For the next few weeks, our group is sent from military base, to city, to port, to island. It’s clear nobody has any idea what to do with us, or the tens of thousands of people who escaped Mae Hiarin. The Protectorate bungled every stage of this, from now, all the way back to when the gurant first landed on Monsoo.
The only positive I can say is that we’re given medical care, and just enough food to survive. I know all the worlds of the Protectorate are dealing with their own problems, but you’d think the planet responsible for building their warships would get special attention…
Regardless, in these weeks of being passed around, I and the other men who held off the empire become fast friends. We ask around for the names of those eight who died in the battle, and our refugee group holds a proper funeral service. With so much spare time on our hands, we even build a monument on a small, deserted island off the coast of Neapet’s naval base. A simple pillar made of stone, etched with all our names.
Sopa manages to make friends with some of the other kids in our group, and Tanawat is always dragged along with her. I have no proof of this, but I swear Sopa knows that his parents are dead, and she’s doing her best to keep his mind off things.
As for me, my body still hurts. Despite the medical attention, I’m not healing as fast as I used to, but I’m only 30! I shouldn’t be that old yet… Maybe I got more hurt than I thought. The ringing in my ears hasn’t fully left yet, I’m walking with a slight limp, and there’s a large bruise on my chest from where the bullet smashed into my vest.
After a month of being passed around, the Protectorate releases a proper response to the refugee crisis.
Step one is to reunite families. To do this, they set aside 26 locations, which are military bases, ports, stadiums, things like that. Each location was designated a letter from the Cirathan Standard alphabet. There are dozens of dialects and variations of the monsoorai language, so using Cirathan Standard puts everyone on the same level. Then, the Protectorate provided a detailed list of exactly how everyone should travel to these locations to reunite with their loved ones.
Children are sent to the location that shares the first letter of their first name, and they stay there. Sopa would go to the ‘S’ location, Chalerm to ‘C’. The father then travels and collects their children one by one in alphabetical order. The mother should find the child with the last alphabetical name, then wait for the husband to collect them both. That is unless she’s already with a child, in which case she is to reach the location corresponding with that child’s first name, then wait there.
Natcha is with Chalerm, so they’ll be heading to location C, then they’ll wait for me to arrive. If I don’t arrive in 15 days, she is to assume I’m dead, then head to location S to find Sopa. Given how close the locations are, and that travel is provided by the Protectorate, 15 days is more than enough time.
The Protectorate’s plan also explains what grandparents, siblings, cousins, tourists, and orphans should do. Natcha and I had no extended family in Mae Hiarin, so we’re ignoring those provisions.
Going along with this guide, Sopa, Tanawat and I say farewell to our new friends and travel to location C.
Following a simple ride along crystal clear waters, we arrive at a large luxury port which would normally house dozens of cruise ships. The air is clean, the wind is warm and pleasant, the sun is shining to make way for our reunion. There are a few multi-story administrative buildings and warehouses around the port, but their normal functions have been shut down for the time being. The ships which would normally be docked have left, and there’s a vast sea of tents providing food, medical attention, and shelter.
The refugee camp is so vast that it’d be a waste of time to try and find Natcha ourselves, so we wait in the large line heading into the main building. We need to register with the port authority so they can arrange our reunion with Natcha and Chalerm, assuming they’ve already arrived.
The port is bustling with barely controlled chaos. A roar of activity, only kept in line by the sheer number of peldak and monsoorai troops on patrol. Despite their repeated failures, I’m actually put at ease with their presence. I still keep Sopa and Tanawat close at all times, but if, God forbid, something were to happen, I feel like the soldiers could actually protect us this time.
A soldier even goes down the line with a crate of food and gives us all a snack.
When we finally reach one of the registration clerks, we have to speak over the roar of the crowd behind us. She asks for my child’s name, then looks through a large stack of files and paperwork. It’s all in alphabetical order, so it doesn’t take long to confirm that, at this port, there is a 31-year-old woman named Natcha, and a 10-year-old boy named Chalerm, who are waiting for a man named Gamon and a girl named Sopa. The relief washes over me, not much longer until we’re all together.
The clerk then looks down at Tanawat with an eyebrow raised. “Your wife didn’t mention waiting for a son.”
“Hm? O-oh, no, we’re not related.”
Sopa speaks up, “Tanny’s my husband! We’re taking care of him until we find his parents.”
The clerk narrows her brow, and I lean forward on the desk and correct that. I keep my voice low, so Tanawat doesn’t hear. “Actually, when I found my daughter, he was with her. His mom and dad are dead, and I haven’t figured out how to break it to him yet. It was either leave him in the city or take him, and I don’t know if he has any other family.”
“Hmm,” she nods. “I’m going to need you three to follow these Protectorate marshals. We know that things were crazy out there and situations like this happen, but understand that we can’t ignore the increased risk of abductions and trafficking. We need to make sure it’s as you say.”
That’s a bit annoying, but we have to deal with it. I’m taken to a room on the second floor of the port authority building. There’s a large window, and a great view of the harbor outside. Such a vast crowd, with so many tents. I think there’s an anti-Protectorate protest going on just outside one of the gates to the port. Based on what I’ve been hearing, a lot of people across the planet are outraged at how they let the city fall. But the protesters part long enough for a truck carrying blankets and baby formula to get through, so that warms my heart.
Soon enough, a marshal and a cirathan come to interview me. The marshal is a large peldak man who’s memorized every law of every planet in the Protectorate. The cirathan is a woman with large golden eyes who can see when I’m lying.
The interview takes about 30 minutes, and I answer dozens of their questions. Everything about my relationship with Tanawat, how I found him, what I was doing in the city, no detail spared. I’ve learned throughout my time in the shipbuilding sector that you can’t lie to a cirathan, so I’m as honest as possible.
“I had no idea who he was until that night,” I say as calmly as possible. I’m outwardly composed, but she can tell that I’m a little nervous.
“But you said your daughter has a crush on him. You don’t know the boy your daughter is in love with?” She says, eyes open wide and staring into my soul.
“I… believe I’ve mentioned that I haven’t been a great father. That’s changed since we left, I promise.”
She taps a pen on the desk, an action meant to annoy me so she can see how I’ll react. I think she realizes I know why she’s doing it, so she stops a moment later. She then smiles, so I think she knows that I know why she stopped. “Do you have any plans to find young Tanawat’s extended family?”
“I plan to find my wife and let her decide what’s best. I, uh, didn’t even tell him that his parents are dead, so…”
“Hmm…” She leans forward a little, eyeing me up and down. “When I talked to the children, separately, they told the same story. They were playing at young Tanawat’s house, things happened, then they had to hide in the closet. Your daughter was the one who made them wait. Your story matches with theirs, and I saw that they hold a great deal of love and respect for you.”
I can’t help but smile. They do?
“Aww, and how can I think a man who smiles so embarrassingly has any ill intent?”
“I-I was smiling?”
“Well, your heart was. Anyway, your story checks out.” She gestures to the marshal, who comes forward and hands me a bracelet. It has my name and Tanawat’s name written on the inside. “You’ll be provided matching bracelets to ease any future confusions, and when you’re done collecting your family, you’ll be sent to location T. You’ll wait there in case anyone comes for the young man.”
I put the bracelet on, “and if nobody does?”
She shrugs, “it’ll be out of our hands. Adopt him, arrange a marriage with your daughter, send him to an orphanage, do whatever you want so long as it’s legal. You’re his guardian until extended family picks him up. If he has no extended family, then you’ll stay as his guardian.”
The marshal speaks up, “we work for the Protectorate. Our authority on this matter only exists insofar as there’s an emergency. Child services fall under monsoorai jurisdiction, and your kind gets uppity when we try to step in.”
Then that’s all there is to it. If nobody shows up to location T, he’ll be my responsibility.
With that, I’m finally let out of the room, and I’m quickly reunited with Sopa and Tanawat. “Aww,” she pouts, “how come I don’t have a matching bracelet?” I don’t know how to tell her what it’s for.
After that, the staff sends us to the building on pier 11. We’ll wait there until they can collect Natcha and Chalerm and send them over to meet us.
The building is a luxury waiting room as cruise passengers wait until they can board. It’s a rotunda with beautiful white stone walls, and a domed glass ceiling that shows off the bright blue sky. The kids and I sit on one of the benches around the walls of the room, with three other families waiting as well. There’s soil beds placed around the floor, with plants left to grow and coil up the walls towards the sun. The vines feature beautiful pink flowers every few inches. There’s a large fountain in the center, with a statue of a mermaid holding a bucket over her head as water cascades down her body. She wears a plain, featureless mask. I recognize it from a bedtime story my mom used to tell me.
I tell the story to the kids as we wait for Natcha and Chalerm.
Basically, a fisherman caught a beautiful mermaid in his net, and she wore a mask. He invited her back home and the two lived peacefully, loving each other very much. But one day the fisherman got curious and wanted to see how she looked behind the mask, so he took it off as she slept. It turned out she was a horrible monster, then she ate him.
The lesson is supposed to be that you don’t pry into a lady’s secrets. When I was older and heading off to join the shipbuilding school, my dad told me that the real lesson was ‘don’t invite a strange woman into your home just because she has a great body.’
The two enjoy the story well enough, but their attention soon drifts to some other topic of comversation. Eventually, they run over to the fountain and start playing with the fountain.
“C’mon, Natcha…” I whisper as I grip the bench and bounce my leg. “Where are you?” I’m relieved she’s safe, but the wait is killing me.
There’s three other families waiting and, when the door opens, we all shoot our heads to the door. Sadly, it’s a fourth family that’s come to wait.
I sigh, then walk to one of the many televisions attached to the walls of the room. The TVs are set to a national news station, since the local one for this region was headquartered in Mae Hiarin. It’s been non-stop coverage of the war for months, detailing the movements of each gurant army as it blows over Monsoo. The big news for the last month has been the failure at Mae Hiarin, and the ongoing refugee crisis.
Related to that, this national news station is broadcasting a press briefing.
The peldak military is divided into many legions, each with hundreds of thousands of soldiers each. Because of our importance to the war effort, eight legions have been assigned to Monsoo. Leading all those legions is a High Marshal named Cyprian Aliszewski, an incompetent fool who I and every other refugee have come to hate.
He’s speaking about some joint initiative to improve the roads on some irrelevant island. The reporters keep heroically interrupting his boring spiel to ask various, hard-hitting questions about the Protectorate’s miserable defeat during the defense of Mae Hiarin. Inevitably, however, he ignores those questions, or says something noncommittal like ‘we did the best with the information we had.’ Such a smug piece of trash, it’s a disgrace that he hasn’t been recalled as High Marshall.
“What of the videos emerging of the gurant executing civilians?” A reporter asks.
Cyprian sighs as if answering this is some great burden on his part. “We have addressed this issue behind the scenes, it will not be a problem for long.”
“So how soon before the liberation of Mae Hiarin occurs?” Another reporter asks.
“We have no timetable at this moment.”
“Why did the peldaks let them take the city in the first place?”
He actually rolls his eyes. “As has been said repeatedly, I personally failed to understand the gravity of the situation as it was occurring. As you all well know, there are 12 such armies rampaging across Monsoo. I was convinced that the attack on My Hidrin,” the fact he dares get the name wrong makes my blood boil, “was a faint to distract from a bigger target, and I was convinced that the local garrison could handle it. I failed to understand the true motive of the gurant, and was therefore wrong on both counts.”
“There has been outcry from the people for you to resign. Will you?”
He scowls for a second, “I work at the personal discretion of the Lord Protector. Public outcry does not affect my decision making.”
Disgusting. This idiot messed up, we paid for it, but he still has a job. If I had an equivalent failure to this scale, I’d be fired and blacklisted from the entire ship making industry!
Whatever. I head back to my seat and wait for Natcha in an angry silence. The door opens again, and everyone looks. It’s a child being escorted by a caretaker, and one of the family rushes over to greet him. It’s heartwarming to see their reunion, at least. Once the tears and hugs stop, they leave the building. Silence returns to the waiting room, only broken by the televisions, and the fountain.
The door opens again, and it’s another family who’s here to wait.
This is unbearable. I almost hate the Protectorate more for making us wait than losing Mae Hiarin in the first place.
Time crawls by, and the door opens twice more. My hopes are dashed each time. On the third opening, I lazily look up, expecting more disappointment, but then I see her. Backlit against the midday sun, with Chalerm at her side, there’s Natcha.
Sopa pulls from the fountain, “mommy!” She screams as she runs into her mother’s arms.
I run forward as well, scooping Chalerm up.
“D-dad?” He asks.
“Haha! Oh, Chalerm! You have no idea how worried I was about you all.” I hold him tight in my arms, “it’s so good to finally see you again.” My chest hurts a little from carrying him, and he’s a little bigger than I remember, but I don’t care.
Chalerm hesitates for a second, but soon wraps his arms around my neck and shoulder in return. “I’m glad to see you too, dad.”
I pull back a little, smiling. “You have to tell me what you and mom have been through this last month! Must have been pretty crazy, right? I want every detail.”
His face lights up, and he begins nodding, “y-yeah, dad! Of course. And I wanna hear what happened with you!” I’m usually too tired to tell them stories from work, and most days were pretty boring anyway. But now that I think about it, he always listened so intently.
I set him down so he can greet his sister, then I turn to Natcha.
She’s so beautiful, even more than when I last saw her. Her bottom lip is trembling, and she has bags under her eyes. When was the last time she slept? She’s wearing used clothes that were donated to the refugees, but it might as well be a wedding dress for all I care.
Her voice cracks slightly, “I wasn’t sure you two had made it out.”
“A-a few times there,” I gulp, “I didn’t think we would. Uh, thanks for the note you left on the table, it was a godsend. It let me know you two were safe, and it even let me find Sopa.”
She brings a hand up to cover her mouth, her body trembling, tears quickly running down her cheeks. “I-I wasn’t going to write it. We were running late, and I knew you wouldn’t come home before me, but… but I kept thinking that I always leave you notes.” She sniffs, and walks into me, wrapping her arms around my waist and pressing her face against my chest. I, in turn, hold her close. “I’m happy you found it. That you found her and made it out. I figured they’d target your dock first, target you…”
Her face is pressing right into my gunshot bruise, I have to slightly. “A-as if the gurant could keep me from seeing you again!” I force a smile, then bring a finger up to wipe the tears from her eyes.
“Haaaa… haha,” her sigh turns into a chuckle, and the tension in her body slowly fades. “No, only work can do that, right?” With her face wet with tears, she gives me a messy, teasing smile, and I don’t have a response but to chuckle along. Natcha pulls away, grips the bridge of her nose, then composes herself with a single deep breath. “G-good. Now that we’ve… settled that, what’s Tanny doing here?”
I look back at the fountain to see Tanawat dejectedly sitting on the rim, kicking his feet back and forth. To be honest, I was so caught up with my family that I forgot about him. He must be burning with envy at our reunion.
“Right, him.” I rub the back of my neck and lower my voice. “When I went to get Sopa, I found his parents dead in the kitchen. I haven’t told him.”
She returns my whisper, “when did you plan on telling him?”
I give an awkward smile, “I was hoping you would, actually.”
She sighs, then nods and pats me on the shoulder. “Of course, of course.”
“As for what to do with him,” I hold up my arm to show off the bracelet, “I was told to head to location T. If he has any extended family, they’ll be there.”
Natcha shakes her head, “he doesn’t. His father was an only child, as was his mother, and both sets of grandparents passed from illness many years ago. They met in a state orphanage, and had many a story of the abuses that went on there.”
“O-oh, that’s… awful.”
“It is. His family has been through a lot. But hey! At least, thanks to you, he’s still alive.”
“Yeah, I guess. But in that case, what do we do? Adopt him? It wouldn’t feel right putting him through what his parents had to deal with.”
As we talk, I glance to the fountain. Sopa notices Tanawat sitting by himself, so she takes Chalerm by the hand and brings him over. I can tell that the boys are friends too, with Chalerm acting like an older brother. They three play in the fountain together, and Tanawat brightens up a little.
Natcha crosses her arms, “well, we can’t ‘adopt’ him. That would make him and Sopa siblings, which means they can’t get married.”
“That would be years from now though, will she still be interested?”
“Ah,” she’d be the one to know, after all.
Natcha suddenly puts a finger to my nose, “but what’s with this? We agree not to have any more kids due to your work, but one month with your daughter and her little boyfriend, and suddenly you want to grow our family?”
“Uh,” I lean back a little, “well, I almost died a few times and that put a lot of things into perspect-“
“What?!” Her eyes round at that small glimpse of the terrible time I had.
“I-I’ll tell you later, but the point is I realized I’ve been working too much. I need to spend more time with you and the kids. I didn’t even know Sopa had a crush until I read your note, and it was only by divine intervention that I saw his letter.”
“The one she had hanging in her room, from Tanawat.”
“…why didn’t you look in the address book?”
I raise an eyebrow, “the what?”
“Come on, really?” She slaps my shoulder, “by the fridge? I put down all the important dates and locations and people we know. I spent a lot of time-!” She takes a deep breath. “Nevermind, it’s not important. I’ll break the news to Tanny. We’ll arrange his marriage to Sopa, then we can care for him without issue.”
“It’s that easy? Haha, I was worried it’d be-“
She takes a step forward and looks up at me, a wry smile on her face. “But I want two more children before I’m 35.” She taps my sternum, making me wince. “And you’ll help me raise them this time. No more overtime, no more ‘I’m too tired from work’. Understood, Gamon?”
I guess she was more annoyed by this arrangement than I realized. “Y-yeah, deal. But, uh, is now a good time? Our entire lives were just-“
She crosses her arms and turns away, “I’ve been busy this last month, making arrangements. We’ll move in with my parents for the time being, far away from this region. Their city has some docks too, and my father will work his connections. You’re more than qualified to get any job you want at their guild, so consider it a transfer.” She turns back to me, her sharp brow narrowed, “you’ll be working reasonable hours.”
I didn’t think much about what we would do after reuniting, and her plan works perfectly. It’s my calling in life to build ships, it’s what I’m but at. That’s fine, but I need to scale back a little and spend more time with my family. Keeping a normal schedule and not taking overtime should be more than enough.
Now that that’s settled, I wrap an arm around Natcha’s waist and pull her close.
“G-Gamon?” She hesitates for a second, then relaxes and rests her head against my shoulder.
“Come on kids, we’ve got places to be.”
Sopa, Chalerm, and new addition Tanawat, hop off the rim of the fountain and follow me out the door. We need to find a ship to take us out of here.