Copyright © 2001 by Paul S. Gibbs. All rights
reserved. Any reproduction, reuse, reposting or alteration of
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THE BLACKFUR CHRONICLES
November 15, 2380
Would you believe, I've actually started to miss the seashore?
At one time--not all that long ago--it would have been very much the opposite. During my first few months in San Francisco I hardly ever visited the ocean, even though it lay no more than a few kilometers west of the Embassy; and the few times I did, the sight left me slightly queasy and scared half to death. All that water, right out to the horizon, always moving, never still It reminded me of the wind-swept grasses of the Sah'salaan plains--but only to a certain extent. Ta'chlaas-grass is tall, but it's rooted in solid earth, and while it's possible to get lost among the blades, you can't drown there. I have no idea exactly how deep the water is outside the Golden Gate; I never bothered to find out. The knowledge that it would rise far above my head just a few meters offshore was enough. I never got any farther than the bluffs overlooking the beach; the thought of walking on the sand, letting the waves (and who knows what else) touch my feet, was more than I could endure. I wasn't even comfortable looking at the Bay, though it was clearly visible from my bedroom; I usually kept the curtains over my north-facing windows closed.
But then came Tom. First--Goddess knows how--he taught me that water is nothing to be afraid of, if one knows how to deal with it; and then he showed me how beautiful the shore can be. He took me to Point Lobos and Big Sur; we walked on Asilomar Beach, and we explored the trails around Elkhorn Slough. (Phew! how that place stinks at low tide! But as Tom said, it's the smell of Life, in the raw.) I even miss the summer fog--especially those days when it would lie close and thick on the shore. He and I would walk the beach, just above the tideline, huddling close together; and afterwards we'd warm up at a café in Pacific Grove, where the tables are arranged in a circle around a huge open-pit fireplace. Sometimes it would be lunch, and sometimes dinner; and oftentimes I'd have to head home immediately afterwards--but once in a while I'd be able to spend the night. I was supposed to sleep in the guest room, which was also Ehm'ayla's office; but of course I didn't, and the rest of the household pretended not to notice. The same thing happened, more or less, when Tom came to visit me at the Embassy.
I could go to the seashore here in Sah'salaan--but it wouldn't be the same. It's more than two thousand kilometers away, for one thing, which wouldn't exactly be a one-day trip; and I doubt very much I could find anyone who'd want to go with me. As a rule, only tourists--humans, mainly--really enjoy the shore of the Western Ocean; the Sah'aarans who live there merely endure it. Ehm'murra might have gone--but that isn't an option right now, for several reasons.
But even were I to go, the trip wouldn't cure what's really ailing me, as I know very well. It isn't the Terran Pacific Ocean I'm pining for, it's Tom--because in my mind, now and always, the two are inextricably linked. And my longing is all the worse now, because I'm coming up on one of those times of the year. The hormonal shifts, and the resulting mood swings, aren't half as bad as they were before I bonded; I haven't had to use RHT for more than two years. But I've felt like half a person ever since I left Terra, and that sensation is rapidly becoming unendurable. It was dangerous, of course, for he and I to see each other during my fertile period; we had to make absolutely certain that our protection was foolproof. I don't imagine my dear bond-mate enjoyed having a contraceptive crystal inserted into his arm, but that's the way it is for our species: it's far easier, and safer, for the male to take the precautions. But he's far away now, and there is no remedy, no treatment, no drug I know of that would ease my pain. All I can do is endure, and distract myself as best I can. I don't doubt, though, that for the next few nights my dreams will be extremely interesting.
As I write this, it's late evening, and the house is very quiet, except for a chilly wind rattling the windows. I spent the last hour in the household shrine (sitting, not kneeling, though I imagine She understood), and came away from the experience feeling remarkably serene--for which, after what I've been through lately, I am profoundly grateful. Actually, though, as much as I'd like to credit Her with my sudden peace of mind, I can't. Not entirely. Much of it I owe to Ehm'naala: simply to be near her, and hear her gentle wisdom, is to feel my cares slip away. And an even larger part, very much to my surprise, is due to Sah'rahfel. My meeting with him went far better than I'd dared hope. If I wasn't afraid of jinxing myself, I'd say that his visit was an omen that things have finally begun to get better.
He arrived a little past two in the afternoon, about an hour after I finished lunch--and by the time Ehm'haazal showed him to my suite, I'd worked myself into a state that was to "nervous" what the Interval is to a spring shower. I was able to hide my claws--and I needed them anyway, for the ritual greeting--but I couldn't so easily conceal my whipping tail. As it turned out, I didn't need to try: his own, long and narrow, was also going like a pennant in a gale.
I sat him down on my sofa, and offered him a cup of tea, which he accepted--more, I imagine, to give him time to collect himself than because he was really thirsty. As I carried the tray out from the kitchen, he glanced at my leg and frowned. "Forgive me," he said. "I just noticed that you're limping "
I lifted the hem of my day-robe to show him my brace. "I aggravated an old injury a few weeks ago," I explained. "It's getting better--slowly." Exactly how, and why, I decided not to bring up--not yet, anyway.
"That is well." He shook his head. "I don't recall Ehm'murra mentioning it "
"She didn't know," I told him. "It happened after she left."
I served the tea, and settled in opposite him, and for a long moment we sat sipping, sizing each other up as it were. Which is understandable, I suppose: we'd both had little enough opportunity when last we'd met.
As I'd thought, Sah'rahfel is pure Ehm'tarr Continent. His accent announced his birth, and his physiology proclaimed his ancestry. He's considerably taller than me, and extremely thin, an impression greatly enhanced by his slicked-down fur. But on closer examination, any appearance of scrawniness vanishes: beneath that short pelt are tight cords of hard, braided muscle, like steel cables. My bond-mate could probably beat him in a wrestling match, by virtue of greater mass; but in a foot-race, Tom might well be surprised. Maybe someday I'll find out. His muzzle is short and broad, his eyes huge and dark, and his hands and feet are long, his toes almost prehensile. By far his most striking and unusual feature, though, is his whiskers. They're at least twice the length of mine, and their tips curl back slightly toward his face. He wore a day-robe with interlocking polygons of bronze and green, very neat and well-fitting, and a matching collar. Most of my friends and associates are Sah'salaanites; and as such, Sah'rahfel seemed almost to belong to a different species, as strange and wonderful as the first human I ever encountered.
Finally he sighed and set aside his cup. "I imagine you're wondering why I'm here," he began softly.
"Actually, I think I've already guessed."
He smiled. "And no doubt you're right," he observed. "But indulge me anyway. First and foremost I want to apologize again for what happened the other day. As I said at the time, I had no idea what she was planning. All she told me was that we were going to visit a friend--which was fine with me, as I know almost no one on this continent. Had I known what she was up to, I would certainly have stopped her "
He trailed off, gazing at me beseechingly, and I nodded. "I understand," I said. "And of course I believe you. Ehm'murra is nothing if not unpredictable."
"All too true, I fear," he said ruefully.
"But," I went on, "are you apologizing on her behalf too, or only your own?"
He glanced away. "Just mine," he admitted. "At least for the moment. Ehm'murra isn't ready yet--if indeed she'll ever be. She feels terribly betrayed--"
"And in fact she was," I said flatly. "Very definitely. But not by me."
His whiskers twitched. "Which brings me to the other reason why I'm here," he went on. "I'd like very much to know what really happened. I gather that my bonding to Ehm'murra didn't come about in quite the usual fashion, but I don't know exactly how or why, and I want to. As the one who'll be spending the rest of my life with her, I think I deserve to know what brought us together."
"You're right," I said. "You do." I paused for a moment, thinking hard. Unless Ehm'murra had confronted Sah'majha--and I had no evidence that she had--there were many things, good and bad, that she didn't, couldn't, know. "How much has she told you?" I asked.
He shook his head sadly. "Virtually nothing," he said. "What I know I've pieced together myself, from assumptions, inferences, and what little I've managed to pry out of her, bit by bit. For obvious reasons, I've been reluctant to press her for details "
Despite myself, I giggled. "I don't blame you." I paused again, gathering my notes so to speak, then went on, "All right. This is everything I know "
To tell my tale took about half an hour, and to my relief Sah'rahfel didn't interrupt once. He sat silent, his tail twitching gently between his legs, and only in the occasional narrowing of his eyes, and the flaring of those amazing whiskers, did I detect any sign of emotion. When at last I'd finished, he nodded slowly and said, "So when you took Ehm'murra to meet Sah'majha, you had no idea what his intentions were, nor any reason to believe that he would do anything other than what she'd asked him to."
"That's right," I said firmly. "And Ehm'murra vanished that very evening. The first I knew that anything was wrong was when the two of you appeared on my doorstep the other day. Afterward, I confronted Sah'majha, and he confessed. That's the absolute and complete truth--and I'll swear to it on my knees before the Goddess, if necessary."
He smiled. "Not for me," he said. "But it may be for her." He shook his head. "Very interesting," he went on. His tone hardened "Though I must confess, I'm not terribly happy to have been part of a nanotech experiment "
"It isn't quite as bad as it seems," I said quickly. "Sah'aarans have been using pheromone-enhancing colognes for decades. Sah'majha just made the process a little more direct."
"True enough," he acknowledged wryly. "Though that does little for my wounded pride."
I paused, then went on quietly, "There's something else you should know. I mentioned earlier that I'd injured my knee, and that it was getting better "
"Yes, I remember."
I swallowed. "The reason why is Sah'majha. He's using his nanobots to rebuild the joint. We started before I knew what he'd done to Ehm'murra "
"I see. But once you'd found out, you didn't stop."
"No," I admitted. "I didn't."
"For my part," Sah'rahfel said, "I don't blame you. If you've chosen to trust him, that's your concern." He quirked a grin. "But certain other people might wonder if that means you approve of what he did to my bond-mate."
"No," I said, with finality. "I don't. From his point of view, I understand--but I don't approve. Never. His granddaughter told me he was afraid of bad publicity, if he did what Ehm'murra asked--but that's not a good enough reason. He should have simply refused to help her; that would have been the honorable path. What he did was cowardly, self-serving and despicable."
He caught my gaze and held it. "But--?"
"But," I echoed heavily, "try as I might to condemn him, a little voice in the back of my head keeps reminding me that he was right. I don't think Ethan was telling the truth when he told my bond-mate's sister that he hadn't heard from Ehm'murra in weeks--unless he deliberately made himself impossible to find, or was deleting her messages unread. Obviously he wasn't ready to tie himself to her for the rest of his life."
"But Sah'majha couldn't have known that."
"No," I agreed. "He couldn't. And it wasn't his decision to make anyway." I hesitated. "I don't imagine Ehm'murra knows what Sah'majha actually did "
"No," Sah'rahfel confirmed. "Not yet. It will be my job to tell her--may the Goddess help me."
"And what do you think she'll do?"
"I wouldn't be surprised," he said dryly, "if she contemplates violence. With luck, I'll be able talk her out of it. Failing that, she might make him the subject of a very public diatribe--and that, I'd have no right to prevent, even if I could. You say your friend Ehm'talak claims that such an article would play directly into Sah'majha's hands "
"That's what he believes," I confirmed. "Though I'm not certain I agree." I looked him square in the eye. "And you? What do you intend to do?"
He looked away, and sighed. "As I said, I'm not pleased that I've been drawn into his meddling--but despite what he has done to my life, my inclination is to let it go."
My tail thumped the soft leather of my chair. "It is?" I said in surprise.
"Yes," he said firmly. "I could confront him, scream at him, threaten to sue--but to what end? What's done is done--and after all, I have no way of knowing for certain whether his nanobots truly had any effect. For all I know, I might have bonded with Ehm'murra even if he'd done nothing. And however it came about, she and I are stuck with one another; all we can do is make the best of it."
"I'm glad to hear you say that," I told him. "I was afraid well, I don't know of what exactly."
"Yes, you do," he said with a smile. "And I'll do my best to make sure it doesn't happen."
I bowed my head. "Thank you. I don't imagine it's been easy, living with her "
"That's an understatement," he said tiredly. "At times it's been nothing short of impossible. One minute she's pushing me away, telling me she hates me; the next she's desperately clingy, begging for forgiveness. I have to watch every word I say; I never know what will set her off. These have been the most difficult few weeks I've ever experienced. And I'll tell you quite frankly: I'm not certain if I can endure spending the rest of my life in Ethan DuKane's shadow."
"I don't think it will come to that," I said. "I hope not, anyway. Not after she hears what he's done. Not that any of this is his fault, of course," I added quickly.
I shook my head. "We can't blame him for being who--and what--he is," I said. "He's human, and they don't bond--as hard as that is for us to understand. And I've begun to wonder lately if he ever felt the same way about her as she does about him--or maybe I should say the way she believes she does."
"I've had a lot of time lately to think about this," I said. "And I've come to the conclusion that she's romanticized their relationship, far past anything that ever actually existed--and that to her, he's far more a symbol than he ever was a prospective life-mate."
"A symbol of what?"
I shrugged. "Of her own independence, versus her parents' authority."
"I'm not certain I understand."
"I'll try to explain," I said. I took a deep breath. "Her parents sent her to Sah'aar to bond," I went on. "She's known that all along--and resented it deeply. She could have gone to college on Terra, and probably been more comfortable, because she grew up there. But they sent her here, hoping she'd come home with a Sah'aaran mate.
"She told me once that she and Ethan had known each other their entire lives," I went on. "They grew up together, went all through school together. When they were little, I don't doubt that her parents approved of their friendship. Especially because of her unique situation."
"You mean they saw him as a surrogate brother for her," Sah'rahfel said mildly.
"That's right," I agreed. "And I won't even speculate as to what his family thought. But as the two of them grew older, and their feelings toward each other became more--physical, let's say--her parents grew frightened. They sent her away from him, and put her aunt and uncle in control of her. That worked last year, because she was still a minor, and they were her legal guardians. But now she's an adult, and apparently has money of her own--and even before our ship docked, she'd obviously made up her mind she wasn't going to put up with it any more."
Sah'rahfel nodded. "And in that frame of mind," he speculated, "Ethan became to her what the Terrans call "forbidden fruit.'"
"That's right," I agreed. "That's my guess, anyway. Obviously he wasn't as dedicated to her as she thought he was. Maybe he was leading her on--and maybe not, too. She might have been hearing only what she wanted to hear."
"So--?" Sah'rahfel prompted.
"So right now she's confused and angry--mostly because in the end, her parents won. It didn't happen quite the way they expected it to, but they managed to get her bonded after all. One thing you can be sure of: they'll be thrilled to meet you."
He smiled. "Something to be grateful for."
"Ehm'murra is stubborn," I said. "That's obvious. But she's not stupid. Eventually she'll accept the fact that things didn't work out as she planned. She'll have to."
"Eventually," he echoed. He sat silent for a moment, gazing out at Ehm'naala's garden, then cleared his throat and said, "May I ask you a personal question?"
"I know something of your history," he said. "I know that your bond-mate is the son of the famous Commodore Ehm'ayla--and that, like Ehm'murra, he was raised on Terra."
"My question is--do you love him?"
I nodded. "With all my heart," I replied honestly.
"But--did you always?"
"No," I confessed. "I didn't. Don't get me wrong," I added quickly. "I never disliked him. Although--" and here I felt my ears grow warm-- "the first time we met, I laughed at him."
"He looked ridiculous," I said. "He was dressed in human-style clothes, and he refused to wear a collar. I've cured him of the latter--but no one will ever convince him to put on a day-robe. But to answer your question--no. I didn't love him at first. In fact, being bonded to him scared me to death. I couldn't imagine what a future with him would be like. But I realized very soon that before I could learn to love him, I had to understand him--and before I could begin to understand him, I had to understand his world. Which is what I set out to do. And in the end well, there's an old saying, maybe you've heard it: on their own, bond-mates are like the two halves of a single person. In our case I really think that's true. Tom is the fun-loving, risk-taking, fools-rush-in half. He's nearly gotten himself killed on four separate occasions since we met."
Sah'rahfel quirked an eye. "And that's a good thing?"
I smiled. "Hopefully, I'm the prudent half," I said. "It's been more than a year since he last put himself in deadly danger. But--love him? Yes, now--more than life itself."
Sah'rahfel nodded, and for an instant he looked exhausted, like someone who hasn't slept in days. "Good," he said quietly, half to himself. "You give me some hope."
"That she'll eventually learn to love you?" I guessed. "I honestly hope so--but you have to realize that in her case there is a complication."
"You mean the fact that she's an Incomplete."
"Yes," I replied. "I've never known one before, and I don't know if it really makes a person unstable, as the old stories claim. Sah'surraa thinks it's most often a self-fulfilling prophecy, but her aunt and uncle just about admitted they believe she's borderline psychotic. Of course I don't agree--but that might help explain why she's so dedicated to Ethan."
"In a bizarre, quasi-incestuous way, yes," Sah'rahfel said with a wicked smile. "It doesn't trouble me if she continues to think of him as a brother; I can't grudge her what you and I take for granted. But anything more than that well, let's just say she can't get over it soon enough to please me."
"I think she will," I said. "I hope so, anyway. For both your sakes." I paused. "Can I ask you a personal question?"
"I'm dying to know how the two of you met," I told him. "Was it on Ehm'tarr Continent?"
He smiled. "Not quite," he said. "As you've guessed, that is my home, and my ancestors' for many generations. But when she and I met, I was traveling on business."
"Oh?" I interrupted. "What business is that?"
"One that's a bit unusual for a Sah'aaran," he said, with a slightly embarrassed smile "My family owns the largest coffee and tea plantations on the planet."
I uttered a small--and embarrassing--snarl of surprise. "Really?" I said. "Do you by any chance have anything to do with the coffeehouse in the Sah'salaan Public Market?'
"Yes, we do," he said. "One of our more profitable small subsidiaries, as it happens. Why do you ask?"
"I was there just last night," I explained. "I had some beans shipped to Tom. I can't stand the stuff, but he loves it."
Sah'rahfel smiled. "I look forward to meeting him," he said. "We stalk the same trail, as the old saying has it. And if he enjoys our product--well, there's more where that came from."
"Thank you," I said. "I'm sure he'd appreciate that."
"My pleasure." He paused. "Where was I? Oh yes--have you ever heard of Zah'galha Island?"
"Vaguely," I replied. "It's off the west coast of Ehm'tarr, isn't it?"
"It is indeed," he agreed. "Directly on the equator, about two hundred kilometers off-shore. An amazing place, lush and tropical--and extremely hot and humid, all year round. It was colonized by my countrymen many centuries ago, and the inhabitants still resemble us closely--at least physically. Their behavior is a bit different, though: they're not nearly as nervous around water as the average Ehm'tarran or Sah'salaanite. One of their major industries is fishing, and the kits seem to spend half their lives splashing around in the surf "
He shuddered, just a little, and inwardly I smiled. Commodore Ehm'ayla believes that the Sah'aaran fear of water--and by extension, the inlanders' dislike of the coast--is more a cultural trait than an instinctive reaction, and I tend to agree. Or I should say I do now. "So--?" I prompted.
"So," he went on, "there I was, in the capital city. There's a range of remarkably tall mountains that runs up the island's spine, and my company is investigating leasing some of the higher slopes. There are severe environmental restrictions, however, and the negotiations have been delicate."
"I can imagine."
"Of course it's our intention to obey their regulations to the best of our ability," he added. "So one afternoon I was early for a meeting, and I stopped at a food stall on the main street for a cold drink. Are you aware how they dress on that island?"
"No," I said. "But I can guess. If it's always so hot and humid "
He nodded. "Exactly. The kits wear nothing at all, apart from a collar, and the adults wear little more; usually just a hip-wrap or loincloth of light fabric, held in place by a sash with a pocket-pouch."
"It is," he assured me with a smile. "Especially in the midst of a deadly-serious business meeting. And of course the visitor is expected to adopt the local fashions, whether he's used to it or not. To insist on wearing a day-robe is not only impolite, but extremely uncomfortable."
"So I sat down at the counter, and while I was waiting for my drink I happened to glance over my shoulder--and a few seats away I saw the most extraordinary sight."
"Ehm'murra," I guessed.
"Ehm'murra," he agreed wryly. "But she wasn't wearing the native costume. Not quite. She was dressed in what I believe the humans call a 'bikini,' bright orange, and topped off with a huge floppy straw hat and sunglasses."
I chuckled and shook my head. "That's her," I said. "Even hiding out, she manages to be conspicuous."
"I'll have to take your word for that," Sah'rahfel said. "At the time I gave her only a glance--I could tell by her body-language that she wasn't in the mood for company. And soon afterward she finished her meal and left. But I couldn't seem to get her out of my mind. In retrospect, of course, it's obvious what happened--thanks to Sah'majha. When I met her on the street the next morning, it wasn't exactly by accident." He frowned. "And now I understand something else that I didn't at the time," he went on. "Over the next several days, as it became clear that we were bonding, she kept repeating 'This can't be! This isn't possible!' But it was, and is--and finally, of course, things took their normal path "
"How did your family react?"
He sighed. "They were happy enough that I'd bonded," he said. "But considering her history, they were a little less than thrilled with Ehm'murra herself. They've accepted her, though, with the best grace we could expect, and they've pledged to help her however they can, with what my mother delicately terms her 'emotional difficulties.'"
I smiled. "And I can just imagine how she reacted to that."
"In a way that only served to confirm my parents' fears," he agreed tiredly. "That's part of the reason why we're here on Sah'salaan Continent--to prevent the outbreak of open warfare."
"So what's happening now?" I asked. "Have you formally declared your mating?"
"Not yet," he said. "Though we are living together, and have been since we left the island. For the moment we're staying in an apartment in the city's business district; it's in the building of our Sah'salaan Continent headquarters. The family is willing to transfer me here, if I wish; and they've also offered to find, or create, a position within the company for Ehm'murra. Thus far it doesn't appear likely that she'll accept. For my part, I'd like to see her return to the University. I know how much she loves journalism, and I'd like nothing more than to see her pursue her dreams. Right now, though, she doesn't seem particularly interested--in that, or anything else."
"You mean she's sulking."
"Exactly," he agreed. "And I have no idea how to snap her out of it. Anything I do or say only seems to make it worse."
I reached across and grasped his hand, which seemed to surprise him greatly. "I don't imagine that will last long," I told him. "Especially after you tell her what I've told you. I mean, eventually she'll have to " I paused, fumbling for a metaphor, and with a grin, Sah'rahfel supplied one.
"Wake up and smell the coffee?" He nodded. "I hope so." He took a deep breath. "I want very much to help her, and to love her--but the Goddess knows, she hasn't made it easy."
"To tell the truth," I said, "I don't think she ever will. But sooner or later she'll stop making it impossible."
"Maybe so." He glanced at his wrist chrono then, and rose, smoothing down his day-robe. "As much as I hate to say it," he went on, "I'm afraid I must be going. I have a great deal to tell my bond-mate, and I'd better get it over with, while I still have the courage. I thank you for the tea, the information--and the most restful interlude I've had in days."
"You're welcome," I said. "And thank you for understanding."
He bowed. "That was the easy part," he assured me. "Is there anything you'd like me to tell Ehm'murra?"
"Yes," I replied. "Tell her I want to talk to her--and that I'd still like very much to be her friend, if she's willing."
He nodded. "I'll tell her," he said. "But I can't promise anything." He paused, gazing into my eyes, then went on, "If you'll forgive me saying so--I think your bond-mate is a very fortunate person."
I smiled. "And yours too."
So that's it. I went into the meeting expecting fireworks, or at very least an angry exchange of recriminations--and I thank the Goddess that neither one materialized. If Sah'rahfel was angry, he hid it well--and what he does now is entirely out of my hands. As he himself said, he deserved to know the truth, and so too did Ehm'murra. If she convinces him to change his mind, and they decide to confront Sah'majha well, I don't see how I can be blamed. And they'd be perfectly within their rights anyway. Sah'rahfel wouldn't indulge in physical violence--he isn't the type--and he'd restrain Ehm'murra as well. But I can't claim that Sah'majha wouldn't richly deserve anything they might choose to say to him.
All through the evening, as I studied, I kept expecting the visiphone to ring, with a call from Ehm'murra--and when it didn't, I found myself feeling disappointed, even a little depressed. But actually, rationally, I could expect nothing more. Almost certainly she's still trying to absorb what her bond-mate told her. Either that or she's in jail for having murdered him. I'm afraid to switch on the threevee news and find out.
But at least she knows the truth now, and that makes me feel many times better. I can accept having someone hate me--but not for the wrong reasons.
To Be Continued