And that’s….literally all he needs?” Rembrandt says. “I’m still not sure you understand what I’m talking about.”
“Literally, shut the fuck up for a second. Lotus is sort of mediocre at everything he does. Among his brothers, there are better orators, or better financial experts, or better event planners, and even though that’s personally daunting, objectively that’s all they are. Since Lotus could do all of those things at an acceptable level, he’s the one in charge, ancestry or birth order or no.”
Rembrandt glances at Camellia, then back at his ship. “Lotus has brothers, huh?”
“Ooh, does that strike a chord with you?”
“Fuck off!” Rembrandt snaps, face reddening. “Didn’t you mention tulips or something?”
“Yeah, yeah, just let me finish this first.”
They continue on a meandering path around the market, stopping at every stall to pick up food and to complete Lotus’s “mayoral” tasks in his stead. Even though it’s killer on his leg, Rembrandt doesn’t complain. It’s probably the least he can do to make up for it, and it distracts him from their slow but sure course towards his beached ship.
The closer they get, the deeper the pit in Rembrandt’s stomach grows, his appetite slowly dissipating—not that Camellia notices. He waltzes up to the hull while nibbling on some berries, and says around a mouthful of mush:
“Moving this thing was a real pain in the ass. Also, the gangplank slipped and, like, a ton of rats ran off the ship—I mean, ew, did you really live like that?”
As he says this, he drums his fingers on the hull. A rectangular panel of light forms under his fingers and, before he can do anything else, Rembrandt bats his hand away and stares at the panel in disbelief.
“What the fuck did you do to my ship?”
“Other than downloading the schematics?” Camellia shrugs. “Nothing that I can’t do anywhere else.”
Rembrandt glares at him. Camellia sighs and snaps his fingers before opening his right hand, palm up. Another panel of light forms in the air above it, and he swipes on the panel with his left hand, moving through a gallery of symbols before finally settling on a smiley-face that floats within the panel’s bounds. Camellia flips his hand so it’s above the panel, then with a hard smack, sends it careening to the ground where it lands intact between Rembrandt’s feet, with the smiley face staring back up at him. With a crook of Camellia’s finger, it zips into the air, and with another smack, Camellia makes it stick to Rembrandt’s chest, in the fabric of his sweater, making him yelp in shock.
Camellia snorts as he pulls it away and fixes it to the hull of the ship again.
“Don’t look so surprised. I’m sure you’ve seen Lotus do it once or twice.”
Rembrandt sneers. He had, in fact, though he could only realize it in hindsight. Lotus did it one once, back when Rembrandt first landed on the planet looking for emergency supplies. Lotus was being civil, diplomatic, and Rembrandt had assumed he was a savage idiot and allowed himself to be led into the village. They were on the path, the artificial one with all the flowers, and Lotus had stopped suddenly and started fiddling with a leaf for what now seems like a suspicious amount of time. Of course, Rembrandt didn’t realize it then—Lotus had quickly distracted him by plucking one of the more extravagant cultivars and presenting it to him as a gift.
“Fuck,” he sighs.
Rembrandt figured Lotus and the others didn’t know about messenger birds or even paper because they were an underdeveloped society. He never considered the reverse, that they had no use for such things because they could simply access whatever information they wanted on whatever surface they pleased.
“You didn’t think it was odd that there were several helping hands already waiting when you arrived at the village?”
Rembrandt groans at his own stupidity. “I figured they had seen the ship landing.”
Camellia shrugs and gives him a lopsided smile.
“Maybe...that was also true— “
“Shut the fuck up and show me whatever you want to show me.”
With that, Camellia rapidly types something onto—or maybe into? Rembrandt wasn’t sure— the hull. Another rectangle forms, this one covering the rest of the hull’s surface. It’s an image of the ship, not a blueprint of it, but a sketch, like concept art.
Why would someone draw something that they could just look at? Was this art project supposed to make up for the fact that he was trapped here?
“Tulips, tulips,” Camellia mutters. “Ah, here we go.”
Camellia gives the rectangle under his hand one final, satisfactory tap. The drawing of the ship explodes with color, turning it from a vessel of war, to something more...celebratory, like a palanquin covered in flower garlands. And there certainly were flowers, tons of them, an ocean of tulips on the deck and trellises of them spilling down the hull. The only area that seemed to be safe was the captain’s quarters— his quarters— but there was a small planter of multi-colored Rembrandt bulbs, his namesake, waiting eagerly for him on the window sill.
“We already gutted all the weaponry, so now it’s just a matter of planting them and cultivating them,” Camellia says, nodding at the village’s handiwork. “What do you think?”
This...this was the sort of thing people did back home when a warrior came back from home or received accolades. Despite all his hard work over the years, Rembrandt had never received any treatment even close to this, not when there were more popular officers casting a shadow over him.
Rembrandt sniffs and turns away, internally willing his tears to fuck off. He may be thankful, but he’s certainly not thankful enough to let Camellia know, not quite yet.
“...I want something to drink.”
Camellia smirks as he turns off the screen. Of course he’d be able to see the honesty beneath such a prickly exterior.
“Okay. Let’s get drinks.”
Dusk is breaking when Rembrandt leaves Camellia at the bar and hobbles onto the path again, stopping every now and then to rest and nibble on his last remaining snack—a few crispy grilled lizards wrapped around a stuck and drizzled with a spicy cream sauce.
Rembrandt was surprised they’d even have something like that here, but apparently it was a rare delicacy. Every few years or so, thousands of the little things would wash up on the shore like drowned lemmings. Apparently, they were “safe to eat”, something he didn’t quite understand, and, since no one in the village had directly killed them, they were fair game.
Somehow, Rembrandt found the idea slightly more disgusting than if they just hunted them, but not disgusting enough that he wasn’t going to eat all of these skewers. Just this morning, he might have seen these as evidence that pacifism was untenable, but after spending the day talking to villagers at the bar, the idea of pacifism didn’t even seem like so much of an offense.
Rembrandt stops to take a break, right around where Camellia’s son—whose name he never actually learned—came and took his fruit. It had only been a few hours since then, but Rembrandt really wasn’t as bothered by it anymore. He almost found it...charming, nostalgic. He wasn’t exactly civil when he was around that age either, and it was pretty immature of him to assume the actions of one angry child were reflective of all the villagers anyway.
He snorts. Now that Rembrandt was really thinking over the memory, it was a little funny. And even now, the fruit wasn’t even particularly well-hidden, just barely in the shade of a nearby bush. It even looked like there was a bit taken out of it.
Hmm. Maybe the boy really did just want some for himself and didn’t know how to ask for it. On a whim, Rembrandt uses one of his crutches to lift the bush’s lowermost leaves, hoping to maybe try and roll out the fruit and take a closer look.
Instead he gets an eyeful of rat, recently deceased. Rembrandt recognizes it as a rat from his home planet, probably one of the ones that fled from the ship when the villagers were moving it. The cause of death was all too obvious—it’s mouth wasn’t even that far away from the fruit.
Not safe to eat. Rembrandt takes a breath and sets the bush back to rights.
Despite all he’d done and all he could have done, the villagers were willing to give him a second chance. That boy, despite openly rejecting him, was still willing to give him a second chance.
Rembrandt wasn’t going to waste it.
Now that it’s nearly night time, Rembrandt can pretend that he’s at a different beach, one where Lotus didn’t snap his leg in two.
He must admit, the horizon certainly looks better without his ship blotting most of it out like an ugly black thumbprint. The sea stretches out for miles, rimmed with dark green foliage and filled with little shimmering lights, like a reflection of the starry night sky above.
It is, in a word, gorgeous. Rembrandt alternated between focusing on that and trying not to slip in the sand as he makes his way to a figure sitting on the shore, engrossed in one of those light panels balanced on their thigh.
Rembrandt figured Lotus would be here. The beach was one of his favorite places, but he’d probably been avoiding it after what happened, much like Rembrandt had been doing all day. Or maybe Lotus deliberately came here because he knew Rembrandt would stay away.
Rembrandt slinks up beside him, mouth pursed as he tries to think of some way to announce himself that isn’t inherently combative.
Lotus notices his shadow first and nearly jumps out of his skin, looking up at him with wide frightened eyes. It was almost the same expression he had after he smashes Rembrandt’s leg, the only difference being that he hadn’t slept in a couple of days and now had pronounced bags under his eyes.
If what Camellia said earlier was true—about being primed to react to violence—then Lotus was probably having nightmares about their altercation. Rembrandt couldn’t blame him, it was a pretty gruesome scene, and if that was the first time Lotus had ever witnessed or committed violence…
Rembrandt decides to say nothing, just holds out the skewers in Lotus’s direction.
Lotus stares up at him. Rembrandt sighs.
“You can have them. You like these, right?”
“Y-yes. Thank you.”
Lotus takes the skewers and nibbles on them cautiously, clearly making an effort to appear thankful even if he isn’t in the mood.
Rembrandt grunts and stares out at the horizon, all too aware of the way Lotus is staring at his bad leg. He takes a breath and steels himself for the inevitable.
“I’m sorry. For breaking your leg.”
Rembrandt takes a breath.
“No. I should be the one apologizing, for everything. For trying to stab you, for not realizing what would have happened to you all if I’d given up your location to the rest of the fleet.”
“That’s...a surprisingly quick turnaround,” Lotus says.
“You don’t sound happy.”
“What prompted you to change your mind?”
Rembrandt chuckles awkwardly. “I didn’t really think about the impact military occupation would have until I saw Camellia with his family.”
Lotus coughs, choking on a bit of grilled lizard.
“Camellia and his what?” he says, barely holding back his laughter.
Rembrandt blushes. “You know, him and the fruit vendor and the little boy?”
“Ahaha, ew, I’m telling them you said that,” Lotus says, pulling up a few more light panels. “I can’t believe you thought Camellia was married.”
“Of course not, he can barely support himself, much less a family. The only reason he was so active today was because of me.” Lotus frowns at that, but continues on. “Besides he’s my best friend, I think I’d be the first to know if he was.”
Rembrandt clears his throat.
“Well, it’s not like not being a family would make occupation any easier on them—”
“—I mean, it wasn’t easy for me, and I’m the son of a noble.”
“Don’t say it like that. My parents died when I was a child and I was stuck under the patriarchal thumb of my controlling brother. Have I ever told you about the time I got guinea worm?”
“Why would you tell me about—”
“I couldn’t move for about 5 weeks while they pulled the worm out, and my brother used that as an opportunity to go over marriage candidates. I considered pulling it out myself and risking necrosis.”
“Wow,” Lotus says, setting the skewers aside, never to be touched again.
“How did you and Camellia meet?”
Lotus blinks. “Well, we lived next door to each other, but we weren’t particularly close. For a long time I saw him as a sort of...attraction and he would isolate himself, but over time I just sort of became one of the people who understood him best. We didn’t even have our first conversation until only a few years ago.”
“You saw him as an attraction?”
“Sure. Camellia is different from the rest of us. Can’t you tell?”
Rembrandt squints. Lotus shrugs.
“Well, I suppose that makes sense. He’s the most like you, so I guess you wouldn’t really notice.”
“The most like me? What does that mean?”
“You know,” Lotus gestures vaguely. “The most like a colonist.”
“You say it like I’m not the first person to ever land here,” Rembrandt says with a snort.
“Because you’re not.”
Rembrandt looks at Lotus. Lotus stares back at him.
“The history of this planet has been a struggle between the colonizers who’ve settled and the colonizers who have yet to settle, clashing over and over again in cataclysmic ways. Our pacifism is a choice, not an accident. We disarmed ourselves and we’ve deliberately bred ourselves to be less aggressive, to look less aggressive, although every now and then, people like Camellia slip through the cracks.”
“A wolf among dogs.”
“Exactly. It’s possible to cope, but there’s not much I can do for him. Generally, we’ve found that asking for cooperation and assimilation works with larger groups. That is, had your whole fleet arrived with you they would’ve been more likely to join us. Single entities like you on the other hand tend to be more...unpredictable.” Lotus smiles wryly. “I figured you would panic without your fleet, but to think you would produce a weapon.”
Rembrandt cringes. “You do understand I’m still technically on a mission, right? I only stopped here to resupply, but at this rate...they’ll come looking for me soon.”
“And I suppose we’ll deal with that when the time comes. In the meantime, I was planning on taking a tour around the islands. You know, inspect the other villages, see if any of them have a more...hygenic way to heal your leg.”
“Ah—” Rembrandt starts to say something, then cuts himself off. Of course there are other villages and of course there are ways to access them and of course they had technology that could instantly fix injuries if so needed. He couldn’t afford to keep assuming that the other villagers were beneath him in some way.
“Did you want to say something?”
Before Rembrandt can reply, he hears the shrill cry of a messenger bird and, on instinct, he puts out his arm and whistles for it to come. It looks a lot like his own, silver with a fanned crest and long tail feathers that lightly dust the sand.
Lotus clears his throat.
“Once more, I don’t think you should give away our position, but I suppose it can’t be helped if you still want to finish your mission.”
Rembrandt stares at the bird longingly. It was everything he’d worked for, everything he’d lost, but—
His mouth works as he tries to come up with the words.
There was so much that he wanted to say, that he wanted to ask. Questions about this island, its history, its people, the daily lives of the villagers. Questions he’d never get to ask if he sold them out.
Rembrandt takes a breath and glances at Lotus.
“Don’t get me wrong. I’m not doing this for you, I… just have some paperwork in my office I don’t want to work on just yet.”
Lotus covers his smile with a hand. “Of course.”
After a moment, Rembrandt smiles and raises his arm. The bird takes its cue and flies off.