DISCLAIMER: Characters and story copyright D.J. Belt, December, 2004.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is a sequel to the story A Triumph of Love. Not absolutely necessary to read that first, but helps in the understanding of the characters. I chose to resurrect them for the Christmas/Winter Solstice story because Shadylady and T. Stratton seemed so enthusiastic about the idea. Many thanks to both of you for the inspiration! This is a story about family, which to me is the greatest gift of all, no matter on which planet you happen to live. Hope you like it. Itís my gift to you on this season, whether itís Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or the Winter Solstice in your home. Enjoy!
SERIES/SEQUEL: To A Triumph of Love.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
The Magic of Solstice
By D.J. Belt
Jeni banked the small passenger shuttle into an easy left turn, then tapped at the intercom speaker on her instrument panel, speaking toward the screen glowing in the moonlit shuttle cabin. "This is your pilot speakin'. If you'll look to your left, you'll see the night lights of Dramda, capitol city of Southern Breeze, outside your ports. We're on final to the airport there, and should be landing in about five minutes. As always, thanks for flyin' Inter-Island Air." She tapped the speaker again, then settled in to concentrate on her landing. She noted the lit runway in the distance, then checked her navigation monitor and banked a little more steeply, allowing the shuttle to swing around in a lazy arc before lining up on the multi-colored runway lights. The silvery light of the twin moons of her home planet lit the night sky and made the approach an easy one.
As she banked a little more steeply, she heard a thump echo behind her as the stewardess fell into her seat, just behind the pilot's seat. "Damn, Jeni, take it easy, okay?"
Jeni grinned. "You kiddin'? That was smooth."
As the stewardess fussed with her safety harness, she teased, "Let me guess. You're an ex-fighter pilot, right?"
Jeni looked around at the stewardess, a perplexed expression on her face. "Is it that obvious?"
The stewardess chuckled. "I can always tell." Her tanned face broadened into an infectious grin. "Southern Breeze Air Defense?"
Jeni shook her head. "Nope. Northern Empire. Fighters for three years, including some combat, then space shuttles for two."
"Oh, my God." The stewardess sat up in her seat, then pointed toward Jeni. "I remember now where I've seen you before. You were that Northern Empire pilot who crashed a space shuttle into the beach near here a couple of months ago, aren't you?"
Jeni laughed. "That's me, sweetheart."
"I heard all about it on the news. You and your lover were escaping from the Empire, weren't you? What a romantic story. It was all over the broadcasts. I heard that the two of you got married as soon as you got here."
Jeni leveled the shuttle, then gently braked as she lowered the landing gear. A whirr and a series of thumps echoed as the wheels locked into place underneath the fuselage. "Yup." She studied the strings of runway lights looming ever larger before her, then braked again and set the shuttle down on the runway. She initiated another series of brakings, and the shuttle was soon rolling gently toward the taxiway to the passenger terminal. Jeni tapped the communications panel, then spoke.
"Dramda air control, this is Inter-Island fourteen. Request docking instructions."
A voice echoed from the com panel. "Taxi to dock C-3, Inter-Island fourteen."
"C-3, roger." Jeni tapped at the monitor again, then spoke to the stewardess as she slowly taxied the shuttle off the main runway. "Good thing that Sara wanted to marry me. If she hadn't, I'd have been denied permanent asylum here. I'd probably be in front of an Empire firing squad right now for desertion."
"You couldn't get married in the Northern Empire?"
Jeni shook her head. "Nope. Different races, different religions, and same sex. All of that is forbidden there. It was a crime for us to even be in love."
The stewardess shook her head in disbelief. "I'd heard that about the Empire, but didn't believe it."
"Believe it. We had to run for our lives. It was a hairy experience."
"It sounds like a remarkable story."
"Sara's under contract to write a book about it. She's workin' on it now. Should be out in a few months."
"I can't wait to read it." The stewardess, from her place near the pilot's seat, took the opportunity to study Jeni. The pleasant figure, the spiky, silken black hair, the round face, the gold band pierced into the top of one compact, rounded ear all fascinated her. What made her most curious about the new pilot, though, was her dark skin and even blacker eyes. She decided to ask the question which she had been pondering all evening.
"You're an Equatorial, right? You look a lot like me." She held up her own hand, noting the deeply tanned skin. "I'm aboriginal, an Islander, from the islands near here." Jeni just nodded, concentrating on finding her dock in the relative dark. The stewardess leaned forward, then pointed toward the windscreen. "There. C-3. See it?"
"Oh, yeah. Got it. Thanks." Jeni executed a slow turn, and the shuttle's nose swung around toward terminal C. "Yeah. I was born and raised in the Equatorial countries. My family's from there."
"How did you end up in the Northern Empire?"
"My homeland is part of it, attached when I was a little girl."
"Oh." The stewardess thought about it, then asked, "If I'm not being too forward, what race is your spouse?"
Jeni warmed at the thought of Sara, who was no doubt waiting at home for her right now. "She's Hawee."
"My, that really is a difference, isn't it? My husband is from the Northern Latitude races, but here in Southern Breeze, we're allowed to be married."
Jeni eased the shuttle to the terminal door, applied brakes and shut down the power, then watched as the walkway telescoped out to fasten itself to the craft's skin. As it did, she turned in her seat and studied the stewardess. "Appreciate it. Sara and I almost got shot out of the sky tryin' to gain that for ourselves." She unbuckled her harness, then eased herself to a standing position. "Let's see our passengers off, shall we?"
The stewardess nodded, released her harness, and stood. Together, they squeezed themselves out of the cramped crew's compartment and stood at the shuttle's door as it was eased open. The passengers gathered their belongings and filed forward, leaving the shuttle, nodding and murmuring their farewells as they disembarked.
When the last one had left, Jeni and the stewardess gathered their own small flight bags and followed. Soon, they were standing out in the night air, looking up at the shining twin moons which lit the sky. Jeni breathed deeply, then smiled. "Gorgeous night, isn't it? Hard to believe that the Winter Solstice is almost here. Seems summer to me."
"It'll take some getting used to, I imagine. The winter's warm here, not like the Northern Empire." She hesitated, then extended her hand. "It's been a pleasure, Jeni. Gee, wait until I tell my husband that I met you. You and Sara are something of celebrities here, you know."
Jeni laughed. "Yeah, we're all famous for a day. Well, take care. You got a way home?"
"Yes, my transport is just over there." The stewardess studied Jeni, then asked, "You got a ride home?"
"I'm supposed to call Sara. She'll come for me."
"Don't bother the poor girl, Jeni. I'll drop you. It'll give us more time to talk. I want to hear all about you two. Come on, now. No arguments."
"Of course. We both live at the beach." With that, the stewardess tugged on Jeni's arm, and the pilot relented. Together, they walked toward the transport parking, speaking softly in the night air.
Sara squinted at the computer screen, softly clicking the keys representing the thirty-two characters of the alphabet of the planet's predominant language. After a moment, she paused, rubbed her eyes, and looked over at the chronograph. It was getting late, and she hadn't heard from Jeni yet. The flight must have been delayed en route somewhere, she mused, then rose and strolled out onto the back porch of their little beach-side rental home. Above the dome of the house, the twin moons shone down on the deserted beach. The distant waves of the Ocean of Peace rolled and crashed against the shore, the darkened sky above it illuminated with the twinkling brilliance of myriad stars.
She often worried when Jeni was late from a flight, particularly a night flight, even though she knew that such worry was groundless and very common among the spouses of pilots. After all, she reassured herself, Jeni was a fine pilot with much experience, and a night flight in such a clear sky was easy for her. It didn't help ease her fears, though. She would still be thankful when she heard the familiar tread of Jeni's boots on the step and that lovely, high-pitched voice echo greetings across the central room.
She sighed, then stepped out onto the sand, feeling her bare feet sink down into it. The sand seemed to hold the day's warmth about it, a nice balance to the cooler breeze which whispered in from the ocean. She pulled her robe a little more tightly about her, then contemplated the distant sea.
On the other side of that sea, her parents still lived. What time would it be there now, she wondered? Probably still daylight. Her father would be in his little shop, waiting on his occasional customer, and her mother would no doubt be visiting the local corner market, haggling in her finest style over the price of dinner. Soon, they would be contemplating the celebration of the Winter Solstice.
This would be the first Winter Solstice celebration which Sara would spend without the comfort of family, and the thought gave her some cause for sadness. In the Hawee race and religion, Winter Solstice was the foremost celebration of the year, a time for the gathering of families and the sharing of companionship and thanks. It had been so for countless generations, since the ancient times when her ancestors had settled the deserts before they had been scattered over a mistrustful and antagonistic world, subject to constant ostracism and the occasional violent pogrom. It would be so for countless more generations, she knew. Some things seemed never to change.
Sara sighed as she studied the twin moons. Her hand unconsciously traveled up to touch the sun symbol hanging at the base of her throat, the symbol of the Hawee. Jeni, she mused, was not Hawee. She was of the Ancient Orthodox religion, symbolized by the same twin moons which now peered down at her. What were Jeni's family traditions during this time? She knew that the Winter Solstice was of primal importance to their traditions as well, but did not know in what manner she would wish to celebrate, and did so want to make her feel as much at home in their new surroundings as possible. Well, she would simply ask her. After all, they could talk about anything together, couldn't they?
Jeni paused, her hand on the door-latch, and waved as the stewardess guided her transport back out onto the darkened road. The machine whispered into the darkness, the lights becoming distant as Jeni opened the door and stepped into the house. There, in the entranceway, was a wooden bench with several pairs of shoes neatly lined underneath. She dropped her small travel bag on the floor and sat on the bench, removing her boots and placing them aside. It was Sara's custom not to wear shoes in the house, and Jeni knew that it was a Hawee custom, as well. She was glad to comply, for her feet always seemed relieved to be shed of shoes.
She stood, picked up her bag, and entered the central room of their small dwelling. The lights were low, candle-lights flickering, the pleasant, musky smell of incense touching the edges of her senses. A soft light glowed from the computer on the corner table, indicating that Sara had been hard at work on her book. She hefted her small flight bag, then padded across the floor, looking about the sparsely-furnished, tidy dwelling. Sara's touch was evident all over the house. It reflected her: organized, neat and yet somehow poetic, esoteric, mysterious and with a deep sense of things spiritual. Yep, Jeni thought agreeably, that was her Sara.
A voice greeted her from the open porch door. "There you are. I was getting worried."
Sara breezed into the central room, swept Jeni into a welcome hug and kissed her warmly, a lingering, heartfelt kiss which made Jeni slightly weak. When they parted, Sara ran a hand through Jeni's silken, spiky black hair and noted, "You were supposed to call. How did you get home?"
"I caught a ride. Didn't want to bother you."
Sara laughed. "You're sweet, but I wouldn't have minded."
"I know." Jeni picked up her small travel bag, then asked, "Talk to me while I shower?"
"Sure." Sara lifted Jeni's bag from her hand, then motioned toward the bedroom. "I've been missing you."
"I"ve only been gone since this morning."
"Well, I've still been missing you. I'll start your shower. Go on, now. Get undressed."
Jeni's round, dark face beamed, her pert nose crinkling up in its customary way whenever she blazed her winning smile. "I love it when you tell me that."
Sara slapped Jeni on the bottom, then herded her toward the bedroom. "If you had your way, you'd run around here naked all day."
"It must be the Equatorial in me."
Sara grinned, then retorted, "No, I think that it's the newlywed in you."
They entered the bedroom and Sara detoured into the bathroom to start the shower. As she did, she heard Jeni's teasing, high-pitched voice. "Look who's talking. You're the one who always wants to go skinny-dipping in the ocean at night."
The water began running in the shower and Sara reappeared around the bathroom's door. "And you're objecting? Should I stop?"
As Jeni peeled her pilot's uniform from her body and dropped it into the laundry basket, she quickly asserted, "Oh, no. Heck, no. I love the hedonist in you." She finished shedding her clothes, then entered the bathroom and opened the large shower door, stepping inside.
Sara perched on the counter nearby, silent and wondering how to begin the conversation about the thoughts which had been on her mind that night. She looked down at her feet and noted the fine covering of sand on them, then stood and shed her robe and sleep-shirt. She opened the shower door and asked, "Mind if I join you? I've got sand all over my feet."
Jeni chuckled as she rinsed the soap from her hair and face, then opened her wide, dark eyes. "What, you have to ask? Come on in." She moved aside, allowing Sara to bask in the multiple jets of warm water which sprayed out at them from the nozzles in the walls of the shower stall. "Get wet, you hot momma."
Sara laughed, teasing, "You're such a nasty girl."
"Yeah, and you love it."
"So I do." Jeni watched Sara dance in the jets of water, delighting in the sensation and lifting her feet to allow the sand to rinse away. As she watched her bathe, Jeni admired Sara's trim form, sun-baked, lithe and rippled with sinewy muscle from her penchant for exercise and their life at the beach. Sara's Hawee heritage was evident about her, from her golden yellow skin dotted with myriad brown freckles to the graceful, pointed ears which lay flat against the sides of her head, the tips rising up out of the short, sandy-colored hair. So different from me, Jeni thought, as she looked down at her own softer build, dark skin and wide Equatorial feet. We're so different, and so much the same. And, she thought pleasantly, I love that difference. Perhaps it's part of what attracted us to each other. The difference. A whisper of sadness swept over her at her next thought. And it's illegal in our homeland. It's forbidden, a crime. We had to run for our lives because we're different and in love. How we can be so advanced in our science and so backward in our thought, I'll never fathom. Even some among my own religion consider the Hawee a cursed people, yet I've found in Sara someone who defies all such judgement. She's magnificent inside and out. What she sees in me, I'll never quite understand.
She shook herself from her thoughts as her gaze traveled down her lover's body toward the other vestige of Sara's Hawee heritage: a smooth tail protruding from the base of her spine, at the top of her buttocks. It was splashed with the same coloring of freckles which decorated her lower back and the rest of her skin, and it seemed sometimes to move with a mind of its own. About as long as her hand, it bristled up sometimes, or pointed down, or moved slowly from side to side as Sara would contemplate some thought or reflect some unspoken emotion.
Jeni reached back and felt at the base of her own spine, just above her buttocks. Her own back was smooth, no trace of a tail. It was removed shortly after her birth, as was the custom in every culture on their planet but the Hawee culture. Among Sara's people, it was considered a mark of divinity. Among her own Equatorial people and among the Northern Latitude races, though, it was considered vulgar, an unnecessary appendage. Jeni, however, found it delightful, fascinating. It was just another silly, sad notion of right and wrong which she had unlearned since she had come of age and left her own people. Although she had never considered herself bound by outworn prejudice, she found that she had unlearned a lot since she had fallen in love with Sara.
She was shaken from her thoughts by Sara's hands on her shoulders, guiding her back under the fountains of water. "Get in there. Here, I'll scrub your back." Jeni allowed herself to be led back under the shower, and she felt Sara's slender, strong hands soap her back as her voice echoed in the shower. "Um, Jeni?"
"The Winter Solstice is approaching, you know."
"And I've been wanting to talk to you about that."
"Oh." Jeni raised an eyebrow. She had not really celebrated the Winter Solstice in several years. It was a time of year that reflected too many painful memories for her. How would it be for Sara? "What about it?"
"Well, I've been wondering what we should do about that."
Cautiously, Jeni asked, "What would you like to do about it, love?"
Sara's hands squeezed Jeni's shoulders. "I like it when you call me that. Anyhow, I really don't know how you celebrate it." She paused, then turned Jeni around in the shower, facing her. "You do celebrate it in the Ancient Orthodox religion, don't you?"
"Yeah, we do. It's a big time of year. Families re-unite and gifts are exchanged. We attend the temples and give to the poor." She involuntarily glanced down, avoiding Sara's gaze. The perceptive Hawee eyes, with silvery speckled irises and vertically-slitted pupils, studied her.
Sara's voice became soft. "But?"
Jeni smiled painfully, then lifted her own black eyes to meet Sara's silvery ones. "Let's get out and have a cup of hot tea, and we can talk about it." She held up a dark hand, showing the lighter skin of her palm. "Besides, I'm prunin'."
"Okay." Sara tapped the water switch off, then nudged the dryer button. Blasts of warm air circulated around them as they rubbed themselves and each other with their towels, then stepped out of the shower. As Jeni finished drying herself, Sara brushed her fingers through her short, sand-colored hair, then arranged it to show off her ears. "I'll put the kettle on." She turned to go, then paused and glanced back at Jeni, who was attempting to brush her silken, spiky black hair into some semblance of order. It reached her collar-line and bristled back from her head, fighting to spike itself in spite of her repeated attempts to brush it back. Sara watched her, then playfully poked Jeni in the abdomen with a finger. "You've gained a little right there."
Jeni looked down between her breasts at her belly. It was true. It wasn't flat and hard, like Sara's. It had a softer contour, ever so slightly rounded. "It's your good cooking." Apologetically, she added, "I'll try to lose it."
"Don't you dare. I love the way you look."
"No. Soft and curvy. You're hot."
"And you're a gracious liar. Go fix us some tea?"
"Oh, yeah. Right. Tea. I did promise that." Sara reluctantly left the bathroom, leaving Jeni to struggle with her uncooperative hair. After a few more attempts, she surrendered, left the bathroom and found her robe in the closet, wrapping it about her body and padding into the kitchen. Sara was there, her own robe loose about her, filling the tea-pot with the kettle's steamy water. It steeped, and she silently watched as Sara filled two cups with tea, added the sweetness of honey made from wild-flowers and citrus-fruit, and handed Jeni her cup. Sara smiled and pointed toward the central room of their little dwelling..
"Let's sit and talk."
Shortly, they were perched side by side, cross-legged, on the low divan situated against one wall of their sparsely-furnished central room, their tea cups in their hands and the light of candles adding a low, warm glow to the night's air filtering in through the open porch door. The rumble and crash of the distant ocean kept its dreamy rhythm in the background. Sara sipped her tea, then rested her free hand on Jeni's leg. "Now, what's the matter?"
"I don't know where to begin, Sara."
"Try at the beginning. You got very pensive when I mentioned the Winter Solstice. Why is that?"
Jeni shrugged. "It's just that I haven't celebrated it in several years."
She sighed, then confessed, "It brings back painful memories for me."
"How is that?"
"Well, it's a family time among the Ancient Orthodox."
Sara nodded. "I know. It's so among the Hawee, too." She looked over at Jeni. "Is it that your parents are passed on?"
"Yeah. That's it, mostly."
"You told me that they were dead. You never told me when or how."
"It was after I left my home for the flight academy in the Northern latitudes. Maybe six months. I got word that they had died." She paused, then continued, "A plague had swept our village, on top of a harsh year. It killed much of my tribe. It took them both. It took almost all of my remaining family."
The golden hand resting on Jeni's leg squeezed slightly in sympathy. "I'm so sorry. It must have been horrid for you."
"The kicker was that it was just before the Winter Solstice." She fell silent, sipped at her tea, and finished, "That season is the loneliest time for me since then. Others would take leave to go to their families for the season. Me, I would stay behind. I pulled constant duty so that they could go, but the work didn't help."
"Is that how you dealt with it? Work?"
"That, and liquor. I made it my tradition every year to get drunk and have a good cry."
The arm left Jeni's leg and wrapped itself around her shoulders. Sara's voice was soft. "But you have a family now. We're a family. You don't have to be alone any more on the Winter Solstice."
Jeni sniffed, then wiped her cheek with a hand. "I know, but it still hurts." She sniffed again, then placed her cup aside and turned, burying her face in Sara's shoulder. She burst into a muffled fit of crying, her face tight against Sara's robe, her hand gripping Sara's neck. In between sobs, she huffed, "How I wish... they... could have... met you."
Sara felt her own eyes water, felt the sharp stab of anguish pierce her own heart at Jeni's tears. She stroked her fingers through the spiky black hair and whispered, "I think that they would have approved of us. Don't you?"
In answer, the head nodded. Sara said nothing more, just held Jeni, and soon, the head rose from her shoulder. The large, dark eyes, wet with tears, looked at her and she sniffed, then wiped at her face. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to do that to you."
In reply, Sara smiled through the mist in her own eyes. "That, love, is the first time I've ever seen you cry like that."
"It won't happen again."
"It should. It's good for you to weep for your lost ones occasionally. It means that they live still in your heart."
At that, Jeni actually flashed a momentary smile. "They always will."
"Especially at the Winter Solstice."
Jeni sniffed. "Yeah. Especially then." She rose, heading toward the kitchen. "Excuse me." Sara sat, watching Jeni retreat into the kitchen, and sipped at her tea. In the next room, she heard the honk of Jeni blowing her nose, then the Equatorial woman returned, a cloth in her hand, to sit, cross-legged, next to Sara. "I'm sorry. You wanted to talk to me about the Winter Solstice, and I've spoiled it for you."
"Not at all. Now, I understand."
"What is it that's on your mind, love?"
Sara began cautiously. "Well, you know that it's a high holiday season among the Hawee, too, right?" Jeni nodded. "I've been missing my parents lately." She felt suddenly ashamed to bring the subject up, and mentally chided herself for the words as soon as they left her lips. Jeni, however, just leaned against Sara's shoulder.
"I know you have. Have you talked to them recently?"
"Only once since we arrived here."
"Do you go to them every Winter Solstice?"
"Yes, in the past."
Jeni seemed to understand perfectly. "But you can't go to them anymore, can you? We're considered fugitives in our homeland. If you ever return to the Northern Empire, you'll be arrested." She paused, then added, "Arrested for the crime of loving me."
"And if you ever return, you'll be executed for desertion."
Jeni shrugged, a gesture of dismissal. "There's nothing there for me anymore." She looked at Sara. "But there is for you, isn't there?" Sara nodded silently. "Why haven't you called them more than once in these last two months?"
"You haven't told them about us, have you?"
Sara was quiet for a moment, then whispered, "No."
"They might not understand. They're very traditional, you know."
"And they wanted you to marry a Hawee man?"
"And you just don't know how to tell them that you've married an Equatorial girl, an Ancient Orthodox to boot?" Sara nodded. "You're afraid of their displeasure, aren't you?"
Jeni turned to face Sara and held her face in both hands, very near her own. "Are you so sure that they'll disapprove?"
"Yeah, I know. Traditional. You forget, I was in the next room when you called before. Your parents sounded delightful. Your father, he was making me laugh, the way he teased you. Your mother, she dotes on you, doesn't she?"
"Daddy always could make me laugh and Momma is a sweetheart."
"Sara, you give them too little credit. They love you dearly, I could tell that. Did you know that while you talked to them, I cried?"
Sara was shocked. "But why?"
"Because I wanted to be able to talk to mine. I can't. You still can. Do it, Sara. Go and call them. Talk to them. They're probably worried about your silence."
Sara lifted Jeni's hands from her face and turned her head. "I can't."
"You can't because it hurts?"
"Yes. Yes, it hurts. I can never see them again. I can never go to their home again. I'm a criminal in that land. I can never visit them for the Solstice again."
Jeni's next statement left Sara momentarily speechless. "Then let's bring them here for the Solstice." She watched Sara's eyes flicker disbelievingly over her face, then took the opportunity of silence to continue. "They won't be alive forever, Sara. We can't go there, but we can bring them here. Let's do it now, this year. They might not be around next year. Trust me, I know what I'm talking about."
"They're rather poor. They couldn't afford the travel."
"But we can. We got that advance for the book you're writing. It's gobs of money. Two thousand credits, for God's sake. We can afford to bring them here. Let's do it, Sara." She paused, awaiting a reply. Sara made none. "If you don't, you'll never forgive yourself. You know that what I'm saying is true, don't you?" Jeni placed a hand on Sara's chin and gently lifted it so that their eyes met, dark ones upon silvery ones. "Don't you?"
Sara stuttered, then asked, "You wouldn't mind?"
"I'd insist upon it."
"You're not just saying that to make me feel better?"
"Family is the most important thing that we have. You and me, we're family, aren't we? They're my family now, too. If they have issues about us, we'll iron them out. Trust me, it'll work."
Jeni grinned, her pert nose crinkling. "Have I ever lied to you?"
"Then call 'em. Get 'em here for the high holiday. We'll all have the Solstice together. We'll celebrate it Hawee style, even."
Sara brightened. "We could do it. Can we put them up here?"
"We have a spare room. It's furnished."
"Oh, but our transport. It's only a two-seater."
"We'll rent a four-seater for the holidays."
"But that will be expensive."
Jeni shook her head. "I'm an Inter-Island Airlines pilot now. I get a cut rate on such things. Cheap."
Sara's face shone. "We can really do this?"
"We can do this. I want you, us, to do this."
"You really do?"
"Let's do it, Sara."
Sara studied Jeni's face, then pulled her forward and kissed her soundly. "You're a sweetheart, you know that? I really don't deserve you."
Jeni's nose crinkled in a grin again. "I keep tellin' you that, you hot little Hawee. Now go call your parents."
Sara became agitated, her entire body alive with confused excitement, and she glanced toward the chronograph on the wall. "Um, it's too early there. Papa's still at work."
"So, when will he get home?"
"Maybe in an hour."
"So call in an hour. I'm sure that we can amuse ourselves until then."
Sara's eyebrows lifted in question. "Gee, what do you suggest that we do until then?"
Jeni grinned evilly. "You suggest something."
Sara smiled coyly, then leaned forward and whispered something in Jeni's ear. The dark eyes widened, and Jeni grinned. "God, I love it when you talk dirty. Can we skinny-dip in the ocean afterwards?"
Sara lifted a candle from the low table near the divan. "Love, I wouldn't have it any other way."
Giggling like two schoolgirls, they rose from the divan, hand in hand, and disappeared around the corner into the bedroom, robes discarded haphazardly on the floor behind them, laughter echoing through the little beach house and into the darkness just outside the lovers' windows.
Sara and Jeni both stood in front of the large communication panel hanging on the wall of the central room. They stared at the blank screen, then back at each other. Finally, Jeni asked, "So, are you going to call 'em or what?"
Sara shifted nervously, tapping one bare foot on the floor. "Um, I guess now is the time, huh?"
"I'd say so."
"Look, let me talk to them first, then I'll introduce you. Okay?"
"Okay. I'll just sit over there." She looked at Sara, added, "Relax," and then pointed at her chest. "Pull your robe tighter. Your boobs are showing."
"What?" Sara looked down, then over at Jeni. "They are not, you dork."
Jeni snickered. "Made you look."
Sara pulled her robe tighter anyway, then pointed to the couch. "Go. Sit. I'm already nervous enough. You're not helping."
Jeni sighed melodramatically, then resigned herself to curling up cross-legged on the low divan and sipping her tea while Sara made the call. She watched Sara shuffle nervously in front of the screen, then tap a button on its edge and speak.
A smooth, synthetic voice answered, "On line."
"I'd like to speak with my parents, please."
"Connecting. Wait." The screen flickered and flashed, and the logo of the local communications company materialized on the monitor. After a moment, the synthetic voice urged, "Connected. Proceed."
"Papa? Momma? It's Sara."
The screen flashed into life, and the head and shoulders of an older Hawee man appeared in the screen. He smiled brightly, his lined face beaming into the monitor, curls of slightly long, graying hair playing around his head but revealing tapering, pointed ears identical to Sara's. "Sara, honey? Is that you?"
"Yes, Daddy. How are you?"
"How? Oh, same, same. So delighted to hear from you, Sara. Too long, it's been. So, how's my only daughter?"
"Just fine, Daddy. I miss you."
"We miss you too, Sara. We hadn't heard from you. We'd been worried." He turned away from the monitor and waved a hand. "Petra, it's Sara. Come." In a moment, a smiling Hawee woman of middle age appeared in the screen next to Sara's father and leaned toward the monitor, speaking.
"Sara, honey. We've been worried sick. Is anything wrong?"
Sara shifted nervously. "No, Momma. Everything's wonderful."
At that, Sara's father turned to her mother. "See? I tell you, 'If you hear nothing, then nothing's wrong.' Trust me, when something's wrong, they'll call."
Petra poked her husband playfully in the ribs, then looked into the monitor. "So, what's with the call? Are you still in Southern Breeze? You coming home for the Solstice already?"
"No, Momma, I can't come home. I'll be living here from now on."
"What is this, that you can't visit for the high holiday?"
"No, Momma. Long story. Um, listen. I've got some incredible news for you."
Sara's father raised an eyebrow and asked, "You're pregnant?"
Sara grinned. "No, Daddy. You're always such a tease."
He shrugged. "So who's teasing?" He looked at Petra and said, "Kids today."
Petra urged, "So, tell us this incredible news already. We're waiting, honey."
Sara blushed slightly, then shuffled her feet. Finally, she held up her hand, displaying the small golden band on her finger. "I'm married."
A squeal of delight echoed from the monitor, along with surprised expressions. Sara's mother was bouncing like a schoolgirl. "Such news! I'm so surprised, Sara. I thought you'd never marry."
Her father couldn't resist the urge to tease her. "Such a cynic about marriage, you were, and look at you now. So, what changed your mind?"
"Um, I met someone that I couldn't live without. It's a long story, too."
Petra clapped her hands together in delight. "Even though we didn't get to choose your husband and arrange your marriage, still I'm happy for you. So, when do we meet this fellow?"
Her father chimed in, "What? You find a Hawee fellow in Southern Breeze that you couldn't find here?" His expression brightened, and he added, "Ah! Now I understand you living half a world away and giving up your space station work so suddenly."
Sara smiled. "Well, it's a lot more than just that..."
Her father replied, "More, schmore. Love is love. What else is there to know?"
Petra chided, "Love? I tell you always, you don't choose a mate when you're in love. First you marry, then you learn to love."
Sara's father looked at Petra and teased, "What? I don't recall us doing that. We eloped."
Sara's mouth dropped open. "You... you did?"
"Sure. Her family, you know, they wanted her to marry some schmo, some boring accountant. She chose me, a poor shop-owner, over some prosperous fellow. Don't listen to your Momma about marriage, Sara."
Petra looked over at him. "So we're poor. I still think I chose pretty well."
Sara echoed, "Me too, Momma."
"So when do we meet this... what's his name, anyway?"
"Um, Jeni. But listen, Momma. Jeni's..."
Petra puzzled over that. "Jeni? That's not a Hawee name, is it?"
"Um, no, Momma. Ancient Orthodox."
"But that's illegal in the Empire, child, to marry outside one's faith, one's race." Her expression turned worried. "You didn't leave your faith, did you, Sara?"
"No, Momma. I'm still Hawee. See?" She opened the neck of her robe slightly to display the sun symbol hanging just beneath her throat. "It's legal for us to marry in Southern Breeze. Here, you can marry anyone you want to."
Her father smiled. "It makes sense now, your living there. I understand." He frowned. "This Empire, it gets more backward all the time."
Petra admonished, "Hush, Papa. These calls, they can listen to them. You want they should break down our door some night?"
Sara became concerned. "Has it gotten that bad there?"
"No, no. Your mother, she worries too much. It's still not so bad as the old country."
"Well, you two be careful."
"Oh, we keep quiet and pay our taxes. But enough of this. So, when do we meet this Jeni of yours?"
Sara raised an eyebrow. "How about right now?"
Petra raised her hands to her hair. "Oh, I must look a mess."
"No, Momma, you look wonderful." She turned and waved Jeni over to the monitor. "Um, Momma, Daddy, this is Jeni."
Jeni rose from the divan and walked over to join Sara. Together, they peered into the monitor, and Jeni smiled her best blazing smile, her pert nose crinkling. "Hi. Can I call you Papa and Momma?"
Sara's father and mother stared into the monitor, their expressions momentarily frozen. Then, his eyebrows shot up to his hairline, and Petra's mouth hung open. After a moment, she stammered, "Oh! Jeni, you're... a girl?"
Jeni nodded pleasantly and joked, "Well, last time I checked, I was."
Sara's father broke the moment of silence which thundered through the room by reclaiming his expression and joking, "Well! My son-in-law is a daughter-in-law. What a delightful surprise! Petra, look, she's charming, a lovely girl." He looked around. "Petra? Petra?"
"Daddy? Where's Momma? She disappeared."
He looked down at his feet. "She's on the floor. Petra, what are you doing down there on the floor?"
A voice weakly echoed from the floor. "So what does it look like I'm doing? I'm fainting. What else should I be doing down here?"
Jeni crinkled her nose and looked over at Sara. "Gee, this is going well, isn't it?"
Sara's father cast an apologetic glance toward the monitor, then said, "Excuse me." He disappeared from the monitor's glare, but the voices were still faintly evident.
"Petra! Get up, honey. You'll make our new son... ah, daughter-in-law feel unwelcome."
"She's a... she, Papa."
"She's family, Petra."
"She's Ekatinea, Papa."
"She's family, Petra."
Jeni looked over at Sara, who was watching the scene with an aghast expression. "What's Ekatinea mean?"
Sara held her hand over her mouth and whispered, "It's Hawee for, ah, 'dark one'."
Jeni raised an eyebrow. "Hm. Guess they're talkin' about me, huh?"
Sara's father reappeared in the monitor, followed by a slightly disheveled Petra, who was re-arranging her long, braided hair. "Excuse, please. Petra hasn't been well lately."
Jeni nodded. "Understood. Are you okay, Petra?"
She nodded. "Yes, yes. Um, the excitement. My daughter, she doesn't get married every day, you know. I was overcome with the, ah, news of it. Believe me, I'm quite surprised."
Jeni smiled. "Yeah, I'll bet. Perfectly understandable."
Sara added, "Momma? Are you going to be all right?"
"Oh, I'm fine." She blinked uncertainly, then sniffed. "Oh, by the Prophet's name! The dinner, it's burning, I think." She looked back into the monitor and added, "So, ah, good to meet you, Jeni. Please, I must see to the dinner." Petra disappeared from the monitor.
Sara's father remained at the monitor, watching Petra disappear, then turned back to the screen. "So, Jeni, such a pleasure." His eyes twinkled, and he added, "A surprise, but such a pleasure. To our family, I give you welcome."
Jeni smiled at that. It seemed to her a genuinely heartfelt sentiment. She answered, "Thanks, sir. It's nice to have family again."
He waved a hand. "Kiam, my name is. Please, call me Kiam." He leaned toward the monitor and joked, "Only the salesmen call me 'sir'. You call me that, I think you're trying to sell me something."
Jeni found herself grinning widely and chuckling at that. Then, she elbowed Sara gently in the ribs and said, "I'm going to leave you to talk with Sara now. It's a pleasure meeting you."
"And you, my dear. Take good care of my daughter for me?"
"We take good care of each other. Bye." With that, Jeni left the monitor, walked across the floor, retrieved her tea cup, and headed for the porch. "I'll be outside. Take your time."
Sara nodded, watched her go, and then turned back toward the monitor.
Outside, Jeni sat on the porch, peering up at the myriad twinkling stars in the night sky, and considered the twin moons shining down on her. As she did, she absent-mindedly fingered the twin-moon symbol hanging just beneath her throat, the symbol of her own religion. From her place, she could dimly hear Sara's voice intermixed with Kiam's, speaking rapidly in the clipped Hawee dialect. She did not understand the words, but listened with fascination to the music of the language, realizing that this was the first time that she had ever heard Sara speaking her birth dialect. She thought about her own childhood, the rolling syllables of her own Equatorial language, and suddenly missed it. She had not spoken it, it seemed, in years. With her family dead, she realized that she might never speak it again. A dying tribe, a dying language, a dying religion, a dying way of life. Her hand went to the side of her head, her fingers touching the golden tribal band pierced into the top of her ear. All that she had left of her own family was her tribal band, her dark features, and her memories. Well, that was the way of things, wasn't it? She was who she was now, and her path was set. The past held only memories. She and Sara, she mused, were the future. For Sara, she would have given it all up anyway. The brutal circumstances of a harsh life had taken her family, left her truly alone in the world until she had met Sara. Now, Sara was dealing with her own family. Would Sara be forced to part from her past in order to maintain a love and a life with her? Jeni reflected on that, and hoped that her lover would never have to make that heartbreaking decision.
Finally, Sara emerged from the dwelling and sat on the porch near Jeni. She said nothing, just directed her eyes up toward the sky, and Jeni waited for her to speak. When she did not, Jeni asked, "Sara? Everything okay?"
"Hm? Oh, I guess so." After a moment, she added, "I invited them for the Solstice."
"Yeah? Are they coming?"
"I don't know. They'll talk about it and get back to me. You know Papa. He's poor, and worries about the cost of the flight."
"Yeah. I told him we'd pay. He doesn't want to be a burden to us. They're very proud, you know."
"Is that all it is?"
Sara looked over at her. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, what about us? Your traditions? Do you think that they'll accept our marriage?"
Sara remained quiet for a moment, then replied, "Yeah. I think so. Oh, hell, I don't know. They didn't shun me, anyway. At least that's something."
"Drilkinda. Shunning. It's when a family member is expelled from the family. They refuse to acknowledge that they even exist anymore."
Jeni was shocked. "Were you afraid that they would do that to you?"
"Oh, no." She paused, then confessed, "Well, yes. It's silly, I know. Daddy would never do that to me, I think. It's becoming less and less common a practice."
"What do they do that for?"
"It was originally set by the prophet to protect the family, the clan. Usually, it's for criminals, those who betray the faith, that sort of thing."
"And for those who marry outside the race, the faith?"
Sara nodded slowly. "It has been done for that."
"How about for women who love each other?"
"It has been done for that, too."
Jeni considered that revelation. "Lately, or just in past centuries?"
Sara's voice was soft. "Lately, but the practice is falling out of favor. Even we Hawee have to change with the times, it seems."
"I don't know a lot about the Hawee, but you don't seem very traditional to me."
Sara smiled. "I'm not. I've always been a rebel. I think my parents realized that from my early years." She pulled at her short, sandy hair. "I don't even wear my hair in traditional braids. They were quite hurt when I cut it short several years ago."
"They seem to understand."
"They're trying. It's hard for them, you know."
"Hard for you, too. Isn't it?"
Sara nodded. "Surprised?"
"No. I carry more of my tribe within me than I care to admit. Ancient ways, ways which I still feel sometimes. This Winter Solstice thing is a good example. I will always miss my family most at that time. You know, family is the center of the Solstice celebration for us."
"For us Hawee, too. It's the foremost holiday of the year. Families always convene then."
Jeni looked over at Sara. "So, will they come, do you think?"
"I don't know." She looked away. "I hope so, but I'm so worried that they won't accept our marriage."
"They'll come, and they'll accept us. I know it. We're family, after all."
Sara looked over at Jeni, then grasped her hand and squeezed it. "Yes, we are."
As the Winter Solstice approached, the city became animated with signs of the upcoming holidays. Dramda, being the capital city of Southern Breeze, showed itself to be a melting-pot of different cultures, the many signs of Solstice season displaying themselves in the warm sun during the days, and brilliantly lit during the cooler, starlit nights. Shopping became frantic in the various quarters of the city, as innumerable families stocked their larders and decorated the interiors of their dwellings for the approaching celebration.
Sara had parked their old, weathered two-seater transport on an outlying section of the city and taken the mass transport into the center of town to do some shopping. She shopped alone, as Jeni had been required at the last minute to go to work, executing her check-ride in a newer shuttle that Inter-Island Airlines had purchased. To be selected as a pilot for a new shuttle was a compliment to her, and she dared not decline.
Sara, relatively unfamiliar with the different quarters of the city, had gotten off the mass transport near the downtown Hawee Temple. It was an older, graceful building, replete with the flowing curves of architecture which she had remembered from pictures of temples in the Old Countries. Next to it, she knew, resided the "Hawee quarter", several city blocks wherein many quaint shops and restaurants offered cuisine and items for sale traditional to her culture, and where many of the Hawee in the city lived. Sara shopped today for something traditional with which to decorate their little beach-side dwelling.
She had questioned Jeni about her preferences for decoration and the traditions of her own religion and culture, but Jeni had been tight-lipped about it, saying only that whatever Sara wanted was good enough for her. Although Jeni wouldn't admit it, Sara was convinced that the girl was reluctant to embrace the season, afraid of the memories. Nevertheless, she wanted to do something particularly nice, just for Jeni. But what to do?
Slowly, she strolled down the narrow street, listening to the strains of music coming from one of the shops. It was traditional music that she hadn't heard since she was a gangly teen, living in the Hawee quarter of her birth city. The music, the smells from the bakery, the snatches of spoken Hawee dialect, the predominance of pointed ears on the people who milled about her, all brought back a flood of memories to her. The Hawee quarter in this city looked and felt much like the Hawee quarter in any city on the planet. She felt once again like a teen as she slowly walked, peering about her like a wide-eyed tourist and stopping in front of several shop windows to gaze into their interiors.
In one small shop, she noticed a few tables in a corner near some simple but attractive decorations. On impulse, she decided that she would enter, and swung the door open. She was greeted in her own race's dialect by a pretty young Hawee woman, traditional long braids of sandy hair trailing down over her shoulders, her pointed ears pertly exhibited between the braids, soft slippers on her feet. Sara smiled in answer to her greeting, then glanced around as she spoke in the Hawee dialect. "Ah, I've just moved here and have nothing with which to decorate my dwelling. Do you have some inexpensive decorations?"
The young lady nodded, then led Sara toward shelves near the tables. "Here. We have the traditional Katr, the window-lantern which guides the angels toward the faithful on Solstice night. It is candle-lit; the modern ones are more."
"I like candles. How much is this?"
"One and one-half credits."
The girl smiled. "If you buy this, I will give you a couple of candles to light it."
Sara relented. "Such a deal. I will buy it."
"Good, good. You have traditional Solstice music?"
"What? No, I have nothing."
"Here are recordings of music. The older ones, they cost less. People go for the newer ones these days."
"Old is good." Sara looked over the recordings, selecting one which reflected the traditional Hawee music of the season, and handed it to the girl. "This seems suitable."
"Would you like to hear it? I can put it on the player."
"That would be nice." Sara sniffed the air, then asked, "The smell is wonderful in here. Is that apple-tea?"
"Yes, with spices. It is fresh, and only a half-credit." At Sara's smile, the girl held up a finger and trotted around to the small bar to pour her a cup, motioning Sara to a table. As she sat, the girl placed the cup of tea in front of her, then turned and slipped the recording disc into a player. In a moment, strains of the Solstice music reminiscent of her childhood echoed through the shop. Sara sipped the tea, listening to the music, and reflected on how it would add much to the atmosphere in their little dwelling.
The girl's voice interrupted her thoughts. "You like this?"
Sara smiled pleasantly. "The tea is wonderful, and the music is just as I remember from my childhood."
"You would like to buy it?"
"Yes." Sara nodded, then her expression fell. "But I have no player."
"Oh. You really have just arrived, haven't you? From where have you come?"
"From the Northern Empire."
"Well, you can go to Anglin's pawn shop, just three doors down. He sells used ones cheap. He will sell you a good one."
"Thank you. I'll do that."
The girl looked around, assuring herself that there were no other customers in the shop, then sat at the table with Sara. "May I ask you something?"
"My brother is in the Empire. He says that it is awful for us there just now. Is it?"
Sara shrugged. "No more than usual. Hawee are tolerated, but just so. My father's shop window was broken a couple of months ago and again last week."
"Is that what brought you here?"
Sara sipped her tea, then slowly answered, "Partly. My spouse is not Hawee. We came here to avoid arrest for being in love, and to get married."
The girl's eye widened. "Oh. Of what race is he?"
"She is Equatorial."
"She?" The girl studied Sara intently for a moment, and then pointed an excited finger her way. "You and she were on the Empire space shuttle? The one which crashed here?"
Sara smiled. "Yes."
"I saw something of it on the broadcasts. How exciting it must have been."
"Scary. We almost died."
"Ah, but you didn't. My Papa, he says that there is a purpose to all things."
"He sounds wise."
She nodded, then asked, "Your parents, they are here?"
"Ah. They will come for the Solstice, of course?"
"I don't know. I offered, but they haven't said." She paused, then confessed, "I don't know whether they approve of my marriage."
"Yes, yes. I know what you mean. My fiancé, he is an Islander. My parents were angry, so very angry. They threatened drilkinda at first, but they finally grew to accept our love. Yours will, too."
Sara blinked back a sudden, unbidden tear. "I hope so."
"They will, I know it. You must only be patient with them. It is hard for the older ones, you know. Traditions are strong with them." She reached out and patted Sara's hand in a gesture of sympathy, then rose and went to the counter. Shortly, she returned with a small bag and set it on the table. "Here are your things. Your katr, your candles, your music. Also, I have put in some apple-tea. It is spiced like they serve it in the desert. You'll like it."
"Thank you. You've been most kind. What do I owe you?"
"Oh, for you, four credits for the lot."
Sara fished in her pocket for her currency, then handed four coins to the girl. She placed another half-credit coin down on the table as a tip, then rose. "Thank you for the tea. You've been most gracious."
She nodded pleasantly, then pointed. "Remember, three doors down. Tell Anglin I sent you."
"I will. Thanks." With that, she left the shop, pausing to look up at the name above the entrance. She resolved to remember it, then found her way into the pawn shop. Shortly, she emerged on the street again, a compact little player added to her bag. As she stood on the street, she paused, looking up toward the spires of the temple, and an idea struck her. She stuck her head back into the pawn shop and asked, "Where is the Equatorial quarter from here?"
That afternoon, Jeni entered their home to find Sara hard at work on her book, her writing computer in her lap. She was comfortably curled up on the low divan, a cup of apple tea by her side. She looked up as Jeni entered, lifted her face to receive a kiss from the Equatorial woman, and then patted the cushions beside her. Jeni nodded, but said, "Let me change first."
"I think you look hot in your uniform."
Jeni teased, "You think I look hotter out of it."
"Hm. On second thought..."
"Yeah, yeah. I'll be right out." She paused on the way to the bedroom, listened to the music softly wafting through the room, and said, "That's nice. What is that?"
Sara pointed to the bedroom. "Go change, and I'll tell you all about it. I've got news for you."
Jeni trotted off to the bedroom, returning in a few minutes clad in a pair of shorts and a thin top. She plopped down on the divan next to Sara, who placed the writing computer aside and turned to face Jeni.
"I called my parents."
"And?" Jeni raised an anticipatory eyebrow.
"They're going to try to come for the Solstice."
Jeni was gleeful. "See? I told ya. Nothing to worry about."
The next day settled into routine for Sara and Jeni. Jeni had to leave early to pilot an island-hop, promising to be back in the afternoon. After dropping Jeni by the Inter-Island hangar, Sara stopped at the gym near their house to exercise. When she returned home, she set out the katr on the sill of the large windows facing the ocean, then rummaged in her bag for another item. It was a wreath of wild-flowers and branches, purchased in the Equatorial quarter. She hung it on the front door of their dwelling, then stood back and nodded with satisfaction. Jeni would like it. Smiling, Sara entered the house and unfolded a larger package. It was a knee-high wooden tree, the crooked, stylized branches bending upward and outward. This, she had also bought at the Equatorial quarter, on the advice of a shopkeeper who had explained a little of the traditions of the Ancient Orthodox. Sara placed it in a barren corner of the central room, then stood back. She pondered it and mused, something of Jeni, something of me. Not complete yet, though, she thought, and lifted a box of candles from the bag. On the tip of each branch of the tree, a holder was shaped, fit for one candle. She carefully planted a little candle on each branch, then nodded in satisfaction. Yes. We'll light them together, along with my katr, on Solstice evening. Finished, she gathered the shards of package, padded into the kitchen and thrust them into the trash pulverizer, then tapped the switch. It whirred, then shut off.
As she walked back into the central room, she tapped a switch on the communication monitor. It blinked, and the voice spoke. "On line."
"Show me the latest news broadcasts, please."
"One moment." The screen flickered, and a smooth male voice began reciting news from around the world. Sara only half-listened, settling down with her writing computer to do some more work, until a news item caught her attention. She looked up.
"In the Northern Empire, more civil unrest ravaged the streets of major cities today. Riots have broken out in the capitol, but details are being withheld by the authorities there. There is some indication that the violence is religiously-motivated, the mostly Fundamental mobs targeting in particular the minority quarters of the city. The Hawee quarter was particularly hard-hit, although how extensive the damage is, is uncertain. The Equatorial quarter was also attacked, although damage is less extensive there. The police seem to be guiding the mobs toward those quarters, so suspicions are that the government is behind the latest pogrom.
"In other news, the war between the Northern Empire and the Union of Old Countries is in stalemate, neither side gaining an advantage, even after brutal fighting. Observers feel that they will soon reach an armistice, as negotiations are quietly beginning."
Sara sat on the couch, her hand covering her mouth, and stared in disbelief at the monitor blinking on the wall. After a moment, she rose and stood before the monitor. "Cancel the news."
"Done." The broadcast went off.
"I wish to speak with my parents."
"One moment." The screen flickered, and the logo of the local communications company appeared. Then, the synthetic voice proclaimed, "Connected. Proceed."
"Momma? Daddy? Are you there? It's Sara."
Sara's mother appeared in the monitor. "Oh, Sara. I'm here, honey. What's wrong?"
"Are you okay? I just heard on the news..."
"Yes, yes. It's all over the city. It's frightening. We're okay, but the shop, it got damaged again."
"Is Papa okay?"
"Yes, he just got home. They closed his shop, Sara, the police did, so the Fundamentals wouldn't loot it."
"When are you coming here?"
"I don't know that we can come. The authorities, they set a curfew on the quarter."
"Where's Papa? Put him on."
"He's coming. Papa, it's Sara."
Sara's father appeared in the monitor. "Sara, what makes you call? It's expensive."
"Never mind that. Are you all right? What happened to the shop?"
"Oh, they closed it. It's a bit damaged. Don't worry, I'll fix it."
Sara was almost in tears. "You sell it, Papa. You and Momma pack and get here now."
"It's hard, Sara. The city, it's under martial law. No one can leave, they tell me."
"Papa? You and Momma get out as soon as you can, you hear me? You two come here."
The monitor blinked, then went blank. In a moment, the communications company's logo re-appeared on the screen. The synthetic voice explained, "Communication has been terminated."
"What? By whom?"
"Checking." The screen flashed, then the voice intoned, "Communication was terminated at Northern Empire."
"Attempting." The screen flashed, and the voice spoke to Sara again. "Unable to reconnect with Northern Empire. Transmission monitored and denied as subversive."
"Shit!" Sara stomped her foot on the floor, then paced in worry, her mind whirling in thought. After a moment, she perched on the divan and buried her face in her hands, feeling tears of frustration and fear come upon her.
When she drove the transport to pick Jeni up from her hangar, her mood was somber, very strained. At Jeni's inquiry, she explained the situation. Jeni listened, but said nothing for some time, pursing her lips in thought, then tapped Sara on the arm. "Hang on a minute. I've got an idea." Without further explanation, Jeni left the transport and disappeared into the hangar. After about fifteen minutes, she returned, sat in the transport, and grinned. "I checked through our com channels to our affiliate's offices in the Empire. One of the folks in their office connected me with your father. They're just fine. He said for you not to worry, that they're safe. He thinks martial law will be lifted in a week or so."
Sara slumped in her seat, covering her face with her hands. "Thank God." After a moment, she mumbled, "Thank you, Jeni."
Jeni chuckled. "Not a problem, love."
Sara sat up in the seat. "Oh, a week? They won't be able to get here for the holiday."
"I guess not, but at least we know they're safe. That's something, anyway."
"That's everything." Sara smiled bravely. "Well, we can celebrate together, you and me." She paused, then asked uncertainly, "Um, you would want to celebrate with me, wouldn't you? Do you still feel...?"
Jeni nodded her head. "This year, it's different. This year, I have family again. I have you." She reached over and took Sara's hand in her own, interlacing their fingers, and squeezed gently. "Take me home?"
"What? Oh, yeah. Sure." Sara switched the transport on, then guided it out onto the road.
As she did, Jeni asked, "You hungry?"
Sara nodded. "Suddenly starving. I hadn't realized it until just now. I'd been so worried about my parents. Do you want to stop and eat?"
Jeni leaned back in her seat, smiling as if to contain some secret. "Sure. You pay? I'm a little short of cash at the moment."
Sara glanced over. "You're broke? I thought you had some money."
"Your Solstice present cost more than I thought."
Sara shook her head. "Oh, Jeni. You didn't have to do that. You're enough of a gift for me."
Jeni smiled at that. "My pleasure, sweetheart. Say, could you lend me a fifty credits until payday?"
"No, but I'll give you fifty credits, you dork."
"I, um, promise to earn it."
Sara raised an eyebrow, then looked over at Jeni. Slowly, a grin spread out over her face, a welcome feeling after the frantic, worrisome day. "I'll just take you up on that, you little hottie."
When they returned home, Sara led Jeni into the dwelling with a hand over her eyes, whispering that she had a surprise for her. Jeni, for her part, objected pleasantly, but allowed herself to be led by the hand into the central room. Once they were inside, Sara whisked her hand away from Jeni's face, and the Equatorial woman's response was one of deep emotion. There, in a corner, next to the expansive windows facing the ocean, stood a stylized wooden tree, decorated with candles, next to a katr on the window-sill. Near the tree, a single present sat, wrapped in the white cloth traditional for an Ancient Orthodox Solstice celebration. Jeni pondered the scene for some time, silent, then wiped at her face and hugged Sara in gratitude. Then, she disappeared into the bedroom and re-emerged a moment later with another package, long and slender, wrapped in identical white cloth. She placed it next to the first one as she smiled apologetically. "It's not as big as yours, but it's from me to you."
Sara pressed herself against Jeni's back and wrapped her arms around the Equatorial woman's waist, nuzzling at her neck and placing a kiss on the dark skin just below the collar-length black hair. "I'm sure that it's wonderful. Thank you. We'll open them tomorrow evening, at the Solstice?"
Jeni nodded. "Yeah. Tomorrow evening, at the Solstice." She giggled, then added, "Your other present might be here by then, with any luck."
Sara squeezed her tightly. "Another one? Your traditions say only one, right? You're being far too extravagant. No wonder you're broke."
"Well, yeah. Orthodox tradition says only one, but this is a special gift. Actually, this one is for both of us. The entire family, you might say." She snickered, then teased, "I don't think that I'll be resigned to the underworld for that little sin of excess, do you?"
Sara grasped Jeni's shoulders and turned her around. Their faces were near, and she rested her forehead against Jeni's. "Any underworld you're in, I want to be there, too."
Jeni crinkled her nose in humor. "I thought you didn't believe in that stuff."
Sara touched the tip of Jeni's nose teasingly with a finger. "Me, believe in torment? Sure. I've eaten your cooking."
Jeni winced. "Ouch. Okay, so I can't cook. I admit it. There's one thing that I can make well, though."
"Yeah? What's that?" Sara raised an eyebrow and added, "I'll bet I know."
Jeni grinned. "Actually, I was talking about reservations."
"Well, that too." Sara hugged Jeni a little more tightly to her. "So, I'm cooking tomorrow. I've already done the shopping."
"Great. You cook good. What are we having?"
"That's a surprise. Traditional Hawee Solstice meal. Do you mind?"
"Not at all. Look, I've got an early flight to one of the near islands, but I'll be home by afternoon. We'll eat early, then have the evening together. Okay?"
Sara sighed melodramatically, then rolled her eyes. "Well, if you must work on the Solstice..."
Jeni shrugged. "Hey, I'm the new kid. I get to work the Solstice this year."
"I'll get that chapter finished and have dinner on the table."
Jeni teased, "Such a dutiful little Hawee spouse."
Sara's eyes opened wide. "Dutiful little...? I'll show you, you... dork!" She dug her fingers into Jeni's ribs, causing her to shriek in laughter and break free of Sara's strong grasp. Jeni bounded across the room and headed into the bedroom, Sara close behind her, both laughing hysterically. Sara followed Jeni as she bounced across the low, wide bed and headed back toward the door. The slender Hawee finally caught up with Jeni just outside the dwelling and tackled her. They rolled in the sand, a tangle of arms and legs, and when they came to a halt, Sara was sitting on Jeni's stomach, her hands pinning the dark arms above the silken, spiky black hair. They were both covered with sand, sputtering, and still laughing as they panted from the sudden exertion. Sara leaned down, her nose very close to Jeni's.
"Give up, dork?"
Jeni grinned evilly. "I'm just gettin' started." With that, she twisted. Sara found herself on her face in the sand, Jeni's body resting on top of her. Warm breath tickled her neck, and a pair of soft lips traced the outline of one of her ears from its point down to the lobe. Sara shivered.
"Jeni, you know what that does to me."
The lips softly tugged on her earlobe, and Sara closed her eyes. "Oh, my."
Jeni's voice was a teasing whisper. "You like that. Know how I can tell?"
"Your tail's wagging."
Another round of snickers came from both of them, and Sara muttered, "It is not, you goof."
"Yeah, it is. I should know. I'm sittin' on it."
"Well, get off of it, goofy."
Jeni slid off of Sara's back and lay back in the sand, panting pleasantly. Sara lifted herself up from the sand, sat cross-legged, and spat sand from her mouth. She looked up at the evening's sky, the stars just beginning to show, then around at the beach. It was dusky, deserted, and the waves pleasant. "I'm full of sand."
"Let's take a shower together." Jeni suggested.
Sara looked over at Jeni, still recumbent in the sand. "I've got a better idea."
"Yeah? What's that?" Jeni leaned up on her elbows, glanced over at Sara, and then raised an eyebrow. "You mean...?"
"Yes. That's just what I mean."
Jeni sat up. "But it's not dark yet, Sara."
"It's almost dark. Besides, who's going to see? There's no one out here. Our nearest neighbor is way down there."
Silvery eyes locked with dark ones in the dimming light, and Jeni raised an eyebrow. "I can't believe that you're gonna do this."
Sara glanced up and down the beach again, then leaned over and placed a quick, sandy kiss on Jeni's mouth. "Last one in gets to sweep the floor tonight." With that, she stood and stripped off her top, shed her shorts, and, totally nude, made a dash for the breakers. Jeni was right behind her, her pilot's uniform scattered near Jeni's clothing. They hit the waves at the same time, both diving into the rolling breakers, and came up for air, laughing and gasping. Sara wiped her face and asked, "Who won?"
"I think it was a tie."
"I think so, too."
Jeni pretended surprise. "What, you agree with me?"
Sara shrugged innocently. "Sure. I always end up agreeing with you."
"See? I married a smart girl."
"Yes, you did." As their feet found the sand, they swayed gently in the chest-high water. Their bodies bumped together, and Sara felt Jeni's hand on her back, trailing down her spine. Jeni's fingers wrapped around her tail and she giggled.
Sara raised an eyebrow. "Now what?"
"Your tail's wagging again."
Sara smiled over at Jeni's face, now dim in the deepening night. "Damned right. I'm in love."
"Yeah? What a coincidence. Me, too."
Sara pulled Jeni close, and they kissed sweetly in the evening, a heartfelt, lingering kiss. When they parted, Sara ran her fingers through Jeni's spiky, silken hair and said, "See? I always agree with you."
Jeni awoke in the night, turned in bed, and noticed that Sara was not there. She rubbed her eyes, rose, and tiptoed out into the common room to see Sara standing near the windows facing the ocean. The light of the twin moons cast a silvery splash of color across her skin, the shadows accentuated on her trim body and her angular face. She stood, facing the ocean, lost in reflection, her arms crossed across her chest, her tail slowly traveling from side to side as she pondered some deep thought. Jeni smiled in admiration at the sight, then slid up behind her and wrapped her arms around Sara's waist. "What's on your mind?"
"What?" Sara leaned against her, placing her hands over Jeni's. "Oh, just thinking about things. It's been almost two months since we married. It just seems that everything went so fast."
"It did go fast, Sara. We had only known each other for four months or so when we had to flee the Empire and come here."
"And then our marriage, an hour or so after we got here. I think we discussed it for about thirty seconds before we did it."
"If you hadn't married me, they wouldn't have granted me asylum. I'd probably be in front of an execution squad right now." Her voice lowered, and she added, "I'll never forget that you did that for me. I owe you my life, you know."
"I didn't marry you because of that. I married you because I love you, Jeni."
"I know." She tightened her arms around Sara's waist and said, "What else is on your mind?"
"You really are learning me well, aren't you? I'm worried for my parents. I can't get through to them on our com monitor. I think that the Empire figured out it's me, a fugitive, and terminates my calls."
"Don't worry, Sara. I'll keep tabs on them from work. They're fine, I just know it."
Sara sighed. "I still don't know whether or not they accept our marriage. I'm so worried about it."
"They will. They love you. They only want to see you happy."
"And you make me happy. I love you, and I love being married to you. But they might not understand. It's so against tradition, what I've done. What we've done."
"Hey, somebody has to break tradition once in a while. That's how cultures grow."
Sara was not convinced. "But you don't understand what it is to be Hawee. Tradition is strong among us."
"I wasn't born Hawee, but I was born Gona, of the Equatorial tribes. Tradition is strong with us, too. Your parents will bless our marriage. Just give them some time to get used to the idea."
Sara sighed. "I hope you're right. It would kill me to lose their good favor."
"Sure I'm right. Now come get some rest, Sara. We've got a big day tomorrow." When Sara did not move, she whispered, "Come and sleep in my arms?"
Sara relented, turned, and snaked an arm around Jeni's shoulder. "How selfish of me. I'm keeping you up, aren't I? Okay, you've talked me into it."
Silently, they padded back into the bedroom and curled up in the low bed, Sara snuggling tightly against Jeni's shoulder. Soon, she could hear the gentle, regular breathing near her ear and knew that Jeni was asleep. Sara, however, did not sleep. She remained awake, pressed tightly against Jeni's side and motionless, gazing out of the open window and listening to the soothing rumble of the Ocean of Peace just outside their dwelling, even as her mind raced with worried, anxious thought.
Jeni arose and left for her flight as the dawn streaked over the sky, leaving Sara to sleep. When Sara finally awoke, it was mid-morning. She turned in bed, blinked, and then sat up, looking around and chiding herself for sleeping in when Jeni had risen so early. She had wanted to see her off.
She wrapped her robe loosely about her body, finding her way into the kitchen, and noted the half-pot of hot tea still waiting for her on the warming pad. Jeni, she thought. What a sweetheart. She poured a cup and left the kitchen, opening the dwelling to the fresh air, and tapped the com monitor on the wall. When its synthetic voice answered, she spoke. "Show me the latest news broadcasts."
"On line." She did not keep her eyes on the monitor, but just listened as the voice began describing the latest in world events.
"In international news, the civil unrest in the major cities of the Northern Empire has slackened, and streets in the capitol city are calm. Work crews are even now beginning to clean the streets of debris, and the curfew has been temporarily lifted. Martial law remains in effect, and authorities are unsure as to how long it will remain so.
"In the Union of Old Countries, negotiations for an armistice with the Northern Empire are progressing, and observers believe that a settlement may be possible very soon."
Sara spoke to the monitor. "That's enough. Thank you."
The news broadcasts ceased, and the synthetic voice responded, "Broadcast is terminated."
She hesitated, then spoke again. "I wish to speak with my parents."
"One moment. Connecting." Sara watched nervously as the com company logo appeared, and the monitor blinked. "Call cannot be completed. Access denied."
Sara's heart sank. "Denied by whom?"
The voice responded, "Checking." The screen flashed again, and the voice explained, "Access denied by Northern Empire communications."
"Thank you. Terminate." At that, the screen went blank. Sara smiled painfully, then sat down on the low divan, her cup of tea by her side. She pulled her writing computer into her lap, turned it on, and settled down to attempt some work before time to begin preparing dinner.
Her writing actually flowed well that morning, and she achieved much more than she had anticipated. When the wall chronometer showed it to be early afternoon, she rose, showered quickly and then dressed in shorts and a comfortable top. On her way to the kitchen, she detoured into the common room and again addressed the com monitor. When it responded, she commanded, "Music."
The screen flashed, and a list of music appeared. "Selection?"
Sara scanned the list, then spoke. "Romantic." Immediately, music began playing in the room, and Sara walked out into the kitchen, tapping at the small plate on the wall above the sink. The same music began wafting through the kitchen. She adjusted the volume, then opened the pantry and began collecting what she would need to prepare dinner.
That afternoon, after the shuttle had emptied of passengers, Jeni and the Islander stewardess collected their flight bags and headed toward the main terminal of Dramda Airport. When they reached the cavernous interior of the terminal, Jeni motioned to the stewardess. "I've got a stop to make. Want to wait?"
She smiled. "I'll head on, since you've got your own transport today. My family's waiting for me to get home before they begin the Solstice celebration."
Jeni nodded. "Enjoy it. I'll see you in a couple of days."
She nodded pleasantly. "Do you have family at home?"
"Oh, yeah. Sara's there. Well, Happy Solstice."
"To you, too. Bye." The stewardess turned and trotted off toward the main doors. Jeni watched her go and thought, Yeah. Family. I've got family. Seems odd to hear myself say that. With a smile, she thought, Odd, but good. Feels good. With that, she sought out the office of Inter-Island Air and spoke in hushed whispers to one of the people there. They held a short conversation, and then Sara produced her small pocket phone and showed the number to the desk person. With assurances that they understood her request, she walked a short distance away and tapped in the number for the dwelling she shared with Sara. In a moment, Sara's face appeared in the tiny screen. Jeni spoke to it. "Hey, I'm coming home. Need anything?"
The tiny face smiled. "Just you."
"See you in fifteen. Love you."
"Love you, too. Bye." With that, the picture went blank. Jeni dropped the palm-sized phone back into her uniform pocket and strolled out toward the Inter-Island hangar where their little two-seater transport was parked.
"Sara, this meal is magnificent. I'm impressed."
Sara smiled up from her dinner plate. "I'm glad that you like it."
Jeni crinkled her nose in merriment. "I'm not sure what I'm eating, but I like it."
Sara laughed. "Dork." She pointed at Jeni's plate. "That is a pancake made from the root of corora. Those are fresh fruits of the ngitika tree, spiced just so, and this is the meat of the lagmnita bird, roasted with spices."
"Meat? You don't eat much meat. Is that a Hawee thing?"
"Yes. On special occasions, we do. It's regarded as a delicacy. This bird, you see, was plentiful in the marshlands around the Sea of Lagmnita. It's partly what the ancient Hawee subsisted on after their travels through the wild lands, when they came to the desert seacoasts."
"Was that when the prophet first appeared to them?"
Sara nodded. "She appeared at the Winter Solstice. That's why it's so celebrated today among us. It was she, you know, who instituted the idea of family and endowed each family with a unique name. Before that, Hawee were a communal tribe. Everyone lived together."
Jeni had placed her eating utensil aside and was listening with rapt attention. She interjected, "So, what does your name mean?"
"Oh. Well, my full name..." She waved a hand. "As you know, is Sara dor vin Conda-Breeden. The 'dor vin' means literally 'from the family of', and Conda-Breeden are the descendants of the union of those two great families, perhaps three centuries ago. Sara was a sister of the prophet."
Jeni picked up her utensil. "So there must be a lot of 'Conda-Breedens' running around out there."
Sara laughed. "Oh, a few, that's for sure." The smile grew pensive as she added, "A lot of them died, though, about a century ago in the great pogroms of the Old Countries. It was a brutal time." She sipped at her wine, then asked, "What about you?"
Jeni looked up. "What about me?"
"Your heritage, honey. Tell me about it."
Jeni shrugged, then explained, "Well, we Equatorials were tribal since the ancient times, a warrior culture." She touched the gold band in her ear with a finger. "Each tribe had a unique band. Still, we wear them proudly today. It made it easy to wage war against another tribe. You could always tell your opponent," Jeni teased, "Unless they got their ear lopped off."
Sara laughed. "Oh, Jeni, that's awful. Stop it."
Jeni's eyes twinkled at Sara's laugh, and she continued, "Well, my ancestors were happily waging war on each other when our prophet appeared to us. He united the warring tribes, made peace after centuries of war, a peace which was first celebrated on..." Jeni raised an eyebrow and pointed toward Sara, who answered.
"On the Winter Solstice, right?"
"Right. The moons were full that night. Hence, the symbol." She pulled the collar of her top aside to display the small twin-moon symbol around her neck. "So, we Equatorials went on to become a great civilization for a time. Our religion spread to other areas of the world."
"The Old Countries? The Northern Latitude races?"
"Sure. They were barbarians back then. They adopted it, learned the tribal way. Eventually, they fashioned their own brand of the religion. They called it Fundamental. Ours, we call Ancient Orthodox, because it's the oldest form and it's closest to the prophet's teachings." She shrugged. "At least, we think so."
Sara ventured a thought. "It doesn't matter who the prophet is, the Solstice is really all about family, isn't it?"
"Yup. Peace, family, loyalty, and love." She pointed to Sara's plate. "You finished with your dinner?"
"What? Oh, yes. Let's go and light the katr and the tree."
They rose, scraped their dishes into the trash pulverizer, and walked together into the central room of their dwelling. Sara tapped the light switches, rendering them very low, and Jeni picked up the flame-wand. As they settled on the floor near the window, Sara touched the wand to the katr. It burst into a mellow, flickering flame, then settled down to burn with a constant light, dispensing a pleasant fragrance through the room. Then, Jeni lifted the wand from Sara's hand and touched it to each candle on the tree. As she did, she explained how the candles represented the original tribes of the Equatorial peoples and the multi-colored band around each branch, the tribal bands. The branch circled in gold paint, identical to the gold band in the top of her ear, represented her own tribe, the Gona. The topmost candle symbolized the wisdom of the ancient prophet; the tree, the unity that held them together as a people. Sara listened with fascination, then reached out and lifted a package from near the tree. She placed it in Jeni's lap. "For you."
Jeni's face lit up. "Gee, can I open it now?"
Sara laughed. "You're as giddy as a child. Yes, open it, before you burst with excitement."
Carefully, Jeni unwrapped the white cloth covering the package. When it lay open in front of her, she gasped. There, in her lap, carefully folded, lay a traditional Equatorial k'mora, the costume of her ancient people, unchanged through the centuries. Jeni held it up and studied it by the candlelight, then looked over at Sara. "How... when? God, Sara, this is beautiful. I haven't worn one of these since my coming-of-age ceremony. Where did you get this?"
"Do you like it?"
"I love it. Thank you, it's fantastic. Where...?"
"I went shopping one day in the Equatorial quarter of the city."
Jeni studied the cloth, vibrant and colorful. It seemed to sparkle in the candle-light. Then, she carefully placed it back in her lap and reached out for the remaining package. It was long and slender. She placed it in Sara's lap and said, "For you."
"What is it, Jeni?"
"Well, open it. Come on, I can't wait to see your reaction."
Sara carefully unwound the white cloth. When she finished, a wooden box lay in her lap. Its latches and hinges were of shiny metal and an inlay decorated the lid. She unfastened the latch and opened the box. Inside rested a long wooden flute of the recorder style, polished and with inlaid finger-holes and a fine, decorative scroll-work which ran the length of the flute. Her breath caught; she slowly, carefully lifted the flute from its box. "Oh, Jeni. This is magnificent. It must have cost you a fortune."
"Nah. I have connections." She motioned at Sara, then toward the flute. "Try it out. I'll bet it sounds better than that poor old flute you play now."
Sara raised an eyebrow, then lifted the flute to her mouth, breathed deeply, and blew. The tone which echoed in the room was of exquisite timbre, a vibrant, warm sound, and with just a touch of vibrato. Sara ran slowly up and down the scale, then lifted it from her mouth and looked over at Jeni. "It's the most magnificent thing I've ever heard. Thank you, Jeni."
"Thank you, Sara, for tonight, and for every night for the last several months. I never thought I'd enjoy the Solstice again, until you came to me."
"Oh, Jeni. This is a wonderful Solstice, isn't it?."
She placed the flute back into the box, then leaned over and hugged Jeni, who whispered, "It's not over yet."
Sara leaned back. "What do you mean?"
"Oh, I just mean that you've got one more present coming." She looked up at the wall chronometer. "Any time now." As if on cue, her small pocket phone buzzed. Jeni lifted it from her pocket and looked down at it. "Right on time. Excuse me." She rose and hustled into the bedroom. Sara heard her speak, a quick conversation, and then she reappeared. "I've got to go and pick it up."
"You've got to go out tonight? Now?"
"Yeah. It'll just take maybe half an hour. I'll be right back, I promise."
"But can't it wait? I so wanted to see you in your k'mora."
"I promise, love, I'll put it on as soon as I get back." She leaned down and kissed Sara, who studied her skeptically. "Practice something snappy while I'm gone, and I'll show you a traditional Equatorial dance when I return."
Sara's eyes reflected puzzlement. "You really have to go?"
Jeni grinned. "Trust me, you'll be glad I did. I'll be back. Love you."
"Love you, too. Hurry back?"
As Jeni disappeared around the corner, she giggled like a schoolgirl. "Oh, I will."
Sara heard the door close, then detected the sound of the transport as it whispered softly out into the night. Without Jeni near, the dwelling seemed suddenly lifeless, and she felt a wave of loneliness sweep over her. She sighed, then rose and went to the kitchen, placing the teakettle on to make some apple-tea, and saw to the dishes. When she finished, she sat on the low divan and fingered her new flute. It really was a beauty, ebony wood and with graceful curves. Like Jeni, she thought. She placed it to her lips and began to play, and the exquisite, vibrato sounds enveloped her. She closed her eyes and played by touch, allowing the music to wrap around her. She grew used to its touch, its feel almost immediately, and its voice was remarkable, bursting forth with very little effort on her part. Before she knew that time had passed, she heard the soft whirr of a transport outside. Jeni's voice echoed just outside the door, and then Jeni stuck her head around the corner of the entranceway.
"Sara? Boy, do I have a surprise for you. Close your eyes."
Jeni waved a hand. "Come on, close your eyes, or I won't show you your gift."
Sara smiled. "Okay, okay." She placed the flute back into its box, lifted a hand and placed it over her eyes.
"No peeking, now."
Sara listened, and she thought that she heard a shuffle of feet on the floor. Finally, Jeni's teasing voice rang through the central room. "Okay, open your eyes."
Sara lifted her hand away from her eyes and gasped. Her mouth hung open, and she stammered for a moment, then sprung from the couch and danced across the floor. Her voice was alive with excitement.
"Momma! Papa!" She swept them into her arms and embraced them both tightly, her words falling in a torrent. "When...? How did you get here? How'd you get out of the Empire? Oh, my God! How did you do this? Why didn't you tell me you were coming?"
Her father shrugged his shoulders and smiled, his lined face erupting into a delightful, crinkled smile. "It was sudden. We hardly had time to pack."
Her mother added, "Such a daughter. She pretends that she didn't know."
Sara looked at them. "I really didn't know."
Her mother studied her. "But we had two tickets waiting for us. The airline people, they came for us at the embassy. I thought that you did this."
Sara shook her head. "I didn't do it. Embassy? What?"
Sara's father explained, "Jeni, here, she calls us. She tells us to go to the Southern Breeze Embassy and request asylum. She said that we'd get it automatically, being Hawee. We did, and just in time, too. The Hawee quarter, it was being looted."
Her mother added, "Yes, and then the airline people, they got us from the embassy. We were on the shuttle and out of the country so suddenly, thanks to the documents they gave us at the embassy." A puzzled expression crossed her face. "You didn't do this, Sara?"
"No." Sara's eyes slowly traveled over to gaze at Jeni. "But I'll bet I know who did."
"Then..." Sara's mother looked at Sara, at Kiam, and then at Jeni, who was standing quietly, her hands in her pockets. "Jeni, you did this?"
In answer, Jeni shrugged shyly. Kiam answered for her. "Yes, Petra, our daughter-in-law did this for us. How she arranged it, I'll never know. It must have cost her a small fortune."
Petra studied Jeni intently, then asked, "For us, for two simple, poor Hawee, you should do such a thing?"
Jeni smiled. "We're family." After a moment, she asked, "Aren't we?"
Petra reached out and pulled Jeni to her, kissing her on both cheeks, then stood back and held Jeni at arm's length, beaming at her. "Family. Yes, we are. My new daughter-in-law, such a wonderful girl." She looked over at Sara, who stood speechless. "Sara, honey, we could never have chosen as well for you as you did for yourself."
Sara wrapped one arm around Jeni and the other around Petra, hugging them to her sides. "For once, Momma, I agree with you."
Kiam cleared his throat, then said, "A miracle. Sara and her mother agree on something. I'll get our bags. I think we have the Solstice to celebrate yet."
Jeni joined him. "We'll be right back. Sara, love, make your mother at home." She winked at Sara, then turned and left with Kiam, who began speaking pleasantly with her as they disappeared into the entranceway.
Petra leaned up, kissed Sara on the cheek, then said, "Let's make some tea. I want to hear all about how you two met."
Sara stood, dumbfounded. After a second, she stammered, "Momma?"
She shrugged. "Oh, tired from the travel, of course. Such excitement, we haven't had in years."
"No. I mean, are you okay... with Jeni and me? Our marriage?"
Petra patted Sara on the cheek. "Always you were such a worrywart. Sure, I'm okay. Sure, I was shocked at first, but your Papa, so wise as he is, he convinced me that this is a good thing. It took a little getting used to, is all. That Jeni, she's such a marvel. Already I love her." Her eyes sparkled as she added, "I can see now why you do, too."
Sara felt her knees grow weak. "Thank you, Momma. I was so worried."
Petra grasped her arm and led her toward the kitchen. "Worried that your old Mama and Papa wouldn't approve of your marriage? Worried that we would shun you for breaking tradition? By now, you should know us better, Sara. Tradition is nice, but over-rated. You forget, your Papa and I broke tradition to marry. Believe me, I understand. I was younger and in love once, too."
"Then... you're okay with our difference in race? In religion? That Jeni's...?"
Petra sniffed. "I thought about this. All my life, I've dealt with hatred because we're Hawee. You forget so soon how, when you were a little girl, you were coming home crying because the Fundamental children say horrible things about you? How hurt you were? How they even beat you so badly once, that to the doctor we had to carry you?"
"I remember, Mama."
"You think, after all that, that your Papa and I could do that to another person? Hate them for who they are? Never. Shame be upon us to do such a thing to someone, especially to a sweet girl like Jeni."
"I'm glad you feel that way, Momma."
"So how else should I feel? Tradition, it was made to be broken, and young people have the courage to break it. The whole planet, it should be like you two. How can a person hate another race if they're family? Believe me, you have our blessing." She smiled as she reached up and wiped an errant tear from Sara's cheek. "Now, let's make some tea, sweetheart."
Late that night, Sara wandered out onto the porch, looking up into the night sky. The stars were brilliant, and the twin moons shone down on her face with a warm, silvery light. As she contemplated the moons, she whispered a "thank you" to whomever might be listening, then started slightly as she felt a hand on her arm. She turned and looked. It was Jeni. The dark eyes twinkled at her, as brightly, it seemed, as the stars overhead. Her high-pitched voice was soft, inquisitive.
"What's on your mind?"
Sara looked at her, then allowed her eyes to trail down Jeni's body to her feet. She looked resplendent in her traditional k'mora. The flowing skirt, tied low about her hips, reached to her ankles and billowed slightly at the warm breeze which came in off the ocean. The matching cloth, bound about her chest and modestly covering her breasts, actually sparkled in the moonlight, as did the strip of cloth which circled her forehead and held her spiky hair back. Sara smiled, at a temporary loss for words at the sight, then found her voice. "Um, you look wonderful in that, you know. My parents were very impressed."
"You chose it. I'm just wearing it." She eyed Sara, then returned the compliment. "And you look pretty incredible yourself."
Sara looked down at her traditional Hawee dress. "I can't believe that Papa brought it here for me. He didn't have much room to pack, and yet he brought this. I haven't worn this since my own coming-of-age ceremony."
"He wanted to save something of your past, your heritage for you. It's beautiful."
Sara demurred, "It's plain, like me."
Jeni grinned in the moonlight. "It's beautiful, like you. Don't argue with me, now."
Sara turned and draped her arms over Jeni's bare shoulders. "Okay. I won't argue. This time."
Jeni expressed surprise at that. "You won't? All right, who are you and what have you done with my Sara?"
Sara rested her forehead against Jeni's. "Dork. I may argue with you, but I always end up agreeing with you." Silvery eyes locked with dark ones, and Sara whispered, "Thank you again, Jeni."
"You know what for. You brought our family together." Jeni shrugged silently, and Sara continued, "You spent every credit you had to bring them here, didn't you? That's why you're broke, isn't it?"
"It's only money. They're family."
"Usually, it's me that's the schemer, the plotter. How'd you think of doing that?"
"Told you. I have connections. The owner of Inter-Island Air likes me. He pulled strings for us."
"I'll repay you every credit, I promise."
"I won't take it."
"Then how can I repay you?"
"You already have, so many times over. You saw me for who I was and you loved me in spite of it, in spite of our differences."
Sara shook her head. "I love you because of it, because of who you are."
"That's the nicest thing I've ever heard." Jeni's nose crinkled in a smile. "Say, are you arguing with me again?"
"Of course I'm arguing. That's my job." Jeni smiled at the joke, then turned in Sara's arms, leaning against her, and looked out over the ocean. Sara rested her chin on Jeni's shoulder and whispered in her ear, "Look at those stars."
Jeni's head nodded slowly. "Magnificent."
"Jeni, do you think that people live out there on those stars, those planets?"
"You think so. That's good enough for me."
Sara's arms wrapped themselves more tightly about Jeni's waist. "I wonder what they're like, those people?"
"Oh, probably very much like you and me. Hope and fear, war and peace, hate and love, I'm sure that they have it all, just like our planet."
"I wonder, do they have a Winter Solstice like we do? Do they celebrate family, love and hope for the future, like we do?"
Jeni nodded. "I'm sure of it."
Sara considered the answer, then spoke softly, slowly. "I didn't think that it was possible to love you more than I do, but I was wrong."
"Oh? How's that?"
"Because I find that I love you more every day."
Jeni placed her dark hands over Sara's slender, golden ones. "Then I'm the richest girl in the world, because I feel the same way about you."
Sara nuzzled at the back of Jeni's neck and whispered, "So, what does the richest girl in the world want?"
"I've got it all."
"No, I mean right now."
Jeni smiled. "How about a swim in the moonlight?"
Sara demurred, "But my parents...?"
"Aren't they in bed?" Sara nodded. "Then let's go. Last one in gets to cook breakfast."
Sara laughed, then stepped back. In a moment, her traditional dress flew past Jeni and draped itself over the porch railing. "I can't let you do that." In a flash, Sara sprinted past Jeni and dropped down into the sand, running toward the beach. "Come on, dork. I'm halfway there."
Jeni stripped off her k'mora, dropping it on the railing next to Sara's dress, and jumped into the sand, running after her. When they reached the surf, they plowed into it head-first, and then came up sputtering and laughing. "So, who won?"
Sara grinned, her features contrasted against the dark ocean's waters. "I did. You're not cooking, that's for sure."
A third voice echoed from nearby. "Cooking? So who's cooking?"
Sara's head snapped around, and she gasped. "Momma! What are you doing out here?"
Petra's head bobbed pleasantly nearby, the long braids of sandy-gray hair trailing about her. "What should I be doing out here, drowning? I'm making a swim in the moonlight with your Papa, that's what."
"Oh, my God." Sara disappeared beneath the water.
Petra shrugged, then asked, "What? She thinks I haven't seen her naked? I used to change her diaper."
Jeni snickered at that, then crossed her arms across her chest and slunk down into the water a little further, only her head showing. "Um, where's Kiam?"
A fourth voice, teasing and playful, echoed from the darkness behind Sara's mother. "Come on, Petra. I think maybe the newlyweds want to be alone."
"So right, you are. You two have fun. Kiam, your hip is okay to run back to the dwelling?"
"Like a teenager, I'm feeling again." Jeni watched the two heads bob over toward the beach, then watched the two forms, faint in the moonlight, make a dash from the surf toward their dwelling. Jeni shook her head, grinning, then reached down into the water, her hand finding a warm body beneath the waves. She grasped an arm and lifted gently. Sara's head emerged from beneath the waves, gasping for breath. She looked around.
"Are they gone?"
Jeni pointed toward the beach. Sara turned, then saw two forms disappear into the dwelling and heard Jeni snicker, "Yep, they're back inside."
Sara placed a hand over her eyes. "God, I am so embarrassed. My parents, of all things. I can't believe it." She looked at Jeni from between her fingers. "Whatever gave them the idea to skinny-dip in the ocean, anyway?"
Jeni blushed slightly, then changed the subject. "Nice out here, isn't it?"
Sara stared at her, her mouth open. "You did?"
"Hey. I thought they'd enjoy it." After a moment, she added, "I just didn't think that they'd do it tonight."
"Oh, good God."
Jeni laughed. "Relax, Sara. No big deal. We Equatorials are used to running around half-naked. Did it all the time back home."
"Well, I'm not used to it. Besides, we're not half-naked, we're totally naked. My parents actually saw us. I'm so embarrassed."
"Don't be. If you have as cute a tush as your mom does when you're that age, you're going to be in trouble around me for a long time yet."
Sara stared at Jeni, then felt a wide grin spread across her face. "You dork." She swam up next to Jeni and reached under the water, grasping her hand. "Race you to the porch."
"You're on, goofy." Together, they splashed toward the beach, then took off, running and laughing, their feet kicking up sprays of sand as they darted up the moonlit beach toward the porch.
When Jeni climbed into bed, Sara was already there, a soft whisper of music coming from the com plate on the wall near their bed. She stretched luxuriously, then rolled over toward Jeni and spooned up behind her. Sara's voice whispered teasingly, "Did you shower off all the sand?"
"Even from where the sun don't shine?"
Jeni snorted in laughter. "Especially there. Ouch."
Sara's arm snaked around Jeni and pulled her close. She settled against the warm body and sighed contentedly. "Look out the window, love. The twin moons are full."
"And smiling down on us."
"In more ways than one." She placed a soft kiss on Jeni's neck, then settled her head on the pillow behind the head of spiky black hair. She noted the earring in the top of Jeni's ear and asked, "Did your ancestors really wage all that war on each other?"
"Yeah. Some things never change, do they?"
"I suppose not."
Jeni rested a hand on her stomach, over Sara's hand. "Let's not talk about war tonight, love. Not on the Solstice. I've been to war, seen it up close. I only want to be here now, with you."
"Sorry. I'll be quiet."
They lay in the moonlight, pressed closely together, relishing the quiet closeness and listening to the soft music. After a few minutes, a voice interrupted the pleasant melody. "This is a bulletin from the Southern Islands News Service. This evening, an armistice was declared between the Union of Old Countries and the Northern Empire. Hostilities have ceased, and both superpowers have confirmed intentions to negotiate a lasting peace. Details will follow on our regularly scheduled broadcasts." The music resumed. Sara and Jeni just lay still for some time, and then Jeni spoke softly, her voice a poignant whisper in the night.
"I guess there really is a magic about the Winter Solstice, isn't there?"
Sara blinked back a sudden tear. "There surely is. I love you, Jeni."
"And I love you, Sara. To me, that's the greatest magic of all."
"Momma? Papa? Are you going to be okay here?"
Kiam's face lit up in a creased, beaming smile. "It's lovely. I'm sure that Petra and I will feel at home in no time."
Petra added, "Yes, for a week now we've imposed on you. That's enough. It's a wonderful little place."
Sara took another look around the flat, then scratched her head. "It's small."
"It's perfect, Sara. Your Papa and I, we don't need much."
"You have money?"
Kiam nodded. "Yes, yes. The money came for the sale of our shop. Your uncle Loran bought it." He leaned in, then whispered, "To him, I say 'good luck.' It was not making me rich. I warned him, but he insisted on buying it anyway."
Petra placed a hand on Kiam's arm. "Don't worry about him, dear. Loran, he could sell shoes to snakes. He'll do just fine."
Jeni snickered at the joke as she stared out the window at the bustling city street below, reflecting the quaint, energetic Hawee quarter of the city. She turned and regarded her in-laws with concern. "Are you two sure that you want to live in the city?"
"Yes, yes. We don't know to drive a transport, you know. Never had to. Besides, we've always lived in the city. We're close to shopping and the temple. What else do we need?"
Petra hugged Sara, then turned and hugged Jeni. "You two run along. You've got to fly shuttles and write a book. You young people are busy. Your Papa and I, we'll go for a stroll in the quarter. I'm so looking forward to it."
Sara looked over at her father. "Papa, your hip is up to it?"
He patted his hip. "Haven't used my cane in a week. The warm weather, it agrees with me." His face reflected a lined, pleasant expression, his eyes twinkling. "Go on. Enjoy your day off, you two." He shook a finger at them. "But don't be strangers around here."
Petra added, "Yes, you both will come for dinner next week?"
Sara nodded. "I promise." She took Jeni's hand in hers, and they headed for the door. As they stood in the entranceway, slipping on their sandals, Kiam admonished, "Sara, you take good care of our daughter-in-law for us?"
"You bet, Papa." Sara smiled over at Jeni, and Kiam took the opportunity to tease his daughter. He tapped Jeni on the shoulder, then wagged his finger severely.
"You have any trouble with Sara, you call me. I'll put her right. I can handle her, you know."
Petra laughed. "Papa, always you were a pushover with her. She had you in her pocket since she was a little girl." She leaned over toward Jeni. "You call me. I'll give her a tongue-lashing that she'll never forget. I'm the one who handled the young rebel, here, when she was so difficult and coming of age. Her schooling, her gymnastics, her rebelliousness, her little love affairs..."
Sara blushed. "Momma!"
"What, you think I didn't know?" She whispered to Jeni, "You come for tea sometime. I'll tell you all about it."
Jeni's face crinkled into a mischievous grin. "Thanks. I'll just do that."
"Honestly, Momma." Sara tugged on Jeni's hand, and soon they were on the front step of the little second-floor apartment. Both Sara and Jeni waved. "Bye. We'll see you soon. Love you."
With her parents' pleasant farewells echoing in their ears, Sara and Jeni descended the stairs and stood out on the busy street. They began strolling, arm in arm, slowly down the street, passed by crowds of people. Jeni looked over at Sara, who was quite silent, and couldn't resist the urge to tease. "Little love affairs?"
Sara winced, then grinned over at Jeni. "Like you were so virginal when I met you?"
Jeni raised an eyebrow. "Okay, you got me there." After a moment, she continued, "So, are you going to tell me about it, or do I have to have tea with your mother?"
"Gad, I think that my parents like you more than they do me."
Jeni joked, "It makes sense. They had to raise you. They didn't have to raise me."
Sara scoffed, "Ah, you were probably a good kid. Never did anything wrong, I'll bet."
Jeni laughed brightly. "Yeah, right."
"So name one thing that you ever did wrong, growing up."
Jeni smiled. "Did I ever tell you why I ran off and joined the military? It was to avoid getting arrested."
Sara stopped on the street. "No way. Really?"
"Oh, I've just got to hear about this one. Come on, 'fess up."
"Buy me a drink, you hot little Hawee, and I'll tell you all about it."
Sara pointed toward a nearby shop. "I know a place that makes a great cup of apple-tea."
Jeni blazed her winning grin, her nose crinkling in humor. "Hey, I'm just a slut for a cup of apple-tea with you. For that, I'll tell you anything you want to hear."
Sara wound an arm around Jeni's waist. "Then come on, you cute little Equatorial hoodlum." They walked over to the shop door, and Jeni pulled it open. Sara paused on the step and warned, "You know, if this story is good enough, it's going into the book."
Jeni seemed surprised. "It is?"
"Can I reconsider?"
"But all the people at Inter-Island Air are probably going to read it."
"Not to mention your parents."
Sara grinned. "Nice try, but it's still going into the book."
"Hmm. So, what are you going to call this book?"
Sara replied, "How about, 'A Winning Combination'?"
"Oh, you mean because it's a combination of love and adventure?"
"No, silly. I mean, because it's about us."
"'A Winning Combination?'" Jeni smiled at that. "Yep. We sure are."
Sara leaned forward and kissed Jeni. "You said it."
As the shop door swung closed, the sounds of pleasant laughter rang into the street, causing a few of the passers-by, as they hurried along past the shop, to look over and smile at the young lovers.
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