Copyright © 2002 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 Seventeen

December 5, 2380

I'm writing this at poolside.

Yes, you read that right: poolside. The very last place I'd expect to find myself on a blustery late-autumn day in Sah'salaan--but since I returned to Sah'aar, my life has been a constant series of surprises, some good and some bad, and this is but the latest.

How it came about is a story unto itself. Early this morning I received a call from Admiral Ehm'rael, of all people. (She woke me up, as it happens--but I wasn't about to tell her that.) She knows about my knee, of course, via her mate, and just recently--so she said--while reading an article about joint injuries and their care in a Terran periodical, she came across the idea of hydrotherapy--meaning, basically, exercising while immersed in water. It's said to be an effective, low-impact method of strengthening damaged limbs. Perfectly valid, of course, tried and true--but not something that would ordinarily occur to a Sah'aaran. Not even me. And knowing too that Tom and Rae have "corrupted" me--her word--by teaching me to enjoy swimming, she put two and two together, and decided that it might do my knee some good if I took advantage of what may be the one-and-only pool in all of Sah'salaan: the one at the Combined Forces Officer's Club.

And, well…to be brutally honest, it wasn't terribly convenient for me to go today--not with the load of studying I have yet to do--but, as Joel Abrams is fond of saying, if it's raining soup, you'd better grab a bowl. And Admiral Ehm'rael is not the sort of person you refuse lightly. All of which means, of course, that I accepted.

…And fortunately, everything worked out fine--for once. One small difficulty cropped up almost immediately: when I returned to Sah'aar I didn't bother to pack my swimsuit, having had no idea that I'd need it. But thanks (once again) to the nearly-infinite resources of Sah'surraa Publishing, Inc., that problem was quickly solved. Exactly how, I don't know, and I didn't ask; but a brand-new, shiny-white one-piece, with tail-hole and mesh collar, was waiting for me, along with my pass, at the Security desk. Of course I received a few curious glances from the predominantly-human crowd that surrounded me; but word had evidently gotten out, and I heard not a single word of complaint or question.

The Officer's Club pool is indoors, of course, underneath a retractable translucent dome like a huge half-buried pearl, and it is titanic, big enough to float a battleship. And that's just the swimming pool: the diving pool is entirely separate. I paddled around in the nicely-warm water for an hour or so, until my knee decided that it had had enough; then I soaked for a while in a steaming Jacuzzi, in the company of half a dozen incredulous CF Security ensigns, not much older than me. All too obviously, they'd never before seen a Sah'aaran who could endure being immersed. And they wouldn't have today either, if not for my bond-mate. Yet another debt I owe him--and I know exactly how he'll collect. Finally, beginning to feel a little like a sponge, I climbed out, toweled off, and settled down in a lounge chair beneath one of the sun-lamps. And that's where I am now. Pretty soon, of course, I'll have to go home--but at the moment I'm feeling entirely too relaxed. And the best part is, my pass is unlimited: I can come back anytime, and stay as long as I like. Such is the power of Sah'aar's most famous CF veteran.

So--where was I last night, before the nightblossom tea went to my head? Oh yes--the arrival of Sah'rahfel's other "guests." Seeing Ehm'murra, and receiving the full force of her scorn in one blistering glare, Ethan tried to cut and run--but found his way blocked by our host. And seeing the others her bond-mate had chosen to invite, Ehm'murra turned on Sah'rahfel with a snarl, her teeth bared and her claws expressed. "If you think I'm going to…" she began in fury--but he interrupted her firmly.

"Yes," he said. "I do. And you will." He glanced around. "As for the rest of you, I humbly ask for your indulgence. We have much to discuss, but our luncheon is about to be served, and I request that we postpone our talk until we've dined."

He could call it a "request" if he wished; it was actually closer to a command, and we all knew it. He was, after all, our host--and he had a firmness of spirit that even Sah'surraa would admire. Without another word he seated us, with himself at the head of the table, Ehm'murra at his right hand, and me to his left--the position of honor, a fact not lost on the others, except perhaps Ethan. The others were arranged seemingly at random; or, if according to some plan of Sah'rahfel's, it was one too subtle for me to see. As he took his seat, he touched a button on the underside of the table, and in response to that unheard signal, half a dozen servers went to work, silent, attentive and entirely anonymous.

The food was excellent, the blood-and-bone soup fragrant and warm, the meat fresh and well-seasoned, and the fish--Terran salmon--lightly smoked. There were ample human-style dishes for Ethan, of course, and evidently he'd spent enough time around Sah'aarans not to be troubled by our eating habits. The meal concluded with a sherbet, made from a fruit native to Ehm'tarr Continent, bright-red in a white porcelain cup, and just on the right side of tart.

We ate in silence, following that horrible old custom--which, by the way, I doubt very much that Sah'rahfel would normally have observed quite so strictly. On this occasion, though, the enforced quiet kept the meal from turning into a free-for-all. Which was good, certainly, but had its drawbacks as well: if ever I've encountered a "deafening silence," this was it. The tension seemed as thick as the maxigrazer steaks, with all of us taking turns casting furtive glances at each other, trying to read our fellow diners' minds through their expressions--and mostly failing. Despite the caliber of the cuisine, I was relieved when the meal ended, and Sah'rahfel escorted us back to the conversation area, while the servants quickly and efficiently cleared the bloody dishes.

The seating arrangement there fell out just about as you'd expect, and with no prompting at all from our host. He and Ehm'murra sat together on a small sofa--and by "together," I mean that they occupied the same piece of furniture. Apparently none too pleased with how the afternoon had turned out, she put as much distance between them as she could. Sah'kraas and his mate took another sofa, directly opposite--and they didn't exactly cuddle up either. A third, smaller couch was claimed by Ehm'talak and myself; and finally Ethan--definitely the odd man out--sat all alone in a huge easy chair of grazer-leather, looking wary and half-terrified.

When we were all seated, with cups of that wonderful tea before us, and the servants had left the room, Sah'rahfel cleared his throat and began to speak. His Terran was good, but a little stilted, obviously book-learned, as was mine before I met Tom. "I imagine you all know why I've called you here today," he said softly. "Each of us is, or has been, a part of Ehm'murra's life; some recently, and some for a far longer time.

"Having become her bond-mate, and accepted that our life-paths have merged, I find myself at least partially responsible for her happiness and well-being. For her sake as well as my own, it is my strong desire that she be as comfortable as possible in her new life. Our future is our own to mold, of course, and there will be many compromises on both sides. But it has become clear to me that we cannot even begin to plan our lives together until a number of--shall we say--loose ends have been tied up. And that is where you come in."

He paused, and glanced at me. "First there is Ehm'tassaa. My bond-mate has already apologized to you, in dramatic fashion, and to hers I add my own. You became involved with Ehm'murra entirely by accident, and since then you have, so far as I can tell, acted entirely in her best interests--which is, I know, a difficult and thankless task." He glanced around. "Would that I could say that of everyone here. Be that as it may, it is undeniable that Ehm'murra owes you her very life, and for that you have my gratitude as well as hers. You are welcome in our home at any time."

Blushing, I rose to my feet and bowed. "Thank you," I said, while beside me Ehm'talak muttered, "Schmoozer."

Whether Sah'rahfel heard her, or planned all along to confront her next, I don't know; but turn to her he did. "And you," he said. He sighed. "I do wish your grandfather could have been persuaded to come," he went on sadly. "You are not responsible for his actions, and you yourself were also instrumental in saving Ehm'murra's life, when she overdosed on RHT. I don't want it to seem that I hold you guilty by association."

Ehm'talak half-bowed, without rising. "I understand," she said. "And to tell you the truth, I wish Grandfather could--would--have come too. He's at an age, though, where no one can force him to do what he doesn't want to--not even Grandmother." She paused, and took a deep breath. "So while I can't pretend to speak for his feelings, or know for certain whether he's sorry for what he did, I can at least answer the technical questions. Of which, I imagine, the most pressing would be, what exactly did he do to Ehm'murra?"

Sah'rahfel nodded. "Of course."

Ehm'talak flashed a grin. "And the answer to that turns out to be--nothing."

There was an instant of stunned silence--then Ehm'murra leaped to her feet, her claws expressed. "Liar!" she screamed. "I was there--I know what he shot into me…"

"I'm not a liar," Ehm'talak said calmly. "And I'm not calling you one either. I was there too, remember." She fished a data card from her sash-pouch and tossed it to Sah'rahfel. "There's your proof," she said. "The nanobots Grandfather injected into her were an experimental strain--and there's a better than ninety percent chance they did nothing at all."

Sah'rahfel blinked. "I don't quite understand…"

"Messing around with the endocrine system is a tricky business," Ehm'talak explained. "He had a far easier job with Commodore Ehm'ayla, twenty-odd years ago. In her case he simply needed to trick her scent-receptors. Pheromone production is much harder to alter. That strain was intended to boost a female's bonding scent--but when it was tested on another subject, it failed. The increase was less than negligible."

I peered at her sharply, and her eyes shied away from mine. Another subject, eh? I thought. Perhaps a young woman with unusual physical attributes--which make her desperate to find a bond-mate?

Ehm'murra seemed to have gone into shock, and Sah'rahfel's narrow jaw hung wide. "Do you mean," he said slowly, "that we bonded naturally?"

Ehm'talak spread her gleaming hands. "I can't be absolutely certain," she admitted. "But I'd say the chances are far better than fifty-fifty. Eighty-twenty, more likely."

"Then Sah'majha is…" I began.

"Innocent?" Ehm'talak finished, turning to me with a smile. "No. Not quite. In actual fact, maybe--though it would be tough to convince a jury of that. But as far as intent goes, he's as guilty as the Dark Ones. He wanted nothing more than for those 'bots to function as they were designed to."

"And how does he feel now?" Sah'rahfel asked.

"I can't say," Ehm'talak replied. "Perhaps a little less sure of himself than he was at the time. Maybe a little guilty too. But sorry? I don't know." She looked around. "I'm not here to excuse him," she went on. "Absolutely not. What he did stinks like last month's grazer entrails. But I do understand why he did it: because he was sick of being reviled. I wasn't even born yet when he helped Ehm'ayla bond with Joel Abrams--but all my life I've heard how shocked and puzzled he was by the public reaction to what he thought was a simple favor for two people he liked and respected."

"Coward," Ehm'murra rumbled, and Ehm'talak turned on her with narrowed eyes.

"Let me just remind you of one thing, Missy," she growled. "You came to him. Not the other way around. He was under no obligation whatsoever to you. Goddess, you didn't even offer to pay him! Some people might argue that you got pretty much what you deserved, obtruding yourself on his life, unwanted and uninvited."

Ehm'murra began to rise--but Sah'rahfel restrained her with a hand on her arm. Not that she'd have gotten very far trying to fight a cyborg--if indeed that's what she had in mind.

"You may be right," Sah'rahfel said, peering calmly at Ehm'talak. "Though I for one find it somewhat difficult to forgive him. If nothing else, his actions were high-handed, even disrespectful."

"I certainly can't blame you for thinking that," Ehm'talak said. "And between you and me, I feel just about the same." She shook her head. "But a long and difficult life isn't necessarily proof against foolish mistakes."

"True," Sah'rahfel said, and smiled. "Or so I suppose. For my part, I want to assure you again that I hold you entirely blameless. Will you accept my friendship?"

Ehm'talak bowed. "Gladly."

"--And will you please tell Sah'majha that I'd like to speak to him? In private, if he prefers."

"I will," she promised. "I can't guarantee he'll be willing, though."

Sah'surraa quirked a rueful half-grin. "That will have to do," he said. "Thank you." He turned then to face Ehm'murra's aunt and uncle, and his expression and tone both hardened. "Now for you two," he said. He glanced at Sah'kraas, and his lip curled in undisguised contempt. "To you, sir, I have little to say," he went on. "What you did to my bond-mate was despicable…"

"I've already heard that from Sah'surraa," Sah'kraas interrupted with a snarl.

"Did you indeed?" Sah'rahfel asked. "Then you will hear it again, from me--though no doubt less eloquently. You are, I trust, familiar with what our Goddess has to say on the subject of using our claws on one another. I am a businessman, certainly not a religious scholar--but in my theology, that prohibition includes the fists as well. Certainly so, in the case of a young woman whose only crime is not being what you want her to be. I have only one question for you, sir: do you treat your own kits as you treated her?"

Sah'krass' whiskers lifted. "Our kits are already grown and mated," he said proudly.

"Fortunately for them," Sah'rahfel observed. "As of this moment, however, you are relieved of any responsibility to care for, feed, clothe, or shelter Ehm'murra. Those things I take upon myself--though she's proved to my satisfaction that she can take care of herself. Which means, sir, that if you should ever choose to strike her again, you will have me to deal with."

Sah'kraas' ears and nose turned bone-white, and he began to stammer some sort of indignant denial; but Sah'rahfel ignored him, turning his back on the older man as one might on the rotting carcass of a brush-demon. I more than halfway expected to see a look of unholy glee on Ehm'murra's face--but in fact I didn't. She sat instead with her head buried in her hands, visibly trembling--whether out of embarrassment, or for some other reason, I can't say.

Sah'rahfel turned then to Ehm'taaf. "And you," he said, heedless of her frosty glare. "Her own flesh and blood. Am I correct, madam, in believing that you were instructed by your brother, Ehm'murra's father, to make sure she bonded with a Sah'aaran?"

Ehm'taaf scowled. "I'm under no obligation to answer to the likes of…" she began.

"You are in my home, and you have eaten my food," Sah'rahfel reminded her sternly. "You are obligated, and I will have my answer."

So forceful was that young man's personality that she, more than twice his age, wilted and glanced aside. "Yes," she said finally, softly. "Yes, of course I was."

Sah'rahfel nodded in satisfaction. "Then her surmises are confirmed," he remarked. "And you, if you wish, may savor your triumph, because you succeeded--in a manner of speaking."

Ehm'taaf raised her head, her eyes flashing. "'Triumph'?" she echoed. "Savor my triumph? Do you really believe I care? That I have ever cared anything for this spoiled little ha'char, this worthless, simpering snip of a girl, this…this…Incomplete? The fact that she even exists is a disgrace to her parents. Did you know that? Or are things so different where you come from? That's why they can never return to Sah'aar--having begotten an Incomplete. She should have been drowned at birth, as our ancestors would have done, and spared our family the shame. And she knows that as well as I do."

Appalled, I glanced at Ehm'murra--to see that she had curled herself into a tight, fetal ball, as if to shut out the world in a shell of her own making. Beside me, Ehm'talak sat growling dangerously, her stainless-steel claws expressed--and I was not surprised to find my own extended as well. Across the room, silent and all but forgotten, Ethan had half-risen, his jaw tight and his fists clenched.

Sah'rahfel slipped an arm around his bond-mate and drew her close, and she didn't try to prevent him. "Ehm'murra is an Incomplete," he acknowledged softly. "A fate which is certainly not of her making, nor one she would have chosen. But unlike you, madam--and unlike her parents, so it seems--I don't see that as the beginning and end of her existence. Nor do I accept the common wisdom that she is therefore inherently unstable."

Ehm'taaf grinned mockingly. "Then you may be in for a surprise, young man."

Sah'rahfel shrugged, while his left hand continued to massage Ehm'murra's shoulder, over and over. "I may indeed," he said. "And when I am able, I intend to discuss that with her parents, face to face." He leaned forward, and his voice acquired an edge. "But I rather suspect that her emotional problems--and she does have them, unfortunately--are far more the result of her treatment at your hands, and those of others, than any accident of birth. And what's more, I tend to believe that she might be far better off if certain of her relatives were to leave her alone from now on. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

Ehm'taaf's ears laid back, flat against her skull, as if struck by a sudden gale. "Do you mean you're forbidding me to have any contact with her?" she hissed

"No," Sah'rahfel said. "That is beyond my authority. She is my life-partner, not my property. If she wishes to see you, that is her affair. But what I can do is to forbid you to set foot in this apartment ever again, or in any home which she and I might occupy later--except by her express invitation. And I can also block your access to our visiphone and messaging services."

Both Ehm'taaf and her mate turned white, and Sah'kraas rose, all bristling whiskers and offended dignity. "Since we're not welcome here… he began, but Sah'rahfel waved a hand.

"Sit down," he said sharply--and Sah'kraas did, with a thud.

"This discussion is not yet over," Sah'rahfel explained. "All of us here are, to a greater or lesser extent, responsible for making Ehm'murra what she is: a desperately unhappy young woman. You may refuse to participate if you wish, but you will remain until this conversation is over. Do I make myself clear?"

Sah'kraas and Ehm'taaf exchanged a glance--and then, very much to my surprise, obeyed. Truly, that's something I'm not certain if even Sah'surraa could have accomplished--and Sah'rahfel was less than a quarter his age. Ehm'murra may have met her match after all.

Sah'rahfel turned. "And then there is our Terran friend," he continued. He shook his head. "Your betrayal, I fear, may well be the most difficult to endure."

Until that moment Ethan DuKane had remained silent, occasionally stealing glances at Ehm'murra, which she refused to return. A variety of emotions had passed across his face, some of which I couldn't identify; but chief among them had been sorrow, anger and uncertainty. None of which, I guess, is difficult to understand. Now, gazing steadily at his accuser, he thrust out his chin truculently, his goatee bristling. "No, sir," he said. He had a breathy tenor voice, a little too nasal to be truly pleasant. "I have never betrayed her. I can't say that everything has worked out as I intended--but as far as I'm concerned, everything I've done has been for her own good."

"What?" For a second or two I had no idea who had spoken--then I realized, with a rush of embarrassment, that it was me. The unwitting focus of everyone's attention, then, I went on, "Didn't you tell Ehm'rael--my bond-mate's sister--that you were in a hurry to meet your new, human girlfriend?"

Ethan nodded, looking miserable. "Yes," he said softly. "I did say that. But I was lying. I don't have a girlfriend, human or otherwise. You can check with my roommate, if you want to--he's been trying for months to hook me up with someone. I just haven't been…particularly interested."

That, at long last, elicited a response from Ehm'murra, her first in some minutes. Her head snapped up, her eyes wide, her expression a strange combination of longing, hope, terror and killing rage, all run together through a meat-grinder.

"Indeed," Sah'rahfel said. "And why, may I ask, would you lie about something like that? To a complete stranger, no less?"

Ethan shook his head. "It was stupid," he said. He glanced at me. "Your bond-mate's sister, you say--but I had no way of knowing that. For all I knew, she might have been sent by Murra's parents. Believe it or not, I haven't been on great terms with them for quite a while. I told her--Ehm'rael--what I thought they'd want to hear." He paused, and lowered his voice. "And what I thought Ehm'murra should hear, too."

"Ah," Sah'rahfel said. "Now at last we come to it. Betrayed or not, she had good reason to feel abandoned--which may well be the exact same thing. How can you, who claimed to love her, possibly justify what you did?"

Ethan's jaw hardened. "Do you honestly think I don't care about her, even now?" he demanded. "Of course I do. Do you know what I had to do to come to Sah'aar? Skip out of my classes, that's what--and just before finals. If I can't talk my professors into letting me take the exams later, I'm going to fail every damn one of my courses. Do you have any idea what a wasted semester at Stanford would cost?"

Sah'rahfel seemed taken aback. "I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't realize, or I wouldn't have made my request so…urgent. You could have explained…"

Ethan laughed bitterly. "And be thought of even worse than I already am? No thanks. I had to come--I had to explain to both of you what I was trying to do. In a lot of ways, it's turned out badly--but in others, maybe not so terribly after all…"

Sah'rahfel raised his hand. "Please," he said. "Begin at the beginning."

Ethan nodded. "All right," he said. He took a deep breath. "The plain facts are these: I do love Ehm'murra, very much--but as a friend, and a kind of sister. I have never wanted to be her husband, or her mate, or whatever you want to call it. I know about Commodore Ehm'ayla and Joel Abrams, of course--most people on Terra do, and certainly all the Sah'aarans who live there. I know it's possible for Murra and I to have formed a sort of one-way bonding--but I didn't want that. I just don't see myself as the kind of person Mr. Abrams must be. I don't have his dedication."

"And maybe," Ehm'talak observed with a grin, "you were afraid of the commitment."

"Maybe so," Ethan agreed. "Can you really blame me? With you Sah'aarans, it's unavoidable; you adjust, because you have no choice. But for better or worse, we humans do. And yes, the thought of a lifetime commitment did frighten me."

He swallowed and went on, "I'm sure you all know our story. We grew up together, went to school together--the whole works. Back when we were kids, I was her surrogate brother--that was when her parents still liked me--and I had no trouble filling that role. I'm sorry it ever ended, because it was good for both of us. But when we got to be teenagers, we starting doing things that…well, let's just say it was stuff that bothers and sisters shouldn't do. I'm not blaming her," he added quickly. "We both sort of fell into it, not really knowing at first what we were doing. But that's when it started getting out of control. She began to talk about bonding, and how we could be together forever. For a little while I went along with it, to please her--but all the time I knew I didn't want it to happen. For her sake, and mine."

"Did you try telling her that?" Sah'rahfel asked mildly.

Ethan looked him straight in the eye. "Have you ever tried telling her something she doesn't want to hear?" he asked, and Sah'rahfel chuckled.

"Point taken," he said. "Do I conclude, then, that you were party to her parents' campaign to get her bonded to a Sah'aaran, at any cost?"

"No," Ethan said emphatically. "Never. Oh, I knew, of course--it would have been pretty hard not to. And as it happened, I agreed with them. But they haven't spoken to me in almost four years--so no, I wasn't involved."

"But you agreed with them," Sah'rahfel persisted.

"Yes," Ethan said flatly. "With all my heart." He turned toward Ehm'murra, who sat staring at him, her face a frozen mask of horror. "Murra, I know you don't want to hear this either," he went on. "But I honestly believe that your bonding with Sah'rahfel is the best thing that could have happened. I'm really sorry I didn't have the guts to tell you before, and I know it caused you a lot of trouble and pain. But you are absolutely better off with him than you would have been with me--for a number of reasons. If it's possible, I'd still very much like to be your friend--and maybe even your surrogate brother. If you'll let me."

Was he telling the truth? I honestly can't say. I'd like to believe so--but maybe that's just my feckless desire to think well of people. Judging from the expression on Sah'rahfel's face, though, and Ehm'talak's, and Sah'kraas', and even Ehm'taaf's, they were obviously far less willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. They constituted, in fact, what Joel Abrams would call a "tough room." I'd never before known exactly what he meant by that.

For a time all was silence. Then, slowly, almost nervelessly, Ehm'murra rose. She approached Ethan, and stood staring at him for almost a minute, her face unreadable. He returned her gaze hopefully, but warily. Then, with breathtaking suddenness, she raised her left hand and lashed him across the face, hard enough to nearly dump him over the arm of his chair.

Sah'rahfel sprang to his feet. "Ehm'murra!" he cried, reaching out for her arm--but too late. Evading his grasp, she ran from the room, her hands clamped to her muzzle. Halfway up the hall she flung open a door--into what appeared to be a bathroom, though I caught only a brief glance--and darted inside. We heard the click of the lock as the door slammed shut.

Briefly Sah'rahfel stood frozen, as if uncertain what to do; then he turned to Ethan, extending a solicitous hand. "Are you all right?" he asked.

Ethan brushed his fingers across his cheek, but they came away dry; there was no blood, only a wide pale blotch that was already flushing red. "I'm fine," he said. "She backhanded me--didn't use her claws."

"Of course not," Sah'rahfel said, sounding shocked and offended. "She has her problems, but she's certainly not that far gone." He paused. "I'm very sorry--" he went on, but Ethan waved that off.

"No need." He gazed down the empty hallway, at the door behind which Ehm'murra was almost certainly jettisoning her lunch, and sighed. "I deserved that. If not a hell of a lot more."


Well, that was pretty much the end of the show. Ehm'taaf and Sah'kraas left immediately, given that (as Ehm'taaf acerbically remarked) the discussion seemed to be over; and Ethan departed soon after. He left a number where he could be reached for the next couple days, until he caught the next ship to Terra, and Sah'rahfel accepted it; but he didn't hold out much hope that Ehm'murra would see fit to use it. "Though we shall see--she is nothing if not unpredictable."

Which left only Ehm'talak and me. As I recovered my shawl--and received another nuzzle from Sah'rahfel--I nodded in the direction of the bathroom. "Will she be…all right?"

Sah'rahfel sighed. "I think so," he said. "This isn't the first time this has happened. Sometimes she spends hours in there. I'll check on her, of course--but she won't open the door until she's good and ready." He paused. "Would you like me to ask her to call you, when she's recovered?"

I nodded. "Please," I said. "Any time she likes."

"I shall," he promised. He smiled. "And as I said earlier, you are welcome in our home--here, or wherever we may end up." He glanced at Ehm'talak, and bowed. "As are you," he went on. "She owes the two of you her life--and I will see to it that she doesn't forget that, ever."

…And with that, we took our leave. As we stood waiting for the elevator, I cleared my throat and said softly, "Ehm'talak? That 'other subject'--the one who was injected with the same nanobots that Ehm'murra got. Does she understand how morally questionable it is to try to boost her pheromones like that?"

Ehm'talak froze. Then, without looking at me, she chuckled hollowly. "Yes," she said. "She does. Or at very least, she's beginning to. And all things considered, she's just as glad the 'bots failed."

"Though she still really, really wants to bond," I finished.

"Yes," Ehm'talak said. "She does--but not by any means necessary."

Well, that's how it went. Maybe not quite open warfare--but as close as I'd ever want to get. And unlike most wars, which are just stupid and wasteful, this one may have held the germ of a lasting peace. Certainly there's no more reason for Ehm'murra to feel confused or conflicted: by now she ought to know where everyone stands; who her friends are, and who her enemies. (Hopefully, though not certainly, I'm still in the former category.) And maybe too, a little shock treatment was exactly what she needed. One thing for certain: I wouldn't have wanted to be wearing Sah'rahfel's collar last night. I haven't had a chance to scan the news-feeds today; I wonder if the top story is a murder in a posh penthouse apartment in downtown Sah'salaan?

The day is passing, and as usual, this bathing suit is becoming uncomfortable. I'll have to sign off now, go change, and wend my way home. I still have studying to do, and my first exam is tomorrow morning. At least my knee is a little happier now--and that alone is well worth the price of admission.

To Be Continued…

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