Thursday, April 13, 2017
December 13 (early)
Off on the high seas! A sailor’s life for me, yo-ho-ho.
This morning, a luxurious shuttle came for me and Anrel. It was right up there with the one Clan Aslada owns, though Clan Seot hired this one for the occasion. It was silly considering the pier was only five minutes away. It was a blatant indulgence for no other reason than to allow Clan Seot to pamper us. But why not start off a swanky vacation with a ride in a posh vessel complete with fruity drinks and pastries?
“Too much?” Cifa laughed as I climbed on board.
“Thank you for the treat,” I said. “You make me feel special.”
“Because you are,” Seot assured me and followed the compliment up with a kiss. What a charmer.
I had time for one fruit-filled pastry and half my glass of berry-infused leshella before we were landing at the pier where the ships of Cifa’s cruise line docked. I stepped off the shuttle on Seot’s arm and goggled.
It was the massive silver and blue liners that grabbed my attention first. Shaped like arrowheads, the five decks of each vessel stacked on top of another like tiers on a wedding cake. The pointed bow of the lowest deck was uninterrupted by the upper decks from midway forward. There were two in port, both with long lines of Kalquorian clans, some of which included Kalquorian or Earther women. One ship was loading and the other disembarking passengers. There was a sense of excited anticipation from those getting ready to set off, and a resigned but pleased attitude from the ones whose trip had just ended.
More plentiful were the mid-sized ships, looking much like their larger versions but with only three decks. Cifa had told me they accommodated five hundred to a thousand passengers. They were able to visit more ports than the massive vessels, so they tended to have fewer amenities.
I eyed both types of vessels with curiosity. They looked incredibly festive with their colorful decorations, upbeat music and noise, and the happy welcomes and goodbyes being shouted from the attendants. They were obviously floating fun. I wondered how the more private ship we were taking would compare to the gala atmosphere I saw on the other vessels.
The call turned me to face an older woman hurrying our way. I recognized her right away from our many coms.
Joelle Beauregard, now known as Matara Joelle of Clan Bitev, was all smiles as she trotted towards me. I squealed with delight and ran to greet her.
She was country-woman pretty with a ready smile beaming on her narrow face. Her features were sharp, but not stark. Her medium-length red hair had a thick ‘skunk stripe’ of white right in the middle of her swept-aside bangs. The laugh lines etched on her face showed her to be about Katrina’s age. She looked more than ready to relax on a cruise with a cap-sleeved blouse and white shorts that showed off her golden tanned legs. She’d been sunbathing since getting off the transport, apparently.
I flung my arms around her. “Finally! I get to meet you in the flesh!”
She laughed and hugged me like a long-lost friend. “Can you believe it? I was beginning to think I’d never see you face to face.”
Seot, Cifa, and Larten joined us. As usual, Cifa had commandeered Anrel, but it was immediately obvious he was in for some competition.
“All right, hand my grandbaby over. And what were you thinking, sending me that fancy shuttle? Goodness, they served me a breakfast fit for a queen!” Joelle beamed at the three men as Cifa good-naturedly gave up Anrel to her.
The men bowed low to her. “Welcome to Kalquor, Matara Joelle,” Seot said for the trio. “The shuttle was sent as a small token of all you are due.”
“He’s what we called a silver-tongued devil in my day, Shalia,” Joelle said with a wink. She centered her attention on the baby, missing a confused Seot discreetly sticking his tongue out and trying to look at it, apparently worried it had changed color. “Hello, pretty little Anrel! Grandmom finally gets to hold you. Aren’t you a heavy one!”
“She’s grown a lot in only a few weeks,” I agreed. I noted a man approaching and stopping a couple of feet behind her. He held a travel bin and gave me a smile and bow as he waited patiently. “Is he with you?”
Joelle glanced over her shoulder. “Yes, he’s one of the lovely attendants from the shuttle. Cifa, thank you for the indulgence. I’ve never felt so pampered.”
The Imdiko grinned and blushed a little. “That was barely a taste of what’s to come, but I’m glad you enjoyed your trip.”
“Barely a taste? Oh, then lead on!” Her eyes sparkled as she looked over the cruise ships in the port.
“Candy and Stidmun aren’t here yet,” I sighed. “That woman is the worst about being on time.”
“They’ll find us. Don’t worry, we won’t leave without them,” Cifa said, putting an arm around Joelle’s shoulders and tugging her along. They both cooed over Anrel as they went.
Seot reclaimed my hand to walk with me down the pier. I squeezed. “I know this is old hat to you, but it’s is pretty thrilling for me,” I said.
“I’m excited because you, Matara Joelle, and Cifa are excited,” he chuckled. “It’s impossible to not be enthusiastic when I’m surrounded by so much of that emotion.”
Larten walked on the other side of me, smiling at the squeals coming from Joelle as she looked over the ships we passed. “This is what I enjoy about these trips most. Everyone is so joyful with the anticipation.”
“Sour faces need not apply,” I agreed. “Hey, is this our boat? Oh my gosh, it’s wonderful!”
Wonderful, indeed. The smart vessel, arrowhead-shaped like the rest of the company’s line and wearing the same silver and blue colors, gleamed like a jewel in the sunlight. True, she wasn’t as big as the other cruisers, but the ship was still sizeable. I’d seen a few yachts, and this one compared pretty well.
She had three decks in all. The middle deck was mostly an enclosed space with mirrored windows, but there was a decent walkway all around it. The lowest deck also had an enclosed area in the aft section, just big enough to support the deck above it. The open area had loungers, a bar, a huge whirlpool, a small stage situated right next to the forward wall of the enclosed area, and tables to sit at. On stage, a couple of black-skinned Zelts were playing a lively tune that sounded like echoing chimes mixed with a thumping, jingling tambourine. It was the most cheerful music I’d ever heard and fit the vibe of coming good times. It was a floating vacation, all right.
There were people on board already. I noted the crew right away, because they were all dressed the same: white tank tops that showed off the astounding Kalquorian muscularity…gorgeous shoulders for days…and mid-thigh yellow shorts that clung to carved derrieres without being too rudely snug. The men wore sandals or went barefoot, and everyone’s long hair was braided neatly down their backs.
There were several men not wearing these ‘uniforms’ and two women. They held drinks in their hands and were chattering with animated faces.
One of the women’s voices rang out. “Cifa! You’re here!”
All at once, crew and passengers alike were calling out glad welcomes to us. Tiny, sparkling lights exploded over the deck, accompanied by fizzling popping sounds. Celebratory whoops came from the Zelts, their red tentacle ‘hair’ waving in the air as they played more festively than ever.
Cifa, Seot, and Larten shouted in response, their faces beaming at the greeting. Anrel, delighted with the hullabaloo, added her joyful yell from Joelle’s arms. That got a crescendo of laughter and applause from everyone.
“It’s Anrel! Bring me that baby so I can cover her with kisses!” one of the women yelled. Her long hair and sarong blew in the breeze as she reached welcoming arms.
“And Shalia, so I can do the same,” the man standing next to her called boisterously. “But which of these beauties is she? Never mind, I’ll take them both!”
Everyone roared with laughter. That was my introduction to Cifa’s sister Ila and his brother, Dramok Erom. As we climbed on board the ship, Anrel got those kisses, from the women and every Imdiko in the immediate area…even the crew. Ila and Erom’s clanmate, Matara Bazi, had as many hugs and kisses for Joelle and me as they did for the baby. Dramok Erom, his Imdiko Habo, and Ila’s Imdiko Tir hugged us Earther gals, but that was as far as they went. The rest bowed in respect and yelled to the bartender to get us started because no one should cruise sober.
The party had begun, and we hadn’t even left port yet. When I was set to refuse my drink because someone had to be responsible for Anrel, Joelle pulled me close. “Have fun, Shalia. I’m not a big drinker anyway, and I think I’ll have far more fun sitting back and watching the madness.” She giggled, her expression delighted to have been the recipient of such a sincere welcome. Our new friends seemed genuinely delighted to have us there.
Cifa leaned close too. “I’m not drinking either. I like to start these inaugural cruises with a clear head because I want to see how well a new ship operates. As outrageous as Erom and Ila seem to be, they are the same way. So relax, have fun, and know Anrel’s in safe hands.”
I glanced at Cifa’s younger brother. He was watching us from a few feet away as everyone else mooned over the baby. He gave me a nod and a wink. Though he grinned like a scoundrel, his wide eyes were intelligent and focused. I sensed an intensity, the way Seot and Aslada tended to be. A Dramok through and through, one who looked out for others first.
“Okay, but I have no intention of getting impaired,” I told Cifa and Joelle. “I’m not going to embarrass myself in front of your family or mine the very first day I’ve met them in person.”
I had to remind myself of that after the bartender gave me a leshella cocktail that was to die for. It was delicious, and keeping myself to slow, infrequent sips was a challenge, especially in the merry setting.
Five minutes after we got on board, Candy and Stidmun finally arrived. Now I was one of those yelling in welcome to our latecomers. Once more, sparklers went off, and the Zelt musicians played more enthusiastically than ever.
Candy bounded onto the ship, her blue eyes so wide they threatened to eat up her face. “Oh wow. Oh wow!” she exclaimed over and over as everyone made a fuss over her. “Thanks for having us along!”
Stidmun was at first taken aback, but as he adjusted to the atmosphere, he began to smile. I didn’t miss how Joelle, Ila, Bazi, and more than a few of the men stared at him. Stidmun is outrageously gorgeous. With perfectly symmetrical features, hair fetchingly swept to one side, unmatched virility, and an equally flawless body, he is one stunning Nobek. Even the bump on his nose from a previous break and the thin scar on his cheek add to the heroic stature he wears effortlessly.
I overheard Imdiko Habo tell Erom, “I think we’re going to get lucky tonight with Bazi…as long as we can set aside who she’ll be fantasizing about.”
Erom roared with laughter. “We should have masks made, right? Surgery, maybe?”
Their Nobek, Palf, snickered. “Hell, I might fantasize about Stidmun too. He’s hot as fuck.”
After I was done laughing until tears streamed down my cheeks, I realized Cifa must have had a conversation with his extended family and the crew. No one said anything about Candy’s adoration of an unclanned Nobek or treated either of them different in any way I could see. They were made as welcome as Anrel and I had been, no questions asked.
With our little group finally assembled, the captain of our ship, Dramok Carip, went to the uppermost deck where the ship’s bridge was located. The engines were silent, so only the vibrations under our feet told us they had been started. The horn blew and the ship slowly slid sideways, moving away from the pier. Though there was no one present who had come to see us off, we waved and shouted to those on shore anyway. Dock hands and those coming and going waved and shouted back, temporary friends and anonymous well-wishers.
The arrowhead-shaped ship pivoted leisurely, pointing us to the open sea. Moments later, she was cutting through the water, leaving lines of wake behind her. We were off.
The Zelts played a louder, happier tune than before. Ila and Bazi pulled Joelle, Candy, and me to the middle of the deck, Bazi with Anrel in her arms. The two Kalquorian women twirled around to the music, their sarongs fluttering around them, squealing with Anrel as they danced. Of course, Candy was more than ready to join in, and after a moment’s hesitation, I did too. With our encouragement, Joelle was convinced to whirl too.
Naturally, the men did not join us. Silly Kalquorian males and their dislike for dancing. They cheered, however, and their hands thudded to the rhythm.
The arrival and boisterous welcome had made meeting everyone a blur. I had the opportunity to get a better look at Ila and Bazi.
Ila is the middle child of Cifa’s family, older than Erom. I wouldn’t have thought a woman standing over six feet tall could be labeled as cute, but she manages it the same way big, muscled Cifa is adorable. Her nose is perky, her face round, and her whole demeanor is bouncy. She could be the Kalquorian version of Candy. They both look like they are in desperate need of pom-poms. Like Candy, Ila is also brainy. I wonder if Cifa’s sister faces some of the disbelief Candy has gotten when she shows off her intellect.
Ila was a whir of color in her rainbow-hued sarong, which she wore with a matching halter-style top that covered her breasts and precious little else. Her hair, long to the bottom of her butt, was a wavy cloud of black.
Bazi, the Matara of Cifa’s brother Dramok Erom, was the slightest Kalquorian woman I’d ever seen. She still had plenty of muscle, but her frame was much willowier than what I thought of as the norm for her species. In her black sarong and top – which consisted only of triangle cups for her breasts and strings to keep them on her – she looked like a great, dark swan. Her features were sharp but not stark, matching her lean frame. If she’d only smiled instead of beaming the way she did, she’d have possessed a haughty, elegant beauty. With that grin, however, she looked like a fun-loving girl not yet out of her twenties.
We danced until Joelle and I were dizzy. The two of us staggered over to a lounger to rest, taking Anrel with us. She was starting to fuss. “Are you hungry, baby?” I asked.
Cifa was off like a shot to get her food from the galley. As he went, he called, “Don’t worry. The chef is ready to keep her well fed.”
“Some fun,” Joelle told me as she bounced Anrel on her knee, keeping her entertained until the food arrived. “This is really something else.”
I considered the drink the bartender brought and consulted with my equilibrium. I felt untouched by the one drink I’d nursed, so I took the glass of leshella cocktail with pleasure. “I’ll say. I knew it was going to be amazing, but I didn’t know it would start off with this much hoopla.”
Joelle looked at the others on the deck. The gals continued to dance. The Nobeks except for Larten clustered together, watching and cheering the gals with grins lighting their fierce faces. Imdikos Tir and Habo had thrown off their clothes (Yes, all of their clothes. I averted my eyes when that happened) and happily chatted and relaxed in the whirlpool as attendants kept them supplied with drinks and snacks. Seot, Larten, and Erom lounged around a table across the deck from me. They seemed casual as they conversed, the occasional laugh punctuating their discussion. Seot and Larten glanced at me from time to time, as if to check on things.
I appreciated that they were giving me space to spend some time with my stepmother. I already knew quite a few things about her due to our commed conversations, but it didn’t replace face-to-face interaction.
She’d been a waitress in a small-town bar, not far from where I’d been living when Armageddon struck. Her parents had both suffered from ill health from the time she’d been a teen. She’d made taking care of them her main purpose in life, putting aside any thoughts of romance and marriage.
“I just couldn’t leave them, not for any reason,” Joelle sighed. “They were my everything. None of the men I dated seemed to understand that I wasn’t going to walk away from Mama and Daddy. My beaus wanted me to wrap myself around their lives, have their babies, and put my folks on the back burner.”
“Not very understanding of them,” I noted. “It makes you wonder how they treated their own parents.”
Joelle shrugged and offered a little smile. “In a sense, I can kind of see how they felt. Relationships are about devoting most of your time and energy to that one person. I couldn’t offer that. I don’t regret it.”
“You told me your parents didn’t live to see Armageddon. You didn’t have a sweetie after they were gone?”
“Daddy died fourteen years ago. When that happened, Mama and I needed each other more than ever, and I never searched for anyone else. Then two years ago, she went too. I was lonely, but when I looked around, I didn’t see anyone I could imagine sharing my life with.”
I chuckled. “I had the same problem with that. None of the men I knew seemed worth the effort.”
“Well, I’m glad it wasn’t just me and my high standards,” Joelle laughed. “I thought it was because I was older and maybe a bit too cynical when it came to relationships. I’ll admit, I probably didn’t try very hard either. I’d never been on my own, so I thought it was kind of important to be that way for a while. By the time I was ready to really look for someone special, the world had ended. It was all I could do to survive.”
“And then, my dads came into the picture.” I gave her my best sappy expression.
Joelle laughed at my silliness. “Yes, they did. I’d caught a little bug going around the rescue site and went to see Nayun. I’d not had a second thought about a relationship with Kalquorians. I was past childbearing age anyway, and the idea of three men to clean up after and take care of? Oh, heavens no.”
“My dads are charmers to have changed your mind.”
Joelle’s eyes went distant as she lost herself in the memory. “It started with Nayun. I took one look at that big teddy bear of a man and was gone. ‘Look at this giant of a sweetheart,’ I said to myself. I’d only gone in to get something to stop me from coughing my lungs up, but I ended up complaining about every little ache and pain to keep him talking to me. He was so nice, and I thought maybe I’d been sticking too close to home when it came to finding the right guy.” She grinned mischievously.
I grinned back. “What about the whole two-men-too-many issue?”
“For a little while…like all of twenty-four hours…it felt like a deal breaker. Then I started thinking that if Nayun was so wonderful, what might the others be like? I found out soon enough. Nayun enjoyed talking to me so much that he arranged for all four of us to ‘accidentally’ cross paths the very next day. Soon I figured out it wasn’t a case of me picking up after three men…they wanted to take care of me. I feel like the luckiest woman alive.”
“My dads are the best,” I said. “I’m glad they found a woman smart enough to recognize that.”
“I’m glad they did too.”
While we talked, Cifa had taken Anrel away and was feeding her near the group around the rest of his clan. Joelle and I decided to join them. Seot waved me over so I could sit between him and Larten.
“What do you think so far, Mataras?” he asked.
While Joelle gushed over the ship, much to Cifa’s delight, I took it all in. The sky was blue and endless. The sea was glass except where disturbed by our wake. The music was as sprightly and joyful as ever, and Bazi and Ila continued to dance for the enjoyment of their Nobeks and Imdikos. Candy and Stidmun had disappeared, probably for a little personal celebration. I was in the midst of my doting suitors, my daughter, and my stepmom. I had a drink in my hand and no pressures.
“It’s paradise,” I said when Cifa turned to me for my answer.