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 Sixteen

December 4, 2380

According to my history books, Sah'aar has never had a major war, and even the last border skirmishes ended centuries ago. But if what I experienced today doesn't qualify as combat…well, I don't know what would. Even now, hours later, I'm still trembling a little, and this palm-reader's handwriting-recognition software is having a terrible time interpreting the wandering grazer-tracks that are all my stylus seems able to produce. I'll have to go back later and correct all the misspellings. Much later.

As for what will come of everything that happened this afternoon…I only wish I knew. In the short term, hard feelings and acrimony; that's a given. But in the long run…well, maybe I'm being overly optimistic, but I think I see the beginnings of a resolution to the whole sordid mess. It isn't my job to bring it about, Goddess knows; as far as I'm concerned the situation is over and done with. I can walk away, right now, and not a one of the participants would have a word to say about it. I doubt very much whether any of them would even miss me. How long I could endure remaining a mere observer, though, I don't know; and while my brain keeps screaming at me to get out and stay out, my heart insists on dragging me back into the fray, welcome or not. I don't want to meddle--I have far better things to do--but I may not be able to help myself. Most especially if…

…But I'm getting ahead of myself again, aren't I? I guess that's the natural outcome of having no control over the speed and direction of one's own thoughts. So: I will pause here, take a deep breath, and maybe make myself some nice hot nightblossom tea. Hopefully that will help me collect myself. One way or another, I must tell this tale tonight--if only to prevent it from haunting my dreams. Excuse me.


All right. I'm back. The teapot is sitting at my elbow, I'm halfway through the first cup, and the mild narcotic in the nightblossom leaves is having its usual effect. I think--I hope--that now I'll be able to make some sense out of my thoughts, and maybe find a way to write them down in an orderly fashion too. The Goddess willing. So here goes:

It was a little before eleven this morning when I set aside my books (only half-reluctantly: I still need to study, but my eyes and neck were telling me that it was past time for a break), put on the best-looking formal day-robe in my collection (silver, with a red sash and matching collar) and boarded a shuttle for the city. The day was cool enough to encourage me to add a waist-length wrap to my ensemble, which, as it also lent a certain air of elegance, I didn't mind at all. Only my stupid knee-brace spoiled the effect. It's been a while since I've been that dressed-up--at least in public--and I gathered more than my usual quota of stares as I made my way through the chilly, wind-swept (but still crowded) streets of downtown Sah'salaan. I've long since gotten used to that, though--and anyway, most of the gazes, those from male eyes, got only as far as my ankle before turning away. Had my knee felt just a little better, I might have been tempted to strut--in a way that would have driven my bond-mate mad. It didn't, though, and anyway, I didn't have time for nonsense.

The address on the invitation led me to a building not in the residential outskirts of the city, but in the business heart, only two blocks from Alliance Plaza and the Government Building. As Sah'salaan skyscrapers go, it's fairly typical, a tapering needle of gleaming steel and dark glass; and at only sixty stories, it's smaller than many. But it is impressive enough, in its own way, with a broad staircase and wide arched entranceway of polished Eastern Sea coral-stone, bone-white and shot with broad threads of orange. The huge, smoked-glass rotating doors let me into the lobby, a massive space with gleaming Tatak-paneled walls and a floor of red-and-white bloodstone; not polished, though, as is customary, but in rough, random-sized slabs like flagstones. The place was all but deserted, echoingly empty; but it is the weekend. No doubt it's like a grazer-pen during business hours.

As I've already mentioned, before my family and I moved to Terra, and to a certain extent afterward, we were the envied "other half"--and for me, opulent though it was, that lobby fell far short of intimidating. Compared to the Embassy buildings I've visited, both on Sah'aar and Earth--to say nothing of the Alliance Headquarters complex in San Francisco--this was a grazer-herder's shack. And as far as strictly commercial structures are concerned, the whole of this one could fit comfortably into the lobby of the behemoth Sah'surraa Publishing building, a few blocks away. In and of itself, though, that said nothing about the size of the Ehm'tarr Coffee and Tea Company: this was, after all, just a field office.

Blocking the way to the elevators, in the middle of a dense stand of tropical greenery, was the inevitable security desk, manned by the archetypal steely-eyed, muscular young male in a severe black uniform. He'd been hired locally, I noticed: he was pure Sah'salaan. As I entered--and paused for a few seconds to look around--he rose from behind his bank of monitor screens and crossed over to intercept me, smiling a meaningless professional smile. "Ehm'tassaa, I presume?" he said politely.

I nodded. "That's right."

He bowed, and pointed back over his shoulder. "You are expected. Please use the last elevator on the left." He handed me small chip of red plastic. "This key-card will take you directly to the penthouse apartment."

"Thank you," I said, in a fair approximation of the lofty Ambassador's Daughter attitude that I worked so hard to cultivate, but which two years' bonding to crazy Tom Abrams has pretty well purged from my system.

The elevator was fast, but it was a long way up, and as I rode, the only passenger in a small, richly-paneled and gold-railed car that had to be for executive use only, I had time to reflect on the extreme incongruity of the situation that awaited me. If there was anything Ehm'murra honestly hated, and had devoted her budding journalistic career to skewering, it was the shallow ostentation and hypocrisy of corporate culture. I'd even once seen her sporting a shirt on which was printed "Eat the Rich"--not, fortunately for both of us, in Sah'surraa's sight. Not even bonding, I feared, could reconcile her to this. Sah'aaran mating is very much a matter of compromise; one must be prepared to modify one's hopes and dreams--sometimes to the point of abandoning them altogether. But that, as Joel Abrams is fond of saying, is a two-way street, and if I knew Ehm'murra, she would not give up what she'd worked so hard to achieve. Not without a fight, anyway. And right there, if nowhere else, lurked plenty of material for conflict between her and her bond-mate. I might be walking into a real minefield--lucky me.

I exited the elevator into a wide, short corridor--more of a foyer, I guess--which, with its Tatak, bloodstone and greenery, was like a dollhouse version of the lobby downstairs. Here, though, the ceiling was transparent, looking straight up through the crystal pyramid that formed the building's pinnacle. At any other time of the year, that space would have been flooded with light; but now, so close to the winter solstice, the sun has dipped too far to the south, and all that showed through that huge expanse of glass was a wide strip of wan, pale-blue sky. The potted plants didn't seem to mind, though.

At the far end of the hall was a massive, beautifully-carved and enameled double door of solid Tatak, and toward it I made my way, slowly, fighting as I went to take control of my lashing tail. Of course anyone who came within three meters of me would know instantly how nervous I was, by my scent; but there's no point in being too obvious. I paused once, briefly, to check my reflection in the slightly-wavy, corrosion-spotted glass of an antique mirror on the left-hand wall; and after adjusting a few stray mane-hairs, I took a deep breath, turned, and drummed my claws firmly on the verdigris-copper scratch-plate.

I didn't have long to wait, and as the door opened I received the first, and by far the mildest, of the many surprises I'd endure that afternoon. I'd expected a butler or maid--but to my astonishment, it was Sah'rahfel himself who stood there, looking almost regal in a dark-green day-robe with a burgundy collar and sash. He smiled broadly as he saw me, but, as tradition demands, he spoke not a word until we'd clasped hands in the ritual greeting. Then he nuzzled my cheek--surprising me again--and said, "Ehm'tassaa. Thank you very much for accepting our invitation. Our home--our temporary home--is honored by your presence."

I bowed. "And I am honored to be here," I replied, correctly. "And thank you for inviting me." I didn't bother saying that to refuse would scarcely have been an option--he knew that as well as I did.

He ushered me inside, and as he turned to close the door, I took a quick look around. Luxurious, as such things go; quite similar, in fact, to the apartment where I grew up. The entrance hall, with its requisite benches and hidden fountain, opened into a broad space that seemed to be a combination living, dining and entertainment room, backed by a huge set of windows with a spectacular view of the city, and even a glimpse of Alliance Plaza. Directly before me lay a kind of conversation area: a tight cluster of sofas and chairs, spotlit from above, around a large, low, circular table. Farther back and to the left, partially hidden behind folding screens, stood a large threevee set, surrounded by more chairs and several smaller sofas. To the right, against the windows, was an elegant dining table with ten chairs; made of Tatak, yes, but bleached and stained dark red, a style popular in the far south of Sah'salaan Continent. Farther to the right, a wide pass-through with a bloodstone countertop led into the kitchen, which appeared to be entirely automated. And--coming full circle--directly to my right, several doorways, leading no doubt to bedrooms, bathrooms and a shrine, opened onto a long, narrow hallway. The walls were grey-green, the color of Second-Summer grass; the floors were covered with woven mats; the many paintings, hanging in lighted niches, were mainly abstracts, of riotous color and pattern; and with the exception of the dining suite, most of the furniture was built not of Sah'salaan Tatak, but rather of Aach'burzaa, a tropical growth native to Ehm'tarr Continent. It's very much like Terran bamboo, except that it ranges in color from mauve to deep purple.

Sah'rahfel held out his hands. "May I?" he asked.

For an instant I had no idea what he meant--but fortunately, I recovered quickly enough to avoid embarrassment. Shrugging off my shawl, I handed it to him, and he hung it on a large coat-rack near the door--atop which, I couldn't help but notice, was perched a battered brown fedora with a card marked "PRESS" stuck into its band. Ehm'murra's one--and only, so far as I could tell--stab at personalizing this place.

Taking my hand, Sah'rahfel guided me to a sofa in the conversation pit. "Would you like something to drink?" he asked. "A cup of tea, perhaps? Today we're featuring our exclusive Kan'taar Mountain blend."

"That would be lovely," I said. "It's a bit chilly out there."

He chuckled. "You needn't tell me that," he said. "I'm from a tropical climate, remember."

He drew the tea from a huge and gleaming silver samovar, which occupied a table all by itself near the kitchen--and which, like the mirror out in the hall, had to have been a Terran antique. As he handed me the cup and saucer, he said, "If you'll excuse me for a moment, I need to see about our lunch--and find out if our other guests have arrived."

I almost spilled my tea, which would have been a shame, as it was the best I'd ever tasted. "Other guests?" I asked warily, and he smiled and winked.

"Just a few," he said--and with that he disappeared down the hallway and through a side-door, leaving me alone with the garish paintings and the quiet tinkling of the fountain. Not for long, though. It was only a minute or so later, as I sat staring out the window, trying to figure out who in the Goddess' name would be joining us, when I heard a small sound: the quiet shuffling of feet, and the soft clearing of a throat. I looked up--and there she was. Ehm'murra.

She looked appropriately elegant, in a glittering dark-gold and red day-robe with matching sash and collar, and a green kerchief tying back her mane. I was pleased to note that she looked less drawn and pale than the last time I'd seen her, and even appeared to have put back some missing weight. For a second or two she regarded me through those spectacle-rim eyes; then, before I could move or speak, she did something that astonished me: she dropped to her knees, and then prostrated herself before me, face down on the floor with her hands covering her eyes. "I have wronged you, and your family," she said, her voice slightly muffled by the floor-mats. "I offer you my apology and my life, to do with as you will."

To say that I was nonplused would be like observing that the First-Summer sun is "intense." What I had just witnessed was an ancient ritual--I'd have needed Ehm'ayla to tell me exactly how ancient--but I'd never heard of it being performed for anyone less than a Matriarch. It's often hard to tell when Ehm'murra is being sarcastic (it's tempting to say, "only when her lips are moving"), but in this case I had a feeling, somewhere in my gut, that she wasn't, and so I bit back the first reply that occurred to me, which would have been something like "Oh, knock it off!" Instead I rose, knelt before her, grasped her elbows, and gently raised her to her feet. When we were vertical, and eye-to-eye, I said, according to formula, "Your apology is accepted, with a full heart. But your life I return to you, as it is not mine to keep."

Her eyes widened--and then she threw her arms around me in a rib-crunching hug. "Thank you," she whispered, in the clipped, shaky tones of someone trying to hold back tears. "Thank you. Goddess, you'll never know how sorry I am--!"

"Oh yes I do," I corrected--and then I leaned forward and licked her nose. For a second she stood frozen with shock--then she burst out laughing. An instant later, so did I. Still giggling, with our arms wrapped around each other's waists, we collapsed side-by-side onto the sofa.

I gasped her hand. "How are you, Ehm'murra?" I asked, in Terran.

She sobered, and a strange, almost fearful look crossed her face. "I don't know," she said, also switching to the common Alliance tongue. "I really don't. Sah'rahfel--he's the nicest, sweetest, most understanding male I've ever met--and that's saying a lot. And we're bonded; stuck with each other for life. I know that; I accept it. Intellectually, anyway. So why do I spend half my time hating his guts--and the other half clinging to him like a tree-serpent? Our nights together…" she trailed off, her ears and nose reddening. Which was a first: always before she'd been almost immune to embarrassment. "Let's just say they've been…interesting."

"I've had a few of those myself," I said dryly.

"I thought at first that I didn't want him, didn't want this to happen," she went on, that haunted look returning to her eyes. "But these last few days…"

I nodded. "Since he told you about Ethan," I guessed.

"Yes," she confirmed heavily. "Since then." She shook her head. "I'm glad you weren't here that night, Ehm'tassaa. When Sah'rahfel told me what you'd told him--I absolutely did not want to hear it. I cursed him, I cursed you…"

"…And you cursed Sah'majha," I finished. "Of the three of us, the only one who deserved it."

She flashed a smile. "Yes," she agreed. "The only one." Her eyes narrowed. "Well, maybe not," she corrected. "I was a terror, I know. They probably heard me fifty floors down. Sah'rahfel…he was as patient as the Goddess; he rode it out, like a ship in a storm, and when I'd finally exhausted myself, he took me to bed, and held me in his arms all night."

"Ehm'murra," I said gently, "don't you think somebody is trying to tell you something? For whatever reason, Ethan seems to have dumped you, and as you said, you and Sah'rahfel are stuck with each other. Isn't it time to surrender to the inevitable?"

She nodded. "Of course," she said. "And I would--except for one thing. One damned thing."

"Which is?"

She waved a hand, indicating the opulent apartment and her own fancy outfit in one sweeping gesture of disgust. "This isn't me," she said bitterly. "His life isn't my life--and his parents, his family, really aren't the kind of people I associate with. After what I've worked so hard to make myself, how can I possibly go to Ehm'tarr Continent and grow coffee? That isn't what I wanted at all!"

I almost laughed, but caught myself in time. I'd said exactly the same thing--or close enough--to my mother, two years ago, and when she got through politely listening, she'd told me an essential, unavoidable truth of being Sah'aaran: unless we chance to bond with our childhood sweetheart, we all experience those same feelings of dislocation and disappointment. It's inevitable, like breathing. Finally I said, "I…think you'll find that Sah'rahfel is more sensitive to that than you give him credit for."

She glanced aside. "Maybe so," she whispered. She seemed to shudder then, and turned to face me, peering deep into my eyes. "I love him," she said flatly. "Or at least I'm starting to. And I hate myself, because loving him still feels wrong."

I shook my head. "I'm sorry," I said. "I wish I could help you there, but I can't. That's outside my area of expertise."

She smiled, half-mockingly. "I know," she said. "You always were the lucky one." She paused then, and leaned close, her voice dropping to a whisper. "There's something else," she went on. "I haven't even mentioned it to Sah'rahfel yet, but it's possible I may be--"

But she didn't get the chance to tell me what; not right then, anyway, because at that moment Sah'rahfel, all smiles, came bouncing down the hall. As he bent down to nuzzle Ehm'murra's cheek, he announced, "The rest of our guests are on their way up."

Ehm'murra froze. "'Rest'?" she quoted. "You didn't say anything about any others, dear."

"I know," her bond-mate said softly. "I thought it would be better this way."

Whatever Ehm'murra might have said in reply--and it wouldn't have been pretty, I'm sure--was forestalled by a sharp scratching at the door, which Sah'rahfel hurried to answer. And as he did, as we saw who stood there in the foyer, Ehm'murra made a sound halfway between a gasp and a snarl, and her hand closed tightly on my arm.

There were four of them, three Sah'aaran and one--not. The first two through the door I recognized instantly: Ehm'taaf and Sah'kraas, Ehm'murra's icy aunt and brutal uncle. Sah'kraas looked nervous, as if remembering the tongue-lashing he'd received from Sah'surraa, and wondering if this might be more of the same. His mate seemed grim and defiant, her arms crossed over her chest; but as she caught sight of Ehm'murra, her whiskers twitched, and a slow, teeth-baring smile of triumph spread across her face.

The third to enter was even more instantly familiar; to me, anyway, if not to some of the others: Ehm'talak. She wore a copper-red day-robe, a shade darker than her prosthetics, and a matching silk scarf was tied around her neck in lieu of a collar. She greeted me with a grin and a nod--and then turned to gaze boldly at Sah'rahfel. They were almost a match in height. "I'm afraid my grandfather couldn't make it," she said. "He is almost ninety years old, you know. Will I do? I know as much about his work as anyone."

Sah'rahfel looked taken aback, either by her presence, her false limbs, or her brash demeanor; but he quickly shook it off and smiled. "Admirably," he said. "Welcome."

The fourth and last member of that oddly-assorted group was human, strangely enough, and young, about the same age as Ehm'murra and me. He had straight, light-brown hair, gathered at the back of his head in a ponytail, and a small, neatly-clipped goatee ringed his chin like a coffee stain. His eyes were large, deep-blue and sensitive; he wore, and looked uncomfortable in, a black business suit with a white mag-sealed shirt. As their eyes met, his and hers, Ehm'murra gasped again, and her claws dug painfully into my arm, before I could pull away. "Ethan!" she breathed.


Woo--that nightblossom tea must be getting to me: I can hardly see the screen of this palm-reader any more, even with my nose practically touching it. Which, I guess, isn't entirely a bad thing. I'll have to finish this tomorrow, when I'm fully conscious. Good night.

To Be Continued…

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