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Part 8 - "Meet the Family"
Andrew did want to meet the other fish-dragons, (Though he supposed the correct term was Gulariss-es? Gulariss-i?) but he also wanted to study the complex shell mosaics along the walls.
The designs flowed in and out of another, like those optical illusion designs where you can't tell where one begins and another starts. The gently swaying lanterns cast shadows along their edges, some flickering to life, he could swear the gills moved in and out. He wished he had brought a camera with him; then again, it would have never made the journey down here to the bottom of the lake, no matter how "waterproof" it might have been.
"Andrew! Don't get lost again dear," Aunt Jenna called to him and he hurried to catch up, his little gulariss bounding close behind. Andrew wasn't nearly as quick as her due to the cobbled ground. He still couldn't understand how she could bear to walk barefoot everywhere. He had a feeling he was going to have a ton of blisters tomorrow. This train of thought derailed when he came upon the second member of their clan, reclining in a huge chamber. No wonder she had been waiting.
Esmeralda, an appropriate name because she had emerald scales like sequins in the flickering light, was just as large (if not larger) than Duke. She lay on her side on top of a nest of thick mosses, a section of her belly bulging. Her body was an eel's, long and lined with a continuous dorsal fin along her back which swept around her tail and under her belly. The fin swayed like feathers as she lifted her head and swung it towards him. She had two pairs of pectoral fins almost like a sea lion's flippers. She beckoned him closer with one. Her eyes were bright and full of life. There was something about her, it was like she was radiating happiness.
His little gulariss let out another little chirping purr and nuzzled next to her fin. She smiled down at him and held him close. He dozed off again.
"Hello Andrew," She said quietly, not wanting to wake the little one. Before he could reply she was nuzzling his face. Her dainty whiskers tickled and immediately he realized something. He had met her before.
In the lake when he was so little. It had been her, tickling his legs with her whiskers, hiding in the dark shadows.
He hadn't even gotten a hello out before she squeezed her whiskers around him tightly in what he supposed must be a hug.
"Essie!" Jenna laughed a little, "Don't squish him."
"You worry too much," she replied, although she released him and he was able to get a deeper breath. "It's so good to finally meet you face to face. I've been watching you for a long time. You swim beautifully for someone so young."
He blushed a little, unsure of what to say. He felt relieved it hadn't been some monstrous creature that had haunted him so long ago, but also felt foolish that it hadn't been as well.
"I'll get the others," Jenna said, "You stay here with Esmeralda, okay?"
She had already disappeared down another winding chamber hallway before he could think of an excuse. He turned back to the gulariss and found himself staring at her belly. His conscience told him not to be so rude, but he couldn't help it. Her belly looked like it was going to burst!
"Are you...?" He blushed a little, feeling bad for asking, but wanting to know.
"Yes," she replied, nodding, "I will be laying my first egg soon. Hopefully before the Counting Ceremony."
"Does it hurt?" He wondered if he touched her belly, would it ripple like a water balloon or would it be solid? He hadn't realized he was sticking his hand out until her whisker reached out and placed his hand against her belly.
It was warm and felt like a water bed, fluttering a little.
"No, it doesn't hurt at all," she said softly.
"Yeah that's what she says now," said a male voice behind him and he turned to see more gulariss of all sizes filling into the large chamber, arranging themselves in a semi-circle around Esmeralda's reclined body. Aunt Jenna stepped from among them.
"Oh Iggy, you always know how to spoil a party," Aunt Jenna said, though not too unkindly.
Iggy slid into the room on his belly, stopping just short of Andrew, staring him in the eye without having to bend over. This fellow wasn't nearly as big as the others, but he made up for it with his large mouth, saggy cheeks and bulging eyes, enclosed by heavy lids. He looked half-crazy. "Hey kid, welcome to the party. Woo-hoo." His lips flapped and Andrew had to remind himself he was actually talking to a bunch of talking fish. This guy reminded him of a rock bass, especially the patches of dark coloring where he wasn't life-jacket orange.
"Please ignore my dear brother Ignatius. He is only jealous because he has not found a mate yet," said another male who leaned down to Andrew. His elongated yellow jaw reminded him a bit of a cartoony saw fish. "I am called Nicholas. As a quick notation, I prefer that to Nick or Nicky, " he added with a bit of disgust, curling up the lip of his long snout to reveal a line of teeth. Andrew knew now that he had seen a fish like him before at the conservation building on a school field trip: a spotted gar. He didn't look very mean though, just perturbed. His snarl flipped into a smirk. "It is a pleasure to meet you, Andrew."
"You're scarin' him!" said another gulariss about Iggy's size, this one a female vaguely resembling a rainbow trout only with varying hues of purple coloring, some as light as lavender. She let out an infectious giggle and squirmed around Andrew, smelling him and poking him with her fins and short whiskers. He leapt back and forth trying to dodge her frantic movements. "Ooh-ooh-ooh! Would you look at him fellas? The little dumpling's so precious!"
"Settle down, Viola," Jenna said, petting her dorsal, and she huffed slightly but sat back on her fins with a loud plop.
"Andrew, aren't you going to say hello?"
"Um... Hi, everyone. I'm Andrew."
"We know that genius," Iggy said. Nicholas smacked him upside the head.
Andrew counted them all very quickly. Esmeralda. Nicholas. Ignatius. Viola. His little one. And Duke in the other chamber. Six? But weren't there seven eggs?
"Aunt Jenna," he asked quietly, "Where's the other one?"
"Other one?" She tilted her head.
"There were seven eggs in the story."
He felt a stillness descend among all of them, including Jenna. It gave him a deep chill that he couldn't explain and suddenly realized he had said something very bad.
"Another time, Andrew," Jenna said quickly, dispelling the bad feeling with her comforting words, "For now let's enjoy being together with your new family. We have much to do before the Counting Ceremony."
He didn't hear her though, the question haunting the back corners of his mind. The indigo egg. An indigo gulariss. What happened?
Continue to Part 9?