Copyright 2001 by Paul S. Gibbs. All rights reserved. Any reproduction, reuse, reposting or alteration of this work, without the express written permission of the author, is strictly prohibited.


Volume Nine

September 24, 2380

I received a message from Tom today.

It was a hyperzap, of course: that's the fastest, most efficient and cheapest way for us to communicate. But part of me wished it was an old-fashioned pen-and-ink letter--because the paper, sealed in an envelope, might have retained a little of his scent. Since leaving Terra I have several times come wide awake in the middle of the night, my heart pounding, absolutely certain that I'm forgetting him: his scent, yes, but also his face, his voice, his touch, his eyes. Which is ridiculous, of course. I could no more forget him than I could my own tail. And when we're reunited, everything will be fine.

Where was I? Oh yes--the message. He and Ehm'rael are settling in fine at Stanford--though they are the only two Sah'aarans on campus, and in the entire city of Palo Alto. Their request to be roommates in the co-ed dormitory--something which would have been entirely proper here on Sah'aar--raised a few eyebrows, it seems, but was eventually granted, and so far they've managed to keep from clawing each other. They don't care much for the dorms--I'm with them on that--but the University required them to live there during their first year. Apparently they didn't have anyone as powerful and influential as Sah'surraa to intercede for them. Next fall they're going to move into a two-bedroom guest-house--converted long ago from what used to be a ground-car garage--behind their Grandfather Abrams' home in Atherton. They'll still only be a few minutes from the campus by shuttle.

Other than that, they're both doing well on their own--though they're finding college very different from high school. I'm with them on that too--though (in all modesty) I think my transition was even more jarring than theirs. Rae has joined the tennis team, Tom is golfing competitively--and next spring they'll both try out for baseball. (Of course they'll make the team.) They're also both going home nearly every weekend: for peace and quiet, and to sleep in their own beds.

As I read the letter, it was almost as if I could hear Tom's voice, there in my head, and several times I closed my eyes and leaned back, imagining his smile, the gleam in his eyes, and the way his tail winds around my ankle. And as I did, I found myself purring--something which hasn't happened very much lately. Another four years, at least, before we're together for good. I'm not sure I can last that long.

Tom's message was the one high point in what has so far been a really lousy week. Sunday night I tossed and turned, trying to decide whether I should leave Ehm'murra alone, as she evidently wanted me to, or try to find her again. I woke Monday morning resolved to do the former--but then, between classes, I found myself running around campus, frantically checking the same places Ehm'talak and I searched on Saturday. I began, of course, with that little shady nook near the stream. I even worked up enough courage to ask some of her professors. Needless to say, I came up empty--I didn't even find anyone who had seen her. She didn't attend any of her classes--but oddly enough, none of her instructors seemed particularly worried. Irritated, yes; but not worried. Apparently this isn't the first time she's run off. Eventually I gave up looking--but (at the risk of sounding melodramatic) with a heavy heart.

That was Monday. Tuesday came and went without any word, and I couldn't decide whether to be angry or worried--or to put her out of my mind and go on with my life, which both Sah'sell and Ehm'naala recommend. Ehm'naala is too kind-hearted to say so, but I know Sah'sell speaks for both of them when he says Ehm'murra was just using me to get to Sah'majha. Maybe so--but I don't want to believe it.

Then, on Wednesday, I happened to run into one of Ehm'murra's professors, who is also her Journalism Department advisor. He told me that she's withdrawn from the University. Officially it's a leave of absence; she's still enrolled, and can return next semester without penalty. But the professor seemed to doubt whether she'll ever come back--and I'm beginning to wonder myself.

But it got worse. I returned home late Wednesday afternoon feeling oddly depressed, and was informed by Ehm'haazal that we were having guests for dinner. That's by no means unusual, but I wasn't in the mood, and I tried to beg off, claiming a need to study. But then I learned that my attendance was more or less mandatory--and that was alarming. Sah'surraa had never before demanded that I dine with the family--only suggested, some times more strongly than others.

I climbed into my nicest evening robe--shimmering gold, with a matching belt and collar--and hurried to the dining room, arriving just as the guests were being shown in. A male and female, they appeared to be in their mid-forties, about the same age as my parents--and a glance at their ankles proved them to be a mated pair. Pure Sah'salaan, they had solid brown fur and glowing orange manes, without a touch of grey. The female was a little taller than me, and sturdily built, almost intimidating. She had a narrow face, and even in a room full of carnivores, her eyes were predatory. Her evening robe and collar were both dark reddish-brown, with shiny copper-colored highlights. Her mate was about her height, but slighter in built. His eyes were opaque, unreadable, but the set of his jaw and the flare of his whiskers suggested belligerence, as if he expected at any moment to be insulted. His robe and collar were black, with a fine tracery of silver thread. They both looked nervous, ill at ease, and as I entered they looked quickly over at me, much as one would gaze at a Spotted Leaper calf at the local hunting park--separated from its mother and with a broken leg.

Trying not to be too obvious--and probably failing--I sidled up to Sah'sell and hissed, "Who--?"

He smiled. "Ehm'taaf and Sah'kraas," he said. "Your friend's aunt and uncle."

My heart sank, but I was trapped. For the time being, though, I was spared having to talk to them, because at that moment the meal was served, and Sah'surraa insists on silence while dining. As we ate, I tried to keep my eyes and attention on my maxigrazer with blood sauce--but I could feel their eyes boring into me, sizing me up. The irony--that my bond-mate once endured a similar trial-by-glare, at the hands of my own mother--was something I didn't care to dwell on.

The two of them and Sah'surraa vanished immediately after dessert, and briefly it seemed that my ordeal was over--but even as I was creeping toward the door, Ehm'naala approached, an apologetic smile on her face. "My mate wishes to see you, dear," she said. "In his office."

Once again there was no escape. As I made my way up the hall, I wondered why Sah'surraa had taken his guests to his office, rather than the sitting room--but as I entered, I understood immediately. This was his place of power: sitting there behind that massive, immaculate desk, he was absolutely and incontestably in control.

Ehm'taaf and Sah'kraas sat close together, and a third chair, unoccupied, stood a little distance away, nearer to Sah'surraa's side of the desk. As the door closed behind me, he turned, then rose--but the other two didn't. "Come in, child," he said kindly.

Ehm'taaf speared me with her gaze. "So," she said. "This is the blackfur?"

Sah'surraa put his arm around my shoulders. "This is my grandson's bond-mate, Ehm'tassaa," he corrected, in a tone of cool rebuke. "Daughter of Ambassador Sah'churaaf and Dr. Ehm'varra." He smiled at me. "Please be seated, my dear. I trust this will not take long."

I did, and as I nervously arranged the folds of my evening-robe around my legs, Sah'kraas gave a growl, deep in his throat. "So," he said, "if she isn't here, where is she?"

My heart sank again. Obviously what I'd feared was true: Ehm'murra hadn't returned home. I glanced at Sah'surraa. "You've told them what happened?" I said.

"Yes," he confirmed. "As you related it to me."

I turned to face Ehm'taaf and Sah'kraas, as boldly as I could. "I'm sorry," I said. "I have no idea where she is. I wish I did."

"Why?" Sah'kraas demanded. "So you can corrupt her some more? I could have you up on charges for what you did…"

"Indeed?" Sah'surraa said coldly. "And what exactly would those charges be? That she took Ehm'murra into her home, fed her and gave her a place to sleep? Or that she saved Ehm'murra's life? If we are to discuss charges, Sah'kraas, perhaps we should start with 'assault.' If I am not mistaken, it is illegal to strike someone hard enough to cause a visible bruise. I believe the term is 'grievous bodily injury'..."

Sah'kraas turned away, his ears reddening. "I was angered by her stubbornness," he said lamely.

"I was often angered by my daughter's stubbornness," Sah'surraa countered. "But never once did I hit her. But be that as it may; let us return to the matter at hand. Do you have any idea where she might have gone?"

The two of them exchanged a glance. "No," Ehm'taaf said, her tone softening. "None at all. We've checked with all her other friends and acquaintances; no one has seen her. And we are her only close relatives on Sah'aar." She glanced at me. "It would appear she was the last one to see Ehm'murra."

"The day she took our niece to that half-Chrysaoan mad scientist," Sah'kraas put in sourly.

"If you are referring to Sah'majha," Sah'surraa interrupted, "his work has improved, and saved, the lives of many thousands--occasionally at considerable personal risk. What he did for Ehm'murra was entirely harmless, and should greatly improve her peace of mind."

"That is a matter of opinion," Sah'kraas said. "And in any event, he had no right to interfere in a matter he knew nothing about. Ehm'murra has always been known to be emotionally unstable…"

"She has always been presumed to be unstable," Sah'surraa countered. "Because she is an Incomplete--and doubtless also because she was raised on Terra. A presumption which may or may not be deserved." He leaned back. "Certainly I do not entirely approve of the path she has taken. But my disapproval is less than it might once have been. And in any case, that is immaterial. By Alliance law she is an adult--and unless she has been legally judged incompetent to handle her own affairs, she may do as she pleases. Has she been so judged?"

"No," Ehm'taaf said. "She has not. But you do not understand…"

Sah'surraa smiled. "Certainly I do," he said. "Her father--your brother--entrusted her care to you. And now you feel that you have failed."

Neither Ehm'taaf nor Sah'kraas replied, but they couldn't hold Sah'surraa's piercing gaze, and that was answer enough.

"I spent more than thirty-five years at odds with my daughter," Sah'surraa went on. "Because she would not be what I wished her to. I still do not agree with all the things she has done, or all the choices she has made. But I have learned that I must accept her as she is. Indeed, she has much in common with Ehm'murra: they are both stubborn, strong-willed--and uncompromising in pursuing what they desire. I could not change Ehm'ayla, and Ehm'murra's parents could not change her; what chance, then, have you?"

Sah'kraas' face darkened. "We did not come here to be lectured," he said. "Not even by the most powerful man in Sah'salaan. You say you do not know where Ehm'murra is. Very well, then--what will you do to help us find her?"

"I?" Sah'surraa asked. "Nothing. I have meddled enough already, to my shame. It seems clear that Ehm'murra left so precipitously because she realized I intended to bring the three of you together for negotiations. That was a mistake, and one I will not repeat."

Sah'kraas bared his teeth in a snarl--but before he could say something we'd all regret, I interrupted. "May I ask a question?"

"Of course, child," Sah'surraa said.

I cleared my throat. "Would Ehm'murra have access to enough money to book a flight to Terra?"

Ehm'taaf looked nonplused, as if that hadn't occurred to her before. "I…don't know," she said finally. "She has her own account, of course. Money from her parents, mostly--but she supplements it herself, selling stories to the news-feeds. It is…possible."

Sah'surraa shrugged. "Then that is doubtless your answer," he said. "The young man she professes to love is on Earth; possibly she is already en-route there. In which case she is surely outside your jurisdiction."

I winced. Even for the famously blunt Sah'surraa, that was a little harsh--and if he was trying to provoke a reaction, he succeeded. Sah'kraas began to reply, angrily, but Ehm'taaf silenced him with her claws on his arm. "I take it, then," she said softly, "that you believe we care nothing for our niece's welfare? That we are only concerned with how my brother will react when he hears the news?"

"I do not know," Sah'surraa said evenly. He glanced at the still-fuming Sah'kraas. "Certainly you have given me cause to wonder. But there are many definitions of 'caring.' If to you that word means 'saving her from herself,' then she may well be better off unfound. She was sent to Sah'aar to bond, and to end her relationship with that young human. She knows that as well as you and I do. Is it any wonder she resents it?"

Ehm'taaf and Sah'kraas exchanged a glance, but remained silent, and Sah'surraa went on, "Be that as it may, my family and I--and that includes Ehm'tassaa--became involved in this situation against our wills. As head of this household, I have decided it is best for us to become uninvolved, as of now."

Ehm'taaf sat silent for a moment, her jaw working; then she sighed and stood, drawing her mate to his feet as well. "Then it appears we can accomplish nothing more here," she said.

"It appears not," Sah'surraa agreed affably. He rose. "Ehm'tassaa and I will show you to the door. And of course, should we happen to hear any news of Ehm'murra, we will relay it to you at once."

And that was it. When the two of them had disappeared into the darkness, and Sah'surraa had closed the door against the chilly night wind, he once again draped his arm across my shoulders. "I presume," he said gently, "that you disapprove of my refusing to help them locate Ehm'murra?"

I shook my head. "No, sir," I said. "I don't. I think you were right: it might be better for everyone if she stays lost."

…That was a couple days ago. I don't doubt that Ehm'taaf and Sah'kraas have since tried to discover whether Ehm'murra did leave the planet; that shouldn't be hard to do, even without Sah'surraa's resources. What they found, though--if anything--they've kept to themselves. Which is hardly surprising. But as for myself…well, even though I was the one who suggested it, I'm not entirely convinced that she did jump a ship for Terra. I think she has something else in mind, something longer-term. Whether I'll ever discover what it is, though, I have no idea.

Well, it's late, and once again I've managed to write far too much. Time for bed. I have to get up early tomorrow: Ehm'talak, Sah'larssh and I are finally going to take that long-delayed drive in the country. Unless some other orphan of the storm lands on my doorstep first.

To Be Continued…

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