Traeth shrugged. "Who knows … but the Emperor wants to find out."
"This is crazy. If what you say is true—and I do believe you, but it doesn't make any sense! Why couldn't he just tell the truth and ask us to investigate the matter for him? And why did you come so willingly on what you're telling me is a one way trip? If Tikarra Island is so mysterious and fearsome, why are you here? What did you do that was so bad to make the Emperor order you onto this expedition—you and only you?"
Traeth chewed on the inside of his cheek and looked down shamefaced.
"You have to remember, Jen. I don't fit in here anymore. I'm like—oh, what was that expression you used to use … a square peg in a round hole."
"So because your face doesn't fit, you get sent on a suicide mission?" I was starting to squeal.
"Yes. This is Dirria, remember. This is the Dirrian way."
"That anybody who's a little bit different gets … discarded?"
"Yes. And I'm doubly different. Not only because of the time I spent on Earth, I'm taller than your average Dirrian."
"Dirrians don't like tall people. You know that."
"You're not tall."
"I'm as tall as you are."
"And I'm not tall!"
"Not for your species, no, but how do you feel when you stand next to someone who is really, really tall, like Rutter."
Rutter is taller than me but not by so much. However, the vision of Urtok towering above me in the lift at the Academy came to mind.
"And the Emperor dislikes me because I am tall, as most Dirrians do."
I was flabbergasted. "But aren't there any tall Dirrians?"
"Incredibly few. Dirrians are very vain and consider height unsightly. On Earth, in 20th century China, did not the women have their feet bound in order to keep them small."
"Yes, but it was a barbaric practice banned in 1912."
"But it took place. Less than a hundred years ago, babies over a certain length would be euthanized at birth in the belief that a long baby would become a tall and ugly adult. It was a practise that has been part of our custom for millennia. Because of that, over the centuries, our people have grown shorter and shorter, thinner and thinner. We may not slaughter our babies anymore, but I still represent everything they don't want in their genome. Even my parents, if they had lived, would have shunned me by now, I'm sure. Among the Dirrian people, I am considered a giant."
"So the Emperor sends you to Tikarra Island instead."
"Yes. It's an easy way to get rid of me and, in a way, I quite liked the idea."
"Liked it? Why?"
"It sounded nice. Going to a deserted island where I could live out my days in solitude, away from the Dirrian people. Somewhere where I wouldn't be scorned and snubbed."
Al stepped forward. "Can I ask a question?"
"If the Emperor disliked you so much, why did he have you in the Palace?"
"Because, at the moment, all he has with the United Federation of Planets are trade agreements and he wants to join, but he has no experience with other races and even less understanding of their ways. When he heard from the delegation you met on the Drakonia about me, he actively sought me out. For the first time in my life, somebody wanted me—"
"For all the wrong reasons," chipped in Rutter.
"Yes, but someone wanted me! "
"But not now?"
"No. He's realised he doesn't really need me. He's interrogated me as he can. It didn't take long. I wasn't on Earth that long, after all. And now I've outlived my usefulness."
"So you're happy to come here to die?"
"Or live out my days in peace and tranquillity."
"Alone!" I shouted.
"But only if the monsters don't get him first," added Al cheekily.
Traeth fell silent and sucked his lips in hard as he debated.
"Okay," he finally admitted. "I didn't think it through. And I do regret that you got sucked into it as well."
Rutter folded his arms and grinned. "It didn't occur to you to contact Jen and ask her to help you emigrate to Earth?"
Traeth's shoulders fell as he realised his stupidity.
"No," he admitted soulfully. "The thought never occurred to me. I haven't been thinking straight at all if the truth be known."
We stood on the beach, our eyes playing tag with each other. In the end, it was Al that broke the silence.
"So if you wanted to come, why did you just have a dickey fit on the beach?" she scowled.
"I don't know. I was filled with so much panic I suppose." He sighed heavily.
I could see his sorrow and distress. I reached out and touched his shoulder to which, against all Dirrian tradition, he fell into my arms for a hug. He was right. He wasn't Dirrian anymore. He pulled himself away sharply and beamed a smile to show he had pulled himself together.
"But I'm okay now, so what's next?"
We debated our options taking into account the time of day, how soon night would fall and our need to find a suitable place to camp. We decided, unanimously surprisingly, to pitch our tents on the sand at the edge of the woodland where the land was flat and we were far enough away from the sea not to be threatened by the tide.