Sliding his arms out of his uniform jacket, Adam Lawless sh'en Singh walked into the Pride House and handed K'Mu both his kit and his coat.
"Welcome home, Master Adam," the servant said, adding, "Mistress Shalimar's in the garden."
Wearily, Adam walked down the hall to the doors leading to the garden, the heels of his boots making a hollow tapping on the marble floor. With his hand on the door handle he stopped. It was good to be home for just a little while to forget about sh'en Singh Shipping, the long hours in space and the cargo-hold filled with Terran goods even now being unloaded off his ship. He paused, staring at his image in the mirrored tiles surrounding the doorframe.
The man in those little mirrors looked more Felidan than Terran in spite of being only a quarter blood. Sinbad sh'en Singh's paternity was visible in that handsome feline face. Adam was as tall as Sin now, his red hair twisted into a long braid, though unruly tendrils always managed to escape, hovering in front of his pointed ears and falling onto his forehead. His slit-pupiled eyes were as green as his father's and when he smiled—which was seldom and then very quietly—it was an expression as pointed and sharp-fanged as Sin's had ever been.
He studied the captain's uniform critically. Perhaps I should have changed. I look a little travel-worn. What the hell. This is home. I can look crumpled and tatty here, can't I? Adam had been away for six months. Now he wanted nothing but peace and quiet and to enjoy being home.
In the ten years since his father had taken over from Great-grandsire, business had quadrupled. Being forcibly legitimized made it flourish. The fleet had been enlarged, and now they were supplying goods to fifty planets in one sector alone.
On Sin's thirty-fifth birthday, Pride Chief Murad surprised everyone by relinquishing total control of the Pride to his grandson and heir. The old kht'a, approaching his hundred and twenty-fifth year, further confounded his family by selecting a young concubine who was little more than a nurse during the day while she divided her time between his three young guards at night, a fact Murad informed his grandsons he not only was aware of, but to which he gave his full approval. He was happy someone else had the responsibility of the Pride, and that was that. It had remained that way until his death two years later. Murad now rested in the clan cemetery, mourned by his grandsons, his House, and the rest of the Pride.
Opening the door, Adam stepped onto the terrace and waved to Shalimar, who was sitting on a small wicker loveseat under an umbrella-shaped lantana tree. She raised her hand in greeting as she watched the tall figure in the black captain's uniform walk toward her. The red braid bounced against one shoulder, swinging in rhythm with his easy-going gait.
It's good to see Shali again, he thought. He always had such a peaceful feeling when he was with his father’s one-time concubine, now adopted family member. Whenever Adam saw the slender figure in its soft, sheer Felidan robes, then he felt he was truly home. With a slight shock, he realized he hadn't really missed his father or Andi or any of his siblings as much as he missed Shalimar during the time he was gone.
As she moved her skirts aside to make room for him, Adam sat beside her with a sigh. Leaning back and stretching out his long legs, he crossed his ankles, staring at the dull leather surfaces of his boots. I should have changed, he reflected. At least polished my boots before disembarking. He didn't want Shali thinking he was a total slob.
"And how! I've just completed six non-stop runs from Felida to Terra to Vercingetorix-2 and back. Those 'Rixians have an absolute passion for China silk. We can't supply them with enough of it."
"Did anything exciting happen?"
He smiled slightly. Shalimar always asked him that, usually in a wistful tone as if envious of the many worlds he'd seen while she barely left the shelter of the Pride House. She'd been so sick most of her adult life, beginning with the loss of the first child she'd borne his father, a fact Sin still deplored and felt guilt over. Although she was better now, thriving since the moment the kh'ta took away her designation of concubine and made her a member of his family, she seemed to feel safer inside the Pride House compound than venturing outside it. Because of that, Adam became her tie to the worlds beyond Felida's planetary borders.
"Met their princess this trip. Actually had dinner at the palace with her and her spouse."
"Oh?" Shalimar turned to face him, leaning one arm against the back of the loveseat, her face lighting with curiosity. "Tell me all about it. Was it elegant? Did you use the correct forks?"
"Nope, gobbled everything straight from my hands and wiped my fingers on the tablecloth afterwards," Her gentle teasing made him lie. "Nearly made Her Majesty faint."
"Oh, Adam, you didn't!"
"Of course not, Shali. Sorry. Guess I shouldn't tease you so." He laughed as he saw her blush. "Relax. I didn't embarrass the Pride at all. It was a little odd, though."
"What do you mean?"
"Well...the princess is a pretty little thing, let me say that. She's still fairly young, maybe close to my age, and her husband? He's Albegensi, by the way, the strong silent type who's totally devoted to her. Nice guy, too, really easy to talk to. They've got two beautiful kids—son and a daughter. Boy looks like him, the daughter like her." Realizing he was rambling, Adam got back to the subject. "What was odd was that all she wanted to talk about was Da."
"Why would she want to talk about the kh'ta?" Shalimar looked surprised. "I'd think she'd want to know what goods you had to offer and what they cost, maybe when the next shipment of silk would be in. Things like that."
"So did I," Adam admitted. "In fact, when my First Mate and I received the invitation that's what we expected. We even went over all the information we had on shipments; their prices, and availability, so we'd be prepared. We were so stoked with info I thought my head would crack. Then, we get there and what does she do? Smiles at me and says, 'I understand you're Kh'ta Sinbad's eldest son.'" He shook his head. "Kh'ta Sinbad. She kept referring to him like that. Kept calling Andi Kh'tara Andrea, too." He gave Shalimar a mischievous grin. "There's a story there, I think. Wonder what it is?"
Shali looked a little disturbed. "Y-you don't suppose the kh'ta and the princess…I-I mean, the kh'ta's a handsome man, and if he knew her before he met the kh'tara..."
"I doubt that," Adam said, quickly. "First of all, she's too young. Sometime during our conversation, she mentioned she was 15 when she first met Da." He looked a little thoughtful. "That's how old you were when you became Da's concubine, weren't you, Shali?" She just nodded, surprised Adam would mention that since he'd always shied away from speaking about that phase of her life once her master elevated her to family member. "Da was always very sensitive about the difference between your age and his. He felt it was indecent somehow, though you were considered an adult by Felidan standards."
"Kh'ta Sinbad's a good man," Shali said, quietly. She loved Sinbad passionately, and would always do so, but she'd allowed those feelings to be stored in a secret part of her heart once he told her he'd never touch her again because he didn't wish to endanger her life with further pregnancies. "But he's let the mores of Terra influence him, I believe." She decided to change the subject. "You said, First of all. There are other reasons you don't think they were...lovers?"
"Plenty." Adam nodded. "I doubt if her husband’d allow something like that. He looks like he could give Da a run for his money. And she spoke of Andi with genuine affection."
"So, there's still some mystery in your father's life, isn't there?" Shalimar finished. "I wonder where they met?"
"Maybe I don't want to know. She looked so familiar. I can't help thinking I've seen…" Adam stopped, mouth falling open. "Oh, my God!"
"Adam!" Shalimar's hand went to his arm. "What is it? You look shocked."
"I just remembered where I've seen the princess before, and her husband, too." Adam laughed. "God, how could I forget? She was with Andi when we rescued her from General Tran. Her soon-to-be husband was one of the General's guards. Da arranged for them to be allowed to go without being detained by the Fed." He looked a little chagrined. "How the hell could I forget something like that?"
"It was a long time ago," Shali commented. "So, you knew the princess before she became the Princess."
"In more ways than one."
Adam didn't go into detail. He wasn't about to tell Shalimar that the princess had not only not been royalty in those days, she hadn't even been female, but was a boy-whore named Cassay, the lover of the Hereditary Prince of Vercingetorix-2. Cassay's one wish in life had been to become a woman, and with the fortune as well as the title he inherited from the Prince, he was able to accomplish his goal, and to marry the Albegensi soldier who'd fallen in love with the person he'd mistakenly thought a ‘pretty little girl’.
How in the world can they have two children? Those two resemble their parents too much to be adopted. He'd heard that the hospital Cassay went to was doing some very interesting experiments in cloning. My God! Cassay and Shan'r had themselves cloned! I wonder if those children know?
He also wondered how Cassay, who probably still had male DNA had managed to be cloned female. Those doctors must really have made strides. As for the children being aware, something made him think that once Cassay became completely female, he'd buried his past life. Since taking about Da's old friends wasn't what he wanted to do while around Shali, Adam leaned back, crossing his arms over his chest, and closing his eyes.
"God, Shalimar. I think I'm getting too old for this."
"Oh, sure." She went back to her reading. "Give up all the glory of being a captain for Sinbad sh'en Singh, smuggler turned shipping magnate? You know you'd miss it—the travel, the exotic places, the women in every port."
"Not so many women," Adam corrected, opening his eyes.
"Unh-huh!" She gave him an unexpected smile. "Don't think I'm ignorant, because I've never been past Khurda Village's gates, Adam. I've heard Lan and Rahni talking. I know how that uniform attracts females—and those two have never said 'no' to any of them."
"Those two maybe—not me." It worried him Shalimar might think that. He'd had very few encounters on his voyages, strictly by choice. "After all, the captain has to maintain some sort of decorum while his crew runs wild."
"Did anyone tell your half-brothers that?"
That little dig of cynicism surprised him. Putting his hands behind his head, he looked up at the tree. It appeared about to erupt into full bloom. Once that happened, no one would be able to sit under it without being showered with leaves and petals. Shali’ll lose her favorite spot until summer. What he said next made her frown. "I'm thinking of retiring."
"You're not old enough to retire. You're only thirty-three."
"So? I never really wanted to be a pilot or a ship's captain. I did it because Andi didn't want me or Cash being involved in something so dangerous. You know how kids always rebel against their parents. I had to show both of them how mature I was." He looked at her and she was startled at the seriousness in the green eyes. "There's some land in the High Deps. Good farming country. My mother's people are farmers and that's what I want to be."
"Do you miss your mother, Adam?'
"I did at first, but now Felida seems like home."
He wouldn't have come with his father to Felida if he'd thought he might miss Terra. Once Adam met Sinbad sh'en Singh, any thought of returning to the Naturals' territory in the Buffalo Commons of the Federated States of Terra had been driven from his mind. When he'd believe his father was going to die, he decided to stay until it was over. With Sin's recovery and his determination to find Andi and rescue her from Tran, he'd wholeheartedly joined in and committed himself to his new-found family. Surprisingly, his mother had agreed and made no attempt to get him to come back home.
"Oh, I've been back a couple of times while the ships were being loaded. Mother was glad to see me, and disappointed I'm not married." He laughed a little sheepishly. "Father—I mean her husband—took me aside for a little man-to-man. Said he hoped I was being very particular about finding the right woman and there wasn't any other reason I'd managed to reach my thirties without finding a mate. He actually blushed when he said it. God, they're so old-fashioned!" Adam could almost see his stepfather, face crimson, eyes avoiding his. "I love them both."
"The High Deps are pretty far away," Shalimar murmured.
Adam looked at the hand unit she held. "What are you reading?"
"One of Kas' psychology books. The Adolescent Psyche." She seemed surprised she still held it. "I thought I'd better be prepared since the children are going into their teens."
She looked across the garden to where Tran and Andrea and Andrew tas were sitting playing a board game. They were laughing, the two dark heads and their half-brother's tawny one bent over the table. Shalimar smiled, as she looked at her adopted son, the child of Sin's other concubine, Senset, who'd run away with the arrogant, handsome stepson who'd fathered the twins. For a moment, the day Senset had tossed the infant at her, telling her she wished nothing to do with the child, flashed through her mind.
"They look just like Cash and Senset, don't they?" Adam said, softly. "Pray God they never act the same."
"Do you suppose they ever think about the twins?"
"Cash probably does, but Senset? I doubt it."
"Kh'ta Andrew tried to find them, you know. He said Cash has become slightly infamous as a mercenary, and Senset," Shalimar lowered her voice. "They told him she's working at a pleasure dome on Bel-Ammon."
"I'd say she's right at home then."
"Adam, how can you?"
"Shalimar, dear, sweet Shalimar." Laughing, he patted her hand. "I can, because the bitch tried to seduce me to get back at Cash, and because she ruined his life and hurt Andi very much, as well as dishonoring our House and her father's clan." He looked at the children again. Andrea was laughing while Andrew tas shook his fist at her in mock anger. "They're good kids. Andi's done a good job, and you've raised a fine son in Andrew."
The smile she gave him was shy. After all these years, Shalimar was still quiet and timid. In Sin's presence she rarely spoke, still awed by him, though he'd never been anything but kind to her. It was only with Adam she became outspoken, even joking and laughing. With Adam, she reflected, I feel safe. I always have. It had been difficult living in that household where there were so many children and so much love, watching Sin's other children grow to be adults while she had no one but Andrew tas, another woman's child. Everyone treated her kindly, but Adam's presence made it bearable.
"You should've found another mate, Shali," he said, studying her face. "You should've had someone to love."
"Oh, who'd want me?" she murmured, looking down at the hand-unit again.
"I would." There was only the briefest hesitation on Adam's part. As she looked up at him, startled, he went on. "Come with me to the High Deps, Shalimar."
"B-but Adam," she stammered. "If you're going to farm, y-you'll need someone strong. Someone to give you sons to work your land, not a weakling like me."
"You're exactly who I need, Shali. It's taken me fourteen years to realize it." Adam caught her hands, pulling them away from the hand unit, which slid from her lap to strike the flagstones. "And it's just hit me like a ton of bricks."
"Will be happy for both of us. He gave you permission to do just this a long time ago, didn't he?"
Shalmiar looked down at the hands holding hers. Why didn't I see it before? Yes, it's Adam I want and I should’ve found him long ago. Kh'ta Andrew gave me the right to choose a second mate, but I never dared think... Nodding, she tightened her fingers around his.
"Do you realize," he said, just the barest smile touching his lips. "That we've known each other for fourteen years and I've never hugged or kissed you—or anything?"
She allowed herself to smile also. "If we're going to be married, don't you think you should?"
With a laugh, Adam threw himself against the back of the loveseat, pulling her onto his lap. Hand under her chin, he tilted her head back and pressed his mouth against hers, kissing her soundly. Oh my God! She's so warm and soft...just as I always imagined she'd be.
"Uncle Adam!" came Andrea’s loud and shocked exclamation. "What are you doing?"
"Celebrating!" Adam answered, as he released Shalimar and smiled at his niece. "Your Aunt Shali and I are getting married."