Frost reached for the framed lasergraph sitting on his dresser. Before placing it in his kit, he glanced at the little image, studying it silently. It was a graphic of Saydee and Kas, and was the only image the boy had of his mother.
It had been taken shortly before she and Kas left Terra. They were sitting in the Asteroid Cantina when an itinerant laser-artist wandered in. Since they generally trailed after the tourists whoíd begun to infiltrate Old Town, burning pictures to sell them, this one seemed out of place. On a whim Kas asked him to take their picture. Heíd had no idea it would be the only one of him and the woman who was to become his concubine, and an object his son would forever treasure.
Two days after a surprisingly easy delivery, and in spite of everything Kas and the Medic-Priests from the abbey hospital could do, Saydee suddenly weakened and died. And left him to raise me alone. Frost thought about the time Kas found him perched on the window seat looking up at the Pride House, the lasergraph in his hand.
"Whatís the matter, son? You look unhappy."
"I was thinking about Mother. Is it true she was a whore?"
"Who told you that?" Kas was immediately defensive. "How dare they?"
No one had actually told him. Heíd been in the garden of the Pride House and Aunt Andi, not knowing he was nearby, was speaking to Uncle Andrew, the man the Federation knew as Sinbad shíen Singh.
"The day I walked into the Blue Owl and saw that prostie sitting on abarstool I never thought sheíd become a member of my family," Aunt Andi had said.
He knew Andi wasnít being cruel because sheíd often commented on how much she liked Saydee. Besides, didnít she take care of me after my mother died?
"Yes, itís true." Frost was startled to hear no shame in his fatherís voice as he admitted what the boy already knew. There was merely sadness. "I met her when I went to Terra on business for Andrew. I-I bought her for the night, but the next day I asked her to come to Felida with me. I loved her, Frost."
It was supposed to reassure the boy, but it did the opposite. If thatís so, why are you marrying NíSagar? Frost wanted to shout the question. It wasnít fair. His father was an adult. Old. Why didnít he take a mate his own age? Why does he have to take the only other person I love?
Heíd always loved NíSagar. From the moment they became aware of each other as children, when Andi took Frost to the Pride House to tend him while his father was at his clinic. He and NíSagar played together, napped side by side on Uncle Andrewís big bed, fought over toys, suffered through the same childhood illnesses-and Frost adored her.
NíSagar was spoiled, of course, but being the only female cub in the clan, it was expected. She was indulged by Uncle Andrew who doted on her and thought she could do no wrong, and pampered by Aunt Andi. What NíSagar wanted, NíSagar got, no matter who had to relinquish something in the process. But Frost hadnít minded. He was quite willing to give up anything to his cousin.
He was probably nine when he decided heíd ask Uncle Andrew to let him marry NíSagar, but before he could make a fool of himself by saying so, he learned she was bonded to his father. When she was old enough, she was going to marry Kas. After that, he watched the way his father was when near her. Kasí very behavior silently admitted what his son feared. He might play a game of mallowick with the other children, they might crawl all over him while he tossed them into the air or roughhoused with them, but he didnít act like that with NíSagar. When Kas was with NíSagar, he was quiet, almost shy, as if he wasnít certain what to do. Frost thought that terribly odd since his father was one of the most self-possessed people he knew.
Shortly after that, he learned the feelings he had for NíSagar were mutual ones. She loved him also. She was marrying his father out of duty only, because her father had arranged it when she was still an infant. That should have made Frost feel better. Instead he was flooded with total despair. Awkwardly, Frost had tried to tell his father how he felt.
"I wish you werenít marrying her!"
How could he say it? Because I love her. Because youíre too old. Because she loves me. Each statement would hurt his father, and that was something Frost never wanted to do. Kasíd had enough tragedy in his life when he lost Frostís mother. The boy knew how much his father loved him, since he was all he had left of his beloved concubine, and he also knew heíd never be able to say those words to him. Instead, he looked up at his father and shrugged.
"Itís change, Father. You know how I am about change."
"I said that same thing to Andrew once, and shortly afterward, I met your mother."
So, Frost kept quiet, and three days after NíSagarís fifteenth birthday, she and Kas were wed.
Frost stayed overnight at the Pride House so the newlyweds could have their first night together without the embarrassment of an adolescent in a nearby bedroom. Kas had given the servants a week off, and when Frost returned home, the house was oddly quiet and deserted-feeling. Heíd tiptoed though the parlor sensing he shouldnít make any noise. In his attempts to be quiet, he bumped against a table and the resulting sound was like a scream in the silence.
In a few moments, the bedroom door opened and his father and NíSagar appeared, both hastily belting robes. His father was out of breath and looked embarrassed. Frost could feel his face flush as he realized what heíd interrupted. Looking at NíSagar, he also understood something else: she was now a mated female, possessor of knowledge he didnít have. A creature smelling of sex and constant couplings, a female able to drive his father into desire with a simple touch to his hand.
How will I ever be able to live in the same house with her knowing what goes on in their bedroom at night?How long will it be before I begin to hate my father?
Mealtimes were the worst. While they ate, Kas would touch NíSagarís hand gently stroking her fingers, brushing his own against her arm. He fed her from his plate and they laughed and looked into each otherís eyes. Frost was certain she was enjoying this game, and also the fact that she had the power to drive her husband into a frenzy, while making his son feel an intruder in his own home.
He managed to hide his feelings for a year, in which NíSagar began to make overt gestures toward him. Brushing against him if they passed each other and making certain the lower parts of their bodies touched while she glanced down with a smug smirk. Letting her fingers touch his when she handed him a dish during a meal. Her lips lingering a little too long on his cheek as she kissed him goodnight.
Once, he protested.
All she said was, "But youíre my stepson, Frost. Canít I show my dear stepson I care for him?"
He didnít dare answer that, not in front of his father. This went on for several months; NíSagar teasing and tempting, and Frost torn between telling his father of his mateís wanton behavior-though he doubted Kas would believe him, he was so besotted with his bride-and wanting to do violence of some as yet undecided sort to her. It was NíSagar herself who brought matters to a head.
They were alone in the house. Heíd been on his way downstairs. As he passed the bathing room, he noticed the door was open. Thinking the room empty he reached in to close it.
"Are you peeping at me?" NíSagarís voice came from the other side of the room.
She was in the tub, up to her neck in bubbles. Frost looked away.
"Sorry, I didnít... "
"Itís all right, Frost. I wonít tell Kas." There was a splash of water as she stepped from the tub. He could envision her reaching for a towel, rubbing it against her breasts, her belly. It was most improper for him to be talking to her while she bathed, even if his head was turned. "Actually," she went on, the towel making a soft brushing sound as it touched her skin, "Iím flattered."
"NíSagar." Frost started to turn around, then stopped, saying earnestly, "I swear I havenít spied on you. Iíve never even seen a naked female."
"Frost!" It was such a strident shriek he whirled in alarm. Laughing, she dropped the towel to the floor. "Now you have!"
"Whyíd you do that?" Frost yelled, staring at her. He couldnít look away, didnít want to, though he knew he should. "Whatís wrong with you?"
"Youíre whatís wrong with me," she retorted. Arms above her head, she stretched, breasts rising temptingly. "I know how you feel. I feel it, too."
"Youíre my fatherís wife."
For just a moment she stared at him.
"But I love you, Frost. Iíve always loved you."
"Y-you do?" He hadnít expected this. "Then what about Father?"
"Iím fond of Kas, but I donít love him. Nobody asked me whether I wanted to marry him. Nobody asked me who I loved. They just told me." She began to wind one of his snow-white curls around her finger. "I love you, Frost. I canít help it."
That should have made a difference somehow, but it didnít. She reached out and caught his wrist.
"Donít!" Frost jerked out of her grasp. He had to get away before he did something heíd regret. To the sound of her calling his name he fled down the stairs, and out the door, not stopping until he was halfway to the Pride House. For a long time he stood on the path trying to think, trying to figure out what to do. Only one answer came to mind: he had to leave.
It wouldnít be as difficult as it sounded. Frost wanted to be one of Uncle Andrewís pilots when he got older. The tutor he shared with the children at the Pride House was giving him extra lessons in fields of study to help him achieve that goal, and March had supplied the boy with the latest training manuals. In spite of his inner turmoil, Frost had to smile as he thought again of how the Federation had turned the tables on Uncle Andrew.
Its hands tied to thwart his plans to make Felida a smuggling planet, the Fed simply declared his criminal operation a legitimate business. Now, the clan shíen Singh was a legal importing firm, protected by the very government whose laws it attempted to break. This had brought with it an unexpected benefit: once Sinís business was under the law, Tsan-Hsiís attacks-in retaliation for having Sinís former territories returned to him-became assaults against a Federation-protected organization and were declared piracy. Now the smuggler was being sought, not only by the shíen Singhs, but also by the Federation.
Frost looked up the hill. No, he couldnít stay in his fatherís house any longer, for he feared what would happen if he did. The sight of NíSagarís naked body had made emotions rise in him, demanding to be sated. and he couldnít let that happen. Taking a deep breath Frost ran the rest of the way to the Pride House.
That night at supper he told Kas what heíd done. "Uncle Andrewís agreed to let me sign on the Penumbra as cabin-boy. Isnít that great?"
NíSagar dropped her spoon. As they both turned to look at her, she retrieved it and stared at him.
"I suppose so. But isnít this a little sudden?" Kas appeared slightly dismayed.
"You know Iíve been planning to do this for some time." He avoided NíSagarís eyes. "So, I decided no time like the present."
"When will you be shipping out?" As usual, his father was going to try to make the best of it. After all, he and Frost had talked about this. Although the speed with which it had happened shocked him a little, Kas accepted his sonís decision with no argument. That made Frost feel even more guilty.
There was a strangled gasp from NíSagar. She stood up as they turned to look at her.
"E-excuse me. I-Iím not feeling well," she mumbled, and bolted from the room.