CHAPTER EIGHTY-FOUR: LOVE AND BETRAYAL
The landing pad for the Moturin Compound was filled with people. Even before Khoth set them down he could identify Typhon, Amana, Colonel Parker, General Intoshkin, Dr. Isa, Dr. Kerr, Matias, his father, his mother, and, of course, Chili. The tiny pig was not in Matias’ arms, but was instead romping around the feet of the meeting party. His father kept casting amused glances down at the pig while his mother studiously ignored it even as Chili sniffed her boot assiduously.
Over the whine of the engines, he heard Jace say to his father, “Dad, that’s not going to happen. Don’t worry. I want you to be happy for me.”
“Of course, I’m happy for you, son. Just the Osiris–”
“Is likely jealous and out of sorts. I should have realized it would be. And, I think, though the Osiris does not say it, that it misses Gehenna, too,” Jace’s voice was filled with amusement. There was a little strain there and Khoth wondered where that was from.
What is going on, Izail? What has disturbed your father? Khoth asked as he turned off the canceaux’s engines.
It’s nothing. I mean it’s not nothing, but it’s nothing we need to discuss now, Jace assured him.
“Look, Mom’s here!” Jace’s excitement was real this time without any strain.
“I admit I’m a little jealous you told her all this first! And she didn’t immediately tell me,” Jack laughed.
Khoth turned around in the pilot’s seat just in time to see Jace embrace his father fiercely. “If it makes you feel any better, Khoth’s parents have no idea.”
“Jace! You can’t keep them in the dark,” Jack said, sounding worried on his parent’s behalf.
“Mating is a personal matter. It is not something announced. So you need not concern yourself on my father’s behalf, Flight-Commander Parker,” Khoth said as he slid through the seats and came into the back section of the canceaux.
“I think you need to call me Jack tonight. And I know you’re not a hugger, Khoth, but can I give you one?” Jack asked.
Khoth made a brief head tilt. Jack’s firm arms came around him and hugged him tightly. It was strange to have someone other than his Izail touch him. He had hugged Thammah, but this was different than that, too. Jack was accepting him into their family.
Jack pulled back and clapped Khoth’s shoulders firmly. “I know you just mentioned your father, but Nova is out there, too. I know what she said about disowning you, but…” Jack rolled his lips and shook his head before refocusing back on Khoth. “I’m pretty sure she didn’t mean it.”
“But I did,” Khoth answered simply.
Jack studied him. Thinking of how Dr. Hayter had been able to see him and his mother so clearly, Khoth wondered what Jack saw when he looked at Khoth. But Jace’s father merely gave a nod. Whether he agreed with Khoth or whether he was allowing the matter to sit as it was, was unclear. Humans were surprisingly good with ambiguity.
“I think some people are a little anxious to have you back, son,” Jack said as he gestured towards the group that were now clustered outside where the canceaux would open.
Jace’s lips were puckered as if he were tasting something sour. “Yeah, we sort of made a quick getaway.”
“Sometimes you have to do that,” Jack said.
Khoth lifted an eyebrow. Jack was a believer in command, but he, evidently, also saw a reason to break the rules.
Jack put a hand behind Jace’s neck. “C’mon, let’s go see your mother and that very anxious piglet. The others are just secondary, yeah?”
“Yeah.” Jace grinned.
They let Jack go first followed by Jace with Khoth in the rear. Despite him being last, Chili greeted Jack and Jace but ran directly to him. He leaned down and scooped her up into his arms. She oinked happily and appeared to be smiling up at him. He petted her soft, pink body. Her eyes went half shut with pleasure.
“Pilot, did you have a good time flying around Ylore?” Typhon asked dryly.
Jace grinned that irrepressible grin of his. “Yes, Justiciar Moturin, I did. And we had to pick up my father from the space port.”
Jace turned his face towards Khoth. He was beaming. His eyes held such love. Khoth knew that Jace wanted to shout to the stars–and all the people present–that they were mated. But he did not.
Because he knows I wish to do this my way, Khoth realized.
He sent a wave of love towards Jace who looked a little like Chili did as she half-snoozed in his arms.
“With your parents both here, we thought to have a small dinner with a few people,” Amana was saying sweetly to Jace. “Everyone here.” Her eyes cut to Nova who was standing slightly apart. “Well, those who wish to attend.”
Jace’s expression was open and gracious, but inside he was worried about the eggs that were larva and other Thaf’ell delicacies that his stomach wouldn’t be able to take.
Do not worry, Izail. I will make sure there are human dishes for you to enjoy, Khoth assured him.
Jace’s expression softened. Thank you. My stomach thanks you more than you’ll ever know, Khoth!
If only your stomach would thank me for feeding it something other than junk food, Khoth sighed.
I know. Khoth shook his head. I wish to go speak to my parents privately.
Jace’s emotions flipped. To tell them about us?
Yes, Khoth said.
Shouldn’t I be with you to deliver the, ah, happy news? Jace asked.
No, I would prefer to do this by myself. Anticipating Jace’s worried reaction, he added, Not because they will react badly, but rather the opposite. I do not wish you exposed to Nova’s… reaction.
Jace was frowning slightly. I don’t want you exposed to it alone either!
I will have Chili. Khoth lifted up the pig for him to see.
Your emotional support pig. Ah, I see! True porcine love strikes again! Jace’s mouth was twitching into a grin, but his eyes still held worry.
In truth, Jace, I am worried about what revealing this to the others will do as well. Not our crew, but Typhon, Amana and such, Khoth admitted. They will seek to use it to their advantage.
That’s so strange to think of, but I suppose you’re right. But I don’t want to keep this secret! Jace cried.
We will not. Not for long in any case, Khoth admitted as the desire to curl his arms around Jace nearly overcame his sense of propriety. He tightened his hold on Chili, causing her to oink softly. Let us just see what people want right now. How they behave. You have saved Haseon. You had saved the Alliance.
We saved it, Jace corrected. But I see what you mean.
I will go with my parents now and meet up with you soon, Khoth said.
I’ll be missing you every moment, Jace told him.
But Khoth watched as Jace was embraced by both of his parents before being hugged by all of his crew. Jace even gave Amana a hug, which caused her cheeks to blue and her to dip her head almost coquettishly. Jace was already in the bosom of people who loved him or who were primed to do so. Even General Intoshkin messed Jace’s hair and got a hug in return. Typhon was the only one not to physically approach Jace in any way. He was staring at Khoth out of narrowed eyes.
He knows we’re mated, Khoth realized.
Of all the people there to know, it would be Typhon. He had not lied to Jace that there was no romantic love remaining–nor had there truly ever been–in his eromen relationship with Typhon. But Typhon was always so on top of every nuance of people’s Xi and Xas. He knew Khoth’s done to the core.
Khoth inclined his head to Typhon as if to simply greet him. Typhon inclined his head in return after what seemed a slight too long time. Was he upset that Khoth was mated? Or that Jace was?
Khoth met his father’s eyes and then his mother’s before he indicated that they should split off from the group and join him. His former family met by the elevator as the others were still laughing and talking about the battle out under the moon.
Now that he was faced with picking a floor for them to go to. He didn’t want to take them back to his and Jace’s rooms. He wanted a neutral spot where they could talk. His father seemed to intuit his discomfort.
“There is a nice quiet sitting room on floor five,” his father suggested and pressed the button so that Khoth did not have to dislodge Chili.
The elevator doors whispered shut and the four of them rode down in silence for a moment. His mother kept looking down at Chili in his arms out of the corner of her eye.
“What kind of animal is that, Khoth?” she finally asked.
“A potbelly pig,” he answered as he petted Chili’s sproingy tail.
“A pig?” His mother’s voice grew interested. “Don’t humans eat pigs? They make bacon, ham, pork and other–”
“Hush,” Khoth said, covering Chili’s ears. “Humans eat other types of pigs, yes. Chili is too small to be used for food.”
And it would be a fool who tried to hurt her. Khoth would kill them in a second.
“Pigs are quite intelligent, are they not?” his mother asked.
“They are.” Which was why he didn’t want Chili hearing about bacon.
“So humans slaughter some of these intelligent creatures for food while keeping the others as pets?” She clarified.
“Some do, yes,” Khoth agreed, tempted to cover Chili’s ears again.
“That’s so very… human,” his mother laughed a little bitterly. “I wonder if the only reason they don’t try and slaughter us is because we look more like them. What will they do when they come across other species that don’t resemble them at all?”
“They will likely befriend them,” his father answered just as the doors to the elevator opened. “While we have denigrated and ignored them.”
His father left the elevator first. There was a beat before Khoth and his mother followed after. His father led them to a small sitting room that was tucked into a corner of the compound overlooking the inner courtyard. There was a warming fire crystal pit in the center of the room with two long, deep couches on either side of it. His father turned on the pit and blue flames immediately flowed from the crystals that turned a deep red then orange then yellow then back to red again.
Chili seemed to relish the extra warmth so Khoth made sure to sit nearest the fire. She laid her head on his left wrist and fell completely asleep, oinking every so softly in her dreams.
“The Pilot seems quite content in both Xi and Xa,” his father said gently as he smoothed his hands over the tops of his thighs. “That is a very good thing though his delight in seeing our city did cause a bit of consternation.”
His father had sat down opposite him with the fire between them. His mother continued to stand, pacing the room. Khoth saw his father glance towards her, but then slightly press his lips together. There would have been a time not so long ago when he would have called her name in that way of his and urged her to sit down and stop her relentless pacing. But he did not. And she continued to circle the room like a predator endlessly searching for prey.
“I’m sure that Typhon worried he’d lost control of the Pilot. Did the guard attempt to intercept you?” Nova asked.
Khoth made a slight inclination of his head. His mother let out a breathy laugh.
“Well, well, well. I wonder if that was High Councillor Esik Bhilkairs’ doing or if Ulgax already went behind his back,” she mused.
“The Pilot was in no danger from them,” Khoth answered.
“You would have fought them to the death,” she said.
“I would, but that would not have been necessary. Jace controls all the tech here on Haseon and beyond,” Khoth answered. “You saw what he is capable of. And that was when he was cut off from the Osiris and unwell. He is quite recovered now.”
Jace wasn’t fully recovered. Khoth could feel that now even as he’d guessed it before. In order to fully evolve into the Altaeth he would become it would take time that they did not have under the circumstances. But Jace’s current state of readiness was more than enough to stop the Councillors.
“Yes, people still cannot quite believe that Haseon is not compromised and soon to be gone,” his father mused. “Jace’s decision to stay here after the battle is helping to soothe those concerns. I do wonder though if, in the future, this place will be a draw to people. The area where the battle against the Khul turned. Or shunned as somehow still unclean.”
Khoth realized now that his people were superstitious. His father’s words confirmed that. In the past, though, he would not have given such a statement any further thought. He would have understood both sides of the issue and gone on. But now he saw how logic and superstition were held in his people’s minds at the same time without any cognitive dissonance, rather like Chili as a beloved pet and also a creature that produced sustenance.
We are not so different from humans after all, he thought.
“I do not think Amana knows how to treat me,” his mother said. “As a guest or invader.”
His father looked down at the ground, offering no counsel. She glanced over at him for a moment, but then quickly looked away. She had disowned Khoth and his father had disowned her. Yet the three of them were in the same room. Acting like a family.
“What are your intentions, Mother?” Khoth asked. She half turned, her lips parting at the use of “Mother” instead of “Nova”. He grimaced, but pushed on, “This is Amana’s problem, but more it is mine and Father’s. We do not know your intentions.”
His father turned his back on her, shifting himself on the couch, so that he could reach out and stroke Chili. “It is not a problem I have, my son. Nor you. We are of House Moturin now. She is of House Voor.”
His mother jerked at his father’s cool words. He thought he actually saw tears in her eyes.
“Those are words, Father,” Khoth said.
“Words have power, my son.” His father smiled at him. “I am an old Justiciar. Words are the most powerful thing I wield.”
“But what is…” Here Khoth grimaced, but forced himself to go on, “what is in your heart?”
“That is a human expression,” his mother said quietly.
Khoth nodded. “One of many I have come to appreciate. And not the last I will likely adopt.”
“The humans fought well. Very well.” His mother let out a breath. “None can deny that. Not even Ulgax.”
“It is no longer a question of whether or not humanity will be accepted into the Alliance,” Khoth said. “It will if it wants to be. After what happened here, it would be seen as churlish at best to block them.”
His mother crossed her arms over her chest. “It is not in my power to assist any longer.”
“Which brings us back to your intentions.” Khoth gently placed Chili in his father’s hands as he stood up.
“Oh, she’s so warm and soft!” his father breathed as Chili nuzzled his hands.
“She is precious. Like many creatures from Earth are,” he said.
Khoth turned to his mother. He crossed his wrists behind his back as he regarded her. For the first time, she ceased her pacing and stood still, mirroring his position. They were the same height. Both of them towered over his father. He and Daesah had gotten their builds and athleticism from her. He saw now that they got their empathy from their father.
“I spoke rashly before,” she admitted. “I was angry. Shocked. Pushed into a corner.”
To admit these things was unheard of for her. Khoth was nearly flattened by every word, but he held himself still. Not reaching for her. Not staggering away. He felt his connection to Jace. And that connection was warm, but tingling as if Jace had suddenly lifted his head and was sniffing the air, sensing his emotional turmoil.
“But, as I told you, the arrival of the Khul cleared my mind for the first time in… I don’t know how long.” Her gaze grew distant. “I had feared many things that our growing weakness would be. I thought that we would see outer planets fall at some point. A rush to the center of Alliance space. I imagined cities overcrowded with refugees and more yet in anything that could still fly in space. Starving. Rioting. All of it.”
Khoth could imagine the fear these people would exude. Fear had a smell. It was oily and bitter and awful. He’d smelled it on his sister and his crew when they had gone after her to end her suffering. When he had chosen to break the Rule.
She licked her lips and a tremulous smile appeared there for a moment. So much emotion! Had he ever seen so much from her in all his life? He thought of how easily Jack had embraced him that night. His Diane had looked upon him so fondly that afternoon. They had accepted not only him, but the knowledge that they were more–or different–than what they had long believed.
“Yet, despite all of these horrible visions of our future,” his mother continued, “I never thought to see Khul land on Haseon. To break through our defenses as if they were rotten branches!”
She swung one arm through the air as if she were breaking those branches herself. That arm dropped to her side.
“And I realized that my nightmares had never encompassed the truth of what could happen,” she said as she lifted her head to meet his gaze. “So maybe I hadn’t dreamed big enough either. Maybe what I had believed about the Pilot and the promise of the Osiris was not large enough. And that ended up being true.”
“The Pilot will see us through this crisis. He will defeat the Khul,” Khoth said with no hesitation.
She nodded. “And he shall bring humanity, and the rest of us, kicking and screaming behind him. For better and worse.”
“But more for better,” Khoth countered.
Another nod. “The Khul made me see what was important. You and your father. I had to go to your side. Others could do the job of High Councillor. But no one else could be your mother or a wife.”
Khoth turned his head to look at his father. Thadden still had his back to her. He was gently petting Chili. If he was moved by her words, he showed no outward signs of it.
Am I moved by what she said?
He was. He understood her better now. Was he ready to forgive her? Perhaps. But was he ready to trust her?
No, he realized.
“I can be of use, Khoth,” she said gently.
And though her words were genuinely meant, he felt a chill run through him.
“What I intend is to ask for forgiveness from you and Thadden. I want our family again. I want to–to help defend the Alliance,” she said and licked her lips. Her eyes flickered between him and his father. Her shoulders lowered. “I can but offer this. I’m certain you need time to consider.” Her eyes stayed on his father’s back. “I won’t make things difficult for you. I’ll go.”
“I’ll go,” she repeated. “If you need me, just contact me, Khoth.” She briefly touched his face. “I’ll come.”
Then without another word, she hastened from the room. The door closed behind her and the crackle of the flames and Chili’s low snoring were the only sounds in the room.
“You wanted to say something, Khoth,” his father suddenly said, turning his whole body towards him. “Before Nova spoke, you had something you wished to impart.”
“Yes, I–I do. It is…” Khoth licked his lips this time. “Jace and I are…”
“Mated,” his father breathed while his eyes widened. He reached for Khoth and grasped his right hand with surprising strength. “Yes, I can see it. How happy I am for you. My Xi and Xa sing.”
Khoth wondered though how loud they sang when his father’s own mate had just left the room. But his father did not look sad, but almost alarmed.
He tightened his hold on Khoth’s hand. “I am glad you did not tell Nova this.”
“Why? Would her prejudice against humans extend to Jace? He is an Altaeth–”
“No, no.” His father shook his head. “If either of us ever wants to be sure of her motives in coming back to us, she must not know of this connection you have to the Pilot.”
“I do not understand.”
“While I believe her that the Khul coming here clarified her feelings, now that they are gone, she will want to be a part of things again. She has said so,” his father reminded him. “You and Jace being mated would give her that way in. It would spur her to offer a family connection again.”
Khoth stiffened. “Only if I allowed it. And she has already offered!”
“She’s done nothing public yet.” His father gave him a sad smile. “Khoth, you may be a warrior of legend, but you have the heart of a poet. You were willing to let her in now even though your soul still stings from her actions. No, my son, if she is to earn your love again and your trust, let it be for the right reasons. Not to regain the power she has lost.”