Copyright 2000 by Paul S. Gibbs. All rights reserved. Any reproduction, reuse, reposting or alteration, without the express written permission of the author, is strictly prohibited. This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any person, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

"THE DARKNESS BENEATH" BY PAUL S. GIBBS

CHAPTER SEVEN


"Sister? May I have a word with you?"

Sah'sell caught me in the library that morning; without a doubt the most astounding space in our parents' house.

Which is to be expected, I suppose, in the home of a publisher. One wall was a solid bank of windows, flooding the room with light; the other three held floor-to-ceiling shelves. At the time the house was built, they would have held books--meaning sheets of paper bound between stiff covers--but these days they held data cards, many thousands of them. A significant fraction of the sum total of Alliance knowledge was stored in that one room. I'd come in search of two things: Sah'larrah's monographs on the Undercity--and medical texts, specifically those involving bonding. I'd found all the information I needed, and more; Father was nothing if not thorough.

I smiled. "Of course," I said. We were alone, and free to speak our native tongue. "Please, sit down."

He did, across the wide Tatak table from me. Spread across it were several large stacks of cards, a large-screen reader, and the palm-reader on which I'd been scribbling notes. I pushed them all aside.

"I trust you and your family have been made comfortable?" Sah'sell asked.

"Very," I assure him. "Thank you. And thank you too for helping Joel with the kits yesterday. He might not have been able to cope on his own."

He smiled and waved a dismissive hand. "I was only too happy," he said. "Indeed, it was like old times. It has been too long; my kits are grown, and my son's children are not yet old enough."

"I sometimes wonder if I shall live long enough to have grandchildren," I said. Not if I have any more days like yesterday…

"One amusing aspect," Sah'sell said. "Those we encountered naturally assumed Tom and Ehm'rael to be my children. It caused some consternation when they called Joel 'Father'--and in Terran, no less."

I smiled. "I can well imagine." I paused. "How can I help you, brother?"

He flashed an apologetic grin. "Forgive me if I am prying, Ehm'ayla, but something about Tom troubles me, and I wonder if you can explain it."

"Such as?" I asked warily.

"I do not know the lad very well yet, but it seems to me that he has recently bonded. He has a look about him which reminds me of my son after he found his mate. But Tom does not appear particularly happy. Rather the opposite, in fact. That is odd, and piqued my curiosity."

"Oh, Goddess." My head was suddenly pounding, and I massaged my temples. "That is…complicated. As is typical for my life."

"Has he bonded?" Sah'sell persisted.

"I believe so, yes," I said. "I'm not yet certain; but since you've noticed too…"

"Who is the fortunate young lady?"

"Her good fortune is debatable--but her name is Ehm'tassaa."

His eyebrows rose. "The daughter of the Junior Ambassador to the Alliance," he stated. I wasn't surprised that he knew of her: her father and fur had probably made her world-famous. "If I were Tom, I would be pleased and honored," he went on, with a note of disapproval. "She is quite a catch."

"Oh, he is," I assured him. "But there is a…difficulty." I took a deep breath, and briefly narrated the sad saga of Tom, Ehm'tassaa and Sah'churaaf. When I had finished, Sah'sell smiled and shook his head.

"Complexities do indeed stalk you, dear sister," he said. "What have you done about it?"

I shrugged. "There was little I could do," I said. "My one conversation with the ambassador only made things worse. As for myself, I accept the reality of the situation, and so does my mate. We can only be pleased; Ehm'tassaa is a pleasant and intelligent young woman, as well as strikingly beautiful. But Sah'churaaf does not share our feelings--unless things have changed radically in our absence."

"One must pity her," Sah'sell mused. "Poor girl, to have a fool for a father."

I grinned. "I haven't said so openly," I told him, "but I tend to agree. His position is untenable. He accuses Tom of being less than a true Sah'aaran--but he himself denies our biology."

My brother stared past me for a moment, a thoughtful expression on his face. Then he said, "We must assume he will come to his senses eventually. And that being the case, I imagine Tom will soon be purchasing the anklets?"

He pointed at his right leg, and the gold-and-emerald bangle clasped there. His mate, I knew, wore its twin. It's an ancient Sah'aaran tradition for new bond-mates to clasp those bands around each other's ankles, as a symbol of lifelong commitment; and it is considered extremely unlucky to remove them thereafter. It's also traditional for the male to provide the things. I myself didn't wear one--as my father had no doubt noted. But Tom… shame-faced, I turned away. "To be honest, I doubt he even knows about them," I said. "I should have told him--but I had much on my mind."

Sah'sell smiled. "Never fear," he said. "As the humans say, he has come to the right place. Leave it to me." He paused. "I may also be able to smooth Tom's way with Sah'churaaf. Will you permit me to try?"

"What do you have in mind?" I asked suspiciously.

"To employ another Terran phrase, 'That would be telling.'" He covered my hand with his. "Seriously, dear sister, what I have in mind can cause no harm, and may do a great deal of good. Tom is in distress--anyone can see that. He is family; I would help him if I can."

I shrugged. "You give me little choice," I said. "Do what you must."

He rose. "Thank you," he said. "You shall not be sorry."

He departed then, and I shook my head. Why is it that the worst experiences always begin with those very words?

###

My next interruption was Rae.

I have already mentioned how silent Sah'aarans can be, when we want to; and my daughter--who didn't weight much, and was graceful beyond her years--was quieter than most. Absorbed in my research, I didn't notice her until she cleared her throat softly. "Mother?"

I looked up. "Ehm'rael!" I said in surprise. "I thought you went to town with your father and brother."

She shrugged. "I didn't feel like it, I guess."

I peered at her closely. She wore a brand-new mauve day-robe and a silver collar, and her earrings were dangling clusters of multicolored beads. She stood with her hands clasped before her, a strange, almost wistful look on her face. She looked healthy enough--but when Rae Abrams doesn't feel like shopping… "Are you all right, dear?"

"I'm fine," she assured me. She paused, then went on quietly, "Mother…would you please take me into the family shrine?"

A great many people, both on Terra and Sah'aar, would be shocked to learn that Joel and I had never given our kits any sort of religious instruction. I remember the earnest discussion we had just before they were born, during which we'd decided we had little choice. He was a non-practicing Terran Jew (and a good thing, too: in no way could we avoid having meat and milk on the table at the same time); and I was (at best) a lukewarm adherent to the Goddess faith. There was no way we could reconcile our beliefs sufficiently to give coherent advice. All we could do was let the twins make their own choices; and if that meant no faith at all, that was their business. In the meantime we would raise them with a strong sense of ethics, and answer their questions as best we could.

I saw the hopeful, earnest look in her eyes, and I nodded. "Of course I will, dear," I said. "But it is the family shrine. You may use it whenever you wish; you don't need me."

"I know that," she said quickly. (She probably hadn't, but I let that slide.) "But that isn't what I meant. I want you to…show me how it's done. The correct etiquette, I mean. So I won't do anything disrespectful."

I turned away. She had no way of knowing--at least I don't think she did--but I wasn't exactly the right person so ask. It had been almost thirty-five years since I'd last ventured into a shrine. I wasn't certain I was worthy to do so. But I recognized the significance of her request--and how important it was that I not drop the ball. And so, somehow, I smiled. "Certainly," I said. "When would you like to go?"

She spread her hands. "How about now?" she asked. "If you're not too busy."

Busy I was; but too busy--especially for her--never. My research could wait. I rose and took her hand. I was sorry her brother wasn't with her; but maybe his needs didn't run that way yet. "Let's go," I said.

Household shrines run the gamut: the less-wealthy must content themselves with a corner, screened by folding panels or drapes; while the rich will often devote a good-sized room to the purpose. Ours was of the latter type, and lay far around the circle from the bedrooms and the public areas, in an area of the house that was quiet and little-visited. Rae and I stood a good chance of finding it unoccupied: my father usually did his obeisance in the afternoon, my mother in the early evening, and Sah'sell at dawn. The only unknown quantity was the household staff: the chef, the half-dozen housekeepers, and the gardener. By tradition, they were considered part of the family, since they resided in the house, and were entitled to use the shrine. But I felt certain they'd be too busy at that time of the day, and I was correct: the small red light above the door was dark.

I was nervous, and fighting to hide it, as I ushered Rae through the ornate gold-leaf portal; but my tail was of course giving me away. Which was all right, because hers was lashing too, occasionally colliding and tangling with mine.

It was the vestibule we entered first, a closet-sized space, dimly lit to help our eyes adjust to the greater darkness beyond. To the right was a small sofa, upholstered in red and gold; to the left, at eye-level, a bar with several dangling clothes-hangers. Directly opposite, a another richly-carved, gold-inlay door led into the shrine itself.

I closed the hall door, and touched the pad that activated the "in-use" light. There was no lock, and no need for one: no Sah'aaran would dare disturb another's prayers. The vestibule felt even more claustrophobic than usual; this was something usually done alone.

Rae was gazing curiously at the hangers. "Now what?" she asked.

"Now," I said, "we disrobe."

She whirled. "You're kidding," she said, dropping into Terran.

I winced to hear that language spoken in such a consecrated space; but my daughter's upbringing, and its gaps, were my own fault. I plucked a hanger from the bar and handed it to her. "No," I replied firmly--and in Sah'aaran--"I'm not."

"But…everything?" she protested?"

I smiled. "Everything," I said. "Even the earrings. Except the collar--that stays. Remember, my dear, you're the one who wanted to do this properly."

"Is it…too late to back out?"

"Only your own conscience can tell you that," I said gently.

Briefly she wavered; then her jaw firmed, and she shook her head. "No," she said. "I'll go through with it. It's not as if we're out in public, after all."

I smiled. "That's the spirit."

Two minutes later we both quite naked, except for our collars, our day-robes and undergarments hanging side-by-side. Rae was shivering, her arms wrapped around her abdomen and her tail around her knees. The room was warm, though, so doubtless she was suffering more from embarrassment than chill. I reached behind her head to remove the one thing she'd forgotten: the plastic clip holding her mane. "One never enters a shrine clothed, Ehm'rael," I told her seriously. "It would tell the Goddess you have something to hide."

She shook her head, and her mane fell loosely around her shoulders. Her fingers brushed her throat. "What about this, then?"

"She wants us to keep our dignity," I explained. "We're ready to enter now."

We did, side by side, and as I looked upon Ehm'rael's body, I fought to rein in a sudden surge of envy. She was, after all, thirty-five years younger than me. She had already equaled my height, and might add another centimeter or two; and her endless rounds of tennis and baseball kept her trim and well-muscled. The small scars from her abdominal surgery, almost four years ago now, were entirely hidden beneath her smooth dark-brown fur. Lest I embarrass her with my scrutiny, I forced myself to pay attention to our surroundings.

The shrine had not changed in the past thirty-five years, I was pleased to note. It was a fairly large space, about four meters square, and entirely without windows. The walls were hung with tapestries of dizzying pattern, with red, gold and cobalt blue the dominant colors. The carpet was dark red, and--like the tapestries--was somewhere between four and five hundred years old, far older than the house. My toes clearly detected the narrow, threadbare aisle leading from the door. The only light came from the dozen or so candles burning before the altar. As we entered, I retrieved four fresh tapers from a bin beside the door, and passed two of them to Rae. She was watching me carefully, emulating my every move, and when I lit my candles from those already burning, she hurried to do the same. We wedged them into the tall iron holders, replacing several others that were guttering. It is said--and I believe it--that the candles in our shrine have burned continuously, one after another, for the entire two centuries since its consecration. Some were scented, their heavy odor of flowers and herbs intoxicating.

The altar stood at the head of the room. A simple structure, a raised platform perhaps a meter tall--but on it sat the Goddess.

Actually, technically, what crouched there was a cast-bronze statue, extensively gold-leafed and enameled. Some Terran religions have difficulties with "graven images"--but our faith is exactly the opposite: we believe the Goddess Herself resides in each and every image of Her, regardless of size. Many Sah'aarans--Admiral Ehm'rael, for example--wouldn't dream of leaving the planet without a small portable shrine, its Goddess no bigger than a toy. In many small household shrines the figurine is table-sized, perhaps a meter tall. In ours, it was at the upper limit of propriety: about half again "life"-size.

The bronze folds of Her robes were draped around Her, enameled with hieroglyphic script in an ancient mode. I was one of the few people on Sah'aar who could read those characters. Her face was idealized, beautiful, Her expression one of beatific calm; Her inlayed-gold eyes were large, and looked directly down at (if not indeed through) the penitent below. Her hands were raised: the right in an open, palm-up position, as to offer succor or sympathy; the left, with hugely-exaggerated, red-enameled claws, clenched in a pose of attack. Those gestures represent the duality of our nature: on the one hand civilized, on the other savage--a reality we do not seek to deny.

On the floor before the railing was a square cushion. Just one; but it was sometimes necessary, as now, to bring novices into the shrine, and so there were several others along the wall. Signaling Rae to emulate me, I sank to my knees. My hands clasped, my tail lying flat and unmoving behind me, I rested my elbows on the railing. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Rae do the same. Her expression, as she gazed up at the Goddess, was one of wide-eyed rapture; every trace of embarrassment had vanished.

For a time I knelt with downcast eyes. Rae was also gazing at the floor; no doubt she believed it the proper etiquette. In fact it was not, and I'd have to explain that to her later. I simply could not force myself to meet that stern gaze. A wave of shame surged through me, sending a hot flush of blood to my ears and nose. I was indeed naked before Her--far more than can be explained by the removal of my clothing--and I was not proud of what She could see within me.

Dear Goddess, I prayed silently, it has been many years since last I knelt here. I have not always honored you in word or deed; for many years I have denied you, pushed you from my life. For this I humbly beg forgiveness. I have long been unworthy of your grace; and yet…many times I have felt your presence within me, guiding me, saving me from myself…even saving my life. My daughter wishes to know you, and I have done what I can to assist her. I should have brought her to you far sooner, as I was brought as a kit. If I may presume to make a request of you, please do not judge this child by her mother's errors.

It was the sculptor's skill, I suppose, or perhaps a trick of the candlelight, that could make those bronze lips seem to either frown in disapproval or smile in gentle benediction. A psychological effect, no doubt; a masterpiece of self-deception. And yet, when I finally forced myself to raise my eyes, and saw the smile She cast upon me like a cool summer shower, I could almost believe Her grace was with me still.

###

Silent and thoughtful while we dressed, as we prepared to leave the shrine Rae suddenly threw her arms around me. "Thank you, Mother," she said, and then she was gone, gliding down the hall like a wraith--if wraiths wear mauve. Smiling, I watched her go. What she had gained from the experience, what her prayers or contemplations had featured, I didn't know, and it would have been improper to ask. I had done my duty as a mother, though--albeit belatedly. I had a feeling this wouldn't be her last visit--but next time she'd go alone. Yes, I'd done my duty, or rather half of it. I could only hope Joel would agree. With a sigh I went back to my research.

Sah'larrah explored the Undercity for the better part of forty years (I do not, will not, believe he "played" there), and collected his findings into a dozen large monographs, which were indeed published by my father's company. To the layman they would be dry reading, and none of them had ever been a best-seller; but as contributions to archaeology, they were invaluable.

His expeditions took him deeper than most people would believe. Over the years he'd surveyed hundreds of kilometers of service ducts, residential sectors, commercial areas, maintenance sheds…you name it. In all, so he believed, he'd been able to explore half of the structure. Much of the rest was inaccessible, blocked by cave-ins. The main control center at the Undercity's heart had proved especially elusive. He knew where it was, from the old blueprints; but every route that might have led him there had proved impassable. Only one had remained, at the time of his last expedition: a long and circuitous path, the logistics of which had always before stymied him. Maybe it would have been better had they continued to.

The monographs were filled with maps, diagrams, holos, and measurements of many sorts, amply proving the careful attention to detail that marked every aspect of Sah'larrah's life. Also included were many pages of narrative description, a journal of each expedition in exquisite day-to-day detail. I'd read them many times; but now, skimming through them to refresh my memory, I was struck by one thing in particular. In a similar situation, many people might have dramatized those accounts, making their exploits seem more daring than they'd truly been. A time-honored tradition, and--given the drive to sell books--one that can be forgiven. But not Sah'larrah. No tales of daring-do or danger in his journals. He never took chances: he covered all bases, thought through all contingencies. And as he grew older, his caution--if anything--increased. True, he had occasionally needed rescuing: I counted eight such occasions, less than Ehm'luruus' figure of a dozen. But they all occurred early in the project; his later expeditions were trouble-free.

…And that, of course, made his disappearance even harder to swallow. Surely he hadn't been careless--and we say, the Goddess smiles upon the prepared. But…well, accidents do happen, the universe does have a strong element of randomness, and no one can prepare for everything. The Undercity was a complex structure--and one that had not been maintained for more than a century. Ceilings collapse, floors cave in…and they don't give a damn how much planning you've done. That, unfortunately, was a dead end.

My other area of inquiry was more promising. The medical literature related to the process of bonding was voluminous, and I could have spent the rest of my life reviewing it. But that wasn't necessary: a brief glance through the three or four most authoritative volumes confirmed what I'd already known. There is, can be, no such thing as a "one-way" bonding; the very idea is ludicrous. If I had not bonded with Sah'larrah--and I could prove I hadn't--then he had not with me. As simple as that. Any competent physician could have told him that--if he'd bothered to consult one.

…And it is indeed possible for a Sah'aaran, male or female, to remain unbonded. It's extremely rare (obviously, that sort of trait would tend to be edited out of the genome by natural selection), but it does happen. Some of the causes are treatable, others not. Again, a good doctor might have been able to help Sah'larrah--but the first step would have been his.

Second-guessing someone like him was always an exercise in frustration. I'd worked with him, slept with him, for the better part of a month, and emerged with no better understanding of his thought-processes than I'd had before. In the final analysis, I simply couldn't know what had been going through his mind. If indeed he blamed me, clinging to the idea that I'd "rejected" a bonding with him to mate with Joel, he'd never mentioned it in any of his correspondence--nor even hinted at it. Why? Because it would have been futile? To protect Tom and Rae? Or because he preferred to suffer in silence? That at least would have been typical. One thing was certain: he had been suffering. As time goes on, a Sah'aaran's need to bond grows more and more urgent, until it can literally become an obsession. That was one reason why I could only be happy for Tom and Ehm'tassaa: that part of their lives was taken care of. And in that light, Sah'larrah's irrational beliefs--if indeed he'd held them--would be easy to understand. Having reached the ripe old age of thirty-three before I bonded, I could well understand what he'd been feeling at forty-two; how he'd even remained functional at sixty-one was hard to imagine. In such a state, perhaps he'd said things to his mother and sister, things he hadn't really meant…

I shook my head. Unless something new came to light--messages, perhaps, journal entries, or a will--I would never know. I could only content myself with the fact that it was not my fault. Scant consolation though that was.

What that hour in the shrine had done for Rae, I didn't know; but it had left me in a curious state of bilocation. On the one hand I was rooted to the present, my problems and worries dragging me down like shackles; but on the other hand I seemed to be floating high above myself, up where my difficulties seemed trivial. With a sigh I pushed aside the stacks of book-cards, and dug the heels of my hands into my aching eyes. Obviously, Ehm'herra's words had troubled me, more deeply than I'd been willing to admit. She'd opened a trapdoor into a pit of shame, which even the Goddess' renewed grace couldn't seal. I simply couldn't accept that Sah'larrah would have hated me so. In no way the charlatan Ehm'luruus believed him to be, he was one of the kindest and wisest people I'd ever known. But if he'd truly gone to his death thinking me little better than a whore…

I glanced out the window then, and what I saw brought a smile to my face. The library looked out into the garden, and there amidst the flowers knelt my mother and my daughter. Mother was tending her plants, a daily chore which she could once again perform with pleasure, while Rae, holocam in hand, busily photographed the blossoms. I couldn't hear the words they exchanged, but I saw their smiles, and their easy and loving rapport. At least one thing in my life was going right. My mother loved her grandchildren, and would act as a buffer between them and Father's cold disdain. He and I would have to discuss that, and soon; but at the moment I had neither the strength nor the time. Until then, Mother would protect them.

….And Rae had the right idea, I realized suddenly. As we go through life, we should all take time to stop and shoot the flowers.

###

We met with Admiral Ehm'rael--and another complication--later that afternoon.

Tom and Joel arrived home just before lunch, looking almost comically satisfied--and when I found out where they'd been, I couldn't blame Rae for staying home. The previous day, during their excursion through the Public Market, my son and his father had located a coffee house: an honest-to-goodness purveyor of Terran Caffea arabica beans--and of course they had to return and check it out. In all the years I'd known Joel, he had never passed up a cup of coffee: during our Academy days I developed a taste for tea, purely in self-defense. Rae would indeed have been left out, or would have had to content herself with steamed milk, during their "cupping."

The four of us made lunch in our little kitchenette, and ate indoors, where it was cooler. As Joel constructed his massive sandwich, I realized that his morning's excursion had not been an unmitigated pleasure. Several times, as he sliced cheese and spread mayonnaise, he scowled, as if reliving a bad memory. "Something wrong?" I asked finally.

He smiled and shook his head. "No," he said. "Not really. There was a little…incident in the city earlier. Nothing important, but annoying all the same."

"What kind of incident?"

"Tom and I were hassled by a Sah'salaan District cop," Joel explained. "We actually had to dig out our ID's, so I could prove I really am his father, not a mad kidnapper. I can't say all the passersby were entirely sympathetic either."

I patted his hand. "I'm sorry," I said. "And I hate to say it but we might have expected something like that. Our family arrangement is unique…"

He sighed. "I know," he said. "And maybe I'm just being thin-skinned; but it did bother me. I mean, Sah'aar is the last place I'd expect to find racism…"

I whirled. "Isn't that a little harsh, Joel?"

The twins paused, forks halfway to their mouths, and I realized to my chagrin that I'd spoken more sharply than I'd intended. But Joel had uttered the one word guaranteed to push all my buttons: an ugly word, representing an ugly concept. I didn't like hearing it applied to my own species.

It always upset Tom and Rae when we argued, though, and seeing the alarm on their faces, Joel backed down. "Possibly," he said. "I'm sorry, darling. I didn't mean to impugn your society. I guess the shoe is finally on the other foot. I'm the outsider, and I'm not used to that."

I grinned. "Oh, you'd get used to it, dear," I told him. "In twenty years you'd scarcely notice."

"I suppose not."

"Seriously, though," I went on, "I doubt you were the victim of racism. I suspect it had a lot more to do with me. Word must be spreading, that I'm on the planet--and I'm not entirely popular here." So much for taking the heat myself…

"I imagine you're right," Joel said. He kissed my forehead. "Unfortunately. And anyway, the cappuccino was worth the trouble."

I smiled--but even as I did, I felt a stab of uncertainty. Had it truly been lingering public distaste for our unconventional bonding? Or was something else involved? After all, it hadn't been just anyone who'd hassled them, but rather an underling of Chief Ehm'luruus. A vendetta? I wondered? A preemptive strike? Or was that merely my well-developed persecution complex?

I had no time to think about it, though, because my family and I had an appointment. Immediately after lunch we set off.

Fortunately, the heat was nowhere near as brutal as it had been the past two days. A strong breeze had sprung up, and on it my nose and whiskers detected a faint hint of moisture, tempering the bone-dry air. The Interval was coming--perhaps even sooner than I'd expected. For my purposes, extremely inconvenient.

As we walked I gazed at my children, quickly appraising their clothing and grooming. Rae still wore that mauve day-robe, and had once again gathered her mane behind her head. For a daytime appointment she looked fine. And Tom…not even two trips into the city, nor the derisive stares he must have gathered there, had changed his mind about day-robes. His sage-green trousers and grey shirt were clean and essentially wrinkle-free, and he'd given his mane a lick and a promise with a brush before we left. He was trying out one of his new collars, boldly embroidered in gold, red and bronze. His outfit would have elicited a snort of disapproval from my father--but Admiral Ehm'rael and her mate were a good deal more tolerant. He'd get by.

They were nervous: I saw it in their eyes and tails, and hear it in their thick silence. As we approached the admiral's gate, which stood invitingly open, Tom stopped me with a hand on my arm. "Mom?" he said hesitantly. "Is there anything we should do when we meet them?"

"Or not do?" Rae added.

I draped my arms around them. "Only one thing I can think of," I said. "Be yourselves. Admiral Ehm'rael isn't like your grandfather--or even your grandmother. She might seem rather formal and distant at first--but she has a lot of humor in her. You'll see. And her mate is a charmer; he gets along with everyone."

They nodded thoughtfully, while Joel, standing back with his arms crossed over his chest, smiled. I went on, "One other thing: listen. You'll seldom meet anyone with as much knowledge and experience. Especially Ehm'rael; I can't count the number of places she's been. She and Sah'majha are both engineers, so you might find their anecdotes especially interesting, Tom. One thing for certain: they will make you welcome, and they won't give you reason to be afraid of them. Okay?"

They smiled. "Okay," Tom said, and we passed through the gate.

The home we approached was heartbreakingly familiar. I grasped Joel's hand and hung on hard, my chest aching. As a kit, I'd walked, or ran, or skipped, up that path hundreds of times, if not thousands. Certainly there'd been times when the house stood empty, while Ehm'rael and Sah'majha were off-planet: she took him with her if she could. I always looked forward to her return with keen anticipation. No matter how busy she was, she welcomed me into her home; and she always had stories to tell, and souvenirs of her travels too. Later, after she had her kits, I would sometimes baby-sit for her. My life's journey, from the Officer's Academy, through Zelazny and finally to Pacific Grove and those two new stars on my breast, began in that house, literally at her knee. In many ways I'd sought to emulate her; with what success, I couldn't say.

The house was traditionally ring-shaped, but only a third the size of my father's home. The walls were smooth and brilliantly whitewashed. Much younger than my family home, the place was designed and built by Ehm'rael's father (a famous architect responsible for half of downtown Sah'salaan) on land sold to him by my grandfather. Ehm'rael was a few years older than my father, but even so, in their youth they'd shared a brief--ultimately doomed--affair, before Father bonded with Mother. They'd remained close friends thereafter. Interesting to speculate what would have happened, if Sah'surraa and Ehm'rael had bonded, but ultimately pointless: more "if only" thinking.

The complication greeted us at the door. We were right on time, and less than thirty seconds after I touched the bell-patch, the big bleached-Tatak doors opened, revealing a wide plant-filled vestibule. I was expecting the admiral, and my hands were half-raised for the ritual greeting--but I was in for a surprise.

The male who stood there smiling was young; about seventeen, I judged. He was taller than Tom by half a head, but not nearly so muscular. His day-robe was short-sleeved and patterned in shades of brown and rust; his collar was dark red. In his handsome features I saw a hint of Sah'taam Continent, in the far north: his muzzle was wide, almost flattened, his nose small. His fur was much fluffier than mine, or my kits'--which must have been truly uncomfortable in Sah'salaan's heat--and very light in color, almost tan. His mane, much longer than my son's, was faintly striped, burnt-orange on a background of reddish-brown.

For a moment we stared at each other, this apparition and I, and my hands dropped heavily to my sides. Then the young man bowed low, ushering us into the welcome coolness of the vestibule. After he'd closed the door behind us--such is the custom--he bowed again and spoke for the first time. His voice was pleasant, his Terran excellent. "Welcome," he said. "You are expected. My name is Sah'larssh; Ehm'rael and Sah'majha are my grandparents. They have asked me to greet you and take you to them."

That explained it: why he looked so tantalizingly familiar. His father, Ehm'rael and Sah'majha's son, was a geologist, who'd bonded with a native of Sah'taam while working on that rather bleak and cold part of Sah'aar. Obviously Sah'larssh had received the greatest number of hits off his mother's genetic deck. Two centuries of modern travel have eliminated much of Sah'aar's ethnic diversity--but not all.

I smiled and bowed. "We are honored to meet you," I said, and once again did the introductions. And at that moment, as had happened at my promotion ceremony, the complexity meter took another giant leap. This time the needle bent. Sah'larssh shook hands with Joel, exchanged polite words with Tom…and then turned his gaze on Rae.

There came a pause, during which the entire universe seemed to be holding its breath. Sah'larssh's whiskers twitched, his nostrils dilating as he drew in a sudden deep breath. Rae's eyes widened, her pupils huge. Sah'larssh took a step forward, involuntarily it seemed, and grasped her hands. "I'm pleased to meet you, Ehm'rael," he said. "You carry an honored name."

She opened her mouth, but nothing emerged. She cleared her throat hurriedly. "I know," she said. "I'm proud to bear it."

Beside me, Joel stared at this tableau in growing alarm. He glanced at me, the question obvious in his eyes, and I shrugged and shook my head. Too soon to tell.

…But was it, really? I'd been dreading this since we arrived: Rae was too attractive, too available--and most importantly, too full of pheromones. Had lightning struck again? Only time would tell. If it had, though…then there was good news and bad news. One crisis at a time, I'd told Joel; if only I'd known how soon the next one would pounce!

For several seconds Rae and Sah'larssh stood looking into each other's eyes, the rest of us forgotten. Mere weeks before, Tom would have been smirking--but not now. He understood, all too well, and he turned away in embarrassment. Finally Sah'larssh shook his head, as if to clear it. "My grandparents are waiting in the conservatory," he said indistinctly. "I had best take you to them."

He turned, leading the way down the hall at a brisk rate, as if nothing had happened--but his tail was waving frantically. Rae stepped up beside me; her hand found mine and hung on hard. I glanced at her, and her ears and nose abruptly reddened. If I was right--and the bewilderment in her eyes told me I most likely was--she felt as if a fusion grenade had detonated in her stomach. We'd have to talk--but as with Tom, it would have to wait for a more convenient time. For the moment she'd have to suffer, poor girl…and so would her father. I needed to give her namesake my full attention. Quite apart from the fact that I hadn't seen her in fifteen years, the admiral almost certainly had information I desperately required. I'd winced as Sah'larssh said "conservatory"--my last visit to one of those hadn't been a happy affair--but Ehm'rael always received guests amidst her beloved plants. I wondered idly if she still had that big square pillow, upon which I used to sit and listen to her stories. If my kits were a little younger…

Ehm'rael and Sah'majha sat surrounded by flowers and fountains, side-by-side upon a couch before a small table, facing a semicircle of five comfortable-looking chairs. Leaning in the corner behind the admiral was a tall, elaborately-carved walking stick. That was new, and troubling; but my eyes didn't dwell on it long, because she was already reaching out her arms.

"Welcome," she said, smiling broadly. "It has been far too long, my child."

I bent down, and her still-strong arms encircled me. I felt the rasp of her tongue on my forehead. "It has," I said. "It has indeed."

She embraced me again, then released me. "Please forgive me for not rising," she said. "I fear that is not one of my talents at present."

I was about to ask why, but she was already gazing past me. "Mr. Abrams," she said. "Welcome."

"Admiral," he said, delicately grasping her knobby hand. "It's good to see you again." His eyes shifted, and he bowed. "And you too, Sah'majha."

Ehm'rael's mate smiled and stood smoothly, with a faint whir from his prosthetics. From the knees down, both his legs were artificial, and so too was his left hand and wrist. The Chrysaoans who rescued him from the flaming wreckage of a crashed freighter--or took him prisoner, if you like, since they were the ones who shot down the ship in the first place--had given him those limbs. The Jellies were excellent engineers, Sah'majha frequently said, but lousy aestheticians. They'd made no attempt to prettify the skeletal constructs: joints, pistons and hydraulic tubes were entirely undisguised, almost obscenely naked, their gleaming copper-red a shocking contrast to his white fur. The kits were staring, aghast, and I couldn't blame them.

"A pleasure," he said. He bowed to me. "And you too, Commodore. I see my handiwork has stood the test of time."

"Now and forever," I said. "The Goddess willing."

Joel wrapped his arms around the kits' waists, propelling them forward. "These are our children, Ehm'rael Sarah and Thomas Sah'surraa."

The admiral nodded. "I know," she said softly, extending her hands. "I have looked forward to this moment for sixteen years. Come, let me look at you."

They were scared to death, their tails lashing. Admiral Ehm'rael had a rather overwhelming personality, and they were getting the full force of it. Rae had even temporarily forgotten her raging hormones. Somehow they managed to step forward and clasp my mentor's proffered hands.

As usual it was Rae who spoke first, her voice small and hesitant. "We feel as if we know you already, Admiral," she said. "Mother has told us so much about you…"

"And I you," Ehm'rael said, sweeping them into her embrace. "I saw you just days after you were born; and not a month since has gone by without a letter from your dear mother. It is as if I have watched you grow up."

She released them with a wink, and waved a hand. "Please--be seated."

We did, and I smiled; those well-padded chairs were a long way from that big pillow. I was a little old to curl up naked at her feet, though. Sah'majha settled in next to his mate, his artificial hand resting lovingly on her knee. Sah'larssh sat a little apart from the rest of us, his hands in his lap and his tail flicking. His gaze was fixed on Rae, though, his eyes narrowed. He was sizing her up; wondering, no doubt, what she was feeling. Aware of his scrutiny, she squirmed uncomfortably, unsure where to focus her attention.

"Have you eaten?" the admiral asked.

"Yes, thank you," I said. "Just before we arrived." That was deliberate: I hadn't wanted her to feel obligated to feed us. I ought to have known, though, how seriously she took her duties as a hostess.

"I see," she said, with a touch of disapproval. "But certainly I can offer you a cool drink."

I nodded; that could not politely be refused. "That would be most welcome, Admiral."

She turned to her grandson, but he was already rising. "Right away," he said, and departed, her fond gaze following him.

"He knows me too well, I think," she commented.

There was a brief silence. The admiral looked good, I had to admit; much better than Ehm'herra. Her fur was snow-white, but thick and glossy, and she continued to wear her mane long, fastened back with a silver clasp. Her gaze was as piercing as ever, though her eyes were slightly filmy, and her voice still held the ring of command. She wore a day-robe of shimmering sky-blue, and a collar a few shades darker.

…But try as I might, my eyes were drawn inevitably away from her, to the object propped in the corner. The walking stick was made of Tatak, of course, and beautifully carved, with several corkscrew twists and a grip molded to her hand. An attractive object, yes--but that was not why my gaze kept stealing back to it.

Finally the admiral smiled. "Your concern is appreciated," she said. "But I assure you, my infirmities are strictly temporary."

"I do not wish to be inquisitive…" I began, but she waved that off.

"There are no secrets between us, my child," she said. She smiled. "There is a human saying: 'After forty it's patch, patch, patch.' After eighty, that is most assuredly true." She took a deep, careful breath, and glanced at her mate. "You may recall my experiences on the planet called Lands-End…"

"Indeed I do," I replied. Beside me, Joel was nodding as well, and so were the kits. They were also well aware of the strange events that brought Ehm'rael and Sah'majha together, more than fifty years ago.

"…Then you will also know that my lungs were destroyed by Chrysaoan nanotechnology," she went on. "The physicians here on Sah'aar were obliged to keep me in cold-sleep for weeks, while they quickly cloned a new pair for transplant. The surgery was successful, and for many years I had no further difficulty. But force-grown organs can sometimes have an earlier expiration date--so to speak--than those we are born with. Several years ago, after my heart replacement, I began experiencing shortness of breath; more recently I was alarmed to find myself coughing up blood. The alveoli--the air-sacs--within my lungs had begun to disintegrate."

"And so it was necessary to clone another pair?" I asked.

She shook her head. "That was one alternative," she said. "But the surgery would have been hazardous at my age, and the recuperation long and difficult. I was not anxious to once again be bedridden for weeks." She smiled at Sah'majha. "And so my mate convinced me to be his guinea-pig. He programmed a species of nanobot to repair and strengthen my lungs."

"Successfully?" Joel asked, sounding intrigued.

"Quite," the admiral said. "The damage has been halted, and the ruptured alveoli are almost entirely repaired. I still tire easily, and it is difficult for me to walk unassisted; but soon I shall be ready to climb mountains--so I am assured."

"And so you see," Sah'majha put in dryly, his eyes upon me, "my work is not entirely antisocial."

"Do not believe, however," the admiral went on, "that I am unhappy. Quite the opposite. My physical difficulties are minor, and I am still in full possession of my mental facilities. Growing old is not fun--but it is better than the alternative. So tell me, child," she asked brightly, "what is the state of your health?"

"Quite good," I said. "My heart is in excellent condition, thank the Goddess. My only complaints are a touch of arthritis and some minor digestive problems."

"And yours, Mr. Abrams?" Ehm'rael asked.

"Call me Joel," he said. "And I can't complain either. A few aches and pains in the morning--and the pills do wonders for the prostate."

"That is well," the admiral said with an impish smile. She didn't need to inquire about the kits' health; that she could easily see. "However," she went on, "we are not here to compare the ravages of time upon our poor bodies. We have many things to discuss. I have had word of your doings these last two days, Ehm'ayla."

Not surprising: as I'd told Joel, if there was anything happening on Sah'aar that Ehm'rael didn't know about, it wasn't worth knowing. But I did have to wonder what--and more importantly, how--she'd heard.

At that moment we were interrupted by the reappearance of Sah'larssh, bearing a large thermal pitcher and a stack of glasses. "Iced tea," Ehm'rael said as she poured. "I developed a taste for it many years ago on Terra, and it makes a change from T'samma juice." She smiled at her grandson. "During my recent difficulties, Sah'larssh has been an invaluable help to us. He will be living here while he attends the University."

I'd been about right, then, in my estimate of his age: almost eighteen. Well, it could have been worse--assuming my other guess was also correct. He could have been thirty, or thirteen. There have been cases.

I couldn't help noticing--indeed, I would have had to be blind and brain-dead not to--the look Sah'larssh and my daughter exchanged as he handed her a glass, and the way their fingers touched and lingered. The admiral noticed too, and her eyes suddenly widened. She glanced at Rae, and Sah'larssh, and finally at me, and I quickly looked away. She wouldn't mention it, not yet; but later, if we managed to be alone, she'd have plenty to say. Her words, though, would be nothing like Ambassador Sah'churaaf's in a similar situation.

"I should rather have said," the admiral went on, when we had all been served, "that I know in general what you've been up to--but no more. Perhaps you could fill in the details, my child--?"

What she really meant was, "why didn't you come see me earlier?"--a question for which I had no ready answer. Taking a deep breath and steadying myself, I told her; and once again I left nothing out. Her face went through a range of expressions as I spoke: interest, concern, anger, and several flashes of amusement. When I finished she nodded thoughtfully.

"You are aware, Ehm'ayla," she said, "that I have always held your intelligence and wisdom in high esteem." She paused. "But in this particular case, it would have been better had you consulted me first. My sources of information have been closer to the heart of things; I could have spared you some difficulty. May I offer a few comments?"

I spread my hands. "Please," I said. "That's why I'm here."

"First: I believe I have the answer to a mystery. I know, with a fair degree of certainty, why Chief Ehm'luruus so disliked Dr. Sah'larrah."

"Do you," I said. "I've been wondering about that."

"Their feud is more than seventeen years old," she said. "At one time she was his student, in a general-education course--and he gave her a failing grade."

My eyebrows rose. "She failed a GE class? Forgive me, Admiral, but isn't that a contradiction in terms?"

She smiled. Like me, she was a graduate of Sah'salaan U as well as the Officer's Academy, and tended to regard the former as kits' play in comparison. "I daresay you've encountered students who greatly resent their general-education obligations; ones who desire only to complete their degrees as quickly as possible."

"Certainly I have," I said. When I first enrolled in Sah'salaan U, that's exactly how I felt. But to my surprise, I'd found many of the GE courses more interesting than those which contributed directly to my major. As, of course, is the intention.

"Ehm'luruus was one such," Ehm'rael went on. "Contemptuous of the course and the instructor, she believed she could expend minimal effort, receive a passing grade, and put it behind her. But as you know, Sah'larrah would tolerate nothing less than full effort."

I grimaced. "Indeed not."

"She never forgave him," the admiral said. "And in the intervening years she spared no opportunity to disparage both him and his profession. 'Let the past lie decently dead,' she has said more than once."

I nodded slowly. That did indeed explain a lot. Certainly she'd struck me as having a vindictive streak a light-year wide. And to someone like that, something as trivial as a bad grade could easily become an obsession. Especially if it was the only failing mark she'd ever received.

"Second," Ehm'rael went on. "As you have surmised, her search for Sah'larrah was begun late, and was conducted in a half-hearted fashion, at best. But that fact is better-known than you realized; in fact it is public knowledge. Because of that, Ehm'luruus' approval rating is at an all-time low. If her position was not an appointed one--unfortunately, it is--she would have no hope of re-election. Indeed, she might already have been recalled."

"Have there been calls for her removal?"

"There have," Ehm'rael confirmed. "Mayor Sah'chass has been under great pressure to do so. If she is involved in any further controversies, he may have no choice. But in the meantime, Ehm'luruus almost certainly believed your threat an empty one. She need not fear your revealing what is already well-known--and what she believes herself to be weathering."

"But if the delay, or the nature of the search, contributed to Sah'larrah's death…"

"Such has been speculated," the admiral said. "But there is no proof. If his body had been found, an autopsy might have indicated that quicker action could have saved him. If so, Ehm'luruus would certainly have been removed from office, perhaps even criminally prosecuted. Doubtless Ehm'herra and Ehm'kall would have filed a wrongful-death suit. But in the absence of evidence…"

I nodded tiredly. "You can't assess a negative."

"Exactly."

"I wish I had seen you first, Admiral," I said bitterly. "I've made a fool of myself yet again. Would you advise me to apologize to Ehm'luruus?"

She waved a hand. "Not at all," she said. "In one sense you were perfectly correct. In her arrogance, she used the power of her office to dictate who deserved her help. That cannot be endured; most especially not on the basis of a personal grudge. There are many in Sah'salaan who would welcome proof that her reluctance did contribute to Sah'larrah's death. And there are many who would be most supportive of your efforts to provide those proofs."

I grimaced. "Even though I'm still persona non grata on Sah'aar?"

"That may be much less true than you believe, my child," she said. She glanced sidelong at her mate, and he looked away. "Public memory is long--but there are limits. What you did has remained an isolated case; it has not, as was once feared, become a general trend. Sah'majha has seen to that, by vigorously defending his patents. The Sah'aaran people are willing to forgive and forget…provided their fears are not again whipped up."

I glanced at her sharply. "Ehm'luruus?"

"Possibly," she said. "Though not certainly. I fear she might resort to such tactics, however, if she feels threatened. It may be best if you concentrate your efforts elsewhere for a time…"

I nodded. "I understand." And I did. She was as displeased with Ehm'luruus as I was, and as eager to see the arrogant Chief of Police removed. But she was still convalescent--and that left me to undertake the task. Had anyone else so unilaterally chosen me as their "point man," I would have resented it--but not Ehm'rael. We understood each other.

She smiled. "As I expected." Her gaze shifted to the kits. They were sitting back, listening and sipping their drinks--but the one in the mauve day-robe probably had less than half her attention on the discussion. "Surely," the admiral said, "these fine young people must have something to say. If they are anything like their mother, they are certainly not shy."

Rae shook herself, and she and her brother exchanged a glance. Then she said hesitantly, "May I ask you a question, Admiral?"

"Certainly, child."

Rae cleared her throat. "Mother told us that when you and Sah'majha bonded, he was…somebody else. Is that true?"

Ehm'rael and her mate exchanged a fond smile, and Sah'majha chuckled. "True enough," the admiral said. "That is quite a story…"

….And then she was off down Memory Lane, Sah'majha picking up the story when she faltered. Over the years he'd been able to recover many of his lost memories of Sah'ahl, the Chrysaoan slave he'd been for more than a decade. The twins listened, rapt. This was not the first time they'd heard the sad story of Lands-End--certainly not--but it was the first time they'd heard it first-hand. For me, it was pleasant to lean back and take a sip from my all-but-forgotten glass, and listen to the rise and fall of the admiral's gentle voice without having to attend to the words.

That's why, I realized suddenly. Why her walking-stick, and the news of her lung troubles, had upset me so. They had brought home to me the fact that she would not be part of my life forever. There are people who so influence our lives, so inspire us, that we would wish them immortal if we could. It would be a good idea, I knew, to allow my kits to stock up on memories of Admiral Ehm'rael now. Unless the Goddess was kinder than I believed, they might not get many more chances.

###

Our shadows were long, the sunset not far off, when we made our way up the path to my father's house. We walked briskly, as fast as my old joints would allow, and not because of the heat: in fact it was no more than pleasantly warm now. What drove us to hurry was the wind. It had risen to a near-gale, laying the dry grass flat in rippling waves, causing the Tatak branches to sway and creak alarmingly. A minor sandstorm, kicked up from the dry edge of the water-hole, skittered across the path, stinging my legs and eyes. Thankfully, we soon ducked inside the sheltering wall of my father's property--but not before I noticed a dark smudge on the southern horizon. Dust, perhaps, or the smoke of grass fires--or maybe not. The rains could be no more than a day or two away.

As always, Admiral Ehm'rael had given me much to think about, and I knew I'd have to speak to her again. The rest of the family had enjoyed her benevolent wisdom as well. She and Joel--and Sah'majha--had "talked shop" for a while, comparing notes in the bewildering dialect of the engineer. Tom had been solidly encouraged in his aspirations--though the admiral was more disappointed than me at his rejection of the CF as a career. She didn't know him--or his temperament--as well as I did.

But it was neither my mate nor my son who was uppermost in my mind as we headed home. Rather, it was my daughter. She walked close beside me, silent and pensive, and when finally I wrapped my arm around her she glanced at me, smiled, and rested her head on my shoulder. I'd seen the way she'd hung back, gazing at Sah'larssh until the twisting path took him out of sight; and I'd seen how he lingered at the gate, his whiskers drooping wistfully. Separating them had been like pulling apart a pair of strong magnets. For the moment Rae had taken refuge in silence; but later we'd be having a very long talk indeed.

Unfortunately, though, it would have to wait a little longer: another crisis was at hand. My brother met us at the door, in an uncharacteristic state of agitation. Dressed formally, in a black evening robe and a gold-threaded collar, he paced the entrance hall, his tail whipping. When he saw us he brightened visibly. "Ah," he said. "Here you are! Father bids me ask you to dress for dinner--as quickly as possible. We are having a guest."

Joel grinned. "Are you handing him a menu, or putting him on one?" he quipped, and I elbowed him in the ribs. Sah'sell went on, unperturbed.

"We do not wish to keep her waiting; she has little time to spend."

"Who's 'she'?" I asked.

"Dr. Ehm'varra," he supplied blandly. "Please hurry." And with that he scurried off.

Ehm'varra, I thought, as we made our way quickly to our rooms. Do I know an "Ehm'varra"? A rapid search through my memory--even as I rummaged through my limited wardrobe for something suitable--failed to make a connection. But my parents and brother had an astounding number of friends and business associates…and I'd been away a long time. Still--as we say--the good hunter knows her prey as she knows her mate. And so, after slipping into the shimmering, décolleté, dark-blue evening robe and jeweled collar that were the best I had, I sat down at the desk for a quick talk with the computer. What I found caused my claws to express and my tail to do a samba. I was still sitting frozen, my claws digging splinters from the chair-arms, when Joel emerged from the bedroom, adjusting his black dinner jacket. "What's wrong?" he asked.

I pointed at the screen. "This."

He stepped closer, leaning over me with a hand on my bare shoulder; but the screen was filled with Sah'aaran script. I translated; and as I did, his grip tightened. "Oh boy," he said finally. "Why here? And why now?"

I sighed. "This must be Sah'sell's doing," I said. Obviously, this was what he'd meant by his cryptic offer to help. I wasn't sure whether to hug him or claw him.

The database of the Sah'aaran "Who's Who" is quite large; even I have an entry, and I occasionally review it, for accuracy and an ego-boost. But even among those many thousands of listings, this one stood out--for its length, if nothing else. There were many paragraphs listing accomplishments and awards, an impressive number for someone just forty years old. But it was the first few lines that caught my eye and held it: "Ehm'varra, Ph.D. Senior sociologist with the Sah'aaran Diplomatic Corps. Mate of Alliance Junior Ambassador Sah'churaaf; mother of Ehm'tassaa and Sah'hael."

"Will this help or hurt?" Joel asked dubiously, and I sighed.

"I wish I knew," I told him. "Obviously my brother believes the former. But I don't know the lady; I can't say whether she shares her mate's opinions. She might not even know what's been going on."

"That I doubt," Joel said. "We'll have to warn Tom. If he's ever needed to be on his best behavior, tonight's the night."

With which assessment, both Tom and I heartily agreed. It was about then that he arrived, arm-in-arm with his sister, and both looking elegant--if in very different ways. Tom wore a white shirt, black slacks and jacket, and an unadorned collar; Rae had donned the same lovely evening robe, silver collar, and sapphire ear-studs she'd worn to my promotion ceremony. Wordlessly, I took Tom's arm and showed him the computer screen. He saw the implications immediately, and the blood drained from his ears and nose; but almost immediately he straightened, his fresh-trimmed whiskers bristling. "I understand," he said. "And I won't disappoint you."

I brushed his cheek, where his sideburns lay flat and neatly brushed. "It's not us we're worried about," I told him gently. "It's you. You must impress her, Tom--for your sake, and Ehm'tassaa's. You two are bond-mates--but you need her family's support."

He nodded soberly. "I know," he said. And he did. Sah'churaaf believed our son halfway a criminal, at best a juvenile delinquent. The Goddess only knew what he'd told his mate--or if Ehm'tassaa's reports to the contrary would even have reached her mother. At all costs, Tom had to get Ehm'varra on his side. I was past wishing he'd put on an evening robe: that wasn't him. He would have to stand, or fall, on his own merits, human-influenced though they be.

I grasped Tom's hand, and he didn't try to pull away. "Come on," I said. "We'd better not keep Father waiting,"

###

We were late, of course: that was the way my luck was running. By the time we arrived, the eight places had been set, clustered near the head of the huge old Tatak table; covered platters lined the sideboard, and the household help stood by, still and silent as statues, waiting to serve. We had time for no more than a few words of introduction before Father's scowl chased us to our seats. When Sah'surraa wanted his meat, he wanted it now.

The dining room in my ancestral home was huge, almost ludicrously so. The table would seat a full two dozen--and I didn't come from a large family. I'd always felt a little silly, with my parents, brother and me scrunched up at one end, and all that wood stretching out to infinity beside us; but Father, predictably, wouldn't allow us to eat anywhere else. That evening, as always, he took the head of the table. The rest of us--Mother, Joel, Sah'sell, the twins, Ehm'varra, and my poor self--were arranged down both sides. I don't know if it was coincidence, some design of my brother's, or my father's perverse sense of humor, that placed Tom directly across from Ehm'varra--but there he was, and the gaze she bestowed upon him proved that she had indeed been in contact with her mate.

I'd exchanged no more than names with her so far, but already I found myself impressed by her presence and assurance. She was strikingly beautiful, her features aristocratic, her mane and fur still untouched by grey; her eyes were quick, and her gaze penetrating. She was not a blackfur--that would have been unprecedented--but even so, in her face I saw the source of Ehm'tassaa's beauty, which by no means lay entirely in her coloration. Her evening robe and collar were black, patterned with bold white polygons. A woman to be reckoned with, I saw--and so too did Tom. He would get absolutely nowhere being flip or funny with her; his father's influence would be worse than useless. For once--though it would be a stretch--he'd have to be utterly serious.

None of us, I suspect, ever had a less comfortable meal. The food was up to the standards of my father's chef (or so I assume: I scarcely remember what I ate.) But there was a tension in the air, an undercurrent that set us all on edge and had us glancing sidelong at each other. To an outsider it would have been quite comical, but I was not tempted to laugh. The twins were still not used to the silence, nor my father's intimidating presence at the head of the table; and they still fumbled a bit with Sah'aaran flatware: a short-bladed, scalpel-like knife, razor-sharp, and a long, thin, two-tined fork, designed solely for stabbing. My mother had procured a spoon for Joel, but the rest of us had none--nor any need of them.

As we ate, I glanced back and forth repeatedly from Tom to Sah'sell, vowing mayhem for my dear brother if this didn't work out. Sah'sell, typically, returned my smoking gaze with a look of blank innocence. Joel, I'm sure, was suffering vicariously along with his son, silently willing Tom to commit no faux pas. Mother and Father clearly knew that something was up, and seemed to be wondering exactly what it was. All in all, a jolly time; very soon I found myself feeling my sash pouch, making sure my roll of antacids was handy.

Ehm'varra, it seemed, was not one to waste time. Immediately after we'd risen from the table, as Father was preparing to lead us to the sitting room, she stepped over to me and bowed. "My greetings to you, Commodore, Mr. Abrams," she said. "I wonder if I might have a word with you--and your son as well."

I bowed in return. "Of course, Doctor," I said. "We would be pleased."

"--And in private, if it can be arranged."

I hesitated. We'd be committing a dire breach of etiquette, taking the guest away from the host, monopolizing her company--but it couldn't be helped. This was not something with which I wanted my father involved. Sah'sell would understand, and would head off Father's wrath, with Mother's help.

"The night is pleasant," I said. "Shall we step onto the verandah?"

She nodded. "That would be fine."

As we departed the dining room, I glanced over my shoulder. Rae was watching us, looking hurt and surprised. I didn't have time to explain why she couldn't be included; but my brother, the Goddess bless him, grasped her arm and spoke quietly into her ear. She nodded and followed him obediently. Her turn would come--and in the meantime, Sah'sell would need her help distracting Father.

The verandah was situated some distance around the curve of the house, near my parent's private suite; it was where they went when they wanted privacy. Rumor has it my brother and I were conceived there. Unlike the conservatory, it was almost innocent of plants, and was more open, having walls of mesh shade-screen. Several comfortable chairs and couches were scattered around, and lamps under the eaves provided soft illumination. We seated ourselves, Tom, Ehm'varra and I forming a triangle, and Joel farther back, almost in the shadows. This was--as he'd often put it--a "Sah'aaran thing," and he was prepared let us settle it ourselves. The afternoon's wind had died to a pleasant breeze, and the air was just on the right side of cool. We'd be adding more covers to our beds tonight, though.

For a moment Ehm'varra gazed at my son and me, her eyes spearing us. Then, finally, she began to speak. Her voice was low and soft, not unlike her daughter's, and out of deference to Joel she stuck to Terran, which she spoke well, if formally. I could almost wish my mate wasn't present, so Tom could demonstrate his fluency in Sah'aaran; but that couldn't be helped either.

"I am grateful to Sah'sell for this opportunity," she said. "Indeed, when I learned that you were on Sah'aar, I began to contemplate how I might approach you. But knowing the nature of your errand, I was reluctant to disturb you."

"I am grateful to my brother as well," I said; and the Goddess grant I was telling the truth. "We should have sought you out, but my attention has been elsewhere." I paused. "I take it, then, that you have been in contact with your mate?"

She smiled. "Indeed I have. And my daughter as well. The variance in their reports has intrigued me greatly."

"Oh?" I said cautiously.

"I came here this evening expecting to meet the most wonderful young male in the galaxy," she said flatly. "Or else some manner of half-human monster--depending on whose reports I chose to believe."

"And what have you found?" I asked evenly. Beside me Tom sat silent, his hands in his lap, his eyes darting anxiously between Ehm'varra and me.

"Certainly not a monster," she said. "The other remains to be seen." She turned to my son. "Ehm'tassaa is much taken with you," she went on. "Are you aware of that?"

Startled, Tom couldn't reply for several seconds. Finally he cleared his throat; and when they came, his words were firm. "Yes, I am, Doctor. I'm taken with her too."

"I believe that to be an understatement," Ehm'varra observed mildly. "I am informed you encouraged my daughter to sneak away from the Embassy, alone, disobeying her father--though Ehm'tassaa denies it. What have you to say?"

Indignation hardened Tom's tone, and his whiskers bristled. "I did not," he said. "I invited her to my home, yes. My sister and I can go almost anyplace we want, as long as we ask permission first. It honestly never occurred to me that Ehm'tassaa wouldn't have the same freedom."

"Understandable," Ehm'varra said. "In truth there was little chance she would come to harm. She tells me she considers the day she spent with you to be the best she'd had since arriving on Terra--despite the punishment her father inflicted on her."

Tom winced. He knew, as did we all, that Ehm'tassaa had been a virtual prisoner ever since. "I wanted to show her a good time," he said. "She didn't say so, but to me she seemed terribly lonely."

Ehm'varra sighed. "I fear you are correct," she said heavily. "There are other youngsters at the Embassy, but they are much younger than her. She tires of being their baby-sitter. She has indeed been quite isolated."

"I'm glad I was able to help her," Tom said. "And I'm sorry it was only that one day."

He spoke pointedly, and Ehm'varra quirked a smile. "I know about you, Thomas Sah'surraa Abrams," she said. "Your history was not difficult to learn: your family is better-known on Sah'aar than you might imagine. I must admit I was concerned; I did not know what to expect from your mixed upbringing."

"And what did you find out?" Tom asked.

"A great deal to your credit, and little to your detriment," she told him. "Our societies are not as different as one might think; I am something of an expert on that. A good student on Sah'aar, or a good citizen, is the same on Terra. If I had learned that you were constantly in trouble, or failing in school, or well-known to the police in your Pacific Grove, I would have indeed been concerned. Obviously I found no such thing."

"Then you don't believe I'm 'half-human'?"

She waved a hand. "Certainly not. That you appreciate human sports does not trouble me; so do many Sah'aarans. That you have been educated in Terran schools also does not worry me. I am--or was--concerned that you might not fully appreciate your heritage. But given your mother's reputation as an archaeologist, I need not have worried. That you have gathered certain habits and beliefs from the humans around you, most notably your father, is inevitable. I judge that you and your sister have successfully integrated the best of both societies, Sah'aaran and human."

Tom smiled. "I hope so."

"I may even forgive you for coaxing my daughter into a swimming pool," Ehm'varra said dryly. She sobered. "However, this discussion may be pointless." She leaned forward again. "Tom," she said, "you are sixteen years old, as is Ehm'tassaa. I assume you have been instructed in the fine points of Sah'aaran biology--?"

Tom glanced away, his ears and nose reddening. As always: Rae was far more comfortable than him discussing matters of reproduction. "I believe so."

"And based on that," Ehm'varra went on, "do you believe you have bonded with Ehm'tassaa?"

Tom raised his head, looking her in the eye. "Yes," he said firmly. "Yes, Doctor, I think I have. Mother says we'll need a blood test to be absolutely sure--but she doesn't doubt it, and neither do I. The feelings are too strong to be anything else."

Ehm'varra gazed into his face, and nodded. "Yes," she said. "I believe you are correct. I have not seen my daughter since this began, but I have read her messages. Her father did not dare prevent her from writing to me. Her feelings are also 'too strong.' It has been said that bonding is the 'great equalizer' of Sah'aaran society. To some extent that is hyperbole; but certainly no one can predict where, or when, a bonding will occur. It is a gift from the Goddess, and as such can only be accepted with gratitude."

Tom stirred. "In that case, there's something I don't understand."

"Which is?"

"If we're bonded, it's for life, right? Till death do us part?"

"That is so," Ehm'varra agreed. "And for the survivor, even that does not end it."

"I can't honestly say I love Ehm'tassaa," Tom said. "Not yet; I hardly know her. But I know I will in time. Mom keeps telling me how fortunate I am--and she's right. Meeting Tass was the luckiest thing that's ever happened to me. But what I want to know is, why did it upset your mate so badly? I don't mean any disrespect, but if Sah'churaaf knew, or guessed, that Ehm'tassaa and I were bonding, wasn't it foolish of him to fight it?"

Ehm'varra sighed again. For a long moment she was silent. Then she said, "I love Sah'churaaf, even as you will come to love Ehm'tassaa. We cannot help it. But certainly he is not perfect. No one is. He has indeed been foolish, Tom. He has caused much distress to you and Ehm'tassaa." Her gaze shifted. "And to you and your mate, Commodore. To the three of you I offer my apologies. He has dishonored you, and for that I am sorry."

"Your apology is accepted, of course," I said quickly. Tom nodded his agreement, and from somewhere in the shadows Joel murmured acknowledgment.

"But in Sah'churaaf's defense, I will say this," Ehm'varra went on. "He is by no means a bad man--but he is a burdened one. Upon him has been bestowed a great treasure. You are aware, Tom, how unique Ehm'tassaa is?"

"I am," Tom said. "Very."

"Often a treasure can be a trial to its possessor. When one owns a rare gem, one does not wear it every day, nor freely lend it or give it away. One locks it up, brings it out only on special occasions, and worries constantly about its safety."

"Ehm'tassaa isn't his property," Tom said. "Not mine or yours, either. She's a person, not a rock. He can't lock her up forever."

"That is so," Ehm'varra agreed. "But in his isolation, Sah'churaaf has forgotten that, and his concern for her safety has become an obsession. She has begun to assert her independence, and that frightens him, as if the jewel had removed itself from its vault without his knowledge. In his dual fears--that she might be harmed, and that she no longer belongs to him--he acted precipitously. He has not yet repented of his actions, but he will--very soon."

"Pardon me?" Tom asked, startled.

"This evening was my last opportunity to meet you," she explained. "My business on Sah'aar has been cleared up, sooner than I expected. Sah'hael and I leave tomorrow morning for Terra, to join Sah'churaaf and Ehm'tassaa. Neither of them know as yet. I have seen tonight what I came to see, and learned what I expected to learn--much to my relief. I understand your family will also be returning to Earth soon?"

"That is so," I confirmed. Though a certain young female might have to be dragged kicking and screaming to the ship…

"When you arrive, Tom, you will find things very different," Ehm'varra said. "You will be free to visit Ehm'tassaa at the Embassy, and will be made welcome; and she in turn will be allowed to visit you in Pacific Grove. Both of you have responsibilities, of which your education is paramount. That must not be neglected; but within those limits, your time together shall be unrestricted. This I swear."

A great sigh escaped Tom, releasing the tension he'd held inside for two weeks. I found myself matching his huge silly smile. Ehm'varra meant what she said; of that I had no doubt. Obvious now too, the source of Ehm'tassaa's fierce determination.

"Thank you, Doctor," Tom said. "Very much."

She smiled. "It pleases me to help," she said. "And I could do no less, for your sake as well as hers." She stood. "I must take my leave, I fear. I have packing to do, and my ship departs early tomorrow."

We rose too, and I caught her hand. "I am grateful to you," I said. "As is my son. When we have returned home, please come see me. We have much in common, I believe."

She matched my smile; and behind it I was gratified--and startled--to see an expression of profound respect. Whether it was for my rank, or my advanced age, I didn't know. "Indeed we do," she said. "I look forward to that. And I wish you well with your business here."

With that she departed--but not before she grasped my son's hands and firmly licked the bridge of his nose, leaving him gaping in surprise.

Joel draped his arm around Tom's shoulder. "You know, son," he said thoughtfully, "I think we're both very lucky in the mother-in-law department."

###

I was purring in contentment, calm and relaxed for the first time in days, as Joel and I made our way back to our suite. And not simply because of the dinner resting comfortably in my gut, no antacids needed. Finally, I was getting something done.

It appeared also that my luck had begun to change--and about time. Two conversations with two very different women, both--for once--calm, reasoned and to good purpose. Tom was absolutely floating as he headed for bed. Ehm'varra would keep her promises, I knew--and I thought I knew as well how she'd accomplish it. If I was right, then the Goddess help Sah'churaaf. When we returned to Terra, Tom and Ehm'tassaa would be free to see each other as often as their busy lives--and the distance between them--allowed. I didn't expect them to be moving in together, not quite yet--but that would happen too, eventually. It was a certainty, and had been since the night of my ceremony.

But the conclusion of that situation did leave me with another. I only wish I'd known just how soon it would crop up; I would have banked away some of my contentment.

She was waiting for us--or rather me--in the darkened living room, curled up on the sofa staring at the moonlit garden. As Joel switched on the lights, she rose quickly.

"Rae," I said in surprise. "What are you doing here, honey?"

She glanced quickly at her father, then her eyes came to rest on me, full of helpless pleading. She had changed back into her day-robe, but her mane was still loose, spilling over her shoulders. She raised her hands in supplication. "Mother," she said. "I need to talk to you. Right now."

I embraced her, and found to my dismay that she was trembling. I stroked her mane gently. "I think you're right," I said.

Joel looked at us in consternation. For a moment I feared he might want to stay--but he'd learned enough to know when males, especially human ones, are of no use. He cleared his throat. "I'll--uh--be in the bedroom, then," he said. It was halfway a question.

"Yes," I said pointedly. "You will."

In silence he retreated, and the door clicked shut behind him. For a few seconds I gazed at my daughter, wondering what I should, or could, say to her. Like her brother, she knew the facts of life; but knowing and experiencing are two very different things. Very possibly, she'd met her future mate that afternoon--and yet she knew nothing about him apart from his name and lineage. Such is the nature of our biology: it can turn strangers into intimate acquaintances, with breathtaking speed.

I'd do what I could: give her comfort, tell her that what she was feeling was entirely normal, even desirable. I'd tell her she'd best get to know Sah'larssh quickly, before we departed for Terra--and that the two of them would be well advised, as much as was possible, to bring their lives and ambitions into synch. If indeed they were bonding, they would be pulled together; it might as well be under circumstances advantageous to both.

…And finally, I'd tell her what might come next, and that it was nothing to be afraid of; that she should simply relax and let it happen, when she--not he--felt comfortable. It was no good telling her to "just say no;" her biology made that advice worthless. And that was part of the discussion we absolutely couldn't share with Joel. Like Ehm'tassaa, Rae was only fertile twice a year--but she was his little girl.

She was still gazing at me, her eyes wide, and I smiled. Despite the growing discomfort of my evening robe, this wouldn't wait, not one minute. "Come," I said, switching to Sah'aaran and steering her toward the sofa. "Let's sit. This might take a while."


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