CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT: FAMILY
Khoth paused in the doorway to his quarters. They had changed since he had been here. The lights were now low and purple. The sitting room’s furniture had been moved to the walls of the room. Now the central space was empty except for a mat woven of tidenth reeds and a block of red stone.
There was a scoop-shaped depression in the center of the stone and a small curved dagger lay beside it. The soft sound of wind whistling through the trees of the Summerram Forest on Haseon could be heard as if in the distance all around him. It had replaced the almost eerie silence in the ship.
“Osiris?” Khoth asked as he stepped inside and the door whispered shut behind him.
A cursor appeared on the wall opposite him. I have recreated the Ulgegiarth Ritual for the shearing of the selchilite. Is it not correct?
“It is correct,” Khoth answered softly. “How did you…”
He was going to ask: how did you know I would need this? But the Osiris was always listening if not through the ship itself then through Jace. To tell one was to tell the other. But still…
“How did you prepare this so quickly?” Khoth asked. “These cannot be things that you have on board.”
This was not an Altaeth ritual. The mat, the dagger and the stone were all his own people’s. Had Thammah had them? Her hair was shorn… but no, she was not exiled. Well, she was now. But she hadn’t been before. Surely she had not kept these things on hand with her to make a home. Or he hoped not as that would cause him to worry for her.
I manufactured them, the Osiris answered.
“Yet only two Earth minutes have passed since I told Jace my intentions,” Khoth reminded the AI.
The cursor blinked. Finally, text scrolled across, It was evident what you intended to do from the moment you returned to the ship. In truth, you should have performed the ritual before the meeting.
Khoth’s lips pressed together. He had considered doing so before meeting with Jace for lunch. But he had not wished to take the time and--
Did you hope there would be some way to remain unexiled? The Osiris asked.
Khoth took in a deep breath as that question pricked him. But then he realized he was speaking to a machine, not Jace, not Thammah, not even Gehenna. The Osiris’ motives were… unclear. And he had no duty to explain anything to it.
“That is not your concern.”
Anything to do with the Pilot is my concern. The words appeared so quickly that Khoth could feel the anxiety behind them. The Pilot has named you Commander. He wishes to engage in sexual intercourse with you. He has emotional entanglements with you. I will know your mind on all things.
Khoth lifted an eyebrow. “Only if I choose to tell you will you know anything at all.”
The blinking cursor was back.
Khoth cocked his head. He wondered if the AI was offended? Was it capable of being so? He was certain that Gehenna’s feelings could be hurt. But the Osiris? And yet its reactions around him were both to please and to interrogate.
Because it is connected to Jace and wants to please Jace, but keep him safe, Khoth realized.
He did not exactly regret his words to the Osiris, but they did not seem as easily justifiable now regardless of whether or not he could hurt it.
“Perhaps I did hope that my mother would see reason,” Khoth admitted. “That she would step back from the abyss.”
She did not, the Osiris stated succinctly.
Khoth winced internally. “No, she did not, which is why I am here to perform the Ulgegiarth Ritual now. I see that there is no path forward other than this one.”
Then is the space acceptable? The Osiris sounded eager in its wording.
“It is… acceptable,” Khoth told the AI.
He had not thought to have the proper ritual space. He had assumed he would simply go into the bathroom and use his rahir to cut the beads off. He thought to do it quickly and rejoin Jace as fast as possible. He had told himself it was so that this personal issue did not impact his being there if Jace needed him and not because he did not wish to face the reality of being cut off from his family, his friends, his homeworld and at the mercy of people he had just met, no matter how familiar they felt.
But he had seen how Jace had dealt with his mother and the other Thaf’ell. Jace did not need his assistance. The young man had been stunningly ruthless and yet he had also been as kind as possible. They were juxtaposed and should not have worked together, but they had. Jace had offered his mother a way out, not just once, but many times. When she had refused his good faith offers, he had simply allowed her to make a fool of herself and the Alliance. Jace had stepped back and metaphorically watched her light herself on fire.
To threaten to attack civilians! His heart thudded sickly in his chest. The first blast was not aimed at them. But what about the second? And I do believe there would have been a second since Jace could not give her what she wanted.
A wash of despair went through him. Ever since Daesah’s death his life had turned upside down. Before he had been a proud Thaf’ell Commander, certain in his place, assured of Alliance superiority. But now? If he were honest with himself, things had not been how he had perceived them.
The Alliance did not have the ships and weaponry to defend itself, let alone fight the Khul. His sister had known this and sought a solution. His mother’s grip on the rank of High Councillor had been eroding for some time. His own progress had stalled in the ranks and he hadn’t been connected to anyone. In less than two cycles, he had connected more deeply to more people, accomplished more against the Khul, and learned more truths than he had in too long to remember.
Yet change was hard. Even good change. And there was, of course, the not-so-good change.
I have no son.
He closed his eyes for a moment, absorbing those remembered words of his mother’s.
I have no son, he heard her emphasis on every syllable as if to drive them home to him.
He had betrayed her and, hence, the Alliance.
And I have no mother.
The truth was that his mother had always held him at a distance. Maybe she thought him weak. He felt too much. Followed his instincts instead of pure logic. But what people termed “instincts” were often the millions of different things that they had seen but not observed. Essentially, they were the facts that had not been weighed.
Whatever the reason, he had always felt distant from her. Now the formal rupture was there. He would no longer have to wonder how she felt about him. He knew. This caused him a strange relief even as his heart bled from it.
And there was a part of him that was glad he was no longer associated with her. He was ashamed of her. On so many levels. Her inability to know that she was emotionally compromised and take herself out situations where more stress would be placed upon her was unconscionable. She had not just put herself in a bad position, but the Alliance, too. Councillor Ardath Ulgex would take advantage of this as would all his mother’s enemies and the Alliance would pay for that, too.
Why do you hesitate to perform the Ulgegiarth Ritual? The words formed on the wall across from him.
“I am preparing myself,” Khoth lied.
Your actions are not those described in the texts or shown in the holos, the Osiris pointed out.
“Some things are not recorded for others to know.” He grimaced once more as he understood the AI’s unease. “You fear my hesitation comes from not wanting to serve the Pilot.”
The cursor blinked.
“Do you understand the concept of family?” he asked.
The word “family” can denote many different groups of inter-related people either by genetics or choice, the Osiris answered. What do you mean by family?
It was a challenging question.
“I will no longer be able to speak to my parents as their son again,” Khoth stated.
But you will be able to save them, the Osiris answered.
Khoth blinked. “Because--”
The only way to defeat the Khul is through the Pilot and through me, the words came fast and furious again filling up the empty space in neat rows. While they will not speak to you, they will be capable of speech. If you had not acted as if you have that would not be the case in the future.
“You are very certain of this.”
I have run the variables. I have come to conclusions. You do not have all the facts. You cannot do this, the Osiris answered.
Khoth considered this. “There is so much I wish to ask you. So many facts I would like to know.”
Perhaps in time I will supply you with certain information, the Osiris answered. But I require loyalty to the Pilot. Your hesitation shows a lack of commitment on your part to the Pilot. I would share nothing with one who is not committed.
And he did. Why should the Osiris trust him? Unless it was certain of his commitment to Jace, he guessed it would remain silent. It might even remain silent on the many things it knew even if he showed such loyalty. He was committed to whatever course would destroy the Khul.
But that is different from loyalty to Jace, he realized.
His heart felt heavy in his chest. He felt so many things for the young man. A connection he had never experienced before. A sense of almost instant familiarity even though Jace was so different from himself. A desire to protect. A desire to couple. Heat flooded him and he shook his head. To have thoughts of lust during the Ulgegiarth Ritual was inappropriate.
I need to return to Jace. My mother--High Councillor Voor--will arrive shortly.
Yet despite this determination to return to Jace as quickly as possible he still had to force himself to go over to the mat and sit cross-legged upon him facing the altar. His hands stirred restlessly upon his knees but he made no move for the knife. The selchilite clacked in his hair. It was the last time that he would hear it. No exiled Thaf’ell wore the beads for they had no family, no friends, no home.
His left hand rose up almost of its own accord to the lower selchilite. His fingers ran over their smooth surface. Each one had a story that spoke to the Voor family history. Their triumphs. No defeats, of course. Bravery and loss. Victory and cost. They were to add a bead for Daesah’s death. Now he would never get to bear that bead.
He reached for the ritual dagger known as the Tyrhung. The blade was wickedly sharp. A brush of it against skin would cause a cut. His right hand hovered over the dagger’s elaborate hilt.
I should hurry, he told himself, but his hand did not move.
The Pilot is at the door to your quarters, the Osiris stated.
“He must need me. I have delayed too long.”
Khoth carelessly lowered his hand to the Tyrhung and sliced his pointer finger on the blade. He let out a hiss and immediately sucked on the blood that oozed out of the cut.
The Pilot wishes to enter and to speak with you, the Osiris informed him.
“I will be done in a moment! Please--”
“Khoth? Oh, whoa, this place looks different, I… did you hurt yourself?!” Jace immediately was at his side. He took Khoth’s wounded hand and drew it down so he could look at it. “It’s not too deep. I think a Band-Aid will do the trick unless we have super secret healing potions I can--No, no, Osiris. We’re doing injections yet.”
“Injections?” Khoth asked even as he was far more interested and keenly aware of the warmth of Jace’s hand holding his.
“Yeah, the Osiris is going to give you a shot that I think has nanites in it or something that will give you some of the powers I have,” Jace said, frowning down at the cut.
“That is… it can do that?” Khoth asked, staring down at Jace’s paler pink hand against his blue skin.
“Yeah, and a lot of things, but I want to make sure it's kosher before it sticks anything into you,” Jace said.
“Kosher? Is that not a term--”
“It means more than one thing.” Jace grinned, but that grin faded. “I won’t let the Osiris hurt you… or anyone. I mean… except the Khul and any other enemies, but I mean… I would never let you be hurt.”
“I know,” Khoth said softly. He did know. Jace had all this power and yet he would use it to keep Khoth safe, even though Khoth should have been doing that for Jace. But instead his mother was one of Jace’s enemies. Their enemies.
Jace stared down at their linked hands. The blood had already ceased. It was already turning into a thin scab. Jace gently moved his thumb over Khoth’s palm. The touch was tender and arousing. Khoth held himself very still.
“Your blood is blue. Your skin is blue.” Jace was smiling again. “You’re an alien being. A warrior who flies spaceships and wields a sword and a laser rifle with ease.”
“You do the same. But your skin is pink and your blood is red,” Khoth stated.
Jace let out a laugh that sounded almost like a sneeze. “I wasn’t… I wasn’t just stating facts. I was just listing out some of the things that makes you incredibly cool.”
“Not in temperature.”
“No.” Another grin. “You’re so amazing and… I feel like all I’ve done is brought you trouble.”
Khoth frowned. “I do not see how you are responsible for anything other than the positive aspects of my position.”
“You’re losing your family,” Jace said quietly.
His forehead scrunched and the pressure of his grip on Khoth’s hand increased for a moment, the thumb stuttering over his palm in its formerly smooth movement.
“Again, that is not your responsibility. You have not caused this,” Khoth assured him.
“I set your mom up,” Jace said with a faint grimace.
“You allowed her to show her… true colors? I believe that is the phrase,” Khoth stated.
“But it’s destroying your family. Your honor or whatever. What you value,” Jace said. “No matter what, you need your parents.”
Khoth took both of Jace’s hands in his. “Even if this is all true, Jace, you are not responsible for what has happened between my parents and myself. I chose to do what I did because it was the logical thing to do. Not because...”
“Not because?” Jace prodded.
“Not because of our… our intimate desires.” Khoth blued.
“Oh, well… so your intimate desire for me is not worth exile? I guess I should be relieved about that.” Jace smiled again.
Khoth blued more deeply and cleared his throat. “That is… unclear. But it played no role in this case. I hope that relieves any guilt you feel… but that you are not disappointed in what value I place in you.”
Jace nodded, his eyes still down as if he couldn’t quite meet Khoth’s eyes, but he could see the flash of a smile. “Thank you for that. But I didn’t come here for you to assure me of anything.”
“You need me to accompany you to meet my… to meet High Councillor Voor. I have delayed too long,” Khoth stated and this time he went to grab the dagger without hesitation and without cutting himself. He kept one hand on Jace’s.
“No!” Jace cried. “You didn’t take too long. I realized that I shouldn’t have let you go do this alone.”
Khoth lifted his eyebrows. “I am uncertain--”
“I thought I was doing the right thing by giving you privacy, but then I realized that I was wrong!” Jace’s jaw clenched and a look of deep unhappiness flowed over his face.
Khoth put two fingers under Jace’s chin. He made Jace meet his eyes. “What is distressing you so?”
“The beads--the selchilite--represent your family, right? Your place in Thaf’ell society?” Jace brushed fingers over some of them and they clicked.
“Yes, that is why I must remove them,” Khoth explained.
“It’s to make you feel rootless? Alone? Right?” Jace pushed.
Khoth’s head lowered this time. “Yes.”
“But you’re not!” Jace cried.
Khoth’s eyes lifted to Jace’s. “I do not--”
“You’re not alone. That’s why I was wrong to let you go by yourself to do this,” Jace told him. “Khoth, I know we just met, but from the first moment I saw you… I felt something. A connection. I knew I could trust you.”
“You took a great… leap of faith?” Khoth cocked an eyebrow to see if he’d gotten the idiom right.
“Perfect.” Another brilliant smile and ducked head. “But it didn’t feel like one. I just… knew. And you didn’t let me down. So I’m not going to let you down now.” Jace’s hands tightened on his. “I don’t have anything yet to replace those selchilite, but I will. But I’m going to be here now with you while you do this so you know this isn’t an ending. It is a new beginning.”
Khoth felt a warmth in his Xi. He found he could not speak for long moments. He blinked rapidly and looked away from Jace. Finally, he was able to say, “I am grateful for this, Jace.”
“You don’t have to be, Khoth. You and me? We’re like family now. This stuff is just expected,” Jace said lightly.
Khoth’s heart beat harder. Jace did not know what he was saying. In Thaf’ell that was the equivalent of a marriage proposal. But Jace was human. Their culture was not the same. And they had just met one another! Why was he reacting so strongly to the even suggestion that Jace could mean more? It was very illogical.
“So… how can I help? Or is it just a sit here quietly thing?” Jace asked. He had settled into a cross-legged position beside Khoth and he flapped his legs up and down.
“Can you sit quietly?” Khoth allowed his voice to show doubt even as a smile wanted to lift his lips. It was the first real smile he’d given that day.
“I… I don’t know.” Jace shrugged and gave his folded legs another flap.
“Then I will be the one who wields the Tyrhung. As you can see it is sharp and needs a steady hand,” Khoth said and this time he lifted the dagger easily.
“It’s a shame to cut off any of your hair,” Jace said sorrowfully. “It’s so… beautiful. Eye catching.”
Jace stretched a hand and touched some of the strands that were threaded through the selchilite.
“It is the only way and it is traditional. I will cut off the strands and hand them to you,” Khoth said, his voice surprisingly steady as if this wasn’t almost as traumatic as cutting off one’s history. “Then you shall put them in the scooped out part of the altar.”
Jace nodded, showing his understanding. His eyes followed the Tyrhung as Khoth brought it up to the first section of hair.
“Remember, Khoth, you’re not alone. I’m with you,” Jace said.
Khoth’s Xi shimmered within him at those words and he cut the first strands. He laid them in Jace’s hands. The beads settled in Jace’s palms. Jace closed his hands around them. Khoth indicated he should put the strands on the altar. Reverently, Jace placed the silky strands and beads in the inset. Immediately, they began to sizzle and smoke. Jace let out a cry and moved to yank the hair and beads out.
“No, Jace. That’s meant to happen,” Khoth told him.
Jace nodded again, but his eyes were filled with horror as the beads and hair dissolved. “This isn’t right. You’re trying to save your family. You’ve the right things all along.”
“It is a price I am willing to pay,” Khoth told him and moved his head. Already he could feel the lack of weight from just taking one length of the selchilite.
“It’s not right,” Jace repeated, but he placed his hands on his lap to take the next.
Khoth did not hesitate any longer. Jace was in pain as well as him. And he would not exacerbate Jace’s discomfort. He sliced off all of the lengths of hair and selchilite. Jace placed each on the altar and they sizzled and smoked. Finally, the last one was ready to be placed on the altar. Khoth’s head felt light. But not like something was missing.
“Ready?” Jace asked.
And to his surprise, Khoth said, “Yes, I am.”
Jace placed the last strand on the altar. “I’ll find something to make up for this.”
Khoth tentatively cupped Jace’s cheek. Jace turned and looked at him. Wide eyes. Lips parted. Pink flush coating his cheeks. Pain for him. Desire for him. Caring for him.
Family, Khoth thought.
But he said, “That is not your--”
“If you say not my responsibility I am going to… to… I don’t know, Khoth!” Jace’s mouth twitched into a smile. “You’re crew. You’re--”
“Family. Yes, I know. You made this so much easier than it could have been,” Khoth assured him, his thumb running along Jace’s cheek. “I thought I would be devastated. That my Xi and Xa would be split in two. But… it is like a weight has lifted.”
“I’m glad. I’m so glad.”
Khoth caressed his cheek again. Jace turned his head into Khoth’s hand, hot breath gushing over Khoth’s skin, nuzzling him. And Khoth could not help himself. He didn’t want to deny himself of this pleasure, of this comfort, of this warmth, of Jace for any longer. He kissed Jace for a second time.
Willing lips melted beneath his. Jace molded against him. His arms wound around the young man’s lithe body and he brought Jace up onto his lap. Jace’s arms were around his neck. He ground down on Khoth’s lap. Arousal flared inside of Khoth. He hadn’t lost his family and his past for this, but he realized in a moment that he would have done it.
“Oh, God, shut up, Osiris,” Jace murmured against Khoth’s lips as he dove in for a deeper kiss.
“What is--what is Osiris saying?” Khoth asked as they broke for air even as his hands went to push Jace’s coat off of his shoulders.
Jace stayed his hands and grimaced. “We--we need to stop, because,” another grimace, “your mom is here.”