Thursday, July 13, 2017

December 30

It was mid-morning when Joelle, Candy, and Stidmun showed up at my door. So the cruise is done. Clan Seot is home. My insides jitter just thinking how near they are.

I hugged and was hugged by the trio…yes, even Stidmun deigned to give me a quick embrace. “You all look so relaxed,” I told them. “No doubt I missed the best part of the cruise.”

“Actually, you didn’t,” Candy sighed, flopping down on the floor next to Anrel and getting her hair pulled by my joyously shrieking tot. “We missed you and your mommy, pretty baby. It wasn’t the same without you two.”

“Probably a lot less stressful,” I snorted. “I’m sorry if I wrecked it for everyone.”

“No, not really,” Joelle said, sitting on the floor as well so she could pick Anrel up. “But after you left, we couldn’t seem to – how did you put it, Candy?”

“Get our party on,” Stidmun supplied. The sober way he said it cracked us up.

“Sooo,” Candy drawled. “Did you get the revelation you were hoping for? Are you going to go through with joining Seot’s clan?”

“I am,” I said. I chuckled to see them all exchange looks of relief. “But I haven’t talked to them in several days. How are they?”

“Quiet,” Joelle supplied. “Cifa barely spoke for the rest of the trip. Of course, that might have been because Erom kept after him about screwing things up with you. Ila finally tossed that mouthy Dramok off the ship and into the sea.”

Candy snickered. “She wouldn’t let Erom back on board either until he promised to shut up. I think she would have let him drown, she was so pissed off.”

Stidmun was chuckling along with Candy. “He needs to learn when he’s gone too far. He was smart enough to heed the lesson until we got back, at least.”

I squirmed, not liking that I’d made Cifa and the rest feel so bad. “Feru wants me to get counseling. Katrina thinks I should hold off clanning until I’ve seen a therapist.”

Candy sat up. “You talked to Feru?”

I shared his wisdom with them. To my amusement, it was Stidmun who offered his opinion before Candy and Joelle.

“Number one: you must speak with Clan Aslada. Let them know you are done with them. Do not delay another day. It’s not fair to do otherwise. Number two: join Seot’s clan. This matter of healing will require being with the men who hold you above all else. Also, they will see to it you are taken care of. That will leave only one last thing.”

“Which is?” I asked when he paused, amused to be given relationship advice by an unclanned Nobek.

“Be happy.”

He made it sound so simple. And it should be. I know that.

After they left and I gave Anrel her lunch and put her down for a nap, I decided to take the first step of Stidmun’s advice. It had been Katrina’s counsel as well. With everyone in agreement, the time had come to face my responsibilities.

I was trembling when Aslada answered the call. I’d almost made it voice-only, but that was the coward’s way out. I needed to face up to this, to handle it like the adult I supposedly am.

The Dramok’s handsome face split wide with his smile. “Shalia! What a delight to see you. As well as to finally get to thank you for your thoughtful Christmas gifts.”

“They weren’t much,” I said. “I hope you all liked them. Are you still at work? Isn’t it getting late there?”

He rolled his eyes. “Unfortunately. The territorial council called an extended session to debate some unpopular legislation, the kind that makes or breaks political careers. You caught me during a break between arguments.”

Great. I’d commed at the worst possible time – Aslada was dealing with an atmosphere of tension, and Meyso and Jaon weren’t with him. “But I thought I commed the home frequency. I guess I’m being scatterbrained.”

“Not at all. With Jaon and Meyso out of the area, I programmed the home com to alert my portable.”

Jaon must have been on an assignment. “Meyso’s not home?”

“He’s at a week-long conference on the other side of the continent. Why?” Aslada’s eyes brightened. “Is this a com we should all be present for?”

“Well, yeah. That’s what I’d intended. If you’ll let me know when it’s a good time to catch you all—”

“No, no! You can tell me everything. Any news you have, I will be too happy to pass along. Did your cruise with the other clan go all right? I thought perhaps things weren’t going quite as you’d hoped, seeing as how you contacted us while you were with them.”

Shit. Aslada thought I’d given Clan Seot the boot. Maybe he even thought I had commed to say it was his clan I wanted to be with. My stomach lurched.

“I wanted to talk to you about our plans for me to return. It’s still a few weeks away—”

“You are welcome to come back any time you wish,” Aslada said, beaming from ear to ear. “No need to wait.”

Prophets, help me. He wasn’t going to make this easy at all. “Um, about that. It turns out, I won’t be coming back after all. You see, things went really well with Clan Seot. Well enough that I’ve decided to join their clan.”

Okay, so I was muddying up the truth quite a bit. Things had gone far from well, but only because I’d fallen in love and my idiot psyche couldn’t handle it. But none of that mattered as far as Aslada was concerned. Larten had it right. Our clan’s business was not that of any of my former lovers’.

For a heartbreaking moment, Aslada’s smile remained, expectant of the news he wanted. Then it stiffened and froze as the truth sank in. Slowly it faded to be replaced by disbelief…and then disappointment.

“I see,” he said quietly. “Well. You’re a sensible woman, so there must have been something they could offer that we couldn’t.”

“You offer a great deal,” I said. “And I can’t begin to express the gratitude I feel for everything you’ve done. Meyso helped my mother. You all helped me as I coped with her problems. Honestly, I don’t know how I would have gotten through all that without you, Meyso, and Jaon. You have no idea how much I wanted to repay you by joining your clan.”

Aslada managed a gentle smile. “I would have counted myself too fortunate to have made you my Matara, Shalia. And Anrel my daughter. I know my clanmates feel the same. But mere gratitude does not a solid relationship make. Thank you for falling on the side of honesty and not misplaced appreciation.”

I was crying. “I’m sorry, Aslada. I really am. I care about you and the others. But I love Clan Seot.”

“Then give them my congratulations. They are more fortunate than they can comprehend. Be well, Shalia. My best wishes for your happy future.”

He closed the frequency. I sat and cried. I had considered him, Meyso, and Jaon as more than friends. They’d been my lovers. My strength during one of the hardest times of my existence. They had been more than good enough to live the rest of my life with.

But Seot, Cifa, and Larten had grabbed my heart and soul, probably from the moment I’d first laid eyes on them. As much as it hurt to close the door on Clan Aslada, my place was not with them.

Now I need to figure out what has to happen for me to join the men I am meant for. My path seems clear, but I’m not sure how to take the first step.

It’s stupid, but I’m so damned scared to do it.

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