Thursday, March 30, 2017

December 8 (later), part 1

Who’s a lucky gal? Me. Me, me, me. And why am I lucky? Because Clan Seot couldn’t wait to see me after they were done with work this evening. When they commed to ask if they could come over, I barely let Seot get the words out before I answered, “Yes!”

A million times yes.

They were at my door in a twinkling. Talk about instant happiness. I was enthusiastically hugged and kissed. It could be I just as enthusiastically hugged and kissed back. Anrel received her due adoration every bit as joyfully. Cifa was beside himself with delight to hold her again. I’m positive he’s Anrel’s biggest fan in the entire universe.

We had dinner in the complex’s courtyard once all the smoochy-huggy stuff calmed down. I hate to sound needy, but it was terrific to be in the company of doting men again. If that makes me pathetic, so be it.

Sitting outdoors under a sunset-streaked sky with food and the bottle of bohut the men had so thoughtfully brought along was a treat. The nearby firepit blazed cheerfully even though it was warm outdoors. We sat far enough away that it didn’t add too much heat to enjoy.

“Now I must figure out how to ask how your stay with Clan Aslada was, without seeming too nosy,” Seot mused after we’d gotten comfortable. He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “And to carefully extract information that will help us outdo them.”

I laughed. “Usually it’s Larten who tries to be devious. I’m shocked, Seot. You’re always so gentlemanly about my other options.”

His handsome face grew more devastating with a cheerful smile. “Ah, good. The ploy to be charming is working. Oops, did I say that out loud?”

I shook my head at him. “I see that dark heart of evil you’ve been keeping hidden. Oh, I’ve been so na├»ve!”

He hugged me close, laughing at our silly play. “But seriously, how did they treat you? Because if it wasn’t with perfect consideration, I will pull Dramok Aslada’s nose off his handsome face.”

“Stop it. Considering we spent so much time dealing with Mom, they showed themselves in a positive light.”

Cifa sighed, our conversation dimming his happiness. “I hate that it wasn’t in our power to do more for Matara Eve. I am glad you had men who were able to get her on the road to recovery and take care of you in a time of such great need.”

I winked at him. “Okay, guys. You can stop being good sports about my other suitors if you don’t feel like it. I know you put Anrel and me first, no matter how much you might dislike the situation.”

“Okay. I despise Clan Aslada and hope they disappear from existence,” Larten said.

I gave him a playful shove, laughing at how he spoke his mind. His tone had been mild, but I knew he didn’t tease. He meant every word he said.

Not that I agreed at all with him. Clan Aslada had been amazing during my stay with them, holding me together as Mom fought her way back into living. They’d been my rocks as she and I battled each other, trying to figure out our new relationship.

I refused to downplay their contribution. “Your rivals were patient with Mom, and that’s saying a lot considering the abuse she threw at them. They were wonderful to Anrel, which is always high on my list of priorities. They treated me like a princess and handled my storms with great grace. That’s what you’re up against,” I advised the men.

“Thank you for stating the situation so clearly,” Seot said, applauding me. “I appreciate being advised on our competition.”

“Just so long as you realize I have to return the favor,” I said. “I will visit with them again, under less stressful circumstances. They are worried that I was so consumed with getting Mom squared away that they didn’t get a fair chance to court me.”

Larten waved his hand in a show of non-concern. “They will weep and give up in despair when they hear how well we fit with you and Anrel. They will know they are not worthy to be your clan.”

I had to snuggle against him as I laughed harder than before. Larten’s exaggerated confidence never fails to amuse me. He snickered and hugged me close, giving me a loud kiss for good measure.

We had many excuses to laugh as we connected once more. A few serious topics popped up from time to time. Most notably – Dramok Nang.

Larten’s droll attitude turned dark when my former lover’s name came up. “I’ve been communicating with my sources and Nobek Oses to pin down Nang’s whereabouts. It’s been months now, and he’s not shown up anywhere we thought he might.”

“That’s bad, isn’t it?” I asked.

The Nobek shrugged. “It could be he’s gotten himself into the kind of trouble that will keep him from returning to Kalquor.”

“You mean he might be dead.”

“I don’t want to say anything to upset you. He’s a danger to you, but I know you don’t want him hurt.” Larten kept his expression impassive as he said that. I knew he’d just as soon have Nang dead and no longer an issue, but he wasn’t about to say anything so callous. Especially since it was possible that Nang was Anrel’s biological father.

“Any other reasons no one has seen him?” I asked.

“He’s been delayed somewhere and remained hidden. Or he’s using a route that keeps him away from our people, which would keep him away from the Empire for an even longer time.” Larten shrugged. “It’s impossible to know, but I’m not going to stop asking questions. He will not sneak back onto this planet without our knowledge if I have anything to say about it.”

“With all that in mind, were you able to keep up with your training?” Seot asked me.

I grinned. “You bet. I have to say, Nobek Toleca was a terror. Larten, why do I get the idea he’d tear out someone’s throat just for the fun of it?”

“Because he would. But only if they were worth the effort of killing.”

I snorted at Larten’s sorry attempt to soothe my worries about the knife-fighting trainer he’d sent my way. I said, “He’d consider murdering opponents a way to express how much they’d impressed him. He’d see it as a compliment.”

“I think you’re right,” Larten chuckled.

We moved on to happier subjects, including our upcoming cruise the next week. I snickered as I said, “They should give my room here at the complex to someone else. I’m barely around to use it!”

Yep. I’m going to be packing again soon.

Monday, March 27, 2017

December 8 (early)

While I can help myself with stim tabs and coffee to adjust to the time change between the capital city and Aslada’s home, I do not want to screw with Anrel’s schedule via chemical means. It’s going to take some time to put her to rights naturally, so I anticipate suffering for at least a couple of weeks. Case in point: she woke up in the deepest dark of the early morning. I think I slept two hours. Groan.

I hauled my pathetic carcass up and dosed myself with a stim tab and coffee after changing and feeding my early bird. She was so sweet and chirpy that I couldn’t be grumpy. With the world outside still fast asleep, I played with her to make her giggle. Peekaboo was a big hit. I laughed as hard as she did when she went wide-eyed to see me suddenly re-appear from behind my hands. The look on her face was hilarious.

I set about opening the presents Clan Aslada had sent along with us, starting with the goodies for Anrel. Toys, toys, toys. She was delighted with them, more for their bright colors and musical noises than anything else, I think. And chewability. Let’s not forget that. That child loves to exercise those two lower teeth she’s sprouted.

One gift item made me particularly happy. It was a kind of handheld-like device, but made super durable for children. It would read from a huge trove of stories, both in Kalquorian and four Earther languages. It also played songs, presented counting games, and displayed floating vids from a vast library of other educational files. I was impressed with the teaching device.

Other boxes held more clothes for her, no doubt lovingly chosen by Imdiko Snoy. I made a note to com him later so he could say hello to Anrel. I had no doubt he was at a loss as what to do with himself this first day of her absence.

With Anrel happily occupied with her toys, I opened the gifts with my name on them. The larger items, I had the sneaking suspicion would be gowns. Yep. A dozen Kalquorian-style gowns, the fabrics rich and flawless and impeccably embroidered. Goodness, when would those men learn such things were impractical for someone like me? Once in a while it’s fun to dress up…but I just can’t seem to pull off wearing gowns on a daily basis with the same ease that Kalquorian women do. Ah, but they were stunning dresses. I can’t say I didn’t imagine myself in each and every one of them, preening before adoring men.

Ha! I am such a ridiculous thing sometimes.

Smiling as I thought of how Aslada, Meyso, and Jaon’s eyes would light up to see me gliding about in the sumptuous frocks, I opened a smaller box. I damned near yelled in my shock at what I found. I only just stopped myself from crying out for fear it would upset Anrel.

A necklace of red, blue, and green gemstones glittered at me, set in gold filigree. It was stunning. Utterly spectacular. Magnificent.

I thought, no way those were real rubies, sapphires, and emeralds. They couldn’t be. Because if they were, I was looking at what would have amounted to a fortune back on Earth.

I admit I haven’t been lucky enough to have seen a lot of pricey jewels. So maybe it’s just really exquisite costume jewelry. But as rich and extravagant as Clan Aslada is, I worried it might be the real thing.

I worried more as I saw five other similar-sized packages waiting to be opened. My heart pounding, I opened them, one after the other.

Earrings. Bracelets. Another necklace, this one a two-inch wide choker covered in what looked like diamonds. I shook my head, still trying to convince myself they had to be fakes. Splendid, exquisite fakes. They had to be. Right?

“Please, please don’t be real,” I whispered to the dazzling array. I thought my head might explode.

Why was I so overwhelmed? It wasn’t like I’d asked Clan Aslada to buy me a wearable treasure trove. This gesture was entirely their making. Maybe I’m a bit of a gold digger in that I’m looking for a clan suitable to raise my daughter, but that’s the long and short of what I’m after. Good, solid men to share our lives with is what I’m digging for. Love has to be the main ingredient, not money.

Sure, jewelry is nice. I freely admit to sighing over a particularly pretty bauble or two in my time. But this—if this was the real thing, it was over and beyond what I could imagine someone giving to me.

I rubbed my eyes. “Your bumpkin background is showing again, Shalia,” I told myself. Okay, maybe this was the genuine article. Maybe I was looking at an outrageous amount of money—to me. Clan Aslada had shown that for some people, money was not that big a deal. They had plenty of it, so they lived extremely well. Hadn’t I seen what I was sure to be priceless art in their mansion? The finest furnishings? A huge staff to wait on every whim of three men? I’d spent weeks surrounded by opulence that made me uneasy, but Aslada, Meyso, and Jaon hardly seemed to notice at all. They’d been born to privilege and had lived in its easy luxury their whole lives.

What seemed excessive gifts to me might be nothing more than trifles to such men. The more I thought about it, the more sense it made. I was flipping out over nothing.

I really need to get a grip on myself and stop making mountains out of molehills.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

December 7, part 2

With attendants in tow who carried all Clan Aslada’s gifts and my luggage as I lugged Anrel, we made our way to the Matara Complex. I was ‘home’ again.

Sweet prophets, my quarters felt like a featureless shoebox after the opulence of Clan Aslada’s home. It was so tiny in comparison! Utilitarian too. All the presents sent with me took up a ton of my cramped space. Where was I supposed to put all that stuff?

I sighed and thanked the attendants as they bowed and left me. I made Anrel my first priority, changing her diaper and putting her in her crib. I spent a few moments watching her sleep, relishing having her all to myself.

Where had the time gone? Anrel was six months old now, growing before my very eyes. She was no longer the tiny baby who’d been born weeks too early. She was still an infant, but a big one, a heavy armful of cuddly sweetness. I’d noted all the clothes Snoy had insisted be made for her, tossing out what I’d brought for her to wear. I thought he’d been spending all of Clan Aslada’s money on dresses and tops and skirts for appearance’s sake. Now I thought perhaps she’d been outgrowing everything she’d had.

To test my theory, I went to some of the shelves in the closet-sized room. I’d left behind some of Anrel’s clothes there, folded neatly. I shook out a shirt and compared it to my sleeping baby.

Holy cats. Anrel had gotten huge in the weeks we’d stayed with Clan Aslada. She was at least two, probably three sizes bigger than when we’d left. At this rate, she’d be as big as any Kalquorian woman.

I studied her, marveling at my beautiful, healthy girl. Her glossy black hair was a cap on her round head and had a tendency to curl. Her cheeks were round, the kind that tempted even the coldest-hearted to pinch. Big eyes, that when opened, resembled sideways teardrops. A nose that reminded me of my own, inherited from my mother. Sweet little rosebud lips that would stretch into the happiest of smiles.

The surge of adoration that hit me was enough to rock me on my feet. Sweet prophets, I love my perfect little Anrel. Love? Oh, what a weak, pathetic word. It doesn’t do justice to the profound feelings I have for my baby. How did I get so lucky? How is it she came to me? I have no answers for those questions. Just profound gratitude.

I feared that if I looked at her for any longer, I’d either wake her by bawling with emotion or picking her up and hugging her breathless. I had to leave her room or be overwhelmed by her.

I went to the kitchen, fixed some coffee, and collected myself. I had to laugh at how hard I’d been walloped by my feelings over Anrel. It’s astounding how love can knock you for a loop sometimes.

With coffee in hand, I commed Candy. “You’re back!” she squealed. “Katrina, Shalia’s home! Katrina’s with me.”

“So I guessed,” I laughed.

“Can we come over?”

“Of course, but Anrel’s asleep. She’s still on Esofu time.”

“We’ll be right there.”

It was so good to see the women I considered to be sisters. Katrina looked good, better than how she’d been when I’d left. I guess the grief at being separated from her clan was easing. Always athletic, she beamed radiant health even as she brandished a bottle of shel.

“You’re letting your hair grow out,” I said, noting her gray, well-styled locks were waving over her ears and down her neck.

She shrugged. “Yeah, well, I need the change. My clanmates keep asking me about trying it out longer. Siko says it’s not fair that I get to do all the hair pulling.”

“He has a point. You might like that kind of action,” I advised our senior gal pal.

“I’m sure I will, but I’m not too crazy about this in-between stage it’s at.”

“Don’t listen to her. She looks good and she knows it,” Candy said. Our resident cheerleader lookalike was her typical blonde and bouncy self. I don’t know of anyone bubblier than Candy. That quality often leads even those who know her to forget the formidable brain she possesses. She’s so girlish and enthusiastic that it’s sometimes easy to discount her.

They had to peek in at Anrel, of course. I let them go in alone, worried I’d get weird and emotional again. I used the excuse that I needed to get glasses for the shel. I bolted down my coffee and returned to the greeting room and poured the bottle Katrina had left behind.

My friends wore identical expressions of shock when they returned to my greeting room. “What the hell did you feed her while you were away?” Katrina said, sitting down. “I almost didn’t recognize my grandbaby.”

“She’s grown so much!” Candy said, flopping onto the lounger next to her. “I can’t believe how much she’s changed since we last saw her.”

“It’s not just me then,” I said. “It kind of knocked the wind out of me earlier.”

“A toast to our healthy girl,” Katrina said, raising her glass.

“You’ll toast anything,” I laughed, but I lifted my glass as well.

Candy took a happy swallow. “Anything new on your mom?” she asked.

I sank down on one of my floor seating cushions. “Not since our last conversation.” I’d kept them up to date on everything as far as Eve was considered.

“I’m sorry her staying here didn’t work out,” Katrina said. “Are you doing all right with it?”

“I think so, though I can’t deny it still hurts. It was for the best, though.” I was coming to terms with my mom’s recovery needing to be away from me. As she had pointed out, we couldn’t work out our tumultuous relationship until she got herself sorted out. Just because surgery had corrected the chemical imbalance that caused her bipolar disorder, it hadn’t fixed decades of poor coping skills…or our admittedly rocky past.

“What’s up for you next?” Candy asked.

“A sea cruise. Want to come?”

“Oh, Clan Seot, right? Don’t I wish I could go on a cruise.”

“You can. Katrina too. You’re both invited on Cifa’s newest floating paradise for its shakedown.” I was almost as effervescent as Candy as I shared the happy news.

Katrina’s brows rose, and Candy gasped. Blond ringlets sprang up and down as she bounced on the lounger. “Really? When? Can I bring Stidmun? He’s got time saved up!”

I laughed. “I figured you wanted the big stud man along for the ride. He can come along if he can get here by the end of next week.”

“Oh, I’ll have to com him right away then. A high-speed shuttle would make it, but he’ll have to book passage now.” Candy dashed out into the corridor to make her call, tossing a “Thanks, Shalia!” over her shoulder as she went.

I turned to our older friend. “And you, lovely lady? Are you ready to bask under the sun, explore new vistas, and sail the high seas?”

She chuckled. “I think I’ll sit this one out, sweetie. But thanks for thinking of me.”

“Oh, Katrina! Why won’t you come?” I gave her my saddest expression.

“For one thing, I have a job. Remember?”

“You don’t think they’ll give you time off? What if I threaten to break their legs?”

“I’ve only been the liaison here for a few weeks. It’s too early to be galivanting off.”

“I thought galivanting was what you did best,” I teased.

She winked. “I am good when it comes to that. But there’s more to it. I think I’d find it difficult to enjoy myself watching you and Candy being romantic with your paramours. It would remind me of how much I miss my men.”

I deflated. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think that the offer might bum you out.”

She waved me off. “No, no! I appreciate it. It means a lot that you’d invite me along. But I’d feel like a fifth wheel. You know I insist on being the belle of the ball.”

I grinned. “I’ll tell you what. If things work out between me and Clan Seot, I’ll insist Cifa give you and your clan a free jaunt to celebrate when Wotref, Ret, and Sika return.”

Katrina raised her glass to me again. “I’m not going to pretend I’m above taking advantage of my friends in high places. I accept your offer.”

My door opened and Candy came back in. “We’ve got shopping to do, Shalia. Find out how many ports we’re visiting, so I can buy a different soaksuit for each one.”

“Yay!” I cheered. “Stidmun’s on his way?”

“He’s still got to put in for the time, but that shouldn’t be a problem. It’s getting here that will cut it close. But he can always join us at one of the stops, right?”

“I don’t see why not.”

Ahoy, mateys. We’re going to sea.